Wednesday, December 31, 2014

School Positions Available; Common Sense Not Required

A entry at Reason's "Hit and Run" blog details a top -- or maybe bottom -- 10 list of zero-tolerance overreactions in our nation's public schools for 2014. It's probably safe to compile the list even though the entry is dated two days before 2014 actually ends, because schools are not in session at this time. But the ingenuity of these people in being clueless morons is surprising, and they may yet exceed themselves in the 12 hours that remains of the year as I write this.

Sometimes people forward these to me with a question "Why would anyone put their kid in one of these places?" I understand the feeling, and see why these and other incidents prompt parents to opt for private education when possible. The chance that an ordinary kid in the course of an ordinary day could do something that might very well be a mistake and wind up a sacrifice on the altar of that grim gray god of lawyer-sanitized, teachers-union-approved Zero Tolerance Education Policy is something they don't want to risk.

But I'd also have to wonder why anyone who wanted to be a teacher would go to one of these places either.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Keep Reading?

Nancy Pearl, author of Book Lust, has a suggestion about when you should decide if the book you are reading is worth it (quoted here at Austin Kleon's Tumblr). The idea is to not waste the time you are on this earth by reading lousy books any longer than you have to.

If you are 50 years old or younger, Pearl says, you should give a book 50 pages to prove itself, and abandon it at that point if it hasn't. If you are older than 50, you should subtract your age from 100 and take that number as the number of pages you should read before moving on.

Pearl is a clever writer and her book has some great lists of suggestions, and I imagine at least some of her suggested limit is tongue in cheek. After all, this would mean that nonagenarians would probably not finish very many books at all, and how much fun would it really be to have read ten pages of a hundred books instead of all of one or two?

Plus, there are many books that start out slowly and you may be well into them before you realize they have taken root. Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander, the first of his famed Aubrey-Maturin series, is written with a very definite 18th century feel and took me no little time to acclimatize myself to. Had I given up according to Pearl's rule, I would never have read the entire series and thus would have deprived myself of some of the most fun I have ever had reading anything. And I would have never encountered the line, "Jack, you have debauched my sloth!" and that would be a tragedy of cosmic proportions.

Plus, there are many books that start out very well but die after the 50-page mark -- sometimes all the way at the very end. Stephen King has this problem. A lot of his books sink hooks into readers and carry them along until the very end, at which time he proves himself unable to bring a payoff appropriate to the story. He isn't the only one, and you usually have to go waaaaay beyond 50 pages before you find that out.

And then there are some books you should dismiss without scanning a single page -- memoirs by politicians or anyone under 30 and just about anything with James Patterson as a co-author would be good examples.

Monday, December 29, 2014

(In)numeracy?

When his show premiered in 2005, comedian Stephen Colbert put the word "truthiness" into the English language as a description of something that sounds like it should be true but isn't. It's often used today when talking about how to state something so that it sounds like it is true, even if the speaker is uncertain or may even know it is likely false.

In 2010, mathematician and science writer Charles Seife used the same concept to title his book on misleading uses of math Proofiness, holding that politicians, public relations spokespeople, advertisers and others often used what sounded like solid and irrefutable mathematics to make their claims look true. But although the numbers might be real, there were always caveats in their preparation that were left to the fine print (or even left out), and overly credulous media outlets would not do the checking necessary to question them.

Seife spends the first third of the book talking directly about the ways that statistics can be manipulated and misunderstood. Survey size samples, margins of error, failure to adjust monetary amounts for inflation, lack of control groups, and so on are all brought out and Seife usually offers a real-world example of how they were used to mislead people. When he turns to elections, he points out how a small enough percentage gap between vote totals means that, for all practical purposes, the election is a tie. "Systemic error" in any method of tallying ballots prevents 100 percent accuracy -- so both the 2000 Florida presidential and the 2008 Minnesota senate elections should have been redone, because the size of the systemic error exceeded the gap between the candidates.

But he also spends a lot of time talking about public policy regarding the 2008 financial crisis and the electoral politics of redistricting and gerrymandering, which seem to wander afield from the central discussion of the misuses and trickery of math in modern media and politics. They have a tangential relationship to the core subject, but the extensive sections on financial regulation policies, the disputed elections and gerrymandering feel more like illustrations run amok. Seife's book might best be paired with some other examinations of the same problems, which may win out in sharpness of focus but which lag significantly behind him in writing style, liveliness and clarity of explanation.
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Few things will more quickly bring terror to the eyes of many people than the equations of that most arcane and alchemical of mathematical disciplines, calculus. It is the Emperor Palpatine to algebra's Darth Vader, ramping up the insidious pairing of numbers and letters to the level that its letters stand not for mere variables, but for equations filled with other variables!

Most of those who do not flee calculus proclaim utter boredom at its existence and wonder when it will ever be of use in the real world. These people had better never meet Wellesley College assistant math professor Oscar E. Hernandez, whose 2014 book Everyday Calculus will answer their questions in detail.

Using his schedule of a "typical morning," Fernandez shows how everything from the amount of rain falling on his umbrella to the traffic levels during his commute can be approximated, if not precisely explained, by setting the situations up as equations which calculus can solve. After explaining a few key terms like "derivatives" and "differential equations," he is off to the races with his examples, explanations and equations.

Fernandez obviously loves both his discipline of mathematics and the job in which he uses it, teaching. He's amusing and works overtime to tune down the jargon volume and use as many everyday words as possible to describe the process of his reasoning. Equation-phobes will be leery of the book, which includes them at every relevant point and which does not do as well as it could at giving them some context to reduce the brain lock.

With that in mind, though, Everyday Calculus is an energetic and excellent introduction to the ideas of calculus and how complicated some of the simplest real-world phenomena actually are. In places it may be a bit of a slog, but it will also reward the perseverant who make the trip.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

From the Rental Vault: International Crime

Postmark for Danger (1956) has all of the elements of a great pulp crime novel, albeit slightly more dignified because of all the Britishness. We have a hero drawn into a murky murderous mystery, primarily because of a dame -- or two. We have said murky murderous mystery. We have said dame or dames. We have ruthless criminals who don't care that our hero doesn't know what's going on because they don't want to risk him finding out, and we have clever police inspectors who relentlessly pursue the guilty but who have mistakenly assigned that guilt to our hero.

Artist Tim Forrester (Robert Beatty) learns from his brother Dave (William Sylvester) that their third brother, newspaperman Lewis, was killed in an automobile accident in Italy. A young actress, Alison Ford (Terry Moore), also died in the crash. Lewis was working on a story that might have brought him into the sights of a crime syndicate, so there's some question about the "accident" part of the crash. A Scotland Yard inspector (Geoffrey Keen) would like to see a package that Lewis was supposed to have mailed Tim and learn if it can tell him anything about the deaths, but Tim soon becomes the target of the investigation when someone he knows is killed and the death appears linked to Alison Ford -- who, in fact, may not be dead after all.

Although twisty in the telling, the plot of Postmark winds its way pretty straightforwardly, like a somewhat low-rent version of a Hitchcock suspense thriller. The cast all handle their roles competently, but the screenplay rarely calls on them to do more than react to situations or conversations and so they aren't stretched very far. Director Guy Green keeps a lot of the action inside different apartments, lending an air of a stage play to the movie but also emphasizing the way that Tim's lack of knowledge confines his actions. Probably the most interesting thing about Postmark is that it is the big screen version of a 1955 British television series of six half-hour episodes that tell the same story, called Portrait of Alison. Screenwriter Francis Durbridge saw the same pattern for a 1952 story, but if the twin release of big screen and small screen versions of the same story was some kind of experiment, it ended with Postmark. Quite possibly because even though it was in movie theaters, it still feels very much like a TV movie, and why would you go pay for a ticket for something that you could watch at home for free?
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"Bad guy with a code of honor" has been a longtime staple of the movie industry, from the organized crime mythmaking of The Godfather at the high end to a slew of '80s action movies that kept the musical synthesizer and Hollywood plastic surgeons in business at the other end. Part of the appeal is the tough character who is violent, but only against other violent criminals, and part of it is to root for that character's redemption -- or mourn when it does not happen, as with Michael Corleone.

The 2009 crime/martial arts movie Clash (Bẫy Rồng in its native Vietnamese) takes this story with a slight twist, making our bad guy a bad lady, actress-singer Victoria Ngo Van Tranh. She is Trinh, codename Phoenix, a mercenary enforcer forced to finish a set of jobs for crime boss Hac Long (Hoang Phuc Nguyen) in order to be reunited with the daughter she saw for only a few moments at birth. Hac Long wants her to steal a laptop computer holding secrets to a Vietnamese satellite, and she hires a mercenary crew to help steal it from some French mobsters. Among them is Quan, or Tiger, (Johnny Tri Nguyen), who has his own motives for trying to get in contact with Hac Long and lay hands on the laptop.

Tranh and Johnny Nguyen are both appropriately earnest in their roles, although their situations and the story are bleak enough that they don't have to hit many notes in their performances. They do generate some on-screen chemistry (this was their second movie together after 2007's The Rebel), and both are more than adequate athletically for the punching and kicking parts of the movie. Hoang Phuc Nguyen performs the requisite evil machinations we need to advance the plot and drive the hard choice for Tranh. Of the cast, she is probably tasked with the most acting work and she brings it off passably well.

Much of the appeal for Vietnamese audiences was the reunion pairing of Tranh and Johnny Nguyen. The former is a multi-platform star, with a string of hit albums and TV movies to her credit, as well as a successful talent agency and the management of a Vietnamese hit boy band. The latter grew up in the U.S. and began working as a stuntman in American movies before returning to Vietnam and making it big as an action movie hero who regularly sets box-office records. For other audiences, Clash is an action martial arts movie that doesn't ask much of viewers, but doesn't insult their intelligences either, or pretend to be more than it is.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

By Any Other Name

At Quartz, they have a map which shows which generic word men use most often to refer to other men -- as in saying, "Dude, what is that?" instead of the person's name.

"Dude" and "bro" are the most common in my neck of the woods, as studied by how often the words are used on Twitter. Others common across the country are "fella," "buddy," and "pal."

Not shown are the words "pally" or "pilgrim," both of which were used prior to the idea that one could express something worth expressing in 140 characters or less.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Wordy McWord

Over at Dustbury, Charles Hill notes some discussion of our internet Newspeak.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Reasons

Why do I load the iPad with various podcasts to listen to whilst on the road traveling home for Christmas?

During the last two hours, one of the local country radio stations has played three versions of "The Christmas Song" -- meaning it has literally been said, "many times, many ways" --  two versions of "Sleigh Ride" and another pair of versions of "Let It Snow."

I'm quitting before Santa starts rockin' around the Christmas tree, or else I might go total Mad Max somewhere on SH 99.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

And to All, a Good Night

A bit more rushed than it had to be, but Christmas Eve done. Let us await the coming King.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

With a Little Help...

Young men have been known to enlist the help of friends when requesting the company of a young lady at a social event, such as the prom. Young actor Skyler Gisondo found himself at work when came the time for his fancies to turn to thoughts of tuxedos, tulle and corsages, so he recorded his request for his friend to go with him to the prom.

And got some references and a boost from his co-workers:



According to the story at Uproxx, she agreed.

Whoopsie!

I had thought the NORAD/Santa story seemed a little like one of those e-mail feel-gooders that goes around, but it came from NPR and a quickie check at Snopes showed it was real. Alas, according to an item at Paleofuture, it isn't.

The story is an interesting one, if you can skip past the snarkiness about the Cold War from someone who may not have even been born when it ended, let alone began.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Leave Your Hat On

Should there be a heavenly choir the way we understand choirs, the chances are that it just got a whole lot...grittier...

Heroes at Work

In spite of the fact that he's spent quite a bit of time saving the world and uncovering ancient mysteries, Dirk Pitt's day job has to do with oceanography and exploration of the sea. In that capacity, he and some other researchers of the National Underwater and Marine Agency are investigating several "dead zones" near Cuba, places where large numbers of fish and other aquatic wildlife have died.

But the dead zones may not be natural phenomena, and there are some people who would rather Pitt and NUMA not learn anything else about them. And there's the added complication that Pitt's children -- twins Summer and Dirk, Jr. -- have found themselves opposed by potentially lethal forces who want to uncover the secrets of some pre-Aztec relics the pair have been seeking. Will the two mysteries intersect?

What do you think?

Of course they will, and of course in back of everything will be a ruthless baddie bent on either destroying, ruling or exalting his position in the world. One doesn't read Clive Cussler (and/or son and co-author Dirk) in the interests of introspective self-analysis. One expects a quick-paced adventure yarn with evil plots, derring-do and a few last-minute escapes, which Cussler has been delivering for about 40 years. The best-written of these kinds of books zip by without making you stop for anything other than a page-turn, a snack or putting on sunscreen, and that sums up Havana Storm quite nicely. As usual, Cussler offers a little bit of maritime knowledge in his story and this time adds a dash of Mesoamerican archaeology for fun. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a book like Havana Storm, even though there's absolutely nothing about it that sticks with you (I read it several weeks ago and had to check Amazon to remind myself about a couple of plot points). Because that's precisely what it's designed to do, and that's precisely what it does.
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Faith Lockhart has found out some bad things about the boss she formerly idolized, and is about to tell all to the FBI. But there's a CIA faction that has been using that same boss to gain leverage on the legislators he's bribed, and they've targeted Faith in order to protect their asset. But that same boss knows his CIA contact isn't on the up-and-up either, so he hires a private investigator, Lee Adams, to shadow her. Got it?

Me neither. And David Baldacci neither, really, as this 1999 thriller strangles in entangled plotlines, what-the-heck scenes and more than one Lifetime Movie Moment™. Faith's boss has changed his focus because of a change of heart, though he hasn't changed his ways to get what he wants. Faith and Lee grow close for no good reason whatsoever (and in one particular interaction, a very bad reason), and an Unexpected Turncoat is telegraphed so far in advance Samuel Morse himself was working the key.

Saving Faith was Baldacci's fifth novel and demonstrated his increasing smoothness and ability to pace the sometimes outlandish plots he was using. But here none of that development is used in service of going anywhere or doing so with people who are either believable or likeable. In that area, at least, Baldacci the author took a significant detour on his way to the much more disciplined thrillers of his "Camel Club" and "King and Maxwell" series.
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David Weber's "Honorverse," the fictional universe home to starship heroine Honor Harrington and her Star Empire of Manticore, started in 1993 with On Basilisk Station. As the Harrington series became a monster hit, Weber began to branch out into other corners of his world, of late beginning to work with co-authors in the different series -- Eric Flint in the Wages of Sin series and Jane Lindskold in the young adult The Star Kingdom novels about the earliest settlers of the Manticore system.

With A Call to Duty, Weber opens up a period before the discovery of Manticore's "wormhole junctions" that will catapult it to regional and economic power in its section of the galaxy. He teams with Timothy Zahn, a top-selling science fiction author in his own right perhaps best known for the "Thrawn trilogy" of Star Wars novels that carried the characters forward from the end of the Return of the Jedi movie.

As Duty opens, Manticore is still a fairly small star nation struggling to maintain its defenses against pirates and raiders in light of several of its own political leaders thinking that such defenses are outmoded cash sponges. We follow along mostly through the person of Travis Uriah Long, an enlisted spacer who sees firsthand the kind of impact official neglect has on the Royal Manticoran Navy -- both its people and its ships. Long may have no idea whether or not a defense force will ever be needed, but he is pretty certain that if it is, the chances the Navy will be up to the task aren't great. His fears may prove out when pirates raid an interstellar nations conference -- can the weakened and demoralized RMN even respond?

Zahn helps Weber tame his word flow and tendency to set way too many scenes in meetings. Because they want to tell a story of Manticore's rise from a political perspective as well as a frontline one, there has to be some conferencing, but less than Weber's been guilty of on his own.

The Long POV chapters are the strongest, reading not unlike a good old-fashioned Heinlein juvenile as the drifting young man finds skills and purpose as a spacer and may even begin to find some wisdom of experience. The space action is tightly-written and fast-paced as well, so even if the characters are drawn with broad brushes and familiar strokes there's no real bog-down. There is plenty of stage-setting for subsequent books, but it doesn't get in the way of Duty's storyline either. Should Weber and Zahn be able to maintain the mix of action, politicking and set development of Duty (or improve on it a little), then they've opened up another diverting corner of Weber's Honorverse.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nice Day for a...White Christmas?

One of the scourges of the Christmas season is the number of popular musicians who insist on performing traditional Christmas songs. The arrangements are either slavishly faithful to original recordings, whether or not the performer's voice can handle them, or gussied up to fit whatever genre the performer is most proficient in, whether or not the song fits in that genre at all and whether or not the touches actually make the song fit. A few of them are good, most are forgettable and more than you'd care for are just yucky.

And then there's 2006's Happy Holidays by Billy Idol. Mr. Rebel Yell takes on seventeen secular and sacred Christmas songs in what can, in most cases, be best described as full-on crooner mode. "Run Rudolph Run," "Merry Christmas, Baby" and "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" are really the only songs that would qualify as rock, and even they are nothing like the full-on fist-pumpers for which Idol became famous in the 1980s. In "Blue Christmas" he channels crooner Elvis with a whiskey throat and "White Christmas" (yes, "White Christmas") we get an impression of what Bing Crosby might have sounded like if he'd spent 25 years shouting "Nice day to ...start again!"

The hard-rock punk dimension of Idol's career always overshadowed his ability to bring out a smooth lounge tone, even though the contrast between the two helped give his anthemic choruses a lot of their power. At 51 when he recorded the album, he had a much rougher edge than he did during his heyday but he can still sell a significant number of the more laid-back tunes. And he gives a fine jaunty air to "Frosty the Snowman" (yes, "Frosty the Snowman") and even "Jingle Bell Rock," a song I wish someone would tell North Korea is all about making fun of their leader.

Some songs might have been better skipped -- the strain to reach the upper notes of "Silver Bells" is obvious and Idol can't muster anything like full power when he's trying. He does better with the higher register on "Silent Night" and it joins surprisingly effective renderings of "O Christmas Tree" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" as the slow-tempo highlights of the album. Idol's broad London accent matches the latter, a great English carol, so well you can almost see a Charles Dickens scene while you're listening.

Better than half of Happy Holidays' appeal is the novelty -- who wouldn't love the look on a friend's face when you play Billy Idol singing "Winter Wonderland" -- but a solid plurality of the songs are worth the listen in their own right and are loads more fun to hear than some bro-country dweeb or hip-hop diva butcher "Carol of the Bells" or "Away in a Manger."

Again.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

They See Me Rollin', Calculatin'

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, handheld calculators became something that you could actually afford to purchase. In fact, if I'm not mistaken I got one for a birthday gift somewhere in that time -- or it may have been an LED digital watch, I'm not sure.

Math teachers were ambivalent about them, because at that time most of them did only basic arithmetic and they were more interested in us learning how to keep and maintain those skills on our own. Higher math functions came later, and by that time I had discovered that the alphas and numerics had conspired together to keep me out of the club that understood their interactions.

Nowadays, a calculator is most probably an app on your computer or on your phone, and you can likely find one that will mimic the appearance of those first handhelds. And thus a new generation learns how you can tell someone to go to "7734 upside down" without getting in trouble from clueless adults who had no idea what we meant, snicker snicker.

Before printed circuits and such, calculating machines had to use gears, somewhat like a clock would in advancing its hands properly according to the passing of seconds, minutes and hours. At io9, they've assembled some pictures of early calculating machines, and the earliest ones are as much a work of art as they are functional, in the same way a fine old watch might be:

Johann Helfrich Müller's adding machine, 1784
You might not be able to whip this baby out of your pocket the way you can a Samsung, Android or iPhone, but even the most polished chunk of metal and plastic has a hard time comparing appearances.

On the other hand, if you get ticked at one of these when your checkbook balancing leaves you three cents off no matter how many times you do the addition and you smack it with your hand, that's probably going to draw some blood.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Tracking Santa

It turns out the NORAD tradition of tracking Santa Claus's sleigh as it nears U.S. airspace began as a wrong number.

In 1955, a special red phone sat on the desk of Colonel Harry Shoup of the Continental Air Defense Command. It was a hotline direct from the Pentagon, alerting CADC of an attack on the nation. As the NPR story notes, in December of 1955 Sears put an ad for kids to call Santa and gave his phone number, but the ad misprinted the number and gave a different one than Sears had set up -- one which turned out to be the secret hotline on Shoup's desk.

The colonel didn't realize this until children started calling the line, looking to speak with Santa. He figured it out and detailed some airmen to answer the calls, probably figuring that was the end of it until his Christmas Eve shift came and he saw some of those same airmen had made a mockup silhouette of a sleigh and reindeer for the big tracking board CADC used. He continued to play along and called local radio stations to report an unidentified flying object that looked like a sleigh.

Eventually the story came out about how CADC -- later the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD -- had taken on the task of tracking the right jolly old elf and people wrote thank-you letters to Col. Shoup. His children say he carried those in a locked briefcase with the same watchfulness he would have given to the top-secret information he handled while serving at CADC.

One wonders if Soviet agents tried to use the suddenly well-known secret telephone number in some espionage scheme. It might not have worked, but they would have been winners either way -- those lumps of coal would come in mighty handy during exile in Siberia.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

They Wouldn't Touch You With... a Thirty-Nine-and-a-Half Foot Pole

On this day in 1966, CBS first aired How The Grinch Stole Christmas, an animated version of the classic Dr. Seuss book. Its road to the airwaves was not necessarily smooth.

First Chuck Jones, the guru of Warner Bros. animation, had to convince the doctor himself, and Theodor Geisel was hesitant. But even once Jones got the creator on board, the studio didn't really want to produce the special and it took 20 tries to find a financial backer.

Of course Grinch has become a perennial hit, surviving even a stupidly message-heavy live-action version with Jim Carrey at his shamelessly muggiest. And it proves that whatever CBS executives in the mid-60s did know, they knew exactly nada about animated cartoons which explored the true themes of Christmas, as the Grinning Green One aired a little more than a year after the previous special the execs tried to thwart and revise, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

So enjoy Thurl Ravenscroft explaining to us the character of the Grinch, pre-heart enlargement:

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Adult Found!

A first-year student at Olberin College asks, following in the footsteps of her elders at other schools, to have final exams deferred because they have been too traumatized by some recent controversial grand jury non-decisions to properly concentrate on their academic work.

At the Columbia University School of Law, such deferments were granted. No word on what kind of lawyers these will be if they are too unmoored by adverse court rulings to properly concentrate on legal work. My guess is "unemployed." Harvard and Georgetown law students want the same deal, but have not yet received it. Harvard officials have pointed out that such a deferral is available on an individual basis if a student talks with his or her professor about it and they can reach an agreement -- a procedure not unlike negotiations in a lawsuit settlement, no less.

At Oberlin, Professor Michael Raney won the undying admiration of all the parents writing checks to his school when he responded to the request with a single word: "No."

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Over and Done

So the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its 2015 inductees. Joan Jett, pretty good choice. Lou Reed, definitely. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble -- you mean Stevie wasn't in already? What? Oh, well, Let's keep going...

Green Day.

Green Day?

Green Day...a band that capitalized on a little bit of punk nostalgia in the mid-90s to put their little slice of ersatz crunch on top of the charts with a song that began, "Do you have the time/To listen to me whine?" A band that managed to sound "just like" the real punks of the 1970s and 80s long enough to catch the recycling ethos of the modern music industry and put their fourth album, Dookie, on the charts. A band whose admittedly catchy hooks and goofily dumb songs made for a tolerable listen of radio stations that wouldn't play the real thing written by the Ramones twenty years earlier.

And a band which had already begun its predictable fade into the obscurity of the one- or two-hit wonder when it released the 2004 album American Idiot, which music critics saw as an indictment of something they called "George Bush's America." Some of the less imaginative claimed the album was actually named after the 43rd president. Either way, Idiot combined the band's new inability to take itself unseriously with a penchant for swiping lyrical images and music from everywhere under the sun to make a record just like the ones that had made the original punk bands throw up their hands in disgust at the music industry: Dumb, grandiose, and saturated with self-important artsy pretentiousness.

Hmmm...maybe they're a good fit for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after all.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Probing the Mysteries of the Universe

Researchers at the National Institute of Health recently asked 200 volunteers to look at positive and negative images for as long on each image as they would like. Most people, interestingly, chose to look a little longer at the negative images.

The NIH report suggests some of that may come from humanity's innate "negativity" bias, in which we tend to feel negative emotions more deeply and pay more attention to bad news. When someone becomes a star we may enjoy the story, but when their rise turns into a downward plunge -- especially with the added benefit of scandal or illegal behavior -- you can barely see the subject for the forest of surrounding entertainment "journalists." This bias could have evolutionary roots in a need to evaluate potential negative events or surroundings more quickly than others in order to RUN YOU IDIOT IT'S A SABRE-TOOTH TIGER!

In the end, the researchers found that the small section of folks who preferred to look at the positive images longer also scored high on measurements designed to help show "agreeability." Those tests had only one question: "Will you answer some questions designed to help us measure your agreeability?"

Thus, as the headline at Big Think suggests, friendlier (or more agreeable) people tend to be happier.

The study was co-published in the Big Honkin' Journal of Stuff Everybody Knows But Which Some Eggheads Still Have to Have Explained to Them. Along with this gem on how men find women in high heels attractive.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Play Me Some Tunes

Many of the notices I saw when Rock or Bust, the 17th album from Australian rock icons AC/DC and the 10th with current lead singer Brian Johnson, came out contained references to the band doing the same thing they've always done. Usually the writer said something like, "If it isn't broke, don't fix it," and attributed the success of the album to that idea.

Whether during the Bon Scott or Brian Johnson eras, AC/DC has a pattern of putting out albums with a handful of great tracks and a lot of filler. For every "Girls Got Rhythm" there's a forgettable "Love Hungry Man" or three clogging up the playlist (The exception, of course, is Back in Black, which reverses the ratio and drops only a couple of duds into a list of standouts). You'd be hard put to describe any real differences between the two kinds of songs, though, other than the fact that the great tracks stick while other ones just don't. Why does "Thunderstruck" still get played on every classic rock station in the world while "Are You Ready" is halftime music for the Big Ten Network and a German soccer team? If I knew, I would be paying somebody enough money to pay yet another somebody to write this blog but keep my name on it.

Rock or Bust's first single, "Play Ball," got notice when TBS used it in their 2014 posteason baseball broadcasts (Fox Sports' use of Meghan Trainor's "All About that Bass" during their World Series was just one of the many ways in which their coverage, to use a technical term, sucked). It's everything an AC/DC earworm is supposed to be -- adamantium-hard hooks and riffs, Johnson modulating his gravelly shriek of a voice into more of a boozy bellow, a shout-along chorus, foundation-steady bass and drums and Angus Young's incomprehensible yet somehow fitting lead work and solos. The title track, "Got Some Rock and Roll Thunder"and "Baptism by Fire" join it as top tracks, with "Rock the Blues Away" close behind.

Black Ice showed that late-period AC/DC can still produce studio work that kicks as much behind and takes as many names as ever, but its 15-track length left more room for that cluttering filler mentioned previously. With the trimmed and leaner Rock or Bust, AC/DC shows that doing the same thing you always do isn't the way to success -- the way to success comes from doing well the same thing you always do.
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By the time she came around to recording her first album, multi-instrumenatlist Sarah Jarosz already had a background that included onstage jams with mandolin wizard David Grisman and lightning-fast picker Ricky Skaggs five years prior. You might question her tardiness, but she was twelve during the jam sessions and all of 17 by the time Song Up in Her Head was released in 2009.

Jarosz plays mandolin, guitar and clawhammer banjo ("clawhammer" means the player picks or strums the strings downwardly instead of upwardly), sings wonderfully and writes great songs. The mandolin and banjo seem to place her in the category of a bluegrass musician, but she has definite folk flavorings and, as her cover of Tom Waits' "Come on up to the House" demonstrates, she can play some blues as well. Song showcases both vocals and instrumental tracks -- like "Mansinneedof," which was nominated for a Grammy award in one of the categories that matters (Hint: Neither Taylor Swift nor Luke Bryan would ever show up on the list).

Another cover, "Shankill Butchers," is a spooky take on the Decemberists song about the group of Irish murderers who terrorized Belfast in the 1970s and early 80s, until they were arrested and their leader assassinated by other paramilitary groups that thought he was too extreme. The title track is probably the most "bluegrassy" of the album, with Jarosz demonstrating a clear understanding of the kind of plaintive tone sometimes called "high lonesome" and singing it with a greatly reflective character. The only miss is probably "Broussard's Lament," a commentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina's impact on New Orleans that shows while Jarosz is an excellent and insightful songwriter, she is a very young excellent and insightful songwriter who may not understand as much as she thinks she does.

Jarosz has released two more albums since her debut and continues to strengthen her playing, singing and songwriting, but Song Up in Her Head is worth a listen in its own right, not just as an "origin story" of where a skilled artist got her start. 
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The whole point behind what's called "garage rock" is that anybody with the right instruments and the aforementioned area of the house is supposed to be able to make it. But while almost anybody can make the right sounds, it takes skill and talent to make them sound good and from them create great songs.

Enter Boston's The Charms, who debuted in 2003 with Charmed, I'm Sure as exhibit A in proving what I just wrote. From stem to stern, Charmed is great-sounding but also just a great record. It opens with the fine bratty sing-along summer party ode to convertibles "Top Down" and from there slides into the punky "Tragic," in which lead vocalist Ellie Vee says "it's tragic baby, that we're not together" in a voice which suggests she's a lot more ticked off than sad about the situation.

Vee's 21st-century Patti Smith vibe plays well off the throwback Farfisa organ of Kat Kina to make a mix of 60s' garage with 70s and 80s new wave and punk that blends them without erasing either genre's distinctiveness. The standout track is "Boys Room," in which a plumbing problem at a club presents the singer with an opportunity to read an unexpected message in the other restroom. "I saw what I wasn't s'posed to see," Vee sings in a marveling tone amid Farfisa drones and glorious buzzy guitar. "The boys' room wall/Says you love me."

It's a pretty good metaphor for the album and the band itself -- although it's possible to lump them in with the early 2000's garage revival wave they stand out pleasantly both in craft of sound and songwriting sensibility. The Charms recorded two more full-length albums and two EPs through 2007 before going on an extended hiatus, although they may be preparing a new release for early 2015. Which means it's definitely time to clear some space out in the garage.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Calendry

Today is one of those neat numerical happenings for the calendar, as December 13, 2014 can be written "12-13-14."

The next time we will have this kind of coincidence will be January 2, 2034, which will be written "1-2-34." If you write your dates in the manner I have seen used by European publications, then that  number will indicate February 1, 2034. Unless you are the kind of person who insists on the initial zero when you write your dates, in which case the next time this will happen will be September 10, 2111 (09-10-11). Or October 9 of that same year for the Europeans.

Either way, I predict that the day in question will see Al Sharpton say something stupid, if he is still living.

I've got a pretty good track record about the sun rising in the east, too.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Forget-Me-What?

According to a study reported at Science Daily, most currently-known U.S. presidents will probably fade from memory in another few decades.

A variety of reasons are suggested, many of which focus on the length of time from the date the particular president left office and the concurrent lack of people living who remember that president. Presidents who served before I was born, for example, don't fade away all that quickly for me because my parents and other older relatives remember them and so I can connect.

One possible flaw in the study is that it tests the memory of presidents in groups of college undergraduates. Given the large number of news reports that suggest that population's memory of history is not the strongest, we may wonder if these presidents will be as forgotten as the researchers think.

Another is that it overlooks a potential reason for forgetting certain presidents: The human brain will often "choose" to forget traumatic experiences. This has the advantage of also explaining the Democratic Party's strategy in the most recent midterm elections, in which candidates often seemed to forget who the current president was. Unfortunately for that strategy, many voters apparently remembered.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Done

An Oklahoma District Judge has decided he is unable to reverse time and replay either part or whole of a previously-played game.

Ruling earlier today, Oklahoma County District Court Judge Bernard M. Jones denied Oklahoma City Public Schools' request for an injunction that would force Locust Grove and Oklahoma City Douglass High Schools to replay their Class 3A quarterfinal game, or to replay the last 64 seconds of the game, starting from when a mistaken rule enforcement cost Douglass a touchdown to which it was by right entitled.

OKCPS has decided not to continue its off-field, in-court shenanigans, for which it deserves only the barest minimum of credit after already delaying the game by a week in order to engage in America's other pastime, suing somebody. Whatever good sense is shown in choosing not to go forward is orders of magnitude less than the bare commonest of sense that should have stopped the mess before a single lawyer was disinterred. It isn't that the argument that the Douglass team wrongfully lost the game is incorrect -- it's just that there is no way to make the wrong right.

Judge Jones himself gets only the barest of credit also. Rather than telling the plaintiffs, "It's a screwup at a high school football game. There's nothing a judge can do about it," he delayed last Friday's scheduled game between Locust Grove and Heritage Hall until yesterday's hearing and today's ruling could be scheduled. It is no great accomplishment to arrive in six days at the decision which should have been reached in less than one.

You, O Fine Reader, being the perceptive sort of person that you are, will probably have noticed that no one is threatening to go to court over Oklahoma City Douglass test scores or building facilities, Or the fact that the statewide testing mark for the school dropped from a C+ in 2013 to a D- in 2014, Or that nobody noticed that school staff had let so many academic requirements slide for the class of 2013 that the discovery only a fifth of them could graduate was not made until November 2012.

None of those things are worth disturbing a judge and packing a courtroom for, apparently. What kind of a lesson is that?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Counterpoint

At Science 2.0, science writer Hank Campbell demonstrates that for the audiophiles amongst the populace, it is actually much more about the treble than the bass.

He also throws in a little note about the thin woman on the receiving end of a comeuppance in the Meghan Trainor video, who is an accomplished ballet dancer and probably has to work pretty hard to maintain her performance physique.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Why the West Was Won

Some days the world is a disappointing, washed out place full of too much gray and too much untruth and too much neglect. And the Old West, like other places of our imagination, is just that, a myth that has been painted to look bright and real though it might be little different than here and now.

But now and again, we can close our eyes and listen for something that lets us, for a moment, saddle up and ride into the dream...

Monday, December 8, 2014

Einstein = Many Curious Clicks

Princeton University has now put famed physicist Albert Einstein's papers online, meaning anyone who wants to can go to the link and read them.

Understanding them, of course, is not nearly so easy. Take, for example, Document 7 from the English translation supplement volume 3, The Swiss Years: Writings 1909-1911, which is entitled "On a Theorem of the Probability Calculus and Its Application in the Theory of Radiation." I'm already lost and we haven't even gotten to the part with the equations yet. And I'm not even going to touch the links to the original documents, which are in German. There is no subject in the world so complicated that it can't be made harder to understand by fitting it into the German language.

While physicists and other folks who study Einstein will benefit greatly from the availability of these documents, I think a lot of the mainstream internet usage will center on referencing the papers' existence and links thereunto, for the purpose of making the writer look smarter.

Which proves that I can't even get that right, either.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Crime, Not Paying

The idea of location shooting in movies today -- especially with the technology available -- is commonplace. But when director Jules Dassin and producer Mark Hellinger decided to do it with the noirish crime procedural The Naked City in 1947, they were breaking new ground.

Dassin and Hellinger tell the story of homicide detectives from Manhattan's 10th precinct investigating the murder of a young woman, Jean Dexter. The experienced and canny Lt. Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) helps teach the naïve rookie Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) how to work a case as they use old-fashioned shoe leather clue hunting as well as misdirection to keep potential suspects on their toes. Jean's friend Frank Niles (Howard Duff) may know much more than he's saying, especially when what he's saying doesn't add up. But there's also the mysterious Mr. Henderson that no one can find.

Plot-wise, City is a pretty much by-the-book procedural -- no car chases and not a lot of fisticuffs or gunplay. Its major attraction is the slice of life of late 1940s New York City -- Dassin's crew would film street scenes from a van with tinted windows so that passers-by wouldn't realize they were in a movie and he could capture real-life behavior. Fitzgerald is, as always, a hoot even while he masks his wit under a happy-go-lucky Irish bumpkin cover, and Taylor is appropriately earnest as the new young detective (and he bears a resemblance to Chris Noth, who would later take up that same mantle during his original stint on Law & Order).

Dassin, Hellinger and screenwriters Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald wisely keep their simple tale short, so as not to weigh down the spectacular visuals with lingering in a plot that's admittedly not that deep. It helps a viewer appreciate this story, which is one of the eight million that Hellinger's narration assures us is in "the naked city."
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Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott) is a bounty hunter in the Old West, but he has a special mission besides making money. He looks at every capture for a way to find Frank (Lee Van Cleef), the outlaw who killed his wife several years ago. And now, by apprehending the dimwitted Billy (James Best), he has his lever -- because Frank and Billy are brothers. But the presence of the young widow Carrie (Karen Steele) will complicate Brigade's trek through the wilderness to bring Billy to justice and bring Frank to heel. So will gunmen Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn). They want the bounty for Billy as well, and Brigade knows they will have few scruples about how they get it. So even though he is surrounded by people, Brigade must Ride Lonesome in the 1959 Budd Boetticher-Harry Joe Brown production.

Scott, Boetticher and Brown had worked together several times and here create yet another unassuming-looking B-Western that pays as much attention to the crafts of acting, directing and movie-making as any auteur-driven piece from the forefront of artistic cinema. Brigade may be working on the side of the law, but he is a driven man rather than a good one -- he will place innocents at risk to gain his revenge. Frank is a bad man, but his concern for his brother is genuine and motivates him as much as anything else. Sam Boone has yet to decide how good or bad he will be, and the sparring between Roberts and Scott is a highlight of the movie. In only his third picture, Roberts is already very at ease on screen and that allows him to play off the hyper-taut and driven Scott to the benefit of both their characters. Steele lives up to her name and makes Carrie more than just an incongruously beautiful woman in the middle of nowhere. And in his debut, Coburn takes hold of his role in a way that would get him his eventual attention-grabbing spot in The Magnificent Seven, with Scott commenting on their first scene together, "I like his style."

Ride Lonesome is another example of how so-called genre pictures, in this case an old-fashioned horse opera, can demonstrate a level of craft and art equal to any acclaimed masterpiece, and how when well-done can prompt the same kind of reflection and consideration of the human condition and what it means. It's not two hours of a mime weeping -- Randolph Scott could crush a mime with his squint -- but it's just as thoughtful and a whole lot more fun to watch.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Seeing the Future

In 1932, Winston Churchill was not yet the iconic figure of defiance and leadership he would become by shepherding his people through World War II. So when Popular Mechanics ran his essay about what the world might be like in fifty years, he just got tagged as a "former British Chancellor of the Exchequer."

But he already showed the breadth of vision that would identify first Adolf Hitler and then Soviet Communism as threats to freedom, as demonstrated by both how solid some of his predictions are and by his understanding of how great a change modern civilization wrought upon on the world.

And by solid, we should note that means he guessed some things that came to pass, even if they didn't necessarily happen in his predicted year of 1982. He said that wireless telephones and television would enable communication unlimited by physical connecting lines, and everyone who's ever watched Netflix stream on their iPads can agree that Winnie got that right, even if that technology became widespread more like 70 or 80 years after he wrote, rather than 50.

On some other ideas, he was in the ballpark but didn't get the process right -- he saw specialized food production as a product of manipulation of microbes rather than genetic engineering, but DNA was barely known when he wrote, let alone understood. And some of his predictions have yet to materialize -- he foresaw that same microbe-based manipulation being used to create classes of people suited for manual labor but without the intellect necessary to protest poor working conditions or desire higher pay.

But as yet we have not been bold enough to tinker with our own genome, and one might hope, as Churchill seemed to, that if that is ever done it is for the benefit of humanity rather than its convenience.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Floor Wax Plus Dessert Topping Next

A couple of physicists at the University of Warwick in England wanted to demonstrate how the ring-shaped molecules of polymers get twisted around and tangled up. So they did what anyone would do: They invented a pasta dish that modeled the behavior.

If you're invited to dinner at the home of either Davide Michieletto or Matthew Turner, you may very well be served a dish of anneloni, or pasta rings, which began to illustrate the twisty nature of those polymer molecules. It takes its name from the Italian annello, which translates into English as "ring."

Polymers are large molecules composed of repeating subsets of molecules -- sort of like like smaller molecules grouped together in patterns. Once they become long enough, they begin twisting around each other, sometimes to the point that they are no longer flexible. The picture with the story at Physicis World illustrates an obvious but less tasty and more frustrating example: Christmas lights. They illustrate the same characteristics, but are not nearly so good with marinara sauce.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Canute Sought

Tonight the local basketball teams begin their seasons with a tournament. As a resident of many small towns because of the itinerant nature of my profession, I have long believed that a fun evening of high school sports can offer a remedy to a stress-filled grinder of a day. Just about every story of human existence can be found at a game if you watch closely enough. And even though there are plenty of examples of the low end of human character, these are almost always some wonderful things to see also, and they may even outnumber the others.

Then, of course, there is the rising tide of these idiots.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Grownups Wanted: Must Be Able to Verify Adult Status

This afternoon, the board of the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association met to determine what it was going to do about 64 seconds of high school football. They denied a protest about a bad call. That could mean that this all is over, or it could mean that an even greater level of absurdity is reached when people who are supposed to be adults extend their tantrum into the legal arena and start paying people to argue about it.

Last Friday, the Locust Grove Pirates beat the Oklahoma City Douglass Trojans 20-19 in a Class 3A football quarterfinal. The problem is that they did it because the officiating crew blew a call against Douglass and negated a Douglass touchdown scored with 1:04 left in the game. That touchdown made the score 25-20 and had Douglass made the extra point, they would have led 26-20 with that 1:04 to play.

But they didn't, because the officiating crew didn't assess the penalty on the kickoff after the point, as the rules said they should. Since then, the Douglass coach and, eventually, people who should have more to do who work for the Oklahoma City Public School system, have asked the OSSAA to either allow the game to be replayed from the 1:04 mark on or have it declared a no contest and replayed over completely. Members of the officiating crew have said they were threatened by the behavior of the Douglass crowd, while the coach and others deny that.

The OSSAA originally denied the request, but the Oklahoma City Public Schools appealed the denial, which is why we have this hearing going on now. In addition to the folks at OKCPS and Douglass, two state senators have said OSSAA should allow the game to be replayed -- either the whole thing or just the 1:04. This is kind of understandable -- the state legislature only meets from January through May and legislators get bored when they're not spending our money. But it's also kind of not. In fact, while the bad feelings and frustration seem well within bounds, all of the talk about replaying part or all of a game is the kind of idea you come up with after subbing in for the tackling dummy without wearing a helmet.

Does the replay count the touchdown or not? Is it fair to Locust Grove to make them start a game five points behind and say, "Score in a minute or your season's done?" Because a week has gone by since this game was played, so it's not really "continuing" anything -- it's a whole new game. Should they then just void the previous game and play a whole new one? Does the winner of the make-up game get some kind of advantage from an extra game when they finally play the winner of the other quarterfinal or are they at a disadvantage? What if a major player gets hurt in this extra game and the winning team has to face an opponent without him? What if a player who was hurt now gets to play because of the extra week, and makes some kind of game-defining play that affects the outcome? There are a lot more where those came from, and the fact is they are all silly. Because this whole discussion is silly.

A definite wrong happened, and it happened to kids because adults screwed up. But there's no way to put it right. None of the solutions fixes the problem in any way that doesn't cause a half-dozen more problems.

Were I the Locust Grove coach, I would apologize. If the touchdown against me had been a game-ender, scored with no time left, I'd voluntarily vacate the result and forfeit the game to Douglass. But it wasn't a game-ender; my team might have scored. So I can't do that. I'm stuck with the game as it is. And if the OSSAA ruled that I had to replay, I'd forfeit then also. If winning the game means so much to the Douglass coaching staff and the Oklahoma City Public Schools system, let them have it. If some judge says the game has to be replayed, then I'm still forfeiting. Stage whatever farce you want and dress it up in talk of fairness, and enjoy your win.

But do it without me. I'm not playing.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Did I Miss Something?

A handful of the online retailers with whom I shop e-mailed me links to surveys about my Black Friday shopping experience. I decided to cooperate with them and give them what I would hope is useful information.

The first question on every survey was, "Did you shop on Friday after Thanksgiving?" Since I didn't, I clicked, "No." That seemed to pretty much end their interest in my opinion. I didn't even have to provide my age, gender and ethnic background for demographic purposes.

I feel kind of left out.

Monday, December 1, 2014

And Having Written, Moves On

Charles Hill of Dustbury reflects on some of the features of having written his blog long enough for it to be able to vote -- specifically, the allure and possible meaning of re-reading.

I won't actually hit seven years of clattering away until January, but I'll sometimes do the same thing and reread old posts. I might edit a typo or adjust a label here and there when I do, but the main reason is just a little yen to see what I might have said once upon a time. Of course, sometimes that's for research purposes as I prepare a new post on an old subject. And sometimes it's so I can be assured that the meaning of what was written is still comprehensible to this blog's less insightful readers, among whom time has shown I must count myself.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Gael and Blues

Listening to albums in a language other than my own is never a guaranteed proposition. Being a word guy, I like to know what's being sung, and great lyrics are often grist for the mill of argument, inspiration and aphorism. But every now and again what's being sung isn't the key, and Catriona Watt's Cadal Cuain (Ocean Sleep) is a great example. Watt is a native Gaelic speaker and sings in that tongue, but she uses her voice and the instrumentation to produce atmospheres within the song that communicate the meaning as much as lyrics might do if their meaning were known.

Watt's piano, flute and string-based instrumentation offers a firm foundation for her vocals, underlying the words without distracting from the sound of her singing. Her voice is probably the strongest and most effective tool in her kit, as she demonstrates in the a cappella opening track, "Ailein Duinn." The sprightly "A' Bhean Eudach" follows, proving your feet don't need to know what the words mean to get to moving. A return to a cappella singing, this time with sing-along harmonies, happens with "Ailein dhuinn A Ni 'Sa Naire," showcasing the range that Watt and her bandmates will deploy on their rest of the album. The skill and musicianship demonstrate why Watt won the BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year Award in 2007.

In the end, Cadal Cuain is a lovely-sounding album but those who aren't followers of Scottish and Gaelic traditional music might wind up taking a pass unless they simply love the sound of a lovely voice and strong, dreamy melodies. Which is easy to do. But the advice either way is to purchase the actual CD, as the liner notes have translations of the songs. And fie on Foot Stompin' Records for not making a digital booklet available with the album download anyway.
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By the nature of the roughness of the instruments and experimental nature of the process, almost all music started out as "tribal" or "folk" in one form or another. There were fiddlers before violinists and reed flutes before flautists. The fact that most people today put "bagpipes" in the context of crisp clattery snare drums and soldierly rows of jacketed, tammed and kilted pipers and "Amazing Grace," "Scotland the Brave" or "The Marine's Hymn" doesn't change their origins as a weird, wailing instrument of battle, clan rebellion and mourning.

So meet Clanadonia, a drum-and-pipe outfit heavy on the drums whose aim, according to their own Facebook page, is "to spread Bagpipe and Drum fuelled mayhem amongst the general public throughout the known world...then have coffee and perhaps a wee biscuit." The band has about a 20-year history but only two recorded albums, the second being just released. The first, Keepin' It Tribal, came out in 2007 and introduces them quite adequately.

Most of the numbers are instrumental and feature the up-tempo piping and thundering percussion that are Clanadonia's signature. "Sherramuir" is a musical arrangement of the Robert Burns poem "The Battle of Sherramuir." The vocals are adequate but not special, which lends some authenticity to the rough edges of the music. Some, like "Tyler's Lament," are more traditional pipe tunes without percussion that ride the waves of the wailin' reeds. "Samba Ya Bassa" combines the two styles, and then there are songs like "Tu-Bardh," named after the band's lead drummer Tu-Bardh Wilson (sometimes Wulsin) who looks like he just walked off the set of Braveheart. It opens with a pipe call, and then the drum rolls join, propelling the song at a speed Michael Flatley could only dream of, urged on by an occasional background howl from Wilson. If the Highlanders had played more music like this, even Englishmen might have danced.
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"The blues" conjures up certain images and ideas, both about its practitioners and what they say in their songs. Much of the time blues songs are straight laments, every now and again with a jump number slipped between the layers of sadness to provide some room for dancing.

So when Robert Cray's fourth album and major label debut Strong Persuader arrived in 1986, a lot of blues fans did not know what to make of it. Although the first single, "Smoking Gun," seemed to track along with the "My woman's done me wrong" arc familiar to every male blues musician since Robert Johnson, the title was taken from the third single, "Right Next Door (Because of Me)," and it flipped that whole scenario on its ear. Cray sings of a man who has seduced the woman next door and listens through the walls as their relationship breaks apart because of his actions. Even when he hears her weeping in the aftermath he realizes any gesture on his part would be worthless, as shallow as the one-night-stand he persuaded her to agree to.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Cray declines offers to provide him fortune, redemption and existential joy:
You can give me an hour alone in a bank
Pay all my tickets, wipe the slate blank
You could buy me a car, fill up the tank
Tell me a boat full of lawyers just sank
Because, as the title says, "Nothin' But a Woman" will truly improve his day and life. The peppy horns and bouncy lead guitar emphasize his upbeat declaration. The same kind of style helps "I Guess I Showed Her" get its joke across -- that the man who "showed" his lady by moving out has wound up much worse off but doesn't quite seem to know that. Blues purists have supposedly downchecked Cray because of his significantly denser lyric content and willingness to mix both soul-music horns and soul-music-flavored vocals into standard blues arrangements. But his long career offers proof that Cray knows something about what he's doing, and Strong Persuader is one of the high points of a great music career.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

At the Edge of Beyond

Later this week, the New Horizons probe from NASA will "wake up" and begin manuevers to bring it on course for Pluto.

The probe was launched in 2006 and has been in a sleep mode for much of its journey to save wear and tear on the electronics and reduce mission costs. Scientists hope to use it to study Pluto proper and some of its moons including Charon, the largest. This will be the first detailed study mission of what used to be thought of as the ninth planet until its reclassification by the International Astronomical Union in 2006. The reclassification happened after the launch, but there was no real way to tell the probe not to bother because it was only headed towards a little old dwarf planet anyway.

In fact, it's a bit of a chore to tell New Horizons anything these days, as it is far enough away from the Earth that signals take five hours to make the journey from home base to spacecraft, and then five hours to come back the other way. This may be one reason why parents of teenagers were selected for the Mission Control team, as they are used to significant delays in response to communication.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Or It Could Be Because...

Neuroscientist Jonthan Touboul actually did a study using real math and and observation and everything to figure out why hipsters look alike.

More specifically, Touboul studied the patterns of behavior of any "anticonformist" and determined why they will probably end up looking like each other. Hipsters, although it might pain them to learn it, are a newer edition of the anticonformist trend among people and simply represent the most recent iteration of a recurring human tendency. In other words, they are all people who want to look different, but they want it at the same time.

But the reason all hipsters (or grunge rockers, or punk rockers, or hippies, or whatever) all look alike could be that they all want to be different at the same time that they want to have the security of a group. There is a powerful magic in the drive to be the one to hear the Ultimate Hipster Nirvana (State of Being, Not Musical Group) Phrase, "Hey, who are you listening to? I've never heard that band before."

Because hearing it means that you are unique, and other people like your choices. The ability of the human brain to want two contradictory things at the same time should not be underestimated.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Big Darn Heroes

In one sense, every movie is unique, even if it's a sequel, remake, shot-for-shot homage or mockbuster cash grab. The cast is different, the story treatment is different, the technology is different, and so on. Some quality -- or lack thereof -- distinguishes a movie from all of the others like it, so even though it's yet another version of a hundred-and-twice-told tale, it has something of its own. But often, even though that something is real, it's irrelevant.

But 1984's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension! is unique in the other way -- there's never really been anything quite like it. You can sum it up in one sentence: Peter Weller plays Buckaroo, a physicist/neuro-surgeon/test pilot/rock star/superhero who has to lead his team in saving the world from the 8th dimensional Red Lectroids from Planet 10 and their evil leader Lord John Whorfin.

But that one sentence leaves out so many things -- Weller's deadpan take on the role at face value, John Lithgow's maniacal scenery chomping as Whorfin/Emilio Lizardo, the great throwaway lines (Christopher Lloyd growling, "It's not my G-----n planet, monkey-boy" or howling at Lithgow's fiftieth mispronunciation of his name), the resemblance of the good Black Lectroid aliens to laid-back Rastafarians, Ellen Barkin's goofiness, Jeff Goldblum's neophyte membership in the Hong Kong Cavaliers (Buckaroo's band and team of troubleshooting heroes). Buckaroo has to be watched repeatedly to get it all, and has to be watched to get it at all. Words alone won't do it, and even then there's no guarantee a viewer will get hooked.

Like the Adam West Batman TV series and movie about 15 years or so before it, Buckaroo is a Precambrian version of modern geek culture, where even the most fantastic of situations is permeated by a kind of ironic self-awareness. Without Weller's Buckaroo, there's probably no Buffy the Vampire Slayer, no Malcolm Reynolds, no Robert Downey, Jr./Tony Stark, no Chris Pratt/Peter Quill, etc. But don't watch it because of that. Watch it because there's never been a better physicist/neurosurgeon/test pilot/rock star/superhero ever shown on a screen, of any size, anywhere.
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Silver-Age Superman fans know Brainiac as the green-skinned evil super-genius who menaced the universe while wearing a pink bodysuit and pink boots. The "menacing" part might have to have been taken on faith, given the outfit, but Brainiac was responsible for shrinking Kandor, the last remaining city of Krypton, down to bottle-size and keeping it for display.

Geoff Johns rebooted the hyper-intelligent supervillain in a 2008 story arc called Superman: Brainiac which morphed him into an unstoppable cyborg bent on amassing universal knowledge and the destruction of whatever he didn't need. That storyline is the basis for the 2013 DC Universe Animated Original movie Superman: Unbound, the 16th in the DCUAO series.

Superman's encounter with an exceptionally tough alien probe brings a mystery, part of which is solved by his examination of the probe at his Fortress of Solitude and part of which is solved by the memories of his cousin Kara Zor-El, Supergirl. She remembers the probes attacking the Kryptonian city of Kandor before it was sliced from the surface of its world by the mysterious skull-shaped ship of the Coluan cyborg Brainiac. Kara knows Brainiac will eventually follow his probes to Earth and repeat the pattern, so Superman begins a hunt for the collecting evil genius. An initial fight at Brainiac's ship leads to another fight in Metropolis and elsewhere on Earth, in which Kara must overcome the fear that still lingers after witnessing the Kandor attack and being powerless to stop it.

Unbound has a neat touch of showing the difference between Superman, who's been an immensely powerful being for as long as he can remember, and Supergirl, who knows what it's like to face overpowering opposition. It does fine at telling the straightforward action story of the two Kryptonians vs. the evil genius, and also adds in Clark Kent/Superman's problems in his relationship with Lois Lane. The two relationship subplots give the movie its extra depth, even though Kara's character design is the cheesecake-y version from that time frame that is kind of squicky when used on what is supposed to be a teenage girl just old enough to drive.

Those issues aside, Superman: Unbound makes for a solid entry in the DCUAO series and has the added bonus of deviating enough from the comic book arc as to leave out any need to revisit the interminable, clunky and highly uninteresting "World of New Krypton" mega-story that followed it in print.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Needed Advice

There are, for some reason, a spate of articles at different web magazines about how to talk to relatives whose politics differ from yours, while you are required to be in close proximity to them during the Thanksgiving holiday.

Personally, I'm thinking that if the only time you talk to each other enough for politics to come up is when you're at home for the holiday then you may have some other stuff going on besides political differences. And I don't know why it takes a bunch of web articles to say, "I'm not talking about this now" or "I don't think this is going to go anywhere so I'm bowing out."

It's not that I agree with everything everyone in my family believes. But they're grownups and I play one on TV, so we can all leave it at that and remember Grandma or listen to what the kids did or something else that doesn't have anything to do with politics. Those idiots take up enough time already.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Take #8,442,839 for the Team

Penn State University is selling some of its patents, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation pays special attention to one of them here.

That patent, which is #8,442,839 as referenced in the headline, is titled "Agent-based collaborative recognition-primed decision-making."

Yes, you read that title right. Someone at Penn State patented teamwork. The EFF people note that the patent would probably not hold up if someone tried to collect use fees from someone who attempted to solve a problem using teamwork. Legal reasoning would probably point out that teamwork's use predates the patent's 2005 filing (Messrs. Roosevelt and Churchill are suspected to have relied on it just before the middle of the last century in ridding the European continent of some truly pestilential vermin). Which just goes to show you how silly some of this is, because not much more than the sense God gave a grasshopper would seem to be necessary to understand that you can't patent something like teamwork.

Of course, viewed from another angle, it could be that patent #8,442,839 doesn't cover all teamwork so much as some specific aspects of it, like meetings. Which would require people who wanted to hold meetings to get a license from the patent holders or pay whatever fee they deem appropriate.

I could get behind that idea.

(H/T Ars Technica)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Glaringly Apparent?

Over at Cracked, a writer suggests four reasons to fear a possible Ghostbusters 3 movie, which has been bandied about in so many forms that the only thing about it that can be said for sure is that nothing can be said for sure (I'm not linking the post because the writer is a bit more free-range with his vocabulary -- for no reason I can tell other than the fact that he can type four-letter words and the teacher can't see him -- than I like to direct you to, O Gentle Reader).

He overlooks the single largest reason we should fear Ghostbusters 3: Ghostbusters 2. I would have thought it kind of obvious.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Oh, What an Entangled Web We Weave, When First We Practice to Perceive

Fifty years ago this month, physicist John Bell submitted a paper on what his fellow physicists called the "Einstein Podolsky Rosen paradox," a feature of subatomic particles that made no sense whatsoever, that Albert Einstein himself called "spooky" and which even today we probably do not really understand.

Subatomic particles like electrons have certain qualities, like polarity and "spin." When physicists say these tiny bits of stuff have spin, they do not mean the kind of spinning done by a top, a planet or a four-year-old trying to get dizzy, but another kind of feature entirely that is mostly beyond my brainwaves. Anyway, if get a pair of particles together and you know that their combined spin is zero, you know that they have opposite spins from each other. And if one changes its spin, then so does the other -- instantaneously. Which is, according to what physicists know about the universe, the speed of light and the laws of nature, impossible.

It may not look impossible at short distances, because the speed of light is so fast (186,000 miles per second, if you remember) that human perception could never pick up the lag. But even when the pair of previously entangled particles is separated by significant distances, the instantaneous change still happens. No experiment has shown any reason to suppose that the two particles would not continue their linkage, even if they somehow found themselves billions of light years apart.

Prior to Bell, quantum physicists mostly ignored entanglement since it didn't have much of an impact on what they were doing. But it remained, a gaping hole in quantum theory's ability to describe the world. If my theory of the way the world works requires things to happen that contradict things we can already prove true, then I have to do one of two things: 1) Explain why what we think is happening isn't happening or 2) Explain how the theory really does cover what's happening. There is a third, but it's really just abandoning the whole theory as unworkable. This is the kind of choice you make when all of your other ones fail.

But Bell's paper began exploring entanglement and insisting on keeping it in the mix as a part of the explanation for how the world works. Later developments have put a little light on what's happening with those two particles, but Einstein may have had one thing right about the phenomenon: It's spooky.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Cold War Wind-Up

Earlier this month, many people marked the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, part of the several things that signaled the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. With the exception of a handful of countries and a significant majority of university campuses, these events put a period on the inadequate economic and political system called Communism. Theories about how and why this happened abound, but many center on U.S. President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II and Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Secretary Gorbachev was the youngest of the four and is is the only one still living.

John O'Sullivan's The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister sketches several elements of the leadership and activities of the three Western leaders during the late 1970s and into the 1980s when events began to coalesce. John Paul became a face for freedom's struggle by being selected as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in 1978, Baroness Thatcher was elected Prime Minister in 1979 and President Reagan took office in 1980. O'Sullivan describes how each of the three initially came into leadership positions after some time on the sidelines, and focuses primarily on their interactions as they opposed the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations. He offers some side information on how they interacted with each other, especially Reagan and Thatcher.

John Paul's role in strengthening Poles who insisted on religious freedom helped expose the economic weaknesses that had begun the erode Soviet power. Moscow did not have the resources to help Polish Communist leaders put down the freedom movements without overwhelming force, and the prospect of being frozen out of international trade left that option unusable. After O'Sullivan offers these details, he mostly switches to the role of Reagan, supported by Thatcher. PPPM reads quickly and offers substantial footnotes to look at more expansive treatments of the era's history and primary sources. Although the three did not necessarily coordinate their activities or even do the majority of their work at the same time, O'Sullivan's idea is that the three of them each took a swing at their Cold War opponents that eventually succeeded in breaking up both the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union.
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The news coverage I remember of the Reykjavik summit in 1986 was almost uniformly bleak, because no great agreement came from the meeting. But as Ken Adelman, who was on the arms control negotiating team at Reykjavik, points out, most of what would be a 1987 treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) was hammered out in the sessions at the Höfði House.

Adelman's eyewitness account of much of the negotiating sessions is the meat of Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours that Ended the Cold War. He also describes some of the lead-up to the summit and its context -- news organizations following Raisa Gorbachev around the city because they'd brought immense teams to cover an event that was going on behind closed doors, for example.

According to the way Adelman saw it, one thing that media coverage got both right and wrong was the role of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) space-based missile shield. This plan, usually referred to "Star Wars" because of its near science-fictional operating system of lasers shooting at rockets, was something Reagan believed in passionately because of his hatred of the threat of nuclear annihilation. Adelman notes that Reagan believed in SDI more than some of its planners, possibly being overly optimistic about the timetable for its effective completion. His commitment to it would not allow him to agree to test it only in the laboratory instead of in the field. Whether Gorbachev believed SDI would work or not, he knew that Reagan did and he remained firm.

But faced with increasing economic troubles at home, the USSR eventually had to turn resources from military use to other areas, and the 1987 INF treaty conceded the point. Adelman may overstate his case; whatever major role Reykjavik played in the collapse of Soviet power was not the only factor. Much subsequent writing on the end years of the Cold War downplays Reagan's work and sometimes even Gorbachev's, focusing on economic tides that neither man would have had much success in turning or reinforcing. But it's difficult to imagine stolid party oldtimers like Konstantin Chernenko or Yuri Andropov "smelling the coffee" of economic reality the way Gorbachev did, and Gorbachev himself said that the negotiations and treaties would probably not have happened had he been across the table from anyone but Reagan.

The Cold War ended either way, and whether it happened because stalwart defenders of freedom led three major opponents of Soviet power or because economic inevitability picked that decade to come due or because of a mixture of both views, it's interesting to revisit events I can remember and judge how I see them after a few more years turning calendar pages. Both books are worth the time and can offer material worth thinking about.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Some Days, It Is Easy

Despite the problems noted by a certain wise and well-known frog, some days it's absolutely awesome to be green:


Photographer Max Rive took this image of the Northern Lights at the Austnesfjorden Fjord in northern Norway.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thankful Potpourri!

-- A hundred and ninety-four physicists have determined that peanut butter has no apparent effect on the rotation of the earth. The hundred and ninety-fifth demurred, saying the evidence was inconclusive. He's also still unsure about Crest toothpaste and Trident gum.

-- What does the fox say? "I'm pretty darn cute,"  over and over, in these photos from Russian miner Ivan Kislov. I'll copy one. All ahead, "Awwwww-factor 10," Mr. Sulu:


-- Thanks to the good folk at Mental Floss, here are nine words that started out as errors. Understandably, they are still compiling the list of political careers that started out as errors and the latest estimates have swung back to the chance that the list will be finished before the heat death of the universe.

-- The University of Iowa is digitizing a collection of some 10,000 science fiction fanzines, dating back to the 1930s and containing hand-drawn fan art as well as early work by some big-time names. I sense the possibility of a strong, stay-at-home-while-reading-for-hours-on-end disturbance in the Force...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Bart Gummer, Please Call Your Office

A species of glow-in-the-dark worm has been discovered in the Amazon which lures its prey into its jaws with a phosphorescent glow and then closes its jaws around the unhappy light-seeking prey.

Entomologist Aaron Pomerantz said the worms apparently feed much like the fictional graboids of Tremors -- and I am not the one making the comparson, he is. They emerge from the ground to snap their jaws shut on their meals.

Dr. Pomerantz could offer no information on whether or not the carnivorous glowworms (which, as my Dave Barry Fan Club card requires me to tell you, would make a great name for a band) picked the wrong, ah, gosh-darned rec room to break into.