Sunday, May 27, 2012

Here's Looking at You, Kid

As mentioned in earlier blogs, I determined a while back to revisit methodically the DVDs that were collecting dust on my shelves, figuring that there was no point in keeping them otherwise. (See Of Dust and Disks and Ghosts of Presents Past.) It's been more fun than I expected, and I've fallen asleep only twice (and finished up the next day) despite always choosing a late night hour. This reminds me of TV when I was a kid: old movies were standard fare in late time slots.

The most recent 15 DVD views:

I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). Yes, I know: don’t we all? The 50s were the heyday of cheap sci-fi films. This one capitalized on the success two years earlier of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As in Body Snatchers, the aliens take human form, but in this case they preserve the original humans. The unconscious originals are hooked up to a broadcasting device that lets their look-alikes access their memories. The aliens run into trouble with their human forms when they find themselves enjoying human pleasures and vices. One even gets married in place of a human man and has a honeymoon. If the real groom, after his rescue, is upset about his bride having gotten it on with a monster from outer space, he doesn’t say so. This is a silly but surprisingly likable little movie.

2 Days in the Valley (1996). An unapologetically trashy film with killers, femmes fatales, flawed cops, a horrible boss, insurance scammers, a massage parlor, and a legendary fight between Teri Hatcher and Charlize Theron. Several apparently independent tales intertwine into one. Not nearly as heavyweight as Pulp Fiction, but if you haven’t 3 hours to spare for that, this one will do.

Battlestar Galactica (2003). This two hour made-for-TV movie also was the pilot for a remarkable and dark reimagining of the original 1970s series. It is high concept and well executed, though the theological discussions get annoying after a while.

Son of Kong (1933). This is probably the least seen of the three classic giant ape movies, the other two being King Kong and Mighty Joe Young. Much of the same cast from King Kong is reassembled for this pic. Carl Denham, the showman who captured King Kong, is being sued by just about everybody for the damage to New York caused by the ape, so he and his buddy Captain Englehorn skip town for the Dutch East Indies. They sail back to Skull Island to find treasure, but are abandoned there by a mutinous crew. On the island the four stranded crewmembers and one young woman stowaway encounter a “little” Kong about twice the height of a man. The director/screenwriters were unsure whether to play this sequel for laughs or to stick with the adventure. They do both, and the mix is not altogether successful. It is modest fun regardless. Where mother Kong might be is anyone’s guess. She probably left King because he kept going to the village to pick up chicks.

Cat Women of the Moon (1953). This movie is the very definition of “so bad it’s good.” All one needs to say about this film’s budget is that the acceleration couches in the rocket are lawn chairs. Several particularly obtuse astronauts, including a busty female navigator who is in telepathic contact with the moon woman “Alpha,” fly to the moon, kill two giant spiders, and then kill the cat women. They are bad cat women, you see. You might think that makes them all the more worth preserving, but this crew doesn’t think so. The movie was remade in 1958 as Missile to the Moon which had enough of a budget for color film and even more silliness.

The Bachelor (1999). In this remake of Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances, a young man must marry within a day in order to qualify for a $100 000 000 inheritance. It’s a harder task than he expects. This rom-com has some good moments. The attack of the brides near the end is as funny as it is in the original silent. If you get a chance, though, see the silent.

King Creole (1958). This is the last Elvis Presley movie made before his stint in the army. It was his favorite of all his movies, and is my favorite, too. Elvis plays a high school dropout in New Orleans who gets a chance at a night club career, but in the process he runs afoul of a gangster. A pre-Morticia Carolyn Jones is perfect as the over-educated Shakespeare-quoting trampy moll. When she flirts with Elvis on orders from her boss, Elvis complains, “Your heart wouldn’t be in it.” “You wouldn’t miss it,” she answers.

The Runaways (2010). This biopic of the 70s band which launched the careers of Joan Jett and Lita Ford is based on the autobiography Neon Angel, written by the lead singer Cherie Currie. All were underage at the time the band formed, prompting the term “jailbait rock.” Success, drugs, and an unstable home life almost destroyed Currie in an all-too-familiar pattern before her 18th birthday. Not a great movie, but not bad either, especially for Joan Jett fans. I first saw this in the theater with a friend “You know,” he said, “our families were way too functional.” “Yes,” I agreed, “it ruined our careers.”

The Killer inside Me (2010). The seamy low-life characters of Jim Thompson’s marvelous novels are notoriously difficult to bring to the screen. This is because so much of what is relevant takes place in the characters’ heads. The Grifters was probably the most successful screen-adaptation, since the plot better lent itself than most to being visual. There have been three attempts at The Killer Inside Me. This one with Casey Affleck and Jessica Alba is the best. Yet, even in this version the relationship between the sadistic cop and the masochistic prostitute is likely to be puzzling to anyone who hasn’t read the book. This is recommended only to Jim Thompson fans.

Whip It (2009). Directed by Drew Barrymore, the movie stars Ellen Page as a 17-year-old who discovers Austin roller derby to the annoyance of her mom who would rather she compete in beauty pageants. It’s pretty good both as a teen flick and a sport film. It prompted me to attend a local derby bout, as other blog posts make obvious. Actually, pageants and derby are not mutually exclusive, as Lady Oh-No on a local Jerzey Derby Brigade team can attest.

Cruel Intentions (1999). Before there were Mean Girls, there were the wealthy and private-schooled step-sibs Kathryn and Sebastian (Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillipe) whose cruel games wreak havoc in the personal lives of those around them. All is well until Sebastian falls for an intended victim and develops a conscience. In the luxurious high-rise Upper East Side snake pit in which he lives, a conscience is the one thing he cannot afford.

Mommy (1995). Following the book, play, and remake of The Bad Seed rather than the 1956 movie, the psychopathic Rhoda Penmark is alive and has a 12-year-old daughter of her own named Jessica Ann. Rhoda, portrayed by an adult Patty McCormack (child star of the ’56 film), is not happy when a teacher fails to give a “best student” award to her daughter. It’s unsafe to get on the bad side of Mommy, even for Jessica Ann. The low-budget Mommy is pretty mild as serial murderer movies go, and seems aimed primarily at a kid/tween audience (the perspective is Jessica Ann’s). If you’re in the target audience, or if you like The Bad Seed, you’ll find this unofficial sequel amusing. If not, give it a pass.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010). All the world’s a video game, and all the men and women merely avatars. Though this surreal movie did OK at the box office, it surprises me that it didn’t do better. I found it clever and witty and a good adaptation of the comic books (which I also own).

Run Lola Run (1998). When she needs 100 000 marks in 20 minutes to save her boyfriend from being killed (this particular guy hardly seems worth it, but suum cuique) Lola tries three times to get it right, starting on each attempt from the same point in time. Whether these are three alternate realities, the last two tries are just in her head, or she successfully has manipulated space and time, the viewer can decide. Minor differences in each attempt (amounting to seconds or split seconds) produce vastly different results, as the same people are in slightly different places and finish (or don't finish) conversations. It is the Uncertainty Principle writ large.

Play It Again Sam (1972). Written by and starring (but not directed by) Woody Allen, the hapless classic movie buff “Allan” struggles with his love life, aided by an imaginary Humphrey Bogart.

I relate especially to the last movie on the list, not because I identify with Woody's character, but because, Bogart speaks to me, too, if not as vividly. And not just Bogie. Movies can transcend pure entertainment in just this way. Even the idiot astronauts of the Cat Women movie have something to say, though in their case all of it is wrong – if you can be sure that whatever somebody says is wrong, that is useful information, too.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Uncommon Clay

From the Batman TV series:
Robin: "Gosh, Batman, is there anything you don't know?"
Batman: "Oh yes, Robin. Several things, in fact."

My own nescience extends beyond the several, I’m afraid. One of my patches of cluelessness turns out to be proper academic citation, something I thought I had remembered from college. I had remembered, too. It’s just not done that way anymore. “MLA” citation is now preferred, and, when a neighbor asked me how to cite an internet source, I had no idea. (I looked it up on the internet.) There was no internet in my benighted undergrad days, just long hours amid library stacks with notebooks and 3 x 5 index cards. Today, students never leave their computer screens to do research papers unless their professors insist that they cite at least one paper-and-ink source. Having, in essence, a world-class library at one’s fingertips almost anywhere is a profound change, whether or not we make use of it.

Libraries once were rare and special. The earliest sizable one with which we are at all familiar is the palace library of the 7th century BC Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. Ashurbanipal, by his self-description, hardly seems a bookworm:

“I am a king, I am a lord, I am glorious, I am great, I am mighty, I have arisen, I am a chief, I am a prince, I am great and I am glorious Ashurbanipal, powerful king of Assyria, proclaimer of the moongod, worshipper of Anu, exalter of Yav, suppliant servant unyielding of the gods, conqueror of  the lands of his foes, a king mighty in battle, destroyer of cities and forests, chief over opponents, king of the four regions, expeller of foes, crusher of enemies, prince of a multitude of lands and of all kings, above all a prince who subdues the disobedient and who rules all the multitudes of men.”

Uh-huh. Yet, it seems that when he took time out from being great and glorious he liked nothing more than a good book, as is natural for someone who has attained “the highest level of the scribal art.” The old boy scored fairly high on self-esteem. Since the Assyrian texts were inscribed in clay tablets, the fire that destroyed the palace only hardened and preserved the library contents, to the delight of the 19th century archaeologists who found them. Tens of thousands of tablets make up an estimated 1500 distinct titles. They are as varied as a medical textbook (really more of a magic manual), a Sumerian/Akkadian translating dictionary, and the purely literary Epic of Gilgamesh.

While common riffraff weren’t allowed in the palace, Ashurbanipal did not hog the library all to himself. Nobles, scribes, court chroniclers, and even student scribes had access, which accounts for the threats on so many of the books that couldn’t possibly have been aimed at the king. “In the name of Marduk, do not rub out the text!” “He who carries off this tablet, may Shamash carry off his eyes!” My personal favorite: “He who breaks this tablet or puts it in water and rubs it until you cannot understand it, may Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Adad, Ishtar, Bel, Negal, Ishtar of Nineveh, Ishtar of Arbela, Ishtar of Bit Kidmurri, the gods of heaven and earth, may all these curse him with a curse irrevocable, terrible and merciless, as long as he lives may they let his name and his seed be carried off from the land, may they put his flesh in a dog’s mouth!” Talk about a library fine. There is a carrot, however, as well as a stick: “He who does not steal but returns the tablet to its proper place, may Ishtar regard him with joy.”

The most impressive library of the ancient world was, of course, the one in Egypt at Alexandria, founded about four hundred years after Ashurbanipal’s preeminence. With well over 400,000 texts, it was large even by today’s standards, and it formed a great research center for the scholars of the day.

The Romans were the first really to embrace libraries for the common folk. The one in the Forum of Trajan was typical and open to the general public. Greek and Latin literature (organized in familiar alphabetic order) were housed in separate rooms, each with reading tables in the center. The library had space for 20,000 scrolls. A tour book for the city of Rome from 350 AD lists 29 libraries among the buildings to see. The Romans built libraries in the provinces, too, sometimes combining them with public bath houses. It helps explain how so many erudite Latin authors (such as Martial and Apuleius) could have come from small towns in Gaul, Spain, or North Africa. Starting in the 100s AD, scrolls increasingly gave way to parchment codices, which had the shape of modern books. They were much more compact and were more convenient to use.

Then everything fell apart, at least in Europe. The Germans who swept over the western Empire and the Turks who conquered the eastern Empire weren’t first and foremost lovers of classical literature. Of the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of Greco-Roman titles that once existed, only precious hundreds have come down to us through this chokepoint. They include some of the choicest pickings, but vast amounts of classical culture were simply lost. No one bothered to re-copy most of the texts as they rotted away.

Could we be facing a modern chokepoint as books are digitized? When a book takes its place in the digital cloud, it remains at risk from shifts in server technologies and ownership. After all, much early computer data are presently unreadable because the hardware, software, and memory storage methods of the day are already obsolete. Perhaps not every book will be reformatted to each sequential technology.

This may prove to be the case. For now, though, our access to books and information is unprecedented. Ashurbanipal can eat his heart out.

Synonym Finder (Thesaurus) from Ashurbanipal’s Library

Shameless Plug: One of my own short stories featuring a student scribe in ancient Nineveh:

The Bookworm

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Strong Punishment

Two-point-spread nail-biter bouts unquestionably are the most exciting, but there is something to be said, too, for watching the home team show its power, and the Corporal Punishers, the senior roller derby team of the Jerzey Derby Brigade, did just that last night against the Strong Island Derby Revolution. In the first jam Maggy Kyllanfall slipped swiftly through the pack to put the Punishers in the lead. The team never relinquished it.

Yet, the Punishers predominated, not dominated. The Revolution made nothing easy. On the contrary, until the final 10 minutes, they retained the potential to overtake the Punishers with a few successful jams. Even in those final 10 minutes, the Punishers couldn’t coast by any means; they had to fight to the end.

The Punishers’ jammers, particularly Maggy Kyllanfall, Heinz Catchup, and Baked Beans, have gained a lot in speed and sure-footedness since I first saw them on the track; they are fast by any measure, and not just when in the clear. They deftly exploited openings in Revolution’s defenses, sometimes barely slowing down while doing it. The improvement in the Punishers' blocking in the past couple years – won from practice and experience – has been just as notable. Time and again last night Punisher blockers (one of them often Raven Rage) would double-team a Revolution jammer, impeding her while the other two blockers (one of them often Doom Hilda) helped open a path for the Morristown jammer. They effectively contained the damage during Revolution power jams as well (a “power jam” is when an opposing jammer is in the penalty box, which provides a one-sided opportunity to score points).

Once again, none of this was easy. Revolution blocking also was competent and forceful. An ability to exploit openings and score points was on display from Revolution jammers – notably Jenny from the Block #13, Serial Mom, and, most especially, Trinity. Even when a Punisher jammer broke through the pack first, Trinity showed a talent for breaking out and closely pressuring the lead jammer; this repeatedly limited Punisher point totals by inducing the Punisher jammer to call off the jam. (The lead jammer has the option to terminate a jam.) At half-time the score was 96-42 in favor of Punishers.

Halftime activities at the Morristown bouts are as varied as Forrest Gump’s chocolates. In the past they have included barbershop quartets, rock bands, and students from a school of Irish dance. Last night there were belly dancers. Unlike those students, the ladies did use their arms – and everything from veils to a lighted hula hoop. They were crowd-pleasers.

In the second half of the bout, the aggression on the track went up. The hits were harder and more frequent. This frequently happens in bouts as one team or the other strives to catch up. Revolution narrowed the gap to 15 points, helped especially by a power jam by #13. Anita Chainsaw in the next jam then re-expanded Morristown’s edge, and the Punishers built on the lead. In the very last jam of the night Anita Chainsaw added more points to the scoreboard for a final 192-92 Punisher win.

The difference in the performance of the two teams was much narrower than the final score indicates. Strong Island Derby Revolution is a very competitive team which never eased up on its pressure; if a few events had happened a little differently (e.g. another mix of players in the penalty box at key moments) the outcome could have been different as well. Furthermore, they are armed for next time with experience of the Punishers’ strengths and weaknesses. I’m already looking forward to a rematch

(Note: for an explanation of derby rules and terms, see video at the end of an earlier post: )

Link to Bout Pics:

The Teams

Monday, May 14, 2012

Revolution, n. In politics, an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment -- Ambrose Bierce

NBC reports that it has picked up a new series for the fall entitled Revolution. The premise (source “Our entire way of life depends on electricity. So what would happen if it just stopped working? Well, one day, like a switch turned off, the world is suddenly thrust back into the dark ages. Planes fall from the sky, hospitals shut down, and communication is impossible. And without any modern technology, who can tell us why?” Uh-huh. Never mind the physics issues here from the subatomic level on up. The eponymous Revolution is political as well as technological; governments fall and local militias take over.

In real life, we need not worry about the NBC scenario (in part because life wouldn’t exist in that world), but I suspect a severe enough energy crisis could spark revolutions. It would take a bad one. We’ve had some tough patches with energy already, and fuel is pretty darn expensive right now. The remarkable thing is just how much folks are “disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable.” Neither the Occupy nor Tea Party movements seem especially worked up about it, not that the bulk of either group is a quarter so revolutionary as it claims to be. Another doubling of price in real terms might do it, at least if it happened quickly. Even then it’s not certain.

In 1971 I lived in a dorm on 19th Street NW in Washington DC, three blocks from the White House. In early May of that year, thousands of people poured into DC from all over the country. After days of unrest in which there were 12,000 arrests and an atmosphere thick with tear gas, calm returned to the city. A fellow student, an enthusiastic participant in the recent street activities, passed me in the hallway in his olive drab jacket with a red scarf tied on the left arm. He was carrying notebooks and textbooks on his way to class. "Revolution's over," he said to me with a smile. So it was. There has been the occasional local urban disturbance and outright riot in the US since 1971, provoked by some local incident, but May 1971 was the very last one that was a broad-based expression of what then was called (by Radical and Establishment types alike) The Revolution. (See older blog The Quiet Riot for a more detailed account:

In the late 60s, there were more than a few intellectuals with radical New Left leanings (and alarmists with radical right wing leanings) who sincerely believed that Revolution was possible and imminent in the United States. The government and corporate Establishment had lost credibility and support among key segments of the population, they believed, and, furthermore, radicals were motivated as never before, as demonstrated in Chicago in 1968 and DC in 1969.

This was pure silliness. It shows the danger of talking only to people who agree with you; such cliques can delude themselves that their opinions are more widespread than they are. There never was a glimmer of a chance of Revolution. On the contrary, the country shifted rightward; Richard Nixon’s appeal to the “Silent Majority” won him the Presidency. Besides, even in countries and circumstances where revolutionaries are, in fact, popular, their popularity is not enough. This is very important: in the absence of foreign intervention, incumbents always beat revolutionaries so long as they retain the loyalty of the police and military. Only when the enforcers defect in large numbers is the government in trouble. This is not Richard’s Rule; it is a rule long-recognized by analysts of revolutionary movements, e.g. Louis Gottschalk in Causes of Revolution: “the weakness of the conservative forces…is the necessary immediate cause of revolution.” Such was the case in the French Revolution. In 1905 Russia, the army remained loyal and the revolutionaries were quashed; in 1917 the army (other than loyal units tied down by Germans, Austrians, and Turks) ceased to be reliable and the very same revolutionaries won. In the American Revolution, the largest part of the enforcement arm (the state militias) went into rebellion, and there was foreign intervention. Since 1865, there never has been a loyalty issue with the military or police in the US. It isn’t even imaginable today.

Conservative weakness is the immediate cause of revolution, but not the initial one. There must be numerous and organized revolutionaries in existence who can take advantage of it. Why would there be a significant revolutionary faction in the first place? Aristotle surely got it right in his remark, “Inferiors revolt in order to be equal and equals revolt in order to be superior.” Both groups claim to call for justice, as both claim to want only their fair due; differing ideologues can and do make arguments for the fairness of equal and unequal results. What causes weakness and defections among security forces? Beyond being influenced by revolutionary ideas themselves, members of security forces start to flake away when they lose confidence in their employers – when they regard the government as unsustainably dysfunctional so that their own futures are in doubt if they support it.

More than a few Western countries are looking ungovernable and dysfunctional these days, as voters consistently demand more than for which they are willing to pay. The US government, for one, is at odds with itself in everything, even in bad causes. The debt crises in Europe refuse to go away and are benefiting extreme parties everywhere. Still, revolutions in democracies aren’t common; they do happen, but aren’t common. Nothing more drastic than see-saw “throw the bums out” elections appear to be this side of the horizon. What is just beyond the horizon, though, is less certain than it once was.

At present, the spirit of Revolution is most alive in the Middle East. I’ll refrain from predictions about future successes or failures there. Many a prognosticator’s reputation has sunk in the sand in that part of the world.

In the West, for now, I see no more immediate risk than there was in 1971. If oil hits $200 per barrel in the next year, however, all bets are off.

A Curiously Counterrevolutionary Song

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Spice of Life

I grew up accustomed to the taste of black pepper. My mother, traditionally enough, did most of the cooking at least until my middle years of high school. She had many virtues as a person and as a mom, but a knack in the kitchen wasn’t one of them. It was her notion that there was nothing wrong with any dish that more black pepper couldn’t address successfully. (My dad didn’t agree, but didn’t say so, and instead pled a sensitive stomach in order to get an un-spiced version of whatever was on the stove, or, if that wasn’t possible, a very small portion of it; what he ate for lunch is anyone’s guess.) Unsurprisingly, heavily peppered food became my baseline for what was “normal,” and, as I grew older, I added to my array of preferred spices, dumping Tabasco sauce on this and curry powder on that. To this day, my favorite cuisines are Mexican and Cajun, and I’m convinced that no dish is spiced correctly unless it makes sweat break out on your forehead.

“Why is ‘mild’ salsa even offered for sale?” I once wondered. “Who would buy it?” The answer, of course, is lots of people. It didn’t take me long to discover that there are at least as many mild spicers as hot spicers in the world, and that I’m located pretty far to one end of the bell curve. Still, most people like at least some, and apparently always have.

Black pepper is one of the oldest traded spices, first imported from India by ancient Mesopotamians no later than 2000 BC. The peppercorn-bearing shrub is native to Java, but was transplanted to the tropical Asian mainland very early. Cinnamon, ginger, and cloves also were coveted in ancient times. (Spices, as a matter of definition, are the seeds, fruit, or bark of a plant; the leaves are herbs.) In the New World, bell peppers, vanilla, allspice (Pimenta dioica), and chili peppers were favorites of native peoples, and, with the arrival of the Spanish, these also became part of European cuisine. For reasons that are not entirely clear (though there are many theories) the use of spices increases the closer one gets to the equator; the explanation may be simply that the plants mostly grow in this region.

Some people claim that spice preferences are related to personality. Dr. Alan R. Hirsch, for example, at the Smell & Taste Research Center in Chicago says, "Cravings definitely have a physical component, but they also give some insight into the type of person you are." Maybe, but I’m not convinced. According to his list, spice-lovers are fastidious, like order, and pay attention to details. Anyone who has seen my desk knows that is untrue, at least in my case. I suspect that a taste for spices has more to do with early exposure to them, though I’ve met a few people who learned to like them later on.

Spicy foods, by the way, do not cause ulcers or digestive disorders. Nor do they kill taste buds. They do, however, trigger symptoms if you already have an ulcer or other disorder. If you can handle spices, though, there do seem to be some health benefits (see

In one of those ironies of life, it so happens that virtually all of my friends are light-spicers or no-spicers. Accordingly, when we go out or when I have guests, the menu is blander than when I order or cook for myself. In truth, I have learned to appreciate unadorned meats and veggies as well; they just aren’t my default choice.

Tomorrow, May 11, is a special day, however. According to the holiday-tracking site Gone-ta-pott, it is Eat What You Want Day. No kidding: Google it. At my house it will be jambalaya and curry chicken, with hot cherry peppers for dessert.

A Burger After My Heart

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Derby de Mayo or “‘It MUST come sometimes to “jam to-day”,’ Alice objected”

More eyes and far more dollars were directed at the Kentucky Derby last night than at the one I attended, but, except for heavy betters on I'll Have Another, I think mine was more fun.

The Major Pains are the newer of the two roller derby teams of the Jerzey Derby Brigade league based in Morristown, NJ. They’ve been playing interleague games for only a year, and, as is natural for a new team, suffered growing pains in that time. Their losses in 2011 included a 351-16 rout at the hands of the Long Island Roller Rebels. A subsequent stiffening of the team with a few veteran skaters helped them win their first ever victory last November against the New Jersey Hellrazors. However, for various reasons not all of those vets are still skating with the Major Pains in 2012. Accordingly, the Pains' home rink “Derby de Mayo” rematch last night with the Hellrazors looked daunting for Morristown.

The Hellrazors picked up a lead in the very first jam as Maggie Kyllanfall was sent to the penalty box. The Hellrazors expanded steadily on the lead. There was exceptional jamming for the Hellrazors by Cherry Mercenary (973) and A Bomb (235U, of course) among others. Though smaller than the typical skater on either team, A Bomb nevertheless is able to exploit holes in the opposing defense or bypass it altogether, and she is very fast when out of the pack. The Hellrazors’ blocking was consistently good. The Major Pains, too, have no shortage of effective jammers, including Maggie Kyllanfall, Heinz Catchup, Baked Beanz, Voldeloxx, and ASSault Shaker. If the Pains still have a weakness, it is that the blockers, while aggressive enough, are prone to get scattered, which makes it difficult for them to support the jammers. By halftime the score was 71-35 in favor of the Hellrazors and there was every reason to expect that lead to grow in the second.

Those expectations proved as false as could be. The Major Pains returned to the rink after halftime determined to close the gap, and their method was to turn up the aggression. It worked. The hits and spills were hard and frequent, and they helped return the favor to the Hellrazors of disorganizing their blocking. Both teams continued to rack up points, but the Pains added more. With 8 minutes left in the bout, the Pains for the first time took the lead 102-101. Mental Block recovered the lead for the Hellrazors in what had become a very exciting match, with onlookers cheering both teams. The Hellrazors led 119-106 when a power jam gave Maggie Kyllanfall a chance to rack up points as the clock ran out. The crowd watched the scoreboard which reset to 122-122. A tie-breaking 2-minute jam was ordered by the judges. In a rough and tumble jam, Thiza Glory broke through the pack to accumulate points while the Hellrazors put everything they had into the blocking. The final score: 136 -129 in favor of Hellrazors.

It was the most entertaining bout I’ve seen since 2010 when the Corporal Punishers had a similar last minute nail-biter with the Blue Collar Betties. Despite the fortunes of the last two minutes, the Major Pains proved they are no longer the new kids on the block, but an established formidable team.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Root of It All

Yesterday a molar screamed for attention too loudly for me to ignore any longer, so my dentist was kind enough to drill into it, at the same time drilling into my checking account. In less than an hour the molar’s nerve roots were no more, and, if money indeed is the root of all evil, I am significantly closer to virtue. I have been fortunate with my health in my life to date, except for my teeth which always have demanded care. All 32 of them are still there, but only thanks to copious reinforcement with gold, silver, and porcelain.

Paleolithic skeletons are remarkable for their good teeth. There are exceptions, but by and large their choppers are in excellent shape. This probably is a matter of diet. Eskimos with a traditional diet of virtually all meat also have superb teeth, as do most predominately carnivorous peoples. (That’s not a plug for the Atkins Diet; there are many advantages to a vegetarian diet in other respects.) The teeth of ancient farming Egyptians, on the other hand, commonly show severe wear, apparently from grit and sand mixed in with the grains. Modern peoples have all sorts of culinary temptations seemingly purpose-designed to rot the teeth, so there is no unemployment problem for skilled dental technicians.

It is possible, though, that there is a biological as well as dietary element to declining dental health. One author as long ago as 1933 thought so. In that year anthropology curator HL Shapiro in a Natural History Magazine article titled “Man—500,000 Years From Now” ( noted worsening human teeth: “Since it is improbable that we shall return to the tough, resistant food on which our predecessors thrived, the chances are that our dentitions will continue to deteriorate. We perceive a progressive recession of the jaws, a decrease in the size of teeth, a loss in number, and an increase in maleruptions.” He projected the trend far into the future. Mr. Shapiro’s article, even allowing for the year of its publication, has problems, to put it kindly, and the 500,000 year timeframe is the least of them. Still, it probably is true that modern dentistry reduces the extent to which bad teeth affect reproductive success, which in turn might make bad teeth more common.

This week, articles about ongoing human evolution are in the news again, due to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that examined 18th and 19th century birth and death records in four Finnish villages. In this period, half of the inhabitants died before age 15. The reproductive success of the adult inhabitants varied greatly, especially among males, ranging from 0 offspring to 17. The authors see in these numbers evolutionary pressures to adapt (to life in Finnish villages) that are fully the equal of those on most wild mammals in their environments. The conclusion is that evolution continues.

I don’t think anything in the Finnish study is a big surprise. Exactly how humans have changed since Paleolithic times, remains debatable, however. In the past 30,000 years we’ve certainly evolved resistance to some diseases and our brains actually seem to have gotten smaller (see, but little else is clearly discernable. How humans will change in the future is, in truth, unknowable.

It is still fun to speculate though, just as it was for Mr. Shapiro. Bio-technology makes this even more of a guessing game than ever since genetic engineering opens an entirely different path from natural selection. So far, however, performance of bio-tech hasn’t matched the hype. In particular, for all the talk of telomeres and “aging genes” we’ve yet to alter the human lifespan by a single day. Statistics that seemingly show increases in longevity really simply show that people are less likely to die early from disease and injury; the maximum possible lifespan beyond which we just wear out (122 is the oldest age ever confirmed) hasn’t budged in thousands of years.

One change that is occurring – that is hard to miss – isn’t even biological. People are becoming cyborgs, more or less permanently attached to their electronic devices and their internet access. Perhaps as our machines become larger and larger components of ourselves, they will become the more important part. This won’t take 500,000 years either. Will the machines ever become the only part, as so many science fiction tales would have it? Maybe, but then we’re not talking about human evolution any more, are we? We’re talking mechanical design.

I have a suggestion for the designers of the upcoming borgs and robots. If they still have mouths, give them better teeth.