Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Wiki-snooze?

An article at The Atlantic notes how Wikipedia is having trouble recruiting and keeping new editors for its online articles.

As its major articles become more and more settled -- meaning that someone comes along and removes some of the stupider stuff that some idiot wrote -- there is less and less for editors to do. Sure, new things crop up and there are plenty of older books and movies and whatnot that can be written up and refined, but apparently the people who do that aren't the people who act as the volunteer editors for the site.

My guess is that it's no longer the newest shiny internet toy, so nobody wants to play with it anymore. Ephemera begets and attracts ephemera. Plus, some of those articles are longer and longer, which is almost like reading a book and who wants to do that in our brave new world?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

I've Got a So-So Feeling About This...

So, Disney bought Lucasfilm. There are some downsides:

1. Truth-in-advertising requires removal of the word "creative" from Lucas's new job title.

2. "Hey, Luke Skywalker! You just blew apart the Death Star with a shot that was 'one in a million.' What are you going to do now?"

"I'm going to Disneyland!"

3. Not looking forward to the Han Solo/Lando Calrissian version of "You've Got a Friend in Me."

4. Also not looking forward to Jar-Jar Binks' updated "You Ain't Never Had a Friend Like Me," now voiced by Robin Williams.

5. Not sure about the new "C-3Pinocchio" character with his guide Jiminy D2.

6. "Grumpy leads to hate, and hate leads to the Dark Side. A much better dwarf shall I make than him."

7. "Chewie! What's with this number 53 painted on the Falcon? And why are you calling it 'Herbie?''"

On the upside, Disney can digitally insert one of its theme park animatronic statues in place of Hayden Christiansen in the prequels and upgrade those movie's acting levels. And we could get treated to a rollicking "Everybody Wants to Be a Hutt" from Jabba. Plus, the new translation of the Lion King phrase hakuna matata can now be, "Han shot first!"

Monday, October 29, 2012

Assortment

-- I'm so embarrassed to be living in the United States, where we're so unsophisticated, provincial and backwards compared to the wise and cultured folks of Europe.

-- So I'm really very happy that the second half of the final Twilight movie is coming out. But my happiness may not come from the same word in that sentence that makes the Twi-heads happy.

-- Friends was pretty funny. I'd forgotten. But I can't believe that they went 10 seasons without once making a joke about Courteney Cox being in the "Dancing in the Dark" video.

-- Folks were visiting this weekend, and they like watching Everybody Loves Raymond. My dad couldn't remember how it ended, but we theorized that the only realistic finale would involve everbody killing Marie, like on Murder on the Orient Express.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cold and Mad

Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett has had to deal with a lot more than fish and game licenses whole we've been following him through the pen of C. J. Box, but the discovery of his mother-in-law's latest husband displayed very publicly and very dead may cause him the most trouble of all. A falling out following 2010's Nowhere to Run has left him without the help of his friend Nate Romanowski, and the people investigating the death don't trust him because of his closeness to the whole matter. Domestic issues with their foster daughter April and with his oldest daughter Sheridan off at college complicate matters for Joe, and by the time Nate does re-enter the picture, he has issues of his own to handle.

Box's smooth storytelling style is on good display here, and he's left out some of the silliness that has plagued recent entries of the series. The twists and turns of the investigation can be a little confusing, and Joe often has similar confrontations with different law enforcement folks who want him kept out of things for reasons of their own. Cold Wind doesn't completely escape the silliness, though, as the ending sets up a pretty much unnecessary exploration of Nate's past that strays a good distance from the upright family man doing a hard job that's been the strength of the Joe Pickett series. That will play out in Force of Nature, but it does minimal damage here.
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While his "Prey" series with Lucas Davenport has been in a little bit of a retread mode for the last few books, John Sandford has been a little more adventurous with his investigator-at-large Virgil Flowers and continues that in Mad River. Three teenagers have begun a robbery and killing spree like something out of Natural Born Killers or In Cold Blood, and Virgil is tasked by his superiors with leading the hunt. None-too-bright local law enforcement and the blind luck and blood lust of the fugitives are working against him, and the more Virgil digs into the case the more he's convinced that there's a lot more to this case than simple thrill-killing.

Even when he does tend to coast, Sandford is a top-notch writer and in Mad Blood he's not coasting. Every so often he's leaned into a kind of bratty style redolent of a middle school locker room, but here he gives his characters more of the wry and cynical humor you might expect from intelligent men regularly facing humanity's seamy underbelly.

At two different points, Virgil faces the choice to either take the law into his own hands or confront those who do, and he makes different decisions each time. One of them should have consequences later in the series, but it remains to be seen if Sandford follows up on that. If he does, Sandford might be taking a step forward with his work, actually digging into the human condition through genre fiction. That would be a welcome read for someone of his talent, but we'll have to wait and see if it happens.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Nightfall

We're finding more and more weird planets as we look deeper into the universe with better and better instruments. Here's one that in essence orbits not one but four separate suns.

The planet, a gas giant the size of Neptune, orbits a binary star system, which is already a little unusual. Then another pair of stars orbits the original binary system, giving the world named PH1 four different suns in the sky.

Since it's a gas giant, any life that might exist in PS1 is nothing like life as we know it (speculation suggests that blimp-like creatures might live in the extremely dense atmospheres of these giants, but a  lot closer examination will be needed to find them if they exist). It would probably not be able to see these suns as we do, living deep in the atmosphere where the pressure and heat could sustain life.

In 1941, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov published a short story called "Nightfall," about a world which had light from six stars. Because of their interlocking orbits, the inhabitants never see the night sky. They believe themselves to be the only beings in the universe, having no knowledge of any other stellar or planetary body -- even their own moon.

Asimov sets his story on the eve of a once-in-millenia occurrence. The six suns are going to reach a point in their complicated orbits in which only one shines in the sky, and the moon will obscure that one. The inhabitants steel themselves for darkness, having learned that when this event happened before, the people went mad and their civilization collapsed. They practice by spending time in caves and underground.

They prepared for nothingness -- they didn't prepare for the stars. They're driven mad not by the absence of light, but by the awareness they're not alone.

Asimov, a committed humanist who disbelieved in anything beyond what rational thought and experiment could show, would probably not approve of how I think that story connects with our awakening to our fallen nature, but I'll take the liberty and ask his forgiveness.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Planetary Belch

So the Cassini probe orbiting Saturn detected a huge unusual storm at the end of 2010, which produced a large temperature spike and bubbles of a gas usually not found in that planet's atmosphere.

Which means that the planet Saturn closed out 2010 with a major burp. And that means we had better be careful, because the last time Saturn burped we wound up with the Latin/Roman pantheon of gods.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Laser Beams Optional

A pool shark is a person who is skilled at some kind of game of billiards and who wins money off of people who are not as skilled by defeating them in a predatory manner.

A golf shark is a real live leopard shark dropped from the sky onto a golf course. No, I'm not kidding.

(edited 10/30 to fix link)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Tractor Beams!

Yes, indeed, scientists at New York University have developed actual tractor beams from lasers, which means they are able to make things move around by aiming lasers at them. Granted, you can make people move by aiming lasers at them, even though most lasers available to the general public can't do much harm.

But the scientists at NYU are talking about moving molecules through water, and molecules have never been known to be all that skittish or move very much according to their own will. They said that although the energy required to move larger objects would be prohibitive, the concept suggests that such devices would be possible.

Now that's gonna be awesome and I don't care who you are.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Of Course!

Scientists think that they've found a link between elevated levels of CO2 (carbon dioxide) and sluggish thinking in people.

We inhale air, which is a mixture of several gases. Our lungs extract the oxygen from that air and what we exhale is heavy in carbon dioxide. This makes plants happy, because they like the CO2 and when they process it, they release oxygen. In fact, this makes everyone happy, and that's good because we all know how much of a bringdown a depressed ficus can be. Not to mention irritable gladiolas.

Well, when there are a lot of people in a room, and they insist on breathing, and the room is one of those new-fangled energy efficient rooms that tries to keep externally-temperatured air on the outside and internally-temperatured air on the inside with tighter and more effective sealing, you get yourself elevated levels of carbon dioxide because it doesn't escape as fast through those effective seals.

Of course, that's just with regular respiration -- the scientists measured the effects in a room where people were working but not very many people were talking. Had the scientists conducted their measurements and experiments in a room where many people talked a lot -- say, the chamber in which any legislative body has met since the day our knuckles left the ground -- they would have probably seen even greater effects.

They wouldn't even have had to conduct their tests to measure cognitive function. Just read the legislation that these bodies produce or listen to some of the speeches that carry the CO2 into the room. Anyone with more than two firing neurons could do that and conclude: "What a bunch of maroons."

Monday, October 22, 2012

From the Rental Vault: Another Trio

There are two movies (three if you count a 1952 short) supposedly based on the Ernest Hemingway short story "The Killers." Neither the 1946 nor this one, the 1964 version with Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan, have much more in common with the story than the title. Don Siegel directed the three, along with John Cassavetes, in what would be Reagan's final acting role (although a lot of Democrats would say he only acted like he was President) in a version that was supposed to be a made-for-TV movie. Too violent for television in 1964, The Killers wound up being released in theaters but defnitely retains a kind of small-screen atmosphere.

Two hitmen, the experienced Charlie (Lee Marvin) and youngster Lee (Clu Gulager), find a target and dispatch him, but Charlie is curious as to why the man didn't run or fight back when he had the chance. They backtrack Johnny North (John Cassavetes) to see if they can understand his apathy towards his own death. Eventually they learn of his involvement in a large robbery, along with Sheila Farr (Dickenson) and a gangster named Browning (Reagan). Charlie wants to track down the money from the robbery and use it to finance his planned retirement.

The Killers probably would have worked a lot better in black and white than color; it has a noirish atmosphere that demands shadows instead of the bright colors of the early 1960s. It also would have worked better without the two long extended flashback sequences that help us see Johnny's story; they give the narrative a lurching quality that keeps it skidding for awhile until it can regain traction.

The cast acquits themselves more than adequately; Marvin and Gulager may be the protagonists but an early scene in which they bully a blind woman makes it clear they are anything but heroes. The movie was Reagan's only portrayal of a villain (Walter Mondale would probably disagree) and he does well, although his friend Kirk Douglas said in a book that some of the scenes that have him belittling, threatening or striking Dickinson made him wish he hadn't taken it.

Had Quentin Tarantino been directing in 1964, he probably would have paid for the chance to helm The Killers; its Ray-Ban-and-skinny-tie brutality shows up all over his Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But if 1964 found the Don Siegel version too rough for TV, then I'm afraid QT wouldn't have had a chance of getting his version in front of a camera.
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Although Shaolin is set in the early 20th century, the presence of warlords and strongmen vying for power could have come from just about any period in China's history. Even when strong emperors held sway, they were overwhelmed by the nation's sheer size -- some parts of China are just too far away to be controlled if you don't have access to modern communications and transportation.

The time is soon after the last emperor abdicates and a variety of strongmen rule China. Different lesser leaders, such as Hou Jie (Andy Lau) and Song Hu (She Xiaohong) compete to control cities and regions, now allied with one another and now working against former allies. Song proposes a marriage between his son and Hou's daughter to cement their alliance and control of a strategic region and its largest city. Convinced that Song seeks to betray him, Hou plots with his second in command, Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) to ambush the other warlord. But Cao has learned from his leader and turns on both men. Alone, isolated and having lost everything that matters to him, Hou seeks refuge at a Shaolin monastery whose peace and neutrality he himself earlier violated and insulted.

Slowly convinced by the monastery cook (Jackie Chan) that the Shaolin monks offer a better way of life, Hou begins meditating and training with them, gradually coming to see that his previous reliance on force and hatred was the cause of his misery and destruction. But will that be enough to confront Cao Man and protect the villagers and monks when the new warlord seeks the completion of his revenge?

Most of the cast does a fairly adequate job in their roles -- Xing Yu, Wu Jing and Yu Shaoqun offer some comedy and depth to their fairly standard parts as honorable holy men. Tse is mostly sullen and brooding as the traitorous Cao Man; it would have been nice to see some dimension given to the villain. As Hou's wife Yan Xi, Fan Bingbing punches above her weight in another underwritten role. Jackie Chan gets the chance to act as someone other than Jackie Chan, although he does have a goofy fight scene that should please Chaniacs.

Most of the movie rests on Lau, who must move from murderous warlord to a man who loses everything to one whose newfound serenity and harmony found in Shaolin will be tested to the utmost. He does a stellar job; the latter Hou Jie is almost unrecognizable compared to the earlier man. Lau's work is a top-level performance in a slightly above-average movie; his work and a rare mostly serious turn by Chan make the movie worth watching.
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Operation Crossbow apparently faltered at the box office in its initial 1965 release, and so it went back out later as The Great Spy Mission, studio execs thinking that people who saw the title expected a medieval adventure movie -- something that was not doing well at the time. They'd have been better off writing a story and using some of the top-level cast they assembled for the Carlo Ponti-produced, Michael Anderson-directed big-budget war movie. In Germany in 1944, rocketry research has given the Nazis the potential for causing significant damage at a long distance. Their explosive rockets are much faster than any propeller-driven aircraft, and London is under attack from several of the V-1 "buzz bomb" unmanned rocket-fired explosives.

The development of the V-2 is also suspected, and Winston Churchill directs his forces to find what they need in order to confirm German rocket development and possibly destroy or delay it. German-speaking soldiers with engineering backgrounds are recruited to infilstrate the base. Among them are the American John Curtis (George Peppard) and the English soldiers Phil Bradley (Jeremy Kemp) and Robert Henshaw (Tom Courtenay). Problems with their cover identities hamper their ability to get their mission going, meaning they may or may not be able to achieve their objectives.

You may have noticed that although Ponti's wife Sophia Loren has top billing in the movie, I haven't mentioned her character. That's because she has the next best thing to no screen time and is essentially wasted in what reviewers charitably called a cameo role. Trevor Howard has much the same fate, playing a cranky old professor who refuses to believe that the Germans developed real rockets or that the rockets are dangerous even if they do exist. Cast members with real screen time don't fare much better; director Anderson spends more time on shots of model V-1 rockets than he does developing the character or stories of any of his spies, and he wastes the first of his movie building up characters who never return and have little to do with the espionage action.

Operation Crossbow was a fictionalized version of the actual missions that destroyed and delayed the German rocket program, which means it had already strayed from history and probably could have done so a little more in order to strengthen its story. Rather than renaming the move, a rewrite -- one that put more emphasis on the operatives in the operation -- would have done a lot more to help it hit the target of audience satisfaction.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Oops!

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, a book by a University of Chicago professor that turned out to be a sort of opening salvo in what some folks call "the culture wars" between social conservatives and liberals. Bloom's arena was less some of the political matters brought under that banner than the world of academia where he served.

The young Friar was only partially impressed with Bloom's book, read about a year after college graduation. The discussion of goofball professors and silly political correctness stemming from a paralyzing relativism made sense to him, barely a year removed from some prime examples of the same. The section trashing most of modern music, including Top 40, rock and most other things that he listened to, got his righteous dudgeon up. Just another silly old poot trashing stuff he doesn't like because it's too loud.

Bloom's point was that popular music sold rebellion and license while actually being the vehicle for commercial manipulation by the same kinds of people the musicians were supposed to be standing against. Rage Against the Machine can rail against fatcat capitalists all it wants to, for example, but every CD sold makes money for the major corporation that owns its record label and the people who own stock in it (Rage, of course, hit big after Bloom's book came out. He uses Mick Jagger as his example, but it's kind of hard to remember when Mick Jagger's image was countercultural).

And the problem goes along a ways more because not only is the young pop music lover being sold artificial rebellion, the actual content of the music produced for him is empty, devoid of real passion, thought or emotion beyond the basic animal level.

The young Friar thought that Bloom overlooked a number of musical acts that seemed to him to counter Bloom's thesis -- punk rock in its original mid 1970s form, independent and unique bands like pre-1985 R.E.M. and so on. Those artists may later have "sold out" to commercial interests, but they were originally more that just poseurs.

Today, I agree with Bloom's point about the artificial creation that's supposed to be rock and roll rebellion. Just abou every sullen sideways stare from over the collar of a battered leather jacket is, in reality, an entry on someone's profit spreadsheet. But I was still holding out against the idea that the majority of today's music was simply empty sexual suggestion.

Then my radio played this pile of vacuous by Usher:

I see you over there so hypnotic,Thinkin' 'bout what I'd do to that body,I'll getchu like ooh baby baby, ooh baby babyA-ooh baby baby, ooh baby babyGot no drink in my hand, but I'm wastedGettin' drunk off the thought of you nakedI'll getchu like ooh baby baby, ooh baby babyA-ooh baby baby, ooh baby babyAnd I've tried to fight it, to fight itBut you're so magnetic, magneticGot one life, just live it, just live itNow relax and get on your back
If you wanna scream yeah,Let me know and I'll take you thereGet you going like a-ooh baby baby, ooh baby babyA-ooh baby baby, ooh baby baby
Sorry, Dr. Bloom. You might have been on to something after all.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Definition

Apparently, to be a country music radio station today means playing songs that namecheck folks like Patsy, Hank and Merle without ever actually playing songs by Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard or others because you're too busy playing "Truck Yeah."

Friday, October 19, 2012

Blogging and Nothingness

A writer for The New Yorker imagines what it might be like if French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a blog.

I'm not sure. I had to read some Sartre in college and I don't remember him being anywhere near that funny. Or funny at all, for that matter.

G.I. Ghost

A photographer who found some negatives dating from WWII used photo processing software to combine them with modern-day shots of the same areas. It's a fascinating effect and can make you wonder what history may have happened in the places where we sit, stand and walk every day.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

From the Rental Vault: The Sundowners

Welcome to this edition of The Rental Vault, in which we learn that we must exercise care on our Netflix queue. For example, we may wish to view the Robert Mitchum/Deborah Kerr saga The Sundowners, so we click and add that movie to our queue, or list of DVDs Netflix is scheduled to send us.

Mitchum and Kerr play Paddy and Ida Carmody, itinerant sheepherders or drovers in Australia in the 1920s. They live out of their wagon along with their son Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.), paid for driving herds of sheep from the great ranches to market. Paddy is more than content to continue his wandering ways, but Ida has begun to wonder if this life is best for Sean or even for herself. The question sharpens when the family spends a shearing season at a ranch along with their friend Rupert Venneker (Peter Ustinov).

Interestingly for a movie made in 1960, Mitchum and Kerr don passable Austrailian accents instead of being transplanted Americans. Both were good friends, which adds believability to their banter and spousal exchanges. Mitchum convincingly shows Paddy as a man who, almost too late, starts to learn that a husband and father can't always follow his own indulgences but must sometime consider his family. Kerr is equally good as we see Ida wonder how she can bring the man she loves to an understanding that he is a man, not a boy, and has to take on a man's responsibilities. Ustinov is hysterical as an often bemused Englishman whose dry wit finds plenty of room for display while he tags along with the Carmodys for his own reasons.

The central conflict between Mitchum and Kerr is low-key through most of the movie and it all has a relaxed feel that adds to its weight. We're not watching the end of the wandering drover lifestyle (although in part we are) as much as we're watching a family cope with the world around them as it slowly changes. Director Fred Zimmerman includes plenty of wide-open Australian vistas and actual shepherds working to help keep the sense of openness that allows room for the story to unfold. Sundowners didn't overwhelm the box office but did well enough, and it represents both a high-water mark for Mitchum's often excellent work and another stellar turn by Kerr.
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BUT I also received, because I checked the title without looking too closely, the 1950 low-rent Western The Sundowners with Robert Preston and Robert Sterling. Sterling is Tom Cloud, a rancher who's facing opposition by cattle baron John Gaul. Much of that opposition comes in some pretty brutal fashion, including rustling and ambushing Cloud's ranch hands. When hired gun Kid Wichita (Preston) shows up at the ranch, Tom allows himself to be persuaded to take him on in order to fight back against Gall, whose son is the spineless local sheriff.

There's a subplot involving a Cloud's neighbors, Earl Boyce (Jack Elam) and his wife Kathleen (Cathy Downs) that never justifies itself, but in this movie that's not necessarily unusual. There's a hidden tie between Cloud and Wichita, as well as Cloud's younger brother Jeff (John Drew Barrymore) that's supposed to offer some explanation why the straight-shooting Tom would countenance Wichita's murderous behavior, but it's no surprise when it becomes known and no big deal in any event.

This Sundowners suffers from acting that ranges from wooden (Downs) to uninspired (Sterling) to hammy-impersonation-of-Harvey-Korman-impersonating-Clark-Gable-in-"Went With the Wind"-sketch (Preston). It's got production values that would make a Republic serial snicker and is notable mostly for being one of Jack Elam's few wimpy characters and for being the debut of John Drew Barrymore (billed as "John Barrymore, Jr."), son of the famous actor John Barrymore and father of actress Drew Barrymore.

Folks often knock Westerns for their familiar and even predictable storylines, features and characters. But many directors, writers and actors used those tropes to create something more than just a genre picture. The 1950 Sundowners, though, is one of the ones that deserve the knock.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Lot More Than Just a Thousand...

This picture of the Milky Way, our home galaxy, seen over Mt. Ranier in Washington, shows the stars the way the stars are meant to be seen. Well, other than up close from the bridge of the Enterprise, that is.

The fellow has some other marvelous shots when you scroll down. So please do.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Quelle Stupid!

In the midst of our silliest of silly seasons, a modern election cycle containing a presidential race, it's nice to know that the United States does not stand alone in making certain that the least bright members of its citizenry have adequate representation at all levels of government.

Enter François Hollande, the recently-elected president of France, who has put together a package of educational reform measures that would outlaw homework. President Hollande has not proposed this measure as a way of securing support among the electorate-to-be, banking on the idea that adult voters will remember with gratitude the nice man who kept mean teachers from assigning them work to do (gasp!) after school was out! Of course, they may not be able to read his name on the ballot, but that situation can be remedied with the appropriate pictures.

No, President Hollande wants homework gone because some kids come from homes where parents aren't supportive of their children's schoolwork; i.e., they won't stand over little Pierre and forbid him his wine and foie gras until his math homework and that paper on Napoleon (that foul little Corsican!) are finished. Since some parents (hereinafter referred to as "meanies") do assist with their children's homework and support the need for the extra schoolwork, this creates an imbalance of student achievement. And Monsieur le President being a socialist, he views imbalances as something just this side of a fallen soufflĂ© on the badness scale.

Of course, a lack of support in the home for children's education is a real problem, and not just in France. Scratch a low-performing student, find parents who either don't have the time to help Junior with his schoolwork or parents whose give-a-darn about Junior's care is pegged way at the low end of the scale.

So the solution inside the flickeringly-lit mind of President Hollande is not to try to create the conditions to exert social and peer pressure to get maman et papa to do some of their freaking job as parents. No, it's to take the places where the system actually produces something that works -- students performing better academically -- and ensure that it doesn't.

Ask a teacher and they'll tell you that while there really are almost no actually stupid students, there are plenty who don't try very hard and so give an excellent impression of one. Correcting that is not an easy, ten week seminar course. It's hard to make stupid people smart.

But as President Hollande so helpfully points out, it is not at all hard to make smart people stupid.

Debatable

This fellow at Big Think suggests, as many people have done before, a different format for a presidential debate than the mostly shallow and media-driven showpieces that we've been watching for many years.

It's not necessarily a bad idea, but I'm not optimistic that a country that made stars out of the people on The Jersey Shore is a country that's serious enough to pay that much attention to in-depth discussion of political issues.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Double Breakage

So one of the neat things about Australian Felix Baumgartner breaking the sound barrier is that he did it 65 years to the day after test pilot Chuck Yeager broke it the first time.

Interestingly, Baumgartner didn't realize he'd traveled faster than sound during his descent, and Yeager, who flew as a passenger in an F-15 to commemorate his achievement, didn't know that Baumgartner was going to jump from the edge of space.

Probably a good thing they weren't traveling nearby each other.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Tragedy + Time = Punchline

A marketing and psychology researcher has studied what makes stuff funny, and he came up with the above formula as to the reason why.

Basically, Peter McGraw found that most jokes have roots in something that did go wrong or could have gone wrong. A wry observation of sorts too soon after the event is found unfunny because not enough time has elapsed for the pain to ease. But too long after the event and the joke has no relevance anymore.

The event doesn't have top be a real tragedy, just something slightly amiss or awry will do. So-called "dark humor" is usually done in that too-close-to-the-event time frame, and my own personal thought is that many of these jokes -- riffs on high-profile tragedies, for example -- originate in newsrooms. Some of my reasoning on this matter comes from my experience in said newsroom, which involved the creation of some of this mordant mirth. My time at college was spent hanging around news-minded students, that being my major, and so I heard many of these jokes in the wake iof the headlines. I had one non journalism-major friend, in fact, who refused to take my phone calls the day of any remotely sad event for fear I would have heard one of these woeful witticisms and be trying to pass it on.

In any event, I repent of those sins (and I'll probably have to do so again). And I can think of a number of blogs I've read whose writers thought themselves satirists who should scan this little article and learn from it. I'll sure try to.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

From the Rental Vault: The Duke Vs. the Ladies

For all the macho swagger and bravado he embodied in his movies, John Wayne was a smart man who knew that he was best when he had a strong female role to play against. And despite what seems to be the common wisdom, the Duke's reign at the top of the box office didn't lack for strong actresses to play those roles. Maureen O'Hara was one of his favorites and the two became close friends, but Patricia Neal in Operation Pacific, playing the estranged wife of Wayne's Duke Gifford, is just as powerful and strengthens the movie considerably.

Gifford is the executive officer of the USS Thunderfish, a submarine operating in the Pacific theater during the early years of World War II. The sub has been frustrated by the fact that too many of their torpedos hit targets but don't explode. Gifford and his captain, "Pop" Perry (Ward Bond), have been puzzling over the problem. During a re-supply stop at Pearl Harbor, Gifford finds that his estranged wife, a Navy nurse, has been stationed there. She's begun a relationship with Pop's younger brother Bob (Philip Carey), a Navy pilot. A later fight with a Japanese destroyer leaves the Thunderfish damaged, and during its refit Gifford finds himself facing the loss of his berth on the sub unless he can get a handle on the torpedo problem. He also finds himself again on the outs with Mary.

Operation Pacific came out in 1951, well into the era where Wayne was basically playing Wayne no matter what the character was named. He and O'Neal were supposed to have gotten along poorly, but both are professional enough to keep it off the screen. She is as snappy and witty as Wayne during the verbal sparring and creates a character just as real and just as solid an anchor for the story. Bond is his usual workmanlike self and Carey does well enough, but it's the well-sketched Wayne-O'Neal angle that sets Operation Pacific up as a high-level war movie with some weight.
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By contrast, 1953's Trouble Along the Way is much more of a comedy -- it might even today get the label "romantic comedy." A small Catholic college faces closure because of money problems, and rector Father Burke (Charles Coburn) in desperation turns to a disgraced college football coach to bring victories and turnstile cash. The coach, Steve Williams (Wayne) only takes the job because he's worried social worker Alice Singleton (Donna Reed) will take away custody of his 11-year-old daughter Carol (Sherry Jackson) and award it to his vain and shallow ex-wife.

Williams was canned from coaching because he cut corners in recruiting and promised players payments based on ticket sales, reasoning that they earned it since they were the ones doing the work (Although there was no NCAA at the time, the hypocrisy of schools and coaches benefiting from the work of players was alive and well). Under the rector's nose, he does the same thing here, but at first this leads to success on the field. That success puts pressure on his relationship with Carol, and Singleton begins to pressure him to allow her to have more contact with her mother. Even that gets complicated because of the budding chemistry between the coach and the social worker who is supposed to evaluate him and his family.

Reed, a year away from her Oscar for From Here to Eternity, gives depth and substance to her role as Wayne's antagonist. In an early scene, he dismisses her as a crusading dilettante with no understanding of the people she's supposed to work for, but is later surprised when she shows her real motivations and a history completely unlike his snap judgment. But the best foil for Wayne's dominating screen presence is Sherry Jackson as Carol. Jackson was no screen novice even at 11, and her ability to handle a scene and create a character was enhanced by Wayne's stepping back and giving her the room -- something he did quite often, despite that dominating screen presence.

Trouble was plagued with on-set disagreements between Wayne and first-time screenwriter Melville Shavelson, who at first agreed to allow Wayne's own script doctor polish dialogue off to better match the star's style but then had scenes without Wayne re-shot with original dialogue on days when Wayne was absent. One day he wasn't absent, learned of the re-shoots and disagreement blossomed. Despite the box-office power of Wayne and Reed, Trouble was one of Wayne's lowest-performing releases during his heyday. That's a shame, because it's one of the movies that put the star in a strong cast and in which he gave those other cast members room to work as well.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Hold the Phone!

Most folks have probably noted that even though their telephones have buttons that say "redial," they don't actually dial anything in the old-fashioned sense of that word.

To "dial" a phone means to insert your finger into a hole corresponding to a number on a dial, and then move that hole around to send a certain number of pulse signals through the lines. The grouped numbers told the telephone where to make the connection. Dials were the first replacements for the old human operators who actually took a connection line from your phone and plugged it into a jack connected to the phone you wanted to reach. They were later replaced by push-button phones, which used modulated electronic tones instead of groups of pulses.

Anyway, there are a lot of different phrases in our language today that came from technologies no longer in use. This blogger has gathered several, including their original meaning and context.

A number of them originate in old-fashioned sailing ships, which put me and other avid readers of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series a little ahead of the game in knowing them. Even so, I didn't know the specific reference to "the devil to pay and no pitch hot," thinking it more theological than nautical. But then, one should learn something new -- or perhaps, old -- every day.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Drink Up!

Does there exist a person in the United States who does not know that carbonated sugary beverages are bad for you? I have before mocked (and will again mock) busybody New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who feels the people who voted for him are too stupid to understand this or to limit their consumption of the fizzy poisons without the help of the full legal machinery of the nation's largest city. I would agree that people who voted for Mayor Bloomberg appear to lack a little in the ol' attic, but I don't believe they're quite that dumb.

At the recent meeting of the Obesity Society, where scientists and physicians gather to discuss developments in studying, explaining and treating obesity, the keynote address was about these carbonated sugary beverages, or soda. It was actually a debate about how to deal with the amount of soda people drink. Although the article is long, it has a number of interesting points.

Among them is the fact that a lot of time, the study results that gain the biggest headlines are not the end results of the study, but intermediate ones. One was designed to see what kind of effect a reduction in soda would have for obese children after two years. Two groups of children were monitored after their activity level was increased and their diet changed. One group was also restricted on its soda intake. After one year, that group had improved much more than the other. That drew and draws a lot of attention. But after two years, the original time period of the study, the difference had diminished to almost nothing; both groups had reduced their body mass index about equally. That fact hasn't drawn as much attention.

The article's author notes that most of the anti-soda henpecking (my term, not his) doesn't address a central issue about why people drink it. Most people know that too much soda is bad for them. And yet they drink it -- why? Because they like it. Unless the thing people like doing hurts someone else -- like driving drunk or breaking into stores to steal television sets -- it's hard to see what business it is of the government's to regulate it.

In some other cases, people's preference to engage in health-risking behavior does put other folks at risk. The dangers of secondhand smoke may not be completely proven and they are certainly less than those for smokers, but there's enough indication that somebody else's exhaled tar puts you at risk that the need to regulate smoking in enclosed public spaces is there.

One argument for limiting or even banning sugary sodas is that folks who become obese have worse health, and their worse health drives up everybody's health costs and insurance premiums. Perhaps. But getting old doesn't do anybody's health any favors either. It might even cost more than obesity, since everyone tends to get old and not everyone (yet) tends to get fat. But if there's some kind of plan to go full Logan's Run in order to solve this problem, I haven't heard of it.

I do think there's a government responsibility in matters like these -- I'm not full-out libertarian (Yet. Although I'm working on the cranky part). But I think that responsibility is to investigate the effects of, in this instance, sugary carbonated beverages and tell people what happens when they drink them or drink too much of them. And there it stops. If an insurance company or a doctor wants to penalize a soda drinker with higher rates, so be it. If a dentist wants to offer people who damage their teeth with too much sugar a reduced rate (something like a frequent filler program) figuring they'll make up the difference in volume, so be it.

Because no matter what rules, nagging, hectoring, programs and what have you the screaming furies of wellness perched in city halls, state houses and federal regulatory agences come up with, some people are always going to like to have a Coke and a smile.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Life in the Lift

Why do we act the way we do in elevators?

Turns out it's because they're not very big.

OK.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Uh-Oh

Given the enormous shanked punt that was Green Lantern, there's nothing about this announcement that makes me feel good. I'm going to bed and pray really, really hard now.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Hop, Skip and a Looooong Jump...

At the Sciencenter in Ithaca, New York is a scale model of our solar system that you can walk around in. It's called the Sagan Planet Walk and it covers about three-fourths of a mile in and near the center. Named after scientist and science popularizer Carl Sagan, it is appropriately five billionths the size of the actual solar system. The map is here. I like how the various representations of the solar system's members are just wherever they happen to be, no matter what business already occupies the spot. The asteroids, for example are located at a bank drive-thru at the inside teller line. Neptune is at the customer service desk of a grocery store.

Recently, the center added our sun's nearest neighbor star, Alpha Centauri. They maintained the one to five billion ratio, so the site chosen for the Alpha Centauri marker is...Hilo, Hawaii. So you'd probably better pack a lunch and make sure you use the restroom before you leave.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Bread and Cup

So in the past week I've taken communion with almost 3,000 people at a worship gathering, just more than 100 people at my church, four people in the home of a young man with muscular dystrophy and a dozen work center inmates at a Bible study.

That Jesus, he gets around.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

You Can't Judge a Book by Its...Odor?

Whenever I'm taking a trip via highway, I like to stop at used book stores that happen to be along the route. I did so this past weekend and made a nice little haul.

Which makes this little note from the good folks at Mental Floss interesting, as writer Matt Soniak noted some researchers analyzed the different smells given off by the materials of which books are made to see what different kinds of odors might mean. They think it may be possible to use that analysis to determine how old a book is.

But they'll be using all kinds of chemistry equipment and things; it's unlikely that a good sniff of an old book will tell you or I anything other than, "It's time to sneeze now."

Friday, October 5, 2012

Well, If It's Not Being Used...

At Jalopnik, Jason Torchinsky outlines how one might steal a space shuttle. If one were so inclined, that is.

Not that I am. Or that I would condone it if you were. But if you are, and you succeed, you might need a chaplain for your space voyage.

Just sayin'.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Quid + Pro + Quo

Heard a nice presentation this afternoon from a lady from our denomination's governing agency over educational matters, who encouraged us to cultivate the call of young folks in our churches who might want to be be ministers. She said it was time for us to recognize this need.

I could not agree more, madam. But it's also time for your agency to take the lead in making the process by which they become ordained clergy take something less than a decade.

Your serve, GBHEM.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

From the Rental Vault: A Western Twinbill

Probably the only thing someone can say for sure about Billy the Kid is that there's nothing to be said for sure about Billy the Kid. We know his given name was William McCarty and that he used the name William Bonney during the height of his notoriety, begun during the Lincoln County cattle wars after the death of rancher John Tunstall. From that point, his exploits were either just on the right side of the law or nowhere near it, depending on who was talking about them, and newspaper sensationalizing created the image of the ruthless gunfighter, "Billy the Kid."

In 1955, Gore Vidal wrote a televised play called The Death of Billy the Kid, which was adapted into a 1958 movie starring Paul Newman, The Left Handed Gun. The title trades on the mistaken assumption that the gunman was left-handed, based on a reversed "ferrotype" photograph taken of him. Vidal's play and Leslie Stevens' screenplay suggest that Billy was less of a feared outlaw and killer than a none-too-bright young man caught up in events  and at the mercy of powerful folks who labeled his self-defense shootings as crimes. Paul Newman, in one of his earliest headlining roles, nails the none-too-bright part quite well.

But the artifically mannered story and labored dialogue kick the legs out from under any good work he does, and as well hamstring the rest of the less-talented cast. Leslie Steven's screenplay seems written by someone who may know Westerns but who doesn't respect them much. That's not all Stevens, as Vidal's own 1989 TV movie of his play shows the same weaknesses. Stevens was also never really able to step away from the staginess of the original story into a more cinematic atmosphere. We never get the sense we're watching a real person when we watch Billy or any of the others, despite Gun's obvious desire to show us a "real" Billy the Kid.

All of these issues make this early "revisionist" Western, a reaction against some of the stale stereotypes of the genre, a good example of what not to do when re-imagining a familiar formula.
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Randolph Scott, on the other hand, had no problem working within those good old Western sterotypes, having been either the creator or attendant at the birth of many of them. In The Tall T, he and a very talented cast work under the skilled direction of Budd Boetticher to show a story of survival based on wit and toughness.

Scott plays Pat Brennan, a solitary rancher who finds himself in the middle of an attempted stagecoach robbery and on the wrong end of the guns of robber Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his henchmen. With Pat are newlyweds Willard and Doretta Mims (John Hubbard and Maureen O'Sullivan). Willard is an officious fussbudget who married the plain-Jane Doretta for her money (credit the makeup and wardrobe artists for making O'Sullivan almost be as plain as she's supposed to be). Fearing for his life, Willard offers to tell Doretta's father she has been kidnapped so Usher and his gang can get ransom, in exchange for his life.

Brennan knows their chances of survival are slight no matter what happens, but he plays along to try to protect Doretta, since Willard's unlikely to be of help in that department. During their captivity, Usher tries to draw out Brennan, liking him a great deal more than his younger, cruder and dumber henchmen. Brennan plays along with this also.

The characters are indeed Western stereotypes -- Brennan the loner who works the land, Usher the clever but ruthless outlaw, his henchman Chink (Henry Silva) as a sociopath proud of the murders he's committed, Willard as the cowardly dandy and Doretta as a woman who finds unexpected strength in this extreme situation. But the actors sell the roles and seem to recognize that stereotypes have their roots in real people. And although Gun director Arthur Penn would develop into one of the best in his field, he wasn't when that movie was made.

Boetticher, on the other hand, working with longtime partner Scott and his producer, Harry Joe Brown, uses his standard colors to paint a much more believable and compelling picture. It doesn't hurt that he's starting with a sinewy story from Elmore Leonard instead of Vidal's arch puffery.

Scott, Brown and Boetticher collaborated on seven low-budget Westerns during the 1950s, and I'd find it easier to watch all seven back-to-back than sit through The Left Handed Gun a second time.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Long Day

So there's a night off. Enjoy!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Truth in Advertising

So today on the way back to the hometown I took a wrong highway, and in getting back to the right one I found a small community with the following "Welcome to Town" sign:

"Welcome to St. Louis, OK
Population:
179 fine people
1 pyromaniac
1 busybody"

I wanted to stop and ask what had been burned, but the busybody was out on a break.