Saturday, November 30, 2013

Focus, Please!

Yeah, so there was some game going on down south somewhere that people had an interest in.

But what really mattered today was that the Heroic Northwestern University Wildcats rallied from what had become a truly uninspiring season to defeat the forces of evil, represented by the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois. Had this not happened, who knows how long it might have been before decent people could again walk the streets of our fair land?

Friday, November 29, 2013

Whew!

I for one am glad the Federal Trade Commission has stepped in to deal with the cutthroat anti-competitive practices that have raged since 1876 among the professional piano teachers of Cincinnati, Ohio. I can only lament how long this necessary action was delayed by October's 16-day shutdown of the federal government.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Smells Like Team Spirit

Take a trip with me to Bridgewater, Massachusetts, to meet some PeeWee Football players. Do not be fooled by their youth and stature, because they have already been better men in 10 years than many of their elders will ever be in a lifetime:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Club is Closed

Phil Miller at The Sports Economist outlines an important reason why Los Angeles will probably not get another professional football franchise in the next few years. Short form: As long as LA doesn't have a team, any current team whose host city doesn't want to build a new stadium faces the very credible threat that their team will move to big-market Los Angeles.

Similar reasons probably lie at the heart of why Seattle won't get an NBA franchise so easily either. Until another potential Stadium of Damocles opens up, neither city is as useful to their respective leagues as franchise holders than they are as threatened franchise holders.

Yup. Fans are No. 1!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

And Hope It Stays That Way...

Given the weird decisions on what movie sequels to make, some of the ones on this list compiled by the good folk at Mental Floss of proposed sequels that never happened may yet be revived.

Some of them did get a little more than a whiff -- a car commercial a couple of years ago seemed to offer an aged Ferris Beuller, and both The Godfather and Casablanca had sequels in novel form. Godfather author Mario Puzo had a hand in the first of his story's sequels, called The Sicilian. But subsequent Corleone chronicles were written by Mark Winegardner and Ed Falco.

Casablanca's sequel, As Time Goes By, was written by Michael Walsh, author of the awful Devlin spy novels, screenwriter and contributor to the National Review. Although I am a regular reader of NR, I skip Walsh's entries. Some blasphemies are just too much to overcome (but seriously, it's because whether I agree with him or not, he's mean and unfunny).

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Hint of Spine

USA Today said today it wouldn't run any more pictures of White House events by official White House photographers taken when no independent media outlets were allowed to cover them. The exceptions would be events where security concerns mandated restrictions or events that were of extraordinary news value.

A newspaper in Tacoma has made the same move, following up a letter of protest written to the White House press office about its clamping down on access. The letter was supported by several organizations, including the Associated Press and The New York Times.

The problem, the photogs say, is that the use of official-only images allows the Obama administration to control the flow of information so that only its side of the story gets out. For the administration -- as well as most administrations that preceded it -- that idea is not a bug, but a feature.

Given earlier media embarrassments regarding the president -- the whole "lightworker" schtick and somewhat gushing coverage of what a super-cool guy he is -- the letter and the moves by these two papers are pretty welcome. Having previously made my living off another clause of the First Amendment than I do now, the one that covers press and stuff, I don't much mind it when media types bug presidents about things they'd rather not talk about. It's their job. So tough questions to presidents with whom I agree might make me grouse a little, but I know full well that no one is perfect and it's the job of those pesky notebook jockeys to make sure the rest of us know as much as we can about the people we're paying to run things.

On the other hand, the position of a large segment of modern media with regards to the current administration -- varying on a scale between supine and lap dog -- is potentially dangerous. Cheerleaders do have some of the best views of the game -- but I don't ask them why the team's star forward is getting beat to the basket play after play. They may know -- they probably do, if they've watched enough. But their job is to cheer, not analyze. As soon as media folks ditch the uniform sweater, school-logo bullhorn and pom-pons, I might start believing they're again aiming for the truth -- instead of the narrative.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

From the Rental Vault: Trio Classico

Take Audrey Hepburn, add Peter O'Toole, and stir them into a very lightweight heist comedy of mistaken identity, and you have the very charming 1966 movie How to Steal a Million.

And charming is probably the best word for it. Hepburn had been a star for more than a decade; O'Toole had made the switch from a long stage career to movies and had already earned two Academy Award nominations. Both had more charm and audience appeal than they knew what to do with, and longtime director William Wyler used that and their off-screen friendship to his best advantage.

Hepburn is Nicole Bonnet, whose father is a very skillful knockoff artist. He's made more than a living trading off the reputation of his collection of rare works of art, which are almost indistinguishable from real paintings by the masters whose names he signs to his canvases. He comes by it honestly, as his father forged sculpure the way he forges paintings, and his decision to exhibit one of his father's works brings trouble as the museum intends to test it in order to get the insurance papers settled properly.

So Nicole engages the services of Simon Dermott, whom she believes is an art thief. In reality, he's a private investigator hired by museums and collectors to determine whether or not the paintings they buy are fakes, but she convinces him to try to steal the statue her father donated before it can be tested. At first interested in nabbing her father, Simon actually agrees because of his growing feelings for Nicole.

As mentioned, this movie is so lightweight a balloon would sink it, but Hepburn and O'Toole make it not only bearable but fun. It's about a half-hour too long, but without this pair of leads it would have been about an hour too long. They save it and make it a great romp, but still one that's forgotten before long.
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Although we tend to think of Rudyard Kipling in Victorian England terms, especially as he connected to England's colonial rule and culture in India, he actually lived into the 1930s -- long enough to prevent most of his stories and poems from being adapted for Hollywood movies. His widow, on the other hand, had far fewer problems with the idea and sold the rights to his famous ode to a heroic native water-bearer soon after Kipling's death. The movie would be delayed more than once until filming finally began in 1938 for the 1939 release of Gunga Din.

Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., are three sergeants in Her Majesty's army, stationed in India in the 1880s. At times more interested in treasure and pleasure than good order and discipline, the three are nonetheless called on when a village communications post goes silent and telegraph lines are down. They learn of a resurgence of the murderous cult of the Thuggee, who worship a goddess of death and are determined to terrorize both their own people and the British until they rule all of India. The trio, along with their water-bearer Gunga Din, are captured by the cult and must escape to bring news of its headquarters' location to their commander before they begin a murderous rampage.

The Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur story is mostly an excuse for Grant, Fairbanks and McLaglen to have a blast as scoundrels, rapscallions and devil-may-care swashbuckling fighters. All three accept their part of the bargain whole-heartedly, daringly doing derring-do until well-done. In the title role, Sam Jaffe is interesting and not too cringingly incorrect -- at least for 1939.

Gunga Din couldn't get made this way today -- Kipling's imperialism would get in the way of realizing his poem really does praise Gunga Din and fault the Englishmen who didn't appreciate his bravery until too late, and possible connections between the Thuggee cult and Indian independence movements might prevent their being seen in such starkly villainous terms. Even as an artifact of its time, though, it's one of the top adventure films ever made and a worthy part of one of Hollywood's greatest years.
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Eleven years later, Jaffe -- the son of Russian Jewish immigrants and not a bit Indian -- would get fifth billing in John Huston's noir heist caper The Asphalt Jungle, based on the 1949 novel by W.R. Burnett (who kind of invented the gangster movie when he wrote Little Caesar, the book on which the Edward G. Robinson movie was based). He plays Erwin "Doc" Riedenschneider, a career criminal who starts planning an elaborate jewel heist not long after getting out of prison.

Doc sells his plan to criminal lawyer -- in both senses of the term -- Alonzo Emmerich (Lous Calhern) to finance the scheme and hire his crew -- safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) and muscle Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden). But not everyone's motive is as it seems, and both double-crosses and unforeseen problems complicate the job -- endangering both its success and the crew.

Even though Jungle is a pretty classic piece of noir, Huston skips the shadows and cramped shots usual to the genre and fits it into wider rooms and relatively open views. He's sometimes celebrated for showing the heist crew not as drooling degenerate criminals but as professionals, each as skilled in their work as any legal craftsman. Of course, they're not legal craftsmen, and their insistence on cutting life's corners to get what they want dooms them to lives of limitations and failure. For all their supposed celebration of darkness and ambiguity, noir movies have a pretty bleak view of what happens when corners get cut.

The cast handles their roles well, breathing a little life into what could be stereotypes -- Jaffe is cerebral and meticulous, Handley blustering and good-natured behind his gruffness, Calhern scheming and self-centered, and so on. Even though Jaffe and Huston won Oscars for their work, the genius of Asphalt Jungle is less in pure acting or directing and more in its creation of atmosphere and the feeling it offers that this same kind of low-level malefaction is going on all over the place.

It's also an interesting trivia answer, as arguably the most famous person connected with The Asphalt Jungle isn't even in the featured cast on the poster. In an early role, Marilyn Monroe brings an unexpected weight and dimension to the minor part of Angela Phinlay, Emmerich's mistress. It was one of the bit parts that began to bring her some notice among studio executives and directors

Saturday, November 23, 2013

In Other News...

This article at Nautilus.com about how feral cats can have a serious impact on an area's ecosystem is pretty interesting. But the headline, "Cats Are Not the Best Defenders of Ecological Health," kind of invites a little gentle mockery, because the chances are they don't care, and wouldn't even if you could get them to understand the concept.

It has always seemed cruel to me that Nature has designed cats without the ability to shrug their shoulders, because no animal on Earth could get more use out of such a gesture. Should cats ever learn to vocalize human languages, my suspicion is that "So what?" will be their first phrase.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Longest Distance Between Two Points...

The answer guy at xkcd.com's "What if?" column theorized on what the greatest distance was that any one person was from the nearest human beings -- in other words, who was most alone in human history?

He figured it was the lunar command module pilots on the Apollo missions, the men who stayed alone in orbit while their two fellow crewmembers landed on the moon. When the command module orbited to the other side of the moon from the landing site, the pilot was about 2,260 miles from the nearest human beings. Some folks shipwrecked in earlier times or the last survivors of a failed Antarctic expedition might have a claim, but there's no real way to know.

Yes, that record pales in comparison with how far Martin Bashir is from decency or Harry Reid from his own stated principles. But the Apollo command module pilots were once in contact with other people before going way way way out on a limb. There is little evidence that Mr. Bashir or Senator Reid were ever in contact with their own personal antipodes.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ice Cube Finds Big Bird?

Previously, the only known Ice Cube/Big Bird connection was the presence of a weird Big Bird sound bite in Cube's "Bird in the Hand" from 1991's Death Certificate.

But recently, scientists at the Antarctic-based telescope IceCube detailed some of the things they have found since the facility began operating in 2010. Among them: 28 different neutrinos, including the highest-energy one labeled Big Bird.

Now, it might seem a little slackerish for a telescope with more than 5,000 reflectors to only find 28 neutrinos in a couple of years, but finding neutrinos is not as easy as you'd think, and these particular ones are quite interesting.

First of all, neutrinos are subatomic particles that are so small, they usually pass through what we call solid objects as though they are not really there. Right now, there are probably billions of neutrinos shooting through your body without you being in the slightest way aware of it -- kind of like U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and current events. But every now and again a neutrino does hit something and when it does, it releases energy.

IceCube, buried under a kilometer and a half of ice in Antarctica, looks for these neutrino interactions, and its reflectors find about every six minutes. Most of them are ordinary, and are thought to be the results of charged atomic nuclei we call cosmic rays hitting the Earth's atmosphere.

But 28 of them were different. Researchers found them by looking for particularly high-energy neutrinos, and tracked down the collection that very likely came not from Earth's cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere, but from...elsewhere. The first two were named Bert and Ernie, and then the name Big Bird was given to one with the highest energy yet measured. This could be a good theme. The neutrino that doesn't want to interact with anyone but is required to could be Oscar. One scientist could find one that only he or she could see, and call it Snuffleupagus. The one you wish you could ignore because it's bleepin' everywhere would be Elmo...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Who Would Know?

This funny comic at Abstruse Goose suggests that many of us are really rather ordinary, which means that most of our so-called "evil twins" would probably also be pretty ordinary -- and not all that evil.

On the one hand, I'm kind of glad that there's no evil me running around plotting the destruction of all humanity and who thinks that horror movies have value, that The Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy are any good, that Kanye West is as talented as he is boorish and who would rather buy Chris Matthews' new book than Charles Krauthammer's.

On the other hand, I should probably try to do some more good so that if a Bizarro-me ever does show up, the world will know which one needs to be eliminated.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Good Words

Noting some far more relevant words than those that have been offered in this space, Daniel Hannan offers something interesting about Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered 150 years ago today.

The address is considered one of the most historically significant of our nation's history -- and not just because an elected official was called on to give a speech and kept it under 300 words, although that's Guinness-worthy in and of itself. What Lincoln said in the aftermath of a bloody battle in the war that pitted American vs. American, fighting with what could be called with only a little exaggeration the soul of the nation at stake, helped outline why he believed the seceding states were wrong and why he would shed blood to recall them.

He declared that sacrifice must inspire service, or else it is in vain, and that the sacrifice of the soldiers at Gettysburg should inspire a resolution that the founding idea of the United States -- "government of the people, by the people, for the people" -- should not "perish from this earth."

Hannan notes that Lincoln's words echo phrasing by John Wycliffe, who wrote a similar phrase describing what he believed to be the centrality of the Bible for the Christian faith -- about 135 years before Martin Luther redecorated a church door in Wittenberg. In 1382, Wycliffe published a Bible in English, during a time when translations "in the vernacular" or common language of the people, were forbidden. In the prologue of his edition he gave part of his reasoning: "This Bible is for the government of the people, for the people and by the people."

Wycliffe died of a stroke in 1384, although his opponents succeeded in having him deemed a heretic in 1415 and having his body exhumed and destroyed.

Hannan thinks it might be likely that Lincoln would have known Wycliffe's phrase, given the more widespread knowledge and familiarity with religion and religious writings during his day. There's no telling for certain, I suppose, although Lincoln was widely read as a self-taught scholar and he alluded to religious writings and beliefs often enough to suggest he read widely in them as well. The 16th president's own faith was frequently tested by the trials of his office, and reading his prayers and meditations offers a good picture of what a spirit may look like as it seeks out the shepherd's rod and staff while walking through the valley of the shadow.

Whether Lincoln knew Wycliffe's words or not, Hannan is probably right that his listeners would have recognized them more readily than people reading today, since even certain religious professionals with a much wider-than-average exposure to religious writings did not catch the allusion. I might or might not see one of them in my mirror in the morning.

And that kind of prompts its own little bout of melancholy. You may have noticed several online excitables take notice of a plaque on a building at Northeastern Illinois University that refers to Lincoln as a Democrat. Lincoln, of course, was the first Republican president, but the university notes that the word "democrat" has been used in other arenas than simple party affiliation. The plaque creators, who donated it in 1905, were very likely referring to Lincoln's egalitarian philosophy, of which the "of the people" phrase is a good description. That's not the melancholy.

The melancholy comes when some folks took a video camera to the plaque and asked students if they knew whether Lincoln was a Democrat or a Republican. See how many don't know and how many guess. We're not talking about people knowing who Martin Van Buren's running mate was (he had none -- Richard Mentor Johnson was dropped from the ticket and elected by the United States Senate, and believe me, I had to look that up). We're talking about something as basic as the party affiliation of one of the greatest presidents of the United States and quite likely one of the greatest leaders of any English-speaking nation period. And we're talking about young people pursuing knowledge in a modern American university in the state that calls itself "The Land of Lincoln" not knowing that basic information.

Who the heck will they be qualified to govern?

Double Grand

This post is the 2,000th here at ye olde Mouth-Running Shoppe called Friar's Fires. Of course, combining the posts on the other two blogs, the total number of  posts hit the 2,000 mark back in January, but this one is the one that flips the nines to zeros on the post counter.

I'd like to thank Al Gore for inventing the medium which has, for the last five years or so, allowed me to pretend to be Mike Royko, only not nearly as good.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Where Curiosity Led Us

This photo-panorama at Wired.com shows where the Mars rover Curiosity has been going. One of the nearby landmarks has been named Cooperstown, but there is no indication of what kind of criteria would get you into the Martian Hall of Fame.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

What's My Sine?

OK, I'm nerdy, but I have confessed elsewhere that my nerdiness does not necessarily lend itself to skill at many subjects near and dear to the hearts and minds of nerds. Namely, math.

Which means this classroom exercise, conducted by a teacher in Canada, both fascinates and terrifies me. The students donned headbands with a specific quadratic formula on them and had to figure out what their equation was using just yes or no questions they asked of other students. So they not only had to know about the equation on the headband of the student asking them, so they could answer and give the correct clue, but they also had to know about all of the others so they could differentiate -- in a non-mathematical sense -- among the equations to figure out which one they were wearing.

I figure this winds up as a sight gag on an episode of The Big Bang Theory sometime next season if it hasn't already.

(H/T Unequally Yoked)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Supernova Leftovers

This picture of a portion of the Veil Nebula in Cygnus is sometimes called "the Waterfall."

I blow up a firecracker and I get burnt paper. A star blows up and we get this. I'm jealous.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Anticipation!

It's what any sane person would feel, of course, upon learning that remakes of Overboard and House Party are in the works. There is at this time no word on whether or not there will be a remake of House Party 2. Although you would think that the sequel to the remake might depend on the box-office business of said remake, I suppose it's possible that someone could just pitch a plain old remake of the sequel.

And as for House Party 3, House Party 4: Down to the Last Minute and House Party 5: Tonight's the Night? We can only dream...

(H/T JenX)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Duality Duel

I've pretended a couple of times that I know enough about physics to describe something called "wave-particle duality." It's the phenomenon where a single subatomic particle, like an electron, sometimes behaves like a particle and sometimes like a wave, and is one of the central weirdnesses of what's called "quantum behavior."

The quirk is that any experiment designed to measure electrons if they're waves will find them to be waves, but an experiment designed to measure them if they're particles will find them to be particles. In essence, as near as we can tell, they're both things at the same time. Mathematical formulas can express this duality, but plain old language can't handle it quite so well.

Of course, once you conglomerate electrons along with other little subatomic whatsits and get atoms and molecules and platypi, they lose this duality. A platypus is pretty much a solid object -- which means it's a small, furry, web-footed "particle," so to speak. It's not a wave.

However, some scientists at the University of Vienna have gotten a large molecule to behave like the electron and exhibit wavelike characteristics when measured as a wave and particle-like characteristics when measured as a particle. The molecule, which goes by the designation C284H190F320N4S12, has 800 atoms and is made up of Carbon, Hydrogen, Fluorine, Nitrogen and Sulfur. By comparison, water has three atoms, goes by the designation H2O and is made up of Hydrogen and Oxygen.

Now, a molecule with 800 atoms, though gigantic by quantum standards, is still smaller than a virus. But it's not a huge amount smaller, which leads researchers to wonder if they can create quantum behavior in still larger objects.

Rumors that wave-particle duality is at the root of the age-old philosophical observation that "sometimes you feel like a nut...and sometimes you don't" are, as yet, unfounded.

Give It Up, Give It Up...

...for Buck O'Neil, who would have been 102 today.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Coulda Woulda Shouda

Three tales that, to varying degrees, ought to have been better than they are.
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David Gibbins is one of the most frustrating thriller writers working today. He has a command of language and style that's more than tops in the field, a sense of place and nose for historical mystery that include some well-trod backdrops like Atlantis as well as lesser-used but equally fascinating arenas and the ability to create some characters that vary enough to be a lot more like real people than most of their companions on the airport newsstand bookshelf.

But he can't keep his stories together to save his life.

Archaeologist Jack Howard and his partner, Costas Kazantzakis, are investigating a Victorian-era mystery and shipwreck that itself has ties to the even more mysterious era of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. Howard and his team, traveling along the Nile, trace the steps of a British soldier charged with relieving British forces at Khartoum in 1884. But Akhenaten's reach may prove long enough to endanger the modern expedition as it comes closer and closer to uncovering his secret in Pharaoh.

Gibbins alternates sections between the Victorian and modern expeditions, even though the earlier trip's narrative does nothing that couldn't be handled in either a single Cussler-style flashback or by being woven into the modern team's story. The team uncovers evidence, deduces what happened, and then we read what happened as it happened. It wastes a tremendous amount of time and dissipates any momentum the present-day narrative generates by forcing us to stop and reset every few chapters in order to follow a story whose end we already mostly know. The narrative attention deficit disorder hamstrings Gibbins time and again and keeps him from taking a place at the ranks of some of the smartest and best creators of genre fiction.
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Speaking of Clive Cussler, some of the best of his "co-authored" works have been the more recent "Oregon Files" novels by Jack Du Brul. Mirage is the latest, and finds Oregon commander Juan Cabrillo and his team at first attempting to rescue a longtime benefactor but winding up in a plot by a rogue Russian admiral to make himself wealthy by destabilizing relations among the word's maritime super-powers. Throw in some strange experiments by the 20th-century genius Nikola Tesla and the original incident behind the "Philadelphia Experiment" legend, and you have a recipe with a lot of ingredients.

And you also have one that doesn't really gel very well. Mirage seems more like a connected set of short stories about the Oregon and her crew than a coherent novel. It probably would have been better off presented that way or re-tooled until the three separate stories better matched up with each other. As it is, we have a second act in the book when the Oregon plays a role in recovering lost covert-ops money from Iraq in an entertaining caper that has nothing to do with the main story. It feels far more like filler than anything else, and even the second act of the main story doesn't connect strongly to the first.

Du Brul writes better than most of Cussler's other collaborators -- he writes better than Cussler himself, although there are higher bars to cross -- but Mirage lives up too much to its title, an illusion promising a good yarn but ultimately not at all what it seems to be.
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Christopher Farnsworth's Blood Oath introduced Nathaniel Cade, a 140-year-old vampire who has been bound by a mystic oath to serve the President of the United States and defend the country against threats that the usual forces can't even dent, let alone defeat. Cade and his new handler, former political rising star Zach Burrows, are back in The President's Vampire, attempting to deal with the latest plot by The Shadow Company to bring the world under the dominion of some of the universe's darker forces.

I gigged Blood Oath for Farnsworth's retreading some familiar elements and not doing everything with them that he could, and he unfortunately continues this pattern and even adds to it in Vampire. Zach again gets himself in too deep against the forces of darkness and needs Cade to rescue him, proving more danger-prone than Daphne herself, and Farnsworth again makes it tough at times to figure out who's doing, saying or skullduggering what.

In Cade, Farnsworth has a fascinating character -- why does a being who believes himself to be eternally damned decide to be a patriot and fight for what's right, and how does he manage to do this when he is constantly surrounded by those who are to him what cattle and other food animals are to us? It would be worth exploring, but instead of doing that by focusing on the president's vampire, The President's Vampire spends its time with the president's vampire's handler, the president's vampire's enemies, the president's vampire's handler's enemies, the president's vampire's enemies' victims, and so on. Plus, for a novel that wants us to opt in on the side of a supernatural being who believes in the ideas of true good and true evil, Farnsworth's narrative drips with cynicism and cheap shots at thinly-disguised versions of political figures he doesn't much care for.

The President's Vampire is froth, but it could have been the froth of an enjoyable dessert or adult beverage if its writer had decided to try harder. He didn't. So it isn't.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Early Birds...

...will be likely to catch a naked-eye view of Comet ISON this week if they live in low-light areas and the skies are clear.

The ancients used to believe that comets foretold doom and disaster. Modern people do not believe this, but that could change if you set your alarm for three hours before sunrise so you can see the comet, but you don't go sleep in the other room. A choice like that could lead to a lot of doom and disaster from the non-morning people around you.

Monday, November 11, 2013

From the Rental Vault: Western and Eastern

In today's Hollywood, someone would look at a movie filmed 16 or so years ago and see a remake candidate. But when in 1952 Charles Marquis Warden and Andrew V. McLagen looked at 1936's fictionalized tale of Dr. Samuel Mudd, The Prisoner of Shark Island, they decided instead to make a movie based on it but using entirely different characters and setting to tell a story of their own. And so we have the western Hellgate, the story of an innocent man sent to a brutal prison out west in the years following the Civil War.

Circumstantial evidence and a lying terrorist get Gilman Hanley (Sterling Hayden) locked up on charges of aiding guerrilla fighters in Kansas after the Civil War is over. Since Hanley fought for the Confederacy, he is already suspect and is singled out for harsh treatment by the military prison commander, Lt. Voorhees (Ward Bond). Since he is innocent, Hanley wants no part of the escape plan of his fellow prisoners, led by the villainous Redfield (James Arness). He reasons that any problems could only harm the legal efforts being made to free him. But Redfield's gang threatens him if he does not cooperate, so he does. Hanley might survive the brutal desert conditions, Voorhees' cruelty or Redfield's risky schemes. But all three together may rob him forever of his freedom...or his life.

The looming Hayden does good work as the stalwart Hanley, a good man who is pushed beyond the breaking point by both the larger injustice of his conviction and the immediate injustices visited on him by the sadistic Voorhees. And his height makes him a good match for Arness, as it makes believable his unwillingness to be cowed by Redfield's threats until they're supplemented by his gang's. The story, by Warden and John C. Champion, is straightforward enough and doesn't ask more of its journeyman cast than they are able to deliver, even if it sets up its final act in a disjointed and puzzling way.
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Western movie audiences probably know Michelle Yeoh best from her work in the 1997 James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, the international hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and her highly touted portrayal of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady. But before she was seen as an international star and top actress, she was one of the first women to break out in Hong Kong action movies as the equal in butt-kicking adventuring of any male actor. Like the genre's best-known face, Jackie Chan, Yeoh insisted on doing her own stunts and fighting, and gained admiration for her physical skills and prowess as well as her acting.

1987's Magnificent Warriors, originally entitled Dynamite Fighters, was one of Yeoh's last roles before a five-year retirement following her marriage. She plays Fok Ming-Ming, a pilot and adventurer in 1930s China who also helps her people as a spy. Directed to rendezvous with another agent to stop the Japanese army from building a poison gas factory, she falls victim to a somewhat comical case of mistaken identity and finds herself not only trying to thwart the Japanese but protect a spoiled local princeling into the bargain.

Yeoh is completely in her element as the competent and spunky Ming-Ming, a tomboy-type who can disarm with a flashing smile almost as quickly as a lightning strike with her fists. The rest of the cast keeps up, but the story lurches around more than it should. Warriors would have been better served by abandoning its attempts at serious commentary and embracing the Saturday-serial feel of Raiders of the Lost Ark, to which it owes its atmosphere, and letting Yeoh get her full-out Indy on. But she still outshines the uninspired story enough that neither it nor her upcoming five-year screen hiatus could hold her back when she decided to return re-take her box office honors.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Improper

It is apparently OK for ghosts to haunt the London Underground.

It is apparently not OK for them to do so without paying the proper fare.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

I'm Tired Today, So...

...I will pick some low-hanging fruit. Specifically, this headline from Space.com, which says "Lady Gaga in Space: Pop Star to Sing on Virgin Galactic Rocket Ride." Gaga has reserved a seat on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two for sometime in 2015.

Since most of the times I've heard Ms. Germanotta on my radio she's sounded more like the world's best Nina Hagen imitator than a singer, we may well ask if this is actually an experiment. Since she can't sing on Earth, perhaps conditions are different enough in space that she will be able to sing there.

Or, if you like, we might ask where we sign the petition to leave her in space once she makes the trip.

The story notes that Broadway singer Sarah Brightman is planning a 10-day trip to the International Space Station, also for 2015. Talk about high notes!

I told you I was tired.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Slay the Dragon?

Sometimes bad things happen that no one sees coming. Sometimes bad things happen that people did see coming, whether or not they prepared for it.

And sometimes bad things happen that look like something no one saw coming, but it turns out they should have. A researcher in Switzerland named Didier Sornette called these things "dragon kings." He used the phrase to describe how an ordinary graph of French cities' populations couldn't account for the large population growth of Paris, but when additional information was added to the model, then the growth fit. Some economists suggest that the economic crunch of late 2008 was a dragon king -- although no one seemed to see it coming, the heavy investment by financial firms in incredibly risky schemes was in fact a clear indicator that something bad was inevitable.

Receiving a glitch-ridden, almost unworkable health-care registration system from a company that had previously failed to provide a workable registry for Canadian gun ownership might also be a dragon king, but it's kind of early to tell.

Now Dr. Sornette has teamed up with some physicists who are trying to run experiments on electrical circuit activity that can mimic dragon king behavior. They're using what's called "chaos theory" to try to determine if what looks like random behavior can be foreseen and perhaps even changed by different inputs. Chaos theory is a branch of math that uses very complex equations instead of the simple linear or quadratic equations we may (or may not) remember from algebra. When you solved those equations properly -- I have no first-hand experience, but I am told it can be done -- then the solutions could be plotted on a graph in a curve (quadratic) or a straight line (linear). Chaos equations do not have simply graphed answers and the plotted solutions often do not look like any regular shape. Mandelbrot sets are probably one of the better-known examples of chaos math.

If the researchers can affect the dragon king effect within the electrical circuit experiment, then they might possibly find ways to diminish the impact of a dragon king event or even eliminate it in real-life situations such as the financial industry.

Of course, not doing stupid stuff like making too many house loans to too many people who don't have the income to make their payments so when they default you don't get stuck with a bunch of houses you can't unload might be a big help as well. But I could be wrong.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Well, OK...

A nutritionist at the University of Glasgow explains how to make a nutritious pizza.

He doesn't do much about explaining why.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Your Rind Ain't Ripe

Ordinarily, if one wants a dumb legislative idea regarding crime and punishment in my fair state, one must rely on the Grand Old Party. They've got a flap-brained contingent that's always willing to take a look at doing something to criminals that makes Theodoric of York, medieval judge, say, "Dial it down a bit, eh?"

But we are bi-partisan in our silliness, and comes now the latest proof, state representative Joe Dorman of Rush Springs, home of the Rush Springs Watermelon Festival. Rep. Dorman, one of the few Democrats surviving in state government these days, wants to introduce legislation that will allow death row inmates to donate their organs when their sentences are carried out.

Now, let's set aside the fact that the government of China (slogan: More than one billion human beings, less than zero human rights) has practiced something similar to this that it says it will end in 2014. Or that science fiction author Larry Niven conceived of a similar arrangement in his Known Space series, in which a brave-new-world styled authoritarian State euphemistically sentenced criminals to "community service" by keeping them alive but comatose as their organs were harvested one by one. And that the system Rep. Dorman proposes sounds more than a little bit like the one Niven envisioned.

No, let's look at the practical concerns that Rep. Dorman's ghastly scavenger hunt would entail. One is that current acceptable methods of execution wreck several of the body's major organs at once and degrade their viability for transfer. That's where Rep. Dorman borrows from Niven, as instead of being killed by lethal injection an inmate being executed would instead be anesthetized and the needed pieces removed before brain death occurred. So technically, Rep. Dorman, you're suggesting organs be harvested from living people. That sound you heard was Christian Szell saying, "Ew."

Some other people quoted in the story note that organ transfers are a little more complicated than a snip and a slice and a bag of ice -- they require advanced surgical facilities that are rarely to be found inside prison walls. So these would have to be built, which would cost money, and the state corrections department isn't exactly swimming in that right now. And there's the detail that not every person facing execution has taken good care of his or her body and its included organs.

When we add this all up, we may wonder if Rep. Dorman is serious in his proposal. Our state Democratic lawmakers have adopted a joshing attitude in recent years as state party disorganization and national party disaffection have left them as little more than an afterthought in the legislative process, and sometimes filed legislation or proposed amendments fitting that juvenile mindset.

It's hard to say. Rep. Dorman voted in favor of the death penalty for second-offense sex offenders in 2006 but against executing mentally ill offenders the same year. So he, unlike me, apparently approves of the death penalty. But the idea is just too ludicrous and too rickety to be taken seriously. About two seconds worth of thought produces enough moral and practical objections to this scheme to make Red Skull blanch, so it's hard to accept that Rep. Dorman sees a future which actually conforms to his legislation.

Which is where I wind up confused -- is the stupidity here the plan that the legislation envisions? Or is it submitting such legislation with some ulterior point in mind? Either way, somebody's bread ain't done.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Shields Next?

The United States Navy has selected the commander of the USS Zumwalt, a new destroyer whose construction materials and shape will make it 50 times harder to spot on radar than other Navy ships its size.

Her CO? Captain James Kirk.

Geeks rock, baby...

Monday, November 4, 2013

Here's Your Zombie Apocalypse...

According to the Washington Post, nearly $700 million of benefits from different government agencies went to people who would have had a hard time using them because they were, technically speaking, dead. Rumors that some of the people died while waiting to log on to Healthcare.gov have, as yet, proved unfounded.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

No Spring, No Fall

You may have enjoyed your extra hour of sleep this last night, but there are plenty of people who would rather do away with Daylight Savings Time altogether. Economist Allison Schrager suggests going one more step and getting rid of two whole time zones, leaving the United States with just a Western and an Eastern time zone.

It's an interesting idea, but what struck me was that even the creation of four distinct time zones came about because of technological advancement in travel. Before the current zones were made in 1883, cities pretty much set their own time, based on when they knew it was noon. But the ability to travel fairly rapidly between cities, brought on by the railroad, made that impractical. So the U.S. was split into four zones.

Schrager has a point in that the world today moves much faster than it did in 1883, so an adjustment is probably in order. Allowing the coasts to be only an hour apart would make many things more convenient that pushing them three hours apart.

She does use a silly analogy, though, noting that Alaska is almost as "long" from east to west as is the continental U.S., and it gets by with just a single zone. Since the continental U.S. has something 300-plus times the population of Alaska, the comparison suffers a bit. And I also don't really know why I should have to have a potentially weird sunrise-sunset schedule just so people on the east and west coasts can travel more easily.

But it's not really that big a deal. The Daylight Savings thing, on the other hand, may be a problem, because otherwise how will we know when to change our smoke alarm batteries?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Curiosity and the Morse Code of Mars

Most of the time, the Mars rover Curiosity doesn't deliver real-time information to its handlers back on Earth. For one, the data uplinks couldn't handle the constant transmission for very long. For another, the signal takes about four minutes to travel from one planet to the other. By the time an operator on Earth could see, say, an approaching Thark chieftain with his great, metal-shod 40-foot spear, said spear would have spitted the little rover and hoisted it into a low-level orbit that ended some distance away in a heap of smashed NASA hardware.

Earthbound operators program a half day or so's worth of instructions into Curiosity when its power cells awaken and allow it to start running. Then when they communicate with it again a half-day later, they receive data on what the rover has done and where it's gone. Several factors can affect the precision of some of that data, though. By counting the number of times the wheels revolved, scientists know how far the rover should have gone, but if the wheels slipped on the dusty Martian surface they may have turned more times than necessary to reach that distance. And the rover travels so slowly that distant landmarks don't change much between snapshots.

Hence the special tread of the Curiosity tires, which contain within them a sequence of short and long marks that spell out the letters "JPL" in the Morse code of 19th century telegraphy. "JPL" are the initials of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where Curiosity's controllers work. To see how far the rover has traveled, the scientists look at a picture of its tracks and count the number of JPL's they see, thus knowing exactly how many times the tires have rotated since the last picture.

In the event it encounters that Thark chieftain, of course, the tread will probably stop spelling out JPL (dot-dash-dash-dash, dot-dash-dash-dot, dot-dash-dot-dot) and go to a simple dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot instead -- the international Morse code sign for SOS.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Meet the New Boss...

I'll smile and grin at the change all around me...

Predictability

So an algorithm developed by a computer scientist and a Facebook engineer can predict with about 60 percent accuracy who you are in a relationship with even if you don't enter that information in your profile. It has to do with how many of your friends overlap some features of those friendships. And apparently, if the algorithm spits out the wrong results, you are headed for a breakup.

I suspect that last part is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. If I had a significant other and she told me that the Facebook equation was saying we were going to break up, we probably would, because I don't know what kind of a future I have with someone who takes their life cues from Facebook.