Sunday, December 30, 2012

The New Sport of Reading Crazy Internet Comments

[Revised 12/31/2012 to add details about the comments]

There is a new sport in town, a new dance craze if you will, everybody can enjoy it. The sport is reading the comments of the biped mammals to a topical news article. For every rational response, there is at least one irrational one, or so it seems.  Topics that set them off include Radiation and Nuclear Power, 911, Obama, Climate Change and Global Warming, and the Economy.

The irrational comments fall into a number of categories, they represent a broad diversity of insanity. It would not be fair to characterize it all as right wing ranting because there is, depending on the topic, a certain amount of left wing insanity as well. It depends on the topic.

In this case, the topic is a lawsuit filed by crewmen of the USS Reagan who participated in the humanitarian efforts during the nuclear meltdown in Japan. They are claiming that the Tokyo Power company deliberately lied about the level of radiation exposure and caused the plaintiffs unnecessary harm.

Go to the bottom of the article, there will be a few comments, and click on "load more comments". Keep clicking until you have had enough.

Here is a summary of some of the comments:

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Opening of The Mummy (1932)

As we examine the origin and history of visual effects, from time to time we will come across masterpieces of the art of the opening title. There is a short list of such openings, openings that define the genre and which are as good as the cinema has ever done. Others, though a little more dated, are still important and can be appreciated if you can find your inner child and put yourself in the movie theatre in 1932.

Here we review the first 90 seconds of the 1932 classic The Mummy directed by Karl Freund and starring Boris Karloff.

I quote the words from the Scroll of Thoth:

      Oh ! Amon Ra! Oh ! God of Gods !
      Death is but the doorway to new life
      We live today, We shall live again,
      In many forms shall we return, Oh Mighty One.

The sequence on Youtube:

Careful readers will notice the single credit for Special Effects on card #4 above.  Also note the reference to the character "Frau Muller" who perhaps reprises her role in Young Frankenstein (1974).

Now remember what we are talking about here. A classic Universal horror film in the days before television, before even color film, intended to be viewed on a Saturday afternoon for a nickle. To my mind, the titles and music are perfect and completely introduce the movie.

You should do as well when you do the opening titles for your movie.

The Mummy on IMDB

Poetic and Ecclesiastical Implications of Adopting the Metric System

Americans have often heard the assertion that we should adopt the so-called Metric System and that failure to do so is old fashioned and will hurt our competitiveness in the world market. I believe these advocates are disingenuous and are hiding their real reasons, that in fact they are part of a conspiracy to destroy America by pushing it down a path of radical reform that will inevitably lead to chaos, atheism and poetic inelegance.

Advocates of the metric system generally fail to reveal where it came from and for good reason. The Metric System was created during the French Revolution as part of a comprehensive effort to do away with the ancien regime in all its forms. Of course advocates of this radical system never tell you that. But one thing will lead to another.

What comes next after the Metric System? Inevitably it will lead to calls to adopt the Revolutionary Calendar. If you thought that going between Daylight Savings Time and Standard Time was disruptive, just wait until you experience 10 hours per day, 100 minutes an hour, each minute some ridiculous commune-inspired number of seconds! The months will be named for the seasons of Paris: Vendemiaire, Brumaire, Frimaire, Nivose, Pluviose, Ventose, Germinal, Floreal, Prairial, Messidor, Thermidor, Fructidor. Or will we use the British versions, Vintagearious, Fogarious, Frostarious, Snowous, Rainous, Windous, Buddal, Floweral, Meadowal, Reapidor, Heatidor, Fruitidor? What will good American holidays become in this new system? Will Mother's Day be in Germinal or what? How about the 4th of July? And everything will have to be dated from 22 September 1792, of course.

From there it is only a short step to striking at the very heart of America, our devotion to spiritual values. You can be sure of attacks on the church and calls to require people to worship at the Cult of Reason or the Cult of the Supreme Being. No doubt, all preachers and pastors will be arrested and sent to re-education camps.

Inevitably, these so-called reformers of society will insist that we rewrite all literature to conform to their radical notions. Take for example the opening of the following well-known poem:

      Half a league, half a league, half a league onward,
      All in the valley of Death rode the six hundred.

No doubt this will be outlawed and children will be forced to memorize:

      2.778 kilometers, 2.778 kilometers, 2.778 kilometers,
      All in the valley of Death rode the six hundred.

That is the kind of wickedness that these advocates of a so-called more logical system will promote. Chaos will reign, good Americans will never stand for it, there will be violence in the streets as these radicals use force to impose their revolutionary vision.

I urge all true Americans to resist this evil and oppose the Metric System.

Thank you.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Consultant to the Captain of the Titanic

This is one in a series of posts that will discuss issues I have observed while being a consultant. It is my hope that you will find these observations or experiences amusing and maybe even helpful.

I have been involved in literally dozens and dozens of projects since 1991 or so, some of them for as little as a few days, some of them for years. I have on occasion had very gratifying impact on the project, in some cases I have not been able to help them at all. These projects come in all shapes and sizes, from an individual in his house to, in one case, the largest project of its type in the country or the world.

As different as these projects are from each other, there are some things they have in common: ambition, vision, idealism and politics. By ambition, I mean that the project is striving to do something that is very difficult, in some cases it has never been done before. They are also ambitious in that if everyone on the project were to cooperate and work selflessly to the best of their ability that it would still be difficult or impossible to achieve what the project hopes to achieve in the time and budget allowed. By vision, I mean that my clients often have an interesting idea: in my judgment, what they are trying to achieve is interesting.  For example, the goal of the Digital Galaxy Project at the American Museum of Natural History was, among other things, to build the most advanced theatre for science education in this country.  By idealism, I mean that my clients are sufficiently naive to believe that they can make a difference. And by politics, I usually mean of two general types: those that are internal to the project and those that are external to the project, but within the larger environment that the project is a part of.

Why does that asshole keep whining about icebergs?   Who does he think he is?

And they have one other thing in common. Since almost without exception these are projects that I personally believe in, they are usually not very well paid. There have been one or two outstanding exceptions to this, but usually I am doing this for love and precious little money.

Here are some not very revolutionary observations from these experiences:

1. An outsider can never understand.

If you are outside a company, you really do not know how that company works, unless you study it for a long time, and even then you are probably wrong on significant issues unless you work there every day for a while, usually several years. As time goes by, you will start to see similarities between the different corporate cultures, but ultimately each company and project has (or may have) its own individual insanity.

2. A consultant is an outsider and that means that ultimately he or she is not a player.

There are always politics, every project has them and every company has them, although they can differ wildly in their style and intensity. But you, as a consultant, are at best an aide to one of the players, you are not a player yourself and you should never forget it. If anyone is expendable, you are.

3. Many projects are what I call "roller coaster" projects.

These kinds of projects are pretty much all involving for the consultant, they involve all your time and energy, and you may have very little idea from week to week where the project is going and how much of your time they are going to need. All you can do is put the rest of your life on hold, and do what you and your client think is right on a day by day basis. They do not know how much of your time they will need, nor do they know how long you will be working for them.

4. Those who are with a project at the beginning may not be with the project in the end.

Do not think that by contributing to a project at the beginning, when usually that there is less time or money then there is ultimately, that you will be able to participate in the project when the real deadlines and budgets are revealed. It doesn't work that way.

5. Many projects experience a "moment of crisis" and everything is different from that point on.

I like to describe the differences metaphorically by asking the following question which actually does not have a right or wrong answer, it is all a matter of personal preference: "You are a consultant to the captain of the Titanic. Would you rather be a consultant to the captain of the Titanic before it hits the iceberg or after it hits the iceberg?"

In general, I prefer to be a consultant after it hits the iceberg, and these are the reasons why. People are not arguing about whether or not there are icebergs anymore. We are not arguing about whether or not we should slow down, or whether we should put more lifeboats on the vessel, or whether we should listen to the radio, or any of the other things we might have argued about before we hit the iceberg. Now people are a little more beaten down and we can discuss such things as how many people we can get on the lifeboats we have in the next 20 minutes or so.

But its a matter of personal preference, obviously if you are a consultant before it hits the iceberg you have the potential of having a much larger ultimate impact. Maybe you explain to them about icebergs and get them to miss them altogether. It could happen, you might be allowed to have that much influence. It depends.

I am going to end this first essay with one more observation which I have found to be universally true:

6. You can not force your clients to be successful against their will.

Although they have hired you to advise them in an area where you have considerable knowledge and experience, and even when they are paying you good money to get your ideas, very often they want to do things their way. At the end of the day, in fact, it is their project and not yours. At some point if you keep whining about something they don't want to do, or try to keep them from doing something they do want to do, they will just get rid of you. Ultimately they are going to do it their way.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Some Modest Suggestions for Human Resource Departments to Help Make the Internet Job Application Process Even More Pointless

We here at Global Wahrman believe that online Corporate Employment and Career web sites can do a better job at taking an unpleasant and difficult situation, looking for work in a down economy, and making it not just unpleasant but also hurtful to the worker as well.  We believe that Human Resources Departments must recognize that they have a responsibility to make the job search experience as negative, stupid and damaging as possible.

As we all know, the new way of getting a job is to apply through the Internet.  No other ways are permitted.  This is an excellent improvement for society as a whole over the old and discredited way that people got work: through colleagues who recommended them. This old way was very inefficient because it allowed employees and friends who knew the skills of individuals and the needs of corporations to find a match that was good for both parties.   With the new system we can depersonalize the process, fail to get the information necessary to find that match,  and destroy the self-esteem of the job seeker all at the same time.  Clearly, this is a great improvement.

J. Pierpont Finch reading about how to get a job on the Internet.

But some web sites for major corporations have failed to completely embrace this new paradigm, and still make modest efforts to do a good job of hiring people.   This is completely out of line with the Internet paradigm which works so hard to use technology as stupidly as possible in order to make life as unpleasant as possible.   This post serves notice to those archaic practitioners of the old, bad ways to get with the program.

To make their job of crafting an unpleasant experience for the job-seeker easier, we have compiled a series of suggestions based on our examination of the Career sections of major corporate web sites as well as some selected smaller companies.  We have also personally tested many of these web sites.  Many corporations are making excellent progress along the lines of making the online application process both self-defeating and destructive, but clearly there is more to do.

Here are some specific suggestions:

1. Do not permit the work candidate to upload a cover letter.  A cover letter can be used to defeat the process of depersonalizaton by providing information that is useful to the hiring process.  Therefore, cover letters must not be permitted.

2. Do not permit the work candidate to upload a resume for each job they apply for. The work candidate must acknowledge that their resume is generic and has no useful information that could contribute to the hiring process.  One resume should be sufficient no matter what job it is, or when that resume was created.

3. Do not permit the work candidate to efficiently upload information, instead demand that information as if they were a disabled child, and make them fill in endless categories about education, skills and so forth no matter how well that information is presented on a resume, it is important to waste their time and badly and stupidly elicit that information on a case by case basis.  We are not going to use that information, it is only there to waste the candidates' time and that is why it is important.

4. Do not allow the candidate to know whether or not they have successfully applied for the position. To do so would be to give the candidate some degree of reward for going through the immensely stupid process we have had them endure online.  Much better to not acknowledge whether the job was applied for and leave them in a state of uncertainty.  By frustrating the candidate in even this basic way, we can contribute to the psychology that nothing they do matters.

5. Do not allow the candidate to be able to contact anyone at the company in order to be able to ask questions or seek points of clarification.  That would be inefficient and far too expensive.  The work candidate is not interesting enough to be worth providing this kind of individual treatment.  In fact, the work candidate should realize that they are worthless, faceless garbage.   Allowing them to ask questions and seek clarification is counterproductive to achieving that realization.

6. Do not permit the worker any choice in the format with which documents are prepared.  Thus if they are permitted to upload a resume at all, make certain that you do not accomodate the standard formats of text, html, doc and pdf, but at most one of them, or better yet, none of them.

7. Make jobs come and go and make it very difficult to return to a job listing once found.  In this way, the job seeker can experience character-building frustration as he or she tries to find that previously listed job (which probably wasn't real anyway) and fail to find it.

8. Do not in any way serve notice to the applicant that the job is no longer available, or give him or her any useful information about how the job was filled, or even if the job was filled.

9. Do not in any way indicate that the job applicant's paperwork or application was in any way looked at by a human, but rather give the impression that they were dismissed without consideration.  Even better, is to not reply in any way at all, and thus they do not know whether they ever successfully applied and got rejected or have any other information.  Under no circumstances give constructive feedback.

But more important than any of the above is the following hard and fast rule: DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES LIST ANY GENUINE OPPORTUNITIES ON YOUR WEB SITE.  The only jobs that are permitted to be listed are (a) entry level jobs, or (b) jobs that are already filled and are being listed in pro forma compliance with law, (c) as a way of getting information about your competition and (d) as a way of misleading your competition.

The candidate must understand in a deep and meaningful way that any real opportunities will never be listed on your web site, now or in the future.

Remember, your employment web page is a way of communicating to the worker what the company thinks of their workers and that by treating them with contempt at this stage you accurately and efficiently communicate Corporate policy. More than just a human resources department and web site, you are an instrument of the Corporation's desire to demean and destroy the worker.

This is an important task you have been given by the Corporation, remember that, and work as hard as you can to achieve it.

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962)

There have been many adaptations of Dickens' Christmas Carol, but none can ever be more moving or more brilliantly staged than Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962).  Now this masterpiece is available on Youtube at the following links.  

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4


Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962)

Monday, December 24, 2012

The American Tradition of Christmas and the Mystery of the Aluminum Christmas Tree

In the spirit of the holidays, I set out to write a short essay on what I had learned about the origins of our Midwinter holiday and its traditions. I grew up in Virginia where Christmas was a much more important religious holiday than it is out here or other places I have lived, so perhaps that explains my interest.

So in this essay, I hoped to cover (a) the specific mechanisms by which Christmas traditions came into the popular culture in this country, (b) why these traditions seem to be rather oddly selected from a much larger set of European traditions, (c) why these traditions seem to be rather secular, which is odd, given that nature of the holiday, (d) whether any of these traditions are in any way based on the old religions of Europe as might seem likely in a few cases (e.g. the decorated evergreen), (e) why it is that Virginia seemed more devout and frankly Christian in its celebration than other places I have lived in this country, and (f) why an Aluminum Christmas Tree.  Lesser issues would also include the origins of the Yule Log, the various nativity scenes that are often set up, the tradition of the shop window Christmas displays such as one sees at Macy's in New York City, and the tradition of the candle in the window as one sees in Virginia.

Implicit in this might be why a third generation atheist liberal Jewish Virginian family such as mine should celebrate Christmas at all.  Not all of these questions are answered in this essay, but a few of them are partially answered. 

When I grew up in Virginia we had an aluminum Christmas tree. My father, a reformed sports writer, worked for Reynolds Aluminum and perhaps that is why we had a Christmas tree. It was pretty great, although as you might imagine it did not smell as good as a real evergreen. I always wanted to know where this thing had come from.

As I studied the origins of the various traditions of Christmas that I had experienced while growing up, two observations were reinforced, none of them particularly original.   The first is that what we celebrate in America seems to be combination of (as you would expect) a large number of Anglo-Saxon traditions in place about the time of the colonization but with an almost equal number of traditions seemingly picked almost at random from a large number of potential continental European traditions. The second observation was that these traditions were nearly all secular in origin and purpose.

But a third observation was somewhat new to me, but certainly not new to others who had studied the topic.  Apparently a significant number of attributes of what we consider to be a traditional Christmas celebration actually is American in origin and rather recent, e.g. the 19th century.   They just pretend to be older traditions, something I find amusing.

The following is an incomplete list of my research. I expect that many of you knew this already, but I did not know most of this.

I wish to emphasize here that there is a lot bad information out there which I hope I am not contributing to, but I probably am.   One such "wrong" belief is the common lore about the origin of the date of Christmas, at least in the Western Church, December 25th.  For many years I thought that it was accepted that the date of the Western Church's Christmas came from a very specific holiday, Sol Invictus, of the late Roman Empire.  I had been led to believe this by literally dozens and dozens of essays on the subject.  Looking a bit closer, I learn, again, that what one is commonly told is just flat out false.  So we begin with the issue of why December 25.

1. Most historians do NOT believe that the Western Church celebrates Christmas on December 25th because it was the date of a significant Roman religious celebration (e.g. Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, which was itself layered on top of other previous traditions). They do not believe it, because when Christians had started celebrating the birth of Christ, in the 3rd century AD, they were still in their conflict with Rome, e.g. before Constantine, and working hard to distance themselves from pagan traditions in any way they could.

The most commonly held belief among scholars for the date has to do with the psychology of determining aspects of Jesus's life from traditions in the so-called Old Testament regarding prophecy of the Messiah. The trick here is to find a day such that Jesus was conceived (not born, conceived in Mary's womb, e.g. a miracle) and executed which was the same day of the year although obviously in a different year.   So take the date of the Crucifixion as the date of conception, advance 9 months for a canonical pregnancy period, and you have December 25 as a birth date.   People used to do calculations like this all the time back in the good old days (e.g. 2000 years ago).

This is a specific example of a larger heuristic: that if Jesus was the messiah, then he must have fulfilled various biblical prophecy about who the messiah was.  Therefore, people worked backwards from these prophecies or what they thought those prophecies must have been to determine details about Jesus for which there was no clear documentation.  Getting to the bottom of what was and what was not prophecy for this and other matters is a job for a specialist, and I am not going to go further here.

Note that the Eastern Church(es) also have disparate ways of celebrating the event, but their chosen day is January 6. Note that this is all mixed in with issues involving the Marian traditions of the various churches, specifically the Feast of the Annunciation which celebrates the visit by the Angel Gabriel to Mary to tell her that she should expect a blessed event, as unlikely as that might have seemed to her at the time.

This reminds me of a joke I learned in the Upper West Side of New York.   How to annoy your Christian friends on Christmas day.   On Christmas, you call up a friend and invite them out for pizza.  When they say "But today is Christmas!", you feign ignorance and say: "Oh! Is that today?"

2. There were various traditions in Anglo-Saxon England for midwinter celebrations, including the tradition of a family dinner on December 25th (the wealthy had roast beef, but the poorer classes had a goose which was far less expensive, hence the Christmas goose). And also a tradition of people singing carols outside homes on Christmas eve, particularly homes where they might expect the people inside to give them a few coins for their effort. In other words, it was mixed in with the various traditions that make it more socially acceptable for the poor to request money from the more wealthy on a special day. Many of these traditions would have crossed the Atlantic with the settlers, particularly those who came to the more Anglican part of the colonies, e.g. Virginia and also (but its more complicated) to the mid-Atlantic states.

[I am told that beef is now much less expensive than goose today, but the point that Hutton was trying to make was that goose was less expensive back then].

3. Most Americans are blissfully ignorant of most of the history of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, but this affected everything in Europe and it certainly affected the Colonies and what beliefs were transferred.  England had a reformation all its own and there were several centuries of a complicated and messy process of  determining which pre-reformation traditions they were going to keep, and which they were going to suppress. But the more purely Calvinist in England believed rather strongly that the celebration of Christ's birth was an accretion that was not justified by scripture, more papist frippery if you will. As you must have guessed by now, these Calvinist dissenters emigrated (or some of them did) to New England and are who we incorrectly call Puritans.

4. So to begin with we have the Calvinists of New England, the more Anglican states like Virginia, and the mid-Atlantic states which have their own unique story here including as it does not only members of the Roman Catholic church but also protestants from other parts of Europe, especially and including the Low Countries, e.g. the Dutch Netherlands who settled New Amsterdam, and various regions of Germany who went to various places in the middle Atlantic, often Pennsylvania, and still spoke German and maintained their traditions.  Other dissenters from England, not the Calvinists we call Puritans, but of other beliefs, such as Quakers, generally went to the middle Atlantic states.

[Just a reminder, the Calvinists mostly went to New England to build their "City on the Hill".  People of other variations on the theme of Christianity, e.g. Quakers, Catholics, presumably Lutherans, in general went to the mid-Atlantic states: New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland.  Various religious groups went to Virginia but most of them were vanilla Anglicans of one school or another.  There were also other faiths such as Presbyterian in Virginia from the earliest days.  This is not a hard and fast rule: the Calvinists in New England were quite strict, but the mid-Atlantic states were specifically open, and Virginia and other territories did not have much of a policy either way as far as I can tell.  What they did have was an Anglican "founder effect" which persists to this day.]

5. We now jump ahead to after the American Revolution: the Anglicans in this country have become Episcopalians because of the issue of Archbishop of Canterbury needing to swear loyalty to the King. New England is no longer a pure Calvinist enclave but has begrudingly diversified by allowing people of other faiths to live among them. The Middle Atlantic states have enclaves of Germans who are true to their traditions and language. And there have been a few Jews there all along the seaboard, from top to bottom, although they play very little role in the rest of our story ironically since, of course, Jesus was a very devout 1st Century AD Jewish apocalyptic prophet and the influence of Judaism is all over the various Christianities in various diverse ways.   There are other minority communities seeded here and there in North America, keeping or not keeping to their traditions each in their own way.

6. Our story now enters the 19th century, e.g. from the 1800's on, and we have some specific events in popular culture that have immense impact.

In 1809, former lawyer and writer Washington Irving, executed a hoax claiming that a Dutch writer and historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, had disappeared and failed to pay his hotel bill, and if he or someone on his behalf did not pay the bill, that the hotel would publish a manuscript found in his room.

This was all made up of course, and the manuscript had been authored by Washington Irving and purported to be a history of New York from the beginning of time to the present day, from a Dutch point of view.   This was also a satire on the self-important local histories that one could find in different communities.

New Yorkers fell for this hoax hook, line and sinker, and as it was serialized, it went viral, as we say today.  A search was supposedly made for the disappeared Dutch historian, Mr. Knickerbocker, but to no avail.  Eventually the book got published, was very popular and established Mr. Irving's reputation.

In the history of New Amsterdam, Irving/Knickerbocker discuss the traditions from the Low Countries of Sinterklaas, of St. Nicholas, and of hanging stockings by the bed to be filled mysteriously with various edible goodies and toys by the morning of Christmas Day.  And this is the accepted version of the specific reason that we in America who are not from the Low Countries originally associate Santa Claus, St. Nicholas and hanging stockings on Christmas Eve with Christmas.

Knickerbocker's History of New York Complete by Washington Irving

7.  In England another writer, and social reformer, Charles Dickens, was struggling with his work and very upset about the poverty and misery among the working poor, after a lecture he gave in Manchester in 1843, walked around Manchester at night and conceived of a story of a greedy industrialist who is visited one Christmas eve by the ghost of his former business partner.   He went home and wrote the story as a short novel in six weeks and published it on 19 December 1843.   To his surprise, it became immensely popular, and has never been out of print since.

According to various accounts, including that of historian Ronald Hutton, whose book we discuss later, this story had a vast impact.  From it, he claims, came the particularly British charitable tradition that no one should go hungry on Christmas.   Whether or not this is true seems difficult to believe, but that is what he and other sources say.   Furthermore, it supposedly influenced an industrialist to begin the tradition of letting the workers have Christmas Day off, a tradition our right wing has been fighting and trying to destroy ever since.

[My readers in England dispute that Dickens was ever surprised by his success and dispute that Christmas Carol had that much influence on the charitable organizations.  I also wonder about this, but historians such as Hutton claim up and down that it is true.  Read Hutton and tell me what you think.]

8. Note we still have not explained Santa Claus' sleigh with reindeer, with his bag of gifts, in a red suit, or even the notion of having a decorated tree and other important elements.

9. Then in 1823 a poem was published anonymously in Troy, NY called "A Visit from St. Nicholas". It had been written by a professor of Classics at Columbia University and published without his permission (or his name) in a local newspaper. The poem tells the story of a Christmas Eve and a man who wakes up in the middle of the night to find a miniature sleigh flying over his house with eight miniature reindeer, and a person who is recognized as St. Nicholas (an elven and miniaturized version of the 4th Century AD Greek saint and bishop, I suppose) who climbs down the chimney with a sack of presents, and fills the children's stockings with candy. The man and the mysterious visitor exchange a conspiratorial wink, then the stranger leaves by the chimney and flies away saying "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!".

Clement Moore supposedly came up with the idea during a sleigh ride to do some Christmas shopping for his family, incorporating certain aspects about St. Nicholas that he had learned from a local Dutch handyman. But the rest of it, the sleigh, the eight reindeer, their names, etc, he made up himself out of whole cloth.  This poem became immensely popular, went viral as we say, and I end the essay with it.

10. But we still have not explained the tradition of the Christmas Tree. The various German ethnic groups that had emigrated to this country, the Moravians, etc, had/have a variety of traditions for their Christmas celebration. One of them is the notion of having a tree, given the time of year it is an evergreen, and having a celebration in which the tree is decorated with little ornaments. Somehow this became something that the President of the United States did every year in the White House.  But believe it or not, it is not clear when the tradition started.  Some say it was in the 1850s when Franklin Pierce was President, and other say it was 1889 during the Harrison Administration.  This became a tradition, became electrified, and is now one of the ceremonies of the season in Washington DC, the lighting of the Christmas tree.  From this, it is alleged, having a Christmas tree became a generalized holiday tradition for the American household.

Implicit in this explanation is the idea that perhaps the President was running for reelection and was trying to attract votes from the German ethnic groups in this country.  This last observation is pure cynical speculation on my part and is not in any way implied by anything I have read on the topic.

At some point we are going to get to the topic of the Aluminum Christmas tree, but this seems a good time to interject that Pierce or Harrison may electrify their tree, but if you have an aluminum tree it would be a very bad idea to try to electrify it.   Aluminum is very conductive of electricity and an electrical short would be very exciting but also unpleasant.   One uses an external color wheel to illuminate the tree in a festive manner.

Of course this begs the question of where the German's got their tradition from and whether it is a remnant of an archaic belief system, perhaps of the evergreen representing eternal life, as some assert. This essay will not go into that, it will have to be a topic for another time.  For now we must be content with the notion of how a specific German tradition came into American popular culture.

11. Although there is far more to mention, our research and this essay will almost but not quite end with mentioning one more influence because it was so important.  Apparently, a lot of what Americans think about Christmas from a visual point of view came from an illustrator and publisher, Thomas Nast, in the mid to late 19th century. He is known for many things, including his depiction of Boss Tweed, Uncle Sam and last but not least Santa Claus in his red suit (a Nast invention, among others).  (I have checked and this Nast appears to have no relationship to Conde Nast).

Not allergic to cats, I hope! 

But still we are not done, for we have not explained the notion of an Aluminum Christmas Tree, the Yule Log, the candle in the window, why Virginia appears to be more devout (e.g. Christian) in their celebration, and other matters.  I have not been able to figure out where the Aluminum Christmas Tree came from but I suspect from the image I found online and put at the top of this essay, that it may have been a marketing effort on the part of the Richmond, Va based Reynolds Aluminum.   I only know that we had one and that I was very unhappy to hear that it had been thrown out because it was in such bad shape after decades of use. It was in our family when I was growing up, and I wish it was in our family today.

What can we conclude from the stories reported above?   That Christmas in this country was, as it appears to be, a pastiche of traditions from England and the rest of Europe, but not all of them by any means, and that they were in part selected for their secular character because many Americans were ambivalent about the various religious traditions of Europe.  Whatever a stocking or a decorated tree may stand for, the relationship to the birth of Christ is not obvious.   The closest we get to religion seems to be a reference to a saint (St. Nicholas) and that star at the top of the tree, which may indeed be the Star of Bethlehem.   Even more amusing is that the details of many of these traditions were elaborated and created in this country by writers and artists of various types and only pretend to be older than they are.

When I transcribed Clement Moore's poem written for his children, also published here without his permission as is traditional, I discovered to my amazement that I knew it by heart. I have no idea how it is that I happened to know this poem by heart, but I do.

And so with that thought, I am wishing you a happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

A Visit From St. Nicholas

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc'd in their heads,
And Mama in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap —
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the luster of mid-day to objects below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call'd them by name:
"Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer and Vixen,
"On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Donder and Blitzen;
"To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
"Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys — and St. Nicholas too:
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish'd with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look'd like a peddler just opening his pack:
His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh'd, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh'd when I saw him in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill'd all the stockings; then turn'd with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight —
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.


By far the most comprehensive work that discusses and attempts to explain where various Holiday traditions in England came from is Ronald Hutton's book "The Stations of the Sun".  If you are at all interested in this topic, this is the book to get.

Essay on the origin of American Christmas Myth and Customs

Clement Moore


A Christmas Carol Wikipedia Page

The Manuscript for A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol at Project Guttenberg

[December 25, 2012: This is the 4th rewrite of this essay, and it will not be the last].
[December 26, 2012: We have some comments from friends in England, see below].
[December 27, 2012: More rewrite on the date of Christmas]
[December 25, 2013: Miscellaneous but especially on the ambiguity of which president started the tree]

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ignoring the Transcendent Moment with Visual Effects: An Example from Life of Brian (1979)

We have an important goal here at Global Wahrman which we hope to achieve by reviewing with you the history and process of visual effects through the years.   Previous to having this knowledge, you might see a film and become swept away into another world, a world of interesting characters, or a fascinating story, or an important idea.  But now you will be able to ignore these trivia of story, ideas and character and spend all your time analyzing the film, estimating the work required to execute the shot, the elements of the shot, and other important and engrossing nuances. No longer will you need to worry about what happens to the characters who are in jeopardy: now you can rise above it and just do shot breakdowns and back of the envelope budget estimates just like the bored and jaded professionals in the glamourous motion picture industry.  

I will demonstrate how this works by way of example: the final and uplifting sequence from an important film on the foundation of Western civlization and ethics: Life of Brian (1979)

In this sequence, Brian has been unjustly nailed to the cross, where he will be expected to die, horribly, with other criminals of the Roman empire in the province of Judea. But in an unexpected and heart-warming twist, the other crucifixion victims remind Brian to "always look on the bright side of life".

The sequence on Youtube is here.

You may be asking yourself, where are the visual effects in this sequence? A better question may be, where are the potential visual effects in this sequence? As you watch this inspirational transformation from despair to hope, just let the sequence run and note how the camera pulls slowly back, revealing the scene on the hilltop, the desolate countryside, then slowly turns to heaven as the final credits start to roll.

Instead of being carried away by the ecstatic moment as Brian is now happily whistling as he prepares to leave his mortal state and return to a loving God, you can now ask yourself whether or not this was a location that they found in the desert somewhere, without any signs of civilization, where they could do such an extensive pullback in simulation of the biblical Calvary (see note below).  That is possible. Or perhaps it is a cross dissolve to a matte painting? Or even a rephotographed process shot on a rear projection camera, remembering that this was in the days when visual effects was a skill and you actually had to think in order to do them.  How do you know?  Real or cross dissolve?

The fact is that I do not know for sure, but it doesn't matter. The point is that now instead of being in the moment and enjoying the film, you are free, free to constantly analyze and over-analyze how you would achieve the shot. I used to think that this was certainly a cross dissolve to a painting, but in the course of writing this post I have reviewed the scene many times, and I think what we have here is probably an interesting location that the filmmakers found.   But as I say, it doesn't matter, the moment is gone, and the movie is over.

So as you go forward, armed with the knowledge of the history, purpose and meaning of visual effects, it is our sincere hope that we have irretrievably destroyed any enjoyment or moral improvement you may have once gotten from the cinema, and we will feel we have achieved our goal.

I have transcribed the words of this inspirational song below.

Crucified Man:  Cheer up, Brian! You know what they say ... (starts to sing)

    Some things in life are bad
    They can really make you mad
    Other things just make you swear and curse.
    When you're chewing on life's gristle
    Don't grumble, give a whistle
    And this'll help things turn out for the best...

    And...always look on the bright side of life...
    Always look on the light side of life...
    If life seems jolly rotten
    There's something you've forgotten
    And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
    When you're feeling in the dumps
    Don't be silly chumps
    Just purse your lips and whistle - that's the thing.

    And...always look on the bright side of life...
    Always look on the light side of life...
    For life is quite absurd
    And death's the final word
    You must always face the curtain with a bow.
    Forget about your sin - give the audience a grin
    Enjoy it - it's your last chance anyhow.

    So always look on the bright side of death
    Just before you draw your terminal breath
    Life's a piece of shit
    When you look at it
    Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true.
    You'll see it's all a show
    Keep 'em laughing as you go
    Just remember that the last laugh is on you.

    And always look on the bright side of life...
    Always look on the right side of life... 
    (Words and music by Eric Idle, reprinted here without permission)

For more details on the setting of the crucifiction, here is the Wikipedia page on Calvary:

Life of Brian (1979) on IMDB

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What if A Visual Effects Supervisor Made An Ethical Stand Against Stupid Visual Effects?

[By the way, I am quite aware that Josh Whedon is a genius and the issues I discuss below are taken out of context.   But there is still a point that holds true, even if that sequence may (or may not) have been representative of the movie as a whole]

I was in Fry's the other day admiring a fabulous flat panel display. This one happened to be an LED LCD display, but it doesn't really matter, there are excellent displays of all the different technologies, each at their various price points, etc, etc. None of that really matters except to observe that the economy must be doing well for some people, or there would not be as many people buying these things.

The point of mentioning this is that I happened to be watching The Avengers (2012) and it looked beautiful on this 50" display. Except for little thing. Just one little minor point. Hardly worth mentioning. Well, I guess I will mention it anyway.

It was incredibly stupid. Stupid beyond belief. A fabulous clusterfuck of excellent digital visual effects without a neuron to rub together with another neuron, as far as I could tell. A giant robot that looked like a big fish, undulating through the sky and emitting bad people who wanted to blow up office workers in NY.  And a healthy looking guy and his drop dead gorgeous, yet wholesome, girl friend in black spandex, shooting arrows at bad fish while saving school children on a bus.  Well, I gotta tell you, you will need a lot more big giant robot fish undulating through Manhattan to make much of an impact on the number of office workers there, I thought to myself.

Then suddenly, without any warning, I felt as though I was surrounded by light.  The light became blinding and I was graced with a sudden vision.  A vision of a better world.  

What, just imagine for a second, what if the next time someone brought a really stupid movie to a visual effects supervisor, if this visual effects supervisor, he or she as the case may be, stood up and told the producer and director "Enough is enough, this movie is stupid. More stupid visual effects! I will not allow the noble art of visual effects to be dragged through the mud of your lack of imagination. Money! Is that all you think about is money?! What about art? "

Can you imagine our noble visual effects supervisor or visual effects producer standing up to them like that?

No? Well, neither can I. Nevermind, it was a silly idea.

Anybody seen my script?

Since Josh Whedon directed this thing I am sure that there is more to it than was apparent in 10 minutes of sitting in Fry's.  I know this.  Yes, I realize, I need to see the movie.  I know.   I know.  I am sure, since its Josh Whedon, that it was very entertaining and probably very intelligent in ways that are not obvious from the totally out of context segment that I saw.   I do realize this.

Nevertheless, I will still hold to my foolish vision of the visual effects supervisor making a stand for integrity and content.   In another world, a better world, I am sure.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Controversy over Zero Dark Thirty

[Foreign Policy Online has an article on the movie and its portrayal of torture in Zero Farce Thirty restating the conclusion of the Washington defense establishment that extraordinary interrogation techniques (e.g. waterboarding) was not effective in general and did not help find Bin Laden.  See]

We have a major incident brewing between the glamourous and self-entitled motion picture industry which knows everything, and the Washington defense and intelligence community which also knows everything.

It shows every likelihood of blowing up into a big disaster and when it does, it will be the last time Hollywood gets any help from the DOD or intelligence, at least until the next time.

The new Kathryn Bigelow film, Zero Dark Thirty, which is considered a front runner for Best Picture before it is even released is going to say that torture enabled us to get Bin Laden. And Kathryn Bigelow was given access to all sorts of things about the background of that event, to the point where the Republicans in congress are atttacking the Obama administration and the CIA for releasing classified information. And Obama and the CIA helped Ms. Bigelow not knowing that she was going to say this so they have mud on their faces.

Or do they?  Maybe they planned their own humiliation as part of some complicated, mirrors within mirrors game of espionage!   How would we know?   Ok, this is unlikely.  Anyway, back to our story.

There are a number of different issues here.  The first is that no one in the defense and intelligence community that I know of (or have read online) believes that torture led us to Bin Laden.  The second is that the criminals in the Bush administration were never properly reprimanded by Obama (in other words, they were not charged with crimes that they had committed), and thus even though the Obama administration stopped the torture, or we think they did, they are compromised by their failure to punish the guilty.

And so it turns out that the Obama administration and the intelligence community cooperated in extraordinary ways with a filmmaker that was going to turn around and attack them in an area where they are compromised yet, in an odd way, innocent, stirring up an issue they wish would just go away.

What do I mean they cooperated in extraordinary ways?  Consider this: Kathryn Bigelow met the woman who in real life did what the heroine of the movie is going to be shown to do.  Now, the person, in real life is still covert. "Who cleared Bigelow to allow her to meet this person and know her real role?  Why was she cleared?  What else was she told?", you can just imagine the opponents to the Obama administration rubbing their hands in anticipatory glee.

So Bigelow not only damages the career of people who helped her, she gets the story wrong, and in doing so, she helps the case of people who believe we should be using torture.

What a delicious situation.

Cool nightvision image.

Perhaps the result will be that the next administration buoyed by the argument that torture had solid results here, will reinstate torture as our formal policy.  If not, it won't be because the people who helped Bigelow create this slander are there to do it, their career is (ahem) compromised.  Whatever the long term result, in the short term careers are damaged, people are embarrassed, the Obama administration will be under attack for working with this person, and on top of that, torture probably had very little to do with getting Bin Laden.

Thats show biz.

(In a further post, we will go over some nuances here about torture).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Petition to Build Death Star Succeeds

In a remarkable turnaround, over 14,000 signatures were added to the petition to Obama to start building a Death Star by 2016.   The current total signatures is 26,887 as of 10:30 PST on December 13, 2012.

Thanks to all of you who responded to our urgent appeal on this important matter.


The original post:

With only one more day to go and another 12,000 or so signatures required, its looking very bad for the Death Star petition.  It has to reach the 25,000 signature mark by Dec 14th, e.g. tomorrow, in order to be sent on to President Obama.

The petition requests that the US commit to start building the Death Star by 2016.

"By focusing our defense resources into a space-superiority platform and weapon system such as a Death Star, the government can spur job creation in the fields of construction, engineering, space exploration, and more, and strengthen our national defense."

To sign the petition, go to, filter by "science and space policy" and look for the "Start construction of Death star by ..." petition.

Read more about this exciting expression of public opinion here:

My 15 Seconds of Fame: Interviewed on Intel Blog about UI Design

[This post has wildly screwed up the blogspot GUI and it will need to be completely reformatted, yikes!  Not to mention typographical and grammatical errors which I can not see because blogspot made the type the same color as the background.   Hmm, it must be karma.  I say nasty things about GUI design and look what happens!]

Every once in a while, someone does something nice for you and its very confusing. What is their real motivation? Why are they doing something nice?

Anyway, for some reason my friend Audri Phillips, a pioneer of computer animation, and a veteran of Robert Abel & Associates, who is among other things, an artist and a writer for corporate giant Intel, interviewed me on the subject of user interfaces. I am very opinionated on user interfaces, having been victimized by them most of my life.

User interface design and implementation is an easy target, because they are so badly done most of the time. Abomoniably and inexcusably done. Unfortunately, there are many plausible reasons why this can happen, most of them variations on a generic "constraints on the project that we know nothing about and aren't apparent from using the device but were very important during development", such as "you have to use this software package" or "this company is going to do this, we only get to do that", that sort of thing.

Once you have the device in hand, and without any knowledge of what happened behind the scenes, it is easy and even somewhat emotionally satisfying to strike back at being victimized by the bad result, we can only judge what we see. Nevertheless, it seems that only Apple can do a product with a good user interface (a slight exaggeration).

Here is Audri's article on the Intel blog, please click on it to give her page hits which no doubt her management tracks.

Audri's blog on artistic matters is at:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Future of the Humanoid-Computer Interface as Seen in 1951

This post will showcase two designs for a future human-computer interface from two different movies, one from 1951 and 1960. I think that they both hold up remarkably well for being over 50 years old. The two films are The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Time Machine (1960). The second film also illustrates the importance of a good voice actor, in this case one of my favorites, Paul Frees.

When you make a film about the future, or about an alien visit to earth, almost by definition you have to show sets, props, costumes and so forth in that future world.   Which means of course you have to design the future, or what the future will look like in the context of the film you are trying to make. Whenever a character has to interface with technology, then you have a man-machine interface or in this case a humanoid-computer interface (HCI).

In other words, you have trapped yourself into a situation in which you are forced to show the entire world how limited your imagination is, and how badly you failed to predict the future, there on the screen for everyone to see.  Your humiliation, inevitable and unstoppable, is assured unless you come up with a solution that convinces the audience that they are seeing the future (or an unknown technology) that lasts the test of time.  And this time around you may not be able to use giant robots to get out of this mess, either.

A notable recent example of a humanoid interface is the multi-touch display in Minority Report (2002), although not enough time has passed to be able to judge how it will hold up.  But for me, the best of the best is still "the button" at work in The Jetsons (1962) from Hanna Barbera.   George got tendinitis of his button pushing finger decades before people in the computer industry started complaining.    Its not perfect, notice the use of a CRT, but the design is so great that it doesn't bother me at all.  

Push the button faster, Jetson!

But most films do a lousy job of this.   They don't have the money, or they just don't care.   So they design something that looks silly, but not silly in a good way.   Its a hard problem and for many reasons including: things (e.g. technologies) move fast, they don't always move the way you think because of issues of style, economics and politics, its hard to estimate how fast things will move from the lab to the real world, and because you are telling a story and the audience has to understand what they see so it has to fit their preconceptions in some way.

It is also used as another excuse to substitute visual effects for design or story in many films.   

But rather than emphasize the negative, here are two examples from films that are quite old now, that I think stand up pretty well, at least to some extent.

The original Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is actually a fairly interesting film hiding inside a black and white science fiction movie. The plot turns on a visitor from another world who brings a message from the local galactic union about Earth's place in the universe, a message he has trouble delivering because he wants to deliver it to all the nations of the world simultaneously. Why doesn't he just broadcast it to the world from space, one wonders. My guess is that the alien humanoid grew up in a nice family of space humanoids in a more courteous civilization and believes that bad news needs to be delivered in person.

Anyway, getting back to our HCI, it turns out that our visitor must arrange for a dramatic demonstration that catches everyone's attention and forces them to listen.   To do this, he must go to his ship and arrange the events that give the film its title.

This is the only time in the movie that we see inside the ship, beyond a tiny glimpse through the open door and one giant robot whose design does not hold up at all well. I expected the worst. But what we see is not incredibly technological at all, it is simple, minimal, and darkly lit.  It suggests more than it shows.  We see that the circular design motif of the ship itself is repeated throughout: a circular access corridor, a circular control room, a circular workstation of some sort where our hero probably sits when navigating, and a control console with circular panels. All controls are activated by gesture and voice. He enters the ship, uses gestures to activate the systems, which respond with light, and issues commands by voice. The feedback is in devices that light as activated and in an abstract display. It is completely understated and minimal.

I met Michael Rennie when he reprised this role of an "understated alien with incredible power" in a two-part episode of Lost in Space (1966).   My father was able to arrange a visit to the set at 20th Century Fox because he knew the head of PR for the show, an old Marine Corps writing buddy (e.g. Combat Correspondent) from the Solomon Islands campaign.   Visiting a set of a TV show is a lot of fun for a little kid.

In The Time Machine (1960), the H.G. Wells and George Pal masterpiece, our hero is trying to figure out what has happened to earth and civilization in the future. The vague and blonde kids who live there can't tell him and couldn't care less, just like teenagers today. After a while, the classically blonde romantic interest tells our hero about "rings that talk". What do they talk about, he asks. Things that no one here understands, she says.

The rings turn out to be encoded audio, and the power for playback is generated from the energy used to spin the rings centrifugally on a table that illuminates when they are spun. As the ring loses energy and slowly decays to the table, the voice slows down with it. The technology appears to be robust, survivable, and works without any power but the power you use to spin it. I am pretty sure this design comes from the Wells book itself, and is realized well and simply here in the movie. The voice is the voice of Paul Frees, one of my favorite voice actors of all time, and noted previously on this blog.

In both of these cases, at least, the "advanced technology" did not look completely stupid a few years later, which is more than we can say for many films.

The moral of the story may be that in predicting the future, showing less and letting the imagination fill in the gaps is a plausible strategy.

Of them all, I still think that George Jetson's button at work is the best.

Day the Earth Stood Still on IMDB

The Time Machine on IMDB

Michael Rennie on IMDB

Paul Frees on Wikipedia

Minority Report on IMDB

The Jetsons on IMDB

Monday, December 10, 2012

Reality vs Photography: The Case of the Flying Peacock

The following image was brought to my attention by Clark Anderson and has been making the rounds on the Internet.

 I looked at this image and immediately thought "fake", but after some research into it, I am pretty sure it is real, with some solid photographic help.

The peacock is the classic example in evolutionary circles of an out-of-control, positive-feedback loop in selection. Peahens like flashy peacocks and mate with them, resulting in more males with flash and more females who like males with flash. So it is believed.

It is also the case that the peafowl (as they are known to non-gender-biased zoologists) does not have many predators where they live, and the predators that they do have only eat them when they can not find anything else. Another helpful trait if you are going to have 2/3rds of your body mass invested in this huge dead weight on your ass.

But getting back to our photograph, what we have here is one in a series of photographs in India of a peacock who was jumping around that day in the presence of a persistent photographer who, with his trusty telephoto and probably image stabilized lens, was able to get a number of pictures when the peafowl was (very briefly) in flight.

So what I think you are seeing here is an unusual pose of the peacock in the process of leaping up, the foreshortening of the telephoto lens, and possibly the benefit of a camera that takes many photos as quickly as it can.   Either that or the photographer was remarkably quick and/or lucky to catch the pose that he or she did.   

Then, one of these photographs, which happened to catch a nearly full jump of the peacock, was cropped, color timed, and probably had contrast modified and some sharpening. Thus a very iconic and graphic image was created from an image of something that does exist in nature, although you are never likely to see it this way yourself, even if you lived near a flock of peacocks.  

Here is the original composition as photographed. 

Original image at

It has never been the case, that photography simply recorded what was there in an objective and unmodified manner. Photographers have always added their own spin and point of view, but usually it results in something that is not quite so dramatically graphic.

Photorealism is a style of painting, not of photography.

Here is a photograph from the same series of photographs of our jumpy peacock as found on Wikipedia.

Here are nine pictures from the same series:

The Komodo Dragon as a Potential Mascot for the Field of Visual Effects

[Revised 12/11/2012]

The purpose of this post is to bring to your attention an example of a truly original behavior in an animal, in this case the Komodo Dragon.

I find animal behavior fascinating, and I have no doubt that animals are intelligent, even though scientists, or some scientists, claim that they are not sure.   I think most dogs are more intelligent than many people I know and they are certainly of a better character.

One reason this topic has come up, is because there has been a low level effort to find a mascot or symbol for the field of visual effects and computer animation in the motion picture industry.  A bulldog might symbolize determination, an eagle might symbolize vision and integrity, a zombie might indicate mindless devotion, and so forth.   After all, doctors have their snake, California has its bear, the Orioles have their bird, maybe we should have a mascot too.

Ideally any mascot chosen for visual effects would communicate something about the field and people in it, and not just be chosen because it is cute. A good mascot / totem might inspire us by their example and help stimulate an espirit de corps that could cut across the various competitive companies and encourage us to achieve excellence.

Recently, I came across an animal with a truly amazing behavior that has been observed in the wild, and I want to suggest it here as a possible candidate for our mascot.

A very cute Komodo Dragon taking a nap on a rock.

The Komodo Dragon ( is the world's largest lizard. It lives in parts of Indonesia and it is famous for many things. It is famous for having a saliva that is so nasty that one bite and the victim will go away and die of the putrescence that comes from the bacteria in its drool.   The Komodo is famous for eating anything that moves, including its own children. The little Komodo Dragons apparently learn to climb trees to stay out of the way of their parents in case one of them should suddenly decide to want a snack.  

But there is one behavior above all others that distinguishes the Komodo from other animals. In order to understand the significance of this behavior we first have to go over the normal eating behavior of the Komodo.

The adult Komodo Dragon may eat no more than once a month. Its preferred meal is a small pig, goat or deer which it likes to eat whole, live, in its entirety, in one gulp. Basically they inhale dinner, or that is the idea. Then they will sit in the shade and digest for several weeks, up to a month, being careful not to get too hot.  When done digesting, he or she will vomit out the indigestible parts such as the skull and hooves and wipe the disgusting slime off its snout on a rock.

But often a piglet or appropriately sized dinner is not available so the Komodo inhales what it can of the available animal, and can get caught with an unhappy pig or goat in its mouth, half in and half out.  Obviously this won't do, so the Komodo has to figure out how to get the intended dinner all the way in.

How does it do this? Other predators might stun the intended victim with a venom that paralyzes the victim or makes it unconscious. Or it might want to kill the victim first, bite it into chunks, and then eat it a piece at a time.   But this is not what the Komodo Dragon does.  

What the Komodo does is to run at full speed with the pig/goat/deer in its mouth and slams that part of dinner still visible into a tree (or other large object) in order to bash it all the way in.  If dinner is not all the way in after the first bash, it will back up and charge at the tree repeatedly head first, or if you will, goat first, until the goat/pig/deer is completely inside.  

Komodo's have been observed knocking trees down in this way because of their enthusiasm.

What a creative approach!   What enthusiasm and ingenuity it demonstrates!  It reminded me at once of the enthusiasm and determination that a visual effects facility uses to get a project.   And of the same sort of compassion and genuineness with which someone in visual effects works with a co-worker and many, many other aspects of our field.  I still see the resemblance whenever I read about the Komodo Dragon, this one behavior completely recreates for me the sense of the deepest motivations of so many of our peers.

Anyway, I wanted to bring this to your attention in case people felt that this might be an appropriate mascot for visual effects.  

Wikipedia page for the Komodo Dragon