Sunday, December 28, 2014

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Friday, December 26, 2014

Well, well, well. With 18 percent of D.C. resident below the poverty level, and as much as 30 percent of city residents unable to afford decent housing, public and affordable housing is a major issue in Washington, D.C.

Yesterday, the D.C. City Council completely revamped how it is going to oversee the city's shrinking, mis-managed, ignored public housing program.

Council chair Phil Mendelson created a new Housing and Community Development Committee, led by Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) to oversee public housing and housing affordability. This gives the issue a higher profile.

Mendelson also dismantled the Economic Development Committee led by Muriel Bowser (D), who was just elected the city's mayor. Advocates for the poor and homeless said it as too cozy with developers.

Mendelson merged the health and the human services committees, creating a new, combined Health and Human Services Committee, to be led by Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7). This committee will have some of the oversight responsibility for homeless issues -- a major boost, because the new committee has budget authority.

Meanwhile, oversight of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development was transferred to the Committee of the Whole, lead by Mendelson. The Committee of the Whole is responsible for generating the council's legislative agenda, and is extremely powerful. By moving homelessness issues up to the Committee of the Whole, more powerful legislation can be developed more swiftly to address homelessness issues as they arise.

Mendelson took personal responsibility for receiving reports from the mayor's Interagency Council on Homelessness. That's another major boost, as the interagency council previously reported to two committees (its needs getting lost in the shuffle).

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Coventry Carol" is one of my favorite Christmas carols.

The text was probably written some time in the 1400s. The song was part of a "mystery play" (a play about the mysterious god-and-human nature of Jesus Christ) presented by the tailors and fabric-cutters guild in the city of Coventry, Warwickshire, England. The text is written in the first-person, and depicts three women of Bethlehem discussing the upcoming "Massacre of the Innocents" by King Herod (which occurred two years after Jesus' birth).

The song probably had a different melody over the centuries, but by 1591 had this melody. The origin of the melody is unknown, although it is probably French. It is a Picardy third, which means that the final chord is shifted into a minor key or a "modal" form. The song is designed for three parts, alto, tenor and baritone. That's because, as was usual with mystery plays, the female roles were played by men.

The Coventry Carol was fairly obscure until World War II. The Luftwaffe began bombing the city of Coventry in August 1940. After a brief lull, the Luftwaffe attacked Coventry again beginning at 7:20 PM on November 14. Forty minutes later, the Luftwaffe hit Coventry Cathedral, destroying it. The all-clear was sounded at 6:15 AM the next morning.

The BBC's Empire Broadcast on Christmas Day 1940 concluded with the singing of the carol in the bombed-out ruins of the cathedral. The effect was incredibly powerful, making Coventry Carol one of the most popular carols of the mid-to-late 20th century.

Looking north at the South Portico of the White House. The Executive Mansion is decorated for Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The National Menorah on The Ellipse, part of the President's Park south of the White House in Washington, D.C.

The National Hanukkah Menorah was first lit on The Ellipse south of the White House by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. It was an actual menorah, and sat on a pedestal under a glass case. President Reagan first referred to it as the "National Menorah", and it moved to The Ellipse in 1987. The menorah is actually owned by the American Friends of Chabad-Lubavitch, who set it up and remove it.

A Hanukkah menorah was not erected inside the White House until President Bill Clinton had one set up and lit in the public area in 1993. President George W. Bush had a menorah lit in the private quarters of the White House in 2001. Bush was also the first president to actually light a menorah candle (in 2005).

The White House menorah changes every year. For example, in 2009, the Hanukkah menorah was a sterling silver one crafted by Viennese silversmith Cyril Schillberger in 1783, on special loan from the Jewish Museum in Prague. The following year the menorah was one salvaged from Congregation Beth Israel in Lakeview, New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, while the 2011 menorah was one crafted in a refugee camp and loaned to the White House by the Jewish Museum of New York. The 2012 menorah was a 90-year-old one rescued from a Long Island synagogue battered by Hurricane Sandy.

The 2014 White House menorah comes from Hand In Hand, a bilingual school in Jerusalem whose students are both Jewish and Muslim. Two weeks ago, the school was set on fire by an arsonist. Rather than respond with anger, the students constructed a menorah. Each of its branches is dedicated to one of the values the Hand In Hand school is founded on -- values like community and dignity and equality and peace.

Ninth-graders Inbar Vardi (who is Jewish) and Mouran Ibrahim (who is Muslim) flew from Israel to the United States to light the Hanukkah menorah at the White House Hanukkah Party on December 17, 2014.

I love science!

Monday, December 22, 2014

In this weekend's Sunday Mail in the United Kingdom, Chris Chibnall revealed that this blue clapboard chalet -- not 200 yards from where Danny Latimer was killed -- holds all the secrets in series two of BROADCHURCH.

This is a real structure, located at The Chalets at Riverside in West Bay, Dorset.

"You shouldn't have a relationship with your image. I've always said, 'I'm not getting involved'. ... It's selfie selfie selfie, Facebook Facebook Facebook, Facetime Facetime Facetime. I don't know where the fuck that can go, other than just being very empty."

- Charlotte Rampling

This is the 2014 National Christmnas Tree. A live tree, it is planted on The Ellipse, part of the President's Park just south of the White House in Washington, D.C. The lighting system was designed by GE.

The Pathway of Peace surrounds the tree, and Christmas trees representing the various states and territories line the path. These trees are usually decorated with baubles produced by children in each state. This year, Google supplied a special lighting system for each tree. Young girls in each state helped code the way the lights change on each tree. The project was designed to get young women interested in computer science.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

I'm having some eggnong in my "A Christmas Story" mug that I got in Cleveland!

Christmas is coming.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


December 20, 1860 -- South Carolina became the first of 11 states to secede from the United States so that it might preserve slavery. This led to the creation of the Confederate States of America and the American Civil War.

* * * * * * * *

A friend of mine today said, "I think we would have been better off allowing those states to secede..." We played a "what if...?" game about it, and this was my scenario.

Lincoln doesn't fight the Civil War. The South is not devastated by war. Lincoln is easily re-elected in the North, and Jefferson Davis in the South. But: Radical Republicans are in control of the Congress. They want to prosecute the war, or at least punish the Confederacy economically. This doesn't really play out, though. Northern textile mills are beholden to Southern cotton, which creates political problems for Radical Republicans who want to boycott Southern cotton. The North bans slavery legislatively, but without the impetus of war it does not ban slavery constitutionally. Radical Republicans are able to win passage of a "Fugitive Slave Law" granting freedom to any slave who makes it into the North. This infuriates the South, which effectively seals its border. But the Radical Republicans can't win much else, due to the problems with textiles in New England.

Maritime trade picks up the slack, and fleets of ships begin to move along the eastern American seaboard. The Radical Republicans still want to free slaves, however, and the United States assists with slave rebellions in Haiti, Jamaica, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, further angering the South and creating problems with European nations. Naval skirmishes occur. The South quickly improvises an ironclad, the CSS Virginia, which wreaks havoc in the calm seas of the Caribbean. The North responds slowly, but by 1870 has developed its own ironclads. The naval skirmishes now prove draws, and slowly the undeclared "Caribbean Sea War" comes to an end.

Maryland, placed under martial law since March 1861, remains under martial law for three decades. Marylanders are very pro-slavery, but the U.S. government dares not relocate the capital and capitulate to the South. Federal troops invest the state, and increasingly turn Maryland into a federalized state (like the District of Columbia). A "Department of Maryland" (like the Department of the Treasury or the Deparment of War) is created to administer the state. The Confederacy attempts to foment rebellion by arming Marylanders in 1861, but the federal government sends gunboats to patrol the Potomac River, and the Maryland-Virginia border is sealed. U.S. warships and gunboats also sail the Chesapeake Bay -- sinking any vessel they find. The city of Baltimore declines rapidly, as does Alexandria, Virginia. Martial law is also imposed in the the eastern part of Kentucky, where there is strong support for slavery. It is also imposed in Missouri, where about a quarter of the population supports slavery. But the imposition of martial law in these two states is far less intrusive than in Maryland.

West Virginia, which broke from Virginia early during the Secession Crisis, has its freedom guaranteed by U.S. troops, which rush to the new state to prevent its recapture by the Virginia Militia under the command of Robert E. Lee. West Virginis, who are deeply opposed to slavery, welcome fleeing slaves. Virginia's military seals the border with West Virginia, creating an extensive road network along the border that allows rapid movement of troops and patrols to suppress the "Flight to Freedom" (as it is later called).

The South attempts to rapidly expand slavery westward, but has trouble doing so without imposing military rule. Texas proves too vast, absorbing white immigrants and slaves before they can move to New Mexico or Arizona. Texas also finds itself embroiled in military skirmishes with Mexico (without CSA help) over the southern portions of New Mexico. The United States, meanwhile, pushes hard for a transcontinental railroad to settle the West before the Confederacy can. The railroad is completed in 1865 -- four years ahead of schedule. Western expansion of the United States occurs much more swiftly than Confederate expansion. Although some Confederate citizens attempt to settle in American territory (some to spread slavery, but some merely to find new and prosperous lives outside the Confederacy), the U.S. military ejects them under orders from the Radical Republicans. There are a few more instances of "Bleeding Kansas" -- where American and Confederate settlers engage in bloody guerrilla warfare against one another. But these are uncommon, and usually settled by the U.S. Army.

By the 1870s, Northerners are tired of large numbers of homeless, uneducated slaves fleeing into the troubled states of Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. West Virginia (renamed Kanawha) welcomes slaves, putting them to work as sharecroppers or low-paid miners. But Northern states eventually react to the refugee problem by enacting Jim Crow laws. Large nonprofit organizations arise to educate, house, and clothe African Americans (who still lack citizenship rights in the United States). Northern states establish literacy tests to vote, and a somewhat hefty poll tax. Jim Crow is especially strong in Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Many nonprofits try to educate blacks so they can pass the literacy tests, and help them learn vocational skills so they can pay the poll tax. Their goal is to get enough blacks to vote to begin changing Jim Crow. But the effort largely fails.

The Confederacy establishes new states in Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico (the latter two lacking the territory of the Gadsden purchase). But the North wins control of Colorado, Nevada, and Utah and all states north of them due to the Transcontinental Railroad. In the early 1870s, Indian wars break out between Native Americans and the U.S. and the Native Americans in Oklahoma and the Confederacy. The Confederacy commits genocide against tribes in Oklahoma. The North is outraged, but its wars with the Plains tribes continues -- complicated by the North's desire to protect white settlers (an important factor in denying the West to the Confederacy) while at the same time allying with Native Americans who want to engage in retribution against the South.

Mexico raids Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona repeatedly in the 1890s, continuing until World War I. Texas again has to deal with the problem on its own, without help from the CSA. Arizona and New Mexico, too poor to defend themselves, lie prostrate before the raids.

The North rapidly industrializes throughout the last three decades of the 1800s (just as it did in the "real world"). Steel, coal, railroads, Pacific trade, and a swiftly growing financial sector create a diversified economy. Ex-slaves are put in to work in the Kentucky and Pennsylvania coal mines, creating "faux masters" (whites who supervise these slaves) and "faux plantations" (whites who own the mines) and causing an uproar in the North. But the use of blacks in mining does not stop. Blacks become the manual underclass of the North, and European immigration slows as there are no jobs for them.

The South, however, remains agrarian and dedicated to cotton and tobacco. Tobacco planting devastates coastal Virginia: It exhausts the soil and the cost of slaves and extensive smoking and drying barns are rarely accounted for. The state actively pushes to build a fishing industry. After several decades during which food must be imported extensively, Virginia's attempts to build agricultural areas in the south, southwest, and west begin paying off. Cotton planting, with use of large numbers of slaves, remains the backbone of the Southern economy. The South only slowly industrializes, mostly in small ship-building along the Gulf coast, coal mining in Tennessee, and hard-rock mining in Arizona and New Mexico. These latter two states develop refining capacity and metal manufacturing factories, becoming the most industrialized (and least slave-owning) part of the Confederacy. Heavy population growth occurs there, with excessive poverty due to the lack of water. Arizona tries to dam and divert the Colorado River, leading to military clashes with the United States in both Nevada and Utah. A treaty system is signed that provides all three states with water and stops the fighting of the "Colorado Water War". Los Angeles, never able to tap the Colorado River's water due to the new treaty, stays a small-to-medium size city mostly engaged in orange growing. San Francisco, and to a much lesser extent San Diego, become the dominant cities of California.

Martial law in Missouri and eastern Kentucky ends in 1870, and on Janury 1, 1880, in Maryland. Its government and people completely beholden to the United States, Maryland becomes known as "the District's back yard" -- because it is so dominated by the District of Columbia. For the next 60 years, Maryland remains an economic backwater, undeveloped and depopulated.

The Southern economy declines further in the 1900s as cotton from India, Egypt, and Asia floods the world market. Southern hardwood forests, once providing the raw material for the ship-building industry in Alabama, prove useless once iron and steel ships become the norm. Poor Southern whites call for a much stronger Confederate central government to coordinate the Southern economy, with a focus on self-sufficiency in food and metals. A mass movement erupts to begin shipping slaves back to Africa, with poor whites to assume their jobs. The cost is too high, but some Confederate states begin dumping slaves in Belize, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.

The "Slave Dumping Crisis" becomes a major one. The North supported the Cuban Revolution of 1898 with guns, warships, and money, and the Cuban government banned slavery as one of its first official acts. But tens of thousands of black slaves are being pushed out to sea in leaky boats, and thousands drown when their watercraft sink. Others, starving and ill with disease, barely make it to Cuba, where the Cuban government is ill-prepared to deal with them. Naval warfare breaks out. The South has long considered the Caribbean its "kitchen sink", but the Cubans (with Northern help) now challenge them. The "Bay of Tampa Invasion" occurs when Cuban troops bypass Key West and invade Tampa Bay. The invasion fails, but the dumping of slaves mostly stops. Cuba, never a protectorate of the U.S., establishes a more healthy economic relationship with the United States. Much of western Florida becomes a haven for Cuban pirates, preying on Confederate shipping. (The Puerto Rican government, autonomous but still controlled by Spain, is more able to accommodate the ex-slaves. The Philippines wins its independence from Spain after a bloody civil war lasting into the 1920s. Guam remains a Spanish protectorate. Hawaii becomes a U.S. territory "on schedule", after the coup there proceeds as it did in the real world.)

"Black unemployment" becomes a new phrase in the CSA in the 1910s. The invention of the mechanical cotton picker is a sensation. The machines are expensive, affordable only by the wealthiest plantation owners. But these men also own the largest numbers of slaves, so many plantation owners abandon their slaves in favor of these new machines. The "extra-legals" -- blacks whose owner refuses to care for them, but who have no legal right to seek work, own property, obtain an education, or anything else -- become a massive problem. Outraged "Christians" of the South demand that extra-legals become wards of the state, like any abandoned property. Soon, every state in the Confederacy has enacted legislation allowing to to "receive abandoned slave property" at no cost. The state then provides bare minimums of housing, food, and clothing while trying to sell the "property". Often, slaves are given away (on the brink of starvation) to poor white farmers. Some states use extra-legals to make public improvements to roads, bridges, ports, railroads, and parks. In some states, like Tennessee and Virginia, extra-legals are granted limited freedom to seek work and rent property (e.g., homes). This outrages some white racists. "Education committees", consisting of whites who seek to ensure that blacks do not learn to read and write, burn black schools and kill any black person believed to have received an education. The capitol of the CSA moves to Jackson, Mississippi.

A large ex-slave community grows up around Tucson, a small city in Mexico just over the border from Arizona. Poverty-stricken but not lacking water (Mexico has the Rio Grande), large-scale irrigation and agricultural production begins in the area. Mexico establishes a new state, named Sierra Vista, in what might have been the Gadsden Purchase. Arizona and later New Mexico relax rules on blacks crossing the border and working in their mines and factories. These two states become much more progressive, racially, than the rest of the CSA.

The CSA joins the Allies during World War I. Initially neutral, the disclosure of the "Zimmerman telegram" -- in which Imperial Germany tells its ambassador in Mexico City (Zimmerman) that it supports an invasion of the CSA during the war so that Mexico can take back Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas -- pushes the South to join the Allies. The Southern economy emerges from its decades-long depression as the South supplies tobacco, grain, and cotton to the war effort. But the South's economy collapses, badly, after the war ends in 1920.

Race riots in the CSA break out in the 1910s and 1920s as blacks seek greater freedoms. But these almost always end with hundreds of blacks dead, entire black communities burned to the ground, and the KKK lynching hundreds of black men and boys. Confederate race riots lead to extensive slave emigration to the North. One in five Africans in the Confederacy commits suicide by the age of 25, and the black birth rate poummets. Jim Crow laws in the North, however, are gradually relaxing. In the Midwest, especially, free blacks seek to help slaves who escape to the North. Places like Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Colorado now have large black populations, most of them working in agriculture, cattle ranching, or hard-rock mining.

In 1930, Arizona becomes the first Confederate state to free its black population. The state enacts strict Jim Crow laws reminiscent of the North in the 1870s, does not grant citizenship to its former slaves, and denies them the right to vote and associate. But its black are now free. Large numbers of blacks emigrate to southern California and Nevada.

Arizona's action causes a split in the Confederacy. States like Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and New Mexico consider freeing their slaves as well. But "True South" member states like Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina declare that preserving the right to own a slave is the "duty" of the Confederacy. The political crisis lasts throughout the 1930s. World War II puts the South on the side of the Allies again, but the CSA contributes little except men and raw material. The return of Southern whites after the war is a game-changer: Many have seen blacks serving alongside whites in other armies and even in the North. Their brutal racial attitudes have been challenged.

In 1946, Arizona and New Mexico secede from the Confederate States of America and join the United States. The CSA, almost powerless and still devastated by a post-war recession, does nothing to prevent it. Virginia defeats a secession resolution in 1948; it remains a members of the Confederacy, but severs most ties with the Confederate government. Tennessee also considers secession, but the referendum is easily defeated.

The CSA permits widespread black emigration in the 1950s. There is no freedom, but blacks may leave if they have the funds. Northern nonprofits and United Nations aid agencies offer to pay the travel costs of any willing black who seeks refuge in the United States. (The UN also helps blacks move to Mexico, Cuba, and other nearby nations.) The U.S. constitution is amended, at last, to give blacks full citizenship and to ban slavery after President Truman pushes for both amendments. Two-thirds of African Americans leave the CSA. Only Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina have populations of African Americans left. Most blacks flee to the United States, or over the border into Sierra Vista -- "black Mexico". Poor Southern whites take black jobs. Furious hard-core racists terrorize the remaining black populace.

The "Rump Confederacy" amends the Confederate constitution to require each Confederate state to guarantee the right to hold a slave. The remaining states, except for Virginia, do so. Virginia enacts legislation to protect the right to own a slave, but never enforces it. Rather than lose Virginia, the CSA ignores Virginia's actions. Slave-owning drops to almost nothing in Texas, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, and the non-coal mining portions of Tennessee. Virginia declines to enforce any laws supporting slave-owners, essentially freeing its black population. Blacks there have more freedom than in any other Confederate state. "Scientific" slave-holding rises in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, where living conditions (food, clothing, healthcare, etc.) for black slaves rise. Slavery has to be self-sufficient, and what few slaves and extra-legals remain are given extensive freedom as the development of "in loco erus" ("in lieu of the owner") is given to slaves. Although most slaves still work in only the more dangerous manual labor jobs, some begin to rise high in Southern society -- especially in the financial industry and in foreign trade. As in Greece and Rome of old, some slaves are slaves in name only, with extensive and unchallenged power over whites, extensive property holdings, and huge financial fortunes. Only in South Carolina, where a religious fervor about slave-owning has arisen, do the old views of slavery persist. Many slave-owners who adopt the "science of slavery" talk about a "New South" in which blacks are eventually freed but kept in line with Jim Crow laws.

A visitor to the Confederacy in 1960 discovers that the region has few roads. While two-lane, no-shoulder highways connect the major cities and towns, most roads throughout the South are gravel or dirt. Rail travel is still very common, as fewer than 30 percent of whites own an automobile. Only a few cities (mostly state capitals) in the South have airports. Virginia and Texas are the most modern states in the Confederacy. Richmond has grown from a town of 220,000 to a large city of 800,000 -- driven largely by the financial sector. The discovery of oil in Texas led to a transformation of that state. (Old-timers in Texas still talk about how "it would have been different" had Texas had the right to drive cattle to Montana or the Dakotas in the 1880s. But cattle culture never really arose in Texas to that extent.) Florida remains a marshy backwater; its largest cities are Tampa Bay and St. Augustine. In the 1920s, a tiny town known as Miami attempted to lure Northerners down there with property scehemes, but the high trade barriers between North and South meant this collapsed. Miami has about 30,000 people living in it as of 1960.

There's little industry in the South. Most of it is concentrated in the wasteland of Tennessee, where extensive coal mining caused the state to import vast amounts of iron ore. Tennessee's environmental problems are vast, and the people there suffer from innumerable diseases. The United States has a treaty with Tennessee to help remediate some of these problems, as they are affecting the states of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. America's favorite lunch-time snack is Nutella and jelly. The University of Georgia tried to interest Northerners in "peanut butter" in the 1890s, but it never caught on due to its association with slavery. (A rumor exists that "peanut butter" was the invention of a slave named Washington Carver, but the University of Georgia utterly denies this.)

Poverty and illiteracy are widespread in the Confederacy. Religious fervor is everywhere, but God is enlisted in the cause of slavery. Poor whites are almost worse off than poor blacks, as they have no owner to take care of them. Poor whites routinely attack blacks, as they accuse them of "taking white jobs". A court case is winding its way through the Louisiana court, where a black slave has argued that it is his owner's duty to provide housing, food, and healthcare to his "animals" (slaves). A lower court has already agreed, saying this is akin to animal cruelty. Some Southerners think this could be the death-knell of slavery in 20 years, if other courts adopt the ruling.

The top 15 percent of Southern society is fabulously wealthy. It is common for entertainers, captains of industry, and politicians to fly to the South on "fact-finding missions" -- but really only to enjoy the luxurious, superlative induglence of Southern elites. The best of Southern society can be found in Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, and Atlanta. If you want "genteel poverty", you head to Savannah -- where they aren't wealthy, but have an old-school style. (And where it's still common to see black person hanging from a light-post once a week.)

In Virginia, Richmond has become a mega-city like Boston or Chicago. The northern counties of Fairfax and Arlington are at last growing, losing (at last) a little of their agricultural personality. The Robert E. Lee House, a Virginia state museum, is open to the public. The United States and Virginia just inaugurated a new North-South Brotherhood Bridge between West Potomac Park and the Robert E. Lee House. The bridge, low and neoclassical, will (it is hoped) spur development in Arlington County. There's talk in Virginia that, after almost 75 years of going-it-alone, Virginia might leave the Confederacy (which it has done in all but name) and rejoin the United States. The mossbacks in the southern counties, however, strongly oppose this, though.
Everything is wrapped. Everything is shipped. Christmas is ready!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

I'm moving to my new computer!! YAY!! A year ago, I had a major hard drive failure on my wonderful older computer, and had to get a new one. Not having a kajillion dollars on hand, I bought an off-the-shelf model from HP. I guess it works fine for what it is, but there were problems. Its RAM was very low, so it had trouble handling video; whenever I accessed a newspaper or site that had streaming video ads, the computer could take a full minute to try to load them. It had trouble with Flash and Shockwave as well, and sometimes my browser would simply hang up because the PC couldn't handle the immense amount of memory required.

The system came with Windows 8, which completely sucks as an operating system. Windows 8 would "go to sleep" on me -- even if I told it not to. Sometimes, the computer wouldn't wake up, and I'd need to do a hard shut-down to get it to respond. Most of the time, it just wouldn't respond. So if I'd not been working at my computer for 10 minutes, and then tried to empty my Trashcan.... Windows 8 would lock up for a full minute while it tried to wake up. Sometimes, it would seem to respond after a minute -- only to lock up again for another minute. Oh gee, then and only then would it allow me to empty the frigging Trashcan!!! Then there was the massive memory-hogging by endless numbers of apps in Windows 8, none of which I used. (I correct myself: I played Windows Mahjong. Which endlessly asked me to log into my Xbox account, even though I don't have one.)

So I upgraded.

Now, I know zilcho-next-to-nothing about PCs. But I bought a solid state drive PC. I talked with a few friends, who said this is the next-big-thing in computing. Solid state drives have been around for decades, but only recently have they gotten big enough and reliable enough to work on PCs. A standard hard drive stores data in little bits of magnetic memory. Physically quite large, a hard drive needs to spin like a record player so that the reading/writing head can access data on the disk. A solid state drive (SSD) has no moving parts. Instead, memory is stored by transistors. The transistor was first invented in the 1920s. Scientists discovered that certain elements (like germanium) reacted oddly to an electric current. Electricity coming on from one contact point punched atomic holes in the germanium, allowing electricity from the second source to flow more freely. This meant that the transistor acted like a gate, essentially turning electricity on and off. Later studies in the 1940s discovered that other elements were one-way gates (field-effect transistors), and even more useful kind of transistor. Transistors remain open/closed even when the power is turned off. They aren't affected by electromagnetism, because the power needs to come in from the contacts. Transistors are very fast, moving at the speed of light. Hard drives are very slow, comparatively, as they need to spin and the head must move across the drive seeking data. (This is why defragmenting a hard drive is critical.)

The big problem with solid state drives is that they degenerate over time. Punching atomic holes in elements degrades them, meaning that the gate can't close as effectively. While an SSD drive is easily written to, removing data tends to leave blocks of transistors non-functional. Constantly writing and removing data destroys it permanently.

Thus, the key to making an SSD computer work is to write executable files only to the SSD. SSD computers invariably come with a 1TB hard drive for your memory files -- those documents, temporary Internet files, downloads, and other things. When you install a program, you have to be sure that the defaults for each and every program store these memory files on the hard drive, not the SSD.

This can be a real bitch.

Executables want to store all files on the same drive where the executable is located. Because Windows doesn't allow you to flick a switch (they thought about it, and decided against it) to accomplish this, you have to do it for every single program. Trust me, it's not easy!! And some programs (like e-readers) lack the functionality to allow you to tell the program where to put downloaded or temp files. Even if you install the executable on the hard drive (D:\), the program will search for your SSD and put downloads and temp files on the SSD (C:\).

Windows itself doesn't know how to redirect everything to the D:\, either. Certain things, like shared files, must remain on the C:\ drive -- even if they take up huge amounts of space on your SSD.

Well, we'll see what happens. My SSD is only 107GB, which is pretty large for an SSD these days. I've already discovered things like RealPlayer, iTunes, Adobe Downloader, and more storing things on my SSD drive and trying to fuck me up.

We'll just have to see what happens from here on out.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The last great effect in Terminator 2: Judgment Day is what's called the "pretzel man effect". This occurs at the very end of the film in the steel mill. The T-800 has been almost destroyed, and the T-1000 has John and Sarah Connor at its mercy. At the last second, the T-800 hits the liquid metal T-1000 with a gun-launched grenade. The T-1000's body splits in half, the head barely attacked to the body, the face in shock.

The lower half of a foam body was built with knees bent. There were gimbles in the ankles and the ball of the feet, and the feet were attached to rods through holes in the floor. When the rods were moved (it took four puppetteers to do this), the limbs looked as if they were staggering about, and the creature trying to stand upright while stumbling about.

The concept art showed the entire upper body "splashed" open and nearly severed. The two arms dangled uselessly, while the head of the T-1000 -- an expression of surprise on its face -- dangled from the upper portion.

THREE puppets were made, nearly identical in their look but not design. For the first puppet, stiff nylon sheeting was used to casue the puppet to spring open when a tiny catch was released. This sheeting was so stiff, it could hold the foam head and arms in the air as well, and the puppet would bob about as if it were alive -- trying to reform.

The second puppet was far more detailed, and used in close-up shots. It lacked the spring-open motion, as it merely needed to hang in the air while the feet moved. The mouth opened and closed, and the eyes moved. These were radio-controlled using gears inside the foam head. The head itselt could turn about whenever a puppetteer off-stage pulled on a set of wires.

The third puppet was the least detailed. It had a weight in its back, as it was designed to fall into the "molten steel" below. (This was actually gelatin lit from below with orange lights.)

A partially completed "pretzel man" designed for spring-loaded splashing!

An almost fully completed "pretzel man" designed for spring-loaded splashing.

The completed "pretzel man", held together with pins and ready for popping open.

Another great effect in Terminator 2: Judgment Day is what's called the "split man effect". This happens toward the end of the film, when the T-1000 is attacking Sarah and John Connor in the steel mill. The T-800 comes up behind him with an iron bar and brings it down -- the iron bar cutting the T2 in half from shoulder to waist, nearly severing the T-1000's right arm.

For this effect, a police costume was fitted to a foam body, and the costume impregnated with resin to make it stiff. The body and costume were then roughly cut along the "split" line. Clay was used to sculpt the "splash" cut.

Hinges were inserted into the bottom of the cut, and nearly invisible wires attached to the right shoulder -- which then ran back to the main body. Stiff nylon sheeting was applied to the inside of the "split", so that the parts of the "split man" had a tendency to spring open when released. Krylon Crystal Clear was applied to the interior again to make it shiny. When the T-800 "cut" the T-1000, a pin was released that made the "split" spring open. The wires were then pulled by an off-screen puppetteer to make the split "close" and begin to "heal".

The prosthetic was so thin, it could be fitted to actor Robert Patrick's body. He merely held his right shoulder behind him, and turned his body slightly to keep his arm and shoulder out of the way.

The fingers and hand of the "nearly severed" right arm had wires and controls in them which allowed them to move. Patrick's left arm also remained free to move about completely.

CGI finished the effect, although most viewers assume the entire effect was done with CGI.

One of the better effects in Terminator 2: Judgment Day is what's called the "splash head effect". The T-1000 pries open an elevator door to attack Sarah Connor, her son, and the T-800. The T-800 uses a shotgun to blast him in the head, which splits him wide open. The T-1000 staggers back, trying to "get its head together" (hee hee) while the elevator doors close and Our Heroes(r) get away safely.

To achieve this effect, two clay models of actor Robert Patrick's head were created. A "splash head" -- the head almost split in two, the edges looking like splashed hot metal -- was then sculpted out of one of them, and replicated in the other. The first "splash head" had stiff nylon sheeting applied to the interior. The pieces were then held together with a small catch. When the catch was released, the pieces sprang apart due to the stiffness of the sheeting.

The other "splash head" had its two parts wide open. Wires and rods were inserted inside it, which ran down to a small machine that tightened them. Although the motion was limited, this could make it appear as if the pieces were moving, trying to come back together.

Numerous coats of Krylon Crystal Clear were applied to the "interior" of each segment of the "splash head" to make them appear shiny and metallic.

A contortionist was then hired who could throw his head back at a severe angle. The "splash head" prosthetic was attached to his neck and shoulders.

For the first (split-second) shot, the first "splash head" was show popping open to depict the shotgun blast. For the rest of the shot, the actor/contortionist moved about slightly, using his hands to try to put his head back together, the two head pieces moving slight.

Most people believe this is a CGI effect, but it's prosthetics and animatronics.

The final "splash head" was highly detailed and featured eyes that moved around independently of one another. CGI effects produced by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) finished the "healing" effect.

Here is the initial "splash head" concept art by Mark "Crash" McCreery for the Stan Winston School, which did the prosthetics, some makeup, and creature effects for T2.

Here is the second piece of "splash head" concept art by Mark "Crash" McCreery for the Stan Winston School. Note how the effect has been ratched back a lot!

Here is the final "splash head" concept art by Mark "Crash" McCreery for the Stan Winston School.

In a dream sequence in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Sarah Connor dreams of standing at a chain link fence while she watches women and children play in a playground. A nuclear blast hits downtown Los Angles, and the huddled people on the playground burst into flames. Sarah clings to the fence, screaming. Her hair and clothing burn away, and then the ashes of her flesh explode away from her when the pressure wave hits.

This scene was ONLY possible because of the advent of laser scanning. There was no way any actor could hold a "scream face" for the length of time it took for a mold to be cast of their face. By scanning actress Linda Hamilton's face, computer model could be made and drills and lasers could sculpt her "scream face" from a foam base.

Three puppets were made of Sarah Connor kneeling at the fence. The first was designed to have its hands up by its face, and then lower them to the fence as the light-blast hits the playground. This was the most detailed of the puppets, as it had to look the most realistic. The flames of this puppet mostly rose upward into the air.

The second puppet held its scream-face and clung to the fence, moved from below by rods and poles. Once more, the flames mostly rose upward as it burned.

The third puppet was the most crucial. Here, the burned corpse of Sarah Connor had to be hit by the second blast-wave, and the burned flesh -- now ash -- fly away backward from the skeleton.

For this effect, a plastic medical school skeleton was reinforced with with a steel armature and in the correct post next to a prop fence. A mold was made of the styrofoam head. Tissue paper and tempura paint were applied to the inside of the mold to create a "skin". The "skin" was then applied to the skeleton. "Skin" was made for the rest of the skeleton as well. The interior of the puppet was then filled with grey and black paper napkins that had been finely shredded in a blender. The skin was then scored with a knife to ensure that it flew apart correctly.

A special effects crew blasted the puppet with flame and an air gun, and the "skin" and "flesh" flew away like ash.