Friday, July 31, 2015

Words + More Words!

At So Bad So Good, there is a list of 100 English words the writers think are particularly lovely and they suggest they should be used more often.

I think that would be kind of neat myself. I confess I have been rather desultory (#14) in expanding my vocabulary, but on the other hand I have sometimes a propinquity (#76) to get rather high-handed whenever I employ pollysyllables. As I often find such an attitude untoward (#96) for one in my profession and for the halcyon (#40) air I wish to project, I eschew (not on the list; picked it myself) those words for others.

Well, that was an experiment of great felicity (#33), which I hope shall not be too fugacious (#36).

Thursday, July 30, 2015

This Place Looks Like My New Warehouse...Oh Wait, It Is My New Warehouse!

Industrial parks are places where companies that need large buildings to make or store things find several of them in close proximity. Sometimes they will be built that way to take advantage of combined shipping or shared utilities or other things.

And then sometimes soldiers with guns come into them and tell you that you have two months to move your stuff out of them because the government's going to turn them into housing. At least, if you live in lawless Venezuela they do. Now, to be fair to President Nicolas Maduro and his kleptocractic government, the companies were told of this possibility back in 2013. That is, they were told of the potential seizure. It's not clear if the 60-day eviction notice, filed via form AK-47, was a part of that information. Judging by a couple of quotes in the story from workers, it seems unlikely that it was.

But when you try to operate a business in a country that operates by the Leaden Rule -- kind of like the updated Golden Rule, but it goes, "He who can spray the lead makes the rules" -- then this is the kind of thing that can happen.

There is no word on whether President Maduro will supply the new housing with that rarest of Venezuelan rarities, toilet paper, or whether he will need to keep a significant supply on hand given what kind of hole his predecessor Hugo Chavez and he have turned their country into.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Ponderment

So here's an idea to tug at your brain for a bit, if you like. Most Christians -- and many other religions which feature a supreme being -- say that God, or whatever name they use, is infinite.

In Christian tradition, we also say that God's attributes are infinite. God is described as both omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful). That combination leads to some head scratching when we consider suffering in the world, but that's not what I wanted to bring up here. Those phrases, all-knowing and all-powerful, are another way of saying infinitely knowing and infinitely powerful.

When we talk about God, we usually use those "infinite" words to mean that there are no limits to those qualities. There are no limits to God's knowledge, there are no limits to God's power, there are no limits to God's love, and so on. Although it's tough to actually conceive of what kind of knowledge, power, love or whatever that might imply, the concept is not impossible to grasp.

But what does it mean to say God is infinite? When we usually talk about infinity, we treat it like a really huge number, saying things like "double infinity" or "half infinity," even though those phrases really don't mean anything. Infinity is a concept rather than just a big number, which means it can't be doubled or halved or otherwise processed by mathematical operations. How do you double "everything that is?" If somehow you manage to do that, you still have everything that is, which means you still have infinity.

At the other end of the math realm, the concepts of unity (one) and nothingness (zero) work similarly. If you have one thing and you take away half of it, you still only have one thing, even though it's a smaller thing than it used to be. If you have nothing and you square it, you still have nothing.

Mathematicians have spent some time trying to figure out infinity, and as Stephen Webb notes in this article from First Things back in March, they may have a better handle on what it would mean to say God is infinite than Christians do who use the phrase. I think some of that may be because they are simply exploring infinity as a concept, while we Christians are trying to understand something about a being who is infinite, rather than just the concept itself. And some of it is probably because we spend time getting Ten Commandments monuments placed in public spaces instead of thinking about their Author.

Either way, the Incarnation or self-limiting of God into the person of the human being Jesus of Nazareth suddenly seems like quite a helpful move on the part of God. Until you start trying to think of how Jesus is both a limited human being (fully human) at the same time he's the unlimited second person of the Trinity (fully divine). But maybe that's for another time.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Roll Purge

The major league Baseball Hall of Fame took what is hopefully a first step towards making its voting and admission policies a little more sane -- from now on, a voting member who hasn't been active for 10 years is subject to losing their ballot.

"Inactive" means that the writer hasn't really written about baseball in those 10 years. Previously, once you got your ballot as a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, you kept it until they pried it from your cold dead hands. It took 10 years to earn your spot.

Discussion suggests that the purge means that more of the voters follow baseball more closely and cast more knowledgeable ballots. It also means that the voting pool's memory gets shorter, as retired, semi-retired or moved-on-to-other-beat writers who know about the play of those previously overlooked are dropped from voting eligibility.

Either way, it seems like the Hall of Fame is taking some steps to try to make more sense out of its admissions process. The flaws in that process and the flaws it has created have been discussed in this space before and need not be repeated.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Needful Things?

At Discover, the Neuroskeptic probes a bit into research on people who for one reason or another are missing large parts of their brains.

Due to a condition called "hyrdrocephalus," some people have large areas of brain tissue essentially replaced by water. The word hydrocephalus literally means "water brain." After treatment, some of the people who suffer from this fluid buildup are found to have the missing brain tissue and the water in its place. But as the Neuroskeptic notes, some of these people seem to suffer little or no loss in cognitive function or memory. Some scientists have suggested that this means not all of our brain tissue is strictly necessary, and that the brain's ability to store information doesn't scale up or down with its size.

One British researcher even suggests that the information previously stored in the brain tissue now replaced by water is somehow still stored, either in the fluid itself at some sub-atomic level or perhaps even in a kind of metaphysical version of a cloud computer server.

The Neuroskeptic is properly skeptical of such a claim, noting that while much of the brain tissue was replaced by fluid in these cases, not all of it was, and it may be that the remaining tissue happens to be that which the brain needs to run the body and retain its thinking ability. It's also possible that the remaining tissue is somehow dense enough that it can take over the functions previously handled by a larger volume of that same tissue.

Studies on this matter remain limited enough that answers are as yet unclear. Hence the question in the Discover blog post headline, "Is Your Brain Really Necessary?" At first it might seem scanning certain persons who are quite obviously operating without brains might be a promising path of investigation. Pick a group of people who, say, take Al Sharpton or Don Imus seriously, support Donald Trump for president, think Che Guevara was a hero, watch TLC reality shows or commit some other action indicative of extremely low levels of cognitive function. Scan their brains to see if their skulls contain fluid or brain tissue. If they contain fluid, then voila! a link between the absence of brain tissue and really really dumb ideas is proven.

But a problem arises. If these scans show these skulls to be filled with the ordinary sort of gray matter we all have, then we have not yet determined whether or not a brain is necessary to modern American life. We have only determined that the use of a brain is not necessary to modern American life. And given things like Kardashians, Sean Penn and Mike Huckabee thinking enough people want to vote for him for president that he could win, that's information we already have.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

From the Rental Vault: Justice League: Gods and Monsters

The 2011 change by DC Comics to its new continuity called "The New 52" did more than make bad comics. It also made for bad animated DVD release movies, which is the one area where the company had outperformed its great rival, Marvel. Seven movies have been released in the new continuity. The four directly related to the change and the new version of the Justice League stunk. Two connected more to the Batman storyline were better but not spectacular.

The seventh is Justice League: Gods and Monsters, and it's easily one of the better entries in the whole group of 24 animated DVDs released to date. And, it should be noted for the benefit of the DC "brain"trust, it has nothing to do with the New 52.

The Justice League consists of just three members: Superman, created on Krypton from the genetic material of Lara and General Zod and raised by Mexican peasant farmers when his spaceship landed near their home. Wonder Woman, also known as Bekka of New Genesis, one of the New Gods who has fled her world's endless conflict with Apokolips for reasons of her own. And Batman, who is scientist Kirk Langstrom after he has been affected by a mutated bat serum design to combat his cancer and is now more vampire than human. This League does fight criminals and wrongdoers, but they do it without the moral constraints that their more familiar counterparts have.

When scientists start dying, it soon becomes clear they were connected to a secret project designed to combat the League if it ever went rogue. Forensic evidence at the different crime scenes points to the League members, whose reputations for ruthlessness leave people all too ready to believe the worst of their terrifying heroes. The trio will have to fight off attempts to bring them in while searching for the masterminds behind the scheme and uncovering their ultimate goal.

As mentioned, none of this continuity is based on the New 52 storyline -- in fact, the revised characters are unique to this movie and accompanying web-based series of shorts. But unlike the 52 creators, Gods and Monsters writers Alan Burnett and Bruce Timm create completely different yet intriguing versions of the characters comic fans have followed for 70+ years. Superman's mother Lara is still the same, but his father is the megalomaniac Zod instead of the great scientist Jor-El. While Zod's tendencies were tempered by being raised by poor peasants, this Superman has to figure out how to walk a fine line between protecting the weak and dominating them (Lois Lane still has his number, through). Wonder Woman's role in the New Genesis/Apokolips war has left scars on her she can't defeat by beating other adversaries, even though she keeps trying. And this Batman is not just metaphorically removed from humanity -- he drinks blood to survive and while he won't prey on innocents, lawbreakers find themselves wishing they could go to prison.

The voice casting of Benjamin Bratt, Tamara Taylor and Michael C. Hall as the lead trio strengthens the movie considerably -- while animation can draw whatever expression on people's faces that the director wants, those aren't worth much if the actors can't sell the emotion and the main three do that quite well. The decision to use an animation style that resembles the old DC Animated Universe is also a good move, as it provides some familiar context into which the altered characters can be placed. Also a plus is the non-kid-friendly use of violence to demonstrate how ruthless the League can be -- it buttresses the plausibility of this world fearing its saviors more than it wants them.

Gods and Monsters represents a first collaboration between Warner Bros. Animation and the gaming multi-channel network Machinima, Inc. The movie and the three webisodes will be followed by a second season of 10 more episodes in 2016, and if they maintain the quality of this initial movie they will be a welcome addition to DC's animated storytelling.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Ahead of the Curve

When the Higgs boson was confirmed in 2013, it marked the end of a nearly 50-year journey -- physicists Robert Brout and Fran├žois Englert, Peter Higgs, Gerald Guralnik, C. Richard Hagen, and Tom Kibble, writing in three separate papers in 1964, suggested the existence of a particle that affected other particles' masses. But that's not the record.

Paul Dirac's 1928 equation predicted the existence of certain subatomic particles also. One of the equation's solutions suggested the existence of the positron, an "antiparticle" to the more commonly-known electron. The positron was discovered in 1932.

But other possible solutions to Dirac's equation existed, and they also predicted the existence of certain subatomic particles that had not been found at the time scientists worked with Dirac's idea. One solution, from German mathematician Hermann Weyl, predicted the existence of massless particles. Weyl's solution was published in 1929, and no massless particles were known to exist at the time, which led to a hunt for "Weyl fermions." "Fermion" and "boson" are the names for two different classes of subatomic particles.

When neutrinos were discovered, they were thought to be massless and seemed like a good candidate for a Weyl fermion, but recent experiments suggest they actually do have mass. However, scientists at Princeton and at MIT and Zhejiang University in China believe they have found evidence of Weyl fermions through different experiements. Their measurements and findings have to be reviewed and confirmed, so it's possible that this is another false lead. But if not, then Paul Dirac and Hermann Weyl predicted something in 1929 that wasn't found for about 85 years.

Probably one of the reasons real science never gets boring. Not only are you finding things about the world today, there's a whole bunch of stuff mathematicians may have dreamed up about the same time that sound began to be used in movies, still waiting to be checked out.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Tread Softly Dere

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner -- currently the second governor of the state in a row not to be indicted for a crime -- recently signed into a law a measure that requires state agencies to cross-check benefit payments with death registries. If a person is found to be dead, they will not receive a check. If they are the head of a household and have a family dependent on the income, then the family will continue to receive the dead person's assistance until they begin to receive it on their own.

From 2013-2014, Illinois paid out about $15 million to people who had been dead for more than 60 days. The classic Monty Python sketch about a dead parrot does not include the pet shop owner claiming that since the parrot received a state benefit check it had to still be alive, but now it could.

Da Honrable Richard J. Daley, Mare a da Great City a Chicago and All Its Great Peoples per omnia saecula saeculorum (dat means "for ever" in da Latin), when reached for comment, said he did not oppose this measure, although he advised caution.

"Well, on da udder side nobody needs a welfare check, so I don't see a prablum right now. But if dey try ta take away our votes, den dere could be a prablum."

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Watching Watchman

Over at the long-post blog, an extended encounter with the "new" Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman. Spoilers!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

More Undiscovereds Discovered!

Next week will see the publication of the first new Dr. Seuss book since before the author and illustrator passed away in 1991. Some books he wrote have been released in the ensuing years, but they were either compilations of magazine pieces or didn't combine true Seussian text and illustrations as will What Pet Should I Get?

Theodor Seuss Geisel's widow Audrey was remodeling their home in the months after Theodor passed away, and she found the manuscript and black-and-white line drawings of Pet. Mislaid soon after, Audrey and Geisel's friend and secretary Claudia Prescott found it again in 2013. Geisel's former art director thinks it was written sometime between 1958 and 1962 along with One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, because it features the same characters. She also points out how it's less about getting a new pet and more about learning how to make decisions, which is probably welcome news for any parents who allow their children to pick their own candy from a display with more than one item.

The only additional "non-Seussian" work added to Pet was the coloring, and judging by the previews that BuzzFeed displays it looks to match Seuss's own work quite well. Although certainly not of the literary weight of the recent Harper Lee rediscovery, the provenance of Pet seems on a lot more solid ground even though its author is no longer here to vouch for it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Back to the Future, Ahead to the Past

According to Back to the Future II, 2015 should have hoverboards, flying cars, twin neckties, self-lacing Nikes and double-digit Jaws sequels. It doesn't, and although director Robert Zemeckis has said that he didn't really believe the future would have all of the things he put in it, the real 2015 still looks a lot more like 1985 that it does like the movie 2015. Give your average '80s teen dude a couple of months to catch up and cut his mullet and he would fit in pretty well. And given that Walk the Moon's Nicholas Petricca sports said hairstyle in the hit "Shut up and Dance With Me" video the trim might not be needed either.

There are a lot of folks who surmise that 2045 is going to be vastly different than 2015. There's the possibility of The Singularity, or a moment when computers tip over from simply being very fast calculators into being actual artificial intelligences. There's the possibility of robots becoming able to do things people do now, but doing them faster and better. Or of technology being integrated into our bodies allowing access to a virtual reality that we'll direct and create ourselves -- and which, given the way some folks are, we will hope stays hidden from others' views.

Or it may be that 2045 looks a little different from now, but only by about as much as 2015 looks from 1985.  Longtime science journalist John Markoff says all of those gadgets and advances are possible and may even happen in the next 30 years. But they may also not, and they may take quite a bit longer.

For all of the hooraw about the nearness of AI and agile or possibly deadly robots, Markoff notes that in a recent robotics contest, few of the machines were able to open a door. This might explain why Arnold had to smash into the police station with a car in The Terminator: He couldn't work the knob.

Even after reading Markoff's comments, I'm going to go out on a limb and predict what will happen in 2045: It will get here. As for what life will be like, well, meet me then and we'll find out. But make it a weekend. Given what the last 15 or so years have done to the economy, I'll probably be flipping burgers to pay for my Polident.

Monday, July 20, 2015

irruoptoP

Some things:

-- This article at TopTenz lists some literary quotes that are commonly misunderstood. The apparent reason for the various misunderstandings is the failure to place the quotes in their contexts. In some cases, that means the context of the rest of the words surrounding the quote. In some other cases, that means the context of the history in which the writer lived. There is very probably an internet metaphor in there, but I'll leave it be for now.

-- I'll probably give some money to this campaign to rehab and preserve Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 spacesuit because it's important to history to do so. On the other hand, a government that can waste its money on things like Alan Grayson's salary should be able to come up with the coin to properly preserve a suit worn by the first human being to ever set foot on a celestial body not the Earth.

-- Along those lines, Buzz Aldrin was tweeting during this, the 46th anniversary of the first moon landing. With the caption he gives the picture that Armstrong took of him while they were both bouncing around outside, he almost makes Twitter not meaningless.

-- After a little dig at the internet in an above item, a little praise. Without the internet, it is very unlikely that a single source would exist that reviewed books with lab scenes for their accuracy, as well as collect different items of interest that concern labs and the people who work in them. It's hard to imagine someone going to the trouble of printing and publishing a newsletter with all of this information in it. Even though people still go to the trouble of printing and publishing Rolling Stone, and that's basically a Ralph Lauren catalog with some album blurbs and cover articles on people who have literally never done anything but be famous.

-- In other news, Dr. Hook said, "You know what? We changed our minds."

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sometimes...

Huey Lewis and the News never released their song "Bad is Bad" as a single, but back in the days when radio stations would play album cuts that had never been hits it got some airplay. The idea is  that even though the word "bad" can be good (cf. Thorogood, G.), there are times when it simply means "bad."

There are movies that fall into the "so bad they're good" category, in which the ineptitude visible in one or all aspects of the movie is amusing in and of itself. There are also movies that are bad and only become watchable when mocked (a la Mystery Science Theater 3000) or they become participatory (The Rocky Horror Picture Show).

And then there are movies that are just bad and no fun to watch even for mocking purposes, which brings us to SyFy's "Sharknado Week 2." The slate of swill centers on Sharknado 3, a second sequel to the overgrown Saturday Night Live sketch that garnered unmerited and inexplicable renown when aired in 2013. The idea of a movie about a tornado that sweeps up sharks and deposits them on land is funny as you contemplate how dumb it would be. The actual movie is 85 minutes of that laughter fading away into echos and then beyond, supposedly livened up when human beings are shown eaten by the flying bad-CGI sharks. The idea has ceased to be funny before the credits roll, which means there's no laughter available for the sequel or a third movie.

The same can be said for the rest of the Sharknado Week 2 lineup. "So bad it's good" can be true once or twice, or maybe even a dozen times. But when repeated endlessly in scenes that are supposed to mock the same bad acting or callous dispatch of characters in ways designed to be funny? Well, to quote another flashback character, "Stupid is as stupid does."

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Little Light Music

When astronomers began turning their telescopes towards the sun to examine it as they had the moon and the planets, they found out that the universe has a sense of irony. The very same source of light which reflects off those other bodies and lets us see them can't be studied by just light.

While the sun's surface features can be made out in great detail if you're using the right filters, there's no way to see past the light generated by that surface to view what lies underneath. So for much of the history of observational astronomy, there were only guesses about what was beneath the corona we could see. Some readings showed different interior spots and areas were cooler than the surface, which made little sense given what was thought to be the source of the sun's energy. Other factors had to be playing a role. Also troublesome was the difference between the amount of neutrinos we do detect from the sun and the number we figure we should detect. Again, something else had to be going on than just what the visible surface showed.

Enter, some 50 years ago, the scientific discipline of "helioseismology," or study of how pressure waves move through the burning gas of the sun and how those movements tell us what's underneath the light.

William Chaplin's 2006 book Music of the Sun sketches the history of this branch of science, which started to take hold when astronomer Robert Leighton recorded regular oscillations of the sun's surface -- you'd expect a ball of hot gas to be a little quavery, but Leighton's data showed regular periodic vibrations in addition to the regular random kind of skips. Scientists then began to realize that if the sun produced those kinds of waves, there was a ready discipline at hand to provide the conceptual framework: Acoustics.

See, sound is just the movement of pressure waves through some medium. The kind of medium affects how the waves travel, which is why things sound different underwater than above, but it's all acoustics. And since the sun is a medium like an atmosphere, then regular pressure waves from different activities beneath the surface would affect that surface and could be compared to known properties of acoustics. On earth, study of the same kinds of waves helps geologists identify kinds of rocks miles below the surface.

Chaplin outlines the development of the discipline as more sophisticated instruments find new and more precise variations and movements. Essentially, helioseismology bootstraps itself along. When a new discovery tells scientists something about the sun's interior, they use that information to help refine their measurements and then learn something from those new measurements.

His book is carefully written and he takes the time to explain a lot of the acoustical science needed to understand how the gas and temperature of the sun's interior produce the waves helioseismologists observe. It's a lot of detail to keep straight and can make the book as a whole slow going when you have to flip back some pages to remind yourself of what some terms mean. But the structure, which moves from explanation to the history of the science and then some of the questions it's answered, offers a pretty thorough introduction to the field.

After all, once you can get your head around the fact that the best way to study the greatest source of light in our sky is not to look at it but listen to it, you can handle a few quirky terms.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Why Bother?

A return to reliable internet after a week of church camp means a return to posting!

BBC Science Editor David Shukman tackles a question he's heard several times, he said, since the news of the New Horizons flyby began to take up space on the airwaves and more detailed photos than ever before show us what far-distant Pluto really looks like.

Why bother exploring the Solar System at all? Why send expensive space probes to look at other planets?

Mr. Shukman is much more gracious than I, because my answer to a question such as, "Why bother?" might be to ask the person how many colors of belly button lint they have, since they seem very content to gaze at themselves rather than lift their eyes outward and upward. I can't fathom such a complete lack of curiosity about the universe where we live. I really do not understand not wanting to know what's out there, what it looks like, and whatever we can find out about it.

Sometimes people ask the question in somewhat more prosaic and sensible terms, even if a little bit of thought would probably show them that their question falls apart under its own terms. Mr. Shukman notes a person who asks one of the most common questions asked of exploratory efforts -- couldn't this money have been spent on food for the hungry, or shelter for the homeless, or something else humanitarian that would address genuine needs of real people?

Obviously, it could have. The total cost of New Horizons mission is around $700 million since it began the planning stages in 2001, and that money could certainly have bought food or paid rent. The 2014 fiscal year budget for the federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families program was $17.35 billion. Add up all of the TANF money spent since New Horizons began and you have probably crossed the $200 billion barrier, and if you let your calculator do that math you will find that New Horizons cost one three-thousandth (.003) of a percent of the total budget for TANF in that same time frame.

Or seen another way, TANF daily average spending for that 2014 year would have been just under $47 million -- the program's help to needy people cost about $47 million each day. If we had somehow been able to switch the New Horizons money to TANF and used the whole $700 million starting on July 1, the fiscal new year, it would have fed however many people TANF feeds until about 9:30 PM July 14, when its $700 million ran out. And those figures are working only on the TANF program: There are many government programs that help people, and if we were to try to total them all up New Horizons' budget starts to look even smaller by comparison. If you'd like to add private charities to the overall spending, then the distance widens even more.

So while feeding people is indeed important, the reality is that axing the Pluto probe or the whole space program at this point would not make much of a difference in whether or not hungry people got food. The concern of the questioner regarding hungry people is laudable, but a little thinking cap application ought to show why the tenuous and perhaps non-existant dichotomy between exploration and tending to people's needs is not nearly the devastating debate-ender it's believed to be by program opponents.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Camp Wipeout

Plus spotty internet. Back tomorrow if possible!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Yesterday's Pictures

At Kottke, this item wonders about what the earliest birth date might be for a person to have been photographed. Those kinds of images began to be taken in the mid 19th century, and a couple of centenarians living in those days are among the candidates.

The writer notes that these people, in their own younger days, would have heard stories from people alive during major events like the English Civil War and the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Which means that technologically, people living today are only one degree removed from things that happened more than 350 years ago through the technology of photography.

On the other hand, we can see just what a tiny slice of human history is available to documentation through some of our most ubiquitous record-keeping techniques. We tend to accept things as real when we can see images of them, and many folks have probably teased their friends' claims of achievements with the phrase "Pictures or it didn't happen!" But we've only been able to capture images mechanically, free of the interpretive effect of artistic vision, for less than 200 years (and of course Photoshop and magazine covers remind us that artistic and other visions can still influence the images produced).

The pharaoh Narmer (sometimes called Menes) unified upper and lower Egypt under one rule and made it a single nation, and he did this before 3000 BC, more than twenty-five times as long ago as the earliest photographs were taken. We may know a lot less about Narmer and his work than we do about modern figures of whom we have images, video and recordings, but he was just as real. And though much more removed from us in years and much less documented he is probably a lot more consequential to human history than, say, anyone named Trump.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

...You Are the Branches

New Zealander Brian Cox, who spent a lot of his life traveling the world and enjoying the architecture he found there, decided that his back yard needed a church. So since he was a landscaper, he grew one. He transplanted several kinds of trees around an iron frame and created a small chapel whose walls and roofs are living trees and whose floor is a well-manicured lawn.

Cox originally intended to just enjoy the tree church himself, but it has become a venue and he opens it twice a week for visitors. Couples may also schedule it for their weddings, even though that means quite a bit of work from the meticulous Cox to make sure it meets his standards of appearance.

The altar and the pews are not live trees or grass. but everything else that makes up the church is. Which would be a plus if there were a congregation meeting and worshiping there regularly. There would be absolutely no way to have a church split over the color of the carpet.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Riddle Me This, Riddle Me That...

...what's going to happen when turtles meet bat?

Although I enjoy the stories one sometimes still finds in the good ol' four-color funnybooks, I don't buy very many anymore, because many of them are busy proving Sturgeon's Law.

But for a Batman meets Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crossover? Messing this up would take a lot more creativity than a lot of comic writers demonstrate today, so it could be very interesting. I like the writer at Uproxx's suggestion, too. When the Turtles first appear in Gotham, nobody pays them much attention. In a city menaced by a guy dressed as a penguin and protected by a guy dressed as a bat, how odd would four speaking, human-sized turtles really be, anyway?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Pluto Is For Lovers

One of the latest images from New Horizons as it nears Pluto is taken at an angle that makes the lights and shadows of its surface show a stylized heart in one corner:


Pictures made as the probe closes with the dwarf planet will help resolve the different features on Pluto's surface and show us what exactly goes into making this particular image. It probably isn't really a heart, as all good classics students know that Pluto's heart belongs to Proserpina.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Communists Win

Although we thought that the fall of the Soviet Union and the transformation of the Cuban presidential palace into the presidential centro para convalecientes signaled the end of Communism anyplace outside of the faculty dining room, we were apparently wrong.

The production of thin Oreos is not itself so off-putting, as is the reality that these Oreos are not intended for twisting apart or dunking. In other words, they were deliberately designed to not do the thing that Oreos do best. Mondelez International, the company that makes them says the thin cookies are "designed for adults." Abomination! Outcast! Unclean!

And in fact, the twisted deception at the core of this development is made clear at the end of the story, as company CEO Irene Rosenfeld says that initial efforts to make a thinner cookie broke apart 60 percent of the time, until newer versions could be made that broke up only three percent of the time. In other words, even though these cookies are "designed for adults," and not intended to be twisted apart or dunked, they were put through the R&D wringer until they were made able to be twisted apart as God intended Oreos to be.

In my mind, the only possible response is to re-erect the Berlin Wall. Except that it should be placed around the headquarters of Mondelez International, and the following speech given: "Chief Executive Rosenfeld, if you seek peace, if you seek satisfaction among the eaters of your delicious products, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this cookie! Ms. Rosenfeld, dunk this cookie! Ms. Rosenfeld, tear open this cookie!"

(H/T Dustbury)

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Ultimate Audio App

David Pierce at Wired writes about the problem that streaming music services create when people are places where wireless internet signals don't support them.

The problem, which is so first-world that other first-world problems laugh at it, comes because the streaming services require quite a high data transfer rate. When outside the range of places where such rates are available, the services stream poorly or not at all. And because in the incident Pierce refers to neither he nor any of his friends had actually stored any of the music they like to listen to, they didn't have any music to listen to.

Even as recently as five years ago, people would have had quite a bit of music stored on some device that they carried with them. I have a tiny little iPod Shuffle that I can clip to my sleeve when I work out that will play music long past the point I have fallen face-first into the treadmill. And thank you for asking, but that statement does actually imply an amount of time measured in more than minutes. But since streaming the music is easier, people don't bother to stop and store it, especially when the process is kind of complicated. Pierce describes how the most common streaming services don't exactly make it easy to download music for keeps. They do much better financially when people link up to them every time they want to hear a song and they get no new money if someone listens to that same song held instead in a file on a device's own data storage.

The technology and business model are advancing to the point that streaming services may offer simple options for some limited amount of storage in events such as Pierce's described "beach party emergency." So all will be well, until some other obstacle arises between some entitled twerp and complete and instant gratification of some new whim.

But in the meantime, we can all marvel that when a fellow smart enough to write for Wired and a dozen of his friends faced the lack of bandwidth necessary to stream all teh hawt tunez, not a one of them came up with the idea that would have occurred to their Dark Ages ancestors in a heartbeat: open their mouths and sing something.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Universe Doesn't End

Well, fan voting put four Kansas City Royals on the American League All-Star roster, American League players voted in another and Royals manager Ned Yost, commanding the AL squad because he was the 2014 AL Champion manager, added a sixth. More gimmicky voting could make Mike Moustakis a seventh Royal All-Star.

There was consternation in recent weeks as sometimes seven and sometimes eight Royals led the fan voting at their positions, despite some of them showing very little All-Star caliber of play. Yost, when asked about this problem, suggested that those who disliked the vote totals should probably do some voting of their own, as that would have more of an impact on the outcome. Major League Baseball allowed not one, not two, not three or even four votes per e-mail address, but thirty-five. A setting on the voting page allowed visitors to set their ballot for an entire team, rather than having to run down the list every time. Your humble correspondent and Missouri baseball fan sent thirty-five votes into the league office for the entire Royals roster for the American League and the Cardinals roster for the National League. And he was not a bit sorry.

At different times in baseball's history, All-Stars have been chosen by managers or by fan votes. The current use of fan voting started in 1970 as a way of reviving interest in the game, which had been considered to be waning. New gimmicks have been dreamed up in the ensuing years, all to help increase fan interest, and there's nothing wrong with that since the All-Star Game is more spectacle than sport anyway.

On the other hand, in 2003 the league colluded with the player's union to award World Series home-field advantage to the winning team. Should the American League team win, they have four games at home in the seven-game series, and vice-versa should the National League team win. I couldn't find anything that directly attributed this stupid idea to then-Commissioner Bud Selig, but since it began the year after he ignominiously allowed the 2002 All-Star Game to end in a tie and since it is a stupid idea, he is a likely culprit.

Giving World Series home field to the All-Star winner makes some miniscule sense if the teams are really showcases of each league's best players competing against each other. But since they're not, and since the main thrust of the game is the event itself much more than the final score, then that miniscule bit gets minisculer and minisculer until it simply disappears.

As I said, I was not a bit sorry that I cast thirty-five votes for some guys who were not really the top at their position in their respective leagues. For one, I used to live in Chicago. Multiple voting is considered a civic duty there as much as unrepeated voting is elsewhere. For another, a silly system deserves being dealt with as such. If Major League Baseball is going to let any yahoo with a keyboard and a mouse cast thirty-five votes in its All-Star contest, then it gets exactly what's coming: A system in which a guy hitting .231 can lead the All-Star balloting for most of the summer until falling back at the last minute. And Bud Selig.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

See The Light

I am going to have to read this item a few more times -- and at some time of the day other than less than an hour from midnight -- to get what it's talking about.

But until then, it's just pretty cool that the world hoards more than one surprise, even for something that's been on the books for 150 years. James Clerk Maxwell figured out the equations that describe the behavior of light and other fields back before Thomas Edison made incandescent light bulbs that would last long enough to be useful.

It's almost like we don't know everything and there's still stuff to learn.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

X - 4th of July

One of their best, on the day it was named for:

Friday, July 3, 2015

Coincidence?

So, just a few months after the Large Hadron Collider restarts, we see the black hole at V404 Cygni kick off a set of X-ray and gamma bursts unlike any that it has produced for more than 25 years.

Is the renewed activity a sign of communication between the black hole and the LHC, with the existing destroyer-of-everything telling the potential destroyer-of-everything how to cross the line and become an actual destroyer-of-everything? Isn't it just a coincidence? Perhaps, but the timing is suspicious. V404 Cygni consists of a star that orbits a black hole, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand the "wake-up call" of radiation bursts could mean that the black hole member of the pair has suddenly decided to slurp some matter from its companion in order to signal the LHC on what it needs to do in order to create a black hole of its own -- which would, of course, result in the destruction of the Earth. The reason the activity stopped in 1989 is that there was no one there to listen to those instructions. But now there is.

Now waitaminute, you may say. V404 Cygni is more than 8,000 light years from us, which means that the radiation bursts that have astronomers so excited didn't really start happening June 15, like the article says. They actually started happening more like June 15, 5985 BC, when the current site of the LHC was occupied by the forerunners of the Linear Band Culture who were making some interesting pottery but were a little shy of creating particle accelerators. We're just observing them now because the radiation took 8,000 years to travel to our detectors.

So you are getting yourself worked up for nothing, you tell me, unless you want to say that V404 Cygni has existed for thousands of years and foresaw the future development of the LHC on earth while it was still way back in the Sixth Millennium BC and timed its activity so that it would arrive after the LHC had switched back on...

See? Doesn't sound so crazy now, does it?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Blue & Bloodshot?

Some researchers at the University of Vermont found some linkages between the genes that cause people to have blue eyes and those that may predispose people towards alcoholism.

Although individual choices and family history go a long ways in creating alcohol dependency, there are some physical differences in the ways that people's bodies actually process the substance that can tip the balance. The study shows that the genes for both of these traits are on the same chromosome, which means they might be linked.

As the story shows, the scientists first noticed correlations in two external features of people in the study: Lighter-colored or blue eyes and alcohol dependency. By itself, of course, that's just a statistical anomaly that can come in any random study. There would be random groupings that might show a high correlation between alcohol dependency and having a certain letter in your last name, for example, because random groupings can wind up doing that randomly.

But being scientists, the researchers decided to see if there was some causation with this correlation or if it was just random. That's when they found that the two genes are on the same chromosome, which is a much stronger connecting factor than random statistical grouping. It's still not causatory, though -- nothing suggests that having blue eyes makes you likelier to be a drunk or that being a drunk makes you likelier to have blue eyes. I imagine most of the news reports on this study, though, will have headlines that are a lot less precise and leave the casual reader with just such an impression.

A much more probable explanation has already been offered, anyway, by researcher P. Townshend: "No one knows what it's like to be the sad man, to be the bad man behind blue eyes."

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Unclear on the Concept

Viacom will no longer air reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard, a television show about two good ol' boys who "never (meant) no harm" but who gave Boss Hogg and his lackey, Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane, fits each and every week. The Duke boys drove an orange Dodge Charger called the General Lee, and the General's roof was decorated with the Confederate battle flag that has been put on the national naughty list.

Both TVLand and Country Music Television (CMT) were airing Dukes, but are no longer. TVLand will replace it with reruns of Bonanza, a series free of racism and noted for its enlightened portrayal of Chinese immigrant cooks.

(For the record, I enjoy Bonanza much more than Dukes, because the latter is very very dumb and there's only so much dumb Catherine Bach's legs can erase. Also, although a modern production would balk at the pidgin dialog and servile character forced on Victor Sen Yung in his portrayal of Hop Sing, he was actually allowed a greater and more dignified role than many minority actors on television in the 1960s. An entire episode, in fact, dealt with the injustice faced by Asian people living in the Western United States and its territories during the time in which Bonanza was set.)