Thursday, April 17, 2014

Can't Stop the Signal...in Space!

Look closely at the T-shirt NASA astronaut Steve Swanson is sporting in this selfie on the International Space Station.

Serenity lives!


The original picture, and a link to buy the T-shirt, can be found here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Comic Book Twinbill

Frank Miller followed up his landmark "End of the Batman" story The Dark Knight Returns in 1987 with a version of the beginning of Bruce Wayne's war on Gotham City's criminals called Year One. In 2011, DC's animated movie outfit put that story on the screen as Batman Year One.

Wayne returns to Gotham after several years abroad, training himself for his mission of fighting crime after witnessing his parents' deaths at a criminal's hands when he was just nine years old. His initial work has limited success, and he realizes the need for a psychological dimension to his crusade. Inspired by an invading bat, he begins to create the costume, weapons and other gear that will make the Batman the scourge of Gotham's underworld.

At the same time, police lieutenant James Gordon, newly transferred from Chicago, is finding the Gotham City PD to be little different from the criminals they're supposed to thwart. His refusal to take part in the corruption isolates him in the department, especially since the police commissioner is more or less best buds with local crime boss Carmine Falcone. The pair become unlikely allies in reining in both the criminal police and the criminal criminals in their first strikes against crime in Gotham, aided at one point by the even more unlikely ally Selina Kyle, now wearing a costume of her own and committing robberies as Catwoman.

Year One was an excellent, tightly-written crime drama in which the fact that one protagonist dressed up in a costume to scare people was incidental to the main story. The movie adaptation wisely follows suit and both writers and artists hewed closely to Miller's noirish dialogue and artist David Mazzucchelli's stylized, simple artwork. Several of its narrative elements showed up in Christopher Nolan's vision of Batman in his movie trilogy. The voice cast does good work, with Bryan Cranston standing out as Gordon. Batman fans who want to see Bruce Wayne become their hero probably enjoyed Year One the most, but it's good entertainment for anyone who likes super-hero stories with a noir crime drama edge.
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Note: This review will contain spoilers in order to offer a better explanation of the opinions it expresses. If you want to find out how Flashpoint: Paradox ends using the old-fashioned method of watching it, stop reading now.

Every now and then, it seems the comic book DC universe gets tangled up and complicated and hard to figure out. In 1986, the company dealt with their multiple worlds problem with the year-long maxi-series crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths, and a problem-solving technique was born. It as employed again in the mid 1990s to handle timeline issues in Zero Hour. Both series changed the DC universe in multiple ways, and both were responses to storytelling situations that were becoming such mares nests that they hampered ongoing storylines and limited creative possibilities.

Then came 2011 and the decision to unload decades of continuity and completely revamp DC's universe with "The New 52" project. The editorial decision was to introduce this new continuity through yet another maxi-series crossover, focused on the Flash and called Flashpoint. 2013 saw that tale put into motion in the 17th DC animated feature, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox.

Barry Allen, the Flash, responds to a break-in at his museum and finds a trap set by Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash. The Justice League helps him thwart Zoom's plan to destroy Central City. But we next see Barry awakening at his desk in a very different world, one threatened with destruction by a war between the Aquaman's Atlanteans and Queen Diana's Amazons. And he himself has no speed powers, although he finds that his mother, killed in a criminal break-in when he was a boy, is still alive.

Allen tracks down Batman, only to learn that he is not Bruce Wayne but Bruce's father Thomas. The street mugging which he knows took the lives of Thomas and Martha happened differently in this world, in which the parents survived but Bruce was killed. Thomas became to Batman to fight crime, and Martha went mad and became the Joker. I include that last tidbit even though it matters not at all to the plot, but that's OK: So does Flashpoint Paradox.

Eventually, Batman helps Allen recreate his Flash-originating accident (on the second try), and the two join with remaining heroes to defuse the Amazon-Atlantean war before it destroys the Earth itself. In the meantime, there are several scenes showing both Amazons and Atlanteans murdering lots of people, some of whom have counterparts in Barry Allen's universe and some of which might not. These scenes mean nothing, but they do make the movie longer..

In the final confrontation, Allen learns that he himself screwed up the world when he used his speed to break the time barrier and save his mother. Even his limited journey through time set up ripples that messed up Batman's origin, started the Amazon-Atlantean war, sent baby Kal-El's rocket into Metropolis instead of Kansas, and so on. He will have to break the time barrier again to stop himself and return the world even as the one he's now in is destroyed. He's successful, but some of the ripples remain, and thus we have the New 52 universe, which is not as different from the old timeline but is not exactly the same, either.

Flashpoint Paradox is easily the worst of the DC animated features. The character designs are just awful, the drawing is ugly, and in the crowd scenes especially the animation is as limited as the old Super Friends TV show. The story has more gaps than narrative, and wastes time in giving different characters cameos that show up for not much more reason than showing how the characters are exactly the same/entirely different than they are in mainstream continuity.

Part of the problem is that this story exists pretty much only to set up the New 52, one of the lousier ideas to come from Dan DiDio's Bad Idea Factory in some time. It's an obvious combination of retread ideas, (alternate dystopian timeline, butterfly effect, don't mess with history), dashed off and offered up with little imagination and less heart. People sometimes look at bad books and lament the trees that they represent, anyone who looks at a DVD of Flashpoint Paradox can lament all the plastic shopping bags that we gave up in order to create it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Great Day

OK, so maybe I'm laying the diamond celebration on a little thick, but if you want yet another way in which baseball is superior to, say, the federal government?

Today, April 15, both federal and state governments (most of them, anyway) impose their deadline for you to give them money you worked for, which they will then use for several purposes. Some of those purposes, like national defense or the interstate highway system, are useful, needed and well done. More of them are needed but done very poorly and a large plurality are not needed, not useful and done poorly in ways only a massive bureaucracy could manage. For example, we spend money each year to have a spokesperson for the Vice-President of the United States in order to keep Joe Biden from making an even bigger joke of the office than it is, and Joe goes off on a regular basis and renders that spokesperson moot. And probably quite frustrated.

But on April 15, baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, in honor of the man whose dignity and courage under tremendous pressure not only broke the "color barrier" existing in Major League Baseball in 1947, it kept it broken. Robinson's number, 42, has been officially retired by every major league team, after the last person wearing it via a grandfather clause, Mariano Rivera, retired from play in 2013. No other ballplayer has that honor. You tell me which is better.

Although the growing trend among major league teams to all wear 42 on April 15 probably confuses the heck out of Vice-President Biden.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Lightman Redux (And More!)

-- The other day, I mentioned a book by physicist Alan Lightman. If you'd like to read something by the good doctor for free, check out this book review in the Washington Post.

-- In the future, Andy Warhol said, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. The problem is, that each moment of those 15 minutes takes a full 15 seconds to make, meaning some people will be famous for far longer than they should be. See Al Sharpton or any Kardashian for examples.

-- Because the brochure offering a chance to visit the Deeps of Pluto would almost certainly look darn cool, here's hoping this is true.

-- A bunch of top-level violinists played several of the instruments while blindfolded. Among them were several made by the great Antonio Stradivari, but in the blind tests the musicians couldn't tell these from brand-new violins. Of course, they didn't really need the top concert players; I guarantee no one could have told a Stradivarius from a K-Mart Special if I was the one sawing away...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Let's Read Two!

Since baseball season has started, leave us peruse and remark upon two books concerning America's national pastime. The title, of course, is in honor of Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks, who always looked upon a great day with enthusiasm and was known for wanting to make almost every game a double-header, if he could.
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You might not know it if you've looked at any season's standings since about 1992 or so, but the Kansas City Royals used to be one of the power teams of the American League. Frequently division champs, twice American League champs and once World Champions (ah, 1985...). America's middle city was a semi-desirable place for a lot of ballplayers to ply their craft, and one of the reasons the team performed well was left-fielder Willie Wilson, whose tough bat and speedy legs fueled no few Royals wins (Wilson's .308 average in the 1980 American League Championship Series tied KC's premier batsman George Brett).

Wilson also dealt with some of fame's demons, and was one of four Royals who did time for a misdemeanor attempt to purchase cocaine in 1983. He rebounded from that to continue to be a vital part of the team in the 1985 Series win, but injuries hampered his career later in that decade and he went to Oakland as a free agent in 1990 before ending his career when the Chicago Cubs released him in 1994.

Inside the Park outlines this part of Wilson's life, as well as many of his post-baseball struggles and how he overcame them. He dealt with depression, financial setbacks and a second round of substance abuse, and was forced to sell his Series ring at a bankruptcy auction in 2001 (The board of his charitable foundation purchased and presented a replica of the ring to Wilson to mark Inside the Park's publication).  The book, which reads mostly like a transcription of several interviews, allows Wilson to own up to his faults, offer his side of a couple of issues and outline how he came back from his problems, finally managing to make his life outside the baseball stadium match the quality of his game inside it. It's a good redemption story, probably mostly of interest to Wilson fans and Royals fans but still offers something in its own right as an account of coming back from being very, very far down.
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And speaking of very very far down, we may cast our eyes upon the Chicago Cubs as they figure into George Will's centenary survey of Wrigley Field,  A Nice Little Place on the North Side.

Will is best-known as a conservative opinion columnist, so folks who like the idea of firing people because of what they believe would probably want to take a pass on his book, even though he inserts next to no politics and only a little free-market economics.

Cubs fans are probably known for their love of Wrigley almost as much as they are known for being the victims of a team which abuses them anew every year. And Will, who now lives in Washington, D.C. and roots for the hometown Nationals, knows their pain. Born in downstate Illinois at just about the right time to take advantage of the rise of radio baseball, he followed the Cubs through most of his childhood and adolescence.

Once establishing his bona fides as a Cubs fan (the usual sign is considered to be permanent tear tracks down the cheeks), Will offers a quick but engaging skim of the century that Wrigley has spent at Clark and Addison, from the team's actual beginnings elsewhere in Chicago through its long, long post-World War II slide. He poses an interesting question: Has the team's emphasis on its ivied home played a part in its hapless history? Can a ballpark built when the only thing a ballpark was supposed to do was give people a place to sit and watch the game be what a team needs in the 21st century?

As expected of the erudite Will, we meet Greek philosophy and thinkers of many kinds and ages who would probably be surprised to find themselves tasked with explaining aspects of baseball, but the same skill that made Men at Work and Bunts engaging reads for thinkers and fans alike makes it all work. Possibly the only misfire is the book's dedication to current Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who may have overseen an economic boom for the sport but is still guilty of many grievous sins. I'm thinking about writing the Washington Post to get Will fired because of that.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Marlin Perkins, Please Call Your Office...

The existence of photo software that lets skilled folks alter almost any image so that it's next to impossible to tell it's not real sometimes lets photographers cheat.

But hard work still exists, and Russian photographer Katerina Plotnikova worked with animal trainers to get these fascinating photos with models and a variety of critters. My two favorite ones are below:

Mr. Bear is a gentleman...

And after a couple too many, Mr. Bear gets a little fresh...

I always knew ursinoids couldn't hold their liquor.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Run the Numbers. Run, the Numbers!

It's candidate filing time here in Oklahoma, which presages a a little attention paid to opinion polls. Little because most of these races are not anywhere near the funding level which allows big campaigns to afford the endless polls of more nationally important races. For which I think everyone involved can offer thanks.

Anyway, I thought about opinion polls and statistics and such when reading this piece on how almost any study could be tweaked to get the results the study creators want to get. Carefully choose your factors, select your cutoff date, tailor your questions' wording properly and you have got a fine supporting cast of numbers that show everyone just how right you were.

That was kind of depressing, so I went to read about a hand-held jet engine instead.