Sunday, January 31, 2016

Spy Games

Troy Pearce spent a long time on the sharp end of the sword in the global war on terror, staying behind the scenes as an agent for the CIA. Eventually burned out as he watched too many colleagues sacrificed for expediency, he now operates his own covert services operation featuring high-tech drones. No longer forced to work for those who couldn't care less about his fate, Pearce is presented with a request from the President of the United States to use his technology to find the drug cartel kings that killed her son. Though he's certain the job will wind up involving more than that, Pearce agrees, and then is proven right in 2013's Drone.

Even though it features the unmanned air, sea and land vehicles usually called "drones," Drone the book doesn't turn Troy and his teammates into pasty-faced desktop joystick jockeys. There are plenty of occasions that call for them to be lethal up-close and in person, and they are all well-trained in the ability to do so. The drones and high-tech toys back them up and take the center stage infrequently enough to satisfy most action spy thriller fans.

Maden has a background in political science and so his geopolitical chops strengthen Drone, and he has a tidy hand with an action scene. Drone has some first-novel rough spots but also hints at some high-level espionage thrillings as we continue to follow Troy and his employees in later adventures.
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Before retiring from the spy biz, the agent known as Pilgrim published a textbook on forensic investigations that a brilliant NYPD detective found and eventually used to contact him. Now Pilgrim stands in a bare motel room, looking at a dead body someone has treated using his methods. It's the first domino in a string that leads to a vicious terrorist with a horrifying plot and a return to a stage Pilgrim thought he would not play on again.

Terry Hayes is a screenwriter and has a knack for creating great atmosphere and visuals in 2014's I Am Pilgrim, his first novel. The character Pilgrim begins with an almost cramped and stilted viewpoint voice, but as he moves more and more back into the world of shadows and secrets, that voice opens and loosens up, adding a few wry quips and self-deprecating humor. That inverse relationship helps ease some of the tension as we watch the all-too-plausible terrorist scenario unfold and root for the truly evil mastermind to get the comeuppance he merits.

Hayes' style is not particularly ornate or embellished, but it does have a spare elegance that works well with the damaged Pilgrim and his world of deceit and lies. Hayes plans to continue the character, so we'll see how or if Pilgrim manages to stay separate from the life of secrets.
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The assassination of an estranged royal spouse moves British intelligence to seek aid from an unlikely source -- Israeli agent Gabriel Allon. Gabriel's past "indiscretions" on British soil will be overlooked if he can help. Allon agrees, but only if he can get help from an even more unlikely and unwelcome source -- ex-SAS commando and assassin Christopher Keller. The need is great enough that his wish is granted, and the pair get onto the track of a brilliant bomb-maker and the shadowy revolutionaries who hired him in Daniel Silva's 2015 The English Spy.

Gabriel and Christopher have worked together and crossed paths, but they've not been partnered up in this way before. Christopher is used to some rather final methods to gain information and tidy up loose ends and while Gabriel is as ruthless as need be when the mission requires it, he still has some rules left to play by.

Silva is still in the middle phase of his Gabriel Allon stories -- he's familiar enough with his characters and settings to keep things humming smartly but not yet at the place where the familiar has become a rut. Adding Christopher into this mix offers a dash of new flavoring to his regular menu and helps keep The English Spy fresh. Whether he plans to bring the pair back together in the future or offer Christopher Keller in a series of his own novels has yet to be seen.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Even More Elementary

Scientists recently announced the discovery of four elements which complete the seventh row of the periodic table, leaving it without gaps for the first time in quite a while.

But is that all there is? Does the table have an eighth row or more? Having found real atoms to take the place that had been labled "ununtrium," for example, -- atomic number 113 -- are there also previously unseen atoms capable of existing in the spaces that would be marked "unbinilium?" -- atomic number 120?

Current technology doesn't provide many likely methods to produce these elements if they exist, and they all have the problem that they decay into other elements very quickly. The possibility of some more stable constructions at certain atomic numbers, which reference the number of protons in an atom's nucleus, offer the best chance to find some of these super-heavy elements. They may not decay as quickly as do some of the really unstable elements. But even a half-life -- the amount of time it would take for half of an element to decay into others -- of millions of years could mean that most of a particular element had already disappeared in a universe that is billions of years old.

There's supposed to be an upper limit to how big an atomic nucleus can get -- beyond a certain size the electrons in its surrounding energy shells would have to move faster than the speed of light to avoid collapsing into the nucleus. Which is not, as far as anyone knows, possible. As the Chemistry World article notes, famed physicist Richard Feynman believed that would happen at or near element 137, although some modern researchers think we could find elements far heavier, up into the 180s.

Of course, the really wacky could happen, and element that broke this law could be found to exist, and it would be called dilithium and power warp drive ships to the stars.

Wouldn't suck.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Expand on This Concept?

Over at Mental Floss, Jake Rossen explains why books often have blank pages in them. It has to do with how many pages the text of the book takes up and the fact that "signatures," or the groups of pages combined to make the book -- need to be divisible by four. If the page count of the book divides evenly by four, then no blank pages are necessary.

But if it's an odd number, then the publisher either sends it out with some clean white pages or finds something else to print on them. Sometimes it's a list of previous works, or publishers may tease another recently-released book like the one you have in your hands.

However, Rossen does not deal with the question of books that should probably have even more blank pages than they do, say, cover to cover. Like any of these. A bunch of these would probably be more useful that way. And of course these.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Regressing Multiply?

"Multiple regression analysis" is a tool that statisticians will use to try to analyze relationships among pieces of data. It's supposed to account for the fact that the world is a pretty complex place and that studying it involves trying to juggle not just one variable, but several.

Solving an equation with one variable in it is relatively simple. Even though we usually don't think of it this way, even plain old arithmetic can be expressed with a variable: 2 + 2 = X, we know, provides us with 4. Algebra complicates matters -- of course -- by switching where the variable is in the relationship: 2 + X = 4. Still, it's not too difficult to solve these kinds of problems, and I'll thank you not to look at my report card all that closely when I say that.

Add a variable to the equation, and now you have serious algebra, as well as the possibility of multiple answers. If X + Y = 4, then we have a lot of possible solutions. Both of the terms can still be 2, of course, but now one of them could be 3 while the other is 1. One of them could also be 4, while the other is 0. And that's just with real whole numbers. Add negative numbers and fractions into the mix, and you can see that our two-variable problem will literally never run out of solutions.

Real-world problems, while they may not have infinite solutions, tend more towards that end of things than they do towards simple arithmetic. Which car is safest to drive, you may wonder. How will you find out? You could simply sort the number of fatal crashes by model of car and then compare the totals. The car with the fewest fatalities must be safer.

But is it? By simply sorting and counting fatalities, you have decided to ignore lots of other variables that may play a role, and according to psychology professor Richard Nisbett that means your analysis may be so flawed as to be useless. He uses the car safety study as his own example, pointing out that drivers with unsafe driving habits may gravitate towards certain automobile types and thus skew the results. If all the leadfoots (leadfeet?) suddenly switched to Volvos, that vehicle model's safety record might be quite different than it is. And if little old ladies started buying Dodge Challengers, their record might improve. Although you might have to select out the ones from Pasadena, at least when they are driving on Colorado Boulevard.

Professor Nisbett goes on at length, but if you've no desire to read his interview, the sum-up is that life is complicated and while we can guess what might happen based on what has already happened, it's still a guess and thinking otherwise is likely to turn out screwy. Even I can solve that one.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Cup Is a Donut

"Topology" as a word that refers to the shape of something's surface. Topological maps use whorls and markings to indicate elevation and mark hills, ridges, valleys and other features. They're also called "topographical."

It has a math-related meaning as well, which involves the study of those surfaces and ways to express them in mathematical terms. Which is where it gets weird, because the same equations can describe two apparently different shapes. It's a wee bit of a head-scratcher, because our eyes tell us we're looking at two different things, but the math says they're interchangeable. This picture at the Curiosa Mathematica blog models how that can be by showing how a teacup and a donut are topologically equivalent:


Of course, the teacup does not taste nearly as good when glazed, and it's awful hard to sip your Earl Grey from a donut. Facts which mathematicians freely acknowledge.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Show Biz Grab Bag

-- Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong has called out the "Enfield high school board" because the musical department of Enfield High School in Enfield, Connecticut isn't going to do the musical version of the band's 2004 album American Idiot. According to the group's director, some folks complained about the show's content as inappropriate for a high school production, so it was scrapped and will be replaced with Little Shop of Horrors. Armstrong, using the hashtag "enfieldidiot" in an Instagram post, lambasted the decision since the company had been planning to do a much cleaner version than the profanity and drug heavy original Broadway stage production. He overlooks the salient points that the "Enfield high school board" didn't make the decision and the overblown ego-fest of a musical created from the overblown ego-fest of an album isn't anywhere near as good as Shop, anyway.

-- Actor Danny DeVito offered his opinion on the controversy over the monochromatic list of nominees in this year's Oscar awards. Nominees are selected from the top vote-getters in the different categories, and those Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members active in that category do the voting. In other words, actors vote on actors, technical specialists vote in their specialty, and so on. DeVito's opinion: Americans are "a bunch of racists." He overlooks the salient point that it wasn't Americans who voted on the Oscar nominees and selected an all-white slate of honorees. It was Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members. Americans may or may not be "a bunch of racists," but it would probably be better to sample a wider range of them than DeVito and his co-workers to find that out. For what it's worth, I saw several performances by nonwhite actors this year, and all of them were better than Bryan Cranston or Jennifer Lawrence in their nominated roles. Or every episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia that has been or ever will be filmed.

-- As of this writing, Donald Trump is refusing to do the Thursday night debate among Republican presidential candidates, since it is carried on Fox News Channel and will be moderated by Megyn Kelly, who has apparently been mean to him. You may say, wait, the post title suggests this is supposed to be a collection of show-biz anecdotes and this is a political item. I disagree: These debates are pure theater and Trump is a swinish clown who cannot have anything be about anyone other than himself -- what category other than showbiz fits such a diva?

Monday, January 25, 2016

'Tis the Day!

January the 25th, of course, marks Burns Day, which is observed by folks who either are of Scottish descent or wish they were to mark the birthday of Robert Burns (1759-1796). It's also observed by people who love poetry.

Burns wrote poems and also songs, and was responsible for bringing quite a few traditional songs into print. He wrote in Scots, a mixture of Scots and English, and in standard English, and often used his poetry for social and political commentary. One may pause for a moment to snicker at the thought of Jon Stewart or Bill O'Reilly being able to fit their gas-baggery with rhyme and meter.

I will probably not have a haggis tonight, but I will leave you with a chorus from "The Braes O' Killiecrankie," one of the traditional songs which Burns is credited with standardizing and setting down in print. The singer suggests that a bold young man might temper his boldness were he to have endured actual combat and witnessed its impact:
An ye had been whare I hae been,
Ye wad na been sae cantie, O;
An ye had seen what I hae seen,
I' the Braes o' Killiecrankie, O.
Burns himself never served in the military or saw combat, and though he wrote plenty of words in a combative air, he knew enough to know what he did not know. That also might set him apart from many social and political commentors of our day.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Now We See You, Now We Don't?

So things around the star KIC8462852 have gotten more interesting recently.

Late last year, items were published noting an irregular dimming and brightening of the star, some 1,500 light-years from Earth. When those kinds of changes happen on a schedule, astronomers think a star may have planets. But planets have regular orbits, meaning that the dimming and brightening would happen on a schedule. The dimming and the brightening of KIC8462852, though, doesn't, which makes planets an unlikely cause.

One speculation was that an extraterrestrial civilization was building a gigantic construct around the star that sometimes eclipsed part of its light. Rather than the Dyson Sphere, which would surround a star completely and cut off all of its light, the admittedly outlandish theory was that it might have been a Dyson "swarm" or "cloud." The aliens weren't building one impossibly immense structure, but instead several improbably immense structures that obscure part of its light on an irregular basis.

The more likely explanation, most astronomers figured, was cloud of huge comets, whose irregular orbits would provide the same effect. So the solution was found and everyone went away happy.

Except Bradley Schaefer of Louisiana State University, who continued research on KIC8462852 and discovered that it had been doing this irregular brightening-dimming thing since it had been first observed by Harvard University astronomers in 1890. For irregular comets to keep that up, Schaefer estimated that there would have to be almost 650,000 comets of at least 125 miles in diameter orbiting KIC8462852, and that option's off the table.

For the record, Schaefer doesn't necessarily believe aliens are building gigantic sun shades. But he notes that so far, the data don't support offered natural hypotheses, which at the very least means that he and other astronomers will need to keep looking.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Still Like That Old Time Rock and Roll

According to SoundScan, 2015 represented the first time since the data have been collected that current releases were outsold by what it calls "catalogue album sales." That phrase refers to material that's been out for longer than 18 months. This prompts several observations:

1) A year and a half is kind of a low bar. Does Taylor Swift even wait that long between albums? It seems like she always has a song on Top 40 radio so I can't be sure.

2) This situation would seem to argue that older music is better than current music, but really, what can I say about this idea that Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and the Weeknd haven't already said much more convincingly?

3) The story notes that this figure refers to sales, and many folks who listen to current hits probably do so using some streaming service. Those listens are figured differently than are sales. This would again suggest that current music is not as good, since it is not worth purchasing to listen to during times when wi-fi is not available.

4) It also notes that catalogue album sales measure exactly that -- sales of albums. Many current releases are not contained on albums but are singles only. If I were one of those middle-aged grumps who believes that music from his day is better than music these days, I might suppose this is because current artists aren't able to have more than one song worth a darn. And while I am one of those grumps, I have bought enough albums in my day to know that having only one song worth a darn -- or maybe one song worth a darn per album -- is in no way a new phenomenon.

For what it's worth, the classic rock staple which gave this post its title managed to crack the Billboard Top 30 by peaking at #28 way back in 1979, but is instantly recognized by just its eight introductory piano notes. Whereas the eight notes that open one of that year's number one singles, Robert John's "Sad Eyes," could not be picked out of a lineup. Nor should they be.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Double-Oh Yawn

When Daniel Craig debuted as James Bond in 2006's Casino Royale, he was a part of a franchise and character reboot in a way. Bond in Royale is a British agent but not yet with a license to kill. Although Dame Judi Dench kept the roll of M that she had held through Pierce Brosnan's run as Bond, the absurdity and excess of the gadgets and whatnots that wound up sinking 2002's Die Another Day was gone. Although still not very realistic in terms of espionage work, the Craig Bond leaned much more that way. Craig brought the ruthlessness to Bond that Sean Connery had offered in his first appearances, but with an almost sociopathic detachment that made the character interesting and all his own.

His return as Bond in 2008's Quantum of Solace was hampered by the movie and television writer's strike and by its retread of several elements from previous movies. MGM's financial problems delayed Skyfall until 2012, meaning that Craig's fourth Bond movie came out almost a decade after his first. He publicly stated his weariness with the franchise and did not sound like an actor who wanted to play this role any longer. Even if he'd never said that, watching him phone in large sections of 2015's Spectre makes it clear.

Part of the problem is not Craig's. Spectre is too long and overstuffed as director Sam Mendes tries to give nods to different Bond movies, scenes and plot elements from the series. The story involves Bond being phased out as an agent in favor of an electronic intelligence network at the same time he follows clues to the shadowy forces behind the attacks in Skyfall. It tries to wrap elements of Craig's whole run together into a connected arc, suggesting that those shadowy forces have been against him from the start and are at the root of the tragedies he's suffered. It's not a bad idea, but the John Logan script is not nearly focused enough to make good callbacks to three other movies over nine years when they were not necessarily designed to hang together that way. Especially when one of those movies was a seat-of-the-pants rewrite collaboration between the leading man and the director.

But part of the problem is Craig's. Let's say we're watching a scene in which the performer shows little or no emotion. Perhaps the blank affect we see on the screen is intended by the performer. Perhaps it's supposed to be icy calm but seems like blankness because the performer isn't that good. Or perhaps it's a sign that the performer is just doing the minimum necessary to get the checks to clear. If an actor crap-talks his movie and how he can't wait to be done with the character, then an audience is going to be eagle-eyed for signs of that dissatisfaction and how it affects his performance. So guess which of those three "perhapses" is going to seem like the most logical choice?

Craig's contract does call for a fifth movie, so we'll see what happens. Without some kind of change in his outlook about the character he is very handsomely paid to play, those of us schlubs who are paid much less and who yet part with some of those proceeds to watch him might be better served to stay at home and wait for Netflix.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Turn up the Nebulizer

Nebulizers are machines used to break up the chemicals in drugs in order that they may be inhaled. Oh, yes, you're right. Nebulizers are machines used to break up the chemicals in legal prescribed drugs in order that they may be inhaled. Otherwise they might be called something else.

Anyway, they are useful for certain kinds of drugs because they will be absorbed into the body more efficiently through the lungs than in other methods. Some of them use ultrasonic sound waves to make their medical mists, but the problem has been, as this article in Physics World notes, that ultrasonic nebulizing is a slow process. Even if "ultrasonic nebulizing" does sound cool. If the wave frequency is increased in order to speed the nebulizing process, the chip used to produce them breaks down from the heat and stress the stronger waves produce.

So researchers figured out a way to use other sound waves the process generates in order to supplement the ultrasonic waves and add to their power without increasing the heat and stress on the chip. It means that nebulizers could become smaller as well as produce mists that are more likely to travel deeper into the lungs without being diluted by absorption in the mouth and throat.

In other words, the proper sounds improve the drug experience. Pink Floyd fans everywhere nod sagely and agree.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

One Size Fits All

Problem: The universe is "smooth" in that as a whole, pretty much every part of it looks like every other part. Yes, one part may be empty and another part have a star, but once you expand the scale, on average they're all alike. Kind of "regular irregularity." Solution: The universe started out smooth and always has been.

Problem: A universe that was completely smooth at its beginning would not, as it developed, have any irregularities. Stars and clouds condense from gigantic clouds of interstellar gas, clumping together by gravity. But complete uniformity would not allow for any gravitational variations to produce clouds, stars, planets or us. Solution: The universe started out lumpy enough to produce its regular irregularities.

And the real problem for these conditions is that neither one of them allows for a universe that looks like we believe it to have looked when it formed to become a universe that looks like the one we're in today. There's a couple of different possibilities considered for ways to tweak one theory or another to get from where we were to where we are. One is inflation, which argues that the original lumpiness of the universe was minute. But right after the Big Bang, a period of rapid expansion caused it to balloon enough so that it had enough time to come to look like it does. Inflation solves some problems but leaves others and whips up a couple of its own.

Another is the "ekpyrotic picture." This idea is more complicated, but it basically suggests that the smoothing out of the universe happened during a period of contraction rather than inflation. Like inflation, it doesn't solve all of the mysteries about how we got the universe we did and adds a couple of wrinkles of its own.

Cosmologists Anna Ijjas and Paul Stenhardt decided that neither of these theories was weird enough and so came up with their "anamorphic" cosmology, in which the inflation and contraction happen at the same time. In essence, they have taken the things about inflation that work, discarded the ones that don't, done the same with the ekpyrotic picture and combined the remains. The blog post at Nova gives a brief explanation of how this works and offers links to the team's more detailed papers.

It may seem at first like just a silly, dreamt-up solution that really couldn't fix anything, but there's some observational evidence that doesn't yet, at least, allow anamorphic cosmology to get tossed out the window. And in a world where an photon can be a wave and a particle at the same time until you measure it, and the way you measure it determines which one, the idea that things expanded and contracted at the very same time isn't as out there as you might first want to believe.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

When Lives Are at Stake...

Buffy Summers is 35 years old today, which makes her old enough to run for president. We could do worse.

And we almost certainly will.

Monday, January 18, 2016

I Like to Be in America

As this writer at Ricochet notes, immigration and related issues have taken up a lot of attention during the slogging presidential campaign season. Something often overlooked in the fuss is that the reason there is an immigration issue is that people want to come here. Nobody's digging tunnels to get into North Korea.

So he's reprinted several of the comments on a Reddit question, "What was the most pleasant surprise about America?" asked of immigrants. No place is Eden, but at least as far as the people quoted at the link are concerned, here is a whole lot better than there was.

Flawed, but still fabulous.

On the other hand, we have these lovely folks, who live overseas so that they can, among other things, not pay back their student loans. Although we as a nation are currently out the money they owe us, unloading a guy who let his parents co-sign on $146,000 for film school and then skipped while getting two teachers in Austin who've paid 60 percent of their house mortgage off in two years sounds like a win for the good guys.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Who's the Fairest One of All?

Over at Space, Buddy Martin and Dae Wook Kim of the University of Arizona describe the process by which the gigantic mirrors used in the latest optical telescopes are made. Surprisingly, it takes a little bit more than a big piece of glass and several cans of silver spray paint.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Let's Be Careful Out There

This post of fun facts about the pioneering drama Hill Street Blues brought back some good memories. For everything that's followed in its footsteps, it's still one of a kind.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Miss Skellany

-- At The Federalist, Robert Tracinksi offers a list of seven things people should stop doing during the presidential candidate debates. Since these things are either manipulated by moderators in order to make all of the candidates look bad or manipulated by the candidates themselves to get their talking points in front of voters for free, I've got a list of one thing people should stop doing during the presidential debates: Watching them.

I win.

-- A supernova some 3.8 billion light years from Earth was more than five hundred billion times as bright as the sun when it blew up. In other words, this one object put out more light than the entire Milky Way galaxy. Scientists are still calculating the SPF number you would need to not burn to a crisp if you were anywhere near it.

-- The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently announced the nominees for the 2015 Oscars. Thanks to the good folks at Mental Floss, we can see eight nominations that were revoked. One of them was an Oscar that was actually awarded before being yanked when the Academy learned it had shown in a theater a year before the awards year in which it was nominated. This is a list that the Academy would probably rather you not pay too much attention. If it got into the habit of revoking undeserved awards, it would probably have to rent some storage space for all of the recovered statuettes.

-- Cadillac is putting a pause in its plans to release a self-driving vehicle. Rumors that this move comes in response to the Chauffeur's Union -- specifically, threats that GM execs who approve a self-driving Caddy might wind up fitted for cement driving gloves -- are as yet unfounded.

-- Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that anyone and everyone can edit, turns 15 years old today! Whoops, I just checked. It was 14 years old. Nope, that was changed back to 15. Oh, wait, that will be 15 years tomorrow. No, it was 16 years yesterday. No, it's definitely 15 sexist, cisgender-white-male privileged years old, and it's today, and it's been locked so that is the definitive right year and day!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

OK, Sure, But...

As we near Super Bowl L -- which will actually be called "Super Bowl 50" because our affectation with Roman numerals only goes so far -- the CBS Sports site has ranked the halftime music shows for our convenience.

The list is certainly the product of a point of view, and equally certainly dead wrong in so many ways. Obviously individual tastes play a huge role since we are talking about performances, and judgment of performances and the artists who put them on are mostly subjective. Putting that Katy Perry silliness from XLIX anywhere other than in the bottom five, for example, is a head-scratcher. And with just a couple of exceptions, putting any of the AARP shows (XXXIX, XK or XLIV) anywhere but the bottom five makes no sense either. The Madonna edition (XLVI), thanks to her injury-limited mobility and a truly ridiculous supporting cast, belongs down there as well.

They're sort of OK with some of the upper rankings, although I'd shuffle them around. Prince, (XLI), Bruce Springsteen (XLIII) and Tom Petty (XLII) were all good. My personal taste pushes me towards XXXVI, the U2 show a bare four months after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Your mileage may vary, but I know I've only bookmarked one Super Bowl halftime show on YouTube, and every time I play it, it's a beautiful day.

Oh, the actual game itself? I'm a Chiefs fan, so that hasn't mattered to me since the first Nixon administration.

Oh, What a Day!

President Obama thinks it's all about him. Donald Trump thinks it's all about him. Hillary Clinton thinks it's all about her. Senator Sanders thinks it's all about him. Senators Paul, Rubio and Cruz think it's all about them. Secretary of State Kerry thinks it's all about him, but so does Senator McConnell. Representative Pelosi thinks it's all about her, while Senator Reid knows it's all about him. Mayor DeBlasio thinks it's all about him. Bill O'Reilly, Al Sharpton, Paul Krugman, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Friedman, Ann Coulter, Joy Behar, John Oliver, Sean Hannity, Steve Colbert, Trevor Noah and Mike Huckabee think it's all about them.

And today, they're all right.

(Actually, the "Feast of the Ass" was a medieval Christian observance marking the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt. And for the above-mentioned folks, "thinking it's all about them" is a daily practice. So, for that matter, is being an ass).

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Defensive

Hey -- it was a chance at a billion frickin' dollars. Of course I bought one.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Word Power

For her sixth album, Algerian-born Souad Massi dove into her heritage to rework some classic Arabic poems into a modern music setting. Its title, El Mutakallimûn, loosely translates as "masters of the word," or "masters of speech" and reflects Massi's desire to highlight some of the higher aspects of that culture and heritage, in a time when some of its most vocal and visible members spend a lot more time and energy destroying than building.

In an interview about the album, Massi said:
I just wanted to give people the opportunity to discover the beauty of the Arab culture. We are not barbarians or uncivilized people. The Arab-Muslim world has produced great works in science, philosophy, mathematics, medicine and poetry, but it all seems forgotten now.
She focuses on the Arab-Andalusian poets of the era in which modern-day Spain was occupied by Muslim forces, and sets the poems to the kinds of polyglot musical influences that have always appealed to her. Elements of her native Algerian music mix with Spanish and Arabic instrumentation -- as in "El Khaylou Wa el Laylou"-- and sometimes back away for straightforward folk sounds and influences from everywhere else as well. "Lastou Adri" could have stepped off Paul Simon's Graceland, and "Hadari" calls up Caribbean images with island guitars. "Saimtou" is a straightforward pop ballad and "El Houriya" is a country and western stroll across the plains.

Lyrically, Massi chose poems that dealt with resistance to tyranny, political and cultural, and the celebration of freedom. She was struck by the influence that Martin Luther King, Jr,'s speeches had on the civil rights movement and in bringing about change in the U.S., and wondered if the powerful words which Arabic-speaking peoples inherited could world something similar in their lives. In different interviews about the album she reflects on what she sees as the tyranny under which those people live. Her own history, which involved several years living in France because a woman fronting a rock band didn't go over well in Algiers, involves that kind of resistance and fuels her work. Her voice is the same fine instrument it has been through her career and makes the songs a pleasure to listen to even for those who don't speak any Arabic and have to rely on translations to know what she's singing.

That last points to the only real downside of El Mutakallimûn, which is that iTunes doesn't include any kind of translations or booklets with the download. But that's a knock on Apple rather than Massi or El Mutakallimûn, which is worth the listen for how it sounds as much as what it says.

Monday, January 11, 2016

I Can't Change Time

Interestingly, on a night in which the entertainment industry celebrated some of its most ephemeral ephemera at the Golden Globe awards, musician, actor and artist David Bowie passed away peacefully at home. He was 69.

Bowie's education at an arts-focused high school fueled a great deal of his career. Rather than simply show up on stage and sing, he created characters and relied heavily on staging and imagery to help communicate through his music. His initial forays into the world of working musician were attempts to follow the patterns of others, but it was not until he created "Space Oddity" in 1969 that he started to draw some notice (the song is often misunderstood as being named "Major Tom" after its astronaut lead character).

From there a procession of characters, both musical and onscreen, followed. Bowie seemed to make an entire career out of asking the question, "I wonder what it would sound/look like if..." In later years he noted that some earlier statements that seemed controversial -- such as the Thin White Duke-era positive assessment of fascism -- owed as much to being in character and excessive drug use as anything else. He was the rare popular musician who went onscreen with actual talent and received some excellent notices for his work in movies like The Man Who Fell to Earth and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. 

As Kevin Williamson notes at National Review, Bowie was pretty perceptive about the economic side of the entertainment business as well, anticipating crowdfunding by selling bonds against his own future royalties. He also saw where internet technology would be the biggest problem for the way the music business had worked.

The post title is a riff on lyrics from 1972's "Changes," in which Bowie asserts, "Time may change me/But I can't trace time." Time didn't change the essential Bowie, as his final album Blackstar is as much a collection of innovations, questions and experiments as Ziggy Stardust or Scary Monsters ever was. But he could not change time, and the liver cancer diagnosis of 18 months ago marked the final chapter in his interesting, questing life.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Fantasy Eh

Already dabbling in urban fantasy with Teen Wolf, MTV takes one more step into the area of high fantasy by bringing Terry Brooks' world of Shannara to life via its new The Shannara Chronicles. The first few episodes look like a solid effort, but have some significantly annoying factors that could weigh it down as the series progresses.

Chonicles adapts Brooks' second Shannara book, The Elfstones of Shannara. This is a wise storytelling move. The first novel, The Sword of Shannara, is very visibly a gloss on Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and features several storylines. It could get confusing pretty quickly and seem familiar enough to casually interested watchers to make it a quick skip. Elfstones, on the other hand, draws its main characters together for the most part around one central conflict and keeps the other plots very simple.

Millennia ago, the magical race of Elves faced off against twisted and evil Demons. More or less evenly matched, the Elves could not decisively beat the Demons or rid the world of their evil. Eventually, they channeled all the magic of their people into creating the Forbidding, a realm in which the Demons could be imprisoned. As a guard on this portal, the magic created the Ellcrys, a beautiful magic tree whose presence anchors the Forbidding and keeps the Demons on their side. Each year, seven young Elves are named Chosen and tend the tree. This year, the royal granddaughter Amberle Elessedil is one of the Chosen, and she has had an awful vision: The Ellcrys is dying, and the Demons will begin to break through into the world.

At the same time, young Wil Ohmsford has set out to find a community of healers to teach him their ways. His dying mother passed onto him the Elfstones, a form of magic used by his father -- but everyone, including his uncle Flick, believes magic a part of the past and possibly even a dangerous delusion. Wil, a rustic sort, will find the Four Lands quite different from his home of Shady Vale and his quest potentially deadly. Wil and Amberle's paths will cross, and it will include the Druid Allanon and the royalty of the Elven Elessedils as they seek to restore the Ellcrys and defeat the Demon army.

Chronicles varies its story from Brooks' novel, compressing both the history leading up to it and the initial chapters. This is also a pretty good storytelling move, reducing the learning curve Shannara newcomers might have. Series creators make the connections between Brooks' post-apocalyptic setting and our day more overt, with recognizable artifacts and landmarks scattered throughout the background. Which, by the way, is gorgeous. MTV opened the corporate wallet for the visuals and effects of this vision of the world of Shannara. Brooks' world-building has a heavy ecologicial element and the cinematography drenches scenes in lush green. John Rhys-Davies as Elven King Eventine Elessedil and Manu Bennett as Allanon bring some very needed gravity to the cast, which is full of folks who look like they just stepped off a Disney Channel set after turning old enough to vote.

And that really signals the main annoyance of Chronicles -- the attempted marriage of a high fantasy world to Millennial-level snark and attitude. Detached hip ironism can work in a world of monsters, magic and mayhem. Just ask Buffy. But it works when the fantastic element invades the mundane -- when vampires prowl a modern high school, f'rinstance.

Invading the fantastic with the mundane is a lot harder and Chronicles doesn't really manage it well. Allanon tells Wil they're searching for the Codex of Paranor, which can help them learn how to help the Ellcrys. Wil, upon learning that the Codex is a book, snarks that Druids always have to have weird names for their stuff instead of just calling them ordinary words like "book." It's worth a chuckle and would fit perfectly if Allanon had recruited Wil from Algebra II. The cast doesn't have to sound like they just stepped out of Gondor, but it jars when people in world that's supposed to be full of magic sound like they came straight from The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.

Chronicles has so far only slightly MTVed the series with innuendo and nudity. Given that until recently, Brooks' novels wouldn't have been uncomfortable on a young-adult reader shelf, it probably can't without seriously screwing up the atmosphere.

In the end, whether or not you stick with Chronicles may have as much to do with how much you want to have Ivana Baquero, Austin Butler and Poppy Drayton hang around your TV. As the leads of the younger cast, they're carrying the weight of the major quest storyline and they may or may not wear out their welcome with an adolescent 'tude that makes you want to tell them to get off the pretty green lawn.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Vocabulary

National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell says that the three cities trying to keep NFL teams that have applied to move to Los Angeles aren't doing so hot. According to this U.S. News report, Goodell said that the three cities' proposals for expansions and improvements to their current facilities are "inadequate and unsatisfactory."

Goodell will obviously let the three cities try again. After all, when it became apparent to even a comatose rock that his initial two-game suspension of Ray Rice was pretty darned inadequate and monumentally bleepin' unsatisfactory, he allowed himself to try again by suspending Rice "indefinitely."

NFL owners will meet to decide which of the three teams -- St. Louis, Oakland and San Diego -- they will allow to move to Los Angeles. Part of me thinks it would be fun if they decided to screw their fellow owners over by saying "Yes" to all three. Either the city of Los Angeles would finally bankrupt itself trying to sweeten the deal for three football teams with some ridiculous publicly funded stadium deal or the three teams would shred each other to pieces squabbling for adequate pieces of the metro fan pie.

Maybe one or the other of those outcomes would finally put paid to the ridiculous idea that spending public money on an athletic stadium is a boon, since they always cost far more than they bring in. Oh, and make Roger Goodell look like an even bigger dork, which is a bonus.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Complex Slicing

Generally, the best way to slice a pizza has been to divide it into equal parts. That way diners get roughly equal shares of the pepperoni, sausage or other toppings. Pizzas which are made half and half, of course, provide a natural dividing line between their different formats, which ensures that devotees of one style are not saddled with items preferred by others. This matters if some fool wants to put salty little fish pieces on your pizza.

But perhaps you've not ordered a half-and-half, but a supreme? There may be those at the table who like the cheese, sausage and peppers, but balk at the olives. Are you required to soldier on with the standard straight-line divisions and simply instruct the picky eaters to remove the olives as best they can? This method has its fans, known as "parents."

Well, according to Joel Haddley and Stephen Worsley of the University of Liverpool in England, no. You can slice using curves, for example, to maintain the matching sizes the regular method offers and thus insure equitable distribution, but going around olive-infested areas. Or with shorter straight lines, any number of different shapes can be made, as the diagrams show. Haddley and Worsley are not sure that any real-world application exists for their research, other than slicing pizza, but as mathematicians they find it interesting.

Of course, some of this research depends on the pizza involved. If one is dining on, say, a frozen pizza from the grocery store, there is no actual need to cut it into slices, as the best way to eat it is fold it in half like a taco once it is baked.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

I Watched C-beams Glitter...

According to Blade Runner tomorrow will be the "inception date" for the philosophical replicant Roy Batty:


Roy's life is unfortunately quite short, but he squeezed a lot into it:
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears...in...rain. Time to die.
If you see him, wish him well...from a distance, probably. That would be safer.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

I (Used to) Wanna Be Anarchy

Eugenia Williamson, who probably situates as a late model Gen-X'er or early version of a Millennial, meditates on the 40th birthday or thereabouts of punk rock in a Baffler piece called "Punk Crock." You may get the picture that she's not carrying a pedestal for it to mount.

She makes a lot of great points and so you should read the whole article. One of the things that shows up several times is the realization that those on the bleeding edge of the punk rock movement -- sometimes literally -- moderated, calmed and mellowed quite a bit as they aged. And if they didn't age, then they obviously mellowed even more. Rather than spitting in authority's eye every morning for breakfast, they sometimes found themselves becoming the authority -- managing things and/or people and even morphing into those figures of ultimate arbitrary dictatorship, Mom and Dad.

Ms. Williamson takes her article in a different direction, but it would have been interesting to explore how much of the displayed angst, anger and disaffection that characterized punk's snarliest snarls had to do with the age of the snarler as much as any considered worldview. Many of punk's sincerest avatars who've survived feel just as passionately about their ideals now as they did then, but they're trying tactics other than poking safety pins through their noses and barfing on the audience to communicate their point.

John Lydon -- who as Johnny Rotten once proclaimed with the Sex Pistols that England's dreaming had no future -- recently mocked latter-day rabble-rouser Russell Brand for saying that young people shouldn't vote in elections. The rest of the interview makes clear that Lydon hasn't suddenly fallen in love with Thatcherism; he's as committed a liberal as ever. But the kind of opting out that might have identified the Pistols and certainly identifies Brand makes no sense to him.

Mike Ness, who's been sneering as the front man for Social Distortion since the late 1970s, built the middle of his career around raising his two sons with his wife Christine. Ness reduced his solo touring as well as that of the band to have time to be available to them. Although significantly more reflective now than in the band's first big push, any interview with him leaves it clear that he is as motivated about what he sees as society's issues as he has ever been.

As babies, we yell and cry because we do not know how to say that we are hungry or thirsty or wet or whatever. As we age, we may still yell and cry or lash out when we do not know how to communicate or deal with what's going on, although that list is supposed to change or at least shrink a little. And as adults, tears may continue to express feelings which overwhelm our ability to speak. So it may have been with punks and with every iteration of them that crops up in a generation. We see things we think are wrong but we do not know how to talk about changing them, so we howl about breaking them. As experience gives us some perspective, we find other ways to talk about change or even work to make it happen. We scream less -- unless we are Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders -- and we talk and persuade more.

Some of the punkers Ms. Williamson talks to seem somehow embarrassed by the signs of their maturity and press hard to keep hold of the attitude of rebelliousness they used to carry. In a youth-obsessed culture that's understandable, but growing up is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it might be a badge of distinction, because a quick survey of the body cultural seems to suggest there are a whole lot of people who never manage it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Diamond Bios

Most people first met John J. "Buck" O'Neil through Ken Burns' 1994 documentary Baseball. The then 83-year old retired coach, manager and Negro League ballplayer was Burns' window on the history of his league and its stars for people who may have only vaguely known that baseball once was segregated but nothing about the men who played on the other side of that color line.

O'Neil played most of his baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs and retired as an active player when the team was sold in 1955. He became major league baseball's first African-American scout, working for the Chicago Cubs and helping them sign Hall of Famer Lou Brock (Because they were the Cubs, they traded Brock to the St. Louis Cardnals. Not everyone who worked for Chicago was as smart as their scout). He became a coach for the Cubs as well, again the first African-American to do so in the majors.

The 1996 collaboration with Steve Wulf and David Conrads, I Was Right on Time, records O'Neil's own reminiscing about these times, as well as his days scouting for the Kansas City Royals beginning in 1988. It covers his efforts to establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and to win recognition for the top talents among his fellow players. The Major League Baseball Hall of Fame sports the plaques of several Negro League stars present only because O'Neil worked to make the sport aware of them.

The title comes from O'Neil's view of his own life. He notes that people often seem to think he was cheated by playing during baseball's segregated era, unable to match his talent against the best in the game and just a shade too old to make the jump to the majors after Jackie Robinson started for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. No, said the ever-positive O'Neil. Who's to say he didn't match up against the best he might have seen, and far from being "too early," he considered himself a blessed and lucky man who was "right on time."

That gracious and optimistic attitude as much as anything else gave O'Neil renown in the sunset of his life that he never had during his playing days. It makes reading Right on Time a pleasure, even if the history comes from the viewpoint of just one man and the tone is more remembering than reporting. A baseball library without it is much poorer.
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Between 1981 and 1992, Steve Fireovid pitched for five major league teams in parts of six season. And in none of them did he have more than 10 appearances.

The rest of the time, Fireovid pitched in the minor leagues, spending a lot of time at AAA-level ball not unlike a pitching version of Bull Durham's Crash Davis. He kept a journal of his 1990 season with the Montreal Expos' AAA affiliate, the Indianapolis Indians, and with the help of co-author Mark Winegardner turned it into the 1991 book The 26th Man. The title refers to the major league roster limit of 25 players -- the 26th man is the one not quite good enough to catch on and stick permanently but too good to just give up and go home.

That image fuels much of Fireovid's journal as he realizes the end of whatever career he may have in baseball is approaching. Indeed, he only pitched one more game in "The Show," as players refer to the big league teams, a 1992 win for the Texas Rangers.

The most interesting parts of 26th Man are the insider looks at what kinds of decisions teams make about the players they promote and the ones they let go. Talent tells, but so do many more undefineable qualities. And as with any endeavor that involves human beings, sometimes choices that seem smart and get made for all the right reasons turn out badly, and the universal sport of second-guessing commences. Would any of the teams for which he played have been better off bringing up Fireovid instead of someone else they did promote? Maybe, but there's no way of knowing, so maybe not, as well. Despite that underlying echo of melancholy, there's a lot of fun in reading his story and often wry observations on what it's like to get paid to play a game.
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Although Barry Bonds holds the overall major league record for home runs and Hank Aaron holds the non-fortified record, both men fall short of the home run king of Japanese baseball: The Yomiuri Giants' Sadaharu Oh, who put the ball over the fence 868 times between 1959 and 1980.

Oh debuted with the Giants as a pitcher but was moved into the everyday lineup as his hitting skills began to show and his pitching skills never did. He hit the ball often as well as far, posting a lifetime .301 batting average, but really only blossomed a few years into his career after being coached by Hiroshi Arakawa, both in baseball fundamentals and Zen philosophy. His 1984 collaboration with David Falkner, A Zen Way of Baseball, focuses on how this meditative school of Buddhist thought helped him focus on baseball activities and improve his ability.

The book is an interesting exploration of how a very Eastern way of understanding things matches with a very Western activity. It's also a great story of how Oh himself survived prejudice in post-WWII Japan. His father is Chinese and he holds dual Chinese and Japanese citizenship; people who mixed ethnicities in vanquished and war-devastated Japan weren't among anyone's favorites.

The sport of the war's victors blossomed after the Nippon Baseball League formed in 1950, with holdover teams from the earlier Japanese Baseball League holding much of the attention. Oh's story also offers a picture of the larger stage of how the more structured and reserved Japanese society changes the way baseball is played there.

Today, with Japanese baseball's major stars finding their way to American and National League teams, it's hard to imagine that someone like Oh would have stayed in Japan for his entire career. In that way, his biography is look at a past moment in time, as much history as biography, and well worth the time for the baseball fan.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Good Ideas?

The nice people at Paleofuture made a list of seven products that get their names from "dystopian fiction."

That phrase gets quote marks because one of the products is Duff Beer, which is Homer Simpson's favorite beverage on the eternal animated show The Simpsons. I suppose you can make an argument that Springfield and its four-fingered yellow residents make up a dystopia, but this piece didn't and so it looks to me like the list's conceit thins out a little bit.

And the "Margaritaville" piece is one of those all-too-common internet jokes in which a smart and snarky writer smartly snarks on stuff in mainstream culture. Josh Fruhlinger has built a 12-year career doing this with newspaper comics even though he wrote all of his jokes in the first six weeks and has been recycling them more often than Mary Worth recycles plotlines.

But the Paleofuture piece deserves mention because it brings to light the reality that a company thought it was a good idea to make a food substitute and call it "Soylent." If you don't know why that's creepy weird rent the movie and Charlton Heston will tell you. There's also a muscle relaxant named "Soma," which is the name Aldous Huxley gave to the drug that made everybody happy, dumb and easy to control in his Brave New World. I can see the doctor saying, "Hmm...if I could wring a couple extra MRIs out of this guy I could pay for my boat, but there's really nothing wrong with him except a bad cramp. Wait...maybe I gave him this Soma..."

Maybe it's supposed to be ironic. I really do think.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Pholding Physics

One of the problem physicists sometimes have when doing experiments with certain materials is trying to maximize the amount of material inside a space. A larger sheet of solar material will gather more sunlight and process it into electricity than a smaller one will.

But the wrinkle comes in when the experimenter or designer has to get that larger sheet into a smaller space. The power needs of a spacecraft require x amount of energy, which can be achieved with a sheet of x area. But there's only room for a sheet of y area, which is smaller and can't provide the needed power.

Enter origami, which means that in one sense, that wrinkle comes in literally. The material is folded, which means that it can be in a smaller space or, if it's going to be extended into a larger one, it can do so using less energy. Some physicists have recently been studying origami, the ancient Japanese art of folding paper into sculptures and shapes, as a way of doing the above and several other things.

The key is that something folded into an origami shape can be made to take up much less space until its full area is needed. It can be inserted into a small opening, for example, and then expanded. Engineers Zhong You and Kaori Kuribayashi from the University of Oxford developed a medical stent that does just that. When folded, it can be placed into a blocked artery though a small hole, but when expanded it will enlarge the opening through the blockage.

Increase study means increased attention paid to the math of the art form, which allows for more precision in origami-based structures. Physicists also find the idea of a two-dimensional object, through simple folding, becoming a three-dimensional object. Proponents of string theory, an explanation of how matter in the universe acts at its most basic level, propose as many as a dozen dimensions. Studying how a large flat piece of paper becomes a small three-dimensional crane, for example, might help them see how three dimensions of space "fold" into the much tinier higher dimensions the theory predicts.

Currently, physicists have problems "folding" objects that are too thick or too thin. While simulations can produce perfect creases in any substance, real-world folding of something that's too thick might be more likely to produce breakage rather than a sharp crease. And things that are too thin, like the ultrathin molecular substance called graphene, won't stay folded and never develop creases.

So it may be that origami never progresses beyond the mildly interesting with a few minor applications stage for scientists and researchers. Or it may be that some future scientist looks through some ultra-powerful micro-scanner and asks the prankster grad students who folded all of the Higgs bosons into cranes.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Nostradamus Wanted

Well, I woke up Saturday morning and expected to find that the world was inhabited by weird little gargoyles and limber dancers in gray leotards and excessive mousse. It is, after all, what MTV predicted:


Friday, January 1, 2016

Fail Already?

Happy New Year!

Unless you dressed up like a stag. In which case you're doing penance until 2019.