The demise of the Western?

I recently came across a discussion on the demise of the Western genre. Where did all the great Western novels and movies go?

But has there actually been a demise? For data, I turned to rottentomatoes.com, who have a list of the top 66 Western films, based on movie critic reviews. Their list is headed by The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), High Noon (1952), The Searchers (1956), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), True Grit (2010), The Wild Bunch (1969), A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Unforgiven (1992), and Sweetgrass (2009).

This histogram shows an increasing number of Western films over time:

But this is not the full story. Being based on movie reviews, the list is biased toward recent films, plus some “greats” of the past. In the histogram, colour shows film rating, with dark colours indicating higher ratings. Many of the recent films are clearly mediocre. Plotting the top 20 films tells a clearer story – there are about 2 good Western films each decade (except for the 80’s), with a peak of 8 during the 60’s:

The 60’s peak contains 3 Sergio Leone films, being composed of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), A Fistful of Dollars (1964), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the original True Grit (1969), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Perhaps that was a golden age for the genre.


When the towers fell


The World Trade Center towers (photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

I continue to see bizarre and ill-informed conspiracy theories on the Internet about the 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center towers (above). This is in spite of the detailed investigations of, and voluminous reports on, the event.


Steel softens at temperatures well below the melting point of 1400°C

In fact, it has long been known that structural steel buildings like the World Trade Center can collapse due to fire. In 1967, the structural steel roof of McCormick Place in Chicago collapsed because of softening due to a fire. This collapse began only about 30–45 minutes after the fire was reported.


The World Trade Center under construction (photo: Eric Shaw White)

In the case of the World Trade Center, this fundamental problem with structural steel was combined with building-specific design flaws. Still, in my view, concrete construction is simply safer. Concrete resists fire far better than steel, and locating fire escapes inside a thick concrete core assists evacuation, should that be needed. The 9/11 conspiracy theories are just silly, though.


A concrete tower under construction in Australia (photo: Erin Silversmith,)


Gender and glaciers?

There has been some controversy about the 2016 NSF-funded paper “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research” (see here for a detailed analysis). The paper refers, inter alia, to the Forbes/Tyndall debate of the century before last (although I believe it is misinterpreting that saga). But, interesting as that episode was in the history of science, it has little to say about the epistemology of modern glaciology. In the 1800s, observing glaciers required extensive (perhaps even “heroic”) mountain climbing. Today, remote sensing methods and computer models are also important, and we understand glaciers much better than either Forbes or Tyndall did.

I don’t think that the gender studies lens adds anything to our understanding of glaciers. And I suspect that Elisabeth Isaksson, Moira Dunbar, Helen Fricker, Julie Palais, Kumiko Goto-Azuma, or Jemma Wadham would not think so either. Nor are race relations particularly important in studying ice. And as to “alternative ways of knowing,” I would prefer to stick with the scientific method – it’s worked very well so far (didn’t we just have a march against “alternative facts”?). Indeed, to subordinate science to the modern politicised humanities would be to abandon the concept of scientific truth, and to make it impossible to gain widespread agreement on the crises currently facing humanity.


Looking back: 1978

In 1978 I started senior high school (year 11 and 12). That was a year of terrorism – a bomb was exploded outside the Sydney Hilton Hotel by the Ananda Marga group (apparently in an attempt to kill Indian prime minister Morarji Desai), and former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro (below) was kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigades. On a more positive note, John Paul II became the first Polish pope, and helped to chip away at the power of the Soviet Union.

That year also marked the debut of the soap opera Dallas and the comic strip Garfield. In science, James Christy at the United States Naval Observatory discovered Pluto’s moon Charon. We finally got a good look at it in 2015:

In computing, the Turing Award went to Robert Floyd, for his work in programming languages and algorithms. Intel introduced the 8086, the first of the x86 microprocessors which are still the most common CPUs in personal computers and laptops today. The game Space Invaders also had its debut:

The year 1978 also saw the release of the unsatisfactory animated version of The Lord of the Rings, and a number of interesting albums, including The Kick Inside by Kate Bush, Pyramid by The Alan Parsons Project, Dire Straits by the band of the same name, the electronic Équinoxe by Jean Michel Jarre, and Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds:

Of the books published that year, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, the exceedingly dark The House of God by Samuel Shem, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle (below) stand out.


Social Media, Marketing, and the Fyre Festival

In traditional Christian theology, Satan is the ultimate marketing genius. Not being able to create, Satan has no actual product to sell – merely illusions. However, being a fallen angel, he does have supernatural intelligence. He also has a large crowd of “influencers” willing to endorse the nonexistent product. The book and film of Stephen King’s Needful Things illustrate the concept brilliantly, as the main character (played to perfection by Max von Sydow) uses his supernatural marketing genius to con people into trading their souls for useless bits of junk:

Of course, that kind of marketing is an ideal that mere human beings cannot achieve. Beneath the ridiculous Kendall Jenner advertisement, Pepsi has an actual product to sell. It may only be flavoured sugar-water, but that’s not a product to be sneered at – I remember a hot day in rural Thailand some decades ago when it was the only safe thing to drink.

Yet we may be closing in on what Max von Sydow could do. Browser history analysis and sophisticated predictive algorithms can stand in for the supernatural intelligence. YouTube helps to sell the illusion. And Instagram provides influencers galore. The recent Fyre Festival is perhaps the closest approach ever to the ideal. The musicians, accommodation, and food promised to the paying clientele do not appear ever to have been organised (although there apparently were a few waterlogged tents and cheese sandwiches). But the promo was great.


Stories of the Past and Future

Inspired by a classic XKCD cartoon, the infographic above shows the year of publication and of setting for several novels, plays, and films.

They fall into four groups. The top (white) section is literature set in our future. The upper grey section contains obsolete predictions – literature (like the book 1984) set in the future when it was written, but now set in our past. The centre grey section contains what XKCD calls “former period pieces” – literature (like Shakespeare’s Richard III) set in the past, but written closer to the setting than to our day. He points out that modern audiences may not realise “which parts were supposed to sound old.” The lower grey section contains literature (like Ivanhoe) set in the more distant past.


In praise of the codex


Charles Emmanuel Biset, Still life with Books, a Letter and a Tulip

The codex (book with pages) has been with us for about 2,000 years now. Because of advantages like rapid access to specific pages, it gradually replaced the older technology of the scroll:

Christians seem to have been early adopters of the codex technology. The oldest known fragment of the Christian New Testament, papyrus P52, dated to around the year 130, is a small fragment of a codex of the Gospel according to John (with parts of verses 18:31–33 on one side of the page, and parts of verses 18:37–38 on the other):

In 2010, Google estimated that the total number of published books had reached 130 million. At times it seems that e-books are taking over from the printed codex format, but there is a friendliness to the printed book that would make me sorry to see it go. I am not the only one.

Robert Darnton, in The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, writes: “Consider the book. It has extraordinary staying power. Ever since the invention of the codex sometime close to the birth of Christ, it has proven to be a marvelous machine – great for packaging information, convenient to thumb through, comfortable to curl up with, superb for storage, and remarkably resistant to damage. It does not need to be upgraded or downloaded, accessed or booted, plugged into circuits or extracted from webs. Its design makes it a delight to the eye. Its shape makes it a pleasure to hold in the hand.

How true that is!


I ♥ science books!