Saturday, December 31, 2016

Some Stuff (Nonsense Already Provided)

-- An intriguing article at The Economist examines the practice and power of silence in our daily lives. The sub-headline reads "Where, how and why to be quiet," and there is a nod to Mark Twain's advice about remaining silent so as to leave some question about one's own foolishness. It might seem churlish to note Twain picked up the idea from scripture (Proverbs 17:28) except that the notice is in a sentence about what Ignatius of Antioch told the early Christians at Ephesus. And a number of other answers to the where how and why to be quiet direction apply, of course. Such as, "When your name is John Kerry." Or, "When your name is Bill O'Reilly."

-- Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek offers a possible silver lining to the looming Trump presidency in a comment on a Kevin Williamson article from National Review. Williamson writes about the way modern government seems to have given our presidents more of the trappings of the kings and such we supposedly wanted no part of. Boudreaux suggests that someone as completely oafish, incompetent, narcissistic and immature as Trump will push us to pay more attention to the man behind the curtain than to the Great and Powerful Oz. Hmm, we may say. The presidency is obviously a hard job, but if that moron can win it then it can't be all that special. I'm skeptically hopeful. Demonstrated displays of petty incompetence haven't thrown people off their love for government so far, especially when they're playing the role of Paul and someone else is saddled with the part of Peter.

-- Charles over at Dustbury calls attention to an article that highlights how the Environmental Protection Agency may declare Fairbanks Alaska in serious noncompliance with clean air regulations, as a way of getting them to try to reduce their use of burned wood to heat their homes and such. Richer people have access to gas and oil heating systems, but poorer folks not so much, so they burn a lot of wood in order to not die. I've not been super-thrilled with Scott Pruitt as our State Attorney General, surely, and I think that the belief that he will "destroy" the EPA is some serious falling-sky alarmism. But on the other hand, maybe some destructin' is called for...

-- Our midnight stroke will flip our calendar page and make 2016 into 2017, and I certainly hope it is a good one for you. Blogger's stat platform gives at best a fuzzy picture of how many readers I have, so I have no idea how many of you there are, but if I have offered you either entertainment, sleep aid or removed the need for you to take fludrocortisone, then I am glad to have been of assistance and grateful for your time.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Proof, Pudding, Etc...

A couple of days ago I suggested that it's not particularly sensible to think that the many things contained in 2016 which depress us will suddenly cease because the year in the modern calendar becomes 2017.

Comes now a variety of state legislatures to ensure -- as only a government can-- that 2017 intends to make a strong run at being even sillier. Illinois may have a $13 billion budgetary shortfall, but it also now has a state artifact, the pirogue canoe. California will insist that any item purportedly signed by some famous person must have a certificate of authenticity if it is to be sold for more than $5. No word on whether a signed statement of authenticity will need its own signed statement of authenticity.

Las Vegas will allow marijuana consumption, but the law did not pass without a requirement that casinos feature several extra-large signs informing gamblers that potato chips may not be used in place of casino chips.

The real question such laws pose is not how we as a species survived before we had legislative government, but what we will do now that the evolution of our intelligence has so obviously ceased.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Who Watches

Here's a link to a New York Times feature that maps out which television shows are the most popular in different areas of the country.

I'm not sure which depresses me more: how many of the show titles are completely unfamiliar to me or how popular some of the ones I've heard of are...

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Using Fame's Fortunes

The number of famous people who have died in 2016 seems to many people to be larger than usual, or perhaps it's a matter of which ones passing away that makes the difference. Some have been outsized figures in their fields, like Prince and David Bowie, while others have been celebrated pop icons known as much for their membership in a particular pantheon than their own work, like Carrie Fisher.

Some people, prompted by the perception that the number is higher, have suggested that it makes 2016 a much worse year than other years. I can understand the thinking, but I reject the idea. For one, many great things happened in 2016 as well, and there were quite a few good and bad things involved no one famous whatsoever. There were also several bad things that happened which should have gotten a lot more attention than they did, such as the destruction of Aleppo, Syria. Any news organization which put up more coverage of any Kardashian whatsoever than of the massacre of innocents in that city deserves to be sentenced to listening to former President Jimmy Carter's official spokesman discourse at length on how much better the world would have been if he had won a second term.

But perspective is called for, I think, and about a lot more things than celebrity deaths. I saw a friend post on her Facebook page about how she was almost glad that her husband had not lived to see "this," referring to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Now, she was married to him and I wasn't, and she was commenting on the day after the election when many perspectives were a little warped. But I couldn't help but think that "this" was a time which also included the man's granddaughter, whose birth he did not live to see. And I think he might have counted it worth the ugly election and ugly election result to meet her.

It's also kind of funny to think that we'll get a sudden do-over Sunday when the calendar flips to 2017. The reality is that many iconic entertainers will be in their 80s and 90s, and folks in that age range tend to die in greater numbers than younger ones do. The reality is that many Boomer and X-er-aged icons did their bodies a lot of damage when they were younger, and while getting clean definitely lengthened their lives it can't turn back the odometer. And the reality is that a lot of people responsible for great achievements, like first to orbit the earth or first to break the sound barrier, are also in their 80s and 90s, and are no less subject to actuarial laws than anyone else.

Don't get me wrong. I'm saddened when someone whose work I enjoy or appreciate passes away. Same thing when it's someone who pioneered something important. But I didn't know them personally, so the effect is quite a bit smaller than otherwise. Plus, if they are famous for having actually done something, as opposed to 95% of the people TMZ writes about, then we still have their work. Sure, no new Prince music, but Purple Rain continues to reward after multiple listens. In addition to her iconic role as Leia in the Star Wars movies, Carrie Fisher wrote some hilarious books. Those remain.

In the end, if we're honest, we have to admit that we can continue the best part of the work done by our idols and icons. Singer George Michael sang a couple of songs and pursued a couple of activities a fellow in my line of work disagrees with. But after he passed, we began finding out that he was regularly and greatly generous with the money his music had earned him. Any of us can do that, even if we can't match Michael digit for digit as far as the amounts are concerned. In that sense, perhaps we can bring ourselves a little closer to the folks we mostly appreciated from afar, because we might find ourselves doing the exact same thing in memory of those whom we did know directly. Either way, there will be lot worse legacies left behind than one like Michael's, and it's hard to argue against stretching that one out as far as it could possibly go.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Not Easily Replaced

Stanford economist and columnist Thomas Sowell sets aside his keyboard for a well-earned rest. Unfortunately, that means that media coverage of economics will be much the poorer for it, but he's 86 and he's probably earned it.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Pay Up

I'm a book lover, and I like to own older books from a time when book design involved more than "make cheaply, sell otherwise." But I'd draw the line at $36,000 spent on a copy of Alice in Wonderland. Someone at ABE books, on the other hand disagreed.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Nailed It!

Watching old television show DVDs with the family.

That curtain rod dress is pretty much the best sight gag in the history of television.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Noel

In less than an hour it all starts anew. Lord at Thy birth, come.

Friday, December 23, 2016

You Can't Get There From Here

A quick glance at this ancient Roman map from the historian and geographer Strabo will show you why, since it's got things like scale and direction pretty looped out.

It is interesting, though, how much is recognizable around the Mediterranean Sea, the area with which Romans and their Greek predecessors would have been most familiar. Although it's pointing more east-west than north-south, the boot of Italy can be pretty clearly discerned. "Iberia," or Spain, looks a lot like Spain looks on a modern map.

But the inability to accurately compute longitude at sea -- something that would not come about until the 18th century -- meant that the proper orientation of the known lands was not within a Roman mapmaker's power to reproduce. Which may have been a good thing for a lot of the Empire's neighbors -- can you imagine how far they might have gotten if they'd had real maps?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Wha?

I'm a big fan of the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes and when younger, was a fan of some of the sequels. These days, only Escape seems all that watchable, as we see some of the intelligent apes from the original movies somehow manage to recover the astronaut's spaceship and slingshot back through time to the world that had launched it to begin with.

I said watchable, not sensible. In any event, both the first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes and the final films in the series, Battle for and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, are hackneyed and in the case of the last one just plain silly. Which considering the premises of the series, is saying something indeed.

I saw the 2001 Tim Burton version of the story that tried to mix the first movie with the Pierre Boulle novel from which it was drawn, doing so without much success. I've watched none of the more recent remakes, which revolve around Andy Serkis moving around with a motion-capture suit on so the intelligent chimpanzee Caesar can be superimposed on him via computer. Apes get smart and take over -- in this case, because a plague has wiped out most of humanity. I've seen it before, and I'm a cheap meanie who doesn't want to waste time or money on this particular retread.

The new series is up to its third episode, the July 2017 release War for the Planet of the Apes. Reading the pop culture site io9, I learned that it will contain a character from the original 1968 movie. A mute human girl is shown playing with a metal logo plate taken from a car -- a Chevrolet Nova. Stranded astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) bonds with a woman he names Nova (Linda Harrison) in that movie, and apparently the girl in the 2017 movie is the same person as the adult woman in the 1968 one, according to a story in Entertainment Weekly. Even though the movies in the reboot series are taking place in the first half of the 21st century and the 1968 movie is supposed to have happened in 3978. Makers of the current movie say that the story will explain the matter.

In case you thought that a squadron of irradiated human survivors using a school bus in attacking a treehouse village of intelligent apes was the silliest thing this particular franchise has ever brought about.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Solstice With the Mostest

So today is the shortest day of the year, and after today we get more and more sunlight each day for six months.

Largely symbolic, I know, but with the way today was, I'll take it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Muon Musin'

Some scientists at the Pierre Augin Cosmic Ray observatory have a question about muons. Like, why are there as many of them as there are when the Standard Model of physics says there shouldn't be. Trouble is, they can't really answer that question yet.

Muons are among the subatomic particles produced when atoms or other subatomic particles collide at great speeds. When those collisions happen in the Large Hadron Collider, then all the measurements show the proper amounts of leftovers. But cosmic rays strike the Earth's atmosphere at much greater speeds than those created by the LHC, meaning the collisions have much greater energy. They also happen out in the wide-open spaces rather than conveniently amidst a number of detectors and instruments.

The latter situation means that it's pretty tough to get exact measurements of what kind of leftovers a cosmic ray collision produces -- including a solid figure of how many muons it dumps out. A guesstimate procedure described in the blog entry at BackRe(Action) which is completely opaque to me offers a possible amount of muons and muon energy these high-velocity collisions produce. And it's more than it should be, compared with other kinds of energy coming from them.

The Standard Model of physics says how atoms and subatomic particles behave when certain things happen, and describes what all of those things are made of. Its strength is that things which it has predicted have often been shown to be true once measuring capabilities have advanced as far as the predictions. But this estimate does not match the Standard Model, meaning that either the method of producing it is flawed (possible) or there's something going on the Standard Model doesn't account for. Since it will be pretty dang difficult to create laboratory conditions in the upper atmosphere where the cosmic rays collide with air molecules, that means that scientists either have to massively upgrade the LHC or build a collider that can duplicate the energies of cosmic-ray speed collisions. It may take awhile for the technology and money to meet that need, but it is likely to happen someday.

What's interesting is that this problem is the kind of thing that often happens when scientists learn their frame of reference has been either too small or too slow. The geocentric universe blew up when Galileo saw Jupiter's moons and Saturn's rings. Isaac Newton's clockwork universe blew up when Albert Einstein started asking about things that moved faster than Newton could have considered. Could this be about to happen again? Who knows? But I imagine it may make a generation of physicists a little jealous of those who will come after them who have the opportunity to find out.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Poppy Off

Poppies are often displayed in the nations of the United Kingdom in November as a way to memorialize war dead. The most common day to show them is November 11th or near it, as that day marks the end of World War I. In the United States, it was originally known as Armistice Day before becoming Veterans Day and marked as honoring all military veterans. Sports teams, especially national ones, may include a poppy on team uniforms for contests near that date.

But FIFA, the international body governing soccer last heard from being charged with a massive bribery scam, fined the governing bodies of four national teams for displaying the memento. Displays of religious or political emblems are strictly forbidden, the association says, so the poppy emblems will cost those teams some money.

No word yet on whether or not the FIFA officials who may soon be wearing jail ID numbers will have to pony up for the privilege of doing so. You kind of hope not, because it'd be hard to work off a five-figure fine in a prison laundry.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Scoundrels and Rogues

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a cinematic version of what used to be called the "Star Wars Expanded Universe." Dozens of books told us about what had happened in the Star Wars universe before we met the characters in Star Wars, what happened in and around the events of the first three movies (and then those icky prequels) and then many ventured into the future of the far, far away galaxy's long time ago.

When Disney and J.J. Abrams brought forth last year's The Force Awakens, the Expanded Universe was more or less erased from "official" Star Wars continuity. The continued story would now take place onscreen, and while some of the events that took place before the original movies might still have happened in the Star Wars history, most of them would be excised also.

So although there were a half-dozen or so different versions around of how the Rebel Alliance managed to get the plans to the Death Star, officially no one knew how it happened, or why the Empire built a superweapon that was so easy to blow up. Until now, that is, as director Gareth Edwards and writers Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll and Gary Whitta lay out the courageous actions and daring mission of the people who made Luke Skywalker's "one in a million" shot do what it did.

Ne'er-do-well Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) finds herself rescued from prison transport by members of the Rebel Alliance on Jedha. They want her to lead them to her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), the Imperial scientist who designed the Death Star. But Jyn has not seen her father since he was "drafted" by Imperial official Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and she escaped to avoid being used as a hostage, so the search will be complicated. It will be more complicated because Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the Alliance officer leading her mission, has his own orders. And it will be still more complicated because Cassian's reprogrammed Imperial Enforcer Droid K-2SO (voice by Alan Tudyk) hates her. Along the way the quest will gather up two drifters who may have ties to the Force (Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen) and an Imperial pilot whose defection set these events into motion (Riz Ahmed).

It's not as complicated as it reads, especially for people who are already versed in Star Wars lore. And for them, there are some great callouts to that lore, such as the Kyber/Kaiburr Crystals from the book Splinter of the Mind's Eye that power the Death Star and Yen's character being one of the Whills, from George Lucas's earliest version of the Star Wars story being "from the journal of the Whills."

The Force Awakens had a big problem overcoming the "so what" question -- Return of the Jedi left the Emperor and Darth Vader dead, Luke a full Jedi Knight and Leia and Han united, so what was there left to do? Although it scaled part of the way up the slope, it left some of the rest of that climb to subsequent episodes. Rogue One doesn't have that problem, but it does need to overcome the reality that we know the Death Star plans will get through to the Alliance, because otherwise there's no Star Wars to begin with. Since we know what, it will have to make us care about who and how, and it partially succeeds.

Jones and Luna create two deep and well-realized characters who are driven as much by their inner conflicts as they are by their hatred of the Empire. But the rest of the cast is basically a Crayola fill-in of the remaining story picture. Yen and Wen are cool fighters and have some trademark Star Wars funny battle quips but little else. Tudyk seems to be doing his best "Anthony Daniels before his morning coffee" impression. Darth Vader's brief but important role is a neat part of the story, and even though James Earl Jones at 85 does not sound like James Earl Jones at 45 he's still Darth Frikkin' Vader. CGI versions of the late Peter Cushing's Governor Tarkin and a couple of other characters jar their respective scenes.

I've seen several friends offer their ideas about where Rogue One ranks in the movie lineup, and I'd put it in the top half myself. There can never be another "first Star Wars," so the smart play isn't to try to recreate the magic as much as it is find some magic of your own amid what's already there. The Rogue One crew manage that not too badly. Given that projected future "Star Wars Anthology" movies are about how Han Solo and Boba Fett came to be the people we met in the original trilogy and will have to carry a heavy "so what?" burden, then it might be safe to bet it's going to stay in the top half for some time to come.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Christmas Faves

At the link, you can find a map showing which Christmas movie is the most popular in each state in the U.S.

If the figures are accurate, then South and North Carolina and Kentucky have the best taste in the union (A Charlie Brown Christmas), with Mississippi and Wyoming (How the Grinch Stole Christmas) running a close second. Connecticut (Christmas in Connecticut) seems a little full of itself.

And I have never been more ashamed of my fellow Oklahomans in my entire life. Elf?

Friday, December 16, 2016

From the Rental Vault: Z Storm (2014)

Given that the zombie craze has given us crappy television, crappy novels, crappy movies and crappy comic books, you might be forgiven in thinking that David Lam's 2014 Hong Kong crime drama Z Storm was a part of that ordure oeuvre. But while it has a definite lurching quality, there is nary an undead to be seen during its zippy 92 minute running time.

Investigator William Luk (Louis Koo) has had a whiff of a major financial swindle in the offing that involves high-level financiers, government officials and corrupt law enforcement. He spends much of the movie trying to get a handle on someone involved who can open a window into the scheme, and let him gather evidence to stop it and arrest the conspirators. He's blocked by sneaky lawyer Malcom Wu, played by Michael Wong, who runs interference for his top-level money boss. Shady police inspector Wong Man Bin helps keep the bad guys a step ahead of Luk, threatening or otherwise silencing potential witnesses.

Though it has a high-powered cast to go with its high-powered Hong Kong action pedigree (Lam and producer John Chong were at the helms of some of the biggest titles in the Hong Kong crime action genre in its 1990s heyday), Z Storm never shows any common thread in its various scenes and set pieces. Although we know they're a part of the same story because they have the same characters who talk about the same things, there's no internal consistency that helps the narrative build up from a start to a finish, and no sense of real movement along the way.

Come to think of it, the relationship Z Storm bears to those 1990s action movies is not considerably different than the one the shambling undead are supposed to bear to real people, so maybe that stand-alone 26th letter indicates more than I thought. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Best Bills

Virginia ratified the Bill of Rights 225 years ago today, making them the law of the land and triggering full support for the new Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation under which the United States of America had previously tried to operate. Massachusetts had balked at the new formal unless it included the ten spelled-out rights that the Bill of Rights specifically guarantees.

Technically, the Bill is just a group of ten amendments -- the first ten amendments, to be precise -- to the overall Constitution. They create an excellent framework within which the federal government operates, and they are actually written in plain enough English that they can be understood by most anyone today.

Any vagueness they may exhibit has been eisegeted into them by different groups which want the opposite of the plain text to prevail but would rather not do the hard work of getting an actual amendment passed. Or they may realize that it's a lot easier to find a judge who agrees with you than it is to find two-thirds of both houses of Congress and then three-fourths of the state legislatures who do.

Anyway, we find that the initial ten amendments have been very useful for the past two centuries and a quarter, and we may hope they continue to be so for another 225 years.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Meow Mix?

Charles at Dustbury links to an item that asks how loud it would be if all of the cats in the world meowed at the same time.

The answer: Very, if you're standing near them. Not so much if you're far away.

But it's all moot, because at least 80 percent of them will have gone to sleep.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?


Honda engineers are developing an electric vehicle called the NeuV, which will have an interesting feature aside from being ugly and too small to dent a Beetle.

A system of cameras and sensors inside the NeuV will "read" the driver and then engage him or her in conversation in a manner appropriate to the emotional cues the system perceives. As a person drives the car more, then system will get better and better at reading the emotions and driver and car will "grow up" together.

There are no plans as yet to make the NeuV a self-driving car, which is probably as wise a move as could happen in the middle of this rather loopy idea. Sports fans going home in their NeuVs after a bad loss could suddenly find their cars zooming towards bridge abutments -- "zooming" probably being a relative term here. Inebriated people in a NeuV cockpit could "infect" the car with their behavior, leading to a law-enforcement conundrum: The person in the car might have been drunk but wasn't actually driving. So we could see a wave of drunk tank remodeling as NeuV-friendly cells are constructed while the miscreant buggies both charge and sober up.

Since the cars will be speaking with their drivers, they will probably require different language modules. NeuVs sold in the South would definitely need to know how to say, "No, I will not make a buzzing sound so your friends will think I'm a John Deere mower. You're in a NeuV. Deal with it." NeuV's sold in New York, however, will probably need their language software to have the Carlin app to better interact with their own drivers as well as drivers in nearby cars.

Monday, December 12, 2016

They're Coming Right at Us!



They'd probably burn up in the atmosphere before actually hitting anyone, but it sure doesn't look like it, does it? Which makes me just a touch glad that someone else took it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

This Again?

Having tried to convince us that Pluto is not a planet, astronomers now have decided to rename a bunch of stars, in several cases by returning them to names closer to the ones they had in the languages of their original discoverers.

One of those is Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to our sun at only four light-years away. The anglicized version of its Arabic name is Rigil Kentaurus, and that name has now been deemed the official moniker of Alpha Centauri A and B.

Of course, there's also a red dwarf star connected to the renamed two-star system which has been called Proxima Centauri. It was not renamed, leaving us wondering just what Proxima is proximate to, since its nearest neighbors are not centauri but Kentauruses.

And also leaving us wondering why scientists are fussing with stuff like this instead of figuring out ways to get to these stars and see if there are any local residents who might tell us what they call them.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Fish in a Barrel, Redux

So it appears that chimpanzees recognize other chimpanzees by their behinds, the way humans recognize each other by face. This fact was discovered by real researchers and as noted in the abstract at the link, published in a real scientific journal. Otherwise you would think it was a hoax.

In related news, chimpanzees were compared to college seniors in their ability to recognize the President-elect of the United States, the current cast members of The View, the retiring Minority Leader of the United States Senate, Sean Penn, Michael Moore, Bill O'Reilly, Newt Gingrich, Bill Maher, Kanye West, Al Sharpton, every Comedy Central host and thirty-seven of the known Kardashians. The chimps did better in almost every category except the Kardashians. However, they appeared to be puzzled when viewing the identification photos -- the reason why was eventually determined when one chimp learned enough human sign language to ask why all of these humans were walking upside down.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Summa Everything

-- Amazon has created a store that doesn't actually need to take your money. Check in with your smartphone, load stuff into your cart and sensors enter it into your "virtual cart" so when you walk out your Amazon account is charged for the items you take with you. I'm guessing some real people are needed for the folks who might decide to take "walk out without paying" more literally than they should, or for those knuckle-dragging Philistines actually insisting on using cash. One problem I can see -- if you decide you don't actually want an item it gets removed from your ticket when you put it back on the shelf. I've shopped Wal-Marts, K-marts, and grocery stores big and small for 30 years. The number of shoppers who put something back where they got it can be totaled up on one hand.

-- I may offer something else on this piece from Physics World -- providing I can manage to understand it -- but in the meantime, I must note that it contains the phrase "sonic Lamb shift" which my Dave Barry fan club membership required me to note would make a great name for a rock band.

--Scientists studying neutrinos have seen hints that there are differences between neutrinos and anti-neutrinos which could tells us why we have a universe made up of matter instead of one of antimatter (in which everyone, even babies, would wear evil goatees) or one that's empty because all of the antimatter and matter annihilated each other. And by annihilated, I don't mean a Buzzfeed-Voxy EVISCERATION, but literal wiping out until none are left. Which not even Jon Stewart could do on his best day.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

"Zero G, and I Feel Fine."

As many have repeated today, "Godspeed, John Glenn."

Those were the words Scott Carpenter said to Glenn just before he lifted off in 1962 on his way to be the first American to orbit the earth. The post title is what Glenn said when his spacecraft Friendship 7 achieved orbit.

Grounded by fame, Glenn was not allowed aboard another spacecraft until 1998, when at 77 he flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery as a payload specialist and as the subject of experiments on what effects space travel might have on older people. He flew with six of the luckiest astronauts ever, because they got to go into space with John frickin' Glenn.

A combat pilot in World War II and Korea, Glenn gave early indication that although he might be a textbook straight arrow, he was also a legitimate badass. There's pretty much no other word to describe you when you go into combat with Ted Williams as your wingman.

On Dec. 8, 2016, John H. Glenn, Jr., took a flight that was not limited to LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) -- because now, neither is he.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Living in Infamy

Seventy-five years ago today, Japanese planes attacked the United States naval and air base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It didn't turn out well for them in the end although they had some pretty good initial success.

Later this month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become the first leader of his nation to visit Pearl Harbor while in office. The visit is seen as reciprocating President Obama's visit to Hiroshima in May.

Some questions have been raised about what PM Abe will say during his visit. President Obama issued no formal apologies for United States actions to end the war, which included dropping two atomic bombs. Most people don't expect PM Abe to apologize for the Pearl Harbor attack either. It's possible to make more of a case that of the two nations, Japan might be the one which needed to apologize -- Pearl Harbor was unprovoked and a sneak attack, while the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were part of an effort to shorten the war before an invasion of the Japanese main islands cost perhaps millions of lives.

But even if that's true, the people who ought to be apologizing are the leaders who authorized the attack. Japan doesn't even have the same form of government that it had in 1941 (the Emperor is no longer a divine ruling figure). And Abe wasn't born until fourteen years after the attack. As even the youngest warriors on both sides of the conflict near the end of their ninth decade, you'd have to wonder what purpose an apology from what is now one of our closer allies in the Pacific would even mean.

The time frame for an apology to have meant something was in the ten to fifteen years after the war, when some of the same pre-war leaders who assented to the attacks were still around and some have even returned to the government. But since we were too busy rebuilding both of the nations we'd just helped smash flat to the ground, we never got around to asking for one.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Well That's Big of Them

The state legislature of New Jersey passed a law that says its student loan repayment agency won't go after families to pay back student loans for children who have passed away.

Now, ideally someone would have a life insurance policy on himself or herself to cover discharging debts, especially when the estate consists of not much more than day-old pizza in the mini-fridge and a used copy of The Norton Anthology of American Literature. But college students don't always think ahead like that, so the state's Higher Education Student Assistance Authority -- which is kind of an ironic name considering that their main job is "assisting" students in writing them checks -- has been known to be a little pushy in insisting on payback. And by "a little pushy" i mean requiring a woman to pay back $16,000 on her son's student loans after he was murdered. And suing a cancer patient after refusing to allow him to defer loan payments during treatment.

The new law brings New Jersey more in line with federal student loans, which are generally considered discharged if the borrower dies or becomes permanently disabled.

Obviously the law will now prevent abuses such as those listed above. But I guess that the sad thing is it took a law to prevent people from suing a cancer patient and forcing a murdered man's mother to pay his student loans. But bureaucratic pettiness and inflexibility can't be banned with a general regulation, so I guess we'll just go one step at a time.

Monday, December 5, 2016

From the Rental Vault: Pursued (1947)

Robert Mitchum played his strongest roles in noir and Western pictures (he said of his acting style that he had two: On a horse and off). Raoul Walsh's Pursued takes a shot at mixing the two styles and comes off with an uneasy, uneven blend that doesn't make up either its own or its audience's mind about what it's supposed to be doing.

Mitchum is Jeb, orphaned as a boy when his family is gunned down in a firefight at his home. He is taken in by Ma Callum (Judith Anderson) to be raised with her own children. But he remains haunted by the loss of his family and his frustratingly vague memories of the night they were killed. It leaves him unable to bond with the Callums and both brothers grow up resenting what they believe to be favorable treatment of Jeb by Ma. But he has fallen in love with his foster sister Thor (Teresa Wright), and even the machinations of Ma's brother-in-law Grant Callum (Dean Jagger) seem unable to pry them apart. Jeb's return to town as a triumphant war hero inflames even more resentment and the schemes against him take on a deadly edge.

While the setting is Western -- New Mexico in the early 1900s -- the shrouded inescapable past and hidden motives come straight out of the film noir playbook. Nothing says that the two genres can't mix, but Niven Busch's screenplay doesn't manage to get them there. We're told different motivations for the characters, but they never live them out in any convincing way. People seem to do things just because the story needs them to be done in order to get from one scene to the next.

A director like Walsh and actors like Mitchum, Anderson and Wright have the chops to almost bring Pursued across the finish line, but not without a clear sense that things could have been better.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Delivery Extra

Astronomy offers a short item on a newly-discovered near-Earth asteroid, 2015 TC25, which is currently the smallest-known asteroid in our neighborhood. It's also apparently the brightest near-Earth asteroid, covered in a reflective surface that reflects more than half of the light that shines on it.

According to the headline, the 2-meter 2015 TC25 could "fit in your living room." This is no doubt true, but it would probably make a heck of a mess getting there. I would hope the owners bought moving insurance.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Strong Entries

In 2004, Mike Moscoe adopted the pen name Mike Shepherd and moved ahead a couple of generations in his "Society of Humanity" universe to start writing the adventures of Kris Longknife, a very young officer in her planet's Navy with a long family tradition of trouble, guts and glory. With 2016's Kris Longknife: Bold, Moscoe/Shepherd winds up the first main arc of Kris's life as he brings her to the negotiating table of her family's deadliest enemies.

Vicky Peterwald and her father, the Emperor of Greenfeld, are at odds -- mostly because the Emperor's new wife wants to kill her. Vicky has gathered several Greenfeld planets in support of her, but she does not want to completely break with her father to outright attack her stepmother. The Emperor has asked for a cease-fire and wants Kris to mediate it. Vicky and her father sincerely desire rapprochement. Her stepmother the empress sincerely desires Vicky's death and that of anyone who stands between her and power, which includes Kris Longknife. This won't turn out well for the empress.

Bold makes a few missteps -- the number of characters in the series who have been attacked in a motorcade should alert pretty much all of them to take the subway for the rest of their lives, and Shepherd drops another such incident here. He spends rather more time on the opulence of the meeting and conference room than the details warrant. The Greenfeld-focused action moves the main storyline away from the mysterious near-human race Kris has fought several times before in defense of her home star-kingdom, which is really the more intriguing narrative in the series.

But he keeps his heroes witty and brave without the suffocating level of sang-froid David Weber piles on in his "Honorverse." And by making Kris a mother -- it involved sabotage, so don't ask -- he's added a new layer to her character and new concerns for her as she tries to do the right thing and prevent others from doing the wrong ones. Shepherd says in an afterward that Bold brings Kris to a turning point in her life and adventures, and so the changing tone helps set the stage for the next chapters in the story.
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Harry Bosch has been run out of the Los Angeles Police Department, although it cost them the losing end of a lawsuit to do it. He now works part time at a small city department surrounded by the LA metropolis and takes on an occasional private investigation as well. In his official capacity, he's caught a string of sexual assault cases that suddenly seem to show a linkage and a disturbing pattern of escalation -- but nothing else that offers any clues about the criminal. In his private capacity, he's been hired by an aging wealthy businessman to search for a son the businessman may have fathered almost 50 years ago. Both cases will test his wits and he will find areas of them intersect his own life in unexpected ways in 2016's The Wrong Side of Goodbye.

Michael Connelly's 21st Harry Bosch novel shows little sign of the coasting that can plague long series. The search for the missing son -- who may or may not have ever really existed -- brings Harry into some close contact with his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. The connection he feels with the people surrounding the most likely person to be that lost son drives him forward in the case even when most of his reason for pursuing it disappears. The assault case heightens his concern for his daughter, who now lives near her college campus in an apartment the cop side of Harry will never believe his safe enough. Connelly makes a good choice to have Harry pursue two separate cases, as it allows him to avoid padding either of them in order to have them carry the weight of a novel alone. He uses recurring characters like Harry's daughter Maddie and his half-brother layer Mickey Haller judiciously and never just salted in for the sake of a walk-on appearance.

The Bosch character gained a slightly higher profile with two seasons of Amazon's Bosch TV series, meaning Connelly could easily start churning out second-rate work at a pace designed to keep his publisher and investment manager happy but let his fans down. So far, that hasn't happened, and Goodbye is one of the strongest Bosch stories of the series.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Good Start

Major League Baseball's new labor agreement removes one of Bud Selig's dumb innovations -- giving the league which wins the All-Star game the home-field advantage in the World Series. But rather than go back to the old alternating American League-National League patterns, home-field will be awarded to the pennant winning team with the best regular season record.

Granted, the frequency of interleague play has removed a lot of the spectacle of the All-Star game. And since players may play for four or five different teams in their careers, the matchups of seeing the best stars of the game take on the other best stars of the game isn't as unprecedented as it has been before.

But tying home-field to the mid-season break winner was a panic-button move brought on by Selig after he ignored a basic law of professional baseball -- no ties, ever -- and allowed the 2002 All-Star game to end just that way. So its demise is no great loss.

Now if they could just close the Hellmouth under Yankee Stadium...

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sharpen That Razor

This article at The Federalist suggests that different views about the possibility of extraterrestrial life can imply several things about a person's worldview. Specifically, the willingness of some of today's more aggressive atheists to invoke them and their actions as a solution to the Fermi paradox suggests how these thinkers wind up invoking an unprovable solution with no more empirical evidence for it than for some kind of deity.

Now, the writer seems to me to have an overly-simplified understanding of the Fermi paradox (which asks, if there's life on other worlds, why haven't we heard from some of them yet) and probably does the same to the views of some of these more energetic atheistic persons. But that's beside the point. He suggests that the use of William of Occam's guide to answering a question produces an answer which makes these other folks reach for their silly solutions.

This guide, often called "Occam's Razor," says that the simplest solution which covers all the bases is usually the right one, and warns against needlessly complicated answers. So when Fermi's paradox asks where are those other life forms and someone answers, well, maybe we humans are the first species to have developed the ability to look around for our neighbors? Or someone else answers, well, maybe the other aliens are more evolved than we are and are waiting for us to catch up before talking? Those are needlessly complicated (and his dismissal of them needlessly snippy)! Occam's Razor means that the simplest answer to Fermi's question "Where are the aliens" is "There are none!"

From there we proceed to several more snippy paragraphs targeting folks like Richard Dawkins who have themselves not slouched in sniding religious believers. Although it goes against my grain to rein in someone who's knocking Dawkins' statements from pillar to post, I think this piece ignores a fundamental flaw in its eagerness to get its licks in.

I don't question the use of Occam's Razor in answering the Fermi Paradox -- but I think the writer here doesn't apply it properly. He says that ol' Will's maxim answers Fermi's question with, "There are none," because that's the simplest possible solution. That's the error. There is another solution, which you might consider equally uncomplicated or perhaps even less complicated: Where are the aliens?

We don't know.

But "we don't know" makes a poor rhetorical weapon. Though it's definitely accurate, it offers no sharp edges for cutting remarks and no weight to bash straw opponents. All it's got is humility and honesty. Which don't seem to be needed in this discussion, at least according to one of the statements being made in it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Non-Fiction

The "Trail of Tears" was the name given to a forced relocation of Native Americans living in the Southeastern United States. Different nations -- primarily the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole -- were required to leave their lands so they could be settled by Europeans. Uprooted and sent to modern-day Oklahoma, many perished on the journey as well as after their arrival. Although these nations had a significant urban presence in the southeastern US, their recovery after the relocation was not swift. They maintain significant presences in their resettled lands today, but the entire story offers a good example of just how poorly Native Americans have been treated by the United States government.

And still are, Naomi Schaefer Riley says in her 2016 book The New Trail of Tears. Riley sketches a host of social and economic ills faced by modern Native Americans that continue to produce misery for them today, long after active efforts to exterminate them via soldiers and rifles have ceased. She lays the blame for many of these on outmoded government policies that prevent Native Americans from using their own land the way every other citizen of the United States can and which deprive them of access to the same court and legal system every other citizen can access. Those policies provide a lot of bureaucracies with reasons to exist and bureaucrats with paychecks, but may or may not actually help Native American people or allow them to help themselves.

Riley paints a picture about as bleak as the northern plains winter scene on the cover. The centerpiece points of her proposed solutions -- allow tribal members some measure of private property rights over the land they live on and increase tribal members' access to redress through non-tribal court systems while overhauling and reforming the tribal ones -- might very well help but would require the kind of paradigm shift usually unavailable to the bureaucratic mind. The ancestors of today's Native people were forced to leave their lands in order to satisfy the interests of wealthy and powerful people; today they are being forced to remain behind in a system that serves those wealthy and powerful folks and notes them only incidentally, if at all.
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Often students from inner-city or less well-off schools don't move towards work in the hard-science world of things like physics. It has less to do with whether or not they are smart than with whether or not they even believe they can succeed in fields where few share their forming experiences. And additional layer of work comes when we focus on minority students from those same schools. Stephon Alexander has been one of those students who's worked to try to nudge the door open behind him for other talented students who may not think they can measure up. The Brown University physicist has also published papers on several theories in modern cosmology and physics that are often cited by others in the field.

And he's a jazz saxophonist who had the privilege of working a little with legend Ornette Coleman. His 2016 book The Jazz of Physics offers some reflections from these two fields and interests in his life and how they might intersect.

Jazz is structured as a semi-memoir of Alexander's own developing interest in both jazz and physics. Interest in the one helped fuel thought and interest in the other, he found, as he progressed through his schooling. The improvisational nature of jazz seemed a nice fit for the theoretical and largely mathematical work being done on the cutting edges of cosmology and physics. A saxophonist could improvise through a solo only if he or she knew how the different notes would sound together and which combinations and riffs worked and which didn't. Exotic ideas such as string theory or the multiverse -- which might never be proven experimentally -- can only be acceptable if they agree with things that can be verified, like the formulas used to express them.

Alexander is poorly served by his publisher with his book's subtitle: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe. He really doesn't ever offer anything like that, nor does he pretend he's going to. Some discussion of how waves in the universe immediately after the Big Bang could be seen as sound waves is interesting, but it's in no way the centerpiece of the book. Jazz is an interesting read even in its memoir guise, because Alexander thinks about interesting things. The book can prompt a reader to do so as well, but it never really makes a good case for why it should be a standalone book instead of an extended essay in a journal or magazine.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

You Said It, Mister

Tomorrow is the birthday of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, the man who as Prime Minister of England during World War II might have had one of the largest roles in saving Western civilization from Nazi overthrow.

Churchill was born in 1874. His speeches during the war, especially in the dark days of constant German air raids when it seemed like Great Britain alone was left to fight off Nazi power, are credited with giving the people encouragement to continue to fight and hold out. Churchill apparently believed that the United States would enter the war sooner or later, but whether he ever actually said it would have been better if it had been sooner no one really knows.

His 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech at Westminster University in Missouri sounded an alarm that totalitarian despots didn't all vanish when Hitler was vanquished, and that a wartime ally had become a Cold War enemy.

Churchill himself didn't like all of the praise given him for his wartime role, believing that his countrymen and women were the true heroes of the hour. From a speech he gave on his 80th birthday:
I have never accepted what many people have kindly said - namely, that I inspired the nation... It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion's heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar. I also hope that I sometimes suggested to the lion the right place to use his claws.
I have the mad respect for Winnie, but I have to disagree with him slightly. It's tough to read the following and think that it didn't offer at least a little of the heart behind the roar:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
I mean, it's no "Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it," but it did well enough for its time, right? No, here I'm going to go with the assessment of Edward R. Murrow -- himself no slouch with the wordsmithery:
He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Calculated Risk

Some writers at Science 2.0 helpfully weigh the different risk factors involved in running the bulls at Pamplona, Spain.

They suggest that while the goal of most of the people who stage athletic events is a zero-risk event -- safer surfaces in track events, big pillows underneath the pole vaults, etc. -- that option is not available in the Pamplona runs because the race itself is the risk, and the risk is part of the point of running the race. Therefore the risk cannot be non-zero.

While I am sure these people are all smarter than me, I have to disagree with their conclusion. My risk of being gored or stomped by a bull in Pamplona is exactly zero, because never in life am I going to run down the street in front of multiple tons of horned beef. Should one of the bulls of Pamplona desire my departure from this mortal coil, he'll need to get himself slaughtered and cooked on a grill someplace where I eat and thus place his deadly red meat into my system. That's not only his best shot, it's his only shot, so he'll have to figure out in his dim bovine mind just how much he hates me, someone he has never met.

It just ain't worth it, Ferdinand.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Satisfaction

Being as I am a fan of baseball, I've always been a little perturbed at the legend that the late and unlamented vicious dictator Fidel Castro may have been scouted and offered a contract by the New York Giants (sometimes the offer is from the Washington Senators). He supposedly turned them down.

It's a pleasure, then, to read Today I Found Out and learned that this is a false story -- that while major league scouts may have taken a look at Castro, they saw nothing they wanted. He apparently had high-school level stuff and as a pitcher, he made a great murderous despot.

He also, upon attaining power, banned professional pay-for-play baseball in Cuba. Perhaps he thought that if he couldn't make money playing baseball, then no one else in Cuba should either. It is, after all, what he did to the rest of his nation's economy.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Unusual Day

That I disagree with President Obama regarding a matter of foreign policy is not in any way new or noteworthy. He completely misses the boat in commenting on the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, ignoring the massive amount of human suffering brought about by the man and his policies.

But that I agree with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is...unexpected. Nevertheless, Rep. Pelosi's statement on the dictator's not-soon-enough demise notes both the oppression in which Castro engaged and the fact that his little brother hasn't done squat to end it. Kudos, Madam Minority Leader. This one you got right.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Mister Jones and...Us?

Jennifer, writing at JenX 67, notes a generational cohort that spans the border between the Baby Boomers following World War II and the Generation X crew made famous in the 1990s. The name: Generation Jones.

I'm on board with identifying this subset -- as a member, I can say that I didn't feel culturally much at home with Boomers or Xers. I lacked many of the cultural touchstones that helped define them and the ones I did have didn't seem to strike the mainstream of either group. Jennifer says that the name draws on the idea of "keeping up with the Joneses," and desiring a better quality of life like that of our predecessors, which I'm not so sure about. Not long after The Big Chill came out and helped some serious 60s nostalgia take over movies, TV and radio, I found myself quite sick of it. Yes, unemployment was more of a problem during our entry into the workforce, but after peaking in 1981 it started a nearly 10-year decline.

Jen notes a book written about the group by Jonathon Pontell called Generation Jones which she is on the lookout for. If you track down a copy, drop her a line at her blog.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Fogbow?

It's a real thing, and it's what you get when the water droplets that form a rainbow are much smaller than normal, about the size of those that make up fog.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

It's All in the Presentation

In case you were thinking your Thanksgiving turkey was going to be the most spectacular centerpiece of a holiday meal, check out these instructions from the mid-15th century on how to prepare a peacock for the table in such a manner that it looks like it is both alive and actually on fire.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Frontiers

Imagine that Isaac Newton saw not a falling apple, but a rising bubble of air in his bath and thus conceived not the existence of gravity but the principles of hot-air balloons. And imagine that not only did the planets of the solar system have breathable atmospheres, but so did the space in between them, so that sailing ships could navigate from one to another as they did the continents on Earth.

That's the world -- with some steampunk overlays -- in which David Levine sets his Arabella of Mars romp, giving us the story of Arabella Ashby's journey to save her brother and her family's fortune from a greedy and potentially murderous plotter. Mars is on the frontier of the British Empire's vast holdings, and when Arabella learns of the scheme she has no way to warn anyone except by taking ship for Mars, which she doesn't have the money to do. So disguised as a boy -- because proper young ladies don't crew ships in this early 19th century any more than they do in ours -- she gets hired on a trading ship bound for Mars, hopefully in time to thwart the evil schemer she's chasing.

Some of the details of this alternative world are excellent. For example, Levine posits "trade winds" that sweep between the planets to make journeys of millions of miles possible for sail-driven craft. Some asteroids are forested sources of timber for masts and water for survival. Ships use the principles of hot-air balloons to rise far enough above ground to catch the winds from one planet to another.

But the story itself is pretty pedestrian. Levine pays some lip service to the idea that the inexperienced Arabella needs to learn how to do things on board one of these interplanetary sailing craft but usually has her smarter, faster and better than just about anyone else she's around. There's really very little tension even in the most extreme dangers she faces, because there's really no possibility that she'll fail to conquer everyone and everything set against her. The voyage from Earth to Mars takes up enough of the book that the final act seems rushed.

Levine did an excellent job in dreaming up a work in which technology that's recognizably Regency-Era can make interplanetary travel feasible. Grant him a couple of assumptions, and the rest of things hold together. But not enough of that kind of thought went into plotting out his story arc and giving his characters some genuine depth beyond recognizable tropes. The book is sometimes listed as "Adventures of Arabella Ashby #1," so he may get some more chances.
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Although he was definitely a propagator of the "mythic West" that didn't always jive with history, Louis L'Amour also had a decent handle on frontier living and could tell stories with a lot more reality that the standard six-gun shoot 'em up. In Bendigo Shafter, he wraps the story of the creation of a community carved out of the wilderness around a coming-of-age tale of the title character.

The little caravan with Shafter and his brother has stopped to ride out the winter season and members have built shelters. These improve over time as many of the people in the caravan decide to see what they can make of the area, figuring they might move on in a few years. Shafter is sent west with the group's savings, directed to buy cattle to both help the new community survive and to provide an ongoing source of income. Even though he has been given opportunities to improve his thinking and other skills associated with survival, this journey represents his first step into the independence and responsibility of adulthood. The obstacles he overcomes help him forge a man from the raw material that kind community members had provided.

L'Amour's main intention with Shafter seems to have been showing the parallel between the development of the little community and of Shafter himself as both face obstacles in their paths, and trying to use a story to describe what he thinks goes into making a grown man from a boy. As he's showing these ideas in the first two thirds of the book, it's a compelling message and a compelling story. But when he switches over to a more lecturing style as the book winds down, Shafter loses its way and a lot of its charm. L'Amour led an interesting life both before and after he became an iconic storyteller of the American West, so his ideas on what he believes would be a meaningful philosophy of life are worth a listen. But when they take over the story that's supposed to illustrate them, it gets hard to do so.

Monday, November 21, 2016

I Don't Know if They Thought This Through...

NASA teamed with the National Oceanic and Atnospheric Association to launch an amazing new weather satellite this past weekend. Both weather observation and forecasting are expected to take major leaps forward when the satellite goes operational. But there's one problem.

The satellite is named the Geostationary Operational Enviromental Satellite-R, abbreviated "GOES-R" and pronounced "gozer."

The last time this world had a visit from a "gozer," we had to take the extraordinary risk of crossing the streams in order to rid ourselves of her. There's no guarantee it would work again, and the results could very definitely be very bad. Not as bad as this, but still pretty awful.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Faking Fakery?

Buzzfeed ran a story suggesting that all of the fake news sites throwing around made-up stories might have influenced the election, Many of the sites were trying to be funny, some were trying to work as satire and offer commentary with their humor and some were simply trying to get a rise out of the people they knew might be offended by the story they were "reporting."

As do most things online these days, the fake news stories found their way to Facebook. Most people's news feeds were pretty littered with them, as well-meaning but overly-credulous friends shared links suggesting things like Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump. In my own case, diligent use of the "Hide all stories from X" selection reduced their number after a few weeks, although it's truly amazing how many different Facebook pages can be set up proclaiming one political position or another is evilstoopid. And often doing so using a pretty limited set of words, most of which George Carlin would advise you not to say if you are on television. And many of which were misspelled, since rage-typing is not the most careful of typings.

Anyway, it seems that Buzzfeed's story about faking uses some research methods that are, shall we say, less than careful. So the fake news stories may not have had as much bearing on the election as the original story indicated. Which is not to say that the stories have any value -- my own unscientific sampling of a few shows them to have been written by people who were most definitely the smartest persons writing those stories, and others written by people who have an an unerring ability to make themselves laugh. Your current scribe may have committed misdemeanor- level versions of those same offenses, by the way.

So Buzzfeedˆs piece winds up as another failed attempt to find some kind of trickery or hidden flaw that produced the candidates and election result we had. But reality suggests to us something different: Voters in each party are responsible for the miserable excuses for candidates those parties sought to put forth for the office, and voters from both parties are responsible for the election outcome. And that is in no way fake news.

More's the pity.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Other Than That, Mr. Pence...

A tizzy was caused when Vice-President Elect Mike Pence decided to attend a performance of the hit Broadway show Hamilton. His arrival was greeted by a mixture of boos and cheers, the latter indicating that the audience must have had a significant number of non-New Yorkers in it.

At the end of the play, the actor portraying Aaron Burr -- you know, the bad guy who shot and killed the title character -- addressed Pence, saying that many marginalized and minority folk believe the administration of which he is a part will not pay attention to them and their rights as Americans. Hamilton, of course, features minority actors portraying the primarily white European Founding Fathers. He finished by saying, "We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us." Pence was leaving as the statement began but remained in the hallway long enough to hear it all.

President-Elect Donald Trump predictably overreacted via Twitter, demanding an apology. The actor, Tony Award-winning Brandon Victor Dixon, fired back on Twitter and said he appreciated Pence's willingness to stay and hear everything he said. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda said via Twitter that he was proud of the cast for taking their stand. No grown-up communication methods were harmed -- or used -- in this exchange.

Although I think it's a little unfair for an actor on stage to call out an audience member unless there's a cell phone involved -- remember, the actor has a microphone and stage lights while the audience member doesn't -- this strikes me as kind of a big ol' nothing, except for being a clear sign someone needs to stop Trump from tweeting or else we're going to have to put up with this crap for the next four years.

And as a friend said, this is hardly the worst thing to have happened to a Republican at a play.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Window to When

We're accustomed to seeing old photographs in black and white because that was the simplest and least expensive manner of making them for many years. Taking color pictures was possible, but it was complicated and expensive. If you happened to be a wealthy chemist who got the gift of a special railroad car with its own darkroom from your kinsman Tsar Nicholas II, then you could probably handle it.

Which Sergey Prokudin-Gorskii did, taking color photos of life in many of the most far-flung areas of Russia in the years leading up to World War I and the later Bolshevik revolution. Prokudin-Gorksii was impressed by the many different kinds of people he met in his enormous country, and wanted to use the fascinating technology of color photography to teach children about their diverse homeland. Unfortunately, said WWI intervened, Nicholas made some disastrous decisions that set the stage for the Communist takeover and Prokudin-Gorskii got the heck out before he could be comradized.



The variety of cultures he found is indeed fascinating. We're accustomed to thinking of Russia as gray, cold and oppressed -- and thanks to Vladimir Putin, that last one is making a comeback -- but that's just what you might call "European Russia." As the photo above shows, the vast nation included an astonishing variety of peoples and cultures, and it still does. More of Prokudin-Gorskii's photos are available here, at the Library of Congress.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Real Winner?

A person on reddit crunched some numbers and Brilliant Maps posted this interesting result as a take on last week's presidential vote.

Had "Did Not Vote" been a candidate, it would have won in a landslide of almost Reaganesque proportions with 490 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton's 32 and Donald Trump's 16. In only seven cases did the vote for one of the actual candidates running exceed the number of eligible voters who stayed home: Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.

None of the nation's largest electoral prizes would have gone to either candidate -- including New York, the declared home base of both of them. So if you're all wound up about the results, rather than blame the people who voted for the candidate you didn't like or some third-party doof (sheepishly raises hand), you might save some disapproving glances for the people who didn't even do that.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Hello, Stranger?

It will be interesting to see how this turns out.

Robert Heinlein's 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land is on tap to be adopted for television by the SyFy Network -- not as a movie, but as a series. This will be, as they say, a challenge. The book represented a significant swerve for Heinlein, who had ridden to success on short stories and several novels for young readers referred to as his "juveniles." It played with narrative styles and was much more "adult" than just about anything Heinlein had written before. It played fast and loose with the ideas of free love, concepts of religion and a whole lot else.

Today it's probably his best-known work, and the pasting it took at the hands of critics on publication hasn't prevented it from becoming a cult novel -- in at least one case, literally. Basic cable has loosened its prohibitions considerably, but there is an awful lot of HBO-level stuff in Stranger. Plus, it's complex to say the least (obtuse if you follow the lead of its contemporary reviewers) and may take more effort to follow than a modern TV audience likes to grant.

So we'll just have to wait and see, I guess, if TV can grok science fiction's first Grandmaster and his most famous novel.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Developing Photos

Paramedic Chris Porosz would, in his down time in his job in Petersborough, England in the late 1970s and early 80s, take pictures of people he saw on the street.

Over the last few years, he's worked to track down some of his original subjects and stage re-creations of the photos that he took back then. They're pretty fascinating -- I like the unrepentant punker who is recreating his pink mohawk for the modern picture. I suppose that if you have enough hair 40 years later to make an 18-inch high pink mohawk you probably should.

Information about the book in which Porosz collected the old and new snapshots can be found here, at his website.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Substandard Issue

Except for brief cameos, most of the team that series hero Troy Pearce worked with in the first book of Mike Maden's "Drone" series is absent from its fourth novel, Drone Threat.

Which leaves the engine of the book resting on Pearce's shoulders as he navigates both Washington insider politics and his chosen specialty of electronic drone warfare to hunt down a new threat to the United States. A drone somehow managed to breach White House security, land on the lawn and bear a message: Fly the ISIS flag over the White House or face catastrophic retaliation for every day the demand is not met. Troy, as a newly-appointed administration official creating policy for drone warfare, needs to engage in threat-thwarting while also trying to pin down its source and survive the even more hazardous world of White House infighting.

As in previous books, Maden's knowledge of drone operations and electronic warfare is top-rate and he explains it well within the narrative, rarely veering towards plot-stalling infodumps. He's less capable at characterization, but since this is the fourth book in the series he's been able to sketch his main players fairly well by now. The sidelining of the team detracts from some of the fun of the series at the start, as Maden tries to do some more exploring and building with Troy himself. It's not awfully done, but it's not his strong suit either and combined with a plot that yanks back and forth in annoying rather than mysterious ways it helps drag Drone Threat to the bottom of the Pearce series. Without the extra team members and their dynamics to flavor the story, we're left with cut-and-paste set pieces that retread ground the earlier books have already worn smooth. Something really unusual will be required to give this series some oomph if it returns for a fifth outing.
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I really don't know what to write about David Weber's 19th "Honorverse" book, Shadow of Victory. I mean, I know what I think of of it -- it's terrible. It's better than 700 pages of stuff that's already happened. Weber fills in some backstory and offers different points of view of many of the events covered in other recent books in the series about Honor Harrington and the Star Empire of Manticore. He does so in numbing detail filled with his favorite clichés. One storyline -- a revolt against corporate masters on a planet first settled by folks from a particular area of Old Earth -- seems to exist only so Weber can exercise the Spell-Czech app he has apparently installed on his computer.

So the temptation is to go full snide, set phrases to "kill" and vent my spleen so much that wind whistles through it. Shadow represents some of the worst features of modern genre publishing. There is no meaningful editing going on here, either for length or style or narrative clarity. Shadows exists because Baen Books knows a big chunk of Honorverse fans will buy anything with Weber's name and one of David Mattingly's Generic Sci-Fi Scenes on its cover. It exists because Weber's desire to tell about important developments in his story in as thorough a detail as possible -- and the belief that he needs to -- dovetails nicely with Baen's desires to sell bigger books with bigger price points.

And although I've thrown a little trash its way in the above paragraphs, I still love the Honorverse and I had more fun reading the first seven or eight Honor Harrington books than I did with a lot of other space opera out there. I think Weber's imagination has provided three of the more fun and interesting universes -- the Honorverse, the Safehold series and the War God fantasy series -- in modern science fiction and fantasy, and I'm grateful for the stories in them. That gratitude and the belief that he's still got great work and fun left in him wars with the desire to give Shadow of Victory the thrashing it so richly deserves, and I say that knowing I've already given in to the temptation I claim to be resisting. So I'll stop with: Shadow of Victory is not good. You probably shouldn't read it, because it might make you want to give up on the Honorverse entirely, and that would be too bad.
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The first five books of Tanya Huff's "Confederation of Valor" series focused on Confederation Marine Sgt. Torin Kerr's gutsy and heroic work in keeping the Marines under her care alive. But when she found out more about the war in which she'd been fighting than she was supposed to know, she ditched military service and opted for some more clandestine work she felt could do more good against the Confederation's real enemies -- whoever they were.

An Ancient Peace details the first such mission -- investigating a supposed cache of ancient super-weapons on a lost planet. Shady elements have been selling grave-goods from the race that gave up those weapons, which leads intelligence services to think they're hunting in the right place. Torin and her team are to investigate, but find the ancient grave to be a series of lethal traps and misdirections. They have to survive them if they want to even get out of the vault alive, let alone report what they find. Oh, and there's the gang of grave robbers that got there ahead of them, setting off many of the booby traps and making it that much more difficult for Torin's team. So even though she's not serving anymore, Torin has people depending on her to get them out of an impossible situation in one piece. Lucky for them.

Peace is a lot less interesting than earlier Torin Kerr books, reading more like a very well-written Dungeons and Dragons module than anything else. The weapons are the MacGuffin of the plot, pitting her team against both the clock and a deadly opponent and serving as a kind of fulcrum for this next arc of "Valor" books. But the search for them offers little more than a series of puzzle-solving set pieces and fun banter. Huff does that well, as always. But after finishing An Ancient Peace, it seems like it would have worked a lot better as a short story or novelette, losing some of the set pieces while gaining strength and some narrative legs.

Tragic Letdown

For those who were thinking that there would be no more shiny objects to distract George R. R. Martin from completing his Song of Ice and Fire story.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Perspective

This picture at the Astronomy Picture of the Day site shows about one degree of view of the sky, photographed by Juan Lozano de Haro. If you do click on the link, you will note the spiral galaxy NGC 891 in the upper right, which looks like it is about an inch long on my computer screen.

It's actually so large that if you were at one end of it and turned on your SuperDuperBright flashlight, people on the other end wouldn't see it for 100,000 years. This makes it roughly equal to our own Milky Way galaxy in size, and it has an estimated 400 billion stars. It's so far away that if we aimed our ExtraSuperDuperBright flashlight at it, no one in it would notice for about thirty million years.

So while I definitely think Donald Trump is a twerp and a half, sights like this make it tough to get too bent out of shape about his election.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Watch Your Language

At Mental Floss, you can find a handy list of "old-fashioned swears" to use in your moments when it seems profanity is required.

The list is interesting, although I don't know if these words constitute "swear words" the way we think of them today. Many of them come from oaths that the speakers might have taken more seriously than we do some of the four-letters we sling around. But the author is right on target that overuse has robbed many of our current words of their shock value and power. When every other word is the four-syllable combo that implies the subject is Oedipus in full-on Jocasta-shipping mode, then a user loses the ability to use it to truly insult someone.

All he or she does, in fact, is show a vocabulary too limited to think of something new.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Calendar Note

Today's holiday has been brought to you by your United States government, which in 1954 voted to officially change its observance of the end of World War I -- "Armistice Day" -- to "Veterans Day."

The ability to keep such a government and to have a say in how it operates has been brought to you by veterans.

Thanks much, ladies and gentlemen.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Universal Cure?

According to one Edward Topsell, writing in 1658, the cure for a runny nose was simple: Kiss a mouse on the nose.

Well, sure. If you told me that in order to cure my runny nose I had to buss a mouse on the snout, I'd tell you that I felt a whole lot better.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Zip!

Laser physicists in Munich have developed a method to record the change of states of electrons in atoms when they are struck by light. Those changes happen incredibly fast, in a period of time called, wonderfully, a "zeptosecond."

The specific study was done on helium atoms, which have two electrons. When a light with enough energy strikes a helium atom, the energy is absorbed in one of two ways -- either all of it by one of them, or half-and-half.  Either way, one electron is ejected from the atom, and the new process, described in the story, can see that happen because of its "zeptosecond" shutter speed. The actual duration of a zeptosecond, if you are curious, is a trillionth of a billionth of a second -- slightly less than the attention span of the modern media.

One of the project directors described how the process could help verify quantum behavior previously only predicted by theory: "“We can now derive the complete wave mechanical description of the entangled system of electron and ionized helium parent atom from our measurements.”

He did not add, but we may assume it as understood, that we now have a good reason to use the word zeptosecond, which is almost justification enough.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Yes, I Voted

Once again I eschewed the sticker ("I didn't do it! Nobody saw me do it! You can't prove anything!"), but I did in fact vote.

It felt better than I thought it would. Although they certainly won't ever hear it directly, the process of voting allowed me to tell both of the grasping, power-hungry self-idolizing septuagenarians representing the major parties that I would rather have a pot-smoking ex-governor who has a shaky grasp of foreign policy, a shakier grasp of religious liberty and a none-too-certain understanding of his own party's philosophy as my president than either of them.

I don't care which of them wins. Some things might get a little better under either of them, but a whole lot's going to get a lot worse. The interns might be safer under President Clinton 2.0 (at least, as long as the First Ladykiller is elsewhere), but as long as gun-buying remains popular, Second (and other) Amendments are likely to be safer under a President Trump who's never met a wind he couldn't bend to.

Neither of them is fit for the office they seek, neither of them is fit to receive a salute from the grimiest enlisted personnel dancing just this side of a court-martial and neither of them is fit for the difficulties of steering our nation through the events of the day.

The only proper response a decent person should have made to either of them saying they wanted to be President is, "So what?" By marking my ballot today, I did that.

Monday, November 7, 2016

A Little Reading

Scott Chrostek is the pastor for the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection's downtown Kansas City church plant. In less than 10 years, the satellite of the megachurch in the KC suburbs has grown large enough that it is building its own facility -- the first church construction in downtown KC in more than 80 years.

Misfit Mission uses some stories of the downtown church's founding and growth to outline Chrostek's thesis that God frequently employs people most everyone would consider unsuited or maybe even unsuitable for the tasks at hand. From his own move into the ministry from a career in finance to his selection for the job of planting the downtown ministry -- putting a Detroit-area native into a city he'd never visited before the project came up -- he considers himself first among the misfits, so to speak.

The stories of how Chrostek and other members of the church firmly believe that God not only frequently fits square pegs into round holes but often prefers to do so make interesting reading. They're sometimes humorous and often inspirational. While they illustrate the thesis fairly well, Chrostek doesn't do as much as he might to highlight just how they do so. In some of the stories, the "misfit" dimension of the people under discussion seems less apparent as they succeed either in what they're trying to do or prove more than adequate for the job. While he seems to make the connection explicit in the earlier chapters of the book it is not always as much so later on.
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A lot of modern popular Christian thinking centers on ideas of God being an escape hatch from suffering and doubt in life. There are probably times when this is so, but frequently we read about biblical people whose encounter with God did not provide instant clarity and freedom from all doubt and darkness. Christian history also features many such people, and in modern times Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light lets us know that even the most committed of believers sometimes finds no smooth path through faith.

Eric Elnes, pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation in Omaha, writes to those folks in 2015's Gifts of the Dark Wood. The "dark wood" of the title comes from Dante Alighieri, who begins his strange journey in Inferno in a "fearsome dark forest." Elnes suggests that rather than fearsome, for the Christian the "dark wood" of failures and doubts offers opportunities to walk more closely with God than ever before.

His willingness to honestly confront the uncertain or lousy times of life is more novel than it should be among modern believers, making Gifts a worthwhile read whether one is dealing with trials or not. The marketing of the book is less helpful. The phrase "soulful skeptics" in the subtitle sounds a lot like preening among people who consider themselves a little too sophisticated to settle for everyday religion. Publishing blurb that says the book is for "anyone who prefers practicality to piety when it comes to finding their place in this world." The older description of piety as "holy living," or actually living out what one believes in the real world despite circumstances, makes it a better description of what Elnes is talking about than the marketing person at Abingdon thought. 
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Pastor Rich Wilkerson, Jr., uses the metaphor of his childhood sandcastle building as a lens to look at four people in Luke 7 in his 2016 book Sandcastle Kings. No matter how elaborate a sandcastle he and his brother built, the next tide washed it away. Sandcastles do not last. Wilkerson links the idea of sandcastle building to Jesus' words in Matthew 7 about buildings that rest on rock versus those that rest on sand. Like the castles made of sand, the latter do not survive storms.

Each of the four people in Luke 7 that Wilkerson discusses has rested some dimension of their self-identification in the things of the impermanent world. When they encounter life's storms, whether ordinary or severe, that self-identification comes crashing down. Only by rooting our lives in Jesus himself can we build lives and selves that weather storms.

Kings is written with a breezy and simple style that might not be directly aimed at young people but which will probably be best received by them. Wilkerson also has aimed more at people beginning their relationship with Jesus than those who may be searching for paths of deeper discipleship. Most of what he says is operating in the binary "with Jesus or apart from Jesus" arena. This is perfectly legitimate and doesn't preclude reading Kings for fuel on a disciple's journey, but it does add an extra layer to that task.

The third section -- dealing with John the Baptist's question to Jesus about his Messiahship -- is probably the one that most addresses issues that confront people already in their walk with Jesus. The fourth, expounding on the nameless woman who washes Jesus' feet while he eats at the house of Simon the Pharisee, seems most focused on those who may not have started that walk. The kind of fuzzy focus weakens Sandcastle Kings and might make you wish it had been packed together a little more tightly.