Saturday, September 24, 2011

They're Back!

Remember these guys?  They're the science ants who have been shooting particles down a tunnel that would be the envy of any hive in the world.

They're the physicists of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and they just sent some sub-atomic neutrinos, emanating from their particle accelerator outside Geneva, to a cavern underneath Gran Sasso in Italy — a distance of 454 miles — at a speed about 60 nanoseconds faster than it would take a light beam to travel the same distance. That amounts to a speed greater than light by about 25 parts in a million.

Not much of a difference, but if the speed holds up, it will confine Einstein's theory of relativity to a world without neutrinos.

I've been expecting something like that to happen.

I went to a Catholic high school run by the Christian Brothers, and thought I was getting a good education, until I competed to get into Rice University with kids who'd had a real education in math.  There were questions on the exam I couldn't even read, let alone answer.  Probably the only person in the world with as low an opinion of Catholic education as mine is Pierce Brosnan, who also went to a Christian Brothers school.

When I started college, I was still struggling with math.  I took Calculus three times.  First time I made a B, so I took it over and made a C.  I gave my daughter a copy of that college transcript last year so she'll never have to worry about what I think about her math grades.

I dropped out of college my senior year, bummed around until I got drafted, and spent some time in and out of the Army in Germany.  Along the way, I met one of the most important people in my life, a guy named Joe Farina, who went through advanced training with me in San Antonio.  Farina was working for Lockheed at NASA and doing a six-month hitch in the Reserves.  At the end of our training, he went back to Houston and I shipped out for Germany.  We corresponded while I was in the Army, and, when I returned to Galveston from Europe, we spent the summer hanging out at the beach and the Galvez Hotel pool.  That summer, he taught me the fundamental concepts of math I should have learned when I was a kid.

Farina worked with a guy named George who had a theory about Einstein's equations I found fascinating.  According to George, the reason those electrons couldn't go faster than the speed of light wasn't that they got denser the way Einstein said.  It was because they started to wobble.

So I was thinking about George yesterday when I heard about those super-fast neutrinos.  Thinking maybe those neutrinos fly straight.  But mainly I was thinking about Joe Farina and about how in just a couple of months one guy could undo 4 years of harm caused by a bunch of incompetent educators.  I owe him more than he will ever know.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Why Mars Matters

America is not America without a frontier. We're the kind of people who need to be constantly pushing the outside of the envelope, creating a frontier, settling it, getting restless and moving on. It's in our nature to move West. And the only West left is out in space. That-a-way. Out yonder. Back East is a museum. It's getting as bad as Europe. But out West, you can stretch out and breathe. Tim Leary knew. He toured America, playing electronic music he claimed would prepare the human mind for a voyage into deep space. The Department of Justice put him on tour to recant, to take it all back. And he did. He told us the government was firmly in the hands of men and women who only a few years before had been stealing hub caps at Atlanta rock concerts. He said he was about to play some tapes to rearrange the molecules of our brains, to prepare us for deep space, for the long voyage ahead. Anybody who didn't want to go had better leave. I trusted Tim, and I wasn't ready for space, so I left. I never heard the Leary tapes. I doubt I'm fit to travel into space. But some folks are.

Friday, April 29, 2011


Forward Looking Infrared has been around a long time. I first saw it in use over 30 years ago, cruising along the Rio Grande in an INS helicopter. FLIR has given U.S. troops the ability to see at night without being seen. It has completely altered the nature of modern warfare. It's incredible stuff. It reduces the human beings at the receiving end of a weapon to mere targets on a screen. If it's true, as I was told growing up in Texas, that distant is polite, FLIR makes killing about as polite as it gets.

I read recently that some researches believe playing kill-or-be-killed war games improves cognition. According to Daphne Bavelier, an assistant professor in the department of brain and cognitive science at the University of Rochester, people who play fast-paced games "have better vision, better attention and better cognition." Bavelier was a presenter at a symposium on the educational uses of video and computer games.

I'm constantly running into reports that suggest video game players make the best surgeons, pilots and CAD monkeys.

I guess that depends on the individual. My first video game was Doom, and after playing it for a month or so, I developed tunnel vision that lasted for weeks after I stopped playing the game. It was like walking around, looking at the world through a tube about the size of a coffee can.

Last year, Jane Mayer reported in the New Yorker that some of the CIA agents who fly the lethal drones over Afghanistan wear flight suits at work. Mayer's October 2009 article, The Predator War, explores the risks of using predator drones as our weapon of choice in the war on terror.

The New Yorker, October 26, 2009

I don't doubt that video games are educational and have real potential for making work more fun.

One of the best games I've heard about was used by currency traders. The traders sat in the cockpit of a virtual fighter jet and gunned down stacks of foreign currency with bullets denominated in dollars to exchange dollars for Euros, Francs or Marks. To buy dollars, they loaded up with a foreign currency and gunned down piles of dollars.

You could develop a Madoff version of that game that helped investment advisors gun down their clients fortunes, and, in the advanced version, gun down their clients themselves, saving them the trouble of jumping out of windows.

Professor Bavelier had some good ideas about ways to "harness the positive effects" of first-person shooter games without violence.

"As you know," she said, "most of us females just hate those action video games. You don't have to use shooting. You can use, for example, a princess who has a magic wand and whenever she touches something, it turns into a butterfly and sparkles."

Put that into the targeting system of an Apache helicopter and you might have something.

Personally, I'm looking forward to smart weapons that know when to shoot and when not to.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Web 2.0 has witnessed the rise of citizen journalism and a brand of publishing that reminds me of the wild, wild West. Compared to the staid publications of the East Coast with their European sensibilities and, as Norman Mailer put it, their "bloodless, gutless restraint," the World Wide Web is raw, ideological and combative. 

Julian Assange, publisher of WikiLeaks, is one of the most combative and ideological publishers on the web and Assange and the leaked documents and videos he has published are now at the red hot center of the battle to control the flow of information across the web. Although Assange is not the first publisher to make government documents available to the public, his publication of gun camera videos and U.S. Department of State cables is massive, both in terms of its sheer volume and in terms of its buzz. And it is the only leak around right now. In my view, there is nothing on WikiLeaks as sensational as the Abu Ghraib photos, and, in fact, nothing as shocking as some of the videos that have been up on YouTube since the start of the Iraq occupation, but Assange has made the leaks personal and part of a private war with the U.S. government. He has given the publication of leaks a human face. He has become the center of attention. That's too bad. Because it may be too hot at the center for Assange.

When I first saw the gun camera video Assange published, I was struck by the fact that the gunship was adhering to General Petraeus' regrettable rules of engagement for Baghdad. The rules should have been stricter, but at least they prevented the gunships from finishing off the wounded the way the gunship in this suppressed video did.

This kind of video, depicting the actual murder of a wounded insurgent, was available on YouTube for years, along with countless home videos put up there -- self-published, if you will -- by American soldiers and Marines, and also by insurgents. Most of the insurgent videos seem to have been removed quietly over the years on the grounds that they violate YouTube's terms of service. I say "quietly" because YouTube, a publisher whose significance dwarfs the personal soap opera of Assange and WikiLeaks, has never identified itself as a publisher with an ax to grind. In fact, YouTube doesn't pretend to be a publisher at all. Putatively, they are simply providing a forum for the free exchange of information. Therein, it seems to me, lies YouTube's safety, if not legally -- and I don't pretend to understand the legal issues around the free flow of information -- at least morally. For YouTube does not notice us -- unless we draw attention to one another. They have adopted at least the appearance of ignorance and neutrality. Assange has not.

Assange has, in fact, made quite a big deal out of knowing exactly what he's publishing. He has probably been led down that path by the establishment press who are very high on "responsibility" and insist on things like verifying sources, redacting classified information, and making a determination about whether the public's right to know outweighs the danger of exposing operators and operations. Having consented to work with the establishment in making those judgments, Assange has exposed himself to the moral, if not the legal, responsibility to get it right.

I suspect that is something Julian Assange is poorly equipped to do.

(Update. 3/24/2019. YouTube removed the video of an American gunship murdering a wounded insurgent.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Is Julian Assange A Journalist?

Both sides of the WikiLeaks debate seem determined to misrepresent the issues in the Assange drama by hotly arguing over whether Assange is a journalist or not. Of course he isn’t. Assange is a publisher, and he’s entitled to the same protections — no more and no less – as any other publisher.

File this under topics for further research.

Do journalists have better or worse protections under the U.S. Constitution than publishers have? Are they held to different standards? Do people respect journalists more than they respect publishers? Who raised the issue of whether Assange is a journalist in the first place? Does being perceived as a journalist help or hurt Assange?

And what, if anything, do the charges a Swedish prosecutor — a woman who has a long history of prosecuting sex abuse and child abuse — wants to question Assange about have to do with WikiLeaks? For the record, I don’t think the charges have much to with the WikiLeaks drama at all. Sex shouldn’t be a death-defying act. If Assange did what the two women have accused him of doing — if he exposed them to the risk of AIDS by forcing them to have unprotected sex – he committed a crime under Swedish law. That doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to protection as a publisher when he publishes government tapes and documents.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Real Enemy

Forget about Komodo Dragons, The Flu Formerly Known As Swine, Bernie Madoff, Scammers and Spammers, ATT,, Stalling Politicians, Bad Filmmakers, Camera-Eating Ponds, Moving Doors, Voles, Shrews and Poppy-Eating Mice.

This is our real enemy. Vexer of gardeners and destroyer of lawns. The fungi known as toadstools. And all my sources of gardening expertise can tell me is: Try to rake them out of your lawn. There is no cure. Nothing to do. Make your peace with them, Billy Glad.

They grow where the previous owner cut down a big tree, ground down the stump, but left the roots in the ground to rot. He planted new grass over the fungi-infested ground and sold the house to me, a charter member of the A-list. I guess word gets around.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

We Ate Their Goddam Eggs

We ate their eggs. We ate them. We little mammals ate them. And we inherited the earth.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Easter Circa 1975

This simple allegory was revealed to me while I was documenting the performance art of Michael Tracy, whose intention it was to make visible the vestiges of ancient signs and symbols in the modern world.

The Archangel Michael has fallen from grace. Obsessed with the natural world, he has forgotten his appointed place. On Good Friday, he is entombed by friends and disciples. On Easter Sunday, he rises from the dead. Later that night, the blasphemer is brutally murdered by the Archangel Gabriel.

Maundy Thursday

Good Friday


Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

I've been re-reading Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee this week. Brown's great achievement was to envision a history of the West narrated by the Native Americans who were rubbed out by the advance of "Americans" westward. As those of you who love the book as much as I do know, Brown invites his readers to read the book facing East. When I do that, I immediately lose my sense of being "an American" and see myself as a European, invading and conquering the richest continent on earth. I can't tell you how much I detest seeing myself as a European.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Hungry Dancer Eats


Summer is over.

My arugula and basil went to seed.

My big sunflowers died, like friendships that didn't work out.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Japan 1945

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Toadsuck Ferry

My friend, Ron Weiss, got a job in Arkansas, helping the Arkansas Educational TV station in Conway set up a news and documentary unit. He split his salary with me so we could make some films together. We helped the station pick the equipment and we were supposed to teach a couple of local people how to make documentaries. I don't remember if we got around to that or not.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Green Hornet (2011)

He had it all.  Biomimicry, a gas gun that made a wierd sound, a big, fast car, called the Black Beauty, an Asian sidekick and The Flight Of The Bumblebee.  I listened to The Hornet on the radio; read the comic books; watched the movie serial on Saturdays.  Van Williams played the Hornet and Bruce Lee played Kato on TV.  There's a great scene of Lee taking a Green Hornet set apart in the Bruce Lee bio-pic: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.  So, I had high expectations for The Green Hornet (2011), the Seth Rogen and Jay Chou movie directed by Michel Gondry that opened this weekend.

But, once you get past the twist that the movie is a comedy based on a premise that would have made a good Saturday Night Live skit, there's not much there, unless you think it's fun to play Name That Team and come up with interesting duos that Rogen and Chou remind you of.  I figure Aykroyd and Belushi or Aykroyd and Murray or Aykroyd and just about anyone. 

Rogen was one of the Hornet's writers, and he's probably a better writer than a comedian.  Some of the gags and one-liners in The Green Hornet are laugh-out-loud funny.  But be sure to see the 3D version.  I imagine the film would be incredibly boring in 2D, mainly because The Green Hornet lacks an interesting villian.  Making a fun, comic rendition of a comic book is at least as good an idea as making an exceptionally dark one, but comedy or no, comic book heroes and comic book movies need interesting villains, and The Green Hornet's Chudnofsky falls flat on his face. 

Cameron Diaz is adequate in the Girl Friday role.  Her face is the only image from The Green Hornet that sticks in my memory.  It's as if she's the first real person I've seen in 3D.  Tom Wilkinson does a brilliant turn as the Hornet's dad.

Hollywood badly needs to come up with a new superhero worthy of sequels and prequels, and some blockbuster films to fill the 3D bubble created by Avatar.  The Green Hornet doesn't seem likely to fill either bill.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Jonah Hex (2010)

It's easy to be dismissive of Jonah Hex (2010), Jimmy Hayward's box office flop.

The film grossed a meager 5 million bucks the weekend it opened, far behind Toy Story 3, and was universally panned by reviewers -- and not without good reason.

The plot is trite and hard to follow, the acting average, and most of the time Hayward's visualization of the comic book material is boring. Ironically, Hayward got his start in the Toy Story franchise. He was an animator on Toy Story and Toy Story 2.  But watching Hayward's Hex, I was reminded of an old friend's put down of Midland, Texas. I spent a week there one night, he told me.

Josh Brolin, a talented and intelligent actor who has been on a roll lately, plods along in the title role. John Malkovich seems to have dropped in for a couple of disconnected scenes. Malkovich can play villains like Quentin Turnbull, Hex's arch enemy, in his sleep, but there is so little connection between him and Brolin that you have to wonder if they were ever on the same set at the same time.

Megan Fox is billed as a star but comes across as a bit player, making a cameo appearance. Fox badly needs to make the transition from teenager to woman to put the Transformer franchise behind her, but in Hex she comes across as a kid, dressing up in her grandma's clothes. There is something about her voice that works against Fox. She hasn't learned to make the slight disconnect between her body and her voice work for her the way Monroe did.

Hex won't appeal to fans of the Jonah Hex comic books, either. The writers left too much good stuff out.  Fox's Tallulah Black is a far cry from the disfigured female bounty hunter of the Hex books, and El Diablo and Lazarus Lane, two -- or one, depending on how you look at it -- of the books' most imaginative creations, are missing completely.

Tallulah Black and El Diablo

Unlike Watchmen, the seminal graphic novel that established the form, the Hex books spanned so many years and versions that the writers had to boil the comics down in an attempt to distill the essential Jonah Hex from the books. In deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, they invariably chose to use the most hackneyed elements of the comics.

The next blockbuster franchise and comic book superhero turned movie icon won't be Jonah Hex.  And yet, for anyone who is interested in pop culture and genre films, Jonah Hex is an important movie.  Jimmy Hayward has made a very bad film. But, in making it, he has -- inadvertently, perhaps -- tested the limits of turning graphic novels into films. 

Hex looks exactly like what it is, a first film by a director who knows absolutely nothing about the way real people move through real space. It ends up being a jumble of disconnected portraits, shots -- panels, if you will -- and, in memory, exists as an exact replica of a comic book.  Watching Jonah Hex is like spending 81 minutes reading a graphic novel. No one will come closer to literally translating a graphic novel into film than Jimmy Hayward has.

But will anyone want to? Is thumbing through a graphic novel what most of us go to the movies to do?

Genre films, especially action-adventure films, require a compelling narrative and fast action. Action that is suggested by the static panels of a comic book must be realized in film.  If you want to see what happens when a director ignores that basic truth, go see Jonah Hex. If not, save your money and catch Watchmen on cable TV.

The real Jonah Hex

Monday, January 10, 2011

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) was released on DVD this week, and cable television is showing Mr. Fox as video on demand, another format that lets viewers pause the film or replay scenes.

Wes Anderson has crammed so much visual information into every scene of Fantastic Mr. Fox that it's easy to make the case that the DVD or video on demand experience of Mr. Fox is even better than the experience of watching it on the big screen. Watching Mr. Fox in real time, you get the Richard Scarry feel of it, but until you freeze a frame, it's impossible to see all of the detail that's working to make Mr. Fox easily the most original visual experience among last year's films.

There are cave drawings from the Altimira cave on the walls of the foxes' cave; strange books in Bean's kitchen. The long, traveling shot through Badger's Flint-Mine is too rich to take in all at once. The drawings of tunnels and sewers are like treasure maps, and Mrs. Fox's landscapes are wonderfully complex.

Anderson added characters and scenes to Roald Dahl's book to get the story of Mr. Fox up to feature film length. And that, unfortunately, is where Anderson stumbles. Too often, Anderson's story seems contrived and lacking in irony. Mr. Fox protests that he loves his son just the way he is, but when the young fox finally succeeds, it's on his father's terms, not his own. And Mr. Fox's realization that he's not the center of the universe is a disappointing trope.

But though he stumbles, Anderson does not fall. He finds redemption in the ending of his film, where up is down, in is out, and the happy ending turns out to be more dismal than it seems.  Dahl's animals only end up stuck underground; Anderson's end up stuck in a supermarket.

Anderson's Mr. Fox thinks he's wild, but, in the most poignant moment of the film, Anderson lets us see how domesticated Mr. Fox really is by showing us powerful images of a wild wolf -- the only truly free animal in the film.