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Ranking the Star Wars Films

Okay, a little more Star Wars for this year. Here’s how I would order the films, and rate them on a scale of 1 to 10:

  1. Star Wars (9/10): Engaging, evocative setting, enjoyable characters. Despite its derivative roots and difficult gestation, the novelty and exuberance of what made it to the screen is still admirable almost 40 years later.
  2. The Empire Strikes Back (8/10): Better written, better dialogue, better-delineated characters, better special effects. Doesn’t really have an ending (since it’s the first half of a two-film story) and doesn’t have the gosh-wow factor of the first film.
  3. Rogue One (8/10): Extremely well produced, satisfying (if a bit depressing) story, effective backstory to the first film.
  4. Return of the Jedi (6/10): The opening sequence is excellent, Luke’s story arc comes to a satisfying conclusion. However, the Ewoks are somewhat annoying, the revelation about Luke’s family is utterly ridiculous, and geez, didn’t we already see a Death Star?
  5. The Force Awakens (6/10): Too self-consciously a rehash of the plot of the first film, too much of the setting that doesn’t make sense (is the Resistance part of the new Republic? Why are they operating like the Rebellion was?). Still, Finn is a great down-to-earth (or wherever) protagonist, the dialogue and action sequences are great, and seeing the original cast is fun.
  6. Revenge of the Sith (2/10): The only actor who gets out of the prequels not having his acting skills obliterated by Lucas’ direction is Ewan McGregor. Which arguably qualifies him as one of the greatest actors of all time, even before considering his uncanny embodiment of Alec Guinness.
  7. Attack of the Clones (2/10): This film is better than the next one on this list, and that’s all I have to say about it.
  8. The Phantom Menace (1/10): This film was completely unnecessary. Even the title is unnecessary. You have to work really hard to be a film with any production values at all and still earn a 1/10.

I started to write a piece about where the Star Wars franchise collapsed under its own weight, but it turns out I wrote such a piece two years ago. I think at this point one must come to Star Wars expecting action, special effects, and witty dialogue, and anything more is gravy. That’s mostly what Return of the Jedi was, and the later films, including the new Disney ones, are in that vein as well. I definitely do not come to them expecting deep philosophical themes or interesting world-building, since the franchise gave up on any hope of coherently working out its timeline, universe, or fantastic phenomena decades ago.

But that’s okay; there are worse sources of mindless entertainment. After all, this formula has worked for James Bond for over 50 years.

Rogue One

We saw Rogue One on Wednesday, and I thought I didn’t have enough to say about it to be worth writing a review (certainly not as much to say as John Scalzi had), but after a little discussion on Facebook I think I do have a few things to say. But after the jump, as there are spoilers.

Read on, Macduff! »

Doctor Who, Season Nine

Doctor Who didn’t have a lot farther to sink after last season, so season nine was almost by definition something of a rebound. With Jenna Coleman having announced beforehand that she’d be leaving the series, many stories seemed to tease her departure by putting Clara in positions where she could be plausibly killed off.

(Much) more – with spoilers – after the jump.

Read on, Macduff! »

Beyond Belief

The biggest revelation for me from the election has come from pieces like this:

The revelation is this: People can be told something, understand what they’re being told, be presented with evidence of it, even have the speaker say that this is something they want to and are going to do, and just flat-out not believe it. In this case, Trump saying that the Affordable Care Act needed to be repealed (and replaced, but with no suggestions as to what it would be replaced with), which is entirely plausible considering repealing the ACA has been a cornerstone of Republican priorities in Congress for the last 4 years. There’s no good reason to think the Congress and Trump wouldn’t repeal it, yet people voted for him despite feeling the ACA is valuable and important.

Maybe this characteristic of voters has been obvious to everyone else, but it was a surprise to me. (And, frankly, I haven’t generally observed politicians, analysts, pundits or other voters acting as if they realized this.)

Most voters I think vote for a candidate expecting they will renege on – or may be flat-out lying – about some of their campaign statements, since that is, unfortunately, part and parcel of politics (and political reality) for most candidates. But it seems remarkable to me to vote for someone expecting that one of their key statements, about something which is important to one’s life and health (literally), is something they’d go back on.

(It’s easy to feel schadenfreude for people in the articles, but I think we should have more empathy than that; I think things are going to get pretty rough for a lot of Trump voters in the next few years, and no one should take joy in that.)

To my mind, this puts a stake through the heart of any “best interests” argument about voters (most of which I’ve found pretty weak anyway): Clearly large numbers of voters either don’t vote in their best interests, and one reason is that some of them simply don’t believe that a candidate will act against those interests even when the candidate flat-out says that they will.

I don’t know what this means for candidates’ campaigns, elections, political organizations, analysis, punditry, or just plain watching all of those. But I find it unnervingly weird that many people voted to delete Obamacare (much as they voted for racism) even when that’s not what they wanted. I know that choosing a candidate is a matter of compromise, but geez.

Aftermath

A week ago, as the Cubs and Indians were heading down the stretch of the final game of this year’s World Series I tweeted this:

So everyone realizes that we could have EITHER the Cubs win OR Trump lose, but not both, right?

If you’re the kind of person who believes in karma or other such things, there’s an explanation you can consider. Alternately, maybe the gods just decided to stick a metaphorical fork in Nate Silver’s eye.

I, myself, do not believe in such things – I was making a joke since I was rooting for the Indians. So my topics today are: What happened, and what happens next?

What happened?

I have a pretty simple – even reductionist – view of how Presidential politics works: That the largest single factor is how the electorate views the state of the economy at the time of the election. There are a lot of voters who are “locked in” to one party, and among those who aren’t, the state of the economy is the biggest determining factor in whether they turn out to vote, and who they vote for. In particular, I believe that if they perceive the economy to be bad – especially in their region (“all politics is local”) – then they will tend vote for the major party candidate who is not from the party of the sitting President. Regardless of what’s going on elsewhere in government, in a Presidential election, the party of the sitting President gets the blame.

I also feel that incumbency is a significant factor, so even if the economy is bad, the incumbent has a built-in edge which a non-incumbent candidate of the same party of the sitting President does not have.

There are some other nuances, but fundamentally I think Bill Clinton’s campaign got it right in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

So, I think that the Republican Congress has been engineering the recovery from the last recession to be weak, so that large swaths of the electorate felt that the economy basically sucks, even though it doesn’t suck for a lot of people. Yeah yeah, lots of job growth, but it’s been not so much tepid job growth as growth of tepid jobs. So the marginal voters who turned out to vote – i.e., the ones that matter – came out and held the Democrats responsible, because the sitting President is a Democrat. I think this has been a deliberate strategy on the part of the Republican leadership, and while Trump displacing their establishment candidates isn’t what they’d planned (primary politics is a very different kettle of fish from the general election), they’re probably pretty happy with the outcome overall.

Would Bernie Sanders have won where Hillary Clinton lost? I doubt it. And I think polls showing otherwise are no better than wishful thinking for his supporters. (I voted for Sanders in the primary.)

Why did the polls and analysts get it wrong before the election? Heck if I know. But the economic news over the last 2 years made me think that the Republican nominee – whoever it was – would have a better chance of winning this election than a lot of people gave them credit for.

Anyway, here we are: President-Elect Trump.

What happens next?

As usual John Scalzi said a lot and said it better than I can. But I have a few more things to say:

First, I think people who voted for Trump for economic reasons are – ironically, tragically – the least likely citizens to be helped by his programs. Trump doesn’t care about the little guy, and I think his talk about bringing back jobs was just rhetoric; he’s interested in helping himself and his fellow tycoons to make money off of everyone else, legitimately or not. Trump isn’t an “outsider”, people like Trump are the reason government has insiders – they exist for people like Trump. If you’re not like Trump (white, male, rich), then don’t expect to see a whole lot of help from the government in the next four years.

Second, while the Supreme Court and the repeal of Obamacare are getting a lot of the press, what really scares me is that in the next 4 years the Republicans might turn their attention to repealing Social Security and Medicare, two of the greatest and most successful government programs in the history of humanity. Certainly I’m not counting on them being around when I retire, at this point. And after helping care for my mother these last few years, I really cannot stress enough just how wonderful a program Medicare is.

(A friend said that Trump has pledged not to abolish Social Security and Medicare. Even if he said this, I bet he doesn’t care enough to stick to that. And the Congressional Republicans definitely want to get rid of them.)

Finally, this:

Every Presidential election I’ve voted in has been tremendously stressful to watch the night of the returns. When Clinton and Obama won each of their two terms, it was a big relief because, although I found them each far from perfect, they were better than the alternative. When George W. Bush won each of his two terms, it was difficult to see how I was going to get up in the morning. Last night was like those two Bush elections times ten.

It’s prosaic to say, “we have to go on, because what else can we do?” I was able to get up this morning and mostly do my usual routine. But I fear that a lot of people are going to decide they can’t keep going. I bet we’ll see rising suicide rates among minorities, LGBT folks, and maybe even women.

I have no comforting words. My mental-compartmentalization skills are working overtime to help me adjust to this, and they’re doing pretty well – but I feel guilty because it makes me feel emotionally detached from how I think many people are feelineg.

The next few years are going to be brutal for many people whose wealth is counted in less than 8 figures. I hope we all survive them.

R.I.P. Maggie

My sister Katy texted me last night to tell me that our Mom’s cat Maggie passed away sometime during the day.

Mom had cats for just about my entire life. When I was born she and Dad had a cat named Dinah, whom I barely remember, although I dimly remember thinking she was someone to avoid. She died when I was still quite young. I grew up with an Abyssinian cat named Amos – I’m not sure if they got him before or after I was born – and he was around until 1987, along with our Welsh Corgi, Punkin, who joined us in 1976. I always found Amos somewhat aloof, even for a cat, just doing his own thing. I don’t really have strong memories of him, even though I was a teenager for part of his life.

In 1988, after I went to college and Amos passed away, Mom and got a couple of cats, a sweet tabby named William, and a feisty polydactyl calico named Jenny. William was my buddy whenever I visited, and I was very sad when he passed away in 2000. Jenny lived a couple more years, and I think enjoyed being an only cat.

We weren’t sure Mom would get another cat after Jenny – well, maybe Mom was less sure than the rest of us – but she found Maggie at a shelter, I think around 2003. The shelter said she’d been found pregnant and with a collar on her neck which was too small. And she was a small cat – maybe 7 pounds – a calico with smoky fur and a smudge on her nose. Mom adopted her, and really had to stick out caring for her for that first year, because she said Maggie took a long time to warm up to her, and even longer to really become her friend. But eventually she settled in with Mom, coming down for treats or to lie on the newspaper, and moving from room to room to lie in the sun in various windows. I guess she would growl and hiss loudly at cats who came into her yard, and avidly watched all the birds which flew into the yard.

She was not a very friendly cat, usually running and hiding when visitors came. It would take several days after I’d arrive to visit before she’d do more than look at me around a corner. She didn’t bite or scratch (much), she just wasn’t very friendly. She did warm up to me when I stayed at Mom’s house while she was recovering from knee replacement surgery in 2012, even getting into the morning paper routine. She’d even sit at the top of the stairs and meow for me to come to bed when it was Mom’s usual bedtime!

She had a bit of a mischievous streak: Mom said she once got outside, and Mom left both the front and back doors open for her to come back in. After an hour, she walked in the front door… and before Mom could close the doors she walked all the way through the house and went out the back. She did come in to stay later in the day, though. She also loved to play with tabs from plastic milk cartons, and would sometimes carry one to the top of the stairs and meow until Mom came out and told her what a good kitty she was. (When we were preparing to sell the house, I found dozens of the tabs behind the oven.)

Maggie had a hard time in Mom’s apartment in assisted living, with people coming in and out several times a day, and having a pretty small place to live. Mom played with her a lot, but as Mom declined (and I see in hindsight that she hid a lot of the symptoms of her decline from us) I think she became neglected and lonely.

The nursing staff told us that when Mom passed away she meowed loudly for a while afterwards, and then she had to endure several days in the apartment alone, with the occasional visitor to give her food and scoop her litter, until Katy and I came to clean out the place.

Katy volunteered to adopt her, and something remarkable happened: She moved into Katy’s house, with her son and her two young cats, and she totally took over the house. She whipped the young cats into line, and became very friendly to the humans. Katy says when she’d have workmen over, the other cats with disappear but Maggie would stay and supervise them. And last December, when Katy adopted a young dog, Maggie told the dog who’s boss, and used him against the other cats, since they didn’t like him.

So after everything, Maggie got her happy ending, a year and a half in a nice old house, with friendly humans, lots of wet cat food, and plenty of time lying in the sun on the porch.

Katy said Maggie had been getting small and thin lately, and we’re not really sure how old she was. Our best guess is that she’s 13, about the same as our calico Roulette, but she could easily have been a year or two (or more!) older than that. She always had kind of cruddy teeth, which is not a recipe for long-term health. So it was not really a surprise, though the suddenness was a bit of a shock. I don’t think Maggie would have done well with a long decline, anyway.

Katy says she’s having Maggie cremated and will spread her ashes over Mom’s grave next time she visits. I think they’d both like the thought of that.

(photo by Katy)

(photo by Katy)

Can’t Go Home Again

Our big vacation for this summer was in a sense “just” another trip east to visit our families. But actually a lot has changed since our last trip. For me, anyway, things have changed.

This was our first visit in over a year, since Mom’s memorial in May of last year. And really neither of our trips last year were “visits”, since they both primarily dealt with the aftermath of Mom passing away.

I’ve been staying with my Dad when I go to visit since summer of 2012 when Mom moved out of her house and into assisted living, so that part wasn’t really different, but the “routine” of the visit was different. The big difference, of course, being that I wasn’t visiting Mom. In past trips I made sure to schedule time at least every other day to visit with Mom, spend time with her, run errands with her, and do any tasks on behalf of her affairs which I needed her presence for (and there was always something). This meant I was always scheduling my trip to make sure I had time for that – and more, it meant I was just scheduling my trip, which made it less of a vacation. So it turned out that I had a bunch more unscheduled time on this trip than I’d anticipated, and in hindsight I should have set up some visits with one or two local friends, but I didn’t realize how it would work out.

Of course, more to the point is that I don’t have Mom to visit with anymore. On the other hand, this means I get to spend more time with Dad.

Well okay, I can still “visit” Mom, because as it happened the week we flew out the marker for her grave had arrived and been set at Mount Auburn Cemetery:

Mom's Memorial

The marker was designed by Karin Sprague, whom my sister engaged for the job and visited last summer and said she knew immediately she’d made the right choice on her visit. As you can see, it looks great! Elegant, distinctive, and with a sense of Mom’s personality. It’s certainly the most unique marker in the immediate area, and has a lot more character than almost any other marker I’ve seen at Mount Auburn.

The view from the marker is pretty awesome, too:

Lake View

Dad and I visited and I took a bunch of pictures of the area around Mom’s site, and then we walked and drove around the cemetery, including climbing to the top of the tower at its center, which has a great view of the surrounding cities. Mount Auburn is beautiful and a popular scenic place to visit, and I’d certainly recommend it if you’re in the area.

Dad and I also drove out to Waban where I grew up to see how things had changed. In particular I wanted to stop in Waban Hardware, which was purchased and renovated after the retirement of the previous owner (who had been there for as long as I can remember). They’ve done a great job sprucing things up, and doubled its floor space by opening up the basement. They also have many great old photos of the store and of Waban Square in the stairwell to the basement, so if you’ve lived in Waban yourself, stop by and check it out.

We also walked around the new Angier School, where I went to elementary school. The old 1920s build was knocked down a couple of years ago and has been replaced with a new, modern building, which looks pretty nifty. While I have many fond memories of the old building, honestly I was aware even when I was going there that it was outdated, with an inflexible, unexpandable design, and needed to be replaced. This was a long time in coming. (The next closest school, Zervas – formerly Beethoven – has also been demolished and was being rebuilt when we drove by.)

Finally, there’s the site of Mom’s old house, the house I grew up in. We sold the house in 2013, knowing that the house itself had relatively little value since – like Angier – it was outdated and difficult to expand and modernize. Sure enough, the old house was demolished, and a large new house was built on the site. The new house is huge – about three times as big as the old house – but honestly it fits in very well with the neighborhood, fixes many of the problems with the old house, and doesn’t look like it dominates the site. I am perhaps a little sad that some of the nice trees around the property were removed and not replaced, but that could be changed; otherwise, I think it looks great. Probably as nice as anyone could have hoped for.

It's enormous!

It’s enormous!

I’d say that this part was a weird visit, but it wasn’t really that weird, just another step forward in the inexorable march of time. I think emptying and selling Mom’s house in 2012-13 was the really difficult step, and it’s been a long – if sometimes traumatic – transitional period since then. And it never really ends.

Anyway, I spent the second half of the week with Debbi and her family. We spent a couple of days at a beach house they have on the south shore, which we’ve both visited in years past. We actually went down the first weekend with Dad to hang out for an afternoon. Mid-week we spent time with Debbi’s sister and some of her kids.

The Road to the Sea

The biggest downside to the visit was that it was hot and humid for most of our trip – I’d forgotten how ugly Boston summers can be. And we spent two nights at the beach house without air conditioning, which was okay since it cooled off reasonably well overnight, but it made the late afternoon and evening a bit ugly. It didn’t stop us from sitting on the beach, either, or making an excursion to the nearby coastal town. It also didn’t stop us from waking up early to watch the sun rise.

Sunrise

We had fun with Debbi’s other sister playing video games (she’s ridiculously good at Wii Tetris) and running around the back yard with their dogs. And then on Saturday we played frisbee golf with several of them on a forested course. I’d heard of disc golf and had some familiarity with it, but I’d never played before. It’s pretty challenging! None of us were great at it, but we did pretty well, making par on a couple of holes, and throwing the disc into the trees on others. I don’t think we actually lost any discs, though (which is more than could be said for at least one party we passed).

We spent the last night with my Dad and then headed to the airport on Sunday and flew home, getting in late and collapsing into bed exhausted. We were smart enough to take Monday off to get our bearings again.

It was a good trip, although I felt like the heat dampened my motivation to do stuff while we were there. (I’d thought of making a trip into Boston, for example.) Hopefully it will be cooler for our next trip. But, it’s always good to see our families!

Best Breakfast Week Ever

Since Monday was Memorial Day, Debbi made breakfast both Sunday and Monday. Four days worth of leftovers and four days in the week meant awesome breakfasts every day this week.

Chocolate chip scones (from Iveta):

Scones

And sausage biscuits:

Sausage Biscuits

Thank you, Debbi! It’s all been delicious!

A Little TiVo Trouble

We got a Tivo Bolt late last year, and we’ve been enjoying it a lot. We’ve been able to time start watching some TV shows that were inconvenient for us to follow at their air times, watched some movies we otherwise wouldn’t have caught, and Debbi has discovered a couple of shows suggested by the machine which she wouldn’t have found otherwise, in particular Murdoch Mysteries, a police procedural taking place in late 19th century Canada.

We’ve had a few problems with it, though. Our TV provider is Comcast, which means we had to go through the process of setting up a CableCard for the TiVo, which means dealing with Comcast’s quixotic customer service line, and sometimes long hold times at Tivo’s help line. We never managed to get Comcast channel 1 – On Demand – to work, but we later learned that Tivo shows On Demand programming as one of several streaming options.

More annoyingly, recently we noticed that a few channels were no longer coming in. Sometimes they’d drop out for a few days, and then come back. Last week it got bad enough that we missed the last episode of season 2 of The Flash because it couldn’t get the signal. We tried to watch it via On Demand, but we couldn’t get that to work either.

The channels that were missing all had error messages that read, “Searching for a signal on this channel (v52)”. So I did web searches for that phrase, and found this page, where someone fixed the same problem by “re-seating the CableCard”. So I powered down the Tivo, removed the CableCard, inserted it again, and powered it up again. And lo and behold, not only were the missing channels back, but On Demand was working! So we managed to see the conclusion of The Flash at last.

It seems like a remarkable fragile system, and man, I dread having to call Comcast for support, especially since my experience so far is that as soon as they hear I have a TiVo they’ll ship me over to Tivo, where I’ll have a long hold time, and eventually connect with someone helpful who will nonetheless have both of us call back to Comcast.

So, mostly I blame Comcast for it all. Just like I suspect everybody does.

But at least I should be able to fix this particular problem if it happens again.

Springtime’s End

You may have noticed it’s been pretty quiet around here. Life has been ridiculously busy this spring and I have not been in much of a journalling mood.

We’ll start on a high note, which is that in late March when my sister Katy and nephew Ivan came to visit for a week, on his school break. They visited back in 2014 with Katy’s then-boyfriend and his daughter and wanted to make a return engagement. While I failed to get tickets to Alcatraz, we did a lot of other stuff:

  • The obligatory visit to Half Moon Bay, including Katy’s “happy place” the Feed & Fuel, and lunch at Cameron’s British pub. It was surprisingly cold and drizzly, so we didn’t spend as much time there as we’d planned.
  • A visit to San Francisco to ride on the cable cars, ice cream at Ghirardelli Square, a trip to the Cable Car Museum, and visits to a couple of athletic apparel stores that Ivan really wanted to visit. Again it was a rainy day, and we got poured on while waiting for the cable car.
  • A walk through the Winchester Mystery House, followed by a visit to the San Jose Earthquakes stadium and store – Ivan is a big soccer fan. (Somehow Katy didn’t make me take her to the Sharks stadium.)
  • Big Basin Redwoods State Park, followed by a drive down to Santa Cruz.
  • A visit to Berkeley to see the Cal campus, with another trip to San Francisco (and the easiest drive into the city over the Bay Bridge I’ve ever done) with stop at Borderlands.
  • We also spent a bunch of time around my home town of Mountain View, including a visit to the Computer History Museum (where I learned that I now enjoy the self-guided tour rather than the docent tour – 10 years ago it was the reverse). And Katy and I went out for a couple of runs together on the Stevens Creek Trail.

It was a good trip. I think by the end Ivan both didn’t want to go, and was ready to be back home. 😊

The rest of March through mid-April was mostly given over to taxes. Since Debbi and I got married last year, that meant we had the option of filing our taxes jointly, which we took since it turns out to save us a hefty amount of money. Meanwhile I also had to file taxes for Mom for last year – her personal taxes through the date of her death, and for her estate for the rest of the year. All of this was slowed down considerably by one of her investment accounts not providing the final 1099 until early April (not entirely their fault – one of the funds she’s invested in seems to be very slow about providing their data), plus issues with one of the 1099s not being sent to me, since it was still targeted at Mom’s old address. And then juggling getting the form from the estate to my sister for her taxes, and correcting an error on our taxes. Hopefully next year will be easier – at least I’ll have a better idea what I’m in for. It was exhausting.

But not as exhausting as what came next, which was learning that someone had compromised one of my credit cards, and concern that they had actually stolen my identity (I’m not going to go into details here, but there was evidence that it was more than just a compromised card). So that involved a bunch of phone calls, filing a police report (!), and generally monitoring my accounts for a while. Not to mention the stress involved. So far, nothing more has come of it, so it’s possible that it was more lax security at the card company, though that’s a little surprising since my experience has been that their security is quite good. Anyway, crossing my fingers that that’s the end of it.

Work has been quite busy, as it always is at this time of year ahead of WWDC. One source of stress in my life is when I have phone calls or business I need to conduct during business hours (because that’s when things are open), but I would much rather just be tron’ed in to whatever I’m working on in the office. So I try to get those phone calls or errands finished before I go to work in the morning (especially for calls to the east coast), but it doesn’t always work out that way. And we’ve had a couple of other projects going on over the last month, so it’s been an unusually busy time.

Besides journalling, reading has also fallen by the wayside this year (well, except for the weekly comic book run). I feel like I’ve been picking up a bunch of mediocre books that I run out of gas on. For example, Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice was so slow and (ahem) droning that I gave up less than halfway through. I should just go back to reading space operas, maybe.

Though we have been watching more television than usual, in large part because of the TiVo I bought over Christmas. It’s been working really well, and we’re slowly working our way through Person of Interest. I also decided to dive into The Flash partway through the second season, which is a more entertaining show than I had really expected, although it has the usual superheroes-on-TV problem of having plot devices which make no sense whatsoever, and man, if it wasn’t for Wikipedia I would have had no idea what was going on for the first few episodes. I gotta say that the guy playing the “man in the iron mask”, when he was finally revealed, was a picture-perfect representation of that character.

So, I think that’s enough catch-up for now. We’re having a fairly lazy Memorial Day Weekend, enjoying the air conditioning since it’s been pushing 90 for the last few days, with a forecast of over 100 next weekend. Later today we’re having dinner with the neighbors – because we like our neighbors!

Maybe next month I’ll post as many as two or three entries!