Monday, January 31, 2011

Clues Wanted

On the local television news, the weather reports about our current sleet and snow storm has been given its own title on one station: "Snowmageddon."

And they wonder why no one takes them seriously.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


The day started with our worship being led by our bluegrass combo, and ended with a rerun of Hee Haw in which Buck Owens sang "Tiger by the Tail."

So I've been thinking about my grandparents most of the day. ;-)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The State of the Soda

Although only a couple of states have official "State Soft Drinks," the folks at The Houston Press decided to give the states of the U.S. the soft drink that they felt best suited them, based on locally popular beverages in each of the 50. Here's a map showing their choices.

Our own Oklahoma entry is Coit's Root Beer, which is probably a good choice for us. We do have other cola company bottling plants in Oklahoma, but Coit's is a local product. Our neighbor to the south, Texas, is represented by the original-recipe Dr. Pepper brewed in Dublin, previously mentioned here. On a side note, the local Wal-Mart now stocks "throwback," or pure cane versions, of both Pepsi and Mountain Dew. I may take a pass on them, as I don't much care for Pepsi and the combination of real sugar and the extra caffeine in Mountain Dew may produce that wonderful-sounding medical condition known as an infarction.

Utah is represented by TaB (that's how you spell it, for real), which I didn't know that anyone sold anymore. It was the diet soda available at the cafeteria when I was in school, and sometimes the young women who wore Greek letters on their sweatshirts would be mocked by those of us who worked at the cafeteria for drinking TaB along with the two pieces of cake they piled on their trays. No, we were not worried that they would not go out with us if we mocked them. They were not going to go out with us anyway, for reasons best explained by one Mr. William James Murray in a slightly different but related setting here.

Hawaii's is -- of course -- Hawaiian Punch. Nebraska's soft drink is Kool-Aid, which makes sense not only because Kool-Aid was developed there back in the 1920s but because its state legislature declared it to be so in 1998. Maine seems to be the only other state with an official state soft drink, the locally produced soda Moxie having been given that status in 2005. And yes, the phrase "he's/she's got moxie," used to describe bold young men and tough dames in movies during the middle of the last century, does seem to stem from the name of the soda, which has a surprise bitter kick following an initially sweet taste.

There's not a lot of detail given as to what criteria were used to associate a beverage with a state, which leaves the reader to wonder why Georgia, home of Atlanta and all things Coca-Cola, is represented not by that company's signature red can but by the blue of RC Cola. Coke is instead connected to Mississippi. The other of the "big 3" cola beverages, Pepsi, represents South Dakota.

Friday, January 28, 2011


A hundred and sixty years ago today, some Chicago businessmen and Methodist Episcopal ministers met and discussed the need for a university to serve the people of the former North West Territory.

In honor of this great day in the history of education, decency, clean living and the battle against Communism, allow me to present the stirring words of NU's alma mater:

Hail to Alma Mater
We will sing thy praise forever
All thy sons and daughters
Pledge thee victory and honor.
Alma Mater, praise be thine.
May thy name forever shine!
Hail to Purple! Hail to White!
Hail to thee, Northwestern!

And no, if you'd have asked me to sing this song or even identify more than a quarter of the words when I was an undergraduate, I couldn't have done so to save my life. Heck, I had to go look it up even now. I was pretty sure that it had the words "purple," "white" and "Northwestern" in it, and since it was an alma mater, I figured the words "hail," "victory" and "honor" were in there somewhere too.

All I know is that as long as the Purple and White are around, there is at least one institution dedicated to thwarting the diabolical world-dominating schemes that originate in Champaign-Urbana.

January 28, 1986

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds -- and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of -- wheeled and soared and swung
high in the sunlit silence. Hovering there,
I've chased the shouted wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...

Up, up the long delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
High Flight

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Chuck Norris? Oh, Please!

You want a tough guy, meet Bishnu Shrestha of Nepal, a retired Gurkha soldier from the Indian army who last fall thwarted an attempted train robbery with his khukuri or kukri knife. Shrestha foiled the robbery by killing three bandits and injuring others. The remaining bandits -- all twenty-nine of them -- ran away. Shrestha was honored by the Indian government in a ceremony yesterday. 

Shrestha was returning to his home town on board the train, after voluntarily retiring from the service, when approximately 40 bandits began menacing passengers with weapons and stealing jewelry, cell phones, laptops and cash. He let that go, but when they started attacking a teenage girl sitting next to him and threatening to rape her, they crossed a line and Shrestha let them know. That's when he killed the three and injured eight.

He sustained some cuts of his own from the knives the robbers carried. The robbers also had pistols but didn't use them, leading Shrestha to later remark that he supposes the guns may have been fakes. He says he doesn't know why the robbers fled, except that after twenty minutes of fighting him, they may have feared more soldiers were on the train.

Shrestha's regiment has rescinded his retirement, and he certainly sounds happy to be back with his unit. He said that his duty as a soldier is to fight the enemy, and his duty as a human being was to fight the bandits who were going to rape the young woman. “I am proud to be able to prove that a Gorkha soldier with a khukuri is really a handful," he told a newspaper.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Unclear on the Concept

So the other day, here at the church office, I got a call from a very perky young man who said he would like to ask me a few questions about a recent survey and book about Christian attitudes in the U.S. The thesis is that in American society, a large part of our Christianity is influenced by commercialism and commercialized ideas, rather than by the ideas of self-sacrifice and repentance found in the gospels.

I agree with the condition, even though I think it's not something unique to modern times or to the American church -- it's kind of a common theme at many different times in Christian history. But the perky young fellow started asking me some questions as though he was also doing a survey, and I answered them, and then he mentioned that, as a result of a recent nationwide conference, a set of study tools, sermon ideas, teaching material and video presentations had been developed. He name-dropped a couple of well-known church leaders who had some role with this development

While he was speaking, I considered whether or not he would appreciate the irony that he was trying to make a sales pitch for curriculum that taught how to move away from a commercialized understanding of the Christian faith, and that his script for his sales call started out by presenting it as a survey or conversation -- disingenuous at the very least and maybe even deceitful. I decided that even if he did appreciate the irony, he wouldn't be admitting it in a situation where his call might be monitored.

So I told him that I wasn't going to be interested in purchasing anything, thanked him for his call and said that if he had said up front he was selling something, I could have saved both of us some time by declining the offer then, and hung up. A lot of the marketing firms tell their representatives to keep talking as long as there's a connection so you do have to hang up on them to get them to stop, but there's no reason to be rude about it. Well, no reason other than it would make me feel good, but that's probably not enough to get past that "Do unto others" rule the Boss laid down...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Scots, Wha Hae

Today marks the 252nd birthday of the Bard of Ayrshire his own self, Robert Burns. He is, of course, deceased and not really 252 years old, but we rarely say clumsy things like "the 252nd anniversary of the birth of," and it sounds a little silly to say that someone "would have been 252 if they were still living."

Burns composed a sonnet on his 34th birthday in 1793, written when he heard a bird sing during his morning walk:
Sing on, sweet thrush, upon the leafless bough,
Sing on, sweet bird, I listen to thy strain,
See aged Winter, 'mid his surly reign,
At thy blythe carol, clears his furrowed brow.

So in lone Poverty's dominion drear,
Sits meek Content with light, unanxious heart;
Welcomes the rapid moments, bids them part,
Nor asks if they bring ought to hope or fear.

I thank thee, Author of this opening day!
Thou whose bright sun now gilds yon orient skies!
Riches denied, thy boon was purer joys-
What wealth could never give nor take away!

Yet come, thou child of poverty and care,
The mite high heav'n bestow'd, that mite with thee I'll share.

The post title comes from a more famous work, also from 1793, the poem Robert Bruce's March to Bannockburn, commemorating Robert I's victory over England's Edward II in the Blàr Allt a' Bhonnaich ("Battle of Bannockburn" to ye Sassenach) that helped establish Scotland's independence from England. Its opening stanza is:
Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to Victorie!

This idea is probably a good part of the fuel behind the words of the William Wallace character in the 1995 movie Braveheart, although Mel Gibson has Wallace give them before what I believe is supposed to be the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

Either way, if you're minded to observe the Ploughman Poet's birthday in one of the traditional ways, by eating a plate of haggis, feel free to have my share.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Live Long and Stay Healthy

That was one of the life credos of fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who died Sunday at the age of 96. Not a bad idea. One of his other pieces of advice was, "If it tastes good, spit it out," which is carrying things a little past where I'd like to be myself.

LaLanne was probably healthier, though, at 96 than I am at 50 years younger. And it would probably take me 50 years to get to be as healthy as he was. Lots of people live a long time, but LaLanne was someone who lived a long time and got to enjoy the time he had -- that's more common than it used to be, it seems.

A man at the first church I served ranched cattle. When I met him, he was in his 80s and may have been close to 90 already, but he still worked every day, went to auctions and kept up his trading in livestock. I recall a conversation at an FFA show -- where some of the church kids were showing some animals -- that mentioned him.

"Make anything at the sale the other day?"

"A little. Haven't made much at a time in awhile."

"Ol' John did. He always seems to."

"Well, he's been doing this for more than 60 years. He could sell you your own cows and he'd still make money on the deal."

Anybody can hang around a long time. Bravo to the people like LaLanne and my parishioner who manage to live a long time too.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Existential Questions

The SyFy Network is showing Serenity right now. This is, as always, fun. But it prompts the obvious question.

What is up with that stupid name change to "SyFy?"

OK, it also prompts a second obvious question. Why is the network spending money on a Canadian version of a perfectly good BBC Three show with supernatural themes when it could be making more Firefly?

I would never make a good TV executive. My head's just not in the right place for it.

From the Rental Vault: The Professionals

Although Richard Brooks earned Oscar nominations for both his direction and screenplay of The Professionals, it's a curiously overlooked movie.

Set in 1917, The Professionals tells the story of the wealthy Joe Grant (Ralph Bellamy) who hires four hard-edged fellows to sneak into Mexico and rescue his kidnapped wife, Maria (Claudia Cardinale). The group, led by Henry Fardan (Lee Marvin), includes explosives expert Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), tracker Jake Sharp (Woody Strode) and horse expert Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan). They travel across a blistering desert to reach the rebel stronghold where Maria is being held by bandit captain Jesus Raza (Jack Palance). Fardan and Dolworth know both the area and Raza, having fought at his side for Pancho Villa during revolutionary activities several years earlier.

Marvin and Lancaster are given the best characters and do as much with them as you'd expect from these two talented actors. It's kind of amazing when you realize just how much of a tough guy Marvin was able to portray with his normal, almost soft-spoken voice. Lancaster's cynical mercenary Dolworth gives him ample chances to put a bitterly wry spin on their situations, as well as flash his trademark just-this-side-of sanity grin. Robert Ryan is shortchanged among the leads, although Ehrengard offers some flashes of the Deke Thornton character he'll later play in The Wild Bunch. Woody Strode's role may seem a little small, but for 1966 it represented a major part for an African-American actor. Cardinale and Palance show a lot more layers than their characters initially promise. 

The Professionals seems to teeter on the rails a bit during the final third; Lancaster's solo stand against the pursuing Raza and his men gets talky and only pays off at the very end of the movie. But it offers classic Western-with-realism wrapped up in a snappy action picture that doesn't seem anywhere near as long as its nearly two-hour running time.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Rollin' Sevens!

It's rare when you get a basketball referee who understands that people paid for their tickets to watch him whistle play to a stop at least every other trip down the court.

But when you have two in one game? The kind of good luck that makes me wish I believed in playing the lottery, 'cause I'd had to have hit it big!

Friday, January 21, 2011


Television has just lost an immense amount of pomposity, windbaggery and ignorance.

Of course, given that it's television, infinite amounts of all three qualities remain. Infinity doesn't work like a real number does -- no matter how large of an amount you subtract from it, it's still infinity. As blessed as Olbermann-less airwaves will be, there are enough O'Donnells, Shultzes, O'Reillys, Behars, Hannitys, Graces and so on to insure TV's record of saying anything but teaching nothing remains intact.

To Divine the Divine

The other day I got a letter from Jesus.

No, really, it said so right on the envelope. It had my church's name as the addressee, but the return address said "Jesus the Christ." The Lord uses purple ink, by the way. Fortunately, He used the proper postage, because He did not include a return address. Although the postal workers here in town strike me as godly people, I am not certain that everyone in their agency would be able to get the letter back to the Lord had He been short a stamp or two.

Inside was a warning against...well, I'm not entirely sure. The Lord seems to be cautioning me against observing the "modern holidays of men," and I have no problem with skipping the next one on Hallmark's plate as I am without reason or companion with which to celebrate it. But the Lord also says that if I teach the doctrine of hell and eternal torment, I "shall not by any means be gathered." I will instead be subject to punishment on the Day of the Lord.

I'll have to say I didn't know exactly what judgment and punishment I am to face, since apparently the idea of hell and eternal torment is out. I cheated a little and checked the website referenced in the letter, and found out that if I am one of the wicked, my ultimate fate is to be "cast into the lake of fire, to be utterly destroyed and no longer exist." This is ironically close to my own belief but not something I preach regularly. I've yet to run out of things to preach about Heaven and Heaven's Lord, so I leave hell on the back -- um -- burner, so to speak.

Anyway, it was nice of the Lord to be thinking of me. I must remember to thank Him sometime. Today is probably good. Tomorrow too, for that matter.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Choose Wisely

It would be tempting to think that George Lucas's reported belief that the world will end in 2012 is a sign that he has lost whatever insight into things he once had. Tempting, but unwarranted.

No, not because Lucas never had such insight. If you watch his first feature as a director, THX-1138, you find him predicting a future world in which people medicate themselves into a passionless, placid society. In order to remove worry and anxiety from their lives, they take state-dispensed drugs that also eliminate joy, desire and pretty much everything else. Their "religion" is superficial feel-goodism that's designed to be the spiritual equivalent of the tranquilizers that pacify their emotions. Their entertainment consists of realistic hologram shows of mindless, sadistic violence, degraded sexual activity or equally mindless streams of blabbing talk shows (meaning that Eli Roth has hit two-thirds of a THX trifecta). You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist or HD Luddite to see that a good deal of modern entertainment on large screens and small fit in the same kinds of categories.

At one point in his career, Lucas definitely had vision. Even his inability to write realistic interactions between people that went beyond the realm of banter doesn't hurt him here, because he's writing about those kinds of interactions happening between people whose unfamiliarity with them makes them as stilted as the words Lucas gives them to say.

No, we can't say Lucas always lacked insight and therefore could have none now. The reasons this story can't be taken as evidence that Lucas lacks vision are twofold:

1) It comes to us via Seth Rogen, who with The Green Hornet single-handedly wrecked one of the most interesting comic-book characters ever, rivaling Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin, Mark Johnson's Daredevil, Pitof's Catwoman and Frank Miller's The Spirit for sheer high-budget waste. At this point in his career, I would not trust Seth Rogen to get a pizza order right, let alone a quote.

2) Lucas still does have insight, or at least did about 10 years ago. With Jar-Jar Binks in 1999's The Phantom Menace, he created a character represented entirely by computer-generated imagery whose existence was without any point whatsoever. If that's not a prophetic warning against Avatar, I don't know what would be.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lighten up, Francis...

An Oklahoma legislator wants to go a step beyond repealing the national Patient Affordable Care Act, commonly called "Obamacare."

State Rep. Mike Ritze, a Broken Arrow Republican, would like to see the law made a criminal offense in Oklahoma, subjecting people who try to enforce it to fines, imprisonment and a felony record. I myself do not think the health care reform act passed in 2010 will do the one thing that I believe nearly everyone agrees needs to happen -- lower health care costs. I've elsewhere said that the manner in which the country's legislative leadership sneaked around parliamentary procedures and questionably employed their own operating rules was repulsive, even if the legislation itself is only a misguided attempt to fix a real problem by taking steps likely to make it worse.

So I won't cry many tears when it's finally repealed, hamstrung by defunding or otherwise torpedoed and steps can be taken that will be more likely to drive down insurance and health care costs. But making the enforcement of a federal law a state felony? Really? Rep. Ritze says other states have already passed such laws and if so, more power to them, but the whole scheme seems pretty much like lawsuit bait.

And I can't say it would set a really great precedent even if it stands. What if one of our bluer states -- say, Massachusetts, for example -- decided that it wanted to make military recruitment a felony within its state borders? Should Rep. Ritze's law be passed and should it stand up to legal challenges, it would be that much harder to argue against Massachusetts' right to take such action if its people wanted that done.

In the end, I doubt this measure will succeed. But it's a very good example of why we might not always desire too much efficiency in government. The slower they work, the greater chance that wacky ideas will founder on some common sense.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Today involved a large meeting at a church near downtown, the reaching of which required driving through some street construction, including a four-way stop. Some thoughts:

-- Four-way stops are some of the most democratic traffic constructions known to humanity. Be you driving a Jaguar, Lexus, F-150, Mustang or 16-year-old beater, you wait your turn.

-- Persons who have questions that pertain only to themselves and their experiences should ask them on their own time, rather than take the presence of an open microphone and the call "Any questions?" as a license to inflict their stories on those uninterested in them.

-- Our organization's new health-insurance providers had a form at our tables to be filled out that allowed to judge our group's overall health and "wellness interests." We were told that we should drop off the form upon leaving the meeting and we would receive a $25 gift card (we were not told the issuer of the card, so for all I know it was for $25 off a $2,000 MRI). By the time I dropped off my form, they had run out of the gift cards. Based on the mismatch between the number of cards on hand and the number of meeting attendees -- which was known beforehand -- I am now agnostic about their ability to keep track of our health expenses and records.

-- A new Social Distortion album was released today -- although it sounds in no way attractive or soothing, it's amazing how much Mike Ness's nasal snarl calms the middle-aged punk rock aficionado who has spent several hours listening to insurance reps describe just how screwed he will be if he ever gets sick, because his particular occupation is flooded with superannuated folks who keep hangin' on and active plan participants who seem to think "cardio" was an ancient Italian theologian.

Monday, January 17, 2011


Although his actual birthday would have been celebrated on Saturday were he still living (he would have been 82), our nation celebrates today as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

His most famous speech was, of course, delivered on August 28, 1963 during a civil rights March on Washington, and is usually titled "I Have a Dream." It's kind of a hybrid of speech and sermon, as so many of King's addresses were. Watch it and you can probably tell the point where the speechmaker proclaiming his words steps aside so the preacher can proclaim His Word. King was also a Nobel Peace Prize winner and gave an acceptance speech as well as the Laureate Address upon receiving the award in December 1964. Reading them both is encouraged. An incomplete list that nonetheless offers several different speeches and sermons that are worth reviewing may be found here.

Although the laureate address contains a caricature of defeated Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater that King later might have wished unsaid in line with his more typical habit of assigning blame to actions rather than character, it still ranks near if not at the top of his public speeches. Some of his remarks on the need to match internal or spiritual progress to external technological progress serve as good reminders today as well.

Entertainment news is buzzing with the way host Ricky Gervais skewered entertainer egos at one of the industry's elaborate self-pats on the back last night, the Golden Globe Awards. Gervais signed off with a snarky “And thank you to God for making me an atheist.”

In what I hope matches the spirit of the day, I will offer no response to Mr. Gervais beyond a thank-you to God for not making Martin Luther King, Jr., one.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Natural High Notes

A study written about here suggests that a person's favorite music causes neurotransmitters to release dopamine, a chemical within the brain that the body uses to make itself feel good. The same chemical is used to make the body like its favorite foods, illicit pharmaceuticals and that special mommy-daddy hug; two of which may be related to survival instincts.

The researchers found that there was no connection between the types of music and whether or not dopamine was released. The wall of noise that opens the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" will do just as well as "Rites of Spring" if the listener happens to prefer the Pistols to Stravinsky or likes them both equally. Although the study used instrumental music to be sure the response wasn't triggered by the words of the songs, the effect would be the same for songs with words.

It seems to me like even when your musical tastes expand -- and mine have; the 16-year-old me would not under any circumstances have owned albums by George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Sutton Foster or Keely Smith -- there is a kind of music you heard when you were younger that will catch you quicker than any other kind. My folks grew to appreciate a very limited some of the stuff I listened to as a kid, but both of them will prefer Ray Charles in a heartbeat.

My own tastes, as I mentioned, have expanded, but give me some peppy New Wave power pop, thrashy three-chord punk mayhem or retro cool bare-bones rockabilly and you will catch my ears every time, even if the stuff isn't all that good. I have, after all, no other rational explanation for owning a copy of Green Day's Dookie. In my defense, I will say that's the only Green Day I own; I wised up when they started exceeding their warrant and thinking they had something to say beyond "Sometimes I give myself the creeps."

Anyway, one thing that interested me is that when the person was listening to familiar music, the brain had actually trained itself to kick out the dopamine some ten to 20 seconds before the favorite passage started up. Not only does music create a "natural high" by raising dopamine levels, it also raises the levels to increase the natural high by starting your feel-good before your ears hear the actual feel-good starter.

Of course, none of the above explains why I like bagpipe music. That may remain a mystery unsolved this side of the eschaton.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

It's a Tie!

Yesterday at the gym one of the TV's was showing Oprah. She was staging some kind of financial intervention for Nadya Suleman, the woman who had eight children after already having a substantial number of them on hand. There's some links to the video, but I like most of you so I will omit them, and several of them are on repulsive sites like TMZ.

The intervention was conducted by Oprah herself and by money makeover guru Suze Orman, as it appears Ms. Suleman is in serious financial straits. The question that came to my mind when the three women were on the screen together was which one would be considered the biggest narcissist.  Obviously, Ms. Suleman has bunches of kids, which is a little odd unless you live in the 18th or 19th centuries, and even then they spread them out over a number of years. Ms. Orman is, I believe, taller than the other women, so she might be the "biggest" in that sense. And Oprah's been doing it longer, plus she has appeared alone on the cover of every single issue of her magazine except two for almost 11 years.

So I say it's a tie. The winner? Me, because I could see another TV that had a CSI rerun from back when the show was good and I could watch that instead.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Wooly Bully Mammoth

This sounds quite a bit safer than the route that Michael Crichton's characters took in Jurassic Park.

Mammoths, after all, were vegetarian and so would be unlikely to pick up the bad T-rex habit of eating people. Which would be of no consolation to you should you be underneath the foot of a mammoth that had broken loose from its enclosure and was rampaging around the countryside, but at that point our interest level in what you thought would be kind of flat. Heh.

Plus, unlike scaly or partially feathered reptiles, some really wild results could be achieved with a couple tons of hair mousse.

The plan, once scientists locate a well-enough preserved sample of soft tissue from an iced mammoth, is to clone its DNA by inserting into the egg cells of a Mrs. African Elephant, and then wait out the 600-day (!) pregnancy which should produce a wooly mammoth calf.  Scientists do not indicate what they will say to Mr. African Elephant when he queries his mate on the fact that their new child does not look anything like him. A possible response might be for the missus to point out the calf doesn't look much like her either. I suspect that Dr. Phil may have to be called in at some point.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

You Are Here


The monumental mapping project of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has taken more than a dozen years and, in screen-size terms, holds than a trillion pixels. Reproducing it with the kind of detail needed to really appreciate its different features would take a video wall of about 500,000 HD televisions. And it's a picture of only one-third of the same sky my Lord can encompass with a single thought.

I don't know about you, but I needed that.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Someone asked me -- I have no idea why -- what comment I might have regarding Saturday's shootings in Arizona and the debate that has been going on about political rhetoric and such in its aftermath. Just briefly:

1. The word "debate" can't be used legitimately for the lion's share of what's been said about the shootings, nor can the words "think" or "thought" be used legitimately to describe how a number of the opinions being expressed were formed.

2. I'm looking forward to a couple of weeks from now when I can go back and un-hide newsfeeds from a good dozen or so of my Facebook friends who felt the need to post every single stinking thing everyone else said about the matter.

3. In light of the concept expressed in Proverbs 17:28, very few television networks, magazines or newspapers seem to employ men (or women) of understanding.

4. Some days, there's not enough shuttin' up in the world -- and I'll try to live by my own thought and start my shuttin' up now.

ETA: I'll break my own rule by commending President Obama on his remarks yesterday evening. The presidency has hard moments, but I imagine this one -- involving the death of a 9-year-old girl -- is compounded for a man with young daughters, and he stepped up well.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bad Aftertaste

Two-point overtime win for the local ladies' high school basketball team. Pretty exciting game; quite a bit better play out of the hometown squad than they showed before the holiday break.

And an opposing coach who harangued his players nonstop through more than one timeout. I'd be a novice in the coaching field were I to try it, but I'm going to guess that using a timeout to devise a game strategy, rather than just spend uninterrupted seconds doing what I'd been doing to my own team as well as the officials since tipoff, might prove a little more effective in those closing seconds.

But what do I know?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Who Won?

There's some good points made in this guy's sports column about attributing wins to a football quarterback the way that baseball attributes wins to its pitchers.

On the one hand, the quarterback is definitely the "first among equals" on a football team. He takes the snaps, hands the ball off, throws the passes and so on. He helps initiate the offense and to a degree, direct where it will go. If he throws the ball to the wrong place, the pass is incomplete or worse, intercepted. If he blows the handoff, the running back will not be able to get up to speed in time to try to move out of the backfield and gain yards.

But on the other hand, the success or failure of a play also depends on hundreds of other factors. Someone's always on the other end of a thrown pass or handoff, and how they perform also affects whether or not the play works. Len Dawson was the most successful quarterback my chosen NFL team, the Kansas City Chiefs, ever had, but a Super Bowl IV without rookie Ed Podolak in the backfield with him or Otis Taylor to throw to or one-eyed Fred Arbanas at tight end leaves him a footnote in Kansas City as well as outside of it.

Move one step along in the process, and the success of a play depends on whether or not a running back evades defenders or keeps his feet, or whether or not a receiver maintains control of the ball when he comes down and stays inbounds. Widen the focus, and a successful play can be erased because an offensive lineman on the other side of the field drew a penalty or a receiver pushed off at the wrong time.

Heck, there's two entire sets of players who are on the field when the quarterback is on the sidelines reviewing game strategy or resting; special teams and defense. To go back to my 1969 Chiefs, Dawson, Podolak, Taylor and Arbanas could be great but without Willie Lanier and Buck Buchanan knocking opposing players to the ground when necessary, their efforts would be for naught. To say nothing of the automatic foot of the great Jan Stenerud, kicking field goals and extra points.

Football is probably the most team-dependent of the major televised sports. A great individual basketball player needs help -- the Chicago Bulls did not begin to dominate until Michael Jordan was joined by Scottie Pippen. Hockey operates similarly. And great baseball pitchers can't do the whole job by themselves either; even Satchel Paige needed a catcher.

I've kind of always thought that giving a quarterback the same kind of won-loss record a pitcher might have is no way to really measure their value, even when it comes to playoff records. Like the column writer says, it's possible to say that because his Indianapolis Colts have lost more playoff games than they've won with Peyton Manning calling the signals, Manning is somehow less of a success as a quarterback. But that kind of evaluation ignores the role Manning may have played in bringing the Colts to those playoff games. So judging his quality as a quarterback probably needs more evaluation than just his team's won-loss record in playoff games in which he plays.

Either way, he's a lot better at it than I would be.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

It's About Their Education

Sports Illustrated used to run lots of stories like this, until they found out they couldn't really survive if coaches, athletic directors, PR flacks and ticked-off athletes played Retaliation and stopped talking to them when they wrote embarrassing and true things about them and their behavior.

But every now and again they must think it's worth it, so they bust out some journalism. This time, it's a look at how much of the University of Oregon's athletic renaissance owes to the checkbook of Nike CEO Phil Knight, running in time for the national championship college football game pitting the Knight-supported Ducks against Auburn, a team with its own little tale of interesting spending proposals this past season.

One of the neat little tidbits is how no one knows exactly what Oregon's new football stadium cost. But they have too, you say. U of O is a public university, meaning that the construction had to be bid out and contracts awarded. Meetings about the plans and the expenditures had to be open and part of the public record, because U of O is a public entity.

Nope. See, Knight decided he wanted to give the school a stadium, but he wanted it built his way. So he offered to pay for the whole thing himself, meaning he could select the contractors and approve the plans on his own and not tell anyone what he paid or what they did.

Should help those student-athletes really excel in the pursuit of their degrees, don't you think?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Sharks With Lasers Are for Amateurs

The discerning mad scientist will opt for solar-powered swarms of electric hornets.

No, really -- according to scientists in Israel, a species of hornet called the "Oriental hornet" has an exoskeleton that can convert sunlight into energy sort of like plants do.

Although the researchers have yet to duplicate the hornets' efficiency in creating energy, they've observed that the little fellers are a lot busier in the bright sunlight of midday than they are at sunrise or sunset. Further study proved that this was not because the hornets are just not good morning bugs, but because they are able to harvest solar energy. In fact, their stripes work like photovoltaic cells, absorbing and reflecting light to help increase the energy produced by the solar exoskeleton.

The potential for world dominating schemes is obvious -- your average megalomaniac will easily be able to use his evil genius and twist nature to ramp up the power in the hornets so that they deliver electrocution-level shocks when they sting. Or perhaps alter them so they release heat and threaten to use them to bake the Earth to a cinder. Some might suggest that he would be able to engineer the hornets so that they produced nuclear power instead of solar energy, but let's be realistic. Either way, what world-dominating madman could resist the temptation to stand at the contol center of his shiny high-tech lair and shout with twisted glee: "You have failed to meet my demands for the last time, Mr. General Secretary, and now the people of the world will pay for your arrogance! Number Two! Unleash the swarms!"

Of course, because James Bond had managed to slip a special Oriental hornet-attracting pheromone devised by Q into the baddie's shorts, our villain would then die a spectacular death, accompanied by many explosions.

Or would he?!?!?!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Experimental Verification


So after yesterday's post exploring the difference between the 2003 movie Open Range and the 1990 novel The Open Range Men, AMC conveniently shows the movie, allowing me to study it in detail again. Somebody must have gone to church this week.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Page and Frame

When movies come out that have been adapted from books, people frequently debate which is better. A lousy movie may prompt fans of the book it's drawn from to say that the movie "ruined the book." Stephen King liked to quote an author friend, who would look at a shelf of his work after hearing such a comment and say, "No, they're still there."

The Coen brothers' version of True Grit was said to be a new adaptation of Charles Portis' novel of the same name, rather than a remake of the 1969 movie starring John Wayne. Argumentative fans were in heaven, as they might now debate the relative merits of the movies against each other as well as against their source material. This debate, like most similar ones, will not likely resolve itself. In recent years, fans of different works have conclusively proven that the onscreen versions of The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, the Narnia series and the Twilight books are clearly inferior to, equal to and obviously superior to their printed counterparts.

One roadblock to resolution is that books and movies are different media. The mind of the reader must -- no matter how reluctant it might be to do so -- imagine how vampire Edward Cullen sparkles in the sunlight. But thanks to CGI, someone watching Twilight in the theater can see exactly how at least one person pictures that momentous event. An excellent movie may tell roughly the same story as an excellent book, but it's tough to compare them because of the different ways they communicate.

But sometimes you get one or the other that stands pretty clearly above its counterpart. Kevin Costner's 2003 Open Range has that relationship with its source material, Lauran Paine's 1990 novel The Open Range Men. Some spoilers follow, so beware if you want to find out for yourself how the book and the movie end.

Oddly for someone who's been writing Westerns for more than 50 years, Open Range is only the second Paine novel ever adapted for movies (The first, 1957's The Quiet Gun, was taken from Paine's novel Law Man). Both book and movie concern the conflict between free-grazing cattlemen Boss Spearman and Charley Waite with rancher Denton Baxter, who owns much of the ranchland around the town of Harmonville, as well as the town sheriff and much of the town itself. Baxter aims to steal Spearman's cattle after running him and his hands off. Spearman and Waite deal with cowed townspeople as well as Baxter's hired goons and gunhands, and Craig Storper's movie script tracks Paine's novel pretty closely for about two-thirds of its length. In both we meet the town doctor, Walt Barlow, and his pretty sister Sue, for whom Charley develops quite a fondness.

At that point, though, the movie starts to branch away from the book. In the book, after an attempt to capture or incapacitate the town marshal's henchmen near their trail wagon, Spearman and Waite are captured and jailed. Paine introduces a circuit judge and federal marshal, neither of whom are all that enamored or frightened of Baxter and whose presence complicates his scheme to have the free-grazing cattlemen arrested so he can take their cattle. Baxter has Spearman shot from ambush while the pair are being taken back to jail after their hearing, leaving Charley to team up with the federal lawman to chase down Baxter and his henchmen before shooting it out with them at their campfire. Spearman's death leaves Charley with ownership of the heard and the responsibility for their youngest worker, Button, who had been injured in an earlier attack. Charley decides to sell the herd, divide the proceeds with Button and settle down with Sue.

In the movie, Spearman and Charley decide to wait for the town marshal and his deputies in their own jail, ambushing them when they return from a fruitless night waiting for the freegrazers to show at their wagon. With them out of the fight, the pair confront Baxter and his hired guns in an epic gunbattle that moves through the entire town and results in both of them being wounded before some of the townspeople, finding their courage, take a hand and tip the scales. Spearman and Charley decide to take the herd to be sold before returning to town to settle down, Spearman as a saloon owner and Charley with Sue.

Although Paine's novel is a perfectly serviceable oater, the Storper-Costner version of the story is much stronger. For one, a story as short as The Open Range Men has no business introducing pivotal characters like a judge and federal marshal so late in the book. Their presence, the trial that develops from it and the revelation that one of Baxter's hired gunmen is actually a gunfighter that the marshal has been tracking under a different name all needlessly complicate the story. The marshal gives Charley an experienced partner for his ambush on the ranchers' campgrounds because Paine just killed the partner Charley spent most of the book with. Storper gives Charley some experience in gunfighting and battle and leaves Spearman alive, redistributing the marshal's characteristics among existing roles in the story.

Storper also gives both characters more backstory than did Paine, adding dimension to them that offers some understanding of why they do what they do and lending some weight to their different decisions. In spite of that, though, he is able to trim several branches from Paine's version, offering a clearer path from start to finish and making a much more robust narrative. Of course, Storper and Costner also benefit from the presence of the iconic Robert Duvall as Spearman, Annette Benning's quiet, graceful strength as Sue Barlow and Costner himself as Charley. These actors, in turn, draw from Paine's spare but well-outlined characterizations to create roles recognizable on both the page and the screen -- even though the actors are all about a decade or more older than the characters they're playing, according to Paine's novel.

In the end, the debate as to whether the movie Open Range is better than the book The Open Range Men or vice-versa is as likely to resolve as the ones listed above. Open Range has a cleaner, tighter and more focused story that increases its power, but without The Open Range Men as its source material it's hard to imagine that it would have had nearly as strong a foundation on which to build. Probably best to be grateful for both and for the happy result of their symbiosis.

Sugar High

The other day I saw some Dr. Pepper at Wal-Mart that had the Imperial Sugar "Pure Cane" logo on them. I was kind of curious, even though I don't drink Dr. Pepper unless the server misunderstands my request for Diet Coke and I don't drink the non-diet carbonated beverages on a regular basis.

One reason is that since the late 1970s and early 1980s, these beverages have been made with High Fructose Corn Syrup, which is cheaper than sugar. It's also gooey and gummy to my taste, especially after I switched to the unleaded version of most soft drinks while working for the newspaper. If there's nothing else around and I'm desperate, I'll have one of these, but since I need to rinse my mouth out with about a gallon of water afterwards so my tongue won't feel like it's packed in light sweet crude I doubt I'll ever re-develop my taste for it.

But I was intrigued and picked up a six-pack. Holy cow, this stuff is 150 calories of crack in a can.  Just as sweet as the corn syrup version, but next to no gloppy taste to get in the way of the carbonation tang.

The best-known bottling plant to stick with sugar following its price spike is in Dublin, Texas, leading the sugared version of the drink to sometimes be called "Dublin Dr. Pepper," even though some other bottling plants around the country also continue to use sugar instead of corn syrup. Jones Soda is another fairly well-known company that makes all of its non-diet products with sugar as well.

In a way, I'm glad that pop bottlers made the switch -- I might not have switched myself if feeding my carbonation habit didn't involve something better poured on pancakes instead of drunk through a straw. As I said, I don't even like Dr. Pepper all that much but I could see myself drinking every one of the 70-plus pounds I've lost in the last five years and then some back on if I were to buy it on a regular basis or if my preferred carbonated beverage were to be made from cane sugar instead of corn syrup.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Not That Kind of Cement

The mighty Robert Duvall turns 80 today, and will be honored with cement castings of his hands and feet outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.

Although Duvall's mob lawyer character Tom Hagen from the "Godfather" movies may have been connected to folks who placed others' feet in cement from time to time, this activity will not resemble that one.

Change of Venue

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced he is resigning sometime in February.

Rumors that Gibbs planned to take on the task of convincing folks from Arkansas that the NCAA is serious about enforcing its own rules in college athletics as a job that was both easier and more honest than telling reporters the administration knows what it's doing are untrue. He will actually be creating his own political advising firm.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

From Which Direction to Take Direction?

High school basketball affords endless opportunities to observe the highs and lows of human behavior, as well as stuff that just doesn't make sense.

For example, tonight I was reminded of a question that has bugged me for a long time. Just what do fans (especially certain parents) think is going to happen when they yell playing instructions from their seats? The players are presumably doing what the coach has told them to do -- if not, there would be definite signs from the bench area to indicate their error. Why in the world would they ignore the coach's instructions to listen to random advice from spectators? If the coach, say, has told them to wait near the baseline on defense for a certain amount of time before moving in to challenge the ball-handler, why would anyone actually expect them to ignore those instructions in order to satisfy the shouted strategy offered by anyone else, even Mom and Dad?

A failure to listen to the coach, after all, earns a benching. Not listening to Mom and Dad earns...what? Some griping? Teenagers have few constants in life. One is that everyone else has it all together and they themselves are hopeless basket cases being humored until the other shoe drops. The other is that fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly and the 'rents gotta gripe. What else could happen? Get "benched"  at home? Get kicked outta the house? Good luck getting that one by the judge at family court.

When non-parental fans coach from their seats, it makes even less sense. If I'm a player, I'm given a choice between the person who gives me a grade and says whether or not I play, and the Wooden-in-hiding eight rows up in the stands who may not have dribbled a step since NBA hairdos exceeded the size of a regulation ball. Wonder who earns more of my attention.

I love the parents and fans who shout real encouragement, applaud and cheer good play and keep the noise level high to help make small-school basketball one of the top in-person sports viewing experiences one might have. But for the others -- a group which I confess has included me in years gone by -- it may be time to ride the pine for awhile.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Resolution Rumble

The gym was quite full this afternoon, much more so than usual for this time on a Monday.

The workout room attendants said this sort of thing happens for about the first three weeks of the year, until the folks who aren't going to stick with their New Year's resolutions to lose some weight start to lose their resolve instead.

Can't point too many fingers at them, because I've traveled that road too. And it does mean there are a lot of new people around. That's interesting, at least. Moreso than some of the regulars whose conversation consists almost entirely of what parts of the body they have been working out on that day:

"Yeah, today I pushed myself on those metatarsals. But I haven't been happy with how my Islets of Langerhans look and I think I'll do a lot with them tomorrow."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Someone Needs to Stay After Class

So, an honor student and soccer star at a high school in North Carolina goofed and brought a paring knife to school one day.

Unluckily, it happened to be the day that the school was searching student possessions because another student had been caught with marijuana. Because the school encourages students but not administrators to think for themselves, they have a "zero tolerance" policies regarding weapons on school grounds. The student with the knife was suspended for 10 days, she said, and then her suspension was somehow altered so that she could complete the one required course for graduation through a satellite program at a community college.

She could not, however, set foot on school grounds for the remainder of the year, meaning she could not play or receive her diploma with her classmates at commencement.

The student maintains the knife was in her dad's lunch container, which she picked up by mistake. The school superintendent days he can't discuss details of the case because of privacy regulations, but those apparently don't keep him from saying that the knife was actually found in her purse, not her lunch container. Beyond that, he can't say. Except that the student isn't actually suspended, she's enrolled at the school right now in the satellite program. More than that, he can't say. Except that it's kind of funny she went to the press two months after the incident instead of the normal appeals process. More than that, he really can't say, at least until there's some other way he can try to win his case in the media.

The school board met in emergency session Friday to reconsider the situation, probably because the media were now aware of it and they looked really stupid, but they apparently decided they could live with that because they didn't lift the suspension.

Personally, I do think bringing the knife to school was just a mistake, even if I'm a little iffy on the lunchbox switcheroo likelihood. But in the meantime, the school board and administrators just continue to look silly, and most of what's come from them carries a serious attitude of demonstrating that they're not going to be pushed around by some punk kid. What happens to that kid in the process is not their problem, even though what happens to kids is supposedly the reason they have the responsibilities they've sought.

Because seriously? Weapons have no place at school, but how likely is an honor student to go all "I Don't Like Mondays" with a paring knife? She plays soccer, which means she could wear her cleats to class and hurt more people that way than she ever could with a knife, and the school bought the cleats for her. A stiff stab with a Bic might be more lethal. But having made their decision, the school board and administration will now stick to it, hinting that the real story is something different than media outlets have been told but they can't say what the real story is because of those pesky privacy concerns.

The superintendent insists that the school board followed and adhered to all relevant policies and procedures. I agree, but the real issue is that he chooses not to see that's exactly the problem.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Eternal Vigilance Is the Price of Liberty!

Well, I think we've now seen what happens when we relax our watchfulness against the twin evils of brigandage and communism. Even the very finest examples of citizenry and good sportsmanship our nation has to offer can't overcome years of lax attitudes and failure to appreciate the dangers these two nefarious schemes pose, and your Northwestern University Wildcats fell to the pinko pirates calling themselves the "Red Raiders" of Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl.

The jinx, of course, was in, due to the bad juju from other teams with the Wildcat name falling in their respective bowls earlier in the so-called "bowl season." The Only True Wildcats did rally from a 31-9 deficit midway through the third quarter to make the game close, but they keenly felt the absence of starting quarterback Dan Persa. The official story suggests that Persa injured his hamstring during the Iowa game, but Wildcat fans know he probably was busy thwarting some skullduggerish Illini plot against apple pie and motherhood. Though Persa's true sacrifice may never be known, a grateful nation obviously thanks him for his selfless gesture.

There's always next year. Suggestions for the over-the-top tone this blog may use in reporting Northwestern University football results may be left in the comments. Currently under consideration: Making all reports in the kind of dialogue Stan Lee used to write for Namor the Sub-Mariner in the mid-60s, such as, "Then, with mighty arm extended, valiant Persa did launch the Forward Pass Supreme to confound the Spartans' schemes nefarious!!!"


May my first post of 2011 to you, my literally pairs of readers, be one wishing you blessings and one of good cheer.

Chances are good I'll get grumpy again soon, though. Sorry about that.