Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: Ship Breaker

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2010. 326 pp)

Born in 1972, Paolo Bacigalupi is a science fiction and fantasy writer. He has won the Hugo, Nebula, Compton Crook, Theodore Sturgeon, and Michael L. Printz awards, and has been nominated for the National Book Award. His most famous work, The Windup Girl was named one of the top ten books of 2009 by Time Magazine.


Dystopian novels always reveal something about the human condition, and that’s why I tend to gravitate toward them. I read not for a love of seeing what the world would be if it fell into disarray, but to catch slight glimpses of the human condition put against the backdrop of extreme chaos and difficulty. Ship Breaker exposes, amidst a darkened world, one of the finer aspects of the human character—loyalty. But, before I explore the idea of loyalty, I feel like it’s important to first tell of how the world of Ship Breaker occurred.

How the World Collapsed 

In a sentence, climate change has caused the world to fall into ruin.

Describing what happened, Tool, a half dog, half man reminisces with the protagonist of the novel, Nailer, on how this dystopia came about.
“‘No one expected Category Six hurricanes. They didn’t have city killers then. The climate changed. The weather shifted. They did not anticipate well.’ Nailer wondered at that idea. That no one could have understood that they would be the target of monthly hurricanes pinballing up the Mississippi Alley, gunning for anything that didn’t have the sense to batten down, float, or go underground” (204).
Photo by NASA
With decades of climate change, city killers—category six hurricanes—ravage the world. The hurricanes move the coastline inland as much as a mile, and leave derelict ships behind. More important to the plot, these storms also cause severe class splits between the “swanks”, or extremely rich, and those who aren’t. Nailer, living in poverty, benefits from city killers because they wreck ships in the bay. Also a member of “light crew”, or teenage laborers, he breaks down ships for their precious materials such as copper, hoping to bring home enough to make quota, feed himself, and live to see another day.

In a twist of fate, Nailer is forced to pair up with a swank named Nita, whom he finds a difficult person to trust at first, due to her elite status.

Loyalty Can Be Rare 

Nailer found Nita nearly dead aboard a derelict ship, while trying to plunder her exquisitely lavish clipper ship of any valuables. Finding out that she was rich led him to take her for ransom. But, his conscience, evidently rare in this world, led him to return her to her family because it was the right thing to do, not because her wealth could give him a better life. Nailer ends up trusting Nita, even with his life, and he becomes extremely loyal to her.

Remarkably, in this disheveled and hectic world, loyalty is hard to come by. Nailer, sadly enough, cannot even trust his own father.
“Nailer laughed. ‘My dad doesn’t give anyone a chance for second thoughts. He cuts you first. He talks about family sticking together, but what he really means is that I give him money so he can [drink] and make sure he’s okay on his binges, and he hits me when he wants.’ Nailer made a face. ‘[Nita] is more of a family than he is’” (251).
This quote reveals the way Nailer’s world is. He cannot trust his own father; much less those around him that he knows even less. But, Nailer finds, through some trial and error, that character is what speaks to the trustworthiness of a person, not position or relationship.

A Bigger Message and Some Hype 

Ultimately, this book was written for young adults, and as a result it was a quick read; I finished the three hundred pages in a single day. But, it was extremely entertaining. I enjoyed the bigger message of ecological awareness, and especially the theme of loyalty that ran through the entirety of the novel. Thus, I recommend this book to anyone that enjoys a fast-paced plot with a dystopian theme.

Because of this book, I’m looking forward to Bacigalupi’s next novel, The Drowned Cities—a companion to Ship Breaker, where Tool (the previously mentioned man-beast) teams up with two natives of the war-torn and flooded world. I think Bacigalupi is an author to watch, as all the awards he has gathered, in my mind, are well earned.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Film Review: Senna

Senna directed by Asif Kapadia (Universal Pictures, Studio Canal, and Working Title Films, PG-13, 106 minutes)

Starring Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Frank Williams, and Ron Dennis.

Motor Sports in the Blood

Whenever I feel the need to impress a new acquaintance, I often find myself telling stories of my dad and uncles. You see, my father (before he met my mother) raced hydroplanes. As a child, my dad would take me to the pits during Seafair and while I marveled at the loud engines and sleek boat frames, my dad would socialize with drivers, mechanics, and boat owners.

Both of my uncles to this day dabble in motor sports. Whether go-karts or open-wheeled Formula Four vehicles, my uncles have the need for speed. In fact, I fondly remember when my dad kept an uncle’s race care in the garage. There are pictures of me in the cockpit pretending that I am winning a grand prix.

Despite my family’s comprehensive history in motor sports and my early love for race (I collected matchbox cars as a kid), I never developed into the next generation of Richards racers. Credit my grandmother for exhibiting enough worry for the safety of her sons or my mother for convincing my father to get out of hydroplanes before he killed himself, but I never stepped foot in a competitive race.

With this history, I viewed Senna, the new documentary by award-winning filmmaker Asif Kapadia in a unique light.

A World Champion

Chronicling the quick rise to fame and premature death of three-time world champion, Ayrton Senna, Senna documents the serene faith of a driver who danced with death every time he strapped into a car and the film also exposes some of the politics that led to the fateful crash which took Senna’s life much too soon.

The product of an upper-middle-class Brazilian family, Senna expressed a love for race from an early age and his family promoted the hobby entering him in regional go-karting races. A prodigious talent, Senna quickly rose through the racing ranks and debuted in Formula One in 1984.

For those unaware of Formula One, the premier open-wheeled racing league in the world, the league operates in a team format with owners and engineers hiring the best drivers around the world. Each team develops cars with automobile manufacturers, with money and a certain set of safety regulations acting as the only fenceposts.

As such, the best funded teams typically find themselves on the winner’s podium. Imagine the shock of the old guard when Ayrton Senna began winning races on an underfunded and less-than-optimal machine.

As Senna became a mainstay in the league, he worked his way to McLaren-Honda as a teammate to Frenchman Alain Prost. In the next few years, Proust and Senna became bitter rivals despite their status as teammates. Having won three world championships, Senna moved to Williams-Renault in 1994 as the team had developed the fastest car in Formula One history.

Sadly, Senna never completed the year since he died in an unassisted crash during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Driving by God’s Assistance or a Dance with Death?

Senna’s driving style inspired many but also drew criticism. As the movie poetically depicts, Senna’s devout faith in God influenced the way he drove a race car. He waited longer before braking into a turn; he accelerated quicker out of a turn. For many, such a driving style teetered on the edge of human capability.

While watching the documentary, one can easily conclude that Senna dared drivers to block him and force an accident. Whenever a driver revealed even a sliver of space, Senna took it and demanded that the other driver back down lest both drivers crash.

Such a style drew harsh criticism from Senna’s arch-rival Alain Prost. In the movie, Prost claims that Senna’s belief in God allowed him to drive recklessly.

Meanwhile, the rise of computer technology allowed engineers to break the barriers of racing science. In the 1993 season, cars debuted with corrective technology allowing drivers to push the limits of speed without worry of losing control of the car.

As the 1994 season began, Formula One’s governing body decreed a ban on corrective computer technology which evened the playing field but also developed higher levels of danger with the speed of the cars.

With Senna’s driving style and the reckless regulations of Formula One, disaster would soon result. At the beginning of practice for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, the drivers knew a dangerous weekend would unfold when the young, up-and-coming driver, Rubens Barichello, missed a turn and found his car launched into guard rail. Shocked, bruised, yet ultimately healthy, Barichello escaped with his life.

A day later, however, another driver would not be so lucky. During the final qualifying run, Roland Ratzenberger lost control of his vehicle and crashed into the outside wall. With a basal skull fracture, Ratzenberger lost his life.

After two horrendous accidents, archival footage reveals a tense and visibly shaken Senna. Despite the danger, Senna qualified for the pole position and completed 6 laps before losing control and fatally crashing on lap 7.

Whether Senna’s reckless driving style ran out of luck or the increased technology added too much danger to the sport, the events at San Marino led to Formula One issuing a mea culpa and commissioning research on bringing safety to the sport.

The Unsettling Notion of Danger as Entertainment

As a film, Senna is informative, fast-paced, and heartbreaking. In many ways, despite the fact that I have never considered it; Senna’s death became the harbinger for my eventual phasing out of motor sports from my passions.

I love my family and I appreciate the talent it takes to safely win a race. Yet I find the danger of the sport hard to reconcile. Sadly, the car accident is one of the thrilling parts of a race. Just watch “Sportscenter”. You’ll see highlights of the checkered flag and all of the accidents that occurred during the race. Ultimately, I find such an occurrence unsettling and telling of human character. I loved motor sports, but I think I also loved the accidents too much. As such, I am glad that I never followed the footsteps of my father and uncles.

As for the film, Senna gorgeously compiles archival footage from Ayrton Senna’s life and creates a compelling narrative about the driver, his devout faith, and a broken organization. If you are interested in motor spots, you need to watch this movie. Even if you don’t care one way or another about the sport, Senna is informative, entertaining, heartbreaking, and worth your time.

Verdict: 5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review: The Tiger's Wife

The Tiger's Wife: A Novel by Téa Obreht (New York: Random House, 368 pp)

Born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia, Téa Obreht grew up in Cyprus and Egypt before immigrating to the United States in 1997. Her writing is published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Zoetrope: All-Story, The New York Times, and The Guardian. Her first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, won the 2011 Orange Prize. She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in The National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35. Téa Obreht lives in Ithaca, New York.

Faith or Reason

With the death of famed author and theist critic Christopher Hitchens framing recent discussions, the culture wars between evangelical Christians and hard-nose atheistic scientists rage on. Both sides consider the other to be the epitome of evil in the current age. The Christian is either a beacon of morality or the source of discrimination, violence, and ignorance; the atheist represents either the foundation of the new, secular, and humanist world or a brazen liar spewing hate toward a specific people group.

Setting aside all rhetoric, the core of the argument resides in the principle of reason versus faith. Often painted as polar opposites, reason and faith act as the different ways in which an individual can approach a problem or provide an explanation.

And reason versus faith offers the core debate in Téa Obreht’s new novel, The Tiger’s Wife.

A Doctor Dealing with Death

Set in the Balkans in an unnamed country with a remarkably similar history to the former Yugoslavia, the protagonist, Natalia, travels with her best-friend-since-childhood, Zóra, to an orphanage near the sea. Both trained as doctors, the pair arrives hoping to cure physical and psychological wounds.

While the duo travels, Natalia learns of the sudden death of her grandfather, who was a physician of great renown. Natalia’s grandfather silently suffered through cancer and chose to die alone in a rundown region unknown to his family. Coping with the shock of losing her closest family member, Natalia reminisces about the unique stories her grandfather told—particularly about the tiger’s wife and the deathless man.

“My grandfather never refers to the tiger’s wife by name. His arm is around me and my feet are on the handrail, and my grandfather might say, ‘I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.’ Because I am little, and my love of tigers comes directly from him, I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine myself — and will, for years and years” (4).

During recollections such as these, the reader learns of the intricate relationship Natalia had with her grandfather, and the complicated relationship he had with the world at large.

A Grandfather Caught between Science and Belief

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar
Born and raised in a small Balkan village, Natalia’s grandfather learned of Balkan superstition from an early age. When a mysterious tiger appears in the outskirts of the village, popular opinion in the settlement exposes the fantastical interpretations the human mind creates to explain such situations. With fear and faith in superstition, the existence of the tiger spells doom for the ease of mind in the village — Natalia’s grandfather included.

Separately, Natalia thinks back to the many stories her grandfather told of the deathless man. On multiple occasions during her grandfather’s work as a doctor, the grandfather meets a man who claims the supernatural ability of immortality. In one moment of disbelief, in fact, her grandfather wagers with the man and ties the deathless man to a cinder block before allowing him to wade into a deep lake. Imagine the grandfather’s surprise when the deathless man slips out of the shallows hours later.

Medicine or Superstition

Despite the many themes of war, family, regret, and mysticism in The Tiger’s Wife, I find the disconnect between faith and reason to be the core theme of this novel. Natalia’s grandfather sought a degree in medicine in order to combat the superstitious beliefs that killed many people he knew. Yet at the same time, the grandfather must face many supernatural and seemingly miraculous aspects of his own life.

Likewise, Natalia, as a doctor, can’t help but think superstitiously about her grandfather’s demise. Despite her formal training in science and reason, her mind wanders toward items of belief when considering the last moments of her grandfather. While discussing a character in the grandfather’s past, Obreht ponders why death holds us so comprehensively.

“Young boys are fascinated with animals, but for Dariša the hysterical dream of the golden labyrinth, coupled with the silent sanctuary of the trophy room, amounted to a much simpler notion: absence, solitude, and then, at the end of it all, Death in thousands of forms, standing in that hall with frankness and clarity — Death had size and color and shape, texture and grace. There was something concrete to it. In that room, Death had come and gone, swept by, and left behind a mirage of life — it was possible, he realized, to find life in Death” (248).

A False Dichotomy

Of course, from a philosophical perspective, the dichotomy between faith and reason is nonexistent. Faith is the bedrock of human activity. People framing faith and reason in conflict merely need to ask why they believe that reason provides the right answers. In truth, the only answer to such a question is that they have faith that reason gives them the right answers.

My enjoyment of this novel finds its focus under this principle. As an individual who values education and reason, my personal beliefs can often seem in conflict with my educational pursuits. Yet, I understand that I possess as much faith in reason as I have in less tangible beliefs. With The Tiger’s Wife, I find parallels in these characters as they ponder the superstitious and mystical beside the calculated and the rational.

In The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht explores the death of a family member and how the scientific mind of a doctor resorts to folk belief in order find meaning. A complex but rewarding read, The Tiger's Wife is a book highly recommend for anyone who enjoys literary fiction, Balkan folklore, and/or the dichotomy between faith and reason.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Review: Medium Raw

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook by Anthony Bourdain (New York: Harper Collins Books, 2010. 281 pp)

Anthony Bourdain, born in 1956, attended Vassar College and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He has worked as a cook and chef in many institutions strewn across the New York City map. Bourdain contributes articles to the Times, New York Times, Observer, the Face, Scotland on Sunday, and Food Arts Magazine. An addition to Kitchen Confidential, he has written two crime novels – Gone Bamboo and Bone in the Throat. Bourdain was the executive chef at Brassiere Les Halles and is currently the host of the Travel Channel program: Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Bourdain resides in New York City.
Honesty is the Best Policy 

The last time the literary world saw Anthony Bourdain was in his memoir, Kitchen Confidential. It was filled with stories of him at his most crass, whilst revealing the shady world of the culinary underbelly. However, with Medium Raw, Bourdain becomes more vulnerable and honestly explores his own sordid past as well as his recent acclaim in this hilarious autobiographical work.

Much like his previous book, Bourdain discusses the ins and outs of the culinary world. But, what made this book stand out isn’t that he talked about food — which is the reason I picked it up — it’s that he discusses his own life. He is incredibly honest, and the tale behind his rise to fame, as well as the extreme obstacles on the way make Medium Raw a compelling read.

Bourdain, simply put, possesses a magnetic personality. If you’ve ever watched his television show, No Reservations, you know exactly how this book reads — with hilarious and intricate verbiage.

The Present 

Bourdain was once plagued with serious life problems. Recognizing this fact, he tells the tale of his past juxtaposed with his present in Medium Raw. He opens the book by describing a private sit-down with the most respected chefs in America during which they eat a bird that is illegal in America — Ortolan. He concludes this first chapter, and begins the rest of the book, by reflecting in the shock of his current position,
“What could my memoir of an undistinguished — even disgraceful — career have said to people of such achievements? And who are these people, anyway?” (xviii).
Bourdain then proceeds to admit his naïveté about much of the culinary industry when he wrote Kitchen Confidential, and even apologizes to some of the many friends he has come to know since writing the novel.

The Past 

Bourdain also takes time to lament on his sordid past.
“I was holed up in the Caribbean about midway through a really bad daily routine began with me waking up around ten, smoking a joint, and going to the beach — where I’d drink myself stupid on beer, smoke a few more joints, and pass out until mid-afternoon. This to be followed by an early-evening rise, another joint, and then off to the bars, followed by the brothels. By then, usually very late at night, I’d invariably find myself staggeringly drunk — the kind of drunk where you’ve got to put a hand over one eye to see straight” (25).
This kind of amazingly non-narcissistic and honest tale, the kind I wouldn’t expect from Bourdain, is thought provoking and moving. He meanders between past and present, offering new tales and new critiques, as well as new praises.

This book is far superior to Kitchen Confidential, a book I particularly enjoyed. This autobiographical work is compelling, honest, and raw (thus, the title). Though he talks about a myriad of topics, they all center around what he has experienced as an individual. If you enjoy humor, honest stories about a life, or just food, I suggest you start reading Medium Raw now.

Verdict:  4 out of 5

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Book Review: The Ultimate Question

Ultimate Question: Driving Good Profits and True Growth by Fred Reichheld (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2006. 224 pp)

Born in Cleveland, Fred Reichheld is an author and business strategist employed by Bain & Company. Holding a B.A. from Harvard College and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, Reichheld writes on the loyalty business model. His most popular books are The Loyalty Effect, Loyalty Rules!, and The Ultimate Question. In 2003, Consulting Magazine named Reichheld one of the world’s top 25 consultants.

Good Ethics Is Good Business?

Spend any time with a business executive and you might hear the cliché, “Good ethics is good business.” Setting aside the clear disassociation between this statement and the way American businesses operate, the philosopher in me reacts negatively to such statements. Often times, good ethics does equal high profits, but such a statement should never paint broad strokes. Occasionally, the right decision costs a firm extensive money.

However, Fred Reichheld’s The Ultimate Question might offer a key to translating an overused cliché into a tangible metric that links profits with good ethics.

Rethinking Profits

At its core, The Ultimate Question proposes that business managers rethink the ways they evaluate business success. Since financial metrics are easy to produce and easy to read, managers often make decisions strictly based on financials.

Reichheld, however, believes that these profit-oriented measurements force business leaders to become addicted to bad profits. Reichheld says,

“Bad profits work much of their damage through the detractors they produce. Detractors are customers who feel badly treated by a company – so badly that they cut back on their purchases, switch to the competition if they can, and warn others to stay away from the company they feel has done them wrong” (6).

To reorient business decisions, the author argues that managers ought to measure customer satisfaction instead of financial performance. If a company creates loyal customers, it produces good profits.

“A company earns good profits when it so delights its customers that they willingly come back for more – and not only that, they tell their friends and colleagues to do business with the company. Satisfied customers become, in effect, part of the company’s marketing department, not only increasing their own purchases but also providing enthusiastic referrals. They become promoters” (9-10).

The Ultimate Question

After years of research, Reichheld and his consulting firm, Bain & Company, found that highly satisfied customers offer a direct link to profitable long term growth for a company. In order to find out whether a company holds satisfied customers, only one question needs to be asked. That question is:

“How likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague” (18-19)?

By answering that question on a 0-10 scale, a company can truly gauge the satisfaction and loyalty of its customers. Those that answer in the 9-10 range are considered promoters; those in the 7-8 range are passive; and those in the 0-6 range are detractors. Thus, a company will know the satisfaction of its customers by subtracting the detractors from the promoters. This equation gives managers a net promoter score (NPS).

If the company’s NPS is high, it has delighted customers who buy multiple products and encourage their friends to do the same. A company with a low NPS, on the other hand, is addicted to bad profits and is holding its customers hostage. Whenever the customers have an opportunity to leave this company, they will.

Theory aside, Reichheld’s metrics hold when applied in business settings. The industry leaders in NPS are also growing exponentially and making large profits.

TOMS: Good Ethics Equaling Good Business

Considering the angle I presented at the beginning of the review, where are the ethics in this book? At first glance, NPS is a customer satisfaction metric, an equation with little connection to ethics. A business need not be overtly ethical in order to serve customers; it only needs to practice the golden rule of treating others as it would wish to be treated in order to obtain a high NPS.

But I argue that serving customers is a task that orients a company toward ethics. By thinking of the needs of the customer, a company cannot act selfishly because a selfish action results in bad profits and customer detractors.

Photo by Sharmili R
Furthermore, I hypothesize that a business which promotes its ethical practices as a core reason for operating have a high NPS. For example, TOMS shoes illustrates the significance of promoters. With its one-for-one social enterprise model, the company relies on customer promotion for its advertising. In fact, TOMS dedicates a portion of its website to customer testimonials. Without the social ethics surrounding the business, TOMS is just another shoe company. Knowing that a shoe purchase helps a child in need, customers take great joy in wearing and promoting the product. Thus, TOMS success relies on a high NPS for profitability.

So perhaps, advertised good ethics does equal business. More research is in order, but a link between ethics and high profits seems plausible.

With bad profits leaving most companies middling around a 0-10% NPS, the search for ways in which a company can raise its NPS, and therefore grow, is extremely important. If you manage a business, you owe it to yourself, your employees, and your customers to read Ultimate Question.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Film Review: Margin Call

Margin Call directed by J.C Chandor (Before The Door Pictures, Benaroya Pictures, Washington Square Films, R, 107 minutes)

A Financial Crisis

Margin Call catalogues a thirty-six hour period of the events that took place at a prestigious investment firm, which looks similar to the notorious firm Lehman Brothers. Through the lens of the firm, the audience gets to see the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and how investment bankers handled the crisis. The film also had what I considered to be a particularly stellar cast, including Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, and Jeremy Irons. I was excited to see this movie, though I had a feeling that any movie surrounding the financial crisis might be a bit over my head – and (spoiler!) it was. So, with a great sense of forthcoming confusion, I embarked into this movie.

The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

The movie begins with our three protagonists, junior employees Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) and Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) as well as fixed income salesman Will Emerson (Paul Bettany). These three watch as the Human Resource department walks from floor to floor conducting mass layoffs in the wake of the financial crisis. Their boss from risk management, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), is one of the first employees to be laid off. As Eric packs up his belongings, he hands a USB drive to Peter, warning him to “be careful”.

Photo by Walter Thompson
Obviously distraught by the warning, and in lieu of celebrating with his still-employed teammates, Peter, a doctorate in aeronautical engineering, remains in the office crunching numbers and trying to figure out why Dale told him to be careful. He discovers, to his horror, that trading will soon exceed historical volatility levels via the Value at Risk (VaR) system. The VaR system notifies risk managers about the danger of loss on a specific portfolio of financial assets. The company’s assets – mortgage backed securities – are in danger because of excessive leverage (borrowing too much money). If the firm’s assets decrease by twenty five percent, the business (again remember, the story represents Lehman Brothers) will suffer a loss greater than its market capitalization (the value of the share for the company times the number of shares outstanding). 

Coming to this realization, Peter tells his coworkers, and his boss, the head of sales, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey).

An Unsettling Option

Photo by Walter Thompson
The head of risk management, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), head of securities, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), and CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons,) meet with the three main characters all night long. John, the CEO, finally reveals his unsettling plan: first, the firm will sell all of its bad shares before the market can react to the dim reality that the shares are completely worthless; and second, he will offer Sarah Robertson (the head of risk management) up as a sacrifice to appease members of the board, much to her dismay.

Uneasy with the plan to start, Sam Rogers switches tunes when he discovers that he and his traders will receive seven figure bonuses if they achieve a 93% or greater reduction of mortgage-backed securities  assets.

Don’t Forget Your Financially Savvy Father-in-Law

I would have enjoyed this movie quite a bit more if it weren’t so complicated. The cast helped pique my interest, but if I hadn’t had my financially-savvy father-in-law watching the movie with me explaining things like mortgage-backed securities, value at risk, and leverage systems, I would have been completely lost as the plot unfolded.

The cast delivered a compelling performance, but perhaps for the not-so-financially-brilliant folks out there, Margin Call isn’t the movie for you.  If, however, you’ve mastered the financial jargon, I think it is worth a view.

Verdict: 2 out of 5

Posted by: Andrew Jacobson
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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Andrew's Top Albums of 2011

For 2011, it felt like I listened to a lot of music. But in retrospect, I didn’t listen to that much. As a result, instead of listing my top forty albums as I did last year (on Facebook, here's my list from 2010), I have limited this list to twenty-five artists who I feel span a vast array of genres, representing what I feel is the best of the year.

25. Cold War Kids – Mine Is Yours 

Though I hadn’t previously heard much of Cold War Kids, I really thought Mine Is Yours was super catchy, singable, and really fun to listen to; it’s a good album for a road trip.

24. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

With their sixth album, The Decemberists explore a new sound in an effort to push themselves as musicians, Colin Meloy, the main songwriter, even stated “this album took a lot out of me as a musician.” I think all their hard work made The King Is Dead album one of their best.

23. David Bazan – Strange Negotiations

Following one of my favorite Bazan albums, Curse Your Branches, Strange Negotiations was another well planned release on Bazan’s part. Intricately filled with his poetic songwriting style, you can hear Bazan’s aggressive feelings toward God in this emotional record.

22. City and Colour – Little Hell

Dallas Green pours his heart out on this album. Filled with heart-felt lyrics, outstanding vocals, and fantastic compositions, Green sings about his wife’s nightmares, his sister’s mental health problems, and his own deficiencies as a person.

21. Radiohead – The King of Limbs

While I liked this album, it wasn’t nearly as good as anything else Radiohead has released as a band. But, Radiohead is still amazing, and King of Limbs made this list.

20. Ben Folds – The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective

I’m a big fan of Ben Folds, and always have been. As one of pop rock’s piano playing showmen, he’s always fun to watch and great to hear. The Best Imitation of Myself gives the benefit of retrospectively looking back over the best of his career thus far.

19. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto

It took an extended period to get into this album, but I must confess Mylo Xyloto is lovely. The band banished Chris Martin during the writing process in order to create a new sound, and they certainly achieved it on this album.

18. MUTEMATH – Odd Soul

Composed during a forced lock-down at lead singer Paul Meany’s home studio, the band produced an intricate, well-thought album with great melodies and catchy lines. Also, the music video for “Blood Pressure” is crazy.

17.  Black Keys – El Camino

Following their breakthrough album, Brothers, El Camino is a straight ahead rock-and–roll album with raw, driving lyrics and melodies. Largely self-produced, this record is some of the best rock-and-roll around.

16. Iron and WineKiss Each Other Clean

This album is Iron and Wine’s newest highly produced electronic album. At first I didn’t like Kiss Each Other Clean, and when Iron & Wine performed it in concert I hated it. But, with further listening, I conclude that there is still good songwriting in the album, even if I miss the old days of simplicity.

15. Fleet FoxesHelplessness Blues

Simply put, this album is at least worth a listen. Though it’s not my favorite of the year, and I feel that the band hasn’t really improved or grown since their freshman release, the music is still worthwhile, even if the lyrics aren’t especially well crafted.

14. Explosions in the SkyTake Care, Take Care, Take Care

Take Care, Take Care, Take Care possesses some of the most passionate, and powerful music of Explosions in the Sky’s career. It’s easy to just get lost in the intricacies of the band’s sound. This album is haunting and beautiful.

13. Foster the PeopleTorches

A previously unknown band, Torches hit the top of the charts quickly. Unbeknownst to most, Foster the People has more songs than “Pumped up Kicks”! However, most of the tracks are similar to one another. But, if you want ten tracks of toe tapping tunes, Torches is for you.

12. Amos LeeMission Bell

A very soulful album, Mission Bell is one of my favorites that Amos Lee has released. There are tons of guest artists on here, including Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam and music legend, Willie Nelson. In all honesty, there is no weak track Mission Bell.

11. St. Vincent Strange Mercy

Fusing the visceral and cerebral, the lyrics on this track are simply outstanding. Filled with more intricate guitar parts than her last album, there is an instrumental complexity to Strange Mercy that I felt her last album lacked. Filled with songs of a very personal nature, this album blends huge emotional hits with well-done musicality.

10. WilcoThe Whole Love

I was growing tired of the same old Wilco sound, and then as if the band heard my despair, they released The Whole Love. Wilco pushed themselves and evolved as a band with this record. It’s lyrically brilliant and musically complex. So, give it a listen.

9. James BlakeJames Blake

Featuring a blend of the electronically complex and simple songwriting, James Blake has come up with a fusion of styles that surpasses his Dubstep roots.

8. Death Cab for CutieCodes And Keys

From what I can recall, Codes and Keys is the only upbeat Death Cab record I have heard. Either it was born out of his days of wedded bliss, or the new desire to actually fill a stadium with sound. At any rate, this album super good.

7. AntlersBurst Apart

Antlers expand on their last album in this release by exploring highly emotional themes. Simply put, Burst Apart is a beautiful record.

6. Lady Gaga – Born This Way

Look, don’t judge. Get past your snobbery and just face the facts: Lady Gaga is a brilliant songwriter and artist. She’s only twenty five, and writes her own lyrics. There’s emotional depth, catchy lyrics, and overall pure wonderfulness. Born this Way deserves to make this year-end list.

5. Florence + The MachineCeremonials

I was blown away by the production in Ceremonials, every snare hit and every guitar string plucked was planned out and made to sound the best it possibly could. This album is pure magic.

4. BeirutThe Rip Tide

I had never heard of Beirut before this album was released, but now I can’t get over this Balkan folk-rock. Wow.

3. Feist Metals

A beautifully written album which I am convinced is Feist’s best. My favorite track is the opener, “The Bad in Each Other” which begins with the best drum beat ever.

2. Bon IverBon Iver

Nominated for four grammy’s, this album is well worth the listen. Most albums produced recently aren’t albums any more, but this one is; it tells a story. Bon Iver is an emotional and spiritual journey that simply moves the soul.

1. Elbow Build a Rocket Boys!

Build a Rocket Boys! is my favorite record of the year because I cannot put it down. I play it at least once a week, continually finding amazement with tunes like “The Birds”, “Neat Little Rows”, and “Lippy Kids”. Musically and emotionally, this album has incredible heart.

Donovan's Top Albums of 2011

For me, 2011 represented a transition year in my musical taste. Where music previously defined a large portion of my life, now, my relation to music, and by default, my musical consumption, diminished greatly this year. While I used to listen to everything under the sun hoping to find new artists, diamonds in the rough, and great music from bands I had previously written off, I spent most of 2011 listening to artists I have previously enjoyed. Even though my list contains some new artists, I must admit that I am less convinced about this list representing the best of 2011’s music. Nevertheless, I hereby submit my top 25 albums of 2011.

Wasting Light is a guitar player’s album. I imagine fifteen-year-old me would have placed this record much higher on the list.

Fitzsimmons releases another collection of depressingly beautiful songs. I enjoyed Gold in the Shadow but found the timbre of the record to resonate too closely with his previous recordings.

One of the newcomers to my list this year, this dubstep musician wrote and produced rather enjoyable electronic music on his self-titled release. I particularly enjoyed his piano-based cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love”.

The from-nowhere-to-top-40 artist of the year, Foster the People wrote an intriguing record outside of single “Pumped Up Kicks” that was exponentially overplayed.

Gloss Drop is a musician’s record from top to bottom. Mainly instrumental and exceedingly technical, I suggest mastering an instrument before trying to enjoy this band.

So there’s this infectious NFL commercial where the Atlanta Falcons drive a school bus to an elementary school and play football with kids. That compelling beat was produced by The Go! Team. Upon hearing it, I had to have more. Rolling Blackouts is precisely the “more” I wanted.

Lead singer Robin Pecknold added lyrical depth to the already gorgeous melodic structures of Fleet Foxes. I appreciate the attempt, but I was not a huge fan of the lyrics. On music alone, Helplessness Blues is worth a listen.

18. Adele21

This year’s chart topper, 21 is the kind of record that everyone ought to at least tolerate. Adele sings her heart out and the neo-soul sound of London slices through the speakers. Clearly written for the masses, 21 won’t give you much depth, but it’s a fun record to spin in the car.

With every record, principle songwriter Sam Beam increasingly becomes a mainstream adult-alternative artist. Kiss Each Other Clean sounds like Sam Beam singing with Dave Matthew’s backing band. Good thing I’m not hipster enough to disown Iron & Wine for such things.

Written during the happy days of Ben Gibbard and ZooeyDeschanel’s wedded bliss, Codes and Keys is an upbeat Death Cab album. Strange right?

The latest installment in a prolific career, Graduation Ceremony deeply digs into Arthur’s struggles and addictions.

A newer addition to my playlist, Tamer Animals makes this list on musicianship alone. I honestly haven’t pried deep enough on the lyrics. As such, this rating might look silly in a year or so. I look forward to finding out!

Emo for grown-ups, The Antlers explore the depth of human emotion and suffering. Burst Apart is dramatic, moody, and beautiful.

The second straight record announced out of nowhere, King of Limbs is nowhere near the quality of In Rainbows. Telling of Radiohead’s brilliance, an off album still makes the list.

Written in a rural farm on the outskirts of Portland, Colin Meloy focuses much of his songwriting and lyrics on human’s relationship with nature. Perhaps knowing something we didn’t, The King Is Dead borrows liberally from the style of R.E.M. almost as if the album acts as a eulogy for a band we lost this year.

When you’re done laughing at me, remember that Lady Gaga isn’t your average manufactured major label money maker. She writes her own songs and possesses an artistic vision for the concept of a song, an album, and a performance, just listen to "The Edge of Glory". Yes, she is over the top. Yes, she holds Madonna tendencies, but Born this Way is an exceptional pop record.

Another recent addition, St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy feels gritty, technical, and powerful. An excellent guitarist and a budding songwriter, I believe that Strange Mercy is St. Vincent’s best work yet.

The first releases after Curse Your Branches, Bazan’s breakup album with God, Strange Negotiations feels unhinged as Bazan’s first post-theist work. The record is aggressive, sparsely arranged, and brutally honest.

In my opinion, Coldplay currently functions as the top melody (both in lyric and in instrumentation) writers in the business. With Mylo Xyloto, the groups takes more musical chances but maintains clear hooks. Ignore that song featuring Rihanna that you hear on the radio and listen instead to "Charlie Brown". Mylo Xyloto is just another positive step in Coldplay’s progression as the premier rock group of our generation.

Mine Is Yours rates highly because of its hooks. Each song is catchy, singable, and fun. Sometimes a good record doesn’t need anything else.

With complex arrangements and hummable tunes, Build a Rocket Boys! might be my favorite Elbow record.

Most of Barton Hollow is average-to-good filler. The record receives a high rating for its two singles: “Barton Hollow” and “Poison & Wine”. Without speaking in exaggerations, I submit that these two songs are the best live songs I have ever heard.

Maintaining a foundation in Balkan folk, Beirut’s The Rip Tide melds Eastern European musical styles with western pop. The result of this alchemy is gorgeous songs. My wife and I sing “East Harlem” around the house two or three times a week.

2. FeistMetals

Beautiful and brilliant, Metals blends Feist’s hauntingly beautiful voice with layered production and poetic lyrics. From first listen, Metals demands your attention and affection. So listen to it!

You know those times when you listen to music and get goosebumps as if the music became some sort of ethereal matter that brushed against your skin? Well, Bon Iver’s self-titled release continues to carry this influence on me after each listen. Songs such as “Holocene”, “Calgary”, “Perth”, and “Beth/Rest” just move my soul. In my opinion, soul moving deserves the top spot on any list. So there ya go #1!

Posted by: Donovan Richards