Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mayoral Fail

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants the citizens of his metropolis to be healthier. So he has proposed a maximum size limit on how big of a cup a restaurant can use when it serves you a soda drink sweetened with sugar.

I had no idea that New York City had solved its murder problems, homelessness problem, prostitution, drug abuse, parking, infrastructure repair and so on. But they must have for the mayor of the city to spend his time telling people how much soda they can drink.

Diane Sawyer interviewed the mayor and he noted that he woke up the morning after his announcement to headlines calling him things like "Mayor Nanny." He told her that he didn't know if those were supposed to be derogatory terms. Well, that's because you've got a full-on steam of stupid usually reserved for federal-level politicians, Mikey. Those who refer to you as a nanny are NOT complimenting you. They -- like nearly everyone else who still has enough functioning neurons to rub together and spark what we colorfully call "thoughts" -- think you're playing solitaire with two cards. You're a drawerful of dull knives, a sack of hammers, a box full of crayons with no points. You'd be more than a few fries short of a Happy Meal except you think fried potatoes are the greatest crisis your city faces -- or you did until someone read you the calorie count of a glass of soda.

The mayor says he's concerned with the fact that large portions of sodas cause obesity, and he believes that if people have to get their 32 ounces of Coke in two glasses instead of one, they'll see the error of their sugar-snortin' ways. Here's a word you may have overlooked in your headlong dash to tell people what to do, Mr. Mayor: Refill. A lot of restaurants have developed a quaint little custom of having their wait staff ask you if you'd like more to drink if your glass dips below a certain level. Of course, if you tip like you govern, the majority of waiters you've had may have skipped that extra.

I don't know what the mayor's actual concern is, but I don't believe he cares about health the way he says he does, because of what his proposal leaves out. It does not cover diet drinks (troubles with aspartame? Just a rumor!), alcoholic beverages (and you know, one of the things the body turns the alcohol into when it digests those drinks is...sugar) or that pinnacle of slimming slurping, the milkshake. Yup. You won't be able to have 20 ounces of Mountain Dew in a single glass, but you can have a gallon of whipped ice cream as often as your colon will let you.

Nor does the ban affect convenience stores, so if you want to buy a liter of creme soda and sit at your restaurant table and swig it straight out of the bottle and they want to let you, Mikey's Soda Patrol will have to fume in busybody frustration.

I usually think Diane Sawyer is a pretty good interviewer, but she gets downgraded here for not asking the obvious question: "Mr. Mayor, do you view yourself as a cretin or as a full-fledged moron?"

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Taking Stock

So if you bought Facebook stock when it came out last week you were a genius. Or an idiot. Or a dupe. Or maybe an ingeniously duped idiot; it's hard to tell because I've read just about every opinion under the sun.

I'm no money manager, but I've learned a couple of things about stock offerings. One, if you judge whether a stock is a success or failure based on two days of trading, you're likely to be making someone somewhere some money and that someone isn't you. Money managers do well because they spend all day watching this stuff and building data streams about stock behaviors. They do this for months and sometimes the better part of a year before they start trying to guess what a stock price will do. They do not scan the paper's Dow-Jones report, log on to the ol' home computer-doohickey and dash off a half-dozen knee-jerk trades.

And as this piece notes, the purpose of an initial stock offering is to raise cash for a company. A stock purchase is a purchase of the rights of a company's potential future profits in exchange for cash now. So Facebook's word for the offering probably isn't disaster, as this fellow explains. People bought lots of Facebook stock, which made Facebook money. I'm going to guess that merits a "Like," whether on a button or real life.

(H/T Dustbury)

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Price of Evil

Many people might like to try being an evil overlord -- at least until your scheme runs afoul of James Bond or some other smarmy do-gooder, you get to have great fun and make sure pretty much everything goes your own way.

But it costs some serious coin to ensure your unbeatability. At the link the fine folks of Creatines have calculated how much "unbeatability" would cost, based on the 1994 list by Peter Anspach, "100 Things I Would Do if I Were an Evil Overlord." The list is of ways to correct common but fatal errors to which Evil Overlords seem prone.

The estimated cost is around $14 million. While you do have some new expenditures, like hiring architects to discover any hidden passageways or secret entrances to your castle fortress (No. 52, $80,000), you also have some savings, like not having to pay to imprison your noble half-brother from whom you usurped the throne (No. 3, -$810,000)

Of course, to scrape together the $14 million, you'll probably have to start your life of crime a little bit before you start your life of crime.

Everything's complicated these days.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Remembering, with thanksgiving, those who were and are often better than we sometimes deserve. May they rest in the peace we all pray one day comes in this life as well.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Catching Waves

What I recall of my school science usually referred to gravity as one of the four main forces that worked between objects in the universe -- they were electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force and gravity.

Big objects have more gravity than smaller objects, we learned, which is why small objects in space either crash into the bigger objects or fall into an orbit around them. The bigger objects exert more gravitational force. Only it turns out, as Albert Einstein figured out in 1916, that gravity isn't really a force between objects at all. It only seems to be, because we perceive three dimensions of space instead of the four dimensions of space-time. We experience time's passage, but we don't really perceive it the way we perceive height, breadth and depth. In four dimensions, gravity can be seen for what it really is: the curvature of space-time.

The most common illustration of what this means is picturing a bowling ball or something heavy, resting on a trampoline. A small marble rolled in the ball's direction will curve towards it because the bowling ball curves the surface of the trampoline. The more massive the ball, the greater the curve.

So what Einstein theorized and what scientists have found evidence of is that when objects move through space-time, they create little gravity-wave ripples in it. And as the article linked here notes, I do mean little. The best theories about gravity waves is that the strongest of them -- created when two black holes collide, for example -- would move a subatomic particle a distance of one part in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. This number is called "one sextillion," if you're curious.

This is why they are hard to find, and why only recently have scientists been able to devise experiments to try to measure them directly. They want to do this because gravity waves could be keys to measuring what physics are like in really weird places, like black holes, as well as measuring oddball structures that might make up the universe, like superstrings.

Chances of surfing such waves are remote, of course. For one, they move at the speed of light, which makes it hard to keep up with them. And for another, as mentioned above, they are very small. If they're only going to move a subatomic particle 1 in one sextillionth of a degree, the chances are slim they'll propel you and your board anywhere when they do.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Deja Vu

This being Memorial Day weekend and the occasion of the Indianapolis 500 race, a local radio station is using that theme as the "Oklahoma 500," in which they will count down the top 500 classic rock songs of all time.

They have as yet omitted how this will differ from any other weekend, playlist-wise.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

You Sank My...

Nick Berry, president of a data mining company in Seattle, goes into some considerable detail here about the best way to increase your chances of winning in the old game "Battleship." Berry's blog entry is pretty complex, but a lighter-math version of it can be found at this Slate article.

The boiled-down version is this: Rather than call out random points ("B-4!"), simply start by picking every other point on a row until you make a hit. If I remember right, I used to try crossing the board with two diagonal lines to narrow the potential ship locations.

Another, more complicated strategy assesses the probability of certain ships in certain areas of the board, as those probabilities are more and more constrained by each move.

Berry does not offer a sure-fire strategy for not winning the game, but Universal Studios may be consulted for advice on how to make a Battleship loser.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bug Zapper

Dr. Bart Knols of Africa is one of my new favorite scientists. He studies mosquitoes in order to learn more about them. And he wants to learn more about them in order to kill them, which makes his field of work a boon to picnics and 4th of July celebrations everywhere.

At a conference last month, he demonstrated a new weapon in the fight against the little bloodsuckers -- a pill that he swallowed before letting mosquitoes bite his arm. Three hours later, the skeeters became the only good kind of skeeter: Dead.

We itch. They die. Sounds like a good trade to me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Remote Place

Mr. Eugene Polley, inventor of the television remote control, passed away Sunday at the age of 96.

Although we tend to think of the wireless remote as a more recent invention, Polley apparently developed one during the 1950s. For whatever reason, it took quite some time to catch on and become more widespread.

In my own household, I believe a remote-control television was not purchased until after the two biological bipedal remotes code-named "me" and "my sister" had moved out of the house.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Hat Trick

Quick note to the local high school students who will be graduating next year: If you don't get to decorate the top of your cap with spangles, sequins, signs and stuff, I'm going to bet you get to thank the dink who tonight decorated his with the Stars 'n' Bars.

Windy Day

In a sort of surprising move, Stephen King published The Wind Through the Keyhole, an eighth Dark Tower novel after saying eight years ago that the series was finished at seven books.

In a rather less surprising move, I blather about it here. Spoilers aplenty, be thee 'ware.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


So, ever had a word you don't really like and found yourself working to avoid using it when you write something? Sometimes it may be easy, but if you happen to dislike a common word, or if the word you want to omit connects in some way to your subject, it would be kind of tough.

How about not wanting to use any words that have a particular letter in them? Even tougher, right? How about if that letter was the most commonly-appearing letter in the English language, "e?" That'd be very difficult for shorter works, but imagine you give yourself the task of writing a regular-length novel that completely leaves out that letter.

No need to imagine -- just find a copy somewhere of Edgar Vincent Wright's Gadsby, a 1939 novel whose 50,110 words do not contain a single "e." The only place Wright breaks his rule is in the introduction and obviously, considering his name, on the title page. He won't even use abbreviations if the original word contains an "e" when written out.

Such a work is called a lipogram, a kind of arbitrarily self-restricted writing that may constrain itself any number of ways. Wright's choice was to leave the fifth letter of the alphabet on the outside of his novel looking in, but other words may impose other rules on themselves. Perhaps no sentence can contain two words that start with the same letter, or perhaps every chapter will be required to leave out the same letter. A lipogram sentence may insist on including letters instead of leaving them out -- the test-your-typewriter-keys sentence "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs" is a liprogram that contains every letter of the alphabet at least once.

Wright's novel bears no relation to F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 The Great Gatsby except for the title characters' soundalike names. Copies are hard to come by, as a fire in a storage warehouse destroyed most of the first printing, and Wright himself died two months after its publication by the vanity press Wetzel Publishing Co. Apparently, decent-condition copies of this odd novel can run as much as $4,000.

Not bad for a book with only 25 letters.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Stuck and Stolen

Last week we looked at two below-standard entries in some long novel series; this week ups the average with a decent entry and one that's another subpar offering.

Unfortunately for fans of Randy Wayne White's Marion "Doc" Ford, Chasing Midnight is not the decent entry. Dead Silence and Night Vision weren't well-received, and although Deep Shadow perked things up a bit, Chasing Midnight is another confused, scattershot adventure that needs at least one more round through the word processor to sort things out.

Retired NSA agent and marine biologist Ford and his eccentric pal, Tomlinson, are at an exclusive holiday weekend staged by a Russian multi-millionaire who wants to show off a development in the breeding of sturgeon -- the fish that produce caviar. Three other wealthy folks who aren't laden with principles are also around, as are some members of an environmental group who crashed the party but with whom Tomlinson has some ties. When Ford tries to scout the area one night, he's set upon by some shadowy gunmen and finds out that someone's knocked out power and communications on the isolated island where the exhibition is being held.

Midnight starts out alternating between flashbacks and real-time action as Ford tries to recall clues that will let him know who's behind a supposed catastrophic event scheduled for midnight. A third of the way in, we switch over to real-time permanently as everything we thought we were learning gets tossed out the window for an entirely different scenario. One or two other setups get tossed into the mix, but "mix" isn't a good word for the whole as they aren't really mixed in with each other at all. Midnight does a bad enough job at telling us who's who and what's what that it's not long before we say, "So what?" and stop chasing it at all, because it's not really going anywhere.
On the other hand, Stolen Prey, the 22nd "Prey" novel from Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist John Camp (who writes as John Sandford) maintains much of the high quality of this series. Inspector Lucas Davenport -- a fellow with some anger management issues who usually stays just this side of being a rogue cop -- confronts a horrific murder scene when an entire family, including dogs, is found tortured and murdered in a sleepy Minneapolis suburb. Although the crime seems like the kind of warning or revenge murder carried out by drug gangs, there's nothing in the family background that suggests a connection.

But when a possible link is found, then several agencies take up the hunt, and Lucas finds himself dealing not only with the murders but with secretive cyber-criminals operating well below anyone's radar. The trick will be learning what those involved know before they complete their heist, or before the assassins find them.

Camp has a good handle on the kind of wry cynicism that marks a lot of police officers and detectives, and he includes a personal case in which Lucas is very interested that offers some light moments to offset the gruesome kickoff. He avoids doing the "killer's-eye" or "victim's-eye" viewpoint prologue that a lot of thriller writers use, and Stolen Prey is the better for both choices.

A weak ending sets Stolen Prey back in the pack of this series -- the resolution for some of those involved is just unsatisfying to folks who like the way Lucas does things -- but it's by no means the worst and indicates Camp may have a lot left in the tank as he continues to follow Lucas and his cast of chaarcters.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Attention, Joss Whedon!

Writer and director of the awesome blockbuster The Avengers, make this happen!

From the Rental Vault (1939): Dodge City

Watching Dodge City today can be an interesting experience.

On the one hand, it's filled with some of the most familiar features Western fans expect to see in their movies -- a brave lawman, conniving villains, a plucky heroine, cattle drives, horses, trains and shootouts. In fact, Dodge City's 1939 release not only signaled a return to box-office success and more respectability for the genre, it pretty much set out what a good Western would need to catch audiences eyes for something like the next 50 years.

The odd feel comes from watching the actors -- they're a decade earlier than the best-known Western stars like John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart. Character actors from the Western's two-decade mid-century reign like Alan Hale, Sr., and Ward Bond appear, but in smaller roles and wearing much younger faces than the craggy or crusty visages they showed in their usual jobs as the "characters" who got the best laugh lines. It's like we're seeing unfamiliar faces in familiar places.

Swashbuckling ladies man Errol Flynn trades in his ship and sword for a horse and a six-gun in his first Western as Wade Hatton, an Irish-born adventurer who's found a life he likes working cattle drives in the 1860s and 1870s. The drives bring cattle up from Texas to where the eastern railroad ends -- the Kansas town of Dodge City, where they're loaded onto trains to be carried back east. As a consequence of big money, somewhat rowdy characters and people eager to prey on both, Dodge is a largely lawless community. The city fathers would like to curtail the activity that's made their town the "wide-open Babylon of the American frontier," but they don't have the force. The only strong man in town, unscrupulous cattle baron Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot), doesn't mind the lawlessness as long as he has the chance to get his cut of the profits.

They approach Hatton, but he doesn't want to get involved until the tragic consequences of the chaos hit him square between the eyes. Teaming with his deputies Rusty and Tex (longtime Flynn co-stars Hale and Guinn Williams, respectively), he sets about to tame Dodge City, while trying to win the affections of Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland), the niece of the town's doctor who is almost as put off by Hatton's stern but necessary tactics as she is by the lawless men he fights. 

Dodge City is almost like a bridge between the Western's older silent-movie reign and the celebrated, mocked, revised but always relevant format from the later half of the 20th century. We see the features we'll see many more times, but some of the costuming recalls the earlier time. Although Flynn sports nothing like along the lines of the usual Tom Mix outfit, he still wears an almost-ridiculously large hat. Most of the six-gun holsters are higher on the leg and more towards the front, rather than the lower-riding side rigs customary later. Shirts and pants come from a little more homespun cloth, but still look pretty clean and well-stitched for the 1870s. One of the earlier films using the then-new Technicolor process, it showcased the wide-open scenery for which Westerns became known.

Flynn and de Havilland work together for the fifth time in Dodge City and third time as the lead couple -- they have no problem walking the familiar trail of people who are at first interested in one another, divided by circumstance and then thrown together by new circumstances that engender the relationship that we (and the scriptwriter) knew was in their future. They don't repartee at the pace of Bogart and Bacall, Powell and Loy or Grant and Russell, but they're better than most and a lot of fun to watch. Cabot adds a little dimension to the villain role, bringing Surrett a some charisma -- another development that would continue in the new heyday of the Western.

So Dodge City is interesting not only as a bridge and as the opening of the Western's new era of dominance -- John Wayne broke through the same year with Stagecoach and Jimmy Stewart played in his first Western, Destry Rides Again -- but it's a fun movie in its own right too.

(ETA -- Not sure why this didn't publish on Thursday, so here's a "reprint")

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Keep the Java in the Cuppa

Well, not every ordinary thing can produce really neat science. Physicists at the University of California at Santa Barbara studied the motion of coffee in a cup to see why it spilled so often.

And of course it is a matter of physics because it has to do with inertia, momentum and the relationship between the rate of coffee slosh in the cup and the speed at which the person holding the cup walks. According to the studies, the coffee is most likely to slop over the cup somewhere between the seventh and tenth steps taken while holding it.

The solution? Well, it seems coffee drinkers shouldn't fill to the brim and should walk more slowly while carrying their pick-me-up beverage. I may have to read the story again to see if there's some esoteric factor I missed, but I'm pretty sure I didn't need an advanced degree in physics to figure that one out.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Listen Closely

The good people at Brain Pickings have unearthed some keys to aid listening to music, taken from a book published 30 years ago by composer Elliott Schwartz.

They're all pretty interesting and useful. In the last few years I'd done a couple of them without realizing they were in Mr. Schwartz's book and I had noticed myself appreciating different things about the music I listened to -- and not just the classical music he references, either. When you realize you can actually tell by the tone of the voice that a singer is smiling during a certain part of the song, it's not just because the singer is that good at communicating -- although she is. It's because you've learned to listen more closely instead of just having the music as background while you do something else.

Even at less involved levels of listening most folks realize this. If we want an exercise soundtrack, it doesn't matter whether we're James Taylor fans or not -- we're not picking him for that playlist. Taylor may best Billy Idol in songwriting craftsmanship and a hundred other areas (I don't personally think he does, but then I don't much care for Taylor so you shouldn't go by me). But when I am flagging in my last five minutes on the elliptical machine, "Rebel Yell" will get me across the finish line in a way that "Fire and Rain" cannot manage.

The most interesting thing to me was that Mr. Schwartz said that folks in 1982 needed the keys he discusses, because our appreciative ear and faculties had been “dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out.” If I'm any indication, thirty years on we haven't gotten much better at breaking that habit.

(ETA omitted link to the singer in the second paragraph)

Monday, May 14, 2012

If You Build It...

The folks at this website have laid out a detailed plan for building a spaceship to Mars that looks like the real U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek. Obviously, barring some unforeseen technological advances in the next 20 years or so, it wouldn't have faster-than-light warp drive engines or be crewed by alien species and humans alike. But it would travel through the space between ourselves and our next outermost neighbor.

According to the project dreamers, building such a ship would help us move past the one-shot "cross the finish line" mentality that has dominated most of humanity's manned space exploration. Other than the handful of astronauts who are onboard the International Space Station, nearly every space mission crewed by human beings has aimed at hitting a milestone, leaving a built-in letdown once the milestone is reached. Remember that the Apollo 13 astronauts broadcast from their spacecraft before their problems and the networks didn't even air it, even though it was less than two years since the first moon landing.

A ship such as envisions would be a permanent spacegoing presence with regular, repeated work, like ferrying expeditions to Mars and even perhaps to other planets as missions became necessary. The estimated cost -- $1 trillion over 20 years -- sounds like a lot of money. Or at least it used to. But in reality it is quite a bit of money, even if the $50 billion annual price tag is somewhere in the middlin' range of government expenditures. There are worse ways to spend that money, which we have done, are doing and will no doubt continue to do.

Now, is it a pipe dream? Probably. Is it seriously, seriously nerdy, maybe even to the event horizon of nerdiness beyond which nothing can be seen? I guess it is. Could NASA, an agency whose dreamers are constrained by self-aggrandizing political poseurs and whose mindset more and more matches up with the "Administration" part of its acronym rather than the "Space" part, actually mount the imagination needed to grasp at a horizon this far out? Maybe, maybe not.

But it's always nice to know someone still thinks big.

(H/T Jonathan Last)

Sputtering Series?

For centuries, the shadowy Guild has worked behind the scenes, maneuvering and scheming to gain more and more power. In recent years, the quasi-governmental Sigma force has worked to stop them under leader Painter Crowe, along with top operative Gray Pierce. But now a greater danger looms -- a strange cavern in Utah is filled with mummified remains, but before it can be explored, a disastrous explosion seals the cavern and threatens the geological stability of the entire region. What do those ancient bodies and mysterious Native American artifacts have to do with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and some of the secret history of the founding of the United States? Crowe and Pierce have to find out, and they may not have the luxury of enemies if they're going to stop a potentially world-ending threat.

James Rollins' The Devil Colony, the ninth Sigma Force novel, has all the ingredients of a "hidden history" thriller, building an elaborate mystery on a few odds and ends and quirks of the actual histories involved. It's fun enough if you dial your brain way, way down and don't ask questions like, "Why would east coast Iroquois Indians make plans with the Founding Fathers that rely on a lost city in what is now Wyoming?" Or, "Where would a people who might be one of the Lost Tribes of Israel get blondes and redheads in their number?" Or, "Why would this group write in some kind of 'proto-Hebrew' when Masoretic Hebrew can be reliably dated to a couple of centuries before they produced the artifacts Collins uses?"

Collins does a lot of telling us things instead of showing them to us, usually in the narrator's voice although now and again through some words from one character or another. He's been gradually upping the confrontation between Sigma and the Guild over the series, rather than just have a G.I. Joe vs. Cobra series of endless fights, so he may move back into narrative as it continues.
When a small girl named Coco is found wandering around Central Park with blood on her clothes, police wonder how it got there and whose blood it is. But Coco is even less able to help them than a normal second-grader, as a condition called Williams syndrome affects her memory and gives her a view of the world very different than the one most people have. New York Police Detective Kathleen Mallory, back in her old unit after a strange three-month sabbatical, may be the only one who can learn what's behind the body found in the park and the even older crime behind it.

Readers have learned over the previous eight Mallory novels that our heroine is rather odd herself. She fled Louisiana after seeing her mother murdered and lived as a street kid in New York City until an attempt to steal from an NYPD detective gave her a home, and later on as an adult, a purpose.

Although Mallory herself has little sense of humor, her machinations to get her off of psychologically-mandated rest time and back out in front of this odd case are worth a laugh or two, and O'Connell has a dry, witty way of writing some of the politics and public relations angles of police work. But that wit doesn't go far enough, as The Chalk Girl devolves into a more gruesome version of a Law and Order: SVU episode and we have to put up with a good three-quarters of the male cast being secretly in love with Mallory, one way or the other. The detective is rather abrasive and irritable, not particularly interested in other people's issues or their feelings. O'Connell says she considers her character a sociopath herself, unable to really feel empathy with others and pursuing justice for her own ends

She's a strange sort of sociopath, then, showcasing the feelings she's not supposed to have at odd times and in odd situations, whenever O'Connell seems to need her to in the story. She's seventeen moves ahead of everyone else, shown as so brilliant you might wonder why she doesn't have the crime solved before it's committed. And since O'Connell never really goes anywhere with this character trait, just repeating its existence and impact over and over again, The Chalk Girl winds up pretty easily erased from memory.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Four Strings and a Whole Lotta Funky Soul

Donald "Duck" Dunn, a bass player on the legendary Stax/Volt soul music label in the 1960s and the man who advocated a new, music-based biofuel process in The Blues Brothers, passed away Sunday morning after a pair of shows in Tokyo.

Dunn was a part of Booker T. and the MGs, who had some hits of their own and who backed up most of the Stax/Volt singers at one time or another during that label's prime years in the mid and late 1960s. In 1978, he first played behind "Joliet" Jake Blues (John Belushi) and his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) in the "Blues Brothers" sketch on Saturday Night Live (Again, for younger readers, SNL was a late-night television show that featured comedy sketches, musical routines and wide-ranging satire. It is related to today's similarly-titled show in name only). That role would be continued in the 1980 movie. Some people suggest that in 1998, a "sequel" to The Blues Brothers, called Blues Brothers 2000, was filmed, but such a saying is utter blasphemy and beneath contempt.

Following his stint with the brothers, Dunn continued to perform regularly on albums and onstage until his passing.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

No Sudden Moves...

The Sun, that big ol' friendly ball of fire that warms our planet, lights up the daytime and basically makes life possible, is apparently in a bit of a snit these days, as it has a gigantic sunspot aimed right at us.

And by gigantic, I mean "bigger than Jupiter." Not sure of what to do next, but putting down the moon and backing away slowly seems like a good way to avoid getting hurt...

Friday, May 11, 2012

Escher's World

Dutch artist M.C. Escher drew things that were visual infinite loops, like 1948's Drawing Hands, in which one disembodied hand was drawing another, which was actually drawing the first one. The 1953 piece Relativity shows stairways with perspectives that transformed them from being directed one way into being directed a different way.

In 1991, the band Chagall Guevara released the song, "Escher's World," a topsy-turvy place where "socks hop, lemons drop, butter flies," among other things.

And now, the General Accounting Office of the United States government has been directed to study a Pentagon study. Not weird, not news...except that the Pentagon study under study is itself a study to find out why the Pentagon had so many studies done and how it could reduce their number.

Were he still with is, I think that little piece of information just might cause Mr. Escher to lay down his pencils and paper and take up a career doing Thomas Kinkade knockoffs.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


No, not that the Oklahoma City Thunder's James Harden won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award, given to the most valuable player on a team who usually doesn't start a game. Watch more than five Thunder games and you'll be convinced he's earned the honor.

Harden got 115 of 119 first-place votes. That means there are four people who watch the NBA regularly who did not give Harden top billing on their ballots. And that means that the NBA has given four voting spots to people who are legally incompetent to handle their own affairs, let alone rate basketball play and players. That, you see, is inconceivable.

And yes, in this case that word does mean what I think it means.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mighty (Nasty) Ducks

Some folks in Oakland Park, Florida, are having a problem with gangs of feral ducks.

Consider, for a moment, the amazing technology at my command -- to create the computer which I use, the lines that transmit the information, the servers that store it -- and realize that it has been used to type the words "gangs of feral ducks."

Now, back to the foul fowl. These particular ducks are called "Muscovy ducks" and are, as you can see if you check this photo at Wikipedia, ugly even for ducks. They are, as of 2010, a protected species. That means they can be trapped and killed, as long as it is done humanely. Since they are not native to Florida, they can't be gathered up and dumped somewhere else. And they're apparently bad-tempered. The reason for the female's irritation may come from the fact that when Muscovy ducks mate in water, the male completely, er, ducks her under water during the process. Few females find this romantic.

No one knows why they are called "Muscovy" ducks, since they originate not in Moscow or anywhere in Russia, but in Mexico and Central and South America. When asked if they knew why they had that name, the ducks responded, "Nyet...I mean, no...I mean, 'quack!" This leads me to suspect that they are, in fact, old Soviet sleeper agents disguised by ingenious plastic surgery.

Rumors that the CIA is stepping in under the project heading "Operation L'Orange" have not been confirmed.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Growin' Up

You know, if I hadn't had to buy a truck motor and a tooth and went and got into this habit of paying my bills, I would have had enough money to go see Social Distortion tonight.

I hate maturity.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Read All About It?

I had lunch today with a friend who is still in my old racket of newspapers (same amendment that protects the line of work I'm in now, but a different clause), and like middle-aged guys will sometimes do, we lamented the loss of some things we thought were important. Among them was, surprise, the vanishing newspaper. I'm still a person who believes that in order to be an informed citizen of our fine republic, the verb to describe the method by which I consume that information must, most of the time, be "read." Maybe online, maybe not, but I do not believe those for whom that verb is "watch" are ever going to be informed.

And then later that day I read the nearby city paper. It's not been good for a long time, although some of its badnesses have changed over the years. But in it was the story of a tiny Oklahoma town that had been audited and whose city council had been found to be a wee bit lackadaisical in some of its record-keeping -- since 1977 -- and compliance with the state's open meeting law.

No TV station covered this item, nor did any national news outlet. Had it not been for a state newspaper, this little problem might have gone unremarked upon by anybody beyond the town limits. Sure, the audit will go a long way towards helping that town clean up some of the rough spots, but what about other small towns that might have similar issues? Without the newspaper story, they would have had less of a chance of knowing they had an avenue open to them if their own town governments had been involved in similar problems or worse shenanigans.

Blow-dried newsmuppets don't waste their time at city budget meetings; there are important live standup shots to do in front of the courthouse (five hours after it closes) to talk about some arrest or other, or shady contractors to chase into their offices on camera. Snarky bloggers who want to be the TMZ of the oil patch are too busy posting cheesecake photos and aggregating Tweets to investigate much more than local pseudo-celebrity gossip (And bloggers who like to play like they're Mike Royko keep posting reviews of Bollywood movies and airport novels...mea culpa).

The industry's inability to cope with change and unwillingness to see that change coming via modem and wi-fi hotspot is its own fault, of course. Whether it was arrogance or shortsightedness or something else entirely doesn't matter -- the Chicxulub meteor's already hit and the important question isn't whether to stop being a sauropod, it's how.

Newspapers may survive the internet age in a radically different form than they have now, of course. Or they may not survive them at all, and we'll get our infotainment from TelePrompTer readers who are one Turing test away from being replaced by animatronic androids who'll work for an occasional WD-40 fix.

And if that happens, who'll keep an eye on the people who need eyes kept on them?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Seating Arrangements

So, apparently dating a teacher means you are not afraid to sit next to a 2nd-grade birthday party at a restaurant. At least, when she teaches elementary students. Some events that transpired:

1) The theme, since we were at the Warren Theater, was The Avengers. The cake -- and the party participants -- were all very heroic. Although Captain America looks a little shorter in person.

2) The honoree had his arm in a sling, so his buddy opened his presents for him. When they want to be, even 7-year-old boys can be nice to one another.

3) The excitement of the event can lead one not to wait for all of one's candles to be lit before blowing them out. A good deal of parental coaching in restraint is required.

4) Even seven candles can take a long time to light. This is OK. Because, as overheard from one partygoer, "No, wax is good for you."

5) A laughing kid, with his face covered in icing because he had to lick the cake cutter, is a pretty funny thing.

Here's hoping for a bunch more good birthdays, young man.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

On Patrol and At Home

The Shadow Patrol is the fifth novel by former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson featuring semi-retired spy John Wells, the only American undercover agent to successfully penetrate Al Qaeda.

Wells is called in by his former boss, Vinny Duto, to make a trip to Afghanistan and visit the CIA offices there. Two years previously, a suicide bomber succeeded in a ruse that killed several agents and the station has never fully recovered. Duto also wants Wells to poke around the military base where the CIA works -- information has been leaking to terrorists and he needs to know who's doing it. Drug smuggling, double-dealing and rival mountain tribes will only complicate his mission.

Berenson's prose flows smoothly and lets his story unfold at a walk or a sprint as his plot requires. Wells is a canny pro who questions his own willingness to rely on violence in his job -- has he seen too much to live a normal life? Berenson also gave the spy a twist. During his undercover time, Wells actually converted to Islam and considers himself a Muslim today, which is something that makes some of his former fellow agents question his loyalties.

Patrol is a well-crafted spy novel, but Berenson has started to wear some of Well's character traits a little thin. The agent has found comfort in his religious life, but again we see him with the same doubts caused by his failure to maintain his prayer and study. The situation stays static. The plot he investigates its twisty enough, but the resolution happens sort of offscreen, leaving a feeling of incompleteness.
There's a kind of laziness that implies a summer afternoon in a hammock, dozing while a baseball game plays on the radio. And there's a kind of laziness that implies someone who misses out on the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes because they don't want to get up from the couch when the prize patrol rings the doorbell. Stay Close, Harlan Coben's 17th novel, veers a lot closer to the latter than the former.

Suburban housewife Megan Pierce has a past that she's hidden from everyone: She used to strip at a "gentleman's club." Ray Levine used to be a prize-winning photojournalist, but a scarring incident from his past has left him taking pretend paparazzi photos at Bar Mitzvahs for really rich kids. And Detective Jack Broome has been looking for a missing man for 17 years. All of them find themselves intersecting when someone says they've seen the missing man -- Megan because she fears what might become known about her former life, Ray because the man can answer so many of the questions he still has from that night and Jack because solving this case might mean closure for a lot of hurting and wondering people.

Coben's almost made a career out of putting ordinary suburbanites in extraordinarily nasty situations. Either a chance encounter, a mistaken photo order, or a past indiscretion or something else bring darkness and violence to the world of the split-level ranch. In Stay Close, he seems unwilling to try to dream up a new way for this to happen and goes for the short cut of making Megan weapons-grade stupid -- the entire mess starts because she pays a visit to her old club. Ray's shattered life is similar to the protagonist of Coben's 2006 The Innocent, and the dogged determination and wrecked personal life of Broome is another Coben staple. And in the laziest of lazy movies, a couple of psychopathic mob enforcer/assassins have the quirk of -- hope you're sitting down -- being evangelical Christians. They discuss camp worship songs while staking out their prey.

Last year's Live Wire gave a little bit of oomph to Coben's mainstay Myron Bolitar series, and he began writing some young adult books featuring Myron's nephew Mickey. He's still got an engaging, funny authorial voice and a real yarn-spinner' s gift, and it's certainly possible there's a rebound in his future.

There are a couple of neat ideas in Stay Close about how broken people find ways to live fulfilling lives, but the book almost always puts those ideas into play from the narrator, rather than the characters themselves. In other words, it doesn't show, it tells, and that's deadly to reader interest. Those are some ideas worth considering, but since Coben doesn't seem to be much interested in them, neither am I.

Friday, May 4, 2012

There Goes the Neighborhood...

Scientists using the Hubble telescope have found four white dwarf stars that they think used to have small rocky planets orbiting them. This might seem unimportant to you and me, except for two things:

1) One day in the distant future, our sun will become a white dwarf -- a very small, very dim and relatively cool star.

2) Earth is a small rocky planet.

Astronomers figure that the stars could be old and when they passed through their red-giant phase, the resulting gravitational changes affected the orbits of some of their planets. The shrinking down into a white dwarf further destabilized the planets and may have caused some of them to break apart, leaving the orbiting clouds that have been observed with the Hubble.

Sometime several billion years from now, our sun will run out of the fuel for the nuclear fusion it undergoes now and the changeover to burning other elements will cause a massive rapid expansion. Mercury and Venus will almost certainly be swallowed up in the new giant sun, and Earth might very well be also. Even if it survives, the white dwarf star that follows the red giant will not have the same gravitational pull that our sun does at its current mass, and so the planets' orbits will change. That change could stress them out so much they break apart.

I don't know about you, but I plan on buying some Martian real estate in case doctors solve the whole "finite life span" problem, so I can move if need be. I've got a pretty good deal with the same Nigerian bank that stores my multi-million dollar joint account with a late barrister in that country, so message me and I'll send you the contact info.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

"Well, Maybe," He Said

Robert B. Parker's death in 2010 left crime fiction fans seriously lost. Although his quality had deteriorated for much of the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, it had picked up a little and left his fans missing him a lot more than they might have otherwise. In April of 2011, Parker's estate and his publisher announced that two of his series, the Jesse Stone novels and the mainstay Spenser series, would continue with two new authors writing the novels.

Michael Brandman took his swing at Jesse Stone last fall, and quite frankly he stunk. Killing the Blues wasn't Jesse Stone, wasn't Robert B. Parker and wasn't even very good on its own merits. Putnam hasn't learned its lesson yet; Amazon lists a second Brandman Stone novel scheduled for release this September.

Ace Atkins, a mystery and crime writer with a pretty good track record, was tapped to continue Spenser. His Lullaby hit bookshelves Tuesday and as a Parker homage/continuation, is everything Killing the Blues wasn't. It's still not Parker, but our lead man is recognizable as Spenser, and it's a pretty good story to boot.

Young Mattie Sullivan lives in a housing project and is trying to raise her even younger twin sisters with only minimal help from her alcoholic grandmother. Four years ago, Mattie's mother was murdered and she believes the man arrested didn't do it, because she saw two other men drag her mother off in a car. But no one believed her, and she wants to hire Spenser to find her mother's killer or killers. As Spenser starts trying to revisit those events, he finds that they are part of a much bigger -- and more dangerous -- picture, and he will need to be as tough as he's ever been in order to finish out what seemed at first a simple matter.

Atkins seems to have made the wise choice to write Parker's characters rather than try to write with Parker's voice. Rather than asking, "What would Bob write here?" Lullaby reads as though he asked, "What would Spenser do here?" "What would Spenser say here?" In doing that, he captures enough of that voice to convince a reader he or she really is following along with Spenser, his ladylove Susan Silverman and his frequent partner Hawk, or at the very least Spenser's younger brother (Atkins was born in 1970; Parker in 1932. The generational difference shows through).

The match isn't perfect -- we see the characters as though they were a little blurry even though recognizable. Some of the Spenserisms -- listening to old jazz music, cooking different dishes and so on -- seem a little forced. Atkins doesn't quite have a handle on Hawk yet either, it seems. He should improve with repeated outings and even if he doesn't, this version of Spenser, Hawk and Susan is not nearly as dishwatery dull as is Brandman's of Jesse Stone and Paradise, Mass.

Atkins' Spensers probably won't be keepers on my shelves like Parker's are. I don't really think I'll ever feel a need to reread Lullaby, but then some of the Parker outings occupy their spaces for completeness' sake and aren't likely rereads either. But if Lullaby is an indicator, I won't mind picking these up and I'll probably enjoy them.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Quantum Divinity?

This post at Neatorama appeals to the would-be scientific as well as the theological geek in me as it attempts to apply quantum gravity theory to the question of how many angels can dance on a pin.

Under consideration are the size of the angels, the mass of the angels, and whether or not their dancing reduces the number of them that can possibly exist inside the named space limitations. A lot of it is verrrry complex stuff that I will need to open my copy of Physics for Those Who Can't Handle Any Math Beyond Their Checkbooks in order to understand. But I admit I laughed out loud at the assumption that "each angel carries at least one bit of information (fallen/not fallen)."

I was also struck by the fact that, in order to obey quantum mechanics, the angels need to dance at relativistic speeds -- near the speed of light. Talk about twinkletoes...

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

From the Rental Vault (2007): Superman: Doomsday

So 20 years ago Dan Jurgens killed Superman. He had help in the form of the writers of several other Superman comic books, but Jurgens was the author of Superman #75, in which the big blue boy scout died saving Metropolis from the rampaging monster Doomsday. From October 1992 to October 1993, DC Comics killed Superman, showed his funeral and what a comic-book world without him would be like, detailed the rise of four seeming claimants to his cape and the eventual return of the One and Only himself, featuring trendy 90s long hair.

That same year, DC and Warner Bros. animation started airing Batman: The Animated Series and kicked off what became the multi-character, multi-show DC Animated Universe, which lasted through 2006. Having brought that project to an end and facing the reality of some seriously underwhelming box office from Superman Returns, DC decided to aim at the direct-to-video market with animated features distinct from the earlier DCAU characters and stories. Superman: Doomsday was the first of these, released in 2007 as an adaptation of the Death of Superman storyline.

Though longtime DCAU guides Bruce Timm and Duane Capizzi co-wrote and helped direct the new movie and Warner voice director extraordinaire Andrea Romano again captained the microphone booths, there are some significant differences between Superman: Doomsday and the earlier animated universe. For one, this movie is rated PG-13, which means that characters actually die -- even if most of the carnage is just out of frame. It also means that Superman and Lois Lane are shown in a couple of afterglow moments that imply some, shall we say, un-caped action sequences.

Lexcorp CEO Lex Luthor has a scientific team drilling deep into the Earth to tap a power source that will allow him to supply Metropolis with unlimited energy (and thus make himself look good). The team finds a strange alien artifact that produces a killing monster, a super-soldier that an alien race designed but had to discard when it was unable to distinguish friend from foe. This Doomsday beast has one aim -- kill everything -- and it's headed for Metropolis. Can Superman defeat it? What will his victory cost him? What will it cost those who care for him, both as Superman and as Clark Kent? 

Superman: Doomsday takes on some of those weightier story issues and also offers a possibility of seeing what absolute power might do in the hands of someone for whom the ends are more important than the means. Main voice cast Adam Baldwin as Superman, Anne Heche as Lois and James Marsters as Luthor do a decent job, but they frequently remind just how good Tim Daly and George Newbern, Dana Delany and Clancy Brown were in those same roles in the DCAU. Baldwin and Marsters seem like Triple-A subs compared with the sendoff performances from Newbern and Brown in the finale of Justice League Unlimited, and Heche just can't match Delany's vocal swagger.

The character design is also unsatisfying -- it's very similar to the DCAU with tweaks that seem to be there just to show the differences. Luthor is slimmed down and Superman/Clark Kent has odd lines on his face meant to represent cheekbones that render him simultaneously gaunt and bulky. Lois and other female characters' chins come to a weird sharp point, and Lois is still wearing skirts that would in real life remove the need for X-ray vision to determine the color of her undergarments.

Add in the relatively brief screentime of the titular antagonist himself, and Superman: Doomsday was not a promising start to this new era of DC animated work. Fortunately, things looked up in a significant way by the time that Justice League: The New Frontier was released a few months later.