Thursday, March 31, 2016

Root Causes

Several observers of modern public discourse, which is heavily influenced by online information and the role of social media, figure that things have only gotten worse in the last few years.

My unscientific sampling of my friends and of people I read online shows that folks who identify as liberals think this worse happened around 2008. Folks who identify as more conservative seem to push that date back to around 2000. And old fogies mumble something about "that bastard Nixon." I leave it to you, reader, to associate those years with any particular set of circumstances with which they may connect.

But as it turns out, the idea of hot-headed electronic communication, where people might rip out a response without benefit of time for thought or cooling off, has a history almost as old as the medium itself. The good folk at Mental Floss unearthed a college campus newspaper article from 1986, the dim protozoic period of the beginning of e-mail, soon after several colleges set up campus-wide electronic messaging services. The article notes the new phenomenon of "flaming," in which a person responds in the heat of the moment to some message that has offended them with heat equal to the moment.

Professors and administrators quoted in the article suggest that the problem is not the form of communication, but "inexperienced operators" who have not yet learned that the ability to communicate instantly on some subject does not imply the necessity of doing so. Electronic mail was at this time confined mostly to college campuses and the youthful age of the communicators may have played a role in the shoot-from-the-lip errors plaguing it. Sounds about right to me. Immature twerps need to learn how to control themselves before writing whatever comes into their heads.

What? The year on my college diploma? Hmmph. I can't see how that's relevant in the slightest.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Message Received

Some scientists in Sweden will try to examine cat owners from different parts of their country to see if cats develop an "accent" similar to their owners' when the owners talk to them. The most prominent example notwithstanding, people from different parts of Sweden speak their tongue with different accents, much as people from different parts of the United States speak English with different accents. Except for Donald Trump, who technically does not speak with a particular accent but instead lies with one.

Studying the kind of ways cats vocalize with their humans -- apparently we are not nearly smart enough to understand their body language and scent cues -- could lead the researchers to understand what the different vocalizations might mean. There may be something to this. The cat who allowed me to live under her roof would often burrow underneath the comforter on the bed to create a lump in the middle of the bed that I would find when I returned home. Touching the lump brought a meow with a distinctly interrogative pitch change at the end -- as if my intrusion was being answered with, "Yes? Why did you disturb my slumber, clumsy food slave?"

The headline National Geographic puts on the story is kind of amusing. "What are cats trying to tell us?" it asks, as though we do not know the answer. Cats are almost always telling us that they can see almost no reason on earth not to rip out the throat of every human being on the planet except that humans can scratch that one spot between their eyes that they can't reach themselves. And that if we are not careful, they will forget that reason and although they would regret not being scratched between the eyes they will not be a bit sorry for exterminating us. Just as soon as they take a nap.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Disappointment, Part Deux

Netflix scored a commercial and critical hit with its 2015 TV series Daredevil, about a man named Matt Murdock whose senses were both limited and enhanced in a childhood accident involving a chemical truck. Technically blind but able to sense much more than most people through enhanced hearing and a strange "radar sense," he trained to become an expert in martial arts and spends his nights showing criminals in his Hell's Kitchen neighborhood the error of their ways as "The Devil of Hell's Kitchen" or Daredevil. He spends his days as a lawyer with his college friend Franklin "Foggy" Nelson and their assistant, Karen Page, defending the poor folks of the neighborhood in the legal arena.

As Matt Murdock, Charlie Cox brought a more understated and reflective version of Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark to play, and as Daredevil he presented a man with an almost monomaniacal focus on protecting people under siege from street criminals and thugs. His season-long battle with Vincent D'Onofrio's Wilson "Kingpin" Fisk made for a good solid storyline even if D'Onofrio's portrayal was so mannered as to seem stilted and artificial.

Season Two opens with Daredevil continuing to battle criminals in Hell's Kitchen and showing them how crime not only doesn't pay, it can also lead to broken bones and hospital stays. Traditional crime gangs are starting to try to reclaim territory now that Fisk is in prison, but they are being mowed down in job lots by a new vigilante who uses bullets and sends his opponents to the morgue rather than a hospital. It isn't long before Daredevil runs across the trail of this "Punisher," as the police have called him, and their confrontation reveals an unexpected wound at the core of his crusade. But Matt still believes in the rule of law, and can't countenance the Punisher's method of just killing everyone.

In the meantime, Matt's own past offers up some complications, as an old girlfriend, Elektra Natchios, tries to enlist him in her current affairs. Which have several hidden layers of their own and which will also complicate Matt's burgeoning relationship with Karen Page.

The returning cast -- Cox, Elden Henson as Foggy and Deborah Ann Woll as Karen -- bring in a second season of good performances, and of the newcomers, Jon Bernthal as Frank "The Punisher" Castle also stands out.

The disappointment referenced in the headline comes from how scattershot and uneven the story is and how little it actually does over the course of the 13 episodes. Elektra plays a major role in the Frank Miller version of Daredevil from which the show works, but her appearance in the show seems almost like a stop-motion strobe: She's bad, she's good, Matt hates her, Matt doesn't, blink, blink. Only once or twice do these transitions have any hint of flow to them. Whether that's on actress √Člodie Yung or the screenwriters is not clear, but it makes it difficult to invest in her arc.

And the other disappointments comes in that the season ending episode leaves several questions about our characters unresolved. Which wouldn't be a problem if the storyline hadn't spent most of the last 13 episodes enhancing their least likable aspects. Everyone wants everyone else to stop lying to them but seems quite comfortable with being the one in the liar's seat. Matt tells Castle it's wrong to take the authority of an executioner on himself outside the law, but seems OK with taking on the authority of an enforcer himself. Karen wants Foggy and Matt to tell her the truth about whatever secret they keep from her but reserves the right to keep her own past secret from them. Bernthal does a great job outlining Castle's damaged and tortured soul, but since he's decided the best way to deal with his wife and children's deaths is to make widows and orphans, it's hard to care all that much about his pain after awhile.

A Season Three is very likely, and there's nothing that says the showrunners can't rehabilitate their characters to restore some of their appeal and work harder at tightening up their story. The comic book version of Daredevil offers some outline of what the future might hold for them (although one hopes the showrunners decide not to fridge Karen the way Kevin Smith did), but so far the show has been willing to move outside that continuity to make its own way. Maybe it can bring back aspects of them that will help the audience care what happens to them while it does so.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Disappointment

This time, I'm part of the problem. I thought a lot of Zack Snyder's Man of Steel worked, and that by having a good handle on Clark Kent he had the key to making good Superman movies. The lust for spectacle created a final battle of such massive, thoughtless and wanton destruction that for many people the movie tipped into the failure column. I wanted to see some more of what Snyder wanted to do with the character and with the buildup for the Warner Bros. "Justice League" franchise.

Now I have, and by spending money to see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I have contributed to the stink I believe is going to emanate from cinemas across the land every time one of these deposits is made within it. My apologies.

Ben Affleck's Bruce Wayne finds himself in Metropolis when Zod's final battle starts wrecking it. He's appalled at the level of destruction this so-called "hero" Superman (Henry Cavill) creates in "saving" the world, but unlike many people, he doesn't see himself as helpless in the face of this power. After all, he's Batman. He dedicates his energies towards finding a way to eliminate the threat -- by eliminating Superman. Also seeking a way to eliminate Superman is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who's got his hands in a number of other illegal ventures that are drawing attention from Batman as well. Batman's quest to protect the planet from danger puts him in the path of mysterious visions of other beings with superhuman powers, and also involves a mysterious woman named Diana Prince (Gal Gadot).

There are some nice bits in Dawn of Justice. Despite the derision of his casting and his earlier lousy turn as Daredevil, Affleck makes a good Batman. He conveys the obsessive intensity you'd expect in a man who wears a demonic-looking suit and fights criminals. Gal Gadot's turn as Wonder Woman is impressive and far too short, but it offers some hope for her scheduled 2017 movie. Especially since Snyder has no role in it. There is a neat turn of the story based on an often-overlooked something that both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent share.

But almost everything else is awful. The story staggers between its developments without much of a sense of real movement -- there may be some flow to Batman's determination to take Superman out as a threat, but not for most of the other plot points. The need to use Dawn of Justice to set up a Superman sequel and the Justice League movie means that its seeds have to be shoehorned into this storyline and make it even murkier than the rainy, grimy fight scenes.

There is no real conflict in this movie -- we know who's good and who's bad before we start -- and neither is there any joy in watching any of it unfold. It's like listening to "Twist and Shout" played by a band getting $50 for a night's work in a bar next to an interstate motel three hours from any town. No matter how much you like "Twist and Shout," you'd probably cough up $50 for them to skip it. But since the world collectively hit the Warner Bros. tip jar to the tune of $424 million for this version of the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel, we're probably going to get more of the same for encores.

PS: Every movie review, whether by a guy rambling on a blog or someone paid to be a "film critic," amounts to an opinion on what the writer thinks worked or didn't work. Which doesn't leave out that a lot of it can get influenced by non-critique-oriented responses as well. I had one, but I left it to the end so as to offer reasons why I thought Dawn of Justice didn't work, rather than just my reactions. But here goes. I loathed every...single...second of Jesse Eisenberg's version of Lex Luthor. If someone hired the woman who "restored" the Elias Garcia Martinez fresco in Borja, Spain to revise every single frame he's in, that would be a heroic act.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Rhythm of Heaven

From the late, great Mark Heard:
And your love never can fail to pierce me,
Hammers and nails,
Rhythm of passion, louder than Hell,
Thunder of Heaven,
Hammers and nails.
It is no longer finished. It is begun.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Saturday

On that Saturday, so many years ago, everything that wants people to believe they're something other than the cherished daughters and sons of the Creator, to believe that the past is the immutable future and that redemption is impossible celebrated. The party started with the sound of a hammer.

It'll end soon, with the scrape of stone on stone.

Hope it was fun while it lasted.

Friday, March 25, 2016

When the Small Bears from the Windy Place...



The above photo is from a spring training game between Houston and Atlanta and shows why the game was called -- it was about to get slugged by a monster storm.

On the other hand, it could be God warning us that all of this talk about the Cubs having a good chance to go to and even win the World Series will have consequences.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Evidence Suggests...

Wait -- people needed a study and research to show that elementary-aged kids had a better school day when it included recess?

Ten minutes with any elementary school teacher -- or two minutes in her classroom after 2 PM when she's not around -- would have told you that.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Distinguished Effort

Way back in 1637, French mathematician Pierre de Fermat wrote a note in the margin of a copy of a math guide called Arithmetica. He claimed to have discovered a rather remarkable proof that was too big to fit in the margin of the book -- fortunately, it seems he used his own copy, or else the librarian would have been much vexed with him.

Fermat never expounded on his proof, and the notes were discovered only after he died some 30 years later -- more proof that he had not, in fact, written in a library book since no librarian would have let his punishment go for that long. The proof concerned a deceptively simple equation: an + bn = cnPeople had known about this equation since antiquity, but it had the curious feature of seeming to not be true if n>2. In other words, if n was 1, then the equation was true for any number. You'd recognize that equation as simple arithmetic, in fact.

If n was 2, then the equation was also true for some sets of numbers, called Pythagorean triples. In fact, you'd recognize that as the arithmetical expression of the Pythagorean theorem about the relationship between the length of the sides of a right triangle.

It turned out that the equation breaks down if n is 3 or more. There are no known sets of positive integers where the cube of the sum equals the cube of the two additives. That breakdown continues as n got larger and larger, which led mathematicians to be pretty sure that it would never be true for any n value greater than 2. The problem is that mathematicians don't like "pretty sure" because they deal in a field that has an unending supply of new circumstances. Sure, the equation might not be true when n is 4, (and a special-case proof had been worked out to show just that), but what if n was 51? Without a proof, you had no way of knowing that there might not be some combination of immense numbers which, when raised to the 51st power, made the equation true. And before computers, you had little in the way of methods of doing too much with those immense numbers, let alone repeating that operation my suggested 51 times.

So for the next two centuries, mathematicians slogging away at what became known as Fermat's Conjecture or Fermat's Last Theorem managed to make special-case proofs for the prime numbers 3, 5, and 7. During the last two-thirds of the 19th century, different mathematicians found they could prove the theorem true every time n equaled something called a "regular prime number." I looked up the definition of "regular prime" and my eyes started watering, so we'll leave that out for now.

Once computers got into the mix, the theorem was proved true for n any time it was anything between 2 and somewhere around four million. That's still not the same thing as never true, though.

English mathematician Andrew Wiles, working on leads offered by others who were concerned with the "modularity theorem," which is something else that will make your eyes water, proved Fermat's theorem as a by-product of proving the modularity theorem in 1994. He will receive the 2016 Abel Prize for his work.

The fuller version of the story, along with some better explanations of the math involved, can be found in Simon Singh's 1998 book Fermat's Enigma. Singh notes an irony also observed by many others. While Wiles' proof proved that the original equation would never work for any value of n larger than 2, it used mathematical ideas and concepts which would have been unknown to Pierre de Fermat in 1637. His proof paper, which runs more than 100 pages and has a correction paper of about 20 more, would certainly not have fit in the margin Fermat used, but it's not possible that Fermat himself had sussed out what Wiles and his co-workers had.

Meaning that the most famous math hunt in history was spawned by a scribbled note about an idea for a proof that probably was, as best as anybody today can tell, wrong.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Sometimes I Like the Internet

When searching the internet for used books, I've found Abebooks to be one of the top resources. Recently I was hunting for a specific volume and found several listings for it.

Sometimes Abe sellers are stores, but sometimes they are individuals who are running a mom-and-pop level version of what Amazon was when it still sold only books. I always like to run down the list to see where the seller is located, because if it's within driving distance and it's an actual store, then I like to visit and see what else is on the shelves.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at one store and found it was listed in the very town where I now live (which is not exactly a hotbed of retail). And imagine my extended surprise when I looked up the store's listing and found that it's run from a house two blocks from the church where I serve.

So I sent the store an e-mail saying I'd love to buy their copy but could we waive the shipping charge because I work two blocks from their location. Didn't think anything more about it until the guy comes into the office this afternoon and introduces himself, carrying the book. We talked for 15 or 20 minutes about books and I got an invite to browse the store via its website and just knock on the door if I found something I liked.

Around the world or down the block. Sometimes I like this internet thing.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Facial Recognition

I don't know if its absence guarantees a polite conversation, but I am pretty sure that if I am speaking to someone whose face is "wrything thy visage into divers formes" it will be pretty darn distracting.

Also among the advice from a 1595 book on manners: Do not "bee picking or rubbing thy neck, as if thou wert lowsie." Of course, appearing "lowsie" might be a good way to end a conversation you don't want to have. Choosing some particularly offensive "divers formes" might be another.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Let Me Tell You What I Think

The Emerging News Project at the University of Texas surveyed folks who consume online media and found out something that I think most people already suspected: A whole lot of online commenters are more interested in stating their own opinions than they are in engaging with the opinions or information they're supposed to be commenting on.

The folks who did the survey found that a lot of time people responded to an article headline without doing more than skimming the article itself, and other times they simply dropped their general opinion of the person in the headline or the one doing the writing. This is a big reason why "Never read the comments" is a kind of mantra among people who do the frequently-read news sites. This blog is blessed with but a few regular commenters, and of them I don't even need a whole hand to count those who have been jerks.

Some sites have been ruined when the tenor of the comments seems to have spread into the content. If you've read this blog for awhile, you know that I used to have the Andrew Breitbart-started Big Hollywood site linked in the sidebar. It began as a website with entertainment news with a more conservative perspective. Over time, comments grew less intelligent and more offensive, as person after person LOL'd and LUL'd at "Hollyweird Libtards" and worse. Then, especially following Breitbart's death, that way of thinking pretty much took over the content itself. There's no denying that Breitbart himself could and often did produce way more heat than light in an argument, but he generally at least stayed in orbit around reality and some level of decency. His successors seem to desire this much, much less than he did and once it became clear that the majority of the actual content wasn't noticeably worth more than the comments had been, I dropped it from my regular reads.

Some other sites, of course, exist as meta (and metastasized) comments sections, such as The Daily Kos. There's no small number of Kos diaries that stake out a position on an issue and use recognizable forms of argument and debate to make their writers' case. But they're not the majority, and I can read people I disagree with elsewhere in a less venomous overall environment.

And I'm sure that most folks by now have made the obvious connection. Comment sections are usually shoot-from-the-lip, heavy on the trolls, light on thought, premised on bullying and bluster and winning an argument by shouting the loudest. Which means that Donald Trump's presidential campaign is nothing more than a comments section come to life and put on the ballot.

What could go wrong?

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Official Bones

So 43 states in the union have official state fossils. It apparently not being enough to lay claim to all manner of flora and fauna, the need was felt by some that each state must also designate which calcified skeleton best represents it.

Some states picked their most prestigious corpse on the basis of campaigns from scientists or students. Usually they seem to prefer something that was first found in that state. My own home has selected Acrocanthosaurus atokensis for that honor. Evidence of this dinosaur was first found in Atoka County in the 1940s, and parts of another skeleton were found in another county some 40 years later. It was something like a T. rex, but several million years older. While perhaps more accurate, it was decided "Getoffmylawnosaurus" didn't sing and so it was discarded.

Of interest in the original Atlantic article is the designated fossil for the District of Columbia -- which is not, surprisingly enough, Charlie Rangel. Nor was it Strom Thurmond, although both are excellent candidates. No, it's something called Capitalsaurus. Which is not an official name -- and since the fossil evidence for it currently consists of two vertebrae, there's every chance in the world that it will turn out to be part of another dinosaur that's already known.

If it does turn out to be a distinct animal, it will hold another distinction as the last known vertebrate ever found in Washington, D.C.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Chemistry on the Menu

In a development that has more potential to start a new European war than anything Angela Merkel says, German chemists have identified the chemical blend that makes Parmesan cheese from Italy taste like Parmesan cheese.

Italy, of course, is not likely to recognize culinary expertise in any country except itself (French? Sure, if you like snails), but most especially someplace like Germany. If you were to say that the Alps exist so that Switzerland and Austria don't have to carry the whole load of keeping sauerkraut at a safe distance, you would get little disagreement from la bella Italia. So the diplomats have a lot of work ahead of them.

What's interesting about the discovery is the reminder that tastes are created by chemical combinations, and how eventually those combinations can be discovered. Our taste buds are really just chemical receptors, transmitting different messages to the brain based on which chemicals they receive. Something sweet makes them say, "Mmm, chocolate!" Salt makes them say, "Does your doctor know you're eating this?" Ghost peppers make them say, "Sonova(edit)!"

So apparently Munich chemists Hedda Hillmann and Thomas Hofmann found the proper combination of some 50 chemicals which makes Parmesan taste like Parmesan. Cheese producers can use the formula to monitor output quality, they say. Test a sample, measure it against the ideal and if it falls too far short in some category or another, sei fuori di qui! Or send it to Berlin; they won't be able to tell.

Or, depending on the process, the missing chemicals could be added to the cheese to help make it taste the way it's supposed to. Which opens up an interesting possibility. What if you took something that wasn't Parmesan cheese -- say, cabbage -- and sprayed it with essenza di Parmigiano? You'd wind up with cabbage that tasted like it ought to be sprinkled on your pizza, and that goes way beyond just being a cause for war into outright blasphemy.

Of course, that thing actually happens pretty often. Eric Schlosser's 2001 book Fast Food Nation has a chapter on how chemicals are added to French fries in order to make them taste good. The same thing, he says, happens with hamburgers. Our ubiquitous fast-food joints have good-tasting hamburgers because they're engineered to.

On the other hand, that practice is essentially a mechanized version of what we do all the time. I don't know anyone who grills who just slaps down plain ground beef without some additional spices, salts or other flavor additives. The whole point of cooking is to measure and add together ingredients in proper amounts to create desired flavors and textures. But while reducing the category "ingredients" down to its most basic chemical form may allow for standardization of the product, the best work in this area, as well as most others, will still come from those who take the basic science and with it create art.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Rhetorical Question

Is there any evidence that using a flamethrower on weeds is better at killing them than pesticides are?

Why would there need to be?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Super Show

Next Friday, DC Comics will play its biggest card yet in an attempt to grab a share of the big-screen superhero pie heretofore consumed mostly by Marvel. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will try to build off of 2013's Man of Steel to create a shared cinematic universe and build up to a film featuring the Justice League, as Marvel Studios stair-stepped its way into The Avengers.

Meanwhile, on TV, the joint CW-CBS "Arrowverse" hums along quite nicely, beginning with the 2012 debut of Green Arrow in Arrow and subsequently helped along by The Flash, the animated Vixen and Legends of Tomorrow. All of those shows are on the CW Network or its subsidiaries, but in 2015 CBS debuted Supergirl, out of the same production company but on the parent network. A crossover later this year between Supergirl and The Flash will establish some continuity between them, although apparently the ol' reliable alternate universe card will be played. Supergirl has been renewed for a second season.

Watching Supergirl can induce a bit of a flashback feeling. It's light-toned and willing to be a little silly, although it's not as full-fledged campy as the 1990s Adventures of Lois and Clark. We don't actually see Superman, the cousin to our Kryptonian title character, except in silhouette once or twice, but it seems pretty clear he'd feature about 100% less glower than Henry Cavill's Man of Steel.

The story tells us that Kara Zor-El, the teenage cousin to the infant Kal-El, was also sent to Earth when Krypton exploded, to watch over and protect him. But sent in different spaceships, they were separated and Kara's suspended-animation pod didn't arrive until Kal had already grown up as Clark Kent/Superman. Now, 10 years later, Kara's kept her abilities secret and is only now starting to take on the role of a superhero. She works with her adoptive sister for a black-book federal agency charged with protecting the Earth from alien threats -- and some threats that spring up closer to home.

There are a lot of reasons Supergirl works -- and there are a lot of reasons that it shouldn't, but does anyway. The lion's share of credit for its success goes to series star Melissa Benoist, who's more than convincing playing two different people who happen to be the same person. Superman and/or Supergirl have always appealed to readers because of who they were without the capes, and the best Superman portrayals have had the best Clark Kents. Benoist's "Kara Danvers" combines Christopher Reeve's dorkiness with Mary Richard's shyness-battling spunk -- I can't believe that at least one of her "Oh, Miss Grants" to her boss was not a deliberate callback to Mary Tyler Moore's frequent refrain to her boss, Lou Grant. Benoist's skill at pulling off the combo helps watchers understand that she's the real person, while "Supergirl" is someone she's at when she's at work, so to speak. She deepens her voice, stands and acts more assertively and wears a costume that shows Benoist did some work in the gym to convey strength.

Chyler Leigh as Alex Danvers, the previously mentioned adoptive sister, and Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant also add acting chops to the cast. David Harewood as Hank Henshaw mostly just grumps as the director of the agency they work for, as well as grumping about his own secret. Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen and Jeremy Jordan as "Winn" Schott do well enough, but their roles are also part of one of the show's biggest soft spots.

Among the several things that should keep Supergirl from working is the silly romantic quadrangle between Kara, Winn, James and Lucy Lane (Jenna Dewan-Tatum). Winn likes Kara, who likes James, who likes Lucy, who likes James -- at least, this week. The difficulty of romance for someone who moonlights as an invulnerable superhero could be an interesting dimension of the character, but so far all this particular love rhombus has been is annoying. It lets Alex and Kara have "sister-talk" scenes, which are nice, but not worth the cost.

Show writers also continually saddle their excellent cast with lousy episodes, perhaps because the season is a few episodes too long. Episode 16, "Falling," is a great example. It's the obligatory "red kryptonite" episode, in which a Super-someone encounters a variation of the radioactive remnant of their homeworld that makes them mean instead of dead. There are the standard "mousy Kara gets assertive" blips, followed by some predictable "Kara scares her friends and acts sleazy" moments. Then we get to the "assert my dominance because I'm powerful so you all do what I say" windup before Kara's cured of the red K effects. Benoist is so good in the final eight minutes of the episode she almost saves it. Far from being the kind of emotional release pop psychology suggests it might be, Kara's "getting in touch with her dark side" agonizes and almost breaks her. But the whole structure is so slapdash and rote that even a series of scenes that could be Benoist's Emmy reel can't really salvage it, and her own screenwriters sabotage her work by having the other characters in Kara's life exposit how there was some truth in what she said that will have to be dealt with.

There really are too many such moments, where lousy storytelling or scripts are saved by the cast's talent. It's the kind of thing you hope happens less often, so that Brooks and Jordan can have more opportunities to be something other than a male version of Betty and Veronica and Benoist and the others can stop rescuing mediocre work and start building on good work.

The Queen's (and Everybody Else's) English

(ETA: Neither I nor Cable One, apparently, heeded the soothsayer's warning to beware the Ides of March; I left this post window open on my computer so I could post it yesterday evening and Cable One decided that would be a good time for a multi-hour service outage).

Over at Quartz Magazine, Oxford professor Simon Horobin offers a quick etymology of five different words that illustrate some of the ways in which English went from being a what a 16th century educator called a "tung of small reatch" to a language spoken by almost a seventh of the world's population everywhere around the globe.

The words, including the very one naming the language, show how English has adopted words from other languages as its users traveled the world and interacted with other civilizations. Nothing could seem more quintessentially English than tea, for example, but Horobin notes that both the drink and its name come from a particular dialect of Mandarin in China.

The process continues, as modern texters now make use of "emojis" as ways of communicating moods. The word is about 20 years old and while it started out describing characters on pagers owned by kids in Japan, it's now considered the more expressive successor to the "emoticon" used in e-mails or text messages to help convey a writer's mood and intention.

Horobin doesn't say it, but of course we all know that the development of a language does not imply that it is put to any worthwhile use. Which is how we wound up with a Donald Trump candidacy and The View.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Prime Jive

Mathematicians since Euclid have known about prime numbers, and there's evidence that the ancient Egyptians might have had some understanding of them as well.

They're the whole numbers larger than 1 that have only 1 and themselves as divisors. So 2 is one, as is 3. But 4 isn't, because you can also divide 4 by 2. The problem is that even though they're easily defined, they're not so easily found. They occur totally at random, and no equation or formula has ever been discovered that will predict prime numbers. Large groups of numbers can be ruled out, of course. After 2, there are no more even primes. And after 5, there are none that end in 5.

But that still leaves everything up in the air if number ends in a 1, 3, 7 or 9, until whatever number in question is subjected to some formula to determine if it is a prime or composite number. Before computers, division was one way to test a prime -- try to divide it by every number less than it was, until you either found or didn't find another divisor. This takes a great deal of time, and even computers don't use that technique now as the prime search moves into numbers so large they have no existence in the material universe. There aren't enough of anything that you could use the numbers under consideration to count the set.

Since the sequence of whole numbers is infinite -- for every number n, there will always be a number n+1 -- there are an infinite number of primes. Several theorems prove this, ranging from Euclid himself to modern proofs dealing with mathematical topology. The other thing about primes is that they were always believed to be completely random. That, in fact, was part of the problem in trying to predict them. They followed no pattern.

Or did they? Kannan Soundararajan and Robert Lemke Oliver of Stanford University discovered that prime numbers may not be completely predictable, but they do seem to have some "habits," so to speak. The pair studied the first billion prime numbers and found that if  a prime number ends in 9, for example, the next prime number is 65 percent more likely to end in a 1 than in another 9. Similar statistical clumpings show up for 3 and 7 as well. Prime numbers don't seem to "like" being followed by primes that end in the same digit.

Soundararajan and Oliver show that primes are still random. A prime ending in 3 may be more likely to be followed by one ending in 1, 7 or 9, but there's still a chance the next one ends in 3. And even if it doesn't, the other ending digits offer plenty of choices. But, they point out, what they have found means that some randoms are more orderly than others. And the real result of this finding may be that it spurs some more research into these curiously significant oddball numbers. “You could wonder, what else have we missed about the primes?” Montreal number theorist Andrew Granville asked in the story at Quanta magazine. It seems that sometimes the best-known things might not be known so well after all.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Poor CBS. They were all set to have a two-hour television show revealing the brackets for the 2015-2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Tournament. The pageantry! The amazeness!

But then, 25 minutes into the show, someone Tweeted the entire bracket and spoiled everything! CBS Tweeted a statement saying they were investigating, because they took this sort of thing "very seriously."

The early release and CBS's response indicate these items to note:

1) CBS is obviously aware that no one watches its show to hear the analysis and hoopla that its commentators and analysts provide, because they were showing the bracket at about a one-quarter per half-hour clip. If people wanted to hear whatever the CBS hires (and I don't know who any of them are except for Charles Barkley, and I only know him because the Washington Post item mentions him by name) had to say about the tournament seedings, then they would stay tuned in to the whole show, regardless of when the whole bracket came out.

2) This may have been the single most useful function to which Twitter has been put since it was invented.

3) This may have been the single useful function to which Twitter has been put since it was invented.

4) We cannot be far away from a red-carpet watch party studded with celebrity guests to observe the bracket unveiling and analysis. Ask yourself -- is it a good thing that the day may come in which you have to actually watch the show for five or ten minutes to learn if the program in front of you is the NCAA bracket release or the Academy Awards?

5) The tournament once again escapes relevance by the omission of the only college program still battling Illini Communism -- the upright, clean-living square-jawed specimens of America-, mom- and apple-pie loving manhood who proudly wear the purple Wildcat of Northwestern University. What's that? Their 20-12 record doesn't earn them a tournament berth, you say? Well and good, but you had better not say that if you're a devotee of Vanderbilt (19-13), Fairleigh Dickenson (18-14), Texas Tech (19-12), Syracuse (19-13), Oregon State (19-12) or Austin Peay (18-17). And most especially if you follow Holy Cross, who nabbed a play-in spot for the 16th seed in the West Regional with a 14-19 losing record.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

...That You (Digitally) Weave so Well

A government official in Malaysia has warned people against posting selfies online, particularly on social media sites. The problem?

"Bomoh" or local shamans have used the images to work black magic against people and curse them via those photos. The official, who works with Malaysia's computer and digital security department, said that the bomoh may have obtained wifi capability and used the broadband signals to transmit their spells. Such spells are apparently data heavy and could not travel over the old 56K modems.

On the one hand, this is obviously kind of silly -- unless you friend the bomoh on Facebook, then how will they see pictures you post of yourself as long as you keep them marked private?

On the other hand, the Trump candidacy makes a lot more sense if you invoke evil spells.

(H/T Dustbury)

Friday, March 11, 2016

Blast From the Past

So today I filled up the tank of the new Friarmobile (a 2006 Toyota Tundra). I pulled into the gas station, got out, opened the gas tank and removed my debit card to pre-pay at the pump.

No slot.

Hmph, I said, and went inside. I went to the counter, proffered my card and said I wanted to fill up on pump no. 1.  "Oh, it's on," he said. "Go ahead and fill up."

I have apparently forgotten how to pump gas without pre-paying.

Just to be sure, I checked the pump to see if it also dispensed leaded gasoline. It didn't. So even though there's a famous former secretary of state nobody likes or trusts, a president in office who seems to harbor some secret imperial dreams, and a loudmouth know-nothing vulgar empty suit campaigning for the job, it's not really 1972.

(ETA: The '72 references are to Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon and George Wallace. The parallels are not exact, of course. Henry Kissinger was National Security Advisor in 1972 and didn't add Secretary of State to his portfolio until 1973.)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Hold Still, Windmill

On our Facebook pages, there is a small section labeled "Trending," which features topics that lots of people have either searched for or clicked on when they appeared on a news feed.

Now, I should be clear. When I say not a darn thing in that section holds the slightest interest for me, I am only offering an approximation. Since the section rolled out however long ago, the number of times I have clicked on one of its items is in fact a non-zero integer. But it is not a large one.

Most of the time I click the little "X" next to it and select from the different choices offered to me as a reason I don't want to see whatever the item is. The only two I remember are "I don't care about this" and "I want to see something else." I use the former far more often, because it is accurate. When something crops up that I do care about -- a death, some kind of disaster, or another tragedy, I will use the latter. My goal is to zero out the trending topics section as something of a hint to the Facebook people that I think the trending section is stupid.

I've yet to succeed, and Facebook occasionally taunts me. Several minutes ago, it tried to tell me that among the topics trending among site users was a signal outage experienced by Direct TV customers. Surely we are approaching the end, I say to myself. Surely there can't be that many trending topics things on the internet that are less consequential!

I was, of course, wrong. A new list, full of celebrity "news" and international cricket match scores, appeared at the next refresh. So it appears my keyboard Rocinante and I must try again...

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

All the News...

At The Nation, Columbia University journalism professor Dale Maharidge writes about something people have probably not been noticing: The erosion of age and experience in newsrooms across the country.

Maharidge points out that as newspapers continue to downsize and close, the people that get let go or bought out are the ones that cost the company the most money. And those people are the ones with the experience, in life as well as reporting and writing, that fueled what most people think of as journalism. They investigated things and wrote about them so that other people could learn what they had learned. Sometimes "things" was a city council meeting, sometimes it was a corrupt government official, sometimes it was a single mom with three jobs barely keeping her kids clothed and in school, sometimes it was some other kind of hero or some other kind of villain.

But, Maharidge says, online journalism doesn't have the time or the patience for things like that, and the middle-aged grumps who used to epitomize the trade are instead the dinosaurs and fossils of a gone time that doesn't have any archaeologists interested in exploring it.

Since he's writing for The Nation, Maharidge throws in a couple of digs about how the modern American system does this sort of soul-sucking thing to the downtrodden everywhere and creates the trodding to boot. And the headline -- "These journalists dedicated their lives to telling other people's stories" -- is the kind of mawkish starry-eyed stuff every journalist older than 20 laughs at. Plus, you might wonder why Maharidge still teaches journalism, if he's convinced it's on its way out. Columbia University ain't cheap, and if the people it graduates can't find work, then why be part of that problem? At the very least find a less expensive venue and minimize the debt your students incur to gain the wisdom and skills of a dying profession, if that's what you believe it to be.

All those aside, Maharidge's most important point remains clear. Even if some kind of online journalism develops that spends time on things like state legislature budget meetings -- and no clickbait headline is ever going to make one of those appealing -- will there be anyone around who knows how to bulldog the selfless public servants spending our money into saying how it's being spent? Journalism may be the only profession that's predicated on being a pain in the ass...to everybody. What happens when the only people who write just know how to do long form first-person celebrity profiles? Or can diagnose fifteen different kinds of patriarchy in a budget press release but can't ask a coherent question about where the money goes?

If Donald Trump had actually run for president in the mid-90s, for example, newsrooms across the country would have salivated over the idea of telling people about his bankruptcies, ridiculous spending habits, whacko political positions, lack of serious thought to his policies and so on. Sam Donaldson would have taken a truckload of No-Doze in order to have been at every Trump public appearance possible and shout questions at him until security dragged him outside. Some journalists would have done this because they disliked Trump, of course. But many more would have done it because it was their job to be a pain in the ass and there are fewer asses larger than Donald Trump.

We don't have that today. We have Hitler comparisons and twenty paragraphs on Trump's coded racism and dutiful snickering over his implications about the functionality of his genitalia. It's not that today's news folk like Trump -- although when CBS chair Les Moonves chortles about how good Trump is for his ratings, you may wonder -- it's just that they really don't know how to go after him on anything of real substance. Years of Bush/McCain/Romney/Palin/Insert Name Here are eeeeevilstoopid! work, combined with supine worship of President Obama's pants crease, March Madness bracket and supergeniuscoolestever-ness, mean that news outlets that want to seriously investigate the emperor's wardrobe can't find the people to do it.

Maharidge's piece touches on what happened to some of those people, with an eye towards the pathos of their situations, which I guess is OK. Had I not heard a particular call upon my life, I might have been among their number. I kind of wonder, though, if a story about the erosion of journalism that focuses on some of the journalists left out of the picture -- with some requisite breast-beating about an -ism, in this case ageism -- wouldn't be better replaced by a story about what's not going to be known because those people are doing other things. It's troubling that these people are out of work, but such a thing happens, all too often.

In the most elementary terms, I think Maharidge has done a decent job of who, what, when, where and how, but he's kind of skimped on the why. We'll find out soon enough, of course, why we should care that some of those ink-stained misanthropes we call reporters are out of work. It's just that we probably won't know it when we do.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

There's the Sign Post up Ahead...

If you want to know what kind of a weird parallel universe college sports inhabits, note this item at CBS Sports: The Big 12 athletic conference of schools must soon expand.

To 12.

You would think the name would imply 12 schools and teams, but of course you would be wrong. It started with 12 schools in 1996, when four colleges from the old Southwest Conference merged with the eight schools of the Big Eight. But in 2013, Nebraska took off to become one of the 14 schools in the Big Ten Conference, Colorado was one of the (believe it or not) 12 schools of the Pac-12 Conference and Missouri joined the Southeastern Conference -- which cleverly avoided all of the bizarro math by not including a number in its name. Texas Christian University and West Virginia University joined up, so instead of the Big 12 having only 9 teams, it has 10.

I could be wrong, but I think all of this arithmetically challenged hoopla happens because no one wants to try to change their marketing and public relations -- it costs money.

And those numbers are watched very very carefully, for both accuracy and accumulation. By people who did not get their degrees in public relations.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Words Go Bye-Bye

The Sony movie studio is planning on crossing over their deadly dull 21 Jump Street movie franchise with...Men in Black?

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, who have been decidedly present in the Jump Street movies, will return, but Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones of Men in Black will not. In other news, the atomic number of uranium is 235 -- which is another way of saying that I don't think anyone at Sony was dumb enough to ask either man.

On the other hand, someone was dumb enough to come up with this idea, so maybe I should stop thinking there's a basement to stupidity at Sony.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

In Honor Of...

I am sure I do not need to tell most of you that today is National Oreo Day (of course, considering what I believe to be the case about my readership numbers, "most" is a relative term).

The International Business Times story notes a couple of interesting things, among them that Oreos are not the original cookie-frosting sandwich. That honor belongs to Hydrox, which is currently marketed by a company called Leaf Brands that's also brought back other disappeared treat lines. This goes to show that being first is not always a guarantee of permanence.

The calendar of national food days misses a great opportunity by not scheduling National Milk Day for March 7 (it's January 11) and having the two overlap. It's possible that they think such an obvious ploy to gain applause would cheapen the meaning of the national food days, so I defer to their better judgment.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

That and This

-- Astronaut Scott Kelly just returned from spending a year at the International Space Station. He said his skin is super-sensitive and he's got a lot of muscle aches and joint pain. His heart may have shrunk from lack of effort while he was in zero gravity and his leg and hip muscles may have atrophied also. But he's almost 2 inches taller. Sign me up!

-- A South Carolina high school teacher had some private photos of herself in an undressed state on her personal phone, which she left in the classroom one day. A student purloined the phone, found the pics, and posted them online. The teacher was forced to resign because the superintendent said she "was not where she should have been when the incident occurred." The student has now been arrested and charged with counts of computer crime and aggravated voyeurism. This is good; this incident cost a veteran teacher her job (because her boss is a dork who doesn't understand that firing a crime victim is bad PR) and it should bite him. He should be glad our justice system is not based on the concept of karma, or else all of his shortcomings would be made visible to the world as well.

-- Whoever runs the Stafford County Fire and Rescue Department apparently went to the same management school as the South Carolina superintendent, since he or she suspended two volunteer firefighters for using a fire engine to take a toddler to the hospital when they thought she was suffering a seizure. The two responded to a call at a restaurant, saw the baby in distress, and apparently could find no rescue unit close enough to make the hospital run in a reasonable time. Fire trucks do not have the proper restraints to carry patients; all of their seat belts and such are designed for people sitting upright in their seats. So the pair was suspended for the "unsafe" practice. A spokesman for the department is smarter than his boss -- he ain't saying nothin'.

-- 70 years ago today, Winston Churchill -- at that time a private citizen again -- delivered a speech at Westminster University in Fulton, Missouri ("The name Westminster is somehow familiar to me," he said in his opening. "I seem to have heard of it before."). In the speech, he would describe an "iron curtain" across Europe that divided its nations and left many in the Soviet Union's untender sphere of influence, and so it's known as "The Iron Curtain Speech." Churchill actually titled it "Sinews of Peace." Either way, we know that 1) The speech gave the first definition to what would become known as the Cold War between the United States and other Western democracies and the Soviet Union and other communist regimes and 2) The number of politicians working today -- especially among those competing for the office of President of the United States -- who could correctly define "sinew" is, shall we say, other than large.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Sequ-ill

A great flurry of opinioning has arisen in the wake of the first trailer to the new Ghostbusters movie, released this week.

See, the difference is that this Paul Feig-directed movie will have lady Ghostbusters instead of men. Although Dan Aykroyd and the late Harold Ramis had worked on different script ideas for some time that would reunite the original team, and Ernie Hudson from time to time said he would be interested, Bill Murray had never been on board with the idea. Ramis' 2014 death seemed to shut the door on a another round of bustin'.

But the studio execs still smelled signs of life (i.e., money) in the concept and signed Feig to create it. According to him, he went with the all-female team because he wanted the funniest people he could enlist, and the four actresses fill that role. All three living original Ghostbusters, along with Sigourney Weaver and Annie Potts, are supposed to have cameos in the movie. Rick Moranis' "little guy" will once again be left out of things, it seems.

The all-female cast stirred notice, and there is apparently a vocal set of folks who think the reboot is going to be awful just because of the all-female team. It's tough to determine their number, because I hear about them mostly when they are mentioned by folks who think the reboot is going to be awesome just because of the all-female team.

Even stranger are the people who think that the reboot -- with Chris Hemsworth as their receptionist -- is Something Very Important, just because of the all-female team. Hemsworth, best known as Thor in the Marvel movies, is supposed to represent the inverse version of the eye-candy secretary that populates many movies. I'm not sure about the "inverse" part. I always thought Annie Potts and the character she played in the original movie were cute, but I don't recall any of my male friends responding to her presence the way that many women today respond to Hemsworth.

The Very Importance of the reboot softened a little as it became clear that the sole African-American member of the all-female team was going to be the only non-scientist, The trailer, in which she showed herself to be loud, violent and ready to see this supernatural stuff as the work of "the Devil," didn't help the people wondering about her role. As stereotypical as some folks today view Ernie Hudson's character from the first movie, Leslie Jones' character seems almost deliberately so in her scenes from the trailer. Although there is still plenty of internet chatter about this Very Important reboot.

The trailer created a different problem for me in regards to the reboot: I didn't laugh much. Most of what I did laugh at were callbacks to either the original movie or other supernatural touchstones (like one character's head turning all the way around on her shoulders, a la The Exorcist). Feig was entirely correct that the humor of the 1984 Ghostbusters was driven almost entirely by the cast members and their responses to the supernatural shenanigans in which they were enmeshed. Aside from the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man, it's hard to think of too many ways in which the jokes are separated from Aykroyd, Hudson, Murray and Ramis and, to a lesser extent because she has a smaller role, Potts.

But that leaves Feig and his new cast with the problem of convincing people they'll be funny too. The trailer didn't do that. Now, maybe later trailers will help. Maybe they'll offer some evidence that Jones' character will be something other than a collection of stereotypes that we're supposed to overlook because the all-female team is Something Very Important. They'll need to, because they've got something really big to overcome in order to convince people that this Ghostbusters reboot will be worth seeing: Ghostbusters II.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Sing, Ladies!

In her self-titled solo debut, Brandy Zdan revs her motor a little bit compared with her previous work as half of the duo Twilight Hotel. Still leaning heavily on introspection (although "Cut 'n' Run" opens with the directive, "Get outta your head and back to reality"), she brings distortion and some quicker tempos to bear in striking out on her own.

Much of Brandy Zdan concerns itself with relationships -- in the aforementioned "Cut 'n' Run" she declares her own commitment to her partner while not being sure of his. The closer, "More of a Man," holds a similar idea, as Zdan has been "fightin' till my knuckles bleed" while "you've been sitting around smokin' weed." She's not going to wait around on him to show up, but when he finally does, she challenges him to be "more of a man than me."

That closer brings some nice organ notes to the rock sound of the album, highlighting the wide range of instruments Zdan uses along with help from some members of My Morning Jacket. "Running for a Song" has a techno vibe that may be paying a sly homage to Flock of Seagulls "I Ran" with its synth-y opening. "What's It All For" opens with a slow bluesy pulse, but Zdan's verses are a flurry of words, only reining in for the chorus.

Zdan has a flexible voice that can float lightly in some places, either pairing with the atmosphere of a particular song ("Median Artery") or working in counterpart, But it can also turn husky for the smoky "Dawn Is My Enemy" or assertively brassy in "More of a Man." I never listened to Twilight Motel, but if this debut indicates what Zdan can bring to the table, then she'll be on the purchase list from now on.
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If you told me that someone built a tunnel through time to 1982 and swiped a song called "Like the Dream of It" from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, I'd have to think awhile before I said that's crazy talk. The first track on Brooke Annibale's The Simple Fear album offers the same questioning of certainties Springsteen's characters voice, in the same kind of plain speech. "Questioning what I thought I knew," the refrain opens. "If I'd seen it coming I'd have thought it through. Built up to ruin by this simple fear/ losing everything that I hold dear."

Fear stays in the same slow-to mid-tempo folk groove, leaning towards a country sound on "Find My Way" and muscling up on "Alright." In the latter Annibale assures her significant other that their commitment to each other can weather a number of external storms. But on "Answers," she wonders if she can give words to her uncertainty, or that it would do any good if she could: "You're still looking for answers/Inside of my mouth/But the words you keep looking for/Aren't gonna come out."

Annibale leans a little too heavily on the ubiquitous indie-folky-slurry style in her vocals, and its artifice can leach some of the impact from her words. The sound tends more towards breathy than fragile and delicate. But even given that and that the rest of the album doesn't quite equal "Dream," Annibale's fourth studio album is worth the listen and from my point of view worth the buy.
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An inheritance is something bequeathed by those in the past for the use of those living today. While it's not infinitely malleable, it's best used in a manner or form not completely separate from the one in which it came.

For Audrey Assad, the Inheritance she features on her fourth full-length album are the hymns of years past. As someone who creates Christian-themed and spiritual music in modern styles, Assad doesn't find modernity incapable of rendering sacred music. But her Catholic faith keeps her mindful that neither Christianity nor worship music started in 2005. Her own compositions are frequently literary, reflecting her wide interests in reading poetry, and she has a connection with the intricate wordsmithing of the old hymns and their lyrics.

Assad chose 9 hymns based partly on fan input during the album's crowdfunding campaign, and Inheritance also includes two of her own songs. And although she receives them and their poetry, spirituality and message, like one who inherits she then uses them in arrangements that allow the 21st century its own voice in the songs. "How Can I Keep From Singing" carries some faint echoes of roots-rock sound to it, but not to such a degree they overpower its 19th century roots. "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet" maintains the same simple vocals of its first recordings, put into a setting that could have been on the soundtrack for Lord of the Rings. Creative instrumentation and production allow the ancient "Ubi Caritas" to call to mind a chorus of monks chanting behind Assad singing. "It Is Well With My Soul" begins with just Assad's voice and piano, but adds new voices as it continues, lending an impression that the declaration of one person of faith can inspire that of others.

Inheritance features two original compositions. "Even Unto Death," though it has the same timeless quality as the classic hymns, was written by Assad and Matt Maher in light of the news of Christian martyrs in the Middle East. Assad -- herself the daughter of Syrian-born parents -- said she wrote as she hoped she would pray if she were facing death for her faith.

Inheritance is a powerful album in its own right, and a wonderful statement that the wisdom of those who have sung before us in the faith is neither outdated nor sacrosanct. It can speak to us today, and it can speak in today's language as well.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Test Pattern

Today is, for some reason, not a day of creativity. Grumpy musings and exhortations to remove yourself from my lawn, you rotten kids, will resume tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Beware the Revenge of the Trees

Jeremy Fisk of the NYPD's Intelligence Division has a little problem -- an immense cache of secret government documents has been leaked online, and since it includes his home address, he's about to become vulnerable to all kinds of nasty folks he's helped put away. All of this happens in the middle of the city being placed under siege by a faceless assassin who wants the leaker freed and will kill one New Yorker a day until that happens. But worst of all? He's been ordered to accept being shadowed by a New York Times reporter.

The Ultimatum is TV producer Dick Wolf's third Jeremy Fisk novel, and it hums along quite nicely using its very interesting threat premise and Wolf's intimate knowledge of his city. Free to weave the locations, sights and sounds of New York into his narrative in ways he couldn't with his Los-Angeles shot Law & Order TV show, Wolf takes full advantage of the chance and gives serious depth to its sense of place. The story itself ticks along smoothly and builds some good suspense in several scenes, even if the romance it features is telegraphed from the title page and he relies on girlfriend-in-danger scenarios not once but twice. The plan to thwart the villain's murderous designs is ingenious and pretty spectacular.

Up until about page 356 (paperback edition), a reader could figure this as the best so far of Wolf's Fisk novels. But Wolf's insertion of a senseless and brutal murder - he adds some detail to maximize manipulative pathos, but the killing itself has less than no point in the story -- sends The Ultimatum straight into Ents-do-Isengard territory. Like a piano in an old Warner Bros. cartoon with a single key wired to explosives, The Ultimatum wrecks pretty much everything with this one wrong note.
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G.P. Putnam and the Robert B. Parker estate pulled the plug on Michael Brandman's vision of Parker character Jesse Stone after three novels. Brandman's third was moving in the right direction, but not fast enough for Parker fandom, so he was replaced with Reed Farrell Coleman.

Which makes you wonder if Robert Knott, who's continuing Parker's "Cole and Hitch" series of Westerns, is somehow sneaking books out when someone at Putnam isn't looking. Because his quality curve is, to put it kindly, not upward.

Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch don't think much of Boston Bill Black, but since the casino boss hasn't crossed the law in their town yet they'll live and let live. The arrival of a warrant for Boston Bill's arrest -- complete with the murder of the warrant bearer -- changes things. Now the pair must hunt him down, but even if they do, his arrest will only be the start of the trouble Appaloosa sees as a result of his crimes.

The core narrative of Blackjack is common enough, involving the hunt and capture of an outlaw, his subsequent trial and the many layers of skullduggery in which a variety of folks are engaged. Knott's clanky writing doesn't help it move smoothly, though, and his reliance on his file of Cole-Hitch Standard Scenes, Dialogue and Responses doesn't help. He introduces Virgil's brother for no apparent reason and proceeds to do nothing much with him. Knott probably intends to show something about Virgil by introducing a character whose surface appears to be his opposite while his substance is similar, but since he has to tell us this in an awkward shoehorned conversation instead of showing it, the impact is mostly lost and the character mostly a curiosity.

Blackjack's story resolution makes as much sense as putting three aces on the cover of a book named for a card game hand of an ace and a face card. A far greater mystery is why these books keep coming out, and why Putnam is putting Parker-level production values on Jake Logan material.