Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Octavia Hudson, Taraji P. Henson, & Janelle Monáe

It would be hard not to like this inspiring Ted Melfi movie (trailer) based on the true story of three women—three black women—overcoming early 1960s gender and racial stereotypes to make it in the super-white-male environment of NASA, just as Americans are struggling into space.

Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) were powerful role models for their, or any, age. Despite being relegated to the pool of “colored computers,” as the black female mathematicians were called, and despite their superb skills being barely recognized, they showed astonishing levels of patience and tenacity, as the story tells it.

At times, the movie feels like a deserved exercise in myth-making. Families are supportive, kids are perfect, home life is smooth. These women are almost too good. Their lives had to be more complicated than that. But those aspects of their stories are secondary to their achievements in the workplace, and that’s where the movie focuses.

With the recent passing of John Glenn (reportedly every bit as open and truly nice as on screen here), the early days of U.S. space program have disappeared into history. Today’s Americans either weren’t born yet or may have forgotten the fear that gripped the nation when Russia orbited the first satellite, when rocket after rocket blew up on the Cape Kennedy launch pad. When  our education system, at least temporarily, geared up for greater student achievement in math and science.

The pressure on NASA to succeed was enormous, and this is the environment in which these women worked and excelled. Despite their significant contributions five decades ago, something essential about the message has been lost. Between 1973 and 2012, 22,172 white men received PhDs in physics, as did only 66 black women.

I liked this movie; I think the subject is great, and the broader recognition well deserved and too long delayed. The three women play their roles beautifully, as individuals, not symbols. While the subject was new and surprising, the film stakes no new emotional territory. More disappointing, fifty years on, the movie’s “feel-good” moment is quickly trumped by awareness of our society’s persistent racism and gender inequity. Perhaps the fact that this movie has been a top box office draw several weeks running, will help, but I’ve seen that movie before. See it for yourself, feel good, and then ask yourself, what next?

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences 94%.

*****Burning Bright

photo: Kevan, creative commons license

By Nick Petrie – Petrie’s debut thriller, The Drifter, was a 2016 favorite. In these novels, Petrie’s protagonist, Peter Ash, is a veteran Marine lieutenant who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. His war experience left him with a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that he calls “the static,” and it starts up whenever he’s in a confined space—indoors, for example—threatening to bloom into a full-blown panic.

For that reason, he’s spent a lot of time tromping around the deep forests of the northwest United States, living in a tent, trying to convince himself no one is shooting at him. Unfortunately, in this book, someone is.

When he climbs a young redwood tree to escape a rampaging bear, he discovers he’s not the first or the only one hiding out up there. Following a trail of ropes, he finds a woman with a bow and arrow, the arrow aimed at his heart. (Hits it, too, but not in the literal sense.) The sound of automatic weapons on the ground tells them they need to fly. Their escape through the treetops, thirty stories up and above the forest fog is pure excitement. And that powerful opening just begins their non-stop adventure.

The woman, June Cassidy, is on the run. Her mother—an artificial intelligence researcher at Stanford University—was killed by a hit-and-run driver, all the contents of her office were carried away in the middle of the night by “government” heavies, who later tried to kidnap Cassidy. Her mother has developed an algorithm to penetrate secure networks called Tyg3r, and quite a few determined folks think now Cassidy has it.

Cassidy wants to know who killed her mother. Ash’s interest is in Cassidy, and he wants to use his considerable tactical and physical skills to protect her. In a recent essay about thriller superheroes, London Review of Books editor John Lanchester described his Superman Test for plausibility: “Is what I’m being asked to believe less likely than the character’s being able to fly?”

Somehow, Petrie’s depiction of Ash and his actions would pass that test. In part that’s because the author is meticulous about explaining how Ash and Cassidy do what they do. Whether you understand all those rope climbing terms or not, the details are utterly convincing.

At the same time, it seems less believable that multiple teams of heavily armed pseudo-governmental agents are driving around in phalanxes of black Ford Explorers. Yet, Ash needs a significant foe, and there’s a high-tech prize of inestimable value here. Perhaps it makes sense that considerable human and firepower resources are focused on acquiring it.

Though heavily overmatched, Ash and Cassidy are not without resources of their own. In addition to their personal skills, Ash calls on some a few pals, including one from The Drifter, Lewis: genius investor, crack shot, awesome sense of humor. Banter between Cassidy and Ash is pretty genuine and entertaining too.

The Northern California and Seattle-area settings are refreshing and full of possibility for the kind of mental isolation that breeds paranoia. And there’s plenty of it in this novel, given the game-changing significance of the technologies it explores. As Petrie says in an author’s note, “large institutions, both public and private, operate with few controls in a fast-changing environment. For some reason, I don’t find this entirely comforting.” Nor will you.

*****No Stone Unturned

justice

photo: Dan4th Nicholas, creative commons license

By Steve Jackson, narrated by Kevin Pierce. Every year, thousands of Americans disappear who are believed murdered, but their bodies are never found. Even if the police have a suspect, lack of a body and the evidence associated with it impedes and may even prevent prosecution. Without a body, the case may be just not winnable “beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

As harrowing as any fictional thriller, this absorbing book tells the real-life story of Colorado-based NecroSearch International—an organization of volunteer scientists that brings a surprisingly large array of disciplines to the search for clandestine graves and the analysis of the evidence they hold. What began as a research project has led to work with police forces from across the country to find the bodies of more than 300 people missing and believed murdered. This book, initially published in 2001, was updated in 2015 for the audio and Kindle editions.

When a small group of researchers began this work, they were interested only in developing more scientific methods for grave searches. They started by burying the bodies of pigs at various depths to see how, over time, different detection methods could yield useful results. Eventually, they added experts in additional specialties, bringing together forensic scientists, soil experts, naturalists, botanists who know which plants grow in disturbed soil, geologists, experts on hydrology, meteorology, psychology, geophysics, entomology, anthropology, and “cadaver dog” handlers. Some members now are from law enforcement.

They use technology—like ground-penetrating radar, infrared imaging, and aerial photography (now sometimes using drones)—but it’s their encyclopedic knowledge of the way soil, stone, water, plants, insects, and wildlife interact that sets them apart. The scientists always caution that no technology can reveal where a body is, but their methods can tell the police where to look.

When the police have a suspected grave site, the alternative, still used too often, is to bring in a backhoe, destroying evidence and disturbing the remains, so that tiny details that provide important clues are lost. NecroSearch approaches a site like an anthropologist exploring an ancient city, gently removing one layer of soil at a time and sifting it for evidence.

Their first of many setbacks was when some of the pigs were dug up and scavenged by animals. Once they realized a human corpse was as likely to be scavenged as one of the pigs, this became an opportunity to bring in animal behavior experts to consider likely predators and how they would deal with the remains.

Jackson, a journalist with a talent for clear and compelling prose, tells the story of their accumulating expertise through the actual cases they worked on—not all of which were successful. Team members work as volunteers, asking only for expense reimbursement. Their payment is in the form of satisfaction—the successful application of scientific methods to difficult problems, aiding the police in finding evidence that will allow a murderer to go to trial, and, every bit as important to them, giving closure to the family and the investigators, often after years of fruitless searching and agonizing uncertainty.

Kevin Pierce gives a fine, energetic reading that draws you into the cases and what it means to the scientists when they are able to resolve one. “There is no statute of limitations on murder,” they say, “and no statute of limitations on grief. The truth does matter.”

The Future of Facial Recognition: Man vs. Machine?

cctv2

photo: Andy Roberts, creative commons license

DCI Mick Neville of London’s Metropolitan Police Service runs a unit of people with superior facial-recognition capacity. He believes that image recognition will turn out to be the third revolution in forensic science, after fingerprint and DNA analyses. (This is part 2 of a 2-part story. Read part 1 here.)

Currently, the Met solves about 2000 cases a year based on fingerprints, another 2000 using DNA analysis, and 2500 with imagery recognition, at a tenth the cost of the other two techniques, he says. Writers of crime fiction have a lot to work with here.

Can’t Computers Do It?

Can computers eventually take over this job? People in the super-recognizer community say no. Part of the reason is the sub-par environments in which many closed circuit television (CCTV) images are captured. Says Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker, “After the 2011 London riots, the Met gathered two hundred thousand hours of CCTV footage. Computer facial-recognition systems identified one rioter.” Gary Collins, one of the Met’s super-recognizers, identified 190.

Of course, computers are becoming more skilled all the time. Facebook’s recognition program, is touted as one of the best. Unlike CCTV, it mostly has well-lit, good-quality images to work with. It has a further advantage because it can narrow the universe of possible matches to the friends, family, and friends-of-friends of specific users. Yet even FB’s algorithm consistently identifies the wife of a friend of mine as me. When I look at her picture, I don’t see it, but Facebook does.

Computers definitely have some role, though, and the Met combines machine and human expertise. It uses a specially created computer program to narrow the number of images by broad demographics and type of crime, for instance, then lets the human super-recognizers make the match.

And, if facial recognition software is prone to error, Keefe says, logo-recognition algorithms work well. “It turns out that many criminals not only commit the same crimes again and again; they do so wearing the same outfits,” he says. That shirt with the six-inch polo player stitched across the left chest? Dead giveaway.

Where Next?

As super-recognizer approaches migrate to the United States (as they have already to St. Petersburg, Florida), authorities will need safeguards against false identifications. In the U.K., a case is never made against someone based solely on facial recognition evidence.

No one wants a repeat of the situation that occurred after the Boston Marathon bombing when the F.B.I. crowd-sourced the identification process, and innocent people were fingered. In these hysterical times, that could be deadly for false suspects (another plot wrinkle for us crime-writers). In the recent New York City/New Jersey bombings, a fingerprint had given them a specific name.

Hiring people for sensitive security positions at airports and nuclear power plants perhaps shouldn’t rely on the assumption that everyone is more or less the same in facial recognition skill, just as we don’t assume everyone is just the same in other job-skill domains. We test for those.

Because millions of Americans have little or no ability to recognize faces (see earlier post), researcher Richard Russell believes “it is statistically inevitable that some passport officers at American airports are face blind—and that quite a number are significantly impaired.” Why not make sure people in such sensitive positions are especially suited for these sensitive jobs?

Further Reading

Have a scientific bent? Here’s the research paper that started it all: “Super-recognizers: People with extraordinary face recognition ability,” by Richard Russell, Brad Duchaine, and Ken Nakayama, published in 2009 in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

***The Art of Forgery

paint-brushes

photo: Lynn Friedman, creative commons license

By Noah Charney – In this richly illustrated book, author Charney explores many of the most notorious cases of art forgery—a deception that dates to ancient Rome—and the often colorful characters bent on deception. Like all crimes, this one depends on opportunity and motive.

While Old Masters may be a forger’s more likely and lucrative target, what about modern abstract artists? Can you tell the fakes? Take this clever quiz!

Opportunity

Until very recently, the perceived value of artworks and religious objects was solely expert-driven, based on connoisseurship. If a recognized expert asserted that a painting was a heretofore undiscovered Rembrandt, for all intents and purposes (especially sales value), it was.

Today, science provides museums and private collectors with increasing protection. Chemical, radiographic, and other advanced techniques can analyze paper, canvas, pigments, wood, and other intrinsic attributes of a work. A common giveaway is the use of paints that weren’t available at the time the artwork was supposedly created. But science provides protection only if would-be buyers insist tests be performed before they write out their check.

Over the years, forgers have responded by becoming more skilled in reproducing the materials and techniques of the past, so that often their work can pass all but the most detailed examination. Detailed digital replicas pose a new hazard to unwary purchasers.

Those engaged in an art forgery racket also excel in producing false documentation and paper trails. These establish the spurious lineage and history of ownership (called provenance) of a work. Forgers rarely simply copy an existing work—it’s too easily identified as already hanging in a museum or private collection. Instead, they precisely mimic an artist’s style and favored subject matter. This new work is then passed off as a “lost” or previously unknown masterwork, with all the paperwork to prove it.

Motivation

Why do they do it, when the possibility of detection is ever-present? Charney says some simply like the challenge of pitting their skill against that of past masters. A German newspaper said forger Wolfgang Beltracchi “painted the best Campendonk that ever was.” Indeed, some forgers have been artistic geniuses, but underappreciated and undervalued in their own time. For that reason, revenge against an indifferent art establishment contributes to motive. Art forgery is not treated as a particularly serious crime and rarely results in lengthy jail terms (usually for fraud). Many former forgers have gained substantial fame after their misdeeds were exposed.

More rarely, copies of paintings are made and substituted for the real thing, delaying detection of the theft of the originals. At Prague’s Sternberk Palace, thieves skipped the hard part and substituted a poster for the original they stole; in Poland, more ambitious thieves replaced the painting they stole with a painted-over poster bought at the museum gift shop. It took days for anyone to notice.

Unscrupulous dealers—con artists, basically—persuade some artists to create works in a particular style. The excitement and pride collectors feel when they “discover” a lost artwork typically makes the seller’s job easier.

Charney describes numerous examples of fraudulent art from over the centuries, and his comparison photos add much to the book’s enjoyment. (Forgery of religious relics is a cottage industry in Israel and the Middle East, detailed in Nina Burleigh’s excellent Unholy Business, touched on briefly in Charney’s book.)

Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur “The world wishes to be deceived,” the book’s cover says, “so let it be deceived.”

“Super-Recognizers”: A Crime-Fighting Super-Power

cctv-cameras

photo: Kevan, creative commons license

The ability to recognize faces is a neurological trait that some people are simply better at than others. You can test yourself here. People at the lowest end of the spectrum lack this perceptual ability altogether. In these extreme cases, mothers cannot recognize their own children; colleagues don’t recognize someone they’ve worked with for years. At this level, the condition is called prosopagnosia, “face-blindness,” and some degree of difficulty recognizing faces may affect about 14 million Americans.

For many years, interest in this trait focused on people who have problems recognizing faces. When recent scientific advances indicated the trait exists on a continuum, this opened interest in people who have a superior ability to recognize faces. Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of London’s Metropolitan Police Service (the Met) thought he had a job for them: identifying criminals.

London is the perfect place to test Neville’s idea, according to a fascinating article by Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker. London has the densest concentration of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras in the world—more than a million of them, mostly in the hands of homeowners and businesses. Keefe quotes former London Mayor Boris Johnson as saying, “When you walk down the streets of London, you are a movie star.”

Crime fiction writers will have a field day with this. The “super-recognizers” seem ideally suited for solving cold cases and identifying suspects in real time. On the other side of the courtroom, smart defense attorneys—I’m thinking Mickey Haller here—might chip away at the facial-recognition ability of “eye-witnesses.”

In the 1990s, installation of cameras was promoted throughout London as a crime prevention measure, but it turned out to be a weak deterrent. There were too many images, they were too hard to analyze, and though the camera recorded lots of crimes, nothing came of this evidence, because the images couldn’t be matched to specific people. Last weekend, NewYork/NewJersey bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami was captured on camera at both Manhattan bomb sites, but it was the fingerprint left at the scene that led to his identification and the match with the man seen on camera.

Early on, Neville headed a unit that analyzed this CCTV footage, trying to make identifications. It was slow work. But when he learned about super-recognizers, he saw the potential benefit of recruiting people who might be extra-skilled at the process.

Now a small, dedicated unit within the Met is assembling an image database, which has more than 100,000 pictures of unidentified suspects in crimes recorded by CCTV. Unit experts compare these images with mug shots of known criminals. They collect images of the same individual at different crime scenes; if the person in one of the images is finally identified, multiple crimes are solved. And, knowing when and where multiple images of the same person were captured gives clues to a criminal’s behavior patterns.

This is, says Scientific American, a very special super-power.

Friday: The Future of Facial Recognition: Man vs. Machine?

Wikimedia Privacy & You

Privacy

photo: SparkCBC, creative commons license

What is privacy in an era of NSA mega-sweeps, email hacking, and rampant security breaches? Sure, companies all have privacy policies, full of boilerplate, but what do they mean in practice?  The recent Wikimedia Foundation transparency report shines a light on one tiny piece of our potentially massive digital persona. If you use Wikimedia often, as I do, you may realize that it keeps some non-public user-identifiable information. Law enforcement and security agencies may be interested in those data.

Sometimes I joke about this, because, as a writer of crime thrillers, my history of searches would be highly suspicious. It has happened to writers, and  here’s a case where a Long Island family’s Google searches got them into trouble. UK’s Daily Mail has published a looooong list of search keywords and phrases of supposed interest to the Department of Homeland Security. Examples of suspect words: exercise (which I use mainly in the context of “I should get more”), prevention, organized crime (oops! a biggie for me), sick, smart. With such a “broad, vague, and ambiguous list,” as the Electronic Privacy Information Center termed it, adding Wikimedia searches to the data would generate a bazillion hits.

Wikimedia’s Privacy Practices

Wikimedia’s transparency report for the six-month period July to December 2015 is therefore a welcome peek behind the privacy curtain. It receives requests for user data from government, individuals, and corporations, but doesn’t collect much non-public data or retain it for long, so often does not even have what people want. Case closed. But when it does, it will notify you before disclosing any information and may even assist you in fighting “invalid requests.”

Between July and December 2015, Wikimedia received 25 user data requests, 14 of which were from non-government entities. It produced the requested information for only one of them—in response to a court order from France, affecting one user account. This is of course a vanishingly small number of requests compared to what Facebook or Google receive.

Wikimedia also sometimes discloses information to the authorities on its own initiative. That happened a dozen times in the same six-month time period. For example, it alerted authorities to a bomb threat originating from an IP address physically near the target site (an arrest and confession followed);  reported a detailed threat against President Obama; and disclosed a credible suicide threat, with another positive outcome.

The Internet Never (?) Forgets

Also in that period, Wikimedia received 220 legal requests to alter content or remove information, granting none of them. It encourages complainers to work with the community to rectify what they perceive as errors or inaccuracies.

You may know about “Right To Be Forgotten” (RTBF) efforts, authorized under a 2014 European court decision involving Google Spain. Wikimedia opposes this movement, and tends not to grant RTBF requests, though people may do a workaround, by having Wikipedia links removed from search engines. (Here’s an example.)

Dig Deeper

Although Wikimedia’s efforts are a tiny finger in the dike, its commitment to privacy and to letting users know it, is laudable. Read more on this topic:

privacy

graphic: Bernard Goldbach, creative commons license

Zero Days

Zero Days, Iran, nuclear

Former Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inspecting centrifuges at Natanz.

This two-hour documentary released Friday, July 8, and playing in selected theaters and streaming online, traces the history and consequences of Stuxnet, a sophisticated piece of malware unleashed on the world in 2010 (trailer & theater list).

Before you yawn and click away, there’s an important feature of the Stuxnet worm and others like it that makes this story of vital interest to you. Stuxnet was not designed to invade your home or office computer, but to attack the industrial control systems (specifically, programmable logic controllers) that manage critical infrastructure. These systems make sure trains and airplanes don’t crash, control car and truck traffic, maintain oil and gas production, manage industrial automation, ensure you have water to brush your teeth with and electricity to run the coffee maker, keep life-saving medical technology operating, and, of course, give you access to the internet. Cyber-attacks on these systems cause real-world, physical destruction, even widespread death.

Behind the Computer Screen

The Stuxnet story—still highly classified, but revealed over time—began with an effort by the United States and Israel to thwart Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons by destroying centrifuges at the country’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility. The software was diabolically clever, virtually undetectable, and essentially untraceable. In theory.

The fact that it was a Zero Day exploit (that is, that the attack would begin before the software problem was discovered and attempts made to fix it or shut it down) and that the Stuxnet code contained not one, but four zero day features, was remarkable. Once it was inside, it worked autonomously; even the attacker could not call it back.

The Israelis, apparently, were impatient. They assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists, and they changed the Stuxnet code, and it spread. It ended up infecting computers worldwide, at which point it was no longer secret, people were looking for it, and the Russians and others found it. “Israel blew the [malware’s] cover and it could have led to war,” the film says.

Another consequence is that the day when something similar can be unleashed on us grows ever closer. It will come from one of three sources:

  • Cybercriminals, in it for the money
  • Activists, intent on making a political point or
  • Nation-states seeking intelligence or opportunities for sabotage.

U.S. security agencies are not complacent. While they talk publicly about our cyber-defenses, in fact, there is a large (unexamined) effort to develop offensive cyber-weapons. There are reports of an even more draconian cyber-weapon embedded throughout Iranian institutions. Warding off its activation is believed a primary reason the Iranians finally struck a nuclear agreement. Certainly it prompted the rapid development surge in Iran’s cyberarmy.

In putting this story together, writer and director Alex Gibney interviewed former high-ranking U.S. and Israeli security officials, analysts from Symantec who teased the code apart, personnel from Russia’s Kaspersky Lab, and many others, including CIA/NSA/DoD officials unable to speak on camera.

“Fear Does Not Protect Us”

The documentary makes a persuasive case for who holds the smoking Stuxnet gun, but it also suggests that finding fault is not the primary issue. The climate of international secrecy around Stuxnet—and the inevitable clones that will follow—makes an open discussion about them impossible. Nor does it allow development of rational strategies for managing the risks, regardless of how urgently needed those strategies are. Cyber-risk management will never be easy, but as one of the film’s experts points out, “it will never happen unless you start.”

The subject is “hideously overclassified,” says Michael Hayden, former director of both the NSA and CIA. (The climate of secrecy is so extreme that even the U.S. Department of Homeland Security cyber team was unaware that Stuxnet originated across town and spent countless resources trying to track it down.) We, of all nations, need this debate, because there is no more vulnerable country in the world, when it comes to systems’ connectedness.

“Evil and good live side by side,” says an anonymous agent of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. Keeping secrets is a good way to prevent being able to tell one from the other.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences 69%.

SFMOMA Redo a Hit!

SFMOMA

SFMOMA main stair (photo: Tom Ervin, used with permission)

After visiting the magnificent new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), you may be tempted to hum “I Found My Art in San Francisco.” According to an article in Marin, SFMoMA was the first museum in the West dedicated to displaying 20th century art. Jackson Pollock’s inaugural exhibition was held here, for example.

The 10-story museum addition, which reopened May 14 after a three-year, $305 million makeover, is across from the Yerba Buena Gardens in SOMA (the downtown area south of Market Street) near the Embarcadero.

“In many ways, the unveiling of the new SFMOMA caps a period of transformation that speaks to forces at play in many U.S. cities — the rehabilitation of what had once been dilapidated urban cores. But the museum is also indicative of the role that high culture can play in that process. With its very presence, a museum can help shift the dynamics of a neighborhood,” says Carolina A. Miranda in the LA Times.
The 145,000-sq.ft. added exhibit space displays some 32,000 works—including large installations by Carl Andre and Donald Judd. Most of the inaugural exhibition works have not been seen before, including the impressive 1,000-piece Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, and numerous donated works by contemporary artists, including a gallery of works by color field painter Ellsworth Kelly, who died in 2015. The museum also includes a permanent center of photography and a temporary exhibit on the history of typography in graphic design.

Experience it Online

The eye-popping exterior redesign by Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta includes an oculus—an eye-like opening—and what the New York Times described as a “crinkly” façade of fiberglass-reinforced polymer skin that mimics the bobbing waves of San Francisco Bay. Other critics say the exterior resembles a beached cruise ship or a glacial form. An interactive article by Rene Chun in Wired highlights the museum’s many innovative architectural features.

The first floor is open to the public and includes exhibition space, a well-curated museum store and, soon, a public restaurant featuring culinary contributions from Bay Area chef luminaries such as Alice Waters. You scale a grand staircase flooded with natural light from the oculus to access the gallery floors. Once inside the galleries, a variety of well-executed architectural and artistic elements reveal themselves.

The higher floors have expansive windows running alongside the galleries, and wraparound terraces from which glimpses of the cityscape engage the eye and bring natural light in. A third floor gallery of huge Alexander Calder mobiles opens onto a larger terrace flanked by a three-story wall of native plants from nearby Mount Tamalpais that enhance the green building theme.

SFMOMA art

Author Jodi Goalstone at SFMOMA (photo: Tom Ervin, used with permission)

To minimize crowding and noise, hidden, one-way only stairs take visitors up or down along with easily accessible elevators. Another clever design element is found, oddly enough, in gallery restrooms. Higher floors’ facilities have a different, bold color scheme. The one I visited had deep purple walls and magenta stalls with soft, subtle lighting.

Because this is a modern art museum, new media is imbedded in the experience. Visitors can explore the museum with an audio tour that provides a personal docent—with a twist. One example: see the museum guided by Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster Jon Miller and San Francisco Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti.

More to Come

Coming soon is an app for virtual visits at https://www.sfmoma.org/app/. “SFMOMA’s chief content officer, Chad Coerver, calls the app ‘a cross between This American Life and the movie Her,’” according to another Chun article.

For more information on tickets, hours and directions, visit https://www.sfmoma.org/.

This guest post is by Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings.

Eye in the Sky

Alan Rickman, Eye in the Sky

Alan Rickman in Eye in the Sky

Exactly what a thriller should be, Eye in the Sky has high stakes, conflicting motives, believable characters with a tangle of personalities, and a ticking clock. If you’ve seen the trailer for this film, you know that British and American military forces have put an “eye in the sky”—an armed drone with a powerful camera—to track members of a terrorist cell in Kenya, including an American citizen and two Brits. It finds them. The rest of the film is “what next?”

When the terrorists are found to be preparing for more suicide bombings, what was intended to be a capture mission soon must be reevaluated—legally, militarily, and politically.

Director Gavin Hood assembled a terrific cast, with Helen Mirren as the U.K.’s colonel in charge of the operation from an underground military bunker and Aaron Paul as the Nevada-based “pilot” of the drone. Alan Rickman (so glad to see him, so unutterably sad he’s gone) is a British lieutenant general supervising the mission from a wood-paneled conference room, along with high-ranking British government officials (reminiscent of the crowded situation room when Osama bin Laden was killed). It’s a room filled with more indecision than people.

On the ground in Kenya is a British agent played by Academy Award nominee Barkhad Abdi, whose life if caught isn’t worth the proverbial plugged nickel, the terrorists in a supposed safe house, the local Sharia law enforcement and security squads, and a neighboring family of innocents.

Most of the movie concerns the deliberations of the groups in the bunker, in the conference room, and in the Nevada “pilot house” as they see what the cameras can tell them—a lot, really—about what is unfolding inside the safe house. They’re aided by a facial recognition expert based in Hawai`i watching the same screens, attempting to verify the terrorists’ identities. Because of the incredible detail of these images, the transitions from screens to street scenes (mostly from the point of view of Abdi) feel seamless.

The key issues are “collateral damage”— inevitable or unacceptable?—and whether a nation can pursue its citizens across friendly countries’ borders. Says Wired reviewer K. M. McFarland, “it’s the best movie yet to tackle the legal and moral quagmire surrounding modern technological warfare.” That review also describes the degree of realism behind the movie’s rather amazing drone technology.

In the screenplay written by Guy Hibbert, the military and the political leaders views’ on the situation differ irreconcilably. The U.K. military want to move; the politicians are cautious. Those views are flipped for the Americans. (Actor Laila Robins, seen locally on stage numerous times, plays a U.S. security official.)

Filmed in South Africa in 2014, the staging of the safe house neighborhood carries a dusty realism that’s a stark contrast to the diplomatic h.q. and the high-tech pilots’ domain. Yet, the decision makers in those far-removed settings are not at all disengaged from the consequences on the ground. Alan Rickman’s final words to a recalcitrant politician are: “Never tell a soldier he does not know the cost of war.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%; audiences 88%.