Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Great shot, kid! That was one in a million.

This is a short post about a highly concentrated nugget of creativity that's been brewing on the internet for many years.

Back in 2009, a web designer named Casey Pugh took a copy of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and chopped it into 475 15-second clips. He asked for submissions recreating each of the 15-second clips in whatever manner worked best for the volunteer artists. Pugh received thousands of submissions, portraying the cast of Star Wars with everything from Lego pieces to Yellow Submarine Beatles caricatures.

The final result is an amazing adventure into the imagination and artistic prowess of hundreds of Star Wars fans. It's two hours and five minutes of solid entertainment, with a staggering density of uncommon interpretations of the familiar story.

And it's available on Youtube, in its entirety, right now. Enjoy!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Live in the World of Tomorrow...Today!

Norman W. Edmund passed away last Tuesday at the age of 93. Any American boy who grew up in the 1950's and 60's knows the company he founded: Edmund Scientific. His business made home science projects affordable and accessible across the country.

Norman W. Edmund

 Mr. Edmund knew how to connect with the inner scientist in boys everywhere. Rather than playing off the current fad of painting science as something for geeky "outsiders," Norman Edmund portrayed his customers as a group of industry "insiders" who suddenly had access to high-quality science gear at affordable prices. His catalogs, hawked regularly in magazines such as Boys Life, were punctuated with bullet lists of applications for each of his military surplus equipment. What young scientist wouldn't want a Audio Phase Discriminator with resolution down to 200 cycles? And for only $15 plus shipping - - why not order one and find out how to use it when it arrived?

And if you saved up enough money: LASERS!

My first purchase from Mr. Edmund's catalog was a set of six prisms. The glass was Army surplus, originally used as part of a lens set for an armored personnel carrier's periscope, and was virtually impervious to cracking - - even if dropped on a sidewalk. With the simple prisms, I learned how to recreate Isaac Newton's studies of light diffraction and wavelengths. I found out how to aim the prisms to cast rainbows on my bedroom walls, and how to stack prisms to restore the rainbows back to plain white light. All this science for about $3 including shipping.

I didn't buy the most common Edmund product, but many of my friends did: the official surplus military weather balloon with auxiliary helium tank. Many balloons (with an attached Spy Camera with Delayed Shutter Timer) were lost in the New Jersey stratosphere, all in the hope of returning pictures of a near-space panorama. Somewhere in the Raritan River basin, there must be dozens of rusting cameras full of moldy Ektachrome film reels, the remains of many failed junior meteorology experiments.

It's a Professional weather balloon!

Einstein, Salk, von Braun, and Sagan inspired many people my age to become scientists, but the case could be made that Norman W. Edmund inspired more future scientists than all those other men combined.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer...

Captain Girlfriend and I went to a nearby library today for a lecture about Apollo 11. The fellow giving the lecture was a retired engineer who worked at MIT's Instrumentation Lab. He helped design the alignment telescope used in the Lunar Module.

Here's a picture of what the alignment telescope looked like inside the LM:

That camera looking thing behind the yellow guard rail was the Alignment Optical Telescope. It was a critical piece of hardware used to figure out where the Lunar Module was in relation to the Earth and the Moon. By pointing the telescope at two bright stars, the guidance computer could figure out where the ship was located in space. Quite an amazing bit of machinery that's often forgotten when looking at all the marvelous Apollo equipment developed during the same project.

The telescope and associated software cost $15 million for each unit delivered. The speaker told about how, when he was freshly hired at MIT, he was sent to give a demonstration of the new telescope to NASA. His sample telescope was placed on a table near a lectern, and several other engineers from other companies were also given space on the table to present their hardware projects. One of the other engineers got up to explain his system, and bumped into the table. The telescope began rollling... and rolling... and the speaker was sitting TWO ROWS away from catching the thing. Fortunately, nothing wound up broken, and the MIT folks didn't fire him for not wrapping himself around the scope 24/7.

The Q&A session was disappointing. I like going to popular science lectures to hear what average people want to know about, but it's usually quite depressing to think that most people believe the job of NASA is to redirect asteroids that are going to hit the Earth like a Michael Bay movie. The questions were about asteroid redirection, why America is "no longer in space anymore" and whether America would establish a permanent base on an asteroid. It's difficult to have a dialogue about the state of American manned space exploration when so few people actually follow what's in development at NASA. 

An interesting question from a 15-year-old boy in the audience made me realize how little of the Apollo era has translated to the current generation. The young man could not understand how the Apollo parachutes could have survived reentry. I've never noticed this before, but the landing sequence for Apollo really isn't described in much detail in movies about the missions. The engineer did his best to detail the Interface and Entry process in Apollo, but I'm not sure if the boy completely understood. 

After the Q&A, the small crowd broke up into little groups getting ready to leave for home. One family asked me a few questions, as they had heard some of the questions I had asked the engineer. I explained that there were many manufacturers working with NASA on manned spacecraft, and reading sites such as spaceflightnow.com was a great way to find out what's new. Their son (also about 14 or 15) didn't ask questions but seemed very interested in the topic. I can only hope that his curiosity would turn into the passion so many folks my age still have. 

All in all, a fascinating day.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Softer Side of Sears

I know people who pride themselves on the fact they do not own a TV set, or watch TV, or are unaware of anything going on in the world of popular culture.

I am not one of those people. Popular culture is my daily bath water, and TV is the faucet. Not only do I enjoy television, but I revel in the cultural benchmarks of television commercials -- especially ads with catchy jingles and motifs.

Of all retail outlets in the United States, no other company has wrapped itself up more in commercial promotion than Sears. For over a century, Sears and its marketing department set the retail consumer tastes of the nation, selling items as disparate as blue jeans and do-it-yourself house kits. During its heyday, Sears was the Amazon.com of its time, and retained that status through most of the 20th Century.

Sears television marketing has faded since it was purchased by K Mart Corporation, but the decades preceding the merger presented a fantastic array of 30 and 60-second entertainment lozenges. They're short time capsules of  what the folks at one of America's largest retailers thought we'd be persuaded to buy.

The earliest Sears commercials I can remember were for Sears Toughskin jeans. Although I was a Wrangler kid, I knew quite a few guys my age in the 60's who wore the outrageous pumpkin-colored polyster jeans made from the same material that formed the surface of trampolines.

Polyester pants, for exercising in the hot summer sunshine. And people bought this idea!

As the 60s and 70s gave way to the 80's, the focus of Sears marketing moved away from selling moms on the idea of kids' rip-proof clothing and tried to capture more male shoppers. The theme was "There's More for your Life - - at Sears." Here's a mid-80's commercial trying to show that hanging out at the mall on a Saturday while your muffler was getting replaced was a GUY thing:

The problem was that this "guy thing" ad campaign was a bit *too* successful. Women associated Sears with Craftsman tools and sweaty Sears technicians changing tires. In 1993, Sears rolled out a completely new campaign - - a campaign that would span the rest of the 1990s: "The Softer Side of Sears."

Depending on the source, everyone from Jim Brickman to Jake Holmes composed ditties touting the great variety and quantity of high-fashion women's wear at Sears. The commercials were packed with runway models playing with little kids and twirling around in prom dresses while the catchy C-F-G-C melody played over the stylish scenes. The jingle lyrics played on words that normally described the traditional hardware/appliance inventory of Sears: "electric pumps" now referred to bright red high-heeled shoes, and "plungers" could also describe some women's formal wear.

These folks didn't look like typical Sears customers. They were fashionable, carefree, and seemingly a lot more well-off than folks you'd bump into buying a gallon of Weatherbeater paint.

The campaign also tried to key in on loyalty between customers and the retail chain. Sears was a familiar name across the entire country, and the familiarity of what Sears had always provided in reliable merchandise was also underlined in these ads. Here's an institutional ad that sells more than just the products, but the Sears brand ID itself:

By 1999, Sears discovered that this campaign also over-successful. Women headed to Sears for high-fashion clothes, only to find that the selection of cotton housecoats and ill-fitting stretch pants never really changed. Unlike the marketing department's plans for fashion domination, Sears's wholesale buyers never upped their game by loading the shelves with a better line of clothes. Sales declined for the final three years of the 20th Century, so Sears moved on to a bunch of new ad campaigns, none of which were directed at getting people to believe that buying clothes at Sears was a great fashion choice.

Sears / K Mart has a muddled marketing message nowadays. I'm not sure I remember the last time I saw a memorable Sears ad. It's a shame, because the tradition of smart, fun commercials had a long history at Sears.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The 1% TV Dads

For the past week or so I've been working on an article for TVDads.com about wealth and poverty among the single dads on television. I've been meaning to tackle this topic for quite a few years, but I've decided that the era of Occupy Everything may make this the perfect moment.

I don't want to spill too much about the content, but one of the topics is about where individual TV Single Dads land on the wealth-o-meter for their locales. It's surprisingly difficult to measure some of these television dads in an appropriate manner. Yes, Bruce Wayne is rich and Fred G. Sanford is poor - - but what about Papa Smurf? Is the blue guy rich, poor, or average? Should he be compared to other Smurfs, or Gargamel? What about Man-at-Arms on "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe?" He's a civil servant on the planet Eternia, but how well-off is he compared to others on that planet?

All these calculations are beginning to be quite a struggle, but I hope to have the article finished by the end of the week. Expect an update soon.