Archive for the '… the Hell?' category

The oldest LOLcat?

Mar 07 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, Animals, Silliness

While researching another science post, I came across the following image:

The image is from The Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine, vol. 1 (1898-1899), at the end of the introduction to the magazine by Alfred C. Harmsworth.  This seems to be an early version of an LOLcat, popularized by I Can Has Cheezburger!  Though I wouldn't exactly call it "laugh out loud", the picture is a captioned image of cats with the caption in the cat's own voice (hence the "we").

I'm wondering if this is the oldest LOLcat found yet -- the oldest one I'm aware of comes from 1905, seven years after the Harmsworth image.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- one finds all sorts of interesting things while wandering through old journals and magazines...

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A WTF scientific paper from Edinburgh, 1884

Feb 24 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, History of science, Physics

I'm still quite busy finishing off my book, and a grant proposal in the meantime, but I thought I'd share a very odd paper from the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 13 (1884), 23-24, entitled, "Extraordinary occurrence at House No. 7 York Place".

One of the fun things about old journals are the miscellaneous "reports" sent in about unusual phenomena seen in the field, often by non-scientists.  Perhaps my favorite example of this comes from the very first volume of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1665, "An account of a very odd monstrous calf," by Robert Boyle.  This was the fifth paper ever published in a scientific journal, a fact that I find very amusing for some reason.

The paper I want to describe carries the sub-heading, "(The following notice was sent to the General Secretary, from the Office of Messrs Hunter, Blair and Cowan, W.S.)".  I can't really do it justice without quoting it in its entirety:

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"The Wicker Tree?" (Updated)

This one was an immediate WTF moment for me: Robin Hardy, the writer/director of the original version of the film The Wicker Man (1973), is "reimagining" his film as The Wicker Tree, slated for release sometime this year:

For those who aren't familiar with the original film, it is undeniably a classic of the horror genre and in my opinion one of the greatest horror films of all time: subtle, atmospheric, darkly humorous, and genuinely horrifying*.

Details are sketchy as it stands; the official movie site is little more than an image right now.  IMDB has the following summary, which may or may not be accurate:

Young Christians Beth and Steve, a gospel singer and her cowboy boyfriend, leave Texas to preach door-to-door in Scotland . When, after initial abuse, they are welcomed with joy and elation to Tressock, the border fiefdom of Sir Lachlan Morrison, they assume their hosts simply want to hear more about Jesus. How innocent and wrong they are.

I'm definitely of mixed emotions about this news.  On the one hand, I'm horrified (and not in a good way); an abysmal remake of The Wicker Man was just recently released in 2006 and illustrates that there is no lower limit on the quality of such projects.  On the other hand, The Wicker Tree is by the original writer/director, and he has seen fit to bring back Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, one of the most inspiring castings of all time.

I suppose we'll just have to wait and see...


* Seriously -- this film has one of the most cringe-inducing moments of any horror movie I've ever seen, and shames a lot of the "extreme" modern horror films.


Update: As long as I'm talking about unusual movie projects, I see IMDB has a trailer up for the Solomon Kane movie, "based" on the character by Robert E. Howard.  I'm not sure what to think, as yet: it might end up being an enjoyable movie, but it doesn't look, or sound, much like Howard's Solomon.  The IMDB summary says a lot:

A mercenary who owes his soul to the devil redeems himself by fighting evil.
Howard's Solomon is a fanatical Puritan who fights the devil's works overly wherever he goes!  It is pretty much impossible to imagine that character having made a deal with the devil, as the summary and trailer implies.

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Captain America has a tradition of social commentary

Feb 13 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, [Politics], Entertainment

If you haven't seen it yet, the most recent issue of the Marvel Comics series  Captain America has drawn the ire of teabaggers because of its negative portrayal of them.  Via Yahoo news,

Since 1941, Captain America has been one of the most popular comic book characters around. The fictional super-patriot fought Nazis during World War II, took on those who burned the American flag during the Vietnam era, and raked in hundreds of millions of dollars for Marvel Comics along the way.  Now, the appearance that he is taking on the Tea Party Movement in a storyline about investigating white supremacists has forced Marvel to apologize for the comic hero.

The Yahoo article also includes the relevant pages from issue 602 of Captain America:

I am of somewhat mixed feelings about the whole "controversy", if indeed it is one.  On one hand, I probably wouldn't be thrilled if a right-winger wrote a comic caricaturing liberals as fanatical communists (though I wouldn't be whining about it), on the other hand in my opinion the strip doesn't depict anything that isn't spot on.  I'm sorry to see that Marvel felt like they had to apologize for an artistic decision by a writer, though I can somewhat understand that they are an entertainment business that doesn't want to alienate any customers.

One thing I'd like to point out, though, is that the Captain America comic has a long history of addressing  social issues.  This isn't the first time that its writers have used the book and the character as a mirror to show its readers some of the unpleasant traits of America.

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I'll stick with my parachute, thanks

Feb 09 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, General science

Via Daily Kos, I came across this interesting article in Popular Mechanics: How to Fall 35,000 Feet -- and Survive:

You have a late night and an early flight. Not long after takeoff, you drift to sleep. Suddenly, you’re wide awake. There’s cold air rushing everywhere, and sound. Intense, horrible sound. Where am I?, you think. Where’s the plane?

You’re 6 miles up. You’re alone. You’re falling.

Things are bad. But now’s the time to focus on the good news. (Yes, it goes beyond surviving the destruction of your aircraft.) Although gravity is against you, another force is working in your favor: time. Believe it or not, you’re better off up here than if you’d slipped from the balcony of your high-rise hotel room after one too many drinks last night.

It's a rather overly dramatic article, but very entertaining and thought-provoking.  As a skydiver, I've often wondered what would be my strategy if I had a total malfunction of both my main and reserve parachutes.

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Which Winston Churchill wrote "Man Overboard!"?

Feb 02 2010 Published by under ... the Hell?, Horror

Horror fiction is often burdened by the popular impression that it is the refuge of the anti-social, the unliterary, the morbid, and even the perverse.  However, a surprising number of authors of classic literature have dabbled in macabre fiction, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, ("Young Goodman Brown", "Rappacini's Daughter"), William Faulkner ("A Rose for Emily"), Charles Dickens ("The Signal-Man"), and Edith Wharton ("Afterward"). In addition, plenty of very successful professionals in other fields, such as journalism, medicine, and academia, have ventured into horror.

For years, the pièce de résistance in my argument in favor of the positive quality of horror authors is a little known 1899 story titled, "Man Overboard!"  The author is one Winston Churchill.  Yes, that Winston Churchill -- or so I thought.

In doing background for another blog post, I Googled Churchill's "Man Overboard!", and was surprised to find that there were in fact two famous Winston Churchills in that era -- the British politician (1874-1965), and a very famous American author of the same name (1871-1947).  So which one wrote the story?

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6 responses so far

Atlantis discovered... again...sigh.

Dec 16 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?

Via the Huffington Post, which is sort of a magnet for really outlandish and unsubstantiated claims, we find this rather dubious announcement that the lost city of Atlantis has been found:

Undersea archaeologists have found the ruins of an ancient city on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, and researchers claim that it is the fabled and lost city of Atlantis. The satellite photos do show something that could be a city, and the researchers believe that what they've found would predate the pyramids of Egypt. Indeed they claim to be able to make out a pyramid and other city-like structures from the satellite photos.

The archaeologists have so far refused to divulge their identities or the location in the Caribbean. They say they are raising money for an expedition to confirm their findings.

This immediately earned me a face palm.  The text as written has all the hallmarks of sloppy, even cranky, research: immediate and unjustified speculation that the structures predate the pyramids, refusal to divulge the identities of the "researchers", coupled with an immediate plea for funds for further exploration.  Couple that with the fact that the speculation is based on satellite photos, and the reality that any sort of remote sensing and mapping can introduce unexpected artifacts (such as the Google Atlantis fiasco, here and here).

I also cringed every time that Dylan Ratigan, the MSNBC host in the Huffpost video, referred to the lost city of Atlantis -- the story of Atlantis was introduced by Plato in his dialogues (as I've blogged about before), and according to Plato it was "an island larger than Libya and Asia combined," in other words a continent.  Even though he knows nothing about the history of Atlantis, at least Ratigan seemed to show a good amount of skepticism at the claims.

Looking at the original Herald de Paris article, though, we find that the Huffpost article is really, really distorting some of the researchers' words:

Asked if this city is the legendary city of Atlantis, the researchers immediately said no.  “The romanticized ideal of Atlantis probably never existed, nor will anyone ever strap on a SCUBA tank, jump in the water, and find a city gateway that says, ‘Welcome to Atlantis.’  However, we do believe that this city may have been one of many cities of an advanced, seafaring, trade-based civilization, which may have been visited by their Eurocentric counterparts.”

How's that for journalism?  Herald de Paris: "Asked if this city is... Atlantis, the researchers immediately said no. "  Huffpost: "researchers claim that it is the fabled and lost city of Atlantis."

Could they have actually found something?  Color me really, really doubtful at the moment.  The researchers have released their unenhanced images, which is to their credit, but what I see looks like a bunch of lines that may very well be an artifact of the imaging process (the Atari 2600 effect: everything looks square), or some sort of natural formation (see the Bimini Road in this post, another candidate for the site of Atlantis).  It is way, way, way premature to be spotting pyramids and other buildings.  Dim satellite images can act as a Rorschach test: people can see in them whatever they want to see.

I'm always open to the possibility of something surprising being discovered, but I suspect we won't hear much more from these researchers, whether or not they do get their funds to explore.

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John Grant's Bogus Science

Nov 06 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?, General science, Science news

About two years ago, I had the pleasure of happening across and reading John Grant's book Corrupted ScienceCorrupted Science deals with the systematic weakening, ignoring, and suppression of scientific reality for political purposes; examples include the disastrous Lysenkoism of Stalin's Russia and the potentially catastrophic ignoring of evidence for man-made climate change.  Corrupted Science (CS) was Grant's second book, following Discarded Science, which describes those scientific ideas that in the end turned out not to be true.

The other day, wandering through the exact same Barnes & Noble where I found CS two years ago, I found that Grant has a new book out exploring similar themes to his previous two, Bogus Science; or, Some People Really Believe These Things:

Bogus Science_fullsize

Where DS dealt with wrong science in the scientific community and CS dealt with wrong science in the political theater, BS focuses down and takes a look at individual kooks, crackpots, and frauds and their perversion of established science (and reality).

The book is very good; as a first statement I can highly recommend it.  There were also a few  aspects of it, however, that made me like it a little less than his previous book.

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The movie 2012... stoopid before it even comes out

Nov 02 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?, Entertainment

You know, I'm not in principle against a film based on the premise that the world will end in 2012 as prophesized by the ancient Mayans, even though the idea is complete bunk.  What does bug me is that the film is by Roland Emmerich, and looks to be another noisy, incoherent mess heavy on special effects and almost bereft of plot or character development.  (See Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC, etc.)

I had to laugh, though, when I saw this trailer on television the other day.   The text of the trailer declares,

The Mayans warned us

We should have listened

Waitaminit -- the film is, in essence, about the end of the world, involving the destruction of pretty much everything on the planet.  How would listening to the Mayans actually help at all in such a circumstance?  How are we supposed to prepare for the end of the world, "duck and cover"?  Hide under the kitchen table?  Build enough spaceships to fly everyone to the moon?

This sort of incoherent trailer does not bode well for the film, in my opinion.  Then again, has there ever been a film about global catastrophe that has been any good?  Looking through the recent list of choices -- Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact -- I can't say there are any that are particularly memorable.  Really, there have been so many movies involving mass destruction in the past few years that I'm totally desensitized to it.

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The "curse" of success in science

Oct 29 2009 Published by under ... the Hell?, General science

(This post may seem like boasting just as much as it seems like complaining, for which I apologize in advance.)

Those who are regular readers of this blog may have noticed that things have been a little quiet again for the past couple of weeks.  It turns out that I've been almost entirely buried under a mass of bureaucratic tasks, which I've managed to dig myself out from under, at least for a while.

As a graduate student and post-doc, I always marveled at how senior researchers would burden themselves with a large number of bureaucratic tasks, such as journal editing, academic committees, article reviewing, proposal reviewing, and conference organizing.  I confidently reassured myself that I would never allow such tasks to bog me down and take away from my true academic love, namely research.

What I hadn't counted on is the fact that, as I've become more established and well-known in my field, I've made friends with lots of people who are journal editors, conference planners, and book publishers.  I end up refereeing some 20 papers a year for journals, simply because I'm friends with a large number of editors.  This year, I've taken a rather high-up role in the organizing of a major optics conference, primarily because two friends asked me if I could help them out.

I can't complain too much, because it is quite flattering to be asked to help with these things, and it is quite interesting to see how things work behind the scenes at journals, conferences and publishing houses.

It may be a little too enlightening, however.  When I was younger, there were a number of conferences I attended where I thought to myself, "Who organized this mess?"  Today I realize that it was probably someone like me: a person hesitantly agreeing to accept an organizing role and now scrambling to get the pieces to fit together as a coherent whole.

The situation is analogous to growing older in general.  As children, we tend not to worry about things too much because the "grown-ups" are in charge and will take care of everything.  Then, inevitably, you suddenly realize one day that you are now the grown-up -- and nobody gave you an instruction manual for the job!

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