Saturday, December 31, 2011

Homes Without Mirrors

At least, that's what I figure a couple of Philadelphia city officials have. Because I am an optimist and believe in the innate goodness of human beings, I can't see that these people could ever look at themselves in the mirror again. Otherwise, they just might be approaching the event horizon of irredeemability.

A Philly city councilwoman and a functionary with the title "Recorder of Wills" both retired from their jobs last week. No problem, except that their retirement lasted all of one day; they'll be back on the job Monday to start the new year. For that one day of retirement, the city councilwoman will take home $478,000. The irreplaceable Recorder of Wills, who after his one day of retirement decided the city could not do without his services and also returned to the job, pocketed $376,000.

This cash grab was made possible by a retirement system which allows exactly this kind of one-day "retirement" and multi-thousand dollar payout, approved in a bill introduced and voted for by the city councilwoman herself. Philadelphia's mayor vetoed the bill -- he may be one of those rare public officials who has yet to have his shame removed -- but the councilwoman courageously led a fight to overturn the veto.

All this makes me realize my dad is doing it wrong. See, he also went back to work after retiring, but he waited several years and, rather than spend his days figuring out how to put six figures of other people's money into his bank account, he drives around and takes census surveys. I don't know exactly what he clears, but if it's 400 K he must be blowing a lot of it at the track based on what I see around the folks' house.

Villains Victorious

No mangled poetry; just my own verse. Which is neither classic nor epic:
How long shall your victory's savor last?
How long till your triumph's tang is past?

'Tis Monday morn, and 'pon your boss's desk -- See, there doth appear a
collegiate seal. The legend reads: "Quæcumque sunt vera."

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Double Booked

Thriller author Steve Berry moves his puzzle-solving man of action, Cotton Malone, to the United States where he finds himself trying to unravel a two-hundred-year old mystery and deal with modern-day pirates.

Malone answers a note from a friend in the intelligence community and finds himself in the middle of an assassination attempt on the president. He foils it but is thought to be involved, so he has to run from the Secret Service. His girfriend, the beautiful and deadly Cassiopeia Vitt, helps him out but also finds herself on the run from the law. Eventually they meet with the president and learn that they're in the middle of a conspiracy with roots that stretch back to the War of Independence. The shadowy Commonwealth, a group of men whose ancestors were privateers and pirates who fought for the United States during the Revolution, are being pressured by the government and they have decided to strike back. We learn they've done this before -- every presidential assassination has happened when the Commonwealth felt threatened. Malone must track down the centuries-old documents that give the Commonwealth their power, but since they have allies in some of the U.S. intelligence services it will not be easy.

Initially The Jefferson Key might seem like a good move for Berry -- rather than some of the historical flights of fancy he's thrown at Malone based on Biblical or medieval texts, here he deals with some fairly straightforward material. The "Key" of the title is an actual cipher device invented by Thomas Jefferson and displayed at Jefferson's home of Monticello, and the code Malone must solve has its roots in an actual code Jefferson invented. But the book is shot full of plot holes and its overall sloppiness send this to near the bottom of the Berry pile. Supposedly brilliant and savvy field operatives do things like neglect to double-check escape routes to see if they've been discovered by enemies or turn on flashlights while wearing night-vision goggles. There are too many similar characters messing around in parallel strands of action to easily keep straight. OK, here's Knox -- wait, is Knox the Commonwealth's quartermaster or enforcer, or was that Hale? No, Hale is one of the Commonwealth's four captains. Now we follow disgraced former agent Wyatt as he battles Knox and a person from one of the intelligence agencies -- I think it's Wyatt, anyway, or is that Knox again?

The other major problem is plausibility. Malone's quest for the documents is urgent because if the Commonwealth finds them, then the "letters of marque" that allow them to act completely on their own against the enemies of the U.S. will be verified and they will be legally untouchable. Yes, the United States government will be powerless against four private citizens because they hold two-hundred-year old agreements with that same government. The sound you hear is every American Indian who's ever lived, laughing.

Berry also uses brief, staccato-like passages when the action heats up, sometimes changing scenes after only four or five lines. The intended effect may be something like a jump-cut in a movie but it feels much more like the shaky-cam that's made Dramamine one of the nation's moviehouses' best sellers. Each passage ends with some cliffhanger-like pause, but the intensity ebbs because so many of those pauses are well-worn cliches -- up to and including that lurching zombie of shots "ringing out."

Whatever skills Berry has brought to earlier books -- narrative flair and a knack for action scenes -- may or may not be here in The Jefferson Key. Its stylistic and storytelling flaws have covered them up well, but we can always hope they haven't erased them entirely.
-----
Although lately he's been focused on his dystopian speculative Assassin series, Robert Ferrigno opened his career smack in the middle of the hard-boiled guys who operate just this side of the law -- on both sides, of course -- and the femme fatales whose beauty endangers as much as it entices. Heartbreaker was the way Ferrigno said goodbye to the 20th century, as ex-cop Val Duran juggles pursuit by a psychopathic gangster, a new ladylove and her lethally dysfunctional family.

Val fled sunny Florida when he saw his best friend beaten to death on the orders of drug runner Junior. Now safely living in Los Angeles, he's put his plan into motion to lure Junior out to California so he can have his revenge. But then he meets the beautiful marine biologist Kyle Abbott and wonders if he can still take care of his business with Junior without getting her hurt. That won't be his only problem, though, because Kyle's wealthy family has its own share of issues and one of them is her stepbrother Kilo's involvement with the beautiful but psychotic conwoman Jackie and her partner, the ugly but nearly as demented Gulf War veteran Dekker.

Some aspects of a good crime noir novel are clockwork, and the skillful Ferrigno knows what to wind up and let go, as well as where to both weave his own touch into that rhythm and how to interrupt it with unexpected twists in the story. His dialogue is witty and profane, and he does an excellent job of painting Val as the tarnished hero who's seen too much to have faith in right and wrong but who somehow can't seem to quit doing so, no matter what it might wind up costing him.

Ferrigno doesn't write with the terse economy of Robert Parker or the lighter touch of Robert Crais but his works are well worth the read, and mistaking him for one of the other crime-'ritin' Roberts will turn out to be no mistake at all.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ongawa!

Cheetah-Mike, a chimpanzee who was believed to have played Cheetah in some of Johnny Weissmuller's earlier Tarzan movies, died on Christmas Eve of kidney failure. He was thought to be about 80. Since chimps in the wild usually live to be about 35 or 40, Cheetah-Mike's equivalent in human terms would probably have been something like 150. Either way, he was one old chimp.

Anyone who's read Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels knows there's no such thing as Cheetah. There's also no such thing as swinging on a vine through the trees, at least not for full-sized human beings, but a combination of physics, tensile strength of jungle vines and the average person's weight clue us in on that without any assist from ERB. Burroughs gave Tarzan a companion monkey named Nkima -- a vain, selfish and fearful but loyal sidekick who offered some comic relief and a sometimes-reliable method of transporting messages from Tarzan to his friends.

The moviemakers probably decided that trying to work with a monkey would be tougher than working with a chimp, since chimps tend to be quite a bit smarter than monkeys, and thus Cheetah was born. He also offered some comic relief and served as Weissmuller's message delivery service on occasion. I imagine he offered a pretty good hook for critics to use when bashing the Tarzan movies, too, since they could compare his acting to that of the movie's leads, Olympic swimmer Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. That's probably accurate in Weissmuller's case but not so much in O'Sullivan's as she had a varied and well-respected career before, after and during her six Tarzan movies. But to be fair to Weissmuller, he was apparently a pretty good fellow and respected by his co-workers, and his "Tarzan yell," carried on today by comedienne Carol Burnett, is as much a part of modern pop culture as Superman's cape.

The Tarzan movies are silly fun, transforming Burroughs' lost English lord into a verb and adjective deficient Saturday afternoon serial character for kids -- although O'Sullivan's high-cut loincloth two-piece in her first movie might have drawn attention from a few dads as well and mom probably didn't hate a couple minutes of watching the broad Weissmuller shoulders and chest. They made some excellent diverting entertainment for a nation in the middle of the great depression and during the early, uncertain years of World War II, but their endurance probably owes more to nostalgia than to appreciation of their cinematic quality. Which is just fine by me, especially if it's Saturday afternoon during the era of six or seven channels and it's too cruddy to be outside and the family room reverberates to the ululating call of the Lord of the Jungle.

Cheetah-Mike was the last remaining major cast member of the Weissmuller-era Tarzan films. Weissmuller passed away in 1984, O'Sullivan in 1998 and Johnny Sheffield, who played "Boy," in 2010.

Update -- Three Associated Press reporters who don't have enough to do have filed this item calling into question whether Cheetah-Mike was indeed one of the chimps who played in the Tarzan movies. Looming economic crisis, unrest in Iraq, potential nuclear weapons in Iran, European monetary woes -- nah, let's not dig into those. Let's get some grind with his own horn to toot to say that the chimp in question was a hoax used to drum up business and use three reporters to file it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

No Reductions

Nice holiday with the family, but over too quickly. The drive home along a major turnpike featured a construction zone that stretched a 15-mile section of the trip into better than 30 minutes. This is not really a problem; I like it when the state resurfaces, repairs or expands the highways.

Of course, the fact that the turnpike toll was exactly the same as it would have been if I had been able to take advantage of its supposedly speedier travel kind of rankles a little bit, but I'm cheap like that.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Honor Amongst Whom?

I'm not a big online game player -- Words With Friends is about it, and I'm not nearly as hung up on it as Alec Baldwin is -- but this article is interesting when it talks about people who cheat while playing online games.

Gaming communities will spot and label cheaters. These could be people who use some sort of programming shortcut in a game, like the old keystroke combinations from Doom! that would let you have a chainsaw whenever you wanted (answer: All the time!), as well as walk through walls or be invulnerable. Or they could take advantage of some kind of computer assistance, like people who will play Words With Friends via a program that will automatically calculate the best words and positions to play them.

These are only a couple of the ways people cheat, but what happens in the different gaming communities is that those folks may or may not be banned from playing the game -- but they are identified and might find themselves shunned. "Join a game with these folks at your own risk," is the unofficial warning.

Some folks in one gaming community tracked some statistics about the cheaters among their members. They tended to congregate in the same games or on the same forums, apparently, which made me wonder what a game would be like if nobody followed the rules. A friend suggested maybe like "Calvinball," but Calvinball has rules. They're made up on the spot and they change from one second to the next, but they do indeed exist. You never break a rule in Calvinball, you just make up a new rule that gives you the advantage you seek.

Also cheating seemed to be contagious. People who weren't identified cheaters but who were linked with the cheaters were more likely to be labeled as cheaters or to start cheating on their own. But people who were indentified as cheaters starting upping their privacy settings and cutting themselves off from their networks within the gaming community.

So catching the games' cheaters is like a game of its own. I expect an Xbox version any day now.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Paging Mr. Kafka...

... Mr. Franz Kafka. Please call your office...ah, nevermind. Even you wouldn't believe this one.

A Thought for Today

"God bless us, every one."

Amen and amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Sanctified

Yes, I did indeed brave Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve service requires bread for communion, and the easily-torn, minimal-crumb, janitor-friendly sweet-tasting King's Hawaiian (AKA "God's communion bread") was available only there.

But I survived without harm. I was, after all, on a mission from God. With all the protection that implies.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Don't Stop Believin'

It's been Christmastime on the ol' internets for the Friar: Hard on the heels of the über-geeky odds of your existence article from a couple of days ago comes this piece by Alan Lightman about the problems the idea of a multiverse poses for scientific inquiry (recommended Lightman work: Dance for Two. Einstein's Dreams a close second).

You should read the whole thing, but here's the box score. There are a lot of different forces and situations that make up the universe, and the more physicists have studied them, the more they have found out that if some of those forces were a little bit stronger or a little bit weaker than they are, the universe would not exist. Or life might not exist in it. The name given to this set of coincidences is usually the anthropic principle, and it has strong and weak versions. The strong version is that these things are the way they are because God (or some other being) set them all that way with the purpose of making a universe that would produce us. The weak version is that those things are all that way because if they weren't, neither we nor anyone or anything else would be around to know about it. There are all kinds of ranges in between; I lean towards a stronger version myself but not as far that way as I described above.

Well, one of the things that scientists have thought, Lightman says, is that because the universe is the way it is, we can get to the basic principles that make it go and we can then understand it in purely physical terms. No supernatural beings or forces required. We read articles about this every now and again, like the recent flurry over possibly tracking down the Higgs boson within the next few months. Or some other advancement that brings us closer to theories that describe all the forces in the universe, sometimes called the Theory of Everything or ToE.

Some of the theories of how the universe was created, though, have brought problems to that idea. Theories that involve concepts like eternal expansion (the universe keeps expanding and never stops) and superstrings (I got no idea, certainly not one brief enough for a descriptive parenthetical aside) also suggest the possibility that other universes exist besides ours -- hence the name multiverse. In these other universes, the physical laws that have governed ours might be a little different and those important forces mentioned earlier might be those few percentage points off that makes the other universes empty and dead.

We have no idea how many other universes there might be, and we have no way to verify their existence experimentally. We probably never will -- we may verify some aspects of the eternal expansion or superstring theory experimentally and if verified those things might imply a multiverse, but there's no way to know for sure.

In other words, a key facet of the creation of everything that exists just might have to be...taken on faith. And I know I've heard that before.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Your Likelihood

Ran across some "Friar candy" in this post that describes how likely it is for you -- yes, you -- to exist. Or me, for that matter, or anyone else. Dr. Ali Binazir, a quirky fellow affiliated with the Harvard School of Law, played around with some odds after hearing a presenter suggest that the probability that you exist as you at being one in four hundred trillion. If you like your strings of zeros, that is 1 in 400,000,000,000,000. Scientists write that 4×1014.

That got Dr. Binazir to thinking about a Buddhist story that he had heard about the same subject matter. The odds that you are here as you are the same as if there was one turtle swimming in the world's oceans and one life preserver tossed onto the waves and the turtle, in surfacing, poked its head through the life preserver on the first try. He decided to quantify that chance using actual figures for the surface area of the world's oceans, the size of the turtle's head and the size of a standard life preserver and an ability to do math that has escaped your humble correspondent since the alphanumeric collision referenced last week. That story, he said, put the odds of any one human being existing exactly as who and what they were as one in seven hundred trillion -- 1 in 700,000,000,000,000 or 7×1014, to use the formats from above.

Obviously a difference of 300 trillion is pretty big, unless you are a scientist or a Washington politician spending other people's money. But in terms of the scale at which we're working, it's not a huge difference. The one in 400 trillion figure doesn't represent a significantly greater likelihood that you exist over the one in 700 trillion. Either way, the chances that you would show up and be you are pretty remote. Of course, the chances that somebody would show up are not all that remote -- but we're talking about you, or me, or any one specific and unique individual.

Dr. Binazir was not finished. He wondered if those figures were anything like an accurate representation of the probability of a person's existence. So he looked at the main steps that had to take place in order for people to exist, made some reasonable assumptions about how they happened and then calculated the odds that they would happen in the precise way that made you. You can read his blog entry if you want to see what all of those were, but for this post I'll just mentioned that he covered the odds of your parents meeting each other, their parents meeting each other, the particular sperm and egg cells which grew into you being the ones that were fertilized, and things like that. He didn't get into things like life experiences, where you were born and so on, figuring there's not much of a way to quantify those.

After he had finished his math -- and perhaps smoked out his hard drive -- Dr. Binazir came up with the odds that you exist: 1 in 102,685,000. How big is that? Well, notice that the "hundred trillions" above have 14 zeros, which is what the little "14" raised up above the other line refers to. So the number Dr. Binazir reached is a one followed by more than two million zeros. How big is that number? Compare it to the number of atoms believed to exist in the universe, which is 1080, or a one followed by only eighty zeros. Dr. Binazir compared it to the entire city of San Diego playing a game with trillion-sided dice and rolling the exact same number at the same time.

And if you were to somehow be able to add in those fuzzy factors like your life experiences and such, the odds that you would be you increase even more. Remember, these are not the odds that you would be someone. These are the odds that you would be you.

Dr. Binazir seems to come from a perspective much more invested in Eastern philosophies than my own traditional Christian theism. But he and I agree that figures such as this might prompt us to reflect on what had to happen in order for us to be here, and that to give that "what" its proper name, we are left with only one word: "Miracle."

Perhaps the season of the year in which we find ourselves suggests to you thoughts on the miracle of a particular Birth. Perhaps you are a person who accepts the story of that Birth as reasonably true. If so, I commend to you reflections on what it might mean about the character of the Being behind that Birth creating a world in which there are seven billion of those 1 in 102,685,000 chances walking around today. You might wish to use the word "love."

(H/T Think Christian)

Monday, December 19, 2011

From the Rental Vault (1969): 100 Rifles

It's hard for us to believe it, but 100 Rifles was a controversial movie when it was released in 1969. Not because it was too violent -- The Wild Bunch was going to hold on to that title for awhile. Not because it had a little nudity -- no small number of pictures had showed more by that time and would show even more afterwards.

No, 100 Rifles was controversial because it featured one of mainstream Hollywood's first interracial love scenes, between co-stars Jim Brown and Raquel Welch. Something that we wouldn't blink at today raised more than a couple of eyebrows just more than forty years ago.

Brown plays Lyedecker, an Arizona lawman chasing a bank robber into Mexico in 1912. The robber, Yaqui Joe, is half Yaqui Indian and stole the money to buy guns to arm his people against their oppressors. Burt Reynolds plays Yaqui Joe, and Welch plays Sarita, a female leader of the Yaqui guerrillas. Fernando Lamas is General Verdrugo, whose autocratic rule of the Mexican state of Sonora requires a pacified Yaqui people -- and whether that happens because they lay down their arms or because they're laid six feet under the earth is of no consequence to him.

Lyedecker and Joe are held prisoner by Verdrugo until freed by Sarita and the Yaqui. While on the run, Lydeecker must decide if he will help the Yaqui in their fight or take Joe back to Arizona to face trial.

Aside from the controversy over the Brown-Welch love scene, there's not a lot worth remembering about 100 Rifles. Some of that comes from director Tom Gries, who spends too much time filming different groups of people riding across unremarkable stretches of Spanish scrubland that stand in for Mexico. Only a year earlier Gries had directed Charlton Heston in Will Penny -- one of that actor's best roles and probably Gries' best work as a writer and as a director. But here he lacks fire, scope and any real sense of a linear point A to point B plan for his movie.

Much of the problem comes from the story, written by Clair Huffaker from a novel by Robert MacLeod. We may be used to an evil villain strategically inept though convinced of his own brilliance, and 100 Rifles supplies that in Verdrugo. He repeatedly fails to anticipate the Yaqui responses to his actions or take advantage of his enemies' own strategic weaknesses. And those are also many. The guerrillas and their rifles flee from Verdrugo and stop in a Yaqui village. Scouts alert them that the general -- who has been following them since they rescued Lyedecker and Joe -- is close behind. Now, what do you think a vicious general who aims to exterminate the Yaqui will do when he learns one of their villages is nearby and his quarry may have passed its way? If you picked "Kill most of its adults, kidnap its children as hostages and burn it to the ground," you're smarter than Lyedecker, Joe, Sarita and every Yaqui guerrilla in that band.

Of the lead cast, only Reynolds and Lamas offer much. Reynolds seems to recognize the ridiculous story he's in so he goes into full smart-aleck Bandit mode, mugging and grinning as much as this movie lets him. Lamas throws a big slab of ham on the grill and proceeds to chew whatever scenery he can sink his teeth into. Brown and Welch aren't exactly bad, but neither of them had developed yet into actors that can transcend their material, and this is material that desperately needs transcending.

100 Rifles may seem like a paint-by-numbers Western, but its lack of focus, screwy story and average or below performances make it more like a paint-by-numbers without the numbers.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

On the Other Hand...

A few days ago I suggested that while Mr. Gingrich would be an awful GOP nominee. he was not so abysmally awful as to make me shirk my responsibility of voting in next year's presidential election should he be on the ballot.

Well, kudos to Mr. Gingrich for not shying away from the hard work of edging himself closer to that category.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

You Had Me at Nano

"Nanotechnology," or engineering of things that are really, really small, has always seemed to be limited to science fiction. But real live scientists work with it in a whole heap of ways, one of which is apparently devising ways to eliminate laundry from the world.

Before you get all excited and/or repulsed about the prospect of global nudity, what I meant was that some of the developing nanotech would make clothes that would either clean themselves or repel any substance that might stain them. Some of the fabrics would be made of substances that couldn't absorb moisture or be coated with something that blocked it -- and without moisture, there's no ability to stain the fabric.

The downside is that, according to Star Trek: The Next Generation, nanotechnology can develop into a self-replicating race and form its own civilization that must be understood and negotiated with by a wise bald human and the galaxy's dumbest android. Fortunately, the catalyst for such a mechanical race is an experiment by an preternaturally smart and eternally annoying wish-fulfillment adolescent character who would never be allowed near that kind of technology anywhere but in Gene Roddenberry's blinkered vision.

Friday, December 16, 2011

From the Rental Vault (1963): Youth of the Beast

Since a lot of folks who watch international movies seem to emphasize the snooty, art-housey ones, it's easy to forget that other countries had their own "genre pictures." And just like with our own American industry, that meant a lot of formulaic stories, recycled plots and so on, every now and again spiced up with a dash of "Holy cow!" when someone with real talent and vision grabbed hold of the reins within the genre's restrictions and made something special.

Welcome to maverick Seijun Sazuki's 1963 noir thriller Youth of the Beast (Yajū no seishun in Japanese, which can also be translated Wild Youth. Neither title has anything to do with the movie's story). Sazuki directed about a million B-movies for Nikkatsu Studios -- Youth was one of four titles he released in 1963 -- mostly in the Japanese "Yakuza film" genre. Like the gangster pictures from American studios in the 1940s and 1950s, these were stylized tales of crime, corruption and tattered honor among the members of the yakuza, or Japanese criminal syndicates. Youth represents Sazuki starting to stretch the restrictive envelope demanded by Nikkatsu in terms of story, acting performances and cinematography, although it was nowhere near the acid-trippy sequences he would stick into Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill a few years later. Those would get him fired. 

Youth is the story of ex-cop Joji "Jo" Mizuno (Sazuki mainstay Joe Shishida), kicked off the force after being framed for taking money. He wants to avenge the death of an ex-cop that stood by him during his trial, and so he infiltrates two rival yakuza gangs to try to learn just what happened. He will play one against the other in order to uncover the truth, and if broken limbs, black eyes and bodies are parts of that play, he's got no problem providing them. Sazuki brings Youth home in a zippy 91 minutes, leaving you little time to notice some of the more conventional conventions and limitations of this particular kind of genre movie.

Shishida carries the movie, and he had his own extreme side. After a few years getting blandly handsome leading man roles, he had plastic surgery to add cheek implants and give him more character in his look. It got him noticed and his switch to grim, tough-guy roles soon followed. He doesn't smile in Youth and he rarely changes expression, but the pain of his past and his losses is easy to read on his face when he talks about those times.

Sazuki throws in strange soundless segments, startling color splashes, bizarre settings (one scene takes place partly in a sandstorm that looks like it's happening on Mars) and some realistic butt-kicking by Mizuno and company. They make Youth a lot more interesting that the average genre picture of any language has a right to be.

The other star is Hajime Okumura's soundtrack, a Mancini-esque jazz-bop swirl of sax, trumpet, cool cymbal and swinging bass. Think of "Tank!," the Seat Belts' theme song for Cowboy Bebop, stretched over an entire movie, and you get the idea. If you want a foreign movie that has someone stare meaningfully at a stick for an hour, then you should probably creep someone else's Netflix queue. But if you want to see how skilled performers can work within familiar patterns to create thoughtful and interestingly composed stories, check out Youth of the Beast.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Aw, Nuts

Christopher Hitchens was a gifted essayist and keen thinker; he passed away today at 62.

Although he could be virulent and petulant in his arguments against religion (he was a committed atheist), Hitchens could also present his case and argue his point with courtesy and charity -- which he did often, although not as often as one might wish. He was willing to show respect towards faithful people more often than ranting pedantists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Philip Pullman -- even though he sometimes didn't.

Either way, it was a load of fun to watch him take aim and fire when his target was one that a reader might also wish to see suffer a few blows. He had an understanding of satire that escapes probably more than 90 percent of those who claim to practice it.

And not having new Hitchens around to read will make life a little more boring, to be certain.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

This Is Cool...

A special kind of camera captures the way light moves through a Coke bottle in a video here.

As far as I can tell from the story, the camera works by shooting light into an electric field, which makes the light bounce off -- and one of the directions in which it bounces is towards the camera. The camera is then shifted downrange for the next shot and the next, and so on, until it captures images from the light all the way through the bottle.

The only reason this works is because the light is being sent along the same path every time, so the conditions can be replicated each time. According to the scientists who built the camera, it's working at what would be roughly a trillion frames a second. You'd think it would take forever to make the shot then, but the light takes only a tiny fraction of a second to reach the next place where the camera takes its picture so they finished in a little over an hour. Computers then stitched the images together to make a continuous video.

You might also scratch your head at the headline of the story's reference to light particles. Wait, you might have thought -- isn't light made up of waves? When did it come to be made up of particles?

Welcome, O fellow confused traveler, to the concept of complementarity, in which light behaves like a wave when it is measured by experiments that treat it like a wave, but like particles (photons, to be precise) when measured by experiments designed to treat it like it's made up of particles. But waves and particles are different things. Indeed. In essence, light is both of those things at once until you measure it, when it becomes the thing you measure for.

Physicist John Polkinghorne, also a retired Anglican priest and one of my favorite science writers, has said that this "wave-particle duality" only seems like a contradiction when we speak about it in words. The equations that physicists use to describe it eliminate the contradiction and make it clear how something can be both a wave and a particle at the same time.

But unfortunately, ever since a horrible accident in the seventh grade when some irresponsible teacher put letters and numbers up on the board in the same math problem I have been unable to speak Equation. So I take Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne's word for that.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rhymin' Reason

There's a clever director named J.J.
Who'd best listen to his audience say, "Nay! Nay!
"If you try to do Khan
without Montalban,
in droves we shall all stay ay-way."

Mass

OK, buckle in because it's about to get weird. We're going to a place where we measure mass in voltage, where scientists hunt a mysterious particle that has more mass than the particle it makes up and which everyone calls by a name that is pretty much the complete opposite of the name a book author wanted to use. So be vewy, vewy quiet...we'we hunting bosons!

Specifically we're hunting the Higgs boson or Higgs particle, the subatomic particle that gives all other particles mass. Ol' Professor Higgs' elusive namesake has been referred to before in these spaces, here. Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have put off creating a black hole that would destroy the world long enough to narrow down the places where they think the Higgs boson could be. And by places, of course, I mean "ranges of mass," because obviously the darn things are everywhere if they exist.

The LHC folks smash things together at immense speeds because, well, why wouldn't you if you could and because the intense energy such collisions create often helps them see things that in normal conditions are pretty tough to see. Most of the time matter is pretty sedate, just rumbling along in a coherent and connected fashion doing whatever it does depending on what it's a part of. But when you increase the amount of energy in the matter in some fashion -- say, by holding a lit match to the seat of its pants -- then it begins to give off energy and act in a much different manner than when it's not energized. Put enough energy into it and you can find out all kinds of things you never could before. Hence the high-speed collisions at the LHC and the hunt for the Higgs boson.

LHC scientists believe that if the Higgs particle really exists, its mass is somewhere between 114.4 and 131 "gigaelectronvolts" or GeV. A gigaelectronvolt is one billion electron volts, and an electron volt is the amount of energy gained by a single electron when its energy is shifted one volt. So although "gigaelectronvolt" sounds like a massive amount of energy, it might be helpful to remember these are very very small things being considered here. A thousand GeV is a "teraelectronvolt" or TeV, and one TeV is the energy released when a mosquito slams into something at full speed.

In fact, these things are so small that their mass has to be measured in voltages. When we talk about the mass of larger objects, we can use the same terms we use to talk about their weight, even though those are not the same things. Mass is always the same while weight depends on gravity. But subatomic particles are so small that the only kinds of instruments that can detect their mass measure energy and so we use terms like GeV and TeV to do so.

Anyway, the LHC scientists figure the Higgs boson has a mass between 114.4 and 131 GeV. A regular proton has a mass of 1 GeV. Yes, this means that the particle which actually gives the proton its mass has more mass than the particle it gives it to, but protons and other particles aren't made up of a bunch of Higgs bosons. Rather, the Higgs boson creates the Higgs effect, which is what does give mass to the others.

Finding this little fella could really change a lot of things, like maybe even allowing near direct creation of energy from mass without all the little pesky details like accelerating it to the speed of light squared. There's really no telling.

But it wouldn't fix everything, which is one reason why scientists -- including Higgs -- get annoyed when people call the Higgs boson the "God particle." The title comes from Leon Lederman's book The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? but Lederman had wanted to call it The God***n Particle because physicists like himself had spent so much frustrating time trying to find it.

The nickname also annoys the scientists because finding the Higgs boson would answer plenty of questions but leave plenty more. Highly physicist-sounding things like quantum chromodynamics, electroweak interaction with gravity and so on would remain unaffected by proof of the Higgs boson's presence. In other words, finding the Higgs boson will be something very very cool indeed, but it will not be the same as finding God.

Which means I'm not out of a job yet.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ahem...

To: Battleship director Peter Berg

Re: The cynicism about your upcoming board-game based movie being displayed by the "cinema intelligentsia"

I am not listed in anybody's Rolodex as "cinema intelligentsia," nor in many as intelligent in many other ways, either. So I am not being a cynical elitist when I say that basing a movie on a board game is a stupid idea.

I'm just being a plain old moviegoer.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Is There a There There?

Despite their name "black holes" in space are not the absence of something.

They are collapsed stars so incredibly dense that not even light can escape their gravity (Random Joe Biden joke). Because any light or radiation they emit is captured in the gravity well of the collapsed star we can't actually see them, and we never will. We can only see the effects as matter or energy cross into that gravity well at a border called the "event horizon."

Astronomers working at an observatory in Hawaii -- a thought which makes me wish I had taken that so-called Mickey-Mouse astronomy course I had in college much more seriously -- have found evidence of two "supermassive" black holes in our neighborhood, so to speak. Our sun's mass equals .0000000001 percent of either of these two phenomena (Random Ron Paul's chances of winning presidential nomination joke).

Supermassive black holes are usually found at the centers of galaxies -- because there are stars near them which their gravity affects and we can see those effects. But a supermassive black hole outside of a galaxy center is tougher to detect, because over time its intense gravity has sucked everything nearby into itself (Random Newt Gingrich and GOP primary joke).

So are there other supermassive black holes relatively close by? Maybe even close enough that as our solar system moves through the galaxy, it might be seduced by their saucy gravitational pull and begin a slow, steady journey towards their event horizons and certain disaster (Random President Obama second term joke)?

Only time will tell.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

When 0 = 25

That would be at the local franchise of one of the nation's speedy haircut stores, which had a sign lit up in the window that said "No Wait" but which didn't seat me for my haircut for 25 minutes. It was understandable, given that I was the fourth person in line...waiting, even...for a haircut.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Infamy

George "Machine Gun" Kelly was one of the first big hauls for J. Edgar Hoover's nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation, brought in by veteran agent and former Texas Ranger Gus Jones. Kelly supposedly told agents who cornered him in Memphis, "Don't shoot, G-men!" and gave them the nickname that would help publicize them as well.

Kelly focused mostly on small-town banks until marrying Katherine Thorne, who raised his profile by convincing him to use a Thompson submachine gun in his robberies and aim for bigger stakes. Although Kelly was the one with the reputation as a ruthless criminal, apparently Katherine played a large role in raising that profile and pushing him to the bigger jobs.

In Infamous, Ace Atkins tells the story of the Kellys' last big job -- the kidnapping and ransom of Oklahoma City oilman Charles Urschel in 1933. Although they would net $200,000 for the crime, it placed them on Hoover's radar and ultimately led to their arrests. Kelly would die in prison in 1954 and Katherine would not be released until 1958, and several other participants in the crime drew life sentences as well, including Katherine's mother and stepfather who helped hold Urschel captive.

The story zips along with Atkins' usual skill -- this is the fourth fictionalized "true crime" story he's told in addition to a couple of his own series -- and if it drags in places it's because the schemes and manipulations and double crosses of the nefarious cast seem like they play on an infinite loop. Katherine works an angle to make sure she's OK if things go wrong; some other thugs try to cut themselves in on the take and plan to get hold of the ransom themselves; other participants in the crime make deals of their own with lawmen or the second group of lawbreakers and so on. None of these people have any loyalty to anyone but themselves and the mare's nest of schemes bogs down the forward motion of the story.

But it also highlights something that may or may not be apparent when we read crime fiction or watch crime stories -- a significant number of these people are losers. On the one hand that would seem obvious. The actual criminal masterminds didn't have nicknames and media profiles. Nobody knew who they were and thus they didn't do time like Kelly did. But because of the romanticizing nature of the media coverage, people like Kelly, Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd, John Dillinger and Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow took on characteristics they probably didn't have or deserve. At best they were losers and bullies who felt that the world owed them something for nothing and used threats and violence to take that something from people who had actually earned it. At worst they were sociopaths who left bodies and ruined lives in their wakes.

Atkins, even though he fictionalizes the lives of George and Kathryn and other members of their underworld set, shows a much truer picture of what kind of people they were. Their apparently incurable greed, lack of self-discipline, addiction to adrenaline and power and flat-out stupidity meant that even though they cleared an amount that would be equal to nearly $3.5 million today they couldn't find a way to take the money and run out of the reach of the law or their own fellow crooks. They spent it on new cars, clothes, hotels -- basically, they acted like 8-year-olds given a thousand dollars and free run at a Toys "R" Us.

Showing the loser beneath the media spitshine isn't easy. Yes, Mario Puzo may have lionized his Corleone family in The Godfather but Al Pacino visibly sold his soul to obtain and keep power as Michael Corleone in the movie version of the story. Only it was the swagger and the style and the nicknames of the button men and the capos and such that people remembered. The Sopranos had much of the same issue: No matter how often Tony gave orders to harm or kill an enemy, he was frequently "lovable mafioso" when people wrote about the show.

Anyone who reads Infamous can't come away with that kind of picture of George and Katherine Kelly or the others involved. And in the end that may be one of the best things about Atkins' adaptation of this story.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

War Criminal!

The International Red Cross has apparently made sure that every prisoner of war across the world is properly fed and treated and every disaster victim cared for, because it has now decided to monitor war-themed video games to see if they conform to the Geneva Convention.

I always thought it would truly be a great day for world peace when the Red Cross did not have enough to do. I was wrong.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Here Now The News...

An unnamed Islamic cleric living in Europe is supposed to have said that women should not handle certain vegetables or fruits, such as bananas or cucumbers, because the relatively phallic shape of said food items will make them think of sex. Carrots and zucchini are also on the banned list. Should women like to eat those foods, the items should be cut up into small pieces out of their sight -- preferably by a father or husband -- and then served.

Don't know if this is true or how widespread the belief is. It sounds outlandish enough to be a joke or at the very least the idea of a lone crackpot, but a group of scholars in Saudi Arabia presented an official report on how allowing women to drive would increase prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce, and eventually mean no more virgins in that country, so who can tell?

I guess we'll know if someone really said this and it's being taken seriously if we hear reports that the fresh fruit and produce sections of supermarkets in mostly Islamic countries are being overrun by hopeful-eyed Islamic husbands.

"I've Handled Jaywalkers Who Were Tougher Than You"

Harry Morgan, an invaluable character actor who said the above line while portraying Officer Bill Gannon in Dragnet 1967 (the third version of Jack Webb's police drama), passed away today at 96. Gannon and his partner, Sgt. Joe Friday, were interrogating a suspect who began by giving them some attitude, probably thinking that the medium-sized Friday and even slighter Gannon were easily intimidated. He was, of course, incorrect.

Morgan was also well-known as Col. Sherman T. Potter, the commanding officer of the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M*A*S*H*) chronicled in the long-running TV show M*A*S*H*. As Col. Potter, Morgan had a number of memorable lines, most of which summed up his blunt, no-nonsense and unvarnished persona. I'll leave you with this one, spoken when the 4077th receives some welcome fresh fruit after a long time of only processed meals: "I haven't had fresh fruit in so long, my colon will think it's a stick-up."

Limited Visions

I, along with quite a few other folks, have complained about the lack of creativity found in the moviemaking and TV show production areas these days. Generally, those complains center on recycled plots, uninspired and unnecessary remakes, endless trips to the same well for jokes, situations, characters and whatnot.

But this guy put together several collections of movie posters to show how you can judge significant features of a movie -- sometimes most of its plot -- by the movie poster itself. Different kinds of movies will have their own similar kinds of posters - and if you see certain images or themes in a poster, you can tell a lot about the movie even if you haven't seen it or even heard of it.

You might notice it's not just Hollywood that's caught up in the visual cliché game -- several of the posters featured are from international films but they seem to follow the same patterns.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Not to Worry

A couple of days ago I mentioned that I was concerned about the possible ego explosion if Newt Gingrich became the Republican presidential nominee and debated President Obama.

I am not nearly as concerned about the same possibility if Mr. Gingrich participates in a scheduled debate moderated by Donald Trump. Oh, the egos involved are just as massive, and if anything, Mr. Trump is even thinner-skinned than Mr. Gingrich. The potential for an explosion is just as great.

But in this case, we will be shielded from harm by whatever the hell that thing is that Mr. Trump has on his head.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Millions Lost in Crash?

Not a stock market crash -- a 20-car smashup on a Japanese highway that involved eight Ferraris and a Lamborghini, in addition to damaging two oncoming Mercedes with flying debris. No one, fortunately, was seriously hurt.

But I know a gecko that's gonna be drinkin' pretty heavily for awhile...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Timing Is Still Everything

Me to youth director when locking up the church, since his group tonight was solely our more rambunctious crowd: "So, did you get five minutes of learning into their little heads in the midst of the chaos?"

Youth director to me: "I got seven! And then one of them threw something."

God bless middle school teachers.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

From the Rental Vault (2009): Goemon

The idea of the thief who robs from the rich and gives to the poor is not limited to Sherwood Forest. In Japan, the real-life character who takes on that folk-hero role is Ishikawa Goemon, the title character in Kiriya Kazuaki's 2009 release Goemon. The real-life Ishikawa was caught up in the events that led to the Battle of Sekigahara and the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate and while Kiriya's movie uses many historical characters, it has as much to do with that real history as Braveheart does with the real William Wallace.

Which is of course no problem, because Goemon is an excellent story carried off by top performances wrapped up in a rip-roaring action movie. Ishikawa Goemon is a master thief who regularly robs from rich nobles to distribute the money to Japan's peasants. Those peasants groan under the constant warring of the nobles and can use all the help they can get, but when we first meet their benefactor he seems to work as much for his own amusement as he does for their good. Something he steals gets him more caught up in politics than he wants, ensnared in the plots of Mitsunari Ishida, his feudal lord Hideyoshi Totomi and Tokugawa Ieyesu. It brings him to the attention of Hideyoshi's loyal ninja assassin Saizō and Tokugawa's retainer Hattori Hanzo. As the story moves forward, we find that Goemon, Saizo and Hanzo have shared history and that Goemon himself has a more layered past than his wastrel thief persona suggests. He and others, including his assistant Sasuke Sarutobi, Saizō and Lady Chacha, niece of a slain warlord, will have to make painful choices as events unfold.

Kiriya has a lot of things to keep in the air and at times doesn't manage it as well as he might. He's also the cinematographer, and designs Goemon with the kind of stylized CGI look Zack Snyder used in 300. Most of the time that works as well, although certain scenes would have benefited from a subtler use of the technique. Given the folk-hero nature of the story, most of the fighting characters in the movie engage in superhuman feats of strength and endurance and that reinforces the mythical quality of the movie.

Most of the cast excels. Some have parts that are too small to matter and at least one actor -- Gori as Sasuke -- puts too much slapstick into a character that's going to have to carry a pretty heavy dramatic load. But Eguchi Yōsuke as Goemon brings to life a man who realizes that the transformation from merely appearing to care about people to actually caring about them will have a cost, and that he may not be the only one to bear it. As Saizō, Osawa Takao quietly provides the voice of conscience that prods Goemon into real action instead of gestures, and Ryōko Hirosue makes Chacha another pivot point as the characters must consider their actions as well as the consequences.

Both in terms of story and appearance Goemon doesn't bear much similarity with real life or actual Japanese history -- but in terms of portraying the kinds of choices people must often make on a smaller scale, choices about vengeance, violence, destiny and other weighty ideas -- it delivers quite a bit of real food for thought.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Era, Ending

This mall will no longer have everything.

Warning! Warning!

For a bunch of reasons, I hope former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is not the Republican nominee for president. One of those reasons is that, despite the many shortcomings he has that make him unsuited for the job, he is not so completely unqualified as to make me skip going to the polls on Election Day. I could justify bidding my ballot bye-bye if my choices were between, say, President Obama and Herman Cain, or between President Obama and Ron Paul. If any of those three men is in the White House in January 2013, ain't nobody gonna be able to blame me for it.

But unfortunately, Newt's not quite that bad. He's bad, alright, but voting is a responsibility and he's not bad enough to make me shirk it. So if he becomes the Republican nominee, I may be forced to vote for him, unless there is some third-party choice, and I don't think anyone who put up with him in the mid-90s wants to vote for Newt Gingrich.

The main reason, though, is the prospect of the presidential debates that we would see. I know some conservative folks are salivating at the prospect of Gingrich, verbally adept and quite good at the ol' rhetorical thrust-and-parry hack-and-slash, debating the President, who does very well with prepared remarks but can get a little flustered when trying to think and speak on his feet. Not I.

What worries me is the presence of two of the modern American political scene's most massive, over-inflated egos and thinnest skins in the same room with each other. On the one hand, we have a man who gave the Queen of England -- a woman whose living memory contains listening to none other than Winston Churchill rally his nation when it stood alone against the Nazi might -- an iPod with his own speeches on it and who actually said of his view of one of his own achievements, "I try not to pat myself on the back too much." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might disagree about the President's claims.

And on the other hand, we have a guy who really believes that the news cycle and polling flavor of the month culture it's created translates into an actual chance that he will be the nominee, and who said out loud in front of microphones that his being required to exit Air Force One by a rear ramp contributed to the 1995 government shutdown.

Putting those two forces in a room together is madness -- we have no way of knowing what might happen if they somehow interact wrongly. Carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen are all unspectacular elements, but combined in the correct amounts they make highly unstable nitroglycerine.

And given that the debate will be extensively covered by the media, there is the likelihood of the presence of many somewhat smaller but still dangerously expanded egos that could also be set off if the Obama-Gingrich meeting goes wrong. We could witness a disaster of biblical proportions.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Origin Stories

Faithful Place is the third novel Tana French has written using a cast of characters working for the Dublin, Ireland police department. Francis "Frank" Mackey, the commander of the department's undercover unit who played a small role in an earlier book, takes the lead role in this one.

More than 20 years ago, Frank planned to run away to England with his girlfriend, Rosie Daly, so the couple could escape both his dysfunctional, abusive family and Rosie's family's hatred for Frank. But the night they were to leave, Rosie never showed and hasn't been seen since. In the meantime, Frank joined the Guards, or police, married and divorced and is a weekend dad to his daughter Holly. He has little contact with his family but returns to the old neighborhood when a suitcase that may have belonged to Rosie was found. Distrusted by the police for his closeness to the investigation and a habit of acting on his own, and distrusted by the old neighborhood because he's a detective, Frank has to exhume more old secrets than he'd like in order to learn what happened to Rosie. What impact that has on him, his daughter and his relationship to his family isn't clear, but it's unlikely to be good.

French, an American citizen who now lives in Dublin, has an excellent ear for the speech of her adopted land and gives Faithful Place a much better layer of local color than a few dropped "Faith and begorra" exclamations here and there. She has a good sense of place and a deft ability to communicate it. What she doesn't have is a mystery that can keep its secrets past the 100-page mark or a reason to stick with it once that secret is out. The cast of present-day characters is limited and the cast in the flashback sequences even more so, leaving just a few likely suspects to start with. Since French isn't writing a Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes mystery, telegraphing her guilty party doesn't have to be a fatal flaw. We know where the roller coaster ends up but the ride can still thrill. In this case, though, it doesn't. Faithful Place spends a lot of time telling us where Frank came from and what made him who he is, but it never tells us why we should care. Only people who've read the earlier books have met him before and even in them he's not that important. The destination's obvious, the ride is nothing special and the pretty paint of French's stylishly crafted dialogue only distracts for so long.
-----
When we first met Jack Reacher in 1997's The Killing Floor, he was trying to find out what happened to his brother Joe. He was already a drifter, setting up the pattern that author Lee Child would follow through most of the rest of the series. But before that, Reacher was a decorated military policeman, and series fans have wondered what exactly set our protagonist off on his wanderings. He's told people he left the Army when it was downsized in the late 1990s and that he wanders because he'd spent most of his life as a military brat and then as an officer himself doing just that. But in The Affair, Child uncovers the story behind those choices.

Reacher is sent undercover to an isolated Mississippi Army base as an unofficial backup to the official investigation of a young woman's death. The county sheriff -- the fortunately attractive female county sheriff -- enlists Reacher to ask questions about the death that the Army doesn't want asked, let alone answered.  Reacher may not yet be the wanderer he will become, but he likes lies, stonewalling and injustice no more now than he will later. How will he match his toughness and quick fists against powerful enemies who fight in the halls of power at the Pentagon and Capitol?

In a lot of ways The Affair is more fun than many of the more recent Reacher books. Some have been clunkers and some quite good, but they've been near uniformly bleak, grim and almost glum. The Reacher of The Affair deals with the world with a healthy slice of wry; whether because Child felt the younger version would be less jaded or because he rediscovered some of his own lighter tone it doesn't matter because it's a welcome change.

The lighter tone helps cover up some missteps; Child goes a little too far in using Reacher's "undercover" drifter status to foreshadow his upcoming drifter status more than once. He also overwrites his plot -- the appearance of a civilian paramilitary crew complicates things without much benefit to the story. But still, The Affair shows that unpacking the origin of a known character with a history is usually a lot more successful than unpacking the origin of a previously little-known walk-on part.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Who's Happy Now?

Because San Franciscan parents were unable to tell their children, "No, you can't have McDonald's because it's unhealthy, and I don't care what toy they put in the thing," the city of San Francisco passed a law that said restaurant meals with free toy giveaways had to meet certain healthy-food standards. Since McDonald's Happy Meals don't meet the standards, the problem is solved and parents don't have to do the hard work of parenting, right?

Nope -- the law was passed last year and will go into effect Thursday, which means the corporate sneakies hiding behind Ronald's wig had a little while to figure out a workaround. McDonald's will no longer give away the Happy Meal toys -- they will now charge you ten cents for them, with that ten cents going towards building a Ronald McDonald House. Sounds like a winner, right? Before, you could just buy the toy for the price of a Happy Meal, but now you can get one for a dime!

The problem is that the law prohibits selling the toys separately as well as giving them away with a Happy Meal. And in order to comply with the law, McDonald's can't sell you the Happy Meal toy unless you buy the Happy Meal. Once you buy the Happy Meal you can throw it away if you like, but if you're the kind of jelly-spined person who needs the city of San Francisco to tell your kids no because you can't, you're still going to have to buy a Happy Meal in order to get junior the toy that he is apparently able to force you into buying through his mysterious power to cloud men's minds or well-honed MMA submission skills. Meaning junior gets his toy, McDonald's gets its profits, and you get a wallet that's a couple of bucks lighter.

Not to mention the justifiable derision of people who live in most other cities.

(H/T Reason.com)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Seasons Don't Fear the Reaper...

Scientists create super flu virus in lab.

Walkin' Dude reported to be verrrry interested.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Gutless?

Whether the difference is audible to the average listener or not, musicians claim that classical music played on instruments with metal strings doesn't sound like the same music played on strings made of the traditional beef gut.

And since metal strings came into use after some of the greatest composers lived and worked, the only way to play their music the way they meant it to be heard is to use period instruments strung with the gut strings. This has become a problem as string makers in the Europe have run into regulations regarding the use of beef products -- regulations which are designed to protect people from contracting the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease. In people, the disease is called "new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJd)," an unfortunate coincidence for people named Jacob Kreutzfeldt. It has the same effect of degenerating brain tissue leading to death.

Cows get BSE when they eat pieces of cows that have had the disease, something they only do when cattle remains are ground up as a part of the artificial feed given on some ranches and dairy operations. It specifically lingers in the brain, spinal column and digestive tract of the diseased animals, and that leads us to the problem that musical stringmakers have to face. Beef gut, being a part of the aforementioned digestive tract, can hold the BSE organisms in it. Those organisms can infect humans, causing the nvCJd. Because outbreaks of both diseases have been reported in different countries in Europe, strict regulations govern the use of potentially infected cattle products. Up until recently, stringmakers were given special exceptions from the rule, partly because of a couple of factors we'll look at in a minute. But recently those exceptions have begun to lapse and several companies are either switching to synthetic string material or are considering it.

Stringmakers say the danger to people is slight -- although even affected meat cooked well-done may not be entirely free of BSE organisms, the stringmaking process is a lot more than just cooking. Part of the string creation involved the beef gut material being bleached as well as varnished, chemicals which will kill most disease germs and no few non-disease full-size creatures. In order to risk exposure similar to the risk people face when consuming untested or untreated cattle, a person would have to eat several "metres" of string, the story says. A "metre" is a little more than a yard.

Yes, you read correctly: In order to risk true exposure to the BSE disease organism, you would have to eat your instrument strings. And not just your instrument strings, but probably strings on a couple of other instruments around you -- more if you are a violinist, fewer if you're a bassist and you may be able to pull it off by your lonesome if you play the harp.

I'm all for reducing the risk of disease and I've got no special interest in whether I hear Handel the way my many-times great grandparents heard Handel. But it seems to me that if a disease vector depends on chewing up and swallowing yards of bleached, varnished beef gut, most folks are at low risk of exposure. And those that go ahead and test out that theory may have had a few holes in their heads to start with.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

How Not to Buy

A fellow named Lee Eisenberg wrote a book called Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What, and in it he outlines some of the "tricks" that merchants use in order to prompt us to buy things we might otherwise not, or to buy more things than the one or two we had in mind starting out on our shopping trip.

The website Big Think posted some ideas from Eisenberg's book in an article titled "How to Resist the Irresistible: A Buyer's Guide to Shopping Tricks." They posted it on November 27th, a couple of days after many Americans might have found it a useful read while they waited in line for stores to open at midnight on the so-called "Black Friday." But it still might help the holiday season shopper think twice before spending.

The key to most of the ideas in the article and in Eisenberg's book is that retailers have spent considerable time, money and effort to try to learn how people's minds work so they can tailor their tactics to maximize sales. This isn't illegal or underhanded even if it might seem a little sneaky at times.

A simple counter-tactic might be to know what you want to buy and what you have to spend, compare prices for the product if it's available in different locations and then spend what you have budgeted for. We're most vulnerable to over-shopping or over-spending when we're trying to work an angle in our purchases. We cross over from trying to make sure we get a fair value for our money into the idea that we're somehow putting one over on someone -- whether it's the store or the manufacturer -- and we may feel cheated when we find out that the retailer or the maker still made plenty of money on our purchase that was supposed to be to our advantage. It may have been to our advantage anyway, but sometimes we don't appreciate that. Folks looking to con others often rely on a version of this principle to snare people into their schemes. The line is "You can't cheat an honest man," meaning their ability to fleece someone depends on that someone's desire to get something for nothing, or at least for less than what seems like fair market value.

It's always good to remember that low prices and good products are the means to an end, rather than the only end in themselves. Low prices and good products get us to give money to a retailer or supplier, and that's their main goal. They give us a good product because they want us to come back and spend more of our money and good products make us more likely to do that than do bad products. Sure, many take pride in their work and want to do their best, but they also recognize how that helps the bottom line.

Eisenberg's book, by the way, lists at Barnes and Noble for $26 and at Amazon.com for $19.76. But you can buy a bargain edition at Amazon for $10.40, and a used copy also from Amazon starting at $5.97 (price plus shipping). Should you decide you don't need it, well, that's free.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Creeping Frozen Death!

"Icicle of death" is a phrase that might seem to belong to one of the many idiotic contrived death scenes from the anencephalic Final Destination movies, but it's actually a nickname scientists give to a "brinicle," or frozen brine icicle that forms in certain special conditions. A BBC crew recently filmed one being formed, which you can read about here.

Seawater contains dissolved mineral salts, which is why we refer to it as "salty." It's also sometimes called "brine." Because many of these chemicals don't freeze at the same temperature of the water around them, the sea ice will be more like a sponge than a solid sheet, with tiny channels through which the brine flows.

The air above the water may be very cold, but water itself can only get down to around 32º Fahrenheit (0º Celsius) before it becomes ice and stops cooling. That temperature may vary a little depending on what other chemicals are in the water but not much. Since the water is relatively "hot" compared to the air, its heat will act like other heat and rise, carrying salty water through the small channels in the spongy ice. At the surface, the cold air freezes it -- but it's heavier than the water it's in so it sinks back down towards the sea floor. And it's super-cooled compared to the less salty seawater through which is sinks, so it freezes that seawater when the two come in contact, and that makes the plume or "brinicle (brine icicle)" formation descend from the ice. It continues to channel freezing water through the brinicle tube, which then freezes in whatever direction it flows along the sea floor.

The video at the link shows the ice overcoming starfish and sea urchins, which don't move fast enough to get out of the way. They are, apparently, too stupid to come in out of the freezing rain, and we're back to the Final Destination movies again, it seems.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Sir Real

While visiting the folks, we watched some episodes from their DVD collection of The Dean Martin Show, a variety-comedy series that ran from 1965 to 1974. This particular edition seemed to have been hamstrung by estate licensing, as it didn't feature some of the top-name guests Martin often drew, like John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and so on.

It did, however, feature a performance by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, the semi-psychedelic outfit with whom The Gambler made his first mark on the charts. After they played, Dean joined them to sing Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'" in a tag-team style that had them attempting to woo First Edition singer Mary Arnold.

Dean Martin and Kenny Rogers singing Hank Williams -- if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I might not have believed that turkey to have been completely cooked.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanks and Blessing

"Some hae meat and canna eat, and some wad eat that want it.
But we hae meat, and we can eat. Sae let the Lord be thankit."
~Robert Burns

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

As We Approach This Solemn and Wonderful Day...

Let us remember that, while turkeys can taste good baked, broiled, fried, roasted, sliced, sandwiched, mustarded and mayoed...

While they can provide a common meal around which family members will gather, and can provide tryptophan in sufficient amounts to make the afternoon seem like one continuing football game instead of three or four separate ones...

While they can provide us with endless adolescent amusement because a part of their body is named "wattle..."

While they can offer a proper Cimmerian air to any event with their large, barbarian-appetite sized drumsticks...

There is still one thing they cannot do:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Earth Turns, Water Is Wet, Homeowners' Association Loses

The retired NYPD officer who wanted to fly a flag with the name of people who died in the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City has been told he can do so, as his homeowners' association reversed their earlier decision to fine him.

I hope you were sitting down when you read that. My apologies for not warning you first.

Monday, November 21, 2011

From the Rental Vault (1975): The Killer Elite

Before there was Killer Elite with Jason Statham, Clive Owen, and a scene-chewing ham that used to be Robert DeNiro, there was a movie with a definite article: The Killer Elite, directed by Sam Peckinpah and reuniting James Caan and Robert Duvall three years after their essential roles in The Godfather. The two similarly-titled movies don't share plots and were adapted from two different novels.

Caan and Duvall are Mike Locken and George Hansen, two specialists who work for a private company that does contract work for the Central Intelligence Agency. They are assigned to guard a valuable defector, but something goes wrong and Locken is left crippled, put on the shelf by his superiors. When a kill squad threatens an Asian diplomat, the company recalls Locken to safeguard him, and he recruits two outsiders (Burt Young and Bo Hopkins) to help him.

The movie is one of Peckinpah's least known, coming at the tail end of his best work as his health and odd creative choices (a movie based on the C.W. McCall novelty CB-trucker song "Convoy?") began to move him from the "must see" to the "we'll see" category. It revisits one of his standard themes of men who have lived by a code trying to deal with a world that no longer respects that code. Locken and Hansen find themselves among people whose only loyalty is to themselves and the offered paychecks and they handle this disorientation in different ways. Locken seems to want to try to keep some semblance of what used to be, but his friend Mac (Young) argues against it.

Peckinpah seems to have little control over his story, as it bounces around between buddy comedy bits, bitterly cynical observations on the world, inspirational rehabilitation sequences and noble soliloquy from the Asian diplomat Yuen Chung (the always-welcome Mako). But it makes all these caroms without anything really invested in any of them, giving the impression of several skits or short scenes related only by the appearance of the same characters in each. Caan and Duvall were at their peak when the movie was made in 1975, but unfortunately Peckinpah was not. Neither the story nor the movie take full advantage of the star power at their command and so The Killer Elite winds up in-between: More than an interesting footnote, but much, much less than a top-flight main feature.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Oh, For Pete's Sake...

I, like many people, have often resorted to making jokes about how few clues politicians seem to possess. And sometimes I only wish they were jokes. But politicians ain't got nothin' on homeowners' associations, who never seem to pick up on the idea that asking someone to remove a powerful symbol like the flag will never turn out well for them.

A couple of years ago, it was a Virginia group telling a 90-year-old Congressional Medal of Honor winner he couldn't have a free-standing flagpole in his front yard. Now a similar association in Coral Springs, FL, is arguing against the display of a special commemorative flag featuring the names of the 9/11 victims written in blue and red and organized in striped patterns like an American flag. Owned by a retired New York City Police officer. Who ran into World Trade Center Tower 1 and pulled people to safety before it collapsed. Who has cancer.

The association's guides are clear -- only one flag displayed per house, and the former NYPD officer already flies an American flag. So he is technically outside the association rules, and the property management company president said there had been complaints. But even if you're the kind of person who just can't live if someone else is "getting away with" something you're not, surely, surely a neuron or two will fire in your head and tell you that no matter what happens in this fight, you'll lose. Even if you win, you lose, because then you become the city that won't let a retired NYPD hero battling cancer fly a banner with the names of people he didn't get to save, including members of his own department.

Just the thought of that kind of publicity sends Chamber of Commerce directors straight to the liquor cabinet. Realtors listing property in that area are trying to get as many deals closed as possible, because however tight the market is now, it's going to get worse in a neighborhood that told a retired NYPD hero battling cancer he couldn't fly his commemorative banner. No matter how many people might like the idea of living next to him, who wants to live next to cowards who hide behind property managers and homeowners' associations instead of doing a retired NYPD hero battling cancer the courtesy of speaking to him directly.

Anybody care to bet this ends well for the homeowners' association? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

From the Rental Vault (1948): Yellow Sky

A scruffy band of outlaws rob a bank in a town on the edge of a wasteland, and in fleeing from lawmen, they head out across the barren salt flats. Nearly dead from thirst, they stumble onto a ghost town inhabited only by an old prospector and his granddaughter. They initially intend to stay long enough to let their horses rest before crossing the last short stretch of the flats to the nearest occupied town, but begin to wonder what brought the prospector and his granddaughter to the desolate area. The answer will offer considerable complications for their plans.

One of the advantages that later Westerns have over some of their mid-century counterparts is the use of color -- the blue sky, green rolling hills, snow-capped mountains and so on. But black-and-white movies like Yellow Sky can use their grayscales just as effectively, and Yellow Sky cinematographer Joseph MacDonald skillfully uses the unmatched combination of light and shadow B&W movies can offer to make you not miss the color at all. Three-time Oscar nominee William Wellman directs his tightly-wound story in the middle of a desolate ghost town (a wrecked Tom Mix-era set) and the even more desolate Death Valley.

And his top-level cast keeps this loose adaptation of The Tempest clicking along nicely. Gregory Peck plays the outlaw leader Stretch, who seems to have taken to robbing banks after the end of the Civil War because he doesn't have much desire to do anything else. Stretch will have to confront the idea that he can lay claim to nobility of character while making a living stealing from others. The always enjoyable Richard Widmark brings his trademark charming psychopath to life as the band's lieutenant, Dude. The rest of the outlaws, including a ridiculously young-looking Harry Morgan, are more or less stock characters, but they fit into their parts well. Anne Baxter, who at the ripe old age of 25 already had 20 movies and a Best Supporting Actress win for The Razor's Edge under her gunbelt, makes the granddaughter "Mike" a much richer and deeper character than The Girl often is in a lot of Westerns. She understates it just about perfectly, apparently saving up all of her hamminess for her work in The Ten Commandments seven years later.

Although their spread had been slowed by World War II, color movies were becoming common by 1948, the year Yellow Sky was released. But many directors preferred black and white moviemaking, and not simply because it cost less -- some felt that the limitations imposed by the lack of color pushed them into making creative choices that improved their movies. Yellow Sky is a prime example of a movie that thrived within the limited color scheme and put quite a few movies with more expansive palettes to shame.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The More Things Change?

Border's Books and Music is gone, and other national chains may be teetering as well. People buy fewer physical books in favor of using their preferred e-reader. So the bookstore is dead, right, to be followed after a short illness by the public library?

Well, maybe not. As this author notes, even though we're still limited by the widespread practice of publishing paper books, online book retail is a mess. A changeover to primarily e-books may only heighten the problem because of something as simple as not having any idea what's worth buying.

Many books available through online retailers may only have a publisher's blurb to let us know what the book is like -- and those are not necessarily objective. A move to self-published e-books, though, may snuff out even those dim lanterns and leave a book buyer with next to no way to know anything about a potential purchase. The reviews posted at the sites are rarely good guides and your faithful Friar can only evaluate so many lightweight airport novels, let alone try to offer insight into nonfiction works in all of the many fields that interest you. Should I ever have actual readers, I'm hosed.

The solution may be a figure from the past, from the days pre-BordersBarnesWaldenBooks-A-MillionAmazon: The bookseller. Not, as the story notes, the part-time clerk making money during school, but the bookseller who studies what's being sold, knows something about the different offerings on her shelves and can recommend what might match a customer's desires. A combination of GPS and e-reader devices would mean that the bookseller could even get credit for a sale made on an e-book, opening up the possibility of a new revenue stream, even if it's not all that much per book. Other than the part about revenue, the same setup can work with a knowledgeable librarian.

The key, according to the idea that's presented in the story, is that there will be a place for a certain kind of brick-and-mortar bookstore even for folks who aren't old-fashioned curmudgeons who think that there is value in preserving ideas in a format not at the mercy of battery life, screen quality or seller's whim. Not that I know anyone like that.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

TV Keeps Getting Smarter

But starting from zero means there's a long way to go. Either way, please pardon my unseemly happiness at the news that Joy Behar's talk show on the Headline News Network will end next month.

The item confirming the cancellation contained this pithy quote from the HLN general manager: "Joy and her team produced over 500 episodes of a show that featured news-making interviews, great conversation and plenty of humor."

HLN probably should have aired some of those, then.

Gripe, Gripe, Grumble, Grumble

I own a pre-paid cell phone that I will use in emergencies, such as being in my truck and it stops running someplace. It is, other than that, a royal pain. Four people have the number, but I have to clear about five wrong number missed calls and twenty-plus spam messages off it per week.

So I was predisposed to think poorly of the behavior of the gentleman dining a couple of tables away from me last week. He was at lunch with his wife, and three times during the 20 minutes we were in proximity to each other his phone went off.

The first problem was the ring tone. It was the startup of a jet engine, set at a volume audible across the restaurant. I'm sure that sounded like a neat idea when he thought of it -- "Hey, a jet engine ring tone! Cool!" But speaking as someone who was near it, I have to strongly disagree. If my phone rings loud enough to disrupt your conversation, I am being rude to you.

The other problem didn't affect me, but I wonder at what point we decided that it was OK to interrupt time spent with someone across a table from us to talk with someone else on the phone? As I mentioned, the phone rang three times during the couple's meal, meaning that three times their interaction was placed on hold to address other matters. The gentleman's voice carried well enough that I could tell his side of the conversation didn't sound like he was directing life-saving efforts that required his immediate attention. Despite my online persona, I'm actually a pretty laid-back guy...but I would have finished my meal and said "We're done" if my companion or conversationalist answered three cell-phone calls during our time.

I appreciate the benefits of cell phones and I'm amazed at how technology has enabled us to maintain and develop connections across great distances. But when we make our face-to-face interactions pay for them we can send a message to the people we're actually around all the time, one that says their importance isn't as great as that we attach to the people on the other end of the phone.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

You Get What You Pay For

I'd mentioned in an earlier post that I'll be doing some sermons on why (and maybe a little bit of how, although I'm not sure how to go about that) adjusting the pace of our lives to include significant slowdown spaces matters.

Common sense suggests that we observe better when we pay attention, but a lot of modern "multi-tasking" practice works against that. Come now some studies that suggest common sense is closer to the mark. We are far more likely to be aware of something when we pay attention to it, and attention itself is a limited resource. We can't pay attention to very many things at once. This information should add some interesting dimension to the sermons, at least as background.

Whether or not I can get people to pay attention to the sermon, of course, is an entirely different question.