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April 7th, 2016


05:51 pm - Buster Posey's good friend Hunter Pence!
Hall of Fame broadcaster Jon Miller: With two on in the 8th, Giants CF Denard Span dropped a bunt toward third. Dodgers pitcher J.P. Howell tried for the force at third, but Gregor Blanco beat the throw. "Safe at third!" Sometimes when Miller makes a big safe call, he flattens the 'f' while raising his voice, so it's like "saaAEEF at third!".

First Miller credited Span with an excellent bunt, then said Howell couldn't have fielded it any better, and decided correctly to make the shorter throw to third instead of turning around to get the speedy Span at first. But the real hero on the play, said Miller, was Blanco, who got a sufficient jump off second.

"Well described", said his broadcast partner David B. Flemming, who detailed three parts of Blanco's 90-foot trip. Shit, I thought, I've agreed with Flemming two times in four games.

A minute later, RF Hunter Pence was at bat against Pedro Baez in relief of Howell. Pence didn't have an RBI yet, said Miller, but he could get one or two or three or four right here. Then Pence smoked one, and Miller called "There's a high drive to left center!. It's on its way! It's gone! Adios pelota! A grand slam for Bus…"

Somewhere between syllables, his voice changed a bit as he realized he was using the wrong player's name. "…Ter Po…", and his voice changed again while he fixed his call in midstream: "…sey's good friend Hunter Pence!"

One-eighth-mile north of Saratoga Ave. on 280, I laughed.

I once asked Miller — by way of Gary Radnich proxy on the KNBR morning show — if there were any memorably bad calls. During his Baltimore Oriole days, a hitter fouled one off to the right, and he said: "I said something like, 'Hit down the line… slicing…' and then I remembered that slices go to the left and hooks go to the right, so then I said, '…hooking, hooking… foul.'" He said he imagined some listeners envisioning a foul ball heading for left, then changing direction toward right.

If I get another chance, I'll ask him where "Buster Posey's good friend Hunter Pence!" goes in his list of memorably fixed-in-midstream calls. (I volunteered to write Miller's biograph for the Society for American Baseball Research — one of these winters, maybe I won't be sick in bed.)

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March 22nd, 2016


08:01 pm - The one with Dikembe Mutombo, Nuke LaLoosh, and Miami Hurricanes vs. South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Tuned in to the news station for traffic, I heard a fellow describe what he saw in Brussels. At the end of his woeful story, KCBS identified the man as Dikembe Mutombo.

A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, Mutombo was one of basketball's most tireless interior defenders — 2nd all-time in blocked shots, 9th all-time in defensive rebound percentage, four-time defensive player of the year — Mutombo's list of accomplishments pales in comparison to his defensive highlight reel.

Mutombo had a signature move. He'd knock a shot into the seats, then wag his finger in a gesture of "don't bring that weak shit in here again".

I loved that move, his warning finger wag in the wake of a monstrous block. Then it got ruled out under a new policy against undue celebratory or taunting behavior. As ever, a few shitheads spoil things for everyone — some 20-year-old dickhead does a touchdown dance after hanging on the rim for five seconds following a 2-point dunk, and an understated badass move like Mutombo's gets caught in the dragnet.

The women's basketball team of Miami (FL) got screwed by the stoicism-enforcement guidelines last Saturday. In the first round of the NCAA tournament at Stanford, South Dakota State led Miami 59-48 with 8:20 remaining, when Miami freshman Laura Cornelius sparked the Hurricanes. The guard made a trey at 7:50 to cut the South Dakota State lead to 8, then a steal and another trey at 6:03 to make it 61-56.

It was a very big basket. The Jackrabbits' lead was cut by more than half, and the momentum had swung to the Hurricanes. The Miami boosters roared, and Cornelius double-fist-pumped in celebration. A referee thought that inappropriate, whistling Cornelius for a technical foul — and even ruling her three-pointer a two. The break in the action plus the two free throws for South Dakota State deflated Miami, who got as close as three, losing 74-71.

Miami coach Katie Meier recounted those events at the post-game press conference, saying she'd take full responsibility for that pivotal technical foul. "I love emotion," she said about her freshman's actions. "I'll take that T. Put it on me."

I adored Coach Meier. The 2011 Associated Press national coach of the year is one who doesn't slip into LaLooshian coach-speak when addressing the media.

LaLoosh language is the fucking death of sports journalism. In "Bull Durham" — a landmark sports movie — Kevin Costner teaches Tim Robbins (Nuke LaLoosh) the quotidian manner of press relations, and in this stupid world where sound bites rule, LaLoosh-speak is the national language. No one bothered to remind us about "Bull Durham" that Crash teaching Nuke the least offensive way of public speaking was satire.

Any writer with an ear for the shit doesn't have to attend a press conference — a LaLooshian interview sounds the same in any sport and any form of media; a capable writer can just make the shit up, and I guarantee no one will notice or care, not even the person being quoted. (In fact, I'd wager that if a sportswriter said: "Coach, how about I make up your half of this conversation, so you can go to bed", most coaches would go for that if they had a trusting relationship with the writer.)

Some coaches don't automatically default or regress into that crap, but the problem is that press conferences are structured in a way that depends on it. If you put all the reporters in a group, and set the cameras rolling, the bullshitters have to get their way because that's what bullshit consumers have learned to expect. If a writer really wants to talk to a coach, it has to be a small-time setting without cameras or recording devices — I had that with the Big West Conference five or seven years ago, but two of the coaches with whom I had great relationships — Lynne Roberts and Lindsay Gottlieb — graduated to a power conference, so they've got no more time to talk to me, and two who gave me credit for not adhering to the typical bullshit script — Sandy Simpson and Dr. Maryalyce Jeremiah — retired.

And so, Coach Meier — who is probably a blast in press conferences after she wins — and her #5 seed Hurricanes went home to Miami, leaving the #12 seed Jackrabbits to face host Stanford in the second round.

I fell in love with the entire South Dakota State regiment. They've got an excellent, intelligent, tough-minded, distance-shooting team with no graduating starters, and the loudest fans I've ever heard. The South Dakota State boosters are raucous and devoted — according to SDSU coach Aaron Johnston, many of them accompanied the team on its trips to the Virgin Islands and road games in the Summit Conference (opponents in Nebraska, Colorado, Illinois). Those folks are so convivial that they tweeted "Come to Frost Arena in Brookings, South Dakota, and we'll show you *really loud*." Their radio guy is exceptionally good — I have to sit besides lots of them, and if a basketball team is adept at swinging the ball around the perimeter, most play-by-play announcers will skip one or two passes in order to keep up with the ball, but not the South Dakota State fellow. Along with all that, South Dakota State's director of basketball operations was at my hometown Cal State Hayward — college women's basketball is such a small world.

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December 16th, 2015


03:47 am - I watched a video about cockfighting in the Philippines.
I watched this video about cockfighting in the Philippines.

A Filipino filmmaker related the lives of Filipino men to those of gamecocks — on the edge of poverty, the men fight for money, land, women, beliefs. Like gamecocks, they live short lives: day to day, peck to scratch.

Impoverished Filipino men and gamecocks' lives intersect in the cockfighting pits, the gambling at which is a billion-dollar industry in the Philippines.

Filipinos will bet on any damn thing. They'll bet on sensible things — like businesses in neighborhoods that need them — and irrational things — like casino games of independent trials. My dad did both — unfortunately, he did a lot more of the second.

The lure of money won — more desirable than money earned — draws Filipinos like fish, especially in their climate where it's hard to earn it. I'll tell you two stories of racial stereotyping:

1) A Chinese fellow told me and another Chinese fellow that Chinese were the craziest gambling people anywhere, anytime, anyhow. I said: "Filipinos kick their asses." And before the first guy could start arguing his case, the other Chinese guy says: "He's right."

2) Chess master Rudy Hernandez — I liked that slick-dressed pinoy chess master, who used to tell me before our games: "Let's go fast. I have a date later." I approached Rudy and two other friends: Tom Dorsch and Jim Eade, also chess masters, couple of great white guys. Rudy was animated and laughing, slapping his thigh with his story about a gambler friend. I join the conversation with fake disbelief: "A Filipino who likes to gamble? No shit?".

I still love this as one of my all-time good lines. Jim and Tom cracked up at a well-timed bit of fake irony, and because we're all digging how much Rudy is into this story that you could tell about any of us. I'm a big-time gambler, right? I documented every season of WNBA handicapping, winning every year (too little to make up for unpleasantly altering the way I watched basketball games).

Back to the topic of Filipinos betting billions of dollars on cockfighting: Doesn't surprise me a bit that we'd gamble so heavily on birds like white guys gamble on ponies. It's government-approved free money *and* watching sports.

What does surprise me is that among the non-diseased bettors, some of them must really dig the cockfighting action, like white guys dig football. Maybe it's like the childhood urge you get to put two bugs in a jar, but never growing out of it.

Here's how I found the video in the first place: I learned tonight that I've always been wrong about the meaning of the University of South Carolina mascots, the Gamecocks. I always thought a gamecock was something you shot for food, like a game hen (so I also learned that "game hen" is just a kind of chicken), and why would you want to name your teams prey instead of predator? So I Googled that, and learned that the term "gamecocks" refers to those congenitally vicious roosters.

Watching the video, I thought "wow, the real meaning of gamecock is even ickier than my misconception — why would you name your team *this*?".

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December 13th, 2015


02:19 am - . @CalWBBall 87, Nebraska 80 OT
I attended my 2nd game of the season Saturday at Cal, where the Golden Bears beat Nebraska 87-80 in overtime.

While I worked in software, I saw every game I wanted to see, because there was money and paid time off and a schedule. Working in chess, I have to take every gig I can get, so I miss games. By a typical mid-December, I've seen 15 games, more than that if the Thanksgiving tournaments are four-a-day.

I haven't seen Pacific yet. I wanted to watch Coach Bradley Davis' Tigers beat San Jose St., but I worked at a tournament during the game.

Friday night I taught class at Weibel, then drove to Berkeley for chess club. The drive was wretched: two hours for 37 miles. Saturday I reviewed games at Weibel, then drive to Berkeley for Nebraska. 1:15 because the traffic was better.

I missed the first quarter — Nebraska led 22-18 — and scrambling to my seat, I apologize for bothering my rowmates, a woman and her little daughter. The woman is AP sportswriter Janie McCauley.

Janie McCauley is legend who doesn't know it. Around here, every sportswriter has Janie McCauley stories, and they're all favorable. I squeezed past her in row DD, while she's all nice and friendly despite the inconvenience, while not recognizing me as someone she's met. She was the only person all day to mention my ugly Christmas shirt, which includes a Mini Cooper silhouette with a tree on top.

I should've asked her what she thinks of next year's National League.

The data I chose to track was Nebraska's second chances. I watched Cal's practice team get offensive rebounds on three straight possessions, and I wonder if this might be a season-long problem for the Golden Bears.

Cal led 27-24 at 7:58 in the 2nd quarter. Until 3:35, there were four rebounds at the Nebraska end. Two of those were put back by the Huskers, with a 3-point play possible. Ouch, but Cal was hot offensively, and even increased their lead to 39-34. Until halftime, the Bears grabbed each possible defensive rebound, and extended again: 44-38 at half.

Cal locked the defensive boards in the 3rd; Nebraska got their first off-the-rim offensive rebound at 1:30, but there were few offensive rebounds to be had because Nebraska shot 58% in the second half (better in the third quarter, I think, but there's no play-by-play accompanying the boxscore).

I wondered if Coach Gottlieb said anything like: "Keep playing defense like this, and we'll win this game, because they can't shoot like this all night."

Nebraska was held to one second chance in the 4th quarter — two in the half! — but made so many first chances that it was tied at the end of regulation.

Nebraska had the last possession with 3+ seconds left, but their speedy senior guard Kyndal Clark couldn't get in range. (Clark was the shortest Cornhusker on the floor, but led them in rebounds.)

Four seconds was enough for my teammate Jeff Carter one night. I remember Coach Mohatt in the huddle: "We've got four seconds. Don't worry; that's a lot of time. I want our three sophomores to run this. Rod, you take the ball out. Grimes, you set a pick for Carter here. Jeff, take your man to the basket."

The Ohlone Renegades ran it just as diagrammed. Jeff made a 15-footer at the buzzer, and we carried him off the floor. Added bonus: Jeff's defender was a kid that Coach Mohatt didn't want to sign, so he was hungry to make Coach eat that. He fouled Jeff while shooting, but Carter beat him without a whistle.

Nebraska ran something like that for Clark, but Cal's defender at the end of regulation was better than our opponent 30+ years ago.

Nebraska's shooting finally faltered in overtime — 2-for-9 — while Cal made free throws.

Nebraska senior guard Rachel Theriot, I thought I remembered her from their 2013 Sweet Sixteen team. 17 points, 15 assists. She made several winning decisions as the middleman on Cornhusker fastbreaks.

Cal freshman Kristine Anigwe had 29 points, 10 rebounds in the Bears' first game since her 43 points, 12 rebounds vs. Sacramento State. The Sacramento State team gives the opposing forward lots of room; last year, Pacific's Kendall Kenyon also had a career night against the Hornets.

Anigwe can power through more defenders than Kenyon; Kenyon can slip past more defenders than Anigwe. A matchup between Kenyon — unabashedly, I am still Kendall's fan and publicist — and Anigwe might go like this: There is gambling pool for how fast the twiggy Kenyon will get into foul trouble — because opponents who are as fast as she, and also bigger — are a problem for her. I could also imagine Anigwe getting into foul trouble. Maybe Kenyon blocks a few shots — with long arms and agility — and Anigwe backs up in order to get clear for a face-up jumper. Say Anigwe's just far enough out of her effective range, and she's missing shots — she might pursue those offensive rebounds too zealously, making fouls.

Kristine Anigwe will have many big games for Cal, which has two freshman starters: the other is guard Asha Thomas, who had 17 points, 5 assists against Nebraska. Cal's starting point guard last year was graduate Brittany Boyd, who made triple-doubles for the Golden Bears before making the WNBA All-Rookie team as a member of the Eastern Conference finalist New York Liberty.

Cal's other starters are two sophomores and one junior. (I wonder if junior forward Courtney Range feels some additional pressure for become the team's veteran one year ahead of schedule.) Coach Gottlieb said they're a young group, but they listen. (Folks who work with kids might've shared my immediate thought: "I wish I could get mine to do that.")

The new scoreboard in Haas Pavilion is shiny.

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June 9th, 2015


03:50 am - "Spy" is three-quarters great, and the quarter that isn't great is pretty good.
"Spy" is three-quarters great, and the quarter that isn't great is pretty good.

It's great as:

A spoof of Bond movies that makes such good fun of the formula that it's a better Bond movie than those that slip into self-parody.

A suitably badass vehicle for Melissa McCarthy, and other women.

A workplace satire.

It's very good as:

A comedy that throws a lot out there and hopes it sticks.

"Spy" follows the Bond formula starring Jude Law as the field operative, with Melissa McCarthy as his intelligence and "radar sense" (in the Daredevil way). They're an ass-kicking team of home and field agents, who spend so much time in each other's heads that she's in love with him. They remind us of Moneypenny and Bond (I read that the McCarthy character is Chloe in "24". Speaking of Law as a fantastic hero, how I wished for "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" to be as good as "Spy".)

Law's cover gets blown, along with the covers of the agency's other top agents, so McCarthy is sent afield for the first time to do reconaissance on the big bad.

It's darn near a classic. "Spy" is the most recent movie in the class of "I saw it twice on opening weekend" — before "Spy", it was "The Incredibles", which *is* a classic. "Spy" falls just short because some of the jokes needed work, and some were just so bad that they didn't belong. Also, the gory violence was unnecessary.

Here's where "Spy" excels, and here's where I spoil everything, so go see it, then come back.

The best thing about "Spy" is its rapid yet subtle character development. In a good spy thriller, no one is who they seem — good guys were actually bad, bad guys were actually big bad, big bads were actually dumbasses, and so on. Look at what "Spy" did with every important character.

Especially Jude Law. Law was my main reason for going back for a second look, to confirm that he's the big bad who got away. After he faked his own death, he was set to disappear with Rose Byrne and a fortune in diamonds. But when McCarthy saved the world, he changed sides again.

Rose Byrne kept me guessing throughout. After McCarthy saved her life for the second time, maybe she does a heel-face turn plus a "Grace Kelly in 'High Noon'" moment, because we know there's good in there somewhere; she's the bad guy we want to like. Which is the opposite of her character in "Bridesmaids," who was the good guy we wanted to hate.

Jason Statham is supposedly a superagent for his incredible feats in the line of duty, but he's revealed gradually as a complete dumbass who's survived through dumb luck. If the movie were about Statham's character, it would be a different kind of comedy — it would be the "Baby Herman unwittingly avoids one demise after another" kind. Part of "Spy's" brilliance is in its portrayal of some co-workers as morons. Statham spends the whole movie blustering like a supercop while he's really fucking things up. And consider Morena Baccarin. When she's talking to the other women, we can't tell if she's a humblebragging bitch, or stupidly guileless. If she is just another dumbass at the office, does she get the Natasha Romanov assignments because she's superhot, enabling her to fool every horny bad guy? (Note that Jude Law killed Morena Baccarin ambiguously — as the good guy, he killed the double agent because she was about to kill McCarthy; as the bad guy, he killed her to cover his tracks.)

Peter Serafinowicz as the Italian is a giant boner, but when should we realize that he's putting us on? He drives the Alfa Romeo like a superspy but unnecessarily, which is funny while maintaining the appearance of giant boner. In the dungeon, it is he who recognizes Agent Cooper as a skillful agent, not Agent Fine. But a minute later, he's gropey Aldo again with his face in her pants (but his idea worked, so hmmm). When we see he's piloting 50 Cent's helicopter, that's when we should realize he's really good, and then he instantly turns himself into Patrick Macnee. Wasn't the lighting in that scene the best, backlighting him to enhance the transformation from swarthy Italian to fair Englishman.

At last, a starring role worthy of Melissa McCarthy. "Bridesmaids" was Kristen Wiig's movie (I saw Wiig's "Welcome to Me" two weeks ago — I thought it was very good, but I identified because I also behave oddly without brain meds; "Silver Linings Playbook" was kinda the same way — the jokes about depression meds were funny depending on your own experience with the shit.), "The Heat" was split with Sandra Bullock, "Identity Thief" just effing cheated her at the end.

"Spy" gave McCarthy every chance to shine. When the clueless Jude Law (the women kick all the butt in "Spy", while the men are just, you know, *men*, getting good jobs and the credit through nice faces and penis privilege [Law], and despite witlessly dangerous machismo [Statham] or groping hands [Serafinowicz]) presents her with the stupid cupcake, every woman knows that pain. When the Q analog outfits her with the demeaning spy kit, when Statham calls her a lunch lady, when the everyday co-workers don't remember or appreciate her, women in the workplace know that, too. When the Italian horndogs don't catcall from the car, when Rose Byrne insults her clothes. Agent Cooper just *deals* with it in unassumingly, and then in order to save herself, she reinvents her cover as Byrne's bodyguard, unleashing the Hulk.

"Spy" would've been a huge disappointment had it gone the traditional route for secret agents in the field for the first time, when luck and chance follow them around (I like those movies, especially when the hero is an "unwitting spy", like Mater in "Cars 2"). McCarthy was a superagent all along, and the story gave her the chance to be super. Similarly, Miranda Hart's character was the same kind of badass-stuck-at-a-desk-job — how resourceful was she at critical moments!

Make it a franchise. They're already set up for Spy #2 and Spy #3, because Allison Janney said so, and because they didn't kill Jude Law. It's off to a better start than the Bourne series, far ahead of the Missions: Impossible, and considering how Bond went more navelgazing than asskicking, Melissa McCarthy's spy capers should be the best ones going.

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May 29th, 2015


03:16 am - "San Andreas" bad as "Green Lantern" for no imagination, while making extraordinary seem predictable
"San Andreas", the new disaster movie starring Dwayne Johnson, is as bad as "Green Lantern", and for much the same reason.

"Green Lantern" had the capability to be among the best comic book movies, but it turned out as one of the worst. Its potential was in Green Lantern's power ring, arguably the most powerful gizmo in the galaxy — in the comic books, the power ring was limited by cheap four-color printing, but in the movies?! A Green Lantern movie is bound only by the writer's and director's imaginations, and they blew it. I can't remember a single wow moment in "Green Lantern".

"San Andreas" imagines the biggest natural catastrophe in history, a chain of earthquakes that begins in Nevada and follows the fault line toward San Francisco. CalTech geologist Paul Giamatti said the 1960 Valdivia quake had the destructive power of 10 nukes, so to unleash something that big on my old office building?! A movie with unbelievable capacity for ruinous special effects should be astounding, but "San Andreas" couldn't rise above stupid and predictable.

There's 30 minutes of backstory that could've been left out of "San Andreas". I'll spoil it here, but maybe you'll agree that if this crap weren't there to spoil, it would've been a better movie for 30 more minutes of earthquake chaos. Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino are a signature away from divorced. She and their daughter are moving in with real estate mogul Ioan Gruffudd, who's building the tallest office complex in San Francisco. They lost a daughter in a boating accident, which still haunts rescue chief Johnson.

All of that is unnecessary. They could've written the Johnson-Gugino-Alexandra Daddario family as whole and happy and together. Wouldn't change a thing about the drama that unfolds when a tsunami roars down California Street.

They stretched the movie across two states to give a reason for a film crew to be at CalTech with professor Giamatti, but they could've whacked the exposition, too — the audience doesn't have to be acquainted with the science of earthquake prediction for a movie about an earthquake to be effective. It's almost like they borrowed that from "Titanic", too. While San Francisco blows up, some of the extras die in bits stolen straight from "Titanic". The explanation of how the boat split and sank was fascinating in "Titanic", but "San Andreas" needed nothing of the kind. Earthquakes happen, on with the show.

The studio screwed "San Andreas" by green-lighting that shitty story by Andre Fabrizio, whose previous writing credit was the 4.1-rated "Vice", and hiring director Brad Peyton, who's done nothing I've ever seen — not even "Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore" — even the Bond-ripoff title says crap, but this is the guy they wanted to tell the story of the AT&T Park crumbling into McCovey Cove. Think of the sight gags this doofus missed: While the baseball stadium is falling into the cove, some of those kayaking nitwits would be grasping for souvenirs washing past. Wouldn't you *want* to see something happen to some texting dumbass?

They painted themselves into a storytelling corner by setting the Valdivia quake as a benchmark, so to demonstrate the magnitude of the event, they showed destruction from Hoover Dam to Nob Hill. But if they'd compressed the events in the five-mile radius that covers Alcatraz Island and the Transamerica Pyramid, nothing would've been lost in the big picture, while details like, say, a flying cable car or the implosion of the Transbay Tube could've been included. (Hitchcock buffs would've died at noticing the Montgomery Street apartment complex from "Dark Passage" or the cable car turnaround from "The Birds"; such details would've taken zero additional screen time.)

There was no sense of claustrophobia in "San Andreas", not even during the parking garage scenes. I bet if you've been on a BART ride through the Transbay Tube, you were more frightened by the previous paragraph than by anything you'd see in "San Andreas".

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May 22nd, 2015


03:46 pm - Agreed with @thehighsign about "Up in the Air," with hindsight
Herewith, 2009's "Up in the Air" completely spoiled.

I returned "Into the Woods" to the video store, saying "Know what this movie needs? Lots more Anna Kendrick, and lots less everyone else." So I rented "Up in the Air," figuring the movie that fetched her an Oscar nomination would fit that bill, though she wouldn't be singing. (In fact, she did sing.)

I thought "Up in the Air" was so good that I hurried to RottenTomatoes to read critic reviews. My favorite film writer, Dana Stevens at slate dot com — said she downgraded it from sparking to smug two days after seeing in, so it registered as a rotten tomato. She said "Up in the Air" was like a churro: delicious at the start, eventually congealing into its lard and sugar components.

Gee, I thought, did Dana Stevens and I disagree twice in a row? Because she wasn't crazy about "Avengers: Age of Ultron", either.

My brain spun while I tried to sleep later. Yay for me, I called the suicide. While George Clooney and Anna Kendrick fired people, the movie showed real and scripted reactions by real folks who got canned — when the scripted lady said she was going to throw herself off a bridge, I thought: "That's what's going to happen. She's going to kill herself, and it'll cause George Clooney and Anna Kendrick to take stock."

I was right. Usually, a movie gets poor marks from me when I predict the happenings (worst thing about "Dark Knight Rises" was the pair of teenaged girls beside me, one of whom nailed every bit like she wrote it), but in the case of "Up in the Air", it was an Oscar-worthy moment for Anna Kendrick and I'd enjoyed the movie so much that I waved myself off with 'eh, you've seen too many movies'.

But while I was turning in bed, it hit me that many people called the suicide, because it was set up in the imaginary Zach Galifianakis sequence. The audience was manipulated into accepting that something crazy like a laid-off employee "going postal" might occur later in the movie.

Whoa, I thought. That's what Dana Stevens was talking about. Her good review went south in a day or two, while the churro analogy suddenly made sense.

Similarly, the biggest surprise was Vera Farmiga turning out to be married with children, even though the character sold herself as free, mobile, and unattached like the George Clooney character, "but with a vagina," she said. Which turned out to be a lie, though we and George Clooney were all expecting the typical romcom "walk out of an important thing to run through the airport and find the beloved" ending. The big reveal was a blow to George Clooney and to the audience because we all thought she was falling in love. I don't think a frequent traveler getting some George Clooney enroute is going to say the things she said — again, it looked bad on reflection, like the chewed-up churro.

Yes, it was a happy surprise that they found a plausible way to get Anna Kendrick to sing in a non-musical movie, a karaoke version of my favorite Cyndi Lauper song at a company party. Totally reasonable, yet in retrospect, perhaps too convenient.

All told, I found myself falling in with Dana Stevens. "Up in the Air" was great at first blush, but seemed to weaken with each look in the rear view mirror.

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May 17th, 2015


08:47 pm - Clubhouse chatter — in the Gading Green Sox universe
Baseball players sat around in the team's clubhouse, killing time before the pregame rituals. Some played cards, some played a kind of indoor hockey with bats and balls, another read the newspaper. The reader guffawed: "Didja hear what the Babe said? Someone said he was making more bread than the president, and Ruth said, 'I had a better year than Hoover did'."

His teammates shared the laugh while mentally calculating Ruth's salary minus their salaries, then they stopped laughing. A voice rose over the dying laughter: "Neither of 'em had a year like Alekhine."

"Huh? Who's Al Yeckin?" said a card player.

"I know him. He's a pitcher in the Coast League," said another.

"No, you nimrods. He's the world chess champion. He just beat José Capablanca."

"I know him," said the guy who knows the pitcher Al Yeckin. The chess-savvy man was about to cut him off, until he continued, "he was an infielder at Columbia University. They called him Joey. Good field, no hit. Maybe a different guy, but how many Joey Capablancas are there?".

"Huh, no kidding," said the chess-savvy. "Hey, you know how you start hitting better after you bite a guy with a high average? Maybe I could be the next chess champeen if I bite Alekhine."

Another voice: "Too late."

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May 15th, 2015


01:36 am - "Ex Machina" is so far the best movie of 2015, and a huge improvement over "Her"
Depending on how you felt about 1982's "Blade Runner" and 2013's "Her", "Ex Machina" is either the first, second, or most recent outstanding movie about falling in love with an AI construct.

One of these days, I'll watch the director's cut of "Blade Runner," because I slept through the general release, and I couldn't answer the easiest trivia question about the book. (I think Philip K. Dick is best in small doses.)

I didn't like "Her" at all, partly because I don't like Joaquin Phoenix in general, while "Her" was dumb and predictable throughout. "Ex Machina", on the other hand, is an edge-of-your-seat psychothriller that should make you think and keep you guessing well after you've exited the theater. (Lbh'yy arire guvax bs Snprobbx gur fnzr jnl, hayrff lbh'ir nyernql pbagrzcyngrq gur Snprobbx shgher gung svtherf vagb "Rk Znpuvan", vg pbhyq puvyy lbh.)

A young programmer wins a lottery at work which sends him to his megarich CEO's secret lair where the boss wants him to Turing test an android. For reasons so logical that they had to be spelled out in the script, Caleb and Ava develop a very fast fondness for each other.

Reviewers have been reluctant to say more than that about "Ex Machina", because to talk about anything that happens in this movie is a spoiler risk. Trust the 90% critics rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and especially trust that the critics liked it more than the general audience (take "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2", which earned 6% from critics and 45% from the morons for whom it was made.

I loved it. Domnhall Gleeson evokes his father Brendan with a face that says everything (which the AI notes). Alicia Vikander is alluring and mysterious, like the best blind date. This is the second time I've seen Oscar Isaac as the boss who's hiding something — he was excellent as a troubled industrialist in "A Most Violent Year", and again in "Ex Machina", where he's Mark Zuckerberg if Zuckerberg were smarter, richer, and less of a schmuck. An important aspect of "Ex Machina" is the characters' voices. Like "Her", in which we can only hear Scarlett Johansson's hottest asset, Vikander's voice — direct yet innocent — has to beguile. Isaac sounds just like a programmer. Imagine a Californian accent with no trace of dumb beach dweller, that's the voice of Silicon Valley. I spent two hours thinking "Who does this guy sound like?", and not putting a finger on it, because he sounds like many, many people with whom I've worked.

I'm going to spoil one bit. I nailed it, and you'd've expected that. Had you been sitting beside me in the theater, you would've known I saw this coming. During the men's first conversation about differentiating human interaction from interaction with an AI, I thought: "First thing I'd do would be to teach the android to play chess." BAM, the next words out of Caleb's mouth are about how chess-playing computers have been a most successful test of artificial intelligence.

Grandmaster Joel Benjamin was a chess consultant for the Deep Blue team while it prepared Blue for the Kasparov rematch. They knew they were on the right track when Benjamin said: "Sometimes Deep Blue just plays chess," as if Blue were "alive", or better yet, "thinking". During the second Kasparov match, the world gasped at Blue's move with a real human characteristic: It was one of those moves that a human master couldn't calculate entirely, but "it felt right".

Which is the thing that makes "Ex Machina" the best movie of the year (granted, 2015 is just emerging from the weakest quarter for movies): For Caleb and Ava, "it felt right".

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May 13th, 2015


05:25 pm - Gone to Monument Valley. Never coming back, maybe. @ustwogames @ThinkFun
I love sliding-block puzzles. Naturally, you say, because sliding-block puzzles are logic-based with manipulatives in a square grid, like that other game you play.

My first experience with a sliding-block puzzle was with the "classic 15", in the traditional dimestore plastic frame. (Naturally, you say, the puzzle that chess problemist Sam Loyd claimed to have invented.) It was at my grandmother's (not the grandmother who doted on me like the first son of her first son, the other one) house, where I was glad to find construction toys and to be left alone. I discovered the 15 in a toybox, and when someone dismissed it for being too hard, well, you know how I reacted to that.

Lately, my favorite sliding-block puzzles are by ThinkFun (I thought they were more fun when they called themselves Binary Arts), one of which uses blocks that slide like chessmen (they call it Solitaire Chess, which annoys me because it's not chess — but which other words that fit on a boxtop form an apt description?), and Rush Hour, which uses blocks shaped like little cars.

Like Solitaire Chess, Rush Hour is also a misnomer, because there's no rushing at all. I tweeted at ThinkFun that the Rush Hour player isn't like a commuter, but like a parking valet (the game requires moving cars in a crowded lot so the red car can exit). Very good, they said, the game's original name was "Parking Lot", which probably wasn't going to market as well.

Yesterday I discovered the mobile game Monument Valley, which has racked up an unprecedented number of glowing reviews and awards. I've solved the first three levels, and if you never see me again, you can determine if I'm alive and playing Monument Valley by checking my progress on Google Play.

Monument Valley is a sliding-block game in three dimensions, where the gamescape resembles an Escher, and the object is to move the blocks to form a path for the avatar to reach the exit. The avatar — her name is Ida — encounters some kind words along the way. Gamemakers Ustwo describe Monument Valley as "an illusory adventure of impossible architecture and forgiveness."

No more description is needed. If you like sliding-block games, Escher-like constructions, and kind words, well, see you later.

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