Saturday, June 30, 2012


So an intern at National Public Radio's "All Music Considered" program recently wrote online that she owns very little music in a physical format. Emily White drew a lot of heat from folks who think that musicians who make a living with their music have a right to be compensated for their work, just like pretty much everyone else everywhere.

The best response to her words came from David Lowery, who teaches in the University of Georgia music business program and who's written songs for indie darling Cracker and for Camper Van Beethoven, who would have been an indie darling if we had been using the word "indie" when we were buying their albums. Lowery is detailed, patient and thorough but the best summation of what he says is to ask the young lady and the folks like her why they have no problem enriching the corporations that make the equipment on which they listen to or collect their music, like iPods and laptops but seem to feel no obligation to support the not-nearly-as-rich musicians who create it. He says that instead of using our morality and moral sense to guide us through the technological changes of modern life, we're conforming our morality to how technology has changed.

Lowery and Jason Morehead here unpack the issues so that I don't need to rehash them, and Drew McManus talked to a couple of radio stations and their attorneys about Ms. White's use of her college radio station's library to supplement her music collection. Although I've bookmarked the essay to send to anyone who ever suggests I contribute to an NPR funding drive. But Ms. White closes with this sentence:
All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?
I really hope there's some irony lurking in there somewhere, especially in the word "require." Otherwise we have to conclude that being a senior at American University in Washington, D.C., is the same as being any three-year-old anywhere, and Ms. White's professors have only a year left to teach her that "All I want is whatever I want whenever I want it" is a path unlikely to lead to fulfillment. Otherwise the rest of life will have to offer that lesson, and it may not do so patiently.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Cradle Crash

Engineer and salesman James P. Hogan popped onto the science fiction scene in 1977 with Inherit the Stars, the story of how the discovery of an ancient space-suited human corpse on the moon upended humanity's understanding of its solar system, its own origins and its place in the universe. The four other books in his "Giants" series are favorites among hard science fiction fans that prize technical accuracy, plausible scenarios and scientific realism.

Hogan wove his understanding of physics into several more well-received novels, from the time-travel alternate history of The Proteus Operation to how a human society with unlimited resources and no past to weigh it down might start over, in Voyage from Yesteryear, to how interaction with an alien race might change both species in The Legend That Was Earth.

But over the course of his career, Hogan's anti-authoritarian views morphed into some strange opinions, ranging from the bizarre (Immanuel Velikovsky's odd version of solar system formation) to the distasteful -- he was not a complete Holocaust denier but did question many of the facts surrounding that horror.

Cradle of Saturn suffers from Hogan's desire to use it to preach some Velikovsky as well as some of his own ideas of what makes a successful society -- which are oddly not very clearly defined. Scientist Landon Keene is part of a private company outstripping governmental efforts in space, and is part of a group welcoming a delegation of Kronians -- people who have colonized some of Saturn's moons and rebuilt human society as they see fit. The Kronians want to warn Earth that a gigantic comet ejected from Jupiter's mass will not miss them as previously believed, but will come so close it will endanger not only civilization but human survival. Velikovsky suggests this is precisely how we got the planet Venus, some 3,500 years ago.

In his Giants series, Hogan unfolded his alternate understanding of how people and the world came to be through the story. As the characters tried to solve the mystery of the ancient corpse where no ancient corpse should be and as they uncovered new data, the picture gradually emerged. But in Cradle, the story is incidental to presenting all of Velikovsky's talking points. We even get a conversation between Keene and his co-worker's young son about how dinosaurs could not have existed in Earth's gravity because they were just too big -- the boy coincidentally is researching the subject and wants to show off his work to Landon.

Although the 1999 book nails the intensifying narcissistically consuming culture and connects that to disinterest in space, exploration or anything beyond the pursuit of our own whims, that's about the only thing that goes right for it. Hogan's stubborn devotion to the outre seems to block him from being able to teach and propound through his storytelling as he did quite well earlier in his career.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


Sometime between now and November, especially if President Obama begins to trail badly in the polls and things look bleak, one of the silly set like Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz, Lawrence O'Donnell, Al Sharpton or the invisible men and women of Current TV will say with a straight face that United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts upheld the president's healthcare reform act in order to galvanize support for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Depending on which of these punchlines makes the accusation, we could also see a further claim that Roberts was trying to stealth into case law a substantial curtailment of the latitude that Congress has enjoyed under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3) to regulate pretty much anything, since it's difficult to find something that doesn't affect commerce between the states -- while having the cake by making sure that flagging Tea Party organizations had something to fight against and harp about until the election, knowing that if they scored enough victories they would repeal the law anyway.

His labeling of the act's individual mandate to purchase health insurance and the financial penalty for not doing so as a "tax" will be labeled a Machiavellian connection of the President's signature achievement to the most unpopular three-letter word in the English language next to "nap" at a day care center.

If one of them does this, someone will have to tell me, as you couldn't pay me to watch the men enumerated above and I am like most of the country in having my television provider save me the bother of ignoring Current TV by doing it for me.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Clue, Not Present

So Rep. John Dingell is worried that a feature on Dish TV's DVR function will mean people won't see political commercials.

This, of course, is evidence of how dumb a long tenure in Washington can make a person. The 85-year-old Michigan Democrat has been serving in Congress since 1955 (if he wins this November and makes it to June 2013 he'll be the longest-serving person in either house of Congress in U.S. history) and can't quite get his head around the idea that skipping political commercials is the point of the "hopping" feature on the DVR. It's designed to let viewers skip every commercial in a recorded program with the touch of a button, instead of fast-forwarding through them the way they do now.

Rep. Dingle seems to be of the opinion that his and others' political commercials serve to inform the public as they make their electoral decisions. This leads me to think he's been skipping them too, even without a DVR, because I can't recall a single political commercial since I've been paying attention to elections (1976, if you're curious) that had as its goal the provision of accurate information.

Without fail, they have been designed to present slanted and partial information, in the case of attack ads: "My opponent has never denied kicking puppies! Why won't he? Does he have something to hide?" Or they're designed to present no new information but reinforce voters' warm fuzzy feelings about the person they support: "My fellow Americans, I'm an American, and I hope on election day you will exercise your right as an American to vote for an American for this uniquely American office. Especially an American who doesn't kick American puppies."

Dingell asked the chairman of Dish TV if he understood the concerns of the politicians with regard to the hopping feature. The chairman said he understood consumers quite well, but since he was not a politician, he didn't appreciate their concerns.

Now there's a guy you could vote for.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Playoff$ Ahoy!

The news that NCAA "Football Bowl Subdivision," or what used to be called Division I, will switch to a four-team playoff system starting in 2014 is good news for anyone who makes money off of college football. In other words, everyone but the athletes.

Brian Goff points out here that this move has some deep roots, and as you read some of the deciding points in the saga, you will note how many of them connect directly with money, usually paid to a college athletic department by a television network.

I personally am ecstatic at how many teachers can be hired and how much classroom equipment universities will now be able to buy because we will have a "real" national champion in college football.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Three for Three

Over his last few releases, Alan Jackson has now and then given the impression of a quality artist still producing at a high level because when he's coasting he's better than three-fourths of his competitors at their best. But other than his 2006 twin bill of Precious Memories and Like Red on a Rose, much of his work leading up to Freight Train had a definite plug-and-play feel.

But that 2010 release was easily some of his most creative work in years, and he continues his career's second wind with Thirty Miles West, further leaning down his sound and dipping it deeper into straightforward guitar twang and steel slides that have always been the soil nourishing his music.

In fact, banjos show up along with fiddles and a mountain shuffle on the album's seven-minute hinge-pin, "Dixie Highway," collaborating with Zac Brown. A lot of country music mines the small-town nostalgia vein these days, but Jackson is one of the few who makes those kinds of songs sound real instead of corny. The opening "Gonna Come Back as a Country Song" likewise pays tribute to the genre in a way that sounds more real than any half-dozen "country proud" anthems clotting the airwaves and charts.

Jackson's bread and butter has always been thoughtful mid or slow tempo songs reflecting on life, love and some of their mysteries from a distinctly adult perspective -- he's happy to goof around on "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere," but he seems to know that "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning" will be a longer-lasting legacy. Several of those numbers show up on Thirty Miles, offering listeners the chance to think a little themselves while they tap their feet or sip their iced tea.
It's a shame that the national music scene has fragmented so much; Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are a band that could have parlayed chart success in pop and rock's more unified culture days into icon status. They're a throwback in many other ways; several years of a heavy touring schedule helped sharpen their playing individually and as a unit and and allowed Potter to shape her voice into a multi-format weapon that easily handles differently-styled songs.

The Lion the Beast the Beat is the outfit's fourth studio album and shows them continuing to develop. The title track is a straight-ahead rocker that would fit comfortably with anything on Heart's Bebe le Strange, but "Loneliest Soul" plays over a demented carnival chorus and "Parachute Heart" and "Timekeeper" are artful ballads. The latter deploys Potter's much more nuanced vocals to excellent effect.

But at its core, Lion is a rock record, and "Turntable" (complete with opening vinyl crackle) and "The Divide" underscore that she and the Nocturnals are a rock band that can move in other genres, rather than a pop band playing at being rockers. Even if they never become icons, if they keep making records like this they should be able to put food on the table and hands in the air for quite some time to come.
Melody Gardot's praises have been sung and her story told early in the history of this blog, and the fact that The Absence, her third album, marries her smooth smoky jazz vocals to Mediterranean, Brazilian and African rhythms will not bring anything less.

Though the bossa nova and calypso instrumentation is different and in many cases more complex than the bass-piano-and-drums of her previous two records, Gardot's voice is still perfect for whatever song she's singing and somehow manages to both command the tune as well as dwell in it, tripping across the scales like water down a rocky hillside.

She can still sing a torch song so well that you can see the narrow ties, sheath dresses and hipster berets of a late '50s beat club, as in "My Heart Won't Have It Any Other Way," and even adds a rare belt tune with "Goodbye" (Gardot's health problems make it painful for her to sing very loudly or listen to louder music). Gardot spent the time between 2009's My One and Only Thrill and Absence traveling the world and soaking up its different songs and sounds. Here's hoping that whatever she listens to over the next few years produces something as wonderful.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


Your humble Friar would write something clever and witty (for a change, I suppose), but he is undergoing brain lock because of several wonderful hours (slight exaggeration) spent at the official website of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Rain Failure

Now, there's no reason on earth for mosquitos to exist, so anything that kills them should be considered useful. Except unless political speeches were fatal to ol' Mr. and Mrs. Anopheles, because the itch of a mosquito bite will end and speeches...well, won't.

You'd think that rain might be a good way wipe out some of the little bloodsuckers, but it turns out that's not the case. Although mosquitos are very tiny and raindrops have quite a bit of velocity built up, what with falling from the sky and all, the hoped-for happy result of rain smashing the critters into their deserved oblivion doesn't happen.

Some scientists at Georgia Tech tried to figure out why this was so. Were mosquitos that good at dodging the raindrops? Did they find ways to seek shelter before the rain got too heavy for them to fly around in it? What was the reason?

Turns out it's more a matter of simple physics. Mosquitos are indeed small, and by comparison many raindrops are large. But when a mosquito in mid-air is hit by one of the raindrops, its very smallness helps it survive. Being small, it doesn't slow the raindrop down very much, and when a moving object's momentum isn't affected very much by an impact, very little of the kinetic energy that momentum built up is transferred to whatever it hit. The 10 percent slowdown a mosquito makes for a raindrop when it's hit means the mosquito's body only absorbs 10 percent of the built-up kinetic energy of the raindrop, and that's not enough to squash them in midair.

The same principle is behind the way two eggs will break if you smash one into the other. Unless there's some weakness in the moving egg's shell, the egg that's sitting still will almost always be the one that breaks. The kinetic energy of the moving egg is transferred to the stationary one, and that breaks its shell. Those five metal balls hanging on small swings work the same way. When one is pulled back and allowed to fall into the other four, it strikes them with all its kinetic force. They four balls together have a greater mass than the one ball by itself, so the moving single ball stops. But the other four are on swings as well, so the transferred kinetic energy pushes them away. Then they swing back, and so on and so on.

And I suppose there's a benefit to skeeters surviving rain showers. The little things are so repugnant that causing their deaths with the flat of my hand is a satsifaction I'm not 100% sure I'd care to lose.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tennyson, Anyone?

I've elsewhere mentioned how I am alone in geekdom in not thinking that highly of George R.R. Martin's well-regarded "A Song of Ice and Fire" fantasy series, adapted by HBO under the title of the first book of the series, Game of Thrones.

Very little about the first book interested me, and the constant proclamations by its fans that the series was "fantasy for adults" and far more realistic in its depiction of things like incest, inhumane treatment of humans and political skulduggery did little to re-engage my interest. The ever-expanding page count of the series helped not a bit either.

Comes now one Ari Samsky, a writer and contributor to Splice Today, and points out that everything people seem to think is great about Martin was also a feature of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poetry, specifically his Idylls of the King, a retelling of the legends of King Arthur based on Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d' Arthur, done in a series of narrative poems.

Samsky compares several passages of Idylls to passages in Thrones, and with tongue firmly in cheek, pronounces Thrones superior, based on the observations of many breathtaken reviews singing its praises.

I would quibble with one point of Samsky's analysis and say there is an area in which Martin is probably superior to Tennyson. As a fellow Northwestern alum, I would suspect that Martin understands the evil of the menace to all that is decent, which lurks in Champaign, Illinois. Tennyson, to my knowledge, was neutral in the battle against Illini communism, and that is one fight on which, my friends, one cannot remain neutral and call oneself a thinking and feeling person.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Betrayal and Damage

"First novel syndrome" is a catch-all phrase that describes some of the rougher edges first-time novelists may display in their work. Even though a publisher thought the book worthy of purchase and edited the manuscript, there are still ways in which first-time novelists are finding their voices. They may also be prone to citing back-story on characters, especially in a potential series, using expository passages to flesh out the characters since readers as yet have no history with them.

J.A. Jance's Betrayal of Trust has a lot of those first-novel tendencies, but the problem is that it's her 45th novel, not her first. Trust has husband-and-wife Washington state homicide investigators J.P. Beaumont and Mel Soames dig into how the governor's grandson wound up with a video on his cell phone that may show a young woman being strangled. They have to navigate political minefields as well as the usual problems that may crop up in a police investigation. Beaumont also has to decide what he will do about connecting with his father's family, whom he does not know since his father died before his birth but who have recently contacted him.

I don't know if the Trust manuscript needed editing, a rewrite or a complete and total do-over. Beaumont and Soames get much of their info about the case on concurrent cell phone calls to their respective numbers and deal with not one but two unpleasant medical examiners in different situations for no reason that the novel makes clear. Trust is a loooooooooong string of cliches, both in terms of writing and storytelling set pieces, woven into a prissy sermon about evil rich kids that almost never chooses to show when it can tell instead.
Damage Control is John Gilstrap's fourth novel featuring hostage rescue specialist Jonathan Grave and finds the super-secret extra-legal operative masterminding the ransom drop for a church mission group kidnapped in Mexico. Things do not go as planned, so Grave, his fellow rescuer Boxers and one of the hostages are stuck in Central America, wanted by the authorities as well as the kidnappers and needing to cross a whole lot of territory to reach safety back in the U.S. And things may not be as they seem with the church sponsoring the trip, either, so Grave's associates back in the states will have to do some digging of their own.

Gilstrap, who co-wrote the story of an actual Delta Force civilian rescue in Six Minutes to Freedom, knows his way around the tactical maneuvering of a hostage rescue and writes some swift, smoothly-flowing action scenes. He also has the military-thriller writer's requisite knowledge of weaponry and its descriptions, but is willing to let Grave think a little bit about what he does and even explain some of it in conversations with the young hostage. He's a little too ready to let what should be tangent plots and minor characters hog the stage, and he does rely on ye (very very) olde standby of a venial clergyperson as a part of the plot. But he balances that with more than one brave and honest cleric who are people of integrity, and rarely meanders so far from his main path that he risks losing readers.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Firmly Founded

David Weber's "Safehold" series has had ups and downs since he began it in 2007. The initial Off Armageddon Reef was well-paced and set the stage for this story: A remnant of humanity hides away from a genocidal alien race, secluded on a secret planet and both protected and oppressed by a religious order -- The Church of God Awaiting -- that proscribes technology the aliens might detect. Some of the original colonists hid an android scheduled to awaken later and try to restore technology and free the people from the order's proscriptions.

Some subsequent books, though, have suffered both from Weber's penchant for wandering narrative and the besteller bloat that comes from a publishing house realizing it can sell bigger books for more money. No. 5, How Firm a Foundation, has some nagging reminders of that problem, but is easily the best of the series since that first volume in terms of plot movement and straight-ahead storytelling. Weber runs several narrative strands through the book -- the pacification of the conquered nation Corisande by our hero and heroine rulers, Cayleb and Sharleyn, the awakening of Church priest Paityr Wylsynn to the true history of his world and how that affects his faith, the plans android Merlin Athrawes must make to deal with technological safeguards the Church originators may have left behind and the tragic journey some prisoners of the war make to their ultimate fate at the main Church temple. He juggles them all well and mostly resists his frequent habit of bogging them down in conversations among characters about what's going on.

Weber uses these different stories as a small spark for thinking about some larger concepts, such as how a person might maintain faith when the things on which that faith rests are proven false or how some people may maintain some of their dignity and strength in extreme situations. He holds a local pastor's license in the United Methodist Church (which makes me wonder when the Safeholdian analog of a Wesleyan Revival is going to show up and makes me ask why the series' hymn-related titles have yet to draw from that hymn-writing machine Chuck Wesley). How Firm a Foundation is not a novel of ideas, but it does a pretty good job in raising some for a work that's firmly rooted in its genre fiction status.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Paint Job

Here's a post from JenX about an intriguing phenomenon of painting old cars with a profusion of corporate logos, slogans and advertising (No, it's not NASCAR). They are apparently called "donk" cars, and the story of how they came to be popular is kind of interesting.

Although I might like to reboot history and claim that my high school ride -- a 1968 Impala -- was an early version of a donk car, I am pretty sure that its colorful exterior was the result of different supplies of primer, paint and at least one fender from another automobile entirely, so I don't think it counts.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mission: Implausible

This post from former corporate CEO John Bell says something true and important about "mission statements," those ubiquitous airy sentences seen on so many letterheads, logos and brochures: Most of them stink.

Bell doesn't argue against the idea of a mission statement, which is in reality what a company, group or department wants to do. As he notes, ExxonMobil's paragraph-long nonsentence would have been better replaced by this: "Our mission is to make a lot of money." Accurate, simple and straightforward. It leaves the strategizing on how to make this money up to the people who work for the company and are supposed to know how to go about it.

Company lawyers say which ways of making money are illegal (Hint: Counterfeiting, developing a petroleum-eating microorganism that will devour the competition's product leaving ExxonMobil with the only source of oil supply in the WORLD, mwah-hah-hah, etc). Company scientists say which ways of making money are impossible (Such as turning dog feces into petrochemical products without the benefit of hundreds of millions of years of pressure and chemical reactions). Company marketers say how to get people to give the company money for the product (Suggested slogan: We're not BP and that ship thing happened a long time ago. Plus, we don't own it anymore anyway).

But Bell says more mission statements are like ExxonMobil's than not, and they leave company employees as well as customers unclear about what the company wants to do. They don't tell employees just what their job does to help the mission or the customer what they may be getting for their money.

At the college where I used to work, we had a spate of mission statementing, strategic planning and tactical objectivizing (I think someone didn't get to play Army enough when he was a kid, and I think that someone was in charge of the school). Our department supervisor loved that sort of stuff, so I believe we spent just shy of six years worth of staff meetings coming up with our mission statement, strategic plan, tactical objectives and whatnot for a department of five people, including the 88-year-old minister's widow who was the chapel secretary. Six people if you count the ten-hour-a-week administrative intern. Of course I'm kidding, we didn't spend six years on it. Just two months.

These sorts of things ought to be simple: This is what we want to do. This his how we want to do it. This is how we'll know if we've done it. But simple doesn't equal "hefty consulting fee," so we get the purple prose of the usual blah-blah-blah that in the end winds up sounding only blah.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Assassin's Games

Best known for his noirish crime thrilers, Robert Ferrigno switched gears in 2006 with his "Assassin" trilogy, a dystopian future thriller set in a United States divided between a northern and western section called the Islamic Republic and a southern section called the Bible Belt. Political unrest and economic crises following nuclear detonations in Washington, D.C. and Mecca split the country in the second decade of the 21st century, with civil wars being fought between the two nations and several skirmishes on a regular basis.

Rakkim Epps is a moderate Muslim employed as a Fedayeen, or elite "shadow warrior" working for the Seattle-based headquarters of the Republic. In the two novels prior to Heart, he has come to realize that the destabilization and conflict came not from terrorist organizations, but from a man called the Old One, a wealthy puppeteer who believes himself to be the Mahdi that will inaugurate a worldwide caliphate. The Old One has continued to manipulate world events to reach his goal, but Rakkim and several people in both the Republic and the Bible Belt are working to stop him.

As in the first two books of the series, Ferrigno does an excellent job setting up the society of a moderate majority Islamic nation set in the former U.S. There are radio call-in shows asking questions about sharia law, descriptions of the different accommodations religious and cultural groups make to the majority religion, allusions to the history of the two nations and so on. But in wrapping up his trilogy, Ferrigno seems as though he has a little bit more story than he has book to put it in, with a number of features much more rushed than they were in the former volumes. It's still a great end of the trilogy and an interesting exploration of whether what makes the United States the United States is greater than what might divide it.
At the end of her 2010 novel Hangman, Los Angeles police lieutenant Peter Decker and his wife Rina  Lazarus Decker became the unofficial foster parents of Gabe Whitman, the teenaged son of two young people Decker had dealt with during their own teenage years. Gabe's father is a mob hitman and his mother has left the country to be with a new husband, fearing for her life.   Decker and his team begin to examine the suicide of a student at a posh private school, seeing little evidence at first that it is anything other than what it's been ruled -- a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But another such death at the same school is more than a coincidence, and the pieces of the puzzle start to add up the wrong way, uncovering some disturbed and disturbing young lives. The expanding investigation may pull Gabe into its midst, perhaps also threatening his relationship with a young woman that has to be secret because of her family's closed culture and religion. Persian Jews, they would not approve of their daughter's involvement with a secular young man like Gabe.

The mystery is intriguing and the characterizations match Kellerman's usual skillful output. Gabe seems rather adult for his years, but he's had that kind of upbringing. He also seems a little "too good to be true" as a boyfriend for his young sweetheart, demonstrating a level of sensitivity that's matched by few adult men, let alone teenage boys. Kellerman's descriptions of their trysts are really too graphic considering the ages of the participants and drops the otherwise entertaining Gun Games well to the bottom of the Decker-Lazarus series.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Little Scope That Could

Usually when we read about fascinating astronomical discoveries, they are made by very large telescopes. Sometimes it's a single large lens, like the Mount Palomar observatory, and sometimes it's by an array of several telescopes that "see" in radio waves or other portions of the spectrum than visible light.

But the discovery of two planets, a weird one in the constellation Andromeda and a fairly normal one in Auriga, was made by the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT) North, which is of course in southern Arizona.

KELT North and KELT South were specifically designed to view wide portions of the sky and their smaller lenses mean they can look at very bright stars and see details that larger telescopes lose in the brightness. Any variation in the brightness may mean that astronomers are viewing a star with a planet orbiting it.

The Andromeda planet may have been a failed star -- it's so close to its star that it's year is only thirty hours long and it weathers thousands of times the stellar radiation we're used to. The heat, radiation and other conditions mean it is more or less a ball of metallic hydrogen -- that's the lightest gas known, acting as dense as a metal.

Scientists noted that as expected at such a short distance, the planet is "tidally locked" with its star. Like the moon, its periods of rotation and revolution match up so that only one side faces the star. But because the planet is itself so large, it exerts its gravity on the star and has tidally locked the star to itself.

So bravo to the little telescope that could, for finding what may be the galaxy's most intense staring contest.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Dairy Intolerance Building...

Although I certainly loves me some '80s nostalgia, I have to admit I largely agree with the author of this article at I'm a little bored with yet another revisitation of the cheese-heavy kerr-rapp end of the musical spectrum.

The author points out some of his preferred releases from a particular year of the 1980s, but you could pick several others and find yourself digging into some pretty brilliant and distinctively different-sounding tunes. The idea that the most important artists of the decade spent more on mousse than on music lessons does not reflect the reality of the years I remember.

I freely confess I often enjoy listening to some of the cheese the article writer slags. I even have an iPod playlist labeled "Cheesy Tunes." But looking at that stuff as a window on a particular time? Nope. Not happening.

Now, I imagine folks from every decade of the rock era can get a little tweaked by how people latch on to some of the sillier or more superficial aspects of the popular culture. My folks did their 20s during the 1950s, and my dad cannot understand why an oldies station would play Bill Haley or Pat Boone instead of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis or Fats Domino. That, of course, was back when oldies stations played music from the 1950s, which they don't anymore.

I'm sure that people who were youthful during the 1960s wonder at the attention paid to the Monkees, and so forth and so on. I've no real answer as to why the cheesiest and shallowest parts of a pop-culture era's output draw so much of the attention, unless that the cheese and shallownes transcend the calendar, and the easiest way to give a cheesy and shallow production some new twist is by appropriating older cheese.

Of course, old cheese sometimes smells, so you might run into some problems.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Moon Lake

When I read a story like this one, I don't know if it's weirder that scientists are surprised there's a lake in the tropical latitudes of Titan, Saturn's moon, or that they can find lakes on Saturn's moons, or that we're talking about the tropical latitudes of a moon.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Far Out, Man

OK, so if you want some wild images of "out there," check out's feature of astronaut Don Pettit's photography from the International Space Station, shown here.

The real trip-out pic is the sixth one, which looks pretty much exactly like I'd expect a wormhole to look if I was on board a starship, headed for the skies. Think I'll look at that for awhile and dream.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

One Man, Loudly

With the hustle and bustle of the recent move, I neglected to note the anniversary of the protests and brutal crackdown at Tiananman Square in 1989 in China. The above photo is a wide-angle version of the iconic image of one man facing down a column of tanks and shows how many tanks he stopped.

We apparently do not know who this man was or what actually happened to him, although it is likely Chinese authorities killed him (and probably the tank commander who refused to run him down). But I guess we do know what defined him, for a few minutes on a June afternoon 23 years ago: Courage.

You can see some photos and a video of some of the confrontation here.

Monday, June 11, 2012

You're Not Smarter Than This Fifth Grader

That's because 10-year-old Linus Hovmöller Zou is listed as a co-author of a scientific paper in an established journal, along with his father, Stockholm University structural chemist Sven Hovmöller.

Father and son puzzled out the structure of certain kinds of crystals called approximants. These, of course, are related to quasicrystals, and if you are like me you are still completely in the dark as to just what this pint-sized Hawking and his dad have done. Briefly, crystals are molecules that interlock in regular, repeating often latticelike structures. Quasicrystals don't have the same precision regularity and so are a deeply weird part of the universe. The guy who confirmed their existence earned the 2011 Nobel Prize in chemistry. And he was a dinner guest at the Hovmöller household after winning it, so young Linus comes by his curiosity honestly.

No word on whether or not he gets extra credit for this in his own science class.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

That's Not Cool

So according to University of Rochester psychologist Ilan Dar-Nimrod, being cool isn't cool anymore. Or maybe it is. It's kind of hard to say.

The original meaning of the word referred to an aspect of personality that encompassed detachment and an attitude of rebellion against society's norms. People who admired these cool folks wanted to emulate them so eventually the word came to mean something that a person admired and wanted to be like.

But because of that widespread use, "cool" has mostly lost its meaning, Dar-Nimrod suggests. It's become a word that can mean anything, so it really means not much of anything.

I can, however, cite two facts about "cool" that remain incontrovertible: 1) I'm not cool and 2) Me getting through this piece without once noting that a man who made a study of cool is named "Nimrod" has been one of the more difficult tasks of my blogging life.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1943): The Ox-Bow Incident

Sometimes Westerns are knocked for their simplistic view of the world, in which good guys are all good, bad guys are all bad and the whole mess gets wrapped up with a satisfying comeuppance for said bad guy towards the end of the third reel.

Of course, sometimes it's great to watch a story like that, given how many bad guys look like good guys in the real world and how infrequently they get the aforementioned comeuppance. Like Mike Royko, sometimes I just want to watch the bad guys lose, realistic or not.

And many a Western has offered a far more complex view of the world, sometimes using the genre's own mythos as the backdrop for some deep and interesting questions about human beings and their nature. Star Henry Fonda and director William Wellman both traded off work on other 20th Century Fox movies so they could create such a release with 1943's The Ox-Bow Incident, an adaptation of the 1940 Walter Van Tilberg Clark novel of the same name.

Fonda is cowboy Gil Carter, who along with friend Art Croft finds himself wrapped up in a posse seeking the murderers of a local rancher. The posse is less of an instrument of law enforcement and more a weapon of vengeance, led by former Confederate Army Major Tetley and a brutal sheriff's deputy, and Gil and Art join it as much to keep suspicion off themselves as to find the killer.

When the group trails three men herding cattle to their campsite, they believe them to be the ones who murdered the rancher and they plan to lynch them on the spot. Despite the urging of town civic leader Arthur Davies to let the men be tried in a court of law, the mob insists on the vengeance it thinks right. Dana Andrews stars as Donald Martin, one of the three accused men, and Anthony Quinn is another.

Fonda is very different from his usual calm and assured screen persona. Touchy, irritable and cynically bitter, Gil wants little to do with the mob vengeance but will not speak out too loudly lest they decide he had a role in the killing. Andrews' haunted face carries the emotional weight of the movie as he tried to convince the posse of his innocence or at least understand their unfathomable urge for immediate "justice." A throwaway scene between Gil and former love Rose Mapen (Mary Beth Hughes) is just that; it hasn't any real purpose or reason for being in the movie.

Ox-Bow, although nominated for an Academy Award, did poorly at the box-office. The middle of World War II may not have been the best time to try to sell a movie that raised questions about hurried judgments and the propriety of terminal justice. Its stature has improved with time and its caution against mob rule is as timeless as the unfortunate need to offer it.

Friday, June 8, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1959): Good Day for a Hanging

With the exception of Double Indemnity, The Apartment and The Caine Mutiny, Fred MacMurray pretty much always played the same low-key, high-integrity fellow, a man of gravity and often a moral leader for his community. In the 1959 Western Good Day for a Hanging, he's Ben Cutler, a former lawman who now owns the stagecoach. Cutler is a widower with an adult daughter Laurie, played by Joan Blackman, and will be marrying Ruth Granger (Margaret Hayes), a widow with a son of her own, in a few days.

But Ben's two latest passengers are a part of a gang that robs a bank. Gang members shoot the marshal when they're pursued by a posse and so Ben is asked to take on the badge again. This will become a problem because the one fleeing robber the posse managed to catch is Eddie Campbell (Robert Vaughn), who grew up with Laurie and who will be tried for the murder of the marshal.

Ben will have to face the difficulty of testifying against his daughter's childhood sweetheart, and later the town's disapproval of his determination to follow the law, even when the results may be distasteful. He himself grows increasingly disgusted with the spectacle folks will make over the death of a human being, even if that death comes from the due process of law.

MacMurray, as mentioned above, is more or less playing himself. Throw in Uncle Charley and you could have Steven Douglas just as easily as Ben Cutler. He's the bulwark for the less brave townsfolk, taking on the marshal role none of them wants and insisting on following the law when they want to demur. Vaughn is the other major player of the story, as his Eddie Campbell tries to manipulate people to escape his sentence. Although he would later be known better as a suave and sophisticated type, here he plays a thug with just enough good left in him to make his guilt not entirely clear. Laurie's kind-heartedness leaves her vulnerable to the doubts he creates and Vaughn shows Eddie playing with those doubts quiet skillfully.

Good Day for a Hanging examines some questions about the cost of taking a human life, whether legally or illegally. And it offers a couple of thoughts on what might happen when people have to take a look at the ultimate consequences of their decisions, both among those who choose to bear those consequences and those who don't. It's not truly top-flight -- there's a sequence with Edmon Ryan as Eddie's attorney that doesn't really go anywhere after being introduced, for example -- but it's a good example of a competent story, made with some thought and sketched out by a talented cast and crew.

Far better than you'd expect from the guy who directed Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, anyway.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Same Song, Thankfully

Once again, I have to say that church members who help you move are pretty darn cool.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Again, and forever...thanks, gentlemen.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Rational Steps

At my alma mater, the folks who are usually called geeks or nerds in other environments were also called "weens." The word had expanded beyond describing just the science-loving pocket protector crowd, so that to study heavily was to "ween out." But it still carried the impression of social awkwardness and seeing the world primarily as a field for analysis rather than experience.

So the instructor of a special non-credit course that teaches engineering students how to do the Lindy Hop might seem to be a bit out of whack. But the instructor says that even though the students may at first try to ween out and analyze the technical aspects of the Lindy, most eventually make the switch from pure analysis to practice, bringing a sometimes unfamiliar set of skills into play that might help them in their primary fields.

He points out that swing dancing is collaborative (you have a partner) and so success requires cooperation. Switching partners broadens the experience of different styles and opens up new cooperation. Dancers improvise on the basic Lindy form, offering some experience in approaching objects of study in different and possibly unexpected ways.

The college where I used to work produces a lot of top dancers in the country, and conversations with them showed many had some knowledge of the physics of their art at the most basic level. Their legs were load-bearing structures and had to be braced properly, as did arms when they lifted a partner. Joint flexibility was not endless and could only be improved by pre-stretching. Weight changes in the body could affect the center of gravity and throw off rhythm. Certain curves and positions of the arms and legs were aesthetically pleasing as well as load-bearing and others were not, and the angle of view of an audience could make the difference.

Plus, the idea of dancers learning physics or engineers learning dance strikes me as much more closely related to actual education than a course about how Genghis Khan's cruelty to those he conquered reflects his patriarchal tendency.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Legend -- Wait For It -- Ary?

There are times when reading a Terry Brooks novel that you wish his publisher would tell him not to submit the manuscript for five years, just to see what might develop if he took the time to actually tell his story instead of just dumping loads of exposition on the reader through his narrative voice. That tendency -- along with his penchant for screwball made-up names -- is one of Brooks' most annoying authorly habits and it's on full display in Bearers of the Black Staff, the first half of his "Legends of Shannara" tale released in 2010.

Staff is set 500 years after the events of the "Genesis of Shannara" trilogy that saw a small group of Elves, Humans and others safe in a magically-protected valley while the world around them was destroyed in a combined nuclear holocaust, ecological catastrophe and magical firestorm. Over that time, those people have coexisted, albeit uneasily, safe from the ravages of the outside world and the monsters that live there. But now the magic barrier has fallen, and Sider Ament, the last bearer of the Black Staff formerly wielded by the Knights of the Word, has to convince the leaders of the different communities that their homes are in danger. Panterra Qu and Prue Liss, two young human Trackers, and the Elf Princess Phryne Amarantyne will help him. But Skeal Eile, a Sepharic of the Children of the Hawk religion, thinks the idea of the barrier falling without a return of the magical man Hawk who created it, is blasphemy -- and he may not rely on spiritual means in order to fight back. Palace intrigue among the Elves will play its role, and meanwhile a Troll army masses outside the valley, waiting to attack (If you're wondering where the "Shannara" is, they don't actually show up for awhile in Brooks' history of the world. Ask the Del Rey marketing department why the name is used about a story centuries prior to that family name emerging).

As you'd expect, Brooks' heroes are heroic and his villains villainous, and it will take courage, daring and a willingness to fight until the last in order for the good guy to prevail. But he's been writing the same story for thirty years now, so he ought to be able to get it right. Sider's magical knowledge gives him some insight into events, but he keeps his own counsel and only tells others what he believes they need to know. Panterra, Prue and Phryne are plucky young folks whose impetuous natures will get them into trouble that their own bravery and daring can barely handle. Skeal and his allies scheme and plot, emerging from behind the scenes only when ready to strike. Anyone expecting something different from a Terry Brooks novel hasn't been paying attention. Digging at it too closely, say by asking why the refugees from the "Genesis of Shannara" trilogy needed to be hidden by magic if people and some others managed to survive the Great War without magical help, is not recommended.

But Staff, more than much of his work since completing the original Shannara trilogy in 1985, is hampered by lazy shortcuts like the all-too-frequent telling instead of showing choice Brooks makes time and time again. It also limps back to one of the grayest of graybeard hack clichés, the evil, narrow-minded religious leader (played in this novel by Skeal Eile). That part's sort of an irony, given how much preaching Brooks does about how people still haven't learned their lesson about caring for the environment and a number of his other favorite issues.

And the laziness is frustrating, because Brooks has improved his narrative skills immensely since The Sword of Shannara came out in 1977. That original novel was a top adventure story told as a clunky mess, like a great piece of apple pie that's fallen apart on your plate but still tastes delicious. The opening pages of Staff, which describe Sider's solitary patrol around the edges of the magic barrier, are some of Brooks' best work. They sketch a scene completely and deftly, draw vivid word pictures and set a tone of lonely watchfulness. But then the rest of the book happens, and it's like watching a favorite actor play a scene with someone you can't stand. You don't want to miss your favorite, but you just about kick a hole in the TV when the other one shows up.

My suggestion of a five-year or even longer gap between books might not help. Brooks may not be capable of that much development or of imposing enough discipline on himself to show instead of tell and spend some time letting readers explore his characters instead of listening to the narrator tell us about them. And I doubt any modern publisher who has a cash machine like Brooks and the Shannara series in hand would accept stepping on the brake.

But I'd sure like to read the book that might happen if they did.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


At Big Think, Daniel Honan writes about how today's top tennis players may be "intuitive physicists."

That doesn't mean that they spend their time wondering about the spin of a charmed quark. Sometimes we get caught up in the wild and wacky world of the subatomic and we may forget that basic physics is about how objects move through space and how they respond to the forces that act on them. Tennis balls, of course, fit into the category of "objects" and tennis racquets wielded by skilled professionals fit into the category of "forces that act on them."

Honan also doesn't believe that the top players do all that much thinking about angular momentum or the coefficient of friction derived from the different playing surfaces. They don't have time, for one. Tennis players are roughly 80 feet apart and the serve may be coming at them at 125 miles an hour. They have less than a second to react and they are unlikely to spend that second formulating equations.

So, he says, they have an intuitive grasp of the physics of how the ball will behave when it comes off an opponent's racquet or off the ground. The top three players he mentions -- Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokevic -- have had success on the many different surfaces of tennis courts, which all react differently and require differences in playing styles. This varied success stems from their ability to change their style of play to match the surface.

John McEnroe, of course, generally had only one reaction when the ball bounced up from the surface.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Dog Tricks

Scientists aren't exactly sure why the species of human being we call "Neandertals" died out some 35,000 years ago. For about 10,000 years before that, they coexisted with what anthropologists call "modern humans," or the species of humanity that is genetically indistinguishable from the people walking around today. But modern humans thrived and Neandertals died out, with no clear explanation as to why.

Anthropologists have thought that more sophisticated tool use and what they call "greater social cohesion" helped our ancestors to spread, population-wise, and eventually replace the Neandertals. In other words, "does not work and play well with others" can sometimes damage a lot more than your first-grade report card.

Some newer studies are putting together a picture that includes another factor: Fido. Now of course, anyone who's ever watched Lassie knows that having a dog who can tell tribal elders that one of the young has fallen into a well is a survival trait and will be selected for during the evolutionary process. The genes of species members who do not have such a dog will, unfortunately, die out in that well. A close study of Rin Tin Tin supports this belief, although evidence from Scooby-Doo would suggest that association with some dogs actually puts human beings -- specifically "meddling kids" -- at risk during their prime breeding years and thus endangers species survival.

But real science has looked at archaeological and anthropological evidence and found that sites with lots of fossils of our ancestors also tended to have more canine fossils around. Although the prevailing idea was that humans domesticated dogs sometime around 17,000 years ago, scientists analyzed the different fossil sites and now think that figure may be too late. The earliest finds offer a strong possibility that the human-canine partnership may have begun during the overlap period with Neandertals.

True dogs, as distinguished from wolves, may show up later in human history, but the earlier fossils show a number of doggish characteristics and have been called "incipient dogs." I would lose my Dave Barry fan club card if I did not point out that "Incipient Dogs" would make a good name for a rock band, or in singular, a good name for a Pink Floyd album.

The article at the American Scientist suggests that human beings were able to connect with dogs for many reasons, one of which was that modern humans have a white sclera around the iris of the eye and that helps improve nonverbal communication. Dogs can tell what people are looking at and can tell when people are looking at them. Smaller lid fissures and darker sclera in many primates today may suggest that Neandertals and other human species might have lacked this important communicating tool. It also underscores the tactical failure the British made at Bunker Hill by not using orangutans.

So to sum up, it could be very likely that we human beings exist today in the forms we have because dogs helped us overcome our competition. There is as yet no evidence that Neandertals tried to rely on cats for the same help but died out because the cats were taking a nap.