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Documentary Movies

The Adademy of Motion Pictue Arts and Sciences will soon be giving a gold-plated Oscar for the best for the Best Documentary film. Documentaries have come a long, long way since Robert Flaherty’s silente Nanook of the North back in 1922. Here are the nominated films. 5 Broken Cameras is a first-hand account of a Palestinian village’s non-violent resistance to the encroaching Israeli settlements that threatens it. The Gatekeepers is about the Shin Bet from people on the inside, namely six former heads of Israel’s secret security service. How to Survive a Plague is about the early years of AIDS. The Invisible War is about sexual assult in the United States military. That’s only four of the five nominated. They are informative and engaging and certainly worth seeing. And, of course, that’s why you watch a documentary, to be engaged while being informed, usually about something important. But you probably won’t come away feeling exhilerated, filled with a sense of quirky triumph, delighted that you’ve witnessed a happy ending, real-world fairy tale. But you might if you watch the fifth movie, Searching for Sugarman. The movie is about two Cape Town men who decide to find out whatever happened to the American singer/songwriter Rodriguez who was wildly popular in South Africa, especially among the rebellious young during the opressive apartheid years. When the search begins there are differeing rumors about Rodriguez’s death, but nothing is certain, except that he was virtually unknown in the United States. How it ends is almost miraculous. (OK, there are some inaccuracies in the film, but see it anyway. You’ll feel better.)The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will soon be giving a gold-plated Oscar for the Best Documentary film. Documentaries have come a long, long way since Robert Flaherty’s  silent Nanook of the North back in 1922.   Here are this year’s nominated films:

5 Broken Cameras is a first-hand account of some Palestinians’ non-violent resistance to the encroaching Israeli settlements that threatens their village. The Gatekeepers is about the Shin Bet from people on the inside, namely six former heads of Israel’s secret security service. How to Survive a Plague is about the early years of AIDS. The Invisible War is about sexual assault in the United States military. The first two are especially recommended.

That’s only four of the five nominated. They are informative and engaging and certainly worth seeing. And, of course, that’s why you watch a documentary, to be engaged while being informed, usually about something depressingly important. But you probably won’t come away feeling exhilarated, filled with a sense of lucky triumph, delighted that you’ve witnessed a real-world happy ending fairy tale.

Yet you might if you watch the fifth movie, Searching for Sugar Man. The movie is about the search by two Cape Town men who decide to find out whatever happened to the American singer/songwriter Rodriguez who was wildly popular in South Africa, especially among the rebellious young during the oppressive apartheid years. In fact, he was bigger than Elvis. When the search begins there are  a couple of rumors about Rodriguez’s death, but nothing is certain. The first thing they learn is that the man known to everyone in South Africa is virtually unknown in the United States where, as one man in the music business says, Rodriguez sold maybe six records.  How it ends is almost miraculous.

OK — if you must be fussy fussy and picky picky — there are some inaccuracies in the film, but see it anyway. We think you’ll feel better.

February 14th is Valentine’s Day

Today, being the 14th of February, is secular Valentine’s Day, which is a wholly different matter from St. Valentine’s Day in the liturgical calendar. We had a nice post about both secular and liturgical Valentines last year, and it’s still in our archive for the curious or the bored and lonely. (We hope you’re not lonely today, but there’s nothing we can do about that. We’re sorry.) In any case, unless you’ve stumbled onto this site by accident you’re probably fond of books and reading, and as we’ve come across a couple of photographs of books, reading and Valentine romance we’ve posted them for you. Kiss in the library stacks

You never know what you might find when you venture deep into the stacks at Harvard’s Widener Library. Of course, not just anyone can get into that particular collection of books. But you might have luck at your local library. The lighting isn’t too bright in the narrow aisles between bookcases, so make sure you have the right book and be very sure you have the right person.Kiss reading in bed Here’s another pair of intellectuals reading in bed. He’s the kind of intellectual who gets tattooed, and she’s the kind who smokes in bed. The like to live dangerously. Or carelessly. Anyway, it’s a good bet he’s not going to finish reading that paperback of Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms. But we don’t care if they don’t care. And we’re pretty sure they don’t care.A couple of lovers in a snowstormWe can’t help it. We know we posted this same image exactly a year ago, but we like it. We admire the young gentleman helping the young lady across the street in a snowstorm, and we admire the young lady who wears a short dress and those high-heel shoes in a blizzard.

Dress Goes Transparent If You’re Aroused

Intimacy 2.0

Intimacy 2.0

It’s here — a dress that becomes transparent when you’re in the mood.  (And you thought only Steve Jobs had cool ideas.)  Advanced tech artist Daan Roosegaarde and fashion designer Anouk Wipprecht produced the dress. It’s called Intimacy 2.0 — the name doesn’t sound like haute couture, but it does suggest the high degree of science and technology that went into the garment.

The dress is made of leather and — here’s the good part — conductive e-foils that become transparent when exposed to electricity. It’s possible to design a circuit that is activated by an accelerated heart beat or an increase in body heat. And the subsequent flow of electricity will cause the e-foils to become transparent.

According to Studio Roosegaarde’s web site, “Studio Roosegaarde creates interactive designs that explore the dynamic relation between space, people, and technology.” And “By creating interactive designs that instinctively respond to sound and movement, Roosegaarde explores the dawn of a new nature that is evolving from technological innovations.” (more…)

The Sex Life Of Oranges

 Cara Cara orangesHere’s something to brighten your gray wintry day — a Cara Cara orange. The Cara Cara has an unknown parentage. It’s a kind of bastard orange. It’s believed to have sprung from a mating of the Brazilian Bahia navel and the Washington navel. The orange was found in 1976, growing shamefully on a tree that regularly bore Washington navel oranges at the Hacienda de Cara Cara in Valencia, Venezuela. It could be a mutation. But that kind of immaculate conception excuse doesn’t convince us. We’re not naive. We think this is what happens when young and foolish oranges fool around. (By the way, this is a true story. You can look it up on Wikipedia. Go ahead. We’ll wait here.)

As for the taste of the Cara Cara, it’s been described as having a bit of cherry flavor, but some tasters add that it also has a bit of rose petal and blackberry. We at Critical Pages haven’t eaten any rose petal, but we’ve dined on Cara Cara oranges. In fact, you might say we’ve binged on them. To our jaded palates they taste mostly like oranges. As our high-school teacher liked to say, “De gustibus, non disputandem est.” That’s Latin for “Don’t tell me what it tastes like, I’ll taste it for myself.” You can get into trouble that way, too.

Richard III, Slaughtered In Battle

Richard III of England

Richard III of England

The recent unearthing of the skeletal remains of England’s Richard III reminds us again that there was a time when leaders who ordered up a battle actually got into the bloody slaughter themselves. Richard, with his crooked back, one shoulder forever higher than the other, was in there hacking his way toward Henry Tudor when he was himself cut down.

The skeletal evidence dug up at Leicester fits with historical accounts and vividly suggests King Richard’s  final moments. The Royal Armouries’ Bob Woosnam-Savage has provided a possible scenario based on that evidence.  Richard either dismounted or his horse had been cut from under him—all we know for certain is that on horseback he had driven toward Henry in an attempt to kill him and was now on foot, covered in armor and fighting it out because there was nothing else to do. He was surrounded. At some point his armor was pierced, his helmet was torn away and he began to receive blows to his head. If you’ve seen videos of Muammar Gaddafi’s last minute, you have a good picture of what was going on. Richard was cut and battered by pikes, swords and knives. Finally, according to Woosnam-Savage, he was stripped of his armor and repeatedly bashed, including a stab to the buttocks of his now lifeless body. “This last, insulting blow could easily have been delivered to king’s body by an infantryman with a bladed weapon after it had been slung over the back of a horse, ‘with the armes and legges hanging down on both sides’, as he was borne to Leicester.”

Our leaders don’t join their soldiers in battle any more. And it probably wouldn’t reduce the number of wars if they did. But there would be a certain satisfaction in knowing that the person who had ordered the bloody carnage was down there, risking his life, just like the rest.

Assessing Chuck Hegel

Chuck Hegel was interrogated by the Senate Armed Services Committee prior to their deciding whether or not to confirm him as Secretary of Defense. Now we have some idea as to what it was like to be questioned by the Inquisition.

Chuck Hegel

Chuck Hegel

Hegel is the first cabinet nominee in history to have his confirmation hearing preceded by smear and attack ads on television, ads paid for by anonymous donors. The New York Times has said that Sheldon Adelson, the pro-Israel billionaire, is invested in the fight against Hegel, but it’s impossible to say that he has financed the ads.

During the hearing Republican members of the committee badgered Hegel — beat up on him verbally might be a more accurate description. John McCain hammered his former friend because Hegel, though a Republican Senator at the time, had said that the Iraq “surge” was a foreign policy disaster. McCain asked Hegel if he had been wrong and heatedly  pursued Hegel for a yes or no answer. Hegel said he’d leave the judgement up to history.

Hegel was pounded for remarks he made about lobbyists for Israel, referring to them as “the Jewish lobby.” (Just in passing, it might be noted that in a letter to the New York Times, Henry Siegman, who worked for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, this country’s biggest pro-Israel lobby, reported that “the organization was referred to by everyone in the Jewish community as ‘the Jewish lobby for Israel.’” ) Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina,  was furious that Hegel had said lawmakers had been intimidated into doing “dumb things” on behalf of the lobby. You might wonder why Graham got so very, very worked up about that. Americans routinely say that Congress is intimidated by lobbyists and does dumb things. (more…)

The Monster That Ate The House

 Sometimes you just can’t win. And sometimes even winning doesn’t work the way you want it to. Pity the Republicans. Currently, Republicans control most governorships and most state legislatures. And their success in the states over the years put them in the position of being able to redraw the boundaries of certain congressional districts. These victories have made it impossible for the Republican Speaker of the House to do politics — which is to say, make deals.

GerrymanderMaybe you’ve seen this political carton before. It’s been around — it was first printed in 1812. Back then, Massachusetts’ Governor Gerry and his allies redrew the lines of the state’s electoral districts to give his party safe-and-sure voting districts. One of the districts was so contorted that on a map it looked like a salamander. And since it was the handiwork of Governor Gerry, it became known as a gerrymander. This is the monster that dined on the House of Representatives the last two years.

Sometimes the people drawing political maps want to break up an area where the opponent has a sure win, other times they may want to draw a district that snakes this way and that in order to gather like-minded voters into a safe-for-our-party haven. But there’s a dangerous downside for a political party that gerrymanders too well.

When a party has redrawn congressional districts so it will surely win, the real contest becomes the primary vote. Then the only question is who the sure-to-win party will run in the upcoming congressional election. But the only people who turn out to vote in the party’s primary are the most zealous members of the party — a relative minority. And that minority of zealots tends to be further to the left or further to the right of the national party. This is particularly true for Republicans.  (Think Tea Party.)

Fortunately, politicians can’t redraw state boundaries.  Senators have to seek votes across an entire state, not a rigged congressional district. There are some no-compromise senators, but on the whole the Senate is more temperate and more moderate than the House — which is what the founders planned. Now a bipartisan group of eight senators has come up with an outline for immigration reform. After the presidential election, the Republican party realized that it would go on losing national elections unless it took a position on immigration that was within at least a few hundred miles of the Democratic party. (more…)

Charles Darwin and Paul Johnson

Darwin - portrait of a geniusHardly anyone actually reads Charles Darwin nowadays, but most people know about him and his work. In the world of science, his ideas are foundational for an understanding of how different species come into existence, how they change, become dominant or get wiped out. Big thinkers, especially in science, cause a big stir, and occasionally their ideas become points of fierce controversy. But if their theories withstand critical scrutiny they become part of the way we understand the physical world; then controversy subsides and withers away. Not so with Darwin.

Darwin’s theory on the origin of species — that they were not created individually, as we are told in the Old Testament, but have evolved from earlier species — created controversy when it was first published in 1859. And his ideas continue to be heatedly attacked and passionately defended even today, chiefly in the United States. Furthermore, his theory of evolution in nature provided the scientific premise for Social Darwinism and eugenics policy. So it’s handy to have a deft little book about Charles Darwin’s life and achievements and that’s what we have in Paul Johnson’s Darwin, Portrait of a Genius.

The book, published by Viking within the past year, is short, only 150 or so pages. It’s nicely bound in black and red with a handsome slip cover showing the old man himself, a white bearded grandfather in a black fedora and Chesterfield coat. Paul Johnson is an experienced writer with considerable knowledge of the subject at hand, and many other subjects as well. This book, being as short as it is, has the feel of an extended essay — a beautifully clear and concise essay.

It’s all here. Darwin’s extraordinary family background (Grandfather Erasmus Darwin, a polymath genius; father Robert, a brilliant doctor of medicine, maternal grandfather Josiah Wedgwood, another genius), his five-year trip around the world as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle, his minute observations of different species, his gradual recognition that different species were not created independently and whole, but evolved from earlier models, his reluctance to publish, and finally his two greatest works, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. (more…)

Far Away Planets Just Like Ours! Sort of… Maybe.

Planets in Milky WayMaybe you’ve seen the curious painting just above here. It was released on January 7, 2013, by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. According to the caption that usually accompanies the painting, it  shows the different types of planets in our Milky Way galaxy detected by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. The caption also says that a new analysis of Kepler data found there are at least 17 billion planets the size of Earth in the Milky Way.

New stories about the Kepler data are happy to suggest there’s a possibility, a strong possibility — there must be !—-other worlds just like ours out there. I mean, out of 17 billion there must be at least one beautiful blue-and-white planet like our earth, right? Old TV viewers may remember Carl Sagan, the brilliant  Cornell astrophysicist and his award winning TV series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  Sagan often spoke of the billions and billions of stars in the cosmos, and if there were “billions and billions” of stars, then there must be only a few billion fewer planets to orbit those suns, and if there are billions of planets then surely there’s one, probably many, like our own.

Popular commentary on the recent Kepler data relies on the same statistical hope that there must be some, surely a few,  certainly at least one, just like our own. And if it’s just like our own, then it must have life, like our Earth does, and — oh, hell, let’s go all the way — there must be somebody on some earth-like planet out there looking at a computer screen, reading a post just like you are now!

The people who gather and present the Kepler data don’t make such claims.  As a matter of fact, a visit to the Kepler web site will be a cold shower for anyone hoping to discover there’s a world like ours out there.  In dull fact, the Kepler site counts 105 confirmed planets and 2740 candidates that might get confirmed someday.  Where did the news about 17 billion planets come from? It came from a press conference, January 7, 2013, at the American Astronomical Society Meeting in Long Beach, California. The first two panelists at the press conference spoke about Kepler:

  • Planet Candidates Observed by Kepler: Two Years of Precision Photometry – Christopher Burke (SETI Institute)
  • At Least One in Six Stars Has an Earth-size Planet – Francois Fressin (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

And why now? Maybe — is it possible? — because there are going to be severe cuts to budgets in all sectors of the United States government and even NASA will be on the chopping block. People, tax payers in particular, aren’t especially interested in paying for a space program that scans a bit of the Milky Way looking for a transient dip in starlight, which dip might indicate a planet coming between us and that star, and that’s what Kepler does. But even tax payers are curious about extra terrestial life. So now is a good time to hold a press conference and let the media do the rest.

The Flexible Flyer

Flexible Flyer sledWe thought the Flexible Flyer sled was gone forever. True, it remained in memory, but we thought the Flexible Flyer was a victim of indifferent history, tossed on the pyre of worthless junk like the Rosebud sled that closes “Citizen Kane.” But fortunately we were wrong! The Flexible Flyer in the cellar is no longer lonely — Flexible Flyers are being made and sold today

The S.L. Allen Company of Philadelphia patented the Flexible Flyer in 1889. It was revolutionary, because you could actually steer the sled.  Prior to that, sleds were built like small sleighs — they had immovable runners. But the Flexible Flyer was flexible; the front section of each  runner could be aimed left or right by pulling on a wood crosspiece that was pivoted at its center and attached to the front part of the runners. Soon the Flexible Flyer was the most popular sled in the United States. The next improvement came in the late thirties or forties when the straight back end of each runner was twisted up and around until it faced forward and was bolted safely to the underside of a wooden rail.  Prior to that improvement, the back end of the sled was simply lethal. Fortunately, thick winter clothing prevented most kids from getting impaled.

The Flexible Flyer sled gradually disappeared from  sight in the 1960s when the S. L. Allen Company was sold.  Just about then the two-steel-runner sled began to be replaced, first by aluminum saucers, which were lighter and maybe safer than sleds though they had no steering ability,  and then by sheets of sturdy, bright colored plastic that were much cheaper and even safer than metal saucers — and they went down a snowy slope faster. That’s pretty much what you’ll find on the snowy slopes today. Sure, kids fall off and even when they don’t they bump into each other, but the chances of their getting badly hurt are minimal compared to what it used to be like on those old fashioned sleds.

Today we learned from NPR’s “Only A Game” that the Flexible Flyer is back. The company that ended up owning  S. L. Allen Company’s patent went bust and sold the Flexible Flyer rights to an old, old sled making rival of the S. L. Allen Company, namely the Paris Manufacturing Company, now known as Paricon. (The business started in South Paris, Maine – not France.)  The excellent and informative Flexible Flyer article  at “Only A Game” is by Doug Tribou.  The Flexible Flyer sled in the photo above comes from our childhood, which was a long, long time ago.

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