Friday, December 02, 2011

Pyongyang Pikas Postgame: November Recap

It's been a month of ups and downs for the Pikas, who won two out of their last four to go to 6-6 with one game left in the regular season.

Week 9 saw some strong efforts by a few Pikas, including quarterback Aaron Rodgers (30 points) and newly-healthy tight end Antonio Gates (15) to bring the score against Tom's 2MuchJohnson4U to 96-83 at the end of Sunday.  Both teams had one player left to play: Pikas star running back Matt Forte needed to get no worse than 12 points fewer than 2MuchJohnson4U star running back LeSean McCoy to give the Pikas their first win over Tom's team.  McCoy made it interesting, scoring an impressive 17 during the Monday night game, and even though Forte scored only 10, it was enough.

Final score: Pikas 106, 2MuchJohnson4U 100

Another close game followed in Week 10, but sadly it didn't go the Pikas' way.  Many of the Pikas simply didn't show up in Week 10, with the wide receiver duo of Wes Welker and Mike Wallace only scoring a total of 12 points, and the usually stalwart Ravens defense scoring a miserable 1.  The Pikas were down 87-64 heading into Monday night, where the Pikas played Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and Zach's Beat Tom team played Greg Jennings at wide receiver.  Rodgers had a typically stellar night, racking up 4 touchdowns and a total of 28 points; sadly for the Pikas, one of those touchdowns was to Greg Jennings, and that made the difference in the game.

Final score: Beat Tom 96, Pikas 92

The Pikas were completely demolished in Week 11, scoring by far their lowest point total of the season.  New recruit Brandon Marshall was supposed to bolster the receiving corps but scored no points at all.  Worse for the Pikas, running back Fred Jackson, a key early-season acquisition, was injured during the game and his season finished.  Once that was combined with three Narwhals players scoring more than 20 points each, the Pikas suffered a good old-fashioned blowout.

Final score: North Dakota Narwhals 128, Pikas 76

Fortunately, the Pikas righted the ship in Week 12 starting with an auspicious Thanksgiving Day.  Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had his toughest matchup of the season but still score 20 points.  The Ravens defense put on a clinic against the 49ers, piling up nine sacks and scoring 18; the only points the 49ers scored came off the foot of new Pikas kicker David Akers, who netted 9.  Things fell into place even more nicely on Sunday, with Wes Welker bouncing back from two miserable weeks to get 22 points and Roddy White adding 18 of his own.   2MuchJohnson4U's last hope on Monday night was Jimmy Graham, the New Orleans tight end who is arguably the best in the league.  Graham scored 20, as much as an owner could ever expect a tight end to score, but it wasn't quite enough.

Final score: Pikas 112, 2MuchJohnson4U 98.  Pikas record: 6-6 (3-1 in division)

Only one final matchup with divisional rival Beat Tom remains before the playoffs!

Currently listening: "The Angels Hung Around," Rilo Kiley

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

3-Sentence Reviews: November Sweeps 2011

Rather than reviewing television shows at the beginning of the season, this year I've waited until the November sweeps to see what survived, both in terms of my interest and the ratings.

The promise of "Steven Spielberg does dinosaurs on TV" was enough to draw me into Terra Nova, and a month or two in, there's not much keeping me there.  Shows have tried very hard to claim the "spiritual successor to Lost" title and largely failed because they never learned the lesson that Lost was more about the characters than the setting or mythology.  Dinosaurs, time travel, and mysterious antagonists are fine and good, but this show is going to need interesting characters besides Commander Taylor if it wants to survive.

It's been clear to me for some time that eventually, at some point, I would stop being able to bring myself to care about the psychological insecurities of doctors on House, and that point is now.  Park and Adams are okay--and this season is much better than that disaster of a seventh season we just had to endure--but the show has been in decline since the end of the third season.  With any luck, this eighth season will be the last, and the announcement of an end date will spark a return to form for the rest of the year.

Zooey Deschanel vehicle New Girl knows it's a Zooey Deschanel vehicle, and at least it's been true to its mission.  While none of the characters are as interesting as Deschanel's Jess, the show has enough laugh-out-loud moments per episode that I'm still watching.  Its biggest trap is going to be becoming too relationship-y; The Big Bang Theory went from excellent to awful when it became "geek Friends," and New Girl desperately needs to avoid becoming "quirk Friends".

That The Office has managed to keep itself afloat without Michael Scott says a lot for the quality of the writing and the rest of the ensemble.  The old tone and character is still there, and the brilliant Ed Helms portrays boss-Andy just as engagingly as he did worker-Andy.  My only reservation is new big-boss Robert California; instead of the comedic ineptitude that we're used to from the show, he gives us unsettling corporatism.

Points for my new favorite show of the year go to Person of Interest, a very CBS procedural starring Jesus and Ben Linus Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson.  It's disorienting but refreshing to hear Michael Emerson not lie whenever he talks, and if nobody has managed to become to spiritual successor to Lost yet, Caviezel's Mr. Reese may well have become the spiritual successor to Jack Bauer.  I'm not sure I need the Detective Carter storyline, and we'll wait to judge the overarching Elias plot until the end of the season; for now, I'm just enjoying the weekly antics of Finch and Reese.

I'm a little angry at The Mentalist for (apparently) breaking the Megatron Rule; in keeping antagonist Red John alive, they've completely negated the impact of the show's best episode, last year's season finale.  Maybe the show will finally move past Red John at some point.  But even if it doesn't, it remains one of TV's best procedurals, with trademark deadpan, snarky tone, and one of the most memorable and likeable leading characters on TV.

Currently listening: "Congratulations," the Juliana Theory

Friday, November 04, 2011

Mylo Xyloto (and a Coldplay retrospective)

I suppose I consider myself a Coldplay fan, though my road to Coldplay fandom is definitely the one less traveled by.

There are two sorts of Coldplay fans.  The first one listened to Parachutes on repeat back in 2000, proclaiming it brilliant, and A Rush of Blood to the Head on repeat back in 2002, proclaiming it slightly less inspired but still wonderful.  2005 brought X&Y, and with it, a disliked new direction and a hated mainstream popularity.  Fans of early Coldplay became Not Fans of later Coldplay, and even though Viva la Vida is inarguably the band's greatest achievement musically, critically, and commercially, they were long finished with the band by 2008.

Fortunately for Coldplay, the second sort of fan decided to show up circa Viva la Vida.  This fan probably heard "Speed of Sound" a couple dozen times on the radio between May and October 2005--with maybe the occasional "Talk" or "Fix You" thrown in for good measure--and forgot about Coldplay, only be be inundated again three years later.  "Viva la Vida" pervaded every aspect of media and pop culture for a summer, and it attracted an entirely new cohort of Coldplay devotees.  For this second sort of fan, "Violet Hill" is more quintessentially Coldplay than "Clocks," and "Yellow" is a color, not a song.

Where was I in all of this?  I was a bit young to know what Parachutes was when it was released, but by Rush of Blood, I'd caught on to the band's existence.  The difference between me and the cool-kid early adopters was that I didn't actually like Rush of Blood, and I liked Parachutes even less when I went back and listened to it.  It's not that I actively disliked it; early Coldplay simply occupies the "inoffensive but uninteresting" musical domain alongside electronica and classic rock.

It's a little odd, then, how eager I was to grab X&Y in 2005, and even more odd how much I liked it.  I might be the only person on the planet who liked X&Y; everyone else had either abandoned Coldplay or not caught on to them yet.  But even it lost its charm after a few years, and I was decidedly less interested in keeping up with the band immediately prior to Viva la Vida.  I didn't know there was a new Coldplay album, and I didn't know that this "Viva la Vida" song I'd been bombarded with was theirs.  But my mom vouched for the album, and I picked it up and enjoyed just about every thing about it. "Viva la Vida" is a fine song, and its success in bringing new fans to Coldplay is a testament to its quality, but Viva la Vida succeeds on so many levels beyond just its title track that it's clearly the greatest thing the band has ever done.

But now it's 2011, and Coldplay has painted itself into a bit of a corner.  They've released four albums, each consistently--even exponentially--better than the last.  Is it fair to expect the fifth album to outdo Viva la Vida by the same margin that Viva la Vida outdid X&Y?  Is it even possible?  Viva la Vida is a legitimate magnum opus, the sort of album that's a ceiling on achievement for virtually any band out there.  Realistically, the best that Coldplay fans could expect was that they would move laterally along that ceiling for their fifth album, giving us an album that's equally good but that explores different musical territory.

And for a brief, shining moment, it looked like we might get it.  The second single from the still-mysterious Mylo Xyloto was a song called "Paradise," and we knew Coldplay had it in them.  Forget "Viva la Vida"--forget Viva la Vida, for that matter; this was clearly the the greatest thing the band has ever done.  "Paradise" is not only the best song in Coldplay's discography, it's the greatest thing to have come out of the pop/rock mainstream this decade, and it's an example to the rest of the genre what contemporary mainstream pop/rock can and ought to be.  There's lavish orchestration, but not for a second does it sound overproduced; the secret is that the production leaves Chris Martin's voice alone and lets him just sing, displaying both his trademark falsetto and his increasingly competent tenor.  There are interesting melodic devices: major/minor inversions, octave jumps, modal and pentatonic themes.  And the hook draws you in, and despite being played a few too many times, never actually overstays its welcome.

Unfortunately--perhaps predictably--the rest of Mylo Xyloto can't quite live up to "Paradise".  Little of it is actually bad, instead creating a confused jumble of strange decisions.  Two of the strangest are the concept and the ventures into some decidedly 2011 genres.

Apparently Mylo Xyloto is in fact a concept album, an urban-dystopian love story.  While songs like "Us Against the World" and especially "Major Minus" make the 1984 influence all too clear, that the album is supposed to tell a coherent story can really only be deduced once you know the concept is supposed to be there.  There are clues here and there, and points to Coldplay for giving the story a happy ending, but like Halloween costumes, the best concept albums are the ones that require the least explanation.

Aside from the (supposed) concept, Mylo Xyloto is at its weirdest (but not necessarily its worst) when it tries to stray too far from Coldplay and too much into "things you would hear on the radio in 2011".  "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall" sounds like it wants to be a collaboration with either Lady Gaga (judging from its first thirty seconds of dance-poppiness) or Rebecca Black ("I turn the music up, I got my records on/ I shut the world outside until the lights come on") but is a pretty decent song once you forgive it that.  "Princess of China" sounds like it should be is a collaboration with Rihanna, which is one of the most perplexing musical crossovers of the century, but again not exactly bad if you're into that sort of thing.

The worst moments of the album have to be its interspersed ballads, which hit more like musical roadblocks than emotional weights.  "Us Against the World" in particular is an unfortunate flirtation of Martin with the dregs of his vocal register, and "Up With the Birds" is as blandly generic a way to end the album as could probably be conceived.

It's not all bad outside "Paradise": both "Hurts Like Heaven" and "Charlie Brown" are fine songs.  Incidentally, they're the songs that come immediately before and immediately after "Paradise," which brings up an interesting point.  Does "Paradise" polarize the rest of the album; does it make the mediocre songs seem relatively better and the tepid to bad songs seem relatively worse?  The best way to answer this question is to make your very own Mylo Xyloto remix:

  1. Make a playlist that contains all of the songs on Mylo Xyloto.
  2. Delete "Paradise".
  3. Listen to the playlist.

How does it sound?  There's little you don't want to listen to, but more importantly, there's little to nothing that gets you excited about it.

Mylo Xyloto proves that Coldplay has come a long way in the last decade.  They're making sounds, exploring styles, and covering entirely different musical spectra than they would have dared to in the early 2000s.  However, in some sort of ironic way, Mylo Xyloto is the most Parachutes-y album since Parachutes.  It has more definitely good tracks and more definitely bad tracks, but the bulk of the album is back to "inoffensive but uninteresting," familiar ground indeed for Coldplay.

Currently listening: "New Frame of Mind," Kathryn Calder

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Pyongyang Pikas Postgame: Week 8 and Midseason Analysis

The Pikas were destined to lose their Week 8 game from before the season even started, when the Pyongyang front office noticed "there sure are a lot of players on bye in Week 8."  With Aaron Rodgers, Michael Turner, and Matt Forte not playing, an average of 58 points evaporated from the Pikas scorecard, and it proved impossible to fill the holes.

With backup quarterback Philip Rivers not producing this entire season, the Pikas turned to the free agent market to replace Rodgers, and the best option available was Eli Manning.  Eli, to his credit, threw together 21 fantasy points, suggesting that he has a future as Rodgers' backup on the Pyongyang bench.  The resurgent Frank Gore had a nearly Matt Forte-esque game, earning 19 points, but Chris Johnson once again derailed the Pikas at running back, scoring only 3.  (Fortunately for the Pikas, Chris Johnson should never have to start again.)

At wide receiver, neither Mike Wallace nor Wes Welker seemed interested in playing against each other's team, with the Steelers/Patriots game only netting the Pikas 10 points between the two.  One bright spot was Antonio Gates at tight end; despite having to come back from injury and a lackluster Phillip Rivers throwing to him, Gates looked good and scored respectably.

But against Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson scoring 27 points each, the Pikas' replacement-filled roster really couldn't compete, and they suffered their fourth loss of the year.

Final score: North Dakota Narwhals 129, Pikas 95 Pikas record: 4-4 (3-0 in division)

With any luck, and maybe some help from a Calvin Johnson bye, the Pikas will break the "Tom's Team" curse next week and finally defeat 2MuchJohnson4U.

Now that it's the middle of the season, what's working and what's not on the Pikas roster is finally taking shape.

Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers has been the Pikas' most consistent and most prolific scorer, never slipping below 20 and averaging 26.  He's the league's highest-scoring player in terms of points per game; because he's already had a bye, barring a disastrous injury, there won't be a reason to start a quarterback besides Rodgers for the rest of the season.  It's a good thing, because backup Philip Rivers hasn't impressed at all this season.  At other positions, or for other teams, it makes sense to have a backup in case of bad matchups.  Rodgers has shown that there is no bad matchup against him.

Running back: RB has turned into a strength for the Pikas, though the depth chart looks a little different than it did in the preseason.  At the beginning of the season, the Pikas started Chris Johnson, Frank Gore, and Michael Turner, with Matt Forte as a nice bench option in case of an injury, bye, or bad matchup.  But when Johnson proved totally ineffective, and Gore sustained an injury, the Pikas were forced to look elsewhere.  Simultaneously, though, Matt Forte decided to have a breakout season, and the Pikas were able to make a key acquisition of Fred Jackson.  Now, the Pikas start Jackson (the league's #2 scorer in terms of points per game), Forte (#5), and Turner (#6), with Gore as the bench option now that he's healthy and playing like he's supposed to.

Wide receiver: Falcons star Roddy White was supposed to be the Pikas standout at WR with Mike Wallace backing him up.  They're a fine combination, with White disappointing a little but Wallace scoring in the league's top five wide receivers.  But the Pikas got an unexpected boon early in the season when Tom's team released Wes Welker, who has had a solid season interspersed with a couple of monstrous games to become the league's #2 wide receiver.  The Pikas plan going forward is to start wide receiver by committee: choose the two most promising of those three in any given week.

Tight end: TE has been one of the few real disappointments for the Pikas so far.  Starter Antonio Gates missed most of the first half of the season due to injury; backup Jermichael Finley, taking away one colossal 26-point performance, has been a little flat.  The good news is that Gates is healthy and playing like the athlete he is, but if any doubt lingers, it's that Philip Rivers' season has been considerably less than impressive.  Gates is a playmaker catching the football, but he needs a playmaker throwing the football to be effective.

Kicker: This is a tough position to analyze in fantasy because there's so much variance, but Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been fine so far.  An offense that gets a lot of yards needs a lot of placekicks, either from field goals or PATs, and Gostkowski has done his job well.

Defense/Special Teams: The Ravens defense can do it all: prevent a team from scoring, force fumbles, get a half-dozen sacks per game.  It's a fun defense to watch, with (alleged) murderer Ray Lewis leading the way and getting fired up about all sorts of things.

Outlook: The Pikas have a roster built to win football games.  As long as everyone does their part, shows up each week, and doesn't get hurt, Pyongyang is a legitimate title contender.

Currently listening: "Younger Than We've Ever Been," Kathryn Calder

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pyongyang Pikas Postgame: Weeks 6 and 7

After a frustrating loss to Tom's 2MuchJohnson4U in Week 6, the Pikas rebounded to reclaim a winning record with a victory over Zach's Beat Tom in Week 7.

The Pikas are now 0-2 against Calvin Johnson and company, losing to Tom's team in Week 3 by 4 points and in Week 6 by 5 points.  In Week 3, the loss came down to a bad decision to bench Aaron Rodgers; in Week 6, the Pikas could have started Frank Gore over Matt Forte, or Mike Wallace over Roddy White, or the Bears D/ST over the Ravens, and they would have pulled out the victory.  The Pikas front office never seriously considered any of those moves, though, and the Pikas actually had the lead going into the Monday night game.

Monday night turned into the most amusing construct of fantasy football yet.  Say the fantasy team you're playing against starts a certain defense; we'll call it the Jets defense.  And say the Jets are playing a certain offense; we'll call it the Dolphins.  Naturally, you want the Dolphins to score a lot of points, so that the Jets defense loses fantasy points, and you win.  But at some point, if the Jets defense is good enough (and oh, is it), the 10 points for a shutout start looking a whole lot better than the flood of points they could score if they yield a couple of field goals but rack up some sacks and turnovers along the way.

That's the situation the Pikas faced on Monday night of Week 6.  A comfortable 15-point lead quickly turned into a point short of a tie as the Jets defense picked up a quick fumble return for a touchdown--but that would have been okay, assuming the Dolphins offense scored any touchdowns at all.  Frankly, that would have been even have been okay assuming the Dolphins did literally nothing else on offense.  It would have been better for the Pikas had the Dolphins just swum away from the game and taken knees on every play.

But they didn't.  They tried--and failed--to score more points, and the Jets defense was all too happy to scoop up the football three more times on those failed attempts.  The Jets D/ST turned into 2MuchJohnson4U's biggest scorer, and the Pikas fell to .500 on the season.

Final score: 2MuchJohnson4U 115, Pikas 110

Fortunately, in Week 7, the Pikas found their way to their favorite patch of fresh grass: Zach's Beat Tom team.  Beat Tom has been kind to the Pikas so far, and Week 7 was no exception.  Aaron Rodgers led the effort with 25 fantasy points, but it wasn't a single-player effort: of the Pikas' nine players, six scored 11 points or more, and Jermichael Finley at tight end had a respectable 7.  A backup kicker (with New England's Stephen Gostkowski on bye) managed only 3, but kickers in this league are notoriously swingy.

The sole disappointment was early-season goat Chris Johnson, who was forced to start because new favorite Fred Jackson was on bye.  He hasn't picked his game up at all, cobbling together a mere 3 points.  Fortunately, it didn't hurt the Pikas in Week 7--but it could pose a problem in Week 8.

Beat Tom tried to make things interesting in the late games, with New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston coming back from injury to score 21 points, but it was too little, too late.  And although the Ravens suffered a pretty humiliating defeat at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars, their defense was still good for 11 points to end the week's action.

Final score: Pikas 112, Beat Tom 87  Current record: 4-3 (3-0 in division)

The Pikas are not looking forward to Week 8.  Five of their players have byes, including the league's best quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) and best running back (Matt Forte).  Fortunately, the league's second-best wide receiver (Wes Welker) and second-best running back (Fred Jackson) have gathered enough fresh grass for the time being and are back in action this week.  Hopefully that will be enough to go up two games to one in the season series against the North Dakota Narwhals.

Currently listening: "Santa Fe," Beirut

Friday, October 21, 2011

Conference Chronicle: 2011 AIChE Annual Meeting

One of the most ridiculous parts of grad school--or any job that involves research, I suppose--is the conference, where you shuttle yourself and your flash drive around the country and pretend like you've broken some academic ground.  It's sort of like vacation, in that you get to go to new and exotic locations, except that your employer is paying for it, so you feel a little guilty about having too good a time.  Also, it's usually colder than real vacation.

That was certainly the case in Minneapolis last week, where I found myself for less than 48 hours in the name of promoting plasma medicine.  And I was determined to make those 48 hours count.

October 15, 2011
9:30 pm (PDT), Berkeley CA: BART doesn't run on Sunday before 8 am.  This is a Big Problem.  My flight to Los Angeles (a natural layover for a flight to Minneapolis) leaves Oakland at 9:30, so I need to be at Oakland by 8:30 am at the earliest.  I scour Google Maps for about half an hour and finally concede that my best option is to take the 6:45 am 1 bus.

October 16, 2011
7:30 am, Oakland CA: International Boulevard in Oakland lives up to its name.

8:30 am: I am stuck behind six Chilean guys in the TSA line at the Oakland airport.  There are plenty of TSA personnel, but instead of opening up more lines, TSA decides they need to be rolling three deep at every check point.

11:30 am, Los Angeles CA: LAX doesn't make any sense.  This airport is completely incomprehensible.  Say what you will about ATL, but at least it's possible to navigate.  I land in Terminal 5 and apparently have to go to Terminal 6.  The catch?  Terminal 5 does not connect to Terminal 6.  I get on a shuttle bus that drives around a few tarmacs and really hope the driver knows what he's doing.

11:33 am: Terminal 6 looks like a postmodern art installation.  There are exposed rafters, insulation hanging from the ceiling, and approximately two signs to direct me to my gate.

6:53 pm (CDT), Minneapolis MN: Minneapolis has pleasantly surprised me.  Its light rail is a sensible, straightforward, and cheap way to get from its airport to its downtown.  The only other cities I know of that can claim that are San Francisco (which charges an arbitrary $4 for the privilege of going to the airport), Washington (which gives you the extra added adventure of decoding this), and Atlanta (which takes you through a stretch of the city you might call "the hood").

7:48 pm: I arrive at the Minneapolis Convention Center, all ready to print my badge. The "thank you for registering email" told me "The registration area will be open beginning at 7:30 AM on Sunday, October 16."  Anything in there about it closing?  Nope.  So imagine my surprise to find that the registration is closed for the evening and won't reopen until the next day at 7 am.

8:23 pm: For the amount of money I'm my department is paying for me to stay at this Radisson, it damn well better have free internet.  It does, but its bandwidth is straight out of 1998.  I manage to cobble together about an hour's worth of Skype with my girlfriend, and it's sort of lucky that she has to leave, because I'm not sure how much more that poor connection could have handled.

October 17, 2011
6:01 am: I'm awake this early for only the second time this year.

7:20 am: It's 41 degrees outside.  It's October.  What's wrong with this picture?  Luckily, I unearthed a Starbucks gift card from the depths of my desk drawer before I left.  It hasn't run out yet, which is fortunate, because "cold and early" is a combination that pretty much begs for coffee.

8:30 am: My session at the conference starts.  There are twelve people here, including two session chairs and seven speakers.  Frankly, that's about three more than I expected to show up.

8:55 am: I chat about plasma for a while.

12:47 pm: Back in my hotel room, eating a Cuban sandwich, watching some trashy daytime TV.  Not necessarily wearing pants.  Living the dream.  But it is pretty cool that the view from my lucky-thirteenth floor room looks like this:

2:23 pm: Okay, I think.  Gave a talk, sat through the rest of my session, went to a plenary... sounds like enough conference to me.  I decide to check out the Mall of America.  It's as ridiculous as I could have hoped.

Yes, there really is a roller coaster in the middle of this mall.

This turf war has to be intentional.

Approximately fifteen years ago, it would have been literally impossible to remove me from here.

7:01 pm: I head down to the waterfront to see if I can get an Obligatory River Shot of the Mississippi.  I notice a strange phenomenon: there's an abundance of people wearing Packers jerseys in this city.  It's not as intense a rivalry as, say, Packers/Bears, but the Packers and Vikings are not exactly best friends either.  Would you expect to walk around Philadelphia on game day and see more Giants than Eagles jerseys?

7:03 pm: Perplexed though I am, I do manage to see the Mighty Mississippi at sunset.

October 18, 2011
8:39 am: In my first serious attempt to navigate the Minneapolis Skyway, I get completely lost.  Turns out "Macy's" is not nearly as descriptive a landmark as "the intersection of 8th Street and 1st Avenue".

11:06 am: I've managed to get un-lost and ride back to the airport. I get the opportunity to gate check my bag, which is a little like opening a cereal box and getting two prizes, or pressing the "up" button on an elevator and having the doors immediately open.  You reduce your hassle by about 50% and save $20 at the same time!

12:56 pm (PDT), Phoenix AZ:  Phoenix is probably the second-most logical connection city for my route, after Los Angeles.  This airport sucks a lot less, but I manage to spend seven dollars on this:

Notice 1) the halfhearted-at-best attempt at slicing and 2) the crust tumor growing from the pizza's bottom-left.  What you can't notice is the two minutes of under-cooking.

3:30 pm, Oakland CA: I arrive back in Oakland, exactly on time, which is a feat previously unaccomplished by US Airways.

Currently listening: "Fletcher," Blitzen Trapper

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pyongyang Pikas Pastgame: Week 5

Week 5 delivered a thrilling matchup between the Pikas and Josh's team, the newly christened North Dakota Narwhals.  With the league-leading Ravens defense on a bye this week, the Pikas drafted the New York Giants defense based solely on an ESPN projection, but other than that, the Pikas roster featured all of its starters.

After an astounding Week 4, the Pikas were virtually guaranteed to regress a little.  Aaron Rodgers' 45 points in Week 4 were clearly unsustainable, but a Sunday night effort of 23 points was nothing to complain about.  In the same Sunday night game, Roddy White (11), Michael Turner (11), and Jermichael Finley (6) all underperformed a little but not enough to doom the Pikas.  Wes Welker's 12 landed him in the same "not a disappointment but not a breakout" spot.  And the draftee Giants defense was mediocre at best, piling up 6 sacks but allowing 36 points to claim a total of 6 fantasy points.

Only a couple of Pikas had breakout weeks: Stephen Gostkowski turned in a whopping 13 at the kicker position, and early-season acquisition Fred Jackson continued to deliver at running back with 25 points.

While the Pikas played consistent (if not outstanding) football throughout their roster, the Narwhals had some players falter--and one truly memorable performance to balance them out.  In three wide receiver slots, the Narwhals combined for a mere 22 points, and running back Darren Sproles was a mild disappointment at 9.  But Adrian Peterson once again had his day, raking in 30 points, 22 of them coming in the first quarter alone.

Peterson's performance was so strong that the Narwhals actually led the Pikas entering the Monday night game, but the Pikas had one more weapon: running back Matt Forte, coming off a career day last week.  The stakes were high, and the math was straightforward: if Forte could run for at least 100 yards, the Pikas could carry the day.  It was demanding but not impossible, and if Forte could reach the end zone at least once, the numbers became a lot more relaxed.

Forte never scored his touchdown, but he did rush for 116 yards (and threw in 35 receiving yards for good measure) to secure the victory for the Pikas.

Final score: Pikas 121, Narwhals 116  Pikas record: 3-2 (2-0 in division)

In Week 6, the Pikas play the ever-formidable 2MuchJohnson4U, the newest moniker of Tom's team, highlighting the remarkable ability of Calvin Johnson to catch footballs.  The ESPN projection has the Pikas ahead, but Johnson--along with Tom Brady and LeSean McCoy--are sure to keep things interesting.

Currently listening: "Solid," the Dandy Warhols

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Pyongyang Pikas Postgame: Week 4

This is what the Pikas are capable of.

Weeks 2 and 3 saw consecutive losses for the Pikas, and they desperately needed a win in Week 4 to get the season back on track.  They got it.

Last Sunday's early afternoon games gave the Pikas a quick start, with Matt Forte and new acquisition Fred Jackson combining for 43 points at running back.  Mike Wallace was less impressive--but still not a complete disappointment--at 7.  Going into the late afternoon games, the Pikas had a slim lead, one that could be erased if Darren McFadden or Ryan Mathews had a breakout game.

They could have had two breakout games each, and it wouldn't have mattered.  Jermichael Finley didn't repeat his stunning Week 3 performance, netting the Pikas only 2 points, but everything else clicked at every position.  Wes Welker continued to dominate at wide receiver, the Seahawks defense contributed to the effort by giving Michael Turner a few easy touchdowns, and Patriots kicker Steven Gostkowski was solid too.

But this week's game was so lopsided that all of the above players could have sat on the bench, and the Pikas still would not have lost.  Aaron Rodgers did it all: 400 passing yards including 4 touchdowns, 2 rushing touchdowns, and a colossal 45 fantasy points (I promise never to bench you again!).  And the Ravens defense, fully recovered from its Week 2 stumble, racked up 3 defensive touchdowns coming off an interception, 3 fumble recoveries and 2 sacks.  It led the grossly overrated Mark Sanchez to dominate the Bad Quarterbacks League standings in Week 4, and it cemented the Ravens defense as football's--or at least fantasy's--best defense.

Final score: Pikas 178, Beat Tom 77.  Pikas record: 2-2 (2-0 in division; perhaps I should play Beat Tom every week)

Sadly for me, the Ravens defense gets a bye this week, so the Pikas will have to combat Josh's Team entirely on the strength of their offense.  The projection is for a healthy Pikas win; the past history with Josh's Team suggests otherwise.  We'll see what happens in Sunday's rematch.

Currently listening: "Don't Carry It All," the Decemberists

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pyongyang Pikas Postgame: Weeks 2 and 3

It's been a tough couple of weeks for the Pikas.  After a strong start in Week 1, the Pikas have lost back-to-back matchups.

Week 2 saw the Pikas matched against Josh's Team, and it was a disaster from the outset.  Josh's Team showed up much stronger than they had in Week 1--and the Pikas were apparently busy gathering fresh grass to dry.  It was one of those blowouts so disastrous that literally no combination of players among my starters and bench would have given me the win.  Aaron Rodgers held up his end, and Michael Turner turned in a nice rushing performance against the Eagles, but it wasn't enough.  Chris Johnson was weak enough at running back for a second straight week that he earned a ticket to the bench for Week 3.  Antonio Gates earned literally zero points at tight end, and somehow the vaunted Ravens defense pulled off a negative score.

Final score: Josh's Team 138, Pikas 97

Week 3 was closer, and things could have turned the Pikas' way at any time, but Tom's Breesus Christ edged out the win.  This one was entirely on my bench management; one better choice at any of a few positions would have given me the game.  Aaron Rodgers, who had reliably scored 20+ points in both of the first two games, was "projected" to earn fewer points than my backup quarterback, Phillip Rivers--and that made sense; Rodgers was facing the competent Bears defense, while Rivers had the much more favorable matchup against the Chiefs.

It didn't matter--Rivers scored a mere 6 fantasy points owing to a skewed stat line of 2 interceptions and no touchdown passes.  Rodgers scored a consistent 21 points that I wasn't around to collect.  Wes Welker raked in a monstrous 34, but I never strongly considered starting him over Roddy White (14) and Mike Wallace (20) at wide receiver.  And based on another ESPN projection, the Pikas played entirely the wrong kicker--Josh Brown scored 1, while Steven Gostkowski hammered out 7 on the bench.

Week 3 wasn't as bleak as week 2, with several Pikas starters turning in solid performances.  Mike Wallace's brilliance was outdone only by Jermichael Finley's 26-point fluke at tight end.  And the Ravens defense was back in form, piling up five sacks, two turnovers, and once defensive touchdown, scoring 20 fantasy points.

Final score: Breesus Christ 103, Pikas 99  Pikas record: 1-2 (1-0 in division)

Week 4 features a slightly revamped Pikas offense, benching both Johnson and Frank Gore at running back in favor of new acquisition Fred Jackson, and starting Welker at receiver in place of Roddy White to take some eggs out of the Atlanta basket.  I'm projected to lose by 14, but my projected victories in Weeks 2 and 3 didn't actually project much of anything, so there remains hope.

Currently listening: "The Authority Song," Jimmy Eat World

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pyongyang Pikas Postgame: Week 1

A couple of months ago, my friends decided to start a fantasy football league.  Not knowing the first thing about the NFL, I of course decided to join, joking that I was going to make a team entirely composed of former Georgia Tech and current Falcons players.  The draft came, and luckily ESPN's projections were around to let me know how bad an idea that would have been (though I did pick up both Roddy White and Michael Turner).  If you're interested, you can check out my full roster.

The most critical part, of course, was what to name the team.  After some consultation with friends, I decided I liked the irony of picking a location where American football was incredibly unlikely to be played combined with a mascot that was about as unassuming as UC Santa Cruz's.  Thus were born the Pyongyang Pikas (the alliteration is a nice bonus).

My first matchup was against my roommate Zach, at the helm of the imaginatively named "Beat Tom".  (His stated goal is, regardless of final record, to beat our friend Tom's score every week.)  The Thursday night season kickoff proved to be a fantastic start to the Pikas' season, with Green Bay quarterback (and Cal alumnus) Aaron Rodgers scoring 19 points before halftime.  Rodgers was so solid that at one point, my projected total for the weekend was an improbable 155 points, but on the shoulders of some poor running performances, that was not meant to be.

In the draft, my first pick was a fellow named Chris Johnson, running back for the Tennessee Titans.  I picked him first not because I'd ever heard of him (much less knew him to be good), but because told me to.

Thanks, guys.

Mr. Johnson, "projected" to have something crazy like 19 points, got me a whopping 4.  You know something is wrong when your kicker (nothing against the St. Louis Rams' Mr. Brown) outscores your first-round draft pick.  Frank Gore didn't do much better at 6.

I played the Bears defense/special teams, which between Brian Urlacher and an amazing kick return unit, seemed like a solid bet.  The odd part was that I started my two Falcons offensive players against them, setting up a weird hedge that actually ended up scoring me 35 points.  The Bears D/ST, oddly enough, ended up as my second-highest scoring player behind Rodgers.

So, after a stellar performance at quarterback and on defense, some passable scores at wide receiver and tight end (#unintentionalsportspun), and not much at all out of my running backs, Sunday ended with me having gotten all the points I was going to get and holding a 17-point lead over Beat Tom.  The match was far from over, as Zach still had a trump card in the form of the Raiders' Darren McFadden, a star running back on a not-so-terrific team.  (Zach's logic is that he likes playing good players on awful teams because all the offense is likely to come from that guy, and that reasoning is making more and more sense from a fantasy perspective.)

I watched the Monday Night Football game between the Broncos and the Raiders, not because I care at all about either of those teams, but merely because I wanted to see McFadden not score any points.  When the Broncos had the ball, I didn't care if they scored or not--I just needed them to take as much time as they could doing whatever they were doing.  And when Oakland had the ball, I didn't care if they scored or not either--I just wanted the plays to involve anyone but McFadden.  It's an odd way to watch a football game, but it made me realize exactly how golden fantasy football is to the NFL because it makes you glued to the television for games that you otherwise wouldn't know existed.

McFadden had a fine first half and was on pace to score just under the 18 points he needed to turn Beat Tom into Beat Matt for a week.  That was fine.  Then came a mammoth run in the third quarter, with McFadden stepping out of bounds literally at the 1-yard line.  One more yard, and his touchdown windfall would have sunk my team.  But fortunately for the Pikas, the Raiders did the remainder of their scoring--and most of the rest of their offense--without McFadden, and I scraped by with a 2-point win.

Final score: Pikas 95, Beat Tom 93.  Pikas record: 1-0 (1-0 in division).

Check back next week to hear about my first match with Josh's Team (apparently he hasn't gotten around to naming it yet).  I'm "projected" to win by 17 points, but as they say (and as I very nearly learned the hard way this week), there's a reason they play all the games.

Currently listening: "Might Find it Cheap," Blitzen Trapper

Monday, August 29, 2011

3-Sentence Reviews: Good New-ish Music

Pickin' Up the Pieces by Fitz and the Tantrums, which comes recommended courtesy of my dad, is much less indie than most things I listen to--not that there's anything wrong with that!  It's '70s R&B meets Broken Bells by way of Cee Lo Green and refreshingly well produced compared with many of the mainstays of the 2011 indie circuit.  Timelessly angry lyrics and creative, unconventional instrumentation combine to create an album that fans of a dozen different genres can agree on.

We've waited quite a long time for the follow-up to Among the Oak and Ash's self-titled album, and Devil Ship finally sailed this month.  On a whole, it's a little weaker than the self-titled debut, suffering from shaky production in a few spots and sorely missing Garrison Starr's harmonies.  But it still has its standout tracks ("Billy and the Good Girl," "Devil Ship"), and it's good to know that Josh Joplin's mission of preserving the Appalachian music tradition continues.

The rebirth of Paste Magazine as an electronic publication has been an unprecedented success, and one of many things it's done well has been to preserve its "Best of What's Next" issue.  Invoking comparisons to both Stars and Eisley, it made Kopecky Family Band seem like a can't-miss--and the music did not disappoint.  Strangely, The Disaster is at its worst when Kelsey Kopecky channels her inner Amy Millan ("Birds" halts the middle of the album like a speed bump), but the ambitious arrangements and excellent vocal performances on "God and Me" and "Red Devil" make Kopecky Family Band one of my favorite discoveries of 2011 so far.

I have Stephanie to thank for introducing me to Vespers, whose Tell Your Mama contains some darn fine indie folk.  A family-ish outfit reminiscent of Eisley, Vespers aren't as deep vocally or experienced musically, but that should improve over time for the young band.  Vespers are at their best when they make the most of their myriad guitar alternatives (banjo, ukelele, and mandolin at the very least) and when they're unabashedly bluegrassy about their indie folk with a Nashville flavor.

Another offering from Paste's "Best of What's Next," and one I was much more surprised that I liked, was The Bright Light Social Hour's self-titled album.  Paste promised me their music was for fans of Franz Ferdinand and the Killers (which I am, if a little distantly), and the comparison is apt if a little misleading.  Most of the album sounds like it could comprise the soundtrack to a sports video game or a slightly-more-musically-savvy-than-average fraternity, and it's a little unclear why half the songs are interspersed with Spanish non sequiturs, but it's at least a nice change of pace--and potentially much better than that.

Currently listening: "Love the Way You Walk Away," Blitzen Trapper

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Awesome things my new phone can do

For almost two and a half years, my G1 was my favorite toy.  It came with some serious history: the G1 was the first-ever Android phone, when the thought of Google's first OS was so novel that it earned the nickname "the Google phone".  But as the years wore on, my phone grew increasingly geriatric.  I'm pretty sure it actually spied on me, because the more intent I became on replacing it, the clunkier it got.  About a month ago, I broke down and bought what has quickly become my new favorite toy, the HTC Sensation.  I'm convinced this phone runs on equal parts Taiwanese engineering brilliance and magic.  This phone:

Runs the Urbanspoon app.  I've actually been waiting for almost three years for a phone that does this.  I'm notoriously bad at picking restaurants, so Urbanspoon might have been the first thing I installed when I got the phone working.

Allows me to beat you at Words With Friends.  When the Android market told me that devices running Android 1.6 could run Words With Friends, it was lying.  I think what it was trying to say was "grab your chisel and a handful of pebbles and make your own lettery tiles."  Wordfeud is a much better pseudo-Scrabble; its interface is cleaner and less gimmicky, it incorporates native Android features better, and it won't steal your soul because it's not made by Zynga.  But in Wordfeud, I can only beat you if you're running Android too.  Words With Friends is indiscriminate!  (Yep, this is a challenge: I'm Pavalavavalavich on there if you're up for it.)

Can stream all of my music from anywhere in the world.  This is mind-blowing.  Via Google Music, I can upload all of the music that I own to Google's big hard drive in the sky, then listen to it, on demand, whenever and wherever I want to.  This has completely obsoleted my iPod.  (If anyone wants one--and you do--I have three invites left.)

Streams all my podcasts too.  Podcasts are just RSS feeds anyway, so all it's taken to make phone-USB syncing a thing of the past is an RSS reader with an audio playback codec written into it.

Automatically adjusts its screen brightness.  Such an obvious, but entirely novel, functionality.  If it's bright outside, the screen gets brighter so you can actually read it.  If it's dark, the screen dims to save battery.  Phones have had front-facing cameras since before the Motorola Razr was cool, so why not put them to use?

Connects to Wi-Fi without destroying its battery.  4G is really, really solid--but it's incredibly satisfying to download an application update in a matter of seconds.

It's true that I lost a little hipster cred in upgrading from the vintage, truly open-source option to the new and shiny one.  It was worth it.

Currently listening: "20 Years," the Civil Wars

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Dance With Dragons, Finally

Have you ever waited six years for anything?

A college freshman waits less time to earn a degree.  A defeated presidential hopeful, for his next run at the White House.  An underdog Olympic medalist, for a chance to show the world that her triumph was no fluke.  But six years is exactly what fans of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire epic have had to endure since the release of the fourth book in the series, A Feast for Crows.  Worse, due to the narrative choices that Mr. Martin made (not necessarily bad ones), this is the first we've seen of some of the series' most compelling characters since the third book, 2000's A Storm of Swords.

ASoIaF is the best fantasy fiction currently being written (though some of Brandon Sanderson's stuff comes close).  That said, the series has lagged a little in its more recent volumes: A Feast for Crows is the slowest and least interesting book in the series, and Dance is only slightly better.  (Its proximity to the first season of the excellent HBO adaptation only served to contrast it to the fast-paced, at-times shocking first book.) But, as many a fan has pointed out, mediocre George RR Martin is better than nearly everything else out there.

More than half of Dance is devoted to just three characters: Jon Snow, Tyrion, and Daenerys.  Jon has always been among my favorite characters, so it was a welcome sight to see him commanding about a fifth of Dance.  And of the book's three "main characters," Jon's chapters are definitely the best.  There's a sense of progress throughout, from when Jon beheads his old rival Janos Slynt, through his gradual peacemaking with the wildlings and re-establishment of the garrisons along the Wall, to his climactic scene in Castle Black rallying the wildling chiefs to march against Winterfell.

Speaking of Winterfell, why not make a battle at Winterfell the climactic scene in the book?  It would have touched the stories of plenty of POV characters--not only Jon but also Asha, Davos, Theon, and Melisandre--and a massive, pitched battle would have been exactly what the book needed to cram some excitement into its last quarter.  Also, even though the Bastard of the Dreadfort claims it, I doubt very much that Stannis is dead.

The big cliffhanger to Jon's story is that he maybe, possibly, could be dead.  He's not.  His story isn't finished yet, his destiny not fulfilled.  And without Jon, we would have no narrator to describe the events at the Wall and the looming battle with the Others.  Plus, you can't set up a march against the Boltons at the head of three thousand wildlings and Tormund Giantsbane by your side and not deliver on it.  (Also, Tormund Giantsbane for best minor character?  I vote yes.)

Unfortunately, the rest of the "main character" chapters aren't as good as Jon's.  Daenerys has admittedly never been my favorite character--which is increasingly a bad way of looking at the series--but at least her chapters in previous books have constituted a sort of travelogue, a way of getting some insight into the rest of the world beyond Westeros.

Even that grinds to a halt in Dance.  After relatively brisk stays in Pentos, the Dothraki Sea, and Astapor, we find Daenerys settling herself into Meereenese politics.  It would be a fine story if it were told by itself.  But as a handful of chapters in the overarching plot, it doesn't work.  Dany is smitten with a mercenary captain (whom we don't care about because he was just introduced in this book), betrothed to a local noble (whom we don't care about because he was just introduced in this book), attended on by a different local noble (whom we don't care about because he was just introduced in this book), and the list goes on.

All of this is mighty far away from Westeros, which makes it really difficult to become invested in.  One of the many reasons that ASoIaF is so compelling is that Westeros is so very nearly like our own world that there's a sense of proximity to it.  The cultures, customs, and names of the Westerosi are vaguely familiar in a way that makes them seem more human than most other fantasy authors' characters.

But Ghis, Slaver's Bay, and Valyria are distant and bizarre.  Mr. Martin succeeds in creating a foreign, almost alien, culture that's intriguing--but at the price of removing our attachment to it.  Virtually every Daenerys chapter in Dance feels like a speed bump in the book, distracting our attention from the characters and places we've thought so much about over the last fifteen years.  If those speed bumps meant that Daenerys were about to get back on the highway of the main plot, that would be fine.  But what does she have to show for her months in Meereen and her chapters in Dance?  A trio of feral dragons and a marriage to a man who is probably out to kill her.

With Daenerys planted firmly on the throne of Meereen, it falls to Tyrion to be our tour guide through Essos, but our beloved dwarf would rather brood on his past than point out landmarks.  Yes, you shot your father Tywin with a crossbow while he was on the toilet.  We read all about it in A Storm of Swords.  We understand that your feelings about it are mixed and that it's constantly on your mind.  That does not mean we need to read about it in every one of your many, many chapters in Dance.

Nor do we need to read about you choking Shae with her jewelry or your obsession with finding Tysha or how much wine you've had to drink or if you were winning or losing at cyvasse.  Every Tyrion chapter can be reduced to some combination of those thoughts, and after three or four iterations of it, it ceases to be interesting.  Tyrion's personality and occasional encounters with other branches of the plot and POV characters save his story from becoming a complete trainwreck--but barely.

Even his great cliffhanger falls flat: he's going to convince a turncloak group of mercenaries to... turn their cloaks again?  At the end of the book, I realized I didn't even remember how Tyrion's chapters had ended because the "climax" seemed like such a non-event at the time.

Fortunately, not all of Dance is as dreary and inconsequential as the adventures in Essos.  Ironically, the characters with the fewest viewpoint chapters have the most interesting things to say.  Melisandre's lonely chapter shed some important if oblique insights on her relationship with the Red God and even more on the destiny of Jon Snow.  (Hint: if you ask to see Azor Ahai reborn in your fires, and all you see is Jon Snow, maybe it's time to rethink the whole Stannis bit.)

My favorite character in the series remains Jaime, and his one chapter was excellent.  It mattered to the story, it told an interesting detail about the world, it showcased how his character has developed, and it reunited him with Brienne, another POV character (not to mention confirming that Sandor Clegane is alive).  Cersei's lesson in humility was deeply fulfilling to watch and kept its pace nicely.

There's a certain morbid thrill in watching Arya develop into an assassin, and it's going to be a very bad day for her hit list when she returns to Westeros.  And Dance definitely needed more Bran.  His scant few chapters were chock full of mythology and magic, and I look forward to the day when he becomes a flying tree. 

Even Jon Connington's handful of chapters are interesting.  By my own logic, I shouldn't care about him because he was introduced so late in the game... but given that he's already involving himself in Westeros instead of huddling in some corner across the Narrow Sea, he hasn't made himself an unwelcome addition.  The news that Prince Aegon is still alive was a nice twist, and we finally got an answer to the age-old question of "whose side is Varys on, anyway?"

(Maybe that's the secret to bringing back the intensity and excitement of the first three books: limit George RR Martin to no more than five chapters for any one POV character!)

In the end, if fans are disappointed by Dance, it's not because they disliked the book--after all, this is A Song of Ice and Fire, and we would gladly read seven hundred pages of Rickon Stark playing with his direwolf if that's what Mr. Martin gave us.  Instead, the disappointment comes from the dread of what comes next: do I really have to wait another World Cup and a half to get book six?

Currently listening: "The Police and the Private," Metric

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Deathly Hallows Part 2

A few days before the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, my roommate Zach asked me if the Harry Potter movies were any good. He'd asked a much tougher question than he thought he had.

When you're adapting a book to a movie or TV show, you're necessarily dealing with a story, characters, a setting, and sometimes even dialog that aren't your own.  So whether you've made a "good" movie or not often rests less on your cinematic skills than on the quality of your source material.  For instance, say you're a film studio that's charged with adapting a certain book into a movie.  It's not a very good book--it has a cast of unrelatable characters and a plot pockmarked with holes--but you do your best.  You direct it artistically, produce it professionally, and depict it faithfully to the book.  Have you made a great film?  By independent artistic standards, probably not, even though you've done your job well, and fans of the book will probably like the movie very much.

On the other hand, say your film studio somehow lands the job of adapting the hypothetical Greatest Story Ever Told, one with a cast of delightfully complex characters and an intricate, powerful plot.  Again, you do your job, doing justice to the book and turning out a well-made film.  Have you made a great movie this time?  Possibly--but how much credit can you take for it?  And in either case, you're going to have the purists who cry foul if you so much as change one character's hair color arguing against the interpretive artists who lament an adaptation that's too faithful, lacking an original spin put on by the filmmaker.

I thought about Zach's question for a few seconds, and I told him, "they do a good job visually representing the books," knowing full well I hadn't answered his question.  Whether the Harry Potter movies are good disproportionately depends on whether you think the Harry Potter setting is any good, characters are any good, story is any good.

For example, Minerva McGonagall (played by Maggie Smith, both the most underrated character and actress in the entire series) marshaling the defenses of Hogwarts is an impactful, triumphant scene.  It looks great on film thanks to director David Yates, but without JK Rowling having written it four years earlier, it never would have been part of the movie.  Similarly, the epilogue is among the worst scenes in the movie.  (I'm in the "epilogue is more corny than cathartic" camp, though I recognize that not everyone shares that opinion.)  But short of excising it completely, what was Mr. Yates supposed to do about it?

Instead, where the film adapter can succeed is in illustration of the books and its themes, in using cinematic devices to emphasize the most important ideas and events in the novels.  As much as Part 1 of the Deathly Hallows story is about diving deeper and deeper into despair, Part 2 is about reconciling all the emotional highs and lows of the story into a coherent (and ultimately happy) ending. 

(For all the awkwardness caused by calling a movie Harry Potter Part 7 Part 2, it's clear from both the first installment of Deathly Hallows and this one that splitting the movie in half was exactly the right decision.  The two movies together run a total of 276 minutes, and they really do need at least four hours of that to tell the story completely.)

Both narratively and cinematically, one of the artistic successes of Deathly Hallows is how sharply it contrasts with the earlier volumes in the series.  Innocence, childhood concerns, and a world that's firmly steered in the right direction by its adults give way to tragedy, adult emotions, and moral compasses that don't function any longer.  Mr. Yates does a fantastic job of illustrating this, however briefly, in the landscape shots of Hogwarts after its destruction and in the Snape's-memories-in-the-Pensieve scene that shows footage from the first movie.

Speaking of Snape, Severus Snape is by far the most interesting character in the Harry Potter story.  You could call him the only truly three-dimensional character, and while you might be overly critical, you wouldn't be wrong necessarily.  So it's fitting that the character is the recipient of the best acting performance in the series.  Alan Rickman's Snape is egotistical, sardonic, and antagonistic--but vulnerable in the right time.  It's an iconic performance, one that will be sorely missed now that the metaphorical train has moved "on" from King's Cross Station. 

But we're going to miss a lot more than that.  One of the reasons that Harry Potter resonated so strongly with this generation was that the story was timed just right to coincide with our lives.  Sure, I was twenty when Harry was seventeen in the last book, but I'd been a teenager right alongside him.  And Harry Potter and I were both eleven-year-olds slightly enchanted by fantasy and magic back in 1998.  A twenty-year-old reading through all seven books would likely find the story derivative, even juvenile; an eleven-year-old would find the entire experience far too intense and wouldn't be able to appreciate the gradual maturation of both the characters and the series.

That's why we think Harry Potter is good.  A skeptic might argue that Harry Potter is a story that's been told a thousand times and populated by stock characters, and all JK Rowling did was change the narrative perspective.  But maybe that's all she needed to do.  To bring the logic around fully circular, the people who are going to be attending a midnight showing of a Harry Potter movie, camping for four hours on Kittredge Avenue next to the Berkeley Public Library, are going to be people who think the Harry Potter story is at least good--most of them going much further than that.  So maybe the real test of whether an adapted movie is good is whether it pleases the fans, and by that standard, Deathly Hallows Part 2 succeeds unequivocally.

Currently listening: "Come Clean," Eisley

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

An iTunes-created top 15 artists

It's facebook viral survey time again!

Directions: open iTunes and sort your songs by number of plays.  List the top 15 distinct artists that appear in terms of plays and the most-played track by each (along with the number of plays). Eminem and Eminem feat. xyz and variants thereof are not distinct artists, as much as iTunes may think they are.  Write something about each of them.  Tag me in your note.

1. "Greater Than," Vedera, from Stages (38).  Okay, this one is going to take a little explanation.  Two and a half years ago, suggested that I listen to a little EP called Stages from a band called Vedera.  It was awesome.  It's three songs of brilliance; if you want them to, they can tell a cohesive story, and if not, they're perfectly amazing in isolation.  But the best part was that Vedera hyped the EP as a preview of things to come with their second full-length album, also called Stages.  The full-length didn't quite live up to the EP, but I still listened to it far, far too many times back in fall 2009.  "Greater Than" is both the first and best track on the album, explaining its gratuitous number of plays.

2. "Sing Me Spanish Techno," The New Pornographers, from Twin Cinema (30).  In a year that also saw the release of The Everglow, Plans, Illinois, and Picaresque, Twin Cinema still managed to be a standout album.  This was the first song I heard by the New Pornographers--tragically, not until 2010!--and it made me an instant fan.  Energy, imagery, and creative lyrics make this song a worthy addition to the list.  Go listen to it.

3. "Careful," Paramore, from Brand New Eyes (20).  Yep, guilty as charged, I'm into Paramore.  The only surprise here was that my most-played Paramore track wasn't from Riot!, because that album is seriously good, and I will defend it with every ounce of critical credibility that I have.  "Careful" is a fine track too, with enough energy to have been on Riot! and slightly more sophisticated lyrics.

4. "Australia," The Shins, from Wincing the Night Away (17).  Love this song, love this album, love the Shins.  It's so happy--how could you not love it?  Some highlights are grin-inducing lyrics like "faced with the dodo's conundrum," a vague theme of breaking out of the mold and doing what makes you happy, and an absolutely delightful music video.

5. "The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid," The Decemberists, from The Hazards of Love (15).  The Decemberists have a lot of material that's tough to explain to a non-fan, and Hazards takes the cake for furthest out there.  It's also irrationally my favorite Decemberists album--I think the theater/folk/prog experiment paid off.  This song is essentially the end of "Act I" of the implied musical; it's about the shape-shifting protagonist William trying to escape the clutches of his jealous forest-queen mother.  And in the context of Hazards, that not only all makes sense, but is really entertaining, both narratively and musically.

6. "Jewel to Sparkle," The Juliana Theory, from Love (14).  A little surprised this showed up until I remembered how often I listen to the Juliana Theory at the gym.  They might be the most under-appreciated rock band of the 2000s, and if they're known at all, it's for Emotion is Dead.  It's a fine album, but Love is probably better and certainly under-rated.  It contains a lot of harmonic and instrumental explorations not normally associated with circa-2003 emo rock, which it what makes it such good music.

7. "Daniel," Bat for Lashes, from Two Suns (13).  My friend Andrew and I have a fine tradition of listening to the Pitchfork "top ten albums of the year" every January.  2009's was particularly terrible (some trash from Animal Collective was apparently the "best"), but the one bright spot we came across was Bat for Lashes.  And by bright spot, we meant this song and maybe two or three more on Two Suns.  "Daniel" is an out-of-place techno-inspired track on an album that feels like an opiate-induced day-long dream; it's Bat for Lashes at its most accessible and musically sound.

8. "Someone Else's Arms," Mae, from The Everglow (12).  Absolutely a travesty that this track is so far down on the list, it's possibly my favorite song from possibly my favorite album of all time.  My love for The Everglow defies explanation, but it involves some combination of personal significance and musical brilliance.  Of all the songs on it, "Someone Else's Arms" rocks the hardest and leaves the strongest impression.

9. "Desecration Smile," Red Hot Chili Peppers, from Stadium Arcadium (12).  Not being a huge Chili Peppers fan in general, I was pleasantly blown away by Stadium Arcadium. It has a few weak tracks on it; "Desecration Smile" is not one of them.  It might be about a relationship, or drugs, or nothing at all, but it hardly needs lyrics considering its modal, brooding melodies are so intriguing.

10. "Shady Grove," as performed by Among the Oak and Ash, from Among the Oak and Ash (11).  Very cool.  I've never been shy about admitting that I like a little folk and bluegrass garnish to go along with my steady diet of indie pop, which explains why I took to AtOAA so readily after hearing them on Paste Magazine's podcast a couple of years ago.  "Shady Grove" is an old American folk song, with thousands of renditions out there, and Garrison Starr's simple banjo-accompanied version is as good as any of them.

11. "Bohemian Like You," The Dandy Warhols, from Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia (11).  I claim to be a Dandy Warhols fan on the strength of this album alone; in fact, I've never even heard any of the other albums, I just assume they're a fraction as good.  My friend Nicholas shared this album with me back in 2005, and this track was an instant favorite: "Bohemian Like You" made fun of the hipster culture before it was cool to make fun of hipsters.

12. "Help I'm Alive," Metric, from Fantasies (11).  In the wasteland of music that was 2009, Metric somewhat quietly released by far their best album, managing to incorporate their dance-y unconventionality from previous albums without being nearly as aggressively in our faces about it.  "Help I'm Alive" is far more interesting than it deserves to be for how much it repeats, but Emily Haines and company make me want to hear the insistent, driving chorus each of the dozen or so times it shows up.

13. "We Are What You Say," Sufjan Stevens, from A Sun Came! (10).  Hardly a shock that a Sufjan Stevens song shows up on this list, the only surprise being that it's from A Sun Came! instead of the more recent The Age of Adz or the more brilliant Illinois.  Along with "A Winner Needs A Wand," "We Are What You Say" opens Stevens' debut album with a surprisingly hard-rock take on Middle Eastern folk.  Complete with slightly unconventional instrumentation and structure and vaguely-religious-but-draw-your-own-conclusions lyrics, "We Are What You Say" laid the foundation for more than a decade's worth of experimentation by Sufjan Stevens in the realm of indie folk.

14. "Barrowland Ballroom," Amy MacDonald, from This Is The Life (10).  Every season, Starbucks releases a "Have You Heard" compilation that has historically done a pretty impressive job of picking out the next big thing in indie-land.  I first heard Amy MacDonald on the Fall 08 edition, which also included current indie darling Bon Iver.  I wasn't as impressed with his music as I was apparently supposed to be, but "This Is The Life" convinced me to buy Amy MacDonald's album.  Most of it isn't as good as the title track; "Barrowland Ballroom" is one of the few songs that's probably better.  Once styled as "the UK's answer to Katy Perry, except she can actually sing," MacDonald pilots her spirited contralto through a stride piano-driven track about doing awesome things with people you love.

15. "Close Call," Rilo Kiley, from Under the Blacklight (10).  Even though they're the two most different-sounding Rilo Kiley albums, Blacklight and Take-Offs and Landings go back and forth for the honor of "Matt's favorite Rilo Kiley album".  Blacklight must have won out, at least over the two-year span that this iTunes library has been racking up plays.  Like every good Rilo Kiley song, it's a Jenny Lewis vocal showcase with just a hint of country

Currently listening: "My Lovely," Eisley, from Room Noises (only 3 plays?  what?)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Game of Thrones, Season 1 (Part 2 of 2)

If you missed yesterday's post where I mention my surprise that Game of Thrones has an audience and talk about my dislike of some of the more egregiously "HBO" scenes, read it first.

One of the reasons it's been such a pleasure watching Game of Thrones (the TV show) is how well it's followed A Game of Thrones (the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire--won't it be nice and confusing next season when we're watching Game of Thrones based on A Clash of Kings?).  I haven't read the first book in a long time (maybe a decade?) so I don't remember its fine details well, but nothing seems jarringly out of place.

While the Unburnt scene is the proper denouement for the first book/season, and probably the one that's going to have the most important consequences for the series as a whole, my favorite scene in A Game of Thrones has to be the King in the North scene.  And it turned out awesome--if the Greatjon taking out his sword and saying "there sits the only king I mean to bend my knee to" doesn't give you chills, you're watching it wrong.  It could have used some broad shots of various castles in the north raising the Direwolf (one part of the book that I definitely do remember, and vividly).  But otherwise, that scene--and virtually all of the first season--is both good television and a good match to the books.

Where the TV show has really excelled, though, has been in the characters.  Sean Bean expectedly nails Ned Stark, and the rest of the Stark family is pretty spot-on too.  The Lannisters are comparably well done: Cersei and Jaime are great, Tywin is better, and no discussion of the first season would be complete without praising Peter Dinklage's Emmy-worthy Tyrion Lannister.  Because I read the first few Song of Ice and Fire books at around the same time that the Lord of the Rings movies came out, I couldn't deconvolute the two series' "dwarves," and I've had this ridiculous mental image of Tyrion as looking like Gimli for the past decade.  Credit to Mr. Dinklage for showing me exactly how Tyrion is supposed to look, act, and behave.

That's been the best part of the television adaptation: getting reasonable depictions of all of the characters.  Some characters are relatively important to the plot, yet if you asked me based on the books to describe them, I'd be at a loss.  In particular, Syrio Forel and Littlefinger are shown much more vividly in the TV show than I could have envisioned them.

Only a few characters were portrayed significantly differently than in the books.  The biggest misstep was probably Renly Baratheon; where the Renly of the books is a charismatic, influential adviser to the king, the Renly of the TV series is reduced to Loras Tyrell's gay lover.  Robert Baratheon's drunkenness and misogyny are emphasized at the expense of his former diplomatic ability and skills as a warrior, which is not as much a mis-portrayal as a difference of opinion.  And both Cersei (in emphasizing Robert's lechery) and Tywin (in showing that he has a sense of honor, albeit a self-serving one) are portrayed much more sympathetically than in the books, an interesting and not unwelcome take.

Next season, I'm looking forward to seeing Stannis, Mance Rayder, Jaqen H'ghar, and Roose Bolton.  But I'm most interested in seeing Melisandre; a good decision in casting her could lead to the most evocative TV villain since the smoke monster from Lost.

Currently listening: "Is Patience Still Waiting?", the Juliana Theory

Monday, June 20, 2011

Game of Thrones, Season 1 (Part 1 of 2)

There's something I can't figure out about Game of Thrones.  It's not what the relationship between Houses A, B, and C is.  It has nothing to do with whether Character X's motivation to betray Character Y had something to do with Character Z.  And it's not even the true parentage of that bastard, or the true allegiance of that eunuch.

It's why the show has any mainstream appeal at all.

I say that as a huge fan of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic fantasy book series that Game of Thrones is based on.  It is awesome.  It's probably the best fantasy fiction being written today.  But it also has plenty going against it, especially from the standpoint of being a successful TV show.

First, it's complicated.  Martin has described his books as having a "cast of thousands".  You don't have to keep close tabs on all those thousands to understand the story, and not all of them are around in the first book (i.e., the first season of the TV series).  But A Game of Thrones does have a dozen or so characters who could rightly be considered "main characters" and another dozen or so supporting characters with complex personalities and enough relevance to the story that you do need to keep track of them.

Similarly, while you don't need to have the membership of all eight or nine Great Houses committed to memory, you do need to understand the interrelationships among four of them to follow A Game of Thrones, and the series only becomes more demanding as it progresses.  And you don't need to be a scholar of all seven millennia of Westeros's history, but knowing the last fifty years or so provides some very necessary background.

Second, it's a "genre show" if ever there was one.  Find two people who are familiar with Battlestar Galactica.  Ask one of them "is BSG a drama?" and the answer will most likely be "yes."  Ask the other "what sort of show is BSG?" and the answer will most likely be "sci-fi."  If a TV show (or book series, movie, etc.) can be classified as fantasy (or sci-fi, or Western, etc.), it's overwhelmingly likely that it will be.

TV series like this are often referred to as "genre shows"; despite really only being dramas dressed up slightly differently, there's a propensity among critics to over-classify.  And it can be to the series' detriment.  Some people aren't "sci-fi people" or "don't do Westerns," but they're actually closing themselves off to good entertainment just because of the setting.  If anything, the stigma is worst with fantasy.

Finally, the story isn't told yet.  After a six-year wait following A Feast for Crows, we're finally getting the fifth book next month.  Nobody (save George RR Martin) has any idea how this is going to shake out, and at the current rate, we probably won't know this decade.  But even for fans of the TV show who haven't read the books, there are still plenty of stories untold.

Remember that time when Ned Stark told Beric Dondarrion to take a hundred dudes and track down Gregor Clegane?  How about when Barristan Selmy stormed out of the Red Keep after Cersei forced him into an early retirement?  Is Walder Frey serious about his demand for Robb to marry a Frey daughter, and will Robb keep the promise?  And who's this Stannis Baratheon character everyone keeps talking about?

Having read the books, I know the answers to all of those questions, and most of them turn out to be relatively important points.  But to someone who doesn't already know the answers, they seem like gaping plot holes.

Yet, despite all of those reasons why it shouldn't, Game of Thrones has succeeded, commercially, critically, and artistically. The one area where it's been less than stellar is its over-"HBO-ification".  Yes, Martin's world is a gritty one, with sex, violence, death, and vulgarity in every corner.  And no, I'm not the sort of prudish viewer who immediately dismisses a show with the first sex scene.  But there are scenes that advance the plot and/or the characters, and then there are HBO scenes.  One particular scene (with two random girls in Littlefinger's room) was actually hard to watch--I had to plug in earphones lest my roommates start asking questions.

Aside from the one scene per episode where you can't help but wonder "did we really need to see that?", Game of Thrones is a rousing success, following at least the first book perfectly.  In the next post, I'll talk more specifics about the series and the books: what matched, what didn't, and where either the books or the show were better.

Currently listening: "So What," Miles Davis

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Resurrection of a Laptop's Audio

Spring has not, in recent years, been the kindest season to my electronics.  About a month ago, I had several simultaneous maladies visit my computers.  First, my desktop, barely two years old, decided it no longer needed to turn on for no apparent reason.  A new motherboard ordered and RMA'ed later, whatever was ailing it was still utterly undiagnosable, so I bode my time until I could pounce on a stellar deal at Woot!.

The second problem was that my laptop decided it no longer needed to play audio out of the right channel.  It only refused to work with headphones or external speakers plugged in, of course.  I was reduced to the choice between one channel of audio and three: my laptop's internal speakers feature the conventional "left" and "right" plus the extra added bonus of "static".

Obviously, it was a much less disastrous problem than what befell my desktop, but man, it was irritating.  And if my laptop was to become (at least temporarily) my actual computer, it was a problem that I wanted to get fixed.  (How else was I supposed to enjoy Indie Pop Bonanza during my lunch hour-and-a-half?)  I tried all the usual steps: disable and re-enable the device, uninstall and re-install the device, update the driver, roll back the driver... all to no avail.

Skeptically, I give Sony tech support a call to see if they had any ideas, fixes, or straight-up magic to cure my machine, but I was pretty much resigned to it being a hardware issue.  I speak with "Hugo," and of course I can't get the idea out of my mind that I'm getting tech support from Hurley.  (I console myself by remembering that his name probably is not really Hugo.)  He leads me down the exact same path I've already trodden, and eventually he concludes that it's a hardware issue.  Thanks, Hugo.

Hugo gives me a link to the Sony service site, where I'm sure I can send in my laptop (currently my only computer) and probably pay $89 for the privilege of having someone pop out my old card and put a new one in.  Or, I can take the grad-student approach and fix it myself for $9.  Doing an Amazon search for "sound card," I discover a product I never knew existed: the external sound card.

This is a brilliant inch-and-a-half piece of plastic that plugs into a free USB slot and makes your computer play sound again.  I didn't notice a significant drop in quality, though it's possible that a serious audiophile comparing it with a dedicated sound card would.  If you can stand the slight inconvenience of another part to keep track of and a permanently occupied USB port, this thing really is straight-up magic to cure your machine.

Currently listening: "Tell Your Mama," Vespers

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Death Cab: Codes and Keys

Back in 2001, when all the cool kids were listening to The Photo Album, there are plenty of ways you could have described Death Cab.  "Overproduced" would not have been one of them; frankly, it would have been laughable.  Something About Airplanes (1998) and We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes (2000) seriously sound like they were recorded in Chris Walla's linen closet, and The Photo Album isn't much cleaner.  Even Transatlanticism (2003), an album that I adore, has its less-than-crystal-clear moments.

It wasn't until Plans in 2005 that Death Cab produced an album that sounded fully put-together (not coincidentally, Plans was their major-label debut).  Narrow Stairs (2008) definitely represented a leap forward in production value, but (after some getting used to) it still sounded like Death Cab.

That's why so much of Codes and Keys is so surprising.  It's not that it doesn't sound like Death Cab--it does, even though you might have to take a careful look to find it, especially with the conspicuous absence of Mr. Walla's guitar.  Instead, it's surprising because there's production at every turn, sometimes to the album's detriment.  At times, Ben Gibbard's voice sounds muffled ("Home is a Fire"), scratchy ("Some Boys"), underwater ("Doors Unlocked and Open"), or echo-y ("Unobstructed Views," "Portable Television," and about half of the album).

The natural question is why?  Ben Gibbard has a fine voice--and that doesn't do him justice; he has an excellent voice--so just let him sing!  You mix a questionable whiskey with coke to make it drinkable; mixing a 21-year single-malt with anything is a disastrous waste.  Maybe the argument is "we've had the same single-malt for the last fifteen years, and we wanted a new flavor this time around."  And Death Cab is at the point in their musical career where experimentation for the sake of experimentation is totally acceptable.  But they're also sufficiently accomplished musicians that they ought to know when an experiment has failed.  Intentionally obscuring Ben Gibbard's voice fails more often than not, and for that matter, so does removing virtually all of the guitar hooks.

But the change in musical style is only one of two tonal shifts that differentiate Codes and Keys from Death Cab's earlier work.  The other, equally important one is a change in subject matter.  For the first time, the driving emotion behind Death Cab's music is "happy".  Back when Ben Gibbard was still making music with The Postal Service, he once described "Such Great Heights" as the only positive song about love he'd ever written.  If he didn't change his tune after the if-not-joyous-then-at-least-longingly-hopeful Transatlanticism and Plans, then he sure has some explaining to do now.

Even the song titles reflect the album's sunnier mood: half the songs on here suggest removed obstacles ("Doors Unlocked And Open," "Unobstructed Views") or unbridled enthusiasm ("Stay Young, Go Dancing").  These sentiments would have been jarringly out of place on Death Cab's earlier albums, and they're not without their detractors here.  One particularly skeptical commenter on NPR's review of the album said it was like "a Death Cab album with the soul sucked out."

In reality, Codes and Keys plays out more like a Death Cab album with an extra piece of soul added in, one that Ben Gibbard didn't know he had until he married Zooey Deschanel.  While Death Cab had has success with happy-sounding sad songs ("The Sound of Settling"), it's played out by now.  They had their flirtation with angry-sounding angry songs ("I Will Possess Your Heart"), and that worked fine for a while.  Now that Ben Gibbard finally has a reason to expand his emotional spectrum to include happy songs, we as fans should be equally happy for him.

Currently listening: "Dawn of Time," Christie DuPree

Friday, June 03, 2011

The Oregon Trail, Day 4: May 30, 2011

New to this? Start with the prologue, Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3!

10:30 am, OR 126, between Redmond OR and Sisters OR: Having long since departed the Super 8 for the last time, we pass a farm featuring something called "Operation Santa Claus live reindeer". It occurs to me that I've never actually seen a reindeer until now.

10:52 am, Sisters OR: This town was either part of the Oregon Trail, or it really wants unsuspecting passersby on Highways 20 and 126 to think it was.  We're disappointed not to witness a buffalo stampede.

12:02 pm, OR 126 west of Sisters OR: We stop at the McKenzie River to see some nature.

Look how clear this water is!

1:37 pm, Eugene OR: Eugene seems to be closed.  The whole town.  Granted, it's a college town on a federal holiday during the summer, but you'd think there would be something more interesting than a Wendy's open for lunch.

4:21 pm, Coos Bay OR: These "sour nightcrawlers" I bought in that Eugene drugstore aren't sour at all.

5:46 pm, US 101 south of Port Orford OR: The Pacific Northwest's version of the West Coast is gloomy, almost like you're living a black-and-white photograph.  Artsy people with tricked-out cameras, take note.

7:32 pm, Redwoods National Park: Thanks to Josh, I've learned something about redwoods.  Since they're so massive, redwoods are really bad at using their vasculature to transport water to their extremities.  That's why coastal redwoods only grow in foggy regions: they need to be in saturated moist air and absorb water through their limbs.

8:08 pm, US 101 south of Redwoods NP: Elk!  Aside from in burger form at lunch yesterday, I'm not sure if I've ever seen one of these.  Add that to my list of new animals for this trip.

9:00 pm, Eureka OR: We stumble upon Lost Coast Brewery, almost by accident.  Driving through Eureka, we're all getting pretty hungry, when Josh notices a Lost Coast sign on a building to our right.  It's our third brewpub experience in as many days, and we're not complaining.  Their Downtown Brown is one of my favorite beers in the world; the Raspberry Brown somehow manages to surpass it.

11:17 pm, somewhere down US 101: In an effort to stay awake, the evening's entertainment has become another over/under game.  We're guessing the population of various Northern California towns, which is fun because none of us has any idea what to guess.  I offer the over/under of 3800 on McKinleyville; Josh takes the under and is clearly defeated.  While I don't remember what the bet on Garberville was, whoever took the under was probably the winner.

1:06 am, further down US 101: I realize I've failed at my passengerly duties, having been asleep for about the last half hour.

2:42 am, Berkeley CA: Back home at last.  Through detours, pit stops, and side trips, we've managed to more than double the length of time it took to get to Oregon on Friday, but it was totally worth it.  I return to Berkeley a few hundred dollars poorer but don't much care because this has been the most fun I've had in months.