“2001” Was Completely Wrong

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the best SF movie ever made, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I actually saw it when it first came out, and have seen it many times since then.  I think I’ve also read everything by Clarke and seen everything of Kubrick’s.

Yet what strikes me these days is how far off the movie is on, well, everything:

  • The prime use of intelligence is not murder.  The opening scene has the monolith uplifting a hairy hominid, who promptly starts using tools to kill his enemies.  Yet the distinctive characteristic of homo sapiens is not violence, but cooperation.  We live in vast social groups, and achieve enormous wealth because of trade.  Chimpanzees are actually much more violent than people.   Note that the famous jump cut from the flying bone to the flying orbital nuclear weapon was already wrong in 1968:
Watch: 4 Things All Great Edits Have in Common


The Outer Space Treaty had already banned nukes in spaces in 1967. It was easily passed because having nukes outside of one’s immediate control is a really terrible idea.   Having a dark view of human history is not rare, of course, and this movie was made not long after the worst war ever, but it’s still not right.

  • None of the space tech happened, and none of it will for the foreseeable future.  There was an orbital space plane, the Shuttle, but it was a disaster from the start.   Rotating a space station for gravity means that far more mass is needed for structural support, at enormous expense, and you’ll have pieces flying off. Moon bases aren’t in the cards because there’s nothing to do up there.   Nuclear rockets have all been cancelled because of safety issues.  Manned space flight in general is fading – the last space tourist was nine years ago, and many fewer individuals are flying now.  (see The Human Population of Space).
  • We’re not close to HAL’s general artificial intelligence.   More and more specific human abilities are now able to be done by machine, from image and speech recognition to language translation, but those are isolated programs.  Machines don’t make their own way in the world.   They don’t have their own will for just the reason shown in the movie – they’ll then do what we do NOT want.  AI programs are expensive industrial software, not children.   They better damn well do the right thing or else their programmers will all be fired.

Why does all this matter?   Because 2001 was as good as it gets for SF.  It hit most of the field’s tropes – aliens, space, robots – and did it as well as anyone could do in 1968.  No sound in space, no dogfights in vacuum, no whizzing past nebulae.  It took on big themes like technology and evolution, and what transcendence looks like.   It still has that core feeling of SF, of alienation and wonder, but its future just never happened.

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“Iron Man” Sure Dated Fast

I happened to re-watch the original Iron Man movie recently, and jeez but the tech in it looks old, even though it’s from only 10 years ago:

  • Tony Stark has a snazzy video cellphone, but it pre-dates smartphones and so has a screen and a phone keypad
  • He has a collection of hot cars, but they’re all obsolete gassers, with not an electric to be seen.
  • All of his gear is assembled by dexterous robots instead of being 3D printed.
  • They’re trying to track his Afghan enemies with satellites instead of drones.

Movie production designers can only forecast so far ahead, of course, and it’s not surprising that they missed a lot of changes, even over such a short span.   They would be surprised that Americans are still driving around Afghanistan in Humvees, and still getting blown up.

They did put in tech that still can’t be done, and probably never will be.   We’re nowhere close to a general AI like his assistant Jarvis, or a hand-size fusion reactor, or to the repulsor blasts that somehow replace rockets.

But the biggest change since 2008 isn’t in the tech – it’s in the attitude towards his playboy persona.  The way he hits on every woman he meets, even the driver of the Humvee, was considered charming but immature then, but is creepy now.   Everyone around him goes ha ha, such an excitable boy, but he wouldn’t last ten minutes in a modern board meeting. It’s especially bad with Robert Downey’s dead-eyed look.   Maybe that was intended then to show inner pain, but now it looks like sociopathy.   Maybe it’s just as well that Downey wants to finish his work in the role.

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“Take Every Wave” – Startups and Betrayals

Take Every Wave - The Life of Laird Hamilton

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Most will see this surfing documentary because surfing is inherently stunning to watch, and its star, Laird Hamilton, is a god of the sport.  He’s been on the water practically since birth, and has been riding bigger and bigger waves as his skills have developed.  He never competes, probably because he can’t stand to lose, but is inescapable in surfing literature, probably because he and his wife look like this:

Laird Hamilton and Gabrielle Reece in 2016. Married for 20 years with two kids.

This picture was taken last year, when he was 52 and she was 46.    Surfing sure seems good for you!   Hamilton actually supported himself by modeling when younger, and now has clothing and equipment lines.

His big contribution to the sport was the invention of tow-in surfing.   In the early 90s he and some pals discovered a new break off Pe’ahi on the Hawaiian island of Maui.  The waves were too large and the break too far out to reach by just paddling, but they found that they could ride out there on Jet Skis.  These have propellers on a inlet inside the craft and so are much safer for people in the water.  They worked out how to add a sled to the back so surfers could get on and off easily, and how to gauge what waves to ride.  They called themselves the Strappers, since they liked to fasten their feet to the board to do kitesurfing stunts.

Being Americans, they then thought of how to make money at it.  That came with a documentary, Riding Giants (2004, clip here), which led to the mobbing of the site by idiots driving outboards.   It also led to the breakup of the gang, since the director only cared about the most attractive of the group.  The rest were paid off with small checks.   It’s a familiar story of startups – everyone is excited by this new endeavor, and works together communally on it, but only the leads make any money.  His old comrades are interviewed here, and they still sound rather bitter.

Hamilton continued to tune up his ability to ride larger and larger waves, and found that the limit was the hydrodynamics of the board.   He just couldn’t surf fast enough to avoid getting crushed.  So for the last few years he’s been working on foilboards, where a hydrofoil beneath the water lifts the whole board out of it.   The only contact is on a slim fin, so there’s far less water resistance.  He’s been building foils himself and testing other people’s.  There’s an astonishing final shot of him riding for what seems like minutes up and down one wave after another.

It looks like something few people can master, and it may be his last hurrah.  He has arthritis in his hips now, and broken ankles bother him.  Two big inventions is pretty good, though, and it’s extraordinary to see an athlete in his 50s performing at this level.  I hope enough people see this movie to keep him on the water for as long as he can.

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Stats on the Most Influential Effects Movies

The Visual Effects Society, an honorary society for those who work on movie and TV special effects, recently celebrated their 20th anniversary.  They took a poll of their members to find The 70 List: The Most Influential Visual Effects Films of All Time.  They limited it to 2015 and earlier to avoid the last-great-thing-one-saw effect.  This is a follow-on to their Best 50 list in 2007, and I imagine they’ll hit 100 by 2027.  I’ve put the list itself at the end of this post, re-sorted by date and with the director and major other contributor listed, but let me do some other analysis on it up front:

Q: Who made the most of these movies?

A: Here are all the directors/contributors who made two or more films on the list:

Person Number Movies Movies
James Cameron 6 The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Titanic (1997), Avatar (2009)
Steven Spielberg 5 Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982), Jurassic Park (1993)
Peter Jackson 4 Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), King Kong (2005)
George Lucas 4 Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Return of the Jedi (1983)
Walt Disney 3 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1958), Mary Poppins (1964)
Douglas Trumbull 3 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Blade Runner (1982)
Robert Zemeckis 3 Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Forrest Gump (1994)
Ridley Scott 2 Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982)
Frank Miller 2 Sin City (2005), 300 (2007)
George Miller 2 Babe (1995), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Wes Takahashi 2 Back to the Future (1985), The Abyss (1989)
Fred Zendar 2 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966)
Robert Stevenson 2 Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1958), Mary Poppins (1964)
A. Arnold Gillespie 2 The Wizard of Oz (1939), Forbidden Planet (1956)
Paul Verhoeven 2 Total Recall (1990), Starship Troopers (1997)
Ray Harryhausen 2 The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

It’s pretty unsurprising to see Cameron, Spielberg and Lucas at the top, since they’ve been creating blockbusters for 40 years now.  Peter Jackson is the youngest here at 55.  Walt Disney is the oldest, and his influence on movies and American pop culture in general is enormous, for good or ill.

Q: Why do all these movies appear to be American?

A: A lot of these were actually made in the UK, or Australia, or New Zealand, but they generally had US financing.  Only 5 on the list were really made outside of the Anglo-sphere:

  • A Trip to the Moon (1902) – Georges Melies
  • Metropolis (1927) – Fritz Lang
  • Godzilla (1954) – Ishiro Honda
  • The Fifth Element (1997) – Luc Besson
  • District 9 (2009) – Neill Blomkamp

District 9 was made in South Africa, and that’s nominally ex-Empire, but it does have a distinctly different flavor.

The US/UK bias could be an artifact of the membership, but these two countries really do dominate the medium.  I once looked at Where Are Movies Made using the IMDB database and found that 1/3 of the 140K movies they listed were marked as made in the US.

Maybe the real answer, though, is that effects are expensive, and can only be afforded by the largest players in the largest market.

Q: When were they made?

A: The distribution by decade looks like this:

The 1940s was a bad decade because people were busy with something else.  The 50s perked up as movies tried to out-spectacle TV.   Computer-generated effects started in the 1980s, and are still going strong, but held in less and less regard.

Q: What are some obvious omissions?

A: I have s soft spot for Mysterious Island (1961) since I imprinted on it as a kid.  The great Ray Harryhausen did the monsters there, but he already makes the list.  Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (also 1931) are surprising omissions.

Q: So what’s actually on this list?

Here you go.  The raw data is in this spreadsheet if you’d like to do anything with it.  A * means that it was added to the 2007 list in 2017.  Sorted by year:

Year Title Key People
1902 A Trip to the Moon Georges Melies
1914 Gertie the Dinosaur* Winsor McCay
1925 The Lost World Harry O. Hoyt
1927 Metropolis Fritz Lang
1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs David Hand, Walt Disney
1939 The Wizard of Oz Victor Fleming, A. Arnold Gillespie
1941 Citizen Kane Orson Welles
1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still Robert Wise
1953 The War of the Worlds Byron Haskin, George Pal
1954 Godzilla* Ishiro Honda
1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Richard Fleischer, Fred Zendar
1956 The Ten Commandments Cecil B. DeMille
1956 Forbidden Planet Fred M. Wilcox, A. Arnold Gillespie
1958 The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad Nathan H. Juran, Ray Harryhausen
1958 Darby O’Gill and the Little People Robert Stevenson, Walt Disney
1963 Jason and the Argonauts Don Chaffey, Ray Harryhausen
1964 Mary Poppins Robert Stevenson, Walt Disney
1966 Fantastic Voyage Richard Fleischer, Fred Zendar
1968 Planet of the Apes Franklin J. Schaffner
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick, Douglas Trumbull
1975 Jaws Steven Spielberg
1977 Star Wars George Lucas, John Dykstra
1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind Steven Spielberg, Douglas Trumbull
1978 Superman: The Movie Richard Donner
1979 Alien Ridley Scott
1980 The Empire Strikes Back Irving Kershner, George Lucas
1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark Steven Spielberg, George Lucas
1981 An American Werewolf in London John Landis
1982 Tron Steven Lisberger
1982 The Thing* John Carpenter
1982 Blade Runner Ridley Scott, Douglas Trumbull
1982 E.T. the Extraterrestrial Steven Spielberg
1983 Return of the Jedi George Lucas
1984 Ghostbusters Ivan Reitman
1984 The Terminator James Cameron
1985 Back to the Future* Robert Zemeckis, Wes Takahashi
1985 Young Sherlock Holmes* Barry Levinson
1986 Aliens James Cameron
1988 Who Framed Roger Rabbit Robert Zemeckis
1989 The Abyss James Cameron, Wes Takahashi
1990 Total Recall* Paul Verhoeven
1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day James Cameron
1993 Jurassic Park Steven Spielberg
1994 Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis
1994 The Mask* Charles Russell
1995 Apollo 13* Ron Howard
1995 Babe George Miller
1995 Toy Story John Lasseter
1996 Independence Day* Roland Emmerich
1997 The Fifth Element Luc Besson
1997 Starship Troopers* Paul Verhoeven
1997 Titanic James Cameron
1998 What Dreams May Come Vincent Ward
1999 The Matrix Wachowskis
2001 Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Peter Jackson
2002 Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Peter Jackson
2003 Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Peter Jackson
2005 King Kong Peter Jackson
2005 Sin City Frank Miller
2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest Gore Verbinski
2007 Transformers* Michael Bay
2007 300* Zack Snyder, Frank Miller
2008 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button* David Fincher
2009 Avatar* James Cameron
2009 District 9* Neill Blomkamp
2010 Inception* Jonathan Nolan
2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes* Rupert Wyatt
2012 Life of Pi* Ang Lee
2013 Gravity* Alfonso Curaon
2015 Mad Max: Fury Road* George Miller
2015 Ex Machina* Alex Garland
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“The Founder” as Design vs Management

The Founder poster.pngNot all inventions are machines.   Some of the most important are ways of organizing people and machines, and not the machines themselves.  That’s what Dick and Mac McDonald invented in 1948 when they opened their purpose-built fast-food restaurant in San Bernadino, California.   They found a better way to serve food – fast, clean, tasty, and cheap.  Their chain now serves 1% of the earth’s population every day.

But they never would have gotten anywhere without a guy who was their opposite in nearly every respect – Ray Kroc.  He ultimately betrayed and cheated them, but he was as necessary to the success of McDonalds as they were.

This juicy story is told in The Founder, where the title refers to how Kroc recast himself as the sole creator of McDonalds.   He had been a middle-aged, mildly successful wheeler-dealer when he came upon the the restaurant the McDonalds ran in San Bernadino CA in 1954.  He had been selling milkshake machines, and most customers only wanted one, but they wanted eight.  When he saw people standing in line for inexpensive but good hamburgers, he saw his big chance.  He persuaded the brothers to let him franchise their concept, even though their own attempts at that had failed.  They hadn’t been able to find managers who could run profitable operations to their exacting standards.

There’s a nice scene showing how they came up with their system.   They wanted to minimize the time it took to cook a burger, so they took a crew to a tennis court and put down tape outlines of the grills and counters.  They then had everyone pantomime all the steps needed to make an order.  Did people have to move to get out of each other’s way?  Move a counter.  Did people have to reach over each other to get ingredients?  Re-sort the bins to make it quicker.  A few simulations with masking tape and workers, and you can get a vastly better arrangement.  Then serve food right at the counter instead of waiting for it to be brought to a table, and skip the tables too.   Costs go down and time to delivery goes down.

Creators: Brothers Richard 'Dick' and Maurice 'Mac' McDonald set up the first restaurant of the chain which would conquer the world - but sold their idea and lost out on millions

The real Dick and Mac McDonald, played in this movie by Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch

The McDonalds themselves were sons of Irish immigrants in New Hampshire.  They went to California looking for work, and happened on fast food after a lot of bad jobs.  They liked working class families like themselves as customers.

When Kroc came in, he thought he knew a lot of people who would like to invest.   His country club friends, though, didn’t want to do the work – this whole thing was too much trouble.  Their places became littered teenage hangouts, which drove everyone else away.   So Kroc switched to a whole different class – young up-and-comers looking for opportunity.  He gave pitches at Rotary clubs and synagogues, touting this remarkable new system.   They were willing to listen, and the chain soon expanded to dozens of places across the Midwest.

But Kroc himself wasn’t doing well.   He only got 1.4% of sales, and the McDonalds another 0.5%.   That wasn’t much of a revenue stream, and certainly not enough to borrow on for expansion.   This is where another key figure, Harry Sonnenborn, came in.   He told Kroc that the company should be in real estate, not IP licensing.   It should lease the land under the restaurants to the franchisees.   That would give him a familiar enough form of revenue that banks would lend to them, and much more control over operations.  Sonnenborn later became the first president of McDonalds, until he quit over conflicts with Kroc in 1967 and became a banker.

But with his idea things really took off, and conflicts with the brothers became inevitable.  The franchisees complained that it was expensive to use real ice cream in the milkshakes since they needed power-hungry refrigerators for it.  The wife of a friend of Kroc’s, Joan, suggested using packets of powdered milk, which tastes almost the same.   Kroc was attracted to her anyway (there’s another nice scene of them playing a duet on a piano, and Keaton can actually sing), and put the idea to the brothers.  They refused because of NIH, but he didn’t need them any more and switched to the packets anyway.

He offered to buy out the brothers for $2.7M and 1%, which was a lot of money in 1961.  Mac McDonald was already in the hospital with diabetes, and they agreed.   At the time of the signing, though, Kroc reneged on the royalties, which is where the real money was.  What he really wanted was their name, since it had the kind of solid ring to it that represented what the brothers actually were.  He got it, and went on to enormous fortune.  He even married  the beautiful Joan after they dumped their respective spouses.  He died in 1981 and she in 2003, whereupon her will gave $225M to NPR.

The McDonalds tried again with a new name and logo, but Kroc opened a restaurant across the street and crushed them.   They retired into obscurity, but were still millionaires.

By modern standards they were screwed.   Much weaker ideas than theirs have made modern inventors hundreds of millions.   The same dynamic plays out today, though – the creators of something good can do quite well, but the investors and managers make the big bucks.  You make money by owning things, not by working for it.

Still,  they did do fine financially, their story got filmed, and their name has been immortalized.  It’s aggravating that a slimier character made a lot more money than they did, but they did all right.


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“Hidden Figures” and Attaining One’s Fullest Stature


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This small movie about three black women 60 years ago has turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the year, and it’s clear why – it’s got the American Dream all over it.  Not the commonly mocked Dream about two cars in every suburban garage, but the original one, the powerful one that James Truslow Adams wrote about in 1931 :

But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

These women – the mathematician Katherine Johnson, the manager Dorothy Vaughn, and the engineer Mary Jackson – had lots to contribute to NASA in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but no one paid any attention to them.  They were the wrong color and the wrong gender.  They were kept off in their own building, given menial tasks, and forced to use separate bathrooms and even separate coffee pots.

But the US was losing the space race.   It had been working on orbital rockets as a part of the International Geophysical Year, but was beaten to first orbit by Sputnik in 1957.   Its own counter, the Vanguard TV3, then blew up on the pad two months later.  Explorer 1 did launch successfully another two months later, but Sputnik was six times larger than it, and big enough to carry an atomic bomb.

That was scary enough to finally start breaking down the color bar.   Johnson was brought in to do orbital re-entry calculations, including those for John Glenn’s first flight, and later Apollo.  Vaughn learned to program the new IBMs that were replacing the hand calculators, and got her black female staff to switch to programming too.   Jackson was allowed to get an engineering degree, and did a lot of work on supersonic aerodynamics.

They all ended up with solid careers.   They weren’t superstars, but  they did really well in both real life and in this portrayal.

The timeline in the movie is compressed.   All three of them had been at NACA for a long time – Johnson since 1953, Vaughn since 1943, and Jackson in 1951 – so they were not new hires after Sputnik as the movie implied.   When NACA became NASA in 1958, it was officially desegregated.  That’s when the West Computing Unit, where the women did hand calculations, was distributed among other departments, not in 1961 before Glenn’s flight.   This is ordinary dramatic license, though, and not crucial to the theme.

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Apparently President Kennedy wanted NASA to be a showplace for integration.   That story is described in  We Could Not Fail – the First African Americans in the Space Program, by Richard Paul and Steven Moss.  It tells the stories of ten African American men at NASA facilities in the Deep South: Huntsville Alabama, Georgia, and Cape Canaveral.   This was tough for NASA because there weren’t many qualified AAs to begin with, and fewer still wanted to work down there.

Oddly enough, the ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun took a big role in integrating Huntsville.  He helped black colleges write grant proposals, encouraged contractors to be equal opportunity employers, and set up summer programs for black youth.  A lot of the German engineers frequented black jazz clubs, to the locals’ astonishment.  In this movie Kevin Costner is the fictional white manager who integrates Langley, but von Braun actually did that for Huntsville.

Anyway, one of the nice things about the movie from a women-in-STEM point of view is that the women here are not nerdy loners.   They are part of a strong (and really well-dressed!) church community.   The one who makes the greatest contribution, the mathematician Katherine Johnson, is actually a widow with three daughters who finds love and re-marries at age 41.   She’s not a nun devoting her life to science.   When Vaughn learns how to program in FORTRAN, she promptly starts teaching it to all her staff, hoping to keep them all together as electronic computers replace human ones.  The engineer Jackson is lively and playful, especially when played by the dancer and singer Janelle Monae.

Compare this to the inventor Joy Mangano in Joy, who has to fight her hostile family and indifferent business partners for everything she achieves.   She’s portrayed as a Rand-ian heroine who triumphs through individual willpower.   Yet at the end she’s an ice queen living in a mansion full of glitzy Trump-ish decor, while these women are playing with their kids, singing in the choir, and doing great work for the nation.   I know which ones I’d rather have as role models!

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Galen Erso Was a Zek


So there really was an empire that would coerce technicals into building doomsday weapons.   Just as Orson Krennic threatened Galen Erso into working on the Death Star, the Soviet Union rounded up engineers and scientists in the 1930s into the sharaska system.  This was a branch of the Gulag Archipelago where they treated the inmates fairly well, but they were prison camps nonetheless.   The captives were called zeks, which was originally an acronym for the prisoners who worked on the White Sea Canal.  Using prisoners made it easier to keep things secret, and easier to force leading people to work on what Stalin wanted. Sergey Korolyov, founder of the Soviet space program, was one, as was Leon Theremin, of the eponymous musical instrument.  So was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote about it in The First Circle (1968).

As far as I know, no zek ever committed the serious sabotage of a Soviet project that Erso did to the Death Star.  However, there was a case of serious disinformation that disrupted Soviet tech – The Farewell Dossier.   A Soviet spy grew disillusioned with the system in 1980, and gave to a Western friend a list of embassy attachés who were engaged in industrial espionage .   The list got back to the CIA, who promptly fed those people a series of stolen plans, all with some secret flaw.  It’s said that this caused a 3-kiloton gas pipeline explosion in 1982, one that was visible from space, and led the Soviets down a dead-end with regard to their version of the Space Shuttle.

The equivalent of the Rogue One plot would be if a zek put a fatal flaw in a nuclear-tipped ICBM.   Those can actually do the kind of city-destroying damage shown in the movie.  They can’t destroy planets like the Death Star, but that’s actually impossible for anything short of a black hole.   A bug that screwed up the bomb’s trigger when it got close to its target might be subtle enough to not be detected during reviews.  Let’s be grateful no one has ever had to find out!

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“Joy” – anti-STEM for Women

joy posterThe recent movie “Joy” should have been a dream project for those trying to recruit women into science and engineering.   It tells the largely accurate story of Joy Mangano, a quite successful inventor who made it in spite of skepticism and difficult personal circumstances.  She has created a series of useful household products, starting with the Miracle Mop in 1990, and going on to luggage, odor neutralizers, shoes, and reading glasses.  These are excellent and handy innovations, of far more direct utility than most high-tech inventions.  It stars one of the country’s leading actresses, Jennifer Lawrence, and was directed by the highly regarded David O. Russell, who has made critical hits such as “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”.   Yet the movie itself stresses that Mangano did not succeed because of hard work and ingenuity, but because of her looks.   To be exact, she succeeded because of the sales persona she was able to project on the QVC home shopping cable channel.   That’s hardly the message the recruiters want!

To start with, the actual Joy is TV-level attractive:


Screenshot from this 1996 QVC commercial, Mangano on right

Here she is with Lawrence and co-star Bradley Cooper, still looking great at more than twice Lawrence’s age:


Lawrence (27), Mangano (59), and Cooper at the Joy premier

When ordinary people stand next to actors they tend to look like hobbits, but Mangano is holding her own.   That’s what led QVC to take a chance on her in 1990.  Sure, the product looked handy and had a profitable markup, but the main thing was to have a personable and attractive presenter.

In the movie Mangano had completely failed in trying to introduce the Miracle Mop on her own.  She hawked it outside supermarkets, she pushed it on local stores, and went to trade shows.  She even gave some to QVC for their staff to sell.   Nothing worked.  It was only when she herself was able to pitch it that it took off, and that was largely because she had more of a housewife appearance than the heavily-made-up and be-jeweled presenters.  That success led her on to still more ideas, until by the end of the movie she’s living in a mansion and able to sponsor other rising young female inventors.

But what if you don’t look like that?   What if you’re plump and have hair that sticks out and bad skin?   That’s what I looked like as a kid, but it didn’t matter because I was a guy.  It shouldn’t matter if you’re a bright and creative girl, but this movie says it does.

Now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that filmmakers stress the value of looks, of image, of persona.  That’s their trade.   But the trade of technicals is finding out what’s true and what’s useful.  It won’t encourage women into the field if they’re told that they have to be beautiful as well.

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“The Martian” – One of Us in Peril

“The Martian” is right over the plate for technicals.    It has one of us as a protagonist, and is all about our favorite virtues: wit and determination.  Matt Damon’s character doesn’t just roll over and die the way any normal person would – he survives via ingenuity and doggedness.  This is just what we look for in ourselves and our colleagues.   Does this problem look impossible?   Then you haven’t thought of it the right way, try this.  Does it look like it’ll take impossibly long?   Drive through it until it’s done.   You need both qualities to actually accomplish things.

He also doesn’t get all grim and stoic the way a military hero would; he still cracks jokes about bad food and bad music.  His comrades in orbit are the same, as are his colleagues on earth.  Likewise he doesn’t get all awe-struck at the beautiful landscapes of Mars the way an artistic hero would; he just worries about how he’s going to drive through all this hilly scenery.   That was clearer in the book than in the movie.  Its author, Andy Weir, barely describes the planet itself, while Ridley Scott, a director known for his eye, fills the screen with gorgeous views:


A geologist would be surprised to find layered sedimentary rock formations on the nearly water-less Mars, but of technical quibbling there can be no end.

What’s also unusual about the movie is that it has no villains.   No one here enjoys or exploits other people’s suffering.  Villainy is a standard part of drama but not actually common in real life.  It’s particularly uncommon in technical fields, where everyone really has to cooperate to succeed.  That may be why tech dramas are uncommon.   It’s harder to tell stories when the antagonist is uncaring Nature rather a person.

The only character here who even has a negative vibe is the NASA administrator played by Jeff Daniels.  I must admit to some sympathy with him.  He is rightly skeptical of this extremely risky effort to save one guy.   The rest of the Ares crew could easily have been lost as well.  Even though it did turn out well, it ruined the Ares craft itself, and thus set back the whole program by years.   Or maybe not – leaving an astronaut to die when there was even a small chance of saving him might also have done in the program in the eyes of the public.

Anyway, “The Martian” is working a trope that goes back to the very first novel, “Robinson Crusoe”, of the lone person against the non-human world.  This story has to work hard to isolate him – in reality comm gear would be everywhere – but that’s crucial to the force of the plot.  It’s also crucial that he eventually returns to society, since that’s where hominids belong.  As in the similar “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”, as in “Gravity”, he ultimately has to come home.   This movie and novel are a brilliant update of the old theme.


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Movie Inventors (1) – Oddballs

Movies are the most technically advanced art form, so it’s no surprise that a lot of movie people are inventors.  Unlike the Beautiful Inventors, Political Inventors, and Criminal Inventors that I described in earlier posts, their main business is deeply embedded in technology.   There are a lot of people to describe here, so let me break this post into several parts.  In this first one let me list some surprising people who got patents, and in later ones I’ll describe some people who made quite substantial advances, like Kevin Costner and Bing Crosby.

So here’s a list of movie people, what they’re known for, and what US patents they’ve been granted:

Herbert “Zeppo” Marx – the fourth, straight-man Marx brother – 3473526 “Cardiac pulse-rate monitor” (1969)

Patent US3473526 Cardiac pulse-rate monitor Herbert Marx

This is a watch that can set off an alarm if one’s pulse rate gets too high.  Marx was 66 when he filed for this, and apparently a smoker since he died of lung cancer a few years later, so heart problems were probably on his mind.   He had run a manufacturing company, Marman Products, ever since the late 30s, when he left his more famous brothers behind, and it did very well selling a novel kind of clamp used for fuel lines.  His older brother Gummo, who was never in the act, also had a patent for a laundry box that used less cardboard than the standard design.

Steve McQueen – laconic action star and race-car driver – D219584 “Improved Bucket Seat” (1970)


It’s hard to tell what’s novel about this, but as a design patent instead of a patent patent, it doesn’t have to be.   Maybe this just fit him better than ordinary bucket seats.

Christie Brinkley – model and actress – 4,998,883 “Educational Toy” (1991)

Educational Toy - Christie Brinkley

The idea here is to build up letters using varying-shaped magnetic strips, each of which has a colored dot for a code.  The colors act as an extra mnemonic.   This seems harder than just drawing letters directly, but perhaps it’s better for children before they develop fine motor control.  She filed for this when her first daughter was 4 and she was married to Billy Joel.

Gary Burghoff – actor in “M.A.S.H.” – 5,235,774 “Enhanced fish attractor device” (1993)

US5235774 - Enhanced fish attractor device - Gary Burghoff

This is a float with lights and sound generators that holds a cage full of bait below it.  It was sold as “Chum Magic” for a while, but looks on the complicated side.  Burghoff also received design patents for a fishing rod and handle for lifting toilet seats.  He left the role of Radar O’Reilly in M.A.S.H. in 1977, and had a tough time finding work thereafter.  Yet he seems to have enjoyed fishing, and has also been a jazz drummer and a wildlife painter.  As a stamp collector he was a spokesman for the USPS.   That’s not bad for a guy with only one good role.

Richard Dreyfuss – actor in “American Graffiti” and “Jaws” –7,601,904  “Interactive tool and appertaining method for creating a graphical music display” (2009)

US7601904 - Interactive tool and appertaining method for creating a graph - Richard Dreyfuss et al

This represents musical notes as graphical blobs whose size, shape, and color correspond to the pitch and loudness envelope of the notes themselves.   Dreyfuss doesn’t appear to be musical, but perhaps his two co-inventors are.  He filed this at a down time in his performing career when he was also between marriages.

Steven Spielberg – the world’s leading movie director –  8091028 “Method and Apparatus for Annotating a Line-Based Document” (2012)


This lets one add links between an audio file and the lines in a screenplay, which sounds quite handy for structuring the music in a movie.   In Spielberg’s acceptance speech for the Thalberg Award at the Oscars in 1987 he talked about how screenplays were the foundation of everything else in a movie.  No wonder, then, that he wanted to tie all the audio to individual lines.  I don’t know if Spielberg uses storyboards to compose shots, but that would be a logical extension.


Like almost all patents, none of these sound like they’re worth much.  Still, it takes significant effort to get a patent, and these inventors took time from their busy schedules to do it.  Their movie works might be forgotten, but the USPTO will remember them.

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