Friday, May 30, 2014

A Story from World War 2 for Memorial Day


In honor of Memorial Day, here is a story that my father told us, my brother and I, about his time in the Solomon Islands as a writer for the US Marine Corps in World War 2.

Part of the charm of studying history is to figure out what you need to know to understand the events described.   People are people at some fundamental level, of course, but many other things are different and people at the time had strong opinions on topics we may have never even heard of.   And things are different in subtle ways that can lead to misunderstandings when we try to understand them today.

In the little story that follows, to really appreciate the story you have to know something about the people and personalities not just during World War 2, but after the war as well, in the 1960s in America.   And so while I think the significance of the story below was obvious to someone like my brother and myself, it would be less so to someone who was born in 1980 and did not know much about their own history, which is to say, most people in America.

Another part of the appeal of this little story, at least to me, is that it is possible, if one pays attention, to figure out the punchline of the story by little clues dropped along the way.   

My father was what we used to call in this country a “newspaperman” who was someone who made his living as a journalist for one of the daily or weekly newspapers. Many well known writers of fiction from the 20th century were newspapermen, including Damon Runyan and Ernest Hemingway. Many of these newspapermen knew each other personally as it was a small and incestuous community.

When World War 2 happened, quite a few of these patriotic newspapermen volunteered for the Armed Services and many went to war, often as what was called a “Combat Correspondent”, which is to say that they were professional writers in uniform for the newspapers that the military used for internal communications. In this case, my father volunteered for the US Marine Corps, hoping to get a cushy job in Washington but instead being sent to to the humid, disease ridden, dangerous and annoying Solomon Islands, famous for being the location of Guadalcanal. They gave him a cute little portable typewriter which we still have.

It is a truism of military life that most of the time is spent enduring incredible boredom and usually in uncomfortable circumstances. That was certainly the case for my father who was normally bored out of his mind, at least until he got malaria like nearly everyone else and got sent home within the year weighing about 80 lbs.

One day, while being bored, a friend of his came by that he had known before the war. This man was from Boston, also a newspaperman, and was Irish which of course is an important ethnic group in the history and politics of Boston. I think his name was Joe Flaherty, but I am not totally sure. Anyway, he said that he had received a letter from one of the leading society ladies (doyens) of Boston who had asked him to do a favor for her.

She was writing because she was worried about her son, who had been thought to have been killed when his ship went down a few months ago but had survived the wreck of his ship and had been hiding from the japanese on a nearby deserted island.  Her son had damaged his back and he was laid up in a Naval hospital.

This woman had recently lost her eldest son in the war in Europe and did not believe anything she was told. What she wanted Joe to do was to go visit her son in the hospital and report back to her.

So Joe was on his way to the island where the hospital was located and he invited my father to go along with him. Having nothing better to do, my father said sure, and they took a shuttle to the other island where they spent the day with a nice young man and future President of the United States John Fitzgerald Kennedy who had damaged his back when his ship went down and was also bored, flat on his back, in this hospital.

Of course the woman who had written the letter was Rose Kennedy, daughter of Mayor John Fitzgerald of Boston and married to the US Ambassador to England, Joseph P Kennedy, Sr. The disaster that had nearly killed her son was the sinking of PT 109 by a Japanese destroyer on August 2, 1943.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Is the Giant Pangolin Evidence of Evolutionary Convergence in Cartoon Villains?

We are all aware of the controversies around the issue of whether or not evolution should be taught in our public schools and/or whether this "theory" should be augmented with other theories that may explain the world we see around us.  One theory in particular, the so-called "intelligent design" theory calls upon a particular hypothetical cosmic energy source that although invisible has caused the design of all the millions of existing types of creatures, not to mention the billions that no longer exist.  

I have recently come across a strange relationship between one of these existing creatures, the Giant Pangolin of central Africa, and a certain classic cartoon character archetype: the weasel. This relationship has the potential to break open the entire discussion of evolution vs intelligent design and extend it to the role that this potential cosmic energy source has had in the creation of genres of the cinema.   I think you will see from the discussion below that "intelligent design" may very well need to be added to the "auteur theory" in our film schools, except perhaps instead of "intelligent" this type of cosmic design might more properly be called "whimsical".  Yes, I propose that it is "whimsical design" that may need to be added to the discussion of theory in our centers of film education.

I was having a discussion with Professor Ken Perlin of NYU about how one properly categorizes an animal as a biped (which most humans are, at least after the age of about two except when very drunk) versus other animals with or without backbones that have legs, flippers and wings.   It turns out that this issue is more subtle than it might at first appear with criteria based on such things as how often and for what purpose a creature is believed to walk, hop, shuffle or otherwise proceed on two legs.   For example, birds on the ground stand and ambulate on two legs, but they can be said to more properly hop than walk.   Are they then bipeds?  

In researching this topic, I came across a type of animal I had never even heard of before, let alone had ever seen: the giant spiny anteater of central Africa, aka the Giant Pangolin.   This improbable creature is known to spend quite a bit of time walking on its two hind legs as it proceeds to terrorize the locals of Africa with its large size (over a meter) and its amazing and intimidating profile as it goes about its business decimating unlucky ant colonies in its ravenous path.

You dont see one of these every day in America, thank goodness.

Although the Giant Pangolin were entirely new to me, yet they seemed strangely familiar somehow.   It took me over a day to realize where I had seen something like this before.  The Pangolin reminded me of an important type of villain in the classic cartoon, the Weasel.    Most prominently known as the evil sidekicks in Roger Rabbit (1988), they have been around cartoons for many years before that.

Here is an example from 1955 called Poop Goes the Weasel.

Is this resemblance an accident?   An example of evolutionary convergence?  Or is it something else, something more important, proof of a divine and loving God who causes bizarre semi-bipeds in Central Africa to be styled after cartoon archetypes in a medium barely a hundred years old?   We may never know the answer to this burning question but it seems to me that this issue needs to be fairly and impartially presented to students in our public film institutions in order to give a balanced account of what we know about where our character archetypes used in film come from. This is a vital issue I think.   And how ironic if it turns out that Whimsical Design is accepted not in the science community but in the elite film communities. Its not very likely to happen, but it might, and we will just have to see.

For a discussion of whether or not an animal is biped or not, see this paper by Alexander.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Scientific Breakthrough in Visualizing 3D Blood Leads to Bidding Frenzy

All Hollywood has been abuzz with rumors of a new technology which shows blood in 3D in a much better way. “This is what we have been waiting for”, said an anonymous studio executive, “what we have been begging scientists for all these years”.

The technology, created by a team at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brasil, is said to be able to solve problems in visualizing blood. And not just any blood, blood in 3D in particular.

“Don't expect me to be able to understand scientific mumbo jumbo”, said one executive who was part of a studio bidding team, “I don't know and I don't want to know. What I know is that the audience wants blood and more of it”.

“For years we have been waiting for computer animation to come up with something better than Technicolor Blood #1 and #2, but they have let us down”, said the executive. “Now we don't need to wait for those four-eyed geeks any more, we have the blood we have always wanted and they can go back to their workstations and rot for all we care.”

Is a remake of Fantastic Voyage in 3D in development?

Rumors of the new technology leaked out Monday via the various creative agencies who reported a strong, new interest from the studios for properties that can exploit the new technology. According to Creative Artists, they are seeking all spec scripts with “blood” in the title. “Bloody Monday, Bordello of Blood, Blood in Her Eyes, Oceans of Blood, Tsunami of Blood.... all of these are possible, anything is possible today. We are talking 6 and 7 figure deals as long as people can act fast and write bloody”.

Global Wahrman was able to reach lead author of the paper, Dr. Paula Rosas, in Brasil and asked her what she thought about the excitement that her paper had created. “We have no idea what these Yanqui morons are talking about,” she said, “but if they want to give us a bunch of US Dollars, we are happy to take them. These people seem to be totally crazy!” she laughed.

The paper, entitled Total 3D imaging of phase objects using defocusing microscopy: application
to red blood cells by Rosas, et alia, can be read at the following links:



Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Hills Illuminated by Fire and the Esoteric Prophecy of Human Resources

draft/in progress

At 2AM last night, I walked out onto my patio to check on my garden, where to my surprise I saw that the nearby hills were on fire. A layer of smoke lay over the valley. “Is this the time, Oh Lord”, I thought to myself, “Is now when the world will be cleansed of the sins of the wicked biped mammals who have turned away from the path of righteousness and wallow in the filth of self-aggrandizement and narcissism?”

As I watched a fire seemed to explode on a hill to my left. When I ran to get my camera and returned it had diminished to nothing much. So will the wicked explode, I thought with grim satisfaction, when they are touched by the vengeance of the Lord. A burst of flame and then nothing much.

Is this a sign that the End is near?

As I watched the hills burn down around me, my thoughts turned to happier times, years ago, when I consulted for Viacom in New York. There I made friends with a beautiful woman who was consulting for Human Resources on a special project.  Although we did not know it, Cindy and I were working on different pieces of a much larger, more important,  project than the one we were nominally working on.

We both thought we were on very different aspects of the Interactive Television AT&T Castro Valley Test but in fact those differences were irrelevant.  There was a real project that underlay the apparent project, and this was the project that was truly driving events.  You see, Viacom is a cable company, it exists and profits in a beautiful monopoly ordained by the Lord and granted by Our Government to those who are Worthy.  And in the interests of the Public, these monopolies are reviewed from time to time by the specific agencies of our government that hand out these monopolies to the rich.   Viacom's monopoly was up for review and as part of that review we demonstrated advanced technology in the public's interest, we had Sumner Redstone speaking at the Washington Press Club, I even contributed to the signage of a third party industrial press firm who was working on the publicity for this event.

But soon this very long process that the three of us, Cindy, Sumner and myself, had been involved in would be over and the monopolies given by certain agencies of our government would have been reaffirmed, the little theatre of interactive television having played its part, the forms having been observed, the lobbyists paid.   Then the blessed bloodletting could begin to sacrifice those who would through their wretched jobs stand in the way of the profits that rightfully belonged to the shareholders. 

Some might think that because these types of companies are in fact government created monopolies in their region and sector, that there might be some rules such that some of the money extracted from the consumer might also trickle down to the workers, perhaps in the form of employment.  But such a thing would be anathema in America.  The poor can go fuck themselves for all the government cares as long as they pay the taxes on their pathetic wages.  That is the way it has always been, that is the way it must always be. Anything else would be to turn away from the values that have made this country great.

Because Cindy liked me, she let me see the real Human Resource manuals, not the ones that they let the uninitiated see, but the secret one, the one reserved for the Elect.  She turned to the section on Layoffs and told me that it foretold the future and talked about the end times. She asked me to read it to her out loud.

I turned to the first page and read

The fire of God's vengeance will burn away the corrupt flesh from the body.

“Hallelujah!”, she said, and laughed.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mysteries of Underbidding in Visual Effects: Underbidding for Effect and by Mistake

Part one of this series is here.

In part one of our series on the “mysteries of underbidding in visual effects”, we discussed some of the reasons why a vfx production company might deliberately underbid a project where underbidding is defined as charging less money than they theoretically “ought to” have.

I realize that I had left out a very important type of “deliberate underbidding” in part one and that is “underbidding for marketing” or perhaps "underbidding for effect".  It is the phenomenon of bidding at one price but fully intending to spend more money than budgeted in order to achieve a certain level of quality. Robert Abel & Associates was famous for doing this. Every year, at least one project and generally more than one, was given this special attention. The studio would work extra hard on that project and of course it would go over budget, but generally when we were done we had done work that no one else in the world (or very few) could do. The result was that we had excellent, recent work on our reel which we could use to get the next year's worth of work. And of course we had a very happy client, one would hope. Another fringe benefit of such a project is that it helped with recruiting and keeping artists and technical directors as they knew there was a good chance that they would be working on some of the best work of its type in the world. Of course, Bob was considered crazy for doing this, but it worked well for him for many years.

But there are three other categories of “underbidding” and they are (a) underbidding because of a mistake (misunderstanding the scope of work), or (b) underbidding because of coercion, or (c) the project was not particularly underbid at all, except maybe in retrospect, because there are politics going on above and beyond merely getting the work done.

We discuss the “By Mistake” phenomenon in this post.

First, lets recall what a “bid” is. It is essentially an estimate for what a facility thinks they can do a project for, in conjunction with a schedule and other terms and conditions of a contract. It is the facility's combined judgment about what it will take them to do the work described by the client in storyboards, the script, discussions about the project and knowledge that the facility has about what it is like to work with this client and do this type of work. That judgment includes calculations of overhead, of labor, of capital improvements (e.g. computers) as well as opportunity costs and so forth. If the new company has to move during a project (and many new companies have to move), that is also included implicitly in the budget and schedule. It also has built in ideas about the kind of service that the facility will provide and the client will receive. It will not surprise you to hear that a new company will rarely be able to charge the same sort of fees that an established player with many projects to their credit can charge.

Now when a facility is new, they may not have their costs and production processes completely understood. Often new facilities are started with “enthusiasm” and “optimism” which usually means that they have naively underestimated what some of the costs are. Or they may have made some clever arrangements to keep their costs under control but discover that those arrangements do not work out in the real world as well as they do when they are being conceived. Or any of a hundred things that can occur when you are doing a startup.

Also, all leading edge companies in visual effects and other types of advanced media are doing R&D at the same time. If they are not, then they are in the process of going out of business, or at least ceasing to be a leading edge company. Some of this R&D is leaking into the production process in what is hopefully a sane and rational way, but sometimes not always. Some of this same R&D is then lied about, I mean used, in the marketing for the film. Why it may even be that a famous director will claim to have invented some technique that has been in use for 20 years. The point is that a new company in particular is doing R&D and writing software and so forth and that is part of who they are, and has to be paid for.

In terms of startup capital, visual effects companies come in three categories: No startup money whatsoever, a few million from an inheritance, or giant gobs of money from a large corrupt, international media corporation.  For examples of the "startup by inheritance" look at MidOcean Motion or R. Greenberg and Associates and a probable few others in the early days of computer animation that I am less certain of.

Those without any money pay for everything out of production fees, which is a particular form of semi-insane self-destructive behavior. Extraordinarily hard to do, yet always unrewarded, these companies pay for everything out of their fees, and if there is a problem with getting paid they are out of business.

But if they are financed by a large corporation, see for example Sony Imageworks, Digital Domain, the Secret Lab, WBIT, etc, they may gleefully dump millions, possibly hundreds of millions, down the toilet having nothing to show for it but a bunch of cold machines and hot people. Those lucky companies (not me, folks) can now proceed to try and make a profit paying back the interest and principle on those millions of dollars. You see, that money they spent turns out not to be a gift, it was a loan, and intended to be paid back.   How could they have known?  (1)

Therefore, if an unfinanced production company new to the field, bids on a visual effects project and by mistake underbids it, they are faced with some grim choices very quickly. They can either return the project to the client giving them all work done to date, apologize, walk away, and hope they do not get sued. They can try to finance the shortfall through other projects going through the shop which happen to be more profitable. They can try to get the client to accept lesser work. They can fire everybody and the founders can try to finish the project on their own in their garage without pay (usually the founders are not paid anyway).

Therefore, I think you will agree with me that the unfinanced production company rarely makes that kind of mistake twice. It would be better to not get the job than to underbid it and have to make it up somehow. Life is too short.

Of course, the well-financed company can simply choose to spend money they have received for startup purposes in getting the client's work done. To the best of my knowledge, every single well-financed visual effects production company has done exactly that when starting out. I don't think that is a particularly good use of their investors' money, but that is just me.

Therefore, I propose to you that underbidding by mistake rarely happens outside of a new production company, at least in the case of one that is not well-financed.

The real reasons you often hear about underbidding in the context of some sort of problem during production probably is not because they made a mistake bidding the project, except in one glaring circumstance, which is the subject of our next post.


1. Now you are a vice president of another division at the company, only you are expected to make a profit with the money you are allowed to spend, whereas the idiots in visual effects, just *spend* the money and never make a profit, not a profit as it is defined in real business.   Do you suppose that some ungrateful wretches at such a company might try to kill the stupid visual effects department that just loses money?  What do you think?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Great Moments in Ukrainian Diplomacy: The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks

Ukraine!   Ancient land of peace and harmony, how fondly we remember you!  There are whole chunks of the American population who are descended from people who ran screaming from that part of the world.

Political Scientists the world over are gleefully sharpening their knives about events in recent, what we might call, Ukraine. Experienced yet stupid American and European diplomats are reeling in astonishment at what is apparently their first introduction to the history of the region. Could it be that even today not everyone in that part of the world loves each other?

Of course, where there is war, there is diplomacy, or the lack thereof. Diplomacy is sometimes defined as that activity between nations or other groups which attempts to negotiate and resolve conflict. It has its own specialized language (which of course varies by time period) and conventions whose intent is to, among other things, see to it that nations are not accidentally misunderstood. Obviously the potential of misunderstanding is rife when we have very different cultures, languages and factions attempting to work with each other or kill each other or both.

I have recently come across a beautiful example of diplomacy which is worthy on its own merits but has extra value since it also took place in what we are today calling Ukraine.  I am going to present the following anecdote as if it were a colorful incident of history, when in fact if I were being more serious I would really want to dig in and find out just how likely it is that the following diplomatic exchange actually happened.  Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, I always say. 

In 1676, the Turkish Sultan Zehmed IV sent a letter to the Zaporozhian Cossacks stating who he was and that they should surrender to him at once.

The demand from the Sultan was:

As the Sultan; son of Muhammad; brother of the sun and moon; grandson and viceroy of God; ruler of the kingdoms of Macedonia, Babylon, Jerusalem, Upper and Lower Egypt; emperor of emperors; sovereign of sovereigns; extraordinary knight, never defeated; steadfast guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee chosen by God Himself; the hope and comfort of Muslims; confounder and great defender of Christians -- I command you, the Zaporogian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks.

The reply from the Zaporozhian Cossacks (one of the many Cossack entities) was thought lost to history, but a copy of the letter was found two centuries later. I am going to freely interpret several different proposed translations of this letter but as I do so please keep in mind that by definition the best invective involves the pungent use of idiom and is very difficult to translate and still keep the same color. When for example I tell you to “kiss my ass”, I rarely mean that I literally want you to kiss my ass, although I might depending on the details, but usually the request is meant figuratively.

Detail from Repin's painting about the writing of this letter.  We should all enjoy our work as much as this Cossack

Supposedly, the reply of the Cossacks was:

From the Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan! 
O Sultan, you Turkish devil, brother and assistant to Lucifer himself, what kind of knight are you who can not slay a hedgehog with your naked ass? You shit and your army eats. You will not, you son of a bitch, make subjects of the sons of Christians. We have no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with you. Go fuck your mother. 
You are a Babylonian kitchen slave, a Macedonian wheelwright, a brewer of alcoholic beverages from Jerusalem, a goat fucker of Alexandria, a swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, a pig of Armenia, a thief of Podolia, a young boy who receives anal sex from Tartary, a hangman of the Kamyanets, a fool of this world and the world to come, an idiot before God, a grandson of the Serpent, and a curve in our penis. A pig's snout, a mare's ass, a dog of the slaughterhouse, an unchristened brow, you should go screw your mother. 
So the Zaporozhians declare, you lowlife.

You won't even be herding pigs for the Christians.

We do not know the date and we do not own a calendar, but the moon is in the sky and the year is with the Lord, and the day is the same over here as it is over there. 
You may kiss our ass. 
Koshovyi Otaman Ivan Sirko and the Zaporozhian Host.

Yes, I suppose that this letter could be misunderstood.



1. This is a scan of Repin's Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks which was completed in 1891 and hangs in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersberg.   Its Wikipedia page is here.  First Secretary Joseph Stalin is said to have had a reproduction of this painting hanging in his office in the Kremlin.

2. The origins of the Cossacks are much more complicated and vague than I had realized, Their Wikipedia page is

3. There is a mangled paper online about some of the issues of the translations of various versions of the reply.  See