Thursday, December 07, 2006

Sixty-five Years Today

It is 2:25 in the afternoon and the radio is tuned in to the big ball game. It‘s being broadcast by 710 AM WOR and aired over Mutual, the network of confederated radio stations created by the Lone Ranger.
The Brooklyn Dodgers are at the New York Giants today.

It’s still going! He’s up to the 25… And it hits hard on the 27-yard line! Bruiser Kinard made the pass

Ward Cuff has returned the Dodgers kickoff when, just as the minute hand slides past the 25-mark and into 2:26, announcer Len Sterling breaks in with what went out over the wire barely two minutes earlier.

We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important bulletin from the United Press:
"Flash, WASHINGTON—— The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor."
Stay tuned to WOR for further developments to be broadcast as received.

This was the first that any mainland American public heard of the blasts that would lead the U.S. into the “War in Europe.”

[Rerun from last year.]

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Thanksgiving Rerun

Some of us call the fourth Thursday in November “Thanksgiving (Day)” and consider it a day set aside for the pious duty of, well, thanks-giving. O.K, then.
Others, however, condense the day’s meaning to the simpler truths of football, gigantic balloons floating above has-been vocalists, and a slain bird. “Turkey Day.” Not an official holiday, but whatever.

For purists intent on the meaning of the rather large fowl sacrificed to gastronomical pleasures, I below present some marvelous truths about the lord of the meat-poultry.

The first turkeys eaten were of course hunted in the wild. These birds are hardly stupid. Then someone realized that wild turkeys, flying from place to place and dodging predators, developed rather tough muscles over the lifetime it took to grow a mealtime bulk. And the turkey farm was created. ...
To read on about the genetics of stupidity, the plight of the “pitiable turkey farmer,” and dodging Darwinian extinction, click here.

Monday, November 13, 2006

“Yeah, you’re right. It’s pretty stupid.”

I have just watched the 1994 film Stargate starring Kurt Russell and James Spader. It was lent by a friend who recommended it as something akin to camp... He may have mentioned something about Indiana Jones films being history texts beside it.

Let me just say that James Spader is the one good thing about the movie. (Well, O.K, his off-world expatriate bride is kinda cute, if that qualifies as a good thing.) That in mind, the movie is over at the twenty-one minute mark when the air force guy punches the button that raises the wall that reveals... you know, all that other stuff.

The real reason for a post here, though, is the soundtrack. The review states that “the style is definitely in the tradition of John Williams” but in the remainder of the sentence states that not “one single note” is copied from any genre soundtrack.
One thing is for sure: the score is excellent. How could it not be? For to my ears (and it should be noted that I am no music expert), the track sounds not influenced by John Williams, sounds not rearranged from John Williams, it sounds just like John Williams. To be more specific, the score (with one 60-second exception, and maybe a few more I didn’t catch) is indistinguishable from the actual recordings used in the Indiana Jones trilogy!! Seriously.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Bayer Vs. the Volcano: A Photographic Essay

It seems to be well-known fact around work that if one wishes to discuss how to harvest wasted energy from toilets, fabricate alien alloys, profit monetarily from planetary rotation, use crop rotation and a little Korean culinary acumen to remove soylent green’s unhealthful by-products, turn the sky into a plasmatic nightlight, convert an electric lawnmower into a hovercraft, use a surplus supercomputer circa 1983 to rearrange the entire earth into a slush of magma and powdered bits in a 50-hour time span, or bounce any other Teslian schemes, I’m always happy to listen and (at my best) provide insight.

So, while the above mostly stem from anecdotal conversations with our most creative engineer, it is hardly surprising that a coworker would seek my advice on building a volcano.

No, not a full-scale functioning volcano (though I have a few ideas on how to accomplish it), but a miniature, anodyne volcano. You know, papier-mâché, modeling clay, the works. A colleague’s seven-year-old daughter needs to build one for a school project over the next month, and my friend wanted a few ideas to pass on.

Who doesn’t remember this project? If memory serves as guide to the future, every kid in the class will show up with a bottle of baking soda and a pitcher of vinegar. Honestly, I suspect the perception of volcanoes as conical mountains pouring out landslides of red rock stems more from the model than the model does from the perception. In reality, there are many varieties of volcano, few of which bear any recognizable qualities with the standard classroom miniature.

By far the most numerous example is the submarine volcano, in which the pressures of the underground world force a thinned spot in the crust upward into a dome-like mound, and where magmatic gases and small quantities of lava escape to be cooled by the water around them. So, my idea is that the kid makes a hollow, open-bottomed mound out of plastic/oil-based modeling clay, carves cracks through it with a knife (or even a toothpick), weighs it down in an aquarium or goldfish bowl, and fills it with water. Inside, under the mound would be placed a red aquarium light that would be visible through the fissures, giving the impression of great heat. Keeping the light company would be an aquarium pump, so that bubbles of air, signifying steam, would rise through the cracks. The only difference between bubbles of air and bubbles of steam is that air rises more slowly, but that is accurate to the scale of the model!

For one reason or another, this idea was nixed and the question became how to create smoke to go along with the baking soda reaction, without using dry-ice. I brainstormed a compact and easy to make fog machine, not to mention a few hazardous exothermic reactions. Yeah, dry-ice is probably the best bet. That said, my thinking did produce one other interesting idea. Instead of a lava flow that stinks of bad wine, why not achieve the same effect with Alka-Seltzer® and a bit of surfactant to keep the bubbles from popping? What followed was this slideshow, created upon my arrival home.

That’s four Alka-Seltzer® disks (halved to get through the opening) at the bottom of a 330ml bottle. My bathtub serves as a splash-shield.

The beaker contains dish-washing detergent and food-coloring in water.

...and thar she blows!

This is about the four minute mark, but there’s still a good head on the eruption.

Just over fourteen minutes after ignition and the bubbles are still coming out in a steady stream. I’ve already begun rinsing the tub which, by the way, quickly became entirely red-free. About a minute after this picture was taken the reaction slowed to the point that it could not replenish the bubbles as quickly as they burst. Still, I challenge the standard reaction to match this one’s longevity.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Prime Viewing

The following article was written for print two years ago. Due to the irregular distribution of the film involved the piece never made it into syndication, and so appears here. The format is a bit atypical due to the constraints of its intended venue, but I’ll let that slide as a review of this particular film on this particular site has been far too long coming.
Oh, and please note the care with which any and all spoilers have been avoided.

From the moment the picture begins to light up the screen, you realize that something is different. You see no beautifully constructed set, no amazing recreation of real life—instead you see a garage. A genuine garage. And with that for a beginning what you see is real life—in fiction.

Primer is something unique, an oil-painting among the framed prints that are Hollywood flicks. It is something that many Americans probably never expected would ever be seen. It is a thriller about engineers, made by an engineer.

Yes, the main characters wear the archetypical ‘geek’ garb of white shirts (collars and sleeves unbuttoned, of course) and haphazard ties. True, they are far from the suave heroes of the Hollywood thriller—but then they aren’t pretending to be suave.

These men are just guys who live their suburban lives like the rest of America. While building cool stuff, that is. Their weekend tinkering has even formed the basis for a small business. And now one of them wants to build one more device...

This movie succeeds as a thriller because of the great care with which it has been crafted. The eerily sedate telephone narration brings up questions from the start. The suspense, however, is not manufactured but instead comes naturally. The viewer is forced to remain alert by the complicated plot’s peculiar—and logical—loops. Not until the theater’s overhead lighting is ready to flicker back on can the mind completely make sense of some elements.

The reasons above are why Primer makes a great thriller. It succeeds as a great film for other reasons.

Writer/producer/director/cinematographer/actor/composer Shane Carruth, the engineer behind this production (literally), has given moviegoers something that cannot be considered merely part of a genre. The interaction between and among characters doesn’t ‘feel Hollywood’ (possibly because the film is Texas made...), it just feels real. Primer was shot entirely on location with commonplace people and was written ‘realistically’ but retains the human warmth—and coldness—that makes life interesting.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Ball Lightning (or a Good Pinch-Hitter)

In honor of Friday the Thirteenth, I present a True Story recalled from my childhood.

I was twelve years old or so. For years I had been a fan of Bertrand R. Brinley’s Mad Scientist’s Club, and was really just now starting to be able to truly emulate their brainy schemes. This particular time, I was wiring an audio pick-up and radio transmitter. Specifically, I was trying to build a working replica of the rig the guy who stated every week “I Was a Communist for the FBI” carried through a nefarious meeting of saboteurs.

Dad noticed the bundle of wires, diodes, transistors, etc, and grimaced at the thought of another one of my projects. I braced for another lecture on not electrocuting myself, not to mention the possible barked order not to proceed at all. I managed to scurry by before he could reprimand me. You see, as the youngest member of the household, my family always considered me somewhat incompetent when it came to safety (not to mention other things), especially if I was embarking on some field none of them understood personally. Prior to my late teen years, nothing I ever wired was powered off anything but small store-bought batteries (even if I did find interesting ways to arrange them), so I felt pretty safe. Had I been sticking bare wires into the wall sockets maybe I would have seen reason in all the panic the sight of my person with wire cutters and solder instigated.

Well, my pint-sized transmitter went together without incident, and rather quickly since I was basically assembling ready-made parts from previously used (and worn out) items. All that was left was to secure all the pieces inside the little plastic case I had picked for them, close enough and securely enough that the loose connecting wires couldn’t be torn out. So, I plugged in my brand-new hot glue gun and picked it up to await the stick’s melting.

That’s when it happened.

They were tiny at first, probably at least half a dozen of them. Little light-blue bubbles, varying maybe from one to five millimeters in diameter. They sounded like a set of spark-gap transmitters, each floating in slow-motion upward and away to the left or in front of me. One by one they disappeared, not so much exploding as imploding, each implosion accompanied by one to three flashes. As these were detonating, more were materializing just above the glue gun’s heating coil and making like in Rome. Then came the two Over-Size Balls of Fire.

The Over-Size Balls of Fire. They were most definitely a pair. Each was somewhere between three and five centimeters in diameter, one a little smaller than its mate. Again, they were pale blue, vaguely translucent. Not so bright that they hurt the eyes (as a light bulb does), I stared directly at them, mesmerized, picking out slight variations across their dimensions. Then, one began orbiting the other or, more likely, they began mutually orbiting each other. A few white sparks flashed, buzzing, between them.

As the Two rose, all of the smaller spheres seemed to disappear beneath them—though probably I was merely so distracted by the giants I simply ignored the others. These larger balls refused to pop as quickly as their brethren, or to veer away from me as the others had. These two bounces randomly back and forth, a few centimeters this way and that, but averaging a path that was most definitely headed directly for my face. I pulled what has since becomes known as a “Matrix,” bending backwards to pull myself out of their path, my eyes still fixed to them. They imploded inches above my face, maybe a foot, foot-and-a-half. Five brilliant flashes played on the white walls around me as though someone were busy with an arc-welder.

Most eyewitness accounts of ball lightning and analogous events mention a loud bang at each globe’s disappearance. My recollection of the audio track accompanying the implosions (some of which generated highly localized bursts of sparks) is hazy. I seem to remember that the buzzes got much louder each time, shortly culminating in a hollow crack. But more lucid than this is the thought, as I saw my father dashing to either rescue me or survey my cadaver, that dad must have looked up to see the flashes emanating from the room after hearing some spectacular sounds produced therein.

Pop’s attempt at rescue was unneeded, as I had yanked the cord on the glue gun out of its socket simultaneous to jerking out of the Two’s path. It was all over by the time he got to the doorway. His assumption was that I had somehow managed to complete a rather large circuit with my body, and generally mess up everyone’s day. I explained that the culprit was the cheap glue gun, which, by the way, I could touch only very gingerly. Its end came a few minutes later when I threw it into the garbage, inside a cardboard box thoroughly bound by duct-tape.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Why and How I’m Proud to Say that I Know James Warner Bellah

Many people have been introduced to Mr. James Warner Bellah without ever realizing it.
Such was the case when, at three years old (or less), I watched John Ford’s Rio Grande with my grandpa. (If you’ve ever bought a Louis L’Amour paperback at a library booksale, Grandpa’s is the name hand-written on it.)

Rio Grande is that film many casual filmgoers may remember as “John Wayne wearing a mustache, next to a guy with an eye patch.” I watched hundreds of movies, almost exclusively western, with Grandpa during my formative years. This one stuck out above all the rest in my mind. Some of that has to do with John Wayne’s moustache and the other guy’s eye patch, some with the fact that it is probably the only western my brother did not openly mock. But certainly, a good deal of its memorability is the robust characterization present in almost every inch of celluloid and the exceptional action that appears near the end.

In 1998 or ’99, the Warner Bros. Westerns label appeared on VHS in Wal-Marts everywhere, bringing with it She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, made by John Ford the year prior to Rio Grande. Of course, I bought it. Once one manages to muscle past being distracted by the New York Times quote (“A dilly of a cavalry picture. Yeehooooo!”), there is this on the back:
John Wayne plays Brittles in this second film in Ford’s renowned cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache and Rio Grande are the others).
Something struck me quite keenly. While Wayne plays the character of Col. Kirby York in both of the other two films, I was already familiar with the character of Capt. Nathan Brittles. I was also familiar with his 1st Lieut. Flint Cohill. For mere months before, I had listened to an audio cassette of the “Escape!” (one of radio’s grandest theaters of adventure) show aired 6 December, 1949 and entitled “Command.

Wayne’s performance as Nathan Brittles, USC, is generally considered one of his finest by film buffs (I’d readily place his Tom Dunson of Red River above it), but whatever it is, it is not the true Nathan Brittles. Brittles is the aged war horse of the cavalry, about to be put out to pasture. John Wayne’s moustache is gray (yes, another moustache), his face tired, his mannerisms almost perfectly those of aching maturity. An excellent accomplishment when his years were only forty-two (his Dunson, by the way, was similarly ripened just as well several years earlier, but B&W film did aid that). But Wayne cannot help, or more likely, Ford will not let Wayne help being an affectionate old cuss, even when he spits out Brittles trademark “Never apologize. Sign of weakness.”

The Brittles we meet in “Command,” on his first patrol with the irate Flintridge Cohill, has a hardness in each of his few words. A coldness to his efficiency. A bitterness to his guardianship. “He will die a captain, in spite of his apology.” Bill Johnstone’s voice, not John Wayne’s, is all that I can hear when listening to Captain Brittles.

“Command,” Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande. There are many threads that overlap any given three of that set, but (aside from a U.S. Cavalry setting) only one thing entirely in common. Each is based on the tales of one James Warner Bellah. (If you’re interested, he also co-wrote Sergeant Rutledge—screenplay and novel—and the screenplay The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.)
Armed with this knowledge, I set out on a quest for the short cavalry works of Mr. Bellah. That universe of Nathan Brittles, Flintridge Cohill, Tyree, MacLendon Allshard, Ross Pennell, et al; that history alive with concisely reiterated departmental orders and flowing visually emotional prose.
Epochs of research and miles of microfilm brought me only one story, “Command” as originally printed in the 8 June, 1946 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

Today, I own that cassette of “Command” as well as a pitiably optically-printed paper copy, that VHS of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, three copies of Rio Grande (a VHS from shortly before I adopted DVD, my grandpa’s well-used copy, and the DVD “Collector’s Edition”), and the newly-released DVD of Fort Apache. And . . .

My discovery of the WorldCat electronic library catalogs came very shortly before they were made publicly available on the internet, no subscription of any kind required. [Readers can now search those catlogs via the thingy direstly to the right of these words.] There were a few choice works and authors I immediately ferreted out, James Warner B. among them. What I found was Massacre, a paperback anthology of Bellah’s mounted cav named for its final story (the basis of Fort Apache). Unfortunately, not one of the three libraries holding it smiled on my local branch’s inter-library loan request.

But there was one option left! Yes, that’s it: the inner reaches of the Amazon! Now that I knew precisely what I was looking for it was a simple matter. I opened an account (yes, I’m a late adopter) and made the purchase.
While at it I snagged a few other titles that crossed my mind, but I won’t here go into them.

And, this afternoon, my little Lion Books no. 43 arrived. It is in impressive condition, clearly having spent many years pressed neatly between other volumes on someone’s shelf (the cover is crisply colored except on the spine where it has faded to yellow from light exposure).

I have already read tonight the first two stories (“Command” and “The Last Fight”), and will begin the third before retiring to bed.

I am most contented.

(Say, as of now there is one more copy available over at the Amazonian market. Just saying ... )

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Anyone for Tennis?

I just watched the US Open Championship between Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin-Hardenne. Wow.
A close and spectacular competition filled with amazing shots. I mean, wow.

A couple of things, though… Sharapova played through (and won) the game wearing a thin gold chain and pendant around her neck, with a pair of low-hanging earrings to boot. Why in the world would anyone subject herself to that during a championship? I take my watch off for serious air-hockey games just so I won’t have the shift of metal against my epidermal sensory neurons to distract from the feel of the table and of the instrument in my hand. I can only imagine the infuriating distraction of a lobe-dangler bopping my cheek during a dash for the ball or a good swipe with the catgut.

But, of course, the most important thing to discuss about the tennis world is the assortment of commercials. For, while the Super Bowl advert is dead as a source for effective comedic writing, the spirit of brilliant humor thrives on alongside these televised racketeers. Honestly, I enjoyed my viewing all the way around.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Flipping Idiot

It was one of those charming traditions of a bygone era. Whenever my brother and I would disagree on something relatively minor (who got shotgun privileges that day, for example), dad would reach into his pocket and pull out a quarter. Up it would go, then be caught, then be slapped firmly against his arm. Brother was always ‘heads,’ I was always ‘tails.’

Cool, huh? Except that I never won.

Well, during a recent discussion of the Monty Hall Problem, a friend at work said something about “fifty-fifty—like flipping a coin.” I couldn’t resist bringing up a study I ran across many years ago that said pennies, at least, tended toward one side by around a percent. (I have since diligently searched for information on that paper, but have so far been unable to find it again.)

“Have you ever heard of ‘The Pretender’?” I had not.
“Well, he’s a genius who was kidnapped by an evil corporation as a child to solve complex problems. Well, there’s one episode where he reads that if flip a nickel a certain way, it’ll land on ‘heads’ a certain percentage higher than tails, but he’s skeptical. He gets stuck in a motel room for two weeks waiting for someone, so he spends the entire time flipping this nickel and recording every result to find out. And in the end it turns out what he’d read was right. You remind me of him.”

Well, after a story like that, how can I not watch the show. “The Complete First Season” [1996] now sits on my DVD case. It includes, by the way, the coin flipping episode, though ten years caused my friends memory to be a little off on the particulars. That episode (“Curious Jarod,” show no. 4) ignited in me a curiosity over the old quarter-dollar decision-making no-win question. Why did I never win?

So a few days I ago I entered the vacated bedroom on my floor and transformed it into a statistical laboratory.

I modeled the setup on what I could remember of the Lincoln-cent-piece statistics. On the edge of a level, elevated surface the quarters were balanced so that when a force struck the center of the surface the coins would plummet toward the surface below, turning end over end on the way down. I augmented that recollected setup by selecting sixteen quarters of random age and wear (who’s to say both faces erode equally compared to their unsullied state?) and drawing a line dividing each one directly in half with a fine-point Sharpie.

In my thinking, half of the coins should start out their drops heads-up, half heads-down. Of the eight coins drawn for each plane, my dividing line was drawn vertically for two, horizontally for two, diagonally one way for two, and diagonally the other way for two. Each set of two was further divided in that for one an arrow was drawn to the right of the line and for the other, to the left. In this way, starting the coins out all with the arrows pointing outward and then switching to all arrows inward, their combined falls would approximate every possible flipping orientation.

My theory of a predominant side is that for it to come up more often on one face than the other, the coin itself must slow in its rotation when one side is facing more generally and the other side is facing more generally down, and that the rotation would then accelerate as those faces reverse attitudes. In this hypothetical case, one side will stare upward more often than the other, and thus land that side up more often as well.

And so I began testing and retesting my array of sixteen quarter-dollar pieces. (The fact that I did this mostly during the course of a single night, with barrages of metallic change repeatedly striking the platform below them, was greatly the chagrin of the neighbors down the hall.)

The results after a total of 768 (I had hoped to go at least to 1000, but time ran out due to my painstakingly precise process for setting up each drop) individual landings? Three hundred and sixty-five heads, four hundred and three tails! That’s 47.5 versus 52.5 percent!!! And if that favors ‘tails,’ ‘heads’ will be the more likely result of the old catch-and-invert-on-one’s-forearm routine.

Of course, with only sixteen actual individual coins used, the test is probably open to error…

Another good probability question is this: Since 1965, quarters have officially had a constitution of slightly under ninety-two percent copper, clad on each side with nickel, which makes up the remaining eight-and-a-third percent by weight. But in each real-world example, the copper sits more on one side of the coin than the other. By the table I’m looking at, Cu is 1.0036 times as dense as Ni. By how much will this affect the probabilities of any particular quarter?
Maybe someone could suggest to their highschooler as a science-fair-winning project. Be sure to drop me a link to the results!

As another aside: my preliminary results on another front would indicate that the quart-dollar’s propensity to fall heads-down are dramatically increased if the coin is spun on edge. Somewhere around fifty-five or fifty-six percent tails-up.

Anyway, even if my coin-flipping results are untainted by error, a 52.5% inclination toward one side doesn’t explain my virtually 100% losing streak. For that, I may have to fall back on that most unscientific of principles, luck.
(Well, that and the variety of personal flipping styles, perhaps?)

Friday, September 01, 2006

Getting ‘Sleep’

As Allen Barra writes in an old issue of American Heritage on my shelf:
Legend has it that William Faulkner, who worked on the screenplay [for The Big Sleep’s adaptation], couldn’t figure out who killed whom even after phoning [author Raymond] Chandler in London.

Note his professional use of the words “legend has it.”
It is a fairly famous story now that the great Raymond Chandler, sovereign of the hard-boiled club, created such convoluted plots that even he didn’t know who really was plugged by whom. I’ve seen it in many a vague form on the Internet and other media over the years, never with so adequate citation as Barra’s “L-word.”

Below, I present the only “early generation” source I’ve been able to find which, if true, cuts through the confused muck of which of the many murders was unsolved, etc etc. It is excerpted* from one of director Howard Hawks many lengthy interviews, this one at age seventy-seven.
During the making of The Big Sleep, I found out for the first time that you don’t have to be too logical; you should just make Good Scenes. […]
[William] Faulkner and Leigh Brackett […] did a whole script in eight days. And they said they didn’t want to change things. They said the stuff was so good, there’s no sense in making it logical. So we didn’t. […]
Because once during the picture Bogart said, “Who killed this fellow?” And I said, “Well, I think it prob’ly was that…” I said, “I don’t know.”
So we sent a wire to the author, Raymond Chandler, and asked him and he told us the name of the fellow. And I wired him back and I said “He was down at the beach when that happened, it couldn’t have done that way.”
So nobody knew who killed that bird. It didn’t hurt the picture!

Right there it would appear that several things have been cleared up. No longer is there much basis on which to claim that it was the chauffeur’s death so deemed unexplainable. Rather it is the death of the man Geiger, antiquarian book dealer, pornographer, and blackmailer, that is a supposed mystery.
For whom did Chandler name as the dealing hand of death? That very same chauffeur who was later that night fished out of the deep, dead. What is left unexplained, however, is why Hawks would assume his (the chauffeur’s) role as killer impossible, when any mystery-goer in the world knows one can be alive and firing in one place one moment and be dead down at the pier an hour later.

Not that any of this really matters too much, for while Hawks’ The Big Sleep is a fairly enjoyable, light movie, it in no way compares to the book. The director’s predisposition toward a breezy view of empty diversion is in violent contrast with the darker world of Raymond Chandler, wherein all that is empty is treated with brooding contempt.
Perhaps most important in terms of the above discussion, however, is the fact that the book succeeds not only in being more convoluted than the film, but many times as logical simultaneously.

*I have here transcribed Hawks’ words from that interview by way of The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks [1973]. A re-cut of that documentary television piece, circa 2002 with a new narration from Sydney Pollack, is available on Disc 2 of Bringing Up Baby [1938], the essential screw-ball comedy.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Art in Villainy

However much the fact may offend some people’s more puritanical sensibilities, nobody enjoys a wimpy villain. I learned as a small boy that “conflict is the heart of a good story,” and if that proverb is true it must follow that: No hero can visibly elevate himself much beyond his supplied villain.

This is why it is such a terrible sin for Hollywood to continually equip its heroes with cut-and-paste bad-guys. So here, in honor of great evildoers everywhere, is a list of ten of the most delightful from the cinematic world.

1. Feathers McGraw (The Wrong Trousers - 1993) | The true master of disguise, this silently brilliant criminal mastermind goes almost the entire (short) film identified only with the alias “Penguin” (no relation to the noisy Danny DeVito). And he’s only righting an ancient religious wrong done to his people by the imperialistic Capt. Cook. To date, Feathers remains the great Gromit’s only worthy criminal counterpart.

2. Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman in Quigley Down Under - 1990) | This western is almost universally horrid, bearable only for Rickman’s singular masterful performance. Marston, the evil ranch owner intended to personify the word “empire,” brings a chilling and laidback calm alongside paired Colt Model 1860 revolvers to his private battlefield. Oh, and he enjoys using straggling troopers for target practice. I still say that had Rickman’s icy Marston and Tom Selleck’s wussy Quigley met without the interference of massively dumb writing, the Q wouldn’t have managed to walk away.

3. The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor in Serenity - 2005) | Deeply religious in his dedication to State, downright cheerful in the unruffled peace he brings to killing, the Alliance’s recordless Operative is one of the scariest people you’ll hope never to see. That says it all.

4. Primer - 2004 | Sorry, the name doesn’t appear here so as not to spoil this excellent film. Suffice it to say that the bad-guy in writer/director Shane Carruth’s independent drama paints a convincing portrait of humanity itself and proves along the way to be the most deeply chilling character I’ve ever seen anywhere. Haunting might be the word. In truth, this one should be at the head of the list.

5. Tom Dunson (John Wayne in Red River - 1948) | I debated losing the name here as well. Basically, Wayne starts out at his truest blue but evolves into a vengeful psychopath bent on ending his son‘s life. Convincing and poignant, this will prove to any skeptic that John Wayne could act (something he never did half so well as here, even in a Ford cavalry epic).

6. Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - 1939) | Rains’ varied work is almost universally brilliant, and here (in perhaps both Frank Capra’s and James Stewart’s best film) he doesn’t miss a beat. Just try remaining detached as his aging, corrupt senator, still convinced his heart is made of gold, rends Stewart as his idealist young follower to shreds through hypocritical prosecutions.

7. Judge Roy W. Bean (Walter Brennan in The Westerner - 1940) | While this Judge Bean has nothing to do with the historical character (virtually nothing available today does), it manages to be the best acting job Brennan was ever allowed to do. Nuanced, psychopathically brilliant, and even vulnerable, Brennan’s Bean will “steal your heart” even as you… Well, you’ll see.

8. Dr. Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman in Raiders of the Lost Ark - 1981) | Surely Indiana Jones’ paramount adversary, Belloq even calls himself Indy’s “reflection.” A scholar and a skilled manipulator, few crooks can be so much ruled by their passions yet remain so cool-headed in their antagonistic pursuits. Only a Frenchman... Or, better yet, a Frenchman collaborating with Nazi Germany.

9. Calvera (Eli Wallach in The Magnificent Seven - 1960) | The great Eli Wallach will always be best remembered to western aficionados as Tuco, Sergio Leone’s “Il Brutto (Ugly),” but Tuco is a mere ant beside the great Mexican bandit Calvera. Stylistically “magnificent,” pettily controlling, compassionately patriarchal to his own, Calvera revels in his hypocrisy and tsks at others’ up-swellings. No one must miss this fine Broadway thespian at his gold-toothed best.

10. Matchstick Men - 2003 | This one also had to be heavily trimmed due to spoilage issues. Let’s just call it required viewing and leave it at that.

And I suppose that Honorable Mention of some sort should go to James Earl Jones’ vocal talent in the role of Darth Vader. No other villain has become quite so synonymous with the term, or so fully captured the imagination of a nation’s young people.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Force-ful Case

On Thursday the 3rd, in the middle of a discussion of Nikola Tesla, a coworker asked rather suddenly, “What do you think about Ch’i?”
My reply was succinct: “Um…”

He proceeded to tell me that one who has mastered the art of the Ch’i can move and levitate objects by power of thought alone; that is, without making physical contact. Telekinesis. And he kept asking me how I thought it could be done as “a real thing. No wires or any kind of trick like that.”

He was joking. Probably he thought my story about Tesla inadvertently creating a Manhattan earthquake with a small electrically-driven mechanical oscillator spurious (it is not) and decided to see how well I could differentiate fact from fantasy in even more incredible reports. I never once wondered if Ch’i might be authentic, but he was so deadpan in in his delivery that I began trying to find away of saying this that wouldn’t completely estrange him if he did indeed take the concept seriously.

(As an aside, our resident mystical agnostic interjected drolly that he didn’t know if someone could actually levitate an object by mental exertion but “maybe reduce it by a gram or two.”)

Finally, our Ch’i authority broke out laughing. To the room, “He’s never seen ‘Tai Chi Master.” To me, “You need to go rent that movie!”

As I understand it, the “Ch’i” in Tai Ch’i comes from a word also transliterated as “Ji” and means “unsurpassed,” while the “Ch’i” that means our Lucas-like life force is often transliterated “Qi.” For all I know (mysticism is for the most part not my area), Ji and Qi are completely unrelated words, but it still happens that Qi is a central concept of Tai-Ji.

As I said, on Thursday I was completely unconvinced of a Qi’s ability to either lower an object’s mass or to block the earth’s gravitational influence upon an object of constant mass. Actually, I wasn’t about to accept the existence of a Qi or anything like it at all (despite a working knowledge of Tesla’s own enthusiasm over photographic evidence of a “Kirlian field” generated by living matter).

That was Thursday. Today, however, I stood on the medical-grade scale that our club of health nuts uses in the company lunchroom to document weight loss. As I stood on said scale, I was able to make the weight reading rise or fall at will by at least twenty pounds. This was without stepping off or shifting my weight, which I can prove by doing the same thing with an inanimate object rather than myself. (The twenty-pound difference between weights functions as a percentage of the object’s overall mass, and as such I am still unable to actually cause said object to become weightless.)

I’m not being sarcastic when I say that this gag may be on par with those of the great physicist/prankster Dick Feynman. This is going to be classic!

Tomorrow I am scheduled to give a demonstration of my Qi power to various coworkers. The Fitness Squad should be on hand to explore this new method of weight loss.

Monday, August 07, 2006

‘Lost’ in the Shuffle

I am going to ask you to do something. You may take it as recommendation, but if so you have missed the point. While I would not hesitate o recommend this film, I am asking.

It is this: Tomorrow, grab your checkbook and stuff it in your pocket. Pull your credit card and carry it with you. Or make sure you have a twenty in the billfold and head out. Then, go to a Target or a Barnes & Noble or your local DVD rental front. But find and bring home Andy Garcia’s Lost City.

The Lost City’s story is the story of late 50’s Havana, a place of dissension, violence, and celebration in the same heartbeat. A despotic rule is finally crumbling as its works come back to haunt it and as the American mob scene decides to cut its losses. But along with the government, the city, the island, there is a family that will never rest in itself the same way again.

When I first heard about this film, back when it was on the festival circuit, I decided I had to see it. I didn’t know what historio-political world-view it would take, what its emphasis was. I just knew it had to be seen. As it turned out, once given theatrical release, only Cuban-Americans had any interest in it (possibly due to a non-existent advertising campaign), and only one city could be counted upon to be playing it any particular week. Finally, I decided to try using my frequent-flyer miles for a trip to one of Miami’s many cooperative movie houses.

As mentioned, the film is directed by the estimable Andy Garcia. It features fine acting talent, including Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray as American expatriates. The first is Batista’s mafia influence, the second the Greek chorus. Garcia himself is not only behind the camera but also in front of it, as what I view as a sober Ricky Riccardo.

I will not say that it is one of the greatest films ever made, a phrase far too frequently used. I will say that you should almost certainly see it. Little seen so far, yet much criticized, it should be emphasized that the flak it has been thrown for “historical inaccuracy” has come from individuals with a greater sense of pop culture than of history itself. The only condemnation I could give this film in honesty would be that it is paced more like a slow, epic novel than a Hollywood film. And that is no condemnation at all. (Please, someone try telling me that Schindler’s List is “too slow” and not “vivacious enough.”)

Largely stylized, probably “artsy,” this is a story of history and culture lost and found created every step of the way by children of that culture and eyewitnesses to that history, a moving portrayal of authentic family discord and kinship, a film worth seeing.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

“Must like… lots of $$”

No, I did not make this up.

Please tell me that “Company vehicle” means VW van.

[This newspaper] makes every effort to publish only bona fide job listings. Please be sure to read ads carefully. If you encounter a problem, send e-mail to [employee]@[paper].com.
Must like loud music, lots of $$ and rockin’ attitude.
Company vehicle.
Call [name] at [number]

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Mad About This

Earlier this year I found myself sadly confined to a hotel room in CNY. Various unfortunate proceedings converged to make the situation even less comfortable, but one of the few highlights was a very small handful of “Mad About You” episodes. They were funny, and I don‘t find television so very often. One of them was no less than brilliant.

This was not my first exposure to the show. In Nederland, where the show is given phenomenon status on par with “The Bold and the Beautiful,” I saw an episode or two and was far from impressed. But it (they? I honestly don’t remember how many I saw) was(/were) from late in the series run. The ones I saw in New York were from the second season. Clearly, as almost invariably happens in TV, the show had ‘jumped the shark’ in the interval.

So, being the chronological archival nut that I am, I was quick to buy The Complete First Season when it came out on two DVDs recently. I just finished it.

Ooh… How shall I do this? Episode by episode to prolong the pain, twisting the knife? Short centuries ago, the soon-to-be-executed was expected to pay the executioner as a bribe for a relatively painless exit. If the prisoner decided he’d rather his heirs get the gold coins hidden at home… well, his head might not come of in the first ten or so blows of the axe. Should it make a difference to me now, then, that not only had I not received money, but had given money for the ‘privilege’ of seeing Season One of “Mad…”? Ah, I’ll be merciful despite it.

It stinks. Not a single episode of the twenty-three could elicit a chuckle, and twenty of them could never even qualify as good. Some of them can be well-labeled mediocre, but the rest… deserve nothing approximating so much praise.

I want it off my hands. The local used bookstore may be in for a donation… assuming I decide that isn’t too honorable a death for such muck. Maybe Season Two is better overall, but I’m reluctant to even look knowing that I’ve probably already seen the best of it.

Far from recommended.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Exhaust

I just got back from viewing Cars. One-line review:
Worst Pixar feature-length ever.

That is, of course, not much of an insult. Still, I can give this particular film little more praise than to say that, if it is not itself mediocre, it rests just on the edge of that lethal plummet of mediocrity.

On the shiny side, the attached teaser for next year’s Ratatouille (which I have anticipated from before Finding Nemo’s release) is probably the most attractive trailer I’ve seen Pixar put out. Go figure.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

In Plain Sight

As some of you may have noticed, it is summer. Traditionally, summer is celebrated with participation in incredibly noisy observational events, known as ‘blockbusters.’
So, I come thinking to myself, saying that perhaps there is a better alternative. Why don’t we think while wasting time, rather than give ourselves premature auditory losses? After all, we would still be wasting time, so it should still be just fine.

With all of this firmly in mind, I have placed below a coded message, with a code key of sorts in plain sight. To say more would possibly spoil it.

This is an open invitation. Anyone is welcome to try their hand at it. And don’t worry! When this one is solved, there may be put up a much more difficult code that I have just written.

Yon parka came down on Thursday, drowned unhappily of water. Come see long scorn stain its look to banjo ugly (the color dun), down to sunny dye of daffodil. See there all.
Tomfu Klaus
...............Hast thou the key?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Propagating Illiteracy with the Public Fund

So today I make my pilgrimage to the Big-City Public Metropolitan Library. Always an exhilarating event, as it is the only multi-floor public library in a seventy mile radius. Always exhilarating, that is, until I get up the check-out desk.

You see, no matter what I ever do, every time I am there they are managing to lose my card data. Somehow, I am always erased from the computers. Generally, I end up bribing someone to re-enter me.

So, today it goes just as always. No such account, yada yada yada. “Don’t worry, sir, just slide me a Jackson and everything will be fine.” What can I do? Only this time, I spend a whole lot of time in run-around even after they take my money, and I’m told I can’t take my books away for another two weeks.

Now, it is quite a drive indeed for me to get to the Big-City Public Metropolitan Library, and in addition to having to make this drive several more times, it is insinuated that I must make some sort of a personal visit to my state representative to have my card activated.

So, we get into a little strong-arm stuff, and finally I am being told that I can take two books away with me today, and come back for the rest in a month. See, thing is, I do not wanna go away with two books when I have come here to pick up such magnificent gems as I have pining away over for so long a time to read.

But, in the end, having paid out twenty in bribe and a fortune more in parking meter change (their real objective all the time), I walk out with everything, excepting the disk of “Foyle’s War Series 2.”
(I have already seen “Foyle’s War” Series 1 and 3, but have not seen all of 2.)
Why, a fellow asks, do I leave without my “Foyle’s War Series 2”? Seems, somehow, it gets erased from the computer some time back.

[Incidentally, one of the several books I make off with in the above-mentioned endeavor is a collection of short stories by one Damon Runyon. Any discernible similarities between his dialectical pursuits and the style of this post, ain’t purely coincidental, bub.]

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Empathy and Masculinity

This be one of the great mysteries of maleness: What to do when need of comfort arises.

Seriously, when another guy is going through a rough time (say… member of the family undergoing meningitis scare), what does one say and do toward that individual?

[Gently shaking his hand] “How is everything? Are you all right? We’re praying for you. Yes. If you need anything at all, don’t hesitate to call. Want a casserole or two?

O.K, clearly that’s wrong. It’s fine for the chicas, but us male specimens are above that. Or, more accurately, get the heck embarrassed out of us by it.
So, how about a more macho alternative…

[Raising fist in air in lieu of handshake] “’Sup.”

I mean, it’s perfect, right? No awkwardness, just good ol’ masculine camaraderie! A pleasant, understated way of saying, “Here for you, fella.”
Well, yes and no. It’s all implied—which seems like a good thing… but might not always be. The fact that it’s, well, identical to the universal guy greet used at all other times might cause some confusion.
“Is he being coolly understated and giving me the space I need while letting me know that, though as men we would never dare speak it aloud, I’m cared about? Or does the dumbbell just have no clue what’s going on in my life?” he asks himself.

I think you can see the dilemma.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Vertical Food Chain

In the past I have occasionally posted a ‘nice’ picture or two. Not today.

In this still it is difficult to tell who’s winning. Actually, at points in real life it was hard to tell. But the real subject of this photograph is the wasp, who is dragging up the wall a small-to-mid-size rabid wolf spider it has killed.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

“Who’s scruffy-lookin’?”

I am not what David Letterman calls a “Star Wars Trekkie.”
In my mind, the original film had about enough story to sustain thirty or forty minutes of play… Episode VI lacks any recommendation whatsoever… and the prequels accomplished only one good thing: the construction of potent Jedi in the form of Qui-Gon Jinn and an Obi-Wan who actually does something besides die.

But I am neither a Star Wars anti-fanatic.
As hinted at above, in the “new trilogy” I can genuinely enjoy Liam Neeson’s flashing lightsabre and keen tongue, not to mention the mute efficiency of a young Obi-Wan Kenobi assisting, feeding droids to his blade.
In both time frames I can appreciate good droid design: R2-D2, the Droidekas, etc.

And as for story, I say Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back makes darn good cinema. Come the Tuesday of 12 September, with the two-disc release of each of the original films in its original form, I will be buying it (V, that is).

“Star Wars Trekkies” across the country are celebrating the announcement of this untampered-with presentation, particularly after the trilogy box-set release a year before.

For the uninitiated, I will explain: Mr. George Lucas did not just tamper with his prior creations once. Oh no. I confess to having seen his revamped-for-theaters version of the first trilogy, which (aside from an overabundance of sickly orange CGI) wasn’t so terrible. Sure, Greedo shoots first, but whatever (I don’t care about Episode IV, remember?).
Then came the DVD release, which had been altered to a much greater extent. Most grievous of all was the alteration of lightsabres to match those in Episode III: The Abomination. Originally, you see, a lightsabre (with it’s “blade of pure energy”) was shown as a bright white shaft surrounded by a hazy, pulsating, and colorful corona. Quite beautiful, actually—particularly in dark blue. But in the most recent movie (the one where Darth Vader is no longer a steely villain who can wipe out hordes of his enemy, but instead a simpering loudmouthed idiot) the lightsabres are a flat, pointed stick of pure color.
And so to achieve a kind of retroactive continuity, Mr. Lucas had the pointy, boring lightsabres digitally replace the original in every frame of the DVDs. (Strange that he cares so much about visual continuity but ignores real continuity it in the storyline of the final release.)

All right, so I prefer the shaft-and-corona version personally. A lot of people do. (If you can’t tell by now, while I am not a “Star Wars Trekkie,” many friends are.) But Lucas went a step beyond removing that. Oh yes. One glance at Darth Vader’s blade of fury and I am sure you will be won entirely over to my side.
You see, originally Darth Vader’s sabre was a fearsome red thing, representative of the evil for which it was so well used. (In the first film, they skimped on it’s design due to time constraints on their laborious process of rotoscoping in the sabre over the prop used, and Vader’s sabre was a bit odd-looking. But in the next two, when budget allowed for the time to do so, every frame was given the proper white shaft and red corona.)
But look now at the DVD release. See for yourself in the grand duels from V and VI. Not only is Vader’s instrument of death a pointed travesty of a lightsabre, it is pink. That’s right! No more cool, villainous red, let’s make Vader more accessible to the audience. Let’s arm him with something from a little girl’s tea party. Maybe it’ll help him reconnect with his long-lost daughter Leia if he kills people with pinkness.
I mean, come on! PINK?!?

So, yeah, stick with the original. Let us together throw off the shackles of revisionist filmmaking and its wussy villains! Arise, people of Earth. Arise!
Oh yeah, and do it by the end of the year, ‘cause New Years Eve the original cuts will be taken off the market.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Some Grade-A Court Martial Material

Last week this hit shelves: The Phil Silvers Show 50th Anniversary Edition DVD collection.

I discovered Phil Silvers overseas two years ago on the BBC. It came on two days one week and three days the next, in a time slot that could vary by as much as three hours. No matter, that half-hour was worth scouring the listings to find.

And the show was a true thirty minutes, no the twenty-plus-commercials we are accustomed to today. The show was begun in 1955 when time slots were sold in whole to a program’s sponsor. The result is that after two-thirds (or even less) of an episode have gone by, the viewer is afraid that it’s over. Aiding the impression is the same kind of half-resolution at that moment that is today favored to actually end a sit-com. But fear not! A whole other act awaits! Which is truly a happy occasion, as it is hard to say goodbye to Mr. Silvers.

The show itself comprises the misadventures of Phil Silvers as Sergeant Ernest Bilko, a conniving genius with some lazy habits. He also happens to be the post’s best and most prolific gambler, though with a very well-tuned (if reluctant) code of fair-play.
While the storylines can focus on just about any brilliant plot cooked up by the schemer (and Bilko’s plans do tend toward a creativity beyond his imitators on later series), they tend to center around the poker table. Frequently they take on a sort of point and counter-point plot against Bilko’s rival cardsharps, as the villains are not above cheating green recruits out of their paychecks and Ernie feels called of duty to help those under his command.

If you’ve read to this point, my admiration for the show is clear. I must be over-joyed to see it available on DVD, right? Kinda.
I’m not actually planning to buy the set, which is made up of about 18 episodes culled from the entire four-year run of 144 shows. I personally would prefer a season-by-season release, particularly as the show—though hardly a serial—maintains an episode-to-episode continuity seldom attempted since.
Oh well, at least the 50th Anniversary celebratory distribution stands a chance of introducing this current generation to Sgt. Bilko—and not the version played by Steve Martin.

Friday, April 21, 2006

“Remember… !”

21 April, 1836 (exactly 170 years ago) the predator was upon the prey. Or something like that…

Five Mexican armies were well across the Rio Grande into what has declared itself the independent Republic of Texas. The thousands of drilled Mexican uniforms engage pockets of Tejano irregulars generally numbering in the low hundreds. Three hundred and forty-two surrendered men have been murdered less than a month ago at Goliad. Shortly before that the famous and foolhardy defenders of the Alamo Mission had been eradicated by a sheer overrun of numbers.
It was all so easy. And another such conquest sat squarely on the calendar for tomorrow.

What no one realized was that the prey had chosen itself. Out of the five heavily built Mexican armies in Texas, General Sam Houston had picked this one specifically for it’s commanding officer: the ‘Napoleon of the West,’ Mexico’s military dictator himself.
Houston, who had arrived in Texas mere months before, was the country’s last hope for a victory. He was increasingly regarded as no hope at all. But he had made his army Santa Anna’s target intentionally, and his exceedingly unpopular retreat was well-designed to place the imminent battle on the field of his own choosing, while allowing time for the training of his volunteer force.

The Republic’s government (which Sam himself had managed to patch back together when it had already fallen apart) was making vehement threats to remove Houston; his own officer’s and men believed he was a coward. The virtually universal conviction that the retreat was a bad one seemed validated when Santa Anna was suddenly reinforced by a force of six hundred. Things were only getting worse.

But it was then that Sam Houston had found his ground. He stopped, and watched as Santa Anna prepared to attack. Apparently the former Tennessee Governor, now Texan General, let only his scouts in on the plan in his head. The Mexican generals believed the twenty-second would be the day remembered as the Battle of San Jacinto, but Houston’s scouts had already destroyed the bridge that would give Santa Anna’s foolishly chosen camp ground a retreat.

The morning of the twenty-first Houston informed his officers that today was the stand they had asked for. Overwhelmingly, the same men who had grumbled over Houston’s lack of offensive action voted now that they should entrench and defend their own location. The General overruled them, telling them to assemble their men.

That afternoon, during the hour of siesta diligently observed by Santa Anna’s troops, a line of Texans two-deep crouched low as they ascended the hill atop which the enemy lay sleeping. As they neared the crest a sentry saw them, but the slope didn’t give the Mexican volleys much chance to hit the shallow line in its approach. Houston, on horseback, was the easiest mark on the field. Even as shot severed both bones of one leg he repeated the order that his men hold fire from their muzzle-loading arms.

At almost point-blank range the order was finally given and a single burst dropped the few platoons that had managed to drowsily form up. From here, as dictated by the technology of the day, it was an action of bladed weapons, to which the frontier fighters were much better suited than trained soldiers.
“Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” Houston’s cry was echoed across the entire field.
The sleeping enemy hadn’t time to prime its guns, and Mexican regulars dropped to their knees at every yard, disavowing Santa Anna’s slaughters and denying their presence at them. The battle lasted a full eighteen minutes.

Twenty-nine years later, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper would claim that Federal troops caught Jefferson Davis on the run in Georgia dressed as a woman. In more recent years it was claimed that Osama bin Ladin fled Afghanistan in a disguise of more severe personal humiliation.
But Antonio López de Santa Anna, President of Mexico and General of the Operative Army, really was brought in dressed as a lowly soldier. Despite Sam Houston’s vigorous warning to check all prisoners against the face of Santa Anna, regardless of apparent rank, Antonio López slipped past his capturer’s notice. Until the real privates of his army saluted and shouted “El Presidente!” en masse.

The captive was taken to parley with General Houston, lying in the shade of a tree and attempting to disguise the severity of his wounds. (Good old Sam had gotten used to being shot apart years before, being essentially the flip side of the George Washington quarter every time he saw battle.)
Santa Anna hastily agreed that, given his safe passage to Mexico, he would order all military operations in Texas to return across the Rio Grande preceding a probable official recognition of the Republic.
It didn’t happen. Houston’s painstaking steps to keep the zealous volunteers (many of whom had lost relatives to Santa Anna’s murderous commands) from exterminating El Presidente proved a waste when Mexico decided she was better off with their bloodthirsty and unconstitutional (Texas only proclaimed independence when Santa Anna destroyed the lawful constitution) dictator in Texas chains.

But Santa Anna would soon return home anyway, minus his titles. Over the remaining decades of his life he would reclaim those titles, make war, make peace, deny his own treaties, etc, and generally make life miserable.
But even he gets a happy ending: In New York, during one of his several exiles, Santa Anna would help make Chiclets (and with them, chewing gum itself) a reality.

Sam Houston’s story also remained essentially the same for the rest of his life. Having won Texas’ independence for her, he was to become her first President and her first U.S. senator. His career was to be brilliant, and like the rest of his life alternated between wildly popular and violently condemned.
In 1859 he was elected governor, but was kicked out as “disloyal” for his dim view of secession. (“Loyalty” can seem to mean whatever the user wishes, if you didn’t notice.)

Two years into civil war he died in Tennessee, still an example of everything good that can be given to the term “Texan.”
(O.K, so that’s a tad sappy. True, but sappy.)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


It’s tradition. As soon as Easter Sunday passes, and the seasonal candy is marked down fifty percent, I get some. Nothing to complain of when it gets down to four or five bags of Reese’s® “chocolate covered peanut butter eggs.” Good stuff.

Now that’s the real meaning of Easter, huh? Well, you know, except for all that other stuff:
“Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen.”

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Factorial Monty

O.K, here be the disclaimer: If you don’t know me very well (particularly if you don’t know anything about math) and you have run across this posting, you might be tempted to categorize me as a ‘math geek.’ Please do not do this.
I do not ask you this because to do so would be to insult me, but because to do so would be to insult every math geek on the face of the earth.
From a practical standpoint, I hate math. No offense to you mathies out there, it’s just not my area. However, I do tend to enjoy (at least on an abstract level) the workings of the world. So, in the end, I can enjoy math as an idea, so long as I am not expected to sit down with paper and pen and actually do anything.
(There are, of course, many exceptions to this rule. But let us not get into that.)

Now that that is out of the way…

There is a mathematical diversion known popularly as the Monty Hall problem. I vaguely remember hearing something about it ten years ago or so, but it was really only introduced to me recently, upon reading this book.

The problem, named for the host of that televised outcropping of the sixties known as “Let’s Make a Deal,” tied my brain in knots for several hours of intermittent examination until I finally rectified truth with assumption. Or, more accurately, finally vanquished a superficial assumption.
The problem also happens to be very timely as NBC is running something called “Deal or No Deal” which appears to be an attempt at remaking Mr. Hall’s legendary show (minus all the amusing trappings, and thus the point of the show). I haven’t actually seen any of this new program, of course…

But various acquaintances have, and have spoken of it. Which led to a remodeling of Monty Hall’s perplexing problem. The problem, as I presented it to the group, was as follows:
You are on TV. I point your attention to three models standing on a stage with plastic smiles, each with a briefcase in hand. One briefcase holds a gold brick and a million dollars in cash. The other two contain rats. In a moment you will be asked to select one case, whose contents you would like to call your own in the hopes that it has the riches. After you have selected I will have one of the models open one of the two boxes not selected, revealing one of the rodents. Understood? Good. Now, pick.
By overwhelming majority, it was agreed that the center box would be chosen.
Right, then. Miss Maine, yes, the one on the right, would you kindly open your attaché case? Thank you.
A white rat is shown to the audience and Miss Maine leaves the stage with it.
Now, honored-and-hopefully-lucky contestant, I am going to make you an offer. You may either stay with your original choice of what had been the center case, or you may switch and take home the contents of the case to its left. What is your decision?
One person said that she might switch, but that she didn’t really care. Everyone else present was emphatic: They were sticking to the original choice. (The reason for this, as explained to me afterwards, was that to switch and lose would make the player feel stupid, whereas to stick and lose would entail less of a sting.)
All right, can anyone tell me what the odds are of the original choice being correct, and what the odds are of the switch you all turned down having the fortune?
Fifty-fifty, everyone said. All but our resident math genius, who claimed they should both still be consider a one-third chance, having originated from three choices.

So, was fifty-fifty the correct answer? No.
When I informed the group that they had just received a suitcase with a lab rat inside, I had the makings of a riotous mob on my hands. A few simply stalked off and the rest angrily accused me of rigging the game. According to them, whatever they had chosen I would have claimed I had placed the goodies in the other case.
No, I said, it was purely a matter of probabilities. Sticking to their guns as they did, they would only get the loot one in three tries. Had they switched when given the offer, their chance would have doubled to two in three.

I was accused of imbecilic math (as was Marilyn vos Savant for getting it right the first answer, something I fell far short of).

But yes, it is true. The way I finally explained it to myself after perhaps five hours of off-and-on obsessing was that the initial choice (the center box, in this case) had a one in three chance from the beginning. Intentionally taking away one of the bad boxes doesn’t change that, so by subtraction the other box must necessarily have a value of two-thirds.

It became even clearer in my mind when an engineer I mentioned it to that first day tried to convince my of my error by illustrating it with a hundred boxes instead of three. The point that was supposed to made through this exercise was easily defeated by it in the end.
If you stick with your initial choice as ninety-eight bad boxes are removed, your initial choice still has only a one over a hundred chance of being correct. And since the other boxes were removed specifically for their identities as dead fish the other one left has a ninety-nine percent chance of holding the golden egg.

These were the terms I explained it in (being sure to emphasize the fact that I had been wrong-headed about Monty Hall originally as well), and I think everyone more or less agreed with and forgave me at the end.

Assuming that anyone has waded through my laborious explanation of an otherwise pretty cool concept, the interesting part happened next.
A woman, whom I do not know well but with whom I am acquainted, was attracted to my general area by the sounds of our discussion. She brought with her a problem of her own:
If an individual has five drawers, how many different ways are there of arranging said drawers within their five spaces?

I should mention that this woman has more mathematical education in her upper spinal chord than I have in my entire nervous system, aside from being a very intrinsically smart cookie. That, and the fact that her question was inspired by the discussion of an apparent paradox might lead one to believe the posed question was meant as some kind of test.

But it’s a simple enough problem. Actually, so simple as to be too easy, the kind of semi-circular reasoning that leads right back the idea of a trick question. But the simple truth remains that, as any one of the five drawers can sit in the first slot, but only one of the other four can sit in the next (and so on) 5 times 4 times 3 times 2 (times 1—but who cares?).
I write the numbers in the air briefly and cough up the number 120.

“That’s what I thought,” she says. “But I wrote out the possibilities and couldn’t get more than twenty.” Hmm. “Is the factorial over something?”


She suggests I puzzle it through. I stared into space a bit, wrinkling my mouth different directions. I was trying to figure out how she only came up with twenty.

During the course of my duties that day (volunteering with a children’s program), I happened to be in contact with her fifth-grade son, who saw my (by then completed) work on the matter and asked what it was. I told him his mother had asked me to prove how many ways five objects could be arranged. It was then revealed not to be some purely academic exercise meant to trip me up.
“Oh, I know where she got that. See, we had these five drawers last night and she was trying to figure out how they were supposed to go in…”
I rather enjoyed that. When he suggested I write my proof with seven factors instead of five (as there had originally been two more drawers) I enjoyed it less. For my proof was a hand written list of all one hundred and twenty possible combinations of the five disoriented drawers.
Having retrieved some waste paper from the secretarial pool’s trashcan, I made out the list (exactly as below). Five columns of twenty-four combinations of five unique items.

O.K, so not exactly as represented here. The order and organization is the same, but my handwriting is terrible and I had to scribble out three duplications (two in the third row and one in the fourth).
Nonetheless, I was quite proud of myself.

When I met the lady of the mathematical furniture at the day‘s end, I forked my handiwork over with this simple speech: “One hundred and twenty.”
“You did do it.” She was surprised I’d bothered thinking of it at all.

Of course, as any genuine math junkie can probably see from the groupings within my list, I couldn’t have done it so fast (about twenty minutes while dealing with the kids in my care) without having the number 120 already in mind.
But I refuse not to be impressed with myself.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

FUN WITH PLASTICINE MONEY: Pt III - The Cute, Innocent Chick

So, I managed to expose a criminal and save his boss a bunch of money, utilizing my brain and a new Visa card. Yes, it was funny, but I didn’t get a single good belly laugh out of it. Those idiots who go around signing “Kim Jong-Il” (who, by the way, has his own much larger credit scam going) everywhere seem to have so much more fun than I did with my Elmer’s cement.

So, the question becomes, “How to take this up a notch?” Kenny at the gas station watched gleefully as I (he thought) defrauded some idiot named Mortimer Randolph, and went on and on about how chic I was in method until I was out of earshot. But he didn’t so much participate as merrily allow it.

I wondered, is there a way to get a cashier to take more active a part? I decided to find out.

Last time, I targeted someone I was fairly confident was already dirty. This time, I decided to test someone I was sure would prove to be clean, someone who would immediately turn me in to the manager. Let’s just say I needed a boost to my confidence in human goodwill.
So this time I made sure to wear good running shoes.

The one time I caught a week-day matinee at the local theater, I noticed that I (and the two friends I was treating to Napoleon Dynamite) were the only ones there. The ticket-sellers, apparently yearning for some human interaction not projected on a two-dimensional screen, had eagerly conversed with us every last second before the feature rolled. A perfect opportunity for my next credit card run.

So, I showed up for the two-twenty showing of some dumb little just-because-Hollywood-has-money-to-waste movie, credit card in tow. The lobby was empty, as planned. And there, behind the toy-like register was, uh, let’s say Cindy, a very pretty, very friendly blonde of (I’d guess around) 22 years. Surely she’ll prove worthy of the trust her employers have in her.

“One for such-and such piece of cinematic garbage,” I say, not quite in those words. She smiles sweetly as I hand her my card. And now I’m supposed to sign the little leaf of paper. “Excuse me, could you hold my card up for me?” She blinks, but holds it up anyway.
I carefully instruct her just how high and just how close to my face to hold it, as I laboriously imitate the signature on it’s back, attempting to duplicate it on the card. Attempting and, well, succeeding easily (it‘s my signature, of course). But I try to make it look hard.

Any second now she’s going to catch on, I know it. Then she’ll ask me what I think I’m doing, before yelling back at her boss to come help her restrain the criminal who just tried to steal the price of a matinee. Then I’ll have to steal my own card out of her hand and run for it. But she doesn’t catch on, she just stands there, obeying my every request in holding my card up.

So I decide to sweeten the pot just a bit.

“Huh..” I say, finishing the last letter of my name.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, but… Is ‘Randolph’ really spelled that way?”

She looks at it. “I guess so.”

“I dunno, it’s just weird. I’ve never seen ‘Randolph’ spelled that way before.”
“I mean, look. It’s a ‘ph’ instead of an ‘f.’”

She shrugs.

“Oh, well. Some people, right?”

“Yeah,” she says, smiling.

It’s clear she has no idea what I’m talking about, no idea that I just copied the signature from the back of (my) card onto the slip that she is supposed to compare against it. No idea that, if I’m really myself, I’ve just admitted to not knowing how to spell my own last name. Not to mention insulted myself for having spelled it correctly.

I leave Cindy and walk into the shadowy screening area, dejected at the thought of just how pitiable mankind is.

But as I sat down, dejected at the thought of not having been chased out of the establishment (more specifically because I would now have to sit through a stupid movie for Cindy’s failure), I had a thought. I went back out to the lobby, where Cindy was leaning against the counter, face resting on her hand, waiting despondently for someone else to talk to. She perked up when she saw me coming back.
And she gave a happy “yes” when I asked if she’d like to have dinner with me on the weekend. Probably the “yes” was influenced by her momentary state of lonely, but a yes is a yes however you look at it.

So, we’ll go to the restaurant together, and over a fair to good meal I’ll explain some things to her. Like, say, what a credit card is and how easily it can be exploited by the wrong people.

She’ll never speak to me again, but at least I will have the satisfaction of having helped educate America’s youth on their duty in halting the menace credit card fraud. A good day’s work.

Please Note the date of publication for this three part series “Fun with Plasticine ‘Money’” in deciding whether to accept one word of it as fact. Thank you.

FUN WITH PLASTICINE MONEY: Pt II - The Fat Guy Behind the Counter

Where was I? Oh, yeah. So there’s this guy who works at the local gas station…

A friend who used to work there tells me this particular guy (let’s call him… Kenny) invites his friends over for the time slot when the security camera’s VCR hits the end of the tape. During the time between that tape coming out and the next tape going in, his pals (who reportedly are grunt workers at the area’s largest chop-shop) and he raid the liquor sections and proceed to enjoy happy hour.

This really is just on the level of hearsay, but it’s easy to believe because half the times I’ve been in there Kenny has tried to blatantly overcharge me. Not to mention that his odor always reminds me of the sign in the window proclaiming it a misdemeanor to consume alcohol on the premises.

So, new credit card in hand, I think it’s time to test just how criminally indulgent Kenny can be.

First, the right getup. I borrow a friend’s Kojak glasses (hey, you think I can spend $300 bucks on lenses?) to get myself in on the vice-squad atmosphere. But I have to look seedier than that. All black clothing, and a hoodie to obscure my face, like I’m scared to be recognizable on the security tapes. I remind myself on the way over to conspicuously hunch my head low.

I mosey into the gas station at just the right hour to find the place deserted, having checked with my friend to find out what hours of what days Kenny works there. He’s behind the counter, wiping his hands on a towel for some unknown reason.

Kenny nods at me, eyeing my garb as the glass door swings to behind me. I head to the back of the store, hands in my pockets, shoulders bunched up and head slung forward. I suddenly realize I have to pick something to buy, and a candy bar doesn’t seem like a credit-racket commodity.
Beer would fit better with the image, but I don’t like beer and have no interest in wasting my money on it. I decide to buy a bag of ice, the name’s allusion to stolen goods striking a chord with me. But ice isn’t expensive enough to justify some dude in black buying it with (what is hopefully assumed to be) somebody else’s card.
So I grab a king-size Resse’s to go with it.

I lift my loot onto the counter and duck my head farther, staring squarely at the floor for a moment. This has to look illicit. I slide my Visa card across to him and leave it there.

Kenny is staring at me, but I’m pretty sure it’s just the way I’m acting and not that he recognizes me for the guy who always argues when he tries to cheat me. Hopefully I just look like some random crook. Who likes to steal ice and candy.

When he gives me the slip of paper I’m supposed to sign (so that my in-person signature can be checked against the one on my card) I pull out the big guns. Or rather, the office supplies.
I empty my pockets of a business letter, over-sized sewing scissors, and a heavy glass jar of Elmer’s rubber cement.

The letter is a phony I printed out from my computer and signed with my name. I proceed to use the scissors to clip it down to the signature, all the while with Kenny’s eye staring curiously. Then, with my name fully clipped out, I open the rubber cement and use it to affix this little piece of paper over the receipt I’m supposed to sign.

Kenny realizes what’s going on now. How could he not? Well, O.K, he doesn’t realize I’m having him on; but he thinks he knows I’m a petty crook. How will he react?
By congratulating me for my brilliance. Laughing, he says “I’ve got to try that sometime.” Great, I’ve just taught a thief how to steal.

Maybe he’ll get caught trying it.

Back in the comfort of my home I write a letter to Kenny’s supervisor, explaining just what time he should review on the security tapes. And of course, I sign my name.



Ever since some investigative reporters filmed themselves doing it, credit fraud for-a-joke has steadily increased in popularity.

Google credit card joke or credit card prank and you’ll find numerous people proudly proclaiming their success at duping apathetic sales workers with phony signatures, generally “Bugs Bunny” or “Britney Spears” signed for one’s own card.

At least three of these idle-handed would-be comics claim repeatedly to have shown how greedy credit card companies are. In fact, it shows only that busy people working for minimum wage don’t bother to check signatures. But everybody knew that already!!!
So what has been accomplished? Nothing constructive, certainly.

And what happens next? Well, generally that purchase will show up on the prankster’s statement, meaning he (or she—no, just he, no woman would be that insensitive) will be charged just the same as if he’d signed his legal name.
But there is the occasion or two in which it doesn’t show up on the statement. So what happened there? Well, somebody along the line caught the autograph and decided that Spider-Man probably didn’t have permission to be using John J. Whoever’s card. So the credit card company then charged the store where the purchase was made for the merchandise with which John J. walked out.

Most of these defrauders gloat in their testimonies at having done this, having gotten the careless punished. They apparently tend to see themselves as the Spider-Man, the dispenser of justice whose name was borrowed. Ha ha.
That’s a nice spin, and seems easy to buy. But what these guys actually did was commit theft. First-party credit card fraud, a form of charge-back fraud, to get technical.
Very illegal, very wrong. (By the way, when I say illegal, I don’t mean the “if somebody bothers to tell the local Sheriff” kind of illegal. I mean the “the Secret Service is closing in on these guy as I write this” kind of illegal. Happy prison sentence, jerks.)

But I just so happen to have a new Visa card now. Hee hee.
No, I won’t be signing myself off as Batman (though some believe that actually to be my real identity).
But I have toyed with the idea of busting a few cashiers.

I’m not talking about cashiers who are just too busy trying to get their jobs done well to notice credit theft, I’m talking about nailing the guys who laud and knowingly allow criminality. You know the ones I mean. The mean college girl at the grocery who cheats you out of your coupons, yells at you over them, then scans ’em just as you leave so she can pocket the 33¢. Wait, maybe that’s just hunger.
But anyway, the guy at the gas station who pauses the security tape so his crew can have their pick of the beers. That’s the guy I want to take down.

So, where to start…

How about that very guy at the gas station?

Tune in NEXT TIME!