Sunday, March 31, 2013

Coincidence?

I leave to your own personal theological reflection whether or not there is significance to the fact that Jesus returned the same day that the baseball season starts.

I know what I think about it. ;-)

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Will It Be Earth-Shattering?

Following the February meteor shower in Russia and last week's flashy object in the sky off the east coast of the U.S., one might wonder if our space-minded folks have a watch out for rocks in space that have a notion of occupying the same space currently occupied by our own homeworld.

Turns out they do, at least in the planning stages. NASA is funding an experimental asteroid detection radar detection array given the rather counter-intuitive name of "KaBOOM." As with most space-watching facilities, the name is an acronym: "Ka Band Objects Observation and Monitoring." "Ka band" refers to the frequency of the signals used for watching the nearby skies, which is 30 gigaHertz or 30 GHz. The name comes from the German word kurz, or "short." High-frequency signals have shorter wavelengths.

FM radio stations, in contrast, have broadcasting frequencies measured in "megaHertz,"  or millions of Hertz -- and a "Hertz" is a measurement of cycles per second of a particular signal. It's named after German physicist Heinrich Hertz, whose work laid much of the foundation for the modern study of electromagnetic radiation and its spectrum of signals. The gigaHertz antennae of project KaBOOM use signals measured in billions of cycles per second. AM radio that's measured in kiloHertz counts just thousands of cycles per second.

The experiment will see how well large antenna dishes can be coordinated to examine specific sections of sky more effectively than current facilities, which aren't always looking for things about to slam into us.

The story doesn't say whether or not the experiment will make use of the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator, which has been theorized to be able to produce an earth-shattering kaboom of its own. This may be for the best, as deployment of the IQ36ESM has proven to be somewhat problematic in the past, especially when there are rabbits nearby.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Vindication!

Neither my teachers nor my parents would listen to me when I said that homework could be hazardous to my health, but biologists at the University of California at San Francisco have proven that I was right!

It's about 30 years too late to do me any good, but it's nice to know I was right. On the other hand, I can only lament how smart I might be today if I'd just ignored all of their instruction...

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Fantasy or Reality

Some engineers recently weighed in on whether or not the massive ice Wall that's a central feature of the landscape in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series could actually be built. The wall was built with magical assistance and keeps the mysterious creatures of the lands Beyond the Wall from invading the human-populated lands of Westeros.

The wall is supposed to be 700 feet high and nearly 300 miles long, but an engineer at Dartmouth College said that a wall of such height would not be stable. The weight of the ice at the top would press down on the ice at the bottom, causing it to bulge and deform.

The problem is that ice is a solid under certain temperature and pressure conditions. At sea level air pressure, water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. But if the pressure is increased, then the temperature needed to freeze the water is lower and the solid ice will regain some of its fluidity. Weight can duplicate the effects of greater air pressure; if you take a block of ice and lay a string on top of it that has weights tied to either end, the string will gradually melt the ice directly underneath it until the weights reach the ground, relieving the pressure the string puts on the ice. Of course, the weights have to be heavy enough and the temperature warm enough to make this happen. In other words, the Wall is too large to be built the way it is described. It would collapse under its own weight.

Now there's a metaphor for this particular series that works!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Dune Buggin'

A long post on Frank Herbert's Dune, over at the long-post blog. Enjoy, slumber or ignore, as seems best to you.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

In a Hurry?

So today I was driving to a meeting, and part of my route was along a residential street that turns into a county road. The speed limit is 25 inside the town limits and increases to 45 once beyond them.

As I drove from town to the country, a truck followed me and in fact sped past me to head along the same road I was traveling. I, apparently, didn't go from 25 to 45 quickly enough.

I pulled into the same destination 45 seconds after the truck did.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Un-Marketing

Yeah, I always liked Skittles, but after seeing this commercial, I'm pretty sure I never want to eat another one...

Sunday, March 24, 2013

There Are No Words

One of the things that's kept me from pursuing more official study in my field is a dearth of things offered that I want to spend a lot of my money and time digging into (so technically that's three things: Disinterest, laziness and being a cheapo). I don't imagine that everything in my field that needs studying or exploring has been studied and explored, but it seems like most of the stuff that halfway interests me has.

Then I read about some of the academic work being done in the field of pop culture studies and I realize that as long as my particular discipline (theology and related matters) isn't spawning actual theses like these, we've got plenty left to do.

For me, the real kicker was No. 8, "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: the aesthetics of phallo-militaristic justice." I've got no idea what it's about, but my opinion is if you can get that ridiculous collection of the emperor's new verbiage past an editorial review committee, you've earned your money.

I will have to call a foul on No. 11, though: "Jung and Picard: archetypes and the modern myth of Star Trek: The Next Generation." According to the Mental Floss notation, the paper suggests that the whole crew is "the Hero" of Jungian analysis. But as any true Trek fan will tell you, Ensign Wesley was not only not a hero, he represented almost everything that was wrong with the show. I have no idea how that one got past the Pacifica Graduate Institute's academic standards committee, but I feel moved to write a strong letter of protest. Somebody mail me fifty cents for the stamp and I'll get right on it.

(H/T VA Viper)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

From the Rental Vault: Noir New and Old

Imagine for a minute that Bill Cosby decided to do the movie Training Day, in which he played Denzel Washington's on-the-edge detetctive Alonzo Harris. Now ramp up Harris' violence about 20 times, and you have the reaction Japanese audiences had in 1989 when they saw beloved television comedian Takeshi Kitano slap, punch, kick and shoot his way through the unrelentingly bleak Violent Cop.

Kitano was originally supposed to play Azuma, the lead detective in the movie, but stepped in as director when the original director became ill. He also rewrote much of the movie, changing it from a comedy to a very dark look at a man who enforces laws he has no trouble breaking. A drug-dealer's murder leads back into the same police department where Azuma works, and as the results of the investigation come close to home, his hold on his sanity diminishes along with his scruples about what he'll do to bring down Yakuza kingpin Nito and his assassin Kiyohiro.

Azuma occupies the center of the movie -- his slumped shoulders, blank face and aggressive, stump-legged stomp give him an almost zombie-like appearance and Kitano the director holds shots of his face long enough that watchers might wonder if Azuma is a tough guy or really dead on the inside. At first it seems he does have a human side, as caretaker for his mentally challenged sister Ayaki, but even that relationship will drown in the violence to which Azuma resorts all too naturally.
-----

Johnny Drake (William Prince) is returning from service in World War II with his friend and commanding officer Rip Murdock (Humphrey Bogart). When he finds that Rip nominated him for the Congressional Medal of Honor and it's about to be awarded at a ceremony with a lot of cameras, he slips out the back of the train they're on and disappears. This sets up the 1947 thriller Dead Reckoning, a movie by Of Human Bondage director John Cromwell (father of Babe Oscar-nominee James Cromwell).

Rip traces Johnny to the town of Gulf City, where he finds that there was a great deal more to his friend than he knew. Among the more is Johnny's lost love, Coral Chandler (Lizabeth Scott), who is defnitely a femme, but whose noir-standard fatale-ability remains an open question. How is Coral mixed up with the gangster Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky), and will the fact that Rip is falling for her keep him from learning the truth about her and about his friend?

Anyone watching Dead Reckoning unfold can't help but notice the similarities to The Maltese Falcon from six years earlier, and those similarities draw attention to where the newer movie falls short. Lizabeth Scott is just fine as Coral but doesn't hold a candle to Mary Astor, and Carnovksy and Marvin Miller as his lackey Krause come nowhere close to Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.

On the other hand, Reckoning does a great job of holding viewer interest and Bogie is Bogie, whether Sam Spade or Rip Murdock. He's a man of honor among people of little, and as best as he can determine whatever the right thing is, he'll do it despite the risk.
-----
Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), though, isn't looking to do much of anything for anyone but himself. A pickpocket with three strikes against him, he finds himself with more than he bargained for when he lifts a woman's wallet on a New York City subway. The woman, Candy (Jean Peters), was making a delivery for her former boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). But what neither she nor Skip know is that Joey is a Communist agent and that the delivery was microfilm of secret government info.

Federal agents -- their organization unnamed because then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover didn't like director Samuel Fuller's work and complained too often to studio heads -- were trailing Candy to find out who's in Joey's organization, but the theft has stopped their investigation in its tracks. They lean on Skip and Candy in order to try to get hold of the microfilm, which Skip won't admit he has. Skip does admit possession to Candy, whom he makes a go-between for her ex-boyfriend as Skip blackmails them for the film.

Although willing to be violent when he figures he needs to, Widmark exchanges his frequent psychotic touches for tough-guy bluster. Candy quickly falls for him, but he doesn't let that keep him from using her to get his payday. Only when their mutual friend Moe (Thelma Ritter, in a performance that won her a Supporting Actress Oscar) also runs afoul of the enemy agents does Widmark start to act from something other than self-interest. He's not noble and he's not necessarily a patriot for anyone but himself, but he does have a loyalty to his friends and his relationship with Candy will spur him to work alongside authorities to a limited degree.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Now You're John Hammond...

Jurassic Park, as a novel by Michael Crichton and a movie by Steven Spielberg, should provide a cautionary note to a group of scientists who have a plan to make the passenger pigeon un-extinct.

Modern genetic science could help revive the bird, which existed in the hundreds of millions across North America before disappearing in 1914. The bird's natural mode of reproduction -- each nest held one chick, about as fat as its parents but unable to fly and thus a fine day at the buffet for its many predators -- combined with over-hunting by humans killed it off. But some scientists believe they can use stuffed specimens of the extinct bird and the latest research into DNA and laboratory fertilization techniques to bring it back.

But as we saw when the fictional billionaire John Hammond tried to recreate dinosaurs for his theme park, that sort of thing has problems. You may scoff -- after all, how could even a flock of not-very-bright birds bring as much danger as a Tyrannosaurus Rex or a velociraptor?

Your scoffing, however, overlooks a very important fact. These birds have been extinct for nearly a century. That means their digestive tracts will produce end products that are completely unknown to modern drycleaning science!

My mind cannot begin to calculate the potential damage.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Maintenance

Six years ago, Jake Fisher watched the love of his life marry another man. When he sees the husband's name on an obituary notice at the college where he teaches, Jake talks himself into going to the funeral. There, he sees the man's family -- but the children are a lot older than six, and the grieving widow is not his lost love. Jake starts out just wanting to find Natalie, the woman he met six years ago, but finds himself in the middle of an incomprehensible mix of gangsters, police and other people who seem to remember neither Natalie nor Jake himself.

And the reader may start out curious about what really happened to Natalie or why no one in the town where they met acknowledges Jake, but he or she soon finds an incomprehensible mix of gangsters, police, ludicrous coincidences and an even more ludicrous plot -- with at least one gaping hole. Harlan Coben's strength has always been his ability to tell a story cleanly and with a witty narrative voice, but during the heyday of his Myron Bolitar series he used that strength in service to realistic, if somewhat colorful, storytelling and characters. In his recent stand-alone novels and even in a couple of the later Bolitar books, he's bid realism goodbye in favor of outlandish plots for which his authorial voice can't convince you to suspend disbelief. You may figure you'll buy the out-there premise, but then you find the ridiculously contrived coincidences that are a part of the deal and you have to start to wonder whether or not you want to keep buying tickets on this ride, no matter how enjoyable it's been in the past.
----
Robert Crais has been best known for his series of novels with private detective Elvis Cole, branching out now and again with some stories of Cole's mysterious partner, Joe Pike. But he's also done some standalone work, such as the story of wounded LAPD officer Scott James and former miltary working dog Maggie, Suspect.

Scott was wounded in a shootout that killed his partner, and he's not fully recovered mentally or physically. Transferred to training with the K-9 department, he meets Maggie. She was wounded and her handler killed in a roadside attack in Afghanistan, and she also is not fully recovered. Both are, in the eyes of the department leaders, "suspect" in terms of their ability to do their jobs. But Scott must learn to work with Maggie and help train her into being able to handle the new stress of being a police dog if he wants to help catch the criminal gang that wounded him and killed his partner.

Crais tells part of the story from Maggie's point of view, relating events from what he imagines would be a dog's perspective. It's a neat device and it helps liven up a pretty by-the-book crime tale. Although sometimes some of the details of the crime get confusing and there's no shortage of standard cop novel scenes, Maggie's perspective and Crais's deft hand with dialogue and narrative keep them fresh enough to sustain interest through story's end.
----
At first, Thomas Perry might not seem like the best collaborator for bestselling writer Clive Cussler to continue his series about husband-and-wife adventurers  Sam and Remi Fargo. Perry is best known for his mysteries, while Cussler's arena has been the adventure thriller. The three previous Fargo adventures, co-written with Grant Blackwood, haven't had much of a mystery to them.

But in The Tombs, the Fargos are on a continent-wide hunt for the final resting place of Attila the Hun, who was reportedly buried with an astounding amount of ancient treasure. Clues at different sites lead them to crisscross the places in Europe where Attila roamed, meaning this edition is much more of a solve-the-mystery tale than the previous Fargo stories, and that makes Perry a pretty good fit for this one. The characters remain paper-thin crosses between Indiana Jones and Nick and Nora Charles, but Perry's experience in helping the reader follow clues to solve a mystery keeps The Tombs moving along nicely. He drops in enjoyable details historical, archaeological and geographical along the way, giving The Tombs a good sense of place as the Fargos try to follow Attila's clues and fend off a greedy Hungarian businessman who thinks himself descended from the ancient king.

Nobody reads a Cussler novel expecting great literature -- or even particularly great pot-boiling -- but he usually delivers a fine story and some diverting hours, watching good guys win with wit, skill, courage and strength and watching bad guys do the only thing bad guys are required to do...lose.

Oops!

Always nice to see influential but silly ideas recognized not for their influence, but for their silliness. It would have been nicer had former professor Zinn recognized his errors during his lifetime, but the Greenberg piece seems to suggest that was beyond his capability.

Florida, on the other hand, has made his money from his "creative class" nonsense, so there's no harm to him if he says "My bad!" now.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Really Depressing?

At the gym the other night, someone turned the television to an episode of Hell's Kitchen, a cooking reality show in which celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay selects the worst performer of each competition for elimination until a final contestant has the chance to be the top chef at a top restaurant.

The contestants apparently work at a real restaurant in Los Angeles, and I can't understand for the life of me why anyone would ever eat there. For one, there's Ramsay, screaming profanities in the kitchen that would probably not add to my dining ambience were I a patron. For another, the show has now run for some ten seasons and apparently any number of awful dishes have been poorly prepared, so why would you spend your money there knowing how lousy the cooks were?

Some stories suggest the restaurant isn't real but is actually a TV set. Who knows, but the chances are good there's something silly about it, given some of the real realities of a number of these unscripted presentations.

Mr. Springsteen originally wrote his song with the idea that "nothin's on" meant even with the then-astounding variety of 57 channels, the protagonist could not find anything he wanted to watch. As the number of channels increases, the song's meaning may have expanded as well: We may indeed be entertained, but as it turns out, we're being entertained by what is essentially nothing.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Keeping Up With the Feynmans

Back in 1965, physicist Richard Feynman proposed a "thought-experiment" to try to illustrate the properties of the sub-atomic particle called the "electron."

Physicists and some other scientists have to resort to thought-experiments in order to test hypotheses that couldn't be tested under normal conditions. Or in some cases, under any conditions that the science of the time can produce.

Feynman did this with the electron, suggesting what's called the "double-slit" experiment to determine if an electron behaves like a wave or like a particle. In his experiment, a single electron was fired through a slit onto a surface that recorded its impact. The surface with the slit had two identical slits in it which could be covered or uncovered individually and as a pair. If the recording surface showed one pattern after a series of electrons had passed through it, it would mean that electrons were particles. If it showed a different pattern, then it would mean electrons were not particles at all, but waves.

In 1961, German physicists had conducted the experiment with a continuous stream of electrons rather than a series of single electrons, and their results showed that electrons were waves and particles at the same time. This is supposed to be impossible, but Feynman took it one more step and said the German team got those results because every individual electron is a wave as well as a particle and it doesn't "make up its mind," so to speak, until an experiment makes it do so. That was definitely impossible, but his thought-experiment showed how this quality of wave-particle duality was not only possible but was in fact the way things were. Technology in 1965 didn't permit scientists to conduct an actual double-slit experiment, but Feynman's logic was consistent and it matched the observations scientists could make.

By 1974, a device called a "biprism" was used by Italian physicists to demonstrate that Feynman's hypothesis was true. Technology still couldn't make a true double-slit experiment, but the biprism had the same effect and experiments using it showed exactly what Feynman had predicted. A similar experiment in 1989 also verified the results of the thought-experiment, which was by then 25 years old.

The same Italian team got even closer to Feynman's conditions in 2008, and in 2012 physicists at the University of Nebraska replicated them almost exactly as Feynman described. Their results also were as Feynman predicted -- almost 50 years after he predicted them. Technology can do great things -- but keeping abreast of the human imagination is one at which it labors just to try to catch up.

Monday, March 18, 2013

No Melting Zone

If you're going to build a fake Volkswagen Beetle out of snow, then of course you should build it in a no-parking zone. And if in the process you demonstrate that parking enforcement officers lack humor, so much the better.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Traveling

Ever since "The Skeleton Men of Jupiter" was published in Amazing Stories in 1943, writers have turned their hands towards continuing the adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter, the ageless Earthman battling his way across the fantastic world of Barsoom -- what its inhabitants called the planet Mars.

Some writers have simply re-worked the stories in their own fashion. Lin Carter moved out a ways from the sun and wrote about Jandar of Callisto, one of Jupiter's moons. Others took the characters and settings of Barsoom and attempted to re-imagine them with their own vision, like Andrew Stanton. Some, like Michael Moorcock's "Kane of Old Mars" trilogy, work well. Some, like Carter's and Stanton's, don't.

Under the Moons of Mars, a collection of short stories set on Barsoom and in some cases using Burroughs' own characters, has the same collection of hits and misses. Some of the writers attempt a straight-up homage to Burroughs; Joe R. Lansdale's "The Metal Men of Mars" does the best job at this, although Chris Claremont's "The Ghost That Haunts the Superstition Mountains" and Jonathan Maberry's "The Death Song of Dwar Guntha" are very close seconds. Others see about telling their own stories on Burroughs' world. Not as many of these succeed, but Robin Wasserman's "Vengeance of Mars" and Tobias Buckell's "A Tinker of Warhoon" stand out as two that do.

And some fail, badly. Peter S. Beagle takes Burroughs' best-known character, Tarzan of the Apes, and transports him to Mars. where he finds a John Carter who is more than a bit of a jerk and a Dejah Thoris who shows she's willing to be just as faithful to her husband Carter as Tarzan is to his wife, Jane Clayton. Overall, the collection, which was given the name used when Burrough's first Barsoom novel was serialized in All-Story magazine in 1912, offers some real gems to which one might wish the Burroughs estate would pay some attention in authorizing some new tales of those who rove the dead sea bottom of dying Mars, in spite of the absolute duds like Beagle's.
-----
In 1984, popular horror writer Stephen King teamed with one of his idols, the somewhat more cerebral horror writer Peter Straub, for the science fictionish The Talisman, a story of how the young Jack Sawyer found an alternate world called The Territories and used his travels there to save his dying mother and her "twinner" in the Territories world, Queen Laura DeLoessian. In 2001, King and Straub catch up with Jack as an adult, a retired Los Angeles homicide detective living in Wisconsin who remembers nothing about his youthful journeys, in Black House.

The Talisman had the attraction of novelty. King and Straub, though working in a similar genre, had much different styles. And when they eschewed their shared genre altogether for the science fiction/fantasy feel of Jack's wandering through the Territories, it made for an intriguing, if not exactly stellar, combination. Black House has none of The Talisman's novelty to leaven its serious flaws, leaving it ultimately nothing much for either author's catalogue.

Bucolic Coulee County, Wisconsin, is anything but these days. Someone is killing its children, and local police have no clue about the killer or anything to offer frightened town residents to reassure them. Retired LAPD homicde detective Jack Sawyer is asked to help but is reluctant. He won't share his reasons, because they mostly have to do with strange and threatening visions. Ultimately, Jack will be drawn into the case almost as much because of those visions as anything else, and the killings themselves will emerge as something even more sinister than child murder -- part of a scheme by the Crimson King to break the Beams that hold the multiverse together and bring chaos to reign over all. Yes, just when you thought you'd gotten out of the tale of Roland and his quest, King pulls you -- and Straub, for that matter -- back in.

It's hard to see why King needed Straub for what is in essence a Dark Tower-related novel that has much more to do with that immense fantasy series than it does the world of the Territories revealed in The Talisman. In fact, it's hard to see why King drew any connection to the Talisman world, since the focus and resolution of Black House are dominated by the Dark Tower world and its narrative. Nothing about Black House requires Jack Sawyer, the Territories or Peter Straub, although I'm certain that all of those helped Random House market the book.

On its own merits, Black House is too long, too bloody and far too prone to spiral in on its own plot or wander around chasing rabbits. The serial killer is at first a particular character, who is possessed in order to help another character's evil goals, but who has his own evil plans and blah blah blah. There's a crooked nursing home director, who's in bed with his hot young assistant, and you know, you're right, tea in China does cost too much these days.

King and Straub decided to pull back the curtain on the omniscient third person narrator, literally telling us what we see like a kind of travelogue.  At first it's amusing, in a wry Our Town-sort of way, but it grows tiresome quickly while the story spins slowly. And that same semi-detached voice jars when we read some seriously disturbing scenes of mayhem, blood and guts.

I've never read much Straub, so I couldn't say where he was in his writing career when Black House was written in 2001. But King was well into his long slide, broken up only here and there by signs of any real effort, and Black House was not one of them. Better to have left Travelin' Jack's further wanderings to the imagination of The Talisman's readers. Many may have asked for more stories of the Territories, but sometimes saying, "No" is the kinder thing.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Still Playin'

For a guy who passed away in 1970, Jimi Hendrix sure has been busy. Numerous collections of bootleg material, studio and otherwise, remixes and so on have issued from the different folks who at one time or another held rights to the various parts of the lat guitarist's catalogue.

Beginning in 2010, Hendrix's surviving family members authorized the release of original studio material to which they had successfully gained (or in some cases regained) the rights. Some of the songs had circulated as bootlegs or in remixed forms that involved producers remixing Hendrix's guitars and vocals with other tracks. Valleys of Neptune was the first album to collect these songs in versions as close to their original form as possible. Hendrix himself knew his way around a studio and had a hand in the production of some of them, so it was possible to have a decent idea of what he wanted them to sound like. People, Hell and Angels is the third release of such songs, recorded as the Jimi Hendrix Experience was ending and at various times in and around Hendrix's career.

People is a lot funkier and bluesier than the psychedilia-heavy work of the Experience, although all of its styles are filtered through Hendrix's vision of fuzzy and sometimes distorted guitar sound. "Earth Blues" and "Izabella" especially take a funky walk on the wild side, leading a listener to wonder what Hendrix and Parliament-Funkadelic's George Clinton might have done in a team-up. "Hear My Train A Comin'" and "Bleeding Heart" mesh Hendrix's hard-rock sensibilities with the old blues he loved, offering some interesting pictures of what Hendrix might have done with the format if he had not died at 27. As he aged (Hendrix would have turned 70 last November) would he, like his contemporary blues devotee and re-interpreter Eric Clapton, grown closer to the traditional sound of the Lightnin' Hopkins and Elmore James records he listened to? Would he have kept the fuzzed sound that inspired Robin Trower and Stevie Ray Vaughn? Some unwise choices regarding the excesses of the 1960s rock star lifestyle mean we'll never know, but People, Hell and Angels offers some interesting hints as well as fine songs in their own right.
-----
Country music has never been as far away from rock and roll as many of either genre's fans (including the country-despising teenage Friar) would like to believe. And no other genre of rock music makes that clearer than the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd-born brand called "southern rock." Keeping much more in touch with the blues, soul and boogie-woogie elements that birthed rock and roll, southern rock showcases songs that might be dropped into a country music rotation today without much murmuring.

Blackberry Smoke is one of today's inheritors of the tradition, although they lean closer to the 1990s Black Crowes' strain than Skynyrd's. Although most every song on The Whippoorwill, Smoke's latest album, displays its country influence on its sleeve thanks to Charlie Starr's lead vocals, rock-style percussion, boogie piano and gospel-tinged organ steer them in a different direction.

So does the lyrical content. "One Horse Town" has the elements of one of modern country's hymns to the small-town life, but mixes them with reality -- Starr is "an old married man at the age of 23" who has "swallowed his pride to make his family proud" and "stick(s) around cause they all tell us to." Both "Six Ways to Sunday" and "Shakin' Hands with the Holy Ghost" rely on good ol' church-goin' language and images, but they bend them towards decidedly un-Sunday mornin' activities. Some songs, like "Lucky Seven," rely a little too much on southern rock clich√©s and just echo other, better songs on the album. But even the genre's best bands struggle to find new ways around its ruts and Whippoorwill has more hits than misses.

Blackberry Smoke is on the road 250 nights a year, which is a good way to make sure you and your bandmates can make the music sound just like you want it to. And enough of The Whippoorwill sounds just fine to make it a worthy addition to all of its genres.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Crooked Little Stream

Want to see water flow zig-zag without benefit of creek banks to channel it? Check out this story here about what taping a water hose to a speaker can make the water flowing through the hose do.

The reason for the strange flow is that the sound vibrates a specific rate, which makes the hose vibrate as well. When the camera speed is synced to the frequency of the sound being broadcast through the speaker, then it can "see" the flow as a zig-zag stream in mid-air. Other frequencies, synced with the camera, make it look as though the water flows up towards the hose even though we know it is flowing down.

I have no doubt my high school science teacher would have loved to have tried an experiment like this, but I imagine she wouldn't have been allowed to have the speaker inside the room turned up loud enough to make it work. Wouldn't want to disturb the place with any learnin' or nothin', you know.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Time Passages

The ESPN Classic network this afternoon showed the 1985 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals. I, like many people, remember most strongly first-base umpire Don Denkinger's blown call in the 9th inning of Game 6 that let Royals pinch-hitter Jorge Orta on base and set up the eventual winning bloop single by Dane Iorg.

I'd forgotten Royals third-baseman George Brett's slide into the dugout when chasing a foul ball and the twin blowups in Game 7 of Cardinals pitcher Joaquin Andujar and manager Whitey Herzog. I'd forgotten just how bad it looked for the Royals right before that blown call, when Cardinals reliever Todd Worrell came to the mound, having struck out 6 Royals the night previously. Down 1-0, I figured this was another loss for my preferred team, although as a Missouri native I would have been OK with a Cards win.

Seen in hindsight, Denkinger's call was of course an important factor in the Series outcome -- though the below-.200 team batting average for St. Louis probably played a bigger role. So it's odd how little was made of it at the time. Herzog came out to protest, but he didn't rant much, and neither did anyone else. Especially in comparison with the tantrum Whitey would throw in Game 7.

Royals ace Bret Saberhagen pitched in Game 7 (an 11-0 win for Kansas City), the night after he became the father of Drew William Saberhagen at 21. This year, Drew -- an assistant coach for the Newberry College Wolves in Newberry, South Carolina -- will turn 27. 

So, probably, will the Royals' streak of postseason non-appearance. Although I hope not.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Please Call Back

Thank you for calling Friar's Fires. No one is available to write your blog right now, but we will get back with you as soon as we have nothing much to say. Have a blessed day.

Monday, March 11, 2013

You Are Here?

Gravity is understood as how things with mass affect each other in space. Every object has a gravitational effect on every other object, although small objects can't affect anything enough to measure. This is why we stay on the Earth, rather than have the Earth follow us wherever we go.

When Sir Isaac Newton formulated laws of gravity, he showed that if there were two bodies in the universe, you could predict exactly where they would be at any point in their existence. But if you add a third, there is no general formula that will do the same thing. There are only certain groupings and starting points for which this "three-body problem" can be solved.

Physicists recently discovered 13 new solutions to the problem, which brings the total known groups to 16. Since the number of possible starting positions and object sizes approaches infinity, that leaves quite a few left to go.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

From the Rental Vault: All Through the Night

In 1942's classic Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine counsels Conrad Veidt's Major Heinrich Strasser regarding the Third Reich's plans for world conquest: "Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade."

Perhaps Bogie and Veidt had in mind their 1941 collaboration All Through the Night, a semi-comic spin which pits Nazi fifth-columnists against New York City gangsters. Veidt plays the villanous spymaster Ebbing, who has a plot for sabotage that gets complicated when Bogart's "Gloves" Donahue gets enmeshed with it thanks to his attraction for a particular bakery's cheesecake and Kaaren Verne's nightclub singer Leda Hamilton.

Donahue is on the fringes of the racketeering world, working mostly in sports betting and bookmaking. But he knows some people, as it were, and the tighter he gets wound up in Ebbing's plot the more rough stuff shows up. He and his fellow outlaws frequently point out that while they may be on the wrong side of the law, they're American criminals and they hate the Nazis just as much as any law-abiding citizen would.

The plot's snappy, breezy and looks strangely light-hearted to us today given what we know of the genocidal hate regime spawned by Adolf Hitler. All Through the Night had its own timing problems, released just after Pearl Harbor as the United States began to take on the Axis regimes. Not many people were in a laughing mood about members of either group, and Night probably didn't do as badly as it could have because the Nazis were the villains and because the movie starred Bogart.

Up-and-coming comedians Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason have small roles; Silver as a waiter in Donahue's favorite restaurant and Gleason as gang member Starchy. Peter Lorre turns in his standard venomous weasel and William Demarest and Frank McHugh round out the criminal gang. Although nothing worth a monument and draggy in spots All Through the Night is certainly a lot of fun to watch. And it highlights Bogie's gift for dry humor enough to make a viewer wonder what he might have been like had he taken on some straight comedy roles.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Counterintuitive?

-- Although you might think that a platform that permitted instant reaction, mass commenting and immediate relaying of other's comments in a maximum of 140 characters would promote thoughtful reflection and measured, considered response to events or statements and highlight the consensus of a community, the Pew Research Center released a survey this week that suggests you'd be wrong if you did.

-- New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is worried that NYC's homeless will have to compete for shelter bed space with rich people. I concur; Michael Bloomberg is a very rich man and I don't think making homeless people sleep in the same room with him is very good for their chances at finding useful ideas to get out of homelessness.

-- Mark Steyn: "The same bureaucracy that booked Samira Ibrahim for an audience with the first lady and Anwar al-Awlaki to host prayers at the Capitol now assures you that it's entirely capable of determining who needs to be zapped by a drone between the sea bass and the tiramasu at Ahmed's Bar and Grill." (The links within the quote were added by me.)

-- We want you to respect everybody's right to think for themselves and be whoever they want to be, so we're going to make you take a course on how you have to do that in order to graduate.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Whatever

When I was a registered Okie Democrat, I used to say that no one did more to make me vote Republican than my own party (I am now registered as an independent). Dim bulbs, whack jobs, sleazes on the take overtly or covertly...you name it; it seemed like the party's long dominance at the polls (Oklahoma's legislature became majority GOP for the first time in the 21st century) meant party leaders felt they could nominate anyone for just about any post and expect to win.

Often, their expectations were correct. Detractors may like to point to the current GOP-run state legislature as a not-so-much-of-a-bargain bin of genuine knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers, but the accuracy of that assessment doesn't eliminate the fact that it was not entirely different under the other outfit.

And my former party has done little in the last few years to correct some of their problems: nominating people almost guaranteed to lose given the political makeup of their districts, supporting establishment candidates over those who have a chance of winning, sacrificing some of their best and brightest in races they could not hope to win and so on. The few successes they've had did little to rebuild the party infrastructure or offer reasons why "Democrat" in Oklahoma doesn't mean the same thing it means in San Francisco.

Which all means nothing used to frustrate me more than the way it seemed the party of which I was a proud member liked to take target practice on its own toes. Other states' Democratic organizations might produce more raging loons (San Francisco's home of California, for example), and still others might be unable to nominate a successful candidacy for cemetery sexton, but I thought none of them managed to combine the losing and the lunacy quite the way we did.

Then I read this about the Kentucky Democratic party paying actual attention to actress Ashley Judd's flirtation with the idea of running for Mitch McConnell's Senate seat in 2014. Maintained her actual residence in a state other than Kentucky for nearly 20 years? Prone to undergraduately-inelegant indignant statements over the injustices she sees in the world? Regularly spends winters in another country while seeking to represent a state with an average per capita income of less than $20,000?

If I were a Kentucky Democrat, I would tell my party to save its money and let McConnell run unopposed if they thought this was their best shot at ousting him. Because even if Judd wins, Kentucky loses.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Backwards and Forwards

So when I found this link, I realized there's not only a contest to decide the top palindrome of the year, there's also an online magazine for palindrome lovers called Palindromist.

Palindromes, you may remember from English class, are sentences that are spelled the same backwards and forwards. Even though the words are different and the spaces are not in the same place, the letters are in the same order, only reversed. The article at the link uses the famous palindrome supposed to be the greeting Eve received upon her arrival in the Garden of Eden and her introduction to her husband, who said to her, "Madam, I'm Adam." Another was used to describe the construction of the Panama Canal: "A man, a plan, a canal: Panama."

A tough part of making a palindrome is having it make sense. If you want it to be understandable, if somewhat artificially constructed, English, you are more limited in your choices. The contest is awarding prizes for short and long palndromes, as well as one for poetic palindromes. They will also offer a prize (specifically, a pencil with a palindrome on it) for the best word-for-word substitution palindrome. In these, the letters aren't reversible, but the words are. Say them backwards and they will sound just the same.

In case you've been looking to see if I slipped a palindrome into this post, I assure you I skipped the opportunity. It's kind of a sleepy afternoon and my brain wasn't into that mode.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Family Line of Work

So 321 years ago tomorrow, William and Mary Herschel welcomed their only son together, John, into the world in Slough, Berkshire, in England. William was an immigrant to England from the Electorate of Hanover, which would later become part of Germany.

As time went on, John became interested in his dad's work and chose to follow him. That might seem daunting at first -- William Herschel was the first person to discover a planet other than those known in antiquity, locating it in 1781. He at first tried to call it "the Georgian Star" after King George III, but that didn't stick anywhere outside of England. The French push to call it "Herschel" also didn't take, and the agreed-upon name eventually became "Uranus," to the delight of nine-year-old boys (and those who think like nine-year-old boys) ever since. William also found two moons of his new planet, as well as two moons for the already-known Saturn.

You might think John a little intimidated by his father's accomplishments but he may have actually exceeded them in many ways. He never found a planet, but he catalogued thousands of astronomical objects and did manage in the meantime to locate a few more moons for the outer planets. John's General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters, later the General Catalogue of 10,300 Multiple and Double Stars, is the basis for the New General Catalogue astronomers still use today. If you ever see an object identified with the letters "NGC" at the front, that identification traces its roots back to John Herschel.

In the meantime, John also developed much of the basis of the chemical process of film photography, catalogued several hundred botanical specimens near his astronomical observing site in South Africa, wrote the entries in the Encyclop√¶dia Britannica (8th edition) for meteorology and the telescope and translated The Iliad into English.

And he and his wife Margaret raised 12 children; all of them lived to adulthood.

You can read about John's astronomical work in this month's edition of Astronomy magazine, but the story is behind the paywall.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Travel Brochure

Spend a little time thinking about what's out there. It's useful for helping with perspective...

ETA: Well, the picture doesn't want to show up, but you can see it here.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Uh-Oh

We were all warned that the gigantic atom smashing gadget run by CERN would destroy the world, and those of us who did the warning were dismissed as cranks and scientific know-nothings.

But with the likely unveiling of the Higgs Boson last year, we might very well have been proven right -- only instead of destroying the world, this latest discovery might signal the destruction of everything in existence.

Scientists have run models trying to determine the ultimate fate of the universe but those models have always had a little fuzziness to them because certain fundamental factors -- like the mass of the theorized-but-then-unknown Higgs Boson -- were not determined. But if last July's discovery is the Higgs Boson, and its mass is something like the predicted value, then we're in a lot of trouble. Or at least our descendants, some billions of years from now, will be.

The most likely mass for the Higgs is pretty much smack on the nose to make the universe fundamentally unstable. That means it might just go bang sometime. and not in the way it did at the start. This bang will be a game over kind of condition. If the mass figure of the Higgs is slightly different, though, the universe is not unstable and you can worry about coming to your end the way that sort of thing usually happens: one at a time.

But as the researcher points out, there's really no reason to worry about this event either. Wherever it started -- if it hasn't already -- it would come at you at the speed of light, meaning it would literally be over before we knew it.

That means no time to say, "I told you so," which seems to me like a real shame.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Tweet Infinitum

The fine mind behind the "What-If" column at xkcd tackled the question of how many possible tweets there could be in the English language.

The question is valid because tweets are limited to 140 characters. The number of potentially different English-language sentences, of course, is infinite, because sentences have no set length. But since there's an upper limit on tweets, then the number of potential tweets that make sense has an upper limit. It's a really big upper limit, though, requiring more time than the universe has existed or will exist to read them all.

I will quibble with the author's final conclusion, however. Because of the immense number of potential tweets and the fact that it would be impossible to read them all, he suggests that we will never run out of things to say. As of this time last year, the famous-for-no-earthly-reason Kim Kardashian had 14 million Twitter followers. That means Twitter has already run out of things to say, or at least out of things to say that are worth the time.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

See Me Clumpin', I'm Accretin'

Scientists observing the fairly nearby star HD 100546 have noticed that within a cloud of dust and gas circling it, something's happening.

Specifically, they think they're seeing a planet form; a gas giant larger than Jupiter. The most common current theory for planetary formation is that they form from the clouds of dust and gas that remain when a star finally acquires enough mass to begin nuclear fusion. The cloud may be evenly distributed or it may already have thick spots, or the radiation from the new star may cause ripples that make even more clumps.

These clumps have greater gravity than just individual dust particles, so as they orbit their star, they will gather up the dust particles that they pass by. Some clumps will attract other clumps. making even bigger ones, and by this process -- over a looooong period of time -- we get planets of various sizes and compositions. Some form as balls of rock, like Mars or our own Earth. Others are gas, like Jupiter, or a mixture of ice and gas, like Neptune. The distance from the star plays a large role in what kind of planet forms.

When astronomers studied one of the gas clouds orbiting HD 100546, they saw what seemed to be a more coherent mass within the disc of orbiting gas. A couple of other explanations are possible, but they will continue to observe the dust cloud and see what develops. By doing so, and testing what they see against current planetary formation theory, they can learn quite a bit about the formation of our own planet, which none of us were around to see.

The interesting thing is that since HD 100546 is 335 light years away, the planetary formation may already have advanced quite a bit. We're seeing the star and its dust cloud as it looked in the late 1600's; if we develop a way to travel that distance in any practical period of time, we may find out the answer there long before we would ever see it here.

Och, M'Poor Bairns!

Heads will roll, d'ye ken me? Heads will roll!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Seen at the Gym

There was a baseball game on television today -- yes, it was a college game, but it was still baseball. Helped ease a craptastic day.