Quick Review: Stranger Things

September 30th, 2016

So I’d been resisting the temptation to watch Netflix’s smash hit of the summer, Stranger Things, since everyone I knew was watching it. But I was going to cave eventually. And with a lot of code to run and a lack of interest in this year’s movies, I finally caved. If you want to know whether I liked it or not … I’ll just tell you that I binge-watched it in two days.

The series is very good. I’m curious to see how it will watch a second time without a binge, but I found it to be moving, tense and thrilling.

The series has become most famous for its 80’s nostalgia and I will admit that this aspect of the series is done very well. It’s not just that it has oblique references to 80’s pop culture; it’s that it feels like the 80’s. The music, the title sequence, the color palette, the set decoration, the homages to films like E.T. and Alien. Sans the CGI, this could easily have been something made by Spielberg or Cameron (after you watch it, you can check out this video which goes through some of the more direct 80’s homages).

But 80’s nostalgia will only get you so far, as Hollywood is finding out right now. What really makes the series good is that it’s just … good. It lays its foundations down in strong characters who are well-written and well-acted. Ryder and Harbour are particularly good but all the actors do well. It has a decent and intriguing plot*. And it shrouds this all in metric tons of atmosphere. I give it a strong recommendation, even to people who are not necessarily fans of sci-fi or horror. I was hooked by middle of the first episode.

This year has been awful for movies. Almost every big blockbuster has been a disappointment. But television — particularly shows produced by the “other studios” like HBO and Netflix — has been getting steadily better and better. And Stranger Things is definitely one of those good shows. I’m looking forward to Season 2.

(*The plot bothered me because for the last few weeks I’ve been sketching out a similar plot for a new story. The story — working title Oddish — takes place in a college town not a million miles different from State College. It focuses on residents of the town who find things happening that are not scary or alarming (at least at first) but just odd. I don’t want to give away too much since it may never be written or may go in a different direction. But any writer will understand why I was both elated and saddened to see that Stranger Things shares a lot of elements with Oddish.

Oh well. Maybe I’ll turn my attention back to Dreams in the Long Dark.)

Pokemon Go

August 20th, 2016

Until a month ago, I had never played Pokemon in any way, shape or form. It was a little after my time. I knew of it and could maybe identify one or two of the creatures from simple cultural osmosis. But the nostalgia value the franchise had for me was basically nil.

So I am somewhat surprised to find that I’ve become a pretty consistent player of this summer’s answer to the Macarena: Pokemon Go. In early July, everyone was talking about it so I decided to give it a whirl. I had just given up on two games I’d been playing for a couple of years, so needed something to fill the boredom*. And Abby was into Pokemon anyway because her best friend is into it, so it seemed like a reasonable lark. And so here I am, a month later, with about 70 of the silly creatures in my phone, past level 20 and going for daily “pokewalks” or “pokerides” with my daughter.

That, to me, is the key to Pokemon‘s success: the social aspect. The game itself is kind of fun. It’s nice to walk around collecting little monsters. The gym aspect, where you fight other pokemons, is OK, if a bit a clunky. There’s a little thrill in finding pokestops and collecting items. The game is well designed to be addictive. But in the end, that’s all swamped by the social aspect: playing with my daughter and occasionally running into other players.

It’s just fun to walk around with Abby playing the game, occasionally catching a monster or attacking a gym together, but mainly hanging out and talking. We’ve gone walking all over our area and discovered new paths. We’ve hung out on campus. I’ve ridden a bike for the first time in thirty years. And even when we aren’t playing together, there’s a thrill in showing her what I caught today. Hell, even my wife now approves of the game (although she’s a bit dubious about us occasionally running out of the house to find a rare Pokemon in our area).

(It’s also occasionally allowed me to share some of my obsessions with Abby. Recently, during a tough fight at a Pokemon gym, I shouted, “I WILL kill him!” which led to a discussion of Dune, another of my little fixations.)

On Facebook, I gave my initial review that the game was OK, but playing it with my daughter was awesome. I stand by that. I expect the popularity to fade a bit as the novelty does. In fact, it already feels like I’m seeing fewer people out playing it (although now that the students are back in town, that should change). But the game has significantly expanded the scope of gaming, becoming the first really popular app where interacting with the real world is part of the game. I suspect more will follow. Some will suck. Some will be good. But it’s a good future to be tumbling into.

(*The game I quit was Boom Beach, which is made by the Clash of Clans folks and quite similar. It’s fun but I’d built everything and was to the point where simply maintaing my rank — at one point, I was one of the top 250 players in the US, which is even less impressive than it sounds — would have consumed hours of my time every day. I simply didn’t see the point of running that kind of treadmill indefinitely, so I let it go.)

2050, Part II

June 3rd, 2016

In Part 1, I looked at the predictions Robert A. Heinlein made in 1950 for what would happen over the course of the 20th century. Back in 2000, I wrote out my own predictions for the first half of the 21st century. I thought, 16 years in, I’d take a look at how I was doing.

Overall, it’s not so bad. but the unifying theme is that I wasn’t bold enough. Nothing I predicted was as interesting as what Heinlein predicted. So while I did “better” in terms of batting average, I did way worse in terms of slugging. My predictions are right, to steal a phrase from P.J. O’Rourke, in the same sense that a fortune cookie saying, “You will soon be finished with dinner” is right.

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Why Mourn?

April 23rd, 2016

The year has been a terrible one for celebrity deaths: Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Merle Haggard, now Prince. The last one hit particularly hard with me. Prince was the music of my difficult and lonely teenage years. I admired him. I loved his music. I thought and think he was a musical genius on par with the historic greats. And it’s been cathartic and touching to see the tributes springing up all over the world and know that I wasn’t alone in thinking that; that millions of people did get how great he was.

Every time the world mourns a celebrity, however, people ask why we do so. After all, it’s not like we knew them personally. Why shed tears — even metaphorical ones — over a stranger?

This tweet explains it better in 140 characters than I will in many more words.

In one of Stephen King’s non-fiction books, he describes writing as an act of telepathy. When you write a piece of fiction, you are using words to put what’s in your head into the reader’s head. If I write, “There was a room with table” you get an image in your head. And, if I’m a good writer, you get something close to the image I had in my head when I wrote those words.

This act of telepathy applies to more than just writers. Artists, musicians, actors … all of them perform acts of telepathy. It’s a bit more subtle since they work in a visual or auditory medium. But it’s the same principle: trying to evoke images or feelings or ideas through an act of telepathy.

We let artists into our head. We have, indirectly, a very intimate relationship with them. People will talk of books or songs or movies that spoke to them. And that’s true in a very literal sense. And if an artist is particularly brilliant, they will sometimes reveal things about us we didn’t know or put us in touch with feelings or ideas we were unfamiliar with. And we share this intimacy with everyone else who has felt spoken to.

So no I don’t think there’s anything wrong with mourning an artist or an actor who has died. Because sometimes we really are very close to them in a way that truly matters.

Long Form Review: The Force Awakens

April 10th, 2016

So it’s been four months. I’m finally going to post my long-form review of Stars Wars: The Force Awakens. I wrote a lot of this back in December but didn’t post it because … well, because I didn’t trust it. I was so excited to have a new Star Wars movie, least of all a good one, that I needed to take some time for my impressions to set. I just bought in on blu-ray and watched it again with Abby. And my impression is largely unchanged.

It’s a good movie. It’s a very good movie. It’s not quite as good as Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, which I rate as rare 10’s on IMDB. But it’s better than Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith, which I rate as 8’s or 9’s, depending on my mood. Right now, I have it rated an 8, but it’s a strong 8 and could become a 9 in the future, depending on how Episodes VIII and IX shake out.

Spoiler warning for the movie that everyone saw four month ago:

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Oscar Update

February 25th, 2016

A few years ago, I wrote a series of posts going through the Oscars year-by-year to compare the Best Picture selectees to the films preferred by either IMDB users or the consensus of history as the best picture of the year.

Part I went from 1928 to 1952 and covered the very shaky early years of the Academy.

Part II covered 1952 to 1978, from the days when the Academy went out of their way to snub Hitchcock to the 1970’s, when they did a very good job.

Part III covered 1978 to 2012, which has been a shaky period for the Academy as they struggle to adapt to the broader palette of films that has opened up. Occasionally, they make a good choice, but then they scuttle back to safe fare like The King’s Speech.

Part IV summed up and ranked the worst Oscar picks in history. I concluded that the Academy had done an OK job, mostly, but was slowly becoming irrelevant.

That was a fun series of posts to write and even now, I like to go through it occasionally. A few updates are in order though:

In the post, I stopped tapping films as “Consensus Picks” in 2001, saying that not enough time had passed. It’s been three years, so I’ll bring that up to 2005.

Year: 2002
Academy Pick: Chicago
IMDB Rating: 7.2 (41 out of 132, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: The Two Towers
Consensus Best Picture: City of God
Comment: You can check the original post for my comments on Lord of the Rings. City of God continues to be held in high esteem, deservedly so. Chicago, however, keeps sinking. I rated this as one of their worst picks, even given IMDB’s bias against musicals.

Year: 2003
Academy Pick: Return of the King
IMDB Rating: 8.9 (1st of 111, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Return of the King
Consensus Best Picture: Return of the King
Comment: A number of good pictures are creeping up in the IMDB ratings but I think most people would conclude that LOTR was the best movie of 2003.

Year: 2004
Academy Pick: Million Dollar Baby
IMDB Rating: 8.1 (7 of 143, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Consensus Best Picture: Still unclear. Sunshine might be it. But I suspect The Incredibles will be history’s favorite.

Year: 2005
Academy Pick: Crash
IMDB Rating: 7.9 (18 of 143 for 2004, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Batman Begins
Consensus Best Picture: Still unclear.
Comment: I thought maybe I’d exclude this year as being too recent, but … 2006 has Pan’s Labyrinth and 2008 has The Dark Knight. So I’m coming to think it was weak year.Crash remains well-regarded by IMDB but its reputation is terrible.

Not much has changed for the other years. The Departed, Like Stars on Earth, the Dark Knight, Inglorious Basterds, Inception, The Intouchables and The Dark Knight Rises still rule their respective years.

For the years since, with the threshold raised to 50k votes:

Year: 2013
Academy Pick: 12 Years A Slave
IMDB Rating: 8.1 (3 of 127, minimum 50000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: The Wolf of Wall Street

Year: 2014
Academy Pick: Birdman
IMDB Rating: 7.8 (17 of 96, minimum 50000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Interstellar
Comment: There’s a lot of fanboyism in recent IMDB ratings, so I might discount Interstellar, a movie I really like, and pick Whiplash, which is the #2 IMDB-rated film and might have been my pick for the best movie of the year. I know it’s only been a year, but Birdman’s ranking is terrible for a recent Best Picture. I liked it but I think it was a poor pick. Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood and acting. Three of the recent Best Pictures were about Hollywood. But give it five years and I think Birdman will start showing up on lists of bad Academy picks. Still, it could have been worse. They could have gone with The Imitation Game.

Year: 2015
Academy Pick: TBA. Right now, The Revenant is the favorite.
IMDB Rating: 8.2 (4 of 58, minimum 50000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Baahubali: The Beginning. But that’s Bollywood again. The top-rated American IMDB film is The Force Awakens, but that’s fanboyism. Inside Out is #3. We’ll go with that for now.

So has anything changed in the last three years? I don’t think so. The Academy has still shown that are vulnerable to Oscar bait. They are nominating more action movies like Mad Max but they clearly aren’t going to be giving out the top prize for those movies. They’ve made at least one pick — Birdman — that may soon join the ranks of poor Oscar picks. And they continue to ignore alternative fare like Straight Outta Compton or Ex Machina.

So … if you like award ceremonies or you like the horse race or you like glamor, by all means watch the Academy Awards this weekend. But don’t watch it because you want to know what the best movie was. There are so many more resources available now, of which IMDB is just one.

The Water Lily Pond

February 3rd, 2016

So … I’ve written a novel.

Here’s the too-long-didn’t read version of the post: You can check out an excerpt here. You can buy the book here. I’ve published it with Kindle Direct Publishing, the world’s easiest vanity press. This means it can be read on any platform — Kindle, iOS, Android, Mac or PC. And at the time I post this, the book will be on sale for the next four days for the low low price of … absolutely free.

I think it’s good. And I hope you will too. If you like it, please tell everyone!

Now for the long version:

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2050, Part I

January 16th, 2016

One of my favorite parts of Robert A. Heinlein’s Expanded Universe is when he revisits the predictions he made in 1950 for the second half of the 20th century. He updated his predictions in 1965 and then again in 1980. I once wrote an article looking back at his predictions (Heinlein died in 1988 and never got to see how well he did) but it disappeared into the Spam Event Horizon. I’m going to write that post again before moving onto Part II, where I will revisit similar predictions I made in 2000. I’m obviously no Heinlein, as you’ll see. My predictions were stunningly mundane. But it was a fun exercise.

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Looking Ahead for the HOF

January 5th, 2016

So Hall of Fame ballots will be announced tomorrow. It’s going to be an interesting year. The Hall apparently purged a lot of writers from the voter rolls, hoping to create a more active and engaged electorate. This may change the dynamics of the voting; it may not.

Right now, the public votes are being compiled here. There aren’t a huge number of surprises but I think we are seeing what I predicted last year: a gradual reduction of the huge glut we had a couple of years ago as candidates are elected or drop off the ballot. The thinning of the herd is opening up opportunities for players who’ve been lingering around for a while.

They way I expect to break down is:

  • Elected: Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey, Jr. If it weren’t for the stupidity of a few writers, Griffey would be unanimous: a great and insanely popular player whose place in Cooperstown was being prepared 20 years ago, when even the internet was young. Mike Piazza just missed last year, partly because of unfounded rumors of PED use and partly because some writers don’t appreciate what a great player he was.
  • Just Misses: This will be the really interesting category. Given how the field has cleared, I think we are going to see a number of candidates who’ve been lingering in the 20’s to 50’s take big steps forward. I don’t think any of them will be elected this year, but I think they will put themselves in position to be. As a matter of history, only two candidates — Jack Morris and Gil Hodges — have ever polled more than 48% without getting elected. Some needed the veterans committee and the current committee keeps twisting itself pretzels trying to elect Hodges. It looks like Bagwell, Martinez, Mussina, Raines, Schilling and Trammel may all leap 20 points or more in the balloting. All are worthy of election but time is running out for Raines and will run out for Trammel. I expect Raines and Bagwell to get very close, however, and possibly go in next year. This is Trevor Hoffman’s debut year and while I don’t expect him to get elected, I do expect him to get close, with a long debate over whether closers belong in the Hall (see discussion below).
  • The Walking Dead: There are always candidates who just linger on the ballots, never really gaining the momentum they need to get in but not dropping below 5% either. Bonds and Clemens are on this list for stupid reasons about which I’ve pawed the ground many times. But Kent, McGriff, McGwire, Sheffield, Smith, Sosa and Walker are also in this category. Billy Wagner may join them.
  • Dropouts: Almost all the new guys are on this list. It’s possible Edmonds or Garciaparra could get a one-year reprieve.
  • So: Griffey and Piazza in. Bagwell and Raines get close. Martinez, Mussina, Hoffman and Schilling take big steps toward eventual election. With a fairly uncrowded 2017 ballot (Rodriguez probably gets in immediately; Guerrero gets close, Ramirez goes into PED purgatory), Bagwell and Raines probably go in next year, with the others creeping a bit closer.

    As I noted last year, the HOF balloting has moved toward some resolution of the so-called Steroid Era, with multiple players getting in, Palmeiro disappearing and Clemens/Bonds stuck in purgatory. I don’t think the issue is dead. We will have to revisit Bonds and Clemens at some point. But I think we’ve moved on for the moment to the point where the enraging idiocy of 2013 is unlikely to repeat itself.

    The big debate I expect to emerge now is whether closers should be elected to the Hall and specifically whether Trevor Hoffman or Billy Wagner belong in the Hall. Joe Posnanski makes the case against but … this is a rare time where I disagree with him. Yes, it’s true that a lot of failed starters have been converted into effective closers and no closer has gone back to being a starter unless his name is John Smoltz. While I think a closer’s innings are more valuable than a starter’s, I don’t think they are three or four times more valuable. But here’s the thing: (a) not every failed starter can become an effective closer; (b) very very few closers can be as good for as long as Hoffman or Rivera.

    Let’s expand on that last point. Jonathan Papelbon has been a very good closer for a decade. He’s still over 250 saves behind Hoffman and is very unlikely to get anywhere close to him. Francisco Rodriguez became one of the best closers in the game at age 23 and saved 62 games once. He’s over 200 saves behind Hoffman. Joe Nathan has been a great closer. He’s 200 saves behind.

    It seems to be we are starting to develop a separation that I will call the Wagner line. We are seeing a whole bunch of Billy Wagners emerge — guys with 400 or so saves and amazing rate stats. We can’t start putting those guys in the Hall because it will mean inducting a couple of closers a decade. But beyond the Wagner line you see the very rare guys like Rivera or Hoffman who have 500-600 saves. The latter, to me, should be in the Hall of Fame. I can understand why someone would say none of them do. But you can’t pretend that there isn’t at least some separation between the two elite guys and the next half dozen lingering around the Wagner Line.

    I’ve actually thought about this issue quite a bit because I like to play computer baseball. In particular, I like Out of the Park baseball, which has long careers, minor leagues, an amazing statistical model and a Hall of Fame. One problem I’ve encountered after 60 simulated seasons is a raft of potential Hall of Fame closers. The computer has produced maybe a dozen guys with 400 saves and amazing rate stats, similar to what we’re seeing emerge from baseball right now in the persons of Papelbon and Rodriguez and others. I’ve probably put too many relievers in my fictional Hall of Fame, but the only way I’ve been able to avoid inducting a dozen is to limit it to guys with long careers who were also the best closers. And, like the real Hall of Fame, I do have a few, “Shit, I shouldn’t have elected him” guys from the early days.

    I expect a similar paradigm to emerge over the next decade or two — maybe set at the Wagner Line, maybe elsewhere. Because we can’t elect everyone who managed to put 300 saves. But we can elect the best of the best.

    That’s what the Hall if all about, right?

    The Return of the SEC

    January 3rd, 2016

    So another College Football Season is almost done. Time to revisit my Bowl Championship System:

    A few years ago, I invented my own Bowl Championship Points system in response to the Bowl Championship Cup. You can read all about it here, including my now hilarious prediction that the 2013 national title game would be a close matchup. The basic idea is that the Championship Cup was silly, as evidenced by ESPN abandoning it. It decides which conference “won” the bowl season by straight win percentage with three or more bowls. So it is almost always won by a mid-major conference that wins three or four bowls. The Mountain West has claimed five of them, usually on the back of a 4-2 or 3-1 record.

    My system awards points to conferences that play in a lot of bowls and a lot of BCS bowls. As such, it is possible for a mid-major to win, but they have to have a great year. The Mountain West won in 2010-2011, when they won four bowls including a BCS game. But it will usually go to a major conference.

    Here are the winners of the Bowl Championship Points system for the time I’ve been keeping it.

    1998-1999: Big Ten (12 points, 5-0, 2 BCS wins)
    1999-2000: Big Ten (10 points, 5-2, 2 BCS wins)
    2000-2001: Big East (8 points, 4-1, 1 BCS win)
    2001-2002: SEC (9 points, 5-3, 2 BCS wins)
    2002-2003: Big Ten (9 points, 5-2, 1 BCS win)
    2003-2004: ACC/SEC (9 points each)
    2004-2005: Big 12 (6 points, 4-3, 1 BCS win)
    2005-2006: Big 12 (8 points, 5-3, 1 BCS win)
    2006-2007: Big East/SEC (11 points each)
    2007-2008: SEC (14 points, 7-2, 2 BCS wins)
    2008-2009: SEC/Pac 12 (11 points each)
    2009-2010: SEC (10 points, 6-4, 2 BCS wins)
    2010-2011: Mountain West (8 points, 4-1, 1 BCS win)
    2011-2012: Big 12 (11 points, 6-2, 1 BCS Win)
    2012-2013: SEC (10 points, 6-3, 1 BCS win)
    2013-2014: SEC (11 points, 7-3, 0 BCS wins)
    2014-2015: Big 10/Pac 12 (10 points)

    You can contrast that against the Bowl Cup, which has been awarded five times to the Mountain West Conference and three times to Conference USA based on their performance in such venues as the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl. I’m happy when the mid-majors do well, but winning three or four second tier bowls just isn’t the same as winning six bowls, two CFP bowls and a national title.

    I also keep track of “doubles”, when a conference wins both the Bowl Challenge Cup and my system. That’s been done by the Big 10 (1998, 1999, 2002), the ACC (2003), the Big 12 (2005), the Big East (2006), the Pac 10 (2008), the Mountain West (2010) and the SEC (2013).

    For years, I’ve been saying that the SEC’s dominance was waning, based on the points system, from its 2008 peak. And to the extent that the SEC did dominate, it was a result of being one of the only conferences that played defense, not “SEC speed”. In 2014, I saw the Pac 12 rising and predicted we were moving toward two super-conferences — the SEC and the Pac 12 — dominating the college football scene. But then the Big Ten, with two of their top teams returning, moved into the picture, with more parity overall.

    This year has seen the SEC come back in a major way. With an 8-2 record and two CFP wins, they have already won both the Bowl Challenge Cup and my system. They are guaranteed to break the record and, if Alabama wins the title, they will shatter the previous record of 14 points with 19 (granted, with more games). They were one good pass away from A&M winning their game. Only one SEC team — Florida — had a bad game.

    The Pac 12 will come in second with nine points, an impressive performance for a team that was locked out of the playoff but saw Stanford absolutely dominate the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten is currently third with six points, showing that their status as a doormat is dead and buried. It was a wild bowl season for them — Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State were crushed while Ohio State and Michigan dominated. But the ACC will take over third place if Clemson upsets Alabama, once again having a modest overall performance rescued by having the best single team in the country.

    One could argue that this has been a weird year — all the CFP games so far have been blowouts and the two best conferences never faced each other. But it’s hard to argue with the SEC hasn’t dominated the year and, indeed, dominated the system. Over the 17 years I’ve been tracking, they’ve simply been better than anyone else and it’s not close.

    SEC: 95-60, 19 BCS/CFP wins, 149 points, 9 titles
    Pac 12: 59-54, 15 BCS/CFP wins, 79 points, 1 title*
    American: 52-41, 10 BCS/CFP wins, 73 points, 1 title**
    Big 12: 66-70, 11 BCS/CFP wins, 73 points, 2 titles
    Big 10: 60-74, 17 BCS/CFP wins, 63 points, 1 title
    ACC: 62-73, 7 BCS/CFP wins, 58 points, 2 titles
    Mountain West: 42-35, 4 BCS/CFP wins, 53 points
    Conference USA: 43-47, 39 points
    WAC (defunct): 23-29, 2 BCS/CFP wins, 19 points
    MAC: 27-39, 15 points
    Sun Belt: 14-18, 10 points
    Independents: 12-18, 6 points

    (*Screw the NCAA. I’m counting USC as a champion.)
    (**This counts previous games from the Big East and Miami’s title.)

    Long Form Review: Predestination

    December 31st, 2015

    Another clearing the decks post. This is a hint of a big Heinlein post to come. I hope..

    Heinlein adaptations have been somewhat thin on the ground. I don’t know if this an aversion to his perceived right wing beliefs or what. But if you look at the movies based on Heinlein’s prolific work, it boils down to:

  • Destination Moon: an OK hard sci-fi film that Heinlein was directly involved with. Decent but not exceptional. More educational than anything else. I’d give it a 6 or 7/10.
  • Project Moon Base: Disowned by Heinlein. Very poorly regarded.
  • The Brain Eaters: A bad movie basically stolen from “The Puppet Masters”. I have not seen it.
  • The Puppet Masters: Suffered from ditching the nudity aspects of the original story, which would have given it an edge since, by the time this story reached the silver screen, almost all of its elements had been stolen by other lesser films. It’s decent though and has some genuinely creepy moments. 7/10
  • Starship Troopers: I really a need a long-form review of this one. It’s OK. But its determination make Heinlein’s world seem fascist, the removal of the mech suits and its dependence on stars with lots of looks and few acting chops (and entirely white) made for a mediocre film. Heinlein would have been fine with the mixed gender military. That wouldn’t have flown in 1959. 6 or 7/10.
  • That’s pretty much it. There’s a supposed coming adaptation of The Moon is Harsh Mistress — one of my favorite Heinlein novels. But for some reason, Heinlein’s extremely filmable works have been largely ignored.

    Well, until last year, when we got Predestination, an adaptation of Heinlein’s mind-bending time travel short, All You Zombies.

    Predestination is basically everything a Heinlein fan could ask for. It takes the plot of the story more or less verbatim, with an added loop that doesn’t add much but doesn’t hurt the movie either. The directing is solid and the look of the film perfectly aligned with Heinlein’s mid-century sensibilities. And the acting of the small cast is excellent. Hawke is the headline grabber. And he’s good. But the real star is Sarah Snook, who is just dynamite in an extremely-challenging role. She simply makes the movie, switching without apparent effort through the various iterations of Jane.

    This is the first adaptation of a Heinlein work that I would say makes the grade. It got very little attention but it was easily one of the better films of 2014. I highly recommend it, especially for fans of sci-fi or Heinlein. But, really, you’ll like it if you just like good movies.


    The Double Revisisted

    December 31st, 2015

    Dammit. It’s almost the end of December and I haven’t put up a post this month. I have — I kid you not — 37 posts in various draft forms. So I’ll be trying to kick a bunch out.

    A few years ago, I suggested that baseball borrow “the double” from English football as a way of bringing back some meaning to the long regular season. In this scheme, the league champion would be the team that won the most games. A team that won both the most games in its league and the World Series would be recognized as having won a “double” just like winning the League and FA Cups in English Football. Here is an updated list of the teams that would have been national champions under this system. Bold lettering is a team that won the double.

    1994 – New York (70), Montreal (74)
    1995 – Cleveland (100), Atlanta (90)
    1996 – Cleveland (99), Atlanta (96)
    1997 – Baltimore (98), Atlanta (101)
    1998 – New York (114), Atlanta (106)
    1999 – New York (98), Atlanta (99)
    2000 – Chicago (95), San Francisco (97)
    2001 – Seattle (116), St. Louis/Houston (93)
    2002 – New York/Oakland (103), Atlanta (101)
    2003 – New York (101), Atlanta (101)
    2004 – New York (101), St. Louis (105)
    2005 – Chicago (99), St. Louis (100)
    2006 – New York (97), New York (97)
    2007 – Boston (96), Colorado/Arizona (90)
    2008 – Anaheim (100), Chicago (97)
    2009 – New York (103), Los Angeles (95)
    2010 – Tampa Bay (96), Philadelphia (97)
    2011 – New York (97), Philadelphia (102)
    2012 – New York (95), Washington (98)
    2013 – Boston (97), St. Louis (97)
    2014 – Anaheim (98), Washington (96)
    2015 – Kansas City (95), St. Louis (100)

    Again, I think recognizing the national champions this way gives a much clearer view of which teams are dominating baseball. Since I wrote that post, Washington and St. Louis have dominated the National League while the American League has been in flux with Kansas City emerging as a double team this year.

    A Long Way Down

    November 30th, 2015

    When I was a graduate student at UVa, George Welsh was the head coach of the football team. Welsh had taken one of the worst football programs in the ACC and turned it into a good one. In his 19 years at the helm, UVa had 15 winning seasons, made 12 bowl games and won the ACC twice (including the dramatic 1995 victory over Florida State). They continually had great players like the Barber twins, Thomas Jones, Aaron Brooks, Patrick Kerney and Anthony Poindexter. And they did it while maintaining a reasonable commitment to education.

    But there was a vocal faction of fans who were unhappy with this. Welsh, they said, was over-rated. He couldn’t beat Florida State consistently. He won “only” two ACC titles. He couldn’t get them into the national title picture. He couldn’t beat Virginia Tech enough. Thankfully, they were a small faction, despite their dominating presence on local talk radio. And even more thankfully, the University ignored them. But eventually Welsh retired and the anti-Welsh brigade sighed with relief.

    The University went out and hired Al Groh. And UVA started to stink. In 9 years, Groh only had five winning seasons. He lost to Virginia Tech every year but one. He couldn’t beat Florida State. So they ditched him for Mike London, who has managed one winning season in six and and couldn’t beat anyone. And he just resigned.

    We see this over and over again. And not just in college football. It’s Braves fans bitching about Bobby Cox only to see the team struggle once he leaves. It’s NFL teams like the Redskins and Browns going through coach after coach. It’s Bills fans grousing because Levy lost four superbowls, then watching the team struggle after he retires.

    The problem here is that people often think that, when a team is this close to winning something big — a conference title, a championship — that they are a coaching change away from grabbing it. But they are wrong. It’s because of the coach that they are that close in the first place. People used to joke that you had to be a great team to lose four Super Bowls, but it was true. A team that is almost but not quite good enough is still one of the best in the country. And when you’re at that kind of elite level of performance, there is a lot more room to fall than there is to rise. Changes to your team are way more likely to make things worse, not better. This is doubly true in college football, where you have over a hundred teams vying for glory and it’s very easy for an elite program to fall back into the horde of mediocre ones.

    I bring this up because the University of Georgia just fired Mark Richt. In 15 seasons, Richt had won 75% of his games, seven division titles and two conference titles. He never won fewer than eight games, never failed to make Bowl and never finished lower than third in one of the most competitive conference in the nation. As recently as 2012, he brought Georgia to within a few yards of a third conference title and a shot at a national title. The last three years were disappointing, but were heavily affected by injuries to star players like Nick Chubb, Todd Gurley and Aaron Murray. But finishing the season 9-3 and second in the SEC East is no mean feat.

    Still, the media clamored for his head. The fans clamored for his head. And this week, the University gave it to them.

    This will not help. The Bulldogs are almost certain, no matter who they hire, to go into a decline. To be one of the top 25 football teams in the country, you have to be really good. Very few coaches are that good. A coach who “can’t take you to the next level” is still among the top 5% of college football coaches. What are the odds that you will get a better coach if you change? Probably a bit less than 5%. And the odds that you’ll get someone who can give you Alabama-like dominance? Less than 1%.

    What are the chances that a coach of Richt’s quality will eventually luck into a championship? Probably a lot better than the chances that Georgia will luck into a coach who can “take them to the next level.”

    Georgia has an advantage in prestige and recruiting, of course. But a lot of programs have those advantages and some to an even greater extent. A coach who can take you to division titles in half his seasons is a valuable commodity. Georgia just threw that away. And they’re going to deserve the inevitable slide.

    Movie Review: The Martian

    October 20th, 2015

    I rarely get to see movies in theaters anymore, thanks to a combination of work and two young children. But I am occasionally able to make an exception and the rave reviews for The Martian quickly moved it to the top of the “If I get a chance” list. A three hour break between the arrival of my plane and the arrival of my student’s plane gave me the chance to sneak out and catch it.

    I’ll just assume you know the basic plot and tuck in.

    The Martian is probably not the best film of the year but it is very good. The plot is clear, well-explained and, refreshing, doesn’t hinge on idiots doing idiotic things or Evil Bureaucrats stopping the good guys. Everyone in the movie is smart and, in principal, on the same page. There are some conflicts but they are over how precisely to rescue Watney, rather than whether to rescue him. And the disagreements are portrayed fairly and intelligently. This is exactly how I would expect things to go down if this happened in real life.

    Weir made tremendous efforts to make his book as realistic as possible and it shows. Almost everything they do in the movie is reasonable and realistic. I’m used to, during a sci-fi movie, that NASA part of brain going “yeah, right!” That didn’t happen once. Afterward, there were a few nits I could pick. And I think the last 15 minutes dragged a bit with “oh, here’s another thing”. But overall, the plot is solid.

    The movie’s characters are well-defined and the acting is uniformly solid. One thing that has been noticed is that the movie eschews the usual approach of making everyone an old white man. I’m no SJW, obviously, but it was nice to see a movie reflect what things are really like at NASA and what things are likely to like in the future: tons of smart people, from all backgrounds, who are competent and hard-working. It’s so well done, I didn’t even notice until someone pointed it out to me.

    The humor is frequent but low-key, mostly dark humor revolving around Watney’s attempts to keep himself alive. It uses a video diary device to develop Watney’s character, drive the narrative and explain, in very clear terms, the often sophisticated technological concepts.

    And the movie just looks gorgeous. Mars is portrayed in stunning detail. All the spacecraft look beautiful. Ridley Scott knows what to do with a camera.

    I’ve praised it a lot, but my current rating is 8 out of 10. It does drag a little bit at times and, as I said, the ending has a little too much of “and another thing” going. But I could see myself raising that to 9 in the future.

    As I’ve noted many times, we have moved into a mini golden age of good sci-fi. If you look at the best sci-fi movies of the last ten years, you find things like Interstellar, Her, District 9, Moon, Gravity, Ex Machina, Looper, Predestination. These are good movies, yes. But they’re also serious about having good science, being reasonably realistic, presenting sophisticated concepts and having smart characters instead of dumb ones.

    It’s a good time.