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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2017-05-28

Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book. It is "pop history" not "history" to be sure, but it offers some keen insights, asks some provocative questions, and is engagingly well written.

Harari captured my attention from the get-go as he defined four chronological frames of reference, each of which builds on its predecessor:
Physics - fundamental particles and the forces that interact between them
Chemistry - combinations of those particles to make molecular compounds
Biology - complex combinations of those compounds to comprise living organisms
History - actions and interactions of conscious living beings

One of Harari's most pervasive arguments is about what separates homo sapiens (modern humans) from other species of the human genus (homo erectus, homo neanderthalensis, etc.). He suggests that the key distinction is our ability to grasp "fiction" (or I might paraphrase to call it "abstract thought"). This unique ability is the foundation of our communication, economic trade, social organization, etc.

This is a really interesting point as it allows Harari to distill many things down to being a "fiction." Businesses, for example are "fictions" in the same way that religions are. Neither of them are tangible, empirically verifiable "things;" they both exist because we believe they do.

Using this viewpoint as a basis, Harari presents an abridged version of the history of homo sapiens. Following are a few interesting highlights that do not summarize the book but rather are indicative of his writing:

* Homo sapiens has been responsible for the extinction of so many other species that perhaps *we* were Noah's flood.
* When you look at how much we have changed since the agricultural revolution, it seems that wheat domesticated us rather than the other way around.
* Laws can change with the stroke of a pen but the "fictions" we use to define society cannot -
hence, for example, racial discrimination not ending with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
* Despite technological advances and objectively much greater quality of life, humans are no happier than we used to be.
* The Atlantic slave trade was the result of unchecked free market capitalism, not of racism per se.

Harari also argues that there is no reason to fear running out of resources like energy because science/invention will surely find a way. He doesn't seem to recognize the irony of this fatalist argument in light of demonstration that free market capitalism can have disastrous outcomes when left unchecked just a few pages prior.

There is a great deal wrong with this book, I'm sure, and rigorous historians may take issue with many of Harari's glossed-over versions modern humans. Still, it is interesting, well written, and thought provoking so I would recommend it.

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2017-05-19

Alien: Covenant - Interesting But Deeply Flawed

Katie and I watched Alien: Covenant this evening and, despite trying to temper our expectations, still left with very mixed feelings. All comments below are spoiler-free except where indicated.

THE GOOD

  • Michael Fassbender puts on an acting master class. The movie is worth seeing just for him.
  • The movie explores a genuinely interesting idea for the genesis of the xenomorphs. I'm pleased that the mythology of this universe has not been degraded - which is always a risk with prequels.
THE BAD
  • The attempts at character "development" come across as forced and largely fail.
    • SPOILERS: For example, David's opening scene, Oram's exposition of being mistrusted due to his faith, and Daniels's out-of-nowhere badassery (Ripley's felt much more earned.).
  • This is the second big film (along with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) starring Katherine Waterston and I just find her to be completely devoid of any charisma. Apparently she was in Inherent Vice, which I liked, so I will have to re-watch it and see if I like her better in it.
  • For a Ridley Scott movie, this film really underwhelmed me visually.
  • This also had very uninteresting creatures. Prometheus had its flaws but it at least had some really interesting, rapidly evolving creatures; these seemed more like run-of-the-mill, vanilla monsters to me.
  • The tone bounces around all over the place and, at times, the words and actions of the actors seem completely incoherent with the context of their situation.
  • At some points the film seemed to be going for a sort of Predator vibe. There were guys with guns smoking cigars (on a first contact alien planet??) and a sense of the protagonists being hunted by something with Predator-like score cues - but it really fell flat for me.
  • Expanding on that point, this movie didn't quite know what it wanted to be: a horror film? A sci fi action film? A metaphysical thought exercise? It tried several things but didn't do any of them really well.

THE UGLY

  • This film unfortunately lacked any tension whatsoever. It telegraphed every "twist" way ahead of time and fell back time and time again on tired tropes - both from the horror genre in general (Hey, let's all split up!) and from its own previous movies (No spoilers, but they will be obvious.). All it's left with are cheap jump scares and you know they're coming.
  • The worst part for me is that the plot relies on one unbelievably stupid human decision after another even just to get our protagonists into this mess - emphasis on "unbelievably." In sci fi movies you can suspend disbelief of technology, but it's hard to believe that that humans became so much dumber in the future and the resulting incredulity really pulls me out of the movie.
The film is worth seeing, especially if you're a fan of the franchise (read: the first two films and aspects of Prometheus). However, set your expectations appropriately and, because there isn't anything too special cinematically here, it's not crucial that you see it in the theaters.

2017-04-30

Review: The Neverending Story

The Neverending Story The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

WOW! Just wow! This book completely took me by surprise! I was impressed by the movie version of The Neverending Story as a child but it didn't move me enough to warrant repeated viewings or motivate me to seek out the source material.

For nostalgia I recently re-watched the movie and was disappointed by how poorly it had aged. This time, however, it DID inspire me to give the book a read and I'm so glad that I did! It turns out that the movie really comprises only the first act of the much longer book.

This book is, literally, fantastic. It is a sweeping epic journey with enchanted worlds, magical characters, and mythical creatures. Most characters are fleeting yet the book is written such that you still care about them even without pages and pages of development. Somehow The Neverdending Story manages to use these brief encounters to build a much richer universe, leaving the reader's imagination to fill in the details with, "But that is another story and shall be told another time."

The epic story is underpinned by themes of self efficacy, self image, and destiny. In many ways it reminds me of a much longer, more detailed version of Coelho's The Alchemist. It goes a step further, though, and adds "meta" themes of human fantasy and escapism. This meta commentary doesn't QUITE hit its mark for me - I think its reach exceeds its grasp a little - but it doesn't in any way detract from the rest of the story.

The most impressive aspect of The Neverending Story for me is that it is translated to English from its original German. It features so many charming character descriptions, clever turns of phrase, and even rhyming verses of poetry/song that its translation must have been an incredible labor of love. The end result is, well, fantastic, but I admit that it has me yearning to learn (I feel the yearn - the yearn to learn!) German just to be able to read the original source material.

Bryan's great adventures learning German . . . but that is another story and shall be told another time!

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2017-04-10

Review: The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

THE GOOD:

Ridley's first and most consistent argument is that specialization (the ability of one person or organization to do one thing while another does another thing) and exchange (the ability to trade the products of those two things) set humans apart from other animals and enable growth / prosperity because the whole us greater than the sum of the parts. He provides a great deal of evidence for this position and his argument is quite compelling.

His second argument is that time and again humans have found ways to overcome dire threats to their well-being, hence the cause for the optimism in the title. He also argues that government regulation by and large interferes with economic growth (through specialization and exchange) and inhibits human innovation (which we need to overcome all of those dire threats).
These arguments are cogent and, if the book had stopped here, I would have given it a higher rating.

THE BAD:

Ridley goes a step further, though, and effectively argues that, because humans have a long tradition of overcoming threats, we shouldn't concern ourselves with said threats. I take umbrage with this kind of fatalism and counter-argue that concerning ourselves with said threats is exactly HOW we keep overcoming them - but them I'm an entrepreneur while he is a [minor] British noble heir so he and I may have very different ideas about self efficacy and agency.

The author also contradicts himself frequently when convenient for his arguments. For example, in one section, he demonstrates how foolhardy it would have been to extrapolate trends from pre-industrial-revolution economies into the 20th century. The industrial revolution changed the rules of the game dramatically such that some things that had previously been linear became exponential.

Yet, when arguing against the seriousness of some current threats - like climate change - he extrapolates trends from long ago to support his point. Not only is this fallacious and hypocritical, it seems willfully ignorant in his particular case: Ridley was Chairman of the first English bank to go insolvent in 150 years at the outset of the 2007 financial crisis. If anyone should understand the folly of making decisions on anachronistic data, it should be he!

As another example, he cites multiple reasons (high cost, inconsistency of production, etc.) why green energy technologies are inferior to fossil fuels (Ridley has been accused of a conflict of interest in Parliament due to his investments in the coal industry.). However, he spends chapters describing how humans invariably overcome exactly those types of challenges. Indeed it is instructive to read this 2010 book through the hindsight of 2017 as we have seen innovations drive down the costs of green energy technologies substantially. He should listen to his own advice and be optimistic!

THE UGLY:
Ridley's worst offense in this book is a liberal use of the straw man fallacy. He portrays all environmentalists, for example, as being anti-growth and anti-technology. He also frequently uses impractical biofuels as a green energy punching bag as if they are the only alternative to fossil fuels. His data are quite selective and he introduces false dichotomies, e.g. between combating climate change and combating malaria.

CONCLUSION:
This book started out well and then really fell apart for me. It's almost as if Ridley had a good concept for the first few chapters but then was compelled by his publisher to stretch it into a longer book. In doing so, he introduced many logical fallacies and made proclamations that haven't held up even just a few years after publication. That said, it was an interesting read - especially the beginning - but the content might be better suited for a TED talk than a 450-page book.

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2017-04-04

More on the Beatles

As a follow up to yesterday's post about the Final [Fab] Four and in celebration of the UNC Tarheels basketball championship last night, here are some more thoughts on the Beatles that came from discussions in the group.

First thought: even if you go back pre-Beatlemania to their time as a cover band, their potential for greatness is already evident. Live at the BBC and several other compilation albums feature their early material - mostly covers with very little rearrangement of the source material but it's really good. Even before they developed their signature sound (and then treated us to the evolution of said sound over seven years), they were just damn fine musicians. They made simple 50s/60s rock and roll staples sound so good!

It ought to be criminal that four lads from Liverpool could do such excellent renditions of American rock and roll spanning a significant range - from Motown to Memphis Soul, from high/smooth Smokey to abrasive Little Richard, from guitar-driven Chuck Berry to vocal harmony-driven Everly Brothers. Their covers are fathful-ish to the source material but with little flourishes that put their own decided stamp on it. There's just a certain je ne sais quoi they add that takes - with rare exception - each song to 11.

To be that awesome as a cover band across so many styles and then on top of that to be such prolific and innovative songwriters - how can that even be possible? I guess that the two are sort of part and parcel to each other, but still, it just seems like an unbelievable confluence of awesomeness. If they had been athletes, they would have been accused of performance-enhancing drugs - oh, wait, maybe that's a more apt comparison than I intended. ;-)

Another thought: who else has matched the Beatles' productivity in any other endeavor? The Beatles set themselves apart in several ways:

  • quantity of good songs (128 alone in the tournament and there were many missing songs that were cited as snubs.)
  • over a short period of time (> 1 album per year + lost of singles)
  • ratio of good songs to bad (depending on your taste, at least a 1:1 ratio and, for many, much higher)
  • innovation within their art (So much stylistic evolution during their short career - not to mention the birth of / inspiration for many sub-genres of rock!)
  • ...

Trying to draw comparisons yields many results that hit some of those achievements but not all. Has anyone else in contemporary popular music matched or exceeded them? The Rolling Stones, for example, have probably hit a similar number of good songs - but over a much greater period of time.



You could make an argument that Jimi Hendrix was heading along a similar trajectory with three amazeballs studio albums between '67 and '68. Unfortunately he was effectively a one-man show without the other band members to challenge and collaborate with him so his ceiling may have ultimately been lower and/or he simply may not have been able to keep up the pace. I like to think that he would have continued to innovate, possibly by teaming up with others in the early 70s. Either way, we'll never know.

What about in other eras of music? Mozart?

What about other arts? Picasso? Several of the Renaissance masters might fit the bill - especially da Vinci given his impact on the arts and the sciences. Like the Beatles, some of them had a group dynamic force multiplier effect. They weren't in a group together per se, but they worked in close proximity to one another, saw the works of their peers, and adapted/competed with their subsequent oevres.

What about literature? Isaac Asimov has probably been as prolific and influential in his craft - but over the span of 40 years rather than 7. Perhaps, given the size/scale/timeline of writing a novel vs a song, that's an appropriate time scale for comparison, though?

One member responded:
"It can also be argued that the vast majority of his influence on Science Fiction, in particular, in the first 10 years of his output - maybe '42-'52 - were the most prolific and groundbreaking. And I think, really, a novel is pretty directly comparable to an album, whereas a short story is like a song. In that case, Asimov BEATS the Beatles in terms - not only in output and inventiveness - but in Longevity of concentrated output. And he'd probably still have been going through the 2000's if he hadn't gotten an AIDS-infected blood transfusion."

What about other areas of work? Are there prolific academics, for example, who have matched this level of productivity relative to the norms for their fields? Multiple members offered up Russel Reiter, who has authored or co-authored 1364 peer-reviewed scientific publications over the past 45 years or so - more publications than most have even read.

The Apollo space program was held up as an example in discussion. Clearly there were thousands of people working on it, not just four, but what they accomplished, not only in the end goal but also in all the intermediate innovations that were necessary to achieve that goal, is something we hadn't seen before and haven't seen since. Interesting that it took place during the same exact time period as the Beatles!

We also discussed examples from the world of sports. Athletes are a tough comparison to make since they're limited by seasonality but I think there are definitely analogies to be made. Michael Jordan? Wayne Gretzky? Federer/Nadal? One member offered up Esther Vergeer, who was #1 in her sport (wheelchair tennis) for 14 years and retired on a 470-match winning streak!

Some of these analogies may be more apt than others but one thing is clear: the Beatles were very special. I don't know if we'll see their likeness again in my lifetime or if the time and place that brought them together was unique. Either way, we're all the better for them having been together, however briefly.

2017-04-03

The Final [Fab] Four

While Chapel Hill is going crazy with Final Four fever, I have been focusing my March Madness attention on a different Final Four - the Final Fab Four. A friend of mine from university
drew up a bracket of 128 Beatles songs and we spent the month of March in a Facebook group devoted to the discussion of which songs were the best.



More than 100 people participated, ranging from those who were alive during Beatlemania to those, like me, who were born long after the Beatles had broken up. Everyone brought a different perspective and often there were fiercely passionate discussions of particular songs or matchups.

Songs were seeded according to the organizer's personal preferences and paired in an opening round of 64 one-on-one matchups. Over two days we voted for our preferred song in each matchup with winners advancing to the next round (32 matchups). Winners of the second round voting advanced to the next round and so on until, in the end, there could be only one.

Some of the matchups were easy. While My Guitar Gently Weeps against Got To Get You Into My Life, for example, had an obvious (to me) victor. On the other hand, though, many matchups were agonizingly difficult, pitting two beloved songs of very different styles against each other. Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band against Across the Universe, for example - how do you even compare the two? It's like choosing which of your children you love the most - impossible!

The only way I could choose a winner in such matchups was to go with my heart. Many others opted to rationalize their decisions with lengthy arguments about the importance, critical reception, innovation, and influence of different songs. While I found such efforts to be misguided, the resulting discussions were packed with information - both historical and musical - much of which was new to me. Rather than this bracket simply being a fun diversion, it turned into a learning experience as well.

After each round the organizer would post a recap in the style of a sports analyst. Clever as he is, he would sprinkle Beatles puns throughout. This wordplay was welcome salve for my wounds whenever my songs would lose and fail to advance to the next round.

The link above to the bracket includes the results of voting in each round. What would have won the Final Fab Four tournament in your bracket? What do you think won in my bracket?

2017-03-31

Uncomfortable Podcast

Stop what you're doing and subscribe to this podcast right now. My intelligent, worldly high school classmate at ABC News has launched a series of uncomfortable conversations. There has only been one episode so far but it is riveting.

In the first episode she hosts an intelligent, articulate (the most dangerous kind) white supremacist who weaves a tangled skein of rhetoric, fallacy, and hypocrisy but legitimately drinks his own koolaid / believes what he is saying. You need to listen to this because this is exactly the type of rhetoric that is swaying economically disadvantaged whites who are looking for scapegoats and giving rise to white nationalism.

I have mixed feelings on what she is doing here. On the one hand I think it's reprehensible to give someone like this a platform / megaphone and, in some ways, legitimacy. On the other hand (which is the hand that wins out for me), these are the arguments going on behind closed doors (and increasingly out in the open) and we really need to know about them / understand them.

This is not an idiot or a bass ackward hick. This is someone who is educated and has come to [flawed] conclusions that he is able to defend and use to influence weak minded and/or confirmation-seeking people. People will regurgitate his sound bites because he sounds smart and well reasoned and we need to have a response for that besides incredulity.

Give it a listen on Google Play or iTunes and let me know your thoughts/reactions.

2017-03-26

Full of Birthday Love

What a wonderful birthday celebration it has been! Although I prefer to celebrate all month, things crescendo'ed last week. On birthday eve, a couple of guys came over to try out some new beers. Instead of beating our chests and male bonding, though, we found ourselves talking politics, economics, science, and entrepreneurship until we realized how late it had become - very stimulating!

The day of my birthday itself I started by playing Dad's old pinball machines. There must have been some birthday magic at work because I set a new high score on The Black Knight - 30 years later he still puts up a good fight!

It was actually a pretty intense day at work but I managed to duck out for a good workout  (Birthday tradition!) and the evening weather was great for some beach volleyball - very refreshing after our recent cold snap. When I came home, Katie surprised me with some decadent chocolate cake - I guess that's a tradition too!

Most importantly, I had offered up a birthday challenge to match dollar for dollar any donations to GIVEWATTS on my birthday. Several friends and family rose to the challenge and together we managed to contribute several hundred dollars to the cause - THANK YOU to those who participated! It is always nice to receive gifts and wishes on my birthday but it is even nicer to pay forward my blessings to others!

The real treat for me was over the weekend, when I hosted a dear, dear friend from IMD. Katie and I did our best to introduce him to regional cuisine during his short stay: BBQ (City BBQ), biscuits and donuts (Rise), fried chicken (Time Out), ice cream (Fresh Local), and fried green tomatoes and grits (Mama Dip's). We also visited the NC Museum of Art for a "hike" around the spacious sculpture park and interior exhibits on Ansel Adams and the Venetian Renaissance.

The pièce de résistance was enjoying the nice weather by smoking cigars and sipping bourbon out on our back deck. He and I shared cigars very early in the IMD year and neither of us smokes them terribly often so it was special to re-create that event in a very different context - different location, different cigars, and [very] different US!

It was a wonderful visit and my heart is quite full (Not to mention my stomach!) so I am deeply appreciative of him, Katie, and everyone else who has made my birthday so special. Of course there are still a few days left in March so there is more time to celebrate!

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.