…and he caught Déagol by the throat and strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful. Then he put the ring on his finger.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a masterpiece. The Hobbit trilogy should not have existed. Now Peter Jackson is taking another drink from the well, making a new movie called The Hunt for Gollum. Did I say “movie,” singular? My mistake: it’s going to be at least two movies, and who knows how much bloat they’ll experience before the end. One paragraph in the article triggered my gag reflex.

Fans and critics on social media immediately speculated about the new film’s plot, given that Gollum appeared to die at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Appeared? May Shelob suck out your guts and spit them into a sewage pit, APPEARED? It was a key moment when Gollum fell into the lava burbling in Mt Doom. Please don’t even hint that there’s a possibility that some mindless, greedy studio executive might resurrect him. A prequel, maybe?

It doesn’t matter. I absolutely refuse to ever watch this cash grab. I’m not even tempted. The Hobbit was an adequate lesson.

I’m adding Infested to my must-see list of spider movies

On the recommendation of catherwood on Discord, I had to watch this movie last night, Infested.

Eight tarsal claws up! Unless you’re arachnophobic, in which case you don’t want to get anywhere near this.

It’s pretty much the same plot as Arachnophobia: venomous spider is brought back to a city (Paris, in this case), it escapes, breeds, area is overrun with swarms of deadly spiders that require extreme measures to eradicate. The difference is that Infested has a much larger horror-fantasy element: the spiders spawn impossibly rapidly — like, catch one, next moment it erupts into a horde of tiny spiders — and the spiders grow at an impossible rate to an impossible size, so that within a day you’ve got millions of spiders, some the size of large dogs. I’ve measure spider growth rates, and generally we’re talking a few tenths of a millimeter per week, so my rational brain rejected much of the premise, but my irrational brain that tuned in to a horror movie about monster spiders was saying, “YES! Eat all the people!”

It also has a sympathetic protagonist who loves small invertebrates while hustling to keep his friends and family out of poverty, and huge host of victims living in a Parisian apartment building. There had to be a lot of them to fuel the explosion of arachnid biomass!

Sadly, it looks like the only place to catch it right now is on Shudder, but it’s worth it for the entertainment value.

Now, though, no more entertainment. I have to go sequester myself to work through a mountain of end-of-semester papers. If only I could solve that problem with a lot of precisely placed explosives…

I am stumped by the logistics

I honestly tried to give this Netflix movie, Rebel Moon: the Scargiver, a chance. I made it about halfway before giving up in boredom.

It’s a sci-fi fantasy story about a rag-tag group of deadly warriors defeating an empire…prosaic enough so far. But what totally killed it for me, besides the deadly dull characters and ridiculous stakes, was the logistics. There is the gigantic, ultra-powerful galactic empire, you see, and the local governor sends this gigantic starship crewed entirely by psycho Nazis, to collect…grain. That’s the macguffin here, bags of grain. This grain is the output of a small village of maybe 30 vaguely North European farmers who harvest it over the course of less than a week, so we’re not even talking about megatonnes of vital foodstuff to feed a planet or two. Nope, just a bunch of sacks of grain that the farmers can pile into a single building in their village.

An immense starship appears, so large that it looms over the village while hanging in low orbit, and then the stupid slow-mo fighting with swords and clubs and farm implements and a few rifles against a robotic army of multi-barreled tanks and armies of space nazis and I see from the synopses that the peasants win.

None of this makes any sense, but there are two movies in this series and a third threatened. There are also going to be “director’s cut” versions of this thing released, as if it deserves further attention. This is garbage of Hugo Gernsback quality, illiterate hackery. How does Zack Snyder get away with it?

You know, the first thing a good science fiction movie should have is a competent, compelling writer generating the ideas behind its premise and execution. I guess since Star Wars got away with neglecting that component, though, nobody thinks it’s necessary any more.

Astroturfing the airwaves

If you listen to the radio, you should know by now that most radio stations are computer-controlled jukeboxes stuffed with demographically determined collections of popular songs — and often not even that. Wealthy people buy them up and then program them to play the music they think you ought to hear, whether you want to or not, one of their worst angles is deciding that you, yes you, need to listen to more Christian Rock. No, no, not me, I turn that stuff off the instant I hear it, usually with a sulfurous curse.

There’s a company called the Educational Media Foundation (EMF). They’ve been buying up radio stations and converting them to the same boring format everywhere.

On the surface, EMF’s broadcasts are glaringly apolitical. They opt instead for their trite brand of Christian rock, all teed off by the same, small cast of nationally syndicated, Anywhere-USA DJs who smile through everything from squeaky-clean jokes about the drink sizes at Starbucks to prayers asking God to watch over those who have donated to the organization. But behind its politically neutral facade, the organization — and the CCM industry more broadly — appears to be an inherently conservative project. Many right-wing Christian culture bearers have long believed in the “Breitbart Doctrine” — the idea that, to change politics, you must first change culture — and have fought for decades to build a parallel popular culture free of sharp edges, hard questions, or representations of lives that veer from the straight and narrow. The world of CCM, in turn, “reflects the values of the religious right,” says religious-studies historian and author of God Gave Rock and Roll to You: A History of Contemporary Christian Music Leah Payne, by providing “suburban families with safe Christian listening experiences in the car.” And while EMF stations may not have the “attention-getting, rage-inducing content” of an explicitly political outlet like Fox News, she says, “K-LOVE is the softer side of that conservatism.”

Today, the organization’s nationwide network of radio stations plays mostly white, male artists. Though it professes to broadcast “Christian music,” it largely steers clear of genres like religious rap or gospel, as well as any Christian rock that grapples too heavily with doubt or hardship. Christian artists who have wavered in their faith have quietly been dropped from EMF’s playlists; several queer Christian artists have lost work and airtime on CCM radio after coming out.

As a Christian radio station, you know they also have all the profit-making tricks down pat. Like churches, they’ve scammed the government into thinking they’re non-profit.

As the company built its broadcast network, one business decision proved to be peculiarly prescient: the choice to incorporate as a “not-for-profit” entity. Not only did that status let it avoid paying tax, it also gave EMF several legs up in the radio world. It allowed the organization to take advantage of long-held FCC policies intended to keep the radio dial from being sold to the highest bidder, such as waiving application costs and other fees for nonprofits due to their inherently “limited funding.” EMF also made use of a federal policy that let new nonprofit stations opt out of the requirement of having a local broadcast studio. Furthermore, EMF could legally get donations from listeners — a revenue stream commercial stations don’t have at their disposal. For EMF, “it was just a matter of expansion,” says Todd Urick, a radio engineer and community-radio advocate in Los Angeles County. By the early 2000s, the nonprofit had well over 50 radio stations and was bringing in around $25 million in donations annually.

You’ve probably all heard Contemporary Christian Music, but hopefully not much. It has a recognizable formula, fortunately, so it’s pretty easy to spot it as you’re flipping around the radio dial. When I hear a chorus with a long drawn-out “HIIIIIIM” I know it’s time to kill the channel, but there are other cues.

But in the CCM industry, getting that immediately recognizable sound — however derided — has been a science. “You just can’t be too heavy,” says Grace Semler Baldridge, an independent Christian artist who performs as Semler and who has topped both the iTunes Christian albums and song charts. In addition to her own crop of frankly honest songs about her faith, she’s done session work and built relationships with artists in the CCM industry. There, she immediately became aware of a few soft rules of the genre.

First, she says, there’s a just-right spot when it comes to beats per minute — not too fast, not too slow. After BPMs, there are “JPMs,” or “Jesuses per minute.” While there’s no hard-and-fast rule on the required number of JPMs, more tends to be better — and a reference to “Him,” “God,” “Father,” etc., counts, Semler says. Choruses should be rife with repetition so that listeners can sing along by the second round. The guitar must be warm but just a bit bright, with a touch of drive and a long-tail reverb that hangs in the air. Most important, there’s the delay, which nearly doubles the guitars’ slow strums and picked melodies — a technique that Reverb.com’s “The Gear, Tones, and Techniques of Modern Worship Guitar” guide says was pulled directly from U2’s the Edge.

Ick. There are a few radio stations in my area that fit that description.

Personally, I like KUMM, the student run college station here in town, but it has a very limited range, you can hear it in Morris and practically nowhere else. You go on a quick trip to any of the neighboring towns, and it’s going to drop out. It’s also quirky and weird, with all kinds of odd student conversations and unusual musical choices. It’s kind of the antithesis of EMF.

We also have a classic rock station, 97.3 The Kangaroo (it has an odd Australian theme, sort of, with promos read off by a woman with an Australian accent, and really really bad canned jokey commentary). They play music from the 70s-90s, and that’s the only appeal. It also has an automated playlist, no real DJs, no actual connection to the area, and forget about local news.

But that’s where radio has been going: getting bought up by millionaires who then feed the public flavorless noise without a speck of personality…unless you’re in a metropolitan area, where there is way too much obnoxious personality by way of the “Morning Zoo.” I turn that crap off too.

On long trips I play podcasts and my preferred music on my phone, over the car speakers. Radio is mostly dead.

Beyoncé enchants me again

I’m not at all a fan of country-western music, even though my parents preferred it all the time. They played the classics, though — Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, etc. — and I could appreciate that there’s some really good stuff in the genre. It’s just that every time I’d try to listen to it, there’d be some twangy shit about pickup trucks and jingo and utterly unoriginal noise that would drive me away. I never want to hear Lee Greenwood or his ilk ever again.

But then I’d heard that Beyoncé’s country album, Cowboy Carter, is supposed to be pretty good. So I put it on this morning.

I’m blown away. It’s genre-busting but incredibly original and creative, and challenging but enjoyable to listen to. I think I’m going to have to play it again.

If more country music sounded like this, I might be able to suppress my urge to turn off the radio when it comes on.

Dune 2

It was time to venture to the movie theater to see Dune 2 last night.

It was gloriously visually beautiful, and morally complex. I had a grand time. I do have a few reservations, and they’re based more on the source material than the movie.

On the way to the theater, my wife (not a big SF fan) asked how she could tell who the good guys and the bad guys are. I answered that you’ll have no problem spotting the evil antagonists in the movie, and that is definitely true. The Harkonnens reek of cartoonish villainy throughout. It’s a whole family of slimy psychopaths, they look like it, they act like it, if we had Smell-O-Vision, they’d stink like it.

What’s trickier is that the ‘good guys’ are all gray and ambiguous, with nasty qualities that are the key conflict in the story. It’s more than rebels vs. the evil empire, it’s the protagonist wrestling throughout with his choices that will enable the darkness in his own side. The movie made one major change from the book that I appreciated: Chani was the voice of reason against fanaticism, and made the underlying conflict clear. I was definitely on Team Chani, although I also felt like Team Paul had his choices stripped from him and he had little else he could do.

Now if only we had some opposition to Team Eugenics (the Bene Gesserit) somewhere in the movie. The idea of genetic determinism was unquestioned and was simply an assumption.

Do go see it, it’s well worth the experience.

There’s talk that there may be a third Dune yet to come, which worries me a bit. There are studio executives dreaming of a franchise now, I’m sure of it, but I have to warn them that that is a path destined to lead them into madness and chaos. The sequels are weird, man. Heed Chani and shun the way towards fanaticism and corporate jihad.

Ooh, just saw this summary of the Dune series. I agree with it. I should have stopped with Dune Messiah, years ago.

How to kill a university

Pay attention, Republicans. I know this is what you want.

Florida’s New College has had a rocky time since DeSantis was elected governor. He hates the liberal arts university, and placed a lot of anti-education administrators in charge — first and foremost, that execrable hack Chris Rufo, straight from the anti-science propaganda outlet, the Discovery Institute.

But first, some good news! Enrollments are up.

The incoming freshman class, which is the largest in New College’s history, will include at least 341 students; 155, or just under half, are student athletes, according to university spokesperson Nathan March.

That is very good news. I know my university has suffered with low enrollments for the past few years, thanks to the pandemic. My upper-level course enrollments are still looking worryingly low this year, but my freshman class is having a surge, which is promising for the future. I’d say this also promises excellent prospects for New College, except…

They seem to be using athletics to lure in new students. Student athletes are great, well-rounded students for the most part, so that’s not intrinsically bad, but the question is whether the new class is appropriately focused. We have lots of student athletes at UMM too, but they know their primary goal is to get an education. Is that true for new students attracted to New College?

I also wonder, given the notoriety of the changes Florida Republicans have been imposing, how many of these new students are right wing goons seeing an opportunity to undermine a liberal arts university.

Another problem: they don’t seem to have planned ahead. They’ve got more first year students, but no place to put them, so they’ve booked an off-campus hotel to house the surplus.

Students first heard in June that there was a chance their housing contracts, which were finalized in April, could change, according to a Tampa Bay Times article from July. Apartments typically reserved for juniors and seniors would now house the more than 100 new student athletes New College had admitted for the fall.

The remaining students are being squeezed into the other dorms on campus—except for a number of rooms that are offline due to mold and other structural problems—or being asked to live in a nearby hotel, the Home2 Suites by Hilton Sarasota Bradenton Airport, if they cannot secure their own off-campus housing. The college has rented out the entire Home2 Suites for the semester, totaling 133 beds, according to the contract between the institution and the hotel.

Oops, there’s the student athletes getting priority again. The hotel is a mile off campus, requiring students to walk along a busy highway to get to class.

Students placed in the Home2 Suites hotel worry about how they will commute to and from New College, about a mile away. For those without vehicles, the journey consists of a 15-minute walk largely along a stretch of busy highway. Parents and faculty have also complained that high levels of crime make the area unsafe, especially at night. While a shuttle is available, it is infrequent—running hourly until 11 p.m.—and can only carry a handful of passengers.

“They don’t seem to be able to plan ahead very well at all,” said Hannah Galantino-Homer, whose son was assigned to live in the Home2 Suites, although he had already decided to transfer out of New College by the time he got the news a few weeks ago. “Like, you don’t think people need to be on campus after [11]?”

This is a huge coordination and planning problem. If your enrollments are over your capacity, the responsible thing to do is tighten up your admission requirements and get the numbers down to what you can handle. Recruiting lots of students mainly on their athletic ability is not a great long-term solution.

I haven’t even gotten to their big problem yet: they’re hemorrhaging faculty.

When a committee of the New College of Florida Board of Trustees met in July, a whopping 36 faculty members had already left since Florida Governor Ron DeSantis initiated a conservative restructuring of the institution in January. That number has subsequently grown to more than 40, Amy Reid, the sole faculty member on the board, told Inside Higher Ed.

Now, as students prepare for the fall semester, the impact of the faculty exodus is becoming apparent: many classes won’t be offered at New College this term.

The course catalogue was already sparse when students first began looking at classes last spring. Dani Delaney, the mother of one former New College student who is transferring to Hampshire College in Massachusetts—which guaranteed admission to all New College students in good standing—said her son could only find two classes that counted towards his “area of concentration” (which is what New College calls majors). When he contacted the institution about the lack of relevant courses, she said, he was told the course catalogue was “in flux” and to “choose something else.”

This is a disaster for a small university, where we’re often operating on the knife’s edge of staffing.You need a critical mass of diverse skills to properly teach a discipline. For instance, our physics department lost two faculty to retirement, leaving one person to teach everything (we didn’t plan far enough ahead), which is not viable. We were frantically scrambling to hire short term faculty while trying to get approval to hire tenure-track replacements. I can’t imagine what the New College departments are doing, adding the abrupt losses to the fact that New College is not an attractive venue for the best new faculty. On top of that, they’re disorganized and using political ideology to wreck programs.

“For neuroscience, there’s only one elective beyond the introductory level right now, which is not healthy,” Leininger said, noting that the number of faculty in NCF’s neuroscience program has declined from three to one. “The number of choices students have this year is drastically reduced … if one of those classes conflicts with another class they have to take that is completely required, they’re going to have trouble staying on track for their major.”

Leininger said she received permission from her new institution to teach New College’s neurobiology course over Zoom—a plan the NCF administration at first seemed to embrace. In an email to Leininger that she shared with Inside Higher Ed, Bradley Thiessen, the college’s interim provost said he would “advocate” for her to teach the course if she was willing and able to do so.

But about two months later, she got word from NCF that she would not be allowed to teach the class, for reasons that were not explained. She suspects it may have something to do with her outspoken opposition to the direction DeSantis and the board are taking the institution, which has included speaking to the media about her decision to leave and reposting criticisms of the administration on X.

That’s what happens when you let incompetent hacks take charge. They’re losing the confidence of the students and their parents, too.

Dani Delaney’s son, a rising sophomore, decided he wouldn’t return to New College this semester in large part because he felt uneasy about the university’s decision to walk back the housing assignments students chose last spring.

He replied to multiple emails from the residential life department saying he wouldn’t be attending in the fall. Nevertheless, he received a notice on Aug. 9 telling him he had forfeited his spot in campus housing by failing to respond.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, how many other people might have gotten that same email of, hey, basically, you’re on your own, kid,” Delaney said. “It just shows that they have not committed to what’s in the best interest of the student body. It’s so wrong, the way they’ve gone about it. The disorganization—I can’t wrap my brain around it. This is not how you run a college.”

I wonder how many of those new enrollments will still be there in a year or two? How many will be able to successfully graduate?

There might be a bit of climate shock moving from Florida to Minnesota, but we’d welcome any transfer students who’d like to attend a stable, reliable university, with the capacity to handle them and also the responsibility to provide a good learning environment.

HeLa wins one

The family of Henrietta Lacks has settled with Thermo Fisher over the use of their relative’s cells, a staple of tissue culture research. It was entirely confidential, which is unfortunate — it feels like it might have been a “here’s a lump of money, now shut up and go away” sort of deal, which will be a short term benefit to the family, who deserve some compensation, but now presumably the ethical discussion will just disappear.

There was an earlier agreement that I think was more significant.

Lacks’ family members have never shared in any of the untold riches unlocked by the material, called HeLa cells, and they won’t make any money under the agreement announced Wednesday by the family and the National Institutes of Health.

But they will have some control over scientists’ access to the cells’ DNA code. And they will receive acknowledgement in the scientific papers that result.

The agreement came after the family raised privacy concerns about making Henrietta Lacks’ genetic makeup public. Since DNA is inherited, information from her DNA could be used to make predictions about the disease risk and other traits of her modern-day descendants.

Under the agreement, two family members will sit on a six-member committee that will regulate access to the genetic code.

“The main issue was the privacy concern and what information in the future might be revealed,” David Lacks Jr., grandson of Henrietta Lacks, said at a news conference.

“Untold riches” is quite an exaggeration. Cell lines are mundane tools that also require ongoing investment to maintain, and while I’m sure the companies profited excessively, it wasn’t quite on the scale of selling Oxycontin. But yes, the Lacks family should get a cut.

More important than money, though, is that the family that shares Henrietta Lacks’ genetic heritage should be acknowledged and share stewardship of that legacy. I’d want that kind of control over my body, and would be resentful of any profit-making venture that stole that from me or my children. That’s the precedent we need.

Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning: Part 1: A surfeit of colons

I saw this dog’s breakfast of a movie last night. Hated it.

  • It’s got a macguffin, a cruciform key that somehow will give the person who uses it control of an AI that can crack all of the intelligence agencies in the world. It does nothing in this movie. It’s just a small metal object that everyone has to chase, endlessly.
  • It has the most boring villain ever. A handsome man named Gabriel who, apparently at the behest of the AI, appears to stand handsomely in the middle of the action, doing pretty much nothing, except it turns out he’s a great knife-fighter in one scene.

  • There are car chases. They’re pointless exercises in chasing — they’re only motivated by the fact that someone has the macguffin, and someone else wants it. You want car chases? Go watch Baby Driver, which does them well and integrates them into the story.

  • There is a fight scene on top of a runaway train. Of course there is.

  • Ving Rhames is the stereotypical movie hacker. He doesn’t do anything but make portentous statements and announce that he’s going to hack a computer. He wiggles his fingers magically. Don’t worry, no one involved in writing this movie understands computers or hacking or AI.

  • Oh my god, the writing. It’s terrible. For instance, there’s a scene where a room full of intelligence bureaucrats who are reciting a summary of the problem. The thing is, it’s a series of sentences, and the individuals go around the room with each one saying one sentence in turn. People don’t talk that way. There are multiple scenes where the dialog is clumsy and unrealistic.

  • There is a stupid scene where Simon Pegg is sent on a side-quest to neutralize a tiny nuclear bomb. It turns out to be a puzzle game, with riddles. It’s like something you’d find in a video game. And then it turns out to be a fake bomb. The whole scene could have been cut without affecting the movie at all, except that they needed to give Pegg something to do.

  • The masks. I hate the fucking stupid masks, and the obligatory scene where a character pulls off a thick rubbery latex mask to reveal that he was some other character. Masks can’t do that, they’ll fool no one, but it’s a thing in these movies.

  • Tom Cruise, running. Running, running, running. He never arrives at a fight out of breath, though.

  • There are stunts done for the sake of being stunts. The stupid mask machine burnt out, so Tom Cruise can’t just disguise himself and walk onto a train, he instead chooses to jump off a mountain in a motorcycle and parachute into the moving train. Yeah, much more subtle and sneaky. No one will notice.

  • It is two hours and forty three minutes long, and it’s just part one.

  • In the next movie, they already have the macguffin part one, so macguffin part two will be a sunken submarine beneath the arctic ice cap, where the AI exists. I don’t care.

The best thing about Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning: Part 1 is that it cured me of any desire to see Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning: Part 2. Too late. It’s going to make a derailed train car falling off a cliff full of money.