Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Un-Super Natural

Christopher Farnsworth's series "The President's Vampire," about a 150+-year-old nosferatu who aids the United States in a battle against demonic forces, has been a source of much frustration. On the one hand, there's the intriguing possibilities of the mix of national security and supernatural warfare. There's the potential in a character who was raised and grew up as a human being but is now a predator of humans, even though he has forsworn his regular prey in order to honor an oath to serve the president. There's Farnsworth's gift for pacing and slam-bang action scenes that vividly creates impressions of inhuman speed and strength in combat. There's Farnsworth's often dry wit that echoes some of the best Buffy the Vampire Slayer lines in the mix of the mundane and magical.

But then there's the all-too-obvious use of other folks' stuff as source material in the books, like Mike Mignola's Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development from his Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics. And the way vampire Nathaniel Cade's human liasion, Zachary Barrows, emulates the "Robin the Boy Hostage" trope of some clich├ęd Batman stories (and the way that Cade himself creeps people out as the Caped Crusader does). Or in the most recent novel, Red, White and Blood, the semi-conspiracy, semi-cult behind "dead teenager" movies and stories used in Josh Whedon and Drew Goddard's Cabin in the Woods.

2012's Blood supposes that there is a single demonic being behind all of the "hook-handed psychopath"-styled urban legends, who calls itself the Bogeyman. Cade has defeated and killed the Bogeyman's human host many times, but it only goes dormant until human beings who worship it conduct the needed bloody rituals to make it rise again. Usually the Bogeyman just kills in its own vicinity, feasting on the psychic energy of the terror it creates. But this time it's targeting Cade, and it's doing so by going through the campaign staff of President Samuel Curtis. Cade can't hunt the Bogeyman while protecting Curtis, but his oath demands he do so. He may not be strong enough to defeat the monster in this round, and as he waits for the confrontation, the body count mounts.

Farnsworth's strengths are as much at the front of the third Cade novel as either of the other two. And Zach graduates from his designated hostage role to someone who can act on his own (Think Dick Grayson moving from Robin to Nightwing). But he bypasses the opportunity to explore how a man who believes himself to be damned still fights as though there is something worth saving, in order for some clumsy and lame political satire he hasn't much hope of pulling off. Several characters enter the story for no real reason, and are given dialogue and plotlines that rest on equally absent foundations and keep us away from the most fascinating character in the book, Cade himself. When we do spend time in his head, he's busy telling us things instead of letting Farnsworth show them, or killing some of his own best character lines by repeating them a few dozen pages later.

Blood is a 2012 release, and Farnsworth's next novel -- about the Fountain of Youth -- is set for 2015. He's said the fourth Cade novel would follow it (although an e-book Cade short story came out this last February), so here's hoping he has time to focus on where he's most skilled, dig into the real potential meat of his characters and set aside the political satire and commentary he's not particularly qualified to do. Otherwise, it may be time to sharpen the pitchforks and ready the torches.
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Father-and-son Kellerman are two-thirds of the bestselling authors in the Kellerman family (Faye -- Jonathan's her husband and Jesse is her son -- is the third). Jonathan writes police procedurals with some psychological twists when he tells the stories of consulting psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware and his friend, LAPD detective Milo Sturgis. Jesse has written standalone novels but some have strayed into the crime-and-punishment scene occupied by his parents. He's demonstrated a willingness to be quite a bit more outre in his description and style, sometimes bordering on supernatural images even though his stories are all grounded in the here-and-now. Neither has been as overt in expressing their Jewish heritage and faith as Faye in her Decker and Lazarus novels.

But father and son will take some leaves from mom's notebook in The Golem of Hollywood, a mystery thriller that also involves the golem, a medieval Jewish legend about an indestructable blood avenger made of clay and animated by human beings. Jacob Lev is a functional alcoholic police detective in Los Angeles stuck in the traffic division after irritating his superiors. A strange and grisly find -- a human head with Hebrew writing nearby -- earns him a call from a rather shadowy division commander who reassigns him to handle the case. When the head turns out to belong to a wanted serial killer called the Creeper, Jacob has more information. But he also has more confusion to go along with it, as his superiors seem even more interested in a mysterious woman named Mai that he encounters than they are in the killer. Jacob travels to Prague to talk to police there about a similar murder, and uncovers facts about his cultural and personal history that enlighten and obscure at the same time.

As you'd expect when half your writing team (Jonathan) has spent 30 or so novels writing about police procedure, that part of the story is solidly founded. Jacob is molded from much of the same clay as Jesse Kellerman's young and somewhat arrestedly adolescent protagonists, and the younger author gives him a realistic 21st century cynical voice. The supernatural elements, though, are vague and unfocused. A parallel narrative of the creation of the golem's animating spirit of revenge, moving up through the late 1500s and the story of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel and the Golem of Prague dig much too deeply into the past and offers far too much detail for the minimal addition it makes in the story. Those same elements in the main narrative leave far too many unanswered questions -- or at least, they leave a lot of the wrong questions unanswered -- to bring about any kind of satisfying conclusion, and Jacob's own personal narrative stops rather than completes. It's OK for a reader to turn the last page with a questioning "Hmmm?" but Golem of Hollywood ends with a "Wha?" and very little in its overstuffed earlier sections to help that reader find either an answer or a better question.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Worth a Thousand Unknown Words

Last year I highlighted a list of words from other languages which don't have exact equivalents in English; they require an entire sentence or phrase to be explained and even then the meaning might be fluid.

Illustrator Ella Francis Sanders created a book of 50 such words, accompanied by a drawing she intends to evoke the meaning of the word in question. The Japanese word wabi-sabi, for example,  means finding beauty in imperfections rather than in the flawless symmetry where we usually are told it resides. Ms. Sanders creates the following illustration of the concept:
The white spaces interrupt the repeating color patches and are "imperfections." Wabi-sabi means seeing them as enhancing the beauty of the overall design and pattern rather than detracting from it.

Two other words illustrated at the Mental Floss article strike uncomfortably close to home: Akihi, a Hawaiian phrase that means forgetting directions given to you as soon as you walk away, and tsundoku, a Japanese word that describes leaving a book unread after buying it and piling it with others similarly overlooked (It might be interesting to see how this word changes as e-readers become more popular and unused books are no longer piled on tables or shelves but stuffed in the "back" of the Kindle or other device).

Since I am in fact frequently guilty of tsundoku, I may wait to buy Ms. Sanders book until the pile is a little shorter.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Stormtrooper Klingon Ballerinas

Because being a geek means never having to pay attention to story guidelines.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Obvious Overlooked

This entry at Real Clear Science's "Newton Blog" lists four ways that we help spread misinformation today much more quickly, through the internet (It links to a more extensive article here).

Since the subject matter was how misinformation spreads via the internet and social media, it leaves out the tried and true misinformation dissemination methods of "run for elective office" and "work for someone who is running for or serving in elective office."

Friday, September 26, 2014

Posting Bail

There are a lot of bands which are described as "best seen live," and probably nowhere is that more true than the renaissance fair circuit. The musicians, either serious or comic, interact with the fans so both explanation and banter give the performances a more authentic character, even if what's said or sung from stage duplicates what might be on an album.

For sea shanty and comedy group The Bilge Pumps, seeing them live is indeed fun in a different way than their albums, as the Pumps rough-and-ready persona always seems to come across better in person than through your speakers. Bail Money, naturally released on Sept. 19, is the rascally buccaneers' first full live album. 2003's Brigands with Big'uns had several live tracks, but only Maroon the Shantyman (Craig Lutke) and Harvey the Corpsman (David Ruffin) from that lineup remain with the band today. Recorded at three different shows over two years (one of which I attended personally), Money is a fine selection of the group's better material that takes full advantage of their mix of improv and scripted humor and some strong vocals from Lutke and Ruffin. Sharkbait Simon (Christopher Dallion) and Splice the Rigger (Nathan Campbell) also handle leads on some songs, and John Crow (Ted Dossey) backs them up and (reluctantly) stands in for Patrick Murphy on "The Night Pat Murphy Died."

That song, as well as favorites "The Derelict" and "Johnny Jump Up," pairs nicely with re-imagined tunes like "Banana Boat Pirates" to give a good feel of the fun of a live Bilge Pumps concert. The humor is not often for the young or easily offended, however. Aside from a couple of hidden tracks, the album closes with awesome versions of "The Dark Lady" and "Seven Bridges Road," teamed with the Kansas City Celtic folk trio Tullamore. "Road" earns an instant spot on any long-term Pumps playlist. Or Tullamore playlist. Or any playlist of songs that showcase great harmony and full-throated celebration of singing.

It's not a perfect album, although most of the quibbles are of the "Why didn't you include (my favorite song) on it?" variety. In my case, that's "The Smuggler's Song" from Brigands. The only false note actually on the album is "The Farmer," a song in which the expected rhyming word of a couplet -- usually of the four-letter or otherwise off-color variety -- is replaced by another word leading to another couplet and then another swerve. It's a song that continues to be funnier in the idea than in the execution and in any event could do with about half the verses it has.

But that's why God made the skip button, after all, and it's the only track I'll be skipping on repeat spins. Picking up Bail Money not only makes sure the Pumps will have the inevitably necessary bail money their antics will require, but that the listener will have a fun and occasionally quite lovely set of songs to enjoy without having to trek to any near (or far) renaissance fairs. Or faires.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Student Wisdom Disproven?

Many are the students who have proclaimed, sometimes with great vigor, the uselessness of a specific arcane discipline of math, and thus the inherent unfairness of their being required to learn it.

Once again, real life proves such a supposition wrong. The great 19th century mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss developed a theorem that describes the curvature of a space. Part of Gauss's theorem says that a space will always retain its original Gaussian curvature. A pizza slice, for example, is flat. When it is picked up, it must retain its Gaussian flatness in at least one direction. Thus, a pizza slice with enough toppings or a flexible crust will flop over on the end, unless picked up and curved by hand in the other direction. Thus the point of the pizza slice will remain aimed at the mouth instead of the lap, which is a much handier way of eating it.

The name of this pizza-enhancing theorem? Theorema Egregium, a Latin phrase which translates into English as either "Remarkable Theorem" or "Excellent Theorem."

Indeed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

New Plasmonic Nanolaser is Cavity-Free

Again, sometimes some headlines are so great you have to use them even if you aren't 100% sure of what they mean:

New Plasmonic Nanolaser is Cavity-Free

The headline actually refers to the method by which the laser beam would be generated, which would not involve a gas-filled hollow cavity like most lasers do. It is currently only a theory and has yet to be built and tested, either by physicists or dentists.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Double Hundred Dozen

Those words describe the below picture, a special prize package for the winner of a contest at a London Krispy Kreme:


The company designed the contest to highlight its new ordering options, which allow for particularly large orders. They noted that there is not an actual "Double Hundred Dozen" box you can order.

And there was wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Own Goal?

Oklahoma's senior senator, Republican Jim Inhofe, has never impressed me. His election in November is pretty much a done deal -- the state's Democrats never seem to mount a serious challenger against him. But I still can't come up with much of a reason to vote for him.

Yes, electing his opponent, Matt Silverstein, would provide another vote to keep the Senate Majority Leader's office disfigured by the dingy gray smear that's been dirtying it up for several years now. Yes, Sen. Inhofe often goes beyond a normal proper skepticism for unproven theories about climate change into overload.

But Mr. Silverstein's latest attempt to indicate why he's preferable to Sen. Inhofe kind of goes awry. I don't mean the research failure that gigs the Senator for missing 200 some votes during his career but overlooks how 27 of those misses happened during his heart surgery and following his son's death in a plane crash. Or how having a miss rate of 4.1 percent compared to the Senate median of 2 percent is not "missing twice as many votes as any other Senator" for anyone who knows how to do math (Hint:  if the median is 2 percent, then a significant number of senators have a miss percentage higher than that, and Sen. Inhofe's 4 percent can't be twice theirs -- such as the 2004 presidential nominee from Mr. Silverstein's own party. Or his running mate. Or the 2008 and 2012 candidate. Or his running mate. Or this potential 2016 nominee).

No, where I think Mr. Silverstein doesn't get it is when he complains that Sen. Inhofe has written and proposed a paltry number of bills and policies for the Senate to consider as legislation. Given that the frequent result of such proposals is all too often a new law, and given what kind of laws both the Senate and the House of Representatives seem prone to pass, I find it hard to see the scarcity of such as a problem.

In fact, by doing this research and highlighting the information, Mr. Silverstein's campaign may have performed the next-to-impossible task of giving me a reason I might want to vote for Sen. Inhofe.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Well Shoot

Brian J. Noggle has a moment of mortality recognition as he realizes he is the age of Les Nessman.

So imagine what that means to those of us who realize we are older than Les Nessman.

Of course, neither of us is as old as Richard Sanders, the actor who played Les Nessman, who was born in 1940. The character of Les was supposed to have been in his early 40s as the series WKRP in Cincinnati, meaning that Sanders was also younger than Les Nessman.

None of which should be construed as any kind of claim that turkeys can fly.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

In Context

Friday night, the local high school played its nearest rival in football. Students from the winning high school paint slogans and their school colors on the support arch of a railroad bridge on the highway between the two towns.

As I drove past the bridge, I noticed that the local police had stationed a black-and-white cruiser at roadside, lights flashing, in order to slow down traffic approaching the bridge. This seems like a good idea; since the students are going to paint the arch no matter what, why not make sure it doesn't cost someone's life?

Alas, the locals lost to their rivals, as I could tell by the colors being used for the decoration. Congratulations to the winners, and may this high point be nowhere near the high point of the rest of your lives.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Arrrgy-bargy

Today has been "Talk Like a Pirate Day."

In honor, one of my outfit's better-known passages, suitably paraphrased:

"Aye, for God the Cap'n so loved the world that he sent his only Son the first mate on deck, that whosoever o' ye follows him shall never be sunk but have fair seas and winds abaft the beam fer all time t' come. For God the Cap'n did not send his Son the first mate on deck to make the earth walk the plank, but that the earth through him might become part o' the Heavenly Treasure Chest."

And all the crew assembled said, "Arrr!"

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Actually, That Is a Knife

Ever wonder how they make Swiss Army knives?

Wonder no longer:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Blind Spot Stone

With the announcement earlier this year that Michael Brandman's turn with Jesse Stone in print was done, Robert B. Parker fans began to anticipate the Paradise police chief's initial patrol with Shamus Award-winner Reed Farrel Coleman at the wheel. Brandman had improved over the course of his three books, but not very much and not enough to satisfy Putnam and Parker's fans.

Blind Spot is Coleman's debut with Jesse, telling the story of how a reunion with Jesse's minor-league baseball team winds up connected to a murder and kidnapping in the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. Jesse has to uncover some things in his own past that he believed buried and done with as well as seek clues to solve the murder and find the missing young man. One problem is that the boy's father and lawyer seem a little too calm about the kidnapping. An old girlfriend, Kayla, will be another problem, and Kayla's attractive friend Dee could be as well.

Spot is much better written than any of the three Brandman Stone novels. As primarily a TV writer (he had helped produce the Jesse Stone television movies starring Tom Selleck), Brandman had some polish when writing dialogue but seemed a little lost with everything else. Spot is Coleman's 20th published novel and so he is much better able to create a completely realized novel and narrative. He uses part of Jesse's past as a tool for getting inside the character's head, and works within the broader canvas allowed in an omniscient third person voice in ways that a first person narrator can't. In fact, he does so in ways Parker may have wanted to do when he created the Jesse Stone novels but had not yet stretched himself out to do.

And now for the bad news. Other than the character and place names, there is very little in Blind Spot that makes me believe I'm reading about the Jesse Stone who first showed up in Night Passage in 1997. Coleman is talkative where Parker is taciturn, and even in the places where Jesse and other characters say something like they might have said at Parker's hands, they don't act like the people we've met.

Part of the blame is Parker's. Night Passage arrived as he was settling into a ten-plus year rut of stuff that might have been acceptable from many other authors but was junk compared to what he could do, meaning Jesse and company got some flickers of his talent but largely were victimized by an author doing what for him was more like retyping than writing. Thus Jesse lacks the definition of Parker's greatest character, Spenser, and he can't force his writer to portray him as he "really is," the way Spenser can. Instead, the writer fits Stone into his voice, rather than the reverse.

And part of the blame comes from a perfectly sensible decision by Coleman. Brandman had tried to write Parker but hadn't done very well at it. Robert Knott was more or less goofing off writing Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. Ace Atkins, producing Spenser stories, seemed to have found the key to a successful series continuation by writing the characters instead of caricaturing the writer. Which left Coleman with few choices. Jesse wasn't as established as Spenser, meaning he offered a new writer fewer handles to use to grasp, understand and follow him the way the older character did. When you don't have a trail to follow, you have to make your own path, and Coleman has done so. Which we'll see wasn't a great choice this time around.

And even if Coleman could pull off a recognizable recreation of a Parker character, what would be the point when Atkins was already doing it? There are plenty of Parker fans who followed Spenser but couldn't care less about Jesse, Sunny Randall or Virgil and Everett. The reverse was not likely to be true, so little widespread acclaim would greet a return of a "real Jesse," even if that character could be found.

But Coleman doesn't help himself by spending so much time on the other characters. Parker may not have gone as far as he might have liked with the third-person narrative option, but Coleman spends way too much time with others in his cast, a group of low-end mobsters playing out a soapy storyline that might as well be taglined "Dese Are Da Days of Our Lives."

In short, Spot doesn't really show much of Paradise, Mass., and its police chief Jesse Stone, and what it does show doesn't much resemble either the town or the man we've encountered before. If his second book, projected for 2015, does the same and does it in the same kind of second-rate story, then in spite of his talent, recognition and top-level earlier work, Coleman's on his way to being an even bigger bust than Brandman.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Unclear on the Concept

So the brand-new Florida Polytechnic University has a library, but the library doesn't have any shelves or books. Instead, the school gives its students access to some 135,000 e-books, and has an arrangement with other libraries for interlibrary loans of the old-fashioned models. It's also set up an acquisition budget so that if a book the school doesn't have is requested more than twice, that e-title can be bought automatically. The "library" is a 60,000 square foot building with computer terminals and places to sit and read.

In other words, Florida Polytechnic University is the home of the world's biggest Starbucks.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Wish Really Hard

If you do, someone at DC Comics might wake the heck up and junk their New 52 silliness for something like what Darwyn Cooke draws for the variant covers of several December DC titles.

My favorite is the Superman #37 cover, a low-res version of which follows:


Apparently, there's been a job for...well, you know who...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Science and Wisdom

Scientists also want to help and get in on the action of the Ice Bucket Challenge, an online method of raising money for an organization that sponsors research into curing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease).

Stephen Hawking, the world famous physicist who has suffered from ALS since he was 21, recorded a video in which he points out that a bout with pneumonia made it "unwise" to dump freezing water on his head. So his three children did it for him.

But a University of Toronto chemist took the challenge in a distinctly unwise manner, pouring liquid nitrogen over his head after warning watchers not to do it themselves. Liquid nitrogen is sometimes used to freeze warts, but a specific reaction called the Leidenfrost effect can protect the skin against the damaging cold substance.

Not for very long, though, as the dancing chemist demonstrates in his video. Sometimes knowledge does not equal wisdom.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Test Pattern

Sufficient to the day is the trouble thereof, the boss once said, and the only task for which I feel sufficient is to write things that I would feel better taking back. To prevent the need for that humbling act, I will simply bid you good night.

Friday, September 12, 2014

9/12/2003


As always, while the wearing of black is encouraged but not required, remembering those who are held back is both.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Getting Personal

Lee Child's Jack Reacher series is one of the few long-running character-driven tales that sometimes switches between first and third person from one book to another. Child has said that he changes based on what works best for the story he's writing. Personal is one of the Reacher books where we get the story from inside Reacher's head, rather than an omniscient narrator, and it serves the book well.

Jack Reacher has just gotten into Seattle as he wanders the country, and picks up a copy of the Army newspaper. The personals feature an ad aimed at him, and he learns that a former supervisor wants him because someone else aimed a sniper's rifle at the president of France. Among the suspects is a man Reacher arrested who has recently been released. Is he setting up a new career? Is the sniper a specialist from some other country? Reacher will team with some in-the-shadows operators to learn the answer, but will the inexperienced young female agent partnering with him help him or slow him down as he seeks answers in Paris, Arkansas and London?

Personal is probably one of the best Reacher stories in years and ranks in the top level of the series. Although some of its features echo other Reacher books, Child rearranges them in slightly different ways to build his plot. Reacher naturally kicks anybody's behind who dares to cross him, but he does actually have to work at it and the fights themselves are a more natural part of the narrative. Plus, instead of some outlying rural oligarch whose minions cross Reacher, who makes everyone pay in return, Personal sets up an actual mystery to solve, and gives Reacher an actual stake in the story beyond upping his private body count. That it runs parallel to the usual crisp action scenery and Reacher outsmarting and outpunching his opponents is a welcome plus.

It's hard to get a clear sense of what was going on for an author when he or she writes a book, unless the mood or tone of the book is designed to reflect it, then there are usually only impressions. For whatever reason, Personal gives off a vibe that says Child had more fun writing it than he has in some time, and that makes for an exciting and fun tag-along with the indomitable Jack Reacher.
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With The Eye of Heaven, Sam and Remi Fargo bring along the third Clive Cussler co-writer since their series began, as Russell Blake follows in the path of Grant Blackwood and Thomas Perry.

The globe-trotting archaeologist/anthropologist/adventurers have uncovered a nearly perfectly preserved Viking longship filled with pre-Columbian artifacts from what is now Mexico. Clues point them towards the ancient and poorly understood Tolmec civilization, and they journey to Mexico to enlist the help of local scientists and continue their search. The longship and its crew could be clues to discovering the grave of the shadowy figure Quetzlcoatl -- part god, part king and bearing no small resemblance to some Europeans of that time frame. But an unscrupulous competitor wants the artifacts as well. And he seems to always be just a step behind the Fargos, or in some cases a step ahead.

Blake's maiden voyage with Sam and Remi is uneven, which is actually a step up from Thomas Perry's swan song, The Mayan Secrets. It starts out almost unreadably, as the Fargos drip cut-rate banter ad nauseum and the reader must slog through detailed descriptions of all of the best and most expensive wines and beverages in the world as the book's characters consume them. The second half of the book picks up the pace, mostly by getting the couple out of their swanky hotels and restaurants and reading more like an adventure yarn than a wine list.

The Fargo series has been froth from the beginning but the first half of Eye makes even froth look meaningful and important. The injection of a potentially long-term adversary helps a great deal and gives some hope for future books. By the time Eye is over, a reader can actually believe that something could happen to actually matter to Sam and Remi, which hasn't been clear for much of the series until now. Those books will still need some work -- Blake tries a hand at foreshadowing how Sam and Remi's plans keep getting found out but it's more like "fore-shout-the-answer-into-a-megaphoning." And his "red herring" for that particular development is never very credible.

All that said, Blake now has the chance to bring the Fargos out of last place among the Cussler brand, and the potential to do so. Fargo No. 7 will say a lot more about how that will go.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

G'day, Mate!


Two Australian skydivers share a handshake on their way down from 33,000 feet. No word on what might happen if they crossed the equator and suddenly ended right side up. From the Twisted Sifter blog Picture of the Day.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Best Revenge

This post at Doghouse Diaries suggests some minor but extremely annoying things one might wish did happen to their enemies, as a way of obtaining revenge. They're along the lines of some ideas I remember reading in a book called Throw a Tomato, which described more than 150 ways of being "mean and nasty." The one that sticks out in my mind is the suggestion to "salt the Band-Aids."

But the Diaries post goes too far in once instance. Nobody should have their inner voice be that of Gilbert Gottfried. Not even Harry Reid, but in his case it's because Gottfried would be a step up from the dingy gray smear that usually rings in his empty, dingy gray skull.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Funding Issues

The What If? blog examines the question of what it would really be like to have "all the money in the world" in a literal sense, rather than in the sense of all the world's cash being available on my debit card to use as I see fit (Firefly returns to TV, Elizabeth Warren and Bill O'Reilly have to get real jobs, NASA sells all of its equipment to somebody who wants to use it, every stupid zombie show is canceled, Donald Trump is removed to a location without any means of communicating with the outside world save postcards...).

The actual result, it seems, would be that the pile of coins making up most of the world's money (a significant portion of which would be United States pennies) would be unstable and collapse, with the resulting tsunami of Lincoln profiles deep enough and fast enough to bury and kill you.

I believe this would be considered an adverse outcome.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Testing, Testing

We're enjoying a little back and forth here in Oklahoma as we consider what kind of tests our students will need to take in order to judge whether or not their nine months of involuntary servitude has brought them any benefits.

Oklahoma had been a part of the Common Core curriculum standards adopted by the United States Department of Education and others. But earlier this year, our state legislature and governor decided to jettison those standards, saying that they were not well-suited to Oklahoma schools. Maybe, maybe not; it's been several years since I was deep in the weeds of state education policy and I don't know enough to judge. In any event, the law passed by the legislature and signed by said governor put Oklahoma back on its pre-Common Core standards, acronymically called PASS.

Said governor's Democratic challenger has taken her to task over the move, which has brought about a heavier thumb on the scale from the feds, which will probably cost the state system some money. He omits his own vote against the Common Core standards when they were originally under consideration, but, hey, politics.

Anyway, the fuss and feathers seems to overlook that evaluation is only one purpose of a test. Yes, it measures knowledge known or gained. But it can also be a part of teaching itself, as this note and interview at Big Think points out. Their example is giving students a history test before they have taken a class. Obviously, they will do poorly -- unless they are given access to Wikipedia, in which case they will do abysmally poorly.

But when they see what the test asks for, they will be given hints about what they should pay attention to when the class actually begins. If the test seems to want to know when a lot of things happened, then it would probably be a good idea to note when things happened. If it asks questions about who did things and where they did them, then mastering the activities and locations of key players would be helpful.

This makes sense. I have a memory that may or may not be fully accurate of being given a test at the beginning of a math class sometime in the late elementary/junior high years, and failing to understand even a tenth of what it was asking me. The same test at the end of the class showed a much different mark. Not as different as it probably should have been, but math has ever been my bane. So it would seem that testing may have some use as a teaching tool is not in and of itself completely evil.

I speak, of course, as one who is not a student. They will think tests evil regardless.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Visit from Miss Sellany

-- Margaret Atwood is the first novelist to be a part of the Future Library project, in which an artist's work is sealed up for the next 100 years. Given the increasing impenetrability, flashback-itis and numbing lengthening of her work over the last 20 years, this is not a bad thing. Unless you're alive in 2114, that is.

-- In 1930, the BBC created a guide on how to listen to the radio, that newfangled invention that wirelessly received sounds and broadcast them into your home. Strangely, turning up the bass so loud your fellow drivers wish they'd brought some grenades doesn't seem to be on the list.

-- If the double rainbow tripped this guy out, I hope he doesn't ever see a moonbow.

-- DNA may have identified Jack the Ripper.

-- Do you know what would be cooler than a TV show featuring bland characters, ham-handed dialogue and plots that just spin around and around until they fall down, like a spastic chimp, set in that deadest of dead genres, the zombie movie? Another series of the same kind of characters with the same lousy dialogue and plotting and the same lame backdrop, but in a totally different part of the world!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Pictures in the Sky

Your everyday average person will sometimes look at the clouds and see what shapes they might find there -- an animal, a person, a tree, or something like that.

Your somewhat more imaginative person will see a wider variety of things and cast them into a wider variety of images.

And your top of the line imaginative person will just go ahead and draw those images onto a photograph:


The original cloud pictures and the superimpositions can be found at the link.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Early On

The best detective and crime fiction has used the characteristics of its genre as a way of thinking about the world and the people in it. Sara Paretsky uses stories about investigator V. I. Warshawski to comment on women's issues, for example, by telling a top yarn about a case Warshawski is working. At several points in his career, Robert B. Parker used a Spenser story to talk a little bit about his philosophy of life, and in Early Autumn maybe a little bit about parenting, too.

Patty Giacomin hires Spenser to watch out for her son Paul, because her ex-husband Mel has tried to take him even though Patty has custody. A couple of thugs make things interesting, and Spenser winds up taking Paul with him to Maine in order to protect him from Mel. In the process he decides to try to educate Paul on how to shape himself as a person, something neither parent seems interested in. But when the situation changes and the parents agree to take Paul back, Spenser realizes he will have to intervene a little more forcefully. He's good at that, but the other players may push him past his boundaries and Paul might end up in the middle of the violent game.

Autumn was Parker's seventh Spenser novel and eighth overall, published in 1980. By then well-polished and still in top form, Parker makes it zip along and loads it with Spenser's quick wit and tough guy action. But the punching and shooting take a back seat to Spenser's intervention in Paul's life, and Parker probably writes more long passages of dialogue in Autumn than in any of his other books. The dismal teen wonders why Spenser makes him do things like learn to work out and build a house, and Spenser explains that he has to teach Paul something, and working out and carpentry are what he knows.

The talkiness and relatively sparse action make some Spenser fans downtick the novel, but for anyone who wants to get one of the clearer pictures of what Parker thinks and the way those thoughts fuel all of his protagonists, it's well worth the time. Admittedly, if he'd tried to write this story during his later doldrums, it would have been hard to bear (and probably called All Our Yesterdays), but this Autumn happens while its author is still in full creative bloom.
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Tom Clancy owned an insurance agency and wrote in his spare time in the early 1980s. Among his output were articles for the non-profit United States Naval Institute journal Proceedings and eventually, a technically detailed spy thriller about a Russian submarine captain who wants to defect and the CIA analyst who helps shepherd him in, along with his submarine. When no publisher showed interest in the novel, a USNI Press editor suggested her company buy it, because it had the potential to be very big.

The company listened, the USNI Press published its first fiction work ever and so in 1984 The Hunt for Red October, the character Jack Ryan and Clancy all became famous. A thumbs-up from President Ronald Reagan, who regarded the Cold War tale as "the best yarn," didn't hurt.

It's easy to look at Clancy's later work, bloated by a lack of editing and weighed down by his comically inept handling of anything other than an action scene or technical description, and forget that one of the reasons he became a household name was because October really is a great story and pretty well told. As he unspools Marko Ramius' plot to defect and give the Americans the brand-new Red October submarine with its secret super-silent engine, Clancy maintains suspense across an ocean-wide stage and multiple scenes. Both Ramius and Ryan are well-developed and realistic characters, featuring a level of introspection about their work that Clancy allowed to ebb away over the course of the series.

Clancy also shows what an incident like this could mean in the real world of the Cold War -- as Soviet ships hunt the U.S.-bound Red October, they risk confrontations with American forces in a time where it wouldn't have taken too many mistakes for the two nations to begin direct conflict. And naturally there are the technical details of weapons systems and operations that reportedly earned Clancy attention from military officials worried that someone had compromised secret information. He does go overboard with some of these, and he probably has a few too many "brush with Armageddon" scenes -- the screenwriters for the 1990 movie adaptation slimmed the story down considerably but their movie shows how good it is at its base.

October is often cited as beginning a wave of "techno-thrillers," or highly detailed and accurately described spy and thriller novels. Techno-thrillers existed well before it, though (just ask Clive Cussler), and you could make a case that Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, which salts is narrative quite liberally with precise and detailed descriptions of 19th-century whaling techniques, was the real genesis of the format.

Of course, Clancy is no Melville, October is no Moby-Dick and subsequent Ryan thrillers went from tedious to omissable to unreadable. But if the latter is really one of the top candidates for "the Great American Novel" as it's often described, then October can lay a solid claim to being the Pretty Good American Novel in its own right.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Saints (and/or Others) Preserve Us!

I've mentioned before a friend who once declared herself too open-minded to read anything in The Weekly Standard, which probably suggests a different definition of open-minded than the one I use. Although I've not heard it expressed exactly the same way, I am sure I have friends more on my side of the political spectrum who would dimiss anything in The Nation just as readily. They might be correct sometimes, but not always.

This book review of Marcelo Gleiser's The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning is a fine example. Gleiser and review author Michael Saler take on what seems to be the casual definition of "science" these days, but which might more readily be considered "scientism," a belief that science alone is a path towards finding answers to all questions of human existence, and that disciplines such as philosophy -- let alone the arena of religion -- can offer no real insight into the meaning of life or existence.

Gleiser declines the dichotomy often drawn between science and the humanities and suggests that properly understood, both pursue truth and both are limited in their results. I haven't read the book yet, (it's on the Amazon wish list) but I definitely support the premise. My understanding of science as a way to try to understand what goes on in the universe doesn't really allow for it to be considered as a way to answer questions with some kind of eternal finality. The phrase "the science is settled" in reference to any subject shows a misunderstanding of what science is supposed to do. Yes, it answers questions. But it does not then close the book.

Take, for example, the concept of cosmic inflation. First proposed by physicist and cosmologist Alan Guth in the 1980s, it suggests that at some time soon after the Big Bang, the universe "inflated" from a miniscule point to something that would have been actually visible, if it had been possible to be outside it and observe it. This inflation happened so fast that it allowed the tiny homogenous universe to become much larger while remaining homogenous, which in turn explains why the universe looks like it does today. If it had simply expanded from the initial Big Bang without inflation, then it would look very different.

Later experiments offered support for inflationary theory. But as an article in the August 2014 special edition of Scientific American notes, even though almost all observed evidence connected to the formation of the universe supports the idea of inflation, there are some plain old common sense questions that make cosmologists wonder about it (the article is not yet online unless you subscribe to the magazine).

Or take something as simple as the rising and setting of the sun. Nearly everyone who's ever lived on this planet up until the time of Nicolaus Copernicus would have said that the science was settled and the sun rose in the East, traversed the sky along a different route depending on the time of the year and set in the West. Every observation ever made of the sun could prove exactly that. But Copernicus asked some different questions, and along with observations made by Galileo Galelei, Johannes Kepler and others, these questions unsettled the science until we found out we go around the sun and not vice-versa as had always been taught.

I am, as I have mentioned before, mired in traditional Christian theism. I believe the four canonical gospels form a reliable account of the important features of Jesus' life and ministry and that the Holy Spirit was at work in those who wrote the books of the Bible and those who compiled them. I believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ and in the Virgin Birth.

None of these beliefs are somehow undermined by the work of modern science as it asks questions about how the world works and tries to describe what we see. Indeed, as the truth of the universe is slowly uncovered, we find it is "queerer than we can imagine," as geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane put it. And insofar as those questioners seek the truth, the answers they find will in no way harm my following of the one I believe embodies the Truth.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Order Up!

So a recent study has shown that the kind of diet best for health and weight management for the majority of people is not the low-fat diet recommended for so many years. It's actually a low-carb, moderate-fat diet.

Whatever. Give me some French fries, and after I'm done I'll go the the gym.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Audio Matters

I've been on the road a lot over the last few days and so I've listened to a lot of radio. Some thoughts and questions:

-- Kudos to one of the OKC "classic rock" stations (I can't remember which one, and they probably can't either) for playing the long version of the Steve Miller Band's "Jet Airliner." A lot of instrumentation, left off the single version, which makes the song that much better for highway cruisin'. Which also, of course, includes the brief synth song "Threshold," often thought of as the intro to "Airliner." The two became so linked in radio land that Miller actually included "Threshold" on the band's Greatest Hits 1974-1978 album, even though it was never released as a single, never charted and thus can't be considered a "hit."

-- And kudos to another oldies station for doing the same with KC and the Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogie Man." For whatever reason, I hated disco as a teenager (probably a mixture of liking punk and rarely having the courage to ask girls to dance), but I heard enough of these songs at junior high social gatherings that I almost get a an actual Kool-Aid and cookie sugar rush when they play. Harry Wayne Casey led a funky band.

-- Naturally, as August neared its end, a couple of stations trotted out Earth, Wind & Fire's "September," another fa-funky booty shaker.

-- "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock 'n' Roll)" actually shrinks the distance between two points when played on a vehicular radio. "You Shook Me All Night Long" does the same.

-- You know, I realize that all of the words Night Ranger drummer Kelly Keagy sings in "Sister Christian" are English. And I realize that the rhyming couplets are either complete sentences or sentence fragments that represent actual human speech patterns. And I also realize that he wrote the song for his teenage sister Christy as a kind of "Hey, slow down, kid...you'll grow up quick enough" meditation, and his enunciation of the lines "sister Christy" during the recording led bassist and usual lead vocalist Jack Blades to think he was singing "sister Christian," so they changed the words.

But I still have no idea what in the heck that song is talking about -- it strikes me as an excellent example of a power ballad which strings together complete sentences that may be profound to the writer but sound like jabberwocky that was matched up "'cause it rhymes."

Oh well, time to be motorin'...