Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Hope Springs Eternal Once in a While

Astronomers believe they may have discovered a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri -- a red dwarf star that happens to be the closest star to our sun, just under four light years away.

Even more interesting is that the initial information suggests the planet may be similar to Earth in size, suggesting the possibility that it has other similarities to our world -- like maybe the ability to support life?

Turns out that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein aren't our only hope after all...

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Indifference in Any Language

Over at Bored Panda, the staff compiled the way people of different languages call cats. Most languages, it seems, repeat a word three times, like the "kitty kitty kitty" part of the United States version. Some sound pretty similar to that, in fact, such as Poland's "kitschi-ktschi-kitschi."

These are different from those orations sometimes labeled "catcalls," which are usually even less inventive and often far less welcomed by their intended listeners.

Besides it really doesn't matter what language you use; unless there's the sound of food preparation involved, cats don't give much attention to calls in any tongue.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A Well-Earned "Well Done!"

The International Olympic Committee gets so many things wrong, it is a pleasure to report when it gets something right. It awarded its regular "Fair Play Awards" s to American runner Abbey D'Agostino and New Zealander Nikki Hamblin.

Hamblin and D'Agostino were in a preliminary heat for the women's 5000-meter run when they became entangled with each other and fell down. D'Agostino helped Hamblin up and encouraged her to finish the race, even though the fall meant that neither of them would be likely to place high enough to advance. Hamblin in turn had to help D'Agostino, who had injured herself in the fall. The American runner collapsed again and told Hamblin to continue, only later to force herself to get up and run through her own pain to cross the finish line, nearly two full minutes after the race leader.

Earlier reports confused the Fair Play Award with the Pierre de Coubertin medal, which is not given out in every edition of the games but which also honors great sportsmanship and Olympic service. It wouldn't be the worst thing to do, to help draw some more positive attention to a Games that was very shiny with wonderful stories on the outside but possessed of some of the same rottenness on the inside as always, as well as a few new wrinkles in that department.

Interestingly, although many writers wondered in their stories about the two women's motivations, few seemed to have actually wondered that to either of the women themselves. I couldn't find anything in which Hamblin was asked that much about what caused her awesome display of honor and respect, but at least one news outlet was able to get D'Agostino to talk about why she did unto others as she did.

SoHo No-no

In C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, helpful senior tempter Screwtape offers advice to his nephew, the novice Wormwood, on how to turn his "patient" towards the infernal realms. Despite what many say, Screwtape warns, the pursuit of pleasure will not be enough by itself, for real pleasure and joy are the province of the Enemy. Screwtape longs for the day when Hell's minions can create a truly artificial pleasure, one which humans will pursue avidly but find utterly empty when finally achieved. Success at this endeavor is promised regularly but still eludes the best demonic efforts.

Uncle Screwtape would be very happy with the cast of Richard Vines' debut murder mystery, SoHo Sins. Almost to a man and woman they've been hollowed out by decadence into walking voids of manic ennui, scrambling to fill themselves with the emptiness of each other.

Amanda Oliver has been murdered, and her husband Philip has confessed to the crime but his degenerative brain disease makes his confession suspect. His lawyer hires an investigator to probe the crime, and the investigator uses his friend art dealer Jackson Wyeth (!) as his guide to the strange world of the SoHo art scene in which all of them moved. Wyeth is also one of Philip's oldest friends and wonders if his increasingly unbalanced pal may have shot Amanda -- unless it was Philip's first ex-wife, Angela, or his new mistress, Claudia. Or one of the someone else's we meet along the way.

Although this is Vines' first novel, his role editing a major art magazine has obviously sharpened his writing skills. Jackson has a barbed and cynical wit deployed to excellent effect as he tries to help uncover what really happened when Amanda died. Since Vines has also curated exhibitions at several museums, he knows the world of his novel and offers vivid pictures of its cast and their scene.

Which is really the problem. Every last one of these people is creepy, except for the ones who are downright sickening. Their casual cruelty towards each other doesn't come off any better when we see it stems not from any great passion, only appetite. None of these people actually hate -- they would have to start caring to hate, and caring wouldn't fit the image. Jackson, our narrator, is no better and may in fact be worse given how much information his introspective musing asides offer about what's in his head.

A mystery is generally built around the question of a crime and who committed it. Murder mysteries ask, "Who killed the victim?" But in SoHo Sins, the only thing that sets the murder victim apart from those characters still walking around is that she's dead on the outside, while they're all just dead on the inside, and "Get me out of here" replaces "Whodunit?" as the reader response.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

From the Rental Vault: Justice League vs. Teen Titans (2016)

When your absent father is Bruce Wayne and you've spent a lot of time being raised by your evil megalomaniac genius grandfather, Ra's al-Ghul, you have some problems fitting in. Thus it is for Damien Wayne, currently serving as Robin and not being much of a help for the Justice League. When Damien's headstrong nature endangers lives the League seeks to protect, Bruce Wayne/Batman decides he needs to learn some things, including teamwork. So Damien is packed off to train with the Teen Titans, whom he alienates in fairly short order in the DC Animated Original Movie Justice League vs. Teen Titans.

Raven, Beast Boy and Blue Beetle form the team, led by a slightly older Starfire as combination team captain/teacher/big sister. Damien's brusque manner and disdain for everyone who's not him make him just as many friends on his new team as he had on his old team. But they will have to get along, as a demonic entity attached to one of his new teammates has begun to manifest in the world and it has gained control over several of the most powerful Leaguers. If it can regain complete physical form, it will wreck this world as it has so many others -- and the possessed Justice League is more than up for the job of making that happen, especially when all that stands in their way is a group of under-powered, inexperienced kids.

This animated feature continues in the New 52 continuity, tweaking the Titans from their best-known version in the 2003-2006 TV series Teen Titans by giving Starfire a more mentoring role. It also adds the Jamie Reyes version of Blue Beetle.

It's very much a middle-of-the-pack entry in DC's animated movie lineup, with some fun interactions among the teenaged characters but relying pretty heavily on a lot of punching/blasting fight scenes. The storyline is familiar, originating in a mid-80s arc from Marv Wolfman and George PĂ©rez and already related once in the TT TV series. Some Damien-centric twists and scary Batmania -- the Caped Crusader injects himself with a coma-inducing nerve toxin to avoid demonic possession -- give it a little more life, but the third trip to the very same well brings up mostly the same offering as before. The wrinkle of setting a possessed League against the over-matched Titans doesn't add much to the story.

Justice League vs. Teen Titans is nowhere near as bad as DC's other recent Flashpoint/New 52 offerings, but the company has done much better and probably should have here. Watching it and its "Oh, him again?" villain isn't exactly punishment, but it's not much pleasure either.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Can't Pass It Up

We've come to another in the occasional series of headlines that simply can't be overlooked, whether the average person -- or below-average grumpy middle-aged blogger -- can understand them or not. The latest edition:
 "Brittle quasicrystals become ductile at the nanoscale"
As near as I can figure, the story is about how a state of matter called "quasicrystals" becomes significantly more flexible when you get down to a small enough scale. Molecules form crystals when they interlock with each other in repeating patterns. Quasicrystals show tendencies towards orderly combinations but they don't ever develop repeating patterns. This makes them brittle and not very useful -- they can't be shaped because at regular temperatures, they shatter under stress. They have to be raised to temperatures nearing a thousand degrees Fahrenheit before they lose their brittle characteristics.

But scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that at a small enough scale, the quasicrystals hold up better under stress at more normal temperatures. What good exactly that will do remains to be seen, but here's hoping we get another good headline out of it.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Onward and Upward!

Back in February of 2015, I highlighted an item in which a scientist at the Large Hadron Collider submitted a Lego project to create a Lego set model of his universe-destroying-black-hole generating device.

Well, late last month that project idea hit the 10,000-supporter level, meaning that the folks at Lego will now review it to see if they think they could create a workable model that would sell. Although there are several steps yet to go, you can see that there are a lot of suggestions that never make it that far (Megan Trainor Legos? Seriously?)

One hopes that this set does not come equipped with an electric motor the way some of the old car kits used to, because the last the last thing the world needs is a whole bunch of universe-destroying-black-hole generating devices...