Friday, October 31, 2014

Journey Through the Pages

Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series stands tall over the genre of maritime fiction, eclipsing ancestor series like those of C. S. Forester (Horatio Hornblower) and ancestor/concurrent works by Dudley Pope (Lord Ramage) and Alexander Kent (Richard Bolitho). Since O'Brian's death, both Pope and Kent have continued writing their own characters, James L. Nelson has put together a couple of good trilogies and Dewey Lambdin came out with a decent start before making his series hero, Alan Lewrie, an unlikeable cad who seems to exist so his author can write adolescent wink-wink, nudge-nudge references to his sex life. Bernard Cornwell, author of the other major Napoleonic-era conflict military series, put his hero Richard Sharpe at sea only once (Sharpe's Trafalgar) and generally stuck to the land.

Julian Stockwin, a former Royal Australian Navy petty officer, was also a big fan of the Napoleonic era Royal Navy, and became very interested in the case of a handful of RN officers in that period who gained the quarterdeck of officer country "through the hawsehole," or by advancement from the ranks of everyday sailors. His Thomas Kydd follows that pattern, originally in the service when he runs afoul of a RN press gang searching for men they can "recruit" -- more literally, abduct -- to serve against France. But the adrift Kydd finds in seafaring and the service the kind of challenge and purpose he has long needed and begins a slow climb through the ranks through diligence, bravery and no small amount of luck. At each step, newfound power and ability brings newfound responsibility and reflection on it.

When we get to 2006's Command, the seventh novel in the series, Kydd has worked his way to second lieutenant of a ship of the line, but soon finds himself commanding the brig-sloop Teazer in the eastern Mediterranean. Kydd has to struggle to make his ship ready for sailing and battle, and then finds himself all too often confined to transporting dispatches and scouting duty -- necessary, but unlikely to offer a chance to shine and gain advancement. When a peace treaty is signed, he finds himself out of a ship and out of a job. Still worse, his friend and fellow-officer Nicholas Renzi, with whom he has shared most of his adventures, is deathly ill and may not survive. Kydd's desperate search for some role at sea puts him and Nicholas on a course for a long journey and for conflict, both geographically and personally.

Command represents a sort of punctuation in the series, which currently stands at 15 books and which Stockwin projects to finish at 21. The bulk of Kydd's transformation from foremast hand to officer is complete when he takes his first command, as now changes in his role will involve more degree than kind than before. It's also a punctuation for Nicholas, who has been serving with Thomas but who does not have the drive or desire for the Navy shown by his friend. But he has his own passions and whether they will drive the friends apart to different paths is not yet a settled question.

Stockwin began the series in 2001 with a deft hand at period dialogue and description, and a better-than-average narrative gift. As it's progressed, he's improved at nearly every part of his work and the Kydd series has become just about as good as you can get for historical or genre fiction both. He is not O'Brian and does not give his novels the full 18th-century flavor that the older author had, but he is very good in his own right and is telling the story he wants to tell at a pretty high level. O'Brian's series was very much into the arena of "serious literature" in addition to being great, audience-satisfying yarns; of those who've come after him Stockwin seems to be very much at the head of the pack in ability, vision and execution. As they inhabit different worlds, Jack Aubrey and Thomas Kydd never met. But had they done so, they would have had quite a bit to talk about and probably would have enjoyed the conversation.

In lieu of such a "My Dinner with Aubrey" narrative, both characters' series have more than enough to offer for those who follow their adventures.


Consider this: The "senior Obama administration official" who referred to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as "chickenshit" and a "coward" -- in addition to missing the memo on the administration's policy of not "doing stupid stuff" -- did so anonymously.

It takes a government mind to hide behind anonymity and call someone else a coward and fail to recognize doing so signals less another's cowardice and more one's own resemblance to the orifice whence comes the aforementiond chicken product.

Thursday, October 30, 2014


October is a fine month, but its end also means the chain of crappy horror movies all over my cable channels concludes. So that's not so bad.

And anyway, the first Tuesday in November is waaaaaaay scarier than any Halloween scenario you could ever dream up.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

When Nothing Matters

Dustbury writes about a story wherein we learn that United States Forest Service personnel -- last seen during the government shutdown closing about 1,000 campgrounds it didn't actually have to pay to run -- find they need to actually warn people not to try to take selfies with bears.

He quotes a portion of the story that refers to "smart phone-users" and points out that the empty space between "smart" and "phone-users" is not at all justified when you are talking about people who take selfie photos with bears, as it is not a smart thing to do. That empty space should be occupied by either a hyphen or it should disappear entirely in order to correctly describe the persons being warned by the Forest Service.

The empty space in the cranial cavities of such people, on the other hand, may be permanent...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Photo Science, This Is

The 2014 Wellcome Science Photography Image Awards can be found here; they're mostly some pretty fascinating images taken either close up, with an x-ray camera or another imaging technology that sees inside things.

I found the x-ray photo of the bat the most interesting and the photo a photographer took of a tick burrowing into his leg pretty gross. He was at least smart enough to go to a hospital after taking the picture so the critter could be removed.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Master Control Program, Please Call Your Office...

Apparently some of the 8-bit characters from an old Tron game have broken loose and are dancing in random shopping malls.

Even if it is a Red Bull add, it still looks pretty cool.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Plain English, Please

Robert Stroud over at Mere Inklings comments on a particularly obtuse question asked of the Chicago Manual of Style site about a sentence found in a government document. The questioner asks if a particular pair of words buried deep within the fog of bureaucratese should actually be a different pair of words that in context would mean almost exactly the same thing.

The writer at Manual  limits his answer to the question at hand, rather than try to answer more unfathomable issues, such as, "Why does a person this clueless have a job?" And even more mystifying, "Why is this person's job paid for with public funds?"

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Define "Civilization" -- Give a Counter-Example

That, of course, would be the nation of Iran, which has just hanged a woman who claimed she had stabbed a man who was trying to sexually assault her.

Reyhaneh Jabbari had been in prison since she was 19, arrested on charges that she had stabbed a man who was trying to rape her. The man was a former Iranian intelligence ministry official, an office which would seem contraindicated until one recalls that intelligence also refers to spying.

Ms. Jabbari had said that while she had stabbed her attacker, she had only wounded him and another person had actually killed him. As far as anyone looking into the wayback machine of 9th century jurisprudence that is Iran could tell, this part of her story was not ever fully investigated.

Now, it's true that if Iran's official accounts of the crime and trial are to be believed, Ms. Jabbari's story would be shaky. It's a rare defendant who, when confronted with overwhelming evidence of guilt, does not fall back adamantly on the unlikely but easily asserted "Someone Else Did It" defense.

But accepting that as fact would mean accepting the word of the Iranian government, which is worthless. And accepting the fairness of Iranian law, especially in matters related to sexually-related crimes, which is also worthless. And accepting the impartiality of the Iranian justice system in applying even that flawed code to female defendants, which is ridiculous. And accepting the accuracy of official Iranian media in reporting anything like the actual events, which is not advisable. By the count in The Telegraph story, the so-called moderate Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is closing in on his thousandth execution since taking office about 14 months ago.

In his short story Silly Asses, science fiction author Isaac Asimov supposed a galaxy-wide federation of civilized worlds that recognized new members when they gained control over atomic energy and produced their first artificial fission reaction. I would similarly propose that any nation which wishes to claim to be civilized must first demonstrate a complete lack of interaction with the nation of Iran until the members of its current regime are on the other side of the bars, where they belong.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Long Putt Shortcut?

We still don't necessarily know why golfers and the Scots are nuts, but we now have some pretty conclusive evidence that they are:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Vesuvian Flight

A drone-mounted camera took some incredible footage inside an active volcano:

The volcano in question is not, of course, Mt. Vesuvius, but since its
real name is Bardarbunga, I didn't think that would make a good

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Faith and Reason

I'd highly recommend this piece in The New Atlantis about the 19th century scientists Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell. It's a great exploration of how both men -- who are responsible for a host of discoveries that began to help us understand the world and pave the way for folks like Albert Einstein -- pursued the truth about the world because of, rather than in spite of, their religious faith.

In my mind, no one can truly follow Christ without desiring to get ever nearer the Truth, and no pursuit that helps us uncover the truth of our existence in this universe can be completely without fruit for those who take up its questions. Faraday and Maxwell are good examples of this; in fact they express it much better than do I.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Winnah!

By employing Joe Buck to call games, Fox Sports pretty much automatically wins the race for the worst baseball coverage ever. But they decided to gild the lily by airing several members of both World Series teams miming along to Meghan Trainor's brainless ode to female esteem based on male approval, "All About that Bass." Because, you see, the central feature of the game is a "base."

TBS's postseason coverage had the hyperactive and not-always-lucid Ron Darling, but it used AC/DC's "Play Ball." There's your difference-maker right there.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Nice Try, Mr. Comet!

All of the different Mars probes showed no ill-effects from a comet's near-miss of the Red Planet on Sunday. Reports indicate that photographs will be sent to the proper authorities to determine if any speed or physical laws were broken by the comet during its journey.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Captain J. Evans Pritchard of the Starship Enterprise

One of the charms of the often clumsy morality plays of the old Star Trek series was how they could often be pulled off with quite a bit of style when the episode was well-written. The leads of the series -- William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForrest Kelley -- were competent professional actors with a lot of combined experience in television and when given some top-level TV material could make top-level genre entertainment surrounding the Moral of the Story.

In 2014's The Weight of Worlds, multiple Trek-novel author Greg Cox manages to pull off the part about writing a story with an Important Point. He comes nowhere close to offering anything like the panache of the best work old TV veterans like D.C. Fontana, Gene L. Coon, Jerome Bixby or even series creator Gene Roddenberry himself ("best work" is an important qualifier here. Coon was also responsible for "Spock's Brain.")

The Ephrata Institute is a think tank located on an isolated planet near the edge of Federation space. One day it sends out a garbled distress call, and Starfleet sends the Enterprise to investigate. Invaders from another dimension have attacked the institute, and their control of gravity threatens to render them too much for the Enterprise crew to handle. While Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock are brought to the invaders' homeworld to confront their leader, other landing party members must combat the invading force and help protect the Enterprise herself.

Cox offers up a couple of neat items -- dissidents on the invaders' homeworld chose Kirk as their potential champion because examining Ephrata's records showed he had a history of toppling false deities. And an injury to Engineer Scott puts Lieutenant Uhura in command of the Enterprise; a role that series backstory said she was trained for but which we never got to see.

But those are garnishes on an empty plate; Weight of Worlds reads like a low-end episode of the animated series of Star Trek aired in 1973-74. Cox has a penchant for name-dropping old series episodes in unnecessary and awkward ways. Kirk declines a party invitation with a memory of how a party attended by Dr. Helen Noel went awry in "Dagger of the Mind," for example. Lieutenant Sulu develops a crush on his fellow landing-party fugitive, but Cox is nowhere near talented enough to show that develop so he just tells us. And he is also nowhere near talented enough to make his central idea -- beware religious crusaders who are convinced their truth is The Truth -- anything more than a moralistic cliché that carries no weight. Cox has more than a dozen Trek novels and many more movie and video-game tie-in novelizations to his credit, so it's difficult to understand why at this point in his career he can't write a novel with enough skill to sell his simplistic sermon.
Television series usually have a person called a "showrunner," who makes certain things like continuity and character development are watched for mistakes. Episodes may be written or filmed "out of order," for example, and so a showrunner checks whether or not an episode written earlier but filmed later keeps up with what's happened before.

Actors themselves may play a role in this kind of checking, too. An actor who has played a character for some time will probably have an idea or understanding about the person they are pretending to be, and they might question an action or dialogue given to them based on that character understanding. "I don't know if (character I play) would do that," he or she might say, and it's not always from pain-in-the-butt artiste tendencies.

So I am pretty sure that both George Takei and William Shatner, who don't see eye-to-eye on much of anything these days, would taken David R. George III's Allegiance in Exile story if it had been presented to them as a script into the showrunner's office and said, "Sulu (and/or) Kirk would never do this."

The Enterprise is exploring a new sector of space late in its five-year mission, and finds a beautiful but uninhabited world. Examination of the world shows the remains of colony, destroyed within the last year, but no sign of inhabitants or attackers. The mystery deepens when a kind of automated defense system fires on a landing party and the Enterprise itself. Sulu is nearly killed but is saved by a female crewmate, Ensign Trinh, who specializes in archaeology and anthropology and whose information could be vital to understanding what happened on the planet.

The mystery deepens further a few months later when the crew discovers another colony planet destroyed in the same manner. In the meantime, Sulu and Trinh have developed a romantic relationship, and he is sickened with worry about the danger she will face as a member of a new landing party. When she is injured, he blames Kirk and angrily confronts him, while the captain himself meekly acquiesces to his junior's accusations.

George begins with the interesting mystery of the destroyed colonies, but heads right off the rails just as soon as Sulu and Trinh develop their romance. Sulu is a lovestruck adolescent rather than a grown man, and his anger at Kirk regresses him further into a toddler throwing a tantrum because an adult took his toy away from him. Nothing in the younger character's reactions looks anything like a person who understands that both he and his girlfriend have taken on potentially dangerous jobs that may place them in harm's way, and did so with wide-open eyes and adult decisions.

Kirk himself, far from a commander who knows that leadership means deciding things, and in his business decisions can have fatal consequences, questions himself even more than Sulu does and allows himself to be completely disrespected by a junior officer with nary a peep in response. Trinh is nothing more than a prop to help Sulu have a Moment of Crisis; she's not even allowed to have a good onscreen demise but relegated to the Tragic Life-Threatening Injury of a cheap soap opera.

The mystery itself is merely a setup to introduce some characters seen in later incarnations of the Trek world, some of which are George's own rather than from any broadcast episodes of any of the TV shows. He does so, and all he had to do was wreck 40-plus years of character continuity to do it.
Now, it may be that the proper response to a couple of slams of lightweight genre fiction is a gentle reminder that, "Hey, it's genre fiction. You shouldn't expect too much." That's a valid observation and a good guide, but the problem is that neither of these books comes anywhere close to "too much." Genre fiction and television in general and Star Trek in particular have produced some real top-drawer efforts. Some of the best of series novels and episodes can prompt, for a questioning reader/viewer, just as serious a reflection on the human condition as any serious literature. And some of the best were just great yarns that entertained for as long as they lasted even if they didn't linger in the mind afterward.

By those standards as well, both Weight and Allegiance fail miserably. A devoted fandom that will happily and loyally swoop up anything in their chosen favorite world deserves better than books like these.

P.S. -- Neither book has a character named J. Evans Pritchard. He's from a different fictional environment, although his work was produced from the same milieu.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Students Byte Teacher's Apple?

If you run a school system and you want to make a big splash, buy a lot of glizy, gleaming tech and offer it to the students. But according to Dr. Madhav Chavan, who runs the educational non-profit company Pratham in India, that purchase probably won't do much for students who aren't already going to succeed.

The reason, Dr. Chavan says, is because the tech is just a patch on a broken system, and because much of the modern communication and information system isn't linear. While the traditional education system, which sorts students into grades and categories based on age and shlurps them up at one end to dispense them at the other whether they are actually educated or not, is most definitely linear.

I won't argue with Dr. Chavan, whose company is the largest nongovernmental education supplier in India. He began it after teaching chemistry at the University of Houston and then the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai. Pratham began as a way to provide low-cost preschool education among the poorest people of Mumbai, and its success earned him the WISE Prize in Education in 2012. He probably knows a lot more about the intersection of technology and education than I do, and I would have to agree about the limited effectiveness of a non-linear-oriented set of tools in somehow repairing or improving a linear system.

But I'd take it one step more, myself. To me, one of the largest reasons that technology alone can't "fix" broken education systems is that education of human beings requires, before anything else, invested and interested human beings. The best teachers I remember are ones who wanted me to know the stuff they taught because I would be better off knowing it. My least favorites either wanted me to think just like they did or didn't much care whether I came out of class knowing anything more than I did when I went in. The best could teach with chalk and a flat rock; the worst couldn't help me learn anything with a Cray XK7 at their disposal.

Of course, hiring teachers like that means you have to make some room for them by offloading the dead weight. And ditching a significant percentage of anybody employed by the school who has a two- or three-word title beginning with "assistant" or "deputy." And probably a couple of other things, but I doubt Dr. Chavan needs my advice on that.

Friday, October 17, 2014

One Thought...Just One Thought

It is my belief that being a city official in Santa Fe Springs, California, must be the easiest job in the world, even easier than being a writer for Game of Thrones ("OK, Tyrion something something, and then Sean Bean dies, and then all the women strip").

I say this because a city official in Santa Fe Springs, California, decided to cite the Miranda family for the playset they had in their back yard. It was not made of plutonium or old oilfield equipment or used concrete imported from Chernobyl. Just plain old cedar. But its presence represented the storage of items in the family's yard, according to a citation, so the family got a ticket.

Oh, did I mention that the playset was given to the family for their 10-year-old daughter Tiffany, who suffers from seizures because of a rare and incurable condition called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome? And that the playset had been donated by the Make-A-Wish Foundation? Four years ago?

Yes, that's right. Someone in the city government of Santa Fe Springs, California, decided to write a ticket to the family to get rid of their playset. Entropy will increase to infinity and our universe will end some few milliseconds earlier than it might have otherwise because of the energy used up by a person who wanted a family with a disabled 10-year-old daughter to tear down her swing set donated to her by Make-A-Wish.

The city manager, of course, has backed off the citation, saying it was just to make the family clean up debris around the swing-set. Which is, of course, not what the tickets given to the family say.

Now, the weaseling done by the city manager and other officials is to be expected. As spineless as are most elected officials, they are towers of strength and constancy compared to the Gríma Wormtongues hired to run things. What blows my mind is that at all of the steps of this process, there was no one -- apparently not a single person -- who connected the family in the citation with the fairly well-publicized donation of the swing set from the not-exactly-low-profile organization Make-A-Wish.

Or heck, leave that out. Just fit your mind around some soulless suck of a code enforcement officer somewhere writing a family a ticket saying they had to get rid of a backyard swing set, even if the child had no disabling conditions and the swing set had been bought and erected solely by Dad, his wallet and his extensive colorful vocabulary.

I believe in original sin, which means I believe that government-less anarchy is an unworkable form of human society if we want to protect the weak and safeguard everyone's basic human rights. But there are some days when I wonder just how in the world it could be that much worse than what some people in power do now.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

In Defense of Photoshop

Yes, I know it allows silly magazines to create pictures of people who are unrealistically thin and for unscrupulous folks to try to slant the news. But it also allows this:

The original may be found here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

I Have Set My Bow in the Clouds...

Well, technically there are no clouds, and it's not a double rainbow or nothin', but this view of the Milky Way as an arc across the night sky in Utah is pretty cool nonetheless:

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Novel Economics

Sometimes you are glad you read books. Sometimes you are glad you read them and bought them. Sometimes you are glad you read them and bought them on sale. Sometimes you are glad you read them and bought them used. And sometimes you are glad you read them and even gladder the only money you paid is whatever portion of your sales tax goes to support your local public library. The latest Virgil Flowers novel from John Sandford, Deadline, is an excellent example.

Virgil, a roving investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, stops by his friend Johnson Johnson's hometown to look into a dognapping ring. He begins to see the ring has links to some local methamphetamine dealers, but before he can dig too far into the case a reporter for the local newsweekly is murdered. Since he was also a drug abuser, there could be some ties into the crimes Virgil is investigating, or it could be linked to an entirely different set of crimes. Is Virgil following the trail on his own, or is he being led by others away from a far more serious matter? It's not really a question, as the dust jacket tells us who wanted the reporter dead and how they decided on it. Deadline is not a whodunit so much as a "Will Virgil catch whodunit?"

The Flowers novels have sort of become Sandford's Dortmunder series. Donald Westlake wrote some serious crime novels with seriously bad people in them, and then he also wrote some comedic crime novels with the hapless Dortmunder and his crew almost but not quite managing to pull off a big score. Parker (whom Westlake wrote as Richard Stark) celebrated hard-boiled crime fiction while Dortmunder satirized it and poked a little fun at its conventions. Lucas Davenport in Sandford's "Prey" series is a sometimes not-so-well-contained Loose Cannon Cop Who Will Cut Corners to Get the Bad Guys. Flowers, even though he investigates crimes just as serious, does so with an eye towards the silliness of that trope and with storylines that graft them into some of the more amusing elements of the small towns where they happen. The resolution of the dognapping case, for example, contains several elements and players who would make Westlake proud.

But while the Dortmunder novels popped up infrequently enough to stay fresh (with two exceptions, Westlake wrote them with a 3-5 year gap between them starting in 1970), Virgil arrives every year and Deadline as the eighth novel in the series is showing the wear in the tread. Virgil trades witty barbs with his colorful cast of friends and acquaintances (such as the aforementioned Johnson Johnson), name drops favorite authorial bands, gets backup help (and an upping of the fratboy bro atmosphere) from fellow investigators Jenkins and Shrake, goofs up, gets it right, and so on. Much of this is entertaining, but none of it is new, especially the Virgil-Jenkins-Shrake interactions. The first couple of dozen times they're amusing, the next few they're skippable and after that they're like fire ants that think they're funny: They keep coming and biting even though no one's laughing.

Maybe the best thing for the Flowers series would be a vacation in 2015. It probably won't happen, and I'll probably read whatever comes out with the series name on it. But that's what a library is for.
And then there are the books where you resent every tuppence, farthing, ha'penny or copper shaving that's in any way transferred from your possession on account of you choosing to read it. Welcome to Andrew Vachss' 2014 Urban Renewal, the second in the series about Cross and his crew of mercenary Chicago criminals.

Cross and his crew are investing in real estate, buying some available property with an eye towards making some semi-legal money off of it. So they'll have to run off some gangs that occupy the nearby area. And they do some other crimes, and we flash back to how the crew began, when Cross met Ace in a juvenile prison and then included the immense Rhino. And we have a drag race, and some fights, and just about every hard-boiled cliché and stereotype Vachss can cram between two covers before his publisher said, "All my editors will quit if you don't stop now."

Seriously, Vachss wastes pages showing us how an old-school pimp dying of tuberculosis teaches his nephew how to make actual money in the real criminal world of pimping, piling lecture on lecture from the older man before killing the younger pimp, and not even "onscreen" in the book, in order to protect a hooker that a dancer at their strip club has brought in to escape his abusive behavior. Then Cross and crew murder the pimp's other hooker because she has enough money that she might hire a private detective once she decides he's missing, and wind up murdering both the hooker they'd tried to rescue and the dancer who brought her in because someone said the rescued hooker worked for the FBI. And after mocking the dancer for being stupid enough to believe them when they said they would let her go. Tons of fine crime stories have criminals as antiheroes that we wind up rooting for because the writer built the story around interesting people who happen to be tough-guy crooks. Vachss has built the Cross stories around people who are less tough guys than they are bullies with a mean streak. You might complain that I have spoiled some of the book, but that would be incorrect. It was spoiled as soon as the ink hit the page.

Vachss, who has never been one to underestimate his own prophetic voice, would probably counter that the world of the Cross books is so bleak because it represents the lives of too many people used by a predatory part of society and cast off by the indifference of the rest. Perhaps. But telling me what made the people I'm reading about become such mean-spirited bullies doesn't tell me why the story they're in wanders all over the place while managing to go nowhere doing it.

Vachss knows how to write, and he knows how to construct a storyline with characters you'd rather see make it to the end of the book instead of die early so you could get rid of what they came in and wash your hands repeatedly. He did so several times in his Burke series, and he wove his philosophical points into the story in ways that showed what he wanted to say instead of telling it. So there is simply no reason for half-assed re-hash like this to go out with his name on it. And no reason for anyone to either spend money acquiring it or time reading it.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Kids Is Expensive

For a significant portion of my life, I believe my father, at least, saw me in part as a way to vacuum money from his pocket. I broke a leg, I needed braces, I took allergy shots for nine years, etc., etc.

But I had nothing on Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame, whom this writer estimated cost his parents better than $1,800 a month in various damages and associated expenses.

As is noted, though, in the strip reproduced at the end of the article, there were a number of counter-balancing influences to those costs. Which is the only part of my raising I ever heard about from my folks, anyway, and is the only part my dad seems to remember now when he talks about those days.

That'll do.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Smiles Half Off

 -- A comedy club in Barcelona is experimenting with facial recognition software to count how many times people who visit the club laugh during the night's acts. Your bill at the end of the night will depend on how often you laugh. But there is an 80-laugh maximum charge; laughs 81 and above don't add any more to your bill.

Sounds like a good way to watch Sarah Silverman for free.

-- Statistics instructor Ben Wellington figured out which apartment in Manhattan has the longest walk to a subway station. Apparently a penthouse suite currently listed for $18.9 million is .8 miles from the nearest station, a little longer than other candidates because it's on the top of a taller building. Los Angeles residents would probably buy a car for that trip.

-- The image above (story here) is not a brain or the cover of a lost Hendrix album. It's a computer simulation of the inside of a giant star going supernova, one day after the helium gas expansion has begun. In other words, if you can see this, you may already have been reduced to your component atoms by radiation, heat and explosive forces. Purple haze, indeed.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fake but Accurate

On the one hand, this pseudo-documentary from the United Kingdom's version of the History Channel is pretty cool. It mixes actual images from World War I with some artificially created ones to show the "history" of an H.G. Wells-ish invasion from Mars that happened during the same years that WWI happened in real life.

On the other hand, the high level of verisimilitude in service to events that didn't actually happen may make you wonder how much of the UK History Channel's output you should trust. If they can make the obviously fake look so real, what might they do with events that aren't entirely fictional but subject to several different interpretations?

A movie review and culture website I read but don't link (they think four-letter words make them edgy and cool) ran an excellent parody a few years ago on April Fool's Day. In it, the writer suggested 1992's Sister Act was somehow the defining film for his generation. He built an excellent case, using all of his cinema-interpretive gifts and language to demonstrate that the Whoopi-Goldberg-hides-from-mobsters-in-a-convent movie was everything he said it was. The essay, of course, was a satire. But the problem was that there was no way to tell it from the site's regular reviews except for the fact that it ran on April 1. The writer's own cleverness pretty much wrecked any reason to accept his reviews for any movie, because his made-up review couldn't be told from his real ones.

Unless of course the Martians really did try to conquer us in 1913. In which case somebody had better call Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith...

Friday, October 10, 2014


Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom asks if life could be a an illusion. I don't know, but according to The Chords, it might very well be a dream.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Grab Bag With a Fisheye Lens

-- The passing of Jan Hooks prompted me to look at a list of the Saturday Night Live cast members over the years. Other than Cheri Oteri, she was about the last funny female cast member on the show. And after her, Darrell Hammond may have been about the last funny cast member on the show, male or female.

-- Another HuffPo TV post I saw when I was looking at the Jan Hooks post was that Chelsea Handler, in an interview, listed some of the people she disliked talking to when she was doing her E! Network talk show, Chelsea Lately. The item did not list which guests disliked talking to her; I am presuming that list is described with either one or three words.*

-- The post title is taken from the first new Homestar Runner cartoon in several years. It's a Strong Bad music video in which he describes how he make a homemade rap video by using a simple photographic device.

-- A friend posted a picture on Facebook which suggested that Mars was inhabited solely by robots. I checked in with Tars Tarkas; he just chuckled and said something like, "You crazy Jasoomians."

*Those would be either "everyone" (one word) or "all of them" (three words).

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Well darn. I missed National Punctuation Day, which was September 24th. The Los Angeles Times noted the day by highlighting some rarely-used punctuation marks -- rarely-used in American English, that is. At least one of them is fairly common in France.

Although belated, I will celebrate the day along with Dan Baird, with this single from his 1992 album Love Songs for the Hearing Impaired:

Exclamation point!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Hard Cases

Mystery writer John D. MacDonald had a long career behind him when he finally agreed with a publisher in the early 1960s to write a series character. He wrote the first batch of novels together before they were released, calling his Florida-based adventurer "Dallas McGee" before thinking the assassination of President Kennedy in that city might bring negative association to the character. Renamed "Travis McGee," the cover blurb-described "big, loose chaser of rainbows" bowed in 1964 in The Deep Blue Good-by. Even though it appeared the very next year, A Deadly Shade of Gold was actually the fifth McGee novel and written to be about twice as long as the others.

An old friend of McGee's has reappeared at his Florida boat slip, talking about making a final score and perhaps reuniting with his lost love. He asks McGee to broker the reunion, but before that can happen the buddy is murdered and whatever he was using to make the score is the only clue McGee has to the death. He commits himself to finding the killer and unraveling his friend's "big score," planning on making the guilty pay as many ways as possible.

Although almost exclusively a pulp writer in several genres, MacDonald infused his stories with philosophical speculation on a wide range of topics, as well as being an early voice in environmental awareness. Gold is not different, touching on questions about whether a collector has more right to a people's ancient artifacts than do those for whom they represent ancestral history. The intelligence and introspection of McGee, combined with the insightful kinds of questions MacDonald asks about human nature, put the Travis McGee series on a par with most literary fiction that's designed to examine the same issues.

Gold does suffer from the weaknesses of the rest of the series. Ostensibly a hard-boiled detective/adventurer/crime thriller "updated" for the 1960s, it doses the genre's bent for misogyny with some early Hefnerism (in another novel, McGee "saves" a female character from being "frigid" and hating sex by inviting her to his boat and sleeping with her regularly) and maintains the tradition of disposable female characters (women wanting a long life had best steer clear of that big, loose chaser of rainbows) and McGee himself gets a little tiresome the seventeenth or eighteenth time he talks about what a sack of rat bastards these mortals be.

It's also a little too long and disconnected, with almost two separate novels housed under one cover. But anyone wanting to see how the hard-boiled quick-talking flatfoots and dames of the 1950s became the Spensers, Pragers, Robicheauxs, Milhones and Warshawskis of the modern world should explore the McGee series, and A Deadly Shade of Gold is a pretty good sample to use.
When he debuted in 2011's The Killer, Victor the assassin was using a Russian mobster as a sort of "agent" in setting up his carefully planned jobs. That mobster betrayed him and Victor cut ties with him, but now he's called Victor for help, The mobster has a stepdaughter who was never a part of his criminal enterprise but who has been targeted by those seeking revenge of their own, and he wants Victor to protect her until he can unravel the tangle of who has come after him and deal with the matter. Victor isn't a bodyguard, but he's spent a long time thwarting their efforts and has picked up a trick or two. So when he agrees to help protect the young woman, he counts on success. Once he can find her, that is. And once he can figure out whether her enemies want her so they can get to her stepfather, or because of something she knows.

No Tomorrow is Tom Wood's fifth novel of his assassin and the first to give Victor something or someone other than himself in which to invest. It's a wise choice, because in the previous four books he's already fully painted his anti-hero as an obsessively paranoid, hyper-violent, super-observant killing machine who every now and again grasps at a tattered rag of humanity and honor. Yet another novel on those lines would probably start digging a rut Wood might not be able to dig out of. He continues to excel at generating and maintaining tension and writing explosively gripping action sequences and fight scenes. He drizzles wry humor into the interludes but doesn't lay on the sang-froid too thick.

But Victor isn't Superman; his wins come at a cost physically and emotionally and Wood does not shy away from them. The descriptions of his elaborate security and protection measures give a clear sense of the overwhelming energy it takes Victor just to stay alive another day. Victor's daily - or maybe hourly -- struggle is not to win, but just to survive. The only difference is that for him, survival is winning, and you get a picture of a man who would fight to draw one more breath than his opponent for no other reason than doing so means he won.

No Tomorrow might be a place where Wood changes directions or begins to add some layers to Victor's story. If he does, it will be a very welcome development in a series that was still operating at a high level but may have done about all it could do along its former path.
Before Jeff Bridges re-envisioned him, before John Wayne established him and before Charles Portis introduced him, there was a real "Rooster Cogburn" in the Arkansas of the late 19th century. He was never a lawman, had two good eyes and was actually named Franklin instead of Reuben, but he was real and was part of the blend that Portis used in creating the character in his novel True Grit. And now his great-great grandson Brett is telling some of his own tales of the Old West, beginning in 2012 with Panhandle.

Cowboys Nate Reynolds and Billy Champion are as rootless as the herds they work for the ranchers of the Texas panhandle. Supplementing their pay with an occasional scheme of their own -- which includes liberating horses from the Cheyenne now and again -- neither can imagine himself settling down or trading their lives of adventure for anything even remotely sedentary. Then they meet Barby Allen, and the competition for her favor drives a wedge between the friends. Billy seems to have the upper hand with his smile and smooth ways, but could Nate's solidity and devotion be preferable?

Cogburn gives his novel a little of the wry tone used by Portis in creating the fictional Rooster. Nate describes the cowboy's life clearly and explicitly, only now and again he uses the kind of semi-Victorian circumlocutions necessary to speak of matters polite people didn't speak of. Cogburn uses an old Nate reminiscing on his youthful cowhand days and adopts a longing tone for bygone and simpler times. But he doesn't settle for a simple atmospheric recreation of a Wild West wrangler, offering a fascinating contrast between the two friends, Nate and Billy, who will both aid and compete against each other over the years. It echoes the kind of ambivalence John Knowles gives to Gene and Fin in A Separate Peace and it gives significant weight and depth to the sadness which colors Nate's recounting.

Cogburn has two more Westerns in print and Amazon shows him scheduled for a gangster novel release next year. So far, he's doing well at measuring up to many of the expectations his surname might bring those who love the Old West as it appears in its Western novels with a strong dose of historic reality mixed in.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Beyond the Scope

I responded to a phone poll from a local state senate campaign, because it was a push-button answer arrangement and just about 10 questions or so.

But now I'm confused, because I don't understand what an election to a state legislature has to do with what religion I think the President is, whether or not he is effective in leading the nation against terrorism and whether his health care reform initiative has been a plus or a minus.

For the record, I believe he's a Christian, that he has not been effective at leading us in that struggle (or in much else) and that his initiative was not really a reform and that it has been and will continue to be a minus.

What that has to do with who represents this part of the state in a crumbling capitol building and state political leadership that has at best one adult in the room when the heads of the executive and legislative branches gather together is beyond me. Maybe I'm just a low-information voter.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Looking for Clues

The fun-loving pinko punks who run China celebrated the 65th anniversary of their brutal regime Wednesday by releasing 10,000 doves as a symbol of their nation's supposedly peaceful goals. From Tiananmen Square, in more recent memory the site of a rather more typical Chinese government action.

After proctologizing every last bird.

Here's hoping at least some of the doves responded accordingly.

(H/T Dustbury)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Das Baggen du Grabben

-- Every now and again, scientists stop noodling around stuff like the building blocks of the universe and how stuff is made and all and direct their attention to something important.

-- Entrepreneur Elon Musk says that in order for the human race to survive, we need to have at least a million people living on Mars, in case something happens to the Earth to make it uninhabitable. Actually, if we pick the right million, then the Earth's habitability could increase dramatically. (The article's at Aeon, but no link because Mr. Musk has a vocabulary as limited as his account balances are expansive and writer Ross Anderson decided to lead with it).

-- There's some discussion about whether or not Pluto, demoted from planet status to "dwarf planet" in 2006, should be called a planet again. The article's in USA Today, but I'm not linking this one because of the stupid autoplay video.

-- Archaeologists working at a dig site in Turkey think they found a prison where Vlad, Prince of Wallachia and later known as Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Tepes) and then still later known as Wladislaus Dragwlya, and the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula, was held as a prisoner by Ottoman Turks. Vlad and his brother Radu were captives of the Turks for some time, and although they were later freed Vlad spent much of his life fighting against the Ottomans, eventually dying in battle at their hands. Excavation at the site is progressing slowly; it seems nobody wants to be anywhere near the place after the sun has set.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A River Runs Under It

Pictures of a "halocline," or current of varying salinity and temperature traveling under the ocean, make it look like an actual river with banks and everything. What a world.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Remaining Letters

Predicting the future is a hard business. Apparently a fellow doing so from back in 1900 or thereabouts predicted that the alphabet in use today would lack the letters C, X and Q.

As we have no doubt noticed, such has not come to pass. Which is good, because I don't relish the thought of learning my ABDs, a musical scene without "Hungry Wolf," "Painting the Town Blue," "4th of July" or "Burning House of Love" and trying to figure out a WERTY keyboard.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The View From Home

Stephen King, Maine's resident horror maven, might be able to tease something scary out of the following picture, taken at the Raven's Nest Cliffs at Acadia National Park in Maine by Adam Woodworth:

Some kind of eldtritch horror hiding behind the stars or something, maybe, I dunno. I'm just too busy saying, "whoa."