Monday, December 22, 2014

Leave Your Hat On

Should there be a heavenly choir the way we understand choirs, the chances are that it just got a whole lot...grittier...

Heroes at Work

In spite of the fact that he's spent quite a bit of time saving the world and uncovering ancient mysteries, Dirk Pitt's day job has to do with oceanography and exploration of the sea. In that capacity, he and some other researchers of the National Underwater and Marine Agency are investigating several "dead zones" near Cuba, places where large numbers of fish and other aquatic wildlife have died.

But the dead zones may not be natural phenomena, and there are some people who would rather Pitt and NUMA not learn anything else about them. And there's the added complication that Pitt's children -- twins Summer and Dirk, Jr. -- have found themselves opposed by potentially lethal forces who want to uncover the secrets of some pre-Aztec relics the pair have been seeking. Will the two mysteries intersect?

What do you think?

Of course they will, and of course in back of everything will be a ruthless baddie bent on either destroying, ruling or exalting his position in the world. One doesn't read Clive Cussler (and/or son and co-author Dirk) in the interests of introspective self-analysis. One expects a quick-paced adventure yarn with evil plots, derring-do and a few last-minute escapes, which Cussler has been delivering for about 40 years. The best-written of these kinds of books zip by without making you stop for anything other than a page-turn, a snack or putting on sunscreen, and that sums up Havana Storm quite nicely. As usual, Cussler offers a little bit of maritime knowledge in his story and this time adds a dash of Mesoamerican archaeology for fun. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a book like Havana Storm, even though there's absolutely nothing about it that sticks with you (I read it several weeks ago and had to check Amazon to remind myself about a couple of plot points). Because that's precisely what it's designed to do, and that's precisely what it does.
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Faith Lockhart has found out some bad things about the boss she formerly idolized, and is about to tell all to the FBI. But there's a CIA faction that has been using that same boss to gain leverage on the legislators he's bribed, and they've targeted Faith in order to protect their asset. But that same boss knows his CIA contact isn't on the up-and-up either, so he hires a private investigator, Lee Adams, to shadow her. Got it?

Me neither. And David Baldacci neither, really, as this 1999 thriller strangles in entangled plotlines, what-the-heck scenes and more than one Lifetime Movie Moment™. Faith's boss has changed his focus because of a change of heart, though he hasn't changed his ways to get what he wants. Faith and Lee grow close for no good reason whatsoever (and in one particular interaction, a very bad reason), and an Unexpected Turncoat is telegraphed so far in advance Samuel Morse himself was working the key.

Saving Faith was Baldacci's fifth novel and demonstrated his increasing smoothness and ability to pace the sometimes outlandish plots he was using. But here none of that development is used in service of going anywhere or doing so with people who are either believable or likeable. In that area, at least, Baldacci the author took a significant detour on his way to the much more disciplined thrillers of his "Camel Club" and "King and Maxwell" series.
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David Weber's "Honorverse," the fictional universe home to starship heroine Honor Harrington and her Star Empire of Manticore, started in 1993 with On Basilisk Station. As the Harrington series became a monster hit, Weber began to branch out into other corners of his world, of late beginning to work with co-authors in the different series -- Eric Flint in the Wages of Sin series and Jane Lindskold in the young adult The Star Kingdom novels about the earliest settlers of the Manticore system.

With A Call to Duty, Weber opens up a period before the discovery of Manticore's "wormhole junctions" that will catapult it to regional and economic power in its section of the galaxy. He teams with Timothy Zahn, a top-selling science fiction author in his own right perhaps best known for the "Thrawn trilogy" of Star Wars novels that carried the characters forward from the end of the Return of the Jedi movie.

As Duty opens, Manticore is still a fairly small star nation struggling to maintain its defenses against pirates and raiders in light of several of its own political leaders thinking that such defenses are outmoded cash sponges. We follow along mostly through the person of Travis Uriah Long, an enlisted spacer who sees firsthand the kind of impact official neglect has on the Royal Manticoran Navy -- both its people and its ships. Long may have no idea whether or not a defense force will ever be needed, but he is pretty certain that if it is, the chances the Navy will be up to the task aren't great. His fears may prove out when pirates raid an interstellar nations conference -- can the weakened and demoralized RMN even respond?

Zahn helps Weber tame his word flow and tendency to set way too many scenes in meetings. Because they want to tell a story of Manticore's rise from a political perspective as well as a frontline one, there has to be some conferencing, but less than Weber's been guilty of on his own.

The Long POV chapters are the strongest, reading not unlike a good old-fashioned Heinlein juvenile as the drifting young man finds skills and purpose as a spacer and may even begin to find some wisdom of experience. The space action is tightly-written and fast-paced as well, so even if the characters are drawn with broad brushes and familiar strokes there's no real bog-down. There is plenty of stage-setting for subsequent books, but it doesn't get in the way of Duty's storyline either. Should Weber and Zahn be able to maintain the mix of action, politicking and set development of Duty (or improve on it a little), then they've opened up another diverting corner of Weber's Honorverse.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nice Day for a...White Christmas?

One of the scourges of the Christmas season is the number of popular musicians who insist on performing traditional Christmas songs. The arrangements are either slavishly faithful to original recordings, whether or not the performer's voice can handle them, or gussied up to fit whatever genre the performer is most proficient in, whether or not the song fits in that genre at all and whether or not the touches actually make the song fit. A few of them are good, most are forgettable and more than you'd care for are just yucky.

And then there's 2006's Happy Holidays by Billy Idol. Mr. Rebel Yell takes on seventeen secular and sacred Christmas songs in what can, in most cases, be best described as full-on crooner mode. "Run Rudolph Run," "Merry Christmas, Baby" and "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" are really the only songs that would qualify as rock, and even they are nothing like the full-on fist-pumpers for which Idol became famous in the 1980s. In "Blue Christmas" he channels crooner Elvis with a whiskey throat and "White Christmas" (yes, "White Christmas") we get an impression of what Bing Crosby might have sounded like if he'd spent 25 years shouting "Nice day to ...start again!"

The hard-rock punk dimension of Idol's career always overshadowed his ability to bring out a smooth lounge tone, even though the contrast between the two helped give his anthemic choruses a lot of their power. At 51 when he recorded the album, he had a much rougher edge than he did during his heyday but he can still sell a significant number of the more laid-back tunes. And he gives a fine jaunty air to "Frosty the Snowman" (yes, "Frosty the Snowman") and even "Jingle Bell Rock," a song I wish someone would tell North Korea is all about making fun of their leader.

Some songs might have been better skipped -- the strain to reach the upper notes of "Silver Bells" is obvious and Idol can't muster anything like full power when he's trying. He does better with the higher register on "Silent Night" and it joins surprisingly effective renderings of "O Christmas Tree" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" as the slow-tempo highlights of the album. Idol's broad London accent matches the latter, a great English carol, so well you can almost see a Charles Dickens scene while you're listening.

Better than half of Happy Holidays' appeal is the novelty -- who wouldn't love the look on a friend's face when you play Billy Idol singing "Winter Wonderland" -- but a solid plurality of the songs are worth the listen in their own right and are loads more fun to hear than some bro-country dweeb or hip-hop diva butcher "Carol of the Bells" or "Away in a Manger."

Again.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

They See Me Rollin', Calculatin'

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, handheld calculators became something that you could actually afford to purchase. In fact, if I'm not mistaken I got one for a birthday gift somewhere in that time -- or it may have been an LED digital watch, I'm not sure.

Math teachers were ambivalent about them, because at that time most of them did only basic arithmetic and they were more interested in us learning how to keep and maintain those skills on our own. Higher math functions came later, and by that time I had discovered that the alphas and numerics had conspired together to keep me out of the club that understood their interactions.

Nowadays, a calculator is most probably an app on your computer or on your phone, and you can likely find one that will mimic the appearance of those first handhelds. And thus a new generation learns how you can tell someone to go to "7734 upside down" without getting in trouble from clueless adults who had no idea what we meant, snicker snicker.

Before printed circuits and such, calculating machines had to use gears, somewhat like a clock would in advancing its hands properly according to the passing of seconds, minutes and hours. At io9, they've assembled some pictures of early calculating machines, and the earliest ones are as much a work of art as they are functional, in the same way a fine old watch might be:

Johann Helfrich Müller's adding machine, 1784
You might not be able to whip this baby out of your pocket the way you can a Samsung, Android or iPhone, but even the most polished chunk of metal and plastic has a hard time comparing appearances.

On the other hand, if you get ticked at one of these when your checkbook balancing leaves you three cents off no matter how many times you do the addition and you smack it with your hand, that's probably going to draw some blood.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Tracking Santa

It turns out the NORAD tradition of tracking Santa Claus's sleigh as it nears U.S. airspace began as a wrong number.

In 1955, a special red phone sat on the desk of Colonel Harry Shoup of the Continental Air Defense Command. It was a hotline direct from the Pentagon, alerting CADC of an attack on the nation. As the NPR story notes, in December of 1955 Sears put an ad for kids to call Santa and gave his phone number, but the ad misprinted the number and gave a different one than Sears had set up -- one which turned out to be the secret hotline on Shoup's desk.

The colonel didn't realize this until children started calling the line, looking to speak with Santa. He figured it out and detailed some airmen to answer the calls, probably figuring that was the end of it until his Christmas Eve shift came and he saw some of those same airmen had made a mockup silhouette of a sleigh and reindeer for the big tracking board CADC used. He continued to play along and called local radio stations to report an unidentified flying object that looked like a sleigh.

Eventually the story came out about how CADC -- later the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD -- had taken on the task of tracking the right jolly old elf and people wrote thank-you letters to Col. Shoup. His children say he carried those in a locked briefcase with the same watchfulness he would have given to the top-secret information he handled while serving at CADC.

One wonders if Soviet agents tried to use the suddenly well-known secret telephone number in some espionage scheme. It might not have worked, but they would have been winners either way -- those lumps of coal would come in mighty handy during exile in Siberia.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

They Wouldn't Touch You With... a Thirty-Nine-and-a-Half Foot Pole

On this day in 1966, CBS first aired How The Grinch Stole Christmas, an animated version of the classic Dr. Seuss book. Its road to the airwaves was not necessarily smooth.

First Chuck Jones, the guru of Warner Bros. animation, had to convince the doctor himself, and Theodor Geisel was hesitant. But even once Jones got the creator on board, the studio didn't really want to produce the special and it took 20 tries to find a financial backer.

Of course Grinch has become a perennial hit, surviving even a stupidly message-heavy live-action version with Jim Carrey at his shamelessly muggiest. And it proves that whatever CBS executives in the mid-60s did know, they knew exactly nada about animated cartoons which explored the true themes of Christmas, as the Grinning Green One aired a little more than a year after the previous special the execs tried to thwart and revise, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

So enjoy Thurl Ravenscroft explaining to us the character of the Grinch, pre-heart enlargement:

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Adult Found!

A first-year student at Olberin College asks, following in the footsteps of her elders at other schools, to have final exams deferred because they have been too traumatized by some recent controversial grand jury non-decisions to properly concentrate on their academic work.

At the Columbia University School of Law, such deferments were granted. No word on what kind of lawyers these will be if they are too unmoored by adverse court rulings to properly concentrate on legal work. My guess is "unemployed." Harvard and Georgetown law students want the same deal, but have not yet received it. Harvard officials have pointed out that such a deferral is available on an individual basis if a student talks with his or her professor about it and they can reach an agreement -- a procedure not unlike negotiations in a lawsuit settlement, no less.

At Oberlin, Professor Michael Raney won the undying admiration of all the parents writing checks to his school when he responded to the request with a single word: "No."