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

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?

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

BOOK REVIEW: Famous Works of Art – And How They Got That Way

Famous Works of Art – And How They Got That Way
John B. Nici
Rowman & Littlefield
Copyright 2015 by the author

Ask a hundred people what is the most famous or greatest work of art in the world, and ninety-nine of them will most likely say it’s the “Mona Lisa”. Ask them to explain why, and most of them will mumble something about the smile. Nothing about da Vinci’s technique or composition or anything else that one would usually expect to hear when discussing a masterpiece, just an opinion that they are no doubt parroting from someone else.

What is it that makes a famous work of art famous? Art historian John B. Nici has taken time out from teaching art history at Queens College in New York to delve into the matter. As often as not, Fame comes from things external to the artwork itself.
Continue reading

MOVIE REVIEW: Beastmaster II: Through the Portal of Time (1991)

There’s a term in film criticism that comes up in the discussion of “bad” movies – the Idiot Picture. It has a couple of definitions. It could refer to the plot of the movie progressing only because a character is an idiot. I’ve heard it referring to a fantasy / sci-fi movie world where everyone is so idiotic that the movie reviewer feels they could take over that world on a good weekend. Or perhaps it’s the movie makers who are idiots for including utterly inane dialog and leaving vast plot holes. Or maybe it means that only an idiot would think it’s a good movie.

Beastmaster II seems to cover all of them.
Continue reading

Book Review: Iran-Contra

Iran-Contra:
Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power
by Malcolm Byrne
(c) 2014 by The University Press of Kansas

Return with us now, to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when Communism was on its way out as the #1 Global Threat and Radical Islam was quickly climbing up the charts….

On October 5, 1986, a Sandanista soldier fired off his SAM-7 at a Fairchild C-123K cargo plane that had just crossed into Nicaraguan airspace from Costa Rica. He got really lucky – the missile hit, and knocked down the plane. Three of the crew died in the crash – but Eugene Hasenfus survived. He confirmed to his captors what documents found in the crash revealed: the plane was on a covert mission on behalf of the CIA to supply the Contra rebels with arms – in direct contravention of US laws.

A few weeks later, a news magazine in Lebanon published a scoop. Representatives from the Reagan administration had been meeting with Iranian government officials in an effort to purchase the release of a couple of Americans who had been kidnapped by Hezbollah. This was a big deal; the stated position of the American government was “We will never negotiate with terrorists”. And Iran, now that a theocratic Islamic government had kicked out our friend the Shah and then allowed a bunch of radicals to capture the staff of our embassy in Tehran, was considered the number one terrorist-backing government in the world.

This was all Very Bad News for the Reagan administration, especially when it was found that the profits from the arms sales to Iran were being used to pay for supplying the Contras without the knowledge – nevermind the permission – of Congress.
Continue reading

Book Review: Ballot Battles

BALLOT BATTLES: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States
Edward B. Foley
Oxford University Press
(c) 2016

While all the hubbub over our elections and voting (so far) has to do with access to the ballot box, Foley argues that what happens after the votes have been cast is just as important.

A professor of constitutional and election law at Ohio State, Foley has chronicled all the disputed elections of national importance since the 1790s. Doctored ballots, bogus returns, stuffed ballot boxes, the works. And not just that sort of shenanigans, but cases where the result was so close that there absolutely had to be a recount. When the first count was done in Virginia’s attorney general election in 2013, the margin of victory was a mere 32 votes….

His style, as befits a law professor, is rather dry and tedious at first. It’s not an easy read, but you’ll get used to it after a while. The long slog through history is important to his thesis – disputed elections are not as rare as one would think (or hope), so we had better be prepared for the next one.

Foley notes that we do not have a standard system in place to resolve disputed elections. We’ve had them too often for it to be done on an ad hoc basis. Having a high office go unfilled while the recounting goes on and on deprives people of representation, and can even have the government come to a halt. The Senate election in Minnesota in 2008 wasn’t resolved for seven months – and that, according to Foley, was one of the ones that was handled properly.

Reading Foley’s accounts of recent disputed elections makes it clear (at least to this reader) that absentee or mail-in ballots (which some advocate as a way to increase voter participation) is most definitely NOT the way to go. Not only are those types of ballots the most susceptible to chicanery, they are also the most problematic when it comes to figuring out the voter’s actual intent. They depend on people accurately and completely following instructions. The 2004 gubenatorial election in Washington, which when the dust settled had a margin of victory of just 137 votes, should serve as a case study of everything that can go wrong with mail-in ballots.

Foley does propose a solution. Mandate an automatic recount whenever the margin of victory is below a certain threshold. Have rules and deadlines covering challenges and appeals. Select a tribunal (and he really does mean a panel of only three people) to supervise the entire process. He admits it won’t be perfect, but it’s better than the “playing-it-by-ear” that we have now. Given how partisan our politics have become, there’s no doubt that we will continue to have disputed elections for the foreseeable future.

MOVIE REVIEW: My Neighbor Totoro (Japan, 1988)

You know, I’m finding it difficult to understand why this animated kids’ movie is so well-liked by both people and critics. It’s got none of the things you expect and love from both animated films and kid movies. It’s billed as a fantasy, but even the non-fantastic elements reveal that it takes place in some crazy Bizarro World.

Let’s take things from the top, shall we?

The movie opens with a really lively and bouncy theme song, so you are deluded into thinking all will be right. But that’s the only song in the movie! There’s no other singing or musical number that they can sell to the kids (or their parents).

It goes downhill quickly from there. We see a father and his two daughters in a dangerously overloaded truck as they move to a new home in a small farming village. If this were a normal movie, the kids would be bickering amongst themselves, and whining to their barely tolerated dad about how they hate leaving all their friends behind and moving to someplace out in the middle of nowhere. But they are actually a happy family! Insane!

Continue reading

BOOK REVIEW: The Game Must Go On

The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front in WWII
John Klima
St Martin’s Press
(c) 2015 by the author

Pretty much every baseball fan is at least passingly aware of the effects of World War II on the game, if only that it kept some players from achieving milestone goals. Bob Feller didn’t get 300 wins, Ted Williams didn’t get 600 home runs, etc. And that since players were not exempt from the draft, teams reached so far down the barrel for talent that Pete Gray, a guy with one arm, actually played in the Major Leagues.

But there’s a heck of a lot more to it than just names and numbers in the reference books.

Continue reading