Biggest firework in history

July 12, 2022 • 1:46 pm

This is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the biggest firework every launched. The YouTube notes say that it holds the record for “Largest Aerial Firework”, an is a  62 inch firework ignited over Steamboat Springs Colorado two years ago.

There’s a time delay because, of course, the speed of sound is slower than the speed of light. One punctilious commenter said this:

Fun fact: They are standing around 3 km away Sound is coming 8sec late. Speed of sound 343 m/s 343*8= 2744m so 3km approx.

Here’s another video by someone who filmed it. It shows the pyrotechnic itself (it weighed over a ton!) as well as part of its construction, its launching, and the Guinness award.

The New York Times sinks even deeper

February 13, 2021 • 12:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Another sign of the New York Times‘ decline, besides its wokism and suddenly keen interest in astrology, is its attention to celebrity culture. (I use that last word with some hesitation.) This is mere persiflage, but after sharing my thoughts about this with Jerry, he urged me to post it on a Saturday, a day more amenable to such things.

The Times has put a lot of effort into producing, and now heavily promoting, a > 1 hour long documentary about Britney Spears, titled “Framing Britney Spears”, available on Hulu. Britney Spears, for the unfamiliar, was a 90’s pop star singer, who had some issues. (As Joe Walsh said, “it’s tough to handle this fortune and fame.”) She then had something of a comeback, including a stint at that old standby for fading pop stars, Las Vegas. She has been involved in various court cases over control of her assets.

JAC: Here’s a trailer for the Official New York Times video, more appropriate for the National Enquirer or TMZ than the Times.

Two things are wrong with this. First, why is the Times doing investigative journalism on Britney Spears? Who cares? There’s an extremely slim stab at justification on the grounds that her story reveals flaws in the legal practice of ‘conservatorship’, but they spend almost no time on this. It could also be justified as an examination of the bizarre manifestations of celebrity culture, but instead the documentary revels in and glorifies that culture.

Much of the program is taken up with interviews of obviously loony cultists of the “Free Britney” movement, who are slavishly devoted to carrying out what they perceive to be the wishes of a hidden figure whom none of them are actually in communication with. If this sounds like QAnon to you—bingo! That’s exactly what it seemed like to me. The conspiracy addled, sartorially conforming, group thinking, and delusional ways of both groups are striking. I immediately thought: “This is just like the nuts at the Capitol.” This might reveal deep and recurring dysfunction in human social dynamics, but that is not at all what the Times is exploring here, except inadvertently.

Second, they got bupkus! The investigation was a bust. No one who actually knew anything would talk to the paper. Everything they had was either old footage, not terribly relevant, or three Times talking heads. They had two modestly interesting people willing to talk. One was a woman hired to be Britney’s “assistant” back when she was a kid, but was eventually dismissed. Her interview is primarily of interest for the pathos of how this woman clings to memorabilia of her time in Britney’s entourage.

The other was a lawyer who represented Britney Spears for a brief while many years ago. He knows essentially nothing about the case, since he was dismissed by the judge before it really got started. But he is apparently an experienced conservatorship attorney, and makes a few enlightening remarks about how conservatorships are supposed to work; but not enough to give real understanding. This is a real missed opportunity. Is there widespread abuse of conservatorships? Are conservators failing in their duty to look out for the conservatees? This is strongly suggested to be so in Britney Spears’ case, but since the facts of the case are in sealed court documents, and no one who does know was willing to talk, we got nuthin’.

As one of my favorite movie critics, Ryan Jay, says, “Skip it.”


JAC: Greg should be praised here because I believe he had to pay to see that video!

GCM: Well, I paid for the Hulu subscription, but not for this particular program. A Hulu subscription is much like a New York Times subscription– there’s some good stuff in there, but also a lot of dreck. But while copious dreck is tolerable in a streaming TV service, it is not tolerable in the paper of record.

Is “colorblind casting” problematic?

July 29, 2020 • 1:00 pm

“Colorblind casting” is defined in this New York Times piece by culture critic Maya Phillips as “performers [inhabiting] characters of racial backgrounds that [differ] from their own.” When applied in such a way to ensure “acting justice” (people of all ethnicities getting an opportunity to play anyone) rather than just letting white people play people of all ethnicities—as was often the case in early movies—it would seem to be fine. But in Phillip’s piece she finds several reasons why such casting is problematic.

In a way, Phillips’s counterintuitive take on colorblind casting reminds me of the piece by the paper’s music critic, Anthony Tommasini, urging orchestras to drop blind auditions as a (misguided) way to increase ethnic diversity. And it shows the ability of the op-ed writers at the New Woke Times to justify any action, however crazy, if they can be made to look antiracist.

I don’t find her reasons convincing, but let me give my own views first. I’ve never had a problem with people of any race or gender playing anyone, as the whole point of entertainment is to suspend disbelief. Unfortunately, as I already noted, “colorblind casting” used to be “colorblind” just for whites, so that we had whites playing Asians or Arabs (i.e., Alec Guinness in Lawerence of Arabia). This reduces the opportunity for talented actors of color to play roles; it was a form of discrimination.

Fortunately, this is being remedied, although when the demand is that actors of a given ethnicity must always play roles of that ethnicity, it seems to go too far.  Perhaps Guinness would have been a much better Prince Faisal in the movie than any available Arab actor, which were surely thin on the ground. (Granted, they did nab Omar Sharif, an Egyptian, as Ali.) The question then becomes “how much acting quality can you sacrifice to achieve equity?” That question is above my pay grade. But surely some equity is needed as a form of thespian reparations: to undo the injustice suffered by potential actors of color who never got a chance.

One other exception: when race is really important in a role, then one should cast appropriately. For example, Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockinbird must surely have to be black, for blackness is essential to his role. Likewise, it would be bizarre to cast a black person play, say, David Duke, for in that case it would be very hard to suspend disbelief!

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Reader Bill Benzon sent me the link to Phillips’s NYT piece, adding that he’d written a response on his own website (second screenshot below). I won’t dwell on his response, as you should go over to his website, read it yourself, and comment there on his thoughts. You can comment here on my thoughts.

Phillips’s argument is a bit convoluted, as she begins by recounting (and approving of) all the white actors who withdrew from “roles of color” because (even in voice roles), they weren’t race appropriate, as with the white actors who voiced the black person on “Family Guy” and Apu on “The Simpsons.” She doesn’t have a problem with the multiracial Hamilton (nor do I), as she sees it as an “an act of subversion, a normalization of something other than the white standard.” Well, I’m not sure how subversive it is, but so be it.

And despite telling the reader how much she loved The Wiz (a black reimagining of The Wizard of Oz) and the 1997 racially diverse musical Cinderella, Phillips then backtracks, as she finally sniffs out a few bugs in the “colorblind casting” idea. She states the problem starkly:

It seems needless to say, and yet, here it is: Any casting of a performer in the role of a race other than their own assumes that the artist step into the lived experience of a person whose culture isn’t theirs, and so every choice made in that performance will inevitably be an approximation. It is an act of minstrelsy.

What a can of worms she’s opened here! An act of minstrelsy! Does that mean that blacks playing the Founding Fathers in Hamilton are minstrels? Does this mean, as Bill implies in his piece below, that any non-Jew playing Shylock in Shakespeare is an “act of minstrelsy”? I could go on and on and on, but suffice it to say that plays, musicals, and movies largely require the suspension of disbelief, and if we require that every role be played by somebody who’s culturally appropriate, few roles would get played. For who today has an Elizabethan “culture”? And how can any non-German play a Nazi—assuming, that is, that all Germans partake of a Nazi Culture?

In fact, Phillips’s pronouncement would lead to the death of entertainment, or at least its debasement as directors and producers struggle to find characters that fit the “culture” of the role. That includes actors of color as well, who surely couldn’t play white people—unless, I suppose, it’s as an “act of subversion.” In fact, that’s more or less what Phillips concludes, though her piece is not written in a way in which one can draw firm conclusions.

Here’s another problem that Phillips finds with colorblind casting:

But however well-intentioned, there are complications that come with works that aim to use colorblind casting to highlight people of color who wouldn’t otherwise be represented. Creators may cast blind, thinking their job done, failing to consider that a Black man cast as a criminal or a Latina woman cast as a saucy seductress — even when cast without any regard to their race — can still be problematic. One kind of blindness can lead to another.

This is a nonproblem if casting is done sensitively, and I can’t think of many flagrant violations in recent years.  But wait—there are other problems!

And then there’s also the “Hamilton” problem. The show may place diverse bodies on the stage, but productions that would subvert a narrative traditionally owned by white characters must not just tag in actors of color but reconsider the fundamental way the new casting changes the story. In “Hamilton,” the revision of American history is dazzling and important, but it also neglects and negates the parts of the original story that don’t fit so nicely into this narrow model. The characters’ relationship to slavery, for example, is scarcely mentioned, because it would be incongruous with the triumphant recasting of our country’s first leaders. (The “Hamilton” star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda responded to this criticism this week, calling it “valid.”)

The trouble of a colorblind production might not be the casting itself, but the fact that the casting may still erase the reimagined characters’ identities. (If Willy Loman is Black, wouldn’t he have a more complex understanding of the American dream?) Careless colorblind casting — in animated roles, in live-action roles on TV, movies or the stage — assumes that identities amount to nothing and that all experiences are transferable, which is far from the reality.

This problem assumes that the pigmentation of a character cannot be separated from the role he or she is playing. Willy Loman cannot be black because he wouldn’t be the Willy Loman that Arthur Miller imagined. But why not? The problem with Phillips’s critique is that she’s bought into Critical Race Theory to the extent that group identities amount to everything, and that the experiences of every black actor differ in a critical way from those of every white or Asian actor. And if life experience of an actor must perforce be transferable to their roles, then what role is there for black actors in Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, or Ibsen? Phillips’s critique leads to entertainment segregated by actor.

And indeed, that seems to be her conclusion. Citing August Wilson, who also criticized colorblind casting, she concludes (and I agree with this) that we need more art created by people of color to process and portray their own experiences.  But that’s not the issue. Here’s her peroration:

Wilson called not for colorblind casting, but for institutions that invite art by and for people of color, to tell their own stories and not simply ones adapted for them. He doesn’t call for blindness, but visibility: people of color seen on stages and behind the curtains. This applies to all art forms — people of color should be on movie screens, on the TV and in recording booths giving voice to stories about them.

It’s hard not to see his point. Even times when it’s employed with good intentions, colorblind casting often fails in the execution. It’s a larger problem of the narrative of our nation, which frequently refuses people of color their own stories, reflexively opting for a white purview or offering stories written for white characters but with people of color haphazardly slotted in. We’re forever fighting our America’s racial default.

Blindness is no excuse. In a moment when we’re reassessing everything surrounding representation, perhaps it’s time for all of us to finally open our eyes.

By all means, let a thousand ethnicities bloom on stage and screen! But does Phillips realize that her “problematizing” of colorblind casting creates three other problems: “identity entertainment”, with stories always tailored to—and centered on—race (read: oppression): segregated audiences for different pieces, each piece drawing a different ethnic group hungry to see its own “experience”; and the elimination of opportunity for actors of color, who can’t after all, be minstrels. Finally, the rectification of her “problematizing” involves more than just available and talented actors of each ethnicity, but, more important, talented writers, directors, and producer of each ethnicity. Those will come, but I mourn the enlightened colorblind casting that brings us all together. Phillips’s prescription keeps us apart.

Click on the screenshot below to see Bill Benzon’s take, and of course leave your comments about his views on his site.