Tuesday, August 26, 2014


I have to tell you about a film I just saw: "Her" starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlet Johansson. It's a fascinating sci-fi film about the near future when a man falls in love with an intelligent "companion" program. It asks the question, "What will human relationships be like in an era when a computerized friend or partner can give you more satisfaction than a real person?" I'm not talking about robots, just a simple AI program on your laptop or mobile phone.

The day is fast coming when a computer program with a sexy voice will handle most of your business affairs, laugh at all your jokes, support you in argument, sleep with you, be your agent when you're looking for a job, find dates for you, and be a help mate in every imaginable way. No human companion could be that consistent or that dedicated. So how will real-life humans relate to each other when these new digital friends dominate?

Until recently the menace of artificial intelligence was defined by malevolent computers in films like : "Colossus: the Forbin Project," "Terminator II," and by the HAL computer in the film, "2001." We're right to be concerned about that, but at least we're forewarned.

What we haven't been warned about is the benign program which has no ill intention toward humans, but which has unintended consequences which could be immensely destructive. Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" will be no protection in the world that ushers in.

If you're curious to know what the near future has in store, then this is a must-see film.

Okay, that's it! Now I'm gonna get...some......sleep.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


This post is all about the proper way to eat spaghetti, but a little agricultural background (above) might be in order. Most people believe that spaghetti is made from wheat flour, but that's not true. As you can see in the video above, spaghetti is grown on spaghetti trees. 
Being a product of trees, spaghetti has weight.

It's bottom heavy.

Don't try eating it with a spoon. 

It'll just slide off. 

So, what do you do?

The answer: use a fork. It's fun to spear things. And that takes us to the next question which is, what do you do with those unwieldy, long strands? 

Cutting them up works, but that wouldn't be playing the game.

 Besides, you can't slurp spaghetti when it's all chopped up. What's the use of eating spaghetti if you can't slurp it?

Most people retain the long noodles and just wrap them around the fork. 

That's not an ideal solution because it produces a big ball that's hard to fit into the mouth. You can dislocate your jaw that way.

So, how are we to eat this stuff? 

The best way is to do what kids do. Treat spaghetti like a finger food. Grab a bunch, hold it above your head, and lower it into your mouth. Of course, there's a right way and a wrong way. The kid above does it artlessly. Good Grief! He's actually chewing the noodles!

This kid, on the other hand, does it right. The noodles are held straight above the mouth and lowered in such a way that the final strand is slurped, not chewed.


That's all I have to say about spaghetti but you might be curious to know more about other tree-grown agricultural items. Here's a link to a site that describes the problems experienced by marshmallow farmers:

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Here's (above) one of my favorite Basil Wolverton caricatures. I assume it's Greta Garbo. She was famous for her profile shots and Basil probably referenced one of them when he sketched this.

Maybe it was this one (above).

Garbo must have had a lot of imitators because after a point a lot of actresses (above) tried it. Most of the photos I've seen failed...neck shots must be harder than they look.

 This girl (above) succeeded on technical grounds, but didn't have the personality to pull it off.  Garbo was sickly. This actress disappoints by radiating health. How boring!

Dietrich (above) had no problem with sickly...she was a master at sickly... she just couldn't get the steep angle.

Katherine Hepburn came close (above), but...no cigar. She just looks too doggone healthy.

It's possible that other actresses (above), unable to compete with Garbo in the profile department, settled on a high-chin frontal version that showed them to better advantage.

After a point you see a lot of these photos. Looking down your eyes was the in thing to do.

Maybe being snooty became fashionable. Maybe it was discovered that frontal necks took well to underlighting. Maybe more parts were written for snooty women...I don't know.

I guess that high chin look was overdone in the 40s. Now it's underdone. Even when it fits, Hollywood won't use it. The "Maleficent" poster cried out for it and it was denied. If the two types of poses above were under consideration for that movie which would you choose?

Monday, August 18, 2014


Haw! I never, ever thought I'd be doing a post about Paradise Lost, the poem about which Samuel Johnson said, "Nobody ever wishes it was longer." Johnson was right. Milton could write, but he wrote too much. I'm reading it now and it's hard to resist the speculation that the poet was getting paid by the word.

Come to think of it, it's probably more likely that the man had OCD. He probably wrote compulsively and often, whether he was inspired or not. That would be a fatal flaw for a lesser writer but hey, this is Milton, and when he was inspired he was almost without peer. See what you think of this collection of fragments (in no particular order):

"...With looks / Downcast and damp..." ["looks downcast and damp..." Nice, very nice. I assume "damp" refers to tears but it also brings to mind a wet rag, which is a great image to support the impact of "downcast."] 

"And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer / Before all temples th' upright heart and pure..." ["the upright heart and pure"... I love how he transposes words like that.]

"...the dire event / That with sad overthrow and foul defeat, / Hath lost us Heaven, and all this mighty host / In horrible destruction laid thus low..."  [Not "laid low thus," but rather "laid thus low." That's a beautiful construction. Maybe that's the influence that Latin construction had on English. You can see the influence of the King James Bible style here. Milton could assume a wide audience for his poetry because even the common working man was Bible literate and therefore had a taste for beautiful words.]

Milton was a Puritan and the idea of democracy was so infused into that belief that even demons had to vote on everything, including whether to break with God.

Heaven was an unassailable fortress so a direct military assault on God was out of the question. I like the way (below) Milton describes Heaven's defenses:

"...The Towers of Heaven are filled / With armed watch that render all access / Impregnable. Oft on the bordering deep / Encamp their legions, or with secret wing / scout far and wide into the Night / Scorning surprise..."

Wow! Heaven uses an active defence which relies not only on walls but on reconnaissance and confrontation with the enemy at night. It sounds like something modern defenders would do.

Enraged and humiliated, Lucifer decided the best way to hurt God was to hurt his pampered creation, the human race. God had given us free will and Lucifer would use that to tempt us to do evil, as he did with Adam and Eve (above).  God would have to suffer the agony of witnessing our betrayal and ingratitude.

Milton was great at evocative images. Here (the picture above and the text below) he describes the kind of enormous Leviathan that shared the world with man before the time of Noah. Milton's Hell wasn't confined to the deep underneath the Earth. In remote areas it could also be found in lakes of lava on the surface, and was sometimes seen by humans.

How would you like to have been the seamen who witnessed that?

All paperback editions of Paradise Lost were not created equal. Here's (above) an annotated one from 1999 that has a good typeface and no bleed through.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


I hadn't intended to do another astronomy post so soon after the last one, but I've come across pictures that are just too interesting to withhold.

This one (above) appears to be a lump of clay shaped by a palette knife, but it's actually a comet called 67P Churyumorov. A probe named Rosetta just arrived there and is now in orbit attempting to locate a landing site for its robot lander.

Here's (above) another view. It looks like Rosetta's current orbit might take it laterally around the asteroid.

Here's Saturn being eclipsed by a shadow from, of all things, our own Moon. A commenter says this event isn't as recent as I thought. It coincided with the 9/11 attack.

It's strange to recall that only a couple of decades ago the proposition that underground moisture existed on Mars was considered controversial. Nowadays the evidence seems to jump out at us with every new batch of photographs.

Here's (above) a 5 kilometer high mesa on Mars which has undergone a collapse, possibly due to groundwater undermining a layer of subterranean salt. Some kind of dark material is revealed and some of it seems to have been carried down to the ground in a pattern possibly influenced by a liquid.

Here's (above) an odd one. It's Galaxy M106, about 23 million light years distant. Those purple spider legs appear at first glance to be carrying material away from the center but actually they're doing the opposite. They're jets fast-tracking matter into a super massive black hole in the galaxy's center. How can the jets be as large as they are? How come they're sticking out of the plane of the rest of the galaxy?

Here's (above) an even odder one. It's a supernova occuring in a double star system in a nearby galaxy,  Galaxy M82SN. The star had already explosively thrown off it's shell, alerting astronomers on Earth that it was about to enter the next stage where it turns into a white dwarf and emits jets of Xrays. Telescopes all over the world (including Chandra, the orbiting Xray telescope) were immediately trained on this star, only....only there were no Xrays. "So what?" you say.

Well, it's an important discovery. The two squares at the bottom are before and after shots of the dwarf, and they're empty. That indicates that our model for how supernovas occur is wrong. Good Grief! The universe continues to amaze!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Long time readers of this blog know how much I like melodrama. The time travel story I just posted was heavily influenced by it. For me it means creating stories out of elements that have sure-fire audience appeal. If people naturally like to see romance and swordfights, if they love to cheer on a hero and boo the villain, if they have a sentimental attachment to beloved pets...then the melodramatist tries to fit those elements in.

A story like that can be the cheesiest daytime soap opera or it can be Macbeth. It depends on the skill of the writer.

Anyway, if you like that medium you might be curious about how it started...or rather how the popular modern incarnation of it started. Here's how one internet source describes it.

The story begins in the 1780s with a young French aristocrat named Pixerecourt.

Pixerecourt was young and well off and his father had just bought an estate that would have qualified him as an aristocrat. The boy had no aspirations beyond chasing women and wearing nice clothes. Life was good and he hadn't a care in the world. Then came the French Revolution and he and his family were tossed out into the snowflakes.

I don't know what happened to his family, but Pixerecourt's life became a horror. With no money and no way to make a living he had to wander from town to town trying to pass himself off as a peasant. The police were on his trail, and anybody he met might have turned him in.

He had lots of adventures where he was hunted like an animal and nearly starved.  Finally he met an old friend who, at great risk to himself, got Pixerecourt a low level clerk's job under an assumed name. Desperate for money, Pixerecourt tried to pay back the friend by writing a play and selling it to one of the local theatres. Sell it he did, and to his surprise the public lined up around the block to see it. It was a hit. In order to explain why I have to digress for a moment.

After Shakespeare's time fictional villains had fallen into disrepute. The Baroque era was ushered in and with it the belief that a man becomes good by surrounding himself with with positive things like art (above) and finery. Dwelling on the dark thoughts of villains was considered morbid and perilous to virtue. Baroque drama centered around misunderstandings, not evil, and comedy became popular.

Back to Pixerecourt: he wasn't trying to innovate. He just wanted to write a popular drama. The problem was that he had seen nothing but the darkest side of life since he left home and was still living under the threat of discovery by murderous fanatics. He wrote about villains because that's all he knew. It evidently struck a chord with the audience, who'd had plenty of brushes with evil themselves.

I wish I could say that Pixerecourt had a life of ease afterward but that wasn't the case. His plays brought him to the attention of the authorities who did everything they could to capture him. Later he was drafted into the revolutionary army which apparently didn't know about his background. I don't know how his later life played out but one of his plays, The Dog of Montargis (usually spelled differently than it is on the poster), became a staple of theatre in the 19th Century and was a favorite of Charles Dickens.

 Here's (above) a statue that commemorates the play, and which still stands in the real-life town of Montargis.  In the play a popular nobleman is killed by a jealous courtier in the forest. The killer might have gotten away with it but the victim's dog recognizes him and attacks him at every opportunity. The killer pleads with the law to have the dog put down, but the king declares that justice would only be served by a Trial by Ordeal. The murderer must fight with the dog to the death. Needless to say, it's a melodrama so the murderer loses.

Incidentally, how did anyone ever stage this play? Even with a trained dog the actor playing the murderer must have gotten some serious bites. And what would happen if someone in the audience brought their cat to the play?  

So that's how modern melodrama began. Someone had to risk his life so that we could have soap operas and stories about faithful pets who rescue their masters from drowning in icy rivers.

Fascinating, eh?