Monday, June 30, 2014

Mud Volcano

We woke up the next morning for a full day of exploring Yellowstone. "Bright and early," as they say, since it's impossible to sleep too long in a tent once the sun comes up. After a quick but tasty breakfast, we were on our way.

The Grand Loop road runs a figure 8 pattern around the entire park, so we started on it north with some destinations in mind and a more general plan to stop anywhere that looked interesting.

A common sight in Yellowstone National Park is that of a half dozen cars pulled off on the side of the road in some random spot. Usually, this means people have spotted some kind of wildlife and are seizing a photo opportunity. (Though we concluded that the people in the car from New Jersey were stopping to play in the snow.) We quickly came upon someone stopped for a bison and pulled over to join them. It turns out that whether or not you stop for one or two bison is a sign of how long you've been at Yellowstone. By the end of that day -- and countless sightings later -- even a full herd wasn't necessarily enough to warrant a stop. But at that point, we were still early in our tour.

Within a mile or two, the road curved to follow the path of the Yellowstone River as it flowed north from the Lake, and that soon brought us to our next unplanned stop, the LeHardy Rapids. It's the first point north of Yellowstone Lake where the waters are something other than serene.

Onward north, to our first intended destination, the Mud Volcano. It's an area of features with sinister, fantasy-setting names. The Dragon Mouth Spring is a seething, hissing cave one could imagine a creature inside.

The Sour Lake is among the most acidic water anywhere in the park.

And yet we didn't quite get the full gurgling mud experience we were hoping for. Both the Black Dragon's Cauldron and the Mud Volcano itself were a bit more water than mud. (Fortunately, later in the trip, we'd find more what we had in mind.

Still, the view was amazing...

...and there was a fun encounter with wildlife that was hanging out in the area near the boardwalk.

After walking around the area for about an hour, we hopped back in the truck and continued north. Within a few minutes, Yellowstone showed off just how like the Genesis Planet (from the Star Trek movies) it could be: you could be in one kind of environment, then just a few miles later be in something completely different. The mostly stark Mud Volcano gave way to the lush Hayden Valley.

And then, just a few miles further north, we'd arrive at the stunning Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone...

Sunday, June 29, 2014

An Evening in the Park

Our trip to Yellowstone National Park began late in the afternoon. We planned to stop for the night at a Wyoming hotel and then complete the drive the next morning. A huge bus full of foreign tourists appeared to have similar plans, arriving at the hotel just minutes before us and overwhelming the poor desk clerks that were probably expecting a lazy evening.

By the middle of the following afternoon, we were driving in through Yellowstone's east entrance road. For late June, it seemed like there was a surprising amount of snow still scattered about. The forest was scarred by past fires, but with stands of young trees starting over against the road. Yellowstone Lake came up soon on the left, sprawling, beautiful, and framed by the distant mountains.

When we came upon a steaming patch of ground along the shore line, we made our first stop. Not that you can't find that sort of thing all over Yellowstone, of course, but knowing that didn't make it any less cool to see for the first time. We snapped some pictures, briefly stretched our legs, and then headed on in to our campsite.

There are several campgrounds all over Yellowstone (and inns and lodges too). You can camp in a variety of situations, from places that have bathrooms with showers and electricity to places that have pit toilets -- it all depends on what experience you're up for and where in the vast park you'd like to be. But we picked our spot, Bridge Bay Campground, for another reason: availability on the days we'd planned to be there. (Tip for Yellowstone: unless you want to stay in a nearby town like Cody and drive into Yellowstone every day, book a campsite well in advance.) Bridge Bay had bathrooms with drinkable water and dishwashing stations, but it didn't offer much seclusion. It was basically an open field with tents thrown up everywhere. Around the corner was the marina, but sadly we'd left our boat not-yet-purchased.

We put our tent up quickly, and with several hours of sunlight still to go, we headed out and do something with our evening. We decided to head for the Upper Geyser Basin to cross the big one off the list right away: Old Faithful.

You could just barely see the famous geyser erupting over the tops of the trees as we were pulling up, which left us about 70 minutes before we could really get a good look. But that was fine, giving us a chance to walk the pathway through the basin to see the many other geysers and springs in the area. None was doing much more than sputtering as we walked through, but there was plenty to see all the same. With every few steps, there was something new and beautiful, from the crystal clear Blue Star Spring...

to the "that's probably not the meaning they meant" Depression Geyser:

Areas like the Upper Geyser Basin (and more spots we would visit over the next couple of days) are simply the most alien environment I've ever visited. Even scuba diving in the ocean -- certainly a wildly different ecosystem unlike any you'll find above the water -- things still generally feel alive. But the geyser basin feels like a stark wasteland. Looks are deceiving, of course. You'll occasionally find tiny fish in the springs, and animal tracks through the basin (and then there's all kinds of things going on at the microscopic level), but those are details that are easily missed in the overall picture: white flats marked with rust-colored stains, accented with the occasional dead tree. Still, there is an odd beauty in it.

After making a circuit through most of the area, we came back around to the signature geyser, Old Faithful, with maybe 20 minutes to find a seat and wait. It's neither the largest nor most regularly predictable geyser in Yellowstone, but has the right mix of those two elements to give it fame. We ooed and ahhed along with hundreds of other spectators.

We then abandoned our plans to cook at the campsite that night, opting instead to get something at the nearby cafe. Still, that didn't stop us from starting a campfire later that night to gaze into hypnotically for a while before bed. The next day would be our biggest and busiest of the trip.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Circuit Circuit

I'm back from Yellowstone National Park, having seen tons of amazing things, and with hundreds and hundreds of photos to sort through. I'm also catching up on things I missed while I was gone. I feel compelled to write about one of those things in particular before I start out with trip stories.

A little over two months ago, I wrote about going to see the hearing in a marriage equality case, Kitchen v. Herbert. This was being heard at the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals here in Denver, likely on the way to a date at the U.S. Supreme Court. Earlier this week, the three judges who heard the case released their opinion. It made a fairly big splash in the news; you may well have heard the outcome before I did.

The judges ruled, 2-1, in favor of the plaintiffs and same-sex marriage. It was a major ruling in at least two ways. First, this was the first time a Federal Appeals Court had ruled on a marriage case since last summer's Windsor case (striking down the Defense of Marriage Act) at the Supreme Court. The many rulings that have been popping up all over the country over the last few months have all come from State Courts, or at the District Court level of the federal system -- essentially, "Level 1 of 3." This ruling from the Tenth Circuit comes from "Level 2."

Second, this was simultaneously the first time any judge has written against marriage equality since the Windsor case. In every court to hear a marriage case over the past seven months, every judge has ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional -- well over a dozen cases at this point. But as I mentioned, the judges in this appeal split 2-1. That one, Judge Kelly, became the first judge to argue that such bans are constitutional.

Unsurprisingly, Judge Kelly wasn't able to present any new compelling argument, nor recast the facts in any novel way, that is likely to sway the views of Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court swing vote who will almost certainly settle this case. Kelly's dissent simply parrots the same arguments that all those other judges I mentioned have demolished in opinion after opinion. No, the 1972 summary dismissal of Baker v. Nelson should not carry weight now, 40 years later, in light of all that has changed. No, it is not rational to discriminate against gays and lesbians on the basis of fostering procreation and child-rearing, when infertile heterosexual couples are allowed to marry, gays and lesbians are raising children too, and child-rearing outcomes are not otherwise measured for any other parents. This is truly the best material the other side has. None of it convinced Justice Kennedy in Windsor, and that's not going to change next term when the Supreme Court confronts the issue again.

The majority opinion in this case was written by Judge Lucero, and is also interesting in contrast to all those other supportive rulings of the past months. The lower District Court judges, looking to buttress their rulings against appeals in as many ways as possible, have typically examined the facts from myriad angles and shown how marriage bans are unconstitutional no matter how the subject is approached. Lucero's opinion here (joined by Judge Holmes) is far more focused. Indeed, it virtually ignores that this is a case about gays and lesbians. Rather than get into whether the marriage bans represent animus against them, or whether they represent a class deserving of heightened protection in the court system, Lucero instead focuses on the issue of marriage itself. Marriage has been so consistently described as a fundamental right in such a variety of court cases over the decades that virtually no impediments of that right could be constitutional, he argues.

And now, a new wait begins until we see what happens next. The state of Utah, having lost this stage, will certainly appeal the ruling. But they have two paths they can take. Most likely, they'll go straight to the Supreme Court, "Level 3." But they can also request an en banc hearing, a "Level 2.5." Instead of accepting the three randomly selected Tenth Circuit judges who just ruled on the case, they can ask all the circuit's judges to hear the case again together. And either path leads to more possibilities. The Supreme Court might take this case, or might instead take a different marriage case out of a different appeals circuit. (A case from Virginia, in the Fourth Circuit, is expected to be ruled on soon.) The Tenth Circuit might grant or deny an en banc hearing.

As is par for the course in this process, a burst of activity is then followed by days or weeks of waiting. Maybe I should go on vacation again soon and see if something else exciting happens while I'm gone.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Hello there, readers!

I'm heading off to visit Yellowstone National Park, so the blog is going to fall silent here for a few days. I hope to return with some fun stories and pictures.

Until then!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Critical Darling

Despite my typical dislike of biopics, I decided to take a chance on last year's Kill Your Darlings. Though specifically a story about poet Allen Ginsberg in his critical freshman year of college, the film appeared to be in equal measure a story about the emergence of the Beat Generation, and featured enough interesting actors to capture my attention.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Ginsberg, heavily influenced by a Lucien Carr, played by Dane DeHaan (of The Amazing Spider-Man 2). The cast also includes Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall, Elizabeth Olsen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Cross (in a rare dramatic role), and Kyra Sedwick. It's a "deep bench" to draw from, and they definitely throw themselves into creating a rich and realistic environment.

But the story is lacking. The first half meanders almost aimlessly, too much a "slice of life," and a celebration of rebellion in general without a specific message. (Maybe that's the Beat Generation ina nutshell?) Too late in the game, a story materializes surrounding a murder. Suddenly there are deeper questions about gay rights and personal integrity. Should one bow to pressure in an academic setting? Is it right to sell out your principles when the pressure gets high and the stakes get personal? It's far more interesting material, to be sure, but by this point, the film had already lost me.

The performances are solid throughout, but I found little else to recommend about the film. I'd give it a D.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Ready Player One is the first, and thus far only, novel by Ernest Cline. It took the geek niche by storm, got an endorsement from a few of my friends, and has a movie deal in the works. It has been in my reading queue for some time now, and recently bubbled to the top.

The story is set a few decades in the future, when all the world has become consumed by a global alternate reality game, an MMO with fully immersive visuals and haptic feedback. The genius programmer-creator of this game has died, leaving behind an Easter egg contest: the person who finds his egg will inherit his entire fortune. The novel follows a teenager's efforts to do that while fighting against the powerful corporations who are using their vast resources to try to take control of the game -- and, by extension, the world.

The book gained the notoriety it enjoys because it's steeped in 80s pop culture. Video games, television shows, and movies -- all beloved by geeks -- figure prominently into the plot. Each page is peppered with dozens of references to squee at. (For added fun, the audiobook version of it is read by Wil Wheaton, I hear.) And it's all delivered with the sort of reverence of an author who you sense really loves this stuff and isn't merely leveraging it.

The end product is a real page turner that's tons of fun to read. But it also feels a bit superficial or simplistic at times. There are sections when the writing feels decidedly unsophisticated, usually when ham-fisted exposition is trying to explain a 80s reference some people might not get, or when describing the emotions of its not-quite-fleshed out teenage main character. Put another way, though I had sky high opinions of it while I was actually reading it, that opinion quickly began to lose its luster after I'd finished.

That said, I would probably still recommend the book to most of my friends. They're the sort of people it's really made for, and it's too much fun to overlook. But I think Ernest Cline's next book will really be a chance to prove if he can improve his technique, or if he's just a guy who had one really cool idea for a novel. I give Ready Player One a B+.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Tale of Loving

47 years ago this month, a ruling was announced in a landmark Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia. This was the case in which the Court struck down anti-miscegenation statutes on the books in several U.S. states, legalizing interracial marriage nationwide. It was a monumental case among many other monumental civil rights cases.

I have been fairly familiar with the case for some time, as it is cited today as key precedent in the legal battle against same-sex marriage bans. But I was still curious to dig deeper, through a documentary film called The Loving Story. It chronicles the tale of the plantiff couple, Richard and Mildred Loving, and their path through the court system, leading to their victory. But, perhaps due to my familiarity with the case, I didn't find the documentary to be all that informative.

Partly, the filmmakers faced a problem in trying to cover events so long after the fact. Both Richard and Mildred Loving had died by the time the film was made in 2012. Thus, the film is cobbled together out of interviews with friends and neighbors, the lawyers who pled the case, and a handful of personal home movies and news footage that survives. Even to this day, the court system does not allow cameras into proceedings, so those parts of the story have to be covered with audio recordings.

What does come across, and to me is quite interesting, is the contrast between the justice system then and now. For one, the Supreme Court's ruling in this case was a unanimous and forward-thinking 9-0; today, there is little doubt that the similar same-sex marriage case that will wind up before the Supreme Court will result in a 5-4 split.

For another, it's notable just how "photogenic" plaintiffs in these lawsuits must be in this day and age. Neither Richard nor Mildred Loving even went to the Supreme Court when their case was argued. Richard never gave any interviews, and Mildred gave very few. By contrast, today's plaintiffs are groomed for the TV cameras, and the sympathies they can draw out of an audience form a major part of the case. (Take, for instance, the "kind little ol' lady" Edie Windsor, of last summer's Windsor v. United States.)

But if I was hoping for some deeper revelations, the documentary didn't really provide me any. This is a powerful bit of history, and if any of you are unfamiliar with it, I would certainly recommend the film for you on that basis. But as a piece of documentary filmmaking, I'd call it an average C.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Day 9: 6:00 - 7:00 PM

Last night's 24 was a drinking hat trick (Jack gave us a "dammit," a "within the hour," and a "perimeter"). I also thought it was the best hour of this new season.

It's not that it was especially shocking. On any other show, the idea that the writers would go through with killing the President of the United States would be the unthinkable plot twist no one would see coming. On 24, the twist would have been if they had weaseled their way out of it. Still, it wouldn't have been 24 if they had. The key was in how they got there.

On that front, the episode was terrific. In a move sure to give Audrey trust issues with men for the rest of her life, her ex-boyfriend and her husband teamed up to essentially assist her father's suicide. And the show found a way to really explore the ramifications of this despite a need to keep the action rolling, despite the ticking clock. We got to see Mark's reluctance, Jack's unwavering devotion to duty despite his objections, Heller's "goodbye that I can't say out loud" scene with Audrey, and Audrey's discovery of her father's letter. All of it was a pretty solid emotional throughline of the sort that 24 doesn't always manage to present strongly in the midst of the action.

It seemed like it wasn't the only dramatic thread in play, either. For narrative necessity, I presume, we began to see a fracture between Margot al-Harazi and her son. Presumably, this is how the menace will continue for another four episodes: she will stay true to her word and stand down her drones, but her son will defy her.

But the more subtle and provocative thread was hinted at between Jack and Kate. Jack pushed her hard this week, and Kate went there like the good soldier she's been this season, putting Simone's life in jeopardy to get information from her. But what I found interesting was the way Jack pushed: "Wake the bitch up." A fun Bauer style line, sure, but it also felt like a step beyond for him. Combined with his actions against Simone last week, and the way that there too it was contrasted with Kate, it feels like maybe the writers are inching toward a big, perhaps even irredeemable "go too far" moment with Jack by the end of the season.

I was even fairly entertained by the misadventures of Jordan Reed. Sure, he fell for one of the oldest cliches in the book ("is your safety on or off?"), but I forgive it. For one, he's really a desk jockey out of his element; and two, it's not like the hitman hadn't been colossally stupid throughout the sequence too. At least Reed first managed to figure out who had set him up. Sure looks like he's dead now, though, so it may fall to a snooping Kate to avenge him and unmask Navarro's moley moleness.

My one gripe, though. Traditionally, the major deaths on 24 have been punctuated by a silent clock to end the act. Indeed, the fact that the clock wasn't silent when Tony Almeida died in season 5 was the writers' bullshit retcon justification to bring him back from the dead in season 7. So does the lack of silent clock tonight for Heller's death mean we should somehow be expecting charred zombie Heller next week? Come on, guys. He's the president. Show a little respect.

Still, I can't remember the last time I had this much fun with a 24 episode. Good drama. A clever "reverse stealth shooter" style escape for Jack and the President. Blowing up half the field at Wembley Stadium. Good stuff. I give it an A-.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Children

Last night's installment of Game of Thrones was the final one of the season. It delivered one major plot development after another... and yet still not all of the ones book readers were probably expecting.

Things began at the Wall, at exactly the moment we left them last episode. Jon's visit with Mance Rayder helped illuminate another thing that made last week's episode not wholly satisfying for me: last week had no Mance Rayder. In the battle for the Wall, Jon was making a point of how only Mance Rayder had the charisma and skill necessary to pull the Wildlings together as an army. And yet we didn't see the man, lending his side of the battle a faceless, Lord of the Rings Orcs quality.

The writers made up for that a lot this week with a deep conversation between Jon and Mance. They drank to fallen comrades. (Even the giant was "somebody.") Mance deduced Jon's true purpose in coming, and challenged Jon to go through with it -- mutually assured death. But then Stannis burst on to the scene, rescuing the Night's Watch. We had a meaningful funeral for the fallen brothers, an even more meaningful glance through the flames between Jon and Melisandre, and then a proper sendoff for Ygritte. What we did not get was the full completion of Jon's storyline from book three, but I was glad still to see some of the emotional heft that wasn't quite there for me last week.

The Cersei storyline was a very interesting one. It may have been a bit of a tough ask, given the scene earlier this season where a book scene of consensual sex was recast as a rape. But if you can set that aside (another big ask), we got a great amping of the stakes in Cersei confronting her father with the incestuous truth. This diversion from the book was possible only because of Tywin's ultimate fate at the end of the episode, but it was a good diversion. It made Cersei both stronger in her willingness to take on her father, and weaker in her childlike petulance to have what she wanted even if it cost her everything else. Both are qualities that inform her actions in the story going forward, so it's good to see the track being laid here. Her forcefulness also helped to justify Jaime's actions in freeing Tyrion later in the hour.

Oh, and before I move on, the episode certainly seemed to confirm the fate of the Mountain in a way that book readers were perhaps only 90% sure of. As in the books, it's revealed that Oberyn poisoned his weapon, meaning he'll get his revenge after all. Also as in the books, the Mountain was then handed over to a mad scientist for treatment. But the show more explicitly stated that he would survive -- just not as himself. This seems to cement that a forthcoming character who book readers had to just speculate about ("is this actually the Mountain?") is indeed him -- just "not as himself."

Dany remains mired in Meereen, where things with her dragons have taken a dark turn. With one having slaughtered an innocent child, she decides she must chain them up, leading to a very well done scene. Cheers to Emilia Clarke for showing real emotion when nothing was actually there to perform with. Even more cheers to the animation team who delivered some powerful performances from the two dragons, showing their sense of betrayal.

Back north -- far north -- Bran reached "Dagobah," as my friend called it. But not before one of the most truly "fantasy" sequences the show has ever done, a big fight against the undead, capped with a fireball launching spellcaster. There was more impressive visual effects work in the fight sequence. What remains to be seen is whether the writers can pull off the even more impressive task of making Bran's "Jedi training" interesting over the course of an entire season. (Or more?)

The night's huge departure from the books came when Brienne met up with Arya. It led to a fantastic fight between Brienne and The Hound. The choreography was superb, running the gamut from rather courtly swordplay down to vicious fistfighting. In the end, Brienne triumphed, paving the way for the book's actual parting between Arya and The Hound: she simply steals his money and walks off. The final scene between the two of them was wonderful, and you could really see the gears turning in Arya's mind as she determined that getting her justice here could involve a long, slow death for The Hound.

Then came Tyrion's escape, appropriately timed for Father's Day. I'm going to be interested to hear how all this played for people who haven't read the books. In particular, Shae's death is so full of meaning, yet such a sudden and impulsive thing, that I'm not completely sure that even the stupendous Peter Dinklage was able to play it all in those few brief moments. The final confrontation in the privy was great, with Tywin arrogant to the last. Even having murdered Shae -- perhaps especially because he'd murdered Shae -- Tyrion could not stand to hear her called a whore. And that spelled the end for the mastermind of the Lannister family.

For the last scene of the episode, I was expecting the epilogue of book three, a shocking development that had me clamoring for a book four that wouldn't come for five years. But the show seems to have put off that development for a season, instead giving us one last melancholy scene with Arya as she leaves Westeros behind to sail east.

And there we have it. I'd give "The Children" an A-. A fairly solid capper to what was probably the best season of Game of Thrones yet. And now, let the long ten-month wait begin.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Black Mystery

There are several distinctive elements to the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of Black Peter," making for a quite entertaining read.

First, the crime is quite grisly and unusual compared to the consulting detective's usual fare. Holmes and Watson are called upon by a young rural detective to investigate a man murdered by harpoon. The victim, the titular Black Peter, is found in a small shack, impaled and pinned to the wall.

Second, the victim is in no way sympathetic. Holmes has barely undertaken the investigation before it is made plain that this Peter was a reprehensible individual, a violent and abusive man whose own daughter is actually glad he's dead.

Third, the crime is actually two-fold in nature: it's both a murder and a theft, and Holmes must get to the bottom of both. And it's a mystery that does play quite fairly with the audience. A red herring is thrown very prominently into both the detective's and the reader's path, though Holmes cleverly holds sight of the telling detail that keeps the investigation on track. Ultimately, Holmes does a little unseen research that keeps the audience from beating him to the punch with the specific identity of the culprit, but it would be well within the reader's ability to at least sort the important from the immaterial here.

The result is a swift, fun adventure that I find memorable among the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I give "The Adventure of Black Peter" a B+.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Half-Assed Movie

I probably didn't need to warn you not to see the movie Knights of Badassdom. I'm guessing most of you have never heard of it, or are skeptical of the title alone. But I was taken in.

First, there was the premise. A group of LARPers are called upon for actual heroism, on an actual quest, when they accidentally summon a succubus from hell. That's just fun right there. Second, there was the cast, which I knew included Ryan Kwanten (Jason Stackhouse, from True Blood), Peter Dinklage (Tyrion, from Game of Thrones), and Summer Glau (River, from Firefly). In watching the movie, I learned the cast also included Steve Zahn (from Treme) and Danny Pudi (Abed, from Community) as well! That's certainly a lot of geek cred to support a low-budget indie movie.

But the movie leaves you mystified as to what could have attracted them all. The script is less interested in its unusual premise than it is in becoming a quite usual slasher film. Aside from maybe three genuine laughs in a 90-minute movie, the jokes all land flat. The visual effects are, predictably, terrible. The climax is too lame to even be funny.

It's hard to even speak well of any of the actors I named above. Each of them has done better work (in the things I named, and others) than you'll see here. You might even feel embarrassed for some of them.

I'd call the movie a D-, and it really only rates that high because it did manage to catch me off guard and make me laugh two or three times. If it hadn't been so short, and hadn't coaxed me into wanting to see how it ended, I probably would have just given up halfway through. You shouldn't even give it that much time.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Day 9: 5:00 - 6:00 PM

This week's installment of 24 was a whopping four-and-a-half drink hour (four Jack "dammits" and one drink-adjacent "in less than an hour") that really brought the fun back after the previous lackluster episode.

Okay, so Margot al-Harazi has definitely left ruthless for crazy, but the sheer idea of a villain using drone missiles to kill her own daughter is just so wildly different that I have to give props to the writers for going there. And that choice led in turn to perhaps the best extended action sequence the series delivered in its last several seasons. Sure, 24 has had its share of car chases over the years, but Jack Bauer trying to outrun drone missiles? That's pure awesome.

I also have to give some grudging respect to the idea that we don't just have one mole this season, we have two, each in a different organization! And they're working together! It's kind of nuts, but in a way -- like the drone chase -- it's just the sort of over the top nuts that brings the fun back. It's the sort of zaniness you could never top if you were having to worry about doing another season after this one, but just the sort of thing you can do when your show is having a limited run, coming back from the dead.

I also enjoyed how the show, having now firmly established Agent Morgan as "the female Jack," is now in some ways making her better than Jack. Call that sacrilege if you like, but Kate endured torture with the best of them last week, and then this week was shifting into a softer gear to get valuable information from a little girl. Meanwhile, in this very episode, you saw what happens when Jack tries to be tender and doesn't get instant results: he grabs hold of the stub of your severed finger and squeezes.

Not that you didn't have to overlook some less fun ridiculousness along the way. The idea that Simone can be carried from a hospital even slightly under her own power, minutes after being hit by a bus? Come on, "I feel like I've been hit by a bus" is actually the go-to metaphor for "I can't function."

For sheer audacity, I might have to call this episode an A-, even acknowledging the silly, sugary calories of it all. It's hard to believe, but we have only five episodes left. Perhaps even more interesting, we have not yet had any jump ahead in time, as the interviews published when the season began told us to expect. We'll see what's in store next week.

The Watchers on the Wall

Last night, I caught up with this week's Game of Thrones installment, "The Watchers on the Wall." Episode nine has always been a big one in each season of the show, with seasons one and three packing the emotional punch of the execution and the wedding, while season two delivered the battle of Blackwater. This season's ninth hour was cast more in the latter mode, focused solely on the battle to hold the Wall.

Visually, it was a truly impressive episode, probably even more so than "Blackwater." Visual effects were called upon throughout, and delivered: we saw the heights of the Wall, the many tactics used to defend it, the mammoths deployed against it, actors scaled to look like giants, and so much more. The fight choreography was equally impressive, with many intense exchanges throughout the battle. We also witnessed the wizardry of the 360-degree single take that panned around the courtyard of Castle Black for a full minute, showing us the chaos that reigned everywhere. Yes, from a technical side, this was the show's finest hour, worthy of a summer blockbuster with ten times the budget.

But from a dramatic side? Well, I wouldn't say it was bad by any means, but it certainly wasn't as effective. I don't think any one thing was solely responsible for this, but rather that a few different things contributed. One is that the situation wasn't set up nearly as well as the battle of Blackwater. In the episodes prior to that battle, we saw Stannis' ships setting sail, Tyrion trying to marshal the defense, many indications that something bad was coming. In this case, we haven't actually seen the wildling army since the premiere episode of season three, and have since had only Jon's reminders of it -- reminders the leadership of Castle Black were dismissing in the maybe every other week Jon even appeared in the episode.

The episode "Blackwater," which also focused solely on a single battle, had better characters involved that we were more interested in. Tyrion and Bronn were the people to cheer for, while Cersei, Sansa, and the Hound had interesting roles to play. The fates of Joffrey, Littlefinger, and Varys were in play as well. Here... you've got Jon. I'm not sure the show has done as well as the books at building up Sam (if so, that's one of the rather few areas where the show hasn't surpassed the books, I think). Beyond that, you have the obnoxious leaders of Thorne and Slynt, neither a villain you want to root against as much as Joffrey, and then a bunch of nameless soldiers.

They did try to frontload the episode with some drama before the battle began, in a series of scenes centered around Sam (as though acknowledging that they really hadn't built him up enough going into this). He talked to Jon about Gilly before reuniting with her. The most effective scene in the sequence was the one with Maetser Aemon, but for me it worked more for how they used the character of Aemon rather than Sam.

Breaking book three into two seasons has been very effective for the show, for the most part. But one area in which it didn't work so well came this week, with the death of Ygritte. It was certainly played for weighty drama, but the problem is that it's been an entire season since we saw her and Jon together. It's been too long for the things that were good about their relationship to remain fresh in our minds. We were left with only a season full of Ygritte claiming how she wanted to kill Jon, leading up to a brief moment where I'm not sure it was completely clear anymore why she couldn't do it. I don't think it amounted to the tragedy for Jon that it ideally should have been.

Still, the sheer theatrics of the battle certainly amazed and entertained. I would say it's the weakest episode of the season in terms of drama, but still not bad at all in the grand scheme of things. I give it a B.

Monday, June 09, 2014


If you came here this morning looking for my thoughts on last night's Game of Thrones, you're going to have to return another day. I didn't get to watch the new episode yet, because last night I went to a wedding.

It was a fun occasion on several accounts. First, I've known the groom for literally decades, and his bride (who I've only known for a couple of years now) is perfectly matched for him and his geeky interests and personality.

Secondly, and symbolic of the perfect match I've mentioned, is that they decided to have a steampunk-themed wedding. They dressed up in gadget-adorned steampunk garb and invited their guests to do the same if they wished. Nearly all did, making it one of the more entertaining crowds I've ever seen at a wedding. The families of the bride and groom went particularly all out, but you could see gold-trimmed outfits, hats both practical and impractical, and goggles just about everywhere.

Thirdly, another friend of mine of several decades officiated the ceremony. As some of you may know, I myself performed such duties for a pair of friends around 10 years ago. It's the nature of Colorado law that a couple can witness their own marriage, sign the papers, and be official. No justice of the peace or minister or anything of the like is required. (So no, I am not Father Heimlich.) But this couple and their officiant thought it would be fun to go the route of getting ordained, only to turn around to conduct an irreverent and thoroughly secular ceremony representative of them.

So it was that the breezy, 20-minute ceremony included many unusual but entertaining touches -- the groom skulking out to the theme from Mission: Impossible, the bride walking out to the opening movement of Carmina Burana (a more sedate piano rendition, but an unconventional choice nonetheless), quotes and music from The Princess Bride, a poetry reading from Tim Pratt's "Scientific Romance," and more. In short, it was fun, a real celebration, which more than a few weddings I've attended have sort of missed the point on.

Oh, also, best freaking wedding cake I've ever had. Vanilla with rich caramel frosting between the layers. And it looked like a steampunk train before they cut into it.

Congratulations to the happy couple!

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Future Is Now

This week, I've transitioned from one "car milestone" to another. For more than a decade, I've been driving a Honda Civic -- the longest I've driven any one car. (Purchased from a dear friend, who will no doubt be reading this at some point.) The Civic has been reliable, even though I probably haven't taken care of her as well as I should have.

But now I've purchased my very first new car. After talking about the possibility for quite a while, I finally went for it and got a 2015 Mazda 6. I still don't quite understand how the car comes from the future. We aren't even half way through 2014 yet.

Then again, maybe it is from the future. It sure feels like it so far. All these cool widgets and gadgets and features. Some of you with cars newer than a 1999 model may now think things like a back-up camera and blind-spot detection are old news, but not in my car, they're not.

I haven't generally been one to name my cars, but my boyfriend is among the many who do. And my previous car, the Civic, did come with a name from the previous owner. (Bianca.) So I'm figuring at some point here in the coming days or weeks, the right name will present itself

As for Bianca? Well, she's not done yet. She still gets good enough gas mileage to hang onto (far better than the big and burly, but frequently handy truck in our garage); she'll just move on to her third regular driver.

Hopefully, she won't get too jealous of seeing this parked next to her (and watching it diligently get the regular maintenance she deserved):

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Priory Engagement

"The Adventure of the Priory School" is among the longer of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, and among the more convoluted too. The director of a private school approaches Holmes to locate a missing student, and the investigation leads to an elaborate array of plot elements including bicycles, a separated mother, a disappearing German teacher, a sketchy rural inn, and more.

The story doesn't quite hang together for me. Good mysteries of course use red herrings to obscure the ultimate truth, but this story includes details bordering on the absurd. When Holmes must get to the bottom of why cow tracks have been found at the scene of a murder -- and more importantly, when their reason for being there turns out to strain plausibility -- things just feel like they've gone off the rails.

The character of Holmes feels a bit off model this time out too. Generally, Holmes is happy to do the work for the work's sake. Watson notes as much in this very story, and later adaptations of the famous detective have invariably incorporated this element. But here, the promise of a reward seems to turn Holmes from potentially dismissing the case to accepting it eagerly. And at the conclusion of the tale, when Holmes presses for his reward in what seems a way to catch his mark in a lie, it ultimately leads to his own confession that he just really needs the money. Though this is perhaps more realistic, it clashes with the dozens of prior Holmes stories.

That said, the sort of two-stage mystery here is intriguing. What starts as a simple kidnapping then leads to a murder, and the stakes definitely feel higher from then on. What's also interesting is the way certain evidence seems readily apparent (such as the fact that the missing student clearly left without a struggle), yet doesn't lend itself easily to a solution to the case.

But ultimately, it feels as though Arthur Conan Doyle was striving for a plot with the complexity of The Hound of the Baskervilles -- a novel -- while shoving it into the space of a short story. It doesn't quite fit. I give "The Priory School" a C+.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Day 9: 4:00 - 5:00 PM

Where 24 was concerned, absence did make the heart grow fonder. But now I fear that familiarity breeds contempt. I wasn't thrilled by this week's new episode, that backslid into an awful lot of 24's old tricks. I could talk about Jack's big play to get undercover with a criminal organization in a matter of minutes, or having to watch one of our heroes endure a torture session, or about the reemergence of the boring Russian subplot from the final seasons of the show. But let's instead go straight to the most cliche, most tired element from the 24 writers' handbook: a mole.

Why does there always have to be a mole? Do the writers think it has to be this way? Do they think we like the formula always, always, always including this? Surely they don't think there's actually any suspense associated with this in any way, not when it plays out the same damn way every time. Early in the episode, when the plucky tech analyst started dredging up Kate's back story and Navarro pushed him off it, my friend watching the episode with us bellowed "MOLE!" and pointed to the screen like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And of course, 45 minutes later, the "shocking" end of the episode revealed that to be exactly the case. Yawn.

Other aspects of the episode were perhaps not as typical, but were just as silly and/or predictable. This season's villain, Margot, has been fun so far due to her extreme psychosis. But now she's picked up a healthy dose of "dumb," and that isn't fun. How delusional do you have to be to cut off your daughter's finger and kill her husband all in the span of an hour-and-a-half, and then send her out to run errands for you? Yes, Margot, I double-guess you. Slap me.

We might have gotten some decent tension out of Jack's attempts to work his cover and get information, but that was fairly well deflated by the knowledge that the MI-5 team was moving in. The moment the Prime Minister dispatched them, you knew they would show up just in time to simultaneously save the day and ruin the plan.

We didn't even get any drinks out of the hour to lighten the mood. British tactical teams apparently don't set up "perimeters," Jack opted for "son of a bitch" as his curse of the hour, and the only person who talked about doing something in "less than an hour" stubbornly refused to use the approved phrasing. Apparently, avoiding the buzz words is what passes for "shaking things up" among the writing staff.

I was bored and disappointed for the first time this season. I'd give the episode a C. Here's hoping this is just a dip in the road and not the beginning of a slide into more of the same.

Monday, June 02, 2014

The Mountain and the Viper

This week's Game of Thrones may have been titled for the climatic battle that closed the episode, but it was another story line that most entertained me -- the one following Sansa Stark in the aftermath of Littlefinger's murder of Lysa.

I know I say often that it's been a while since I've read the book, and that because of that, I don't remember all the particulars of how it unfolded. But I feel pretty confident in saying that I don't recall Sansa becoming so shrewd. It was wonderful to see her finally take charge in her own story. She clearly learned something about the art of deceit from her time in King's Landing, with a carefully modulated story that contained plenty of truth up front to clear a path for the lie at the end. I don't think that she really knows who she's siding with, as Littlefinger himself intimated, but it certainly seems like the best of possible evils (for now). In any case, Sansa chose it for herself, which makes it a huge moment for her character.

Closely connected to that story were the "adventures of Arya and the Hound." The reaction of Arya to hearing of her aunt's death was priceless. One more hope dashed, and all she could do was laugh maniacally. The scene was also interesting for its opening, particularly the discussion of poison being "a woman's weapon." It was a nice way to comment on a revelation yet to come in the next episode or two.

But backing up to take things chronologically, we opened with a Wildling attack on the village where Gilly is hiding, and it offered up a small moment that showed us that despite her anger, Ygritte has not totally given in to "the dark side" just yet. Ygritte found Gilly and her baby, yet spared them. But I think the story of the inexorable push toward the Wall (from both sides) has been stalled long enough. It seems certain to come to a head next week.

Back with Theon/Reek, we got to see the deceitful taking up Moat Cailin by Ramsay. The two interesting moments in this story were: first, when Theon almost broke down in fear of having to return to Ramsay without success; and second, that the show spent time on the moment of Roose Bolton bestowing his family name on Ramsay. The former illuminated just how far gone the real Theon is right now, while the latter... well, it's interesting to show this moment that tried to soften a character surely beyond all tempering.

Over in Meereen, the romantic subplot between Grey Worm and Missandei didn't really do much for me, but the revelation of Jorah Mormont's spying was a moment long coming. I like the way Emilia Clarke played the scene where Dany exiles Jorah. She didn't emphasize the shock of betrayal, nor did she play the typical "I'm so disappointed" cliche. Instead, she seemed to show us a healthy dose of the Targaryen family craziness. You got the sense that with one wrong word from Jorah, she'd bark some order as her brother might have, and Jorah would have been in a very bad situation indeed. I like this reminder that Dany has crazy in her nature.

Finally, King's Landing. There have been a lot of great Tyrion-in-captivity scenes this season, though this week's was not among my favorites. I don't know if it's that the meaning of the tale of "simple Orson" seemed unclear, or if the notion of such a character somehow felt redundant to Hodor, or if we were all just eager to see the fight already, or if I already feel that Peter Dinklage has delivered scenes that ought to win him an Emmy this season. In any case, the scene with Jamie didn't quite do it for me.

But then came the fight. It was every bit as intense as promised. And ultimately, bloody too. Even knowing as I did that Oberyn was not going to survive, his death in the final moments was simply shocking. The sheer brutality of it, in a show you'd think had plumbed the depths of shocking brutality, was incredible. And just like that, a fan favorite character of the new season is no more.

I'd give this episode a B+ overall. I suppose, given the high quality of this season, that's actually a low mark. But it was still great entertainment.