Saturday, February 27, 2010

Turn the Page

John Sandford, the pen name of Miami and St. Paul newsman John Camp, will publish his 20th "Prey" novel featuring Minnesota investigator Lucas Davenport in May. Over the last few years, he's begun branching out, adding some books to his series on ├╝ber-hacker and thief Kidd and in 2007, beginning a new series with another investigator, Virgil Flowers. Flowers works for Davenport and is called in to probe bizarre or high-profile crimes, and Rough Country is his third outing. It's entertaining enough, although Camp makes what for him is the rare goof of telegraphing the villain behind the murder of a high-powered ad executive at a women's resort in rural Minnesota. His writing -- Camp owns a Pulitzer -- is as crisp as ever and the story never bogs down or clunks, although the characterization of Flowers doesn't pop out as much as in earlier books. The investigator seems less like an interesting person and more like a collection of quirks draped over a hangar and made to look like one. Camp's tendency to give the Flowers novels a kind of frat-boy brattiness doesn't help much with that, but there are a lot worse things decorating the bookshelves of America today than Rough Country and a lot worse ways to spend a few hours.
-----
Stephen Coonts is one of the brand names of modern techno-thrillers, sending secret agents, assassins and troubleshooters all over the world to right wrongs, neutralize bad guys and, on a fairly regular basis, save the world. In 2002's Saucer, he lightens up a bit by introducing farmboy genius Rip Cantrell, who happens across an ancient flying saucer while on a summer geologic survey with an oil company. A wealthy but greedy industrialist wants to exploit the saucer for its knowledge and make even more money, while government officials want to hide it while trying to learn its secrets. Rip, on the other hand, thinks it's his since he's the one who found it, and he wants its technology to benefit the whole world. He's helped by former U.S. Air Force pilot Charlotte "Charley" Pine, who just happens to be near his age, gorgeous and a superb aviator. Coonts wrote Saucer with a definite twinkle in his eye, walking the line between parodying his own techno-thriller genre and telling the story straight. Saucer could be a fine neighbor to the old juveniles that Robert Heinlein wrote for Scribner's, and is just as much fun to read.
-----
Modern thriller writers get more wrong about the Bible and church history than almost any other subject, but the history of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, usually known as the Knights Templar or the Templars, runs a close second. Jack Whyte, in Knights of the Black and White, manages to combine wild speculation about both into a didactic series of lectures that sinks what starts as a pretty fun medieval adventure. Whyte suggests that Hugues de Payens, the founder of the Templars, created the order as a cover for his real work, which was excavating the Temple of Solomon for the secret Order of the Rebirth of Sion of which he was a member. The Order guards secret knowledge handed down for thousands of years, which proves that Jesus was human, Paul was an evil manipulator, and that most everything the official church teaches is false. History records the names of only a few of the original nine Templars and records almost nothing of de Payens beyond his birth in France somewhere around 1070 and his death in 1136. A tabula this rasa makes an excellent canvas for pseudo-history, and Whyte borrows liberally from the discredited Michael Baigent/Richard Leigh theses of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in doing so. That would be no problem if he didn't insist on lecturing through his characters' mouths every couple of chapters about biblical scholarship, theology, morals and the like, and making a new shocking! revelation in between. Whyte can write some wonderful passages, as when his knights excavate an ancient chamber built exactly like one of their meeting-houses, but he's so consumed with showing why Everything You've Ever Known is Wrong that he kills any enjoyment he may have earlier developed. Get 50 pages or so from the end of Knight and grit your teeth and promise yourself you'll slog through to the finish. Then remember it's the first of a trilogy and toss it into the book donation pile.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Gonna Break This Rusty Cage...And Run

This past day has been the birthday of Johnny Cash. Hope you wore black.

I closed out the day with the song from the post title, and I believe it has made me manly enough that Chuck Norris calls me "sir."

We now return you to your regular schedule of days, wherein you may wear any color you choose, just as long as you remember "the ones who are held back."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Things I Learned Today

These are things I learned watching the different TV sets that were on at the gym when I was on the elliptical (I'm not able to read when I'm on that thing -- I wish I could figure out how to keep my balance and still work hard while not holding the handles). In order, from left to right:

1) Bill O'Reilly is a blowhard, which I can't understand. I've seen some clips of his interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from back when she was running for president and he did probably the best interview I saw with her -- and Clinton herself came off looking better than she did in most other pieces. So he knows how to be a journalist, but it seems like he doesn't want to.

2) Even though not a single one of the players on the court were even born when I was at Northwestern, it's still a lot of fun watching the Wildcats win basketball games, especially when it's a nearly 20-point thumpin' of a team that they lost to earlier in the season.

3) American skier Lindsey Vonn's crash yesterday was the most important thing to ever happen in the Olympics, if we judge by the number of replays.

4) Even the mighty Clancy Brown can't save a TV show that stinks and borrows from a dozen other series before it gets out of opening credits.

5) On last season's Survivor (note to self: Ask The Boss why in His name this silly show is still on the air), contestant Russell played dirty trick after dirty trick on his teammates and it earned him a direct path to second place because nobody wants to give a million dollars to a jerk if they don't have to. (second note to self: Remember to stop going to gym so that you end up having to watch the TVs when Survivor is on) Showing that he's as smart as he is likable, on tonight's episode Russell buried his tribe's machete and snickered about plans to hide another player's hat. Genetics may have made Russell short. But he's made himself small all by his lonesome.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Please Stay Within Camera Range

So, when a school gives every kid a laptop, you know the school is only interested in making sure the student has access to the latest educational tools available, right?

Well, maybe not. Macbooks given to students in one Pennsylvania school district have a webcam, and they also have this security feature that allows the school district to turn the webcam on remotely. They use this to help locate stolen or lost computers.

Or, one family alleges in a lawsuit, they used it to spy on a student and then accuse him of selling drugs, while he was in his own home. The student denies he was selling drugs, but even if he was, he wasn't at school at the time.

School district officials say that only two school tech workers have access to the remote webcam feature. And of course they'll never leave a password laying around, or let something slip, or get curious about what you might actually see in Joe or Jane Student's bedroom (empty pizza boxes and mountains of dirty clothes in the former, many many home-made signs saying "Edward + Bella 4 EVA!" in the latter), or turn them on to see how the kids treat the machines, and so on. And no student will ever just cover up the webcam, thus defeating this high-tech security system with the equally high-tech post-it note.

And none of this even touches the fact that this school district gave away 1,800 Macbooks -- these run just under a grand retail, and although I doubt the school district paid retail, we're talking about serious coin. Even if they got them at half price, that's still close to a million bucks. State and federal funds paid for the program, which means you and I did.

I don't know about you, but I would rather have paid for a few teachers with that money. Maybe one of them could teach 20th century English literature -- there's a fascinating book by George Orwell that I might recommend for starters.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Resolution of Thanks IV

To: The gentlemen in the locker room at my gym who participate in the senior adults' swim fitness classes.

WHEREAS, this morning eight or nine of you were gathered in the locker room of the gym following my workout, and

WHEREAS, you were lighting all of the candles on a large cookie displaying a happy birthday message to one of your number, and

WHEREAS, you had all recently exited the pool, and were standing around in all of your senior-citizens-in-wet-board-shorts glory, and

WHEREAS, one of you was heard to say, "Light those candles faster, it's freezing in here," and

WHEREAS, another of you was heard to say, "I'm glad he's so old, we need all the candles we can get," and

WHEREAS, yet another of you was heard to say, "Good thing we're taking this close to a large source of water, that's fire safety."

BE IT RESOLVED, on this twenty-second day of February in the year of our Lord two thousand ten, that I offer you my profound thanks for making my week and for giving me a bigger laugh than any Monday deserves.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Doubled Up

I was reaaallllly late in publishing last week's sermon, which is here, along with this week's which is here. I hope this will make your reading time doubly edifying.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Well, That's Just Sick

I saw this item a few days ago but am only now getting around to posting it. I have "sluggish cognitive tempo disorder," you see. I've had it for some time, I think. According to my father, I had it most often during the summer months starting at about my 12th birthday, and the triggering mechanism seems to have been Bermuda grass reaching lengths greater than three or four inches. It may release some as-yet-unknown toxin that causes this.

Actually, my father never used the phrase "sluggish cognitive tempo disorder." He used the much shorter phrase "lazy," sometimes combined with "You're not getting paid unless you cut the grass." But I am sure he was wrong, as were the various employers who at times diagnosed me with the same condition, along with my mother (see: Pig sty, this room looks like a) and sundry other authority figures who simply did not understand the burdens under which I was laboring.

Had I been born today, by the time I reached the age at which most of these different diagnoses took place (it apparently was strongest in years that end in "teen," although I still believe malpractice is involved here), I would have received the help I needed. This thanks to the wonderful members of the American Psychiatric Association, who are considering adding sluggish cognitive tempo disorder to the association's updated standard list of emotional and mental issues, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V, or "five." There is no entry, apparently, for wanting to make your group's official handbook title look like a movie sequel.

But at this rate there may be one someday. The DSM is being revised, and SCTD (as we pros call it) is one of the many possible conditions under consideration to be listed as an actual diagnosed mental problem. There are several, and you may be surprised to learn that many of them deal with sex. Apparently there are many things about sex that trouble people and that they have a difficult time figuring out. I am not sure this is a new development. I would describe some of them, but church members read this blog and so I shall be discreet. I will have to consult the DSM-V when it is published to see if that's unhealthy in some way.

Now, counseling and psychotherapy are valuable professions. If I have a problem in life that I can't figure out how to handle, why not talk to someone who's studied human behavior and who can offer me some guidance I might not be able to get on my own or from people who aren't trained? If the problem stems from some kind of neurochemical imbalance, seeing a professional is even more essential, as there may be prescribed medicines or dietary changes that can help.

But silliness like creating a diagnosable disorder out of a lack of desire to move one's sedentary behind from one's chair to do unpleasant tasks undermines the good the profession can do. How can we take seriously a claim about mental health issues when it's being made by people who label constant whining and griping "negativistic personality disorder," or people who blow up and act like jerks as suffering from "intermittent explosive disorder?"

The chair of the revision committee dismisses claims that some of the conditions under consideration are at best frivolous, or at worst moves to increase the number of reasons a practitioner might have to prescribe costly medication. He says that the revised edition will take into account the many different advances in neuroscience and behavioral science when it's published in 2013.

2013? Sounds like somebody else's cognitive tempo is pretty darn sluggish as well.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Honorees!

Today in the United States is Presidents Day, a holiday which fell to its current setting, the third Monday in February, back in 1971.

Originally, the nation celebrated Feb. 22 as Washington's Birthday, marking the birth of our first president, George Washington. In order to standardize days off and government closings, Congress moved it and several other holidays to specific Mondays. That created the problem of having a day called "Washington's Birthday," so named by federal statute, which would fall on the 15th or the 21st or somewhere in between but never on the actual birthday of the person the holiday was intended to honor. Those who wish to throw up their hands in dismay at how the federal government was somehow unable to even get the calendar right may do so at this time.

By the 1980s, the day began to be commonly known as "Presidents Day" or sometimes "Presidents' Day," pushed by advertisers and retailers who may have found that to be an easier theme on which to hang an ad campaign. Or they may have thought that having sales that used the name of the president whose portrait is found on the $1 bill would reduce the amounts customers would spend. "Presidents Day" allows a celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday (Feb. 12) as well. Lincoln's birthday was never actually a declared federal holiday, and the official name of this holiday remains Washington's Birthday.

Different states have their own observances as well -- Massachusetts honors those presidents whose political roots are in that state. Alabama observes "Washington and Jefferson" day, though the third president's birthday is not until April. For some reason, Alabamans do not take much official notice of the 16th president's birthday.

I suppose marking a "Presidents Day" of some kind that honors all of the men who have served in that office is appropriate, even though it means that we elevate disappointments like Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan to the level of Kennedy, Roosevelt or the aforementioned Washington and Lincoln. Even the worst President of the United States is still the President of the United States, and if the duty to respect the office means we have to respect some of its less-worthy occupants, that's one of the prices we pay for the privilege of citizenship in our nation.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

More Snow...

Should I ever meet former VP Al Gore, I shall be sorely tempted to place a carbon-neutral footprint upon him in such a manner as to impede his personal methane production.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What's the "M" Stand For, Again?

Sometime over the last few weeks, the channel MTV has dropped a phrase that's been on its logo from the beginning, "Music Television."

As anyone who's watched the channel for longer than fifteen minutes recently could tell you, there really hasn't been any dadgum music on the thing since we were crank-starting Model A's and paying our cable bills with Continentals. The end began back in the late 80s, when MTV noticed that people often thought highly of their local PBS stations because they broadcast funny, quirky British sitcoms. MTV programmers managed to find a British sitcom that was the exact opposite of those, and inflicted The Young Ones on their audience. Other stuff joined it.

Eventually, we had a channel filled with so-called "reality" shows in which mostly shallow people acted about as naturally as you might expect shallow people to act when there's a camera filming them and deceiving them into believing other people will find them as fascinating as they find themselves. In the meantime, MTV had spawned MTV2, VH-1 and VH-1 Classic (the company MTV Networks owns several channels, including Comedy Central and Spike TV).

This sort of "logo reduction" isn't uncommon. There's no entertainment programming on what was originally the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, so it's long been just plain ol' ESPN. You rarely see the word "Nike" on any of that company's merchandise anymore, just the swoosh logo by itself. Many McDonald's restaurants only display the Golden Arches and the name itself is absent. MTV's change best represents the kind of programming the channel airs today, for worse or not-quite-as-worse-but-still-pretty-awful.

As the Buggles told us in the first video MTV aired, "Video Killed the Radio Star." Now, not quite 30 years later, we find the video star dead as well; only this time it seems it's by his own hand.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Yikes!

So, wow. Oklahoma bloggers who submitted nominations to the Okie Blog Awards decided that the page you're currently reading should be considered for the title "Most Inspirational Blog." Many many thanks to those folks; I appreciate the recognition and the kind regard you've shown in nominating me. I can't for the life of me figure out how me grouching, running my mouth and tossing in micro-reviews of airport novels qualifies as "inspirational," but I'm thankful anyway.

These awards were originally the creation of a man named Mike Hermes, who used to blog at "Okiedoke." He's semi-retired these days. This year, JenX of the blog "Are You There, God? It's Me, Generation X" decided to continue the competition, although she's already said this will be her only time to do so. Judging by the number of categories and entries, the amount of hard work that Jen put in for this project is obvious, and she deserves many public expressions of thanks -- like this one.

The major problem with Jen handling the awards was that she disqualified her own blog from the competition, and she would have been among the top candidates in several categories. I disagree with her politics but her writing is top-notch, even if I don't quite get it when she writes poetry (but I don't get much poetry written after 1880 anyway). My slowness in adding her to the link list reflects the fact that I need to pay more attention to said list.

If you're an Okie blogger, of course, you should check out the ballot and cast your votes. I'm not going to make recommendations, except in the category that includes Friar's Fires. And in that category, I think you should vote for the blog "Life is Real." It was the blog of Jim Chastain, a guy from my hometown who wrote about his battle with cancer over the last year or so before dying just before Christmas. Jim's also a good writer who faced his struggle with a wry point of view that inspired a lot of thought -- in me, anyway.

Again, thanks to my nominators, and please don't think that my recommendation to vote for another blog means I'm ungrateful. When I see some of the company I'm in and look at the others in that category, it really does feel like an honor to be nominated.

(ETA: Forgot to say the voting deadline is midnight Sunday, Feb. 14)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sunday? Sermon!

If it's one, then the other must be true!

Verify for yourself that it is so, here.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Resolution of Thanks III

To: The gentleman who used an elliptical machine near me at my gym

WHEREAS, during the course of your exercise you respired with great energy, especially in your exhalations, for approximately one hour, and

WHEREAS, these exhalations were audible at some distance and you did indeed sound like a choo-choo train, and

WHEREAS, these audible exhalations did conclude with the lip-flapping sound known by some as a "Bronx cheer" or "blowing a raspberry," and

WHEREAS, these raspberries did also include considerable precipitation on the readout panel and other surfaces of the elliptical machine, and

WHEREAS, your post-workout wipedown of this now-irrigated machine was conducted with the same towel which you had used to remove perspiration from your brow, unaugmented by spray disinfectant or cleaning agent of any kind,

BE IT RESOLVED, on this fourth day of February of the Year of our Lord 2010, that I shall offer you my thanks for making my choice of which elliptical machine to use following my bike ride much, much easier to make.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Confusion State


A gentleman here has opined that the map of the United States be redrawn so as to allow each state to have a roughly equal number of people and thus equal representation in the Electoral College that casts the actual votes for President of the United States. Each new state would have roughly 5.5 million people in it.

On the one hand, as I reside in a state that currently casts seven electoral votes (one each for our two senators and five representatives) and which has not cast them for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson, so that could be interesting. The map creator notes two potential problems. Some counties within the new state lines might have the same name and need to distinguish themselves. And local governments would have to deal with shifts in state laws and procedures.

The first disadvantage is pretty minor. The second could be quite the little spat in some places. For example, the proposed state of Great Basin includes, in addition to parts of Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, both Nevada and Utah. Nevada's state laws allow for a few things -- prostitution, gambling, etc. -- that residents of Utah look upon unfavorably, to say the least. Legislative sessions to square up those ordinances would make quite a fun show.

And some people might want to suggest different names for their new states. We west-side Okies, for example, get the neat new name of Llano Estacado as we're merged with western Kansas and parts of Colorado, Texas and New Mexico. Western Oklahoma and western Kansas are, of course, steeped in Hispanic history (or not), but what the heck, the new name sounds cool. Eastsiders, on the other hand, merge with a sliver of northern Texas and eastern Arkansas to form "Brownia," which is quite possibly the most boring name ever conceived for a state. Northern Ohio gets to be "North Coast," but southern Ohio is stuck with "Sohio."

Missourians get to keep most of their state intact, as do Washingtonians, although the latter get renamed to Olympia. So do Michiganders. Or "Michianers." They only lose Detroit, and except for the airport, it's hard to figure out what they would miss. Other major cities, like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Dallas become their own states. New York actually becomes more than one, spawning the new state Long Island. Or Lawn Guyland, as it's said in the native tongue. So does Los Angeles, splitting into the states of Los Angeles and Orange County. One hopes the new Orange County would not then split into counties itself, because that could get confusing quickly.

One potential problem worried me until I could sort of overlay a map of the current state of Texas onto this proposal. The new Llano Estacado included the current University of Oklahoma in Norman, and it wasn't clear at first whether it also included the University of Texas at Austin (It doesn't -- Austin becomes part of Pecos). I was worried I would have to consider this idea a blasphemy against the natural order of things -- Sooners and Longhorns representing the same state? As it is, I can just point out that it's silly.