Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Particular Matters

Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist at the City University of New York who hosts television and radio programs explaining scientific matters, muses a little at BigThink on what comes after the recent discovery of the Higgs boson.

Dr. Kaku points out that the Higgs confirmation helps explain about four percent of what we see in the universe. But "dark matter" and "dark energy," two substances/forces/whatsits that are theorized to explain some inconsistencies between what we see when we look at the universe and what we're supposed to see according to what we know about it, make up a much vaster portion of that universe. And now it's time to go after them.

Some of the possibilities are grouped under a heading called "string theory," which is complicated beyond belief and involves thinking of a universe that has not three dimensions or even four if you count time, but of as many as eleven dimensions. Different string theories suppose different structures for this fundamental building block of what is, and for all I can understand about them they assign the number of dimensions to it that equals the number of Ibuprofen you have to take after having it explained to you.

The Large Hadron Collider, in between the times when it's building the black hole that will swallow the planet, could create some Dark Matter, which would be invisible but could be deduced by its effects on regular matter. It would offer some confirmation of string theory as well as the idea that the four major forces in the universe -- gravity, strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force and electromagnetism -- were once one "superforce" in whatever state of existence the universe may have had prior to the Big Bang. This superforce seems unrelated to the syndicated 1990s television show Super Force about an astronaut who becomes a police detective to solve his dead brother's murder and who fights crime wearing a prototype suit of space armor while riding a weaponized super motorcycle.

Dr. Kaku says the LHC expermients could provide proof of Dark Matter if it finds something he calls a super-particle or "sparticle."

The problem of course, is that every time an experiment begins to seek out evidence of the sparticle, all of the other particles start chiming in "I'm Sparticle! I'm Sparticle!" and the real sparticle can't be determined.

The search may be a long one.

The Bigger the Stage, the Bigger the Fail

Four years to prepare. The eyes of the world fastened upon every move.

So naturally every piece of equipment triple and quadruple checked, every official freshly familiarized with all rules and procedures so that any disputes can be handled quickly and efficiently.

Maybe on some other planet.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Made For Each Other

Remember how Twitter was supposed to be some kind of new voice of the people, allowing anyone who could get online a platform for his or her voice and a connection to others with similar interests or in similar situations? Government censors and corporate muzzles couldn't silence the masses anymore!

Maybe not.

On the up side, the International Olympic Committee has not one but two new partners in its headlong clumsy, cowardly thin-skinned flight from integrity: NBC, who probably leaned on Twitter about Guy Adams' coverage-bashing Tweets, and Twitter itself.

Tweets have 140 characters. The company, apparently, has none.

Take Another Hit Off the Bottle?

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg seems consumed a good deal more by his city's potables than its potholes.

The Mayor's most recent wagging finger has been directed at new NYC moms who would rather use formula than breast-feed. In order to try to steer them towards his preferred feeding plan, the Mayor wants hospitals to lock up the formula and dispense it only upon request -- and then only after a mandatory hectoring session arguing why the mothers are wrong. 

Rumors that the Mayor wants the same kind of size limitation on the container packaging that he wants for soft-drink packaging in restaurants and that he is seeking code enforcement volunteers to enforce those limits are, as yet, unfounded.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Now That's Just Darn Rude...

I know that rules are rules and we have to follow them and all, and no one is above the law, and this guy sounds like he was about six kinds of stupid, but really? Charging a man with feeding an alligator after that gator took off his hand? Yes, the charges seem to refer to actions before the gator chomped him, but still -- what kind of fine are you going to levy on him worse than what has already happened?

Someone call Theodoric of York, Medieval Judge.

(H/T Threedonia)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Five Feet High and Risin'

The church camp I attended last week was at a manmade lake built in the 1940s, and some of the people in the church I serve grew up in towns flooded when the dam went in. So I was naturally interested in this site's pictures of "8 Amazing Drowned Buildings," and the pictures thereof.

Friday, July 27, 2012

IOC Can You See?

Out at the Olympic Games: Any official recognition of the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Games in Munich.

In: Erecting a screen between the Israeli and Lebanese judo teams after the Lebanese team complained about having to train next to the Israeli athletes.

The International Olympic Committee: Not giving a damn about integrity since 1936.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Judging That Cover

A blogger who reads a lot asked her six-year-old to say what she thought some different novels were about, judging them based on the bookcovers. Her answers are hilarious, and in the case of the final sentence of her "review" of The Color Purple, more accurate than anything any major reviewer wrote about the book.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Bitter Truth

A saying at Founder's Fund, a venture capital firm headed by technology entrepreneur Peter Thiel:

"We wanted flying cars, and instead we got 140 characters."

(H/T Dustbury)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Somebody Shook Them All Night Long

When hackers and nerds run your warfare, sometimes you get some fun wins. A cyber-attack on Iran's nuclear plant computers reportedly made them play "Thunderstruck" at random midnight hours.

Manuel Noriega might have told them something like that could happen.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Ride, Sally

Now nobody can slow her Mustang down...

Oops!

Seen pulling out of the McDonald's parking lot today...a Highway Patrol trooper talking on his cell phone.

Not the best example, sir.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Debt Ceiling

My folks always warned me that I should never lend money unless I was ready for it not to be paid back -- which might have been some good advice for the folks of Mittenwalde, in Germany. The town of 8,800 lent the city of Berlin some guilders back in 1562, and they'd sort of like their money back. The loan was at a 6% annual rate, and has been figured with compound interest and such to be an amount somewhere in the trillions of euros.

The town fathers of Mittenwalde apparently request repayment every 50 years or so, and have to date been rebuffed. I suspect the real reason is that the European Union is actually asking Berlin not to pay, since trillions of euros these days is about equal to whatever change the mayor of Berlin has in his pocket.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Danger, Phantoms and Cats

David Drake gave modern military science fiction a kickstart in 1979 with his series of short stories about a 30th century mercenary unit called "Hammer's Slammers." The collected edition of those stories by that name was his first published book and he's more or less never looked back. In 1998, he turned his military experience to space opera with With the Lightnings, the first of what are now nine novels pairing spaceship captain Daniel Leary with intelligence officer Adele Mundy. The pair have saved the Republic of Cinnabar star nation from defeat or destruction several times over.

In The Road of Danger, Leary's ship is sent to a backwater world called Sunbright to find out if a popular revolutionary leader is a citizen of Cinnabar and either way, to stop him before his revolt brings a resumption of the galactic war that backdropped the first books of the series. The plan has Leary sneak into Sunbright as a crewman on a smuggler while Mundy masquerades as a noblewoman who's willing to hire her ship out to the forces trying to put down the revolt. Bravery, derring-do and cunning will have to be deployed if Leary and Mundy are to win the day.

Drake has said he's writing a space-opera knockoff of Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin books, and he's done well with most of them. Road relies a little too much on some already-established knowledge that seems to pad the story -- by the fourth or fifth time we read Mundy talk about her discomfort with people or the fact that her servant/bodyguard is a paranoid sociopath we may be saying, "I heard you the first time, Dave." That drops Road's rank into the bottom half of the series, but it's still serviceable space opera that'll get you into orbit in one piece.
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Ted Bell's Alex Hawke, a kind of Gen-X James Bond only with a title and an immense fortune, has thwarted more than a few megalomaniacs who wanted to take over the world, or at least cause a lot of misery to some parts of it. In Phantom, he faces off against an enemy quite different, one who seems to be able to affect electronic systems across great distances and influence people's behavior remotely. Hawke also has to contend with members of the Russian Tsarist Society, who have sworn vengeance on him after he defeated their leader a couple of books ago. How will he combat the global threat while keeping watch over his son (and his own neck?)

Phantom is a rare misstep for Bell. Although it has plenty of wit and some sterling action sequences, it reflects the author's enthusiasm for the theory of the Singularity, a threshold of computational activity which will far outstrip human intelligence and could endanger all life on the planet. Bell's concern with preaching this idea leads him to some unaccustomed exposition-heavy conversations that bog down his story. Which itself has more than a few holes, as the superintelligent computer connected to the deadly incidents worldwide seems capable of just about anything it wants -- except when the story needs for it not to be. The struggle against the Tsarists doesn't weave into other story elements and the two narratives seem more like separate novellas shoehorned into one cover.
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Martha Grimes has kept Detective Superintendent Richard Jury on the job since 1984, using his observational skills and quick thinking to solve murders and other crimes, as well as keeping innocent people form being convicted. In The Black Cat, Jury is summoned to the case of a young woman shot to death outside a pub -- but wearing the kind of clothes few people in the village or the area could afford and at first entirely unknown to anyone nearby. Jury can find only the smallest of sketchy clues, but when another young woman in expensive clothing is found murdered, the pressure to solve the crimes mounts as police worry they may be facing a serial killer.

Though not herself English, Grimes has a great ear and eye for the small English villages and pubs through which The Black Cat moves. A part of the mystery sub-genre called "cozies," she downplays sex and violence and focuses instead on Jury's detective work and reflection. She also relies heavily on the character cast she's developed over the years, such as Jury's friend Melrose Plant.

The Black Cat is a fine diversion and interesting exploration of some perfectly ordinary people moving through a life that sometimes contains violent crimes. Grimes has dry and ready wit, making this a fun read. Her diversion into the story told from the point of view of some stray dogs and cats is an odd insert but can be easily skipped if desired.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Double Vision

OK, one last little quirk about the hotel I stayed at earlier this week, which was actually a very nice place with reasonable rates.

But upon the wall over the bed was a nice generic print painting of an old barn, partially covered by moss and overgrown brush and trees. And upon the wall next to the bed was the exact same painting.

I think maybe someone with housekeeping had a little sense of humor and did some switching around.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1959): The Gunfight at Dodge City

In some ways, the most interesting thing about The Gunfight at Dodge City is how it does manage to almost work when there are a lot of reasons that it shouldn't.

Most of those reasons center on the script, which takes its story in some quirky little directions and skips around enough to make it not so easily followed. It also splits its villain in two, starting with one and then leaving him alone for awhile until remembering he's around, and then introducing another one almost halfway through the movie who's not exactly the most colorful character to ever don a black hat. But Gunfight works because the actors in the middle of this herky-jerky narrative do have some great dialogue and do very well with it.

Western stalwart Joel McCrea plays William Barclay "Bat" Masterson, whom we meet as he is bringing in a load of buffalo hides for trading in Hays City, Kansas. A gunfight with a cavalry sergeant makes relocation Bat's best course of action, and so he does, heading into Dodge City where his brother Ed is the city marshal. He's pursued by Dave Rudabaugh (Richard Anderson), an acquaintance and sometimes friend who also holds a grudge. Bat finds his brother running for county sheriff against incumbent Jim Regan (Don Haggerty) and engaged to Pauline Howard (Julie Adams), daughter of a local minister who's with a group of men seeking to oust the corrupt Regan. He buys a share of a saloon owned by a man widowed by Regan's thugs, Lily (Nancy Gates), and steps into Ed's candidacy after an ambush.

Bat also steps into Ed's role as Pauline's fella, but faces a dilemma when an old friend asks him for help that will require him to compromise the strict ethical standard he's set for himself.

Again, the story is a little predictable (the good gal / bad gal choice is almost note for note the same as in These Thousand Hills) and kind of confusing in other spots. It shifts direction for no real reason or groundwork and never really fills in why later on. It wastes the venomous energy Richard Anderson brings to Rudabaugh and pushes the unfinished sketch of a corrupt tycoon played by Haggerty into the front instead. It expects an audience to buy that Adams and Gates, both 33, would be all that interested in McCrea, then 54, and also that McCrea would pick the pallid Pauline over the lively Lily.

But it also offers some good meat for this talented cast, from the opening when McCrea describes the feelings of fear and panic a gunfighter faces when he meets another man in a showdown to some of his one-liners - like his vision of law enforcement: "There'll be law. And there'll be enforcement." John McIntire as Doc Sam Tremaine steals nearly every scene he's in and can make you wish he had a few more.

Gunfight was an odd movie choice to make -- it held the same setting as the popular Western series Gunsmoke, then in its fourth season on TV and its seventh on radio. Gene Barry was playing Masterson in a TV series of the same name that had started just a year earlier. It's not particularly impressive set against either of those, but with a script and story that matched its dialogue and performances, it could have held up against either of them very well.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Built-In?

So, when the hotel says it has "free" wi-fi, is that because it has fewer syllables than "cost built into your higher room charges" wi-fi?

Ah well, it's still a connection. Good night, world.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Somebody Stop Me!

Let me introduce you to "Democratic advisor and former Clinton aide" Christopher Lehane, who is an early front runner in the race to say the Stupidest Thing of the 2012 Presidential Election. Lehane makes a connection between "Bain," as in the Bain Capital investment company formerly run by GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and Bane, the supervillain faced by Batman in this weekend's The Dark Knight Rises.

Lehane's money quote:
"Whether it is spelled Bain and being put out by the Obama campaign or Bane and being out by Hollywood, the narratives are similar: a highly intelligent villain with offshore interests and a past both are seeking to cover up who had a powerful father and is set on pillaging society,"
Now, you can believe what you want to believe about what Bain Capital did or didn't do -- there's been a lot of reporting, with a significant portion of it poorly sourced, going both ways. The respective campaigns have been spinning nearly every one, making certain as few people as possible know whether or not this issue has any merit or relevance to the campaign. The same thing happened with the respective Vietnam-era military service of Democratic candidate John Kerry and Republican incumbent George W. Bush during the 2004 campaign -- charges and counter-charges made it pretty tough to know much about the circumstances of either man's record and even tougher to know why voters should care about it 35 years later.

But "Bain equals Bane?" Really? Let's skip the fact that moviemaker Christopher Nolan started thinking about using Bane the villain sometime around 2008 or 2009, a little bit before President Obama's campaign decided to make Romney's time with Bain an issue or even before Romney was a front runner for the nomination or even before the primary elections or even before Romney filed as a candidate. And let's skip the fact that Bane was introduced in the comics by Chuck Dixon, Graham Nolan (no relation to Christopher) and Doug Moench in 1993, before Romney had ever run for elective office.

Let's skip all of that, because here we've got a Democratic advisor -- someone who would like to have Democratic political candidates and strategists take his advice, preferably paying him for it -- suggesting the moviemaker's story and Romney's have "similar narratives" and figuring that similarity should be considered by voters when selecting their preferred presidential candidate.

I'd thought that disillusionment with the economy, partisan gridlock, the absence of Sarah Palin and the fact that the president now has a record to run on (or against, depending on your preferences) might make the 2012 campaign a little less media superstar driven and a little more grown up. Mr. Lehane wants me to be wrong.

But he should have read his source material more closely. In the 1993 comic book series in which Bane debuted, he defeats Bruce Wayne and renders him a paraplegic. It's Jean-Paul Valley, the replacement Batman, who defeats Bane before the mental conditioning that makes him the master assassin Azrael takes over and renders him unfit for the cowl, prompting a recovered Wayne to resume it. I don't know how Mr. Lehane would like to spin that, but any way you draw the connections leads way too close to the words "President Biden" for me.

ETA: "Conservative commentator" Jed Babbin throws his hat in the ring for Stupidest Things by agreeing with Lehane from the other side, as you read further along in the story.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Swiftly Falls The Sword of Justice!

Upon the California Institute of Technology, as the NCAA has given the school a three-year probation for its "lack of institutional control" in its athletic program. The school imposed its own sanctions as well, forgoing postseason play for the next three years, vacating wins with ineligible players and banning off-campus recruiting visits during the 2012-2013 years. Forfeiting the wins will hurt the most, as the Division III school recently won its first conference game in men's basketball in 26 years.

So what was Caltech's sin? Well, it seems the big problem comes because school has this policy whereby students sort of sample courses during the first few weeks of the semester and then officially enroll in them. That meant that Caltech student athletes were playing before they were enrolled students, or as the NCAA puts it, "students in good academic standing."

I imagine that, emboldened by their swift and decisive shutdown of the jock factory of Caltech, well-known as one of those schools that just won't quit valuing athletics over academics, the NCAA will quickly deal with the "lack of institutional control" that's been in the news lately at University Park, Pennsylvania.

I'd advise continued regular respiration while you're waiting on that to happen, though. Instances of spontaneous generation of gonads in life forms which have heretofore shown zero evidence of their presence are exceedingly rare.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Divided, Sunken

Joe DeMarco does, shall we say, "odd jobs" for the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Mike Lawson has been writing about them since 2005, when the Speaker had Joe probe the Secret Service for evidence a presidential assassination attempt had inside help.

Some of Joe's work has been less than savory, as the Speaker is a man who takes his marital vows about as lightly as he takes his obligation to be a public servant above reproach. That facet of Joe's life is one of the problems for the 2011 DeMarco novel, House Divided. He's kind of a slimy protagonist and none of the rest of the major cast is anyone to root for either.

A murder has taken place in Washington. The National Security Agency intercepted radio transmissions that could help investigators, but because they were spying on communications that they weren't supposed to be spying on, they can't do much about it. The secretive group that engineered the murder is worried information about their activities didn't die with the murdered man, and they start to look into things as well.

The problem for Joe is that the murdered man was a relative and he's the only family in Washington who can handle the arrangements. His attempts to do so interest both the NSA and the other group, and Joe finds himself in the middle of their competition, being used as a pawn. It's a role that suits him not at all, so he takes matters into his own hands.

As mentioned above, none of the people given a lot of "screen time" in the novel make for people on whose side you'd care to be. NSA folks want to protect the country, but the two main players in this scheme seem to forget that protecting the country doesn't matter much if you run roughshod over the country's people. The leader of the other group is a cardboard cutout of a square-jawed, no-nonsense fellow who's the Only One Willing To Do What Needs To Be Done. Lawson draws his cabal of operatives from the Old Guard, the selective volunteer group who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery. Anyone, even these brave soldiers, can take a wrong turn, but Lawson's linkage of their devotion to their duty and the idea of honor that fuels it to their participation in the covert group is also kind of slimy.

Add to that goofy plot holes like DeMarco being pretty uninformed about folks in Washington for a guy who's supposed to be a fixer for the Speaker of the House, and House Divided makes some tiresome reading.
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David Gibbins has a problem. His prologue to his latest novel of marine archaeologist-adventurer Jack Howard is a taut short story of survival on the open seas. His opening act of the main novel, in which Howard and his partner Costas dive near a sunken volcano while using special protective suits, is a rip-roarer as good as anything Clive Cussler's put to paper. His flashback to the dilemma faced by German Luftwaffe officer Ernst Hoffman in the last days of World War II, which will set up the second half of the main novel, creates a full-bodied, rich character who interests the reader.

The rest of his book, though, is crap. The main sequence, in which Jack and some of his fellow scientists have to work to stop a European crime lord from gaining access to a terrible Nazi superweapon, is endlessly padded with reminiscing detours by Jack and others, and moves its events forward at a pace that would make glaciers say, "You're holding me up here." The clues to the resting places of the different weapon components are tied in with Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler's fascination with ancient mystical artifacts and lost civilizations, including lost Atlantis -- conveniently found by Jack in the previous novel. So the mysteries of Atlantis and its connection with the legend of Gilgamesh and the story of Noah must be puzzled out.

It's in those places that Atlantis drags the slowest. Gibbins is himself a marine archaeologist and the conversational expositorrhea he puts in his scientists' mouths reads like Victor Appleton reconstructed a lecture on the subject from notes he took while on Benadryl. That may seem like a harsh thing to say, but the good passages of this book prove Gibbins knows how to tell a story and it's not improper to hold him to that standard in the rest of the book as well. Especially when "the rest of the book" equals "the main story we bought the thing for."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ooooh...

Don't tease me, 'verse. Don't tease me.

And Mr. Whedon? If you think that kind of thing is a "joke," you're going to deserve the fanboy hate you'll be getting, and Cabin in the Woods is suddenly not the worst thing your brain put into the world this year.

On the Job

Pass a budget, part of their specifically delineated responsibility under the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 and part of their Constitutional role? Nope. Can't be bothered.

Blow hot air about where U.S. Olympic Team uniforms are manufactured and threaten to actually pass a law about it? We gotcha covered, friend.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Crack in the Road

A note to motorcyclists: Should you be wearing a lightweight T-shirt, untucked, you should know the wind of your speedy passage will blow it up to the back of your neck. Should you have not pulled up your pants, you will be endangering motorists who gasp in horror and look away without remembering they are on a highway.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fulfillment!

To me, one of the coolest things about confirming the discovery of the Higgs boson is that physicist Peter Higgs lived long enough to see it happen. Higgs' mathematical models predicted the particle in 1964 but experimental confirmation awaited the right equipment to conduct those experiments and measure the results.

Alexis Bouvard, for example, calculated the location of the planet Neptune based on irregularities in the orbit of Uranus but did not live to see the planet's existence confirmed in 1846, three years after his death. Percival Lowell followed the same path in the discovery of Pluto; the differences between the predicted orbit of Neptune and the observed orbit led him to conclude another body more distant from the sun was affecting the ice giant. He calculated where it should be and ironically even photographed it more than once during his telescopic search, but Pluto's discovery wasn't confirmed until fourteen years after his death.

Three Giants

I dig around in the "Giants" series by James P. Hogan (referenced in a post here last month) at the long-post blog.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

'Tain't Computin' A Tall!

Computers can hold more data and access it more quickly than human brains can, but that doesn't mean they're smarter, or even that they know how to think yet. The computer Watson won when it played two really smart people on Jeopardy, but it answered, "What is Toronto?" when the clue in the category "U.S. Cities" was "Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero, and its 2nd largest is named for a World War II battle." The answer is Chicago, and Toronto isn't even a U.S. city.

This article at the online magazine n+1 goes into some detail about how computers are dumb when you measure them by standards other than amassing data and searching it at blazing speeds. The author, David Auerbach, points out that computers won't really "understand" us until they can handle ambiguity. Computer scientist Kees Van Deemter spends much of his book Not Exactly exploring that problem.

It means we won't have Skynet or the Deus Ex Machina to deal with anytime soon, but it also means that as we adjust our lives to better match what computers do understand, we'll eventually get to be as dumb as they are.

This may already be happening, as it seems a number of people I've met over the course of my life are about as bright as Windows Vista.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Who'd A Thunk It?

The Atlantic associate editor Matthew O'Brien realizes that Canadian pop sensation Carly Rae Jepson's "Call Me, Maybe" earworm is not only about her crush on a guy who seems not to notice her but also explains the euro crisis.

He may have stumbled upon a secret cadre of pop musicians that encode explanations of world and national events into their music. Alannis Morissette may have been cluing us into the truth of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair with "You Oughtta Know." The boys in Nirvana explain what happened to George H.W. Bush's poll numbers and election chances in a verse from "Smells Like Teen Spirit:" Oh well, whatever, never mind. Bonus points if you think the song title may have been predicting the Clinton administration. Warren Zevon outlines both the problems and usual range of solutions of the Carter administration: "Send lawyers, guns and money: The s%#t has hit the fan." Huey Lewis and the News explain much of Ronald Reagan's appeal with "Back in Time."

As a final thought, how in the world has there not been a country singer named Carly Rae Jepson? I intend no disrespect to the young lady when I say that's a name made for honky-tonks.

(H/T Yeah Right)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Get Them Brussels Sprouts Outta Here!

There are people who take their food moralizing to extremes by not providing animal or animal-derived food to their pets -- including pets that have evolved to eat meat and have systems that are designed to do nothing else.

So you have the phenomenon of people who have cats insisting on making their cats "vegan" and feeding them food that comes only from plants. At first this may just seem silly to...well, anyone, I guess, who stops and thinks for a second. Cats aren't capable of making informed moral choices, so when they kill an animal and eat it, they are doing what they are designed to do in the same way a cow does what it is designed to do when it eats grass.

And if this idea of somehow retraining carnivores into becoming vegetarian were really practical, then why not start on the big cats as well? Any vegan who wants to convince me he's serious about his belief that all animals can be vegetarian needs to buy a lion and feed it carrots and lettuce. I'll spring for the casket, 'cause I think there won't be a whole lotta vegan left after Leo expresses his disinterest in the experiment and it won't cost me that much.

On a serious note, the attempt to restrict your average house Felis silvestris catus to a diet of leafy green things is actually harmful to it. Vegetables are indeed good for you, just like Mom said, but they lack an amino acid called taurine (OK, technically "2-aminoethanesulfonic acid," so you can see why we'll stick with taurine), which cats need in order to see. When their diets lack taurine, the cats undergo retinal degeneration, which after awhile becomes permanent.

Other animals and people need taurine, but they have the the ability to synthesize it from other amino acids because their diets have included vegetables, despite the best efforts of every seven-year-old who's ever lived. Cats, having eaten meat, the whole meat and nothing but the meat for most of their existence now, can't make their own taurine and need to have it in their diets, which means they have to eat meat -- 'cause that's where the taurine is.

Long-term taurine deficiency can cause enlarged hearts and other cardial problems, such as death. So Mr. Vegan's noble choice to be responsible for the death of no animals is directly responsible for the death of whichever animal happens to have the misfortune of living  -- or not living -- with him. Of course, the cat is more likely to die from some complication of malnutrition, as cats' famed finickiness is actually part of their digestive imperative to seek out foods they need and avoid foods they don't.

Which means that when cats stare at people who try to make them vegetarian or vegan, they're silently saying, "My stomach is smarter than your brain, primate. Guess opposable thumbs and walking on your hind legs ain't all they're cracked up to be, huh?"

Sunday, July 8, 2012

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Blog

Thirty-year class reunion equals loads o' fun.

But it also equals a tired Friar, so I'll leave the grumping to someone else today. See you tomorrow.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Now That's a Hero!

Ron Perlman, showing that you don't need makeup and effects to be a hero. Perlman donned his Hellboy costume and makeup to help a special effects company grant a young boy's wish to meet the red-skinned character via the Make a Wish Foundation.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Two Messes, No Hits

Eric Van Lustbader has been a name at the top of the political and suspense thriller genre since his early 30s. He was selected by the Robert Ludlum estate to continue writing the adventures of Ludlum's super-assassin Jason Bourne following Ludlum's death in 2001, as well as to finish some of Ludlum's incomplete manuscripts.

Other than these novels, Van Lustbader has focused on stories with Eastern or martial arts themes, but in 2008 he began writing about U.S. ATF agent Jack McClure and his special relationship with President-elect Edward Carson and Carson's daughter Alli. Blood Trust is the third Carson-McClure novel and brings the pair into a secret operation against an Albanian crimelord heavily involved in human trafficking. Alli has been training to become a federal agent herself but faces a charge she murdered a man she had been casually dating. McClure must help her clear her name and uncover the origins of the plot, which will connect to the operation against the crimelord.

Reading Blood Trust, it's hard to see what the Ludlum estate saw in Van Lustbader that led them to say, "That's the guy for us!" Ludlum could be long winded and include one too many infodump speeches along the way in his stories, but it was almost always possible to know where the story was going and what was happening along the way. Pivotal characters appear in Blood Lust well after there's room for them, and others disappear just as suddenly. There are a least three nefarious plots rattling around inside the narrative that cross back and forth along each other beyond any ability to keep track. Both Jack and Alli have conversations with Emma, Jack's dead daughter -- it's hard to tell if they're projecting, hallucinating, daydreaming or really talking to a ghost. But not as hard as it is to care.
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Ben Coes' first novel with ex-Special Forces soldier Dewey Andreas, Power Down, was a slam-bang action thriller that moved smoothly between Wall-Street boardrooms, Central American jungles, the Canadian Rockies, Manhattan and a few dozen places in between. Dewey ended the novel at a ranch in the Australian outback, hiding from the terrorists seeking revenge on him and from the government he felt had long ago betrayed him.

But he's being sought out again in Coup d'√Čtat, because he's just the man who gives a crazy scheme to save the world its only chance of success. Of course.

A border incident between India and Pakistan has flared into full-scale war, and the religious fanatic leading Pakistan is ready to up the stakes to even more dangerous levels. If the two nations start trading nuclear blasts, then the United States and China would get involved on behalf of their respective treaty partners, and that conflict could cause untold death and devastation. India has agreed to hold off on its own ultimate solution to see if the U.S. plan could prevent atomic war, but that plan needs Dewey Andreas, who is busy fighting off a terrorist hit squad.

As before, Coes writes rip-roaring action and battle scenes, and doesn't leave even secondary characters two-dimensional. He seems curiously sloppy about details -- India has a prime minister, not a president, and some of the travel times between different places are unrealistic unless someone involved says "Beam me up."

The last third of the novel, with the plan in action and its aftermath, just plain falls apart. It has a definite feel of setting up Coes' just-published The Last Refuge, but using so much of one book to set up another one is kind of a cheat. Especially when it's done this clumsily. Considering how good a start Power Down was, here's hoping Coup d'√Čtat is just a sophomore slump.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Something to Shoot For

So, if Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad can shoot enough of his own people to stay in power another few months, he'll likely get a spot on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Yeah, I wish I was kidding. Some days, the fact that the world body's headquarters is located in Turtle Bay seems appropriate, but then other days you wonder if its collective head is withdrawn inside its shell or shoved up its...well, you know.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fourth, With...

...naturalized and grateful U.S. citizen Craig Ferguson, from 2008:



(H/T Threedonia)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

I Can't Think of a Better Way to Pass the Time o' Day...

...Than by watching some episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. Today, especially. So long, Sheriff.

The post title is taken from the lyrics to Earle Hagen's theme song for the show. You can hear Griffith sing it here, over some clips from the show.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Western & Country

In The Blues Brothers, a waitress at Bob's Country Bunker tells the band that her patrons like "both kinds of music -- country and western." The joke is that most people see those as the same kind of music, and today we hear much more about "country music" than we hear of the old country and western label.

But there is such a thing as Western music, and while it isn't too different from what we think of as country it travels its own path. The late Chris LeDoux, a champion rodeo cowboy who started writing songs to help cover his rodeo tour expenses, is a good example. Western or cowboy music often focuses on some of the same sorts of things Western movies do -- range riding, bronc busting and steer throwing.

LeDoux was "indie" or independent before the term was ever thought of -- he recorded his first album in his friend's basement and sold them from a truck at rodeos. Beginning in 1971, he released 22 albums before ever signing with a label, which he did following his 1989 mention in Garth Brooks' "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)." Life as a Rodeo Man was his fifth album and his second of 1975.

Like most of LeDoux's self-released output, Life features several songs about being a rodeo cowboy and competing on the rodeo circuit, like "Rusty Spurs" and "Rodeo Rose." He adds some straight-ahead country covers, "Amarillo By Morning,"  "Long Black Veil," "Rhinestone Cowboy" and the Spanish-influenced Charlie Daniels song "Caballo Diablo."

Music like LeDoux's owes more to 1940's country and Western swing than to the honky-tonk or Nashville Opry scene, and it lacks any of the "countrypolitian" flavor that started to dominate in the late 1950s. There are fewer songs about cheating spouses or drowning one's sorrows and more about the lonely life of the rodeo cowboy or his faithful but rather ugly truck.

LeDoux's voice doesn't stray much from the center of his baritone range and doesn't need to -- the folk music in which country has its roots was sung by the ordinary folks during their workdays or gatherings, and his earliest music was firmly in this tradition. He sounds a little like rockabilly fireball Eddie Cochran might have had he lived and moved into the "billy" side of that genre. It's not at all hard to imagine these songs around the campfire at the end of the day on a cattle drive or at a Fourth of July picnic at some new frontier boomtown where no one ever heard of a Red Solo cup.
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Chuck Mead, on the other hand, has no problem hanging out in the honky-tonk and inviting anyone to drop in who might care to. For his second solo album, Back at the Quonset Hut (recorded at the famed Nashville studio of that name), quite a few people did. From Bobby Bare to Elizabeth Cook to some of the Nashville A-Team session musicians who backed Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves and Bob Dylan among others, Mead's Grassy Knoll Boys have a lot of help in making a record that sounds like it could have come straight from 1960.

This is nothing new for Mead, who gained some national notice as one of the vocalists for country neo-traditionalists BR5-49 during the 1990s and 2000s. Here he focuses on songs written by others instead of his own work, matching the great session workers of the Quonset Hut era with songs of that time. Mead's also been busy as the musical director of the Million Dollar Quartet stage musical, meaning he's had spent some time arranging songs and the sounds to reflect a particular period of time. Steel guitars weep, fiddles swoop, upright basses slap and snare drums shuffle along to keep razor-sharp time.

Mead's own voice matches well with the period pieces while giving them a little modern sensibility. He's always had a well-developed sense of wry -- check out BR5-49's "Me and Opie" or "Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)" for evidence. Here it's visible in the band name that refers to a well-known feature of JFK assassination conspiracy theories and it helps "Girl on a Billboard" and "Hey Joe" pack as much fun as they did in their day. "Cat Clothes" and "Be Bop A Lula" swerve into the rocking part of the Quonset's history and may be making Chris Isaak wonder why he skipped them on his Sun Studios record.

In the interests of full disclosure: As much as I enjoy Mead's work with BR5-49 and solo albums, I still wish he and the Homestead Grays, a roots-rock quartet from Lawrence, KS that was the best band nobody in Oklahoma City ever went to see, had managed to put out a second album, and that it had their covers of Ricky Dean Sinatra's "Head in the Wind" and Bob Dylan's "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" on it.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Woof Is the Word

Anyone with a dog knows that even the most mentally ill-adept canine can get the meaning of certain sounds. The opening of the pantry door means getting fed, for example, which is the greatest thing in the universe because it has not happened all day and the possibility of starvation unto death was all too real, so the proper ritual dance of thanksgiving must be performed despite the previous admonition to Not Jump Up Stay Down!

Smarter or well-trained dogs recognize certain sounds as directions for what they are supposed to do. Usually those are words, but they can also be whistles or claps or other kinds of sounds. I once interviewed a man who trained border collies who said that many of them are trained to respond to whistle commands. The greater distances at which they work from their humans means the humans would have to yell to get the message across and the dogs understand yelling as anger which confuses them. Police dogs trained in Germany "speak" German, for example, which means their handlers have to learn the German commands because those are the sounds the dogs recognize.

This post at Big Think interviews some linguists and animal behaviorists to see if dogs "speak human." The answer seems to be "Maybe sorta," which is the answer to most questions in life that don't involve math.

Border collies make an appearance in the article as well, as examples of dogs that have used human-like processes to learn quite a few words. One, Chaser, learned so many words the human training her lost track of what she knew and had to write the names on the objects so he knew what to call them. Chaser had no comment, apparently, about whether or not she now cheats by reading the labels. Her owner said she still bugs him to do vocabulary drills and unless he goes to bed she will continue to do so.

Scientists point out that learning to connect sounds with words and actions is only part of language. Chaser, for example, might know what a stuffed animal is or a squeaky penguin or a Mr. Potato-head. But she does not know the abstract concept of "toy" as a category of objects that are played with. Saying "Fetch Mr. Potato-head" is a doable task, but telling her to "Fetch the toy" would confuse her, even if Mr. Potato-head were in a group of objects that weren't toys.

Cats, of course, would tell you to fetch your own dadgum toy if you wanted it and to leave them alone so they could nap, unless you planned on scratching that place between their eyes that they can't reach themselves. Do that, and they might allow you to live until dinnertime.