This blog is still alive, just in semi-hibernation.
When I want to write something longer than a tweet about something other than math or sci-fi, here is where I'll write it.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Nobody Knows Anything, Part 6a: When all is said and done...

The movie industry is full of best laid plans, and has been that way for many generations. Some films take forever to make, while others never get made. This post is about two movies that each took about twenty years to actually get made from the time they were first discussed, followed by a few movies that are either in pre-production or in negotiations or are completely made up.


John Huston had an option on making Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King since the early 1950s at least, but circumstances kept getting in the way. When he first started talking to producers about making the adventure film, he could bring up George Stevens' classic film Gunga Din as a template for the kind of exciting action the movie would deliver. After all, that movie was just very loosely based on a Kipling poem, and this one had an entire Kipling novel to work with. When in early discussions, Huston wanted the movie to star Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable.

Time rolls by, and Huston makes several other films. He still want to film the Kipling story, but by the early 1960s, both Bogart and Gable are dead. At that time, Huston thinks instead about casting British actors, since the characters are supposed to be British soldiers striking out on their own to conquer a small part of Central Asia. When Huston would talk up the project, the names he would bandy about were Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole.

The movie finally did get made in the 1970s. Two British movie stars were in the lead roles, but by then, it was Sean Connery and Michael Caine.


Clint Eastwood's Oscar winning western Unforgiven also took a circuitous path to getting made, but for completely different reasons. The screenplay was originally written in 1976 by David Webb Peoples. He states as a main influence The Shootist, a movie that was released that year, best known now as being John Wayne's final film.

The first filmmaker to option Peoples' script was Francis Coppola, but as happened many times in his career, Coppola ran low on funds and decided he couldn't afford to make the film, so his option ran out.

Clint Eastwood read the script and liked it very much. He wanted to direct the film, but he was also interested in playing the main character, William Munny. Eastwood didn't want to monkey with the script, so he kept the project on hold until he had to time to shoot it and he felt he was old enough to play the character.

Eastwood dedicated the film to two directors he had worked with on westerns in his past, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. Siegel, coincidentally, directed The Shootist, the film that inspired Peoples to write the script for Unforgiven.


So there are stories of scripts that sit around unproduced for decades, but actually do get made in the end, sometimes very successfully. But some projects never get beyond the rumor stage, and here are the story of three such films I have heard about, largely because of rumors that have been spread around by My People in furtherance of Our Agenda.

For decades now, Hollywood has been making major motion pictures based on old TV shows from the sixties and seventies. The Star Trek franchise started the trend, but shows as diverse as The Fugitive and The Brady Bunch have found their way to the big screen from the small. Why not Irwin Allen's 1960s adventure series Land of the Giants?

Well, hypothetical question asker, there are two major obstacles. First, the show sucked and second, it doesn't have a huge fan base. Even My People have to admit it didn't have enough giant woman scenes to keep our interest. This rumor among My People I would put in the category of wishful thinking.


A somewhat more credible rumor is that Eddie Murphy will star in the remake of The Incredible Shrinking Man. This rumor even has a page on The Internet Movie Database as being "in production", but it only lists Murphy, producer Brian Grazer and a screenplay. Among My People, this movie has been rumored to be Murphy's "next project" for most of this century, so until there is more cast and a director listed on imdb.com, this rumor is just slightly more credible than the big screen adaption of Land of the Giants.

A slightly more believable rumor is that Jack Black will star in a new movie based loosely on Gulliver's Travels. You'll notice that the imdb page for this project has a lot more names attached to it. The thing that is unknown, and of intense interest to My People, is if the story will just be about Gulliver in Lilliput, which has been the case in some other screen adaptations, or if it will also include a trip to Brobdingnag, the land of giants Gulliver visits after his trip to Lilliput, as shown in the still picture from the Ted Danson TV movie version.

In the final installment of Nobody Knows Anything, I spill the beans secondhand about how things get done in Hollywood, or more precisely, how things don't get done.

Nobody Knows Anything, Part 6b: Much more is said than done.

The first half of this last installment of Nobody Knows Anything was about movies that took forever to be made, and movies rumored to be in production that may or may not see the light of day. This last part is about movies that will never be made, barring a miracle. The information I have about them is second hand, and the person who gave me the inside info is my old friend from the video game business, Rob Fulop.


In the early 1990s, Australian sci-fi author Neal Stephenson burst on the scene with Snow Crash, a novel about the not too distant future. It took place partly in the real world and partly in cyberspace, and there were plenty of interesting ideas on the book, as well as exciting action scenes and well-drawn characters.

The buzz around the book was great enough that a big time Hollywood production company purchased the rights to make the film from Stephenson, and began serious negotiations to get the film in production. The company shall remain nameless, but they produced some big hits of the day with some of the biggest stars in the industry in the lead roles. The film production team was so serious, they were also planning to begin work on the video game tie-in that would be released simultaneously with the film, which is why Rob Fulop was in the room.

So around the table were Stephenson the author, Fulop the video game designer, the big time producer and his people. Plans were being made, schedules were being drawn up, elements from the book were being discussed as to what would stay and what would have to go, given that the book was a sprawling 500 page tome and they didn't want to make a movie more than two and a half hours long.

Suddenly, a well-dressed production assistant bursts into the room with a memo. She hands it to the big time producer, who reads it, gives a look of surprise and hands it to his second in command. "Oh my God, it's a go!" The excitement is palpable and the memo is passed around the room, the memo that changes everything.

"Neal, we're sorry, but we are going to have to put this project on hold. We have a lot of irons in the fire, but we now have an agreement in principle for another film that takes precedence. We will get back to you, but for now, Snow Crash is on hold."

And as quick as that, the room is empty except for Neal the author and Rob the video game designer, and the memo that was left behind. In other words, the people who were selling their services were still there, but the folks with the cash were gone.


What trumped a 500 page, best selling novel? A six word memo.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger is four inches tall."

This is what is known in the business as a high concept. This was the exciting new project that put Snow Crash, the major motion picture, on hold forever.

It was also a bald faced lie. Arnold Schwarzenegger never made a movie where he was four inches tall. At Rob Fulop's company, the phrase "Arnold Schwarzenegger is four inches tall!" became code for "You have just asked for something, and it's never going to happen." In other words, it was code for "no".

This concludes my week of Nobody Knows Anything. I'd like to thank the illustrator Capp, my Close Personal Bud, for coming up with the illustration of Tiny Ahhnold seen here. Capp is well known among My People, and when I let it be known there is a new original work of his here at the blog, I expect to see a serious uptick in the number of visitors who like That Sort Of Thing.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Making fun of Michael Steele...


'cos all the cool kids are doing it.

Of course, I don't mean Michael Steele from the Bangles, I mean Michael Steele, the newly appointed head of the Republican National Committee.

Did John McCain appoint a person with ovaries to be his running mate just because Hillary did well in the primaries? Did the Republicans appoint Michael Steele their party leader just because Barack Hussein Obama kicked John McCain's pasty butt all the way from here to Richmond, Virginia?

To be honest, hypothetical question asker, I don't know for sure, but it does feel that way, doesn't it?

While my personal blog idol Princess Sparkle Pony is having a field day making fun of Michael Steele and the goofy things he says, Mr. Steele has a great quote from CPAC, the conservative political convention now taking place in Washington D.C., and I thought I might take a shot at mocking him, with some help from hypothetical question asker.

Here's the quote:

"We know the past, we know we did wrong. My bad. But we go forward in appreciation of the values that brought us to this point."

Three sentences, causing three hypothetical questions.

1. Do the Republicans or the conservatives really know they did wrong?

2. "My bad" is taking personal responsibility for some I did. Don't we really need to hear "my bad" from Bush or Cheney or Rumsfeld or Alberto Gonzalez or Alan Greenspan? After all, Michael Steele didn't start the wars or authorize torture or screw the Justice Department or sit by uselessly allowing the economy to metastasize into the mess we have now, did he?

3. Why would you "appreciate" the values that have made you and your party an irrelevant and shrinking sideshow?

Just askin'.

Random 10, 2/27


King Horse Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Lola The Kinks
The Honeymoon Song The Beatles
Your Own Worst Enemy They Might Be Giants
They Didn't Believe Me Johnny Mercer
Breaking Us In Two Joe Jackson
I'm Gonna Love You Too Blondie
Stardust Hoagy Carmichael
Margaret Madder Rose
The Big Picture The Wonders of Science

I usually have my Random 10 finished bright and early Friday morning, but I was doing other stuff, so mine got published after I went by Padre Mickey's place to catch a gander at his list.

The Padre went 10 for 10 on The You Tubes today, while I only got 6 of 10. We have some older tunes on this list, including a song sung by Johnny Mercer, but written by Jerome Kern and Herbert Reynolds in 1914 (!) for the first show Kern ever got produced on Broadway, The Girl From Utah. Hoagy Carmichael's Stardust (lyrics by Mitchell Parrish) was written in 1927. Of the stuff written in my lifetime, the Beatles cover a tune by Greek film composer Mikis Theodorakis, and the rest of the tunes are recorded by the songwriters. Elvis and Blondie both show up on Padre Mickey's Random 10 this week, what are the odds? We also have The Kinks and TMBG, always welcome here at Lotsa 'Splainin'. Nice to find Madder Rose online, they were an underappreciated band. I like the Joe Jackson song a lot, but one of the things I like about his love songs is how often he doesn't bring up a gender. Wonder why?

But after all is said and done, the featured tune of the ten is last one, because I wrote it and it's my blog. So there.

Nobody Knows Anything, Part 5: A Tale of Two Bruces

As William Goldman tells us, Nobody Knows Anything is a good rule of thumb in Hollywood. Production companies have to put a lot of money up front to make most movies, nowadays counted in the tens of millions, and what will succeed is anyone's guess. The same can be said for careers of actors. Just because someone does good work in a film or on a TV show is no promise they will keep working.


Animal House is a great example of Nobody Knows Anything. National Lampoon put their name on the movie, and they had high hopes that John Belushi would be the breakout star, as they had worked with him in stage shows and on records. Belushi was still making films until he died, and his name was always near the top of the cast list. As for the rest of the young cast, who could say?

In retrospect, the rest of the cast who played students did remarkably well. The biggest name from that group, Kevin Bacon, played one of the smallest roles, a pledge at the snooty rival fraternity house. The other two guys in the picture flanking Belushi are Stephen Furst, who played the fat kid Flounder, and Bruce McGill as D-Day, a character who seems more like a mechanic than a college student. Furst kept working, his best known work as a regular on St. Elsewhere and then on Babylon 5. But McGill? How much farther could he go when his great talent appeared to be playing The William Tell Overture by rapping his fingers on his Adam's apple?


Bruce McGill kept working. As we see here, he put on some weight, but that didn't end his career. He's a character actor, and a damn good one. He played the sheriff in My Cousin Vinny. He played the golf professional Walter Hagen in The Legend of Bagger Vance, pictured here. Other films in which he appeared include Silkwood, Cliffhanger, The Last Boy Scout, Legally Blonde 2, Matchstick Men, The Runaway Jury, Cinderella Man and W. He also appeared in the HBO movies 61*, Live From Baghdad and Recount.

On TV, McGill had a recurring role on McGyver. He is in the large fraternity of actors who got work both in the Star Trek universe and the Babylon 5 universe.

You are looking here at a working actor, a guy who has kept a roof over his head for more than thirty years one role at a time.

That's not easy to do, but McGill did it.

Good on ya, Bruce!


Here is Bruce #2, Bruce Spence. This is a picture of him from The Road Warrior, where he played The Gyro Pilot. It's the second billed character, but outside of Mel Gibson, this was a no-star cast. Americans wouldn't recognize most of the folks, because it was a mainly Australian cast (Spence is born in New Zealand) and other than Gibson and Spence, the next best known actor to American audiences is probably Virginia Hey, who played the Warrior Woman. She went on to have a regular role on the Australian sci-fi series Farscape nearly 20 years after this movie is made.

The actors were cast because they looked like people who were surviving in a post apocalyptic wasteland. How many more roles could be available for a goofy looking guy who is 6'6", especially if he decides to stay in Australia instead of going off to America?


Bruce Spence kept working. With most of the work in Australia and New Zealand, he isn't in as many movies Americans will recognize as Bruce McGill has been in, but he plays a completely different pilot in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. (Thanks for a correction from Splotchy.) He was in the third Star Wars movie. He played Mr. Wall, one of The Strangers in the under-appreciated Dark City, pictured here on the left. He did voice work in Finding Nemo and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He's done a ton of Australian TV work, including a role on Farscape and now a recurring role on Legend of the Seeker, a syndicated show that plays about a jillion times a weekend on my cable channels.

Good on ya, Bruce!

You could say that success breeds success, and once a character actor gets work, it's easier to get more work. In reality, it's still an amazing crapshoot, and there are a lot of successful TV shows where regulars pretty much disappear from the scene once the show shoots its last episode. It's just another example of Nobody Knows Anything.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nobody Knows Anything, Part 4: Two successful escapees

You may have had the experience of wandering around a video rental store, seeing a cover of a video and thinking, "That's a pretty good cast. Why haven't I heard of this movie?" You may be looking at a movie that got a limited theatrical release, or even worse, was released direct to video. As an example of Nobody Knows Anything, a movie can get completed before somebody realizes it's not very good, and the people who invested their money are stuck with a product that isn't going to sell.

Or at least that's one narrative. Not every project abandoned by a studio is a dog. Here are two films that studio executives didn't like that finally got their chance to be seen by audiences, both movies finding at least critical acclaim, though neither was a blockbuster hit.


1979's The Great Santini was from a book of the same name by Pat Conroy, who also wrote The Prince of Tides, also turned into a major motion picture. According to William Goldman in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, the studio first released it under the title The Ace, put no advertising behind it, though it starred Robert Duvall and Blythe Danner, two well known stars of the era. The studio execs worried that the movie wouldn't do well because Duvall does an excellent job of playing a very unlikeable character.

As Goldman tells it, a studio executive is on a cross country flight, and sees The Ace as the in-flight movie. He likes it a lot and realizes it was made by his studio. He wonders why it didn't get a better release and more publicity, so he goes back to his office, decides to re-release the film under the book's original title of The Great Santini, give it a real advertising budget and play up the fact that the movie got glowing reviews from the critics.

Both Robert Duvall and Michael O'Keefe, who played Duvall's son, were nominated for Oscars for their work, though neither won.

Note: The two titles kerfuffle. The Duvall character's real last name is Meechum, but he calls himself The Great Santini when discussing his career as a fighter pilot. Studio executives worried that people would be confused or think it was about Italians and expect something along the lines of The Godfather.


If The Great Santini is the story of a studio realizing a mistake and giving a good film a second chance, Brazil is the story of a director fighting a studio every step of the way and getting critics on his side, and eventually getting an audience to see and appreciate his film. Terry Gilliam didn't do his career in Hollywood any good fighting like a trapped badger for the honor of his movie Brazil, but the judgment of history is on his side. For how a film looks, for amazing scenes and shots and production design of a bizarre dystopia, Brazil ranks with movies like Blade Runner, Modern Times and Metropolis.

Like The Great Santini, the title Brazil might confuse filmgoers, because it has nothing to do with the country Brazil, but instead refers to the song from the 1930s, a song that plays in the lead character's head when he thinks about a better and happier place than the allegedly comfortable but truly comfortless world where he lives.

The studio that produced Brazil was showing no intention of releasing it, and had cut the 142 minute version Gilliam made to a 94 minute version with a happy ending. Gilliam took out ads in the trade papers asking for it to be released and gave private screenings of the film to critics, and this pressure shamed the studio into finally letting the public see it. There are several versions floating around, including the 94 minute "Love Conquers All" edit, but of all the variations I have seen of this film, I like Gilliam's long version best. Gilliam's version was finally considered "the definitive final cut" only after the L.A. Film Critic's Association gave Brazil its nod as Best Film of the Year.

As Nobody Knows Anything week continues, we will look at a few actors whose careers worked out better than expected, and at fates worse than direct to video, the movies that never get made or take forever to get made.

Flags of February update!


Yay, Wyoming! Late to the party, but somebody from Wyoming finally visited my blog this month!

All 50 states and Washington, District of Columbia! Puerto Rico and Guam thrown in for good measure!


Yay, Flags of many Lands™!
First time visitor ever from the British Virgin Islands!

This month I have had visitors who have been under 93 different flags, including Old Glory. Considering that I have had visitors 159 Flags of many Lands™ total since I started counting about two years ago, that's pretty good coverage in a four week span, and we still have a couple days left.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Nobody Knows Anything, Part 3: Movies and Money

Wednesday is usually reserved for posts about math, but today it's part of Nobody Knows Anything week, and so it's about movies and the money numbers. You might think numbers and math are the same thing, but I take a nerdier view. Math is about patterns and relationships. There are no detectable patterns in the numbers I am about to relate.

On the Box Office Mojo website, they make a list of reported domestic ticket sales for all the movies in theatrical release. With some of these movies, about a third, the budget is listed as well. In a Nobody Knows Anything tradition, no one can say when a movie will break even by comparing the budget to the ticket sales. The rule of thumb is that income somewhere around two to three times the production budget is the break even point. With ticket sales, not all the money is going back to the movie makers, as it is split also with film distribution companies and the theaters. The split changes over time, with the studios getting a huge cut in the first few weeks, and then the theaters getting a larger cut as time goes on. A big opening weekend is great news for a studio, but the theaters are only making money that weekend if the customers are buying the sodas, popcorn and nachos. (Movie theater nachos! Yuck!)

While some movies last year did incredibly great business, with The Dark Knight at the top of the heap, here are some warnings against putting your money in the movie industry.

Australia
Budget: $130 million
U.S. ticket sales: $49 million
Worldwide tickets: $196 million
Foreign percentage: 75%

From the U.S. perspective, Baz Luhrmann's Australia has been listed as one of the huge bombs of 2008. Given the lavish budget, nearly $50 million in ticket sales is a drop in the bucket. But one of the things about bankable stars is how much they help the overseas draw, and Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman still have the power to put butts in the seats in places other than the U.S. of A. This movie might make it to the two to three times budget level with DVD sales, but even now, with the movie having been released three months ago, Nobody Knows Anything.


The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
Budget: $150 million
U.S. ticket sales: $124 million
Worldwide tickets: $277 million
Foreign percentage: 55%

Benjamin Button, on the other hand, is looked upon as a financial and critical success. Given how expensive it was to make and the huge advertising budget, this movie is also still waiting to see if it will become profitable in the long run. (Note: the main reason for the vague two to three times production budget equals the break even point is because advertising budgets vary so widely.)

A good rule if thumb is that if your movie makes more money overseas than it does domestically, that can be credited to having bankable stars, and Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett certainly qualify as bankable stars right now.

Even so, think about the risk this film entailed. Bet $150 million that an odd little short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald can be turned into a box office smash, which is even more problematical given that many of the adaptations of Fitzgerald's major works have disappointed at the box office over the years.

Definitely not a business for the faint hearted.



Synecdoche, New York
Budget: $20 million
U.S. ticket sales: $3 million
Worldwide tickets: $3 million
Foreign percentage: 1%

A more reasonable budget is no promise of less risk in the movie business. Writer-director Charlie Kaufman makes very quirky films. He wrote Being John Malkovich, and that's about as mainstream as his films get. The cast of Synecdoche, New York is headed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who can be a bankable star in films of this size, and the largely female supporting cast is a bevy of the best actresses working, including Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robin Weigert and Hope Davis.

But this movie. People couldn't pronounce it, people didn't see it, and overseas, box office poison is way too kind.

Do not expect a federal bailout of Synecdoche, New York. It is plenty small enough to fail.


Outlander
Budget: $50 million
U.S. ticket sales: $140 thousand
Worldwide tickets: $4 million
Foreign percentage: 96%

As I said earlier, high foreign percentages show a bankable star. Well, maybe not this time, especially when a movie can't even sell a million dollars worth of tickets a month into its theatrical release.

If you were still in a mood to invest in the motion picture industry, consider Outlander. The high concept is simple enough. Vikings fight aliens from outer space.

Seriously. Is the screenwriter seven years old, or is that just his emotional age?

The bankable star here is Jim Caviezel, the guy at the top of the heap in the poster and the only Viking who gets a hair stylist. This shows that if you make a truly awful film, Jesus Christ himself cannot save you.

These things happen. Somebody makes a movie and for whatever reasons, the studio that put up the money has no confidence in it whatsoever. Sometimes, it is because of a change of leadership at a studio, and the new regime kills the work of the old regime. Sometimes, it's just because studio execs finally see the finished product and they hate it.

Whatever the reason, there's a saying for movies like this in Hollywood.

Outlander wasn't released. It escaped.



Now this is the movie you wanted to invest in. $5 million budget, worldwide revenues of $369 million. Yeah, baby! There's no business like show business!

Well, I can honestly say it's like no business I know.

The producers of My Big Fat Greek Wedding have had to take Gold Circle Films, the official owners of the film, to court for their share of the profits. Even in Hollywood, you can't go into court with a straight face and say that a movie that took in $75 for every dollar invested isn't in the black yet.

So who is this poor sap of a producer who had to sue? What rube from the sticks was seen coming a mile away by the clever Hollywood types?

A guy from Northern California. He even went to high school with a friend of mine.

A rube named Tom Hanks.

Matty Boy, Investment Advisor to the Stars*, recommends investing in a saloon before investing in a movie. There's a lot less stealing going on.

*Don't invest in a saloon. Too much stealing going on.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Nobody Knows Anything interlude: Basil Rathbone


Basil Rathbone was part of a bankable franchise when he played Sherlock Holmes from 1939 to 1947, but in much of the rest of his career, he played suave and sophisticated villains. Fans might go to see an Errol Flynn film, but if Basil Rathbone wasn't the villain, it just wouldn't be as good. He was an expert fencer, but in his entire movie career, he only got to win one fight, when he played Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet.

Something that set Rathbone apart was his tendency to sign very short contracts, sometimes only for one film at a time. If you look at the his filmography, you'll see he made movies for nearly all the big studios, including M-G-M, Universal, Warner Bros. and even Disney. In his heyday, almost everyone was on long term contracts, from stars to character actors to directors. As a contract player, you did the movies the studio told you to make, and only big stars had a chance to even consider saying no, often to the detriment of their career. Rathbone's longest contract was specifically for the Sherlock Holmes pictures for Universal, and he walked away from that when he grew bored, refusing to re-sign even though a significant signing bonus was waved in front of him.

What makes this a Nobody Knows Anything interlude is that in Hollywood of the 1940s, no one would have guessed that Basil Rathbone's way of doing business was the wave of the future, that studios would have to negotiate with most actors and directors on a picture by picture basis. One of the few of Rathbone's contemporaries who also made contracts on a picture by picture basis was the director Rouben Mamoulian, who was in the director's chair for the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro, where the very Spanish looking Rathbone played the villain opposite the very Spanish looking Tyrone Power. (Warning: this post may contain trace elements of sarcasm. Also peanuts.) Mamoulian did not have as successful a career as Rathbone, finding himself fired and replaced on big films like Laura and the Liz Taylor version of Cleopatra. If someone were trying to find a narrative for Rathbone's greater success, some might say talent or timing, but another possible reason is that Rathbone in his day was famous for throwing fabulous parties.

It's perfectly all right to be fiercely independent, but a guest list full of the glamorous and a well-stocked open bar never go out of fashion.

Nobody Knows Anything, Part 2: Franchises

Besides bankable stars, another idea that has worked in Hollywood for a very long time is the franchise, a character or set of characters that audiences relate to. Sometimes the actors become strongly identified with the roles, but sometimes the studio can change actors and the franchise moves on. For example, The Keystone Cops movies were very popular in the early silent days, but the audience did not care in the least that different actors were in the uniforms from picture to picture.


People love collies... named Lassie: From the very beginning of films, there were animal stars. A shell-shocked pup was brought back from World War I to America by a returning doughboy, who gave the dog the unlikely name of Rin Tin Tin, the name of a puppet French schoolchildren would give to American troops for good luck. The dog became a major star who did survive the change to the talkies, no one noticing the obvious French accent when he barked. The original Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, according to legend in the arms of Jean Harlow, and though a nation mourned, successor Rin Tin Tins carried on the family name.

Likewise, there were huge hit films starring collies, but not much in the way of success unless the dog's name was Lassie. In the films in the 1940s, Lassie had some very strong co-stars, like Roddy McDowell and Elizabeth Taylor, but by the 1950s, Lassie was stuck on TV with kids who didn't completely understand how dangerous wells can be.



No loyalty needed: With animal stars, it was obvious the audience would be willing to see the films even if they knew they weren't watching the same dog as they saw in the previous installment. With franchises starring actual people, the crowds sometimes didn't care if a new actor showed up. The most obvious of all the franchises where the title character trumped the actor was the Charlie Chan series, which starred three different actors over the years, Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters. Before Pearl Harbor, the fact most of America knew about Hawaii was that Charlie Chan lived in Honolulu, though he did travel quite a bit.

Other franchises also changed actors, though the modern audiences might now forget it. Universal had four major movie monsters, and though the public now thinks of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Cheney, Jr. as The Wolf Man and Karloff again as The Mummy. All of those roles were played by several actors during the era when monster movies were a major franchise for Universal Studios.



The actor changes, and that was a mistake: Tarzan has been around as a movie franchise for a very long time. In the silent era, Elmo Lincoln played Edgar Rice Burroughs legendary ape man, but in the talkies era, a Romanian born star of the U.S. Olympic team named Johnny Weissmuller took on the role and the audiences ate it up. The audiences were willing to accept when someone besides Maureen O'Sullivan played Jane, but Weissmuller was Tarzan, Johnny Sheffield was Boy and Cheetah was Cheetah from 1932 to 1948, when Weissmuller decided at the age of 44 he'd like to wear pants in his next movie and took on the role of Jungle Jim, a great white hunter. They kept making Tarzan movies, but the production values went down and they really weren't the same.

Weissmuller has been quoted as saying the famous Tarzan yell was actually a sound mixing miracle, the combination of the voices of a soprano, an alto and a hog caller. This makes it all the more remarkable how good a job Carol Burnett can do with it all by herself.


Sometimes, loyalty pays: Both William Powell and Myrna Loy were veterans of films since the silent days when they were cast as the party loving socialites and detectives Nick and Nora Charles in 1934's The Thin Man, taken from a novel by Dashiell Hammett. (Note: The title character is who they are chasing, not Nick Charles, though Powell stayed relatively slender throughout his career.) Audiences wanted to see them again and again, and a series of Thin Man movies were made. The surprise of this series, the Nobody Knows Anything result from here is that this series took these veteran actors and turned them into bankable stars. They could work together playing characters that weren't Nick and Nora and crowds would come see them. They could play opposite other actors and draw a crowd as well. In general, the star making ability of a franchise film is unpredictable at best and just plain weak at worst, but William Powell and Myrna Loy both got big breaks by appearing together in The Thin Man.



Loyalty pays, but not both ways: Like the Thin Man series, the Sherlock Holmes movies from 1939 to 1946 made the audience a promise and that promise paid off. Basil Rathbone IS Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce IS Dr. Watson.

This longtime connection with a popular character did not translate into bankable stardom for either Rathbone or Bruce. Bruce remained a minor character actor and most of Rathbone's career when he wasn't wearing the deerstalker cap was playing villains.

More on one remarkable aspect of Rathbone's career later today.



The franchise that changed everything: Franchises tended to be lower budget films, many of them creating movies designed to be second features or shorts. But in 1962, a Scottish actor best known to American audiences for being in Darby O'Gill and The Little People was cast as James Bond, and the most successful movie franchise in history was born, with the series still thriving nearly 40 years later and five changes of cast.

As a launching pad for careers, playing James Bond has been very hit and miss. Sean Connery is still a movie star, but his bankability just after leaving Bond was very spotty. (The Molly Maguires, anyone? Maybe a second viewing of Zardoz?) After trying to turn an unknown George Lazenby into Bond, the producers decided to go with a suave TV actor with Roger Moore, and the series survived. Neither Lazenby or Moore had that much of a career post-007, nor did Timothy Dalton. Pierce Brosnan had some successes when he wasn't Bond, most notably in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, and time will tell how we judge Daniel Craig's tenure as Bond and his career when he isn't drinking shaken and not stirred martinis.


A writer/director creates a franchise: Often, a franchise is created by bringing a popular character from books to the screen, as is the case in all the previously mentioned films. A very different kind of franchise was created by Christopher Guest. He starred in the successful comedy This Is Spinal Tap, which was written largely as improvisational scenes. Instead of deciding to make Spinal Tap II and Spinal Tap III, he made a franchise out of improvisational comedy film writing, and went on to make such varied films as Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. He has done other acting in that time, and even directed non-improvisational films such as The Big Picture and the remake of Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, (ahem!), but his bankability is based on a type of film that nobody else makes.

This ends the plug for my adopted actor/director/genre creator, and ends this installment of Nobody Knows Anything. More chapters coming... all this week! Stay tuned.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Nobody Knows Anything, Part 1a: Bankable Stars

In Hollywood, it's the job of a director to make movies and it's the job of a producer to make money. These jobs aren't necessarily at odds, any more than contractors and homeowners have to be at odds when a kitchen is being remodeled.

Anyone who has gone through that experience knows how things turn out way too much of the time.

Since the very early days of movies, there have been two things producers have coveted, bankable stars and successful franchises. For a bankable star, the producer imagines members of the general public saying "Let's go see the new George Clooney movie." instead of saying "Let's go see the new movie about a lawyer." For a franchise, it's assumed the public says "Let's go see the new Friday the 13th movie." instead of "Let's go see a slasher film."


Can we tell if it's a bankable star or a franchise? No, not always. In the 1920's, Charlie Chaplin was by many accounts the most famous person in the world. A wonderfully adept comic actor, he could draw throngs of people to any new film he put out.

As long as he wore the hat and the mustache and carried the cane of the character known as The Little Tramp.

Oh, yeah, and he had to walk a certain way.

Was this a franchise or was he a bankable star? Because the audience knew the actor's name and would accept no substitutes, the general consensus is Chaplin was a bankable star, one of the biggest in the world. There were a lot of actors who audiences only wanted to see doing one thing, or possibly the actor might get lucky and stretch the boundaries, but in his heyday, Chaplin and The Little Tramp were inseparable.

Chaplin also pulled off one of the great tricks in Hollywood, going from bankable star to bankable director. After the silent days were over and most silent stars were long gone from the business or reduced to being character actors, Chaplin could still get studios to give him money to make movies where he was either the director or the star or both. He wasn't the colossal bankable star he was in the twenties, but his career arc is much more positive than folks like Buster Keaton, Gloria Swanson or Mary Pickford.


A bankable director is a better long term investment than a bankable actor. This is certainly an easy story to sell, because there are many examples of bankable directors having long careers with tremendous successes decades apart. But people also forget the bankable directors who had their brief time of glory only to fade away quickly.

At the end of the silent era, many of the directorial stars faded as quickly as the people in front of the camera. D.W. Griffith was the top of the heap in the silent era, but the talkies did him in. Likewise Mack Sennett. One star director whose name meant spectacle in the 1920's and meant the same in the 1950's was Cecil B. DeMille. There were also some up and coming directors who started in the silents but became stars in the talkie era, most notably Alfred Hitchcock.

Through every era, there are star directors. John Ford, John Huston, Howard Hawks, and David Lean all had long careers at the top, but that era also produced some shooting stars like Preston Sturges, Busby Berkeley and Douglas Sirk. Today, we have Spielberg and Scorsese and Lucas, but what about Francis Coppola? His star isn't nearly as bright as the others who started with him, and Lucas' star is stuck to the Star Wars franchise as tightly as Chaplin the actor's was to The Little Tramp.

Some star directors don't really promise huge hits. Woody Allen has had long relationships with a few producers because he makes films that are cheap by today's standards and still have a market. The Coen Brothers started similarly, but have made some forays into the big budget films with mixed results. Again, Nobody Knows Anything.

You can't break up a bankable team. This is conventional wisdom that has been stood on its ear several times. The perfect example of this being true is Abbott and Costello. A major counterexample is Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Astaire and Rogers made a string of hits in the 1930's, but Ginger decided she want to act instead of dance and Fred went and found other partners. Fred was a bankable star as long as he promised to dance, which extended well into the 1950s, and Ginger became an Oscar winning star of what are now called chick flicks. For them, it was a win-win.

But even in win-win situations, often someone wins bigger. Ginger Rogers' career began to fade by the end of WW II, and she showed up in smaller budget films, sometimes as a co-lead with another actress, then a third bill, later playing the mother of the main character. This is often the trajectory of bankable female stars in Hollywood.



Bankable female careers don't last as long as males. This is still conventional wisdom. Women become bankable when they are young and pretty, and as they grow older, audiences want to see younger, prettier women, and Hollywood always has a surplus of them.

A two word rebuttal to this well thought out narrative: Joan Crawford.

And another: Bette Davis.

And, oh yeah, Katherine Hepburn.

Meryl Streep, for pity's sake!

Another thing that changes this rule is people taking better care of themselves so that the audience does not have any problem believing that an attractive lead actor actually wants to have sex with 40 year old women such as Cate Blanchett, Julia Roberts or Salma Hayek.

Another example from an earlier era is forthcoming below. It's a good rule of thumb, but it's also an example of Nobody Knows Anything.

Nobody Knows Anything, Part 1b: Bankable Stars


There is no need to make rules about bankable child stars, because there has only been one in history. Shirley Temple. She was first on camera at the age of four. From the ages of six to twelve, she was a box office star rivaled only by the likes of Clark Gable. There have been many great child actors, but most of them who became stars did so in their teens, and bankability was more about being part of a franchise, like Mickey Rooney in the role of Andy Hardy or the kids in the Our Gang series. A combination of changing tastes, the end of vaudeville and stricter child labor laws made Shirley Temple's record look as far out of reach as Babe Ruth's home run records looked for a couple generations.

For feature film bankability, Shirley probably will never be matched, but if we look at show business as including cable TV and the direct to video market, both very profitable today, Shirley's child star records have been at least approached by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

There is also a rule in Hollywood that has its counter-examples: Puberty is to child stars as Godzilla is to Tokyo. We will note a major counter-example in the next section.


You're a star, kid, just as long as you sing. An interesting sidelight to Shirley Temple's career is that MGM tried to borrow her to star in The Wizard of Oz, couldn't make that happen, and decided to cast a sixteen year old under contract they hadn't used in a major role named Judy Garland. Judy, born Frances Gumm, youngest of the singing Gumm Sisters, had been on the vaudeville stage since she was two, but the public hadn't seen her grow up, so she was already post-puberty when the public meets her, and has a nice girl next door look. The Oz books never say exactly how old Dorothy is, so they could have cast a ten year old Shirley Temple or a sixteen year old Judy Garland, but the studio execs did everything they could to make her look younger, putting her in a corset that hid her figure.

Judy Garland, for all the mess she made of her life, was a bankable star in any movie where she sang. She was a good actress, but she had just crazy pipes. She also had crazy levels of insecurity, but in her case, you can at least understand it. When she was at the MGM high school for actors who didn't have their diploma, her classmates included Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. One can forgive her for being a little self-conscious. (Liz Taylor is the major counterexample to the Watch Out for Puberty rule. She was twelve when the movie audience first saw her, and Those Awkward Years just didn't apply to her. They came a little later.)

I have heard the theory postulated by many, including blog buddy sfmike, that if the Gay Boys like you, you can have as long a career in show business as you like. Exhibits A through C: Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis. Add as many to the list as you like.


Nobody makes the transition from the small screen to the big screen. This has been conventional wisdom for some time now, and it's absolute bunk.

Burt Reynolds tells the story that he and Clint Eastwood got the results of their screen tests on the same day. Walking off the lot they compared notes. Eastwood was downcast, as he was told he was too tall, his eyes were too squinty and his Adam's apple too big. Reynolds was upbeat, because they told him he couldn't act. Eastwood didn't see why Reynolds was happy. "Hey, I can take acting lessons. You're stuck with that Adam's apple for the rest of your life!"

The famously harsh screen test results are yet another example of Nobody Knows Anything. Eastwood and Reynolds both made their mark on TV series, then moved on to be among the most bankable movie stars around. Fellow TV vet Steve McQueen could say the same. Reynolds doesn't work much, and does smaller roles when he does, but Gran Torino proves that at 78 years old, Clint Eastwood is a bankable movie star, both as an actor and director, since there isn't any other star in that film.

Does this mean the Gay Boys like Clint Eastwood? I don't know, hypothetical question asker, none of my gay friends have let me see the memo on this.

Tomorrow: Bankable Franchises.

Lazy blogging on a rainy monday

Yay, Flags of Many Lands™!
Yay, Angola!

I started the Flags of February experiment because brand new flags were getting few and far between, so I wanted to see what happens in the traffic of four weeks. Three weeks in, there have been two new flags never before logged since I've been writing this stuff for nearly two years, so go figure. In the actual experiment, there have been visitors from 88 places besides the U.S. of A., and at least one new on each day, which will be a hard streak to keep up until Saturday. Here's hoping!



I wrote some long posts this weekend, and I have some long posts planned for this week, but there's work to do this morning before class, so the first of my Nobody Knows Anything series about the movie industry will have to wait until later today.

In the meantime, here's a lolz from the I Has A Hot Dog site that hit me just right.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

My never humble opinion on the Oscars


I may just be getting too old. I've seen about a new movie a month at a theater for the last three years, and I don't expect that average to go up any time soon.

I've seen a few more movies this year, but I also walked out on two. I've already stated my opinion that watching Slumdog Millionaire is a trial to be endured and Heath Ledger isn't as interesting as Cesar Romero in his interpretation of The Joker.

If this is what wins Oscars, movies are going to get worse. If things have gotten so bad that they are giving special Oscars to Jerry Lewis, things will get much, much worse before they get better.

What do you think?

The end of The Black Swan experiment


So I am continuing reading Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan, even after some really bad experiences with the book. My emotional and intellectual reaction after a few egregious pieces of writing on Taleb's part and horrible editing on the part of people at Random House is something like walking carefully through a minefield while having an existential crisis. As I am reading, even more slowly than usual, I am going through several thought processes.

1. How could this be written better?
2. I try to be amusing when I write. Am I as dreary as Taleb, who isn't even close to half as funny as he thinks he is?
3. Could any editor have fixed this guy's prose or made him give up some of his poorly thought out major concepts, most especially the narrative fallacy?
4. Have I read other books in the past, better books that made some of Taleb's points, most especially about skepticism and unpredictable events?

I am unable to answer the first three questions to my own satisfaction, but somewhere around page 150, I realize that I have read a better book, which I will reveal after explaining my serious problems with Taleb's bad ideas.

In question #3 above, I say that the narrative fallacy is one of Taleb's worst major concepts, and if there was an honest writer named Nassim Nicholas Taleb (and we have no confirming evidence that there is), he would agree with me that the idea is half baked at best.

He says he rejects the idea of cause and effect, that too many people want to explain what they have seen in the past and this blinds them to the future. He does not reject it at all. He comes up with narratives all the time in the book. For example, Taleb correctly states that Henri Poincaré came up with "Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared" before Albert Einstein did, (and so did others, by the way), and comes up with his narrative as to why Einstein is remembered widely and Poincaré is not by the general, non-French speaking public. I had heard about Poincaré beating Einstein to the punch before, and have heard more convincing narratives as to why one is world famous and the other, not so much. This is just one of dozens of examples of Taleb narrating in his book. Heck, he even invents fictional characters and postulates their success and failure in the world, largely based on how much they agree with the concepts of Nassim Nicholas Taleb! There's a really creepy Ayn Rand vibe that permeates the book, though I will stipulate that he is a more entertaining writer than Rand. The average writer of stereo installation manuals is a more entertaining writer than Ayn Rand, so this does not put Taleb in exactly lofty company.

Here's how I feel about Taleb's so-called narrative fallacy. He is right that we naturally try to explain what we see. He is right that we sometimes get it wrong, and from those wrong conclusions make bad decisions, and sometimes get so attached to a bad narrative that we cling to it even when the evidence that it stinks is manifest.

Here's my conclusion to these philosophic points of Taleb. Do a better job narrating, do not reject the act of narrating itself. Don't get married to your own ideas, or at least be willing to consider a trial separation from those ideas when the relationship goes sour. All our ideas have to be tested in the crucible of reality.

Instead of giving my conclusion some new cute jargon name, another bad habit of Taleb's, I will call it the name I learned in school. It's the scientific method.


As I wrote earlier, I did remember a better book that makes Taleb's points about uncertainty, big events having major consequences and people being married to narratives even when the narrative proves false. In 1983, William Goldman, successful novelist and screenwriter, wrote a memoir entitled Adventures in the Screen Trade. He writes about Hollywood with love and respect and the carefulness of someone who still wants to get hired, but he also writes stories about people, many of them with names attached, that illustrate the book's unifying theme "Nobody knows anything." No one knows what movies will be hits or flops, no one knows who will be a bankable movie star and how long that lovely relationship with a fickle public will last, and a somewhat more modern problem, no one knows if a successful movie will create a successful franchise of movies.

On page 206, Taleb mentions Goldman's name and writes the magic words "Nobody knows anything." Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Odin, thank you, Krishna! Now we will get someplace.

No we won't. Damn you, Satan, damn you, Loki, damn you, Shiva! Later on page 206 and continuing on page 207, Taleb finally puts the last brick in the edifice of the "Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a massive pinhead" theory.

He writes that the movie business is a positive-Black Swan business, while the book industry is a negative-Black Swan business. After all, if you pay $10 million for a book that isn't a bestseller, that's a negative Black Swan.

These are the last sentences I will type about Nassim Nicholas Taleb for now. Should Jesus, Odin and Krishna grant it, they will also be the last sentences I write about him in my lifetime. The rest of this week will be posts about a much better writer who produced a much better book, and I will explore William Goldman's theme, written a quarter century ago and still true today, that in the movie business, "Nobody knows anything." Even the Wednesday math post will be about the movies, where we show there might be some negative Black Swans in the movie business, so stay tuned.

Popcorn is optional.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Taking a break from reading The Black Swan


Nicholas Nassim Taleb works in the financial industry as a quantitative analyst, a job position known as a "quant". He holds views that are contrary to those held by a majority of his peers, but he has a financial strategy that did very well both in the brief and abrupt crash of 1987 and in the longer and more severe downturns of both 2007 and 2008. He published The Black Swan in 2007 and I read it in 2009, so if he ever got around to specific financial advice in the book, I missed it, not because I wasn't reading carefully, but because I got to page 210 of his 300 page book, put the book down and vowed not to turn one more page.

No one should be forced to read this book for free, and if someone is willing to pay you to read it, drive a hard bargain.

I have read many books by authors whose views are not mainstream. For example, I very much enjoy the work of Jane Jacobs, whose views on city planning and economics go against the conventional wisdom in those fields. Reading iconoclasts takes patience, because some of them are bitter about being outsiders. Sadly, this is true of Taleb. On page 90, he writes this lovely sentence.

It is my great hope someday to see science and decision makers rediscover what the ancients have always known, namely that our highest currency is respect.

It is astonishing to think that the person who penned this noble hope for the future wrote the rest of The Black Swan, because the book is one long sneer. Everyone is to be mocked, scientists and decision makers most of all. They are foolish, they dress badly, they have middle brow tastes, they are not as well read as Taleb. I am no stranger to plowing through badly written books trying to get to the good ideas contained in those pages, if any. After all, I did get through On War by Clausewitz a couple years back.

Clausewitz and Taleb are very different kinds of bad writers. Clausewitz is a 19th Century scholar, which often meant he just couldn't shut up. No point could be made quickly, since he had to tell you every last thing he knew on any subject before he got to the next subject. Taleb's style is much more breezy and conversational, as befits a person trying to sell a book to 21st Century readers, but he wastes a reader's time in more modern ways.

Taleb lies to us and makes ridiculous and patently false statements, then moves forward and expects us to follow his arguments, as though there is no price to pay with the reader for lying or looking like an idiot.

First, the lies. Taleb ends Chapter 1 by telling us that when he finds someone dull and does not want to talk to them, he tells them he is a limousine driver. These dull people in Taleb's circle are often very status conscious, so this little lie does the trick, and he is not lying to the reader, but to some third person we are expected to dislike as much as Taleb did.

Chapter 2 is very short, but it is an illustrative example of a Black Swan, an unexpected event in the publishing industry that was a runaway success. Taleb tells the tale of Yevgenia Nikolayevna Krasnova, a previously unpublished novelist and philosopher, who self published a book entitled The Story of Recursion online, which was picked up by a daring publisher and became a gigantic hit, achieving big sales and proving a major trend in scholarship. I am not as well read as Taleb, but I was very confused that I would never have heard anything about Krasnova's success in any of the news sources I read.

Taleb starts the third chapter by telling us Krasnova is fictional. First, he lies to strangers, then he lies to the readers for three pages in Chapter 2, and then lets us know that we cannot take what he says at face value. I plowed ahead anyway, reading more carefully, but less trustingly.

I had problems with his style and some of his opinions, political and otherwise, but then I came to page 112, and a two paragraph subchapter of Chapter 8 under the heading of "Doctors". Here is the kernel of what Taleb wrote.

Assume that a drug saves many people from a potentially dangerous ailment, but runs the risk of killing a few, with a net benefit to society. Would a doctor prescribe it? He has no incentive to do so.

I stopped. I read it again. I put the book down, took off my reading glasses and stared out the window of the BART train.

How could someone be so well read and so profoundly ignorant? Has he never watched a TV show sponsored by a drug company? We've all heard the side effects listed, what is known in the ad biz as fair balance. Forget dangerous ailments. There are drugs that promise better looking skin that run the risk of killing you, and doctors are still prescribing them.

I thought a little bit more. Taleb had sneered at reading the newspaper as a way to keep informed, and said that he had stopped doing it some time in the past. Maybe he read only important books and had no time for modern media, including the radio, TV and magazines. Still, an educated person should know something about how vaccines work, since Jenner's work with the cowpox and smallpox comes from the late 18th Century. Vaccines expose patients to a low and hopefully inert dose of a disease to immunize them from it, but some people inoculated will get a non-inert dose or will be particularly sensitive to the introduction, catch the bad disease and die. Doctors have happily made this trade-off for more than 200 years now.

And then another thought entered my mind. I opened the book to the back and read the acknowledgements. How could a professional editor not know these things? How could that person, given the professional task of having Taleb's back, leave him hanging so horribly, looking like a complete idiot? Will Murphy is the person at Random House who is guilty of the professional dereliction of duty, but Taleb lists dozens of people who read his book and reviewed it, and he says he paid attention to these people.

Clearly, a lot of people don't read any more, even the ones who are supposed to do it for a living. These people skim and think they are reading. I'm a blogger, so I don't have an editor, but I do have readers, and there are many who have stopped by to correct factual flubs I have made. Among these free lance fact checkers are sfmike, Ken Rose and Alan Ponder, and I thanked each of them for their corrections at the time and I am happy to thank them again here.

I've taken a serious disliking to Taleb after spending a few hundred pages with him, but in some ways I pity him. He either doesn't have friends as smart and generous as the friends I have, or he has chosen to ignore them for reasons beyond comprehension.

Next: Taleb goes down swinging on an easy pitch.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The good ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb


The bad news: I have just stopped reading one of the worst books of my life since I joined the ranks of the literate some fifty years or so. I hate this book as much as I hated Superman #149, and I have already made clear what a terrible experience that was last month.

The good news: I have a week's worth of blog posts out of the reading this awful book AND recommending a book written about a quarter of a century ago that made many of Taleb's more cogent points, but in a way that was funny, insightful and tremendously entertaining.

The even better news: The much better book, which I will reveal on Sunday, is still in print, available at ridiculously cheap prices used online, and may even be in your library or local used book store. I will spend most of next week talking about the ideas from the much better book.

The back story: My dear friend from high school, Steve Lilley, recommended The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Steve, who is in the business of predicting system failure for folks like NASA, found the book very interesting, and because the book is mathy, he thought I might enjoy it.

I didn't.

The good news from the back story: Steve Lilley and I are still good friends.

The reason for writing this positive piece about Taleb's book before I beat it mercilessly with a big ugly stick: As regular readers know, yesterday was my mom's birthday, and I write this in honor of something she used to do.

My mom is not a spiteful person and I don't remember her holding longstanding grudges. Sometimes she would make negative comments about someone, sometimes extremely negative, but she would end any such statement, whether small quibble or extended diatribe, with "He (or she) is probably a very nice person."

I am merely reversing the order, saying some nice things first and then launching into a soul restoring beatdown of the shoddiest piece of professional writing I have ever seen, possibly in my lifetime, and this from someone who is a blogger, a regular reader of blogs, and sees excerpts of Richard Cohen in The Washington Post quoted by Princess Sparkle Pony.

Just a thought. If a reader comes to the blog after I finish everything, this will be the last thing they read, so the order will be the same as what my mom does for those readers.

Are we ready to start? Do you have some cocoa or other comforting beverage? Very well, then, let's begin.

Good Idea #1: The future is hard to predict. Clearly, humans desperately want to believe that someone actually knows the future. Whether it's interpreting Revelations or Nostradamus or reading the astrology column or checking in with your favorite stock market advisor or sports gambling tipster, it is a universal desire in people to want to know what happens next.

The thing is, even with advances in modern science, there are only a few topics where prognosticators today are much better than people who told the future by chopping open a chicken and reading the poor creature's entrails. For a positive example, five day forecasts of the weather are better now than they were when I was a kid, because there is more satellite data and better predictive models due to lots more data and lots faster computers and a knockout tournament of predictive models until the best were adopted, adapted and improved and the less good ones were cast aside.


Good Idea #2: Normal distribution is not always your friend. There is an important mathematical idea called The Central Limit Theorem that says that if a set of data is normally distributed, you can have a pretty good idea how often different types of results will show up. The normal curve on the right in blue and white says that if you get a z-score of 1.18, about 88.1% of data will get a lower z-score and (100-88.1)% = 11.9% of data will be at 1.18 or higher. Most of the measurements you get from normally distributed data will be pretty close to average, z-scores are found by an easy formula and the percentages that correspond to the z-scores can be found on a lookup table. So far, so good.

There is a second mathematical idea, the Fuzzy Central Limit Theorem, that says lots of sets of data, both found in nature and man-made, are going to be very close to being normally distributed.

Taleb's main hypothesis is that people who predict are expecting normal distribution too much of the time, and there exist many things we try to predict that can have huge outlying data, unexpected results Taleb calls "black swans", and instead of these rare occurrences being unlikely and forgettable anomalies, they are instead the most important data in the set and have disproportionate power to affect the outcome of the future event we are trying to predict.

Example: How much will the total monetary damage from hurricanes in the United States be in 2009? How about earthquakes or wildfires? These numbers can be changed massively by one big event, and no one knows when or where the big event will happen. A large wildfire in Wyoming might not add up to one tenth or even one hundredth the cost of a large wildfire near San Diego, for example.

(Are you still holding a grudge against Wyoming, Matty Boy? Okay, yes, hypothetical. Just a little bit.)

Good Idea #3: The past is hard to understand. Compared to Good Idea #1, this one is a little less intuitive. Taleb's idea is that we rely too much on narrative, turning the past into a story. In science, this idea is stated either as "Correlation is not causation" or "Sequence is not consequence". As humans, it is our nature to look at what happened, focus on a few factors we consider important, and either ignore data that does not fit with our narrative or bring data to the forefront that confirms our narrative. Armed with that narrative, we feel confident to predict the future.

See Good Idea #1.

These are the best ideas from Nicholas Nassim Taleb's book. Absorb them well and avoid the hours you might spend, or more precisely waste, reading his book, hours which you can never bring back. This weekend, I will give specific reasons why you should not read it, effectively vivisecting it, because it deserves to die.

Given all the well-deserved fuss there is about the cartoon in The New York Post, let me be clear. I want this book to die, to become yet another bestseller thrown on the scrap heap of history. Let me wish Mr. Taleb himself a long and happy life.