Bullet time

I decided to apply a little physics to my KitchenAid mixer misadventure, in which I claim I was nearly killed by a hunk of metal propelled past my head by spinning mixer blades. When that projectile whizzed past my head, how much danger was I really in compared to, say, a bullet from a sniper’s rifle?

It comes down to a calculation of the kinetic energy of the projectile. Fortunately it’s very easy to approximate by making a few assumptions and by ignoring the effects of air resistance and the spray of cake batter.

The projectile was the mixer’s own removable endcap. As soon as it vibrated loose, fell into the bowl, and was struck by the spinning mixer blades, it was on a ballistic trajectory, arcing up, past my head, and then down behind me. Let’s assume that the highest point of the trajectory was about level with the top of my head, roughly 1.75 meters off the ground, and that this height was attained just as the projectile was passing me, meaning that once it did pass me, it had already started down.

We can decompose the motion of the projectile into a pair of vectors: the one pointing straight down to the floor and the one perpendicular to it, pointing horizontally past my head. The speed in that direction was constant until the endcap hit the floor. The speed in the floorward direction was increasing due to gravity.

Since we’ve assumed the endcap reached its apex as it passed my head, we know that its downward velocity at that moment was zero. We also know that the acceleration in that direction (due to gravity) is 9.8 meters per second per second. Finally we know from high school physics that:

distance = initial-velocity×time + acceleration×time2/2

and since we know initial-velocity is 0, we can rearrange this to say:

time = √distance/acceleration

And since we know “distance” is 1.75 meters and “acceleration” is 9.8 m/s2, we know that it took about 0.4 seconds for the endcap to fall from the height of my head, regardless of its motion in the horizontal direction.

In that 0.4 seconds I estimate (based on where I later found the endcap) that it covered a horizontal distance of 3 meters, giving it a speed of 7.5 meters per second.

I haven’t weighed the endcap but I’m going to guess it’s about 0.25 kilograms (around half a pound). Again, high school physics tells us that kinetic energy is:


which means the endcap, if aimed just a bit differently, would have struck me with about 7 joules of energy.

How bad would that have been, compared to a bullet? Apparently even the wimpiest guns deliver hundreds of joules to their targets, so we’re not looking at a shearing-off-the-top-of-my-head scenario here. On the other hand, I was there, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that hunk of metal could have dealt me a grievous injury at the very least. If that was what seven joules looks like, I have a whole new appreciation for the stopping power of a bullet.

Monkey in the jungle

We have just finished and distributed the invitations for Archer’s birthday party. Last year he chose a superhero theme; this year it’s “monkey in the jungle.”

Accordingly, we have a newly erected jungle gym (a.k.a. monkey bars) in the backyard.

How does a man find his way in a world full of grey?

In honor of yesterday’s history-making speech about race relations in the U.S. by Barack Obama, I’ll relate my own brief tale, allegorical but true.

Late one night in college I was walking home from my friends’ house along Ellsworth Avenue in Pittsburgh. As I neared Negley Avenue I apprehensively observed a small gang of young black men coming toward me from the other direction. (I’m white.) I say “gang” because the similarity of their attire was conspicuous — they all wore white pants and white windbreakers.

My apprehension was mixed with shame at the knee-jerk racism of that reaction. As they and I closed the gap, I determined to employ my New York City street smarts to avoid eye contact while showing no fear. I’d walked harmlessly by tough-looking individuals and groups thousands of times. There was no reason to think this time would be any different.

We passed each other, and without warning one of the gang lashed out with his fist, catching me in the jaw and knocking me flat on my back. For one terrifying, helpless moment I believed their fun was just beginning and that the others would get in their licks; but then they simply continued on their way.

For several long seconds I couldn’t move. I was seeing stars; the wind had been knocked out of me; I was bleeding. I could feel my jaw swelling up moment by moment. I could not believe that I had just become a victim of racial violence (for what else could it have been?).

That’s when the allegorical thing happened. A man who’d witnessed the attack hurried over to me from across Ellsworth Avenue. He helped me sit up and asked if I was OK. He stopped me from trying to stand until I’d had a moment to recover, sitting with me on the curb and waiting patiently for my head to stop spinning. Then he helped me to my feet. He asked me what had provoked the incident and expressed outrage and dismay when I told him nothing had. He offered to escort me to Shadyside Hospital, just a couple of blocks away; I politely declined. He asked if there was anything else he could do. I told him I was OK to continue on my way and thanked him profusely.

If my attackers were devils, this man was a saint. And he, too, was black.

I haven’t told this story too often compared to some of my others. Part of the reason is, who wants to tell a story about being helpless and afraid? But another part was my confusion, frankly, about how to cast the role of race in this story. I’m fairly sure that if my attackers hadn’t been black or I hadn’t been white, there would have been no attack. But like a good liberal I wanted to be politically correct, disregard our respective skin colors, and make the attackers into four generic people who were only strikingly antisocial.

But thanks to the lesson Barack Obama sought to teach us yesterday I can acknowledge that race in America is a complicated issue, and we only perpetuate the problems — I do — by ignoring them or by pretending they’re easier than they are.

Yes, it was wrong to react with apprehension to the sight of four black men; but yes, it was also naïve to ignore my intuition. Yes, the men who attacked me were pathologically maladjusted individuals, the polar opposites of the kind stranger who helped me, proving I should judge them all not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”; but yes, their pathology was likely to be rooted one way or another in race.

Yes, it’s all difficult and confusing; but yes, it’s time to get the difficulty and confusion into the open and air it out. Until now we’ve all pretended that acting color-blind is the way to achieve racial justice, but it isn’t. The real answer is to admit we don’t yet have an answer, but to take the first step anyway of agreeing on the goal of universal equality.

There’s no black, there’s no white
Where is wrong? Where is right?
I’m confused and unable to say
How does a man find his way in a world full of grey?
— Oscar Brown Jr.

Want what you want

For my freshman year at college, CMU‘s dorm-room allocation policy paired me with a music major named Joe.

We were not well-matched — or we were, depending on whether you thought Felix and Oscar were made for each other. I was a math/science/computer nerd who didn’t know a soul in Pittsburgh. He was a Pittsburgh native with movie-star looks, an athletic inclination, and several high-school buddies around. About the only thing we had in common other than our dorm room was that I wanted sex with lots of college girls and he had sex with lots of college girls.

We traveled in different circles and on different schedules. We saw each other only seldom, even in our room.

One day I ran into him in a student lounge on campus, playing the piano — beautifully, of course. Later, back in the dorm, I told him (not for the first time) about how envious I was of his ability, and about how long and desperately I’d been wanting to learn the piano myself.

Joe asked me whether I’d ever taken lessons. I told him I had, briefly, for just a few weeks once, and that occasionally since then I’d sit down at the keyboard and try to produce some nice sounds, but that I never seemed to get anywhere. Was there anything specifically stopping me from learning the piano? he wanted to know. Only having enough time, I answered.

Joe and I got along well. He was pleasant and easygoing. But on this occasion he uncharacteristically lost his patience with me. “You obviously didn’t want to learn piano enough,” he told me, “or you would have done more about it long before now. So either do something or admit you don’t want to learn piano as much as you say you do. Either way, stop complaining!”

I was stunned, but I grasped the rightness of his words at once.

Obviously, while I’d been busy with launching a computer dating service, having subway adventures, memorizing movie dialogue, staging a fantasy photo shoot, and generally trying in a hundred ways to have a very cosmopolitan high-school life, Joe had been somewhat more single-mindedly practicing and developing his talent. I’d made my choices and he’d made his. I’d prioritized my other activites above piano-learning; or, put another way that should have been obvious but wasn’t, I’d prioritized piano-learning below almost everything else.

I doubt Joe could have known the effect his righteous outburst would have on me. If he hadn’t spoken harshly to me — if he’d said in his laid-back way, “You really ought to do something about learning the piano” — it wouldn’t have registered at all. It took a verbal slap in the face to teach me the life-changing lesson that wanting something only enough to complain about it — and not enough to actually do anything — is the same as not wanting it.

Don’t waste time on the stuff you think you want but really don’t, and get crackin’ on the stuff you do.

Secure endcap OR DIE

Like all couples with a few extra bucks and some cooking ambition (from watching plenty of Jacques Pépin and Alton Brown), Andrea and I years ago purchased a KitchenAid Artisan Stand Mixer, the ne plus ultra of mixing appliances for the home. It is solidly built, and its sterling reputation is well-deserved.

The “head” of the mixer contains a powerful motor. For normal use, that motor drives a downward-facing shaft to which one of a few mixing blades can be attached. For some purposes, however, the output can be directed “straight ahead” instead by removing a cap at the end of the head and attaching an accessory such as the optional meat grinder. (Mmm, ground-up meat…)

One Saturday afternoon recently I was home alone with the kids while Andrea was putting in extra time at the office. We decided to bake a cake! I hauled the mixer out of its usual place on our seldom-used-appliance shelf (and I do mean hauled; as I said, it’s solidly built, and the thing is damn heavy) and set it up on the kitchen counter. The kids and I mixed up a batch of cake batter in the mixer’s bowl. They watched as I switched it on and for a few moments thereafter, then disappeared into the living room to play and await the completion of baking.

I remained, gazing into the bowl for the recipe-prescribed two minutes of high-speed mixing time, hypnotized as usual by the combination spinning and orbiting of the mixing blade (which KitchenAid calls — colorfully and rightly — “planetary” mixing) making a Spirograph pattern in the batter. What I didn’t notice until the very last second was the endcap on the head rattling loose from the vibrations of the motor. Normally the cap is secured by a screw tightened by a black knob. The kids may have fiddled with it and loosened it while the mixer sat unused on the appliance shelf. Now, as I watched helplessly, it worked itself free and dropped into the bowl.

Like every other part of this mixer, the endcap is a hefty chunk of metal. The massive steel mixing blade, all but invisible as it spun at top speed, batted it effortlessly out of the bowl and straight past my head about two inches from my right temple. I retrieved it from the far side of the room, locating it by following the thready trail of cake batter it flung up and across my shirt, over my shoulder, and along the floor and walls.

F.J. Raymond famously called “being shot at and missed” even more satisfying than an income tax refund, but there was nothing satisfying about this miss. I was seriously rattled. I counted the many ways in which I was one lucky bastard, beginning with not having brained or blinded myself or my kids and ending with not having even made a dent in the sturdy mixer blade, bowl, or endcap. I promptly gave Jonah a long-overdue lesson on how to use our cordless phone to call 911 if he should ever, you know, find Dad lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor, or something.

I’ll give you a pink pill for that

Briefly noted, since I haven’t managed to do any proper blogging this past week:

  • Roger Moore (who played The Saint on TV in the 1960’s) is behind a new push to revive The Saint yet again. Although he’s in good company (e.g., Barry Levinson), if past performance is any guarantee of future results, the new Saint will be sucktastic, at least compared to the canonical pulp-novella Saint from the 1930’s.
  • Way 11c: on Thursday Ken Jennings lamented the loss of the old meaning of “gay” exactly as I did in 2006 in the above-linked Saint post.
  • Strangeness update: the closer we get to consummating the Microsoft acquisition of Danger, the more I feel like Charles in the classic Ray Bradbury story, “Fever Dream.”
  • They stole my idea: the celebrated guerrilla-performance-art group Improv Everywhere planted sixteen “agents” in the food court of a Los Angeles shopping mall. At a signal, they suddenly staged a musical amid unsuspecting shoppers. Many years ago, in college, I tried to sell my friend Steve on the same idea: I wanted to perform the “Moses Supposes” number from Singin’ in the Rain in the school cafeteria. The main difference between me and Improv Everywhere is that they actually execute their hare-brained schemes…
  • It’s been a good week for darnedest utterances from my kids:
    • Me: It’s a homework night. (for Jonah)
      Jonah: Aww.
      Archer: Yippee!
      Jonah: Wouldn’t you rather play with me, than me doing homework?
      Archer, leaning forward and whispering: Then I can play with your toys.
    • Most mornings, Archer and I drive Jonah to kindergarten, and then I drive Archer to his preschool. We have recently developed a ritual for that second leg: we each chew a piece of gum, spitting it out when we arrive. Here’s how Archer chose to stage that ritual last Wednesday: “You give me the gum and I open it and take one myself, then I close it and give it to you and you take one. I unwrapper [sic] mine and you unwrapper yours and throw your wrapper away in the garbage. When we get to preschool you spit your gum into my wrapper and I spit my gum into my wrapper too. You spit yours first.”
    • Jonah, who’s been learning about Europe in kindergarten, identified Italy (the “boot-shaped country”) on a map. Trying to recall the name of the island off the tip of the “boot” — Sicily — he ventured, “Shitaly?”

The I Can Do It better blog-a-thon, day 4

I’m sorry to report that for the final day of this blog-a-thon we have fewer contributions than yesterday, meaning you’ll have to content yourselves with my own entry.

2005 saw the release of two star-studded big-budget action films that were unrelated other than that they both told the story of how a troubled young man, trained in combat and philosophy in part by Liam Neeson, grows into a fearsome alter ego who wears a black helmet, black armor, and a black cape. One of them sucked, and the other, Batman Begins, kicked ass.

That’s not to say it couldn’t have been improved in a couple of small ways. When Bruce Wayne is doing his carefree playboy act and the maître d’ complains to him that the pool in which his gorgeous model dates are splashing “is for decoration,” I really wanted him to confide to the maître d’, “So are the women” (instead of his lame quip, “Well, they’re European”). Although come to think of it, “So are the women” could be taken to mean, “I am gay.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but while Batman Begins offered a fresh perspective on many aspects of the Batman mythos, ambiguity about his sexual identity would have been taking things a little farther than I suspect audiences were prepared to go.

Next: there is a point in the film when Jim Gordon arrives at Arkham Asylum, where Batman is busy rescuing Rachel from The Scarecrow. Gordon sees a bunch of cops standing around outside and asks the chief, “What are you waiting for?” The chief responds, “Backup.” Impatient to act, Gordon runs in anyway. A short time later, Gordon is with Batman when he hears the sound of a zillion bats approaching. He asks, “What’s that?” and Batman says, “Backup.”

Here’s the improvement: instead of “What’s that?” Gordon again says, “What are you waiting for?” to Batman (as Batman pauses for a beat after he’s given Gordon some marching orders for helping Rachel), and Batman answers, “Backup,” exactly as in the earlier exchange, and Gordon again does not wait for the backup to arrive before leaping into action.

But as I wrote to my sister a few months after seeing Batman Begins, the best improvement of all “would have been a scene with Batman rescuing Katie Holmes in real life.”


  TOM CRUISE and a spaced-out looking
  KATIE HOLMES are involved in heavy
  petting on the sofa in the penthouse
  suite.  Things progress until Katie,
  under Tom's Svengali gaze, obediently
  wriggles out of her panties.

          Tonight is the night.  You
          will conceive my child.

  Crash!  The door splinters from its
  frame under the weight of BATMAN's
  boot.  With a deft leap he swooshes
  his cape between the two lovers.  Tom
  falls backward off the couch, naked,
  in surprise.  Katie appears to snap
  out of a trance.


          This time you've gone too far,

             (dawning horror)
          You're "The Cruiser"?

  Tom seems about to answer, then
  launches himself feet-first into
  Batman's chest, toppling both men to
  the ground.  Tom rolls deftly across
  the room before Batman can recover.
  He grabs an item from a dresser drawer
  and whirls around with it.  A gun?  A
  knife?  No: it's the terrifying mask
  of The Cruiser, vicious arch-nemesis
  of Gotham's law-abiding citizens.

          Katie, get out of here!

             (donning mask)
          Katie, stay!

  Katie's paralyzed.  The Cruiser comes
  at Batman again, still naked but for
  his mask.  Batman defends himself but
  can't land a blow on his amazingly
  nimble enemy.  Batman manages to shove
  him across the room long enough to
  dash back to the sofa and shake Katie
  out of her paralysis.


  The Cruiser regains his feet and
  punches a hidden button.  An entire
  wall of the room rotates aside,
  revealing The Cruiser's secret
  laboratory -- and A DOZEN BURLY

          Cruiser Crew -- attack!

  Batman now has a full-fledged melee on
  his hands.  Far from fleeing, it's the
  best Katie can do to protect herself
  from the fists and bodies flying
  around the room.  In the confusion,
  The Cruiser grabs her arm and pulls
  her roughly into a concealed escape
  chute.  Katie fights back but is no
  match for the highly trained

          Stop it!  Stop it!


  Katie and The Cruiser, both still
  naked except for The Cruiser's mask,
  slide in tandem down a spiral chute
  leading from the top of the hotel down
  to the street.  The Cruiser presses a
  switch hidden in his mask,
  illuminating a strange glow in the
  mask's eyes.  He turns his masked gaze
  on Katie.  She immediately returns to
  her earlier trance state.

          You will conceive my
          child.  Now!

  Hypnotized, Katie swings a leg over
  The Cruiser's torso even as they
  spiral downward together.

  Unseen by either one, Batman drops
  through the center of the spiral on
  the end of a Batrope.  He tosses a
  Bat-grenade onto the chute,
  obliterating a long section of it.  At
  the sound of the explosion, The
  Cruiser looks away from Katie and sees
  the smoking gap, which they are fast
  approaching.  He abandons his efforts
  to penetrate her.

          Oh no.

  There is no way to stop, but that
  doesn't stop The Cruiser from clawing
  frantically at the smooth slide.

          No!  No!  Xenu!

  Batman dangles at the end of the
  Batrope just beneath the gap.  As The
  Cruiser and Katie sail into space, he
  deftly plucks Katie from the air and
  allows The Cruiser to fall.


  As he disappears into the darkness
  below, only the mask's strange glow
  remains.  Then a crash and
  silence... and the glow is gone.




          But how did you know that Tom
          Cruise was really The Cruiser?

          There were little hints
          everywhere -- the too-perfect,
          vaguely artificial good looks;
          the disproportionate power
          over women; the gay rumors
          designed to conceal the true
          nature of Tom's contacts with
          porn star Kyle Bradford, who's
          really a genius chemist in the
          criminal underworld.  And I
          knew that the chemicals that
          gave The Cruiser his powers
          would slowly destabilize his
          mind, just as we've all seen.

          What's going to happen to
          Katie Holmes now?

          She's been through a lot, and
          her rehabilitation is going to
          take some time.  Luckily I
          reached her before it was too
          late.  The police now have
          Bradford in custody and he's
          cooperating with Bale
          Enterprises to manufacture an
          antidote.  Plus Katie's
          strong, and she's in the care
          of the finest minds at the
          Bale Institute of Mental
          Health.  I think we'll be able
          to welcome Katie back to your
          show in no time. 

I know, picking on Tom Cruise these days is too easy and not entirely sporting, especially since Jonathan Coulton has done it better. Plus this is a bit more perverse than my usual imaginings. But what can I say? I just couldn’t keep this attempt at symbolism to myself:

Hypnotized, Katie swings a leg over The Cruiser’s torso even as they spiral downward together.

The I Can Do It Better blog-a-thon, day 3

Yesterday’s contributions were great, but none of them (including my own) exactly matched my criterion of choosing a subject that’s already almost perfect. Today we return to form with:

  • A nitpicky complaint about the climax of an almost-perfect film in Recoil at Maul of America.

and my own suggestions for erasing the flaws in another almost-perfect film.

One of the ways in which I know L.A. Confidential is almost a perfect film is that, while I’ve seen a lot (a lot) of movies, and many of those movies have been about Hollywood, and some of those have been about Hollywood in the 1950’s, still when I think about Hollywood in the 1950’s it’s L.A. Confidential‘s Hollywood that comes immediately to mind. The script is meaty and intelligent, almost epic; the performances are nuanced and three-dimensional; and the overall realization is immersive.

And yet…

There are two key moments in the film where the script goes clunk. (Spoilers follow.) The first is the scene between Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce). Exley, the straightest straight-arrow in a police department full of crooks, thugs, and sell-outs, is on the outs with everyone, but he needs the help of Jack, the biggest sell-out of them all. Jack’s in the middle of his own dark night of the soul when Exley makes his unwelcome intrusion. All of a sudden, Exley launches into a soliloquy about Rollo Tomasi, the name he made up for the unknown thief who shot and killed his cop father and got away clean. Apparently this is meant to be a rare moment of soul-baring for Exley, and it’s meant to be just what Jack needs to hear in his crisis of conscience. But as played, it’s so abrupt that it’s just not believable. Why would Exley reveal this bit of secret history to Jack, whom he barely knows or likes? It’s not that he understands the effect it will have on him. And why does Jack, who’s merely annoyed at Exley’s presence, become immediately hooked by the story?

(Also, what the hell kind of name is Rollo Tomasi for the young Exley to have made up? Of course it has to be distinctive-sounding so that we’ll recognize it when it comes up again at a crucial plot point later in the film.)

Just a few extra lines of dialog would suffice to fix this. Here’s the relevant part of the script with changebars to show my additions.

            Transfer me, suspend me.  Just
            leave me alone.

            You make a mistake?

            Yeah.  My whole life.

  Jack stands, heads out.  Exley follows; he needs help.

            Listen, I think I made a mistake,

            I ain't a priest, Lieutenant.  I
            can't hear your confession.

            Do you make the three Negroes for
            the Nite Owl killings?


            It's a simple question.

            You should be the last person who
            wants to dig any deeper into the
            Nite Owl, Lieutenant.

  Exley watches as Jack continues down a hall.  Then:

EXLEY I don't try to bury my mistakes, Vincennes. Exley's lashing out, but he's hit a mark. Jack stops. JACK (to himself) Like catshit. Exley's surprised at Jack's reaction. He makes a snap decision to press his advantage.
EXLEY Rollo Tomasi. Jack stops, looks back at him. JACK Is there more to that, or do I have to guess? EXLEY Rollo was a purse snatcher. My father ran into him off duty. He shot my father six times and got away clean. No one even knew who he was. I made the name up to give him some personality. JACK So what's the point? EXLEY Rollo's the reason I became a cop. I wanted to catch the guys who thought they could get away with it. It was supposed to be about truth and justice and Rollo. But somewhere along the way I forgot all that... How about you, Jack? Why'd you become a cop? Jack looks like he might cry, but smiles instead. JACK I don't remember...

The second false moment comes a few scenes later, when Edmund Exley pays a visit to Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a high-priced hooker whose employer is connected somehow to the film’s various seamy dealings. Exley knows that his thuggish fellow officer, Bud White, is in love with her.

It’s Exley’s first meeting with Bracken and it’s all business. And as I wrote above, Exley is an extremely straight arrow — even more so at this late point in the movie, when he’s resolved to correct his earlier mistake (alluded to above) rather than enjoy the glory he’d earned by making it.

Yet within just a few lines of dialogue, Exley brazenly grabs and kisses her, and a moment later they’re rolling around on the floor knocking over the furniture — all so the corrupt police captain, the evil mastermind of the movie, can get Exley’s moment of weakness on film from behind a two-way mirror, so he can show it to Bud White, whom he knows will become murderously jealous and take care of Exley for him.

It seems as though we’re supposed to believe that Exley is a bundle of repressed sexual energy that finally can’t be contained in the presence of the smoldering Bracken. But we’ve seen nothing to suggest that of Exley, and while Bracken indulges in some suggestive banter with him, it’s nothing that would make a dam burst. Besides, Exley fears White, knowing that White already hates him for other reasons.

No, it’s a case of the scriptwriters being a little too hasty. They needed something to motivate Bud White’s rampage a few scenes later, and they leaped to the most obvious choice without remaining true to their characters.

How much harder would it have been to stage it like this? The captain knows that Exley is going to see Bracken, and he knows that Bracken’s boss, Pierce Patchett, specializes in making people look like other people. The captain arranges for White to see Exley arriving at Bracken’s house, and then later shows him photos of what appears to be Exley in various compromising positions with her but is in fact one of Patchett’s ringers. Presto: instant murderous rampage, and Exley is still Exley.