Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hoosier What?

After two weeks in which entropy decreased across the universe, light traveled at any old speed it liked and gravitational attraction varied inversely with the cube of distance, the fundamental balance was restored as the Paladins in Purple sent the Red Menace of Bloomington to the dustbin of history -- at least, for 2010.

The ever-thoughtful Cats granted the scurrilous Reds of the Moscow of Monroe County a fair chance, remaining tied 10-10 at the half before doubling their score in the second half. Much as the free world allowed the totalitarians of Godless Communism to retain a token foothold in the world -- the University of California at Berkeley -- Northwestern permitted the Hoosiers a final, face-saving touchdown with less than a minute to go before chuckling at an onside kick attempt that failed to go ten yards and restoring natural law by winning 20-17.

The Wildcats have a tough test next week, as they travel to Penn State and face off against the Nittany Lions and their seasoned leader Joe Paterno, who counts among his coaching successes the Norman victory over the Saxons in the 1066 Hastings Bowl.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

To Thrill or Not to Thrill?

The existence of Worth Dying For kind of gives away the resolution of the cliffhanger Lee Child hung on his wandering adventurer Jack Reacher at the end of 61 Hours. That book ended with no sign of Reacher or how he might have survived a huge explosion, but it would take a very high level of credibility to think that Child actually entertained the thought of bumping Reacher off and writing new books with other characters. And Child does tuck an explanation of Reacher's survival away in Worth Dying For, amidst the plot of Reacher trying to work himself out of a small Nebraska prairie town in the grip of some ruthless folks he's managed to irritate. Still battered from the explosion in Hours, Reacher is trying to recuperate and make his way to Virginia to meet the lady military cop he exchanged phone calls with in the earlier book. But he winds up entangled with the Duncans, a family whose stranglehold on the area's trucking business -- and phalanx of ex-football player bodyguards -- puts the rest of the town at their mercy. Rather than take their lumps and let Reacher be on his way, the Duncans follow in the footsteps of every other small-scale feudal lord Reacher's dealt with and wind up with a lot more trouble than they bargained for. Child mostly resists his tendency to weigh his action scenes down with exposition but not always. He makes up for that by touches like using the recurring theme of how far away cars and objects can be seen on the open prairie to emphasize the isolation of the townspeople. Reacher seems more affected by the problems of strangers than he has been for awhile, allowing himself to be drawn into a conflict he could have avoided. Worth Dying For is really nothing new for Reacher, which is a little disappointing after the way 61 Hours focused on solving puzzles using the deduction skills Reacher gained as a military policeman. Even if it does offer nothing that makes it stand out in the series, it's certainly not as bad as Nothing to Lose and offers a diverting thrill-ride of a read.
-----
Mother and daughter duo Patricia and Traci Lambrecht have spun out four tales of the crime-solving computer programmers at the software firm Monkeewrench as they work together with shoe-leather detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth. Shoot to Thrill is the fifth novel in the series, which the pair write under the pseudonym P. J. Tracy. Some of Monkeewrench's workers are among those called in by the FBI when killers begin posting actual murders on the web from untraceable sources. Special Agent John Smith is assigned to work with the Monkeewrench crew, and Magozzi and Rolseth are drawn into the mix when one of the murders happens in their city of Minneapolis. Shoot to Thrill offers less of a look at the oddball Monkeewrench crew than earlier books do, as they take a little bit of a backseat to Monkeewrench leader Grace MacBride and how Agent Smith affects her complicated relationship with Magozzi. When the Monkeewrench crew discovers clues that may point to murders yet to happen, the detectives have to work around the clock to try to determine what the clues tell them if they hope to prevent more killings. Thrill also throws in some reflection by the different characters about how widespread a phenomenon like this could become, and what that might mean in our society. The Lambrechts write a smooth story and while the dialogue about the impact of webcast murders veers close to preaching, it doesn't cross the line and get in the way of the story. And Monkeewrench series fans are definitely left with an ending they'll want to see explored in later books.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Paul is Dead

No, not that one, despite what all the conspiracy theorists say.

Paul the Soccer-Predicting Octopus is dead. And apparently, he never saw it coming.

Hoverboards for Everyone!

Different outlets noted this week that 25 years ago, the first of three Back to the Future movies came out, making Michael J. Fox a big-time box-office star. The media interest coincides with the release of special "25th anniversary editions" of the movie, which actually opened in July. The first of the wacky time-travel trilogy was the best, offering some interesting contrasts as 1985 teen Marty McFly dealt with the world of his parents' teenage years, 1955. Christopher Lloyd has played approximately one million different character roles, but will probably always be best known as Doc Brown, the scientist whose flux capacitor enabled these hijinks.

And what does our sophisticated, enlightened modern age give us the week we celebrate this anniversary? Saw 3D.

Now I really do want to get back in time.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Few Suggestions...

Our World Series this year will pit the Texas Rangers against the San Francisco Giants. Fans of the two teams traveling to each other's cities may require some pointers about the different cultures they encounter.

For Giants fans:
- Yes, people in Texas wear boots and leather chaps like many San Franciscans do. But they also wear pants with them.
- No, Barry, just because the Rangers are owned by a rancher does not mean they can supply you with bovine growth hormone so you can make a comeback.
- "Weed" is a plant you spray Round-Up on when it grows in your sidewalk.
- "Truckin'" is how they get around, not a song about what a long, strange trip it's been.
- A whole bunch of rodeo metaphors that can be thought of the wrong way when taken outside of their context but which are not exactly appropriate for this blog.

For Rangers fans:
-Yes, there is a bay just behind the stadium, and yes, they sell raw fish in the concession stands. But it's not bait, it's sushi. Leave the rods and reels in the truck.
- No, Tim Lincecum did not get his hair done at his sister's salon because he lost a bet with her. He seems to wear it that way by choice. And do not crowd the plate.
- Those are not model trains. They are streetcars, and people use them pretty frequently.
- While they may fall down when they're "tripping," do not be surprised if they look at the helping hand you extend them and ask why it's got green and purple flowers growing out of it.
- A whole bunch of rodeo metaphors that can be thought of the wrong way when taken outside of their context but which are not exactly appropriate for this blog.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

National Crisis!

The number of Big Ten football coaches willing to condemn their souls to fiery pits for all of eternity to win football games makes me fear for the continued moral fiber of our country.

A Deal's a Deal...

The Scene: Generic office, lighting subtly red-toned. A well-dressed man sits in front of a desk. He is nervous, pulling at his collar and frequently checking his watch. The man behind the desk has his back to us and he is gesturing with one arm while talking loudly on the phone. He hangs up, but doesn't turn around, and begins speaking.

CHAIR MAN: This is bad, I tell you. Bad, bad, bad.

NERVOUS MAN: You have to know I did everything I could. I mean, there are limits to what I'm allowed to do...

CHAIR MAN (interrupts): I don't care about your "limits," Applegate! I care about results! Always have, always will! Results matter! Excuses don't!

NERVOUS MAN/APPLEGATE: But they had Nolan Ryan on their side! Seven no-hitters! Do you know who you have to know to get seven no-hitters? What kind of pull you have to have?

CHAIR MAN: We had a deal, Applegate! Contracts were signed! Promises were made! And you don't live up to your end! You know what that means!

APPLEGATE: No! You can't do this! Not to me!

Chair turns, revealing man behind the desk to be GEORGE STEINBRENNER. He leans over the desk and grins.

STEINBRENNER: Oh yes I can, bub. Meet the new Boss! (Laughs)


Fade to black while STEINBRENNER laughs and APPLEGATE slumps forward, head in his hands.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Radio Revived!

This morning I heard "Hang On" from Say You're a Sinner, by Green Corn Revival, one of my favorite local bands.

On my radio. Thanks, Ferris.

A Bit Daft, Wot?

So this guy who's having his house in London renovated takes a break and goes, as they say over there, "on holiday." When he comes back home, the door locks have been changed because 15 unemployed Italians moved in while he was gone and are claiming something called "squatter's rights." They posted a notice and everything. Technically, the legal concept at hand is something called "adverse possession," which involves people moving onto unused or semi-abandoned property and developing or otherwise making it productive.

Since the new "tenants" aren't doing anything but sitting around watching the homeowner's DVD's and having their pictures taken, a successful adverse possession claim is unlikely. As is the chance that they will understand the phrase "adverse possession," or much of anything else requiring them to exert effort on their own.

The man can't just call the police to have them evicted, because squatting in England is not a criminal matter, but a civil one. Meaning he has to sue them to get them to leave, instead of just having their lazy layabout hindquarters hauled off to some other free housing, courtesy of Her Majesty's constables. They claim the front door was unlocked and the neighbors told them no one had lived there for two years, and since they can't afford to pay rent someplace, they have the right to move into a house they don't own on property they don't own. They also claim to be students, but one might be a bit wary of accepting their word about that...or much else, I imagine.

It may turn out that the squatters are evicted from the property, and that someone in authority in England has a momentary lapse into reason and decides to ship them right on out of the country. They then may decide to do what many people unable to find opportunities in Europe have done for the last two or three hundred years and move to America. In which case I have advice they should heed, and that most closely:

Do not try to pull this stunt in Texas.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Roughing It

Benoit Mandelbrot was the mathematician who invented a way to "measure roughness," so to speak, coining the phrase "fractal equations" to describe what he was doing. His afterlife may contain an endless blackboard and chalk that never runs out, quite possibly heaven for a math professor.

Mandelbrot started thinking about the mathematical consequences of the idea of roughness when, as a young researcher, he considered the question, "How long is the coast of Britian?" Obviously, that could be measured in miles and an answer given. But, Mandelbrot thought, the smaller the scale of measurement, the more uncertainty went into the final result. The coast was not a straight line but a jagged one, zigging back and forth and adding distance to the measurement. Not only inlets and bays had to be considered, but when you dropped the scale small enough, large rocks could affect the final answer. Make it smaller, and even gravel had to be taken into account in order to be precise. In fact, the more Mandelbrot considered the problem, the closer he came to believing that there was no exact length of the coast, because the precise measurement would have to take the variations caused by subatomic particles into account, and that wasn't possible.

Dr. Mandelbrot leaves behind the idea of fractal equations and a particular equation called, in his honor, the Mandelbrot set. Mandelbrot sets create the different bizarre repeating shapes that we see in posters, album covers and T-shirts. Those drawings are actually the graphs of these strange equations. Some equations, when the answers are plotted on graph paper, make curves and are named after the shape of those curves. Thus, equations that plot out as "parabolas" are "parabolic equations," those that plot as hyperbolas are "hyperbolic equations," those that plot as ellipses are "elliptical equations," and so on. All of these are so-called smooth curves, though, and Mandelbrot brought a whole different set of circumstances to the table when he began dealing with equations that were not smooth, but were rather "rough," like things found in the real world.

Some equations do not have exact solutions and their graphs do not make simple curves. Instead, the graph is a pattern that repeats itself, usually smaller and smaller each time, but never actually finishes even though the pattern may become too small to measure even with microscopes. The equations which produce these pictures are often weird and have answers that seem to make no sense. For example, one such equation shows that there are an infinite number of numbers between 1 and 2, or 2 and 3, or any other pair of numbers. Half the numerical "distance" between 1 and 2 is 1.5. Half the "distance" between 1.5 and 2 is 1.75. Halfway between 1.75 and 2 is 1.875, and so on ad infinitum. The repetition of the equation is called "iteration," and fractals are equations that near -- but never reach -- zero as they continue to iterate. Since you can never find a pair of numbers between which you cannot slip another number, you literally have "infinity" between any two numbers you can name.

Reading a little about him at the obit and here, one learns Mandelbrot was a bit of an eccentric. That's kind of what you'd expect, though, from a guy who, if asked, "What's between 1 and 2?" might answer, "Everything."

(H/T University Diaries, which used the headline I wanted to use)

Eternal June

Although she was probably far too much of a nice lady to have ever done this, I always wanted Barbara Billingsley to show up when someone complained about the ridiculousness of her cleaning her house, cooking, etc., in heels and pearls. I thought she could grab that person's collar, yank him or her in close and say, "I cleaned in heels and pearls because I am that...darn...good. Punk."

Ms. Billingsley is now a part of the place where there are no reruns, passing away at 94. My favorite role she played was "Jive Lady," in the 1980 comedy Airplane!. While it took the comedic genius of the Zucker-Abrahams crew to suggest that June Cleaver "spoke jive," Ms. Billingsley herself made the laugh one of the movie's best just by being her and speaking the words, "Jus' hang loose, blood," and by using the phrase "jive-ass dude."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Case of Partial Extreme

Earlier today I heard Blondie's tear-down of gossip-columnizing the world, "Rip Her to Shreds," from their 1976 debut Blondie (This is the song that said TMZ.com would be awful well before anyone had ever thought of TMZ or the internet).

On my radio. Thanks, Ferris.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

¡Viva la República de Chile!

Some days, the world works likes it's supposed to.

There's Some Motion in the Ocean

When you're tooling out around Saturn, some 1.46 billion kilometers (900 million miles or so) from the sun, things are pretty cold. So if one of Saturn's moons has water on it, you'd expect that water to be ice.

Then one day in 2005, the Cassini probe flew by Enceladus -- the sixth-largest of Saturn's satellites -- and found something very interesting: It seemed to have sprung a leak. The four streaks spouting from the south pole of the moon in the photo here are actually gigantic plumes of water, shooting into space. Scientists found this out in 2008 after Cassini gathered and analyzed the ice crystals made by the plumes after they had refrozen. In fact, they're salty, which means water is liquid on Enceladus long enough to dissolve minerals into it, like in our oceans.

The problem is that Enceladus is too small and too far from the sun to maintain liquid water. A moon or planet has to be within a certain range of its sun or be large enough to generate enough of its own heat to keep chemicals and compounds from freezing. We're close enough to the sun, for example, that many substances are liquids at our average temperatures. Saturn and Jupiter are so large that, even though they are much farther away from the sun than we are, they generate enough internal heat to maintain the gaseous or liquid nature of the different substances that make them up.

Soo, how does this dinky little moon manage to have water, and in enough abundance that scientists think it might actually be possible for it to support some kind of life? Originally, scientists figured that the stress of tides generated during Enceladus' orbit of Saturn would generate heat. Enceladus is about three-fifths as far from Saturn as our moon is from us. Saturn is much, much larger than the earth, so its gravity creates tidal stresses much more powerful. The way those stresses pull the moon this way and that could provide enough friction within its own surface to heat the water to a liquid point. But the computer models didn't quite work, so they started looking for other factors, and they found a wobble.

The wobble not only generates more heat by making the gravitational stress on Enceladus stronger and increasing friction, it also shows scientists why the icy surface of the moon cracks from time to time and allows the giant streams of water to erupt into space. Coincidentally, in Greek mythology Enceladus was one of the Gigantes defeated by the Olympians, and was imprisoned by being buried under what is now Mt. Etna in Sicily. The volcano's fiery eruptions are supposed to be his breath and the tremors which shake the island from time to time were thought to be caused by Enceladus rolling to ease the pain from his wounds.

Without exploring Enceladus, there's no way to see if there really is life in its oceans, or if the conditions are right but nobody's shown up yet. It may be that closer exploration of the moon shows the water isn't trapped in caves or a part of an ocean but something else entirely.

Either way, whatever exploration takes place is likely to produce some spectacular scenery. The Cassini probe showed some of the plumes extended as much as 500 kilometers (about 300 miles) from the surface of the moon, meaning they are as "tall" as the moon itself is "wide." They don't show up that big in the photo because of the distance Cassini is from the moon when it was taken. Maybe in a hundred years or so, Niagara Falls will take a backseat as a honeymoon destination to the Fountains of Enceladus. And even if they don't, "Fountains of Enceladus" sounds like an awesome name for a science-fiction novel. I would have said, in my best Dave Barry fashion, a good name for a rock band, but Fountains of Wayne might not have thought that was so funny.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hoping Darwin Was Wrong...

So Friday I parked at a Border's Books and Music and apparently didn't lock my truck. When I came back outside after making my purchase, I was short one gym bag and one portable jump-starter. The jump-starter is pushing five years old and I don't even know if it holds a charge anymore, and I have seen them in pawn shops for about ten bucks.

The gym bag held my workout clothes, deodorant, a nearly empty bottle of shampoo. It also held two items sure to be worthless to these thieves: A combination lock and a book. The combination lock is worthless because it was locked, can't be reset and the chances that someone will just happen on the combo are pretty minimal. The book is worthless because I'm going to presume someone who steals gym clothes capable of piloting the space shuttle before I presume them capable of understanding the concept of a book. The odds of deciphering the combination lock are better.

They left a $200 tool box that sits behind the seat of my truck, about which I am pleased and which further confirms to me that they possess suboptimal mental faculties. There is no way of knowing who they are, of course. But if prayer works, some clinic in the Norman area is going to be treating a couple of cases of painful genital warts within the next week, and those warts are going to recur. I opted against hoping for rectal warts because of the possibility that they could impede the minimal thinking of which these thieves might be capable.

This Just In...

"Purdue Sells Souls to Devil"

"Wailing, Gnashing of Teeth Predicted
As Boilermakers to Literalize Nickname"

Unfortunately, as his favorite team begins their usual October antics, the Lord of Darkness's services appear to attract many other followers all too willing to exchange eternal paradise for the fleeting glory of a Saturday afternoon win.

Oh, the humanity!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Neither Last Nor Least

Painted Ladies may not be the very last Spenser book from the late Robert B. Parker, who died in January. A Facebook page set up by his family and Amazon.com list a May 2011 date for Sixkill, another Spenser mystery, and commenters on the Facebook page suggest yet one more Jesse Stone book. Because Parker hit the word processor with a pretty solid work ethic (and because, like it or not, for the last decade or so he's been coasting so much that most of his recent work could have been done in his sleep), there may very well be other stories in his files at various stages of completion. How the family will process those for publication, or whether they may even do as some other author estates have done and hire a ghostwriter to continue the series, is still an open question.

In the meantime, there is Painted Ladies, which doesn't really come very close to the Spenser franchise's glory days of the 1970s and 1980s but which does a better job of echoing them than just about anything Parker had published since the Clinton administration. Thieves have stolen a painting and want a certain professor to deliver the ransom money. He hires Spenser as a bodyguard during the transaction, but things don't go well. Nobody holds Spenser responsible for the problems except for Spenser himself, so he goes digging for answers. Those answers will involve Nazi art thefts and cast a jaundiced eye on the silliness that pervades so much of university life, described with Parker's usual arid wit.

Along the way, we get some classic Spenser touches that Parker seemed to have forgotten or overlooked in recent novels. The events of the case give him several chances for self-reflection on who he is and why he does what he does, both in soliloquy and with his longtime paramour Susan Silverman.  Even though this failure wasn't his fault, Spenser's belief it was means he takes the consequences of it seriously, something Parker had more or less glossed over recently, like in the awful Hundred-Dollar Baby or the limp Rough Weather. Although nothing like the four-volume arc of change and growth that Spenser's failure put him and Susan on starting in A Savage Place, Ladies offers a refreshing return of a Spenser who didn't just glide through all the wrongs he had to confront without being affected by them.

A fan of the way Spenser used to describe in recipe-level detail a dish he cooks for himself and Susan? It's in there. Like the punch-by-punch recap of a top-quality scuffle, the kind of touch that used to marry Parker's literary gift and obvious intellect to a violent and sometimes scary world that's just as real? It's in there. Like the way that Spenser the tactician used his own mind and resources to outwit as well as outfight his opponents? It's in there too.

At 78, Parker would have known that his last Spenser couldn't be very many years off, even if he had no idea when it would be or that it would come so soon. Perhaps he started to write with that in mind; that each book might be his last. Perhaps he thought about how he wanted Spenser and company to step off the stage, and those thoughts brought effort and life into his writing that he'd mostly been missing for many a year. It's hard to say, and I guess Sixkill and other "final" books will show us if that's true or not. I really hope it is, because despite its own fuzzy edges and definite déjà vu shading, Painted Ladies makes a fine capstone to a couple of top-level careers: the knight-errancy of Spenser and the writing of Robert B. Parker. It'd be a shame if Sixkill and whatever else is left don't measure up to it.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Only in Someplace Somewhere

In November, Oklahoma voters will select our state's first woman governor. Both of the major party candidates are women; U.S. Rep Mary Fallin is the GOP nominee and current Lieutenant Governor Jari Askins is the Democratic candidate.

Fallin leads by wide margins in most polls, although some political watchers suggest the race could wind up being close. Askins, after all, was thought to be a longshot against Drew Edmondson during the primaries but basically worked her hind end off and defeated him. Over the last month or so, several ads have been run by a national group, the Republican Governors Association, which attempt to tie Askins' beliefs and policies to President Barack Obama's, suggesting that Askins is "too liberal" for Oklahoma. Newspapers, including the conservative-minded Daily Oklahoman, editorialized against the RGA ads, saying in essence, "Y'all butt out."

Askins herself as well as others have highlighted what they say are distorted statements in the ads, which is really no surprise, since they are political ads. If you want a one-word substitute for political ads, you may use "blatherskite" instead, so that's probably as much of that as needs be said.

I do believe that the election of more conservative, fiscally responsible governors and legislators is a must, but it always is, especially when it comes time to replace those fiscally responsible souls who turned into money spigots when Washington, D.C. or their respective state capitols began rotting their brains. And I believe that a significant spanking from the ballot box might wake up my former party (I'm now an independent) and open the door to a return of Democrats who didn't open their own checkbook for every nutjob with a grievance and try to write laws that made you open yours, too. Also Democrats who want to improve our nation -- not because they thought it sucked, but because it's the best doggone place on the planet and it only gets better when it tries to make sure everyone plays on the same field. Those Democrats exist, but they're rare, getting rarer, and mostly ignored.

Now, it's probably true that Jari Askins isn't as conservative on a lot of issues as is Mary Fallin, so a person's decision is clear if they are simply looking for who ranks higher or lower on a particular scorecard. But a few years of watching Fallin gives a strong impression that her positions are less reflective than reflexive. She doesn't give much indication of the thought process that brought her to particular beliefs and positions and seems more likely to have arrived at them because they are what conservatives think or are supposed to think. A reflective 2nd Amendment supporter, for example, has considered that handgun proliferation could prove dangerous and tries to figure out the safest way for U.S. citizens to exercise this constitutional right. A reflexive 2nd Amendment supporter, on the other hand, may be more likely to simply oppose any an all handgun regulation as someone "trying to take away our guns." I use that example without intending to attribute either position to either candidate, by the way. For one, both have "A" or "A-" ratings from the National Rifle Association, and for another, state governors don't write federal law.

I'd originally thought I'd be writing an "only in Oklahoma" piece, about how only in our state could a woman who's earned that kind of rating from the NRA and staked out some pretty conservative positions on many issues be thought of as too liberal. But then I realized that the ad which said Ms. Askins was "too liberal for Oklahomans" wasn't made by Oklahomans at all, so it's not really a matter of "only in Oklahoma" after all, but a case of an interest group trying to hornswoggle me and other Okies into doing something we may -- or may not -- want to do. That kind of folderol already got us a wacky state question to have to deal with, and we don't need any more help, thanks a lot.

So y'all butt out. And remember. According to the Republican Governors Association, even our liberals get an A- rating from the NRA, so you might want to listen.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Reporting for Prayer and Visitation, Sir!

This week I visited a man who's been coming to our church for a few weeks who's in the Veterans Administration hospital here in Oklahoma City. I've done many many hospital visits, but this is the first time I've ever visited the VA. It's a little bit different experience than visiting other hospitals.

At most hospitals, the patients are mixed male and female, although it seems like there are usually a few more women than men. At the VA hospital, there are very few female patients. Little old guys shrunk to the size of middle-schoolers who once stormed Normandy and Sicily and Okinawa or sweated in the diesel stench of a submarine diving below a depth-charge or deafened themselves pounding one-ton shells into enemy ships. Guys a little older than my dad who froze while storming Inchon or huddled together wondering what  might happen to them if a hundred million Chinese soldiers really did cross the Yalu River. Guys with gray ponytails and recently-acquired bifocals who woke up one morning ducking VC bullets and went to bed a day later wiping protester spittle from their country's uniform. Guys my age and younger who are probably thinking all kinds of things that the rest of us may not know for some time, if ever. There are plenty of lively, engaged guys who are just sick or hurt for now, but there are plenty who have that thousand-yard stare as well.

Signs warn the visitor that he or she is entering federal property and is subject to search while there. Groups of patients who are waiting on treatment or for their rides home seem to be readier to talk to each other than at some hospitals. Perhaps they've shared enough similar things in the past that they don't feel so much like strangers now. And since many sport unit patches or hats or T-shirts identifying their branch and area of service, striking up a conversation may be a lot simpler than it is when it's with someone about whom you know nothing.

Although there have been scandals in the recent past about substandard facilities and care at different VA hospitals around the country, the Oklahoma City facility seems clean and well-lit. No dingy corridors or flickering lights, but bright paint, modern equipment and properly-sized televisions in each room.

Asking for directions is different. Ordinarily, hospital information desks are staffed by volunteers, who have in my experience tended to be ladies in their sixties and seventies who are healthy and able and would rather do something than sit and listen to Oprah. They are almost always cheerful and pleasant and though they are sometimes challenged by accessing information on the computer, they have little or no trouble locating a printout that shows them what they need to know, even if not at quite the same speed as the electronic version. They will write down the room number on a card in well-formed if sometimes a little shaky and large-sized numbers, smile, and courteously point out the direction to the elevators.

The information desk at the VA hospital is also staffed by volunteers. The day I visited, those volunteers were two members of the Disabled American Veterans. I introduced myself as a pastor and asked for the man I was intending to visit. The printout was consulted and his name and location were found. Directions could now be given:

"YOU WILL GO 200 FEET DOWN THIS CORRIDOR AND TURN LEFT TO THE ELEVATORS. YOU WILL TAKE THE ELEVATOR TO THE SEVENTH FLOOR, AND AFTER EXITING THE ELEVATOR YOU WILL TURN RIGHT. YOUR CHURCH MEMBER IS IN THE TWO EAST TOWER, THAT IS TWO EAST. YOUR CHURCH MEMBER'S ROOM WILL BE HALFWAY DOWN THE CORRIDOR ON YOUR RIGHT."

Possibly, the gentleman helping me simply wanted to make sure that anyone I might encounter along the way also knew where I was going, in case I got lost. I'm not sure, although I will say that even in spite of my lack of military service, I felt a strong urge to salute the man and then drop and give him 20. An order which I suspect he had given on at least one occasion. I contented myself with shaking his hand, thanking him (for his directions and his service, although I mentioned only the former out loud) and very self-consciously not doing an about-face turn when I went back towards the elevators.

It's a different world in the military, to be sure. But, as I noticed when I walked back to the parking lot past a row of some 20 American flags on tall poles, it's still very much my country, and maybe largely because of some of the men in the building I'd just left.

Thanks again, guys.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Varmints Vanquished!

For cat despisers, one of the least attractive feline characteristics is how the animals tend to play with their prey, sometimes prolonging the death struggles of a vastly inferior animal for some time.

The Minnesota Golden Gophers hate it for certain, as the mighty Purple and White Reign allowed them a lead in today's contest until two minutes and seven seconds remained before casually kicking a go-ahead field goal and leaving them in their refrigerated wilderness with a 29-28 loss. The 'Cats even permitted Minnesota a tantalizing glimpse of a last-minute drive to win the game before linebacker Ben Johnson, knowing that care'll kill a 'Cat,  gambled and intercepted a pass to make Gopher heads hang in sorrow.

Knowing that their prowess might well upstage the Red River Hissy Fit being contested to the south, the humble Wildcats graciously consented to an 11 AM game time. Next week's consignment of Purdue to perdition, however, will occur at 6:30 PM at the High Holy Place, Ryan Field.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Last Page From the Typewriter...

You can still leave a message at the tone, but unfortunately no one will be getting back to you, as Rockford Files, A-Team, Wiseguy and 21 Jump Street (among others) creator Stephen J. Cannell passed away at 69.

Cannell dealt with dyslexia through school but overcame it to write literally hundreds of television episodes and 17 thriller novels. Shows he produced would end with a scene of Cannell writing, finishing a script with a flourish as he plucked the page from the typewriter and flipped it into the air, where it faded into the logo of his company -- a stylized "C" made by pages curling up from a ream of paper.

His influence on television ran from selling a story idea to Mission: Impossible in 1966 to helping shepherd the careers of people like The Sopranos creator David Chase. Even though he created absolute gems like Rockford, he could also throw some serious schlock on the screen, like Riptide and the Lorenzo Lamas vehicle Renegade (in which he also acted), but such is television. Cannell had a shelf of awards, but I suspect that were he to have been asked, he might tag his 46-year marriage, three children and three grandchildren as one of his prouder achievements (a fourth child preceded him in death).

Hyperbolic Curve

During the press conference announcing that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was leaving (probably to run for mayor of Chicago), Emmanuel thanked his boss, President Obama, and lauded his work as "the toughest leader any country could ask for, in the toughest times any president has ever faced."

That "thud" sound you heard was Abraham Lincoln kicking Emmanuel's brain back up between his ears while Franklin Roosevelt rolled his chair over Emmanuel's foot to hold him steady.