Tagged: Misc

Casablanca

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid – 75 years young. On 26 November, 1942, the masterpiece “Casablanca” premiered in New York ahead of its scheduled general release in January. MG Patton’s capture of the actual town of Casablanca in French Morocco a few weeks before during Operation Torch had recently hit the news, and Warner Bros wanted to capitalize on the increased interest in the dusty North African town.

Based on the play, “Everyone Comes to Rick’s”, Casablanca followed the cynical American expatriate Rick Blaine, played to perfection by Humphrey Bogart at the top of his game, who had a fateful encounter with a stupid hot ex-girlfriend, played by the timeless Ingrid Bergman, who, of all the gin joints in all the world, walked into his. Filled with the usual suspects of early 40s Hollywood, Casablanca was perfectly cast: Peter Lorre as the conniving but surprising Ugarte, 30s sex symbol Paul Heinreid as the stiff and vaguely uncomfortable (doing the right thing tends to do that to people) resistance leader Victor Lazlo, Sydney Greenstreet as the unscrupulous powerbroker Signor Ferrari, and Claude Raines as the opportunistic corrupt bureaucrat Captain Renault.

Now I may stick my neck out for no man, but I’ll do it for Casablanca: It is the greatest movie script in history. Many movies try, but Casablanca succeeds. There isn’t a single wasted frame. To have gorgeous cinematography without any wide angle scenery shots is unknown today. I was shocked, Shocked! to learn that the script was rejected out of hand by several hundred Hollywood executives and writers when it was circulated in 2010 with the names changed. I may have been misinformed, but Casablanca’s themes of honor, duty, and redemption are considered trite in Hollywood today (probably not: it’s the Romantic in me). I don’t mind too much though: we’ll always have Casablanca.

Casablanca is a story of Redemption. Many Hollywood movies have Redemption as a theme, Casablanca only more so. Just four characters in its splendid cast weren’t redeemed for their past transgressions, but only because there was no reason to: Sam played by the always delightful Dooley Wilson was Rick’s moral compass. (Yes, where do you think Tolkein got the idea from?) The waiter Carl, played by the screen stealing SK Sakall, was Casablanca’s moral compass. And Lazlo was the world’s moral compass. The fourth was Maj Strasser, who as the un-redeemable Nazi villain, had no moral compass.

The obvious tale of redemption was Rick, who by the end of the movie realized America wasn’t a place, but an idea worth fighting for. But never underestimate a blundering American screenwriter: there are many others who found their redemption by the end of the movie. There’s also Renault, a true democrat, who realized the folly of taking the easy path by accommodating the Germans. Or Ugarte, who redeemed himself in Rick’s eyes by killing Nazis. Ilsa redeemed herself to Victor for her earlier infidelity with Rick, or Berger, or Sascha, or Ferrari, or the German couple. The list goes on. You may disagree with me, but you’ll sound like someone who is trying to convince yourself of something you don’t believe in your heart. One look at Yvoone singing La Marseilles should dispel any doubts.

Yvonne’s tears were real. The autumn of 1942, when Casablanca was filmed, was a dark time for the world. The Allied victories at Guadalcanal, El Alamein, and Stalingrad hadn’t happened yet. The papers were filled with Axis advances across the globe. German panzers ran roughshod over the Soviet Union. Rommel seized Tobruk, and was poised to seize Egypt and the Suez Canal. Marines fought for their lives on a tiny South Pacific Island; Japan sank several American carriers and were threatening to cut off Australia. Hitler’s National Socialists had Europe under the iron boot heel of collectivism, and the stories of their brutality reached America through the tens of thousands of refugees that escaped. All across the country, Americans were asleep; their arrival woke America up. Yvonne, and most of the cast of Casablanca, was part of that wave of refugees.

Their stories did get out because, though they tried, even the Nazis couldn’t kill that fast. The refugee’s roles gave Casablanca an authenticity that otherwise wouldn’t be there. The vast majority of the cast either fled Europe before the war, or fled their countries when Hitler overran them. Only three credited cast members were actually born in the United States: Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson, and Joy Paige (the Latina singer with The Voice). Madeline LaBeau who played Yvonne was French, Leonid Kinsky as Sacha was Russian, Lazlo was a German Jew, Berger was Norwegian, Renault was English, Ugarte was Austrian, Carl was Czech, and Strasser German. Conrad Veidt, who played the evil Nazi Maj Strasser, had actually experienced Nazi persecution and demanded the role because he wanted to show the world the true face of National Socialism. (He was also the highest paid actor in the film.) On that set, the cast made a beautiful friendship, and it showed on screen.

My heart may be my least vulnerable spot, but there’s a soft spot there for Casablanca. Every time I watch it, I watch it as if it’s the last time. It may be a little game I play, but Casablanca is the “Black and White” movie that I show someone who has never seen a black and white movie before. And though I always fight on the side of the underdog, I am not a cut rate reviewer. A review of Casablanca would not be complete without a few words on the song that ties the whole movie together, “As Time Goes By”. It may be poor salesmanship, but I’ll leave that to Sam,

“You must remember this / A kiss is still a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh…

The fundamental things apply / As time goes by…

And when two lovers woo, / They still say, “I love you’ / On that you can rely…

No matter what the future brings / As time goes by…”

I think I’ll play it again.

The Great Emu War

After the First World War, Australian veterans were given land to farm in Western Australia. In late 1932, the increased irrigation, the cleared and cultivated land, and the not-yet-harvested crops proved to be an attraction for emus. Emus are large flightless birds indigenous to Australia, and only slightly smaller than an ostrich. In October 1932, great feathered hordes of emus descended upon the farms of the Wheatbelt region in their annual migration from the coast to the interior.
 
The emus ate the crops, trampled the land, destroyed property, and made a horrible cacophony that was enough to wake the dead. Angry Diggers attempted to fend off the invaders, but these direct descendants of dinosaurs seemed to absorb rifle shots, and scattered before they could be brought down. Moreover, the farmers’ fences proved no obstacle to the avian menace, and provided infiltration points for fences’ original targets: rapidly breeding and garden and crop annihilating rabbits and dingos.
 
In late October 1932, a section from the Royal Australian Artillery under command of Major GPW Meredith with a few Lewis guns was ordered to stop the Emu Menace. However, rains prevented Meredith’s operations from commencing. Despite Mother Nature, on 3 November Meredith attacked. Meredith found great flocks of emus, perfect for slaughter by the machine guns. Unfortunately, emus did not act as soldiers did assaulting trenches in the First World War. As soon as Meredith’s Lewis guns opened fire, the emus scattered. In the great flocks of hundreds, the soldiers managed to kill only a few.
 
Most distressingly, the emus reformed out of contact and continued their pillaging and brigandage of the farms. Meredith would find them, set up, kill a few, and frustratingly have to repeat the process as the emus evaded. He attempted to ambush the emus at a dam where the emus congregated in the evenings for a drink, but even this proved futile as the emus just found other places to patronize. Within a few days, the emus stopped traveling in great numbers and dispersed into the countryside in smaller groups. Furthermore, each small group seemed to have a leader, an alpha emu that usually stood over six feet with “a great dark plume” who watched over his emu flock, and warmed of the soldiers’ approach. Meredith attempted to motorize his firepower by bolting the guns on automobile hoods, but unlike the biplanes of the First World War, a moving vehicle jostling about the countryside was not a stable firing platform. On 8 November, the disconsolate Meredith withdrew from the area of operations.
 
Round One to the emus.
 
After the farmers complained to their representatives in the Australian Parliament, Meredith was sent back the next week, by direct order from the Minister of Defense. This time however, Meredith spent his time wisely and organized an anti-emu militia formed from the farmers. The renewed effort by Meredith’s machine guns and the farmer’s marksmanship had a greater impact. For the next three weeks, Meredith’s counter insurgency claimed the lives of over 300 emus, and possibly more due to the emu’s distinct lack of medical care for their wounded. But it still was not enough. The Australian press was having a hoot with the story, and the negative press for the “The Great Emu War” caused Meredith to be recalled in December.
 
Round Two to the Emus.
 
Despite appeasing the emus and halting direct military operations, the emus refused to curtail their deprivations of the Wheatbelt. The farmers continued to request military assistance, but the Australian government refused to authorize boots on the ground. They were unwilling to pay the political cost for a direct decades long War with the Emu. However, they didn’t surrender. The emu were akin to Napoleon’s corps and required forage to operate, so local governments invested in new emu/dingo/rabbit-proof fencing for the farmers. In essence, the new fencing isolated the emus from their logistics hubs. More importantly though, the Australian government issued a bounty on proof of every dead emu. In the mid to late 1930s, scalp hunting emu bounty hunters descended upon the Wheatbelt. Many tens of thousands of emus were killed over the next decade, giving credence to the impossibility of Meredith’s task, but ending the Emu Menace to the farmers.
 
Round Three to Australia.
 
Mission Accomplished.

Computer Science

Science 22 Sep 1967:Vol. 157, Issue 3795, pp. 1373-1374

Allen Newell 

Alan J. Perlis 

Herbert A. Simon

“Professors of computer science are often asked: “Is there such a thing as computer science, and if there is, what is it?” The questions have a simple answer:

Wherever there are phenomena, there can be a science to describe and explain those phenomena. Thus, the simplest (and correct) answer to “What is botany?” is, “Botany is the study of plants.” And zoology is the study of animals, astronomy the study of stars, and so on. Phenomena breed sciences.

There are computers. Ergo, computer science is the study of computers. The phenomena surrounding computers are varied, complex, rich. It remains only to answer the objections posed by many skeptics.

Objection 1. Only natural phenomena breed sciences, but computers are artificial, hence are whatever they are made to be, hence obey no invariable laws, hence cannot be described and explained. Answer. 1. The objection is patently false since computers and computer programs are being described and explained daily. 2. The objection would equally rule out of science large portions of organic chemistry (substitute “silicones” for “computers”), physics (substitute “superconductivity” for “computers”), and even zoology (substitute “hybrid corn” for “computers”). The objection would certainly rule out mathematics, but in any event, its status as a natural science is idiosyncratic.

Objection 2. The term “computer” is not well defined, and its meaning will change with new developments, hence computer science does not have a well-defined subject matter. Answer. The phenomena of all sciences change over time; the process of understanding assures that this will be the case. Astronomy did not originally include the study of interstellar gases; physics did not include radioactivity; psychology did not include the study of animal behavior. Mathematics was once defined as the “science of quantity.”

Objection 3. Computer science is the study of algorithms (or programs), not computers. Answer. 1. Showing deeper insight than they are sometimes credited with, the founders of the chief professional organization for computer science named it the Association for Computing Machinery. 2. In the definition, “computers” means “living computers” – the hardware, their programs or algorithms, and all that goes with them. Computer science is the study of the phenomena surrounding computers. “Computers plus algorithms,” “living computers,” or simply “computers” all come to the same thing – the same phenomena.

Objection 4. Computers, like thermometers, are instruments, not phenomena. Instruments lead away to their user sciences; the behaviors of instruments are subsumed as special topics in other sciences (not always the user sciences – electron microscopy belongs to physics, not biology). Answer. The computer is such a novel and complex instrument that its behavior is subsumed under no other science; its study does not lead away to user sciences, but to further study of computers. Hence, the computer is not just an instrument but a phenomenon as well, requiring description and explanation.

Objection 5. Computer science is a branch of electronics (or mathematics, psychology, and so forth). Answer. To study computers, one may need to study some or all of these. Phenomena define the focus of a science, not its boundaries. Many of the phenomena of computers are also phenomena of some other science. The existence of biochemistry denies neither the existence of biology nor of chemistry. But all of the phenomena of computers are not subsumed under anyone exiting science.

Objection 6. Computers belong to engineering, not science. Answer. They belong to both, like electricity (physics and electrical engineering) or plants (botany and agriculture). Time will tell what professional specialization is desirable between analysis and synthesis, and between the pure study of computers and their application.

Computer scientists will often join hands with colleagues from other disciplines in common endeavor. Mostly, computer scientists will study living computers with the same passion that others have studied plants, stars. glaciers, dyestuffs, and magnetism; and with the same confidence that intelligent, persistent curiosity will yield interesting and perhaps useful knowledge.”

The Blackout of 1977

The late 70s were a dismal time for most Americans. President Carter described it as a “crisis of confidence” in his famous “Malaise speech” in 1979. The darkest moment in this dark time, both figuratively and literally, was the blackout of New York City in the sweltering summer of 1977.

The summer of 1977 was a miserable time for New York. The Yankee’s hadn’t won a World Series in 13 years. The apocalyptic and imminent global cooling promised by activists at the First Earth Day in 1970 had failed to materialize and the high temperatures routinely broke records that July. Crime also reached new record highs that wouldn’t be broken until the crack epidemic in the 80s, as gangs took over portions of the city. (When “The Warriors” was filmed the next year, a near-futuristic dystopian modern take on the Anabasis where gangs tried to take over the city, New Yorkers weren’t sure if it was fantasy, fiction, or a documentary.) The pervasive sense of fear was palatable: that summer, the Son of Sam went about murdering random New Yorkers with a .44 cal revolver. No one felt safe. The overworked New York City police were powerless in the face of this wave of crime. Police officers were routinely targeted for assassination which greatly reduced their effectiveness. Furthermore, New York was in the midst of a financial and budget crisis which led to pay freezes and layoffs in the police and city administrations, and spread the already small NYPD even thinner. City services were curtailed, and city maintenance was neglected.

Around 8:30 pm on 13 July 1977, a lightning strike hit a power line which overloaded the large Ravenswood’s generator, and a faulty circuit breaker prevented it from shutting down. This overloaded the Consolidated Edison Indian Point Water Power Plant which did shut down. Further lightning strikes cut powerlines to other generators and power stations. In less than 30 minutes, 90% of the five boroughs, over 7,000,000 people, were without power, just as the sun dipped below the horizon. It was the sixth inning between the Mets and the Cubs when the lights went out. 

Then the chaos began. 

Hundreds were stuck in elevators and tens of thousands were stuck in traffic or on the subway, both of which came to an immediate standstill. 911 emergency lines were swamped with almost 20 million phone calls (!) that night, despite radio stations broadcasting desperate pleas from city officials to only make calls in life or death circumstances. However, most calls were less about the electricity and more about their fellow New Yorkers taking advantage of the darkness. 

The only lights in New York City after 9pm were car headlights and fires. The New York Fire Department responded to over 1100 cases of arson that night, and hundreds more false alarms, including many ambushes by gang members. Most of Broadway was on fire. The next morning, one city paper ran the headline, “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning.” The city was lit by an eerie orange and purple glow of flashing lights and raging fires among its homes and businesses. But for all the fire damage to the city, the looters and vandals were worse.

The 2500 NYPD cops on the ground were quickly overwhelmed with the sheer scale of violence, destruction, and looting that began in the twilight of the setting sun. Before it got so dark on that moonless night that you could barely see the hand in front of your face, all 12,000 on and off duty police were on the streets. 

Home invasions were common but the looting of the closed businesses easier. On the night of 13-14 July 1977, New York City was sacked. The massive wave of looters took everything that wasn’t nailed down. One looter was heard yelling through the streets, “It’s Christmas time!” Few businesses in the city escaped damage. One car dealership lost 57 cars stolen off the lot. TV crews were usually attacked as their recording cameras were evidence, but one crew was offered stolen jewelry for cheap while broadcasting live. Many neighborhood blocks barricaded themselves in and shot at anyone they didn’t recognize, so the more industrious of criminals just mugged the looters. It was safer. 

In the frenzy, the looters took anything, if they didn’t need or want it, they could sell it or give it away. The police arrested one looter with a bag of clothes pins; and another with bags of macaroni. 3700 suspected looters were arrested that night: The largest mass arrest in New York history. 

What separates the Blackout of 1977 and the ones of 1965 and 2003 was the chaos continued in the daylight. The power finally came back on 25 hours later. $300,000,000 in damage was done to the city. The damage was almost as bad as the New York Draft Riots 114 years previously, when Union warships had to bombard the city. The New York State Power Authority canvassed all the best trade schools and hired and trained the best electrical students to work in the power plants, replacing the city run Consolidated Edison employees that were found negligent in causing the Blackout. Mayor Abe Beame would eventually lose the Democratic primary, and the mayor’s office, to challenger Ed Koch the next election. 

For New Yorkers it was a day akin to 9/11, the Challenger explosion, or the death of John F. Kennedy.

Down the Rabbit Hole

On 4 July, 1862, writer Charles Dodgeson took a friend’s three young daughters, Edith, 8, Alice, 10 and Lorina, 13 on an afternoon picnic trip into the countryside of south eastern England. In true Victorian fashion, he rowed them down the Thames River. During the trip, he regaled them with a tale of a young girl and her adventures after she had fallen down a rabbit hole. 

The protagonist of the story was named Alice after Dodgeson’s favorite of the three sisters. The girls so loved the story they wanted him to write it down for them when they returned from the picnic. The manuscript he gave them later would eventually be published under Charles Dodgeson’s pen name, Lewis Carroll, as “Alice in Wonderland”.

Mad Hatter: “Have I gone mad?”

Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

“I don’t think…” said Alice. “Then you shouldn’t talk,” said the Hatter.

Alice asked, “How long is forever?” “Sometimes, just one second,” replied the White Rabbit