Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Star Trek: Discovery

            After months of delays and behind the scenes intrigue, Star Trek: Discovery finally premiered on CBS on Sunday night. The first episode aired on the network, but the remaining episodes will air exclusively on CBS’s streaming platform, CBS All Access. The second episode went up on All Access immediately after the first premiered. Set ten years before the Original Series, Discovery follows the story of Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), first officer of the USS Shenzhou. Discovery is the first Star Trek series not to feature a captain as the protagonist. Discovery will also be the first Star Trek show since the last two seasons of Deep Space Nine to feature serialized rather than standalone storytelling. Having watched the first two episodes, they feel more like a prologue to whatever the series eventually becomes. Thus, it’s hard to judge whether Discovery will be more Deep Space Nine or Enterprise.  

            The first two episodes, “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars” vary in their quality. “The Vulcan Hello” suffers from clunky writing and exposition dumping. The show takes great pains to introduce another retconned version of Star Trek’s favorite villains turned allies, the Klingons. In Discovery, the Klingons ridged heads are on prominent display alongside their rampant xenophobia. A religious zealot named T’Kuvma berates his fellow Klingons on their failure to follow the old ways. He promises to unite the 24 great houses—a point that is reiterated several times—and make the Klingon Empire great again. Compared to the Klingons of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, Discovery’s Klingons are less obsessed with honor and instead are more tribal and brutish. Discovery has T’Kuvma and the other Klingon characters speak Klingon while providing English subtitles. The subtitles combined with the harsh and guttural sounds of the Klingon language—forcibly pushed through the Klingon’s teeth (shown prominently in several scenes)—means that the audience spends more time reading the dialogue than paying attention to what is happening on screen.

            The first two episodes lean heavily callbacks to the Original Series, but fail to establish any sort of continuity with it. Burnham is a human raised by Vulcans, specifically Spock’s father, Sarek. Sarek (James Frain replacing the late Mark Leonard) makes several appearances throughout the first two episodes in his role as surrogate parent—Burnham’s parents were killed by Klingons, something the show continually reminds us. There is a lot of conversation about the need to balance logic and emotion. Burnham, while presented more in the mold of Spock, frequently succumbs to her emotional desires, informed by her parents’ death and desire to protect her crew. She even knocks out her captain in order to initiate a confrontation with the Klingons that will prove Starfleet’s meddle. While supposedly a prequel to the Original Series, the technology of Discovery clearly outstrips that of Kirk and Spock’s Enterprise. Starfleet’s dark blue uniforms and the show’s dark color palette fail to harken back to the Original Series at all, making it hard to imagine Discovery as a prequel.

            Burnham’s character arc across the first two episodes gives clues towards what kind of show Discovery could be. The “Vulcan Hello” opens with her and the captain of the Shenzhou, Philippa Georgiou, played by special guest star Michelle Yeoh (HINT, HINT) reminiscing about their seven years serving together. As the two flee an approaching storm, Georgiou suggests that Burnham may be ready for her own command. Over the course of the two episodes, Burnham, in a desperate bid to save the captain and crew from the Klingons, betrays Georgiou and winds up in the brig. Her actions are understandable, but unforgiveable. Heartbroken by the betrayal, Georgiou confronts her first officer in a scene that highlights the utopian future that Gene Roddenberry imagined back in the 1960s. Here is an African-American woman talking with her commanding officer, a Malaysian woman, in a future where their respective races and genders aren’t the only lenses through which we view their interaction. They are two officers having an argument about the nature of loyalty and duty. The scene passes the Bechtel test with flying colors.

            By the end of “The Battle at the Binary Stars” Burnham is locked up for mutiny while the Federation readies for war with the Klingons. Next week’s episode, then, should be telling in ultimately what kind of show Discovery will become.  

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


            Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is much better than the director’s recent work (Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises). Rather than boring his audiences with pseudo-intellectual babble about farming and love overcoming all obstacles, Nolan instead offers an ode to the determination and resilience of Britain’s Greatest Generation. The sheer scope and scale of Dunkirk borrows less from recent war films and more from the 1960s spectacles like The Longest Day and The Great Escape. Nolan fills his movie with recognizable actors whose characters barely speak, let alone have names. Instead of talking and philosophizing, they’re primarily interested in staying alive and escaping the onslaught of the Germans. The result is a film replete with tension that refuses to let the audience off the hook.

            Nolan’s Dunkirk tells the story of the British evacuation from the eponymous French port in 1940. The Western front has collapsed and the Germans have overrun the French and English armies, forcing them into a pocket around Dunkirk. Meanwhile the British navy is desperately trying to evacuate as many men off the beaches as possible to prepare for the upcoming German invasion of Britain. Nolan constructs the film along three parallel stories of land, sea, and air taking place over the course of a week, a day, and a single hour. The land portion of the film follows the efforts of two soldiers to make it off the beach. They hide on ships, get torpedoed, and desperately try to save themselves. The sea portion of the film features a middle-aged Brit, his son, and his son’s friend piloting the family boat over to Dunkirk. During their day-long journey, they pick up the lone survivor of a U-Boat attack. Finally, the air portion takes place over the course of a single hour as two Spitfire pilots try to protect the Dunkirk beaches and British ships from German attack.

            Dunkirk doesn’t offer much in terms of characters. Most of them, in fact, are unnamed. Many of them, especially the soldiers on the beach, barely speak at all. The cast is populated with lots of famous English actors and musician Harry Stiles (though I couldn’t tell you what he looks like). Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance, two of England’s greatest Shakespearean actors, have the closest thing to actual characters. Branagh, armed with a fantastic white turtleneck, plays the naval commander in charge of evacuating soldiers from the beach. His job is keep order as the Germans bomb the British army on land and torpedo the British fleet at sea. Rylance is the civilian sailor who takes his vessel across the Channel to rescue the stranded soldiers. Standing in for that cliché of stiff-upper lipped Brit, Rylance conveys determination and humanity in the face of the shell-shocked U-Boat survivor demanding that they turn back to England.

That's some strong turtleneck action right there. 

            The names of the characters and lack of dialogue don’t really matter. Dunkirk is about more than the individual survival of any individual character. Rather it’s about England’s lowest point during World War 2 and the efforts of the entire nation to survive. Nolan fills the movie with a constant and never-ending sense of dread. Whistling bullets kill soldiers on their way out of Dunkirk. German planes strafe the beaches, attacking those waiting to be evacuated. Those lucky few who make it onto a ship wind up drowning after being torpedoed. There seemingly is no escape from the enemy. Nolan conveys this sense of perpetual and inescapable dread without ever showing a single German soldier until the very end of the film (although the Germans are out of focus). The Germans are the unseen but seemingly omnipotent enemy.

            The film’s ending is a little clichéd, with the requisite Churchill speech about British resilience in the face of adversity as the soldiers from the beach find themselves safely back in England. This sentimentality undermines the effective ending of the air portion that sees Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot guiding his flaming plane onto the beach for a safe landing after destroying a German plane. After being captured by the Germans, Hardy’s plane burns in the background. His safe landing lifts the tension that dominates the film. He—and, by extension, England—survives.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Farewell to Cassini

            On Friday September 15, 2017 NASA will send its Cassini spacecraft one final set of instructions—to fly directly into Saturn’s atmosphere, destroying the spacecraft. Running low on fuel after spending thirteen years in orbit around Saturn, Cassini has reached the end of its operational life. NASA decided to crash Cassini into the atmosphere rather than risk biologically contaminating one of the planet’s moons with an accidental collision.  After almost twenty years since leaving Earth, the Cassini mission has been one of NASA’s most successful exploratory missions, returning a whole host of data about our solar system’s 6th planet.

            The Cassini-Huygens probe launched from Cape Canaveral on October 15, 1997. The Cassini-Huygen’s original mission called for the spacecraft to explore the structure and behavior of Saturn’s rings, the composition of its moons, the behavior of its atmosphere, and land the Huygens probe on the surface of Titan. Planning for the mission began in 1982 as the result of a collaboration between NASA, the European Science Foundation, and the Italian Space Agency. Soon after its launch, Cassini performed two gravitational-assist flybys of Venus, one of Earth, and one of Jupiter in order to propel it to Saturn. On July 1, 2004, after a nearly seven year journey, Cassini finally entered orbit around Saturn.

            On Christmas Day 2004, the Huygens probe separated from the Cassini orbiter and began its descent towards Titan. Titan has long fascinated astronomers because of it is the only moon in the Solar System with a dense atmosphere (similar to Earth’s) and the only other planetary body to have liquids on its surface. It is primarily composed of ice and rock. The Huygens probe landed on Titan on January 14, 2005. It was the first and, so far, only landing of an Earth-made probe in the outer Solar System. The probe, weighing about 700 lbs, gathered data about Titan’s atmosphere and surface conditions and sent back about 350 photographs of Titan. Readings from the probe confirmed the existence of liquid lakes, rock clusters, and methane clouds. The planet’s atmosphere creates a surface remarkably similar to Earth including rivers, lakes, seas, and dunes. Titan has seasonal weather patterns and it even has wind and rain storms.   

The surface of Titan 

            During its almost thirteen years in orbit around Saturn, Cassini has greatly expanded our knowledge of Saturn. Besides the Huygens probe, here are some other highlights of the mission.

Saturn’s Hurricane—In November 2006, scientists spotted a storm with an eyewall (like you see in a hurricane) around Saturn’s south pole. This was the first sighting of this feature on a planet other than Earth. Unlike hurricanes, this storm is stationary at the south pole and is 5,000 miles across and 43 miles high with winds up to 350 mph.

Flybys of Moons—Besides visiting Titan, Cassini has engaged in multiple flybys of Saturn’s other moons. It has also discovered seven smaller, previously unknown moons. The photos of the moon Phoebe revealed that it likely has ice just under its surface. During its flybys of Enceladus, Cassini discovered the existence of ice geysers near the South Pole and later confirmed the existence of a subsurface liquid water ocean.

Saturn's rings, close-up 

Saturn’s Rings—Cassini also performed extensive experiments on Saturn’s rings in order to uncover their composition and structure. It has also returned some remarkable photographs of the rings themselves.

The Great Storm—In 2012 Cassini observed the results of the Great White Spot (similar to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot) storm that occurs every 30 years or so. Cassini discovered that Saturn’s storm is the result of the loss of acetylene gas, an increase in phosphine gas, and a decrease in temperature in the storm’s center. This causes the storm to become white and make it visible to telescopes.

            In the last months of its life, Cassini has been undertaking dives into Saturn’s rings in order to capture most information and photographs of Saturn’s most distinctive feature. With the spacecraft at the end of its operational life, NASA decided to engage in the dives and risk the damage or destruction of the spacecraft. However, Cassini survived its various plunges into the rings and has returned some remarkable images. On Friday, NASA will order the spacecraft to descend into Saturn’s atmosphere, ending Cassini’s tenure as one of the space program’s most remarkable and successful missions.    

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Saints 2017 Season Preview

            The 2016 season came and went for the New Orleans Saints. After promises of defensive improvement under new coordinator Dennis Allen and hopes of a playoff berth, the Saints finished 7-9 for the third year in a row.  This offseason offered similar pledges of improving the defense and hopefully returning the Saints to relevance in the NFC South.

            Yet when it came down to putting those promises into action, once again tNew Orleans management (GM Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton) failed to improve their team in any meaningful way. They traded away wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots for 1st and 3rd picks to rebuild the defense (or so they claimed). When the draft came, however, the Saints went back to their same old patterns—trading up and investing high picks in areas where they already had significant depth. With their first pick, New Orleans selected Marcus Lattimore, a cornerback. Considering they ranked 30th in pass defense by DVOA last year, this was a good pick. Next up was offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who while he should start on the offensive line does not play defense. The selection of running back Alvin Kamara in the third round epitomizes the Saints’ post-Super Bowl organizational problems. Here’s what we wrote in our Saints draft recap about Kamara.
This is the kind of pick that should drive Saints fans crazy.  Why do the Saints need another running back? They already have Mark Ingram, a washed-up Adrian Peterson, and Tavaris Cadet.  There’s only so many snaps to go around.  Also, the Saints gave up their second round pick in 2018 to draft Kamara. Giving away valuable future picks to get guys who probably won’t start for you in 2017 is precisely the kind of bad decision making that got the Saints in their current mess.
What does this mess look like? Let’s look at the last three seasons using Football Outsiders DVOA rankings.

Total DVOA
Offensive DVOA
Defensive DVOA
Special Teams DVOA
-1.9% (19)
15.4% (6)
14.6% (31)
-2.6% (27)
-18.7% (28)
10.5% (7)
26.1% (32)
-3.2% (26)
-0.9% (17)
10.6% (7)
13.1% (31)
1.6% (11)

            Starting to notice a pattern here? Good to great offenses, atrocious defenses, and terrible special teams. What’s that all add up to? 7-9 records for three seasons in a row.

            There’s little reason to suspect anything will be different this season. On offense, quarterback Drew Brees will likely throw 4,500+ yards and 30+ touchdowns. Michael Thomas, who caught 92 passes for 1,137 yards and 9 TDs, will slide into the top wide receiver slot. Between Ingram, Peterson, Kamara, and Cadet, Brees will have plenty of backs capable of running the ball or catching it out the backfield. While left tackle Terron Armstead will miss the first few weeks of the season, the Saints offensive line is set with veterans Max Unger, Zach Strief, and new signed Larry Waford. Younger starters Andrus Peat (a 2015 draft pick who has shuffled around the line) and Ramczyk should be more than capable of protecting Brees. But offense has never been the problem in the Payton-Brees era.      

Meanwhile injuries already started to take their toll on the defense.  Cornerback Delvin Breaux was placed on injured reserve and won’t return until at least week 9.  During training camp, head coach Sean Payton complained that Breaux needed to tough it out and play through his injuries. A few days later, the Saints fired their orthopedists after they misdiagnosed Breaux’s fractured fibula. Last year, the Saints cut cornerback Keenan Lewis after similarly complaining about his unwillingness to play hurt. Lewis claimed that the Saints orthopedists misdiagnosed his leg injury. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, one of the few bright spots on last year’s defense, returned to the team on a 4 year, $28 million deal. In July, however, he was diagnosed with a heart ailment that will likely end his career. Without Fairley and Breaux, it’s hard to imagine the Saints getting any better on defense.   

The 16 game NFL season leads to a lot of variability. Sometimes 8-8 teams go 10-6, sometimes they go 5-11. Could the Saints make the playoffs? Sure. Right now, however, it’s hard to see how New Orleans is demonstrably better than it was last season (or the two season before that). So there’s no reason to predict anything other than another 7-9 season.