Greatest hits: Peep! Peep!

[This post is participating in Only the Cinema’s Short Film Week blog-a-thon.]

My kids have outgrown it by now, but for a few years there our household was swimming in Thomas the Tank Engine videos and toys, and I could tell you the name, color, function, and personality of every engine on picturesque Sodor, and so could my wife and kids. I was amazed by that — and am now equally amazed at how quickly (and mercifully!) it has all faded from memory.

I wrote the following at the peak of our Thomasmania and dedicate it to all parents of Thomas-obsessed toddlers who think this phase will never end. It will.

It was a beautiful day on the island of Sodor. [Engine X] was very excited — today was the day of [an annual celebration or completion of a major construction milestone]. As [Engine X] chattered about it with the other engines in the shed, Sir Topham Hatt came to see him.

[Engine X],” he said, “today I have an important job for you. You must ferry the [children, celebrants, performers, or party goods] to the [celebration].”

“Oh my,” said [Engine Y] to [Engine X]. “That means you’ll have to [traverse a notoriously tricky section of track]. Be sure to [travel at an appropriate speed].”

“I’m sure I always do,” sniffed Gordon.

On his way to [yet another among tiny Sodor’s impossibly many stations], [Engine X] grew more and more excited and started to sing a happy song. “Oh, I’m going to pick up the [children, celebrants, performers, or party goods],” he sang as he chuffed along. He was having so much fun that he forgot all about [traveling at an appropriate speed]. Closer and closer loomed the [notoriously tricky section of track] until, all of a sudden–!

(Here [Engine X] makes an off-track excursion and causes property damage.)

Fortunately, no one was hurt. A short time later, Sir Topham Hatt arrived. He was very cross. “[Engine X], you were not paying attention. You have caused confusion and delay. I have asked [Engine Y] to take your place. You must go back to the shed for repairs.”

“I’m sorry,” said [Engine X]. He felt terrible. Not even jolly Harvey could cheer him up as he helped pull [Engine X] back onto the tracks. Now [Engine X] would not get to carry the [children, celebrants, performers, or party goods], and he wouldn’t even be able to attend the [celebration]!

On his way back to the shed, [Engine X] passed [Engine Y]. “Hi, [Engine X]!” called [Engine Y] cheerfully. “Hello,” replied [Engine X] glumly. As they passed, [Engine X] noticed [a condition with negative consequences for safety]. “I must alert [Engine Y, Sir Topham Hatt, or the switchman]!” thought [Engine X]. So he raced to [the celebration] and [averted a disaster].

Everyone cheered for [Engine X]! Sir Topham Hatt said, “You are a really useful engine.”

And he was.

Made everyone laugh

Among the very earliest artifacts available for Star Trek fans to own was the book, The Making of Star Trek, by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry, and I read it in the 70’s.

One anecdote that I remember from that book had to do with production of the original pilot episode, “The Cage.” In one scene, the actress Susan Oliver dances as a seductive “Orion slave girl,” covered from head to foot in green body makeup. The optical lab that processed the film footage from those scenes believed they had screwed up — and they color-corrected Oliver back to her normal skin tone! As I recall the story, this happened two or three times before the studio finally sent explicit instructions to the lab and they got it right.

I thought of this story when I learned from my dad a few weeks ago that someone made an unwanted “correction” to my mom’s cemetery headstone (on the proof that he saw). As long as I knew her, my mom jokingly maintained at each birthday that she was turning 29 (a source of extra hilarity when I “passed” her in age). So we put it in her epitaph, since with my mom, humor was paramount. But someone saw fit to change it to 73, which is correct only in a narrow-minded arithmetical sense — pah.

Fortunately we were able to correct it before production of the real headstone, which is newly erected.

Over the wall

Just in time to concentrate my pop culture obsession on the new Harry Potter book, which arrives from Amazon tomorrow — er, later today — a few minutes ago I finished watching season one of Prison Break on DVD. It was outstanding. It’s the story of Michael Scofield, a respectable white-collar professional who gets himself thrown into the same prison where his ne’er-do-well brother is on death row. Scofield has come prepared with an intricate plan to help them both escape and save his brother’s life.

A few interesting things about this show:

  • Scofield’s prisoner number, 94941, was my ZIP code for 10 years.
  • Scofield holds up a bank in order to get arrested and imprisoned. Although this scene is set in Chicago, the exterior shot of the bank he robs is of the distinctive-looking Ridgewood Savings Bank in Forest Hills, New York, where I had a passbook account in elementary school.
  • This was the final viewing recommendation made to me by my mom after a lifetime full of them. When she first started watching it, beginning with the pilot episode, it was mainly for the hunky Wentworth Miller, who plays Scofield. I thought the premise, which she described to me, was too far-fetched, but as the season unfolded she continued to rave about it and finally piqued my interest. She was right, and as I neared the climax of season one, the discs couldn’t come from Netflix fast enough.

My Simpsons Avatar

So what if it looks nothing like me? It’s still cool.

Somebody squealed

It hasn’t been easy avoiding spoilers about the Sopranos finale. I’m still only halfway through season 5, and the finale came at the end of season 6. (Being far behind the broadcast schedule of my favorite shows is what convinced me finally to disconnect my cable service, and I’ve never looked back.)

By assiduous avoidance of my usual pop culture haunts (such as’s and Entertainment Weekly’s TV pages) I have managed to remain completely in the dark about the ending — until this weekend, when I accidentally ran across a key piece of information in the unlikeliest of places: the headlines in sex writer Susie Bright’s RSS feed! I didn’t even have to click through to an article to have the surprise ruined. Susie, I admire you for a lot of things, but jeers to you for that gigantic unconcealed spoiler.

Wonder Woman meets… The Long Tail!

Yay, it’s the Cathy Lee Crosby/Ricardo Montalbán Wonder Woman TV movie from 1974, online for free (courtesy of AOL Video)!

[Updated: inline video player removed due to errors in certain browsers. Click here to view the complete Cathy Lee Crosby Wonder Woman movie.]

[Updated again, 2 Jul 2010: Wonder Woman is no longer available at AOL (hasn’t been for a while), but you can now see it on YouTube.]

Cathy Lee in this movie was my second TV crush, after Nancy, the irrepressible nine-year-old from the original 1972 Zoom. Ah Nancy, the six-year-old in me yubbearns fubbor yubbou stubbill.

Hooray for the long tail, and — though I thought I’d never say this — hooray for AOL!

Now if only someone would put that other terrible TV movie from my childhood online somewhere: Stowaway to the Moon!

Just got it

Ringo: Hey, I wonder what’ll happen if I pull this lever?
Old Fred: Oh, you mustn’t do that, now.
Ringo: Can’t help it, I’m a born lever-puller.

This quote comes near the beginning of Yellow Submarine, which I have seen dozens of times since age eight or so. I’ve been a Beatles fan for about as long.

Ringo pronounces lever with a long “e” (rhymes with Tom Seaver). It only just now occurred to me that this is a pun: Ringo is a born Liverpool-er.

This breaks my previous record of not realizing for about twenty years (mid-70’s to mid-90’s) that Gnip Gnop was Ping Pong spelled backwards — which in turn displaced ten or so years of not getting the gag behind Fargo North, Decoder.

Can’t help wondering what long-overdue realization is next…


Speaking of superheroes, my wife Andrea has a few amazing superpowers. For instance, she has the power to make strangers tell her intimate details of their lives. I’ve seen it happen! Perhaps on another occasion I’ll write about that power at greater length, but I fear that if the government ever gets wind of what she can do, they’ll ship her undercover somewhere and we’ll never see her again.

One of her lesser superpowers was demonstrated a couple of years ago when I bought the DVD set of HBO’s Harold and the Purple Crayon series for my kids. The day it arrived from Amazon I unwrapped it and played the first episode. The kids were delighted. When the end credits rolled, I was mildly surprised to see Sharon Stone’s name as the narrator.

A little later, while we were watching another episode, Andrea came home. I asked her, “Can you guess whose voice that is doing the narration?”

Andrea listened for a few moments and thought, then said, “Sharon Stone?”

You could have knocked me over with a feather.

Now, Sharon Stone is a beautiful woman and a fine actress. But I think even her most ardent fans would agree that her voice, while pleasant, even attractive, is not particularly distinctive. It’s generically feminine, with no unique accent or timbre or phrasing. To my ears, the voice reading that narration in a soothing, maternal fashion could be anyone’s. Furthermore, Andrea — unlike me — is conspicuously inattentive to the world of Hollywood and celebrities. Movies, to her, are to be watched, hopefully enjoyed, and then largely forgotten. Movie stars mean almost nothing to her, and with the hoopla surrounding Basic Instinct and Casino more than a decade in the past, Sharon Stone in particular was not readily brought to mind. (Sorry, Sharon.)

If I hadn’t known it was Sharon Stone, and someone had asked me to guess whose voice it was (indicating, by the very asking, that the answer must be a surprising celebrity), I would have said Meryl Streep or Madonna or somebody. But in under ten seconds Andrea came back with, “Sharon Stone.”

I have satisfied myself that Andrea had no secret foreknowledge of the answer, and that no ordinary human (who’s not a friend or a devoted fan of Sharon Stone) could have gotten the right answer so quickly, and on the first try. The only remaining explanation: it’s a superpower.

Now all that remains is figuring out what possible application this power can have in the fight against supervillainy.

World widescreen web

Thinking of upgrading your conventional picture-tube TV to a fancy new flat-panel widescreen? But you’re on a budget and don’t want to go overboard? Confused about what size TV to buy? You’ve come to the right place.

The main criterion for choosing a screen size is one that I have not seen described in other TV buying guides: viewing area. The viewing area of a 32″ conventional TV is 492 square inches, whereas the viewing area of a 32″ widescreen TV is a mere 438 square inches! If you’re upgrading from a 32″ conventional TV you’ll want at least a 34″ widescreen to get the same viewing area.

Here’s how I arrived at those figures.

The advertised size of a TV display is the length of the diagonal. If from the diagonal we can determine the height of the display, h, and the width, w, then the viewing area is h×w. Thanks to Pythagoras we know that h2+w2 = 322. But this isn’t enough information to determine the viewing area: we also need the fact that the aspect ratio of most conventional TV displays is 4:3, which means the width of the display is four-thirds the height.

Substituting 4h/3 for w and then simplifying gives us:

h2+(4h/3)2 = 322
h2+16h2/9 = 322
25h2/9 = 322
h = √(9×322/25)
h = 3×32/5 = 19.2

Plugging that into the formula for viewing area (h×w) and recalling that w = 4h/3,

h×4h/3 = 19.2×4×19.2/3 = 491.52 square inches

Knowing that the aspect ratio of widescreen displays is 16:9 and using similar arithmetic gives a result of 438 square inches for a 32″ diagonal.

In fact, the math shows that for a given diagonal, the viewing area of a 16:9 display will always be about 11% less than the viewing area of a 4:3 display.

But wait! It’s not as simple as finding the widescreen TV that has at least the same viewing area as your conventional TV. You should also take into account the kinds of programming you watch.

Do you watch a lot of wide-format movies on your 4:3 TV? If so, you’ve certainly noticed the “letterboxing” needed to fit the wide aspect ratio of the film into the narrow one of the display. You’re not using the entire viewing area; some of it is wasted, as much as 32% of it for very wide format formats such as “CinemaScope.” With a 16:9 TV the need for letterboxing wide-format movies is decreased or eliminated.

Similarly, if you watch a lot of conventional TV programming (sitcoms, newscasts, etc.) on a widescreen TV, you’ll get “reverse letterboxing,” also called pillar boxing, where the black bars appear not on the top and bottom but on the left and right of the image to make the taller aspect ratio fit into a shorter one. Here again you’re wasting some of your viewing area.

So think about the kinds of programming you watch and consult this handy table that shows the true image size (in square inches) for various combinations of TV diagonal size, TV aspect ratio, and programming aspect ratio. Choose a TV that gives you the best image size you can afford for the types of programming you typically watch.

Program aspect ratio
very common
some movies
20″ 192 154 144 138 109
27″ 350 280 262 252 199
32″ 492 393 369 354 279
36″ 622 498 467 448 353
42″ 847 677 635 610 480
46″ 1016 813 762 732 576
50″ 1200 960 900 865 681
20″ 128 160 171 164 129
27″ 234 292 312 299 236
32″ 328 410 438 420 331
36″ 415 519 554 532 419
42″ 565 707 754 724 570
46″ 678 848 904 869 684
50″ 801 1001 1068 1027 808

Like father, amazingly like sons

As we were heading out the door last night after finishing dinner at Milano Ristorante (try the eggplant-veal involtini!), the proprietor, a friendly old Italian man, ran after us to hand Jonah and Archer each a biscotti cookie. They dutifully thanked him, then asked me what they’d been handed. I said, “That’s an Italian cookie. It’s called biscotti.” They munched contentedly on their biscotti as I strapped them into their car seats. Jonah then blurted, “Hey! Biscotti — like Scotty from Star Trek!” Ten minutes later, Archer echoed the thought.

Andrea laughed and told me how proud I must be. Clearly the indoctrination is proceeding apace!

(We’ve seen a few episodes of classic Trek, but the kids know Star Trek mainly from the animated series on DVD. They’re big fans. Jonah loves to “read” the credits aloud in every episode. [It’s part reading and part recitation from memory, after asking me to read them to him about a dozen times.] “Star Trek! Created by Gene Roddenberry! Starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk! Leonard Nimoy as Mister Spock! And DeForest Kelley as Doctor McCoy!”)

Speaking of indoctrination, when I was out with Archer for a few hours over the weekend, Jonah asked Andrea to play “the capture game” with him. Yesss! My plan is still working…