Monday, January 16, 2017

Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown (♦♦♦♦)

On August 25, 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) took a deciding vote on the fate of Pluto as a planet. That day, Pluto was demoted from being the ninth planet in our solar system to “dwarf planet”. But as it happens, Pluto's fate was inextricably linked to an object 3% bigger than Pluto which was discovered by Dr. Mike Brown et al. in the trans-Neptunian region known as the Kuiper belt, of which until then, Pluto was the largest inhabitant.

The Kuiper belt was discovered in 1992. By 1997, almost a hundred bodies had been found. Suddenly the study of those objects located beyond Neptune became a hot field in astronomy. Dr. Mike Brown's search for a planet beyond Pluto started around that time, using, initially, the 48-inch Schmidt telescope at Palomar Observatory in Pasadena, California. His survey of the sky took two years and didn't yield the desired result. He refers to that time as follows: “...I talked to my friends about planets. I thought about names for new planets. I gave lectures about the possibility of new planets. I did everything I could, except finding new planets.” By 1999, about 500 bodies in the Kuiper belt were known.

After three years of systematically surveying the sky and writing computer code to process the images in the computer, the searching had amounted to nothing, but by mid 2001, the photographic plates of the 48-inch Schmidt telescope at Palomar Observatory were replaced by a modern digital camera that was able to detect fainter things in the sky. Within months, Dr. Brown's graduate student started finding things. In June 2002, they found an unusually bright wandering object which they nicknamed “Object X”.

“Object X goes around the sun every 288 years in an orbit closer to circular than even most of the planets, but it is tilted away from the planets by 8 degrees.” Comparatively, Pluto, considered the oddball among the (former nine) planets, orbits the sun in an elongated, rather circular orbit, and unlike its (former) counterparts, it is tilted in a 20° angle away from the rest—unlike the others which orbit the sun in rather flat disks. Like on Pluto's, there is dirty ice on the surface of “Object X”, and frozen methane, the latter “never before seen anywhere in the Kuiper belt.”

Years later, a graduate student of Dr. Brown would speculate that as Titan, Pluto and most of the objects in the Kuiper belt “had formed with methane, but the gravitational pull of Object X [being so small] was not quite strong enough to hold on to the methane forever. With the Keck telescope...the last remnants of frost on a cold dying world [had been observed].” “Object X” ended up being half the size of Pluto, and was formally named Quaoar.

In the fall of 2003, the small telescope at Palomar was fitted with a new super camera. Dr. Brown, suddenly working on his own again, refined the computer software and discarded 10% of the sky in the pictures to get rid of camera flubs. As potentially golden images became more manageable, Dr. Brown began to find more unusually bright wandering objects. Nothing significant, but it was a step in the right direction.

In November 2003, he found a faint object that moved at half the speed of anything he had ever seen. Something more than three times the distance of Pluto, with an extremely elongated orbit—it takes 11,000 years to go around the sun—, beyond anything seen thus far in the solar system. The object was nicknamed The Flying Dutchman, as the ship of folklore. Dr. Brown theorized that Dutch could have acquired its odd orbit at the birth of the sun 4.5 billion years ago when stars just like ours populated the sky, which “could have pushed Dutch around and put it exactly where it is now...Dutch was not just a chunk of ice and rock at the edge of the solar system. It was a fossil left over from the birth of the sun.” Dutch was officially named Sedna, after the goddess of the sea in Inuit mythology. Sedna was found to be three-quarters the size of Pluto.

Two days after Christmas in 2004, Dr. Brown observed his brightest wandering object yet. He nicknamed it Santa in honor of the season. Its orbit was elliptical and tilted, as objects in the Kuiper Belt have. After a lot of controversy about its actual time, place, and team of discovery, it was officially named Haumea after the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth, a suitable name since “many objects in the outer solar system can now be traced back to having originally been part of the surface of this object.” It has been theorized that “early in the history of the solar system, a much larger Haumea was smashed by another icy object in the Kuiper belt travelling at something like ten thousand miles per hour...The glancing blow left Haumea spinning faster than anything else in the solar system.” Its two moons, chunks of Haumea, were named Hi'iaka and Namaka. Haumea is covered in pure ice and is smaller than Pluto. It weighs one-third as much as Pluto and its moon Hi'iaka goes around it every forty-nine days.

Two weeks after the discovery of Santa (now Haumea), Dr. Brown discovered a brighter object still, four times more distant than Pluto. It takes 557 years to go around the sun. It was nicknamed Xena, after TV's warrior princess. Its surface is covered in solid frozen methane, like Pluto's. It was temporarily considered the tenth planet and it is one of the main reasons why Pluto was demoted from planethood. It was officially named Eris, after the Greek goddess of discord and strife. Its moon was called Dysnomia. Eris is 27% more massive than Pluto. “Since Pluto and Eris are nearly identical in size, the interior of Eris must be made out of heavier material. In this part of the solar system, the insides of bodies are almost entirely made up of rock and ice. Eris weighs so much that it must be almost entirely rock, while Pluto has significant quantities of frozen water hidden inside it.”

In April 2004, Dr. Brown found yet another wandering object, brighter than any of the previous two. He nicknamed it Easterbunny. As Xena’s, its surface is like Pluto's, “covered with large amounts of almost pure methane ice, a consequence of the fact that it is just a little smaller than Pluto and lacks enough gravity to hold a substantial nitrogen atmosphere.” Its official name became Makemake, after the fertility god of the island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown is for the most part a science memoir of almost a decade long search for trans-Neptunian objects of significance, now denominated “dwarf planets” (for lack of a better term). His memoir also details his initial steps in the dark as a young Caltech professor, meeting his wife-to-be, how they romanced, married, and had a daughter.

Mike Brown could have come across as a pompous know-it-all because he certainly has the expertise to back it up. Instead, his memoir is candid—he admits there were times he was completely in the dark, and how, at least once, after his graduate student Chad moved on, he felt he was in over his head and wanted to quit his planet search. At once funny and page-turning, Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming will both instruct and entertain you, and will do so in under 300 pages.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Top Films of 2016 (Available for Rent Before December 31, 2016)

I watched an impressive 60 movies available for rent before December 31, 2016. Out those 60, I wrote mini-reviews of 17 of them in the feature “Snapshots”. Since I didn’t visit the cinema to watch the releases that typically make it to the awards shows, I decided to compile this list based on the movies that were available for rent at the time this list was finished. I’ll probably update it between the months of March and April of 2017 when all the award season titles will most likely be available.
The Tiger (Daeho, South Korean), (♦♦♦♦♦): This film is best defined as a thriller, though there are powerful dramatic moments as well. Nuanced acting, the musical score, the cinematography…contribute to an edge-of-your-seat experience that you won't soon forget.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (♦♦♦♦♦): pure adrenaline ride in the tradition of Black Hawk Down is this Michael Bay's production. John Krazinski, as a Special Op contractor for CIA, gives his best performance ever.
Eye in the Sky (♦♦♦♦♦): is a taut military thriller about the complexities—moral, political, and legal, of collateral damage—in modern warfare. Nuanced performances and great case in point make this thriller a must see.

Captain Fantastic (♦♦♦♦♦): this Indie gem is achingly funny, acutely smart, a roller coaster of emotions, and overall, a journey of the heart. Frank Langella gives a solid performance. Viggo Mortensen is brilliant in his role, and so are the six precocious and very peculiar kids, who ably keep up with Mortensen, and who embrace their roles in such a way that one hardly believes they are acting…Don't miss it as you may be missing a movie filled with whip cracking social commentary.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (New Zealand) (♦♦♦♦♦): this quirky indie film about a boy searching for people to call family, made me laugh almost from start to finish. I bet you’ll have a pretty good time watching this one!

Deadpool (♦♦♦♦): I was expecting a traditional superhero movie, but Deadpool is more spoof than standard superhero fare, and a very good one at that. It is surprisingly and acutely funny, courtesy of a very smartly written screenplay. And Ryan Reynolds...he rocks in this role…
Hail, Caesar! (♦♦♦♦): There are very good moments in this movie and the screenplay is a gem, but above all, major kudos to the all-star ensemble cast for making it seem effortless.

Fathers and Daughters (♦♦♦♦): This movie is drama heaven. It has a gorgeous musical score, and it’s beautifully acted by the top notch ensemble cast, but especially by Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried in the leading roles…This is easily one of the best movies I have seen so far this year. Not to be missed!

Love and Friendship (♦♦♦♦): This film is adapted from Jane Austen's novella Lady Susan. When it started I thought it was going to be a boring period drama starring Kate Beckinsale but I rolled my eyes too early perhaps. Love and Friendship is acutely funny, thanks mostly to Beckinsale as Lady Susan, who caused multiple complications...

The Jungle Book (♦♦♦♦): is a Disney production directed by Jon Favreau. The sweetness, the playing mood with lighting effects, the happy ending, and catchy, danceable songs are Disney studios trademark. The combination of great cinematography, special effects, and a stellar cast lending their voices to mesmerizing animals, make this film a must-see for the whole family.

Demolition (♦♦♦♦): This movie is not a comedy but it made me laugh out loud almost to the end…Supporting characters deserve accolades, but it is really Jake Gyllenhaal that makes this production a must-see.

Café Society (♦♦♦♦): is written and directed by Woody Allen; it has a light, dreamy quality, with fresh dialogues, gorgeous music, lots of 1930s Hollywood name-dropping, and great laugh out loud moments poking fun at the differences between the Christian and Jewish faiths, and NY City's underbelly…The ensemble cast makes this screenplay jewel come alive.

Hell or High Water (♦♦♦♦): is a testosterone charged, fast paced Western with a modern twist. The horses have been exchanged by old wheels, but the bank robberies, the shootouts, the die-hard law enforcers, strong females in need, decaying towns, and the big guns are present in full force... Brilliantly acted, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges give career changing performances.

Me Before You (♦♦♦♦): the quirky humor courtesy of Emilia Clarke’s outfits didn’t work that well on me, but the blooming romance and the effervescent chemistry between the leading couple and the drama at the heart of which was the right of someone disabled and suffering to a dignified end of life torn my heart in pieces.
Special mentions:

Captain America: Civil War (♦♦♦♦): I had to watch this movie a few times to appreciate it, and yet I’m not sure it is a strong four, but how could I fail to mention it when most of Marvel’s superheroes were present in one form or another? Besides, this was the epic showdown that seems to have scattered the Avengers for good. (?)

Born to be Blue (♦♦♦½): is one of the reasons why I enjoy artsy dramas. It has many elements that make it worth watching: 1) great introspective music; 2) Ethan Hawke is amazing in the leading role—his performance has been described as that of a virtuoso; 3) the film leaves you uneasy, with the wheels of your mind working over-time…I highly recommend Born to be Blue, as you may be watching one of the best acting performances of 2016.

10 Cloverfield Lane (♦♦♦½): The claustrophobic feel of this movie—from keeping the cast to a bare minimum, to the setting being almost completely indoors, to the ambivalence of Howard's mental state—is not only palpable but quite intentional as well. What prevented me from giving this movie a higher rating was that wacky ending, that though fitting, I didn't like too much.

Gods of Egypt (♦♦♦½): this production can boast of being visually lavish, of its solid performances, and of being highly entertaining.

The Man Who Knew Infinity (♦♦♦½): will appeal mainly to scientists and science enthusiasts, though everyone can enjoy it due to the wonderful performances by Jeremy Irons, Dev Patel and Toby Jones in the leading roles.

Nerve (♦♦♦½): is a hair-rising-at-the-back-of-your-neck thriller about the dangers posed by modern technology and a follow-the-pack mentality. Dynamic camera shoots, excellent photography of the Manhattan night scene, tight editing, and good acting make this film an "enjoyable" viewing experience.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Snapshots - #13

TV shows...

Outlander (♦♦♦♦): in Season 1, volume 2, just as Claire is about to return to 1945, she realizes she loves Jamie and stays put. Both flee to Lallybroch, home to the Fraser clan, of which Jamie is laird. As bad luck would have it, Jamie and Jack Randall, the captain of the British troops, cross paths again, and, as always, Jamie will be in the lose end.

Season 1, volume 2 feels like a transitional set of episodes that bring volume 1 episodes to their head. In volume 2, Claire realizes that she loves Jamie Fraser and shares the secret of her provenance with him. A chain of events test their commitment to each other and their vows, mostly in the last two episodes, which get overwhelmingly brutal on account of torture.

The great acting, the wry humor, the incandescent chemistry between Jamie and Claire, as well as the spectacular Scottish landscape are still signature elements of the series in volume 2 of Season 1, all marvelous reasons to keep watching this series.

The movies...

Captain Fantastic (♦♦♦♦♦): Ben is rearing his six children in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Despite far from conventional, the kids are outstandingly educated. When news of their mother's tragic suicide reaches them, the kids convince Ben to travel all to attend their mother's funeral in New Mexico. The kids' education doesn't sit well with Ben's father-in-law, who is determined to get custody of the kids. When an unlucky incident puts one of his kids at risk, Ben must consider if living in the wild is the best he can do for them.

This Indie gem is achingly funny, acutely smart, a roller coaster of emotions, and overall, a journey of the heart. Frank Langella gives a solid, spirited performance as the kids' grandfather. Viggo Mortensen, in the role of Ben, gives a career defining performance, not a small task for an actor who has spearheaded movies such as A Perfect Murder, A History of Violence, Appaloosa, Eastern Promises, and Hidalgo. If Mortensen is brilliant in his role, so are the six precocious and very peculiar kids, who ably keep up with Mortensen, and who embrace their roles in such a way that one hardly believes they are acting.

I had a frolicking time with this romp. Don't miss it as you may be missing a movie filled with whip cracking social commentary.

Hell or High Water (♦♦♦♦): Toby Howard owns a farm in Texas that he is about to lose to the bank. There is oil in the land, but he is in such a financial hole that he even owes money to his ex-wife in child support for their two children. Toby refuses to hand in the farm, so he conceives a plan—aided by his ex-convict older brother Tanner, to rob small branches of the bank that owns his reverse mortgage—to gather enough money to pay off the mortgage, the back taxes, and put the land in a trust so his kids, because he is putting it in his kids' names, never again worry about money. They only have to keep it small, don't shoot anyone, and outsmart two law enforcement officers hot on their trail.

Hell or High Water is a testosterone charged, fast paced Western with a modern twist. The horses have been exchanged by old wheels, but the bank robberies, the shootouts, the die-hard law enforcers, strong females in need, decaying towns, and the big guns are present in full force...The action unfolds in Texas, after all! The social commentary referring to predatory banking practices and poverty cannot be ignored.

Brilliantly acted, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges give career changing performances. I wasn't fond of Jeff Bridges' (as the old Sheriff) Texan accent; I thought he sounded like drunken lawman "Rooster" Cogburn in the Coen brothers' adaptation of True Grit (2010), a character also interpreted by Bridges. I wasn't too fond of the Indian bashing either; it was a little too much. Aside from those two things, no detail was left to chance, either with the flawless screenplay, the acting, and production-wise.

Hell or High Water is, by far, one of the most impressive movies I have seen this year before the onslaught of awards' season's contenders.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

My Reading Year 2016 in Retrospect

Image copyright unknown; taken from Imanada.com
I only finished 12 books this year, though I started several more which I abandoned—even at the 300 pages mark—to read at a later time. However, I can’t complain about the quality of the books I finished, I rated the majority of them four stars or higher.

Books read:            
Fiction: 11                 Non-Fiction: 1                      Re-reads:  1

Genres: (some of these may overlap)

Historical Fiction: 3                           Popular Science: 1

Mystery/Suspense: 2

Contemporary Literature: 4            Thrillers/Espionage: 4

Jessica @ Bookworm Chronicles adapted some of these questions that I borrowed because I found them fun and revealing; I added other categories as I saw fit.

Best book of the year (I couldn’t possibly pick just one): Best Books I Read in 2016 

Favorite cover: A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

Favorite new authors (to me): Thomas Hager; Melanie Benjamin

Most thrilling (unputdownable): The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth

The juiciest: The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

Most beautifully written: A Perfumer's Secret by Adria J. Cimino

Most memorable characters:
·         The devious: Truman Capote and his “Swans” in The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

·         The twisted: Jericho—the mystery Iraqui spy in The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth; Saladin—mastermind terrorist in The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

The sucker punch: The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

Influencers:
·         Influenced others: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

·         Drew in most pageviews: The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth; A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley; A Perfumer's Secret by Adria J. Cimino; The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

·         Drew in most comments: Named of the Dragon by Susanna Kearsley; A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley; A Perfumer's Secret by Adria J. Cimino

Had the greatest impact: The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, A Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery that Fed the World, but Fueled the Rise of Hitler by Thomas Hager

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer (♦♦♦)

Milo Weaver has a complex personal history that he has hidden from everyone—his immediate family and his employer, the CIA. Milo is the American son of a former KGB colonel and of an anarchist mother with serious terrorist tendencies. His loyalty could be challenged if the CIA were to know that, you see?

Despite his complicated upbringing Milo is a good tourist, famed even. When a friend’s loyalty is questioned—a former tourist who has risen in the Paris’ desk—Milo intercedes and gets hints of a case he has followed for years, but his friend is killed and Milo is under suspicion…Strong suspicion…

On the run and with no one to trust, Milo travels to Europe to follow his late friend’s findings, but he soon realizes he is not closer to the answers he seeks. Apparently someone on the inside is feeding him false intelligence, but with what purpose?

The Tourist, the first installment in a trilogy detailing the adventures and misfortunes of spy Milo Weaver, is the second novel I have read by Olen Steinhauer after All the Old Knives. I loved the latter; the former, not so much. If in All the Old Knives, Steinhauer displayed a heavy Le Carré influence down to the style of narrative, in The Tourist, his Le Carré influence is more subtle, mostly present in the tourists’ pragmatic views of life as spies, and the not so happy, yet realistic—given the events—ending.

The Tourist is full of lies, half-truths, secrets, and double-crosses that make its premise endearing; unfortunately, it is written in an uneven style, reason why I rated it three stars.  It begins with a sort of prologue set in September 2001. The plot picks up in July, 2007, and unfolds during that entire month. The first part becomes page-turning as we get a glimpse of the conspiracies Milo Weaver is trying to unravel. As part one concludes—the reader knowing what happened—, the second part begins with the reader newly in the dark as Milo is imprisoned for alleged crimes. The pace in the last part picks up again as Milo’s secret past is revealed, and the novel reaches a bittersweet ending, Le Carré’s style.

I have the feeling that with a tighter editing The Tourist would have been a very good, maybe a great spy novel, but the ups and downs of the pacing didn’t allow it. I don’t enjoy the bleak outlook of life that certain spy novels display; Le Carré is famous for his anti-climatic endings, and The Tourist follows that path as well. That is not to say that the novel is bleak overall, it is not; there are very funny moments between Milo and Einner, a fellow tourist, on account of the fabled “Black Book”, and Milo’s father’s views on Communism, of which he was an important part.

Despite The Tourist not being that solid a beginning, I thought that Milo Weaver was an intriguing enough character to make me want following his path in the secret world.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Best Books I Read in 2016


I hadn’t realized until I was compiling this list that out of the unimpressive 12 books I managed to finish this year, only two I rated below four stars. That says a great deal about the quality of the books I finished. The following is a compilation of the books I liked best in 2016.

The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth (♦♦♦♦): is not a crash course, but a full immersion in the 1st Gulf War complete with army acronyms, rogue hero pilots, and top notch espionage. Taut, dense, and brimming with useful (and likely) insider's information, it took me ages to absorb it all, and what a ride that was.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin (♦♦♦♦): reads like those appetizing stories in contemporary celebrity magazines like Star and Us Weekly that few people confess to reading, or liking. I read them and like them, so I enjoyed The Swans... a great deal.

Named of the Dragon by Susanna Kearsley (♦♦♦♦): I had a great time reading this book. In it, Susanna Kearsley weaves Celtic legends and myths to create a story that, though contemporary, recreates a time of forgotten heroes and prophesied greatness, bringing to the fore the vastness and richness of Welsh and Celtic traditions.

A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley (♦♦♦♦): Kearsley never disappoints me; her writing style is effortless, flowy, and as familiar and comforting as apple pie, or a warm summer afternoon. I can't pinpoint where her style secret resides, I just surrender to the experience. As is always the case, her research is impeccable, despite taking creative licenses that she admits to, both with characters and situations.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (♦♦♦♦): is a multi-layered story on several fronts. The de Vos’ paintings being carefully built (when painted) or deconstructed (when forged) from the ground layers up made me visualize the processes as if they had been unfolding in front of my own eyes.

A Perfumer's Secret by Adria J. Cimino (♦♦♦♦): If you marvel at the color of sunrise or the smell of jasmine in a summer afternoon, then you should read A Perfumer's Secret… Gorgeously described, this novel details the quest of a woman to find her sense of self and belonging in the world.

Avenger by Frederick Forsyth (♦♦♦♦): I never stop marveling at Forsyth's talent for spinning a great story, particularly one which does both, entertain and inform the reader at the same time. Forsyth talks about conflagrations the world over and several countries' political intricacies with the depth of a master.

The Black Widow by Daniel Silva (♦♦♦♦♦): is a page turner of the highest order, a combination of great sense of humor, with more laugh out loud moments than ever before, but it also details the most chaotic and lethal deeds that terrorists may be able to conceive and carry out.

The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, A Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery that Fed the World, but Fueled the Rise of Hitler by Thomas Hager (♦♦♦♦♦): is chock-full with valuable historical information. I read the book twice, back-to-back, to grasp its scope and to try summarizing it as best as I could.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Snapshots - #12

TV shows...

Outlander (♦♦♦♦): Claire Beauchamp, a British combat nurse in WWII, is in the Scottish Highlands, six months after the end of the war, on a second honeymoon with husband Frank Randall. Frank is researching his genealogy, and this trip proves an excuse to find out more about one of his ancestors.

The night of Samhain, Claire and Frank witness a druid ritual in the site of an ancient circle of stones rumored to have magical powers. The morning after, Claire touches the large stone at the center of the circle, and is transported to the year 1743, when Scottish Highlanders are organizing the second Jacobite rebellion to depose King George II of England and replace him with Prince Charles, son of James Stuart, rightful heir to the throne of England.

Among the Highlanders, Claire is seen with a mixture of admiration and suspicion, the former due to her skills as a healer, the latter mostly because she cannot truly explain her purpose among them. When she makes a powerful enemy in the despotic captain of the British troops, her husband's ancestor, she will be forced to marry spirited highlander Jamie Fraser, who has a price on his head.

Season 1 of Starz TV show Outlander, an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's series, is really good. The second Jacobite insurrection plays a key role in the story. The period after 1743 and its players are brought to life in all its glory. I found the time-travel angle more believable than the way Susanna Kearsley depicted it in The Rose Garden; I even accepted it as something plausible.

Despite being a historical drama with a good dose of romance—women are most likely the target audience—, there is plenty of gore and violence (amputations, floggings, attempted rape) not for the faint of heart. The love scenes are done very well, and Caitriona Balfe, Claire, has incandescent chemistry with both leading men, particularly with Sam Heughan, the actor who plays Jamie.

Magnificent photography of the Scottish Highlands, fleshed out characters that one cares for, solid acting, rich historical details, great costume designs, and traditional folktales, make the Outlander series a must-see.

The movies...

Café Society (♦♦♦♦): Brooklyn native Bobby Dorfman travels to Los Angeles in 1930s, looking for work. His uncle manages a stars’ agency. Bobby’s uncle hires him to run errands for the agency. Meanwhile, Bobby falls in love with a young secretary named Vonnie, but the romance is doomed to fail when Vonnie leaves him for an older, recently separated married man who happens to be Bobby’s uncle. Disillusioned, Bobby goes back to New York, where he settles down and co-manages the glamorous Café Society, a nightclub that becomes the place to see and be seen at.

Café Society is written and directed by Woody Allen, and it has the light touch, though slightly (just slightly) less charm than Midnight in Paris. It has that dreamy quality of Midnight in Paris, just a bit earthier, with fresh dialogs, gorgeous music, lots of 1930s Hollywood name-dropping courtesy of a movies exec and his young trophy wife, and great laugh out loud moments poking fun at the differences between the Christian and Jewish faiths, and NY City's underbelly.

The ensemble cast makes this screenplay jewel come alive. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who are on a roll lately with very good performances under their belts—Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman, and Stewart as Valentine in The Clouds of Sils Maria)—, are particularly noteworthy.

Nerve (♦♦♦½): What starts as a seemingly innocent internet dare game, derives into an adrenaline fueled experience that may put the lives of some teenagers at risk over the course of a night around NY City.

Nerve is a hair-rising-at-the-back-of-your- neck thriller about the dangers posed by modern technology and a follow-the-pack mentality. Dynamic camera shoots, excellent photography of the Manhattan night scene, tight editing, and good acting make this film an "enjoyable" viewing experience.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (♦♦♦♦)

Steve Rogers (a.k.a., Captain America) leads a rescue mission of hostages, taken by pirates, aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D.'s carrier. Natasha Romanoff (a.k.a., Black Widow) backups the content of the master computer aboard the vessel, which, as it turns out, not even S.H.I.E.L.D.'s director Nick Fury can access.

Furthermore, there is an attempt on the life of director Fury. Captain America and agent Romanoff team up to uncover the truth behind the premeditated targeting of their leader. At every step they meet assassins with huge firepower intent on stopping them. Unsure of whom to trust, they enlist the help of outsider paratrooper Sam Wilson (a.k.a., The Falcon) to expose a secret arm inside S.H.I.E.L.D., an arm whose beginning dates back to WWII and whose most lethal enforcer is a ghost, someone known only as The Winter Soldier.

I liked this movie very much. While The First Avenger was all about establishing Captain America as a historical character, with the corresponding appeal of a hunk in uniform, The Winter Soldier is a solid spy thriller with an edge.

The sex appeal is still there: Steve Rogers and Natasha are easy to look at, and there are moments when one may imagine them hooking up; fortunately the story is meatier than that. The humor has been toned down a bit, though it occasionally peppers the thick plot—as when Rogers tells Natasha "yeah, I bet you look real bad in a bikini"—and it's OK because this screenplay has places to go and they do it in a reasonable timeframe.

The dynamic camera work, so characteristic of superhero movies, imparts edge-of-your-seat action, as do the multitude of well choreographed fighting scenes—I loved the one in which a pack of agents try to tackle Rogers inside an elevator; I'm sure anyone can figure out the result. Another very accomplished set of scenes were the ones on top of the flying carrier with Captain America fighting The Winter Soldier. Who can bet on either one when it is two genetically modified super soldiers fighting with all they got?

The Winter Soldier is more in the vein of a Daniel Craig's Bond movie than standard superhero fare, and the closing credits are perhaps a nod to Bond as well with the characters drawn in profile on a black and white screen. The Bond comparison is quite auspicious since this is the darkest yet most solid back-story to come from the Avengers by far.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Snapshots - #11

TV shows...

Poldark (♦♦♦♦♦): this week I watched Season 1 of this co-production between the BBC and PBS. I watched the first two episodes back-to-back, and I got so fascinated that I binge watched the remaining episodes the following night. Yes, it's that good!

Poldark is a British period drama starring Aidan Turner (the gorgeous dwarf Kili of The Hobbit fame) in the leading role. Ross Poldark, the title character, is an aristocrat with a reckless past left behind thanks to having taken part in the American Revolutionary War in which he rose to the rank of captain.

Three years after being taken for dead, Poldark returns to his native Cornwall to find his beloved Elizabeth engaged to marry his cousin Francis. With his father dead, and his inherited estate in ruin, Ross must work hard to regain a fortune, meanwhile avoiding the pitfalls of someone in dire financial need.

Poldark is amazingly acted, with gorgeous cinematography and photography that take ample advantage of the luscious Cornish coast. If the technical achievements aren't enough enticement to watch, do it for its dramatic plot, at the heart of which lies a stirring love triangle, and a roguish hero with a heart of gold.

Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman (♦♦♦♦♦): while Season 1 of this popular science show emphasized questions related to cosmology, and quantum physics, Seasons 2 and 3 (2011 and 2012, respectively) explore existential questions, right at the frontiers between medicine, neuroscience, and philosophy. Scientists from other disciplines such as computer programming and robotics also contribute their expertise to address questions such as if there is life after death, if time exists or if it's an invented concept, if there is a sixth sense, what makes us who we are, if there is a superior race, if we can resurrect the dead, if humans invented God, and other mysteries of the subconscious mind.

As with Season 1, Seasons 2 and 3 explain difficult scientific theories and concepts partly in a visual way, with prominent scientists (and sometimes rogue ones) highlighting their contributions to their fields in an accessible way. If you are a science nerd, as I am, this show will be fodder for deep thoughts. If you aren't into science shows, Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman may well make a convert out of you.

The movies...

The Tiger (Daeho, South Korean), (♦♦♦♦♦): Man-duk is the last, great hunter in a 1925 Korea occupied by Japanese troops. Hunting is illegal, but poachers make a living by selling dead animals to the invaders for collecting. Of special interest to the Japanese chief is a massive tiger which is famed to be the last living specimen in Korea. Man-duk is the only person in his village to know the tiger's trails by heart, but he refuses to capitalize on the reward for the animal's capture. Soon he will have no choice.

The Tiger—an atypical man vs. nature movie about old fashion revenge—is, possibly, the best movie I have watched in years. So impressed I was that I wondered whether a five star rating truly captures its greatness. I cried bucket loads with it; I hadn't expected to be as emotionally invested or as impressed as I was.

This film is best defined as a thriller, though there are powerful dramatic moments as well. Nuanced acting, the musical score, the cinematography…contribute to an edge-of-your-seat experience that you won't soon forget.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Snapshots - #10

The movies...

The Jungle Book (♦♦♦♦): Mowgli is a man-cub who has been raised by a pack of wolves. Despite working hard to assimilate the law of the jungle, he realizes that he is a liability to his adopted family when a disgruntled tiger sets its sight on him. Little does Mowgli know that he will have to tap into his resourcefulness and intelligence to survive in a world determined to turn its back on him.

The Jungle Book is a Disney production directed by Jon Favreau (of Iron Man fame). The dynamic camera work reveals the superhero roots of its director; the sweetness—without being too overtly sugary—, the playing mood with lighting effects, the happy ending, and catchy, danceable songs are Disney studios trademark. The combination of great cinematography, special effects, and a stellar cast lending their voices to mesmerizing animals—cons and villains alike—make this film a must-see for the whole family.

Demolition (♦♦♦♦): Financier Davis Mitchell loses his wife in a car accident from which he walks off unscathed. During his visit in the ICU, he inserts coins into a vending machine that doesn't deliver the product choice. Outraged, Davis writes several letters to the vendor's customer service department pouring his heart out. Karen Moreno, the customer service representative from the vending machine company, reads the letters, is saddened and intrigued, and makes contact with Davis. What ensues is a journey of healing and self discovery for both.

I'm having such a great streak with movies this year, that I don't know if lately the quality has increased along with the amount, or if I'm being more selective and getting lucky. Either way, I have rated three and a half stars or higher more movies this year before award season than in the past. Among the last film-lot I saw and liked very much was Demolition starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, and Chris Cooper in the leading roles.

Gyllenhaal's performance in Demolition is one of the best ones I have seen from him. He is a recent widower on a mission to reestablish honesty in his life, so he starts by admitting to a stranger that he didn't love his late wife, and goes from there. It is in his "destructive" journey where the power of this movie lies, for he seems disconnected from his emotions and sets on a path to breaking things (literally) to understand how they work. The movie is not a comedy but it made me laugh out loud almost to the end, when he ends up discovering that he had more of an emotional connection with his late wife than he ever realized. Supporting characters deserve accolades as well, but it is really Jake Gyllenhaal that makes this production a must-see.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager (♦♦♦♦♦)

A Jewish Genius, A Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery that Fed the World, but Fueled the Rise of Hitler

Ancient farmers discovered the advantages of composting human, animal, and botanical wastes to fertilize their lands. The ancient Chinese perfected the system of crop rotations to maximize land productivity. By the nineteenth century, however, most people were migrating to the cities as consequence of the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly there were fewer farmers to feed the ever increasing world population. In addition to that, available arable land was ever limited. What would happen when farms could no longer produce crops due to the land losing its productivity? It was clear that something had to be done.

Between 1840 and 1860, Peru exported the bird guano from the Chinchas Islands, thus becoming one of the richest nations on earth because it was the most powerful fertilizer that nature could offer. Solely in the 1850, the import of guano by the United States, Britain, and France had tripled despite the increasing prices. But by the end of that decade, the Chinchas Islands were empty. The search for the next best natural fertilizer looked south of the Chinchas to the Atacama Desert's—then property of Peru—mineral rocks known as caliche from which sodium nitrate (salitre), also called nitrate, was purified.

Towards 1870, the naturally occurring sodium nitrate from the Atacama was being used as both, fertilizer and for component of fireworks. Early attempts to introduce sodium nitrate as fertilizer in England had failed, but when chemists realized that by substituting sodium with potassium they could obtain "true saltpeter", the main component in gunpowder, salitre became popular. Soon, England, Germany, and France had taken claims in the Atacama, as well as thousands of Chileans that came to work in the desert. By the end of the decade, Peru realized that the Atacama area had been essentially colonized by foreigners.

In 1879—as result of the Bolivian president raising taxes on the salitre extraction from their portion of the desert, combined with a secret alliance between Peru and Bolivia against Chile and its fearless navy—the War of the Pacific, also called Nitrate War, erupted. Chile won the war in 1881 and two things happened as result: Bolivia lost its access to the sea, and Peru gave up its claim on the Atacama Desert.

By then, Europe and the United States were dependent on nitrates, as fertilizer, and as starting material for explosives. By 1900, Great Britain and Germany were among the world's biggest buyers. While Britain had colonies the world over that could grow crops, Germany—an infant nation in its modern form (c. 1871)—did not, thus having to grow its own food on poor soils, and sustain its rather ambitious military aspirations.

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Fritz Haber was a German Jew. Despite Germany being more accepting of Jews than other European countries—there weren't pogroms in Germany, and Jews could occupy important posts in many civil areas, though not in the military—, Haber converted to Christianity to make his assimilation as a German complete.

He obtained a PhD in Chemistry and worked in several industries before accepting a teaching and research position at a university. His ammonia research started when he was working for an Austrian company. In 1905, Haber published his first findings on the synthesis of ammonia, but his yields were refuted by calculations made by prominent physical chemist Walther Nernst. Instead of giving up, Haber brought on board an assistant to help him figure out the set up of his machine.

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To break the triple covalent bond that holds both atoms in a nitrogen molecule together (NΞN), at least 1000 °C are needed. Once the nitrogen atoms are free, they can combine easily with three atoms of hydrogen to form ammonia (NH3). This latter step generates more heat, which decreases the yield of ammonia by evaporation. Less heat is needed, however, by increasing the pressure and incorporating an effective catalyst to the reaction chamber.

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By 1908, Haber and his assistant Robert Le Rossignol had started pushing the limits of high pressure chemistry, running ammonia synthesis between one hundred and two hundred atmospheres—pressures found about a mile beneath the ocean—, in experiments funded by BASF, Germany's preeminent chemical company. Those pressures were high enough to burst any reaction chamber, but Haber and Le Rossignol used thick-walled tubes made of quartz encased in an iron jacket. Working with higher pressures allowed them to decrease the temperature of the reaction down to 600 °C, which in turn increased the amount of ammonia produced. In the spring of 1909, Haber and Le Rossignol found out that osmium, a rare element, used as a catalyst, shot up the yield of ammonia to levels that could be commercially viable.

Scaling up Haber’s machine was going to pose challenges. No quartz rock was big enough for a reaction chamber of industrial size. Among the BASF chemists and management who went to see Haber's machine in action was the head of the nitrogen work at BASF, Carl Bosch, who as it turns out, was good with metals and machines.

In 1910, upon the publishing of his ammonia research, Fritz Haber gained wealth and fame. In 1911, he left his university post behind, and moved with his family to Berlin, where he had been offered to serve as founding director of the in-the-works Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in the heart of Dahlem, a sort of Mecca for the study and research of chemistry.

The first prototype ammonia factory started producing in 1911 under Carl Bosch's leadership. In September 1913, the second factory opened at Oppau. With Oppau, BASF pioneered the field of high pressure chemistry.

Then WWI erupted. Fritz Haber volunteered for service as a scientific advisor. He wrote to BASF to inquire if there was a way that the ammonia machine could be converted to produce nitric acid, starting material for the production of gunpowder and high explosives like TNT and nitroglycerin.

Carl Bosch agreed with the government that BASF could produce sodium nitrate as an intermediate step to obtain nitric acid, if the government paid for the expansion and retrofitting of Oppau. That's how Oppau became a defense industry. As the war went to the air and the Allies started bombing Oppau repeatedly, it became clear that another factory had to be built away from the Rhine, at Leuna. It took less than a year to build. Leuna was a marvel of technology that no one could replicate, a city-sized factory.

In the spring of 1918 Germany's allies began giving up. Inside Germany, the political climate boiled over spurring revolution and forcing the Kaiser to abdicate and flee to Holland. In November, Germany surrendered without the fight ever taking place on German soil.

With the end of the war, Germany was thrown into anarchy. A centrist Weimar Republic was formed but without much popular support. Meanwhile, French troops occupied the Rhineland. BASF's Ludwigshafen and Oppau plants were in that area, and were of importance to the Allies because they were part of Germany's war machine. Soon, French troops began appearing at Oppau with the objective of reverse engineering the machinery. BASF's lawyers managed to keep them at bay.

With the looming Versailles peace negotiations, talks of millions of marks in reparations, and imminent dismantling of Germany's war machine and its military, Carl Bosch secretly brokered a deal to earn royalties from a Haber-Bosch plant he would help the French to construct. In 1920, the French pulled out. Carl Bosch was made head of BASF.

In November 1919, Fritz Haber was named a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry for his work on ammonia synthesis.

During the early 1920s, Germany went from one crisis to the next. In 1923, due to hyperinflation, Germany suspended reparation payments and the French returned; they collected their payment in goods, moving out again by 1924.

In 1925, Germany's biggest chemical and dyes industries merged into what became known as IG Farben. Carl Bosch was named its director. From 1926 and on, Bosch directed his chemists' attention towards the production of synthetic gasoline. Farben became more of an international conglomerate than a German company. Deals with other chemical companies in Britain, the United States, and other European countries interested in building Haber-Bosch plants, supplied capital for Leuna's expansion.

Then, the U.S. stock market crash of 1929 came, sending the world into recession. Germany was hit hard. American loans had kept the economy afloat, but with the crisis repayment was demanded. Unemployment became rampant, opening the way to radical groups taking hold of national politics, Adolf Hitler's ultranationalist Nazis among them.

In November 1931, Carl Bosch was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on scaling up the ammonia synthesis.

In January, 1933, Hitler was made chancellor of Germany. A mysterious fire in the parliament in February sent Germans into a frenzy. Hitler was given dictatorial powers. The first anti-Semitic policies rolled on in April.

Haber's Kaiser Wilhelm Institute was hit hard because of the large concentration of Jewish scientists working in it. Forced to fire his Jewish employees due to the non-Aryan decree, Haber decided to resign his post as head of the institute, while secretly helping them secure jobs outside of Germany.

In October of 1933, Haber, disillusioned and shocked with the direction of Germany’s politics, moved to England. He died in poverty in Switzerland, in January 1934, of massive heart attacks.

In December 1933, the Nazis agreed to buy all the synthetic gasoline that Farben could produce. Higher tariffs were placed on imported fuel.

In 1935, the Farben board made Carl Bosch its board manager, separating him from Farben’s day-to-day decisions in an attempt to silence his then increasingly anti-Nazi pronouncements. Also in 1935, Hitler announced that "he was no longer abiding by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and that he had secretly rearmed Germany during the past two years, tripling the size of its army and building a twenty-five-hundred-plane modern air force."

In the years leading to his death, Carl Bosch expressed his concern that he had, inadvertently, aided Hitler's policies. And it was true. In 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. On late April 1940, Carl Bosch passed away.

"After the war... [a Nazi expert] testified that if the Allies had done nothing but destroy Leuna and the other synthetic fuel plants by bombing them day and night, the war would have been over in eight weeks."

Disclaimer: while Thomas Hager extends his book beyond WWII to more recent times, and beyond socio-economics, to possible environmental impact around the world of the Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation cycle, as well as going more in-depth about the lives and times of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, I have chosen to emphasize how the discovery of industrial nitrogen fixation (along with unsettling socio-economic climate and political unrest) gave rise to Nazism.

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The Alchemy of Air is chockfull with valuable historical information. I read the book twice, back-to-back, to grasp its scope and to try summarizing it as best as I could. In the end, I chose to follow the chronological narrative for this review.

The Alchemy of Air chronicles:

1) events surrounding four wars—the Guano War, the Pacific War, and both World Wars—, as well as providing a year by year (not always in a linear fashion) account from 1840 when the Guano trade started, to the end of WWII.

2) Chairman Mao Tse Tung's Leap Forward in 1958, China, thanks to which thirty million Chinese died from starvation and malnutrition.

3) the birth and development of Germany as a nation in its modern form, in all its political and military zeal.

4) the birth of chemical engineering as a scientific discipline, and the rise of BASF as an international conglomerate and a pioneering chemical company.


5) the discovery and advancements made by Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, their lives, and their relationships with close relatives and other scientists of the era.