June 11, 2017

June 11, 2017

Kia Ora: Welcome to New Zealand

I’d be a terrible Tolkien fan if I lived this entire lifetime without trekking to the real Hobbiton. Right? Right. Hence our trip this spring to New Zealand, with all its attendant hobbit goodness.

Getting There

The worst part of traveling to New Zealand is traveling to New Zealand. For us, it was six hours to Los Angeles followed by twelve hours to Auckland. We upgraded to business class, so even though this picture was taken at 11 pm (and 2 am Heather time), I was pretty pumped.

Inexplicably, dinner was served shortly after this picture was taken.

Fortunately, once you land, it will be beach weather. Strike that: It’ll be beach CULTURE. Sunny, warm, everyone in shorts, here’s-an-ice-cream-you-can-sit-over-there. Kiwis are, on average, the most laid-back people I have ever met. Not so great when it comes to details and deadlines, but wonderful when you’re on holiday.

Typical Monday morning: fishing off a pier.

What We Did

You know I like a pretty full itinerary on international trips, and this one was no exception.

We ziplined.

At this point, I had survived my first of three ziplines. Was feeling pretty confident despite the outfit.

Learned about New Zealand’s independence.

The Treaty of Waitangi established New Zealand's independence.

Went dolphin-watching.

They came much closer than when we did this in Iceland. Take THAT, Iceland.

Sailed through a hole in a rock called The Hole in the Rock.

"The only way out is through."

WENT TO HOBBITON, OBVIOUSLY.



Saw two different glowworm caves.

Impossible to take good pictures. You'll have to go yourself.

Got up-close-and-personal with some livestock, making for an interesting re-entry to the US.

"G'day."

Learned about Maori culture.




Ate a lot of ice cream.

Tip Top Hokey Pokey is the way to go.

Discovered that New Zealand has geothermal activity, too.

Geyser

Mud Pool

And climbed to the top of One Tree Hill (the one the TV show was named after).

Though the tree is long gone, the view's still great.

Oh, and much bushwalking. Multiple tour guides and cabbies suggested “easy, 20 minute” bushwalks to us that took twice that and almost killed me.

Our guide looks back to see whether I've collapsed yet.

Highlights (You won’t really get this until you’ve been there, so go to New Zealand and then come back to read this.)
  • Countdown
  • Silver fern
  • Tip Top
  • The inverse relationship between how much cricket you watch and how much you understand it
  • “Kia ora”
  • Haka
  • Sir Ed
  • JAFAs

May 14, 2017

April 6, 2017

April 6, 2017

In My Opinion: The Accountant

The Accountant turned out to be one of those movies that slips under the radar during its initial run, but turns out to be a delightful little gem when you take a risk on it at the Redbox. (Your mileage may vary.) I start out with this statement to be very clear that I really liked this film, because I’m going to spend very little time on the plot. (Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, shady math, maniacal corporate overlords: all good. Finally, the U.S. Department of the Treasury gets its moment to shine.)

Rather, I’m going to examine this movie through Civil Servant eyes. Because YIKES.

Let’s start at the beginning. (A very good place to start.) Spoilers ahead.


J.K. Simmons plays the Director of Treasury’s FinCEN. Near the beginning of the film, a FinCEN data analyst strides down a hallway (ostensibly in a or even THE Treasury building) and barges into his office.

Now, FinCEN is totally a real thing, and kudos to this movie for reminding everyone that federal law enforcement is more than the FBI and the Border Patrol. (I like to imagine the men and women of FinCEN holding viewing parties when this movie came out.) I can’t tell from cursory research whether the Director of FinCEN is a career Senior Executive or a political appointee, but I definitely know that he’s not going to have an office door that opens unimpeded into a publicly-accessible hallway. Any executive is going to be behind several doors, a secretary or two, and perhaps even an ornamental gate. C’mon.

You also notice the absence of badges in the picture above. I’m not talking LEO badges (though I guess FinCEN agents might have those, too). I’m talking run-of-the-mill ID badges. I can forgive the Director for not wearing one (executive privilege). But even if FinCEN isn’t using them for logical access, you’re not getting into or around in any federal building without showing ID to the guards.

Speaking of federal buildings, the auditorium in which the FinCEN press conferences are held is both an architectural dream (giant windows!) and a physical security disaster (giant windows!). I’ve been in a number of government auditoriums. The best you can hope for are small windows. More likely you’ll be in the bowels of a building and/or the windows will be covered to prevent a clear line of sight from the exterior. I’m just saying.

Last quibble with these two: Towards the end of the movie, they’re sitting in a house waiting for a phone call (specifics don’t matter for the purposes of my point). Simmons puts his feet up on a coffee table. His shoes are new, as in the soles aren’t even a little scuffed. What bureaucrat on last-minute TDY buys or wears new shoes?

On to the lower-ranked government staff: There’s quite a bit of looking things up in restricted databases and working all night as a favor between analysts. I’m a little skeptical, not just because working overnight presents a host of boring logistical difficulties. The real issue is that every search in a restricted database has to be justified and tracked. Not the kind of thing you want to run willy-nilly (technical term).

On the whole, though, these are minor quibbles. That I can make them—rather than complaining about plot or cast—shows how much I enjoyed The Accountant. On my recent flights to and from New Zealand,* I saw a number of people watching it on the plane. Made me smile every time…and consider pointing out the bureaucratic inaccuracies.

* More to follow on this, I promise.

February 19, 2017

February 19, 2017

(I Can’t Get No) Conversation

It seems to be harder and harder these days to have a substantive conversation with someone about a third-party topic. It’s easy to discuss our vacation plans, or a funny thing that happened on the drive to work, but bring up Kim Jong Nam’s assassination* and I get a blank face.

Sigh. Maybe it’s my demo. [Insert complaint about a Henry Kissinger soul in a lady millennial body here.]

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a set of conversation Avengers you could summon at will? I’m thinking you’d need at least six:

The Politics Person: Knows the ins and outs of governance. Prior education and experience in public policy preferred. Lobbyists need not apply. Ideal candidate: A scandal-free version of Anthony Weiner.

The Business Person: Capitalist for life, but can reasonably defend the belief. Follows the markets with a keen eye to give the rest of us stock tips. Those with degrees in actual business fields will be selected over those in marketing. Ideal candidate: Steven Levitt.

The Sports Person: Needed only on a part-time basis, specifically during the Super Bowl, Olympics, Triple Crown, tennis and golf majors, and World Cup. Know your stats, know who’s hot, and come with a list of ridiculous prop bets for us to laugh about. Ideal candidate: David Jacoby.

The Entertainment Person: Conversant in both Old and New Media. Will need to create Top Five lists of books, movies, TV shows, albums, and podcasts at the end of each year for the groups’ holiday gift shopping purposes. Should have seen Hamilton at least once. Ideal candidate: N/A – I’m taking this slot.

The Science Person: This position is reserved for Neil DeGrasse Tyson, now and forever.

The History Person: Gives all our discussions CONTEXT. Are the Kardashians the Borgias or our time? Would the Super Bowl be better if competitors were naked, as in the early Olympics? Politics may be crazy now, but what of that Teapot Dome Scandal?! And so on. Ideal candidate: Dr. Lucy Worsley.

So there you have it: my ideal dinner party. I also want to work Ezra Klein in somehow as our Wunderkind Emeritus. Who else did I miss?

Avengers, assemble!

*Anyone who does want to discuss this with me, let’s talk. Because, I mean, WTF. Every time I think I can stop watching Arirang News for a while, they reel me back in with geopolitical intrigue. WELL PLAYED, KOREA.

February 4, 2017

February 4, 2017

To Seem, Yet Not to Be

Alternate universes are all the rage these days. (A statement presented without comment.) Whatever your media poison of choice, you can find something set in a time and place just a little different from our own.

I recently finished the book Underground Airlines, which sat on or atop many “Best of 2016” lists. In its reality, slavery is still legal. The author does an excellent job of explaining the historical precedent and latter-day logistics, and it’s eerily fascinating. I fully expect Underground Airlines to fill the “Book I Thought I’d Hate but Ended Up Loving” slot on this year’s list.

I’m slowly making my way through season 2 of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, set in the years after a World War 2 won by the Axis powers. It’s a dark show, and I find that the most innocuous bits can turn out to be the darkest. They celebrate V-A Day each year on the date America fell. The American flag has a swastika in it. The Pledge of Allegiance is to Hitler.

(Start at 1:37.)

I mean, thank goodness we don’t live in a dystopia anything like this. Right? RIGHT?

I’m also sticking with NBC’s show Timeless, though it’s become less about how small changes in the past have big effects on the present and more about “Time Period of the Week.” And that’s okay. I’m all for meaningless costume drama (cf. 98% of Downton Abbey). I’ve seen the Columbian Exposition, the Wild West, the Colonial Era, and the Space Race. Each of those episodes has been a diverting hour.

All this has gotten me thinking about other turning points. If we’re really living in one of an infinite set of universes, what might the others look like?

What if the Spanish Armada succeeded? Would my Spanish be better? Or at least, less offensive?

What if the Normans stayed in France? Would I spell everything lyke thyss? (Or not be able to read at all because I’m a woman?)

What if humanity domesticated foxes instead of dogs and cats? Would we be asking “What does the dog say?”

The possibilities are endless, and a thoughtful amusement (I know it's an oxymoron) on a cloudy day.

January 4, 2017

January 4, 2017

My Best Books of 2016: A Threeve

The fact of the matter is: I don’t read as much as I used to, and I don’t read as much as I’d like to. First world problems. Woe is me. I read 87 of my 100-book goal in 2016, and that’s…a B? B+? Honestly, anything below an A and my palms get sweaty. FAIL.

My shortcomings aside, it was a good year for literature. Even literature NOT about Alexander Hamilton. In fact, I read very little nonfiction last year. It was just the kind of year that demanded an escape from reality, amiright?

Book I Didn’t Enjoy Until Halfway Through


Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I don’t always agree with President Obama, but when I do, it’s about this book. I slogged through the first half, waiting for delight to hit. Then the second half started, and BAM. Brilliant.

Book I Thought I’d Hate but Ended Up Loving


The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I only started-without-finishing one book this year: Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. You KNOW I love me a good scifi epic, but Red Mars was entirely too tedious for me. I don’t remember how I heard about The Sparrow, but I was sure it would be another failure to fill the Michael Crichton-shaped hole in my soul. But I’ll be damned if it didn’t make me think about aliens, religion, communication, society, and even Puerto Rico in entirely new ways.

Book I Thought I’d Love but Ended Up Hating


Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs—A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder by Ben Mezrich. I really dug every other Mezrich work that I’ve read. This, though, was too populated with stern old guys for me to keep them straight in my head.

Book I Should Have Read Long Ago


Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Now I see how that whole phenomenon got started. A little too neat to be my Best Book, but a solid contender. (Never have I felt so like a Goop subscriber than at this moment.)

Book I Loved from Start to Finish


Room by Emma Donaghue. My Book of the Year. I haven’t seen the movie, but I figured I’d make up for my cowardice by reading the source material. The book was so engrossing, the climax so gripping, and the narrative device so perfect, that I can’t imagine the movie would do it justice. I read it instead of sleeping. I read it instead of eating. I read it even when it made my heart pound and my stomach burble. That's what a great book will do.