Monday, April 20, 2015

Maybe You Will Leave Harlan Alive

The long post blog returns, with some thinking about the end of the great series Justified.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Everybody Shows up for Jury Duty

Including, believe it or not, United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

The Washington Post story notes that this isn't as uncommon as you'd think; Associate Justice Elena Kagan has been called twice, although it doesn't make clear if that is since she began serving on the Supreme Court. Justice Kagan was the Solicitor General of the United States from March 2009 to May 2010 and would have been subject to being called during that time as well. But, as the story notes, she probably would not have been selected. Folks with a lot of experience in the legal field are often passed over for jury service, as it is thought their expertise might unduly sway fellow jurors.

My own profession is also sometimes considered a disqualifier; in the minds of some people the opinion of a clergyperson carries more weight than do the opinions of others. I am pretty well sure that none of those people are close friends or relatives of clergypeople. I have a number of colleagues whom I would not trust to get a pizza order right, and they might include me on a list of the same if they were to be making one.

On the one hand, my low chances of service are kind of sad, because some aspects of the judicial system are pretty interesting when seen up close, as I remember from my previous profession as a newspaper reporter (protected by the same Amendment, just a different clause). Reporters are also not frequent jury picks; their tendency to smuggle in booze and/or skepticism makes them problematic.

But on the other hand, no jury service means a reduction of the number of hours I am required to listen to lawyers, as well as judges -- who, more often than not, used to be lawyers.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

We're All Doing It Wrong

-- Writing at Five Thirty-Eight, Christie Aschwanden describes some research about brain function that suggests our brains are almost designed to reach false conclusions.

The study she writes about looks pretty complicated, but at least we now have some concrete explanations for a lot of election results.

-- The absence of the local team in the NBA postseason means that the amount of time I will spend following said post-season is a function of several variables, all of which approach zero.

-- The Minnesota state legislature put the kibosh on using sales taxes to build a sports stadium, with lawmakers pointing out that the scheme basically made visitors to the town where the stadium was to be built pay for it. Not bad for a state that elected Al Franken.

-- New York City is going to spend ten billion dollars for a bus station. I got nothin'; I'm just flipping out over the idea of building costs that require eleven digits.

-- Correlation, as we know, does not equal causation. But what's causation? Nick Barrowman at New Atlantis does some digging, and surprise, it's not as simple as people seem to like to say.

Friday, April 17, 2015

ALMA Starts Looking

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile has started its observations, with scientists aiming the sprawling array of antennae at known objects to calibrate it.

And it's already started finding things -- at the young star HL Tau it detected concentric rings inside the disc of gas that's probably condensing into planets. That means it's seeing where the planets will probably be whenever they finish forming, which will likely be several million years from now. It measured some surface features on the asteroid Juno by using its array to detect the light the asteroid itself emits rather than the sunlight it reflects (that light is in a part of the spectrum we can't see, which is why a standard telescope wouldn't spot it).

If this is what ALMA is finding while it's being tuned up, I am going to make sure my subscription to Astronomy magazine doesn't run out any time in the next twenty-five years, because it's going to be awesome.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Forward Movement

Inertia is a physical object's tendency to move forward in a straight line once it's started moving, unless some outside force acts on it. It's why your car rocks slightly forward when you brake at a stop sign, or why you will take an extra step or two before coming to a complete halt from a fast run.

It's also as plausible an explanation as any other for how Harlan Coben's latest novel, The Stranger, got written.

Adam Price is an attorney with a wonderful wife and two teenage sons. At a bar one evening, a stranger approaches him and tells him a secret about his wife Corinne that he at first refuses to believe. But it gnaws at him until he checks into it and learns the stranger, who more or less vanished after the revelation, was right. Adam confronts Corinne, who admits to part of the accusation but insists on waiting until tomorrow before revealing all. Then she disappears, and Adam begins looking for her or for the stranger himself, hoping there will be a connection that will lead him to her.

Coben has made a field out of the idea of the solid citizen's life turned upside-down by buried secrets and the impact these secrets have on a family. But with The Stranger, his field has become a rut that he shows no signs of trying to leave; it's easily one of the laziest efforts yet from an author who has flirted with that problem before. His protagonists are interchangeable with the same people who headlined earlier books and other characters are bargain-basement ciphers selected to do the bare minimum necessary to keep the sputtering story shambling forward. A ruthless villain kills innocent people to cover a secret but his desire to protect money that could help his son survive cancer helps him justify his crimes. And helps Coben fill a couple of pages with a hospital visit. The stranger himself has motives that seem noble in his own odd view of the world but Coben can't even be bothered to type enough quote marks to put that explanation into a conversation; it's just an internal monologue that commits the old sin of telling instead of showing.

There's never a satisfactory explanation for why Corinne wanted to wait a day to explain everything, just one of the plot holes Coben leaves in this mess of novel. Others would require spoiling the plot, and I've enjoyed some of Coben's books too much to do that. Plus, if I just leave it alone, the same inertia that led to such a bland piece of work will probably keep it headed away from me, and that's a darn good thing.
At the end of The Counterfeit Agent, John Wells and his friend Ellis Schafer found themselves having solved one problem only to face another: The United States government believed that a kilo of enriched uranium supposedly uncovered by the CIA was from Iran, which was planning to use it to build nuclear weapons. But Wells and his friend Ellis Schafer, along with their former boss Vinny Duto, know the uranium was not from Iran and a shadowy conspiracy was trying to maneuver the U.S. into war with Iran. They have 12 days to find out where the uranium came from, convince the President he's wrong and avert a U.S. invasion of Iran.

Twelve Days picks the story up where Agent left off. Wells will use his skills in the field, Ellis his remaining access at CIA headquarters and Duto his political pull as a United States senator to try to unravel the conspiracy and prevent war. The deadline makes an excellent tension builder, as Wells finds himself dealing with Russian arms merchants and crime bosses, Saudi royalty and terrorists and a range of unsavory characters in between as he tracks the uranium and its supplier. Berenson uses this built-in feature well, but the book as a whole feels stretched, as though incidents and conversations happen that seem mostly to fill out pages. Especially given that it's the second part of a two-book story, Twelve Days feels overlong and meanders a good deal more than it ought.

While Berenson makes much more use of Wells' Islamic faith than he has in the past and includes a couple of nice grace note scenes that play off it, he also makes the uncomfortable move of having his main villain -- who's already known when the story starts, so no spoilers here -- a super-wealthy Jewish man manipulating U.S. intelligence agencies on behalf of Israel and who used his wealth to buy influence in U.S. elections. He doesn't do this in the ham-handed style common to the back alleys of anti-Semitic "novels" that can be found in all too many places, but the parallels are enough to warrant a grimace of ick.

Twelve Days is serviceable enough as a thriller and represents no real drop in quality in the Wells series. But its a-little-too-close-to-seamy storyline and padded narrative make it one of the least interesting volumes in that series, and suggest a good outing for number 10 would be an excellent idea for both the retired agent Wells and the man chronicling his exploits.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Sometimes, Bad Is Bad

Over at Nautilus, we find blogger Jim Davies writing about a study in which people were examined on what factors influenced their opinion of whether or not songs were "good" or "bad."

One of those factors, interestingly enough, is how often the song had already been downloaded. In other words, if people thought that a song had been selected by more people than themselves, they considered it a better song. That same factor influenced them even when the researchers cheated and artificially inflated the numbers for songs that had not been frequently downloaded. So in other words, if I like crappy music, it's not my fault. It's everybody else's fault who liked it first.

I can live with that.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Return of the Son of the Show That Never Ends

So Sunday, as I'm watching Jordan Spiel hit a golf ball fewer times than anyone else in Georgia, I try to flip to another channel during a commercial. I am greeted by a black screen, with the notice, "One moment, please. This channel should be working shortly," followed by some kind of error recognition code. This, as anyone who has dealt with CableOne before knows, is not true. The warning blinks a couple of times but the proper channel never comes on.

Back to the Masters, which comes through just fine. Back to the other channel, which is still lying to me that it will come on soon. Its neighbors also lie to me, as do all of the channels down to the National Geographic, meaning I can watch half of the channels I can usually watch -- and for which, incidentally, I pay CableOne for the opportunity to so do.

I call the service department and actually don't have to wait long before I speak with a service technician. He tries a couple of fixes from his end, which do not work. The error recognition code, by the way, is not something he requests. It is apparently meaningless, much like CableOne's promise to provide television service.

We try one last fix -- the traditional unplug the power supply, disconnect the cable, then reconnect them and turn them back on. This also does not work. Channels from the low end through the middle of my TV guide work, but the others do not. The technician says he will need to schedule a service call. We get the information, which includes me changing the phone number they call since I have a job and can't easily wait around my house all day.

"It looks like the soonest I can get a slot is the 16th," he says.

"Thursday?" I ask. "I'm calling you on Sunday and the earliest that someone can come fix this is Thursday?"

"Well, yes, that's the earliest one is available." After telling the technician that he has done a good job trying to help me but his company is pathetic and a four-day delay in a service call is the kind of thing that makes customers of other companies, I say go ahead and schedule it, my choices being limited.

This means that I will not receive the service for which I pay CableOne, but I know better than to ask if they will discount my bill. It's not because I believe they are unconcerned with the reality that I will pay for something I don't receive. They are, but that's not the reason.

It's because I believe that no one working at CableOne could handle the necessary math. Not that they couldn't handle the math of trying to pro-rate everyone's bill who has an interruption of service. I mean I don't believe anyone there could handle the actual pencil-and-paper math of figuring out what fraction of channels I pay for were working, how long they weren't working and apply that discount to the amount I pay for their service.

Now come on, you say. That's a little much, isn't it? Perhaps. But God's' existence I will take on faith. The ability of CableOne supervisors, directors and executives to do sixth-grade math will require proof.