Monday, July 25, 2016

It's Olympic Time!

Two weeks to go until the 2016 Olympic Games begin, and they're already earning gold medals in stupidity and embarrassment:

-- The Australian team declined to move into their rooms in the athletes' Olympic Village because among the amenities the Rio de Janeiro-based games offered were not-just-low-but-no-flow toilets and accent puddles conveniently close to power cables and light switches. The mayor of Rio, demonstrating that the phrase "clueless politician" translates quite well into Portuguese (polĂ­tico ignorante, if you're curious), offered to get a kangaroo to jump up and down in front of the building to make them feel more at home. Because we all know that when we think of pampered athletes whining about homesickness, Australians are the first group that comes to mind.

-- The International Olympic Committee followed up a report on widespread doping among Russian athletes in recent years by choosing not to ban the entire team from the Rio games.

Instead, individual Russian athletes will have to pinky swear to their individual sport governing bodies that their strength, speed and skill come from good food, clean living, taking their vitamins and saying their prayers. Actually the IOC said that each sport will determine which Russian atheletes may compete and outlined the criteria to be used for that determination -- reminding the sport federations that previous clean tests should not by themselves be considered enough proof of cleanliness.

Some folks said that the Aug. 5 opening date means there will not be nearly enough time to complete this more rigorous scrutiny, but the International Tennis Federation proved them wrong by clearing all eight Russian tennis players just several hours after the IOC announcement based on their previous history of clean tests.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Topping the "I" Chart

The academic journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture reported on some research by professors at the University of Michigan at Dearborn. Pam McAuslan and Marie Waung examined pop music charting in 1990 , 2000 and 2010 and found that over time, it has gotten a lot more focused promoting the self and demanding respect.

Bragging was confined mostly to rap music in the 1990 survey -- which makes sense, as a significant feature of earlier rap and hip-hop music was to demonstrate skill at wordplay. Rappers claimed superiority over others by virtue of their ability to make a clever rhyme or successfully unleash a tongue-twisting torrent of words at high speed without any missteps.

But during the next surveys, of 2000 and 2010 top hits, McAuslan and Waung found that songs in a variety of genres were about the singer's self-regard. Bragging expanded to sexual conquests, and the frequency of third-person references to the self increased. There were simply many many more songs that went ahead and lived out the Toby Keith number, "I Wanna Talk About Me."

The increasing complaints about how today's teens and twenty-somethings have been trained to think of themselves as the center of the blinkin' universe may have something to do with it, but I don't know for certain.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Distance

It would make sense to suggest that the point of the United States geographically closest to Africa would be on our southern end, closest to the equator. But it turns out not to be so.

In fact, the shortest distance between a point in the United States and any point on the continent of African turns out to be the 3,554 miles between El Bedouzza in Morocco and...Quoddy Head, Maine. Turns out that Maine is far enough east that it makes up for being so much more northerly than the other states.

It's also kind of interesting that the closest point in the U.S. to Africa is named "Quoddy Head." I'm glad I read the story, because otherwise I might have mistakenly used the phrase as an insult.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Reading On

Spy writer Daniel Silva says in a note to open his latest, The Black Widow, that he began it before this year's terrorist attacks in Europe by the Islamic State. When they happened, he decided against changing what he was writing to make his story conform more closely to events since his fictional attacks served much the same purpose for his characters as the real ones would.

Brutal attacks in Paris and Amsterdam, carried off with no warning or even suspicion on the part of European intelligence agencies, spur a flurry of digging through files and contacts until a code-name surfaces for the mastermind: Saladin, after the medieval Kurdish commander who reconquered the Christian Holy Land for Islam. Soon the Israeli secret service, called the Office by its own members, becomes involved when its top agent Gabriel Allon sees a personal connection to one of the attacks. Gabriel is still officially dead and preparing to take the reins of the Office upon the revelation he is still alive, but before that happens he sets his sights on infiltrating Saladin's network and stopping more attacks. He will recruit Dr. Natalie Mizrahi, a French-born Jewish physician, to pose as a Palestinian woman embittered by the loss of her boyfriend and desiring revenge for his death. She will be bait for an ISIS recruiter, who can bring her in to the camps where she may learn enough about Saladin's plans to help the Office stop them -- if she survives.

Some of The Black Widow is familiar territory for Silva -- assembling his team, the Mission Impossible-styled layers of deception, the careful sketching of each character, the uncluttered narrative. He dwells on the "repeat performances" lightly enough to prevent them from dragging down his story, and adds his new developments and wrinkles through the parts of it told through Natalie's eyes.

Stories which feature the folks in the middle of the fight often hold interest more than the ones which focus on top-level leaders. I was wondering about why that might be and a possible answer is the hidden nature of spies and their work. Novels in which a president or prime minister has the guts, vision and virtue to do the right thing seem more glaringly wishful in light of current office-holders and aspirants. Those men and women demonstrate short-sightedness and incompetence all too often and we see the results. But novels seem to have a greater chance of being real when they feature dedicated men and women behind the scenes taking care of the messes that clueless leaders leave  -- or at least we have less reason to disbelieve they could really happen. When we face the reality that the top levels of our leadership are going to be a scene of the Clueless handing off to the Clueless and Shameless, stories about  people at the front who know what's going and what they're doing has a strong appeal.
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Jonathan Quinn is also a clandestine operator, but of a different kind. He's a "cleaner," someone who follows along after intelligence agents have dispatched a target and sanitizes the area to remove all traces and clues of their presence. He works for himself rather than for any one agency or government, although he selects his employers according to his own rules and he has a team who assists in different parts of his work.

Even at one remove from the actual spy vs. spy game, Quinn has managed to make some enemies, and so have his friends. While Quinn and his wife Orlando are vacationing with one of them, a man who wants revenge on Quinn's friend winds up with Quinn and Orlando's children in his grasp. As the title suggests, neither of the couple will spare the slightest expense or stop at anything to save their missing children in The Unleashed.

Brett Battles is on his tenth go with Quinn and so has a good handle on his characters and their interactions. He's lost none of his skill at creating tension or choreographing an action scene in just about any setting. Although his characters may be kind of standard stock from the Espionage Thriller store, he never lets them slip into stereotypes. Unfortunately, Unleashed amounts to an extended chase scene as Quinn and Orlando pursue leads on their children, follow them up, draw closer, work against time, and so on. Battles' ability to render lifelike what could be standard characters seems to desert him in bringing an entire novel's worth of life to a very standard storyline. His decision to render a cliffhanger via the fridging of a female character does nothing to redeem a lackluster effort and probably tips a "meh" outing for Quinn into a "yech."

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Prejudged

I confess. The entirety of my dislike of Donald Trump spawns from his role in the collapse of the United States Football League, as detailed in an ESPN "30 for 30" documentary.

The league featured Oklahoma's only non-collegiate professional football team, the Oklahoma Outlaws. Its collapse removed us from major-league level sports until the post-Katrina sojourn of the Hornets and then the Thunder.

OK, sure, the Outlaws' owner had already moved them from Tulsa to Arizona before the USFL folded, but that's because he was a dude who figured that having a lot of money meant he knew how to run things even though all it really meant was that he was a dude with a lot of money. And from whom do you think he learned that lesson?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Neat Idea, Just...

When the Branhams moved into their new home, they were a little nervous about the slickness of the staircase. Mom Pippa and dad Jonathan thought the slippery stairs could prove dangerous for their kids. Carpeting them was going to cost some money.

So they painted them, mixing the paint with some sand in order to give the treads texture and grip for little feet. And not only that, Pippa painted the risers with the covers of her favorite books.


































The only wrinkle, of course, is that the George R. R. Martin riser is likely to turn into an escalator to match the ever-increasing number of books in his series, and that there's a real possibility that it would never actually get anywhere.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Who Said What?

Last night at the Republican National Convention, Melania Trump gave a speech about her husband, presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump. Ms. Trump is a naturalized U.S. citizen and Mr. Trump's third wife.

Initially, the speech seemed well-received, but some folks heard things they thought sounded familiar. It turns out that some parts of Ms. Trump's speech sound a lot like a speech by Michelle Obama in 2008. A hashtag has now surfaced to make fun of her and many people suggest this incident has some political importance. Several thoughts spring to mind:

1) Someone in modern media actually remembers 2008?

2) Considering that nearly 100% of modern political speeches are brim full of meaningless platitudes, does it really surprise anyone that they are being recycled? There's a difference between endless ways to say nothing and saying nothing endlessly. We live in days of the latter. You can even find a little Kindle book defining the stock phrases candidates use.

3) It would seem to me that a far more important aspect of Ms. Trump's speech was her ability to Rickroll an entire country.

4) As to political import, if there is someone out there who made up his or her mind to vote or not vote for Donald Trump based on whether or not his wife's speechwriter lacks the ability to design yet another disguise for empty boilerplate, that person is even less qualified to be president than is Mr. Trump. But no worries -- Mr. Trump would still be in a two-way tie for second.