Thursday, July 31, 2014


Sportswriter Joe Posnanski offers some potential reasons why the Baseball Hall of Fame recently changed the length a player could be eligible to be voted into Cooperstown.

Previously, players who had at least 10 years at the major league level and had been retired for at least five years were screened by a committee so that those who clearly did not have Hall of Fame careers wouldn't clog the ballot. Those players for whom a Hall case could be made were on the ballot, and if they were deemed Hall of Fame worthy by at least 75% of the voters -- members of the Baseball Writers Association of America -- they were elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Players named on fewer than 75% of the ballots, but more than five percent, would appear on the next year's ballot, for up to 15 years after first becoming eligible. Players who had not hit the 75% mark by the end of that 15-year time period were off the ballot, but might later be considered by one of the Hall's special committees that were designed to investigate potentially overlooked players, managers, coaches or others connected with the history of baseball in America.

The change reduces the eligibility period from 15 years to 10 years. Posnanski kicks around several possible reasons for the reduction, among them the possibility that the tighter time frame will help keep out some of the steroid-fueled players whose achievements are now considered suspect because of their chemical enhancements. He allows for that possibility, as well as the idea that Hall wants to bring the BBWAA membership more in line with the realities of modern baseball coverage and include broadcasters as well as online writers.

But Posnanski believes the major reason is that the Hall organization might be readying itself to take more of the reins of its own admission process. He points out that other than tweaking its rules to keep out players who are currently permanently ineligible (like Pete Rose), the Hall has pretty much let someone else run its selection system. That kind of disconnect led to the 2006 decision by a committee of people whose brains may have demonstrated the lowest level of brain functionality compatible with human life when they didn't include Buck O'Neil in their recommended list for the Hall of Fame.

Posnanski believes that the committee had no express instructions to include O'Neil on its Hall of Fame slate, but that the hint of having two living candidates on the list of 26 was thought to be enough. When it wasn't -- and it's not really the Hall's fault for not foreseeing that level of dumb was possible -- the Hall operators may have begun laying plans to be able to have a greater influence on the selection process.

It will be interesting to see if Posnanski's ideas play out, and either way, it should provide something baseball can always use -- something else to argue about.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Indeterminancy Determined

A few months ago, after Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas had said something stupid, I offered the opinion that she had not actually gotten dates wrong. She was instead from a parallel universe in which the events of our history had happened differently and she had slipped up and used the dates she had learned in that universe. There was no way to prove it, of course, but I preferred that idea to the one that since 1995, the residents of Texas Congressional District 18 were stupid enough to elect a woman who didn't know basic dates of the history of the country in whose government she served.

Today, however, Rep. Jackson-Lee has shattered my slender hopes. In speaking against the idea that the U.S. House of Representatives should sue President Obama because the suit was a thinly-veiled attempt to impeach him, Rep. Jackson-Lee pointed out how Democrats who opposed President George W. Bush did not "seek an impeachment of President Bush, because as an executive, he had his authority."

Except, of course, that Rep. Jackson-Lee was one of the co-sponsors of then-Rep. Dennis Kucinich's 2008 resolution seeking to impeach President Bush.

I have heard some people suggest that Rep. Jackson-Lee is the dumbest person in the U.S. Capitol Building, but I do not know if that is true. Except when her constituents visit her. During that time, I know she can't possibly be the dumbest person in the building.

Koontz Klatsch

As we all know thanks to Colin Clive and Boris Karloff, "Frankenstein" is the name of the doctor who stitched together pieces of several corpses and reanimated them. That reanimated being is usually known as the monster, and it has no name. But what if Frankenstein really was the monster?

Which is exactly what the mad doctor is, according to Dean Koontz's revisionary take on Mary Shelley's novel in his five-book "Frankenstein" series. Victor Frankenstein's horrible vision for "improving" humanity has morphed, 200 years later, into a vision for replacing it. Frankenstein has used his genius to keep himself alive and to gradually begin building biologically engineered super-humans he programmed and controls.

Koontz begins the series in New Orleans, as detectives Carson O'Connor and Michael Maddison confront a series of horrific and unexplainable murders. The mysterious giant Deucalion enlists their help when he reveals that the murders have their source in Victor's schemes and that he is the original monster stitched together in Victor's lab. The first three books in the series cover the three fighting Frankenstein -- now calling himself Victor Helios -- in New Orleans, before shifting in the final two to a battleground in a small town in the rural northwestern U.S.

The series is entertaining and offers some food for thought as Victor's creations wrestle with their artificially created existence and its implications. Koontz is a practicing Roman Catholic and he brings that perspective into conflict with the idea of lab-grown people. Are they people? Do they have souls? Does Victor's programming to suppress what he sees as humanity's flaws improve them or does it sow the seeds for their destruction? Genre fiction can ask and deal with questions like these even without being "serious literature," in the same way that C.S. Lewis's "Space Trilogy" does.

Although intriguing, the series is really too long, though. It would have been better as a trilogy, either excising the final two books entirely or by collapsing the first three into two and the last two into one. The last pair add little to the ideas with which Koontz is working and not that much to the story itself. Koontz's vision of Frankenstein works at a pretty high level for genre fiction, but the length and the rather listless and talky final confrontation between Victor and Deucalion keep it from being a classic on the shelves.
Jonah Ellington Basie Hines Eldridge Wilson Hampton Armstrong Kirk is a young boy with a long name. In an un-named city in the United States in the mid-1960s, he will encounter new people. Some of them will become friends, and some of them will mean danger for him and those around him. As he reflects back on those times from the vantage point of late middle age, he will see connections between these people and events both near and far. He will also see influences that are simultaneously from beyond his own world and intimately tied to it, in Dean Koontz's 2013 novel, The City.

Although he'd written several novels in different genres, many under pen names, Koontz first made a name writing thrillers with a distinct supernatural flavor. Once he began regularly charting on bestseller lists, he used his pseudonyms less and less often and began overtly branching out into those other arenas. but he regularly circles back to his supernatural roots.The ghost-story feel of The City is a good example. Jonah encounters people and events he can't explain with his knowledge of the real world, even if the life he lives as the son of a single mother who works at a department store by day and sings in jazz clubs by night is as much a part of the everyday world as you or I.

These supernatural appearances may want to warn or alert Jonah to some possible future disaster, or they may just be a part of his dreams. Koontz uses the natural mysticism of the child to help foster this atmosphere. An appearance by one character takes on supernatural implications in Jonah's mind, but a neighbor responds to it in ways that an adult would. That which is literally supernatural blends with what seems to be so in our narrator's eyes and soaks magic into even the mundane. The reminiscent tone of the story allows for some brief reflective pauses to stop and mull over ideas and concepts the narrative introduces. Koontz dribbles those out in small doses so he doesn't clog his story.

The adult voice reflecting on childhood experience is common but here done particularly well, leading to a kind of To Kill a Mockingbird-by-way-of-Peter-Straub feel that makes The City a pleasure to read as well as to digest. Koontz is no Harper Lee -- the villains are far less organically a part of the story than Bob Ewell was, and the supernatural agents sketchier and more vague than they really should be. But even so, The City is one of Koontz's better works and one worth spending some time and gray matter on.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Double Meaning

This item on the website for San Diego State University describes a virus discovered by SDSU researchers that's found in something like half the people on the planet.

The virus, given a name for which nine-year-old boys everywhere on the planet are sending up hosannas of thanks, is called "crAssphage." Yes, the capital letter is part of the name.

It inhabits bacteria that live in the human digestive system which are called bacteriodetes. Those bacteria live near the end of the intestines (if you don't stop snickering I'm going to send you to the principal's office) and scientists think they may play a role in affecting digestion in a manner which in turn can have an impact on obesity.

What originally drew my attention to the article was the headline the SDSU website gave it: "Novel Virus Discovered in Half the World's Population." The headline writer obviously intended to describe the virus as newly-found when he or she used the word "novel," but of course that word also denotes book-length fiction.

And since a virus is a biological agent that is capable only of reproducing itself using DNA from host material, I think the SDSU headline writer has also hit upon an explanation for a sizable majority of the crap that's on bookshelves and the New York Times bestseller lists. More than half of humanity is afflicted with a virus that causes it to believe it can produce a novel, only most of them are just reproductions of something someone else already did.

Monday, July 28, 2014

I Can See for Miles and Miles and Miles...

You'll have to excuse me a moment while I geek out over these really really cool telescopes under construction, as reported by Gizmodo.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Her Majesty's Photobomb

A couple of field hockey players placed themselves strategically for a selfie at a recent match, and managed to catch Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in the frame in exactly the right attitude to include her.

Although the Queen herself probably doesn't take selfies (I wonder how the royal "we" would affect the etymology of that word), I suspect some of her grandchildren have informed her what one is. The two players in the picture said that Elizabeth chatted with them briefly about how their tournament was going and bade them to enjoy their time.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Item: Car Insurance Spokeslizard Disappears

Authorities have said they have few leads in the disappearance of the famous Gecko spokeslizard for the GEICO insurance company, whose whereabouts have been unknown since Thursday. In a bid to try to enlist public help in tracking down the diminutive pitch-reptile, police have revealed one piece of information they believe to be significant, although they have not discussed what that significance may be.

"We found a laptop computer with this page from The Washington Post on the screen," a police spokesman said. "Other evidence suggests the resident exited the dwelling in an extreme hurry; there were several insects prepared for a meal left on the table and a DVD of the 2007 sitcom Cavemen was still in the player."

In an apparently unrelated item, the SpaceX commercial spaceflight company refused to confirm or deny that its Falcon 9 spacecraft is also missing.

(H/T Musings from Brian J. Noggle)

Friday, July 25, 2014


They're getting ready to restart the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which has been shut down for upgrades. It will now have more power than ever.

In case this goes wrong, been nice knowing you.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Readin' Away

For several novels, C.J. Box has told the story of Joe Pickett, a Montana game warden who has had to deal with a number of things other than fishing and gaming licenses. With 2012's Back of Beyond, he switched gears a little with a new character, recovering alcoholic cop Cody Hoyt.

When Cody's AA sponsor is found dead, the evidence suggests that he had fallen off the wagon and taken his own life. Cody doesn't believe that, and his investigation leads to a wildlife outfitting firm that leads hiking tours of Yellowstone National Park. The problem is that the current tour includes his teenage son Justin, and has already left. Cody will have to track the group down before the murderer makes the next move and figure out how to protect his son and the other hikers.

Cody's alcoholism plays a role in the first act of the book, but once he is on the trail, it mostly fades into the background. Box does his usual deft job of handling suspense and action and paints a realistic portrait of the different hikers, even if more than a few of them are pretty stock characters. He handles Justin particularly well, especially when the boy begins a friendship with another family's teenage daughter.

Amazon lists Back of Beyond as the first of a series, but other books have yet to arrive. Cody's not Joe, and Box doesn't try to replicate all of the characters, which makes Beyond interesting enough in itself. If the series does continue and Box makes use of Cody's alcoholism as a way of exploring the character, it could be an intriguing set of novels with which to pass some afternoons.
Starting in the 1880s, major league professional baseball operated with an "understanding" that its teams would have no African-American players, a situation that lasted until Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. African-American players were mostly confined to the "Negro Leagues," teams with their own stories, superstars and legends. Although the different groups of athletes would often do battle with one another in off-season barnstorming tours and all-star squads, paid baseball displayed very few, if any, integrated teams.

Except in Bismarck, North Dakota. There, during the Great Depression, car dealer Raymond Churchill sponsored a semi-professional baseball team that featured not only a mixture of white and black players, it fielded several bona fide Negro League stars -- such as future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith and the legendary Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe. The team, usually known as the Bismarcks but today sometimes called the Bismarck Churchills, won the National Semipro Championship tournament in 1935.

Freelance writer Tom Dunkel chronicles the highlights of the Bismarcks' history in 2013's Color Blind, detailing both the development of the team by Churchill and other community leaders and the seasons they played. Apparently realizing that when your book contains the larger-than-life character of Satchel Paige you can't get into the deep weeds of dry historical prose, Dunkel keeps the tone fairly light even though he's writing about issues of race during a time of economic deprivation and deadly racial crimes in some parts of the country. He explores how the African-American members of the team managed to fit into the northern plains life of North Dakota's capital, but not extremely deeply, as his story is more a story of the team itself.

Color Blind is an excellent "baseball book," showing how neither the history of the sport nor of our nation has said all they have to say as yet. Some fact-checking errors made it past the proofreader, as the book was in pre-production during Hurricane Sandy and communication about corrections was spotty. But those are easy enough to pick out and Dunkel has both acknowledged them and corrected them in the book's Kindle edition.
Tim Blake is a top car salesman whose ex-wife has a new man. His daughter Sydney is staying with him in the summer while she works at the front desk of a nearby motel. Then one day Sydney doesn't come home from work, and when Tom asks about her at the motel, people there claim they've never heard of her. The local police are limited in their ability to help, but Tom will not rest until he either finds his daughter, or finds out what happened to her.

The plot for Linwood Barclay's 2009 thriller Fear the Worst is not a new one, neither in terms of the missing person no one's ever seemed to have heard of nor in terms of a parent seeking a missing teenager (Harlan Coben's Hold Tight covered that ground about 15 months earlier, but neither author is the only one ever to do so). But then the possible plots of best-selling psychological thrillers and mysteries are not legion, and fans pick them up for the quality of the yarn and the enjoyment of the read.

The second of those is up to the individual reader to determine, but the first, in the case of Fear the Worst, is iffy at best. Tim is more of a prop for the plot than a character with whom we connect, and neither the situations that he encounters when searching for Sydney nor the villains of the piece have any more depth than the pages they're on. Barclay seems to try every now and again with Tim, as the car salesman notes details about most of the vehicles he encounters that many people wouldn't catch or be aware of. But those parts of Fear that aren't cut-and-paste standards are ridiculously contrived, and by the end scenes that are probably supposed to carry great emotion are lifeless and flat.

Fear the Worst is a dangerous title for an author to use, as it invites snarky commentary about how a book lives up to its name. Unfortunately, Barclay manages to match his output to the joke, all the way up a particularly soapy development on page 309 of the hardcover. After that, the reader need no longer fear the worst, as it has already happened.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Spin That I'm In

All subatomic particles have a feature that physicists call "spin." This kind of spin is not like the rotation of a top or a planet, even though it uses the same name. It's actually a specific kind of angular momentum, or combination of the particle's velocity and mass. I will confess to not fully understanding this myself. You may now confess your lack of surprise at my confession.

In any event, this special kind of spin can be measured, and every kind of subatomic particle has its own specific spin. So all neutrons have a certain spin, all protons have a certain spin, and so on. When physicists began to discover that subatomic particles -- so-called because it was thought that they were the building blocks of atoms, which were themselves known to be the building blocks of matter -- were themselves made up of smaller things eventually called "quarks," and that quarks themselves also had measurable and specific spin, then the most likely relationship was that the spin of the quarks, added together, created the spin of the particle in which they were found.

Nuh-uh. In fact, when physicists measured the spin of the quarks and performed that calculation, they did not add up to the known spin of a proton or neutron. Writer Edwin Cartlidge, in an article in Physics World, said this problem was sometimes called a "spin crisis." The Obama administration press office briefly perked up its ears at that before realizing that the term did not mean what they thought it meant.

So, physicists began to wonder if particles called "gluons" might be a part of the answer. What kind of spin do gluons have, and does it combine with the quark spin to produce the spin of a proton or neutron? Believe it or not, this is a question more easily asked than answered. But after examining data from the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven Laboratory -- which Cartlidge is cool enough to call a "gluon gun" -- physicists were able to come up with an answer. Does gluon spin plus quark spin produce proton or neutron spin?

Maybe. Which may not sound like much of an answer, but when you compare it to the previous answer physicists were having to give -- "We dunno" -- it's definite progress.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

An Injustice for Just Us

A couple of weeks ago, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announced its nominations for the annual Emmy awards for primetime television programs of the past season (Other television industry bodies handle the Emmys for other areas of programming and technical excellence).

Across the entertainment media, the bewailing and moaning began. Pop culture and entertainment news websites and columnists immediately began criticizing the Emmys for including certain obviously unworthy nominees and excluding other, obviously worthy nominees. I really couldn't help or offer any explanation. Mostly because the shows and actors being talked about were primarily boutique premium-cable shows which are viewed by audiences that, at their largest, make up five percent of the country's total population. I am, I'm afraid, part of the 95 percent and I don't have premium cable.

One thing that interested me was how often writers suggested these errors on the part of the ATAS made the Emmy Awards irrelevant, or sometimes the word was "meaningless." That interested me because I often used to say the same thing about the Emmys as well as the Grammys and the Oscars (and still do from time to time). The Emmys overlooked a show or an actor that I really liked in favor of another? They're worthless!

Then I started thinking about that. If the awards were worthless, then what did I care who they nominated? If they really couldn't see the obvious error of their ways and were therefore irrelevant, why pay attention to them? After all, if they really did mean something, then that might mean that their choices were more on target than mine. Maybe Ed ONeill really didn't deserve the Emmy for outstanding actor in a comedy series every year from 1987 to 1997 -- maybe he just played a character I liked on a show I liked but Emmy voters didn't.

So I figured out that I was huffing and puffing over the idea that not everybody liked what I liked as much as I liked it. Which I, being a fan of both the original Star Trek TV series and Dr. Who before the reboot a few years ago, should already have known. Apparently whatever native intelligence I can muster to rattle off opinions on a variety of subjects runs away and hides when it comes to self-evaluation and introspection. At that point, I decided my life could probably continue on its regular course without problems no matter who was nominated for what award.

And the best part about that is it doesn't prevent me from mocking the different award organizations when they pick their favorite half-caff-half-no-caff-double-espresso-with-a-hint-of-cinnamon show to champion instead of one watched by, you know, twice as many people just within the 18-49 demo slice, on its worst outing of the season.

Monday, July 21, 2014

With the Speed of Forms Submitted in Triplicate

Way back in 2001, the Australian patent office awarded a man named John Keogh "Innovation Patent #2001100012" for his "circular transportation facilitation device." Or what people who don't work in a government office would call a "wheel."

Mr. Keogh submitted his patent request as a way of illustrating that he thought the office had relaxed its standards a bit too much. He never tried to collect any money from people using wheels. So it turns out that the office recently revoked his patent, just more than a decade after issuing it.

What can you say? Apparently Australian government works much faster than ours does.

Sunday, July 20, 2014


At about 10:00 PM my time, 45 years ago today, men from Earth stepped onto the surface of the moon for the very first time.

Thanks to the shortsightedness and craven nature of bureaucrats and elected officials from that day to this, "men without chests" in the words of C. S. Lewis, we cannot celebrate that anniversary on-site. In fact, the only nation that has ever been able to go to the moon can't even leave our planet's gravity well without buying a ticket from the people whose behinds we kicked in the race to get there.

I shall be surly for awhile now.


This one's going to leave a mark.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Wet-Dry Affair

I have no intention of describing the method by which the following account came into my possession.

Being as how neither Mr. Sherlock Holmes nor myself were ever actual people but were instead fictional characters, we occupied our own little peculiar space in the multiverse after Dr. Doyle passed away. This enabled us to shape things quite according to our fancy, which was to say that our corner of that particular space greatly resembled the good doctor's description of our lodgings at 221B Baker Street in the London of Her Majesty Queen Victoria's day.

One day while we were enjoying an afternoon of reading Holmes called my attention to the peculiar item of news on something he read on one of those screen things which he has taken to greatly and which I cannot stand, preferring the reliability of my favorite newspaper. Surely, he does not have to fold his device, but I on the other hand have never dealt with the infernal problem of the Blue Screen of Death. I have suggested he use a more reliable device, but he insists that his mind, at least, should be capable of mastering this "OS" he calls "Windows."

In any event, the item concerned a couple living in a suburb in the American state of California. That region being under significant pressure because of a drought, the state assembly passed a law restricting water usage so as to save enough of the substance that necessary uses would not be curtailed. "Sensible," I said, and Holmes agreed with me.

"But listen further, Watson!" It seemed the suburb in which the couple dwelt also has regulations, which prohibit residents of their community from having lawns of unsightly or abandoned appearance. I fear my consternation showed plainly, and Holmes seized upon it.

"You see it too, then, do you not?" he cried. "One law will fine them if they use water on their lawn, but another will fine them if they do not! Every action is prohibited and they cannot win. A diabolical choice such as this can have but one author!"

"You mean...," I began, but he interrupted.

"Yes! That most evil of men, that most brilliant criminal Moriarty lives, Watson, and he is in California! We must be off at once; the game is afoot!"

Friday, July 18, 2014

Dinosaur Survival?

Dustbury notes some commentary on the fussin' between Verizon and Netflix about network capacities and streaming speeds. You will be unsurprised to learn that each company claims the other is at fault in the matter.

I have to say that I have noticed no problems with my Netflix playback. But then, I'm still getting physical DVDs in the mail, so my watching is not affected by download speeds.

If the Post Office runs slow, on the other hand, that will have a definite impact.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Monkey Business

At Acculturated, R.J. Moeller saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and articulates several questions about why anyone would. The questions he raises are pretty much exactly the ones I thought about when I first saw the movie was being released, and so I should probably send him a thank-you note.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Now THAT's a Selfie

A young man in Nebraska was walking around downtown and spotted Sir Paul McCartney and Warren Buffet sitting on a bench. So he made sure he got into the picture. Hope he asked for some investment and/or songwriting advice as well...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Get Off Our Country's Lawn

That may have been the planned war cry of the Selective Service Administration when it sent draft registry reminder notices to men born between 1893 and 1897, most of whom it would be tough to defeat, what with them being passed on and all.

The glitch happened through miscommunication of shared databases, the kind of thing that's not so mysterious. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation sent the proper records to the Selective Service for men born between 1993 and 1997 who have failed to register. Even though there is no draft, registration was reinstated by President Carter in 1980 and has been in effect ever since.

Whoever sent the information to the SSA didn't check to make sure that the third digit was a nine in all of the records, so the SSA just sent out the notices. People who received them who tried calling the agency to report a problem couldn't get an actual person on the line to alert agency personnel to the error.

So the glitch is understandable. The fact that there was no human being anywhere in the process checking the results of the computer's work, nor available to respond to error reports or questions, is what makes you shrug your shoulders and wonder really, just what these people should be allowed to be in charge of.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Food for Thought

Someone stuck an extra book on the shelves of the Cambridge Library, but what was contained within was not what the cover promised.

Inside the hollowed-out edition of Margaret Drabble's The Oxford Companion to English Literature, a snack samaritan had placed wrapped candy for the use of whomever discovered it. The only thing the unknown benefactor asked was that whoever ate the candy replace it for subsequent browsers-turned-noshers.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Social Scene

Even if you didn't have the example of the forever nerdy Bill Gates before you, common sense will tell you what your parents told you -- that being "cool" isn't everything.

And now a research project from the University of Virginia says the same thing. The project observed and interviewed a group of young people at age 13 and then again in their 20s. Many of the kids who showed edgy behavior and earned approval from their peers as "cool" when they were 13 had a tougher time of things when they were older.

That, says a researcher, is because the kind of behavior that garners approval from one's teen peers is often dumb and not held in anything like high esteem when exhibited as an adult. Dean Wormer echoes this idea when he tells Flounder, "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

Another reason is that people who base their own life on receiving such superficial approval have a harder time actually interacting with folks when the time in life comes to do that. "Wow, they're cool! They do what they want and don't care what anyone thinks!" becomes, "Wow, what jerks! They do what they want and don't care what anyone thinks."

Greg Gutfeld's most recent book explores the same idea, with the additional point that living life like one was in high school -- when cool may have mattered the most -- is kind of dumb in the 60-plus years one has following high school.

Or it could be that all of the people who wrote up the study were nerds who fibbed to make up for the fact that they aren't cool. You never know.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

All Revved up and Ready to Go

Tommy Ramone, original drummer of the transformative punk band the Ramones, passed away Friday. Under his real name, Thomas Erdelyi, he started out managing the band before moving to the drum kit, and produced the band's 1984 album Too Tough to Die.

Tommy had given up drumming for the band by then, replaced in 1978 by Marky Ramone (Marc Steven Bell), who remains the only living "classic" Ramone. Tommy wrote "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" and co-wrote "Blitzkrieg Bop," from which the post title was taken. These were the singles from the band's 1976 debut album, Ramones.

Although for many reasons punk rock is often more identified with scowling and howling English yobs like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones played a large role in connecting the new style to its old roots. Remove some of the volume fuzz and reduce the tempo from its near speed-of-light beat and you have stuff that shows its roots in 1960s Top 40 pop, beach music and the traditional three chords and the truth mindset. "Rock 'N' Roll High School" could have been sung by the Beach Boys.

"I Wanna Be Sedated," on the other hand, probably wouldn't have been, and that's where the punk elements come in. With songs like that, "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," "I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement," "53rd and 3rd," "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment" and "The KKK Took My Baby Away," the band presented a kind of Mad-Magazine-meets-Hammer-Films-via-pulp-fiction vibe that made their music as much fun as it was groundberaking and thought-provoking.

So if you'd care to chant "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" a couple of times in memory of one of the fastest "Onetwothreefour" counts of the last 40 years, it would not be amiss.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Publish or Perish

The post title is an aphorism that riffs on how much of a college professor's reputation is based on how many articles or books he or she has in print. A mediocre teacher can gain an edge in angling for a tenured professorship if he or she has more articles than a better teacher.

But since most Ph. D.'s aren't required to take a single course on teaching in order to earn their degrees, the contest may wind up being between two mediocrities. Which makes me think the college should just save themselves the grief and put the mediocrities on a public ballot like political offices do.

Anyway, some folks connected to the Journal of Vibration and Control took the importance of published material seriously enough that they developed a fraud ring of fake peer-reviewers to support the value of a submitted article. "Peer-review" is the process by which other people in a field of expertise examine an article to see if the author's methodology is sound. A reviewer need not agree with the conclusions, but either way, if they come across serious errors in procedure or testing, they will alert the journal which will in turn contact the article's author and ask, "What's up?"

It seems the ring was using the fake identities to suggest that articles were good to go, thus expanding the number of "peers" who rated the submissions as acceptable in their methodology and scientific procedures. The JVR covers a highly specialized field of acoustics, and when the ring was uncovered it was forced to retract more than 60 articles that had been tainted by the ring's shenanigans. It's published monthly rather than quarterly like some academic journals, but still, 60 articles is a significant chunk of verbiage that the journal now says can't be vouched for.

That the problem was found out is a good thing, of course, even if it happened in a not-so-well-known publication read by a relatively small group of specialists. But it does make me wonder, at least, about the pressure the publishing drive brings if a professor dreams up a scheme like this, as well as whether or not "peer review" is the magic authenticity bullet it is claimed to be. This may be one more system of the higher education industry that needs either an overhaul or at least a squinty-eyed closer look.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Do the Bookaloo

Alex Grecian's first two novels of Scotland Yard's "Murder Squad" have been fun semi-Victorian romps through the London of the late 19th century. Inspector Walter Day and his ally Dr. Bernard Kingsley, an expert in the brand-new field of forensic pathology, use their brains to puzzle out clues and bring to heel those who would prey on the good -- and not-so-good -- folks of Great Britain's capital city.

Unfortunately Grecian dumps the mystery in his third Murder Squad outing, The Devil's Workshop, to try his hand at a ticking clock psychological thriller. A secret society in London has arrogated to itself the right to punish the city's worst criminals in a manner they feel is more fitting than simple incarceration. They plan a prison break to collect a few more inmates for their dungeon, but things go wrong and some of the worst offenders are now out and free. What's more, one of the dungeon's current inmates has found a way out -- and since Saucy Jack the Ripper was the reason the Murder Squad was invented, his return to the scene after a mysterious disappearance bodes ill for many.

The replacement of a mystery with a gore-splattered cat-and-mouse game between Day, Jack and the other escaped killers makes Workshop the weakest outing of the series by far. Its setup for an obvious sequel doesn't help, and the limited look at the London of HRH Victoria Regina drains it of one of the series' chief charms to date. That obvious sequel may be better than this outing or it may not, but even if it is that won't help Workshop be much better than just average.
Being a private investigator is not easy. But it can be repetitive. Just ask Josefina "Fina" Ludlow, a Boston P.I. who works for her wealthy family's law firm. Of course, Fina can also tell you that repetitive and maybe sometimes almost boring work doesn't preclude risking your neck, especially when you dig into things nobody wants dug.

Wellesley College grad Ingrid Thoft wanted to write more realistic novels about private investigating, so she got herself licensed as one. Her expertise brings significant realism to Identity, the second novel featuring Fina. One of her father's former clients, a single mother, wants to learn the identity of the donor she used to conceive her daughter. The clinic isn't likely to offer that information, so she wants them sued. In the meantime, Fina's father wants her to check things out as much as she can and see if she can learn who the donor was lawsuit or no. Fina's good at her job, so she learns who the man is. But that's where the problems start.

Thoft's realism does offer a kind of different slant on the P.I. genre, not unlike Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone. And she has a brash, witty style that she uses to good effect both in Fina's dialogue and in her narration; she might not have too hard a time trading quips with a couple of other smart-aleck Boston P.I.s. But in the end the repetitiveness of Fina's detecting -- ask this person some questions, ask another person some questions, ask a third person some questions, go back and ask the first person some more questions, lather, rinse, repeat -- needs some reduction. It wouldn't weigh things down so much if a lot of the rest of Fina's activities, such as her near-hourly intake of junk food, weren't also on a Möbius loop that probably adds a couple of pounds to the reader. Thoft wants to strike a balance between realism and interesting narrative and she probably will, but Identity shows she has some work ahead of her in doing so.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Grab a Bag o' Grab

-- "This is the pilot. I am declaring an emergency -- a pepperoni and sausage emergency!"

-- In the most important news item of the day, it seems that Homestar Runner will be returning to the web with new episodes. Come on, fhqwhgads, everybody to the limit!

-- Is it possible to be any blinking stupider than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? In remarks discussing possible legislation to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 so as to require employers pay for all forms of birth control, regardless of their religious beliefs, the dingy gray smear occupying Hart Office Building #522 said, “The one thing we are going to do during this work period, sooner rather than later, is to ensure that women’s lives are not determined by virtue of five white men.” Senator Reid has been in the Senate for Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas's entire tenure -- he voted against him -- so we may presume he has seen Justice Thomas. Or perhaps Senator Reid's lack of vision and inability to perceive reality are more than merely metaphorical.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014


So apparently Rosie O'Donnell is returning to The View.

This is going to be a big problem for me in the event that my coffin is placed upright in cement in front of a television set tuned to the only frequency remaining after a strange phenomenon wiped out the entire electromagnetic spectrum other than ABC's signal and the off-switch was sealed with a gallon of Shelob's webbing.

Monday, July 7, 2014


A friend recently e-mailed me a picture of a column I had written for a student newspaper while in college. I remembered the gig, but did not remember this column (click to enlarge for reading):

At least the chip on my shoulder has shrunk a little bit with time.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Unbalanced

The Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s and 1860s, late in China's Qing Dynasty, took more than 20 million lives as forces of the Taiping Heavenly Army, led by a man who claimed a vision told him he was Jesus' younger brother, fought the government forces of the Qing rulers. The story of an official late in that conflict is the basis for the 2007 Jet Li movie The Warlords.

Li plays Qingyun, a common-born but gifted strategist as a general in the Qing Army. Thought dead when his army was defeated, he escaped and was nursed back to health in a nearby peasant village. He recruits the villagers to his cause, but only after he convinces village leaders Wuyang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Erhu (Andy Lau) of his trustworthiness by swearing a blood oath allowing any member of the trio to kill one of the others upon proof of betrayal. Under Qinyung's leadership, the villagers find success and earn recognition from the Imperial court. But the ruthlessness he displays leads to horrors his two co-leaders never anticipated, and they question the path on which Qinyung leads them.

Producers Peter Chan and Andre Moran had a budget of $40 million for their movie, and they spent $15 million of that insuring they got Jet Li. His presence, they said, guaranteed international distribution. Li, who is not as gifted an actor as he is martial artist, still does quality work as he shows the way success and bloodshed erode whatever moral code Qinyung once had. Much of the heavy dramatic work is done by Kaneshiro, with Lau pitching in as well.

Warlords is a bleak story of men who find that the small decisions that they make and that are made around them can soon lead them into traps that bring mayhem, destruction and ruin in their wake. It's a fitting story for what might be the bloodiest civil war seen by any nation and one whose toll wreaked more havoc on those who didn't fight than on those who did.
In the late 1940s, a member of the Blackfoot nation injured in World War II, Jimmy Picard, was admitted to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, KS with headaches, spells of blindness and blackouts. No physical cause could be found, so clinic staff called in Dr. George Devereux, a psychoanalyst who pays special attention to his patients' ethnic backgrounds and specializes in non-European cultures. Devereux wrote the history of his treatment in a 1951 book, Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian.

The story of Devereux's treatment of Picard forms the narrative of Jimmy P., a 2013 independent movie from Arnaud Desplechin. Desplechin mainstay Mathieu Amalric stars as Devereux and Benicio Del Toro stars as Jimmy. As Devereux treats Jimmy, uncovering traumas from his past that affect his health today, the two men also become friends.

As both a character study and as a demonstration of some of the different angles a psychoanalyst must use to help a patient from a different culture, Jimmy P. is fairly interesting. But it's overlong for both, probably needing at least 20 minutes trimmed from its 114-minute run time. A good candidate for the edit is a visit from Devereux's lover Madelaine (Gina McKee); it doesn't do much for the story that couldn't be done as the two men converse and explore Jimmy's past and it stretches a slow-paced movie past the boredom line by chasing up an alley that adds nothing to the story. After all, the movie isn't called Georgie D.

Quiet, well-acted explorations of other cultures and facets of them not widely known are a welcome relief in a summer of ever bigger, ever dumber explosions and comedies whose presence in the world is nothing but tragedy. But Jimmy P. needs a trim in order to make its portrayal of Picard and Devereux more effective, and in order to keep a viewer tuned in to the resolution of their story.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Location, Location, Location

A research center in Colorado, partially funded by the Templeton Foundation, is going to look for some ways to possibly measure imagination. The thought is that such a quality is not generally revealed by standard intelligence testing but can be a sign of intelligence. Obviously, imagination is tough to quantify, so the scientists may have their work cut out for them. Plus, there are times when our imagination is stronger than others -- such as explaining to one's parents why there is a dent in the fender.

It's worth noting that the center has not been placed in Washington, D.C., nor in Hollywood. So it would seem that they're already on the right track, as the latter lacks much imagination these days and the former rarely uses that power for good anymore.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Course of Human Events

A little re-enactment for the day:

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Fighting Men (and a Fighting Woman) and Others...

The Theodore Roosevelt is a old, underpowered starship outclassed by modern, more powerful vessels. It patrols a backwater sector, is commanded by a broken-down captain and crewed by misfits it's cheaper to reassign than kick out of the service. So it's exactly the place Wilson Cole should be sent when he once again exceeds the letter of his orders and brings about success that embarrasses those in power above him. Twice a commander in his own right, Cole will now serve as third in command. It's a given he'll rise to the occasion.

Cole promises to behave and sets his focus on reinstilling some military discipline and perhaps even pride of service into the crew of castoff losers he's flying with. But his natural gift for finding trouble -- and handling it -- asserts itself and puts him on the outs with both his superior officers aboard ship. He'll have as many problems with his own side as he does with his enemies, except his own side isn't shooting at him -- yet.

Veteran author Mike Resnick gives his Starship space opera series just as much detail as it needs and nothing more, opting to leave out details like how his space drives work and playing pretty fast and loose with galactic cartography. A little finer resolution in these areas would probably have helped matters, but Resnick's main goal is the characters in his story and the events they contend with. And given how some authors go overboard with the techno-exposition, his restraint isn't the worst choice. Resnick keeps the story moving, doesn't digress overmuch and crafts a readable and diverting opening to his series about the Teddy R and her crew.
Brad Taylor began his "Pike Logan" series with his title character broken by a tragedy, and has been rebuilding him ever since. Logan was once an operative for the Taskforce, a super-secret organization given the authority to go outside the lines in its battle against America's enemies. Now he and partner Jennifer Cahill are private contractors working with the Taskforce and are matching wits with the ruthless gangs that control Mexico's drug trade in an attempt to learn what happened to Jennifer's brother Jack, a reporter working on a story about the gangs. A mission that begins for personal reasons develops into a true Taskforce operation as a plot to sabotage the Global Positioning System (GPS) network is uncovered during the search for Jack.

Taylor, himself a retired special forces soldier, knows some of what Pike has to handle as someone given the authority to take lives or spare them on his own choice, without the guide of the law or governing agency. It brings about a tightrope walk between protecting the country from its enemies and becoming just as bad as those enemies. He's been bringing Pike and Cahill along that walk -- Cahill as the rookie coming to terms with just how thin the line can be and Pike as the veteran making sure he hasn't lost sight of it -- for five novels and his improving writing style is helping.

Polaris hangs together a little less well than do earlier Logan thrillers, as important elements introduced in earlier scenes disappear without real resolution. But Taylor is still offering some excellent thrill-riding that can also offer a snack-for-thought or two later on.
It might be tempting to dismiss Jeff Guinn's Glorious when you read this cover blurb by "Longmire" series author Craig Johnson: "If, like me, you've been waiting for the next Louis L'Amour or Zane Grey, the good news is his name is Jeff Guinn." But Guinn's not responsible for what other people say about him or for Penguin Putnam's decision to put silliness like that on his cover.

And just because Jeff Guinn ain't Zane or Louis doesn't mean either he or Glorious is somehow substandard. A longtime reporter and author of several non-fiction books, Guinn manages to make his first outing with protagonist Cash McLendon a mostly enjoyable romp through the Arizona Territory in the first decade after the Civil War.

McLendon had been married into a wealthy family in St. Louis, but tragedy sends him out West in search of an old flame whom he knows to be living in the prospecting town of Glorious, Arizona. Things don't proceed as he wishes with his reunion, so he resolves to leave the town on the next stage. Only he finds himself more and more caught up with the people of this tiny town, who are hoping and praying for the silver strike that will keep their town alive and maybe bring in enough people to stave off raids from nearby Apaches.

Guinn gives Glorious a dry, wry semi-comic tone that echoes the voices of Charles Portis or Larry McMurtry. He is patient in drawing out his plotline, giving us time to learn the characters and their situations as McLendon does. McLendon is not a typical gunslinging hero, but he proves worth the time to watch grow.

Some interviews and other reviews suggest that Guinn plans Glorious as part of a trilogy or even a series, and that's where the book's problem arises. Its resolution is really not much of one and chops off short. There is little organic or natural reason for Glorious to end where it does, and the transparently artificial "Bridge to Sequelbithia" that Guinn employs dampens enthusiasm about subsequent travels with Mr. McLendon and his erstwhile neighbors.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Word Shortage

The book blog at The Guardian wonders if a recent spate of similar names for different books means we are running out of book titles.

Probably not, since there is pretty much no way for us to use up every combination of words possible in the English language any time before the sun goes nova. Add in them there furrin tongues and you've got a pretty much inexhaustible list of possibilities.

Now, if you want titles that make sense, you limit your options. But since creativity doesn't seem to be the strong suit of a lot of people littering the shelves these days, making sense is probably a ways down on the priority list.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

I Don't Think It Means What You Think It Means

The "Neuroskeptic" blog at Discover takes on a supposed finding that shows brain activity is lower during a lecture than almost any other point in the day, proving that lectures are very poor teaching methods.

Except, of course, that it doesn't do anything of the kind. For one, Neuroskeptic notes, the test was not designed to measure brain wave activity; it was designed to test a new kind of sensor attached to the skin to read electrical impulses inside the body. For another, it was tested on one person, as a way of seeing if the sensor could be worn long term with little or no notice from other people. And for yet another, the sensor was measuring what's called "electrodermal activity," or changes in the skin's ability to conduct electricity. These can be affected by a wide range of factors, many of which have nothing to do with brain activity.

Some lectures may indeed do a poor job of teaching, but that may have more to do with the lecturer than the communication format. At least, that's the way it works for sermons.