February 02, 2014

Under Construction

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:16 PM

July 11, 2012

Scientific proof that dogs are better than cats

Roscoe is perplexed that it took a scientist to figure out that dogs are better for kids than cats -- and even more puzzled that anyone would think that cats were even in the running -- notwithstanding the angry gaze from Mean Kitty. Bogie, on the other hand, is quite blase about the news, given his live-and-let-live attitude about felines.

Finally, a definitive answer to the age-old question: Are dogs truly Man's best friend? As it turns out, they're your kids' best friends, too.

(CBS News) New parents with dogs and cats sometimes consider giving pets away when a baby arrives, but a new study finds keeping the furry family members in tow may boost a child's health benefits.

A Finnish study finds babies who grow up with pets - especially dogs - are less likely to develop colds and other respiratory infections by the time they're toddlers.

The study, published online July 9 in Pediatrics, tracked 397 kids in Finland from before they were born until they turned 1-year-old. Weekly questionnaires were given to parents that asked about their child's health and whether they owned a pet.

The researchers determined that 245 of the babies had a dog in the home (62 percent) and 136 babies (34 percent) had cat contact. By study's end, 65 percent of children lived in homes without a dog and almost 76 percent lived in a cat-free home, so not everyone with a pet had it throughout the entire study.

While respiratory infections and symptoms such as colds and wheezing are common in infants, an analysis revealed that babies who had early contact with dogs or cats were significantly healthier during the study and were 30 percent less likely to experience coughs, ear infections and symptoms such as stuffiness, runny nose, sneezing and congestion (rhinitis).

Babies born in homes with dogs were also 44 percent less likely to develop another common ailment in kids: ear infections. Kids with dogs were also 29 percent less likely to have used antibiotics in the past year than children without pets. More contact with the dog was associated with fewer health problems in general, which led the researchers to believe that early contact with an animal may mature the immune system in infancy, helping toddlers better ward off disease.

Owning a cat was also tied to protective health benefits, but the effect was much weaker.

"Our findings support the theory that during the first year of life, animal contacts are important, possibly leading to better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses during childhood," wrote the authors, led by Dr. Eija Bergroth, a pediatrician at Kuopio University Hospital in Finland.

The strongest benefits were seen in children who had a dog inside at home for six hours a day or fewer, rather than at home all day, which might suggest what dogs track in may help boost early immunity.

"It might have something to do with dirt brought inside by the dogs, especially since the strongest protective effect was seen with children living in houses where dogs spent a lot of time outside," Bergroth told WebMD.

Dogs. Is there anything they can't do?

Rhetorical question, of course. The answer is "No!"

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:12 AM

May 31, 2012

Automotive Dreams: Mercedes 300SL

The Mercedes 300SL has long been one of my favorite classic cars, not just because of the gullwing doors that gave it its nickname, but also thanks to its timeless, sensuous lines.

I've seen them at high-end auctions, where they sell in the million-dollar range, but I've never heard the sound of one being driven hard, it's direct-injection inline-six cylinder engine screaming. Until now.


Classic cars deserve to be driven; warbirds should be flown. They're at the apex of engineering and art, and simply can't be appreciated as static displays in a museum.

I'm a bit envious of the owner, but more than that I admire him for his ability to shrug off the dents and dings and road damage that comes with driving his Gullwing to carshows, so that he can simply enjoy the damn thing the way God -- and Mercedes -- intended.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:21 AM

February 20, 2012

The glory that was Hollywood: Soundtracks

I'm Hollywood's worst nightmare, which is ironic, given that I'm a lifelong film buff, a lover of film, someone who grew up in and surrounded by the movie business. Neighbors, classmates' parents, Dad's golf buddies; they were all part of the Biz, and going to the movies was a thrill from my earliest childhood days.

That having been said, I rarely see a film in a theater; there are countless reasons for this, including the behavior of audiences, who treat the experience as if they're sitting at home on the couch, talking, texting, crinkling wrappers, seemingly incapable of just sitting still and letting themselves -- and their neighbors -- enjoy the show.

But that's ignoring the elephant in the room: The movies themselves are often lacking: poorly written, badly acted, unoriginal, uninteresting, seemingly hell bent on ignoring Sam Goldwyn's timeless advice to filmmakers: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union."

That's a telegram reference, kids.

Let's focus for now on one aspect of the movie experience: The soundtrack. There's nothing like a stirring soundtrack, the composer able to perfectly compliment the onscreen action, ears and eyes working together to draw the viewer into the story. We respond viscerally to things aural, and I suspect that we've all gotten goosebumps far more often from a thing heard than seen.

Big Hollywood columnist Ben Shapiro shared his Top Ten Best Film Composers of All Time this weekend; I disagree with some of his choices, but there are several that are simply magnificent, beginning with his pick for Number 2: Elmer Bernstein.

Bernstein was a prolific composer; his IMDB profile lists 242 titles over 53 years, and some of his work is so good it's become part of the American collective consciousness.

There's no better place to begin than his score for the 1960 blockbuster The Magnificent Seven, starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Eli Wallach and Robert Vaughn.

This is perhaps my favorite theme in the entire canon of cinema soundtracks, a sweeping orchestral piece, so evocative of the West that it stands separate and apart from its film. Give it a listen and then we'll continue.

There are people who've never seen The Magnificent Seven, but instantly recognize the theme; it's truly iconic, reminiscent of Aaron Copland, at least to my untrained ears, not surprising, as Bernstein was Copland's protégé.

Three years later, Bernstein provided the score to another star-studded blockbuster, The Great Escape, also directed by John Sturges, with some of the same cast: Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, along with James Garner, Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasance.

Based on a real-life mass escape of Allied POWs from German captivity -- and the aftermath -- the movie was lauded by survivors and remains popular for its casting and attention to detail.

Bernstein's score is used to great effect, and stays with the viewer long after the lights come up.

I find myself often whistling the melody, and did so whilst marching in boot camp, albeit very quietly. It's been nearly 40 years since I first heard this, and it instantly evokes scenes from the film in my mind's eye, especially Steve McQueen being escorted back to "The Cooler," and the sound of his baseball thumping off the cell walls and into his glove.

Topping Shapiro's list is Jerry Goldsmith, who scored 250 titles over 53 years. I first heard his work in 1970, when Dad took me and Grandpa to see Patton at the Studio City Theater, now a bookstore, on Ventura Boulevard, just west of Laurel Canyon. The film is most famous for George C. Scott's virtuosic portrayal of the brilliant and troubled general (he won an Oscar, which he refused), especially in the opening scene, with it's iconic monologue delivered against a gigantic American flag hanging behind the beribboned and bemedalled Patton.

But it's the score that's stayed with me over the years, the haunting, plaintive wail of trumpets, martial, echoing, like half-forgotten memories of past lives, past victories, past defeats; fitting, given Patton's belief in reincarnation -- and his belief that he'd walked ancient battlegrounds when the battles were still fresh.

The discordant notes figure prominently when we first view the aftermath of the Allied defeat by the Germans at Kasserine Pass in North Africa, buzzards feasting on the corpses of GIs, and later when Patton stands amidst the ruins of Carthage, telling Omar Bradley:

It was here. The battlefield was here.

The Carthaginians defending the city were attacked by three Roman Legions. The Carthaginians were proud and brave, but they couldn't hold and were massacred. Arab women stripped them of their tunics and their swords and lances.

The soldiers lay naked in the sun ... 2,000 years ago.

I was here.

And Goldsmith's horns softly wail and moan, fading, fleeting ... like all glory.

Chilling. And marvelous.

Goldsmith made effective use of horns again in perhaps my favorite relatively-recent score, L.A. Confidential (1997), starring Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, Guy Pearce and James Cromwell in director Curtis Hanson's marvelous, gritty, neo-noir adaption of James Ellroy's novel.

There's corruption galore festering just beneath the glittering and glamorous surface of post-war Hollywood and Los Angeles, and Goldsmith's horns capture for me the yearning for lost innocence, the dreams turned to ash and sackcloth, of the cold reality that awaited those who came so eagerly to the City of Angels, and the faint hint of perfume and romance still to be found amongst the ruins of dreams.

Goldsmith and Bernstein are gone, and so too are the kind of scores they wrote. One less reason to buy a ticket at the box office, and why the best films are often playing at home.

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:21 AM | Comments (1)

October 28, 2011

Talkin' food with the dog

Dear gawd, "the maple kind? Yeah?" just slays me.

The more people I meet, the more I like my dogs.

Courtesy of Rachel Lucas who doesn't blog much anymore (more's the pity).

Posted by Mike Lief at 05:01 PM

October 06, 2011

Rainy Day Ensemble

It rained yesterday in Ventura, the first cold storm of the Fall, which meant it was time for my Rainy Day Ensemble: My old Navy trenchcoat and a fedora, much more useful (and stylish) than umbrellas -- which I loathe.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:08 AM | Comments (1)

September 17, 2011

It seemed a good idea at the time

A C-130 Hercules festooned with 30 rockets -- firing down, forward, and back -- to enable it to land in and take off from a soccer field. What could go wrong?

The slow-motion footage of that last landing is pretty incredible; even more incredible is that no one aboard the ill-fated bird was injured.

Posted by Mike Lief at 09:16 AM

July 11, 2011

Bogie's looking distinguished

Bogie and I look at each other; I notice the grey in his eyebrows, his muzzle, frosting the tips of his ears. I wonder if he notices the grey in my fur. Bogie is almost 11 years old, a canine senior citizen, which fills me with a sense of dread at the thought of life without the happy hound, his mortality reminding me of my own.

When he spotted me that fateful day at the animal shelter, neither of us had any grey; now, we're both looking (ahem) distinguished. For an oldtimer, Bogie's still remarkably spry, leaping into the air and racing around the backyard, albeit without Roscoe's seemingly endless energy.

Bogie may not have Roscoe's stamina, but he's not afraid to take the (play) fight to the puppy. It's funny to watch Roscoe push, nip and bark at Bogie -- until the older dog decides to remind the younger dog who's boss.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:10 AM | Comments (2)

June 23, 2011

Put me in, coach! Baseball dreams from centerfield

FIrst base coach Babe Ruth sings with Brooklyn Dodger outfielders Tuck Stainback, Buddy Hasset and Kiki Cuyler during the '38 season.

When was the last time you saw the video that accompanies John Fogerty's 1985 hit, "Centerfield"? This is one of those songs that makes me indescribably happy (but I'll try). Baseball in its modern incarnation leaves me relatively unmoved, as do most professional sports. With rosters changing constantly, fans with an emotional attachment to a team are rooting for the uniform or the corporations that own them, not the players.

I was a kid during the last gasp of the days when the same guys played for a team year after year; hell, some players spent their entire careers with the same ball club! You weren't cheering for the owner; it was the boys in the outfield, the Sultan of Swat, Joltin' Joe who made your heart sing with the CRACK! of a line drive, or broke your heart with a pop fly to the infield and the waiting glove of a smiling shortstop.

This song -- it really should be the official song of Major League Baseball -- always makes me think of how it felt to watch the Dodgers when I was a kid, and the video does a brilliant job of evoking that ever-more-alluring time, with its depiction of clean-cut, smiling, handsome players, not a tattoo to be seen.

The video also highlights the decline in public standards in the stands. Check out how well dressed the fans are: Most men wear a hat, and a coat and tie, too; blue collar types wear clean, neat clothes.

The first game ever played at Ebbets Field, April 5, 1913. Click on the photo to see a larger version, then check out the well-dressed folks in the bleachers.

Yeah, it's more comfortable wearing sweats and a t-shirt, but dressing like a gentleman encourages you to act like a gent; the clothes really do make the man. Conversely, dressing like a slob only coarsens the ordeal of daily life in the big city.

Jackie Robinson gets a handshake as he scores a run during his first year with the Dodgers.

Where -- and when -- would you rather attend a game? Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine, circa 2011, and risk being beaten into a coma for wearing the wrong jersey?

Or Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, circa 1947, cheering Jackie Robinson against Joe DiMaggio and the reviled Yankees, as you yanked the fedora off your head and waved it about like a madman, cheering for your guys?

"Centerfield" makes me want to hop on the subway and emerge from the tunnels across the street from the long-ago demolished Ebbetts Field, buy a hotdog, and see if I can spot my grandfather in the stands, a young version of my dad at his side, maybe catch a glimpse of Babe at first base, telling one of the new guys to steal second.

Nostalgia's a sucker bet, but this song makes me long for a time I know only from photographs and stories told by my father. It sounded wonderful, which probably explains why Fogerty's anthem seems to strike such a chord in me.

Well, beat the drum and hold the phone - the sun came out today!
We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.
A-roundin’ third, and headed for home, it’s a brown-eyed handsome man;
Anyone can understand the way I feel.

Oh, put me in, coach - I’m ready to play today;
Put me in, coach - I’m ready to play today;
Look at me, I can be centerfield.

Well, I spent some time in the mudville nine, watchin’ it from the bench;
You know I took some lumps when the mighty Casey struck out.
So say hey Willie, tell Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio;
Don’t say "it ain’t so", you know the time is now.

Oh, put me in, coach - I’m ready to play today;
Put me in, coach - I’m ready to play today;
Look at me, I can be centerfield.

Got a beat-up glove, a homemade bat, and brand-new pair of shoes;
You know I think it’s time to give this game a ride.
Just to hit the ball and touch ’em all - a moment in the sun;
(pop) it’s gone and you can tell that one goodbye!

Oh, put me in, coach - I’m ready to play today;
Put me in, coach - I’m ready to play today;
Look at me, I can be centerfield.

I don't even own a glove and that makes me want to play! Hell, I'll even close the laptop and get off the couch.

That's how much I like this song.

Posted by Mike Lief at 05:39 PM | Comments (1)

June 22, 2011

I have seen the aliens ... and we are horrifying

I was a fan of science fiction from the time I first learned to read; Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov were my favorites, and they both published in John Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction during the '30s and '40s -- hell, Heinlein published his very first story in Campbell's magazine!

Campbell was no slouch as a writer; perhaps his most famous story was 1938's "Who Goes There," -- very scary -- adapted for the big screen in 1953 as The Thing From Outer Space," starring James Arness as, well, a giant carnivorous carrot. Not scary. But it was remade in '82 by John Carpenter; his version of The Thing," starring Kurt Russell, was a classic, a truly terrifying tale of a shape-shifting extraterrestrial picking off the members of an isolated antarctic research station, one by one, assimilating and incorporating them into itself, assuming their shape and identity, quite faithful to Campbell's novella, which you can read here.

Nearly thirty years later, I stumbled across Peter Watts' story, "The Things," told from the perspective of the alien. I don't know that I've ever read a more disturbing piece of science fiction. Watts' manages to make us seem thoroughly alien, and the protagonist's point of view, his -- its thoughts about our world, our seemingly-isolated existence, our seemingly-inexplicable reluctance to be "assimilated" by the creature is deeply unsettling.

It begins:

I am being Blair. I escape out the back as the world comes in through the front.

I am being Copper. I am rising from the dead.

I am being Childs. I am guarding the main entrance.

The names don't matter. They are placeholders, nothing more; all biomass is interchangeable. What matters is that these are all that is left of me. The world has burned everything else.

I see myself through the window, loping through the storm, wearing Blair. MacReady has told me to burn Blair if he comes back alone, but MacReady still thinks I am one of him. I am not: I am being Blair, and I am at the door. I am being Childs, and I let myself in. I take brief communion, tendrils writhing forth from my faces, intertwining: I am BlairChilds, exchanging news of the world.

The world has found me out. It has discovered my burrow beneath the tool shed, the half-finished lifeboat cannibalized from the viscera of dead helicopters. The world is busy destroying my means of escape. Then it will come back for me.

There is only one option left. I disintegrate. Being Blair, I go to share the plan with Copper and to feed on the rotting biomass once called Clarke; so many changes in so short a time have dangerously depleted my reserves. Being Childs, I have already consumed what was left of Fuchs and am replenished for the next phase. I sling the flamethrower onto my back and head outside, into the long Antarctic night.

I will go into the storm, and never come back.

I was so much more, before the crash. I was an explorer, an ambassador, a missionary. I spread across the cosmos, met countless worlds, took communion: the fit reshaped the unfit and the whole universe bootstrapped upwards in joyful, infinitesimal increments. I was a soldier, at war with entropy itself. I was the very hand by which Creation perfects itself.

So much wisdom I had. So much experience. Now I cannot remember all the things I knew. I can only remember that I once knew them ....

Read Campbell's "Who Goes There," or watch Carpenter's The Thing, then read Watts' "The Things."

You may not sleep well, but it's worth it.

Posted by Mike Lief at 10:19 PM

June 05, 2011

Andrew Gold: 1951-2011

Andrew Gold died Friday, only 59 tears old. He was most famous for this song, which takes me back to the '70s and junior high school every time I hear it.

According to Wikipedia, Gold played guitar on Linda Ronstadt's monster hit, "You're No Good," as well as "When Will I Be Loved," and "Heatwave," and was the arranger on her hit album, Heart Like A Wheel. Those songs burned up the charts in '74, and I had the cassette aboard my submarine; I can remember listening on my gigantic, state-of-the-art Walkman while in my coffin-sized rack.

Gold's other big hit was "Thank You For Being a Friend," which was also used as the theme song for the sitcom "Golden Girls," which I've never seen, as I wasn't in the demographic at which it was aimed.

He toured with the Eagles, played with each of the Beatles during their solo careers, and seemed to have had a remarkably prolific career, even after his time at the top of the charts was done.

I didn't know that he was the son of singer Marni Nixon -- Audrey Hepburn's singing voice as Eliza Doolittle, Natalie Wood's singing voice in "West Side Story," and Deborah Kerr's singing voice in "The King and I" -- and Oscar-winning composer Ernest Gold; music was in his blood.

Requiescat in pace.

Posted by Mike Lief at 08:57 PM

March 13, 2011

Is there nothing an iPhone (or Droid) can't do?

micro-NMR and smartphone.jpg

Neo-luddites are fond of dismissing the latest technological gadgets and innovations as little more than time-wasters and toys, but many of us are finding them indispensable, especially our smartphones. As it turns out, they're not just convenient -- they may even save the life of someone you know.

Medical experts agree that early detection is often the key component to surviving cancer, and researchers have now come up with a way to use a smartphone -- in conjunction with some remarkable hardware -- to spot cancer.

How remarkable? How about a $200 micro-NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) device that can diagnose cancer in less than an hour?

In 1961, Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

We've practically reached the point where magic has become mundane. This may not be magic, but it's still amazing.

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:23 AM

March 11, 2011


The West Coast of the United States, from Point Conception in California to the Oregon-Washington border, is imperiled by a tsunami, with residents advised to move away from the shore and to higher ground. Those of us between the Mexican border and Point Conception are under a tsunami advisory, less serious, but still a bit nerve wracking. It's supposed to hit Santa Barbara around 8:17 a.m.

The video and images coming out of Japan after the 8.9 quake are awe-inspiring, a reminder of the dangers facing those of us who live on the Pacific Rim, especially along the coastline.

Posted by Mike Lief at 02:42 AM

March 05, 2011

"Southland" captures the grit of policing

I've been watching "Southland," the TNT drama about cops patrolling the mean streets of Los Angeles; it's one of the best depictions of policing I've seen, at least from my perspective as a prosecutor.

The Wall Street Journal calls it gritty, and that's a good description.

Canceled by NBC, picked up by TNT and released from the pressure of achieving broadcast network ratings (as well as freed from the constraints of standards and practices), the show has freely delved into how stressful and unglamorous the job actually can be, showing the emotional and physical toll crime takes not only on the victims, but on the cops who have to deal with the violence and its aftermath.

The Journal's on-the-nose description -- "gritty" -- is perfect; this is the antithesis of the antiseptic, often-idiotic "CSI" Las Vegas/Miami/New York/Hawaii-style procedurals. People get hurt; sometimes the bad guys get away with it; and that's life in the big city.

Southland 1.jpg

It features one of the best title sequences I've seen: The episodes begin with a sepia-tinted vintage photo of an old-school L.A. cop peering over the sights of his pistol (above), a series of what appear to be authentic crime scene photos from the past 80 years fading in and out, accompanied by a plaintive, simple instrumental track, then a brief peek at what's to come; action, then freeze frame, with a sardonic voiceover telling the viewer in essence that no cop knows what this shift will bring.

The acting and writing are top notch, and there's at least one actor who caused me to do a double-take. Remember C. Thomas Howell, the former '80s heartthrob? That pretty boy is long gone. He's back as an alcoholic, manic, socially inappropriate, grizzled LAPD officer, lean, grey haired, haggard, with a lined and furrowed face that looks like jerky marinated in whiskey and cigarettes.

It's a remarkable transformation. The rest of the cast is quite good, especially Michael Cudlitz (Bull Randleman of "Band of Brothers") and Regina King.

The season finale is Tuesday night, and with TNT on the fence whether or not to renew it, make sure to catch the almost-certain "Southland" marathon, before the coroner hangs a tag on its toe and wheels it away forever.

Posted by Mike Lief at 06:02 PM

February 21, 2011

Those eyes! That lip!

Roscoe gazes into the camera for a brief moment before closing his eyes to bask in the morning sun, his lower lip characteristically thrust forward -- this time in enjoyment, I'm guessing. The pup is a true sun worshipper, following its rays around the room, twisting and turning, going wherever he must to maximize the heat -- and the enjoyment -- even if it means resting his head on a pajama-clad leg.

Roscoe checks out Pepper, noting for the record his displeasure that the cat is apparently not subject to the "No Animals On The Couch" rule, before looking for other spots in which a put-upon hound can sunbathe. Pepper didn't even deign to squeak, meow or hiss at the dog, content to simply loll about, reveling in his privileged position in the household hierarchy.

Posted by Mike Lief at 08:23 PM

February 07, 2011

When H.P. Lovecraft and modern science meet beneath the Mountains of Madness

H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness scared the bejabbers out of me when I first read it, more years ago than I care to admit. Lovecraft's metier involved establishing a mood of dread, slowly giving way to terror, by not describing that which hid in the shadows. He invented a mythos of immortal beings from another dimension, incomprehensibly ancient and powerful, for whom humanity was of no more significance than a flea on the ass of the Creator. Lovercraft's tales emphasized the size and age of the cosmos, making the concept of infinity frightening, as if we stood on the precipice of a vast, uncaring void.

Back to those Mountains of Madness: First published in 1936, Lovecraft's novella followed the exploits of an expedition to the Antarctic, where an ancient city is discovered beneath the ice.

Let's just say that there are things best left undisturbed under that frozen mantle.

Which brings me to a news story from modern day Antarctica, and a new addition to the Lovecraftian mythos.

First, the news.

Russian scientists are getting ready to break through miles of ice, exposing Lake Vostok to the surface for the first time in millions of years.

With only about 50m left to drill, time is running out for the Russian scientists hoping to drill into Vostok - the world's most enigmatic lake.

Vostok is a sub-glacial lake in Antarctica, hidden some 4,000m (13,000ft) beneath the ice sheet.


"It's like working on an alien planet where no one has been before," Valery Lukin, the deputy head of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) in St Petersburg, which oversees the project, told BBC News.

"We don't know what awaits us down there," he said, adding that personnel at the station have been working shifts, drilling 24 hours a day.

But some experts remain concerned that probing the lake's water - thought by some to be isolated from everything else on Earth - could contaminate the pristine ecosystem and cause irreversible damage.

The sub-glacial lake is located underneath the remote Vostok station in Antarctica.

Overlaid by nearly 4km of ice, it has been isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years. Some scientists think the ice cap above and at the edges has created a hydrostatic seal with the surface, preventing lake water from escaping or anything else from getting inside.

And if the Russian team gets through to the pristine waters, they hope to encounter life forms that have never been seen.


Space radar revealed that the sub-glacial body of fresh water was one of the largest lakes in the world - and one of some 150 subglacial lakes in Antarctica.

At 10,000 square km and with depths reaching 800m, it is similar to Lake Baikal in Siberia or Lake Ontario in North America.

Since the lake has remained sealed off from the rest of the world, scientists estimate that conditions in it have probably remained unchanged for some 15 million years.

For liquid water to exist in Antarctica, glaciologists suggest that the ice cap serves as a giant insulating blanket, able to capture the Earth's geothermal heat to melt the bottom of the ice sheet.

Sealed, cutoff from the rest of the world for 15 million years, perhaps with new lifeforms waiting to be discovered.

What could go wrong?

I give you, A Colder War, a novella by Charles Stross. Set in an alternate timeline, with world history having taken a significant detour in the 1930s, it postulates a world where that expedition to the Mountains of Madness actually took place -- and the implications for the Cold War.

It begins:

Roger Jourgensen tilts back in his chair, reading.

He's a fair-haired man, in his mid-thirties: hair razor-cropped, skin pallid from too much time spent under artificial lights. Spectacles, short-sleeved white shirt and tie, photographic ID badge on a chain round his neck. He works in an air-conditioned office with no windows.

The file he is reading frightens him.

Once, when Roger was a young boy, his father took him to an open day at Nellis AFB, out in the California desert. Sunlight glared brilliantly from the polished silverplate flanks of the big bombers, sitting in their concrete-lined dispersal bays behind barriers and blinking radiation monitors. The brightly coloured streamers flying from their pitot tubes lent them a strange, almost festive appearance. But they were sleeping nightmares: once awakened, nobody -- except the flight crew -- could come within a mile of the nuclear-powered bombers and live.

Looking at the gleaming, bulging pods slung under their wingtip pylons, Roger had a premature inkling of the fires that waited within, a frigid terror that echoed the siren wail of the air raid warnings. He'd sucked nervously on his ice cream and gripped his father's hand tightly while the band ripped through a cheerful Sousa march, and only forgot his fear when a flock of Thunderchiefs sliced by overhead and rattled the car windows for miles around.

He has the same feeling now, as an adult reading this intelligence assessment, that he had as a child, watching the nuclear powered bombers sleeping in their concrete beds.

There's a blurry photograph of a concrete box inside the file, snapped from above by a high-flying U-2 during the autumn of '61. Three coffin-shaped lakes, bulking dark and gloomy beneath the arctic sun; a canal heading west, deep in the Soviet heartland, surrounded by warning trefoils and armed guards. Deep waters saturated with calcium salts, concrete coffer-dams lined with gold and lead. A sleeping giant pointed at NATO, more terrifying than any nuclear weapon.

Project Koschei.

Would you believe that the dark, cold, primordial waters of Lake Volkov play a part in the goings on?

I had just read about the Russians coming close to breaking thought that miles-thick cap when I stumbled across this novella.

Serendipitous. And spooky.

You can read the entire novella online. Please do.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:44 PM

February 03, 2011

We really do look alike

I was at a banquet last night to honor a colleague who was retiring from the district attorney's office after nearly 30 years of service.

After the cocktail reception and the opening remarks to the crowd -- which were well received and drew many laughs -- I headed to the WC to freshen up. As I walked back into the banquet room, another guest (a burly man in his 60s) held the door for me, saying, "You're doing a fine job as MC."

I smiled at him and replied, "Thank you! I'm glad you're having a good time," then walked back to my table and sat down.

Only problem is, I wasn't the master of ceremonies -- it was the other short, funny Jewish guy with dark hair and glasses.

Another day in the life of That Guy Who Looks Like Somebody I Know.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:27 AM

December 23, 2010

Allie Brosh: Kenny Loggins ruined Christmas

Everyone's got a favorite Christmas memory (even us Hebrews), but I'd dare say that Allie Brosh's tale of how Kenny Loggins ruined the holiday may be the best one ever.

Very, very funny.

Posted by Mike Lief at 06:51 AM

December 08, 2010

FDR shows his war face

President Roosevelt addresses Congress the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

As Americans scoured the papers for information and listened to the radio for the latest news from Hawaii, Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered a blockbuster speech to Congress -- and the nation.

Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives:

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.


The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday, the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked Guam.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

Last night, the Japanese attacked Wake Island.

And this morning, the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As commander in chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph -- so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.

You can listen to the speech here

Posted by Mike Lief at 12:40 AM

November 21, 2010

Tweeting from space

Fog may cover portions of France and England, but the astronauts aboard the International Space Station have a clear view of Paris, the English Channel, London, and the Aurora Borealis, too.

NASA Astronaut Douglas Wheelock has been using Twitter to post photos taken from the International Space Station. You can check out his constantly-updated tweets here.

Posted by Mike Lief at 09:14 PM

Interesting facts from WWII: Luftwaffe's need for speed (UPDATED)

I've been perusing the online archives of Lone Sentry, where you can find some articles published by U.S. Military Intelligence during the war, evaluating the weapons and tactics of the Axis and Allied forces.

This one caught my eye:

"Stimulants for Members of the German Luftwaffe" from Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 5, August 13, 1942.

A firm in Brussels is reported to be the distributor of the stimulant called "Pervitin" (see page 19, Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 4) used by members of the German Luftwaffe. It is prepared in the form of a pellet or pill. The manufacturer is Temmlerwerke of Berlin. The following ingredients are used in its manufacture:

1 - phenyl - 2 - methylaminopropane hydrocloric 0.003
Saccharin lactis 0.045
Amylum 0.012

COMMENT: In this country, "Pervitin" is believed to be similar in chemical structure to our drug Benzedrine. The British consider Benzedrine and also Methedrine to be helpful in temporarily increasing physical vigor, relieving fatigue and preventing sleep.

When I drove a submarine, we had nothing stronger than Navy coffee to get us through Midwatch, which was a particularly rough one when submerged at or near periscope depth, as the controlroom was rigged for black -- pitch dark, but for the subdued lighting on the control panels. Add fatigue from too little sleep and stale air from hours (or days) submerged, and it was a struggle to stay alert.

Apparently the Luftwaffe -- as well as the Brits and the Amis -- recognized that the demands of war necessitated a little boost for the troops ... even Aryan supermen.


I found another entry -- published after the one above -- on the military use of stimulants, this one from the Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 11, Nov. 5, 1942.

Benzedrine (also called Amphetamine) and Methedrine (German equivalent Pervitin) are substances belonging to the group called analeptics (restoratives). For practical purposes the actions of these drugs are the same, but 1 dose of Methedrine is as potent as 1 1/2 doses of Benzedrine, weight for weight.

Their chief action is to stimulate the higher activities of the brain, showing itself especially in decreased sensations of tiredness and fatigue, and in a disinclination and inability to sleep. The administration of Benzedrine does not increase the mental or physical efficiency of a man who is not tired, and Benzedrine should not be taken with this object.

Mention may be made here of the trend of German reports on the use of analeptics. In the latter half of 1941, these reports were enthusiastic, but toward the end of the year warnings commenced to appear, and in the early months of 1942 reports tended to be definitely against their use except under rigid control. The substance in use was Pervitin. (See Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 5, p. 32.)

The effect of these substances on troops has now been studied in the laboratory and in the field, and the following conclusions have been drawn by British medical authorities.

(a) The valuable effect of Benzedrine* to individuals engaged in war operations is to reduce the desire for sleep, and the fatigue which results in loss of efficiency and makes difficult the continuation of essential duties.

(b) Circumstances may thus arise in which the administration of Benzedrine may be advantageous for skilled personnel when they are severely fatigued and unable to continue at a reasonable level of efficiency without an additional stimulus.

The use of Benzedrine should be confined to emergencies or crises, and it should not be taken regularly.

The decision to give Benzedrine must only be made in circumstances when there is reasonable expectation that the emergency will be at an end within 12 hours.

(c) No person whose duties involve the making of difficult decisions, should be permitted to take Benzedrine in a crisis unless he has tested his reactions to it previously.

(d) Benzedrine must not be given indiscriminately to large bodies of troops.

(e) A single dose should not exceed 10 milligrams. A dose of 5 mg may be repeated once or even twice at intervals of 4 to 6 hours.

If an individual is of the opinion that a dose of 10 mg does not produce appreciable effects upon him, the use of the drug should be given up.

(f) The administration of Benzedrine should be under the control of a medical officer.

*Where "Benzedrine" is written, "Methedrine in equivalent dosage" may be substituted except where this is obviously inappropriate.

I'm not the only one who finds it interesting that all sides were giving their troops speed during the war; the use of amphetamine by the military during WWII plays an important part in a recent Jack Reacher novel by Lee Childs, 61 Hours.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:58 PM

Say, that's an interesting accent -- where do y'all hail from?

Did you ever wonder what something sounded like when spoken in a particular accent?

Wonder no more. The Speech Accent Archive features more than 200 accents, many with male and female examples from different regions within various nations, all saying the same thing:

Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.

You might have surmised that a Bavarian woman from Berchtesgaden sounds subtly different than an Austrian gal from Vienna, but you've probably been unable to compare the two so easily.

The selection is enormous, with a variety of rather esoteric places from which to pick.

I didn't say this was useful, just interesting.

Posted by Mike Lief at 04:57 PM

November 19, 2010

Allie Brosh on dogs: OMG

Honestly, Allie Brosh's latest post, Dog's Don't Understand Basic Concepts Like Moving, is one of the funniest things I've seen of late.

The tale of her recent move from Montana to Oregon, accompanied by her drawings, is laugh-out-loud funny to those of us with dogs, and at least worth a chuckle from the cat crowd (weirdos), too.

Check it out.

Posted by Mike Lief at 09:48 PM | Comments (1)

November 12, 2010

Like peering into a time machine

Veterans Day may have come and gone, but I think every day's perfect to remember and honor our vets. Check out this remarkable story about a World War II tailgunner who got the chance to relive the luckiest day of his life.

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:50 PM

October 16, 2010

Now that's amazing!

This is perhaps the single most impressive display of coordination, balance and dexterity I've ever seen, courtesy of two German sisters, Carla Hochdorfer and Henriette Hochdorfer, at the European Junior Championships of Indoor Cycling, held last year in Holland.

Honestly, this would impress me even if I weren't spectacularly uncoordinated and an über dork, as some who know me -- and shall remain nameless -- believe.

If the Wehrmacht had 20 divisions of these gals 70 years ago, we'd all be speaking German.

And riding unicycles.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:47 AM | Comments (1)

September 27, 2010

God save the King (and keep him far away from us)

The title of this entry is based on a line from Fiddler on the Roof: When someone asks the rabbi if there's a blessing for the Czar, he replies, "May God bless and keep the Czar -- far away from us!"

Royalty in general -- and the House of Windsor in particular -- holds no appeal for me; while something of an anglophile -- at least for the England of Churchill, Kipling, Shakespeare, Peter Sellers, Alec Guiness and Ealing Studios -- a voluptuary of royalty I am not.

(When someone told me that "Princess Di is dead!" I asked, "Diana Ross died?")

When I think of England beset and besieged in the dark days of 1940, it's Churchill who personifies the indomitable spirit of the Tommy. The English king, when thought of at all, is remembered as the fellow who had a speech impediment and fathered Queen Elizabeth, appearing in newsreels during the Blitz, silently touring the damage, hardly fertile ground for an engrossing film.

This trailer proves me wrong. While I think it's a bit overwrought for a character to tell King Bertie that he's "the bravest man I've ever met," it *is* an interesting tale of a man thrust into a very public role that required him to address and conquer his most terrible fear: public speaking, a fear shared by most of his fellow humans.

It doesn't hurt to have Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter starring, either.

I especially like the king's daughter watching a newsreel of Hitler giving a speech and asking her father, "What's he saying?" The stammering king replies, "I don't know, but he seems to be saying it rather well."

If I went to the movies, this'd be on my must-see list.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:02 AM

September 19, 2010

File under "Better Mouse Trap"

I've watched this video several times, but still haven't quite gotten a handle on, well, the pedal and crank and cable on this reimagined bicycle propulsion system.

The gears and chain we all know from our childhoods have been replaced, their familiar round-and-round circuit replaced by an irregular elliptical path at the front crank, and cables rising and falling, winding twining around the rear hub.

How the gearing works -- can it even be called "gearing" when there aren't anything with teeth? -- is still a mystery to me.

Eccentric discs. The pedal axis rotates these discs at both sides of the frame. The discs has a specific, kidney like shape which determines the driving characteristic i.e. the angular displacement of the rear wheel of the bicycle as a function of the angular position of the pedal shaft. The chosen shape provides for a conventional driving characteristic i.e. the same as if a chain-driven bike with circular gears were used. In a more expensive model the discs can be changed with other ones having different shapes, whereby the driving characteristic can be changed in a tour or in a contest, to load different muscle groups.

The swinging unit, comprising a pair of oppositely swinging arms arranged for swinging movement around a pivoted auxiliary axis. The rotation of the eccentric discs results in the swinging movement of the arms in forward and backward direction.

Transmission (speed) changer. This unit is a controlled slide. It changes the longitudinal position (height) of respective pulleys guided along the swinging arms. The height of the two pulleys is always the same. When the pulley is in the outermost position, the transmission ratio is at maximum, while in the innermost position this ratio is at minimum.

Uh, yeah.

The design is supposed to offer a number of benefits, the least of which is no dirty chain to lubricate -- and mess up your pants.

The rest, along with photos, are here.

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:00 PM

September 10, 2010

But can you flat-pack a cat?

As you may have surmised, I am a dog guy, through and through. Still, if pressed -- upon threat of something really painful being done to bits and pieces upon which one really doesn't want anything painful done -- I'll confess to having perhaps a hint of a smile play (ever so briefly) across my usually poker-faced features while watching this video, featuring 100 cats in an Ikea store.

But I'll deny it, of course.

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:09 PM | Comments (1)

How long does it take to field-strip a Jeep?

How long does it take to field-strip a Korean War-era jeep? About four minutes for these soldiers.

Did I say four minutes? I'm sorry, that's how long it took to tear it apart and put it back together -- and drive away.

There's something to be said for simplicity and purity of design.

I wonder how much time they could shave off with a World War II jeep, an even less complicated design?

Posted by Mike Lief at 10:22 AM

September 06, 2010

What's my name?

Every family that immigrated to the United States has heard stories of how their last name changed over the years, supposedly as a result of impromptu modifications at the hands of the officers staffing Ellis Island. I've been exploring online, seeing what I could discover about my original last name; there have been numerous versions given over the years at family reunions, so it's interesting to see what's recorded in the official record, such as it is, from when my great-grandparents first arrived in the U.S.

The answers to a variety of questions, like our name, appear to have been rather elastic.

June 15, 1900, was the first time my great-grandparents participated in the U.S. Census, the enumerator visiting them at their apartment at 26 Cook Street, Brooklyn, New York. My paternal great-grandfather Max Lipsitz, 33, had been married to Sadie, 30, for nine years; they had three children: Lillie, 8, Henrietta, 6, and my grandfather Harry, 3.

1900 census detail.jpg

According to these entries in the 1900 census, Max and Sadie arrived in the United States in 1891, the same year they'd married. My great-grandfather was working as a day laborer; he'd soon be trading a shovel for needle and thread.

Ten years later, May 5, 1910, my great-grandfather Max Lipshitz was living at 213-215 Seigel Street in Brooklyn. He'd been married to my great-grandmother Sadie for 19 years; Max was 41, Sadie was 39. They had seven children living with them, although the census enumerator noted that Sadie had given birth to eight children, with all eight still alive; Lillie, born in 1893, was already out of the house, although she was back at home by the 1920 census. My grandfather Harry was just 13 years old in 1910, not quite old enough to run away and join the cavalry.

According to this census, Max and Sadie came to the United States in 1881, and Max was not a veteran of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy, nor was he deaf, dumb, or blind in both eyes.

Harry Lief circa 1914.jpg

My grandfather Harry Lief, circa 1914.

Ten years later, Max Lifshutz was living at 920 DeKalb Avenue, in Brooklyn, when the enumerator stopped by on January 9, 1920, to count up how many of my ancestors were crammed into that small apartment.

1920 Census names Max Lifshutz 1.jpg

Max was 50 years old, living with his wife and nine children (my grandfather Harry apparently between hitches in the military).

My grandfather in France during World War I. He returned home after the war and was living with his parents during the 1920 census.

Looking across the page of the census ledger to the right, I found a list of their occupations.

1920 census occupations.jpg

Max was a tailor, making men's pants; my grandfather was a clerk in a "clothing house."

According to the 1920 census, Max and Sadie came to the United States from Russia in 1892, and their three eldest children were born in Manhattan -- presumably near Hester Street -- the rest born later in Brooklyn.

Harry Lifshutz and one of his brothers at the beach, circa 1925

Harry and Shirley Lief 1928.jpg

Harry and Shirley Lief on their wedding day in 1928.

By 1930 my grandfather was married to my grandmother, living with their daughter, my father's debut still three years in the future. Herbert Hoover was president and the Depression was in its early stages, the stock market crashing just a few months earlier.

The enumerator visited my grandparents on April 10, 1930, at their apartment at 2015 Mermaid Avenue, Brooklyn, for which they paid a monthly rent of $33.

In the intervening decade since the '20 census, my grandfather did another hitch in the Army, got out and married my grandmother in 1928. Now 33, Harry was using the last name "Lifschutz," and my grandmother, 24, had dropped her birthname "Sadie" in favor of the presumably more fashionable "Shirley." Harry was working as a "chauffeur," according to the enumerator, who clarified in the next block of the ledger that grandpa was driving a taxi. The census form also reveals that my grandparents had a radio in their apartment, although family lore says they did not yet have their own bathroom, still having to walk down the hall to share one with the neighbors.

The 1940 census isn't online yet, but I was able to track down my grandfather's draft registration card from early 1942, in the months after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

You'll notice that we've finally arrived at the last name currently used by my family: Lief. Harry and his brothers filed the paperwork to adopt "Lief" in late 1939, the government giving the okay in '40.

Grandpa is still living in Brooklyn, apparently having moved to a new apartment. On closer inspection, Harry writes that my grandmother is the person who will know how to contact him; she's living on Liberty Ave., the address Harry lined out.

Were my grandparents living apart? I've heard the marriage was often ... tumultuous, but this is a bit of unexpected news. As I recall, my grandfather was anxious and eager to enlist in the Army, my grandmother appalled that a 45-year-old father of three would volunteer and leave them behind. Perhaps this was the source of the separate living arrangement.

Draft registration back Harry Lief.jpg

Although the draft board said an approximate height was good enough, someone made sure my grandfather was given credit for that last half-inch past 5'6" that was his to claim; I may be a mere half-inch taller than him, but my grandfather towers over me in my memory. Check out those racial classifications; they provide an interesting glimpse into the nation's melting pot stock at the beginning of the 1940s.

A night out on the town for my grandparents, circa 1948. That's my grandfather seated on the left; my Dad's older sister Phyllis standing next to him, my grandmother (second from left), my late-godfather's dad, and my grandmother's sisters on the right.

So, to review:

1900 - Lipsitz
1910 - Lipshitz
1920 - Lifshutz
1930 - Lifschutz
1940 (approximately) - Lief

The flexibility in spelling was easy to explain early on, given that our family name was being translated from Russian or Yiddish, and transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet into English, meaning that the spelling was merely trying to capture the sound of the name.

Harry and Shirley Lief 1977.jpg

Harry and Shirley Lief at my bar mitzvah reception, July 1976. Harry passed away less than a year later, almost 50 years after he and my grandmother married.

What's less easy to explain are the multiple spellings in the census logs. I suppose the most likely explanation is a combination of my great-grandfather's accent and the enumerator's lack of interest in listening to thousands of immigrants explain over and over again how to spell their names.

Or, in the alternative, my great-grandfather was having them on.

The different years given for our arrival in the U.S. -- 1891, 1892, and 1881 -- are more difficult to attribute to language barriers; I have no good explanation for this, and have yet to find the passenger list for Max and Sadie's voyage from the Old World to the New.

As I look over the pages from the various census ledgers, I'm struck by the humanity of the entries, flowing strokes from a fountain pen capturing the smallest details of the daily lives of my great aunts and uncles, grandparents and great grandparents. These handwritten ledgers seem so alive, all the more so compared to the modern, sterile, computer-generated logs that will appear to be untouched by human hands when released 72 years from now.

When I look at these written entries, I feel a connection with my grandfather, the three-year-old boy; the 13-year-old youth; the 23-year-old veteran; the 33-year-old husband and father. And, although I never met him, I also feel a kinship beyond that of blood ties with his father, Max, younger in 1900 than I am today, building a family, a new life, in the bustling ferment that was turn-of-the-century Manhattan.

Posted by Mike Lief at 08:31 PM | Comments (5)

August 11, 2010

Airshow: Wildcat and Zero!

(Click on image for full-size version)

I spent this past weekend at Naval Air Station Ventura County, where my California State Military Reserve unit was recruiting next to the C-130 transport. I was parked next to a B-25 Mitchell bomber, the plane Jimmy Doolittle and his men used to hit Tokyo shortly after Pearl Harbor.

Sitting in my 1945 Willys Jeep, dressed head to toe in WWII gear, I had a great view of the mock dogfight in the skies above between a Japanese Zero -- the plane that dominated the skies during the early days of the war -- and an American F6F Wildcat, a plane that more than made up for its less-than-graceful lines (especially when compared to the lithe Zero) with gobs of power, lots of firepower, and enough armor to keep the pilot protected.

Here, the Zero maneuvers to get on the Wildcat's six.

(Click on image for full-size version)

The Wildcat presented a big target for the Japanese pilot (actually a white guy from Camarillo).

(Click on image for full-size version)

The Wildcat used its massive engine to pull away from the pursuing Zero, the sound of the big radial's exhausts music to my ears.

(Click on image for full-size version)

The maneuverable -- but lightly-armored Zero -- soon found itself in the sights of the massive Wildcat and it's array of .50 caliber machine guns, capable of putting pounds of lead on target with the press of a finger.

(Click on image for full-size version)

The Wildcat and the Zero flew in formation after they finished their mock dogfight, providing the crowd a nice view of the birds during a photo fly-by. The Zero is one of three still flying; the only one with the original -- and extremely rare Japanese engine -- is based at Chino, CA. This bird has an American Wright Cyclone radial engine under the cowling.

Posted by Mike Lief at 10:16 PM | Comments (1)

August 03, 2010

So this is what it's like to sit in a P-51 Mustang!

Did you ever wonder what it was like to sit in the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang, arguably the greatest fighter of World War II? For many of us aviation enthusiasts, this is the closest we'll ever get.

It's a 360-degree, high-resolution, click-and-draggable virtual reality rendering of a P-51. It'll take a while to load, even with a high-speed internet connection, but when it's done, you'll be able to zoom in to get a close look at the controls, spin around, look up, down and around the inside of the old warbird.

This is a screengrab after I zoomed in on the throttle and the controls for the weapons. I've reduced the size and resolution, which should give you an idea of just how detailed this rendering is.

Based on the shape of the canopy -- lots of framing, as opposed to an unobstructed bubble -- she looks like an early-war, "Razorback" model.

Very, very cool.

Posted by Mike Lief at 08:17 PM

July 18, 2010

Tom Jones: Older, better

I listened to a lot of Tom Jones this weekend, most of the recordings from the last decade or so, the Welsh singer's voice in fine fettle. Then I came across the latest from the singer, a spare, stripped down album featuring raw, bluesy numbers, contemplative musings on mortality, faith, and the nature of man. It's very different from the pop tunes that Jones has spent most of his life performing, but it makes for compelling listening.

However, it seems at least one executive from his label was not impressed.

Here he's performing the old John Lee Hooker blues number, "Burning Hell" on Jools Hooland's TV show earlier this year.

Posted by Mike Lief at 10:06 PM

Morning flowers

Carnations and roses in the morning sun. I sit at the island, bleary eyed, sipping my coffee and gazing at the flowers, the sun moving slowly, creating blazing highlights and inky black shadows. I set my mug down and pick up my camera ....

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:48 AM

July 17, 2010

Tom Jones: Maybe older, but just as good as ever

Tom Jones performed this version of "Green, Green Grass of Home" back in 1968, when he was 28 years old. It's a great performance, but I think Jones is one of those rare performers; his voice seems as strong as ever, mellowing with age, but still capable of killing.

Here's Jones performing "Green, Green Grass of Home" on Jools Holland's New Years' Eve Special, from December of 2009.

I'd never seen this before: Tom Jones paired up with Nina Persson for a cover of the Talking Head's "Burning Down the House."

It's hard to believe Tom Jones was 69 years old when he rocked the stage with this performance of "Kiss" last year. Most '60s-era stars strike me as ridiculous when they strut and strike poses on stage (Rolling Stones? Aerosmith? The Who?), but this guy has the kind of stage presence that younger singers can only dream of.

Posted by Mike Lief at 01:12 PM

Something for the glass-is-half-full crowd


There must be something in the air -- economic disaster, car bombs overseas, class warfare -- that has me scanning the internet for advice on how to survive parlous and perilous times.

Popular Mechanics offers this second-by-second guide (or is that foot-by-foot?) to surviving a 36 thousand-foot plunge after your airplane disintegrates. Remarkably, 31 people have survived such a plunge, without the benefit of a parachute.

In 1972, Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulovic was traveling in a DC-9 over Czechoslovakia when it blew up. She fell 33,000 feet, wedged between her seat, a catering trolley, a section of aircraft and the body of another crew member, landing on—then sliding down—a snowy incline before coming to a stop, severely injured but alive.

Surviving a plunge surrounded by a semiprotective cocoon of debris is more common than surviving a pure free-fall, according to Hamilton’s statistics; 31 such confirmed or “plausible” incidents have occurred since the 1940s. Free-fallers constitute a much more exclusive club, with just 13 confirmed or plausible incidents, including perennial Ripley’s Believe It or Not superstar Alan Magee—blown from his B-17 on a 1943 mission over France. The New Jersey airman, more recently the subject of a MythBusters episode, fell 20,000 feet and crashed into a train station; he was subsequently captured by German troops, who were astonished at his survival.

The tone of the article is remarkably hopeful. Why not? What's the point of being a pessimist as you hurtle through the sky at terminal velocity, shrieking like a banshee?

You have a late night and an early flight. Not long after takeoff, you drift to sleep. Suddenly, you’re wide awake. There’s cold air rushing everywhere, and sound. Intense, horrible sound. Where am I?, you think. Where’s the plane?

You’re 6 miles up. You’re alone. You’re falling.

Things are bad. But now’s the time to focus on the good news. (Yes, it goes beyond surviving the destruction of your aircraft.) Although gravity is against you, another force is working in your favor: time. Believe it or not, you’re better off up here than if you’d slipped from the balcony of your high-rise hotel room after one too many drinks last night.

Or at least you will be. Oxygen is scarce at these heights. By now, hypoxia is starting to set in. You’ll be unconscious soon, and you’ll cannonball at least a mile before waking up again. When that happens, remember what you are about to read. The ground, after all, is your next destination.

Granted, the odds of surviving a 6-mile plummet are extra ordinarily slim, but at this point you’ve got nothing to lose by understanding your situation.



Whether you’re attached to crumpled fuselage or just plain falling, the concept you’ll be most interested in is terminal velocity. As gravity pulls you toward earth, you go faster. But like any moving object, you create drag—more as your speed increases. When downward force equals upward resistance, acceleration stops. You max out.

Depending on your size and weight, and factors such as air density, your speed at that moment will be about 120 mph—and you’ll get there after a surprisingly brief bit of falling: just 1500 feet, about the same height as Chicago’s Sears (now Willis) Tower. Equal speed means you hit the ground with equal force. The difference is the clock. Body meets Windy City sidewalk in 12 seconds. From an airplane’s cruising altitude, you’ll have almost enough time to read this entire article.

The author discusses the relative merits of a water landing (best to be avoided) and how best to "stick" the landing (head-first is not a good strategy).

Remind me to print this one out for my next flight.

Posted by Mike Lief at 08:56 AM

July 07, 2010

Is her dog a bit dim?

As the owner of one very smart dog -- and one not-so-smart pup -- I can both empathize with and feel smugly superior to this poor gal and her hilariously dim dog.

Very funny.

Posted by Mike Lief at 06:39 PM

July 02, 2010

Hummingbird Tales: We've got a bird down!

I arrived home from work yesterday afternoon and grabbed my camera, ready to see how the hummingbird chicks had fared since I last peeked into their nest.

Making my way through the garage, I opened the side door, which is about three feet away from the birds, and grabbed the six-foot stepladder. As I was about to step outside, I glanced down and saw something on the concrete, next to the doorway -- a tiny clump of frizzy fur and a beak.

What the hell?

It was one of the hummingbird chicks, feebly moving around, lifting its head, eyes still shut. I quickly climbed up the ladder and peered into the nest: Empty! Not a trace of the other chick.

I gathered up a couple of leaves from the trumpet vine and crouched down, trying to roll the chick onto one leaf without touching it with my hands (wanting to avoid having the mother reject the offspring 'cause it smelled of human).

Straining to reach the nest without dropping the chick, I placed it back into the nest, the concerned mother buzzing angrily overhead, then began looking around, trying to figure out what had happened.

There were bits of the nest -- chunks, really -- laying on the ground, but they seemed to have come off of the top lip; the bottom portion seemed intact. I carefully walked the area, looking for the missing chick, which was more difficult than you might think, as the trumpet vine dropped little husks that looked a lot like the baby birds, at least at a glance.

The search was futile; not a trace remained of the missing bird. I backed off and a few minutes later the mother had returned to the nest, sitting atop her remaining offspring.

When I checked on the nest this morning, the chick was laying in the nest, beak pointed up into the air, awaiting the return of it's mom with breakfast.

I'd initially thought that one of the neighborhood cats was responsible, perhaps making a leap for the nest and knocking it about enough to dislodge its occupants, but wouldn't that have caused more damage to the nest?

It's a mystery.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:39 AM | Comments (1)

June 27, 2010

Moonstruck and the Towers


I'm watching Moonstruck on MGM(HD), a movie I haven't seen since the summer of '88. It features a sharp, funny script by playwright John Patrick Shanley, and some incredible casting: Nicholas Cage as the one-handed baker; Danny Aiello as the older brother he blames for the loss of his hand and his fiancee; Olympia Dukakis and Vincent Gardenia; John Mahoney before he was Frasier's grumpy father; and, in a marvelous performance, Cher as the harried bookkeeper with "bad luck" who comes between the brothers.

It's a funny, whimsical film, filled with larger-than-life characters, snappy dialogue, and operatic emotions. But there's a sadness that lurks around the edges, especially if you're a New Yorker, a nostalgia for the ancient bakeries and butcher shops, the family-owned businesses handed down from generation to generation that seemed to thrive in Brooklyn and the narrow streets of TriBeCa, Alphabet City, and Little Italy. And Checker Cabs, when they still looked like real cabs.

Manhattan is as much a star of this film as any of the actors, and it manages to do the seemingly impossible: Make me nostalgic for the Twin Towers. From the opening title sequence, the World Trade Center towers rise above the skyline, the glittering skyscrapers gleaming amongst their lesser neighbors, the inescapable centerpoint of an unforgettable nightline, especially with that big moon, "Que Bella Luna!" shining brightly nearby.

That jarring sensation, that moment when I'm pulled out of the movie because of those ghostly towers, just one more reason I hate the terrorists who took them down and slaughtered my fellow New Yorkers.

Then the anger subsides and I succumb to the pleasures of a crazy Italian family, La Boheme, and a great romantic comedy.

Posted by Mike Lief at 10:08 PM | Comments (1)

Amazing low-tech visit to the edge of space -- with a Ventura County angle

Pacific Star II from Colin Rich on Vimeo.

This fellow used styrofoam, duct tape and two cheap digital cameras bought on Ebay to capture some stunning images from the edge of space. Nearly as impressive, he managed to find the cameras after their 35 minute descent, all the way to an olive orchard outside Santa Paula, CA.

At the top of the ascent, the sun shines bright in the inky black of space, the curved horizon of the Earth marking the end of the atmosphere, California nearly 24 miles below.

Great stuff.

Posted by Mike Lief at 08:50 PM | Comments (1)