Friday, December 31, 2010

An Early Decision

Having rendered herself unemployable in the entertainment industry thanks to her bold foreign policy positions, former comedienne Roseanne Barr is now thinking of entering politics and running for president.

Ms. Barr's vision of the presidency should definitely resonate with limited government types -- according to her, the office involves giving a speech, and "then you don't really have to do anything else." I imagine that, should she actually win the office, the country would probably be deeply grateful to her if she did just that. However, at least one of her first initiatives would probably be somewhat intrusive. She favors mandatory surgery on every male planetwide so that all men will indeed be equal, whether or not they were created that way.

Given just who exactly is proposing this idea, a non-surgical alternative -- repeated viewing of, say, the portrait that would adorn government offices during a Barr administration -- comes to mind. I can safely say that viewing such a portrait, combined with explicit instructions to imagine its subject in certain well-defined situations, is very likely to produce the exact same results as those outlined in Ms. Barr's plan without resorting to expensive surgery. Potential side effects, though, include the probable need for widespread long-term psychiatric care and an immediate and very steep decline in the world's birth rate.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dag-Nabbed Whipper-Snappers

I graduated from college in 1986 and had a good deal of my cultural worldview formed by my experiences during that decade. So when the nostalgia train stops in Eighties Land I kind of enjoy it when it's done right, like in The Wedding Singer (accurate vibe despite some historical latitude) or via the high school reunion setup of Grosse Point Blank.

But watching 90 percent of the movies and shows set during the decade of my late-teens-to-mid-20s makes me cringe, much as it does for this writer.

Probably the same kind of reasoning was behind my dad asking me why he never heard any Chuck Berry music on Happy Days.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pontius Pilate, Please Call Your Office

Outgoing New Mexico gov. Bill Richardson may one-up outgoing Florida gov. Charlie Crist in the pardoning department. Crist weighed a pardon for the late Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors who may or may not have exposed himself at a concert back in the late 1960s.

Richardson is weighing a pardon for one William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid. A territorial governor at the time apparently offered Bonney a pardon in a particular shooting if he testified before a grand jury investigating another murder. Although Bonney testified, the territorial governor did not issue the pardon. Anyone who is surprised that a politician did not honor a promise should probably not operate heavy machinery until the drugs wear off.

Descendants of Sheriff Pat Garrett -- who is supposed to have ended Bonney's criminal career by shooting him -- as well as the descendants of the territorial governor have gone on record as opposing the pardon. None of the principals in the matter could be reached for comment, since they've all been pushing up daisies for a half-century or more.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

An Offering You Can't Refuse

Well, technically once someone in my line of work breaks into someone's house and tries to take it, we're not really talking about an "offering" any more.

On the other hand, I've got some parishioners who've got some nice stuff, so I may clip this article and drop it into the church newsletter next month, just as a suggestion...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Ancient Chinese Menu

Chinese archaeologists have discovered what appears to be a sealed bronze pot of soup that may be 2,400 years old.

The soup was found along with a sealed bronze pot that contains a colorless liquid that may be wine, and Chinese anthropologists and historians say that may mean the tomb which contains them belonged to someone of a moderately high status during that country's "Warring States" period, lasting from about 475-221 BC.

The alternative explanation, that the soup and wine may indicate the apartment of an ancient graduate student, does not yet have widespread support among scientists. Project directors are still seeking chemists to test the soup, but have created a waiting list for those who have volunteered to test the wine. French vintners have already dismissed the wine's quality, saying that everyone knows that the Chinese grape crops of the fifth through third centuries BC were simply not up to standard.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Gluons for Christmas!

Well, really for Thanksgiving, but I just read the story today. The researchers at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, taking some time off from creating the black hole that will destroy the world, slammed some lead atoms into each other and created what may be quark-gluon plasma.

Quark-gluon plasma, a phrase I have discovered I enjoy typing almost as much as I enjoy saying it, is a substance that cosmologists theorize existed bare milliseconds after the Big Bang that they say created the universe. It was very hot, perhaps as much as a million times as hot as the sun, so bring some tongs if someone wants to show you some.

As the quark-gluon plasma cooled, the quarks and the gluons got together to form protons, which in turn started hanging out with electrons and various other subatomic particles to create the atoms that make up matter.

Scientists have not yet determined which experiments might give them an idea of what happened during the actual Big Bang itself, but the leading candidates involve slamming two fruitcakes together in the Large Hadron Collider, especially as one scientist in Geneva has a fruitcake which has been re-gifted "since the dawn of time" and may contain some actual quark-gluon plasma deep inside. Unfortunately, the fruitcake plan lacks the repeatability that rigorous scientific experimentation requires, as no one is certain what is in those things and therefore there is no guarantee that subsequent experiments will be dealing with identical fruitcakes.

Quark-gluon plasma.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Evidence Points to New (Old) Humans?

Somebody get on the phone with Erich von Däniken and see if he's heard about this.

Some anthropologists found a fossilized 40,000-year-old pinkie finger in a cave in Siberia. Other scientists in Germany were able to isolate DNA in the finger, and the woman who used the finger is not the same species of human being as us. She also wasn't a Neandertal, another species of human that was living about that time. More tests may determine from which branch of the human family tree she comes, but in the meantime the people who've spent money on von Däniken's book Chariots of the Gods? or saw the documentary film may figure they already know.

(I don't know what marketing person decided to get Rod Serling to narrate the American cut of that film, which lays out von Däniken's theory that a number of ancient civilizations are the result of spacefaring alien influences, but that person may be a genius).

Friday, December 24, 2010

Grateful and Merry

Because tomorrow is Christmas Day, and I won't have to do anything like the above picture in order to get to the front door of the church. God bless us, every one!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

From the Rental Vault: Princess of Mars

2012 will mark the centennial of the publication of "Under the Moons of Mars" in All-Story Magazine, the first printed work in the long career of sci-fi pulp author Edgar Rice Burroughs. The feature film John Carter of Mars, directed by Andrew Stanton, is scheduled for release that year, the first time that the world of Barsoom will be seen on the big screen.

In the meantime, there is Princess of Mars, a 2009 release from The Asylum, the indie film studio best known for their straight-to-DVD famous movie knockoffs called "mockbusters." It stars General Hospital regular Antonio Sabato, Jr., and Traci Lords. Neither they nor any of the other cast members of Princess of Mars are best known for their acting ability, but studio responsible for 2006's Snakes on a Train is not in the business of creating great cinema.

Princess uses a few of the same characters found in Burroughs' novel, or at least the same names. But John Carter is now an Army sniper in Afghanistan instead of a Civil War veteran, Dejah Thoris is a blonde who seems to have stolen Princess Leia's metal bikini, and Tars Tarkas is missing a pair of his arms. Since the movie's minimal budget seems to have been unable to provide reasonable dialogue and story, it's likely that the money to present Burroughs' green Martians in all their four-armed glory was not there either.

On the one hand, Princess is a shameless rip-off, borrowing characters and a setting that are in the public domain and using them in a lame hack-and-slash movie that owes a lot more to the sword-swinging barbarian movies that followed 1982's Conan the Barbarian than it does to Burroughs. The cheesy cover tag line that suggests it's from the story that inspired Avatar is just a bonus (and no doubt prompted a Burroughs "Harrumph. He wishes" from the beyond). On the other hand, a lot of people who look down their movie-going noses at stuff like this gobble up "Syfy Channel" crap like Sharktopus like there's no tomorrow.

And there's a sense in which the quick-bucks version from The Asylum follows more in Burroughs' footsteps than the more expensive 2012 film will -- Burroughs turned to writing to make money when he failed at several jobs and mostly wrote for a paycheck's instead of art's sake. His best stories are timeless and his writing almost always smooth and efficient, but he offered plenty of schlock himself. He might not have cared much for what writer/director Mark Atkins did with his story -- he would definitely have recommended punching up the script -- but he would have understood the impulse behind the speedy production more than the six-year development hell the current version endured before picking up Stanton and screenplay writer Michael Chabon.

In the end, curiosity or boredom are really the only reasons to bother with Princess of Mars, and then only if you have them in healthy amounts. You could spend a better afternoon reading the original A Princess of Mars novel, which came out five years after the magazine serialization, in 1917. And you probably should.

PS -- I have no doubt that Burroughs would also wonder where in the heck the spider/bug things came from, having died well before the release of the fifth LP from one David Robert Jones that could have offered at least one possible understanding of spiders from Mars.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Duke v. Dude?

When word first came out that Joel and Ethan Coen were making a movie from Charles Portis' 1968 novel True Grit, there was quite a bit of mumbling and grumbling. See, that book had been filmed once already, about a year after it was published, and there was the little problem that one of the roles had been played very well by a well-known actor that made it difficult to imagine a new person taking on the role. Movie fans everywhere wondered: Just how in the heck was Matt Damon supposed to fill the shoes of Glen Campbell as Texas Ranger La Boeuf?

Not really, of course. The big question was how would the laid-back Jeff Bridges take on a role indelibly defined by John Wayne? United States Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn is, in the minds of most Western movie fans, John Wayne. It's the only role that ever netted Wayne an Oscar, even if a lot of people felt it was more of a career-honoring award than one that the role itself earned him. And Wayne's work as Cogburn cemented the most enduring dimension of his image -- a gruff, middle-aged tough guy who lived, died, fought and sometimes when necessary killed according to his own code of personal honor.

But the Coens decided to focus more on the Portis novel than the Henry Hathaway-directed movie, and the novel is much more centered on Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old daughter of a murdered man who hires Cogburn to track his killer into Indian Territory. They can make that move because they don't have John Wayne in their movie; long before the time Wayne made True Grit in 1969 it was next to impossible to keep any movie starring him from becoming a "John Wayne movie." 1969's Mattie, Kim Darby, wouldn't have been up to that challenge even if she'd tried.

2010's Mattie, Hailee Steinfeld, can handle the screen with Bridges and Damon (and might have managed with Wayne). She convincingly brings Mattie's unyielding views of right and wrong to the screen as well as her refusal to accept defeat in any situation. Damon's La Boeuf is a little bit of a fop and a dandy at first but shows his own grit as the story moves on.

The make-or-break question of the movie, of course, is how Jeff Bridges, the Dude of the Coens' The Big Lebowski, measures up to the Duke. The answer is, pretty well, mostly because he never tries to sell himself as John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn. Bridges is 61, well old enough to have watched Wayne achieve icon status. And as the son of Lloyd Bridges, a tough-guy actor himself who spent a lot of the 1930s and 40s toiling away in the same kind of B-level westerns and war moves where Wayne got his start, Jeff Bridges probably has an appreciation for the "Old Hollywood" of his father, Wayne and others that not many current actors might share. So he never tries to inhabit it, playing Rooster as if the character had never been on screen before. It's a wise choice and it succeeds.

John Wayne's Rooster was more or less John Wayne with an eyepatch. Bridges' Rooster is his own character, and Bridges handles him excellently, whether he's being a broken-down ne'er-do-well with a badge or a ruthless killer. The first minutes of Bridges' Cogburn are almost warm and fuzzy; he gets curmudgeonly laughs testifying in court, he can't quite roll his own cigarettes and he's stuck living behind a grocery store. But the first time he draws his gun, his menace springs into sharp focus and his one eye holds more ice than any other two might manage.

In choosing to hold more closely to the Portis novel and its centering on Mattie, the Coens offer what is probably a much more definitive filmed version of that book. They wisely chose to not compete with the 1969 movie, just as Bridges wisely chose to not compete with Wayne. Because even if the Coens' movie is a definitive onscreen version of the novel True Grit, the definitive Reuben J. Cogburn still belongs to one Marion Mitchell Morrison. Fortunately there is room for both.

PS to the Warren Theatres: If you're going to use it to show something like Little Fockers, you really can't call it a "Grand" Auditorium anymore.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Moon Turns to Blood!

Well, no, not really. But after watching the lunar eclipse early this morning, you can see why people in past times, who didn't know anything about the moon, orbital dynamics, planetary shadows and such, would be so freaked out by one when it happened. It looked a little freaky to me, and I understood what was happening.

Cool once-in-a-lifetime sight, though.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Past Tense Unfortunately Intentional

If there was a drier wit on the New York Police Department than Detective Sgt. Arthur Dietrich, then the Holland Tunnel would have been unnecessary. Steve Landesberg, the actor who played Dietrich on the 1970s police comedy Barney Miller, as well as a host of other small roles during a long career that also included some stand-up comedy, passed away this weekend at 65.

Only the first three seasons of Barney Miller are available on DVD, and Landesberg joined the cast midway through that season. Some of his best deadpans await release, and the show's inexplicable absence from cable means YouTube will get a little workout over the next few days as 12th Precinct fans take some time to remember.

(The post title is taken from Dietrich's query of Barney after meeting the latter's spouse, and his somewhat perturbing penchant for exact speaking).

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Legacy Abides

Tron would seem to be a better candidate for a remake than a straight-out sequel. The original movie came out in 1982 and although it broke ground in the area of computer animation, its "special effects" are considered quaint today (The computer work made the Motion Picture Academy decline to nominate Tron for a special effects award, as Academy members felt the movie's use of a computer with two MBs of RAM and 330 MB of storage was somehow cheating).

But Disney decided to take the slightly more creative route, and so almost 30 years later, we meet Sam Flynn, son of the first movie's protagonist programmer, Kevin Flynn. Kevin disappeared when Sam was a boy, but he left his son financial control of the gigantic software firm ENCOM that grew from his video games and programs. One night, after his father's friend Alan receives a page from a disconnected number at Kevin's old video arcade, Sam goes snooping. A laser digitizes him into a virtual world, where he encounters both his father and Clu, the renegade security program his father created. Sam gains an ally in Quorra, a program acting as his father's aide, and must find a way to defeat Clu while returning to the outside world before the portal to it closes.

Garrett Hedlund and Olivia Wilde do well enough as Sam and Quorra -- the story doesn't ask for much range from them and they handle their roles just fine. Jeff Bridges reprises his role as Flynn, and seems to have been asked by the writers to put a Big Lebowski Dude-like spin on his character. Computer-generated imagery recreates Bridges' thirty-something self as Clu, not entirely successfully. Although the faux-Bridges looks natural at a distance and at rest, closer views show a strange-looking lower face area and unnatural mouth movements.

Legacy makers take advantage of every advance in special effects technology to update and refine several elements from the first movie. Some, like the flashy costumes, "de-rezzing" or dying effects and the light-cycles, work well. Some, like the exhaust and ponderousness of the new Recognizers, seem fairly superfluous.

The story manages to be sketchy and bulky at different times -- the original "grid" in Tron was the area where programs at ENCOM "lived," and the villainous Master Control Program wanted to take them all over and run them as part of itself. The new grid is...well, it may be ENCOM, or it may be the Internet, or it may be a phrase from the earlier movie picked up without much thought given to what it was supposed to be. On the other hand, the dead-end Castor/Zuse/Gem sidetrack doesn't do much besides reinforce how much of an influence the Matrix movies have on Legacy (and how much, in turn, the Matrix movies owe to the original Tron). It also gives Underworld's Michael Sheen the chance to fey across the stage and chomp some serious scenery.

Tron: Legacy looks amazing for the most part, and thanks in large measure to the work of electronic music duo Daft Punk, it sounds great as well. Their soundtrack manages to be modern and retro enough to fuel the action-packed battles, chases and fight scenes as both music and the kind of ambient sound you might expect in a virtual world. But like the first movie, it sells its human actors short with a generic story that misses its chance to elicit performances that equal the dazzle. It's certainly worth a matinee price to see it on the big screen instead of the average home TV, but not more than that.

PS -- This review refers to the regular 2D release of the movie. My eyes, for some reason, don't track the stereo views that make 3D movies or those Magic Eye 3D posters, so I stick with the old-fashioned look.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bah, baQa'!

I had always heard that Shakespeare sounded better in the original Klingon, but Dickens too? I had no idea!

The story notes that the Minneapolis-based company that puts on "A Klingon Christmas Carol" is this year mounting a production in Chicago. Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry has put in a request to examine some of the props used in the play, reasoning that his players might be able to swing a bat'leth better than they swing a bat.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Clean It Up

I'm not so sure what Tide detergent is selling.

The company has been advertising the product with commercials that focus on its new chemical process called "Acti-Lift," which is apparently very effective at removing stains. In one, a woman is at home when her daughter asks if she has seen a particular green shirt that the daughter wants to wear. In a flashback, we see the mom with her friends, dancing and spilling something on a rather ugly shirt. Gasp! It's the daughter's shirt, and the mom seems as unwilling to face the truth that she should apologize to her daughter for ruining it as she was to face the truth that she's a looooong way past her sell-by date for wearing a shirt like that. Fortunately, Mom has Tide with Acti-Lift and can wash the stain from the shirt without the daughter knowing and slip it back to her closet.

In another, a dad is a little unhappy with the length of skirt his teen daughter wants to wear, so he passively-aggresively gets it dirty, reasoning she will now no longer want to wear it and will opt for sensible skirts which conceal her behind. Fortunately, Mom has Tide with Acti-Lift and can wash the skirt clean as new, and she and daughter can share a knowing smile realizing they have once again foiled dumb ol' Dad's desire to have potential suitors become interested in his daughter's mind, character or personality instead of whether or not her stepping up a curb will display her underwear.

So the next time that you need a detergent which will enable you to lie to your children or encourage your daughter's desire to dress like a tramp, think Tide with Acti-Lift!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Unhappy Face

A mom in California (where else?) is suing McDonald's to get them to take toys out of Happy Meals.

Why, you may ask? Was one of the toys unsafe? Did it contaminate the food? Did its plastic packaging deteriorate in the presence of a McDonald's hamburger and somehow adulterate the food itself? Nope. Well, it's California. One of the toys was probably culturally insensitive, right? It demeaned an oppressed group? It promoted an insensitive stereotype or an environmentally harmful mindset. Nope again. Well, it's the nutrition problem, then. Sugary sodas, fatty French fries; those are the problem. Try again -- at the customer's request, McDonald's will substitute milk for sodas and apple slices for fries.

What happened is that since the Happy Meals have toys, and this woman's children like the toys, they have "frequently pestered (her) into purchasing Happy Meals, thereby spending money on a product she would not otherwise have purchased.” Yes, you got it. In order to avoid being pestered by her children, this woman insists McDonald's remove toys from Happy Meals. What's more, when she told them no, they became disagreeable and pouted. In other words, when the children don't get their way, they throw tantrums. Wonder where they picked up that behavior.

PS -- As you may note if you read to the end of the story, the woman in question is not just a run-of-the-mill busy mom, but works for a federally-funded program that campaigns for people to eat their vegetables.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Now They're Not Even Trying

How in the world can people who want to make fun of the government do so if the things that you might say to make fun of it, like say, they'll give the state of Nevada a shot a part of an $80 million grant to help preserve Pacific coastal salmon habitats, are things the government actually wants to do.

When the actual daily operations of the place are more absurd than any satire that might be dreamed up about it, we're entering some dark days indeed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ugh

So the new Big Ten conference logo, along with new divisions, trophies and such, have been unveiled, and boy, do they all stink.

That the "international design firm Pentagram" took money to dream up a logo that makes the "I" and "G" in "big" look like a "10" isn't shocking -- I would have taken money for the same thing if it had been offered. The wacky part is that the conference paid money for the logo, when I am reasonably certain that, amongst the now 12 schools which make it up there might be found one or two art students who could have been considerably more creative for quite a bit less money. Maybe even just some beer and pizza.

As a 12-team conference, the Big 10 (no math majors were harmed -- or consulted -- in this naming) will now have divisions. The former Big 12 Conference, before it got whittled down to 10 teams by the departures of Nebraska and Colorado, gave its divisions the accurate but uninspired names of "North," for the teams on the north end of its geographical area, and "South," for the teams on the south end.

Not so for the creativity-minded Big 10! One division, which contains Your Heroes in Purple, the Defenders of Truth, Justice and Cute Puppies and Kittens, the Northwestern University Wildcats, will be known as the "Legends" division. The other, which contains the vile University of Illinois Illini -- notice that you can't spell "vile" without an "IL," either -- will be known as the "Leaders" division. I will only note that these new logos and division titles, in which the Illini are considered "leaders," is connected with a design firm named Pentagram. I make no accusations, but the reader may draw his or her own conclusions about which spiritual being whose goal is the eternal torment of damned souls may have been at the core of these choices.

The new trophies for different achievements by football teams and individual athletes were also announced. They are all hyphenates, designed to honor Big Ten notables of the past as well as more modern times. The Championship Trophy is now the "Stagg-Paterno Championship Trophy," after University of Chicago coach Amos Stagg and Penn State coach Joe Paterno. OK, so the football trophy pays tribute to a coach at a school no longer in the Big 10 (or with any athletic teams whatsoever) and to the coach at the 11th school in the current Big 10. And I have to note that, in order to make Paterno the "modern" name on the trophy, they had to pick a guy who started his collegiate coaching career in the 19th century.

Man, come next season there's gonna be some mockin' for sure...

Out There

Sometime in the next four years, the 33-year-old probe Voyager 1 will cross the kind of vague boundary at the edge of our solar system and officially begin its journey into interstellar space, or space between star systems.

A couple of things about that strike me as interesting. One, when Voyager does cross the border, humanity will become an actual interstellar species. That's kind of wild. Two, the reason scientists are able to determine exactly what conditions around the probe are like and judge whether or not it's beyond the solar system is that it's still sending data. Somebody knew how to build a machine.

Monday, December 13, 2010

From the Rental Vault: The Black Swan

Nope, not the Natalie Portman ballet movie currently in theaters, but the 1942 swashbuckler with Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara. Portman's version lacks a definite article in the title. And elsewhere, but more on that in a bit.

1642: A peace treaty between England and Spain leaves the English "privateers" who've been making themselves rich preying on Spanish commerce without much to do. Henry Morgan, one of the leading pirates of the Caribbean, has been pardoned and made Royal Governor of Jamaica. His captains split -- Billy Leech and Wogan retain their pirating ways, but Jamie Waring crosses over to the side of the law and its authority. Unfortunately, Morgan's attempts to capture his old comrades are being thwarted by traitors informing Leech of his moves. He sends Waring and some other loyal captains out to track down Leech and get to the bottom of the shenanigans. Waring decides to kidnap Lady Margaret Denby, daughter of the former governor, on his way out of town, because he's developed an attraction to her and he apparently hasn't completely reformed.

Anyone who thinks that Waring won't have the solution to the mystery and the girl by the time the movie's over has never watched a movie. Some nautical bluster and blasting, swinging from the rigging and one or two swordfights will, of course, intervene, but they're part of the package. The Black Swan is a fun enough romp, but it's got enough barnacles fouling its bottom to slow and roughen its passage. Power is in his native element as Jamie Waring, a rogue with his own sense of honor but a decided inability to take no for an answer in matters of the heart. At 87 minutes, director Henry King helms a story that doesn't overstay its welcome, but also tends to leave some threads dangling that could have been wrapped up more nicely.

There are some interesting parallels between The Black Swan of 1942 and Black Swan, currently in theaters. One is some pretty casual use of the source material at their centers. The Power-O'Hara movie is supposed to be drawn from Rafael Sabatini's 1932 novel of the same name, but the only thing they have in common is the title -- the name of the ship in Sabatini's novel and of Leech's vessel in the movie. Portman's movie, directed by Darren Aronofsky, centers on Portman as a ballet dancer in a production of Swan Lake, but people who go to see an actual performance of Swan Lake would probably not recognize a lot of the story they see on the stage.

Both movies misuse their female leads, although in different ways. Maureen O'Hara, an actress who could hold her own onscreen with overpowering costars like John Wayne, is relegated to a pretty weak shrinking damsel stock character. She gets one brief flash of real O'Hara glory at the very end, where she flips one of Power's earlier lines back at him and pulls him in for the kiss -- his surprise may have been genuine, and it hints that, given as three-dimensional a role to play as Power had, she might have seriously upstaged him (Their second movie together, The Long Gray Line, is considerably lower-key and lets Power act instead of swash, putting them on a much more even footing). Portman's Nina goes slowly bonkers from the stress of her role in the ballet, but Aronofsky never really lets her add anything to Nina that shows she was all that balanced to begin with. Little enough of Portman's likeability leaks into Nina that we're pretty much always aware we're watching an actor onscreen in a role, rather than being able to suspend a little disbelief and convince ourselves we're watching Nina lose it.

Portman's the subject of a lot of Oscar buzz, perhaps because Academy members realized that while it's OK to nominate an actress for playing a well-adjusted, compassionate and strong woman character like Sandra Bullock's Leigh Ann Tuohy now and again, the actual Oscar is supposed to go to a woman who's losing her mind, already lost her mind or is a prostitute or stripper. They need to get back on track, and although Portman doesn't hit the Theron trifecta, Aronofsky included several scenes with Portman as well as Portman and costar Mila Kunis that offer plenty of titillation for the discerning Oscar voter.

ETA: Dustalanche! Thanks, Charles.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bump of Goose

According to researchers at the University of North Carolina, people who enjoy aesthetic experiences like art, music and movies are more likely to get chills when they are moved by certain music.

Whether it's the "Hallelujah" chorus, Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" or Bing Crosby, the emotional experience of the music produces a response in a part of the brain that, among other things, promotes involuntary responses like goosebumps or blushing.

The opposite response to chills -- a feverish one -- is, according to the phrasing of a popular argument offered by one E. Aron Presley, an inherited, gender-linked trait: "Cats were born to give chicks fever/Be it Fahrenheit or centigrade." But even though unavoidable, it is not unpleasant: "Fever till you sizzle/What a lovely way to burn."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What the Heck Is That and What Is It Doing There?

Gertrude Stein was supposed to have dissed the city of Oakland, CA, with the quip, "There is no there there," found in her book Everybody's Autobiography. She was actually describing how she couldn't find her childhood home on a visit to the city, her hometown, during a lecture tour through California.

Either way, astronomers examining the star HR 8799 have run into the opposite problem of a there where there shouldn't be one. There is very definitely a "there," or a fourth planet, orbiting it about 14.5 times as far away from it as the Earth is from the Sun. Astronomers call the distance from the Earth to the sun an "astronomical unit" or AU, meaning this fourth planet is 14.5 AUs from its star. There are also three other giant planets orbiting the star at much larger distances. The problem? None of the current theories that describe how large gas giant planets form allow for four such planets to be in a system of a relatively brand-new star like HR 8799.

Gas giants are different from small rocky worlds like our own Earth. All of their visible features are actually the top layers of their incredibly thick atmospheres, and exactly what kind of planet is at the center of those huge balls of gas isn't entirely clear. Whether they formed around some kind of gravitational instability that drew in material around it, or whether they formed when extremely large rocky cores gathered up far more gas than smaller worlds could isn't clear either. Both theories represent the best guesses and deductions of astronomers today.

Gravitational instability models only work for gas giants at least 30 AUs from their respective suns, and the core accretion models only work at 20 AUs or closer. So scientists have to scratch their heads at a single star that has four such planets, orbiting at the aforementioned 14.5 AUs, along with 25, 40 and 70 AUs respectively for the earlier trio. Planetary dynamics make it unlikely that planets of both kinds formed around the same star, and the current suspect for the weirdness is the very thick cloud of dust around HR 8799, which might have screwed up the quartet's orbits so much that they now hang out in very different neighborhoods than the ones in which they formed.

HR 8799 is about 129 light years from Earth, so we see it today as it actually was in 1821 or so. What if the real explanation for four gas giants being where they shouldn't is that an alien race has technology advanced enough to move planets around in their orbits? Well, waves from some of our first radio broadcasts will reach them sometime around the turn of the next decade, with higher and higher levels of activity building after that. So we'll know then, and we'll just hope that our own planet's current orbit matches their version of solar feng sui, lest they rearrange us or maybe otherwise alter things so as to improve their view of Venus.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Good Words

No snark -- the White House released a statement from President Obama regarding the absence of Nobel Peace Price winner Liu Xiaobo from the awards ceremony in Oslo. The only other Peace Prize awarded in absentia went to German journalist Carl von Ossietzky in 1935, when von Ossietzky was imprisoned by the Nazis. The Nazis being a bit under the weather in this decade, their role will be played by the Chinese government, which has imprisoned Mr. Liu and seems to have misplaced his wife long enough to prevent her from traveling to Oslo as well.

Words from the President of the United States honoring those who work for democracy in their own lands and promoting the concept of democratic rule, liberty and human rights are always in order. Bravo, Mr. President.

Abe's Chuckles

According to The Long Pursuit, a book about the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas by Roy Morris, Jr., our 16th president was a pretty good storyteller and spinner of tales, some of which were a little raw.

My favorite is his version of a visit to post Revolutionary War England by patriot Ethan Allen, who is at first annoyed by the English habit of placing pictures of George Washington in their privies or outhouses, thinking it derisive to Washington and insulting. Upon reflection, though, Lincoln says Allen realizes the actual reason is one of utility, since "there is nothing that will make an Englishman s**t so quick as the sight of General Washington."

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Full Dark Indeed

Despite his rep as a big-novel horror writer, Stephen King has often put his best work out in short form with a relatively light load of supernatural shenanigans. Frank Darabont's great movie The Shawshank Redemption comes from one of King's strongest novellas, "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," from 1982's Different Seasons. Rob Reiner won a Golden Globe award for 1986's Stand By Me, taken from that same collection's "The Body."

Four Past Midnight was the second collection of these kinds of stories, published in 1990, although its four tales were either heavily supernatural or straight-out science fiction. Hearts in Atlantis was also a collection of shorter works, but they were connected by a similar cast of characters. In Full Dark, No Stars King returns to Different Seasons-style realism for four stories that center on some pretty dark corners of human experience. In an afterword, he says he did so because those were the stories that came to his mind when the inspiration struck, and so those are the stories he tells.

King also says he hopes that readers, even if they are turned off by different aspects of the four novellas in Full Dark, will be lead to think about them afterwords, and perhaps led to think about different issues they raise. He returns to a constant theme of his, that popular fiction can be just as useful for reflection on the human condition as so-called "literary fiction," and is pretty explicit that he doesn't so much intend readers to think a great deal while reading the story as much as they might afterwards.

He's certainly on-target with that first idea. An active mind can try to puzzle over issues of identity using Buzz Lightyear's self-discovery in Toy Story with some of the same effect as it might with Kafka's The Metamorphosis. One may prompt deeper reflections than the other, but they can both point the same way. And there's nothing wrong with his second thought either -- sometimes a story takes over as a story, and readers may not reflect on its layers of meaning until later.
 
But based on that second idea, Full Dark has problems (These thoughts may be a little spoiler-ish, so if that bothers you feel free to skip this entry for awhile). The one novella that seems to offer the most to think about -- "1922" -- also offers both a story and characters that I can't imagine wanting to spend time thinking about. Protagonist Wilf James is flat-out monstrous as well as deranged and is someone to whom I will bid farewell without a backward glance. King may have some interesting things to say about guilt and transgression with the story, but hanging out with Wilf and his castmates is like wearing burlap underwear in July -- whatever benefits may be derived from it aren't worth the discomfort of doing it more than once.

"Big Driver" is the story of a mystery writer whose use of a shortcut while traveling brings her misery, horror and a confrontation with how far she will go for vengeance and justice. But it seems to be missing too many pieces, making it airy and insubstantial, like a cloak woven from fog. As soon as a reader tries to pick it up to take a look at it or see how it fits, it dissipates and leaves nothing to really grasp. In "Fair Extension," King offers up a boiled-down version of Needful Things without the novel-ending mayhem but with another repellent lead character. Even though he flavors it with a dash of Thinner (written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), there's still little reason to read it instead of those earlier, better works. In "A Good Marriage," King says he wanted to demonstrate how even people who have been together for most of their lives might not truly know each other. Since that's exactly the way he wanted his story to turn out, it's no surprise that that's exactly the way it turns out. There's really very little more here to think about than there would be from reading accounts of the true-life situation on which King modeled the story (I'll be nice and not mention which true-life situation that is, in hopes of minimizing the spoiler quotient as much as possible).

King is much better when he writes briefly, and if the self-restraint of the shorter novella form can impose on him a discipline no editor attempts anymore to impose on his novels, bravo for his choice to write some more of these shorter works. Except for "Big Driver," which probably needs either some expansion to hold together as a work meriting reflection or major cuts to be a simple read-em-and-move-on tale, the stories of Full Dark are tighter and more focused narratives than the lion's share of King's longer post-1990 stuff. But based on King's own stated desire to offer something to think about later even if you don't think about it while reading, Full Dark is the the foul tip of "1922," the wild pitch of "Fair Extension" and the two whiffs at the plate of "Big Driver" and "A Good Marriage." It's not an awful at-bat, but it's still an out.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On Second Thought

Some scientists are taking issue with findings by NASA scientists that they have engineered life which survives with different chemicals than the life we know.

Several microbiologists point out that the experiments outlined in the published paper have a lot of holes and don't prove what the NASA scientists say they prove. Weird, arsenic-based microbes could exist, they say, but the experiments in the published paper don't prove that the life forms they're examining are such microbes.

It'll be left to other scientists to try to duplicate the results of the NASA researchers in their own experiments, and those results will probably provide as final an answer as may arrive on the matter.

In the meantime, 38 years ago yesterday, humanity's most recent journey beyond low Earth orbit began; showing that NASA can indeed stretch boundaries. Even if they're only lexicographical and involve redefining the word "recent."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Doubled Villainy!

I have frequently referred to the valiant men of Northwestern University as champions in the fight for all-American things like apple pie, hot dogs and helping little old ladies across the street. Little did I know that this season would afford them the chance to oppose a dual representation of the forces that oppose such sterling representations of our national character.

Come January 1, the paragons of good citizenship will travel to Dallas for the first ever TicketCity Bowl, played in the legendary Cotton Bowl stadium. The actual Cotton Bowl will of course be played in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington six days later.

The Wildcats will face off against a group so devoted to Communism that they actually use the word "Red" in their team name. Moreover, these are not garden-variety godless Commies who seek to take over the free world and subject it to North Korean architecture, Chinese air quality and Cuban barbers. The other half of their team name is "Raiders," meaning they represent the doubled-down evil of Commie pirates!

Commie pirates! How any law-abiding American could root against the Heroes in Purple come this New Year's Day is beyond me.

(You are reading this blog's 800th post, and the author would like to caution against judging the entire blog based on how silly this particular post is. The entire blog is often much sillier).

Monday, December 6, 2010

But Were They Favorite Things?

Oprah Winfrey's annual orgy of materialism aired a couple of weeks ago, but the many things she gave away to her audience did not include a copy of her 65th pick for "Oprah's Book Club," a combined edition of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.

While I am sure that, wherever he may be, Mr. Dickens is relieved to know that he has passed the same rigorous test as A Million Little Pieces, leaving the self-sacrifical Tale and the "money isn't (or things aren't) everything" story of Expectations out of the goodie bag that includes a cruise, a car and a 52-inch 3D TV was a wise move that probably avoided being a real buzzkill on the big day.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

CleanYourRoom.gov Is Next?

As a part of a move to help our nation's children improve their health and reduce obesity, we now have a government-run website to encourage kids to get outside, play, move around and so on. This prompts a number of thoughts.

1) Someone didn't have my mom, who regularly encouraged my sister and I to do these things long before there was an internet. Or my dad, who would preface similar encouragement with helpful reminders about green living and energy conservation; i.e., "Turn off that d**n TV and go outside and play." Or, for that matter, my sister, who regularly suggested to me (as I often did to her) to "just go away!"

2) How are the kids supposed to know about what's on the website if they're not reading it, parked in front of their little computer screens absorbing their fat-creating emissions and inhaling potato chips and sugary sodas?

3) There was an actual "Walk to School" month? Again, as I recall, Walk to School days were any days that were not rainy, snowy or icy or had morning temperatures below 40 degrees. And of course, if we go back one generation before me, we find that every day was Walk to School day, despite tornadoes, typhoons or time-space warping inclines that sloped upwards no matter which way one headed.

4) I'm not certain I like the inherent bias involved in a selection of "Recipes for Healthy Kids." Sick kids like good food too, y'know.

5) As a pastor, I'm one of the "community leaders" who is supposed to "empower families and communities to make healthy decisions." Waitaminute...there, I did it, and my community and its families may now make healthy decisions. Sorry I took so long to read this and get cracking on it for you. Hope that stroke thing works out OK. Boy, empowering communities and families works up an appetite. Pass me an apple fritter.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

And To Think That I Saw It On Skywalker Street...

A cartoonist imagines some scenes from Star Wars as they might have been illustrated by Dr. Seuss. A couple include dialogue.

Reading the Yoda snippet makes me think that Seuss's rhyming style would not have been at all out of place coming from the little guy -- although I don't know if the switch to a naked Yoda is really something that would work well at all. And hello, second weird-search-engine generator phrase within the past week.

Doing the whole series in a Seussian métier (or meter, for that matter) would have helped many cringe-worthy scenes. The talented Natalie Portman and the other-than-talented Hayden Christensen are stuck with some of the worst dialogue George Lucas has ever written (a singular accomplishment in itself) as they fall in love and try to build a life together. See, if this line from Portman's Padme Amidala: "Hold me, Ani. Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo; so long ago when there was nothing but our love. No politics, no plotting, no war" was rhymed, then it would be funny on purpose instead of by accident. And I think that's pretty much the best that can be hoped for about it -- there's next to no possibility that it could actually be rendered meaningful and dramatic.

I can definitely see something like this improving Jar-Jar Binks, although just about anything other than increasing his screen time would improve Jar-Jar. The obstacle there is that if Seuss had been living when Jar-Jar was being dreamed up and had been asked to write for him, I am sure he would have looked at Lucas, smiled sadly and paraphrased one of his own book titles in reply: "George Walton Lucas, will you please stop now!"

Friday, December 3, 2010

From the Rental Vault: Seven Thieves

Later this month, another version of the novel which became director Henry Hathaway's most famous work will hit the screen, courtesy of Joel and Ethan Coen.

But nine years before Hathaway directed the performance for which John Wayne would win his only Oscar, he handled another very talented cast in the noir heist film Seven Thieves. The results weren't as memorable, probably owing more to a confused screenplay by Sidney Boehm, a heist plan that lacks much pop and some odd choices in picking those talented actors.

Edward G. Robinson plays Theo Wilkins, a disgraced former professor and ex-con living in Monte Carlo. He's sent for a young friend, a thief named Paul Mason (Rod Steiger) who is himself fresh off a prison term. Wilkins has put together part of a team to rob a casino, but needs a point man to lead them, and he wants Mason for that role. Femme fatale Melanie (Joan Collins) is having an affair with the casino director's executive assistant, but her regular boyfriend Poncho (Eli Wallach) is also in on the scheme. A safecracker and a driver/mechanic complete the septet.

Robinson and Steiger open the film with some excellent snappy noirish exchanges before Collins' club dancer and Wallach's saxophone player enter the mix. But soon after the group meets and they begin heist preparations, the movie starts to lose focus and energy. The actual robbery caper is pedestrian, livened up a little by the weaknesses some of the team members display but still pretty flat. Nearly every role is filled by quality actors, but even the best guides have a hard time finding their way without maps.

Collins was only 27 when she made Seven Thieves, two decades away from her defining role as über-rhymes-with-witch Alexis Colby on Dynasty. She and Steiger are also given a lot of scenes to carry, and even though Steiger was only eight years her senior, his broken-down face and droopy demeanor make him seem too old to believe the blossoming relationship. Wallach was already 45, giving the supposed relationship between himself and Collins even more of a credibility gap.

Thieves might have been conceived as more of a crime picture than the more cerebral story it turned out to be. The poster shows Robinson in his cigar-chomping Little Caesar best even though he's playing a professor and does its best to make Steiger look like a slouch-hatted Robert Mitchum. Worse heist films have been made, of course, but the disappointment with Thieves is how many wonderful ingredients were used to make a rather bland main course.

Hiding in Plain Sight

So the weird science posts continue, as we find out that previous estimates of the number of stars in the universe might be a little low.

Like about two-thirds low.

The problem are the "red dwarf" stars, which are smaller and dimmer than our own sun. When such stars are relatively close by, they are not too hard to spot, either by direct observation or by their gravitational effects on companion stars. "Relatively close by" is the key phrase here -- it means that we can see red dwarf stars in our own galaxy, but we have a hard time seeing them in other galaxies. In our own Milky Way, red dwarf stars outnumber stars like our sun by about 100 to one. Unable to see or measure their presence in other galaxies, scientists pretty much had to assume that these cosmic low-watt bulbs were about as common everywhere else as they are here.

But some measurements suggested that other kinds of galaxies than our own might have more red dwarf stars in them. So astronomers tailored a telescope in Hawaii (scientists seem to be pretty smart about where they work) to look for evidence of them in distant galaxies. If there were in fact many more such stars in other galaxies as there are here, then their greater numbers could combine for a greater output, even though each individual red dwarf star would still be very dim. Nevada senator Harry Reid and Texas congressman Ron Paul used a similar principle to win re-election last month.

And behold, there were in fact not a hundred red dwarf stars for every sun-like star in some of those galaxies, but closer to a thousand instead. When astronomers sorted out how many of those kinds of galaxies they thought there were and how many new red-dwarf stars they might have, they figured that the universe might have three times as many stars as they would have guessed just a year ago.

Of course, the scientists involved caution against making too many predictions based on this new data. After all, the underestimate came from figuring that all the other galaxies had the same number of red dwarf stars our galaxy has. Nothing says that the galaxies they looked at are any more typical than ours was, so they say that dreaming up new theories or revising old ones based on this preliminary information would be a little premature. So they've learned that much, at least.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hold the Old Lace, Please

So some NASA scientists trained bacteria from a lake in California to eat the element arsenic instead of phosphorus. That may not sound like a big deal -- if you're a bacterium, your life is pretty darn dull anyway, so why would it matter what you ate.

However, phosphorus is one of the "pick six" of elements thought to be essential for life as we know it (sometimes scientists abbreviate that LAWKI). Find a place without it or any of the other five -- carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and sulfur -- and you find a place which, up until this experiment, was thought to be guaranteed to be without life. Science fiction has frequently suggested life that replaces carbon with silicon, but swapping the phosphorus out for arsenic was not really on most folks' radar.

But the researchers theorized that arsenic, which is just below phosphorus on the periodic table, might take its place in critters that could already tolerate high levels of that element. So they dug some out of the mud of a salty, arsenic-heavy lake and fed them more arsenic to see what would happen. The bacteria survived and grew, although they were different from normal, phosphate-eating bacteria. They also, judging by their growth rates, would rather have phosphates in their diet along with the arsenic.

The fact that life can exist and continue without one of the basic elements previously considered essential for it means that satellites and probes sent to other planets may wind up overlooking living critters whose chemistry is different than ours. It also gives some weight to a realization that many people have when they get old enough to start examining the world around them and weighing it against what seems sane and rational:

Life is weird.

Waste Some Time

Here at this little site, which combs through online quotes from movies and television series to find which ones contain the phrase entered into the search engine. Alas, "Friar's Fires" has yet to enter the world of filmed or taped entertainment. I shall need a moment to myself here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Targeted Advertising

One of the major national chain bookstores recently sent me an e-mail, suggesting I might like to pre-order Tom Clancy's "thrilling new Jack Ryan tale." They made this recommendation based upon my previous purchases.

Regular visitors to this blog (both of them) know that I do indeed read techno-thrillers, adventure and crime novels and espionage tales without excessive attention paid to their literary merits. And regular readers of such fiction know that some of the most effectively-written entries in those fields are those in which the writing draws as little attention to itself as possible. It's transparent to the action and plot movement. It also does not tax the brain if it is read while on the exercise bike.

But I draw the line at Tom Clancy. His first, The Hunt for Red October was a fun read, packed with enough technical detail to come close to actually building one of the submarines it features. But as soon as Clancy moved away from the man's man world of the military into espionage and other arenas that required non-expository dialogue and characters with ovaries, he proved that as a writer, he's an excellent insurance agency executive. Christopher Buckley offered a sharp and definitive takedown of Clancy the novelist in reviewing 1994's Debt of Honor and in Buckley's own Wry Martinis book. Buckley actually over-wrote his review; all he had to do was quote this line from Debt and you learn all you ever need to know about reading Clancy: "Yamata had seen breasts before, even large Caucasian breasts." And I really do not want to know what search queries will now bring up this blog entry.

The upcoming Clancy book, Dead or Alive, is his first new novel in seven years. It lists a co-author, Grant Blackwood, who plays the same role for thriller writer Clive Cussler in the latter's Fargo Adventure series.

And, following the example of the bookstore algorithm that brought it to my e-mail inbox, I can happily suggest it, but only to people who have previously exchanged small colored pieces of paper for larger collections of plain white paper, adorned with black ink, sewn and glued between two pieces of pressed cardboard. It is, after all, safer than a stepladder and just as handy for reaching items on the top shelf.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Two Years Later...

About this time a couple of years ago, I made fun of comic book writer Grant Morrison for proposing that the latest villain facing Batman, Dr. Simon Hurt, was actually Dr. Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce Wayne. The death of Thomas and his wife Martha in a mugging, shot before the eyes of their young son, spurred Bruce to fight crime as the Caped Crusader of Gotham City.

Morrison's Batman R.I.P. story told of the battle between Hurt and Batman and ended with Batman's supposed death -- or at least, Bruce Wayne's disappearance. The first Robin, Dick Grayson, dons Batman's cape and cowl and takes on the role of Gotham's protector, aided by Damian Wayne as a new Robin. Damian's backstory is complex, to say the least, but let's leave it that he's biologically the son of Bruce Wayne, unknown to Bruce through the early part of his life.

While all this is going on, we find that Bruce wasn't actually killed in the explosion that seems to have claimed Hurt, but instead helped take up the battle against Darkseid described in Final Crisis. Darkseid blasts Batman with his Omega eye-beams, sending him back in time with memory loss and what might prove to be a disastrous buildup of Omega energy in his body. Morrison's six-issue Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne relates how Wayne jumps forward in time, at each stop leaving clues for himself that will later help him regain his memories, become the Batman, and defeat Darkseid's plan.

Along the way, Bruce finds that he is again battling Simon Hurt, who turns out to indeed be Thomas Wayne. But he's not Bruce's father -- he's an insane, immortal, devil-worshipping ancestor of Wayne's also named Thomas.

Now returned, Bruce will let Dick Grayson continue to be the Batman who protects Gotham from evildoers. He will don a different cape and cowl and travel the world, recruiting and training Batmen from various countries to fight crime where they are, under his direction. Morrison plans to tell this story in the ongoing series Batman, Incorporated. My hat (or cowl, if you prefer) is off to you, Mr. Morrison. I didn't think there could be a modern Batman story sillier than the idea that Batman's dad didn't really die and instead became a villain who battled him.

I was wrong.

Ô Houria (Liberty)

I'm kind of a provincial guy when it comes to my entertainment -- I don't completely dislike subtitled movies, for example, but I don't think an impenetrable mess of a story becomes art just because it was filmed in another language. And although I've grown to appreciate a much wider range of classical music than I would have thought, the fact that most operas are sung in something other than English means you can have my seat at La Traviata.

All this is to say that I am not the first person you'd pick to own two albums by Algerian-born singer/songwriter Souad Massi. But there you go, being all stereotypical.

Massi played guitar and sang quite a bit as a child, listening to a lot of American country and roots music. She hit local fame first as a singer for the Algerian classic-rock influenced band Atakor, but her presence as a Westernized woman and the lead performer for a highly political band earned her death threats serious enough that she quit the band and moved to Paris in 1999.

After performing at a music festival featuring Algerian women, Massi was signed to a record label and released a folk-influenced album, following it with two more that incorporated Algerian instruments such as the oud as well as regular guitars, sometimes with bass and drums. Ô Houria is her fourth studio album, and it mixes political and personal messages as well as different musical styles. Massi sings in Arabic, French, Kabyle (her native Berber language) and a little English now and again -- "Let Me Be in Peace," for example, is a duet with former Jam and Style Council frontman Paul Weller.

A lot of Massi's songs are familiar in style to American ears, given her love of country and classic cowboy Westerns. "Kin Koun Alik Ebaida" would fit on pretty much any mid-tempo woman rock singer's album as the "slightly edgy" track. "Une Lettre a...Si H'Med" is a swingy country number with some bluegrass leanings and "Enta Ouzahrek" mixes blues, country and even a little zydeco Cajun flavor, thanks to some accordion touches. "Un Sourire," on the other hand, uses that same accordion to emphasize its French folk roots. But "Tout Reste Á Faire" is very definitely an Arabic and North-African song, prominently featuring both bouzouki and oud backing French and Arabic lyrics.

Two things set even the familiar-sounding songs apart from their respective packs. First, the lyrics -- although they have to be followed mostly in translation, Massi digs skillfully and deeply into personal as well as political matters. "Une Lettre," for example, deals with a corrupt local official who couldn't be bothered to fix a road leading to Massi's native village. The decrepit road kept people from going to work in bad weather. "Nacera" is the lament of an abused woman, scorned by even her neighbors, and "Samira Meskina" a similar cry from a poor woman whose society tries to corral her into its restrictive roles despite her own desires.  "Tout Reste," "Tout Ce Que J'Aime" and "Ô Houria (Liberty)" all dream and envision (and maybe even pray for) a unified human community based on dignity, liberty and justice for all its people.

Massi's voice also sets these songs apart. French is often thought of as a musical-sounding language, and she moves through it very easily. Arabic's rougher glottals might seem to present more opportunities for vocal stumbling, but not the way Massi sings them. You may or may not understand the words coming out of her mouth on Ô Houria, but their tone will carry their message quite well, and you'll be more than able to tap your feet, snap your fingers and enjoy the beautiful voice in which she sings them.

Monday, November 29, 2010

It's Filamentary, Watson

A recent find allowed scientists some of their best views yet of the structures or filaments of gas in space that link galaxy clusters to each other over unimaginable distances.

From your basic elementary school astronomy, you probably remember that our planet is part of a solar system, organized around the star we call the sun. Galaxies are groups of thousands or millions of stars that are themselves organized around a center, which is sometimes thought to be a gigantic black hole, although no one knows for sure. Galaxies take different shapes, depending on how the stars are distributed and the effects of gravity among them. Galaxies themselves will tend to clump together to form clusters, which are made up of galaxies that are held together by the interplay of their own gravitation.

All of these systems and groups are held together by gravity. It used to be thought that the space in between galaxies -- "intergalactic" space -- was pretty much empty -- that the gravitational field produced by each galaxy was strong enough that stars or objects wandering around in it would be gradually pulled into one galaxy or another. The space in between the clusters was thought to be relatively empty as well, for mostly the same reasons.

But it isn't. There are huge filaments of gas that link the clusters to each other. And when astronomers call them "huge," that's exactly what they mean. Imagine there's a tunnel through the center of the earth with one end at the North Pole and another at the South Pole (It couldn't be done, which is why we're imagining it). Say a person at the North Pole end holds a flashlight over the tunnel and turns it on. A person at the South Pole would see the light go on just about .07 seconds later. Light from our sun takes about eight minutes to reach us. But galaxy clusters are so far apart from each other that the same action would yield a light that might take millions or even billions of years to reach us. That's how huge these gassy filaments are.

They're also apparently extremely hot. Obviously nobody's stuck a turkey thermometer into one of them to see, but the radiation they emit gives scientists some clues, and the best estimate is that they may be as much as a million degrees Celsius, or 1.8 million Fahrenheit. By comparison, the surface of our sun is a frigid wasteland, not quite nudging 10,000 Fahrenheit. To get hotter than these celestial filaments, you have to hang out in the cores of stars -- our sun's center is about 27 million degrees Fahreneheit.

Despite their size, the filaments are difficult to "see," because the radiation they give off is washed out by the immense amounts of the same radiation given off by the galaxies and galaxy clusters. So to recap -- galaxy clusters are irregular clumps that are connected by immense, superhot streams of gas that are very difficult to see clearly because of the emissions of the clusters themselves.

I believe I see a potential new synonym for "legislative body."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Leslie Nielsen? Surely You Can't Be Serious!

I am serious, St. Peter.

And don't call him Shirley.

Good Advice

Andrew Gross first made his name as a co-author with James Patterson, opening with the historical novel The Jester. He co-wrote two entries in Patterson's "Women's Murder Club" series and also collaborated with the better-known thriller author on the noirish The Lifeguard and the revenge tale Judge & Jury. Starting in 2007, he struck out on his own with The Blue Zone, following it with his Ty Hauck series, of which Don't Look Twice is the second.

Patterson, like Clive Cussler and some others, is a big-time best-selling author who has increased his output by collaborating with others. Only he and his co-authors know for sure how much either contributed, although this USA Today interview suggests that the ideas, outline, polish and coaching come from Patterson in many of these collaborations, while a lot of the writing comes from the collaborator. As I'm not a Patterson fan, Don't Look Twice is my first exposure to Gross, and probably my last.

Ty Hauck, now somewhat famous for his role in the story Gross told in The Dark Tide, finds himself at the center of a drive-by shooting that also endangers his teenage daughter. Thus motivated, the chief of detectives of bucolic Greenwich, Conn., sets out to find out who's behind the shooting, which had as its only victim a man who turns out to be a U.S. attorney. Hauck probes the mystery through several wrong turns, while his personal life deteriorates around him. His ex-wife brings his daughter home with her following the shooting and the woman with whom he began a relationship in the earlier book decides to stay in Atlanta to care for her ailing father. His brother reconnects with him after his home life goes south, offering even more tension as the two will try to resolve hard feelings of the past. A relationship with a potential witness, Annie Fletcher, alleviates some of the darkness, but even this potential bright spot has some shadows.

Gross weaves the case through several different scenarios, each rejected by Hauck as he discovers new information about the man who was killed. In the end we find out exactly what happened and why -- sort of. Actually, Gross winds up dumping the information, which involves war profiteering and corporate shenanigans in Iraq as well as Native American casino gambling, on us from the mouth of one of the men who's spent most of the book trying to keep Hauck from learning everything he openly shares with the detective. It's clumsy, implausible and a kind of a cheat for the reader. Gross is also in love with italicized words, throwing them around so often for emphasis they lose pretty much all of their impact and mostly annoy more than anything else.

Thriller author Steve Berry supplies a cover blurb, saying that Don't Look Twice is "paced with throat-clutching suspense, and littered with surprises." I agree and actually wonder if Berry was pulling someone's leg. Gross does indeed litter his story with surprises, like people "pouring" over documents and handling a thick "sheath" of papers, as well as a jail guard watching a Yankees baseball game on TV in a story set after Thanksgiving. And it certainly had me clutching at my throat more than once.

In the end, Don't Look Twice is more than a title -- it's excellent advice when it comes to this book. Even better would have been "Don't look once," but I've always been a little hard-headed when it comes to good advice.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

From the Files of Marlin Perkins

This week, Jim will observe the Wisconsin Badger in its natural habitat while I relax in my tent with a martini and a fine cigar. Let's talk about what Jim will find.

The Wisconsin Badger, Taxidea taxus cheeseheadica, is an ill-tempered creature not known for its brainpower. It is given to ostentatious displays of irritability and petulance, frequently destroying others it confronts to such a degree as to render the contest outcome meaningless. Scientists theorize that this behavior may stem from the animal's shame over its preposterously small genitalia and dense, bone-heavy cranial structure.

When confronted by a Wisconsin Badger, one is advised to display either bratwurst, polka music, or the cheapest, nastiest beer available. Unable to focus on more than a handful of ideas at one time, the Wisconsin Badger is usually distracted by any one or a combination of these things.

It's a Gas Gas Gas

The Cassini satellite probe found oxygen in the atmosphere on Rhea, one of Saturn's moons.

Not a lot -- Rhea is a relatively small body that is able to keep only a very thin atmosphere. But both oxygen and carbon dioxide showed up in small amounts when scientists steered Cassini through Rhea's atmosphere to "sniff" it and see what it's made of. Scientists believe that the oxygen replenishes itself as the O2 molecules are carried into Rhea's surface by its magnetic field, breaking apart water molecules found there in ice into hydrogen and oxygen. The continuing impact of gas molecules with the moon's surface sort of splashes these newly freed oxygen molecules back into its atmosphere.

Rhea was discovered in 1672, along with Tethys, Dione and Iapetus, by Italian astronomer and probe namesake Giovanni Domenico Cassini. Rhea is the name of the Titan in Greek mythology who wed her brother Kronos, or Saturn, and gave birth to several of the later Olympian gods and goddesses like Poseidon, Hades, Hera and Zeus. Since Kronos was afraid one of his children would overthrow him, based on a prophecy he had heard, he swallowed each of them whole when they were born. But Rhea conspired to hide their last child, Zeus, until he could grow and free his sisters and brothers. He did so -- the story is iffy as to whether or not he made Kronos throw up or he cut him open, but out sprang fully-grown gods and goddesses who then took over as rulers of the cosmos. Zeus followed one of his father's customs and marred Hera, his own sister.

I sometimes wonder if astronomy is too PG-13 to teach to kids.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Bad, Nationwide, Etc., Etc...

On a Sunday afternoon in southern Minnesota, a young man brains a farmer with a baseball bat. The local police don't take long to figure out he did it, and they arrest him. The next morning, he's found hanged to death in his cell. The local sheriff makes the smart call, to Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and she gets help in the form of investigator Virgil Flowers, whose somewhat effete-sounding name belies his dogged detective skills and his toughness. Which he -- and the rather pretty female sheriff -- will need as another body is quickly added to the total and suspicion starts to fall on a wide segment of the town.

Virgil doesn't know exactly whom he can trust, although he discovers the sheriff is willing to work very closely with him, and he doesn't know how a close-mouthed religious community that came to that part of the country with immigrants more than a century ago fits in. But he will find out.

Bad Blood is the fourth Virgil Flowers novel from John Camp, writing as John Sandford. It's a step up from 2009's lackluster Rough Country. Sandford gives Virgil a little bit more of a real mystery to solve, steps his characterization skills back up to their usual level and forgoes some of the sophomore-level humor he indulged in last time around. Sandford also has some of Virgil's back story pay off. The investigator is the son of a Lutheran minister and regularly spends some time thinking about God before sleeping each night. Most of the time this has just been a way for Sandford to give Virgil some dimension and weight, but hasn't had much impact on who Virgil is -- his thoughts about God lead him to believe that God thinks about things pretty much the same way Virgil does, which is a convenient (and common) conclusion about God among modern folks.

But in Bad Blood, Virgil's religious background gives him an insight into the church community that's somehow mixed up in the murders. It also has a role in how some of the novel's endgame plays out. The mix of characterizations, interesting ideas and Sandford's usual writing skill makes Bad Blood a decent diversion of an afternoon.

Snicker

So Ohio State University president Gordon Gee questions the the legitimacy of some universities' claims for consideration in championship-level bowl games, saying that his Buckeyes compete in a much tougher league than such schools as Boise State and Texas Christian University, and are therefore much more worthy of placement in those games.

Said Gee of his OSU's schedule, "We do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor." Some thoughts:

1) Gee had better be glad the Buckeyes don't schedule the LSP team -- they're non-conference for Ohio State, which means they'd only meet in a bowl game, of which Ohio State has lost three of its last four. Including a 41-14 smackdown at the hands of underdog University of Florida in the 2007 national championship game and a repeat lackluster performance in the 2008 national championship game.

2) Why in the world is this a subject being addressed by university presidents instead of athletic directors? Boise State president Bob Kustra shot a few snarks of his own back at Gee. Gentlemen, you are the presidents of your entire universities, both of which are public institutions financed partially by your respective state's taxpayers to offer quality education to your respective state's young people. Next thing you know we'll have a university president writing a letter to an athletic conference asking for a loss to be erased because of a blown call...ah, never mind.

3) What in the HECK is with that stupid blue field at Boise State?

4) Mr. Gee should check up on his "murderer's row" schedule thought. OSU's Big Ten Conference (among whose eleven teams are those paragons of virtue and clean living, the Northwestern University Wildcats), went 4-3 in bowl games this last season. That's the first time the Big Ten won more bowls than it lost since 2002 and still leaves it on the bottom end of a 19-31 tally. Sure, "harsh word speakers row" doesn't sound as tough, but it would seem to be more accurate.

5) Did we ever figure out why this is a discussion being conducted by the presidents?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Nine & Draggin'

The better crime and suspense writers often recognize that their characters can get in ruts and that they need to offer them some different challenges now and again or there's no reason to pay money for a new book when the old ones are just as good and already on the shelf at home.

Whether or not that was the motivation behind Michael Connelly giving his irascible detective Hieronymous "Harry" Bosch a suddenly larger role in the raising of his teen-age daughter, her presence is likely to affect how Harry does his business for the Los Angeles Police Department. In the 13 previous Bosch outings, Harry has been able to go his own way, consequences be hanged, because he has relatively few local ties and strings.

But over the course of the last several years, he has been deepening his relationship with his daughter Madeline, whom he first met when she was four. Maddie lives with her mother in Hong Kong, a fact which takes on serious weight when Harry starts to investigate the murder of a liquor store owner who might have been killed by Chinese gangsters or "triads." A cell-phone video of his kidnapped daughter sends Harry off to Hong Kong to bring his investigative skills and willingness to cross lines, break rules and crack skulls to get her back. Neither everything in Hong Kong nor everything in Los Angeles will be what it seems by the time Harry comes to the end of the case.

One of the appeals of Connelly's Bosch series -- as well as his series featuring Bosch's half-brother Mickey Haller, a hard-nosed defense lawyer -- has been that even though the cases involved may mix straightforward and out of the ordinary circumstances, Connelly rarely settles for an obvious solution or plot turn. Big-city homicide investigations may have a lot of similarities and stories that center on their solutions can definitely take on a paint-by-number quality. Witness the last six or seven years of Law & Order, for example. Connelly has always seemed to be able to mix the plain-brown-wrapper-styled procedural of Ed McBain with enough different flavors to keep his books from being too much like every other detective story that's been written.

In 9 Dragons, though, Connelly puts Harry in a scenario that's played out probably thousands of times since Auguste Dupin figured out who killed Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter Camille: An important woman in the life of the lead investigator is believed to be imperiled by his work on a case, and he has to drop everything to try and find her. Even though Connelly's writing, pacing and characterization remain top-notch (he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1985), the story is hackneyed enough to drop 9 Dragons towards the bottom of Harry's adventures.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Paycheck Fairness!

Will Ferrell, determined by Forbes magazine to be the most overpaid movie star, is not all that upset by being so designated. He jokes he's "living the American dream without even trying" by being overpaid, which he sees as a goal many people have. I feel badly about not being able to have helped Will very much in the pursuit of that dream, as I've yet to see any of his movies in the theater. But with the exception of Anchorman and Stranger Than Fiction, every Will Ferrell movie I have endured has been awful, so maybe Will and I are even.

The ranking, for the curious, comes when Forbes crunches numbers on a star's salary and compares it to the box-office take for his or her movies, including overseas figures. The formula's a little more complex than that, but you get the idea. So if you were a movie studio who hired Will Ferrell, you averaged $3.35 back for every dollar you paid to him. The Forbes article notes that comedians have the toughest time increasing the bang for the bucks paid to them because funny in the U.S. isn't necessarily funny elsewhere, and their foreign box office figures lag.

Earlier this year, Forbes also published a list of the best investments movie companies had made, and that list was topped by...Shia LaBeouf? Because the list takes into account box office over the past several years, and because LaBeouf wasn't paid all that much for the first installment of the blockbuster money-earner Transformers, a movie company that hired him made $81 for every dollar it paid him. Because actresses are usually either the centerpieces of smaller-grossing films or they're secondary characters in the larger-grossing action or super-hero blockbusters, they make up half of the top 10 best investment list. Although Anne Hathaway hasn't starred in anything with Transformers-level take, she made her bosses $64 for every dollar they paid her, based heavily on the $1 billion worldwide receipts for 2010's Alice in Wonderland and the two tween-fave Princess Diaries releases. That makes her tops for actresses and actually second to LaBeouf overall.

But there's no way to know if actors' box-office muscle will continue to grow along with their salaries. Yes, they were paid chump change for their last movie and it turned out to be a mega-blitz powerhouse at the box office, so negotiations start with a demand for the director's firstborn son to be raised as their own. This movie, though, may tank completely and not make enough to pay for the free popcorn the movie critics ate watching it. No guarantees on the investment.

Although I do feel safe in saying that no matter now much money either of them is paid and no matter how much money their movies make, any film that stars Will Ferrell, Shia LaBeouf or any combination thereof is pretty much guaranteed to suck.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thaaaaaank You!

I'm normally a little skeptical of pop culture lists found on the internet, since they often seem to be gathered up by people whose memories seem to stop somewhere around 1998. But the TV Squad hits things just about right in this list of the Top 10 Thanksgiving TV episodes.

Sure, someone older than me might quibble with the "Top 10 Ever" part and insist that the list's failure to include something from My Mother the Car makes it meaningless. Although I don't know if that show did a Thanksgiving episode in its only season.

Anyway, a misfire for me is the inclusion of a Roseanne entry -- her show began kind of fun, thanks mostly to John Goodman, but got old quickly, thanks mostly to Roseanne. Also getting a down-check is the Gilmore Girls show at number 6 -- I have no real dislike for that show, but I could never find an entry point that made me want to watch it, so I don't much care that Rory and Lorelai have to attend four Thanksgivings because they're too much a pair of enablers to stand up and say "no" once in awhile.

On the upside, we find the often overlooked The Bob Newhart Show making the list. I myself would drop the Friends episode to number 3 and bump Cheers to the second spot, but both are definitely in the right place by being in the top 3.

And as is only right in a world in which we expect natural laws to make sense, the great "Turkeys Away" from WKRP in Cincinnati comes in at number one. Of course, because natural laws make sense, turkeys can't fly, and therein lies the problem for one Arthur C. Carlson, and the laughs for for the rest of us, even 22 years later.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Journey of Discovery

Trojan Odyssey is the first Dirk Pitt book Clive Cussler published after the death of his wife Barbara in 2003. In it, Pitt reflects on his life of derring-do and decides he might need to settle down after his long string of romantic encounters, world-saving adventures and thwarting of evil-doers. It's easy to believe that his wife's passing prompted some reflection on Cussler's part about his mainstay character and what kind of a life he was living out through Cussler's keyboard. But before then, there's another dastardly plot to foil and group of megalomaniacs to send packing off to their well-deserved fates.

A mysterious brown crud is endangering life in the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean near Nicaragua. The potential disaster is being investigated by the two adult children Pitt learned in Valhalla Rising that he fathered, Dirk Jr. and Summer. But what is the connection with the mysterious Odyssey corporation and its enigmatic CEO, known only as Specter? And what is the significance of the European Celtic artifacts discovered in a sunken temple in the Caribbean, thousands of years older than any known cross-Atlantic voyage? Dirk Jr. and Summer will find out, but Dirk Sr. and his friend Al Giordino will need to take a hand in making sure things turn out all right.

Some of Odyssey ranks with Cussler's best writing. The scene where Pitt and Giordino help save a floating hotel from being driven onto a reef is guitar-string taut (that they succeed can't possibly be a spoiler; it happens too early in the book and any Cussler reader knows the day has yet to dawn that Pitt and Giordino can't save). But some of the rest of the book is muddied by Cussler's fascination with the work of Iman Wilkens, a professor with some different ideas about the Trojan War written about by Homer in The Iliad. Wilkens suggests that, instead of Greeks and Trojans, the war was fought between two bands of Celtic people from Europe, and that the locations involved were actually in England and northern France. This theory offers some interesting ideas to play with and a little background for the shadowy Odyssey corporation, but Cussler preaches it heavily enough it gives his story plenty of sloggy passages.

Aside from that, though, Odyssey gives Pitt and Giordino a fairly graceful first step to the side of the stage, and Dirk Jr and Summer their initial "speaking parts" in the series. It also readies the series for Cussler's own handoff to his son Dirk, who will begin to co-write the series with 2004's Black Wind.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Successful Failures

Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell considered his mission -- in which a crippled spacecraft did not land on the moon as planned but did return its three astronauts safely to Earth -- a "successful failure."

A couple more successful failures are working to gather scientific knowledge right now. The former THEMIS P1 and P2 probes, in danger of shutting down because their orbits don't allow enough sunlight to their solar panels, have been redirected to study conditions around the moon instead. The THEMIS satellites are not technically a failure, because they worked in conjunction with the other probes in their five-spacecraft set to gather much of the data they were supposed to. But the change in their orbits over time left them in shadow too long for their systems to recover, and they were in danger of freezing out. Vassilis Angelopoulos of UCLA, principal investigator of the THEMIS mission, referred to them as "dead spacecraft walking," which is kind of a clunky phrase that draws on a 15-year-old movie title and shows that some folks aren't cut out for marketing.

Renamed the ARTEMIS mission, the two satellites will now explore the effect of solar wind on the moon and at the Earth-Moon Lagrange points. These are places in space where the gravitational interaction of the sun, moon and Earth combine to keep an object in one place relative to those bodies. A spacecraft in the Lagrange point would have to use very little fuel to keep its station, compared with one in some other position. Also, according to Messrs. Gibbons, Hill and Beard, "they gotta lotta nice girls there," although that idea "...might be mistaken."

Over on Mars, one of the two Spirit Rovers that have been tooling around the Barsoomian landscape since 2004 has found evidence of water that may have flowed underneath the Martian surface. Again, the rovers are not truly failures, as they have been working several years past their initial three-month mission plans. But the Spirit rover got stuck in some Martian sand a few months ago and is in a hibernation mode while it awaits the Martian spring and maybe gets some sun on its own solar panels and can get working again.

But before it shut down, it sent data that showed strata, or layers, in the Martian soil that suggests snowmelt flowed underneath the top crust not very long ago. If Spirit survives the bitter cold of the Martian winter and does begin to operate again, scientists plan to test several things about the soil around it that can be done without getting the little goldbrick to up and move again.