This blog is still alive, just in semi-hibernation.
When I want to write something longer than a tweet about something other than math or sci-fi, here is where I'll write it.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sure, it's the third world, but you really can't beat the climate.

This week has not been tip-top, worlds o' fun here at Stately Matty Boy Manor.

On Saturday, just as I was leaving the house, there was a power outage. I understand that it extended a few blocks to the east and south, but one block away to the west, traffic lights were working and it was business as usual.

On Tuesday, just as I was to start some tele-commuting work with a company down in San Diego, I can't get a dial tone and people trying to call in get a disconnected message. The system magically corrects itself later that day, but a call to a friend in New York is interrupted by static on Wednesday, and when I pick up the line to call back, again no dial tone, though a different bad sound from the bad sound on Tuesday.

Charming.

Tonight, as I get set to watch one hour of the three hours of TV I watch regularly in a week, I turn on the TV to discover the cable isn't working.

I am reminded of the few months I lived in El Salvador teaching math about thirty years ago. The only significant difference I can detect is that here in Oakland, I never have to shoo a three foot long iguana out of my living room and back onto the enclosed patio where he belongs.

Vox populi: The first public Highlight Reel™ discussion


I'm thinking about what it would take to host a website devoted to Highlight Reels™ and Milk Cartons™. I'd like to have a place like the late, lamented Jump The Shark website where people could stop by, leave comments, vote on topics and have their votes tabulated.

I've decided to put up a poll for the Highlight Reel™ for Madonna as an actress. I do not care for her that much as a performer, but mine isn't the only opinion that counts here. If you have a strong feeling, cast a vote in the poll that is at the top right of the blog and will stay there until mid-month. If your favorite Madonna performance in film or TV isn't here, drop me a line in the comments and I can add it to the poll choices. I've decided arbitrarily that videos don't count.

The Madge Highlight Reel™! Some of us may have been waiting decades for the Madge Milk Carton™, but no such luck. Let your voice be heard and let the debate begin.

UPDATE: Arrrgggh! Once people vote I can't change the list! The rabid fans of Shanghai Express and Swept Away are left without a voice! If I make the website I want to make, this won't happen.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Wednesday Math, Vol. 69: Multiple Definitions

In the 20th Century, there was a major push in mathematics for precise definition. Ever since the Greeks were working on geometry, way back before the birth of Christ, math has used language more precisely than most other disciplines, but over the past one hundred years, there was an emphasis on getting rid of any ambiguities that might exist in understanding of what a particular mathematical object was and the best way to define it, which in math usually means the most concise.


Consider, for example, a parallelogram. You might remember this definition from when you took geometry.

1. Parallel side definition: A parallelogram ABCD is a four sided polygon where AB is parallel to CD and AD is parallel to BC.

This definition is most common because it uses the idea of parallel sides, which of course is where the name parallelogram comes from.

There are actually three more definitions as well.

2. Equal side length definition: A parallelogram ABCD is a four sided polygon where the length of AB is equal to the length of CD and the length of AD is equal to the length of BC.

3. Equal opposite angle definition: A parallelogram ABCD is a four sided polygon where the measures of angle A is equal to the measure of angle C and the measure of angle B is equal to the measure of angle D.

4. Supplementary adjacent angle definition: A parallelogram ABCD is a four sided polygon where the sum of the measure of any two adjacent angles is 180 degrees, which is shortened in math to say adjacent angles are supplementary.

The thing about each of these definitions is that if you take any one as the given statement, you can prove the other three are also true. As far as geometric proofs go, they aren't that hard. The facts to use are:

1) The interior angles of an four sided polygon must add up to 360 degrees
2) The angles created by two parallel lines and a line that traverses both lines create eight angles with two possible measures, either x degrees or (180-x) degrees, and
3) a diagonal from one corner to the opposite creates two triangles, and if the four sided object is a parallelogram, those triangles are congruent.

20th Century precision would change these definitions very little, only making sure that the four points involved and the four line segments that connect them have to lie on a single plane. 20th Century conciseness would stipulate that the statement of the definition is exactly one of the four, since when any one is stated, the others can be proven directly.

Precision in mathematical definition is the discipline's great strength. Even though there are four definitions of a parallelogram given here, you would never see mathematicians argue about whether an object is a parallelogram or not depending on which definition was used.

The study of law prides itself on rigorous definition, but compared to mathematics, it is still ambiguous to a ridiculous level. We can see this in the arguments currently raging about what constitutes torture.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Promoting international understanding...


by staring at women's butts.

On the left is Princess Letizia of Spain and on the right is Carla Bruni Sarkozy, gigantic child bride of the small but perfectly formed President of France.

I have to admit a growing admiration for European royalty and right wing politics as practiced with Old World charm and diplomacy.

And the ladies who look goooooood walkin' away.

Hey, Matty Boy! You speak Spanish and French, right? Don't you think you could impress these lovely women?

I don't know, hypothetical question asker. Do ¡Ay, Caramba! and Oh là là! really count as being a polyglot?

Land of the Giant Milk Carton™

As previously mentioned, some TV shows count as Highlight Reels™ for much of their cast, while others are more like Milk Cartons™. It's the difference between being the best work of someone's career and effectively the last work.

For William Shatner, Star Trek is the Higlight Reel™. For DeForest Kelley, it's a Milk Carton™.


A show doesn't even have to be a big hit or cult classic to be the last stop for actors before they get their tickets punched for a one-way trip to Palookaville. Irwin Allen's Land of the Giants ran for two seasons. Like Star Trek, the production costs were very high for a TV show, what with all the odd sets that had to be built and special effects that don't look that special nowadays. Irwin Allen's big sci-fi hit was Lost In Space, but other shows like Land of the Giants and The Time Tunnel failed to find an audience and limped to the end of a season or two.

Not that the show doesn't have its fans. Blog buddy Dr. Zaius uses still shots from Land of the Giants as collage material occasionally, and personal cartoonist hero Tom Tomorrow outed himself as a fan of this piece of cheese on his blog.

If you are having a hard time recognizing cast members, you are not alone. From left to right, the front row is Deanna Lund, Stefan Arngrim and Heather Young, the back row is Don Matheson, Kurt Kasnar, Don Marshall and Gary Conway. Heather Young, the blonde, left the business and raised a family. Don Marshall was on two Star Trek episodes, and gets roles later in his career as Man on an episode of The Incredible Hulk and Slim's Henchman #2 in Uptown Saturday Night and Flight Engineer on Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew.

Stefan Arngrim, the kid, is still working to this day. You might remember his work as Druggie #2 on Dead Like Me or Cable Guy on DaVinci's Inquest or Hotel Clerk in Unnatural and Accidental.

Or maybe not.


I can tell you the reason both Land of the Giants and The Time Tunnel tanked. No sexual tension. Sci-fi and sexual tension go together like chicken and waffles. They had a pretty enough cast, but nobody was hitting on anybody. There was a little bit of a creepy vibe between Kurt Kasnar as the heel Fitzhugh and the kid Barry, but they decided not to go full on pedophile like Dr. Smith was with Will Robinson in Lost In Space.

Here is a publicity still of Deanna Lund with the miniature prop of the space ship the humans used to get to the planet where the the giants live. The scale on the giant planet is about 12:1, so this means there is a commercial space ship about forty feet long that seats a captain, co-captain, a flight attendant and several rows of passengers and has room for a very fancy engine that gets this thing airborne without wings. That may seem impossible to some of you people who studied, oh, I don't know... PHYSICS, but you have to remember that this is technology from the exciting and distant year in the future... 1983.

I should mention Ms. Lund's career after Land of the Giants. She was on an episode of Love, American Style. She was in a movie Jerry Lewis made in 1980, Hardly Working. She did settle down and marry co-star Don Matheson, but after they divorced, a career highlight mentioned in her bio is that she almost married Larry King, but they broke up and he married somebody else.

Nobody said being on a Milk Carton™ was easy.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Two modern crime classics, only one Highlight Reel™


Classifying a movie or TV show as a Highlight Reel™ isn't a sign of quality, as it could just be a Milk Carton™, the best work done by a lot of people whose careers faded away. On the other side, there are movies I like very much that I don't consider Highlight Reels™, largely because the cast is so solid that nearly everyone has other work that is either better remembered or just as good.

I love L.A. Confidential. I own it on DVD and I watch it every once in a while, or just scenes to remember the cool dialog. But if we define a true Highlight Reel™ as the best work of at least two cast members, L.A. Confidential would not qualify in my book. It's the best thing in Kim Basinger's career by my count, but the rest of cast listed on the poster have work this good or better. Russell Crowe is a genuine movie star now, and Guy Pierce starred in Memento, much more of a star turn than his excellent ensemble work here. Danny DeVito made his name on Taxi, and was terrific in a bigger role in Ruthless People. Kevin Spacey made a string of quality films in the 1990s, though the quality has sadly faded somewhat this century.

Even farther down the cast list, this excellent film is not a Hightlight Reel™ for James Cromwell (Babe, Six Feet Under) or David Strathairn (Eight Men Out, Good Night And Good Luck). Even small roles like the gay actor/hustler and the D.A. he is supposed to seduce are played by Simon Baker, now starring in The Mentalist, and Rifkin, a regular on TV shows forever, including featured roles on Alias and Brothers And Sisters.


Speaking of quality roles by Kevin Spacey, some people might choose The Usual Suspects as his Highlight Reel™. (Not me. I'd put him in the Too Good For A Highlight Reel™ category.) If we go across the seven names at the top of the poster, I choose The Usual Suspects as the Highlight Reel™ for three of the seven actors, though I concede each one is open for debate.

Stephen Baldwin: The Highlight Reel™ for this Baldwin brother. He showed up in quality films before this, but after The Usual Suspects his career takes a quality nose dive, though not a quantity nose dive.

Gabriel Byrne: I loved him in Miller's Crossing, so not a Highlight Reel™ for me.

Benicio Del Toro: Traffic and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas are excellent roles for him.

Chazz Palmintieri: Bigger roles in both A Bronx Tale and Bullets Over Broadway.

Kevin Pollak: A close call, but I think this is his Highlight Reel™.

Pete Postlethwaite: Another close call, especially with his great work in The Name Of The Father, Brassed Off and The Constant Gardener, but he is great here and the movie is a better remembered than his other excellent work, so I'm going to put his role as Kobayashi as his Highlight Reel™.

Kevin Spacey: I'm already on the record as saying Kevin Spacey is definitely in the Too Good For A Highlight Reel™ category.

Here's a non-hypothetical question: What do you think?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Go Laney Eagles!


In the fifth round of the 2009 NFL draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected running back Frank Summers of UNLV. 5'9" tall, 245 pounds, his nickname is "Frank the Tank".

Mr. Summers spent two years at Laney College in Oakland, his hometown, before transferring to UNLV. I saw him play against community college opponents, but my general impression is that Frank the Tank likes to hit people, and often when he does, they fall down and he keeps running.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that Frank the Tank took statistics from me at Laney and he passed the class.

Best wishes to him in his future endeavors. As an NFL draftee, he has already proven that he is a high outlier, as we say in the statistics biz.

TV Highlight Reels™


It's easier to find long-running TV shows that can be said to be the best work of multiple actors involved, sometimes the entire main cast, than it is to find a movie, even a very successful movie, that is the Highlight Reel™ for most of the cast.

I Love Lucy, the quintessential sitcom, clearly counts as a Highlight Reel™. It represents the best work of Vivian Vance, Desi Arnaz and William Frawley, and that can be said with little fear of contradiction. As for Lucille Ball herself, she had a significant film career before the show took off, and she kept working even after all the derivative versions of I Love Lucy went away. That said, this is the show that defines her career, and because it can still be found in re-runs half a century later, it can qualify as Lucy's Highlight Reel™, no matter how much fans might enjoy some of her early work like Stage Door or how much acclaim she got for later work like The Stone Pillow.




Some TV shows, even very successful ones, are harder to classify as Highlight Reels™. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is a Highlight Reel™ in my mind, but just barely. It is the best work of Gavin McLeod, even though he is lucky enough to find himself part of three different long running TV shows. It is the best work of Georgia Engel. But what about the rest of the cast?

For Mary Tyler Moore herself, her fans will be split between her work on this show and her work a decade earlier on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Some might even point to the movie Ordinary People. Ted Knight was great as Ted Baxter, but it's hard to forget his work as Judge Smales in Caddyshack. Some actors in this cast, including Ed Asner and Valerie Harper (not pictured here), reprise their roles in spin-offs, though the Lou Grant in Lou Grant and the character of the same name in The Mary Tyler Moore Show really don't have that much in common. Some Betty White fans might prefer Golden Girls. Cloris Leachman (not pictured here) not only got a spin-off show playing Phyllis Lindstrom, to many she will always be Frau Blucher.

A much more common situation on TV shows is to be a Highlight Reel™ by default, as some actors find it hard to get good work after a show goes away. That is certainly the case for WKRP in Cincinnati. Howard Hesseman, Loni Anderson and Tim Reid moved on from the show to star in other sitcoms, but the rest of the cast, including Gary Sandy and Jan Smithers, struggled to get good work. This type of Highlight Reel™ is more accurately classified as a Milk Carton™. This phenomenon is depressingly common, so I decided to name it as a separate sub-category.



Highlight Reel™ TV shows didn't magically disappear when the era of the Big Three TV networks sputtered to a halt. For my money, The Wire is the Highlight Reel™ for the entire cast, bar none. It's not for lack of work. A serious effort is being made to turn Idris Elba into a movie star, but I doubt he will ever get a role as good as Stringer Bell again. Many cast members have shown up on the Law & Order franchise in guest roles, and yet others have regular work on other TV shows.

Some may get chances to be in more memorable roles than they had on The Wire. But I'm not holding my breath waiting for it. This show was that good.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Highlight Reel™... 'splained up good!

Several of my blog buddies have had posts recently about their favorite films or discussions of the best work of a certain actor. Along these lines, I have come up with the concept of The Highlight Reel™, a movie or TV show that is the best work of multiple actors in the cast. Of course, "best work" is very subjective, but in some cases it's hard to argue.

To be clear, just because a movie or TV show is a Highlight Reel™ does not mean it is a great piece of work. Likewise, some great movies are hard to define as Highlight Reels™. For a lot of movie stars and actors with very long careers, it may be hard to find that one best piece of work. At the very least, there may not be widespread agreement on that best work. For example, I was a nearly obsessive fan of Humphrey Bogart films when I was younger, and I don't have a favorite role, but instead several favorites. Casablanca is the most popular Bogart film, but I wouldn't rank it head and shoulders above his other work in movies like The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Caine Mutiny, The African Queen, To Have and Have Not or The Big Sleep. To show my bona fides as a previously obsessive Bogart fan, I would rank somewhat lesser known roles in The Petrified Forest, We're No Angels and The Harder They Fall in a list of my favorite Bogart roles.

In my opinion, Casablanca is not a Highlight Reel™ for Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, as good as they were, but would count as the Highlight Reel™ for Dooley Wilson, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall and Leonid Kinksey. Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt, both great in this movie, had bigger and more interesting roles, especially when they worked in German films earlier in their careers. I would give the movie Semi-Highlight Reel™ status for Sydney Greenstreet, putting it on a par with his work in The Maltese Falcon.


A more recent movie that is a major Highlight Reel™ in my opinion is The Princess Bride, written by William Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner. It's not the Highlight Reel™ for either of them, because they have some excellent films in their C.V.s.

For my money, The Princess Bride is the best work for both the romantic leads, Cary Elwes and Robin Wright Penn. I've liked Elwes in other roles, most notably in Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow, but his role in The Princess Bride was more central. There hasn't been that much of Penn's later work I've enjoyed, or if I have, the roles are much less central to the story than Princess Buttercup was to The Princess Bride. (Don't get me started on Forrest Gump. Seriously. Don't!)

Other actors for whom I consider The Princess Bride their Highlight Reel™ include Chris Sarandon, Fred Savage, Mandy Patankin and Andre the Giant. (Some of these selections are opinion. For Andre the Giant, it's more like a mathematically provable theorem.)

It's a Semi-Highlight Reel™ for Billy Cristal, tied with City Slickers in my book. Likewise, I consider it the Semi-Highlight Reel™ for Wallace Shawn, though it's not as big a role as he had in My Dinner With Andre. As good as they were in it, I do not consider it a Highlight Reel™ for Peter Falk, Peter Cook or Christopher Guest, who have all had larger and better roles in other films.

I'm going to do a week of Highlight Reel™ posts, taking time off for my regular features, Wednesday Math and Friday Random 10. Feel free to chime in with suggestions for Highlight Reels™ of your own, but remember, it has to be the best work of at least two people in the cast.

Have fun!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Random 10+1, 4/24


Get On The Good Foot James Brown
What Do I Get? Buzzcocks
When I Was Cruel No. 2 Elvis Costello
State Trooper Bruce Springsteen
The Long Road Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Eddie Vedder
If You Don't Know Me By Now Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
Kate Ben Folds Five
Driftin' Eric Clapton
Once In A Lifetime Talking Heads
Thunderball Tom Jones

bonus track: Cemetery Polka Tom Waits

Okay, opening with James Brown? Is it actually going to get better from there?

Well, hypothetical question asker, I get your point. Opinions vary, but what you say is valid, so valid that I chose the CD cover as the artwork.

Usually, the Random 10 goes "all over the place" by including classical or show tunes or something from eras gone by, but all these artists are from the Rock Era, folks you would hear on rock or soul radio stations. Still, it gets ultra wacky. Some of the really simple stuff, like Bruce and Nusrat & Eddie and Eric, is really great, but I'm also keen on the more layered stuff, like Mr. James Brown and Elvis and Harold and Talking Heads.

And there's a Buzzcocks cut! Excellent.

I really couldn't let Tom Jones have the last word, so I waited for one more tune, and Tom Waits shows up. Couldn't ask for better.

Enjoy.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Truth and reconciliation

I haven't written that much about the Obama administration. What's happened so far isn't perfect, but some of the stuff has been quietly brilliant. No more nonsensical hand wringing over stem cell debates. Not trying to block the Plan B pill. Actually engaging on the topic of Cuba, only twenty years after the Berlin Wall comes down.


During the worst of the Bush administration, I thought it would make sense for the next regime in Washington to have a truth and reconciliation committee, not unlike what was done in South Africa or Argentina.

Law professor Jonathan Turley of Georgetown University, a regular guest on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, disagreed with my opinion, and did so in a way that convinced me of the error of my ways. He said the truth and reconciliation committees are for emerging democracies. For the United States, which is still supposed to be a nation of laws, the people who did things like approving torture need to reconcile themselves to the criminal code.

Thanks for the 'splainin', professor!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Wednesday Math, Vol. 68: Nigh unto INFINITE POWER!

Last week, I was talking about the ideas of string theory, which have as one of their consequences that the big bang did not come from a single infintesimal point, pressurized to infinitely high tempertures, but from an incredibly small but still measurable region of space at nearly unfathomable temperatures, but still finite and measurable. While math formulas can produce singularities where a value tends to infinity, the universe just doesn't have room enough for infinite power or time enough for infinite speed. In the real world, there are always limiting factors.

Except that I, Maty Boy, have stumbled on an experiment. It's childishly simple, actually, but it will give me access to virtually INFINITE POWER!


Mwa-ha. MWA-HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Sorry, mad scientist laugh. Hard habit to break.


Let's say we have a ten foot tall ladder. It has wheels on both ends and a track along the floor and a track up the wall, so that as we slide it, it stays in contact with both with the ground and the wall. Let's also stipulate that it is connected to a machine sliding the top of the ladder up the wall at a very leisurely one foot per second, which is less than one mile per hour. This means the bottom of the ladder is sliding as well, along the floor from right to left in this picture.

If the ladder started flat on the floor, at nine seconds the top is nine feet high along the wall. Where is the bottom of the ladder? We just need to use the Pythagorean Theorem, a^2 + b^2 = c^2. The ladder length of 10 is c and the height of 9 is a. 10^2 = 100 and 9^2 = 81, so the bottom of the ladder is sqrt(19) feet from the wall, about 4 feet, 4 inches away from the wall. In the last second, the bottom of the ladder, which traveled less than six feet in the first nine seconds, will have to be moving at least 4 feet per second.

Some of the keener students will here notice that 4 feet per second is not infinite power.

Wait, it gets better.

The top of the ladder is moving at a fixed rate, but the bottom of the ladder is getting faster and faster. In the last tenth of a second, the ladder will have to average 14 feet per second. In the last hundredth of a second, it will have to be moving at nearly 45 feet per second. The math says the closer we get to 10 seconds and the top of the ladder getting to ten feet high at a nice constant rate, the faster the speed of the bottom of the ladder with no upper bound.

Searching around the internets, sports physics websites say the amount of time a golf ball stays in contact with the club is measured at about a half a millisecond, or 0.0005 of a second. If there was a hole in the wall at the bottom and I teed up a golf ball with the edge of the ball about 1.2 inches away from the wall on the inside, and a golf club head was attached to the bottom of the ladder, the club would be moving at 200 feet per second and accelerating when it made contact with the ball. In comparison, when Tiger Woods swings his driver, the club head is moving about 183 feet per second.

Nice shot, Alice. Does your husband play golf, too?

Mwa-HA!

Of course, if the ladder was being lifted faster, the bottom of the ladder would be moving faster. If the ladder was moving two feet per second going up, the ball should be teed up at 1.7 inches inside the wall, and the club head speed would be about 280 feet per second and accelerating. The increase is by a factor of the square root of 2.

If the ladder and the wheel tracks are made of strong enough stuff with low enough friction coefficients, we could try this experiment and probably get some impressive whacks on a golf ball. The problem is the whole infinite power thing. Stresses to the connections to the wall and the floor would be great. If we pull a ladder away from a wall it isn't connected to, it loses contact with the wall part of the way down and the rest of its fall is due to gravity and not the Pythagorean Theorem. In the last tiniest fractions of a second, heat and torque will conspire to slow the moving ladder down so that it can't be going at infinite speeds.

Sigh.

So what will we be doing next Wednesday, Matty Boy?


The same thing we do every Wednesday, hypothetical question asker. We will try to take over the world!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Where credit is due.


The ruddy faced guy with the scruffy beard at the left is Al Alcorn, software engineer. The paler, somewhat less scruffy guy leaning proudly on a Pong arcade machine is Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari. It's completely understandable why Bushnell should beam so broadly standing next to a Pong machine, because it was the start of his tremendously successful business, which he sold to Time Warner for a bundle before it crash and burned.

Small quibble, though. Al Alcorn invented Pong. He was the first employee of Atari. Nolan Bushnell invented Computer Space a year earlier when he worked for Nutting Associates. Computer Space is the game in that odd looking red metal flake painted piece of plastic on the right.

You have to be a waaaay old school nerd like me to remember Computer Space. It was the very first coin operated video game available to the public. It was not a big financial success. It had four buttons that let you turn a spaceship left or right, apply thrust or fire a missile. When it came out in 1971, no one had ever played a video game, and the learning curve was just too steep. Eight years later when video games were a big part of the culture, the four button control system was the basis for Atari's big hit Asteroids, which while similar in control had a lot better and more involved game play.

The plastic that Computer Space was packaged inside is still a cool looking object. It's what people thought the future would look like in 1971. In the 1973 movie Soylent Green, which is set in the distant future of 2022, there's a Computer Space cabinet in the corner of the luxury apartment of the murdered rich person.

Back in the real world, Pong comes out a year later in 1972. The learning curve is not steep. Here's the learning curve for Pong.

"Okay, so what am I supposed to... oh, never mind. I get it."

1972 is The Stone Age in the video game world. If anyone references Pong nowadays, it's just to show how archaic it is. It's not that long ago in human terms. Famous people born during the heyday of Pong include stars Jason Statham, Idris Elba and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and has-beens like Dana Perino, Ginger Spice and Liam Gallagher. Athletes born in 1972, including Shaq, Manny Ramirez and Zinedine Zidane have all seen better days.

Just a little reminder that 1972 was a very different time, from an old person who was actually there and still remembers it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Keeping up appearances.


Doing a quick check, I haven't had a post about Indira Varma with a picture since January. If I don't have at least four posts a year about her, I could lose my standing in the Internet Stalkers Guild, which I only joined because of the excellent benefits package, including partial dental and full vision.

So anyway, Shonda Rhimes, the woman who is responsible for Grey's Anatomy is making a pilot about the TV news industry entitled Inside The Box, the story centering on a feisty female producer played by... oh, I think you can guess.

The good news is Ms. Varma is at the top of the bill. We don't have to worry about a Torchwood scenario, where she was part of the cast in the first episode but her character was killed off immediately. It's been three years and I'm still a little peeved about that.

Should Inside the Box survive the pilot season and get picked up by a network, Matty Boy will again have the opportunity to marvel at the lips, the eyes and (dare I say it?) the collarbone of Ms. Indira Varma on my personal TV screen.

Sigh.

Throwing the jackals off the trail.


One of the biggest non-Susan Boyle stories in entertainment news right now is Mel Gibson's wife of 28 years finally getting sick of the two-timing bastard and filing for divorce. While I don't want to be put on record as being strongly pro-divorce, there are many famous Catholic men over the years who have shown no respect for their marriage vows, but knew their wives had no option but to accept the humiliation of their public philandering. I don't want to single out Gibson because I hate his politics. Spencer Tracy, a passel of Kennedys and phone sex aficianado Bill O'Reilly all belong to the club of famously unfaithful Catholics happy to humilate their long-suffering wives.

Anyway, a divorce over a near billion dollar estate certainly gets the press' attention, and what could be better than Gibson snapped in public with the home wrecker, as this picture from Costa Rica last month claims to be? Well, it would be better if the press could put a name to the face, or two be more precise, a first and last name. All that was known was she is a mystery woman named Oksana. First, the press thought she might be a Russian pianist, but the woman in question denied it. Then, a Russian pop singer named Oksana claimed to be the woman in question and the press ran with that, but this Oksana was lying for the attention. Now, the press thinks they have it right with Oksana Grigorieva, Timothy Dalton's ex-wife, but yet another mystery brunette who may or may not be Grigorieva was seen leaving Gibson's trailer on a movie set in Boston just recently.

Of course the press looks massively incompetent in all of this, but it does highlight how tough getting the news is when no one is willing to go on the record. No one can say if Gibson and his new floozy will be able to survive on a mere half billion, especially since we now live in a Soviet-style dictatorship where the tax rate for the wealthy is as high as it was when Mel made Braveheart.

Sorry, I was trying to channel a teabagger with that last sentence. It's hard to make any sense thinking the way they do.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hatin' on commercials and hatin' on a product.


The insurance company GEICO is doing something very strange, and has been doing it for years. They run several different ad campaigns at the same time for the same product, namely their bread and butter, car insurance. They've had the ads with the gecko for a long time, and likewise the ads with the cavemen. For a while, they had ads with actual customers sitting next to the most annoying celebrity spokespeople possible, but those have mercifully been pulled. The new superfluous campaign is the money you could be saving with GEICO, a small pile of bills with googly eyes on top of them. Of all their miserably unfunny campaigns, this one may be the worst.

Nobody is making meaningful ads about car insurance right now, so I don't blame GEICO in particular for being frivolous about a serious subject. They are trying to be funny like everybody else, but all of their campaigns fail massively as far as I'm concerned.


NetZero has a new campaign with their chairman Mark Goldston informing customers that they could save big money if they switched from DSL to dialup, which only costs $9.95 a month. NetZero doesn't expect people to remember that they originally promised free internet back in the day, but that isn't the real problem now. The real problem is that a dial-up speed connection is next to useless on the internet in 2009. If you do anything more information intensive than answering e-mail, you will hate being online at dial-up speed, especially if you've had a high speed modem so you know the difference. Even much of e-mail now relies on attachments, and the glacial download speeds will make people crazy today. Hell, Comcast has ads mocking how slow DSL is compared to cable internet access. I haven't tried cable, but I'm not unhappy with what I have now. That said, I would never go back to dial-up, even if it was dirt cheap or even free. It's like trying to convince people of the advantages of horse drawn carriages now, and this is coming from someone who has become a very cautious adopter of new technology now in my advanced years.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

So what should Susan Boyle sing next?

That's a very good question, hypothetical question asker!

For those of you who haven't heard of Miss Boyle, she's a contestant on this year's edition of Britain's Got Talent, and her video on You Tube has gone crazy viral since it was put up earlier this week. There are several different version of it on You Tube, but the main one now has over twenty six million hits since Wednesday. Blog buddies Pissed Off Patricia and FranIAm both have links. I heard it first through an e-mail sent to me by my sister Karlacita! The Huffington Post is weighed down with bloggers who got e-mails from family members who rarely if ever send viral stuff, but Susan Boyle has certainly hit a nerve.

If you don't know the story yet, the show Britain's Got Talent is in the regional section where they pick the people who will be on stage for the next few weeks. This is the time when the producers will pick a few completely hopeless people with dreams to go on stage who humiliate themselves completely. American Idol does the same thing. The most famous example is William Hung, a homely engineering student with no voice who parlayed people's disbelief into a minor celebrity status.

Well, Susan Boyle may be as homely as members of Monty Python were when they dress in drag, but she has a professional quality voice and she chose the perfect song for her debut, I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables. It is right in the sweet spot of her range and the song is about life crushing the dream of a woman, which is what we expect is Miss Boyle's life story. About this, I'm not so sure. She's a devout Catholic and she spent many years taking care of her ailing mother. While the story presented on TV is that she's a 47 year old unemployed virgin spinster who lives with her cat, she does have a social life, both at church and singing karaoke in the local pub.

The thing is, she can't surprise us again. We now know she can sing. Ten years ago, she had a recording of Cry Me A River on a charity CD released by a Scottish newspaper. It's not perfect in some of her choices for phrasing, but all the notes are definitely there. It would be an excellent choice for another song for her to sing on the show, but she needs more tunes if she continues on the show. Currently, British bookies have her as a prohibitive favorite to win the whole thing.

A song like Don't Cry For Me Argentina would be very easy for her to sing, but completely out of character. She needs to choose more songs that people can identify with her life story. Here are a few modest proposals.

Solitude by Duke Ellington
There are a jillion great loneliness songs. This is one of the best.

Here Comes the Flood by Peter Gabriel
"Lord here comes the flood.
We shall say goodbye to flesh and blood.
If again the seas are silent and any still still alive,
It'll be those who gave their island to survive.
Drink up, dreamers, you're running dry. "

The Green Song by Elvis Costello
The One True Living Elvis wrote this song for operatic soprano Annie Sofie Von Otter, a duet between a person alive and another who is dead. I don't know if Susan has the high note in her arsenal, but it's a lovely tune that matches her life story taking care of her mum.

When She Loved Me by Randy Newman
Sarah McLachlan sang this in Toy Story 2. People who don't cry when they hear this... I'm not sure they are people.

Children Will Listen by Stephen Sondheim
Since she wants to sing show tunes, this might be the easiest of these songs to sell to Ms. Boyle. Again, I don't know how high her range goes. Another good choice from Sondheim would be Not A Day Goes By, which has a shorter range and the right emotional message.

What would you like to hear her sing?

An appreciation of Ciarán Hinds


Ciarán Hinds is one of those great actors from the United Kingdom who has been an "oh, that guy" to me for about a generation. I couldn't put a name to the face until he landed the plum role of Julius Caesar in HBO's Rome. Until recently, I knew his name but pronounced it incorrectly. It's "Kier-an", just like celtic is pronounced "Keltik" everywhere in the world outside of Boston. He's from Northern Ireland originally, but his accent sounds to me like the standard educated person from the Isles. There may be a Henry Higgins out there who can spot the Irish undertones in his voice, but it isn't me.

In Rome, Hinds underplayed the role of Caesar brilliantly. He's aloof but generous, demanding and ruthless but charming, always the smartest guy in the room, except that his chief slave may be just a tad smarter. Some regular readers might think I watched Rome just waiting for scenes with Indira Varma (sigh), but that isn't entirely true. There was one scene with Hinds and Varma together, when he visits Vorenus, his comrade in arms in Gaul and asks him to run for office. Varma's character is terrified at meeting Caesar, who is as charming as hell. She offers him some water from their well, which he graciously accepts. She has no more lines in the scene, this being man talk time, but in the middle of the negotiations, Caesar off-handedly says, "And, by the way, the water is delicious, thank you, my dear." This gives the director a chance to give Indira a cutaway reaction shot, and we all know how I feel about more screen time for Indira Varma.

In the United Kingdom for at least a generation or two, there's been no stigma about doing work on TV in comparison to doing film work. Hinds had an important role in third season of Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren as Jane Tennyson, and played the male lead role of Edward Rochester in a TV version of Jane Eyre. Not everything he has done has been in "quality productions". He was on an episode of Tales From The Crypt and had a pivotal role in the recent Disney film Race to Witch Mountain, starring former wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. I didn't see either of the last two things mentioned, but in everything I have seen, he's been excellent.

Which is not to say I haven't been disappointed sometimes. In There Will Be Blood, he gets the part of Daniel Day Lewis' right hand man in later scenes, but really isn't given that much to do in the film. I saw this after I had seen his work as Julius Caesar, and I kept waiting for his character to get more to do, but it never happened.

On the other hand, he landed a small but pivotal role in last year's Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, starring Frances McDormand. On the extras part of the DVD, the back story of how the film was made and the novel from which it was taken is told. The original book by Winifred Watson was just a light bedroom farce, with Miss Pettigrew playing the character who magically fixes everything for the silly young people around her, like Jeeves always does for Bertie Wooster and his mates. But the movie also included the approach of World War II into the tale, and the two older characters, Miss Pettigrew and Joe, the successful lingerie designer played by Hinds, are the only two in the cast who have real memories of the previous war, which adds a little weight to an otherwise frothy film. While Hinds may not be as pretty as George Clooney, it's completely understandable how two women would be fighting over him. He exudes a manly authority brilliantly well.

I can definitely recommend Rome and Miss Pettigrew if you haven't seen them yet, and also Prime Suspect 3. Looking on imdb.com, he was also in the film Excalibur back in 1981, where he met another actor, Liam Neeson. According to several internet sources, the two are still close friends to this day. I've put Excalibur on my Netflix list just to see how many "Oh, yeah, that guy!" moments there are in it, watching it twenty eight years after the fact.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Matty Boy and the Kiss of Probable Death.


Just because I like a show is no sure sign that it must die a miserable death, but outside of shows on HBO and Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, my record over the past few years isn't good. I posted last month about two new shows I like, Kings on NBC and Dollhouse on Fox. Kings has had very weak ratings on Sundays, so it is being moved to Saturdays effective this weekend. Dollhouse was planned for a thirteen episode run as a mid-season start show, but Fox has decided only to air twelve. Fox pulled similar crap on the show Arrested Development in its last season, and for my money that was the best program Fox produced this century. Neither Dollhouse or Kings is currently canceled, but the news isn't good.


Then again, I am finding myself tuning every weekend to Legend of the Seeker, a syndicated show being shot in lovely New Zealand, produced by the company that brought us Xena, Warrior Princess. Besides lovely scenery, we get beautiful young people Craig Horner and Bridget Regan as the Seeker and the Confessor, respectively, and the tall guy with the grey hair in the background is Bruce Spence, one of the actors I discussed in a post called A Tale of Two Bruces. There is a lot of lovely scenery, so it's okay if Mr. Spence decides to chew some of it. There's still plenty left over.

On TV, beautiful young people are a dime a dozen. Legend of the Seeker has some interesting ideas, a plot device that promises to keep the beautiful young people from ever becoming a couple and an arc which promises the show should actually come to a resolution in one or two seasons. It's in syndication, so the probability of the show being canceled is much less likely than it is for the shows discussed earlier.

Matty Boy says check them out.

Random 10, 4/17


James Bond Theme Monty Norman Orchestra
Georgia Lee Tom Waits
Blue Chair Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Who's Lovin' You Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
The Wind Cries Mary The Jimi Hendrix Experience
The Broad Majestic Shannon The Pogues
Se Tu M'ami (Pergolesi) Cecilia Bartoli
Don't Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim! Kirsty MacColl
(Nothing But) Flowers Talking Heads
Koka Kola The Clash

A return engagement for the skinny kid and the wheel of fortune, just because we haven't seen him for a while. The tunes are all over the place this week, but home base is punk and new wave of the 70s and 80s. If we used the "Stop right here! It's not going to get any better!" rule newly instituted by Padre Mickey over at The Dance Party, Jimi Hendrix would get the last word. The video is a live version in Stockholm from 1967 in front of a tiny crowd. If you ever wondered "Was Hendrix any good?", watch this 'cause... damn. He's playing lead guitar and rhythm guitar at the same time and singing the vocal. Elvis, Cecilia and David Byrne get live performances, too, but as much as I love them, they aren't Jimi Hendrix.

We went 10 for 10 on the You Tubes this week, which I think is a first. The most jarring switch of songs is going from super cool James Bond to a tragic ballad by Tom Waits, but there are a lot of sharp left turns. Enjoy, but watch the posted speed limits.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Back in my day, young whippersnapper...

In my post a few weeks back about the seven generations of home video game consoles, the second generation was dominated by the Atari 2600, the first platform for which I wrote games lo those many years ago. The end of the second generation is officially in 1984, brought down by the next dominant machine, the Nintendo Entertainment System, introduced in 1983 and well established in the market by a year later.


While young people will have no memory of Atari as a dominant cultural force, an era which ended about a quarter century ago, some of the people still creating bits of pop culture are older than the kids I see in class, and they are referencing the olden days in their art. The box artwork on the left is for the home version of Asteroids. Atari went with this font and package design all the way through the era from 1977 to the mid-80's. The box color would change from cartridge to cartridge, but the rest of the package had to have the Atari look and feel. Competitors such as Activision, Imagic and Mattel picked a design and stuck with it, though obviously designs different from the Atari packaging template.

The cartoon show The Venture Brothers, now in a break between its third season and its fourth, has released the third season on DVD and Blu-Ray, and who they are stealing from is obvious to anyone who remembers the era. I reviewed the third season last year, and lamented that the show was stuck in retelling the back story of all the characters, maybe a little too much. While I enjoyed the first two seasons more than the third, I do appreciate the truth in advertising of the packaging, as it references an important part of my youth, such as it was.


Other references to Atari's Golden Age have surfaced recently in the video game sub-culture, including these parody box covers for modern day hits Halo 3 and Bioshock. While I appreciate the joke, the nerd in me looks at the artwork on the box and thinks "There's no way you draw those pictures on an Atari 2600! Too many objects are sharing the same scan line! You can't change the laws of physics, and 76 machine cycles, two players, two missiles and a ball aren't going to be able to draw the stuff, especially in the middle of the screen where the action is happening!"

Being a nerd can ruin a good joke sometimes.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Wednesday Math, Vol. 67: The Elegant Universe


Last July, I wrote a Wednesday math post that gave a summary of the position of physicists who are opposed to the ideas and practice of string theory. Today, I will give the string theorists time to present their case, which is presented brilliantly by physicist Brian Greene in his 1999 book The Elegant Universe.

Yesterday, I wrote a post about what crazy people believe. I even got an actual crazy person to post a comment! Well, people like me, whose craziness can be debated, we believe something, too.

Deep down, I believe math works.

You may not think the word "believe" is needed. It takes no faith to see that 12-5 = 7, which is to say if I bought a dozen eggs and I've used five, there should be seven left.

But when we deal with the real world and physics, the math gets trickier and the things being described more complex. Forces like gravity and electromagnetism aren't just added and subtracted. Geometry starts getting involved, and Einstein proved that the geometry is taking place in a universe that isn't nice and flat, but that bends and warps. The math gets a lot fancier, but it still works.

Here's where the belief comes in. Math is pristine and clean and the world is messy, but math still works. That's surprising. Math can deal easily with the concepts of infinitely big and infinitesimally small, but the best evidence in physics is those things never happen. Here is where belief in math becomes an article of faith.

Ideas in physics change, and when dealing on a human scale, they change rather quickly. Einstein's equations could work in a universe that was expanding or shrinking or standing still. He believed it was standing still, so he chose the "cosmological constant" that would make his equations show a static universe. It was really a fudge factor and that isn't elegant. Even in his lifetime, the evidence for an expanding universe was becoming clearer. By the 1960's, when radio telescopes detected low level background radiation in every direction you could point a telescope, physicists agreed that the "sound" they heard was the echo of the big bang, and that the expanding universe wasn't up for debate anymore. It may have gone against an intuition of Einstein's, but the reality of an expanding universe let us get rid of an arbitrary cosmological constant and general relativity was its elegant self once more.

There is no elegance in quantum mechanics. It just works, and insanely well. John Von Neumann, the great Hungarian genius who is credited with first completing the equations that are the underpinnings of the quantum theory, has a quote. "Young man, in mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them." Once the rules of sub-atomic particles were turned into math, one obvious rule of the macroscopic world, the world big enough for us to see, had to be thrown away. While two things couldn't be in the same place at the same time, some things like photons could be in two places at once, and simple experiments proved it.

And then there was physics' dirty secret. The elegant relativity and inelegant quantum mechanics couldn't both be true at the same time. One of the theories, both of them brilliant at explaining the world at vastly different scales, was incorrect.

String theory hopes to reconcile the irreconcilable by saying the universe isn't what we think it is. Instead of three spatial dimensions and a fourth dimension of time to explain the position of a thing in spacetime, there are six more spatial dimensions we can't see. Or maybe seven. No string theory tells us there is another time dimension, which I think could be really cool.

And herein lies one of the big problems of string theory, and Brian Greene to his credit doesn't hide it. There are currently five different ten dimensional string theories and one eleven dimension string theory. Some of them are "duals" of one another, which means we could be looking at the same thing in a different state, the way water is the same as ice is the same as steam, just at different temperatures. There is also a hope to unite all the string theories into a unified theory called M-theory. Still, there is no denying that string theory has opened a Pandora's box. Relativity is loved for its simplicity, the fact that if we accept the curvature of space, some confusing things like gravity have to work the way they do because it's just geometry. String theory has an overabundance of possible ways the universe can be, and physicists have been spoiled into thinking that it really should work exactly one way with no "special rules".


Since I am only writing a blog and The Elegant Universe is a well-written book of about 400 pages, clearly I am simplifying the case quite a bit. Lemme 'splain, as well as I can, the idea of hidden dimensions.

As I said before, even in quantum mechanics two things can't be in the same place at the same time. In math, a line is considered to be one dimensional, with only length, but no width or depth. It is supposed to be infinitesimally thin in two different directions. If we think of this ant on a garden hose as a point on a line, no other ant can be exactly where this one is. But the surface of a garden hose has two dimensions, and there can be another ant at the exact same place in the left-right dimension on the side of the garden hose we can't see. While nothing in the universe is truly infinite, we can make the garden hose as long as we like, at least as a thought experiment, so the length is macroscopic. In string theory, the hidden dimension is the circumference of the garden hose, shrunk down very tiny, down to less than the Planck length, a smallness far beyond human scale at 10 to the power of -33 centimeters. Still, it counts as a dimension, and in some equations even this tiny thing cannot be ignored.

One of the things that makes string theory "elegant" is that these tiny dimensions mean that the big bang didn't start from something infinitesimal, but instead from a thing that has an incredibly small but measurable size. Here again is where mathematics becomes a faith. Ever since the Greeks, we have accepted the ideas of points and lines and planes, things with zero or one or two dimensions embedded in the three macroscopic dimensions we see around us. We need these concepts to do the math, they do not conform to the physical world in any way, but still math works.

Ben Franklin said beer is proof that God wants us to be happy. I believe math is proof that God wants us to figure out this world we live in, and for some of us, that makes us happy, too.

(UPDATE: Changes made to reflect the corrections of my good friend Ken Rose. Also, this is my 1,000th post. Yay!)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What crazy people believe.

There's a guy on Fox News named Glenn Beck that has become a rising star after struggling on CNN Headline News. He is garnering the highest ratings on cable news right now. Before you are impressed by this, realize the biggest star on cable news is something akin to tallest midget in Texas.

Beck has started his 9/12 project, which is aimed at bringing us back to the way we felt on September 12, 2001. Personally, that day I was worried that very little good was going to come of this, and history has proven me right.

9/12 also stands for 9 principles and 12 values. The second of his prinicples, right after America Is Good, reads as follows.

I believe in God and He is the Center of my Life.

Beck is a devout Mormon. That is his perfect right. The thing is, he has decided to put some dead people forward as his heroes who wouldn't want anything to do with him.



One of his heroes is Thomas Paine. Paine would have hated Glenn Beck and everything he stands for, but the right wing suddenly thinks Tom Paine is their hero. He was a firebrand and iconoclast and believed strongly in taxing the socks off the rich to give chances to the poor.

More than that, here are a few quotes from Paine on the topic of religion.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

~

Any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be true.

~

Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.

Paine would be writing 24/7 against the right wing, but he's dead and Americans are bad at history, so these pinheads think he is on their side.


Beck is also big into Ayn Rand. At least Rand would agree with Beck on taxes. She hated government. But she grew up in Soviet Russia, so what does anyone expect?

On the other hand, she also hated religion. Paine has at least a few quotes that take a balanced view of religion, but Rand wasn't big on balance. What she loved, she loved and what she hated, she hated. And she hated religion.

Here are a few of her quotes on the subject.

For centuries, the mystics of spirit had existed by running a protection racket - by making life on earth unbearable, then charging you for consolation and relief, by forbidding all the virtues that make existence possible, then riding on the shoulders of your guilt, by declaring production and joy to be sins, then collecting blackmail from the sinners.

~

And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride.

This god, this one word: I.

That's right, Ayn Rand believed god was the self. No other higher authority existed. While Beck claims to be a devout Mormon, the way he makes stuff up, he might have more in common than he realizes with the self-loving and faith-hating Rand.

Some justice.


On the evening of February 3, 2003, someone put a gun in the mouth of Lana Clarkson and pulled the trigger. It happened at the home of Phil Spector, a man Clarkson had met only that evening. The gun was owned by Spector, who had a decades long history of violence and threats of violence. Moments after she died, Spector told a chauffeur "I think I just killed someone."

It took the Los Angeles police ten months to arrest Spector. Free on one million dollars bail, Spector hired a team of lawyers, inlcuding Robert Shapiro, who stalled and delayed the trial for four years. A first trial ended in a jury that could not come to a unanimous decision. Yesterday, a second jury handed down a verdict of second degree murder against Spector.

As judges are fond of saying on TV, I would like to thank the jury for their service.



As for the Los Angeles police and district attorney's office, I don't see any reason to thank them. The cops aren't afraid of the public in L.A. They are known for their aggressive behavior. But they are afraid of expensive lawyers, and a psychotic like Spector had enough money to hire expensive lawyers.

The U.S. Constitution has prohibitions against excessive bail, which is an important right of the accused, but it also has guarantees of speedy trials, which should protect not only the accused but the victims of the crimes. High priced lawyers earn their money by slowing down trials. Martha Stewart is a notable exception to this rule. She was accused of her crime after the Enron theives were accused of theirs, and her trial, conviction and prison sentence were done before the Enron trial empaneled the jury.

This crap has got to end.

We don't have to change the law. We need to have judges who want to see these practices end. After the first or second continuation, I would like to hear a judge say "Mr. Shapiro, you have just asked for a three month continuation. I am willing to give you a six month continuation instead, where you spend the first three months in county jail for contempt of this court, and then three months to prepare your case further. You can take this deal, or you can start the trial on the date we agreed to the last time you stood in front of me. Which would you prefer? The offer ends when the gavel goes down."

I don't want to see this done on a regular basis, but if it happened a few times, I think the legal profession would get the message and the right to a speedy trial would return to this country.

What do you think?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Old Jews Telling Jokes

Another answer to what is best in life is a well told joke. My friend Amelia gave me a pointer to the website Old Jews Telling Jokes, which has some very funny stuff on it.

Of course, one should always get a free trial before going to a free website, so I present here without charge, Malcolm Busch telling the joke "Drobkin".



What, you could tell it better?

What is best in life?

To crush your enemies, to drive them before you, to hear the lamentations of the losers.

With apologies to conservative screenwriter and director John Milius for paraphrasing his version Conan the Barbarian, the conservatives who see the difference in the parties as a culture war are currently taking a decades long ass whupping, and this week the disarray in their lines was nothing short of remarkable.

Make no mistake. Though the phrase "culture war" was made famous by Pat Buchanan in his speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, just before George Herbert Walker Bush lost, the culture war has been raging for much longer than that. The side that believes they must deny basic rights to other American citizens they consider "the enemy" are losing, and have been losing for a very long time.

Several decades ago, many but not all on the conservative side fought the battle over race, trying to deny rights to anyone who was a racial or religious minority. They failed. Now, they see the need to deny basic human rights to gays. They are failing there as well, though with votes like Proposition 8 in California, they can claim some victories.

But look where the battle is being fought. Thirty years ago, the Briggs Initiative in California wanted to deny gays the right to teach in California public schools and was defeated. Now, the battle line is over whether committed gay couples can have the same legal rights as enjoyed by heterosexual couples who want the state to recognize their union and gain the legal benefits granted to married couples.


This week, three of the most openly and happily bigoted people in our country made startling admissions.

Look at those pleasant smiles from happier times. Currently, all three are mid-ass whuppings, and their outlooks are not so cheerful.

On Larry King's show last week, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who in the past has called homosexuality a biological error, called committed gay couples "a beautiful and very healthy thing." The rumor is that Dr. Laura got involved with the ex-gay movement recently, and saw just how bat guano crazy those people are and had a conversion.

Also on Larry King last week, purpose-driven homophobe Rick Warren asserted that "during the whole Proposition 8 thing, I never once went to a meeting, never once issued a statement, never -- never once even gave an endorsement in the two years Prop 8 was going."

He's lying, of course. The You Tubes are a pesky thing, and there's a recorded announcement of his support, but look at how he backs away from it now. If I may get all biblical on his fat behind, he has been weighed on the scales and found wanting.

He was supposed to be on one of the Sunday talk shows yesterday, but moments before airtime, he claimed exhaustion and backed out.

He's right. Lying is hard work. No wonder he's so tuckered out.

It would be too much to ask dyed in the wool bigot Dr. James Dobson to be seen doing 180 degree turns in public. Instead, he gave a whiny little screed of a going away speech to his group Focus on the Family, claiming that his side has lost the culture war, which of course in his world view means we are "awash in evil".

We aren't awash in evil, doctor. You're leaving the stage, which means there's a little less evil now that there was the day before. The evil is denying people the freedoms you take for granted, the right of freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion, the rights to equal protection under the law for all our citizens.

It's not over. It's never over. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. But just as gravity is objects taking the simplest paths in curved space, so will citizens of a society that prizes freedom continue to demand that basic human rights should be enjoyed by all citizens, not the few who think of their citizenship as better than the franchise offered others.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The race is over! Please no more wagers.


Last month, I proposed a guessing game as to which thing would be in Washington, D.C. first, Senator Al Franken or a dog for the Obama girls. The contest, which I had hoped would not turn into an excuse for gambling, but no such luck, is now over.

Meet the White House puppy, a Portuguese water dog named Bo.

The Obamas set themselves a difficult task and they did not succeed completely. One of the girls is allergic, so they needed a breed that doesn't shed much. They also wanted a rescue dog. They got the first, but not the second.

Personally, I thought they bit off more than they could chew with the two requirements. If not for the allergies, a rescue dog would have been an excellent choice, but they took five months to keep a promise to two little girls. I think people have forgotten how long a time five months is when you are seven years old.

Here's my opinion. Kids deserve puppies, and vice versa. A rescue dog is usually older, and that's a good choice for older people, but puppies and kids have the same energy level and love for the newness of life. They were meant for each other, and they both have a lot to learn, which they should learn together.

The girls were keen on the puppy names Frank and Moose, but Mama Obama vetoed those. The name Bo is not bad, but for my money it sounds too much like "NO!", a word any puppy should become intimately acquainted with in record time. We'll see how this works out.

In conclusion, this wasn't a perfect choice. The Obamas set too high a goal, then had to compromise, and it took longer than it should have. But thinking about who we had in the White House less than twelve weeks ago, I am loath to complain.

And now a new race. Which will we have first: Senator Al Franken in Washington or Alex Rodriguez in the Yankees line-up?

When Jump the Shark jumped the shark.


It's not often that a slang phrase that becomes part of the vocabulary can be traced back to a particular person, but according to Wikipedia, "jump the shark" was coined by Sean Connolly in 1985 and popularized by Jon Hein (pictured here) on the website jumptheshark.com. Connolly was Hein's college roommate. The phrase refers to the moment when a TV show starts its downward spiral, and comes specifically from an episode of Happy Days where Fonzie jumps over a shark while water skiing.

The original website jumptheshark.com was both funny and informative. It had categories of ways to jump the shark, like "Very Special Episodes" or "Recasting" or "Ted McGinley". Mr. McGinley is considered a jinxed actor by some, and his hiring is a sign the show is going down, though not immediately. There is a younger actress named Rena Sofer who is sometimes referred to as "the she-McGinley", the curse for a new century.

In any case, jumptheshark.com thrived from 1996 to 2006 with the spirit of a bulletin board, the standard way an internet site existed back in the early nineties. People could come onto the site, make comments on shows being discussed or add a topic of their own. Software kept track of comments and you could see what were the most popular opinions about when a show went downhill. It was also possible to vote for "never jumped" if you thought a show had stayed strong from beginning to end.

This weekend, I was flipping channels and saw a late episode of Ballykissangel, the British show about a small Irish town. It was very clear the production values had slipped, shot on video instead of film. I watched the early seasons of Ballykissangel on DVD and was of the opinion that the poker tournament episode was the moment the show jumped the shark, and wanted to see what other people thought. I went to Google and typed in "jump the shark".

The original site no longer exists. These things happen. Sadly, Jon Hein sold out to TV Guide, so people can still go to a site called jumptheshark or jumpedtheshark or jumpingtheshark, but it is a cruel hoax, a miserable piece of corporate crap that only has the same name as a formerly useful part of the internet.

Mr. Hein, enjoy your money. But know that your beautiful brain child is now a deformed zombie, and future internet generations will be left scratching their heads as to why anyone thought this was a cool idea in the first place.