Happy National Cat Day!

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I got a box!

Let The Water Wars Begin!

Say you live in a city of eight million people that is in the middle of the worst drought the area has seen in decades.  Not only has it been record-shatteringly dry, but it’s also been the warmest year on record.  Oh, and your main reservoir of water is down to 3% of capacity and it has been reported that it will run out by mid-November.  What do you do?  I’m leaning heavily towards panic.

Such is the situation that Sao Paulo, Brazil, the 12th largest city in the world, finds itself in.  What is amazing is how poor the government response has been to this disaster waiting to happen.  They’ve basically just buried their heads in the sand up until this point and have pretended nothing is wrong.  No pleas to ration water, no mandatory rationing of water, just life as usual.  Now they are finally limiting water usage, but it may be way too late unless rain starts to fall and that seems unlikely since November is traditionally the warmest month for the city and its rainy season doesn’t start until January.

The water wars may soon be upon us.  Think of all the wars that are fought for natural resources whose sole purpose is a better economy.  Now think of what those wars would be like if they were fought over something essential to life.  We’re not just talking country vs country wars but city vs city and Hatfield vs McCoy.  Countries with weak governments will dissolve and even countries with strong governments will have a hard time keeping it together if a severe water shortage hits them.

2014 is likely to go down as the warmest on record for the entire planet.  Severe droughts are everywhere and wild weather is becoming more common.  A recent survey of California residents asked them to name the most important issue facing the state today and, for the first time ever, water/drought lead the list along with the perennial concern of the economy.  “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink” may soon be a reality in many major metropolitan centers.

Mind Blown: Solar System Facts Edition

Large numbers of anything are hard to grasp.  Take the distance from the Earth to the Moon, for instance.  It varies, but the average distance is 384,400 km.  That is a small enough number to wrap your head around.  Or is it?  How much space is there between the Earth and the Moon?  It turns out that’s a whole lot of space.  Enough so you could fit Mercury and Venus and Mars and Saturn and Uranus and Jupiter and Neptune in between with room to spare!  Yep, every single planet in our solar system can fit between Earth and the Moon.  *head asplode*  You die-hard “Pluto is too a planet!” folks could even fit Pluto in there if you so desire.

Of course, you shouldn’t try this experiment at home because the gravity of Jupiter and Saturn would quickly suck everyone else in and the resultant buildup of temperatures would likely cause a massive explosion turning us back into the star stuff we once were.  This is a thought experiment only.

Book Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Now here is a classic that I understand why it has remained a classic.  Jane Eyre, the character, is ahead of her time and unforgettable.  She is foolishly courageous, headstrong, opinionated, and usually right.  Yes, this is, at its heart, a romance book, but it’s not your everyday romance book.  In this book, the characters are all interesting and the romance plays a secondary role to the adventures of Jane.  In fact, I really only recognized it as a romance book about half way through and even then you don’t really quite know how things are going to turn out.

The book follows Jane from her miserable adopted childhood under the protection of a begrudging aunt to her school days as both student and teacher at Lowood to her role as a governess for Mr. Rochester at Thornfield Hall to her flight from Thornfield Hall to her falling in with the Rivers family where she becomes once again a teacher for disadvantaged girls.  Throughout, Jane is portrayed as very level-headed and well ahead of her time, much to the consternation of those, but especially the men, around her.

Interspersed between what is an engaging story is also some great social commentary.  For instance, “Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.”  Beautiful.

Also this: “It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.  Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot.  Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth.  Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.  It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced for their sex.”

So yeah, I think you can fairly say that Charlotte Bronte was feminist before feminism was cool (which is scheduled to happen in 2020 the way we’re going).  And that’s just a smattering of what the book has to offer.

But enough about the social commentary portions of the book.  There is much to be said about Charlotte Bronte’s storytelling as well.  The book is absolutely mesmerizing up to the point where Jane Eyre first leaves Thornfield Hall.  It does get a bit pedestrian after that, but you’re over two-thirds through the book before that happens.  There are some legitimately sad moments that will have you near tears.  There is a lot of amazingly witty dialogue, especially between Mr. Rochester and Jane during their first interactions.  There is mystery that actually passes for mysterious.  This is a novel that does everything well.

When I first started reading “Jane Eyre”, I couldn’t help but compare Charlotte Bronte to Charles Dickens.  They both cover similar topics and Charlotte’s writing style reminded me of Charles’.  They were contemporaries so it is possible that each influenced the other somewhat even if they did not know each other.  Has there ever been a time in the history of humanity where so much good fiction was coming out of one place all at once?

Movie Review: St. Vincent

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars

Bottom Line: An excellent movie all around.  Touching, funny, realistic.

“St. Vincent” is what happens when you hit the trifecta of great writing, great acting, and great direction.  If I try really hard, I can come up with a complaint that there are a few slow parts at times and Naomi Watts is a little over the top as a pregnant Russian stripper, but really even those parts are delightful.

I want to see Melissa McCarthy and Bill Murray in a room together ad libbing the characters of Maggie and Vincent.  They are both absolutely delightful in this movie.  You never quite know what’s ad lib and what’s scripted when you get two comic geniuses together, but having the two of them go all out off of each other would be hilarious.

What makes this movie special is how organic everything is.  The movie is funny, but it’s not bit laugh funny.  The dialogue just rolls off the tongue.  Nothing is forced.  You can believe people talking exactly like the movie portrays them.  And the comedy is so believable because the characters are so believable.  These are not off-the-wall situations you find the characters in.  Maggie is a recently divorced mom trying to keep it all together between her kid and her job.  Vincent is a mess of a sad, lonely man who has good reason to be so.  Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher, who does an awesome job as the straight guy, er, kid) struggles to find his place in a new school where he is bullied and has to deal with being a latchkey kid.

We desperately need more movies like this one so go see it as soon as you can.  It is well worth your time and money even though it is not necessary to see a movie like this on the big screen.  I can’t wait for “St. Vincent” to come to the small screen so I can watch it again.

Movie Review: Fury

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: War is hell.

You know what kind of movie you’re getting into right away with the opening sequence.  A lone German cavalryman picks his way through the aftermath of a large battle.  He passes by one of many dead tanks and Staff Sergent Collier (Brad Pitt) jumps from the tank, knocks the soldier off his horse and stabs him dead through the eye after many other stabbings through the chest.

The plot of “Fury” revolves around a tank commander and his crew as the welcome a new and very green recruit to the crew.  It follows the recruit’s loss of innocence and every soldier’s loss of humanity.  There are two choices when thrown into war; lose your humanity or lose your mind.  With the former, you have a better likelihood of coming out alive and you just hope that you can regain your humanity after surviving the meat grinder that is war.

“Fury” has some of the most effective battle sequences I have ever seen since “Saving Private Ryan”.  They are realistic, tense, and absolutely brutal.  Add to that the fact that much of the action takes place in the compartment of a cramped M4 tank and you have all the makings of a great war film.  What makes “Fury” effective beyond just the battle sequences is how it also shows the de-humanizing aspects of every day life when that life is a life of war.  Cleaning remains, including a partial piece of a face, from the inside of a tank.  Plows pushing a pile of bodies into a grave.  Trucks piled high with bodies.  Roads, fields, houses, and lamp posts, strewn with the corpses of trucks, tanks, soldiers, civilians and horses.  A body run over by a tank for probably the hundredth time.  War is hell.  We need to be exposed to that fact a lot more than we currently are.

One thing that “Fury” seems to do different than other movies is its portrayal of the chain of command.  Yes, the chain exists, but it’s more like a flowing ribbon that gets tied in knots than it is a solid chain.  Young officers are treated with almost open contempt even though their orders are still followed.  Even SSG Collier, who is the tank commander, only has nominal control of his crew when they are anywhere else except driving the tank.  This behavior strikes me as much more realistic than what you usually see in movies about war.

“Fury” is not for the faint of heart, but if you have a strong stomach, you should go see it.  It pulls no punches.  My only minor quibble is with the final epic battle scene which I thought didn’t make much sense for the Germans to throw so much useless firepower at the lone tank stuck in the crossroads, but maybe that shows the desperation of the Germans at the tail end of the war that they would throw wave after wave after wave at the killbots, er, tank, for even the minorest of victories.

Movie Review: Dracula: The Untold Story

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom Line: Classic horror story turned to drivel.  Some kind of cool special effects that don’t make any sense whatsoever.  There are the threads of a good story here, but they apparently forgot to hire a writer to write the story.

The idea of Dracula is burned into the global consciousness.  One book about one undead man has spawned multiple franchises which each garners millions of fans.  There’s something about Dracula that speaks to generations.  Then there’s this movie which speaks to no one.  Promising to tell us “the untold story”, this movie lets us in on how Vlad became Dracula.  And, boy, does it not make a lick of sense.

It starts out pretty well with your basic Vlad the Impaler story but with a catch that Vlad is actually a decent sort that had to do terrible things in times of war.  Believable enough.  It then goes on to show that he’s a just and fair ruler in his realm just trying to protect his people from the 800 pound gorilla, the Persians.  Again, ok, I’m on board.  So instead of paying a dear price of thousands of children, including his son, to the Persians, he kills the emissaries that come to collect his son.  A little 300-ish, but understandable, family and all.  Now at war with an army he has zero chance of defeating, he decides to become a vampire so he can…something.  *record scratching noise* The movie is now off the rails.

The vampire that turns Vlad is condemned to live his entire un-life in a cave that Vlad happened to come across while tracking some Persian scouts.  He cannot leave the cave.  Yet the floor of the cave is littered with bones.  How does that work exactly?  All Vlad knows for sure about the vampire is that he is pretty fast and can kill a couple of humans pretty easily.  Knowing only this, Vlad decides he wants the vampire’s powers so he can defeat the Persians.  The vampire explains that Vlad can have his powers for three days and if Vlad can refrain from drinking human blood in those three days he will simply return back to normal.  If Vlad does drink, the vampire goes free and Vlad becomes his slave or something.  I’m a little unclear about the last part.

Vlad, of course, takes the offer and then proceeds to slaughter 1,000 Persians single-handedly.  A silly, but kind of cool fight.  He then does nothing for two days despite knowing that a very large Persian army is on its way to crush him.  Wait, what now?  You have three days and you go on the defensive?  Brilliant strategy, general.  So there’s a final battle, lots of bats, a whole bunch of WTF moments, and Vlad ends up drinking the blood of his dying wife to save his son.  Ugh.

This is the kind of movie that thinks its audience is stupid.  It expects us to gloss over the massive inconsistencies and use of the most exploitable awe-factor special effects and come to the conclusion that this was a good movie.  Wow, I just realized something…this was just like a Michael Bay film.

You’re The Best!

I “play” the piano.  Play is in quotation marks because I can not by any stretch of the imagination be considered even remotely good at said instrument.  Nor will I ever be considered remotely good without dedicating a good amount of time improving myself.  I started piano way too late, don’t spend nearly enough time practicing, and don’t have the drive to improve myself much beyond my current ability levels.  I will forever be relegated to pecking out simple songs out of those 88 magnificent keys.  But you know what?  I am one of the best piano players in the world!  You may scoff at the hubris of such a ludicrous statement, but have you ever attempted to play the piano?  I thought not.  Yet another person I’m better at piano than.

Trying new things is hard.  It’s scary.  You have to leave your comfort zone.  You have to meet new people.  You have to expose yourself to embarrassment.  All these things and more prevent us from getting out there and doing something new.  But if you can overcome that, if you can simply get out there and just try, that simple act of trying makes you better than almost the entire planet at what you’re trying to accomplish.  All because you tried and they didn’t.

So, go on!  Get out there!  Try!  You’re the best!

Movie Review: Gone Girl

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom line: A long movie that didn’t feel like it.  Even though I knew the twists from reading the book, the movie kept my interest due to great acting and an excellent musical score.

When I reviewed “Gone Girl” the book, I said that I was looking forward to seeing the movie even though I thought the book was mediocre.  This was because I recognized the hooks in the book that would make for interesting silver screen storytelling.  I am happy to report that I am right.

The movie is pretty faithful to the book, with only minor departures from the source material.  Just like the book, the movie does a really good job of introducing you to the main characters and makes them all feel human, if not humane.  That’s part of what’s enjoyable about the movie.  There are no good people.  Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are the storybook couple gone completely off the  rails.  Ben Affleck does a great job portraying a ruggedly handsom everyman with a penchant for showing the wrong emotions at the wrong time.  Rosamund Pike is fantastic as Amy and even makes a pretty stunning physical transformation half way through the movie.

What really makes all of the elements of the movie stick together and brings out the emotions of the characters is the fantastic musical score done by none other than Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor.  Reznor, as you are probably aware, has a very industrial sounding mix to his music and he plays that up in this movie to maximum effect.  As the big reveals approach, we are treated to a melodious clanging cacophony that heightens the experience wonderfully.

Yep, this one is worth seeing.  It’s a long one at 149 minutes so be sure to empty your bladder beforehand.  If you liked the book, you’ll be very happy with the transformation onto the screen.  If you haven’t read the book, get ready for a roller coaster and enjoy the ride.

Game Review: Starcraft II: Heart Of The Swarm

A new series in which I review games that came out years ago.  I rarely play video games anymore.  So when I do, it’s guaranteed to be a game that I can get for cheap.  Which also means that it’s going to be years old.  Thus, “Heart of the Swarm”.

As I precursor to playing “Heart of the Swarm”, I also replayed the excellent “Wings of Liberty” human campaign that came out even more years ago.  Story wise, I think I liked “Wings of Liberty” better, though both have an entertaining storyline.  My biggest problem with the “Heart of the Swarm” storyline was Kerrigan’s voice acting.  It came off as kind of one-dimensional to me, which is normally fine, but here we have a woman going through a pretty big transformation and driven by hatred but still mostly talks in the same steady voice without a hint of inflection.  A small point, but bothersome to me.

The gameplay for “Heart of the Swarm” is solid, but incredibly easy.  I played through the entire thing on normal difficulty in a weekend with each mission taking on average well under 20 minutes.  Never once did I feel like there was a danger of me failing.  The Zerg is incredibly unbalanced in its favor.  The game introduces this concept of evolution for each of the zerg units which I think is the unbalancing factor.  You mean I can choose to make zerglings both able to respawn and able to jump up cliffs?  Yes please!  You don’t need any strategy at all.  Just build a bunch of zerglings with a bit of air support and go.  And it should be noted that I am NOT a terribly good player.  As an example of how easy the game is, I replayed the final mission in order to score me some extra Kerrigan achievements and I decided to play it with only Kerrigan and zerglings.  I completed all objectives in 25 minutes.  With no air support under my control.  That’s kind of ridiculous and what made me decide to write about the game.

Another problem with the game is the achievements.  In “Wings of Liberty”, many of the main gameplay achievements are actual achievements as opposed to getting them all just for playing the game.  “Heart of the Swarm” tends towards the latter.  First off, you can play on normal mode and get all of them.  “Wings of Liberty” had some hard mode achievements thrown in.  That’s fine and all, want to make the achievements more accessible to more casual gamers, but I was able to get a vast majority of the achievements without much effort at all.  The handful of achievements that I didn’t get in the first run through were ones that you really needed to know what they were first in order to get them.

All in all, despite my complaints, the game is pretty awesome.  I don’t think I will ever tire of watching a zergling rush in action.  It’s so pretty.  One thing that I will say about “Heart of the Swarm” that I didn’t experience when playing “Wings of Liberty”, I finally have an itch to play multiplayer.  I’m not sure I want to go down that rabbit hole.