Sunday, July 31, 2016

Brightly Lit

Over at What-If, Randall Munroe considers the question about how many fireflies it would take to create as much light as the sun.

It turns out that the number, while huge, is finite: Three followed by 31 zeroes. Munroe simply figures out the output in lumens of the average firefly, compares it with the lumen output of the sun, and does a bit of basic arithmetic.

Not only is the number not outlandishly huge compared with some other numbers in the universe, it turns out that a firefly is brighter than an amount of the sun equal to it in weight. In other words, 20 milligrams of firefly is brighter than 20 milligrams of sun, although probably a lot easier to keep in a jar.

Of course, arranging the fireflies to produce the light output is a trick, since the outer ones would block the light of the inner ones if they were just in a clump. They would have to be in a hollow sphere with their heads facing inward -- which leads to the interesting situation of a sphere of moons as bright as the sun.

One way to get around the need to coordinate an immense hollow sphere of bug bums is to imagine one giant firefly with a luminous patch able to generate the light of the sun. According to Munroe's calculations, such a firefly would be as large as the solar system, but would have the unfortunate design flaw of instantaneously collapsing into a black hole. Not just any black hole, but a black hole larger than any black hole that has ever existed -- technically it would be too big for a black hole but if we're positing a firefly the size of a solar system we're already ignoring most of the laws of physics and so why not keep misbehaving?

Black holes evaporate very gradually in Hawking radiation, meaning that they eventually cease to exist. The "firefly black hole," larger than any other known, would evaporate last and would wind up being the last thing in the universe before everything decays into a random assortment of wandering photons, neutrinos, electrons, and positrons. Meaning that despite Gail Berman's best efforts, when everything else is gone, there would still be a little bit of firefly around.

Now that's shiny.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Assortment

-- Some scientists studying the way the Pacific Beetle cockroach feeds its young -- unlike most insects, it bears live offspring instead of eggs -- have determined that its "milk" could become an excellent source of nutrition if it is found to be safe for human consumption.

I will starve myself right to death if people start putting that in food.

-- Business Insider lists 13 signs that you may be working with a psychopath. If your current job involves getting either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump elected president, you might or might not be working with a psychopath, but you are dern tootin' likely to be working for one.

-- Some folks have decided to roll the dice on the idea that Alpha Centauri has an earthlike world in its orbit and build a space telescope that will be able to take a picture of it. The project, called Mission Centaur, hopes to have its telescope in orbit by 2019 and begin photographing the HZ, or "habitable zone" of the Alpha Centauri A and B system ("Alpha Centauri" is actually a binary or two-star system. If you want to get picky, it's a three-star system that contains the red dwarf Proxima Centauri as well). Donations and fund-raising will help them do so.

Alpha Centauri is the closest star to our sun, only four light-years away. Still, anything found in its orbit would be a strict look-but-not-touch scenario. The fastest spacecraft flying today would still take 10,000 years to reach it, and by then we probably would have developed much faster ways to get there.

-- The Smithsonian Institute is looking for a beer historian. It's planning an exhibit on American craft beer and needs someone to research that history and prepare the exhibit. No word on sampling, but if that's a part of the job then changing your name to Norm Peterson might get you a second look.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Fighting the Forces of Evil

As Ghosts of War opens, members of the Taskforce, the extra-legal super-clandestine group fighting terrorists by doing whatever it takes to win, are still adrift following the events of The Forgotten Soldier. The government officials who give them their missions are unwilling to reactivate them after one of their members went rogue and began his own vendetta.

So Pike Logan and Jennifer Cahill, two civilian members of the Taskforce who operate an archaeological/historical items research and recovery service as their cover, decide to take on a job proposed by two Israeli secret agents with whom they've worked in the past. The job is simple: Help provide a cover story while the agents verify the authenticity of a medieval Torah scroll thought lost in the Holocaust. But the Israeli agents had a backup mission, and the Torah scroll is also on the shopping list of a shady Russian oligarch trying to stay one step ahead of the ruthless Vladimir Putin. His method? Destabilize U.S.-Russian relations to the degree that the two nations actually threaten war, which will cause other oligarchs to band together and oust the Russian leader. But he's more successful than he thought he would be and now war looks like more than a threat -- and Pike and Jennifer are right in the middle of it.

Even though the scale of the threat outweighs just about anything he's done with Pike and the Taskforce to date, the scope of the book remains smaller. Taylor writes most of his story around Pike and Jennifer as well as Aaron and Shoshana, the Israeli team. While the Taskforce pair still have some wrinkles in their relationship, they are Ozzie and Harriet compared to the Israelis -- but the latter want to navigate their way into a relationship they both desire but don't know how to create. The presence of someone from Shoshana's past doesn't help them at all.

Taylor gets credit for trying, as usual, to examine some of the real-world consequences -- political and personal -- of an agency that operates in explicit denial of the ideals and laws of the nation it wants to protect. He's less successful at exploring the relationship waters that the two pairs of agents and lovers are trying to navigate. He gets where he wants to go, but lacks the finesse that could tighten up and bring a shine to this part of his story. Still, he's offering a quick-paced action yarn where heroes act heroically, banter a bit and take care of the business at hand. And he's doing it with enough skill and nuance to stand out from the crowded shelves of similar yarns that leave a lot to be desired.
-----
In 2010, Power Down introduced Dewey Andreas, a former covert operative disillusioned with his work and his home nation who finds himself called back to work to face a threat that could cripple the country for decades. Since that interesting debut, Ben Coes has kept Dewey humming in adventures that haven't quite lived up to the promise of Power Down even though they feature some great character-building flavor.

First Strike, the sixth Dewey Andreas novel, starts out as strongly as any have before in the series. What if the terrorist group known as ISIS started out as a misguided attempt by U.S. intelligence to create a counter-weight to the jihadi forces sweeping the Middle East? And what if the brilliant mastermind of the group used that fact as leverage to keep the pipeline of weapons and resources flowing? What would happen when that arrangement finally came to light?

Well in a world with Dewey Andreas, the first thing to do would be to send him to Syria to meet with a possible ISIS defector to get information that confirmed the relationship. Although he does, and U.S. intelligence uses that info to stop the latest massive shipment, Dewey is caught and faces a brutal execution. Rather than cleave to the usual "I ain't skeered" attitude of he-man heroes in situations like this, Coes gives Dewey a healthy fear of his fate. Which makes his desperation in his escape that much more believable and heightens the tension as well. This part of First Strike is easily the best and ranks at the top of any of Dewey's adventures.

But the second half of the book, which deals with the ISIS leader's attempts to force the U.S. to give him his weapons shipment by taking over a dorm at Columbia University, is completely pedestrian, silly, cruel and paint-by-numbers Flag-Waving Patriotic Thriller 101. When we've gone a few pages of Dewey and company trying to figure out how to break into the dorm without getting any more people killed, Coes seems to think we need a reminder of how eeeeevil the terrorists are so they commit another atrocity on another poor innocent cipher. These incidents develop a significant cut-and-paste feel, down to similar language -- we cut to the hostage scene at least three times by being informed the air on the un-air-conditioned floor is "fetid" with the heat of so many bodies.

In the end, First Strike almost seems as though it's two unrelated short novellas mashed together under one cover -- Dewey's Syrian mission is a first-rate espionage thriller, but the Columbia hostage dorm segment belongs in a much lesser book.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Focus Time

At last, our long national nightmare is over, and both the primary season and the major party conventions are behind us. All we have to do now is hold out until the general election, and then we will only have to do the work of ignoring one of these two greedy egotists; the one that wins. The media will do the work of ignoring the one that loses for us, since no one ever cares what the second-place finisher thinks.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Not For Sale

The other day I visited a Hastings Entertainment store, which was closing as a part of the chain's bankruptcy. It wasn't able to find enough of a niche in the world of e-books and Amazon online sales to continue. That's an unfortunate reality of the free market, but the market remains the best way to measure what people want. So maybe the blame lies elsewhere.

A family was shopping, and one of the children, a girl of about eight or nine, had been given one of the books she would be getting with the family purchase. She dropped to the floor in a cross-legged second and dove in, immediately engrossed in whatever story she held while the others browsed.

Jeff Bezos will never be able to sell that, no matter what technology comes under his company's command.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Test Pattern

Traveling today. Blogging tomorrow.

Monday, July 25, 2016

It's Olympic Time!

Two weeks to go until the 2016 Olympic Games begin, and they're already earning gold medals in stupidity and embarrassment:

-- The Australian team declined to move into their rooms in the athletes' Olympic Village because among the amenities the Rio de Janeiro-based games offered were not-just-low-but-no-flow toilets and accent puddles conveniently close to power cables and light switches. The mayor of Rio, demonstrating that the phrase "clueless politician" translates quite well into Portuguese (polĂ­tico ignorante, if you're curious), offered to get a kangaroo to jump up and down in front of the building to make them feel more at home. Because we all know that when we think of pampered athletes whining about homesickness, Australians are the first group that comes to mind.

-- The International Olympic Committee followed up a report on widespread doping among Russian athletes in recent years by choosing not to ban the entire team from the Rio games.

Instead, individual Russian athletes will have to pinky swear to their individual sport governing bodies that their strength, speed and skill come from good food, clean living, taking their vitamins and saying their prayers. Actually the IOC said that each sport will determine which Russian atheletes may compete and outlined the criteria to be used for that determination -- reminding the sport federations that previous clean tests should not by themselves be considered enough proof of cleanliness.

Some folks said that the Aug. 5 opening date means there will not be nearly enough time to complete this more rigorous scrutiny, but the International Tennis Federation proved them wrong by clearing all eight Russian tennis players just several hours after the IOC announcement based on their previous history of clean tests.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Topping the "I" Chart

The academic journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture reported on some research by professors at the University of Michigan at Dearborn. Pam McAuslan and Marie Waung examined pop music charting in 1990 , 2000 and 2010 and found that over time, it has gotten a lot more focused promoting the self and demanding respect.

Bragging was confined mostly to rap music in the 1990 survey -- which makes sense, as a significant feature of earlier rap and hip-hop music was to demonstrate skill at wordplay. Rappers claimed superiority over others by virtue of their ability to make a clever rhyme or successfully unleash a tongue-twisting torrent of words at high speed without any missteps.

But during the next surveys, of 2000 and 2010 top hits, McAuslan and Waung found that songs in a variety of genres were about the singer's self-regard. Bragging expanded to sexual conquests, and the frequency of third-person references to the self increased. There were simply many many more songs that went ahead and lived out the Toby Keith number, "I Wanna Talk About Me."

The increasing complaints about how today's teens and twenty-somethings have been trained to think of themselves as the center of the blinkin' universe may have something to do with it, but I don't know for certain.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Distance

It would make sense to suggest that the point of the United States geographically closest to Africa would be on our southern end, closest to the equator. But it turns out not to be so.

In fact, the shortest distance between a point in the United States and any point on the continent of African turns out to be the 3,554 miles between El Bedouzza in Morocco and...Quoddy Head, Maine. Turns out that Maine is far enough east that it makes up for being so much more northerly than the other states.

It's also kind of interesting that the closest point in the U.S. to Africa is named "Quoddy Head." I'm glad I read the story, because otherwise I might have mistakenly used the phrase as an insult.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Spy writer Daniel Silva says in a note to open his latest, The Black Widow, that he began it before this year's terrorist attacks in Europe by the Islamic State. When they happened, he decided against changing what he was writing to make his story conform more closely to events since his fictional attacks served much the same purpose for his characters as the real ones would.

Brutal attacks in Paris and Amsterdam, carried off with no warning or even suspicion on the part of European intelligence agencies, spur a flurry of digging through files and contacts until a code-name surfaces for the mastermind: Saladin, after the medieval Kurdish commander who reconquered the Christian Holy Land for Islam. Soon the Israeli secret service, called the Office by its own members, becomes involved when its top agent Gabriel Allon sees a personal connection to one of the attacks. Gabriel is still officially dead and preparing to take the reins of the Office upon the revelation he is still alive, but before that happens he sets his sights on infiltrating Saladin's network and stopping more attacks. He will recruit Dr. Natalie Mizrahi, a French-born Jewish physician, to pose as a Palestinian woman embittered by the loss of her boyfriend and desiring revenge for his death. She will be bait for an ISIS recruiter, who can bring her in to the camps where she may learn enough about Saladin's plans to help the Office stop them -- if she survives.

Some of The Black Widow is familiar territory for Silva -- assembling his team, the Mission Impossible-styled layers of deception, the careful sketching of each character, the uncluttered narrative. He dwells on the "repeat performances" lightly enough to prevent them from dragging down his story, and adds his new developments and wrinkles through the parts of it told through Natalie's eyes.

Stories which feature the folks in the middle of the fight often hold interest more than the ones which focus on top-level leaders. I was wondering about why that might be and a possible answer is the hidden nature of spies and their work. Novels in which a president or prime minister has the guts, vision and virtue to do the right thing seem more glaringly wishful in light of current office-holders and aspirants. Those men and women demonstrate short-sightedness and incompetence all too often and we see the results. But novels seem to have a greater chance of being real when they feature dedicated men and women behind the scenes taking care of the messes that clueless leaders leave  -- or at least we have less reason to disbelieve they could really happen. When we face the reality that the top levels of our leadership are going to be a scene of the Clueless handing off to the Clueless and Shameless, stories about people at the front who know what's going and what they're doing has a strong appeal.
-----
Jonathan Quinn is also a clandestine operator, but of a different kind. He's a "cleaner," someone who follows along after intelligence agents have dispatched a target and sanitizes the area to remove all traces and clues of their presence. He works for himself rather than for any one agency or government, although he selects his employers according to his own rules and he has a team who assists in different parts of his work.

Even at one remove from the actual spy vs. spy game, Quinn has managed to make some enemies, and so have his friends. While Quinn and his wife Orlando are vacationing with one of them, a man who wants revenge on Quinn's friend winds up with Quinn and Orlando's children in his grasp. As the title suggests, neither of the couple will spare the slightest expense or stop at anything to save their missing children in The Unleashed.

Brett Battles is on his tenth go with Quinn and so has a good handle on his characters and their interactions. He's lost none of his skill at creating tension or choreographing an action scene in just about any setting. Although his characters may be kind of standard stock from the Espionage Thriller store, he never lets them slip into stereotypes. Unfortunately, Unleashed amounts to an extended chase scene as Quinn and Orlando pursue leads on their children, follow them up, draw closer, work against time, and so on. Battles' ability to render lifelike what could be standard characters seems to desert him in bringing an entire novel's worth of life to a very standard storyline. His decision to render a cliffhanger via the fridging of a female character does nothing to redeem a lackluster effort and probably tips a "meh" outing for Quinn into a "yech."

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Prejudged

I confess. The entirety of my dislike of Donald Trump spawns from his role in the collapse of the United States Football League, as detailed in an ESPN "30 for 30" documentary.

The league featured Oklahoma's only non-collegiate professional football team, the Oklahoma Outlaws. Its collapse removed us from major-league level sports until the post-Katrina sojourn of the Hornets and then the Thunder.

OK, sure, the Outlaws' owner had already moved them from Tulsa to Arizona before the USFL folded, but that's because he was a dude who figured that having a lot of money meant he knew how to run things even though all it really meant was that he was a dude with a lot of money. And from whom do you think he learned that lesson?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Neat Idea, Just...

When the Branhams moved into their new home, they were a little nervous about the slickness of the staircase. Mom Pippa and dad Jonathan thought the slippery stairs could prove dangerous for their kids. Carpeting them was going to cost some money.

So they painted them, mixing the paint with some sand in order to give the treads texture and grip for little feet. And not only that, Pippa painted the risers with the covers of her favorite books.

The only wrinkle, of course, is that the George R. R. Martin riser is likely to turn into an escalator to match the ever-increasing number of books in his series, and that there's a real possibility that it would never actually get anywhere.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Who Said What?

Last night at the Republican National Convention, Melania Trump gave a speech about her husband, presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump. Ms. Trump is a naturalized U.S. citizen and Mr. Trump's third wife.

Initially, the speech seemed well-received, but some folks heard things they thought sounded familiar. It turns out that some parts of Ms. Trump's speech sound a lot like a speech by Michelle Obama in 2008. A hashtag has now surfaced to make fun of her and many people suggest this incident has some political importance. Several thoughts spring to mind:

1) Someone in modern media actually remembers 2008?

2) Considering that nearly 100% of modern political speeches are brim full of meaningless platitudes, does it really surprise anyone that they are being recycled? There's a difference between endless ways to say nothing and saying nothing endlessly. We live in days of the latter. You can even find a little Kindle book defining the stock phrases candidates use.

3) It would seem to me that a far more important aspect of Ms. Trump's speech was her ability to Rickroll an entire country.

4) As to political import, if there is someone out there who made up his or her mind to vote or not vote for Donald Trump based on whether or not his wife's speechwriter lacks the ability to design yet another disguise for empty boilerplate, that person is even less qualified to be president than is Mr. Trump. But no worries -- Mr. Trump would still be in a two-way tie for second.

Monday, July 18, 2016

History Pays Off

Writing at Acculturated, Mark Judge points out that the hit musical Hamilton would not have happened if creator Lin-Manuel Miranda hadn't been the kind of fellow who would read an 800-page biography about a dead white European male.

Although some historians have quibbled with the dramatic license that Miranda takes with our nation's founding events, it's also true that probably nothing since "Schoolhouse Rock" has put the American Revolution front and center in so many areas of cultural discussion. Sure, nobody believes that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison actually sparred with each other in a rap battle during cabinet meetings, but by casting their arguments in that format Miranda gives the discussion living dimension it's not always easy to imagine when we just read the history today.

And while other folks wonder at the way the show casts only minority actors in the roles of the Founding Fathers, it actually highlights the power of the idea they created and the documents that shape it. The Declaration of Independence was written by white men and unfortunately probably far too many of those white men thought it concerned only them if they thought about the matter at all. But their limitations don't invalidate the ideas of the Declaration, nor do they for the U.S. Constitution. Miranda's choice makes that statement as powerfully as anything since Martin Luther King, Jr., was claiming that civil rights legislation was the way that America fulfilled its stated purpose, not trashed it.

Anyway, if you're a creative type who's looking for the next cultural translation masterpiece, David McCullough's always worth a read. And the idea of the Truman-MacArthur disagreements being shaped into competing raps is pretty intriguing, even if Truman's eventual winning mic-drop moment might be a little too close to a phrase made famous by one of the idiots soon to be nominated to run for President.

(ETA: Some folks might disagree with calling Alexander Hamilton "European," Technically he isn't, and would be either West Indian or American depending on what time frame you want. But people who sniff down their noses at DWEM's probably don't make those distinctions.)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

This Is, How You Say...

Dr. Tim Lomas, a professor at the University of East London, became fascinated by the way that some languages have words which just don't translate exactly into English. So he began compiling a list of them,. He also studied the way that English simply absorbed some of those words into itself and began using them to express those concepts they described in their native habitat.

As Dr. Lomas notes in a Scientific American article on his project, words referred to as "untranslateable" are such only if you insist on some kind of one-to-one correspondence between the words. Those words do translate, but it takes several words or even some sentences to do so. He gives the example of the German word Treppenwitz, which literally translates into English as "staircase wit." But it describes the great comeback or pithy comment that comes to you too late to be a good response in the conversation. If "translate" means only the one-to-one substitution mentioned above, then Treppenwitz doesn't translate. But since there is an English idea that it matches, then it does translate, but requires several words for that to happen.

Folks in my profession have to deal with this kind of thing a lot, because our primary source documents are in two distinct languages: Greek and Hebrew (there's a sprinkling of Aramaic in there as well). Modern Greek and Hebrew have words that struggle to cross over into English, which is bad enough. But we have to work with ancient versions of both languages, which are more or less not spoken today. However difficult it is to make connections between modern cultures with different languages, multiply that many-fold when one of the cultures involved hasn't existed for more than a thousand years.

A single word in Greek might require a paragraph of explanation in order to be adequately understood. And there are some Hebrew passages which translate just fine -- but they make no sense when they do, because those words aren't used that way any more (ancient Hebrew's lack of written vowels adds to the fun).

Of course, some of my colleagues insist on that as a license for their overly prolonged orations, but that's just mean in any language.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Eyes in the Back of Your...

A conservation biologist at the University of New South Wales may have come up with a way to save the lives of both cows and lions in Botswana.

Lions eat the cows, which are not much different from their usual fare of wild animal. Farmers shoot the lions, because cattle are essential to their survival. So Dr. Neil R. Jordan paints eyes on the hind end of the cows, as lions are far less likely to charge prey that they think is looking at them. A small-scale experiment seems promising.

In an unfortunate coincidence, both major political parties seem to have adopted the tactic this election year, although the GOP apparently has altered it slightly by using a horse and combing its tail over.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Well, Naturally

Writing at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Noah Berlatsky explores the awfulness of academic writing, specifically digging into why academics who start out writing poorly never seem to improve?

Berlatsky says that part of the problem is what many people suspect it is -- somewhere along the line someone sold academia (and the rest of us) on the idea that if something is obscure, then it must also be profound. Academic folks therefore don't write in their wackadoodle way to hide that they've nothing to say, but because they've bought the line that if any meathead can understand what they're talking about then they aren't being truly intellectual.

There's probably some truth to that. Every profession or group has its own specialized slang to a greater or lesser degree. And understanding it when no one else does can often give that feeling of insider-ness that many of us love.

But, Berlatsky says, when the desire to veil the simple so as not to be thought simplistic mates with the kind of poor writing skills seemingly everywhere today, then there is a kind of obscurantist symbiosis that locks in the bad style and death-by-polysyllable traits for the duration of a career.

Highly technical writing probably should be a little tough to understand for the non-specialist. After all, if some depth of study has gone into learning the details of a subject then it would be kind of a wash if the study turned out not to be necessary.

On the other hand, the source of the difficulty should be in things like the terms of whatever specialty's being discussed. If I'm reading something on a particularly challenging area of geology, for example, then I ought to be slogging along because I have to pause and look up words. But I should not be slogging along because the writing itself muddles things and the sentences under consideration would remain impenetrable if they concerned how to boil water.

Part of the problem, of course, is that few people have to suffer academic writing at its highest and most abstract level. And many of those that do turn around and become academics themselves, and they're not spilling the beans. Who knows what might happen to them if they exposed their profession's deep secrets?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Snow Job

Scientists have observed the planetary accrection disc around a new star as it is condensing to form one of the planets that star will have one day. What they've seen this time is where the "snow line" around the star that marks interior rocky planets from outer ice giants is. The discovery helps confirm a number of guesses about planetary formation theory, and so is figuratively cool as well as literally so.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Charles Hill quotes the appropriate words and gives them context, so I will just link to his post.

Monday, July 11, 2016

"Plagiarizer, Seven Letters, Starts with a 'C'"

There's some consternation in the crossword puzzle-making world, because it appears at least some puzzles are showing up more than once, and under different names.

Oh, and the clue is "copycat."

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Milestone

The previous post was #3,000 for this here blog, which makes me a "millitriathlete" of running my mouth.

Write What You Know!

The Daily Caller is not a regular read because they're often too shrill and too much like a right-side version of Buzzfeed, but every now and again there's something that will catch your eye.

Like this lamentation over the passing of the Twitter account of Real_PeerReview, a clandestine academic who posted titles and abstracts of actual academic papers for which beautiful, stately trees gave their lives. Of course, mocking academia is the lowest of low-hanging fruit -- you'd have to harvest while spelunking to get any lower -- but that doesn't make it any less fun. Who wouldn't want to read a spirited defense of fungi and their overlooked role in ecopoetry -- complete with four poems on mushrooms!

Think of the reception you will get when you open your next cocktail party conversation with one of the lessons you gleaned from "Entangling a Post-Reflexivity Through Post-Intentional Phenomenology." Don't believe me? According to the abstract, the paper's authors "amplify the post in post-intentional phenomenology to demonstrate some of the unique possibilities this methodology might afford qualitative researchers interested in experimenting with entangled connections among seemingly disparate philosophies, theories, and methodologies." If folks don't get the vapors when you dazzle them by doing that, then they have souls of stone.

The DC article notes that the tweeter has shut down his or her account, and writer Blake Neff suggests it is because the tweets might have been imperiling Real_PeerReview's own academic career. Which is one of the not-so-funny aspects of this ridiculous situation. One of those is that people pay good money to the institutions that produce this bushwa, often under the misconception that those institutions have the goal of educating their children rather than perpetuating their own existence. But the one that crops up from the deletion is that there are genuinely smart people who want to teach at college, and maybe they exercise their brains on some interesting and off-the-wall topics. Only when they draw attention to the real "This'll keep my job because everyone who looks at it will keep quiet about how they have no idea what I'm talking about instead of taking the risk others might think they're stupid" crap, they get pushback.

So Real_PeerReview might not get work, while the champion of the underdog 'shroom rhymes has a regular gig. Man, am I glad I'm not in school today.

The entire list of tweets is here.

Friday, July 8, 2016

From the Rental Vault: Battleground (1949)

Conventional wisdom suggests that movies made about World War II during wartime and in the years following its end were largely patriotic celebrations of brave and heroic GIs battling villainous Huns and scheming Japanese. It took several years for war movies to have a more accurate picture of the weariness, terror and lousy conditions endured by those soldiers, and their often all-too-human response to them.

But the soldiers in Battleground grouse, kvetch and complain -- with good reason, as they're stuck in Bastogne during what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. And they're not uniformly brave and cheerful, or disdainful of danger, personal and otherwise. We'd expect that level of character dimension today, but its presence in a movie made less than five years after war's end might surprise some folks.

Members of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, find themselves ordered to Bastogne to try to repel German advances towards Antwerp. In late December of 1944, German forces surround the city and put it under siege. Thick fog and other bad weather conditions prevent supply flights from reaching the isolated Americans and keep American air power from countering the German heavy armored vehicles pulling in closer.

Battleground isn't a documentary, although screenwriter Ronald Pirosh drew on some of his own Battle of the Bulge experiences for his narrative. He won an Oscar for the effort. But it's cast very much as a slice-of-life story, focusing in on a handful of members of the 101st rather than the wider field of the whole battle. Miserable from cold and frostbite, running low on ammunition and wary of disguised German units sneaking through the forest, they wonder if their presence has a purpose. Battleground offers a kind of hokey answer to that question in the form of a battlefield sermon by the chaplain that addresses just those issues, but it's a rare misstep for the movie.

Of course, while fear and grumbling come front and center in the story, bravery tells and those who live up to their responsibilities to country and comrade come off looking the best. The payoff seems a little more substantial, though, given the doubts and wavering the men display earlier in the movie. And some grace notes, like the way Ricardo Montalban's Johnny Roderigues whoops at the sight of snow he's seen only in the distance from his native Los Angeles, elevate the movie overall.

Studio infighting and power struggles meant that Battleground almost didn't get made, and it's probably not the most famous WWII movie around. But its layered portrayal of the stereotypes behind the characters in most of those movies and willingness to let a little reality creep into the legend make it one of the better ones.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Sunrise, Sunrise, Sunrise, Sunset, Sunset, Sunset

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick would have had to completely rewrite the song if Tevye and company had been from HD 131399Ab instead of Anatevka.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Earnings

Last October, Andy Kiersz of The Business Insider crunched some numbers and showed which profession in each state earned the most outsized annual salary compared to the national average for that profession.

For example, your annual salary if you are a welder in Alaska is 80 percent higher than the national average for welders. This doesn't mean that welders in the other 49 states all earn that much less than Alaskan welders. Some of them may earn almost as much. But when you do the math of averaging -- adding up all 50 and then dividing by 50, you get the lower figure, and the Alaska figure is 80 percent higher than that.

Some of the greatly higher figures make sense. People in the category "lifeguards, ski patrol and other recreational protective service workers" who work in Hawaii are probably a little more in demand than people in that same category in Nebraska, for example. So they can command higher salaries. The demand for logging operators in Idaho probably exceeds the demand for the same specialty in, say, Arizona, and so the salaries for such in Idaho are 39% higher than the national average.

Some of the figures explain a lot of things. Judges and magistrates in California make 62% above the national average for their profession, offering a pretty good hint as to why California is so screwed up. Tax examiners and collectors do better in Michigan and we now have some hints as to what's helped Detroit collapse. Some are predictive -- Colorado legislators earn 50% more than the national average for legislators, so Colorado is likely to be screwed up pretty soon.

Actually, as noted in this space before, comparing state legislative salaries across the country involves some apples and oranges that make the average a less informative figure than it might be. Some states pay their legislators a per diem and others only compensate for expenses with no base salary at all. And for the benefit of the campaign-by-meme crowd repeating that statistic, the profession in Oklahoma which pays the most above its national average is not legislator, but optometrist.

Rhode Island is the state where teachers do better vs. the national average than any other profession in the state, bringing home 77% more than that national average. For 2015, Rhode Island's students scored 25 points below the national average on the SAT. There's no way to know what if any correlation exists between those two facts, but it could at least hint that other factors than educator salaries affect student performance. And some of those factors might not be at all amenable to correction by legislation.

Some of the figures are head-scratchers. Why do gaming dealers in Kansas make close to 30% more than gaming dealers across the country? And why do "athletes and sports competitors" in Pennsylvania make 66% more than their profession's national average, given the performances of most Pennsylvania sports teams? Why do printing press operators in the District of Columbia make more than double their profession's national average -- perhaps printing all of those government regulations takes such a toll on a normal person's sense of logic and proportion that only extremely high pay can lure them in? And why do "insulation workers" rank as the most above-average salary for Illinois, when Chicago voters earn more per ballot than anyone else in the country?

Some questions, it seems, await more exploration.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Asleep in the Stacks

Apparently, in bygone days, large city libraries had building superintendents who lived onsite. They carried the responsibility of fixing mechanical problems and general building maintenance, as well as cleaning up, just like a superintendent in an apartment building.

Some of the space of the library was used as living space -- bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, etc. So whole families might live among the books and papers browsed every day by the reading public.

I used to think that time travel needs to happen so someone could go back and, say, take an infant Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin away and raise them in such a way that they could never grow up to be the monsters of the 20th century. Or supply Noam Chomsky with the clue he's been desperately needing for 50 years, or giving a flat tire to whatever talent agent first met Joy Behar and thought she should be in show business so they would miss the encounter.

But now I want to go back in time so I could get this job.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Hey Babboo!

This pik-a-nik basket's for me and not you!

Sunday, July 3, 2016

You Can't Say That and Get Away With It

About a year ago this blog recommended Kirsten Powers' book on the deliberate drying up of political discourse, Silenced. Powers contended that instead of defending positions and winning debates in the marketplace of ideas, too many folks were interested in simply shutting up their opposition. Although she self-identified as a liberal person politically, Powers didn't hesitate to call out people who shared her positions but who lacked her commitment to robust debate.

Conservative commentators Mary Katherine Ham and Guy Benson published a book on the same topics at about that same time, End of Discussion. Being conservatives, they also take aim at more liberal folks who are more interested in silencing their opponents than persuading them, but like Powers they point out how some conservative folks have done the same thing when they have the power to do so. They touch on a few cases where they actually agree with the position being argued by the silencers -- they too support same-sex unions, for example -- even though they completely reject the labeling and forced acquiescence sought by people who also favor that position.

Discussion ranges more widely than Silenced; Ham and Benson touch on some of the same incidents Powers relates but add several others outside the political arena. They also aim some well-deserved mockery at folks who operate on the "'Shut up,' they explained" model. The goal of getting a laugh makes their work a little breezier than Silenced, and its connection with current events means it will sound dated before long. But its central argument against the idea that shutting down debate is preferable to engaging in it remains timely, and unfortunately new examples will make certain that this is a subject that will bear repeated visits in the future, by Ham and Benson or others.
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Author Jon Ronson admits that he had more than once joined in on Twitter mobs gang-shaming people who had done something that the twitterati deemed unacceptable. But when he found himself on the receiving end of unwelcome internet attention -- some people created a fake profile that used his name and tweeted with it as though it were him -- he started thinking about the consequences of that kind of public exposure. That led him to investigate aspects of the shaming culture all too often overlooked by those who participate in it.

In So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson observes three well-known instances of people who made some online or public mistakes which somehow grabbed the attention of enough people that they brought about life-changing consequences. He also explores the concept of shaming itself in interviews with these three folks as well as some people who suffered public exposure and humiliation in pre-internet eras.

The problem for the folks vicitimized by the mobs, Ronson points out, is not so much the immediate two minutes hate which targets them. That passes, most especially because Twitter has a memory not much longer than the avians from which it takes its name. But the way search engines work keeps the most frequently-visited sites, pictures and mentions at the top of their results lists, meaning that even the remorseful are not allowed to truly repent. They are eternally imprisoned in their worst decision.

Shamed spends as much time trying to decipher what creates shame as well as what blocks it as it does outlining the stories of those who've undergone it. Ronson surveys that idea more than truly investigates it, but he's writing a pop-culture essay, not an academic work. In the end, we could hope that people who read his book might think twice before re-tweeting the latest outrage or piling on to the most recent transgressor of All That's Decent, and let people learn from their dumb mistakes.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Voice, Unstilled

Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust who made it his mission to remind the world of what had happened to him and his people at the hands of evil men, passed away Saturday at 87.

Wiesel recounted his experiences as a teenage prisoner of the Buchenwald concentration camp, including the loss of his father, mother and sister, in his 1955 memoir Night. He would go on to write many more books and articles, raising awareness of the Holocaust itself and working to uncover abuses of human rights in many other areas of the world. In 1986, he received the Nobel Peace Prize to honor his work.

Wiesel, it should be noted, outlived the "thousand-year Reich" that tried to kill him by some 71 years. He was pretty clearly opposed to their modern heirs as well.

Friday, July 1, 2016

College Math

Everyone knows that the most prestigious colleges in the United States offer a better education than Everyday U down the highway.

And everybody knows that a good four-year bachelor's degree, even if it's from Everyday U helps its holder wield more earning power than a two-year associate's degree. Once again, what everybody knows turns out to be not exactly correct in some instances.

Over at The Pope Center, writer Stephanie Keaveney discusses a measure before the North Carolina legislature that would require public universities to offer statistics on how much their graduates earn following matriculation. Keaveney links the bill to similar efforts in Colorado, Minnesota, Tennessee and Texas.

A few paragraphs down in the story, she crunches some numbers and learns something interesting. She compares wages between two groups of people who hold Radiation Therapy Technology degrees -- those who hold 2-year associate's degrees and those who hold 4-year bachelor's degrees. On average, someone who picked up their associate's degree in RTP in 2008 was earning \$53,802 five years after walking across the stage. A person with an RTP bachelor's degree, on the other hand, was earning on average \$52,667.

That's only a 2.5% or so difference, of course, but those with the associate's degrees reached that mark sooner -- at least two years sooner, depending on how long the bachelor's degree actually takes. And they will have spent significantly less on their degree than their counterparts. Should their long-range plans require the more advanced degree, they can work towards it while earning their slightly larger salary and borrowing quite a bit less than their colleagues with the four-year degreee.

And for those who promote as much college as possible as the only path to success in life, the size of the gap is mostly irrelevant -- that it exists at all is cause for embarrassment. So look to see these kinds of transparency measures called out for being misleading or inaccurate or something similar when they start cropping up on the radar. Outside of STEM programs or the classical liberal arts studies at smaller schools, there's not a lot of actual edumacatin' that goes on in the modern university. If people start finding out that their costly bauble is less of an investment value than the less-costly bauble from the discount shop next door, then there may be some university administrators scrambling around to justify their existence. Or at least their employment.