31 August 2011

Review of Alias, Season 1

I watched Alias this summer in 2011 and I couldn't believe this show was made in 2001.

Alias Season 1 has quickly become one of my all-time favorites. I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed this show since I'm not big on the spy genre. On the surface, Alias seems like an action show with a female lead in sexy outfits, but it is much more than that. It is a tour de force of tight writing, sharp dialogue, outstanding acting, and creative vision. Alias is the story of Sydney Bristow -- the girl next door, straight-A student type who happens to sign up for spy work, out of patriotic inspiration and boredom. Most spies and action heroes are cold, calculating personalities, so this is a refreshing concept. The show works for me because as absurd as the plot twists become, I believe in Sydney Bristow. Her character is always grounded and she is easy to relate to, because she is sensitive and wears her heart on her sleeve. This is J.J. Abram's trademark -- the drama that is both realistic and absurd at the same time. Sydney does crazy spy work and juggles both a double-life and double-agent job, but she comes home to hang out with her friends who know nothing about her spy life, and she struggles with her relationships with her father and her paternalistic boss. As weird as the espionage world gets, we can always relate to hating your boss, trying to get along with parents, and managing work-life balance. It's hard to find compelling 20-something female leading roles in Hollywood, which makes me appreciate Sydney Bristow on a personal level.

The show further innovates by mixing different genres: espionage, mystery/thriller, and a little soapy drama. I love cross-genre shows because there is more variety, less chance of falling into cliches, and the audience doesn't quite know what to expect. The action sequences, camera work, and costumes are film quality. You will have fun watching Sydney execute her missions. I'm not a connoisseur of spy shows, but I was entertained by the different wigs/dresses, car chases, and parachuting.

I really enjoyed the writing and fast-paced plotting. Not many words are wasted. The action sequences are cut extremely tight. Unlike other spy shows, there isn't much mission preparation or debriefing shown; we just see Sydney stealing item X and then we're back in Los Angeles. One moment Sydney is in spy headquarters and then she's having beer at her apartment with her best buddies. Yet the show takes the time to explore Sydney's emotional reactions, which keeps Alias grounded in reality. I really like how the show goes for broke -- outlandish costumes, insane stunts, hard-hitting emotional breakdowns, the audience feeling like Sydney is *really* in danger -- and yet it feels organic and not forced. Maybe the writers used up all their best ideas in the first season and that's why Alias started going downhill... but that's a discussion for another time.

The big selling point for me is Jennifer Garner's performance. She is naturally charismatic and has probably the world's best smile, making Sydney probably the most likable spy in cinematic history. (It seems like every male character on the show is in love with Sydney -- a joke, but not far from the truth.) Garner clearly put 100% effort into her acting. Watch her face when she runs -- it's clear that both Garner and Sydney take their job seriously. Sydney Bristow is an extremely demanding role (Sydney is in almost every scene, stunt sequences, foreign languages, dramatic acting) and Garner does everything very well.

The rest of the cast is absolutely stellar. I don't know how many TV shows have ever had a cast this good. There are two critically acclaimed Broadway actors (Victor Garber and Ron Rifkin) and Michael Vartan, Bradley Cooper, and Merrin Dungey have all gone on to great careers (in particular Cooper has become a huge star). Kevin Weisman is funny and charming as the comic relief, and Carl Lumbly, as Sydney's partner, lends gravity and presence to the show. Every single cast member is fantastic and my only complaint is that I wish Vartan and Dungey's characters could have been written better. The superb acting is what really makes the show work. In the hands of lesser actors, the show would have become campy.

I'll leave you with the words of a TV critic:
Alias isn’t a perfect series, by any means. But I do think it’s the most important show of the past ten years that’s been completely swept under the rug. ... I have a sneaking suspicion that few shows have had a greater impact on the television landscape today.
- Ryan McGee, AV Club
(If you are interested in reading more, check out Ryan McGee's essays at AV Club's TV Club Classic.)

30 August 2011

Thought of the day: Four types of TV shows

There seem to be four premises to create interesting TV shows.
  1. Show based on neurotic and/or childish characters (a staple of sitcoms)
  2. Show based on characters with interesting jobs -- the procedural (cop, medical, legal, detective/spy/crime dramas)
  3. Show based on a particular genre (vampires, fantasy, science-fiction, military, espionage)
  4. Show based on relatively normal characters thrust into crazy situations (character diagnosed with cancer, nuclear holocaust)
Personally, I like shows that mix several of these premises. Chuck combines spy action with nerdy comedy, and its main character finds himself pulled from his dull existence as a computer technician into the world of espionage. (Premises 2, 3, & 4) Battlestar Galactica is a militaristic sci-fi drama in which most of the human race is suddenly wiped out. (Premises 3 & 4)

29 August 2011

Link of the day: "The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight"

I read a really nice psychology article today about how easy it to misjudge people. As a family friend once told me, you can't truly know a person unless you live with them for an extended period of time.

The first section of the article describes a famous psychology experiment called the "Robbers Cave Experiments."
These two tribes consisted of 22 boys, ages 11 and 12, whom psychologist Muzafer Sherif brought together at Oklahoma’s Robber’s Cave State Park. He and his team placed the two groups on separate buses and drove them to a Boy Scout Camp inside the park – the sort with cabins and caves and thick wilderness. At the park, the scientists put the boys into separate sides of the camp about a half-mile apart and kept secret the existence and location of the other group. The boys didn’t know each other beforehand, and Sherif believed putting them into a new environment away from their familiar cultures would encourage them to create a new culture from scratch.
After finding out about each other's existence, the two tribes each labelled the other group "the enemy." I had never heard of this experiment before and it was very cool to find out about a mild version of Lord of the Flies but a real-life situation as opposed to a famous work of fiction.

The article goes on to talk about people having different personas.
The idea is this: You put on a mask and uniform before leaving for work. You put on another set for school. You have costume for friends of different persuasions and one just for family. Who you are alone is not who you are with a lover or a friend. You quick-change like Superman in a phone booth when you bump into old friends from high school at the grocery store, or the ex in line for the movie. When you part, you quick-change back and tell the person you are with why you appeared so strange for a moment. They understand, after all, they are also in disguise. It’s not a new or novel concept, the idea of multiple identities for multiple occasions, but it’s also not something you talk about often. The idea is old enough that the word person derives from persona – a Latin word for the masks Greek actors sometimes wore so people in the back rows of a performance could see who was on stage.
Then the article hits on a point I like very much -- that we don't know people that well, even our friends.

That is why we shouldn't judge people. And if we decide to attribute fixed traits to a person, we should only do so after an extended period of observation and interaction.
How well do you know your friends? Pick one out of the bunch, someone you interact with often. ... Do you know what they want, what they are likely to do in most situations, what they will argue about and what they let slide? Do you notice when they are posturing and when they are vulnerable? Do you know the perfect gift? ... Research shows you probably feel all these things and more. You see your friends, your family, your coworkers and peers as semipermeable beings. You label them with ease. You see them as the artist, the grouch, the slacker and the overachiever. ... You can, you believe, put yourself in their shoes and predict their behavior in just about any situation. You believe every person not you is an open book. Of course, the research shows they believe the same thing about you.
The author cites research supporting this generalization of human psychology.
  • Iceberg experiment: People were to rate how well they knew another person by saying how much of an iceberg they could see above the water. People thought they could see most of their friends' icebergs, but they didn't think their friends could see much of their own iceberg.
  • Describe a time when you feel most like yourself: When people were asked to describe a time when they felt most like themselves, 78% of the time they talked about "something internal and unobservable like the feeling of seeing their child excel or the rush of applause after playing for an audience." When the same people were asked to name situations that best illustrated their friends' personalities, they only mentioned internal feelings 28% of the time. Typically, they would describe actions like: "Tom is most like Tom when he is telling a dirty joke. Jill is most like Jill when she is rock climbing." This makes sense because we can only infer people's feelings by looking from the outside.
  • Sentence completion: People were asked to complete sentences. When asked about the meaning of the sentence completions, people stated that most of the time the completions revealed very little about them. Yet when the same people were asked what they thought of other people's sentence completions, they claimed to see bits of the other person's personality. "They looked at the words and said the people who filled them in were nature lovers, or on their periods, or were positive thinkers or needed more sleep."
What conclusions should we draw from these experiments? The author says it best:
The illusion of asymmetric insight makes it seem as though you know everyone else far better than they know you, and not only that, but you know them better than they know themselves. You believe the same thing about groups of which you are a member. As a whole, your group understands outsiders better than outsiders understand your group, and you understand the group better than its members know the group to which they belong. The researchers explained this is how one eventually arrives at the illusion of naive realism, or believing your thoughts and perceptions are true, accurate and correct, therefore if someone sees things differently than you or disagrees with you in some way it is the result of a bias or an influence or a shortcoming. You feel like the other person must have been tainted in some way, otherwise they would see the world the way you do – the right way. The illusion of asymmetrical insight clouds your ability to see the people you disagree with as nuanced and complex. You tend to see your self and the groups you belong to in shades of gray, but others and their groups as solid and defined primary colors lacking nuance or complexity.

28 August 2011

Sasuke / Ninja Warrior

Sasuke is a Japanese TV show that features contestants running through timed obstacles courses. There are four stages and only three people have completed all four to achieve "total victory." It looks really cool and a nice test of athleticism. The male competition (Sasuke) seems to heavily challenge arm strength. The female version (Kunoichi) appears to focus more on agility as opposed to arm strength.

Some really cool videos: Makoto Nagano winning Sasuke and Ayako Miyake winning Kunoichi

27 August 2011

Link of the day: 100 Strangers project

There are lots of interesting ideas for photography projects. One is to take a photo everyday. I recently learned of the "100 Strangers" project. Flickr has a nice feature on people's experiences photographing 100 Strangers.

17 August 2011

Song of the day: "Have A Little Faith In Me" by John Hiatt

I heard this song a long time ago when it was covered in the movie Phenomenon. When I was watching the TV show Alias, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a nice, instrumentally simple cover of the song in baritone (rare for pop music!). The song is sung by a minor character in a night club and then the show segues into an emotional montage for Sydney.

I have an inherent bias against pop music, but when done well, this song is decent.
When the road gets dark
And you can no longer see
Let my love throw a spark
Have a little faith in me
When the tears you cry
Are all you can believe
Just give these loving arms a try
Have a little faith in me

Have a little faith in me
Have a little faith in me
Have a little faith in me
Have a little faith in me

When your secret heart
Cannot speak so easily
Come here darling, from a whisper start
Have a little faith in me
And when your back’s against the wall
Just turn around and you, you will see
I will catch you, I will catch your fall
Just have a little faith in me

Have a little faith in me
Have a little faith in me
Have a little faith in me
Have a little faith in me

‘Cause I’ve been loving you, for such a long, long time
Expecting nothing in return
Just for you to have a little faith in me
You see time, time is our friend
‘Cause for us, there is no end
And all you gotta do, is have a little faith in me
I will hold you up, I will hold you up
And your love, gives me strength enough to
Have a little faith in me
Hey hey
All you gotta do for me girl
Is have a little faith in me

15 August 2011

Quote of the day: Someone to listen

It is not easy to be supportive, be a good listener, and give good advice. I wish more people realized that. I found this nice essay about this subject, written by Jon Cousins (I think):
Things don't always go as you'd wish. Life's like that.

But when they don't, it can help to talk about them. The very act of speaking about your feelings can help you process them. It can help you rationalize your situation and solve your problems.

Generally we know this.

Unfortunately, who you talk to plays a big part in the outcome of this process.

Tell the right person and you'll walk away from the conversation with shoulders raised and spirits lifted. Tell the wrong person, however, and you might feel worse than you did before you began.

A key to success could be to find someone with that relatively rare combination of patience, good listening skills and the ability to be reasonably non-judgemental (yet of course not so bland that they have no opinions of their own).

Few have these talents, all too many will instead be eager to dictate what you should do. Ask them, and they'll tell you in no uncertain terms.

Better perhaps to hold your breath until you're with that person who lets you talk, while they simply listen.

You know who they are. Cherish them. And hang onto them because they're worth their weight in gold.

14 August 2011

Link of the day: "It's all about anticipation"

Recently, there was a neat article from Sports Illustrated about the role of anticipation and experience in world class athletes.

An important concept is that experts "chunk" information into meaningful pieces rather than looking at all the little details.
Before occlusion studies shed light on perceptual expertise in sports (the first significant tests were performed by Canadian researcher Janet Starkes on volleyball players in 1975), studies of chess masters were beginning to illuminate the underlying processes. In famous experiments starting in the 1940s, Dutch psychologist and chess master Adriaan de Groot gave grandmasters and club chess players five seconds to look at chessboards with the pieces arranged in game scenarios. Then the arrangement was taken away, and De Groot had the players reconstruct the board they had just seen. Grandmasters could remember the position of nearly every piece, while decent club players could reconstruct only about half the board. De Groot and subsequent researchers determined that the masters were "chunking" information—rather than remember the position of every piece separately, the grandmasters grasped small chunks of meaningful information, which allowed them to place the pieces. We all use this strategy to an extent in daily life. For example, while it would be difficult to remember 15 random words, it's much less difficult to remember a coherent 15-word sentence because one need only recall bits of meaning and grammar, which coordinate the order of words in your head...

What major league players and pro tennis and cricket athletes seem to do is to synthesize and group information about the human body based on their playing experience...
Being able to process the information in smaller, but larger pieces allows the expert to process information much more quickly. This is especially important for athletes, who don't have time to think.
... Peyton Manning would probably have trouble recalling the exact position of randomly distributed players in the Colts' locker room, but show him those players positioned on a football field, and he would be better at recalling the arrangement because each segment—the positioning of the defensive backs relative to his receivers, for example—has an underlying, unifying meaning for him. That's why crafty defensive coordinators attempt to disguise a defense: They try to forestall Manning's ability to predict the future using cues from patterns he's seen before.

... Additionally, a quarterback, like a baseball batter, does not have time to consciously analyze everything he sees...

... Phillip L. Ackerman, a professor of psychology at Georgia Tech who studies skill acquisition, uses a military analogy to describe a quarterback's decision-making process: "It's an if-then task. If you recognize a certain pattern, you react to it. And you have to do it without thinking about it. It's like a soldier taking apart a weapon when it jams. You learn it to the level where you can do it without thinking, because people are shooting at you."
This idea about the value of experience and how it separates experts from beginners is something that I've seen before and that I find really interesting.

Experience allows you to take mental shortcuts. Like the difference between an expert and a student solving a classical mechanics problem. The expert quickly guesses what is the best and most efficient way to solve the problem (use energy conservation), whereas the student is worrying about the details (how do I connect mass, velocity, and energy?) Or a native vs a ELS student reading English text. The native reads chunks of text whereas the student has to read each word.

That's not all. The Sports Illustrated article also notes that since the anticipatory processes are sub-conscious, this needs to be taken into account in high pressure situations.
This science contradicts some of sports' hoariest beliefs. The exhortation of every Little League coach to "keep your eye on the ball"? Impossible. "If you monitor the eyes of batters, the gaze stops tracking the ball before they hit," Abernethy says. "You don't have a visual system fast enough to track the angular changes that occur over the last few meters of the flight." Nonetheless, he says, keep your eye on the ball is probably sound advice, because it keeps your head still and pointed in the right direction to gather the necessary information from the pitcher's body.

"The real advice would be, 'Watch the shoulder,'" Abernethy says, "but [even] that doesn't help. It actually makes [players] worse." That's because forcing an athlete to think consciously about an automated task destroys his ability to anticipate and puts him back in the realm of reaction.

Coaches who call timeouts to ice free throw shooters and field goal kickers are trying to exploit what researchers have codified: Break up the routine; get the player thinking. University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, author of the book Choke, has demonstrated that, in golf, pressure-induced poor putting can sometimes be overcome with simple remedies such as singing to yourself or counting backward by threes. For automated tasks like putting or placekicking, mild distraction, rather than intense concentration, may be the best approach because it keeps the process out of the higher-conscious areas of the brain, where what Beilock calls "paralysis by analysis" takes root.
At this rate, I might as well copy the entire article, but yeah, there is a lot of good stuff in it.

13 August 2011

Quote of the day: "No man is an island"

An extremely famous quote by English poet John Donne from Meditations XVII:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
I wish I could say that I came across this quote from a literature class. Actually, I only knew of it because it is the trigger phrase for an assassin in the TV show Alias. It's ironic that the passage is about how every person's life diminishes mankind; yet it is used to command an assassin to kill.

12 August 2011

Link of the day: "How to Find More Time in Your Day by Putting Your Chores on Auto-Pilot"

Lifehacker has a nice feature on how to schedule and organize household chores so that you can concentrate on more important things in your life.

I'm interested in this topic since I want to uphold a certain standard of cleanliness and organization in my life, but I don't want it to be distracting. I already put my chores on a Google calendar, just like the author of the Lifehacker article.

11 August 2011

Link of the day: "Maths busking"

A huge problem in science is how do you get laypeople interested in science? (I'm using science as a blanket term which includes engineering, natural science, and math.)

Most of the popular books and media written about science are only interesting to people who already enjoy science and those people are only a small fraction of the world's population. If we truly want to make science mainstream and boost science literacy, we need a way to reach "regular" people.

Enter "Maths Busking" -- a really cool project whose goal is
Maths Busking aims to show the public the surprising and fascinating side of mathematics through the medium of street performance.
You can also see some video of their street performances.

10 August 2011

How Jennifer Garner (and Sydney Bristow) rock

I just wanted to express my admiration and love for Sydney Bristow, the lead character of the TV show Alias and Jennifer Garner who plays her.

In the Season 1 finale, I remember distinctly a couple emotional scenes where Garner really brought it. The scene with Will at the CIA safehouse: the way she looks at Will with heartfelt disappointment while leaning against the door. The scene where she begs Dixon to believe she is not betraying her country. These performances made me adore Sydney as a character. Some reporter described Garner's performance as "the spy next door." No wonder Will is madly in love with Syd. Wouldn't you want a woman who is so committed and good at her job, who is courageous and upstanding, and who is so sweet and caring to her friends? (Not to mention Garner's one-in-a-million smile, which is the most amazingly sweet and genuine smile I've ever seen.)

I've always thought Sydney Bristow (at least in the first season) is a showcase for a female actress. Jennifer Garner showed incredible range: vulnerability in scenes with her father/Vaughn/etc, professionalism and coolness in her spy work, being the empathetic, caring friend to Will/Francie/Emily. I loved how the show would frequently have Syd switch tone in the same scene, juxtaposing the spy life with everyday life. I laughed a few times when Sydney would be with her friends and would briefly snap into spy mode, e.g. when they are playing poker together and Syd tells everyone in a cold, professional tone that Will always bluffs when he raises.

I wish there were more female leading roles like Sydney and actresses like Garner to play them. I think someone commented that Garner hasn't done anything fantastic since Alias; my response is that's because there are hardly any great roles for actresses out there.

07 August 2011

Link of the day: "Build Your Own Productivity Style by Remixing the Best"

Over at my favorite website Lifehacker, Alan Henry has written a really nice article summarizing the most popular and effective productivity methods and explaining the core principles of being productive. He emphasizes that you don't have to follow a particular system, but you can mix and match to find whatever works best for you, hence the title of the article "Build Your Own Productivity Style by Remixing the Best."

I really like this piece because there is so much stuff out there about productivity, but the article really cuts through all the crap. It's a fantastic introduction to productivity that was sorely needed.

06 August 2011

NFL Films

NFL Films is making the news since its founder Ed Sabol was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I found it fascinating to learn that the company pioneered sports film making and even had an influence on Hollywood. This is a company started by a 45 year old overcoat salesman whose only experience was shooting his 14 year old son's football games! Ed Sabol was uncompromising in his artistic vision. NFL Films has shot over 100 million feet of film (Sabol jokes that no other subject has been shot as much on 16 mm film, except WWII.) Some even claim that NFL Films was the propaganda machine that transformed the NFL from a middling sport to the billion dollar money making machine it is today.

This is an amazing American success story and an inspiration to artists. Since I started doing photography a couple years ago, I have developed a better visual eye and am starting to appreciate great camera work more and more.

Here are some quotes from various articles around the web. First, CNN's article:
Big Ed calls that first film his favorite and points to the end scene as something that set his group apart. The last shot is of the empty stadium after the game. Wind blows newspapers and programs around the lonely goal posts.

"I had a saying that I always told all of our cameramen: 'Finish like a pro,' " he said, "and this cameraman got this memorable shot because he finished like a pro."
"NFL highlight reels had a real impact on how movies get made, particularly montages," two-time Academy Award winning director Ron Howard told the New York Times in 2000. "Lots of different images. Images on images. Using the slow-motion, combined with the live action. The hard-hitting sound effects, juxtaposed against incredible music, powerful music, creating a really emotional experience for the viewer."
From the Canton Repository:
The company’s methodology was — and is — mythology, with innovation and creativity its foundation. Sabol told the stories of professional football through close-ups, various camera angles, hypnotic slow-motion, the wiring of coaches and players for sound, unique narration and musical scores.
Fans saw football in a way never displayed before. Action was not shot from a single angle high above the field. There were multiple angles, including ground-level. There were zoom shots of live action. There was slow motion. Montages of highlights were put with composer Sam Spence’s scores and narrator John Facenda’s haunting voice.

Players went from distant, almost indistinguishable figures to instantly recognizable heroes. Images of Jack Lambert’s teeth-challenged snarl and Gale Sayer’s graceful strides became imbedded in fans’ minds.

They saw Willie Brown’s zoomed-in stare — eyes on the end zone, helmet bouncing ever so slightly — as he returned an interception from Fran Tarkenton in Super Bowl XI. They heard Chiefs coach Hank Stram, who became a close friend of Ed Sabol, offer his famous line, “Just keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys,” as Kansas City won Super Bowl IV. They witnessed the spiraling flight of the football and the carnage of line play. They even saw blooper films.