2016-09-01

Stranger Things

Katie and I just finished watching Stranger Things Season 1 for the second time and you can definitely put us on the bandwagon of people who love this series (so far). It's a nostalgic (80s), sci-fi, supernatural creature feature, coming of age tale, small town drama, adventure. Following is a brief review but the TL;DR version is that it features interesting characters, superb writing/directing/acting, and a compelling plot. WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW!

The Good
  • The writing is really good. From the interwoven sublots to the dialog itself, it all starts with the writing, which is excellent. This is especially noticeable in the kids' dialog, which actually sounds like things kids actually say.
  • The acting is really good. With rare exception, all of the actors really inhabit their roles. They seem very believable and it is easy for you, the viewer, to immerse yourself in their world. This is especially impressive given that so many of the cast are children.
  • The directing is really good. To elicit such strong performances from a cast ranging from Oscar winners to C listers to rookies is no small feat; kudos to the [multiple] directors.
  • The early 80s nostalgia is on point! From the "Coke is it" commercial to the clothes, cars, music, and hair, Stranger Things goes all-in on the early 80s. They even ran the HD "film" through a filter to replicate the exact graininess of movies from that era. They had a vibe they were going for and they really nailed it.
  • The character development is really good. Having eight hours to work with (rather than two +/- in a feature-length film) gives Stranger Things the opportunity to develop each of its characters - even the smaller ones. There are many side characters who don't drive the plot much and who would never have made it into a feature film but, because they do have some development in Stranger Things, the story is richer and more immersive.
  • The tension and sense of dread is really well done. Rather than beating you over the head with a CGI monster, Stranger Things takes a Jaws-like approach and builds tension with what you don't see. When we finally see more than brief flashes of the monster toward the end of the series it is almost anticlimactic; I'm so glad they were reserved with it.
  • Any reference to D&D in popular media is OK in my book! :-)
  • The coming of age tale aspect of Stranger Things is really charming. These goofy, nerdy kids testing the bounds of friendship, grief, hope, and resolve is funny at times and heartwarming at others.
  • There are strong female characters. They aren't written as male characters who just happen to be female; they are female from the ground up. They are vulnerable, passionate, emotional, fallible, and strong. I love watching Joyce's transformation as she stands up to Lonnie - and El is inspiring every time her nose starts to bleed.
The Bad

  • Hopper is overpowered. There are strong male characters too and Hopper is clearly on the list. It's hard ever to believe he is in any real danger, though, when he just beats his way out of any situation. I wish they hadn't relied so heavily on the Deus Ex Hoppera factor.
  • There are numerous inconsistencies because . . . plot convenience. El, for example, seems perfectly capable of age-appropriate speech sometimes but then goes all "What is 'friend,''" at others. Mike shows empathy and compassion one moment and then screams, "WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU?????" at El the next. These types of convenient inconsistencies reduce the believability of both the characters and the plot.

The Ugly

  • The love arcs were very forced. Also undermining the believability of the plot was the shoe horning of romantic tension into the Nancy-Jonathan and El-Mike relationships. The entire series takes place over one week - one incredibly stressful week of life or death danger and supernatural phenomena. I find it hard to believe that characters in that situation - even if they're hormones-firing teens - would be tarrying to dabble in the romantic arts. You can make the argument that this is just one more homage to a nearly omnipresent element of early 80s movies but E.T. - which is referenced left and right in Stranger Things - managed without a love interest and this should have too.
  • And speaking of love interests, Steve's redemption was totally unearned. He just flips a switch and goes from being a total jerk to helping save Nancy and Jonathan. Despite no indication of any athletic talent or fighting skill (quite the opposite, in fact), he instantaneously becomes a bat-twirling monster beater. I call BS.

Stranger Things Season 1 is really quite compelling. It walks such fine lines - between homage and ripoff, between cliche and familiarity - but it winds up on the right side because it is just so well executed. At the end of the day, one of the best metrics of how good it is is that we are still talking about it, dissecting it, and analyzing it weeks after having seen it; shows that elicit that response are few and far between.

If you're interested in movies that evoke a similar vibe, there are the obvious ones that everyone is already talking about: E.T., The Goonies, Super8, and several Stephen King movies. My strongest recommendation, however, would be Explorers. Just ignore the third act (Studio tampering!) and focus on how good the rest of it is! Or, if you haven't yet seen Stranger Things, GET ON IT!

2016-08-26

Summer Olympics Wrap-Up

The Rio Olympics have come and gone! Although there was great anxiety that it would be a cluster****, the games seem to have gone off just fine.



Because we don't have TV at home, Katie and I were only able to watch a few select events that were made available by the BBC - mostly synchronized diving and wrestling. I have a few take-aways from having watched ~20 hours of coverage of these events:

  • The BBC announcer for synchronized diving should announce all events! That guy was amazing! "Oh wow, what a dive! If that were a steak, it would be medium-rare - just perfect!" "I am literally out of my seat right now!" "Oh, goodness, she just fell like a tree - timberrrrrrrr!"
  • Freestyle wrestling is more enjoyable to watch than Greco-Roman wrestling. Greco-Roman seemed to be 90% handwrestling and leaning into each other with occasional passivity penalty scores. Freestyle was more offense-driven.
  • Women's wresting is more enjoyable to watch than men's. By and large women's wrestling was more aggressive, more dramatic, and more interesting. At least 50% of the medals were determined by a score in the final seconds of the match whereas men's matches always seemed to go to whoever was ahead halfway through the second period.
  • There may be no crying in baseball but there is a lot of crying in wrestling! Interestingly, while the men tended to cry in victory, the women tended to cry in defeat (and beam in victory). There are several potential psychology and sociology papers to be written about that phenomenon!
  • IMD has truly transformed the way I watch the Olympics. Previously I only really cared about the USA but this year I found myself cheering for Azerbaijani and Belarusian wrestlers out of solidarity with my MBA classmates. Frankly the Olympics is more fun and interesting to watch when you care about more countries than just your own!
But really, on to the real question at hand: who "won" the Olympics? Per my previous posts, I continue to use a weighted scoring system to tally up Olympic medals by country. This year I tracked not just the top performers but every country that won at least one medal - you can see my full spreadsheet here.

The USA won in every category: golds, silvers, bronzes, total medals, and weighted medal score. The top performers by weighted medal score were:
  1. 379 - USA
  2. 221 - Great Britain
  3. 210 - China
  4. 168 - Russia
  5. 130 - Germany
  6. 118 - France
  7. 105 - Japan
  8. 084 - Italy
  9. 083 - Australia
  10. 065 - Netherlands
Russia's lackluster performance wasn't much of a surprise as they were banned from track and field competition. China's performance, on the other hand, was a big shock. They went from a weighted medal score of 346 (#1 overall) in 2008 to 294 in 2012 (#2 overall) all the way down to 210 this year - a very distant 3rd. What could account for this precipitous drop? They had home field advantage in 2008 but that surely wasn't responsible for 100% of their peak performance back then.

This year there were many discussions not just of overall medal counts but also of countries that "punched above their weight." Accordingly, I added population and GDP as normalization metrics to the spreadsheet. The top performers by weighted medal score per million citizens were:
  1. 30.00 - Grenada
  2. 15.79 - Bahamas
  3. 13.90 - Jamaica
  4. 11.04 - New Zealand
  5. 08.59 - Croatia
  6. 06.13 - Denmark
  7. 05.83 - Slovenia
  8. 05.75 - Fiji
  9. 05.71 - Bahrain
  10. 05.38 - Hungary
The top performers by weighted medal score per $B GDP (PPP) were:
  1. 3.00 - Grenada
  2. 1.64 - Jamaica
  3. 0.67 - Bahamas
  4. 0.63 - Fiji
  5. 0.56 - Armenia
  6. 0.53 - North Korea
  7. 0.47 - Georgia
  8. 0.38 - Burundi
  9. 0.37 - Croatia
  10. 0.34 - Kenya
The top performers by weighted medal score per $1,000 GDP per capita were:
  1. 15.42 - Kenya
  2. 13.86 - China
  3. 12.71 - North Korea
  4. 10.06 - Ethiopia
  5. 06.62 - USA
  6. 06.57 - Russia
  7. 05.66 - Uzbekistan
  8. 05.37 - Great Britain
  9. 04.83 - Jamaica
  10. 03.79 - Burundi
My friend, colleague, and data scientist extraordinaire took the liberty of throwing the spreadsheet into Tableau for visualization - check it out for a more engaging analysis!

2016-08-21

Wine Cooler Problem Solving

In addition to our wine cellar in the basement, we maintain a medium-sized wine cooler in our kitchen for bottles that are ready to drink now. Although we keep that cooler set to 13 degrees C (55 F), recently it has been reporting temperatures several degrees higher.

This was perplexing as the device is only a few years old (so the cooling mechanism shouldn't be failing) and, even during the day when our A/C is off, the ambient temperature is well within the device's operating range (so the cooling mechanism shouldn't be overworked). The cooler is a thermoelectric unit, so it doesn't have condenser coils that need to be cleaned/vacuumed for efficiency either.

On a whim, I pulled the cooler out from the wall thinking that maybe increasing the airflow behind it could help. While I didn't find that the increased airflow helped, I did find a tremendous amount of dog hair and dust caked to the back of the cooler!

Even though the device doesn't have coils that need to be vacuumed, it apparently does have vents in the back for circulating out warmer air. When those get plugged up, the warm air has nowhere to go, so vacuuming/cleaning them is apparently important.

After vacuuming the vents, the internal temperature of the cooler began dropping within minutes, eventually reaching 13 degrees C. I had assumed there was no point in looking behind the cooler because there weren't any coils there - but that's where the problem turned out to be anyway.

This is a good reminder to challenge my assumptions; when the evidence doesn't fit those assumptions, they may be wrong. Now I think I'll toast this solved mystery with a nice, cool white burgundy . . .

Cooling Off In August

I went for a run this morning and was surprised to notice that the first signs of autumn are already evident. A few yellow leaves were falling and a sporadic, cool breeze was blowing.

Even though we've been in NC for three years now, I'm still incredulous that August could be anything but the sweltering peak of heat and humidity that I knew for so long in Houston. I suppose this turning of the corner toward autumn happened when I lived in Virginia as well, but it was always hidden from me by football two-a-days.

Regardless, it is very welcome - especially when running! I love each of the seasons in different ways but the times of transition between them are fun reminders that we live once again in a place with four of them.

2016-08-18

Summer Track 2016 PRs

Another summer track season has come and gone and this year I was running with power. Below are my PRs from this year's events with previous years' PRs in parentheses:

100m: 13.6s (12.7s)
200m: 28.54s (27.69s)
400m: 1:05 (1:03)
800m: 2:30 (2:31)
1,000m: 3:17 (3:19)
1,500m: 5:19 (5:21)
1 Mile: 5:44 (5:51)
3,000m: 11:41 (11:39)
5,000m: N/A (20:14)
10,000m: N/A (44:15)

I didn't focus on any of the sprint events this season and only "raced" the 800m-3,000m, where I mostly saw improvement. One takeaway is that, if I'm going to go for a PR in a longer track race (3,000m or 5,000m), I need to do it earlier in the season, when it is still cooler. Once the weather reaches peak heat/humidity, the prospect of sustaining PR pace for more than 10 minutes after two hours of other events (The longest distance races are always at the end of the night.) becomes less and less likely.

2016-08-06

Sir Walter Miler

Last night Katie and I took advantage of our proximity to Raleigh and attended the Sir Walter Miler. It's an annual race at which elite runners try to set new records in the mile. It was a really fun environment as spectators were allowed down on the track during the races to cheer on the athletes.



How did those athletes do? The winning woman finished the mile in 4:25 and the winning man finished in 3:54. Those numbers are impressive enough, but it was even more impressive to see what a sub-4:00 mile looks like up close and personal!

Afterward, Katie and I rewarded ourselves for our excellent spectating by visiting nearby FRESH, our favorite ice cream in the Triangle!

2016-07-31

No Proof that Hillary Clinton Took Bribes as Secretary of State

While I have never intended for this blog to be political in nature, I am still very much interested in critical thinking, challenging unsubstantiated claims, and questioning data that may be misrepresented to manipulate opinion - and these days that pretty much means talking politics!

Recently I've heard several attacks on Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC), alleging that she took bribes in the form of donations to the Clinton Foundation in exchange for favors to foreign governments. Those are very serious allegations of treason and corruption! Frankly they seem pretty dubious to me given that a Republican-led House and Senate have shown willingness to put HRC "on trial" in multiple hearings about Benghazi and her emails - if these allegations had "meat," why wouldn't Hillary be on trial for them too?

Let's take a look. To prove these allegations, we would need to show that:

A. the Clinton Foundation is some sort of "slush fund" through which HRC can take donations that would otherwise be illegal or seen as untoward.
B. foreign governments received favors in return for making donations to the Clinton Foundation during HRC's tenure as Secretary of State (SoS).

Let's examine each in turn:

A. The Clinton Foundation is a legitimate nonprofit that has raised more than $2B and that spends 89% of its funds fulfilling its charitable mission (according to the American Philanthropy Institute). I have had students involved in one of its projects, the Clinton Global Initiative. Charity Watch has rated it an "A" on an A+ to F scale. It is non-partisan and has frequently collaborated with charitable efforts from both Bushes. For a deeper examination of its use of funds, see this post from factcheck.org. It is legit.

But, legit or not, could it still be used as a front for HRC bribes? Before HRC became Secretary of State, she was on the Board of the Clinton Foundation. Upon her SoS appointment she resigned from the Board and a special agreement was put into place for ethics reviews of foreign donations to the foundation. HRC joined the foundation in 2013 after having left the SoS post. At no time has she or Bill ever been able to withdraw money from the foundation's funds so it does not seem to be a "slush fund."

It does appear that, as SoS, HRC took advice from a former adviser who was at that time employed by the Clinton Foundation. So the most damning thing you can say about her potentially nefarious SoS use of the foundation is that she was able to use it to employ someone whom she could not get hired directly into the State department.

B. The Clinton Foundation did take foreign donations while HRC was SoS, e.g. in response to the Haiti relief efforts. Eyebrows were especially raised around donations that could have impacted decisions on Russia and AlgeriaAll such donations except one went through State ethics reviews. Since HRC's time as SoS the fund has provided an unprecedented level of transparency, disclosing donors annually and quarterly. No one has ever found any smoking gun of wrongdoing and, again, I'm sure many - with much more time and inclination than I - have tried.

CONCLUSION: There simply isn't enough evidence to suggest that HRC was using the Clinton Foundation as a "slush fund" or that she was quid pro quo'ing with foreign governments as SoS. If you want to believe that HRC's behavior was unethical, you can craft an argument that it was unethical by citing coincidence as evidence and projecting nefarious intent onto HRC's motivations and actions. However, I don't see anything here that would convince an objective observer that there was anything untoward going on.