Sunday, May 31, 2009

Annual Conference

Over and done with, so here's a thought or two:

Some folks suggest Christianity's central truth claims have no weight because they hang on an impossible mixture -- the fully human and fully divine Christ. Deity and dirt can't co-exist, no matter what Lord Byron may think of Robert Burns and his poetry.

I invite such doubters to attend an Annual Conference of the UMC -- the sacred and the mundane walk hand in hand for four days and seem quite happy with one another.

On the one hand are soaring services of worship, with preaching that lends wings to the spirit and can remind even the boldest cynic of our ranks why he or she ever thought about answering God's call instead of leaving the phone off the hook. And watching our new ministers come into the conference, some taking the first step of commissioning and others the final step of ordination, confirming that the call was real and their church welcomes them as its leaders. For me, watching students I met as college freshmen receive their stoles or stand before the gathered body as provisionary elders and deacons is a feeling I don't think will be matched.

Hearing the work of God done through different agencies and groups of our conference despite laughable budgets and resources that are drizzled out when there should be such a flood they say, "Well, we've got more than we need. Why don't you help someone else?"

And on the other hand.

Business reports read straight from pre-conference materials, without a doubt the best presentations 1957 ever saw. And other agencies, represented by self-serving speeches that look to justify their lamprey's latch on my parishioners' pockets.

Ah well -- I'm far from bold, so I rejoice in what God has done in our Annual Conference and what he may yet do with and through us, even me.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Reaching Up

I'm a fan of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels who's been seriously disappointed with the last two outings of the wandering adventurer. Thus, I was apprehensive about the new Gone Tomorrow. Many are the book series that have lost steam after a certain point, and two clunkers in a row can indicate that ol' Mr. Steam has indeed made bye-bye.

Child switches to first-person narration for Gone Tomorrow, a move he's made in a few other Reacher novels based on what he feels suits the narrative best. Maybe that change shakes him up enough to kick out a good story without lazy plot contrivances like Nothing to Lose's evil land baron/clergyman. Or maybe Child just got stuck with a couple of dumb ideas at work -- that happens to everyone, but when "work" is the publication of best-selling novels, the dumb part is a lot more public and stretches out over a longer period of time.

Whatever the reason, Gone Tomorrow is a definite upswing from its two predecessors and reminds readers why they liked Child in the first place. Quick pacing, characters who may be a little cookie-cutter but who are given enough twist to be interesting, taut action are all present, and in service to a focused story that doesn't prompt a reader to wonder, "Are we there yet?"

Reacher, riding a New York City subway, encounters a woman he believes to be a suicide bomber. He's not entirely accurate, and his conversation with the woman draws the attention of the New York City Police, a number of shadowy federal agents and several others whose motives are as hidden as their capacity for violence is open. Reacher wades through the whole mess for reasons of his own, and series fans know he won't stop until he's satisfied, no matter what he might get in his way.

Here and there Child indulges himself the way a best-seller author can -- he spends an entire page describing a tranquilizer dart gun and how it works before noting that someone's pointing such a gun at Reacher, for example. But those indulgences are infrequent enough to merely annoy, not clog the story.

Gone Tomorrow doesn't match series peaks like Without Fail, Running Blind or Die Trying. But it most definitely does represent a welcome return to form for Child and his enigmatic wanderer.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Like Fine Wine...

Kansas City Star and Sports Illustrated sports columnist Joe Posnanski offers some statistics and thoughts on what it takes to be a 300-game winner in major league baseball.

The 300 mark is considered pretty much the tiptop of achievement for modern pitchers, given the increasing use of relief pitchers, which tends to trim the win counts, and the five-man rotation, which limits the number of appearances. Warren Spahn's 363 wins is tops among pitchers of the modern era, and even Spahn is left looking way way up at the peaks represented by legends like Cy Young and Christy Mathewson (Not to mention the immortal Pod Galvin, who was the first pitcher to ever reach the 300 mark, in 1888. Rumor has it the Washington Nationals are interested in conducting a seance in order to give him a look). Tom Glavine's 305 wins (the chart at Baseball Almanac needs a little updating) is tops among active pitchers. If he finishes out his rehab well, he could add to that total. He'd have to win 20 games a year for three years to catch Spahn, when he'd be 46.

Massive win totals like Young's 511 or Walter Johnson's 417 occurred during the so-called "dead-ball" era, which heavily favored pitchers. At 20 wins a season, Glavine would be 48 before he caught Johnson and 53 before he matched Young. Not likely, unless he figured out the perfect way to combine Phil Niekro's knuckleball, Gaylord Perry's spitter and Roger Clemens' training regimen.

Posnanski's number games show that the pitchers who reach 300 wins were not necessarily those who started out winning large numbers of games. By the time he was 25, Dwight "Doctor K" Gooden had won 119 games. But injuries, drug problems and legal issues dogged him, and in the 11 years following, he only won 75 games to finish six games shy of 200 wins, let alone 300.

The key to winning 300 is success in pitching after a player turns 35, according to the numbers. Which buttresses any number of sports clichés that follow along the lines of "It ain't how you start, it's how you finish." Randy Johnson should earn win No. 300 in the next few weeks and after him, Philadelphia's Jamie Moyer has a shot sometime in 2011 if he stays healthy and manages at least 17 wins a season. I'm rooting for them both; they're the rare major leaguers actually older than me so I want to see them do good.

And Moyer is a good example of Posnanski's findings; he has double-digit win totals only twice in the first ten years of his career (1987 and 1993). By the time he was 25, he had played only three seasons and had 28 wins. The next few years featured a two-win season with the Rangers (1990), a no-win season with the Cardinals (1991) and a no-play-at-all season (1992). But between the ages of 34-40, Moyer earned 113 wins and had two 20-win seasons (2001 and 2003).

Hey. It ain't how you start, it's how you finish.

If I Could Put Time in a Bottle... (I'd Probably Spill It)

Physicist Sean Carroll, blogging at Discover Magazine online, offers up these rules for time travel.

Rule No. 10 is bound to be a major disappointment for those of us who wish we could re-write our past decisions. Of course, if we actually could go back and do that, the movie The Butterfly Effect shows us the horrifying consequences: We would become Ashton Kutcher.

(H/T Opuszine)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Coincidence Again?

My grandmother shares a birthday with Mr. T.

Although Grandma showed up about 45 years earlier and thus had prior claim, I am willing to grant that Mr. T is more famous and thus more people will note today as his birthday rather than hers.

On the other hand, a cake with 102 candles just might match the light level of Mr. T's jewelry.

Friar's Postulate, No. 1

The decibel level of a person's shout at a high school commencement tends to vary directly with whether or not the shouter thinks his or her life peaked in high school.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Checking in With Chuck

My Methodist readers might find this article on Charles Wesley, from Books and Culture magazine, interesting.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Book 'Em Part 2: Electric Boogaloo

Clive Cussler apparently writes thrillers 24 hours a day -- Corsair is one of four books released under his name this year. It's the latest in his "Oregon Files" series, first co-written with Craig Dirgo and now Jack Du Brul. These six books feature the mysterious Corporation, a high-tech black operations outfit that handles sensitive matters for the U.S. government using an impressive variety of weaponry and equipment. Led by The Chairman, Juan Cabrillo, the Corporation operates from the Oregon, a tramp steamer that looks barely afloat but which conceals an entire Bond movie's worth of gear, shootin' irons of all kinds and a crew of rough and ready agents. In Corsair, the Corporation must rescue the U.S. Secretary of State, who was kidnapped when her plane was shot down over Libya. There's also a connection to a Barbary-pirate-era ship and legend of treasure thrown in for good measure. It's all kind of preposterous, and any depth the characters have they've borrowed from the Techno-Thriller Office of Central Casting. But Cussler doesn't pretend he's doing anything different and it seems he can't write a bad action scene. Corsair is a zipline of a read that will rush by quickly and probably not linger, but which is a lot of fun while it lasts.
Dead Silence is the 16th "Doc Ford" novel by Randy Wayne White. Ford is a marine biologist who also happens to be a sometimes-retired secret agent. He lives in South Florida and consults with a number of clients in both of his fields of expertise. Several oddball characters populate the area and circulate in and out of the Doc Ford novels, including his hippie stoner pal with a mysterious past, Tomlinson. That past plays a role in Dead Silence. While visiting a lady friend who happens to be a U.S. Senator, Ford foils an attempt to kidnap her. Unfortunately, the kidnappers get the teenage essay contest winner who the Senator was showing around New York City on his prize tour, and she enslists Doc's aid to find the boy before time runs out. Although the series has a big following and Doc's had some entertaining adventures, Dead Silence is a big sprawling mess, mashed together like a series of writing exercises someone's tried to craft into a novel using tacked-on transitions. The story hangs on a baker's dozen of coincidences, each individually less plausible than a royal flush deal from Doc Holliday. Together they add up to a tale even more unlikely than surviving a negative performance review from Darth Vader. As sauce, White throws in a couple of ugly -- and in one case, completely irrelevant -- murders.
With Brimstone, Robert B. Parker supposedly brings to a close his trilogy featuring Old West lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. In Appaloosa and Resolution, detective novelist Parker found a new vein of creativity and energy that his other series of books had begun to sorely lack. Time will tell if Parker decides to continue Cole and Hitch as a series; he had originally planned for Appaloosa as a stand-alone, but fan response brought forth the other two books. In Brimstone, Cole and Hitch find themselves in a town of that name, having found Cole's wandering lady-love, Allie French. They hire on as deputies and see that trouble may be in the offing between saloon owner Pike and town preacher Brother Percival. Allie has begun to attend services at Brother Percival's church, but Cole and Hitch must find a way to keep the law and play no favorites. Brimstone is a fun enough read for a Western fan but is also easily the weakest of the three Cole-Hitch books. That Percival is up to no good is obvious from the get-go. The evil clergyman is a lazy trick for any novelist and it's especially so for Parker; in 36 Spenser novels, eight Jesse Stone novels, six Sunny Randall novels and a dozen others, Parker has had probably one honest, straight-dealing religious character (a nun who works with runaways in 2002's Jesse Stone entry, Death in Paradise). Brimstone stands head, shoulders and Stetson above anything Parker's modern characters have done in the last several years, but this kind of shoddy shortcut makes me hope he either really is finished with Cole and Hitch or he can manage to match future volumes to Appaloosa's level.

Unkindest Cut of All

What's Swedish for "ouch?"

The actor quoted, Stellan Skarsgård, is a Swede playing the German commander of the Pope's Swiss Guard, making him pretty much half of Europe in one character. But at least he got promoted; in the novel the character Skarsgård played was the second in command of the Guard.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Not What They Seem?

A gathering of neuroscientists and psychologists -- otherwise known as a group that nobody else wants to hang around, because they would know just how messed up both your mind and your brain were by the way your eyes blinked -- has selected their winners in a "Best Visual Illusions" contest.

The prizes were awarded at the Naples Center for the Philharmonic Arts in Naples, Florida, which is proof that the people who thought up this contest are smarter than any group I'm connected with. I'm a United Methodist pastor, and three of our last four church-wide General Conferences have been in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Fort Worth.

In any event, this is the fifth edition of the contest, in which people design simulations that show how normal functions of our brains and eyes combine to fool us into thinking we see something we really don't see. Sometimes the illusions reveal new information to the scientists who study them as well.

To make the third-place illusion, a guy at Harvard did a little digital retouching of a photo of a person's face and showed his original and the new pic side-by-side. People thought one picture was of a man and one was of a woman, even though all the man did was use some deeper shadows to make the features more defined in one picture. This may have something to do with Harvard's Hasty Pudding theater group in which men dress like women, or not.

The second place illusion shows how afterimages of color linger and fill white spaces in a picture. A Tel Aviv University researcher made an animation that moves a white dove across a blank white space. The blank space flashes a color for a second and then flashes it off. Even though the dove remains white, the eye tends to fill it in with an afterimage of color. The dove carries a paintbrush in its mouth, and since we know doves can't write, it obviously intends some nefarious and vandalistic acts -- which we all know doves don't need pens to commit.

The winner demonstrates how a curveball seems to break to one side in a batter's vision. When the pitcher throws a curve, the spin makes the air on one side of the ball move faster than the other, pushing it in a fairly gentle curve. But because the ball travels from our peripheral vision when it's close to the pitcher to the center of our vision when it gets close to the plate, it can seem to break in one direction quite suddenly. Such a break explains a significant percentage of my strikeouts when I was a kid -- although not all of them.

The Bucknell University professor who developed the animation says that because the ball seems to shift suddenly, a hitter's timing can be thrown off, and the curveball is tougher to hit. Perhaps. Longtime baseball movie fans, of course, have heard an alternate explanation.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Glass House? Let's Play Catch!

MSNBC anchor David Shuster, in watching Miss California Carrie Prejean and Miss USA pageant owner Donald Trump hold a news conference to say that Ms. Prejean can keep her crown, was just sickened by the shallowness and superficiality of it all. Apparently literally, because he asked his co-anchors if he could vomit in response to The Donald and Ms. Prejean's words. Mr. Shuster is nothing if not polite to his co-hosts.

Shape that in your mind: A beauty pageant winner is being called out for superficiality by a man who reads a TelePrompTer for a living. Mr. Shuster did win a regional Emmy for reporting about a housing scandal in Arkansas, but let's not pretend that he would have a seat on a national newscast of any kind if he lisped, or had a skin condition, or didn't test well with promo audiences. For all I know, Mr. Shuster is right about the shallowness of Ms. Prejean (The Donald's superficiality goes without question) and of beauty pageants in general. But before he climbs all the way to the top of Mt. Dudgeon about what kind of damage that superficiality does to our culture, he might check out the mirror...

Never mind. I forgot he has to do that before he goes on the air anyway.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Next Time It Won't Be Tea...

President Obama's proposed overhaul of the health-care system may cost a projected $1.2 trillion. That will have to be paid for in real dollars, and the government has only once source of real dollars: Us.

So there will have to be ways to get that money from us in order for it to be available for that system. The government will increase taxes somewhere in order to get that money from us, because that is the way government gets money from us. The Senate Finance Committee is hearing proposals about what kinds of taxes can be enacted to raise the money. Among those proposals is one from the Center for Science in the Public Interest to tax sugary sodas and drinks a few extra cents.

The Congressional Budget Office, which crunches numbers on proposals like this, estimates that bumping the price of a 12-ounce soda by three cents will raise $24 billion towards the health care plan. If you want to crunch some numbers on your own, you will find that this tax would fund two percent of that estimated $1.2 trillion.

Except, of course, that it won't. The Center's proposal wouldn't tax diet drinks or drinks that are considered healthier, which fits with its goals of promoting consumption of healthier products. So instead of buying sugary sodas, fruit drinks, energy drinks or other things that the Center says are bad for you and which now cost more, you would buy drinks that they say are good for you. Fewer sugary drinks sold means fewer tax dollars come in from selling them, leaving you a couple billion short when the bill is due.

Chances are good that the people who support such a tax are aware of this. They aren't advocating it as a serious method of raising money for a health care plan, but as a way of using the federal government's power to tax to influence behavior in a way they think is better for people. The use of small numbers is a way to sort of sneak this idea through -- in order to fund all of the plan's costs, for example, that 12-ounce can of tooth decay would need to cost $1.50 more than it does now. Do that and nobody would buy the stuff, and nobody who wants to drink it would sit still for the tax, either. Congresspersons of all stripes would receive, I am sure, a landslide of public opinion against that kind of measure.

I drink the diet stuff myself, so I wouldn't be out any money in this idea. But the problem comes in when we realize that no one elected the Center for Science in the Public Interest to guide our behavior. It also comes in when we think about what other kinds of impacts this change could have. People stop drinking soda and start drinking, say, water. Bottled water. Plastic-bottled water. Waitaminute, says the Sierra Club. Plastic bottles make up a lot of trash and we've been trying to reduce how much trash we throw away. Maybe we'd like a tax on them in order to reduce how many of them get made.

I don't know about you, but that's not a series of dominoes I want to see start falling.

Trekkin' 2

Hey, if they can make sequels out the wazoo with these movies, I can make a second Star Trek post in a row, too.

A few days have gone by, so this shouldn't be too spoiler-y, but if it is, sorry. I've warned you. My favorite scene from the movie is Bruce Greenwood as Captain Christopher Pike talking to one James T. Kirk after said Kirk has gotten himself beaten up a little by some Starfleet cadets. Pike stopped the fight before he knew who Kirk was, but has now learned the young man whose behind he saved is the son of a hero.

Pike is overseeing a recruiting trip and gives Kirk a little speech about joining Starfleet and doing something with his life. Kirk doesn't want much to do with uniforms and regulations and such, but Pike sees he is a young man who doesn't really know much of what he wants. He closes with my favorite line in the movie:

"Your father was the captain of a starship for 12 minutes. He saved the lives of 800 people, including yours. I dare you to do better."

That's not a very sensitive thing to say, since George Kirk was killed saving those lives. It also promotes competition, and doesn't seem to take into account young Jim's self-esteem. It would probably tend to make him try to measure up to his father's memory, which of course is impossible since the man is gone and memories enlarge things many times over.

I guess those are the reasons I like it so much. Sometimes we move ahead and do great things because we've been nurtured and cared for and we've been given confidence in our abilities to do them. We've been shown that we have gifts and skills and we have the support of people who care about us and even if we fail we know we'll still have that support. We need those things to make us healthy people.

And sometimes we need a spur, a goad, a kick in that region that has been designated as the proper target for motivating impacts. If nurturing and care have given us the fuel of ability and skill for achievement, sometimes it will be a flare of irritation, a spark of "I'll show you" or the friction of "I can so do that" that ignites the fire.

At a recent conference, I heard a speaker offer the Lake Wobegonesque assertion that everyone is capable of excellence. Maybe. And maybe we should be dared to do better.

Friday, May 8, 2009


Of course, nerd that I am, I had to see the new Star Trek movie this afternoon. I've been ambivalent about it -- director J. J. Abrams is a TV guy, through and through, and all but one of the Trek movies focusing on the Next Generation cast have been TV episodes writ large, to their detriment. On the other hand, a reboot could energize the franchise. I don't have a real review -- people who intend to see this movie will see it and people who don't won't, without much reference to what I think or even what a real life critic who gets paid to spout off thinks. Just some thoughts about the experience:

1) Karl Urban is fantastic as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy. The irascible DeForest Kelley created one of the most human characters in the original show by playing the good doctor, and Urban know how to follow that path in his own way.

2) Zachary Quinto works as Spock -- in some ways, the most iconic character of the franchise, the one that even people who know nothing about the show know something about. Quinto doesn't imitate Leonard Nimoy, who created the role, but he obviously studied and learned from Nimoy's work.

3) The new Enterprise is ugly. Graceful engine nacelles are now lumpy, looking like someone put a too-tall spoiler on a sleek sports car. Too many interiors are now gloomy and industrial-looking, something that's kind of hard to accept on a ship that's supposed to be brand new.

4) Simon Pegg is funny as Scotty, but so what?

5) Chris Pine is the entire reason this movie was derided as "Star Trek 90210" when clips and pictures began to be released, with good reason. He's generic, bland and seems to have spent more time watching Han Solo than William Shatner. Shatner had a magical combination of ham and talent that let him create a character at the same time he was chewing more scenery than the Master Thespian. I found myself wishing the actor who plays James' father was the one actually playing the lead role, and he had about three minutes of screen time to establish himself.

6) Abrams' TV-ness is all over the film, full of close-ups , jumpy cuts and small-frame vision. The script has more holes than story, and borrows from better than a half-dozen sci-fi blockbusters of the last 30 years. It has scenes that waste time do nothing for the story or the characters. The link to the original series is effective mostly as a stick jammed into the spokes of a wheel; the movie takes a long time to get moving again when it happens.

7) Previews are often chosen based on the idea that the audience will be seeing movies similar in some ways to the feature presentation. Based on the previews at the theater I chose, Hollywood expects a lot of really dumb moviegoers this summer. I can't say, based on the previews, which one of Will Farrell's Land of the Lost, Jack Black's Year One or the Transformers sequel will be the stupidest, but I can say that I won't waste any time finding out.

If it had been either a complete re-boot, a la Batman Begins, or if the original TV series had never existed, Star Trek would have been an excellent summer kick-off. But as it is, we've got a not-that-bad start that I don't think is going to spawn any lasting memories. If it earns a sequel, maybe Pine will be able to add a little gravity and presence to his version of James T. Kirk, and Abrams can both start to think with a big-screen pallette and use writers who think with movie minds as well. There's reason to hope so, anyway.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Almost Got It...

Figure out a way to print one on bacon and you'll have me at "Hello."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

These Aren't the Droids You're Looking For

And there was never any Air Force One jet flying low over Manhattan, escorted by an F-16, either...

Buyer's Remorse

Can we give him back?

I Think I've Found Our Problem...

So, in Washington D.C., seat of government of the world's most powerful nation, the beacon of freedom, the place everybody wants to get to or be like, you know what can get you a parking ticket?

Parking in your own driveway.

Yes, if you park in a certain part of your driveway, you can get a ticket. Not because you have a cruddy old clunker that looks like Bo and Luke jumped it over one too many washed-out bridges. Not because you've got it plastered with bumper stickers for causes that make Lyndon LaRouche say, "I think that's a little out there." Not even because it's one of those "Scourges of Nichols Hills," a pickup truck out where everyone can see it.

Nope, just because you parked it too close to the street. According to Washington city ordinances, the land on your lot between the property line and what they call the "building restriction line" is actually public property that you maintain for them because you're such a swell old bean that you like doing things like that. In practice, according to the linked story, that means everything past your front door is city property, and you can't park your private vehicle on public property.

Now -- for a price -- the city will lease that land to you and you can consider it yours. This may have been what you thought that money you sent to mortgage company was supposed to be doing, but you are obviously a small-minded un-public-spirited yahoo. A city official says that the lease agreements and tickets are not extortion.

Of course they're not. Extortion is what you call it when people use illegal means to threaten you with some kind of harm in order to get money from you. The ordinances, tickets and lease fees are all legal, created and enforced by duly-elected officials and employees doing their jobs.

It's not extortion, it's government.

(H/T Galley Slaves)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Weekly Dose!

Of cyber-sominex, over here on the sermon blog.