Thursday, April 30, 2015

Holy Stupidity, Batman!

Back in 2011, DC Comics scrapped 70 years of continuity or thereabouts in an attempt to create more sales. They said a bunch of other things, but that's what they meant. They called this new continuity, which had attitude and realism and all kinds of things other than more than a handful of good stories, the "New 52."

It was, in my opinion, one of the dumber things my nostalgically-favorite narrative format has done in recent years, and there is quite a lot of competition for that title. A new entry in the race has arisen, as DC will once again remove the cape and cowl from Bruce Wayne and slap the ears and winged symbol on someone else. You can see who's supposed to be getting the new outfit at the link if you want; I'll keep this post spoiler-free. But trust me, even if you don't look. It's just stupid.

Bruce has been sidelined before. His back was broken by Bane back in 1993 and he sat out for a year recovering while Jean-Paul Valley, the mentally unstable Azrael, took on the role. Jean-Paul switched out the gray and the blue for armor and found the stress too much to be the obsessed yet controlled Caped Crusader that Gotham City needed. Dick Grayson, the first Robin, filled in as Batman after Bruce defeated Jean-Paul, and then again when Bruce was supposed to have been killed by Darkseid in 2009.

Although series writer Scott Snyder talks like the new Batman and the new-look manga-style armor will be a permanent change, that can be taken as seriously as any pro wrestling feud. Sales may take a curiosity jump for awhile, but eventually they'll settle back down to the current level or lower, and DC will be forced to acknowledge what we've seen in movies, comic books and elsewhere for years. Bottom line, only one person can say, "I'm Batman" and have it be true: Bruce Wayne.

(H/T Jonathan Last)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What and So What

The initial tales of Dr. Thomas Silkstone, an American anatomist studying under a brilliant mentor in London in the years following the Revolutionary War, were entertaining and interesting mysteries. Silkstone was on the leading edge of the study of the human body, and learning from that study what might have happened to the now-departed soul under investigation. Author Tessa Harris made a good blend of culture clash -- Americans weren't on anybody's friend list in England for some time after 1776 -- with the dawning of modern forensic science and issues pressing in England in that time to make crisp, clean mysteries featuring well-sketched characters.

But even though the fourth book, The Lazarus Curse, dealt with the issue of slavery in England before it was outlawed, it also started taking a silly turn with a daytime-drama-level complication in Thomas's relationship with the Lady Lydia Farrell and her eeevil family patriarch Montagu Malthus. Volume 5, Shadow of the Raven, heads even deeper into those weeds and more or less smothers its potentially intriguing social commentary and mystery.

The Eeevil Sir Montagu wants to enclose the area around his ward's manor estate and prevent the common people from using it as they have for centuries as a source of food and income. Many wealthy landowners did this in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, causing much misery among the poor. A surveyor examining the land has been shot, and Eeevil Sir Montagu is quick to suspect and blame the villagers. But Thomas is not so sure, nor do his investigations support that claim. His newfangled science is no match for the plotters' machinations, and innocent men may die if he can't find the flaw in the scheme. His attentions are distracted, though, by the plight of Lady Lydia and Eeevil Sir Montagu's even more eeevil schemes to drive a wedge between them. There are forged papers, secret murders, faked deaths, last-second catastrophes, and so on.

In short, Shadow of the Raven is full of Dickensian melodrama, but without anything like Dickensian skill. It makes for a pretty dull slog, and leaves hope that it's a one-time swerve from the road instead of a new path for Harris to take. If not, then it may be time to part ways with and wish Dr. Silkstone and company the best of luck on their journey -- based on the wringer Harris is putting them through, they will need it.
Robert Knott's been so-so in continuing Robert B. Parker's Western lawmen, Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. His first outing, Ironhorse, was fair but overlong and really had nothing in it that suggested any motives behind using Parker's name and characters other than those associated with Putnam's cash flow. His second, Bull River, was flat-out lousy. For his third, The Bridge, he wobbles back up a little, with a narrative that holds together a little better than River but still offers nothing any "Longarm" or "Lonestar" paperback couldn't bring to the table at less than half the price.

A roaring storm leaves Appaloosa buried under snow, making it all the more urgent that lawmen make it out to the Rio Blanco Bridge construction site, where there is reported trouble and lost communication. Appaloosa's sheriff and deputies head out first, but their continued absence means Territorial Marshals Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch will need to find out what happened at the bridge, what happened to the sheriff and who was behind it all. The presence of a traveling road show with a mysterious fortune teller who seems to have bewitched Everett complicates matters considerably.

Again, although Bridge is better than River, it doesn't have to do a lot to cross that bar. Knott doesn't seem to know how to weave the fortune teller into the mix without leaving himself a realistic out, and that gives Bridge an X-Files or Twilight Zone quality that Parker's worlds pretty much can't accommodate, unless we're planning on moving this series into the realm of magical realism Westerns. He includes that absolute laziest of tropes, a Venial Clergyman (something Parker did all too often himself), and presses him into service as a way of letting Everett mock the particular style of faith the man claims to follow. The endgame is pretty shaky and not very firm, and leaves a lot in the air. It's not a cliffhanger where a reader can say, "I wonder what's going to happen!" It's more like a fizzle that prompts, "Does anybody here know what just happened?"

Probably at least a dozen authors have taken on the pen name "Tabor Evans" to write one of the 400-plus books in the "Longarm" series. If Knott is going to keep cranking out Cole and Hitch books that make people say, "Yeah, Virgil and Everett. So what," maybe Putnam ought to give one of them a call.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Pause Print Job

Over at Mental Floss, an article describes the research done by a couple of students at the University of Leicester about how much paper it would take to print the entire internet.

Their answer, based on the number of pages indexed by search engines, is somewhere between 68 billion and 136 billion pages, which would require about 44 square miles of Amazonian rain forest to make. If, that is, paper was made from Amazonian rain forest trees instead of the managed timberland which is actually used.

Now, if we're just talking about printing the useful parts of the internet, I suppose we could get away with taking one or two limbs off of a tree. Which would probably heal itself pretty quickly if we used the rest of the internet for its most suitable function of fertilizing said tree. I leave the decision of which group would contain this here blog totally up to you, O Perceptive Reader.

Monday, April 27, 2015


Not everyone in the American colonies wanted to boot out King George and trade him for General George. These loyalists were often eager and pleased to help British troops and officials who had come to put down the rebellion and to inform on suspected rebels and insurrectionists. At first glance, Abraham Woodhull would be exactly such a person -- the son of a magistrate and someone who took a public loyalty oath to the King.

But appearances can be deceiving, as Woodhull is actually a lead spy in the Culper Ring, an intelligence-gathering group that kept George Washington informed of British troop movements and plans, helped expose Benedict Arnold and played a vital role in the colonists' victory in the Revolutionary War. Two recent books, the pop-history George Washington's Secret Six by TV personality Brian Kilmeade and sportswriter Don Yaeger and the more scholarly Washington's Spies by historian Alexander Rose, hit the shelves last year and helped spark interest in a television series, AMC's Turn.

The Culper Ring operated between Long Island and Manhattan and involved several men and probably at least one woman. Its complete history is sketchy today, given that spy rings often don't keep diaries and a lot of what written records there may have been have disappeared or been lost since the 1770s. So historical drama focusing on it can have even more latitude than historical drama often takes, and show creator Craig Silverstein takes his latitude and runs with it.

But not to Turn's benefit, as his changes create a soapy storyline that involves former lovers, suspected infidelities, and as many other non-spy-related contrivances as writers can imagine. Changes like that aren't crimes by themselves, even though the actual story of the Culper ring has more than enough meat for a good drama. But they're not well done, and the cast sells no great inspiration in acting them out. Snooty British officer villains who prey upon virtuous American women, uncouth and brutal Scotsmen who learn the truth before everyone else by means of their direct but un-genteel methods and manners, loyalists who sneer down their noses at rebel scum, etc. -- almost every single character fits into a stock type without really displaying much conviction for any of it.

I gave up on Turn about halfway through the first season, and so did many others. Ratings for episodes 6 and 7 were half those of the premiere and the finale could muster less than three-quarters of the pilot's numbers. Reviews indicate the second season has been better done, and its inclusion of some of the larger players in the drama such as Washington himself have dragged the focus away from the manufactured love stories and back towards the spy ring Turn is supposed to be about. Rose, author of Washington's Spies, wrote the episode that airs tonight. It may be worth a second look, somewhere down the line, but the ratings have been dismal and so we might not see a full Turn.
Called MI-5 when it aired in the United States, spooks began the year after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001. It spanned the London terrorist bombings in 2005. Matthew Mcfadyen plays Tom Quinn, the lead of a group of agents who work for Her Majesty's Intelligence Division 5, referred to as MI-5. It's roughly analogous to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States in that both focus on domestic intelligence matters, although MI-5 doesn't have as much to do with criminal investigations as does the FBI. spooks aired for 10 seasons ("series," in British TV lingo) on BBC1, maintaining popularity despite numerous cast changes. A movie is planned for a 2015 release.

Quite a few reviews compared it with Kiefer Sutherland's 24, airing at about the same time and covering the same kind of storylines. The episodes I watched seemed more like Law and Order: SVU in that they gave a lot of narrative space to the characters' non-work lives and featured the same kind of smothering self-righteousness from the leads. The initial episode found Quinn and his fellow agents trying to uncover who's smuggled 20 bombs into the country and what they will be used for, before they can be used. Apparently out of potential plotters for terrorist bombings in the United Kingdom, the show decided to pin the blame on a radical anti-abortion activist from the U.S. who sneaked into the country to mount a terror campaign against UK doctors who perform abortions. Naturally the activist, played by American actress Lisa Eichhorn with a Southern accent that couldn't be worse, is religious but a complete hypocrite about the tenets of her faith. We're also supposed to believe that she's pregnant by a clandestine affair (Eichhorn was 50 at the time) and that the state of Florida still uses the electric chair for execution (it quit in 1999, although the condemned may choose it if they wish).

The second episode featured a right-wing politician who wanted to start a race war and who interrogated captured agents by shoving one's hand and then head into a deep fryer before shooting her in the head. Showrunners said the move was meant to demonstrate the kind of ruthlessness MI-5 agents might face and demonstrate that the show would not be a cookie-cutter drama; important characters could die. Of course, they chose to illustrate this point by torturing and killing a young woman to motivate the male agents in a classic fridging trope, so the whole "non-cookie-cutter" thing rings very hollow.

Although slickly produced and featuring an engaging cast, spooks carries the same burden SVU does: When the leads are so smarmily smug a viewer sympathizes with the villains, it's time to quit watching. And so I did, midway through series 1.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Leaving? What a Good Idea!

At least, that's what you'd hear me say if I lived anywhere near Chile's Calbuco volcano, judging from the pictures at this link.

The wild ones, of course, are those in which the eruption produces not just large amounts of super-hot magma and burning ash, but also lightning.

I would need no repetition of "¡Vamonos!"

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Pass It On

A young woman at the fitness center here in our town stepped onto the treadmill next to me and I thought I recognized her as one of the local high school women's basketball team. They did not have a good year (two wins), which was really tough on their seniors, who had enjoyed three years of postseason play until now.

Since our church has a player on the young men's team (They did a little better), I have seen most of both teams' home games, and I was impressed with how the young ladies carried themselves during a really hard year. They kept playing, they didn't complain, they weren't ugly to each other on the court and they obviously tried every time they stepped out to play. I thought, if this young woman was one of the team members, I should say something about what kind of class they demonstrated. Turns out she was one of the players. I said, "I thought you guys did a great job holding up in a hard year and showed really good character, and I wanted to tell you all that." "Well, thanks! I appreciate that," she said.

The character judgment may have been accurate. Although I was somewhat dismayed at how slow my treadmill speed was compared with hers.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Anniversary Photo

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA released some new photos, including the "official anniversary image" seen below:

The picture, called "Celestial Fireworks," is an enhanced image of a star-forming region with the unspectacular name Gum 29, about 20,000 light-years from Earth. Like many of these Hubble photographs, the image is a processed version of readings taken with visible light as well as other wavelengths and then corrected via image software. In other words, if you were to see the original photo of that section of space, it wouldn't look like this. If you were to somehow get near Gum 29, though, and look at it through your spaceship window or viewscreen, it might come close.

And even if it didn't, who would care? You're in a spaceship 20,000 light-years from Earth, which implies that if you don't like the view, you've got the ability to check out someplace else pretty darn quick.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

They've All Got the Beat

Way back in 1969, The Winstons released a single called "Color Him Father." They needed a B-side, since this was in the era of physical singles and blank vinyl doesn't make money. Thus the song "Amen, Brother," an instrumental, came forth.

And where it went, thousands of songs followed. Drummer GC Colman had four measures to himself during the song, and he laid down six seconds of solo that have been copied and sampled and replayed by everyone from Salt-N-Pepa to David Bowie. Listen to one of the versions recorded on YouTube or elsewhere and you will undoubtedly recognize the riff.

Surviving members of the band disagree on who directed the riff, but there is no disagreement on one thing -- it is some funky genius. A couple of British DJs started a Go Fund Me page for the song's copyright holder, Winstons' front man and retired teacher Richard Spencer. As of this writing, it had collected £24,000 for its initial goal of £1,000. That's a little more than $36,000 at the exchange rate the day this post is being written.

The pair said they were doing it because the only royalties Spencer ever saw were for the song itself. See, if you record a song that someone else wrote, you have to pay them (or whoever holds the copyright) for the privilege. But if you take a snip of it and lay it down as a backing track behind whatever you're recording or speed it up or do whatever studio magic you want to do with it, that's "sampling" and you don't have to pay anyone anything. As to what the difference is, that's "lawyering" and you have to pay to find someone who understands it and can explain it to you. By the hour, no less.

Anyway, it's a cool little piece of pop history and finding "Amen, Brother" and the Winstons is a happy accident in itself. Pardon me while I do a little getting down with my bad self for a bit...

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

TV or Not TV?

Again, spoilers will go with this item. I'm not 100% sure of what makes either Daredevil or Bosch (to be reviewed later) an actual "TV series," since neither of them never really aired on television and would only have been seen on a TV set if you had the proper web-based hookup (I watched them on an iPad while on the treadmill). But since everyone else uses the TV-related words "series" and "seasons," so will I.

Marvel Comics' big-screen events have been mostly pretty bright. Yes, there was violence and yes, people died, but it was in a very distinct good guys/bad guys context, and the good guys did not have too many questions about either who they opposed or what they needed to do to oppose them. Daredevil, the Netflix-based series of 13 episodes showing the origin and first battles of Matt Murdock as the blind hero fighting crime in the Hell's Kitchen area of New York City, is different. It's far bloodier and far more morally murky. While still waging his war in a makeshift mask and fighting clothes, Murdock questions a thug by means of sticking a knife behind his eyeball. He instructs criminals to "leave my city" even though the likelihood is that they will have to do so on crutches. And we spend a good deal of time watching the villain, "Kingpin" Wilson Fisk, fall in love with an art dealer and deal with some of his own internal demons as the shows tries to show us the man behind the bad guy.

Daredevil is the story of Murdock, who was blinded as a young boy when he was hit by a truck hauling hazardous chemicals (in the comic book origin from 1964, it was nuclear material). The same chemicals enhanced his other senses and gave him such sensitivity to his surroundings that he can function almost as though he were sighted. Murdock combines his abilities with training from the blind martial artist Stick to become a skilled fighter who eventually cannot stand by when wrongdoers escape the law's punishment. He takes to the streets and eventually finds himself up against a conspiracy of corruption, headed by Fisk. The irony is that his "day job" is lawyering, with his longtime friend Frankin "Foggy" Nelson. In the first episode they meet Karen Page, a young secretary in a big firm who uncovers secrets she is not meant to know and who finds herself targeted by Fisk's minions. They prevent Karen from being framed for murder and she goes to work for them, eventually becoming an ally in the fight against Fisk's plans to obliterate Hell's Kitchen and replace it with pricey upscale developments. But Fisk is ruthless and will use legal and illegal means to win the game, meaning all of them could be in danger and Murdock could have to cross lines that would make him little different from his adversary.

A neighborhood priest hears his semi-confessions and ruminates with him about the existence of evil and the devil, and what human beings should do when confronting it. Do we stand on our principles and refuse to take up the devil's weapons, possibly guaranteeing our defeat? Or do we do whatever works and take whatever steps we have to, even if those steps leave us more the devil's mirror-image than his enemy? Where is the line between them, and is it always in the same place or does it shift? Veteran character actor Peter McRobbie's Father Lanton offers Matt someone who can try to point him towards answers to those questions. It's a rare thoughtful and positive portrayal of religion in mass media and it definitely works for a character who grew up Roman Catholic but who now wears a mask with the devil's horns.

Charlie Cox plays Murdock and creates a great character, using parts of George Clooney's Danny Ocean, Robert Downey's Tony Stark and Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne and melding them into his own performance. Murdock fights against injustice, but he also battles the idea that he is somehow a victim because of his blindness. He shows a genuine tension between allowing his crusade to swallow him up in its own violence and remembering that he's supposed to represent something more than just a bigger bully with a bigger stick. Deborah Ann Woll makes Karen Page a driving force in her own right. Her determination to beat the people who tried to frame her for murder and killed an innocent man starts Matt and Foggy on their path towards a legal operation against Fisk and her commitment to doing so according to the law, as Matt initially insisted on, keeps them going. Elden Henson's Foggy Nelson offers much of the comic relief of the show but also continues to drive the fight against Fisk and keeping it in the legal arena. His disillusionment with Matt when he learns his idealistic friend has spent his nights subverting the laws he swore to uphold shows plainly and it's ultimately the fence that keeps Matt from simply killing his enemies.

The show isn't perfect. The "Nelson v. Murdock" episode is talkier and flash-backier than it needs to be, and the roles of some of the other crime outfits allied with Fisk aren't completely clear. They exist mainly to give Murdock a layer of villains to fight through before tackling the next one and the next one to get to Fisk.

And Vincent D'Onofrio's Fisk has several problems. Part of those come from D'Onofrio's performance. Pitched somewhere between his interstellar cockroach in a human suit from Men in Black and his quirky detective in Law and Order: Criminal Intent, it's probably supposed to come off as restrained, but more often than not it just seems mannered, stilted and artificial. The first time Fisk trades in his refined persona for a paroxysm of violent rage shocks us, but the third and fourth and fifth time he starts to sound like a child initiating a tantrum. The script doesn't help much with this. We watch Fisk woo and fall in love with Vanessa Mariana (Ayelet Zurer) and deal with his own sufferings, as a way for the story to build a human being instead of one-dimensional baddie, but this is after we've seen him decapitate a man by slamming a car door on his head until it comes off (the head, that is). That's the kind of memory that sticks with you and storyline-wise, seeing it happen before we see Fisk the Grown-Up Lonely Hurt Little Boy Looking for Approval and Love really doesn't work.

But overall, Daredevil is a good addition to Marvel's growing list of quality stories featuring their costumed characters, and the news of a second season is welcome. It is indeed much darker in tone than the big-screen stories we've seen so far, but it is also good. It seems like a lot of people equate darker stories with higher quality stories, but that's not true very often and certainly not here. Daredevil is dark because that's the story being told. It's good because it's good.

ETA: For some reason this post disappeared for a few hours this afternoon. Sorry about the inconvenience.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

These Are the Voyages...

Italian astronaut Sam Cristoforetti, serving aboard the International Space Station, takes a moment out of her schedule to boldly go where no woman has gone before and don a familiar-looking uniform before making some space-espresso.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Maybe You Will Leave Harlan Alive

The long post blog returns, with some thinking about the end of the great series Justified.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Everybody Shows up for Jury Duty

Including, believe it or not, United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

The Washington Post story notes that this isn't as uncommon as you'd think; Associate Justice Elena Kagan has been called twice, although it doesn't make clear if that is since she began serving on the Supreme Court. Justice Kagan was the Solicitor General of the United States from March 2009 to May 2010 and would have been subject to being called during that time as well. But, as the story notes, she probably would not have been selected. Folks with a lot of experience in the legal field are often passed over for jury service, as it is thought their expertise might unduly sway fellow jurors.

My own profession is also sometimes considered a disqualifier; in the minds of some people the opinion of a clergyperson carries more weight than do the opinions of others. I am pretty well sure that none of those people are close friends or relatives of clergypeople. I have a number of colleagues whom I would not trust to get a pizza order right, and they might include me on a list of the same if they were to be making one.

On the one hand, my low chances of service are kind of sad, because some aspects of the judicial system are pretty interesting when seen up close, as I remember from my previous profession as a newspaper reporter (protected by the same Amendment, just a different clause). Reporters are also not frequent jury picks; their tendency to smuggle in booze and/or skepticism makes them problematic.

But on the other hand, no jury service means a reduction of the number of hours I am required to listen to lawyers, as well as judges -- who, more often than not, used to be lawyers.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

We're All Doing It Wrong

-- Writing at Five Thirty-Eight, Christie Aschwanden describes some research about brain function that suggests our brains are almost designed to reach false conclusions.

The study she writes about looks pretty complicated, but at least we now have some concrete explanations for a lot of election results.

-- The absence of the local team in the NBA postseason means that the amount of time I will spend following said post-season is a function of several variables, all of which approach zero.

-- The Minnesota state legislature put the kibosh on using sales taxes to build a sports stadium, with lawmakers pointing out that the scheme basically made visitors to the town where the stadium was to be built pay for it. Not bad for a state that elected Al Franken.

-- New York City is going to spend ten billion dollars for a bus station. I got nothin'; I'm just flipping out over the idea of building costs that require eleven digits.

-- Correlation, as we know, does not equal causation. But what's causation? Nick Barrowman at New Atlantis does some digging, and surprise, it's not as simple as people seem to like to say.

Friday, April 17, 2015

ALMA Starts Looking

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile has started its observations, with scientists aiming the sprawling array of antennae at known objects to calibrate it.

And it's already started finding things -- at the young star HL Tau it detected concentric rings inside the disc of gas that's probably condensing into planets. That means it's seeing where the planets will probably be whenever they finish forming, which will likely be several million years from now. It measured some surface features on the asteroid Juno by using its array to detect the light the asteroid itself emits rather than the sunlight it reflects (that light is in a part of the spectrum we can't see, which is why a standard telescope wouldn't spot it).

If this is what ALMA is finding while it's being tuned up, I am going to make sure my subscription to Astronomy magazine doesn't run out any time in the next twenty-five years, because it's going to be awesome.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Forward Movement

Inertia is a physical object's tendency to move forward in a straight line once it's started moving, unless some outside force acts on it. It's why your car rocks slightly forward when you brake at a stop sign, or why you will take an extra step or two before coming to a complete halt from a fast run.

It's also as plausible an explanation as any other for how Harlan Coben's latest novel, The Stranger, got written.

Adam Price is an attorney with a wonderful wife and two teenage sons. At a bar one evening, a stranger approaches him and tells him a secret about his wife Corinne that he at first refuses to believe. But it gnaws at him until he checks into it and learns the stranger, who more or less vanished after the revelation, was right. Adam confronts Corinne, who admits to part of the accusation but insists on waiting until tomorrow before revealing all. Then she disappears, and Adam begins looking for her or for the stranger himself, hoping there will be a connection that will lead him to her.

Coben has made a field out of the idea of the solid citizen's life turned upside-down by buried secrets and the impact these secrets have on a family. But with The Stranger, his field has become a rut that he shows no signs of trying to leave; it's easily one of the laziest efforts yet from an author who has flirted with that problem before. His protagonists are interchangeable with the same people who headlined earlier books and other characters are bargain-basement ciphers selected to do the bare minimum necessary to keep the sputtering story shambling forward. A ruthless villain kills innocent people to cover a secret but his desire to protect money that could help his son survive cancer helps him justify his crimes. And helps Coben fill a couple of pages with a hospital visit. The stranger himself has motives that seem noble in his own odd view of the world but Coben can't even be bothered to type enough quote marks to put that explanation into a conversation; it's just an internal monologue that commits the old sin of telling instead of showing.

There's never a satisfactory explanation for why Corinne wanted to wait a day to explain everything, just one of the plot holes Coben leaves in this mess of novel. Others would require spoiling the plot, and I've enjoyed some of Coben's books too much to do that. Plus, if I just leave it alone, the same inertia that led to such a bland piece of work will probably keep it headed away from me, and that's a darn good thing.
At the end of The Counterfeit Agent, John Wells and his friend Ellis Schafer found themselves having solved one problem only to face another: The United States government believed that a kilo of enriched uranium supposedly uncovered by the CIA was from Iran, which was planning to use it to build nuclear weapons. But Wells and his friend Ellis Schafer, along with their former boss Vinny Duto, know the uranium was not from Iran and a shadowy conspiracy was trying to maneuver the U.S. into war with Iran. They have 12 days to find out where the uranium came from, convince the President he's wrong and avert a U.S. invasion of Iran.

Twelve Days picks the story up where Agent left off. Wells will use his skills in the field, Ellis his remaining access at CIA headquarters and Duto his political pull as a United States senator to try to unravel the conspiracy and prevent war. The deadline makes an excellent tension builder, as Wells finds himself dealing with Russian arms merchants and crime bosses, Saudi royalty and terrorists and a range of unsavory characters in between as he tracks the uranium and its supplier. Berenson uses this built-in feature well, but the book as a whole feels stretched, as though incidents and conversations happen that seem mostly to fill out pages. Especially given that it's the second part of a two-book story, Twelve Days feels overlong and meanders a good deal more than it ought.

While Berenson makes much more use of Wells' Islamic faith than he has in the past and includes a couple of nice grace note scenes that play off it, he also makes the uncomfortable move of having his main villain -- who's already known when the story starts, so no spoilers here -- a super-wealthy Jewish man manipulating U.S. intelligence agencies on behalf of Israel and who used his wealth to buy influence in U.S. elections. He doesn't do this in the ham-handed style common to the back alleys of anti-Semitic "novels" that can be found in all too many places, but the parallels are enough to warrant a grimace of ick.

Twelve Days is serviceable enough as a thriller and represents no real drop in quality in the Wells series. But its a-little-too-close-to-seamy storyline and padded narrative make it one of the least interesting volumes in that series, and suggest a good outing for number 10 would be an excellent idea for both the retired agent Wells and the man chronicling his exploits.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Sometimes, Bad Is Bad

Over at Nautilus, we find blogger Jim Davies writing about a study in which people were examined on what factors influenced their opinion of whether or not songs were "good" or "bad."

One of those factors, interestingly enough, is how often the song had already been downloaded. In other words, if people thought that a song had been selected by more people than themselves, they considered it a better song. That same factor influenced them even when the researchers cheated and artificially inflated the numbers for songs that had not been frequently downloaded. So in other words, if I like crappy music, it's not my fault. It's everybody else's fault who liked it first.

I can live with that.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Return of the Son of the Show That Never Ends

So Sunday, as I'm watching Jordan Spiel hit a golf ball fewer times than anyone else in Georgia, I try to flip to another channel during a commercial. I am greeted by a black screen, with the notice, "One moment, please. This channel should be working shortly," followed by some kind of error recognition code. This, as anyone who has dealt with CableOne before knows, is not true. The warning blinks a couple of times but the proper channel never comes on.

Back to the Masters, which comes through just fine. Back to the other channel, which is still lying to me that it will come on soon. Its neighbors also lie to me, as do all of the channels down to the National Geographic, meaning I can watch half of the channels I can usually watch -- and for which, incidentally, I pay CableOne for the opportunity to so do.

I call the service department and actually don't have to wait long before I speak with a service technician. He tries a couple of fixes from his end, which do not work. The error recognition code, by the way, is not something he requests. It is apparently meaningless, much like CableOne's promise to provide television service.

We try one last fix -- the traditional unplug the power supply, disconnect the cable, then reconnect them and turn them back on. This also does not work. Channels from the low end through the middle of my TV guide work, but the others do not. The technician says he will need to schedule a service call. We get the information, which includes me changing the phone number they call since I have a job and can't easily wait around my house all day.

"It looks like the soonest I can get a slot is the 16th," he says.

"Thursday?" I ask. "I'm calling you on Sunday and the earliest that someone can come fix this is Thursday?"

"Well, yes, that's the earliest one is available." After telling the technician that he has done a good job trying to help me but his company is pathetic and a four-day delay in a service call is the kind of thing that makes customers of other companies, I say go ahead and schedule it, my choices being limited.

This means that I will not receive the service for which I pay CableOne, but I know better than to ask if they will discount my bill. It's not because I believe they are unconcerned with the reality that I will pay for something I don't receive. They are, but that's not the reason.

It's because I believe that no one working at CableOne could handle the necessary math. Not that they couldn't handle the math of trying to pro-rate everyone's bill who has an interruption of service. I mean I don't believe anyone there could handle the actual pencil-and-paper math of figuring out what fraction of channels I pay for were working, how long they weren't working and apply that discount to the amount I pay for their service.

Now come on, you say. That's a little much, isn't it? Perhaps. But God's' existence I will take on faith. The ability of CableOne supervisors, directors and executives to do sixth-grade math will require proof.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Found It!

Well, I knew the day was missing something, and it was just bugging the fire out of me, not letting me sleep or have any rest. Then, after searching the internet, my question was answered:
How to entangle nearly 3000 atoms using a single photon
Ah, sweet sleep, now I come to you...

Sunday, April 12, 2015

From the Rental Vault: Serangoon Road

Again, some spoilers below for the HBO Asia series Serangoon Road. Folks who would like to learn how some things turn out in the show the old-fashioned way should wait before reading.
Singapore in 1964 was a small island state about to start down a path that would get very big very quickly. Its citizens, a mix of ethnic Chinese and Malaysians with some Australian and English residents, were close to gaining independence from Malaysia despite interference from Great Britain, who plan to turn over Singapore's governance to its citizens, but on their own terms.

Into this the 2013 show Serangoon Road throws Sam Callaghan, an Australian who as a boy during World War II was held captive by Japanese invaders in the infamous Changi prison camp. Sam grew up in Singapore and still lives there, running an import-export business with his friend Kang. By chance, he finds himself using his long contacts with several different communities to help Patricia Cheng solve a case for her late husband, the detective Winston Cheng. Patricia needs the agency to stay open in order to have a livelihood, and so Callaghan eventually agrees to help her out more regularly. He's also trying to balance an affair with Claire Simpson, the wife of Australian businessman Frank Simpson. Patricia's niece Su Ling does office work for the agency and she finds herself attracted to American "cultural attache" (CIA agent) Conrad Harrison, who is backstopping the CIA in its growing involvement in Vietnam.

This should be the recipe for some entertaining fun, mixing the Mad Men-era with some cultural exploration and political intrigue. It only simmers, though, and never boils. Australian TV veteran Don Hany has a craggy charisma as Sam, but the problem is that Sam himself is a self-interested homewrecker and Claire is a bland and boring twerp. That's not really actress Maeve Demody's fault as much as it is the series scripts, which only occasionally call on her to do anything other than sleep with Sam or gaze longingly at him while in the company of her husband. Frank's excessive travel for his company gives Claire and Sam the window for their trysts, but the show never offers a good reason for Claire to want to leave her husband for Sam -- he doesn't abuse her, he's kind and obviously cares about her even if he has a 1960s attitude about what wives do when their husbands are at work (not much, and enjoy the inactivity). The one season of Serangoon Road that's filmed so far ends with Sam first professing his love for Claire, then deciding she doesn't fit in Singapore and then declaring his love for her again. Only at the very end does Claire take a little charge of her own fate when she decides to try to make her marriage work and leave Singapore with Frank, and most of that process happens off-screen.

Far more interesting are the minor characters of Su Ling and Conrad Harrison. Pamelyn Chee as Su Ling is a hoot, frostily rebuffing Conrad at first even though she is obviously interested and making him work for an opportunity to spend time with her. Australian Michael Dorman manages to be just about as American as Richie Cunningham and begins to show some layers of potential as the season moves along. First he goes out of his way to hide Su Ling's connection to some of the radical elements seeking a Communist takeover of Singapore, then winds up playing a much bigger game of espionage when British intelligence agents uncover his work and blackmail him for information. The pair are miles more entertaining than Sam and Claire, and a show that focused some more on them might have drummed up enough interest for a second season.

Whether or not Serangoon Road accurately reflects 1960s Singapore is probably a question best left to those who were there -- the real-life neighborhood portrayed in the show looks nothing like it did then and episodes were shot in Indonesia. It relies on stock characters a little more often than it should, such as ruthless Chinese tong gangsters and thinly-veiled racist authority figures. Although Su Ling wears modern (for the time) dress, Patricia Cheng and many of the other female Asian characters tart up in the usual cheongsam silk dresses, slit along the seam to a height appropriate to the virtue of their station and character. Sam and most of the other Anglo male characters seem to have skipped the time in wardrobe set aside to give them period hairstyles. And while there's a healthy portion of American and British intelligence skullduggery, the supposed turmoil of the times is mostly background except in an episode or two.

Serangoon Road represents a lot of failed opportunities and missed chances -- it could have really blended the intrigue of its era into its stories, it could have made Sam less of a selfish dork, it could have used his horrific time in Changi as something other than a marketing hook and a once-every-other-episode flashback, it could have made Claire more interesting than a sheet of paper, it could have eschewed Sam and Claire entirely for Su Ling and Conrad, it could have woven its central search for Winston Cheng's killer into more of its storyline than the last episode and a half, and so on. Unless show creators give some indication that they want to make some moves along those lines, then there's not much reason to mourn that it ended after only one season.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

It's a (Very Very Very Very) High Pop Fly!

Astronaut Terry Virts, currently working aboard the International Space Station, has been taking a few photographs.

Virts is snapping shots of every major league ballpark as seen from his vantage point about 200 miles up, orbiting the earth. While this purpose may not be in the mission statement of the ISS or of the different nations which furnish its personnel, its importance cannot be overstated.

Friday, April 10, 2015

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lawrencium?

You'd figure an element with a half-life of 27 seconds shouldn't cause that much trouble. But some recent experiments with the heavy radioactive element lawrencium have been giving scientists some furrowed brows as they try to figure out just where the heck it belongs on the well-known periodic table.

Lawrencium -- named after Ernest Lawerence, who invented the cyclotron particle accelerator -- is one of those elements that doesn't appear in nature. That's because of that short half-life issue. "Half-life" is a term that scientists use to describe how long it takes for half of the atoms in any given amount of an element to decay into another element. If you put a pound of plutonium-238 in the cupboard today (which you probably shouldn't), you would open your cupboard door in late 2107 to find half a pound of plutonium-238 and some other stuff. With a half-life of 27 seconds, lawrencium is here today and gone well before tomorrow. These elements have existed in nature but have long since decayed into their other forms.

But by using high-energy particle accelerators and shooting exotic elements at each other, some of these rare atoms can be created long enough to be studied. So we can take a quick look at lawrencium and how it behaves. The experiments described in the Nature story resulted in an ionized form of lawrencium, which is what physicists and chemists call it when an element that still has all its protons and neutrons misplaces an electron somewhere.

The problem is that lawrencium shouldn't have ionized as it did, if it matches the other elements in its area of the periodic table. Rather than just being a random listing of those elements, the periodic table is designed to show relationships among them. Elements in certain columns will react in similar ways in similar experiments, for example, even though they are distinct elements. Some scientists say the results of the lawrencium experiment, which showed it ionizing at a very low energy level, should group it with elements on one side of the periodic table, but others point to reasons why the same experiments ought to group it on another side.

Of course, all the fuss over an element that requires a massively expensive particle accelerator and some other artificially-created elements just to show up for a few seconds would seem to be much ado about nothing. After all, few of us have to retain much knowledge about the periodic table once we've moved on from chemistry class, and those that do always seem to have a great pull-down version at the front of the classroom to which they can refer. But the periodic table was drawn the way it was because of relationships that exist among elements. In other words, the elements produced the format of the chart, not the other way round. So an element that doesn't fit where it might otherwise seem to means there are some things that still need to be figured out about the world.

And that's always interesting news. Or at least it should be.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Making Points

There is a fairly widespread belief on the part of many conservative thinkers and opinion-givers (as on the left, the two groups do not have complete overlap) that more liberal and progressive politicians can be just as obtuse, insulting and derogatory when dealing with women as the usual suspects on the right can be.

Townhall news editor Katie Pavlich makes that case at some length in her summer 2014 release Assault and Flattery. She argues that the political machinery of the Democratic party is not automatically pro-woman and that in fact some liberal politicians and opinion-givers support legislation that can be harmful to them. Such positions and legislation go unexamined, Pavlich says, because many women's issue groups have supported the Democratic party for so long they have become too invested with it to see the problem.

Pavlich's takeoff point for her book was probably the "War on Women" theme used effectively against many Republican politicians in the 2012 election. She was somewhat overtaken by events, though, when that same strategy fizzled in the 2014 midterm elections and the GOP retook the Senate and strengthened its lead in the House of Representatives. She notes that comedian Bill Cosby, a longtime supporter of President Barack Obama, was frequently "given a pass" on allegations of his assaults on women because of that connection. Obviously, recent events have changed that state of affairs -- Cosby is the target of a platoon of accusations and is having to struggle to repair his image.

Assault and Flattery probably could have been a good long-form magazine piece. As a book, it references many events that aren't all that far in the past and so its central premise will probably not age well. The problem may still exist -- people who want power will probably always be willing to make deals with their respective devils no matter what side of the political divide they are on. Women's issue groups will support some men who do not treat women well because when in office, they support legislation the groups want supported, just the same as Wall Street trading firms will support politicians who blast them with rhetoric as long as their voting records tip in the right direction. But Pavlich's examples will fade out of the public eye and carry much less weight than they do now.

Pavlich's subject matter and pedigree may echo that of more senior conservative women writers such as Michelle Malkin or Ann Coulter, and she speaks from a definite point of view -- she is a Fox News contributor and National Review Washington Fellow, after all. But Assault and Flattery lacks the bombast and high-octane vitriol those authors place on their pages. Her questions about the issues she's discussing read more like genuine inquiry than verbal one-upsmanship, and even if she overwrites her argument more than once, her demonstrably more irenic tone makes exploring her viewpoint a lot easier, whether a reader agrees with it or not.
Rodney Stark is the Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University and has a long career of works investigating various aspects of modern society and Western civilization, including how the latter came to be, He distilled much of that career in his 2014 How the West Won, writing about what the subtitle refers to  as the "neglected history" of the "triumph of modernity."

Stark's thesis is that features of Western civilization such as rule of law, private property rights and the rights of individual citizens helped create the environment for the most effective use and exploitation of scientific, technological and political advances. Even if the nations of Western Civ didn't invent or discover something -- as in the case of gunpowder, for example -- they did a better job of developing it and maximizing its use. The autocratic rulers of Imperial China hamstrung any real work with this game-changing new substance, while the armies of Western nations turned fireworks into artillery.

Although the concepts involved originated in the city-states of Greece, Stark says that Greek slavery slowed their advance. They gained more ground during the Roman Republic, but stagnated during the years of the empire because of its massive size and dominating nature. The breakup of that empire actually started things rolling again, as even the most autocratic rulers faced the reality that they couldn't completely dominate their people and nobles and needed some degree of cooperation in order to rule. He offers ideas on how the Middle Ages, Lutheran Reformation, the age of exploration and other historical conditions either fueled or dampened the progress of these ideals.

It's not likely that Stark's views will persuade everyone. Gandhi was supposed to have been asked once what he though of Western Civilization and is supposed to have said it "would be an excellent idea," and folks who work from that perspective will not find themselves supported by Stark's presentation of history. It's certainly possible that he cheerleads too much, and perhaps the truth is somewhere in between the two ideas. Although my sympathies lead toward Stark's support of Western civilization as a great blessing to humanity, so perhaps my recommendation may not work for everyone.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Oh, Three or Four

The death of Stan Freberg marks the passing of a performer who knew the difference between satire and plain mockery, a distinction not always known or practiced by some who claim the name today. Freberg was also the voice of Pete the Puma, who could never figure out why his head ached after Bugs Bunny asked him how many lumps of sugar he wanted in his tea.

Satire is mockery with a point -- it aims to ridicule for the purpose of sparking discussion or even change. Christopher Buckley, for example, satirized the inside-the-beltway power trip mentality in The White House Mess. Jim Geraghty went after similar targets in The Weed Agency. The makers of Animal House satirized both the snobby elitism of upper-class privilege and the party-until-death mentality that passes for higher education in most colleges.

Many modern-day folks who take the label "satirist" sometimes achieve actual satire, but most of the time they're just making fun to get laughs. There's nothing really wrong with that, but unlike the satirist who might want to see things change or see a problem issue resolved, the mocker is just as happy if it keeps going because it keeps him or her supplied with material.

Freberg's dry wit and sometimes esoteric sense of humor would probably not fly on modern comedy television, but the fault of that does not lie with him.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Big Comeback

By the time I'd learned about him -- fascinated, as many elementary school boys seemed to be, by the "Terrible Lizards" called dinosaurs -- he'd been gone for some time. I learned the name "Brontosaurus" from an outdated kids' encyclopedia that didn't tell me my behemoth buddy was actually "Apatosaurus." Even though the change had been around since 1903, it seemed like no one bothered to update folks on the proper name.

The problem was that the fossils that paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh found in 1879 which he called Brontosaurus weren't significantly different from ones he found in 1877 called Apatosaurus. A man named Elmer Riggs discovered this in 1903, and scientific practice is to use the earliest name. This did not dissuade Hanna-Barbera, which had the modern stone-age family of Flintstones dine at Bedrock's Bronto Burger Drive-In rather than "Apato Burger," or others from often using the more muscular and weighty-sounding second name. And who wouldn't take "Thunder Lizard" over "Deceptive Lizard?" Still, the official and correct name of the multi-ton moss muncher remained "Apatosaurus."

Until paleontologist Emanuel Tschopp and his group exhaustively studied the Brontosaurus fossils known to exist and came up with the conclusion that Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus were in fact different animals. As the story at Scientific American notes, the study must now be investigated to see if it assesses the state of millions-of-years-old bones accurately, but Tschopp and his team actually think there were three separate kinds of Brontosauri, named Brontosaurus excelsus, Brontosaurus parvus and Brontosaurus yahnahpin. Barring some great cataclysm of mistaken data interpretation, we may see the mighty Thunder Lizard restored to the place every six-year-old knows is his due.

Hang in there, Pluto. Your turn will come.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Not Bad For a Monday

The Lord is risen.

The Royals won.

Russell Westbrook gave the car he won as the NBA All-Star Game Most Valuable Player to a single mom working to finish high school.

On this day in 1320, Scottish signatories to the Declaration of Arbroath told Pope John XXII that Edward I of England could take his weak beer, bangers and mash and whatever other atrocity his nation was wont to put on the table and go stuff them.

Not bad indeed.

Sunday, April 5, 2015


And again, the day. The only day.

Saturday, April 4, 2015






Friday, April 3, 2015

Ecce Homo

Behold the man!

A caution for anyone who thinks the world is always just, or that people are basically good and will choose the innocent over the evil, or for leaders who think that the mob can be satisfied with just a little blood. If it worked that way, "the man" in the quote could have lived a peaceful life in Nazareth or for that matter, never needed to step into creation at all.

Sunday is coming. And at the most fundamental level of reality, it already has come and we live in its light. But for too many in too much of the world, it is Friday. A moment, then, to join with them in prayer and to lift them up.

Thursday, April 2, 2015


Tonight we mark the beginning, some 2,000 years ago, of an act that simultaneously laments, mourns, celebrates and anticipates the most significant set of events in human history.

Been thinking about that all day -- probably why no bloggy thoughts showed up. Perhaps anon.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Time Lag

I'm not so sure that Plutonian life, with temps 300+ degrees below zero and occasional winds of 200+ miles per hour, would be all that agreeable in many ways.

But that four and a half hour lag before a message gets through? There are days where that would be just about the best thing ever, sliced bread included.