2017-03-03

Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by Alexander Freed
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this hoping for something that would fill in the gaps and plot holes of the movie (as the novelization of The Force Awakens did) but I was unfortunately disappointed. This book doesn't fill in any gaps or explain away any cinematic plat holes; it is essentially a direct, 1:1 translation of the movie plot.

The novel DOES spend more time attempting to explain the motivations of different characters by voicing their inner monologues but, combined with poor dialogue (also taken directly from the script), is no more effective to that end than the movie.

I'm forced to conclude that the story and characters of Rogue One are simply bad, regardless of the medium. In fact, if anything, the novelization makes the flaws of the movie all the more glaring as it is harder to hide unrelatable characters, unearned transformations, poor dialogue, manufactured conflict, and plot overconvenience without the distraction of beautiful cinematic visuals.

Ironically the only aspect of the movie that the novelization improves is the movie's best feature: the action. Some of the movie's best action can be confusing due to many different parties fighting simultaneously while the novel can explain exactly what (and why) each character is up to.

Finally, the writing leaves a lot to be desired. The author uses a voice that doesn't match at all with the tone of the story. He employs flowery language that, instead of giving the story gravitas, sounds like a middle schooler trying to impress his classmates with his vocabulary.

I can't really recommend this book to anyone but the most die hard Star Wars fan - and even then, only if your OCD needs to read it for "completion."

View all my reviews

2017-02-15

Travel Recommendations for Toscana

A friend recently let me know that she would be traveling to Tuscany and was seeking recommendations both for tourist travel and wine travel. Having lived in Florence and spent much more time since then traveling around bella Toscana, I compiled the following recommendations for her:

Firenze

  • Stay away from Florence during the summer! It's overrun by tourists and you will hear more English spoken than Italian. It can also get decently hot/humid so near the Arno and many buildings aren't equipped to handle that. Autumn is my favorite time to visit Toscana; there are harvest festivals for wine grapes and olives and the lush green hills begin turning into patchworks of autumnal colors.
  • Pro tip: if you reserve a rental car for pickup in Florence, make sure that you specify Florence, ITALY, not Florence, Alabama. Not that that happened to me once . . .
  • Florence is very walkable so use the opportunity to walk off all the amazing food you will have there!
  • Visit the Duomo and, unless you are prohibitively claustrophobic or acrophobic, climb to the top for breathtaking views of the city. 
  • Allocate an entire day for the Uffizi. Pro tip: reserve tickets for the opening time then head immediately to the top floor (which will be much less crowded) and work your way down.
  • Spend time among the statues in the Piazza della Signoria; my favorite statue, Ercole e Caco, is there. 
  • Visit the Accademia and prepare to be stunned when you turn the corner to see David for the first time.
  • Make a pilgrimage to Vivoli for Florence's most famous gelato - but also eat gelato everywhere else too. :-)
  • Generally avoid eating in restaurants near the main tourist spots. Wander a few blocks off the main path and find some unassuming trattoria. Order a carafe of the house wine and enjoy damn fine food at a fraction of the cost of tourist traps. If you're a carnivore, go for the Bistecca alla Fiorentina, which you order by the kilogram. Generally avoid any place that has laminated English menus with pictures of each dish.
  • Spend time oltr'Arno (south of the river) as well to get away from tourists. While you're here, visit the Palazzo Pitti and the Giardino di Boboli.
  • There are a million more things to do in Florence but these are my recommendations for a short stay.

San Gimignano

  • San Gimignano is a nice day trip from pretty much anywhere in Tuscany. Climb the tours. Look out over the Tuscan countryside. Swoon. 
  • Visit the Collegiata for some real fire and brimstone, wrath of God, dogs and cats living together frescos.
  • The award-winning Gelateria Dondoli alone is worth the trip!
Siena
  • Siena is another day trip-able city that is very walkable.
  • The main religious attraction is the Duomo but make time also to visit San Domenico, where you can visit the most grotesque relic I've ever seen: the head of Santa Caterina!
  • Spend time in the Piazza del Campo and, if you ignored my previous advice and traveled during the summer, see if you can witness Il Palio, the famous in-town horse race. 
  • My strongest restaurant recommendation is Antica Osteria da Divo, where you should make sure to order the risotto that is served up from the inside of parmigiano cheese wheels!
Tuscan Countryside
  • I strongly suggest getting off the beaten path a bit to enjoy the beautiful, blood-pressure-reducing life of Toscana outside of the cities.
  • My greatest recommendation for this is Castello di Montalto, an entire hamlet about 20 minutes south of Siena.
  • I can also recommend Hotel Borgo Casabianca as a countryside home base for Tuscan exploration
  • Montefollonico is also a nice hilltop town for getting away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Others have recommended visiting Lucca and Pisa too but I haven't spent enough time in either to include them in this post.
Wine Touring
  • Now for the most important part: the vino! Let's start with my favorite: Brunello di Montalcino!
    • I love the little town of Montalcino itself but most can probably skip it.
    • Visiting Italian wineries is much more laid back than visiting in Napa or Bordeaux. There usually is no fee but call/email ahead to secure a time slot and to ensure that there is someone there who speaks English (if you don't speak Italian).
    • Valdicava is my favorite Brunello di Montalcino stop. It's a small, unassuming vineyard that has a very non-interventionist approach to its grape growing. They aren't really set up for tours and often don't have English-speakers on hand but, if you can get an appointment, barrel-tasting there is not to be missed.
    • Castello Banfi is the polar opposite: a huge estate owned by Americans with a massive tasting room that is very much meant to host English-speaking tourists. If this is more your style, you can drop in without an appointment.
    • Casanova di Neri has a nice, low-key tour.
    • Fattoria Barbi has a nice, low-key tour.
    • Livio Sassetti Pertimali has a nice, low-key tour (but may not have an English-speaker on hand).
    • I can't recommend Boccon Di Vino highly enough as a place for lunch when touring around Montalcino - fine dining, a great wine selection, and fantastic views!
    • Do NOT under any circumstances go to Castelgiocondo! My one time there not only did they screw up my appointment but they also lied to my face, claiming that all of their grapes were hand picked despite our having driven by their mechanized harvesters in their vineyards on our way in. Bad people!
  • Also very near and dear to my heart: Chianti Classico
    • Villa Calcinaia is my favorite destination by far. I confess bias as one of the members of the family that owns it was my professor when I was living in Florence. It's really fantastic, though; nice tastings, 300-year-old balsamic vinegar, beautiful views - Calcinaia has it all!
    • Castello di Brolio is another large estate that is well equipped for tourism if that's your speed. Even if it isn't your speed, it's a worthwhile pilgrimage to the birthplace of Chianti.
    • Dievole is a nice estate with a very charismatic proprietor and good wines.
    • The town of Greve in Chianti is best visited during the fall harvest festival. Buy a glass and walk from booth to booth sampling all the local wines.
  • Montepulciano is also a worthwhile stop, not just for its own charm but for the highly underrated Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. If you're there over the summer, see if you can time your visit with the Bravio delle Botti!
  • One final note on wine touring in Toscana: GPS is easily confused by the windy, hilly roads, so allow plenty of time to get lost and consider using more traditional means of navigation.
I hope this is helpful for those planning to visit Tuscany! Let me know how if I've missed something obvious and/or how my recommendations work out for you! Buon viaggio!

2017-02-13

Harry Potter Dinner

Last Friday we hosted a Harry Potter dinner at our house for a small group of friends. It was a blast!

DECORATIONS
To create a Hogwarts-like ambiance, we made a few changes to our dining room:

  • We set up all of our Harry Potter books on the buffet: 
  • The wands are courtesy of the incomparable (and fellow Ravenclaw) David J. Anderson.
  • We set the table with tapered candles.
  • We weren't hardcore enough to hang candles from the ceiling but we achieved a similar effect by using the Firestorm app for our Philips Hue smart lights. The candle setting in that app twinkles the lights in a warm glow.
  • We put out all of our owl stuff and, as we are Rice Owls ourselves, that's a lot!
  • We even brought up the dragon drawing by R.C. Matteson from our workout room: 
  • And last, but not least, we played music from the Harry Potter movie soundtracks all evening.


FOOD AND DRINK
Without house elves to help, I think we still did a pretty admirable job of preparing a Hogwarts-caliber feast:

  • We started with cocktails, including Ogden's Old Firewhisky (Most recipes I found online added sugar but I found just steeping whiskey with cinnamon sticks to be adequate.).
  • We also served homemade butterbeer - again using a much-less-sweet-than-prescribed recipe.
  • With cocktails we served a puree of dragon heartstring (which looked a lot like beet caviar) with an assortment of dragonsmilk cheeses.
  • Dinner was a mixed greenhouse salad, dark forest root veggies, and Professor Sprout (broccoli and gorgonzola) pie with sparkling rosé gigglewater.
  • We wrapped up with Hagrid's berry patch cobbler a la mode (ice cream from Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour, naturally) and Starrlight mead.

FUN
Stuffed and happy, we spent the rest of the evening playing Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, a cooperative deck-building boardgame. It was really fun and gave us a chance to work together - instead of against each other - to defeat evil and save Hogwarts.

It was a lovely - dare I say, magical - evening and it reminded us that we need to have people over more often (if for no other reason than that it motivates us to clean the house!).

2017-01-20

Processing the Election

It's been three weeks since the US Presidential election and I'm still processing what happened. It should be no secret that I am disappointed in the election result but what is important now is to understand what happened (and why) and make some sense of it to inform the way forward.

OUTCOME
I didn't support Donald Trump as a candidate in the primaries or in the election. I'll blog in greater detail later but I've analyzed his career and found him not to be a very inspiring businessman (There's a reason why there are business school cases about many other billionaires but not about Trump.) - more successful as a Kardashian-like reality TV show "brand" than as a magnate. Moreover, the litigious, dishonest way that he has conducted not only his career but his campaign turned me off to him. Now, weeks after the election, we can see how hypocritical he is as well: promising to "drain the swamp" and "shake things up" in Washington - while appointing insider after insider to Cabinet positions.

Despite all that, he still won the election - so what happened there? One narrative is that "the people have spoken" and that a "bloodless revolution" has sent a clear message against the policies of the Left. I don't find that compelling as, with something like 100k votes (out of 125m) going the other way, it would have been a Hillary landslide in the electoral college. Coupled with Obama's high presidential approval rating, the decisive popular vote win for Hillary and the net loss of Republican house and senate seats, the main message for me is that we, as a nation, are more sharply divided than ever.

This election was emblematic of the growing divide between urban and rural, between more educated and less educated, between the haves and the have nots, and of the disenfranchisement of a significant segment of the population that is feeling increasingly unheard and abandoned. So it's not unanticipated that Trump wouldn't have appealed to me. He wasn't talking to me; he was talking to people who believe that I - and people like me - am being well served at the expense of people like them.

And that may be a fair assessment. As I work feverishly to build a company, it will create jobs largely for . . . educated urban "elites" like me. So let's consider this election a splash of cold water in the face - of a part of America saying, "Hey! Don't forget about us!" (And let's not focus too much on the fact that the man they hired for the job has a long history of screwing the little guy or that my most ardent conservative friends are fond of criticizing "bleeding heart liberals" for wanting to help the little guy. When it comes politics, hypocrisy knows no bounds!) That's an important take-away and it should inform the path forward.

PROCESS
As disappointed as I was in the outcome of the election, I was many fold more disappointed in the process by which President was elected. My biggest gripe about this election is that it threw facts right out the window.

This "post-truth" era we seem to have entered into makes me want to pull my hair out (ha!) every time I see obviously false, deliberately misleading, or otherwise untruthful information being banded about as fact. The rise of "fake news" sites and the amplification of their disinformation by social networks was a huge problem but we don't really have to look farther than the president-elect himself for demonstrably false proclamations that were bought by a substantial portion of the electorate. The lack of critical thinking and the increased prevalence of self-reinforcing echo chambers (on both sides) is a tremendous danger to democracy. I'm quite bullish on democracy as a political system, but it is still just a system - and garbage into said system will produce garbage out.

As a consequence the actual issues of the election were almost never discussed. From primaries to conventions to debates, there was very little attention paid - by candidates or by media - to the actual issues. Instead everyone focused on goofy conspiracy theories, unsubstantiated allegations, and character assassinations. Shame on all of us for being complicit in letting that approach carry the day. Instead of turning off the TV coverage and passing over clickbait headlines, we indulged and perpetuated it. Kudos to Trump. As a reality TV star, he turned an election - where his politician opponent had an advantage - into a reality TV show - where he clearly had the advantage.

Finally, this was the most interfered with election I have witnessed. From leaked tapes to FBI announcements to wikileaks emails, this election was the most influenced by outside manipulation that I ever remember. To be clear, I am decidedly in the just-because-the-emails-were-hacked-by-Russians-doesn't-make-them-less-true camp. However, when we only get hacked emails from the DNC and not the RNC, it creates information asymmetry and shapes public opinion. We make judgments on the DNC emails but don't have the ability to compare them to judgments on RNC emails. In an election in which so many people reported choosing between which candidate they disliked least, such asymmetry is bad for business. Personally, I suspect we would have seen just as reprehensible behavior in RNC emails.

These shortcomings in electoral process opened the way for an election to be won on charisma - rather than on qualifications or on issues - demagoguery - rather than civil discourse - and fear - rather than hope.

TRENDS
Beyond the election, I've noticed several trends in the course of political discussion:

  • Tribalism - Just as you see with fans of rival sports teams, there is an increasing trend toward tribalism in today's politics. I watched as Republican friends who hated Trump in the primaries talked themselves into supporting him just because he was representing their tribe. I watched as friends on both sides refused to acknowledge any common ground with the other side because . . . tribes. I observed the increasing use of labels like "libtard" being used to describe any member of the other tribe. Frankly this type of tribalism reminded me a lot of what we saw in East Africa: there were no machete deaths but the vitriol seemed just as genuine. And indeed in the election states seemed more polarized than ever by tribes (parties).
  • Anti-intellectualism - there seems to be a war on rational discourse. Anything that isn't explained in a meme is discounted as biased propaganda - and then of course most of the memes are incredibly fallacious. There are so many instances of, "Well, I just feel that this is the truth," not just on Facebook walls but by public figures as well.
  • Anti-establishment - Bernie Sanders was the other side of the Trump coin. Clearly there was - and presumably still is - a groundswell of anti-establishment sentiment.
  • Selfish myopia - Trump Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway put it succinctly in the election post-mortem: ""There's a difference to voters between what offends you and what affects you." It is natural for people to try to simplify a complex decision like an election to a single issue because that is easier to solve. Voters were willing to turn a blind eye to aspects of decency and policy as long as they were told that their particular issue would be addressed. In hindsight that seems obvious.
  • Both major political parties are totally broken. Neither represents the vast majority of centrist Americans. And I don't think anyone is taking action to fix that; rather they're just digging in their heels to become even more polarized.
  • Heads in the sand - The world is changing. Technology is changing. And a major segment of the population is voting to stay behind because that is more familar. As one example, let's look at manufacturing. A narrative in this election was that US manufacturing has fallen due to outsourcing. When you look at the data, though, manufacturing in the US is huge! We just don't need as many humans to do it because we've been become more productive through process improvement and technology.
  • “Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right." - Albus Dumbledore | It is easy to put our hands over our eyes and blame scapegoats like Mexico and China for these job losses but it is right to think longer term about the implications of the changing nature of work in this and other industries. I don't get the impression that anyone is doing that right now.

At the end of the day, this election is what it is, and we must now move on and deal with it. I'm disheartened that I don't believe the government represents what I care about most. Thus I am more resolved than ever before to be the change I hope to see. Rather than looking to the government for solutions to social problems I continue to work to create those solutions myself through capitalism.

2016-12-16

Rogue One Review

Last night Katie and I attended the opening night of Rogue One and, long story short, I liked (didn't love) it. It started off pretty weak - I was actually fighting to stay awake for the first act of the movie - but finished really strong. Overall I would give it three stars out of five for some serious weaknesses but also some epic wins that are simply not to be missed by any Star Wars fan.

Following are some more detailed thoughts but WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW!

THE GOOD
  • The best part of this film hands down was Darth Vader. I loved that we had a glimpse of his lair  (which reminded me of the early concept art for Palpatine's throne room - see below) and I got chills during the finale as he effortlessly crushed rebel peons. It's the most menacing we've seen him since the opening scene of Episode IV - really well done. Some people have complained that we don't get enough of him in this movie but sometimes less is more and I think this is one of those times.

  • The action sequences were really good. I enjoyed both on the ground fight scenes as well aerial battles.
  • The visual effects were seamless and stunning. The filmmakers clearly had a commitment to continuity such that the design of everything from uniforms to spacecraft was quite in line with what we saw in Episode IV. Still, seeing those same, familiar designs rendered in today's technology and displayed in IMAX 3D was quite spectacular.
  • Along the same lines, the motion capture was really good. Characters like Tarkin were photorealistic and looked convincingly like Peter Cushing circa 1977. Bravo, effects team!
  • There were many new worlds and creatures in this movie and, although no time was devoted to their development, it was nice at least to see attention paid to such creative efforts that expand the universe - er, galaxy.
  • Plenty of attention was paid too to numerous details. For example, when the rebels arrive on Scarif, they are assigned a landing pad far away from the citadel. When Director Krennic arrives, however, he gets a rockstar parking spot exactly as you would expect. Small details like this make the movie more believable and more immersive.
  • With a female primary protagonist working closely with a male secondary protagonist, the temptation was strong, I'm sure, to force them into a love arc but I was pleased that the filmmakers didn't give in. The movie implied that there was some romantic tension there by the end but didn't give them a contrived kiss before dying. Indeed, young, good looking people can save the galaxy without becoming completely sidetracked by hormones. Thanks for that! 
  • I liked that this was darker than many other Star Wars movies. They necessarily had to kill off all of the protagonists and they did so rather than finding some hand wavy explanation for them not being in the "subsequent" films.

THE BAD

  • All that said, there were some serious flaws in this movie. The most egregious of which was the lack of characterization. They introduced a number of new characters but did a poor job of developing them. Many of the characters were cool and interesting - like Donnie Yen's Chirrut Îmwe - but I found myself not really caring when they died. K-2S0, mo-capped brilliantly by Alan Tudyk, was the one I found myself caring the most about and he was a bloody droid!
  • The characters also had sudden and unbelievable 180 degree turnabouts - e.g. Cassian all of a sudden being behind Jyn and Jen all of a sudden being rah rah Rebellion. These felt to me much more like cheap plot conveniences rather than earned transformations during a character's journey.
  • There was no compelling antagonist. Krennic was the primary villain and he just wasn't very . . . threatening. He didn't give me any sense of dread or foreboding that our protagonists were in danger.
  • The lack of characterization of both heroes and villains made most of the tension in the film feel manufactured. Krennic inexplicably follows the rebels personally instead of getting the hell outta Dodge on his shuttle? Yawn. Jyn and Cassian have a passionate discussion about losing everything to the Empire? Yawn.
  • Our protagonists also seemed to gain and lose superpowers whenever convenient for the plot. They struggled to traverse slippery rocks around the Imperial research facility but then performed death defying leaps, grabs, and climbs in the data vault. That aspect of the film felt like on demand Mary Sue / Gary Stu.
  • I can't attribute the lack of characterization or all the plot conveniences to underinvesting in setup up front. In fact the first act of the film had a lot of exposition and laying of narrative foundation - but it was ineffectual and, frankly, boring. I found myself fighting off sleep for the first 45 minutes or so of the film.
  • The plot also felt very choppy in parts. For example, Jyn receives a hologram from her father and then subsequently actually meets her father and talks to him in person. Or Jyn determines that Cassian is going to kill her father and then, half an hour later (theater time), confronts him about it. They aren't plot holes per se; they just seem narratively wonky and I suspect that they are symptoms of made-by-committee cuts, reshoots, and reshuffles.
  • Much of the film's appeals to emotion are pretty heavy handed. The humor worked for me more often than not but, for example, there was a scene in which they put a bag over Chirrut Îmwe's head. Because he is blind, that's funny in a subtle way but they cheapen it by having him point out the irony explicitly. Similarly they overtly go back to the "hope" well over and over again in monologues, making for a much less elegant segue to Episode IV: A New Hope than what could have been.

THE UGLY

  • Some of the acting is just plain bad. There's an informant with an injured arm who is just terrible and Forest Whitaker really fails in his attempt to bring something interesting to his character. Much of the acting was top notch but some of it was conspicuously bad. 
  • There were also a number of Easter eggs in the film. Some of these were fine but some - like the two thugs from Episode IV's Mos Eisley Cantina scene bumping into our protagonists on Jedha - were ridiculous. I know they're trying to provide fan service here but, when we keep bumping into the same characters on just a few planets out of the entire galaxy, it serves to shrink the universe and seems utterly contrived.
Despite some serious shortcomings, the film was an overall positive one for me. Unlike The Force Awakens, I probably won't see it several times in the theater but I may go back once more just to see Darth Vader in all his glory again. Some people like this film more than others but it is definitely a must-see for any fan of Star Wars.

2016-11-06

Has Obama Changed the Economy for the Worse? Conclusion

Over the past three weeks I have evaluated nine specific claims made by an article purporting to show that "Obama has changed the face of our economy for the worse." The article was presented to me as definitive proof that Obama has been "a train wreck" as President of the United States.

Of the claims and sub-claims, some of them have merit (2), some of them are technically true but don't actually support the conclusion they are meant to (4), and some are patently false (7).

I would encourage readers to go over each of the claims and my investigations of the but the exeuctive summary is that America under Obama really hasn't changed much during Obama's administration. Using these metrics you certainly can't conclude that Obama is "a train wreck." Given that these metrics were cherry picked to support exactly that conclusion, it is entirely possible that, choosing other metrics, you might even be able to conclude that Obama is "better than a train wreck."

If nothing else, this investigation should be a reminder to apply CRITICAL THINKING to "data" and "facts" with which you are presented - the "facts" presented in this article were mostly false and/or misleading. Nearly everything we see has been filtered through an agenda lens and is tainted with selection bias and interpretation bias. Given that we will each apply our own cognitive biases to information, it is crucial that we get as close to the unadulterated source material as possible.

My suggestion - especially as we head into election day - is to question what you read. If there are no links to sources, that is often an indicator of fabrication/manipulation so your BS radar should be at high alert. If there are links to sources, don't assume that those sources support the conclusions or interpretation of the article you are reading - quite often (This article was a case in point!) they don't.

If your reaction is that this all sounds well and good but you just don't have time to do that kind of research then I challenge you to examine your priorities - what could be more important than being informed as a voter in an election year? As Dumbledore would say, "We must choose between what is easy and what is right."

Choose what is right.

2016-11-05

Is trust in Obama's leadership at historically low levels?

As part of my series analyzing the article suggesting that Obama has changed the economy for the worse, let's now move on to the ninth and final claim: that trust in Obama's leadership and administration remains at historically low levels.

Cutting right to the chase, I can't find any support for this claim. I suppose it depends on what the writer means by "trust" but the nearest metric I can find is presidential approval ratings.

Across 10 polls, Obama is currently ~53%, which is much higher than his lowest approval rating (37% in 2011 and in 2014):


Obama's current approval rating is also higher than every other president's lowest approval rating since Kennedy:




Obama's approval rating is neither low within the historical context of his presidency nor within the context of all presidencies. Therefore this claim is FALSE.

That said, Obama's average approval rating (47%) is the lowest since Carter's and is on par with that of W, Carter, Ford, Nixon, and Truman - not the best of company. I'm not sure, though, if it's fair to compare approval ratings of today's polarized, partisan media-driven, post-fact world with those of a simpler time when people got their information with less spin and did more thinking - and approving - for themselves.

CONCLUSION: This is a baseless claim with no substantiation whatsoever.