Monday, April 13, 2015

Harry Potter and the Alveolar Approximant

Q: You know that thing where Germans have trouble saying "squirrel"? What does the German edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone call Professor Quirrell, then?

A: Harry Potter Und der Stein der Weisen (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone) calls him . . .

And now we wait for the reveal.

. . . Professor Quirrell. Sometimes there's a trace of a kv sound. An audio clip from the movie shows that at least one actor (and one YouTube reviewer) can say "Quirrell" pretty much like the English pronunciation. And that's more or less like the British English pronunciation of "squirrel." Which is pretty cool because, as /r/linguistics commenter Sabremesh points out, a bunch of those sounds don't even exist in German. Commenter H-Resin raises a squirrel/Quirrell quibble suggesting that the soft w is present in German and that the combination of s and qu is the real problem. Well, whatever the problems with squirrel, it seems there wasn't enough of an issue with Quirrell's name to change it to Kvirrell, as it was in Russian (Профессор Квиррелл), which has no w sound or letter.

Uhhh, if any pedants are reading this, I used "poisonous" and "venomous" interchangeably in an earlier post. Sorry! It was alliterative! Poisonous platypus!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Why does Steve Blum have that IX next to his name?

Q: Steve Blum has acted in a hillion jillion things. But when I look him up on IMDB, he's listed as Steve Blum (IX). Are there really eight Steve Blums / Steves Blum more important than he is?

A: Poor old Steve Blum. He's in over 480 titles, he's the first result for Steve Blum on Google, he's first on the IMDB autocomplete list for Steve Bl--, and he's the only Steve Blum who even has a picture on his IMDB page.
Is this a head shot for voice auditions? Oh, right, publicity photos are a thing.

Yet he gets put behind, say, this miscellaneous crew member from one movie in 1996.

IMDB explains the numerals like so: they try to put somebody further up if they're more famous, started working earlier, worked a more important job, or were added earlier to the database. So what gives? Steve Blum the prolific actor is more famous and has a longer career than those other Steves (although one of them started working earlier than him, playing guitar in The Wiz in 1978, which is pretty cool, too). Is being a starring voice actor less important than playing a bit part, playing an instrument, or doing ADR loop work?

I'm going to make a pretty easy guess here and say no. What appears to have happened is that once upon a time, Steve Blum was Steven Blum, first of his name (though not, say, King of the Andals). Then he was listed as Steven Jay Blum, which was a unique listing. But sometime around 2008, he got added to the big pile of Steve Blum listings on IMDB. Since he was added to that list so late, he was ranked behind a bunch of Steves that had always been Steves, or that had at least switched over sooner to being known as Steve.

Why the change? Well, maybe that's just what he goes by - it's the name on his official site (copyright 2009) and his Twitter feed. Or maybe fans started to recognize him more by that name. He's still been credited as Steven Jay Blum as recently as 2011 and Steven Blum as recently as 2009. But the Steven Jay Blum credits had really started to fall off by around 2007, and the Steve Blum credits had been going strong for a long time by then (lots of them around 2004). Whatever the particular reason, the timing of the IMDB change seems to make sense. So like the saying "You snooze, you lose," IMDB can say "You wait, you're VIII. I mean IX. If 'Steve' you decline, you-- forget it."

Friday, April 19, 2013

What do they call Go-Gurt in the UK?

Q: English people say yogurt/yoghurt with a short o ("yaw") instead of a long o ("yo"). Surely they don't call Go-Gurt "Goghurt," though. So what do they call it?

A: Frubes. You know, like tubes of fruit. Fruit tubes.
Dalek Sec believes that fruit/tube hybridization is the last hope of the yoghurt species

So there you go. Also, their slogan used to be "rip their heads off and suck their guts out."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Are clown colleges accredited?

Q: Can you get a real, accredited degree from a clown college?

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This image comes from the Ohio College of Clowning Arts. Blame them.

A: What, like a Bachelor's in Clowning? Well, yes, actually. But not in the United States.

See, most clown schools, like San Francisco's Clown Conservatory, offer certificates. The original Clown College, run by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, was even less official - it was more or less a training ground for that circus, and has since been closed down and replaced by an audition process. And regular universities, including even Florida State and Illinois State, which have circus programs, do not offer Clowning or Circus Arts as majors.

But for one brief, shining moment, the Clown Conservatory partnered with the New College of California's Experimental Performance Institute to offer accredited degrees in Clowning. According to graduate Cynthia Rauschert's bio, four individuals received degrees from the program in August of 2007. One of those four was Aji Slater, whose resume (PDF format) describes the degree as a Bachelor's with emphasis in Theatrical Clowning. The other two? One must be Suzanne Santos, who has a Master's in Clowning from EPI. The other may be Fae Kievman, who mentions a Bachelor's in, uh, "Humanities/Theater/Circus/Clowning" from the New College of California
Ceci Velasco, who also got a Master's in Experimental Performance and Theatrical Clowning (thanks for the correction!).

So what happened after those four graduated? In what must be a complete coincidence, the New College of California's accreditation was revoked the following year, and the entire college soon shut down. Actually, the college had already been put on probation the previous month (one of many warnings in the school's history) by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits schools in California, Hawaii, and various places in the Pacific. And in August of 2007, the school's President had resigned after considering a million-dollar bribe to change a student's grades (he claims he didn't actually change them). Things were not looking up for the New College of California, clowning program or no.

What did the WASC find when they returned to check up on the wayward school? It's all in this report from the SFist: massive problems with finance, record-keeping, and oversight; arbitrary grading; excessive independent study; oh, and "Establishment of a degree program that did not meet WASC standards and was not reviewed and approved appropriately within the college." So . . . there's that. But as damning for the clowning program as this sounds, there's no guarantee the report wasn't referring to the graduate program in Women's Spirituality, for example:

The New College Women's Spirituality Master of Arts weekend program is the San Francisco-based, accredited advanced degree for women who find themselves at a pivotal "crossroad" in their lives where they feel life should have more purpose and meaning. The program content and group experience often helps students find direction, self-confidence and authenticity. The curriculum is taught by supportive, diverse, leading practitioners in this field. The program promotes intellectual and creative expression; explores and integrates global and historic intellectual, social, artistic and spiritual aspects of womanhood; and prepares graduates to help transform society after first transforming themselves.
 "Often helps students find direction, self-confidence and authenticity." Keep in mind this is for a graduate degree. Compare with Dartmouth's Women's Studies program:

The Women's and Gender Studies Program gives students a theoretical base for a systematic analysis of the construction of gender and the historical, economic, political, social, and cultural experiences of women. It is an interdisciplinary program drawing on resources from the Social Sciences, the Humanities, and the Sciences.
So there's that.

Anyway, long story short, you can't get a clowning degree in the United States. So where's a career-minded clown to go? A sensible plan would be to grab a Master's in Ensemble-Based Physical Theatre from Dell'Arte - it's like a Circus Arts degree, but more legitimate-sounding. But if you just have to have "clown" or "circus" in your degree, here are three places you can go:

  • The University of Haifa, where you can get a dual-major degree in medical clowning. Think Patch Adams, but without the Scientology-esque attitude towards psychiatric medication.
  • The National Institute of Circus Arts in Australia, which offers a Bachelor of Circus Arts degree as well as a graduate certificate.
  • The University of Lyons 2, where you can now get a vocational degree in clowning.
 Now, I leave you with one final thought:

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hobology: Why use a bindle?

Q: Hobos* are often depicted carrying a bindle. What's so great about tying a bundle to a stick instead of just slinging it over your shoulder?
*or hoboes, if you prefer - the romanticized Depression-era rail-riding tramps who have a fun ol' time bein' homeless! Substitute "swagman" if you're Australian (also "tucker bag" for "bindle" and "jumbuck" for - wait, is that even a thing?).

A new challenger approaches

A: What's not to like? It appears that the hobo, nature's physicist, uses something we no-bos call a "lever" to make his beans, bedroll, and other hobo paraphernalia easier to carry. If he uses the bindle as pictured, though, with half of the stick behind his shoulder and half in front, it won't provide any mechanical advantage - he'll use no less force than he would carrying the bag in his hand. In that case, all the bindle will do is shift the direction of the required force. A sack would do pretty much the same thing.

But! If that hobo moved the bindle so that the stick stuck out farther in front of the hobo's shoulder than behind it, then . . . well, let's look at the bindle as a lever with the hobo's shoulder as the fulcrum.

Just because it was drawn in Paint doesn't mean it's not scientific.

We've got the weight of the polka-dotted kerchief bundle, W, on the left. There's the force of the hobo's be-fingerless-gloved hand pulling the end of the stick down, FH. In the middle, there's the hobo's shoulder holding the whole thing up with force FS. Somewhere in there, we should probably include the weight of the stick, but ehhhh, whatever. We'll call the distance between the bundle and the shoulder X1 and the distance between the shoulder and the hand X2. So, say that the weight is 20 pounds and that X1 is 1/4th the distance that X2 is. Then . . .

Skip this part if you hate math and/or science!
There are two principles at work here: conservation of linear momentum and conservation of angular momentum. This bindle 'n' shoulder setup is static, so we only need a couple equations to balance forces and torques. Don't worry too much about forces and torques being vectors - the forces are all straight up or straight down, and the distance ratios are set up so that the problem's the same whether we calculate distances normal to the forces or just use the distances measured straight along the bindle stick.
Now, let's substitute in the knowns: W=20 lbs and X1=.25*X2
.25*X2*(20 lbs)=X2*FH
which simplifies to
FH=.25*(20 lbs)=5 lbs
Now, back to the first equation:
FS=W+FH=20 lbs + lbs = 25 lbs.

. . . the hobo will only have to push down with 5 pounds of force to carry that weight. Not bad! And there will be 25 pounds of force on his shoulder. And if X1 is even smaller compared to X2, then less force will be required to hold the bindle, and less force will be applied to the hobo's shoulder (it'll never be less than the weight of the bundle, though). How does that compare to a sack? Go-go-gadget-free-body-diagram!

This is . . . this is a diagram, really.

Yep, a hoisted sack is more or less a rope and single pulley supporting a load. This diagram represents the sack as a rope tied to a crate of beans, the traditional food of the hobo people, with the hobo's shoulder acting as a pulley. The bean-crate has three forces acting on it: the tension in the rope, which is the same as the pulling force of the hobo's hand, Fh; the force of the hobo's stooped-over back supporting the crate (in a direction perpendicular to the back), Fb; and the weight of the crate itself, W. θ1 is the angle that the hobo's back is away from vertical - the degree of stoop. So, say that the weight carried is 20 lbs. In the simplest (and least possible) case, where the hobo's back carries none of the load, the sack is equivalent to the ridiculously misused bindle pictured at the beginning - the hobo needs to exert 20 lbs of force to carry it, and 40 lbs of force is plunked down right on his shoulder. But if the hobo stoops over by 30 degrees . . .

More skippable math/science! Another static problem involving conservation of linear momentum. Let's simplify the problem by writing the forces as combinations of two perpendicular components, instead of as vectors. And let's make those components parallel and perpendicular to the hobo's back, so that Fh and Fb don't have to be split up. W will be split into Wy, the component of the beans' weight parallel to the hobo's back, and Wx, the perpendicular component.
Fb=Wx=W*sinθ1=(20 lbs)*sin(30 degrees)=10 lbs
Fh=Wy=W*cosθ1=(20 lbs)*cos(30 degrees)=17ish lbs

. . . the hobo will pull on the rope - er, sack - with about 17 pounds of force, and a load of 10 pounds will rest on his back. The force on his shoulders will vary depending on how he holds the sack (don't make me draw another diagram), but won't exceed twice the tension in the rope plus the . . . you know what, let's not do more math here. Let's say it'll probably be around 17 pounds of force, but it could be more like 32 pounds. Change the angle to 45 degrees, and the hobo will have about 14 pounds of force on his hand and on his back. And less force on his shoulders, probably. You could calculate for greater angles, but those would be ridiculous, super-Grinchian levels of hunch.

That's about 45 degrees, there. Don't try this at home.

But the slight reductions in force on the hobo's hand and shoulder come because of an increased load on a stooped-over hobo spine. It's OSHA's worst nightmare**.
**Or would be, if OSHA thought that back problems from hoboing or bean-toting were occupational hazards. As it is, OSHA has no idea of the solution to these problems.

So, yes! Bindles are great! Use one! Or go nuts and use one of those yoke-like things with a load on each side so that you don't have to apply any force at all with your hands.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

How poisonous is a platypus?

Q: So, I've heard that platypuses are venomous. Can you rank them in venomousness compared to some poisonous spiders, snakes, jellyfish, and little frogs?

A: Nope!

But I'll answer this anyway. Venomousness, if that's a word, is usually ranked by comparing how little of an animal's poison it takes to kill you. Like, when some guy wants to consider what the most venomous snake is, he looks at LD50 tables (which say how much poison, as a fraction of a test subject's mass, it takes to kill half of a group of test subjects - the Lethal Dose for 50%) for different methods of injecting poison into mice, and he compares the rankings of the lethality of the poison from different animals in those tables. Try not to think about the mice too much. There are also extensive LD50 listings for scorpions and other nasty critters, if you don't mind looking at an old Tripod page to find them.

Platypus venom, though, just isn't meant to kill. A male platypus has little spurs on its back legs (like foot-thumbs made of pain) that can inject venom into other animals, and it probably uses these spurs to drive off other males competing with it to mate.

Keep this end of the platypus pointed away from you at all times.

Platypus venom could kill mice, sure, so there's no reason it couldn't get onto an LD50 table - but given that it has never killed a human being, scientists have no motivation for testing it on bunches of mice. Instead, scientists study the mysterious, excruciating pain that platypus venom causes. Listen to these horror stories:
"Pain was immediate, sustained, and devastating; traditional first aid analgesic methods were ineffective. [...] Significant functional impairment of the hand persisted for three months, the cause of which is uncertain.[...] [The venom] produces savage local pain  . . .  No antivenom is available."  - The Medical Journal of Australia
"... the pain was intense and almost paralysing. But for the administration of small doses of brandy, he would have fainted on the spot: as it was, it was half and hour before he could stand without support: by that time the arm was swollen to the shoulder, and quite useless, and the pain in the hand very severe." - W.W. Spicer (1876)
"Warning signs should therefore be erected at air and sea ports warning tourists of the dangers of these venomous Australians."  - The Department of Hand Surgery, Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney, Australia
Way ahead of you, hand surgeons. Behold, to gauge the severity of Australian threats, the Steve Irwin Memorial Crikeyometer:

This is pretty much the worst joke I could come up with.

Anyway, there are two points to take away from this investigation:
  1. Australia is weird and terrifying.
  2. Platypuses are weird and terrifying.

The platypus has an Apparent Harmlessness / Actual Hazardousness Ratio of 1.5 deceptihippos

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Do parodies ever outsell originals?

Q: Have any parody songs or movies ever outsold the original works they were based on?

A: Yes, actually, although it seems like every example of this needs some sort of disclaimer. Assuming it's fair to describe Shrek as a parody of Disney fairy-tale movies, the Shrek series looks like the biggest winner in this category. The first Shrek movie outdid every Disney princess movie (and every other Disney cartoon except The Lion King) in U.S. ticket sales, and the second movie, which made over $900 million worldwide, outsold every Disney movie, period, until the worldwide sales of the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie (over $1 billion) surpassed it.

Scary Movie, with a box office gross of nearly $157 million, clearly qualifies, having earned more than Scream ($103 million), The Blair Witch Project ($140.5 million), or any of the other movies it spoofed (with the exception of The Matrix, at $171 million, since there was an obligatory bullet time gag). The Austin Powers series works, too, as long as you look at U.S. ticket sales: the two sequels took in over $200 million each, better than any Bond film. However, the Bond films of the '90s and 2000s absolutely clobbered those figures when worldwide ticket sales are taken into account: Tomorrow Never Dies made over $330 million; Goldeneye and The World is Not Enough each made over $350 million; and Die Another Day earned almost $432 million worldwide. Isn't that long series of numbers terribly interesting?

Austin Powers and Shrek, two highly successful parody franchises. Who knows what Mike Myers's infallible comedic talent will bring us next?

Another couple of winners would be Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. Young Frankenstein earned $86.4 million, waaaay more than any of the actual Frankenstein films, and Blazing Saddles earned $119.5 million - much more than the old Westerns it spoofed.  Here's the thing, though: it's kind of unfair to compare Shrek to Snow White, or Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me to The Spy who Loved Me, or, especially, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles to the 1930s Frankenstein movies and '40s and '50s cowboy movies they parodied. Those earlier movies were shown on fewer screens and at cheaper ticket prices. Clearly, it's necessary to make some adjustments, otherwise even High Anxiety would count, since it outsold Vertigo. If you adjust for inflation, then Snow White, for example, outsold Shrek 2 in the U.S. by over $270 million. So even a movie that made more than $900 billion worldwide isn't necessarily a clear example of a parody outselling an original.

One movie that doesn't have this problem is Airplane!, which directly copied much of the campy 1957 movie Zero Hour!, but is principally targeted at the Airport series of disaster movies. Airplane!, which was released in 1980, was mostly a spoof of the sequel Airport 1975, but grossed $83.4 million to Airport 1975's $25 million. It also outdid Airport '77 and The Concorde ... Airport '79. Still, it didn't catch up to the massively successful original Airport, which grossed over $100 million, nor did it generate as much rental revenue.

"What's Airplane's box office gross?"
"It's the total revenue from Airplane's ticket sales.
But that's not important right now."

Two other possible contenders were clear winners at the box office, but have the bizarre distinction of being released before the originals they spoofed. First, there's Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Being, as it is, a Kubrick war movie, this is probably the most critically acclaimed spoof you will ever see. It grossed over $9 million, more than 5 times its budget. Now, while Dr. Strangelove, which was a comedy adaptation of the serious novel Red Alert (also known as Two Hours to Doom - what a great name)  was in production, Sidney Lumet was making a drama based on the book Fail-Safe, a novel so similar to Red Alert that its authors had to settle a plagiarism suit out of court - a suit instigated in part by Kubrick (read about it in an old LIFE magazine article entitled "Everybody Blows Up!"). Because of this lawsuit, Columbia Pictures, which was producing Dr. Strangelove, won the rights to Fail-Safe - and pushed it back to a much later release. As a result, the stern drama was released ten months after the zany comedy, and it flopped. Now, Kubrick never meant Dr. Strangelove to be a parody of Fail-Safe, but the aforementioned similarities would make it a de facto spoof . . . except that spoofs, like nuclear strikes, aren't meant to be preemptive.

The other parody-that-is-not-a-parody (parodox?) is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Before the 1990 movie of the same name, TMNT began as an indie comic parodying (among other things) the superhero Daredevil and his grim, gritty, Frank Miller-created battles with the evil ninja clan The Hand - hence the Foot ninjas in TMNT.

 Foot. Soldiers. Foot soldiers.

Soon after, it became the cartoon/action figure/toy/merchandise/movie juggernaut we all knew in the '90s - and that's when the first Turtles movie raked in $135 million at the box office. Thirteen years later, after the success of Spider-Man and X-Men, Marvel cashed in on another of its properties by making a Daredevil movie with Fox. It did pretty respectably, earning $102.5 million, but it was nowhere near as successful as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which had collected more revenue, even without inflation adjustment, with about one sixth the budget. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, being a movie adaptation of a comic book parodying another comic book that later also came out with a movie, doesn't really count as a movie parody. Unless Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird saw Daredevil, went back in time to prevent Ben Affleck's parents from ever meeting, and then decided it would be easier to make a successful movie franchise instead.

But what about songs? Did Weird Al, for example, ever write a hit bigger than the songs he copied? Well, no - Weird Al did get a platinum record with "White & Nerdy," but Chamillionaire's "Ridin'" went quadruple platinum. Nor can I find an example for any of the successful parodists of the past. Spike Jones fans make a big deal of "Cocktails for Two" being principally remembered as a novelty song, but Jones's 1944 version charted at #4, whereas Duke Ellington's 1934 version reached #1 and stayed there for five weeks.

No, the biggest parody successes were by already-huge artists stooping to parody others' hits. In 1996, Tupac Shakur parodied the chorus of Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s single "Get Money" in his diss song "Hit 'Em Up," aimed at Junior M.A.F.I.A. founder Biggie Smalls. As the B-side to 2Pac's "How Do U Want It," which hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, it outsold "Get Money," which peaked at #17. In 2000, Eminem parodied Tom Green's "Lonely Swedish (The Bum Bum Song)" in the middle of "The Real Slim Shady," which reached #4 on the Hot 100.

Tom Green: envied for his mad flow;
dissed for his moose-humping

So there you have it. Parodies can outsell originals, as long as you ignore how they don't fit the definitions of "parody" or "outsell."