Sunday, March 16, 2008

best GOLDEN COMPASS comment yet

Saw the following in a piece by one Colin McEnroe, reprinted in THE FUNNY TIMES (March '08 issue, page 20):

"THE GOLDEN COMPASS. That sounds like something . . . bestowed by angels and buried in a hillside in upstate New York, but it's actually a movie starring Nicole Kidman.

"The movie is based on a series of books by Philip Pullman. Some religious groups claim the books are full of Pullman's atheist, humanist rejection of all religion. And that the moviemakers took all that stuff out so the movie would sell better. You'd think that would make the atheists mad and the religious people happy, but it's the other way around, because the religious people worry that children will like the movie and read the books and decide God does not exist. Because children are shallow and untrustworthy, and you can't rely on them to just watch the movie and not go sneaking off to the library later on."

--somehow that last line's neat reversal of the complaints of generations of English teachers really gets the absurdity of the boycotters' position to me.

Speaking of THE GOLDEN COMPASS, the film is continuing to do so well overseas that the studio may go ahead and make the sequels despite their disappointment at the first installment's making "only" about seventy million dollars in the U.S. (as opposed to nearing three hundred million abroad). According to Kristin Thompson's always informative blog, a key factor will be how well the dvd does when it's released at the end of April. If so, the boycotters will have to get ready for another round, if they can distract themselves from the presidential election for long enough to do so.

For more on the story (and the continuing saga of New Line's dissolution), see



Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Apocalypse That Wasn't

So, thinking of Russians reminded me of a news story I'd seen a few weeks back that I thought particularly striking.
Imagine this scene: it's a particularly tense moment during the Cold War, when one of the two Superpowers has just provoked the other in an incident which left hundreds of civilians dead. Both are on heightened alert; the offender on edge, waiting to see what the retaliation might be. You're the commander in charge in a secret bunker that receives all the satellite information about what the other side's doing.
Then, the unthinkable happens. The screens go red: the satellites report that other side has just launched five nuclear missiles at your country. What do you do?

All this is not a scene from an alternate cut of DR. STRANGELOVE (or, perhaps more aptly, FAIL-SAFE), but something that actually happened on September 23rd, 1983. The officer in charge was Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, who during the crucial minutes that followed disobeyed standing orders to launch a counter-strike, concluding (correctly) that the information he was receiving was erroneous and no such attack was on its way. He thereby averted nuclear war and, as a side-effect, doomed his own career; once the crisis was over, he was forced into early retirement for not following protocols. Lucky for us. If it's possible to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for NOT doing something, Lt. Col. Petrov certainly deserves one.

There's an account of the Petrov incident here:

What's truly remarkable is that I know of at least one other similar incident on our side, when in the late seventies or early eighties during a routine test of the communications system the actual orders to attack were sent out to our nuclear missile silos in the Montana-Wyoming-Idaho area (I forget which). Not a single one of the two- or three-man crews who received the orders followed them: they all either decided not to launch, spent the time arguing amongst themselves about what to do, or contacted their superior officers demanding more information.

Thank goodness.


"What might save us, me and you, is if the Russians love their children too" --Gordon Sumner, 1985.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Medvedev the Beorning

So, yesterday's post about bumblebees reminded me of one point I forgot to mention, that the genus name for bumblebees is BOMBUS. I've always wondered if this might have been an element in Bombadil's name, but never followed up on it because I can't see the application.

However, thinking about Tolkienesque names reminded me of the amusement and sympathy I felt when watching the last debate as the two exhausted candidates struggling to both remember and then pronounce the name of the new Russian president who's replacing Putin. When I saw his name in print a few days later I at once realized we now, for the first time so far as I am aware, have a world leader who shares a surname with one of Tolkien's characters.* For 'Medvedev' is simply 'Medved' + the nominclative suffix '-ev', and 'Medved' is just a slightly different spelling of MEDWED. And Medwed is, of course, the original name of the character now more familiar as BEORN. Medwed's appearance in the draft of THE HOBBIT marked one of the very rare usages of a Slavic name by Tolkien, and Medved+ev is a pretty good parallel to Beorn+ing, the name applied in latter days for 'the people of Beorn'.


*I know one of the Sackvilles was pretty prominent in English politics back in Elizabeth's days, being in what we wd call her cabinet, but he never rose to head of state.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Spring Is Icumen In

So, a week ago today I saw the first bumblebee of the season. I also learned something I didn't know before: bumblebees don't run. I know, because now I've seen one try, and they're just not built for it.
I disturbed this one when sweeping the balcony, and rather than just take off it made what it thought was a running dash to the edge of the balcony, from which it jumped off and flew away. Except that instead of actually running, it made a number of determined short spurts, each only slightly faster than its normal walk. I'm sure it thought it was running, but the best it could manage was a sort of intermittent power walk.
Still, it's good to see that the bumblebees are back and that Colony Collapse Disorder hasn't spread beyond the honeybees. Yet.

Also that same day, I saw this year's first yellow jacket -- a slender little thing, I think newly hatched. She went about her business and I went about mine, but later that day I saw another, larger, unusual looking yellow jacket that was in some sort of distress (lying upside down in the asphalt waving its legs in the air). I helped it get righted, but it soon fell over again (always a bad sign), so I helped it onto some flowers and left it. Don't know much about yellow jackets, but I wondered if it might be a drone discarded after the flight of the queen. Which of course reminded me of Dunsany's play of the same name (one of his worst, unfortunately).

Seeing both the bumblebee and the two yellow jackets in the same day reminded me of my learning last year, to my surprise, that bees were originally wasps who at some point adapted to a vegetarian lifestyle. Now when I see bumblebees I think of them as saying "dude" a lot as they exchange news about especially good stashes of pollen. Or perhaps that's just me.

Curious observation of the day: the hummingbirds had to compete not just with each other but with the last few desperate yellow jackets at the end of last year for the nectar in the hummingbird feeder, but I never saw any honeybee, bumblebee, or butterfly attracted to it. I didn't have the bee-guard on, so don't know why. Wondering if the same pattern will hold this year. We'll see.


Current reading: THE FRODO FRANCHISE by Kristin Thompson.

Monday, March 3, 2008

My Niece, the Actress

So, we're all very proud of my niece Stormy this week, who recently got a good write-up in the newspaper for her performance in a play about Anne Frank. Here's the link to the story:

I'm sorry not to have been able to get to a performance, but here's looking forward to hearing lots more about it next time I'm in Texas.


current reading: THE LAST DAYS OF HENRY VIII by Rbt Hutchinson