The First Hundred Days

Ever since FDR became president – and had to push through a lot of things right away as the economy was in free fall, the “first hundred days” of a presidency has become a sort of “meme” for the press. It really is an arbitrary point; it just happens to be a nice round number that sounds better than “three months”. There’s also the idea of a “honeymoon” period, where the new president can ride the wave of popularity that won him the election to trade some of that free political capital on advancing his agenda and fulfilling a campaign promise or two.

It isn’t really fair to judge a presidency on what amounts to a mere seven percent of a full term. And a lot can change in the country and the world over four years. But it is fair to use it as an estimate, a sort of “probationary period”, of what sort of person is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And if the White House staff itself is fully on board with the “100 days” idea, then it’s fair to judge them on it.

So, what have we got?

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MOVIE REVIEW: Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940)

Science and scientists rarely get proper treatment by Hollywood. If they aren’t the stereotypical Mad Scientist creating wacky gadgets or Tampering In God’s Domain, they’re the Absent-Minded Professor who is socially awkward and treated as Comic Relief. Or the Screen Scientist is just in the plot to provide exposition so the other characters (and the audience) can know what’s going on.

Most likely, this lack of respect is simply because if they showed a real scientist, they’d look just like someone in any other field of employment (and behave similarly, no doubt). And if they showed real science, not only would most of the audience not understand it, the “process” of Science is long, tedious, and filled with failure. Not something that makes for a good movie.

Is it any wonder, then, that the best movies about science and scientists tend to be biographies? Continue reading

Science Fiction Short Films

I’ve been a science fiction fan since high school. Not involved in “fandom”, but just a person who appreciates the story-telling potential of the genre. I also enjoy a good short film, as I have already mentioned here.

Science fiction is one genre that a lot aspiring filmmakers work in when they try out their skills. Sometimes, it leads to actual fame. Neill Blonkamp’s Oscar-nominated District 9, for example, was adapted from his short film “Alive in Joburg”.

Two years ago, award-winning animator Don Hertzfeldt released “World of Tomorrow”, a sixteen minute look into a strange future. When it came out, reviewers weren’t just calling it one of the best short films of the year, but one of the best films of the year in general. It was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Animated Short”, but lost to the more family-friendly and “multiculturally correct” “Sanjay’s Super Team”.

Well, there are awards specific to the science fiction community. Perhaps it won the Hugo Award for “Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form”. I looked. It wasn’t even nominated. The nominees for 2015 were all TV episodes.

The Hugos are given by fans, so it’s possible not enough of them saw it. Hertzfeldt released it as a “pay per view” item, and I suppose not enough fans wanted to bother coughing up the $3.99 to see it – assuming they even knew about it.

Well, I’m going to a local science fiction convention this weekend. I’m making it my mission to promote the incredible amount of wonderful work being done in short films, that can be seen (for free!) online. Instead of trying to remember names and URLs, or be so crass as to make a handout, I’d do a blog post and then just refer people here.

I don’t want to clog up your monitor, so I’ll give a list of films showing the quality and variety available after the jump.
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On Pitcher’s Wins – II

With baseball season beginning next week, it’s going to be a great relief to have something other than politics to talk about in everyday conversation. Now I could use this opportunity to discuss my picks for the Divisional Champions (Nationals, Cubs, Dodgers, Red Sox, Indians, Astros), but I really haven’t been paying attention to how Spring Training has been going. There are a divisions where things should be interesting (AL and NL East, AL West), but it will probably come down to which team stays the healthiest over the season. And of course once the playoffs begin, it’s almost impossible to predict an outcome.

So what else is there to talk about?

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On Funding the Arts and Sciences

Donald Trump recently announced his proposed budget, and among all the draconian cuts to many small but very beneficial programs, there are the usual cuts demanded by conservatives to arts programs (The National Endowment for the Arts, et al.), and drastic cuts to various science agencies.

I’m not going to get into the many cost-benefit arguments that get tossed around; rather, I’d like to look at another aspect.

Why do these programs get Federal funding anyway?

Let me make my case with two arguments – one literary, and one historical. The former covers the Arts, the latter the Sciences.

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BOOK REVIEW: Here is Where

Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History
Andrew Carroll
Crown Archetype
2013

It’s a fairly non-descript row house on Brooklyn’s Ryerson St. It only stands out because it’s a three-story building surrounded by two-story homes. But underneath the bland siding is a house that goes back to the 1850s. And in 1855, it’s where Walt Whitman lived while he was between newspaper jobs, and where he wrote and self-published Leaves of Grass [1].

There’s no plaque on the door; presumably the current residents – if they even know about their former tenant – don’t want to be besieged by Whitman groupies or harassed by historical tours. But in a city where all the other Whitman-related buildings and locations have been torn down or built over or otherwise lost over the many decades, shouldn’t it at least be worthy of a sign on the sidewalk?

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The Resistance Must Be Branded

During the Second World War, Free French forces and the French Resistance adopted the Cross of Lorraine as their symbol. The famous “peace sign” was first used as a logo for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 50s. The “Black Power” movement of the 60s used the traditional raised fist (a black one, naturally) as a symbol. Women’s Liberation used the fist as well, but put it inside the circle and cross symbol that normally signified women or females. The “Gay Pride” movement chose a rainbow flag to rally around. Earlier this year, millions of women around the world wore pink knit hats to unite the hundreds of marches into one single rally.

If the many different factions that oppose Trump and Trumpism are going to ever unite, they are going to need some sort of sign or symbol to link them together.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Q, The Winged Serpent (US, 1982)

There’s an old (well, not *that* old, but old enough) movie trivia game known as “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. Basically, it attempts to demonstrate that no actor is more than six co-star links away from Kevin Bacon, thus making him the Center of the Hollywood Universe – or something. It’s become a cliche now, to the point where one can make fun of it knowing that people will get the reference.

But if you’ve somehow never come across it, or want to impress your friends with your movie trivia wizardry, the key is to remember the movies with unusual pairings in the cast. Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff. William Shatner and Judy Garland. David Carradine and Richard Roundtree…

That last one is the subject of this review. In Q, Detective Shepard (Carradine) and Sgt. Powell (Roundtree) are NYC police officers who find themselves investigating the decapitation of a window washer. The real puzzle is that the victim was at work on an upper story of the Chrysler Building at the time. If that wasn’t bizarre enough, they also are dealing with a couple of cases of what looks like ritual human sacrifice.

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The Worst Presidents

Another “Presidents’ Day”, and another couple of days of work for Washington and Lincoln impersonators. Usually, we only pay attention to the best presidents at this time; in addition to Washington and Lincoln, there might be some nods to Jefferson and both Roosevelts.

But I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the presidents at the other end of the scale, at least accorrding to the people who rank them. Andrew Johnson (#17) only got the office after Lincoln’s assassination; he wasn’t elected to the job. And there was going to be a brutal fight over Reconstruction anyway. So we can give him a charitable nod and move on. George W. Bush (#43) often comes down near the bottom; I will be charitable as well and say that he’s too recent for us to have a proper historical perspective. And he did manage to serve two full terms…

That leaves Franklin Pierce (#14), James Buchanan (#15), and Warren G. Harding (#29). Why are they at the bottom of the list? What did they do – or fail to do – that lands them among the Worst Presidents?
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Book Review: Floodpath

Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles
Jon Wilkman
Bloomsbury Press
(c) 2016 by the author

What Robert Moses was for New York City, William Mulholland was for Los Angeles. Both were immensely powerful and influential in their cities, despite not holding an elective office. Both earned their positions by being very hard working, and extremely good at their jobs. Both indelibly shaped their cites forever, both for good and for bad. But where Moses’ gradual fall from power was the result of a growing realization that his roadbuilding was no longer what New York needed, Mulholland’s fall happened literally overnight.

Documentarian Jon Wilkman has written another fine book on the collapse of the St Francis Dam outside Los Angeles, on the night of March 12-13, 1928. I say “another fine book” since this is not the first volume on the subject – but it is the first I’ve read. And it really is a very fine work.

The flood from the collapse of the dam blasted down the Santa Clara river valley, leaving millions of dollars in damage, and over 400 dead. It is one of the worst civil engineering disasters in US History – but is barely remembered outside California.

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