Wolf 359: The First Half

I’ve listened to a lot of audio drama podcasts, but none of them has impressed me as much as Wolf 359. Created, co-written and co-produced by Gabriel Urbina, the science fiction adventure-comedy ran for 61 episodes (plus a number of mostly-shorter bonus episodes) between 2014 and 2017 and is – as far as I can tell – one of the most acclaimed audio dramas around. I’m not sure I’ve listened to any other audio dramas as old as this, but it feels as fresh and new and polished as any of the new releases in 2018 and 2019.

I enjoyed the first 25 episodes so much that I stopped there, and went back and started listening again with my wife, who has also been enjoying them. Conveniently, episodes 31 is the halfway point in the show and is also a great point to pause and reflect on the series up to that point, and speculate on where it’s going. And maybe this will encourage a few more people to listen, and perhaps amuse people who have already listened to the whole thing and can chuckle at some of my observations.

I’m going to talk in general terms about the series and its story, and will have a few spoilers from the first season which I think are useful to know since the first season is regarded by some as “something you have to get through to get to the good stuff”. Then I’ll have some more spoilery discussion later a cut.

Wolf 359 takes place aboard the U.S.S. Hephaestus research station, which orbits the red dwarf star of the same name. Said star is 7.9 light-years from Earth, and might be best known on pop culture for being the site of an off-screen space battle in one of the most disappointing stories in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The show’s protagonist is Communications Officer Doug Eiffel (voiced by Zach Valente, who also co-produces), a lazy, ne’er-do-well who nominally is checking for unusual transmissions from deep space, but who spends a lot of his time trying to smoke cigerettes and avoid work. The station’s commander is Renée Minkowski (Emma Sherr-Ziarko), a by-the-book military officer who is constantly locked in battle trying to get Eiffel to do his job. The station’s science and medical officer is Dr. Alexander Hilbert (also Valente), a Russion mad scientist whose bumbling experiments also threaten everyone’s lives on a regular basis. The station is overseen by an artificial intelligence, Hera (Michaela Swee), who is a little sensitive whenever anything goes wrong around the place.

The show opens about a year and a half into the crew’s 2-year mission, and the first ten episodes are a collection of mostly-humorous vignettes about the crew’s mishaps: Eiffel getting cigarettes from Hilbert, Eiffel staging a revolt to hoard the last tube of toothpaste on the station, the terrifying annual physical exam, and so forth. But there is also real danger, as the station gets rocked by solar radiation, the power goes out and Hera goes down, and a mysterious extra room is found bolted onto the side of the station.

I feel like Wolf 359 has a lot in common with Babylon 5. While it’s common (and sometimes frustrating) for audio dramas to have a slow burn, Wolf 359‘s arc is a lot like B5’s: The first season provides background into how things on the station work (or, often, don’t work), raises several interesting questions and suggests several others, and lets the listener get the lay of the land before things get rolling. While the characters are not without depth, they start out as caricatures, with just a few glimpses of what’s beneath the surface. And that’s the point, because it makes what comes later that much more powerful.

And again like B5, the end of the first season shakes up the status quo and raises a whole bunch of new questions. More crucially, it takes the story from a light comedy to a serious drama with a heavy dollop of suspense and significant character development. Eiffel and Hilbert both turn out to be much more capable than you would have guessed, while Minkowski and Hera are both a lot more fallible than they’d appeared. And the story becomes a series of crises and developments, each time bringing us back to a slightly different status quo than we had before.

Most importantly, the show becomes one of understanding motivations and teasing out background. Eiffel is the perfect character for this, because he’s a big loudmouth and not a very deep thinker by nature, but he also has a sharp sarcastic streak which makes him seem profound when he does figure out what’s going on. As the second season progresses, a number of key questions are suggested:

  • What exactly is the Hephaestus’ mission? It’s pretty clearly more than “sit around and see if anything happens”.
  • Why was the station staffed with this collection of buffoons?
  • Why does the station seem so unreliable?
  • What else are their superiors hiding?

There’s one other point, which might turn out to be nothing, or it might not. Let me get into it this way:

It’s been said that restrictions breed creativity, and the audio medium has its own peculiar set of restrictions. First, there are no images, so the story has to be conveyed through audio. Unlike prose, however, there are sounds as well as words. But there’s a lot less space for words than in prose, so economy of words is valuable. (Consequently, I tend to find most audio dramas which substantial narration to be tedious.) Wolf 359 is outstanding at conveying the action without having long bits of exposition, and even when it does have exposition it feels meaningful and dramatic. But the show also has a terrific array of sound effects, with a very distinct style: They’re generally overly dramatic, and very retro: Mechanical keyboards, bells and whistles, a communications system that signals with a loud buzz, and so forth. It’s wacky.

Or, I thought it was wacky, but there’s something missing from the setting: When exactly does this show take place? The station is 7.9 light years from Earth, but they are able to travel between the two in a few months. And there are loads os pop culture references, but they’re all… contemporary. Entirely from the 20th and early 21st century. Lastly, while I couldn’t easily find the quote, there’s a suggestion at some point that some of the music they listen to is from within the past century by the crew’s time.

Does Wolf 359 take place… in the 2010s? Is this a parallel universe to ours? And does that matter?

Maybe it’s just part of the show’s wacky background, but so much of the story seems carefully assembled, with many deliberate set-ups and payoffs, that it feels like this could be something.

I hope it is.

Anyway, if you enjoy audio dramas, science fiction, comedy, character development, suspense, surprises, or people showing they’re capable of more than you thought they were, I highly recommend Wolf 359. If the second half is as good as the first half, then it’s gonna be fantastic.

A few more comments spoiling season 2 and the beginning of season 3 after the cut:

Continue reading “Wolf 359: The First Half”

Zed (and other Myst-like Games)

I spent a few hours on my recent vacation playing through the computer game Zed. I’d backed it on Kickstarter a while ago, and it was eventually published with the help of Cyan Ventures, an arm of the company which produced the Myst series, which I adore.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by Zed, though it helped clarify what I enjoy about games of this sort. While the art, sound, animation, etc., are all important elements in providing a sense of being present in the setting of the game (which was the breakthrough triumph of Myst, I think), the main factors are having an engaging story, and having interesting gameplay usually puzzles or challenges to walk through the story (and usually not combat). The gameplay also allows the player a certain amount of agency, or at least the illusion thereof.

Cyan’s games do a good job of balancing both elements, particularly in Myst and Riven, as well as the sequel (not by Cyan) Myst III Exile. Cyan’s most recent game, Obduction, also hit this sweet spot for me. (I reviewed it here, though it seems I thought some of its puzzles were a bit too far on the hard side, which I’d forgotten.)

Zed is heavy on the story but very light on gameplay. The framework is that you’re playing the role of an artist with dementia walking through memories of his life to collect ideas for a final gift for his granddaughter, but it’s a heavily guided experience where you roam regions of his memory in sequence, being exposed to the narrative of his life, and collecting a small set of objects in each area, but that’s really all there is to it. There are no puzzles, nothing else really to do, and negligible agency. It looks great, the story works pretty well, but it feels like doing a walkthrough of a game rather than playing a game. I worked through it in about 4 hours (by contrast, Obduction took me about 20 hours).

Zed is the first game of this type that I’ve played which has leaned so far in this direction; I’ve seen some which leaned too far in the other direction. I vaguely recall a 90s game called Obsidian which I played and felt was all gameplay (and surreal settings) and not much story. (I didn’t finish it.) Quern: Undying Thoughts is a more recent example: It’s full of puzzles (and takes a long time to work through them), but the story is pretty thin.

Another nuance is when the puzzles are too obscure or difficult, or which are tedious because they involve too much walking around (which takes time and is no fun if you’re not discovering anything new). Myst IV: Revelation is unfortunately an example of this, with several puzzles that made very little sense to me, and I ended up using a walkthrough for a lot of it. (The story was pretty good, though.) I suspect Myst V: End of Ages was similar, but the game was buggy enough (I think it didn’t play well with the video card I had in my Mac at the time) that I didn’t get very deep into it before getting frustrated and giving up. Quern had the too-much-walking-around problem in spades.

Anyway, I do love this style of game, and will play most games of this type that I come across as long as they’re on platforms I own (Mac and iPad, basically). Here are some others I’ve played:

  • Alida (2004) This one was pretty well balanced, with maybe a couple of puzzles that were too obscure.
  • The Talos Principle (2014): I’ve been playing on my iPad. The puzzles are pretty good, but the story is nearly nonexistent.
  • The Witness (2016): All puzzles – often very frustrating puzzles – and no story at all. I ha-a-ated this game and gave up after about 5 hours. The graphics are pretty mediocre for a modern game, too.
  • Tipping Point (2007?): Another game I’ve played on my iPad. It’s okay but I lost interest about halfway through and haven’t gotten back to it. I’m not quite sure why I haven’t found it satisfying.
  • Grim Fandango: Originally released in 1998, I bought the remastered iPad version when it came out a few years ago. I’m not sure this game really belongs in this category, though it seems adjacent at least. I didn’t get very far in it because it involved a lot of walking around from place to place, and frankly I got bored. It sure is stylish, though!

Are there are others currently available that I should try?

I’ll also try games that are clearly not really intending to quite be this sort of game but are similar in some key ways. Some games by Simogo feel adjacent to Myst but not quite the same thing. Device 6 is more of a story with a few small puzzles, as is The Sailor’s Dream. I enjoyed both, although Sailor left me feeling a bit empty at the end. I also tried Year Walk, but it felt like it was all walking around and not much progress.

Anyway, my disappointment with Zed isn’t going to dissuade me from playing more games of this sort. In fact, I backed Cyan’s next game on Kickstarter, Firmament, once they committed to a Mac version. And heck, I kinda feel like playing through Obduction again.

A Temperate Trip

Yesterday we flew back from our latest trip back east to visit our families. I’ve been working so much over the last year that I haven’t taken much vacation since last year’s trip – just a few days here and there – so I was so ready for this one. We took 2 weeks for this trip, like we did for last year’s, but we didn’t have chores to take care of for the beach house this time so it was pretty much a pure vacation.

The JetBlue red-eye flight isn’t getting any easier, but there aren’t a lot of choices for flights from the Bay Area to Boston unless we’re willing to make a connection (we’d rather not). Our flight was also delayed an hour. So we landed around 6 am EDT time on a Wednesday morning, then picked up our rental car. This was supposed to be a mid-sized car, but was actually a Mazda 3 hatchback. This was a pretty crappy car, with a lousy console, a buggy entertainment system (no CarPlay! The console went dead on Debbi at one point while she was driving to her sister’s house!), it was missing the cover for the hatchback and we couldn’t fit all our luggage back there anyway. And the tire pressure light came on during our second week there. At least it had 4 doors, but not my idea of mid-sized. Our experience with it definitely makes me disinclined to buy a Mazda in the future. If we had been more awake when we picked it up we would have gone back to request another car when we saw it was a hatchback. I made a note for future trips to be sure to request a sedan.

Anyway, car bitch-fest aside, the trip went smoothly. Debbi spent a night with me at my Dad’s before heading out to meet a friend of hers for lunch, as said friend was also in town from out-of-state. I spent a couple of quiet days with Dad, going to the cemetery to visit Mom’s grave, where we also saw red-winged blackbirds and a small turtle – we definitely hit the jackpot with her site at Mount Auburn Cemetery. The second half of the Women’s World Cup tournament was on while we were there, and I watched one game with Dad, and others with Debbi and other family. Maybe I’ll get into soccer as my next spectator sport.

The first weekend there I borrowed Dad’s car and drive down to the beach house to meet Debbi and spend the night there. Debbi’s friend from out-of-state as well as another friend met us there for the afternoon, which was a nice, relaxing time. We ran some errands after they left and had a quiet evening. On Sunday Debbi’s family came by to hang out for the day.

Oh, and I bought Debbi a late birthday gift, the Lego Millennium Falcon, figuring we’d spend time putting it together on our vacation. I’d originally planned to get her the totally bonkers Ultimate Millennium Falcon until I saw that that one would take 40 hours or more to put together, and came with instructions on how to lift it without it falling apart. Plus the box weighs 30 pounds! I decided that was a little too ridiculous, so I got her the basic set (from the original trilogy – there are also sets from The Force Awakens and Solo). But the joke is that we never put it together and ended up shipping it home before we left. Oh well!

I drove back to Dad’s Sunday night, while Debbi went to stay with her sister. Debbi had another friend drive up with his daughter and her friend (both teenagers) on Monday to stay the night, and it sounds like they had fun. Meanwhile Dad and I went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which we’d last visited a decade or more ago. They’ve updated a lot of the exhibits since last we were there and it looks a lot spiffier, although it’s somehow comforting that the room with the dinosaur fossils and the coelacanth seem to only have received a fresh coat of paint. (Technically this is the Romer Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology.)

Plateosaurus
Plateosaurus
Coelacanth
Coelacanth
Triceratops
Triceratops

Several of our favorite restaurants near Dad’s have closed in recent years, so we tried a few new ones (to me, anyway, and one new one to Dad). Fortunately one favorite, Taberna de Haro, is still there (we went twice).

I decided not to go out to Waban on this trip, because with Mom’s house gone, my elementary school replaced, and not really anyone left out there whom I know, it didn’t seem necessary to go again this year. I belatedly realized that this means 2019 is likely the first year since 1971 when I didn’t spend any time in Waban. Truly the end of an era for me.

Tuesday Debbi picked me up and we started the second half of our trip, which consisted almost entirely of hanging out at the beach. We didn’t quite think our meal plans through as we kept going back to the grocery store to pick up stuff for lunch or dinner, but otherwise it went smoothly. I was reminded that unfortunately while there are several “okay” restaurants in the area, there are not many really good ones. I think my favorite that we’ve tried is The Galley, a small plate restaurant in downtown Scituate with some good drinks and a nice open-air atmosphere. (Check the mirror behind the bar for their wi-fi info.)

Debbi’s family came out for July 3rd, which is when many tens (hundreds?) of thousands of (illegal) fireworks are set off by homeowners up and down the beach. It’s quite a display, and a highlight of our trip. Then Friday night an old friend of mine from high school, Matt, came to visit. I’d contacted him around the time of my 50th birthday and learned he lives near the beach house! So I grilled burgers and we hung out and chatted for the evening. I think it’s been over a decade since we’d seen each other, so we had a lot to talk about. In many ways I feel like we haven’t changed a lot, at least not as far as how we relate to each other.

We had really good weather for this trip, much nicer than the sometimes-brutal weather of last year, but Saturday was the one rough day of heat and humidity on this trip. We mostly spent it sitting in front of the fans, though we ran a couple of errands in the afternoon. About 5 pm a storm rolled in and it instantly got cooler and drier. We got a good view of some lightning strikes out over the water before the rain crashed in for about an hour. We did take a walk in the drizzle in the evening to go get ice cream, though! I’m grateful that even though we did have some very warm days, it always cooled off at night so we could sleep, since we don’t have A/C at the house.

Storm coming
Storm coming (click for larger image)

The fam came over again on Sunday to watch the World Cup final and have a last day at the beach before we left (and several of them headed off on their own vacation). Debbi and I had a quiet evening and a last day at the house before we drove up to Dad’s for the last night with him.

We flew home Tuesday night and miraculously our flight arrived 40 minutes early, so we were able to decompress a bit before bed. We smartly took today off from work so we were able to reorient ourselves and get ready to go back to work. Plus it took most of the day to convince Roulette to come out from under the bed and warm back up to us. She will be 16 years old later this month and she is definitely looking a little thin, so it’s hard to see her traumatized by us going away like this. Poor girl. (Sadie and Jackson, of course, bounced back immediately.)

Holy cow did 2 weeks of vacation fly by! On the other hand, now I have so much in the bank at work that I can’t let another year go by before taking another one.

Sunrise

Marvel Cinematic Universe

Now that I’ve seen Avengers: Endgame and I’m all caught up on them, I thought I’d survey all of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Endgame marks the end of the 22 films which Marvel claims are collectively titled “The Infinity Saga”, though I think that’s meant to sound more impressive than it is: The films are linked, to be sure, but the link is for some films pretty tenuous, and the overall story certainly could have been condensed down to no more than six movies as there’s a lot of material superfluous to what one might call the main story.

Still, despite this posturing, it’s been an enjoyable run, albeit with its ups and downs..

To start with, I put together a ranking of all of the films, with letter grades. There are some I might move up a little or down a little depending on my mood – especially the ones in the C range which are all very similar in quality – but in the large here’s where I put them:

And now I’ll briefly – and chronologically – run through all of the films with some expanded thoughts on them.

Spoilers ahoy!

Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010)

I didn’t see these when they first came out – I didn’t see them until after The Avengers – and I wrote a joint review of them. It’s hard not to think of them as linked, since they’re very similar films. Iron Man has better character bits but a disappointing finale (“hero runs out of power but triumphs anyway” is never a satisfying finish), while Iron Man 2 has a lot of dead air leading up to a much more satisfying climax. Both films hold up pretty well today, and it’s really hard to say which one I like more. Their biggest weakness is that Tony’s friends can’t convincingly stand up to him (Nick Fury’s appearance in Iron Man 2 is a breath of fresh air in this regard), and so the story often feels like it’s a man’s internal struggles made external, but kind of ham-fistedly so. Unfortunately, the MCU never did learn to apply nuance to Tony’s character or struggles.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Not a sequel to the 2003 film Hulk (which I haven’t seen), this one is only tenuously connected to the rest of the series. Edward Norton does a terrific version of Bill Bixby’s Bruce (David) Banner from the 1970s TV series, reinforced by the opening credits which seems to recreate the origin from that series. (Apparently they filmed 70 minutes worth of origin footage! Then wisely decided to just use it as credits visuals.) The movie plays more like a horror film than a superhero film, and its best scene is the army facing the Hulk on a college campus, which is perhaps the single most effective scene for showing what a completely terrifying experience the Hulk would really be. The film is majorly let down by its special effects, which would have seemed dated 5 years earlier when The Lord of the Rings finished its trilogy. The story is kind of dumb and since there never was a sequel one of the major loose ends never gets resolved, but there is lots of smashing.

Thor (2011)

Somehow directed by Kenneth Branagh and featuring a fantastic cast, Thor is unfortunately a rather tedious film due to a by-the-numbers story of Thor learning responsibility and how to (sometimes) see through his brother Loki’s machinations. Chris Hemsworth made the role of Thor his own, but is overshadowed by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. The film only has one truly great scene, where Thor gets his hammer back and faces the Destroyer.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

The first MCU film I saw in the theater, you can read my full review from that time. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and it holds up wonderfully. Chris Evans is picture-perfect as Cap, making him more than a naive do-gooder, convincing us that he has deep-seated beliefs motivating his actions. His conversations with Erskine are both amusing and moving. The moment when Cap and Bucky and the soldiers walk back into camp after Cap rescues them is the single best scene in any film in this list. Even the ending works perfectly – although it maybe works a little better after seeing the later films since it makes it not quite so bittersweet.

The Avengers (2012)

I saw this one in the theater too, and here’s my review. The Avengers holds up better than I would have guessed at the time: The wheel-spinning plot of act two works a bit better as character-building now that we have a better idea of what characters were built. Joss Whedon’s cutesy dialogue hasn’t aged as well, nor has his ham-handed scripting of the Black Widow. And then the whole point of the invasion is questionable given what we know from Infinity War and Endgame (why does Thanos bother with all of this?). But there are several great scenes, and the whole final battle is the gold standard for staging a complex superhero fight. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is very different from Edward Norton’s, but it works well for how his character develops. But the film really belongs to Cap and Iron Man as the big two of the MCU.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Many people hate this film. I’m not going to die on a hill defending it, but I think it’s better than some think. The film works with an interesting premise: What can Tony Stark do if he can’t be Iron Man? And there are some fun scenes built around that, (very) loosely inspired by a few similar moments from some comic books. The rescue of the President’s aides is pretty great, too. But the story overall is a mess, the Mandarin is a tremendous disappointment (they got Ben Kingsley and wasted him on this?), and the final battle is a lot of flash but is basically kind of silly.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Award winner in the category of “most criminal underuse of Christopher Eccleston” right here. The Dark World is incomprehensible nonsense almost from start to finish, punctuated by cringeworthy scenes that I guess are supposed to be funny (especially those involving Erik Selvig). The scene where Thor and Loki put one over on Malekith is pretty good, but otherwise this one has nothing to contribute to the series except another Infinity Stone.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

The first two Captain America films are neck-and-neck as my favorite superhero films, but when pressed I think the first one is just a little bit better. Still, I loved The Winter Soldier, as I wrote in my original review. While the high-level story involving “the algorithm” and the plot device “we must put our chip in all three carriers or it’s all for naught” is basically ridiculous, the story works very well the rest of the way, especially the sense of paranoia Hydra engenders, and the sheer hopelessness Cap feels when confronting Bucky. Black Widow gets her best characterization here, and it feels like the directors brought a great performance out of Scarlett Johansson where Joss Whedon couldn’t. Anthony Mackie is immediately terrific as the Falcon. Finally, the action scenes are amazing, like The Matrix on caffeine and speed.

My biggest regret in this film is that they planted several seeds of future Cap movies (Bucky, Sharon Carter, Nick Fury going walkabout) which got sacrificed on the altar of Age of Ultron and Civil War, and frankly it just wasn’t worth it.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Some people love this film, thinking it’s in the upper echelon of the series. I think it’s practically the epitome of an average action film, with a cardboard villain, a lot of fine action scenes, heavy on the humor, and a pretty standard story arc. The emotional center of the film – Quill and Gamora – suffers a lot in that I think Zoe Saldana is a pretty wooden actress. By contrast Bradley Cooper’s Rocket – despite being a voice actor over a CGI raccoon – is the most sympathetic and engaging of the characters. I’m reasonably happy to watch this when it comes on TV and I want something on in the background, but it’s not going to displace a Red Sox game.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Things start to go wrong here, and I’m not sure whether it’s because of Joss Whedon’s script and direction, or if it’s instructions from higher up about where the characters should go which gets in the way. Ultron is an embarrassingly dumb villain – quite a change from his comics persona where he’s one of the five scariest villains in the Marvel Universe – and there are just too many characters here with too much running around, complete with a second-act fight which is even more pointless than in the first movie, as much fun as it might be to see the Hulk run crazy. The Vision is tragically underused in this film and in later ones. At best this film is moving the chess pieces around for later films, but it’s not a fun experience. It also suffers from not having Alan Silvestri score the music as he did for the other Avengers films.

Ant-Man (2015)

A charming little caper film, Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas are both at the top of their games in this film about a retired hero (a contemporary of Howard Stark) recruiting a small-time thief to help take back his company. For comics fans it’s a fun re-mixing of comics elements into the MCU, but it works fine on its own too. The best scenes involve Scott and his daughter Cassie, as Rudd completely sells Scott’s love for his daughter and how that relationship guides him when it really matters.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

And here’s where the wheels fall off on the overall story. First of all, this should have been the third Avengers film because it’s not really a Cap film. Second, it cements Tony Stark’s place as the greatest villain of the MCU (well okay, maybe Thanos passes him later on, in results if nothing else). It’s a nice introduction for the Black Panther, who’s the only character who comes out of this having gone anywhere, but they could have accomplished that in a much narrowed Cap film which also developed his relationship with Bucky reasonably. Turning Tony into a man-child and basically undoing all of his earlier character development was just awful. It’s always fun to see Chris Evans as Cap, but he deserved a lot better than this.

Doctor Strange (2016)

It’s decidedly weird to see Benedict Cumberbatch with an American accent, but that aside he was quite well cast as Doctor Strange, who has his own personal hubris and downfall to overcome, not entirely unlike that of Tony Stark, albeit with a more transformational result. I didn’t completely buy that Strange had truly become the “master of the mystic arts” by the end of the film, but it was close enough. I also appreciated that they didn’t go “the full Ditko” with the CGI dreamscapes. There are a lot of directions they can take Doc in future films, and I hope they choose the “sorcerer supreme” direction rather than the “loses his powers and has to soldier on somehow” direction.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 (2017)

It seems like big fans of the first Guardians film felt this was a disappointment, but I think it’s only a small step down. I’m not sure whether they could have come up with a truly satisfying reveal for Quill’s father, and this was a pretty good try. It’s his relationship with Yondu which works best, though. Nebula and Gamora’s reconciliation works pretty well too.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

I’m probably in the minority here, but I did not like this film. I thought Tom Holland was fine as Peter Parker and great as Spider-Man, and the fight scenes were excellent. But the high school scenes were painfully awkward, Tony Stark’s patronizing lack of trust in Peter is another big strike against his character, and Peter’s desperate attempts to make a difference early in the film are both cringeworthy and feel very out-of-character for him. Spider-Man’s character works best as a young man who’s responsible beyond his years, and while they’re trying to make him a more fallible hero, I don’t think they thread that needle. I haven’t seen most of the earlier Spider-Man films, but I’d take the first Tobey Maguire one over this one.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Another film that some people adore and which I think is just okay. I appreciated the opening sequence where we see how far Thor has come since his first film, yet we see later that he’s learned some of the wrong lessons, that he’s still a little too full of himself even though he’s much more wise and capable than he once was. The scenes on Sakaar are fairly entertaining, but most of the stuff on Asgard is dull, and the final battle feels pretty disappointing, like there wasn’t really a victory there, yet not much processing of what was lost either. I guess Chris Hemsworth has been enjoying the comic side of his later MCU movies, but I think it’s consistently some of the weakest stuff in them. Kudos to the writers and director for trying some off-the-wall stuff, but it was pretty hit-or-miss overall.

Black Panther (2018)

I don’t think it’s possible for me to like this film as much as some people do, but I do think it’s a good film. The acting is great across-the-board (honestly Martin Freeman is probably the weak link here and he’s still fine), and it represents a new step forward in staging complex battle scenes. That said, T’challa’s character arc straight out of Rocky is a little meh, and the big fight at the end feels a bit too manufactured. I preferred the first half where it was a sort of superhero James Bond film.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

A two-and-a-half hour set-up for Endgame, I didn’t see this in the theater and once I saw it I didn’t feel like I missed much. It really has only two great scenes – when Cap and company show up to rescue Vision and the Scarlet Witch, and when Thor arrives to fight Thanos. The film otherwise was just overstuffed with characters, none of whom displayed any real character. The directors have said that Thanos is the film’s protagonist, which explains a lot about why it doesn’t work: His motivations make no sense, he doesn’t grow or change as a character, he’s utterly unsympathetic and is in a way the ultimate generic villain. Not quite as big a flub as Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, but up there. The film sort of tried to pay off the tragedy of the Avengers being broken up and unable to work together after Civil War, but it’s a subtheme at best. The best part of the film is Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, who fills the “everyman” role in the story, just kind of amazed at everything going on around him. He gets the single best line in the film, too: “You guys are so screwed!”

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Another fine caper film, maybe a little better than the original: The villain was more interesting, and the spectacle was more entertaining. The Ant-Man films are not tremendously ambitious, but I don’t think they’re meant to be. If you liked the first one, you should enjoy this one.

Captain Marvel (2019)

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this film – which I did see on the big screen, and it was worth it – since the comic book version of Captain Marvel has a long and complex backstory which I didn’t see them translating to the MCU. Quite sensibly they kept the bare bones of her origin and jettisoned almost everything else in favor of a new story about a woman on a journey of self-discovery. The film is quite clever with some fun twists and turns and entertaining fight scenes at the end. Brie Larson plays Cap with a mood that switches between intense and ethereal, and though she’s cut from similar cloth as Captain America she comes across very differently from Chris Evans’ aw-shucks Brooklyn demeanor. I’m a little sorry we (probably) won’t get to see them appear together in a significant way.

Anyway, after thinking about it I realized that I enjoyed this film more than any in the series except the first two Captain America films, and I’m eager to see more. I rather hope the next film explores what she’s been doing in space for 25 years before returning to Earth, and why it seems none of the other space-based characters (Thanos, the Guardians) have heard of her, since she’s able to take down a star destroyer without working up a sweat. Figuring out how to challenge a character with that level of power is also going to be a good trick for her future writers.

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Probably easier for you to just read my full review, since it was just a couple of weeks ago. But in brief it was a much more enjoyable film than Infinity War, with stronger characterization. It would have been nice if the whole third act hadn’t only been an extended fight scene, and I think the ending could have been a bit better, but as a farewell to Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in their superhero roles it was enjoyable enough.

Looking Forward and Backward

What made these movies enjoyable for me is that the core characters were true to their comic book versions, and the stories effectively remixed many comic book elements to create engaging new versions. Sometimes this worked better than other times: Winter Soldier pulled together several disparate comics plots into an enjoyable whole, while Iron Man 3 didn’t really get it. But in the end when we saw the Avengers fighting Loki and his alien army, they were the characters we wanted to see. This isn’t the way superhero movies have to be done – Christopher Nolan demonstrated that in his Batman trilogy – but it was made this series work.

The question is where the series goes from here with Captain America and Iron Man being written out, and Thor probably moving into more of a supporting role (Chris Hemsworth is apparently willing to do more Thor films, but with a more comedic bent). It sure looks like Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Doctor Strange are likely to be the core characters for the next decade or so of films, which is a mix we haven’t really seen in the comics, so we’ll see whether the studio forms them into a new team (the Defenders would be the logical choice if they decide to jettison or merge the Netflix characters into the MCU). But with Disney buying Fox it sounds like the X-Men will be arriving in the MCU soon, and perhaps the Fantastic Four after that. And then there are the rumored TV series (Vision and the Scarlet Witch, Falcon & Winter Soldier) – but I have a hard time seeing them tightly integrate those with the movies, much as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has largely been its own thing separate from the films.

Honestly I hope they move away from trying together all of the movies and instead focus on developing story arcs for each of the major characters, the sort of thing that Captain America was denied.

My guess is that the MCU as currently constructed will probably start to break down when the main stars of the next 5 years start to leave, and then we’ll see Marvel reboot the franchise in new films. That’s not the worst thing – either through hard or soft reboots most of these characters have been changing for new generations over the decades anyway, so a new Cap, Iron Man and Thor for a new generation would make sense.

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame poster
(click for larger image)

Last weekend we finally saw Avengers: Endgame, which wraps up the Avengers series of movies as they’ve been set up since Iron Man back in 2008, and is basically the second half of the movie started in last year’s Infinity War.

Before I get to the spoilers I’ll say this: Infinity War was basically 2-1/2 hours of set-up, was way overstuffed with too many characters, and Thanos was a pretty limp villain, not strong enough to carry the movie, and with basically unbelievable motivations. Endgame benefits from a much smaller cast (for most of the movie) and more room to breathe, but at 3 hours long also contains a lot of material that could have just been cut, or replaced with better material. Still, it’s a fairly satisfying wrap-up to the story, and has a number of great scenes (which were sorely lacking in Infinity War).

Now, on to the spoilers:

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Camera Obscura

Yesterday Debbi and I took the day off to go to San Francisco for the first time in several months. We went to California Academy of Sciences, and Borderlands Books, which are two of our usual haunts, but we also went somewhere I’ve never been before: To see the Camera Obscura. (See also the Wikipedia entry.)

I’m a big fan of the Lands End area, which is in the northwest corner of the city, west of the Golden Gate Bridge, at the northern reach of the Great Highway and Ocean Beach. The main parking lot is the home of the USS San Francisco Memorial and access to some great walking trails. The area is best known for the Cliff House and the ruins of the Sutro Baths, but decades ago it was known for Playland at the Beach, an amusement park which opened early in the 20th century, and which closed in 1972.

It seems two remnants of Playland survived its closure: One, the Musée Méchanique, moved to Fisherman’s Wharf on the other side of the city when the Cliff House was renovated starting in 2002. The other is the Camera Obscura, located in a small building accessible by a short trail to the left of the Cliff House, or by stairs to its right leading to a paved area behind the building. While I’d visited the Musée several times at its location here, I don’t remember the Camera at all, and feel like I only heard of it a year or so ago.

We parked in a nearby lot which had broken car glass in many spaces. My guess is that people park there at night to go walking and that’s when most of the break-ins occur. We didn’t see any cars with broken windows. There’s also street parking, as well as the lot for the Lands End Lookout building, above the Baths.

Admission was $3 for each of us, but it was well worth it for the novelty: The Camera had a 360° angle of view, and once the operator turns it on, it slowly rotates through its arc, projecting the image of the area around the building on a large concave wooden panel in the middle of the room. Viewers must slowly walk around the panel to stay oriented to the image, but it is amazingly sharp and clear. Which makes sense, since what we think of as a “camera” – film or digital – has a resolution of the image it produces, while this camera has effectively infinite resolution – or, at any event, probably higher resolution than the human eye can perceive.

It takes about six minutes to complete the circuit, so during the second cycle when the camera was pointed at the Cliff House, Debbi and I checked out the small but neat collection of holograms around the room.

The Camera Obscura is in some ways emblematic of San Francisco historical sites. Most of SF was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, so most of the historical sites that remain have a sort of immediacy to them: Some of them, like the Camera, are still functioning. Others were functioning within the lifetimes of many people living (such as Alcatraz). In a way this is a testament to the pace of technological (and sometimes social) progress in the last century: The Camera Obscura is still pretty cool today, and it must have been pretty awesome when it opened in the late 1940s. Nonetheless, though that was only 70 years ago, it feels like a different era in history. But the Camera is not a relic, it’s a representative.

The turret on the top rotates to provide the 360° viewing area.

Twenty Years

Today is my 20-year anniversary of working at Apple. Where does the time go?

I went back and read the entry I wrote about moving to California and starting work at Apple, and it’s, uh, a little embarrassing. I guess I was… enthusiastic? But also young. Not that 30 – which I had just turned at the time – is all that young, but myself at 30 reads as young to me, 20 years later. Ranting about stupid tech problems, a silly dig at Microsoft (which was still on top of the world at the time, rankling many an Apple fan), a strange surface sense of self-awareness that nonetheless makes me think, “This guy, he has no idea.”

But it basically turned out okay for that guy.

I wrote a short entry on my 10-year anniversary of moving to California, which mostly reflected on the craziness of the move out here. I guess I wasn’t feeling too reflective at the time.

We had a department meeting last week where they had short segments on myself and two others hitting big milestone anniversaries. I found a couple of old photos from my first couple of years that they used, and our director said a lot of kind things. He also devoted a chunk of it to my puns, which I’m sure would amuse my sixth grade teacher. There are a lot of people in our department that I don’t know well but now they know me a little.

Apple is in many ways essentially the same company I joined, only much, much bigger. As John Gruber once said, “[Steve] Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.” I think that’s been key in maintaining the continuity and the level of excellence and – frankly – keeping the company a place I want to work, across two CEOs and many huge changes. Apple had, what, less than 10,000 employees when I started? How big is it now?

Of the projects I’ve worked on in the last two decades, I think the one I’m most proud of is the iOS SDK, which shipped in Xcode 3.1 near the end of my first decade. It was a large and interesting project in which I think we got many things right and that work has served us well in doing similar projects in the decade since. I’m hopeful that the groundwork we’ve laid in Xcode’s new build system in the last few years will lead to it eclipsing that in my memory, given time.

Personally, the last ten years have had their ups and downs: Debbi and I bought a house together. We had three cats pass away, but got two more. We bought a vacation home. My mother moved to assisted living and passed away. We got married! We went to Walt Disney World and visited Debbi’s family and friends in the area. Friends and family have come to visit. It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster, which maybe is normal for middle age. I’d say it’s been more good than bad, but maybe that’s because these have been good times for the last three or so years: There were some dark stretches earlier in the decade.

This year so far has been a cool and rainy one in NorCal, which is one of my enduring memories of my first month or so in California. Spring in February is normal to me now, whereas it felt like bonus exotic vacation time when I first got here.

I “celebrated” by doing a Magic draft in the evening at Game Kastle, where I assembled a mediocre Azorius deck with lots of removal (four Lawmage’s Binding! Three Slimebind!) and not enough good creatures. I dispatched a good Simic midrange deck, and then run over by a hyper-aggressive Rakdos deck and a solidly aggressive Orzhov deck, for a 1-2 finish. Not the best, though looking back I think I was in approximately the right place, the cards just weren’t there.

I also tweeted about my Appleversary and acquired about three dozen new followers on Twitter. No doubt they’ll all be disappointed when I rarely tweet about Apple or tech. 🙂

20 years is a long time to stick with anything, but honestly you can never run out of interesting things to work on at Apple. I’ve been working on approximately the same project for most of that time, and there’s always something new to learn or develop. I doubt there are many companies where that’s true, and I consider myself lucky to be there.

Fifty

I turned fifty years old on Wednesday. It hardly seems possible!

I’ve treated my birthdays as very low-key in recent years, and this was mostly not an exception. Wednesday Debbi came into the bedroom before I got up with a pair of giant balloons for the number “50”. Later on I thought they spelled “SO”, as in “I am SO old!” She also put “Happy Birthday” signs around the house, and bought me boxes of See’s Candies.

I took Wednesday off from running, but I did go to work. I’d planned to put aside some of my current projects and instead work on some stuff I wanted to work on for a day. Instead I put them aside to work on putting out a fire. Best laid plans! But hey, I did get the problem solved. And I left early to pick up comics, where the owner of the store told me Debbi had stopped in and given him her credit card number to pay for my haul for the day. So I picked up a few extra things, which I think was her intention. She also cooked dinner. A pretty great birthday!

Friday night we went to Sundance the Steakhouse for dinner, which is one of my favorite restaurants and one we’ve gone to often for our birthdays. The complementary dessert for my birthday is great too.

Saturday we did some chores, but we also had some cleaners over to do a serious cleaning of the house, especially the bathrooms and kitchens. We haven’t had cleaners in since we moved into this house, and it took the two of them about 4 hours to get through everything. But man, it sure looks better, especially the master shower, but also just much less dust on everything. Jackson followed them around while they were here, which was pretty funny; even the vacuum doesn’t faze him much.

Finally, today we threw a small party with friends and their kids. It’s been a while since I had a birthday party – maybe since 2012? I had a good time, although I think a couple of the kids were a bit bored at times. But I carried my friend Itai’s younger daughter around upside-down a bunch of times, so I think she had a good time. And cake from The Prolific Oven and ice cream from Rick’s is always yummy!


It’s no surprise, I guess, that 50 doesn’t feel much different from 49. I’m not sure whether it feels much different from 40, either. I’ve been pretty lucky that my hair isn’t graying very fast – mostly just at the temples – and my body is in pretty good shape considering I’m someone who’s not in great shape. A few aches and pains, but nothing chronic. I’m still able to run 14 miles a week.

In some ways I don’t feel that much different from when I was 25, but in other ways I do. Little (and big) life experiences and lessons add up over time. It’s a perspective I don’t think I could have had when I was 25. Maybe other people do, but it’s the sort of thing I wish I should share to those who don’t, if I knew how.

It is weird to think that I’m pretty firmly past the halfway point in my life – hardly anyone in my family during my lifetime has lived to 100 (only one person that I know of). That’s a little bit of an illusion since not all of my childhood feels like I really lived it, so maybe I’ll make it to 90, and I have a pretty good chance to get to 80. 30 years is a long time.

But it’s still weird to write something like that.

Anyway. I don’t make many New Year’s resolutions, but this year I decided I would talk less about my age and longevity at work. It’s a little too much like bragging, and I already know that I work with lots of younger people who are as good or better than I am at our jobs. And maybe it feels a little too fatalistic. Hopefully that will be an easier resolution to keep now that this birthday has passed.

But, as they say, age is just a number. And a birthday is just a day. And every year has a whole bunch of them

Outer Darkness

Many years ago when I was still into role-playing games, and in particular into Call of Cthulhu, I came across a magazine (remember those?) with a short adventure investigating a spaceship which crashed on a planetoid and – of course – eldritch horrors were involved. Someone had even created an image for the adventure involving an old Space: 1999 Eagle – an inspired choice since that show had great visual design and was at its (modest) best working the horror genre. I wondered at the time while no one had really mined the potential of Lovecraft and space opera. Of course, lots of people have combined horror and science fiction; even before I saw that magazine we’d already had Alien and George R. R. Martin’s novella “Nightflyers” (which has itself been adapted as a film and a recent TV series on SyFy), and they’re hardly the only examples. But I hadn’t seen instances combining specifically Lovecraft horror with SF.

I’m sure there have been plenty of instances by now of that combination – Lovecraftian fiction is bigger than ever and there has been a lot of it written in the last 35 years – but now we have something resembling it in comic book form: Outer Darkness, by John Layman and Afu Chan. It’s working a more overt form of horror (with large doses of terror), but it is, if you will, a second cousin to that role-playing adventure I came across decades ago. And it’s one of the comics I most look forward to each month.

The comic is on a slow burn to reveal its story, but the basic idea is this: Humanity has reached the stars, and there are horrible nightmarish things out there. Joshua Rigg is a former ship captain in a dead-end career when he’s asked by a fleet admiral to take command of his old ship, the Charon, to head into the outer darkness to retrieve – something. The ship now had a god engine, a ravenous being to which sentient lives have to be sacrificed to make the ship go. This is no Star Trek crew: The officers include an oracle, an exorcist, a mathematician, a mortician (!), and various others of various species. And apparently there’s a war on.

In the second issue, Rigg puts his crew through a brutal exercise to see what they’re capable of. And in the third we meet a couple of junior crew who come to a bad end – or so it seems. But this seems like the kind of universe where if something doesn’t get you in one issue, something else might in the next. The stage is still being set three issues in – we barely know anything about the characters’ pasts, or what’s going on in the universe, or what the Charon is heading out to retrieve. But it’s engaging stuff so far.

I was not a big fan of Layman’s previous long-form comic, Chew – I burned out on the shtick after about 30 issues – but Outer Darkness has a very different tone and is a solid read so far. It’s also got some fine and distinctive artwork by Afu Chan, whom I thought I hadn’t seen before, but it turns out I did buy HaloGen, though I don’t really remember it.

Honestly besides the space opera/horror mash-up, the slow burn resemblance to Babylon 5 is also a draw for me. If Layman wants to make this fan really happy, this series will have the sorts of revelations and changes in direction that were the keynote of that series, so that by the end we’ll be looking back impressed by how the story got from these simple beginnings to wherever it ends up. Here’s hoping!

Doctor Who, Season 11

After 37 (or so) seasons of television, the BBC cast a woman as the Doctor. Jodie Whittaker fit right in with many of her predecessors, perhaps not surprisingly most closely evoking David Tennant – the most popular Doctor of the modern era – and Peter Davison, with her portrayal of the Doctor being more consistently upbeat and less of a schemer who can’t entirely be trusted (a la the sad end of Matt Smith’s Doctor vis-a-vis Clara).

For me, the key question was whether the writing would improve, as the show’s writing these last few years has been inconsistent at best, and often just plain weak. Did new show runner Chris Chibnall succeed in elevating the storytelling? My answer… after the cut (along with spoilers for the season):

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