1. On January 14, I ran my annual “Oscar By The Numbers” model, and the results were so overwhelmingly in favor of one film that I declared it “the most shoo-in of shoo-in winners that I’ve forecast to date,” and noted that “if it doesn’t win the big prize, then this multi-year model is clearly a failure, and I will report it as such, with 2016 being my final year of forecasting.” Unfortunately, the film my model picked was The Revenant, and the winner of the big prize was Spotlight. So consider the model retired, in its current format. I continue to believe that the historic assumptions that underpin the model are sound, but in the era where the number of Best Picture nominees exceeds the number of nominees in each of the other categories, the mathematics get a bit hinky, and the correlations break down. Which happens sometimes. I saw similar impacts on my “Mid-Major At Large” NCAA Tournament forecasting models when the BCS era alignments and the emergence of the non-football version of the Big East emerging. Are they a major without football money? And if they are, are some of the other conferences similarly worth removing from the Mid-Major rosters? In both cases, the data sets I built are large and versatile, so maybe I’ll look for some other correlations and come up with a new variant on Oscar By The Numbers next year. Or maybe not. There might be something new to model, right?

2.  Want to come work with me? I’m currently hiring for two positions at the TREE Fund: a full-time Accounting and Grants Manager position, and a part-time Development Database Administrator. Our offices are located in the Western suburbs of Chicago. We work hard and have fun, and support an awesome community of folks around the world with our research, education and community engagement programs. Making a difference is a good thing. Please share these postings if you know anybody who might like to help us do that.

3. Related to the TREE Fund, our number one community engagement event each year is the STIHL Tour des Trees, a 500+ mile, seven day cycling tour where about 100 folks take to the road to tell our story, educate the public, raise funds, and have a truly wonderful time doing it. I got to ride four days with the team in Florida soon after joining the TREE Fund, and I’m looking forward to riding the full seven days in the Carolinas this October, starting and ending in Charlotte. Our riders come from around the country, and there’s still spaces available for new folks to join us. How about it? If you’re not up for that commitment, you could also contribute by sponsoring me on the ride. Here’s my donor page, if you’d like to help out that way. We’d all appreciate it very much!

4. How Not To Be Slick: Marcia and I were looking for something to watch on television one night earlier this week, and as is often the case, even with a zillion channels, we couldn’t find anything that was mutually pleasing to us both. Her birthday is coming up, and I had ordered a box set of a TV show that we actually both like. Earlier that day, a package had arrived for me, and I had set it aside for the birthday — but being a problem-solving kind of guy, it occurred to me that I could give her that gift early, so we’d have something to do that night. I grandly offered to let her open a birthday gift early, told her what the gift was, went to my desk to get the package, opened it . . . and found two toner cartridges for our printer inside. Insert sad trombone noise and FAIL meme here.

5. I pushed the random word generator button this morning for March’s Short Story of the Month. The four words it gave me were: simple, perverted, bughouse, front. This is going to be a fun one.

Short Story Of The Month #3: Fleming And The Food Fluffers

Another month, another short story. I’m tweaking the concept a bit this month, still building each story around four randomly selected words, but giving up on the shock tactic 90-minute writing burst that I’d originally envisioned. This month’s probably took three hours total, an improvement over last month’s 16-page epic, and a credible use of time, and better for not stopping writing when I hit the 90-minute mark.

Here are links to the prior stories, if you’d like to catch up before moving on:

December 2015: The Research Assistant

January 2016: Eadwig Espinosa, Ealdorman of Daud

The random word generator was in a particularly interesting mood this month, giving me this:


Okay then, click the link below to read what that got us . . . ready, steady, go . . .


Zoom Zoom Zoom!

I took this photograph last Friday:

2016-02-13 10.54.19

Two days later, on Sunday morning, I took this one:


It’s been that kind of month. Since the start of the year, I’ve traveled for work to Indianapolis, Salt Lake City, Suffern (New York), Grand Cayman and Green Bay. The ship photo is obviously in the Caymans, and the subzero temperature photo is equally obviously in Green Bay. Between now and mid-April, I will also be traveling to Ames (Iowa), Sandusky (Ohio), Knoxville (Tennessee), Annapolis (Maryland), Atlantic City (New Jersey), Philadelphia, Great Barrington (Massachusetts) and Minneapolis.

Needless to say, it was nice to have that warm spell in the Caribbean in the midst of that spread of wintry destinations. Also needless to say, all of that travel time has precluded me writing much here, though I am at work on my Story of the Month for February, with goal of having it up here later this week. The four random seed words for the story were: chef, peepshow, creepy, and volcanic. The narrative that links those four together is going to be interesting . . .

2016-02-06 12.19.54

Wing Seat Warrior . . . Deploy!

Iowa Caucus Day 2016: Resource Guide

Marcia and I moved to Iowa a little over four years ago, at the peak of 2012’s caucus season. Within a month of our arrival, Marcia was interviewed and quoted in an internationally-syndicated Reuters article, after we attended a candidate rally on a whim. So we learned first hand that it’s easy to have your say in public when you live in a small state with a vast media enterprise descending upon you.

Marcia’s quote in the Reuters interview was thoughtful and balanced, but that’s not the norm, frankly, especially in hotly contested races like those unfolding now. A lot of the quotes coming out of Iowa lack balance as voters and campaign flacks attempt to sway others to their cause, and many other quotes coming out of Iowa lack thought because politics is primarily a gut sport in many areas of the State, like football, or deer hunting. Reaction and reflex matter more than deliberation and discourse, especially under the media’s unrelenting kleig lights — which many thoughtful voters are repelled by, even as they draw the most reactive voters into their beams.

By the time I left Iowa, I reached the conclusion that the caucuses are bad for America. That being said, were I still in the State, I would be participating tonight, because I consider voting to be a civic responsibility of all citizens, regardless of how I feel about the process. Marcia (who still works out of Iowa and has maintained residency there) and Katelin (who lives and works there full time) are planning to caucus tonight, so I hope they enjoy the evening and I look forward to hearing about it from them. The media army in Des Moines is largely based in the same building where Katelin works, so she’s getting to really see it all up close and personal. That’s an experience, if nothing else.

I wrote a lot about Iowa while I was there, with many of my pieces being tongue-in-cheek explorations into some of the State’s unique cultural habits and history. One of those articles — Iowa Geography: An Introduction — has recently gotten a bit of renewed online traction after Molly Ball of The Atlantic re-tweeted it a couple of time for her followers.

So in a spirit of helpfulness to those of you who may be either wondering a bit about, or wandering about a bit, of Iowa today, here are a few other articles that may help you get what’s going on, and why:

Iowa History 101

Why Iowa First?

Danny Allamakee’s Iowanfero (Cliff Notes Version)

Best Iowa Films

Universal Iowa Recipe

Des Moinsk, Iowaberia

Iowa Ranking Roundup

Popular Iowa Cocktails

Popular Iowa Wines

Great Iowa Novels

Great Iowa Music

The Iowa Decathlon

90 Minute Stories #2: Eadwig Espinosa, Ealdorman of Daud

Back in December, I framed a new creative project called “90 Minute Stories.” In a nutshell, the premise was to grab four random words, consider them for a half hour, then write like a fiend for 90 minutes to see where they carried me. A sort of short, sharp shock to the creative system, as it were, to keep me from my normal approach of churning stories for months, if not years.

I set it as a New Year’s Resolution to complete one short story per month, ideally under this rubric. The first one went per plan, but the second one, not so much. The four randomly-generated words that I used to frame the story were burnt, gloomy, heretical and dependent. They evoked a place, and some poking about for random names evoked a time, and then I was off and writing. 90 minutes later, I had . . . a thing. There was a there in there, somewhere, a useful fragment, but not a story in and of itself. So I went back to my usual working model and started churning it. And churning it. And churning it.

And eventually, quicker than usually happens, it came together in a way that is pleasing for me for now, and I link to a PDF of this new story below. We’ll see if February’s story comes in closer to the original 90-minute process intention than this longer piece does. Regardless of the rules violation, though, I got a story out of the process this month, and that’s the real goal.

Click below to see how this one came out . . .

In Re: The Mysterious Death of Eadwig Espinosa, Ealdorman of Daud

Oscar By The Numbers 2016: And the Academy Award for Best Picture Goes To . . .

Note: It’s Oscar Nomination Day, which means I have updated my 85+ year movie database and crunched the numbers to predict the Best Picture Winner, scientifically. If you have been reading my annual analysis on Oscar Nomination Day for a several years, you can probably skip the first few explanatory paragraphs and go straight to the 2016 pick and analysis. I’ve put subheads below to help you find that section.

Background and Method

People have long tried to handicap the Best Picture Academy Award based on a variety of factors, most commonly performance in other award shows leading up to the Big Pageant. Being a stats and numbers geek, it occurred to me that a far better approach to handicapping the top prize would be to consider the internal relationships within the Academy, essentially evaluating what they nominate against what they award. Toward this end, several years ago, I built a quantitative database of all Academy Award nominations back to the beginning in 1928, and then mathematically evaluated the correlations between Best Picture victory and other nominations.

What does that mean in English? Start here: historically, it’s pretty much been a given that you need a Best Director nomination to win Best Picture, since only four films in history (Driving Miss Daisy and Argo are the sole anomalies in modern times) have ever won the top prize without their Directors also being nominated. So the correlation between Best Director nomination and Best Picture victory is extremely strong, and it could be viewed as a death knell for a Best Picture nominee’s chances to not have a related Best Director nomination. (Note: This may change in an era when there are different numbers of Best Picture and best Director nods. I looked at that factor after a narrow miss in my 2015 pick, and have made some small tweaks to account for this additional variability).

But what other nominations have the strongest within-the-Academy correlations to Best Picture success? When you crunch the data set, you come up with some interesting, often counter-intuitive conclusions. Here are a small number of them:

  • Actor nominations are dramatically more valuable than actress nominations.
  • Cinematography is also more valuable than actress nominations.
  • Film editing is, by far, the most valuable of the technical awards.
  • Adapted screenplays are twice as valuable as original screenplays.
  • A nominated score helps a little, a nominated song hurts a lot.

In essence, Best Picture nominees that receive certain combinations of other nominations become almost shoo-ins to win, so it’s not just about who gets the most nominations, but instead about who gets the right ones. I developed a mathematical model that consolidates all of these factors to produce a single rating of “Best Picture-likelihood” on a scale of 0 to 100%. The nominees don’t compete against each (e.g. the totals in a given year add up to more than 100%), but rather compete one-on-one against an idealized, 100.0% Oscar Best Picture Bait Movie. Under my rubric, the five most-obvious, predictable Best Picture winners ever, based on their own year’s slates of nominations, were:

  • From Here to Eternity (1953): 94.8% predicted best picture value.
  • All About Eve (1950): 92.5%
  • On The Waterfront (1954): 90.0%
  • Gone With the Wind (1939): 85.5%
  • The Godfather (1972): 85.2%

2016 Predictions and Analysis

So what happens when you load this year’s Best Picture nominees into the database and crunch the numbers? You get these results:

  • The Revenant: 70.1%
  • Mad Max: Fury Road: 51.4%
  • Spotlight: 40.9%
  • The Big Short: 40.4%
  • The Martian: 33.6%
  • Bridge of Spies: 31.4%
  • Room: 26.5%
  • Brooklyn: 13.4%

When compared historically, The Revenant‘s 70.1% score puts it in 21st place all-time, tied with Kramer vs Kramer, just behind Tom Jones, and just ahead of The Apartment. Credible, and much better than any of last year’s nominees, but not all-time classic either. That being said: the nearly 20 point gap between it and second place finisher, Mad Max: Fury Road, is the largest I have ever seen since I developed this model — meaning that The Revenant is the most shoo-in of shoo-in winners that I’ve forecast to date. If it doesn’t win the big prize, then this multi-year model is clearly a failure, and I will report it as such, with 2016 being my final year of forecasting. But I seriously doubt that’s going to be the outcome.

Other observations about the data set this year:

  • There’s a very odd disconnect between the acting nominations and the Best Picture nominations: there are only three Actress nominations (lead and supporting) and eight Actor nominations (likewise) among the eight Best Picture nominees. Even back in the days of five Best Picture nominees, you could generally get more than eleven combined acting nominations between what are arguably the year’s best films.
  • I would think that the relatively small number of Acting nods among the Best Pictures nominees would indicate that voters favored visuals and spectacle over scenery-chewing in 2015, but that’s not really borne out either: there are only four Film Editing, three Visual Effects, and two Cinematography nominations among the Best Picture nominees, with the other technical awards scattered as well.
  • Brooklyn is among the most undeserving Best Picture nominees ever. If it won, it would beat out only Grand Hotel and Wings in terms of its score, and that’s mainly because many of the modern categories didn’t exist when those two very early films received their nods. In terms of the expected correlations between the categories, Carol would have been a far more deserving eighth choice . . . never mind the inexplicable exclusion of Inside Out from the biggest dance at the party. This same sort of statistically anomalous Best Picture nomination occurred last year with Selma, but at least there I could conceive of how Academy voters would have gravitated toward that film to provide some much needed diversity among the nominees. I would have expected similar treatment for the superior and deserving Straight Outta Compton this year. I simply don’t understand how Brooklyn got in. Bizarre.
  • Beyond Inside Out and Straight Outta Compton missing the Best Picture slate, I would personally count the biggest snub of the year to be Bel Powley’s exclusion in the Best Actress category for Diary of a Teenage Girl, which also deserved a screenplay nod. It’s a harrowing, hard-to-watch performance, but if you’re a person who was a certain age in a certain era, it resonates with truth and accuracy. Boo on that front, Oscar. And also on the continued late of diversity among the nominees. That’s bad, truly.

So, in conclusion, here’s looking forward to The Revenant winning Best Picture in a few weeks, from the standpoint of my model being correct. Unfortunately on a personal front, I’m not very interested in seeing it, because it comes across as little more than high-end/high-brow torture pr0n, and I don’t generally go to the movies to watch people suffer over and over and over and over again, or to get grossed out, just for the sake of being grossed out. I suppose I will watch it at some point, but not with any enthusiasm.