Sunday, June 30, 2013

It Couldn't Happen Here

Samuel Nobile de Oliveira of the town of JuĂ­na, in Brazil, is paralyzed and requires a wheelchair to get around. He frequently needs to visit his local ministry of health building because he has a form that the Secretary of Health signs in order for him to get different medical treatments.

Unfortunately, the local ministry of health building lacks a wheelchair ramp. So the Secretary has to come out to Samuel to sign his form. Local government officials wouldn't build a ramp, so Samuel decided he would build it himself. According to the story and to a translation of the original news item here, Samuel's efforts shamed the local mayor enough that he assured this kind of thing would stop and the municipal government would ensure equal access for public buildings.

This kind of thing could never happen here, of course. The idea of a politician being ashamed at all, let alone ashamed enough to do his or her job, is simply not credible.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Boldly Go Where No One Went Again

The long history of Star Trek publishing has a number of interesting chapters in it, including several that started out well before franchise owner Paramount Studios began cracking down on what was and wasn't allowed in the official Star Trek universe. In the days before the internet put fan fiction and fan films within reach of just about anyone, only a few early hints of what might have been showed up. Today, they're considered "outside the canon," meaning they don't follow the official chronology offered by the five television series and the various movies. Here are three of those "other visions." They are, in almost every instance, more interesting than the far blander and shallower official version insisted upon by Paramount and series creator Gene Roddenberry.
Margaret Wander Bonanno's Strangers From the Sky probably varies the least from the official canon; tweak its version of the first official meeting between humans and Vulcans and it rests comfortably within established continuity.

That's because it's the story of an earlier unofficial meeting between the two races, which happens when a Vulcan scout ship crashes in the Pacific Ocean in the mid 2040s. Earth, still recovering from a series of wars, revolutions and upheavals, is thought not to be ready for contact with an alien species, especially one so different. But the scout ship fails to self-destruct, leaving its captain T'Lera and her son, the navigator Sorahl, injured but alive. First found by a kelp farming station crew and then by an official naval vessel, they are hidden away until government officials can determine what needs to happen with them.

Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise, very early in their five-year mission, find themselves stuck in the middle of this situation as a powerful being experimenting with time manipulation has unmoored them from their time and cast them into this one. But something's wrong, because a much older Kirk is having memories of these events he shouldn't have, and they might just cause him to lose his mind.

Bonanno does more wandering about in time than is really good for the story, but it flows a little more smoothly when read than when described. She isn't afraid of conflict between her characters, which is something the "everybody gets along in the future" vision pushed by Roddenberry usually didn't allow. She includes a set of terrorists and a set of pacifists who are both very much cartoons, but she also uses three characters TV viewers didn't really get to know, since they died in the second pilot episode. It's nice to see them get some time onstage and to watch the Kirk-Spock friendship take some of its first steps, even if some of the story elements need simplifying and smoothing out.

Bonanno had other Trek novels, although not for many years. She, Pocket Books and Paramount had significant differences of opinion over a manuscript she submitted for a book using the mysterious probe from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and she did not return to the Trek universe until 2004.
In the original television series, the Klingons were stand-ins for the totalitarian Soviet Union. But by the time The Next Generation rolled around, they were no longer enemies, even if they weren't exactly bosom buddies to the United Federation of Planets. They were a warrior culture focused on honor, courage and strength in battle. There was even one on the bridge of the snazzy new Enterprise, although he had been raised by human foster parents. What happened?

Part of what happened was the absorbing of a small part of the vision of Klingons presented by author John M. Ford, who'd also had a hand in creating some of the Star Trek role-playing games. In his 1984 novel The Final Reflection, he posited the Klingons as an immature race, given spaceflight well before their civilization matured when someone else's starship crash-landed on their planet. Because they are relatively short-lived, they tend to be much more sanguine about death and hold how a life is lived much more important than how long it may continue. The official canon borrowed the idea of the Klingons as honor-driven warriors, but little else of Ford's creation. As a consequence, he had the opportunity for only one other Star Trek novel, in 1987 -- the comedic How Much for Just the Planet?

The planet Direidi may very well have the largest find of dilithium in that part of the galaxy. Both the Federation and the Klingon Empire need the mineral to power their starships, so both would like control of its mining. But the Direidians' presence and the terms of the Organian Peace Treaty mean both governments will have to try to negotiate an agreement. The Klingons send Captain Kaden vestai-Oparai. The Federation sends James T. Kirk. The Direidians send Gilbert and Sullivan.

Ford envisions a world of people who want to be left alone and who stage an elaborate farce to get both of the opposing powers to accept their eventual offer of cooperative mining and ownership. That farce will involve screwball comedy, Gilbert and Sullivan parodies, a golf match that stems from a bar brawl, a cat burglar who isn't (or is he) and a truly apocalyptic pie fight.

It's the most inside baseball of the three novels here -- knowledge of some of Star Trek's common inside jokes and of Trek fandom is essential to knowing more than half of what's going on, and a knowledge of musical theater is probably essential for a lot of the rest. But Ford is funny and writes a funny story that still keeps the characters in character. He also offers a much more intriguing picture of the Klingon race than anything offered in TNG or later television shows and highlights just how limited the supposedly creative genius Roddenberry could be.
As John M. Ford did for the Klingons, so Diane Duane did for the original series' other major villains, the Romulans. Unlike the Klingons, the Romulan-focused episodes offered an intriguing picture themselves of this race that seemed to resemble in no small degree the Vulcans that were a part of the Federation.

Duane gave the Rihannsu, as she named the Romulans in their own language, a culture not unlike later Rome. Although honor and courage had once been major features of Rihannsu society, they are dwindling as younger politicians seek quick victories. This desire has led to a monstrous plan to kidnap Vulcans and use their brain tissue to give the Rihannsu the Vulcan mental abilities they never developed themselves after their ancestors left Vulcan millennia ago.

Ael t'Rllaillieu, a Romulan commander that has previously dueled with Kirk and the Enterprise crew, is aghast at this plan and knows she can't find any allies among her own people to thwart it. So she will have to rely on her enemies, knowing Kirk, at least, to be an honorable man who will fight at her side if he agrees to her plans. But her own history with the Enterprise and that of her family mean she may have to overcome more than her enemies' reluctance in order for her plan to succeed. As for Kirk, can he trust a woman who has fought against him? Are her concerns and plans legitimate or a part of a canny trap?

Duane offers a lot of slice-of-life details about everyday activities on board the Enterprise, which the limited time of a regular TV episode usually didn't allow. It's interesting color for her story and for Trek fans in general, even if she at times becomes a little more didactic than expository and her exposition itself edges a little close to derailing the story now and again.

She also offers some detail about the Rihannsu culture behind the people the Federation called Romulans, showing a people who are alien in the sense of operating with different understandings, reactions and beliefs, even though those things are not so alien that they prevent common cause with Federation personnel working together with them. Here she goes overboard a bit early, using only Rihannsu dialog with minimal translation. But after this rocky start things smooth out for a top-level adventure story.

Unlike Ford, Duane had the opportunity to write other Trek novels, including one set in the Next Generation era. But her vision of the Romulans was mostly discarded by the time TNG came around in favor of the much more brutal and treacherous culture featured there. She eventually finished out her "Rihannsu cycle" with five total novels, including one written with her husband Peter Morwood. The third and fourth novels waited until October 2000 and the wrap-up until December 2006, well after saturation had trimmed the market for Star Trek fiction. But her vision of this culture remains popular among Trek fans and again, would probably have provided some much more interesting stories than some of the colorless fare served up by the "canonical" vision.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Newton Gone Wild

Sometimes people tend to think that basic Newtonian physics (equal and opposite reactions, bodies in motion remaining in motion, etc.) is kind of clockwork and boring, especially when compared with the weirdness of quantum physics and all of its strangely-behaving and strangely-named particles and effects.

BBC TV presenter Steve Mould, though, has among his several videos some things that show it is exactly the opposite. Among them is the one discussed here at, in which one end of a chain of metal beads is dropped over the side of its container and subsequently does a number of neat tricks as it spirals out.

Some folks with a slow-motion camera met with Steve and showed his experiment using their equipment, making it look even that much cooler. The original YouTube video is on Mould's site here, along with several others.

No wonder the universe is weird.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

From the Rental Vault: So-So Twinbill

Mavis Marlowe is dead, and Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) didn't do it. Trouble is, the only one who believes that is his wife Catherine (June Vincent), so Kirk is just weeks away from paying the ultimate price for the crime in 1946's The Black Angel.

Cathy enlists the aide of Mavis's ex-husband Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), formerly her musical partner but now a drunk, wrecked by the memory of his lost love. Together, the pair try to get close to nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre), who had a connection with Mavis and who was there on the night she died. Blair, wanting to help Catherine, sobers up and works with her as a piano-player/singer duo. He also begins to fall for her a little bit, and though Catherine knows Kirk was having an affair with the dead woman, she only vaguely discourages him so she can keep his help.

Angel was taken from Cornell Woolrich's novel, but Woolrich hated the adaptation because it kept Catherine on the straight and narrow, while he had the wife take more extreme measures to try to prove Kirk's innocence and gain revenge. It's acted well enough and the story doesn't meander (and it's scary how much the younger Willem Dafoe looks like Duryea), but it seems more like a few set pieces glued together that a smooth narrative. Today it's considered kind of a minor noir classic, but that probably has as much to do with the style, some of the surprising little turns the story takes and the ever-reliable creepiness of Peter Lorre than it does anything else.
Michelle Yeoh had already been a high-level Hong Kong movie action star, but her 1997 role opposite Pierce Brosnan in The World Is Not Enough and her 2000 turn in the international smash Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gave her serious pull in the Hong Kong and southeast Asian film industry. One of her first co-productions was the 2002 adventure movie The Touch, also starring Ben Chaplin and Richard Roxburgh.

Top-level burglar Eric (Chaplin) has stolen an ancient Buddhist holy relic for international financier Karl (Roxburgh). But he steals it back from Karl because it may be the key to a great treasure, and he takes it to the family of acrobats who adopted him when he was younger. That family is now led by eldest daughter Pak Yin Fay (Yeoh), who as it happens had been given the responsibility of safekeeping this very same artifact before it became lost many years ago.

Karl knows Eric re-thieved the relic and so the chase is on. He holds a trump card, too - Pak Yin Fay's younger brother and the brother's girlfriend.

The poster and the concept are probably meant to suggest an Indiana-Jones-type adventure, and there's no question that should be the kind of story delivered, with Yeoh as a co-producer and co-writer. The field may not be huge, but she's easily one of the very best female action stars in movies (like Jackie Chan, in whose movies she really gained notoriety, Yeoh does her own stunts), and as her praised role as Aung San Suu Ky in 2011's The Lady shows she can act as well. Roxburgh is properly menacing as the ruthless billionaire, but the role is mostly flat with a couple of clever lines. And Chaplin is a sliding record needle almost every time he has to do more than mug for the camera or throw a kick.

Fortunately, the unpromising start didn't sideline Yeoh long, and she continued to work in front of and behind the camera. Even if The Touch didn't have the touch, Yeoh still does.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Which Way Did He Go?

As Robert Charette notes here, once again the NCAA has punished a program for a violation that occurred long enough ago that the person who was most likely the most at fault is long gone.

Much of what that organization does is based on the laughable assumption that it is safeguarding the amateur and student status of the student athlete. It actually exists to safeguard its members' revenue streams and to provide a fig leaf of coverage against the idea that collegiate sports is not a non-profit venture.

But in cases like the ones Charette notes, the NCAA can't really punish the violator when he has accepted a job, especially when that job is not at another college but with a professional franchise. So they wag a finger, call lots of people very bad boys and slap the nearest wrist they can get a hand on.

If, as some economists theorize, higher education is in a financial bubble situation much like the housing market was six or seven years ago and if it's close to bursting, that will cause a lot of misery among students, faculty and staff. That will be sad. But watching the resulting collapse of the NCAA's pretense will not be sad, not one little bit.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Abusive Nomenclature

A blogger at Mere Inklings writes some interesting thoughts about the significance of names.

Given the recent supremely silly name given to the offspring of the unmarried Queen of Undeserved Attention and King of Unwarranted Fame, it seemed timely to note. The only plus for the aforementioned blameless child is that, given the extreme wealth of her parents, anyone who teases her over her name can be beaten up by bodyguards. Or worse yet, be made the subject of a "song" by her father. Or even worse yet, adopted by some members of her mother's family.

According to a study the article cites, parents in California with lower levels of education were more likely to give their children rare or even unique names, regardless of political leanings. Parents with college or post graduate educations divided along political lines, with parents who reported themselves as liberal politically being twice as likely to select less common names than those who saw themselves as conservative.

Of course, none of these people had the problems of a prophet's kids in ancient Israel. Hosea's daughter was named Not Pitied (Lo-ruhamah in Hebrew) and his son Not My People (Lo-ammi in Hebrew). The daughter later got a break and could call herself Pitied -- I don't know how much of a break that is, on second thought. Isaiah's sons were A Remnant Shall Return (Shear-jasub) and Spoil Quickly Plunder Speedily (Maher-shalal-hash-baz). The latter was rumored to have always somehow managed to take the big piece of chicken at family dinners without anyone noticing.

Monday, June 24, 2013

I Think I See the Answer

So some scientists examining a creature called a "naked mole rat" found some strange goo in their equipment after harvesting cells from one of the long-loving little rodents.

They were scientists studying cancer prevention, and the resistance of the naked mole rat to cancer had sparked their interest. Apparently the goo holds some keys to cancer resistance.

Judging by the picture of the critter seen at the link, I have a different suggestion. I believe cancer cells will not attack a naked mole rat because the cancer cells are either 1) frightened out of their wits by a creature that looks like that which is, relative to them, the size of a mountain or 2) choosy enough that they say, "Nope. Even we don't mess with anything that ugly."

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Quantum Wallop

A guy at the video linked here describes what would happen if Superman actually punched you with the full force of his most likely projected strength.

Short answer -- your constituent atoms would come apart and you would become quark-gluon plasma, a substance that hasn't existed since about the time of the Big Bang.

As the writer of the blog entry notes, this is the reason you don't tug on his cape.

(And after two and a half years, it's still fun to type "quark-gluon plasma.")

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Tome Trio

Before he was tapped to continue Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, Ace Atkins had started a series character of his own, former United States Army Ranger Quinn Colson. Colson has returned to Jericho, his small hometown in Mississippi and wound up as the sheriff. Although he's been away for some years, he has deep roots in the community.

So does corruption, and it's against those roots that Quinn has to work when he deals with the different crimes that come his way. In The Broken Places, he finds himself against three prison escapees who once hid some money in the rural areas of his county and are back to get it. Some snags in the plan mean they have to meet up with another former inmate who now leads a new church in town. And who happens to date Quinn's sister.

Atkins has a long view of his series in mind, unpeeling different layers of Tibbehah County's shenanigans and shenaniganeers with each book (Broken Places is the third Colson story). So while much of the time is spent dealing with the escapees, the murderer-turned-minister and sundry issues related to them, there's also some effort spent on the long-term issues the county faces. Atkins has a smooth style well-flavored with wry and keeps his characters flawed enough to be interesting without compromising the reader's investment in them. A longtime resident of the deep South, he deals respectfully but clearly with the society's features: Not every religious person is a bigoted ignorant hypocrite, but many of the folks of Jericho, religious or otherwise, have yet to confront the reality of the impact of racial prejudice on their daily lives.

There's still a lot to see in Tibbehah County, and in The Broken Places, Atkins offers a convincing reason to make the trip again.
When Stephen King talks in interviews about the kinds of books he likes to read, horror does not dominate the list as one might expect. Some of his favorites were good old-fashioned hard-boiled crime fiction like that featured in the cheap pulp paperbacks of the 1950s and 1960s. Starting in 2004, the folks at Hard Case Crime publishers have had some fun reprinting some of the best of that work, in addition to new novels in the same theme. King himself published The Colorado Kid under the Hard Case imprint in 2004, and has offered up another in the series with Joyland.

Devin Jones is a college student in Maine in the early 1970s who would like to become a writer (we may assume King knows how to write such a character) and who takes a job at a coastal amusement park one summer. Partly a way to earn needed funds and partly a way to escape the reality that his girlfriend is leaving him an inch at a time, Devin finds himself drawn into the world of the "carnies," seasonal and long-time park employees who develop their own communities on the fringes of the society that comes to them for entertainment. He also finds a mystery -- a young woman, killed while on one of the park rides but whose murder leaves absolutely no clues -- and two friends, Annie Ross and her son Mike. Mike has a form of muscular dystrophy and a lingering case of pneumonia made worse by his condition.

King unwinds his mystery gradually, keeping his trademark supernatural elements very light (the dead girl's ghost haunts the park) until close to the resolution of the matter. Rather than being a straight crime novel, Joyland is more of Devin's coming-of-age story, revolving around his growing obsession with the death of the young woman at the park and his friendship with Annie and Mike. The constraints of the Hard Case format keep King from turning it into a thousand-page doorstop and make it one of the more enjoyable reads from this part of his career.
Ace Atkins has done fine work continuing Parker's Spenser and Michael Brandman has been dismal continuing the late author's Jesse Stone character. So how does actor Robert Knott do with Parker's western lawmen Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole in his initial outing, Ironhorse?

Not badly, but Ironhorse does leave a question that we'll get to in a minute. Cole and Hitch are on a train headed back to the town of Appaloosa after taking a prisoner south to Mexico. They were going to ride back, but Cole got a telegram saying his longtime love Allie French might be unfaithful to him. So Knott gets Parker's seemingly endless disdain for Allie right, anyway.

A gang of outlaws tries to hijack the train in what at first seems to be an ordinary robbery but which will unspool into a much more elaborate scheme. Cole and Hitch are ready for either, of course, and as they begin opposing the villains they will find out just how deep the scheme goes and whether or not their usual toughness and tenacity will be able to dispatch the bad guys while protecting the good ones and innocents.

Knott does a decent job of capturing Cole and Hitch's laconic style and character (even though they seem to need to tell everyone they meet that they'll succeed because they are lawmen and bad business like this is what they do), but since that feature dominates in a lot of Westerns it's not like climbing Pike's Peak. His story is fine, but seems a little stuffed with schemery; after one false resolution too many you might start expecting to see Dr. Miguelito Loveless show up. Ironhorse is also a little stuffed period; someone needs to point Knott towards the difference between Parker's average Cole and Hitch page count (297) and his (371).

The real question, though, is whether or not there's any reason for Ironhorse to be a Cole and Hitch novel. It's a pretty good Western and it's better written that a lot of them, but Parker really hadn't had the chance to give the pair anything to set them apart from a host of other slow-talking, quick-shooting stalwarts who will do what has to be done when no one else will do it. Sure, the root reason is that if Putnam prints pieces of paper with Parker's name on them then we will give them pieces of paper with Andrew Jackson's face on them. But unless Knott does something more (and in terms of story tightening, something less) with them, there's no more reason to buy subsequent editions than there would be to buy Sackett novels written by Sam Elliott.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Would Someone Please Bury This Genre?

The summer movie season, after offering three decent-to-outstanding tentpole releases in the last few weeks, now coughs up World War Z, loosely connected to the book of the same name written by Mel Brooks's son.

Since the last good zombie movie was Thriller, you can imagine whether or not Paramount will be made infinitesimally richer or poorer by this movie-goer's pocketbook. Although for some reason the zombie genre is a hot thing these days with AMC's The Walking Dead and others, critical opinion of World War Z is pretty negative, and fans of the book don't like the adaptation. Here's hoping there's enough negativity surrounding this big-budget presentation to stick the zombie genre back under six feet of well-packed earth for another thirty years.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Now You See Me...

Some Chinese and Singaporean scientists have developed a cloaking device made up of sheets of glass that make the things behind them "disappear" from the sight of the people who view them face-on.

They tested the system on a cat and on a fish -- not at the same time, as the cat would definitely have made the fish disappear as soon as someone's back was turned. The whole apparatus is not necessarily portable, which means you are invisible only when you're in a certain spot, and which seems to me to be of limited utility. You can see the effect on videos at the link.

This is not the same thing as certain people appearing at certain times so suddenly as to make it appear that they were previously invisible, i.e., teenage boys when the refrigerator opens, officials at the college where I used to work when my church's checkbook opens, and so on.

It is also, apparently, not responsible for the widespread presence of empty suits occupying political offices at many levels. Those would be the fault of the people who voted for them.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

And Slim Just Left Town...

I don't know what Slim Whitman thought about the fact that his recording of the song "Indian Love Call" saved the Earth from an invasion by psychopathic, bug-eyed Martian midgets, but when that fact gets into the lede of your obituary, you probably lived an interesting life.

Whitman had a nearly six-decade musical career and a three-octave range, best known for his falsetto yodel. He was probably most famous when he was being lampooned by Johnny Carson during the 1970s, but be put out a record as late as three years ago.

And though he might have worked in country and western, a genre known for its teary-eyed weepers about infidelity and divorce, Whitman and his wife Alma were married for 67 years until her death in 2009.

Happy trails, Slim.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Keep Thinking That, Monkey Boy

An animal behavior scientist explains why cats love to get inside boxes at a video here. According to him, it's because the feel safe and can observe the world without anything sneaking up on them. He leaves out the other reasons, known mostly to cats themselves:

1) When you are inside a box, you can leap out and deal death with your razor claws, visiting upon improperly respectful primates the fate their repeated attempts to bathe you have earned them. Or at least bite their toes.

2) When you are inside a box, you are invisible! Mwah ha ha!

Monday, June 17, 2013


Senator Harry Reid, in a Tweet which illustrates perfectly the inconsequentiality of Twitter and of himself, asked why Republicans are obstructing the budget passed by the Senate he is from time to time unjustifiably accused of leading. It has been 86 days since the Senate passed a budget, Senator Reid says. "Why are Republicans standing in the way?"

This is, of course, the same Senator Reid at whose direction the Senate did not pass a budget for more than four years, despite it being their legal responsibility to do so.

I begin to see the appeal of being a low-information voter. I would probably be able to save a lot of money on blood-pressure medicine.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Many high schools stage a little ceremony when top athletes sign to play their sport at a college. It's an achievement for the student and worthy of recognition -- for some, a recognition on their part that they will be able to receive a college eduction perhaps otherwise unavailable. And for others, a recognition that their talents and abilities have carried them one step higher than they have been, and they are among those who might still dream of higher places to come.

HOPE Christian Schools in Milwaukee also has a "Senior Signing Day," but it's a day when the graduating seniors of the private school in some of Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods are signed by colleges they'll be attending, not because of their athletic ability but because of the academic achievement scholarships they've earned. Scroll down the page to see a video of the assembly the school stages.

At a big high school, a dozen or maybe two dozen athletes will go to play their sport at a collegiate level. HOPE sends every one of its 30-40 seniors to higher education. Signing day is an important thing, but it's nice to see a school that recognizes getting into college by virtue of your brain is worthy of mention as well.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Man of Steel

Superman's had an up-and-down movie history. In 1978, the Salkind brothers, Christopher Reeve, Richard Donner and John Williams teamed up to convince us that "a man could fly" with Superman. By Superman II, Donner was gone but the others presented us with the more action-oriented half of a great pair of superhero movies that were also great movies. Then came the third and fourth installments of that series, about which no more need be said.

In 2006, Bryan Singer directed a semi-reboot called Superman Returns, starring Brandon Routh as Krypton's last son. It had a number of issues and didn't re-start the franchise. So when Zack Snyder took the reins for Warner Bros. latest attempt, he shucked the whole set of continuity attached to previous films and started fresh, giving us this weekend's release of Man of Steel.

For the most part, Snyder's choice was the right one. One of the problems Singer had was trying to stay within the Salkind-Reeves continuity, even though he ditched the idea that movies three and four ever existed. But the first two movies were a product of their era -- the contrast between the hopelessly square Clark Kent/Superman and the hip, swingin' 70s helped define the character. When Reeve has to do a double-take at one of 1978's pay-phone alcoves -- which offers nothing like the privacy of a phone booth to make his change and handle a job for Superman -- we instantly get that in a lot of important ways, Superman is a product of a different worldview, not only a different world. Singer's choice to continue that storyline -- even though the 1970s have been over for a loooong time -- drains his version of much of its context and color. The sketchy plot and grimly bland performance from Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane didn't help him, either.

Snyder chooses to re-start Superman's story, beginning with his escape from Krypton as baby Kal-El, fired off in a rocket to Earth by his parents (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) just before his home world explodes. We switch from there to an adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), wandering around the northern Pacific in different laborer jobs, here and there using his great strength to save people before disappearing into anonymity. Flashbacks to his life as a boy in smalltown Kansas illustrate how he got where he is, as he learns a little of his history and is guided by his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). Snyder's flashback sequences succeed in doing what 10 seasons of the TV show Smallville never could: Show us how Clark Kent becomes Superman by showing how a boy's father and mother teach him to become a man.

Snyder understands, as did Donner, Reeve and the Salkinds, that the key to connecting with Superman is not Superman, but Clark Kent. None of us (I imagine), have to figure out how to conceal super-strength, X-ray vision and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but all of us have to try to figure out our place in the world and how to handle what life brings us. The first two-thirds of Snyder's story hang on that idea, and that makes the movie work.

An encounter with an ancient Kryptonian scout ship shows Clark his origins, but before he can do much more than enjoy his newfound power of flight (Cavill's grin here is one of the highlight grace notes of the movie), an alien ship enters Earth orbit. Aboard, the Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) issues a demand that Earth produce the Kryptonian living among them or face severe consequences. Now Kal-El will need to thread the needle between Zod's ambitions and the suspicions and fear of his adoptive world in order to thwart the former and save the latter.

Snyder mostly succeeds -- all of his leads perform well, including Amy Adams as Lois Lane. The story gives her a more important role than just being dropped from a great height in order to be saved by Superman. Cavill communicates the loneliness of an alien who can be in but not of the world around him, and Shannon is a Zod who is all the more dangerous because he's as much driven by his own need to fufill his duty as by world-dominating desires. The CGI punch-fest that finishes the movie could probably have been trimmed by a third and thus improved, but it offers a realistic glimpse of what this kind of force expended in a major city might affect.

Some of his scenes recall other, more recent slam-bang spectacle movies. Superman battling armored villains and destroying much of a small town echoes Thor's battle with the Destroyer in 2011's Thor, Zod's endgame machinery resembles Nero's space drill in 2009's Star Trek, and so on. But there's only so many ways you can do those sorts of things. Snyder's full-tilt depictions of the literally awesome strength of his title character don't bode well for a Justice League movie -- anything big enough for Superman to need help against it is probably a threat so cosmic audiences won't be able to connect with the story.

The only real issue I can take with Snyder's complete blank-slate approach is his choice to eschew John Williams' iconic "Superman March" in his soundtrack. Hans Zimmer's score is indistinguishable from most every other heroic-spectacle style movie released these days, relying on same same kind of rapid-fire staccato strings that back up the Avengers and Iron Man in their respective outings. Williams' song probably trails only the cape and the big red "S" as icons of the World's Greatest Superhero, and the decision to head another direction is a misstep.

Snyder and company are already on board for a sequel, and screenwriter David Goyer is also signed for the planned Justice League movie. The irony here is that Man of Steel will get the followup Superman Returns didn't, even though the latter got a better critical reception. Based on the character's movie history, we can hope for a great sequel. But if someone suggests, say,  Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle as a computer genius for a third film? Run, Zack. Run like the wind.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Definition of a Showman...

...Is when you can get the entire stadium singing along with one of your songs.

Twenty-two years after you died.

I've Got No Idea What You're Doing, Right or Wrong, and Neither Do You

Senator Barbara Boxer thinks Congress should act. She's very serious, and she introduced a bill that would prevent representatives and senators from being paid unless they do.

What crisis does the country face so great that she would be willing to forgo her pay in order to see it resolved? What action is it she believes she and her colleagues should take?

Raising the debt ceiling.

Yes, you read that correctly. Until Congress borrows more money they don't have, Senator Boxer says they shouldn't get paid. And while I typed that, my keyboard audibly said, "The hell?"

Word is that Senator Boxer's next legislative goal is passing a law saying that you can indeed divide by zero.

(H/T Joel Engel)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

And I Think You're Doing it Wrong, Too...

I'm pretty disgusted with Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Lousiana. In debate about immigration reform legislation, she suggested that Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona would know more about what the best ideas for border security are than would Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota.

Sen. McCain knows more about immigration problems, Sen. Landrieu suggested, because his state borders Mexico and Sen. Thune's state of South Dakota only borders Canada. Yes, I'm disgusted because, just like a politician, Sen. Landrieu covers for her colleague Sen. Thune by giving him credit for experience and knowledge he doesn't actually possess!.

Really, Sen. Landrieu? Did you think we wouldn't notice your sly attempt to insinuate that Sen. Thune had some knowledge of border issues with your claim his state borders another country? Did you think we wouldn't check that out ourselves? Did you think we wouldn't notice that directly north of South Dakota is not Canada, but an entire state, known to its inhabitants as North Dakota? I am so tired of these cheap political tricks by these hacks who are just trying to cover for each other every second of the day!

Come on, Sen. Landrieu! You knew that Sen. Thune actually had no experience dealing with any border issues directly (except Iowans; we all know how they are), but you tried anyway to convince us that he did, just so no one watching would think that he was somehow unqualified for his position in the United States Senate. Oh sure, I know some people will call you out on your prejudice for presuming that the only real problem with borders is with those people south of us. And I know some people will really enjoy how you claimed South Dakota bordered Canada while you were making your case for a "smart" fence -- and fence or not, I think we can tell one person who'd be behind it in the class rankings.

But I, Sen. Landrieu, remain unswayed by these petty sideline concerns. The only thing that matters to me is your unacceptable attempt to cover up one of your fellow senator's inadequacies, and I assure you that because of it, I will never vote for you again. That, and, of course, the fact that I don't live in Lousiana. Which does not, if you're curious, border any other countries either. Or even the state where I live.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

I Think You're Doing It Wrong...

Problem: Electronic gambling revenues will not be enough for the state of Minnesota to finance a new stadium for the Vikings.

Now, when you or I find out we don't have enough money to buy something we had planned to buy -- perhaps we budgeted wrong, or we had an unexpected expense, or an anticipated bonus didn't arrive -- we have many options. We might save longer to make up the shortfall. We might set our sights a little lower and buy something similar but less expensive (This, for example, is why I drive a 1996 Tacoma instead of a 2013 Aventador J). We might see if lay-away or financing is available. But that is because we are not a govermental entity.

The state of Minnesota didn't do any of those things, or even take the eminently sensible step of telling the Vikings that if they wanted a new stadium in which to operate their portion of the nationwide monopoly cartel of the National Football League, they could stop drafting and signing so many players who do more for area bail bondsmen than stadium peanut vendors and maybe divert some of the resulting savings into building their own dadgum place to play.

No, the state of Minnesota sent its state officials and interested private parties on a tour of the state -- which wasn't, you know, free -- to promote the gambling.

On the upside, medical scientists now have confirmation that the human brain can indeed suffer damage from frostbite.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

We'll Call You

A group of folks doesn't want to wait by the phone anymore and has decided to get together on a project to send specific messages to a nearby star.

They'll use a special antenna to send out signals more focused and more powerful than the random signals we have more or less strewn throughout the galaxy since Mr. Marconi made his little wireless set. They'll be sent in the direction of the red dwarf star Gliese 526, about 17 and half light-years from us. Although no planets have yet been found orbiting Gliese 526, there's nothing that says they can't and if it does, they have a wider habitable zone in which to exist than some other nearby stars.

The project, called Lone Signal, will go live on June 17. Because of the distance between us and Gliese 526, the transmission will arrive sometime in December 2030 or January 2031. The project team is soliciting messages for transmission. I am torn between the idea of demonstrating we are a kooky fun kind of species by sending the message, "Look ou...!" or offering up a much-needed apology for The Rosie O'Donnell Show, which began airing about 17 years ago.

But on the other hand, we should probably be apologizing to the universe as a whole for that particular misstep, so I vote we go kooky.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Define "Rural." Give 15 Examples...

If you were employed by the federal government, you would have to look no farther than your fellow agencies in order to satisfy the question's quindecimal requirements. That's because, according to this story in the Washington Post, there are fifteen separate definitions for "rural" and they differ according to which department is doing the defining.

Thus, an area may be rural according to one department, which says that if fewer than 50,000 people live in a particular area, it is rural. But it may not be according to another, which says that the urban threshold is crossed at 2,500 people. And it may not be according to yet another agency, which uses a definition of rural that adds to the number of people the location of the area, and only areas within certain parts of Hawaii and Puerto Rico qualify.

The story says that the United States Senate will be considering a bill that, among other things, pares down the number of federal definitions of "rural" to the single digits. Just barely, though -- if the law passes, there will hereafter be only nine definitions of rural used by the federal government. Which leaves open the question of whether or not, if you gathered one person from each differently-defining department and placed them in a single community, would that community be "rural." It probably would, unless it was in Hawaii or Puerto Rico. But if I was living in Hawaii, I would probably not care whether the silly folks in Washington, D.C. thought I lived in a rural area, just as long as they never came to visit.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Party Pooper

A town in Spain has the problem a lot of towns with public parks have -- people who walk their dogs there but never bother to clean up after Fido's final act in the kibble-processing process.

So they recruited some volunteers to hang out at the park. When a volunteer sees a dog owner not bright or considerate enough to clean up after said animal, he or she starts a casual conversation with the owner, in which the name of the dog and its breed, if unknown, is learned. That information is reported to town officials, who look at the pet registry to find out where the dog and the offending owner live. The aforementioned digestive end products are then boxed up in a special container featuring the town seal and mailed to the owner, to dispose of as he or she sees fit.

The town, according to the story, has seen a 70 percent drop in complaints about dog owners who won't clean up after their animals.

Considering the metaphorical load of waste product that comes to us via a variety of governmental agencies at many levels, it's surprising that it took someone this long to come up with this plan.

The town's name is Brunete, Spain, and there is a blonde joke in this somewhere but I can't quite fit the puzzle together.

(H/T Threedonia, who have a much better headline)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

It's All in the Technique

-- Cracked does a rundown of some things that movie heroes do that would not work well in real life. Most of them make a lot of sense, but I think they erred when they said that in real life, James Bond would not be able to be a butt-kickin' machine while he was wearing a suit. If your suit was designed by Q, it would not hinder your megalomaniacal-baddie thwartin' one little bit.

-- The local festival is having a car show, as most summertime outdoor festivals do. Now, your Friar attempts to be responsible about his interactions with the environment. He recycles his plastic. He brings his own water bottle to the gym rather than buy disposable. He takes his used books to stores or libraries for others to read when he is done. He does not interact with Al Gore, meaning that none of the amount of heated stupidity said Mr. Gore disperses into the atmosphere can be blamed on him. But he would, in a heartbeat, drive a 1958 Cadillac El Dorado Brougham and hang the emissions, and he would do so because, tailfins!

-- Over at Dustbury, Charles Hill runs across one of the stupider questions on Yahoo!'s "ask" site. He is unnecessarily polite in discussing it. But given that the question in question warrants a vigorous poke in the snoot, there's a wide range of unnecessarily polite options available.

Friday, June 7, 2013

What Could Be...And What Is

Jon Steele spent a lot of time as a cameraman, in war zones as well as other, less extreme circumstances, and The Watchers benefits from his eye for framing a shot, setting atmosphere and letting characters describe themselves over the course of a story instead of just throwing out a police-ID-styled paragraph or two.

Steele also has great ability to give his novel a sense of place, which is very important, as the Cathedral and town of Lausanne, Switzerland, forms a vital part of this, the first novel in Steele's ongoing "Angelus Trilogy." The Lausanne Cathedral and its great bell tower are the home and place of work for Marc Rochat, a mentally-challenged young man responsible for their cleaning and maintenance. He holds to an ancient tradition of following up the bells' regular soundings with declarations to the town that he is on duty and all is well.

Rochat's simple existence is interrupted by the appearance of Katherine, a very high-end call girl who has found herself on the ugly end of the business she's been using to become very wealthy. It's also interrupted by Jay Harper, who works as a private investigator for the International Olympic Committee but has no memory of how he got that job or even of anything before Lausanne. The three will find themselves enlisted in a struggle with great consequences for the entire world, against enemies who may be a lot more than they seem. Fortunately, Rochat, Katherine and Jay will also turn out to be a little more than they seem to be.

Although The Watchers is quite a long book, Steele wastes very few of his many pages. Little slice-of-life incidents help develop the story while also introducing us to the characters we're watching move through it. He varies his voice in the sections featuring each player; Rochat's are simple and reflect his distinct way of understanding the world, Katherine's are brash, vulgar and shallow at first, moving deeper as she develops through the story, and Harper's start out with a vague air of confusion and unreality that firms up as the investigator begins to understand more and more of what's going on. They also try to follow in the footsteps of one of Steele's favorite influences, Raymond Chandler.

Steele also skillfully weaves his setting and the supernatural backdrop of his story in and out of the narrative. The cathedral tower and its bells dominate the plot as the actual Cathedral dominates Lausanne. The supernatural elements are based on the Book of Enoch, supposed to have been written by Noah's grandfather but not recognized as a part of either Hebrew or Christian scripture except by small groups of Jews and Christians based in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Steele's use of supernatural beings and theology relies heavily on Enoch, mixed with the traditional Catholicism of his youth, but he supposes no great conspiracy to cover them up and relies on no "secret" history needing to be uncovered, even though Enoch's theology is pretty unorthodox.

Freed of a need to lecture us on "what really happened," Steele can just add together excellent writing, well-drawn characters and an intriguing, supernatural-influenced story to make a great suspense novel. This is the book Dan Brown wishes he could write.
Inferno, on the other hand, is the book Dan Brown did write, and it continues the mystifying trend of an author actually getting worse the more he publishes. Digital Fortress and Deception Point, Brown's first thrillers, are routine enough but keep things humming along pretty well. Even Angels and Demons, his first book featuring Harvard University "symbologist" Robert Langdon, still manages to be worth the effort of turning its pages. Sure, Brown's novel about the election of a pope and research into antimatter gets a lot more wrong about the Vatican and particle physics than it gets right, but he keeps the lecturing to a minimum and does a little less telling than he does showing.

But in The DaVinci Code, Brown apparently became convinced he needed to fix what he saw as wrong with modern Christianity, and do it by appealing to a secret, hidden history of the church and of Jesus' followers. Langdon, his scientist, lectured other characters and through them his readers about how wrong everybody was. He did so enough that many readers sympathized with the assassin who wanted him dead. The Lost Symbol sent Langdon rummaging through Washington, D.C. and its Masonic-influenced symbolism, but now he's back in Europe in Inferno. But he's in an emergency room with no short-term memory, what seems to be a bullet wound in his skull and a puzzle he needs to solve to make sure whoever started working on him doesn't finish.

Brown hangs a little of Langdon's search on The Inferno, the long 14th century allegorical poem from Dante Alighieri about his journey through Hell. He followed it with Purgatory and Paradise, completing his journey through the afterlife in what college students everywhere have cursed as The Divine Comedy.

Langdon, accompanied by the beautiful emergency-room doctor he met when waking up, pursues clues around Florence, using details from Dante's life and from other Renaissance works of literature and art. He learns he's wrapped up in a plot to release a horrifying virus on the world, conceived by billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zobrist. Langdon must decipher the clues, elude the assassins and evade capture to have a chance of helping the World Health Organization and the shadowy group The Consortium thwart Zobrist's mad scheme.

This being a Dan Brown novel, many "facts" are wrong, starting with a front-page epigram attributed to Dante that can't be found in any existing edition of his writings. It serves more as a brief for some dopey, shallow Malthusianist lectures than anything else (The National Review's Stephen A. Smith goes into much more detail about that here).

Inferno is replete with Brown's usual slumping, leaden prose and glaring plot holes and, as mentioned above, seems somehow to be worse than some of his earlier work. At this rate, he is well on the way from producing a novel named "Hell" to offering one that may make readers feel they've been there.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

June 6, 1944

As always, thank you, gentlemen. Here are some previously unpublished color photos of the Normandy area  during the summer of 1944, by LIFE photographer Frank Scherschel.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


A local festival is going on this week, with folks wandering around the town square in their hot-weather and summery garb.

It prompts me to remember Ecclesiastes, who tells us that there is a season for everything under heaven. Many of our lady festival-goers need to realize that their personal seasons for Daisy Duke cut-offs have passed.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Spin the Wheel, Bust a Deal?

That reversal of a line from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome kind of describes what happened to a North Carolina postal worker who claimed a workplace injury kept her from returning to her job.

It seems that she went out to California and got herself on an episode of The Price Is Right. She won a chance to be in the Showcase Showdown, where she would spin the big wheel to see if she qualified to be in the Showcase bidding at the end of the show. Spinning the big wheel, of course, means you use your arms way above your head, which is only a problem if your worker's compensation claim is based on your assertion you can't do that anymore.

And that's only a problem if you do this in front of an audience. On a show that will be on national television.

One presumes the court had no problem delivering its summons.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Show That Never Ends Is Risen From the Grave

Back in February, you may recall, I spent several days without cable television or internet as the folks at Cable One got around to fixing their equipment and providing the service for which I pay them money.

This evening, I returned home and was greeted with a non-working modem and television signal. I dutifully called the customer service number, followed the automated instructions and pressed enough numbers to dial several other countries, plugged and unplugged things and finally caused the poor little auto-troubleshooter to throw up its digital hands and connect me with a person. At his direction, I unplugged and plugged all of the things I had already plugged and unplugged and waited on the phone while he talked to a "senior technician" to schedule a service call.

He came back on the line, told me he would set up the call and tried to sell me on the service plan which would prevent the $45 charge for a service call if the problem happened to be in something other than Cable One's equipment. Since the modem and the cable box are Cable One's equipment, and since I could not come up with the words to properly respond to someone who throws a sales pitch to me when I am calling about an interruption in the service I am already paying for, I said every curse word under the sun in every language known to mankind and some which have been lost, only I speeded it up so that it sounded like, "No, thank you."

The technician, he said, would be out that evening, before 9 PM. At 8 PM, I received the "he's on his way call," saying that the technician would be there within the hour -- by, in fact, 9 PM. He arrived at 8:15, and asked me to come outside to see where my house line hooked into the Cable One network, as he could not find it. I did not know, strangely enough, as I had not examined my property when moving here to locate all of the ground exits and entrances of my utility services. I had presumed it to be a bad idea to try to work on them myself and so I didn't bother. I said that I had a service call a few months ago and it might be in some kind of record that Cable One could have kept on that call. I told him that when the technician had worked on my line in February, he had told me he would lay a temporary line which a crew would later come and bury, so I did not know that the above-ground line would be working in any event.

Foolish me! I had presumed that in the intervening time, this burying event had come to pass, but it had not. In fact, my service was interrupted when someone mowing the school yard next door, across which the four-months-and-counting temporary line passed, had cut it.

I was assured that the crew, which has the responsibility of working for Cable One "across all of southern Oklahoma and Northeast Texas" and is the only crew doing this work, acccording to my technician, would be out next week to bury the line. For reals this time.

Cable One: We'll fix the service for which you pay when we're darn good and ready and not a moment later! Maybe!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Long Post

Over at the long-post blog, I have a long post considering Robert B. Parker's character of April Kyle, featured in three of his Spenser novels. I am not particularly complimentary. And you know, when a knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing righty wingnut like me calls someone out on how they see and write a female character, there's got to be something wrong. Oh, and warning: Many spoilers.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

All Relative

A post at Real Clear Science's Newton Blog suggests that people should not make fun of Tyrannosaurus rex because of its small-in-comparison-to-its-enormous-flipping-mouth-and-gigantic-sharp-teeth arms or forelegs.

The arms, the blogger said, were likely used to grasp prey to keep it close, and may have been used by the male T. rex to hold his lady close when it came time for that special mommy-daddy hug (The unlucky specimen who confused his prey with his partner probably died out quickly -- this is not an animal about which "Love at first bite" signifies anything good.)

Plus, the forelegs seem wimpy only in comparison to the rest of the body. The blog entry notes that the arms were three feet long and could probably lift 430 pounds each. My arms are not three feet long and while they could indeed lift 430 pounds, they would do it by activating a forklift.

Although I am not an evolutionary biologist, I suspect that one possible use for the arms has been overlooked. Their relatively puny size disarmed the prey's fear response and engendered derisive insults, but they remained quite long enough for T. rex to offer its middle digit in response and then respond to the caustic comments by biting the offender in two.