If you didn't get to see Last Week Tonight with John Oliver last night, he had an interesting main story on bias in medicine, focusing on gender and racial bias. Some of it historic, much systemic. Like all his pieces, it's pretty funny, though more than that what stood out is how the bias manifests itself and the impact of it all. And like my favorite of his shows, he has a fun twist towards the end. Less grandiose than some of their best, but enjoyable nonetheless.
On this week's Al Franken podcast, his guest is former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. And this and the recent podcast with Dana Carvey best-exemplify what I think makes this series so terrific. There are few people who can handle both a conversation about political humor and a lively, and actually-entertaining talk on nuclear physics.
As the website describes, "Moniz and Al discuss putting pragmatic meat on the bones of the Green New Deal. Al coins a new Kennedy-esque slogan, 'We choose to go to zero-carbon not because it is easy, but because otherwise WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!' Moniz, who was the chairman of MIT’s physics department, negotiated the technical nuclear parts of the Iran Deal with his Iranian counterpart. Because Trump has repeatedly called the US negotiators of the Iran Nuclear Deal 'very stupid people'”.
By the way, even if you don't want to listen to the whole conversation -- or any of it -- at least try to listen to the first 13 minutes when Franken has a sort of "opening monologue." While it's always a bit lighthearted, it's also informative with stories related to what's in the news. And here he tells a wonderful story about a young Minnesota girl born in Somalia who was a Senate page when Franken was in the Senate, and he later introduced her when she gave the valedictorian speech upon graduating high school.
The guest contestant for the 'Not My Job' segment of the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! is Tiera Fletcher, who is a 24-year-old rocket scientist working on a mission to Mars, after first helping establish a NASA gateway on the moon. The interview with host Peter Sagal could go one of two ways -- mind-numbingly boring or great fun. Happily, it's the latter.
This week, the folks over at The Al Franken Podcast tell us -- "Al talks to Michael Mann, Nobel Prize-winning climatologist for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We cover a lot of ground. How to talk about climate change to your crazy right-wing climate-denying uncle. 'Uncle Hal, sea level is rising. For two reasons. Ice is melting. And water expands when it gets warmer.' If Uncle Hal insists sea level is rising because of all the rocks falling into the ocean, then just give up."
While all this is true, what they leave out is that this is actually a very entertaining, interesting and accessible conversation. So, don't get scared off by, "Oh, my God, they're going to talk about science!!!!"
Yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend who was bewildered by the White House announcing that they were going to have a Climate Change panel. The only thing he could figure was that it had some connection to the liberal Green New Deal, but didn't know how. Maybe that they were trying to get ahead of it.
I said he was likely right for the foundation, but I doubted the reason. Given that Trump doesn't believe in Climate Change, it didn't seem probable that he was now on board. More likely is that they didn't want it to gain any steam and want some way to try and discredit it.
Then came this story later about the man reported to be Trump's choice to head the committee, William Happer, a Princeton professor. One would think that his disbelief in Climate Change would be the worst and most damning part of the story. But this is the Trump administration, so of course there's more. And that "more" is (and I swear this is true, there's video of him saying it) he compares reaction towards deniers to how Nazis treated Jews!
Okay, look, for starters, the mere fact that as a Climate Change denier he is simply...well, alive should be proof enough that such a view of the Nazi treatment of Jews is reprehensible. That beyond this he's also a tenured college professor is just bonus evidence. Of course ultimately he appears to be a perfect choice by Trump, given that he seems adept at denying pretty much anything he finds inconvenient.
At the very least, though, I do think we have our answer for why the committee. And Option #2 looks like a winner.
Many people on the far right don't believe in science, considering it more of a "faith-based system,", so it's only appropriate that "Fox News" host Pete Hegseth became their poster boy this morning when explaining on air that he hasn't washed his hands in 10 years, “Germs are not a real thing. I can’t see them. Therefore, they’re not real.”
Keep in mind, this is someone who viewers there trust to deliver information about the world to them. Which explains a lot about "Fox News" in a nutshell.
Note to self: don't shake hands with Pete Hegseth.
It's also worth noting that Trump was recently quoted as saying "Nancy Pelosi will never see my tax returns." Apparently he believes in the Pete Hegseth Theory of Life, where if you don't see something it doesn't exist.
Anyway, I'm sure that at some point in the coming days Pete Hegseth will say he was "just joking," although at the same time he will continue to not wash his hands. In the meantime, here are some other things Hegseth apparently must believe aren't real --
When a waiter spits in his soup
The other day, I noticed a few billboards around town promoting an upcoming two-part miniseries on the History Channel for a production called Project Blue Book. You may have seen them yourselves in your own towns, or seen ads for it.
Project Blue Book was a program created by the U.S. Air Force to study the phenomenon of Unidentified Flying Objects, and it was run by a civilian astrophysicist, Dr. J. Allen Hynek. The mini-series focuses on Hynek and an Air Force officer who assists him. and is about what happens when Hynek begins to suspect that he is being used by the government.
I mention this all for a very specific reason. It's not that I'm especially interested in UFO's. Rather, that when I was at Northwestern, I took.an astronomy course, "Highlights of Astronomy" which was taught by an eminent professor there -- J. Allen Hynek!
It was a large class, held in an moderately-sized auditorium seating a few hundred, because it was an extremely popular course since Dr. Hynek was a major name on campus. Not because people were necessarily all that fascinated by astronomy, but because near the end of the term he always gave a two-day lecture on...UFOs.
(I will bet cash money that after I post this, people will come out of the woodwork and write that they too had Dr. Hynek's class at Northwestern. It was that popular. People took the class. Lots of them, for many years. And it was very good, too. UPDATE: I've already won the bet -- someone who read this who took the class corrected me with the proper name. In the first draft, I called it "Introduction to Astronomy." And I've heard from another, as well, within the first couple hours, so we're up to two so far.)
At this point, it should not be shocking to know that I really don't remember all that many details about the class after the passage of years, other than I enjoyed it. He was a wildly-knowledgeable fellow and a great communicator who could get erudite things across on a popular level. But I still do remember three details from the class that came during his (of course...) UFO lectures --
One is that Hynek said that after a while the Air Force very much wanted to close down Project Blue Book, but they had a problem. By regulation, they were not allowed to shut it down until every case was classified. And there were about 30 files that could not be explained. The cases weren't proof of UFOs, but the project hadn't come up with anything that could account for them. So, what the Air Force did was that they classified these 30 cases as "unidentified" -- and then could close down the program. And did.
The second thing I recall is that Hynek said when he realized the Air Force was going to be shutting down the program, he was concerned that the papers would be buried, so little by little every day he made copies and sneaked them out, so that he would have a set of everything. While it's possible that this mini-s production is based on those papers, I believe I read on the site that a few years ago everything for Project Blue Book was declassified, so it's likely based more on that.
And the third detail from the class I remember is that Hynek made clear that while he didn't believe there was proof of UFOs, he felt there was too much that was unexplained, and that it was foolish of us to think that in the mass vastness of the universe we were the only planet with living creatures. To show have massive the universe was, he used a "visual aid" of sorts. I don't remember exactly what it was he specifically demonstrated, but he had a roll of paper by his desk at the bottom of the raked auditorium of probably 40 rows going up 150 feet. And he had a student take an end of the paper and walk it up to the top of the last row, as the paper unrolled, then walked it across the back row and all the way down to the desk at the bottom. And one inch represented something like a million miles -- and the distance of all the unrolled paper represented something like the distance from Earth to Mars, which was the shortest distance from us to another planet. He then put that in context of the other planets in our solar system, and then other solar systems and on and on...
The Project Blue Book mini-series begins on the History Channel next week, on Tuesday, January 8, and I think the second part runs the week after. You could check out the website for the production here, which is filled with lots of articles and videos on the mini-series and its background and the science of it all. There's also a specific article about Dr. Hynek himself here, if you'd rather just read that.
This is how they describe the plot of film --
"Dr. J. Allen Hynek (played by Aidan Gillen), a brilliant yet underappreciated college professor, is recruited by the U.S. Air Force to spearhead a clandestine operation called Project Blue Book. Along with his partner, the debonair Air Force Captain Michael Quinn (Michael Malarkey), he is summoned to investigate UFO sightings around the country and use science to discover what really happened. However, when some encounters cannot be explained away and cases remain open, Hynek begins to suspect that he has been duped by the government into a larger conspiracy to cover up the truth. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and rising Atomic Era, each episode will draw from the actual Project Blue Book case files, blending UFO theories with authentic historical events from one of the most mysterious eras in United States history."
And here's the trailer --
I really can't wait for this. It is so bizarre to think about watching a TV mini-series about a college professor you had. But he was quite a renowned fellow. In fact, he was the technical adviser on Steven Spielberg's movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And not just the technical adviser, but that very title, famous as it now is, was a phrase coined by Hynek himself in his writings, breaking down what the different levels of encounters are. Furthermore, Spielberg gave Dr. Hynek a cameo in the movie. And it's such an intentionally-focused, prominent cameo -- not just a random body stuck in a crowd scene -- that decades after the movie was released, I'd describe the moment to people (and still do) and they remember it, because it stood out so much...and because Hynek really looked like a classic astronomer from Central Casting.
(The scene comes during the big, final sequence when all the scientists have gathered in a semi-circle, and the UFO has appeared. The door opens, and an alien being steps out. There is then a huge close-up of one of the astronomers with a pointed goatee who steps forward from the crowd, takes his pipe out of his mouth and gets a closer look, as he fills the screen. That was Dr. J. Allen Hynek, and Spielberg's homage to him.)
Here's a very nice, short featurette on Close Encounters and Hynek's importance to it. You'll see that Close Encounters cameo footage of him, and Spielberg and cast members talk about the good fellow. One note: at one point, actor Bob Balaban refers to him as Dr. Allen J. Hynek. It's not, it's J. Allen Hynek.
As I said, I can't wait.
Though the move went well, there still has been a bit to do to get things proper and ready, as you can imagine. So, although I've been able to focus on writing and work to a reasonable degree, I've nonetheless been a bit distracted to dive in fully, properly. Besides which, it's still the holidays. And besides which, being the holidays and still dealing with the move, I don't have complete spirit yet to deal with Trump full blown.
So, instead, here's a piece from 60 Minutes Australia that's a reworking of a wonderful segment that was originally done by the Mother Ship here on CBS. It's about something called "Superior Autobiographical Memory," and it's quite fascinating.
In a study done at the University of Cambridge to help understand neurodegenerative diseases, sheep have been trained to recognize the faces of celebrities.
And again, this isn't some backwater college trying to make a name for themselves with an outlandish stunt. This is Cambridge. They've pretty much got their bonafides well-established at this point.
The celebrities who the sheep were trained to recognize included actors Emma Watson and Jake Gyllenhaal, BBC newsreader Fiona Bruce and Barack Obama. So, in fairness it may not have been that the sheep could be trained to recognize anyone, but just that they watch a lot of TV and DVDs and have good taste..
I just bought the new Total Solar Eclipse commemorative postage stamp. It turns out to be heat sensitive and will change image! Very clever and fun. (When's the last time you said that about a stamp...?)
By default, it shows a total solar eclipse, but if you press a finger on it the eclipse goes away to reveal the earth. But it's the gift that keeps giving, since when the stamps cools it will revert to the default eclipse.
By the way, any heat will work, not just pressing a finger. The post office official told me about someone saying that they left a sheet of the stamps in a car, and when they got back to the overheated vehicle the stamps had changed.
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
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