Thursday, September 28, 2006

Billion. Nine Zeros, Many Heroes.

Look down at your computer after you read this sentence. What kind of computer are you using? Unless you are me, it’s most likely a PC of some brand or another. These days, it most likely to be a Dell. When you look back up, you are probably using a Windows Operating System. No matter what program you are running or website you are searching, in all likelihood, odds-on, in all probability, nine time out of ten, you are running some version of Windows.

Now if you go to the Forbes website and look at the new Forbes 400 list, take a gander at who’s number one. That’s right, William Henry Gates III, age 50. He has an estimated fortune of Fifty-Three Billion Dollars. That is a five and then a three and then put nine zeros after it. Then if you want to really cry, stick a decimal and two more zeros. BHG3, as I like to refer to him, is a Billionaire fifty-three times over. $53,000,000,000.

Let’s savor that number: $53,000,000,000.

I’m sure there are website out there that can tell you how much he makes per second, per hour, all that jazz. It’s most likely a little bit more than you do.

One of the reasons BHG3 is worth $53,000,000,000 (All those zeros!!!) is that when you look at your computer screen, you are looking at a program being run on Windows. That’s it. Most computers in the world run on Windows. That is why the guy is filthy rich.

Let’s compare that to your cable company or your cell phone service provider. Most homes in America do not use the same exact services for any utility or entertainment except their computer's OS. As a matter of fact, Ma Bell was broken up because it was too big. It was a monopoly. Most people used their service and that meant they had too much power for the government’s taste.

Microsoft controls about everything you do on your computer. The basic platform is based on its software. Millions upon Millions of people use Windows and therefore use Internet Explorer to surf the web. Face it, not everyone is as good as you. They do not know that Internet Explorer is like the Swiss cheese of software. It’s a hacker’s dream. They do not know to download Firefox or some other browser. (Oh yeah, there are those who use the AOL browser still. Forgot about those people.)

Despite bug, errors, holes, security risks and just about everything else that makes a program a dud, Windows and IE are chugging along, making BHG3 richer and richer. Despite a large monopoly and subclass software, the company still goes like the Energizer Bunny. And they are not stopping. Next Microsoft is planning to have software in Television set top boxes, cell phones, more games, toasters, catalytic converters and vibrators. (O.K. I made some up but the Television set top boxes, cell phones and more games are true.)

But with growth opportunity like that, BHG3 can give away money to half of Africa and still be on top of the list next year.

I say, good for ole BHG3. Good for him. People probably made fun of him in high school and he never even finished college. But he’s a billionaire. He’s a role model for teenagers everywhere who tell their parents that they don’t need to go to college because BHG3 didn’t and he’s a billionaire. Thanks BHG3.

What does any of this have to do with either entertainment or Science Fiction, you say. Well, Steve Jobs of course. I use a Mac. So my guy is Steve Jobs. But he is only ranked #49 with a paltry 4.9 Billion. Jeeze talk about betting on a bum. He had to have two companies, Apple and Pixar to make his little bitty stash.

Still not enough, well, Science Fiction Hall of Fame founder Paul Allen is #5 with 16 Billion, which is down slightly from last year. I bet he’s running out to get those florescent light bulbs to save a few bucks because of it too.

But in all honesty those guys are not the real heros of this list. The real hero is Mr. H Ty Warner. His company produces and sells Beanie Babies. He made 4.5 Billion dollars selling Beanie Babies. They are the ridiculous plush toys that people go crazy collecting and use to line car dashboards. Yes. That guy’s a billionaire. Yes. A billionaire. Beanie Babies. Yes.

L.S.C.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

New Planet: It Floats!

Some planets are light that they could float in a giant tub of water. A recent discovery by Smithsonian astronomers has resulted in a very unusual find. Known as HAT-P-1 a new planet that is about 1.38 the size of Jupiter has a mass that is less than half that of Jupiter.

Astronomers found the planet by using a process in which they observe a distant star and measure its light. At regular intervals, a large planet will obstruct the face of the star directed at earth and lower its brightness as it passes by in its orbit around the star. This particular planet (HAT-P-1) goes around its sun every four and one-half days. Amazingly the planet is only one-twentieth the distance to its star as earth is to our own sun. This planet is light and it’s fast.

According to scientists this planet has a density that is lighter than a giant ball of cork, about ¼ that of water. It is about 24 percent larger than theories expect a planet to be for its mass.

In our own solar system, Saturn has similar properties. Saturn is almost as large as Jupiter yet it has a much lower density. Saturn can also float in water. The ringed planet also spins very fast. Combine a fast rotation and a low density and you get an unusual property. Saturn is elongated in shape. It is flattened at the equator. That makes for a very interesting planet, what with its rings, its many moons, its density and its shape.

Because of the newly discovered, “lighter,” planets, scientists will have to rethink current theories of planet formation.

L.S.C.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Tolkien Rides Again

J.R.R. Tolkien's unfinished work "The Children of Hurin" that he began to write but abandoned in 1918 will be edited by his son Christopher Tolkien and published by Houghton Mifflin in the United States and HarperCollins in England.

As a child, Christopher would read his father’s stories and approve of them. "The Hobbit" was originally written as a story for J.R.R. Tolkien's children but when friend and associate C.S. Lewis insisted that Tolkien send the book to a publisher it became a best seller. This inspired the publisher to ask Tolkien for a sequel, which became "The Lord of The Rings" trilogy.

Christopher Tolkien has a long history of commenting on and editing his father’s work, starting from when he was very young. In the Seventies, he edited "The Silmarillion," a composite of his father’s works and published posthumously. "The Silmarillion" is a five-part book that was written as separate works but compiled by Christopher Tolkien. Missing parts were filled in by Tolkien's research into his father's notes and some parts were written from scratch.

Tolkien's prolific notes, half-finished works, maps and timelines are a testament to his attention to language and history in his writing. Fantasy writers are unanimous on the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien invented the fantasy genre and almost everything else is honorably derivative. The quest, the creatures, the dark wizard and the king! All of it started with Tolkien.

L.S.C.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Disneyfication of ME!

Or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love Disney.

There is a consensus out there that Disney is Evil. Disney = Evil. Anthropomorphic Cartoon Animals in a made-up world called Walt Disney World = Eternity of torture by Anthropomorphic Animals in made-up world called Hell. Get the point? I have friends who would rather have their eyelashes pulled out one-by-one while bamboo chutes are shoved under their fingernails than go to Disneyland or watch a Disney film.

I used to be one of them.

Yes, I admit, I was a Disney hater too. Mostly because of my ignorance. See, I never went to see a Disney movie when I was a kid. I never saw Bambi in my youth. I never watched the Dwarves shack up with Snow White and I never got to see booty-calling Cinderella make it with her babe-a-licious beau, Prince Charming. I blame my parents. They were not very big fans of Disney. Also, the proliferation of VCR movies and more recently DVDs hadn’t come about when I was a lad.

Now if my mother will stop screaming at me I will tell you that once, when I was in third grade my family did make a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida. I had the time of my life. It was a great fun. All of it. I still remember how it felt to ride in the Haunted Castle or the Pirate’s of the Caribbean ride. I remember the Electric Light Parade and the butter pats shaped like Mickey Mouse. But alas, that was in the Seventies and I should not return to that enchanted land for almost 30 years.

In between I was rarely exposed to anything Disney-like. There was a dry spell in the eighties of animated Disney films. Or at least very good films. The kind that harkens back to the golden age when they produced Cinderella and Snow White and Bambi. Then in the early Nineties they came out with The Little Mermaid. A musical based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale. It was a great little movie. A friend of mine had a sister who watched it on a daily basis when she finally scored the VCR tape. By that time, thought, I was a jaded art student just discovering my inner Goth. Despite the fact that the bad guy in the movie was a dark, octopus like creature who wanted to steal the beautiful voices of the Mer-People, it still didn’t go far enough for my brash, young, self.

I raised the banner with the best of them as to how bad it was that Disney took stories and themes and simplified them, making happy endings out of them. “The original fairy tales were cautionary tales that rarely had happy endings,” I’d explain. It was a bad thing to take the world and candy coat it into something sweet and fluffy and good. The real world is full of darkness, evil and rarely do things work out. Besides, if the Walt Disney Company had its way we’ all be strolling down fake, cobbled stoned streets, hanging onto white picket fences, Zipadeedodaing all around town like a nation of Stepfords.

A relentless litany of animated films came out in the Nineties. The Little Mermaid followed up with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1993), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), Tarzan (1999). Along with 3-D animation company, Pixar, a former Lucasfilm Company bought by Steve Jobs of Apple fame, (and if you know me at all you know how giddy this makes me!) Disney distributed the Toy Story movies (19995 & 1999) and A Bug’s Life (1998). Then there was the Tim Burton classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

Since then the studio has produced or distributed many other animated films although they have not reached the renaissance of animated musicals that they achieved in the 1990s. Disney and Pixar produced a slew of new films together ushering in a new age of animation where 3-D ruled. With the success of Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, Disney announced that they were giving up on 2-D (traditional) animated movies and called the format dead. But after purchasing Pixar as a wholly owned subsidiary in 2005, Disney has rediscovered a commitment to 2-D cartoons and is producing them again.

When I had children of my own, they demanded that I put on Disney films. My wife sent me out at ungodly hours to buy Limited Edition DVDs that peeked out of the Disney Vault but might disappear for another fifty years if we didn’t hurry and buy them all up.

Through repeated viewings and osmosis, the fairy tales began to seep in and I admit to now having the soundtrack to Aladdin on my iPod. (Love that Robin Williams!) And for the first time in 30 years the gates of the magic kingdom opened and I strode the clean streets while men and women dressed like a Technicolorized version of the late nineteenth century descended on us.

If you’ve ever been, you know what I mean. At a moment’s notice a band of happy characters dressed like they stepped off a paddleboat on the sparkling Mississippi River will roll through the streets dancing and singing a happy tune. There’s a candy store on the corner and a bunch of places that will sell you everything that you ever wanted, with Mickey Mouse slapped on it. Any true ex-Industrial-Goth would just melt into a black puddle right there, the sticky sweetness shooting holes into my old black combat boots.

Truth is, I enjoyed it. A lot. And I traded combat boots for Docksiders years ago.

There is something innocent and nostalgic about the park. Perhaps because the last time I was there I was just an eight-year-old boy. Perhaps it’s just because Disney gets it right. You heard me. They get it right.

Kids will always be kids. They love cartoons, they love candy and they love music they can sing along to. If you combine them all together well, Jackpot! That’s what Disney World is in a nutshell. It is like actually stepping into one of Walt Disney’s animated films. Judging from all the historical information you can get on the man while touring the park, this is exactly what he intended.

Disney is not an enigma. It is not complicated or deceitful. No matter what happens behind the scenes in the corporate world, the face of Disney is a cartoon wonderland full of wonder and magic and history. History that might be its own, self-referential history, but by now, after all these years, it’s true history. It’s magical.

If you don’t dig too deep you can find a na├»ve, simplicity in Disney. The cartoons always have a happy ending, they always teach some lesson and they are usually so well done you can’t help but get sucked into the story, the music, the images or all of the above.

Even Tomorrowland still looks like the wide-eyed version of the future that Walt Disney himself tried to promote. I feel like I stepped into a realm created thirty, forty, fifty years ago and nothing has changed since.

But there’s more to it than just some silly old rides and cotton candy. The movies that Disney puts out for the children of America today are not your father’s Disney flick.

I should have known that all along.

Case in point: Nightmare Before Christmas. I loved this movie so much when it first came out I went and bought all the watches at Burger King. I saw it in the movie theater twice. This is not your typical Disney film yet Disney distributed it. Also, Tim Burton, one of my favorite directors, was employed at Disney as an artist for a time. Disney studio is where he first began thinking up the characters for Nightmare and he directed and wrote a short film called Vincent there, though the film was never released.

Burton originally pitched this film to Disney while working there but they turned him down because it was too dark. After meeting with success, he finally was able to create his masterpiece but Disney still thought it was too dark. They released it under their Touchtone studio releases. At the time the movie was released, I had no idea it had roots in the Disney studio.

Since then, after years of building momentum, Nightmare Before Christmas has become one of Disney’s greatest marketing movies, selling characters and merchandise inspired by the movie year after year. On October 20, 2006, Disney plans to release a 3-D version of the film in limited release.

So among the Mickey Mouse ears and Goofy hats are Jack Skelington snow globes.

Disney has even conquered Broadway. At the center of the Times Square redevelopment project was Disney’s purchase and restoration of the New Amsterdam Theater. Currently a very impressive performance of Disney’s The Lion King is playing there. If you go expecting a rehash of a cartoon with fuzzy costumed characters playing the central role, be prepared for disappointment. The Broadway version of this musical is impressive and beautiful in it’s own right. The production design and costuming are brilliant as is the casting. This is another good example of Disney getting it right.

Recently, Disney hit gold with a live action film done right, Pirates of the Caribbean. This movie had it all: Costumes, effects, beautiful sets, dialogue and superb performances by the four main stars, Johnny Depp (brilliantly playing Captain Jack Sparrow as one half-drunk, one half-mad, one half-Keith Richards), Geoffrey Rush (always a pleasure!), Orlando Bloom (playing the anti-Legolas) and beautiful and talented Keira Knightly (did I mention beautiful and talented?). This movie redefines the swashbuckling adventure like I only pray that Indiana Jones part four will come close to. Besides that, it single handedly brought back the Pirate craze. (When did the pirate craze end, I say!)

“It all started with a mouse.”

Continually throughout a visit to Disney World you are reminded by enormous graffiti and the voice of the man himself that Disney all started with a mouse. That’s only partly true. It started with a dream. The mouse came second.

Walt Disney and his brother Roy Disney started Disney Studios way back in the 1920s. Originally they began with short animated films staring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. (Who looked very much like Mickey Mouse with long ears.) When Walt lost the rights to Oswald to another production studio he had to come up with another character to star in his cartoons. Mickey Mouse was created and stared in one of the first popular cartoons that also featured a soundtrack called Steamboat Willie.

Not one to rest, after gaining popularity, fame and money with his Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons Walt decided he wanted to do a feature length cartoon. Other thought he was crazy but he pushed on and when Snow White came out, it was a smash.

From then on Walt expanded his empire from short cartoons to great big theme parks in California and then Orlando. These parks were going to be like stepping out of real life and into a fantasy. Just like most other things he dreamed up, Walt succeeded in this endeavor too.

At the core of it all is a basic premise: Tell a good story and tell it right. That has been the cornerstone of the Disney legacy. Walt Disney was a perfectionist. Snow White took longer and cost more money than originally planned because of his detailed personality. In the end it was all worth it. Meticulous detailing and an uplifting, well-told tale are what made Disney a great man and a great movie company. Over the years, Disney has had its ups and downs. It has fallen in and out of the public’s favor but all in all, we can’t imagine a world without Walt Disney’s fantasies. And we would not want to either.

L.S.C.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Nine Eleven

This is a repeat of the same article I ran last year on Nine Eleven. I wrote this the night that the attacks on the Twin Towers happened. My wife went to work that night and I was alone after my son went to bed. I sat down at the kitchen table in our little condo and as the television continued to play the ongoing events I wrote this. It may be a little unpolished but it was written all at once so it captures a lot of the emotion I felt at that moment.

Nine Eleven
By Lon S. Cohen

A woman comes to the bus stop and calmly reports that a plane crashed into the Twin Towers. She must be mistaken, I think. She probably means one of those small prop jobs. I imagine the buildings, standing resolutely, the shining legs of a metal god, shrugging off the accident like a mosquito bite. It was annoying but not too tragic. Didn’t a plane crash into the Empire State Building in the forties? I ignore the report and mention my little fact to the mothers surrounding me. My bit of trivia fails to move them.

Inside my house, TV graphics blaze with the words AMERICA UNDER ATTACK or ATTACK ON AMERICA. My wife and I wonder what the hell is going on. A second plane, just moments before we flipped on the TV, crashed into the other tower.Then, a third crash. A plane slams into the Pentagon. My body shook. I want to puke. I don't know what to do with myself. I flip through the channels, absorbing as much of the information as possible. A fourth plane chrahes into a field in Pennsylvania!America really was under attack! It was real! Planes are dropping from the sky. What else is out there?

We were feeling what other countries had felt throughout modern history. Images of Beruit, with its bombed out buildings and war torn streets, came to mind. I’m afraid of the skies over my own country. I compare the feeling to that of Britain when Germany pounded her with bombs. I feel the same shock that the people of Japan must have felt when they learned of the bombing of Hiroshima.On thousands and thousands of postcards, magnets, ashtrays and chochkas in homes around the country--around the world--the Twin Towers boldly reach above every other building in New York. The towers were pillars of the financial world, not to mention the pride of our city. Now, somehow, someone has taken them away from us. Everyone housed inside and the emergency personal who risked their lives for others went down with them.

America has some scars. Pearl Harbor, Oklahoma City and the Kennedy assassination crease our nation’s soul with sadness. This tragedy burns the heart of America. How can we heal from this wound? Will we heal? Those questions we cannot answer except by waiting out the days.My son comes home from school at 3:30. I am numb to the events. I saw the crash from every angle. I heard all the commentary. I passed through all the classic phases one deals with during tragedies such as this. He announces that he knew all about it already. We explain the seriousness of the situation but I fear that he may be too young to understand.We watch the news for him while he plays with his friends, exchanging playground rumors. Hours later, after my wife, a nurse, goes to work her midnight shift, I sit in my kitchen wondering what to do next.I worry most about bedtime. Not mine, but my son’s. How do I put my child to bed tonight and pretend that he’s safe? I feel vulnerable, more than ever before in my life. What do I tell my son about this great American tragedy?

I look at the skyline of Manhattan on my television now darkened by night. A red cloud billows from the space between buildings where the World Trade Center should be. A pit has opened and swallowed the Twin Towers. I imagine the great groan of some demon as the building plunges further down into the maw. With the help of the media we are all huddled around that pit looking down, consoling each other, getting angry, crying over the loss, warming ourselves by the fire of this tragedy.I tuck in my son to a clear, starry night. I don’t want to let go of him. I don’t want to walk out of his room and pretend that this is not a big deal. I pray as I finally leave him to sleep that he never knows the fear of the world that I do right now.

L.S.C.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Achtung!

It’s a miracle! A true sighting caught on tape in Germany!

Check it out!

L.S.C.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Yikes!

Apparently not everyone is mourning Steve Irwin’s death. Germaine Greer, academic and writer known for her book, The Female Eunuch, published in the early 1970s, commented in UK’s The Guardian that, “The animal world has finally taken its revenge on Irwin, but probably not before a whole generation of kids in shorts seven sizes too small has learned to shout in the ears of animals with hearing 10 times more acute than theirs, determined to become millionaire animal-loving zoo-owners in their turn.”

Not sure why she has such a beef with him and sees fit to criticize the man so soon after his death but there you go.

Check out the entire article here.

The article has not gone by without a backlash from the Australian website news.com.au. Check out the reaction here.

L.S.C.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

CRIKEY!

Steve Irwin, Croc Hunter and self proclaimed Wildlife Warrior, dies at 44.

I heard the news almost immediately after it happened. My wife and my brother and I were out at a bar having a rare opportunity to get away from the house. We came home close to 1:40 am on Monday morning, New York time, and my brother jumped on the computer to check news and email while we wound down from the night. Curiously he said, “The Crocodile Hunter died?” It was a matter of fact way to say it. I don’t think he knew that he was getting the news almost in real time.

At first I didn’t believe him; I thought it was a mistake. But it was true. The lovable, khaki wearing, “Aussie,” who got way too close to danger while clowning around with deadly animals, promoting his sincere agenda of raising awareness for nature, had died. Ironically, the animal that caused his death was not known to be very dangerous. The stingray’s tail, a defensive mechanism, while containing a poison, generally does not cause death in humans. According to reports, it was the bleeding that led to his death because the barb pierced his heart.

As the news sunk in, I became upset. I watched his shows and really liked him as a television personality. My children all watched him as well. He even starred with the Wiggles in a Croc Hunter special! Perhaps it was my inner child that mourned him. He was a very real guy. Even if he wasn’t really like his exuberant T.V. personality in real life, you go the sense that what you saw was the person he was. I expected that if I ever met him, I’d really like him, a lot. Also, he was star to children and the saddest thing is the fact that my kids would soon learn that their beloved “Croc Hunter” was dead.

The next day, I was with a few friends and the talk was not only of how sad it was to loose such an amazing personality but the fact that no one wanted to tell their children. At a barbeque that following day, a friend whispered to his wife, “Don’t talk about what we heard this morning on T.V.” Of course I knew exactly what he was talking about and I commiserated with them about how regretful it was to loose a guy like Steve Irwin.

So far I’ve not heard anyone say that he knew the risks, it was always a danger working with those animals. I wondered about that, because although it will come up, the initial reaction is total shock and loss. He seemed indestructible, invisible because he had such a connection, such respect, for the animals he worked with. He loved them and you sort of felt in some strange, childish way, that they knew it too and would never let harm come to such an advocate and friend.

The world of nature is cruel and unforgiving. That is the lesson we must take from this tragic event. It’s a lesson I’d rather forget. I’d rather live in a world where a guy like Steve Irwin goes into the deep jungle, wrestles with terrible beasts and survives every time, as happy-go-lucky as ever. But it is not true. Perhaps that is the thing I failed to capture when I first heard the news. The reason I grieved for him was not just a loss to the world, but a personal loss as well. Not that I knew the man, but I knew what he represented, what he meant to me. He symbolized the imaginary, the fantastic aspect of the real world of nature. He brought things to my home, my children, myself that I’d never have seen if he’d not been there to do it. And in such a way that made it easy, casual, funny and true.

The kids I spoke with, the ones old enough to have grown up watching him on T.V. but not too young to hear the news, all said the same thing. They feel for his wife and kids. My son, a very typical thirteen year old, who generally doesn’t think of anything but what affects his person, was the first to bring up the fact that he had two very young children. He felt bad for them.

This is another thing that we learned from Steve Irwin. He taught us compassion for others. These kids could have said, they miss him, or they can’t believe they won’t see him on T.V. anymore. The one thing they always worried about was his family. He was a superhero to these kids and they wondered what it would be like for his children to grow up without him around. You have to admit, he was a pretty cool Dad.

His great advocacy and respect for animals, despite their brutal nature showed us to respect the world. It showed our kids that you must think of things other than yourself. He brought out the best of us.

The people of Australia lost a great hero. The people of the world lost a great entertainer. Nature lost a great advocate. The self-proclaimed “Wildlife Warrior” has passed and I hope that we all can learn as much from his death as we did his life.

For more information on the man and his accomplishments see the Wikipedia entry on Steve Irwin, the official homepage of the Crocodile Hunter, his IMDB page, or various articles about him on the web.

The Sydney Morning Herald has an article here.