Saturday, May 31, 2014

Deceased--Oscar Dystel

At right.
Oscar Dystel
October 31st 1912 to May 28th, 2014

"Oscar Dystel, Who Saved Bantam Books, Dies at 101"


Doglas Martin

May 29th, 2014

The New York Times

Oscar Dystel, who combined sharp editorial judgments, shrewd marketing and attention-grabbing covers to propel Bantam Books from the brink of collapse to pre-eminence in paperback publishing after World War II, died on Wednesday at his home in Rye, N.Y. He was 101.

His daughter, Jane Dystel, a literary agent, announced the death.

Bantam Books was founded in 1945 to take advantage of new methods that allowed paperbacks to be produced cheaply and of a public eager to pay 25 cents for a book that might have cost $2 as a hardback.

But by the early 1950s, the industry was choking on its own success, having printed mountains more books than the public wanted. More than 175 million copies were piled in warehouses. Bantam was in chaos and had been without a president for two years when Mr. Dystel (rhymes with pistol) was hired.

“We were flooding the market to sell 100 copies,” he said in an interview for “The Bantam Story,” a 1970 book by Clarence Petersen. “I remember one executive coming into my office with a balance sheet and telling me, ‘We’re out of business.’ ”

Bantam was on track to lose more than $500,000 that year. But Mr. Dystel was so confident of Bantam’s future that he demanded a percentage of future profits.

By the end of the next year, Bantam was making a profit, and by the time Mr. Dystel retired as chairman in 1980, its sales exceeded $100 million a year. It was the largest publisher of paperbacks, with more than 15 percent of a market served by 14 principal houses and several lesser imprints. Paperbacks had come to account for more than half the dollar volume of sales in the nation’s bookstores.

Mr. Dystel reduced inventory, pushed a program to sell classic books by Dostoyevsky and other authors, expanded publishing for schools and children, multiplied the sales force and built a corporate structure.

And he did what he liked most: He found books with a shot at popularity and sold them vigorously.

An early victory was “Battle Cry,” a 1953 novel by Leon Uris about a group of Marines in the South Pacific during World War II. Bantam and a competitor, Pocket Books, each bid $25,000 for paperback rights, according to Al Silverman in his 2008 book, “The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Book Publishers, Their Editors and Authors.” Mr. Dystel won the deal by promising to send Marines to wholesalers to explain their love of the book.

“It was a battle cry for the country that Bantam was in business,” Mr. Dystel told Mr. Silverman.

Other big sellers followed. “Valley of the Dolls” by Jacqueline Susann, which Mr. Dystel predicted would sell a million copies, had a press run of four million the week after its paperback publication in 1967. Four million more copies were published in less than a year.

When no hardcover publisher was interested in William Peter Blatty’s novel “The Exorcist” in 1971, Mr. Dystel bought both hardcover and paperback rights. He later sold the hardcover rights to Harper & Row. It became a best seller — Bantam sold 10 million copies — and the basis of a 1973 blockbuster movie of the same title.

Covers mattered. Bantam made red the preferred color for paperback books, and other companies followed, until bookstands were almost solidly red. It then did the same with white, and later with raised metallic titles.

When the New American Library’s rights for J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951) were expiring, Mr. Dystel resolved to acquire the book. It turned out that what Mr. Salinger most wanted was to design the cover himself. “No problem!” Mr. Dystel said, according to Mr. Silverman. “We’ll publish it in a brown paper wrapping paper if he wants that, just as long as the title is legible.”

Mr. Salinger’s cover is the one that became familiar to millions: the title and author’s name in yellow against a red background.

“Catcher” sold half a million Bantam copies a year beginning in 1964, and by 1978 it had been through 46 Bantam printings.

Mr. Dystel’s idea of the perfect book was one that combined a riveting story, a compelling cover and a hit movie. Bantam paperback sales of Peter Benchley’s “Jaws” (1974) reached three million and had started to wane when the Steven Spielberg movie came out in June 1975. By the end of October, six million more copies had been sold. It was an industry speed record at the time.

Mr. Dystel and his team designed the paperback cover of “Jaws,” which the movie poster duplicated. It showed a great white shark coming up from the ocean floor to attack a swimming woman. It was already one of the fastest-selling paperbacks, and its sales ballooned when the words “Now a popular motion picture from Universal” were added to the cover.

One of Mr. Dystel’s boldest initiatives was writing, packaging, printing and delivering books in what was then an incredibly short time. In 1964, Bantam turned out the complete text of the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — with several original articles by The New York Times — just 80 hours after the report was released. It sold 1.6 million copies at $1 each (about $7.65 in today’s money).

“It’s a wonder it was tried in the first place,” Mr. Petersen wrote of the challenge Bantam overcame. The Bantam Extras series went on to include books on Pope Paul VI’s trip to the United States in 1965 and the first moon landing in 1969. Fifty-six Extras were published.

Oscar Dystel was born on Oct. 31, 1912, in the Bronx, the only child of parents who worked in a tailor shop and later owned a general store. As a child he played the violin and performed at Carnegie Hall, but he gave it up after realizing that he would never be a virtuoso. He received a track scholarship to New York University, which he supplemented by working as a typesetter at The Times. He graduated in 1935 with a major in advertising.

Mr. Dystel won a scholarship to Harvard Business School and graduated in 1937. He was then hired as promotion manager at Esquire magazine and later promoted to editor of Coronet magazine, which was owned by the same company. He helped increase Coronet’s circulation to two million from 87,000 before leaving in 1942 to join the Office of War Information, where he worked on psychological warfare.

He won the Medal of Freedom for planning, editing and distributing millions of leaflets to people in Nazi-occupied southern France. The leaflets were “valuable factors in reducing the enemy’s will to resist,” the citation said.

After the war, Mr. Dystel worked for other magazines before being hired to run Bantam. Under him, Bantam published 600 to 1,000 books a year. After leaving Bantam in 1980, he worked as a consultant.

His wife of 65 years, the former Marion Deitler, and his son, John, died in 2003. In addition to his daughter, Jane, he is survived by two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. Dystel’s maxim for publishing success was as simple as it was difficult: “There’s no disastrous situation in publishing which cannot be saved by the publication of one really big best seller.”

Caution must still be exercised...Mars contamination

"It's Time to Stop Babying Mars"

Is the fear of contaminating other worlds with life from Earth stymying explorers?


Laura Dattaro

May 27th, 2014

Popular Mechanics

Mars is no stranger to life. Seven U.S. spacecraft have successfully landed there, and all of them took microbes to the planet's surface (though the bugs probably did not survive for long). Yet the world's space agencies continue to maintain strict spacecraft sterilization procedures in the hope of minimizing the spread of Earth life beyond our planet. For decades this ethos—known as planetary protection—prevailed. Now, some scientists say, these precautions are undermining the search for life beyond Earth by raising costs and inhibiting innovative missions—without meaningful benefits.

Of all missions to Mars to date, only the Vikings, the first trips to the Red Planet, were intended explicitly to test for life. Spacecraft that went later did not have that ability. But a future mission will, and, the protectionist thinking goes, a rover might not be able to distinguish between a life form native to Mars and one with origins on Earth. In July 2013 astrobiologists Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Alberto Fairén disputed this in Nature Geoscience.

"If Earth microorganisms can thrive on Mars, they almost certainly already do," the authors write. "If they cannot, the transfer of Earth life to Mars should be of no concern, as it would simply not survive."

With clear evidence of a watery history and some signs of water present, Mars could be where we find life in our solar system. And with the development of Curiosity's precise landing system, we can finally reach the intriguing parts of the planet. But it's these areas that require a craft sterilization process.

In the 1970s Vikings 1 and 2 revealed what seemed like a dead planet, so planetary-protection requirements were relaxed. Now, with a more nuanced understanding of Mars' environment, missions set to visit areas with evidence of flowing water below the surface have to meet the rigorous—and more costly—Vikings standards. "In practice, everyone kind of avoids [these areas] because it really increases the price tag on the mission," Schulze-Makuch says.

The cost increase is generally said to be around 10 percent, but Cassie Conley, NASA's Planetary Protection Officer, says this is not accurate; the number is closer to 4 percent of Curiosity's $2.5 billion budget. Planetary protection is a game of risk assessment, she says, and it just makes good sense.

"You'd think they'd want to protect their ability to do their science without contamination," Conley says. "It'd be like trying to study bacteria in the lab and spitting on your petri dish."

But Conley's concerns over false positives might just be a red herring. According to Schulze-Makuch, the dissimilarities in the two planets' environments surely would have led to the evolution of distinguishable differences.

Finally, there's the philosophical conundrum of what responsibility, if any, we have to other planets and any life we leave there. The truth is we're never going to be able to fully protect Mars if we intend to explore it. And spreading is simply what life does.

"If we want to survive for a long time, we have to expand beyond Earth," Schulze-Makuch says. "There's no other way."

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Deceased--Bunny Yeager

Bunny Yeager
March 13th, 1929 to May 25th, 2014

"Bunny Yeager, photographer of Bettie Page pinups, dies at 85"


David Colker

May 26th, 2014

The Los Angeles Times

Bunny Yeager had success as a model in Miami in the 1950s, but she wanted to be a photographer. She saw her chance when she met the little-known Bettie Page, who had modeled for under-the-counter photo sets that specialized in sadomasochism.

Yeager took a somewhat more wholesome, holiday-themed photo of Page — nude except for a Santa hat — and in 1955 sent it off to fledgling magazine Playboy. "I figured because they were new they might pay attention to an amateur, and that's what happened," she told the London Telegraph in 2012.

The photo launched her career as one of the most successful pinup photographers, often with Page — who became an international sex symbol — as her model.

Yeager, 85, died Sunday in a nursing facility in North Miami. The cause was heart failure, said her agent, Ed Christin.

In recent years, along with a revival of interest in Page, who died in 2008, there was much renewed appreciation for Yeager's photography. Her work was the subject of several gallery and museum shows, such as the "Bunny Yeager: The Legendary Queen of the Pinup" exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in 2010.

Yeager worked with numerous models over the years, but said that Page was uncommonly cooperative.

"It was like us doing a dance together," Yeager said in an interview last year in the Sun Sentinel newspaper in Florida. "I would snap my fingers and she would do exactly what I told her to do: 'Stand on your toes. Kick your leg in the air. Jump in the air.'"

There were pictures of Page frolicking on the beach in Key Biscayne, dressed in a bikini that Yeager designed and made. Another locale was a wild animal park in Boca Raton, Fla., where many of the animals were not caged. Page, dressed in a leopard-print swimsuit, was shown sitting among real cheetahs.

Yeager came to be admired for her use of natural light, sometimes enhanced by flash even in daylight, to make a model's skin look luminous. But unlike nude photographers whose depictions of women were hyper-sexual and pumped up, Yeager found sensuality in a more natural look.

"Bunny has that good understanding of how to photograph the female body. At the same time, she knew how to captivate men's sexual fantasies," Miami gallery owner Harold Golen told the New York Times in 2011 when the gallery hosted an exhibition of Yeager's work. "Her women are real. None of them are spray-tanned. Their breasts aren't ballooned. They have curves and a bit of cellulite."

The 1950s and 1960s were Yeager's boom years, with her working for several magazines. She appeared on the quiz show "What's My Line" and had a few roles in movies, including as a Swedish masseuse in the 1968 Frank Sinatra detective film, "Lady in Cement."

The statuesque, blond Yeager was also known for taking pictures of herself, using a timer. But with no full nudity in those.

In the 1970s her career as a photographer ground nearly to a halt. Magazines were getting more graphically anatomical. That was over the line for Yeager, who prided herself on making models comfortable and earning their trust. "You had magazines like Penthouse ... kind of smutty," she said in the Sun Sentinel interview. "They had girls showing more than they should."
"I'm not doing it to titillate anybody's interest," she continued. "I want to show off how beautiful my subjects are, whether it's a cheetah or a live girl or two of them together."

She was born Linnea Eleanor Yeager on March 13, 1929, in Wilkinsburg, Pa. She gave herself her nickname after seeing the 1945 movie "Week-End at the Waldorf" in which Lana Turner played a character named Bunny Smith.

The inspiration for her photography also came from a movie star — she spotted a magazine pictorial of Rita Hayworth. "She was posing on a bed in what looked like a slip," she told the Miami Herald in 2013. "It was probably a nightgown, I know that now, but it wasn't like any nightgown I'd ever worn."

For fun, Yeager started taking pictures of friends in slightly risque poses. But nudity was out of the question. "Where would we even get something like that developed?" she asked.

When she was 17 her family moved to Florida, where she won local beauty contests and got ample work as a model. In 1953 she enrolled in a photography night class at a vocational school. For one of her assignments, she took model pals — dressed in leopard-print swimsuits — to the same animal park where she later shot Page. One of her photos ended up on the cover of Eye magazine and her career began.

Yeager was married twice, and even became a Girl Scout leader. "Nude photographer and Girl Scout leader, that was Bunny," Christin said.

When her work was rediscovered after so many years of little work as a photographer, Yeager was thrilled. "It's exciting to find out that I'm appreciated by so many people," she told the Miami Herald in 2011. "The phone hasn't stopped ringing. People want to see me.

"It's like my life is starting all over again."

Yeager is survived by daughters Lisa Packard of North Miami and Cherilu Duval of Hamilton, Ohio. Yeager's first husband, Arthur Irwin, died in 1977. Her second husband, Harry Schaefer, died in 2000.

"Bunny Yeager, Pinup Portraitist, Dies at 85"


Margalit Fox

May 25th, 2014

The New York Times

Bunny Yeager, a model-turned-photographer whose images of a scarcely clad Bettie Page, embodying feral sexuality and winsome naïveté all at once, helped propel Ms. Page to international stardom as a midcentury pinup queen, died on Sunday in North Miami, Fla. She was 85.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said her agent, Ed Christin.

Ms. Yeager, who took up her art by accident, was one of the world’s most celebrated photographers of female nudes and near-nudes of the 1950s and ’60s. She is widely credited with helping turn the erotic pinup — long a murky enterprise in every sense of the word — into high photographic art.

Her work appeared in Playboy, for which she shot a string of centerfolds, and in a spate of postwar men’s magazines whose names — Cavalier, Escapade, Nugget, Fling, Sunbathing, National Police Gazette, Figure Quarterly — recall a bygone era of salacious innocence.

Ms. Yeager’s work, which fell dormant in the 1970s and remained so for decades as many of those magazines folded, has lately enjoyed a renaissance.

In 2010, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh mounted a show — the first museum exhibition of her career — of Ms. Yeager’s self-portraits. As artfully sensual as anything she shot from behind the camera, they prefigure the work of self-photographing artists like Cindy Sherman.

Other exhibitions followed, including “Bunny Yeager: Both Sides of the Camera,” on view last year at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale.

Ms. Yeager was played by Sarah Paulson in the 2005 film “The Notorious Bettie Page,” which starred Gretchen Mol in the title role.

For all the luminous women Ms. Yeager photographed over the years, she remained best known for her work with Ms. Page, whom she shot a thousand times during their brief collaboration in 1954.

“Oh, she was beautiful!” Ms. Yeager told The Miami Herald last year. “When I told her I thought I might want to photograph her nude, she said, ‘Funny, I sunbathe nude and I have a tan like this all over.’ And she did, everywhere, even behind her knees and all the places you wouldn’t think.”

More than 250 previously unpublished photos by Ms. Yeager are collected in the coffee-table book “Bettie Page: Queen of Curves,” with text by Petra Mason, to appear in October.

Ms. Yeager’s images, shot most often with a Rolleiflex or a Speed Graphic camera, are characterized by their imaginative compositions and exotic locales. A famous photo of Ms. Page depicts her, clad in a leopard-print swimsuit, beside a live cheetah.

Other stylistic hallmarks include a luminosity that seemed to pulsate from every image. A longtime Miami resident, Ms. Yeager shot frequently in the brilliant South Florida light and used a flash even in the daytime.

But the most conspicuous hallmark of her work was her use of vibrant, natural-looking models, who exuded a confident female sexuality that — at the moment the shutter clicked, at least — did not appear destined for the male gaze.

“I’m not doing it to titillate anybody’s interests,” Ms. Yeager said of her work in an interview last year. “I want to show off how beautiful my subjects are, whether it’s a cheetah or a live girl or two of them together. That’s more important to me than anything.”

Ms. Yeager’s compositions are also memorable for the singular outfits she made for her models out of frugal necessity. For the image that propelled her and Ms. Page to celebrity, published in the January 1955 issue of Playboy, Ms. Yeager sewed the Santa hat worn by her winking, tree-trimming subject. She was not obliged to sew anything else.

Linnea Eleanor Yeager was born on March 13, 1929, in Wilkinsburg, Pa., near Pittsburgh. At 17, she moved with her family to Miami and there, Linnea, a self-described shy young woman, reinvented herself. She adopted the name Bunny from Lana Turner’s character in the 1945 film “Week-End at the Waldorf” and enrolled in modeling school.

Tall, slender and photogenic, Ms. Yeager was soon one of the most sought-after models in the city. She won a string of local beauty pageants, including, The Tampa Bay Times reported in 2011, Queen of Miami, Miss Personality of Miami Beach and Miss Trailer Coach of Dade County.

Ms. Yeager took up photography as a way to economize: Duplicating her portfolio was expensive, and she vowed to learn to make her own prints. Enrolling in a night-school photography class in her early 20s, she sold her idiosyncratic first homework assignment — the model Maria Stinger posed with cheetahs — to the men’s magazine Eye.

In 1954, Ms. Yeager met the raven-haired Ms. Page, who had come to Miami from New York, where she was known for the bondage imagery shot by the brother-and-sister photographers Irving and Paula Klaw.

After shooting Ms. Page as a suitless Santa — a demure image compared with Ms. Page’s previous work — Ms. Yeager set her sights on Playboy because, she said, “I heard they paid more than anybody else.” Playboy bought the picture for $100.

Ms. Yeager’s first husband, Arthur Irwin, known as Bud, died in the 1970s; her second husband, Harry Schaefer, died about 15 years ago. Survivors include two daughters, Lisa Irwin Packard and Cherilu Irwin Duval, and four grandchildren.

Her books include “How I Photograph Myself” (1964), about self-portraiture; “Bunny Yeager’s Flirts of the Fifties” (2007); “Bunny Yeager’s Bouffant Beauties” (2009); and, in 2012, “Bunny Yeager’s Beautiful Backsides.”

Bunny Yeager [Wikipedia]

Bunny Yeager's home page

Bunny Yeager...pinup photographer

Vocabulary list--#26

POSP stringer Tim's well of words spill over this May.




1. A person learning the letters of the alphabet.
2. A beginner in any field of learning.




A side of the mountaqin receiving direct sunlight.




[In ancient Greek tragedy] the critical moment of recognition or discovery, especially preceding peripeteia.




Complete and confident composure or self-assurance, poise.




1. Of or pertaining to the nature of an axiom, obvious, self-evident.
2. Aphoristic.




Sour milk that has thickened or curdled.


kap-rahyn, -rin


Of or pertaining to goats.




1. A group of people who associate closely.
2. An exclusive group, clique.
3. From the French meaning a group of farmers.




Marked by or involving extraordinarily accurate and vivid recall especially of visual images.




1. To burst into bloom; blossom.
2. [Chemistry]: a. To change either throughout or on the surface to a mealy or powdery substance upon exposure to air, as a crystalline substance through loss of water of crystallization. b. To become incrusted or covered with crystals of salt or the like through evaporation or chemical change.




1. Tending to break up into parts.
2. Creating disunity or dissension, divisive.




1. A cat.
2. Old female cat.




Ostentatiously learned, pedantic.




1. A fancy dish, delicacy.
2. A showy trifle, trinket.




To treat as an object of great interest or importance.




1. A divergence from moral conduct, rectitude ect. immorality; dishonesty or the like.
2. The state of obliquity.




1. Focused or centered on the mother.
2. Of, pertaining to, or designating a family unit or structure headed by the mother and lacking a father permanently or for extended periods.




A mixture often of incongruous elements.




1. Air or bearing especially as expressive of attitude or personality, demeanor.
2. Appearance, aspect.




1. To annoy, irritate, provoke.
2. To sting as a nettle does.




1. Capable of laughing.
2. Disposed to laugh.
3. Arousing or provoking laughter.
4. Associated with, relating to or used in laughter.




[Music.] A movement or passage of light or playful character, especially as the second or third movement of a sonata or a symphony.




1. A piece of privately issued paper currency; especially, one poorly secured and depreciated in value.
2. A piece of paper money in denominations of less than one dollar.




An act or instance of fighting a shadow or an imaginary enemy.




Foamy, foamlike\frothy like.



1a. Slender, lithe.
1b. Having even and smooth lines, sleek.
2. Urbane, suave.




1. A mania characterized by an uncontrollable impulse to dance, especially as prevalent in southern Italy from the 15th to the 17th century, popularly attributed to the bite of the tarantula. Also, tarentism.




1. The willful distortion or depreciation of the original meaning of a word.
2. A person who willfully distorts the meaning of a word.

Vocabulary list--#1

Vocabulary list--#2

Vocabulary list--#3

Vocabulary list--#8

Vocabulary list--#9

Vocabulary list--#10

Vocabulary list--#11 

Vocabulary list--#12 

Vocabulary list--#13

Vocabulary list--#14

Vocabulary list--#15

Vocabulary list--#16

Vocabulary list--#17

Vocabulary list--#18

Vocabulary list--#19

Vocabulary list--#20 

Vocabulary list--#21 

Vocabulary list--#22

Vocabulary list--#23

Vocabulary list--#24

Vocabulary list--#25

Thursday, May 22, 2014

CU-Boulder philosophy professor is back

"Banished CU-Boulder philosophy professor allowed back on campus"

Dan Kaufman had been suspended, barred from campus since March 4


Sarah Kuta

May 21st, 2014

Boulder Daily Camera

University of Colorado associate philosophy professor Dan Kaufman is being allowed back on campus more than two months after being placed on administrative leave and barred from the university.

Though it appears plans for Kaufman's return are still in flux, CU's Boulder campus exclusion order has been lifted, according to an email sent to the philosophy faculty and graduate students by department chairman Andy Cowell late Tuesday afternoon.

"I am writing to let you know that the Chancellor (Phil DiStefano) has lifted Professor Kaufman's exclusion order, so he is now welcome back on campus," Cowell wrote. "He will be meeting with the Dean (Steven Leigh) and me very soon for further discussion."
Campus officials have said that, broadly speaking, anyone who violates an exclusion order by returning to campus can be charged with trespassing or unlawful conduct.

"I can't comment on any specific case," CU spokesman Ryan Huff said Wednesday. "But I can say that we would only lift an exclusion order if we felt, after a thorough review, that it could be lifted without posing a threat to the safety of the university community."

Kaufman, who declined to comment for this story, was suspended with pay on March 4 for reasons that have not been made public.

Undergraduate students in one of his introductory philosophy courses said they saw Kaufman escorted out of the classroom by campus police officers. In an email later that day, Cowell informed the faculty to call police if they saw Kaufman on campus.

At the time, university officials acknowledged conducting a personnel action, but would not identify the employee or confirm whether it was related to the philosophy department.

A report by the independent American Association of University Professors released in April alleged that Kaufman was suspended for a joke he made after Cowell asked Kaufman about suicide.

"Kaufman made a 'philosopher's joke' that alluded to a standard philosophy textbook conundrum: He wouldn't kill himself, he was sure Cowell wouldn't kill him, and he wouldn't kill Cowell, unless Cowell were truly evil, like Adolf Hitler," according to the report.

According to the AAUP report, Provost Russ Moore wrote in a letter to Kaufman that the campus found his remarks to be profoundly troubling and completely unacceptable, even as a joke.

Kaufman's suspension in March came a little more than a month after the university released an independent report describing sexual harassment, bullying, unprofessional behavior and other types of misconduct within the philosophy department.

Cowell replaced former chairman Graeme Forbes on Feb. 1 after the report's release.

There was no indication that Kaufman's suspension was connected to the alleged sexual harassment referred to in the report.

Use the blog's search engine for more on this subject.

Kids and space art

"How Kids See Space"

NASA asks children "to explore how today's technology is bringing tomorrow's dreams closer to reality."


Megan Garber

May 21st, 2014

The Atlantic

In 1977, a year after the U.S. Bicentennial, the oil company ARCO asked Americans of the time what they thought the U.S. would look like to the Americans 100 years later, at the nation's Tricentennial. Their answers were recorded in a document, The Tricentennial Report, that featured, among other things, children's imaginings of 2077. The kids depicted a future full of ... robots. And of, this being 1977, atomic bombs. And of (this being 1977) humans circling the circumference of the Earth in peaceful holdings of hands.

I mention the 1977 drawings because NASA has just released a 2014 follow-up—a collection that asked children to share their depictions not of Earth, but of space. NASA's LaRC contest, Gizmodo's Matt Novak reports, was open to children of all school ages (K-12) in Hampton Roads, Virginia. It asked them "to explore how today's technology is bringing tomorrow's dreams closer to reality."
Some of the results, via NASA's Flickr page, are below. (You can see the full collection  here .) And they suggest the changes that have taken place between 1977 and 2014: instead of atom bombs, there are melting polar ice caps. Space shuttles have been replaced by space colonies. The images, all in all, nicely represent the range of our current sense of the future: the wonder, the fear, the uncertainty, the potential.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Allegheny Observatory

"Spotlight Series: The Allegheny Observatory"


Jeff Slack

May 21st, 2014

This spring I had the pleasure of working with a group of six students from the University of Pittsburgh’s History of Art and Architecture Department as they participated in a unique opportunity to intensively study the historic Allegheny Observatory and to interact directly with a project funded by a PHMC Keystone Historic Preservation Grant.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Allegheny Observatory, it is a major astronomical research facility owned by the University of Pittsburgh. The Observatory is located in Riverview Park on Pittsburgh’s Northside, four miles north of Downtown, and approximately seven miles northwest of the University’s main campus in Oakland. Swedish-born architect Thorsten E. Billquist designed the Neoclassical building after winning a design competition in 1896. The building features a rusticated sandstone foundation, buff brick walls, terra cotta ornamentation and three telescope domes. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and is significant for accomplishments in the field of astrometry, the branch of astronomy that involves precise measurements of the positions and movements of stars and other celestial bodies.

Billquist studied architecture at the Technological Institute of Gothenburg, Sweden before coming to the United States in 1887. He worked in the New York and Boston offices of McKim, Mead & White for five years, and is believed to have worked on their Boston Public Library project. In 1893 he moved to Pittsburgh, where he worked with Longfellow, Alden and Harlow and then with W. Ross Proctor, an early graduate of Columbia University’s Beaux Arts-derived curriculum. He then established his own practice, spurred in part by obtaining the Observatory commission. Billquist worked closely on the design of the building with F.L.O. Wadsworth (Director of the Observatory from 1899 to 1906) and later with Edward B. Lee, who had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and who would become Billquist’s partner from 1905 to 1909. Construction began in 1900 and astronomers were working in the building by 1902. However, the formal dedication did not occur until 1912 due to funding delays for acquiring all of the desired research equipment.

The Billquist-designed Observatory replaced a smaller, single-domed predecessor located about two miles from Downtown Pittsburgh, in what was then Allegheny City. Designed by architects Barr and Moser, the original Observatory was completed in 1861 and became part of the Western University of Pennsylvania (forerunner to the University of Pittsburgh) in 1867. It was here that eminent astronomers Samuel Pierpont Langley, James Edward Keeler and John Alfred Brashear established the Allegheny Observatory as one of the pre-eminent observatories in the world. By the close of the nineteenth century, however, interference from city lights and pollution necessitated the move to a site further from the city.

The students who studied the Observatory this spring were members of HAA1921: Documentation and Conservation Studio, a six-credit fieldwork course that I teach as part of Pitt’s Architectural Studies Program. The capstone of the program’s undergraduate Historic Preservation Track, the course is offered each spring and is designed to mirror the experience of working on a significant, real world preservation project—the students were preservation planners, I was their project manager, and guest speakers served as expert consultants. The ultimate deliverable was creation of a professionally researched and written historic structure report that contains useful information for their client—in this case, the University’s Facilities Management Department and the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Looking back on the semester, sophomore Jacob Craig acknowledged that the design of the course worked well for him: “The hands-on applications and real-world scenarios gave value and integrity to the learning experience. Actually performing the lessons and attaining their objectives reinforced concepts. Teaching out of a book limits a student’s retention, motivation and interest.”

The course, which was first offered in 2008, has previously studied the Mellon Hall of Science at Duquesne University (designed by Mies van der Rohe) and the Waldorf School of Pittsburgh (formerly the Ursuline Young Ladies Academy). For the latter, students developed a historic structure report the first year while their colleagues wrote the initial draft of a National Register nomination the next year.

A fortunate constellation of events led to the Allegheny Observatory becoming the fieldwork site this past semester. First, the University of Pittsburgh was awarded a Keystone Historic Preservation Project Grant in 2013 to complete the architectural and engineering documentation for remaining phases of a master plan to restore the exterior of the Observatory. Second, the University selected the architecture and preservation firm of Pfaffmann + Associates (P+A)—where I work—to complete the project. And, third, after two years of studying Mies, Modernism and Mellon Hall, it was time to identify the next site for the course.

As both the preservation project manager for the Keystone Grant and the instructor of HAA1921, I immediately saw the opportunity for a unique learning experience. I could offer the students considerable knowledge of the building (P+A had successfully implemented two previous Keystone Grants at the Observatory to restore the main entrance pediment and the colonnade of one of the building’s three domes); and I could coordinate the work of various consultants so that they could interact with the students as their professional investigation of the building progressed. The pedagogical value was quickly endorsed by Observatory staff; Drew Armstrong, head of the Architectural Studies Program; and by the Office of the Dean of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, which provided transportation for the students from Oakland to the Observatory.

Class started the first week in January with a tour by the Observatory’s Electronics Technician, Lou Coban, the first of ten guest consultants who would help the class better understand the Observatory and the process of assessing its significance and preservation issues. The record cold temperatures that Pittsburgh was experiencing quickly reinforced an important consideration about the design and care of an observatory—the air temperature within the rooms housing each telescope must be as close as possible to that of the outside air in order to minimize viewing distortion from differential heat currents (think of the waves emanating from asphalt on a hot summer day). Lou was, thankfully, very efficient that night as everyone hurriedly took notes in the sub-freezing spaces beneath the domes!

Subsequent experts who met with the class included the following:

John Schneider, structural engineer, helped the class understand how the Observatory was constructed and how to read historic framing plans. He also reported on exploratory work under the Keystone grant project to investigate two areas where brick is deteriorating and bowing.

Miriam Meislick and David Grinnell, University archivists, explained how to navigate an archive and shared historic photographs, maps and other materials—including the Observatory’s original building permit. Their guidance also led to documents that revealed the names of the building’s contractors.

Bill Callahan, PHMC’s very own community preservation coordinator in western Pennsylvania for the Bureau for Historic Preservation, explained what a state historic preservation office does and provided a contextual framework from which to better understand the Keystone Grant.

Mick Nardozzi and Tony DeChellis, cost estimator and mason, respectively, explained how the sandstone, brick and terra cotta were created and provided an overview of the previous restoration projects at the Observatory.

Kirk Weaver, stained glass restorer, outlined the proper care of the Observatory’s stained glass window, Urania, by artist Mary Elizabeth Tillinghast, who at one time had worked with Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LaFarge. In advance of this meeting, I conducted a workshop where the students explored basic stained glass methods firsthand, learning to cut glass and solder the pieces together using both lead cames and copper foil. Senior Wenfei Luo exclaimed “When we made stained glass pieces ourselves in class we had fun and could actually practice the techniques.”

Michael Belman, fine art conservator, explained how sculptor Frank Vittor likely created the life-size bronze of astronomer and lens maker John Brashear in the early 1920s and how best to care for this work of art that greets visitors as they enter the Observatory.

Ron Leibow, Senior Project Manager in the Facilities Management Department, shared a decade of experience working with the Observatory and provided an insightful introduction to the numerous professions, besides architecture, in which one can positively affect the built environment.

Lastly, Derek Wahila, graphic designer, offered guidance on the design of the final historic structure report and helped the students weigh the impacts of choosing particular layouts, fonts and other visual elements.

Commenting on the opportunity to interact with so many experts in their fields,Junior Sapata Pessiki concluded, “Bringing in consultants was a unique and extremely useful aspect of this class. It gave us access to so many different resources that we likely would never have known about.”

Interspersed between visits with these experts was a series of Foundational Assignments designed to introduce or further develop specific preservation skills and to parallel many of the activities that Pfaffmann + Associates was undertaking as part of the Keystone Grant project. Exercises included the identification of character-defining features;sketching and labeling the architectural elements of the front portico; benchmarking six other university-owned observatories to study common preservation problems and solutions; analyzing historic maps to identify changes to the building and neighborhood over time; documenting the building photographically; evaluating the condition of all windows and creating a window schedule; and assessing masonry problems façade-by-façade in order to understand causes and to propose solutions. “I found the hands-on conservation work to be interesting,” noted Senior Rachel Kauffman. “Working with materials such as stone, terra cotta and brick allowed the readings to have a far greater impact on our learning.”

Lastly, the output from these Foundational Assignments directly informed four assignments that led to creation of the final historic structure report. These included having each student complete the following: writing a physical description of a portion of the building, then working together to edit each description into a single, team-authored chapter; researching and writing a historic context paper to establish the significance of the Observatory; intensively investigating a character-defining feature and proposing a proper treatment plan in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards; and working as a team to design, edit and print the final report. On the last evening of class, the students presented the results of their four-month investigation during an hour-long public presentation, which included a series of long-term recommendations. Senior Erin Candee was particularly excited about recommendations that went beyond bricks and mortar: “Because of this class, I learned what a fascinating building the Allegheny Observatory is and how overlooked it is by students. Different assignments allowed us to come up with different ways to build interest among the student body and to suggest future fund raising ideas.” The class concluded with students leading a question-and-answer session and tour of the building.

Pluto's five moons...a short video

Science fact

"Science fiction or science fact?"

In a new class at Duke University, professors from different realms explore the intersection of literature and physics.


Sarah Charley

May 9th, 2014


Duke University professor Mark Kruse grew up reading science fiction, but his fascination with dystopian futures and quantum jumping waned once he started studying particle physics.

“I think reality is always more bizarre than anything we can come up with,” Kruse says. “Even gifted authors and writers can't imagine how crazy reality is beyond our current understanding. Real science gives us greater surprises by taking our understanding even further.”
But when he was asked to co-advise a Duke graduate student whose dissertation spanned both the literature and physics departments, Kruse decided to give science fiction a second look. He teamed up with Duke literary professor and science fiction specialist Katherine Hayles to design a class that is the first of its kind at the university—one that explores the intersection of science fiction and science fact.

Hayles and Kruse originally structured the class to play to their separate realms of expertise. Hayles discussed the literary elements of science fiction stories and their social, political and philosophical implications, while Kruse, who is a member of the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, examined and evaluated their scientific accuracy. But as the class progressed, these roles started to blur.

“What actually happened is we started to discuss some of the ideas that are pushing the very frontier at which Mark is working,” Hayles says. “At some points, Mark had to admit that he didn’t know the answer, which led into some very interesting discussions.”

John Un, a literature major at Duke, took the class because he has always been fascinated with quantum mechanics. He says learning about scientific research made him think critically about how he approaches the humanities.

“From a literary perspective, I am inclined to take the position there is always subjectivity in everything,” Un says. But Kruse’s explanations of the scientific method made him rethink his approach to evaluating fiction.

“What am I basing my points on?” he says. “Is it just theory and jargon, or can I ground my arguments in evidence?”

Stefan Cafaro, an engineering major at Duke, was drawn to the class because he had spent a summer working with Kruse on a project to upgrade the ATLAS detector. For him, the best part of it was being able to branch out from the typical engineering track while remaining within the realm of the sciences.

“If you take just pure engineering classes, you miss out on developing important skills like critical reading, discussion and presentation,” Cafaro says. “Especially as an engineer, you will be doing that sort of thing throughout your entire career. If you don’t have any social or verbal skills, it is going to hurt you.”

Kruse and Hayles were both impressed with the performance of their students and their willingness to step outside their comfort zones.

“We had amazing questions from the humanities students that really probed the scientific concepts we were discussing,” Kruse says. “I was really impressed that they were taking the science so seriously.”

For their final projects, the students wrote short science fiction stories based on the scientific concepts discussed in class. These stories explore topics like quantum mechanics, black holes, the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs field.




Nonny Scott


139 Days. Is that really how long I’ve been here? It feels like eternity.

Fiona absentmindedly traced the figures on the screen of her calendar, with each day meticulously marked off, lost in thought.

139 days. Not even a tenth of her 5-year isolation period had passed, and already it felt like she was going crazy.  And it wasn’t even halfway through this day!   Of course, ‘noon’ was whenever she decided the middle of her day was, but she liked to keep it in sync with ‘normal’ days, whatever that meant.

139 days. That’s roughly…. one third of a year. It would be winter at home.

I wonder if it would be snowing.

She blinked, fighting off in the whirlpool of memories that now threatened to engulf her; it was too easy to lose time daydreaming here. Never stop paying attention to the calendar. Never forget about home.

She got up, taking her now-empty breakfast bowl with her, and mechanically started to tidy her tiny kitchenette. She could hear the whirring and grinding of the machinery that surrounded her in every dimension. Her thoughts drifted to the hundreds of others who must be around her – what time was it for them? What were they doing right now, whilst she was donning her rubber gloves?

She shook her head. Those sorts of thoughts weren’t helpful either. Leaning over, she turned on the radio with her elbow- it wouldn’t do to get it wet, not when mechanics had a waiting list of over a month.

The cool waves of jazz washed over her, and she let out the breath that she wasn’t aware she’d been holding. Turning back to the sink she scrubbed at the frying pan until every atom of slightly burned omelet had been removed from the blackened surface.

She appreciated these small luxuries – not everyone had access to cooking facilities. She certainly hadn’t initially.

I can’t believe I’m grateful for washing up. She almost smiled. If only my mother could see me now!

Water sloshed over the sides of the gloves, and her hint of smile vanished. She peeled the gloves off and set them to dry, annoyed.  Why couldn’t anyone invent something useful, like actually effective rubber gloves? Honestly.

Bloody Einstein and his theories.

It was a novel feeling to be annoyed at the genius of someone that she respected so much.

Wiping her hands on her jumpsuit Fiona moved across to her living space. It’s ironic. This space would be worth so much at home. We could never afford to live here, not with Ollie, anyway.

The apartment was small, but had separate rooms for each activity, something she’d never experienced before. Her room growing up had been shared with her two sisters, and their baby brother. When he’d hit puberty he’d moved into their parents room, much to his annoyance. Still, it saved him from endless nights talking of romance, at least. She missed her siblings so much. Having grown up in such close proximity she had heard about every test at school, every crush, every hilarious moment for nearly two decades. Even after she’d moved out, moved on to higher education, they’d all kept in touch; her college was only an hour by bus from her home, and scarcely a week ever went by without a body keeping her couch warm.

When the program originally started, apparently inmates had still been allowed to contact their families. It was all regulated, of course, but at least they had been able to spend a few precious hours a month talking to their loved ones.

Around half a decade ago, there had been a breakthrough in engine technology and fuel compression. The speeds now attained by the modules now made effective communication impossible, and contact had been decreed ‘too complicated’. The programs had been halted, and the inmates were left, truly alone.

Family members were not even allowed to send written electronic messages; the content would no doubt hint at the rate that time was passing on Earth, which was precisely against the new purpose of the modules.

Families were only informed of the impending return of their loved ones six months before their intended arrival. This, apparently, was part of the punishment. ‘Effective’ doesn’t even come close.

 Read more .

Other offerings...

Crossing by Courtney Fehsenfeld

Dark and Stormy by Evan Myer

Desolation Row by John Un

Rolling Hills, Filled with Lines of Protruding White Stones by Sachin Mitra

The Little Bang by Brian Bullins

The Traveling Salesman by Melissa Dalis

Winter’s End by Stefan Cafaro

Writing a Science Fiction Story by Kevin Trainer

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Drone ethics again

"Drone Ethics is Easy"


Mike LaBossiere

May 16th, 2014

The Philosophers' Magazine

When a new technology emerges it is not uncommon for people to claim that the technology is outpacing ethics and law. Because of the nature of law (at least in countries like the United States) it is very easy for technology to outpace the law. However, it is rather difficult for technology to truly outpace ethics.

One reason for this is that any adequate ethical theory (that is, a theory that meets the basic requirements such as possessing prescriptively, consistency, coherence and so on) will have the quality of expandability. That is, the theory can be applied to what is new, be that technology, circumstances or something else. An ethical (or moral) theory that lacks the capacity of expandability would, obviously enough, become useless immediately and thus would not be much of a theory.

It is, however, worth considering the possibility that a new technology could “break” an ethical theory by being such that the theory could not expand to cover the technology. However, this would show that the theory was inadequate rather than showing that the technology outpaced ethics.

Another reason that technology would have a hard time outpacing ethics is that an ethical argument by analogy can be applied to a new technology. That is, if the technology is like something that already exists and has been discussed in the context of ethics, the ethical discussion of the pre-existing thing can be applied to the new technology. This is, obviously enough, analogous to using ethical analogies to apply ethics to different specific situations (such as a specific act of cheating in a relationship).

Naturally, if a new technology is absolutely unlike anything else in human experience (even fiction), then the method of analogy would fail absolutely. However, it seems somewhat unlikely that such a technology could emerge. But, I like science fiction (and fantasy) and hence I am willing to entertain the possibility of that which is absolutely new. However, it would still seem that ethics could handle it—but perhaps something absolutely new would break all existing ethical theories, showing that they are all inadequate.

While a single example does not provide much in the way of proof, it can be used to illustrate. As such, I will use the matter of “personal” drones to illustrate how ethics is not outpaced by technology.

While remote controlled and automated devices have been around a long time, the expansion of technology has created what some might regard as something new for ethics: drones, driverless cars, and so on. However, drone ethics is easy. By this I do not mean that ethics is easy, it is just that applying ethics to new technology (such as drones) is not as hard as some might claim. Naturally, actually doing ethics is itself quite hard—but this applies to very old problems (the ethics of war) and very “new” problems (the ethics of killer robots in war).

Getting back to the example, a personal drone is the sort of drone that a typical civilian can own and operate—they tend to be much smaller, lower priced and easier to use relative to government drones. In many ways, these drones are slightly advanced versions of the remote control planes that are regarded as expensive toys. The drones of this sort that seem to most concern people are those that have cameras and can hover—perhaps outside a bedroom window.

Two of the areas of concern regarding such drones are safety and privacy. In terms of safety, the worry is that drones can collide with people (or other vehicles, such as manned aircraft) and injure them. Ethically, this falls under doing harm to people, be it with a knife, gun or drone. While a flying drone flies about, the ethics that have been used to handle flying model aircraft, cars, etc. can easily be applied here. So, this aspect of drones has hardly outpaced ethics.

Privacy can also be handled. Simplifying things for the sake of a brief discussion, drones essentially allow a person to (potentially) violate privacy in the usual two “visual” modes. One is to intrude into private property to violate a person’s privacy. In the case of the “old” way, a person can put a ladder against a person’s house and climb up to peek under the window shade and into the person’s bedroom or bathroom. In the “new” way, a person can fly a drone up to the window and peek in using a camera. While the person is not physically present in the case of the drone, his “agent” is present and is trespassing. Whether a person is using a ladder or a drone to gain access to the window does not change the ethics of the situation in regards to the peeking, assuming that people have a right to control access to their property.

A second way is to peek into “private space” from “public space.” In the case of the “old way” a person could stand on the public sidewalk and look into other peoples’ windows or yards—or use binoculars to do so. In the “new” way, a person can deploy his agent (the drone) in public space in order to do the same sort of thing.

One potential difference between the two situations is that a drone can fly and thus can get viewing angles that a person on the ground (or even with a ladder) could not get. For example, a drone might be in the airspace far above a person’s backyard, sending back images of the person sunbathing in the nude behind her very tall fence on her very large estate. However, this is not a new situation—paparazzi have used helicopters to get shots of celebrities and the ethics are the same. As such, ethics has not been outpaced by the drones in this regard.  This is not to say that the matter is solved—people are still debating the ethics of this sort of “spying”, but to say that it is not a case where technology has outpaced ethics.

What is mainly different about the drones is that they are now affordable and easy to use—so whereas only certain people could afford to hire a helicopter to get photos of celebrities, now camera-equipped drones are easily in reach of the hobbyist. So, it is not that the drone provides new capabilities that worries people—it is that it puts these capabilities in the hands of the many.

Drone ethics

deGrasse Tyson...philosophy and science

"Neil deGrasse Tyson, Philosophy & Science"


Mike LaBossiere

May 12th, 2014

The Philosophers' Magazine

In March of 2014 popular astrophysicist and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson did a Nerdist Podcast. This did not garner much attention until May when some philosophers realized that Tyson was rather critical and dismissive of philosophy. As might be imagined, there was a response from the defenders of philosophy. Some critics went so far as to accuse him of being a philistine.

Tyson presents a not uncommon view of contemporary philosophy, namely that “asking deep questions” can cause a “pointless delay in your progress” in engaging “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” To avoid such pointless delays, Tyson advises scientists to respond to such questioners by saying, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by deep questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”

Since Tyson certainly seems to be a deep question sort of guy, it is tempting to consider that his remarks are not serious—that is, he is being sarcastic. Even if he is serious, it is also reasonable to consider that these remarks are off-the cuff and might not represent his considered view of philosophy in general.

It is also worth considering that the claims made are his considered and serious position. After all, the idea that a scientist would regard philosophy as useless (or worse) is quite consistent with my own experiences in academics. For example, the politically fueled rise of STEM and the decline of the humanities has caused some in STEM to regard this situation as confirmation of their superior status and on some occasions I have had to defuse conflicts instigated by STEM faculty making their views about the uselessness of non-STEM fields clear.

Whatever the case, the concern that the deep questioning of philosophy can cause pointless delays does actually have some merit and is well worth considering. After all, if philosophy is useless or even detrimental, then this would certainly be worth knowing.

The main bite of this criticism is that philosophical questioning is detrimental to progress: a scientist who gets caught in these deep questions, it seems, would be like a kayaker caught in a strong eddy: she would be spinning around and going nowhere rather than making progress. This concern does have significant practical merit. To use an analogy outside of science, consider a committee meeting aimed at determining the curriculum for state schools. This committee has an objective to achieve and asking questions is a reasonable way to begin. But imagine that people start raising deep questions about the meaning of terms such as “humanities” or “science” and become very interested in sorting out the semantics of various statements. This sort of sidetracking will result in a needlessly long meeting and little or no progress. After all, the goal is to determine the curriculum and deep questions will merely slow down progress towards this practical goal. Likewise, if a scientist is endeavoring to sort out the nature of the cosmos, deep questions can be a similar sort of trap: she will be asking ever deeper questions rather than gathering data and doing math to answer her less deep questions.

Philosophy, as Socrates showed by deploying his Socratic method, can endlessly generate deep questions. Questions such as “what is the nature of the universe?”, “what is time?”, “what is space?”, “what is good?” and so on. Also, as Socrates showed, for each answer given, philosophy can generate more questions. It is also often claimed that this shows that philosophy really has no answers since every alleged answer can be questioned or raises even more questions. Thus, philosophy seems to be rather bad for the scientist.

A key assumption seems to be that science is different from philosophy in at least one key way—while it raises questions, proper science focuses on questions that can be answered or, at the very least, gets down to the business of answering them and (eventually) abandons a question should it turn out to be a distracting deep question. Thus, science provides answers and makes progress. This, obviously enough, ties into another stock criticism of philosophy: philosophy makes no progress and is useless.

One rather obvious reason that philosophy is regarded as not making progress and as being useless is that when enough progress is made on a deep question, it is perceived as being a matter for science rather than philosophy. For example, ancient Greek philosophers, such as Democritus, speculated about the composition of the universe and its size (was it finite or infinite?) and these were considered deep philosophical questions. Even Newton considered himself a natural philosopher. He has, of course, been claimed by the scientist (many of whom conveniently overlook the role of God in his theories). These questions are now claimed by physicists, such as Tyson, who regard them as scientific rather than philosophical questions.

Thus, it is rather unfair to claim that philosophy does not solve problems or make progress—since when excellent progress is made, the discipline is labeled as science and no longer considered philosophy. However, the progress would have obviously been impossible without the deep questions that set people in search of answers and the work done by philosophers before the field was claimed as a science. To use an analogy, to claim that philosophy has made no progress or contributions would be on par with a student taking the work done by another, adding to it and then claiming the whole as his own work and deriding the other student as “useless.”

At this point, some might be willing to grudgingly concede that philosophy did make some valuable contributions (perhaps on par with how the workers who dragged the marble for Michelangelo’s David contributed) in the past, but philosophy is now an eddy rather than the current of progress.

Interestingly enough, philosophy has been here before—back in the days of Socrates the Sophists contended that philosophical speculation was valueless and that people should focus on getting things done—that is, achieving success. Fortunately for contemporary science, philosophy survived and philosophers kept asking those deep questions that seemed so valueless then.

While philosophy’s day might be done, it seems worth considering that some of the deep, distracting philosophical questions that are being asked are well worth pursuing—if only because they might lead to great things. Much as how Democritus’ deep questions led to the astrophysics that a fellow named Neil loves so much.

Neil deGrasse Tyson...a philistine?

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Godzilla 2014...big, beefy, and an environmental reminder

Well, Godzilla has returned and overall has garnered some good reviews. 

"Godzilla: why the Japanese original is no joke"

How could Japan take a man in a suit so seriously? As Gareth Edwards's Godzilla is released, Tim Martin looks at the nuclear nightmares that created the 1954 original


Tim Martin

May 15th, 2014

The Telegraph

 Western audiences have spent more than half a century thinking of Godzilla as a joke dinosaur in a rubber suit, a Japanese trash-culture ‘King of the Monsters’ locked in endless battle with giant moths, dragons, armadillos and skyscraper-sized robots. Against this camp backdrop, then, it may seem surprising to hear Gareth Edwards, the director of this summer’s Godzilla film, declare his intention to portray the monster as “a force of nature, like the wrath of God or vengeance for the way we’ve behaved”.

But the idea of presenting Godzilla as the harbinger of man-made apocalypse isn't simply another gritty reboot for an age in which children’s franchises have become big-budget adult entertainment. It harks back 60 years to an almost forgotten chapter in the franchise’s history: the tragic story of nuclear paranoia told by the original Gojira in 1954.

Released in the same year as Seven Samurai, directed by a colleague of Kurosawa’s and starring one of Japan’s most famous actors, the film Gojira was a far cry from its B-movie successors. It was a sober allegory of a film with ambitions as large as its thrice-normal budget, designed to shock and horrify an adult audience.

Its roster of frightening images — cities in flames, overstuffed hospitals, irradiated children — would have been all too familiar to cinemagoers for whom memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still less than a decade old, while its script posed deliberately inflammatory questions about the balance of postwar power and the development of nuclear energy.

 To its first viewers in 1954, Gojira also evoked a disturbingly recent catastrophe. In March that year, the crew of a boat called the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon 5) had been fishing off the Marshall Islands, the string of atolls in the Northern Pacific that had been captured from Japan by the US during the Second World War.

Just before dawn, they saw a blinding flash in the sky and heard what sounded like a thunderclap. Before long a white ash began to settle on the decks of their vessel, which the bewildered sailors shovelled into heaps and dumped over the side. By evening, several of them were vomiting and covered in strange burns. When the Lucky Dragon limped back to its home port of Yaizu a fortnight later, it was clear that the men were suffering from radiation sickness.

It was less than two years since Japan’s American occupiers had made their exit from the country, and memories of the A-bomb attacks that had ended the war were still painfully fresh. When the US acknowledged that the crew of the Lucky Dragon had been caught in the fallout from its secret hydrogen bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, the Japanese reaction was immediate and furious. Other fishing boats were soon found to have been similarly exposed, and the bottom dropped out of the lucrative tuna market. When the Lucky Dragon’s radio operator died that autumn, 400,000 people went to his funeral.

In this tense atmosphere, the opening scenes of Gojira could scarcely have been more provocative. Thudding drumbeats and unearthly howls accompany the stark opening titles, before the scene changes to the deck of a fishing boat in the Pacific, where the crew are relaxing, chatting and playing guitar. The ocean begins to boil. The men are blinded and burnt as they flee in terror. Tapping out his desperate SOS below decks, the ship’s radio operator is the first to die. Once again, Gojira suggested, the Japanese people was being attacked in its homeland by history’s greatest superweapon.

 But why cast such an incendiary political statement as a monster movie? The answer lies with Tomoyuki Tanaka, a producer at Toho Studios in Tokyo, who in early 1954 found himself faced with a professional catastrophe. The film he was preparing, a co-production between the cinema industries in Japan and Indonesia, had just collapsed after the Indonesian government cancelled visas for the main actors.

Tanaka was confronted with a gaping hole in his autumn release schedule, but he had been an admirer of American monster movies since King Kong in 1933 and had recently read about the latest example, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, released the year before. Could he, he wondered, use a similar conceit to explore Japanese fears about the use of nuclear weapons in the postwar age?

Tanaka hired the science-fiction writer Shigeru Kayama to produce a script. Initially, this document made no bones about its influences: its Japanese working title translates as Big Monster from 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea. More importantly still, Tanaka began to discuss the project with two other Toho regulars: the special effects supervisor Eiji Tsubaraya and the director Ishiro Honda.

Each came from an unusual background. Tsubaraya was a mechanical genius who claimed to have built his first film camera as a child. During the war he had also specialised in modelmaking for Japanese propaganda films. So realistic was his re-creation of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, according to legend, that the American occupying forces assumed it was real and sent it home to be used in newsreel footage. Tsubaraya was as fond as Tanaka of the nascent genre of monster cinema in America. In fact, he clung on for some time to the early suggestion that the antagonist in Gojira should be a giant octopus.

Tsubaraya agreed to undertake the vast task of recreating and destroying a model Tokyo in return for equal billing with the film’s director. This was Ishiro Honda, a former colleague of Akira Kurosawa’s who had assisted him on films such as Stray Dog (1949) and directed several features of his own.

Honda was an ex-soldier who had survived the firebombing of Tokyo, had been captured and imprisoned in China and, on his return to Japan, had passed through the devastation that the A-bomb had wrought in Hiroshima. “There was,” he later said of the experience, “a feeling that the world was already coming to an end. Ever since I felt that this atomic fear would hang around our necks for ever.”

Honda recruited another screenwriter, Takeo Murata, to develop these ideas in the script. At some point, too, the men changed the title to one less baldly revealing of its American origins. The word Gojira is a portmanteau of two Japanese words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira) but it is not clear who decided to apply it to a radioactive dinosaur the size of a mountain. One legend runs that it was the nickname for a burly member of the film’s technical crew, but no one has ever explained exactly who; and, as Honda’s wife later observed, the filmmaking team “loved to joke around with tall stories”.

Planning the destruction of the capital was not without its problems. Two members of the team were detained by security guards as they stood on the roof of a department store, discussing the trail of devastation that Gojira would cut across the city. Back in the studio, Tsubaraya was working on the problem of his lifelike monster.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms had already demonstrated the stop-motion animation that would make Ray Harryhausen a legend among 20th-century animators, but Tsubaraya chose to employ a different approach. He built a latex dinosaur suit, fortified with bamboo spars, with jaws that could be snapped at will by the technician inside. He would, he decided, shoot the monster scenes at double speed, then slow them down to give an impression of stomping inertia.

 This technique came to be known as "suitmation", and became an integral part of the camp allure of subsequent Godzilla films. The actors playing Godzilla based their lumbering performance on the bears at Tokyo Zoo, but the thick rubber monster suit, combined with the fierce set lighting required to shoot at double speed, placed drastic limits on their performance. Neither could spend more than two minutes inside it, and both fainted frequently from the stress. One of them lost 20lb on the shoot, and found himself pouring a cupful of sweat out of the suit at the end of each take.

With the film well under way, the producers turned their attention to the music. Akira Ifukube, a university professor and one of Japan’s top composers of classical music, was recruited to develop a score that complemented the doom-laden, apocalyptic tone of the film, as well as to provide the noise of the monster’s footfalls and the sound of its roar. He did so by covering a leather glove in rosin and rubbing it across the strings of a double bass, producing an unearthly dissonant howl. Applying an electronic echo to the instrument’s deep sounds created a noise like thundering footsteps.

For Honda and Tanaka, the allegorical aspect of Gojira was paramount: “Mankind had created the Bomb,” as Tanaka later commented, “and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind”. Contemporary references abounded (“First contaminated tuna,” complains one woman to her neighbour on the train, “and now Godzilla”) and the film’s protagonists carried on a running debate about the validity of using violence against violence.

The final lines abandoned indirectness for a cliffhanger warning: “If we keep conducting nuclear tests,” intoned a wise old palaeontologist over the monster’s remains, “another Godzilla may appear somewhere in the world.”

The sternness of this message made the film a divisive proposition in Japan. Audiences turned out in droves, attracted by a sinister radio drama that was broadcast on national radio for weeks before the film’s release, but many critics felt that its grim scene-setting and overt references to the Lucky Dragon catastrophe were simply too close to the bone.

Its thematic preoccupation with nuclear energy proved even less acceptable to the American distributors who, after buying the film, began an extensive reshoot and recut for Western markets. Scenes were inserted featuring the actor Raymond Burr (later famous for his roles in Perry Mason and Ironside) as an American reporter covering the destruction of Tokyo, while references to American testing and the dangers of radioactivity were assiduously hacked out.

But this radical intervention would prove strangely influential on the franchise's development. Released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in 1956, it was panned by critics (one of whom complained of “a dinosaur made of gumshoes and about $20 worth of toy trains”) but a hit with the public, who flocked to see what the posters called its “psychotic cavalcade of electrifying horror”. Bizarrely, this recut version was even exported again to Japan, where audiences turned out once more to watch it with subtitles.

What the public wanted, it seemed, was not grim nuclear allegory but more monster movies, and Toho Studios was there to oblige. In the years that followed, Tanaka found himself presiding over the development of the most famous creature in a new genre of so-called kaiju (monster) movies, battling a cast of bizarre foes in films that soon became a cultish pleasure for children of all ages. In the adventures of Mechagodzilla, Mothra, Son of Godzilla and a host of city-stomping animal freaks, the political philosophising and existential terror of the first film soon became little more than a black-and-white footnote.

William M. Tsutsui, an American historian and Japan expert who has written extensively on Godzilla, explains that the series was at its wackiest and most humorous “in the decades when Japan’s economy was booming. In the Sixties and Seventies, when Japan was growing at 10 per cent a year, the monster became a sort of happy monster, a protective monster, a goofy monster, not a threatening one.”

Despite the giant lizard’s growing international fame, the Godzilla films in the intervening years have appealed more to dedicated fans of monster combat than to mainstream cinemagoers. Toho has insisted on using physical effects rather than CGI, and while Godzilla aficionados may treasure the way in which this limits the films to puppetry and so-called ‘suitmation’, they look fascinatingly low-tech in an age of CGI.

 The human cast, meanwhile, seem wearily conscious that their cheesy lines and daft situations are only there as placeholders before the biff-pow gigantomachy resumes, and low receipts have twice forced Toho to call a halt to its flagship series. Godzilla took a nine-year holiday from 1975-1984, and after the disappointing 50th-anniversary special Final Wars in 2004 Toho demolished its main water stage and refused to license or make any more films for a decade.

Recent events, however, suggest that the moment may be right for Godzilla to return. “In the days immediately after the Fukushima disaster in 2011,” Tsutsui observes, “Google hits on Godzilla spiked. People went back to look at the movies, and look at the lessons filmmakers had been bringing forward about the fears of untrammelled nuclear energy and weapons testing.”

Gulliermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, released the next year and dedicated to Ishiro Honda and to Ray Harryhausen, suggested a renewal of the fitful interest in the giant-monster movie that had been stirring in America since the millennium with films such as Peter Jackson’s King Kong and JJ Abrams’s Cloverfield. (Even Godzilla fans prefer to forget Roland Emmerich’s disastrous attempt to reboot the franchise in 1998 with a giant iguana.)

Ultimately, though, Pacific Rim was more of a eulogy to the tradition than an exercise in political comment. “I want the joy I used to get seeing Godzilla toss a tank without having to think there are guys in the tank,” del Toro commented. “There’s global anxiety about how fragile the world is, and the safety of citizens, but the film is in another realm.”

This year’s effort, set in the aftermath of a Fukushima-like nuclear meltdown and evoking the panic and disaster of a decade of natural disasters, looks a more serious proposition. As Tsutsui points out, though, the franchise “allows filmmakers to reflect on the tensions and problems with society, and how those can be brought to the surface through a gigantic irradiated lizard walking through a city,” and has, even in its darkest moments, trod a certain line between absurdity and acuity.

It remains to be seen where on this scale Gareth Edwards’s contribution to Godzillan history will fall. But if there’s one thing the franchise has delighted in proving over the past 60 years, it’s that Japan’s most famous monster is always capable of rising again. 

"Godzilla is the latest blockbuster to punish the sins of mankind"

Gareth Edwards' take on the classic joins Noah and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as another of summer's anti-humanist fables


Tom Shone  
May 15th, 2014

My favorite quote from the trades last week was, "Warner Bros has avoided making Godzilla out to be a monster movie." What else are they going to make it out to be? A coming-of-age picture about the Summer that Changed Everything? A Merchant Ivory flick? Actually, the new film arrives in cinemas boasting the highest pedigree of any creature feature hitherto, with an Alexandre Desplat score, and roles for David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, thus making it the first and surely only time “Juliette Binoche” and “300-foot lizard” will ever be uttered in the same sentence. It’s a good movie – maybe too good, with its visual sophistication leaving its B-movie roots poking through. Was Godzilla ever meant to have $200m spent on him? Wasn’t the original a warning against American technological know-how?

We are a long way from the man-in-a-rubber-suit who wobbled through a model Tokyo in the 1954 original. Newly scaled up to keep pace with the latest skyscrapers, Godzilla is glimpsed teasingly, through Cloverfield POV shots for the first hour, before finally taking centre stage to defend mankind from MUTOs – giant nuclear mutants that look like the queen alien in Aliens and snack on nuclear missiles like Twinkie bars. The scenes of cataclysm, most of them at night, have a sulphurous power, as if director Gareth Edwards had prepared by boning up on Gustave Doré's engravings for Paradise Lost. At one point we see a mountain – or a silhouette our eye had taken to be a mountain – move, in one of the best such sleights of hand since Spielberg’s headlights-in-the-rearview-mirror gag in Close Encounters. If only Edwards had held it longer.

Needless to say, all human scale is obliterated. Cranston, as the nuclear engineer reduced to conspiratorial babbling, may be the smartest casting choice of the summer: when even Walter White throws a hissy fit, you know things are bad. He and Binoche hold the screen for as long as they are allowed, but soon have to make way for the demographically-approved chosen ones, Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Taylor-Johnson is a physical actor who likes to storm into a room and pace its four corners like a lion, but when faced with the sight of two giant nuclear mutants treating masonry like meringue, he wears an expression of mild consternation, as if remembering he’d left the oven on. He spends most of the movie trying to catch a train to get back to Olsen, but we couldn’t care less. Unlike King Kong, this was never a story scaled with a human adversary in mind. “What are we supposed to do?” asks Navy Commander David Straithairn. “Sit back and watch?”

Well, actually yes. What makes Godzilla such a curious summer blockbuster is it rootedness in failure – specifically the feeling of stunned national impotence that gripped Japan in the aftermath of the second world war. Cultural studies professors like to peel back the keloid-scarred skin of the series to reveal the lurking atomic bomb subtext lurking underneath, but there’s no “subtext” about it. That’s what Godzilla was about. It’s the text.

“The theme of the film from the beginning was the terror of the bomb,” said producer and Godzilla creator Tanaka Tomoyuki. Passing through the ruins of Hiroshima upon his repatriation to Japan, the 1954 film’s director Honda Ishuro noted “a fear the earth was already coming to an end”. He filled his movie with visions that directly summoned the spectres of Nagasaki and Hiroshima: families pulling cart-loads of possessions, children being relocated in army trucks, hordes of injured refugees, churches of widows and orphans, hospitals overflown with the dead and the dying, the camera lingering on a little girl her eyes glazed in shock whose irradiated body sends the geiger counter off the scale.

“Godzilla functioned not simply as a figure of war incarnate or a metaphorical admonition of nuclear annihilation, but also became a reproachful symbol embodying the spirit of Japan’s war dead,” writes William Tsutsui in his book Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of the Monsters. Very little of this, needless to say, made it through into the bowdlerized, American edit, which smoothed over the moral crisis of radiation with the calming tones of Raymond Burr recasting Godzilla as just another monster on the loose, recalled to the screen again and again for what amounted to prolonged bouts of monster-on-monster pro-wrestling. Mankind was relegated to the status of stupefied observer, like those cavemen that cowered in the corner of Ray Harryhausen epics while the dinosaurs duked it out above.

Edwards has more than honored the spirit of the original. Those hospitals are now filled with Americans and tended to by Elizabeth Olsen, while refugees collect in giant sports stadiums that recall the aftermath of Katrina. The American psyche wold appear to be in roughly the same state of disrepair as that of Japan in 1954. We’re ready for Godzilla in a way we weren’t in 1998, when Roland Emmerich rolled out his remake. If the cycle of disaster movies that gripped audiences in the 1990s were notable for their jocular oops-apocalypse tone – “Ha ha! It's the wonder of nature, baby!” boomed Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as tornadoes ripped up the south in Jan De Bont’s Twister – our contemporary variants are joke-free zones in which mankind isn’t just threatened with extinction. We're told we deserve it.

Not only do we bring our own nuclear doom upon our heads in Godzilla, but in a few weeks' time, we stand in the dock once again, indicted for crimes against the primate in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And this just a few Sundays after God annihilated the Earth on account of our wickedness in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. “The wickedness is not just in them, it’s in all of us,” insisted Russell Crowe’s prophet. “It had to be what He wanted – a world without men. You see that, don’t you?”

The right went into its usual tizzy over Aronofsky’s film, with Glenn Beck saying, “it’s just so pro-animal and anti-human, and I mean strongly anti-human,” but for once, the nut fringe was basically right. The blockbuster has finally gone post-human. The Godzilla movies always tilted audience sympathy towards the monster, of course, but as Edwards' lizard takes a bow and slips into the ocean once more at the end of the film, I felt something else: a nip of the old Avatar blues. The first true hero of summer and he doesn’t even say goodbye.

Daigo Fukuryu- Maru [Wikipedia]
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