Alan Arkin (1934-2023)

The veteran actor has died at the age of 89.

Over his long career, Arkin played a huge variety of roles and was always enjoyable to watch. I have seen him in a huge number of films but particularly liked his deadpan, understated performances in comedies such as Catch-22 and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. But also he played a menacing, convincing villain opposite Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark.

Here is a clip from The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), released during the Cold War about a Russian submarine that runs aground off the coast of a small US town due to the incompetence of its captain. Here is a synopsis.

When a sightseeing Soviet commander runs his submarine aground off the New England coast, the crew’s attempts to find a boat to dislodge them almost start WWIII! Alan Arkin leads an all-star cast–including Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Brian Keith and Jonathan Winters–in this riotous, uproarious [and] side-splitting (Cue) comedy! Russian Lt. Rozanov (Arkin) and his crew hit the beaches of Massachusetts unaware of the panic they’re about to start. Despite the Russians’ harmless intentions, the folks in town think a full-scale Soviet invasion has been launched! What’s worse, their police chief (Keith) has left his hysterical assistant (Winters) in charge and the one man who knows the truth (Reiner) is only stirring up more chaos!

The film is an endearing comedy about how the absurdity of nationalistic antagonisms can be countered by experiencing the commonality of human interactions. It is the kind of film that I can watch again.

The seductive appeal of identical twin stories

I am sure that pretty much everyone has been amazed at stories like the following, of identical twins who had been separated at birth and then reunited as adults.

Thirteen days before the start of the Second World War, a 35-year-old unmarried immigrant woman gave birth slightly prematurely to identical twins at the Memorial Hospital in Piqua, Ohio and immediately put them up for adoption. The boys spent their first month together in a children’s home before Ernest and Sarah Springer adopted one – and would have adopted both had they not been told, incorrectly, that the other twin had died. Two weeks later, Jess and Lucille Lewis adopted the other baby and, when they signed the papers at the local courthouse, calling their boy James, the clerk remarked: ‘That’s what [the Springers] named their son.’ Until then they hadn’t known he was a twin.

The boys grew up 40 miles apart in middle-class Ohioan families. Although James Lewis was six when he learnt he’d been adopted, it was only in his late 30s that he began searching for his birth family at the Ohio courthouse. In 1979, the adoption agency wrote to James Springer, who was astonished by the news, because as a teenager he’d been told his twin had died at birth. He phoned Lewis and four days later they met – a nervous handshake and then beaming smiles.

Both Jims, it transpired, had worked as deputy sheriffs, and had done stints at McDonald’s and at petrol stations; they’d both taken holidays at Pass-a-Grille beach in Florida, driving there in their light-blue Chevrolets. Each had dogs called Toy and brothers called Larry, and they’d married and divorced women called Linda, then married Bettys. They’d called their first sons James Alan/Allan. Both were good at maths and bad at spelling, loved carpentry, chewed their nails, chain-smoked Salem and drank Miller Lite beer. Both had haemorrhoids, started experiencing migraines at 18, gained 10 lb in their early 30s, and had similar heart problems and sleep patterns.

Incredible, no?
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Documentary of the Shakespeare authorship question

In my earlier post on the question of the debate over whether William Shakespeare was the Bard, I forget to mention a 2012 documentary that I saw on this question called Last Will. and Testament.

It was pretty interesting. While presenting all sides of this debate in the context of the personal and political conflicts of those times, the documentary tends to take a skeptical attitude to the question of Shakespeare being the Bard and spends some time on Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and a group of authors as the most viable alternative.

Here’s the trailer.

Shakespeare controversy keeps going

If you want to ignite a firestorm among scholars of English literature, just bring up the possibility that the author of the works that now constitute the Shakespeare canon were not written by the historical figure William Shakespeare but by another author who, for whatever reason, chose to be anonymous and had him act as a front. To keep the issue under discussion clear, some people refer to the author of the canon as the Bard and to the historical figure as William Shakespeare, so that the question can be formulated as to whether the Bard was William Shakespeare or someone else.

One would think that the issue would have been resolved by now but part of the problem is that although many doubts can be raised as to Shakespeare being the Bard, the alternatives also have problems. Furthermore, one could analyze the question from different disciplines such as literature, history, and linguistics, each with their own methodologies, and arrive at different conclusions.
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Justice Alito and the Wall Street Journal

While much of liberal ire with some of the decisions of the US Supreme.Court has focused on justice Clarence Thomas’s opinions, I have long felt that justice Samuel Alito is the most reactionary member of the court, the one most likely to offer tortured reasoning to justify what seems like pre-ordained conclusions based on his extremely conservative ideology.

Both Thomas and Alito have been the targets of investigative reports by ProPublica about the gifts and lavish vacations that they have been given, including travel on private jets, by wealthy individuals who, directly or indirectly, have had cases before the court. They did not disclose these trips and the private jet travel in their financial disclosure forms.

In the case of Alito, though, he went one step further than Thomas. As is customary with good journalistic outfits, prior to publishing their story, ProPublica informed Alito that they were preparing a story and sent him a list of questions to make sure they were being fair and accurate. What was unusual was that Alito used that to publish a ‘prebuttal’ in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal the day before the ProPublica piece even appeared.
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Jesse Watters to replace Tucker Carlson

Fox News has announced that Jesse Watters will be the permanent host occupying the time slot formerly held by the fired Tucker Carlson, the reasons for whose abrupt departure remain a mystery. Watters has been with Fox News for a long time. He has a juvenile sense of humor and no compunction about saying stupid, bigoted, and incendiary things.

The key question for Fox is whether he can get back the ratings that Carlson used to get and which have slumped since his departure. This will be a test of the model developed by the late Roger Ailes that their shows are based on a template and that the personalities who front them are just types who have specific roles and know they must follow the template because they can and will be replaced by another would-be clone if they fall short.

The template for the Carlson slot is the same as that of most other shows on Fox and that is to promote conspiratorial fear mongering with racist overtones. It is not clear if Watters can suppress and conceal his sophomoric frat-boy personality sufficiently, as Carlson was able to do, so that the dark vision will taken seriously by the typical Fox viewer.

More on Amazon’s devious practices

I posted recently about how Amazon is being sued by the Federal Trade Commission for unfair practices that include tricking people into signing up for its Prime services and then making it hard for them to get out of it. The Prime subscription costs $14.99 per month and accounts for $25 billion of its annual revenue. The Prime subscription gives you ‘free shipping’ though that is an illusion since you have essentially pre-paid for shipping whether you use it or not.

Amazon also provides Prime Video, which is a subscription-based streaming service, at a lower cost but although it is possible to sign up for just that, the company makes it hard to do so. After being informed that they were being sued by the FTC, Amazon made some changes. (You can read the FTC press release here and lawsuit here. Paragraphs 23-79 and 149-216 are heavily redacted.))

The extent of their devious practices is really is quite breathtaking. First up is how they manage to get people to sign up.
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The Polynesian puzzle

The Pacific Ocean covers almost half the surface of the Earth and despite its name can be the scene of massive storms. The entire region can be split into three regions, Micronesia and Melanesia that are on the western end of the ocean, close to Australasia, and Polynesia that occupies the central region. Polynesia is vast as can be seen by the size of the so-called Polynesian triangle consisting of Hawaii as the northern vertex, Rapa Nui (formerly called Easter Island) as the southeast vertex, and New Zealand as the southwest vertex. Each side of this triangle is about 9,000 miles. The people of Polynesia, despite being so widely dispersed, form a single, identifiable cultural group.

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The cruelty is hard to comprehend

Texas gets very hot in the summer, with temperatures rising well over triple digits and making manual outdoor labor not just uncomfortable but downright dangerous. As a result, some municipalities such as Dallas and Austin have passed ordinances that require employers to give a 10-minute water break every four hours. That seems to me to be nowhere close to enough but even that is too much for the governor Greg Abbott who has signed into law a measure passed by the Republican legislature that bans local governments from enforcing such ordinances.

The measure, which will take effect later this year, will nullify ordinances enacted by Austin and Dallas that mandate 10-minute breaks for construction workers every four hours. It also prevents any other local governments from passing similar worker protections.

Just days after Greg Abbott, the governor, ratified the law, officials said a 35-year-old utility lineman working to restore power in Marshall, Texas, died after experiencing symptoms of heat illness. The heat index – which takes into account both the temperature and humidity – was 100F (37C) while he was working.

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Life in zero gravity

Gravity is weird. It is the oldest of the four fundamental forces that we have been able to describe and yet what it is remains mysterious. When Isaac Newton first introduced his theory of gravity and the idea that objects with mass attract each other, he was accused by some critics of introducing a form of mysticism into science by postulating non-contact forces that could act instantaneously over empty space.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity brought in more sophisticated ideas by replacing instantaneous action-at-a-distance between two masses by saying that one mass distorts that space around it and that the distortion spreads through space at the speed of light and that the second mass responds accordingly when that distortion reaches it, thus removing the instantaneous action-at-a-distance problem. His Principle of Equivalence also showed that we cannot distinguish between being in a uniform gravitational field and being subjected to a constant acceleration. When we are in free fall, we are effectively weightless. The catch is that at some point, very quickly, we hit the ground.

Gravity is a ubiquitous force. We cannot shield ourselves from it. All this makes it hard for Earthbound people like us to imagine what life might be like in the absence of gravity. Now with space travel, we see astronauts in space stations in gravity-free situations. It should be noted that that he Earth’s gravitational field at the orbital height of the space station is about 90% of what we feel on Earth. But because they are in free-fall as the station orbits the Earth, they are effectively in zero-gravity (or more accurately microgravity) fields for a long time as long as they are in orbit. This has given us some idea of what life might be like in such an environment but there are still surprises. Part of the surprise is due to the fact that many forces that on Earth are small compared to the Earth’s gravitational field and are swamped by it, become significant when in zero gravity but many people do not realize this.

Take for example, a recent story about a video of Chinese astronauts (they refer to them as taikonauts) that had a glass of water. Since many people expect that in zero gravity water must float in the air in the shape of a sphere, this raised suspicions that the video had not been shot in space. But they are wrong because they ignored how important adhesive forces become in the absence of gravity.
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