Monday, September 30, 2013


Had he lived, James Dean would be 82 years old now.

Instead, on this day 58 years ago, he was killed in an auto accident on the way to a car race in Salinas, in which he was scheduled to participate. He was 24 years old, had starred in three major films, done some television and theater. Not that much, when you really think about it. On the other hand, he earned two Academy Award nominations as Best Actor in a Leading Role (both of them posthumous) out of those three starring roles and to this day he is a legend, with up and coming actors still trying to imitate his look, his style, and his talent. He has inspired books, films, and other art.

It's difficult to know what to write about James Dean and his short, illustrious career, because so much has already been said and written about him. On the other hand, as a fan of his work, I'm finding it even more difficult to let the day pass without remark.

James Dean was a good actor. That much is obvious from watching "East of Eden" (1955), "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) and "Giant" (1956), the three films in which he starred. It is impossible to know if he would have continued growing as an actor and expanded his range - because, goodness knows, the three roles he is so acclaimed for are really very similar in a lot of ways. = or whether he would have failed to live up to the promise of those early roles.

Not that matters much now. The fact is that he only left a small but notable body of work, performances that mostly hold up over the years and to repeated viewings. Sure, "Rebel Without a Cause" seems very much a film of the time it was made, and light-years away from the lived experience of teens today. But, that film helped define what it is to be a teenager at a time when the expectation was that individuals went from child to adult with no real intermediate stage. The teen experience might be different in detail today, but the angst that Dean's character, Jim Stark, goes through is still recognizable in kind.

One thing I think needs to be remembered, though, is that James Dean did not emerge full-grown as an actor in those three films. Besides the work he did on stage and on television before "East of Eden", he had small roles in three films, "Fixed Bayonets!", "Sailor Beware", and "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" The only one of those three in which he had any lines at all (and all he had was one line) was "Sailor Beware" (1952), which starred Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Even mostly in the background in his scenes, James Dean is, well, noticeable:

One thing is sure, and that is that James Dean is not just an American icon, but has fans all over the world. This is exemplified by a memorial just down the road from where Dean died, in Cholame, California. The memorial, which is the parking lot of a roadside restaurant, was built by a retired businessman from Japan, is simple and dignified, and includes a quotation that is said to have been one of Dean's favorite, from "The Little Prince": "What is essential, is invisible to the eye."

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Music Sunday: The Queen Edition

I first became aware of Queen as a band with the release in 1974 of the song "Killer Queen". I can remember tooling around Norwalk in my car (well, not my car, my father's car) and cranking up the volume on the radio every time the song came on. I loved the unique sound of the song and of the band, and I think this is still my favorite Queen song. So, what better way to start out this Music Sunday with another listen:

And then, the next year, there was "Bohemian Rhapsody". Talk about unique. I know I had never heard anything even remotely like it. It is a somewhat mysterious song, with several different interpretations of its meaning conflicting with statements Freddie Mercury made from time to time indicating that there was really no meaning to it at all. Whether it has some deep, hidden meaning or no meaning at all, "Bohemian Rhapsody" has captured the imagination of generations of listeners and remains one of the most requested songs in the history of rock music. Adding to the song's mystique was the promotional video made to accompany it at a time before this was common practice in the music business:

Unlike the two previous songs, which were written by Freddie Mercury, 1978's "Fat Bottomed Girls" was written by Queen's guitarist, Brian May:

Later on, in 1984, Queen released "I Want to Break Free", accompanied by a music video that was banned by MTV although it had been critically acclaimed in the UK:

In 1985, Queen performed at the Wembley Stadium venue during Live Aid, with Freddie Mercury proceeding to give all the other performers present that day a master class on how to hold an audience. It was something that Mercury could do better than just about anybody, before or since. During their set, the band performed "Bohemian Rhapsody", "Radio Ga Ga", "Hammer to Fall", "Crazy Little Thing Called Love", and "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions", plus a bonus at the end of the clip. Here is Queen's full performance from that day:

And that, I think, is as good a place as any to stop for the day. Clearly, this is just a sampling of Queen's music. There is much more good music that the band released over the years. Just call stopping now a good excuse to make some future Sunday the Queen Edition, Part 2.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Read a Banned Book...this is the week for it

If you follow along here at all, you know that I love to read. You also might know, because I'm pretty sure I've written about it before around here, that I had the luxury of parents who did not censor what I read. Ever. Even when I was a little kid. If I wanted to read something, I was allowed to read it.

Sometimes, if it was a book that my parents thought was maybe too mature for me, they would talk with me (notice that I said "with me", not "to me") about it. But they never said, "No. You cannot read that."

I was not quite so lucky at the library when I was young. Around the time I was in about sixth through around eighth grade, there were several books that the library ladies would not let me check out so that I could read them, despite the fact that I had been checking books out of the adult (as opposed to the children's) section of the library since I was in second grade. They were acting as censors.

I suppose I could have asked my parents to check the books out for me, but I was stubborn. So, I read those books - Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H, and Charles Webb's The Graduate come immediately to mind as books I originally read during that time - sitting in the library, off in a corner where one of the library ladies wouldn't find me and scold me or try to take the books away.

My experiences in trying to read those books is how I became familiar with the real-world effects of book censorship. I thought it was wrong then and I think it is wrong now to try to censor books, whether it be because the book is considered to "adult" for some kids, or because someone wants to keep even adults from reading a book because they don't agree with something in the book.

Why am I writing about this now?

Well, it's Banned Books Week, the week every year when the American Library Association and others who care about books and ideas take the time to point out to everyone that there are people out there who want to keep you from reading stuff. And it isn't always the same people. Left-wingers complain about books just about as much as right-wingers do; it's just that it is often not the same books they're complaining about. So, if you were expecting me to rail against the conservatives for being book-banners and leave the other side alone - not happening. I don't care what part of the political spectrum you're on, if you want to keep people from reading I'm not going to be happy with you.

I ran across this video, from last year's Banned Books Week, in which Bill Moyers speaks about book banning:

Let me repeat just one line from the video. "Censorship is the enemy of truth." That is so important.

And if you're going to jump up and say, "But, what about the children? We don't want them looking at hard-core porn," my answer is, well, yes. You're right. But that isn't what is being talked about here. Not at all. What Banned Books Week stands against is the people who want to ban - and sometimes burn - books because they don't agree with something about religion in the books, or something about politics, or something about social behavior, or because there is cussing in the book. And there are people like that around. They think that the Harry Potter books should be banned because "OMG! Witches and wizards!" Or they want Das Kapital out of the schools because of "all that evil Marxism". Or they don't want To Kill a Mockingbird available because it addresses the issue of racism. The list could, and does, go on and on.

Sometimes, the people who want certain books banned just complain about those books to schools and libraries and bookstores. Other times, they will go so far as to check books they object to out of the library and never take them back the object of making sure other people cannot get access to them. No, really. People do that. I'm not sure what gives them the idea that they should have some sort of say over what other people can read, but that's just me. My attitude is, my own parents didn't tell me what I could and couldn't read, why am I going to let a total stranger do so?

At any rate, there are lists of books that people have tried to ban that make the rounds this time of year. My suggestion is to find one of those lists and read one of the books on it. You'll find all kinds of books on those lists - even the Bible, sometimes.

I'm going to leave this video, also from last year's Banned Books Week celebration, here before I go for the day. In it, a number of writers and others talk about the books they've read that people have tried to ban. There's some interesting titles here, some of which you probably didn't know someone tried to keep out of other people's hands and minds:

I think I'm going to go read a book now.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Score one for the good ol' boys' network...

First of all, I need to put a Trigger Warning on this post. I discuss in the post a rape case that is currently in the news. If it will bother you to read about it, come back tomorrow and I'll attempt to write about something more pleasant.

Now, I'll space down a few spaces, so if you don't want to read this, it won't be right in your face. If you do want to continue reading, just scroll down a bit, and the main body of the post will be there.

I started to write another blog post tonight.

I had it nearly written, nearly ready to post, and then I just couldn't do it, because I could not think of strong enough words to describe my disgust that an ex-teacher in Montana got out of jail today after serving only a month for the rape of a 14-year-old girl who was his student at the time. After he admitted doing it. This all is only made worse by the fact that the judge made statements blaming the victim during sentencing. Oh, and by the fact that about three years after the rape, the girl killed herself.

There just are no words to express my contempt for the rapist, for the judge, or for the rapist's attorney, who said that he and his client think the sentence is "lawful and appropriate." No it isn't appropriate. Not even with the fact that the rapist will be on probation for the next 14 years and 11 months. Not even with the fact that he will not be able to go anywhere where children congregate, or that he will not be able to have a cell phone that can take still photos or video or that can access the Internet.

All I keep thinking as I write about this is that the rape culture won again, and the good ol' boys' network is alive and well in America.

And those things make me immensely sad.

I'm not enthusiastic about the whole idea of "sending messages" that our culture is so fond of these days. On the other hand, exactly what kind of message is this sentence (or lack of it, really) sending to teenage girls who might be victimized by their teachers, or by other men? And what message is it sending to the men who might think it might a good time to rape a teenage girl?

The answer, in both cases, is that the message that is being sent loud and clear is that it is very likely that the rapists will get away with it. Oh, they might get a slap on the wrist. They might have to serve a little jail time. They might even have to find a new line of work. But how much of a penalty is that for ruining a teenage girl's life - or even an adult woman's life - or perhaps, as in this case, resulting in the victim taking her own life because it seems so much like no one cares that they were victimized and brutalized.

Even worse, it is sending the message to victims of rape that they might as well not even report their rapes, because they'll be put through hell - again - and they'll be blamed and people will never look at them quite the same again.

And so, fewer rapes will be reported and fewer rapists will even get as much punishment as the Montana rapist in this case received, as little as that is.

Yeah, I'm pretty much just disgusted right now. And I still don't have the words to adequately express that disgust.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

People are weird - Day 2

Yesterday, I started out my post by documenting but not really discussing the latest idiocy to come from the mouth of Wayne LaPierre. And, no, I'm not giving him more time today, because that would only encourage him.

However, it occurs to me that he isn't the only fount of drivel to grace the news reports recently. This is certainly so with the overnight non-filibuster from Senator Ted Cruz, who spent something over 20 hours holding - or maybe hogging is a better word - the Senate floor is his continuing effort to defund the Affordable Care Act. I call it a non-filibuster, because there was no way that what he was doing would delay today's planned votes in the Senate. It would more appropriately be called grandstanding, I think, and attention-getting behavior by the senator from Texas. He was doing redneck jokes. He read "Green Eggs and Ham" (supposedly a bedtime story for his kids, but wouldn't that have been better done at home?). He talked about going out and buying new tennis shoes before he began his flood of words. Oh, and he even talked about the Affordable Care Act some, too, but apparently didn't say anything new or useful. Instead it was his same old song and dance about how horrible it would be for people to have access to affordable health coverage or, in the case of people with pre-existing conditions, to have access to any health coverage at all. Of course, he didn't put it that way, because it wouldn't have served his purpose.

The question is, what was his purpose, really? Because, you know, the Senate still isn't going to pass the bill in front of it, which would shut down the government unless the Affordable Care Act is defunded. And even if the Senate did pass it, President Obama still isn't going to sign it. Additionally, Cruz wasn't making any friends outside of his Tea Party base. Some in his own Republican Party, including top party leaders, have been criticizing Cruz's take-no-prisoners, make-no-compromises approach to the issue. This true especially since Cruz said the other day that he is willing to shut down even the military in service to his goals. It has even been said that Cruz, by pulling this stunt, is sabotaging his own political career.

So, why did he do this? Two reasons, I think. The first, and the more minor of the two, is the propaganda motive. He is determined to proselytize against affordable health care coverage for all no matter what the personal cost. But his bigger motivation is to get attention. He is one of those people who believes that the spotlight should be on him at all times. It doesn't seem to matter to him that this quest for attention could hurt the country that he has promised to defend, or that it could even hurt his own career. He just seems to believe that he is somehow special and that he should be revered by all the people, all the time. And, of course, that means paying attention to him all the time.

If you follow along here, you might remember that not too long ago I can to Cruz's defense regarding an effort by Birthers to claim that he isn't eligible to run for president because he was born in Canada and his father was Cuban, even though is mother was a US citizen. It's the same thing the Birthers did, and continue to do, to President Obama. It's a despicable tactic and they need to cut it out. I still believe that.

But, I also said that I wouldn't want to see Cruz ever elected to anything. Besides his particular positions on issues, the sort of self-aggrandizing behavior Cruz exhibited on the floor of the Senate is exactly why. I don't want people in public office who think more of themselves than they do of the people they took an oath to serve. And, at the end of the day, this sort of thing is not about the people. It is all about Ted Cruz and his pathetic attempts to advance his agenda and his career. Which, when you think about it, are pretty much the same thing.

You know, I heard on one of the talking head shows yesterday that when Ted Cruz was at Harvard Law School, he refused to study with anyone who had not attended college at one of the top-tier Ivy League schools. I don't know how true that story is, but it wouldn't surprise me much if it were true, because this is the kind of guy Cruz appears to be. He is a snob.

I think the Tea Party rank and file, those is trying so hard to appeal to, should keep this in mind as they consider who they want to follow. Most of them, I'm fairly sure, are not graduates of the top Ivy League schools, simply because that is a small cohort of people. He doesn't want to have anything to do with them beyond getting their adulation and their votes. As soon as he has those, he's likely to be done with them.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

People are weird...but my happy place is still there

Wayne LaPierre was on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, flapping his lips again. Singing the same song he's been on ever since the Sandy Hook shootings. You know "good guys with guns", with the extra added attraction of blaming "people that are having mental problems" (his words) for shootings and recommending that they be "indicted", implying that all people with mental issues are just shooters waiting to happen.

But, you know what? All I'm going to say is, Wayne LaPierre, you're in arrogant, ignorant jerk, and it's too nice a day to get caught up in your stupid lobbying for the gun manufacturers. And then I'm going to write about my weekend, which was nice (and cooler; yay! autumn), and the high weirdness it brought with it.

In other words, I'm going to my happy place today, and bringing all of you along for the ride.

So, I spent too much of the weekend watching Hallmark Movie Channel movies. This is not something I usually do, but my roommate likes them and had them on while she was turning the living room into a fiber-arts studio. And so, I got started watching, as well. It was a mystery marathon weekend, so it wasn't too bad. Saturday, it was a series of made for TV movies under the title "McBride", while all day Sunday was something called the "Jane Doe" mysteries.

So far, so good. Nothing unusual there.

Where it got a little weird was when places I know started turning up on-screen. Not that, in general, this is an unusual thing for me. I grew up in Southern California. Location shooting (and not just on movie ranches like the ones I wrote about yesterday) is a normal part of living in what they call the Greater Los Angeles Area. I even came upon a movie set one time when I was at the cemetery to visit my father's grave one time.

No, the weird part was that the places I was seeing on the screen were not places that I'd seen a few times, or just know where they are. These were places that I know very, very well and are personally meaningful to me from long association with them.

One was the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. Now, I've never been in the building since it was converted to the Arts Center. It was nice to see the inside, though, and see how they have converted it from the church that it used to be into a state-of-the-art theater while maintaining the historical integrity of the building. When I knew the building, it was a Methodist Church, the place where my parents started sending me to Sunday School when I was three years old. I sang in the children's choir in that space. I was in the Christmas Pageant in the basement when I was five years old (and there's a story about that that's really cool, but needs to be saved for another time). It was the place where I first really got to know my oldest friend in the world (Hi, Debbie). It was also right across the street from where the public library was in the days I lived locally, and catty-corner from where I went to junior high. So, I saw that building on a daily basis for years.

Here's a picture of how it looks today; I tried to find a historical photo, but apparently there aren't any online:

Another of these locations, just in the next block from the Cultural Arts Center, is much less spectacular, just a local market, but also a place where my family and I shopped, and that I saw nearly every day for years. I recognized the sign outside as soon as it appeared on-screen. I didn't immediately recognize the inside, since it has been remodeled since I've been there, but a little research online confirmed that it is the same place I knew as a child.

Now, normally, a grocery store would probably not elicit an emotional response, but this one brings back specific memories of my father. When I was in the eighth grade my father had some medical problems and had to be off work for a month and a half while it was determined what was wrong. While he was required to not work, he didn't have to really restrict his movements, and being my dad, he was bored to tears by about the middle of the first week. So, about twice a week, he started getting up at four in the morning to go down to the produce market in downtown L.A. with the produce buyer for the store, who was a friend of his, just for something to do. So, yeah. That store has memories for me, and seeing it on TV hit me right in the feels.

The third location is directly next door to the grocery store I just wrote about. It is a motorcycle shop now, and has been since I was in high school, and that's the capacity in which it was used in the movie it was in. I don't ride motorcycles, so it really has no significance to me as that. used to be a pharmacy; in fact it was the pharmacy that my family used from before I was born until the time it closed. It was also the first building I was ever in outside the hospital after I was born. And, no, I don't remember that far back (although I have a pretty good memory for things that happened when I was very young). But, as the family story goes, when my parents were bringing me home from the hospital, they stopped by to show me off to the pharmacist, who had teased my mother all through her pregnancy that I was going to be the Technicolor Kid because of all the different color pills (vitamins and whatnot) that the doctor had her taking while she was carrying me. So, yeah...that was kind of emotional for me, seeing that again.

So, yeah. The first place I ever was, when I was like four days old. My old stomping ground, with all three of these locations in my free-range territory starting when I was first allowed to wander away from home without a parent along. Lots of happy memories, mixed with a few that are more bittersweet. It was like being transported back to my childhood, even though things in those places aren't exactly like they were when I was a child. They are enough the same that recognition was instant in each case.

Definitely my happy place.

If you've read through this whole thing, congratulations. Sorry if I bored you. But this weekend, with its semi-high weirdness, hit me right in the feels, and I'm not quite over it yet because I really miss my old neighborhood and getting to see it so much this weekend hit me right in the nostalgia.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Movie Monday: Corriganville, Iverson, and the rest...Movie Ranches of the Santa Susana Mountains/Simi Hills

Today, I was going to write a simple little post about the movie ranches around the area where I grew up in Southern California. A little research has convinced me that it is impossible to write such a post, because there are and were more separate ranches around the area than I knew existed, and because their histories are very much entwined.

I knew about Corriganville Movie Ranch, of course. I grew up within just a few miles of that ranch, went by the entrance on a constant basis, and even visited there in the old days when it was open to tourists on weekends and holidays. I also knew about, but knew less about, the Iverson Movie Ranch, which is farther to the east, at the north/northwest end of San Fernando Valley, in Chatsworth. And everybody knows about Spahn's Movie Ranch, one of the smaller movie ranches, due to it's involvement in the whole Charlie Manson thing. I even knew about the newer Big Sky Movie Ranch, farther west in the hills north of Simi Valley, California.

But I didn't know about the Bell Moving Picture Ranch, later renamed Bell Location Ranch and I didn't really know about the Lasky Movie Ranch/Ahmanson "Lasky Mesa" Ranch, either.

As I said, Corriganville is the movie ranch I'm most familiar with, since it was within a couple of miles of the first house I lived in and maybe four or five miles from the house I finished most of the rest of my growing up in. The land was acquired by Ray "Crash" Corrigan, an actor and stuntman, in 1937. By the end of that year, movie makers had begun to use the land as a location for their films. Besides being used as a filming location, Corrigan opened the ranch to the public in 1949, where they could go on weekends and holidays to see stunt shows and the western town, frontier fort, and village he had built as a backdrop for films. The attraction remained open to the public until 1965, when he sold the ranch to Bob Hope. Hope subdivided part of the land and built homes there. Additionally, some of the land was used for motorcycle racing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wildfires in 1970 and 1979 destroyed what remained of the movie sets Corrigan had built.

Segments of many of the old Western and adventure TV series in the 50s and early sixties were filmed at Corriganville. "Gunsmoke", "Bonanza", "Wagon Train", "The Lone Ranger", "Wanted: Dead or Alive", "Have Gun, Will Travel", "The Adventures of Superman", "Hopalong Cassidy", "The Roy Rogers Show", "The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin", "The Adventures of Superman" (1951), and many more were filmed in part or completely there. Lots of western films, most of which you've never heard of were also filmed there over the years. Some of them were really bad - the one that comes to mind immediately because I saw it once on late-night television is "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter" (1966). But, parts of "How the West Was Won" (1962), "Fort Apache" (1948), "Duel in the Sun" (1946), and "The Inspector General" (1949) were also filmed there. For a time in the early 1950s, the ranch even had it's own show, a children's variety show, called "Crash Corrigan's Ranch" was also filmed there.

In fact, that children's show may have been referenced in the 2006 film "Hollywoodland", a drama that examines the mystery of the death of "Superman" actor George Reeves. At one point Reeves (played by Ben Affleck) appears, in his Superman costume, in a show for kids at an unnamed western-themed tourist attraction. At the time I first saw the film, I did not know about the variety show that came from Corriganville, but I immediately connected the movie ranch with the on-screen scene in my mind. I have no evidence that this was the show being referenced by the film-maker, but it fits the time-frame and the fact that parts of some episodes of the Superman series were shot at the ranch.

The Iverson Ranch is at the other end of the Santa Susana Pass and was active as a movie ranch from at least 1912 to the late 1960s, when it was cut in half by the building of the Simi Valley Freeway. Many early series were shot at Iverson - in fact, it seems that many of those shows went back and forth frequently between Iverson and Corriganville. Many of the early Republic Pictures serials were also shot at Iverson. IMDB lists 951 titles of movies and television series episodes that were shot at Iverson over the years. Among the series shot there were "Perry Mason", "The Rifleman", "The Big Valley", "Wagon Train", "The Lone Ranger", "Whirlybirds", and "The Real McCoys". Among the films that were at least partially filmed at Iverson were "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940), "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948), "The Jazz Singer" (1927), the 1927 Ramon Navarro version of "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ", "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1936), the Laurel and Hardy film "Flying Deuces" (1939), "The Cattle Queen of Montana" (1954), which starred Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan, and "They Died With Their Boots On" (1941), directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland. And this is not to mention the many B-movies filmed there.

Here is a sample of the sort of scenery at both Iverson and Corriganville, in the opening for "The Lone Ranger":

In between Iverson and Corriganville, there were the Spahn Ranch, located along Santa Susana Pass Road, which was a minor player in the movie-location game and only became really famous after Charlie Manson and his group took up residence and used it as a base for their killing spree. I couldn't find reference to too many films being shot there, but parts of "Duel in the Sun", mentioned previously were also shot there, as well as something called "The Creeping Terror" in 1964, and an 8-day quickies shoot of a film called "Satan's Sadists" (1969), which was actually filmed while Manson and his followers were living there. The only surprise about "Satan's Sadists" is that it actually starred a name actor, Russ Tamblyn, who had previously been in such classics as "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (1954) and "West Side Story" (1961)

South of the Santa Susana Pass Road (which played a part in last week's Movie Monday post, coincidentally) was also Bell Moving Picture Ranch, later renamed Bell Location Ranch. I couldn't find too many references to things filmed there, either (more research is obviously in order), but Paul Newman's film "Hombre" was filmed there at least in part in 1967), as was "Carson City" (1952), and the Star Trek episode "A Private Little War".

To review, between Corriganville, Iverson Ranch, Spahn Ranch, and Bell Ranch, movie ranches extended along both sides of the Santa Susana Pass all the way from the western end of San Fernando Valley to the east end of Simi Valley, straddling the Los Angeles County, Ventura County line. In addition, somewhat to the south, was the Lasky Movie Ranch/Ahmanson "Lasky Mesa" Ranch. I couldn't find much information on Lasky either, but among the movies with scenes filmed there were two Errol Flynn films, "Santa Fe Trail" (1940) and "They Died With Their Boots On" (1941). Again, films were jumping from ranch to ranch for different scenery. And oh, yes, another small movie you may have heard of, "Gone With The Wind" (1939) was also filmed in part at Lasky.

This leaves Big Sky Movie Ranch, which is further west than the other ranches I've written about today, nestled in the less-rocky hills north of Simi Valley. Big Sky is probably best known as the main location for filming of the television series "Little House on the Prairie", which ran from 1974 to 1982. It's history doesn't go as far back as the other ranches I've mentioned, although some scenes for the old Western shows "Bonanza", "Rawhide", and "Gunsmoke" were filmed there. It was also the location for the 1983 mini-series "The Thorn Birds", and the 200 - 2005 HBO series "Carnivale". Additionally, scenes from more recent films, including "Coming to America" (1988) and "Transformers" (2007) were also shot there.

I really didn't mean for this post to get so long. And the thing is, I've barely scratched the surface of the subject here today. Still, this quick outline is enough to illustrate the sheer amount of movie-making that went on within just a small region of Southern California. There are other ranches in the larger area around Southern California, but I don't think there is anywhere where there are so many of them within such a concentrated area.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Music Sunday: The Eagles Edition

The Eagles are a genuine phenomenon. One of their albums, "Eagles-Their Greatest Hits (1971 - 1975)" (1976) is said to have sold 29 million copies in the United States and 13 million additionally worldwide for a total of 42 million copies. That ties it with Michael Jackson's "Thriller" for the best selling album of the 20th century. Additionally, the album "Hotel California" (also from 1976) has sold at least 16 million copies in the US and 32 million copies worldwide.

That's a lot of records.

The Eagles formed in Los Angeles in 1971, broke up in 1980, and then famously reunited in 1994 and are still touring. In between, two of the band's members, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, went on to solo careers of some note. Their history of good music and sometimes not so great relations between band members is legendary. But my purpose today is not to rehash the gossip, but to share some of their music.

The first single the Eagles released was "Take It Easy", in 1972. Written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey, the single reached #12 on the Billboard Hot 100, not bad for a first single. Here is a live performance of the song from California Jam, in 1974:

In 1974, their song "James Dean", from the album "On the Border", didn't do so well, only making it to #77 on the charts when it was released as a single. It's a good song, though, written by Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Jackson Browne, and J. D. Souther. They also performed this song as part of their set at California Jam. If you look closely at both this clip and the previous one, you can see Jackson Browne playing piano:

One of my favorite of The Eagles' songs is "Hotel California". Written by Don Felder, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey, it is sort of legendary all on its own, largely because of the controversy it has stirred. It has been interpreted many ways, has been called Satanic by some, and has collected a whole list of accolades, including being named the 49th greatest song ever on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time". It hit #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 and #10 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart. It won Record of the Year at the Grammys. Even the band members themselves cannot quite come to a definitive version of what the song is about, however. Here is the performance of the song from the Eagles induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998:

My favorite Eagles song was never released as a single, but was the title song on the album "Desperado", released in 1973. This song just keeps getting better and better, and Henley's voice seems to get better as he ages:

I'm running a little short in this week's Music Sunday post, but I've been having trouble finding the things I really want to share, so I'll leave it at this for the day.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

John Scalzi's "Redshirts" - Best book I've read this year

I mentioned the other day that I was reading Redshirts, by John Scalzi (Tor, 2012; 317 pages).

I'm finished reading it now, and all I can say is, Damn, that was a good book. I can't do a proper review of it. I'd have to give too much away in the way of spoilers, and I don't want to do that. I want you - all of you - to go out and read it, and I want you to come to it as it did, with only the most basic idea of what it is about. I want you to discover its delights for yourself.

I will say that I wasn't sure how the codas were going to work (there are three of them), but all three of them relate quite solidly to the main story and are an essential part of the whole. It may even be said that the codas are where the book's soul resides.

I will also say that I can state with certainty that Redshirts has vaulted into the list of my favorite books. At some point, I will have to acquire a copy of my own (I read it out of the library). I like the other things I've read that Scalzi has written very much, but I love Redshirts.

There are a couple of basic things you probably do need to know about the book. It takes a meme from the original "Star Trek" series, turns it on its head, plays with it, and does some extremely odd and interesting things with it. Also, you might have heard that Redshirts is a funny book. And it is - it is very funny; laugh-out-loud funny, in fact. But don't let that fool you. There are interesting ideas here, too, and some interesting issues are raised. These issues show that Scalzi studied philosophy at the University of Chicago, but you shouldn't let that make you hesitate to read the book, either. It all works really well, and he sneaks those philosophical issues into the story in ways so that you might not realize he's dealing with philosophical issues until well after he has you caught up in them.

So that you'll know what you're looking for when you go online to order Redshirts or to the bookstore to buy it or to the library to check it out, this is what the cover of the book looks like:

Whichever way you read it, just go read Redshirts. There's even an audiobooks version, performed by Wil Wheaton.

Oh. One other thing about Redshirts. It won this year's Hugo as Best Science Fiction Novel at Worldcon.

Friday, September 20, 2013

What the hell, GOP?

After they lost the White House (again) in last year's presidential election, the Republican Party appeared to go through some serious soul-searching, with some in the party coming to the public conclusion that they needed to make their party more welcoming to more Americans. Because, you know, the Tea Party turned out not to be enough of a base to get Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan elected as President and Vice-president.

If you ask me, the GOP has some pretty funny ways of trying to grow their base. Just in the last two days they've told the American public, through votes in the House of Representatives, that they don't care if people can't get health care and can't get enough to eat to be able to go out and support themselves.

Today, the Republicans in the House voted (again - how many times is this? 40? 45?) to defund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and threatened (again) to shut down the federal government if they don't get their way. This comes on the heels of a vote yesterday, also led by Republicans, to cut billions of dollars from federal food assistance to the poor. In that vote, they claimed their purpose in the close (217 - 210) vote was to cut fraud and waste from the program and to make sure that able-bodied adults on the program were working. This is a big disingenuous, considering the fact that most food assistance recipients are employed, and that most who are not working are either children, elderly, disabled, or looking for work that they cannot find.

In the case of food assistance, the Republicans are also ignoring the fact that in some states, the system is actually underutilized. Here in California, for example, recent statistics show that only about 55 percent of those who are eligible for food assistance actually get it. Another report from Texas shows that a third of eligible Texans do not receive food assistance. In California, the shortfall is so pronounced that the state is actually running ads attempting to get more eligible households to apply for benefits.

Regarding health insurance, those opposed to what has come to be called Obamacare are ignoring, conveniently, that there are more reasons than just being poor (and, in GOP eyes, apparently, lazy) that people do not have health insurance. For example, many people who are uninsured are unable to get insurance because they have "pre-existing conditions". Either they are denied outright by insurance companies, or they are offered coverage but at such an expensive rate that they cannot hope to afford it. But, I guess, the Republican position is that if you've already been sick, you just deserve to die if you get sick again. And then there is also the part where, even if you are insured, if you or someone in your family is struck by a catastrophic illness, the insurance carrier can just drop you from coverage. And even if they don't drop you, there is a cap on how much care they will cover and if you exceed that, too bad, so sad, but you're on your own.

Which would be laughable if it weren't so serious, with the accusations that along with Obamacare would come "death panels" that would do things like ration care. Care under the current system is rationed, just using different criteria for the rationing. But, with their bias in favor of the rich, some in the leadership of the Republican party think that rationing based on ability to pay is quite all right.

Coupled with the ongoing fight of the GOP against affordable health care and against food assistance, though, the GOP has some other issues when it comes to attracting more people to the party. With their continuing war against women, the Republicans don't seem too concerned with attracting more women to their party. Then there are the efforts in a number of states to game the electoral system so that fewer people from groups that traditionally vote for Democrats are able to exercise their right to vote. But, I've written about those things here before, so I won't belabor those points now.

And then there is Phil Gingrey. Gingrey is a member of the House of Representatives from Georgia, representing the 11th District there.

There are reports that Gingrey, who is said to be worth between $3 million and $7 million, complained in a closed-door Republican meeting on Wednesday that the $172,000 per year he gets paid for being a Congressman is just not enough. For perspective, that is around $14,333 per month that he makes. Or, about $3,583 per week. Which comes out to around $512 per day or $64 per hour. Of course, these figures are based on a 52-week, 40-hour-per week, work schedule, with no vacation time. We all know that the House is not in session anywhere close to 40 hours per week, every week of the year.

For example, last year the House was in session for 153 days. There are, of course weekends, and I don't begrudge the representatives their weekends off. However, they also had nearly the whole month of August off, working only four days. They also had two full weeks off in April. Figuring 8 hours per day of work for each of those 153 days, for their actual time at work, the representatives each made $1,124 per day or around $141 per hour.

The thing is, though, some representatives don't show up for work every day. Gingrey has missed, according to one source, 3.6 percent of the roll call votes during his tenure in office up to this month. So, even accounting for the fact that most representatives do some work when they are not officially on the clock on the floor of the House, they make very good money.

The other thing that bothers me about Gingrey's complaints is that although he thinks he doesn't make enough money, he voted against the bill in January 2007 that raised the federal minimum wage to its current $7.25 per hour. Excuse me? He doesn't think he is paid enough, but he is not willing to allow the poorest workers in this country to make even $7.25 per hour which, when required deductions are made, puts that worker below the official poverty level? Now who is feeling entitled?

Gingrey, by the way, who is an M.D. in real life, also voted to defund the Affordable Care Act. Then again, Gingrey also defended Todd Akin's statements about "legitimate rape" and how if a woman was "really" raped, she would not become pregnant because her body would "shut that whole thing down." Akin clearly did not know what he was talking about, but he had an excuse; he's an engineer. But Gingrey has no excuse for concurring with that statement. He's not just a physician, he is an obstetrician and gynecologist, for Pete's sake. As the Republicans so often seem to do these days, Gingrey later backpedaled and said that his remarks about Akin's statement were "misconstrued". As a medical professional, he should have known better than to make the remarks in the first place. Instead, he let his ideology overtake common sense.

Okay. I've ranted more than enough for one day. But I've been busy for the past few days and was saving all this up for when I had time to write about it. It just bugs the hell out of me when politicians go out and blatantly insult people who are doing the best they can and then try to take away all the help that some of those people need to get on their feet again, either physically or economically.

It's really difficult to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps when you can't afford a pair of boots in the first place, or enough food to maintain their strength to go out to work every day or to pound the pavement looking for a job so that you can earn some money. And when the GOP keeps telling people that they want to bring more people into their "big tent" but treats anyone who is not up to their standards of wealth and health (and, sometimes, gender and ethnicity) like crap, and insults them besides, it's proof that the leadership of the Republican Party just doesn't get it.

NOTE: This post was edited to remove remarks that were spurred by what turned out to be satire. The point remains that we live in a tine when it is sometimes nearly impossible to tell satire from reality because the things people really do and say are sometimes so over the top that they appear to be satire.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Here...have some science talk

I'm not saying a thing. I'm just leaving this here for you:

It'll make you think. Have fun with it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

It's one of those days...

This is one of those days of the year on which I always find myself in a reflective mood.

And, no, it isn't because it's Constitution Day, the day in 1787 when the United States Constitution was signed. Or because it was on this day in 1683 that Antonie van Leeuwenhoek wrote a letter to the Royal Society in London that contained the first known scientific description of protozoa. It certainly isn't because it was on this day in 1630 that the city of Boston was founded. Never been there. It isn't even because this is the day in 1976 that the first space shuttle, the Enterprise (the one that never flew in space), was first unveiled to the public, although that's a pretty neat thing that I remember clearly.

The reason that this is always a thoughtful day for me is that it was on this day in 1922 that my father was born. I've written about him here before. My father was a good man, and I miss him a great deal even after all these years, and on this day I always think of him and all the things he did for me, and all the support he gave me, and the ways in which I am the person I am because of hi

I've had a pretty busy day today, but I've also taken time off, as I always try to do on his birthday, to do something that my father would have appreciated. Today, that has been reading Redshirts (2012), by John Scalzi, the novel that recently won the Hugo Award, given at the World Science Fiction Convention, for Best Novel. Redshirts kind of takes the phenomenon of "Star Trek" and turns it on its head and shakes it up and has some fun with one of the central memes to come out of that classic television series. I'm only on page 112 right now, so I don't know how things are going to come out, but it's funny as hell so far while at the same time proposing some interesting (and sometimes kind of mind-bending) ideas.

Why am I reading this in honor of my father's birthday? Well, my father was a big science fiction fan (okay, he was a geek; he raised me right), and a huge "Star Trek" fan. Back when the original series was in its first run, when I was in elementary school, we watched it together every week, much to the dismay of my mother, who was not much of a science fiction fan. My father also had a slightly bent sense of humor. I suspect that he would have loved this book.

This is not to say that I'm only reading Redshirts in memory of my father. I'm reading it because it is a really good book, and I find it more and more difficult to find really good science fiction.

So, I'm going to go read some more now.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Movie Monday: The Richard Matheson Edition

I had planned on writing about movie trivia today. And I'll still get to some of that eventually.

However, when I started to do some research on one of the bits of trivia that I intended to write about, it came to my attention that writer Richard Matheson died earlier this year. One of the legends in the field of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, Matheson wrote novels, screenplays, and teleplays that have entered the larger cultural consciousness. Mention "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", and even people who are not fans of the genre probably know what you're talking about. Bring up "The Incredible Shrinking Man", and even more people will know exactly the film you are referring to. Even people who claim not to "do" fantasy have probably seen "Somewhere in Time."

Matheson had a hand in the creation of all these films and television episodes and many, many more. In several cases, he wrote both the novels and the screenplays for the films they were based on. Others of his novels have been filmed more than once.

"I Am Legend" is an example of how Hollywood has felt that Matheson's work bears repeating. He published "I Am Legend" in 1954. In 1964, it was filmed as "The Last Man on Earth" and starred Vincent Price as the only man left on Earth who hasn't been affected by a plague that has turned the rest of humanity into zombie/vampires. Hollywood revisited the story in 1971, this time calling it "The Omega Man" and with the Vincent Price role taken over by Charlton Heston. More recently, the story reclaimed its original title, "I Am Legend" (2007), with a new star, Will Smith.

Matheson also wrote "The Shrinking Man" (1956), which became "The Incredible Shrinking Man" on screen in 1957 and then transmuted into "The Incredible Shrinking Woman" in 1981. "The Incredible Shrinking Man" is a classic science fiction/horror film that follows the 1950s convention of blaming the horrible fate of some unfortunate human on radioactivity. Here is the trailer from when the 1957 film was released:

Other films that were made from Matheson's work, some with the screenplay also written by him and some not, include but are not limited to "What Dreams May Come (novel, 1978; film, 1998); "Stir of Echoes" (1999), from the novel "A Stir of Echoes"; and "Hell House" (1971), which was filmed as "The Legend of Hell House" in 1973). "Somewhere in Time" (1980), the great romantic time-travel fantasy starring Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, and Christopher Plummer, was adapted by Matheson from his 1975 novel "Bid Time Return". The made-for-TV film "Duel" (1971), directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Dennis Weaver, was adapted by Matheson from one of his short stories. We'll be back to "Duel" in a little bit. Here is the trailer for "Somewhere in Time":

Matheson also adapted classic science fiction and horror stories by other writers for the screen. In 1961, he adapted two Jules Verne novels, "Robur the Conqueror" and "Master of the World", into a film, also called "Master of the World". This film, which starred Vincent Price and Charles Bronson, featured a flying ship, fascinated me when I saw it as a child. Here is the trailer:

Matheson also adapted several Edgar Allen Poe stories for the screen, including "The Fall of the House of Usher", which became "House of Usher" (1960) onscreen; "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961); "Tales of Terror" (1962) which included "Morella", an amalgam of "The Black Cat" and "The Cask of Amontillado", and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"; and "The Raven" (1963), the cast for which included not only Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff, but also a very young Jack Nicholson. All of these films were directed by Roger Corman."

In addition to his film work and his novels, Matheson also wrote for television, including several episodes for the original "Twilight Zone" and a classic episode of "Star Trek", "The Enemy Within" (1966). One of the episodes he wrote for "The Twilight Zone" was actually filmed twice, once for the original series in 1963 and again as the fourth segment of "Twilight Zone: The Movie", in 1983). Matheson also wrote what is, for my money, the most frightening episode of "The Twilight Zone" ever filmed, "Little Girl Lost" (1962). This story concerns a little girl who disappears from her bedroom one night. Her parents can't find her, but they can hear her. I won't say more, because if you haven't seen this episode, you really need to, and I don't want to spoil it for you. I first saw this episode when I was maybe six years old, and it scared me more than anything in any film or TV show ever has. Ever. And really, you need to see it. Go search for it on YouTube. The whole episode is available there.

Matheson had such a long and rich career, it would take days to review everything he wrote. And so I won't do that. However, I do want to return to the whole idea of movie trivia for a moment because one of my favorite pieces of trivia concerns the TV film "Duel" which I mentioned before. According to several sources I've come across, Matheson discussed at various times how he came to write the short story that the film was based on. It is an interesting story for anyone who has ever been tempted to ask a writer the question all writers dread: "Where do you get your ideas?"

Turns out, Matheson got the idea for the story that became "Duel" on November 22, 1963, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Apparently, Matheson and a friend of his were in Simi Valley, California, playing golf, when they heard that Kennedy had been killed. They decided that they needed to get back to Los Angeles, so they packed up and drove back toward L.A. At that time, the only road between Simi Valley and the San Fernando Valley and L.A. was the narrow, winding, two-lane road over Santa Susana Pass. The road was a dangerous one, with sheer drop-offs in several places. As the two men navigated the road, a truck came up behind them and tailgated them for a fair distance. It was apparently a fairly nerve-wracking experience, and a story, and then the screenplay, came out of it.

This story is interesting to me for a few reasons. First of all, I'm always fascinated by writers describing their process. Second of all, I know that road and traveled along it frequently all through my childhood because I grew up in Simi Valley and when I was young it was a small enough town that one had to travel to San Fernando Valley or Los Angeles to do most shopping. I can picture being tailgated by a truck on that road, where the truck couldn't pass because the road is too winding and there are no shoulders large enough for a car to pull over and let it by. It would be an extremely frightening experience. The other reason that this particular story intrigues me is that it is dated so accurately. I know, as most of us who were alive and old enough to remember do, exactly where I was on the day Kennedy was shot. And because I know where I was, I know that I was within a few miles of the area where the event that gave rise to the story happened to Matheson and his companion at the time it happened to them. Which tickles my senses of proximity and synchronicity.

Yeah, I know. I'm a geek.

Anyway, I thought I'd leave you with the trailer for "Duel", which was, by the way not filmed on the road where Matheson got the idea for the original story. It would have been a lot more frightening if it had been.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Music Sunday: The "1969 Revisited" Edition

Last month, I wrote about the Woodstock festival in 1969. Musically, at least, and maybe culturally, Woodstock stands at the height of what we know as "The Sixties" (not to be confused with the chronological decade of the 1960s, because the two really don't completely coincide). But, even had Woodstock never happened, 1969 would stand as an extraordinary year in music.

This is true for many reasons, and in many genres in music, but rock music had one of its best years in 1969. Crosby, Stills and Nash and Led Zeppelin each released their first album (and Led Zeppelin also released their second album). Janis Joplin released her first solo album. The Beatles released "Abbey Road", which wasn't well thought of critically then, but has since come to be regarded as one of their best, if not the best album they ever made. The Who released their rock opera, "Tommy". It was the year that Marvin Gaye recorded "I Heard it Through the Grapevine", Bob Dylan recorded "Lay Lady Lay", and Johnny Cash recorded "A Boy Named Sue". And it was the year that John Lennon and Yoko Ono held their "Bed-in for Peace" in Amsterdam and in Montreal. It was in Montreal where they recorded, on June 1, in their hotel and with a room-full of friends, "Give Peace a Chance":

Johnny Cash released "A Boy Named Sue", written by Shel Silverstein, into the world in 1969, at a time when country music was mostly seen as a southern phenomenon. Nonetheless, besides being a number-one song on the country charts in the United States, it reached number two on Billboard's Hot 100 and number one on the magazine's Adult Contemporary chart. Here is a live performance of the song that, from the looks of it, was recorded at one of Cash's prison shows:

The difference between this performance and the radio version of the song is that in the radio version, the phrase "son of a bitch" and the word "damn" near the end of the song were censored out. 1969 was a landmark year in many ways, but the powers that be were still convinced that the republic would collapse if someone said (or sang) a cuss-word over the public airwaves. Nevertheless, the song won both Best Country Song and Best Country Performance, Male, at the Grammy Awards in 1970, when the music of 1969 was honored.

One of the surprises on Janis Joplin's first solo album, "I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!", is that she sings the Bee Gees song, "To Love Somebody". It just seems so unlikely. Yes, she has her own way with the song, as she did with every song she sang. As far as I'm concerned, she improved it greatly:

Blood, Sweat, and Tears' self-titled album was actually released in 1968 (and won Album of the Year at the 1970 Grammy Awards, as their deadlines for consideration are known to be slightly elastic), although my favorite song from the album was released in 1969. "Spinning Wheel" was written by the band's lead singer, David Clayton-Thomas. Here is the longer album version:

And now for something completely different...1969 was also the year that David Bowie released "Space Oddity". And, this is one of the things I like about the music released in 1969; it isn't all the same:

And, one more oddity, of a different kind, before I finish this up for the day: The Doors, with strings and horns. "Touch Me", from the album "The Soft Parade", was a bit of a departure. This live performance, from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, if I'm not mistaken. There was some feeling among Doors fans at the time that this song, and the album, was sort of a sell-out by Jim Morrison and the band, but I like it:

There's so much more good music from 1969 that I would have liked to share here. Which means that there is probably another 1969 post somewhere, sometime in Music Sunday's future.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Relax. Enjoy yourself. Take a little time...

Some days, you've got to just chill.

That's what I did today.

I spent several hours with friends, working on needlecraft projects (sewing, embroidery, knitting), talking, laughing, and generally having a good time. Well, I had a good time once I straightened out a problem I was having with my knitting. But, anyway, it was a pleasant afternoon with friends. By the time it was over, I was more relaxed than I have been in weeks.

I didn't have to hear all the crap in the news. I didn't have to deal with anyone making demands on me. I didn't have to justify what I was doing. It was wonderful.

But, consequently, I don't have anything to complain about here, or to rant about, or to express my concern about.

So, instead of writing something long and drawn out, I'll just say that I hope you had a good day and that you got to do something you wanted to do as opposed to something you had to do. And that if you didn't get to do that, I hope you do get to do so soon.

If nothing else, relaxing a little is probably good for your health.

Oh, and don't forget. Tomorrow is Music Sunday.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Michelangelo's David and my busy life...

On this day in 1501, Michelangelo began work on his monumental sculpture of David. It's a fascinating story, with one of the most beautiful sculptures in the world being created out of a flawed block of marble that had already been used and abused in an attempt to make it into something else.

I had planned to write a long post about this, being that Michelangelo is my favorite artist. I love that he kept insisting that he was a sculptor, damn it, yet also painted some of the greatest frescoes ever conceived. I get that he was prickly and cranky and generally hard to deal with, but in those fantasy "Which ten people would you invite to a dinner party if you could ask anyone, dead or alive" he would be high on the list, simply because he did so many things, so well. Besides being a sculptor and a painter, he was also an architect (he was architect for St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, taking over from a succession of earlier architects, including Bramante, and designed the dome) and a poet.

Anyway, I was going to write about Michelangelo and the David, but it was a very busy day around here - getting my roommate's car fixed (it was out of commission for almost two weeks), signing up for a couple of computer classes that start in a month or so (I need to add some new skills to my resume), taking books back to the library, buying groceries, grading assignments for my roommate...basically just running about like a madwoman in the heat all day. The time just got away from me.

So, I'll save my Michelangelo geekery for another day, and leave you with this (and a word of warning - Michelangelo did not give David a fig leaf):

I'm also going to recommend the book "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (1961), by Irving Stone. It is a big, old-style biographical novel, something Stone specialized in during his career. This book was my introduction to Michelangelo, and I love it. It is a long book, but from things I've read about Michelangelo's life and work since, it seems to be very well researched and brings Michelangelo and his times to life in a very convincing way.

But please, read the book. I wouldn't recommend the film of the same name (from 1965), though. For some reason someone thought it was a good idea to cast Charlton Heston as Michelangelo. This was a bad, bad choice, on physical grounds alone. Heston was tall, a few inches over six feet. Michelangelo was only a little over five feet tall. And that was just the beginning of the problems with the film. I agree with the New York Times review of the film from when it was first released - Heston could manage only to find the cranky side of Michelangelo. Although that's one of the things the artist was known for, it was not his only side, something that is clear in the book the film was based on.

Really. Read the book.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Day the World Changed...or, at least, one of them

Yesterday's 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania, remind of all the rhetoric that was created about that day being "the day the world changed" and that "nothing will ever be the same", as if these turning points are rare and are always loud and immediately evident.

But today, September 12, is the anniversary of such a day, one that is rarely remembered and even more rarely commented on. The event that happened on this day was quiet and personal and flowered slowly, but it changed history and the way that Western culture looks at the world forever, and with much more far-reaching consequences.

On this date in 1933, the Hungarian-born American physicist Leo Szilard first had the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, the process that is necessary for the generation of nuclear energy and that enables nuclear bombs to explode with almost unimaginable power.

Szilard, who was in London at the time, had read that morning in The Times of London, a summary of a speech given by Ernest Rutherford, another physicist, in which Rutherford rejected nuclear energy as a practical way of generating power. This rejection annoyed Szilard, and he began thinking about the problem as he took one of his customary walks. As he later told the story, as he was crossing a street during that walk, he suddenly had a mental picture of how a nuclear chain reaction could be accomplished. It wasn't the first time anyone had thought about the possibility of such a reaction. That had, as far as we know, first been proposed in 1913. But, as a practical matter, it was Szilard's sudden idea that opened the door to making nuclear chain reactions achievable.

Achieving a chain reaction didn't occur overnight, of course, and it wasn't until 1939 that Szilard and Enrico Fermi discovered neutron multiplication in uranium, showing that a nuclear chain reaction was possible. Szilard and Fermi went on to create the first artificial, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in late 1942. But even before that, in 1939, very soon after discovering that such a reaction was possible and fearing that the Nazis would discover the same thing and try to exploit it, Szilard wrote a letter to be signed by Albert Einstein and delivered to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging the US government to begin research into building an atomic bomb. That letter led, eventually, to the creation of the Manhattan Project and the creation of nuclear weapons.

Szilard seems to have had some regrets later about the letter, as the research into the atomic bomb became more controlled by the US military than by the scientists who were doing the work. He was also an advocate, once the bomb had been created, of conducting a demonstration explosion to show the power of the new device in an attempt to convince the Japanese to halt the war (the Trinity test that showed that the atomic bomb did indeed work did not come until after world War II had ended in Germany), instead of directly bombing Japan, as ultimately happened;.

After the war, Szilard abandoned nuclear physics and turned his attention to molecular biology. He also continued to insist that the use in battle of the atomic bomb had not been necessary if only the US had been willing to demonstrate it away from populated areas.

So. Change happens. Every single day, in many ways, good and bad, for individuals and for groups and, sometimes, for the whole of mankind. Often we don't notice those changes until well after the fact. I'm sure that Szilard had some idea, right away, that if his idea worked, life as we know it would change forever. The rest of the world, not so much. It took over a decade from that walk Szilard took after reading something that annoyed him for events to take their course. On the other hand, if Szilard had not read that article and had not been thinking, consciously or unconsciously, about the problem of how to get energy out of nuclear reactions, and if he had not had that sudden insight, history might have turned out very, very differently.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Federal Judge schools Abercrombie and Fitch on its hiring practices

Those of you who follow along here might remember this post, from a few months ago, about the whole kerfluffle over Abercrombie and Fitch's "look policy", and how discriminatory their hiring and sizing policies are. You might also remember this follow-up post I wrote a few days later, where I discussed how some people were fighting back against A&F's exclusionary policies.

Well, the clothing retailer has now been ruled against by a federal court after being sued by Umme-Hani Khan, a Muslim employee in California after she was asked to remove her headscarf, which she wears out of religious conviction, and who was fired when she refused to comply.A
US District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzales, in ruling on the case, was quoted in an article online at NBC's website that by acting as it did, jurors could reasonably determine that "by offering Khan one option – to remove her hijab despite her religious beliefs – Abercrombie acted with malice, reckless indifference..." A&F was ordered by the judge to pay damages to Khan.

At the time that Khan's case first came to the attention of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), the article reports, that agency was already looking at two similar cases, another from Northern California and one from Oklahoma, in which two other Muslim women had been refused jobs because they would not take off their headscarves.

Abercrombie and Fitch has said that they don't discriminate, but according to the article, they have also claimed that their employees are "living advertisements" and that they should be allowed to control what the employees wear because they are exercising their protected commercial speech. A&F has claimed that their employees represent an "aspirational lifestyle" - whatever that is - and that they are part of the "atmosphere" of the store.

The really unbelievable thing about all of this is that, in the article, a "brand consultant" (sorry for all the quotation marks here, but I don't know how else to deal with the attitudes represented by the use of some of these terms) named Rob Frankel defended A&F's policy stand by saying that in enforcing their employee dress code, the company is not violating anyone's rights, but instead is simply "creating brand consistency."

So, Frankel is saying, as far as I can see, that employees are nothing more than walking, talking, money-making (for the company) mannequins that the company should be able to do with as they wish. I mean, I know that some corporations seem to believe that once someone goes to work for them, that the company owns them and all, but this...this strikes me as only just short of serfdom. Yeah, the employee can walk if they don't like doing what they're told. But, in this economy, how does someone walk off a job with no certainty that they'll be able to find another one in a reasonable length of time?

I don't know. Maybe A&F felt that there would be no push-back on this because the employees in question were Muslim women. I'm glad that they were wrong, and that the court ruled in favor of Khan and her headscarf. Because, you know, despite appearances to the contrary sometimes, we have a tradition of religious freedom in the United States that should not be marginalized in the name of the almighty dollar.

Yeah. I know. I am, apparently, not a good capitalist. Still, what kind of company considers it's human resources - its employees - nothing more than living advertisements?

Not one I'd be interested in buying from.

Just a word to the corporate overlords at Abercrombie and Fitch: Capitalism works all kinds of ways, and one of those ways is that if you offend too many people, you aren't going to pull in business. Instead, you'll be out of business.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Happy Science Popularizer Day - and, yes, I just made that holiday up

Today, coincidentally, is the birthday of not one but two scientists who are notable for writing books about scientific subjects for the general public. The work of the popularizer is often a thankless job, but one that I think is important because I believe that the more one knows about the world, the better off one is, and the sad fact is that each person cannot be an expert in every field. Therefore, popular works that inform about fields that can be technical to the point of confusion for one who is not an expert can be quite valuable.

So, today is the birthday of Jared Diamond, who was born on this day in 1937. Diamond has written such books as The Third Chimpanzee (1991), Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), Collapse (2005), and The World Until Yesterday (2012). His training was in physiology, and that is what he has taught at UCLA, in the medical school there. His writing, however, has seen him branch out into a number of fields, including anthropology, human evolution, and history.

Diamond has come into for his share of criticism for his work, including charges that he is too Eurocentric, that the arguments he makes in his books are weak, and that the large roles he assigns to geography and environment in the shaping of civilization are misplaced.

Like Diamond, Stephen Jay Gould, who was born on this day in 1941, has been criticized for things he wrote and said in the course of his career as a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, science historian, and prolific author of both specialist and popular books and articles. Among those criticisms were, like Diamond, that some of his explanations and arguments were weak. It is probably important to note that, especially in Gould's case, this criticism particularly has mostly come from those who disagree with his ideas and want to discount them.

It also probably has to be said that Gould did indeed take some stands that were controversial. He was co-developer, with Niles Eldredge, of the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which claims that evolutionary change is not a slow, steady process, but occurs rapidly and in bursts, with long periods of stability in between. Gould was very vocal, as well, about his rejection of sociobiology, the idea that social behaviors are rooted in biology and evolution. Additionally, Gould did not approve of cladistics, a method of biological classification, which brought him a measure of criticism as the use of cladistics became more and more widespread.

Gould was also criticized for his politics, which some critics characterized as "Marxist," charging that he let his politics interfere with his scientific positions. This was probably exacerbated by Gould's willingness to discuss his father's Marxism and his statements that his own politics were probably to the left of center. But, he also claimed that his politics were different from those of his father. Still, today, there are those people who discount Gould's contributions by pulling out the "Marxist" label.

Gould did not hesitate to address the subject of religion, and claimed that science and religion are not, as some argue, in conflict. However, he also claimed that the two areas comprised "non-overlapping magisterial" that, while they do not conflict, also do not really have anything to say to or about each other. He spent some of his time writing about this idea in a book called Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999).

While Gould did not criticize religion as a category of knowledge as some scientists, notably Richard Dawkins, do, he also spent a significant amount of his time arguing against creationism and intelligent design and against their inclusion in public school science classrooms. Among his efforts on this topic, Gould testified against giving creationism equal time in the classroom in the landmark case McLean v. Arkansas in 1982. The case, which ruled that "creation science" is actually religion and not science and that its inclusion in public school science classrooms violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Unites States Constitution, has been influential in subsequent rulings relating to the teaching of creationism and intelligent design.

Gould was a prolific and eloquent writer. He wrote nearly 500 peer-reviewed papers during his career, around 100 book reviews, 22 books, and a long series of essays that included a series called "This View of Life" in Natural History magazine. He published several collections of these essays in book form. Gould was also a fixture in science documentaries on PBS and elsewhere.

Sadly, Gould died in 2002, at the age of 60, cutting short a remarkable career that, among many other accomplishments, saw him named a "Living Legend" by the US Library of Congress in April 2000.

In honor of the day, your assignment, should you decide to accept it, is to go out and find some good popular science writing to read. I don't care what subject you choose, and it doesn't have to be something by either Gould or Diamond - although as a huge fan of Gould's writing, I would certainly not be sad if you chose to read some of his work, which can be challenging but is always rewarding.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Movie Monday: The "Do You Remember These 1960s Science Fiction TV Series?" Edition

I had something a little different planned for today's Movie Monday. And then I found this while I was looking around for something else on YouTube:

This short documentary (with bonus Bill Mumy) highlights four science fiction television series from the 1960s that are widely considered to be "bad" science fiction, but which were fixtures of my television experience during those years. And, indeed, seen from today, they were mostly bad. The writing was often horrible. The production values, especially compared with what we see on-screen today, even in television, were lacking. The acting was sometimes, well, hammy, although not necessarily much better than other television acting at the time. All of them were produced by Irwin Allen.

All the same, I loved those shows as a child and early adolescent.

"Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" was the first of the shows covered in the clip above, beginning September 14, 1964 and running through 1968. This show is old enough that the first season was shot in black and white. There were four seasons and 110 episodes of the show, which grew out of the 1961 film of the same name, also produced by Allen. This was a great favorite in our house, for all that my father and I would sit there and make fun of the pinging sound that was often in the background. We called it "sea chickens". The show consisted of the continuing adventures of the nuclear submarine Seaview and its crew, which was tasked with doing undersea research and, oh, yeah, saving the world on a regular basis.

"Lost in Space" came next, running from September 15, 1965, through the end of the 1968 television season. Again, the first season was shot in black and white. This was a sort of "Swiss Family Robinson" in space, and in fact the family that made up most of the crew of the Jupiter 2, their spaceship, was named Robinson. There were the mother and father, Doctors John and Maureen Robinson; their older daughter, Judy; a younger daughter, Penny; and the youngest, their son Will. In addition, there was the pilot, a military man, Major Don West. There was also a stowaway, Dr. Zachary Smith. Dr. Smith set out to sabotage the mission, and instead because stuck on the ship. His botched attempt at sabotage was the reason the mission got lost. Intended to only remain for the first few episodes of the show, Dr. Smith became sort of the bumbling villain you loved to hate. There was also Robot who, despite being a robot, became an essential character in the show, and his most famous and repeated line, "Danger, Will Robinson", has become iconic. If you were there at the time, you probably remember this:

Yes, I was a confirmed "Lost in Space" fan, for all of its silly stories and shaky sets, even after "Star Trek" came along in 1966, with similar production values but much better stories and writing. I loved (and still love) "Star Trek" in it's original incarnation, but "Lost in Space" was still something I loved to watch. Of course, I was nine years old when it began, but still...

Next in the Irwin Allen universe came "The Time Tunnel" which, coincidentally, debuted on September 9, 1966. I knew there was a reason why I wanted to write this post today. "The Time Tunnel" only lasted one season, probably deservedly. But it was time travel, and time travel stories are probably my favorite flavor of science fiction. The premise of the show was that the government had sunk ten years and billions of dollars into a secret project to determine if time travel was possible. The time had come to either prove the project, immediately, or have their funding cut off. One of the directors of the project, Dr. Tony Newman, says he is willing to be the guinea pig and try to travel into time, but he is turned down by another of the three directors, Dr. Doug Phillips. Dr. Newman sneaks into the lab that night, powers up the time tunnel, and disappears into it and, presumably, into time somewhere. Feeling responsible, Dr. Phillips follows him. But something goes wrong and the two of them spend the rest of the series being shuttled from time to time, getting into trouble everywhere they go.

Again, the acting wasn't top-tier, some of the writing wasn't the best, and the production values, despite what is said in the clip at the beginning of the post, weren't top-notch. But it was time-travel stories, and I watched faithfully.

And then there was "Land of the Giants", which ran for two seasons, from September 22, 1968 through 1970. This was my least favorite of the four series. I think this has to do with the fact that by the time the show debuted, I was older, entering junior high, and my demands for story in TV had grown a bit, helped along by having watched "Star Trek" since it's beginning. The premise in "Land of the Giants" was that a suborbital ship making a run from Los Angeles to London ran into some sort of anomaly at the edge of space, sending the ship and its crew to a planet where everything, including the inhabitants, are much larger than on Earth. It turns out that this particular craft is not the only one to have come to the planet by the same means, but their crews had never fared very well, and none had ever returned to Earth. This does not stop this group of travelers from attempting to repair their craft and return to Earth, but during the run of the series, they never make it back to their home planet.

No point to all this, really, I suppose. Just a remembrance of the television I used to watch. With the exception of "Lost in Space" which got the big-screen treatment in 1998 in a film starring William Hurt and Gary Oldman (and which I have not seen), and the fact that "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea", the series, came out of an original film, there is no real connection between any of these four series and the movies I usually write about here on Movie Mondays. Although, to be honest, I'd like to see someone try to translate "The Time Tunnel" to the big screen with today's production values and much bigger budgets.

Oh, and the idea that television, especially science fiction television, was not always necessarily the best of TV in the past, it was often the most fun. But that might just be my inner science fiction geek talking.

Today in History: The Longest Cave, Mary Queen of Scots, and California Becomes a State

A few notable events have their anniversaries today. Some are historical in nature.

For example, Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scots, was crowned on this day in 1543 at the age of nine months. She had actually become queen at the age of six days at the death of her father, King James V of Scotland, setting her on the path that would ultimately see her executed by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, as a threat to the English throne on February 8, 1587.

In US history, in 1776 on this day the Continental Congress named the new union the United States. In 1791, the newly established federal city of the United States on the banks of the Potomac River, was named Washington after the first president of the union, giving Washington, DC its name. In 1850, California became the 31st state of the union on this date. In 1942, during World War II, a Japanese floatplane dropped two incendiary bombs on Oregon with the objective of starting a forest fire. It was the first attack by an enemy plane on the continental United States, but it was singularly unsuccessful, with little damage caused.

In slightly more frivolous events, the National Broadcasting Company - NBC - was formed on this day in 1926, while on this day in 1956 Elvis Presley made his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

While all of these events hold some interest, more or less, the thing that makes September 9 notable for me is the fact that it is the day in 1972 when the connection between Mammoth Cave System and the Flint Ridge Cave System on an adjoining ridge in Kentucky were shown to be connected, making it the longest cave in the world. The connection was made by a six-person expedition as the culmination of an effort to show a connection of the two cave systems that had begun in 1954. At the time of connection, there were 144.4 miles (232.4 km) of surveyed cave passages in the linked system, enough to make it the world's longest cave. Further explorations and surveys in the system have extended that length to around 400 miles (640 km) of surveyed passages. This cave system is more than twice as long as the second-longest cave system in the world, located in Mexico.

Here is a bit of a documentary that talks about the connection, with interviews with some of the cavers who were on the connection trip. Some of the caving scenes are recreations, but this clip carries the flavor of what it must have been like to be on that trip:

For all that I've only ever been in two caves in my life, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and Florida Caverns, near Marianna, Florida, I love caves and am fascinated by them. Because I am fascinated by them, when I discovered a book called "The Longest Cave", by Roger Brucker and Richard Watson, on the new books shelf in the library back in 1976, I picked it up immediately and thus found my favorite book in the world. The book tells the story of those years of exploration between 1954 and 1972, written by two of the men who took part in those long years of exploration. Neither one of them were along on the connection trip in 1972, but they tell the full story, including the eventful connection trip. The books make clear that all the explorers over all those years were as much family as colleagues and friends, out not just to find the connection that so many of them believed existed but just to have a good time with friends who shared the same passion for the caves as they did.

"The Longest Cave" is a really good book. If you have any interest at all in caves, in adventure, in exploration, or just in the idea that there is value in doing something because it is enjoyable and joyful and might or might not lead to bigger things, you need to read this book. In fact, I think I need to read it again, because it is just as good after all the times I've read it as it was the first time. It's kind of like going to visit old friends.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Music Sunday: The Pink Edition

Today is Pink's birthday, so what could be more appropriate than to share a few of her songs?

I'll be honest. I am so not in Pink's demographic, having graduated high school five years before she was born in 1979. Despite that generational difference, I really like her music. I only own one of her CDs ("I'm Not Dead", from 2006), but I can't think of any of her work that I haven't liked.

The first of her work that I was really aware of was "Lady Marmalade", which she recorded with Lil' Kim, Christina Aguilera, Mya, and, joining in the video, Missy Elliot, in association with the film "Moulin Rouge!". Of course, I knew the song from its 1974 version by Labelle, and quite liked this newer version from the first time I heard it:

In the same year as "Lady Marmalade" was released (2001), Pink also recorded "Get the Party Started". If you listen to the song, you get the impression that this is a woman who is serious about having a good time. Watch the video, however, and you get what might be the first hint that Pink has a huge sense of humor and does not really take the whole idea of being a party girl all that seriously:

So, Pink showed early on that she can be sexy and funny. In 2003's "Trouble", she showed that while she is those things she is also not prepared to take any shit from anybody. If you've seen the video for the song, that is made even more obvious there. Oh, also, you also get bonus Jeremy Renner, who plays the sheriff in the video:

By 2005, on the CD "I'm Not Dead Yet", Pink demonstrates another side to herself, her social and political consciousness. "Stupid Girls" is probably my favorite of her songs. Sort of a logical extension of the video for "Get the Party Started", Pink makes the case that the party/celebrity lifestyle is really a trap for women, and that they should be looking for something more:

On the same album, "Dear Mr. President" is a departure for Pink, showing her political consciousness. It is a folk song she wrote to express some of her concerns about the presidency of George W. Bush. It was and is a controversial song, but it shows in its content that it isn't something she just dashed off to be politically correct or to jump on the anti-Bush bandwagon. Instead, the lyrics make it clear that she is aware of the policies he held on specific issues and the ways in which he expressed himself while he was president, especially in the lyrics about "hard work" near the end of the song. Here is a clip of her singing the song live in New York City:

Friday, September 06, 2013

Jobs, joblessness, and living in the real world...

I just read this op-ed piece over on CNN's website, and I think that the writer, Heidi Shierholz, has the right of it.

It has always bothered me, as I've written about here before, that the unemployment rate is figured based on the number of people actively looking for work, not on the number of people who are actually out of work. It is not helpful, except for whichever administration is currently in power to cover their own butts on the issue of joblessness. They need to cut it out and own the fact that the economy is not all roses and sunshine, that there are a lot of people who want to work who are not able to get jobs, and that there are even more people out here who are working, but are in part-time jobs not commensurate with their abilities and qualifications, much less their needs.

I think it is especially important that she points out that most of the declines in the unemployment rate as reported since it peaked in late 2009 is not due to people getting jobs that they desperately need. Instead, most of those declines, which make it seem like more people are working, are due to the fact that people are getting discouraged and giving up on looking for work. Once they quit looking, they drop off the radar as far as the government is concerned and are no longer counted as being unemployed. Even though they are still unemployed.

Shierholz also argues that the excuse given by many in the corporate world for not filling jobs, that there are no qualified applicants for the jobs they have open, is not the truth. Instead, she says, lagging demand means that there is just not enough demand for products to justify hiring more people. She links this to the fact that wages - and thus buying power - have remained flat or have actually declined for most US workers since the year 2000. People who are working just don't have as much money to spend, which has meant declines in demand for the things that workers would buy if they made enough money to cover more than the necessities of food, rent, utilities, and other essentials.

This all makes sense to me as an individual who is currently unemployed. I'm not discouraged yet, even though I've been actively seeking work for over a year and a half with dismal results. Although I haven't quit looking for a job, I'm getting more and more frustrated, between employers who don't want to even consider me because I'm not young and people who seem to think that I don't want to work because I haven't found a job yet. I keep hearing people say, "Well, why don't you go out and get a job?" They don't seem to understand that you don't just walk into an office or. store or factory and demand that they put you to work. They seem to think that because it is "based on a true story", the movie "Erin Brockovich" represents how the real world works.

If you've seen that movie, you know that Erin, as portrayed by Julia Roberts, just walks into her attorney's office and starts working, refusing to leave when it is explained to her that she doesn't work there. You know what would happen if you tried that in real life? Best case scenario, you'd be escorted off the premises by armed security guards. Worst case scenario, you'd be hauled off to jail. Real life just does not work that way. If Erin Brockovich did indeed get work that way, she is probably the only person who has ever successfully used that tactic. Anyway, no one I know has ever gotten a job that way.

Anyway, if the current unemployment rate is something that concerns you - and it should, since even if you are employed now, you could find yourself out of work sometime in the future - click on the link and read Shierholz's article. She argues for some solutions that I think make real sense. I just wish official Washington would pay attention.