Monday, September 11, 2017
Friday, August 25, 2017
Saturday the 26th of August marks the 99th birthday of Katherine Johnson, "The Human Calculator" who was key to the early success of NASA.
I'd spend time telling you about Johnson, but suffice it to say she overcame the gender and racial discrimination of her time to become a key player in America's space race. A physicist and mathematician, her natural ability to rapidly and accurately calculate complex equations necessary for figuring trajectories, etc... in the days when we were still doing this by hand instead of super-computer, made her an invaluable asset.
It would be only in recent years that her contributions, and those of other calculators, were made part of the bigger story of NASA. But today, she has a really terrific movie roughly telling the story of her role in the Apollo missions in Hidden Figures starring the terrific Taraji P. Henson as Mr. Johnson. There's building named after her at NASA. And this happened:
Friday, August 18, 2017
I don't know what to tell you.
Normally we use this space to talk about movies and comics, maybe a book we read. But, at the moment, we're way past normal. Or, at least, the past year has stripped away the veneer of how we thought things worked and we're now dealing with what we always kind of knew was out there, but just didn't show it's face.
That's wrong, too. It did. It's all over twitter and has been boiling over in the comments on legitimate news sites and in our facebook feed from people we used to know in high school.
It's always there, from our complacence in the face of the social inequities we see (and tell ourselves nice creation myths rather than grappling with multi-generational issues), to legislation intended to discriminate, to how we think about perpetually skewed law-enforcement records to how we whisper certain words. I'm as white a cracker as you're going to find. I might as well have "privilege" stamped across my forehead, and I see this stuff everywhere, and I've seen it defended and warped and refracted through appropriated slogans and an unending sea of false equivalencies that don't hold up to the slightest examination. And, because I'm coming from a place of privilege, I have to accept that I'm only seeing a fraction of it.
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
These days, I'm not writing up every movie I've seen. And I'm not going to write up this one. But I'm suggesting you catch this one while it's still in theaters.
Monday, February 20, 2017
|This is Grover Cleveland. It is not a picture of me taken from the year 2045.|
So, every President's Day (here in the U.S.) I try to write up a President of the United States, and some years I base my post on having had read a book or two. But years like this year - I do some Googling and try to quickly educate myself about a President I don't know much about.
Grover Cleveland is one of those Presidents you could probably pick out of a line-up thanks to the mustache and glaring eyes, but other than that - you may not have the slightest inkling of what he was about. I know I didn't.
Monday, January 23, 2017
Like everyone else, I didn't think about Alexander Hamilton a whole lot other than knowing he was on my money, invented the Fed, and somehow got into a duel (and lost) with a more obscure Founding Father, Aaron Burr. The Revolutionary War era and the founding of the United States is such a deeply complex time in history, I've never really had my head around it, and as that history in broad scope tends to work best for me when woven into biographies, I'd long intended to read biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and a George Washington bio written by Ron Chernow that was given to me by NathanC that's been collecting dust for way too long.
Part of my issue is that most of those books are the "why is this 900 pages long?" variety, and I've been so buried in Roosevelt biographies, I've not really made enough time or room in my head for much else, but I've been working to change that.
Of course, along came the Grammy performance of the opening number to Hamilton, a fact-laden number intended to get us to the start of the action but laying out Hamilton's childhood story (which is enough to fill a book itself), and - like for so many of the rest of the people who saw this or listened to the soundtrack recording (or the lucky few who've seen the show), I was compelled to know more. Maxwell suggested the Chernow bio, so I burned an Audible credit and picked up Alexander Hamilton (2004). And, 37 hours of audiobook later, here we are.
Sunday, January 8, 2017
I'd only become aware of the existence of Katherine Johnson and the "computers" at NASA in the early days of the US side of the space-race within the last four or five years. The internet is pretty terrific when it comes to sharing the sort of information that used to get buried in footnotes or left out of the common narratives shared of our history.
I was pleased to find out that our noon-time showing of the movie on a Sunday was sold-out, so at least the folks in my neck of the woods seem interested in hearing what the movie had to say. You never really know how a docu-drama is going to play, but it was interesting how many families had come out to see the movie. And, honestly, it's a good one for the kids to see.
The movie follows the stories of three women who were pioneers in a world that was breaking boundaries as mankind sought to escape the bonds of earth and reach space. And, while no doubt how the realities are framed will be debated, the overriding drama of the film is how these women pushed back against the racism and cultural norms of 1960's America that very much could have stood in their way.
Wednesday, January 4, 2017
This movie doesn't have the best ratings, but there's a lot to like in The Living Daylights (1987). Maybe not everything is grand, and I feel like the back 40 minutes got away from them, but all in all, I enjoyed this the most of any Bond we've watched since For Your Eyes Only.
Look, I may like Roger Moore as much as the next person who grew up with him as Bond, but he made some very, very silly Bond movies (lest we forget Moonraker) and by View to a Kill, I was firmly believed this was a man who should not be running anywhere without a spotter, let alone that Tanya Roberts would be throwing herself at Grandpa Roger. That he did not openly wink at the camera seems somehow unbelievable.
I can't say I need my Bond more grounded. I love The Spy Who Loved Me, and that has a sneaky kidnapping boat and an undersea villain's layer. But I also want it to feel like maybe my Bond is not treating itself like a parody. And with The Living Daylights, we get back to what feels like good old fashioned international intrigue, a plot that holds together very well (if not entirely a mirror to our own world), and makes Bond feel like a secret agent rather than a gentleman who gets into ridiculous scrapes.
Thursday, December 8, 2016
Astronaut and United States Senator John Glenn has merged with The Infinite.
Truly one of the giants of the 20th Century, John Glenn was part of the Mercury 7, America's first manned spaceflight program. He had served as a Marine in two wars and as a test pilot and would remain a Marine while working with NASA. He would become one of the most famous names in space exploration before continuing in public service as a US Senator, elected in 1974. He would leave the Senate in 1999.
As an astronaut, Glenn was the first American to orbit the planet, orbiting the Earth 3 times before plunking down in the Atlantic, proving Americans were on a par with the astounding Russian space program, and setting the stage for the Gemini and Apollo missions.
As a kid, thanks in part to the film The Right Stuff, we spoke the names John Glenn and Chuck Yeager with reverence. These were the guys who lived the lives we dreamed of but didn't even aspire to. Even in college when I'd hear Glenn was associated with some political decisions I didn't agree with, you still said "well, man, he's John Glenn. I assume he knows what he's doing."
How the man was not elected President, I will never know. Bad timing in the Reagan-era, I guess.
In the Fall of 1998, I was recently graduated from college and running a distance learning broadcast studio at the University of Texas. News came down that NASA was sending Glenn back into space to test the rigors of space flight against the physiology of older adults. Whatever the excuse, man, it was amazing to see Glenn back in the suit, showing America how it could be done. I talked the instructor who was teaching at the time of the launch to let me pipe in a broadcast of the take-off, mostly because I wanted to see it, but he must have wanted to see it, too, because I watched it on my monitors while the space shuttle took off on the screens up in the classroom. No one said a word until they were safely out of the atmosphere.
Glenn lived to the age of 95. We will not see his like again in my lifetime.
Godspeed, good sir.
From the outstanding film The Right Stuff, played here by the always excellent Ed Harris:
Saturday, November 26, 2016
Well, 2016, you finally got one I'm not going to shed a tear over.
I'm not going to eulogize Castro, but it would be disingenuous not to note the death of someone who had such a pivotal role in international politics for so many decades. You guys have Wikipedia, so I'll leave you to look him up on your own.
We seem to inch towards a free Cuba, year by year. Perhaps with Castro's passing, our neighbors are that much closer to a better tomorrow.
Thursday, November 10, 2016
Well, this is the strangest twenty-four hour period I can recall in quite a while.
I've been steering clear of talking too much because so much has already been said, and, what have I got to add at this point? I've not been engaging with folks much online - I don't really know how to respond. I'm used to seeing my candidates take it on the chin - I live in Texas after all - but I'd bought the pollsters telling me how this was gonna go, and I kind of figured enough of America knew a boorish charlatan when they saw one, and we were going to see a bit of grudging sanity play out.
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
Thursday, October 27, 2016
Happy Birthday to President Theodore Roosevelt, born October 27th, 1858.
On The Colonel's birthday, I highly recommend - before forwarding any social media with images of TR tied to a quote - try Googling that quote first. I've been seeing a lot of false quotes attributed to the man of late.
He was a profilic writer and speaker, he was imminently quotable, but he didn't really speak in modern soundbites. So, anyway, be careful out there.
Also, read a TR biography some time. It'll be worth it.
Saturday, October 22, 2016
Yesterday was, apparently, the official 75th birthday of Wonder Woman. As part of that event, Wonder Woman was made a Special Ambassador of the United Nations, an icon for new efforts within the UN to speak on behalf of gender equality.
I don't know how much of Wonder Woman's origins most people know, or how hung up they are on some of the more salacious details of creator William Moulton Marston's personal life, or how that played out on the comics page. But I do know that Marston was sincere in his interest to create a strong female superhero, not just with whom little girls could identify, but for little boys to understand that women could do all the things that men can do. They can leap into the fray and they stand as equals (although I'd argue Marston may have had a bit more of an ideal of a matriarchy in mind even more than than just an egalitarian ideal).
|"Wonder Woman" TV star Lynda Carter was in attendance|
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
Signal Watch Reads: Hero of the Empire - The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill (by Candice Millard, 2016 - audiobook)
The study of history in practice can be maddening if the bar you hold up is trying to read up on every single thing anyone ever did before this very moment. If that's your standard, then I'm a little behind in developing my all encompassing eye into the past. Example: I'm a publicly educated kid from the burbs who focused on North America in obtaining his history undergrad degree. Aside from the bare-bone basics, I know very, very little about Winston Churchill, but I figured I had to start somewhere. But, why not with a book by a terrific author and starting at the beginning?
I'd previously read Candice Millard's two prior full-length books, The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic, and I can honestly say they were some of my favorite books of the last decade. Both books covered events which usually appear as footnotes or brief interludes in other historical retellings, diversions in the telling of longer, more expansive stories. Yet, Millard managed to craft one of the most harrowing stories of real-life adventure you're likely to read in the Theodore Roosevelt starring The River of Doubt, and in Destiny of the Republic, she sets out to set you weeping about the unjust passing of President James Garfield, shot by an assassin and victim of the limitations of his times, just on the precipice of modern knowledge we now take for granted.
I would argue that, by zeroing in on a specific time, place and people, she was able to say more about those people with a greater degree of eloquence - using historical fact, reconstructed timelines, letters and post-facto primary sources - to shed light on moments and giants of our history.
Here in her third book, Millard demonstrates why she's becoming a favorite of many more readers than just myself. Whether you're a history buff who's already schlepped your way through a number of Churchill biographies or - like yours truly - you find yourself embarrassingly ignorant in regards to the biography of one of the modern West's greatest leaders, Millard's spun Churchill's life as a young man into a narrative in the mold of epic adventure, all while reporting the facts.
Monday, August 29, 2016
The Alamo is an interesting place because they do show exploitation films, they do show controversial material, and at those special screenings, they usually have a host put a frame around what you're about to see. This movie was shown as part of the "Super Krime" series which also contained last week's Danger: Diabolik, but was the riskier showing, certainly. For pop-cultural anthropologists, there's a lot to chew on here from the casting to the racial issues to the pre-code genre-ambiguity and content and - for modern pop-culture which so often includes super-villains in the mix, Fu Manchu lays out the blueprint for so much of what would come afterwards.
By today's standards, your grandparents were racist as hell. Even if they were hip, bohemian folks - by the rules of what non-awful people consider decency and mannered public discourse, what you'd hear come out of Grandma and Grandpa's mouths was likely to get them the side-eye at Thanksgiving - but we're all a reflection of a time and a place. Attitudes change. Society, hopefully, advances. Insert your own election-related joke here.
I am not a paid or professional film historian or scholar, but I have an interest in the history of pop culture and the film industry as well as genre film and whatnot. A few years ago, I came across a picture of Myrna Loy playing the daughter of Boris Karloff in a film I'd never seen. The catch: they're both in yellowface as the nefarious Fu Manchu and his daughter.
A bit more digging told me that this movie was once a favorite, included in some circles as a premier classic horror film of sorts.
But you can't get access to a Fu Manchu film all that easily (and there are many), and it's something that doesn't screen all that often - a bit like the President's Day sequence in Holiday Inn (which they simply excise when they show it as it doesn't advance the plot, but it does feature a whole lotta your beloved Hollywood favorites in black face*). And, yeah, I saw the movie featured yellowface, and cast most of the Eastern hemisphere in a nasty light, so it made a bit of sense to me that the studio was in no big hurry to remind the world they had the film in the collection.
Thursday, August 18, 2016
If you've seen Apollo 13, you've seen Ed Harris as the vest-wearing Flight Director Eugene F. Kranz. Kranz served with NASA from the Mercury missions straight through into the mid-90's. Truly the case of The Right Person in the Right Place for the Right Job, Kranz is famous for his post Apollo 1 disaster speech at NASA where he defined the "tough and competent" mantra of NASA's Mission Control Center. He was, as evidenced by Ed Harris playing him in the film, also one of the Flight Directors on Apollo 13 who helped pull together the plan to bring the astronauts safely back to Earth.
But Kranz was there during Gemini, working out procedures and flight plans, debating the wisdom of rushing our first EVA to catch up with the Russians, and he was there for Apollo 11, landing Aldrin and Armstrong.
As you can imagine, the history alone is worth the read, and I'll be picking up some more memoirs and. or histories of the race from Mercury to Apollo 17 and beyond (I mean, my earliest solid memories are around the Space Shuttle, and so a history of the development of the Shuttle Columbia would be more than welcome). But Kranz's personal take is as absolutely fascinating as it is inspiring.
The view from the Flight Commander's Control Console takes us to the point of teeth-gritting responsibility. While thousands have contributed to building the rockets and space-craft, and many, many others have been involved all along the line, it's the MCC that makes the decisions to abort, must know their systems, the craft, the management of the astronauts, etc.. well enough to make moment by moment calls and respond to each challenge as it surfaces. Each decision impacts lives of the astronauts, and every choice could be the one that leads to disaster.
And, the Flight Director is, ultimately, the person who is leading his or her control team and responsible for the calls that manage the Flight during their shift. Anyway, my job suddenly seemed a lot easier.
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
As the space race passes into history (but the all-new Space Era is on! Thanks, Elon Musk!), and computers have long since become ubiquitous, this movie couldn't be coming at a better time. For me. Maybe you.
With all the thousands of people who were part of the race into orbit and then to the moon, there are so many stories, and some of them reveal corners of history that our broad-stroke approach to history does not always capture, especially in movies.
But, hey, one thing I've really come to realize is how weird and goofy our ideas are about how things must have come to be. We make assumptions, details get left out, and our movies are rarely researched well enough or lack the scope to include stories that took place away from the kleig lights.
About ten years ago I put the pieces together that, weirdly, the word "computers" meant "people who compute". And, in a lot of cases, when doing the math - the actual work it took to prove theorems, calculate complex equations, etc... - was done by women. And, of course, the men who put those challenges to them took the credit. This was true for a long, long time.
But, yeah, when computing became less a manual task and something done with machines, women were hugely influential in computer science before computers became the domain of basement lurking dorks in the 1980's. Read up on Grace Hopper. Woman was a boss.
I'm actually reading NASA Flight Commander Gene Krantz's book Failure is Not an Option, and - not only is it a fascinating book and I highly recommend it - but he briefly mentions the women who were not in the Control Room, but in the back spaces doing the computing by hand and then with the systems NASA put in place. I'm unsure if one of the names he drops is Katherine Johnson (I read that passage about three days before I saw the trailer above), but I'd heard of Johnson somewhere odd, like Tumblr. And, man, it just seems like this sort of story should get more attention. Like, say, a big Hollywood movie starring Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer.
What's not to like? NASA. Name actors. Science and math romanticized! Space. John Glenn! People achieving against the odds!
Sure, this is Oscar Bait, but this is the kind of Oscar Bait I actually want to see.
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
August 11th marks the 114th birthday of actress Norma Shearer, an actress of the Golden Age of Hollywood. I've seen a few of her movies, both silent and talkies, and she was a remarkably talented woman.
And she had one of the best profiles in movies.
Sunday, July 31, 2016
I wrote about the tower shootings on the 46th anniversary of the event, and I talked a bit about what the tower means to those of us who live in Austin, the students and alumni and those of us who work in the shadow of the UT Tower.
Monday, August 1st marks the 50th Anniversary of the tragedy on the UT Campus. With time and distance, UT has learned to talk about the day, quite unlike in the era when I was a student at UT (1993-1998). There has been one dedication ceremony of the Memorial Garden which sits south of the Main Building (alumni will remember it as the Turtle Pond), and tomorrow will see a re-dedication ceremony.
A documentary on the event, Tower, has been winning acclaim far and wide. I've heard from those who've seen it that it's excellent, and I keep missing opportunities to see it myself. The film focuses less on the means and motives of the shooter, and, instead, on the people caught in the crossfire, using a wide array of modern technologies to recreate the day with respect and immediacy. Here's to broad release soon.
The Austin American Statesman has put up an excellent site with interviews of witnesses, timelines, etc...