The Star That Trolled Astronomers

It blinks like an alien beacon. It’s in outer space like an alien beacon. But it’s not an alien beacon. Just what is it?

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Texting Revisited

Via Slate.

I was really impressed with this short film directed by Victoria Mapplebeck, about a romantic relationship she revisited after discovering an old Nokia cell phone. (It was one of those 3000 model series that’s indestructible according to the Internet.)

After a brief prologue, most of the story plays out in text messages we read on screen. I was reminded of Tony Zhou’s essay about texting in movies over at Every Frame a Painting, which I wrote about here.

In keeping with the more stylized conventions Tony describes, we don’t have to see the phone’s screen– the messages are presented on screen for us. The images behind them are a literal subtext that fleshes out the story.

Tony suggests that filmmakers ditch the bubbles and fancy fonts for their on screen texts, since they’re the first things to look out of date. Here, Mapplebeck uses a blocky font reminiscent of the low resolution of the 10-year-old Nokia’s screen.

A couple other clues keep things intelligible for the viewer: Victoria’s texts are always on the left side of the screen, her partner’s texts are on the right. (They often sign their names as well, or at least an initial. Whether this is a verbatim transcription or because viewers are morons, I don’t know.)

I also enjoyed the performative aspect of the texts’ presentation. We see Mapplebeck retyping several of her messages, trying to find the right word. With only 160 characters, precision is important.

Check out the short below!

160 Characters from Victoria Mapplebeck on Vimeo.

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The Apollo Program’s Loneliest Astronauts

Ever wonder what Michael Collins and the Command Module Pilots of the Apollo Moon missions did while their colleagues were taking small steps and giant leaps? Find out in this video I wrote for SciShow Space!

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The Truth About the Million-Dollar Space Pen

Check out this video I wrote for SciShow Space! Did NASA really waste a ton of money to make a pen that could write in space? Why not just copy the Soviets, and use pencils?

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It’s Just… Television

Let me say up front that I think Anthony Hopkins is a fantastic actor. I haven’t had a chance to see Westworld, either, so it’s entirely possible I’d think it’s a great show. But I don’t think this scene deserves the praise that the Nerdwriter gives it here:

In a video that is supposed to show the abilities of Hopkins as an actor, I can’t help but wonder what might have been. I’m unable to see the whole scene beyond what’s in the video above, but it doesn’t look like it’s been staged to highlight his talents.

We get a few repeating set ups: close-ups of each character, a perpendicular two shot of the whole table, and some inserts of things in the distance that they’re looking at. There’s little interplay between foreground and background action. Each shot shows us essentially One Important Thing: Hopkins says a line. Sidse Babbett Knudson reacts to it. She stands up and looks off-screen. We see a portion of the landscape that she’s looking at.

The vast majority of television is shot like this. The vast majority of movies are shot like this.

It’s not bad. But it can be limiting.

When an actor is sitting down, half their body (or more) is out of view. But wait! you cry, People sit down all the time!

That they do. Especially in movies and on TV.[1]  How many scenes on Westworld or Game of Thrones or Mad Men or Breaking Bad or The Marvel Cinematic Universe are just conversations with people sitting down?

And almost all of these scenes are shot the same way: Master wide, matching close-ups, inserts as necessary. We don’t see actors perform with their whole bodies, we see a succession of talking heads.

Yes, they are expressive heads. Anthony Hopkins’ face flicks through dozens of emotions in quick succession. But humans are naturally drawn to look at faces. We can notice changes in expression even when the shot isn’t a close up.

As an alternative, I’ll refer you to a scene from There Will Be Blood, as analyzed by David 1609374Bordwell. It plays out in a single wide shot which includes four characters. We can see everything that happens on each of their faces- Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction and the actors’ performances have guided our attention to all the important information.

We can even see Daniel Day-Lewis exchange a glance with his assistant, Ciarán Hinds, while Day-Lewis has his back turned.

Everything culminates in a big, threatening handshake. Because it’s so jarring compared to the rest of the shot, our eyes jump right to it. No need for a big close up.

Don’t believe me? Psychological researcher Tim Smith used eye tracking software to follow where people’s eyes moved as they watched the scene.

There Will Be Blood with gaze locations of 11 viewers from TheDIEMProject on Vimeo.

The Westworld scene has a great climactic image, too: One of Hopkins’ robotic waiters freezes at his direction while filling a wine glasses. The glass over flows, staining the white tablecloth a bloody red.

Except instead of letting this image play out in one shot, highlighting the stillness of the waiter and the spreading stain, we have to cut between two close-ups, an insert of the cup, and the master wide, with all the players of the scene. The wide shot, the only one we really need to sell this moment, is up for just a couple of seconds before we cut to yet another shot.

I realize I must sound like a curmudgeon. Damn teenagers with their loud rock music and movies with too many cuts in them.

But if this is supposed to be the best thing on television, why does it look like everything else?

  1. [1] It’s worth remembering that television was originally a lot like radio, but with pictures.
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The VVicked VVitch of Nevv England

If you’re looking for a creepy movie to give you the vvillies this Hallovveen, might I suggest The VVitch?

It came out earlier this year, and vvhile critics seemed to like it, a lot of mainstream audiences vveren’t sure vvhat to make of it. The VVitch is a suspenseful horror movie, but takes place in Puritan Massachusetts in the 1600s. People talk in a period appropriate dialect, and practice a version of Christianity that’s probably unfamiliar to Americans today.

VVe like to think of the Puritans as early adopters of the idea of religious freedom in the Nevv VVorld– they left Europe to escape persecution, didn’t they? Of course, the beliefs the Puritans vvanted to practice involved shunning anyone vvho didn’t believe vvhat they did. The VVitch opens vvith a family being exiled from their village because the father, VViliam, played by Ralph Ineson, vvas preaching an interpretation of the Bible that vvas different from the official doctrine.

One of the central themes in any literature about the Puritans is the divide between acting like a good person and actually being a good person. Outwardly, everyone vvanted to thewitch_online_teaser_01_web_largebehave as if they vvere righteous, upstanding members of society. But being believers in predestination– God has chosen vvhether or not you’ll go to heaven before you’re born– Puritans thought that no amount of good vvorks can make you one of the elect vvho vvill be saved.

If you are one of the elect, you’ll act like a good person because God says so. But if you aren’t… you’ll try to act like you are or risk exile or vvorse. Of course, pretty much everyone vvould have felt various temptations toward sin or fallen short of godly behavior in one vvay or another– but to express doubts about yourself vvould paint a target on your back for society’s scorn.

Like the historical Puritans, the characters in The VVitch believe the Devil is very real. Danger, both earthly and supernatural, lurked in the vvoods of seventeenth century Massachusetts. The main plot of the film involves the family trying to protect themselves from a vvitch that lives in the forest by their nevv home. And maybe– just maybe– the eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is involved vvith her as vvell?

As Thomasin suffers from guilt follovving the disappearance of one of her siblings, she has doubts about her ovvn faith. Meanvvhile, strange things keep happening to the other members of her family…

I don’t vvatch a lot of horror movies, not because I’m a covvard, but because I rarely find the premise actually scary. Humans do terrible things to each other on our ovvn, and I don’t think vve need help from supernatural characters. To lay all the blame for a story’s events on a clearly fictional force is to miss the real horrors that go on around us all the time.

The VVitch is an interesting case because the family frets over a Devil and a VVitch that may not be real only to (spoiler alert) have their suspicions confirmed. I think it vvould have been quite scary to see the family brought low just by their paranoid delusions– no supernatural explanation required.

The cast and production design are all great. I’ll give a special shout out to the goat(s?) vvho played Black Phillip– he vvas great. The pacing is a little slovv, and I found some of the vvhispered, accented dialogue hard to understand, but The VVitch pays off if you give it a chance.

Editor’s Note: Yes, autocorrect vvas a pain on this one.

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Consider the Source: Masada Part II

Previously on the blog: Andrew writes about an obscure TV miniseries from the 1980s called MasadaHe raves about Peter O’Toole’s acting and Jerry Goldsmith’s music. He criticizes David Warner’s sissy villain Roman politician. And now… the exciting conclusion:

The TV miniseries Masada takes its sweet time getting where it’s going. But one of the things that stuck with me was its ending.

Recall that the Roman Tenth Legion, Commanded by Flavius Silva (Peter O’Toole), is laying siege to the mountain fortress of Masada, where the last Jews fighting the Roman occupation of Judea are holed up.

But when the Romans finally break into the fortress, they find the Jews inside have all killed themselves, rather than fight or be taken prisoner.

The sequences where Eleazar and his friends decide to do this are… I don’t know how else you’d do it, but it still feels really yucky.

Perhaps I hadn’t mentioned– these aren’t just Jewish soldiers up in Masada. They have women and children, Rabbis even, as well. Eleazar has his wife and son with him. He and his fellow Zealots[1] come to agreement relatively quickly, but the others “Need to be told another way.”

If there is one major flaw with Masada, it is portraying the beliefs of the hold outs in the fortress as the same as mainstream Jews elsewhere in Judea. They were not. Eleazar and masada_aka_the_antagonists_tv-524582936-large_4547his followers were radicals. There’s a reason why they were the only ones still fighting the Romans at this point.

I’m sure there were lots of reasons why the story was portrayed this way: The series is bookended by a swearing-in ceremony for the Israeli Army, held at the fortress. A narrator explains that the soldiers are defending their homeland, just like Eleazar and his Sicarii were. Shooting was done at the actual site of the fortress, which would have required the permission of the Israeli government.

It’s worth pointing out that Jewish law generally prohibits both suicide and murder– something that is never brought up in the film.

The main source we have for what happened at Masada is an account written by Josephus, a Jewish historian who defected to the Romans. Not eager to disparage either side, he should not be taken at face value. Some modern historians[2] have suggested the mass suicide was either exaggerated or never happened at all.

Josephus calls Eleazar and his hold outs “Sicarii,” named after the easily concealable daggers they carried with them. They were a radical faction of Zealots, who were opposed to Roman rule. Not content with assassinating their oppressors, they also killed collaborators and other Jews who didn’t agree with them. They’ve also been blamed for a raid on the village of Ein Gedi, where 700 people, including women and children were killed.

These were the people who were at the top of the cliff. Not anyone looking for a compromise with the Romans.

I get that these were extreme circumstances. But I felt like I was watching the people of Jonestown, not a group of plucky rebels making a principled stand.

Anytime you adapt historical events, compromises have to be made, and you’ll be criticized for any inadvertent or purposeful inaccuracies. Masada goes to great lengths to make sympathetic characters out of the siege-laying Romans, especially Silva, and the Zealots in the fortress.

The Romans did terrible things– from using slave labor during the siege to occupying Judea in the first place. But the Zealots were not paragons of virtues either.

We should not try to sort people of history into heroes and villains. But both sides in this movie have an honorable sheen that I don’t think is well deserved.


  1. [1] I’m getting to that.
  2. [2] Noble Deaths at Gamla and Masada?A Critical Assessment of Josephus’ Accounts of Jewish Resistance In Light of Archaeological Discoveries by Kenneth Atkinson pp 357.
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Why Are Rockets Launched in Florida?

Ever wonder why NASA launches most of its rockets from Florida, of all places? Turns out NASA has a need- a need for speed. Check out this video I wrote for SciShow Space- and don’t forget to click here and subscribe!

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Battlefield 1

“In the end, the film would merely consist in showing a victim, a man who had been subjected to an entirely unjust and appalling fate, and, on the other, the mechanism leading up to it. This would be inappropriate, for to show something is to ennoble it.” Francois Truffaut on making an anti-war film.

I’ll say up front that I am not a video game person. I enjoy the occasional strategy game, but I’ve never owned a console or even kept up with the latest releases.

I was intrigued when I first heard about the upcoming first-person-shooter game Battlefield 1,[1] which, rather being set in World War II or 20 minutes into the future, takes place in World War I.

As you might’ve noticed, I’m a bit of a history nerd, and yes, I did observe the hundredth anniversary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination by Gavrilo Princip when it came around in 2014.

We don’t have a lot of blockbuster media set during World War I, which is not surprising. The United States didn’t get involved until the very end. It also lacks the heroic myth that its sequel has: The Allies fought valiantly to liberate Asia from the tyranny of Japan and Europe from the villainous Nazis. There’s nothing glamorous about it.

Oh, they tried to spin it that way at the time- but it didn’t work. World War I is notable for the amount of art and literature it inspired, both during and afterward. A recurring theme 3g11356u-28for people who lived through the mechanized, industrial warfare, especially in trenches along the Western Front, was disillusionment- the high ideals soldiers went to war for meant absolutely nothing.

The fighting was impersonal: You couldn’t hope to survive because you were good with a sword or a crack shot. Death could come at any moment from an artillery barrage or poison gas. A machine gun could mow down dozens of people with barely any effort.

The title of All Quiet on the Western Front[2], by German veteran Erich Maria Remarque[3], is one more dehumanizing insult: the death of the main character, weeks before the end of the war, is so insignificant that the report to HQ doesn’t see fit to even mention it.

The single player campaign of Battlefield 1 seems to echo these themes: the advertising reminds us that “behind every gunsight is a human being.”[4][5] This excerpt puts up a name and date range every time the player character is killed- before they jump into a new body and continue as they had before.

But I suspect the long term interest in this game will be in its multiplayer mode. Here, there is no story. No hope of a peace treaty. The war only stops when you turn the game off and walk away. In an added dose of realism, this World War I will also encourage another video game war in the not too distant future.

We love to praise these games for their “realism.” But only to a point. If the game were realistic, the tanks and trucks you can drive around wouldn’t work nearly as well as they do here. Machine guns would overheat. And there’d be a lot more waiting.

battlefield_1_cover_artYes, yes, yes, I know- that wouldn’t be fun. It’s a game- it’s supposed to be fun. Just like movies are supposed to be entertaining.

This isn’t my idea of fun, but I understand how it could be. Even in depictions of war that are supposed to be realistic and traumatic, like the D-Day sequence of Saving Private Ryan, they aren’t always received that way. I think we’ve gone from showing war as fun and glamorous to showing it as challenge to be endured. If you can make it, it’s a testament to your courage, your strength, your badassery.

Except in the real war, your survival had nothing to do with any of those things.

World War I didn’t just happen. It didn’t just happen because a 19-year-old shot an Archduke. It happened because everyone assumed that a war would happen eventually, and rather than trying to prevent it, they wanted to give themselves the best shot at winning right off the bat.

That worked well.

To tell the story of World War I, we can take some liberties with historical accuracy- but we should still be honest. And if we’re being honest, I don’t know if it’s possible to make a video game about such a traumatic event that doesn’t make you want to turn it off.

  1. [1] I guess they are trying to make trench warfare look cool.
  2. [2] A more literal translation of the German would be “Nothing New in the West.”
  3. [3] It was banned by the Nazis because it didn’t glorify warfare.
  4. [4] Except in the video game- they’re just computerized representations of human beings.
  5. [5] Also, that music is way too inspirational for the subject matter.
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There’s No Such Thing as a Universal Trump Card

I’ve gone back and forth about writing something here about Donald Trump for months. It’s off topic. I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said elsewhere. I don’t hear a broad audience clamoring for my opinion.

Still, I think I should be on the record:

Donald Trump has exposed himself as completely unfit for any government position beyond mail carrier more times than I can count.

Hillary Clinton is enormously qualified, competent, and absolutely the better choice for President.

I don’t know why the tide has turned after his comments with Billy Bush. On the one hand, BARF, on the other, how is this any worse than anything else he’s said?

I follow politics mainly because I think it’s important, not because it’s interesting. Anything that claims to be a debate is dreadfully dull. When the participants aren’t talking over each other, their talking points are obvious and not insightful.

But nobody actually wants to debate ideas. They want to win. They want to destroy, crush, decimate and pwn the other side. They want to slap their opponent with a zinger so witty, so irrefutable, it leaves them speechless.

This never happens. Facts don’t matter, I’m told. We each have our own, fresh from our personal echo chamber. I can cite studies and figures to show you why you’re wrong, but you’ll retort with your own statistics that prove me wrong. (Supposedly.)

Albert Einstein tells us that there is no universal reference frame. There is no completely

Credit: @IamHappyToast

Your Republican nominee for President, folks. Credit: @IamHappyToast

objective position where you can look down on everything else. As you accelerate relative to me, mass increases, length contracts, and time slows down.

We can disagree about things that should be fundamental to our understanding of the Universe- and yet we’re both right.[1][2]

I’d like to see everybody have more productive conversations about political issues. Instead of trying to prove each other wrong, we should figure out where we’re both right. We’ll never get anywhere if we’re just arguing about what time it is.

This means everybody needs to swallow their pride. That’s especially tough when Donald Trump lies through his teeth and makes proposals that play fast and loose with the Constitution. I understand the urge to criticize and call him names, but is that going to change anyone’s mind?

Then again, I also believe it is important to call Trump’s statements what they are: Racism. Bigotry. Prejudice. Sexism.


I think many of the people who support Donald Trump have legitimate grievances that should be addressed. The economic shifts in the manufacturing sectors of the midwest and mining industry in places like West Virginia have made life miserable for many people. This is a starting point. This is something we can agree on.

I’d see this as another example of systemic income inequality, rather than blaming free trade or immigrants, but that’s a question for a debate.

One of the biggest problems with the Trump campaign is the way he traffics in conspiracy theories- birtherism, Benghazi, etc. By design, they are unfalsifiable. And what’s worse, there’s usually a kernel of truth buried down there somewhere. It’s not hard to string together a group of actual, verifiable facts and claim they prove something when they don’t.

The Republican Party will have a lot to answer for when this is all over.[3] Why were so many scandals able to be brushed off when the Trump Tapes weren’t? To those who have denounced him, thanks. Better late than never.

If you’d like to talk about politics with me, I’d be happy to. But first, you’ll have to answer this question: What is the speed of light in a vacuum?

  1. [1] But if you don’t think man made climate change is a problem, you’re wronger than the wrongest mistake that was ever incorrect.
  2. [2] Among other things.
  3. [3] And it’s not over until Donald gives a concession speech.
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