Monday, September 30, 2013


If this bit from MIT pans out, I am about to find your lack of faith disturbing.

And all my meetings a whole lot shorter.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


Breaking Bad is over. Always the story of bad people doing bad things -- many of which I see reflected in the real-life stories of the inmates with whom I do a Bible study -- it never interested me despite its fine acting and generally well-written story. Probably because I did see it reflected in real life and all of the hoopla about what a "bad-ass" Walter White was just sounded like yet more of missing creator Vince Gilligan's idea that there's no such thing as "just a little" evil.

Anyway, perhaps now I can stop hearing about it.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Today I Am a Man

Over at Cracked, there is an article about five signs you have become a grown-up. I was going to link it and add my own favorite as number 6, but instead I will just mention it, because the article writer needs a dose of grown-up in his vocabulary, which would be the envy of any middle-schooler with a Sharpie and blank bathroom wall.

So what I guess is technically the seventh sign you are a grown-up is that when you walk down the cereal aisle at the grocery store and you find a cereal you want to buy and then you remember that you have an unfinished box of a different cereal at home -- and you buy it anyway because there's no one to tell you not to. In fact, you might even buy a box of cereal for the prize inside -- if they still put prizes inside cereal anymore, that is.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Doing It Right

The Beto Junction truck stop at the intersection of US 75 and Interstate 35 has the best music over its PA system. On the way to Kansas City, I heard Roy Head's "Treat Her Right" and Ray Charles' "What'd I Say."

On the way back in, Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues." If I didn't have to drive through a half-dozen tiny towns in two states to get there, I might just drive by and fill up again sometime.

Thursday, September 26, 2013


It's kind of interesting how I've come to a workshop to be taught by people who are tops in their fields, but judging by the conversations I overhear, a good 60 percent of the folks here are pretty sure they would do better.

Don't think I'd bet one way or the other, 'cause my denomination opposes gambling. But I know which group I wrote a check to.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

It's a "W"

Before a conference today, I had time to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Musuem, which is a great place to view an important part of our nation's history.

I was visiting during a field trip by some elementary school students who found the statues and model playing field much more fascinating than the timeline of the Leagues' history. Their teacher, a rather humorless woman, insisted they walk past the individual lockers with uniforms before seeing the "Field of Dreams" with the statue of historic all-time Negro League greats.

I kind of wanted to ask her why she was so insistent. The kids simply couldn't understand a world in which someone could be denied the chance to play baseball at the highest level just because of the color of his skin. Let it go, lady; just let them enjoy the famous statues and the cool baseball memorabilia without regard to the color of the players' skins. This one's a win.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Whatever Pays the Bills...

Well, maybe not, at least not when what you try to pay your bill with is crack or some other kind of white powder that causes an evacuation of the building where you leave it.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Frenchman, a Vulcan and a Mutant Walk Into a Bar...

Actually, with a setup like that, do you need a punchline at all? From Leonard Nimoy's Twitter feed, via The Mary Sue, a picture of Nimoy, Patrick Stewart (Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise-D and -E), and Ian McKellan (Magneto. Also Gandalf).

There are days when it's really cool to be a nerd.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


I mean, who couldn't agree that doubly heavy baryons are fascinating? First of all, you'd have to explain what they were. And judging by those equations, the surest way to be able to explain what they were would be to find them fascinating.

Saturday, September 21, 2013


The government of Venezuela, embarrassed by shortages of toilet paper in that country earlier this year, decided to seize control of a toilet-paper manufacturing facility. National guard troops will be stationed at the factory for 15 days.

A number of folks denounce this move as socialism or as the kind of totalitarian action dictators take when a nation's economic policies create shortages. Possibly, but given the most common product of the politicians who make up government, I have another name for a government-controlled toilet paper factory:


Friday, September 20, 2013


At the local football homecoming contest, I learned during halftime that Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls" is now a marching band song.

The cheerleaders were not amused.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Infinite Nerd

When nerds don't have enough to do, we do nerdier things than we do usually. Like this excellent photo-artist, who combined character heads from Star Trek: The Next Generation with uniforms, bodies and backgrounds from the original Star Trek series to create these fine pieces.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Why do I consider Weekly Standard writer Matt Labash a national treasure? Because through him, I find many national treasures I might otherwise never see.

From the Rental Vault: Movie, Movie

Moviemakers who want to adapt H. Rider Haggard's classic King Solomon's Mines face a problem: There are no ladies present, and most of your dashing adventurous leading men types aren't nearly so dashing when they don't have a female person to admire them for their manly adventurous ways and occasionally to rescue. Producers have usually gone for the easiest solution, which is to rewrite the story so that it in fact has a leading lady. Thus, Deborah Kerr has a role in the 1950 version of King Solomon's Mines, playing Elizabeth Curtis. She wants to hire Stewart Granger's Allan Quatermain to find her long-lost husband, deep in the interior of the Africa continent.

Quatermain is at first reluctant -- he doesn't have a high view of women to start with, and women on safari impress him even less. Elizabeth and her brother John Goode (Richard Carlson) have a sketchy map supposedly showing them the way to  mines from which King Solomon was supposed to have obtained his gold, but Quatermain knows it better as a route to probably disaster and possible death. The money convinces him, though, and he agrees to guide the group -- and (gasp!) finds himself lookng much more favorably upon Elizabeth Curtis. The three find themselves in the midst of a power struggle between two factions of a native tribe and have to hope that the side which favors them comes out on top.

Granger landed the role when Errol Flynn turned it down and it made him an international star. He expresses Quatermain's cynicism and distaste for the whole venture quite well, but falters a little when the script really doesn't give him a lot to work with on why he warms to Elizabeth later. He and Kerr have great chemistry onscreen (they would work together again in The Prisoner of Zenda and Young Bess) -- they sell initial dislike and they sell the romantic couple, but the in-between not so much.

For 1950 audiences the major draw of Mines is the African scenery. The movie was filmed in several African locales and showcased areas pretty much unseen by American movie audiences used to Southern California hills standing in for sub-Saharan mountains. Even today, the incredible locations and many wildlife shots do the most to make Mines worth watching. Granger and Kerr are tops, but the thin script that doesn't give them much to do leaves them in second place to their backdrops.
The 1920s are often seen as a kind of "golden age" for American gangsters; the swaggering bosses like Al Capone came to prominence running alcohol during Prohibition, as well as less welcome crimes like loan-sharking, murder and prostitution.

China in the 1920s had some similar characteristics, as the decade is sometimes known as the "Warring '20s" in contrast with the U.S.'s "Roaring '20s" In the Sichuan province, a man named Ma Bangde (Ge You) has used his money to buy a position as a governor, which he hopes will make him rich through graft and other extra-legal means. But waylaid on the trip by bandit "Pock Mark" Zhang Mazi (Jiang Wen), he finds himself forced to work with the bandit gang as Zhang pretends to be the governor and confronts local crimelord Master Huang (Chow Yun-Fat) in a power struggle. The struggle is aimed at a confrontation that will definitely live up to the movie's title, Let the Bullets Fly.

Zhang and Huang play a violent game of chess as they try suborn each other's supporters and gain enough of an advantage to make an attack succeed. Each man is as witty and intelligent as he is ruthless, which leads to some verbal sparring that will test your subtitle-reading ability. The matchup succeeds because of how well Jiang Wen and Chow Yun-Fat play off of and against each other; they are two of the more charismatic actors you'll see in a long time and sharpen each other's work considerably (think of the way Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro worked in Heat)

Jiang Wen also directed Bullets and wrote the screenplay, which is sometimes hard to follow for a non-Mandarin and non-Sichuanese speaker because of the quickness of the wordplay. Fortunately, DVD's can be rewound or slowed down to catch what everyone's saying.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Mendoza Line Trio

There are two components to a baseball player's game; offense and defense. The number of players means that someone who is defensively skilled but offensively less so can still be kept on the team because other bats will make up for the low production. But below a certain line, even defensive brilliance can't keep someone on the starting lineup (pitchers excluded). In the late 1970s and early 1980s, shortstop Maria Mendoza gave that border a name, "The Mendoza Line," by being fantastic in the field but mediocre at the plate.

His batting average of .214 was generally considered about the lowest acceptable
to keep a great defensive player on the field. The three novels following are some
seriously Mendoza-ish works by their respective authors.
Mystery author Thomas Perry took over the "co-author" role of Clive Cussler's Fargo adventure series in 2012. His initial outing was pretty strong, as he helped sketch a little character development into the tales of the Nick and Nora Charles-influenced archaeologists Sam and Remi Fargo. The Fargos are independently wealthy, supremely confident and even more capable than confident. In The Mayan Secrets, their decision to help stranded victims of an earthquake leads them to an incredible find -- a long-lost but incredibly well-preserved Mayan book, complete with descriptions of Mayan religions and maps showing once-great cities now buried in Central American jungles. But a vain and ruthless woman wants the Mayan book for herself and her own aggrandizement, and her connections to organized crime mean the Fargos will have to call upon some non-archaeological skill sets to make sure the discoveries the book represents are properly recorded, explored and kept in the hands of the local governments to whom they now belong. Fortunately they have just such skills, and a couple that they may have even hidden from each other.

The Fargo novels have always been lightweight, even by Cussler adventure standards, so Perry's work in The Tombs was a nice breath of substance. Unfortunately, he reverts to previous series standards with Secrets, crafting a story that isn't much more than a low-rent Republic serial full of cliffhangers and escapes strung together for not much more reason than that the Fargos can't resist poking their noses into things and they don't take failure well. The lead villain is such primarily because she wants greater fame and notoriety and believes making archaeological discoveries will be the way to get them (she apparently does not watch much television). Most thrillers require a suspension of disbelief, but a villain who is a lot more punchline than psychopathic baddie makes The Mayan Secrets some information that didn't need to be shared.
Although character and story are two essential elements of noir and noir-inspired fiction, atmosphere is another key. The murky morality of the characters and their decisions exists in a murky and shadowy world, where tone of narrative and description help maintain the uncertainty for both the characters and the readers.

T. Jefferson Parker has made a career on being able to set such moods and tones, offering a string of good guys who have some tarnish in their pasts and bad guys who have more than a little human in their makeup -- and for whom the mixture makes each of them that much better or that much worse than any kind of black and white identity they might have had. Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputy Charlie Hood is one such good guy -- on loan to federal officials trying to stem the flow of guns and narcotics across the California-Mexico border, Charlie has a few obsessions of his own that sometimes bring him to act as a little less shining of a knight than his superiors might like. Over the course of several novels, Parker has been bringing Charlie closer and closer to a confrontation with Bradley Jones, a career criminal who also works for the LASD and who is the son of a woman Charlie once loved but who was herself a rather notorious bandit.

Now Bradley's wife Erin has been kidnapped by a cartel that knows about his illegal activities, and although he will use his connections to try to rescue her, he enlists Charlie to help run interference. Charlie agrees because he knows Erin knows nothing of her husband's illegal activity and is an innocent pawn in this game.

Parker switches between three narratives -- Charlie as he obeys the kidnappers' ransom instructions, Bradley as he collects allies and information, and Erin herself as she tries to maintain her resolve and sanity in the unreal world of her abductor, a rival cartel leader.

But even so, he does almost no storytelling -- rather than using mood as a tool for his narrative, Parker does almost nothing except set moods -- the madness of Erin's captor, Charlie's dogged determination, Bradley's increasing desperation. The Jaguar seems to have little point beyond setting up an increasingly supernatural finale in the next novel and doing so slowly, clumsily and unconvincingly. The earlier Charlie Hood novels were well-grounded crime thrillers, but with The Jaguar, Parker takes a bizarre turn that does nothing for either his longer series narrative or his immediate one.
Like Tom Clancy's "Ryanverse," Dale Brown's military-flavored thrillers are now set in a world that is similar to ours but different in key respects because of the events of earlier novels. A limited nuclear strike by a rogue Russian general has left the United States crippled militarily and economically, and there are no shortage of enemies who want to insert themselves into the vacuum of power. Chief among them, of course, is China, whose decision to aggressively expand its territorial waters forces a confrontation between weakened U.S. forces and advanced Chinese weaponry. Retired USAF General Patrick McLanahan and some of his former colleagues have the private resources to thwart the Chinese plans, but will they be allowed to do so, and can they tip the balance before it's too late?

Brown is strictly meat-and-potatoes when it comes to his prose -- his characters vary little from each other despite age, gender and role, meaning their names aren't much more than labels to help identify who's speaking. His action and battle sequences are taut and top-notch and nearly everything else is run-of-the-mill bland, acting as filler to keep the flyin' and shootin' parts from overlapping one another. With one important exception, nearly everything at the end of Tiger's Claw is the same as it was when the book started, meaning there's been little or no point to the whole thing. And so little or no reason to read it.

Green-Eyed Monster

I suspect envy will be all over Iran's reported plans to send a Persian cat into space as a part of its own space research program.

Other cats will be jealous of the orbiting kitty's perch, which will enable it to urinate on the whole world. The only thing higher in the feline pantheon of achievement would be a way to hunt and kill while still napping.

Every other living creature in Iran with a functioning brain will be jealous of the cat for being able to get the hell out of Iran.

Monday, September 16, 2013

For the Dough

This blog has often noted the fun of Legos, the interlocking plastic bricks that could make anything that an imagination could conceive -- and which required neither battery nor a plasma screen.

But to help honor National Play-Doh Day, which is dedicated to another creator of wonders, here are 10 fun facts about the canned "modeling compound" courtesy of the good folks at Mental Floss.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Beginning and the End

This video by the BBC Science Club offers a brief history of the development of music, and brings to mind an interesting idea. Although we know there must have been a time before human beings produced music, we have no real idea when it came to be a part of our different cultures. Was the voice first, as mothers perhaps sang to children or men chanted when hunting? Or did rhythm begin it all, as some enterprising Buddy Rich of the Neandertal set learned how to tap in time? Maybe instruments came before everything else, as a stray breath of wind over the right kind of object suggested to a paleolithic Stradivarius how to construct objects that made those same sorts of sounds.

We really don't know -- we just sort of assume it's always been there, but we don't know when it started.

We can, however, offer a pretty good suggestion as to when it came to an end.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Dish Best Served Cold...

So, you may be saying, "Friar, I read that op-ed piece by Vladimir Putin in the New York Times, and I'm a little concerned about that part where he talks about the League of Nations collapsing like the United Nations when member nations act on their own, because I checked a little history and found out that the League of Nations booted the old U.S.S.R. when it invaded Finland in 1939, while the United Nations has basically gone 'Lalala not listening' in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1980, Chechnya in 1991 and 1999, Georgia/South Ossetia in 2008 and so on. I'm worried that after all of these years, now that we recognize ol' Vlad as a peacemaker and all-around swell fellow, Finland won't be able to get its payback because it's going to be at the tail end of the line of the nations that get justice under all this new reasonableness and all."

And I say to you, would a band of Finnish musicians sporting fake pompadours pointier than Italian shoes, calling themselves the Leningrad Cowboys and playing a variety of classic rock and modern hits with a bad Russian accent, accordions, a horn section and sometimes as many as 30 folks in military uniforms as a chorus constitute an adequate revenge?

Then behold the wrath of the Finns:

Friday, September 13, 2013

Hot Air Optional

An enterprising questioner at xkcd's what-if blog asks if it would be possible to drop from a great height with an uninflated balloon and tanks of helium, then on the way down inflate the balloon enough to reduce your falling speed and survive the landing.

The short answer seems to be that it is possible, but it would probably be difficult. The amount of helium would require several commercial tanks and some way of releasing the helium into the balloon very quickly, or you would run out of time. Personally, I am surprised MacGyver never had to do this.

The author notes that a large enough regular balloon would do the trick as well, by acting as a parachute. Which brings up the notion, he points out, of using an actual parachute to do the same thing more simply.

Unfortunately, a regular balloon would not inflate quickly enough to do any good unless a high-pressure fan of some kind was available. A hot-air balloon presents the same problem: beginning your fall with the equipment necessary to create enough hot air in a time short enough to do any good.

And of course, one could use alternative sources of hot air, but these might create their own problems. A sufficient number of my fellow clergy could probably produce enough hot air to inflate the balloon, but would that number be so large that it would overwhelm the balloon's drag factor and lifting power? Lawyers would create more hot air per person, and politicians even more. But there we run into the factor of knowing that if we have that many of either group on a splattery collision course with the ground, we face a great temptation to superglue that balloon's air intake shut.

Chickens Roosting, New Boss/Old Boss, etc...

They warned me that if I voted for Mitt Romney our nation's fiscal and economic policy would be run by a bunch of middle-aged white Wall-Street cronies who used to work for his company -- and they were right!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

When the Man Comes Around

Ten years ago today, the man in black got to trade in his somber tones for a robe of shining colors. Back early in the history of this blog, I wrote a little remembrance of some of his later work, at times the subject of criticism for its "old" sound. Unusually for me, I think I got something right the first time, so I repeat it:
I'm a Johnny Cash fan, and from time to time I converse with people who are also fans, but who don't much appreciate his final albums, especially the last two or three. He sounds old, they say, and worn out. I want to remember him young and with that powerful voice. What's to like about him later on?

Here's one shot at an answer.

Listening to the Johnny Cash of "Hurt" and "The Man Comes Around" is like listening to the wind blow through a tree in late autumn. Most of the leaves are gone and those that remain whisper where they once spoke out loud. The whisper and the bare limbs scratching at a leaden sky suggest life at its end and are only ghosts of the swelling green surf that waved in blue summer seas.

But even so thin and pale a ghost holds the shape of its history and its whispers echo a real past. Though it sounds and looks bare now, its strength roots in earth and days and it minds not illusions of feebleness and age. It has an ancient power unbound by time and one day will green again.
For those who care, this is a day of observance rather than one of obligation, so the wearing of black is encouraged but not required. Remembering those who are held back is, as always, strongly recommended.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


A reminder to evil; 12 years later -- still not winning.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Triple Booked

Retired Special Forces Lt. Colonel Brad Taylor can make certain that much of the technology, terminology, tactics and action of his Pike Logan "Taskforce" thrillers is correct, having trained in the field for most of his career. In 2011's One Rough Man, Logan debuts as the leader of one of the Taskforce teams -- groups that operate mostly outside of established legal guidelines to fight terror threats on U.S. soil and abroad. They're kept in check by a system of advisory review and the high character of the men chosen to serve on the teams, but when a tragedy changes Logan's life forever, he eventually leaves the Taskforce to enlist in the Drowning Your Sorrows brigade.

A chance encounter puts him back into the game, trying to help an innocent woman stay alive and uncovering a terrifying plot against the U.S. But Logan hasn't played in some time, and time plus the bottle have made him rusty -- maybe too rusty to survive.

Taylor's first novel runs smoother than many do, and his grasp of realistic covert operations and activities helps keep One Rough Man more grounded than some similar works. He writes in the first person and gives Logan a kind of chatty, snarky gumshoe patter that seems at odds with the seriousness of Logan's work, the violence of the missions and the deep depression he has when he returns to the narrative. But he makes Logan's story more compelling than a lot of his thriller colleagues do, adding touches about what's going on inside our hero that strengthen the story but don't get in the way of the good old-fashioned beatin-on-the-bad-guys mayhem going on outside of him. It's probably worth at least one more novel to see if Taylor can keep that up.
The "Camel Club" is a group of loosely associated folks in Washington, D.C. who have a variety of covert and overt operative experience, falling equally along both sides of the law. Its leader, a former CIA assassin, has taken the name Oliver Stone and has guided the Club through the thwarting of several shadowy conspiracies aimed at destabilizing the United States or other nefarious undertakings.

In 2010's Hell's Corner, the fifth Camel Club novel, Stone has been called back into government service to help track down a Russian mafia connection with narcotics trafficking. But before he can begin, a bomb explodes more or less in front of him at Lafayette Park near the White House. With the British prime minister the suspected target, Stone is given a new job: Solve the bombing and stop whoever was behind it before they try again.

Baldacci is a serviceable writer and moves his scenes along nicely. The characters are mostly a bundle of surface traits and are like journeymen actors who show up, hit their marks, read their lines and leave, which actually serves him best because he really doesn't have the wherewithal to give them more depth. The plot has a number of confusing twists -- and not the good kind -- that make it tough a couple of times to figure out what's supposed to be going on. The lead baddie's plan makes some sense, yet includes portions that are just operationally silly. Baldacci continues to progress as an author but could still use a lot more polishing.
Back in 2010, wandering adventurer Jack Reacher spent some time on the phone with U.S. Army investigator Major Susan Turner, who commands his old outfit, in Lee Child's 61 Hours. Intrigued by her voice, Reacher resolved to wander back to his old base to meet her, and in the new Never Go Back he finally does. But Major Turner is not the CO in his old office, and Reacher learns he's the target of two separate charges against him that bring parts of his past to the surface -- and threaten to make him a part of the past. As he attempts to clear both himself and the major, Reacher will probably have to break a few rules, and maybe some heads. Fortunately he's good at both.

On the one hand, Never Go Back has the satisfaction of paying off Reacher's interest in Major Turner. She proves just as interesting, tough and resourceful as you'd hope a woman who caught Reacher's attention would be, and Child's reliably efficient and clear prose sketches her quickly and brings her into the story nicely.

On the other hand, Child seems to have brought everything to his narrative here except coherence and a clear direction. Never Go Back pads its story with at least one unnecessary encounter between Reacher and a crew of poor, benighted fools who challenge him (spoiler: Reacher wins), and Child leaves enough details fuzzy at certain points that it's difficult to see what exactly is happening. He hints at payoffs that Reacher fans know are unlikely to happen, as they would pretty much kill the series, and has gone so far with his hero's skills in a fight that the closest Reacher comes to an injury is some reddened knuckles after punching a guy.

Child has flagged before, with Bad Luck and Trouble and Nothing to Lose, and Never Go Back is still much better than either of those. But it has a hazy, loopy, unfinished feel that combines with some series elements so exaggerated as to approach self-parody to set it definitely in the half-baked category.

Monday, September 9, 2013

As Seen on TV...

The good folks at Flavorwire have compiled a list of the 25 most memorable moments on television, with clips showing the scenes or events in question and a little bit of the history thereof.

You may or may not agree with the list and its rankings, but a couple of things make it a particularly strong entry in this sort of thing. One, it looks at a wide range of TV history, stretching back into the medium's early days of the 1950s. A lot of times, the people who compile these things seem to have no memory of anything before Saved by the Bell. But the Flavorwire list includes Lucy and Ethel's job in the chocolate factory, the final episode of The Fugitive, and a couple of well-known 1980s TV moments in the final episode of M*A*S*H* and the infamous "Who Shot J.R.?" cliffhanger.

It also, as it moves higher up the list, looks more at actual events captured by news crews and cameras instead of scripted shows. In other words, real things outweigh made-up things. All a TV show is, after all, is another episode in what show creators hope to be a long string of them. Even a finale is a manufactured event -- the characters may come to an end but the real people playing them go on to live their lives.

Real-world, stuff, on the other hand, has lasting impact even after people have begun to forget it. The incredible importance given to a political candidate's image, for example, stems directly from the sweaty, shifty look of Richard Nixon in his 1960 debate with John F. Kennedy. Radio listeners gave the edge to Nixon, TV viewers who could see the polished Kennedy and the worn-out Nixon broke for the former. In subsequent elections, image took on more and more weight opposed to substance and actual political thinking -- whether we are still on the road to the candidate who is all manufactured image and absolutely zero content or we have already arrived may be debated itself. But that's the direction we're going.

The top event (spoiler!) is the moon landing in 1969. The very first time in history that human beings stood on the surface of a world on which we did not evolve, the first time humanity would have someone to write an epitaph if our whole world blinked out of existence. Maybe discovering how to create fire on our own tops this, or learning how to tend crops instead of gather wild-growing plants. Perhaps it's the invention of writing and the ability to transmit ideas and record them for future generations, or the discovery of the way numbers could be manipulated to express complex physical relationships and descriptions.

But none of those were on TV.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Who'd a Thunk It?

So, would you have thought that duct tape wouldn't work for sealing ducts?

Turns out it's true. A study back in 1998 showed that for whatever reason, nearly every other type of sealant survived the stress tests used to try to keep gas inside a container with a leak.

Fortunately, it works for everything else -- as demonstrated in Apollo 13, it can fix spaceships. And as demonstrated in Jackie Chan's 1995 movie Rumble in the Bronx, it can fix hovercrafts. If we ever actually encounter a black hole with a spaceship, we may able to use the tape to cover it up.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

"How Would You Taste?" did an interview with anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, who wrote a book about what cats are thinking. The post title is my best guess about what cats think most of the time, and I lived with one for 20 years. Other possibilities are, "What would it be like to watch your lifeblood drain from your body as I delicately lick it from my razor-sharp claws?" and, "How in the hell did something as dumb as you get to the top of the food chain?"

Dr. Bradshaw, who as an anthrozoologist studies interactions between humans and animals, has written a new book, Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. He says that one of the things that makes dogs and cats act differently is that dogs, descended from wolves, are socialized animals. A pack is a cooperative venture that works when everybody plays their assigned roles.

But cats have generally been loners -- lions are the exception. Since their faces do not need to communicate information, they have not evolved different emotion-conveying expressions as dogs have. The exception, of course, is when cats are supremely ticked off, as is the anonymous animal in the picture this blog uses in its header. That emotion -- murderous psychopathic rage -- they have little trouble expressing.

To me, the most telling sentence is one Dr. Bradshaw uses to describe how dogs and cats will play differently with people and their toys. For a dog, the goal is interaction with a member of the pack. The toy is a tool to facilitate this. Cats operate differently:
"In the case of a cat, we've never really found any particular significance to the human being."
Neither, I submit, has the cat.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Lore of the Ages

As I near the end of my first half-century on this planet, it occurs to me that we must respect the knowledge we have received from our ancestors:
Here some may demand, Whether it be better to drink their Beere cold, or a little warmed, especially in the Winter season? Whereto I answer, that I see no good reason to approve the drinking thereof warme, as I know some to do, not only in the Winter, but almost all the yeere: for it is nauceous and fulsome to the stomack...
We ignore their wisdom at our peril!

(H/T VA Viper)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Does That Mean What You Think It Means?

As anyone who's ever taken a foreign language in school knows, there are some words in every language that just don't translate word-for-word into another. I am sure Mrs. Kindley taught us some of those, but they have slipped my mind in the intervening 35 years. ¡Silencio, por favor!, on the other hand, is still firmly in my brain.

The good folks at the maptia blog assembled a few words from other languages that represent concepts which take several English words -- and a little cartoon into the bargain -- to explain. Several of them are very interesting.

No. 5, for example, is the Russian word pochemuchka, which describes someone who asks a lot of questions, perhaps too many. Historically, the number of questions which crosses that line in Russia is a low one. Especially if they are the wrong kind of questions, such as, "Well, what did happen to those farmers, Mr. General Secretary?"

No. 9 is the French word dépaysement, which roughly translates as "the feeling that comes from not being in one's own country." Since it's French, the alternate meaning, of course, is "an overwhelming desire to surrender."

No. 7 is one which I and my clergy colleagues often experience Sunday morning. The Indonesian word jayus describes a joke so unfunny or told so poorly that listeners can't help but laugh -- not at the joke, but at the person who told it. In German, this word can be translated "gottfried," in French "saget" and in Hungarian "szekely" or "cee-kay." All three, however, are much more dour than the Indonesian word, as they denote attempts at humor so unfunny some listeners actually wish for death.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Double-Naught Spy Stories!

First, a few bullet points:

1) Brad Thor deserves kudos for putting some ladies kicking tail into the driver's seat of an international intrigue action thriller. The Athena Project is also the name given to a special Delta Force unit comprised of four straight-shooting, no-nonsense red-blooded American women who use their own gifts and abilities to handle missions differently than a squad of male operatives would do -- and sometimes better.

2) Brad Thor deserves a solid gong for the way he writes his female characters. Take a paint-by-numbers late-run Charlie's Angels episode, mix it with either of the loud and empty movie versions of the same, and sauteé in the kind of conversations adolescent males wish girls had when they were alone with no men around and they were being badass, and you have the four operatives of Athena.

Here, the lethal ladies are on the trail of some recently rediscovered Nazi technology that's already fallen into the wrong hands, which are swiftly trying to get it up and running for their own nefarious purposes. On the way, they match up against a sleazy arms dealer, Czech thugs and an Eastern European criminal leader affiliated with a shadowy organization bent on world dominion. The story moves quickly enough and Thor has a gift for high-tension action scenes, but you almost have to recast the way he writes women characters as satirical in order to diminish the temptation to sail the book into an opposing wall. Which brings us to a final bullet point:

3) He's getting better, but every time I read Brad Thor I'm reminded of how much I'm going to miss Vince Flynn.
It's a fact that, except for some long-established brand names like Cussler, Clancy or van Lustbader, many thrillers seem to be written by guys with one-syllable names. Which apparently presented a problem for English freelance video editor and non-fiction writer Tom Hinshelwood, so the magic of the pseudonym transformed him into Tom Wood, author of three books to date about the ruthless and exceptionally skillful hitman known only as Victor. The Killer is Wood's first novel, first published in Europe as The Hunter.

We meet Victor as he completes a fairly routine assignment, but Wood swiftly upsets the applecart as the assassin's keen senses note a hit team waiting for him at his hotel. A tautly-written and quite bloody shootout over several floors and a couple of buildings follows as Victor tries to get himself free of the hit team and learn who hired them. The problem for a man who has relied on his solitude and isolation to keep himself safe from trouble is that he has almost no help when that trouble finally comes, and Victor will be forced into some unnatural alliances in order to learn who's hunting him and make sure he turns the tables before he becomes some other assassin's high-priced victim.

Wood's not a master stylist, but he has a good gift for moving his scenes and chases along quickly without his prose getting in the way. There will be few times when the reader might be energized by a particular phrasing or sequence of sentences, but there are even fewer when clunky dialogue or amateurish description clog the narrative.

Since debuting in 2011, Wood has spun two more tales of the surnameless assassin Victor, which are definitely worth checking into. Readers with qualms about a killer for hire as a protagonist can be somewhat comforted by the fact that, in these adventures anyway, Victor is mostly killing bad people. We don't have to believe he's not a bad guy, but at least his victims to this point were either trying to kill him or were even worse guys.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What Have You Done for Us Lately?

One of the writers at the Sports Economist blog talks a little about a recent paper he published that tries to rank the coaches of the Football Bowl Subdivision in the NCAA (formerly and more sensibly known as "Division 1.")

Joel Maxcy took data rating recruiting classes and how well each coach used his talent compared with his peers. He used the class rankings to gauge the quality of a coach's recruits. Maxcy hints at several interesting findings about where coaches who recruit well wind up placing in overall success, and how overall success matches up with recruiting. Since the paper was published in an academic journal, it's not available online for free (an economist, after all, knows that abtsract value and online "attaboys" may be very nice, but they don't put beans on the table).

As might be expected, most of the coaches who succeed in the win-loss arena are also successes at recruiting top talent. Some successful coaches, though, who run their own particular style of game, seek out recruits who fit their program, whether those recruits are blue chip or not. It sounds pretty interesting, but I'm not sure about interesting enough to sacrifice some of the beans on my table to take a full peek.

Maxcy says one clear finding is that a coach's ability to recruit top talent diminishes over time and as it does, so does his overall success rate, which will eventually bring about dismissal. When undergraduate careers may end after a couple of years and the only people on campus who remember your national champion trophies are the janitors who dust them, then you're got a constant pressure to produce now.

The recruiting falloff makes sense in non-economic terms too. I've read interviews with retired NCAA coaches who suggest that as they got older, their ability to reach out and connect with 18-year-olds lessened, which probably hampered their recruiting unless they had good staff doing most of the relation-building and groundwork.

After all, a guy who spent his high school years cruising the drag in his 409 or trying to decipher the deepest meaning of Dark Side of the Moon or even rocking a stunning mullet to "Bang Your Head (Metal Health)" might have a hard time connecting to a kid who thinks knowing what name to call Sean Combs means you're "old school."

Monday, September 2, 2013

The REAL Curse of the Bambino

According to legend, when Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth's contract to the New York Yankees in 1919, the baseball deities rewarded such a monumental lack of vision and obvious hatred of fans who like winners with a curse upon the Sox fortunes. A previously strong team became a perennially weak team, with brief flashes of glory all the more heart-breaking because some kind of win-killing mishap that seemed dictated by cruel fates always intervened.

This "Curse of the Bambino" seemed broken when the Sox won the 2004 World Series. But an investigation by CBS has shown that Sox owners apparently still hate their fans, as they charge more per ounce for ballpark beer than any other major league team. At $0.60 per ounce, they in fact charge more than twice per ounce than the last-place team, the Los Angeles Angels, to whom you will remit a mere $0.28 for your watery adult beverage.

Of course, based on the seasons each team is having, you would expect the 45-91 Houston Astros -- whose fans have more reason to drink this year than anybody else -- to charge either more than other teams as a way of maximizing profits or to charge less than everybody else as a humanitarian gesture. But they're in the middle of the pack at about $0.36 per ounce.

Now, if we expand that to base prices on, say, historical records, then the Chicago Cubs ought to be paying fans to drink.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Double Booked

Daniel Silva's master Israeli spy and assassin Gabriel Allon is living in Israel and working in his trade of choice, the restoration of great works of art. But when his former boss Ariel Shamron comes calling, he gets called back into his other trade, that of secret agent.

When a young Englishwoman goes missing on Corsica, it's news for a couple of weeks and then forgotten. But when England's prime minister receives notice that she is being held for ransom, he turns to his own clandestine service for help -- because he and the young woman were having an affair. One of the leader of that service, in turn, reaches out to Gabriel through Shamron, because the regular authorities have turned up nothing. Reluctantly, Gabriel agrees and then becomes more involved when the kidnappers demand he deliver the ransom. Naturally, a number of complications develop, and Gabriel must assemble his usual team of agents, hackers and covert operatives.

By this, the 13th Gabriel Allon novel, Silva has developed a familiar pattern. About midway through the book, Gabriel will need to assemble his equivalent of Jim Phelps' Impossible Mission task force to trick, connive, misdirect and subterfuge their way into an enemy organization, setting up a final violent confrontation which sometimes costs the good guys as much as it does the bad guys.

Even so, Silva can tell his story with considerable skill and his frequent linkage of Gabriel's current mission with one of the paintings he was restoring makes things interesting, as do the many variations he tosses into the mix. Airport book stores feature a lot of things that you might read just because they're there and you have little choice. But The English Girl, although fitting well with the theme of airport read, is one worth seeking out for its own sake, as are most of Silva's books.
Fans of Randy Wayne White's "Doc Ford" series have been left a little stranded in recent outings, as Ford has put up a string of disconnected narratives, unnecessary quirks and whatnot, let Putnam slap it between two pieces of cardboard and a paper dust jacket, and sent it out to his readers.

With Gone, White tries his hand at a female lead, introducing us to Florida fishing guide Hannah Smith. Once upon a time Hannah had a private investigator license, so when she's asked by a wealthy client to find a missing woman, she agrees because the money is pretty good. Both her boating and fledgling investigator skills will be necessary to find the woman alive and, not incidentally, keep Hannah alive too.

White deserves kudos for giving something new a try, as well as for including a character for whom religious life is not only present but important.

But he deserves raspberries for the novel as a whole. Although it's a fairly straight-line narrative, White also spends time at first teasing and then revealing facts and incidents that really aren't that important. He also doesn't really do well at establishing his Hannah as a woman, rather than as a man with long hair who sometimes wear dresses.

Again, it's good to have hope -- in this case that White will cast off his blinders and return to the level he enjoyed when he was first writing the "Doc Ford" series, either in the original or with Hannah Smith.