"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".

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.

Let's all go to the lobby and have ourselves a snack

Before the Avengers double feature yesterday there were trailers.

The Fantastic Four trailer did not evoke Fantastic Four #1 at all, but maybe that's what they want. It's even a different foursome that rockets into the gamma rays.

Ant-Man might not suck, though every comic starring Dr. Pym did. Casting Paul Rudd as a reformed thief was a very good idea.

I kinda hated "Jurassic Park" for ripping off "Westworld", and not doing it very well. The trailer for "Jurassic World" suggests that they took the good parts from "Jurassic Park" and amplified them.

Today I am a mentally-unbalanced, anxiety-ridden old man. Anxiety-ridden old men have to start somewhere — in the late '60s while the Zodiac serial killer was threatening San Francisco schoolbuses, I was walking home from school looking over my shoulder and ducking for cover. In the '70s, I was terrified of the next great earthquake. (I was lucky during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake because I was drunk from a Candlestick Park tailgate party, so addled at 5:04 p.m. that when the giant concrete bunker started shaking, I thought it was the roar of the pregame crowd.) Like most native Californians, I can sleep through earthquakes now, but the trailer for "San Andreas" made me feel 10 years old.

For many 50-ish nerds, "Star Wars" was a life-changing event. At 14, I was collecting comics, attending conventions, and watching movies, but "Star Wars" made me a drooling fanboy. The returns on Star Wars fandom diminished as early as "The Empire Strikes Back", and declined steadily for so long that I wondered if it was a bottomless pit. Any casual observer of popular culture sees that Star Wars fans are buried under an unwieldy pile of shit (most of which has been stricken from canon!). Some years ago, I changed my answer to "Star Wars or Star Trek?". That's a question like "Designated hitter or real baseball?" — you don't just flip a switch on that, it requires a rewiring of your belief system. The Star Wars universe and its fandom gradually turned into so much dung that giving it up was pretty easy. The trailer for "The Force Reawakens" made me cry a little bit — I'll wager if you're around my age, and had a similar experience with the franchise, the promise of that trailer choked you up, too.

Age of Ultron is as much Whedon as it is Marvel, making it better than its predecessor

I was prepared for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" to disappoint. Runner Joss Whedon said in post-wrap interviews that Disney wrung the life out of him like it had several other directors of its Marvel movies, and my favorite film writer was lukewarm in her review.

And how to follow "Marvel's 'The Avengers'", maybe the best and certifiably the most successful comic book movie yet? I opted to see Age of Ultron in the 3-D double feature package, so if Age of Ultron didn't live up to The Avengers, then at least I saw The Avengers again. (And I'm unemployed, like the other time-to-kill losers who get in for one 2 p.m. matinee and stay for three movies.)

Marvel's The Avengers stood up to a fourth viewing, it's that good. If I had one quibble with Marvel's The Avengers, it's that it's not sufficiently Whedony.

If you're a Buffy or Firefly fan, there are things you expect from Whedon. For instance, Whedon's Black Widow is the Black Widow comic book readers have always wanted. The Widow from Daredevil comics in the '70s was there because Daredevil was still 10 years away from getting really good, and Natasha was supposed to improve the mix. Mostly she jumpstarted Matt's record as Marvel's primary "himbo". (The trouble with Daredevil was that his superpower isn't much, so his villains were laughable, and some writers threw women at him instead.)

Whedon and Scarlett Johansson gave us a Black Widow we could respect (and in Age of Ultron, she's the most womanly Black Widow ever — compare the Age of Ultron Natasha to, for instance, the Natasha in Kevin Smith's 'Guardian Devil'). Whedon's women are the biggest badasses in his worlds, but Whedon's first Avengers movie only gave us two: Natasha and Agent Hill.

Age of Ultron improves on Marvel's The Avengers in the best way imaginable — for Joss Whedon fans — because Wanda Maximoff makes it more than the new Marvel movie, it's the new Joss Whedon movie. Like Willow Rosenberg and River Tam, the nascent Scarlet Witch unfolds as the most powerful force in the story. Like River, she's a little unhinged, which Whedon exploits as a crowning moment for Hawkeye — Whedon figured out a way for Clint Barton the weak link (with a bottomless quiver) to be as important in saving the world as Thor the god and Captain America the superman.

Whedon logically included his classic TV elements — exceptionally powerful young women (sometimes in star-crossed romantic entanglements), mind control by superpower or by melding with machine, selfless wartime acts, big damn heroes sitting around the dinner table — in a movie that contemplates themes that drive Marvel's X-books (being human while being more than human or inhuman) and the fundamental Marvel comics notion that great power brings great responsibility, whether that power is derived from radioactive spiders, gamma radiation, or the best hardware the military-industrial complex can buy.

The fight scenes in Age of Ultron better appealed to me than those in The Avengers. In The Avengers, icky bad guys from outer space arrive through an interdimensional portal. In Age of Ultron, we've met the bad guys and they are us. Age of Ultron is a Terminator movie that would make James Cameron think "why didn't I think of that?". (Because James Cameron isn't Joss Whedon.)

The humor we expect of Whedon is there. Cap's shield is fodder for one great quip (Ultron, on its composition) and one good one (Black Widow, on its retrieval). While the Hulk was the comic relief in The Avengers, that's mostly Thor's job in Age of Ultron. Making Thor funny repairs the lasting flaw in the comics — his power as a god makes him as boring as 1960s Superman.

Reviewers are criticizing Age of Ultron for being overly packed with stuff. Too many good guys, too many bad guys, too much banter and dick-swinging. Their problem is that they're not nerds, or not genre-savvy enough to appreciate Age of Ultron as Joss Whedon's most spectacular accomplishment.

If Squirrels load the bases in bottom 9, @LazePXP is bound to crack me up.

Richmond Flying Squirrels broadcaster Jon Laaser said he saw signs that the Squirrels might win today after 11 losses.

I tweeted at him that I disagreed; I didn't hear a team ready to bounce back, though as a Squirrels fan, I hoped Laaser was right (he mostly is). I think it's a measure of Laaser's skill at describing baseball games that his listeners are well-enough informed to form educated guesses. I think I'm a nerd for interacting with baseball broadcasts through Twitter. (Saturday, I contributed a haiku for Jay Burnham's post-game ritual, which he used. I hope poetic license covers the hole in my math.)

Squirrels 1B Rick Oropesa was at bat; two outs in the bottom of the 8th, the tying run on first base. Oropesa was maybe my least-favorite San Jose Giant for striking out with runners on. I thought: "Oropesa will make an out here, helping the Squirrels to lose."

"Ground ball, right into the shift," said Laaser.

I needed a reminder about that detail. In the Class A California League, Oropesa disappointed for making too little contact with RISP. In the AA Eastern League, infielders get him out with the suddenly-popular defense.

Oropesa might not drive in another run. He has the same trouble as Giants Hall of Fame 1B McCovey, who also struck out a lot, but countered the defensive infield shifts by hitting many long flies.


A minute after I posted this, Squirrels 2B Kelby Tomlinson popped up the first pitch for the third out, with the tying runs on base in the bottom of the 9th. Flying Squirrels are 3-14. At times like this, you fall back on the notion that minor league teams don't have to win while they're developing ballplayers; it's just more fun that way.

From the Gading Green Sox universe: Beer here! Getcha ice cold beer here!

After it was discovered that beer plus hot dog mustard plus vampire spit combines to form a lethal and icky goo, the office of the commissioner of baseball determined that it had to act swiftly "for the good of the game".

The commissioner of baseball and his right-hand demon brainstormed. "End beer sales in the third inning or at nightfall, whichever comes first. 'To reduce drunk driving accidents post-game, for the safety of all'," said the commissioner.

The brainy nerd demon shook his head. "Beer accounts for 25 percent of the league's revenue, sir."

"It does?" said the commissioner, surprised.

"Yes, sir. Beer, 25 percent. Corporate luxury boxes and branding, 25 percent. Season and gameday ticket sales, 25 percent."

"The other 25 percent?" said the commissioner.

"Fan gear sold to bandwagoneers and fair weather customers, sir."


"Whichever team won last season, sir. That franchise sells roughly 10 times more gear than the rest of the league combined."


"Yes, sir. The fair weather customers are morons, but they keep the lights on. They also drink a lot of beer, because they generally don't know jack or care about baseball."

"Well, then. We have to keep the beer flowing for their sake."

The nerdy demon suddenly scrunched his face in thought. "I have an idea, sir. Excuse me," and he ran off to make phone calls.

In a matter of days, the Whoosh Brewing Company launched a massive ad campaign for its new brand, while ballparks across the land were forced to adopt a curious new policy. At dusk or the fifth inning, whichever came first, sales of the flagship beer brand Whoosh ceased, and ballpark beer drinkers had to buy the new brand.

"With all the taste and flavor you expect from Whoosh Beer," said the ads, "but with fewer calories: Whoosh Light!". Then came the tagline: "Chicks dig it when you see the light!"

The commissioner had a dubious note in his voice. " 'See the light'? ".

"Yes, sir. It's brewed with holy water."

"I see. And how are the initial sales?"

"Whoosh is pleased, sir. The fat people who drink diet colas are buying more beer."

"Is that sufficient to make up for the sales we no longer make to vampires?"

"Not quite, sir, so we increased the price per cup. And raised ticket and parking prices around the league."

"And this isn't enraging the customer base?"

"Of course not, sir. Sports fans expect to be screwed, and regularly. Not only have we raised the price of beer, we eliminated vendor sales in the stands, another significant savings."


"Yes, sir. At the pilot ballpark, a vendor spilled one of the Whoosh Light beers on a fan…"

"A vampire, naturally."

"Yes, sir. We can't let that happen again, so we make the fans leave their seats, climb stairs, and stand in line for the privilege of paying $37 for a cup of beer. $58 for the extra-large souvenir cups. For $37 or $58, not a drop gets spilled. Ever."


The stoner holiday 4/20 was a suitable day to visit the dispensary, while the dispensary across the corner from the Metreon Center gave away goody bags and medicinal hot chocolate. While I was there, the 420th customer of the day won an ounce of product.

Walking south on Sixth Street toward the train station, my audiobook (The Lost Wife, a Holocaust novel) was interrupted by a screech of brakes and blare of horn. I looked up to see a moron finish his cut between two drivers, causing the poor sap in back to stomp and swerve. The truly amazing thing about this reckless move was how unnecessary it was — the three cars were the only ones for blocks.

"You dumbass!" I yelled, not so imaginatively. Turning back to my path, I saw two security folks on a smoke break, agape.

"Can you believe that?!" said a round black woman, with the same look of stretchy-face disbelief I remember on Joan Rivers. "You took the words right out of my mouth!"

"I know it's 4/20, but does everyone have to drive like they're stoned?" said her partner.

"Holy shit," I said, passing the pair.

"Have a good day! Be safe!" said the woman. I turned, laughing at the irony.

Home an hour later, I got an email from Lynne Roberts, women's basketball coach at the University of the Pacific, with the header "Once a Tiger, always a Tiger".

Without opening it, I knew what it meant: Coach got the job at the University of Utah.

I've always liked Utah, home of Phoenix Sun all-star Tom Chambers, Kim Smith (a favorite Sacramento Monarch), and Morgan Warburton (a Monarchs draft pick). Smith and Warburton were on the women's basketball staff — I hope Coach keeps Smith, but Warburton has the same job as Pacific's Blakely Goldberg.

I don't think any of Coach's staff at Pacific can go with her. Associate head coach Davis' wife's family business is in San Joaquin County. Assistant coach VanHollebeke is marrying a Pacific fellow soon. Assistant Coach Petersen's baby is still kinda new.

I thought I could go. There are test automation gigs in Salt Lake City just like everywhere else in the world, and I think Seattle has forgotten that I'm coming.

Coach built a power at Division II Chico State, then guided Pacific from last to first and four post-season tournaments. Utah, which went to the NCAAs 15 times with Elaine Elliott, is at the bottom of the Pac-12, so it's another promotion/rebuilding project for Roberts. Utah couldn't've made a better hire, I reckon.

I think it's funny that Coach moving up to the Pac-12 means Tara VanDerveer is suddenly my third-favorite coach in the conference, when for 20 years she was the only women's basketball coach in the region that I could name.

A more surprising email came from a stranger at my WordPress site of Magnus Carlsen games. I don't know how anyone would find it — search engines don't hit it, and I haven't updated it since the Bronstein Gambit pages launched. Correspondent Dan Forbes gets it — he writes about forcing play and improving one's thinking at

From the Gading Green Sox universe: The beer and "the juice"

When the hunters on the Gading Green Sox baseball team looked for vampires, they could find a clue in a spit of tobacco chaw — when a vampire chewed and spit, the chaw that was usually disgusting anyway roiled in unnatural colors and hissed like corrosives.

As an increasing number of vampires grew into starring roles during night games, attendance by vampires grew accordingly.

The demon who served baseball in media relations, statistics analysis, and league development — "We don't have to bite the fans, we just have to bite the owners" — approached the desk of the commissioner of baseball.


"We've got a problem," said the commissioner of baseball and head vampire, who knew his right-hand demon's tone of voice.

"We've got a problem. An outfielder on the Towne Fighting Hounds was critically injured when a drunken fan vomited on him, sir."

"Sounds like a horrible mess. Give the man a shower, send his team new uniforms."

"It's worse than that, sir. The drunk was a vampire. It seems that when a vampire spits mustard and beer, it's … well, dangerous, sir. Word traveled, and since the incident in Towne, reports have come in from parks around the league."

"Is it a specific brand of mustard?"

"Could be, but the mustard company is one of the league's biggest sponsors, sir."


"We can't tinker with beer sales, sir. Our margin is 2000 percent, sir. 4000 percent markup with souvenir cups."

Without an idea springing to mind, the commissioner of baseball changed the subject. "How's the task force assigned to performance enhancing substances?"

"The players who are limited to night games are all on "the juice", sir, and the all-star teams are loaded with them."

"Institute a program of random testing for performance enhancing substances."

"Call the substance whatever you like, sir, but every vampire would fail such a test."


My friend Jenavieve is my sister. Jena's dad loves to play chess. He likes my first book very much, so I'm always glad to converse with him about chess and how great my first book is. Really, it's not, but my friends in chess education say it's a fine book for the audience it found.

Jena's stepdad Harold is also a chessplayer, and Harold says his dad is a master with a large, well-read chess library plus an outstanding recall of it. When you're a chess teacher, you hear a lot of this. I've met many little kids over the years who were certain that their uncles would sneak up on me with Scholar's Mate every time.

Harold's dad is Harold, and Harold's son is Harold. Like my grandfather Frisco, father Frisco, and I. My dad was a chessplayer. He was rated around 1500, which was around the middle of tournament chessplayers. If you're rated 1500, you can probably beat everyone at your office, all of your neighbors, and your family. That's something. And at 1500, you can beat about half the serious chessplayers, and that's also something.

Dad used to tell people that he was a master. There was once a moment of family drama over that — one of my uncles was talking Dad up at a neighborhood chess hangout, which some answered with derision. So Uncle asked me, and I said nope, which was an uncomfortable moment.

Casino employees said Dad was a master of casino games. Naturally, he loved that, which cost him two houses, a business, a fleet of vehicles, and his second wife.

The first time I quit a steady job for writing and starving was in 1998. The company had just staged a very Black Friday, and they were killing me by ruining my great boss's life. So much like today, when I've walked away from a good job shortly after they fired my great boss.

In 1998, I was in the last days of two week's notice, and Dad asked me to take care of his shop for a while. He asked if I could find some money to keep it running — that was no problem, because I knew his place was doing well. I agreed, but later that day, it occurred that he was going to steal the $10,000 I intended to borrow.

I backed out of our agreement, and he didn't talk to me again until his deathbed.

I was a good son, like, two times in 45 years. The first time was when I got him third row seats to a Giants game, 45 feet up the third base line. He said they were the best seats he'd ever had at Candlestick Park, where he took me to my first baseball games in the late mid-'60s. Today? Today I could say, aw, that's nothin'. For women's basketball at the University of the Pacific, we could maybe sit with Coach.

The other time I was a good son was when he saw two women leafing through A First Book of Morphy. "My son wrote that," he said. When he told me about that, he accented the second word. My *son* wrote that. You know what's funny is that the ladies probably picked it up for its awesome cover. One of the smartest things I did for that book was to hire my friend, illustrator Lela Dowling.

When you get to the heart of it, the only things my parents did for me were Dad showing me chess and taking me to baseball, and Mom putting a pen in my hands. They were high school kids when they had me, hopelessly unprepared — all they ever did for me was introduce me to chess, baseball, and writing.

You could say with a wry note: "That's all your parents ever did for you."

"Yup. Introduced me to chess, baseball, and writing. And there was the time I lost my footing in the lake, unable to swim, but Mom was there."

"You write about chess and sports. That's all your parents did for you, but that's all you *do*," you might say.

My uncle Faustino took me to my first basketball game, by the way. The Bucks, without Lew Alcindor, visiting the Warriors, whose scorer Rick Barry was a ballhog, Uncle Tino said with distaste.

PL Omaha/8 SNG bad beat

For the first 16 hands of the PL Omaha/8 sit-and-go, I entered two hands, folding one on the flop and winning another. Since it was a typically loose $1.50 sit-and-go, one player was already out, and another was crippled — chip leader had 5100, everyone else around 1400 (except the crippled player at 300).

On hand 17, I was one off the button. Second-to-act limped in with 100, others folded to me with:

Had the heart seven been the deuce or trey, I might've raised to 200 hoping to encourage the blinds, but I tried 400 to knock them out. All folded to the limper, who called.

An ace fell on the flop:

The spade 10 was a bit of a concern, so when he checked to me, I bet the 950 pot to make him pay for the draw. That put him all in, and he showed:

Maybe he'd never played Omaha/8 before, or maybe no poker of any kind. Among the 5,278 possible starting hands, J864 one-suited is #3691. In a short-handed situation where I get that hand in the small blind, I'm thinking about throwing it in. This person played it second-to-act with six opponents behind him. In most heads-up hands, a player is fortunate to lead 60-40 preflop — with AAK7 double-suited (#300/5278), I was ahead 63-37. The high flop made it 74-26 (he committed his last 900 chips with the third-best flush draw *and* a third spade in his hand!?), .

The turn:

Now my probability of doubling up is 83-17 on the high, while he has a 38% chance of being rescued by a low. Of course I wouldn't be talking about this hand if the river weren't a non-ace spade.