Taking a Prehistoric Road Trip

I recently had the pleasure of watching the three-part PBS miniseries Prehistoric Road Trip. It’s hosted by Emily Graslie, a science educator affiliated with the Chicago Field Museum. I wasn’t familiar with her before this, but you might know her from projects like her YouTube series, “The Brain Scoop.” Graslie is a delightfully energetic, goofy, nerdy, and thoughtful host, and the show thrives off her charisma as she interacts with a variety of paleontologists throughout the series.

Over the course of the three episodes, Graslie takes us on, well, a Prehistoric Road Trip across Great Plains states to see a variety of fossil collections, active dig sites, and other unique locations that represent millions of years of geologic and paleontological history. What sets this show apart from the dozens of other shows about paleontology and prehistoric creatures is that it is firmly centered on contemporary subjects, showcasing a wide range of modern-day researchers, highlighting interesting areas of current research, and discussing issues that I just haven’t really seen in any similar shows. Some of these interesting issues included the relationship between scientists and landowners, the historic colonialist abuses of mineral and scientific natural resources on indigenous lands and current efforts to reverse those trends, and how studies of past climate change show how unique and dangerous the current man-made climate change event is.

We still get to see a lot of cool prehistoric animals, plants, and even bacteria, but the view is more focused on the fossils themselves (although there are some beautiful still reconstructions along the way in the form of sketches and mounts), ranging from freshly discovered in the ground to mounted in museum displays. Along the way, there’s plenty of opportunity for the layperson to learn about how fossils are discovered and prepared, how decisions are made about what to do with fossils, how fossils can be valuable in different types of research, and even how anyone can volunteer to participate in digs. We get a little bit of the history of paleontology in the American West along the way.

It was really cool to hear from a range of voices that most people probably haven’t heard from before. The number of female and indigenous voices was especially cool, given how paleontology has often seemed to be a field overwhelmingly dominated by white men in the past.

Each episode is a little under an hour, and there are only three. If you have even the slightest interest in paleontology or prehistoric creatures, you should check this out. If you’re a layperson paleontology fan like myself, I feel confident you’ll learn at least one new thing and will have a lot of fun along the way!

BMO’s The Sheriff Now

I wanted to take a quick break from the absolutely stupid amount of Jurassic World: Evolution I’ve been playing to say that the new Adventure Time: Distant Lands – BMO was an absolute delight. It was exactly what I’d hope for an extended episode focused on BMO: silly yet melancholic, delightfully weird, cute and dark. And the ending offers a twisty reinterpretation of where this story sits in the timeline–I didn’t anticipate it, for sure.

I don’t think the episode alone makes even a month of HBO Max worthwhile though, if that’s your only reason for it. But I think it would be a great idea to wait for the full four episodes of Distant Lands to come out and to then pay for a single month’s subscription (or take advantage of a free trial, if available). As for me, I’ve enjoyed HBO Max’s lineup, and while it’s not my favorite subscription service, it’s at least making it easy for me to catch up on years’ worth of prestige television I ignored when people were talking about it. Hopefully new original content will make an ongoing subscription worthwhile, but for now I definitely prefer the functionality of HBO Max for those older shows in contrast to what I always found to be a clunky user interface with Amazon Prime.

Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Underground Railroad is grim, surreal, fantastical, and darkly satirical. It also rings true–as the acknowledgments attest, this is a fictional narrative built from a tradition of real stories from escaped slaves, from oral histories and the exemplary works of that antebellum literary genre. Its first sections are especially brutal to work through, as the violence and casual disregard for humanity of a slave-holding plantation are described in gruesome detail. The novel quickly deviates into moments of reality-straining fantasy, though, with a literal Underground Railroad, a skyscraper in South Carolina, and a hodgepodge mix of attitudes/philosophies/policies regarding race and labor that feel vaguely anachronistic when encountered from state to state within a narrative period of months. It’s a jarring experience, and it encouraged me to think of the book as not just pseudo-historical fiction but allegory for the contemporary systemic racism and injustice in America, and for continued racist policies post-slavery like black codes in the Jim Crow South or America’s flirtation with eugenics prior to the Second World War. While radically different in style and tone, the subject matter and surreal approach to a fictional slave narrative invites positive comparison to Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canda.

It took me a while to read this because it was hard to read. Not the writing, and not for lack of interest in the characters (and speaking of, the escaped slave protagonist held my sympathy and interest, but I had a dark fascination with the slave hunter antagonist with his bounty hunter iconography and bizarre black-boy sidekick). The sheer brutality and suffering and often a deep sense of hopelessness and despair, with only the faintest glimmer of hope and with so many senselessly tragic endings, made this very challenging to continue to engage with. It was worth it.

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Apparently the park manager is supposed to *manage* the park

Holy heck, I just realized that I’ve been playing a major portion of Jurassic World: Evolution entirely wrong.

In a nutshell: the game has two types of ratings to determine the success of your parks. One is a dinosaur rating, which uses the total number of dinosaurs, the number of distinct species, the cumulative ratings of individual dinosaurs (based on completeness of gene code and addition of genetic modifications), and the general welfare of the animals to determine how well your park is doing. The other is a guest rating, which looks at security, capacity, and satisfaction to similarly assess the human side of the park’s performance. Both ratings work on a five-star scale, and the average of their scores dictates your park’s overall five-star rating.

Guest satisfaction has always been a struggle for me. It’s easy going at first because you don’t have that many guests, so throwing in a few basic goods and services (restaurants, shops, and restrooms) will satisfy them enough. But as the park grows with the draw of more and better dinosaur attractions, guests demand more. I’ve always struggled to get from 4.5 stars to 5 stars because my dinosaurs toward the later stages of a park’s life are so popular that the park is overrun. I manage it, but it often requires a lot of buildings that make my park look ugly and cluttered and that slow down the performance of the game. And even then, guest opinion oscillates quite a bit. I remember using the trick of shutting down and reopening parks to get the guest count down so that I could beat the system and get a five-star park rating when I was ready to move on to the next island.

Only there’s no reason to “beat the system” because you can build a successful park that stays steady at five full stars, no matter the island or challenges before you. I’ve been overlooking obvious management features all this time.

Most buildings aimed at guests have three types of features to control: the number of staff, the type of product sold, and the price of the product. I’d fiddled with these controls before on many occasions, but I never found much rhyme or reason behind them. I don’t know if these features have been improved since release or if I just didn’t spend enough time with them, but they’re crucial when used correctly. As your park builds in popularity, you should be looking to your structures to see which specific buildings are popular. They might warrant staff increases if they are maxed out with visitors; that way, more guests can use a given building at a time. In contrast, it might be time to tear down a seldom-used facility that’s not contributing to guest satisfaction or park revenue. As something gains in popularity, people are more desirous of premium items at that location, and they are more willing to pay more. Manage these features, and you can have a tremendously successful five-star park that still looks neat and orderly, that doesn’t have constant fluctuations in guest satisfaction, and that more efficiently uses limited park resources (chiefly space and power).

I don’t think I ever figured this out before, not even back when I completed the original campaign the first time around. If I did, it was late in the game, I may have never maximized the value of that knowledge, and I must have forgotten in the many intervening months before I returned to the game. But I doubt I figured it out, at least not fully, or else it’s hard to understand why I found the sandbox and challenge modes to be such a turn-off. Now the challenge modes are piquing my interest more, and I think I will check them out once I get through the copious story content available (and after I go back to optimize my other parks in this campaign save file).

I wrote the following in my original review of the game:

There are a lot of deep statistics that are never explained anywhere in the game, but you only have to get a cursory understanding of any process to make it work. I still don’t fully understand how staffing, item quality, and price affects guest satisfaction with a particular store, and other than knowing that sales price should at least be higher than my own cost, I never did bother to figure it out. I didn’t need to. After I grew frustrated with one park always hovering around 4.5 stars because my continued success would draw down guest satisfaction as demand would continuously outstrip supply, I discovered via a forum tip that you could just close your park down briefly–then everyone would be excited with the reopening and the overcrowding would be gone, solving the problem for a while. Again, the game can be challenging, but it’s typically open to being exploited–and since it’s all about the bottom line with profits and divisional reputation, the game sort of encourages that exploitative mentality.

That doesn’t read like someone who ever figured out how to manage guest buildings. In my defense, my experimentation never really seemed to pay off. I’d try too early in a park’s life, when screwing with the values was more likely to increase how much a facility was costing me, instead of rewarding me with increased paying guests or higher profits. Later in each park, the process of building new stores was so ingrained that I didn’t ever seriously reconsider my tactics. Now I know that some buildings would go unattended even as guests complained about a lack of a good or service that those buildings supplied because they weren’t placed in areas of high guest activity, near major pathways or exhibits. Simply adding more buildings wasn’t solving the problem. Guests weren’t going to go out of their way to find a hidden restroom tucked behind a power plant; they’d instead wait on the overcrowded, obvious restroom and complain about that. It’s a realistic system, but one that is never explained in the game.

It’s a little embarrassing that it took me this long to figure it out. At the same time, at least I did manage to figure it out on my own!

While I thought this was worth writing about because it showcased a more complex hidden system within Jurassic World: Evolution while providing a hopefully amusing personal anecdote, I’d be glad to hear that someone considering the game, or already struggling with its management systems, found this and saved themselves a lot of time and frustration! And I’d sure love to hear any other tips or tricks people have for providing the best park management experience for all their guests. It took me this long to figure out this basic gameplay component. I shudder to think how long it might take me to learn and master more advanced strategies…

Review: Children of the Jedi

Children of the Jedi (Star Wars: The Callista Trilogy, #1)Children of the Jedi by Barbara Hambly

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

From what I gather, people typically love or hate this book. In a book in which Luke falls in love after entering into a remote relationship conducted through computer chats with a dead person, I think it’s reasonable to expect that it would be polarizing. My own feelings about it did not reach either extreme, however.

There were things I liked. I liked this depiction of Leia as a strong statesman who has not fully pursued her latent Force abilities, and who is haunted by her witnessing of the destruction of Alderaan. I liked the treatment of the Death Star architect war criminals, and Leia’s complicated feelings on that subject. I liked the fleshing out of Elder Houses and some of Leia’s background in Alderaanian royalty (though I like what the new canon has done with this far more). I liked C-3PO’s role in the plot, and I liked that he wasn’t treated solely as comic relief or an afterthought; I find that I really like whenever someone finds something for Threepio to do in a story. I liked some of the weird science philosophy musings on the nature of sentience and the division between synthetic and organic intelligences, but I didn’t expect a Star Wars story to ask heavy questions about the nature of consciousness and what defines a person as distinct, or whether someone can be replicated in a move from organic to robotic (which the book cutely distills to a question of identity as to whether someone might be “another Corellian of the same name”). I similarly liked Hambly’s effort to wrangle with the limitations of the Force when it came to mechanicals. And I liked the new alien races and many of the new characters–I especially loved the nature-loving ex-stormtrooper Triv Pothman and the Force Ghost of former Jedi adventurer Callista.

There were also things I did not like. I did not like the pacing of the book, and the tone often felt very not-Star Wars, whatever that means exactly. It often was slow, reflective, and grounded. For a Star Wars story, I found these elements to be somewhat boring. Also, Luke is really wrung through over the course of the story; in an effort to limit his god-tier Force powers, the narrative breaks him down physically and mentally. He acts like a heroic Jedi throughout, though torn by his personal connections (in other words, he acts like Luke). But it is exhausting to read how exhausted he gets, how much pain he experiences. He is in perpetual excruciating pain and operating with pretty extreme sleep deprivation for much of the book. It’s a bit much, but I get that authors often struggled with how to use Jedi Master Luke. I similarly did not care for his relationship with Callista (and definitely prefer that Luke ends up with Mara, who is a more interesting partner for him). They fell in love too fast and with too little reason. How she is brought back to life is also rather morally questionable. And while R2-D2 gets to be useful, I really hate how he almost kills Han and Leia (even if he didn’t have control of himself at the time).

There are other things that I don’t feel strongly about. Han and Chewie were more support characters, but they were portrayed accurately. The battle moon that serves as the central threat of the novel is just a Death Star Lite, but at least it’s not another literal Death Star. The supporting threat of a cyborg augmentation that allows a Force-user to control droids seemed wildly bizarre to me. The Ismarens would have been more interesting villains if more time had been spent on them, although Roganda, calculating and bitter former concubine of Palpatine, felt at least like a unique sort of threat. There are a lot of tropes that don’t feel like they should be in a Star Wars story, like what amounts to a minor zombie threat, although I recognize that zombies (or something similar) have ended up in use in many Star Wars stories, so it’s hard for me to identify what exactly felt off about it. Mara Jade and Lando Calrissian have insignificant cameo appearances, and they’re not really out of character but they don’t really have the chance to act in character, either. Finally, the novel is necessarily dated by its release before the prequel trilogy, so a lot of the details about an enclave of Jedi children, and the apparently accepted presence of Jedi families, no longer make a lot of sense, even though I could accept the broad idea that Jedi would care for Force-strong younglings.

I liked the writing and the weirdness, even though I didn’t like how everything worked as a Star Wars story about the Big Three heroes of the original trilogy. I’d be interested in reading non-Star Wars works by Hambly. I don’t regret reading this book, and it’s definitely not the worst Star Wars book I’ve read. On the other hand, I wouldn’t join with those who love it in recommending it to others. It was, if nothing else, an interesting experience.

TCW 7.12 “Victory and Death”

So that’s how The Clone Wars ends. Somehow both self-reflective and frenetically powered by near-constant action and thrills until the closing moments. Tragic, yet with the faintest glimmer of hope (more because of what we know comes next than because of how it actually ends). A triumph in storytelling and animation, especially looking back over the show’s entire, convoluted history. And a work that compellingly deepens the themes and emotions expressed in Revenge of the Sith.

That was the first thing I did after finishing Episode 12 last night: another viewing of the final prequel film. Having in mind the events on Mandalore, and the scenes that we see just a little bit more of in the show, added fascinating new layers. While my opinions on every Star Wars film shift over time, I’ve generally been impressed with the tragedy of Revenge, but that is so much more amplified with the context of the concluding chapters of The Clone Wars. Now more than ever, Revenge becomes a story of missed opportunities, of small failings. Now more than ever, it’s a story in which the protagonist has been failed by everyone and everything he believes in, where the people who could keep him in the Light are pushed away from him.

I like the tiny things I can read into the movie now. Things I couldn’t read before because they weren’t there before, because they weren’t even a glimmer in Lucas’s eye when the movie was made. I like being able to read a moment’s hesitation on the part of Commander Cody before he orders the firing on Obi-Wan. I like when Palpatine says, “Every single Jedi, including your friend, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is now an enemy of the Republic,” and thinking about how he leaves out Ahsoka. Ahsoka, who has very recently seen Anakin. Ahsoka, who is no longer a Jedi. Ahsoka, who is supposed to talk to Anakin and give her perspective on the Council and help him feel understood when he feels pinned down and betrayed by their hypocrisy, but who never got the chance. I like to think that if Palpatine had mentioned Ahsoka in that moment, Anakin might not have gone along with it. He could let Anakin believe, or hope, that Ahsoka would be excepted and spared. And of course Palpatine directly activates Order 66 among Rex and Ahsoka’s own loyal troopers, anyway. And of course Ahsoka never gets that final chance to commiserate with Anakin, and when he can go looking for her again, she is presumed lost and he has become Darth Vader.

I think my preference would have been for a little more resolving action. A little more setting up how Rex and Ahsoka departed, how they split up, what they intended to do. Of course, we have the Ahsoka novel and Rebels to fill in many of those gaps. And they weren’t moments that the show needed to explore; they were outside its scope. It had reached its end, and while it connects so strongly with other stories later in the timeline, I appreciate from a storytelling perspective that it did not dawdle to wrap everything up with a neat bow, did not document every little twist of continuity to be regurgitated as a factoid by obsessive fans down the road. (By the way, that whole kerfuffle about how Clone Wars contradicted the flashbacks in Ahsoka? It’s not that big a deal at all, and different media can of course tell different stories about the same events–it’s kind of the nature of myth, after all–but I think one could just toss the divergences in the book in-universe up to recollections in dream, or flawed memory, and simply move on with one’s life, rather than sweat the trivia.)

I’m glad this season existed. The Clone Wars now feels complete, even while there are plenty of stories to tell about all that happened during those wars. (Moments referred to in the show but not shown, either because they were side references or from Legends. Stories with other characters not chronicled across the galaxy. And where is Echo in the end? What does he do after he’s rescued and joins up with the Bad Batch?)

With that chapter completed, and another viewing of Revenge of the Sith under my belt, I think it’s time to rewatch Rebels too (and finally see the final season of that, as well). I really love Filoni’s contributions to Star Wars!

TCW 7.11: “Shattered”

Wow. Order 66. Even knowing the outcome, even knowing for years now thanks to Rebels that both Rex and Ahsoka made it through the Clone Wars, this was an intense and anxiety-inducing episode. The score was anxious and melancholy, occasionally punctuated by the tunes from Revenge of the Sith that accompanied its own depiction of Order 66. The pacing was incredible, such that we couldn’t believe that almost a half an hour had passed by the end. And there were so many moments that felt, again, like a slightly different action, a moment aside with a character, a more frank conversation, could have changed everything. It was really cool to see scenes and moments from the movie bridged right into the episode. And Maul, after being put in his place and sent on his way by Ahsoka, is absolutely terrifying–and brutal! I don’t know what the final episode might do; I don’t know how you can conclude it all in just one more episode. This is wild. This is great TV. This is great Star Wars.

Apparently, the final episode is set to air a little earlier. This Monday, it looks like. That’s still too far away!

TCW 7.10: “Phantom Apprentice”

This Siege of Mandalore arc is adding so much nuance to Revenge of the Sith, which is already an above-average Star Wars film.

I love how much Maul recognizes and has figured out Sidious’s vision–how close he was to figuring it all out in time, how much he realizes he was just a pawn in a grandmaster’s game, how he could have almost destabilized it all. When he is foiled, because Maul is always foiled, I could sort of feel for him. He knows what is coming and he’s going to fail to stop it.

I love the moment when Maul and Ahsoka have something approaching a parley, and how that moment feels like one of the critical shatterpoints (to use Mace Windu’s preferred term) of the entire saga. Someone on Twitter suggested the following quote from the Revenge of the Sith novelization as the epigraph for this arc, since these episodes have eschewed that Clone Wars tradition:

This story happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It is already over. Nothing can be done to change it.

I found myself thinking about that in relation to the episode. It fits so well, and it really pops in context of the Ahsoka/Maul confrontation. You can’t help but feel that if Ahsoka had sided with Maul, everything could have played out very differently. Maybe the Sith would have still ruled, maybe the galaxy would have descended into chaos…or maybe a weary and battered Jedi Order would have been able to rebuild the Republic (or something better) over time. I felt as though Ahsoka was facing options that could have completely reprogrammed the outcome of Revenge of the Sith–but of course, her fate and the fates of her friends are already set in stone. There was fantastic tension, not only for this story, but for the bigger story whose outcome we already know in full.

I love how Obi-Wan was really trying to reach out to Anakin. He knew the Jedi Council was wrong and felt awful for giving Anakin the assignment of spying on the Chancellor. That much was clear in Revenge of the Sith. But it’s heartbreaking that Obi-Wan tried to turn to Ahsoka, knowing she would understand how Anakin felt in facing the hypocrisy of the Council, hoping that she could get through to him–heartbreaking because we know she’ll never get that chance.

I love the beautiful, wild, jaw-dropping lightsaber battle between Ahsoka and Maul. The mo-capped choreography is incredible. The wide-ranging setpieces used to host the sprawling fight are impressive, as well. The final high-beam fight has a dangerous, acrobatic energy comparable to Anakin and Obi-Wan’s fight.

I even love the tacky episode title, living up to the spirit of the goofy serial names of the other films, nodding to The Phantom Menace of Sidious’s grand plot against the Republic and the Jedi, and (it would seem) ultimately referring to Anakin, who has been groomed to be Sidious’s new apprentice all this time, as Maul now knows.

I love so much about this beautiful, exhilarating, emotional episode. Only two more left, and then The Clone Wars will be complete!