Thursday, June 30, 2016

Does This Constant Make Me Look Fat?

Although everyday measurements here in the U.S. involve pounds, ounces and such, scientists and villains in drug-related television shows use the kilogram, an measure of solid weight adopted by many nations around the world.

The standard kilogram is an egg-shaped piece of metal in a vault in Paris, officially known as the International Prototype Kilogram but nicknamed "Le Grand K." That particular alloy consists of a blend of metals designed to slow erosion (and thus weight loss) and has been the standard kilogram since 1889. It was created to be exactly one thousand times the weight of a gram, which had been defined in 1795 as the absolute weight of one cubic centimeter of water, measured at the temperature of melting ice.

One of the problems, as noted above, is the reality that all matter "erodes" by losing atoms over time. Even the carefully protected confines of Le Grand K and its special construction have not stopped this. The weight loss makes little difference in everyday matters, but when it comes to the precision demanded by scientific experiments -- especially ones conducted by modern super-sensitive equipment -- a century of erosion can affect important measurements.

Another problem is the amount of variation possible in measuring the gram itself. Corralling a cubic centimeter of water may be easy, but do all cubic centimeters of water weigh the same? Can changes in air pressure affect the temperature at which the ice begins to melt? Can these and other factors create uncertainty in the measurements? The answer is yes, and when you realize that any gets magnified in the thousandfold expansion from gram to kilogram you see a whole lot more uncertainty creep in to the mix than scientists want.

Enter the Planck Constant, often designated by h by scientists. It's a figure used to measure action or energy on the quantum scale, deep down in the basic building blocks of the universe. Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Maryland have a machine that can measure Planck's constant, and over the course of the next couple of years, they will make several. So will other instruments around the world, and the value that crops up most often will be accepted as a value for the constant.

As the story at the Review of Scientific Instruments notes, h is a measurement of energy. The determined value will be fed into Albert Einstein's famous E=mc2 equation because it describes the relationship between energy and mass. When the equation has a number for E (energy) and a number for c (the speed of light) then almost anyone can solve it and find out what m (mass) is. Give me a calculator and even I can do it.

That value for mass will be used to determine the mass of the gram and all of the weights depending on it, such as a kilogram. Which means Le Grand K will become Le Grand Has-Been, although the scientists doing the research figure it'll still be kept around for history's sake.

You may think I miss the point, but one of the most fascinating aspects of this process to me is that there is an actual journal called Review of Scientific Instruments devoted to articles and papers about things scientists use to measure other things, and it's been around since 1930. That's a lot of test-tube articles.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

That's All Right, Scotty

Many musical historians downgrade Elvis Presley's icon status because he rocketed to fame covering other people's music. Today, his practice of rerecording music from African-American performers and selling it to the prejudiced audiences of the 1950s would probably earn him condemnation for "whitewashing."

But just as there would have been no Elvis without early blues musicians like Robert Johnson and rock-n-roll pioneers like Chuck Berry, the modern rock music scene would look nothing like it does today without Elvis.

And without Scotty Moore, the guitar wizard whose skill and dynamic playing gave Elvis the musical fuel for his vocals and wild charismatic performances, it's hard to imagine rock guitar playing looking anything like it does today either.

Tuesday, Scotty packed up his Gibson and headed off to jam with his former bandmates, passing away at 84.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Waiting for Humpty Dumpty

In modern politics, conservative people are usually accused of wanting to turn the historical clock back to some mythical time period when things were good for them or people like them. Conservative writer Yuval Levin, in his book The Fractured Republic, says there's some truth to the accusation. But rather than the 1950s or the 19th century or the dark ages as per some of the stupider and more shameful claims, Levin says the real time frame that a lot of conservative folks would like to reinstate is 1981.

And, he adds, more progressive people have their own nostalgia disorder, eyeing with fondness the mid-1960s as a time when the programs they favor began to take effect and make things better for many people -- before the eeeevil Richard Nixon took office and blew it all up. Levin admits his conservative viewpoint sees a lot more value in 1981 and a lot of wishful thinking in 1965. But he says that both groups are falling victim to a glaring mistaken assumption that makes what they want impossible. The right standard-bearer can't follow in Ronald Reagan's footsteps and supercharge our national economy like we saw in the 1980s. And the right mix of programs, policies and technocratic solutions won't lift poor people out of poverty, right historic wrongs and make the country the welfare state paradise so many people believe Norway to be.

The reason, Levin says, is that the middle of the 20th century saw a mix of technological advances and external challenges that brought a unity to American society that no longer exists and probably can't be recaptured. That time period shaped a generation whose members on both right and left wings look to it as an ideal to which the right person or policies could bring us. But the truth is that our society was in a fantastically balanced place between consolidation and decentralization that allowed us the best of both worlds; a sweet spot that is unlikely ever to happen again. The consolidation provided an economic engine that made things good for many people, even while it overlooked many others. The beginning decentralization crossed sociological boundaries to allow people more freedom and space to determine their own identities while removing the rationale for respecting any of society's older boundaries and customs that slowed self-discovery.

Nostalgia blinds both groups, Levin says. And when they fail to see that the circumstances of the 2010s are unlike 1965 or 1981, they aim for solutions that won't work today whether they worked in the preferred eras or not. Levin's own solutions try to recognize the needs seen by the architects of the 1960s Great Society as well as the failure of the federal government to be able to meet those needs -- something frequently pointed out by the crew running things in the 1980s.

He puts great store in the idea of "subsidiarity," a concept that basically says a need should be met by the most local level of government possible. City councils can't do much about hostile foreign powers, so we have a national defense headed up by nationally elected leaders. Sometimes those leaders aren't any better at international relations than the Ward 5 alderman, but that's their fault and the people who voted for them, not the fault of the concept. A federal fire department, on the other hand, with some kind of central dispatching station that responded to every call in the entire nation, would be ridiculous and lead to a lot of burned buildings and unrescued cats in trees.

Levin admits that subsidiarity is a conservative position and that his own philosophy as much as considered judgment leads him to favor it. He doesn't think he's wrong, but he knows it's possible. And subsidiarity as a concept has its own wrinkles that might need some working out. First of all, the more or less atomized society in which we now live needs to rediscover the idea of communities based on something more than "Everyone leaves everyone alone to do what they want and looks out for themselves first and foremost." But modern politics can't even seem to consider new ideas about how to handle today's problems in today's world. It fails because neither side will realize that, quite aside from the vitriol, childishness and arrogance their discourse displays, what they're really arguing about is what date the flux capacitor should show.

And time travel's not real.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The More Things Change...

The fun blog Ask the Past offers some advice from bygone days on how to best survive and enjoy the summer.

And it seems one of the problems facing us today in the hot season is the same as one faced by the folks who took advice from The Shepheards Kalendar in 1656: "for in this time is nothing grievouser than chafing." Anyone who has suffered from the particular summertime version of this problem would definitely agree that there are few things grievouser.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

A Century of Deduction

Dating from the days of silent films, Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson have been onscreen in different forms since 1916. Over at Neatorama, you can view a video that gives brief glimpses of all the ways that the pair have been shown, from regular movies to cartoons to TV shows to re-imagined versions in other times and settings.

It's interesting, and it's also fun to try to see how many of the different versions of the character you can identify. For me, of course, one of the most obvious features of the video is the complete and utter superiority of Jeremy Brett in the role of Holmes in the Granada Television productions made between 1984 and 1994. The distinction is not at all difficult to make.

It is, in fact, elementary.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Future Face

The internet has everything, so it now has a blog devoted to deep exploration of the typefaces used in famous science-fiction movies. Some of them were designed with the futuristic look of their world in mind, and some of them were just regular fonts used most probably because they were public domain and free.

I haven't read all the way into the blog yet, but at least it seems so far like no one in the future uses Papyrus. So maybe there's hope for us yet.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Well, How Did We Get Here?

On certain levels, this is a simple question to answer: Our mommies and our daddies liked each other very much, and they shared a special kind of hug, and then a few months later, along we came! Simple, but as my friends who've explained this matter to their children have told me, not necessarily easy.

But if you spool back a ways, you can get to a place where that's a question without a good answer yet. The elements that make up our bodies are what's left over from the explosions of the first stars. The first stars condensed out of the primordial galactic particle soup that came from the big bang. Where that came from, we don't really know, but that's not the mystery of why we're around.

Every subatomic particle has an "anti-particle" that is like it in every detail except for having the opposite electrical charge and a goatee. One of those may not be true.

Of course, the designations of "particle" and "anti-particle" are arbitrary, just like the ideas of "positive" and "negative" charges. The key is that they're opposites of each other, and whenever they encounter each other they annihilate in a burst of energy. This is why there aren't anti-particle people walking around exploding when they touch their counterparts.

Which leads us to our mystery. Since there's no preference in particle creation, the big bang should have made exactly the same amount of matter and antimatter. They should have subsequently wiped each other out and left an empty universe. Our presence seems to suggest this did not happen, so we know the amount of matter in the early universe exceeded the amount of antimatter.

What we don't know, and what a lot of physicists and cosmologists are engaged in trying to find out, is why it did, because it shouldn't have. Scientists are the people who respond to the suggestion about not looking a gift horse in the mouth with a "why wouldn't you?" The researchers in the story at the link are following clues suggested by particles called "beauty quark" and "heavy neutrino."

Expect some silly undergraduate to start complaining about these labels promoting "lookism" at some point in the future, when we will wish for some anti-particles to appear and annihilate them. But in order to be true anti-particles to people this dumb, they will be way too smart to be tricked into that. On the other hand, they'll probably also be smart enough to figure out the answer to the imbalance.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Lens of History

One of the things that we sometimes overlook when we tell the stories of the way the world we know came to be is how much of it happened at the same time. We look at this development or that discovery in isolation and often don't consider the other things that may have been going on at the time, perhaps even in almost the same place.

Laura Snyder's 2015 Eye of the Beholder bridges one of those gaps by observing the way that different people in the Netherlands in the 17th century began using lenses for their different work. For painters, such as the famous Johannes Vermeer, lenses were part of devices that allowed them to develop better means of showing perspective in their work. For naturalists, such as Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, they created a way of observing the world at a level never before possible.

The first used a "camera obscura" and the second a microscope. The camera obscura involves projecting an image onto a surface by using light and lenses. The same basic theory operates in movie theaters still today, even if the light sources are far more complex. Van Leeuwenhoek's microscope placed an item behind a single lens and moved it until its magnified image appeared clearly in that lens. Modern optical microscopes use compound lenses and a different light source, and van Leeuwenhoek did not invent the device. He was one of the first to use it so widely in natural observations, though.

And as Laura Snyder points out, both of these things happened at more or less the same time just a few city blocks from each other in the city of Delft in the Netherlands. Eye discusses the way people began to develop lenses that altered what they saw -- bringing the distant close, as Galileo and others did. It then works through how lenses aided painters as the technology of the camera obscura improved, and in parallel chapters describes how van Leeuwenhoek improved on a microscope design that let him and others see the very small in detail not before possible. Dr. Snyder ties this together with some meditations on how changes like these affected the way that people thought of "seeing," closing her book with some reflections on the philosophy of sight and how it continues to both change today and still depend on developments that Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek represent.

Unfortunately, Eye does all of this in messy fashion that clearly calls for better editing and a tightened vision of just what it wants to do. The discussion of which painters did and didn't or might and might not have used a camera obscura meanders far too much. So does speculation on how the different figures of the story interacted, and Dr. Snyder's exploration of some paintings by Vermeer and others isn't served by their absence from the pictorial section of the book. She obviously did significant research (the endnotes section is almost a fifth of the book) but seems to have hurried in weaving that research into a directed narrative. A couple of long and uncharacteristically thoughtful Amazon reviews highlight some more technical problems with the way she discusses both Vermeer and his work, even though some of those things would not be apparent to the casual reader.

Over the past 20 years or so, relatively brief and popular books have explored how some aspects of our modern world, now taken for granted, came into being only after some long and difficult work. They often provide a little food for philosophical thought, speculating on how these developments changed the way people saw their world almost as much as they changed how things were done. Many of these are excellent work; Dava Sobel's 1995 Longitude is an example. Dr. Snyder may have aimed for such with Eye of the Beholder, but her scattered narrative and sometimes overly chatty style significantly weaken her effort.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Re-Commencing

So a young man in Pennsylvania was in a serious car accident just before his high school graduation. He was placed in a medically induced coma in order to reduce the chance of damage to his brain from his head injuries. He came out of the coma fine and is on the mend, but as his mom said, one of the first things he pointed out when he woke up and learned the date was that he had missed graduation.

So his principal and family got together and organized a commencement for him. And they managed to get about half his graduating class to put their robes and hats back on, march in to "Pomp and Circumstance" and applaud when they read the young man's name. And then they filed out; they had done all of this for him to be able to walk the stage when his name was called, receive his diploma and join them for the cap-tossing.

Some days I like the world.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Emily Litella, Bible Scholar

Litella was a character played by the late Gilda Radner, who would comment on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" sketch and then go off on some sort of rant about something she thought was wrong, like "violence on television." It always turned out she'd heard wrong, and the item which had aroused her ire was innocuous, like "violins on television." When anchor Jane Curtin would tell her of her mistake, Radner would smile and and say, "Oh. Never mind."

Back in 2012, Harvard professor Karen King announced what was identified as a scrap of papyrus on it with material supposed to be from an early branch of the Christian church. The Coptic Christian Church, which still exists today in Egypt, had some ideas about Christian teaching that were a little out of the mainstream, so when this scrap suggested that Jesus had been married, news outlets could not resist and fell all over themselves promoting "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife."

Although Dr. King cautioned against speculation, the fact that she had announced the papyrus before it was completely tested to see how old it was made the caution a little more moot than she might have liked. Dr. King's paper was put on hold by Harvard's theological journal.

So now, it seems that the scrap is certainly a forgery. Reporter Ariel Sabar has a long piece in this month's Atlantic magazine outlining the case against it. Dr. King, after reading the piece, commented that it tipped her towards believing it was a forgery. Kudos to her for accepting evidence that contradicted what she had thought was true. There are a lot of scholars, Biblical and otherwise, who don't do that. There are a lot of people who don't do that, either, but scholars are supposed to be a little better about accepting facts even when they don't like them.

And kudos to the Atlantic for printing this piece; usually these kinds of "shake the foundations of Christianity" events get lots of publicity at the front end when they're still uncertain but not so much at the back end when it turns out questions about them can't be answered. Which is probably what will happen with the other outlets that puffed the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" story, making the magazine even that much more of a standout amongst the Litellas.

(H/T First Things)

Monday, June 20, 2016

How's That Again?

One of the pluses of Donald Trump's candidacy for president, in the eyes of his supporters, is that as a successful businessman, he understands what needs to be done to get the nation's economy on a stronger footing.

Maybe not.

You know, it's beginning to look like there are no good reasons to vote for this guy. Who'd a thunk it?

(H/T Cafe Hayek)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Feline Figuring

An experiment in animal cognition suggests that cats may have a limited understanding of cause and effect, one of the basic laws of classical physics.

Researchers used two containers that either did or didn't contain a ball, and rattled some of them before dropping a ball out of them but didn't rattle others. After the cats were exposed to this procedure several times, they were allowed to wander freely around a test area. When they heard the rattling sound they seemed to anticipate a ball dropping nearby, but they were surprised when one dropped without a rattle.

Were any other animal to demonstrate an understanding of such level, we humans should begin to prepare for extinction as a species. Especially if that animal were a poodle, chihuahua or Yorkie -- those things cannot wait to develop opposable thumbs and take their revenge on whoever was responsible for their current appearance.

Cats, though, should prove to be a lesser danger. After all, if they killed us all, who would bring them food? The necessity of hunting it for themselves would seriously curtail nap time. So most of us are probably safe. "Except for that guy Schrödinger," they say. "We'd like to chat with him about this box business. Oh, and the guy who invented that red dot thing that zips around the floor."

I for one welcome our new feline overlords.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Post-Graduate Study

Because my college worked on a weird trimester system, this is about the time some 30 years ago that I was commencing. I arrived late and processed with some friends from the School of Speech and heard Secretary of State George Schultz tell us something important.

I kept my cafeteria job through the summer because I didn't have work lined up in my field, and I figured I could earn a little before returning home. Which means my "success" level immediately after graduation was somewhat less than Michelle Kunimoto of the University of British Columbia, who found four exoplanets -- planets orbiting stars other than our Sun -- in between returning her graduation gown and framing her diploma.

Actually, she found them as part of an independent study course after having been taught how to comb data collected by the Kepler telescope. Her advisor created the course after Kunimoto took the regularly-offered course on exoplanets and became interested in them. In other words, she took a class in which the final was finding E.T.'s home.

Yeah, my summer of washing dishes and filling soda machines suddenly looks even punier.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Cha-Ching!

Yep, winning those Olympic Games is a prize like no other!

Hurt

Reed Farrel Coleman first came to notice with his Moe Prager series, describing a police officer forced to retire after an injury who takes on an odd case now and again while running a wine shop with his brother. Lately, he's been tapped to continue the stories of the late Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone after Michael Brandman's three swing-and-misses with that character.

Where It Hurts is the first outing for what is currently projected to be a series, following former cop Gus Murphy's investigations of different dirty deeds. Gus retired from the force following the tragic death of his 20-year-old son from an unknown heart condition and his life unraveled. He maintains a toxic non-distance from his ex-wife and doesn't know how to handle the downward spiral that seems to have claimed his daughter. He currently drives a courtesy van between a small airport and a second-rate motel and tries to figure out why he should wake up in the morning.

But when a small-time thug asks him to check into his son's murder, Gus finds himself strangely drawn to the case for reasons he can explain neither to his therapist nor his quasi-confessor, a retired department chaplain and former priest. Once people -- law-enforcement and otherwise -- start leaning on him to get him to back away and once the ex-con who started the ball rolling is shot, then Gus finds himself with a reason to get up as well as a reason to get to the bottom of things.

Hurts features Coleman's elegant plain-spoken style as one of its many strengths -- he manages to be erudite and reflective while leaving the polysyllables back in the box. His characterizations are hit and miss -- Gus, many of the people he interviews and his former priest friend Bill are all clearly drawn, but some others that seem to be set up to be more important not so much. It also highlights how well Coleman manages to work with protagonists who are clearly flawed and in many cases quite broken.

And that last could prove to hamper the possibilities of a series with Gus and company. We get that Gus is bleak -- and can understand why, given his circumstances -- but Coleman feels the need to keep that furrow well and fully plowed. Only very rarely does he return to the field with seed for it, mostly just running the plow of Gus's grief, disillusionment and whatnot through the ground again. A furrow planted can grow a crop; one just dug out will be a ditch. Coleman may intend to lever Gus a few notches closer to re-investing in his life in coming novels. I'd hope so, because another couple hundred pages of this and I'll quit my job to drive a courtesy van.

I've neither had children nor lost them, so I can't say how I'd react. Coleman's picture of Gus may be right on the money, but it makes a for a bleak enough read that the end of the book is more welcome than it should be. Human hearts are biased towards hope, whether we want them to be or not. That's why people will still be reading Lord of the Rings in 50 years, while the only reason they'll pick up A Song of Ice and Fire then is that George Martin will have just finished it. If Gus Murphy does turn into a series character but never seems to move on towards some kind of new life, then Coleman will probably need to be casting around for another series sooner than he might have imagined.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Incognito

The below picture shows the shadow cast by the the lunar probe Surveyor One, which landed June 2, 1966. It was the first time the United States soft-landed a spacecraft on another world, paving the way for the Apollo landings that would follow just three years later.


The picture comes from a 2009 flyover by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. According to the item at the Astronomy Picture of the Day page, Surveyor One is about 3.3 meters (just under 11 feet) high and so it casts a shadow about 15 meters (50 feet) long in the picture taken by the LRO.

Or that's what we're meant to believe. Scientists have yet to comment on suggestions that this shadow is actually cast by a strange black monolith that plays Also sprach Zarathustra whenever another object gets near it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Galactic Flip Side

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which "heard" gravitational waves from a pair of colliding black holes back in September and confirmed it this past February, has registered a second such event and scientists confirmed it today.

LIGO actually received the signal on Dec. 26, but it takes time to process the readings and confirm that what it records are actually gravitational waves and not some other phenomenon. The pair of back holes were 1.4 billion light years away, about the distance of the first colliders the instrument detected.

Modern theories of physics suggest that every collision between two objects produces gravitational waves, but the waves are so weak that when normal objects hit they can't be detected. Only when something with the mass of a super-dense black hole hits something equally massive can the gravity waves actually register, and even then LIGO scientists have to do a lot of work to sort out the signal from background "noise" that can mask it.

As the story at the link notes, the pattern of the waves showed that one of the black holes involved in the smash-up was spinning -- something that it had been thought LIGO could detect but which had yet to be proven.

In addition to offering yet more proof of general relativity, the new measurements will allow astronomers and cosmologists to start guessing how often black holes run into each other and to continue to fine-tune the instrument. The next scheduled test of the device is set for the first presidential debate of the regular election season, when Donald Trump's ego will collide with Hillary Clinton's un-likeability. Scientists have said they will probably have the LIGO on its lowest setting to avoid burning out the detector when objects of that much mass collide.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Read All Over?

A story in the Washington Post suggests 37 books that its reviewers have loved so far this year and recommends 10 more for your summer reading pleasure.

If you check out a lot of online news outlets you will see gobs of these lists, although most will not go with the oddball numbers like 37. There are also plenty of lists from famous people, like this one from Ethan Hawke. Hawke's an actor who's written four books himself, and his publisher would probably have liked him to have put at least one of them on his list of six favorites. "Ethan, baby, it's great that you like Anna Karenina, but Tolstoy doesn't need the sales like we do. C'mon, baby, if you don't sell yourself who's gonna?"

There are also lists of books for different groups of folks, like military buffs or gardeners or chefs. There are reviews of all kinds, including books that probably would be best skipped, but only by people who read.

This blog offers the writer's opinion on different books now and again, and as far as a quick perusal of the archives shows, there's pretty much nothing I won't read. Probably mostly true, although there are some authors I may have read in the past for assignments or classes that I won't ever read again. See the previous paragraph.

I wouldn't say my book reviews offer any kind of list that you should or shouldn't read, but if you've taken one of my recommendations and enjoyed it I am pleased. If you didn't enjoy it, sorry about that. I'll try again, I assure you.

Monday, June 13, 2016

A Note

Dear People Who Thought You Understood Me --

Psych!

--The Universe

Sunday, June 12, 2016

In Any Language

I've often said that the problem with the world is that people don't use enough Latin. Since I haven't said it where people could hear me you may not know I think that, but I do.

The good folk at Mental Floss agree with me (natch) and have a list of 20 Latin phrases we should all be dropping into our conversation. I return their favor by agreeing with them that these phrases have multiple uses in our modern political season.

For example, barba tenus sapientes literally translates "wise as far as his beard," which refers to someone who looks wise but isn't. Given that neither of the two major presidential candidates wears a beard, we can estimate their intelligence as somewhat less than even the simpleton who is barba tenus sapientes. Although technically, one of those candidates should be referred to as combover tenus sapientes for accuracy's sake.

That candidate, of course, is the one most prone to flinging around a brutem fulmen, an empty threat or literally, "senseless thunderbolt." The other candidate, in attempting to excuse or explain a nonstandard e-mail protocol for a former office, is offering one ignotum per ignotius after another. That phrase is used to describe an explanation which is actually intended to obscure rather than illuminate, and literally translates "the unknown by the more unknown."

In the end, neither of them offer actual solutions to modern problems as much as they offer repeated squawkings of what they want to do or what they think we want them to do, meaning that they are -- not literally but certainly more than figuratively -- vox nihili, or "the voice of nothing. The only problem with that situation is that these particular voices of nothing have been thrust upon us by the vox populi, or "voice of the people." In other words, our rotten choice stems from our rotten choices, and this is pretty much our own fault.

Which you don't need Latin to understand.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

One Brief, Shining Moment

Each night this week when I've walked out of our local fitness center I've seen the top of a Ferris wheel over the courthouse. This is not usual.

Our community has a weeklong festival every year that draws in the usual carnival games, some merchandise booths, community groups raising funds and some mid-level musical acts for free concerts. It's placed in the town square surrounding the courthouse, blocking a state highway and creating a headache for the square's businesses. Some of them just close for the week.

It's not everyone's favorite week, because of the re-routing and other inconveniences. But I love it, and I love it because I can see a Ferris wheel behind the courthouse at night. It reminds me that summer's starting, which is our busy season as we are near a recreational lake. And that for the next three months, our insulated, inward-looking and somewhat myopic little burg will have some different people in it who don't try to cling to its highlight days of the 1980s and 90s. Since I wasn't here then, I enjoy the presence of these alien viewpoints and the chance to encounter them now and again.

The festival is also something that clumps townspeople at a common location in a way nothing else does. Despite our small population, we manage to be much more a group of silos than a shared community, except this week. And it's fun to stroll it a little bit. The low-level rides and carny games are a small-town middle-schooler's dream -- they can roam in packs with their friends, wire themselves out of their minds on sugar and test-drive their social interactions without supervision of either parents or teachers.

Tonight's the last night, so when I leave the gym tomorrow evening no Ferris wheel will light the sky behind the courthouse and the square will be empty except for the usual sparse nighttime traffic. It will be much more convenient -- and less alive. But the summer will last awhile still.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Paradise Retained

This story at Nautilus goes into some detail about the memory techniques a man used to memorize John Milton's epic poem of the fall of humanity, Paradise Lost. It's a discussion of some method called "deep encoding," which I'm afraid I didn't quite grasp. Maybe I'll read it again some day before 9 PM.

What struck me as cool is that the guy now can "read" Paradise Lost any time he wants even without a copy in front of him. It's all in his head.

You'd need never again fear forgetting to take a book on the plane.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Father and Son

Stephen King may not be the only major writer producting short fiction, but he is certainly one of the few whose name still can get a collection of short stories into print and sell copies of it. His sixth short story collection, 2015's The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, has a couple of 21st century wrinkles -- two of its entries were previously published as e-books -- but it's not substantially different from 1978's Night Shift. King uses his imagination to bring to life some ideas or concepts that wouldn't have stood up as novel-length works but which sometimes shine brightly in the simplified bolder strokes of a short story.

And like Night Shift, Bazaar is a hit-and-miss collection. Standouts are stories like "Mile 81," a monster tale told with the kind of voice you might hear if Mickey Spillane wrote for Boy's Life. Or "Ur," which tells us what happens when a literature teacher at a small college finally orders a Kindle but receives something a little bit different than he asked for when he learns that this Kindle accesses material from alternative realities -- or even his own future. "Obits," "That Bus Is Another World" and "The Dune" are the kind of evil leering throat punches King wrote earlier in his career when he relied on sales from short fiction for income. The third one especially likes to twist its knife, reading like a Twilight Zone episode told by the Joker instead of Rod Serling.

Misses are the baseball-slash-crime novel "Blockade Billy" and its previously-published companion "Morality." The former never gets over its split personality and the latter still reads more like a typing exercise than a narrative -- these two weren't any good between the covers of 2010's Blockade Billy and they're no better here. "Premium Harmony" and "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive" betray King's disturbing and continued disdain for certain kinds and classes of people, and the two poems, "The Bone Church" and "Tommy," are free-verse ramblings whose most important words are the three that follow their titles: "By Stephen King."

Some of the others are like much of King's current output, neither here nor there and fading from memory not long after the page turns. But they have the virtue of ending after only a dozen or two pages, instead of almost a thousand, so they don't really subtract much from reading the half-dozen or so really good outings Bazaar contains.
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In the initial stages of his career, Joseph King wanted to make certain that his supernatural-tinged novels were less identified with his father's work. He wanted to fly or fall on his own merits, so he shortened his mother's maiden name and wrote as Joe Hill. Heart-Shaped Box flew, Horns fell with a listless muddled thud and NOS4A2 went somewhere in between.

The connection is no longer secret, but King the younger has established himself as Joe Hill and so continues to write under that name. But even if the kinship wasn't out in the open, it would be difficult to deny after reading Hill's fourth novel, The Fireman, and realizing how much it echoes what may be his father's most famous work, The Stand.

Both concern humanity facing plagues that may wipe out the entire species, and the aftermath of those plagues which develops on the supernatural dimension as well. King the elder gave 99.8% if humanity a fatal flu, Hill gives them "dragonscale," a deadly spore that appears as gold and black swirls on the skin before eventually causing spontaneous combustion. Hill's narrative focuses mostly on one character, Harper Grayson, as she resolves to survive both the spore and official attempts to "quarantine" victims long enough to deliver her baby. But before long a mysterious character who calls himself "The Fireman" appears, who might be the key to Harper's survival and maybe even a cure for the dragonscale.

Fireman wears its Standishness on its sleeve to the point of annoyance -- especially since said annoyance point has been lowered by Harper's own tendencies towards blandness and Mary Poppins/Julie Andrews obsession. The Stand's characters were much more interesting than Harper and had the advantage of spreading the story around several of them so as to disguise the places where they were a little shallow or less engaging. Several points of contact are probably deliberate in-jokes on Hill's part, such as the presence in his book of a deaf character named Nick, just as The Stand had a pivotal deaf character named Nick.

But even though touches like these are far more wink-and-nudge than bluster-and-thunder, they're still there to try to distract us from the man behind the curtain and the reality that we've seen this trick before. And we know how it goes.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Name That Element!

Four new elements, discovered in the last year or so and officially recognized last December, have been given their new names. Each was previously known by its atomic weight, translated into Latin. Element 113, for example, was called ununtrium. It will now be known as nihonium. It was synthesized by a Japanese research team and thus the usual conventions of element naming note that: "Nihon" is a name for Japan. In English, it means, "Land of the Rising Sun."

Element 115 will be called "moscovium," element 117 "tennesine" and element 118 "oganesson." Its name doesn't honor a place but a scientist. Russian physicist Yuri Oganessian was responsible for the discovery of several of these "heavy" elements. If you're wondering about the missing numbers, elements 114, "flerovium" and 116, "livermorium," had already been discovered.

The names are on trial for five months for a public review and discussion by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). The public review is only a period of comment and question rather than one of submission. As the Science News story notes, there will be no repeat of the National Environmental Research Council's silly "Boaty McBoatface" headache.

Which is good. Because if Donald Trump were to win in November, you know he would demand one of those elements -- if not all four -- be named after him. And if Hillary Clinton were to win, she would demand be named after the highest bidder and whoever could make this whole State Department e-mail thing go away.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Good Dog. Very Good Dog.

To the unknown wolf who decided the two-legged critters could be OK to hang around, and to the unknown ancestor who first discovered the magic of the belly rub.

Thanks.

Where Did That Come From?

Dr. Daniel Jackson, please call your office...

Monday, June 6, 2016

Thanks, Gentlemen


And thanks to you, too, Sparky.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Suck It up, Buttercup

At Slate's "XX Factor" blog, Katy Waldman acknowledges the complaints of Yale students that the curriculum for English majors includes many dead white male poets.

But, she says, it's tough to understand too much about English literature and poetry without encountering some dead white males. So perhaps the students majoring in English might take the opportunity to reflect on the origins of their field and come to grips with the fact that for many centuries, the unenlightened folk who dwelt in the British Isles gave not a fig for 21st century sensitivities and produced work that reflects this.

They probably won't, of course. They're college students and besides the likelihood that they are nice people, they know everything and thus people laboring under the burden of greater experience, reflection and most probably wisdom need to pipe down and let the younkers run things.

An immediate failing grade shall be given to anyone who wonders why people or beings who know everything are taking classes. That's OK. I've failed a class before, and it's surprisingly survivable.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

What Fresh Lunacy Is This?

In this New Yorker magazine article, Melissa Dahl writes about a study that explores what benefits come from growing up around books -- as if growing up around books itself isn't a benefit. It's a pretty interesting article and I commend it to you.

What I wanted to note was the advice she quotes from a current book by Marie Kondo, called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It's one of those books that touts the benefits of simplifying and de-cluttering your life. Doing so is a wise choice, but one piece of Kondo's advice makes it almost impossible to believe that any wise choice she relates comes from her own thinking. Get rid of as many books as possible, she says, and of the ones you do keep select only the best parts to rip out while ridding yourself of the others. You might think I have come to bury Ms. Kondo's suggestion, but I have instead come to amplify it. Save yourself the trouble of ridding yourself of unnecessary books by not buying them to start with.

And as it happens, I have a great recommendation for your first skip.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Poor Batting Habits

A hundred and twenty-eight years ago today, Mudville began its long, long years of mourning, thanks to Ernest Lawrence Thayer's poem published in the The San Francisco Examiner.

It was the last thing Thayer ever wrote for the Examiner, and one of the last pieces he ever wrote professionally. He moved back east, published a few pieces in the New York Journal and then turned to running his family's mills in Worcester, Mass. In 1912 he retired from mill management, got married and moved to Santa Barbara. Thayer died in 1940 at 77 years of age.

Casey -- and the tragedy of his overconfidence -- remain immortal.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

It Takes Work to Fail This Hard

When I was a young Friar earning my degree in journalism and applied brewery product testing, I subscribed to the Chicago Tribune. Most of my J-school classmates did as well. We would get a New York Times now and again, but the Trib was the "local" paper and it employed several of our instructors. The Chicago Sun-Times was another frequent but not daily read because the Trib had news about the suburbs, which was where most of us lived. And after Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times, the Trib also had Mike Royko, who most of us wanted to be when we grew up.

Our journalism school was named after the guy who brought the Trib into the big time, Joseph Medill. It may be one of the very few journalism schools in the country named after a Republican. At least until someone tells the students what party Medill belonged to and they stage a mass walk-out because the association triggers them and they find themselves horrifyingly supportive of capital gains tax cuts. This will also be a way to tell the real journalists. They will walk out as well, but they will head for the nearest pub, interview each other, and file a story before getting hammered and complaining about how great things used to be until they pass out. I will not dignify with a response any claims that I speak from experience.

So it is with head-scratching confusion I note that Tribune Publishing Company has renamed itself tronc. Yes, tronc, without any capital letters. The neologism represents "TRibune ONline Content." It also represents an early favorite in the Dumbest Idea of 2016 sweepstakes, and states a pretty convincing case to be the Dumbest Idea of 2017 as well. There's a statement from a company official at the link, but I don't recommend reading it if you like sentences that make sense. It reads like it's the kind of thing someone would say if they were the kind of person who thought "tronc" was a good name and changing to it a good idea.

Over at Dustbury, Charles mocks the idea as well, although in French since he is much more cosmopolitan than I. But in any language, "tronc" remains a lousy idea. The company said it wanted to try to create a new identity as it transformed itself from a legacy media company into a modern content provider. So this silly new name is an attempt at branding.

Well, tronc, you have succeeded in branding yourself. But I very much doubt that's happened the way you wanted it to, unless the association you wanted people to make with your new name was "WTH?"

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

There Oughtta Be...

That statement is usually finished, "...a law." It refers to something that's going on that the speaker thinks shouldn't be going on, and so he or she suggests a legal remedy for the problem.

In the classic Schoolhouse Rock episode "I'm Just a Bill," the initiating incident was a person watching school buses zip across railroad crossings without stopping and thinking that was a dangerous enough practice that a law should be passed requiring bus drivers to stop their vehicles at railroad crossings and then proceed.

Most of the time, "There oughtta be a law" isn't actually true. There may already be a law that covers the issue, the way that statutes prohibit careless and inattentive driving and make sort of redundant measures to ban texting while driving. Or any law that prevents the observed errors would create more problems than it solves, or conflict with an existing law or constitutional provision.

However, this recent case in Louisiana illustrates one of the times in which "There oughtta be a law" makes perfect sense. We have yet another incident in which people armed with legal authority but lacking the sense God gave a bottle fly wrote tickets to Louisiana youngsters operating lemonade stands without the proper "occupational licenses."

The Louisiana state legislature introduced and unanimously passed a law that exempts business run by minors which make less than $500 per year from needing such licensing. "Unanimous" because there are some things even a legislator can figure out not to do.

So in this instance, indeed, there oughtta be a law. If Lousiana's code enforcement officials are going to try to operate without any sense of shame, well, then I guess a law's the only answer. But the bill authors had better use really small words. The people it's aimed at probably would have trouble with anything over five or six letters and two syllables.