Friday, August 31, 2012

For Every Thing...

...there is a season. Spring's my favorite, but as baseball winds down and football starts up, I have to say I like the rhythm of fall.

And go Cats!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Seventy Pounds. 240 K of Memory. No display -- for $3200

Today we'd laugh at an advertisement like that, but 50 years ago the Olivetti company began developing the Programma 101, the world's first personal computer -- meaning that it was small enough to fit on a desk instead of requiring an add-on to your building to house.

Several of the developments the Olivetti team achieved stayed with the computer for a long time -- the magnetic striped cards morphed into floppy disks. The company hired a noted designer to create the machine itself, paying attention to a feature that went all but ignored until the madcaps at Cupertino dreamed up the iMac.

The upside -- with no display, there's no Blue Screen of Death.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

You Can Win a What?

I'm a regular reader of Astronomy magazine, because I geek like that. A little argument I had with math back when it mixed together the letters and numbers kept me out of that line of work as a career, but I still love reading about what's way, way out there and how we go about looking at it.

And over the years I have seen some wild stuff in its pages, as telescopes and photographic software have improved to show fantastic images of nebulae, stars, quasars and other stellar phenomena. Some I haven't even believed when I've seen it.

But I have to say that I would not have even begun to dream about this particular item.

Brian May, guitarist for the band Queen, attended a university in England before deciding to hit the road on tour. His major -- astronomy. In fact, the only thing he lacked to earn a doctorate was a thesis. Over the years, he kept up with the discipline as a hobby and kept track of developments in the field. Recently, an old instructor suggested he complete his thesis and defend it, finishing the requirements for his degree. May at first demurred, but then learned that there hadn't been a lot published in the area he'd researched and that his topic would still merit a thesis today. So he finished it, published and earned the degree in 2008.

Well, Astronomy ran an interview with May and also started a contest. If you submit a short essay describing what astonomical area you'd explore if you had sudden chance to earn a doctorate in the field, then you're entered into the contest. The top two winners will receive a signed copy of May's thesis, A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud

That cloud, for the curious, has nothing to do with the horoscope. It's another name for the interplanetary dust cloud through which the planets of a solar system move as they rotate around their sun. May focused, obviously, on our own solar system. The dust is concentrated in different bands affected by the gravity of the different planets, and May studied their rotational speed.

Although it would be a nice fit, May didn't write Queen's 1980 hit "Another One Bites the Dust;" that was bassist John Deacon. May did address the earth's rotation (a.k.a. what "makes the rockin' world go 'round") in 1978, offering an alternative explanation to the accepted scientific consensus.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mis-Placed?

In reflecting on the passing of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, a thought occurred to me. After reassuring it that others might someday join it, I mulled it over a little while.

Although Armstrong was a combat pilot in Korea and a test pilot for many years before joining the space program, he always thought of himself as an engineer first. He told the National Press Club in 2000 that “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.”

Though deep in the '60s, he eschewed both paisley and protest and was much a product of his small-town Ohio upbringing as his engineering background.

Something like a million people probably claim they were at Woodstock; quite a few more than make the same kind of claim to having been at Canaveral when Apollo 11 lifted off.

But Mayberry and math class put men on the moon. Hashish and Haight-Ashbury had them staring at their navels.

When it comes to remembering what's important about the 1960s, I think we're doing it wrong.

Monday, August 27, 2012

From the Rental Vault: Another Trio

What do you do when you're a person of honor who works at the command of those without any? Lieutenant Li of the Chinese army during the Tang Dynasty in around 700 AD was faced with such a choice when ordered to massacre Gokturk women and children after a battle. His refusal led to his becoming a fugitive, wanted for mutiny by the Emperor.

He finds himself the sole surviving escort of a desert caravan transporting a precious Buddhist relic across China's Xinjiang province, and is eventually joined by some old comrades, in the 2003 martial arts movie Warriors of Heaven and Earth. He's also joined by Imperial Emissary Lai Xi, who was sent to kill him but realizes the importance of getting the caravan safely to its destination. The two promise to meet after arrival to settle their dispute.

Director He Ping keeps the action flowing as Li must first try to recruit guards in some small towns and as Lai Xi must help Wen Zhu escape a local warlord. The story shifts back to the desert trek when Lai Xi and Wen Zhu accompany the caravan for their protection and so Lai Xi can complete his mission. He uses the vast Xinjiang desert well, backdropping the emptiness Li has felt since being ordered to murder innocents and that Lai Xi, a native of Japan, feels after so many years away from home. Even though it's essentially a long and sometimes slow chase scene, He and his competent cast hold interest. A little bit of special effects silliness closes the movie in connection with the Buddhist relic, but it doesn't do any lasting harm.
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The Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite in Portuguese), is one confusing movie to follow. Loosely based on a 2006 book about Brazil's SWAT-like BOPE military police commando unit, it highlights the ins and outs of local governments less honest than the criminals gangs they oppose and of gang allegiances themselves that can change in mid-firefight. Squad was a box-office smash in Brazil and its sequel became the biggest seller in Brazilian history.

The initial story starts with narration from BOPE Captain Roberto Nascimento, who describes the interrelationships between regular Rio de Janiero police and the drug gangs that infest its neighborhoods. Althought the BOPE officers themselves don't take money from the drug lords, they are no choirboys and have what we in the U.S. might see as a rather elastic view of what constitutes civil liberties of their informants or potential informants.

Brazilian box-office star Wagner Moura anchors the movie as Nascimento and offers a convincing picture of a man who walks a fine line between what sacrifices he will make in the cause of doing what's right. André Romiro and Caio Junqueira as rookie officers facing the reality of their corrupt system show the toll the dismal situation takes on honest and idealistic young men. In the end it's almost impossible to know who's on who's side and that can make for a confusing final image, but according to the source material that's about the way things are in real life police work in Rio anyway.
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The only bit of innovation in 1953's Gun Fury was its 3-D release and a scattered handful of scenes meant to take advantage of that process. Other than that, the talented team of Rock Hudson, Donna Reed and director Raoul Walsh have combined to present a piece of Western formula that loses even that small novelty when seen in DVD on your TV screen.

Reed and Hudson are to be married and are traveling by stage to the town nearest Hudson's new ranch. But they run afoul of bandits, led by the team of Philip Carey and Leo Gordon, and Hudson is left behind as the bandit gang heads south for Mexico with the loot and Reed. Hudson will pursue, picking up a few allies along the way but encountering many people who see dealing with Carey's gang as someone else's problem. I left the character names off because it really doesn't matter; these people are interchangeable with any one of a dozen other movies that have almost exactly the same story. The best Westerns were ones that used their genre to tell a bigger story than just a horse opera, but Westerns like Gun Fury are content to go through the motions and ask nothing more of its story than an obvious beginning, middle and end.

There's some attempt to give Carey a little dimension by showing him longing for a pre-Civil War life of genteel wealth and dignity that he sees Reed represent, but although he could prowl and growl rings around most of the cast as Asa Buchanan on One Life to Live, he's not a good enough actor to pull it off here. Walsh directed a multiplex worth of great movies but here has next to nothing to work with in terms of story, and a cast that, like Carey, was competent but not capable of rising above this material -- which says a lot when you realize that Reed was about to win an Oscar for From Here to Eternity. There's not a lot wrong with Gun Fury...but that's because there's really not a lot to it period.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Tall Enough?

Ever wonder if there's a limit to how high a building can be? The Atlantic writer Nate Berg asked some architects and other design engineers and found out that even with current technology and materials, there's really not a physical limit on skyscraper height. Especially if you build it sort of like a mountain (or the Eiffel Tower), with a wide base supporting the tower.

There are troubles, though, when you realize that the base you need is pretty darn big -- in the nature of square miles of territory, in fact. The designers also said that current elevator technology limits the building height -- if for no other reason than the taller the building, the longer it takes to get to the top. A mile-high skyscraper, for example, is possible with modern design techniques and some small projected advances in building material. But the elevator to the top would have to be a speed demon in order to make the trip in a useful time frame. Remember, it has to go a full mile. At 10 mph, it would take six minutes. Not so long, perhaps, but I'm going to bet not many people are keen on the idea of standing in an elevator for six minutes. If the elevator ran at 20 mph, then it would make the base-to-summit trip in about three minutes, and according to the infallible internet, most elevators in tall buildings run about 22 mph with slowdowns as they approach the destination floor.

Elevators can of course run faster -- mining elevator systems may go at 40 to 50 miles an hour, but they have the accompanying bumpy ride and factor of sheer terror at realizing you are falling down a rocky shaft at 50 mph.

The other major problem, according to the designers, is cost. Supersize buildings use a supersize amount of money to get themselves built.

But the towers keep rising, so somebody somewhere has the money to spend to get themselves as far off the ground as possible. I'd think a pilot's license would be cheaper.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Final Step

Neil Armstrong spent the last 40-plus years of his life never really thinking he'd done something all that special -- on July 20, 1969, he walked to work like anyone else.

Of course, "work" happened to be taking the first steps onto the surface of the moon, which made Armstrong unique in human history. According to his own biography, James Hansen's First Man, Armstrong disliked the idea that he got the role commanding Apollo 11 because of some innate specialness of his own, so he kept as low a profile as possible especially after leaving the space program. He did not seem to understand that the public interest and high regard offered him came because he'd done something no one had ever done before -- not because he was some sort of superman or noble saint. Whatever the reason, his decision kept him from embarrassment following his time in the headlines.

Armstrong, one of a dozen men to walk on the moon, died today at 82. His death leaves eight living human beings who have stood on a planetary surface other than our own. The youngest, Charles Duke, is 76. Whether their number will grow before they too embark on the much longer journey just taken by Armstrong is open to question.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Scrabble Scramble

I'd heard of big-time Scrabble tournaments, but I had no idea there were actual ways to cheat, aside from the usual ways of trying to use made-up words. Apparently there are.

Anyone wants to try to convince me that the doctrine of original sin is false, I think I'll just present this as my closing argument: People have figured out ways to cheat at Scrabble.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Mighty Fine Pen

Next time you think your bored-with-this-meeting doodles are something to crow about, check out these drawings done entirely with ballpoint pen, by a man named Samuel Silva.

Silva just uses eight standard-colored ballpoint Bics, cross-hatching some areas to get the colors that the eight don't represent.

What beats me is how in the world the Bic company has failed to nab him for a commercial.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sneaking and Sleuthing

Former submarine commander George Wallace and writer Don Keith team up for the second time for Firing Point, a story ranging from under frozen northern seas to the boardrooms of Wall Street.

The Russian Admiral Alexander Durov is tired of seeing his beloved country treated as a second-rate nation by the Western powers, and he has devised a plan to correct that. He will need a distraction and control of his nation's armed forces. Computer hackers and a new automated trading system on Wall Street will help with the first, along with a suspicious disaster at sea, blamed on the United States. His own submarines will give him the second.

Newly-minted captain of the USS Toledo, Joe Glass finds himself rescuing the crew of a stranded Russian sub, which puts him squarely in Durov's way. It means he's a target, but since he's commanding a United States nuclear submarine, he's a target that can shoot back.

Wallace and Keith write some excellent marine combat and some good action scenes with a team of Navy SEALS infiltrating Russian territory. But when they're out of the water, they're out of their element. The high finance espionage is pretty clumsily plotted (the bastion of capitalism, Wall Street, is going to go for a computer system called OptiMarx?) and more clumsily written. There are a good half-dozen references to a character looking at his or her drink of "amber liquid" (twice beer, the rest of the times Scotch) and a female character has "luscious white thighs" and "incredible orbs" (if you know what I mean and I think you do).

If you skip the corporate espionage segments, you have a decent sub thriller -- a shorter but much better book.
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Comic book writer Alex Grecian makes his move to books without pictures with The Yard, a story set in the early days of Scotland Yard's development as a police force in London.

In the days after Jack the Ripper had made his name known in London and eluded capture, the citizens had little use for the detectives of Scotland Yard. When one of those detectives turns up murdered, they know they must solve it if they are to have any chance of regaining public trust. But Walter Day, the Murder Squad's newest investigator, has been assigned to the case. And his reliance on the newfangled forensic techniques introduced by Dr. Benjamin Kingsley, such as fingerprint matching, doesn't inspire much hope among the Squad.

Grecian may or may not write true Victorian English dialogue, but he does and excellent job of writing what years of watching Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce have trained us to think is Victorian English dialogue. He sets the scene of London's foggy streets and alleys, and of the Squad's enormous task in solving the mysteries represented by even a handful of the thousands of dead bodies that wash ashore on the Thames. It's all pretty lightweight, but it's also plenty of fun for an afternoon.

Some action sequences read like Grecian is still relying on an illustrator to make clear what he's writing, but for the most part The Yard us a decent start on what may prove to be a fine series of yarns.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Rerun Pre-run?

Went to see The Avengers this afternoon before it leaves the theaters; it's a spectacle movie that merits the big screen.

But it's been playing long enough now that they haven't bothered updateing the previews or commercials. I'm wondering if Coke still thinks that Battleship tie-in is a good idea.

Monday, August 20, 2012

...And a Star to Steer Her By

Probably every movie and most every book about the days of wooden-hulled, wind-driven ships romanticizes them more than a little. I'm sure that life aboard them had more than its share of hard times.

But this is still darn cool.

The USS Constitution, the oldest U.S. Navy ship still in commission, unfurled her sails Sunday for a little walk around the nautical block to mark the 200th anniversary of her victory over the HMS Guerriere in the War of 1812 -- a conflict not overly burdened with victories or great moments for the new United States of America.

"Old Ironsides," so-called because during the fight the Guerriere's lighter cannon balls bounced off her oak sides like they were "made of iron," was commissioned 215 years ago. She is mostly a floating museum and although has undergone some renovations is still not really able to sail as she did in her day. During the 17 minute voyage, she made about three knots, or about 3.5 miles per hour.

The post title comes from John Masefield's 1902 poem "Sea-Fever." which contains the line, "And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by..."

The most famous poem about Old Ironsides is called just that, "Old Ironsides," and was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in 1830. He read a news item that suggested the venerable ship was to be broken up rather than repaired and his poem urged the Navy to repair the historic vessel, suggesting that even being scuttled at sea was a better fate than being broken up in a shipyard.

Holmes' poem generated enough attention that the Constitution was repaired and eventually became a national monument and the setting for lessons on maritime history. One of its sister ships, the USS Congress, faced a similar fate at the time but was not repaired -- leading to the conclusion that even in 1830, no one thought much of Congress.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Strange Companions

I preached a sermon today that combined quotes from Raylan Givens, Carly Rae Jepson and Bob Dylan. And the Bible, of course.

My head feels funny.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

This Could Be Trouble

So it seems eBay has decided it will stop listing things like curses, magic spells, spirits and other "intangible" items that some people claim to be selling.

This move may not be well-received in Washington, as eBay may have been many political officials' last chance to obtain a clue.

Despite the picture on the Wired.com story, the new policy will not actually affect the sale of voodoo dolls, which are physical objects that can be appraised and have prices set. You may no longer advertise your ability to cast a voodoo spell on the doll, however.

That's probably good news, because if voodoo dolls were banned, voodoo bargain hunters would be left ordering Barbie dolls for their spells, and those would probably prove to be of limited effect on persons outside of Hollywood or the Playboy Mansion.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Flat Sun Society

Something funny's going on with the Sun that astronomers can't quite figure out.

It's round.

No, it's really, really round. As the article notes, if you shrank the Sun to the size of a beach ball, the difference between its widest and its narrowest diameters would be less than a human hair. And it should be less round because it's not solid, it's made up of gas.

When solid things spin around on an axis, they may bulge a little here or flatten a little there if they spin fast enough. But because they're solid, that bulge is minimal unless they're spinning very fast on their axes. This lends some credence to the theory that the reason Earth is between Venus and Mars is because Venus asked Mars if this particular revolving velocity made her look fat and Mars took just a leeeetle too long to answer.

Anyway, when masses of gas spin on their respective axes, they don't have the solidity to stay round and they flatten out much more easily than do solid objects. The Sun us just such a mass o' gas. If you could somehow survive the heat and radiation, you could fly straight through the thing. Given that the Sun spins on its axis once every 28 days, astronomers have a rough idea about how much flattening should be going on, and it isn't.

Right now they chalk it up to the fact that they can't really see what's underneath the photosphere, or surface layer of the Sun, and have only theories about how the gas below that layer is acting. Some possibilities are solar turbulence or some kind of magnetic interaction, but right now there's no solid answer as to how the Sun keeps its near-perfect figure.

Rumors that it's from skipping sweets between meals and doing some wicked hard P90X have not, as yet, been confirmed.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Presidential Lager

If you've read this blog very often you know I have a low opinion of President Obama's job performance on most fronts. I think his abilities for the job rank among the bottom of those who've held the office at any time during the last 70 years, and I obviously disagree with his policies (which makes me perversely grateful he is not very adept, as it makes those policies' enactment less likely).

But you also know I believe it to be harmful to the human spirit to allow oneself to hate someone with whom one disagrees politically, so I have tried now and again to find and highlight things about the president that I like. The upcoming election worried me -- I was figuring I was pretty much cooked for the next three months or so, as Vice-President Biden grew ever more stupid as his comments grew ever more noisomely noisy, and as the Chicago-style campaigning of his allies would have us believe the presumptive GOP nominee spent his weekends closing companies so their workers' spouses would die of cancer.

So I was greatly pleased to read this item, in which I found that the president has set aside space in the White House to brew his own beer. Had I a job in which such a move was a little less frowned upon and the space to do so, I would definitely be doing this sort of thing, and the president's home brew strikes me as the kind of thing most guys would want to do as soon as they had the space, money and time. So good job, Mr. President!

PS -- A scold writing for National Review here wonders if the president has broken laws by transporting his home brew across state lines on Air Force One, or if the brewing project is costing taxpayer money. As to the second: Since the president gets paid with taxpayer money I think that's a given, plus this doesn't strike me as the worst thing he's spent that money on. As to the first: Lighten up, Francis.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bygone Venues

Want a look at what the magnificent stadiums we were watching just a week ago may look like before long? Check out "The Olympic City" project, a photographic tour of what happens to Olympic venues when the Olympics are over. A lot of them, specially built either for a specific sport or for a much larger audience than a particular sport usually commands, simply rust away.

Some of the pictures can be found here. I think Sarajevo can get a little bit of a pass, since in between the 1984 Winter Games and today, the Serbs spent four years shooting at everything in the city that might hide a Bosnian, including the different Olympic facilities.

(H/T Reason magazine)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Student Becomes the Master

Back when I lived in the Chicagoland area, the traditional Democratic "machine" opposed the reformist mayor Harold Washington. The machine, built by Hizzoner Da Honrable Richard J. Daley, Mare a da Great City Chicago and All Its Great People, was sort of leaderless in this time frame, as Daley's son Richard M. Daley had yet to make his move for the mayor's office. Cook County Democratic Party Chairman and Alderman Edward Vrdolyak led the opposition to Washington, assisted by Alderman Edward Burke. Vrdolyak was sometimes known as "Fast Eddie," with the less flamboyant and significantly younger Burke referred to as "Increasingly Fast Eddie" or "Slow Eddie."

Well, Washington died in office. Vrdolyak was indicted on federal corruption charges but before that, committed the unpardonable sin (in the machine's eyes, anyway) of becoming a Republican. Daley the younger retired. But Eddie Burke is still kicking, chair of the city Committee on Finance and several other carefully selected committees.

And now, in a move that would surely bring an approving tear to Daley the elder's eye, Burke's committee is holding hearings on whether or not the city of Chicago should use its fairly broad powers of property condemnation to seize "underwater" homes and force refinancing. "Underwater" means that the property value of the home has fallen so much that it is now worth less than the amount still owed on the mortgage. If the city seized the property, then it could force the mortgages to be refinanced at terms that homeowners could afford. Burke says that it would also help lessen the frequent abandonment of such properties, which leaves them vacant and destabilizes neighborhoods.

But that ain't all, baby -- as this item on New Geography notes, Alderman Burke has a huge role in setting Chicago's tax code, and he slates the judges who would hear the cases if banks tried to appeal the seizures. His day job is with a property tax appeals firm. His wife is a judge on the Illinois Supreme Court. His brother is the Assistant Majority Leader of the Illinois General Assembly.

Chicago -- where what's mine is mine and what's yours can stay yours as long as I get my cut of it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Goo Goo Goo...What The?

Russell Brand performs "I Am the Walrus" in the Olympic closing ceremonies?

There really is no future in England's dreaming.

(And for those who follow, this is post # 1,500 on Friar's Fires)

I'm Afraid You Can't Do That, Hal

Intelligent computers that either assist humanity or attempt to destroy it are a staple of science fiction. The ever-increasing computational power of today's machines and their growing complexity prompt people to wonder if computers themselves will ever become "human."

David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, says they won't. Gelernter says that being human requires consciousness and intelligence. Computers will probably become intelligent, he says. Some day, they will be able to convincingly replicate the range of human thinking from the focused and analytical (naturally) to the kind of free association thought involved with memory, experience and insight.

But they won't become conscious, he says. Although they will contain more and more computational power, that alone will not bring the kind of conscious awareness of the universe and the self which human beings have. Gelernter says that there is some kind of fundamental difference between the neurons of the human brain and the processing power of even a digital computer -- at some unknown tipping point, a mass of neurons works together to bring consciousness, but the same massing of computer processors won't.

In essence, Gelernter says, computers which develop intelligence will be like super-intelligent zombies. They will lack the human power of imagination and will be limited to their program parameters. They could be told what to do, and given a list of choices to make in certain situations. But if they encounter something too far outside their experience, they will not necessarily intuit or imagine a response.

Although Gelernter calls these "zombie" computers, they will probably not roam the countryside searching for junked TRS-80s to dine on.

In the comments, he also takes aim at the idea that people may one day be "uploaded" into a vast computer network of some kind, suggesting that whatever lines of code might be generated by programmers to match the human brain would still be just that: Lines of code. They would at best be a copy of a person, but not the person himself or herself.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Pencil Rests...

Joe Kubert, a co-creator of the DC Comics WWII character Sgt. Rock and the prehistoric adventurer Tor, passed away today in New Jersey at 85.

Most of the exposure the young Friar had to Kubert's work was in his issues of Tarzan and covers for DC's other Edgar Rice Burroughs title, Weird Worlds. Kubert's dark, shadowy style seemed a little grim for his tastes and he didn't care much for soldier comics at the time. But that grim flavor gave just the right atmosphere for Rock's battles ("Nothin's ever easy in Easy Company," ) and Tor's savage world, as well as the otherworldly Hawkman.

Kubert proved one of the rare oldtimer artists able to take comic and graphic art to a higher level with 1996's Fax from Sarajevo, a non-fiction graphic work based on faxes from a man trapped in war-torn Sarajevo. It gained him both an Eisner and Harvey award, the comic industry's top two honors. He visited the horrors of war in a more personal dimension with Yossel: April 19, 1943, the story of a Jewish teenager in the Warsaw ghetto in the period leading up to the Warsaw Uprising. Kubert's family had emigrated from his birthplace in Poland when he was very young, but had they not then Kubert might have been young Yossel.

Two of Kubert's sons are also comic book artists, with styles reminiscent of their father's. They, some of Kubert's other children and his wife help run the Kubert School in Dover, New Jersey. It's the only accredited technical school in the country dedicated solely to the training of people who want to be comic book or comic strip artists. Many of the school's alums are well-known names in the modern comic field.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Champion!

You know, ordinarily I'd question why in the heck windsurfing is an Olympic sport, but if it's going to attract athletes like Zofia Noceti-Klepacka, then let's leave it in.

The Polish bronze medalist promised before the games that if she won a medal, she would auction it off in order to donate the proceeds to a young neighbor who suffers from cystic fibrosis. So here's hoping that some bidders come forward to make bronze, in this instance, the most valuable metal.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Reason and Deduction!

A new Will Ferrell movie was released today. I did not darken a theater door.

Logic suggests this is not a coincidence.

Tribute

You sometimes wonder if International Olympics Committee President Jacques Rogge realizes that if he'd held a moment of silence for Israeli athletes murdered in Munich 40 years ago, people might stop talking about it.

Even though different folks and a petition among whose hundred thousand names was U.S. President Barack Obama urged Mr. Rogge to reconsider, he refused to hold such a moment during the London Games opening ceremonies, saying such tribute had already been paid. Interesting way of thinking, since the athletes and coaches are all still dead and there's precedent for marking tragedies like this on anniversary years that end in zero.

Enter five-feet-two-inches and 115 pounds of Roggean headache, the proudly Jewish U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman who won a floor exercise gold medal earlier this week to the tune of "Hava Nagila," a song often played at Jewish weddings. Although Ms. Raisman did not say she chose the music as a thumb in the IOC's eye, she did say she would have supported a moment of silence observance and that winning her gold on the 40th anniversary of the Munich games meant a great deal to her. She also said she chose "Hava Nagila" because of her Jewish heritage (and its temptation to the audience to clap along).

I've read some speculation that several Middle Eastern countries are supposed to have told Mr. Rogge that they would boycott the games if the opening ceremonies included a tribute to the slain Israeli athletes. Even if that's true, I wonder if Mr. Rogge still thinks the loss of that equestrian bronze for Saudi Arabia or weightlifting gold for Iran or second slowest time in the field in the men's 400 meters for Palestine would have been worse than the many reminders of how petty and mean he and his committee have been.

Oh well. Mr. Rogge has to look in the mirror every morning and try to fool himself into believing he's a man of character, which I guess is punishment enough for a small man.

But for Ms. Reisman's part, it looks like the dancing will be pretty awesome at the reception whenever she does get married and the band strikes up "Hava Nagila."

(Here's a longer story about the song choice at London's Daily Mail, but it tends to cast Raisman's choice as a deliberate poke at the IOC -- not that they don't deserve it, but it doesn't seem to me her quotes support that interpretation)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

From the Rental Vault (2009): The Secret of Kells

A funny thing happened on the way to the Best Animated Feature Oscar at the 2010 awards show: A mostly hand-drawn, non-computerized independent cooperative venture between Irish, French and Belgian moviemakers found itself amidst the power players of Pixar, Disney and Dreamworks, competing for the title.

The Secret of Kells didn't win (Up did), but that didn't affect the widespread good reception it received, especially for its stunning visuals. It tells the story of young Brendan, who lives in the Abbey of Kells in Ireland in the early ninth century. His uncle, Abbot Cellach, is overseeing the construction of a gigantic wall to protect the people from invasion by the Northmen, or Vikings. One day, Brendan learns the story of the greatest of the textual illuminators, men whose copying of books surpasses mere transcription and becomes art. Brother Aidan is one such legendary illuminator, originally working at the Abbey of Iona. Aidan soon arrives at Kells, fleeing the Northmen who have taken and burned Iona. His insistence that the people can only run and hide from the invaders, and that the sacred Book he's producing is their only way to have a hope to cling to, clashes with Cellach's faith in his strong walls and gates.

Brendan ventures into the forbidden forest on an errand for Aidan, and encounters dangers as well as Aisling, a forest spirit that shows him some of the secrets of her world. His belief that Aidan is right will set him at odds with his uncle and take a heavy toll.

As mentioned, Kells is a visual masterpiece. The animation is a combination of ancient Celtic art, stylized through a Hanna-Barbera motif and layered with a definite classic storybook feel. The details featured when Brendan begins his own work as an illuminator are absolutely amazing. The stolid Cellach is all plain lines drawn downwards by gravity. Brendan's face shows open joy at the world he explores. Aidan's whimsy brings the lines of his face upward, and his facial design calls to mind George Carlin's rubber mug.

But in spite of this visual excellence, the movie feels empty at its core. The actual Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript of the four gospels and is a national treasure of Ireland, on display at the Trinity University of Dublin. Celtic crosses appear every now and again on some of the buildings, and the men are monks who call each other "brother" or "abbot," but never say what they are monks or abbots of. Aidan tells Brendan that the Book needs to be brought before the people so it can bring them hope, but is unaccountably vague about just what it is in which they are supposed to hope.

Of course, not every work which illustrates the truth of the gospel has a high JPS (Jesus Per Sentence) rating. J.R.R. Tolkien intended The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion to be seen in the context of God's loving creation of the world, but he included no Christian imagery or Christ-analogs. Even in the Bible, the book of Esther never explicitly mentions God. And if Kells was simply the truth of the gospel told slant, then that core would not seem so vacant. But it gives liveliness, solidity and reality to some elements of Irish mythology (Aisling is probably one of the Tuatha De Danann, or ancient fairy-folk of the Irish goddess Danu; Brendan is menaced by the dark god Crom Cruach in the forest) while coloring Christianity as either Cellach's legalism or Aidan's flight in the face of the enemy.

Maybe it's the chauvinism that comes from my miring in traditional Christian theism, but it would seem a narrative centering on a copy of Christian holy works might consider the Christian story as more relevant than the pagan stories which it surmounted and replaced. That misstep leaves The Secret of Kells something that looks wonderful but hasn't much more at its center than froth.

(In an experiment to see what kind of experience just watching the movie with the sound off might bring, I found a lot more room for the gospel story than when the characters were speaking. Don't know if that's an intentional dimension of the movie, but it lifts my opinion of it no little bit)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

More Filamentary Science

"Dark matter" is so called because it doesn't reflect or emit radiation -- that is, if it exists, which has been kind of hard to prove because "radiation" includes light, and visual sense organs that use reflected light as their method of perception have a hard time seeing such material.

It's predicted in several theories about how the universe is put together. Astronomers and cosmologists know that the universe has been expanding since the initial singularity usually called the Big Bang. By looking at stars and seeing how much their light wavelengths have shifted, they can see how fast something is moving away from us, and thus what that rate of expansion is.

The problem has been that the expansion speed isn't what it should be based on the amount of matter that the universe is estimated to maintain. The gravity of all the objects in the universe affects the speed of expansion, but there's too little matter to slow it down to the rate that's been measured.

Enter dark matter, which if it exists could account for the slower-than-predicted speed of expansion. But it's only been theorized until now, with the possibility that it might be detected through what's called "gravitational lensing." This is when there's a concentration of matter between a source of light, like a star or a galaxy, and the Earth. The mass of that concentration affects the light via gravity, bending it. Scientists measure the degree of bending and determine the size of whatever's in the way.

A researcher at the University of Michigan found exactly that effect when studying two distant star clusters. He knew that they had some of the super filaments of gas connecting them, but the light bending was more than the gravity of the filaments would suggest. The most likely candidate: Dark matter.

Although it can't be seen or otherwise directly detected, some of the models of how the universe works suggest that as much as 80 percent of the universe's entire mass is dark matter. Rumors that the possibility of having 80 percent of your mass visually undetectable has piqued serious interest in Hollywood are as yet unfounded.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Patently Dopey

So did you know that if you aimed a laser pointer at the floor and let your cat chase the little red dot for your amusement anytime between about 1995 and 2007, you were in violation of United States patent law?

Yup. US Patent # 5443036, available for your perusal here, gave two guys the rights to this particular form of kitty exercise. And if they hadn't apparently decided the joke was over in 2007 and not paid their renewal fees, they'd still own that patent.

I doubt either man ever figured they'd get a dime out of the deal -- it smells like a joke. If they did hope to gain something from it, I can't see the process by which it would come about, unless they intended to market laser pointers as "cat exercisers." But the real idiocy here comes from the Patent Office, which housed more than one employee who reviewed the application and said, "Why yes, I believe the practice of moving a small dot of light around in front of a cat (or, apparently, any animal with a chase instinct) is something the rights to which can be owned exclusively by a person or group of persons." Of course, since the Patent Office makes revenue from patent fees, and since nobody pays patent fees if they don't hold a patent, they had plenty of reasons to grant the application. Just not any good or smart ones.

Meanwhile, I'm a little worried about what happens if cats learn of the whole laser-pointer-dot-of-light thing. "So that thing's not a real animal and you're just moving it around yourself to keep me from catching it? Pretty funny, primate. Almost as funny as what's going to happen to you when you fall asleep later."

Monday, August 6, 2012

Cascade Failure

Haters gonna hate, failers gonna fail. In the wake of last week's three-second-long second that cost South Korean fencer Shin A-Lam a shot at the gold medal, the International Fencing Federation, which goes by the initials of its name in French, FIE, said they would award a "special medal" to Shin for her sportsmanship.

According to some reports, the FIE acknowledged the error in private, acknowledging that it came at the hands of a teenaged volunteer timekeeper. The London Olympic Committee said they don't have teenaged volunteers working in the capacity of event officials. Either way, the timekeeper's error was just that -- a mistake made in a moment. The brutal incompetence of the FIE and Olympic officials was much more deliberate. Eventually came the offer of the so-called special medal, which the FIE  said was all they could do.

Bunk, of course. They could have not made Shin sit on the piste, or playing surface, for almost an hour while they dithered over the appeal. They could have not made the Korean team put up money before they would even agree to hear the appeal. They could have replayed the final second without a timekeeper whose thumb was quite obviously somewhere other than the clock button. They could have reversed the match result because Shin's opponent "won" via a clock error. They could have declared the whole thing void and set a rematch. They could have admitted the error publicly and tendered their resignations en masse, effective immediately following the Games, taking responsibility for screwing up something as simple as having one second go by on the clock. They could have apologized to Shin personally, face-to-face.

Instead they chose to refuse to admit failure that everyone watching knows exists, making themselves look even less competent. When everyone knows you goofed, maintaining that you didn't is just a bigger goof. Shin, to her credit, refused the special medal offer, and went on to win a silver medal in the team competition. The FIE, meanwhile, continues to own the gold in buffoonery.

A quick PS to some folks who complained that the NBC television feed didn't show this story, instead opting for some of their silly human-interest packages and interviews: Try reading. It's good for you.

(H/T Opuszine)

Invasion Imminent?

HELIUM (News Service of Greater Helium) -- Members of the Jeddak's Astronomical Institute reported touchdown today of a one-ton robotic probe from Jasoom, our neighbor next nearest the sun. The device landed some 30 karads north of Helium, along the Polodona.

Although neither Greater Helium Jeddak Tardos Mors nor Lesser Helium Jed Mors Kajak could be reached for comment, both had earlier encouraged citizens against panicky responses. They pointed out that this is the fourth automated probe from Jasoom in the last eight Barsoomian years (15 years in the abbreviated calendar in use on Jasoom), none of which have been followed by any manned vehicles and all of which have been content to wander around the Barsoomian surface and take pictures of rocks.

Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of Thark, the green nation nearest the landing site, released the following statement: "We hold these automated probes the equivalent of an exchange of metal, and thus unless proven otherwise we will consider the Jasoomians neutral and peaceful. Should this presumption be in error, the blades of the warriors of Thark will drink deep from the hearts of the warriors of Jasoom. I, Tars Tarkas, have spoken."

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Motivate!

Guaranteed, 100%-sure way to get you in the right frame of mind for your workout:

Walk into the gym just as the guys in the weight room kick in the theme from Rocky over the sound system, then watch the men's 100 meter dash on the Olympics.

Gonna fly now indeed.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Grid Face

The sixth Monkeewrench book by Patricia and Traci Lambrecht, writing as P.J. Tracy, has the software geniuses at Monkeewrench still separated as they were at the end of Shoot to Kill, and Minneapolis detective Leo Magozzi marking time until Monkeewrench leader Grace McBride returns. He and his partner, Gino Rolseth, catch the case of a young woman murdered in a field. She is one of five girls missing from a nearby Indian reservation, but the other four can't be found. The discovery of two men shot in a nearby home gives some clues in the kidnappings, but the murders themselves make no sense. Nor do three more committed the next day.

Grace, meanwhile, finds it necessary to flee when terrorists try to kill retired FBI agent John Smith, the man she is traveling with. Before she, Magozzi and Rolseth and the rest of the Monkeewrench crew can figure out if these are all connected and how, they'll need to enlist some new allies and go further "off the grid."

The Lambrechts have maintained their smooth narrative flow and wry wit over the entire series, and the characterization skill that flagged a little in Shoot returns here. Ensnaring the cast in a worldwide terrorist plot seems a little far-fetched considering the more stay-at-home kinds of work that they've been doing, and the ending act is a lot shakier and sketchier than it could be, feeling a little rushed. But the Monkeewrench series is still a lively, peppy read and the Lambrechts have yet to slow down.
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Checking out a late-period James Hogan novel a month or so ago opened up some rereading of his earlier work. His Giants trilogy took its turn here, and now we look at 1979's The Two Faces of Tomorrow, which is probably one of his best.

In the mid-21st century, much of the world's machinery, transportation and infrastructure is operated by a supercomputer network called TITAN. Human society is too complex for anything other than a computer to be able to handle these tasks, and so the semi-independent system takes care of much of it. But the problem is that TITAN is like most computers -- literal and unaware of the immense impact our basic, taken-for-granted knowledge gained through experience needs to have on its decisions. This literalism has been causing accidents around the globe, so politicians and scientists are faced with a choice: They can revert to an older, slower system than will limit growth or try to install a truly artificial intelligence. Raymond Dyer, a leader in developing such systems, warns the leaders that there is no guarantee such an intelligence would agree to be allied with humanity once it developed, and could become very dangerous.

So Dyer and several other scientists, as well as military leaders and troops, create such a system on the space station Janus in order to test it. If it goes wrong, then at the very least the station can be destroyed before endangering the whole world. They install the system, called SPARTACUS, and program it with a "survival instinct" they theorize could prompt conflict between a supercomputer and humanity. They figure that they can always turn off the power and end the experiment. But nobody told SPARTACUS it was all an experiment.

Much more than any of Hogan's other work, Faces is a novel of ideas, among them what it means to be what we call "human." The mere ability to recall data and process it much faster than any person could isn't enough to make computers independent of human agency -- they need intuition as well. How does this combination of intuition and reason develop, and what are its ramifications? Faces works out one set of answers in a world slightly different from our own but still recognizable. Space travel is common and there are bases on the moon, but the characters use personal computers resembling iPads, for example.

Hogan also does a much better job of developing more of his cast of characters than in some of his other books, in which we get a good picture of one or two and sketches of the rest. Although he would write some 30 books over a career that lasted until his death in 2010, he would not really match the height of Faces -- it's not a Great Novel in the common sense of the word, but it is a thought-provoking work that isn't limited by its genre from considering the human condition.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Here We Go Again

Back in Beijing in 2008, the Chinese women's gymnastics team faced questions about whether or not they were old enough to compete in the Olympics. The Chinese government said they were, nobody believed them and the International Olympic Committee performed the feat of sticking their fingers in their ears and saying "La la la la not listening!" in 68 languages. This despite the fact that an earlier Chinese team was being investigated and later found guilty of the same thing.

Now the questions are raised about Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, who blazed through the pool in some record times. Was she blood-doping or otherwise using performance-enhancing drugs? The Chinese government is angry at the speculation, a development to which the only appropriate reply is "So what? I'm angry about your one-child policy, forced abortions, harassment of your own people and repressive police state, so now we're even. And tell Tom Friedman to shut up."

And with regards to the question of whether or not Ye was chemically assisted in her races, either recently or growing up, I don't care. Not in the sense of this dim-bulb columnist, who thinks it's mean to suggest the poor kid is cheating just because she's a Chinese athlete who broke old records. We never think that about Western athletes. Marion Jones of the U.S. and Ben Johnson of Canada would probably disagree, but, you know, facts and all, and besides the Chinese athletic organizations have never done anything like this less than a month ago.

I mean in the sense that even though the performance enhancing-drugs would be cheating, their absence would still leave Ye as the product of a dehumanizing, brutal and just plain evil system that created her. Check out these two stories in The Daily Mail and the accompanying pictures. As in, check out the picture of a little girl sitting on the floor with her feet resting on blocks while an adult stands on her knees. Or of the two little girls on their stomachs, trying to keep their arms and legs off the floor while an adult with a long paddle stands behind them.

Now, I don't think many athletic training facilities in the U.S. offer that kind of coaching service. Even if I'm off on that, we still have to face the reality that such a system would rely on the voluntary -- even though blatantly wrong -- actions of some seriously misguided parents. We're not talking about a system in which children are selected by governmental agencies and removed from their homes without much more than a receipt saying, "Thank you for your generous contribution to our glorious athletic program. It won't be forgotten -- and neither will you, so watch what you say."

Were the International Olympic Committee an organization that practiced a tenth of what it preaches, Chinese athletes (and probably North Korean ones as well) wouldn't be allowed past the arena door. Neither, back in the day, would those from the old Soviet Union, East Germany or other old Warsaw Pact powers. Its motto is citius, altius, fortius, or "faster, higher, stronger," meaning that athletes compete to excel and to better their own performances as well as the performances of others.

But to be worth anything, that motto supposes that the ability and drive to be faster, higher and stronger comes from the athlete's own heart and desire -- not from a needle and a whip.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Home Town Fans


Your team wins, you get a hug from your hot wife and you're third in line for the throne of England.

It's even good to almost be the king.

(Original here)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

No Medaling With the Rules, Please

Sportswriters who dislike the National Football League's different stances on celebration and hotdogging sometimes use its initials to call it the "No Fun League." But the NFL ain't got nothin' on the IOC.

American swimmer Michael Phelps has won the most medals of any Olympian ever (19), beating the 48-year-old record held by Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina. Latynina, now 77, was actually on hand at the race, having bought a ticket. She has said a sportsman like Phelps is deserving of the honor, joking that after 48 years it was time for a man to finally do what a woman had already done.

Latynina, in a graceful gesture that would have been PR gold, so to speak, for the Olympic games, said she would be pleased to present Phelps his tie-breaking medal.

Nuttin' doin', said the IOC, always willing to shoot itself in the foot when it comes to its self-image. It's against some rule or another, I'm sure, but I'll have to guess because the IOC isn't talking about why it let what could have a fine moment slip through its fingers, and why it rebuffed one of its great champions when she offered to give it a once-in-a-lifetime moment, basically on her own dime (she did, after all, buy the tickets).