Avatar, the hugely expensive special effects spectacular directed by James Cameron, has been out for two weeks now and has already sold a quarter billion dollars worth of movie tickets. The opening weekend was not as successful as many other recent films, but the second weekend was a huge record breaker. For example, the current box office champ for 2009 is Transformers 2. On the first weekend, it sold $109 million of tickets and the second weekend fell off to $42.3 million. Avatar's first weekend was $77 million and the second weekend was $75.6 million. Lots of movies drop off at least 30% from the first weekend to the fsecond. Dropping off 60% like Transformers 2 is a sign of truly awful word of mouth. Dropping of less than 5% is a sign of great word of mouth, and let me add to that a little word of blog advertising. Avatar is a terrific movie experience and seeing it on the big screen is absolutely mandatory to get the full effect. Some people may tell you it has to be seen in 3D IMAX, or at least in 3D. Some people may tell you to watch it while stoned. I saw it "just" in 3D and without chemical enhancement, and I have to say that it won't be the same for people who wait to see it at home on DVD or Blu-Ray, no matter how awesome their home entertainment systems are.
This decade has been filled with movies that are the cinematic equivalents of Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson, simultaneously very pretty and completely empty. Some of these bimbo films have done great business, though after the fact the public's attitude often becomes one of scorn and derision. Among the truly dreadful big budget beauties I've seen in the last ten years are The Dark Knight, 300 and Peter Jackson's version of King Kong. This is not the company that Avatar keeps. For a special effects extravaganza that tells a great story, I would put Avatar up with The Matrix and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. As much as I enjoyed the early Terminator films and Aliens, this is easily James Cameron's best movie as far as I'm concerned. (I'm not a fan of Titanic, but I do respect that he was able to combine the genres of Chick Flick and Big Shit Blowing Up movies, a.k.a. BSBU, in the same remarkably successful film.)
Many of the big budget successes this decade have been taken from books, like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Avatar feels more like a movie that is meant to stand on its own. Any adaptation from a book has to leave things out or risk being overstuffed, but because Avatar is written specifically for the screen, it can have the right number of characters and a plot designed to hold the audience's interest for the nearly three hours it takes to tell the stories. One of the people I went to the movie with complained about some clichés in the film, most notably the scientists vs. military plot line. The complaint is valid, but my feeling was that the story was a great updating of the science fiction style from the mid 20th Century, when it was all about the brave humans exploring the universe and fighting bug eyed monsters.
The important point that makes Avatar stand out is that the humans are absolutely, positively not the good guys in this story. Many reviews, both positive and negative, take note that this is an allegory for the war in Iraq and American interventionism in general, but because it is presented as allegory, Avatar will sell as many tickets all the movies set in Iraq this decade combined, possibly more. (I do not include Three Kings on the list of movies set in Iraq that nobody saw. It came out in 1999, before George W. Bush was president, when Iraq was equated to the quick and successful Operation Desert Storm in the American consciousness, not the quagmire handed to us by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.)
Without giving any more of the story away, let me say I give Avatar my highest recommendation. The world that is created is beautiful and plausible, the biology created on Pandora looks both fantastic and realistic at the same time. There are characters to root for and root against, the pace of the movie is very good and the time flies by. When people discuss the films that were important landmarks in combining of special effects and live action, Avatar will be part of that discussion for decades to come.
If you have even a whiff of interest in this film, go see it on the big screen in 3D. You'll be glad you did. If you want to see it in IMAX or enjoy a little chronic beforehand, let me say I didn't do either, but I'm not stopping you if that's your preference.
The vast majority of mathematicians who are renowned for their work in the sciences are physicists. Sir Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) was an important figure in the fields of statistics, evolutionary biology and genetics. On the Wikipedia page, Anders Hald proclaims Fisher "a genius who almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science". There was a time when people might have believed that, but the modern view usually gives a lot of credit to a very important predecessor, Karl Pearson (1857-1936).
Pearson came up with many of the basic ideas of modern statistics a generation before Fisher, and was a particular thorn in Fisher's side early in the younger man's career, disagreeing with him in print and disputing his results and methods. Pearson was co-founder of an important British publication Biometrika, and Fisher tried to have papers published in the journal, only to have them rejected or severely edited. Fisher did not take this well, and became Pearson's sworn enemy, his bitterness lasting for decades after the older man died. Later in his career, Fisher became the editor-in-chief of Biometrika, and did everything he could to repudiate Pearson's ideas, most notably the measurements of skew and kurtosis, once considered basic tools in statistics but now no longer covered in elementary classes. Many of Pearson's cast aside ideas are making a comeback, but even Fisher could not make people throw out the Pearson correlation coefficient, often written as rx,yor with the lowercase Greek letter rho, still a central concept in the field.
I do not want anyone reading this post to think that Fisher was just a minor Ronny-come-lately in the field. Many of his ideas are still vital in the field, as is his classic text The Design of Experiments.
In the 1950's, the British physiologist Richard Doll published several papers linking cigarette smoke to disease, and Fisher took great exception. His main disagreement was based on the completely valid assertion that correlation is not causation, but he also had bones to pick with Doll's methodology. Fisher would give Doll no help in correct his methods, though some other leading lights in the field, including the Polish-American mathematician Jerzy Neyman, were willing to help, and as the decade wore on, statistically valid studies in both the United Kingdom and the United States were published showing the linkage, even though the actual carcinogen in tobacco smoke was not isolated until the 1970's.
Fisher was correct that correlation is not causation, but his adamant position had much more to do with his general bloody-mindedness and his love for smoking. By the time of his death in 1962, no other important statistician was agreeing with him that the studies were all poppycock, and after his death, no serious voice in statistics took up the banner of his crusade.
As I listen to the arguments on both sides of the debate on global warming, I am reminded of Sir Ronald Fisher. Many skeptics and deniers of the man-made causes of global warming point to groupthink being the cause of the large consensus of people in the field who accept the basic premise. But when they speak, I hear the ghost of Ronald Fisher, brilliant in so many ways but afflicted with that all too common human defect, the deep desire to believe that nothing is really our fault.
The Highlight Reel™ poll for Robert Downey, Jr. this decade is closed and the choice that came out on top is Always Good, no Highlight Reel™. Tied for second are two recent hits, Tropic Thunder and Iron Man. Some of his ensemble work that I enjoyed, like Good Night, and Good Luck and Wonder Boys got no votes, but given how many choices there were, that was bound to happen.
I'll admit I voted for Always Good, so I have no problem with the outcome. Other thespians who were voted in this category are Emma Thompson and Mr. T. Some anonymous person wandered by and voted for Always Sucks. I'll be happy if they stay anonymous.
So I was by myself, thinking deep thotz, (you know, the usual) when I had a brainstorm for a new blog I'm calling It's News 2 Them™. What I am going to do is keep tabs on the tabloids, so you don't have to.
Hmm, I wonder where I might have stolen that sentence construction?
In particular, I will be keeping track of celebrities who are mere moments from death's door (Brave Last Days), months or years from death's door (Not Long 4 This World) and relationships that are on the way out (On The Rocks). I will report only what I can surmise from the headlines on the front page, because I still refuse to read these rags, as this puts me in a state of uncleanliness that requires ritual ablutions.
The basic idea is to see how much stuff they get right, how much they get wrong and how many stories they should have played up that they flat out missed.
If this sounds like fun, you will see updates of the blog in my blog reader list. Stop on by, why don'tcha? Morbid giggles and feelings of moral superiority towards your betters await!
I have written about the cartoon The Venture Brothers every year I have had a blog, most notably here, here and here. I listed it as my second favorite cartoon show of the past twenty years behind The Simpsons, but truth to tell, even when I had cable I didn't watch The Simpsonsevery week, and I never missed an episode of The Venture Brothers. The show has had its ups and downs, but it is right now the only network show I love that hasn't been canceled, other than Mad Men and The Boondocks, both of which are in the long hiatus between seasons.
Adult Swim, the late night section of the Cartoon Network, has decided to have sixteen episodes in season four instead of the usual thirteen, splitting the season into two eight episode arcs. The first half is now over, and I appreciate the work done by the writers Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer. At the end of season three, they killed off an important minor character, Henchman 24, and had the coolest character on the show Brock Sampson quit his job as the bodyguard for the Venture family.
If you are a fan of comic books, you already know that death is not really a permanent situation, and that holds true in The Venture Brothers universe as well. Several characters were shown to be "dead", only to come back to life through one odd plot device or another. Henchman 24 appears to be well and truly dead, but we also see that he is haunting his old friend Henchman 21, shown above in the picture. As a duo, 21 and 24 were hilarious as characters and useless as minions. Their boss The Monarch once said they have the perfect combination of henchmen traits, both expendable and invulnerable. At the end of season three, 24's luck ran out, and this set 21 on his new quest to be all that he can be as a henchman.
Throughout Season 4.1, we had seen 21 talking to the skull of his departed friend 24, but in the final episode, we see the world through 21's eyes, so we hear both sides of the conversation he has with his welcome apparition. This last episode was also the only one this season to feature Brock Sampson in a major role. It was a very satisfying conclusion to this first half season.
Currently, there are only three shows I make an effort to watch as soon as they are available online: The Venture Brothers, JossWhedon'sDollhouse, now wrapping up its second and final season, and the cheesy but enjoyable Legend of the Seeker, now in its second season in syndication and featuring two healthy heapings of feminine eye candy, TabrettBethell and Bridget Regan, as well as manly eye candy Craig Horner and veteran scenery chewer Bruce Spence.
While this post is about The Venture Brothers and the most important character in the fourth season, Henchman 21, since I wrote "feminine eye candy", I decided to use the important rule of visual story telling, "Don't say it, show it." For this reason, I include pictures of Ms. Bethell and Ms. Regan. As you can see, they are fine examples of The Beautiful Young People, and they have that whole blonde/brunette, bad girl/good girl vibe going for them. Many of the plot devices from Terry Goodkind's novels are very good, and I like the show more than I like his books, because Mr. Goodkind can get a little preachy and full of himself.
There is still one game left in this week's schedule of real football games, but the fantasy football league I play in is all finished. The Mutant Mercenaries lost the third place game and finished out of the money in fourth place. My opponents scored over 270 points, and that is a very high number indeed. The Mercenaries scored 229.28 points, and if I had been clairvoyant and put the exactly right team on the field, I could have had more than 280 points. There's no logical way I could have put that exact combination on the field, and it obviously wasn't close, so there's no worrying about that now.
In the championship game, the Golden Domers, the team that knocked me out of contention last week, beat my nephew Adam's team, KennyPowersIsGod. The two players in the big game decided that the loser would have to fork over the cash for the championship belt, which will be available to the winner of the league each season, even more reason to come back next year.
While my readers have largely been filled with ennui reading these posts, I will be playing next year and putting up some kind of updates, possibly on the sidebar.
While I spend most of my time as something of a cyber-hermit, I actually have put on pants and visited with people face to face over the past few days, and I have a few more get togethers still on my busy social schedule. I'd like to thank my gracious hosts, my nephew Adam and his girlfriend Liz, my brother Michael and his wife Janelle, my father Bud and his wife Beverly, and for the parties yet to come, my niece Holly and her husband Cleavon, and my friend Larry and my Dad again for a movie.
I may not be having quite as much fun as the guy in the center of the picture, but I'm still enjoying myself, thank you very much to all concerned.
I don't have that many holiday tunes on my list, but I put them all together in one place then shuffled them, and here's the order. If I can't find a link, I'll put a few lyrics in.
Another Lonely Christmas Prince
Last night, I spent another lonely Christmas without you, Darling, darling, you should have been there Because you are the one I dream about, You are the one that makes my heart shout, you see, You are the only one I care for. I Saw Three Ships A Sailing The Chieftains (with Marianne Faithful)
I saw three ships a sailing in On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day. I saw three ships a sailing in On Christmas Day in the morning.
I said Jesus gonna be here He's gonna be here soon He's gonna cover us up with leaves And a blanket from the moon With a promise and a vow And a lullaby for my brow, I said Jesus gonna be here He's gonna be here soon.
The Wexford Carol The Chieftains (with Nanci Griffith)
Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep Their flocks of lamb and feeding sheep. To whom God's angels did appear, Which put the shepherds in great fear. "Arise and go," the angels said, "To Bethlehem. Be not afraid. For there you'll find this happy morn A Princely babe, sweet Jesus born."
If you get your information from the dull and corrupt mainstream media, you cannot help but think that the vast majority of the scientific community accept the quaint ancient hypothesis that all humans are mortal. You may be completely unaware of the honest skeptical opposition to this hoary canard held by many respected researchers in the field. As a skeptic on this point, I have not made up my mind, but I have seen the sloppy work done to support the staid conventional wisdom with the flimsiest of data and woefully weak logic skills. I have never talked to even one of the orthodox true believers, the “death junkies” as they are known in the skeptical community, who has yet to show a logical argument that proves without question that I will someday die. Their arguments invariably include some weak attempt at an induction proof that would be laughed out of any sophomore mathematics class.
Are you aware, for example, that in the all the United States, there is not one state where the death rate from all causes in a single year reaches one percent of the population? And yet, even with this clearly tepid data, all the “death groupies” claim that this proves everyone will eventually die.
Stuff and nonsense!
But the worst of these people, the greediest and least believable of these “death vultures” are those who would claim that Anthropogenic Life Termination (A.L.T.), which they label with the scare term “murder”, is a major societal problem that we should spend millions of our tax dollars trying to prevent. They are always ready to spend your hard earned dollars, either by discouraging this incredibly rare event in a public already unlikely to commit these alleged acts or punishing the people the “death pimps” accuse of these so-called crimes.
I’ve already opened your eyes to the true rarity of death, but what if I were to tell you that in the vast majority of the United States, not only is death a less than 1% a year event for the general population, but A.L.T. accounts for less than 1% of the already tiny 1% of deaths? Yes, the alleged “murder epidemic” is actually barely a A.L.T. hiccup if the real numbers are being discussed, not impacting the lives of even one in ten thousand people annually, and possibly less when you realize who is charged with keeping those numbers.
Why, you may ask, are these numbers so horribly masked? It’s the work of the “death community organizers”, an unholy alliance of layabout, thumb-sucking bureaucrats in the local law enforcement agencies and district attorney offices, aided and abetted by the Federal Bureau of (Mis) Investigation and in league with the powerful trial lawyers’ guilds and prison guard unions. Why, you ask, do they conspire? All of these people, many of them supposedly in adversarial relationships with one another, would all have to find honest livings if the public ever decided that A.L.T. was a minor nuisance, if not actually a massive hoax. Add to this toxic mélange an easily duped and sensationalism loving media and an honest discussion of the true facts becomes as unlikely as a hurricane in Hampshire.
Clearly, the worst of the worst of the “death mafia” are those who rail about the alleged A.L.T. cases that involve firearms, as though firearms have anything to do with the act, if such acts can even statistically be proven to occur! Guns were created for sport and manly bonding, handy tools designed to humanely reduce the population of disease carrying vermin such as deer and quail. But try telling that to the “death by gun wackos”.
The skeptical community is convinced that actual A.L.T. cases have taken place in the historical record. After all, we are skeptics, not ostriches with our heads in the sand. In the Bible, it clearly states that Cain slew Abel, or Cain ALTed Abel, as we say in the skeptical community. When A.L.T. can decrease the world population by 25%, even we skeptics agree that is something that must be dealt with. We are not unreasonable people! But perhaps the “death by gun Nazis” fail to realize that the gun hadn’t been invented yet! How do they explain that? One of their precious murders, verified in the Word of the Lord, but not committed with a gun of any kind! Obviously, they are mute on the subject.
I realize this is a lot of important information to process. Like Plato’s prisoners in the cave, you may believe the shadow world you have lived in before this moment more real that the true reality to which you have just been exposed. Oh, bitter fate that I live to give sight to the often ungrateful blind! But some of you may see the light, and spread that light to others until it envelops the world.
Go! See! Spread! Envelop! The word of truth so commands you! Remember to embrace the skeptical viewpoint at all times!
Except, of course, when I tell you something. Then you are just being a difficult asshole.
Since this is my 102nd weekly math post, which doesn't count posts that I put in that include mathy-ness that aren't published on Wednesdays, it should come as no surprise that I've written about the Pythagorean Theorem before, way back in Volume 3 of Wednesday Math. Last week, I talked about base 60 being ancient math, borrowed from the Sumerians and still in use when we deal with seconds and hours and degrees in geometry. The Pythagorean Theorem is likewise ancient, and it was understood by civilizations around the world and proven many times in many different ways. In my first post on the Theorem, I presented two proofs that deal with the areas of squares and the areas of right triangles to prove a² + b² = c². The only math we need to make these types of proofs work is the ability to expand (a + b)² and the knowledge that in a right triangle, the simplest base and height are the two short sides a and b, often referred to as the legs of the triangle so the area can be written as ½*ab. People are more likely to remember the word hypotenuse, the special name for the long side of a right triangle.
Here's a completely different proof using different math to prove the same thing. The picture is a right triangle laid flat on the hypotenuse with a square below it, which means the area of the square is c². A vertical line is drawn from the top the triangle to the base of the square, cutting the square into two rectangles. The drawing is much simpler than other Pythagorean proofs, but the math is a little trickier. The strategy is to find the areas of the two rectangles that make up the square and prove that have areas equal to a² and b², so the area of the square they combine to form can be written either as c² or a² + b². Instead of the simple math of the area of squares and right triangles being used, we have to use the rules of similar triangles to complete this proof.
Here is the previous diagram labeled. Our goal is to re-write the areas of the rectangles PSUV and RTUS, which we know are cx and cy, respectively. The three triangles, QPR, SQR and SPQ, are all right triangles, and since the little triangles share an angle with the big triangle that is not the right angle, each of them must be similar to the big triangle, which means they are similar to each other. There are many properties of similar triangles, but the one we need here is that if we line up the sides in the correct order, the ratios between corresponding sides of two similar triangles are equal. This is a fancy way of saying that geometrically similar objects are effectively "the exact same shape" drawn to different scales. (Technically, congruent shapes, same shape and same scale, are still similar, so the scales don't have to be different, but in this drawing, all three triangles are different sizes.) We are going to use these facts to write x and y in terms of a, b, and c.
The lengths of the sides of QPR and SQR in the same order.
Sides of triangle QPR in ascending order of length: a b c Sides of triangle SQR in ascending order of length: y h a
We set up the ratio equality marked in bold, a/y = c/a. Cross multiplying we get a² = cy, which is to say the slender rectangle on the right has the same area as the square of the short leg of the right triangle. Now we take the same steps with the triangles QPR and SPQ, again with the relevant sides marked in bold.
Sides of triangle QPR in ascending order of length: a b c Sides of triangle SPQ in ascending order of length: h x b
When we take the ratio b/x = c/b and cross-multiply, we get cx = b². This proves the rectangles are equal in area to the squares of the lengths of the legs, squares we did not even bother to draw in our diagram because they were not part of the proof.
I blush to say that I only discovered the existence of this proof a few weeks ago. If you are one of those weirdos who really like math, this should be right up your alley. One of the great beauties of math is that completely different methods can be used to get to the same place, and learning those different paths can show you that things you might have considered unrelated to one another share some deep, underlying truth.
About two years ago, I wrote in passing that a really excellent proof is as pretty as a hummingbird. That's certainly how feel about this Pythagorean proof and others, and the added marvel of how different they are from each other.
It's been a while since we've had a Highlight Reel™ poll, so I've decided to put up a new one that will run for a week. The slightly different twist this time is that instead of looking at an artist's entire career, we will just look at one segment.
The artist is Robert Downey Jr. and the segment of his career we are looking at is the last decade. Looking at the last ten years is not just an arbitrary marking of time on the calendar, but also marks the work he has done since his release from prison. He took a lot of work in indie movies and ensemble casts earlier this decade, including a stint on TV'sAlly MacBeal, but as of writing, it's clear that Downey is a bonafide movie star once more, a bigger draw now than before he did time in the slammer. His may be the greatest comeback from this kind of adversity for any Hollywood actor since Robert Mitchum did time in 1948 for a marijuana bust.
Besides the standard template choices of Always Good and Always Sucks, I arbitrarily chose ten movies Downey has been featured in over the past ten years. Several of the early movies are indies like The Singing Detective, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and A Scanner Darkly, while much of the middle of the decade he was in big budget ensemble pieces like Good Night and Good Luck and Zodiac. More recently, Downey is back to having his name above the title, largely due to the great success of Iron Man. I'm not sure it's Downey's best work this decade, though it is certainly in the running. I would count it as the best comic book superhero movie I've ever seen, and Downey's performance is a big reason for that ranking. I also have included the new movie Sherlock Holmes, which I haven't seen and likely will not see, since it will open while the poll is running and some readers may like it.
The poll will stay open until next Tuesday. One vote per customer. Let me know what you think.
The six game winning streak for the Mutant Mercenaries came to an end in the semi-final round of the playoffs, falling victim to multiple lackluster performances by players in the Mercenary line-up and a stellar performance by Joshua Cribbs, who plays in real life for the hapless Cleveland Browns and is owned in my league by the Golden Domers. Cribbs ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns, one of 100 yards and the other of 103. Those two plays alone are worth 50.30 points in the league I play in (10 points for a return touchdown, 10 yards for a point, bonuses of 5 points for 100 yards in a game and another bonus at 200 yards.) The final score was 258.92 to 182.68. This same Mercenary line-up had been scoring like mad for a month, but obviously, that month is over. Congratulations to the Golden Domers and best of luck in the finals.
It is a small consolation that the Mutant Mercenaries were the second best team our of the four teams still in the hunt, since we ran into the league's best team this week. In the other playoff game, my nephew Adam's team faced 2E's Terrors. When the whistle blew at the of the last game on Monday night, Adam's team KennyPowersIsGod had lost a heartbreaker, 173.62 to 173.28. Though all games were done, the final official tallies were not in yet, and Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, owned by 2E's Terrors, was downgraded from 2.50 points to 1.50 points, which means my nephew's team won, 173.28 to 172.62, and he will be in the finals. Kudos to Adam and best of luck to him.
So I face 2E's Terrors in the consolation game, a team that beat the Mercenaries in the regular season match-up. The winner gets $50, which is the entry fee for the league, so one of us will have had all this fun and heartbreak for free.
This is not a post about global warming or greenhouse gases or whether the level of trans fats in a tasty salty snack make a significant difference in a person gaining weight or not. This is about the science of sound.
Here's the thing. Science is hard. Compared to science, math is easy. If you get the work right in math, there are no arguments. It might be there is another way to solve the same math problem, but it has to come up with the same solution or one of the two ways is wrong. But science is trickier, and even when we get an explanation that works in science, this doesn't mean we understand the whole problem. Sometimes theories get overturned completely or they get fine tuned. That is the nature of scientific inquiry.
What causes thunder? Common sense tells us that whatever causes lightning must cause thunder, and that's true as far as it goes. Technically, the accepted scientific explanation of today is that atmospheric conditions cause lightning and lightning then causes thunder almost instantaneously. This is one of those fine tuning things.
Common sense tells us that for a noise that loud to occur, there must have been a collision of two solid objects. Aristotle believed it was the sound made when two clouds collided, and I was taught something like that when I was in school about fifty years ago. It's not the accepted theory today. In a lot of fields of science, you have to throw common sense away because incredibly powerful forces often have unseen causes.
The cause of lightning is still a strongly debated topic in science. The standard theory argues that it has to do with positive and negative charges in the water in a rain storm, some of it turning to ice crystals and getting an opposite electric charge to the water that remains in liquid form. Another theory postulates the objects with opposite charges are the ground and parts of the cloud. Others think cosmic rays are involved.
The cause of thunder is less controversial, but still not completely nailed down to everyone's satisfaction. Lightning is incredibly hot, and superheats the air around the bolt, dramatically changing the pressure which creates a shock wave. The "rolling" effect to the sound is due to the length of a lightning bolt, the sound of multiple shock waves at varying distances away from the listener. There are some who argue the numbers don't quite add up, and there must be other forces at play, probably electrodynamic in nature.
And then there's that other loud noise in the sky, the much rarer sonic boom. Again, common sense would tell us something solid and big hit something else solid and big. As often happens, common sense doesn't help much here. A jet is a very big thing and if it collides with something, it makes a hell of a racket and disintegrates. But the sonic boom is the collision of two non-solid things created by the jet, the bow wave and the stern wave, both of which travel at the speed of sound. As the jet moves faster than the speed of sound, the two waves collide and produce the sound. There is no "rolling" sound effect because the source is a single, relatively small object.
Earlier I wrote about unseen causes creating massive effects. Technically, if you are close enough to a jet breaking the sound barrier, you'll see the plane pass through a ring of water vapor, so it isn't actually unseen. But to be slightly more technical, using the evidence of our eyes we might think the sound is the plane hitting that previously unseen wall of water vapor, when the actual cause of the sound is the cause of the circle of vapor, the two otherwise invisible and relatively quiet pressure waves being forced together for a split second.
Let me repeat. Science is hard. I've simplified this quite a bit, and some of my more science-y pals might very well stop by to tell me I've over-simplified. Any science discussion that makes it to the newspapers is simplified, and if there's a controversy, there will likely be over-simplifiers on both sides. But in so many "controversies" today, it's the over-simplifiers vs. the wishful thinkers, and wishful thinking is not science at all.
It may be time to ask: Have you been pandering enough?
I mean, have you been posting enough pictures of attractive women for no other reason than to increase readership? You could post a picture of Indira Varma from the set of Rome, looking simultaneously bored and beautiful.
But be advised. Posting pictures of Indira Varma is kind of selling your newspapers on my side of the street, if you know what I mean.
You could decide to post a picture of Melissa Theuriau to show that she has lovely feet and chooses cute shoes. This is important information your readers will want to know about their favorite French language newsreader.
But for the most part, it's just pandering, and that's the whole point, isn't it?
Or you could post a picture of Julie Newmar wearing a towel and a look that says she's startled to see you, though you know she's really not surprised at all. In this shot, her ten foot long legs are folded nicely to fit snugly in a space only five feet wide, adding to the illusion that she's just another pretty girl and not a goddess who walks amongst us.
But comments about shot composition are just icing on the cake, and the cake itself is called... pandering!
Nice mix up this week. From The You Tubes, we get nine out of ten songs, and live versions from Neil (joined by Paul McCartney), David, Van (joined by The Band), Los Lobos, Bonnie (joined by Sarah Mclachlan) and Laurie. There were versions of The Lost Chord up on the big video site, but not this version from the movie Topsy Turvy. The only song from this century is by Tom Waits, but I don't feel like a complete old fogey listening to this, especially because the young people should be listening to this stuff and gettin' edjumacated. There's no excuse for not knowing who Nina Simone and Angelique Kidjo are, and why their music is important.
While I have expressed my displeasure with Padre Mickey over his odd religious war with another Anglican priest, each of them trying to top the other with the largest and most disturbing collection of Truly Awful Christmas Songs, (no special link provided, too awful), this is not to say I don't still take Tips On How To Be Cool from the good Padre, because obviously, I do. His latest very cool discovery is a site called My Parents Were Awesome, a collection of pictures people have sent in of their parents back before they were parents, back when they were completely cool young people.
The site is, in a word... awesome!
Matty Boy says check it out!
(Actually, I stole that phrase from Padre Mickey as well. Still an impressionable youth, even though I am less than 400 days from joining the Complete Geezer demographic group.)
Yay, Flags Of Many Lands™! Yay, Burundi!
While my flag coverage of every other continent is, in an word, awesome, my flag coverage of Africa is now moving from sub-standard to spotty. A few more big countries like Cameroon, Ethiopia and Chad and it could climb up to acceptable.
But yesterday, I went to my local Chase branch to find that they had upgraded the slow and buggy automated tellers that had been there since it was a WaMu branch. These auto tellers had the first significant hardware upgrade I've seen in these machines since they first showed up around 30 years ago.
My automated teller now has an automated check reader. Of course, people are going to have to get used to it and figure out that they have to put the checks in the right way, face up and aligned in the right direction. Also, it remains to be seen how good the hardware is at reading handwritten checks and if it's going to be as reliable as an old VW Bug or as temperamental as an old Fiat. But the short learning curve for humans and the as of yet unknown problems of the machines are tiny price to pay compared to the upside.
Advantage #1: No unnecessary envelopes, so less paper wasted.
Advantage #2: No possibility of transcription errors when writing down the check value or math errors if adding together the amounts on multiple checks deposited at the same time. The machine tells you the total it read and gives you a chance to say whether it was right or not. If there's a screw-up, you can do the transaction inside with a human teller, but you don't have to worry about your own errors or errors by the bank employees who would read the checks later. (Most likely, the bank employees had access to automated check readers themselves for some time now.)
Advantage #3: Immediate feedback. Occasionally, my bank would send me a note that I screwed up a transcription or addition when depositing a check at an automated teller. If these machines are reliable, that should be a thing of the past, which means once again, less paper wasted.
So, let me conclude by saying thanks to Chase Bank for installing these helpful little objects. I hope that they turn out to be as reliable as automated tellers have been in general. As I said before, except for some cosmetic upgrades to the screens, this is the first major advancement in this omnipresent technology in about thirty years.
Padre Mickey, as dear a friend as I have in the world, has decided this Advent season should be filled with the worst versions of the worst Christmas songs he can find, in many languages and from many times.
Let me say this about that. It's his choice and it's his blog and I wouldn't do that.
On the other hand, I very much like some of the video choices put on Oliver Willis' blog Like Kryptonite To Stupid. I posted a UC Berkeley a capella version of Lady Gaga'sPoker Face on my Facebook account, and I've decided to put this lip sync version of I Gotta Feeling by Black Eyed Peas up on the blog. The video is about having fun, it's about the beautiful young people, it's about five minutes long and it is done in one single shot with a hand held camera.
Let's give it up for the students at UQAM. Allez Quebec!
Last week, I wrote about the success of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system. The symbols 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 are now effectively the only symbols used to do math by humans. The existing competitors, the Chinese and Roman numeral systems, aren't as easy to use when doing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and now are used sparingly and largely ornamentally.
What all three of these systems have in common is base ten. Because humans have ten fingers and ten toes, every written system decided that a group of ten would be a special bundle. For the sake of consistency, the Romans and the Chinese and the Hindus decided a bundle of ten bundles would be the next important number to get its own special name and symbol, and then ten bundles of ten times ten bundles would be the next important number, and so on. When numbers get big enough we use the words meaning hundreds and thousands and ten thousands and on and on.
A bundle of ten is always considered a natural grouping, but some civilizations decided the next useful grouping would be six bundles of ten. The idea of a base 60 system is credited to the Sumerians, and the Babylonians followed suit. Obviously, it isn't a consistent system, but 60 has a big advantage over 100, and that is divisibility.
The divisors of 100 are 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 20, 25, 50 and 100.
The divisors of 60 are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30 and 60. Being able to divide a bundle into equal parts in several different ways was decided to be more useful than the consistency factor of always multiplying by ten to get the next biggest bundle. The main surviving places where we see the base 60 system is of course in the measurement of time, with 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour. The number of degrees in a circle, 360, is 6 bundles of 60, and 360 is the smallest number that is evenly divisible by ever number less than 10, except for 7.
Another ancient system that still has remnants today is base 12. Many civilizations decided time units should be split into twelve, from twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night, twelve months and twelve zodiac signs. The Chinese zodiac is based on a twelve year pattern. Again, 12 is a little more divisible than 10, since it can be divided evenly by 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12, instead of just 1, 2, 5 and 10. The Romans used base 10 for regular numbers, but their fractional system always split the things they could break up into twelve equal parts called uncia, pronounced "OON-cha". Uncia is the root word for the English words inch and ounce. Ounce is a little confusing, because nowadays, it's 16 ounces in a pound and 16 fluid ounces in a pint. Technically, the Troy weight system (named for Troyes, France, not the ancient city of Troy) has a pound that is twelve ounces, but the only use for the Troy system today is the Troy ounce, slightly larger than a regular Avoirdupois ounce and used for measuring silver, gold and gemstones. No one bundle Troy ounces into Troy pounds anymore.
While the inch may someday fade from use by humans, the use of base 12 and base 60 in the measurement of time isn't going anywhere. The French had great success in exporting their metric system to the rest of continental Europe, and the measurement of distance and weight and volume became an internally consistent system using base 10. On the other hand, during the Revolution, the French decided their should be 10 hours in a day, 100 minutes in an hour and 100 seconds in a minute, and the next most important clump of days should be 10 days and not 7. These ideas went nowhere, not even popular in France. There would be 100,000 seconds in a French day, compared to the 86,400 seconds using the 60x60x24 second method, so the French second would be just a little faster than a regular second.
If you wander around the Internet into some of the weirder neighborhoods, there are people who advocate splitting the day into 100,000 units, but they think it makes sense to use different words to avoid confusion, like ticks, beats, grands and cycles. Maybe they should come up with words for these things in Esperanto, because both those systems have roughly equal chances of being adopted.
Americans are the last people on earth clinging to inches and ounces. Eventually, the English measurement system could get shoved down the memory hole. But this odd system of splitting time into ancient units based on 60 isn't going anywhere. If I were to guess at the reason why, people realize that time is a thing we can measure, but not bend to our will. The length of a day or the length of a year is a natural thing we cannot change, and it does not conform to our base ten system, so we feel no great need to overthrow the somewhat unwieldy ancient ways.
It's easy to hate Silvio Berlusconi. As an American, his actions have little effect on my life, but if I imagine myself as an Italian, I would be in a near constant rage at this scumbag. He's the prime minister of the country, a right wing, warmongering, loud mouth racist. He also owns the largest media empire in Italy and A.C. Milan, one of the most successful soccer teams. He intervened in a Terry Schiavo like case where a woman in a coma for 17 years had finally been given the right to die in the Italian courts. Accused of corruption, his party voted to shorten the statute of limitations, which meant the case could never go to trial. Several Mafia turncoats have said he has mob ties. His wife has sued him for divorce after it became common knowledge he was involved with several other women, including at least one teenager. Berlusconi is 73 years old.
He's like the Super Skrull of scumbags. Mix in the worst parts of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Rupert Murdoch, George Steinbrenner, Tom DeLay, Tiger Woods, Hugh Hefner, Huey Long and Frank Sinatra and you have Silvio Berlusconi.
And yet now, I feel sorry for him. This weekend, some Italian with poor impulse control but excellent aim finally had enough and threw a small statue in Berlusconi's face, causing several facial lacerations and some broken teeth.
The family of the guy who hit Berlusconi apologized. The guy himself apologized. Now Berlusconi gets sympathy when the overwhelming amount of evidence says he's a criminal and a weasel several times over, but a criminal with the political power to have the laws changed.
For some time now, whenever I see the smiling face of Joe Lieberman, my first thought is "He has too many teeth." But lucky for me and Lieberman, I live 3,000 miles away from where he lives and I still have some impulse control. I hope everyone who hates Lieberman as much as I do has an equal amount of impulse control, and right now that's a long, long line.
The last thing that scummy bastard needs is sympathy.
This is my first year of playing fantasy football, and it has been a learning experience. In life, learning experiences are often expensive, but for the Mutant Mercenaries, this life lesson is just one victory away from being profitable.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Mercenaries scored an impressive 258.38 points, beating Rexless Bears by 44.4 points and completely dominating the teams still in contention. I didn't draft very well at the beginning of the league, but I've done a good job of using waivers and free agents. My three top performers this week, Danny Amendola, Jamaal Charles and Domenik Hixon, are all free agent pick-ups during the season. Amendola was never drafted in our league and is only useful because return yardage is counted. Charles and Hixon were drafted late and then discarded. Charles became a producer when Larry Johnson shot off his mouth and the Chiefs unloaded him, while Hixon has seen more time for the Giants due to injuries to players ahead of him on the depth chart.
The next game is against Golden Domers, the team I just barely beat a week ago to get into the playoffs. While I only won that game because I faced a team that did not field a full roster, additions I have made have made my team stronger, and I like my chances to win this game and make it to the championship game.
It's not a good time to be a movie star. There are several ways a movie can become a big hit, and right now, the franchise is the most successful, with 3-D animation films not far behind. If you stick the right name on a movie, the actors in the movie don't really matter that much. To be fair, if the people making Harry Potter tried to replace Daniel Radcliffe, there would be hell to pay, but Daniel Radcliffe outside of the Harry Potter franchise is a completely unknown commodity. Likewise, people really didn't flock to see the latest Ed Asner film or Reese Witherspoon feature this year, they lined up to see Up! and Monsters Vs. Aliens.
Let's look at just ten years ago, 1999.
1 Phantom Menace ____$431 mil 2 The Sixth Sense_____$294 mil Bruce Willis, M. Night Shyamalan 3 Toy Story 2 ______$246 mil (animated) 4 Spy Who Shagged Me $206 mil Mike Myers 5 The Matrix______$171 mil Keanu Reeves 6 Tarzan _________$171 mil (animated) 7 Big Daddy_______$163 mil Adam Sandler 8 The Mummy_____$155 mil Brendan Fraser 9 Runaway Bride____$152 mil Julia Roberts 10 Blair Witch Project ___$141 mil
Of the top ten, there are four movies marked in red that made big money because of the stars or in the case of The Sixth Sense, turned the director into a star. The Matrix became a franchise and Keanu Reeves has had some limited success in films outside that franchise, and the same can be said of The Mummy with Brendan Fraser. Only two animated films on the list, one of which was regular 2-D animation, and this list is completed by that unrepeatable anomaly The Blair Witch Project.
Here's the list for 2009 with about two weeks left.
1 Transformers 2 ___$402 mil ShiaLabeouf 2 Harry Potter 6 _____$302 mil 3 Up __________$293 mil (animated) 4 The Hangover ____$277 mil 5 Twilight: New Moon _$267 mil 6 Star Trek _______$258 mil 7 Monsters Vs. Aliens _$198 mil (animated) 8 Ice Age 3 _______$197 mil (animated) 9 X-Men 4: Wolverine_$180 mil Hugh Jackman 10 Night at the Museum 2 $177 mil Ben Stiller
Clearly, all three movies marked in blue or red are parts of franchises, but the actors listed after the money have been in other big hits outside of these franchises. The only non-franchise (so far) is The Hangover, the most successful R-rated comedy of the year. None of the actors there are big stars yet.
I am going to make the arguments for and against ShiaLaBeouf, Hugh Jackman and Ben Stiller being the biggest stars this year, and then make the argument for the person I think is the actual winner of this year's crown.
Is ShiaLaBeouf a movie star? Not only was he the highest billed human in the Transformers movies, he was also in the latest and hopefully last Indiana Jones film. All of these were huge successes, but clearly sold on the franchise name. His best non-franchise outing so far was Eagle Eye, which made barely over $100 million. While I haven't seen any of his films yet, he is connecting with the younger audience.
Is Hugh Jackman a movie star when he doesn't have the claws? They let him host the Oscars and he isn't a comedian, so somebody thinks he is. His best commercial outing outside the X-Men so far has been Kate and Leopold. Even with bombs like Australia, Hugh Jackman is still going to get the chance to star in major features for some time to come.
Ben Stiller is a movie star, without question. Of the people mentioned from the top ten, he has the most live action movies in his career that have grossed over $100 million. It can be argued that he is the comic actor whose career is on the rise, surpassing Jim Carrey and Will Farrell, and in a few years he may overtake the career success of Adam Sandler as a box office star. Of all the actors mentioned, Stiller is the only one who doesn't give me hives.
But the box office champion for 2009 so far doesn't have a film in the top ten. Instead, Sandra Bullock has two films that are just outside the top ten, both grossing over $150 million, The Proposal and The Blind Side. One is a comedy and the other a sports tearjerker. This is a major comeback for Ms. Bullock, whose last live action movie over $100 million was Miss Congeniality in 2000.
While this bodes well for Ms. Bullock, you have to wonder how it bodes for the movie industry as a whole. In 1999, there were three top ten movies that weren't about special effects, and a fourth, The Spy Who Shagged Me, where the special effects were not the main ingredient. In 2009, that number is down to one. Only The Hangover is not a special effects film. As capitalism becomes about not just making money but making the most money possible, one has to wonder how many people will be making films for $20 to $30 million hoping to see $150 million at the box office and how many will be spending $100 to $150 million hoping for the $400 million blockbuster.
If you count his voice work in the animated film The Fantastic Mr. Fox, there are currently three films starring George Clooney in the theaters this holiday. I've seen the two live action films, Grant Heslov'sThe Men Who Stare At Goats and Jason Reitman'sUp In The Air, currently playing in limited release in a total of 72 theaters across the country.
Grant Heslov is Clooney's partner in his production company, and occasionally appears on the other side of the camera, as in Leatherheadsand Good Night, and Good Luck. Like Good Night, and Good Luck, The Men Who Stare At Goats has a lot more star power than most films do these days. Besides Clooney, the cast includes Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor and Kevin Spacey, all actors who have had their names above the title in movies made in the past view years.
The Men Who Stare At Goats is based on a true story, which means you can't really trust much of what happens in the film. That said, the premise of the movie, which seems preposterous, is actually true. The Army did research into using paranormal powers as weapons, and much of this research took place in Northern California in the 1970s and 1980s. The story takes place mostly in present day Iraq, as reporter Bob Wilton (McGregor) catches up with Lyn Cassady (Clooney), formerly a shining star in the Army's First Earth Battalion, now a contractor looking for work in the war zone.
Some negative reviews of Goats want to make it out to be the next Ishtar or Waterworld, but I can't agree. It's a comedy. I laughed. The plot held up and I cared about the characters. My own personal experience certainly informs how I feel about it, as several family members have been involved in different aspects of the New Age movement with varying levels of intensity. The ideas of the extent of human abilities discussed in the film seem just as odd to me as they would to most of the public, but unlike most of the public, this wasn't the first time I had heard of such things. Clooney plays a serious person trying to do the right thing, even though most of us can't take his seriousness seriously.
In Up In The Air, actor Clooney is a hired gun, and interviews I've read online make it clear that the director wants this to be thought of as a Jason Reitman film and not a George Clooney film. Reitman also directed Thank You For Smoking and Juno, and the producers of the film are hoping that it will get some consideration at the Oscars.
Like many movies made these days, Up In The Air has a single movie star and a supporting cast. The cast is good and some are recognizable, like Jason Bateman from Arrested Development as Clooney's boss and cameo roles by J.K. Simmons and Sam Elliot. The two roles with the most screen time other than Clooney are the young woman who is new at his firm, played by Anna Kendrick, and the woman Clooney meets in a hotel bar, played by Vera Farmiga. Both actresses do excellent work in the film, but a movie with a higher budget might have had Anne Hathaway or Natalie Portman in the younger role and Cate Blanchett or Catherine Zeta-Jones in the older role.
As in Thank You For Smoking, the main character is a scumbag we are supposed to root for. Clooney's character Ryan Bingham fires people for a living. The argument the film makes is that he is not a scumbag because the real scumbags are the cowards that hire his company. Another scummy person we are supposed to like less than we like Bingham is the young woman played by Kendrick, who wants to take the personal touch out of the equation and have the company perform the mass firings over a computer link.
There is a major plot point in Up In The Air that is less believable than anything in The Men Who Stare At Goats. Bingham, corporate hatchet man, is also a motivational speaker. His pitch is that people should live more like he does, without any attachments. That someone might try to pitch this at a motivational seminar is somewhat believable. That this message would be something that would get to Tony Robbins' levels of popularity is not.
Living without attachments is akin to the Buddhist ideal, but Bingham is no Siddhartha. He lives out of hotel rooms and he loves it. His true goal for enlightenment is to get as many frequent flyer miles as possible. He hates coming home, where his apartment is like a hotel room with crappy service.
The plot revolves around Bingham's existential plight. Will he become more connected to the people around him? The movie has twists and turns and doesn't always end up where you might expect, but in some ways, just like in Thank You For Smoking, the plot doesn't matter because the movie cheats so badly. At the end, the characters have money and they look like George Clooney or Aaron Eckhart. However the movie ends, this wouldn't be the end for the character, and the particular high or low point he finds himself at when the credits roll is just another moment in his life, not a new beginning.
For my money, both movies were worth seeing, though I felt Goats was under-rated and Up In The Air somewhat over-rated. If you want to see Clooney play a conflicted man in a scummy corporate situation, Michael Clayton is head and shoulders above Up In The Air, but the comparison may not be completely fair since one is a comedy and the other a drama.
My blog buddy list lost a blog and added another yesterday. I finally got around to getting rid of the late lamented Princess Sparkle Pony blog off my list, but not until there was a final update of a happy nature.
Peter Huestis, the sole author of PSP, has come back with a new blog entitled Peteykin's Junk Drawer. Instead of subversively mocking politicians by praising their hair, clothing and make-up, Mr. Huestis, now to be referred to by yet another nom-de-plume Peteykins, is making a blog about stuff he likes, which includes this old wire hanger from Sparkle Cleaners.
It may not be obvious to the reader, but I've been trying to write more about stuff I like than the stuff that irritates me over the past few months. Not having a TV has made a big difference in my life. While I still follow the news, watching it on TV with all the commentators is nothing but an exercise in irritation, either at the actual story that's being covered or at the commentators themselves. I had eight years of being disgusted by the actions of my government on pretty close to a daily basis, and it was exhausting.
This is not to say I won't comment on news that upsets me or irritates me in the future, but I'm going to try to make that the garnish and not the main course. Clearly, there are people all over the political spectrum who love living on outrage, but that diet wasn't working for me, and I'm doing what I can to cut back. I'm glad to have other blog buddies who write about what they care about, usually though not always in a positive fashion, and I'm glad to have Peteykins back doing the same.
For the first time, I am invoking the Padre Mickey rule, which is if it's not going to get any better than this, you stop. Well, I checked. There were some good songs on the list after this, but nobody did better than Wreckless Eric's finest moment in pop music.