Thursday, March 23, 2017

Trade-Offs

On the one hand, it would be kind of useful to have economist Friedrich Hayek around today, to maybe be a clear voice pointing out just how wrong President Trump's trade policies are now and are going to be later. The libertarian-leaning professor believed that a group of human beings, interacting together in trade under what he called "the rules of just conduct," could thus operate a society for the benefit of as many of its members as possible. No one human being could possibly know enough to plan out such a society, he said. It had to grow on its own. The president also believes society has to grow on its own, just as long as it does it the way he says.

But on the other hand, Hayek, who died 25 years ago today, would have to try to get his message out to people in the midst of a media machine that pays more attention to what the president tweets and thinks Al Franken knows more about the U.S. Constitution than a sitting federal judge. Being as he would be just a couple of months shy of his 118th birthday, he would probably find better uses for his time than to try to convince them.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Coincidence? Perhaps...but Perhaps Not!

Headline:

NASA: "Giant Mars Volcano and Earth's Dinosaurs Went Extinct About the Same Time"

Tars Tarkas: "Oops."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ripper Redux

For reasons of his own -- perhaps because for him the Ripper killings were not ancient history but current events -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never set his genius creation Sherlock Holmes on the track of London's most infamous killer. It's been left to others to do so, sometimes with the blessing of the Doyle estate and sometimes not.

Lyndsay Faye's first novel was one of those with the blessing, as she pitted Holmes' brilliance against Saucy Jack's demented bloodlust in her 2009 Dust and Shadow. Faye is a fan and student of 19th century crime-solving and of Holmes in particular, and she works hard to get the proper voice for her story's narrator, Dr. John H. Watson, M.D. It's not Doyle's Watson, who was ordinarily more phlegmatic and less rattled by his friend's strange obsession with mystery solving and abrupt manner. But it is Watson, which puts readers where we belong -- outside the blazing incomprehensible genius of Holmes and doing our best to keep up.

As Faye writes the story, Holmes' great mental faculties are stretched almost to breaking by the need to stop the madman from killing more women. He feels the pressure of the entire city's near-panic at the murderer in their midst and frustration at his inability to see inside the mind of something mostly unknown to the 19th century -- a sociopathic serial killer. But he wonders -- if he really can get inside Jack's mind to guess his identity or his next move, will he be able to come back out? Or will it break him entirely?

Faye, as mentioned above, creates a recognizably Victorian voice for her narrative, and pays attention to period detail with a keen observational eye. The world may or may not need novelizations of the fictional Sherlock Holmes tracking or apprehending the real-world Jack the Ripper, but if it's going to have them then hers is better than many others.
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Skip forward into the 1900s, and Clive Cussler and Justin Scott bring their turn-of-the-century hero, Isaac Bell, onto the trail of a brutal killer stalking women in the United States and leaving them dead and mutilated. The more Isaac probes the mystery, the more he begins to wonder if he is tracking someone who's been at this game a long time. Someone who -- perhaps -- tried out his trade at first in the London slum called Whitechapel but who for know is known as The Cutthroat.

Isaac, the chief investigator of the Van Dorn Detective Agency, comes to the case when a young woman turns up murdered in her room. Her father had hired the Van Dorns to find his daughter, but Isaac had not put much worry into the actions of a nearly-grown young woman who had apparently chosen to make her own way instead of her parents' way. Isaac feels personally responsible for the oversight that put the young woman into her killer's path instead of home safe with her parents, so when other bodies, similarly disfigured, turn up, he persuades his boss to devote the agency's resources to finding the killer or killers.

Cussler and Scott lay a couple of interesting cards on the table. In the 1911 world of the novel, there is as yet no national law enforcement agency or even any real coordination and information sharing among police departments. Only the Van Dorns with their nationwide reach (they're modeled on the real-life Pinkerton Detective Agency, but without the strikebreaking), can see all of the puzzle pieces, such as strings of similar murders or disappearances in cities across the U.S. By setting the action in and around a traveling national production of Jekyll and Hyde, they highlight an interesting moment of showbiz, as technology allowed stage productions to mount more spectacular touring shows even while it is creating the movie business that will all but kill them.

But they also rely on brief segments from the killer's point of view which really do nothing but try to emphasize his chameolonic capacity for disguise. A couple of the described murders offer links to clues Isaac and his team will uncover, but not many. The rest bring a real taint of ugliness to what is, even when it's dealing with sabotage and murder, a series basked more on derring-do and adventure than modern psycho-killer Lecter Lite tales. This taint makes Cutthroat one of the lesser entries in the Bell series.
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Arthur Byron Cover's 1979 An East Wind Coming opens with the Wolfman attacking Lois Lane, only for her to be saved at the last second when Sherlock Holmes teleports the werewolf back outside the city.

Then it gets weird.

None of these characters, except for the Wolfman, are named although folks who follow comics, pulp fiction and old movies will probably recognize them. "Holmes," for example, is never called that, only "the consulting detective." Watson is "the good doctor." Sydney Greenstreet's Maltese Falcon character is "the fat man." And so on.

In Cover's "Great Mystery Trilogy", an un-named calamity at some time in the future wiped out most of the human race. But the creatures who caused the problem, as a way of trying to make amends, give the remaining humans amazing power over matter and mortality. They are "godlike men," to distinguish them from the "mere men" they were before. Interestingly, some of the most powerful among them choose to refashion themselves as different movie, comic book and pulp magazines. So Sherlock Holmes, Captain Marvel (the first one) and Lois Lane all find themselves coexisting with each other, basically not doing much of anything except in rare emergencies like the Wolfman's attack. The adaptations aren't perfect, and the cast frequently breaks character to act like more recognizably modern people than their assumed identities.

The consulting detective fears this ennui will lead to significant problems for the godlike men. It's already pushed some of them to create a slum based on old London's Whitechapel, and he fears that one or another godlike human will decide to make his statement about society by becoming a new Jack the Ripper, Once that happens, the detective and others among the most poweful of the altered humans must track and stop him or else the rising tide of terror and uncertainty could endanger their existence.

The series' first volume, Autumn Angels, was very much a product of its boundary-pushing time and context -- the late 1960s and early 1970s in the circle of one of science fiction's "mad geniuses' Harlan Ellison. Wind tones some of that down in favor of a little bit more linear narrative, but is still very head trippy. It's also very dialogue heavy and interested on transgressing lines related to sexuality, philosophy and the meaning of existence. The combination ages quickly, making it easy to lose interest in the sketched-out plot after wading through page after page of conversation and explicit sexual encounters.

By the end, East Wind feels as dated as some of the pulp greats it uses as Cover tries to say something about human existence and satisfaction, using them as his own heiroglyphic alphabet. They can generate some slight interest on their own as we read to see which one is which and who a particular character is supposed to be, but that's not enough to keep deciphering the whole thing from being more than a chore and a half.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Ha Squared

Two scientists have published a paper that links the reason that puns are funny (and they are, shut up) to an effect of quantum physics called "superposition."

Physicist Kirsty Kitto of Australia and psychologist Liane Gabora of Canada examined what the brain does when we hear a pun or similar kind of wordplay-based joke. As most folks know, the humor of a pun (it is so there, shut up) comes in when words that sound exactly alike or maybe just similar are used in two different and incongruous settings.

Well, Kitto explained that a superposition, a central feature of quantum mechanics,  says a single particle can be in two states at one time and it doesn't "make up its mind," so to speak, until it is measured. Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger found this so weird he created his famous thought experiment involving a cat that was technically dead and alive at the same time, with its demise coming at the hands of a random quantum fluctuation that either poisoned it or didn't.

Puns, Kitto and Gabora said, work like that. They are based on a single set of sounds that works one way in one sentence and another way in another sentence.

The paper doesn't create an actual equation to gauge the funniness of a particular pun, since humor has a strong subjective element to it. So all of the people who don't want to think puns are funny can continue to do so and not feel like they're trying to deny science. After all, the cats probably didn't think Schrödinger was all that funny either.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Meanwhile, in a Top-Secret Laboratory...

Mild-mannered physicist responsible for the creation of material used in dental fillings by day...secret scientific super-sleuth by night. It's...Detective X!

This may have been the only secret agent ever named "Wilmer."

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Johnny B. Excellent!

A much younger Friar once read a music critic say that you should never trust a rock musician who can't play Chuck Berry music. I've read a lot of gunk from music critics that hasn't lasted past the turned page, but that theorem has yet to let me down.

The only thing that could still those flying fingers and famous grin has done so, as Berry "caught Maybellene at the top of the hill" today at 90.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Bob's the Bomb

And by "Bob," I mean the supernova given that nickname seen in the spiral galaxy NGC 5643. Astronomer Rachel Beaton, who works with the team that first observed the supernova, is the one who gave it the nickname Bob.

Its technical name is SN2017cbv. The galaxy containing it is also home to the supernova SN2013aa, which as far as I could tell has no nickname. The interesting thing about Bob is that we seem to have caught him as he begins the explosive phase of his existence. The apparent magnitude of SN2017cbv increased by almost 2.5 times in the first day since it was spotted.

The headline at the Astronomy article isn't exactly accurate -- SN2017cbv isn't going on "right now." It's roughly 60 million light years from us, which means that astronomers are observing what happened in that spot 60 million years ago. North America, Europe and Asia were all one landmass, as were Antarctica and Australia. South America, Africa and India were all separate continents. It was about 6 million years after the end of the dinosaurs, and mammals had expanded to fill the environment, with some being what we would today consider "medium-sized." The closest thing around to us were squirrel-like critters called "plesiadapiformes," who are thought to have a common ancestor with primates.

As for what's going on "right now" in whatever spot SN2017cbv occupied when it blew up 60 million years ago? Well, we'll know that sometime around 60,002,017 AD.