Review: Infinity War

September 1st, 2018

As is often the case with my long-form movie reviews, I’m posting this months after the fact. Why? Well, some laziness. But also a desire to not get caught up in the hype and excitement. And perhaps no movie in 2018 came with as much hype and excitement as Infinity War, the blockbuster to end all blockbusters. So this review is less about “should I see it or not?” and more a collection of thoughts provoked by the film.

So after watching it again on DVD, I’m ready to write about it. Spoiler warning applies.

Just as a movie, Infinity War is very good, an easy 8 in my rating system, maybe a 9. It is epic in scope, has strong characters and dialogue and is packed with outstanding action set pieces. The directing is excellent, focusing on the characters but not losing track of the action. Silvestri’s score is powerful. While one might easily make complaints about the plot, few would argue that that the movie isn’t at least well-made.

Watching it a second time, what strikes me most is the pacing. Infinity War is long, bloated and stuffed with characters, dialogue and action. Watching it should feel like eating a big Italian meal. But the movie flies, moving swiftly through its dizzying array of settings and scenarios until it reaches the awful climax on the fields oF Wakanda.

But reviewing Infinity War as if it were just an ordinary film is a fool’s errand. It’s not just a film. It is a two-part series finale to a 20-episode 10-year saga. This is less like Return of the Jedi than it is like Returnof the King on steroids — a massive sprawling finale whose coherence and power relies heavily on what has come before. It should come apart at the seams from the sheer weight. But it doesn’t.

The key that holds this clinking, clattering cacophony of collagenous cogs and camshafts together is a thread that has gone throughout the series: a top-notch cast. The amount of acting talent in this movie, when you pause to think about it, is unbelievable. Downey, Ruffalo, Cumberbatch, Cooper and Cheadle are all Academy Award nominees (indeed, the number of Award nominated actors who have appeared throughout the series is impressive). Boseman, Bettany, Hidddleston and Johannson also come with A-list credentials. Evans, Pratt, Saldana and and Hemsworth may not be “great” actors, but they have star gravitas and have delivered outstanding performances in these roles.

Infinity War is where all the outstanding casting pays its greatest dividend. There are so many characters to balance that most only get a few lines. But because we have spent years with these actors building up the roles and because they can bring power to a single line of dialogue, it works. Our knowledge of the characters and the relationship we’ve built with them fills in the gaps. We don’t need fifteen lines for Scarlet Witch to explain why potentially killing Vision is such a dilemma; we know.

The trust that the movie has in its cast frees it to make the boldest and most successful gamble: centering its emotional and dramatic weight on Josh Brolin’s Thanos. Brolin — yet another Academy Award nominee — simply excels in the role. Thanos could easily have been a cackling monster. The silliness of his motivation could have blown the movie apart. But he underplays it perfectly, allowing the menace and evil of Thanos to insinuate itself more gradually, allowing the viewer to see that Thanos is not a villain in his own eyes … which makes him even worse.

So where does Infinity War 2 go? Well, like everyone else, I’m going to assume that a lot of what Thanos has done will be undone and we will get a satisfying, if perhaps bittersweet ending. The question isn’t whether, it’s how. One clue comes from Dr. Strange, who said he saw only one way to defeat Thanos and then surrendered the stone when he didn’t really have to. So it’s obvious that Thanos winning, at least at first, was necessary for Thanos to eventually lose. It’s also been noted that at least five of the original Avengers survive (Hawkeye does not appear). Six Avengers, six stones? Maybe.

But one thing I noticed in my first viewing and was even stronger on second was this: almost every stone Thanos acquires comes a result of turning people’s love and compassion against them. Consider:

  • The Space Stone is acquired by Thanos threatening to kill Thor, forcing Loki to choose between his brother and the stone. He chooses Thor.
  • After acquiring the Reality Stone, Thanos forces Quill to choose between Gamora and the Soul stone. Quill chooses to protect the stone but his hesitation enables Thanos. Later, Quill’s rage over Gamora’s death snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.
  • The Soul Stone is acquired when Thanos tortures Nebula to force Gamora to reveal its location. She chooses her sister over the stone. Then Thanos chooses the stone over Gamora.
  • The Time Stone is acquired when Strange gives it up in exchange for Tony’s life. Again, he chooses a person — a man he doesn’t even particularly like — over the stone.
  • The only reason the Mind Stone is still available is because Wanda was unwilling to kill Vision until it was too late. And they drew her into the battle in the first place by attacking her friends.

This theme runs through the movie: the way Thanos relentlessly pursues his goal and the way others value human life, friendship and love over ruthlessly stopping him. Thanos thinks of himself as a great being because he sacrifices others; the heroes are great because they sacrifice themselves. I am convinced this will play a big role in the ultimate resolution. What price our characters pay for that — I fear we will see all of the original Avenger perish in victory — remains to be seen.

The bigger meta question though is this: where does Marvel go from here? Infinity War is the apotheosis of 20 films spanning a decade. It has built to this gaudy over-the-top crescendo like a Wagner Opera. So what now? How do you top this? What can they possibly do now that won’t feel anti-climatic?

I have no idea. But it will be interesting to find out.

New Vision

August 21st, 2018

I guess I should be grateful that I got to age 46 before needing glasses. I have probably needed them for some time. In my late 20’s, I began to notice that the world didn’t have quite the same resolution that it used to. But it wasn’t too bad. And I staved off doing anything about it for as long as I could. But once my near vision became a problem, I could no longer delay the inevitable.

It’s funny talking about what it’s like to get glasses because most people I know have worn glasses since they were young. There was a point in my life when I kind of wanted them for reasons that escape me (my daughter, interestingly, suddenly wanted glasses at about the same age). But switching to them after four decades of unassisted vision is … an interesting experience. My proprioception is a bit off since they distort the outside of my vision. My phone doesn’t look flat when I wear them (although I don’t usually use them in that context because they blur the phone unless I look right down my nose). People in my peripheral vision look unusually thin. I almost feel like I’m looking into a pair of virtual reality goggles. I expect I’ll get used to that in time (I currently only wear them when driving or when reading while tired).

What’s really interesting, however, is that I can feel the glasses changing the way I see or more accurately, changing the way my brain works with my eyes. Wearing them has made me aware that I actually wasn’t “seeing” a lot of things before. My brain was taking pixelated information and interpolating it, guessing at what was there. I was aware that I was doing this when reading — not seeing the words clearly but being able to guess what they were. But now I realize this was happening all the time. That if I saw a sign on the highway that said “Speed Limit 55” I wan’t actually seeing it. I was seeing a rough “Speed Limit 55” shape and my brain was doing the rest of the work for my eyes.

With the glasses, however, I am actually seeing those things. The speed limit sign is clear. However, it’s again disorienting because the entire world is suddenly back in high resolution. There is way more information for my eyes to process. And that’s what I mean when I say I can feel my brain learning to see again; I actually get mild headaches from wearing them because the brain is a bit overwhelmed.

Again, this is something I’ll get used to. But I’ve always been fascinated by how the brain works and how it processes information. Changing the way my brain takes in roughly 90% of its information has been a crash course in that.

Lost Gems: Real Genius

June 6th, 2018

I was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates, who said, “… I drank what?”

The summer of 1985 saw the peak of the 80’s teen comedy craze. The entire decade, at least for my generation, was dominated by teen comedies. It wasn’t just the John Hughes cannon, it was everything. 1985 alone saw Back to the Future (one of two Michael J. Fox comedies that year), The Sure Thing, Better off Dead, The Goonies, two John Hughes films, Fright Night, Just One of the Guys, etc, etc., etc. As a results of this, a few movies that got lumped into the category of “teen movies” were neglected. In any other year, they might have been hits. But it was hard to be noticed in such a crowded field.

Real Genius, a college comedy directed by Martha Coolidge, was probably the biggest victim of that crowded market. Released in August of 1985, a few days after Weird Science, it kind of got overshadowed by the Hughes film. And that’s a pity because while I would not describe the films as “great”, it is quite good, endlessly quotable and one of my favorite guilty pleasures.

This? This is ice. This is what happens to water when it gets too cold. This? This is Kent. This is what happens to people when they get too sexually frustrated.

The plot, it goeth thusly: a genius high school student is recruited to attend a prestigious university by a professor trying to develop a powerful laser for the military (although his students don’t know this). He is roomed with Chris Knight, a prior wunderkind who is close to finishing his degree. Hijinks ensue and, at some point, a house is destroyed with popcorn.

The film is very solidly made. Coolidge, who also did the under-rated Valley Girl, keeps things moving and lets her actors act. Val Kilmer had already shown a flare for comedy in Top Secret and is in top form here. Michelle Meyrink, one of my favorite supporting actresses of the 80’s, heads a rock solid supporting cast. The film has a decent plot, manages to work in some suspense and really doesn’t have a weak link (although the thread involving Nugil is a bit weak).

But what really makes the film is the characters. One of the few to recognize how good the film was was Roger Ebert:

“Real Genius” allows every one of its characters the freedom to be complicated and quirky and individual. That’s especially true of Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), a hyperactive woman student who talks all the time and never sleeps and knits things without even thinking about it, and follows Mitch into the john because she’s so busy explaining something that she doesn’t even notice what he’s doing. I recognize students like this from my own undergraduate days. One of the most familiar types on campus (and one of the rarest in the movies) is the self-styled eccentric, who develops a complex of weird personality traits as a way of clearing space and defining himself.

I was in high school when I saw the film but, when I went on to college (and especially grad school) I met people who … well, they weren’t quite as exaggerated as Jordan … but they did have their quirks and their brilliance and their own stories. While Jordan does serve as a bit of a love interest for Mitch, she’s her own character, has some of the best lines and has a lot in common with some of the brilliant women I’ve met in my life.

And it is the characters who contribute to the film’s true glory: the dialogue. I could literally quote the movie all day long. Here is one I use a lot:

Jerry, if you think that by threatening me you can get me to be your slave… Well, that’s where you’re right. But – and I am only saying this because I care – there are a lot of decaffeinated brands on the market today that are just as tasty as the real thing.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I use that phrasing quite often (usually ending in, “… not sure where I was going with this.”)

As I said, Real Genius is not a great film. But it is a criminally underrated one. It should be just as iconic as The Breakfast Club or Back to the Future but just had the misfortune to be released at the wrong time. When I mentioned it on Twitter, several followers responded with their favorite quotes. So that gives me a little hope that this hidden gem is not doomed to be forgotten.

Update: After posting this, I had a conversation with my brother, who also likes this movie. One of things he pointed out: none of the characters is stupid or acts stupidly. No one is disgusting, stupid or mean jut to be “funny”. The heroes conflict with Kent, but in the end they pull him from the house and have a good laugh over it. Even Jerry, the film’s main “villain”, is a realized character with some of the best lines.

This is something Real Genius shares with John Hughes’ films, which also have a heart and an affection for the characters. It’s kind of rare that a Hughes film has a bad guy and even the worst — say Vernon From The Breakfast Club — are treated like real people.

That’s something that’s often missing from comedy today. And one of the big reasons we have so few good ones anymore.

Buck Buck Nicole

May 8th, 2018

I still remember the day she was born. Or some of it, at least. We were rousted out of bed in the middle of the night and loaded into the car. I vaguely remember walking up the stairs in my grandparents house; sleepy but knowing something big was happening. A couple of days later, we met her for the first time.

It’s not easy growing up with two older brothers, especially two as obnoxious as we were. But she took everything in stride, so eager to be part of everything. My brother and I invented an entire mythology where she was an alien from another planet and we even labeled an old carpet cleaner as the “Becca buster” machine. Honestly, we were awful. But she was always good, always looking out for us, always willing to shrug off whatever we’d dished out and join the latest escapade.

There’s another world out there where things turned out differently. She was smart and creative, once rewriting one of my stories into a better one. She was compassionate, providing outstanding shadowing to an autistic child for a long time. She once went to Paris on a work-study and told me about clinging to a tree to avoid being stampeded by a happy mob after France won the world cup. In this other world, she’s a successful lawyer, not rich or famous, but the kind of basic modest-pay legal work that keeps the entire system from collapsing. She has two kids of her own and looks after her mom. Two things those two worlds have in common: she is a doting aunt to her niece and nephew; and she continues to share with me a love of Doctor Who and Blake’s 7.

But she was in a horrible car accident where she was almost killed. The long-term back injury, exacerbated by a fall down the stairs, would haunt her for the rest of her life. The pain made her turn to medication and an electronic pain relief system worked briefly, during which she got a certificate to go into nursing support. But the electronic system failed and her insurance had lapsed, so it made life miserable for her. Then came the pseudotumor and various other things and her life for years had been a mess of medications, weight fluctuations and seizures. A bout of pneumonia a few years back almost finished her. She still managed to find happiness in the occasional trip or the latest episode of Doctor Who or sometimes just in a phone call. It had seemed that she was getting better lately, losing weight and taking control of the rebuilding of her flooded apartment. But on an awful Monday morning a little over a month ago, her heart stopped. She had said she had died three times before, only to be revived. This time, she couldn’t be.

The title comes from a story. When we were kids, we used to spend summers in Wisconsin, visiting my grandmother. One of our favorite events was the Wisconsin State Fair. During one of those visits, my sister got lost. We were looking all over for her when the announcer came on and said they had found a lost girl named “Buck-Buck Nicole”. That was Becca, crying and trying to say, “Rebecca Nicole”. She did love her middle name. Although, for a long time, the name she would take for herself was “Elizabeth Pandas Pretties”. It was odd because my mother had wanted to name her Elizabeth but my dad wanted Rebecca.

Wisconsin is also the site of one of my other favorite stories. Rebecca used to spend her afternoon on the patio of the farmhouse, doing these little one-girl plays that she would make up as she went. My grandmother, who was weak from heart disease, like to sit in the kitchen overlooking the patio and listen to these plays. Rebecca could go all day, with multiple characters. She had such an imagination.

A long time ago, I read an article by Mike Royko written after his friend John Belushi died at 33. He said he’d long known that life wasn’t fair, but it shouldn’t cheat that much.

Classical Music and Hockey

May 8th, 2018

So a couple of week ago, the Nashville Predators advanced in the NHL playoffs. Among the congratulations they got was one from the city’s symphony orchestra.

And it took me back a bit …

The year was 1991 and I was finishing out my freshman year at Carleton. Carleton hosted many cultural events and speakers. And almost every year I was there, they would have a concert from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. This was a big deal, especially to a classical music lover like myself. The St. Paul Chamber Chamber was and is a world-class symphony; I had several of their performances on CD. This was a chance to see them for free!* That night they did Hayden’s 83rd Symphony (“The Hen”) and Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings and I fell in love with both pieces.

(*”Free” = after paying 30 grand in tuition.)

What I really remember, however, was their conductor, Hugh Wolff. Wolff was young and dynamic and conducted with verve, passion and flourish. My only prior experience with a major symphony had been the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which had the more staid pace that one usually associates with classical music. But Wolff — and his players — seemed like they were actually having a good time.

Anyway, there was something else going on at the time. The Minnesota North Stars were deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs and fighting Edmonton for their first ever appearance in the finals. The state was in the grips of a hockey fever (one that would extend into the baseball season when the Twins would go worst to first and beat my beloved Braves in the Greatest World Series Ever). That night, they were playing Edmonton and the series was tied at 1-1. After performing Haydn, Wolff went off, then came back. He picked up his baton, held it poised, then turned to the audience:

“First period, Stars 2, Oilers 0”

There were laughs and cheers. And then he brought the baton down and the orchestra launched into their next gorgeous performance. The Stars would beat Edmonton, but then fall to the Penguins in the finals. Two years later, they would move to Dallas. But it’s a fond memory of my time in college and a good reminder that a taste for classical music can come with a sense of fun and humor.

The Big Ten Resurgence

January 25th, 2018

I’ve been remiss in updating by bowl points system this year. I was probably just so devastated by the Bulldog’s loss. In any case, here we go:

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)
2015-2016: SEC (19 points, 9-2, 3 CFP wins)
2016-2017: ACC (18 points, 9-3, 3 CFP wins)

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, 2016), the Big 12 (2005), the Big East (2006), the Pac 10 (2008), the Mountain West (2010) and the SEC (2013, 2015).

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”. History has born me out. The Big 10 and Pac 12 split the title in 2014. After a dominating 2015 performance by the SEC, the ACC dominated 2016.

Despite the all-SEC title game, the SEC did not have a good year this year. They were 5-6 and, even with three CFP wins and a title, they tied for second places with the the Big 12 and the Sun Belt. No, the big winner was the Big Ten, who went 7-1, won three CFP bowls but were shut out of the title game because the committee went with Alabama. While Alabama went on to win the title, I still think taking them over Ohio State was a mistake just as I thought take Ohio State over Penn State the previous year was a mistake. By my reckoning, Alabama owes Penn State a playoff berth.

Anyway, here are the all-time rankings. The SEC is still the best conference over the long haul, always placing among the best while other conferences wax and wane. But the last few years have seen a lot more parity, bringing the ACC and Big 10 back to the crowd of the other major conferences.

SEC: 107-73, 24 BCS/CFP wins, 165 points, 10.5 titles
Pac 12: 63-65, 16 BCS/CFP wins, 77 points, 1.5 titles*
American: 58-49, 11 BCS/CFP wins, 78 points, 1 title**
Big 12: 66-70, 11 BCS/CFP wins, 73 points, 2 titles
Big 10: 70-82, 21 BCS/CFP wins, 79 points, 2 titles
ACC: 75-83, 10 BCS/CFP wins, 77 points, 3 titles
Mountain West: 49-41, 4 BCS/CFP wins, 61 points
Conference USA: 51-55, 47 points
WAC (defunct): 23-29, 2 BCS/CFP wins, 19 points
MAC: 28-49, 7 points
Sun Belt: 22-21, 23 points
Independents: 16-18, 14 points

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

Product and Purchase Review: Apple Watch 2

September 6th, 2017

Really, all I wanted was a fitness tracker. I’ve been trying to get in shape for a long time and it seemed that a tracker would be a good way to help with that. Although many people don’t increase their exercise with trackers, I know me. Getting to that calorie goal on a regular basis would become an obsession (as indeed it has).

I had not really considered the Apple Watch since it seemed an overhyped product. And watches and I … do not have a good history. As as kid, I was rather infamous for breaking the many watches my mom bought me over the years. As an adult, people occasionally bought me a really nice watch and I would wear it for a while but eventually find it galling and stop (usually when a dead battery gave me an excuse). But Apple Watch 2 was one of the only water-resistant activity trackers on the market so … with some help from my dad, I took the plunge.

I’ve waited four months to write a report on it because it’s easy to get swept up in techno-joy when you get a new gadget. I have frequently found products reviews in places like Consumer Reports to be near useless because they only try out a product. There’s a difference between trying out a product and owning it for months or years. Over time, the drawbacks and flaws become more visible, the product shows you how reliable or unreliable it is and the verdict becomes much clearer.

And after four months, I … surprisingly … kind of like the thing. I’m still not sure I would have purchased it at full price but it does a great job of tracking my activity, motivating me to do more. I downloaded a sleep-tracking app, which is nice to have. It’s semi-useful for texting — the “scribble” function is awkward but speech-to-text works just as well/poorly as the iPhone. It is, however, a bit annoying to get a buzz on my wrist every time my brother goes off on a rant. The phone function is useful when someone calls me while my phone is in the other room. But the drawback is that it’s All-Speaker-Phone All-the-Time so it becomes useless for confidential conversations. It would be nice if you could pass calls back to the phone. But overall, as an extension of my phone … it’s not bad. I would definitely recommend it for someone, like me, who always needs to be tied to his phone.

Now I noted in the title that this is both a product review and a purchase review. I wanted to say a few words about how I ended up with the watch. We researched online and then went into Best Buy, which was having a sale on them. And when the staff there saw what I was shopping for, they immediately approached me. They answered all my questions and talked about other options. One of them even allowed me to try on his Apple Watch and see how it worked. And ultimately, I bought it from Best Buy. Not just because of the price but because of their approach — that they had people eager and willing to help me out.

I think that brick and mortar stores will continue to hemorrhage space for a while. We’re seeing entire shopping malls shut down. But they will not go away entirely. And my experience buying the watch is a big reason why. Brick-and-mortar stores bring you the one thing that online shopping can not bring you: people. And with some products, people can make a big difference in your purchasing choice.

I’ve been predicting for a while that the Sears chain is going to die. The reason is that they appear to be responding to the decline in customers by pulling back on their people. Our local Sears, at least, is like a ghost town. You have to practically stalk and hogtie an associate to get any help. Frankly, if I wanted to shop in a vacant building, Amazon can do that for me. After being a loyal customer of theirs for years, I’ve now switched to other stores which are either online or have enough staff that I can get help when I need it. Because sometimes it’s good to have a human being to ask questions of.

Eclipse 2017

August 21st, 2017

I just got back from Clarksville, Georgia, where I watched the total solar eclipse. I had flown down to Atlanta both to visit family and to see the eclipse. My brother and I had a vague plan that we would rendezvous at his house north of Atlanta and then see how far we could drive. Clarksville, within the path of totality, was where we stopped. There were a few hundred people gathered in the center of town to watch.

Despite being an astronomer, I had never seen a total solar eclipse before. I lived in Atlanta during the 1979 eclipse, but our teachers wouldn’t let us go outside. We watched it on TV. I was an undergraduate at Carleton during the 1994 annular eclipse. I didn’t see much of it, however, because I was working one of the telescopes, showing people Venus, which was visible during the eclipse. So I went into this as cold as my 10-year-old daughter.

(Funny story about the ’94 eclipse. One of the visitors during the eclipse was a girl I had a gigantic crush-from-a-distance on. She smiled at me and we exchanged a few words. But nothing more came of it since I was still shy as all hell. Talking to my crush during an eclipse under the light of Venus was a lovely moment. And nothing coming of it made it a perfect encapsulation of my love life at the time.)

It was surprising how bright the sun remained despite increasing lunar coverage. But as the totality approached, an odd twilight settled over the town. I began to noticed the shadows and odd crescent shape in dappled light. We watched through our glasses as the sun got smaller and smaller. It got slowly darker and darker. And then, to a cheer from the watching crowd, it was gone.

Words can not describe the next 100 seconds. I felt like I was on another world or maybe at the pole as summer ends or begins. It got so dark that the street lights came on. We could now see a circle of light around the Sun and the glowing solar corona. The entire 360-degree horizon turned a sunset red. We snapped a few pictures; my brother took some video. And, after what seemed a very short 100 seconds, the Sun peeked out again from behind the moon. The glasses went back on, the light rose and, not long after, we began the long drive home.

It was a magical event; one of the few things that lived up to the hype. I was so impressed by it that I’ve already decided to travel to Texas for the 2024 eclipse. I’ve been in astronomy for 25 years and I’ve seen a lot of cool stuff. But this was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.

Pokemon GO Redux

June 30th, 2017

Last summer, I wrote about our experience with Pokemon GO. We’ve kept it up for the last year and it’s provided a lot of fun moments for me and Abby. There’ve been those rare occasions when we spotted and caught a rare creature. We had a lot of fun in Australia using my father-in-law’s phone as a hot spot to chase down the Australian regional Pokemon (and Generation 2 was released at that time, which made for a blast). But the game was starting to become a bit of a grind as we’d captured almost everything and both gotten past level 30, where the game levels off.

Recently, Niantic made some major revisions to the game. The changes to the gym system — where you can place Pokemons to fight those of other players — still needs a lot of tweaking. But the other change — the inception of raids where a massively powerful Pokemon appears in a neighborhood gym and can only be fought by players joining together — is a home run. It may now be the best aspect of the game.

The first day, we found a raid going on in a local park. We went to the park and, within minutes, a dozen other players had arrived and we fought with them to break down an exceedingly powerful creature. Later on, we went onto campus and joined a raid with a few biochemistry graduate students. We’ve been doing raids almost every day — sometimes just the two of us and sometimes with big teams of players who emerge from the woodwork. It’s just fun to cooperate with other players and see a dozen or more varied creatures attacking a massive one.

Today, though, we had the most fun experience. We spotted a nearby raid and came over. When we got there, there were two little boys trying to take down a Lapras — an exceedingly powerful creature. This particular monster can not be taken down by two players, no matter how good they are. You need at least five, preferably more. So we joined in and one other person happened by and, together, we finished the Lapras off just within the three-minute time limit. The boys were delighted and their dad was glowing.

Making another family’s day is a unique experience for a video game. And I hope that other games follow in those footsteps.

Why Rationalia Wouldn’t Work

April 23rd, 2017

I have a short story coming up soon. The spark that lit the story and this post was this tweet from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

This tweet set off an intense internet debate on the merits of such a country. Many people — mostly of a Lefty persuasion — embraced the idea. Many people — mostly of a Righty persuasion — wrote a number of good and readable critiques of this idea, going over some ideas I’ll discuss later.

Tyson later expanded on this idea, basically arguing, even if Tyson doesn’t realize it, for a negative view of governing: that policy should be implemented only after the massive weight of evidence shows that it would advance the cause being supported. But even with this caveat, there are three principle problems with Rationalia.

Read the rest of this entry »

Writing, Writing, Writing

March 31st, 2017

So a few updates on where I am with fiction writing, since it’s been over a year since The Water Lily Pond dropped.

  • The Water Lily Pond is available for free download just for today. It’s gotten a couple of very kind reviews and has had a couple of hundred downloads. That’s about as well as I could expect, all things considered. I have been toying with creating a paperback, which Kindle now has easy tools for. However, putting it onto dead tree is a bit intimidating. I would like to make one more pass through the book. And I’d like to get more comments as I suspect a lot of people would have issues with the liberties I’ve taken in describing New York and the art scene therein.
  • In terms of novels, there are two I’m tinkering with. Penumbra is a novel I wrote most of a decade ago and then abandoned when it became clear it was a shadowy reflection of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But I’m not terribly worried about its commercial prospects, so I will probably resume it and either publish it cheap through KDP or serialize it here. Most of my novel time has gone into Umbra, its sequel. But that too has been sidetracked now that a similar story is showing up in the highly successful The Expanse.
  • Much of my recent effort is on Oddish, a seven-part series of short novellas that tie together. Part One (Ben Olson’s Restless Leg) is mostly written, Part Two (Rachel Thorson’s Late Period) is partially written. But I will not put it out on this site until all seven parts are written. In the middle of working on it Stranger Things came out, which has some overlapping themes. But it’s still on the front burner.
  • I have four short stories in the can. The first — Highest Noon — I liked enough that I plan to submit it to a science fiction magazine. I have little hope but you can’t get shot for trying. It will show up here if it is rejected. The second — Perfect Justice — needs a lot of work to not stink. But it and a companion post on “Rationalia” will show up soon. The third is a three part story — Dreams in the Long Dark, Co-Orbital, and Table Manners. It is done and I like the first part. It will show up on this site once it has been cleaned up. The final one — Lost by Translation — may or may not show up. I’m kind of mixed on how I feel about it. At the very least, it needs heavy revision.
  • I know this sounds like excuse-making but, honestly, I’ve written more in the last year than I have in any previous year. That’s almost 40,000 words written in a year when I have been very busy with work and family and probably wrote a couple of hundred thousand about the election. So the purpose of this post is to just let you know: you’ll see the results soon.

    Update: After writing that, I had some second thoughts on Perfect Justice. The story is the first I’ve written in epistolary form. But … this being the internet … I’m thinking of getting creative in its presentation. Hyperlinks and readthroughs might make it a little more fun for the reader.

    Stay tuned.

    Writing as Magic

    February 6th, 2017

    A magician’s job is to fool you. But the secret of magic is that you are the one who does the actual work. The magician appears to do things and your mind, conditioned by millions of years of evolution, completes the trick. So a ball is not really passed from hand to another but your mind makes it pass. The lady isn’t actually sawn in half but your mind makes her seem to get sawn in half.

    Writing works the same way. I put words on the screen but they are a skeleton of an idea. The real work is done by the reader, who fills the spaces between those words with his own imagination and thought. I write seven simples words: the old man sat in a chair. And your mind fills in his appearance, the shape of the chair, whether it is a table, whether he was wearing hat (he was). You do the work.

    As such, I am usually a little too close to the trick to be fooled. I write fiction that I hope people like. I string together words that I hope will create tension or horror or amusement or joy. But it’s hard for me to know. I know the ball isn’t really the other hand. I know the lady hasn’t really been sawn in half. So I rarely feel those emotions myself. I know the effect I’m looking for. But I can’t really tell if the slight of hand has worked.

    On rare occasions, however, the slight of hand works on me. The ending of the The Water Lily Pond is one of those rare occasions. I’m about to do another full edit in preparation for making it available in paperback. But the ending is the one thing I know won’t change at all.

    Watch this space.

    (With apologies to Stephen King, he wrote about similar concepts in “On Writing”.)

    Super Bowl LI

    February 5th, 2017

    I have written before about the misery of being an Atlanta sports fan. 150 combined years of baseball, basketball and football have brought exactly one title to the city I grew up in. With the Cleveland Cavaliers finally having won a title, Atlanta can arguably be called the most miserable sports city in America.

    I’ve written many times about the Braves, but rarely about the Falcons. My relationship with the Falcons has often gone back and forth. They were my first NFL love, the team I followed when I first became aware of professional football. I did this right about the time they became good for the first time in history. Before 1978, they were a hapless team, mostly know for poor Dave Hampton, who became the Falcons’ first ever 1000 yard rusher … only to be tackled for a loss on his final play and end the season with 995 yards. But in 1980, right when I started watching, they had a great season. With Steve Bartkowski and William Andrews and Jeff Van Note, they went 12-4, won their division and took a big lead against the Cowboys in the first playoff game … which they proceeded to blow. One of my first clear memories of football is crying at the end of that game (I was eight).

    Over the years, the Falcons would occasionally flirt with contention but mostly be a doormat. In 1986, they won their first four games of the season and a song called “Falcons, you can win it all!” appeared on the radio (a very poor knockoff of the Bears’ Super Bowl Shuffle). I remember my dad commenting on how starved the city was for a winner that a 4-0 start had the town Super Bowl crazy. Of course, the Falcons fell apart, finished the season 7-8-1 and their coach was fired.

    I latched onto two other teams, great teams that were entering fallow periods. I came to love the Packers because my grandparents lived in Wisconsin. And I cam to love the Steelers because they could beat the hated Cowboys. And while I dearly love those teams (and Super Bowl XLV was almost a dream come true), the Falcons were still my first team.

    The Falcons would have personalities over the years — the colorful but ineffective Glanville, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, Neon Deion, Bad Moon Rison. But very little success came to them. Then, in 1998, they stunned everyone by winning their division for the first time in 16 years, upsetting a powerful Minnesota team and going to the Super Bowl. Of course, Eugene Robinson then had one of the strangest weeks in history, getting the Bart Starr Award, then getting busted for soliciting a prostitute, then getting burned by Elway on the way to a devastating Super Bowl loss. And the success did not continue. Chris Chandler couldn’t stay healthy. Jamal Anderson blew out his knee. Dan Reeves left.

    Things began to change in 2002, when Arthur Blank took over the franchise from the Smith family. Blank immediately cut ticket prices, deciding correctly that huge enthusiastic crowds were a critical ingredient to success. The team then drafted Mike Vick, who became an electrifying player. They won the wild card in 2002, went to the conference title game two years later and the city suddenly had a real team.

    Of course, then Bobby Petrino left after one year. And Vick turned out to like torturing dogs in his spare time. By the end of 2007, the Falcons had reached the nadir, a terrible hapless team that was not worthy of one of the better owners in sports.

    Magically, however, it turned around. They drafted Matt Ryan and became a great team. Before 2009, the Falcons had never had back-to-back winning seasons. They then had five in a row. They were consistently one of the best teams in the game, getting within a pass of the Super Bowl in 2012. And now, after a few down years, they’ve come back with the best offense in football, an 11-5 division-winning season and a second trip to the Super Bowl.

    I must say … this is my favorite Falcons team. More than the Bartkowski-Andrews team of my childhood. More than the Chandler-Anderson team of grad school. More than the Vick teams or the 2012 team. They’re just so much fun to watch. Matt Ryan, finally given some protection, has shown everyone what a great quarterback he’s always been and walked off with the first MVP in Falcons’ history. They have two fun running backs, the incredible Julio Jones, a great pass rush and a spirit that you can’t help but find infectious.

    The Falcons are facing the Patriots today in the Super Bowl and I must admit that my hopes for a title are very muted. The Patriots are a machine, arguably the greatest team in NFL history. They are about as good as the Falcons offensively and better defensively. A Falcons win wouldn’t be a huge upset, but the decades of heartbreak have taught me not to get my hopes up. Still, win or lose, this is the best year I’ve seen from them.

    Rise Up!

    Update: Aaaand … another chapter is added to the long long suffering of Atlanta fans.

    The Doomsday Clock

    January 26th, 2017

    So a piece of news that floated out today was that the Doomsday Clock was advanced to 2.5 minutes until midnight:

    We are creeping closer to the apocalypse, according to a panel of scientists and scholars.

    The Chicago-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the “Doomsday Clock,” a symbolic countdown to the end of the world, to two and a half minutes to midnight.

    It marks the first time since 1953 — after hydrogen bomb tests in the US and then Soviet Union — that humanity has been this close to global disaster.

    The group cited US President Donald Trump’s “disturbing comments” about the use of nuclear weapons and views on climate change among other factors, including cyberthreats and the rise in nationalism, that have contributed to the darkened forecast.

    “The board’s decision to move the clock less than a full minute reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president only a matter of days,” the organization said in a statement.

    I’ve trying to sugarcoat this but there is simply is no way to do so. So I’ll just be blunt: any clock that thinks the world is closer to doomsday now than we were in the past is a clock that is badly in need of repair.

    According to the BAS, we are in greater danger than we have been since 1953. Let’s look over that 64-year span and take a year almost at random: 1962. In October of 1962, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis. The world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. At that time, one side was run by a drunken mass murderer and the other was run by a novice President taking enough medication to stock a drug store. And yet the Doomsday Clock was left at seven minutes to midnight at a time when we were almost literally seven minutes away from Armageddon.

    Oh, it gets better. In 1962, the United States was on the brink of starting its long bloody involvement in Vietnam. There were active civil wars going on in Laos, Sudan, the Congo, Yemen, Guatemala, Burma, Malaysia and Nicaragua as well as Communist insurgencies in other countries. By contrast, today is literally the most peaceful era in human history with fewer national and domestic armed conflicts than we’ve ever had as well as less violent crime. Blood and tears may dominate the news. But for most of human history, they dominated everyone’s life. It’s not just 1962 that was more dangerous. It’s almost every year up until the present.

    The BAS says that their clock has advanced, at least in part, because of concerns about the environment (which muddies the original purpose of the clock). But is the environment worse now than it was when half the planet was starving, cars were belching lead into the air and our rivers were so polluted they could literally catch fire? By every standard that can be measured — with the exception of greenhouse gases — our planet is better off now than it was 50 years ago. Or 40 years ago. Or 30 years ago. Smog is down, sulphur dioxide is down, species are rebounding to the point of being taken off the endangered list, the ozone layer is healing, etc., etc. And even global warming isn’t hopeless, Trump or no Trump. Greenhouse gas emissions in the United States have fallen in recent years. Greenhouse intensity — that is emissions per economic dollar — is plunging.

    I don’t mean to downplay the challenges we face. We still have enough nuclear weapons to ignite a cataclysmic holocaust. And global warming is a very real challenge. Nor do I mean to downplay the concerns about a Trump Administration, many of which I share. But to pretend that the world is closer to annihilation that it was during the last century is an idea that is simply not supported by the facts at hand. All it does is make the Doomsday Clock even more irrelevant.

    (More from Tom Nichols.)