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.


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


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 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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Anybody Missing a Gas Giant?

Now, you might think the post title is a Barney Frank joke, and I admit it would be worth a snicker even if it's a little on the cheap side. Of course, I just made the joke anyway, so apparently I'm a little cheap. Who knew?

Anyway, the post is actually about a theory an astronomer in Texas has about the planets of the solar system. Our sun has four interior rocky planets -- Mercury, Venus, li'l ol' us and Mars -- and four gas giants -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune -- and one demoted mini-planet -- Pluto. But David Nesvorny from the Southwest Research Institute suspects there may have been a fifth gas giant planet at one time.

Dr. Nesvorny studied the Kuiper Belt, an area of asteroids outside the orbit of Neptune. He put that data into computer models and projected the orbits of the various planets back into the early history of the solar system. About 600 million years after it came into being, some kind of orbital click-clackery occurred and some of the planets apparently migrated from their slots into the ones they have now. Dr. Nesvorny's problem is that when he looks at what used to be and what currently is, he finds out he can't get there from here.

The problem is Jupiter, which could not have moved slowly from its earlier position to its current one without affecting the orbits of the inner planets, including us. We might have smacked into one of our neighbors and at the very least, our orbit would not have been as steady as it is now, meaning there probably wouldn't be an us to wonder about this. But if Jupiter had moved quickly from one position to another, it would have spared us but probably knocked Uranus or Neptune out of the solar system, so clearly Dr. Nesvorny could not choose the cup in front of, the swift-Jupiter model.

Ah, but he could, if there had been a fifth gas giant planet similar in size to Uranus or Neptune. Then Jupiter could spring from there to here and wreak its havoc on an outer planet which we wouldn't see because it would be gone.

So far, there's not much empirical evidence to support Dr. Nevsorny's idea, just his mathematical models and projections. Ironically, Neptune was found based on mathematical models and measurements of Uranus' orbit, but it had the advantage of being someplace it could be found. Our possible evictee enjoys no such privilege, meaning it remains just a theory for now.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Reload? Revolve? Regurgitate.

Seen at the gym on Sunday afternoon, the two sequels to the 1999 hit movie, The Matrix. The second movie of the trilogy is The Matrix Reloaded and the third is The Matrix Revolutions. The following will be a bit spoilery so if you've never seen these movies and want to watch them sometime, skip it.

Has there ever been a trilogy in which the later movies have fallen so far short of the level set by the first? I didn't catch either of these in the theater and this may have been the first time I saw the first half-hour or so of Reloaded, but great gosh and gee whillikers are these two movies ever bad. Unhook them from the first blockbuster and you have some stuff that straight-to-DVD schlock-fests laugh at and take lunch money away from. Connect it to original and you have one of the most bewildering missteps I think I've ever seen in 40-some years of moviegoing.

The original Matrix movie married a familiar story, some surprisingly serious philosophy, good old-fashioned karate-choppin' action and beyond-the-cutting edge special effects to make it a box-office smash. The uber-cool style and unexpected braininess covered over quite a few logical gaps -- like why the machines didn't tap geothermal power like the human beings in Zion did, or why the machines decided to pick human beings that had already tried to kill them as the creatures to make into batteries instead of something a lot dumber get the point. It ends with Keanu Reeves character Neo telling the machines that he knows their game and he's not going to play anymore. Moreover, he's going to start telling other people what he knows and the whole Matrix program will fall. No sequel required. Fine popcorn movie that also tickles your thinkin' bone.

But it made a mint, so the creators cranked up a couple of sequels without bothering to include a story worth a darn. Except for the highly entertaining highway chase scene in Reloaded and the quiet grace moment where Trinity sees the sun in Revolutions, the sequels are either too talky, too repetitive, too murky, too convoluted, too dumb, too mystical, too goofy...again, you get the point. From the weird rave scene and ridiculous presence of Cornel West and cloned fight scenes -- by which I mean that the scenes repeat each other, not that Reeves fights clones, although I guess he does -- of Reloaded to the big dumb CGI battle and hive of new-and-unnecessary characters and Neo's powers suddenly working outside the Matrix in Revolutions, the second and third movies of the Matrix trilogy are a textbook case for using time travel technology to wipe them out of existence.

In the unofficial competition of "which moviemakers most destroyed their own legacy," the Wachowski brothers and their less-than-pointless sequels edge out George Lucas and his loud, dull "prequel" trilogy to Star Wars -- if only because by the time he released the prequels people were already beginning to suspect Lucas was a hack, and until Reloaded spilled out into the theaters nobody dreamed the Wachowskis only had one good movie in them.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Right On Time

A hundred years ago today, John Jordan O'Neil arrived in the world in the tiny town of Carrabelle, Florida, and that world is the better for it.

"Buck" O'Neil played all or part of a dozen seasons on the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs baseball team, and the post title is taken from his 1997 autobiography, I Was Right On Time. It came from the response he developed to the many people who lamented to him that, living as he did in baseball's shameful era of segregation, he didn't get to play against the best players in baseball and he was too old to benefit from the integration begun by Jackie Robinson. O'Neil, perhaps reminding those folks that he played with or against Josh Gibson, "Cool Papa" Bell, Satchel Paige, "Double Duty" Radcliffe and such, would say, "Who's to say I didn't play with the best?" And of his best playing years predating Robinson, he would say he wasn't too early at all -- he was "right on time" for the life he lived and what he got to do.

By all accounts a great man with a truly gentle spirit, O'Neil spent several years scouting for the Chicago Cubs and in 1988 moved to the Kansas City Royals. Though he was instrumental in creating the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City and in securing recognition for many of the NL's great but overlooked players, a stupefyingly short-sighted group of mouth-breathers did not vote him into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. O'Neil's stats were by no means Hall-of-Fame worthy, but the man who did more to raise the profile and bring appreciation to some of baseball's greatest players than he did has not been born. O'Neil, of course, was far more gracious than I have just been, saying no cross or sad word about what must have been a keen disappointment until his death later that year.

I'll close with the best line of Kansas City musician Bob Walkenhorst's tribute song from the above video: "Giving out love, instead of hate/I want to play on Buck's baseball team." Indeed I do, to follow in his steps and cross barriers the way he crossed color lines, with his heart instead of his fists. Happy birthday, Buck!

ETA: Walkenhorst helped members of a first-grade class in a Kansas City school write the song after they spent some time studying O'Neil's life and work. More information about that and about the book the children produced can be found here.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

From the Rental Vault (1961): The Comancheros

In all but a couple of movies he made after 1955 or so, John Wayne was the center around which the story and characters coalesced. His real-life persona took over so much of his image that most of the change in a movie had to go on around him -- other characters could develop and grow but most of the time he didn't. In fact, movie plots sometimes had to be re-written in order to give Wayne's role the center that his audience expected. The Comancheros is one of those movies.

Wayne plays Jake Cutter, a Texas Ranger during the later days of the Republic of Texas. He's been sent to apprehend Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), a gambler wanted because he dueled and defeated the son of a vengeful judge. Paul Wellman's 1952 novel used Regret as the lead character, and in fact Whitman is onscreen driving the action for awhile before Wayne's Cutter shows up. Regret escapes but is later re-apprehended when Wayne encounters him during an unrelated investigation into gun smuggling. The pair find themselves allies in the fight against Comanche raiders, their Latino allies the comancheros and the smugglers, led by Nehemiah Persoff's Graile. Their one chance is the connection Regret has with Graile's daughter Pilar (Ina Balin), but the hatred of Graile's lieutenant Amelung (Michael Ansara) may prove problematic.

Many of Wayne's later "Wayne-centric" movies work out quite well when the movie itself gives the other characters room to work, but The Comancheros really doesn't do that as well as it should. Whitman's Regret is a likable rogue but loses most of his color once he has to play off Wayne's Cutter. Lee Marvin is mostly wasted in a throwaway role early in the movie.

Nor does The Comancheros have a strong enough story to rank with the best of Wayne's best work once he'd hit icon status; important plot points early in the movie get dismissed when it's convenient to do so. Cutter talks about the importance of the oath he took to uphold the law when he tells Regret he's still going to take him in even after the gambler fights at his side during an attack but that importance is apparently gone once several Rangers decide to break it by false testimony on Regret's behalf.

The Comancheros has a great look and it really only lags when it has to stop for some exposition. Director Michael Curtiz knew his way around action movies and high-quality pictures -- he directed The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk as well as Casablanca -- and he had a reputation for keeping the storytelling pedal pressed to the floor. Curtiz was too ill to finish The Comancheros and Wayne finished for him, but without a noticeable dropoff. The movie's main problems were its makeshift story and its unwillingness to let its lesser stars shine as brightly as the center. The combination doesn't make a bad movie, but it leaves The Comancheros firmly in the middle of the pack of Wayne's icon-era work and well below his best.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Remarkable Day

Today is Veteran's Day in the United States, where we remember and honor those who have served in our nation's armed forces in wartime and peacetime, those who made it home and those who didn't.

Today is also "11-11-11," the next-to-last "triple day" we will have this century. Next year's December 12 will be the last until January 1, 2101.

So if you can read this, thank a teacher. If you know that 111111 in binary is 63 in decimal, thank a math teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.

And if you can't hear this read out loud, thank Nigel Tufnel.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Compare and Contrast

At the gym, on television No. 1: A few minutes of the interview ABC News will air next week with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, injured in a shooting in January, and her husband astronaut Mark Kelly. Though shot in the head at nearly point-blank range, Giffords has steadily worked to regain mobility, communication skills and strength. Her husband retired as an astronaut following his space shuttle flight in order to help her.

On television No. 2: That lacquered sack of crap Al Sharpton moralizing about the many shortcomings of Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno. Paterno failed to use his position and stature to prevent horrible wrongs when he could have done so, but Sharpton -- who has never apologized for claiming prosecutor Steven Pagones was one of the men who assaulted Tawana Brawley and who refused to pay the verdict which held he had slandered Pagones with his false accusation, nor for inflaming tensions in the Crown Heights riot instead of working for peaceful outcomes -- is most definitely not the man to sit in judgment of him. Compared with the strength of character shown by Giffords, never has the morally miniscule Sharpton seemed so small.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What's All This, Then?

Scientists in Hawaii (!) recently photographed a star with spiral arms through the Subaru telescope (no telling what we'll see when the Volkswagen or Lexus telescopes become operational, snicker snicker).

This is weird because stars are usually orbited by one of three things: planets, like our sun; a big disk-shaped cloud of gas that will one day turn into planets; or nothing. Although some images of stars before have shown different clumps and thicknesses in those dust disks, this is the clearest image yet of one of them that isn't just a diffused field of dust.

The astronomers who photographed the star, SAO 206462, say the spiral arms inside the disc may mean that it is much farther along in its process of planet formation. The current main theory for how planets form is that when the massive center of one of those dust disks kindles into a star and begins shining, the rest of the disk will eventually coalesce into one or more planets. The gravity and radiation of the star help eddies and swirls form in the cloud, and as more and more particles of dust group up in them, their gravitational pull on nearby dust increases. Eventually they form small rocky planets like Earth or large gas giants like Jupiter. The thought is that the spirals might be one of the steps along the way from dust cloud to planet.

Although SAO 206462 is only four hundred light-years away and so relatively close by in interstellar distances, the process of planetary formation takes billions of years, so it's not likely we'll see the outcome even though we're just around the corner from it.

Still plenty cool, though.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Brain Re-Boot?

Scientists in Israel have developed a way to implant a computer chip in a rat's brain that helps it learn things. While the market for rat-cyborgs is probably pretty limited (we hope), the scientists believe that their research may one day allow for implants that help stroke victims regain lost mobility, memory or other brain function.

According to the story, the scientists put the chip in a rat's brain and then disabled a certain section of the brain itself. They then tried to teach the rat to blink its eye when a certain tone sounded by good old Pavlov's method -- they blew a puff of air into its eye (my least favorite part of my eye exam) when they sounded the tone and eventually hoped to make the rat blink when they sounded the tone.

But with its brain impaired, the rat couldn't learn to associate the tone with the required movement. Scientists could sound the tone all day and Mr. Rat blinked whenever he darn well pleased. Then they switched the chip on, which allowed the neurological connections their surgery had artificially blocked. Lo and behold, Mr. Rat was now able to learn how to blink when the tone sounded.

Such an achievement obviously has awesome possibilities for stroke victims or other people whose brains have been damaged by accident or disease. It is, of course, also potentially dangerous -- since the brain works mostly by means of electrical impulses, it could be possible to encode particular sets of commands on a chip that could turn our recovered person into some sort of robot by sending a particular signal. There's a taut action novel lurking in here someplace.

In fact, one has already been written; Michael Crichton's 1972 The Terminal Man, about a fellow who has electrodes and a computer implanted in his body to help control his epileptic seizures and blackouts. The computer will help him by stimulating a pleasure center in his brain when a seizure strikes, defusing the man's violent behavior that accompanies the seizures. But the brain learns if it has a seizure it gets a jolt of feel-good, so it begins initiating more seizures in order to get more happy jolts. And the violent behavior only accompanied the seizures; it wasn't caused by them, so more frequent seizures equaled more frequent violent psychotic outbursts.

Unforeseen consequences of scientific breakthroughs were also at he core of Crichton's novels Jurassic Park and Next, as well as his movie Westworld. I think the potential good of the Israeli scientists' work is amazing and I hope it bears out. I also hope they've read their Crichton and they're very, very careful.

(H/T Histories of Things to Come)

Irrelevantly Important or Importantly Irrelevant?

I can safely say that none of the sexual harassment allegations against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain have changed the likelihood of his receiving my vote.

For one, I am not a registered Republican, so should Mr. Cain still be actively campaigning for president by the time our primary rolls around, I could not vote for him. For another, should he be the GOP nominee, I will without qualm forgo my opportunity to cast a ballot for the office of President of the United States on the basis that both of the candidates listed on that ballot are insufficient for the job. In other words, I already had a bunch of reasons I'd never vote for Herman Cain, so the truth of the allegations doesn't matter to me as a voter.

Mr. Cain is simply not a credible candidate for president. He has a compelling personal story as a cancer survivor and a self-made millionaire. He has some engaging ways of communicating with an audience. He has executive experience and has demonstrated some ability as a leader. But the latter is the only advantage he holds over President Obama and Mr. Cain's many shortcomings negate nearly all of that advantage. His "9-9-9" tax plan sounds simple but has drawn quite a bit of fire from conservative economists as well as liberal ones. Even if it had not, the creation of a national sales tax is a bad idea, for yet to dawn is the day when the federal government can look upon an existing tax without thinking about how to raise it. What would be a nine percent national sales tax today under a President Cain could with great ease become a ten, 15 or even 20 percent national sales tax under a potential President Clinton (Chelsea, to be specific).

Closer scrutiny of Mr. Cain's campaign shows a candidate who hasn't thought much about foreign policy or other important areas of the presidency, and who has little experience in the politically necessary art of dining with the devil -- er -- opposition, in order to get things done that the country needs done. The flaws in the "9-9-9" concept betray a lack of follow-through thinking about other important manners in which Mr. Cain may actually have some expertise useful to the office. He knows something about how to energize a business and that experience could translate into helping energize the national economy. If some reflection helps reposition that experience from the context of a single business to the national economy, that is. Evidence of that reflection is still sketchy.

What looks to me to be his greatest flaw is Mr. Cain's apparent embrace of his insufficiency. In contrast with President Obama, who is more passively insufficient for the office, Mr. Cain is almost aggressively insufficient. His pleasure at running an outsider's nontraditional campaign seems too easily to slide into pleasure at the fact that he doesn't have too many ideas about things that presidents should know about. Just because a good chunk of the reporters covering you are indeed members of the D.C. Echo Chamber that's part of the problem doesn't mean that every idea they have about what makes a good president can be dismissed so casually. Maybe it takes a hundred of them to reach the stopped-clock success rate of twice a day, but that means sometimes they are onto something. For example, a president need not name every obscure capital in the world, but he or she should have some picture of what kind of world beyond its borders the United States wants to live in and what it should and shouldn't do to bring that world about. Advisers serve to bring reality to that vision and shape it in light of what's feasible -- not to educate a president about what's going on so that the vision can be crafted sometime before the term is up.

Barring complete insanity from the Republicans -- a Paul nomination, for example -- I could not in good conscience vote for a man who has not convinced me he is right for the job and has gone a long way in convincing me otherwise, no matter how good a person he might be. So there is next to no chance I could vote for President Obama. But I could not in good conscience vote for a man who possesses so many of the same flaws as well as some new ones of his own, even though more of his opinions may match mine, so Mr. Cain would be out should he win the GOP nod.

All of this, of course, is said with the caveat that our state has not given its electoral votes to a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson and so my presidential ballot selection is not likely to matter either way.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Almost Got It

USA Network debuted its TV movie version of John Sandford's Certain Prey, one of his Lucas Davenport novels, this evening.

It starred (and was executive produced by) Mark Harmon, the mainstay of USA rerun stalwart NCIS. Harmon is a fan of the Prey series and finally got his chance to put one of the books on the screen. It's not all that bad even if it doesn't really quite click. Part of the problem could be the choice of books.

Certain Prey may have been attractive because it offers a ready-made sequel (Davenport and hitwoman Clara Rinker will match wits again in Mortal Prey) and because it comes during a hiatus in Davenport's relationship with eventual bride Weather Karkinnen. Not having the "home life" story simplifies the plot a great deal. But the story of Davenport investigating the murder of a wealthy woman and the twists that investigation takes when he starts to pursue Clara Rinker is not a high point in the series. It relies way too much on implausible coincidences and chance meetings that bring a roll to the reader's eyes.

And part of the problem is the lead. Harmon does OK as Davenport, but he's been Leroy Jethro Gibbs on NCIS for too long to easily shed association with that character, especially since Davenport has some of the same characteristics. The similarities are enough that the differences jar the story like a needle skipping on a record. Harmon also carries too much laid-back southern California atmosphere with him to nail the colder, bleaker Davenport, and being a good 20 years older than the character in question doesn't help either.

USA probably has its eye on the success Tom Selleck had in creating the televised version of Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone, and may hope to run a similar string of TV movies using the Prey books. It's hard to say how likely that is -- choosing one of the better series entries will help some, but either Davenport needs to be recast with another actor or the stories need to come from later in the series, when the gap between Harmon's actual age and the character's is less.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Not Bad

Within an 18-hour period, my television offered me the recent Rental Vault feature Silverado, the sublime Serenity, Disney classics Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast and Sean Connery's U.S. Marshall in outer space, Outland.

It's almost like basic cable is trying to justify its existence. Weird.

Doesn't Even Rhyme

No poetry. Just a plain and simple,


Friday, November 4, 2011

From the Rental Vault (2006): Dynamite Warrior

Dynamite Warrior (in Thai, Khon Fai Bin) starts out with an interesting mix of potential stories, but its confused plot, gimmicky direction and reliance on slapstick means none of them can really shine.

As a boy, Siang witnessed a cattle thief kill his parents. He trained as a Muay Thai fighter and rocketry expert in order to find the murderer, who wore a distinctive tattoo. Now an adult, Siang roams the countryside in the Isan district of Thailand, taking cattle from wealthy owners to give to poor villagers. Masked so that no one knows his true identity, he searches every cattle worker he fights for the tattoo that will identify his parents' killer.

Lord Waeng, a wealthy representative of a Western company, is trying to introduce tractors to Thai farming, but they are too expensive compared with the cattle the farmers use. So he hires a bandit to raid cattle drives and villages to kill the cattlemen and sell their animals, leaving his tractors the only alternative. His henchmen are thwarted by the mystic cattle driver Nai Hoi Sing, whose magic powers defeat them as he defends his herd. But during the fight an observant Siang notices that Sing sports a familiar tattoo. Waeng tricks Sing into working for him and the Black Wizard to create a magic that, combined with his fighting skill and rockets, can defeat Sing. As he works with Waeng and the wizard, he falls in love with E'Sao, the wizard's daughter.

Director Chalerm Wongpim obviously wants to try to weave together both martial arts and Western movies, drawing on the way the cattle business was conducted in Thailand's distinctive culture. And nothing about those two genres prevents an engaging story that features cowboys, showdowns, Muay Thai brawls and magic spells from being made. But Dynamite Warrior isn't it. Too many slow-motion sequences, repetitive fight scenes and flat attempts at quirky humor mean the different elements never gel. Dan Chupong is fine as Sing and Kanyaphak Suwankut sweet as E'Sao, but Phutiphong Sriwat's Lord Waeng is far too much of a buffoon to menace and Panna Ritikrai as the Black Wizard just chews scenery and laughs evilly. Wongpim may have wrapped several different kinds of fuses together in hopes of a spectacular show, but they all fizzle out before going off.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Crazy, Man

Len Deighton is best-known as a spy novelist who's also published several books of military history. In 1993, he tried his hand at a Spillane-ish noir concerning Los Angeles lawyer Mickey Murphy called Violent Ward.

During the closing days of the Rodney King trial, Murphy's law practice is sold to entrepreneur and sometime acquaintance Zach Petrovitch. Before the deal is finalized, Zach's wife Ingrid -- an old flame of Mickey's, naturally -- asks for his help because she says her life is in danger. Is it? Mickey can't be sure. He's also not sure about his client, fading leading man Budd Byron, who's asked him to get a gun but not through the official channels; about his law partner's dealings with a seedy evangelist; about his ex-wife who alternates between asking him for more money and threatening suicide; about some clients whose financial empire is looking a little shaky, and so on. Things will come to a head in the riots that follow the "not guilty" verdict given against the officers accused of beating King.

Mickey narrates in a kind of 1940s tough-guy-on-wry patter. Even though the book is set in sunny 1990s Los Angeles it's not hard to picture it in black-and-white and filled with men wearing fedoras. There's some serious threatening and a little mayhem going on even before the riots, but the overall tone is snappy with the same kind of dry wit Deighton used in his Bernard Samson novels. Mickey lacks Samson's glum pessimism, perhaps a feature of the Los Angeles setting compared with Samson's dreary London and Berlin stages. The plot sometimes twists back on itself a little too hard, leaving us wondering for a moment just what's going on, but overall it's a fun path to follow.

Deighton would follow Violent Ward with the concluding trilogy of Bernard Samson novels, and some speculated that he might continue to write about Mickey Murphy and his classic Cadillac as they wove through the bizarre mix of reality and unreality of southern California. But sequels never materialized and the author seems more or less retired at 82, so this book remains Mickey's only chronicle.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Well, Whattaya Know?

There actually is something you can't say in Hollywood -- a performer's real birthdate.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What a Difference a Year Makes

November is the month bloggers are encouraged to post every day; it has some squashed-together name but I can never remember it. I've done that the last couple of years, but last year, when December 1 came around, I thought I might try to continue the schedule and see how far I could take it. Today's post means I have posted at least one entry every day for a year. I haven't done that much continuous writing since I worked for the newspaper.

Some entries were pretty short, and there were days when the midnight hour drew near and naught inspirational could be found 'pon the wide, wide web. Some days when I knew I would be away from the internet were posted in advance, as Blogger has a neat feature that lets you schedule a time in the future when a post will appear. So when I was going to be at church camp, I could pre-write a few posts and set them up to show up one a day. Some may call that cheating, to which I have to reply, there's a rulebook for this? And, bite me.

Sticking to this schedule made me admire bloggers who post every day especially when they're not professional content providers but just folks who like to run at the mouth and have been waiting for the internet to arrive so they could do so without needing to be hired for it.

I imagine I'll try to keep posting more regularly than I did before entering on this little experiment, but I won't have to hit the panic button when 11:50 PM rolls around and I've got nothing, I tell you, nothing! It was more work than I imagined, but I had fun with it. Hope you did too.