Thursday, November 28, 2019

From the Rental Vault: The Far Country (1955)

Director Anthony Mann and James Stewart made six movies together through the early and mid-1950s, and the collaboration is often credited with helping Stewart shed enough of his "aw-shucks" image that he could convince audiences of his moral ambiguity in his later movies with Alfred Hitchcock. Both star and actor relied heavily on the standard features of westerns, working within and through them to give Stewart believable dimension in his performances.

The Far Country came in the middle of their period of working together. Jeff Webster (Stewart) and partner Ben Tatem (Walter Brennan) head north to the Klondike Gold Rush but plan to finance their stake and operations with the proceeds from selling cattle to the mining community of Dawson in the Yukon. But on their arrival in Skagway, the port nearest the path into the gold rush area, Jeff runs afoul of a local self-appointed and corrupt judge named Gannon (John McIntire). His cattle are seized and he's forced to hire on with saloon entrepreneur Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman) in order for him and Ben to even reach the mining area. Though he outwits Gannon and regains his herd, he exposes himself as someone willing to manipulate others without much scruple if it gets him what he wants, and he shows little need or desire to offer help to others in need unless it benefits him as well. As the situation in Dawson deteriorates into one not much different from Skagway itself, Jeff's attitude alienates him even from those who have been his friends, like fellow miner Rube Morris (Jay C. Flippen) and the beautifully earnest Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet). Though it carries most of the trappings of the traditional Western, Mann and Stewart make sure that the conflict between the white hat of virtue and black hat of villainy happens much less on a dusty street than within the hearts of the characters.

The Far Country is in many ways the least satisfying collaboration between Mann and Stewart. Stewart's laconic manner and easy-going style don't back up Jeff's misanthropy and selfishly cruel "look out for #1" attitude. Too often it seems like Borden Chase's script teleports between narrative moments instead of navigating them, giving Jeff's arc a strangely truncated feeling. And this may be mildly spoiler-y, but by the end of the movie Jeff receives a redemption he has done little to earn, given the harm his brusque self-interest has brought to those who care about him.

Only McIntire rings true, and then only as the movie progresses. At first a seemingly eccentric jurist after the manner of a Judge Roy Bean, his malevolence slowly moves to the front until it glitters in the eyes behind his genial smile and verbal flourishes.

Although it's created out of whole cloth, Far Country borrows much from the different filmed versions of Rex Beach's 1906 The Spoilers, down to the hero facing a choice between a somewhat shady lady closer in age and temperament to himself and a younger, fresher face that symbolizes innocence. The familiarity of the storyline, the disjointed nature of Jeff's character arc and the frequently double-minded nature of the narrative leave The Far Country a confused and confusing destination.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019


Not to be outdone, the Lego company surpasses Tesla by unveiling its own "shatterproof" truck with an even lower carbon footprint and which actually lives up to the description:

Monday, November 25, 2019

No. It Isn't

Inside Hook reprints an item from a couple of years ago by Reuben Brody about the dreaded "discussions" that might happen with less enlightened family members during the Thanksgiving holiday.

Brody's list of ways to have these conversations seems pretty thoughtful and would, if adopted, probably go a long way towards defusing full-scale family brawls about this or that issue. His opening paragraphs, though, unfold the idea from the headline "It’s Your Civic Responsibility to Talk Politics at the Dinner Table This Thanksgiving" and need to be flat-out disobeyed or at the very least ignored as though they were never written.

Because it's not my "civic responsibility" to wreck everyone's dinner by putting my own political hobby horses onto everyone's menu. It never has been. That doesn't mean we reflexively shy away from the subject whenever someone brings up a political opinion, unless we want to. We can engage or not, and at whatever depth we wish. But it is not our responsibility to talk politics -- and even if it were, I would like the heads-up to come from someone other than J. Random Writer.

The kicker, though, comes in Brody's reason that this talk is our responsibility. It's because in the era of President Trump, we have large groups of people who talk past each other if they actually find themselves in the presence of someone who thinks differently. Thus, Brody says, we need to re-learn how to actually converse with another person, even about subjects on which we disagree. That's almost certainly true, but we won't do it by spending a couple of uncomfortable hours annually in the presence of family members or friends with different ideas in their heads and sharp metal objects on the tables before them.

It's our civic responsibility to be...well, civil to each other. It was so, long before the idea of living in the White House entered the president's proud, arrogant and myopically narcissistic head. It will be so, long after he has left the White House and the Democrats have rediscovered the part of the country they've been dismissing as knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers for the last four years.

Besides, far too much of my time is already taken up by the President and the troop of of Martin Van Buren wannabes who want to tell him he's fired. I'd rather not lose a holiday to it as well.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Explainer

In the latest edition of Existential Comics, Friedrich Nietzsche attempts to explain to his supervisor why he should not be fired from his job. And in doing so, he offers clear and convincing evidence of why he should be.

Philosophy has a cost for its devoted practitioners.

Friday, November 22, 2019


You know it's been a week when you read a post about the lizard people overlords some folks still believe exist and think, "Well, that's not so weird..."

Thursday, November 21, 2019


Writing in Scientific American, Charles Wohlforth and Amanda Hendrix outline a good case why Saturn's moon Titan would be the best bet among the bodies in our solar system for humanity to colonize. They say that it's atmosphere and other factors make up for the distance and provide people with their best chance to make a survivable, long-term place to live.

Personally, I don't much care where we go as long as we get going. But that's just me, reflecting on today's news cycle featuring copious doses of impeachment kabuki and the emptier reflection sparked by an empty debate. Your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

One Big Day

Just about every place in the country has some regionally well-known band that tears up the local clubs and commands a devoted following amongst the locals. These days they are far more likely than not to have some kind of indie release going on -- a Spotify playlist if nothing else. But in days of yore, the ability of a local act to get signed by a label and release a record, let alone an actual Top 40 song, was a much rarer thing.

So when New Hampshire-born, Boston-based quintet Face to Face hit #38 with "10-9-8" in 1984, that was quite the deal for them. Principal songwriter Angelo Petraglio's dissection of the way two people in a relationship danced around their countdown to ultimatums had, in the famous words of the American Bandstand quote, a good beat that you could dance to. Laurie Sargent's powerful assertive vocals gave it a different sound than a lot of other new-wavy dance tunes and things looked like they might pay off for the group, who had been playing clubs and shows -- mostly in New England -- since the late 1970s.

But the Arthur Baker-produced Face to Face was not the best representation of how the band sounded, they felt. Edgier rap numbers like "Under the Gun" were quite different from the bulk of their material, so they drew back from that sound on 1985's Confrontation. It did poorly enough that Face to Face and Epic Records parted ways, and the band signed with Mercury records for what would turn out to be their final disc together, 1988's One Big Day.

Day continued the trend of Sargent co-writing songs with Petraglia and other band members, as well as moved towards a more country-rock sound that anticipated No Depression magazine and the alt-country scene by several years (After the band broke up, Petraglia went on to produce and co-write with Kings of Leon -- winning a Grammy in doing so, in fact).

The different sound gave Sargent the chance to use different textures of her voice and feature more of guitarist Stuart Kimball in a more traditional way than had the dance-styled numbers of the first two records. The stretching served the band well -- the opening track, "As Forever as You," puts both of those tools at the service of some excellent poetic imagery for a song that should have kicked in the doors of every AOR radio station in the United States. Sargent belts "Change in the Wind" into as much urgency as she can manage and helps create the clear sense of impending change the title implies. "Never Had a Reason" ruefully recounts the moment when a separating couple parts ways and the major change they both now face in this new solitary life. "The Day I Was Born" warns listeners that the narrator/singer may seem trustworthy and loyal but in truth has a more selfish and less idealistic agenda, and "She's a Contradiction" suggests the same thing about a friendship the narrator has with a woman whose first interest will almost always be herself.

Although the same record company official who signed the band to Epic worked with them at Mercury, the label did not have a clue about how to market this kind of hybrid of literate roots rock fronted by a powerful and expressive female singer. They weren't alone: Geffen Records never knew what to do with Maria McKee and Lone Justice after signing them, either. Face to Face disbanded just a few months after Day was released, playing a final show in front of a rowdy club crowd in Boston in October 1988. Petraglia went on to produce and write as mentioned above, Kimball joined Bob Dylan's touring band, Sargent burrowed deeper into the emerging alt-country scene with other bands and reflective, low-tempo solo records and bassist John Ryder and drummer Billy Beard continued to work in the Boston music industry.

My exposure to Face to Face happened when I one day caught the video for "As Forever as You" on MTV, sometime in the early spring of 1988. Sargent, who was (and pretty much still is) as arresting a performer visually as she is aurally, along with the fountain-of-youth theme of the video, held my interest immediately. In the pre-internet days, only a trip to the record store could help you unwrap your new potential music interest and mine did exactly that -- when I heard the rest of the album and read the primarily Sargent-Petraglia-penned thoughtful lyrics, I was hooked.

I used to view with anger the failure of the music business to make hits out of quality and deserving artists while shoveling out literally ersatz gunk like Milli Vanilli. If the combo of label, music press and radio stations could put copies of Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" into the hands of hundreds of thousands of listeners, it was almost criminal they couldn't do that with stuff that was played better, sung better, written better and maybe even said something thoughtful into the bargain.

As I aged, though, my whine diminished. The "industry" was designed to favor image and pose over substance and it still is. Even the current review of One Big Day at the online database Allmusic suggests that the album "needed" a cover from some other local Boston act that was trying to break out in order to "get them out of their formula." I still wish that Face to Face, along with a host of other bands that crowded the edges of notoriety in the mid to late 1980s, had made it big, but I stopped being angry about that sort of thing awhile ago, as it didn't have much purpose. Now, I'm just a little melancholy over all of the good stuff people never got to listen to, and all of the artists who had to -- and still have to today -- keep their day jobs while mokes who tattoo their own faces amass fortunes they blow through in about 18 months.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Video Ladies

At his blog Noblemania, writer Mark Tyler Nobleman published a series of interviews a few years ago with the actresses who played in iconic music videos (The item at the link is with the woman who played in Journey's "Separate Ways" clip). Most of them had fun and even a few years of moderate notoriety in their own communities or among friends.

Which makes this a nice little piece of nostalgia, rather than the series of creepfests it could have been.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Clears That Up

Pictures taken underwater use the light that penetrates the water's surface to show the image. Obviously at great depths that light is nonexistent, but even at relatively shallow, brightly lit levels the water affects what color the light is. All but the very clearest water can give objects a blue tint when they are seen underneath.

Which means that the colors we see in underwater photography are not always true, by being shaded with a blue tint that's more or less heavy depending on how deep the water may be. It may also flatten colors and cause them to look the same when the objects being photographed actually range widely in color.

Enter oceanographer Derya Akkaynak and engineer Tali Treibitz, who developed an algorithm to shift images' color so that we can see what the objects in the photos would look like in normal above-the-surface sunlight. As you can see scrolling through the pictures, the differently colored light that filters down through the water can alter the color considerably from what the item would look like if it were not underwater. Like a lot of little digital tweaks that exist in the world, it may or may not wind up offering much benefit to people -- but it is pretty cool to look at either way.

Thursday, November 14, 2019


Poor Opus! Two of the smartest, well, one smart person and one smart basselope, anyway, differ on how to uncover meaning in the life around them and he just wants direction.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Still Wrong

Once the Disney+ streaming service was finally up and running, fans watched favorite shows and movies to which the mouse owned the rights. Including Star Wars. Which now has yet another version of Greedo the bounty hunter confronting Han Solo that doesn't acknowledge the plain and simple truth: Han shot first. No simultaneous shots, no quick-draw attempts from Greedo, no provocative utterances -- just shooting first in order to save his skin, 'cause that's the kind of guy he was supposed to be then.

Although it's not really possible to top Jar Jar Binks as the worst digital development new technology allowed George Lucas to put on the screen, this whole mess is coming close.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019


In a BBC interview promoting her new book, former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who lost two major bids for the White House, said "many many many people" are urging her to think about running again.

We have frequently noted how many skills of retail politics Ms. Clinton lacks. Anyone with two eyes and ears has noted how divisive her last run was. Since she would face the same opponent again and be no more likely to draw forth his good side now than then, we may expect at least that much division. We sometimes overlook how her 2008 run brought more than a few grumbles among Democratic women party leaders who thought then-Senator Obama's campaign staff adulterated (heh) their primary campaign against her with sexism. Some even publicly toyed with the idea of voting for GOP candidate Mitt Romney. In short, this woman is no unifying figure and has not been for many many many years.

Now, in the event that these people she mentions actually exist and are not a) all in Ms. Clinton's head, b) members of her household staff wanting freedom from her presence, c) a few folks wildly exaggerated the way politicians (and, of course, some clergy) do or d) a flat-out bald-faced lie, I have but one thing to say to them:

Shut the hell up, you morons.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Open Field

At Nautilus, Brian Gallagher makes a case for having professors who study why people are sometimes stupid, as well as the phenomenon of stupidity itself.

The subhead asks the question, "Why aren't there more people studying the science behind stupidity?" and it seems to me that the clear reason is data glut.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Test Pattern

Early dark makes a middle-aged grump sleepy. Back tomorrow.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Victim of Variety

People who've grown up entirely in what Casey Kasem used to call "the rock era," dating from when "Rock Around the Clock" hit #1 in 1955, have a lot of music backed up in their minds. Even if we listened to only one particular genre we live in a world with rock and pop music playing as a soundtrack at every clothing and grocery store and inside every mall. It was a major part of almost every movie and television show.

Which just means that when one of those songs from somewhere during our lives turns into an earworm, there's no telling where it might come from. Recently, I've had on heavy rotation three songs that have nothing to do with each other -- two have explanations but one I can't figure.

The version of Oingo Boingo's "Dead Man's Party" from an April 1987 concert gets a lot of play around Halloween and it's pretty irresistibly catchy. So when it made an appearance a couple of weeks ago in its usual holiday mode I found myself "pressing play" on the YouTube clip three or four times a day.

Jon Landau once tabbed a hard-working New Jersey rocker as the "future of rock and roll" and it wasn't John Lyon. Although as "Southside Johnny" and backed by the Asbury Jukes he toiled in the same clubs and venues as Bruce Springsteen and his E-Streeters, lightning never struck for him. But in the early 80s video era, programmers hungry for the next Bruce rolled the dice on Southside, promoting his single "New Romeo" and giving it a funny video with the singer as a sad sack running into a now-famous former girlfriend and her entourage. The band ditched "Asbury" from its name for this album, "In the Heat," and allowed some more modern sensibilities to undergird its solid soul sound, which makes the single more listenable than some of the cookie-cutter material from earlier efforts. It never made the charts, but it's been stuck in my head ever since I found an old mixtape that had the single on it and checked it out on Ye Olde Tube as well.

But prefab 80s rockers Night Ranger and their 1984 single "When You Close Your Eyes?" I got nothing, except maybe it was all over the radio that year and so it's planted firm in some neuron or another that was unfortunately missed in the Great Friar Brain Cell Die-Off of 1986-1992. I'm pretty sure 20-year-old me is disgusted at the results.

The problem, of course, is that the YouTube algorithm keys up Survivor's "Can't Hold Back" right after Night Ranger and now I've got another one stuck in there.

Thursday, November 7, 2019


At Quanta, John Pavlus writes about a new "artificial intelligence" program called Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) that regularly scores better than human beings on a particular kind of reading comprehension test.

The test measures how well a reader -- whether he, she or it -- comprehends material they have just taken onboard. It sounds a lot like some of the old Standard Reading Assessment tests I remember from school, only without the crutch of the multiple choice sorter. You could usually bet that if there were four possible answers that two of them were so obviously wrong it was funny, a third might sound OK but clearly showed some fatal flaw and the fourth was not just a right answer but the only possible right answer when the test-taker fired up more than two or three neurons.

Anyway, some old AI programs did really badly on the test, but it turns out that BERT regularly chalks up an 80 or 80 plus (kudos to Quanta for making the scientists in the illustration all resembled Sesame Street's Bert, by the way).

Some linguists and other scientists, though, think that BERT and similar problems "understand" what they read a lot less than they have just figured out some shortcut tricks that get to the right answer without knowing how or why it is right. It could be, for example, that my method of solving a multiplication problem featuring two three-digit numbers without a calculator or paper -- what's commonly called a wild-ass guess, for the curious -- will give me the right answer in that particular time. But it doesn't mean that I solved the problem. It just means that in this particular case my shortcut worked.

Although I found the article and the discussion very interesting, I think the headline hints at the reason it's ultimately moot and probably will be for the foreseeable future. It reads: "Machines Beat Humans on a Reading Test. But Do They Understand?"

Because if the AI was going to read like a person does, then the question would be something more like, "But Are They Inspired?" Because that's one of the things that reading can do. Leaving all the testing, algorithms, programs and shortcuts aside -- along with the nagging little reminder that the programs were created by people, not by themselves -- and that seems like a bar that it'll take BERT awhile to clear.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Shuffle Paw Change

At Bored Panda, you can find the results of a photo project by husband-and-wife photo team Kelly Pratt and Ian Kreidich -- 40 pics of ballet dancers posing with dogs. The duo frequently work with the Saint Louis Ballet and other dancers around the country and brought that expertise to the shots.

I'm hard pressed to say whether I like better the shots where the dogs seem to want to join in the dancing fun, leaping in mid-air like the dancers themselves, or the ones where they're just being ordinarily doggy and sniffing the face of the human who leans over to them. And there's a couple where Fido has that "WTH?" look at the strange contortions the two-legged critters are making. I pretty much like them all, and this has quickly become one of my favorite dance photography collections by anyone not named Lois Greenfield.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Highs and Lows

Eric Thomson's Commonwealth universe spans several centuries, and he has sets of novels in different eras of human expansion through the galaxy. Captain Siobhan Dunmoore's time includes the war with the fierce Shrehari -- a group of intimidating space warriors who aren't too much unlike the Klingons of Star Trek. By the time of When the Guns Roar, the sixth book of Dunmoore and her crew, the war is going well for the humans and poorly for the Shrehari. The latter, plagued by the problems associated with weak leadership and a corrupt bureaucracy, keep rotating their best commanders to retirement or worse and elevating incompetent people with good connections.

While the humans have their own problems with people promoted beyond their competence, they've had the luxury of some significant wins and have taken advantage of the way the Shrehari underestimated them when the war began. Dunmoore and her disguised battle cruiser Iolanthe have brought about several of those victories -- enough that the Admiralty wants her brought into a larger squadron to dislodge Shrehari invaders from systems they captured at the start of the war. Dunmoore chafes at the restrictions the chain of command places on her and the way inexperienced but ambitious officers want to ride her people's hard work to their own promotion. Meanwhile, the disgraced Shrehari commander Brakal retires to his people's equivalent of the House of Lords and works to make his government accept reality: Continued war against the hairless apes of Earth will bring destruction and defeat his Empire may not survive.

He may or may not have intended to do so, but Thomson makes the Brakal segments much more interesting than those with his series protagonist. He's structured most of the Dunmoore books as mysteries that the captain and her crew must solve before they bring their real enemies to battle but doesn't follow that model here. Several plot threads of Dunmoore's part of the book wrap up abruptly and rather clumsily, especially when compared with the charismatic Brakal's race against time to bring about his bloodless coup and save his people. In fact, those segments are actually the strength of the book and make Guns a good entry of this series and a fun read.
The rise of electronic publishing has let Jack Reacher creator Lee Child branch out a bit from his one-per-year schedule of Reacher novels. A handful of short stories and novellas, freed from the need to find themselves homes between the covers of printed books, have come out in digital format and let Child put out some quick and punchy -- pun intended -- stories about his wandering knight errant that couldn't sustain a full novel. About a third of the way into Blue Moon, a reader could be forgiven for wondering if it should have been one as well.

Reacher, on a Greyhound approaching an unnamed Midwestern city, spots an older man with a large amount of money in his pocket who's being targeted by a potential mugger. Being Reacher, he moves to thwart the crime and finds himself drawn into the circle of trouble being experienced by Aaron and Maria Shevick, an elderly couple enmeshed in a vicious world of loan sharks, warring criminal gangs, unethical computer entrepreneurs and soulless bureaucrats. Though the rival Ukrainian and Albanian criminal gangs have extensive numbers of thugs and guns on their side -- and don't even realize the Shevicks are caught up in their fight -- they'll learn that Reacher is never worth fighting against.

Child has dumped some clunkers in this 24-book series, but rarely has he crossed the line into, well, boring. We spend several chapters learning what exact problem the Shevicks face -- several more than we need to, with the couple themselves drawing the matter out with an unexplained reluctance that disappears with no more reason than it existed. The generic city that Child creates, unidentified so he can make it match the characteristics he needs for his story, feels flat and unreal. While the final battles with the different groups of bad guys come off with Child's usual panache, the buildup meanders and winds confusingly, offering repeated sequences that don't help clarify just where we are on our path to the endgame.

Blue Moon doesn't read like a novella or short story stuffed to make a full novel, but it does give the clear impression that it would improve immensely if it dumped about half of its length. It's not objectively lousy like TripwireBad Luck and Trouble and Nothing to Lose, but it's most definitely meh. If the Reacher books were all summoned to give accounts of themselves and defend the series, Blue Moon is the one that would say, "The Jack Reacher series is one with a long tradition of existence to its readers" and then stop, at a loss to offer much more than that.

Sunday, November 3, 2019


If your commencement speaker is Kurt Vonnegut, you will get some weird input. As this item at Kottke notes, he let the class of '78 at Fredonia State College in on his theory that there are not four seasons but six.

In between the autumn of September and October Vonnegut places a season he calls "locking," made up of November and December. Even though all of November and the first two thirds of December are technically autumn, they don't really feel like September and October. Then we have winter in January and February, followed by "unlocking" in March and April. Those months have traditionally been considered part of spring, but their ability to spin up bitter cold and nasty storms means they don't feel very springy.

I think he was onto something; and of course seasons are kind of arbitrary anyway. Remember that below the equator they are the exact opposite of those above the equator. So the "dead of winter" may be January or February up here, but it's July or August when you go south. And the different regions of the world have different seasonal impacts anyway. In some parts, you have only wet and dry, and they don't necessarily match with any lineup of spring, summer, winter and fall.

However you label it, I hate cold, gray and damp. And while I readily acknowledge that leaves losing their chlorophyll and displaying other colors can be a vivid and amazing sight, the problem is that the colors are a lie. They do not represent bright life, they only disguise approaching death. At least winter is honest about it.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Country United!

Today, the United States can finally begin to be of one mind about politics, as the last remaining person in the country who thought Beto O'Rourke would be the Democratic nominee for president in 2020 finally realized that would not happen.

In other news, new areas of agreement appear to be nearing as more people in the campaign of Senator Kamala Harris begin to discover she will not be the nominee either.

Unfortunately, the fantasy that former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can be president, though fitfully and painfully laid to rest in 2016, seems to have regained some traction amongst certain deluded individuals.