Science and Objectivity

I’ve recently had conversations, and read the following article regarding some misunderstandings about science and objectivity: http://www.snopes.com/2017/03/29/smith-journal-science-not-objective/. The complaint I’ve frequently received about science articles that I reference in discussions that I participate in, is that they are not ‘objective’. Well, of COURSE they aren’t objective. In ALL journalism, much less science journalism, there are always choices to be made — what stories to cover, how skeptical to be about the story, and so on. And every writer and every scientist has a point of view. Even research is focused on a goal — to either support or rebut other research or theories or hypotheses. Certainly, when someone does research, there generally are expectations of what you will or will not find.

The problem isn’t when there is a lack of objectivity, but a lack of scientific ethics. If a journalist or website or news source has an agenda, that’s something else completely. A good, ethical scientist will publish their results and conclusions without regard to any hopes or assumptions that they may have made. It’s perfectly valid to criticise someone for having an agenda, but having a bias is not only ok, it’s expected.

The question is, how should you regard biased reporting, biased research, etc? Well, that’s where the scientific method comes in. Experiments need to be reproducible. They need to undergo peer review to closely examine both the methodology, and the analysis of the results. Unanswered questions regarding either of those, need to be highlighted, and responded to. There needs to be a conversation, and more research and attempts to improve upon the methodology and discussions regarding every questionable step in the process.

The scientific method exists primarily because people make mistakes — but also because people sometimes DO have agendas, even if they believe those agendas protect people. There’s something called cognitive dissonance, which can corrupt ones viewpoint. If your only goal is to protect people, and that overrides any sense of ethics, then you are going to be more apt to believe that any actual evidence that goes against those beliefs, that you ARE protecting people, will be rejected as either biased science, or a conspiracy whereby the science has been faked. You can see this happening all the time with the anti-Vaccination movement. People cannot accept that they are not saving children from autism by telling parents not to vaccinate their kids. They cannot accept that they are actually doing damage by spreading their belief. And it’s a kind of belief that only becomes stronger, the more one uses actual evidence to contradict it.

Another argument that also frequently ends up with accusations of conspiracy, is that regarding organic foods. Science does not actually support most of the claims of Organic Food advocates, that organic foods are healthier than non-organic foods, that they contain less pesticides than non-organic foods, that  they taste better than non-organic foods, and so on. I’ve been told that the National Academy of Sciences is biased, when I mentioned that their research says exactly that.  After all, they do receive contributions from companies involved in GMO research. It’s a fact of life that research requires money, and it makes sense that companies involved in the food industry would want that research to be done. But it’s a huge step to go from scientists receiving money, to scientists having an agenda. And I have yet to see any evidence that this is the case. In fact, the CDC itself has collected evidence that nearly all of the foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years have come from organic food sources, EVEN THOUGH, only 5% of the food supply comes from organic sources.

The fact is that yes, research with an agenda is unethical, and can be misleading. And it CAN give results that are contrary to fact. The problem is that money, while POTENTIALLY, a corrupting influence, is not the only one out there. Websites with obvious agendas are 100% certainly unethical and a corrupting influence. And many of them have their agendas written right into their URLs. Google Organic foods, or GMOs, and so on, and you’ll find them. I won’t link them here, to give them any more publicity than they are already getting.

There are a few ways one can identify the corrupting influence of cognitive dissonance:

  1. The belief that any contrary opinion can only come from someone in the ‘pocket’ of big whatever.
  2. Accusations of a conspiracy
  3. No specifics as to which X is dangerous, or what precisely the dangers are. Usually, it’s very generalized to “Artificial Sweeteners” or “GMO products”.
  4. Repeating old stories that have long ago been debunked, without citing any new evidence. Examples also include citing studies, on rats, without pointing out that studies on humans gave different results (this not only has happened in GMO studies, but is an actual tactic often used to convince people to eat more sugar instead of artificial sweeteners. Yeah, diabetes, a real illness, and one that can be quite devastating, isn’t trumped by imaginary illnesses caused by artificial sweeteners.
  5. Bad arguments that lead to bad conclusions — A) “This pesticide is in use, therefore B) the food is dangerous”. The problem is that there are some steps between A and B that have been skipped, like evidence that the pesticide is actually being ingested in dangerous amounts. Simply believing something is dangerous isn’t enough — you have to have evidence of people actually being harmed.
  6. Misdirection — “Roundup causes cancer, therefore GMOs are bad”. If that’s your argument, and if Roundup is found on foods in the grocery, and people are actually ingesting dangerous amounts of it, then shouldn’t the attacks be directed at Roundup specifically?

Anyway, I know I went off on a tangent. I’m not saying that there is not the possibility of GMO foods that are bad or dangerous. It’s always a possibility — with anything, not just GMO foods, But what you really have to do to make that argument is to show evidence of something explicitly harmful in ALL METHODOLOGIES that exist today that are used to create GMO foods and then attack that methodology. Or you have to show harm caused by a SPECIFIC GMO food and attack that food specifically. Just remember that it’s ok to have a bias, but don’t confuse that with an agenda. And always question everything, ESPECIALLY one’s own beliefs.

I recently made a mistake, because I was citing a questionable website in a recent argument. And I admit that I have a certain kind of pro-science bias — most skeptics do. I try to do my best, and I even admitted that I was unaware of the potential bias of the organization that I was quoting. But at the same time, the person I was arguing with not only didn’t come up with any contradictory scientific evidence, but quoted websites with ADMITTED agendas. So while I may have been too quick to accept my own sources, the opposing side was also too quick to accept their own sources. The difference was that after calling that to their attention, they would not admit it.

In science as in real life, never forget that you might be wrong. But also never forget that the arguments on both sides might be wrong. And when that happens, you cannot draw any kind of conclusion with regards to what actually is correct.

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Why I haven’t been writing much

I haven’t been writing much lately. I’ve had some big changes in my life, including a move, and the death of my mother, who I was very close to. I’ve been in a real funk and have had trouble finding the motivation to do much of anything.

My mom had an interesting life. Since she was young, she was involved in the performing arts. She sang opera on the radio when she was a teen. The station advertised her as a ‘German Diva’, in spite of the fact that she had no German heritage. She taught ballroom dancing at Arthur Murray‘s dance studio. After she married my dad, she performed at night clubs, and was very active in community theater, usually playing the female lead in such plays as “Brigadoon”, and “Milk and Honey” (the only two I, as a young kid, have memories of viewing her in). In a chorus, she once performed at Carnegie Hall. She gave guitar and voice lessons, both privately and at after school and summer programs.

I remember her being the music director at a YMHA camp that I attended. It was embarrassing at times because my fellow campers would talk about her without knowing that I was her son (because I didn’t want that to become public knowledge). Because she was a tough, strong woman, sometimes not everything that I heard would be flattering, so one day I just had to say it, “You know, that’s my mom.”One thing I learned is that you should NEVER have your mom as a teacher (she was harder on me than on anyone else, of course). That’s when I

One thing I learned is that you should NEVER have your mom as a teacher (she was harder on me than on anyone else, of course). That’s when I decided that maybe the guitar and I were not a good match. She tried teaching ballroom dancing to me and my friends before my Bar Mitzvah, and that also was equally trying. Don’t get me wrong — I always had a close relationship with my mother. But that doesn’t mean that she never drove me nuts. Hey, she was my mom — and that’s part of the job description.

My grandfather had taught me how to read before I was in grade school, and I would devour books on a daily basis. I was an incredibly voracious reader. Anyway, I was done with children’s books. My grandfather was giving me boxes and boxes of assorted books that he had found abandoned while working in the NYC Subway system (he was a carpenter and helped build and maintain the subway system). My fondest memory of my mother was when she brought me to the library — I don’t know how old I was — maybe 9 or 10. I was a very precocious child. While I was looking for my next book to read in the adult section, a librarian yelled at me and told me I had to go to the children’s section, which was downstairs. I was done with all of those thin, shallow books that other kids my age were reading. I wanted to read Asimov’s Foundation, and Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. Anyway,  my mom overheard the librarian chastising me, and yelled at him. “How dare you tell my child what he can and can’t read”. My mom was never much of an intellectual, and maybe she didn’t always understand me. But I knew she was always there to stand up for me and to set an example that I should stand up for myself.

In her later years, she worked in nursing homes, always entertaining the residents and leading art and music classes. Even after her voice went (which happens with age), she loved music — even though our taste in music didn’t always overlap, it was something we had in common. I might not like opera, and show tunes were not my normal fare. But we both enjoyed Paul McCartney and the Beatles, and Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell. I even introduced her to Bruce Springsteen, and The Who, and The Rolling Stones, all of whom she enjoyed… on occasion (even if they weren’t her favorites).

I moved from Ohio to take care of her when my dad died. The last couple of years, she was bedridden in a nursing home, after a fall cracked her spine. I would see her almost every week, to bring her eggrolls or whatever food it was she wanted, tell her about a movie I had just seen, or we’d discuss a TV show we both liked (we both loved “Game of Thrones”, for example), and I’d eat lunch with her and tell her the highlights of my week (I tried not to burden her with the lowlights). And then she got Pneumonia, and eventually died in her sleep.

Anyway, I’m going to try to start writing again. I feel like I shut down a bit in the past couple of weeks. The reality of her death didn’t actually hit me full on at first. It was only after missing a couple of weekly visits that it all really hit me. She wasn’t perfect, and she’d be the first to admit that. But she was strong, and still sending me requests for chinese food up until the end. I just wanted to share that.

My Thoughts After the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

I moved recently, so I currently have a backlog of books to review that I haven’t gotten around to. I thought when things quieted down, that I’d eventually go through them, but after last night, the only thing I can think of is what happened in our nation.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m an unapologetic liberal deep in my bones. The roots of my beliefs stem from both my upbringing and things I’ve witnessed over time. I grew up believing that my neighbors — who I perceived as people like me, shared my values… Sure, I’d traveled to the south on family vacations in the ’60s and ’70s, driving through rural parts of the country, and being lectured to by my parents to not mention anything to anyone that would lead them to believe that any of us were Jewish — although I didn’t understand why at the time, that this was an era of lynchings and murdered NAACP workers. I was raised with people like Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of my heroes. My best friends, when I lived in the Bronx, were a girl who was the daughter of Hungarian immigrants who had fled communism, the son of a mixed-race couple (who I found out years later had lots of problems because he was not fully accepted by black or white people in his schools), and the son of a Japanese businessman. But it wasn’t until  I witnessed a race riot in front of my house, that I realized that I really didn’t know anything about my neighbors.

There was this guy, a neighbor, who was in the same grade as me, also who played little league. We really traveled in different circles, but we’d still say hi to each other. He was friendly and an all-around nice guy. I remember hitting a double off of him in Little League when he was pitching (to this day, I’m not sure if he purposefully went easy on me). A few of his friends, who lived down the block, really didn’t like me for whatever reason, so we didn’t socialize). Anyway, his family was moving, and somehow news got out that the prospective buyer for his house was a black family. Note that they wouldn’t have been the first black family in our neighborhood — I knew one guy from High School, who wrote poetry for our literary magazine, and who was a dancer (he was destined to study dance in college, against his father’s wishes), who lived on the outskirts of the neighborhood, but I suspect they were invisible to a lot of people.Anyway, one evening after the news had gotten out, a mob gathered in front of our mailbox

Anyway, one evening after the news had gotten out, a mob gathered in front of our mailbox. They were angry and there was shouting. I remember my mom and dad telling my brother and I that we should stay in the house. My dad (as imperfect and human as he was, knew how irrational what was going on was — sidenote, he was very proud of the fact that he had been honored by a church in Harlem and asked to speak to their congregation — a Jewish lawyer speaking in Harlem. So that should give you some idea of where he stood.Anyway, my dad went outside and did his best to calm people down.

Anyway, my dad went outside and did his best to calm people down. But by then, someone had already vandalized my friend’s family’s car and had thrown a brick through their window. Since then, I’ve never assumed that I knew what was in the hearts of my neighbors, that we are all, for the most part, fair people willing to give strangers the benefit of the doubt regardless of their race, or religion or ethnicity or heritage. Since that time, I’ve witnessed, and have even been a victim of bigotry of various kinds. But that was the first incident that made me realize that bigotry wasn’t just something that happened elsewhere, in other countries or in other parts of our country.

Which brings me to President-elect Donald Trump… I wish I could say that I was surprised by the support he received from hate groups and that he did not speak out against them, by his supporters persecution of Jewish journalists who did not support him, by the fact that people rallied around his hateful statements about Mexicans and Muslims and women, and his making fun of physical handicaps. Because I’ve known about our big national secret for years, that our nation has always had an undercurrent of hatred for foreigners, in spite of us being a nation of immigrants, a hatred of anyone who’s out of work and simply needs a helping hand, in spite of the fact that in most cases, those people paid for their safety net, a hatred of anyone who’s simply different.

It pains me to know that many hate-filled people will now take the results of our election as reassurance that their hate speech and hateful acts are mainstream, that they are ‘ok’, that the American people joined with them on election day to let them know that their hatred is now acceptable. Good job, America. Well done.

This is something that I’ve seen the signs of for years. I know that there are people who are shocked by this. I’m not. I did have hopes, based on the fact that there were Republicans who went with their conscience, instead of their party, that there were people who realized that a vote against Trump was a vote against hatred and racism. There wasn’t enough of us, though. The only good thing that might come out of this is that people will eventually come to their senses when we see what kind of country they have voted for, the way they eventually did when GWB was elected. Unfortunately, it would have been better to make the right choice to begin with than to learn from experience.

Doctor Strange

We live in a golden age of comic book dramatizations. Certainly, not every movie, broadcast, or streaming comic-book related enterprise is worth your time. But we live in an age where there is an unbelievable number of choices. The latest production from Marvel is the MCU’s “Doctor Strange”. Is this film worth your time and money?

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an egotistical and somewhat abrasive neurosurgeon living in NYC. He’s certainly good at his job and loves what he does. But because of his enormous ego, he can’t help but rub people the wrong way, including, on occasion, his friend and colleague, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). One evening, while using his cell phone and driving at the same time, he gets into a very serious accident. It’s a miracle that he does not die, but that’s little consolation to him since his hands are damaged to the extent that there is little hope that he could ever practice surgery again.Still, grasping at straws, he seeks out experimental procedure after procedure, talking to medical pioneers and experts, spending his prodigious wealth seeking something that will allow him the steady hands he needs to once again operate.

Still, grasping at straws, he seeks out experimental procedure after procedure, talking to medical pioneers and experts, spending his prodigious wealth seeking something that will allow him the steady hands he needs to once again operate. His search eventually leads him to a group of people, lead by a woman known as “The Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton). Among this group  is also Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a somber librarian known only as Wong (Benedict Wong). Together, they train Dr. Strange in the mystic arts, something which he apparently has an incredible talent for. During his training, he discovers the actual purpose of this group — to defend the Earth and its entire plane of existence from threats from other dimensions. And like it or not, Dr. Strange is drawn into a deadly conflict between the Ancient One’s people, and a former student of hers, Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen).

“Doctor Strange” is an origin story about an egotistical man and his journey to becoming a hero. We’ve certainly seen things like this before (most notably, Tony Stark/Iron Man). But this is an introduction to the magical side of the Marvel universe. God-like Thor and his trouble-making half-brother Loki has been explained as advanced science. Scarlett Witch’s abilities have never quite been explained. But here we have pure magic and mysticism, with the Marvel flavor to it. And I have to say that it’s handled very well, in that it’s easy to accept what we see on the screen, as being possible, within the context of a Marvel fantasy film. The special effects and cinematography are all very well done, and Doctor Strange is a beautiful film to watch.

The cast is phenomenal. The only problem I have is that Benedict Cumberbatch’s American accent does not sound authentic (I don’t know what kind of accent he was trying to do, but  I’m from New York, and I don’t know of any accent, from NY or otherwise, that sounds like it). And that is my biggest problem — I would have rather they simply made Dr. Strange British. But ok, they didn’t. I have no problems with his acting — it’s just his accent that kind of grated on me.

I liked the rest of the cast better. Chiwetel Ejiofor is exceptional as Mordo, as is Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. Mads Mikkelson plays the enigmatic Kaecillius as someone who is a true believer in his actions, that what he does is for the benefit of mankind, even if he has to kill to achieve his goals. It gives him an extra layer of depth, which works. But really, as with many Marvel villains, there’s not a lot there. We know that Kaecillius has a history with The Ancient One and Mordo and Wong, but we don’t know many of the details. So like with many previous MCU villains, we don’t know a lot about him. But we know enough. I do think that he is still, one of the better MCU villains.

Overall, I really enjoyed Doctor Strange. I didn’t find the film to be ground-breaking. As I said, it’s visually stunning. But it isn’t as good as the best of the MCU. I’d rank it around the middle of the pack. If you’re a fan of the rest of the MCU, I definitely recommend it. It’s not among the best of them, but it’s a fun and entertaining way to spend a couple of hours. I also must mention that if you go see it, to stay until the very end — there is both a mid-credit and end-credit scene, and both are well-worth the wait.

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

“The Magnificent Seven” is a remake of the 1960 John Sturges film of the same name, which in itself, is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, “The Seven Samurai”. The first film is considered by many to be one of the greatest movies of all time and appears on several top movie lists. The second film, while not quite so applauded, is a good western with a fun cast and a lot of heart. I definitely recommend that you see those two films. The question is, should you see this new one?

This new film, which is directed by Antoine Fuqua starts by showing a meeting at a church between the townspeople of Rose Creek. A “Robber Baron” by the name of Bartholomew Bogue owns a gold mine outside of town, and his operation is resulting in the poisoning of the river water, so all of their crops are dying. People are scared of him because he has a crew of armed mercenaries that roam the town. Some people just want to move away. Some people think that they can reason with Bogue. One young married man (Matt Bomer) wants people to stand up to him.

In the middle of the meeting, Bogue comes in with his mercenaries and makes a huge scene, getting everyone even more scared and riled up. A few people end up getting shot, including the young married man. His wife Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), and another young townsperson decide to try to hire themselves some mercenaries to kill Bogue and end his tyranny over the town.

Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt play Chisolm and John Faraday, the first two mercenaries that she hires. Chisolm is an actual bounty hunter and lawman, while Faraday is a gambler. It seems unlikely that Faraday would be recruited since he shows neither Emma nor Chisolm any signs of skills of any kind. It makes no sense, really to hire a gambler for this job. They eventually end up with a team of 7, including a Civil War veteran/sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), his Chinese friend/manservant Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee), a Mexican bandit Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a native-American warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and a hunter Jack Horne (Vincent Donofrio).All of these characters are introduced in very brief scenes that really don’t tell you much about them except in very broad strokes.

All of these characters are introduced in very brief scenes that really don’t tell you much about them except in very broad strokes. We get a little bit of flavor here and there for some, while others (like Red Harvest and Vasquez) we know almost nothing about. They are treated like throw-away characters. It gives the film a shallow feeling at times.

And I find a lot of the film to be lazy like this. Some of the action scenes are fun, one near the end is not quite believable. Overall, you can go to the film and just enjoy it as a popcorn film, ignoring how shallow it is, or some of its implausibility. There is definite enjoyment to be had. Just don’t go there expecting much. Just watch out for one TERRIBLY cheesy line near the end — it’s painfully bad. If you don’t cringe like I did, I’d be surprised.

I’m not saying that it’s a bad film, just that there are better ways to spend your time. If you want to spend the evening watching a good, exciting western, and you haven’t seen the John Sturgis version, you should rent it instead. Or better yet, watch the Akira Kurosawa classic “The Seven Samurai”. Or watch both. But don’t pay full price for this film — wait for it to come onto Netflix or Amazon Prime instead. That’s my recommendation.

 

Ticket to Ride

ticket-to-ride-boxI’ve been a board gamer since I was in High School. I remember discovering that there was this sub-category of board games that had a cult following. I’m talking about railroad games. I never got into the heavier railroad games, but I did enjoy games like Empire Builder and Eurorails — a family of railroad games where you drew rails on the board with erasable crayon and competed to complete routes.

Empire Builder, Eurorails and that whole family of games were fairly popular. But in recent years, more streamlined, and lighter games have supplanted them in popularity. The chief one among these has been Ticket to Ride, along with all of the variants, and alternate maps. I discovered the computer version of the game about 2 years ago, and since I’ve gotten back into board gaming, I purchased the basic game to play with friends. And I’ve recently gotten a chance to do so. This is how the game works:

ticket-to-ride-1024x577Ticket to Ride is a game for 2 to 5 players. It has two decks of cards and a map of the US that is crisscrossed by potential routes. Each connection between cities is between 1 and 6 in length, and may be grey, or one of 7 other colors (red, orange, yellow, black, white, purple, green). There are also 8 types of train cards in the train deck — one is wild, and the others match the colors of the routes (other than grey). Each player starts with 4 random train cards and 3 route cards. At the start of the game, each player may, if they wish, discard one of the route cards of their choice. There are also always 5 face-up train cards that are available to players on their turn. The goal of the game is to have the most points at the end of the game.

On your turn, you may do one of the following:
1. Take a face-up wildcard.
2. Take two train cards, any of which may be from the face-up cards, or from the deck of face-down cards, so long as the face-up card you draw is not wild. Face-up cards taken are replaced immediately.
3. Discard 1 to 6 cards of the same color to build tracks connecting two adjacent cities. The color of your cards must match the color of the route, and the number must match the length of that  route. You can use any color if the route is grey, but all your cards must be the same color.  You build tracks by placing your train tokens on the board on the individual spaces (see image below). You can, of course, substitute wildcards for any color.
4. Draw 3 new route cards, discarding up to 2 of them if you wish.

ticket-to-ride-connectingNote that at any time, if there are three wild cards face-up, you must discard all of the face-up cards and replace them from the deck.

The end-game is triggered once any player is down to 2 or fewer train tokens. At that point, every player gets one more turn, including the player who triggered the end-game. You then add up the scores, getting points for every route completed, minus points for each route not completed, and 10 bonus points for the longest contiguous route. And that’s basically it.

The game is easy to teach, and it plays very fast. The people I’ve taught it to were able to grasp the basic strategy very quickly and told me that they liked the game. One of them actually asked to play it again. It’s a great entry-level game for those who are new to board games. Even though there is some strategy to the game, I will say that there is a lot of luck as well, plus I’m not quite good enough that I can consistently beat newcomers (one of the people I taught, won his first two games in a row). That said, anyone who is looking for a game with a lot of depth to it, will probably not be satisfied. Games generally last 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how many players there are.

ticket-to-ride-comp-gameKeep in mind that Days of Wonder, who currently makes Ticket to Ride, also sells a number of versions of the game, including a children’s version, alternate route decks, alternate maps with special rules, and so on. There are maps for Europe, Pennsylvania, India, England, and so on, plus a new children’s version that will only be sold at Target. There are also both a mobile version and a version for the PC. I have played the PC version, and own all of the available maps and alternate decks for it, and I’ve enjoyed all of them, though Europe and Pennsylvania are my favorites.  The computer AI is not very good, but thankfully, the game does include online play. At least games against the computer are a lot faster. And scores are stored on-line, should you want to compare your high scores to other players.

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I definitely recommend this game in all of the incarnations that I’ve tried so far. I have not actually seen the 10th Anniversary edition, so I can’t comment on that one. But I do give thumbs up for both the computer edition and the standard edition (with the US map). I do plan  on eventually buying Europe and Pennsylvania/England. Each map adds a few extra rules, but the core gameplay is the same. Based on my experiences in the computer game, those are the best. If you are going to only buy one, I’d recommend Europe. the mini-expansions with alternate decks of destination cards are also good (again, only based on my experiences with the computer game).

Sully

Clint Eastwood’s film “Sully”, tells the story of the forced landing (or crash, as some people characterized it) of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson river on January 15, 2009. Tom Hanks realistically portrays Captain Sullenberger as a competent and confident pilot who finds himself in some unfortunate situations, both dealing with losing the thrust in the engines of his plane after hitting a flock of birds, and also having to deal with the aftermath, with the investigation by the NTSB.

We all know how it turns out because we’ve all seen the photos, and the real Sully being praised as a hero on TV. So there really isn’t a lot of uncertainty for us as the viewer as to how everything is going to turn out. What the movie is there for, is to show us HOW it turned out how it did. How the NTSB investigated, and how Sully and his wife Lorraine (played by Laura Linney) deal with it all.

There are a few flashbacks showing Sully learning to fly as a teenager, and also a little bit of his military career. And we also see the entire flight, from the points of view of Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (played by Aaron Eckhart), as well as from the point of view of a few of the passengers and the rest of the flight crew. What struck me the most is just how fast everything happened, and how quickly Sully had to come to his decision. Also, I didn’t remember just how many people came together after the crash to rescue the passengers from the planes.

I don’t know to what extent the truth is stretched in this film, but it’s an excellent story. I’m not sure that all of it works perfectly. The phone conversations that Sully has with his wife don’t feel natural. I’m also not quite sure about the reality of the degree of doubt that his superiors had about his decision to land on the Hudson, how close did he actually come to being treated as the one responsible for crashing a plane, instead of what happened, being treated as a hero who saved all of those passengers lives. Maybe it’s true, and if it is, then I’ll apologize for my doubts, but it seems like that was contrived to create drama. But I could be wrong. On rare occasions, reality can feel contrived.

Overall, this is a feel-good movie. And it works on that level. This is not one of Tom Hanks best roles, and this is not one of Clint Eastwood’s best films. But that would be expecting too much. It definitely is a movie that you should see, if you want to relive the “Miracle on the Hudson”, or learn more about it. The only thing I will add is that it was a very pleasant way to spend some time at the movies. And if you were amazed the first time you heard the story on the news, you’ll be amazed all over again. Now here’s the trailer.

Sandman Overture by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart

wesley_dodds_001DC Comics had a number of different characters dubbed “Sandman”, going back to ‘Wesley Dodds’ in the 1930s. That early character fought crime, wearing a gas mask and a fedora, and eventually becoming a founding member of the Justice Society of America. In the 1970s Joe Simon and Jack Kirby developed their own Sandman comic book. This one, Garrett Sandford, was supposed to be the Sandman of myth. This one also became a sort of superhero, eventually becoming an honorary member of The Justice League. There was yet another Sandman named Hector Hall, that first appeared in DC comics in the 1980s — he succeeded Sandford as the Sandman after he killed himself.

 

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Dream

But the Sandman of this series, aka Morpheus, aka Dream of the Endless, is a creation of Neil Gaiman. It was eventually retconned that those other Sandmen were creations of the activities of Morpheus in the waking world. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, there are 7 siblings who are called “the Endless”. They are immortal beings that personify various aspects of reality. Besides Dream, there’s also Death, Desire, Destruction, Destiny, Despair, and Delirium (who formerly was Delight).

 

 

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One of Dream’s siblings, Despair

Morpheus rules the land of Dreams over which he has dominion. But he’s also the lord of storytelling. And much of his comics deal with stories and myths and dreams. These are not your typical superhero fare. Some of the stories are personal, some mythic, some dealing with the nature of reality itself, and Dream’s place in it. While the early comics in the series shows Gaiman finding his legs, there still is a hint of his brilliance. As the series progressed, Sandman gained much in the way of recognition, not just as a great comic book, but as a literary work. Because of the more mature nature of some of the stories, Sandman was moved to DC’s Vertigo imprint, which was reserved for titles that would appeal more to an adult audience. The comics have won numerous awards, and really epitomize the endless potential of that medium. “Sandman” is the book I always point to when someone tells me that comics are for kids or that they are poorly written or somehow inferior to ‘more serious’ writing. Certainly, there are a few others that I could use as examples, and they are all great works in their own ways: “Maus”, “Watchmen”, “The Dark Knight Returns” are among the giants. Even “Cerebus” had its moments of genius, and I’m sure that others have their favorites. But this was my introduction to seriously good comic book writing.

The Sandman
Morpheus and his favorite sibling, Death

 

Gaiman concluded his series in 1996. Since then, there have been various one-shots, and spin-offs of the series, not all with Gaiman’s involvement. There was “Dreamhunters”, “Death and the High Cost of Living”, the spin-off comic “Lucifer” (which now has a television show loosely based on it). And most recently, there is this book.

sandman-overture-coverThe premise of Sandman Overture is that at some time in the past Morpheus had a lapse in judgment. And as a consequence to that lapse, all of reality may be coming to an end. Dream, and all of his aspects from different parts of reality, find themselves (himselves?) drawn to a mysterious location, and through conversations with his different aspects, he decides on a course of action, not because he cares that reality is ending, but because he cares that he may be responsible for that ending. One of his aspects in the shape of a cat, joins him on his quest to, against all hope, save reality, or at least make up for the mistake he made so long ago. Eventually, he’s joined by a young female humanoid named Hope and the three travel together.

sandman-overture-hopeThe magic of the series is here. If you are a fan of Gaiman or his Sandman stories, I think you will greatly enjoy it. Note that I first tried reading this in Kindle format. As much as I love my Kindle, I find that it is not a great format for graphic novels. While the free PC Kindle reader that Amazon publishes is a bit better, mostly because of the size of the screen, it still is much easier to read this in physical form. So I ended up purchasing the hardcover edition after all.

sandman1pg2and3-clrI’m not one of those people who lives and dies by the artwork in graphic novels, but the artwork here is definitely beautiful. The writing is up to Gaiman’s high standards. The story itself is epic, yet filled with personal moments that I won’t spoil for you. I simply loved this, and now I want to go back and reread all of the original series.

If you have not ever read Sandman before, I recommend that you read the entire series from start to finish. There are a few good options for this: there is a set of 10 trade paperbacks, starting with Preludes and Nocturnes, and ending with The Wake. There’s also a 5 volume ‘Absolute’ edition. Or, you can opt for the 2-volume hard-covered Omnibus edition, which I’ve heard is excellent (I may purchase it for myself, eventually). The other books I mentioned (spin-offs, etc.) are also worth reading (Lucifer, for example, is excellent, much better than you might expect based on the TV show). But I definitely recommend that you read the main series before you read this book. As I mentioned earlier, it does take Gaiman a little bit to find his footing, but once he does, I suspect that you will be impressed. Or at least I hope so.

Pandemic Legacy (game 1)

Pandemic Legacy 1.pngBack in February, I wrote a review of Pandemic.  Pandemic Legacy is a game which is based on Pandemic, and, at least at first, plays almost identically to that game. But it is a ‘Legacy’-type game. The term ‘Legacy’ comes from the very first game to do something very similar, “Risk Legacy”. The idea of a Legacy game is that you play a series of games, and the game evolves as you progress. Legacy games come with sealed components, rules, instructions, etc. that you are not supposed to look at until the game instructs you to do so. When you are told to do so, changes can happen to the game in progress and potentially future games. You may be instructed to place stickers into your rulebook, to add or change rules. You can get stickers to place on your game board, and/or game cards. You may even be instructed to destroy a card in the game, or write on a card, or write on the game board, thus making permanent changes to the game. Legacy games are meant to be played in a series from start to finish, and then never played again in some cases (though I’ve heard that Risk Legacy can be played again and again in its final state). Players may be called on to make decisions that will affect future games, so it’s possible that two different groups of players playing the same legacy game may have different experiences. Note that there are two editions of the game — Red and Blue. But both are identfical, except for the color of the box. The reasoning behind having two editions is that, if you are so inclined, you could theoretically have two simultaneous Pandemic Legacy ‘seasons’ going on at the same time with two different gaming groups.

maxresdefault (2)Because the game has a lot of secrets in it, and I do not do spoiler reviews, I can’t tell you in detail about what happened in my first game, but I can tell you the basics, and how I and my fellow players felt about our experience.

Pandemic-legacy-dossiers-secretsFirst of all, part of the fun of playing Pandemic Legacy is that you share the experience. Pandemic Legacy is for 1 to 4 players, but we had 4 players in our group, including me — 3 of our regular game group, plus one person who dropped by who wanted to join us. Normally the rules recommend that all players be experienced with the standard rules of Pandemic and that they have at least a couple of games of that under their belt before they tackle Pandemic Legacy. In this case, we’d been having such a terribly hard time trying to schedule our game, and having to cancel it time and time again, that this time, we decided to go ahead with the game and simply give the new player a brief overview of the rules, and then hand-hold him through a lot of the game. And that seemed to be ok with him, so that’s what we did.

Pandemic-Legacy-Legacy-DeckI’m only going to tell you stuff that you’d know if you simply opened the game book and started playing. Pandemic Legacy comes with an extra deck of cards called the “Legacy deck”. You are not supposed to look through the deck, and you are supposed to be EXTREMELY careful in handling the deck so that the order of the cards remain as they are set up. Note that they are marked to specify an order, but because they contain secrets that you aren’t supposed to know, the rules suggest that if you accidentally drop the deck and they become scattered, that you get someone who is not playing the game to pick them up and reorder them for you. Fortunately, that never happened for us. But I’m mentioning that so you get an idea about how the game is programmed to tell you to do different things at different times.

When we start the first game, we were supposed to start drawing cards from the legacy deck, and keep drawing until the top of the card says ‘stop’. The first thing it tells us is what the goal of the game is (and at the start, it is the same as standard Pandemic, to cure all 4 diseases). But it also tells us that the as soon as we draw and handle our second Epidemic card, that we are supposed to draw again to get new instructions. And that’s what we did (what happened then, you’ll have to discover for yourself). And that’s basically how things operate in a legacy game — you keep playing according to whatever the current rules are, at least until certain conditions are met, at which time, things can change.

I’m not going to go into great detail, other than to say that the legacy deck is there to help us tell a story. When that second Epidemic hit, there was a twist in the tale, and we had to deal with it. I won’t give any specifics, but I did have to destroy a game component… and doing that was oddly liberating. I’ve heard that some people find it slightly traumatic the first time, and maybe even subsequent times in legacy games when they read that they are supposed to destroy something in their game. Not me. I knew that it was going to happen at some point. Maybe at multiple points. I knew that because I had read about the game, read about other people’s experiences (not spoiler reviews, but just articles like this one, from that person’s point of view). I will say that a couple of my fellow players did have an almost horrified look on their face as I ripped up the card.

Now there are other things about this game that I can talk about because it’s right in the rules.  There’s something new in Pandemic Legacy that isn’t in the original game, and that is that every city has a panic level. It starts out at 0. Whenever an outbreak happens in a city, the panic level increases by 1. And that’s a permanent change. There are stickers that you put on the map, and the panic level of a city after enough outbreaks can go all the way up to 5. But in the first game, odds are that if you know what you are doing, you won’t have any cities that go beyond 1. That said, eventually, I know that after a couple of more games that that will not always be the case.

Panic level 1, the city is unstable, but there isn’t any further effect. At panic level 2 or 3, the city is rioting. Destroy any research station there — it cannot be rebuilt. Also you cannot take direct flights into or out of a rioting city. At 4, the city is collapsing — you have to discard a card of the same color to enter it via land or ocean. At 5, the city has fallen. You now need to discard 2 instead of 1 card of the city’s color to enter it. If your character is in a city when it has fallen, he is lost.

There’s actually another way that a character can be lost — if your character is in a city during an outbreak, that character gains a scar, which is a sticker you have to put on your character’s card to indicate a negative effect. If you have to gain a scar and you already are at the maximum number of scars for that character, he is lost instead. A lost character is dead — you have to tear up the character card.

Note that the game starts you with 5 basic characters — if you run out of characters, you will be forced to play a civilian. A civilian is a character that has no special abilities (But he can’t gain scars either).

Every game you play, you have a specific funding level. For game 1, your funding level is 4. You know those special cards that were in the deck that allowed you to do certain things, such as Airlift — well Pandemic Legacy has cards like that also (some are the same as in the original game, some are different). Well for every level of funding that you have, you can choose to include one of those special cards in your deck. If you win a game, then your funding level for the next game is 2 less. If you lost your first game, then the funding level is 2 greater. So that will make the game slightly easier.

We happened to win our first game, but we didn’t really have time to resolve the victory (we’ll do that next week, hopefully). Besides changes in funding, there are other results that we get to deal with. The first game takes place in the first half of January, and the whole series lasts a year. Had we lost the first game, we’d have to play a second game for the second half of January. But because we won, we proceed to February. Also, because we won, supposedly, the Legacy deck may tell us that we start with a special bonus for our next game. Regardless of whether we win or lose, we get to choose two upgrades for our next game. These can include making a research station permanent, turning a city card into an event card (it then can operate as either one), giving a character an upgrade, or giving a disease a positive mutation, making it easier to cure the next time.

20160124_172907Our game, as is often the case for normal Pandemic, felt incredibly close, but the reality probably was that we had a very good start, and luck seemed to be on our side, so the odds may have been in our favor. That said, everyone was smiling when we finally did win the game. It was an incredible feeling. And everyone was excited to play the next round  next week. Part of the excitement was that now that everyone had a feel for how the legacy system worked, that we really wanted to know what surprises would be in store for next time. I guess we’ll find out.

 

Suicide Squad

Let me preface this by saying that I really wanted to see this right when it first opened, before everyone was talking about it. But I’ve been sick with I-don’t-know-what — either with a bad cold or flu. I’m better now but unfortunately, that means I couldn’t see it without being inundated by comments from friends and acquaintances and bloggers that I listen to and so on. But I tend to enjoy comic book films. I didn’t go into this film with high expectations. I was just hoping to have some nice mindless fun. So on with my review.

You probably know the premise of the film by now, if you are reading the review. Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis) is trying to create an elite team of soldiers, out of some of the worst criminals she can find. plus a few others And she’s not above using blackmail and threats to convince them, criminal or otherwise, to cooperate. The team is lead by Rick Flagg, played by The Killing’s Joel Kinnamon. His girlfriend, Dr. June Moone (Cara Delavingne) is possessed by an ancient and powerful mystical spirit — when she lets the spirit take over, she calls herself The Enchantress. There’s also Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin-for-hire.  Harley Quinn (Margot Robie) used to be a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, until she fell in love with Arkham’s most insane inmate, The Joker (Jared Leto), helped him escape, and was eventually driven mad by him (although the order that all of that happened is not 100% clear). Then there is Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a metahuman who can create and control fire. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), probably the unlikeliest one in the entire bunch, can (you guessed it) throw boomerangs. And finally, there’s Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who played Mr. Echo in “Lost”) a metahuman who has a crocodile-like skin and sharp teeth. We also meet Slipknot (Adam Beach), who can climb anything we are told (though his lack of a back-story is all too obvious a sign of things to come). And finally, there’s Katana (Karen Fukuhara), who has a magic Katana that steals souls.

It takes nearly half the movie to introduce all of these characters, giving most of them back stories. And then, without spoiling it, they have a job — things have gone horribly wrong in Midway City in (unfortunately) an entirely predictable way — I debated whether saying what the specific way that things go wrong is — on the one hand, yes it’s a spoiler, on the other hand, the movie telegraphs this right from the start. But I’ll err on the side of silence and not say what it is that has gone wrong. But if you actually watch the movie, and you don’t see it coming, you really weren’t paying attention.

Waller has tiny nanobots injected into the rest of the squad’s necks, and she explains that she can cause them to explode via remote control if Rick Flagg dies, or if any of them try to escape of if they even ‘irk’ him.And thus FINALLY the story begins.

First, let me tell you what I liked about the movie. Margot Robie is terrific as  Harley Quinn. She has a perfect mixture of madness and sexuality. She’s certainly a villain in every way. I was also somewhat surprised by Will Smith — let me say right up front that I really liked him in Ali, but I’ve never liked his more comedic or his more iconic ‘Will Smith’ roles (like in “Independence Day”, or “I, Robot”). He was better than that here and the only reason why is that he managed to avoid all of those ‘Will Smith Cliches’ which to me are like fingernails on a chalkboard. The “Oh hell no”s, etc. His performance here was a bit more subdued, and I really appreciated that. It’s a small thing, but it also surprised me in a pleasant way. And I also really liked Joel Kinnamon as Rick Flagg. He’s an actor that I thought did an excellent job in “The Killing”, and he is fairly good here as well. Most of the rest of the cast were adequate, with one exception, which I’ll get to shortly…

Now the bad… Where to start…

The writing was not good. They created a new Joker, played by Jared Leto who was not bad in his role. But he’s written more like a dangerous gangster than the over-the-top murderous but fun-loving psychopath of previous outings. Which I guess is one way of depicting him. But it’s just not as fun as either of the over-the-top performances of Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger. That said, as unexpectedly underwritten as his character was, his appearances in the movie are among the higher points, which isn’t a good sign.

Some of what happens seemed formulaic — the character deaths, even the non-deaths seemed to be by-the-numbers. The villain had to be the villain — totally not unexpected (in fact, it kind of makes Amanda Waller seem incompetent, which undermines her needing to also be entirely evil and in control for the story to work).

And then there’s the villain. Lot’s of people have complained about Marvel’s villains — with a few rare exceptions, Marvel’s villains have been relatively weak, but we forgive that because the heroes are often so much fun to watch. Well, this film has one truly horrible performance by the person playing the villain (Again, spoilers). The ‘evil henchmen’, the things that the Suicide Squad had to fight to make it to the villain just seem to die far too easily. Then the villain itself, well the actor moves in a way that is both distracting and disturbing, but not disturbing in a good way. It’s just embarrassing. I don’t know how much of this to blame on the directing and how much to blame on the actor. It’s just not good. Now as underwhelming as the Joker is in this film, this would have been a far, far better one, had they simply gone with Joker as their main villain.

I had such high hopes for this film after watching the trailers. The marketing for this film was just genius. They highlighted all of the best parts of the film — especially Margot Robie, who is just so fun to watch in almost every scene she’s in. And there is some good in this film. It’s just that there’s so much in it that’s bad that I cannot recommend it. There are parts in it that I really did enjoy. But the parts that are bad are just so incredibly bad.

Now I know that some of you may want to see the film anyway, and I’d urge you to wait until it’s on cable or netflix so you don’t have to pay full price to see it. But just in case you do decide to see it anyway (and I know that some people have liked this film a lot more than I did), then I have to tell you that there is a mid-credit scene that is worth staying to see, seeing as you’ve already paid to see it.

And now for the truly genius part of the film, the trailer: