Merry Christmas, you wonderful old building and loan!

This year, I’ve managed to see my favorite holiday film TWICE: Once, with live orchestra playing the score, courtesy of the amazing Mrs Heathen; and then again, at home on the couch, with the aforementioned Mrs Heathen. This is probably the optimum viewing frequency, and certainly exceeds the level of delight on offer in, say, 2014, when we watched it in the HOSPITAL with COMMERCIALS like ANIMALS.

Anyway, I yammer on about this film nearly every year here, so this time I thought I’d make it more interesting. How about TEN COOL THINGS about It’s A Wonderful Life?

1. Tabloid Fodder!

Let’s start with the somewhat seedy: Gloria Grahame, who plays the sultry Violet Bick in the film, was basically an early Hollywood plastic surgery casualty (it left her upper lip paralyzed), and to really put her on the tabloid map she also managed to make her third marriage spectacularly scandalous: it was to a man who had previously been her stepson.

2. Pharmacist Savior

Mr Gower the druggist — played by H. B. Warner (1875 – 1958) — appeared in a number of Capra joints, which is of course not surprising now. However, being in this particular film, or even Capra’s films generally, isn’t his main claim to film fame: he played Jesus in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic The King of Kings in 1927.

3. Well, it was kind of rascally.

Mary’s annoying suitor in the high school dance scene — the fellow who ultimately opens the gym floor, sending the Charleston contest into the pool — was played by Carl Switzer, better known to you as Alfalfa on the Little Rascals. Mr Switzer, sadly, didn’t end well.

4. Hopefully, her life had flavor ’til the end.

The last surviving adult cast member, near as I can tell, was Argentina Brunetti, who played Mrs Martini. She was born in 1907, and passed away back in 2005.

5. (Some of the) Kids are Alright

That said, there ARE still several child actors from the film known to be alive, and a few with no clear answer on the subject. Three of the the Bailey’s kids are still with us.

  • Carol Coombs Miller (“Janie”, who played the piano) was born in 1935 and is enjoying retirement in California.

  • Jimmy Hawkins (“Tommy,” who burped) was born in 1941; he also worked with Donna Reed on her eponymous show years later.

  • Most famously, Karolyn “Zuzu” Grimes (b. 1940) still makes appearances in connection to the film.

  • Larry Simms, who played Pete, passed away in 2009 at the age of 75.

It’s not clear if the actors who played the young versions of George and his cronies are still around, but none turned out to be famous enough for this to be easily discoverable.

6. The bird’s on wikipedia.

I’ve always been fascinated with Uncle Billy’s pet raven, and it turns out the raven ITSELF was famous. Jimmy the Raven worked in hundreds of films!

7. Did you further know….

Remember the pool under the gym floor mentioned above? Yeah, it’s real — and it still exists. It’s at Beverly Hills High School.

8. There is, sadly, no Sesame Street connection

It’s often repeated as truth, but there’s nothing on record to suggest that Jim Henson deliberately named his iconic odd-couple Muppet roommates after the cop and the taxi driver. However, the filmmakers absolutely do lampshade this in a brief moment from Elmo Saves Christmas.

9. The Barrymore Family Tree has fewer steps than you might expect.

We all know about the Barrymores, and that Lionel Barrymore so completely embodies the mean old rich miser Mr Potter here, right? What I didn’t know, and was surprised to learn, is the actual relationship between Lionel and our generation’s Barrymore, Drew. Lionel (1878 – 1954) and his siblings — John (1882 – 1942) and Ethel (1879 – 1959) — were the children of original Barrymore patriarch Maurice. John had a son (also John) in 1932, when he was 50. The younger John gave birth to his famous daughter in 1975, when he was already 42, which is one way to really stretch out those generations. This makes Lionel Drew’s great-uncle, which is WAY closer than I would’ve assumed before hitting Wikipedia.

10. Get me. I’m handin’ out wings!

Finally, my favorite bit of trivia about IAWL is this: Mr Martini’s head bartender Nick — who actually owns the bar in the darker, no-George-Bailey timeline — was played by a character actor named Sheldon Leonard. Leonard had plenty of work as an actor, but he really became far more influential as a producer of early TV shows, including The Danny Thomas Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Spy, and others.

In fitting tribute, he’s memorialized in every episode of one of today’s most successful sitcoms. Houston native Jim Parsons plays Sheldon Cooper, and Johnny Galecki plays Leonard Hofstadter.

What we talk about when we talk about precision in swimming pools

(This is all over the web, but is absolutely worth your time.)

Deadspin noticed that swimming has lots of ties, which is weird, so they asked why. The answer is really amazing: Turns out, swimming isn’t timed to the thousandths of a second — unlike many other events — because of the imprecision inherent in pools. The lanes themselves may vary by more than the length a swimmer can travel in a thousandth of a second, so timing at that level would be bullshit anyway:

In a 50 meter Olympic pool, at the current men’s world record 50m pace, a thousandth-of-a-second constitutes 2.39 millimeters of travel. FINA pool dimension regulations allow a tolerance of 3 centimeters in each lane, more than ten times that amount. Could you time swimmers to a thousandth-of-a-second? Sure, but you couldn’t guarantee the winning swimmer didn’t have a thousandth-of-a-second-shorter course to swim. (Attempting to construct a concrete pool to any tighter a tolerance is nearly impossible; the effective length of a pool can change depending on the ambient temperature, the water temperature, and even whether or not there are people in the pool itself.)


Absolutely the happiest video you’ll watch today

You may have heard that physicists have found “fingerprints” of the Big Bang; it’s now more or less indisputable evidence that this theory, and the related idea of cosmological inflation, are in fact correct.

Over the weekend, one of the Stanford physicists who ran the new experiment, a man named Chao-Lin Kuo, went to visit one of the key authors of the inflation theory (Andrei Linde) to surprise him with the news.


Yeah, I’m sure this was an “innocent” mistake

Somehow, the fancy new computer ordered by a core developer on the Tor project was accidentally “misrouted” from the manufacturer in California to an area just outside Washingon, DC, before finally making to her in Seattle.

The Tor Project, in the event you are unaware, provides hard-encrypted online anonymity. Compromising Tor is a stated goal of the NSA and other eavesdropping organizations, because a brute force attack is impossible with current computing techniques.

Dept. of Regionalisms

I don’t usually go in for many online quizzes, but the New York Times’ dialect quiz placed me pretty much exactly, though I will admit I answered one question based on what we called it when I was growing up, not what I call it now. (I’m very conscious that the word we use for the road next to a highway in Texas is not the same word we used in Mississippi or Alabama; what do YOU call it?).

My bet is you can’t find a cooler sounding language than this

This video shows a native Zulu speaker discussing the local shibboleths used to tell local from foreigner.

Also, this may be the only time EVER I use the word “shibboleth” in its Biblical sense. Which is cool.

I was going to describe it as the “original, literal sense,” but that would be wrong; as you may recall from bible school or the West Wing, the term is actually a Hebrew word that was difficult to pronounce properly for nonnative Hebrew speakers:

Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right . Judges 12:6

It wasn’t a made-up word; it meant “the part of the plant with grain in it.”

Politifact is still truly, deeply awful

Maddow covers it in depth here, but the precis is that they’re rating Martina Navratilova’s statement that one may be fired in 29 states just for being gay as “half true” instead of (as it actually is) COMPLETELY TRUE because of weaselword weaselwordweaselword. Check it out — even though they completely admit in the article that her statement itself was true.

Politifact is so deeply afraid of being seen as left-leaning that they repeatedly make up reasons to represent statements by those on the left as mendacious when they clearly are not.

Fuck. Them.

Of little consequence to us. Of enormous consequence to New Yorkers. And, presumably, Mole Men.

Twice this week I’ve encountered some amazing photography of the tunnel-building process underneath Manhattan. I urge you to check these out:

  • First, over at JWZ’s blog. Really fantastic, plus technically excellent — the depth of field and sharpness is sorta shocking, given that light is probably hard to come by down there.
  • Then the Atlantic’s In Focus feature got in on the act.

Let’s hope they avoid awaking any ancient & unspeakable horrors.

Things I’ll Bet You Didn’t Know, College Football Edition

The other night, something weird happened in a bowl game that, apparently, has only happened one other time in Division I college football: the offense scored a 1-point safety on a point-after attempt.

This has resulted in LOTS of confusion and ignorant statements, which is par for the course with sports, and in this case it’s at least partially justified because the rules for college are very, very different from high school and college on this point. In those leagues, a change in possession during a PAT or 2-point conversion ends the play. No points are scored, and the kickoff proceeds normally. Not so in the NCAA.

The actual sequence of play in the Oregon game was something like this:

  1. Oregon lines up for a PAT kick.
  2. Ball is snapped.
  3. K State blocks the kick, and recovers the ball outside the end zone. (This is where, in the NFL or high school, the play would be whistled dead.)
  4. Wildcat player enters his own end zone to evade Ducks.
  5. Duck tackles Wildcat in the Wildcat end zone to end the play.

(The Wildcat, as part of his run, had also fumbled and recovered his own fumble, but this part wasn’t relevant to the ruling.)

The ruling on the field, which is correct, is that the Ducks scored a 1-point safety. This confused the bejesus out of some people; fortunately, we here at Heathen are some intensely pedantic motherfuckers.


Perusing the aforelinked NCAA rules actually makes this much clearer than you’d expect. The most stark thing you notice in that PDF is that the words “extra point” or “two point conversion” aren’t used in the rules. As far as the NCAA is concerned, there are only touchdowns, field goals, and safeties — but these things occur in both regular play and try downs, which are the single plays run after a touchdown scored in regularly play. You know a try down as the PAT or two-point conversion attempt. The try down is the source of much confusion!

During regularly play, as you know, a touchdown is 6, a field goal is 3, and a safety is 2. During a try down, however, the touchdown is 2, and the field goal and safety are worth only 1. (N.B. that this means an intercepted 2-point attempt run all the way back to the other end zone would be worth 2, not 6; this is called a defensive two-point conversion, and is also only possible in NCAA football.)

What happened in the Fiesta Bowl is clearly a safety — the player entered his own end zone deliberately, and was downed there. That counts as a safety in regular play, and in college try downs are no different. As a consequence, Oregon was awarded the single point.

As noted, this is super, super rare — but even rarer is a possibility allowed for the rules, but never actually seen in play: it’s possible (but incredibly unlikely) for the defense to score a safety on a try, too. Should a member of the kicking team deliberately enter his own end zone while holding the ball, and be downed there (say, after recovering a fumble from an intercepting defender who caught butterfinger disease a yard shy of the end zone), the defense would score a defensive conversion safety worth a single point — which means that, contrary to popular opinion, a score of 1 is possible in American football after all.

Yet another geeky reason to love XKCD

In the current comic‘s alt text, the author insists that if you pick any random article in Wikipedia, and then choose the first link in the article text not in parenthesis or italicized, and repeat, you will eventually find yourself at the entry for “Philosophy.”

So I tried. I started at Horse fly -> Diptera (which redirect to Fly)-> Order (Biology) -> Scientific Classification -> biologists -> scientist -> Systematic -> Elements (mathematics) -> Mathematics -> Quantity -> Property (philosophy) –> Modern philosophy –> Philosophy.

Dept. of We Told You So

Microsoft has announced that they will be shutting down the servers that authenticate music purchased through MSN Music or related services, which means anyone with media purchased from those outlets is screwed if they ever want to move said media to a new computer, or upgrade the computer’s OS. This, by the way, is MS’s famed “PlaysForSure” music store.

This is what happens with DRM every. single. time. You don’t own the music. They do. And at the end of the day, they don’t care about you.

More developments

Some bits:

  1. I’ll put a link on the side, but comments here will accept formatting in something called Markdown; hit the link for a summary. You’ll find your paragraphs separating as you’d expect automatically, though.

  2. I’ve finally fixed the permalinks and census/archive links over at the old site, though I don’t have stats for Jan-April 08 owing to the hosting debacle. I thought about fixing the script to do the math, but then I realized that no one gives a shit, so you monkeys will have to be content with plain-old links to those months.

  3. We’re playing with something called Typo here, which is built on Ruby on Rails. Don’t worry if you don’t now what any of that means. Mostly, it just means I had to hack shit for a couple hours to make an immature framework and poorly documented blogging system sit up and play nice.

It’s shocking that there are still NO decent and easy-to-set-up blogging systems. MoveableType is an absurd hodgepodge of PHP, Perl, and God knows what else, plus it’s a resource joke. WordPress is a giant flashing “please hack my server” sign (the front page of their blog notes two critical security problems in the last six months alone). A hosted service is Right Out. In a word, GAH.

  1. Expect the template to keep changing as I figure out how to make it do what I want.

  2. Comments are officially BACK. Enjoy.

Well, that’s disturbing

This NYT story points out that while the US accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, we have nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. China, with a population far greater than hours, has about half as many prisoners. We incarcerate ONE PERCENT of all American adults.

This cannot be good.

This is an experiment.

Everything is subject to change. You can, however, now comment again. Archives are still back at the old site for now. Everything subject to change, and obviously we won’t be putting up with a lame-O canned theme for very long. Inshallah.

Hiatus, Schmiatus

As the bits below illustrate, the hiatus was something less than total. Of course, you do get a fancy new presentation in the bargain, and it’s not like you’re paying for it, so suck it up.

Just because we’re pissed off and busy doesn’t mean we didn’t come across a few bits worth noting in the interim that didn’t merit their own entries, so here’s a linkdump:

Happy Birthday To This

Three years ago today I made the first post to Miscellaneous Heathen. I’d been distributing amusing bits via a private mail list, and decided it was time to move the operation to a Blog.

Late 2000 was towards the end of a period of time I refer to as my “near wealth experience;” I was still working for a vaguely profitable Internet software consultancy, and still had a big pile of founder’s stock, and it was still worth a lot of money on paper. So, I guess, was I.

Of course, all that stock was illiquid, and the value vanished entirely in the next year as the economy slowed to a crawl. We took a big deal with a major Texas-based, star-themed oil company, which then decided not to live up to its contractual obligations, thereby putting us in a bit of a bind. Add to this an unfortunate acquisition, and that was all she wrote.

As the firm circled the drain, though, I had a consulting job and little to do, which was a great environment for encouraging thoughts like “hey, how about a Blog?” The rest, they say, is history.

What’s in a name?

So earlier today, an astute reader noted there there exists another Miscellaneous Heathen weblog, over on Blogspot, at Her site wasn’t too similar to ours here, but the name thing was a little odd, and we’re kind of attached to being the only Miscellaneous Heathen weblog around.

After being needlessly flip about her in a reply to a comment this morning (since redacted, and for which I have apologized), I decided to email her and ask if she’d mind changing her blog name. Hers was 2 months old in its current incarnation, but longtime Heathen know we’ve been using this name since scandals meant “blow jobs” and not “manufactured casus bellli.”

Gennifer was nothing but gracious, and agreed immediately to change her site’s name. If you somehow arrived here looking for her site, or you just want to read funny stuff of another stripe, head over to Unsweet, hosted at Blogspot. I get the idea she’s some sort of TV writer person, and that’s got to be a gold mine for material. Thanks again, Gennifer, for understanding our unnatural attraction to the this particular oddball phrase.

Goodbye, Greymatter…

…Hello, Blosxom.

For lots of reasons, not the least which being my tendency to tweak shit, I’ve moved Miscellaneous Heathen to another new system. If you’re the sort who keeps score on these things, this makes our third since spring, 2001. My “Some Arrant Knaves I Know” mailing list became the initial, Blogger-driven version; then, in July, 2001, I switched to the more tweak-friendly and stable Greymatter.This isn’t a reflection on Greymatter per se (though GM did seem to have trouble rebuilding all 650+ entries without timing out); it’s more a question of right tools. Noah Grey has moved on to his “real” career (photography) and is no longer maintaining Greymatter, which means updates and improvements are unlikely. On the other hand, Blosxom is a community effort centered around a simple core application plus a growing body of plug-ins that seem to Just Plain Work. It also renders all the pages dynamically, which means no more rebuilding pages when I tweak the templates.

None of this matters to 90% of the Heathen Public, of course. In the event you do care about this sort of thing, I have a Greymatter-to-Blosxom + WriteBack Perl script you may want; I could find no such thing on the net, so I had to build my own.

So I went away for the weekend. Sue me.

Upon my return, though, I offer this OMNIBUS post:

  • Geek Tattoos. Lots of Atari logos. And, God help him, an AMD K6 logo.
  • Mel Gibson’s Jesus struck by lightning; perhaps it’s an editorial comment?
  • The White House’s web site has taken steps to keep search engines from indexing content about Iraq, which presumably will make it harder to compare what they say NOW to what they said THEN. Ick.
  • READ THIS ONE: Excerpts from the Diebold memos surrounding the 2000 Presidential election. Hint: we may already be in trouble with these things.
  • You know those Weapons of Mass Destruction we were SURE Iraq had? We still can’t find any evidence of ’em.
  • Oddly, organizations that disagree with the Bush Administration’s abstinence-only education plan keep getting investigated by the government.
  • Twelve states and several cities are suing the EPA over Bush’s changes to the Clean Air Act making it easier for plants to upgrade faciliites without reducing pollution.

Local Boy Makes Good

Well, he’s not exactly local — he lives in NYC, and he’s from Birmingham, and here I am in Texas — and the degree to which “publication in an Internet magazine” can be construed as “makes good” should be left as an exercise for the reader (particularly when said publication is really just him being snarky at his (real or imagined (HDANCN?) neighbors), but my pal Chris Mohney has a piece in McSweeney’s. (It’s the September 5 top story; there does not appear to be a permanent link yet.)

Oh, nothing.

Minor style changes & such. The whole thing should (a) center in your browser and (b) resize with the browser, rendering it useful (?) in any width window. The shoemakers children in this case now have at least nominal footwear, but only on a few static pages plus the Heathen section.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled shenanigans.

It figures.

You know, this whole Judge-Moore, Ten-Commandments bruhaha has given the rest of the country plenty of time to poke at the rigid, fundamentalist streak that runs through Alabama and the South in general, and its concomitant inability to understand what “separation of Church and State” actually means. As a native Mississippian, though, I have able to take refuge in the fact that for once, the state being lampooned wasn’t my own.

Well, Mississippi Governor Ronnie Musgrove has gone out of his way to make sure everyone remembers that Mississippi is backward, too. Thanks, Ronnie.