Why “scientific data” is hurting and helping

July 18, 2017

A few weeks ago, I got done reading the landmark baseball book Moneyball.  It is an outstanding book that overlaps a bit with the Brad Pitt film, but goes into far more historic perspective on the birth of sabremetrics.

Trying my best to briefly recap:  sabremetrics (or advanced metrics) grew out of a major series of papers written by Bill James back in the early 1980s.  He started with some of the basic “unanswerable” questions of baseball (Is it pitching or hitting that wins games?  What role does defense really play?), and he tried to answer them much like a scientist might.  He gathered as much raw data (player and team statistics) as he could, and then looked for correlations between those numbers and team success.  His findings were revolutionary:  the currency of baseball is the out, and therefore, you want players that make the fewest possible outs … this means that you want players with high on-base percentages (OBP), and ignore the big stats like batting average and RBIs.  He also found a strong correlation for success with players who had high slugging percentages (SLG — the measure of a player’s “power” … home tuns, and triples increase your SLG more than doubles and singles).

The point driven home in Moneyball is that when baseball teams were presented with this wealth of tremendous data showing them how to win, they all largely ignored it until Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta needed a way to build a winning team in Oakland without a New York Yankees gangster wad in their back pockets.  They realized that the qualities that won games (getting walks to improve your OBP and hitting doubles to raise your SLG) were often under-priced in the vast marketplace of players, and that Oakland could build a winning team by going after these players.  You didn’t care so much about defense, which was difficult to quantify, and you definitely didn’t want your players trying to steal bases, unless their chance of success was extremely high.  You wanted guys who could draw walks and not hit the ball into the air to make a lot of outs.

The A’s have built teams that on a performance-to-dollar basis outperform nearly every team in Major League Baseball, but have failed to get a team to the World Series in the almost 2 decades they have been trying.  From a front office standpoint, the team has prospered.  From a fan’s standpoint, the A’s have largely failed to make a run at the World Series, and play in a (sometimes literally) cesspool of a stadium.  Sure, you were lucky in the men’s room at Wrigley Field if the only things you had to deal with was a pantsless mascot rubbing against you while the odor of urine wafted above the single trough running through the middle of the room … but at least you usually never had to actually walk through human waste.  The good news is that the A’s are finally getting a new stadium (bad news Cub fans … you still have Clark the pantsless bear as your spokesperson).

Moneyball, the book, was published in 2003, and over the past almost 15 years, baseball front office people have digested it, and have adjusted to it.  This summer, watching baseball, I have come to the conclusion that this philosophy has reached saturation in baseball (looking for proof?  Check out the most recent World Series winning team … a team of very interchangeable players, not really any stars or Hall of Fame caliber players, but which did come together to score runs and win games). However, I’m not sure this is overall a great thing.  Out are things like base running, great defense, and with players trained to take more and more pitches to get that walk … is it any wonder that the average time of Major League games has become a problem?

This new approach to building teams has added a degree of parity to baseball which, with the absence of a salary cap, isn’t at all a bad thing (when the Yankees haven’t won a World Series in 8 years, and the Royals have … that is a GOOD thing).  However, in so carefully building a data-driven baseball team, I think there is a certain fun factor that is sucked out of the game.  This may not on the surface seem like a big deal (after all … if you are winning, aren’t you having fun?), but there is something underlying the patterns of data … since ultimately, only a handful of teams make the playoffs, for the teams that are trying to do this, and are not winning, what you are left with comes across as boring … and my guess is that this does not sell seats or merchandise … and that should concern the ownership and management of teams to some extent.


I am sensitive to this not because I am a fan of a team that is rebuilding and currently occupying the American League cellar for the first time in decades, but because I am a teacher.  About 15 years ago, data-driven instruction became the way every school was going to be run.  What have been the results?  I would argue that it has raised some test scores (whatever that means), and has largely turned kids off from learning, especially more challenging material.  In February 2016, there were over 5 million job openings in the United States, and roughly 8 million or so unemployed.  There are lots of reasons for this, and I will not oversimplify this … but when jobs in the technology sector, engineering, legal, education, and medicine are not being filled, one has to wonder why there aren’t enough qualified people to do those jobs while we still have so many people unemployed? Again, I won’t pretend that I have a magic bullet here, but I think part of this problem lies in the fact that we have turned off a generation of kids to learning because it has become so dry and uninteresting thanks to data driven instruction sucking the creativity and life out of a very human enterprise like education.  I’m not saying “get rid of all data”.  That would be as bad an overreaction as what got us here in the first place … but I have felt the pain of teachers and students being pushed by wannabe systems’ analysts with DEds who think they actually know good data and know how to analyze it.

I think baseball needs to remember that above all sports, it is a sport haunted by numbers.  Numbers like 755 and 262 aren’t mere numbers … they are descriptors and milestones of greatness.  Baseball has always been a numbers game, and advanced metrics add some really cool and significant points of analysis to what is going on.  However, like so many human endeavors, there are often non-measurable factors that are part of what happens, and failure to acknowledge them comes with a great cost.

To be clear … it is not the scientific approach to things that is bad … it is not understanding the limits of the data and analysis that are bad.  This is true for people applying statistical analsysis to baseball and education just as it was bad for people applying the misshapen and not well-understood ideas of Darwinian evolution to societies and individual people.


It is time to get … pragmatic

June 22, 2017

My father was an alcoholic, and he described for me once that moment of realization that things have gone completely wrong, and that the only alternatives are death or getting cleaned up.

The Democratic Party needs to get cleaned up.

Think of how utterly rock bottom they have hit.  In November, a man who shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near power was elected president, and has done nothing but alienate our allies, put other even more clueless people into power, and has set himself up for a major fall since he does not read briefings from the Defense Department, FBI, or CIA unless it is broken down into pictures (this isn’t my attempt at humor, his appears to be how he approaches briefings with his most important advisers).

Then, in Montana, a man who assaulted a member of the press is elected to Congress.  Yeah, it was Montana, and yes, a significant percent of the voters had already cast early ballots, but in a sane world, that man would have been out on bond, not heading to Washington.

Finally, in a suburban Georgia special election, the democrats roll out a moderate, who was receiving a lot of outside money running against an opponent who unambiguously said that she doesn’t believe in a living wage.

The time has come.  The Democratic Party has hit rock bottom.  It is time to make a decision.  The question is, what decision do you make??

There is still a great deal of uncertainty over what the fuck has actually happened in our country that convinced 60 million people that a possibly mentally unstable man, with a track record of bankruptcy, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, was the best course of action for our country.

I think that there are several reasons for this.  It isn’t one, but the Democratic Party needs to start thinking quick because it is June 2017, and that is 17 months from midterms, and roughly 8 months before primaries.  Here are some thinking points:

  1.  Pretty much abandon hope on major gains the 2018 midterms.  The goal for the 2018 midterms should be to gain a few seats in the House, and lose none in the Senate.  This is realistic.  There is virtually no chance of flipping the House, or coming close.  Don’t bother.  The senate is close, but all of the GOP seats up for grabs are in safely red states.  That is unlikely to happen either.  Spend money wisely.  Gaining a few seats in the House and not losing seats in the Senate is a moral win.
  2. Focus on gerrymandering issues and winning back state legislatures.  At least some of the GOP victories have come from states that gerrymandered to give GOP House seats a virtual lock.  The Democrats need to keep working on this with the courts, and then needs to sink money into getting those legislatures back.  This will help increase gains in 2020.  In fact, more than anything, this is where the party should be focusing its financial concerns.
  3. Start focusing on labor again.  Especially in states where you have some control, you need to start focusing on getting people to work.  In industries that are dying, this means retraining.  Take my own Illinois for example … downstate Illinois has a dying coal industry.  Even though finances are in dire straits, the Democrats would do very well to start some kind of retraining programs to get coal miners into new areas of employment.  Even if it is not 100% successful, the publicity alone is great!  A couple of thousand votes in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania could have been huge, and that is why this is important.  Those folks who feel disposed of need to be made to feel important again, and this is a way to do that.
  4. Pick a lane on charter schools.  Just polling in my school, which as some of you know had ties to Hillary Clinton, quite a few teachers admitted that they either didn’t vote or voted for a third party candidate.  I suspect a lot of teachers were turned off by her.  The NEA was one of the first unions to endorse Hillary, but I suspect that this in no way lead to widespread support … and this against the single most anti-science, anti-education president we have had in forever!  In short, neither Obama nor Hillary were seen as big backers of teachers and education.  Obama’s Race for the Top was a disaster, and Hillary was seen as being far too chummy with the Wall Street people who were backers of Race for the Top, NCLB, and Common Core … none of which have shown many positive results, but have driven thousands from the profession and have kept a lot more from considering teaching as a path.  If the Democrats want teachers on board, they need to pick a path, and this one should be clear:  with the NAACP no longer backing charter schools, and with Betsy DeVos as their standard bearer, and with states like Indiana even voting out pro-charter people, the best bet is to walk away from supporting charters, and get behind really fixing public schools that need it.
  5. Come up with a new health care system that helps people.  Obamacare clearly had something that was wrong with it … I don’t suspect it was a big deal, but I suspect it could have been fixed with a more agreeable Congress.  Start putting together 2.0.  There is no need to publicize it now, but get it ready so that the next presidential debate can involve some particulars that are favorable.
  6. Take a stand on free speech.  This one is a toughy.  What is happening on college campuses these days is really not a big deal.  College kids protest all the time on a variety of issues, always have and always will.  Certainly, I support people protesting the likes of Milo-whatever-the-hell-his-name-is … he’s scum in a suit.  The problem is by shutting down his speech, he is now able to play the victim card, and while that shouldn’t work, I suspect it is working.  Even when graduates turned their backs on Betsy Devos, far too many people got caught up on the “disrespect” shown to her.  It sucks that someone like that has to ruin the students’ graduation, but in the end, actions like these are being effectively used to embolden conservative thinking that the left is a bunch of anarchists.  Like I said, it is time to be pragmatic.  Protest all you want, but shutting down speech on campus, and showing what some people see as “disrespect” is only hurting the cause.
  7. Lay low on the civil rights issues.  I can’t believe I’m typing this.  This one sucks the most.  I think one of the prime reasons that a lot of people supported Trump had nothing to do with liking the man … but had a lot to do with fear.  Quite a few older folks voted for Trump, and a whole lot of white people voted for Trump, and virtually all of the FRWEASPs voted for him.  Why do old people vote for a party that has been talking about privatizing social security?  Why do white people, particularly the far right wing evangelicals vote for a twice divorced casino magnate who is less Christian than Gandhi.  It is out of fear.  I think a lot of white people know that we are a scant few years away from white people being less than 50% of the population.  Old people look around and see women kissing and transgendered guys showering with girls in gym class, and the evangelicals see their version of Christianity, which they have been able to enforce for so long, slipping away.  I think the SCOTUS opening from Alito’s Scalia’s death was the last straw … when they saw that chance to get a grip on the Court and keep it conservative for perhaps the next 15-20 years or more, people saw a rallying cry.  Even if the country goes brown and more atheist, the Supreme Court will act to put on the brakes, as they see it.  The Democratic Party needs to put people at ease, and I don’t know how you do that.  I think the only way they can do this heading into elections is to downplay the civil rights issues of the day, and that is terrible to do.  However, I ma convinced that if this doesn’t change, and those fears remain prevalent among those populations, it will be a very long time before a more sensible group of individuals gets control of the government back, and I hate to think how much damage is going to be done before that.

Film Review: Wonder Woman

June 17, 2017

Of course there will be spoilers … just so that you are aware.


After so many false starts and misses with Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad, the DC Universe finally hit a home run, and in the process had an inside the park grand slam!  Wonder Woman is a film I would easily put on the shelf of great super hero films along with the likes of The Dark Knight as something that is genre re-defining.

The film opens in the present, as Diana walks to her job at the Louvre.  She appears to be a curator in charge of ancient armor and weapons.  A briefcase arrives from a Wayne Industries courier, and she opens it to find the original glass photograph of her and three soldiers taken in World War I that we saw in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.  A note from Mr. Wayne says that he found the original, and wanted to pass it on to her, hoping that she will one day tell him the story.  As she stares into the photo, she remembers how it all began …

On a lovely (one could say, paradise … like) island, young Diana watches as the Amazon warriors train, led be her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright, better known for playing Buttercup in The Princess Bride and Jenny in Forrest Gump, as you have never seen her before!)  Diana wants to train as well, but her mother, Queen Hippolyta, is very reluctant.  As aunts will do, Antiope trains her in secret.  Hippolyta also tells young Diana stories about the origin of their people … that after Zeus created humanity, his son, Ares (god of war) corrupted the hearts of mankind.  Zeus created the Amazons to restore order and protect humanity and fight Ares, and while Ares almost won in defeating all of the gods except Zeus, Hippolyta led the Amazons to victory, and in Zeus’ dying moments of victory, he created their secret island, Themyscira, to protect the Amazons from Ares view, should he ever return, and also gifted to them a weapon that could kill Ares.  Diana asks to see the weapon, and mom shows her a magnificent sword stored with other weapons in a vault.  Diana’s mom eventually finds out she is being trained, and gives in, demanding that her sister train Diana to be the best.  Diana grows into a great warrior, much to the worry of her mother.

One day, Diana witnesses an airplane crash through the invisible shield around the island, and saves the pilot.  No sooner has she done this than German ships come through the shield, and land troops.  There is an awesome battle between German troops and Amazons, resulting in losses, but none moreso than Antiope who takes a bullet for a distracted Diana.

The pilot, under duress of the magical golden lasso of Hestia, is revealed to be Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, in a great performance), an American spy working for British Intelligence.  He was tasked to fly in to a secret German base to investigate one of their generals, Luddendorf, and his chemist, Dr. Maru, who has created the German chemical weapons program, and is working on a new gas that will destroy gas masks.  Trevor, against orders, steals her notebook, and was on the run when he was shot down.

While the Amazons are content to lay low, Diana is convinced by her years of listening to her mothers’ tales that Ares must be at work, and that it is the duty of the Amazons to complete their mission and defeat him.  When her mother refuses, she secretly helps herself to the weapons vault, including her own set of special armor, a shield, the lasso, and the god-killer sword.  She frees Trevor, and they attempt to leave.  Her mother stops her, finally giving in that she may lose her daughter in the process, but cannot stop her.  Before they part, mom gives Diana her aunt’s war tiara that she had worn when she fell in battle.

They arrive in London, and learn that an armistice is near.  Trevor is still concerned about the new gas being used before the treaty is signed, and Diana is convinced that the treaty will never be signed because Ares won’t allow it.  We meet Trevor’s boss, Sir Patrick, who secretly backs Trevor for a mission to Belgium to find the gas and end the threat, and Trevor gets a team together: an Arab wannabe actor who is an undercover specialist (Sameer), a Scottish sniper (Charlie), and a Native American trader who can get them to Belgium (the Chief).  They slip into Belgium, and enter the labyrinthine system of trenches.  There, they learn of a town across the no-man’s land where the Germans have been killing indiscriminately and enslaving the rest.  While Diana has been anxious to take action, she has felt restrained until now because of Steve, but can no longer take it.  She drops her cloak, and rushes across the no man’s land in a blaze of glory with the Entente soldiers following her all the way (this scene is pretty damn kick ass … and only the prelude to her more-or-less single-handedly liberating the town, which is even more kick-ass).  It is here, after the battle, where her picture is taken with Steve, Sameer, Charlie, and the Chief.

Trevor learns that the gas facility is not far, and the team gets to a castle where there is to be a gala that night (the gala had been to celebrate the coming peace, but after Luddendorf tested Maru’s new gas on the German high command, peace doesn’t appear to be near).  Steve and Diana separately infiltrate the gala, and learn to their horror that the height of the celebration is an artillery firing of the gas onto the recently liberated town.  Diana and Steve speed back to the town, and find the population dead.  She is enraged at Steve for delaying her the whole time, realizing that if she had just killed Luddendorf/Ares when she wanted, this would have never happened … because without his corrupting influence, the war would end.  She speeds back to the castle and its gas production factory, and goes medieval on the soldiers until she finally corners Luddendorf.  After a brief confrontation, she kills him with the god-killer … but is shocked to see that soldiers are loading the gas bombs onto a large aircraft.  She can’t understand why the war continues.  Trevor tries to convince her that maybe this isn’t Ares, or maybe there is an inherent corruptness to some of humanity, but he still needs to act to save lives.  She gives up.  Trevor leaves her to go after the plane.  At that moment … Sir Patrick appears before Diana … yes, he was Ares and not Luddendorf.  Ares explains that after humanity was created, he saw their flaws and tried to warn the gods to no avail, and has sought to stamp out the mistake ever since … not by actively involving himself in human affairs, but by using his power to suggest ways that man could destroy themselves.  Diana and Ares fight for a bit, and is shocked when her attempt to run the god-killer though him, results in the sword being reduced to ash … During a lull in the fighting, Trevor gives Diana his father’s stop watch, telling her that he wished they had more time, and  that he loved her.  Trevor fights his way onto the plane.

Ares, now in his true form, tells Diana that he doesn’t want to fight her, and hopes she has come to the realization that he did a long time ago, that with mankind out of the way, Earth will finally be a paradise that it was supposed to be, and can be, and now that she knows how evil men (and women) can be, she should join with him … given as they are brother and sister.  Ares also informs Diana that the sword was never the god-killer that Zeus gave the Amazons, that he gave them one other gift … herself.  She is the god-killer.

Trevor realizes that he cannot crash the plane anywhere without killing everyone around the crash with the gas, and as Diana watches, he blows up the plane.  In a fit of rage, she and Ares continue their fight, but then comes to the realization that the only way to win is not through Ares’ hatred, but through love and compassion. She rebuffs Ares’ invitation to kill Maru, and instead defeats Ares in battle.  With Ares gone, the soldiers, many of them young boys, pull of their helmets, and the fighting ends.  Back in London, the team briefly reunites before parting as celebrations of the war ending are going on, but not before pausing to see a picture of younger Steve on a bulletin board of those who fell.

Back in the present, Diana sends Bruce Wayne an e-mail, thanking him for returning Steve to her.  She reflects that mankind, for all of its faults and darkness, is still worth saving, and that she has been reminded of her duty.



Right off the bat, the production team (director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg), had to be careful of a few things: make damn sure that we don’t forget that Wonder Woman is in fact a woman, make sure that she is not presented as window dressing with bullet proof bracelets and the ability to jump really far (see televised version of Wonder Woman), and then make sure that she is presented as a fully human character.  That last part in particular has been difficult for the DC franchise of late (Superman and Batman are both really depressing characters in this iteration of the DC universe).  They got it damn near perfect here.  Gal Gadot is certainly a good looking lady, but at no point is there even a hint of the character as a sex symbol.  Compare this to Black Widow showing up in any number of “butt-centric poses” … there is nothing at all “cheesecake” about this Wonder Woman.  Most of the time she wears a ground-length cloak, and when she is in her iconic costume, it is not a costume to show off her figure … it is the armor of a soldier … a real warrior, and at no point are you allowed to forget that you have an intelligent, highly trained, highly skilled warrior who is very capable of using lethal force.  That was so important for this film to succeed, and that was pulled off well.

They also had to show Diana as human.  Quite a few super hero films inject humor or cheese to distract from genuine drama.  As I noted, they have failed with this so far with Superman and Batman, but even the Marvel films have had a problem fighting this at times.  Superman is shown to be kind of angtsy and using a lot of power without much thought.  Batman is just a brooding, broken vigilante.  Diana is shown as having a fuller growth to her character.  Because the character is written with such genuine conviction, she has a moment when her convictions are shaken that she freezes.  She is convinced from the start that she has the facts about who Ares is and that she will end this war with his death, and her faith is shaken not once (when she kills the wrong man), but twice (when Ares so easily destroys the god-killer sword), and in both cases, she is genuinely paralyzed for a time.  Some would see this as a weakness of story telling, but I see this as an almost unheard of maturity in writing and execution.  The real maturing into a hero is not her blazing across battle fields, but in the realization that power must be tempered with mercy and compassion (love, if you will).  This is when she becomes a real hero.  Superman never had a moment like this, and neither did Batman.  Perhaps moments like that could never be shown because those were male characters … but it is a wonderful change of pace in the world of superheroes to see that real GROWTH as a person into a hero.

Let me talk about feminism for a moment.  Its hard not to bring this up with one of the oldest female superheroes, one who long ago became a feminist icon.  When I went and saw this movie last night, its third week out, the small theater was quite full, and there were quite a few older women there who I suspect are not the usual viewers of comic book films.  Clearly, the film has struck a chord in an era where the value of women is under attack.  I was also shocked to see some feminists attacking the film for not allowing Diana to be the hero at times.  I think these folks have missed the artistic points.  One scene sees Steve and Diana trapped in an alley by German spies.  Steve initiates the fight, and Diana proceeds to wipe the proverbial floor with them, with Steve punching the final spy out.  This scene was attacked because it “showed Diana couldn’t finish the job herself, and needed a man to finish it for her”. That is ludicrous!  In fact, I would compare the scene very favorably to the first time we see the Black Widow in battle in the film Iron Man 2:

The fact that Happy got the first and last punches in was in no way there to say that Black Widow needed help … it was there to make Happy the comic foil and show that the only person in charge was Black Widow … as goes the scene with Diana.

In fact, feminism is not largely brought up, and is certainly not something that is hammered over the head (I think the production team realized that their story and actors were going to do that on its own).  In fact, part of Diana’s education is learning how complicated our world is.  At one point, she seems to scold the Chief for not taking sides and involving himself in the fighting. The Chief tells her that his people have done a lot of fighting, and it didn’t end well, and that he feels he has found freedom away from his home.  Diana inquires whose people stole his home, and is a bit surprised when he points to Steve.

One thing that they also got just right was the requisite “fish out of water” scenes.  Good drama requires small comic interludes to permit the ebb and flow of emotion, and again, they got his 100% right.  Certainly there is a woman, who is foreign to the world of men, and that will lead to questions and situations.  You might have made an entire comedy out of this, but the production team kept the comedy strategic, and was probably smart to put a lot of it in the trailers to further defuse it a bit.  One particular scene that got a lot of laughs form the women in the audience takes place on the boat trip from Themyscira to London, where Steve and Diana discuss biological reproduction, and how Diana has read a great deal about this, but doesn’t see that big a deal, since men aren’t necessary for the pleasurable parts of it.  Like I said, the women laughed.

Another aspect of the film that really was done well was the music.  In Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman’s theme was introduced, and it is a driving, emotional Hans Zimmer composed rhythm that reminds you that this music represents a passionate warrior.  I came across a neat video that explained a bit about this music (linked here), which mixed some dissonant tones with resolved tones to create a sense of conflict.  The video notes that this was used in “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin, and was meant to invoke the idea of a banshee.  Upon some reflection, I think this also reminded me of another piece of theme music I had heard … used to evoke much the same ideas of conflicted warriors fighting complex, emotional battles.  In fact, if you saw that video of music from Battlestar Galactica, you may have noticed an Asian gal playing something that looks like a Klingon cello.  That is Tina Guo, and she is also one of the inspirations for Wonder Woman’s theme.  In fact, she helped Zimmer compose the theme, and played it on her electric cello, and here is her music video:

Interestingly, you don’t hear this theme until well into the film, and that is not until she does battle for the first time … in a sense, she needs to “earn” the theme.  It is a nice touch.

Forgetting that this is a super hero, comic book film, this is simply a good film, and I think the critical and box office acclaim it has gotten are so well deserved.  While I would hope a lot of younger girls get to see this film, I hope a lot of younger boys get to see this film, too … they should learn that yes, woman can have exciting, complex, and exciting stories that are worthy to be told and listened to.



I suppose this is better than selling hairs from Trump’s toupes

June 16, 2017

The Chicago Cubs, in the midst of their glorious championship season, are embarrassing themselves.  I know people in Colorado and California are shelling out huge sums for some dried plant matter to make themselves feel good, but this borders on homeopathy.

Things staying the same and changing …

May 21, 2017

I have been searching for a quote that came up in Ken Burn’s masterpiece documentary, Baseball, that speaks about the beautiful constancy of the game.  That if you lived, for example, in Chicago, you might be watching the Cubs play, a team that has played in the city of Chicago since 1876, the founding of the National League.  A child today of 5 or 6 years old can see the same team his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather watched, a mere 11 years after the Civil War ended.  That’s amazing continuity.

Of course, baseball is also a beautiful reminder that true change is the only real constant in the universe.  Your great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather might have watched the Giants in New York, but you only get to call them the home team if your family relocated to San Francisco.  You may have been one of the few fans of the Braves in Boston … but that was two cities ago for the current Atlanta team.  Today we have designated hitters and relief pitchers, and big screen advertising in Wrigley Field.  Some change is good, others, not so much.

Another institution, one that dates to ancient times, but became wholly Americanized in its own right, is the circus.  And, of course, no organization elevated the circus in America like Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Bailey Circus, the Greatest Show on Earth.  This circus can trace its origin back to at least 1808!  The US Capitol was only 8 years old at that time, and the ink on the Constitution was barely dry!  As an institution, the circus has changed a lot … they haven’t performed under an actual Big Top since the 1950s … and the sideshow has been gone since about that time.  They survived the disaster of the Great Fire in Hartford in 1944 where the canvas of the tent caught fire and killed over 150 people … the circus spent their profits for the next decade paying off claims for that.  Nonetheless, as sports and films and television and the internet became entertainment, the circus survived.  A continuity of over two centuries!  There are very few non-government entities in the United States that can trace their roots back so far, and still claim such a track record of being on top.

Alas, so little is forever.  Tonight, Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Bailey Circus will perform its final show in New York.  I’ve only been to the circus once, as a young boy, and I barely remember it.  But there is a certain sadness linked to seeing a survivor need to give in to the inevitability of change.  Certainly, many of their skilled performers will find it difficult to ply their tradecraft outside the realm of the circus, and there is some concern that the artistry of the aerialists, jugglers, clowns, and others will start to be lost without a venue to practice and enthrall crowds.  In an era where there is greater sensitivity to the treatment of animals, trained animal acts, the bread and butter of the circus forever, has cut into attendance as people refused to pay to see the animals, and as the circus gave in and cut back on animal acts, people stopped paying to see strictly human performers.  It was ultimately a lose-lose scenario.  I am glad that the animals aren’t being subject to the degree of captivity that they were in … you just wish there were an alternative.  However, the universe tends to not always present alternatives.

Of course this does not mean an end to circuses … not by a long shot.  RBBaB tended to play the big cities (the Chicago Bulls, in 2016-17,took the last of their “circus roadtrips” which forced the Bulls on the road for a prolonged period of time while Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey played the old Chicago Stadium, and later the United-Jordan Center).  However there are a number of smaller circuses that play smaller towns, and from what I have read, have strong reputations.  No doubt, some of these smaller regional shows will expand to fill the vacuum, and may create new shows that capture the imagination of new generations.

Tonight is also graduation for my school, and I will be there to literally shove the graduates as their name is called.  I didn’t have many seniors this year, but they have been an overall phenomenal group to work with, so unlike last year, I will genuinely miss this group.  School teachers really do understand the idea that endings are just the start of beginnings.

Film Review – Alien:Covenant

May 20, 2017

Of course there are spoilers … so if you plan on seeing this, and want to be shocked, don’t read it.

The sixth film in the Alien franchise (yes, that means I’m not counting any Predator related films) opens a few decades before the opening of last film, Prometheus.  The android, David (Michael Fassbender, reprising his Prometheus role), is conversing with his creator, Peter Weyland.  The conversation revolves around David being able to appreciate the act of creation (for example of art and music), and actually knowing his creator, but Weyland not knowing the genesis of humanity, only saying that he refuses to believe that man is the result of random biochemical chance.  While David seems to show off some impressive skills, and questions his role as a servant to someone so divorced from his creator, it is clear that Wayland treats his creation as little more than a butler, and David seems to dislike his reduced role in the order of things.

Fast forward to the future (roughly ten years after the events of Prometheus).  The colony ship Covenant is en route to a distant planet.  The ship has a crew of 15, almost all of whom are couples, but among its cargo are 2,000 sleeping colonists and another 1,000 embryos.  Aside from the ever vigilant ship’s computer, MUTHER, there is an android named Walter, who looks just like David, but is a slightly more advanced model.  At one point, the ship encounters a neutrino pulse which causes severe damage to the ship, killing a few colonists and Covenant‘s captain (James Franco in a cameo ala Steven Seagal in Executive Decision).  The crew is upset, but none more than his wife Daniels (Katherine “My dad is Mr. Law and Order Sam” Waterston).  The new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) is not very self-assured despite his wife supporting him, and feels a bit betrayed when the crew decides to have a makeshift funeral for Daniels’ husband before repairing the ship.  During ship repairs, one of the pilots, Tennessee (Danny McBride in an honest to goodness sober, dramatic role) picks up a transmission, which they soon realize is human, and more mysteriously, coming from a nearby planet which had not been discovered before, and which seems to meet the needs of the colony even more than their destination.  When the crew seems to favor checking out the planet, the captain immediately gives in to them, despite Daniels’ concerns that they know nothing about the place.

Upon arrival, they find the planet’s ionosphere harboring terrible storms, but they send one of the landing craft down anyway, landing a few miles from the source of the signal.  As they spread out, they find that the planet has wheat growing on it, just like on Earth.  The team splits up, leaving a scientist and security guard to begin cataloging the biosphere, while the rest of the party continues on to the signal.  They eventually find a crashed Engineer’s ship, similar to the one seen in Covenant, and upon going aboard are shocked to find dogtags belonging to “E. Shaw”.  Walter immediately recognizes her as the science officer from the lost Prometheus mission, but how she got here is a mystery.

Meanwhile, in separate incidents, two members of the crew (the security guard on biome-guard duty, and one of the security guards with the main party), become infected with some black spores released by the indigenous fungi.  The two-man biome team gets back first, and as the guard is sick, they get him to the infirmary on the lander.  Tennessee’s wife, Farris, the pilot, locks the scientist and guard in the infirmary while she calls for help … returning to see him convulsing and birthing a creature (no, not that one) … an albino thing with a spherical head and recessed razor-sharp teeth.  While she sees the scientist devoured, she gets a gun, and tries to kill it, wounding herself in the process.  The creature escapes and hunts her.  In a panic, she fires on some tanks which blow up the lander just as the rest of the team is returning, and dealing with their own crew member convulsing and giving birth.

In orbit above, Tennessee, is having difficulty maintaining contact with the lander, and hears his wife’s panicked call for help.  He risks taking the ship lower into the atmosphere to get a better signal.

The remaining crew suddenly finds itself in a fight with a newly birthed, second albino monster which attacks fast, and Walter loses part of his arm defending Daniels.  Suddenly, a bright flare goes off in the sky, scaring the creatures off.  A cloaked figure emerges, and demands that they all follow him.

They follow him through a distant wall which surrounds  a city littered with decayed corpses of Engineers.  We discover the cloaked figure is David, and he has been living in what appears to be the city’s temple, having accidentally wiped out the Engineer’s when an accident during landing caused the release of their bioweapon (black goo) over the city, with the crash killing Elizabeth Shaw.  Oram informs David that they are a colony ship, but could help him leave if they can get a signal to their ship.  As they attempt to signal the ship. Walter and David have a long talk.  David confides that Shaw helped to re-assemble him, showing him great kindness, however, he cannot help that he is superior to man, and that humanity is an inferior species, living on borrowed time, noting that Walter, a supposedly more advanced model, has been stripped of David’s creativity and personality, and is far more of a servant.  David also reveals that the black goo is actually a virus which either kills those who are infected, or which rewrites their DNA to become a hybrid which then is able to infect others with an embryo.  In fact, David has been experimenting, and believes that he has finally developed an organism as perfect as himself, but alas, he has had no hosts to experiment with.  His lab is littered with drawings and dissections of animals that are grotesque and strange … but somehow oddly familiar …

Despite being reassured that they will be safe, one of the albino creatures infiltrates the city, and kills one of the crew.  When Oram comes across the creature devouring his shipmmate, he kills the creature, but not before David tries to stop him and command the creature. Oram now distrusts David, and demands to know the truth about the place.  David leads him down into the basement where there are large eggs. Oram triggers one to open, and a facehugger attacks him.  When Oram later awakes, he gives birth to a creature (YES, THAT ONE!).

By this time, Covenant has been contacted, and Tennessee is coming down with a lander, as a few of the landing team are being picked off, and another encountering a facehugger, Walter finally confronts David with what he has figured out.  There was no accident- David killed all of the Engineers, and then killed Shaw by using her as a guinea pig in his experiments … something we all learn by seeing her dissected corpse hidden among David’s experiments and drawings.  The pair fight.

By this time, the last few members of the team are on the run from the fully grown xenomorph as Tennessee is coming in for a landing.  They, and Walter, get to the lander and escape, but not before the xenomorph jumps onto the ship.  Daniels attaches herself to a tether to go out and kill the monster, which she successfully does in an exciting fight.  They all return to the Covenant, and prepare to get underway.  Daniels is then woken from sleep by MUTHER, ordering her to get to the medical bay because of the presence of an unknown lifeform.  She and Tennessee find the body of Lope with his chest burst open in the medical bay, and communicate with Walter, who tracks the alien through the ship.  Daniels and Tennessee plan to lure the creature to the storage bay, trap it in the cab of one of the trucks, and then eject the truck into space.  After a chase, they do get the creature into one of the trucks, and do just that.

It is finally time to return to sleep for the last seven years of their trip. Tennessee lost his wife, and Daniels lost her husband.  After Tennessee is asleep, Daniels crawls into her cryosleep tube, and as she is locked in, asks Walter if he will help her build the cabin her and her husband had planned on building on the colony planet.  Walter does not answer, it is at that moment that she realizes that she is talking to David, and as she drifts to sleep screaming and crying, David smiles, and goes into the large cryogenics bay where the colonists and embryos are kept.  He regurgitates to small containers containing facehugger embryos, and places them with the other frozen embryos, before walking down the rows of sleeping colonists, content that he now has all of the test subjects he could possibly want.  He sends a final message back to Earth confirming deaths due to a natural disaster, but saying that the mission is proceeding onward.

Cue the credits.  Coming soon:  Alien: Awakening.


While there are certain aspects of Covenant that draw heavily from the earlier films (not the least of which is bringing back Jerry Goldsmith’s beautiful minimalist theme music, Covenant greatly departs by really bringing to the fore the Blade Runner-esque theme of android-humanity that has been hanging in the background since the original film.  In fact, this really is the first time that an android, not a female savior has been the central character of the film.  It is a major departure, but one rooted in the film universe, and it was done fairly well.  Yes, for the first time in 20 years, we finally get to see a xenomorph again, but that is wholly secondary to the film.  For that reason, some diehard fans of the franchise may be disappointed, again.  Ridley Scott  definitely tried to walk the tightrope between the grand philosophical scheme of Prometheus, and the horror of the original film.  I had no problem with this, though I suspect people who wanted more gore, screams, and evisceration were wondering why they have been abandoned.  Likewise, those who loved Prometheus may go home with PTSD.

One thing that I think Scott got right, and maybe got a little inspired from Aliens rather than his first film, was to bring in emotional resonance.  James Cameron did this to the hilt by introducing the idea that Ripley was a mother who lost her daughter, and then becomes the surrogate mother to the lost Newt.  In this case, the children are kept out of it, but by making all of the crew (except Walter), couples, it created an interesting emotional dynamic, and thus it also hits home when a character dies.

Another theme that threads through the film is that of the damaged person.  Only one couple survives intact to near the end (before lending credence to the old saying “couples who shower together get eviscerated together” … maybe that’s not an old saying), thus most of the other characters are operating under fairly heavy duress in addition to the peril they are under for most of the film.  This parallels David.  David is clearly damaged.  He feels that his own father (and by extension, humanity) are far inferior to himself, but that he has been held back for decades.  He even got to witness his creator die as a frail old man, and he is convinced as a result that David and biomechanical organisms like himself are the next step in evolution, and that just as humans displaced neanderthals, he has an evolutionary duty to wipe out humanity.  This theme was brought up a bit in Prometheus, and was even gently touched in Alien: Resurrection, but here, it becomes a very core idea in this evolving film universe.  David’s emotional damage has led him to psychopathy and genocide.  In my opinion, it makes a statement for compassion and love … humans, shown compassion and love, might overcome emotional damage … but in the absence of these things (and David is incapable of compassion or love), the damage can be catastrophic.

Much like Prometheus, the cinematography is lush and at times, breathtaking.  It is a very dark film, with parts of it echoing Frankenstein in both mood and even setting (once you’ve figured out that you are dealing with a fairly classic “mad scientist”, being invited down into the basement to see his creation is just dumb, dumb, dumb!

The acting is fairly good.  After seeing Land of the Lost and This is the End, I was pretty sure that Danny McBride was incapable of playing a dramatic role.  He more than held his own here.  Michael Fassbender really carries the film in a big way, playing both David and Walter.  David is played as Hannibal Lecter without the panache and gusto, which is wholly appropriate for the character.  Without betraying emotion, you sense that with David, you are dealing with a remorseless reptile, and in creating his monsters, he is simply creating an extension of himself (in the original film, the android Ashe describes the creature as a perfect organism, Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.  I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality. … and that description could fir for how David sees himself and the monster).  As Walter, he plays the perfect duty-bound butler to the crew.  Incapable of much independent thought, he is still there to serve and protect as needed.  The difference are hardly nuanced to an attentive viewer, but on the surface, the characters are made similar enough.  Its a phenomenal acting job!

Covenant does not answer all of the questions that have been raised in this franchise.  While David certainly creates xenomorphs, the eggs encountered in Alien are impossibly old, despite this film taking place only a few decades before the events of that film.  It is implied that David’s experiments weren’t wholly original, and that he was basing his work on the work of the Engineers, but what was that work.  We know now that the black goo is a virus, but where did it come from … if it was developed, why was it developed?  From my stand point, answering everything would be dis-satisfying, so I am glad Scott chose to keep some things under wraps … at least for the moment.

Within the franchise, I would easily rank Covenant ahead of Alien3 and Alien:Resurrection, and would place it maybe just ahead of Prometheus.  That’s hardly bad …

Why the far Left MUST back down

April 27, 2017

While it seems like 5 years, we are only a scant three months into the regime of Trump.  Sadly, despite accomplishing little, objectively flip-flopping, and all but admitting that he is not ready to be president, some polls are showing that if the election were re-run today, enough people would continue to back Trump in key states that he would win again.  That is incredulous!  How can a man who is transparently un-Christian get the backing of the FRWEASPs (I guess more about the “W” and “AS” than the “E”), how can a rank amateur continue to be supported by the business community … and how can the unemployed who clearly aren’t going back to work continue to back this guy?

The far left might be the key to this.  There appear to be a great many moderates who are simply scared to death of what they are preaching.

The most recent kerfuffle involves noted far-right spokesdemon Ann Coulter’s attempt to speak at the University of California-Berkeley.  Needless to say, while a majority of people probably don’t want to be anywhere around her, a particular branch of the far left threatened violence if she spoke.  Lawsuits were threatened, and in the end, after a lot of huffing and puffing, Coulter opted not to speak, and chalked up a victory.  She was able to demonstrate to the scared middle that the Left does not indeed support the freedoms they purport to cherish, and that this will likely sew enough doubt in a lot of voters.

Coulter’s actions:  threatening to speak at a university where she clearly knew she would have no popular support, and would galvanize people to take extreme action, and in the end walking away reminded me of something from history.

Many people have forgotten that this scene from The Blues Brothers is more than just a little comedy at the expense of an easy to mock group of people.   It was actually the one part of the film rooted in historic fact.

Back in 1977, the National Socialist Party of America (NSPA) decided that it wanted to march in the beautiful northern Chicago suburb of Skokie.  For those not familiar, Skokie, especially back in 1977, had a sizable Jewish population (I can’t find confirmation, but I remember hearing that at that time, Skokie had the largest per-capita population of Holocaust survivors of any city on Earth).  This march was not simply some recruiting tool or some attempt to draw a little attention (on the surface).  This was an attempt to mock and terrorize citizens, sans actual weapons. It was deplorable to any human with a heart and/or soul.

Initially, Cook County denied any marching permit, but when it looked like they were going to go to court and lose, the County changed its mind and allowed the permit, provided marchers did not march in their uniforms and display swastikas.  The County justified this by labeling Nazi symbolism as essentially “fighting words”, which allowed them to limit their display.  The NSPA joined with the ACLU, and took the town to court. Initially, Skokie won in the circuit and appellate courts, then won in the Illinois Supreme Court, before the case landed in the US Supreme Court.  SCOTUS oredered the Illinois courts to revisit their decisions.  The Appellate court lifted the injunction on the uniforms, but maintained that the swastika was a de facto symbol that would lead to conflict and unrest, and could remain a requirement of the injunction against the NSPA.  On review, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld that the swastika was protected speech, and that Skokie could not demand it not be shown as a condition of granting a permit to march.

Victorious in court, the NSPA decided not to march in Skokie, and instead marched in Chicago’s, then Federal Plaza (now the Honorable Richard J. Daley Center Plaza … that’s where they got that Picasso!)

After that decision, the Nazis didn’t go away … but they entered a long period of silence that saw their numbers drop … a period that lasted right up until the election of Barrack Obama … something that unnerved a lot of paranoid white people.  The point is that for a time, they got to play the victim card, and that draws both attention and sympathy … yes, perhaps that sympathy is from the weak minded and paranoid, but it can be enough to get them to wonder if these poor Nazis might be misunderstood.  Instead, the Nazis marched, people protested, and the Nazis largely went away for a few decades.

That takes us to today.  Today there are no brown shirts and swasitkas.  Today it is nice dresses, shirts and ties, and almost exactly as Sinclair Lewis predicted, it is wrapped in the American flag and carrying a cross to fool those who put racism and politics ahead of true faith and true patriotism.  Today, it is much harder for the inexperienced and the uneducated to tell the difference.  The far left is correct to oppose this, and is correct to be frightened by this.  The problem is not their disposition.  The problem is that the far right is taking advantage of predictable actions on the far left to gain sympathy and support.  Think about it:  a woman with the conservative mental capacity to think that ionizing radiation vaccinates a person against cancer … and that bringing back poll taxes to reduce the number of people voting was a good idea actually won this week … and she never had to actually give any speech.  She became the victim of bullies (admittedly, bullies who were shutting down a hate monger … but quite a few people sitting on the fence don’t see this.

I absolutely support the protests against these vile people.  Please keep doing that.  However, shutting down free speech does nothing but give a win to hate, and give a black eye to the very nature of American liberal politics.

Perhaps more than anytime since the era of the Civil War, the word of historian Evelyn Beatrice Hall must be followed:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.


Imagine how disarmed the neoconservatives would be if they didn’t look like the victim anymore, and instead were seen for the bullies that they are.