Seat Belts Save Lives

December 2nd, 2009

This past Saturday, after having spent Thanksgiving with her family, Mona Hines was driving to her Baton Rouge apartment to pack up her belongings in preparation for an upcoming move. In the van with Hines were her sister, Stacey, and thirteen relatives of theirs, all of them children between six months and fourteen years of age.

As Hines was driving west on Interstate 10, the front driver’s side tire blew out. The van hit a truck, crossed the median, flipped several times, and finally came to rest upright in the eastbound lanes. Hines died immediately. All thirteen children, none of whom was wearing a seat belt, were thrown from the van. Four of them died before they could be treated by paramedics. A sixth victim, another of the children, died from her injuries Monday at Baton Rouge’s Our Lady of the Lake Hospital.

It goes without saying that this was a horrific tragedy. I don’t even want to think about what it must feel like to bury six family members at the same time.

Edward Barnes III

Most regrettable is the fact that this suffering could have been largely avoided. Simply wearing seat belts would have prevented the children from being ejected from the vehicle. Of course, that would have been difficult, since the thirteen of them were crammed into an area of the van designed to carry six. Obviously, the adults exercised extremely poor judgment by putting the children in a very risky situation.

Not everyone sees it that way, however. An article about the accident on drew reader comments that included the following:

  • “Sealtbelts can be good and they can work against you sometimes and have you trapped in a vehicle.”
  • “they have a lot of recall on seat belts if they were safe why call back”
  • “Seatbelts…are not foolproof and even sometimes more harmful. So it’s really not fair to characterize this acciedent as avoidable. Tires blow out, it happens. And in light of the fact that a woman who WAS wearing a seatbelt was still killed, there is absolutely no way to predict whether or not seatbelts would have saved anymore lives.”
  • “…the article states that the driver WAS wearing a seatbelt…however, she still died. When it is time to go, not a seatbelt or anything will stop you from going.”

I think these remarks represent a very dangerous attitude. I concede that the blowout itself was probably unavoidable, but most of the injuries and fatalities were the result not of the accident itself, but of having thirteen children tossed out of a moving vehicle onto the pavement. Yes, people have died in traffic accidents while wearing seat belts; a seat belt is not a magical force field that completely protects its wearer from all harm. Nevertheless, it does make it much likely that the wearer will survive an otherwise fatal accident, and that he’ll suffer less extensive injuries than he otherwise would have. According to James Madison University, “motorists are 25 times are more likely to be killed or seriously injured when they are ‘thrown clear’ than when remain inside their vehicle.” And since most of the victims in this case were children, it’s especially relevant to note that “of every 100 children who die in motor vehicle crashes at least 80 would survive if they were properly secured in an approved child safety seat or safety belts.” Of the five children that died as a result of Saturday’s crash, we can expect at least four of them to have survived, had they been wearing seat belts.

Craig Williams

I understand and appreciate that, in situation like this, it’s natural to attempt to rationalize the attendant suffering. But posturing that wearing a seat belt “doesn’t matter” or that basic, everyday safety precautions are futile because everyone has a predestined “time to go” is just asking for something like this to happen again. It’s difficult to step back from a tragedy of this magnitude and assess it calmly and rationally, but I think it’s important to do exactly that, so that no one else has to suffer this kind of nightmare.

Please, always wear a seat belt.

I extend my condolences to the victims and their families.

“Impossible to Explain”

November 17th, 2009

I recently listened to a radio debate between P.Z. Myers, biology professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris and author of the popular blog Pharyngula, and Geoffrey Simmons, author of Billions of Missing Links and Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think-tank dedicated to “intelligent design,” a particularly sneaky form of creationism disguised as legitimate science. The subject of the debate was, “Are Darwin’s Theories Fact or Faith Issues?” Myers took the pro-evolution side and, naturally, he annihilated Simmons. The fossil record is replete with transitional forms, exactly as the theory of evolution by natural selection predicts, but you wouldn’t know that from Simmons’ Missing Links book, in which he falsely claims there to be a dearth of physical evidence documenting the evolution of modern animals from their prehistoric ancestors. Myers adroitly took Simmons to task for his ignorance.

I was especially shocked to hear Simmons pull out that old creationist canard, the assertion that “evolution is just a theory.” This particular dismissal of evolution has been so thoroughly debunked, it’s embarrasing to hear even the most ignorant creationists invoke it, let alone the author of two books on the subject. Yes, evolution is a “theory,” which is to say that it’s a theoretical framework that explains empirical observations and makes testable predictions. It is not a “theory” in the colloquial sense of the word, which means something more like a hunch or a guess. As scientific theories go, evolution is a particularly robust and elegant one. After that lame nonstarter, I half-expected Simmons to ask, “if humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?

But we’d be here all day if I just went point-by-point down the list of stupid creationist arguments that Simmons trotted out. Instead, I’d like to talk about a couple of strange things Simmons said towards the end of the program, in his closing remarks. I was kind of surprised that they went unchallenged by Myers, who was given the last word, but time was short and he did a fine job of hitting most of the important points.

At 36:27 in the recording, Simmons shares his rather negative opinion of the naturalist who first proposed the idea of evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin: “He was bigoted, he had a lot of nasty things to say about women and blacks…and yet he’s revered as somebody significant.” This is patently false. Yes, Darwin’s name has become synonymous with the theory of evolution, but Darwin himself is emphatically not “revered” by the scientific community, who have come to accept evolution as a fact not out of any deference to the man who first suggested it, but because it is supported by a preponderance of evidence.

Charles Darwin

And so what if Darwin was a bigot? Darwin may have been a racist and misogynist (not that I’m conceding that he was—I know very little about the man himself), but that has absolutely no bearing on whether or not his ideas about evolution are true. Here, Simmons has stooped to an ad hominem argument. Whatever one thinks of the person making a claim, the claim itself should stand or fall on its own merit. As it happens, Darwin’s claims about common descent and evolution by natural selection have stood extraordinarily well for 150 years, and continue to do so today.

Just seconds after making those boneheaded comments, at 36:36, Simmons proffers another piece of “evidence” for intelligent design: the birthing process of monkeys. “It’s actually 180 degrees opposite of ours, headwise,” he describes, “and impossible to explain.” I think this is the most telling comment Simmons made in the whole debate, as it betrays the argument from ignorance upon which every creationist argument is necessarily based, because there is no positive evidence for creationism.

monkey birth

I don’t know the first thing about monkey births. For the sake of argument, I’ll take Simmons’ word for it that they’re the physical opposite of human births with respect to the orientation of the baby. For all I know, biologists really don’t know why that is. Maybe it is very difficult to explain. But how can Simmons claim that it’s impossible to explain? How does he know what biologists will learn about monkey births tomorrow, next year, or a hundred years from now?

Ultimately, every creationist argument reduces to this fallacy. “We don’t know how X happened; therefore, God did it.” Because the creationist is unable to find a scientific explanation for X, he hubristically assumes that one doesn’t exist. Cdesign proponentsists like to call their brand of creationism “science,” but in reality, their defeatist attitude stops all science in its tracks. Where would the state of human knowledge be if, every time we were confronted with an unknown phenomenon, we satified ourselves by concocting a fanciful, magical explanation (which actually explains nothing, of course), rather than actually engaging the unknown by using the tools of science and reason to investigate and, ultimately, to discover the real explanation?

A Brief History of Widescreen, Part 2: Anamorphic

October 1st, 2009

Last week, I described the process of shooting a 1.85:1 widescreen film, and explained why the full screen version of such a film often exposes more image area than the widescreen version. However, a fair number of widescreen movies are shot with an even wider aspect ratio, 2.39:1. This is often called the “scope” format, short for CinemaScope, the forerunner to the current photographic process used to shoot films in that aspect ratio. The scope aspect ratio is sometimes listed as 2.35:1, which was the standard until 1970, or 2.40:1, which is simply the result of rounding, but don’t let this confuse you—all three figures refer to the same basic thing.

Contact, widescreen

Remember that 1:85:1 films are shot by exposing the entire frame of film, whose aspect ratio is 1.37:1, then extracting a smaller 1.85:1 area from within that frame. Unfortunately, 2.39:1 films can’t be shot that way, because too much of the frame would go unused. With 1.85:1 films, just over a quarter of the film’s resultion goes unused because it’s taken up by the extraneous areas above and below the 1.85:1 area. That’s a fair portion, but the remaining three-quarters can still produce an image of perfectly acceptable quality. However, shooting a 2.39:1 film that way would entail giving up more than fourty percent of the available resolution. That amount is not considered acceptable; the resultant image would lack detail, and would have to be blown up significantly, resulting in an excessively “grainy” image.

Ultimately, two different approaches were developed to solve the problem of shooting a 2.39:1 film on 1.37:1 film. One of these techniques, dubbed “Super 35,” actually works similarly to shooting a 1.85:1 film in that the 2.39:1 image is extracted from within a larger overall frame (I’ll describe the process more fully in the future). The more novel approach involves using an “anamorphic” lens to shoot the film. An anamorphic lens distorts the image by compressing it horizontally. In an image captured using an anamorphic lens, everything appears tall and skinny.

Contact, anamorphic

Films shot anamorphically are played back on a projector whose lens does exactly the opposite, stretching the image horizontally, back to its correct proportions. When this is done, the image, captured on film with an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, is now of course a lot wider: 2.39:1. This technique allows filmmakers to capture a wide 2.39:1 image while retaining the full resolution of the 1.37:1 frame of film.

As a result, an anamorphically-shot film doesn’t have any extraneous picture information that can be exposed in a full screen release. When an anamorphically-shot film is shown full-screen, it must be done via the much-maligned (and rightly so) “pan and scan” process, whereby the sides of the image are cropped to achieve the 1.33:1 aspect ratio (that of a standard television). The 1.33 area that remains is sometimes shifted around with respect to the original 2.39:1 frame in an attempt to capture the “most important” parts of the image, but the inescapable result is that more than fourty percent of the image as composed by the director and cinematographer is simply discarded, seriously compromising their work.

Contact, pan and scan

Penn & Teller Get Killed on DVD

September 29th, 2009

The Penn & Teller Get Killed DVD that I mentioned last week arrived over the weekend. Though I have not yet had the opportunity to sit down and enjoy the entire movie, I did take the time to briefly skip through the film and sample the quality of a few select scenes.

I’m happy to report that the DVD’s image quality is perfectly adequate, at least to my eyes. DVDs released through the burn-on-demand Warner Archive program are generally made with existing materials, which may be in need of remastering or otherwise not in the best condition, so quality can be a real concern. Fortunately, Penn & Teller appears to be in pretty good shape, ostensibly because a new high-definition transfer was prepared for the cable showing I mentioned previously.

Penn & Teller Get Killed screen capture

Everything else about the release is pretty basic. The audio is presented as a standard two-channel Dolby Surround track. The menu consists of a single generic screen with only one option: “play movie.” Chapter stops are placed at ten-minute intervals, rather than at the beginning of key scenes. There are no supplements, which isn’t particularly surprising for a burn-on-demand budget release, but some of the Warner Archive titles at least have a trailer. Penn & Teller has nothing.

Penn & Teller Get Killed DVD

Of course, the point of the Warner Archive program isn’t to get lesser-known films on DVD with a high-quality audio and video presentation; it’s to get them on DVD at all. All things considered, Penn & Teller Get Killed actually turned out quite well. I can finally retire my laserdisc and Asian video CD releases of the film.

NES Hard

September 25th, 2009

At the local shopping mall last week, I saw an ad for A Boy and His Blob, an upcoming Wii game. I became pretty excited, because I quite enjoyed the original NES version of A Boy and His Blob when I was younger, and I had no idea that a new version was in the works.

As I thought about it, I realized that A Boy and His Blob is the perfect candidate for a modern remake, because it features novel gameplay that still holds up well, yet has some issues that could be addressed in a new take on the concept.

The gameplay mechanics were done right the first time around, and are actually rather novel. The player controls an ordinary-looking boy who’s followed around by a shape-shifting alien blob. The boy carries a pouch of jellybeans of various flavors. Feeding one to the blob causes him to transform into one of several different objects, depending on the flavor of the jellybean. Feed the blob a licorice-flavored jellybean, and he transforms into a ladder, allowing the boy to climb up to high ledges. Feed him a punch-flavored jellybean, and he transforms into a hole, through which the boy can drop into underground passageways. There are thirteen flavors altogether. Solving the game requires figuring out which objects to use in various situations, and feeding the blob the appropriate jellybeans.

A Boy and His Blob

Unfortunately, despite its fun gameplay, A Boy and His Blob is frustratingly difficult in places. Often, it is unclear where the player should go or what he should do to proceed. There’s nothing wrong with difficult puzzles, but A Boy and His Blob is artificially hard in the way that a lot of old NES games are. It presents the player with obstacles but not even the slightest hint as to how to progress past them. That’s more than mere difficulty; it’s outright unfairness. It’s practically impossible to beat that kind of game without using a walkthrough, and forcing the player to resort to external references to progress indicates a fundamental design flaw.

A friend of mine coined the term “NES hard” to describe this kind of faulty gameplay. I like that description, because it’s the kind of problem that was sadly prevalent among games of the NES console generation. Even the best and most enduring games of that era succumbed to this phenomenon at times. The Legend of Zelda launched one of the all-time great video game franchises, spawning over a dozen sequels to date, yet even it forced the player to somehow divine which specific bush out of thousands in the game he had to burn in order to reveal the hidden entrance to a particular level.

The Legend of Zelda

In spite of its flaws, The Legend of Zelda is now considered a classic, and the series has since produced even better games by combining the time-tested adventure elements of the original with more sensible level designs. A Boy and His Blob has the potential to be a great game by coupling the same sensible design philosophy with the basic mechanics of the original. That’s why I’m looking forward to the new Wii version, which is being released on October 13.

A Brief History of Widescreen

September 24th, 2009

The classic film Penn & Teller Get Killed has finally been released on DVD thanks to the “Warner Archive” program, through which Warner Bros. sells smaller catalogue titles on DVD-R media via their web site.

Penn & Teller Get Killed

What I found most interesting about the release is that it is in widescreen, whereas all previous home video releases of the title—even the laserdisc—were in full screen. Since the Warner Archive program is aimed at releasing titles on the cheap, I wouldn’t expect Warner Bros. to have created a widescreen transfer of the film especially for this release. Some of the Warner Archive titles (though not Penn & Teller, specifically) even include an “Important Note” on their product page: “This film has been manufactured from the best-quality video master currently available and has not been remastered or restored specifically for this DVD…release.”

When I asked about the issue on the official Penn & Teller bulletin board, another fan informed me about a recent widescreen presentation of the film on cable television. In describing this version, she explained that “what they actually did was crop the top and bottom off the 4:3 version,” then pondered whether the new DVD featured a “genuine 16:9” version.

That’s a reasonable question. Conventional wisdom holds that a widescreen image offers more picture information, revealing parts of the image that are cropped out of its full-screen equivalent. Actually, the situation is more complicated than that. Understanding why requires a brief primer on film history.

Movies were historically shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, about the same as that of a standard television, until the mid-1950s, when the introduction of television inspired studios to adopt the “widescreen” process as a gimmick to persuade people to watch movies in theaters instead of at home.

However, they didn’t develop new cameras or film stock to achieve the wider aspect ratio. Instead, they continued to capture an image on the entirety of the standard 1.37:1 frame of film, while actually composing the shot for a smaller 1.85:1 area within that frame (wider 2.39:1 “scope” films are shot differently, an even more complicated topic about which I’ll write in the future).

This practice continues today. The monitor that a director or cinematographer uses to frame his shot typically has markings on it to indicate the 1.85:1 area that will be displayed in theaters, but there is extraneous picture information above and below that area that does find its way onto the film. When a movie is released on DVD or shown on television in full screen, the frame is usually just “opened up” to expose this additional area.

So the viewer will indeed see more picture information in the full screen version than in the widescreen one, but the important point is that only with the widescreen version will he see the image as it was composed by the director and his cinematographer.

Sometimes, opening up the frame can lead to revealing mistakes. A Fish Called Wanda features one of the most famous examples of this, wherein a supposedly naked John Cleese is shown to actually be wearing shorts, which are hidden just off-screen in the properly-framed widescreen version.

A Fish Called Wanda, widescreen

A Fish Called Wanda, full screen

If you know a little bit about film history and the way films are shot, it’s not surprising that the widescreen version of Penn & Teller Get Killed reveals less of the image than the full screen version. But that’s the way it was exhibited in theaters, and more importantly, the way it was meant to be seen, so I’m quite glad that the widescreen version is the one being included on the DVD.

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