Archive for: June, 2009

My interview on "A Blog Around the Clock"

Jun 30 2009 Published by under General science, Personal

As part of the run-up to ScienceOnline'10, Coturnix of A Blog Around the Clock has been running written interviews with the participants of the '09 conference... including me!  You can read my interview here.

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Happy birthday to Ray Harryhausen!

Jun 29 2009 Published by under Entertainment

It's a good time of year for birthdays: today is Ray Harryhausen's birthday!  If you don't know who Ray Harryhausen is, you should be ashamed of yourself -- he's the undisputed master of special effects.

Harryhausen pioneered the use of stop-motion animation to bring fantastic creatures to life.  If you've seen It Came From Beneath the Sea, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms or -- heaven help me -- The Valley of Gwangi, you've seen Harryhausen's mastery of special effects.

My favorite, which I still find awesome to this day, is the animated statue of Kali (via This Distracted Globe):


The Golden Voyage gives us this nice bit of trivia about the sequence:

In order to rehearse all the six arms with the actors in the sequence three stunt men had to be strapped together with a big belt standing and posing as Kali.

The adventure films of Harryhausen never made a whole lot of sense, but they were fun and filled with creatures more memorable than most of the throw-away CGI beasts produced today.

Most of Harryhausen's work was done from the 50s through the 80s, but he still has an impact -- numerous little "tributes" to him appear in animated films, and in 1992 he won the Gord0n E. Sawyer Academy Award "Given to an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry."

Happy birthday, and hopefully many more, to the father of modern special effects!

(P.S. I'm honored to share a birthday with him!)

Update:  The Seventh, a site dedicated to Harryhausen, is fascinating!  Particularly intriguing is the section on Lost Projects, imaginative movie ideas that Harryhausen never got a chance to make.  Even more intriguing: one of these lost projects, War Eagles, was originally conceived in 1940 but is going to be released in 2010, with Harryhausen as executive producer!  From IMDB: "A publicly humiliated test pilot and a lost clan of vikings riding giant eagles are America's only hope against a surprise Nazi attack."  Awesome!

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Abramowitz and Stegun online!

Jun 29 2009 Published by under Mathematics

Abramowitz and Stegun is a classic reference book which contains all sorts of information about special functions and their integrals.  If you've ever needed to reference something on the road and don't have your copy with you, you will be happy to learn that the book is accessible online.

I happened across this by pure dumb luck while looking for some sort of obscure Bessel function integral some time ago...

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Francis Stevens' The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy

Jun 29 2009 Published by under Horror, Weird fiction

In my readings for this blog, I am constantly surprised by how many truly excellent authors and works of weird fiction have been (mostly) lost in the passage of time.  Fortunately, a number of publishers have valiantly taken up the cause of bringing these forgotten works back into the public eye, and I've talked a quite a bit about Valancourt Books, Wordsworth Mystery and Supernatural, and Paizo Press.  I should probably add to this list Bison Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, which a few years ago produced an edition of Francis Stevens' short stories, titled The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy:


Francis Stevens was the pseudonym of Gertrude Barrows Bennett (1883-1948), who wrote a number of novels and short stories between 1917 and 1923.  She is credited in the Bison Books edition as being "the woman who invented dark fantasy", and with good reason: though the tales in the book are uneven in their plot and character development at times, they present a truly dark vision of the world that has obvious influences on such luminaries as H.P. Lovecraft and A. Merritt, as we will see.

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Happy birthday to Bruce Davison!

Jun 28 2009 Published by under Entertainment

I'm out of town for a few days, and likely posting light, but I had to put in a short "happy birthday" to actor Bruce Davison!

Davison, who has a distinguished air about him that screams, "upper echelon", is often pegged for roles as academics, doctors or politicians -- both good and bad.   He played the evil, mutie-hating Senator Kelly in X-Men, and the do-good philanthropist on the remake of Knight Rider.  He did an excellent, though brief, job as the unstable Dr. Silberman on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and has guest-starred on shows as diverse as Seinfeld, Battlestar Galactica, and Lost.  I've always been particularly fond of his role as the increasingly deranged Dr. Stegman on the surprisingly good Stephen King miniseries Kingdom Hospital.

One performance of his, however, has been burned into my brain from long before I knew who he was.   One of his earlier roles was in the made-for-TV movie The Wave (1981), in which he plays high-school teacher Ben Ross, who is apparently turning his students into a new wave of Nazi idealogues.

Best wishes to Davison on his birthday for a long and successful career!

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Oh, the things I hear

Jun 28 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?

Overheard at the airport this morning, part of a conversation between two older ladies:

"She's really pretty.  She has beautiful teeth."

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A REAL problem for modern universities

Jun 27 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?

There have been a lot of people of late who have offered suggestions for "improving" the university system, mainly by putting the blame on the faculty.  There's been criticism that the educational system produces "dull" scientists, and the more-or-less perennial calls for a heavier regulation of faculty members and an abolishment tenure.  However, as a recent case illustrates, perhaps faculty members shouldn't be the only ones blamed for the quality of the system:

What does it cost to get an unqualified student into the University of Illinois law school?

Five jobs for graduating law students, suggest internal e-mails released Thursday.

The documents show for the first time efforts to seek favors -- in this case, jobs -- for admissions, the most troubling evidence yet of how Illinois' entrenched system of patronage crept into the state's most prestigious public university.

They also detail the law school's system for handling "Special Admits," students backed by the politically connected, expanding the scope of a scandal prompted by a Chicago Tribune investigation.

In one e-mail exchange, University of Illinois Chancellor Richard Herman forced the law school to admit an unqualified applicant backed by then- Gov. Rod Blagojevich while seeking a promise from the governor's go-between that five law school graduates would get jobs. The applicant, a relative of deep-pocketed Blagojevich campaign donor Kerry Peck, appears to have been pushed by Trustee Lawrence Eppley, who often carried the governor's admissions requests.

This is pretty appalling, and to me illustrative of a real problem with modern universities: the view that an education is simply a commodity to be sold, and more broadly that a university should be run just like any other business.  Reading the full article, I feel bad for the Dean of the Law School, who resisted pressure to admit the sub-par candidates as much as possible.

While I sympathize with the view that a university has to keep itself financially viable, far too often it seems that administrations try and improve the prestige and success of the institution by every method except the one that counts: maintaining first-rate academic programs.

Is there any part of Illinois that Rod Blagojevich didn't corrupt?

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Yet another phishing fail

Jun 25 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?

Sure, phishing emails are annoying as hell, but they're often so badly planned out that at least I can drag some entertainment out of them, as well.  I've posted some of my favorites before, namely the generic university phishing attempt and the all-time classic Christian lepers.

Today I was informed that I'm a winner:

Dear Lucky Winner,

We are pleased to inform you of your prize release dated 20th June 2009 on the Australian International Lottery programm.Which completely based on electronic selection of winners using their e-mail addresses.
You have been approved lump sum pay U.S. $ 500 000,00 FIVE Hundreds of
thousands of dollars in cash...

The problem?  Aside from the poor English and the typos, the email address ends in '.fr'.  That isn't Australia...

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In defense of those "dull" scientists

Jun 24 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?, General science

The other day, Chad at Uncertain Principles linked to a very odd argument on the site Medical Hypotheses: "Why are modern scientists so dull? How science selects for perseverance and sociability at the expense of intelligence and creativity", by Bruce Charlton:

Question: why are so many leading modern scientists so dull and lacking in scientific ambition? Answer: because the science selection process ruthlessly weeds-out interesting and imaginative people. At each level in education, training and career progression there is a tendency to exclude smart and creative people by preferring Conscientious and Agreeable people. The progressive lengthening of scientific training and the reduced independence of career scientists have tended to deter vocational ‘revolutionary’ scientists in favour of industrious and socially adept individuals better suited to incremental ‘normal’ science.

The article has been out on the 'tubes since February -- published in the journal Medical Hypotheses -- and is so over-the-top polemical I'm tempted to think that it is a Poe of sorts.  However, it seems to be a sincere article, and so I thought I'd take a brief moment to give some rebuttal.

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Best wishes to Eric

Jun 22 2009 Published by under Personal

As a short personal note, my very good friend Eric is in the hospital today for what is considered a "minor" heart surgery.  Eric has been a good friend for many years and, without his support and friendship, I arguably wouldn't have been as successful in life as I have been.  In fact, I may not even have made it into my 30's.

Best wishes for a successful surgery and speedy recovery.

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