Saturday, March 28, 2009

Grumbly 100th, Nelson!

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of writer Nelson Algren. A longer post is up over at Deep Friared.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bad Ideas in Washington, Chapter 4,234,861,902

Senator Benjamin Cardin thinks that maybe newspapers should transform themselves into non-profit organizations and kind of be run by the government.

I'm a former newspaper guy and I love sitting down and reading the paper. They have a wider range of articles per issue than magazines, for example. Don't get me started on how far above television "news" they are; a person who considers himself or herself informed because they regularly watch a local TV newscast is a person who needs to make a date with Mr. Webster to discuss the meaning of the word "informed."

I think towns with more than one newspaper are lucky. The competition to cover a story better and more accurately helps keep a public more aware of their community and can even make publicity-fearing government officials a bit more circumspect in their shadiness, if not downright honest. It's sad to see newspapers diminish and fade out of city after city, leaving them with either one paper that might get lazy or even worse, at the mercy of the blow-dried TelePrompTer muppets who spend their time scaring us about convenience-store murders, the weather, house fires or all three at once. much as I'd like to see newspapers survive, Cardin's idea is just plain silly. For one, many papers are on the ropes because they didn't reformat themselves to get ahead of the advent of online content. Corporate behemoths rarely react quickly to new situations, and the dinosaurs showed us what happens to big things that move too slow. Spending government funds -- a.k.a. money that the government took from you and me -- in order to save them is a little like spending that money to keep the vacuum tube industry alive because some people still have black-and-white TV sets.

For another, a government-owned press is the kind of thing another big, slow-moving behemoth -- the former Soviet Union -- found out doesn't do you much good in the long run. TASS didn't survive the fall of communism as an independent agency. Gardin says that papers would be free to report on anything, including political campaigns, just like now. They just couldn't make political endorsements. Raise your hand if you think that the critters on Capitol Hill or the state house or City Hall would never ever ever try to define "political endorsement" so that it included reporting on a view or project they opposed.

It's hard to say what kind of news-delivery system we'll wind up with as technology continues to transform communications and information transmission. And the tendency of all news gathering agencies over the last decades to focus on celebrities, "gotcha" news and sensationalized scandal stories has truly de-fanged what should have been a watchdog for the public interest. But Cardin's idea, which would amount to putting a leash on that watchdog, stands out among the bad ideas held by elected officials. Which at least means he's trying harder, I guess.

Geek Alert!

Superconductors Heh.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Today... National Medal of Honor Day, a day intended to honor recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor awarded to a member of the U.S. military. The measure was passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives in 2007.

Initially approved by the Congress and President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, the Medal of Honor was awarded with somewhat more frequency in that time than it would be later. The screening and evaluation process today means that far fewer of Medals of Honor are awarded, and the nature of the valor required to meet those criteria often means it is awarded posthumously. Here's a list of the recipients -- clicking on the names leads to the award citation, which explains what circumstances led to the Medal of Honor.

Fewer than 100 men who earned this honor live today. The number of those who live because of what they did is considerably greater.

Monday, March 23, 2009


I don't know if I'm intrigued or worried by the news the Coen brothers will script a new version of True Grit, the only role for which John Wayne ever won an Oscar (even though he might have merited it more for The Searchers).

On the one hand, the bros. are intending to write a screenplay that hews closer to the original Charles Portis novel. So they aren't necessarily looking to rewrite John Wayne, and I imagine that the Duke might have liked to work with the guys who created Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men.

On the other hand, this is John Wayne, and the character of U.S. Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn is probably one of the most defining roles he had in his later career. And the Coens are also the guys who did this. So I guess we'll just wait and see.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Beam Me Up a Biiiiig Cake!

The mighty William Shatner, beloved of basement-dwellers and scenery-chewers across the world, is 78 today.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Double-Deuce Sunday

That's tomorrow, and if you were to show up in my pews, you might hear something a little like this.

...Like I Need a Hole in My Head

Yes, the world needs another blog from me about as much as I need the above. But I wanted to write some longer stuff and the format here wasn't the best, so today introduces "Deep Friared," which will contain items that are probably not at all deep but are definitely much longer than my usual posts here. We kick off with some thoughts on the series finale of Battlestar Galactica, and there are many spoilers, so stay away if you haven't watched but still plan to!

PS -- Thanks to my ol' Tribune pal Summer for the idea for the blog title!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Silver Lining...

While we watch money disappear from Wall Street and from the pockets of future generations and while the Honorable Buffoons on Capitol Hill show us what March Madness is really like, at least we can sometimes have a little comedic relief.

Well, It's No Velveteen Rabbit, But...

Joy Behar was on Good Morning America to promote her new children's book, Sheetzucacapoopoo 2: Max Goes to the Dogs.

The book is a sequel to Behar's first collaboration with illustrator Gene Barretta, Sheetzucacapoopoo: My Kind of Dog. In the original tale (heh), the hero Max is a dog who finds that there is tension between purebred animals and mutts such as himself, a Shitzu/Cocker Spaniel/Poodle mix. He has to find a way to break the tension so all the dogs can play together. The book has the additional benefit of teaching children three different off-color words for feces, so score one for Joy!

Behar, a co-host on The View, discussed the story of her second book on the morning show. It's a political story, she says, in which her main character Max kind of stands in for President Barack Obama. What Pres. Obama may think of his being identified with a word combining three puns on feces is unknown, but it may be an apt description for the creek in which he has been finding himself the last few days. Anyway, when sent to obedience school, Max organizes the bigger dogs, whom Behar says are known as Republicans, so that they can all work together and benefit. He has to convince them, though, because at first they can't see how working together with Max and the other little dogs will help them, too.

I swear every time that woman opens her mouth, the whole world gets stupider.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I Can Haz Leviathan?

A paleontologist has announced the discovery of what is being called "the most dangerous creature ever to patrol the earth's oceans," a 50-foot-long ancient swimming dinosaur with a bite pressure of 33,000 pounds per square inch (the modern crocodile, by comparison, can barely gum you at 2,000 pounds PSI). Showing a keen eye for marketing, the scientists have dubbed the ancient animal, which had jaws some ten feet long, "Predator X."

This critter obviously was bad news for whatever happened to be swimming near it when it was hungry (and my guess is it was hungry about 99 percent of the time), but I am not certain about that "most dangerous creature ever to patrol the earth's oceans" tag. The scientists have apparently forgotten that each year, thousands upon thousands of little wrigglers are taken to the ocean by their parents and then released to play, frolic and function as they wish, creating that multi-celled organism that lurks in the water which almost no one ever escapes: The Warm Spot.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

About That Time

Yes, we're getting closer to Easter, so it's time for someone hunting headlines and whatnot to make some wacky claim about Jesus, Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church and/or Billy Graham.

A few years ago, it was "The Gospel According to Judas." At other times, it's been some other major bombshell revelation that will call into question even the most basic beliefs of the Christian church. I don't remember them all because it gets hard to tell them apart after awhile. I don't know if this story from Time magazine actually qualifies, because its subject is not nearly as big a deal as some others have been. Maybe this is just the warm-up act.

In any event, writer Tim McGirk does his best to make his subject matter A Major Controversy. Somehow, he happened across an Israeli scholar who asserts that the Essenes (gulp) never existed! Stop yawning and listen, doggone it! You see, the Essenes were a Jewish sect in the first century who may have been linked to John the Baptist and who are most famous for their collection of Biblical texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Those scrolls, discovered at the caves of Qumran as long ago as 1947, consist of copies of books of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Hebrew scholars and Biblical archeologists have believed they were a sect of super-devout Jews who moved to the desert in order to get away from the unclean influence of the Greek culture of Judea's cities. The scrolls were either copies of Old Testament books they made while they lived there or that they brought with them, as well as some of their own writing. Rachel Elior, who teaches Jewish mysticism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, thinks they didn't exist because they never use the name "Essene" in their scrolls. She may have other reasons, but McGirk doesn't list them.

Another professor, who is in charge of a project studying the scrolls at Princeton, suggests that the reason for this is because "Essene" is a name given to them by other people. Kind of like how people in Mexico don't refer to themselves as Mexicans, since that's an English word, but use a Spanish word instead.

But this is the teapot writer McGirk has got, so he's going to do his dead level best to make a tempest in it. In his lede -- the opening paragraph -- we learn that Elior's claim "has shaken the bedrock of biblical scholarship." You know, I wondered why all of the books in my office fell over in a dead faint the other day. Their bedrock had been shaken. Even those written in the 97% of Christian history that happened before we ever heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls!

Professor Elior may or may not have some substance for her theory -- like I said, McGirk doesn't trouble our pretty little heads with lots of detail about it, so who knows. Nor does he do a lot of digging into her claims before making statements about how they are received.

He also seems unaware that if he picked up a copy of a magazine like Biblical Archaeological Review, he might have read dozens of stories about controversy over the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The bedrock of biblical scholarship he surmises would have been well-shaken as well as stirred by now if that's all it took. He might also have learned that before the discovery of the scrolls, the earliest known texts of the Old Testament dated to the the 4th century, not the 9th as he says.

Of course, BAR has a much smaller circulation than Time. But it looks to me like McGirk & co. are working on that.

(H/T Get Religion)

Sunday, March 15, 2009


British atheists want to be sure you know their baptisms were meaningless, so they've developed "certificates of debaptism" that can be displayed so everyone knows how unimportant that baptism was.

Isn't that kind of like having a picture of your ex on the wall so you can tell all your friends how you're not with and are completely, totally over him or her anymore?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Ides of March!

The sermon I'll be preaching on that day (tomorrow, as I type this), is now up on the other blog.

Gotta Hand It to Ya, Treasure...

Apparently, Google's "Street View" photography made a stop in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that was the home of restless wanderer and former Bronze Max Rockatansky, where it captured a rare photo of the "last of the V-8 Interceptors."

Quite a piece of history. It'd be a shame to blow it up.


To: Several Teens Within the City of Boston
From: People With Functioning Brain Stems
Re: This news story

It has come to our attention that a significant portion of you and your peers, during a recent survey, found pop singer Rihanna equally or more at fault for her beating at the hands of her boyfriend, hip-hop artist Chris Brown. We have considered all possible explanations for this situation and are left with only one: You have committed an Epic Fail, and your bread ain't done.

We realize that you are far from the only persons who would hold this opinion, so we apologize in advance to all of those who do for utterly failing to instruct you in certain assumptions held in common by decent folks, most especially (but not limited to) that the idea a man would hit someone he loved offers proof in itself that the subject is in no way a man and has a fatally atrophied understanding of love.

We appreciate your prompt attention to resolving this matter in any way you see fit, but we would suggest you begin by pulling your heads out of your asses.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Contests in Context

Today I watched the local high school girls play in the quarterfinals of the state tournament. Unfortunately, they were not victorious.

And I know why. You might think it was because that when the clock ran out, the other team had scored more points than they did, but that shows how little you know. I know why they did not win.

They did not win because they did not pay attention to the fellow seated directly behind me. He knew more about passing than anybody on the floor. He knew more about defense. He knew more about setting up an offense. He knew more about shooting. He knew more about rebounding, dribbling, setting a pick, coaching and officiating (and judging from the crowd on both sides, he was not alone in that knowledge).

He probably knew more about public address announcing, although he did not have the opportunity to say so. He may or may not have known more about giving birth than did the girls playing ball on the floor, but I am certain that he would not have let any of those young women enter the delivery room without every possible piece of advice he had on the matter.

I now know more about basketball than anyone else in that arena this afternoon, because I sat in front of him. I kept waiting for a lull in the lecture so I could get an idea of what he looked like, but do so without seeming to be looking at him when he commented. That lull occurred at about the 0:00 mark of the fourth quarter.

Now, every fan who pays for a ticket gets to have an opinion. But this advice was offered with, shall we say, some decided intensity. My teacher seemed offended by the inexpert play, coaching and officiating that he saw, as though each error was a personal affront to him or something he held dear. And I just kept thinking: Aren't these kids?

Aren't they 15, 16 and 17, maybe 18 years old? Aren't they playing a game as a team representing their high school? Aren't they still learning things? Why would we expect them to drive the lane any better than they drive cars? Why would we expect them to play to perfection what multi-millionaire professionals still practice every day to get right?

And why oh why oh why would we lay upon their shoulders the burden of our feelings about our community? This is a fine little town, and it remained a fine little town after the unhappy result at the final horn. I feel badly for the young ladies and I'm disappointed that I don't get to cheer a winner through a state title, but disgusted? Angry? Offended?

Nah. I graduated from high school a long time ago, and it wasn't even this one, so whatever achievements its students make or don't make matter a whole lot more to them than they do to me. Because those young people matter to me, I can be disappointed for them and sympathize with their feelings about their loss. But greater things await them, and we might hope they will have their eyes upon those things when they arrive, rather than be buried back in their pasts, so invested in the things of yesterday that they lack all real perspective about what goes on today.

I Think I See a Problem...

A company is offering full-body suits customized in your sports team's colors, calling it a Root Suit. It covers the entire head, but you can apparently see through the head-mask portion pretty well. However, the company recommends against driving with the mask in place (Root Suit also makes specialized toilet paper which will print any picture you want on each and every square. This is more than a little disturbing).

The problem I see is that these suits would look swell on most athletes and, obviously, super-heroes. But I think we all know that the specialized training and diet regimen of the athlete produces one type of body, while the specialized training and diet regimen of the fan produces another. And I don't think anyone wants to see the average fan's body in tight spandex.

There is also the problem of the two teams meeting who have the same colors. Picture this: You've dressed in your Root Suit to cheer for, say, your OU Sooners. Which means you're wearing a red and white Root Suit, because that's the closest they can come to crimson and cream. But this is the Saturday you face the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who are also wearing red and white Root Suits! And they are all masked! How will you know who are among the blessed and who are the accursed?

Even if you come to some sort of agreement that one school will have the left side red and the other white, while the other school has the reverse, how can you be certain that the properly-hued suit on the bleachers next to you is actually a fellow fan and not some skulking miscreant who has infiltrated your section by turning his suit inside out? Every time you cheer, he could be jinxing your team under his breath, cursing them by saying things like, "Enter the draft early, Sam. Coach the Broncos, Bob."

I say "he" in this case because I can't imagine a woman wearing one of these things in public. No matter how much you may ask, beg, plead and swear it doesn't make her behind look big.

Because she will know it does. And she will know you are lying.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

This Just In...

According to The Sports Economist, the Cleveland Indians front office has just done some cutting edge marketing research to see what impact certain factors have on ticket sales. They learned that giving things away and having the New York Yankees in town will increase attendance. Colder weather and forecasts of rain decrease it.

No word on what impact things like not winning a World Series since 1948 or the fact that even though they hit straight ball very much, with curve balls, bats are afraid has to do with attendance.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Smart Tunes

A student at Caltech had some fun correlating SAT scores to the kind of music people listen to. People who listened to Beethoven had the highest SAT scores, with their lowest mark a full 50 points higher than the highest score of the next group, fans of indie rocker/songwriter Sufjian Stevens.

People who listened to rapper Li'l Wayne were grouped lowest of all, some five hundred points below the long-hairs tapping their toes to the Moonlight Sonata. Of course the survey was random and not very scientific, as the developer admits (He did an earlier similar survey using college SAT scores and books). But it does make you wonder. Are people who listen to, say, Billy Joel smarter because of it and people who listen to, say, Fall Out Boy dumber because they do? Or were they already smart and/or dumb, which influenced the music they chose?

But again, because it's such a random sampling, it's hard to say this survey actually suggests anything substantial. For example, even though the average SAT score for the Beethoven listener is 1371, the average SAT score for classical music listeners in general is 978, below that of those who favor Justin Timberlake. And I know people who listen to classical music have to be smarter than anyone who would choose to listen to Justin Timberlake.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

This Week's Sermon

It's now up over at the other blog. Yeah, it's got a Rick Springfield reference...sue me ;-)

Wish-filled and Thinking

A few months ago, I noted how I bought the new AC/DC album and suggested my inner raucous teenage rawkin' self was pleased.

Yeah, that guy would have had nothing to do with this album. Sutton Foster is a Tony Award-winning actress who's appeared exclusively in musicals and whose first album, Wish, consists of covers of such tunes and a some others. It accomplishes many things, but rawkin! is not among them. So I'll let him listen to something else later. Foster doesn't shy from her bread and butter, including the Broadway show tunes like "Warm All Over" and a minute-long slice of "Oklahoma!" But she also covers singer-songwriter numbers like John Denver's "Sunshine on my Shoulder" and Patty Griffin's "Nobody's Cryin'."

She definitely brings that musical-actress sensibility to all of the album's songs, but she also deftly handles the ones that require subtlety and intimacy, which is not always possible when trying to reach the people in the balcony. The title captures the album's theme -- sometimes wishing to be in a different place, sometimes wishing for a different outcome to a situation, sometimes for a different experience in the place of the one she's got at hand, and Foster is able to convey that theme through them all quite well. It even works in "Air Conditioner," a comedic number about what kind of appliance a gentleman will need to have in his home to gain her attentions.

I don't try to pretend ol' kerrrangggg boy doesn't exist or that he has nothing to say about what music I still listen to, but albums like Wish make me glad he doesn't have the last word all the time.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Book 'Em

It'd be hard to say whether author William Gay loves or hates Stephenie Meyer. His southern gothic crime novel Twilight came out a month after the first volume of Meyer's teen vampire soap opera, also called Twilight, published its paperback edition. Since then, Meyer's "Twilight Saga" has been a bajillion seller. On the one hand, Gay might pick up a sale or two from a confused buyer. On the other, it's pretty certain no one knows his book exists. They're not missing much. Corrie and Kenneth Tyler, orphaned siblings in their late teens, are pretty sure they've discovered a dark secret about the town undertaker. They plan to blackmail him for money and for revenge. But the undertaker enlists local hardcase/bootlegger/murderer Granville Sutter to get him out of the mess. Most of the story concerns Kenneth on the run from Sutter, along with some moderately gross details of the undertaker's problems. Gay chooses to write his dialogue without quotation marks, which may have been a choice designed to give the book the feel of an oral tale spun some night around a fire. But it turns out more or less as an artificially quirky affectation. Kenneth encounters many of the same quirky backwoods characters who inhabit most Southern gothic novels, enough to somehow justify stretching what might have been an interesting short story into a dulled novel.
With the exception of his recent Westerns and his two young adult novels, Robert B. Parker has been accused, with some justification, of phoning it in for the last several years. If that's true, then Night and Day is a robocall. Paradise, Mass., police chief Jesse Stone has a couple of small-town cases to deal with: A middle-school principal whose dress code check has outraged the Paradise parents and a peeping Tom calling himself the Night Hawk who has begun escalating his encounters with Paradise housewives. While Jesse tries to find something he can pin on the principal and figure out who the Night Hawk is before he hurts someone, he also writes another verse in the story between himself and his ex-wife, Jenn. Their relationship has been off again and on again, and when Jenn leaves for a New York City job with a producer boyfriend, Jesse tries to figure out what to do about it. There is almost literally nothing new in Night and Day. The criminal's point-of-view segments can be found in the Spenser novel Crimson Joy. The high-powered rich folks who hide some serious weirdness behind button-down facades show up in pretty much everything Parker writes. And whoring herself for a job before coming back to Jesse has been the only role Jenn has played for most of the Paradise series. Yes, there's Parker's trademark snappy patter, which he does better than anybody, but that's about it. There's no real story and no real reason to spend $25 when there are all of Parker's better books still around for purchase or rereading.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Keyboards Fall Silent...

For just a little while, anyway, in honor of screenwriter Horton Foote, who passed away this week at 92.

Foote wrote two of the best screenplays in the movies. In a development surprising to to people who may follow the awards these days, he won Oscars for both of them, Tender Mercies in 1983 and To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962.

Top Men...

A fellow gives a visual illustration of what a trillion dollars looks like, which may be useful in picturing just how much money we're borrowing from the grandkids.

I gave it that title 'cause I think the Ark of the Covenant is stored in there somewhere...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

(Square) Woot!

Today, math nerds and aficionados are celebrating a holiday that doesn't happen very often -- Square Root Day. March 3, 2009, is sometimes written 3/3/09, and if you multiply the 3 representing the date by the 3 representing the month, you get 9. And of course, three is the square root of nine.

As the story notes, the most recent Square Root Day was Feb. 2, 2004. The next will be April 4, 2016, and the next one after that May 5, 2025. The gap between Square Root Days increases along the sequence of odd numbers. There were three years between the first this century, in 2001, and the next, in 2004. Then five years between that one and this, and seven years between this one and the next, nine years to the one after that, and so on. The last such holiday in each century is September 9, when the square of the month/day combination is 81.

The story doesn't address whether or not October 10 may be considered a Square Root Day. Obviously, 10 times 10 is 100, which means that in order for that day to be considered, another digit has to be used, and dates are rarely written that way (10/10/100?) I imagine that there is probably some good-natured back and forth between traditionalists and progressives about this issue -- at least, I hope it's good-natured. Math fights are probably not all that attractive.

And having now considered this much math, my brain is requiring me to shut it down to reduce the operating temperature. Probably a good time to write a horror movie, or maybe an episode of How I Met Your Mother.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Oobleck Alert!

A day to rejoice, and a day to say, "Thanks!"
In memory of a particular doc of first rank.

Who wrote funny words, and drew funny pictures
of a simply astounding variety of critters.

He taught many things, he and his menagerie;
Taught them wisely and gently, without any harsh badgery.

Today's his birthday, so turn your thought-thinker loose!
See what dream you can dream to honor the doctor named Seuss!