2017-09-16

Family and Hurricanes and Terminators, OH MY!

We did a great deal more after our eclipse trip last month but multiple hurricanes distracted me from blogging about it!

After the eclipse in Charleston, we spent a couple of days at the beach in Hilton Head. It was a bit hot and humid but it still always does my heart good to feel the sand between my toes.

This midweek diversion was the prelude to a weekend trip to visit my brother and his family in St. Petersburg, Florida. The primary purpose of this trip was to meet the new addition to his family but we (I) planned it to coincide with the theater release of Terminator 2: Judgment Day!


The rest of Nick's family conspired with me to keep the visit a surprise from him so, when we showed up at his door Thursday evening (with movie tickets already in hand!), he was pretty taken aback. T2 was a favorite movie of ours when we were teens and we watched it over and over again on video. It was a real treat to see it 26 (!) years later in the theater again.

While the movie experience was fun, nothing can compare to spending time with the people we love. We enjoyed meeting our new niece and spending time with our rapidly growing nephews as well. It was a relaxed weekend of family, food, and fun.

Unfortunately, during this same time, Hurricane Harvey was wreaking havoc on the Texas Gulf Coast. We stayed in close contact with our friends in Houston and were pleased that, after all was said and done, everyone was OK. Some of our friends were unscathed, some had some property damage, and some effectively lost everything - this was a real doozy! Fortunately, though, even those who experienced great loss of property survived physically and are now recovering. 

It will take years for Houston to recover from Harvey but it was amazing to see the "everyday" acts of heroism even during the first days of the disaster: neighbors helping flooded neighbors evacuate, good Samaritans rescuing stranded animals, and volunteers pouring in from all over the country to help with recovery efforts. Sometimes in times of strife we see the worst of people but, in this case, we really saw the best of humanity.

I was particularly proud of my alma mater, Rice University. It weathered the storm well and, rather than resting on that privilege, more than 2,000 students, faculty, staff, and alumni spent the following week out in Houston helping those less fortunate to recover. Losing a week of school is a major blow to a 14-week semester but the "real world" education these students received through their community engagement trumps anything they would have learned in a classroom.

From the eclipse to family trips to hurricane devastation, it has been a roller coaster of a few weeks. We are fortunate to be OK but our hearts go out to those who were less lucky.

2017-08-23

Dear Mr. Potter

Recently I have been listening to a Harry Potter podcast that I really enjoy and highly recommend called Dear Mr. Potter.

As I've been getting into podcasts (Yes, I know I'm late!), I've been seeking out content about topics I really enjoy - which most certainly includes Harry Potter! Unfortunately the vast majority of Harry Potter podcasts are just superfans gushing, gossiping, and speculating about JK Rowling's next tweets - not really what I seek to fill my limited time! Instead I look for podcasts that provide a keen new analytical angle to content with which I'm already quite familiar.

Enter Alastair Stephens, host of the Dear Mr. Potter podcast. Formerly under the StoryWonk brand but recently renamed to Point North Media, Alastair is a professional expert on stories. He teaches classes on writing and storytelling, he offers services to review/critique manuscripts of stories-in-progress, and . . . he podcasts.

He is progressing through the Harry Potter series at the rate of one book per season, one season per year. He divides each season into ~8 episodes that progress chapter-by-chapter through the book, taking a deep dive into the characters, narratives, and general story craft of those sections. At the end of each season, he also analyzes the movie adaptation of that book.

I. love. it. It's like a book club except much more detailed and led/hosted by someone who knows more than I do about story craft - which is something that this Ravenclaw appreciates! He is in his third season (Prisoner of Azkaban) but I'm still catching up through Chamber of Secrets.

Looking through his site, he also has podcasts on the stories of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and many one-off episodes about various movies and books so I still have lots of content through which to make my way.

The podcasts aren't perfect (for me). He records them live with followers asking questions in real-time. Because I listen to them post-facto, I then have to wallow through some dead spots during which he is reading and processing questions. At first this was a turn-off but my podcast app lets me skip ahead a few seconds easily, which I find gets past most of that. And, who knows, once I catch up, perhaps I'll even be tempted to participate in real-time too.

For anyone who enjoys Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, etc., I would recommend giving Alastair's content a try. If you enjoy it, consider making a one-time donation or becoming a patron (periodic, recurring donation); it's important to reward the content we love so that its creators can sustain it for the benefit of all!

2017-08-22

Total Eclipse

Yesterday we experienced a total solar eclipse and it was spectacular.

Sunday we drove down to Charleston, South Carolina, where we had reserved a room many months ago. Charleston was one of the few major US cities to be in the path of totality so it was packed full of out-of-towners coming in for the event.

Sunday night we went downtown and, at the recommendation of some dear family who could not join us, we dined at Amen Street, where we had delicious seafood - some raw, some baked, some fried! And chocolate cake, of course. :-D These family members made reservations for us weeks ago, which turned out to be necessary; our table by the door witnessed walk-ins being turned away over and over again all night.

Monday morning we [of course] sought out the best donuts in Charleston. Our research led us to Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts and we were not disappointed! We tried eight of the 13 donuts they were offering that day and all of them were at least very good; a few were even excellent. Their Solar Eclipse donut (glazed with custard then partially obscured by a "moon" of chocolate chips" was really special.

Nourished as we were, we finally set out to view the eclipse. It began ~13:15 local time, although totality wouldn't come until 14:45. For the first hour the cloud cover made it really hard to see (through eclipse viewing glasses, of course!) anything at all. With a non-trivial chance of rain all afternoon, it was entirely possible that we wouldn't be able to see the total eclipse when it happened.

Fortunately, as we neared totality, the clouds parted, and we had a great view of the eclipse. Here it is, shortly before totality, as viewed through the eclipse glasses:


When totality finally arrived, it was spectacular. Very quickly everything became very dark (and cool!) and there was a ring of fire in the sky that could be viewed with the naked eye:


The auto brightness of my phone's camera belies how dark things were. It is true what they say, that there is a huge difference between 99% and totality. I didn't notice it as much when everything was becoming dark but afterward, once the sun began peaking around the moon again, it was really impressive. At that point the light came rapidly and demonstrated the stark contrast with the total eclipse. Concentric rings of clouds lit up in rapid succession as the light of the sun returned.

We only had totality for around two minutes in Charleston but wow, what an incredible two minutes. It was otherworldly, an experience that I will never forget!

We left shortly after the eclipse and managed to avoid predicted heavy traffic. While we were on the road, the heavens opened up on us so we were really glad that the rain delayed just long enough for us to experience totality! Although we were only briefly in Charleston, it is clear that we need to return and spend some time getting to know that interesting town. We know there is more to it than just seafood and donuts!

2017-07-06

Hiking in Switzerland

A friend of mine recently asked me for hiking recommendations in Switzerland but, for better or worse, I spent most of my time running along the lake rather than hiking up into the mountains when I lived there. Finding myself woefully unable to advise him, I sought out hiking recommendations from my Swiss friends. Here they are below and many thanks to everyone who contributed!
  • Go up the Grammont and you can see the lake (Lac Leman): 
  • Val d'Anniviers would be my recommendation! Base yourself out of Zinal and there are plenty of beautiful hikes from there: 
  • Tour des Muverans!!! Faaaabulous! Did it with school, so ideal with kids! 
  • Check out Saas Fee. Not too far a drive, beautiful village and lots of good alpine hiking trails! 
  • A great resource for hiking and climbing routes is hikr.org. You can filter by location. Routes are graded, so you can filter based on the level you're looking for.
  • Zugspitze near Garmisch (near the German-Swiss border) 
  • Interlaken and the Grindelwald area are definitely worth a try!!
  • Mont Joly and Jonction (French Alps near the Swiss border) - both around Chamonix - are incredible! Definitely my favorites nearby Geneva. And Lapaz in Les Houches has awesome views of Mont Blanc on a nice day. 
  • We are using a tour company, New Experience Holidays. They have hikes in many countries—guided and self-guided. We are taking a self-guided hike called Bernese Highlights West (Hotel to Hotel) 7 nights. Approximately 5 to 7 mile hikes per day (hopefully only half day hikes). 
And there you have it - I hope these recommendations are helpful for my friend and for any other readers who come along. As for me, well now I have new bucket list items for my next Swiss visits!

2017-06-05

The Paris Agreement

Much has been said recently about the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement and the vast majority of it has been highly politicized by people who have never even read the agreement. Opinions are quite polarized, ranging from "It was a perfect agreement and, now that we have pulled out, the sky is falling," to "It was a bad deal that would have cost hundreds of trillions of dollars and killed our industries." I have read the agreement (It's only 27 pages!) and both of those hyperbolic reactions are inaccurate. I would encourage everyone to familiarize yourself at least with the summary (even fewer pages!) but below are my key takeaways:

GOALS

  • Curtail the rapidly increasing global temperatures (mitigation)
  • Do so by reducing global green house gas (GHG) emissions
  • Recognize that climate change is happening so become better at dealing with it (adaptation)

ACTIONS

  • This is a "bottom up" rather than "top down" agreement. There are no specific actions defined or required by the agreement; rather, each country voluntarily commits to its own contributions toward achieving the agreement's goals. There is no enforcement or penalty mechanism in case a country fails to meet its commitments.
  • Each country specifies targets for its own GHG reductions. For example, the US is targeting 26-28% reduction (relative to 2005 levels) by 2025 while Switzerland is targeting 50% GHG reductions (I'm not sure relative to which baseline.) by 2030.
  • Specific actions taken are meant to be compatible with economic growth, not a hindrance to it. For example, some actions might reduce the number of coal jobs but increase the number of solar jobs by many more.
  • Especially for developing and least developed nations, actions are focused on those with "co-benefits," actions that not only mitigate and/or adapt, but that also alleviate poverty, improve health, improve energy access and security, etc. A fantastic example is GIVEWATTS, which reduces GHGs but also breaks the poverty cycle, reduces respiratory illness, and improves education by distributing solar-powered lighting (replacing kerosene lamps) in off-grid schools and clinics in East Africa.
  • Countries primarily focus on reducing their own GHGs but the most developed countries have also committed to sharing resources (know-how, technology, and financial capital) with developing (especially small island developing) and least developed countries as they are hardest hit by climate change and have the least capacity to address it through mitigation and/or adaptation.
  • The developed countries have committed to making available $100B/year from 2020 to 2025 to help developing and least developed countries meet their goals. The $100B is spread across all developed countries but it is likely that the greatest GHG emitters, the US and China, will together account for at least half of it. The $100B is not an outright public grant (transfer of funds from one government to another) but rather a mix of public grants, loans, loan guarantees, and equity investments. The $100B comes from both public and private sources.
  • To date the US has committed $3B - of which only $1B has been paid - for a fund that focuses on adaptation for developing and least developed nations. The total size of the fund is currently ~$9B.
  • Beginning in 2018, every five years there will be a "global stocktake," basically an assessment of how GHG emissions are going and how much temperatures are changing around the globe. This is essentially a "management dashboard" to assess how effective the actions are in meeting the goals. It is also a chance to adjust course based on new data.

Looking past the polarizing politics and evaluating the Paris Agreement simply on its merits, I conclude that it is a good deal. It managed to bring nearly every country in the world together (No small feat that!) in common pursuit of addressing a goal that benefits everyone. No country is compelled to do anything by any other country and each country can contribute what it believes is fair and practical. It focuses on actions that align with economic growth and it recognizes the importance of adaptation, not just mitigation.

Regardless of what each individual country commits, having [almost] all countries working together to contribute something is truly laudable. The US, which [unknowingly and with no ill intent] played a significant role in generating the GHGs that have contributed to the rapid rise in temperatures, sends a really bad signal by pulling out of the agreement. It says either that we don't value the goal of addressing climate change or that we do but we want to do it by ourselves. Climate change is a global issue and it will necessarily require global solutions.

With the US pulling out, I worry about two reactions:

  1. Other countries pulling out due to, "If the US won't commit, why should we?" This could lead to a tragedy of the commons of epic scale.
  2. Other countries staying in with renewed commitment. This would be a huge blow to the US's increasingly tenuous role as a world leader. It used to be that, when the world faced devastating challenges (Nazis, natural disasters, etc.) the US led the way to the solution. Will we really just give up and relinquish that role to, say, China?
I have also heard arguments that our current president is just using this as an opportunity to "renegotiate" the deal. As you can see above, though, there is nothing to renegotiate; everything is voluntary and this is simply a framework for cooperation. I also find it highly unlikely that the president who is all but dismantling the US Environmental Protection Agency has any sincere intent to enter any agreement about climate change.

What do you think? Does this description of the Paris Agreement surprise you? Do you agree with my interpretation/conclusions? Have I made an error on any facts/figures? Let me know in the comments.

ADDENDUM

I have received many questions about China's and India's contributions to the Paris agreements so here is some more information about them:

China's targets:

  • Peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and making best efforts to peak early
  • Lowering carbon dioxide intensity (carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP) by 60 to 65 percent from the 2005 level (~14% overall)
  • Increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20 percent;
  • Increasing the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from the 2005 level.

  • To reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35 percent by 2030 from 2005 level.
  • To achieve about 40 percent cumulative electric power installed capacity from nonfossilfuel based energy resources by 2030 with the help of transfer of technology and low cost international finance including from Green Climate Fund (GCF).
  • To create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.
They estimate the total cost to achieve those targets to be $2.5T over 15 years ($167B/year on average). They will of course fund some of that domestically but they will seek financial help from the developed world as well.

2017-06-04

Wonder Woman: Better Than Most DC Movies But...

Katie and I saw Wonder Woman today and, while it was fine to see once, I was disappointed relative to all the hype that it has been receiving as a "best ever" / "game changer" comic book movie. Following are some more detailed thoughts but WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW!

THE GOOD

  • The action scenes are really good. Production values are high and there is something just so refreshing about seeing a badass female hero in action.
  • This movie is much more colorful than DC comic movies have been of late - again, very refreshing.
  • The acting is really on point with great actors doing what the do best in both major and minor roles.

THE BAD

  • The premise is very goofy and it's hard to get anyone who knows anything about Greek mythology to buy into the mess of a backstory. I wanted to get "into" this movie but from the outset I kept getting pulled out with negative reactions to the mythology.
  • The plot seemed very played out and I couldn't help but thinking how much of it I had seen before in Captain America: The First Avenger.
  • The plot was so cliche that it telegraphed everything. We were only minutes into the second act when Katie and I whispered to each other that Thewlis was probably the actual bad guy.
  • Much of the humor felt really forced and fell flat for me.
  • Like so many blockbusters - and especially comic book movies - these days, this had a very "made by committee" feel. Many elements were set up that never paid off so were presumably left somewhere on the cutting room floor. The sidekicks, for example, were introduced as having special skills that we never see used so they end up adding nothing to the narrative.
  • The characters are very humdrum. Diana Prince is the only character who undergoes any kind of transformation and, even after 2h45m, hers isn't earned/believable. We really aren't vested in any of the other characters.
  • There is no chemistry between the two leads. I assume that this is largely due to poor writing, as they both seem fine as individual actors.
  • For this reason, the "love" subplot is entirely unbelievable. You know that it's time for them to fall in love because the music is swelling but it doesn't make any sense. And then, because love is the reason for Wonder Woman's resolve in the climax, that too feels totally unearned.
  • Regardless, there is no tension in the climax anyway. Wonder Woman is basically a Mary Sue who is never in any real danger. Aries has the upper hand at the start of their confrontation . . . because reasons and then suddenly she has the upper hand . . . because reasons.


THE UGLY

  • To its credit, there isn't much really terrible about this film. If I have to point to one thing, it would be that this was supposed to be this great example of a feminist superhero film. Instead it comes off as what men think female empowerment should be about. Sure, there are a couple of overt empowering lines like, "You don't get to tell me what to do," but they are massively overshadowed by all the covert stuff throughout the rest of the film. The "strong female lead" is highly sexualized, from her skimpy outfit (including metal boobs) to all of the humor about/around her. And, at the end of the day, she still has to be "shown the way" by a man through a love subplot. This was really disappointing and, for my money, I strongly prefer Moana, Rey, and Ripley as empowered female leads.

As a fun summer "popcorn film," this was fine and it certainly is a cut above recent DC comics movies. Still, I was disappointed in the end result given its potential to have been something truly special. Perhaps there will be a director's cut when it is released for home media, in which case I will readily give it a second chance.

Fortunately we ended our movie watching on a high note by watching The Princess Bride immediately afterward. Every time I see it I become more convinced that it is basically a perfect movie. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas youuuuuuuuuuuuuu wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiish!

2017-06-02

Review: Capitalism: As If the World Matters

Capitalism: As If the World Matters Capitalism: As If the World Matters by Jonathon Porritt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has a good premise - that capitalism can be the SOLUTION to - not just the source of - our sustainability challenges. It has some good ideas as well: environmentalism needs more effective messages than doom and gloom proclamations, for example. Unfortunately it doesn't come to a very compelling resolution. Porritt advocates for a "new" model of capitalism that incorporates five different types of capital - but it doesn't seem any more practical than current triple bottom line efforts which have failed to take root. It's a worthwhile book but I suspect that anyone who reads it is already pretty bought into its message.

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