Monday, December 31, 2012

O Tannen-bomb!

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
I can't believe your apogee!

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Say hello to Mars for me!

Because you lit the cold dark night,

I'll send you out with rockets' flight
A brief instant before you fall,
you'll be the tallest tree of all

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
I can't believe your apogee!

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Say hello to Mars for me!

Not for you some frozen curb,
or buried 'neath the landfill earth
Let the skies be your last sight,
If I can get this fuse to light

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
I can't believe your apogee!

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Say hello to Mars for me!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Paging Dr. McCoy, Dr. Leonard McCoy...

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the chief surgeon of the Enterprise was aghast at the medieval tactics planned by 1984 doctors to repair an injury to a man's brain. They were going to...cut his head open! The enlightened Starfleet doctor used his 22nd century technology to non-invasively heal the brain injury.

Scientists at the University of Michigan many have gone several steps down that road with an invisible "scalpel" made of sound waves. Sound is already used to deal with things like kidney stones, but the new technology allows for even more tightly focused beams -- narrow enough to perform actual surgery or even to manipulate single cells one at a time. The beam can be focused to a point inside the body, meaning that the surgeon would not have to break the patient's skin to perform the needed operation, let alone remove tissue, bones or other organs that might be in the way.

The UMich team hasn't said anything yet about transporters or warp drive, but maybe they're just being cagey.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Guess Who's Getting a Raise!

If you said I am, you're wrong. If you said you are, you might also be wrong, but since I don't know where you work I can't say for sure.

But if you said the federal officials who haven't passed a budget in three years and are currently about to let a combination of expiring tax cuts and drunken sailor spending put a serious damper on a sluggish and anemic recovery, possibly creating another recession?

You'd be right.

You might say that the actual increases are small. But so what? The presence of any increase whatsoever, following such across-the-board dismal performances, is proof that among the many words one may use to describe Washington politcians, "logical" does not appear.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Installment Plan?

A gentleman named Scott Soucy would like every American to pitch in and help pay down our immense national debt.

Mr. Soucy suggests that everyone donate a dollar from every paycheck to the cause. His heart is obviously in the right place, but his head is nowhere near one.  If every American was working (and in addition to infants, children and stay-at-home parents there are more than 20 million of us who are not), then we could raise about $15 or $16 billion dollars in a year. At that rate, we would pay off our current national debt by the early 31st century.

That assumes we wouldn't add any more debt to it, and that's an unwarranted assumption as long as Congress and the President are among those employed. In fact, our deficit grows by $4 billion every day, which means the dollar-a-check donation thing would at maximum impact gather up in a year enough money to keep the government from borrowing anything through Jan. 4. Come the 5th, though, we're out of luck. The project has raised $7 million in the last two years, which the column notes is about three minutes worth of government. About two minutes more than most folks need, in fact, unless we're dealing with a disaster or national emergency.

Again, this is well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective. Beginning in October of 2011, our total debt exceeded our total Gross Domestic Product (the GDP is the market value of all goods and services produced during a certain time. Most often this is measured on an annual basis). That means that if we took every dollar that we made in the U.S. during the year and gave it to the government to pay off the debt, we'd still be short. And plenty hungry, too, since we wouldn't have money to buy food. Then the government would have to put us all on food assistance and balloon the debt again.

A part of what Mr. Soucy suggests is on target. More of us probably need to understand that the government has no money except what it takes from its citizens -- preferably through taxes and fees, although where the rule of law is iffy sometimes it resorts to more direct methods. Pretending that the money the feds spend comes from an inexhaustible source, be it the printing press or the Forbes 500 or whatever else so long as it's not us, is about the only system around even less likely to solve the debt problem than Mr. Soucy's

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Counterfactual

According to a man named Samuel Arbesman, half of what you and I know is probably wrong.

This does not mean we are just stupid dunderheads, unless our name is Harry Reid, Michael Moore or Will Ferrell. It means that as science progresses, many of the things we learned when we were studying it in school have been found to be incorrect. New evidence trumps old evidence, new data corrects old data, new discoveries put old understandings in a different light, and suddenly dinosaurs are not cold-blooded ancient lizards but warm-blooded ancient birds and Pluto isn't a planet.

This doesn't necessarily apply to all facts. Arbesman's book, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, doesn't mean to suggest that the change in designation somehow affected Pluto, for example. It's just that our definition of "planet" changed, and thus the "fact" that there were nine planets in our solar system is now wrong. Since that fact was manufactured, so to speak, as a by-product of a way we defined planets, then a change in the definition created a different fact. The number of planets is a different kind of fact than, say the speed of light in a vacuum. The first depends on definition, but the second depends on observation. The first can change on a vote, but the second only by new experiments that show old experiments were wrong.

Arbesman suggests that we stop trying to memorize these kinds of facts, since we can look up the most recent data if we need to know the information and not be at the mercy of outdated knowledge. We can, he suggests, outsource our memories to "the cloud," the name given to all of the data available online. Although his examination of the half-life of "facts" is interesting, the idea that holding knowledge for yourself should be replaced by relying on the internet is a suggestion that is probably best forgotten. Michael Moore would be more reliable, as one could simply take the position 180 degrees opposite from him and be reassured of being right a good 90 percent of the time.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Have a Shot of This

A fellow in England was suffering from a particular kind of irregular heartbeat that nothing could fix. So the doctors induced a miniature heart attack designed to kill some of the muscle tissue that was causing the irregularity. Their method? An injection of pure ethanol.

Some doctors expect a rise in reported cases of this kind of arrythmia, as well as a significant rise in home cures: "Honest, officer, this is for medicinal purposes!"

This could also give a new meaning to the phrase, "stout-hearted fellow."

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Cut a Little Swath

Of all the hundreds of roles character actor Charles Durning played during his career, it's probably telling that one of his two Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations came for his role as the Governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Durning died Monday at the age of 89.

The fittingness of the nomination comes not from any association between Durning and brothels, but because of his role in the 1982 movie musical, mostly a performance of "The Sidestep," a song in which the Governor details his strategy for staying out of trouble with the press and the voters: "Dance a little sidestep...cut a little swath, and lead the people on." Durning's three minutes and forty-three seconds of song and dance are by far the best of the movie and provide more energy than the other 111 minutes of running time.

It's interesting -- movie co-star Dolly Parton's "Hard Candy Christmas" probably gets more airplay than most songs from that soundtrack, unless you count the Whitney Houston version of "I Will Always Love You" released 12 years later. "Hard Candy" gets spun quite a bit by country stations during the Christmas season, maybe because the title -- a phrase poor families used to describe Christmases during hard times when the only gifts children might receive would be hard candies bought from the store -- makes it seem appropriate to the time. But since it's really Parton as the brothel madam and her employees singing about how hard it's going to be now that they won't be sleeping with strange men for money, that propriety seems tenuous at best.

Far more on target to the daily and weekly blather of elected officials about this or that issue or crisis is Durning's ode to political doubletalk. But I guess if radio stations played "Sidestep" every time it was appropriate, we'd get sick of it. There's only so many times a day you want to hear the same song.

See ya round, Governor.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Reminder

This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.
Haste, haste to bring Him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Boson Resolutions

As we approach a new year, many folks will make New Year's resolutions about how to make their lives and the lives of people around them better. According to Yale physicist Sarah Demers, the Higgs Boson is no different. Now out of hiding after experiments have more or less identified it, the boson has made some promises for 2013 and beyond.

My favorite is No. 1, because I kind of like the little dig at the idea that finding one particle can explain the entire universe to anyone, let alone the remedial physics masses (as in mass of people, not particles) such as myself.

But at this time of year, No. 5 might be more relevant. Although physicists believe that the Higgs Boson, which creates the Higgs field, gives mass to all subatomic particles, it has said it will not take credit for any mass people gain through overeating. Physicists will be partnering with the Food Network to locate the particle which provides such mass, which has been given the name Bonbon Boson. That name is still up in the air, though, as other physicists are lobbying for the name Chocolate-Covered Quark.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Cosmopolitan

At our little burg's Wal-Mart the other day, I overheard a couple of gentlemen whose country of origin was very probably India. They were conversing about their golf game, and discussing swing mechanics. In small-town southern Oklahoma, in a Wal-Mart.

I love this country.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Job Switch

So the bill to provide funds to areas hit by Hurricane Sandy is on the Senate's agenda this week.

It includes $150 million for fisheries. In Alaska.

I've changed my mind about the Strategic Helium Reserve. It's exactly the kind of thing I want these clowns running, and keep them away from the important stuff. All of it.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Whew!

Just in time for Christmas, a guide on how to avoid spontaneous combustion can be found at Real Clear Science's Newton Blog.

Although most cases that are thought to be sponaneous combustion -- where a human being just suddenly bursts into flames for no apparent reason -- turn out to be something else, various medical records stretching out over some 2000 years show 150 or so cases in which no other explanation can be found. In other words, those people somehow just blew up.

The problem is that a large percentage of the human body is water, and water doesn't burn well. So for a human body to burst into flame without any help, you need to work out a way around the presence of all that water. Some theories held that another liquid replaced the water, and that liquid was much more flammable. If the right conditions prevailed, then the alcohol could be the source of the burning.

But in 1851, a German scientist pointed out that bodily tissue specimens were usually preserved in solutions that were about 70% alcohol and they didn't catch fire on their own. This is good news for Daytona Beach during Spring Break and Ireland at just about any time of the year.

In a more recent experiment, microbiologist Brian Ford soaked pig tissue in acetone (pig parts are considered to be pretty close to human parts for many purposes, as any fan of Mythbusters can tell you). Acetone is also flammable and these tissues did in fact burn quite nicely. Acetone also mixes with the body's chemicals and can replace water if a person's diet or activities mess with their body chemistry through ketosis, a process that raises our level of ketones, which are acetone substances.

Unfortunately for those Spring Breakers and me auld Irish cousins, excessive alcohol consumption is one activity that can lead to ketosis. So they'd probably better pay attention to those "No Smoking" signs."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Might You Be...Our Neighbor?

We may remember from science class that Alpha Centauri, at four light-years away, is the closest star to the Earth (other than that big one we see during the daytime). The spate of exoplanet discoveries in the last 20 years or so has yet to find a habitable planet circling that star, but recently a potentially habitable world was found orbiting a near neighbor, the star Tau Ceti. It's only 12 light-years away.

A "light-year," in case you've forgotten, is how far light travels in a year. Given that light ambles along at 186,000 miles per second, you can see that's quite a distance. We actually see these stars not as they are today, but as they were when the light we're looking at started. In other words, we see the way Alpha Centauri looked in 2008, and we see the way Tau Ceti looked in 2000. If anybody lives there, they see us in the same time frames. Such presumed inhabitants remain blissfully unaware of Justin Bieber, and the Tau Cetians enjoy the double good fortune to be unaware of Lady Gaga.

And there's some more weight to the possibility that there might be Tau Cetians, as a planet that's not too different from Earth has been found within the star's "Goldilocks Zone." Planets within such a zone have conditions that could support life like ours -- it's not too hot or too cold, but "just right," hence the name.

If there's such a planet, recent events might make me consider moving there. I don't mean the Newtown school shootings themselves. They are awful and heartbreaking, but we have unfortunately seen evil before and we will see it again.

No, I mean the folks who opine on the shootings, paying attention to them primarily because everybody is paying attention to the shootings and talking about them is a way to get people to pay attention to you. Bread for the World estimates more than 15,000 children die from hunger every day and I can't seem to find much commentary on that from either the "arm the schoolmarms" crowd or the "give up your guns or we'll have the police shoot you" brigade.

Piers Morgan didn't call anyone "unbelievably stupid" over it. Michael Bloomberg didn't demand the president act. John Lott didn't call to arm anyone. Neither did Newt Gingrich. The president didn't say their deaths put the fiscal cliff debate in perspective. And so on.

If there's a place that's twelve years away from any of these jackasses and their commenting kin who can't even wait until the last of the poor dead are buried before preaching from atop their headstones, I can't get there fast enough. I might even find a way to break that 186,000 miles per second mark.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

At the Home Office...

...of the Mayans, those folks whose "Long Count" calendar reaches its end this Friday, folks aren't all that particularly exercised by the possibility.

The people who think something big and bad may happen on Dec. 21, 2012 can't count the Mayan Indians who live in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula among their number. Villagers aren't paying much attention and, as the story notes, most Mayans probably never bothered much with the Long Count calendar. It was mostly the province of priests and astrologers.

The story notes a resort which is issuing million-dollar certificates that can be cashed if the world indeed does end, if you show up at the resort following said end. If you buy one and should have the chance to collect, I would suggest small denominations. You'll probably need the kindling, and the idea that money would be worth anything after civilization collapses is kind of a silly one.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Letter Perfect

As we all learned a long time ago, there are 26 letters in the alphabet. But there might not have been. Here at Mental Floss, they examined a dozen letters that might have made the list but didn't for one reason or another.

It's kind of interesting that the ampersand might have made it as an actual letter, instead of a symbol. Of course, as I remember from reading Beetle Bailey, sometimes the ampersand serves as a letter, appearing in place of the curse words that Sarge speaks as he is stomping Beetle into the ground. But I bet at night, when all the real letters are asleep, the ampersand dreams of an alternate universe in which it takes its rightful place in the pantheon of the 27 letters of the English alphabet.

Keep dreamin' li'l curlicue. You never know what might happen someday.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Forecast is Cloudy

The National Weather Service is going to solicit folks' opinions about how to make their weather alerts more easily understood. No word about whether or not the options include "Getting someone other than the current blow-dried newsmuppets to read them."

(H/T Dustbury)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What You Want Me to Do?

Seen Heard at the gym today: There's a CD player in the weight room area where you can play some of your own music while you work out, if you like (and if it meets fitness center guidelines). The folks pumping some iron today were accompanied by the late Jimmy Reed, which is probably the first time I've ever heard a workout aided by "Take Out Some Insurance," as well as the track referenced in the post title.

Well-played, sir.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Silly Senate?

The retirement of South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint has prompted speculation about whom SC Gov. Nikki Haley will appoint to fill his seat until a special election next year.

Among those requesting consideration is comedian Stephen Colbert (pronounced "Col-bear" now, but "Col-burt" when he was an undergraduate at the Beacon of Truth and Enlightenment of the Known Universe, Northwestern University in Evanston, IL).

Now the initial response might be to dismiss Colbert's request out of hand. His qualifications for the office seem at this point to be that he has created a character mocking loudmouth talk show host Bill O'Reilly, a man whose picture is next to the definition of "self-parody" in the dictionary and who also defines, in this case, the phrase "easy target." When Colbert wanted to testify before Congress about immigration, he did so in character and embarrassed the committee that had invited him. Actually handing over the resources of a Senate office to a fellow who might, just might be tempted to use them in unserious ways is not the best of ideas.

On the other hand, it's not like there aren't already a lot of clowns in the U.S. Senate whom no one takes seriously. And if Colbert were selected, that would be the end of his boring television show, because Comedy Central would have to report it as an in-kind campaign contribution and South Carolinians might expect their Senator to be somewhere near the Capitol building instead of in makeup getting ready to go on set.

That's a temptation that could get out of hand, though. Governors everywhere might decide to help out the television viewing public by appointing the members of the all-heat, no-light brigade to serve out unfinished legislative terms. Senator O'Reilly. Representative Matthews. Representative Sharpton. Senator O'Donnell. Senator Hannity. Lieutenant Governor Olbermann (because seriously, there are some folks even the U.S. Senate shouldn't take). Commissioner of Waste Disposal Behar (a lifetime appointment!) Insurance Commissioner Penn (because I think Spicoli was less of an act than he'd like us to believe and because it would be fun watching the numbers make his widdle eyes scrunch up in confusion).

There are hundreds of offices that could be filled by people whom we would then never have to listen to again. You may say that this would create chaos in state and federal government as all of these underqualified dunderheads were put in positions for which they are in no way qualified and in which they are unlikely to succeed. To which I say, how would we notice?

(For those who might wonder why such a post on a day where we have seen evil made real in Connecticut, I have found the internet to be full of ignorant opinions on that subject and do not believe it needs mine).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cerebral Harmonizing

Although musicians playing duets might play different instruments and different notes, they do have to synchronize the time in which the tune is performed.

Which, apparently, means they also synchronize brain waves. A study measuring the brain activity of 32 guitarists performing together on a piece showed that their brain waves began to sybchronize as they played. The researcher thinks that people who perform activities in groups will probably all display this tendency, which means it might also show up on sports teams.

Researchers have announced no plans to study the brain patterns of legislators during a session, or of the cast of The Jersey Shore or the audience of the latest horror movie, even though those are all group activities. This makes sense -- they already know that all zeros are, after all, alike.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

C'mon Ring That Bell!

Some observations that occur in connection with a recent shift ringing the bell at our community's Salvation Army Kettle at Wal-Mart:

1) Gone are the days of the red metal bowl with a wire top. In is a plastic cover with an X-shaped opening in the center and a locked cover. Also in is a lockdown bar to prevent someone from just grabbing the kettle and running away. Ah, brave new world!

2) This Wal-Mart too is equipped with the special magnetic parking signs that keep carts from careening about the lot, as well as the magic paint which won't let carts go outside its lines. This is fortunate, as the cart corrals are an Odyssean fifteen feet from most of the parking spaces.

3) There is an upper age limit for wearing red Christmas leggings under your sweater. And madam, it is lower than you think.

4) I am standing six feet from the exit door; by entering it to avoid the kettle and averting your eyes you are not really "sneaking" past me.

5) I really only said "Hello" to you because greeting people is a part of the role and I'm kind of friendly like that. It's not a guilt trip to make you donate. Go ahead, make eye contact and enter to do your shopping free of the feeling that I am condemning you for not giving. Really, I'm not. There are times when I don't have anything for the bucket either.

6) Heaven between me and being a part of the bell choir; I'd go nuts.

7) Our community has a number of generous people. The top, I think, was the fellow who dug his change out of his pocket and said he was giving because when he had stayed at a shelter he had helped ring the bell once and he figured he should give back.

8) Watching little kids give is cool. And they alone have fingers the right size to actually stuff money through that little opening in the kettle; the Salvation Army should look into that next year.

9) Don't forget to carry some ones with you as you do your Christmas shopping. Knowing that you have given something to help other folks can soothe some of the worst retail nightmare experiences.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Shocked at the Gambling

Michael Moore, who makes movies he calls documentaries and who is a former resident of Michigan, is pretty upset that the Michigan legislature and governor are passing a series of "right to work" statutes, the name given to legislation that forbids people from being required to join a union at their workplace.

Moore, in a rant on Twitter (a platform whose 140-character limit leaves him plenty of room to express his thoughts), complained about the laws and declared that anyone who works for him on any movie he makes will have to belong to a union. Otherwise, he will not hire them.

Unlike his movie, Capitalism: A Love Story. Or his show, TV Nation. Of course, he may just find someone else's work and "borrow" it, negating the need to hire anybody.

Preach on, big guy!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Hit Your Peak

To the gentleman who, though no longer a high school student, achieved his lifetime high water mark by not behaving well enough to be allowed to stay for an entire high school basketball game. It's when you took a bow on the way out that I realized that I very very very much wanted to be you.

Never.

(Some might wonder if I might be worried that this person might read this and learn who I am and take exception to these remarks. I believe the danger is slight.)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Look Up!

One of the most interesting things about this obituary of Sir Patrick Moore, a British astronomer and host of the BBC program The Sky at Night, is the length of time the show has been on the air: 55 years!

Every month since 1957, Sir Patrick would take a half hour to explore an astronomical topic or event. Food poisoning kept him from the July 2004 episode, but other than that one, he hosted every single broadcast.

I guess if television can spend a half an hour every month exploring astronomy it's not as worthless as the success of Chelsea Handler would lead me to believe.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Western Philosophy, Pilgrim

The Philosophy of the Western is a misleading title on an interesting book. For one, it's more like several philosophies instead of just one, as it consists of essays by a variety of authors that reflect on Western movies in light of different philosophical concepts. For another, although there are several characteristics that many Western movies share, they have enough differences that it's tough to pin down "the" philosophy that they rest on.

That being said, the book, edited by Jennifer L.McMahon and B. Steve Csaki and part of "The Philosophy of Popular Culture" series, still provides a lot of food for thought. The best art is about the human condition, and philosophy has as one of its primary tasks reflection upon just that subject. The different authors use some of the better and better-known Westerns as the touchpoints for their work and focus on movies. Television Westerns and books are, with one exception, left out.

Chances are pretty good that the moviemakers involved with these particular titles didn't necessarily think in terms of philosophical schools of thought. But that doesn't mean that some of what they did doesn't fall within those schools. One essay examining the essence of the Western hero uses the way that the two different versions of 3:10 to Yuma describe masculinity and in so doing, show the influence of John Locke on American thought up until the middle of the 20th century. Another uses three iconic John Wayne movies to discuss pragmatism, and others explore the idea of how a society orders itself using the TV series Deadwood and the Sam Peckinpah classic The Wild Bunch.

Not every essay's a hit. Some consume themselves with identity politics and drown in silly deconstructionist verbiage. Western depictions of women and of Native Americans offer a lot of room for reflection, but none of the essays covering those areas actually bothers to reflect. Or if they do, they've thrown in so much postmodern jargon that it's a very dull reflection indeed. An essay about revisionist Westerns by Deborah Knight and George McKnight isn't much more than a name-check of Westerns and philosophical writers.

But enough of the book is interesting to make it worth the read for people who like to 1) Watch movies, especially Westerns and 2) Think about the stuff that they watch.

Friday, December 7, 2012

One of THOSE Days...

Today's date is one you should know -- if you are a U.S. resident, that is. If you are, and you don't, you're kind of missing out on something important.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Don't Look, Ethel!

A headline in today's edition of the local weekly:

"Current Deer Rut Activity at a Glance"

Because more than a glance is, you know, rude to the deer.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

It's Supply and Demand, Mr. Bond...

There's an interesting discussion here about which James Bond villain has a scheme that makes the most economic sense. It's interesting because not every scheme has to do with making money. Kurt Stromburg in The Spy Who Loved Me wants a nuclear war to destroy the world so he can move humanity to living undersea. Hugo Drax of Moonraker also wants to destroy the world so it can be repopulated with genetically superior people. Economics are not high on their list of priorities.

Some folks say that Auric Goldfinger of Goldfinger, who wants to render the U.S. gold supply radioactive and worthless so his own supply of gold will be worth more, has the most economically sound evil scheme. But the author points out a number of flawed assumptions that would make irradiating the gold supply not nearly the catastrophe Goldfinger thinks it would be.

In the comments, discussion continues about the various evil plots and which one is the most viable. All, however leave out the one factor that makes every such plot an economic loser: You're going up against James Bond. You're doomed, and that just doesn't pass the cost-benefit analysis.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Unusual

A very unusual thing happened to me today. After I had my oil changed at a large megastore in a nearby community, I drove home. When I arrived at home and touched my door handle, it fell off in my hand! That's right! Just from touching it! I am checking to see if I have some kind of adverse reaction to green glowing rocks (just in case), but in the meantime I wrote the store's online feedback page to tell them about this mysterious occurrence. We'll see what happens.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Just a Suggestion

To the gentleman who occupied the other elliptical machine tonight at the gym:

It is true that listening to music via headphones makes it difficult to hear other sounds in the room where you are exercising. It does not, however, mean that those sounds go away. That includes the self-encouraging shouts and exclamations you make to get through your workout, which were made at a level that overrode both the television in the room and the headphones used by others.

Your prompt attention to this matter is appreciated.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Melting Pot

So this morning, I picked up my usual Sunday morning breakfast at the doughnut shop. While I was there, an Hispanic woman and her young daughters, apparently on their way to church in a little bit, stopped in to buy their doughnuts. From the nice Vietnamese man whose family owns the shop; they communicated in differently-accented English that was not the first language of either.

In a tiny little burg in southern Oklahoma. I love this country.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

From the Rental Vault: Book-ended Duke

Nearly 30 years separate the John Wayne movies Tall in the Saddle and The Train Robbers -- and the man who made the second is not exactly the same guy who made the first, even though they go by the same stage name and both movies are from Wayne's bread-and-butter ouerve, the Western.

Tall in the Saddle was the second movie of six that RKO Pictures signed Wayne too after his success in Stagecoach put him in the leading man category. RKO's aim was to get as many Wayne vehicles into theaters as fast as possible on the chance that his stardom would be brief, and so they didn't always wait on the most fitting vehicle or the best-written script. Wayne had nothing like the control he would later on, but he had enough clout to pick a story, get it developed and pitch it to RKO, who bit. And he had developed enough understanding of his own strengths as a performer to find a story that brought those out. So Saddle hits a winning combo of cast, crew and script to make one of Wayne's better movies from early in his leading man era (my own personal division of Wayne's career is into cast member, leading man, and icon periods. Stagecoach marks the beginning of that middle period).

Wayne is Rocklin, a stranger who hits town in a stagecoach with a letter from a ranch owner promising him work. But the ranch owner is dead, and the relatives that are taking over the outfit are the naïve young Clara Cardell and her spiteful scheming aunt, Elisabeth Martin. The old woman will have nothing to do with Rocklin -- and he has no fondness for her -- so he takes on a job at another ranch, owned by businessman Harolday but run by his stepdaughter Arly (Ella Raines) who has taken quite the liking to Rocklin. Clara seeks Rocklin's help when it seems her aunt and her lawyer, Robert Garvey (Ward Bond) are conspiring to take the ranch away. Rocklin and his friend Dave ("Gabby" Hayes) have to help Clara and figure out who killed the ranch owner before she loses the ranch and he loses even more.

Since he's not an icon by this point, Wayne actually has a little more freedom with his character than he will have in some later roles. Arly's pinpoint pistol shooting unnerves Rocklin enough to admit he needed the drink he took afterwards, something the later Wayne wouldn't do. Rocklin's charge-ahead tendencies muddy the waters as often as not, and his own stubbornness brings about more trouble than needed to solve everything. He unfortunately never worked with Ella Raines again, robbing audiences of more chances to see the pair work together. The couple provides plenty of spark, but it doesn't all come from the Duke, as Raines is probably one of the best non-Maureen O'Hara leading ladies of his career.

It may have been thrown together for as little as possible as quick as possible, but Tall in the Saddle turned out to be a little gem and probably a good reason Wayne's career kept heading upward.
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By contrast, the John Wayne of 1973 had pretty much complete control over what he appeared in and how it looked. He had his own production company and could afford to make the kind of movies he wanted to make. Whether they garnered good reviews or bad, his fans turned out to see the low-profanity, no-nudity old-fashioned-good-guy-wins Westerns that Wayne preferred to make. He played the same character in all of them -- a version of himself, since that was more or less what his public wanted to see.

So there's not much to distinguish the John Wayne of The Train Robbers from the John Wayne of Cahill, U.S. Marshall, or really even from the John Wayne of True Grit or Rooster Cogburn. In Robbers, he's Lane, a kind of wandering adventurer who's agreed to help a woman, Mrs. Lowe, (Ann-Margret) recover the railroad gold her late husband stole and hid. Recovery of the gold will allow her to claim the reward money and put right her husband's reputation for the sake of her young son.

Lane's helped by two old comrades, Jesse (Ben Johnson) and Grady (Rod Taylor), and three younger men who will, by the time the movie's over, get a good schoolin' in what it means to be a man according to the Duke's way of thinking. The party will travel to Mexico, pursued both by the thieves who helped Mrs. Lowe's husband rob the train and by a mysterious loner played by Ricardo Montalban.

There's a little suspense in wondering how the group will survive or if all of them will and how things will all end up, but not much. Audiences didn't pay money to watch John Wayne lose. The movie wisely eschews the idea of a Duke-Ann-Margret romance, with Lane making the obvious remark at one point: "I've got a saddle that's older than you."

Wayne knew his audience and made the movies he wanted to make and the ones they wanted to see, but in so doing he rarely stretched himself as he did earlier in his career. Even though The Alamo was a big-budget flop, it was at least something that came from a creative vision, which Robbers lacks. The disappointment it brings is not that it's a standard John Wayne picture. It's that with all of the creative control at Wayne's command, it should have been that plus something more.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Interchangeable

I'm not an unconditional lover of new technology and how fast it supplants older ways of doing things without offering us time to reflect on what we might want to keep about those older ways. But when it works, it works.

Today, I used the same piece of equipment to surf the internet for my morning news, catch up on what my friends were doing, write a funeral service, read the funeral service, prepare my mileage reimbursement, watch a movie while on the elliptical machine at the gym and write a blog post.

You were a frickin' genius, Mr. Steve Jobs.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Heavy Darkness

Astronomers have found large black holes at the center of most galaxies and believe them to be a feature of galaxy construction. These are usually bigger than ordinary black holes and are thought to be so because they are located in an area which has so much stuff to fall into them.

But the black hole at the center of NGC 1277, a small galaxy visible in the constellation Perseus, is outsized way beyond what it should be. Astronomers studying it believe it has the mass of 17 billion suns. If you had a dollar for every sun whose mass this black hole contained, you could finance the next 80 or so James Bond movies. Or fund the U.S. government for about 41 hours. You could erase the U.S. deficit -- if you had around 940 friends who all had a dollar for every sun whose mass the NGC 1277 black hole contains. You may tut and say that may be less of a comparison than a dig at the reckless spending done by the federal government, but I would wonder what deserves it more?

Black holes, of course, are the remains of stars which have collapsed so thoroughly and concentrated their mass to a density that creates gravity not even light can escape. I'll let you make your own dig at government spending here.

But anyway, this black hole all by itself has almost 14 percent of NGC 1277's total mass. This would be like a 150-pound person having a 21-pound appendix. That's unusual because of the gigantic size of the black hole, especially in such a small galaxy. It gets weirder because astronomers can see five galaxies near NGC 1277 that resemble it in size -- they could also have outsized black holes at their centers and that would prompt a re-thinking of how galaxies form.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1969): The Bridge at Remagen

By March of 1945, the German army was headed for home any way it could get there, with units all over trying to get back across the Rhine River, one of the Third Reich's last natural lines of defense. As Allied troops neared bridge after bridge, they were blown up to prevent enemy crossings until only one major bridge remained, at the town of Remagen. Producer David Wolper and director John Guillermin teamed up to create a fictionalized version of the actual battle in 1969 with The Bridge at Remagen, starring George Segal, Robert Vaughn and Ben Gazzara.

Wolper and Guillermin apparently wanted to model their movie somewhat along the lines of 1962's The Longest Day, the story of the D-Day invasion of June 1944. Segal is Lt. Phil Hartman, commanding an armored patrol trying to reach the bridge before the Germans destroy it, and Gazzara is Sgt. Angelo, one of the noncoms in his unit. But we also see some of the German side of the story, with Vaughn playing Major Paul Krueger, the German officer in command of the forces defending the bridge until it can be wired to explode.

They also seem to be much more conscious of anti-war sentiment in general, as Bridge shows us flawed soldiers and officers, operating for their own agendas and little else. No Greatest Generation legend-making here: Hartman is bitter and disillusioned with his chain of command, Angelo robs German corpses and cons his fellow GIs out of their money and Bradford Dillman as U.S. Major Barnes is a rah-rah fool who commands no respect from his men.

A movie that shows the GIs who helped save the world in the 1940s as real human beings with flaws has its place -- Steven Spielberg showed that in Saving Private Ryan. But Bridge has such a sketchy story and such clumsy casting that it can't do anything but be a series of high-energy action scenes stitched together around entire sequences of false note characterization. The characters are stereotypes but offer us nothing beyond the stereotype to dig into; they just cipher across the screen performing as needed in order to move us to the next action scene. We don't know what keeps Major Barnes from being able to win his men's respect; Dillman is nowhere near a good enough actor to pull that off using the story he has in front of him. But he doesn't, so any scenes that are supposed to show Dramatic Conflict between him and Hartman actually show Vague Staring instead.

Segal is miscast; his strength was always in roles that matched his natural urbanity and borderline smarminess and he can't give Hartman the war-weariness he's supposed to have. Vaughn's Krueger should be a complex man driven by loyalty to his nation and a realization that he is fighting a losing cause, but the script does so little to show that that he can never really bring it out. And Gazzara's Angelo is just a thug -- not too bright a one at that, as he never wears a helmet in the middle of a war zone firefight. He's too much of a creep to care about what he's doing.

In the end, The Bridge at Remagen can't decide if it wants to be a good ol' WWII rouser of an action picture or a meditation on the ugliness of war, even for the side that's in the right. And so it tries to do both. The action part comes off better than the meditation, but the marriage doesn't work and neither does the movie.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Old World in Color

Here are some color pictures from almost 100 years ago, during the 1910s and early 1920s.

The post author makes an interesting point -- that since most of the pictures we see from that era are in black and white, we have a sort of default mode in our minds that everything during that time from really was in black and white. We know it really wasn't, but there's still a little surprise to see color pictures from the era, and a nagging sense that they're not really from a hundred years ago but are people dressed up like 100 years ago.

The process, which is explained in the blog entry, was called Actachrome and involved, of all things, potato starch. Were it to be in use today, you could expect New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban it as unhealthy based on that ingredient. Sure, neither the photographers nor the subjects actually eat the potato starch, but common sense has yet to stop Mayor Bloomberg on his quest to tell everyone what they can and can't eat and there's not much reason to expect it to start now.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Seventy Years of the Usual Suspects

On this day 70 years ago, one of our greatest movies premiered: Casablanca. The item at the link notes several quotes (and at least one famous misquote) from the movie, but neglects my favorite:
Captain Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed. 
The movie was based on an unproduced stage play called "Everybody Comes to Rick's," a name which proves that some playwrights create dumb titles. The play remained unproduced until 1991, when the Whitehall Theatre in London staged it. The movie version toned up the characters from the far-less-noble folks onstage and gave Sam's character quite a bit more depth.

Apparently, someone shopped the play around to studios under its original title sometime in the mid-1980s. Several studio officials balked because they thought the story didn't work or the romance angle didn't feature enough sex. That's not really any reason to knock them; we know that studio folks  are clueless in soooo many ways but they often have something of a sense of what kinds of things audiences are watching in movies. The reason to knock them is they didn't recognize the story.

How can you want to make movies for people and not know the story of Casablanca? Yes, the play's female lead has a different name than the character Ingrid Bergman plays, but Victor Lazlo, her husband, is still the same, as is Rick himself. And the play prominently features the song "As Time Goes By," which has a pivotal role in the movie as well.

So I've expanded some of my usual caveats. One of them is to never trust a rock guitarist who can't play Chuck Berry music, and I will now add that you should never trust a movie studio person who can't recognize when he or she is reading Casablanca.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Flawed Vision

So it turns out that the whiz-bang gadgetry of the modern television set may not be the best way to watch a movie.

The fellow at the link goes into some great detail, but the upshot is that TV sets in the store are set to grab your eyeballs. The settings which grab your eyeballs are not the settings which are best for watching a movie. Colors will be too bright, outlines too distinct, the blue balance will be too heavy, and so on.

And LCD screens, which are the most common kind of flat-screen televisions sold today, have inherent flaws which fine-tuning and optimizing can't cover up.

So it may be awhile before I send my old set out to pasture. I may wind up watching more movies on the iPad at the gym than I do on my set, but at least I know when I watch it on my set I won't cut my eyeballs open on the red-green contrast setting.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Exit, Grinning...

With the death of Larry Hagman, television loses one of its best villains ever. And I mean ever. The scariest sight on television was not some Sopranos thug or Dexter psycho or Game of Thrones inbred deviant. It was J.R. Ewing flashing his pearly whites in your direction, uttering the words, "Have I got a deal for you." The "Who shot J.R.?" cliffhanger at the end of season two of Dallas was a TV event unlike any other and while the near-fatal wound tamed the venomous one for a season, he was back in form before very long.

I've no idea of Hagman's personal religious beliefs, but I am willing to bet that if there is a personification of evil such as the being some name Satan, Hagman's might be the only soul he doesn't want to capture. After all, if you give J.R. Ewing enough time, he'll find a way to get the better of you. And eternity is plenty of time.

Friday, November 23, 2012

From the Rental Vault: Triple Bob

The first two Bobs are Mitchum and Ryan, who face off in 1951's The Racket, the second movie version of a play from the 1920s. Mitchum is Tom McQuigg, an incorruptible police captain looking to fight a mob takeover of his city. Corruption is rampant in his department and the prosecutor's office, meaning that a citizen's commission also wanting to clean up the city is always at least two or three steps behind. Robert Ryan is Nick Scanlon, a local heavy whose violent methods don't fit well with the newer, slicker crime organization taking over his business.

Scanlon is paranoid and jittery, with foes on both sides of the law and troubles with his brother that make him suspect everyone -- which may be the reason he opens up with McQuigg once. The captain is his enemy, but at least Scanlon knows where he stands.

Eventually, a reporter (Robert Hutton), a new beat cop (William Talman) and -- of course -- a dame (Lizabeth Scott) become mixed up in the conflict as McQuigg and Scanlon move towards a final confrontation. Everyone plays their assigned roles smoothly, with Mitchum and Ryan standing out most of all.
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The third Bob is Ryan again, in On Dangerous Ground the very next year as NYC detective Jim Wilson, whose over-immersion in his job has dangerously frayed his control. Even in the pre-Miranda Warning era, his level of violence is getting the department in trouble and is close to getting him fired. Opening scenes show other officers readying for work among their families, but Wilson has no one.

Eventually his boss sends him upstate to help in the hunt for a murderer. He joins a group of vigilantes led by the victim's father, Walter Brent (Ward Bond), and is taken aback by Brent's bloodthirstiness. When the pair are stranded overnight at the home of blind Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), Wilson begins to see how far over the line his own brutality has taken him when it becomes clear Mary knows more about the murderer than it seems at first.

Again, Ryan does a fine job as a man barely clinging to the edge of civilization and his sanity. He sees the people he pursues as garbage and that allows him to do anything to them to get what he wants, covering himself with the badge that's all he has left, even if it doesn't mean anything to him anymore. Lupino adds some depth to a role heavily laden with retread dialogue and mawkish scenes. Ward Bond is also a surprise, moving aside from his usual genial nature to display hatred and rage better than you might think he could. Ground is not anything that would win awards and it lost money at the box office, but the fine performances of the three leads make it worth the effort of wading through some of the excess cheese of the second act.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Weekly Musicality

Although women had made their mark on the charts in country and western almost since its earliest recordings, Gail Davies scored a first when she started producing her own records for Warner Brothers in 1979 -- she may have been the first woman to produce for a major label in Nashville. The daughter of musician Tex Dickerson and the father of former BR5-49 co-vocalist Chris Scruggs, Davies had her strongest run in the late 1970s and 1980s. Wild Choir, a 1986 project listed as performed by  the band of that name, is heavily dominated by Davies' vocals and Davies-written songs.

There's plenty of Nashville flavor through the album, but Davies took advantage of the different setting to play around with some New Wave and dance-influenced tunes and arrangements. "Girl on a String" and "I Don't Wanta Hold Your Hand" could bring plenty of big hair and skinny ties out on the dance floor, and the keyboard backgrounds of "Never Cross that Line" match up with any synth-heavy Madonna ballad of the time.

The genre called "alt-country" was still a few years in the future, and probably wound up drawing more from punk influences than from the dance-oriented pep of New Wave. But Wild Choir is a good preview of the reality that musical genre lines could be crossed and that the product could be very interesting.
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Son Seals had a voice and a guitar-playing style that were completely his own even though they were deeply steeped in traditional Chicago blues. He was consistently inventive, meshing his blues instincts with funk's rhythms in 1976's Midnight Son and submerging them in a jazzy backrgound in 1984's Bad Axe. Spontaneous Combustion, a set recorded n 1996 at Buddy Guy's Legends club in Chicago, is an excellent introduction to both Seals the artist and the performer.

A good portion of modern electric blues focuses so heavily on guitar solos that the songs themselves get buried in an avalanche of over-picking. But although Seals flashes plenty of string skills, he rarely lets the soloing get away from him or get in the way of the song itself. Not every solo has to be loud and lightning fast; the slower and mellower showcases are just as important depending on the songs.

From the growling roar of "Don't Pick Me for Your Fool" to the horn-supported groove of "Landlord at My Door," Seals powers through a dozen of his own compositions as well as some great covers. The set may lack some of his standards, such as "Bad Axe" itself, or "I'm Going Home" and "Buzzard Luck" or the instrumental "Hot Sauce," but the lack is just a good excuse to pick up more Son Seals albums, and I find it hard to consider that a bad idea.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Loss for Science

Although a number of folks have pointed out the deep depression which is about to descend on Colorado and Washington, two states which recently legalized marijuana just in time for Twinkies to disappear, I haven't seen many articles other than this one that bemoan the loss to high school science experiments.

I call upon President Obama to honor his commitment to education of the nation's schoolchildren and personally intervene in the Hostess crisis. If the man can take your tax money and mine and keep wheezing old GM on life support, he can by gosh take it and strike a blow for the reality-based community and the American school teacher.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Welcome Aboard?

OK, so the Big Ten is going to have 14 teams. Whatever, because as much as I like watching the games I'm under no illusion that anything in college sports makes a lick of sense.

But I will quibble with one of the statements made by Rutgers president Robert Barchi, who says that academically, the Big Ten is a good fit for his school. Mr. Barchi, your school paid Nicole Polizzi, AKA "Snooki," $32,000 to speak to its students. You should probably not be so willing to use the word "academics" in connection to it.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Can't Wait

One of the very few good things about the Black Friday shopping day is that it will be the end of those vapid Target commercials contorting Christmas songs into monumentally-even-more-vapid Target jingles.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pleasant Surprise at the Gym

I'd rather not watch the American Music Awards -- ever, but a lady at the gym had the TV turned to it, so I happened to catch two pretty neat things. One was a neat tribute from Stevie Wonder to Dick Clark.

The other was a performance of the song "Gangnam Style" by Korean rapper PSY. Watching hundreds of folks dance and sing along while a chunky short guy raps in Korean can almost erase the memory of seeing Justin Bieber "perform" and win awards for it.

Seeing a live duet of PSY and MC Hammer mashing up "Gangnam Style" and "2 Legit 2 Quit" just pretty much justifies the whole silly show's existence.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Storage Overload?

Ever thought your brain was full?

Well, while it may not be possible to actually use all of the brain's capacity to store memories -- there's more space than there is time in a human lifespan -- Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Bor suggests that it is possible to reach the limits of what the human brain can process.

The problem is that everyday life presents the brain with a monumental amount of data. And since our brains don't plug into the wall, they require energy to run those processors. Bor points out that a newborn baby's brain uses up 87 percent of the body's resources, and even in an adult a quarter of the energy required by the body is used to run ol' Mr. Noggin. This may be a telling statistic; it's possible that someone like Roseanne Barr, Ann Coulter or Eric Holder is simply suffering from an overly-reduced calorie intake rather than the obvious condition.

Because of those situations -- the high data load presented by even an ordinary day and the high energy demands of the brain -- Bor thinks that attempts to increase the amount of brain input, via a sort of wired system or artificial intelligence boosts or something similar may not be successful. The data input could overload the processing capacity, perhaps resulting in a literal Blue Screen of Death as the brain shuts down from the increase. Or it could require so much of the body's energy that health of the body's other parts might suffer: "Well, I can't heal this minor flesh wound, because the brain is sucking all the calorie input. Sorry about the gangrene."

So while it's glaringly obvious that some people's brains don't function at anywhere near the upper edge of their design specs, it may very well be that they're functioning at or near their own individual limits.

Which can, if you think about it, be kind of depressing in more than one instance.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Throw the Bum Out?

Few people are as ready to send a coach packing as college football fans. In my own beloved state, there is one school with a devoted fanbase (many of whom actually attended the school) that regularly alternates between calling the head football coach a genius and a troglodyte who couldn't hit the ground with his visor. Earlier this season, a loss to Kansas State made for much cause of rumbling and grumbling, until subsequent convincing wins -- especially one over a certain school to the south -- made it obvious that the coach was again the Einstein of the gridiron and could do no wrong.

There are plenty of cases where replacing a coach has seemed to improve a team's performance. But how often does that actually happen? Scott Adler, Michael Berry and David Doherty, in a paper published in the Social Science Quarterly, studied the performance of college football teams between 1997 and 2010 and measured what kind of impact a coaching change could have on a program.

They found that when the program performs poorly, changing coaches makes little short-term difference. That's probably expected. But they found little difference in the long run as well: If your program stinks and you change your coach, you're not going to be much better off than a program that sticks with their poor schlub instead of showing him the door.

When programs aren't bad, but just mediocre and nothing special, then replacing a coach actually hurt team performance when compared with teams that kept their coach.

The online abstract of the study doesn't show if it examined what kinds of records those coaches had when they were hired -- were they successful elsewhere or not, were they young coaches just learning or old ones playing out a last string till retirement, were they top-notch talent at a lower level of competition looking for a foot in the door to move up, and so on. Those elements could have an impact on how the coach performed, but it seems that overall, a lousy program is more than just a lousy coach.

Of course, one of the main interesting facts about the study is that it shows how the wisdom of many sports fans, the ones who call for the coach's head when a game result is anything less than a 77-0 blowout, is not so much wisdom as it is knee-jerk silliness.

But no study is really needed to prove out that theory.

(Hat tip: The Sports Economist)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Weekly Musicality

The number of bestselling musicians working in the contemporary Christian music category who are Roman Catholic is probably not large, but Audrey Assad stands out near the front of the field for more than alphabetical reasons. Her debut album The House You're Building was Amazon.com's Best Christian Album of 2010, and the February 2012 follow-up Heart continued to build her reputation for delivery of thoughtful spirituality via mid-tempo, piano-based folk pop.

Music teachers may lament how many young women who sing follow the Taylor Swiftian pattern of sticking with a bare handful of notes and rarely challenging themselves vocally. Assad does not have that problem, using her voice as one of the instruments in helping to set the tone and mood of her songs. They all rest on the keyboard, of course, but here and there are touches of some different rhythm instruments underlying the melody that offer a few distinctive flavors.

Her songs display a wide level of reflections on the Christian life  -- "Blessed Are the Ones" contemplates the intricacies of being a newlywed and "Wherever You Go" voices God's encouragement to the ones who may have found themselves, like the prodigal son, in a far country after the party's over and the money's run out. And her songwriting gift allows her to couch these reflections in three-minute bites with symbolism and words that stick after the music itself fades out.
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It's interesting how quickly we can forget that bands from other countries which make it big in the U.S. aren't the only bands on those other countries' music scenes. Record stores in Australia, for example, have more on their shelves than AC/DC, Kylie Minogue, Men at Work, INXS and the Divinyls. Siblings Chris and Annalise Morrow, for example, enjoyed a tidy little run in the late 1970s and early 1980s as The Numbers, with an Australian Top-40 single, several appearances on Australian television and stints operning for quite a few international acts on the Aussie legs of their tours. But you'd have to be someone with a serious power-pop New Wave jones to run across them in the U.S.

If you were such a person, you would probably enjoy their debut album, The Numbers, from October 1980, which while a product of its time is also a surprisingly durable quick slice of the guitar/poppy side of the New Wave genre. The Morrows, along with drummer Simon Vidale, create several 11 zippy toe-tappers that rely on their harmonies, Annalise's ability to move between bright and gloomy tones and Chris's solid jangly strings.

The pop format doesn't prevent reflection or some nice wordplay; "5 Letter Word" is a rumination on how being separated from a loved one (by estrangement, circumstance or time) is a little like being dead as far as the other is concerned. In "Mr. President," Annalise Morrow lets a would-be controlling fellow know, "You're running for President/But you're not even a resident/In my world."

A Numbers retrospective called Numerology collects several tracks from their singles, EPs and two studio albums. Otherwise, you might find them while vinyl diving at used record stores, either here or, I suppose, in Australia.
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In the late 1990s, Fargo, North Dakota (of all places) offered the world a pair of teenage wunderkinder who played the blues like performers at least three times their age. On the fellow's side was Jonny Lang, and for the young ladies, Shannon Curfman did the honors. Lang played on Curfman's 1999 debut, Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions and continued to record regularly, including some recent output that's definitely gospel-influenced.

Curfman also continued to record, although not as frequently. She was 15 when Guitars came out and 2010's What You're Getting Into was only her fourth studio disc. By then 26, Curfman was less able to rely on the uniquness of being talented for her age and was expected to be more or less just plain talented. She's succeeded well, carving out a sound of her own while making obvious nods to lady guitar slingers before her, such as Bonnie Raitt. Curfman's voice has some of the same rock swagger, mixed in with a little honky-tonk feel, that has made Raitt's work appealing for many years.

She co-wrote six of the songs on the album, including the cautionary tale of the title track and the hard-rocking "Free Your Mind." And she didn't shoot low for her covers, including Eric Clapton's "The Core," Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" and Queen's "Dragon Attack." Several of the tunes would be well-served if Curfman would dial back the intensity a notch or two, but if she continues to develop and add dimension to her work as a musician, then subsequent releases could be something special.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Vend-O-Moron-Matic

On track to see more than five hundred murders this year, His %#@&in' Honor Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago, has decided to take decisive action to improve the lives of some of the citizens of his fair city.

He's banning high-calorie snacks in vending machines on city property.

Between Emanuel and New York City's Michael Bloomberg, I'm beginning to believe you really don't have to be all that smart to be the mayor of a major American city.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Key Stone-head State

If stadiums still used phonographs instead of digital music players, high school hockey in Pennsylvania could probably still include the National Anthem, as long as they sped up the record to 78RPM.

It seems that the high schools, in renting their arenas, only pay for a certain amount of time and when that time is up, the lights go off. So in the interests of saving money, Pennsylvania state school officials have directed the games omit that pesky "Star-Spangled Banner" because it takes too long and costs too much money.

Trouble is, most recorded versions of the anthem clock in at around a minute and a half. Even Jimi Hendrix's psychedelic fuzzed-out version from Woodstock is less than three and a half minutes long. If the schools are paying a rate so high that an extra two minutes really breaks the bank, then I think they've got other problems...like state school officials who could use a math refresher or two. Followed by a wee little bit of history.

Monday, November 12, 2012

"Portable" Orchestra?

This article at Collector's Weekly describes them, portable machines in the early 20th century called "orchestrions" that went a step beyond player pianos by having bells and pipes that could sound like stringed instruments as well as brass and woodwinds. One of them, shown in a picture towards the bottom of the page, even had violins mounted inside and played mechanically. Not many exist today, which is why the story is at a site called "Collector's Weekly."

In this case, portable was definitely in the eye of the beholder. The average orchestrion weighed in at two tons. While that was lighter and took up less space than an actual orchestra, it wasn't the kind of thing you could clip on your belt for your morning perambulation.

Like the player piano, the orchestrion played its songs as a paper roll punched with holes was fed through a reading device. The holes controlled which instrument would play and what note would sound. Punch cards, in use in computers up until thirty or so years ago, operated not too differently.

Anyone familiar with the names of piano, organ or jukebox makers will see some recognizable labels in the story, like Wurlitzer and Seeburg. There are interesting parallel to some modern music-player history. Seeburg machines took off in popularity when they developed a standardized roll that could be played on multiple machines, kind of the way the .mp3 format came to dominate online music sales and playing. The standard roll also broadened the variety of music available on orchestrions, as more people than just the Seeburg company could create them for different songs.

The combination of Prohibition, which reduced the size of the places where people wanted background music playing while they partied and phonographs and radio, which could provide smaller music-makers as well as add the human voice into the mix, did in the orchestrion in most venues.

Plus, they had no headphone jack and the loud tunes -- as always -- tended to tick off the 'rents.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Can't Stop the Signal

The Science Channel will celebrate 10 years of Browncoats tonight.

Don't nobody call me or nothin'.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Who-Rah?

On November 10, 1775, the Continental Congress approved the creation of what is today the United States Marine Corps. Four of my uncles served in the Corps, one during World War II in the Pacific.

A Marine lieutenant, like any newly-commissioned military officer, receives a one-time allowance for a unform purchase of $400. Under their new collective bargaining agreement, approved by membership on Friday, officers in the Transportation Security Administration will receive an annual uniform allowance of $446.

We hear much talk about how the military needs to modernize in order to fight our nation's enemies. Apparently, though, they will need to unionize in order to fight for the same kind of perks available to people who sit on stools and paw through your luggage.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Musicality

After 2005's Blame the Vain, Dwight Yoakam was mostly involved in screen roles while dabbling in the recording studio, other than his Buck Owens tribute album in 2007. Whether the hiatus fueled a burst of musical creativity or whether he just still had it in him, 3 Pears is a concentrated burst of the kind of imagination that's shown up here and there in releases throughout his career.

Although certainly a country artist, Yoakam has never been content to just mine that field in either songwriting, music to cover or the styles that influence him. In 3 Pears, he blends many of them for an album that on paper wouldn't seem to work nearly as well as it does. "Take Hold of My Hand" opens with a funky bass groove that keeps its soul while being the foundation for Yoakam's unmistakably honky-tonk voice and a traditional steel guitar. "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke" layers many of those same elements over a cowpunk center that will probably be a concert favorite. "Nothing But Love" is a rocker tailor-made for a duet with Social Distortion's Mike Ness.

None of these stylistic unions sounds forced, produced by Yoakam (and Jack White on couple of tunes) to blend their common elements well enough that the distinctions work like spices in a sweet dessert -- they add instead of detract. Apparently Yoakam decided that if he was going to wait seven years between original releases, he'd put in a substantial amount of work into the product of the hiatus, and it paid off well.
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Singer Dee Dee Penny (Kirstin Gundred) released her first Dum Dum Girls singles, EPs and album as the leader of a frequently-rotating cast of backup musicians. For her second full-length album, 2011's Only in Dreams, she enlisted a more permanent band and worked with a number of outside producers. The change didn't reduce any of the Dum Dum's earworm appeal, only added a much stronger sound of Penny's own vocals into the mix. The sound still relies heavily on 1960s low-fi jangle pop, the key element for Dum Dum fans.

The addition of clearer vocals to the mix allows Penny's Chrissie-Hynde inflected voice to give some depth and dimension to the songs that some of the earlier all-buzz numbers didn't have. That's appropriate for some of the heavier subject matter Dreams, tackles, influenced by Penny's mother dying in 2010 and the heavy touring schedule's stress on her family. But it also makes kiss-off rockers like "Just a Creep" more fun -- she's not a great operatic or Broadway singer, but she has the ideal instrument for this kind of album and it makes In Dreams a good step forward from the Dum Dum's earlier work.
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The Informants' second album, Crime Scene Queen, is the musical equivalent of a Hard Case Crime paperback. That publishing house has been printing new and reprinting old hard-boiled stories of tough guys, killer dames and the often seedy world they inhabit. Informants' singer Kerry Pastine leads a retro-jump blues/rockabilly combo that is just as much a part of that noirish world of cigarette smoke, whiskey from the bottle and shadowy deeds done in shadowier alleys.

In fact, the title track would be a great soundtrack opener should anyone ever decide to try to film one of Hard Case's stories, right down to the echo vocal done over a PA microphone. The Informants' don't hang out exclusively on the mean streets, offering some peppy tunes for the dancing folks, like "Get Twisted" and the zydeco-influenced "Marilon." "Salvation" has a gospel feel even if the subject matter is an unreliable lover.

But the hard-edged world of the has-beens and never-quite-was's always beckons, both in the sound and the seen-it-all tones of Pastine's vocals. The Marvelettes might have asked "Please, Mr. Postman" for a letter, but the Informants follow Sister Wynonna Carr in asking "Please, Mr. Jailer" to let her man go free.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Get With the Program?

Physicists have used supercomputers to model what they call the "quantum chromodynamics" of some small spaces. Very simply put, quantum chromodynamics are the way that some of the basic forces of the universe, as well as some of the most basic subatomic particles, interact.

Funny thing is, when you model the quantum chromodynamics of an area, you pretty much recreate it in the simulation. Within the confines of the simulation, there's no way to tell the difference between it and the real thing. Of course, since the equations that model chromodynamics are incredibly complex, the size of the area that's being simulated is incredibly small -- a few "femtometers" across. A femtometer, for the curious, is .000000000000001 of a meter. But as computers get more powerful, they can simulate larger areas. And within those larger simulations, the same conditions would apply: There would be no way from within the model to tell it was a model.

This idea leads physicists, who like to think about weird things, to the supposition that the entire universe might be a kind of computer simulation being run by an incredibly powerful supercomputer.

Some physicists in Germany point out that some ordinary measurements, which can be made with modern technology, might indicate whether or not the world we live in is indeed a computer simulation. That would be very interesting if true, but since we wouldn't know the difference in our everyday experience, it's hard to see what it might mean. Unless of course you take the red pill.

On the other hand, if the world is a computer simulation and it's running on some immense version of Windows, that would explain a lot of things, from Joe Biden's high office to the popularity of Twilight, the Black-Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga: They're glitches.

But I'm thinking that the popularity of The Jersey Shore makes the simulation idea tough to believe. There's no program I can think of that would be able to explain that.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

By Any Other Name

According to this article, astronomers estimate there could something like 160 billion planets in our Milky Way galaxy. And that's waaaaaay too many for astronomers to sit around and dream up names for, so a group of them formed a little website at www.uwingu.com to allow people to submit potential planetary names.

The names will then be voted on to get the most popular. The organizers hope to raise a little money for charity and promote awareness of astronomical research.

With 160 billion to work with, it would seem that just about any submission could make it into the lists. So I will be proposing the names "Biden," "Limbaugh," and "O'Reilly," but I will insist that these names be reserved for Jupiter-like planets, which are essentially large balls of gas with no solid material involved whatsoever.

Should there be a planet which has a retrograde orbit -- meaning that it circles its sun backwards compared to the other planets of its system, I will suggest the name "Pelosi." And should a planet be found orbiting the star Scheat (or Beta Pegasi) or one nearby, which is the star nearest the tail of the constellation Pegasus, the clear choice for a name considering the location is "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid." The reason -- and resemblance -- should be obvious.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

First Star to the Right...

Thanks to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Superman knows where he was born. The writers of Action Comics included Dr. Tyson in a storyline about Superman seeking the location of Krypton, his homeworld.

And as usual DC Comics honcho Dan DiDio exhibits a lack of clues by suggesting that finding Krypton (which orbits the red dwarf star LHS 2520) is a "milestone" in the DC universe. Several stories have Superman or other folks headed back to the site of the destroyed planet, so Tyson's effort is not the first time Krypton's been found. But on the other hand, this is also not the first time DiDio been's a dork, so I guess it evens out.

The Exercise of the Franchise

From two years ago:
The stickers came about because so few people do vote that, I believe, folks thought that some kind of reminder might jog some memories to do the same. But when comedian Chris Rock disparaged people who said, "I take care of my kids" as though it was a medal-worthy achievement, he said, "Whattaya want, a cookie? That's what you're supposed to do!" I feel similarly about the idea that I should brag about having done one of the very few things I'm supposed to do as a citizen of the United States.
Voting would probably feel better if we had better people to vote for, but most of the better people decided to get real jobs and benefit people using their own money instead of mine. But lest ye think me too cynical, I do recognize some sense of civic pride in casting my ballot:

But there is a very good feeling that accompanies voting. Not the sense of participating in my nation's republic, although that is pretty darn cool when you think about it. No, what really feels good about voting is that, by your choices on the ballot, you get to say, "Talk to the hand," to the people who have relied on demagoguery and disinformation to try to sway voters their way. You can say, "Hasta la vista, baby," to candidates whose shameless misuse and manipulation of the facts represents some of the worst our system has to offer. You can say, "Make a new plan, Stan," to career politicians who figure that since they've run out their string at one level of public office they'll get voted in at another so they can keep feeding at the taxpayer's trough.

People spend a lot of money to get elected to public office. They buy ads, they buy signs, they pay campaign staffs, and so on. And yet, for free, you and I get to tell more than half of them, "Bite me."

You can't get much more American than that.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Closure

The brick-and-mortar portion of the books and printed resource material supplier for my denomination announced it will close next spring. The news wasn't well-received by some folks, who will try to convince the publisher to keep some of the physical stores open.

The protestors have some points on their side. The publishers will be reducing their operation to the call-in and online ordering services only, and both of those, shall we say, suck. I recognize that's not a theological term, so I'll recast it for those with delicate sensibilities by paraphrasing John 11:39: They stinketh. At a previous church, I got tired enough of paying for expedited shipping that arrived late, incomplete orders and a website that featured the best user interface 1996 had to offer that I stopped using them altogether. I ordered material printed by my denominational press through Amazon. For less than I could order it from the denominational store, even considering my ministerial discount.

But the stores were no prize either. Of course a church book store shouldn't open on Sunday, but limiting Saturday hours to 10 AM to 4 PM is just clueless. Too often, the kind of denomination-specific material that can't be found anywhere else wasn't available at the store. Some of their shortcomings weren't their fault; my denomination hasn't lit the world on fire with quality authors, curricula and material, so much of what the stores stocked could be found at other religious bookstores, some of which stayed open until as late as 7 PM on Saturday.

I have no doubt the stores lost money. But the whole operation loses money, and I have to admit some of my fellow clergy play a role. For many years, people who charged items to their account could carry large balances without interest charges or collection efforts much beyond frequent letters reminding them they owed money. If yer not gonna stock stuff a lot of people buy, you'd better make sure you collect on the stuff you do sell.

Here's hoping Jeff Bezos is a Methodist.

(ETA: I know Mr. Bezos is not a Methodist; it's a joke ;-) Also, the fact that the publishing house is closing all the stores is another sign they don't really know what they're doing; a few of them are really very well-run within the confines dictated from the home office and I imagine they turn a profit.)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Classic

Watching David Niven chase around In a gorilla suit in the original Pink Panther movie is pretty much worth the price of admission. Peter Sellers is just a bonus.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Pro Tips

-- When you walk up to the people selling tickets at the local high school football game and offer them a $100 bill to pay for your $5 ticket, chuckling, "Well, good, I needed the change" after they practically clean out their money bag to break it for you is a good way to be remembered as an ass.

-- On a related note, the people taking the money aren't going to invent a senior citizen's discount for you on the spot just because you say that schools "up by the city" have them.

-- There aren't many things in sports prettier than a quarterback hitting the receiver in stride and watching said receiver zip down the field at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light.

-- When the television sets at the gym use just plain old speakers to be heard instead of a fancy audio headphone system, turning the TV up really loud in one room so the people on equipment in another room can hear it better than they can the set in front of them is another good way to be remembered as an ass.

-- High school students who paint their faces at their high school games are perfectly normal. Adults who paint their faces at professional football games are...well, not normal, maybe, but generally acceptable. Adult men with children (who are not themselves players) who paint their faces at high school football games are...misguided.

-- When your legs actually blanch under the hems of your shorts because they're that tight and cut off your circulation, you may have crossed over the line of sensible ways to attract the attention of boys.