Monday, April 30, 2012


Attention citizens! That funny odor is just Willie Nelson marking his 79th birthday today. Persons who suffer from respiratory issues are cautioned to avoid central Texas through Tuesday morning.

Smaller celebrations are forecast later in the week as Mr. Nelson is periodically reminded that he is now 79, repeated until that information reaches the sub-THC levels of his cerebral cortex.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Church 40th anniversary celebration today, so the Friar is out. Back tomorrow with more grumpy rumblings.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Leapin' Leviathan!

Steampunk is a genre of science fiction that puts its speculative technologies, gadgets, mad scientists and adventures smack in the middle of the Victorian era or a little later, fueling them by steam power and adding a healthy dose of Jules Verne design into the mix. The protagonists may be operating in secret from the rest of the world, which explains why their magnificent scientific advances remain unknown today. Or they may be in a parallel universe where things proceeded differently than they did in the real world. Even though it's speculative, it's commonly tech-heavy because important features of the plot often depend on the fantastic devices used by would-be dictators to conquer the world or by brave heroes determined to stop them.

Scott Westerfeld, best-selling author of the young-adult series "The Uglies," takes up residence near steampunk territory with his Leviathan trilogy, of which 2009's Leviathan is the first. In 1914, young Austrian Prince Alek must flee his home when his parents, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Princess Sophie, are poisoned. He and a handful of loyal retainers sneak out towards Switzerland in a mechanical walker. It's a small tank something like the machines which helped Imperial Stormtroopers get beaten by sentient teddy bears in Return of the Jedi, only Alek and his crew are not idiots. War between Germany and England breaks out while they are on the run, adding some new political wrinkles to their situation.

At about the same time, young Dylan Sharp takes flight on the genetically engineered, hydrogen-filled whale Leviathan, one of the Royal Navy's finest airships. But all is not as it seems, because Dylan is actually Deryn, a young woman who disguises herself as a boy in order to serve in a Navy that doesn't admit women.

Westerfeld sets his story in the middle of some real-world political events -- the assassination of the Archduke led to World War I in 1914, although none of their children were named Alek. He has just tweaked things a little. He puts mechanized units into combat a couple of years before the first tanks existed, and of course gives them legs instead of revolving treads. And he has Charles Darwin discover DNA ("life threads" in the Leviathan world) in addition to formulating evolutionary theory. Some nations adopt Darwinian practices, breeding specialized creatures to do jobs that might be done by machine. The airship Leviathan, for example, is a genetically engineered whale that carries a gondola and is open enough inside its body to house a crew. These are the Darwinist nations. Others stick to mechanical methods, building the diesel and steam engines we see in our own past, although with some slight differences. They are the Clanker nations and they view Darwinists with some suspicion for their manipulation of lifeforms.

The Leviathan world relies on a couple of implausibilities -- that people would think of engine-driven walking transportation before wheeled transportation, and that a 19th century naturalist using optical microscopes would not only discover DNA but also how to manipulate it in ways modern supercomputers can't match. But throw those out, and Westerfeld builds a logical world whose flavor is subtly different from our own but still pleasing. He also does something some more plausible steampunk world-builders fail to do: Tell a great adventure story. Deryn and Alek are engaging and brave young people, saddled with adult responsibilities while yet teenagers and trying to cope with the challenges their situations present. We can guess their friendship will become complicated once the world learns "Dylan" is Deryn, but that has yet to happen in this first book and so Westerfeld can concentrate on developing their bond.

He also trims away just about anything that would slow his story down; exposition comes in short bursts when it helps move the action along and he almost never commits the Original Storytelling Sin of telling instead of showing. Leviathan is another excellent and thoughtful entry from a top-level young-adult author and a great start for a fun ride.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Ultimate Comeback

Reuters asked a research firm which late performer people would like to see brought back via hologram, as the deceased rapper Tupac Shakur was during a performance at the Coachella music festival.

Surprisingly, the top vote-getter turned out to be a man whose last top 40 hit -- a collaboration with Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan -- was in 1990. The firm's polling and scoring method made Ray Charles the performer that most people would want to see perform again via hologram.

On the one hand, this makes sense. If we're going to resurrect musicians who've passed away, why waste time with any but the biggest and best possible? Especially when you consider that some of those on the list had their best days performing long before they left us. The no. 2 on the list, Elvis Presley, died in 1977 but it'd be a lot more fun to see a holographic recreation of one of his earlier shows, or even the 1968 "Comeback Special." Frank Sinatra at 80 was no match for Frank Sinatra at 40 or even 50.

On the other hand, I'm still 20th century enough to get creeped out by the thought of a dead person performing on stage. After all, the hologram is a 3-D recording of a show that already exists. It's not a new performance, so anyone on stage with the hologram can't really interact with it as much as respond to it. If the show has a 30-second gap in it, someone on stage with the hologram can't do a 35-second guitar solo. Yes, holograms could bring, say, Clarence Clemons back on stage with the E-Streeters. But while they could improvise and interact with the audience and its energy, the hologram could only do what had already been done.

Plus, how do you market this? A holographic Elvis might be a marvel of technology, but I don't think you can ever get away with calling it "'Live' in Concert."

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Harvard University has an endowment (i.e., savings account) of $31 billion (with a "b"). It also has a reputation as one of the top educational institutions in the world. If you study at Harvard, you are supposed to be getting one of the best educations you could ever get. The best faculty, the best resources, access to the best research materials...

Um, except maybe not. Apparently, Harvard can't afford the price tab for all if its subscriptions to peer-reviewed academic journals. The bill now runs $3.75 million per year -- and that's not because they're subscribing to a million journals, it's because some of those journals have five-figure subscription rates.

Two things stand out. One, the journals bump their prices, for both print and online content, because they have captive audiences. The modern university system requires professors to publish material in peer-reviewed journals in their different academic specialties -- probably the only place where most of that material would get published -- and so those journals can charge quite a bit more than Time or Newsweek do for the privilege of placing them on library shelves.

Two, Harvard is cheap. At the current cost, their endowment could cover subscribing to those journals until the year 10,279. The annual tab is .0001 percent of the endowment, which means if it earns a lousy passbook-level 2% a year the interest on this year alone could pay for the subscriptions until 2177.

But that might put Harvard back in the precarious position it had during the financial crisis of 2008-2009, when the endowment dipped to a belt-tightening $26 billion. And we wouldn't want that.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Ranking King

To note the mass-market publication of Stephen King's The Wind Through the Keyhole, his 62nd book and his eighth in the Dark Tower series, the culture website Vulture put together a ranking of his books from worst to best.

Lots of comments call into question the different positions given to different books. The top parts of the list are dominated by King's pre-1990 work -- and that really is when he was consistently good and before publishers realized that the more pages his torrential downpour of undisciplined narrative put between covers, the more green would come their way from his devoted fanbase.

I don't quibble with much of it myself, other than thinking anything other than a bottom ranking for Blockade Billy is inappropriate. I can't agree with Needful Things, Christine and Firestarter in the bottom half. The latter two date from the time King would still tell a story straight more often than not and Needful Things has a moral center that makes me fonder of it than I probably should be. The Regulators is as the list says, far worse than Desperation, and the gimmicky simultaneous publication of two books with the same character names by King and his late pseudonym Richard Bachman doesn't save the former.

We get into dicier territory the higher up we go. Wolves of the Calla is by no means the second-worst of the Dark Tower books and the idea that not only is the awful Wizard and Glass the best of that series but deserves the no. 7 spot overall pretty much burns out the credibility meter. And while I too found King's memoir/style manual On Writing worth thinking about, it's not the second-best book he's ever written.

Unsurprisingly, The Stand is at the top of the list. Although article author Gilbert Cruz promised no cop-out ties, you could make a case he welshed on that by including a mention of both the original 1978 publication and the unexpurgated vanity version from 1990. The 1978 Stand is a long but still lean variation on ye olde Good v. Evil, only with the cosmic scale reduced down so that the battlefield is the hearts and minds of individual men and women. If J.R.R. Tolkien's muse had been a little less mythical and a little more Jack Nicholson, The Lord of the Rings might have been like The Stand. But the 1990 version adds meanderings and mutterings galore, close to 90 percent of which are unnecessary and a good 80 percent of which turn a smooth ride into a cross-country journey of speedbumps. The pair are different enough to almost be two different books.

But the list is fun, and I can't say I minded seeing Gerald's Game, The Tommyknockers and Blaze take their lumps in someone else's opinion as well.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1978): Hooper

Burt Reynolds and director Hal Needham were at the height of their popularity in 1978 following the previous year's monster hit, Smokey and the Bandit. So they decided to join forces again for a movie tribute to stuntmen -- both had done some stunt work early in their careers. Hooper didn't reign at the box office like Bandit, but it was a better movie and was certainly better than most of what the pair did after that.

Reynolds is Sonny Hooper, "the greatest stuntman alive," and he is coordinating the stunt work for the Bond-ish The Spy Who Laughed at Danger. The director, Roger Deal (Robert Klein), is an arrogant jerk who has a free hand from the studio because his last movie was a $100 million smash. Roger keeps upping the ante on the stunts, putting Hooper and his crew in more danger -- but Hooper is feeding the fire himself as he wants to stay one step ahead of a talented newcomer, Delmore Shidski ("Ski"), played by Jan-Michael Vincent. But his years of high impacts and hard partying have taken their toll, and Hooper's next stunt could cost him his health or worse. He has to balance his professional pride, potential catastrophic injury and his responsibility to his girlfriend, Gwen Doyle (Sally Field).

Hooper is the kind of crowd-pleasing movie that banks on its star's charisma and as mentioned, Reynolds was then in the most popular phase of his career. Story and character development were mostly secondary, especially for a lightweight comedy like this. But thanks to the talent of Reynolds, Field, Klein, Vincent and James Best as Hooper's best friend Cully, it punches well above its weight class as it muses about aging and the loss of youth and as it drips some satire on the movie business itself. Bandit may have been more fun in the theater (and that's the way 14-year-old me remembers it) and Hooper has nothing like Jackie Gleason's Sheriff Buford T. Justice (of Texas!), but it's a movie that sticks longer.

The fact that Hooper may have led indirectly to The Fall Guy and the awesome Lee Majors single "The Unknown Stuntman" is also in its favor.

Monday, April 23, 2012

I'll Have What He's Having...

I'm going to guess that MSNBC blatherer Martin Bashir was speaking tongue-in-cheek when he suggested that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's abstention from alcohol would make him a poor president.

On the other hand, I've never seen anything to indicate Mr. Bashir has a functioning sense of humor, so he may be serious. In which case he may not be telling a joke so much as turning into one.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

No Toga Yoga?

Ever wonder what Boba Fett would look like doing a "crow" pose in yoga? You need wonder no longer, as an artist has sketched the Star Wars bounty hunter in the bakasana or "crow" position as a part of a series of posters illustrating the different positions using spacemen, zombies and/or pirates.

Since he was also selling the posters, Lucasfilm asked the artist to remove the Star Wars-themed work, but you can see the smaller versions at the link. Sadly, the desist request came before we could see Yoda yoga.

I am curious about how the zombies manage the poses -- since some yoga positions involve some serious folding of the body and its parts, I can't see how the undead just don't simply break at the different fulcrum points. But then I've always been a little unimaginative when it comes to zombies.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


Apparently book publishers -- well, some of them, anyway, -- are having a bit of a snit because the Pulitzer prize people couldn't narrow down the choices until one had a majority of votes from the jury. This means that for the first time in 35 years, there's no Pulitzer Prize for fiction .

The Pulitzer people say this was just a problem with too many people liking different finalists and not a commentary on whether or not this year's fiction was any good or not. Having thumbed through some recent literary fiction, I'm not so sure.

The problem for the publishers is that these books generally sell bupkis and need a Pulitzer burnish to move them off the shelves. So they're ticked that nobody will get one. Other publishers apparently are less concerned: Hard Case Crime, for example, made no comment.

Friday, April 20, 2012

From the Rental Vault (2007): Chak De! India

The "scrappy underdogs pull together to win it all" kind of storyline is a movie cliché, but it's one for good reason: That kind of story works. When it's done well, with interesting characters and plausible details, it grabs hold of audiences in ways lots of other kinds of movies can't, no matter how innovative their plots or stylistic flourishes.

Chak De! India is just that kind of movie. The title is a Hindi phrase that translates something like, "Let's go, India!" and would serve the same function in a game that the "USA! USA!" chants do for our nation. It's the story of the underdog India women's field hockey team and their quest for a world championship.

Seven years before this team makes its run, the Indian men's field hockey team is in a championship showdown with Pakistan. India and Pakistan have exchanged more than harsh words on occasion, so the game is very important to citizens of both countries. Just before time expires, team captian Kabir Khan (Shahrukh Khan) is fouled and decides to take his own penalty free shot. He misses, and talk immediately begins that he did so deliberately because he is Muslim and Pakistan is a majority Muslim country. He drops from sight until re-emerging to coach the Indian women's field hockey team -- a team fielded mostly because the international association sponsoring the championships sort of expects it. Team members have little or no respect and receive only minimal support from the Indian sports authorities, as women's sports are considered to be unimportant in India.

Khan knows that he has only a short time to train the players to compete and he must first form them as a united team rather than a quarreling batch of regionalists. To do so, he gives them a common enemy -- himself. Language barriers, prejudices and regional rivalries erode as the players first hate and then trust Khan's leadership.

It's interesting to watch Chak De show those kinds of prejudices. Many people may see Indians as a homogenous group, but within the team are rural and urban types, different religions and different languages as well (These provide a funny bit as two of the players arrive and are unable to understand the registration official, who grows more and more frustrated as they answer all of his questions with their language's word for "What?"). Two players who have a more classically Asian appearance are isolated from their teammates at first and often the target of propositions and lewd innuendo from nearby men.

Khan insists the players play first for India, then for their teammates and then last of all, if they have anything left, for themselves. They must develop along those lines, sacrificing their regional myopia, personal differences and finally their own desires for individual glory as they progress towards the championships. Screenwiter Jaideep Sahni and director Shimit Amin also highlight the sexism the women's team must overcome to be taken seriously in India, a country where women still struggle to be on anything like an equal footing in many areas of life. Some players face family demands to stop playing games and come home to be good wives and daughters. Some deal with boyfriends who see their hard work and practice as unimportant compared to their own athletic efforts.

The 16 actresses who play the team all trained to play field hockey, if they didn't already, so the movie would look authentic. The group earned the 2008 Best Supporting Actress award at the Indian Screen Awards as a unit. Shilpa Shukla stands out as the arch and superior Bindiya Naik, the most experienced player whose will clashes with her coach most often. Chitrashi Rawat and Sagarika Ghatge also use their screen time well as rivals whose desire to succeed puts them at odds with each other, and Vidya Malvade sketches a convincing picture of a woman who has to argue against her own family's old-fashioned notions of women's proper roles.

Sharukh Khan shows the coach's own redemption arc: He begins with the thought of using the team's success to restore his own name but gradually turns more and more to coaching them for their own sake.

Not everyone wants to watch a two-and-a-half hour movie about a sport few Americans know about, let alone follow, filmed in a language even fewer Americans speak. But Chak De! India can reward those who do take it on with a feel-good story that goes to the bother of explaining and showing why you're supposed to feel good when watching it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Here at the Dark Roasted Blend site, some high-speed pictures of water splashes as well as some of what different colored liquids look like when added to water. Some of the pictures show a particular image behind the splash, reflected in a single drop.

And there are apparently no bunny ears being shown, although I suppose some may have happened and I missed them.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

And Get Off His Lawn...

I've heard it said that you're not old as long as there's a major league baseball player older than you.

Pitch forever, Jamie Moyer.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


The Motor City Madman, Ted Nugent, said some incendiary things at a recent National Rifle Association convention -- mostly because he's Ted Nugent and he's never been one to let prudence or wisdom have much of a vote in what comes out of his mouth. That's OK, because I can listen to his music and ignore the rest.

At the gym today, one of the televisions was tuned to Ed Schultz's show, where he was commenting on Mr. Nugent's remarks. Although I couldn't hear what he was saying (O blessed mute button! Thy form mundane, thy function divine!), I gathered he thought Mr. Nugent was an idiot because of what he said. I don't know if Mr. Nugent has ever ventured an opinion on Mr. Schultz, but I would be willing to bet a couple of bucks that he thinks Mr. Schultz is an idiot too.

Well whattaya know? I agree with both of them! I guess I'm just a pretty get-along kind of guy.


The space shuttle Discovery flew around Washington, D. C. today on the last leg of its journey to the National Air and Space Museum.

Well, actually it was flown around Washington on the back of a 747 -- without its orbital boosters, the shuttle can't leave the ground unless it hitches a ride.

Kind of like the nation that built it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Fascinating, Captain. And Captain. And Captain, and Captain...

Even if there were words to describe the awesomeness of the event listed at the link below, I don't know that my brain -- deep in the kind of geek overload that I would never have believed possible -- would be able to make my mouth utter them.

All five television Star Trek captains will appear at the same convention.

Yes. All five of them, from the greatest to the mediocre (I'm talking to you, Janeway). I don't think anything could possibly equal the absolute height of nerd paroxysm with which my brain has been seized. Not unless you told me William Shatner, Harrison Ford and Nathan Fillion had teamed up to kick Will Wheaton, Shia LeBoeuf and Hayden Christiansen's collective hindquarters where no man has gone before, clear from Earth-that-was all the way to a galaxy far, far away, could I envision such utter geekish bliss.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Drawn to Scale

This site has a neat animation that shows the different scale of the things in the universe from the smallest to the very largest. Pretty darn cool.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


The Cabin in the Woods gave me a case of dueling prejudices. On the one hand, I am given to pre-judging work by Joss Whedon as something I'll probably like quite a bit. His hits (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dr. Horrible and so on) far outweigh his misses (Dollhouse, Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic book).

On the other hand, it's a horror movie and I am given -- with ample precedent -- to pre-judging horror movies as anti-creative trash. On the gripping hand, though, Whedon himself described how he and co-writer and director Drew Goddard saw the movie as a "loving hate letter" to horror movies, giving some hope for something better.

Should have stayed with the second hand. I'll do my best not to spoil Cabin here, although I can't imagine how a movie could proceed more obviously. Five teenagers -- neither their names nor anything else about them matter, since they are fill-in-the-blank archetypes of this kind of movie -- decide to spend a weekend at a spooky cabin in the spooky woods. It's a bad idea. The end. The fact that the preceding description doesn't spoil the movie, even though it explains pretty much everything that happens, demonstrates how paint-by-the-numbers is the Fangoria-bait lineup Whedon wants to critique. Every one of these movies operates in the same pattern, varying it slightly from a spooky cabin to a spooky house to a camping trip, etc. The only variation and the only criteria their fans seem to use for distinguishing them comes from the "creativity" of the characters' painful deaths and the amount of fake blood shown.

Whedon and Goddard wanted to say something about that situation and the further devolution of a genre they enjoy into one that so often focuses on the degradation and humiliation of the characters before their deaths, as in the series of Saw swill. And they mostly do this, even though we might wonder why. After all, Kevin Williamson's original Scream meant to do something similar, and Michael Haneke suggested some of the same ideas back in his 1997 movie Funny Games and his 2008 English-language remake of the same name, and nothing much has changed. People still make movies that position the humiliation and outright torture of human beings as a means of entertainment, despite these movies which want us to ask ourselves questions about that idea.

Sure, Whedon and Goddard are smarter than Williamson and neither as cruel or brutal as Haneke, so Cabin is a step above the earlier work. They still use the same shorthand, though. They suggest we question our ability and desire to be entertained by bloody and senseless slaughter, but they do so by showing bloody and senseless slaughter in a way that's supposed to be entertaining.

I just don't think that tactic will ever make much headway towards re-thinking the degraded horror genre, because the people who wonder whether or not we should be entertained by senseless death are already wondering about it without seeing screaming people terrorized onscreen. I imagine too many of the people who should wonder about it won't take the time while they approve or disapprove of Cabin's merits as a horror movie, then move on to the next "new" release.

By April 2013, another dozen or two independent dead teenager movies will have been made and marketed at horror film festivals around the country, usually released straight to DVD -- although a couple might get a cup of coffee in theaters. Genre fans will eat them up. Most everyone else will ignore them or more likely, not even be aware they exist. And whatever conversation Whedon and Goddard may have wanted to spark will remain unsaid, while Cabin is remembered as a pretty run-of-the-mill kid-slicer movie with a couple of mildly interesting tweaks.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Smart Folk Get Silly?

-- David Samuels has written a lot about rap music, including an often-anthologized piece from 1991 that argued suburban white teenagers made up much of its audience. So he's pretty smart and knowledgeable about the form, which makes me wonder why on Earth he thought it would be a good idea to write an article for The Atlantic that called Kanye West an "American Mozart."

Mr. Samuels spends his first 500 words name-dropping President Obama and discussing how he asked the president whether he preferred West or another hip-hop superstar, Jay-Z. Then he forges on to call West a "Mozart of American music" before leaving that label alone in the square, wondering where its argument, evidence and supporting ideas have got to. He may mean that in the same way Mozart was considered a kind of clownish character whose music was made with ordinary folks in mind, West has gathered up his share of dislike as well. But Mozart made fart jokes and West boorishly bullied Taylor Swift and shamefully claimed during a fundraising telethon for victims of Hurricane Katrina then-President Bush didn't care about black people.

Mr. Samuels is way smarter than I am and an excellent writer, but writing a piece about Kanye West that claims he's an "American Mozart" invites ridicule like an 80-pound 7th grader with tape on his glasses invites the school bully to take the $20 bill he's waving around.

-- Hilary Rosen has a long history of working hard on behalf of different clients. She was the Recording Industry Association of American president when the RIAA sued Napster and other file-sharing services that allowed people to trade music online without paying for it. She pushed for strict digital-rights management on CDs and other media which were rejected by consumers.

She's also worked for a PR firm British Petroleum hired a couple of years ago during its Deepwater Horizon debacle, a choice that got her dropped from her role as Washington Editor at Large for The Huffington Post when HuffPo folks wondered what kind of editorial decisions she might be making while taking BP green. She works for another company now.

In other words, Ms. Rosen is a political strategist whose main job is to make sure that people who hire her say things that either help them with the public or at the very least don't hurt them. I don't know how much work she'll get in the next few months after deciding to say that Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, "never worked a day in her life." That's Ann Romney, who bore and raised five boys between 1970 and 1981. Ann Romney, who finished her undergraduate degree while raising two young boys and graduated just before having her third. Ann Romney, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998. Ann Romney, who underwent surgery for breast cancer in 2008.

I think many candidates will believe they can shoot themselves in the foot for much less money than it would cost to have Ms. Rosen do it for them.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

From the Rental Vault (2011): The Son of No One

Among filmic types, the Sundance Film Festival held every year in Utah and originated by Robert Redford is considered a sort of top-level of independent movie-making. People who have scraped together the money to get a movie made will show it here with the hopes that it will garner a distribution deal. A Sundance film has an aura of quality about it; a movie selected for an opening or closing spot at the festival, you would think, would be one of top quality.

The Son of No One will disabuse you of that notion. Selected to close the 2011 Sundance festival, it is a horribly confused mess that's notable mostly because it features a post-Scent of a Woman Al Pacino role that doesn't involve ranting. Channing Tatum is Jonathan White, a rookie cop in 2002 patrolling an area of Queens where he grew up with his grandmother as one of the few white people in a housing project. Someone is sending anonymous notes to a Queens newspaper that claim police covered up a pair of 1986 murders and White may have a closer connection to the crime than he would like his fellow officers to know. In addition to Tatum and Pacino, The Son of No One also wastes Ray Liotta as White's precinct commander, Katie Holmes as his wife, Juliette Binoche as the newspaper editor and Tracy Morgan as his childhood friend Vinny.

The ending makes no sense -- I won't spoil it but even if I did all you would do would be to say, "That makes no sense." The movie visually captures some of the seediness of 1986 Queens and the high tensions of post 9/11 New York City but that's about all that can be said for it. The sound mix is very muted, perhaps to lend some atmosphere that matches the moral confusion White faces. But whether that's the reason or not, nearly everyone in the movie is almost impossible to hear or understand, with dialogue too often turned down to a mumble. I started out watching this on my iPad with earphones but couldn't understand more than half of what Tatum was saying so I switched to the regular DVD and it didn't get any better.

Of course, when I turned it up loud enough to hear what everyone was saying it didn't get any better, either.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Star-Gazing With Intent

Because so much of what it looks at is very far away and happened a long time ago, there are a lot of times when people wonder why anyone spends money on astronomy.

For nerds like me, the far away stuff is itself reason enough, but this month's issue of Astronomy magazine has a story about some of the benefits that have come from the study of space. The online teaser mentions one: Because Stephen Hawking thought about miniature black holes in 1974, scientists in the mid-90s developed something called the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) chip. The FFT chip enabled the creation of wi-fi.

There are others, in case you happen to be one of those folks who don't think that astronomy is cool just because it finds things like quasars.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Music of the Spheres

The "Music of the Spheres" is a philosophical concept that the movement of the planets of the solar system relate to each other in mathematical terms not unlike the relationships of some musical tones. Although the people talking about it didn't necessarily think that the musica universalis would be actual notes, they saw what they thought was a harmonic relationship between them as they moved across the sky.

As late as the 1600s, musica universalis was not just an idea limited to astrologers and mystics. Johannes Kepler, who devised his laws of planetary motion based on Copernicus' claim that the Earth revolved around the sun rather than vice-versa, wrote a book in 1619 called Harmonices Mundi, which outlined different harmonic congruences between geometrical forms and physical phenomena. His third law of planetary motion arose from this work. 

In 2010, musician Daniel Starr-Tambor assigned different notes to the different planets along what's called the "natural harmonic series," or notes that fall at natural vibrational intervals from each other -- in other words, a complicated musical-scientific relationship that I would have to know a lot more about to fully understand. What it amounts to is that the notes stairstep upwards in a natural relationship to each other. He then pictured the solar system at a certain point and started playing his notes in the sequence of the planetary orbits, with two seconds standing in for one Earth year. That means that every two seconds, the note representing the Earth would be played. Just under every half-second, the note representing Mercury is played, because Mercury orbits the sun in 88 Earth days -- a shade over 40% of an Earth year. Pluto orbits the sun in 248 Earth years, which means its note is played every 124 seconds, or just over two minutes. A YouTube video of the composition with some notes from Starr-Tambor that describe how he wrote the piece, which he calls "Mandala," is here. Mercury's note provides the rhythm, and the others sometimes sound separately, sometimes in chords as they play through the history of the solar system. 

When Starr-Tambor created the tune, he realized that it was a palindrome, meaning it would be the same backwards and forwards. But no one could ever listen to the whole piece, because even at the two-seconds-per-year pace it would take 532.25 "septendecillion" years to finish, or 53,225 followed by 56 zeroes. By contrast, the entire history of the universe to this point is only somewhere around 15 to 17 billion years, or a 15 or 17 followed by nine zeroes. It contains 62 "vigintillion" notes, which is 6.2 followed by 64 zeroes. So in other words, at the end of those 532.25 septendecillion years, "Mandala" would come back to where it had started and any notes played thereafter would repeat the song the way it had begun. Should the theory be true that the physical universe will one day stop expanding and begin to collapse into a singularity like that which spawned the Big Bang, Mr. Starr-Tambor's piece might be a fitting finale to play. 

In non-physical matters, "Mandala" bears no resemblance to the hymn "This Is My Father's World," which contains the note of praise to God, "All nature sings and round me rings/The music of the spheres." But on the other hand, the poem which makes up the lyrics was written by Presbyterian minister Maltbie D. Babcock some 15 years before Franklin Shepherd set it to music, so who knows what he had in mind on how to sing it.

(H/T Brain Pickings)

Monday, April 9, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1975): Sholay

The "Bollywood" style of movie from India is well-known for sticking just about every entertainment option possible into its running time, and the 1975 classic Sholay (in English, Ember) is no exception.

At the center of the G.P. and Ramesh Sippy production is a gritty story of revenge, as the former policeman Thakur Baldev Singh seeks out two thieves he once arrested, Veeru and Jaidev. A dacoit or bandit named Gabbar Singh left the Thakur maimed and slaughtered most of his family, and an earlier encounter with Veeru and Jaidev makes him believe they are noble and brave enough to hunt down Singh. The pair infiltrate a village where Singh collects tribute and begin their showdown with him, falling in love with two village women in the process. The honor and bravery that the Thakur counted on will help them but will also be severely tested in their battle with Singh and his band.

Of course, being a Bollywood movie, Sholay shows song and dance numbers in the midst of the story and substantial portions of its more than three hours are taken up with some buddy comedy between the happy-go-lucky Veeru and the cynical Jaidev. One of the best of those are the scenes where they match wits with a witless bumbling jailer who seems not to recognize that his ranting style, lank black hair and tiny mustache inspire more ridicule than menace. The hymn to friendship "Yeh Dosti" that Veeru and Jaidev sing while riding a motorcycle was a #9 hit on Indian radio in 1976, and other songs from the movie charted even higher.

Sholay mixes these lighter scenes with the kind of stylized Western-movie imagery often found in the "spaghetti Westerns" of the 1960s. Subsequent movies that did the same drew the name "curry Western" in recognition of the homage, and the mixture of different genres first popularized by the Sippys became known as a "Masala film." It limped along in its initial two weeks of release before positive word of mouth began drawing larger and larger crowds starting in week three, and it ran for five years at the Mumbai Minerva Cinema, a record that would stand for 20 years. It took a while for critical acclaim to develop as well, as one of the first reviewers punned on its title and called it a "dead ember." The first Indian movie to use stereophonic sound and the first to be shown in 70 mm widescreen (even though it was actually shot with 35 mm cameras and blown up for presentation), Sholay represented a major leap forward for Bollywood production values.

All of the leads are effective -- Sanjeev Kumar as the haunted Thakur Singh, Dharmendra as the unserious Veeru, Bollywood box office titan Amitabh Bachchan as the hardened Jaidev and Amjad Khan as the villainous, sadistic Gabbar Singh (the latter becoming so well-known in the role that he was used in commericals to sell biscuits -- as the hated villain!). The DVD I rented doesn't subtitle the songs, which is a big weakness, but Sholay is entertainment through and through. A 2004 digital re-release packed movie houses across India, and a 3-D version is scheduled to be shown later this year.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The First Day of the Rest of Your Life...

The part of my mind that wanders around and asks oddball questions has long wondered what Jesus' disciples were thinking and feeling as the sun set on the day we mark as Easter Sunday. From Palm Sunday to Good Friday had been whipsaw enough, and now we have the unprecedented miracle of the Resurrection...

I don't have answers to that question, but I know that sometimes when I think about it I can also think about some things along those lines that might have an impact on my own life. Has the reality of Easter made its change in me? Does it continue? It's worth my while to wonder, and the White Sox and the Rangers are on television as an aid to meditation. I know that first Easter was in all ways the best Easter, but today's has been pretty darn good.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Fine Weekend

On television tonight, switching between a wonderfully restored version of To Kill a Mockingbird and the glorious scenery chomping of Mr. Heston & Co. in The Ten Commandments. The baseball season has begun, and Friday night I enjoyed a victory by the local Triple A-level nine over their Memphis counterparts and did so in fine company.

And about a couple millennia ago (give or take), sometime after midnight just a few hours from now, an event of significance comparable to the initial singularity itself took place, and human history would not ever be the same.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Blowups Happen?

This article at Wired suggests the best way to deliberately trigger a volcanic eruption. The writer, a professor of geoscience, outlines the way this would be done, but runs into a snag at the end. His problem is that once he's done what he needs to do to start the eruption in motion, he can't guarantee when the eruption will occur. It might happen right away, or the volcano might take as long as a month or even a year to get its Vesuvius on.

"Sheesh! Amateurs!" Ernst Blofeld was heard to say.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Real Folk Tunes

The 1960s have a lot to answer for. One of the decade's myriad minor crimes was the identification of folk music with reedy-voiced, seedy-looking guitar players strumming plaintive ballads that had all the fire and vigor of day-old damp ramen.

But folk music was originally just that: The music of the folks, which meant that there were dance tunes, comedy ditties, martial airs, blues laments and whatever else people might sing about instead of just excruciatingly self-serious love songs whined out by someone who needed a shave. And on the Renassiance-Faire circuit around the country one can find groups that perform such folk music. From a cappella sea shanties to worship and everything in between might ring out over folks gathered together to display their medieval costuming skills and sell endless numbers of pendants of pewter dragons holding glass marbles.

Tullamore is one such band, and this recording at a Fort Worth-area coffeehouse, named Six Strings and Coffee Beans after the venue, is their second live album and fourth overall. Disclaimer: At least two of the the band's three members will admit having met me.

Some of Six Strings' songs, like "Step It Out, Mary" and "A Man's a Man for A' That" are long-time staples of Tullamore sets. Others like "Follow Me up to Carlow" and "Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation" are new to their recorded repertoire. Both kinds sound very good in this setting -- something about folk music seems to come across better performed than just recorded in a studio. There's no scientific evidence that the song "knows" it's being played live and not recorded into a mixer so it may be just listener perception. But then it may be the listener perception that strengthens a folk song's impact to start with: Fairly simple melodies, relatively easy to sing even without training and designed to catch the ear will usually do just that.

And when played and sung well, as here by guitarist Mark Clavey, violinist Rachel Gaither and hammered dulcimist (?) Mary Hanover, that music will catch the ear enjoyably rather than irritatingly. Six Strings offers a mix of spritely and stately, melding songs with verses into dance tunes and reels that match it and make each song arrangement unique to the band. Clavey, Gaither and Hanover each take lead vocals on different tunes but also offer some wonderful harmonies in different combinations.

The best way to enjoy Tullamore and their brand of folk tunes is live (and if you do it at the University of Oklahoma's annual Medieval Fair you can do that for free), but if you aren't able to catch a show then a live album like Six Strings makes a strong substitute and fine experience in its own right.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Well, Whattaya Know?

According to Stuart Firestein, what scientists don't know is sometimes far more important to their work than what they do know. Firestein wrote a book called Ignorance: How It Drives Science, and the good folks at Brain Pickings talk about it a little bit here.

Firestein suggests that our modern understandings of science tend to turn it on its head. When we think that science involves the accumulation of facts and data and amassing them into a completed whole, we miss the fact that this completed whole is actually where science begins. All of that data serve as equipment scientists take when they explore the unknown, like camping gear and other tools they will need on their journey.

Although Firestein suggests that this runs counter to much of our modern picture of what science does, it seems pretty intuitive once he says it -- pure research involves either looking at a great unknown and and devising experiments that can tell us our guesses are right or wrong, or looking at something that we know but don't understand and devising experiments that might help our understanding.

The book sounds fascinating and if I hadn't just bought a truck motor and a new tooth I'd score it right away, but it'll keep until my bank account recovers I'm sure. I'll mention one implication of this revised paradigm that might come about if scientists were to push it: A greater accessibility to scientific knowledge on the part of the general public. Firestein suggests that when science is seen as the ability to master a mass of data, people shy away from the sheer size of the task. But if the entry point to understanding most science was seen not as what is known but as what is unknown, it's somehow less threatening.

After all, if we're talking about ignorance, well, I'm way ahead of most any scientist you'd care to name.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

BOSS, A Nova?

So according to a survey called the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), one of the things that helped the universe look like it does were incredibly ancient waves of sound called baryon acoustic oscillations (BAO). A couple of explanations of what the survey does can be found here and here.

Not very long after the Big Bang (about 30,000 years afterwards, it seems), matter began to collapse into greater and greater clumps. The collapses set up the BAOs, which moved outward along through space for about 350,000 years, which would have set a Guinness Book of World Records mark for a sustained note, had there been books, records or beings to create and observe them (Of course there was Guinness -- I've got enough Irish in me to understand there's always been Guinness). As they did, they caused the clumps of matter to organize themselves, so to speak, along the waves' peaks and troughs. When the universe cooled enough that the waves no longer formed, the clumps of matter started becoming things like stars, galaxies and eventually us.

The BOSS locates where galaxies are in relationship with each other, and it turns out they are as far apart as one of the mathematical models combining BAOs and dark energy says they should be. More examination of the sky -- astronomers have only surveyed a third of it so far -- should offer a clearer picture of which model is more accurate. The launch of the Euclid satellite in 2019 will allow for even more precision in measuring the galaxies' positions and pare the possibilities down even more.

In spite of the fact that the survey is called BOSS, there is no evidence that the BAO's, had there been people around to hear them, would have been the opening chords to "Born to Run." But there have been hints that the very first BAO's when written chromatically form a mathematical equation that, when assigned corresponding letter values, refers to an unknown agency or being called a "Big Man" and suggests that this Big Man "blow." Scientists are still working out possible meanings.

I completely made that last part up. As far as I know, anyway.

Monday, April 2, 2012


On the NCAA men's basketball championship game?

Not the score -- on how many of the players will ever go to class again.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Don't usually do this on this blog, but I invite you to spend the coming week, which leads up to Good Friday and the glory of Easter, in prayer or meditation about the human condition. Do whichever you choose, whether you're a Christian like myself or not. There are worse ways to spend your time, your energy and your thoughts.