Saturday, March 31, 2012

Nice Theme Song, Mr. Bond

Fifty years ago, Sean Connery first told the world he was "Bond. James Bond" and adventure movies have never been the same. Later this year, Daniel Craig is scheduled for his third outing as 007 with Skyfall, hoping to recapture some of the Casino Royale magic and swagger he squandered in Quantum of Solace.

Bond movie theme songs have set much of the tone for their movies ever since Shirley Bassey warned us of Auric Goldfinger's "spider's touch" in Goldfinger. Some have been great and some have seriously stunk up the joint. But more than one song was considered for most of the movies, and in some cases the discarded choices were very interesting. Some enterprising YouTubers set the credits of those respective movies to some of the unselected choices to give a sense of what might have been. Alice Cooper's "The Man With the Golden Gun" probably would have helped that less-than-exciting Roger Moore outing more than Lulu's version did. But on the other hand, the Johnny Cash(!) song "Thunderball" just doesn't fit with the 007 image even though it's a great song -- if Jim West and Artemus Gordon had ever made it to the big screen this one would have suited them just fine.

What? Yeah, let's just pretend you didn't say that.

(H/T Pajamas Media)

Friday, March 30, 2012

From the Rental Vault (2006, 2007, 2008): A Trio

Ye Yan (in English, The Banquet) is a 2006 Chinese wuxia movie loosely based on Hamlet. Released in the U.S. under the more Crouching Tiger-ish title Legend of the Black Scorpion, it tells the story of Crown Prince Wu Luan's struggles in the royal court after the death of his father, the Emperor, and the assumption of the throne by his uncle Li. Li also marries Wu Luan's stepmother Wan, who is a contemporary with Wu Luan and was in love with him (and may still be). Wu Luan comes to realize that there is treachery and intrigue at work in the royal court and within his family, and decides to seek his revenge. What cost that revenge might take from others, such as the loyal Yin family and their daughter Qing Nu who is also in love with Wu Luan, is not his concern.

Director Feng Xiaogang creates several beautiful scenes throughout much of The Banquet, but relies too heavily on music-video level imagery that's supposed to be Important and Mean Something, but is too often stagey and boring. Ge You as the Emperor Li and Zhou Xun as Qing Nu are highly watchable as a treacherous man who can't believe his own betrayal and a young woman far too moral to survive the immorality of the court, and Ziyi Zhang is excellent as the prideful and conflicted Empress Wan, but Daniel Wu lends no energy to The Banquet's often plodding pace as Wu Luan and his blank performance can't keep the movie from drowning in its director's pretensions.
Arn: The Knight Templar began life as a two-movie adaptation of a trilogy of Swedish historical fiction novels in 2007 and 2008, which were combined for an international release under the title of the first movie. Online writeups seem to suggest that the longer version of the story is a better one, and the combined version does seem to be kind of episodic and choppy. Arn Magnusson (Joakim Nätterqvist) is a young boy raised in a monastery who leaves upon adulthood to rejoin his family. Back home, he demonstrates the fightng skill he learned from a monk who had formerly been a knight and he falls in love with Cecilia Algotsdotter (Sofia Helin). Their affair results in Cecilia's pregnancy, which combines with political intrigue among the Magnusson and Algotsdotter families to get Arn sent to the Holy Land as a Knight Templar and Cecilia to a convent, each to serve 20 years of penance. Arn endures the brutal Palestinian desert, combat against the wily Saladin and the thick-headedness of his own Templar superiors to become a hardened warrior. He returns to take Cecilia as his wife after her own 20 years of humiliation and punishment in the convent, and they found an estate that soon becomes a power player in early Swedish politics.

Nätterqvist and Helin are both convincing as young lovers who reunite seasoned by their experiences, and director Peter Flinth spares little expense with his continent-sprawling story. But he's an unimaginative storyteller overall -- when a character talks about something happening at the next full moon, lo and behold we switch to a shot of the waxing moon -- and doesn't really justify some of the interestingly modern behavior and viewpoints of his 12th century characters. Again, it may be fairer to judge the extended original product to get a clearer picture of Arn the Knight Templar; the shorter version of the movie Arn: The Knight Templar doesn't really offer one.
Aamir Khan is one of India's top actors and Kajol Devgan (usually billed as Kajol) one of its top actresses. Their chemistry is a large part of the reason 2006's Fanaa succeeds as a story despite its storyline's outlandish coincidences. Zooni Ali Beg (Kajol), a blind girl from Kashmir, meets a ladykiller-styled tour guide named Rehan Khan (Aamir Khan) while on a trip to New Delhi. They begin a relationship that seems destined for a lifetime of happiness as Rehan talks Khan into surgery to restore her sight. But events separate them, and their reunion years later places them both in the middle of a nuclear terror plot that could endanger millions.

Again, the story relies on wild coincidences and some pretty out-there plot twists. But both leads manage to sell these implausibilities as they tell the story of people who sometimes have to choose between "the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils," as one character says in the movie. Director Kunal Kohli wisely hangs back and gives them the space to do so, relegating the eye-roll factor in the plot mostly to the background.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

No Breakout Specials Offered

"White collar" criminals are often people who got a little too inventive when they came up with ways to make money. Their creativity was not appreciated by the authorities, who insisted on things like obeying the laws and such.

Also, they often find that the prison environment is different than what they have been used to. At the very least, they find their position in that environment is different -- without their wealth they may not have the power they've been used to having in a society where individual strength and connections are measured differently than they are in the boardroom.

So leave it to these entrepreneurs to figure out how to make a buck off having been in prison -- by offering advice and guidance to the white-collar criminal types who are about to go there. This Wall Street Journal piece tells the story of how one particular man convicted of fraud is learning what to do and what not to do in prison. The guides range from the courtesy of ordinary interactions (always say, "Excuse me" if you bump someone) to how to survive high-intensity confrontations that could result in injury or worse.

Ol' Ms. Free Market is an inventive kind of gal, isn't she?

(H/T Jonathan Last)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Gotta Spend It on Something...

So you're the founder of, which means you pretty much have a mint of money lost in your couch cushions, let alone in your bank account. What are you going to do with it?

Find the engines that launched Apollo 11, that's what.

Jeff Bezos financed an expedition that searched the Atlantic Ocean for parts of the Saturn V rocket that launched the first mission to land human beings on the moon. Searchers had a rough idea of where the first stage landed after burning out and being discarded, but it had never been located. The flight path had been designed so that the immense lower stages of the rocket would land in the ocean -- figuring that since the initial stage weighed in at 288,000 pounds after it had burned up all its fuel someone might get a little lawyery if it landed in their back yard.

Bezos reported the discovery in a note on his own Bezos Expeditions website, saying that the F-1 engines from the first stage had been found 14,000 feet below the surface, and that the team would now begin efforts to see if one could be raised.

No word on whether or not anyone's going to fine NASA for littering.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

...And Nothin' On

Whilst channel surfing during commercials I discovered some new stations up at the top end of the local digital cable service. One is very welcome, the Major League Baseball or MLB Network.

Another is called the Chiller Network, and is apparently devoted to stupid horror movies...but I repeat myself.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Not Quite Sure

Spent the afternoon finally attacking the back weeds with the lawnmower. Among those which had taken up residence during last week's monsoon were thistles.

As one with more than a wee drop o' the Gael in the bloodline, I do hae a soft spot in me heart for them. But anyone who's ever seen one knows that they have a kind of weird alien look to them, especially in the early phases when the heavier lower leaves are spreading out, pushing down other plants and choking them off from the sun. The spiky nature of the leaves also makes them look more than a little spooky.

So there's a part of me, deep back in the lizard brain, that's just a touch nervous whenever I ride the mower over them, a part that's not entirely convinced that they're not ducking under the blade so that they can attack from the rear after I pass by. Ridiculous, of course. Impossible. It's never happened.

As far as we know.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

All in the Game

A 50% off coupon on the very same day I find the two-disc full version DVD of one of my new favorite movies, Red Cliff?

Well played, Half-Price Books. Well played indeed.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

That Special Added Flair

Medieval monks who had to hand-letter the various books, illuminated manuscripts and whatnot apparently let everyone know that sometimes their jobs were not all fun and games. This page has several things that various nameless scribes left in the margins to inform everyone just how much fun they weren't having.

I left a couple of notes in the margins of this post, too, but I wrote them by hand so I think they'll only show up on my computer screen, not yours.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Now They're Scared...

Since it's been three years since they submitted or considered a budget, it seems United States Senators have a lot of time on their hands and not enough to keep them busy. They have apparently spent some of that time reading the sports page and have just learned that National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell has handed down fines and suspensions in light of a recently revealed bounty-for-injury scheme amongst the defensive players and coaches of the New Orleans Saints.

So Illinois Senator Dick Durbin is going to chair a hearing of a Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee that's going to "put on the record what sports leagues and teams at the professional and collegiate levels are doing to make sure that there’s no place in athletics for these pay-to-maim bounties." Witnesses from the National Football League, National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Collegeiate Athletic Association who have real jobs will be asked to take time off from them so they can reassure the United States Senate that they think paying players extra money to seriously hurt each other is a bad idea and will not be tolerated.

Sen. Durbin did not mention calling any witnesses from the Women's National Basketball Association or other professional and amateur women's sports leagues. It would be wrong to infer from this that the senator is OK with female athletes maiming each other for extra money, I am sure. It might be less wrong to infer that the senator believes that the amount of attention he can draw to himself from including those organizations would be enough less that he does not want to endure the actual work that might be involved in listening to their testimony.

While speaking on the floor of the United States Senate to announce the hearing, Sen. Durbin said he himself had a bum knee from his own high school football playing days. He offered no similar causative event that would explain his bum head.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wrecking Ball

I kind of figured I'd address this album musically rather than politically even though a lot of digital ink has been spilled about its political impact. I could say it's because once, during better days, I was cautioned about weighing too heavily the words of a rich man in a poor man's shirt, but that wouldn't be fair. I think people who have praised or condemned the album because they say that Springsteen is declaring that the poor are saints and the wealthy just a bunch of sinners haven't really listened to it that closely. He's doing something a little bit more intricate than that.

It seems a central "political" theme of the record is that some people use their wealth to take advantage of other people, and they cause a lot of misery when they do. Who could disagree with that? I've read reviews that suggest part of the idea is that the wealth in and of itself somehow makes people not care about poor people, but if that's true I'm listening to an album that doesn't exist. It was made by a lot of wealthy people and unless I disbelieve the words they're singing, I think they care about poor people. I also read one that said Wrecking Ball is a statement against the system that creates wealthy people and poor people, but if that's true then I should have been able to walk out of the store without paying for the record.

Of course, the disagreement comes not from the identification of the problem -- that wealthy people and others with power often misuse that power or at the very least do not use it to help those who have less -- but with the potential answers that we believe would solve the problem. I suspect that were Springsteen and I to discuss those issues we would not agree, but I'll leave my side of the argument to people like Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell because they're smarter than I am and better able to explain those things. Plus, mired as I am in my traditional Christian theism, I tend to see the roots of those problems as a part of the human condition of fallen sinfulness rather than the mere possession of wealth. All the money does is give some sinners more ways to sin against themselves and others.

Anyway, on with the music.

The first track, "We Take Care of Our Own," is the standout. By weaving some of the folk, Americana and gospel strands he picked up during his work on the Pete Seeger cover sessions into his more straight-ahead rock numbers, Springsteen puts into one song more energy, flavor and creativity than you can hear in almost the entire Working on a Dream record. It's not strictly a return to the R&B soul-influenced sounds of his earliest records, but it's not "Murder, Inc., Crunch Pt. 47," either. In it, Springsteen does one of the things he does best -- state a problem while strongly suggesting hope that it is not insoluble. Given hard economic times people seem less willing to help each other when in need, either through their own giving or through government's official functions. But as Americans, such is not our creed nor is it to be our way -- "We take care of our own." Some folks suggest the song is only bitterly ironic and not at all hopeful, but to me the closing scenes of the second video, in which Springsteen and workers begin walking together as the video changes from black and white to color, are definite suggestions of a belief and hope of better things than we see now. To borrow a phrase from some of my colleagues, I believe Springsteen says here that while it is indeed Friday, Sunday's coming.

The Seeger folk influences are strongest on songs like the bluesy "You've Got It" and the Irish-tinged "Shackled and Drawn" and bonus track "American Land," the latter of which pretty much begs for a Shane MacGowan guest appearance if this tour hits Ireland.

Two songs struck me as curious inclusions -- the title track and another song also previously available only in a live version, "Land of Hope and Dreams." "Wrecking Ball" was originally a riotous eulogy for Giants Stadium written just before its demolition in 2010, and released first as an iTunes single and then on the London Calling: Live in Hyde Park DVD. Although home of the New York Giants the stadium was all Jersey, and Jersey son Springsteen had made it a sort of "home field" of his own with multi-night sets there on nearly every tour for many years. Loose, loud and raucous, "Wrecking Ball" was a defiant declaration that the demolition of the actual stadium couldn't touch the spirit of the workers who built it and the people who had enjoyed its events. The studio version lacks the live track's energy and seems constrained; the live song is raised mugs held high and smashed together and sloshing their contents over the celebrants before being drained in great gulps, but the studio somehow seems more like wine glasses tapped against each other and sipped. When I make Springsteen playlists, I will probably opt for the live track.

I'll probably do the same for "Land of Hope and Dreams," a longtime concert staple that made its first appearances during the 1999-2000 Reunion Tour and on the Live in New York City album. Drawing on gospel sounds and the frequently-used gospel imagery of a train on a journey to the promised land, "Hope and Dreams" was its own rousing declaration, one that echoed Jesus' words and actions as it "carried saints and sinners" and "losers and winners" and "whores and gamblers" and "lost souls" and was a place where "faith will be rewarded." One of the late Clarence Clemons' live saxophone solos on the song was added to the mix and that helps, but the studio version again feels confined and more watercolor than vibrant.

"We Are Alive" closes the regular version of the album with a vision of those who have sacrificed for the benefit of others -- and those who have been sacrificed because of the evil of still others -- that has a sort of Nebraska sound. But instead of the bleakness of that 1982 album, it too defiantly states that those who seek justice will not be stilled by death and that their spirits as well as their quest will live on in those who seek it today. It's Friday, but Sunday's comin'.

Wrecking Ball is certainly a good Springsteen album and a welcome improvement over the lackluster Dream. I don't know that I could place it at the top of his catalogue; it's got more preaching than I like (Oh irony, thy name is Friar) and many of the slower-tempo numbers tend to blend together sonically and lyrically. Even though I definitely admire the gospel tinges and the obvious religious influences,  a couple of times I tend to forget which ominously quiet fatcat banker bastard song is which. But considering that there's a whole host of artists who couldn't equal a good Springsteen album on their own better days, I can't find it in me to begrudge the store for charging me for it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Animated Life

Ever wondered what different characters from Walt Disney movies might look like if they were real people? Graphic artist Jirka Väätäinen has done some photo-manipulation and work at his blog to show some possibilities.

Väätäinen has so far stuck with Disney's female characters -- although he branched out beyond the heroines to include the villainous Ursula from The Little Mermaid. I can imagine several reasons for this. For one, most of the early Disney heroes were interchangeable versions of Prince Bland of Blandalot. I love Disney animation but I can't for the life of me remember anything that would distinguish the prince in Snow White from the prince in Cinderella. I remember the one in Sleeping Beauty fought a dragon. Later heroes, like Aladdin, Phoebus from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Li Shang of Mulan would, I imagine, offer an artist something to imagine to help build a character.

And for another Väätäinen is a guy, and historically guys have been known to paint pictures of pretty girls.

(H/T Buzzfeed via Yeah Right)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1950): In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place is not one of Humphrey Bogart's best-known movies, but many people think of it as one of his top performances -- even better than his Oscar-winning work a year later in The African Queen. Bogart had so many great roles that picking one is next to impossible, but Place is probably as good a candidate as any.

Bogie is Dixon Steele, a screenwriter who's gone a long time without much work and who's a little too ready to tip a glass and start a fight. He finds himself mixed up in a murder investigation at the same time he begins a relationship with a neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). The relationship helps Steele rediscover his muse, making his agent happy as well, but the strain of being the number-one suspect starts to wear on him, provoking his violent side and making Laurel wonder if the man she has fallen in love with is in fact a murderer.

At first glance, Steele seems like he's a typical Bogie character -- smooth, cool, loose and cynically impervious to the world. But as we watch though the first ten minutes of the movie we see that Steele is not so much loose as he is coming apart at the seams, and rather than being smooth and cool he's frayed and unraveling before our eyes. At 51, Bogie's already weathered face had begun to show more signs of age and his hard lifestyle (cancer would kill him barely six years later), especially in closeups. Director Nicholas Ray used the contrast between the seemingly unchanged Bogie at a distance and the aging one in closeups to highlight how Dixon Steele starts to wear down under the pressure of the investigation, his own paranoia and his selfishness.

Grahame is a top-level film noir femme fatale as Laurel Gray, just as quick with her wits and comebacks as is Steele. She too has one face she wears in private with Steele, one that's much more open and ready to laugh, and one that she wears elsewhere, which is hard to imagine smiling at all. Bogart's wife Lauren Bacall and Ginger Rogers were both considered for the part, but Ray convinced the studio to cast his soon-to-be ex-wife Grahame instead and it was definitely a good choice. Bacall could be cool but lacked Grahame's iciness, and it's hard to imagine Ginger Rogers projecting the same aura of brittle disdain.

In a Lonely Place wasn't much of a hit on its release, but time has been kinder to it and critics today often consider it one of the top examples of mid-20th century film noir. It's certainly bleak and unsettling, but it also showcases two of the best performances by a top actress and a movie icon and definitive noir direction from Nicholas Ray.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Years that end in "2" are every now and again the home of some good movies. Ten years ago, New Line Cinema's release of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers reassured Tolkien fans that their beloved trilogy would indeed hit the screen more or less intact. Ralph Bakshi's shenanigans twenty years prior had burned them once. Spider-Man was Sam Raimi's well-done first-take on Peter Parker. My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a crowd-pleasing indie hit (On the other hand, there were also the awful Die Another Day and Star Trek: Nemesis, as well as George Lucas's continuing degradation of the good will Star Wars had earned him, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones).

But 1992 was a lot more lightweight even if it had some great fun trips to the theater like Aladdin and Wayne's World.

Thirty years ago, though, moviegoers were treated to high-class fare like Diner, Blade Runner, My Favorite Year, The Verdict, The Year of Living Dangerously and Koyaanisqatsi. Or they could take in well-done box-office champs like Tootsie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Rocky III, Poltergeist, An Officer and a Gentleman, 48 Hours, Annie or Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Or movies that were both, like E.T. and Gandhi.

The year 1972 would be a movie banner year if only for the fact that the first Godfather movie came out then, but if you tuck some things like Jeremiah Johnson and Lady Sings the Blues around it, you've got an even better showing. Skip back another 10, and 1962 gave us Lawrence of Arabia, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Dr. No, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and The Longest Day.

1952 keeps the ball rolling with High Noon, Monkey Business, Ivanhoe and Singin' in the Rain, among others. And 1942 welcomed Casablanca. Nuff said. In 1932, in addition to movies like the original Scarface and Grand Hotel, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Shirley Temple all started their movie careers. One of the first screen versions of the bandit who robbed from the rich to give to the poor debuted in 1922 with Douglas Fairbanks' Robin Hood. It cost a million dollars to make -- about $13 million in today's money -- and was the first movie to have a genuine Hollywood premiere.

What seems interesting about this list is that many if not most of these movies were either crtically lauded or at least commended for competence as well as becoming movies that top out at the box office or had staying power. Of course, similar lists could probably be compiled using most years, with some decades excelling and others "meh"-ing. So it's probably just an interesting coincidence, and I'll leave you with the roast beef sandwich scene from Diner. Other than Kevin Bacon's F-bomb a little way in, there is no free-range vocabulary to avoid:

Sunday, March 18, 2012


So it seems there's a prize for the weirdest book title.

Well, Bookseller magazine might not want to phrase it exactly that way, but since 1978 they have awarded the Diagram Prize to the most outlandishly titled book of the year. The magazine recently revealed its shortlist for the award and began online voting for the 2011 prize. It takes a lot to follow in the footsteps of the very first Diagram Prize winner, Norman Reed's Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice.

Some of the choices qualify because they are academic-styled books that focus on a very specific topic and they have to explain all of that in the title. Such would be Peter Gosson's A Century of Sand Dredging in the Bristol Channel: Volume Two. Volume two? Apparently Mr. Gosson went to the George R. R. Martin school of writing. Jonathan Olivares' A Taxonomy of Office Chairs is shorter but kind of a head-scratcher -- it's 256 pages of pictures and descriptions of office chairs. According to the book's Amazon page, it also includes ten chapters of technical drawings of office chairs, and is aimed at "product designers, furniture manufacturers, design enthusiasts and students, furniture collectors and anyone needing to buy an office chair."

I think my favorite is Mr Andoh's Pennine Diary: Memoirs of a Japanese Chicken Sexer in 1935 Hebden Bridge by Stephen Curry and Takayoshi Andoh. It's not what you think, but it's still plenty different. Curry and Andoh tell the story of a man who traveled from Japan to Yorkshire, England, to teach the Yorkshire poultry raisers how to tell male from female baby chickens. The Andoh of the title is the father of co-author Takayoshi and he kept a diary of his time in Hebden Bridge, the town in Yorkshire that held the hatchery whose workers he trained. The book has its own website where co-author Curry offers a little bit of history and some quotes from the elder Andoh's journal. There were, apparently, cultural differences: “It was quite unbearable to me the attitude of British young men toward women. They did kiss and moreover, flirted with each other. I was vexed with them.”

Mr. Andoh's diary is available at the United Kingdom Amazon site rather than the U.S. one and goes for £9.49 -- that's about $15. I think, in terms of the Diagram Prize, we have a clear winner and I encourage you to vote for the Diary.

(Note: The blog author was not compensated in any way for his favorable mention of Mr Andoh's Pennine Diary: Memoirs of a Japanese Chicken Sexer in 1935 Hebden Bridge, except in that he was given quite a broad smile upon learning of its existence as well as envisioning the search-engine results that could result from this entry's mention of nude mice and chicken sexers.)

(H/T The Economist)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

From Downtown!

You might wonder what business a geography professor has diagramming basketball shots, but Kirk Goldsberry of Michigan State has done so, creating maps showing where players have the most success, colored like the heat signature maps you see done from infrared cameras. This website shows the overall map, with red-orange representing the places from which shots score the most points.

Obviously more shots fall when taken from closer to the basket, so that is a red "hot zone." But more points result from three-point shots, so it also is a hot zone.

My own map, of course, would be solid blue from end to end because I am an ice-cold shooter. Not in the good way.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Different Flavor of Madness

Another clever little entry from the Pope Center for the study of higher education, which uses a database compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education that shows rates of degree completion and the instructional cost per degree awarded for different colleges.

The Pope folks ran the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Tournament teams through the different databases to determine which college in this year's tournament would "win" in matchups based on those two statistics. That is, which college has the best value in terms of the cost per degree awarded, and then which college has the highest completion rate per 100 degrees.

In the cost per degree competition, Long Beach State's $37,780 spent per degree awarded crowns it the National Champion of economic efficiency. Harvard, as you might expect, is the goat of the tournament; its $343,004 spent per degree is the tops in the tournament field.

In degree completion, Florida State wins it all with a rate of 34.3. The number indicates that people often transfer into the university and earn their degrees there. A school that graduated every student it enrolled would have a completion rate of 25 per 100 per year. Long Island University of Brooklyn was the pre-eminent bubble team in this competition as its rate of 15.4 was the lowest in the field.

In real life, 12-seed Long Beach State was eliminated by 5-seed New Mexico Thursday night. Third-seeded Florida State is scheduled to play 14th-seeded St. Bonaventure University Friday afternoon.

And of course, the CHE database only determines whether or not students in general complete their degrees and the actual dollar cost of that degree. The rate of completion by the student athletes on the court, as well as what the degree is actually worth, are other matters entirely.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


The TV show Community returned to the air tonight after a few months off. My joy cannot be measured.

I suppose now would be as good a time as any to take bets on when people who absolutely worship the airwaves through which this show travels turn on it and say it's "lost it." I'm afraid someone other than me will have to make the actual determination, since I haven't ever willingly watched it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Extra Slices!

As noted just about a year ago, March 14 is often celebrated by the mathematically inclined and by those who are equally as nerdy even if nowhere near as computationally gifted (three guesses as to which group includes me) as "Pi Day." This is because the shorthand version of the date is 3/14, and the first three digits of the ratio number called pi are 3.14.

Pi is simply the ratio of the circumference of a circle (how far it is around the outside) to its diameter (how far it is from one end to the other). This ratio is always the same for any circle you create in Euclidean geometry (non-Euclidean geometry works a little differently, but it involves conceiving of a universe where parallel lines eventually meet, so my head will hurt too much to type), and is often written as the lowercase 16th letter of the Greek alphabet, π.

A friend on Facebook wondered how big of a party they must have had on March 4, 1592, which would have been the date 3/14/1592 and represents π carried out to six decimal places: 3.141592. If they'd noted it, I suspect that it would have been a neat curiosity but probably not the occasion for the many pi/pie puns that folks make today. For one, the ratio was at that time much more likely to be called Archimedes Constant. Although English mathematician and slide rule inventor William Oughtred first used π in about 1600 to abbreviate perimetron, the Greek word which gives us "perimeter," π didn't become widespread until another English mathematician, William Jones, started using it about 100 years later, and became more or less official when Swiss mathematical superstar Leonhard Euler began using it in 1737.

For another, adding a new decimal place to the calculation of π in those days was not the quick little button push operation we have today even in the most basic desktop calculators. The aforementioned Archimedes gained his association with the ratio in the third century B.C. by making some of the more accurate calculations in the ancient world through measuring the area of polygons contained within a particular circle. A 96-sided polygon gave him the value of 3.14185, or about .00026 difference. If you used this value of π to calculate the length of the equator, you'd be off by about 2 miles out of more than 25,000. In 480 or so, Chinese mathematician Zu Chongzi carried the formula to a polygon with 3076 sides and showed that π was between 3.1415926 and 3.1415927. Until algorithmic functions were used to calculate π about 900 years later, this remained the most accurate approximation of π available. Use one of those values to figure the Earth's equator from its diameter and you'd be off by just more than four feet, which would be a lot better than your GPS does.

π is an irrational number, meaning it can't be expressed by an equivalent fraction -- it never ends and it never repeats. The fraction 22/7 is used as an approximation, as is 355/113. Both are as accurate as almost any real-world approximation needs to be.

When Isaac Asimov wrote his essay "A Piece of Pi" in 1960, computers had been calculating values of π for some time, using some of those algorithmic methods instead of geometrical ones. Asimov noted that in 1837, a man named William Shanks finished a 15-year project to compute π to 707 decimal places, by far the most accurate until computers came along and probably the last non-computer-aided calculation of π ever done. The first major computer calculation of π, in 1949, took the ENIAC computer 70 hours to figure it to more than 2000 places (and discovered that Shanks was wrong about five hundred digits in), and modern computers have figured the ratio out into the trillions of digits.

Of course, any estimation of π out to just 11 digits, plugged into the figure-the-equator formula, will give you a distance off by less than one millimeter. And you could draw any circle that fits inside the 15-billion light-year observable universe, multiply its diameter by a value of π accurate out to 39 digits, and get a circumference figure that would be off by less than the width of a hydrogen atom. So all of those extra digits wind up making for a pi that is quite a bit richer than almost anyone needs.

(PS -- The essay was one of those Asimov wrote for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from 1958 until shortly before his death in 1992. He had the freedom to tackle any scientific subject he wished and ranged over just about everything; Asimov was blogging before there was a web to blog on. I own it in the 1978 edition of the collection Asimov on Numbers, which I recommend to my fellow non-computationals who like to masquerade as math geeks)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

From the Rental Vault (2001): The Warrior

When it was released in 2001, Kim Seong-soo's epic The Warrior (in Korean, Musa) was the most expensive Korean movie ever filmed. It featured an international cast of some of the top actors in both China and South Korea and was lauded for its historical accuracy to the period and the different peoples and languages involved. The Koreans spoke Korean, the Chinese spoke Mandarin, and nobody understood each other unless they spoke both languages or were using another common language.

It deals with the possible fate of an actual envoy sent from Korea to the representatives of the new Ming Dynasty rulers of China in 1375. The envoy never returned to Korea and the actual fate of the mission remains unknown. Kim Seong-soo's story is supposed to tell what happened to them.

In 1368, the Ming Dynasty began supplanting the Kublai Khan-founded Yuan Dynasty in China. Although the Koryo or Korean people had friendly relations with the Yuan, they decided to open diplomatic channels with the Ming as well, since it looked like they would eventually prevail. But the Ming reject and imprison the diplomats and their military escort, which includes the young General Choi Jung, the veteran sergeant Jin-lib and Yeo-sol, a slave to one of the envoys who is devoted to his late master. When Mongol raiders attack the prisoner caravan and slaughter the Chinese guards, they let the Koreans go where they wish. Choi Jung, now in charge of the group, originally decides to return to Korea but fears the ridicule he will face there. He and his soldiers find a Yuan company that has kidnapped the Ming Princess Bu-Yong and he decides that rescuing her will allow him to complete his mission to present diplomatic credentials to the Ming court and retain his honor and reputation. The group must make their way through hostile territory in northern China, pursued by the Mongol general Rambulwha, and slowed by the princess as well as native villagers fleeing Rambulwha.

The story of the group of fighters trapped in hostile country far from home is a common one, and The Warrior draws a lot on that vision to fuel its own plot. Think The Anabasis, if Xenophon happened to be prideful, not too bright and more or less a big jerk. Although several characters in the story make a point of blaming Princess Bu-Yong for their predicament since Rambulwha is only chasing them to recover her, it's Choi Jung's rash decision that brought the entire problem about. And he made it not for her sake, but in order to rescue his own reputation. Choi Jung is from the noble class and he treats the lower-class soldiers with disdain and disrespect, holding it back only in the case of Jin-lib because of the latter's experience, wisdom and obvious dignity. He scorns Yeo-sol in spite of the slave's skill, courage and loyalty. Over the course of the movie the young general does seem to learn his mistakes, but the lesson will come hard and the cost is great -- not only to him.

Although The Warrior is compelling and wonderfully made, it's not a particularly stirring movie because of the genuine unlikeability of most of the characters. Choi Jung's faults are listed above, but Yeo-sol himself is a grim and arrogant man -- not that you can blame him, considering how Korean slaves were seen in that time. The princess is imperious and no prize, seemingly unwilling to realize that since she is not in a royal court she can't have things the royal court way. Only Jin-lib seems to care about something more than himself, and while some of the other characters may come to that realization by the end of the movie, it's more or less too late to start liking them then.

The cast is very good at communicating these characters and emotions, especially Chinese box-office star Ziyi Zhang as Princess Bu-Yong and Sung-kee Ahn as Jin-lib. That's part of why The Warrior is definitely worth seeing once, but probably not at the top of anyone's list for multiple repeat viewings.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Get Me Rewrite!

Friday I mentioned I'd seen John Carter and pointed to my thoughts, which were not all that happy with the liberties that Andrew Stanton had taken with the original Edgar Rice Burroughs A Princess of Mars novel. Another fan offers some seat-of-the-pants story tweaking that would have simplified and considerably improved Stanton's movie while keeping a good portion of his take on the tale. I have to admit, I think I'd like to have seen that version.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Scrutiny of the Bounty

You may have heard that a number of the New Orleans Saints defensive players are themselves on the defensive about their pooling of money to create a fund from which bounties would be paid for hits that knocked an opponent out of the game, and paid more for hits that caused them to be unable to leave the field under their own power.

Some of the penalties expected from this discovery may start raining down as early as this week. Coaches and players alike will probably be hit with fines and suspensions.

And inevitably, someone now suggests that a law be passed against such kind of excessively violent activity in sports, as mentioned in this post at The Sports Economist. The Econ post quotes another blogger who maintains that There Oughtta Be a Law.

I'm not a lawyer, but I think there are already laws against deliberate attempts to injure another person as badly as the Saints' bounty scheme dealt with. Obviously battery laws are somewhat relaxed when you consider sports events, especially ones like football and boxing in which players deliberately collide with or strike other players as a part of the game. But if a hit is a blatant attempt to injure or maim, I don't believe those exemptions apply if someone wanted to arrest a supposed perpetrator. If that hit caused a career-ending injury, then I don't think someone who deliberately engineered it could hide from lawsuits under the cover of the natural violence of the game.

Nor do I think the natural violence of the game, agreed upon by everybody on the field, would protect against conspiracy charges if someone involved in an injury bounty scheme did cause a career-ending injury or permanent disability or maiming.

You could argue that current laws make it tough to sort between ordinary play in a violent game and deliberate attempts to injure. Maybe they do, but new laws would do no better and would just add to the confusion. The post referred to by the Sports Economist writer is a pretty good example of a legitimate problem not being addressed by systems that can already handle it, but by unnecessary new laws that allow some legislator to grab some headlines and some public goodwill for taking a stand on an issue of the moment. And I think we've got enough of those already.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What's in a Name?

This picture for's "Picture of the day" feature (future readers, select March 10, 2012 in the archive) is interesting not so much for what it shows, but for the name of what it shows.

The Whale Galaxy (officially NGC 4631) in the picture is so called because it looks a little like a whale. Its other name is the Herring Galaxy, which has got to be one of the weirdest nicknames in modern astronomy. No word on what any inhabitants of the Herring Galaxy might think of the name, although a strange transmission from that region of space was recently received: "Ni, peng, nee-wom, ekke ekke ekke ekke ptangya ziiinnggggggg ni!" There are as yet no clues to deciphering this mysterious message.

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Trip on Mars

A century after publication, John Carter of Barsoom makes it to the screen. I went, and wrote a long post about it at the long post blog here.

How Are Ya Fixed for Candles?

Today marks the 80th birthday of Keely Smith, one of the few female singers who could match iconic vocalist Frank Sinatra swagger for swagger, letting him know by her tone that while he might be the man, he wasn't necessarily the boss. Check out the Sinatra-Smith version of "How Are Ya Fixed For Love?" off of Frank's 1959 Come Dance With Me as exhibit A.

Smith was best known as the wife and "straight guy" performing partner of Louis Prima, recording several albums with him while they were married from 1953-1961. She would generally sing her parts of their duets more or less deadpan while Prima went on one of his trademark manic performance schticks. Smith also recorded solo records during this time, as Prima had told Capitol Records that if they wanted to sign him, they had to sign her as well. Perhaps as a change of pace from Prima, Smith focused more on ballads and contemplative songs in her Capitol releases, although she did throw some swinging into a tune here and there. And working with arrangment/conducting aces Nelson Riddle and Billy May made sure her voice had all the foundation it needed for whatever she wanted to do with a song.

Following her divorce from Prima, Smith continued recording and some touring work -- including 1965's Keely Smith Sings the John Lennon/Paul McCartney Songbook, another piece of evidence that part of the Lennon-McCartney genius was marrying pop standard songwriting sensibilities to Chuck Berry riffs. She cut back on her performing and recording, focusing mostly on her family.

During the "oughts," Smith recorded and released a couple of compilation albums of some of the standards she had performed earlier as well as some she hadn't recorded before. The Swing, Swing, Swing collection in 2000 showcased exactly what the title promised, a high-energy dance party that ranged from pop standards to a couple of early rock numbers like the Lieber/Stoller Kansas City. In 2001, she released Keely Sings Sinatra, a collection of Frank's songs she'd actually recorded back for his last birthday in 1997-98. A longtime Sinatra friend, Smith held the release for awhile because she didn't want to be a part of the Sinatramania that followed Frank's death. She tackles Sinatra signatures like New York, New York and My Way with energy, phrasing and sincerity that shows why fellow Rat Packers like Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. called her "the female Sinatra." The 2002 Keely Swings Basie Style...With Strings sets some standards as well as some newer songs in Basie-esque arrangements and lets Smith use her skills and familiarity with the originator of those arrangements to create something that might very well have had the count tapping along happily.

Some YouTube videos show that even as of four or five years ago Smith had lost little of her vocal power and energy. Which means that whoever leads the birthday singing had best be in fine form unless they want to be outshone by the honoree.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Auntie Hydrogen

Scientists at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, took some more time off from creating the black hole that will destroy the world to talk about how they were recently able to analyze an atom of "anti-hydrogen."

All of the particles that make up atoms have an oppositely charged particle that is identical to them in every way except for that electrical charge. One of those particles, for example, is an electron. Regular hydrogen, the simplest atom that exists, consists of one electron orbiting one proton. The "anti-hydrogen" atom is made up of one antielectron, which is usually called a "positron," orbiting an antiproton. The positron is identical to the electron in every way except for its electrical charge, which is positive instead of negative. Since there is no moral value judgment connected to electrical charge, there is no way to determine which particle is the evil twin, and thus neither of the particles wears a goatee. The antiproton is identical to the proton in every way except that it has a negative electrical charge instead of the proton's positive one.

The problem with studying antiparticles and the anti-atoms that they would make up is that they do not get along with regular particles and regular atoms. When they meet, they completely annihilate each other and release large amounts of energy. The high energy levels are one reason that science fiction stories often power their spaceships with "antimatter," because small amounts of it would release the great energies needed to power ships to other stars.

So when you've made yourself an anti-hydrogen atom, it has to be kept someplace where it can't touch anything made up of regular matter. Since everything we use, see, touch or deal with is made up of regular matter, that makes things kind of tough. Scientists use magnetic fields to safeguard and store the anti-particles when they're created, so they can be studied.

The CERN scientists finished a "spectroscopic analysis" of the anti-hydrogen atom using those magnetic fields and by measuring the results when the magnets were turned off and the anti-hydrogen atoms annihilated against regular matter. If this sounds like trying to figure out what kind of bug left a certain pattern on your car windshield, you have an idea, but apparently this is much more difficult.

Scientists believe that the spectroscopic analysis should show that anti-hydrogen is exactly the same as hydrogen except for the electrical charges of the particles, just like the anti-particles are the same as the regular particles except for the reverse charges. If the two are the same otherwise, it will help scientists better understand how things got made.

If the two are not the same, then more study will be needed to learn which atom is wearing the goatee so that we can see if the anti-matter universe is evil...or we are.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Let Sleeping Whales Dive...

Which is, apparently, when sperm whales sleep: While diving.

Scientists at St. Andrew's University tagged the well-known square-headed mammals -- the largest living animal with teeth, which I believe means the answer to "How did they tag them" is "Verrrrry carefully" -- and then recorded their behavior. They found that the whales catch 10-15 minute naps during their dives, which can go as deep as 1.8 miles, and actually sleep less than two hours a day (Note from cats: "That's insane!").

The article writer suggests that sperm whales literally drift off to sleep during these dives, probably comparing the relatively slow speed of the sleeping dive to their top speed of about 25 miles an hour. But I don't know if "drift" is the right word for something that averages more than 50 feet in length and forty-five tons in weight as do adult males. I'd think no matter how slowly it was moving, if something's that big you have to call it a "power nap."

Here at is a video of a pod of whales caught during naptime.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

From the Rental Vault (2006): A Battle of Wits

Although we recognize that it's immense, much of the time we don't realize that the country we call China is the result of several countries or states merging over time. A lot of time, which is probably one reason we don't necessarily think about it.

One of those eras is called the Warring States Period, in which smaller states were gradually absorbed by larger ones. By about 550 BC there were four major powers (Qi, Qin, Wei and Chu), some semi-major powers and some small states that survived by being too small to be worth conquering or by playing one larger power off another. These spend the next couple of centuries skirmishing across their borders. A Battle of Wits (also called Battle of Warriors) is set in that time frame, around 370 BC. The formerly minor state of Zhao has gained power and territory from its weaker neighbors and is on a path to challenge rival Qin. As part of that path, Zhao forces plan to besiege and conquer the small independent city of Liang. Liang's king is making ready to surrender, as the request he sent for "Mozi warriors" to help defend the city seems to have been ignored. In actual history, these Mozi warriors would have been siege engineers who followed the Mohist philosophy's embrace of math and physical sciences, allowing them to help cities construct formidable defenses.

Before the king can surrender, a single Mozi arrives -- Ge Li -- and he stirs the people of Liang to try to fight off the Zhao army. They do, and using Ge Li's Mohist knowledge of tactics and defensive formations, repulse a Zhao attack. Ge Li makes friends of Yinyue, the female calvary commander, as well as, eventually, the prince of Liang. But the king has become jealous of Ge Li's popularity and worries he will have to do something if he wants to keep his throne once the Zhao are finally thrown back for good.

Battle is based on a Japanese comic book series that is itself based on an historical novel by Ken'ichi Sakemi. Whether the source material is any good I have no idea, but if they are director/writer Jacob Cheung has made good material a brutal and more than faintly ugly mess. Much of the movie involves Ge Li relating the "impartial love" guiding rule of his Mohist philosophy and his agony over the many deaths the battle causes, but considering that Liang chose to resist Zhao at his urging, it sounds kind of hollow. Understanding that the Mohist idea was outside mainstream Chinese thought can help make some sense of these scenes, but that's not adequately explained in the movie. Veteran Hong Kong actor Andy Lau decides, for some reason, to play nearly the entire movie without changing expressions, meaning it's next to impossible to believe he has all that much invested in anything going on around him. Fan Bingbing is adequately earnest as Yinyue, but she has too little to do too much of the time.

The actual city-state of Liang was eventually conquered not by the Zhao, but by the major state of Qin, which would ultimately unite most of what we think of as China under the first imperial Chinese dynasty, the Qin Dynasty. The dominant legalist strain of philosophy accepted by the Qin would mostly erase Mohism, meaning that most of the political Mohist work -- helping cities defeat attackers -- as well as its philosophy would turn out to have little lasting impact. Much like A Battle of Wits, although the philosophy probably leaves a lot less of a bad aftertaste.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Trees May Be Angry

A poll at an article on The Pope Center website -- a foundation that studies higher education and policies connected to it -- wonders which of the specialized niche works published by different academic presses might have a shot at being bought by someone other than the university library at the school connected to each press. Or by someone other than the author's mom. Who really should have been given one of the comp copies, don't you think?

The article's writer suggests that the reason we have so much hair-splitting scholarship is because the academic world puts great pressure on the publication of original ideas as a way of identifying who should and shouldn't be on the university payroll. The "publish or perish" imperative also drives the competition for tenure or job security. The question of actual teaching ability, of course, is rarely if ever discussed in these matters. Very few university-level instructors have taken many courses in how to teach (applicable Greek-derived polysyllable: "pedagogy"), which many people who've sat through some entry-level undergraduate courses could tell you explains an awful lot.

Some of the listed books do indeed sound ridiculous. Of course the subject matter of Empire of Dogs: Canines, Japan, and the Making of the Modern Imperial World is of interest to someone. But of equal course, the set of "someone" is exactly the same as the set of "the instructor and any students assigned readings from the book for the course." Tack on the $40 price tag ($30 on Kindle) and you pretty much ensure that only those people will ever be interested in how Spot helped Western culture take over the world -- beginning with Japan.

And some sound like things that might be interesting to skim through, like Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary. But for $25 in paperback, $60 in hardcover or even $9.99 in Kindle? Not that interesting. Especially when you read the cover description, reproduced on Amazon: "... Drawing from intensive field work in a highly diverse North London neighborhood, Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward focus on an everyday item--blue jeans--to learn what one simple article of clothing can tell us about our individual and social lives and challenging, by extension, the foundational anthropological presumption of 'the normative.'"

Only one of the books sounds like one I'd pick up unless I saw it on the shelves at Half-Price Books. Since I'm a baseball nut and I particularly love the nooks and crannies of the sport's history, I'd be tempted to check out The Kings of Casino Park: Black Baseball in the Lost Season of 1932, especially since Amazon lists some used copies for under $25. In fact, I stuck it on my wish list to see if the price dips some more, because I may wind up buying one myself. People who read the poll seem to agree with me -- that book is in second place (to "none of the above") as of this blog entry on Monday morning and it's the only book to be within shouting distance of 100 votes.

It's kind of interesting -- if you write a book about an esoteric slice of any particular field that interests just you and a few other people and you ring up some self-publishing house to get a couple hundred copies run off, we say you've been published by a "vanity press." Do the same thing but instead those same copies are run off by a press hooked up to a university, and you're a scholar. There's a racket in there somewhere.

(ETA: Someone pointed out that "pedagogy" has Greek roots, not Latin ones. Correction made)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Stellar Vision

Ralph McQuarrie, a concept artist who designed many of the spaceships, settings and buildings seen in the first three Star Wars movies, passed away today at 82.

You can see some of his Star Wars artwork here, and note how many of these visualizations made it into the movies. Many of the critters he drew didn't, of course, because special effects technology hadn't yet caught up to Mr. McQuarrie's vision. Of course, by the time technology had caught up to that vision and we had the prequel trilogy, we found out that George Lucas didn't have the vision to match his technology.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Curious Cows

The lack of a late freeze means the weeds have gone to town in the back yard. Before I can hit them with the mower, they'll have to be reduced with the weedeater. Which I was doing this evening when I looked up and noticed two of the cows in the neighbor's field watching me closely, and two more ambling over as well. The four of them stood there for about ten minutes while I swung my modern-day scythe, apparently very interested, then they left.

What they thought I was doing, I have no idea, but I have to admit I never figured the bovine brain had room for curiosity. They probably figured the stupid two-legged critter would have had a lot better time eating the plants, but it didn't know any better.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Wrinkled Time

Over at the long post blog, a long post (whattaya know!) about Stephen King's time-travel novel 11/22/63. Verrrrry spoiler-heavy.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


I frequently say a lot of movies released these days stink, but I'm just a guy who runs my mouth in cyberspace whose only connection to the movie industry was a year in high school spent slinging popcorn and tearing tickets at the local moviehouse.

A dude who knows more than me wrote a book detailing some of the obstacles different movies have faced and why some really good scripts never saw a camera, and the website i09 reviews it here. Free-range vocabulary warning issued.

Turns out the main reason is that the movie industry has a lot of dumb people with power in it, and they exercise their power to either have their own way with the creative vision of the moviemaker or they use it to block movie ideas they don't like or think may put their own jobs at risk. Yup. That's it (the book goes in to more detail and is funnier).

Apparently when it comes to stupidity, Hollywood is no more creative than anywhere else.