Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Carmen (an opera review post)

Irene Roberts as Carmen
I bet you thought I abandoned the opera, didn't you? Didn't you?

Well, I didn't!

The opera happens in seasons, so there was a break in the performances. However, the odd thing is that this run of Carmen is part of the fall 2015 series. Performances start back up in the late spring/early summer, but the new season doesn't start until the fall of 2016. So, basically, the lack of opera posts has been due to a lack of opera. However, Carmen is the last one of the 2015 season that we're seeing. We bought the full 2016 season, though, so, once that starts in September, be ready for much more opera.

Carmen is one of the most famous and most performed operas in the world.
I'm sure you'll recognize some of the music:

Pieces of music from Carmen have been done in all kinds of places. I found a clip from Tom & Jerry, too, but I didn't care for that one in particular.

The pictures above are from the production that we saw, though they are not pictures I took. Cameras and such are not allowed during the performances.

This particular production strays somewhat from the traditional production style, or so they said. This is the only production of Carmen I've seen, so I have nothing to compare it to. The production was designed by Calixto Bieito, known as the Quentin Tarantino of opera. Yes, that means it was violent, but, honestly, I didn't find it any more so than, say, Lucia di Lammermoor. What I can say is that I really liked it. It was another performance where I occasionally lost the thread of the "dialogue" because I was too busy watching the show and would forget to pay attention to the "subtitle" screen. [They actually have a word for that screen at the opera, but I'm not remembering what it is, right now, and don't feel like looking it up.]

The stage was frequently filled with soldiers or gypsies or other characters, and they were always busy doing things that fit their characters rather than just standing around singing. Sometimes those things were humorous; sometimes they were on the horrible side. Either way, it made you want to keep your eyes on what was going on and, actually, torn between what you were paying attention to. It's the kind of performance that you could go see multiple times and catch something new every time. I like that.

The performance we saw featured Irene Roberts as Carmen and Brian Jagde as Don Jose. They did fine jobs. Actually, all of the performers did. There was no abandoning of the action to just stand in place and sing in this production. I like that.

There has been some debate as to what Carmen is about as in what it's about in relation to its metaphor. I'm unconvinced that the author of the original novella, Prosper Merimee, intended there to be a specific metaphor nor am I convinced that Georges Bizet, the composer of the opera, had one in mind. What Carmen is is a love story, a story of messed up love, and I think that's announced right at the beginning when Carmen sings a warning to any man whom she loves. She also says that she only loves the one who does not love her, but I think that was not quite the truth, unless Carmen is the representation of us all.

We learn at the beginning that there is a woman, Micaela, who is in love with Don Jose. Micaela is the woman that Don Jose wants, that kind of woman, but he can't quite see Micaela because he is blinded by the excitement and allure of Carmen, whom he thinks he loves. But Carmen does love him and, in an effort to have Don Jose prove his love to her, she asks him, a soldier, to desert his post and run away with her.

Don Jose balks and dithers, and the light of Carmen's love is instantly dimmed. If Don Jose doesn't love her enough to go with her, he doesn't really love her, and he certainly doesn't love her in that way that says, "You are the most important thing in the world to me." However, due to circumstances, Don Jose is forced to run away with Carmen and her gypsy friends. His love for her also vanishes due to the increasing resentment he feels toward her for putting him in the position that forced him to abandon his life.

That, of course, all changes when Carmen finds a new love...

Why does Carmen need to be about more than that? It's a fascinating love story all on its own without trying to make it mean something beyond the revelation of actual human nature. I might even find the novella it's based on and read it. As an opera, it was definitely time well spent.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Clone Wars -- "Monster" (Ep. 3.13)

-- Evil is not born; it is taught.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

If you haven't watched season three, episode 12, yet, you should go do that before reading this review. While I didn't spoil that episode in the review for it, I will be spoiling it in this review.

The fallout from Dooku's failed attempt to kill Ventress continues.

After her failed revenge assassination attempt against him in the previous episode, an attempt made to look like the Jedi had done it, Dooku, ironically, goes to the Nightsisters for aid in finding a replacement for Ventress. Of course, not knowing that Ventress is still alive, he doesn't know that Ventress has already returned to Mother Talzin and that they have already formed a plot against him. He is, in effect, playing into their hands.

Darth Maul's origins are never explained or elaborated on in the movies, but we find out here that Maul was one of the Nightbrothers of Dathomir. Talzin convinces Dooku that he needs one of Maul's kin, one of his brothers, as his new assassin. Mother Talzin will provide just the right one.

And, so, we are introduced to Savage Opress, a literal one-man (um, alien) killing machine. And, still, Mother Talzin is the more scary of the two.

Monday, June 27, 2016

How the System Failed My Son: Part Five -- The Horse He Rode In On

[Seriously, you need to go back and read the other parts of this before reading this one. There's no recap, just full speed ahead.]

This is the period full of second guessing for us. Middle school was... Well, it was problematic, to say the least. Homework was a nightmare. We quit being able to do anything as a family, because my son would spend all night, every night, doing homework. There was never time left for anything else.

Sure, some of it was his fault. He did have the ability to work faster but, from his perspective, why was he even having to do it at all? I can't even think of a good analogy for this, because, other than school, there is no part of life that requires this kind of thing. Which is not to say that there aren't some jobs which require you to take your work home with you, but those are by choice. I mean, you choose those jobs, and you can un-choose them if you want to. School isn't like that.

Look, it was kind of like this:
It was like having to drag your horse to water because it refused to walk there. Once there, you had to force its head under to make it drink but, instead of drinking the water, it would just hold its breath until it couldn't, at which point it would breathe in a bunch of the water, so you had to pump its chest and do CPR just before holding its head under again.
Oh, wait, this sounds like some torture technique...
And that's what it was, familial torture.

It was at this point we were just trying to power through middle school with the hopes that high school would be better.

Let me back up a moment:
For one thing, middle school is miserable for virtually everyone. I hated middle school. I mean, I loathed middle school. Not that my parents ever knew. My mom, despite how many times I've told her to the contrary, is still under the illusion that I loved middle school. But high school, which I had dreaded, once I acclimated to it, was pretty great. Okay, well, it was pretty okay. I mostly enjoyed high school.

We had had issues with his older brother in middle school; not the same kinds of issues, but we'd still had issues. When he got to high school, everything had turned around for him, and he loved high school

This may have been part of the issue that was created...

For years, Phillip had wanted to go to Tech High, a local area high school that specialized in math and, you guessed it, technology. Phillip really likes to build things, and they have a robotics program. It seemed like a good fit. He even applied there and was accepted. (You have to be ahead of the curve to get into that school, and Phillip was certainly that, being two years ahead in math when he got out of middle school (if you count the year he skipped, he was actually three years ahead).)

But, see, math... We had been struggling with him over his math homework constantly, and we couldn't see how it would be better if he went to a high school centered around math.

The thing that had turned everything around for his brother had been drama and choir, and, as I mentioned last post, Phillip developed a real love for acting and, specifically, musical theater during middle school, and he had decided that he wanted to follow in his brother's footsteps and go into the same program his brother had been through.

Trying to find the thing that Phillip would enjoy and give him some joy in school again, we let him make the decision. There was some ambivalence on his part because he had wanted to go to Tech High for years but, when he went to shadow there (if you don't know what that is, ask in the comments), it was a horrible experience where he was pretty much just left to sit alone for hours while the students worked on some project on their computers. He did get accepted there, but he chose the arts program and to go do drama. His shadowing experience there had been very positive considering everyone knew his brother and welcomed him right away.

He's really good, by the way. A natural actor and able to do character parts really well. He also has a great ear and voice. Basically, he's a natural.

So we made it through middle school, got him into the high school he wanted to go to, and we held our breaths. Just like that horse with its head being held under the surface of the lake.

Friday, June 24, 2016

A Fire Upon the Deep (a book review post)

Sometimes, there are those books that you really just expect to love. Or, at least, to like a lot. They have all the things that you generally like in books. Or, at least, for that type of book. By all accounts, I should have really liked A Fire Upon the Deep, but it never really took off for me. You could say that it got stuck in the slow zone, especially considering it took me something like six months to read.

It's not that I hated the book, but it never achieved likability. It was like one of those foods you're willing to eat to be polite but, really, you'd just rather not. Like asparagus.

The first issue was the characters. Not that they were the first issue, exactly, but you can forgive a lot of stupid stuff in books (or on TV or whatever) if the characters are good. Good meaning that you can relate to them in some way and empathize with their situation. Or negatively empathize (as with an antagonist). But this book had zero characters with whom I could connect, so I never came to care about what happened to any of them. The only character I came even close to liking got killed not long after he was introduced.

And it was difficult to actually dislike the "villain," since it amounted to no more than a program.

So not only did I not have anyone to root for, I also didn't have anyone to root against, so there was nothing really compelling within the story to keep me wanting to read it.

Some would say the book is about the world building, which is extensive, but I didn't find that appealing, either. There were too many things that I found, well, just dumb. Like the galaxy having "zones." Not zones like you'd have on a map, but zones like the layers of a rain forest: floor, understory, canopy, emergent. The problem with these zones in the book (unthinking depths, slow, beyond, transcend) is that they were represented somewhat like evolutionary stages. Earth is in the slow zone but, once man had evolved enough, he moved up to the beyond, except it's the technology that's evolving, not man.

The problem with all of that is that the technology cannot actually physically exist (work) in an incorrect zone. Imagine it like this: You grow up in a kind of rundown neighborhood and all you have is a bike, but you work hard and save and, eventually, move to a better neighborhood and buy a house and a car. Let's say that one day you want to visit your old home, so you decide to drive by and see it just for the sake of nostalgia. The only problem is that when your car enters the old neighborhood, it quits working. It just shuts off. You could still put it in neutral and push it around the streets, but that would take a very long time and be a lot of hard work. Or you could build a bicycle mechanism into your car that you could switch to when your engine cut off.

I don't find this kind of thing fascinating to ponder, not in any way. It's a ridiculous approach to physics and the universe.

And not to spoil the ending, and I'm not actually going to tell you what happens, but you shouldn't read the next bit if you want to remain in the unawares:

It has a totally deus ex machina ending. That's not a problem in-and-of itself, because you know from the beginning, basically, that that's what they're looking for. However, when it happens, it goes all in and offers absolutely no explanation. The ending just happens. They show up and everything that is going to happen happens without them doing anything other than being there. And that, also, doesn't quite make sense, but there is no explanation offered. It was unsatisfying, to say the least.

And that was after the six-month slog to read it.

Probably, I will go ahead and read the next one, A Deepness in the Sky, but that's because I already have it. If I didn't, I wouldn't bother. And when I say I'm going to read it, I only mean that I'm going to start it. If it's not better, I'm not going to force myself through it like I did this one.

Note: This is one of the author's I decided to explore several years ago when I was doing the fiction to science thing for a-to-z. Vernor Vinge came up with the idea of the technological singularity, and these books deal with that. So, yeah, sometimes I read a book I'm not enjoying so that I can understand the impact of it (like Snow Crash, which was horrible, but, after reading it, I understand why people became so enthralled with it (hint: It wasn't the writing)). Trust me, it's not some weird sadomasochistic reading urge. I just want to understand the cultural significance of the thing.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

I Bought New Speakers

Maybe I should talk, first, about the new desk. No, wait, let's talk about my old monitor. Look, it's all related, so you have to understand the pieces.

Way back whenever, at some point when I was replacing a computer, I got a monitor (a nice monitor) that came with speakers that attached to it. The only problem was that once the speakers were attached, they couldn't be taken back off. It was a permanent attachment. It was nice, though, because I didn't have speakers in the way or being knocked over or any of a number of other issues that come with having speakers sitting around your computer.

It was nice until the monitor quit working. Which was after some years, but it was the first monitor I had that just quit working. I think. I can't remember any others, at any rate. But, see, here was the problem, my speakers weren't removable. I ended up with a new monitor that sat in front of the dead monitor so that I could continue to use those speakers -- they were still perfectly good -- which was still actually better than loose speakers banging around on the desk.

But, recently, we built a new desk system, which I have been intending to post about and of which I have pictures. Or did have pictures of. Might have pictures of, but I'll get to that. Anyway...
When we moved to the new desk, my wife didn't want the two monitors cluttering our space, so I ditched the one that didn't work even though it had my speakers. And, yes, I did try to get them off, but I would have had to break them to do it.

With the new desk system, my wife and I sit (or stand, because the desktop is standing height (we have bar stools for sitting)) next to each other. It's cozy. Which is beside the point of what I'm talking about although not beside the point of the desk. The point is that, for a while, we tried to share speakers. Mostly, I don't need or use speakers. Meaning, in general, I keep the sound on my computer turned off. However, occasionally, I want to watch a movie trailer or listen to music when I'm doing something like cooking. On the other hand, my wife keeps her sound on and uses it a lot. It began to be a hassle to switch the speakers to my computer and back every time I wanted to use the speakers for five or ten minutes.

I went out and bought some speakers. No, nothing expensive. I think they were $15. Maybe it was $10, but it wasn't more than $15. That was just a few weeks ago.

Now, I'm sure, at this point, you're wondering why you should care about my speaker purchase. Honestly, you shouldn't. This isn't about the speakers, though. They're just an example of my point, which isn't really anything you need to care about, either. It's just one of those, "Well, of course!" things that people find amusing, so, well, be amused. Or something.
When I get to the point.

At the old desk, my computer was hard-wired into our router, but the new desk is too far away for that (especially since we were actively trying to cut down on cords), so I had to switch to wi-fi. It could be completely unrelated, but I'm going to guess that it's not. After we moved everything to the new system, my computer started having "issues" with staying connected to the Internet. Then, right after buying the speakers, which I'm sure was just coincidental, my hard drive came down with a squeak. My wife said it sounded like a frog.

Two things about this:
1. My previous computer did basically the same thing before it died, but the squeak lasted more than a year before the hard drive finally actually died. So, you know, I thought I had more time.
2. When we moved the computers, I misplaced my flash drive.

So, yeah, I knew I needed to get everything backed up, and I started looking around for my drive, even was considering just going out and getting a new one, but it's summer, and it's busy, and, yes, I thought I had more time.

But I didn't. The hard drive crashed and burned (okay, it didn't literally burn, although we did have a computer once that did actually melt down the hard drive and emit smoke). Hard. So hard that my computer couldn't even read that hard drive existed. And, well, I may have lost everything on it; I'm still waiting to find out about that.

Mostly, my documents are fine. I have those backed up through March or April and everything is recoverable through other means or reproduce-able (like my current novel which I just started typing up in June; so, though I may have lost all the typing, I still have my handwritten copy). Except for some notes about project ideas, but, well, I guess those are just notes.

The hard thing is my pictures. All of my pictures were solely stored on that computer, and I may have lost all of them. I'm still adjusting to that thought. It's painful to think and knots up my stomach. So far, the news is not good, but I haven't had definitive word, yet, so there is still hope.

Does anyone need a cheap set of speakers?

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Clone Wars -- "Nightsisters" (Ep. 3.12)

-- The swiftest path to destruction is through vengeance.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

The first thing I want to say is that Asajj Ventress has a cool star fighter.
Oh, yeah, Ventress is back!

The second thing is that it's nice to be back on Dathomir, kinda like going home. Wait a minute, you say, we've never been to Dathomir. Well, that's true. But Dathomir was one of the planets available for exploration in the old Star Wars Galaxies MMORPG, and the Nightsisters are an enemy I'm familiar with. It's nice to see the home of the rancors finally make its way into Star Wars canon. Even so, The Clone Wars is not Galaxies.

When Asajj Ventress was first introduced, it was without any kind of back story. She just showed up and kind of demanded that Dooku train her (this was back in the original Clone Wars micro series in 2003), which he relented to do after she managed to impress him. Now, after years as Dooku's top assassin and most effective agent, Darth Sidious has decided that she has become a threat.

You know the whole Sith thing, right? There can be only two. During the Clone Wars, those two are Darth Sidious (Palpatine) and Darth Tyranus (Dooku), but Sidious has come to believe that Ventress is becoming strong enough as Dooku's apprentice that Dooku will be able to displace him as the master. For Sith, such displacement means assassination.

So Sidious calls up Dooku on the holophone and tells him to put Ventress down. Period. Prove his loyalty and kill her. Now.

Which is an interesting thing with the Sith, since it's common practice to kill your most powerful agents because they are your most power agents. You know, that's why Palpatine has Anakin kill Dooku rather than just take them both on as his apprentices, and, yeah, there's some history to why this is, but, right now, as far as I know, none of that is canon.

All of that to say that this episode takes us off on a new path in The Clone Wars, a path full of all kinds of interesting things and interesting characters. Oh, and there are a lot of light sabers in this one. It's definitely a must see episode.

"There's a disturbance in the Force."

Monday, June 20, 2016

Don't Plumb Naked

[There series about my son and the school system will be back next week.]

I mentioned a while back that I had fixed a toilet. And I had. I mean, that toilet was fixed! But it didn't stay that way. Let's just say there were complications.

The problem at the time was with the hose that ran from the spigot to the toilet. It had developed a leak and, because of the way the original installer had attached it, it could not be removed from the spigot, so the whole thing had to be replaced, hose and spigot. That wouldn't have been a problem except that the plumber also attached the spigot in a way such that it couldn't be completely removed, either.

I don't want to try to explain how that worked, but let's just say that I spent hours trying to get the spigot off when I was doing all of this the first time, all to no avail. Eventually, I went to Home Depot and the plumbing woman there explained to me why it wouldn't screw off as pretty much all spigots do today. It was a little extra work, but I was able to replace the spigot and run a new hose from the spigot to the toilet. A removable hose, this time.

I am supposing due to all of the effort I put in, initially, to removing the spigot, a leak developed between the spigot and the pipe coming out of the bathroom wall (that pipe is called the "nipple," just by the way). It was just a little thing at first, and I let it have its tiny drips for a few days before I did anything about it. Look, at first, it was making a little water spot only about the size of a nickle, then, between one day and the next, there was a huge puddle. It was so large so suddenly that I thought, that first day, that my wife had just made a big puddle getting out of the shower or something. But it didn't go away.

When the puddle didn't go away, I investigated and discovered that it was the leak at the joint between the spigot and the nipple that had made the puddle. (Oh, come on. Did you think I wasn't going to say "nipple"? That's the appropriate name!) I did what any sensible person would do at that point; I got my wrench and tightened the spigot. The leak diminished to just a bit of dampness.

For about two days.

Now, here's where you have to pay attention:

It happened when I was about to get in the shower. When I say "about," I mean I was getting ready to step in, not like I say to one of my kids that I am "about" to take a shower to keep one of them from getting in before me and using all the hot water when I know good and well that "about" is at least half an hour away. No, I was "about" to step in, and I was naked. You know, as one usually is when one is about to get in the shower. That's when I saw the puddle of water on the floor behind the toilet. Again.

The words in my head were not pretty ones.

But I decided to just take care of it right then, and I went and got both wrenches because, obviously, it needed the works. It needed to have the spigot held in place while I thoroughly tightened the nut.

I was naked. Did I say that?

I got the first wrench, the one that was to go on the spigot, set to the correct size so that I could clamp it on and, just as I touched the spigot with the wrench, the spigot shot off of the nipple and water erupted into the bathroom.

Did I mention I was naked?

So here's the thing: The reason I couldn't initially remove the first spigot is that there was a ring on the end of the nipple, let's call it a nipple ring (oh, come on! you knew that was coming), that was intended to keep the nut the spigot screwed into from coming off. Evidently, all the work I had done had broken that ring causing the whole thing to shoot off of the end of the nipple, because there was no longer a nipple ring in place.

I was naked, and the cutoff valve was outside.

I did briefly consider running out to the valve in that condition. Water spewing uncontrollably into your house can have that effect on you, but I did stop for a pair of underwear (hey, I wear boxer briefs, which are almost almost like shorts), which I jerked on, before I ran out the front door. Fortunately, the valve is nearby, so I didn't have to run down to the meter at the street or anything like that, but I wasn't stopping to think about things like that at the time. I was just trying to get the water shut off before the whole bedroom was flooded along with the bathroom.

Which I did. Before the whole bedroom was flooded, at any rate. Needless to say, I spent the rest of the day reattaching the spigot and cleaning up water. The spigot was much the easier of the two jobs, and it was actually a couple of days before all the dampness was out of the carpet in the bedroom despite loads and loads of towels and a fan.

I never did get that shower.

So, yeah, here's to no more plumbing issues.

But you can be sure that I will be fully clothed before I even think about touching a... I don't think there's anything I can say there that doesn't sound dirty, so I'm just going to leave it at that.

[By the way, it's been more than a month since that happened, and there hasn't been a single drip.]

Friday, June 17, 2016

Rebels: "Breaking Ranks" (Ep. 1.5)

"Don't worry. I've been training to be a Jedi."
"Yeah, right. Who isn't?"

In this episode, Ezra goes under cover.

In many ways, this is the mirror to the Clone Wars episode "Death Trap." In that one, a young Boba Fett went undercover as clone trooper cadet; in this one, Ezra goes undercover as a stormtrooper cadet. In that one, Boba was attempting an assassination; in this one, Ezra is trying to steal something the crew of the Ghost needs to save lives. In that one, Boba betrays the friends he's made; in this one, Ezra risks his life to save the new friends he's made.

There's one other significant interesting difference:
Throughout the Clone Wars series, we see the clones being trained to work together, trained to be one unit rather than a bunch of individuals. And, as close as the clones were to each other, they still had to be trained to work together. In this episode of Rebels, though, we see the stormtrooper cadets being encouraged to work for themselves individually, even to the detriment of their fellow stormtroopers. [This might explain why stormtroopers never hit anything.]

Also, there's a brief bit with the Inquisitor, a bit which may be a reveal on what the underlying reason is for the method of training for the stormtroopers.

The only negative I have about the episode is the video game nature of the particular training event happening in "Breaking Ranks." And how easy it is after the commander built it up as the most difficult thing they'd ever face. Yeah, I know it's 20 minute cartoon, but it seems like they could have come up with something more interesting and dangerous enough to be believable.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Clone Wars -- "Pursuit of Peace" (Ep. 3.11)

-- Truth can strike down the spectre of fear.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

Sticking with the political story line, we get to see the results of the banking deregulation from the previous episode. The Republic needs more clones, but can they afford it now that the interest rates have more than doubled. The banking clan goads Padme by telling her the Separatists seem to have no problem with the new steepened rate. But the interest alone on a loan of this nature could bankrupt the Republic.

To make matters worse, as the Republic invests more and more into the war, social services are failing due to lack of funds: education, health care, emergency services; you name it, it's suffering. Not to mention infrastructure maintenance.

And if you can't see the parallels being drawn here to what's been happening in the US due to the Cheney war... Hmm... Does Cheney remind anyone else of Palpatine? I'm sure Palpatine was responsible for shooting (force lightning-ing) at least one friend. Or acquaintance. Whatever you want to call it.


There's a vote going to the Senate to approve the new troops and the new loan, the one the Republic can't afford, and Padme and Organa are doing everything they can to stop it from going through, even in the face of violence from Dooku, who wants to drive the approval of the bill.

So... lots of politics... lots of action... What's not to like?
Unless, of course, The Phantom Menace was too deep for you.
No Jar Jar, though.

Monday, June 13, 2016

How the System Failed My Son: Part Four -- A Moment of Hope

No recap. Just go back and read the previous posts here, here, and here.

4th grade was better. He had a good teacher that year, a teacher we had been looking forward to him having because of what we knew about him from when his older brother had had the same teacher. He began to enjoy school and quit asking if he didn't have to go. Not that he was being challenged, but it was at least interesting. He also started 6th grade math that year, which was still too easy, but at least it wasn't depressingly easy.

Well, it wasn't depressingly easy at school, at any rate. At home was another story. See, going into middle school math meant a certain amount of homework to go along with it. Unnecessary homework. It's not that he hadn't already been having unnecessary homework (and I would argue that nearly all homework is unnecessary (in fact, I have)), but it had been relatively small amounts of unnecessary homework. 6th grade math stepped that up to levels that became depressing, because, again, it amounted to busy work for him, and he hated doing it. Because he hated doing it, it became a huge ordeal every fucking day. Every fucking day that has lasted for years. That year to this one, in fact.

This homework thing is part of the system that has failed not just my son but is failing pretty much all students in the United States, right now, and we refuse to give it up because, well, it's how we do things. If there's one thing Americans are good at it's taking something that is failing and doing it harder and more intensely and hoping for a better outcome. Homework is a system that has proven to be a failure and, yet, we just continue to give students more and more of it.

As an aside, my kids' school, many years ago, now, did actually take a look at homework and considered doing away with it. That's what the research shows: Homework should be so minimal as to be almost non-existent. Except reading. Reading should be assigned and promoted, because kids need to be reading. However, when it came down to it, the teachers couldn't agree to drop it. Why? Because assigning homework is what they knew.

So... He did better at school, but the homework he was having cancelled all of that out and, rather than his level of dislike for school going down, it just sort of simmered there at the same level. But, other than spending hours on homework every night, the year went well.

About a week before school started the next year, the year he would have been in 5th grade, we got a call: The school had just received back the results from the STAR test from his 4th grade year and he had, essentially, scored a 100% on it (like a 99.5% or something). He had always had high STAR test results, scores in the high 90s, which is why they had done an academic review in 3rd grade, but they couldn't ignore the 100, and they wanted to skip him to 6th grade. Of course, we said "yes."


I mean, of course, we said "yes." Along with the request to skip 5th grade was also an apology for not having listened to me about him for the last several years. Yeah, the principal said something to the effect of, "We should have listened to you. We're sorry. But we'd like to move him up to 6th grade this year." And, actually, they had to know right then because school was going to start in a week.

In hindsight, that was probably the wrong year to have done that. Not because he wasn't ready but because we had finally found a teacher he enjoyed, and he would have had the same teacher in 5th grade as he'd had in 4th grade. We did, briefly, consider that, that he would have to leave that teacher's class, but we figured it would be better to get him more closely aligned to where he was academically.

But the 6th grade teacher, as nice as she was and as much as he liked her, was not engaging in the way his 4th grade teacher had been, and it wasn't long before he'd moved back to being bored with school because nothing interesting was happening, and they weren't doing anything that he didn't already know. Not in the core classes, at any rate. There was some history he wasn't familiar with, but there was nothing in math, science, or English that he didn't already know.

There were two saving graces for him in 6th grade:
1. He was in the middle school musical production of Alice in Wonderland, and he discovered a love of musical theater.
2. I went in once a week to teach creative writing, which he loved. [I discovered that my son is a brilliant writer, which was a surprise. Not that it was a surprise, but just how brilliant was a surprise. At 10, his writing had a fullness to it that most high school students never achieve. It was way beyond what I was doing at 10, that's for sure.]

The problem with all of this is that once the perception becomes a belief, it's really hard to shake. My son's perception of school was that it was a waste of time, and, by the end of 6th grade, that had become a belief. A solid belief. He couldn't see a point in it and found nearly all of the work beneath him. But, still, he had a successful year in 6th grade and, probably, other parents would have been unconcerned with what was going on. People tend not to worry about their kids' performance at school when they're bringing in A's.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Apocalypse: An Exercise in Bloat (a movie review post)

With each new X-Men Universe offering from Fox, I find myself more and more longing for the day when Marvel will refuse to renew the license to Fox and re-make the X-Men in the same style as they've done with the Marvel Universe movies from their own production company (the only recent exception being Deadpool). It seems that big studios cannot wrap their collective heads around the concept of building up the world, first, before deluging it with characters and blowing it up (yes, I'm looking at you, too, Warner Brothers). I mean, seriously, it doesn't have to be world-threatening every time.

This one, in particular, got off to a bad start with me. We open some 5000 years ago in Egypt during a ceremony in which En Sabah Nur, later to be known as Apocalypse, is transferring his consciousness into a new host so that he can take the man's mutant power. The ceremony is being held inside a great pyramid. A pyramid which has been built with a... Look, I'm having trouble even saying this, but it's been built with a self destruct mechanism. One of the great pyramids in Egypt with a, yes, self-destruct device. Seriously.

Then, when it's activated, not only does the pyramid collapse in on itself... The solid stone pyramid collapses in on itself. What? Anyway... Once it had done that, it proceeds to collapse right on down into the ground, becoming completely submerged and blocking it from the sun.

There is none of that that makes any actual sense. Sure, you go right ahead and try to win yourself a No Prize by coming up with an explanation that works, but there is none of it that will actually make any rational sense, especially the part where the pyramid is swallowed by the earth.

We're less than 10 minutes into the movie at that point (okay, maybe 15), and I'm already struggling.

The next major issue with the movie is characters. There are too many and too many of them with no introduction. There's been demand since the X-Movies started for everyone's favorite character, whomever that may be, but Fox has gotten into the habit of just tossing them in without bothering to tell the audience who they are, basically relying on audience knowledge. This is fine under two conditions:
1. The character takes no part in the story, as with Jubilee in Apocalypse. Or any of the background students at Xavier's school.
2. The audience is only made up of fans of the comics who already know all of the background information they need to have.
It's alienating to non-comics fans when there are a bunch of characters running around without any information provided as to whom they are.

That's one of the things Marvel Studios has done exceedingly well, especially since many of their movies have dealt with little-known characters outside of the world of comics fans and conventions, is to introduce characters in a plausible and meaningful way. Even with Spider-Man, probably the character with the least information given about him within the context of a movie, in Captain America: Civil War, there was an appropriate amount of background given to give the character context for the movie.

Fox failed to do that with pretty much every character they brought into Apocalypse, including characters who have previously been in X-Men movies. The introductions of Nightcrawler and Angel were flimsy at best. Storm, given the fact that they've never really revealed any of her background prior, was hardly better. And Caliban and Psylocke were abysmal. And, I have to say, Psylocke psi-blade is not a lightsaber; it's a psychic knife that doesn't have any physical manifestation. (Unless they changed that sometime since I quit reading comics?)

The story is plenty bloated, too. The whole capture by Stryker is completely superfluous to the actual story and is only there so that they can work Wolverine into the movie in a completely gratuitous killfest. That was at least half an hour of the movie that could have been used to further the elements of the actual story. Or cut out completely.

The Magneto plot line is also -- I don't know what to call it -- unnecessary. It provides the only moment of the film with any real emotional content, but, considering where things are left at the end of Days of Future Past, it felt contrived. That would be because it was.

All of that said, it might sound like I didn't like the movie, which is not precisely true. I didn't like it, but I also didn't not like it. It wasn't horrible; it just wasn't all that good. Still, I'd watch it again before Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice any day of the week.

I'm not a fan of the whole re-booting thing, but the X-Men is a franchise that needs to be re-booted and, this time, it needs to start with a plan, lay a foundation, and grow from there. It's too big a universe to keep throwing pieces of it in without laying the groundwork for them.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

1000 Cranes (pictures I like)

Actually, I don't know how many there were -- it's not like I stood there and counted them all -- but the tree was decorated with origami cranes.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Clone Wars -- "Heroes on Both Sides" (Ep. 3.10)

-- Fear is a great motivator.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

Everyone remembers the financial crisis, right? And everyone remembers that the thing that enabled the financial crisis to happen was the deregulation of the banks, right? Well, this episode deals with deregulating the banks of the Republic in an effort to drive the war machine even farther. Basically, the Republic needs more money for more clones, but it's the corporations who are making money off of the war who are pushing for the deregulation. After all, it's all about the profits.

With that as the backdrop, we get our first real look at the people fighting on the side of the Separatists. Not the droids, the people, a point the episode highlights as Ahsoka meets the son of a man who was killed during a Republic attack. Before the war, the  boy had believed the Jedi were good; now, he's not so sure. After all, they were the leaders of the attack that lead to his father's death and, of course, the Separatist rhetoric is that the Jedi serve at the will of the corporations and are therefore as evil as the corporations.

What we really get to see, though, is how it's the same bad guys driving both sides of the conflict. The Trade Federation and the banking clans might be a part of the Republic Senate, but they take their orders from Count Dooku. And, of course, then there's Palpatine, the man pulling all of the strings.

In the end, the people fighting on both sides of the conflict, the normal people and the Jedi, are all good guys. They are all people who could have sat down and worked things out in a rational manner. They could have if, you know, there weren't other people who were making money off of the fighting.

The episode isn't quite all philosophy and politics, though that is what it mostly is. For a look behind the curtains, so to speak, this is definitely an episode worth watching.

"In this case, our business is violence."

Monday, June 6, 2016

How the System Failed My Son: Part Three -- Experts

Having already been to the administration in an attempt to have my son promoted when he was in 1st grade, I knew not to try that again; there was no way his 2nd grade teacher would recommend him to be skipped to 3rd grade. Not that that would have mattered, because he would have had the same teacher. I did go talk to them about having him switched to the other 2nd/3rd grade class. That the woman, his teacher, could tell me that my son was "slow" because he did things at his own pace showed a complete lack of perception on her part (see last post). And, to be honest, she had already demonstrated (and would go on to demonstrate repeatedly) her own lack of actual intelligence. I didn't want my son in her class.

What I found out was that there was no place to move him to. The other 2nd/3rd grade class was the lower level class; he was already in the advanced group. Sure, I could move him to that class if I wanted to, but it would have made the issue of him already knowing all of the material even worse.

And there was no way to advance his progress beyond where he was without support from the teacher. It always came down to teacher recommendation. From the school's perspective, that's what they had to go with, and I get that. I would have had the same kind of standard had I been in their place. Most people have unreasonable and irrational expectations.

I'm just not most people. And neither is my son.

It's like this:
When my wife was pregnant with him, we got up one morning, and her water broke. We were about two weeks away from his due date. We, of course, went to the hospital. The admitting nurse was, shall we say, skeptical that my wife was correct in her assessment of her condition, including asking my wife if possibly she had just peed on herself. My wife, having actually worked in health care for a while, was understandably insulted. The nurse was not at all contrite when it turned out that we were correct and that my wife's water had, indeed, broken.

The thing here is that the nurse was right to be skeptical. She wouldn't have asked my wife about urinating if there was not a proven need to ask women in the same condition about urinating.

So, you know, I understand that the school needed to be skeptical with parents proclaiming the brilliance of their kids. I'm sure it was something they had to deal with all the time. The problem here was the refusal to even really listen or to look at the evidence. They just dismissed me out of hand because, you know, the teacher was the "expert" and surely she would take the appropriate action if it was called for.

It's a good thing the hospital actually checked our claims and didn't resort to the same "the nurse is the expert" way of operating.

In retrospect, it probably would have been better for us, for him, if we'd put him in some other school, maybe even any other school, but he had an older brother and a younger sister in this school, and we liked the school. We figured we could tough it out. It was only 2nd grade, right?


At the beginning of his 3rd grade year, I put in another request for him to be promoted. I think that one didn't even get a response.

Things got worse, and my son started asking to not have to go to school.

After a few months, I put in another request. At some point, they actually did a review of my kid's performance, including his standardized test scores, and they wavered, but, in the end, the principal told me it was policy to go with the teacher's recommendation, and that is what they were going to have to do. He stayed in 3rd grade, and he stayed in that horrible woman's class. By the end of that year, he hated, really and truly hated, school.

[Many years later, the school would actually "invite that teacher to leave," which, while satisfying, was much, much too late to make any kind of difference for my kid.]

[I just want to add in here because I forgot to mention it earlier:
My son taught himself how to use a computer... at the age of two. In fact, we couldn't keep him off of it. His older brother, who is five years older, had a bunch of educational games, and Phillip wanted to play them, too, especially the Sesame Street one with Elmo. It's not that we had something against him using the computer; we just hadn't even considered the possibility that he could use the computer. So he figured it out on his own. At two.]

Friday, June 3, 2016

Rebels: "Rise of the Old Masters" (Ep. 1.4)

"Does yours do that?"

The crew of The Ghost receives information that Luminara Unduli may have survived the Clone Wars as a prisoner of the Empire. Kanan and Hera decide that they must mount a rescue mission to get her out. Not knowing of any other surviving Jedi, Kanan feels a special urgency to rescue one of the last great Jedi Masters of the Jedi Council.

There's also the fact that he's begun teaching Ezra, and things... well, things aren't going all that well. He believes that Luminara will make a better teacher than he. Ezra, of course, thinks that Kanan wants to get rid of him and that that is, really, the only reason for rescuing Luminara. Zeb doesn't help the situation.

Luminara is being held in a fortress of a prison. Impenetrable. Except to a Jedi like Kanan. Or, maybe, if it's a trap. Yeah, one of those.

So we have the actual first appearance of the Inquisitor, and the whole show just stepped up a notch. The stakes are suddenly real, and it's become more than just a kids' show. At least, this episode is. I guess I can't actually judge that, yet, but I have hope that the series just became something more than the casual misadventures of a young not-Padawan.

Oh, and the Inquisitor's lightsaber is pretty darn cool, kind of a cross between Darth Maul's and General Grievous.

If things continue forward like this, I'm going to like this series.
But it's still not The Clone Wars.