Sunday, August 31, 2014

I R Smart

Bryan Roche, writing at Live Science, says that the idea of a human's IQ remaining the same throughout his or her life is wrong.

IQ tests are designed to "shift" over time so the acquisition of knowledge and skills doesn't really affect it. What my IQ was measured at when I was a child should be roughly the same as it would be if I measured it today, and the test I would be given today would be different from the one I would have taken then.

Roche says that a lot of psychological research suggests that our IQ changes over time -- in fact, it rises. Although we all probably have an upper limit for our intelligence, we can acquire new intellectual skills through study through most of our lives, and most people probably wouldn't reach that limit.

Probably one way to boost the score would be to figure out why I have gotten smarter as I've aged when the only thing I seem to have learned is that middle-aged me knows a lot less than twenty-something me did.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Non-Existential Question

At Nautilus, writer Leon Korstner examines what we might mean when we talk about nothingness. He suggests there are many kinds of nothings, and too much awareness of or focus on some of them may lead to problems of modern society like angst and depression.

The article's subhead says, "We can experience nothingness, but does it actually exist?" I tend to think it does. If you demur, then I challenge you to answer this question: "What does a Kardashian do?"

Friday, August 29, 2014

Through the Looking Glass

Or at least, maybe through the bottom of one too many shot glasses -- that's what you might think you may be using to see these homes and buildings at the Homes and Hues website.

I'm thinking that if I had some reason to regularly visit either the Kryzy Domek in Poland:

or the Cube House designed by Piet Blom:

I would need to find a regularly designed and constructed pharmacy so I could buy a whole lot of aspirin.

(H/T Neatorama)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Not Boring

I get bored, and I maybe go work out, or I find a book, or I hunt up random websites, or if desperate, I will do laundry.

You get bored, and it's probably similar, although you may trade out other activities for mine.

Evan Kuester gets bored, and he 3-D prints a hand.

As the story at the link notes, Kuester says ideally the hand would work like a regular one, responding to commands from the brain and grasping things and such, but his version doesn't. It's limited, he says, by technology. Not for long, I bet, if he's got any counterparts in the science and engineering fields.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

From the Rental Vault

This blog has previously saluted the efforts of Budd Boetticher, Harry Brown and Randolph Scott's work in what's sometimes called the "Ranown Cycle" after the production company that Brown and Scott formed in the 1950s. The three met on the set of The Desperadoes, a 1943 Columbia picture which starred Scott and was produced by Brown. where Boetticher worked as an uncredited assistant director. Seeing Columbia put real talent and effort into cast, story and production probably helped them shape the same attitude on the seven movies that earned them their later acclaim.

Scott is Sheriff Steve Upton, a man who had some rough edges but has put them behind him to maintain the law in Red Valley in the Utah territory. He's trying to figure out who robbed the local bank and left three bystanders dead, especially since a contract to sell horses to the military will mean local ranchers will be loading said bank with cash soon, and the robbers may try again. Glenn Ford is Cheyenne Rogers, a gunhand who was supposed to be in on the bank job but didn't get to town in time. Meeting his old friend Steve and the hostler's beautiful daughter Allison (Evelyn Keyes) pushes him to make another try at settling down legally -- if he can. But the bank robbery involves more than meets the eye, and Cheyenne's violent past means he can't avoid mixing into the trouble, willingly or not.

Scott was the name brand star and lead in the movie, but Ford dominates it with his more complex role and centrality to the plot. The tension hinges on his desire to go straight in the midst of a lot of forces pulling him both ways. Claire Trevor lends her usual skill to add dimension to the town's "shady lady" madam and Keyes does a lot more than just bat her eyes and pine after her fella. The story lets them all make characters from the stereotypes the genre hands them, and it's a rewarding experience for fans of good movies, not just of the genre.
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If Desperadoes was one of the big breaks for Glenn Ford, This Gun for Hire was the break for Alan Ladd, who played the gangland assassin for hire Philip Raven in his first major role in the 1942 noir classic.

Raven has completed his job and been paid by the man who hired him, Willard Gates (Laird Cregar). But he finds he's been double-crossed and sets out to gain revenge on Gates and the man Gates fronted for. On the trip he meets Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) a singer hired by Gates for his nightclub, although neither of them knows of the other's connection. Further complicating the matter are Ellen's fianc├ę, police detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston) and Gates' suspicion that Ellen and Raven are working together.

The plot is a typically twisty noir number, but the excellence is in the performances of Lake and Ladd (they would team again three more times). Ladd is excellent as the blank-faced assassin Raven, taking the golden opportunity of the role and giving everything he had to it. His brief displays of human emotion are all the more real because of their flickering nature and length, and it makes his malevolence all the deadlier. Despite the poster view, Lake is not the fatal femme fatale common to these stories as much as a player in the game with her own ends. She's not just reacting to Ladd or Preston but is driving a line of the plot on her own. Gun is considered a classic of the 1940s noir catalog, and it earns its place.
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For its fourth animated original movie, Warner Brothers gave the lady her turn, featuring Wonder Woman in the 2009 movie of the same name. It was the first DC animated movie to be lead by a woman and to feature the Amazon heroine in her own story rather than in a Justice League adventure.

Weary of constant battles with the forces of Ares (voiced by Alfred Molina), god of war, Queen Hippolyta (voiced by Virgina Madsen) and her Amazon sisters retreat to the hidden island of Themyscira, where they are charged with guarding an imprisoned and depowered Ares in return for their seclusion. With the exception of young Diana (voiced by Keri Russell), a clay figure molded by Hippolyta and given life by the gods, no children are ever born on the island and with the exception of the prisoner Ares, no men are there either.

Until Steve Trevor (voiced by Nathan Fillion) crash-lands his plane on Themyscira and Hippolyta decides to send him back to his world with an Amazon guide. The crash unfortunately coincides with a scheme by Ares that endangers not just the Amazons but all of humanity. While Diana and Steve may have a chance to stop him, they will have to overcome mutual distrust to team up and take on the task.

The movie uses George Perez's "Gods and Mortals" arc from his 1987 reboot of the Wonder Woman character. Russell does a good job of communicating a character whose wise in her own world but inexperienced in a larger one, and Fillion is excellent as the cocky Trevor, even though the character as written is more irresponsible fratboy horndog than cocky pilot. Wonder Woman was one of the better-reviewed of DC's animated movies but did not sell well at first, leaving plans for a sequel on the shelf. It's still not clear why, since director Lauren Montgomery has either helmed or co-directed six more features for the studio to date. But DC's choice of storylines in its animated releases hasn't been best buddies with logic, as the existence of Superman vs. The Elite demonstrates. But the beauty of animated movies is that drawn characters never have to age, so we may yet see the Amazon Princess return to kick some behind and try to help facilitate communication between her hidden homeland and Man's World.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Then Again...

Sometimes, people like me who are in favor of limiting government a little bit sort of look to the local arena as a place where government's limited abilities can actually function to do some good.

And sometimes not.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

And even though it might look it, you would not be lost in some fantasy world if you were to wander some of these paths shown in this article at Bored Panda.

The photos have probably been processed a little bit in order to enhance color and such, but if the real places are even half as amazing as the pics, then one's feet and imagination could get a workout.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Effectiveness Uncertain

The interim president at the University of Southern Maine has suggested that faculty members call students who have yet to re-enroll and convince them to do so, in order to head off potentially disastrous enrollment drops.

Interim Prez David Flanagan, on the job for three weeks after leaving his role as the CEO of a power company, said he got the idea from a couple of professors who were already calling students. The different faculty reps quoted in the Inside Higher Education story seem to think that there's no harm with a request to pitch in and help, as long as it stays a request and as long as participation is voluntary. They hedge their bets and say that most of the response has been positive, meaning that there may have been some faculty grumps who think that the admissions office is supposed to do that sort of thing.

I can see several sides. On the one hand, yes the admissions office is supposed to do that sort of thing. On the other hand, Herr and/or Frau Doktor Professor, your life of light workload and pleasant community living depends on those late-teen/early-20s showing up in enough numbers to make sure the checks with which you get paid bounceth not. On yet another hand, a quick scan of the directory of the University of Southern Maine shows several administrative offices that would seem to have a big fat bupkis to do with teaching and yet which have close to 20 people listed on staff without counting administrative assistants or work study students.

The Faculty Senate chair said one problem could be that several popular courses are already filled, meaning that the feet-draggers may wait the school out a semester or so until they can take what they want.

In any event, I don't know if Interim Prez Flanagan's proposal will be all that successful. If I'm a college-aged person who's been on the fence about enrolling, having one of my profs nag me on the phone about it might not be a winning strategy for my retention.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

I've Got a Hole in Me Pocket

Which, thanks to researchers working on a substance called "Vantablack," I might someday be able to pull out of my pocket and apply anywhere, giving the appearance of a hole.

A picture at the link shows what aluminum foil looks like when it's coated in Vantablack -- even though it's wrinkled and crinkled all the way across, the developed compound absorbs 99.96% of the light that hits it and to the human eye looks featurelessly black -- just like a hole. New Yorkers immediately expressed an interest in buying clothing coated with the stuff.

Continued research is likely to produce a coating which can be applied like others and create nighttime camoflauge, and may also give hints towards a coating that effectively bends light around an object.

(H/T Dustbury)

Friday, August 22, 2014

Yesterday and Tomorrow?

Dr. Mallard on NCIS can determine just about anything about a deceased person based on the condition of the body when it's found. Although his abilities are probably exaggerated, forensic pathologists really can gain a lot of information by examining the internal organs of someone who has passed away. That science began in the late 1700s, and Tessa Harris tells the story of Thomas Silkstone, a young Philadelphian who travels to London during colonial days to study with London's top surgeons and "anatomists."

Thomas has been asked to examine the corpse of Sir Edward Crick, whose death gave the impression of having been brought about by poison. He is happy teaching students at the college where he also studies under Dr. Carruthers and does not really wish to enmesh himself in the affairs of Sir Edward, his sister Lady Lydia Farrell and her husband Michael. But Lady Lydia is beautiful, and the death presents a mystery indeed. Thomas agrees, but he finds that those who would rather keep Sir Edward's manner of passing a secret will take steps to be sure it remains so -- even if that means removing a certain colonial-born anatomist.

Harris has much of the Georgian-era mores and cultural features down very well, although she doesn't go so far down that path as to make the characters too remote and unrelatable. She seems to have done her research about the era and about its level of medical knowledge, although a couple of dyspeptic Amazon reviews claim otherwise. Thomas is the best-drawn character, as many of the other leads simply exist to react to him and give him someone to whom he may react. The mystery offers a couple of appropriately plausible red herrings before coming to a not entirely-unexpected conclusion, although it puts one twist or two more than necessary in the road on the way there. The Silkstone books have a promising beginning as a period mystery series that we can hope Harris maintains.
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One of the weaknesses of what's called "end times fiction" in religious publishing circles is how to include enough esoteric details the pre-, post- or a-millennial audience wants to see about the interpretations of Biblical prophecy without drowning the story in so much of that kind of minutiae that a general audience will check out rather than wade through it.

Another is that it's often very poorly written. Former political consultant Joel C. Rosenberg's The Last Jihad series largely overcomes the first problem and makes a decent enough stab at the second to rank it well above the industry standard "Left Behind" series. The Copper Scroll is the fourth book of the series, so this note may spoil some of the earlier books if you decide to read them.

Former presidential advisor Jon Bennett and Erin McCoy, his aide and also a CIA officer, have been able to marry each other without an international crisis wrecking the day. Their honeymoon, on the other hand...

The Bennetts find themselves caught in a murderous web of intrigue surrounding the words of the "Copper Scroll," found in the Qumran caves in the late 1940s along with the other Dead Sea Scrolls. An Israeli archaeologist believes he has keys to deciphering the scrolls mysterious directions to immense hidden treasure. Government leaders in Israel and the United States are interested, and the remaining leadership of areas devastated by a space-borne firestorm in the previous book are looking at the treasure for the resources it could give them in their recovery. Who will learn the Copper Scroll's secrets first, and what will the consequences be?

Rosenberg does a much better job than "Left Behind" authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins at creating a real world out of which his eschatological plotline may develop. He keeps the supernatural elements at a minimum and his research is put together better (his description of the Copper Scroll is pretty much accurate, for example). His action scenes are more realistic and have more punch. The characters are still pretty stock and cookie-cutter, but if The Copper Scroll hadn't been published by the religious-book outfit Tyndale House, there's no reason it couldn't sit on an airport bookstand alongside any dozen secularly-published thrillers. Maybe Rosenberg's apocalyptic worldview is off-target and maybe it isn't, but it's certainly no sillier than any idea Dan Brown has ever inflicted on paper and it's a better read anyway.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

What You Heard

The folks at Today I Found Out recently included an examination of the phrase many people believed to have been uttered by then-Governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, "I can see Russia from my house." Which Tina Fey said while portraying the governor in a sketch, but which Palin herself never said.

Of course, anyone who got their news from the news instead of Saturday Night Live would have known that to be true, no matter what they might think of Sarah Palin. To me, the interesting thing is that this item is featured on the site, which is generally dedicated to finding out interesting bits of history and correcting some common misconceptions, even though it happened only six years ago.

The internet, her memory is short.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pay to Play

There are some ruffled artistic feathers and a bit of a buzz because it may be that the National Football League has asked acts which perform at the Super Bowl halftime show to kick a little back -- either from whatever tour they're on after the show or from some other source.

Often, the Super Bowl act isn't compensated although its expenses may be covered. The NFL's position is, apparently, that acts should be grateful for the exposure they get by being on the halftime show and should be willing to share a token of that gratitude. This makes perfect sense. We all remember how Paul McCartney became a huge megastar after his show in 2005, and how a year later an appearance by a band of English senior citizens made the Rolling Stones a household name.

Although our instinct is to dismiss this action as a fumble-fingered grab for money by a group of team owners whose stupidity grows from their cupidity, there may be something to the idea in general. At the Super Bowl earlier this year, the performers were Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. If I'd have watched that, I'd have figured somebody owed me money too.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Everything Old Is New

Like these computers, fit inside antique wooden furniture

Monday, August 18, 2014

Science -- Always Fun

At The Week, a writer has assembled five fun science experiments that are at least 100 years old. I suspect that something like this may one day creep into Mythbusters; co-host Jaime Hyneman already has the proper era mystache -- er, mustache.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Worthwhile Words from Fellow Okies

Charles Hill at Dustbury opines on added costs and the minimum wage and such.

Jennifer at Are You There, God? It's Me, Generation X offers a wonderful testimony.

Amanda at The Lady Okie recounts some of her medical mission trip to Nicaragua, beginning with part 1 here.

And the Blog Oklahoma people probably need to go through their blogroll and link list to clear out a bunch of dead links.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Hauntingly Familiar

Many times props built for or used in movies are one-and-done affairs. But not all the time, and this list at Mental Floss shows 10 fairly famous props that you may have seen more than once, whether or not you noticed it.

The reuse of movie plots, ideas or lack of ideas, of course, has been noticeable for some time.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Book Times Three

Brett Battles began his thriller career in 2007 with the stories of professional "cleaner" Jonathan Quinn, a man for hire who helps his clientele remove inconvenient things like bodies after the assassins have done their work. In 2011 he began branching out, offering some other series as well as standalones. No Return, published in 2012, is one of those.

Cameraman Wes Stewart is shooting footage for a travel show in the Mojave when he and his co-workers are nearly clipped by a crashing F-18 fighter. Wes tries to help the pilot, but before he can, the plane explodes. But what caused the plane to crash? And why are the people at the nearby naval air station acting like they have something to hide? Powerful people don't want Wes to answer those questions, and even though the shoot was taking place near the town he grew up, it will be Wes who's unfamiliarity with the lay of the land might endanger him and his friends.

Battles does well with suspense, but one of the most interesting things about the Quinn series is that the books feature a lead character who is at the very least outside the everyday world and probably a confirmed misanthrope. Battles' "regular guy" characters of the film crew have a lot less depth, and the Dark, Deeply Buried Secret in Wes's past is so conventional that I've probably spoiled it by mentioning it exists. The main plot as well is strictly paint-by-numbers, and not very many numbers at that. No Return is no worse than average, but Battles has led readers to expect much, much better than average and so it's probably a good thing he's kept the Quinn series going as well.
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Back in the late 1990s, actress Helen Hunt had a friend who wrote crime fiction, so she suggested he write a female detective and she would try to get the book made into a movie. The friend was Spenser creator and crime fiction grand master Robert B. Parker, and the detective was Sonya Joan "Sunny" Randall, who bowed in 1999 with Family Honor.

Sunny is a private detective in Boston with an ex-husband she can't quite seem to put out of her life. Her father is a retired Boston cop and Sunny served as well, until the mob ties of ex-husband Richie made the department suggest she find other work. Right now, that other work means trying to track down a missing teenage girl for a wealthy Boston family. The search will involve mixing with some thoroughly disreputable characters, but what happens after Sunny finds the girl could be even worse.

Family Honor is a mesh of the Spenser books Early Autumn and Ceremony, combining the latter's search for a runaway teen and the former's casting of a detective protagonist as the only one who seems to care what happens to that child. Parker toys with the idea of Sunny mentoring the girl, the way Spenser does with Paul Giacomin in Early Autumn, but he doesn't follow through (in fact, the teen disappears for the rest of the series, never mentioned again even in passing). Honor is mostly a cut-and-paste retread of several Spenser themes, set pieces and characters. Over the course of seven books Parker occasionally made Sunny and her cast interesting, but never for very long, and the series seems to have wound up in 2007, with no Sunny Randall books talked about after that.

Her beginning during a significant trough in the quality of Parker's output, plus the long lag since her material came out, probably makes her the one Parker character without an afterlife. Given the uneven quality of Honor and its successors, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
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Although Disney is known for its animated characters and features, it's had its share of live-action movies as well. Many of these were aimed at an audience slightly older than the ones who watched Micky, but still featured simple plots, predictable characters and very few surprises.

Remove an early seduction scene, and Tim Champlin's Treasure of the Templars would fit into that set of stories just fine.

In 1898, professor Roddy McGinniss is about to present a paper at an academic conference that confirms the long-lost treasure of the Knights Templar was actually brought to the New World. But the modern-day version of the organization, a secret society of dubious character, doesn't want him to, and so makes a move against the professor and his niece Merliss. Fortunately, ex-Trappist monk Marcus Flood is able to help them both out and travel with them to the spot in the Southwestern U.S. where Roddy thinks the treasure is. But the modern Templars are barely behind them, and they want that treasure first.

Champlin writes mostly westerns, and in fact the Templar treasure is just a McGuffin to get the cast out into the desert in a "search for the lost mine" plot. It's very standard, barely paper-thin, and over and done with once the last page turns. Which is not that much different from all of those "family adventure" live-action movies from Disney, almost all of which are overshadowed by the better-known and generally better-done animated features.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Honor to be Nominated?

It probably isn't, at least when the contest under consideration is the Bulwer-Lytton bad opening sentence contest. The winners here.

The contest, run since 1982, takes its name from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel Paul Clifford opened with that apotheosis of hackery, "It was a dark and stormy night."

Bulwer-Lytton also gave us the phrase "The pen is mightier than the sword." And hack novel or not, Paul Clifford was a bestseller in its day, so Bulwer-Lytton probably laughed all the way to the bank.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Abstract Fields

Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University has become the first woman and the first person of Iranian birth to win the prestigious Fields Medal in mathematics. The prize is awarded annually to mathematicians under 40 for outstanding and groundbreaking work.

Dr. Mirzakhani focuses on what are called "hyperbolic surfaces," a branch of geometry that would be described in layman's terms as "really really weird."

The normal space we live in features what we call "Euclidean geometry," named after good ol' Euclid, the fellow who codified some of the basic features of the way spaces, lines and points relate to each other. One of his postulates is that if you have a line, and a point not on that line, you can only draw one line through that point that is parallel to your first line. That means the two lines stay the same distance apart forever in either direction.

If you tweak the parallel postulate, you can suppose different things, such as parallel lines that eventually intersect. Or, as in the case of the area in which Dr. Mirzakhani works, you suppose there is more than one line through the point that parallels your first line. Usually when you take a basic postulate and assume some different condition for it, eventually you run into a contradiction that proves your altered postulate is false.

Unfortunately for the headache-free existence of non-mathematicians, starting in the 19th century it became clear that there were several geometries that did just fine with an altered parallel postulate. The "hyperbolic geometry" that Dr. Mirzakhani studies is one such vision. This may seem like not such a big deal until you try to make your mind accept the picture of two distinct lines through a single point, both of which are parallel to a third line. There is no real-world situation analogous to this idea, which means people exploring it have to use both sight and imagination to understand what they're doing. In a manner inexplicable to those of us who feel like running an algorithmical victory lap when our checkbooks balance, mathematicians such as Dr. Mirzakhani must combine their math with art in order to understand the fantastic "space" in which they work.

That's worth a medal.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Class Passes

Lauren Bacall maintained her work and career late into her long life, appearing as recently as 2012 in The Forger. Her passing today at 89 was much less unexpected than comedian Robin Williams but leaves no less a void in the ranks of moviedom's finest, albeit one of much different shape.

I sometimes imagine what would happen to a director had he or she offered one of today's rinky-dink teeny-girl roles to Bacall, who started working opposite Humphrey Bogart when she was only 19. One wonders whether she would have left enough of said director for Bogie to even glare at.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Show That Never Ends Has Risen From the Grave...Again

Lightning scared the squirrels in my cable hookup, so my television and internet are offline, unless I am at the office or McDonald's.

My conversation with the CableOne tech support person was pretty ordinary, although his instructions to unplug the cable and then plug it back in made for the third time I had done that -- once troubleshooting on my own, once at the direction of the recorded support line and then once as told to by him. But it did leave me with one question.

I know why the support people ask if there's anything else they can do -- because it's in the script. But I am curious about how they would respond if I said "Yes," and then named some task. Maybe if I get one that's dense sometime, I'll give it a shot.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Bookman Cometh

With 2014's The Watchman, English thriller and mystery writer Adrian Magson introduces a new character: the shadowy, competent and brutally efficient bodyguard for hire, Marc Portman.

Magson's so far investigated crimes in DeGaulle-era France (Lucas Rocco), played in the world of spies (Harry Tate) and followed leads on potentially dangerous news stories (reporter Riley Gavin and retired cop Frank Palmer). So he knows the world of the espionage/mystery thriller, and both his plotting and action set pieces are well done, painted with broad, strong strokes -- even if they are familiar, they are executed at a high level.

Portman has been hired off-the-books by a member of the British Secret Service who fears that a ransom negotiation mission for his protege is not exactly what it appears. Overruled in his caution by office personnel who don't mind risking others' necks for their own advancement and prestige, the agent reaches out to Portman, who will hang back and make sure the protege and her military partner are safe. If they're not, then it will be up to Portman to try to get them out or at least make their loss a costly one for their killers.

Magson, as mentioned above, is playing on a field he knows well and handles just as well. Although some of the ins and outs of who is which Somali warlord are a little fuzzy, it doesn't slow down the story and once people start shooting at Portman, it doesn't matter which enemy they are. Magson probably plans on unwrapping some of Portman's history in later books, but meeting him where he is makes for some fine reading diversion in the meantime.
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A "void moon" is an astrological aspect of the moon that Leo Renfro considers extremely unlucky. He communicates this fear to Cassie Black, a former thief now trying for one last job to help her get enough money to take her daughter away from the girl's adoptive parents, and makes Cassie promise not to be involved in the job during the period of the void moon. The last time she was, he notes, her late partner Max fell to his death on the job that got Cassie arrested.

Unfortunately, Cassie gets stuck hiding in the room during the void moon, and whether that influences anything or not, she finds out the job has hidden ties to organized crime and a level of money involvement that will be fatal for her if she doesn't figure a way out.

Void Moon, published in 2000, was Michael Connelly's first novel with a female protagonist and one of his few to focus on a criminal instead of someone who investigates them or defends them in court. It meets his usual skilled standards of narrative, dialogue and plot, and adds some character development as well. Cassie is skilled and clever, but she's not nearly as smart as she thinks she is and she starts out the novel rather unappealingly selfish. She'll grow beyond the second, but the first will have serious consequences for people around her. The mix-in with mob crime and the double-crosses involved aren't as clear as they should be and probably could have been edited out without hurting the story. But those are some wrinkles in an overall smooth and enjoyable outing with Connelly as he tries something new.
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Christopher Hyde, writing as "Paul Christopher," has had a lot better run with his "Templar" series featuring retired US Army Lt. Col John "Doc" Holliday than he did with archaeologist Finn Ryan; the former series has four books ending in 2008 while the latter will see its ninth volume come out in 2015.

Doc teaches history at West Point, which allows him to open the novel with some expository lectures that will set the stage for what follows in the series opener, 2009's The Sword of the Templars. It will also allow him to lecture other characters -- frequently -- including his niece, Peggy Blackstock, who will join him on a quest begun when Doc's own uncle dies and leaves him some mysterious items in his will.

Among the items are clues to find a sword, wrapped in a Nazi battle standard that may have been Hitler's own. But before Doc and Peggy can do much sleuthing about the sword and its origins, the uncle's house burns down and the pair find themselves caught up in a centuries-long war fought behind the scenes and involving people who'd rather stay that way.

Sword and the rest of the series should be a lot of silly fun, given Christopher's subtle and un-subtle jabs at other novelists who try to riff on the legends of the old Knights Templar, like Dan Brown. Doc and Peggy are remarkably dense protagonists who seem to have no real awareness that their presence in the lives of anyone connected to the sword and their old uncle spells certain doom for those people. Doc regularly refuses to arm himself even though a murderous ancient conspiracy is hunting not just him, but also his young niece. It's hard to believe that Christopher is not sending up these sorts of thrillers while writing them, much as George MacDonald Fraser did in his novels of the Victorian-era ne'er-do-well Harry Flashman.

But the problem is how rude and dismissive he is of anyone who disagrees with his views, expressed through Doc's lecturing monologues. It seems clear early on that when we hear Doc discourse on a pet peeve, we hear Christopher's thoughts. This tone drains the story of fun and makes the satire more mean than pointed. Not for nothing, apparently, does "Paul Christopher"'s real last name rhyme with "snide."

Friday, August 8, 2014

For the Win

A young lady in Connecticut suffered from a form of cancer when she was 8, and learned that one of the problems was getting around when receiving chemotherapy, because she was connected to the pole containing the chemicals being put into her body. That pole is no picnic to move when you're 8 and taking chemo.

So now, at 11, she invented a backpack-style bag a person can wear which will do the same thing as the pole contraption does. She won an inventing contest and has a patent; now all she needs are investors to start production. I imagine that will happen; good job, young lady.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Just a Little Off

According to scientists, about 1.8 billion years ago and going on until about 800 million years ago, things were pretty boring, life-wise. Single-celled organisms developed, and then that was pretty much the whole picture for the next billion years. The story at the link offers several possibilities as to why this era of our planet's history was such a snoozer.

I don't know who came up with the headline "The Most Boring Time on Earth," but I feel kind of iffy about scientific blog posts being written by someone who's never heard a presidential State of the Union address.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Fair to Middlin'

Aviator and novelist Ernest K. Gann sold the film rights to his novel The High and the Mighty to John Wayne before the book was even finished. The pair and director William A. Wellman had worked together on Island in the Sky, and figured to match that movie's success with the new novel.

Wayne hadn't originally planned to star in the movie, but when Spencer Tracy and others backed out of the role of veteran co-pilot Dan Roman, he took the part for himself. It resulted in a kind of unusual role for the Duke. Even though well into his icon period, he's a part of more of an ensemble cast along with pilot Robert Stack and passengers Claire Trevor and Laraine Day.

A Honolulu to San Francisco flight is captained by the superficially rock-steady but actually nervous John Sullivan (Stack), with Dan Roman as his main co-pilot. They're backed by the young Hobie Wheeler (William Campbell), navigator Lenny Wilby and stewardess "Miss Spalding" (Doe Avedon), and they have a group of passengers with a variety of different stories. As a midair malfunction imperils both plane and occupants, the qualities of each passenger and crew member will be shown as truth or a false front.

Even for a 1954 audience, this was rather clich├ęd material. The actual disaster storyline and scenes are interesting enough, but the individual histories and character interactions are so soapy and well-worn that they might as well feature subtitles that say "Please Fast-Forward Now." Some of the actors have some good lines and a character or two occasionally threatens to become interesting, but neither happens often enough to justify the two and a half hours of running time.

The Airport movies would later magnify the airline disaster story into its most bloated format before being punctured forever by the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker shot of Airplane!. But The High and the Mighty shows that both the strengths and weaknesses of the genre were built in from early on.
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Fix in your mind the scene between The Merovingian, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity in The Matrix Reloaded. Now take that mountain of deadpan philosophical meandering, stretch it out to fill an hour and a half and shoot it in black and white, and you have the 2009 independent sci-fi neo-noir Yesterday Was a Lie.

Detective Hoyle (Kipleigh Brown) hunts a notebook said to have deeply dangerous research notes and a man named John Dudas (John Newton) who could be a key to finding it and explaining what it contains. But her straightforward search is complicated by the way that reality seems to be bending around her and Hoyle finds herself reviewing similar scenes many times and in conversations with people who may not exist, such as The Singer (Chase Masterson). Will she go mad unless she finds Dudas? Or will finding Dudas be the final blow to her sanity?

Writer and director James Kerwin gives his characters several meditations apiece on the possible impacts of quantum non-locality and the many-worlds hypothesis it might imply, as well as a discourse or two on Carl Jung's thinking about the anima and the collective unconscious. When some of the biggest science fiction movies of the day hinge on robots that turn into cars, that kind of thoughtful subject matter is pretty welcome.

But...Kerwin's dialogue is not at all natural and far more didactic than conversational or narrative. Characters spout these big ideas in speeches to each other rather than reflect on them as reality with which to be reckoned. And although cinematographer Jason Cochard and Kerwin do an absolutely stunning job of using the noir two-tone pallet to set mood, and they are as creative in employing light and shadow as anyone has been in the last 50 years, their work is in service of a flawed final result.

Part of the problem is the way the story is told, as mentioned above. Another is that the cast simply doesn't have the gravity to make the kind of impact characters in the original noir classics did. This isn't their fault, unless we can be blamed for being born when we were. The 20-somethings and 30-somethings of the 1940s and 1950s had seen the Great Depression and World War II, and had a period of adolescence lasting probably less than half of that experienced by people in that same age range today. Lauren Bacall was only 19 when she made To Have and Have Not, but 19 was a whole lot more grown up in 1944 than maybe even 29 is today. So Brown, Newton and Masterson -- even though Brown, at least, offers a quality performance -- always look more like people acting like the people in the old noir classics. And that one step of removal deadens the story that much more.

Kerwin earns kudos for tackling some thinking material in Yesterday. But he owes them all back because of substandard execution and a final product that would have been much better served by being reduced to a Twilight Zone episode.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Slight Problem With the Side Effects

Yes, as is pointed out at What If?, an intercontinental ballistic missile is in fact the fastest way to get mail from one point to another.

But Mom will not be happy with what an ICBM -- with or without warhead -- does to the azaleas.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Tuned In

For all of the work that record-company folks and artists do to try to figure out what people like to listen to -- and with the exception of Yoko Ono, nearly every musician who's ever recorded wants to be listened to, no matter what they say -- there is no way yet of determining what makes songs stick in people's heads.

Over at Today I Found Out, a writer explores some of the reasons that songs become earworms, and I imagine those same music folks have pored over these ideas to see what kind of combination of catchiness, repetition, hook and whatever else you can think of actually makes a song something that you can't get out of your head.

The problem for them is that no two heads are alike (except maybe for Vice President Joe Biden and Peanut), so the triggers that will make a song stick in my head are not necessarily the triggers that will make one stick in your head. Even if the triggers are the same, the qualities that trip those triggers might not be. I may be an unreconstructed punk who will start bobbing my head and drumming out a rhythm on the armrest at "I Was Wrong" or "Bad Luck." You may be a later music lover who has the same reaction to a Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga duet (in which case may the Lord and all of his angels help you before it's too late). The point is that a record company that wants to find a formula for a hit can't make a song that will cause both of us to click on iTunes and demand it take our money.

It's hard to see that as a bad thing. The music industry already has enough pieces of the magic formula puzzle to make a distinct majority of the songs on my radio sound the same and to make a star out of Robin Thicke (for which the Lord and all his angels have said, "You're going to pay for that one"). If they were to completely solve it so that some neuroscience magic could make a foolproof earworm, then every song would sound like it.

Until, of course, people got tired of that sound and someone dared to offer something a little different. Which would then sell like mad because it was something brand new, and the cycle would begin again. And if you think you can solve that, then I've got a bridge for sale. Call me, maybe.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Extra Crispy

You know how sometimes you just can't seem to get the grill hot enough because you bought bargain-brand charcoal?

Try using some lava.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Sometimes, Bad Is Bad

I'm with this guy on the whole Sharknado thing. Movie executives may be clever and cunning, but they're not bright enough to recognize a bad idea if it's hiding behind easily obtained dollar signs. The more times crap makes money, the more and more crap will get made.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Fun Fact!

You may not have known this, but playing "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)" at a high volume can help you unwind after a long and kind of tiring day.

Don't say I never learned you nothin'.