Saturday, February 28, 2015

If Getting It Wrong Is Wrong, I Don't Want to Be Right

Scientists often get things wrong, at least if they're doing their jobs. That's because they're investigating things they don't understand, and in so doing they have to try out different answers. Many answers may be partially right, or perhaps a given matter may have more than one completely right answer. But there are at least an equal number of answers that are flat-out wrong.

This is OK, because each wrong answer is a possibility crossed off the list and one step closer to the right answer. The wrong answer may rule out a whole area of possible answers, too, taking the search several steps ahead.

It's also possible that the experiment which found the answer wasn't properly conducted. Human beings are the ones who do experiments, even with mechanical and computerized help, so their fallibility comes into play.

The only problem, the article notes, is when scientists act just like everyone else and won't admit they're wrong or that someone made a mistake somewhere. The dimensions of a person's head tell us nothing about that person's intelligence. The Earth and the other planets of the solar system orbit the sun, not the other way round. Light doesn't propagate via luminiferous aether. And yet, all of these ideas have been at one point or another in history been taken as accurate descriptions of things in the world around us by sober and sane people who relied on the best experimental knowledge they had.

If an experiment suggests a conclusion, but repeated experiments don't back it up, then something's obviously wrong. Yet some folks, even behind the rational armor of the white lab coat, won't admit that, the article says, and choose to select the result they prefer. That way, we have seen by experimentation aplenty throughout human history, lies madness.

Friday, February 27, 2015

From the Rental Vault: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The pattern of Star Trek movies to stink up odd-numbered films but do quite a bit better as even-numbered ones was only half-established when Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer created what would become Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Gene Roddenberry's 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture had taken care of the stinker half, but there was as yet no way to know what its sequel would create.

Paramount was happy with neither the performance of the first movie nor the time-travel script series creator Roddenberry had produced for the sequel. Studio executives felt that the first film's plodding script and Roddenberry's own over-meddling as producer made the first big-screen voyage of the starship Enterprise a box-office and critical disappointment. So they promoted Roddenberry to "executive consultant," didn't consult him, brought in Bennett and Meyer and told them they had about a quarter of the first movie's budget to play with -- $11 million (It was actually about $8.5 million to start but the purse strings were loosened when execs saw and liked the initial work).

Both men approached the project like it was a movie to be made rather than an icon to be worshiped -- neither had ever watched the original TV show before working on Khan. The lack of deification helped produce one of the best of the Star Trek movies -- or, depending who you ask -- the best Star Trek movie.

Starfleet Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is traveling with the Enterprise, under command of his friend Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy), on a training voyage for new cadets. The ship receives a distress call from the space station Regula 1 and investigates, only to find that the station was attached by Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), a genetic superman who had tried to hijack the Enterprise in the television episode "Space Seed." Khan seeks access to the Genesis device, a terraforming system that can also be used as a weapon, in order to have his revenge on Kirk.

Meyer and Bennett worked the themes of aging and death into the storyline throughout, and not only in the well-discussed climax. The difference in tone from Roddenberry's optimistic viewpoint for his series, which was so upbeat it didn't allow for much thought about such things, was greeted at first with uncertainty by the cast. You could die at the drop of a hat -- especially if you wore a red shirt -- but you didn't do much reflecting on mortality. When they finally bought into it, though, they brought what were easily some of their best performances as the iconic characters. Shatner has his scenery-chomping ham blazes of glory, but some of his best moments come when he uses only his face to show his despair. DeForrest Kelley's Leonard McCoy, often the moral ballast of the show, brings that weight to his questions about the wisdom of unexamined technological advance. James Doohan's Montgomery Scott, too often relegated to almost comic technobabble laments, becomes a signal of the significant human cost of confronting evil. Montalban, so often reserved, debonair and urbane even when a villain, lets his freak flag fly as he portrays the ravaged, Ahab-like Khan, whose thirst for power has been replaced by an almost holy crusade for vengeance.

And Leonard Nimoy seems to have finally found peace with the character that defined him, showing the "emotionless Vulcan" of the television show comfortable enough in his own skin to crack jokes, poke fun at himself and indulge illogical human customs while remaining recognizable as the summer of 1982's favorite alien who didn't have a glowing fingertip. The presence of the earnest Kirstie Alley as the cadet Saavik, acting in many ways as the by-the-book Spock would have done in the past, gives him a good foil for all of these moves.

Khan didn't gross as much as the first movie did, but since it worked from a smaller budget it made Paramount much more money and has had much better staying power. Its success encouraged Paramount to continue the franchise and Nimoy enjoyed it so much he decided to participate in the series as it moved forward, as a star and a director. Although nothing was ever on record, the likelihood of a continuing franchise would not have been high if Khan had tanked the way The Motion Picture did. To say nothing of subsequent television spinoffs, a publishing empire and the current reboot. Nimoy's work in making Khan the success it was played a huge role in that future.

In a significant way, he really did save the ship. And he saved them all.

Fair solar winds, Mr. Spock, into the undiscovered country.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Particle Accelerator Available -- Some Assembly Required

A couple of the scientists who work at the Large Hadron Collider got together and designed a model of their accelerator made from LEGO bricks.

Their goal is to get enough people to support the design that the company begins to work on it officially and then may actually offer the kit for sale. But, as the story on Physics World's blog notes, you can also download a set of the instructions which tells you what kind of pieces you need and shows you how to build them.

I kind of hope they get LEGO to sign off on the project, because this would make one cool offering in the LHC gift shop. If the LHC has a gift shop, that is.

I would advise against LEGO offering a powered model of the collider, though. Just because it's smaller doesn't mean it can't create a black hole that would destroy the universe.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Miracle Examined

Earlier this week marked the 35th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice, or the United States Olympic hockey team defeating the Soviet hockey team in the semifinals. Sportswriter Joe Posnanski nosed around a little to find out 10 things that you may not (or may) have known about it.

Feel free to send this link to a Commie to darken his or her day.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

EEEE-vil!

The good folks at io9 offer a dozen tips to help you make your run as an evil wizard a much more successful one than we usually see depicted onscreen. The twelve blunders listed are usually fatal to your plans for worldwide domination and very often fatal to you yourself, should you be the aforementioned evil wizard. The list might help you to avoid the unpleasant aftereffects of said blunders, such as the aforementioned death.

Of course, you might also avoid death by not being an evil wizard but instead use your powers for good. That one didn't make the list, though.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Based on a True Story

Try this story pitch: Illegitimate son of an aristocrat and slave returns to his father's native land to live the life of a privileged son until the surrounding revolutionary fervor convinces him to volunteer as a buck private -- who will rise to the rank of general by the time seven years have passed and be feared by his nation's enemies while lauded by its leaders. Then treachery on the part of jealous men results in his imprisonment and obscurity upon being freed.

Sound like a tough sell? It has the advantage of actually happening. Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie was born in 1762 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, later known as Haiti. His father was Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a minor French nobleman who returned to France after a 30-year sojourn under the radar in Saint-Domingue accompanied by a tall, handsome and undeniably African young man who was later found to be his son by a woman named Marie-Cessette Dumas. Marie had been Alexandre's slave in Saint-Domingue, and although he claimed to have married her, he sold her and two children to another farmer before returning to France. For reasons of his own, when the young Thomas-Alexandre embarked on his military career, he began using only the second part of his first name and took his mother's surname, rising to fame and honor as Alexandre Dumas. He would name his third child and only son the same, and that young man grew to some fame himself as a novelist.

Prior to Tom Reiss's 2012 biography The Black Count, the historical record on General Dumas was spotty and relied heavily on the versions promoted by his son. The only trouble there was that the elder Dumas perished when the younger was only four, and most of the versions of events relayed by the son are significantly influenced by the kind of hero-worship a four-year-old boy maintains of his father. Reiss began with that information, adding in and correcting as he uncovered mentions of General Dumas in military correspondence of the time. He eventually located a cache of material about as well as by the General, which helped round out the personal details of his life.

General Dumas and other mixed-race persons like him were known in Revolutionary France as "Americans," given that most of them had a parent or at least a grandparent who was either a slave or African-descended freedman or freedwoman from France's New World colonies. Several such officers combined to serve in the "Free Legion of Mixed Americans," which earned approval and fame for its daring and risky operations and became known as The Black Legion, both in reference to its members and the fear and despair it inspired in its enemies. Reiss details how the French Revolution itself, in one of the few things it got right (my words and not his), eliminated some of the restrictive segregationist laws on its books. Given this move and Dumas' acumen as a military leader, it isn't surprising that he dedicated himself to fighting for the idea of republic-style government both in France and in neighboring countries. His courage on the battlefield, strategic genius and determination helped Republican France conquer territory in Italy where it set up new democratic governments.

But as Napoleon Bonaparte began to use the new government's own ambivalence and tendency to dither against it in order to gain and consolidate power, Dumas' dedication to the ideals of the Republic would prove a source of friction between them. Napoleon didn't move against Dumas directly, but when a shipwreck on the journey home from Egypt put Dumas in enemy hands, the rapidly-rising "First Consul" of France didn't do much to win his freedom, either. Dumas was imprisoned for two years, almost completely incommunicado -- as though he had vanished from the Earth. The novelist son would use the theme of unjust imprisonment to advance the fortunes of the unscrupulous as the theme for his 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo.

Reiss's research and determination uncovered an absolutely fascinating story of an absolutely fascinating man -- the highest-ranking officer of African descent in the military of any Western nation until Gen. Daniel James Jr. received his fourth star in the United States Air Force in 1975. His writing style is a little breezier than most biographies and includes probably a little more room than necessary for his own little asides. But his thorough explanation of the life and economics of French colonial Haiti, racial politics and cultural feelings in France leading up to the Revolution of 1789 and of the wastrel role played by General Dumas' father more than makes up for this minor quibble.

Reiss justifiably won the 2013 Pulitzer Price for Biography or Autobiography, and as of late 2014, The Black Count was in development as a movie. He successfully manages to make his subject, General Alexandre Dumas, both the larger-than-life hero he became in the pages of his son's novels and the real man he was. The Black Count is worthy of the effort Reiss put into it and worth the time to take a few afternoons and read it.

Whether you like swashbuckling adventurers or not.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

You'd Like Us to Think That, Wouldn't You?

This photo of the Crescent Nebula (NGC 6888) is the Feb. 22 pic for Astronomy magazine's "Astronomy Picture of the Day:"





























At least, that's what Astronomy would like its readers to believe. Thought the idea that it's a giant brain coming straight at us from outer space to control all of our brains would slip right past, us, eh? Too bad; we're wise to your plans now, and scientists will begin developing two giant aspirin to lull this Galactic Space Brain into oblivion.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Shh! Someone's Listening!

The early weeks of most states' legislative sessions are filled with bills that do more pandering than actual legislating. Legislators introduce measures they know have little chance of passage, so they can tell constituents they did make an effort to have President Obama outlawed within their borders (or, ten years ago, President Bush), but the opposition was just too strong. Some more fringe lawmakers introduce their own pet issue for true-believer reasons, but they're fringe for a reason and those measures don't pass either.

In our own fair state, we have recently had a proposed extension of a 95-year-old ban on disguising oneself in public, which allowed everyone to have a good snicker at the RAC!ST!! ideology supposedly behind it. The original law was aimed at hood-wearing Klansmen, and the presence of the word "hood" allowed the measure to instantly become "a law banning 'hoodies,' or hooded sweatshirts." Recently, a lawmaker who wanted the state to examine its Advanced Placement course offerings and de-fund them if they didn't meet certain standards morphed in popular understanding into a knuckle-dragging mouth-breather who wanted to ban AP History in school.

Neither measure was very smart, neither measure had much chance of passage, and neither measure was well-served by either its supporters or its opponents. The former proved not up to the task of explaining why their rather half-baked ideas should be en-statutized, and the latter proved much more interested in mocking stereotypes perceived in the supporters than engaging in actual argument about the substance of the measure or the issue behind it.

So now we have another gem, this one from a former law enforcement officer who would very much like to remove a good bit of information from that which is available for public inspection. He chairs the committee which heard the bill, and re-structured the original objectionable proposal written by a member of the opposition party. In other words, this is a genuinely bipartisan piece of crap. It would increase the costs of obtaining those records -- in fact, a government agency could charge you for marking out what it's not allowed to disclose, like juvenile arrest records. It would remove the presumption that video records are available unless certain conditions are met and switch much more of the burden on those who ask to see them to demonstrate their need for such.

As the story notes, laws passed in last year's session could have included these exemptions if they were thought necessary, and law enforcement agencies apparently didn't because they didn't ask for them.

There are no fun and snarky memes about this measure as yet, and I doubt that any will show up. It catches no national undercurrent like all of the hoodie wearing that accompanied Trayvon Martin protests, and it provides no Stewart-ready giggling about how ignorant folks aim to make sure their ignorance is passed on. I personally don't think it will pass or be signed into law, and even if it was I think it would draw lawsuits out the wazoo as soon as someone tried to enforce it. But it would be nice if all of the people interested in State House committee proceedings over the last few weeks could stretch their attention span past the 140-character limit long enough to look at what could be a truly dangerous measure if actually enacted.

(H/T Dustbury)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Murder and Mayhem

Faye Kellerman's 22nd Decker/Lazarus mystery opens with former LAPD detective Peter Decker now on board in an upstate New York small-town department. He and wife Rina Lazarus have moved east to be closer to their extended families as well as their grown children and grandchildren. Rina's adapted well, but the slow pace of small-town police work is not energizing Decker. His partner, an abrasive young man of wealth, doesn't help much. So when a cemetery break-in leads the pair to a theft of Tiffany glass art panels, and from there to the murder of an art student, Decker is more than ready to dive into the case in Murder 101.

As is customary with Faye Kellerman's books, the story has a large role for family connections, among the detectives as well as the suspects. She weaves the dynamics of different family relationships into the interrogations, theorizing and investigations the detectives must do, and has Decker reassemble some of his LAPD "family" as well for the sleuthing. The solution will burrow deep into the world of high-dollar art theft, heirlooms and items stolen from Jewish families during WWII and organized crime.

Murder 101 is pretty much straightforward procedural with the usual flavor of family interplay and details of Orthodox Jewish life. Kellerman has been doing this for many years, but because she still does it well and continues to cover new ground even in familiar territory, it's worth the effort to follow the Deckers from Los Angeles to Greenbury, NY.
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Before Clive Cussler and his "co-authors" worked themselves into a several-books-a-year publishing schedule, as much as three years would elapse between the adventures of National Underwater and Marine Agency scientist, adventurer and Square-Jawed Hero Dirk Pitt. So although Night Probe came out eight years after Pitt debuted, it's only the fifth Pitt adventure and we can see Cussler still working on his storytelling groove.

Set in 1989, seven years after the publication date, we find a United States on the verge of economic collapse because of the depletion of Middle Eastern oil supplies and the lack of native-generated alternatives. Almost a quarter of the nation depends on power generated by a massive Canadian hydroelectric plant, but Canada faces the possibility of Quebec seceding from the nation and causing the kind of chaos a precariously-balanced situation doesn't need.

Into the mix comes US Navy officer and researcher Heidi Milligan, who has found evidence of a mysterious U.S.- Great Britain "North American Treaty" from 1914 that seems to have disappeared from all public record. Milligan's work brings the treaty to the notice of the president, who directs NUMA and Pitt to locate copies believed to have sunk in the St. Lawrence River after a horrific train accident in 1914. Great Britain, on the other hand, would rather the treaty stay buried and so recalls retired agent Brian Shaw to learn what Milligan knows and stop the recovery.

There's quite a bit of skullduggery amongst the various parties of Quebecois separatists, high-level domestic intrigue and bed-hopping, British military secret missions and et cetera and et cetera. Cussler wildly overplots the story and overindulges himself with characters, villainy and geopolitical gamesmanship and commentary that he's not particularly equipped to handle -- one notes the fact that Middle Eastern oil reserves did not run out in the early 1990s, for example.

It would be a few books later before Cussler took his strengths -- action scenes, underwater exploration and maritime and oceanographic expertise and straight-ahead, no-frills talespinning -- and drilled down to keep them in the forefront of the Pitt adventures. Night Probe shows a number of those already present, but mires them in way too much et cetera to rank much above middling in the series.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Show Biz Iz Stoopid, Part Bunch-of-X's-and-V's

So Sunday is the broadcast of the 2014 awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), better known as the Oscars. The show itself will be a huge smash or amazingly bad failure, depending on who you read or listen to, and at least as much attention will be paid to what people are wearing as to the actual awards themselves.

Some of the awards will be the exact right choices, while some will be egregious mistakes. Some will be both at the same time, again depending on who you pay attention to. Other than kind of hoping Michael Keaton brings home one of the little golden twerps for his role in the otherwise WTH? Birdman, I've got no real preferences. Although if an American Sniper win caused Michael Moore to drop his gravy bowl on his foot (complex arcs, angles and ricochets would be involved), that would be kind of cool.

A story in USA Today details just how dumb some of this soiree winds up being -- a fellow named Lash Fary -- really -- heads up an outfit called Distinctive Assets, which puts together "swag bags" for the celebs at the show. Actually, the bags go to the actors who lose in their categories -- apparently losing writers, directors and producers have to console themselves on their own dime -- and this year's packages would go for $167,000 if all of the items were purchased retail.

The likelihood that some of these items would be purchased retail by some of the nominees is remote, however, as neither Robert Duvall nor Meryl Streep seems the type to purchase orgasm booster shots or laser sex toys (my search engine hits just got a wee bit outré).

AMPAS is clear that the work of Distinctive Assets is not an officially recognized part of the Academy Awards show. Given the nomination of The Grand Budapest Hotel for Best Picture, it's nice to have it confirmed that the Academy does have some standards after all.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Making Ready

From dust you came, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe in the gospel.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

No Barriers

When there's snow halfway up the door and you want to come inside, you could clamber up to the top and jump in.

Or you could do it this way:

video

The original may be found here.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-zzzzzzz...

This writer at Forces of Geek suggests what a person should really do if he or she is gifted with the abilities and resources attributed to Bruce Wayne, better known as Batman.

The upshot is that Batman's decision to don cape and cowl, create fantastic gadgetry and pursue a one-man obsessive war against crime in Gotham City does not maximize those abilities and resources. The writer lists four things that he could choose to do that would have a better impact on Gotham's crime rates than polishing off thugs with a well-aimed Bat-boot to the head.

He is probably right. Any of the four suggestions at the link would be wise choices. The problem is the one he leaves out, the fifth course of action that would accompany any of the others: Be boring. Be really, really frickin' boring.

Because I have it on the authority of numerous internet memes that if one has the option of being Batman, one should always be Batman.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

After Jack...

We know Jack the Ripper as a figure of history, and often seem to see him in isolation from the environment where he worked -- the cruel streets of the Whitechapel district in East London. But crime went on in Whitechapel before the Ripper killed (probably) five prostitutes in 1888, and it continued after he seemed to have vanished.

Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, aided by Detective Sergeant Bennett Drake and the American surgeon Capt. Homer Jackson, pursues these criminals in the BBC drama Ripper Street, which originally aired on that network in 2012 and 2013, and then streaming a third "series," as the English term what we call "seasons," on Amazon.

I'll do my best not to be spoilery, but I may tread past what you like to know about your entertainment before you catch it. Fair warning!

Matthew Mcfadyen, a veteran English actor probably best known as the best things about the big-time duds Robin Hood in 2010 and The Three Musketeers in 2011, plays Reid, who was an actual person in charge of the Whitechapel district of the London Metropolitan Police. The showmakers tinker with his history somewhat, mostly in regards to his family situation. Reid's reliable right-hand man is Bennett Drake, a former British Army soldier who came from hard beginnings and knows Whitechapel's criminal element well based on his own similar past experiences. Jerome Flynn, known to many American viewers as Bronn on HBO's Game of Thrones, plays Drake. American actor Adam Rothenberg plays the surgeon Jackson, whose medical and scientific expertise help Reid solve crimes that previously might have remained mysteries. But Jackson has a secret of his own, and it links him to brothel owner "Long" Susan Hart, played by MyAnna Buring. Charlene McKenna as Rose Erskine, one of Long Susan's prostitutes, and Amanda Hale as Edmund's wife Emily Reid round out the main cast for the eight episodes of series one.

Six months after the most recent Ripper murder, the officers and detectives of H Division have little respect from the people of Whitechapel -- they failed to find the killer and seem to be able to do little to stem the other crime of their district. Reid, whose methodical and meticulous observations of crime scenes often lead him to clues others miss, works the streets of his area with that failure -- and perhaps another one, more personal -- hanging over his head. It keeps him virtually separated from his wife, Emily, who has thrown her time into church work that Reid neither understands or condones. Drake's own haints are memories of bloody times in service of Her Majesty and worries he may be too damaged to live the life he wants. And the libertine Jackson seems clearly to use his quest for earthly satiation not as a balm for weariness, but as a hideout from heavy burdens.

The show's first series moved in fits and starts before hitting stride a couple of episodes in. Mcfadyen, Hale, Flynn and later McKenna quickly demonstrated their skills by creating characters who were interesting and about whom viewers could care. Rothenberg and Buring could keep up, but they were clearly the weak links in the cast and episodes that hinged on them were not that series' strong points. Ripper Street averaged about 6.75 million viewers in its first series and earned a renewal.

Which wound up being a disaster, as the second series abandoned the characterizations which had connected with audiences in favor of serving up a parable-of-the-week on how unenlightened and backward those Victorians were and an overarching storyline that faded from existence after the second episode and only came back in the two-part finale. The soapy elements that were the major wrinkles in series one were doubled over. Hale, in fact, looked at what the season was supposed to have in store for Emily Reid and said, "No thanks." Showrunners decided to write her absence into the storyline instead of recasting the role, and that was also the wrong decision. The subplot with Jackson and Long Susan never convinces, which may be something unavoidable in a run limited to eight episodes. But it also falls on the lesser skills of Rothenberg and Buring. The cast all tried to sell the weak product but couldn't; Ripper Street's series 2 debut was watched by 6.45 million people but later episodes never broke 6 million (and the second half of the series never broke 5 million). The low point was the first half of the series finale, which barely topped 4 million viewers -- probably because it followed the worst episode of the show, "A Stronger Loving World." That outing was filled with mystical mush spouted by a character never met before that time that no one cared about and may have been the final blow. A tepid rebound for the finale couldn't paper over how the show had lost almost a third of its first series viewers, and BBC canceled it.

But wait! Amazon made a deal to produce a third series, which aired on its UK site in the fall of 2014. It's supposed to be on sale on DVD sometime this year, but if you hunt around for it you can purchase it legally. And of course you can find it illegally but you shouldn't. In either event, it picks up about three years after the end of series two and finds our protagonists separated and sundered. But as Drake returns with an offer of being put in charge of H Division, he finds himself enmeshed in a horrible train collision that kills more than 50 Whitechapel residents. He joins Reid, who has retreated even more into his work, in trying to determine what brought about a robbery that might have played a role in the crash and who was behind it. They enlist the help of Jackson, who has been even more estranged from Reid after a falling-out between them. Long Susan, going now by her chosen name Susan Hart, has become a power player in the area as well, using her newfound wealth to try to better living conditions and such for the people of East London. An unexpected recovery brings both hope and horror to Reid, however, and will put his life at risk due to an equally unexpected betrayal.

Series three starts out promisingly, but about halfway in adopts series two's worst habits of preachiness and silly soap-operatic arias. It relies far too heavily on Buring, who is not at all a bad actress but nowhere near good enough to carry the load the storyline gives her. The seeming left turn in the middle of the main storyline rings false and the showrunners can't pull the trigger of allowing the Big Bad of the series to really be evil -- the finale closes with a comeuppance given to someone whose minor role in the series to date doesn't warrant it. It hangs the Drake-Rose retread with one or two too-many characters in order to stir interest but never really does anything with them. Other than the first handful of episodes, no. 6, "The Incontrovertible Truth," is the standout. Its twisty psychological storyline, emphasis on detective skills and odd bits of humor offer a good picture of what Ripper Street might have been without the mess of series two irreversibly crippling it.

The suggestion from here is to watch series one and leave the other two to the completists. But if for some reason you do watch series two, then by all means track down three in order to wash the taste out of your brain. A fourth series seems unlikely, but at least three puts most of the characters in a well-deserved conclusion that rings more true to who they are. There's an exception, but there's no way to get into that without ruining the whole thing.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Nice Ice Baby

Photographer Nicholas Brousse of Sweden took a trip to Iceland and brought his camera. He snapped a couple of photos ice melting from the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull, from underneath and inside. They look like this one:












More photos can be found here.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Never Is Heard...

...a more discouraging word, than "required training."

Thus today is a day of unbloggening. Until tomorrow!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Make Mine Scrambled

Fire up the hens, boys! Eggs won't kill you!

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has taken cholesterol off the list of things that are automatically bad for you if you are an otherwise healthy person. Cholesterol, like just about anything already in our bodies or in our food, can cause you problems if you have too much of it already or if you consume too much of it, but isn't necessarily the One Ring of Dietary Substances.

The interesting thing to me is that the guideline is one of incredibly long standing -- the Washington Post story points to concerns being raised as early as 1961. But in recent years, information has shown that not only is there a kind of cholesterol that the body needs in order to function well, it actually produces cholesterol itself. Plus, regulating cholesterol amounts can create other chemical imbalances that present their own problems. The science of cholesterol effects and management, which was considered by many to be settled in some way, instead progressed as continued experiments and research uncovered new information.

Science, properly considered, isn't ever really "settled," since it involves asking questions about what is known as well as what is unknown. Which gives great hope to those of us who love Twinkies and French fries.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How Many Stars Am I Holding Up?

Probably more than once an astronomer or two has finished his or her observations of the immense universe, felt in some way a little bit overwhelmed by said immensity and said, in time-honored fashion, "I need a belt."

To the rescue comes the Barge Inn of Wiltshire, UK, which has been granted permission to build an astronomical observatory next to its current lot. The observation dome will accommodate up to 20 people at a time using its 14-inch telescope. Patrons of the two-century old pub may also observe the telescope's sights on screens which will be installed inside.

Access to the telescope will be with the traditional staircase and observation walkways, although I might have thought they would fix the eyepiece so that it could be used from a prone position on the ground. Apparently, pub regulars are better able to hold their pints and will not need such an unusual configuration.

The story doesn't say if observing parties will be allowed to bring their beverages into the observing dome with them, but I would think probably not. Imagine the embarrassment if what was thought to be a brand-new stellar phenomenon turned out to be spilled stout on the lens.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Sight to See

Saturn, of course, has highly visible rings, and most of the rest of the solar system is jealous. Some other large planets do as well, but theirs are very faint. Saturn's are so prominent that Galileo actually saw them with his early telescopes.

Here, artist Ron Miller imagines what it might look like if those rings surrounded our own Earth. The view from Washington, D.C. is pretty neat, although it lacks the campaign ads that some vile politico would have figured out how to place on the rings themselves.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Earth-Shattering Kaboom, Coming Up

A couple of stars in the planetary nebula Henize 2-428 are close, and getting closer. The two white dwarfs are circling each other every 4 hours or so at a pretty high rate of speed for such massive objects. The rotation and its speed mean that the orbit decays and they gradually draw near each other.

When that happens, the two will fuse and form a single star just under twice the size of the sun -- for a little while, anyway. Then they'll blow up in a Type Ia supernova and could be brighter than most of the other stars in the sky.

But although this is almost ready to happen in cosmic terms, there's no need to get the sunscreen ready for any outside nighttime activity. According to the measurements made by astronomers, the collision and explosion will happen sometime in 700,002,015 A.D.

Give or take.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Soooooulllll...

The amazing thing about this 2009 performance is not that Springsteen and the E-Streeters play it well -- listen to their first three albums and you hear an R&B dance band in the best Van Morrison tradition. Plus, any horn section hired to play where the Big Man walks had darn well better know the riffs for "Hold On, I'm Comin'" and "Soul Man."

No, the amazing thing is just how phenomenally good Sam Moore sounds with that much power in that high register at seventy-frickin'-five years old:


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Natural Instinct

On one of my many trips back and forth to meetings and such this week, I passed near a pair of utility poles, upon one of which rested a hawk. Said hawk evidently desired to rest on the next pole over, and so I watched as it launched off of one pole, stooped downwards towards the ground and then spread wings when most of the way down to climb in a long, majestic swoop towards the new roost. The trip was probably twice as long as the direct route would have been.

Of course, I know that this is a combination of instinct and learned behavior on the part of the hawk. It uses the momentum from the downward fall to enable the swoop back up to the new landing spot, and with the utility line in between the poles, there's no good path directly between them.

But on the other hand, if I could fly you can bet that's the way I'd do it, too. Even if there wasn't a line between them.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Working for a Living

So according to the census data gathered by NPR, the most common job in my state has swapped back and forth between secretary and truck driver.

So if you've got your commercial license and can type quickly, you've got a lock on work 'round these parts.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Airborne

Posting from a couple miles or so in the air -- and boy, are my arms tired...

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Student Recruitment

Well, it's national signing day for America's college students. Around the country, physics and chemistry departments unveiled lab coats embroidered with the names of the 1600-level SAT scores they secured for their school. Business schools blanketed the news media with the glossy brochures detailing the six-figure startups already founded by their incoming freshmen. Philosophy departments revealed the library study nooks reserved for their brainiest new students. Colleges everywhere reaffirmed their mission of education and intellectual inquiry by highlighting the best and brightest the world's high schools have produced.

Nah, I'm kidding. It was all about football.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Scout II

On the one hand, a number of factors seem likely to make Harper Lee's recently-discovered manuscript Go Set a Watchman not as good as her famed To Kill a Mockingbird. As the ABC story notes, the more famous manuscript required quite a bit of editing, and Lee herself is not really capable, health-wise, of interacting with an editor to help make this new one both ready for publication and representative of her own voice for her characters.

On the other hand, with a sequel more or less from Lee's own hand, we can be spared from crap like this being done to Scout, Jem and Atticus.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Irrelevant

I have no idea if the stupid rodent saw its shadow today or not. But apparently it doesn't matter, as he and his ancestors have only been right 39% of the time about the duration of winter following their appearance.

There are politicians who are right more often than that, but the disadvantage is that they have to be let out of their holes to make the predictions.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Ladies' Turn

It's customary for artists, especially for those who work mostly within a certain genre of music, to lament how their record companies fail to allow them to achieve all of their creative vision. A lot of times that may be true, but it can also be true that artists themselves may not be the best judge of presenting their work -- Keith Richards regularly points out that he never believed "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" should be a single.

That said, there are probably few record companies that would have been happy helping Audrey Assad create her third full-length album, 2013's Fortunate Fall. Sparrow Records had recorded her first two, albums of folky praise and worship and religious music that signaled she was a creative musician and a thinker. But she didn't think they would work so well with an album drawing almost entirely from St. Augustine's writing about humanity's fall from grace into sin, since it would not likely lend itself to churches seeking service music, based on both the weight of the subject matter and the sedate piano and keyboard instrumentation that only occasionally adds other types of sounds. I imagine she didn't seriously consider whether a secular company would entertain an album project based the 1500-year-old writings of a Christian saint. So enter Kickstarter and Assad's fans, who helped her fund and create Fall.

The theme from Augustine wonders over the magnitude of humanity's fall and the greatness of the savior offered to heal it. Some of the songs, like the title track and "Humble," carry an anthemic air but still fit in with Augustine's reflections. "Oh Happy Fault" brings on bells and chimes to sound like some undiscovered Victorian hymn. Assad also allows her songs their full development and doesn't restrict them to the simple three-minute slot (Four of the songs are more than five minutes long and "Good to Me" is six).

Assad has said her artistic goal is to write "church music" in the best meaning of that word, and she continues with "Spirit of the Living God," a prayer for the presence of the Holy Spirit to make the church more the body of Christ in the world. These and all of the songs are given reality by Assad's beautiful and sometimes breathy singing, which sounds all the more human for its lack of pristine operatic power.

Christians facing questions about whether people who believe can create art have almost always been able to point to great artists and musicians of the past, such as George Handel or Johann Sebastian Bach. We may with confidence add Audrey Assad as an example of someone who takes all of the gifts God has given her -- voice, talent, brains and devotion -- and made from them some mighty fine art of her own.
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Although you might not believe it when you listen, Kim Lenz and her Jaguars released their first record not in 1958 but 1998. Since then Lenz and her band have brought forth four top-level slices of rockabilly flavored with some big band and jump blues spices with the most recent being 2013's Follow Me.

The record followed some personal upheaval in Lenz's life, as she learned she had been adopted and a longtime friend and musical collaborator passed away. The time of reflection and processing these events led her to a different place than before musically.

Not that Follow Me sounds particularly different from her earlier work -- Lenz records with engineers who collect vintage studio equipment in order to keep her sound as much like the great rockabilly artists of the 1950s as much as possible. The bass still slaps and the guitar work still makes it clear that the "billy" part of rockabilly matters too, and Lenz's trademark mix of yowl, purr, hiccup and swagger leaves no doubt that the boys were not the only rockin' cats around, either 60 years ago or today.

But while 2009's It's All True seemed a little too ready to re-tread familiar territory in ways Lenz had already explored, Follow Me hangs its drape jacket and sheath dress on some much more introspective and substantial subject matter. The title track opens with the band channeling the Big Bopper and asserting they like the way Lenz walks, but when she suggests they follow her it's an invitation to find out what kind of real person she is beyond the image. "Money can't buy love," Lenz says in the opener "Pay Dearly," but she "paid dearly" to learn that lesson.

There's still plenty of good old-fashioned Patsy-Cline-channeling weeping over loves lost ("Deejay" and "Right Here With Me") and rockin' accusations of infidelity like "Cry Wolf" and "Trust No One," which opens with the great couplet, "Hey girls, here's a cautionary tale about the perils/of the predatory male" before going on to spell out the reasons he should not be trusted, all while backed with a great boogie-woogie piano and horns.

The music world contains plenty of ersatz rockabilly that spends a lot of time getting the feel and the look right but not nearly enough energy on creating great songs to match the great sound. All of that may be safely ignored in order to follow Kim Lenz's suggestion and pick up Follow Me.