The Oscars 2017

I watched every film nominated for Best Picture, Actress in a Leading Role, Actor in a Leading Role, Actor in a Supporting Role, and Actress in a Supporting Role.  I appreciated something about every single one of those films.  I’m not particularly knowledgeable about film as a medium, but these were my thoughts on the nominations.

One brief observation: all but one actor nominated for lead actor is in a film nominated for best film; only one actress nominated for lead actress is in a film nominated for best film.  I feel the Academy is saying this year that the stories about men are fundamentally more compelling than the stories about women.

Best Picture

  • Win Prediction: La La Land 
    • The Academy consistently favors movies about movies, which makes sense because they all work in movies.  It would be shocking to me if this doesn’t win.  I continue to find musicals largely irrational.
  • My Favorite Nominated Film: Lion
    • I’m really not able to articulate why I feel better about this film than any of the others.  This true story is unlike any I’ve seen before–man looks for mother using Google Earth.  But I think the film does a beautiful job of telling a story about trying to figure out who you are and what that means to you.
  • Film I Will Rewatch the Most: Hidden Figures
    • Although it wasn’t the best film, I anticipate watching this movie many times more.  My only complaint was the film felt a bit too Disney: “people overcome adversity through perseverence.”  At the end of the movie I felt I knew no more about the stories of these women than from the two sentence plot summary I read beforehand, but I will shamelessly promote this film to any student or child that will cross my path because it’s so important to highlight these true stories that are often ignored by the powerful majority.
  • Would Love to See as a Play: Fences, Moonlight
    • These two were both amazing, but I think that the transition from stage to screen is difficult to accomplish.  Moonlight had outstanding cinematography and was beautiful to watch.  Fences presented a compelling lead character and some amazing questions about morality.  I have nothing negative to say about either film and both should be watched.  Fences could have easily been my pick for favorite film this year, and Moonlight could be the film that deserves the Oscar most.  But in both cases I’d love to see them on stage to see if that pushes them to the peak of their mediums.
  • Would Also Highly Recommend:Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester by the Sea
    • Both these movies were very strong.  Hacksaw Ridge was one of the best war movies I’ve ever seen, and as a religious person and as a pacifist I found the true story moving.  I doubt I would watch it again though.  Manchester by the Sea initially seemed very unpleasant to me, but the more I reflect on it, the more I realize that I did appreciate it.  Perhaps in a few years this will be the film I enjoyed most from 2016.
  • Should Have Been Nominated: Silence
    • This movie was amazing.  I would recommend that any Christian watch this movie and reflect on the questions that this very dark film raises.  Not a film for the feint of heart though.
  • Favorite Film from the Year: Rogue One
    • Look, I get the movie has some things about it that keep it from being an Oscar-worthy film, but this was definitely my favorite Star Wars film.  This powerful story about friendship and fighting for what is right (and figuring out what is right) in the face of true evil and oppression was by far the film I enjoyed most this year.

Actress in a Leading Role

  • Natalie Portman, in Jackie
    • My age makes the death of JFK something that lacks the emotional tension that would have made the film one of my favorites from the year, but Natlaie Portman’s performance in it was stellar.

Actor in a Leading Role

  • Denzel Washington, in Fences
    • As I said above, the story was built around the lead role and Denzel Washington did a magnificent job of showing the complex nature of this aging man.

Actor in a Supporting Role

  • Mahershala Ali, in Moonlight
    • I think that Mahershala Ali plays one of the most interesting characters in the story.  A thought-provoking role indeed.

Actress in a Supporting Role

  • Viola Davis, in Fences
    • Viola Davis is clearly a top notch actress and she did an amazing job in Fences of presenting many sides of a complex character.

52: Top 5 xkcd Comics

  1. A-Minus-Minus

    This encapsulates what makes xkcd so great.  The characters lampoon the procedures of daily life through technology and clever non sequitur.  Easy to reference, this comic is hilarious and a great introduction to the website.

  2. Control
    There are many fantastic “my hobby” jokes on xkcd, but this one is most fantastic.  Visualizing the scene and confusion that would follow only adds to the fun here.

  3. Los Alamos
    This joke visits one of the math’s most significant moments and history and shows how much we take for granted the difficulty of advanced science, and how easy it is for people to make simple mistakes.

  4. Laser Scope
    One of the oldest xkcd comics, this one uses a hilarious play on words for a simple gag.

  5. Google Maps
    While most xkcd comics benefit from brevity, the hilarity here is the garden path for both the characters and the readers, as well as the utter trustworthiness of Google Maps.

  • Honorable Mention: Limerick

    An important part of every xkcd is the mouse-over text (I lack the technology skills to embed it here without literally just copying it.  This comic’s is not even particularly funny, but it’s perhaps the one I quote most often, “Fun game: try to post a YouTube comment so stupid that people realize you must be joking.  (HINT: this is impossible)”  I quote this because I once found a comment that I thought would work.  On a video of the Velvet Underground & Nico’s “Heroin,” the commenter said something to the effect of “you know, I’m not sure, but I think this song MIGHT be about drugs.”

  • Bottom: Regrets

    There are numerous xkcd comics that try to be sweet and sincere, but given the usually cynical nature of the site, they don’t really have any effective emotional impact.  This is just one of many comics in that category that somehow fail to be either serious or humorous.

52: Top 5 Tolkien Locations

  1. Helm’s Deep
    No battle in Tolkien’s works is more defined by the environment than the climactic battle of The Two Towers (although Weathertop comes close).  The ancient city where no army had ever been defeated oscillates between seeming an impregnable fortress and a certain tomb.  Every twist of this battle is defined by the surrounding landscape and the fortress’ construction, showcasing perhaps the pinnacle of Tolkien’s epic battle writing.

  2. Moria
    Of all the homes of the dwarves, the mysterious halls of Moria are the most enthralling.  From the Doors of Durin to Durin’s Bridge, Moria serves as a dangerous passageway that Gandalf agonizes about entering.  Perhaps Moria best showcases the double-edged nature of the dwarven love for treasure, because Moria promises something to every group that enters it (treasure, power, heritage, speedy passage, etc), but when desire for that thing takes over, it delivers doom.

  3. Shire
    Tolkien’s depiction of the Shire in The Hobbit is from the first page genius.  Essential to the story of all both major stories is how enchantingly homely the Shire is.  The characters must have a homeland they long for while adventuring through worlds with increasingly mesmerizing story-telling magic.  Tolkien’s development of this oft-visited location gives it remarkable depth, as the readers get to see how and why the characters here still have a longing for a bigger world that is far more dangerous.

  4. Lothlorien
    The city of golden light, where the most beautiful of elves reside, Lothlorien serves as a bastion of great power and respect for the landscape.  Unlike the scholarly Rivendell, Lothlorien is a city exclusively for the elves, and manages to show that Tolkien could house his creatures in constantly more exciting cities.  Lothlorien perhaps suffered the most in adaptation to screen, because instead of being a place of golden light, it was portrayed in almost sickly green.  Thankfully the Hobbit films did a better job of depicting at least Galadriel as a gorgeous source of light.

  5. Weathertop
    The ruined city of Arnor, the hill of Weathertop showcases what Tolkien does marvelously: evoke multiple worlds simultaneously that the imagination populates.  Perhaps the most memorable moment of the first book in The Lord of the Rings is the showdown on Weathertop, where both the present and past of the monument make it a climactic part of the landscape.

  • Honorable Mention: Minas Morgul
    While no one ever travels to Minas Morgul in the core books, Frodo, Sam, and Smeagel must skirt it on the stairs of Cirith Ungol.  The corrupted city was beautifully depicted as one of the most ominous and dark locals in the films.

  • BottomRhun
    The major disappointment about Rhun is that it is never explored in Tolkien’s writings, despite being mentioned as a place where important things clearly occurred.  The two blue wizards disappeared here, but Tolkien never explores what could have been an epic narrative of betrayal and the beginnings of Saruman’s transformation towards evil.  Even the map of this place is exceedingly sparse.

52: Top 5 Musical Artists of the 2000s

  1. The Mountain Goats

    Eight proper studio albums and a wide variety of incredible music in them makes John Darnielle’s legacy a tough one to beat.  It’s hard to highlight just one or two of these albums, because so many of them are top notch.  Even Mountain Goats fans don’t agree on which albums are the best.  The Sunset Tree probably deserves the top slot because of its variety and depth; Darnielle’s recount of his childhood and its strong, positive message about survival and hope in the face of abuse is breathtaking.  His collaborations were amazing, his EPs were amazing, his concept albums were amazing, his proper albums were amazing.  Get Lonely is another favorite here, very sad, but the overall effect, like all of the Mountain Goats work, is to inspire hopefulness through catharsis.  Meanwhile the breadth of All Hail West Texas, an album where every song is about a specific region of Texas, is insanely impressive.  While newcomers may find his voice grating at first, it’s hard to imagine someone that would find the entirety of the 2000s discography dull.

  2. Animal Collective

    Weird for the sake of weird is pointless.  Weird is good when it’s exciting and makes songs sound fresh even after dozens and dozens of listens.  Weird is good when it is blended with the warm and familiar so that the listener forgets that it even is weird and is able to just enjoy music.  Animal Collective, despite having features to their songs that in a vacuum are bizarre, have been described as a modern Beach Boys.  With eight proper albums, four of which are spectacular, that range extremely in style, they are another easy pick.  Sung Tongs is loaded with beautiful soundscapes that find their pinnacle in later song “Banshee Beat,” whereas Strawberry Jam is filled with the exciting songs that are infectious in their oddities.  When the Mountain Goats are playing in the background, I’ll sing along with familiar tunes, maybe tap my foot; when Animal Collective is playing, I want to belt out every weird and wacky soundeffect and vocal trick.

  3. Sufjan Stevens

    Sufjan would have easily topped this list if 2010 hadn’t revealed that his best song hadn’t been written yet and 2015 hadn’t revealed that his best album hadn’t been written yet.  Sufjan is the modern Psalmist, writing songs of joy and sadness with equal passion and lyrical depth.  Like Darnielle, Stevens’ songs are like novellas evoking characters and worlds way beyond what is normally expected in a four minute song.  Like Darnielle, Stevens is insanely prolific with a vast variety of styles.  One person he has been compared to is Kanye West, because both alternate between maximalism and minimalism with grand ambitions and loyal followings, and Kanye is going to be his major competition for artist of this decade.

  4. Mirah

    Not nearly as well known as the other entries here, Mirah’s songs are like ideas crystallized on vinyl.  Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn released four proper albums and a host of collaborations during the decade.  Life, love, and loss are the brushstrokes of her creations.  Her early songs that bubble with excitement (see You Think It’s Like This But It’s Really Like This) grew with complex rhythm structure (see Advisory Committe and C’mon Miracle) and then the maturity of experience (see Songs from the Black Mountain Project and (a)spera).  Lyrically she can be unbeatable, and her charming sincerity has served Zeitlyn throughout her career.

  5. Danger Mouse

    As a producer, it’s hard to put Danger Mouse into the musician category, but he’s certainly a musical artist.  With works ranging from the amazing mashup of The Grey Album to the humor of The Mouse and the Mask to the infectiousness of St. Elsewhere, his talents are unsurpassed.  Of course his specialty is taking music and making it sound timeless.

  • Honorable Mention: The xx

    With only one album appearing in 2009, it’s hard to say that the xx were particularly significant to the 2000s.  However, their album that squeezed in at the end of the decade was astoundingly good.  They could only be on this list as an honorable mention, but when music of the 2000s is mentioned, it’d be a shame not to mention their gem.

  • Bottom: Yoko Ono

    This should not be a surprise.  This is Yoko Ono’s third appearance as the bottom slot of one of these lists.  She somehow released two albums in the 2000s.  Now, I could encourage you to listen to a song or two off of these albums so you could see that she could be in this slot even if she didn’t break up the Beatles (which she may not have done, but on principle), but I wouldn’t wish that upon my enemies.  I wouldn’t even want Yoko Ono to listen to Yoko Ono.  So please, don’t attempt to listen to the video above.

52: Top 5 Sites in Saint Petersburg

  1. Kazan Cathedral

    Modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, this early nineteenth century Orthodox church is beautiful on the inside and out.  Located on Nevsky Prospekt, the central location in the city makes it an easy place to get to and be around.  The dark stone of this building makes it stand out, as does the fact that it is set back from the street.

  2. Trinity Bridge

    The bridge itself is made in the Art Nouveau style of the late nineteenth century, this beautiful bridge is complemented with a beautiful view of the city.  The major bridge connecting parts of the city, and crossing it allows viewers to see the best of the entire city.  Of the five top slots on this list, two are a stone’s throw from one point on Nevsky Prospekt, and two others look out on the prettiest part of the Neva River.

  3. Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood

    The Griboedova canal has perhaps the best view in the city.  Standing at the intersection with Nevsky Prospekt, the viewer can see Kazan at one end and Spilt Blood at the other.  This church literally expands over the canal so it could cover the site of Alexander II’s murder.   This late nineteenth century church has some of the brightest colors in the city and the interior mosaics are similarly gorgeous.

  4. Yelagin Island

    This entire island is a beautiful park litered with palaces, beautiful vistas, and scenic trails.  Of the parks in the city, it’s perhaps the most natural, expansive, and beautiful.  Originally an upper class retreat, the island is now open to the public and beautiful any time of year.

  5. Peter and Paul Fortress

    Made with the early eighteenth century baroque mindset that appearances matter more than practicality, this fortress expands into the Neva.  Realistically the fortress is a collection of beautiful buildings, views, and landscapes, not just a single structure.  However, from the beach that overlooks the city center to the church where the tsars are buried to the dungeon where political prisoners were kept in the twentieth century, this site is exceptional.
  • Honorable Mention: International Academy
    CaptureThe place that I work is a place of multicultural learning and growth.  It’s a joy to work there and even though the school has moved many times, wherever it is feels a bit like home.

  • Bottom: Industrial Band

    Surrounding the city centre is a thick band of industrial buildings.  Just outside of this band are high-rise residential buildings stretching for miles.  This band signifies the end of the beautiful, old inner-city and the beginning of the mass produced expanse.

52: Top 5 Types of Tea

  1. English Breakfast
    Black with milk and sugar (or just milk), this classic blend is the perfect way to start each day.  While there are many similar forms of dark tea, the balance here between bitterness and flavor is divine.

  2. Rooibos
    While good rooibos can be hard to find, this splendid late afternoon infusion is deeply flavorful and exciting.

  3. Lady Grey
    This tea adds the perfect twist to bergamot-based Earl Grey.  Earl Grey is also an amazing tea, but the lowered bergamot content and increased flavoring makes Lady Grey a marvelous tea anytime in the afternoon

  4. Chamomile
    Not technically a tea because it’s not made from tea leaves, this rich evening tea is soothing in both aroma and flavor.

  5. Jasmine
    Perhaps the best way to flavor green tea, jasmine gives a soothing but exciting flavor that can be drank throughout the day.
  • Honorable Mention: Mate
    Perhaps yerba mate deserves to be on this list as much as any of the other teas, but this South American beverage requires such specialized drinking gear that it warrants a special place here.

  • Bottom: Flavored Water
    Some teas are just so weak that they are rendered practically undrinkable.  Whether real tea or infusion, even after long steeping times or doubled tea bags, the tea can be so weak it’s undrinkable.  Thankfully this generally just means a bad blend of that tea.  Very few teas are just universally bad.

52: Top 5 Things I Took Away from the ACSI ICEC

  1. Academic Virtues
    One speaker (Philip E. Dow) at the Association of Christian Schools International International Christian Educators Conference spoke on the value of using terminology to describe intellectual character.  Educators often focus on intellectual skillsets and content or social character, but intellectual virtues are also essential for students to develop.  At the same time that teachers share knowledge with students and model righteous behavior, they should also be modeling, encouraging, and rewarding the development of intellectual character traits like tenacity, curiosity, honesty, and humility.

  2. Mathematics Deep Understanding
    At a small session Debbie MacCullough opened by asking why when solving two thirds divided by one twelfth you flip and multiply.  The room full of math teachers could come up with some very vague explanations, but no conceptual explanation of why that algorithm works for solving problems.  Math teachers often become math teachers because they enjoy the problem solving process, but realistically the skills we want to pass to students are based in a deep conceptual understanding that is currently only loosely passed onwards.

  3. Assessing Student Learning
    In a number of sessions speakers emphasized different ways to use formative assessment to assess student learning.  Of these techniques, the one that seemed most immediate was the Socrative app and website.  What all these techniques emphasize are the ability to quickly track student growth over time so teachers can know exactly what learning areas to target.

  4. Future of Teaching
    A speaker from the Singapore American School (Tim Stuart) shared that his school was approached by Google to allow two high school students to wear Google Glasses 100% of the time in the classroom.  While he agreed, teachers asked if students would be allowed to wear them even during tests.  He told his teachers “if wearing Google Glasses make the test irrelevant, you are giving the wrong tests.”  That sentiment is a good indicator of the challenges and opportunities that teachers and students will have in future years.

  5. Simulations
    Two teachers (Katrina Custer and Beth Duvall) shared examples of simulations they had run in social studies classrooms and various ways they served to enhance student learning.  While simulations may not be equally manageable across subject areas, but recreating experiences in the classroom creates great opportunity for student long-term learning.
  • Honorable Mention: Community Across Continents
    The whole conference allowed teachers from across the globe to get together and talk.  The knowledge of common struggle across the planet is encouraging.  Lots of people teach at small schools with diverse student bodies and they understand the same struggles.

  • Bottom: Packed Weeks Are Tiring
    The conference was held over a few days and was so filled with events that it was foolish to try to attend everything.  The conference was physically exhausting, despite being remarkably helpful.  Of course, it was better to have a high intensity week than to make it take up more time teachers could be teaching.  Overall a minor complaint.