Friday, February 12, 2016

Run That By Me Again

You may remember that in 2014, the Little League Baseball team Jackie Robinson West, out of some pretty tough neighborhoods in Chicago, won the Little League World Series.

You may also remember that starting late in 2014 and going into 2015, allegations began to surface that JRW had used players who did not live in its designated areas and were thus ineligible. Eventually, Little League Baseball concluded that some of the JRW players should not have been on the team and stripped it of its title.

So now in 2016, we have the lawsuits. Specifically, we have a lawsuit from the parents of some of the JRW players against Little League Baseball, ESPN, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith and the guy who works for suburban Little Leagues who is supposed to have blown the whistle on the matter. The suit alleges that these people knew about the residency questions but did nothing and continued to use the JRW team and its great story to enrich themselves. The plaintiffs, who include the JRW coach, are asking for monetary damages and reinstatement of the 2014 title.

What's interesting to me in scanning the lawsuit (it's available at the bottom of the story on the DNAInfo site) is that there's no flat-out denial of the allegations -- unless I missed it. Which means that the people suing are essentially saying, "Well, even if we cheated you already knew about it and didn't stop it, so give us back our trophy and pay us some money."

It's going to take more than instant replay to help me figure this one out.

From the Rental Vault: Twinbill

Senior Inspector Lui Ming-chit (Andy Lau) walks a thin line with the Hong Kong Police Depar tment. His unit is responsible for investigating high-profile crimes and bringing in the perpetrators, but those same crimes are often pulled off by criminal masterminds who are ruthlessly effective at cleaning up loose ends. Though Lui is a man who by temperament and by oath desires to uphold the law, the increasing viciousness of the gang led by Cao Nam brings him closer and closer to lawlessness himself as he seeks to end their reign in 2013's Firestorm.

Hong Kong action star Lau has excelled at playing mostly quiet and fiercely determined characters through his career. They will kick some serious tail when necessary, but not before. At first glance Ming seems like the same kind of person, but the brutality he faces from Cao Nam's gang drives him to the breaking point. If the law can't protect the weak and defenseless, why should it become a shield behind which Cao Nam and his cronies hide? Another plotline has gang member and ex-con To Shing-bong (Gordon Lam) trying to use his connections for a "retirement score" and rekindle his life with girlfriend Law Yin-Bing (Yao Chen). But its driving force is Law's exhaustion with To's lies and double-life, and the exhaustion barely flickers next to Lui's imminent explosion.

In a lot of ways, Firestorm carries its violence too far. In an attempt to show the weight of Lui's burden and the amoral viciousness of Cao Nam's gang, it takes its own steps over the line and seems to invest in violence for violence's sake, rather than as a narrative function. In its attempt to show a police officer losing his ability to see that it takes more than words on paper to make his actions right, Firestorm becomes a movie that can't see it takes more than putting violence on the head of a villain to make it tolerable.
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James Wormold (Alec Guinness) has an unenviable job: Selling vacuum cleaners in pre-Castro Cuba (which is probably not as bad as selling vacuum cleaners during Castro's reign; there are degrees of unenviability). His daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) is enrolled in an exclusive and expensive school, and her needs are eating away at more and more of his finances.

Nevertheless, he's not eager to jump at the additional revenue stream offered by the shadowy intelligence man Hawthorne (Noel Coward), because it involves attempts to spy on the Cuban government -- and as a spy, Wormold makes an excellent vacuum cleaner salesman. But he agrees, and becomes Our Man in Havana in the 1959 adaptation of the 1958 Graham Greene novel. In order to keep the money flowing, Wormold convinces Hawthorne he is running a string of agents -- actually people he knows or just points to on the street. He sends in a sketch of a vacuum cleaner as stolen plans for a Cuban rocket. His importance confirmed in the halls of intelligence, Wormold is sent Beatrice Severn (Maureen O'Hara) as a covert secretary. Now he has to keep someone in the dark about his deception when she is around him every day, and he has the additional problem that enemy agents have intercepted messages sent back to him -- and they believe every word of them as well.

Audiences used to wise old Ben Kenobi may be surprised to watch Alec Guinness be shifty, deceptive and more than a little bit of a coward as Wormold. He keeps rationalizing his little scenario as harmless until he realizes that the real intelligence game is played by hard rules as well as for keeps, and by then its almost too late. O'Hara is winsome as the earnest but at first clueless secretary who begins to see a worthwhile man in the beaten-down Wormold. As a satire of how easily those claiming responsibility for a nation's intelligence networks can be fooled, Havana works quite well too.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Heavy Sounds

The confirmation of "gravity waves" recently announced by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) does a lot of cool things, even though many of them are really just opening the door for other cool things.

There are four basic forces in the universe: electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force and gravity. Scientists have long theorized that the four are actually connected in some way and under some conditions might even be of the same force. The condensing process has already started, as you can see with the first item on the list: Electricity and magnetism, though they may have different impacts and effects in the world, are manifestations of the same force. So far, gravity has resisted combination with the other three, but the discovery of gravity waves may offer progress towards creating a unified field theory.

Gravity waves also confirm Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, which predicted them when it was published in 1915. But years without any solid observed evidence or even hints made scientists wonder, and even Einstein himself questioned their existence. He almost published a paper refuting that part of the theory, but was persuaded he had been right the first time.

Now that gravity waves have been confirmed, better detectors will come soon and be able to use them to open many new areas of astronomic study. Knowing what to look for will allow many different kinds of measurements not possible for instruments using only electromagnetic and nuclear means of detection.

And the coolest thing of all is that one of the scientists who was in on the early development of the LIGO lived to see the concept prove successful -- computer scientist Heinz Billing was born the year before Einstein published his theory and now, at almost 102, he has seen confirmation of what had been sought ever since.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Some This and Some That

-- Asher Elbein at The Atlantic muses on why the company Superman built can't get a handle on Superman. Short answer, my version, is that they spend all their time tinkering with Superman (costume changes, power levels, origin, etc.) and pay little attention to Clark Kent. The old comic book saying is that the way Superman is different from Batman is that Superman is just an identity Clark Kent puts on to help people, while Bruce Wayne is an identity that Batman puts on to give him cover to fight crime. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster obviously got it in creating the hero, Christopher Reeve and the Salkinds got it in the movies, Mark Waid and Alex Ross got it in Kingdom Come, and Melissa Benoist gets it as she portrays Supergirl in her TV show. But DC Comics mostly don't get it.

-- A Star Wars fan and sci-fi journalist tracked down the actor who played the pilot who referred Obi-Wan Kenobi to Chewbacca and Han Solo. Fortunately, footage of him still existed since George Lucas sold the franchise before digitally replacing him with a Gungan.

-- Scientists are using the physics of how pancakes form -- it has to do with the speed that water escapes the batter while its being cooked -- to investigate how they can treat glaucoma. One treatment for the eye condition involves small slices in the sclera of the eye to reduce the pressure of the built-up fluid behind it. The pancake study can help model the most efficient way to do that. The downside is that scientists will now need to spend some extra time on the treadmill after eating their experiments.

-- Now, you might think that, given the number of athletes involved and the costs of an education, that the line-item for tuition, room and board for collegiate athletes would be larger than just about any other athletic cost. Well, according to CNN. you'd be a little off.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Thy Print Seals Thy Fate, Varlet!

Scientists at the University of London are re-examining the wax seals often used in medieval times to sign documents or ensure they were not opened, in order to see if the wax contains fingerprints.

One part of the project is to compare the fingerprints to each other -- not every seal carries prints, but enough do that some documents attested to be from the same person can be checked out to see if that's true. Another will be to compare them with modern fingerprint databases and see how unique fingerprints might actually be. The usual thought is that no one in the world has your fingerprints but you, and no one who ever lived has had them before. The older prints might prove that repetition does happen every now and again, even if spread out over a period of hundreds of years.

This may be O.J. Simpson's big chance.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Continuing Sagas

For most of the first two-thirds of Jonathan Kellerman's 31st Alex Delaware novel, Breakdown, there is a sense that he's doing something different. Zelda Chase, a minor blip on television in a momentarily hot sitcom, first met Alex when his mentor asked him to examine her five-year-old son. Zelda was very troubled and Alex's mentor was treating her, so it was his job to determine if the boy was OK. He did so and didn't think much about the case in the ensuing years. Until he gets a call that Zelda Chase has been admitted to a psychatric hospital suffering from a complete psychotic break. Alex never treated Zelda, but his mentor's gone and his name is the only one on the record.

Zelda's non-communicative, and there's no sign of her son. Alex sticks with the case because he wants to find out if the boy is safe, and then it becomes even more curious when Zelda walks away from a halfway house and is later found dead. Alex's efforts to find some clue about Zelda's son unroll her history as her psychosis left her less and less able to function in society. Her show's cancellation pushed her into homelessness, and from there further and further down a confused and dark path. This part of the story is a fascinating blend of psychology and detection, as Kellerman mixes plenty of real-life situations into his narrative. Zelda's hushed-up mental problems recall actress Margot Kidder's real-life struggle with bipolar disorder. The lack of treatment for seriously mentally ill persons is lived out on the streets of major American cities every day. The use of mental illness as a pawn to try to advance this or that personal agenda gets reported now and again as well. The subordination of a performer's health to the needs of public image may be a little more under the radar, but the real-life tragedies we've seen show its reality too.

Had Kellerman continued to run that string as Alex and his friend, LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis, look for clues to where Zelda's son might be and what motivated her, Breakdown could have been one of the best of this long series. For whatever reason -- perhaps because he's a murder mystery writer and he felt the book had to have some flesh-and-blood culprits -- he switches gears and tries to give us actual killers and some other victims. In order to do this, we get Chapter Eleventy-Billion and Two of "Rich Bastards Treating People Awfully Thinking Their Money Will Insulate Them." It's lifeless compared with the earlier section of the book and feels very stitched-on.

Kellerman writes the book he wants to write rather than the one I want him to write, and he's sold millions of books so his judgment is probably way better than my own. But I still can't help but see Breakdown as a huge missed opportunity, one that sinks to the middle of the pack when it could have stood head and shoulders above.
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At the end of 2014's The Burning Room, Harry Bosch got pushed out of the Los Angeles Police Department by some supervisors that had been itching to get rid of him for years. He's out of sorts and mostly drifting until his half-brother Mickey Haller comes to him with the case of a man accused of murder. Haller is defending the man and wants Bosch to look at the case because he believes his client is innocent. Bosch wants nothing to do with working for the defense, brother or not, but Haller eventually talks him into it.

Once involved, Bosch's own sense of curiosity keeps him going. The prosecution's case is sloppy and the investigation has holes. But is he willing to completely cross the line and become one of "them," the people who help the criminals he's spent 30 years putting away? The Crossing outlines the struggles Bosch faces with this issue, both internal and external, and offers a good picture of a man trying to figure out which part of his driven nature will win out -- the search for the truth or loyalty to the side of the good guys?

Connelly is still humming alone in the Bosch series with only a few slowdowns over its history. The fan-pleasing double bill of Bosch and his "Lincoln Lawyer" half-brother offers some new angles to view both the crusty detective and the smooth-talking attorney. Bosch's own daughter has absorbed a lot of his "cops vs. the world" mentality and isn't happy with his decision to work for a man whose job is getting criminals freed, even if they're guilty. That conflict helps build her character more than has happened recently as well. All in all, The Crossing is a good addition to both Bosch and Haller series and a nice twisty suspense outing in its own right.
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Last year, I noticed that the spread of electronic books and self-publishing was a boon for fans of genre fiction, as it made bringing titles in their preferred lines a lot easier to bring to "print" or e-reader. With reduced production costs, authors could put their work out there with their own resources, or publishing companies would recoup expenses early enough to risk some more titles.

Of course, that sometimes means some real crud gets published, but it can also mean, in cases like Christopher Nuttall's "Angel in the Whirlwind" series, some good finds and fun reads.

Falcone Strike is the second in the series about Katherine "Kat" Falcone, a young woman captain in His Majesty's Commonwealth Space Navy. Kat's homeworld is a colony whose founders transformed it into an aristocratic oligarchy and her position as the youngest member of one of the more powerful families has let her go pretty much her own way. She's relished the challenge of military service and loss of the cloying world of high society and whispering politics she previously had to look forward to, but the long arm of family influence may have done her in. In The Oncoming Storm, she found herself promoted to command many years ahead of other officers, and perhaps given a position for which she wasn't ready. Now, in Strike, she has earned some respect from her fellow spacers, but has quite a ways to go before she's looked upon as anything other than a privileged dilettante playing at war by the wider service.

And war has come to the Commonwealth, as it finds itself facing the world-gobbling religious fanatics of the Theocracy, a fundamentalist regime that believes all worlds must be brought under its particular religion. Nuttall carefully blends elements of current religions into the Theocracy to keep it from being too closely identified with any of them, and doesn't dig too deeply into its theology. While this makes for some confusion for the reader, it lets him focus on his story instead of defending his plot choices against charges of bigotry.

Nuttall's good with characterizations -- Kat herself may have more than a few hints of being an Honor Harrington clone, but she's branching out as her own person quickly. He's also good with space battles and action scenes. He's less adept with keeping his spatial geography clear to a reader and he stops his narrative for an expository lecture and once or twice a sermon more often than he should. But given the low expense involved and the interesting characters he's developing, that's not too much baggage to keep space-opera fans from signing on to sail with Kat Falcone.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Can I Drive a Stick or What?

As the picture below indicates, there are some people who participate in the Pinewood Derby when they are Cub Scouts, and then there are people who make it a calling:


The "Cedar Rocket" reached a top speed of almost 50 miles an hour and is constructed from a single log of the tree. With the pollen, one hopes, removed.