The Good Dinosaur

It would be unfair to simply write off Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” as “The Lion King” with sauropods but, by the third or fourth scene that are direct recalls from Simba’s adventures, you realize that once you’ve seen one story about an anthropomorphized young male quadruped on a journey of discovery and growth, you’ve kinda seen them all. Where “The Good Dinosaur” fails to live up to “The Lion King” is the generally smaller scale of the story, perhaps made to appear even smaller from being told against such huge, sweeping, and grand backdrops.

Simba’s tale was epic and nearly Shakespearean in scale while Arlo’s is much more personal. Rather than return from the apparent grave to fight his deceitful uncle in a battle to reclaim his rightful place on Pride Rock, Arlo just needs to return. To his corn farm. So he can make a muddy footprint on a wall. It’s not without wit, to be sure, and the vistas are some of the most beautiful CG landscapes ever seen on screen (the water effects, in particular, are remarkable — especially when compared to the pathetic splashes seen in “The Incredibles”). There was a moist eye here and there in the theater by the end, but “The Good Dinosaur” fails to spark any real threat for these seemingly indestructible dinos. Even when they fight the way dinosaurs really did (with their gnashing teeth and ripping claws), there’s a notable lack of wounding or blood (but not scars go figure). So much for the Circle of Life, I guess.

This is the first Pixar movie in which the main protagonists are children and the adult characters play minor or supporting roles. They exist only to threaten or teach or protect or look worried when it comes to Arlo and his pet human, Spot. They don’t have real stories of their own. The villains, in particular, while starting out as creepy psychopaths end up being flat and rather easily dealt with.

“The Good Dinosaur” is not a bad movie (not like “Cars 2”—ugh). It’s biggest issue is it’s a Pixar movie so the stakes are that much higher. My family watched “Inside Out” the day after seeing “The Good Dinosaur” and that only made it look more tepid in comparison. In all the ways “Inside Out” was original and clever and funny, “The Good Dinosaur” was ultimately flat and derivative and predictable. But with stunningly beautiful scenery.

Originally published on Medium.

Vin Scully and all the rest

The Dodgers are in the postseason again and that’s a good thing. Third time in a row, actually. Something they’ve never been able to do in their 132 years in existence. But it’s also a bittersweet time for Dodger fans because it means the easy, clockwork cadence of summer baseball is overtaken by the frenetic and grandiose energy of October. The games get tossed to national broadcasters who’ve paid millions of dollars to show them to you. And it means Vin Scully gets demoted to local radio.

It isn’t until postseason that the lucky souls in LA who were raised on Vin get to know how truly barren of quality the field of TV baseball commentary is. The talent runs the gamut from merely OK to non-offensive to pretty terrible. The NLDS games between the Dodgers and Mets are on TBS (a well-known sports broadcasting powerhouse if ever there was one) and will be called by Ernie Johnson along with color commentary by Ron Darling and Cal Ripken, Jr. Darling and Ripken are OK as these guys go (though Darling has a fairly well established bias against the Dodgers), but Johnson is just plain bad (and difficult to listen to due to always sounding like he has a tablespoon of mashed potatoes in the back of his throat).

The object of their coverage is apparently to talk ALL OF THE TIME. Problem is, since they don’t really know these teams and have only followed them superficially all year, what they have to say is often pretty basic or just plan silly and focuses on the names everyone’s heard of to the exclusion of guys who get their jobs done day in and day out. They tend to inflate the games into match-ups between the most popular, well known players as if everyone else is there to support them in their singular quest (like when ESPN used Alex Rodriguez as their Yankees poster boy in the AL Wild Card game even though he, as usual in postseason play, was essentially invisible at the plate).

What got me thinking about this is a wonderful piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine about the unique talent that is Vin. 

You can listen to Scully for hours and never hear a familiar platitude or a half-­baked thought. His technique, however, is rather simple. He describes the action in front of him just as he encounters it. His demeanor is jovial, neighborly — Mr. Rogers goes to Chavez Ravine. He quotes Dylan Thomas and offers old-­fashioned homilies about the weather (Scully still refers to a breeze as a ‘‘zephyr’’). He coos over children and leads viewers, his ‘‘friends,’’ through stories about everything from the time he went ice-­skating with Jackie Robinson to the time he dreamed of being chased by a giant clam (he had just shared an Italian dinner with Tommy Lasorda, you see). In his voice, you can hear traces of radio plays, New York’s prewar slums, Broadway — a lifetime of experience spent in what, in its more romantic era, was called show business.

Vin’s regular season schedule is limited to home games and a few road trips in the Western Division (usually to San Francisco) so, at best, he’s calling half the games. On the radio, he only does the first four innings and leaves the rest to guys like Charley Steiner and Rick Monday — a team on the OK side of the scale. Steiner calls the away TV games along with Orel Hershiser and Nomar Garciaparra. Except for the fact that Charley complains excessively about the weather and having to travel and can’t ever seem to know when a ball is going out of the park, this is an above-average team. Orel and Nomar were outstanding players on either side of the plate and have the ability to relate what they know. But they’re not Vin. Nobody’s Vin. (Monday, by the way, does play-by-play for radio when Steiner is on TV and it’s a task he’s uniquely unsuited for.) 

As far as I can tell, these are the basic tenets of what makes Vin great:

  1. Don’t play favorites. Ever. He’s been calling the Dodgers since Harry Truman was president and truly loves the organization, but it never comes through. In fact, I grew up assuming he hated the Dodgers, he was so hard on them. If he has favorites, they’re guys from all over who play really well and are fun to watch, but most of them don’t wear blue.
  2. Don’t try and show everyone how clever you are. Vin just calls the action and tries to explain the nuance of the game. He doesn’t second guess the managers or predict their next move. I’ve never heard him say, “This next ball will be a cutter.”
  3. Love the game more than the personalities. Vin admires great players, but you can tell he loves baseball more than any one person who plays it. And he’s known nearly everyone who has since World War II.
  4. Stop and smell the roses. Vin calls out cute kids in the stands and describes the beautiful views and the pleasant weather. This is all part of the game and people at home like to hear about it.
  5. Shut the hell up when something amazing happens. Just…shut up. Let the crowd do the talking, even on radio. If Vin can’t come up with something good to say in these moments, what are the odds anyone can?

Of course, nobody can tell the stories Vin can. Those only come from decades in the business. And not everyone can be as lyrical as Vin can. That’s a gift more than a skill. But with perhaps the single best man to do his job around to observe and learn from, it only seems like the guys calling these games are getting worse. When he stops at the end of next season, it will be one of those times when “end of an era” is a factual description. 

There is nobody else like Vin Scully. And there may never be again.

The Martian

“The Martian” is unlike any movie I can recall seeing in recent memory. There are no bad guys. Everybody (in the world) is trying to do the same thing together. It’s a celebration of only the best things about us: scientific achievement, human ingenuity, dogged determination, and teamwork on a massive scale all in the service of a single, noble goal. While there is zero pessimism in this film, it never gets maudlin or sentimental. Nor does it seem to follow any of the rules found in The Big Book of How Hollywood Movies Are Made™. It also has to be the most magnificent piece of propaganda ever produced in the service of NASA and science in general.

If it’s ever said when this story takes place, I didn’t hear it. The iPhones all look like ours and the clothing styles are about the same, but as the movie begins we find ourselves at the beginning of the third of five manned missions to Mars using spacecraft and other tech that feels like it’s about 20 years in the future and had to have cost trillions to build and launch and assemble on another world. The implication of this is “The Martian’s” most unbelievable premise. That the divided and gloomy United States in which we live would find a way to get behind such an endeavor and allow it to happen. Even though it feels ever so slightly futuristic, it doesn’t feel like any magical technological leaps have been assumed by the storytellers. There’s no warp drive or phasers or sentient computers. Just an extrapolation of things already possible and even familiar applied on a massive scale. 

What I loved most about this movie is that it’s basically a two-and-a-half hour showcase for cleverness. It’s like a glass of icy cold water in the desert of denial and outright hostility to science we’ve been crawling through in recent years. It’s a celebration of figuring shit out and not letting hard problems win and having faith in the things we know and can do. It’s about a world reaching for great discoveries for the sake of the discovery. And it’s about the simultaneous fragility and power of a little flicker of life where it doesn’t belong.

I left “The Martian” feeling something recent news and those who make it and even those who tell it have taken from me: optimism. Even inspiration. It’s a reminder of all the great things we’ve accomplished and how close we are to doing even greater things. I hope everyone sees it, especially young people. This is the future I want to live in.

Nothing will be done

I am, by nature, an optimistic person. I feel like intractable issues can be solved with enough information, education, and dedication by honest people who want to find solutions in the spirit of pragmatic compromise. I wholeheartedly believe in the promise of representative democracy. But I feel nothing but a nihilistic fatalism when it comes to the issue of gun violence in the United States.

Many of my friends in social media are calling for nothing less than the eradication of guns in our society. Several others refuse to acknowledge we even have a gun problem. Our problem is with violence and insanity, they assert, not firearms. 

Everything against nothing. There is no middle ground. 

Just five days ago, Hillary Clinton said, “We are smart enough, we are compassionate enough, to figure out how to balance the legitimate Second Amendment rights with preventative measures, and control measures, so that…we will not see more deaths.” I do believe we’re smart and I do believe we’re compassionate, but more than anything else we are distrustful of ourselves. And that distrust eats our intelligence and blots out our compassion so that nothing ever happens. 

The closest analog I can think of regarding an issue so divisive and seemingly immune to reasoned discussion was the discord over slavery in the 1850’s leading up to Abraham Lincoln’s election. Just the election of someone who felt slavery was wrong was enough to drive southern states from the Union. Even before he was inaugurated and before he could advocate any action at all, and in the face of his specific statements to the contrary of their fears, pro-slavery advocates assumed the very worst, gave up on democracy, and took the most drastic action.

Try having a conversation with someone on either extreme of the gun issue and see how far you’ll get. There is no common ground and those who might have it are either not willing to speak or are shouted down while trying to make their point. As I read my Civil War history, I see many parallels. 

I don’t think guns will lead to a civil war, but I also don’t think anything of real significance will be allowed to transpire. Not in this generation and probably not the next. All the greatness of our nation and all the grand ideals we supposedly represent are balanced by this poison in our soul. The guns themselves are not the poison. Our unwillingness or inability to talk and compromise and find a way forward is. It’s as though we are required to make this regular payment of innocent blood in exchange for being who we are. 

We will do nothing about gun violence until we can do something about our fundamental mistrust and unwillingness to empathize with those with whom we disagree. Our media and our politics conspire to ensure that will never happen. 

Nothing will be done. It will happen again and again. And I hate that I feel this way about it.

iPhone 6s

I’ve had the iPhone 6s now for about 24 hours. It replaces an iPhone 6 which replaced an iPhone 5S which replaced an iPhone 5 which…well, you get the idea. I’ve had every iPhone going back to the first one. Here are some random observations after my first day with it.

  • To my hand, it’s noticeably thicker and heavier than the 6. Not by much. Only .02 mm thicker, according to Apple, and just 14 grams heftier, but I could tell when trying to. My cases all seem to fit, however.
  • The damned thing is fast. The “s” is thought to stand for “speed” and it’s noticeably quicker in things like app switching, web page loading, and camera functions.
  • The TouchID is now essentially instantaneous in unlocking the phone. So quick, it’s nearly impossible to read the notifications on the screen before it brings up the home screen.
  • The home button is a little clicker than the 6’s. Crisper and sharper.
  • The Taptic Engine creates a much more authoritative vibration than whatever made the 6 vibrate. Like the difference between a ’78 Cylon and a ’04 Cylon. 
  • 3D Touch is pretty nifty, though I admit I’m still training myself to use it. There aren’t a lot of apps that support it yet, but I’m sure there’ll be more soon. Next time I’m using my iPad I’ll probably press down on the screen expecting something to happen in the same way I used to wait for my iPad Air to unlock just by leaving my finger on the home button. 
  • It may be my imagination or that the new phone has arrived during a slightly less greasy moment of my life, but it seems like the 6s screen doesn’t get as smudged as much the 6 screen did. 
  • I can see the difference the 12 megapixel camera makes. I’ve only taken a couple of shots but the detail seems sharper. Still a hell of a great camera.

Needless to say, my ninth iPhone is the best I’ve ever had. Should a normal person upgrade from the 6? I dunno. 3D Touch is cool and the camera is better, but not having 3D Touch means not missing it and the 6’s camera is already pretty damned good. Most of the speed increases are incrementally small and the kind of thing you soon adjust to either way. If you’re using any other iPhone, upgrading to the 6s is a no-brainer.

Cont blocked

iOS 9 introduced the option of blocking web ads and tracking scripts in Safari and a lot of the internet lost its shit. Moral introspection ensued as blocking plug-ins shot to the top of the App Store charts.

I work in digital marketing so I do get that Apple’s move here threatens to severely knock my universe out of balance, but I also acknowledge that the world of online advertising has become actively hostile to those for whom the ads are intended. Bloated pages suck down mobile user’s metered bandwidth and waste their time loading, not to mention the “ads” that automatically redirect site visitors to app stores or other destinations and those that block page content or so crowd it out that it’s hard to find, let alone read. Publishers have allowed advertisers to absolutely ruin the web experience in too many cases in exchange for the few shekels they get in return. The question isn’t why has Apple allowed this to happen, the question is what took so long?

Apple, of course, makes next to nothing from advertising (iAds aside which are of negligible import to anyone). Their business model is based on hardware revenue and those sales are founded on exceptional consumer experience and today’s online advertising model does nothing but erode that. It’s in Apple’s interest to allow its consumers this kind of control. Simple as that.

Of course, publishers need money to publish. The rush towards ad blocking doesn’t spell the end to an ad-based model, it spells the end of the crazy bullshit model that’s evolved organically and unchecked. We as consumers either have to pay sites to read them or we have to let them show us ads (or maybe a little of both). Expecting the web to be delivered free of any charge is totally unrealistic and ultimately unethical. 

The top-selling iOS blocker, Crystal, is now allowing what they call “acceptable ads” from marketers who pay for the privilege safe passage through their filter. They’re teaming with Eyeo, the company behind the browser plug-in AdBlock Plus, and using their database of more than 700 advertisers who meet Eyeo’s criteria. I put it on my phone the day iOS 9 dropped and my recollection is it was free at that time, but it’s currently 99¢. So Crystal is trying to profit from both ends of the pipeline while Eyeo only does so from the advertisers. Since Crystal didn’t say anything about this possibility when it launched, a lot of people are pissed. 

In theory, I think this is the right path for those of us who know that there must be some exchange of value in order to maintain a thriving content model on the web. If the ad industry won’t or can’t abide by acceptable, self-imposed guidelines, then I suppose it’s not unexpected that others like Eyeo would do it for them and that consumers would pick which model they like best. As I said, I don’t think this spells the end of the “free web.” I think it spells the end of the version we have now. Or, at least, the beginning of the end. It’ll be rough sailing for some smaller sites and I expect a lot of them will fade away. But the status quo is not acceptable (and it’s only getting worse). 

A not insignificant shelter in the storm of consumer’s ad-blocking fury on iOS is the niggling detail that content blockers only work in Safari. They don’t apply to web views within apps. That means if you click a link in Facebook or any other app that opens that URL without switching over to Safari (using something called WebKit, the default behavior of most apps on iOS), then the content blocker isn’t engaged. In keeping an eye on my own behavior, I see that the vast majority of my web visits happen outside Safari. Probably north of 80%. Until such time that Apple extends ad blocking functionality to these WebKit sessions, the real impact won’t be felt. But if/when that does happen, shit’s gonna get real.

The immutable nature of liberty

Following the trends of recent years regarding the definition of “religious liberty,” the New York Times reports:

Within hours of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, an array of conservatives including the governors of Texas and Louisiana and religious groups called for stronger legal protections for those who want to avoid any involvement in same-sex marriage, like catering a gay wedding or providing school housing to gay couples, based on religious beliefs.

They demanded establishing clear religious exemptions from discrimination laws, tax penalties or other government regulations for individuals, businesses and religious-affiliated institutions wishing to avoid endorsing such marriages.

And as if on cue, this is already happening in places like Texas:

The state’s Attorney General is inviting, really encouraging, public officials to defy last week’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing marriage for same sex couples across the United States. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is telling country clerks they may refuse to issue marriage licenses if they believe same sex marriages violate their religious beliefs.

I think the state needs a pretty good reason to make someone do something they either don’t agree with or simply don’t want to do. I’m inclined to let those with strong feelings about same-sex marriage live as they like, even if I completely disagree with them. The problem is, we continue to talk about LGBT people as though they’re doing something some of us don’t agree with as opposed to being a certain way. 

Federal anti-discrimination law covers five attributes: race, skin color, gender, ethnic origin, and physical disability. Note that none of these are things over which an individual has choice. One cannot choose to be younger or white or able to walk when physically unable to do so. In the same way, those who are emotionally satisfied in relationships with others of the same gender have not made a choice to be that way. At no point has any 8-year-old made the decision to be gay or bisexual. It just happens. Justice Kennedy called it an “immutable nature” in his majority opinion and, indeed, it is just that. 

If it’s wrong to discriminate against people due to things they have no control over, then it’s wrong to discriminate against those who need to be in same-sex marriages. If one’s religion teaches that these people are somehow evil or going against the wishes of a supreme being and less deserving of basic dignities, then we need to have the courage to stand up and say their religion (or, more likely, their interpretation of it) is wrong. As such, absolutely no exceptions should be allowed for those who choose to discriminate against those who only want to live the life they were born to live.

The First Amendment protects people of faith from being required to do anything that violates that faith in the act of practicing their faith. That means Hasidic rabbis are not required to marry those who aren’t Jewish and Catholic priests can require those seeking marriage in that church to follow the tenets of Catholicism. But being a county clerk isn’t the same thing at all. Providing a government service guaranteed by law is not “being a Christian.” The government, as the 14th Amendment assures, is required to apply its laws equally. No person acting as an agent of the government has the right to apply any factors to their work other than the civil law. Their religion-driven discomfort is not as important as another’s right to be married.

The issue is a little squishier when it comes to businesses. My company has chosen not to serve gambling or tobacco clients, but that’s different than saying a baker cannot serve a same-sex couple because of her reading of the Bible. The tobacco company has made a choice to sell the products they do but the same-sex couple is only living as they are wired to. They’re following the only path to happiness they have. Discriminating against them is exactly the same as discriminating against a couple because they’re from Pakistan. Again, one’s right to conduct business does not trump another’s liberty to simply be as they are and pursue their own flavor of happiness.

We need to call this “religious liberty” stuff exactly what it is: Bigotry. LGBT people need to be protected under the law from all forms of discrimination. Since Congress is defectively constipated, it’s doubtful we’ll see any action there. Perhaps these calls for “religious liberty” will lead to a Supreme Court ruling that once again works to make our union a little more perfect. The shield of “religious liberty” needs to be broken.