Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Two Years Later...

About this time a couple of years ago, I made fun of comic book writer Grant Morrison for proposing that the latest villain facing Batman, Dr. Simon Hurt, was actually Dr. Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce Wayne. The death of Thomas and his wife Martha in a mugging, shot before the eyes of their young son, spurred Bruce to fight crime as the Caped Crusader of Gotham City.

Morrison's Batman R.I.P. story told of the battle between Hurt and Batman and ended with Batman's supposed death -- or at least, Bruce Wayne's disappearance. The first Robin, Dick Grayson, dons Batman's cape and cowl and takes on the role of Gotham's protector, aided by Damian Wayne as a new Robin. Damian's backstory is complex, to say the least, but let's leave it that he's biologically the son of Bruce Wayne, unknown to Bruce through the early part of his life.

While all this is going on, we find that Bruce wasn't actually killed in the explosion that seems to have claimed Hurt, but instead helped take up the battle against Darkseid described in Final Crisis. Darkseid blasts Batman with his Omega eye-beams, sending him back in time with memory loss and what might prove to be a disastrous buildup of Omega energy in his body. Morrison's six-issue Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne relates how Wayne jumps forward in time, at each stop leaving clues for himself that will later help him regain his memories, become the Batman, and defeat Darkseid's plan.

Along the way, Bruce finds that he is again battling Simon Hurt, who turns out to indeed be Thomas Wayne. But he's not Bruce's father -- he's an insane, immortal, devil-worshipping ancestor of Wayne's also named Thomas.

Now returned, Bruce will let Dick Grayson continue to be the Batman who protects Gotham from evildoers. He will don a different cape and cowl and travel the world, recruiting and training Batmen from various countries to fight crime where they are, under his direction. Morrison plans to tell this story in the ongoing series Batman, Incorporated. My hat (or cowl, if you prefer) is off to you, Mr. Morrison. I didn't think there could be a modern Batman story sillier than the idea that Batman's dad didn't really die and instead became a villain who battled him.

I was wrong.

Ô Houria (Liberty)

I'm kind of a provincial guy when it comes to my entertainment -- I don't completely dislike subtitled movies, for example, but I don't think an impenetrable mess of a story becomes art just because it was filmed in another language. And although I've grown to appreciate a much wider range of classical music than I would have thought, the fact that most operas are sung in something other than English means you can have my seat at La Traviata.

All this is to say that I am not the first person you'd pick to own two albums by Algerian-born singer/songwriter Souad Massi. But there you go, being all stereotypical.

Massi played guitar and sang quite a bit as a child, listening to a lot of American country and roots music. She hit local fame first as a singer for the Algerian classic-rock influenced band Atakor, but her presence as a Westernized woman and the lead performer for a highly political band earned her death threats serious enough that she quit the band and moved to Paris in 1999.

After performing at a music festival featuring Algerian women, Massi was signed to a record label and released a folk-influenced album, following it with two more that incorporated Algerian instruments such as the oud as well as regular guitars, sometimes with bass and drums. Ô Houria is her fourth studio album, and it mixes political and personal messages as well as different musical styles. Massi sings in Arabic, French, Kabyle (her native Berber language) and a little English now and again -- "Let Me Be in Peace," for example, is a duet with former Jam and Style Council frontman Paul Weller.

A lot of Massi's songs are familiar in style to American ears, given her love of country and classic cowboy Westerns. "Kin Koun Alik Ebaida" would fit on pretty much any mid-tempo woman rock singer's album as the "slightly edgy" track. "Une Lettre a...Si H'Med" is a swingy country number with some bluegrass leanings and "Enta Ouzahrek" mixes blues, country and even a little zydeco Cajun flavor, thanks to some accordion touches. "Un Sourire," on the other hand, uses that same accordion to emphasize its French folk roots. But "Tout Reste Á Faire" is very definitely an Arabic and North-African song, prominently featuring both bouzouki and oud backing French and Arabic lyrics.

Two things set even the familiar-sounding songs apart from their respective packs. First, the lyrics -- although they have to be followed mostly in translation, Massi digs skillfully and deeply into personal as well as political matters. "Une Lettre," for example, deals with a corrupt local official who couldn't be bothered to fix a road leading to Massi's native village. The decrepit road kept people from going to work in bad weather. "Nacera" is the lament of an abused woman, scorned by even her neighbors, and "Samira Meskina" a similar cry from a poor woman whose society tries to corral her into its restrictive roles despite her own desires.  "Tout Reste," "Tout Ce Que J'Aime" and "Ô Houria (Liberty)" all dream and envision (and maybe even pray for) a unified human community based on dignity, liberty and justice for all its people.

Massi's voice also sets these songs apart. French is often thought of as a musical-sounding language, and she moves through it very easily. Arabic's rougher glottals might seem to present more opportunities for vocal stumbling, but not the way Massi sings them. You may or may not understand the words coming out of her mouth on Ô Houria, but their tone will carry their message quite well, and you'll be more than able to tap your feet, snap your fingers and enjoy the beautiful voice in which she sings them.

Monday, November 29, 2010

It's Filamentary, Watson

A recent find allowed scientists some of their best views yet of the structures or filaments of gas in space that link galaxy clusters to each other over unimaginable distances.

From your basic elementary school astronomy, you probably remember that our planet is part of a solar system, organized around the star we call the sun. Galaxies are groups of thousands or millions of stars that are themselves organized around a center, which is sometimes thought to be a gigantic black hole, although no one knows for sure. Galaxies take different shapes, depending on how the stars are distributed and the effects of gravity among them. Galaxies themselves will tend to clump together to form clusters, which are made up of galaxies that are held together by the interplay of their own gravitation.

All of these systems and groups are held together by gravity. It used to be thought that the space in between galaxies -- "intergalactic" space -- was pretty much empty -- that the gravitational field produced by each galaxy was strong enough that stars or objects wandering around in it would be gradually pulled into one galaxy or another. The space in between the clusters was thought to be relatively empty as well, for mostly the same reasons.

But it isn't. There are huge filaments of gas that link the clusters to each other. And when astronomers call them "huge," that's exactly what they mean. Imagine there's a tunnel through the center of the earth with one end at the North Pole and another at the South Pole (It couldn't be done, which is why we're imagining it). Say a person at the North Pole end holds a flashlight over the tunnel and turns it on. A person at the South Pole would see the light go on just about .07 seconds later. Light from our sun takes about eight minutes to reach us. But galaxy clusters are so far apart from each other that the same action would yield a light that might take millions or even billions of years to reach us. That's how huge these gassy filaments are.

They're also apparently extremely hot. Obviously nobody's stuck a turkey thermometer into one of them to see, but the radiation they emit gives scientists some clues, and the best estimate is that they may be as much as a million degrees Celsius, or 1.8 million Fahrenheit. By comparison, the surface of our sun is a frigid wasteland, not quite nudging 10,000 Fahrenheit. To get hotter than these celestial filaments, you have to hang out in the cores of stars -- our sun's center is about 27 million degrees Fahreneheit.

Despite their size, the filaments are difficult to "see," because the radiation they give off is washed out by the immense amounts of the same radiation given off by the galaxies and galaxy clusters. So to recap -- galaxy clusters are irregular clumps that are connected by immense, superhot streams of gas that are very difficult to see clearly because of the emissions of the clusters themselves.

I believe I see a potential new synonym for "legislative body."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Leslie Nielsen? Surely You Can't Be Serious!

I am serious, St. Peter.

And don't call him Shirley.

Good Advice

Andrew Gross first made his name as a co-author with James Patterson, opening with the historical novel The Jester. He co-wrote two entries in Patterson's "Women's Murder Club" series and also collaborated with the better-known thriller author on the noirish The Lifeguard and the revenge tale Judge & Jury. Starting in 2007, he struck out on his own with The Blue Zone, following it with his Ty Hauck series, of which Don't Look Twice is the second.

Patterson, like Clive Cussler and some others, is a big-time best-selling author who has increased his output by collaborating with others. Only he and his co-authors know for sure how much either contributed, although this USA Today interview suggests that the ideas, outline, polish and coaching come from Patterson in many of these collaborations, while a lot of the writing comes from the collaborator. As I'm not a Patterson fan, Don't Look Twice is my first exposure to Gross, and probably my last.

Ty Hauck, now somewhat famous for his role in the story Gross told in The Dark Tide, finds himself at the center of a drive-by shooting that also endangers his teenage daughter. Thus motivated, the chief of detectives of bucolic Greenwich, Conn., sets out to find out who's behind the shooting, which had as its only victim a man who turns out to be a U.S. attorney. Hauck probes the mystery through several wrong turns, while his personal life deteriorates around him. His ex-wife brings his daughter home with her following the shooting and the woman with whom he began a relationship in the earlier book decides to stay in Atlanta to care for her ailing father. His brother reconnects with him after his home life goes south, offering even more tension as the two will try to resolve hard feelings of the past. A relationship with a potential witness, Annie Fletcher, alleviates some of the darkness, but even this potential bright spot has some shadows.

Gross weaves the case through several different scenarios, each rejected by Hauck as he discovers new information about the man who was killed. In the end we find out exactly what happened and why -- sort of. Actually, Gross winds up dumping the information, which involves war profiteering and corporate shenanigans in Iraq as well as Native American casino gambling, on us from the mouth of one of the men who's spent most of the book trying to keep Hauck from learning everything he openly shares with the detective. It's clumsy, implausible and a kind of a cheat for the reader. Gross is also in love with italicized words, throwing them around so often for emphasis they lose pretty much all of their impact and mostly annoy more than anything else.

Thriller author Steve Berry supplies a cover blurb, saying that Don't Look Twice is "paced with throat-clutching suspense, and littered with surprises." I agree and actually wonder if Berry was pulling someone's leg. Gross does indeed litter his story with surprises, like people "pouring" over documents and handling a thick "sheath" of papers, as well as a jail guard watching a Yankees baseball game on TV in a story set after Thanksgiving. And it certainly had me clutching at my throat more than once.

In the end, Don't Look Twice is more than a title -- it's excellent advice when it comes to this book. Even better would have been "Don't look once," but I've always been a little hard-headed when it comes to good advice.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

From the Files of Marlin Perkins

This week, Jim will observe the Wisconsin Badger in its natural habitat while I relax in my tent with a martini and a fine cigar. Let's talk about what Jim will find.

The Wisconsin Badger, Taxidea taxus cheeseheadica, is an ill-tempered creature not known for its brainpower. It is given to ostentatious displays of irritability and petulance, frequently destroying others it confronts to such a degree as to render the contest outcome meaningless. Scientists theorize that this behavior may stem from the animal's shame over its preposterously small genitalia and dense, bone-heavy cranial structure.

When confronted by a Wisconsin Badger, one is advised to display either bratwurst, polka music, or the cheapest, nastiest beer available. Unable to focus on more than a handful of ideas at one time, the Wisconsin Badger is usually distracted by any one or a combination of these things.

It's a Gas Gas Gas

The Cassini satellite probe found oxygen in the atmosphere on Rhea, one of Saturn's moons.

Not a lot -- Rhea is a relatively small body that is able to keep only a very thin atmosphere. But both oxygen and carbon dioxide showed up in small amounts when scientists steered Cassini through Rhea's atmosphere to "sniff" it and see what it's made of. Scientists believe that the oxygen replenishes itself as the O2 molecules are carried into Rhea's surface by its magnetic field, breaking apart water molecules found there in ice into hydrogen and oxygen. The continuing impact of gas molecules with the moon's surface sort of splashes these newly freed oxygen molecules back into its atmosphere.

Rhea was discovered in 1672, along with Tethys, Dione and Iapetus, by Italian astronomer and probe namesake Giovanni Domenico Cassini. Rhea is the name of the Titan in Greek mythology who wed her brother Kronos, or Saturn, and gave birth to several of the later Olympian gods and goddesses like Poseidon, Hades, Hera and Zeus. Since Kronos was afraid one of his children would overthrow him, based on a prophecy he had heard, he swallowed each of them whole when they were born. But Rhea conspired to hide their last child, Zeus, until he could grow and free his sisters and brothers. He did so -- the story is iffy as to whether or not he made Kronos throw up or he cut him open, but out sprang fully-grown gods and goddesses who then took over as rulers of the cosmos. Zeus followed one of his father's customs and marred Hera, his own sister.

I sometimes wonder if astronomy is too PG-13 to teach to kids.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Bad, Nationwide, Etc., Etc...

On a Sunday afternoon in southern Minnesota, a young man brains a farmer with a baseball bat. The local police don't take long to figure out he did it, and they arrest him. The next morning, he's found hanged to death in his cell. The local sheriff makes the smart call, to Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and she gets help in the form of investigator Virgil Flowers, whose somewhat effete-sounding name belies his dogged detective skills and his toughness. Which he -- and the rather pretty female sheriff -- will need as another body is quickly added to the total and suspicion starts to fall on a wide segment of the town.

Virgil doesn't know exactly whom he can trust, although he discovers the sheriff is willing to work very closely with him, and he doesn't know how a close-mouthed religious community that came to that part of the country with immigrants more than a century ago fits in. But he will find out.

Bad Blood is the fourth Virgil Flowers novel from John Camp, writing as John Sandford. It's a step up from 2009's lackluster Rough Country. Sandford gives Virgil a little bit more of a real mystery to solve, steps his characterization skills back up to their usual level and forgoes some of the sophomore-level humor he indulged in last time around. Sandford also has some of Virgil's back story pay off. The investigator is the son of a Lutheran minister and regularly spends some time thinking about God before sleeping each night. Most of the time this has just been a way for Sandford to give Virgil some dimension and weight, but hasn't had much impact on who Virgil is -- his thoughts about God lead him to believe that God thinks about things pretty much the same way Virgil does, which is a convenient (and common) conclusion about God among modern folks.

But in Bad Blood, Virgil's religious background gives him an insight into the church community that's somehow mixed up in the murders. It also has a role in how some of the novel's endgame plays out. The mix of characterizations, interesting ideas and Sandford's usual writing skill makes Bad Blood a decent diversion of an afternoon.


So Ohio State University president Gordon Gee questions the the legitimacy of some universities' claims for consideration in championship-level bowl games, saying that his Buckeyes compete in a much tougher league than such schools as Boise State and Texas Christian University, and are therefore much more worthy of placement in those games.

Said Gee of his OSU's schedule, "We do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor." Some thoughts:

1) Gee had better be glad the Buckeyes don't schedule the LSP team -- they're non-conference for Ohio State, which means they'd only meet in a bowl game, of which Ohio State has lost three of its last four. Including a 41-14 smackdown at the hands of underdog University of Florida in the 2007 national championship game and a repeat lackluster performance in the 2008 national championship game.

2) Why in the world is this a subject being addressed by university presidents instead of athletic directors? Boise State president Bob Kustra shot a few snarks of his own back at Gee. Gentlemen, you are the presidents of your entire universities, both of which are public institutions financed partially by your respective state's taxpayers to offer quality education to your respective state's young people. Next thing you know we'll have a university president writing a letter to an athletic conference asking for a loss to be erased because of a blown call...ah, never mind.

3) What in the HECK is with that stupid blue field at Boise State?

4) Mr. Gee should check up on his "murderer's row" schedule thought. OSU's Big Ten Conference (among whose eleven teams are those paragons of virtue and clean living, the Northwestern University Wildcats), went 4-3 in bowl games this last season. That's the first time the Big Ten won more bowls than it lost since 2002 and still leaves it on the bottom end of a 19-31 tally. Sure, "harsh word speakers row" doesn't sound as tough, but it would seem to be more accurate.

5) Did we ever figure out why this is a discussion being conducted by the presidents?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Nine & Draggin'

The better crime and suspense writers often recognize that their characters can get in ruts and that they need to offer them some different challenges now and again or there's no reason to pay money for a new book when the old ones are just as good and already on the shelf at home.

Whether or not that was the motivation behind Michael Connelly giving his irascible detective Hieronymous "Harry" Bosch a suddenly larger role in the raising of his teen-age daughter, her presence is likely to affect how Harry does his business for the Los Angeles Police Department. In the 13 previous Bosch outings, Harry has been able to go his own way, consequences be hanged, because he has relatively few local ties and strings.

But over the course of the last several years, he has been deepening his relationship with his daughter Madeline, whom he first met when she was four. Maddie lives with her mother in Hong Kong, a fact which takes on serious weight when Harry starts to investigate the murder of a liquor store owner who might have been killed by Chinese gangsters or "triads." A cell-phone video of his kidnapped daughter sends Harry off to Hong Kong to bring his investigative skills and willingness to cross lines, break rules and crack skulls to get her back. Neither everything in Hong Kong nor everything in Los Angeles will be what it seems by the time Harry comes to the end of the case.

One of the appeals of Connelly's Bosch series -- as well as his series featuring Bosch's half-brother Mickey Haller, a hard-nosed defense lawyer -- has been that even though the cases involved may mix straightforward and out of the ordinary circumstances, Connelly rarely settles for an obvious solution or plot turn. Big-city homicide investigations may have a lot of similarities and stories that center on their solutions can definitely take on a paint-by-number quality. Witness the last six or seven years of Law & Order, for example. Connelly has always seemed to be able to mix the plain-brown-wrapper-styled procedural of Ed McBain with enough different flavors to keep his books from being too much like every other detective story that's been written.

In 9 Dragons, though, Connelly puts Harry in a scenario that's played out probably thousands of times since Auguste Dupin figured out who killed Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter Camille: An important woman in the life of the lead investigator is believed to be imperiled by his work on a case, and he has to drop everything to try and find her. Even though Connelly's writing, pacing and characterization remain top-notch (he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1985), the story is hackneyed enough to drop 9 Dragons towards the bottom of Harry's adventures.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Paycheck Fairness!

Will Ferrell, determined by Forbes magazine to be the most overpaid movie star, is not all that upset by being so designated. He jokes he's "living the American dream without even trying" by being overpaid, which he sees as a goal many people have. I feel badly about not being able to have helped Will very much in the pursuit of that dream, as I've yet to see any of his movies in the theater. But with the exception of Anchorman and Stranger Than Fiction, every Will Ferrell movie I have endured has been awful, so maybe Will and I are even.

The ranking, for the curious, comes when Forbes crunches numbers on a star's salary and compares it to the box-office take for his or her movies, including overseas figures. The formula's a little more complex than that, but you get the idea. So if you were a movie studio who hired Will Ferrell, you averaged $3.35 back for every dollar you paid to him. The Forbes article notes that comedians have the toughest time increasing the bang for the bucks paid to them because funny in the U.S. isn't necessarily funny elsewhere, and their foreign box office figures lag.

Earlier this year, Forbes also published a list of the best investments movie companies had made, and that list was topped by...Shia LaBeouf? Because the list takes into account box office over the past several years, and because LaBeouf wasn't paid all that much for the first installment of the blockbuster money-earner Transformers, a movie company that hired him made $81 for every dollar it paid him. Because actresses are usually either the centerpieces of smaller-grossing films or they're secondary characters in the larger-grossing action or super-hero blockbusters, they make up half of the top 10 best investment list. Although Anne Hathaway hasn't starred in anything with Transformers-level take, she made her bosses $64 for every dollar they paid her, based heavily on the $1 billion worldwide receipts for 2010's Alice in Wonderland and the two tween-fave Princess Diaries releases. That makes her tops for actresses and actually second to LaBeouf overall.

But there's no way to know if actors' box-office muscle will continue to grow along with their salaries. Yes, they were paid chump change for their last movie and it turned out to be a mega-blitz powerhouse at the box office, so negotiations start with a demand for the director's firstborn son to be raised as their own. This movie, though, may tank completely and not make enough to pay for the free popcorn the movie critics ate watching it. No guarantees on the investment.

Although I do feel safe in saying that no matter now much money either of them is paid and no matter how much money their movies make, any film that stars Will Ferrell, Shia LaBeouf or any combination thereof is pretty much guaranteed to suck.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thaaaaaank You!

I'm normally a little skeptical of pop culture lists found on the internet, since they often seem to be gathered up by people whose memories seem to stop somewhere around 1998. But the TV Squad hits things just about right in this list of the Top 10 Thanksgiving TV episodes.

Sure, someone older than me might quibble with the "Top 10 Ever" part and insist that the list's failure to include something from My Mother the Car makes it meaningless. Although I don't know if that show did a Thanksgiving episode in its only season.

Anyway, a misfire for me is the inclusion of a Roseanne entry -- her show began kind of fun, thanks mostly to John Goodman, but got old quickly, thanks mostly to Roseanne. Also getting a down-check is the Gilmore Girls show at number 6 -- I have no real dislike for that show, but I could never find an entry point that made me want to watch it, so I don't much care that Rory and Lorelai have to attend four Thanksgivings because they're too much a pair of enablers to stand up and say "no" once in awhile.

On the upside, we find the often overlooked The Bob Newhart Show making the list. I myself would drop the Friends episode to number 3 and bump Cheers to the second spot, but both are definitely in the right place by being in the top 3.

And as is only right in a world in which we expect natural laws to make sense, the great "Turkeys Away" from WKRP in Cincinnati comes in at number one. Of course, because natural laws make sense, turkeys can't fly, and therein lies the problem for one Arthur C. Carlson, and the laughs for for the rest of us, even 22 years later.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Journey of Discovery

Trojan Odyssey is the first Dirk Pitt book Clive Cussler published after the death of his wife Barbara in 2003. In it, Pitt reflects on his life of derring-do and decides he might need to settle down after his long string of romantic encounters, world-saving adventures and thwarting of evil-doers. It's easy to believe that his wife's passing prompted some reflection on Cussler's part about his mainstay character and what kind of a life he was living out through Cussler's keyboard. But before then, there's another dastardly plot to foil and group of megalomaniacs to send packing off to their well-deserved fates.

A mysterious brown crud is endangering life in the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean near Nicaragua. The potential disaster is being investigated by the two adult children Pitt learned in Valhalla Rising that he fathered, Dirk Jr. and Summer. But what is the connection with the mysterious Odyssey corporation and its enigmatic CEO, known only as Specter? And what is the significance of the European Celtic artifacts discovered in a sunken temple in the Caribbean, thousands of years older than any known cross-Atlantic voyage? Dirk Jr. and Summer will find out, but Dirk Sr. and his friend Al Giordino will need to take a hand in making sure things turn out all right.

Some of Odyssey ranks with Cussler's best writing. The scene where Pitt and Giordino help save a floating hotel from being driven onto a reef is guitar-string taut (that they succeed can't possibly be a spoiler; it happens too early in the book and any Cussler reader knows the day has yet to dawn that Pitt and Giordino can't save). But some of the rest of the book is muddied by Cussler's fascination with the work of Iman Wilkens, a professor with some different ideas about the Trojan War written about by Homer in The Iliad. Wilkens suggests that, instead of Greeks and Trojans, the war was fought between two bands of Celtic people from Europe, and that the locations involved were actually in England and northern France. This theory offers some interesting ideas to play with and a little background for the shadowy Odyssey corporation, but Cussler preaches it heavily enough it gives his story plenty of sloggy passages.

Aside from that, though, Odyssey gives Pitt and Giordino a fairly graceful first step to the side of the stage, and Dirk Jr and Summer their initial "speaking parts" in the series. It also readies the series for Cussler's own handoff to his son Dirk, who will begin to co-write the series with 2004's Black Wind.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Successful Failures

Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell considered his mission -- in which a crippled spacecraft did not land on the moon as planned but did return its three astronauts safely to Earth -- a "successful failure."

A couple more successful failures are working to gather scientific knowledge right now. The former THEMIS P1 and P2 probes, in danger of shutting down because their orbits don't allow enough sunlight to their solar panels, have been redirected to study conditions around the moon instead. The THEMIS satellites are not technically a failure, because they worked in conjunction with the other probes in their five-spacecraft set to gather much of the data they were supposed to. But the change in their orbits over time left them in shadow too long for their systems to recover, and they were in danger of freezing out. Vassilis Angelopoulos of UCLA, principal investigator of the THEMIS mission, referred to them as "dead spacecraft walking," which is kind of a clunky phrase that draws on a 15-year-old movie title and shows that some folks aren't cut out for marketing.

Renamed the ARTEMIS mission, the two satellites will now explore the effect of solar wind on the moon and at the Earth-Moon Lagrange points. These are places in space where the gravitational interaction of the sun, moon and Earth combine to keep an object in one place relative to those bodies. A spacecraft in the Lagrange point would have to use very little fuel to keep its station, compared with one in some other position. Also, according to Messrs. Gibbons, Hill and Beard, "they gotta lotta nice girls there," although that idea "...might be mistaken."

Over on Mars, one of the two Spirit Rovers that have been tooling around the Barsoomian landscape since 2004 has found evidence of water that may have flowed underneath the Martian surface. Again, the rovers are not truly failures, as they have been working several years past their initial three-month mission plans. But the Spirit rover got stuck in some Martian sand a few months ago and is in a hibernation mode while it awaits the Martian spring and maybe gets some sun on its own solar panels and can get working again.

But before it shut down, it sent data that showed strata, or layers, in the Martian soil that suggests snowmelt flowed underneath the top crust not very long ago. If Spirit survives the bitter cold of the Martian winter and does begin to operate again, scientists plan to test several things about the soil around it that can be done without getting the little goldbrick to up and move again.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

You Can't Spell Evil Without an "IL"

Evil doesn't always mean stupid.

Sometimes Sauron posts a guard on the slopes of Mt. Doom. Sometimes Voldemort hires a thug to run Harry down with a car during the summers he's at the Dursleys. Sometimes Blofeld pops a cap in 007 instead of trying to burn him up with a rocket or something. Sometimes Ming just runs for office instead of trying to conquer the Earth. And sometimes the Illini remember to bring a ground game.

A career performance by Illini back Mikel Leshoure gave the vile venom of the prairie a 48-27 win in the game, played at Wrigley Field for the first time since the 1930s. Concerns about player safety meant that only one end zone was used for the game, as the other was deemed too close to the wall.

Rumors of human sacrifices made to insure the Illini win are, of course, unfounded.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Weeellll, Maybe, But I'm Not Sure...

According to "insiders," Dancing With the Stars producers are worried that if Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol wins, the show will be ruined.

Someone named Rob Shuter, writing for something called "PopEater," ferreted out the truth, granting anonymity to his sources...for no good reason I can see, except maybe to be able to make the claim he has sources, or maybe so those sources can protect their jobs, which might be endangered by airing such sentiments in Palin-loving Hollywood.

If you're unfamiliar with DWTS, it takes some people who may have been stars of some kind or another at one time, including athletes or reality TV folks or minor celebrities, and pairs them with professional dancers who will work on routines with them. A panel of dance and choreography experts judges the performances and gives their scores, and then telephone lines are opened so that fans can vote for their favorite. A percentage of the phone votes is combined with the judges scores to make a final total, and the lowest score goes home. A performance ranked low by the judges might not be a problem if the celebrity has a large enough fan base, and someone whom the judges scored better may go home instead.

According to Shuter, "(O)ne TV insider" said if Bristol wins, "Any creditability the show had will be over."

I do not believe that looks to be a substantial loss.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

There's Treasure Everywhere

And twenty-five years ago today, we got to start looking for it in the middle of cardboard-box-based transmogrifiers and time machines, daydream-spawned space heroes and private eyes, an army of deranged mutant killer monster snow goons and a tuna-fish sandwich trap that captured one homicidal psycho jungle cat.

It was a good ten years.

Hello, I Must Be Going

Some British researchers have done some puzzling over a proposed "invisibility cloak" and have theorized a way that it might be even cooler -- if that's possible.

This "4D" version of the cloak would not only use an exotic substance called "metamaterial" to bend light waves around the covered object and make it impossible to see, they would also use some of their other wild properties to somehow manipulate time itself, which would allow whatever they were covering to disappear from one place and simultaneously reappear somewhere else.

The only problem right now is that this "metamaterial" exists in very small amounts and the speed of light would require an immense amount of stuff to work. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, and in order to displace things one second, you would need a cloak of metamaterial 186,000 miles thick. And yes, that would definitely make you look fat, so don't even ask.

Lead researcher Martin McCall disagrees, saying that even current fiber-optic technology could create a sort of practice cloak that would demonstrate the proof of the concept and get scientists a-crackin' on making the real thing. My guess is that we would see the lead in this project being taken by high school science whizzes who would never never never never never never never use a working invisibility cloak to camp inside the girls' locker room with the highest megapixel resolution video camera they could get their hands on.


Being Helpful

With all of the fussin' and stuff going on over the Transportation Security Administration's new scanners and very friendly pat-down procedures, some novel ideas have surfaced for ways in which airline passengers can assist the TSA in making their jobs easier and our flying safer.

1. Offer them audible indicators of your thanks for the thoroughness of their pat-down. Although we might think that the agents eagerly await the opportunity to grope attractive passengers, we have to realize that those selected for the pat-down are chosen at random and that somewhere, some poor TSA agent is going to have to search Ed Asner. Making like Meg Ryan in Katz's Deli is a way to let them know we appreciate their sacrifice.

2. Wear only a Speedo or other swimsuit-like garment that offers them unobstructed view of the areas where most persons might try to smuggle in harmful items. This is especially useful if you are a person who may be carrying some extra weight around that might mean traditional clothes have extra room for contraband. This tactic is not recommended if you are flying in winter or headed to a northern city.

3. In a similar vein, if you are a man, wear a kilt. I made this suggestion when talking to our church's youth director, who had the bonus idea that, when being patted down, it would be a good time to channel your inner Braveheart and shout, "You can feel my thighs! But you can never take my freedom!" While I think that kid may be going places, I also have to caution that taking this action may definitely cause TSA agents and airport security to take your freedom, so you may want to stop with just the kilt.

If these invasive techniques could be demonstrated to make flying safer, I'm sure that I and others would have less trouble with them. But of course, a scanner that sees through clothes but not inside the body can't detect explosives or other contraband inside the body. And a pat-down search won't find them either. I am in no way any kind of security expert, so there are probably a lot of different factors I'm overlooking. But I'm wondering if it ought to make us curious, at least, that El Al, the national airline of Israel, doesn't employ body scanners or pat downs and yet has not had a hijacking. Why have they had success? Could their techniques be duplicated?

Again, I don't know, but it doesn't seem like those questions have been asked during the time the TSA was awarding lucrative contracts for purchasing the scanners from companies with some well-connected lobbyists. The question that has been asked -- and you can determine for yourself if you think it's been answered and how -- is, "Can flying today stink any worse?"

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

羔羊中的孤羊 (Motherless Goats of All Motherless Goats!)

I have elsewhere noted my love for the brief run of Joss Whedon's Western-styled sci-fi series Firefly, and recently learned of a handy reference page for show watchers. Whedon's universe had English as its major spoken language, but Mandarin Chinese also played a role in people's everyday speech. For the crew of the good ship Serenity and the shady characters they sometimes encountered, that role was most often profanity.

The good folk at Topless Robot have compiled the 15 best Chinese curses uttered during the show; the title of this post comes in at No. 5 (Caution: The Topless Robot people wield a free-range vocabulary). Apparently, for most of these, the episode writer would dream up a wacky phrase that they wanted to be used as a curse word, and then a woman who worked for the show and translated things to Mandarin so the actors could speak it properly would then render it into that language. So few Mandarin speakers who are not also fans of Firefly would understand why you suddenly tossed "Gao yang jong duh goo yang" into the conversation, unless you happened to be talking about cloned goats instead of naturally-conceived ones.

I might also note that the people who voted in the survey mentioned in yesterday's post did not see fit to include Firefly as one of those shows, so I can only conclude that each of them is a perfect bun tyen-shung duh ee-dway-ro.

(H/T Opuszine)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

We're Gonna Need Some More Tape

After the fight that will break out amongst us bookish, thoughtful fans of televised speculative fiction (OK, I mean "us nerds") in the wake of this poll's finding. Trust me, eyeglasses will need mending.

In this corner, direct from their parents' basements, are the scarf-wearing, faux-British-accent-having, jelly-baby-scarfing fans of one of the longest-running shows ever on television, Dr. Who. In the other corner, direct from their parents' basements, are the line-chewing, green-girl-ogling, fake-pointed-ear-wearing. red-shirt-avoiding fans of a fanchise that has spawned four TV shows and eleven movies (and counting), Star Trek.

Who fans come out swinging, pointing out that many of them first grew to love their show while watching it on a variety of PBS stations and that, plus its production by the British Broadcasting Company, means they are quite obviously much more intelligent, cultured and highbrow. Trek fans counterpunch by displaying the Benny Hill Show reruns available on the same venues, then mount an attack of their own by noting Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had a fantastically optimistic, inclusive and idealized dream where equality and respect for all genders, races, ethnicities and such was the credo of the society he envisioned. Who fans retaliate by pointing out that in the original series, crewmen wear pants while crew-women wear long shirts, the lead character spends an awful lot of his time lip-locking different babes each week and the supposed Russian cast member is basically there to be the butt of accent jokes.

But the fight is called a draw as both groups read the rest of the list and, arriving at No. 8, wonder what in the heck The Quatermass Experiment was and how enough people remembered a half-century old, six-episode BBC show to vote for it in the poll.

ETA: There are, of course, actually five Star Trek series, not four. This mistake does not disqualify me from nerdiness. Trust me on that one.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The New Phonebooks Aren't Here!

The same week that a story ran about telecommunications companies requesting an end to residential phonebooks, I ran across a book review that talks about the impact the phone book had on national commerce and society.

Phone companies say that their residential listings, sometimes known as "the white pages," are used by very few people anymore as people look up numbers online or have regularly used numbers stored in their own phones. White pages also don't include cell phone numbers, and more and more people are ending their landline service entirely in favor of their cell phones. If regulators allow them to stop printing the books, they say, then they will help the environment by not using as much paper and ink. And, oh yeah, it will save them money, since the directories are printed at their expense and individual customers aren't charged a fee for receiving one.

The companies have not sought an end to business directories, often called "yellow pages." Although their revenues are also decreasing as businesses spend more advertising online, they still made about $15 billion in 2009, which as the review points out, is more than the movie industry made at the box office. The main reason is probably that the telecom companies sell ads in the yellow pages, while they usually don't in the residential listings.

The book sounds interesting, as the writer examines the history of the phone book and ties it in to the continuing process of making more information available to more people in a more portable format -- the ability to enter hundreds of numbers into a personal cell phone directory or to have access to thousands upon thousands of them via online directories that can be reached from phones, netbooks and iPads is a straight step down the same road that included making contact info from every business in town available to everyone in one convenient set of listings.

Unfortunately, it will now be that much more difficult for one Navin R. Johnson to say "I'm somebody now!"

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Silly Love (And Other) Songs

"And when we get behind closed doors
And she lets her hair hang down
That's when she makes me glad that I'm a man
'Cause no one knows
What goes on behind closed doors."

Well, they do now, Charlie.

"Our little pony-tailed girl growed up to be a woman
Now she's gone in the blink of an eye
She left the suds in the bucket
And the clothes hangin' out on the line"

Ran away with nothing more than a note on the door? Yeah, that's the sign of a grown-up.

"I dug my key into the side
Of his pretty little souped-up 4 wheel drive
Carved my name into his leather seat
I took a Louisville slugger to both head lights
Slashed a hole in all 4 tires
And maybe next time he'll think before he cheats"

Maybe he'll think, "I wonder if this girl has enough anger issues she thinks vandalism and property damage is an acceptable way to resolve relationship issues and is stupid enough to sign her name to her work?"

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hawkeye Stinkeye

When playing a higher-ranked team, the courteous Wildcats of Northwestern have adopted the custom of allowing them to lead for a significant portion of the game, out of respect for the awesome wisdom of the current BCS ranking system.

They behaved no differently today (consistency is a mark of the highest character), allowing Iowa to take control of the game for much of the second half before putting two touchdowns on the board to take a 21-17 lead and defeat Iowa for the fifth time in the last six games.

The representatives of right and virtue will travel to Wrigley Field Saturday to face the forces of darkness represented by the Illini of the University of Illinois. Wildcat quarterback Sam Persa injured his Achilles tendon during the Iowa game and is out for the season, meaning that the gathered minions of evil from Champaign-Urbana have a slightly better chance of achieving one of the temporary wins ill sometimes holds over good. People of good will are urged not to make too much of this possibility, or of a defeat should it happen -- Illini, victorious or not, remain the very face of evil on this earth.

From the Rental Vault: Superman/Batman: Apocalypse

A much newer title than many others brought out of the vault, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is a direct-to-DVD animated film in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies series. It's based on the second story arc of the Superman/Batman comic book, written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by the late Michael Turner back in 2004. It also serves as a sequel to the DVD Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, released in 2009.

A large meteor strikes down in Gotham Harbor, causing some damage and drawing the attention of Gotham City's protector, Batman. He finds a spaceship and some glowing green rocks, but cuts his investigation short when his bat-transportation starts moving away on its own, only to hit a pier and blow up.

A trio of dockworkers encounters a naked blonde girl speaking a strange language and resisting their advances with exceptional strength. When Batman pursues her, she flies and demonstrates other super-powers. He eventually sedates her with the green meteor and, with the aid of Superman, determines that she is Kara Zor-El, cousin to the man born on Krypton as Kal-El. In order to train her to use her powers, the Amazons of Themyscira, led by Wonder Woman, force Kara to return with them to their island. But a raid on Themyscira allows Darkseid, Lord of Apokolips, to kidnap Kara and try to brainwash her into becoming his servant. He plays on the fact that Kara has felt controlled by all of these new adults in her life and has a pretty typical case of adolescent rebellion. DC's Big Three must stage an attack on Apokolips in order to rescue Kara.

Warner Bros. has apparently struck a real lode with the Animated Originals series, which are not always G-rated features or as light in tone as the DC Animated Universe series they created in the 1990s and early 2000s. Apocalypse is another quality entry in the series, focusing on the comic that returned the original Supergirl to DC continuity. The character had been a shape-shifting alien and a semi-angelic being since the "Death of Supergirl" issue killed Kara Zor-El off in the late 80s series Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Kevin Conroy, the voice of Batman through nearly every series of the DC Animated Universe era, returns to the character, as does Tim Daly, who voiced Superman in the Superman series of that time frame. Both are welcome; even though Conroy's work is restricted to the auditory range alone he may very well be the defininitive Batman. Firefly's Summer Glau plays Supergirl, and Men of a Certain Age co-star Andre Braugher voices the dread Darkseid. That may be the only misstep; Braugher has a good voice but the character was played by Michael Ironside in the Animated Universe era and Ironside brings a ponderous note that Braugher doesn't quite manage.

The story follows the comic arc pretty closely, deviating here and there to make some continuity issues a little tidier. Its explorations of heroism, responsibility, family and the creation of selfhood aren't particularly deep -- this is a cartoon, after all, based on a comic book -- but they're deftly done and induce no real cringes. The artwork is modeled on Turner's drawing style rather than the blocky work of the Animated Universe series. It's not an exact match, which is also probably for the best. Turner's exaggerated look recalled the hideous work of Rob Liefeld (no. 15; scroll down) and Turner's dependence on cheesecake and over-sexualizing his female characters gets more than a little creepy when the main female protagonist is supposed to be a 16-year-old girl. Art director Sam Liu keeps the action flowing smoothly and oversees a spectacular Smallville fight between Superman, Kara and Darkseid.

Apocalypse earns its PG-13 with a couple of mild curse words, substantial onscreen violence and some onscreen deaths. A couple of comic-book movie review sites have given it the thumbs down, but people who figure that their animated characters can think as well as they punch and that girlfriend and/or wife are not the only roles female characters can play should find Superman/Batman: Apocalypse some quality entertainment.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Poor Planning?

An old ethnic joke makes fun of the fellow of whatever nationality is being insulted at the time for "bringing a knife to a gun fight." A condominium board in Queens, New York, brought a lawsuit to a dog fight and had similar success.

Of course, the story is a lot more fun when you read that the dog in question is one of those overgrown rodents known as "Yorkshire Terriers" or Yorkies, and weighs all of three and a half pounds when dry. No attempt to weigh him soaking wet has been made, as the amount of water necessary to thoroughly wet him was deemed by the ASPCA to pose a danger of drowning the little yipper and the measurement was stopped.

And it's more fun when you read that the condo board spent one hundred thousand dollars on the fight before they lost. Or that this is the second time this board has sued this woman about a dog and the second time they have lost (the other suit referenced a different dog). Or that they lost because their own written policy implied that pets which are not nuisances are totally OK, even though they say their intent was to ban pets altogether.

Of course, I'm not a hundred percent sure how a Yorkie can fail to be a nuisance, because I think it's written in the official breed description. Factor in that the dog in question is a "teacup Yorkie," an especially small version of the dog that is prone to chronic diarrhea and vomiting, and you feel a little sympathy for the condo board. On the other hand, the whole animal weighs no more than three or four Happy Meals, so it's hard to believe that those chronic problems amount to much anyway.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

This May Not End Well

According to this story in the online edition of The Independent, the price of chocolate may be quite high come 2030. The basic upshot is that growing cocoa trees is hard work and the companies that buy their products don't pay beans (heh), so cocoa farmers are either headed into cities or selling their products to biofuel companies.

Since the story is in a British newspaper, it uses pounds. The one-pound amount cited as the current cost is about $1.60, and the seven-pound prediction for the worst-case scenario is $11.28. A sweet trip to the candy shop might wind up necessitating a bank loan.

Of course, the prediction assumes that the companies won't figure out their problem and start offering financial incentives to cocoa farmers to get them to stick it out. Or that they won't develop artificially-flavored substitutes impossible to tell from the real thing. The incentives to do so will be powerful, because buying a dozen roses and a box of...what? Oranges? Apples? Kiwi? ...is not going to get boyfriends and husbands out of the doghouses into which they have put themselves. And the first time the head of one of those companies tries that little trick, he's going to have a lot of extra time on his hands to urge his corporate scientists to get crackin'.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Thank You, Mr. Jobs

Went to a different gym tonight, which has small TV monitors fixed to some of the equipment, allowing you to see the screen closeup and pick your own channel. Kind of nice.

Except that during the hour I was on the machines, my choices were the following:

1) Bill O'Reilly, a pugnacious, opinionated conservative loudmouth, interviewing some public official who was a pugnacious, opinionated liberal loudmouth. O'Reilly gets credit for having people on his show who disagree with him, but I think that he has those people on as much because he knows a lot of the people who watch him like the shouting matches more than they like any lengthy exposition of his philosophy. Confession: I will put up with a few minutes of O'Reilly each week in order to watch Dennis Miller, a regular Wednesday guest on the program.

2) Keith Olbermann, who two years ago said that, in order to maintain his appearance of objectivity, he won't even vote in elections but who just served a (whopping) two-day suspension from his job for violating his company's policy by donating to three candidates. The policy sounds dumb -- like anyone who puts up with more than a hundred seconds of Olbermann can't figure out which candidate would have the jumped-up boxscore reader demographic sewn up tight.  Olbermann claims it's inconsistently applied. Which, given his own apparent change of heart in this area, would not seem to be a criticism coming from him. Confession: I regularly watched Olbermann when he was on Sports Center and had an ability to conceal his prodigious ego that seems to have gone the way of his black hair.

3) Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker. Spitzer's facial expressions range from creepy -- whenever he grins I think his eyes are about to light up and he's going to start clanging two cymbals together -- to super-creepy -- whenever he's grinning and looking at Parker I defy you to forget the reason he's not the governor of New York anymore is because he liked sleeping with hookers more than he liked sleeping with his wife. That's less his fault than the fault of CNN for pairing him with an attractive woman co-host, but still. Confession: I keep waiting for Parker to say something like, "Those don't talk, doofus. Eyes up here!"

So I plugged in one of these and let the Ramones motivate me to good circulation and cardiovascular health.


“Good actors, never use the script unless it’s amazing writing. All the good actors I’ve worked with, they all say whatever they want to say.”

- Jessica Alba, found here.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

He Ain't Literary...

If Mary Fallin has a brother who writes a book, she will probably not want it to turn out like our last GOP-governor-sibling who did. Because that book was the 1996 I-wish-I-was-Tom-Clancy thriller substitute The Final Jihad, by Martin Keating. Martin's brother Frank was Oklahoma's governor from 1995 to 2003; months after he took office the Murrah Federal Building was destroyed by a truck bomb.

And not long after that, brother Martin's manuscript about a terrorist organization mounting attacks against targets on the American mainland, which some accounts say had been mostly finished a few years earlier, found a publisher and hit the shelves with a weighty thud in 1996. That publisher, for the curious, is Logical Figments Books. According to the Library of Congress, the only other title published by Logical Figments Books is Boy Wonder: My Life in Tights, the 1995 autobiography of Burt Ward, who played Robin on the 1966-68 TV show Batman.

In any event, Keating's book has provided plenty of fodder for conspiracy-minded folks who believe there is way more to both the Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 terrorist attacks than public information has disclosed. Keating had worked for several government agencies, and Frank was a high-ranking official in the U.S. Department of Justice during the Reagan and first Bush administrations. These experiences are touted to give The Final Jihad an aura of real-world connections, and for all I know Keating had the intelligence stuff and such down to the last jot and tittle.

It doesn't really matter. Keating's hammer-handed writing style, next to which even Clancy's obtuse prose flows like honey, kills a reader's interest quickly. Mine lasted about a hundred pages, or almost a sixth of the way into this doorstop, before flagging and telling me to flip to the end to see who survived. I found out, and then realized I didn't care. As observed before, nobody grabs airport or thriller novels because they want to cavort 'pon the pages amidst the dancing words from the author's lyrical pen. But even by these lower standards, The Final Jihad stinks.

Keating's picture of how this series of terrorist incidents came about is outlined in a three-page expository discourse by the president, and it was probably pretty intriguing at the time. Now, 14 years later and with 9/11 and Iraq in our rearview mirrors and and Afghanistan still in front of us, it seems kind of odd. I won't spoil it, on the off-chance you find yourself stuck reading The Final Jihad and making it all the way through. But if you do make the attempt, be sure to tell me how many pages you get through before flipping to the end.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mr. Mojo, Risin'?

Florida Governor Charlie Crist is weighing whether or not to pardon the late Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors, for his conviction on charges of exposure and profanity.

On March 1, 1969, the Lizard King reportedly attempted to break on through the other side of his clothing during a concert in Miami. He was found not guilty on charges of drunkenness and public lewdness -- no doubt much to his surprise on the former and disappointment on the latter -- but was convicted of the other two charges. The convictions were appealed, with lawyers for Morrison sensing a good First Amendment test case, but the singer did everyone involved the discourtesy of dying in Paris in 1971 and rendering the case more than a little moot.

Except to Gov. Crist, who was rendered more than a little moot by Florida voters last week when he lost his bid for the U.S. Senate. The gov and the other members of Florida's Board of Executive Clemency are all state officials who lost in campaigns for re-election or for other offices, meaning they've got little to lose if their decision to pardon Morrison outrages the public.

Which I believe it is unlikely to do. Yes, Florida has a number of older people in its population, and those are usually the kind of folks who frown on bad behavior such as Morrison is supposed to have exhibited in concert. But Morrison, were he alive today, would be a month shy of his own 67th birthday. Those cranky oldsters are more likely to get nostalgic for their own self-exposure than to get worked up about whether or not the governor pardons a forty-year-old minor felony on a guy who's been dead nearly that long.

Realistic or Real?

At a fascinating blog which is about to gobble up several hours of my time, someone posted an eight-page memo that Walt Disney wrote to Chounard Art Institute teacher Art Graham in 1935. The memo outlines what kind of training and instruction Disney would like to see Graham use in helping his animators improve their skills.

Disney goes into several specifics, such as the need for training in actual drawing, thinking about how characters should move on the screen, what kinds of drawings enhance comedy or other moods that an animated feature is portraying, and so on. He believed his artists should be able to think up funny bits or "gags" on their own, in addition to whatever comedy a writer might have in a script. He suggested Graham have the animators study music as an aid to seeing the rhythms of movement in their minds before they started drawing.

When you realize this idea took shape and Disney studio animators started this training in 1936 or so, and after Disney's ideas were put into practice the studio released movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi, you can see what kind of results Walt Disney's vision brought about.

What struck me was a sentence on the second page of the memo, in which Disney says, "The first duty of the cartoon is not to picture or duplicate real action or things as they actually happen -- but to give a caricature of life and action -- to picture on the screen things that have run through the imagination of the audience..."

I think Uncle Walt was onto something there. Computer animation has given us some incredibly realistic characters using motion and performance capture techniques, but those film seem to bomb compared with more stylized animated movies, even when computer imagery is used in them. For example, The Polar Express was absolutely destroyed at the box office by The Incredibles, even though Express featured one of America's favorite actors, Tom Hanks. Other hyper-realistic animated films, like Final Fantasy, have had nowhere near the success of the Pixar line or of Dreamworks Productions Shrek series (Final Fantasy, in fact, was an expensive enough bomb that it's given credit for shutting down the studio division of the Square video game company).

I'm sure someone has done a study on this, so I might be completely wrong, but my own reaction to Polar Express, Final Fantasy and even Avatar is that the hyper-realistic type of animation is, for lack of a better word, creepy. My eyes see what looks like a real human being on the screen and my ears hear a real human voice, but something about the image doesn't connect. A friend said the characters in Final Fantasy seemed to him like zombies or something, because they looked like people but had dead eyes.

Maybe there's something in the brain that we haven't found yet that knows it's being fooled when it sees a pretend human being trying to act like a real one. Or maybe the effect stems from knowing that those human faces on the screen don't belong to real human beings and might go away if I saw one of the motion-capture type films without knowing it was animation, but I don't know if that experiment's been done.

Something to think about, either way. And certainly an indicator that ol' Uncle Walt knew his cartoons.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

All I Got

Some days, I'm really thankful God invented the blues. I've no idea why hearing men and women who've gone through worse than I have sing about those tough times eases my spirit, but I'm sure glad it does.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

JoPa Milestone

No snarking. In the foul world of big-name college sports, Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno is fairer than most and has done it for longer than anyone. So if anyone deserves 400 wins during a career, it's him.

On the other hand, it would have been nice of the Wildcats to have shown up and played in the second half of Paterno's historic win, rather than stand around and watch it happen. Just as a courtesy, dontcha know.

Risking Certain Death!

With this month's release of The Promise, a double album of outtakes recorded between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen fans finally have -- legally -- what many of them have had illicitly or have much desired for more than 30 years -- a studio version of the classic "Because the Night."

Springsteen originally recorded the song during the long hiatus after the breakout Born to Run release in 1975. A number of experiences from that time, including the Time/Newsweek cover appearances, a lawsuit by a former manager and the process of regular old growing up, reshaped some of his thinking and diluted the exuberant optimism of the Born to Run years. By the time Darkness came out, Springsteen himself had changed as an artist and as a person, offering some glimpses of the man who would release the bleak Nebraska four years later and The Ghost of Tom Joad in 1995.

He'd put out two albums in 1973, then lingered and sweat over the epic that turned into Born to Run in '75. Ordinarily, an popular musician in that situation would have released something in 1977 or maybe even in 1976. But the lawsuit that kept him out of the studio meant that the songs which would create that album never managed to gel together, and by the time Springsteen and the E Street Band could record again, their muse had a new and more somber outlook. Most of the songs that will be on The Promise are somewhere in between the grand theatrics of the first three albums and the noirish tales of Darkness (It'll also come in a deluxe version that will include a DVD of a Darkness-era concert from Houston, a 2009 concert where the band played the whole album straight through, and some other live performances from the Born-Darkness transition period. It'll set you back north of $100).

Promise has some songs that made it onto Darkness in different versions. "Candy's Boy," a kind of moony doo-wop declaration by a small-timer about how much he loves a girl who seems to get an awful lot of gifts from well-to-do men, becomes "Candy's Room," whose faster tempo and avalanche of building sound brings a hint of menace that the singer may be willing to settle for such a situation for only so long before he takes steps to change things.

Which brings us to "Because the Night." Springsteen has said he was never able to fully finish a satisfactory studio version of the song, and producer Jimmy Iovine, who was working with the E-Street band as well as the Patti Smith Group in a next-door studio, played the song for Smith and she included it on her 1978 album Easter. She also released it as a single, and it remains her biggest hit. Springsteen, on the other hand, never did make a version of the song that satisfied him but did include it in his concerts beginning with the Darkness tour, where it became a mainstay. Many live versions and some studio recordings of the song crept out into listener's hands through the shady lands of the bootlegging community, but "Night's" only official release was a live version on the Live-1975-1985 box set.

Much like the more comedic "Fire," "Because the Night" was an experience shared mostly by fans who had seen a Springsteen show rather than just bopped along to "Hungry Heart" on the radio. And his live performance, which I have had the good fortune to hear in person (14th row, center section on the floor, Rosemont Horizon in Chicago in 1984 -- I'll probably forget my own mother's name before that fact leaks out of my brain), remains the definitive version of the song. Although Smith's recording is better able to capture the urgency that seems to best suit the song and that Springsteen has really only managed with it live, her quirky voice seems to wax and wane out of sync with the words she's singing.

This is just my opinion (see the header for a reminder), but it seems like the best version of "Because the Night" outside of a live Springsteen show is the 1993 version from 10,000 Maniacs' appearance on MTV Unplugged ("Night" may be a good luck charm -- it was the Maniacs' first Top 40 hit after 12 years together and gained them the same kind of attention it had gained Smith). The show had bands play their songs with acoustic and miked instruments instead of amplified ones. The Springsteen studio version from Promise, on the NPR "First Listen" feature, lacks energy and seems drained and wan next to the versions done by both women and by Springsteen himself live. But the Maniacs gave the song the urgency that best suits it and lead singer Natalie Merchant was much more in control of when she should be loud and when she should be soft than Patti Smith was. She's also a better technical vocalist than Smith was during the initial "Godmother of Punk" phase of the latter's career.

"Because the Night" may have been one of those songs that its creator was born to play rather than record. Its best showcase might not a band isolated in a studio but a crowd of thousands singing along to every word and both feeding and feeding off the energy of the performance and the performers. Its first authorized studio release persuades me of that anyway, and most of the studio bootlegs of it I've ever heard fall short of the track from The Promise.

Oh, the risk of death? Well, it's not because I've rambled on about a pop song for this long and irritated a reader so much I'm in danger -- one back-click and you're quite free from my opinions. It's because my friend Philip, who reads this blog, is a Springsteen devotee and when he sees the sacrilege I have just committed, he may keel right over. His wife is going to kill me.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Check Yes or No?

Although I've noted elsewhere some things I like about President Obama, I won't pretend I'll be sorry when his White House tenure ends. But I think he's taking a bum rap over the expense of his upcoming visit to India and parts east.

Folks are somewhat peeved that the total number of people involved in this trip is about the size of a small town, somewhere near 3,000. It's likely to cost quite a bit, although not the $200 million a day some excitable folks suggest or the $2 billion total (plus 34 ships -- ten percent of the U.S. Navy's floatin' iron) an even more excitable talk show host has claimed. Of course, some of those claims are based on figures given by Indian officials touting the stringent security arrangements being made for the president's trip, and it's safe to say they're a bit excited about it.

That kind of cost, if true, would be excessive, but sometimes when you want to make a good showing, you lay it on a little thick. India's been a little out of sorts because this visit has taken two years to arrange, and they feel a little neglected. English-language papers in that country have also played up that this is one of the largest, if not the largest, group a U.S. president has ever taken to another country. In addition to his staff, security and media representatives, the group includes business executives who will meet with Indian counterparts to explore different kinds of economic cooperation between the world's strongest and wealthiest democracy and the one billion people of the world's largest democracy.

And if it takes the equivalent of bringing some roses and a box of chocolates along to smooth some ruffled feathers, I don't see that as such a bad idea. As I mentioned, with a population of more than one billion people, India is the world's largest democracy. Although it still has widespread poverty, in some cases at a level of destitution that ought to make any American weep, it's also a functioning democracy. India has ethnic and regional differences that, to be replicated in this country would require something like Oklahoma sending tanks into Kansas (and not stopping until they hit the Dakotas because that whole part of the country looks the same). But despite that, it is by no means the poorest nation in the world and that same riotous palate of diversity, overlaid with a couple of centuries of British acculturation, makes it one of the most fascinating places on earth.

Attention is rightly paid to China, which has more people that India and is in a lot of senses, a more advanced nation technologically. But there are fissures in China, not the least of which are the coming demographic time bomb promised by the one-child policy its totalitarian government mandates. Or the male-female imbalance that policy promotes in a society that values sons more than daughters as a better bet for taking care of Mom and Pop when they get too old to work -- 119 boys are born in China for every 100 girls, meaning that nearly one-sixth of Chinese men are doomed to live like George Costanza, and that can't be good for the nation. Plus, China's interests and the U.S.'s don't always coincide, as we are supposed to be a bit sniffy towards totalitarian regimes that arrest people for giving away Bibles and run tanks over people who decided to publicly express their opinions.

So travel away, Mr. President! Flash some cash while you're there, schmooze a bit and tell them they've got that little something special none of the other girls in class do. It'd be great if you could do something substantive, like one business coalition suggests, and lay the framework for a real free-trade agreement between the U.S. and India, but I'm a guy too, and I know we sometimes have issues with commitment. But even if we can't put a ring on it this time, maybe we might at least let her wear our letterman's jacket.

(ETA link about China's one-child policy once I finally found the story I'd been looking for)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

From the Rental Vault: Ride the High Country

Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea were two icons of the Western movie when they collaborated with director Sam Peckinpah in his second feature, Ride the High Country. Scott, 64, had decided to retire and this was his last role. McCrea, 57, had announced his intention to retire, but he would later work again, with his final role coming in 1976's Mustang Country. Both men enjoyed quite long post-retirement years, Scott dying in 1987 and McCrea passing away in 1990.

Both men play aging ex-lawmen whose time in the West has mostly moved on, leaving them behind. Neither as quick on the draw or as hardy in a fight as they once were, they find guarding a mining camp's gold is about the only work they can land. But one of the pair has taken a good hard look at future prospects and decided that he might do a sight better heisting the gold instead of guarding it, which puts the two old friends on a collision course. Caught in the middle are a young sidekick and a woman that the three men have rescued from her mining camp fiance who plans to "loan" her to his co-workers. Mariette Hartley, then 22 and in her first big-screen role, is the young woman, and Peckinpah regular Warren Oates is one of the creepy miners.

Scott and McCrea are quite obviously having the time of their lives, playing off some of their genre's stereotypes and their own screen personas. Sun and age give Scott a squint that looks like it could squeeze coal into diamonds, and McCrea's leathery twang is as Western as ol' Dollar and Gabby Hayes. Peckinpah would later explore some of the same themes in later films, but this is where he began telling stories of people who work to redefine themselves as the worlds around them change in way they don't quite understand, threatening to make the moral codes that have guided them for so long irrelevant. Ride the High Country got a crummy release and was pretty much ignored when it first came out, but Peckinpah's later fame (and weirdness) brought it the attention it deserved, both as the initial expressions of his own moviemaking philosophy and as a well-deserved curtain call for two icons of an American film genre.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Higher Education at $tate University

A lot of state-funded universities were originally created with the idea of offering close by, quality higher education to folks whose families couldn't afford the tuition at elite, far-off private schools. These schools would charge students from the state a more affordable fee, partly to offer them that opportunity, partly to keep collegiate-minded people in the state instead of losing them to other states and partly because the schools received state funds.

Although the in-state, out-of-state divide remains, the University of California at Berkeley has apparently decided to junk the whole "affordable" part. Non-Californian undergraduates who enroll in the fall of 2011 can expect to pay  $50,649 a year for their Berkeley education as it becomes the first public institution in the U.S. to break the $50,000 barrier. Californians will only have to pay $27,770. A hundred colleges across the country, including my alma mater, will ask for more than $200,000 for four years of their company. You can make your check out to Sarah Lawrence College for $57,384 if you want the absolute Rolls-Royce of educations, or for fifty large even for the mere Lexus model at Loyola University of Maryland. Berekley is 83rd on the list (maybe a Lexus with...I dunno, automatic cup holders). My former academic environs sit at 37th, which I think may make them a Rolls that's carrying a few miles on it.

One of colleges' longest-running jokes amongst their students went like this when I was enrolled: "$40,000 cover charge and all the beer you can drink." That referred to our tuition and fees for the full four years we were there -- which now would get me to spring quarter midterms and then run out.

The article from The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that Berkeley is kind of extreme (insert your own joke about wacky Californians and Berkeley weirdos here. I already made one this week) in its pricing, as the median for out-of-state students at public schools was $23,526, and only 14 public universities charged more than $40,000. Of course, eight of those are other schools in the University of California system.

They don't call it the Golden State for nothing, y'know.

(H/T to Erin O'Connor at Critical Mass)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Did I Vote or Not?

Well, yes, I did. My first election as an independent, since the parliamentary sausage-maker opened itself to plain view back in March and finally made me look away from what my party had been doing.

My precinct votes in a local church, one that is not of my denomination. Fortunately, their guard seemed to be down when I arrived, or maybe they disabled the automatic laser warning systems because of the election. Either way, I crossed the threshold without encountering robot machine guns, auto-dunking automatons or mechanized heretic-converters. I was greeted by three volunteer poll-workers who quickly and efficiently gathered my name, had me sign the poll book, handed me my ballot and reminded me to vote on both sides of it. I took it to my "booth," which these days is a folded cardboard cubbyhole that doesn't look all that sturdy. Probably a good idea, because a quick glance at most candidate slates these days is enough to make one seek a structure sturdy enough to support a noose, and providing one might create liability issues.

After filling out the ballot, I fed it into the machine, which beeped to tell me my ballot had successfully been counted by the scanner and changed its counter to tell me I had been voter no. 219 today. The poll workers then offered me one of the "I voted" stickers, which I declined. After all, as a citizen of the United States, I have three broad duties: 1) Obey my nation's laws, 2) Pay my taxes and 3) Vote when given the opportunity to do so. I am blessed enough to live in the best place on earth, and in return those three things are all that are asked of me. I'm not required to serve in the military. Because I was born here, I don't have to swear a loyalty oath of any kind. I don't have to venerate an image of any elected official (I am asked to show respect to the flag by saluting it when pledging allegiance or hearing the national anthem played, but I am not required to do so).

The stickers came about because so few people do vote that, I believe, folks thought that some kind of reminder might jog some memories to do the same. But when comedian Chris Rock disparaged people who said, "I take care of my kids" as though it was a medal-worthy achievement, he said, "Whattaya want, a cookie? That's what you're supposed to do!" I feel similarly about the idea that I should brag about having done one of the very few things I'm supposed to do as a citizen of the United States.

But there is a very good feeling that accompanies voting. Not the sense of participating in my nation's republic, although that is pretty darn cool when you think about it. No, what really feels good about voting is that, by your choices on the ballot, you get to say, "Talk to the hand," to the people who have relied on demagoguery and disinformation to try to sway voters their way. You can say, "Hasta la vista, baby," to candidates whose shameless misuse and manipulation of the facts represents some of the worst our system has to offer. You can say, "Make a new plan, Stan," to career politicians who figure that since they've run out their string at one level of public office they'll get voted in at another so they can keep feeding at the taxpayer's trough.

People spend a lot of money to get elected to public office. They buy ads, they buy signs, they pay campaign staffs, and so on. And yet, for free, you and I get to tell more than half of them, "Bite me."

You can't get much more American than that.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Timing is Everything

I went to college in the wrong decade. Were I an undergraduate today, enrolled at the University of South Carolina, I could take a course called "Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame." Lady Gaga, of course, is the stage name of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, the latest specimen of ephemera produced by the ADHD world of modern pop music. She wears weird costumes and releases silly songs, or it may be the other way around.

Either way, the good folk of South Carolina are helping subsidize an exploration of fame and celebrity via a study of the 24-year-old's career. According to the course catalog, “The central objective is to unravel some of the sociologically relevant dimensions of the fame of Lady Gaga.” To me, that description would suggest a very short seminar rather than a semester-long course, but I am not an academic.

The instructor believes the course is the only full-time college course in the country dealing with this matter. No doubt. Even modern college professors have some standards, dude.

ETA: A description of the course may be found here.