Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

Katie and I saw Last Jedi opening night, of course, and this was my initial, knee-jerk, non-spoiler reaction: mixed feelings. Some aspects I loved; some I wasn't so sure about. Some comedy was lol; some fell flat. Some emotional beats gave me #allthefeels; some felt unearned. Some plot points confusing but mostly good tension that kept me guessing.

It's a long movie with a lot going on so it has taken me longer than usual to unpack and process. After a second viewing, though, and much discussion, I am now ready to share my full review. WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW! OK, let's do this thing.


  • Let's start with the obvious: this is an audiovisual tour de force. Both times I have seen it have been in IMAX and it has simply been breathtaking - literally! During the silent period during which Holdo's ship light speeds through Snoke's, there were audible gasps all around me.
  • The movie doesn't just look beautiful; the score is amazing as well. John Williams has come through once again. This time he didn't invent any iconic new themes, but he did blend many familiar ones in ways that really heighten the emotional impact of what is happening on screen.
  • The actors brought their A games. There are several emotional scenes and, because the actors killed it, I had all the feels.
  • Last Jedi features some of the best action we've seen yet in the Star Wars universe. Rey and Kylo's fight against the Praetorian Guards was very well choreographed and I loved Kylo and Luke's Samurai / Western standoff on Crait. By giving each character a distinct fighting style they illuminate the differences between them. I also enjoyed Poe's aerobatics more in this movie because they weren't undercut by the extremely contrived, "That's one hell of a pilot," as the were in The Force Awakens. In Last Jedi we get to see what makes him "the best pilot in the Resistance." 
  • There are some genuinely LOL moments (although I'll discuss the downside of them in the BAD section).
  • Yoda returns to form as a puppet and as a whimsical, laughing, old Jedi. I missed this version of him!
  • I'm really glad that Rey's parents turned out to be nobodies. I think the message that you don't have to be born into a "pureblood" family to be strong with the Force is a really great one - and is reinforced by the child we see at the end.
  • The film sets up payoffs far in advance. For example, Kylo says to Rey that she can't be Force projecting herself across such great distance because the effort would kill her. Much later, Luke Force projects himself across a great distance . . . and the effort kills him. Luke tells Rey early on that everything she said was wrong . . . and then tells Kylo the same thing at the end. I appreciate the attention to these little details.
  • While The Force Awakens featured many familiar beats that seemed repetitive, familiar beats in Last Jedi were often subverted. Snoke's throne room showdown, defending a base against ground assault on a white planet, etc. - these are all things that seem familiar but then, to paraphrase Luke, they don't go the way we think. In such a way, these beats "rhyme with" previous beats rather than repeat them. The repeated subversion of our expectations also builds good tension.
  • One way in which expectations are subverted is that, in multiple subplots, our protagonists actually fail to achieve their objectives, which I really like. Because Star Wars is more fantasy fairy tale than it is sci fi, we come to expect our exceptional heroes always to win out - and it really throws us for a loop when they don't. That's refreshing and, moreover, it is thoroughly coherent with one of the movie's messages that it is OK to fail.
  • It was a bold move to kill off not only the primary antagonist (and before the third act!) but also the greatest hero of the franchise. I appreciate that this movie took more risks than The Force Awakens - although not all of them paid off (See below.).
  • I remain really impressed that, after 40 years and eight films, they are still innovating creatures and vehicles. Every movie features some interesting new stuff and this one is no exception.
  • I'm far from the only person to call this out but the Canto Bight subplot didn't work for me. It felt like a monolithic side quest that took a lot of time and really didn't add much to the narrative or characters. Moreover, I was really underwhelmed by their entire realization of Canto Bight. Given an infinite budget and the goal to create a galactic version of a casino planet, what do we get? Basically a terrestrial casino with a slight alien "skin" over it. Really disappointing and not very creative at all.  
  • Although I found some of the comedy pretty funny, I found much of it to be tonally incoherent. In a film that did a good job building tension, setting the stakes, and bringing real gravitas to the plot, I too often found myself pulled out of the movie by jarring humor that just didn't seem to fit.
  • The other side of the expectation subversion coin is that I felt the movie tried too hard - and too frequently - to introduce "twists." From the opening bombing run to the throne room showdown, to Holdo's light speed maneuver, the film tries over and over again to lure you into thinking things will go one way only to reveal that they unsurprisingly are going the opposite way. This trope gets old very quickly for me. Some reveals I thought were fantastic - like Luke Force projecting himself - but these myriad others were cheaper and generally unnecessary.
  • The basis for a major portion of the plot makes no sense. Fuel isn't necessary to maintain a constant speed in space; it is necessary to accelerate (and possibly maintain basic ship functions). If the Resistance ships were lighter and faster than the star destroyers, they should have been able to run away from them. I don't lean too hard on sci fi movies to get everything right, but this is really basic.
  • I didn't buy the Rose-Finn romance at all. It came out of nowhere and seemed completely unearned. It also seemed cheap that Rose - a career mechanic - was able to pilot a snow speeder deftly at the end. Because . . . the plot required it I guess?
  • For the second movie in a row, Domhnall Gleeson was completely wasted. Hux went from being a total caricature of a petulant child (with poor writing to boot!) in The Force Awakens to being a total caricature of a petulant child and a foil for comic relief in Last Jedi. It makes no sense that this character would be a general at all.
  • And speaking of wasted actors, it was nice to see Gwendoline Christie get a little more screen time in this film but she was still largely wasted. Other than cool armor (Why don't all the storm troopers have it since it seems to be the only armor that actually protects against blaster bolts??) her character doesn't bring much to the narrative and that's a shame.
  • The worst part of this movie by far was the Holdo-Poe subplot, which felt ridiculous and entirely manufactured. Poe has been described as the best pilot in the Resistance and he is clearly a leader among his squad. It seems entirely goofy to me that he and Leia would not be on the same page regarding the objectives of his squad's mission (evacuate safely, not destroy the dreadnought) and then everything he does after that seems even more contrived. We really didn't see much of Poe in The Force Awakens so I can't claim that this writing is incoherent with his established character; it just didn't seem very believable to me.
  • On top of a manufactured conflict from Poe, Holdo then seems written in an equally unbelievable way. She is condescending and insulting to Poe and then she is deliberately keeping her crew in the dark about her plans (She then chastises Poe for doing the same thing.), which is piss poor leadership in a crisis situation. You can do some mental gymnastics to explain away her behavior but it also feels very contrived.
  • The entire point of this sub-plot seems to have been to teach Poe a lesson - but what lesson? That the Resistance should strive for blind obedience to authoritarianism - the very thing that they are fighting??
  • The consequence of this subplot is that this is the first Star Wars film that feels really episodic to me. It reminds me of a Clone Wars or Rebels episode: there is some manufactured conflict with one character clearly needing to learn some lesson; hi-jinx ensue until said character learns his or her lesson. That formulaic heavy handedness is appropriate for a half hour kids show - but not for a Star Wars film.
  • Also, why didn't Holdo turn around immediately and go light speed through the ship instead of waiting until many Resistance transport ships were lost? Everything about this subplot is wrong.

  • I found Luke's final act to be awesome in just about every way. From the epic Samurai / Western showdown (audiovisually stunning) to the reveal that he is Force projecting (another moment when there were audible gasps in the audience) to his peaceful death before a binary sunset, I just loved it. Rey said the Resistance needed a legend, to which Luke responded, "What do you think I'm going to walk out with my laser sword and take on the entire First Order?" And then he does exactly that. Except he does it in a way that outsmarts his opponent rather than beating him physically. Rather than beating Kylo with a lightsaber, he beats him through a much higher command of the Force. It is transcendent and it is glorious.
  • The messages in this film may be some of my favorite in the series. Anyone can be strong with the Force. Failure is a great teacher. No one is ever really gone. This last message struck me particularly hard as I recently lost a dear family member. Given this trilogy's role in moving away from the original trilogy characters we have loved for decades, Luke's final words weren't just to Kylo; they were to us.
The Last Jedi has plenty of good and plenty of bad. After two viewings, I find that the good strongly outweighs the bad. The good is really good and the bad is mostly contained. It probably helps that it finishes on such a strong note. This film provided many surprises and explored new territory. It took some risks, not all of which paid off. But, as Yoda teaches us, "the greatest teacher, failure is."

I, for one, will rewatch Episode VIII many more times and I am looking forward to Episode IX!


Blade Runner 2049 Review

I found Blade Runner 2049 to be positively captivating. It was long and slow but very immersive and I enjoyed almost every minute of it. Villeneuve deftly walked the line between paying homage to the tone and style of the original and exploring new, interesting territory. It is brilliantly directed, very well acted, and realized spectacularly through cinematography and score.


The Good

  • The story is solid. There is a point of view out there that this movie looks pretty but has a weak plot; I don't buy it. I found the story - while not perfect - to be very compelling. It has elements of a classic hero's journey but it also has twists that subvert viewer expectations, thus rendering the mystery more . . . mysterious. I didn't see the primary twist coming at all and I really enjoyed how it wasn't a climactic twist (a la The Sixth Sense) but instead marked a huge shift in the arc of the protagonist. This way I could enjoy not just the twist itself but its implications in the third act.
  • The characters - even the minor ones - are interesting. I especially enjoyed that, although characters from the previous film are present here, this movie really isn't about them. Pre-existing characters are part of the context but this story belongs to the next generation.
  • Acting and directing are on point. This film isn't devoid of dialog but there is a lot of "white space," shots in which characters have to convey information through emoting and blocking rather than through speech. With rare exception, the entire cast acquitted itself with aplomb. I'm no fan of Ryan Gosling because it seems like all he ever does is brood on screen, but that approach worked really, really well here. And any time you can get Harrison Ford to throw himself into a role these days, it's a win.
  • This sequel asks the same philosophical questions as the first film - but it asks them differently. What does it mean to be human? What is love? What is life? Where are the boundaries between what is artificial and what is "real?" The original Blade Runner was hardly the first sci fi film to ask these questions but it did so in a way that captured the imagination, touched the heart, and incited decades of debate. 2049 asks the same questions but through different enough "lenses" as to be just as captivating and thought-provoking.
  • Viewers will be rethinking, analyzing and debating this film for years. Not only the abstract, philosophical questions but also the specifics of the plot and characters invite post-facto discussion. Some details become apparent later in the film but some weren't obvious (to me, at any rate) until hours of thinking about it and discussing afterward. For example, while watching the film, I wasn't terribly moved when K discovers that he isn't Deckard's child. Only afterward, while remembering how earnestly he questioned Deckard about Rachael (believing her to be his mother at that time), did the revelation really hit me in the gut. I imagine that this film - like its predecessor - will benefit from rewatching.

The Bad

  • There is some clunky exposition. For all the tightly woven narrative and artfully shown (just enough)-not-told plot and character points, there are a few moments when the film beats the viewer over the head with overt exposition. I don't know if this was due to low confidence in moviegoer intelligence (probably justified) or sacrifices to reduce the run-time (in which case I can't wait to see an extended director's cut) but each of these moments stick out as wholly incoherent with the rest of the film. They actually pulled me out of the film in those instances but, due to the competence of the rest of the movie, I quickly found myself sucked back in
  • The science of some key elements is questionable. I know, I know, you're supposed to suspend disbelief in sci fi but, when something goes against the basic laws of physics, it's hard for this scientist/engineer not to object. Once again, though, it's a credit to the quality of the rest of the film that it could pull me in regardless of my incredulity.

The Amazeballs

  • The cinematography and sound are simply outstanding. They aren't just pretty to look at and nice to hear; they conspire to create a truly immersive cinematic experience. There were moments in this film when I felt positively hypnotized, floating along wherever the director wanted me to go; it was sublime. Deakins (cinematography) and Zimmer (score) are the "it" people in their respective fields and this film showcased exactly why. Excepting for the few moments that I was pulled out of the film (See above.), I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in this world - and that is saying something after 163 minutes!
  • The film captured the tone and style of Blade Runner but extended them enough to offer something truly original. Blade Runner 2049 incorporates enough of the past to honor its heritage but also offers enough new to be interesting. It is more than an homage and less than a copy - more like a variation on a symphonic theme. Doing anything with a movie as beloved as Blade Runner risks alienating fans but I think 2049 hits as close to the mark as can be done. Kudos to the entire team for the care that was taken with this precious IP.

I have been increasingly impressed with Denis Villeneuve's work. Most recently I found Arrival to be a refreshingly different type of sci fi movie - much less action-centric and more cerebral than other big budget Hollywood films in the genre. Indeed, Villeneuve's style was a perfect match for Blade Runner, which was itself a slower and more pensive sci film in a time when Star Wars had turned the genre into a special effects arms race.

When a Blade Runner sequel was announced, I was skeptical. It didn't seem to me that anyone was clamoring for more Blade Runner, especially not after Ridley Scott's Final Cut left the film in such a good place. When Villeneuve was attached to the project, I dared to hope but still tempered my expectations. Now, having experienced the final product, I find myself surprised and frankly, elated. Given all of the misses in attempts to reboot or revisit old, beloved franchises, perhaps Blade Runner 2049 will serve as a reminder of just how high the ceiling is if you can get it right.


Enchanted by Ireland 1

Katie and I had a lovely trip to Ireland with her family! After a week and a half, we are positively enchanted by the Emerald Isle and will hope to return soon.

Our trip actually began in Paris for the annual Jimmy Buffett concert. Because we would only be in Paris for 24 hours, we chose to walk around and enjoy the great city rather than queue up for a prime spot at the Saturday show. This was just fine, though, as there isn't a bad seat in the house for these small concerts and we still had ample opportunity to catch up with our Parrothead friends after the show.

Sunday we took a flight to Dublin, where we were greeted at the airport by ads for Guinness - a refreshing change from the luxury watch ads that usually greet us at European airports! Katie's parents, sister, and brother-in-law picked us up at the airport (They had already been in Dublin for a couple of days.) and we were off to Galway. I hadn't realized how small Ireland is geographically but it only took two hours to drive from Dublin (East coast) to Galway (West coast).

Upon arrival in Galway we headed immediately for the Galway Oyster Festival! It was a big tent with, wait for it, oysters! And beer! Specifically Guinness! My first Guinness in Ireland was really lovely. People claim that Irish Guinness tastes better and it may well do but I would need a side-by-side blind tasting to test that claim. Taking it on faith, though, I just drank every Guinness I could get my hands on throughout the trip! I love Guinness on its own but it goes very well with seafood as well, including the Kelly(!) Oysters (from just a few km away), the mussels and clams, and the fish n' chips there at the festival.

That evening we went to The Quays, a local pub/bar/music venue/restaurant for dinner. The food (fish n' chips and beef and Guinness stew - which we ordered every chance we could on this trip) wasn't great but they let you add four oysters alongside any Guinness for a small additional fee so we liked that deal. The music was pretty nice too so it was a good start to the evening.

After dinner we attended Trad on the Prom, a show of traditional Irish music and dance. It featured unique Irish singing, instruments, and Riverdance-style dancing. It was sort of hilarious in that, every time the emcee would introduce a performer, he would remark that that performer had won X number of world championships. I'm not sure exactly how many competitors there are in the "world" championships of traditional Irish dancing but it would seem that the majority of them were there performing that night! This became a running joke of ours for the rest of the trip; with every performance we saw we wanted to know how many world championships had been won by the performers!

Our Monday began with a run along Galway's Prom[enade]. It was cool, foggy, and oh so green - exactly as I imagined Ireland would be! We followed this up with recovery nutrition at Dungeons & Donuts, a hybrid donut shop and tabletop RPG parlor. The donuts weren't amazing but the flavors were creative and the atmosphere was unique!

After a visit to Katie's Chocolate Shop (Both Barrett sisters' names were well represented by Galway food service companies!), we drove around Galway Bay to our next destination. En route we stopped for tours of Hazel Mountain Chocolate, a local artisanal chocolatier, and Dunguaire Castle, a 16th-century tower house located on a huge bog that feeds into the bay.

First impressions of Ireland were enormously positive. The people were - as they would say - lovely, the landscape was green upon green upon green, castles and ruins were ubiquitous, and the Guinness flowed like water!


Family and Hurricanes and Terminators, OH MY!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dear Mr. Potter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Total Eclipse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hiking in Switzerland

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


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:


  • 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)


  • 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.


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.


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 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 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.


  • 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!


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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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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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.


  • 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 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.


  • 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.


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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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


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.


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!

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.

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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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.


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?


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.


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!


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."

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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:


  • 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 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!


Harry Potter Dinner

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

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.

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.

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!).


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.

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.

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.

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.