Wednesday, July 31, 2013

You Are Here

Usually spacecraft gallivanting around the solar system can't take pictures of the Earth after they've made their way to their destinations, because when you get far enough out our planet and the sun are often within the same frame. The extreme brightness of the sun is not friendly to the super-sensitive cameras that the satellites use.

But the other day, the Cassini probe orbiting Saturn happened to be in a place where the bulk of the ringed planet hid the bright sun and scientists directed it to take a picture of us.
I hope I didn't blink.

Check out the link to see the photo larger and a couple of others as well.

The key observation to make is that even from as relatively close in space as Saturn, we are one tiny dot. And between us and Saturn are only Mars, Jupiter, and an orbiting belt of rocks; we're practically cup-of-sugar-borrowing distance from each other in astronomical terms. From Cassini's point of view, 99.9999999+% of everything humanity has ever built takes up less than a pixel's width on its camera.

More perspective-thought producing.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hallowed Halls

Writer Jill Harness assembled pictures of different libraries from around the world, some of which she has visited herself. She collected 62 of what she says are the most beautiful and showed them off here at Mental Floss.

I kind of have to agree with her that Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland, tops the list. I could walk in there and probably forget to check out a book as I just wandered around the place and took it in.

On the other hand, I'd have to quibble with the inclusion of the Grand People's Study House in North Korea. For one, it was built to honor a birthday of one of the modern world's most evil men, the late North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung. For another, although it has the capacity to house 30 million books, some tourists have estimated less than a few thousand are actually available. At first my suspicion was that the perennially starved North Korean populace ate them, but on the other hand, in a country where people were reportedly at risk of imprisonment for insufficient mourning when the last SOB dictator who ruled them died, an overdue or lost book fine might be quite dangerous to risk as well.

Monday, July 29, 2013


-- Detroit is bankrupt, its emergency call answers measured in hours and two-thirds of its ambulances immobile. But it's going to spend almost a half-billion dollars on a new hockey rink for the Red Wings, so...Motor City is back, baby!

-- MSNBC contributor Touré -- who, it will be seen, uses one name because there is doubt he could spell two  -- said that George Zimmerman, accused of murder in the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin but found not guilty by a jury, is not Hispanic as has been claimed. He is, in fact, a "Peruvian-American," presumably because his mother was born in Peru. Just what language does he think they speak in Peru? And by this logic, should we say that President Obama, whose father was born in Kenya though he himself was born in Hawaii, is not African-American but a Kenyan-American?

-- Intelligence (ahem) officials in Turkey detained a kestrel last week when it was found with a band around its leg that had the words "Tel Avivuna Israel." Villagers caught the bird and turned it over to the local governor, who sent it on to a university where it was X-rayed for microchips and spy devices. None being found -- the tag was apparently from an ornithology research project at Tel Aviv University -- the bird was released. But it was told to avoid suspicious avians.

-- San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, who seems to have boundary issues that do not involve nearby suburbs, is being sued for sexual harassment. He has admitted poor treatment of people and is going to spend two weeks in an intense therapy environment to help him not do things like suggest female staffers come to work sans undergarments. And his lawyer has asked the San Diego City Council to make it so he does not have to pay to defend himself against the harassment suit by picking up his legal bills. I am no therapist, but I don't know how much good two solid weeks of being told, "You're in a hole. Put down the shovel!" will do.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

From the Rental Vault: A Pair of G's

The Battle of Guadalcanal marked the end of Japanese expansion in World War II. Following their defeat there in February 1943, Imperial forces focused on holding territory and eventually, attempting to make Allied advances so costly their enemies would break off and settle peacefully. Had they held the island, the Pacific war might have followed a different course, but no one knows for sure. War correspondent Richard Tregaskis' memoir of his time with the campaign, Guadalcanal Diary, was actually published before the battle's end, in January 1943. Filming of a movie version of the book began in May 1943, and it was released in October.

Today, the movie Guadalcanal Diary probably stands out mostly for its faithfulness to some of the characterizations from the Tregaskis book and for being the film debut of 17-year-old Richard Jaeckel, who had a long career as a character actor. Time has made many of those characterizations stereotypes -- a grizzled noncom, a wet-behind-the-ears greenhorn, a no-nonsense officer, a wise-cracking Brooklynite, and so on. It has some pretty good performances -- like the aforementioned proud son of Brooklyn, played by William Bendix and the surprisingly meaty role for Anthony Quinn as an Hispanic Marine treated no differently than his fellows. And given the restrictions of what you could show onscreen in 1943, it provides a pretty good picture of how war can terrify one minute and bore to tears the next.

But being made in the middle of the war, during a time when the outcome still wasn't certain and American men were dying at the hands of an enemy, Diary takes a dim and ultimately flat view of the Japanese soldiers the Marines were fighting (note the broad-shouldered shirtless Marine overhead-pressing an enemy soldier in the poster). It's understandable, but it pushes the movie uncomfortably close to propaganda. Even so, if the viewer recognizes that limitation as an unfortunate product of time and place and sets it aside as unrealistic -- after all, the movie fictionalizes the actual battle somewhat as well -- Guadalcanal Diary has a good, tense story to tell and more to show about war and its impact than you might originally guess.
Pinewood Studios, home in the 1970s and 1980s to both Superman and James Bond, shot its first movies in 1935. It was closed down during World War II, except for production of wartime documentaries, and re-opened after the Allied victory in 1945. The first movie made at Pinewood after it re-opened was the 1946 murder mystery Green for Danger, based on a popular Christianna Brand detective novel of the same name.

A postman during World War II London is injured by a V-1 "buzz bomb" and taken to a rural English hospital. He dies on the operating table, and not long after, a nurse is murdered. Scotland Yard Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) is sent to investigate, and his peculiar and definitely abrupt manner stretch the tensions of the already-anxious staff to the breaking point. When a second murder is attempted, Cockrill closes in on his prey, but will he outwit the killer in time?

Green benefits from a tight, no-frills screenplay from director Sidney Guilliat and Claud Gurney. The former had written for Alfred Hitchcock, and the latter had a solid history directing London theater. It also boasts strong performances from Sim, Trevor Howard and Leo Genn as feuding doctors and Rosamund John, Sally Gray and Megs Lindley as nurses. It's an unaccountably forgotten top-rate mystery that gives us, in Sim's rumpled, absent-minded but brilliant detective, a sort of old English uncle of Peter Falk's rumpled, absent-minded but brilliant Lieutenant Columbo.

Brand wrote seven Inspector Cockrill mysteries in all, and Pinewood may have thought of making a series of them. But the movie struggled getting screened in its home country -- censors originally banned it entirely because they thought a hopsital-set murder might frighten soldiers returning home and keep them from seeking medical help. Of course, while the novel was set in a military hospital, the movie wasn't, so the ban was lifted. But all of the rigamarole may have soured Pinewood on the idea; the only other mystery adapted from Brand's books was a 1947 version of her debut, Death in High Heels. Another of her characters, Nurse Matilda from her children's series of the same name, became Nanny McPhee when adapted by Emma Thompson.

Sim, of course, went on to be renowned for his Christmas Eve haunting by three spirits in 1951's Scrooge, reprising the role in a 1971 animated feature of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. He continued to work in movies and on stage until his death in 1976 from lung cancer.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Light With an Expiration Date

You may remember from school that light is made up of what we call photons. Photons sometimes behave like waves and sometimes like particles, in a phenomenon called "complementarity." It means if your experiment is set up to see if photons act like waves, they will. But if it's set up to see if they act like particles, they will do that. Think of an annoying sibling who repeats everything you say -- that's kind of like how photons act.

For much of the time since their discovery in the 1920s, photons were thought to have no mass (If you want to ask how something that acts like a particle can have no mass, well, you will have to live in a universe that's not as weird as this one). But some physicists have begun speculating that photons do have mass, because they act like they do when they are at rest.

If they have mass, that means they will eventually decay into smaller particles -- either one of the kinds of neutrinos zipping around the universe or something that hasn't even been discovered yet. And if they decay into other particles, how long will it be before that happens?

German physicist Julian Heeck wondered about that and is using data from several new experiments to find out. Within its own frame of reference, a photon lives about three years, he calculates. He's not yet sure what it decays into; the data don't show that yet.

Now, that three years is from the photon's point of view (if photons have a point of view). When Albert Einstein started noodling around in physics and developing his theories of relativity, one of the ideas that developed from that was that the closer something approaches the speed of light, the more time slows down. Time moves slower for me when I am walking than when I am sitting down, although the difference is so tiny it makes no difference in my perceptions. Add up all the slowdown that motion has produced for me in my life and I may have lengthened it by something less than a second. But that second is only from my point of view. From the perspective of those who aren't me, my life is exactly as long as the calendars and clocks say it is. As for the perspective of those who listen to me preach, you'll have to ask them how long 20 minutes seems like.

A photon moves much faster than we do, so this time dilation effect is a lot larger. So how long do we see a photon living? According to Heeck's figuring, about a billion billion years. In numerals, this is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, and is also called a "quintillion." Since the best guesses for the age of the universe these days are in the 14 billion to 17 billion year range, it seems clear we are in little danger of running out of photons.

But I'm sure Al Gore will scold us about wasting them anyway.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Change of Scenery

Swedish photographer Gus Petro, after a trip to the U.S., got the idea of seeing what it would look like if Manhattan were transported to the Grand Canyon. Thanks to photo software, we can have one vision of it, anyway.

Petro matched up pictures with similar lighting angles and then used the computer to stitch them together in the proper scale. Which means that even the mightiest collection of tall buildings and towers in the country fits inside what is essentially a really deep riverbed, to spare.

A perspective-inducing thought worth thinking.

(H/T Yeahright)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

It's All Connected

This guy figures all of the Pixar movies exist in the same universe.

He may convince you that they are, or he may convince you that he's spent too much time thinking avbout this. But if it's the latter, you'd better have made that decision before reading the whole thing.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Make It So

A scientist suggests that there may be a way to create faster-than-light travel...

Once again, I am so out of here.

Going Up...Or Not

Light posting while at camp -- but in the meantime, did you know that there are only two escalators in the entire state of Wyoming?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Building Blocks

The problem in 3-D printing is that many of the machines are expensive, with the costs for some of the best and most elaborate devices prohibitive to the average user.

Not any more.

A guy built a working -- albeit crude -- 3-D printer using mostly Legos and some other components. It requires some refinements in order to match outputs with the high-end machine, but the builder says he's already figuring out improvements.

And when the day comes that the 3-D printer that's made out of Legos turns around and actually prints out Legos?

I for one welcome our new, brightly primary-colored masters.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Found: One Rocket Motor, Slightly Used founder Jeff Bezos has been searching the ocean floor for some of the pieces of the old Saturn-V boosters that took human beings to the moon -- back when human beings had the idea of going to the moon -- and examination of some of the pieces is showing which specific rockets have been recovered from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

Yesterday, on the blog Bezos has been keeping about the project, he confirmed that the actual booster used to lift Apollo 11 to the moon for the first landing is among those recovered.

Forty-four years ago today, the late Neil Armstrong took humanity's first steps on a body not Earth. Eventually, an even dozen men walked on our nearest neighbor. Eight are still living; Apollo 16's Charles Duke is the youngest at 77.

Armstrong's crewmate Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, celebrated communion in the capsule after landing. His home church, Webster Presbyterian of Webster, Texas, supplied him with the chalice and elements and holds what it calls "Lunar Communion" every year on the Sunday closest to July 20. This year, that will be tomorrow.

The church, of course, has a year-round reminder of its connection to space history, as its address is "201 West NASA Parkway."

Friday, July 19, 2013

Positive Vibes

A psychology professor at the University of Arizona read a study that showed some interesting effects when ultrasound waves were aimed at the heads of experimental animals.

Ordinarily, of course, ultrasound is used for imaging purposes, so that expectant couples may show black and gray blobs on paper to their friends and families and demand to know which parent said blob most resembles, as well as "requesting" an acknowledgement that said blob is the "cutest baby ever." The baby, when born, may indeed be cute, but most of us without training can divine little more than that the resident of Expectant Mom's womb is probably not Cthulhu incarnate.

Dr. Stuart Hameroff, though, decided to take an ultrasound device and aim it at his own head after reading about what some other researchers had done. A 15-second exposure produced no immediate effects, but after about a minute, he said he felt like he'd had a martini -- shaken, not stirred. This led to some controlled clinical experiments on volunteer subject, who reported similar good feelings.

The ultrasound device uses sound waves in the "megaHertz" range (and we've gone to the nerd well and back again on Hertz before), and protein structures inside the brain's neurons called "microtubules" also resonate in megaHertz frequences. This, Hameroff thinks, is probably how the ultrasound waves have an effect on the brain, but the particular effect and why it happens are not yet known (The Wilson, D.; Wilson, B. and Love, M. hypothesis that the effect may be connected to "the way the sunlight plays upon her hair" is no doubt among the several possibilities under consideration).

More studies are being conducted by Hameroff and other researchers, including what effect the presence of a T-bird might have on the feelings of euphoria and fun as it varies with respect to paternal repossession of said automobile.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Rendered Moot

If I worked for the online satire site The Onion, I might just wonder if I should throw up my hands and quit. Because on the one hand, this article about Secretary of State John Kerry, the man who lost to one of the most despised presidential candidates in recent memory, being sent to help the long-hating Israelis and Palestinians come to some level of agreement and resolution, is satirical and made up.

But on the other hand, Secretary of State John Kerry, the man who lost to one of the most despised presidential candidates in recent memory, is actually being sent to help the long-hating Israelis and Palestinians come to some level of agreement and resolution.

I've heard it said that there is only one inoculation against mockery, and that's to become so ridiculous that no mockery could bring more shame than the truth does. I believe that point may be approaching at no insignificant speed.

ETA: No longer just approaching. It's already here.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

One Bloop and One Bunt

Though officially retired from the Central Intelligence Agency, John Wells retains many of the skills and much of the mindset that made him the only successful agent to embed with the Taliban during the lead-up to 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. So when a friend of his estranged son goes missing while working for a charity operation in Kenya, the son convinces Wells to talk to her parents.

That conversation itself prompts him to take his own trip to the area and see if he can learn anything and rescue the four young people now known to have been kidnapped for ransom. But the charity head seems a little hard to pin down, and the events themselves don't smell quite right to Wells. And when he learns he will be dealing with a Somali warlord, he realizes few of the connections and little of the experience he has in the Afghan mountain country will help him in the no-man's-land of the Kenya-Somalia border.

Berenson has obviously done his research for Night Ranger, highlighting how many of the power players in the essentially lawless countries where these charities operate often use them for their own ends. Although he's taken Wells out of his war on terror milieu, he's given him some new reasons to push himself, in order to help his son's friend and possibly begin to rebuild their relationship. But Ranger seems like a sewn-together patchwork of incomplete parts -- there's no real resolution to the situation involving the charity director, and although Berenson starts to explore how the crisis has a toughening effect on a previously shallow young woman he only dabbles in it and never fleshes it out, either. Making John Wells a little less of a weapon in the war against terrorists and a little more soldier of fortune is probably a good broadening step for the series, but Berenson will need to tighten his storytelling focus and finish out his narrative elements in order to make that move successful.
Even after "symbologist" Robert Langdon made his appearance in 2000's Angels and Demons, Dan Brown didn't start him as a franchise character right away. In 2001, he told the story of National Reconnaissance Office analyst Rachel Sexton, daughter of presidential challenger Sedgewick Sexton, and her role in what at first seems like an amazing discovery by NASA scientists: a meteorite in the Arctic whose find has astounding implications.

Rachel's father is riding a wave of political popularity based on his opposition to the money-wasting NASA (he at one point promises to cut the agency's budget in half and give the remainder to the Department of Education), and the incumbent president wants her to help him brief his staff on the meteorite discovery before the president himself and NASA staff announce it to the world. But not everything is as it seems (the novel is called Deception Point, after all), and Rachel soon finds herself on the run with celebrity oceanographer Michael Tolland, fleeing people who have a secret to keep and few scruples about how they will do so.

It's very silly, gets probably dozens of things wrong (NASA's budget, for example, in fiscal year 2000 when the story is set, was just more than 13 billion dollars. The Department of Education's was three times that amount) and is written in Brown's usual hammer-handed style. But for all of that, Deception Point lacks some of the crusading that Brown has tended to do ever since The Da Vinci Code and it makes this book a lot less of a drudge to get through. Oh, Brown has A Cause, but it's the need to privatize space research instead of rewrite Christian history. Or maybe it's the need to make sure the government holds on to NASA because otherwise the only work done in space will be that which makes profits for corporations. Who knows? Brown doesn't, but since his research on the subject would get laughed out of a middle school term paper, it doesn't much matter. Deception Point gets an average grade on suspense, an average grade on its action set pieces, an average grade on its writing and style (we're grading on a curve, setting it against other bestselling thrillers), so even the fail it earns on a big chunk of its "facts" mean it can pass the term.

Since the next term was in fact The Da Vinci Code, it's safe to say we're not seeing the GPA head upward any time soon.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pretty Funny, Monkey Boy

There are certain breeds of dogs that, through thousands of years of careful cultivation, have been tailored, tweaked, manipulated and guided to a place that, should they ever develop opposable thumbs, we are all dead.

In the meantime, they are eternally bad-tempered because they know that what has happened to them is not the result of Mother Nature's BFF, the capricious Miss Natural Selection. Someone did it to them on purpose. Among these bad-tempered animals are chihuahuas, whose owners unaccountably proclaim their toughness and (pardon the language) bad-assery as though they're talking about a badger with hemorrhoids. My parents once saw one of these fearless oversized rats bravely charge a German Shepherd, barking furiously and promising swift death should any vital organ come within range of its tiny yipping jaws. The shepherd closed its own jaws on the thing's head, shook it once and snapped its neck without even growling. And there was peace upon the land.

Among these genetic psychopaths are poodles. Full-sized poodles tend to be fairly even-tempered. At around 45 pounds or heavier and 15 inches or more in height, they do not feel the need to assert themselves even when wearing one of those stupid poofy haircuts that dog shows insist is the appearance of a Champion Dog. They seem to have more of an attitude of "Hey, that's right, I look funny. Come right up here beside me and I'll make with a big ol' toothy grin of my own!"

Small poodles, on the other hand, have one of two thoughts in their tiny little canid craniums: "I shall obtain respect despite my appearance by barking incessantly and ravaging the toes of any creature who dares cross by path," or, "If I keep barking someone will eventually kill me and put me out of my misery."

The second thought comes to mind when I see this picture of a poodle which has been trimmed and dyed to produce the cast of The Simpsons. This dog may not even be waiting for opposable thumbs, but instead plans on paying an inventor to develop a death ray which can be fired by a wagging tail.

We will all die laughing.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Prepare to Leave Orbit

Apparently, with 3-D printing technology, it won't be long before you can print a rocket engine.

I am so out of here.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Floats Like a Rock

Or a rock-like substance, anyway, as the National Concrete Canoe Competition tests teams which design, build and attempt to float canoes made of concrete.

As the judges note, the competition isn't mysterious: Somehow, the teams must take concrete and make a canoe from it that is lighter than water. Otherwise, they don't win. Rather than testing esoteric concrete mixtures and exotic substances, the successful teams develop good processes, plan properly, work together and successfully cover all of the tasks that go into a good concrete canoe.

Competition designers and judges point out that a good run in the contest reflects well when the students go job-hunting, mostly because of all those teamwork and processing things mentioned above. Which would make sense, since not many firms are designing concrete canoes.

A similar competition is held from time to time with cement overshoes, but in that competition, neither floating nor notoriety are desired, so no one is ever sure who wins. The losers, on the other hand, tend to be conspicuous in their absence.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Victory Over Communism!

We have been told since forever that starchy foods like potatoes, high cholesterol foods like eggs, and fried foods are very bad for us. But, as a nutritionist writing at Business Insider notes, a blanket condemnation of those foods is unwarranted. In fact, in moderate amounts, these foods are necessary and could be considered good for you.

It's the preparation and the immoderate consumption that presents the problem, but those same factors can plague just about the most innocuous food or drink. Prepare water by leaving it in a puddle on the ground for a week and it's not good for you no matter how much your body needs hydration. Consume a couple gallons at a sitting and your body will not thank you.

All of that may just be common sense, but the takeaway is this (and I will freely admit that the nutritionist might not agree with my conclusion): It's OK to eat French fries.

Combine that with the fact that Twinkies are returning to store shelves, and the frequent reminders that salt restriction in most folks' diets is not an automatic ticket to Methusaleh Land, and I think that we are gathering one of journalism's favorite phrases -- "mounting evidence" -- that people like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are not only dull, officious busybodies who can't stand the idea of people making their own choices.

They're also wrong.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Don't Let Your Baby Buy a Car

An Oregon couple would have done well to have listened to Lou Whitney, songwriter for the Morells, when he penned that advisory number some years ago.

That's because when their 14-month-old daughter was playing with Dad's iPhone, she opened up eBay and bought an Austin-Healy.

To be fair, the car is not in the best shape and only cost $225. It's currently being stored at Grandma's house -- a not uncommon fate for less-desirable toys that make too much noise (or leak too much grease) for Mom and Dad. Dad says he may try to fix it up for his own sake or give it to his daughter when she turns 16. After all, she bought the car so she is probably entitled to drive it.

The model? A 1962 Sprite, of course.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Seen at the Gym

The only thing more fun than watching SyFy's Sharknado?

Turning off SyFy's Sharknado.

Raisins and Reason

On one hand, you might think that watching fruit dry is a task excellently suited to the federal government. It requires little or no brainpower, it is extremely unlikely to harm anyone and it keeps people who like the idea of working for the government away from dangerous things like matches and ideas.

On the other hand, federalizing the watching of fruit drying can create things like the Raisin Administrative Committee, a group which oversees a curious activity. Every year it guesses how many grapes farmers will grow and then decides if that amount is too much. See, if farmers grow too many grapes and make raisins from them, then the price goes down and some of them don't make enough money to stay in business.

If the Raisin Administrative Committee decides too many grapes have been grown, it waits until they have been properly dried by their respective farmers and then comes in and carts some of them off. Without paying the grower a dime.

These purloined fruit are then stored and used by the Raisin Administrative Committee as they see fit. As the story notes, they may be sold overseas or fed to schoolchildren or cows -- whatever takes them off the U.S. commercial market for raisins and artificially shrinks supply so that the prices don't crater. The program began after World War II -- the U.S. military had been buying a lot of raisins to send to soldiers overseas as snacks, but fewer soldiers meant a major raisin-buying customer was no longer in the market. In order to keep the prices something near the high end that growers had enjoyed during wartime, a federal regulation created the raisin reserve and eventually the Raisin Administrative Committee.

And it has existed ever since.

It would be one thing if the Raisin Administrative Committee compensated the growers for their reserve confiscation, but they don't. Any money it makes from selling the reserve is used to fund its activities, with only what's left over going back to the growers. And as the story notes, that leftover amount is very often just about zero.

The story is about a guy who in 2002 decided a post World War II regulation had outlived its usefulness and started selling every raisin he produced instead of "donating" them to the Raisin Administrative Committee. The Committee hired a private detective to observe him doing so and then charged him with numerous violations of the Marketing Order that created this mess. He hired the lawyer that killed the California Raisin marketing campaign that sold a lot of T-shirts and plastic figures but not too many raisins.

This year the Supreme Court told a lower court it needed to re-think its decision on the matter; it had said it didn't have jurisdiction but the Supreme Court said, "Yes, you do."

When I read this I thought about buying some grapes and using our fine Okie sun to dry them out for a couple of weeks and creating my own raisins. But then I remembered Monday that I'd spotted that mysterious black Humvee with government plates at a restaurant where I happened to be eating, and I wondered just what they might hear through the grapevine.

Raisincrime is thoughtcrime.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Maybe Not...

Once again, we see why actors only get paid when they say someone else's words, as the most recent Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield, suggests that the sequel to his re-boot portray "MJ," commonly known as "Mary Jane" Watson, as a guy so that Peter Parker can explore his bi-sexuality. According to the article at Entertainment Weekly, the main force driving Mr. Garfield's vision is his desire to see the MJ part played by The Wire actor Michael B. Jordan, with whom has has been "obsessed" since that show aired.

Throw aside established characters in order for you to be able to have make-out scenes with an actor who may or may not be as into the idea as you are? Have him hired solely because of his gender and consider it "even better" that because of his race "we’d have interracial bisexuality," thus tokenizing him twice? Anything you say, Mr. Garfield!

I swear, if I were a movie producer I would never let an actor near anybody with a tape recorder unless I had hypnotically programmed them to say entertainment-industry styled variations of "Well, I just want to do whatever I can to help the team" or "I think the game will boil down to how many times we can put the ball in the end zone and how well our defense does at keeping them from scoring." The studio has to be glad that their film opening is still a year off.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Describe Everything...Use No Words

Despite what many of us may have thought when we were taking math class, the equations we were required to learn did not spring fully-formed from the sadistic minds of our instructors. Though some are ancient and some are recent, all of them "came into being," so to speak, when someone happened upon a principle and expressed it in terms that developed into the formulas we are used to (or maybe not so used to) today.

According to mathematician Dana Mackenzie in The Universe in Zero Words, the history of humanity's understanding of the world around us can be found in looking at some of the very same equations we may have cursed in the classroom. Mackenzie selected 24 equations, starting with antiquity, and with brief vignettes, sketches the role each played in the development of human thinking and understanding the universe.

And he does start with the basics -- the very first equation he considers is ye olde 1 + 1 = 2. Perhaps self-evident in the modern world, but as Mackenzie notes, until you have the relationship between objects thus coded in some way, you don't have a system for manipulating numbers and you don't even have basic arithmetic. Take one apple and add another and you have two apples, but what about pears? Are they the same? Or what about groups of different objects? Do they behave the same way as the apples? Without the expression 1 + 1 = 2, you are left with having to count them all of the time. But with that expression, you can state a general rule that frees you from counting everything in order to see how many you have. We have no idea when this basic arithmetic was first used or where it came from, but there was a time before it, and without someone figuring it out we are pretty much stuck with stone knives and bearskins.

Mackenzie goes through the history of mathematics this way, touching on famous equations like the Pythagorean Theorem (probably not discovered by Pythagoras) or Albert Einstein's E = mc2. He also explores lesser-known formulas that the blogger interface can't reproduce properly, but which have proven vital to understanding the universe as well as the infinitesimally small world of quantum mechanics. First by outlining the basic arithmetic and geometry that let people begin to think in abstract as well as concrete terms, then through the times of Newton and Liebniz, Gauss and Galois and into the 20th century with Gödel and Dirac and Einstein himself, Mackenzie offers the story of humanity's ability to know the world around us -- or at least parts of it -- through the development of the equations that describe the planets, the atoms, the particles of which they are all made and the way they behave.

Mackenzie doesn't load the book with a lot of formulas and mathematical arcanum -- it takes algorithm-phobes such as myself some time to puzzle out the different symbols and their meaning, but it can be done. And doing so is worth the trip for a fascinating view of how human beings have sought to find -- and in some cases impose -- order on the world in which we live and move and have our being.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Bedtime Smarts

-- OK, nobody tell my parents that they were right to make me go to bed early and at the same time every night. They already have enough fun chortling over all of ways adult me learned that stuff kid me knew was right is actually totally wrong.

-- A holiday weekend in our little lake-area community provides a number of opportunities for people-watching and enough data to formulate some general principles. Among them: Ladies, if the third digit of your birth year is "7" or less, then the words "tube top" should not be in your vocabulary, nor should the garment be in your wardrobe. Gentlemen, the young ladies eyeing your middle-aged paunchy self are in fact eyeing the adult beverages which you can purchase but they can not, and determining if you are indeed too creepy to make it worth their while to negotiate your purchase of said beverages as their surrogates. Chances are good that you are.

-- The atomic weights of some elements are going to be changed. Rather than being a precise number, they are going to instead be listed as "intervals," because the atomic weights of those elements vary depending on where they are found. The fashion modeling industry is reportedly very interested.

-- At a local restaurant today, there was a large black Humvee with U.S. government plates in the parking lot. Probably shouldn't have sent that e-mail offering the aliens the codes to all of our defenses, with or without the "j/k" in the subject line.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

From the Rental Vault: The Dark Knight Returns

It may be hard to believe in the era of the Nolan-Bale Batman, but in 1986 the most familiar picture of the Caped Crusader was of the wry but not particularly heroic Adam West. West played Batman in the campy 1960s TV series and the character had long existed in that version's long shadow.

Until 1986, when artist and writer Frank Miller created the four-issue limited series The Dark Knight Returns, and neither the Batman nor comic books were ever the same again. Miller's vision of an aging Bruce Wayne finally unable to fight off his obsession to battle crime in cape and cowl cemented the character as driven, taciturn and probably more than a little unbalanced. The grim and gritty storyline he used set the tone for years of bad comics in which heroes could barely be told from villains -- and if they could, it was certainly not because of their methods. Miller also brought the world of comics into contact with the real world around us. Along with Alan Moore's Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns tried to show what it might be like to have people in our world who actually wear colorful longjohns to fight crime.

So it's surprising that it took until 2012-13 for DC Comics to bring the legendary title to the screen via its successful line of animated features. Released in two parts, the feature directed by Jay Oliva contains most of Miller's storyline and features Peter Weller as the voice of Bruce Wayne/Batman, Ariel Winter as the new Robin, Carrie Kelly, David Selby as Commissioner James Gordon, Michael Emerson as the Joker and Mark Valley as Superman.

Now long retired after political pressure groups made it too difficult to operate, Bruce Wayne spends much of his time recklessly blowing his fortune and trying to do some good as well. In his absence, Gotham City has become largely lawless, with the new Mutant Gang committing horrific crimes as a prelude to their own grab for political power. Eventually overcome by his obsession to capture and punish criminals, Wayne dons the cape and cowl of Batman once again for a final face-off with his greatest foe, as well as someone who was once his greatest friend.

Oliva deviates from Miller's version in several places -- he doesn't use the ironic internal monologue that Miller writes for the character. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as Weller's somnolent delivery is bad enough in the relatively smaller dose. He may have been aiming for the deadpan voice of Miller's comic, but what he gets is a dead-and-buried pan that just makes him sound bored. Emerson is appropriately creepy as the Joker, and Valley stalwart and true as the Man of Steel.

Part of the problem is also that some of Miller's story hasn't aged well. He wrote it as a product of the 80s, with an amiable dunce Reagan stand-in as president as a part of his satirizing of the shallow, self-obsessed media culture. But the real media culture has rendered the satire obsolete -- how can you mock a permissive fictional culture that would put a mass murderer like the Joker on a talk show when you've got two actual scripted TV series focusing on serial killers as lead characters?

Visually, the animation team does well at capturing Miller's blocky impressionist style, also keeping to his self-limited mostly blue-tinged pallette. But both parts lack enough impact to overcome both their own limitations and the ones imposed on them by the source material.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Now That's a Windup...

Athletes from other sports are often invited to throw out the first pitch at baseball games, and sometimes they may incorporate some of their own particular activity into the pitch. Sometimes it works well, and sometimes it doesn't.

I think it's safe to say that for Korean rhythmic gymnast Shin Soo-Ji, invited to make the ceremonial throw by the Daesoon Bears in their game against the Samsung Lions, it works.

(For the curious, Daesoon won the game 9-6, picking up a game in the standings against the league-leading Lions)

Friday, July 5, 2013

Far-Out Music

If you're an astrophysicist, you rely a lot on your vision in your work. Other than the brain you use to process the data you review, your eyes might be your most valuable asset.

So when astrophysicist Wanda Diaz-Merced began losing her sight as a complication of her diabetes, she might have thought her career was over. Until she realized that the hisses and pops that came from the radio telescope that scanned the heavens were sounds she could listen to and scan for patterns just as sighted scientists reviewed charts and plots of data visually.

Stars produce many kinds of radiation, not just light. Radio telescopes are among the devices that astronomers use to receive those other kinds of radiation and study those features. Diaz-Merced uses a software program which "audifies" or turns the different radiation measurements into sounds. Irregularities in the sound can point her towards some feature of a star that should be looked at more closely, or even perhaps to a flaw in the equipment. She's talked some of her sighted colleagues into using her system as well, listening to the data at the same time they're reading it.

Another researcher heard the sound loops that Diaz-Merced's software produced and noticed that some of them had recognizable melodies or tunes. That researcher teamed up with other musicians to create songs that have the sounds of Diaz-Merced's readings at their center.

I remember when I was younger hearing other kids sometimes say science was boring. Although my frequently-chronicled cerebral work stoppage in the presence of algebra may have derailed my ability to pursue scientific inquiry professionally, I remain fascinated by it and those who practice it. And as Wanda Diaz-Merced shows, science is never boring, not even a little bit.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

From the Rental Vault: A Mixed Trio

Only seven times in the history of the Oscars has one movie taken the awards for both best actor and best actress; the last time was 1997. In South Korea, the last time was 2011, as Park Hae-il and Moon Chae-won captured the Grand Bell Awards (Korean moviedom's Oscars) for their roles as brother and sister in the historical drama War of the Arrows.

The pair play the grown-up Choi Nam-yi and Choi Ja-in, orphaned when their father is killed by agents of a king opposed to the ruler he serves. At his direction, they have fled to a remote village in Joeson (the name given to Korea in the 17th century) to stay with his friend. But when the friend arranges Ja-in's marriage against Nam-yi's wishes, he prepares to leave the village, only to return to try to warn against an invasion by Manchurian solders intent in kidnapping people of Joeson for slaves. With only his skill as a bowman, Nam-yi must track the invaders, stop them and rescue not only his sister but the other villagers as well.

Leading the Manchurians who track Nam-yi is Jyuushinta (Ryoo Seung-rong), a warrior who despises the weak villagers and can't believe one of them is standing up to them. Park clearly displays the desperate determination of a man trying to save his last relative against impossible odds, and Moon adds surprising layers as the sister who is something more than a damsel in distress. Ryoo is also effective as Jyuushinta grows in respect for the skill and spirit of man he hates and seeks more than anything to kill. Kim Mu-yeol as Kim Seo-goon -- the man Ja-in will marry -- adds some dimension as well as he finds himself stronger than even he believed he could be. In one sense, War of the Arrows is a long chase scene, but it's done well, with a lot of suspense and characters in which a viewer can take interest without wasting his or her time.
Character actors are often known for working in a whole lot of movies. Rarely if ever taking lead roles, they nevertheless rarely lack for employment in movies that want their particular "type." That can also mean they work in movies of widely varying quality. During 1956, longtime Western actor Chill Wills found himself onscreen opposite James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in the award-winning Giant. And he also found himself onscreen opposite Lance Fuller, Sterling Holloway and Cathy Downs in the award-avoiding Kentucky Rifle.

Wills is a part of a wagon train with longtime friend Jason Clay (Fuller) and a cast of folks who happened to show up for work that day. Tobias and Clay have joined the train to haul 100 Kentucky rifles westward to help protect settlers. The extra-long rifled barrel of the "Kaintuck" makes it much more accurate that other weapons in common use at the time, and Willis often waxes rhapsodic about it -- he has at least two speeches singing its praise. But the wagon breaks down and the train boss can't wait for them to fix it, so the people traveling in that wagon are stranded while they make repairs. Unfortunately, sparks are flying between Clay and Amy Connors (Downs), although she has been traveling west with another man. Still more unfortunately, Comanches want the rifles and are ready to attack the lone wagon to get them.

Even though Wills has top billing, the actual leading man is Lance Fuller, who blands his way through the movie like he got paid 1) up front and 2) not much. The conflict between him and Amy's original suitor is paint-by-numbers and the Comanches are notable for having what is at best an inconsistent plan of attack. I suspect that if the Wills family sent out a Christmas newsletter in 1956, it featured Giant pretty heavily and Kentucky Rifle not at all, and I couldn't blame them.
There are probably not many actors in movie history who could manage to bring intensity to the screen like Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, but their third onscreen partnership in The Bedford Incident seems curiously lacking in that quality. Widmark is wrapped quite a bit too tightly as Eric Finlander, captain of the USS Bedford on patrol near Greenland. But Poitier is distinctly laid back as writer Ben Munceford, on board the Bedford to write a story about a U.S. Navy destroyer at sea.

It turns out, though, that Munceford aims as much to write a story about Finlander as about the Bedford, as the captain has drawn attention of the wrong kind for his role and his remarks following a confrontation with a Soviet submarine near Cuba. Now nearly obsessed with locating the subs he knows patrol the North Atlantic, the captain is driving his crew dangerously hard in order to locate them and force them away from NATO nation waters.

The movie is taken from Mark Rascovich's novel of the same name, and Rascovich drew heavily on the obsessed Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick for his story.

But we don't see the tension that's supposed to be draining the crew except in a very few instances towards the end when it needs to be there for the story. James MacArthur especially, as a young ensign that Finlander rides hard in order to help shape him as an officer, exhibits no particular signs of stress until late in the story. We're just told the crew is stressed instead of shown it, which is one of the least effective storytelling choices for writers as well as moviemakers.

Other movies have explored similar themes more effectively and with a much more developed sense of suspense and tension. Crimson Tide pitted Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman against each other in a similar crisis situation, Bedford might have benefited by making Poitier an officer on Finlander's crew who had some notion of reining in his increasingly obsessive captain. As it is, The Bedford Incident is a showcase of some good performances, a little bit of submarine-hunting tension, some slice-of-life work aboard a US Navy ship (as well as some wildly improbable elements too) that doesn't manage to add up to the sum of its parts.


A good day to remember that the most important meaning of the word "free" doesn't have all that much to do with price tags.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

An Even Longer Time Ago...

The good folks at Quirk Books have released a version of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope as it might have been written by one William Shakespeare  -- meaning that yes, indeed, you can now read the work of Alan Dean Foster ghosting for George Lucas in iambic pentameter. I've no idea if they plan to continue the series (or if Disney, who now owns the Star Wars universe, will let them), but if they do, I eagerly away the new (old?) version of the prequel trilogy.

Because only a writer of Shakespeare's skill could save some of the incredibly bad dialog that George Lucas put in the mouths of his cast during those three movies. And even he might be defeated by the walking vortex of suck that is Jar-Jar Binks:

Meesa Gungan, brave-hearted and true!
Meesa help Ani and friend Obi-Wan!

We needeth not help from the likes of you,
Thou CGI'd varlet, get thee quick-gone!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Wall Walker

At a museum we went to when I was younger, one room had an enormous elephant head on the wall, which you couldn't see until you were all the way into the room. It had a wee bit of a Yikes! factor the first time you saw it, because you turned your head and there it loomed.

That place ain't got nothing on an H.R. Giger exhibit at a museum in Spain:

The original picture may be found here, and an English-language news item about the exhibit here.

Monday, July 1, 2013

With My Spear and Magic Helmet...

The above is the answer that Missouri-based magician Marty Hahne should give in response to a request from agents of the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that he provide a detailed written response as to how he intends to care for and protect the rabbit he uses in his act, should a disaster strike. They sent him an 8-page letter asking for his written plan by the end of July and assurances that he and his wife would be trained in plan implementation by the end of September.

The USDAAPHIS has previously dealt with Mr. Hahne's scofflaw attitude towards the care and upkeep of his rabbit, and I made fun of them here (Note: The link in that story no longer works. The same article, along with the woes of several other magicians who are under the watchful gaze of the never-sleeping USDAAPHIS can be found here).

Now, there are certainly many companies and organizations that use more than one animal in the course of their business. Not all of them could handle the needs of their animals in as uncomplicated a manner as could Mr. Hahne. Should a tornado strike a zoo, then the resulting needs would be far more complex and really, far too complex to just wing it -- which, coincidentally, is the strategic disaster response plan for any avian zoo residents should the disaster damage their enclosures. We would not want them to say they would just shrug their shoulders and eat the loss -- which, coincidentally, is the strategic disaster response plan for a number of the zoo's carnivorous megafauna should the disaster damage their enclosures. So it is not entirely ridiculous that the USDAAPHIS requires some of these agencies to have a plan in place.

But it is utterly ridiculous that they require this of a magician with a rabbit. Yes, to be sure the existence of this regulation and the fact that there are people who will take their enforcement of it in Mr. Hahne's case seriously does answer an important question about the reason for government: It  provides jobs for people who could in no circumstances find gainful employment in any system that depends on workers having and displaying merit, initiative or functioning cerebrums.

And there is a step beyond ridiculous, if you like, which is worth considering. As a part of our system of the rule of law, the citizens of our nation have delegated to federal, state, municipal and some other governments a legal monopoly on the use of force in most instances not involving self-defense. This means our laws are ultimately backed up with what P.J. O'Rourke calls the "gun to mom's head" factor: If mom disobeys a law, she will eventually be confronted by agents of the state who may use force against her if she resists and deadly force if they determine her level of resistance endangers themselves or bystanders. If they are wrong on that last point they will say they're sorry, but that's not much comfort come the second Sunday in May when everybody but you is buying a card.

So, does the disaster plan for a magician and a rabbit meet the gun to mom's head test? If you believe it does, stop reading me and seek professional help. Of course it doesn't. This is all silly, you say. Governments or their agents may be stupid and make mistakes, but in contexts that provide ample opportunity for restitution and remediation. Under no circumstances would federal agents confront an ordinary citizen over a matter this trivial with the threat of deadly force; the gun to mom's head test is irrelevant. But so is the threatening mom with a fine test or the wasting eight pages of government paper test or the paying some oxygen sponge real money to handle this matter test.

And when you read how a 20-year-old college sophomore spent the night in jail because a team of six agents from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control department thought the bottled water she bought was actually beer, and how her panicked response endangered agents as well as herself and two friends because the Virginia ABC figured six armed (but not overly bright) agents were needed to ask three sorority girls about bottled water, cookie dough and ice cream, you might have to re-think whether or not someone someday is going to pay a very high price for the fact that the legal monopoly on force is being used to make sure magicians who do tricks in front of kids have a government-approved plan for care for their rabbit in the event of a disaster.

It's a shame that the magic tricks are all illusions. Mr. Hahne could do us all a world of good if he could only make the nonexistent brains of federal bureaucrats re-appear from the sunshine-less environs in which they have been inserted.