If it bleeds, it leads

The best movies of 2014

Interstellar

Happy New Year! It’s now 2015, but before we get too far into the new year it’s worth looking back at 2014, which was another great year for movies. It was another year of sequels and sequels to the sequels (Expendables 3, The Hobbit Part 3, Transformers 4, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but it was also a year showcasing directors at the top of their craft (Gone Girl‘s David Fincher and Interstellar‘s Christopher Nolan). We also had two Liam Neeson movies (Non-Stop and A Walk Among The Tombstones) as well as two other Liam Neeson movies with different actors playing Liam Neeson (The November Man and John Wick). It was harder this year than most to choose a top five, so I’ll also include some honorable mentions before getting down to business. And as a warning, I did my best, but there may be some minor spoilers ahead. So read on, with caution, after the jump.

A life fully lived

Uncle Jim and I

Last August, the world was stunned and horrified when it learned that actor and comedian Robin Williams had committed suicide. Any death is sad, and any celebrity death brings some amount of news coverage, but this one seemed to bring even more than usual because of the suddenness and shocking nature of his death. Regular programming was interrupted for breaking news and wall-to-wall coverage stretched into the next morning. His motive wasn’t immediately clear, and so speculation continued throughout the week on what might have caused Williams to take his own life. Makeshift memorials sprouted up all over the country at sites from his popular movies. Popular lines from his movies were quoted and repeated on social media, and people usually included an anecdote on how Williams or his movies affected them. But when I first heard the news, I didn’t think of his movies or his comedy. I thought of my uncle Jim.

The mecca of cheesesteaks

A review of Citizens Bank Park

Those clouds you see over the stadium have been hanging over the Phillies all season.

Those clouds you see over the stadium have been hanging over the Phillies all season.

In many ways, the style of Citizens Bank Park is a mix of the old and the new. On one hand, the stadium is situated a few miles outside of downtown Philadelphia, adjacent to Lincoln Financial Field and Wells Fargo Arena, and follows the cookie-cutter era strategy of placing the ballparks outside the town itself. That strategy provides easier access and parking, but tends to make the ballpark feel isolated from the city and its unique culture. On the other hand, Citizens Bank Park is actually one of the newer stadiums in the league, built in 2004 in the retro-modern style made popular by Camden Yards. Once you’re inside, the ballpark is immersive enough that it’s pretty easy to forget that you’re actually a few miles outside of Philadelphia.

I made my first visit to Citizens Bank Park this past Tuesday night. It was the 14th park I’ve visited (12th active), and I’ve now visited every park on the eastern seaboard except the two stadiums in Florida. My review of Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies, is after the break.

Halfway

The unexpected first half of the 2014 Cleveland Indians

Progressive Field

The Indians opened the unofficial second half of their season last night with a comeback 9-3 win over the Tigers. The Indians started the second half at 47-47, and despite the fact that 47-47 is only .500 and only good enough for third place, I think I’m mostly relieved, if not pleasantly surprised, at what the Indians have managed to make of their season so far. The Tribe aren’t out of it by any means, and if they’re able to reverse some of the problems they’ve had in the first half, we’ll be well on our way to another October run.

The dawn

New teammates

On this day four years ago, I wrote a post in the aftermath of The Decision. I recalled how bizarre the whole experience was, and how unfun it was to see your team and your city excoriated on national TV. I wrote that I liked Dan Gilbert’s letter, even if it was a little childish, because the people of Cleveland needed someone speaking for them that night. I made the point that it wasn’t that he left, because I couldn’t really blame him for that, but the fact that he did it on national TV that made it such a ruthless betrayal.

During that first season with Miami, LeBron seemed to embrace his villain role, and I was happy to root against him along with what seemed like the rest of the country. But despite that, and sometimes in spite of themselves, the Heat made it all the way to the Finals. It seemed like LeBron was well on his way to his first championship (of not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…) when the Heat took a 15-point 4th quarter lead in Game 2. But the Mavericks stormed back, won Game 2 and then 3 of the next 4 to steal the championship from Miami. LeBron hadn’t played up to his usual standards in the series, and he had been humiliated on national TV.

I like to think the first seeds of a comeback were sewn that summer, when in late August the Indians managed to bring Jim Thome back to Cleveland from the struggling Minnesota Twins. Thome wasn’t nearly the high profile free agent that LeBron was when he left, but he was certainly part of the disappointingly long legacy of Cleveland players leaving as free agents for greener pastures. I was there when Thome came back in 2006 with the White Sox for the first time, and he was booed pretty heavily. But over time those boos died down until, at the very least, it was a 50-50 mix between boos and cheers. And in 2011, when Thome finally returned, despite the fact that he was well past his prime, he was welcomed back and all was forgiven (they’re unveiling a statue of him next month). I like to think LeBron saw this reception, even if there isn’t any evidence to support it.

And then in 2012, the Indians acquired their biggest free agent this century, if not ever: they hired Terry Francona. The Indians’ manager doesn’t play a position, but for the first time since, well, The Decision, Cleveland sports gained some credibility. With Francona helping, the Indians managed to sign Nick Swisher (who is also an Ohioan), Michael Bourn, Scott Kazmir and others, and Francona’s first season was by all accounts a success.

But it was around that time, in 2012, when newly-ringed LeBron started talking publicly about a return to Cleveland at some point. By then I had gotten over my personal anger, and LeBron had shed his villain persona. I was back to rooting for him, having forgiven The Decision as a good guy being misled by some slimy agents and PR people. I always sort of figured he’d at least try to come back at some point. Even when he was playing for Miami, he seemed connected to Cleveland, always calling himself a kid from Akron. But I thought he’d be back when he was past his prime, maybe when he was 36 or 37 with a minutes limitation and bad knees. That would have made a good story, but probably wouldn’t have brought much more than some closure and some early round playoff exits. So even though I thought he’d be back eventually, I sort of looked forward to it in a general detached sports fan sort of way, sort of like how I’m viewing Derek Jeter’s farewell tour this year.

Two years later, and it was July 1, 2014, and LeBron was a free agent again. Everyone sort of expected him to opt out, either to send a message to the Miami front office or to give the front office more flexibility to refresh the roster. Maybe it’s just the recency, but this free agency period felt a lot crazier than the last one, maybe because LeBron kept his poker face until the last possible second. We read into everything, from meetings his agent set up to color codes on his website to accounts he followed on Twitter. I really didn’t think he’d go to a new team, but the more the thing dragged on the more it seemed like something was different.

After 10 full days of frenzied coverage, LeBron announced his decision in the most un-Decision way possible: with a classy, introspective, and heartfelt letter that talked very little about his basketball talents, and much more about his love for northeast Ohio. In that way, it probably didn’t make a lot of sense to anyone except people who live in or grew up in Ohio. (As someone who also left Ohio for warmer climates, I can verify that it’s a great place to live and to grow up. It’s also a place that’s really easy to take for granted.) By the last line, you knew what his decision was, but he said it again, emphatically: “I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”

The Heat were really good sports about the whole thing, overall. I loved Pat Riley’s statement where he said he was disappointed, but couldn’t begrudge a man for going home, as well as this tweet from the Miami Heat:

Things won’t be quite the same as last time. On the down side, we’ve probably already seen LeBron at his best, at least in terms of a physical beast who can dominate both ends of the court. He’ll still be the best or among the best players in the NBA for years to come, but unlike his first stint, we won’t be wondering about his on-the-court ceiling; I think we’ve already seen it. But it’s off the court where things get so much more exciting. The LeBron that returns is more mature, knows his place on the team and knows his place as a leader in the community, as more than “just a famous basketball player”:

But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

It’s exciting to see someone with such a high profile bet so much on Cleveland. LeBron is still at the height of his powers, and could have literally been the best player on any team he chose to play for and been the king of whatever city that team was in. But rather than the glitz and glamour of Miami or the legacy of the Lakers or Knicks, he chose home. Don’t get me wrong: Cleveland’s roster is an intriguing one for LeBron and should be at the very least fun to watch when he actually takes the court, and there were certainly worse places LeBron could have chosen. But if he was looking for the easiest path to more rings, Cleveland wasn’t it. But LeBron chose the Cavs anyway, and even the deepest cynics have to admire that, at least a little bit.

What does this mean for us, as Clevelanders and Ohioans? It occurred to me yesterday that when LeBron played for the Cavs last time, we sort of took him for granted at times. Sure, he was a great player, but we always haphazardly compared him to other great players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, acknowledging LeBron’s greatness but wishing we had one of those guys with both greatness and championship pedigree. During the last four years, LeBron’s absence from the Cavs almost spoke louder than his dominance of the rest of the league: without him these last four years, the Cavs had the worst record in the NBA and didn’t make a playoff appearance. No, LeBron didn’t manage to win a championship those first seven seasons, but when the team around him was a high lottery team, it’s not hard to see LeBron wasn’t really the issue.

During LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland I think I saw him play only twice. I sort of held a grudge against die-hard Cavs fans because I’m a die-hard Indians fan, the Indians had suffered for far longer and it seemed like the Cavs were much closer to a championship. I’m much more of an Indians fan than a Cavs fan, but in the spirit of not taking him for granted, maybe this time I won’t be as picky about who wins a championship first. And even if LeBron doesn’t deliver a championship (which I hope he will), maybe we can all remember how much more fun it is to be a Cleveland fan with him than without him.

Four years ago, I titled my post “The night is darkest just before the dawn”, and I’m pretty happy about that title today because it now seems prescient. In that darkest part of the night, I never imagined that the dawn was only four years away, and yet maybe that’s where we are today. It wrapped up a great week for Cleveland, and don’t look now, but the Indians and Browns don’t look half bad right now either (my half-season review of the Indians is coming next week). LeBron (sort of) said it first, but I’ll say it again: it’s an exciting time to be a Clevelander.

Something to build on

A preview of the 2014 Cleveland Indians

The Indians at Progressive Field

This past Christmas, my parents gave me a board game called Ticket to Ride. The game begins with you choosing up to three route cards, which become your mission for the rest of the game: it becomes your job to build a network of railroads across the United States that fulfill each of your route cards. You can only build track between certain cities, and your opponents may be competing for similar sections of the same route. But at the beginning of the game, everything is wide open and you’re starting from scratch. It’s a little intimidating at first because it’s not clear which segments will be in most demand and what your opponents are trying to do. But as the game progresses, you start to build your own little rail network. Most of the time, you’re able to finish your initial route cards and so you take more. But with your new routes, you usually have something to build on. For example, you might have had New York to Los Angeles as an initial route and a new route is Chicago to Boston. If you built your New York-LA route through Chicago, then you only need to connect New York and Boston and you’ve fulfilled another route, and you get the same amount of points even though you had to do very little additional work.

At the end of the game, everyone shows the routes they’ve fulfilled and the ones they failed to fulfill, and they add up their points. And then you declare a winner, and the game just sort of…ends. For me at least, it’s sort of a letdown. Playing again seems exhausting, because you’d have to start all over again, and you feel like you’d rather have kept going with the network of tracks you already have built.

That’s the same feeling I had at the end of the 2013 Cleveland Indians season. The Indians had made an improbable run, capped off by a ridiculous September where they went 21-6 and ended the season on a 10-game win streak. It was enough to capture the top Wild Card seed, and earn home-field advantage for a one-game playoff against the Tampa Bay Rays on October 2nd. But baseball is a tricky game, and even though the Indians were as hot as any team in the league going into that game, they came out flat against the Rays and failed to advance to the division series. Just like that, the season was over. Back to an empty board.

A lot went right for the Indians last year. The 2013 Indians had a Pythagorean win expectation of 0.553, which was only slightly below their actual win percentage (0.568) and means the Indians should only have won 2 less games (although it should be noted that those 2 wins were the difference between a Wild Card spot and not). But they were 10-2 in extra innings, which is somewhat indicative of a strong bullpen but mostly just means they got lucky. And outside of those basic statistics, the Indians got better-than-expected production: from Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who were were both as good we could have hoped; from the bullpen, who proved to be remarkably durable despite some bad performances by Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez; and from the offense, with contributions from journeymen like Mark Reynolds and Ryan Raburn as well as the ageless Jason Giambi.

In 2014, the Indians won’t have Jimenez or Kazmir, they won’t have Chris Perez, and they’ll be relying on bounceback years from Vinnie Pestano and Asdrubal Cabrera as well as repeated success from Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi. After that ridiculously long introduction, I’ll break down the Indians’ chances after the break.

We

The godfather of dystopia

We

I just finished reading We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I could try to sound impressive and say that I read the novel because I enjoyed (is enjoyed the right word for a dystopian novel?) Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, and because most literary critics contend that both novels are influenced by We, it was almost my responsibility to check it out for myself. But I’ll be honest: I’ve always wanted to read a novel written by someone named Yevgeny.

I’ve wanted to write a comparison between Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World for some time now. And since I now have the so-called godfather of dystopian novels to add to the comparison, now seems like as good a time as any.

Writer’s block

I have writer’s block, and I hate it.

I hate the feeling of not producing anything. For me, writer’s block hasn’t just affected this blog, but all or most aspects of my creative life, which are basically this blog and my programming projects that I like to work on on nights and weekends. I don’t tend to do a lot of partying or going out on weekends, so the fact that I feel so fatigued and unmotivated on weekends means I’m pretty much a waste of space.

It’s why I’m up late on a Saturday night: I’m trying to figure out things I can write about that can get me out of my blogging slump. (One of my topic ideas was this.) One of the things I’ve discovered over the last few weeks and months, for me anyway, is that writer’s block doesn’t necessarily mean I’m out of ideas: I’ve had half-formed post ideas in my head for a Catching Fire review, a Lone Survivor review, a healthcare.gov analysis, and even something about Richard Sherman. I actually have unpublished and unfinished drafts sitting in my WordPress install for three of those topics. Each time, I logged in to WordPress and started writing, but either before I could get to my pithy sentences or just after, I’d say to myself, “who cares?” (Much like you’re probably saying now.) Each time, I eventually started to get frustrated: frustrated that I couldn’t phrase an idea exactly how I wanted it to, frustrated that the ideas I had weren’t substantiated enough, frustrated that the ideas weren’t even unique.

That’s what writer’s block is for me: the feeling that my ideas are unimportant and not worth sharing or developing. This sort of follows from how I behave socially: my personality is fairly introverted, and in general I make a conscious effort not to speak unless I feel like I have something to say that’s worth saying, because it drives me absolutely nuts when people say things that they have to know aren’t worth saying. So when I’m writing a post about healthcare.gov, I’m constantly asking myself: “is this worth saying? Has this already been said?” If I’m working on a side project like a static blog engine, I’m asking myself: “is this even worth doing? Hasn’t someone way smarter than me done this already?”

Looking at this objectively, these are fairly impossible standards. On the blog post side, I’m comparing my tiny little blog to pieces and articles I read every week by professional, published writers who do this for a living. Do I really expect my post that took me 90 minutes to write, edit and publish to look and feel like a Grantland.com feature, which take days, or even weeks, with all the research, writing, and editing involved? On the programming side, I’m comparing my tiny little side projects to the work of the best programmers in the world, often working in teams. I’m working on this stuff on the side, but most of the open source software I compare my work to is developed by people who do these projects at least 20 hours a week with teammates.

I’m reading a book called “Every Good Endeavor” by Timothy Keller, and in the prologue the author mentions a short story J.R.R. Tolkien wrote called “Leaf by Niggle” as sort of a side project while he was working on Lord of the Rings. I’ll leave it to you to read the plot summary, but the gist of the story is that it’s not worth getting hung up on small personal projects in this life and that ultimately your time is better served in your community. It was encouraging to me to know that a) the frustrations of writer’s block (or more generally, creativity block) aren’t permanent, and b) that even a writer as prolific as J.R.R. Tolkien was capable of writer’s block.

All of that to say, again: I hate writer’s block. And I think in order to get through it, I’m going to try writing a little less, a little more often, and try not to be so hard on myself. If that doesn’t work, I’ll just switch to writing exclusively on Twitter. (Kidding…ideally.)

“Beautiful, don’t you think?”

The best movies of 2013

Gravity

2013 was another great year for movies. We had the long-awaited sequel to the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, the beginning of Phase 2 of the Marvel universe, two movies featuring a terrorist attack on the White House, and seemingly at least 30 movies featuring a futuristic dystopian US government in which nothing is what it seems. I didn’t get to the theater to see every movie I wanted to see, but nevertheless, the best five movies I saw this year are after the break.

The first shot

How Amazon's already winning the Drone War

The talk of the technology sector this week.

The talk of the technology sector this week.

Earlier this week, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos let it slip that his company is working on delivery drones. The premise is fairly simple: small, spartan octocopters that load up your purchase, take off and automatically fly up to 10 miles to your house before setting your package gently on your front sidewalk and returning to the warehouse. Amazon has released a promotional video which looks straight out of a sci-fi movie, but they say it’s indicative of technology that actually exists today. In the couple days since the announcement, the tech sector has mostly scoffed at the idea as at best way more than two years away, and at worst a clever marketing ploy right before Cyber Monday. But companies like UPS and Google have had more interesting reactions: they’ve announced they’re getting into robotics too.