September 13, 2015

Markets in everything, Fan Expo edition

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At The Walrus, Jonathan Kay explains how Ron Weasley (and the whole Fan Expo celebrity photo “experience”) made him both sad and $300 poorer:

Photo by Jonathan Kay. Click to see full-sized image at The Walrus.

Photo by Jonathan Kay. Click to see full-sized image at The Walrus.

Fans of the TV show Entourage will remember the second-season episode in which Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) heads to San Diego’s Comic-Con International, dressed in prop-wardrobe Viking costume. Drama, we learn, had appeared in a (fictional) show called Viking Quest, starring as the warrior Tarvold. On the fan-convention circuit, Drama explained, he could rake in big money by signing autographs, and set conventioneers’ hearts aflutter with Tarvold’s signature cry of “Victory!” On Entourage, this seemed funny. In real life, I recently learned, it’s sad.

On Sunday, I took two of my daughters to the 2015 instalment of Fan Expo Canada, billed as “the largest Comics, Sci-fi, Horror, Anime, and Gaming event in Canada.” More than 100,000 fans show up annually for the four-day exhibition, which now sprawls over both buildings of the massive Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Under one roof, I was able to meet a life-size My Little Pony, compete in a Catan tournament, playtest emerging console video games, commission custom panels from famous cartoonists, pose with life-size Futurama characters, buy a fully functional 3D-chess set, and generally revel in all the various subcultures that the rest of society stigmatizes as dorky and juvenile. My girls and I have been to Fan Expo Canada three years in a row, and we always have a good time.

But my daughters are getting older. This year, for the first time, they were after more than just a Harry Potter wand and a Gryffindor T-shirt: They wanted to meet the real-life Harry Potter movie stars appearing at Fan Expo. Expecting to encounter nothing more than a real-life version of Drama’s Viking Quest subplot, I acquiesced, and we wandered over to celebrity row.

I was shockingly naive about how this process works. Before Sunday’s celebrity adventure, I’d assumed that one could mingle about and snap pictures with fan-con celebs for free, taking out your wallet only when you wanted a signed photo.

In fact, the best way to describe Fan Expo’s celebrity protocol is as a sort of Chicago Mercantile Exchange for human beings. Instead of live cattle, lean hogs, skimmed milk powder, cash-settled butter, and softwood pulp, this big board (displayed above) lists prices for Billy Dee Williams, Gillian Anderson, Danny Trejo, Neve Campbell, Norman Reedus, Skeet Ulrich, Zach Galligan, and fifty other stars and quasi-stars. The precision of the numbers suggests a fine-tuned demand-driven adjustment process that any commodities trader would recognize. Williams (Lando Calrissian from Star Wars, but you knew that) was listed at $57. Anderson (X-Files): $91. Danny Trejo (Machete): $74. Neve Campbell (Scream): $97. Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead): $130. Skeet Ulrich (Jericho): $68. Zach Galligan (Gremlins): $63. Just my luck: Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley, Harry Potter’s red-haired sidekick) was listed at $142 — highest on the board. I wanted to bail out. But having made the mistake of getting dragged this far, turning back wasn’t going to be a good-dad move.

September 8, 2015

Pessimism and doom-mongering still sells books and movies

Filed under: Environment, Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Gregg Easterbrook reviews The End of Doom by Ronald Bailey:

Outside your window, living standards are rising, crime is declining, pollution is down, and longevity is increasing. But in pop culture, we’re all doomed. The Hunger Games films have been box-office titans, joined by World War Z, Interstellar, The Book of Eli, Divergent, The Road, and other big-budget Hollywood fare depicting various judgment days. Over in primetime, the world is ending on The Walking Dead, The Last Ship, The 100, and Under the Dome.

The same outlook obtains in nonfiction literature. Books that foresee doomsday — Collapse by Jared Diamond, The End of Nature by Bill McKibben, The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett among them — win praise from commentators and sell briskly. Books contending that things basically are fine don’t do as well. One might think that optimism would be marketable to contemporary book buyers, who live very well by historical standards, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. Readers prefer material that depicts them dwelling in the final generation. Perhaps declining religious belief in Armageddon has been replaced by an expectation of some natural-world version of the event.

Into this adverse market steps The End of Doom by Ronald Bailey, an impressively researched, voluminously detailed book arguing that the world is in better shape than commonly assumed. Bailey deflates doomsday by showing that human population growth does not mean ecological breakdown; that food supply increases faster than population and probably always will; that, far from depleted, most resources are sufficient to last for centuries; that air pollution in the United States is way down; and that cancer is in decline.

Specialists will argue about some of the studies Bailey cites to support these contentions. So much environmental research exists today, for example, that one can find a study to prove practically anything. But in the main, Bailey’s selection of research is fastidious and convincing.

Bailey spends too much time, though, on discredited trendy bleakness from the 1960s and 1970s — such as Paul Ehrlich’s global-famine predictions and the 1972 Club of Rome report. One can practically hear dead horses saying, “Stop flogging me.” The End of Doom redeems itself with a clever chapter on how precautionary principles boil down to this rule: never do anything for the first time. “Anything new is guilty until proven innocent,” Bailey writes, but he goes on to chronicle how many new ideas denounced as dangerous turned out instead to make life less risky.

August 1, 2015

The Streisand Effect – Trying to Hide Things On The Internet I INTO CONTEXT

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 6 Jan 2015

One of the biggest news stories this Christmas was the (un-)cancelled release of Sony Pictures’ movie The Interview. In the movie, Seth Rogan and James Franco try to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. After terror threats against movie theatres showing the film, Sony cancelled the release of the movie. This ultimately increased the movies attention and made the later online release the most successful one this year. Actually, there is a name for this kind of phenomenon: the Streisand Effect. In this episode of INTO CONTEXT, Indy explains why it’s not always smart to try to hide things on the internet.

July 16, 2015

A not-so-crazy fan theory about the Harry Potter series

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

J.M. McNabb makes the case that one particular fan theory explains so much of the J.K. Rowling books:

It always seemed odd that Harry Potter’s aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, would be good enough to take him in and raise him, only to keep him locked in a cupboard under the stairs and generally treat him like a moldering hunk of Hitler’s shit. Why not just dump him in an orphanage if they were planning on treating him like an old boot for the entirety of his childhood? In a series full of magical beings, one of the most fantastic elements is that these completely normal people managed to be so terrible without the use of any spells

… or did they? A theory by Graphic Nerdity claims that the Dursleys were originally a normal, supportive couple, but continued exposure to Harry’s cursed ass turned them into resentful hate beasts.

Why It’s Not That Crazy:

Harry, as we eventually find out, is technically a horcrux. For those of you who aren’t fluent in nerd, horcruxes are cursed objects containing fragments of the evil Voldemort’s soul, and they’ve been known to turn people into assholes. In the second movie, Ginny Weasley is brainwashed by a book that doesn’t even have “Dianetics” in the title, because it’s a horcrux. It contains a piece of the venomous soul of the lord of hate magic and wizard murder. We also see Ron start acting like a total dick after putting on a locket that’s, you guessed it, also a horcrux.

Most importantly, we find out later in the series that Harry himself has a part of Voldemort’s soul trapped inside of him, like Dick Clark and Ryan Seacrest. So if Ron and Ginny turned evil after being exposed to a horcrux over a matter of weeks and months, just imagine how the Dursleys could be affected after living with one for 10 years. Harry Potter was a magical cancer gnawing hungrily away their souls.

This discovery makes the biggest douchebags of the Potter-verse not villains, but victims. Heroes, even. The fact that their adoption of a child who was also a cursed object merely resulted in them turning into emotionally abusive turds instead of a family of secret cannibals is cause for commendation.

July 1, 2015

Budd Railcars in 1952 – “Clear Iron”

Filed under: History, Railways, USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 05:00

Uploaded on 17 Aug 2011

Educational film released in 1952 by Marathon Newsreel Production in association with the Budd company. Shows the railcars being manufactured and in operation. Also features many steam and diesel trains from the early 1950’s.

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budd_Rail_Diesel_Car

The Budd Rail Diesel Car or RDC is a self-propelled diesel-hydraulic multiple unit railcar. In the period 1949-62, 398 RDCs were built by the Budd Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. The cars were primarily adopted for passenger service in rural areas with low traffic density or in short-haul commuter service, and were less expensive to operate in this context than a traditional locomotive-drawn train. The cars could be used singly or several coupled together in train sets and controlled from the cab of the front unit. The RDC was one of the few versions of the DMU-type train diesel multiple unit to achieve commercial success in North America.

The basic car was adapted from a standard 85 ft (25.91 m) coach. They were powered by two Detroit Diesel (then a division of General Motors) Series 110 diesel engines, each of which drives an axle through a hydraulic torque converter, a technology adapted from military tanks of World War II. RDC trains were an early example of self-contained diesel multiple units, an arrangement now in common use by railways all over the world.


Both the Canadian National Railway (CN) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) purchased RDCs. The Canadian National purchased 25 cars outright, and acquired many more second-hand from the Boston and Maine Railroad. These cars, which the CN called Railiners, were used primarily on secondary passenger routes. The CP purchased 53 cars. The first one ran on November 9, 1954, between Detroit, Michigan and Toronto. It was the first stainless steel passenger train to operate in Canada. CP used the RDCs, which it called Dayliners, throughout its system. CP also made extensive use of them on commuter trains around Montreal and Toronto. Via Rail inherited many of these cars when it took over CN and CP passenger services in 1978.[39] Via continues to use RDCs on the Sudbury–White River train in Ontario.

Another Canadian purchaser of RDCs was the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, which operated passenger service between North Vancouver and Prince George. RDCs continued to operate on this route until all passenger service ended under BC Rail, PGE’s successor, in 2002.

Extensively refurbished RDCs were supposed to been used to operate Blue22, a rail service between Toronto Union Station and Pearson Airport, by 2010. The service, which was transferred to Metrolinx ownership and opened in 2015 as the Union Pearson Express, ultimately uses newly designed Nippon Sharyo DMU trains instead.

June 25, 2015

A different kind of crowd-funding

Filed under: Economics, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Christopher Taylor starts off by praising to the skies a movie I’ve never seen … but he goes on to discuss a variant of crowdfunding that might be a significant change to how movies are made:

… the big studios are corporations that answer to a board of stockholders. And the stockholders aren’t interested in great film making, they are interested in making money off their stocks.

So the Broken Lizards guys went to crowdfunding to raise money for their film, and have done quite well. They did so well that they don’t need a big bunch of studio dollars and interference to make the movie.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. See, crowdfunding sites raise money by offering goodies and the joy of helping a product succeed. They are not investment sites so much as a chance to be a patron of something you want to see on the market as well as a chance to get something from the company. Free copies, a mention in the book, a token in the game named after you, and so on.
Well that’s all about to change in a big way.

Jay Chandrasekhar writes:

    At our meeting, I vented to Slava about my perception of crowdfunding. I told him I wished people could invest in the movie and then own an equity piece of the backend. He said, “I totally agree.” That’s when we hit it off. He said that there is legislation in Washington, as we speak, that if signed, will make equity-based crowdfunding a reality. Think about that.

I’m with Jay here. Think about that. Its very likely that soon you will be able to donate to a crowdfunded project and get money back from its sales. In other words, it will actually be an investment, not just patronizing.

This is a huge key in changing the way that media gets made. All those projects the studios and TV channels pass on because it isn’t hot or doesn’t make sense to them? If this happens, they can have a chance.

June 23, 2015

Richard Blake reviews ten films set in the Roman empire

Filed under: Europe, History, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Wandering a bit off his usual (Byzantine empire) era, Richard Blake looks at how Hollywood has portrayed Rome in film:

My purpose in this article is to describe and compare and judge ten films set in the Roman Empire. I will apply two criteria. The first, and most obvious, is how these films stand as works of art in their own right — narrative structure, acting, general production values and so forth. The second, and for me almost equally important, is how well they show that the Ancients lived in a moral universe fundamentally different from our own.

Now, for the avoidance of doubt, I will say at once that I have no time for any of the neo-Marxist claims about Antiquity. Karl Polanyi and Moses Finlay were wrong in their belief that the laws of supply and demand have only operated since the eighteenth century. Michel Foucault was more than usually wrong when he denied that the Ancients had any notion of the individual. In all times and places, human nature is the same. All people are motivated by some combination of sex, money, status, power and the fear of death. The laws of Economics apply just as well in Ancient Rome as they do in Modern England.

What I do mean, however, is that these basic motivations showed themselves in often radically different ways. The Ancients were not Christians. They were not universalists. They had no concept of human equality. The establishment of chattel slavery among them normalised attitudes and behaviour that would have been thought outrageous in Ancien Régime Europe, and that every religious denomination would have been mobilised to denounce in the ante bellum American South.

The Ancients lacked technologies and scientific and moral concepts that we have taken for granted for five or six or even eight centuries. A modern secularist has more in common with a twelfth century theologian than with a Greek rationalist. He probably has more in common with a sixth century Bishop than with a pagan philosopher.

One of the main, though seldom noticed, differences between virtually everyone in the past and us is that they lived under the continual shadow of death. I have reached the age of fifty five. I might fall dead tomorrow, but the insurance tables tell me I have a long way yet to go before I need to start thinking hard about the inevitable end of things. I put off begetting children until I was in my forties. I only took up a serious study of the piano last year. Catullus was dead at thirty, Horace and Vergil in their fifties. Constantine the Great was an old and dying man when he was younger than I am now. Shorter time horizons must have an effect on almost every approach to life.

Any fictional recreation must show these differences, and show them without vexing readers or viewers with endless asides. I try to show them in my series of thrillers set in seventh century Byzantium. Without more elaboration, let me see how well they are shown in the ten films I have selected.

June 20, 2015

Prediction Markets

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 8 Feb 2015

We’ve discussed how prices are signals that convey information about goods — but can prices also convey information about events and even predict the future? For instance, can we predict Middle East politics based on the price of oil futures? Or predict the consequences of climate change based on the price of flood insurance in coastal cities? Of course, prices in these examples are imperfect predictors as there are many factors that influence the price.

We also take a look at some markets that have been designed to make predictions, like the Iowa Electronic Markets, and a specific example of how it was used to predict the outcome of the 2008 presidential election between John McCain and Barack Obama. What about the Hollywood Stock Exchange, where traders buy and sell shares and options in movies and music? What did the studio learn about its casting choices for the film, “50 Shades of Grey”? We discuss these examples and more in this video.

June 14, 2015

From SOE to Hammer horror to LOTR, Christopher Lee’s remarkable career

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Mark Steyn looks back at the real life and cinematic exploits of Sir Christopher Lee:

Before he was an actor, he was an intelligence officer, and had, as they used to say, a good war, attached to the Special Operations Executive, or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”, responsible for espionage and sabotage in occupied Europe. Afterwards, Lee stayed on to hunt down Nazi war criminals. Back in London in 1946, he lunched with a Continental cousin, now the Italian Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, and confessed he had no idea what to do next, except that he had no desire to return to his pre-war job as a switchboard operator at the pharmaceutical company Beecham’s. “Why don’t you become an actor?” suggested the Ambassador. So he did. Two years later he was a spear carrier in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, in which he met another up-and-comer playing Osric, Peter Cushing.

It took Hammer horror films to make both men stars, albeit B-movie stars. Lee was a very suave and seductive Dracula trying to stay one step ahead of Cushing’s van Helsing while leaving a trail of blood-drained totty behind. As a teenager, I loved the Hammer movies, although I had a mild preference for the lesbian-vampire ones with Ingrid Pitt, Pippa Steel, Yutte Stensgaard et al. The bottom seems to have dropped out of the whole lesbian-vampire genre. No doubt, in these touchy times, it would be a fraught business reviving it. But Sir Christopher’s count holds up pretty well. Aside from bloodshot eyes and stick-on fangs, there weren’t a lot of special effects: Today you’d do it all with CGI, but back then there was nothing to make the horror but lighting and acting. You can see, in middle age, all the techniques that would give Lee an enduring cool well into the Nineties: the mellifluous voice; the flicker of an eyebrow — and then suddenly the flash of red in the eyes and the bared fangs, the ravenous feasting on some dolly bird’s neck, and all the scarier for emerging from Lee’s urbane underplaying.

He was upgraded to Bond nemesis Francisco Scaramanga, The Man With The Golden Gun — and a supernumary papilla, which is to say a third nipple. Lee was a cousin of Ian Fleming, who’d offered him the chance to be the very first Bond villain in Doctor No twelve years earlier. It would have been fun to see Lee and Sean Connery together, but, role-wise, he was right to wait. He’d known Roger Moore almost as long as cousin Ian: They’d first met in 1948. Golden Gun is a mixed bag for Bond fans, what with the somewhat improbable presence in Thailand of redneck sheriff J W Pepper and the other Roger Moorier elements. But Britt Ekland runs around in a bikini, and Lee’s Scaramanga is a rare opponent who is (almost) the equal of 007. Landing at Los Angeles to promote the film on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Sir Christopher had his golden gun seized by US Customs and never returned — a reminder that these guys were pulling this nonsense long before the TSA came along.

His own favorite film was Jinnah, in which he played the title role of Pakistan’s ascetic founder. It’s very credible, but it’s not why audiences loved him. Lee redeemed almost anything he was in, but had his work cut out when George Lucas signed him for the Star Wars prequels. By then Lucas was a director without peer when it comes to getting bad performances out of great actors. Once upon a time Ewan McGregor was one of the sexiest actors on the planet. Then George Lucas cast him as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and turned him into a souvenir action-figure with no private parts and a flat monotone voice. As Princess Amidala, Natalie Portman couldn’t be Aniduller. The kid who plays Anakin seems like he should be the shy fellow in the back in some passing boy band but instead his agent stuck him with some lousy movie gig in a language not his own. He and Miss Portman roll in the grass like it’s a contractual obligation. The most fully realized characters are the computer-generated ones, like Yoda, the wrinkly midget with the inverted word order that nevertheless sounds less unnatural than the rest of the inert, stilted dialogue.

May 28, 2015

The day Fritz Lang met Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels

Filed under: Europe, History, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

A fascinating little bit of German history (by way of Open Culture:

The more World War II history you read, the more you understand not just the evil of the Nazis, but their incompetence. Sometimes you hear variations on the observation that “in Nazi Germany, at least the trains ran on time,” but even that has gone up for debate. It seems more and more that the Holocaust-perpetrating political party got by primarily on their way with propaganda — and in that, they did have a truly formidable apparatus.

Much of the dubious credit there goes to Hitler’s close associate Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda and an anti-semite even by Nazi standards. “Power based on guns may be a good thing,” he said in a 1934 Nuremberg Party Convention speech. “It is, however, better and more gratifying to win the heart of a people and keep it.” He understood the power of film in pursuit of this end, providing not only essential assistance for productions like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, but also attempting to recruit no less a leading light of German cinema than Fritz Lang, director of three Doctor Mabuse pictures, the proto-noir M, and the expressionist epic Metropolis.

Goebbels loved Metropolis, but had rather less appreciation for The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, going so far as to ban it for its supposed potential to instill in its viewers a distrust of their leaders. And so, on one fateful day in 1933 when Goebbels called Lang to his office, the filmmaker wondered if he might find a way to get the ban lifted. But Goebbels preferred to talk, at great length, about another proposal: Lang’s employment in artistic service of the Nazi cause.

May 26, 2015

Feminist reviewer sees little to no feminist message in Mad Max: Fury Road

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie myself, so I can’t say whether Eileen Jones has correctly identified the “feminist messsage” that some men’s rights activists are decrying:

Regardless of where one stands on Ensler’s feminist cred, I couldn’t see any evidence in the film of her consciousness-raising sessions. The first full shot we get of the escaping women shows them standing tall against a gorgeous sun-blasted horizon, wearing white muslin bikinis and other resort-wear, and looking exactly like supermodels posing for a Vogue shoot in the deserts of Namibia. Rose Huntington-Whiteley plays Splendid, the lead figure among the escaping band. The credentials that secured her this role are presumably her career highs as a top model, achieving the rank of a Victoria’s Secret “Angel” and a number one rating on Maxim magazine’s “Hot List” for 2011.

The other women are even less impressive performers. None can act in the least, but in addition to unmemorably pretty features, they have a broad spectrum of hair and skin colors, which is important when setting up a group Vogue shot in this enlightened age of ours.

That no primitive patriarch in his right mind would ever choose these particular women as “breeders” to keep his colony alive is immediately apparent. One of them is so thin and pale as to be almost transparent and looks as if she’ll die in a photogenic way at any second. But she could step onto any catwalk during Fashion Week, no questions asked.

Of course, Charlize Theron as Furiosa benefits from proximity to the supermodels who make her seem, by comparison, ferociously strong and a better actor than Meryl Streep. She’s tall enough to seem physically imposing, and she moves with athleticism. But she also brings with her the legacy of so many Dior perfume ads: the soft, tiny-nosed, blonde prettiness that her crew cut merely accentuates and that John Seale‘s lovely cinematography enshrines in innumerable close-ups. Just compare this example of onscreen feminism to Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979). Weaver was six feet tall, odd, angular, smart and forceful, with highly individual, non-model looks and a remarkably ambitious actor’s resume, shot in unforgiving light and wearing a unisex worker’s uniform. In movies, we haven’t come a long way, baby.

We must also grapple with the supposedly feminist plot elements of Fury Road. The women’s escape from The Citadel is a quest to reach the matriarchal paradise where Furiosa was born. They repeat as a comforting mantra, “We’re going to the Green Place!” It’s the last stand of Mother Nature where, apparently, judging by the natives we eventually meet, no men ever lived.

It’s an extraordinary thing, in this day and age, that we still want to believe in a lot of essentializing Earth Mother nonsense about women. But apparently we do. In praising Fury Road, Eve Ensler says, “All the women in the film maintain their inherent woman-ness.”

Whatever “inherent woman-ness” is, I was afraid to find out. I dreaded getting to the “Green Place.” Would everyone be doing yoga when we got there? And communicating softly and understandingly with each other? Or perhaps tending gardens all day, then doing fertility dances by the light of the moon?

May 17, 2015

The Little World of Don Camillo (1951)

Filed under: Europe, Humour, Media, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 26 Dec 2014

Narrated by ORSON WELLES (O.W. bonus: voice of Christ)

May 10, 2015

“…the Venn diagram circles of ‘scientists’ and ‘Lord of the Rings fans’ have a large overlap”

Filed under: Media, Science, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In The Atlantic, Julie Beck wonders “What has it got in its academic journals, precious?”

Though at first glance, science and fantasy seem to be polar opposites, the Venn diagram circles of “scientists” and “Lord of the Rings fans” have a large overlap. One could (lovingly!) label that region “nerds.”

Fight me on that if you want, but there’s plenty of evidence that suggests scientists love J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic. Several newly discovered animal species have been named after characters from the books — a genus of wasps in New Zealand is now called Shireplitis, with species S. bilboi, S. frodoi, S. meriadoci, S. peregrini, S. samwisei and S. tolkieni. The wasps bear the names of the hobbits because they too are “small, short, and stout,” according to a press release. On the other side of the size spectrum, paleontologists named a 900-pound ancient crocodile Anthracosuchus balrogus, after the Balrog, a giant whip-wielding fire monster from The Lord of the Rings. There is also a dinosaur named after Sauron, which seems kinda harsh to me. And many, many more, if the website “Curious Taxonomy” is to be believed.

“Given Tolkien’s passion for nomenclature, his coinage, over decades, of enormous numbers of euphonious names — not to mention scientists’ fondness for Tolkien — it is perhaps inevitable that Tolkien has been accorded formal taxonomic commemoration like no other author,” writes Henry Gee in his book The Science of Middle Earth.

May 3, 2015

Charles Stross – “Vampires are not sexy. At least, not in the real world.”

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

He’s quite right … and he drives home the point in a recent blog post:

Desmodus rotundis isn’t sexy. (Except insofar as small furry rodents that carry rabies aren’t as un-sexy as some other obligate haemophages.) Bed bugs are really not sexy. But if you want maximally not-sexy, it’s hard to top Placobdelloides jaegerskioeldi, the Hippo Arse Leech.

The Hippo Arse Leech is a leech; it sucks blood. Like most leeches, its mouth parts aren’t really up to drilling through the armour-tough skin of a hippopotamus, so it seeks out an exposed surface with a much more porous barrier separating it from the juicy red stuff: the lining of the hippo rectum. When arse leeches find somewhere to feed, in due course happy fun times ensue — for hermaphrodite values of happy fun times that involve traumatic insemination. Once pregnant, the leeches allow themselves to be expelled by the hippo (it’s noteworthy that hippopotami spin their tails when they defecate, to sling the crap as far away as possible — possibly because the leeches itch — we’re into self-propelled-hemorrhoids-with-teeth territory here), whereupon in the due fullness of time they find another hippo, force their way through it’s arse crack, and find somewhere to chow down. Oh, did I mention that this delightful critter nurtures its young? Yep, the mother feeds her brood until they’re mature enough to find a hippo of their own. (Guess what she feeds them with.)

Here ‘s a video by Mark Siddall, professor of invertebrate zoology at the American Natural History Museum, a noted expert on leeches, describing how he discovered P. Jaegerskioeldi, just in case you think I’m making this up.

By the end of my description Jim and Freda were both … well, I wish I’d thought to photograph their faces for posterity. So were the audience. And that’s when I got to the money shot: the thing about fictional vampires is, vampires are only sexy when they’re anthropomorphic.

May 2, 2015

“…every word she says is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the'”

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

An older article from Lesley McDowell at The Independent, discussing the relationship between Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett:

When Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, “every word she says is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the'”, a certain attitude was fostered. Not only to the celebrated playwright’s experiences in war-torn Spain during the 1930s or before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s, but also to her personal life. Hellmann, this attitude said, was a myth-maker of the worst kind. She couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth, not even about those she loved. So what if she wrote in her memoirs that crime writer Dashiell Hammett, with whom she lived on-and-off for 30 years, was the most important person in her life? “Did anyone ever see them together?” queried Gore Vidal.

Writers make myths out of people’s lives, especially their own. And when writers become embroiled with other writers, the opportunity increases ten-fold. It was to Hammett, the pulp magazine writer turned detective novelist, that she always owed a debt, Hellman insisted. The completion of her first play, The Children’s Hour, in 1934, just four years after they met at a Hollywood party, was all thanks to “help from Hammett.” She “worked better if Hammett was in the room.” Yet Hellman’s words about this crucial relationship have been doubted too. Perhaps it didn’t help that she wrote in her 1969 memoir, An Unfinished Woman, “what a word is truth. Slippery, tricky, unreliable. I tried in these books to tell the truth…I see now, in re-reading, that I kept much from myself, not always, but sometimes.”

Lillian Hellman was married to a writer, Arthur Kober, when they wound up in Hollywood in 1930. Kober had a script-writing job and Hellman was a script-reader. She was 25, bored in her five-year marriage and had writing ambitions. When she met Hammett at a party, he was 36 and famous, the bestselling author of Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. Different accounts of their first meeting don’t help Hellman’s case for truth-telling, but there is a nastier undercurrent to those who doubted Hellman’s version of the subsequent relationship.

Hammett was extremely handsome and rich, thanks to his books. Hellman was never a pretty girl, and had a forthright manner that scared people. Some doubted Hammett’s interest in her: why should such a successful writer take up with an unattractive nobody?

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