Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Culture and Values

Although American society today features a lot of talk about race and racial issues, it seems to lack much attention paid to economic and class issues except where they connect to race. This can leave a significant portion of folks -- who probably need just as much help in many areas as do racial minorities -- overlooked when it comes to the search for solutions for our nation's underclass.

Lawyer and writer J. D. Vance knows this culture firsthand, growing up in an Ohio rust belt town but remaining deeply connected to the Kentucky "hillbilly" culture of his family's roots. Vance outlines the problems he faced in this environment -- average or mediocre schools, parental drug use, low expectations and frequent home violence. His maternal grandparents gave him some level of stability as his mother's drug addictions removed her as any kind of steadying influence. But even they carried some of the same baggage that might have saddled Vance too had he not joined the Marines and then been given wise guidance from faculty and advisors at law school.

Elegy is both a part of and a spark for much of the current discussion of the "white working class" that we see a lot in the news these days, mostly as the subject of questions about why they voted for Donald Trump. Vance is clear that he loves both his family and his heritage while being equally clear about their flaws and pitfalls. The same individualism, self-reliance and stubborn honor that allowed these families to survive the rugged life of 19th century Appalachia creates no end of problems for them when they try to move out of both area and era into the 20th and 21st centuries. Pride in hard work -- the kind that allowed the men of the family to hold good-paying jobs even with little more and sometimes less than a high school education -- transforms into disdain for the kinds of jobs available once manufacturing moves on and into a perverse pride in not working.

Vance connects his own story to the cultural issues he discusses -- he marvels when he meets families who disagree and say so without screaming and swearing. When confronted with situations outside his comfort zone, he sometimes still struggles to deal with them in a calmer and more reasoned way than he saw as he grew up.

Elegy leaves some gaps. Vance mentions the problems that cheap home lending can cause families when factories leave and they are stuck with homes they can't sell to follow the work, but he does not follow through very often with specifics about how programs intended to help the working class sometimes have the opposite effect, And he's clear he has little idea of what kind of project or program would solve the cultural issue. But as someone who works daily with the hillbillies of the area where I live, it offers some good food for thought and chances for understanding the people I'm hoping to help.
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Stanford University professor Thomas Sowell addressed some of the same issues of culture in essays included in his 2005 book Black  Rednecks and White Liberals. Sowell says that traits which prejudiced people have assigned to African-Americans -- antipathy to work, promiscuity, improvidence and several others -- are not really a part of "African" culture as those people had claimed (He also notes that since it is a continent with several nations on it, the idea of a monolithic "African" culture is not very useful).

Instead, Sowell says, African-Americans brought to the southern part of the United States were socialized into what he calls the "cracker culture" of the northern Britons and Scotch-Irish immigrants to that part of the nation -- in large part the same culture that Vance describes as being a drag on his family and community. African-Americans who settled in other parts of the U.S., either as freeborn immigrants or as the descendants of slaves freed when their territories outlawed slavery, were often socialized into quite different cultures. Descendants of Africans brought into the Caribbean area were also socialized by a different culture and so have their own unique heritage today. Sowell says both of the latter two groups usually do not feature those same supposedly racial tendencies described above.

Some of the book's other essays also touch on racial and racial history matters, while others discuss anti-semitism and the problems created by misunderstanding multiculturalism. Sowell is usually thought of as conservative, so folks of liberal persuasions often dismiss him. But he is a careful writer and bases conclusions on where he believes evidence leads him. He may not be on his most natural ground in discussing historical and cultural issues -- his Ph.D. is in economics -- so sometimes he outkicks his coverage a little. But even when one of his judgments is perhaps not as strongly supported by evidence as some of the others are, they are still worth considering to see where the evidence he has collected might go instead.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

What The?

For all of his flaws -- and although not legion, they were still many -- at least George W. Bush kept this lurching, granite-brained golem out of the White House.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Keenest Gene

MY NAME...IS FRANK-EN-STEIN!

Then I vill say...good night, Herr Doctor.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

This Place Has Everything

You can post to your blog from a baseball park.

What a world.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

From the Rental Vault: Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow (1963)

Ever wonder what other networks aired opposite the Ed Sullivan Show episode that debuted the Beatles on American television?

Patrick McGoohan drew that short straw, as the Walt Disney company aired his The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh the night the Liverpudlians caused the Beatlemaniacal shrieking that deafened a studio. The program had two extra chances, though, since it was a three-parter  starring McGoohan as Dr. Christopher Syn, a mild-mannered clergyman in the town of Dymchurch who lived a secret life as the Scarecrow, smuggler and protector of the good folk of Dymchurch.

The program was based on the "Dr. Syn" novels of Russell Thorndike, which were popular reads during the first half of the 20th century. Thorndike's Dr. Syn was a considerably rougher character than the televised version, being inspired to a life of vengeance and piracy when his wife elopes with his best friend. Both versions share the idea of the gentle village cleric leading a band of smugglers trying to help simple village folk elude ruinous royal taxation, and disguising himself with a horrifying scarecrow mask.

Like many of the programs aired on the Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, the program later retitled Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow to match its English release was aimed at the younger television audience. The storyline is fairly simple: In the latter decades of the 1700's, the king's taxes are crushing the villagers and his soldiers are bullying them into submission, leaving smuggling goods past the tax man as the only option. Dr. Syn sees the rightness in the cause of Dymchurch's folk and decides to help them, even though he's breaking the law. His cleverness and bold action keep him always one step ahead of the bumbling royal officials, although said bumblers eventually manage to draw the noose tightly enough that the Scarecrow faces a real danger of being found out.

While the outcome is never in doubt, the quick-paced story and McGoohan's dry-witted delivery keep things interesting. His hoarse rasp and demonic laugh as the Scarecrow manage to be pretty frightening -- not to mention his mask as well as those of his lieutenants, Hellspite and Curlew -- so it's doubtful Dr. Syn would get made for a kid audience today. Of the rest of the cast, only George Cole as Mipps the sexton does a little more than the motions require, but the rest hit their marks, say their lines, and sell their parts of the story quite adequately.

Dr. Syn's meandering broadcast history -- it's been in English theaters a couple of times, American ones a couple more, and in two or three different versions on television -- mean it's not particularly easy to find a copy. But those who do will probably enjoy the obvious fun McGoohan is having with the part, and the ease with which he makes his anti-hero heroic and his hero no little bit scary. Someone could have shown it to David Ayer and helped out his most recent work quite a bit.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Do Not Leave Carts Unattended

Especially around the researchers at the Dynamic Test Center in Sweden. Popular Mechanics shares a video of what would happen to your groceries if your cart happened to reach the speed of 73 mph and crashed into a wall. Spoiler: No mixing required.

The first part of the video shows what happens if a cart hits your car at about 12 mph -- the groceries in the cart are protected, but your car has a good-sized dent and may even wind up with a broken window if the cart hits near your door.

Although the interstate-speed cart crash is not very likely, the possibility that a cart gets a good running start and bops into your wheels at jogging speed is not small -- especially when we consider how many people view their responsibilities when it comes to cart storage and return (Items 2, 3 and 4 on the list).

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Voicing Issues?

At The American Scientist, three researchers look at how vocal pitch may influence which politicians are more likely to be supported by voters, all other things being roughly equal.

The short version is that candidates with lower voices tend to do better overall, even though there's no one-to-one correspondence between lower vocal pitch and election results. Interestingly, although a male with a lower voice is more likely to make a favorable impression when competing against another man, he loses that advantage if he's facing a woman.

Left untouched by the researchers, of course, is what role telling the actual truth would play in how people appreciate their political candidates. Word is the sample size was too small to obtain any usable results.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Hope Springs Eternal Once in a While

Astronomers believe they may have discovered a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri -- a red dwarf star that happens to be the closest star to our sun, just under four light years away.

Even more interesting is that the initial information suggests the planet may be similar to Earth in size, suggesting the possibility that it has other similarities to our world -- like maybe the ability to support life?

Turns out that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein aren't our only hope after all...

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Indifference in Any Language

Over at Bored Panda, the staff compiled the way people of different languages call cats. Most languages, it seems, repeat a word three times, like the "kitty kitty kitty" part of the United States version. Some sound pretty similar to that, in fact, such as Poland's "kitschi-ktschi-kitschi."

These are different from those orations sometimes labeled "catcalls," which are usually even less inventive and often far less welcomed by their intended listeners.

Besides it really doesn't matter what language you use; unless there's the sound of food preparation involved, cats don't give much attention to calls in any tongue.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A Well-Earned "Well Done!"

The International Olympic Committee gets so many things wrong, it is a pleasure to report when it gets something right. It awarded its regular "Fair Play Awards" s to American runner Abbey D'Agostino and New Zealander Nikki Hamblin.

Hamblin and D'Agostino were in a preliminary heat for the women's 5000-meter run when they became entangled with each other and fell down. D'Agostino helped Hamblin up and encouraged her to finish the race, even though the fall meant that neither of them would be likely to place high enough to advance. Hamblin in turn had to help D'Agostino, who had injured herself in the fall. The American runner collapsed again and told Hamblin to continue, only later to force herself to get up and run through her own pain to cross the finish line, nearly two full minutes after the race leader.

Earlier reports confused the Fair Play Award with the Pierre de Coubertin medal, which is not given out in every edition of the games but which also honors great sportsmanship and Olympic service. It wouldn't be the worst thing to do, to help draw some more positive attention to a Games that was very shiny with wonderful stories on the outside but possessed of some of the same rottenness on the inside as always, as well as a few new wrinkles in that department.

Interestingly, although many writers wondered in their stories about the two women's motivations, few seemed to have actually wondered that to either of the women themselves. I couldn't find anything in which Hamblin was asked that much about what caused her awesome display of honor and respect, but at least one news outlet was able to get D'Agostino to talk about why she did unto others as she did.

SoHo No-no

In C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, helpful senior tempter Screwtape offers advice to his nephew, the novice Wormwood, on how to turn his "patient" towards the infernal realms. Despite what many say, Screwtape warns, the pursuit of pleasure will not be enough by itself, for real pleasure and joy are the province of the Enemy. Screwtape longs for the day when Hell's minions can create a truly artificial pleasure, one which humans will pursue avidly but find utterly empty when finally achieved. Success at this endeavor is promised regularly but still eludes the best demonic efforts.

Uncle Screwtape would be very happy with the cast of Richard Vines' debut murder mystery, SoHo Sins. Almost to a man and woman they've been hollowed out by decadence into walking voids of manic ennui, scrambling to fill themselves with the emptiness of each other.

Amanda Oliver has been murdered, and her husband Philip has confessed to the crime but his degenerative brain disease makes his confession suspect. His lawyer hires an investigator to probe the crime, and the investigator uses his friend art dealer Jackson Wyeth (!) as his guide to the strange world of the SoHo art scene in which all of them moved. Wyeth is also one of Philip's oldest friends and wonders if his increasingly unbalanced pal may have shot Amanda -- unless it was Philip's first ex-wife, Angela, or his new mistress, Claudia. Or one of the someone else's we meet along the way.

Although this is Vines' first novel, his role editing a major art magazine has obviously sharpened his writing skills. Jackson has a barbed and cynical wit deployed to excellent effect as he tries to help uncover what really happened when Amanda died. Since Vines has also curated exhibitions at several museums, he knows the world of his novel and offers vivid pictures of its cast and their scene.

Which is really the problem. Every last one of these people is creepy, except for the ones who are downright sickening. Their casual cruelty towards each other doesn't come off any better when we see it stems not from any great passion, only appetite. None of these people actually hate -- they would have to start caring to hate, and caring wouldn't fit the image. Jackson, our narrator, is no better and may in fact be worse given how much information his introspective musing asides offer about what's in his head.

A mystery is generally built around the question of a crime and who committed it. Murder mysteries ask, "Who killed the victim?" But in SoHo Sins, the only thing that sets the murder victim apart from those characters still walking around is that she's dead on the outside, while they're all just dead on the inside, and "Get me out of here" replaces "Whodunit?" as the reader response.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

From the Rental Vault: Justice League vs. Teen Titans (2016)

When your absent father is Bruce Wayne and you've spent a lot of time being raised by your evil megalomaniac genius grandfather, Ra's al-Ghul, you have some problems fitting in. Thus it is for Damien Wayne, currently serving as Robin and not being much of a help for the Justice League. When Damien's headstrong nature endangers lives the League seeks to protect, Bruce Wayne/Batman decides he needs to learn some things, including teamwork. So Damien is packed off to train with the Teen Titans, whom he alienates in fairly short order in the DC Animated Original Movie Justice League vs. Teen Titans.

Raven, Beast Boy and Blue Beetle form the team, led by a slightly older Starfire as combination team captain/teacher/big sister. Damien's brusque manner and disdain for everyone who's not him make him just as many friends on his new team as he had on his old team. But they will have to get along, as a demonic entity attached to one of his new teammates has begun to manifest in the world and it has gained control over several of the most powerful Leaguers. If it can regain complete physical form, it will wreck this world as it has so many others -- and the possessed Justice League is more than up for the job of making that happen, especially when all that stands in their way is a group of under-powered, inexperienced kids.

This animated feature continues in the New 52 continuity, tweaking the Titans from their best-known version in the 2003-2006 TV series Teen Titans by giving Starfire a more mentoring role. It also adds the Jamie Reyes version of Blue Beetle.

It's very much a middle-of-the-pack entry in DC's animated movie lineup, with some fun interactions among the teenaged characters but relying pretty heavily on a lot of punching/blasting fight scenes. The storyline is familiar, originating in a mid-80s arc from Marv Wolfman and George Pérez and already related once in the TT TV series. Some Damien-centric twists and scary Batmania -- the Caped Crusader injects himself with a coma-inducing nerve toxin to avoid demonic possession -- give it a little more life, but the third trip to the very same well brings up mostly the same offering as before. The wrinkle of setting a possessed League against the over-matched Titans doesn't add much to the story.

Justice League vs. Teen Titans is nowhere near as bad as DC's other recent Flashpoint/New 52 offerings, but the company has done much better and probably should have here. Watching it and its "Oh, him again?" villain isn't exactly punishment, but it's not much pleasure either.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Can't Pass It Up

We've come to another in the occasional series of headlines that simply can't be overlooked, whether the average person -- or below-average grumpy middle-aged blogger -- can understand them or not. The latest edition:
 "Brittle quasicrystals become ductile at the nanoscale"
As near as I can figure, the story is about how a state of matter called "quasicrystals" becomes significantly more flexible when you get down to a small enough scale. Molecules form crystals when they interlock with each other in repeating patterns. Quasicrystals show tendencies towards orderly combinations but they don't ever develop repeating patterns. This makes them brittle and not very useful -- they can't be shaped because at regular temperatures, they shatter under stress. They have to be raised to temperatures nearing a thousand degrees Fahrenheit before they lose their brittle characteristics.

But scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that at a small enough scale, the quasicrystals hold up better under stress at more normal temperatures. What good exactly that will do remains to be seen, but here's hoping we get another good headline out of it.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Onward and Upward!

Back in February of 2015, I highlighted an item in which a scientist at the Large Hadron Collider submitted a Lego project to create a Lego set model of his universe-destroying-black-hole generating device.

Well, late last month that project idea hit the 10,000-supporter level, meaning that the folks at Lego will now review it to see if they think they could create a workable model that would sell. Although there are several steps yet to go, you can see that there are a lot of suggestions that never make it that far (Megan Trainor Legos? Seriously?)

One hopes that this set does not come equipped with an electric motor the way some of the old car kits used to, because the last the last thing the world needs is a whole bunch of universe-destroying-black-hole generating devices...

From the Rental Vault: Hero Beyond the Boundary of Time (1993)

Often, movies which seem not to do well in the U.S. wind up recouping their losses in overseas markets. Sony, for example, hopes this happens with its Ghostbusters remake, where the box office has not kept up with its public profile. But historically comedies have not done as well in their "second chance" theater as action movies, which tend to translate more easily. Comedy has some cultural dimensions that can't necessarily be subtitled.

Although it might not mean to, 1993's Hero -- Beyond the Boundary of Time offers an example of what get lost in translation. In the 1600s, the Emperor of China is suffering from a peculiar wasting disease, and he sends his trusted minion Wai Siu-Bo 300 years into the future to find the mystery bride who can cure him. As might be expected, Wai Su-Bo has significant trouble adjusting to the new era, and he isn't helped by the slightly demented, slightly goofball police detective Chiu who takes him in tow. Things get more complicated when two evil men who want the Emperor dead make the time journey as well, pursued by two of Siu-Bo's wives. Their presence may help keep Siu-Bo safe, but it's going to interfere with his womanizing.

Hong Kong mainstay Tony Leung plays Siu-Bo with a mix of charm and smarm that sometimes goes a little heavy on the latter. He'd played this character before in a different setting on a TV series, but here gives a solid performance as an actor phoning in his role. Dicky Cheung's Chiu exists mostly to be the target of a Three Stooges parade of slapstick and act unbalanced. The actual conflict between the Emperor's enemies and his agents doesn't start until the movie is about two-thirds of the way finished, which leaves a lot of time for slapstick and jokes. That's where the cross-cultural issues come in, because a little Hong Kong cinema humor goes a long way, and a lot of Hong Kong cinema humor becomes way too much. The version I watched wasn't helped by clumsy subtitling. Having to stop to figure out a joke slows down a movie whether it's prompted by lousy writing or mistaken subtitles.

Hero has a couple of nice touches -- the time machine is inexplicably shaped like a teapot -- but they are few and largely overwhelmed by the middling level of the script and humor. Had the writers spent a little of their energy setting up their yuks and weaving them into their story, they would have wound up with a funnier movie -- in English as well as in Mandarin.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Bad Forecast

So did you ever wonder what it was like on Earth in the time following the Chicxulub meteor impact that killed the dinosaurs and helped shape the Yucatan Peninsula?

Pretty much sucked. For quite some time.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Pass the Smelling Salts!

So a social media marketing firm decided to see how likely it was that you would change your political views on a topic because of a Facebook post. Turns out the answer is not very. Good thing the internet's relatively anonymous, or you all might start suing me for all of the shock I just caused you.

The only surprising note in the story is that the marketing firm's name is not Unbelievably Obvious Stuff.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

From the Rental Vault: In Harm's Way (1965)

In Harm's Way is a curious movie in a lot of ways. It was made in 1965 but full of rah-rah WWII bluster. It's has an epic feel to it but was made in black-and-white when Technicolor was the rage. Between the director and the cast, it's packed with Hollywood star-power that generates little or no firepower. And though it clocks in just a quarter-hour shy of three full hours, it only sketches its storylines, leaving too many gaps for the audience to figure out and too much space for them to lose interest.

Director Otto Preminger apparently wanted to make a big-budget, big-deal war movie that presented a more or less positive view of the United States Navy, rather than the more revisionist kind of story being told more often in the 1960s. When he planned to film James Bassett's 1962 novel Harm's Way, he brought in John Wayne for the central role of Captain, later Rear Admiral, Rockford Torrey. With Kirk Douglas as Captain Paul Eddington and Patricia Neal as love interest Lt. Maggie Hayes, Preminger had some of the biggest and most talented guns he could get for his epic, but the story that screenwriter Wendell Mayes drew from the novel can never get enough traction to keep from lurching through its paces instead of sailing along.

Torrey captained a ship on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, and although his cruiser escaped the Japanese bombing he was second-guessed about a command decision and beached to an office. His friend Paul Eddington suffered a personal tragedy that day and without Torrey to cover for his erratic behavior, finds himself running a distant supply outpost. During treatment for his injury, Torrey meets nurse Maggie Smith, a Naval Reserve Lieutenant called to active duty for the war. They begin a low-key romance that's paralleled by a much rockier relationship between Torrey's estranged son Jeremiah and Maggie's roommate, Ensign Annalee Dohrn. All of these characters and the rest of the cast will get themselves eventually into the South Pacific. The real action starts when Henry Fonda, stopping in for a cup of coffee and a few lines as an ersatz Chester Nimitz stand-in, gets Torrey promoted and sent to a group of islands the Navy and Marines are trying to wrest from the Japanese to build a bomber base.

Wayne, of course, is in the icon phase of his career, where he is pretty much just being John Wayne in a different outfit for each movie. Douglas has the intensity for the troubled Eddington, but the story spends a lot of time with that character being the sort of devil-may-care humorous sidekick. The dark turns he takes make little sense in light of the other 90 percent of the time he's onscreen, and there's no nobility in his attempts to make up for his wrongs. Patricia Neal, who also starred with Wayne in Operation Pacific, makes a great foil for him and offers yet more evidence that the macho Duke knew he worked best opposite strong female leads. He didn't lobby for Neal specifically, but he did campaign for an older actress (she was 38) after a string of improbable onscreen romances with women as young as his own children.

In the end, In Harm's Way winds up as a disjointed collection of too-much-but-not-enough -- I haven't even mentioned a subplot between Tom Tyron's William McConnell and his wife Beverly, played by Paula Prentiss, because it's basically a stick-figure drawing of the "cost of war" set piece where Prentiss gets caromed back-and-forth between sadness, joy and more sadness. We never spend enough time with the McConnells to be able to invest a lot of interest in them, and so their scenes are leached of color and vitality and their heaviest lines much more cliché than anything else.

Which is about what the rest of the movie winds up being as well.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Update

Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby has been sent home by the International Olympic Committee for refusing to shake the hand of the Israeli who beat him. "Judoka" is the word that the martial art of judo uses for its practioners, the way fencing calls its competitors "fencers."

Israeli judoka Or Sasson beat El Shehaby in the 100 kg division on his way to a bronze medal (the 100 kg division is judo's heavyweight class). Judo etiquette requires the two opponents to face each other and bow after the match is over, and handshakes have become customary although they are not required. El Shehaby would at first do neither, and had to be called back to the mat more than once before he would bow as required. The Rio crowd booed him, especially when Sasson stepped forward, hand extended, and El Shehaby backed away shaking his head.

Even though the tournament is over and El Shehaby had already lost anyway, the IOC's punishment is not the complete shoulder-shrug at the incident one usually expects of them. His sport's international governing body will doubtless take a dim view of his actions, he has been evicted from the Games and he will not be able to march with his fellow Egyptian athletes in the closing ceremonies. While we might wonder if that last bit is really all that much of a punishment, we should remember that representing one's country and participating in the closing ceremonies is not the mind-numbing bore that watching them on television usually is.

(Edited to correct "judoku" to "judoka" throughout)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Natural Selection?

Over at Nautilus, Jeremy Miller writes about the idea that human beings went from mostly quadrupedal to full-out bipeds in order to be able to throw better.

Early hominids, anthropologists believe, were semi-bipeds like the modern great apes. They could walk on two legs, but most often used their legs and long arms together, especially when they wanted speed. That's a fine arrangement, but it's not the best way to be able to throw something. Throwing from a more or less horizontal position robs the toss of most of its power and accuracy. Underhand tosses are more likely to hit a target, but without a lot of mustard on them. Overhand throws have more power, but unless you're upright they're most likely to hit the ground a few feet in front of you. Neither is very useful when your target is a tasty critter or marauding member of another tribe.

So the hominids that were better able to stand vertically on two legs tended to thrive a little bit better, and the ones that kept their four-point stance tended to not do so. Ol' great-to-the-nth-power grandpa found that a bipedal approach increased the velocity and accuracy of his throw, and also left him in a better position to either start chasing down his wounded dinner or turning and running from his enemy.

In other words, baseball represents evolved human beings. Football represents an evolutionary dead end. But don't take my word for it; here's the original Chuck D to settle the matter, as related in Miller's story:
“...hands and arms could hardly have become perfect enough to have manufactured weapons, or to have hurled stones and spears with a true aim, as long as they were habitually used for locomotion and for supporting the whole weight of the body, or…for climbing trees. From these causes alone it would have been an advantage to man to have become a biped.”
Don't blame me if you don't like it; it's just plain science.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

It's Not Easy Cleaning Green

With all of the focus on the raw sewage likely to fill the outdoor Olympic water events such as rowing, most people could be forgiven thinking that the indoor water, at least, would be OK. This isn't Venezuela, after all. You don't have to wait for your incompetent socialist president to die to unload him or her, and water still comes out of the taps when you turn them.

But turns out the folks who said Rio De Janeiro's crew weren't ready for the Olympics were probably right as regards some of the swimming and diving events too. Both the diving pool and the water polo pool have turned bright green, with the diving pool now so murky that there's no visibility. Fortunately for the competition, Olympic divers are judged by what they do above the water rather than what they do once they've entered it.

Water polo players have complained about eye irritation, and each new day brings the promise of a cleaned-up pool and a new explanation for the problem. For the record, a guy who helps run a pool cleaning company, as quoted in the New York Times, said the problem was most likely metals in the water. If the water supply has enough copper in it, then the addition of chlorine oxidizes the copper and turns the water green and murky. So essentially, the Rio Olympics are holding their diving and water polo events in rusty water. Neil Young, call your office.

The kicker is the quote from the Rio 2016 spokesman at the end of the Times story. When confronted with the string of failed promises of resolution and lame excuses, he fell back on this: "Chemistry's not an exact science." Which would be news to my high school chemistry teacher and the C+ she laid on my report card.

Public relations spokespersoning, though -- now that is by no means an exact science. When the only correct answer is "We screwed up and we don't know how," then one can choose from an endless supply of incorrect ones.

ETA Sunday: The venue managers have definitively said that someone added hydrogen peroxide to the pool by mistake, which turned the water green. Since they won't be able to clean it in time for synchronized swimming, they're pumping the water out of the pool and pumping in water from a practice pool.

Oh, and they're very embarrassed over how many times they said the problem would be cleared up the next day and it wasn't.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Faster. Higher. Stronger. And Often, Much Much Pettier

Although the rules governing international judo competitions only require that both combatants, after their matches, bow to each other in the traditional salute of the discipline, these days they often shake hands.

Unless, of course, one of them is the Egyptian Islam El Shehaby and the other one is a competitor from Israel. El Shehaby displayed the reaction many Middle Eastern athletes seem to have, but only when the Olympics requires them to be in proximity to or display basic respect for an Israeli athlete: Pure boorishness.

El Shehaby lost the bout and then doubled his filing status under the "l" word by having to be called back to the mat to bow to Israeli Or Sasson. He then went for the hat trick by refusing to meet Sasson's outstretched hand. The crowd at Rio, who had been schooled in basic decency, booed him immediately.

The International Olympic Committee opened a disciplinary commission that will meet afer the games are over and decide what, if anything, to do to El Shehaby. It's hard to say what the result will be. On the one hand, the IOC has demonstrated it doesn't much care if Israeli athletes get a little shabby treatment, nor is it overly concerned with the Games' overall history as it regards Israeli athletes. And they have the out that the sport's own rules don't require a handshake. But on the other hand, they could make themselves look decisive and tough by telling him he's been a bad boy. And since he already lost his way out of the tournament, that wouldn't really matter.

A gesture that looks tough but means nothing. That's one event where the IOC is unlikely to ever finish out of the medal round.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Long Distance

We're all familiar with how stray dogs are likely to follow humans who are nice to them, but eventually they often give up when the human isn't interested in keeping them. A stray pup named Gobi apparently decided that she could outwait long distance runner Dion Leonard at a grueling endurance run in the Gobi Desert. She kept up with him for all 23 miles of the race's second day and he is now working through the bureaucratic mess necessary to bring her from China to Scotland.

The process will take about four months and cost as much as five thousand pounds, but Leonard decided she would be worth the effort.

Plus, a dog like that seems highly likely to find her own way to Scotland despite the best efforts of human red tape, so why not bow to the inevitable.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Flush

Before he became mega-famous as the creator of A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy mega-series that spawned HBO's Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin was probably best known as the creator and editor of the "Wild Cards" shared anthology super-hero series.

The "Wild Cards" books grew out of a super-hero role-playing game Martin enjoyed with his friends, several of whom were authors. In 1987, they capitalized on two hot science fiction and fantasy trends: shared-world anthologies and grim-n-gritty superheroes to publish the first "Wild Cards" book, a collection of 20 or so short stories by several different authors, called Wild Cards. Aces High and Jokers Wild followed in the same year and the series was off.

Martin and his co-authors created a world in which an alien mutagenic virus was released in Earth in 1946. All but 10% of the people infected with it die. Of the remainder, 9% are transformed to some degree, often substantially and hideously, into "Jokers." The last 1% develop superhuman abilities that they use either to benefit humanity or perhaps just themselves, and are called "Aces." The series will later introduce a scattering of folks who gained some minor ability who are called "Deuces."

The series has gone through four publishers since 1987 and is now 22 books and several stories long. Universal Cable Productions, sensing that Martin's name on top of a product might be a good way to make money, has signed up to develop a television series based on the books. Miller's deal with HBO is exclusive, meaning he can't work on the "Wild Cards" series. But he can cash the checks, and it's highly likely that Melinda Snodgrass, the original assistant editor of the "Wild Cards" series, has taken on the lion's share of the work in recent years anyway. She's been signed by Universal to help work up the show.

Even though Martin's name has been a license to print money for HBO and Bantam Spectra, there's no guarantee that "Wild Cards" will work the same magic for Universal. I read the series up through book 15 or 16, when publishing rights woes made them harder to track down and I lost the thread by the time they came back into a more regular schedule. Also, the concept focuses on a super-hero universe "as large and diverse" as Marvel and DC, Martin said, "though somewhat grittier, and considerably more realistic and more consistent." What "grittier," "considerably more realistic" and "more consistent" turned out to mean, of course, was words Superman never thought about saying and lots of sex.

Gritty may have been edgy in the comic-book world of 1987, with stories like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns just breaking onto the scene. It's not anymore. Placing super-powered beings in a more realistic setting may have broken some ground at the time, but since then there have been tons of comic book series that worked along the same lines -- and often much better, such as Kurt Busiek's Astro City or Mark Waid's Irredeemable. The Marvel Comics "Ultimates" line operated in the same vein and formed the basis for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that's helped make super-hero movies the mint they've become. Working from them Marvel's television division has explored both dimensions -- grit and realism -- in Daredevil and Jessica Jones. NBC's Heroes tried to explore these ideas as well, before its storylines lost focus and fizzled out.

The niche that "Wild Cards" moved into during the late '80s and '90s is now a crowded one, which means any success it will have will come from the storylines themselves. I've reread a couple of the earlier books recently, and while some of those hold up better than others, almost all of them show their age. The "Wild Cards" universe has a long buildup -- the first three books moved it from the late 1940s into then-present-day 1988 or so. Weaving their aces and jokers into the real world events of the 1950s, 60s and 70s was an essential part of getting to that present day, though, so showrunners will have trouble laying their foundation work for their universe without taking some time to slog through the history.

So the developers will have to contend with the reality that, especially today, "Wild Cards" is nothing special. But then, a clear-eyed look at Martin's prose style and inability to discipline his own narrative in the ever-increasing A Song of Ice and Fire series shows much the same thing, and that one turned into a hit. If Universal Cable relies on the same basics HBO did -- George R. R. Martin's name and naked people -- then it just might be able to do the same.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Shady Day in Thermopylae

By some accounts, King Leonidas and the Spartans began a doomed fight against a Persian army many times larger than they on this day in 480 B.C.

Struggling to hold a narrow pass at Thermopylae, the Spartans lasted until a traitor exposed a hidden trail in the hills to their rear. The Persian army was able to bring twice the strength against the small Greek force as before, which proved enough to whittle down its numbers and eventually overwhelm it.

The battle has helped spawn a lot of legends, some of which are probably more exaggeration than truth. King Xerxes' offer to spare the outnumbered band if its soldiers lay down their arms was probably really met with the response, "Molon labe," or, "Come and take them." And the Persian claim that their arrows would blot out the sun -- Persian battle strategy was to use long-distance weaponry to cripple enemy formations before attacking directly -- probably really did draw the rejoinder, "Good. Then we will fight in the shade."

But the 300 Spartans were not the only Greeks in the battle, and King Xerxes did not lead any of his troops or participate in the assault.

Still, the record of the battle set down by the historian Herodotus and the prominence of Greek and Latin literature in classical education has kept the memory of the stand at Thermopylae prominent in our culture, helping define the courage shown by those who decide to stand to the last against what they call evil. And by showing that for some, death and defeat are not nearly so fearsome as capitulation to that evil.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Overestimation

Writing at Heat Street, Will Johnson notes that the summer of 2016 has been the summer of the blockbuster bomb. Most of the big-ticket moves of the summer have done a bit less box-office business than hoped for, and many have been critical duds as well. I was in the theater about four times this summer, so I can't argue with him, and maybe the fact that I only wanted to be there four times is proof of his concept.

But I do take issue with one of his judgments -- according to Johnson, "You have to go back to 2003 to find a summer as creatively bankrupt."

The heck you do.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Watchful Eye

Considering the bad behavior of Jupiter in the ancient legends, it might make some sense to name the satellite that's going to explore it Juno, after his long-suffering wife.

But if it finds out that the Great Red Spot is just lipstick on the big planet's collar, that whole idea about everything being a simulation might start to make some sense.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

What Are Those Things?

Brendan Maloy, writing at Sports Illustrated, ranks Olympic mascots in the order of scariness. The scariest part of all may be that someone got paid to design some of them.

Also in Olympic news, everyone had a cheer for the "Refugee Team" of people displaced from their homelands who are competing under the Olympic flag rather than a national one. It made everyone feel good. Then we found out the Lebanese team threw a tantrum at the idea of riding to the opening ceremonies on the same bus as the Israeli team, and we were back to business as usual for this "above all the politics" event.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Redemption Draweth Nigh?

The Major League Baseball Hall of Fame has made a decision that could allow it to once again be worthy of the name, reorganizing its veterans committees and re-opening the door to Negro Leagues players after shutting it in 2006.

The Sporting News article notes that the changes could help ease the logjam for players who have had Hall-eligible carers but who have been sidetracked by the vagaries of voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America. It could also help pave the way for players caught in the Steroid Era who chemically enhanced their performance during years when that was not yet illegal.

As to those possibilities, whatever. The world turns as it always has whether Cooperstown features Alan Trammell's features on a plaque or not. Ballplayers have always sought an edge, and the reality that a needle should feature as prominently as a bat on a Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire display doesn't change that what they did was mostly legal when they did it. BBWAA members can vote them down if they want to, but making sure that the system gives them their chance is a good idea.

But as has been noted before, a special Hall of Fame committee set up in 2006 to take care of remaining Hall-worthy Negro Leagues players exhibited truly adamantine dumbitude by leaving out John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil, about two years before O'Neil's death. The special committees had been necessary because the segregation of baseball by race had left too many great players shining on a less visible stage. Everybody knew how great Babe Ruth was. But not nearly so many knew how great Josh Gibson was, so extra effort was needed to research Gibson and top players like him so they could receive the recognition they deserved.

O'Neil himself didn't consider his stats Hall-of-Fame worthy. As this otherwise kind of corny column in the Kansas City Star notes, he carried his list of Cooperstown-caliber-but-overlooked Negro Leagues players in his wallet. He didn't list himself. But his contributions towards getting the biggest stars some of the attention they deserved and highlighting the untold story of Negro Leagues baseball are without peer. The committee that overlooked him did so to its eternal shame, especially since it was supposed to make the last recommendations from that era and then consider the case closed.

But by including Negro Leagues players in its new "Early Committee," the Hall now allows for the possibility that the face of Buck O'Neil could smile out at Cooperstown visitors sometime after 2020, when that committee first meets. And that's the kind of fame that can cross out a whole lot of chemically-enhanced infamy.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Photo Effects

OK, sure, this image is really just multiple long-term exposures over a single night that shows the way stars appear to move as the Earth rotates around its axis.

But when I go to sleep tonight, I'm going to tell myself it's a wormhole opening above a spacecraft docking tower. Maybe I'll manage to talk my subconscious into making me a captain, standing on the deck of a star cruiser as it returns to Earth.

It beats re-living the meeting I had this morning.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Moon License

Mr. Delos D. Harriman, please call your office...

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Nigerian Barrister Required

By an individual known as "Mike," who was arrested by Nigerian police in connection with millions of dollars of internet scams run by a network stretching across several nations in Africa that may have involved as many as 40 people.

The "Nigerian e-mail scam" is its own meme, as fake e-mails seeking money or help in schemes to get money have been around for nearly as long as there has been an internet. One of the more common involves a person mysteriously being named as the beneficiary of some wealthy Nigerian's will. A "barrister," or lawyer, is contacting the hoped-for-victim on behalf of the estate, seeking account details needed to make the substantial deposit. You know it's not a scam, of course, because the person sending the e-mail has the address of their barrister offices and everything right in the message.

I will now make a public offer of my own. "Mike" and his network were believed to have hoovered up some $60 million over the course of their alleged scam, according to authorities. If he sends me two of those millions, I will send him a copy of a book that I have in my sole possession that contains an entire section of nothing but barristers who defend people accused of crimes. Their contact information and addresses are even printed on different-colored pages -- yellow, to be exact -- in order to set them apart from other listings.

But he will need to keep this offer confidential. If it gets out, unscrupulous types might try to take advantage of him in his hour of need.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Burden of the Ballot

Problem: The election of Republican nominee Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States will be at best an embarrassment and at worst actually dangerous to our nation. The only responsible course of action is to vote for the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, no matter how much one may disagree with her policies and positions.

Verdict: Half-right.

Problem: The election of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to the office of President of the United States will be at best an embarrassment and at worst actually dangerous to our nation. The only responsible course of action is to vote for the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, no matter how much one may disagree with his policies and positions.

Verdict: Half-right.

So of you're a person who believes that voting in elections is the kind of civic duty which you should not shirk, considering how many people sacrificed so that you could have and keep the right to do so, you have one heck of a problem. Now, it's not like there haven't been morally objectionable candidates for the office before. Woodrow Wilson was a vicious racist. Richard Nixon was a crook, despite what he said to the contrary. And so on.

But in 2016, both major parties somehow dipped their cups deep deep down into the fetid level of their basest, where greed and narcissism and the naked lust for power metastized together with malignant untruth and paranoiac secrecy and basic incompetence. And then they each drew up a gelid stinking rat's nest of a candidate, only to find that they had finally really done it: They had nominated two people who mirrored each other in almost every way, with the minor differences between them (he's more natural at public speaking, she has a better handle on how to get policy enacted) drowned in the reality that neither of them is of fit character for the office of President of the United States. Neither of them deserves "Hail to the Chief" or Air Force One or a life in the West Wing of the people's house or to receive a salute from someone wearing our nation's uniform.

The only position for which either nominee is suited by character is one of grasping avarice, single-minded in their devotion to enrich themselves and gain power for the sole reason of being able to tell other people what to do rather than empower them on their own. This position they already hold, of course, and a sane cosmos would leave them both in it.

This being the cosmos we have, though, here they are and there is still the necessity of voting. And so for someone of a conservative political bent, there comes former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, running as the Libertarian Party candidate. Mr. Johnson is far from ideal. His ideas on religious freedom remain dismal (and not all that libertarian) and his track record in limiting spending isn't everything you could want (although he had to work against his NM legislature to even slow it down).

What I read of Mr. Johnson makes me think he would be at best an average president and unlikely to get a lot of his agenda through Congress. We might wind up with the authority and enormous bureaucracy of the executive branch trimmed, since he could do that more or less on his own. Or he might decide he needs to invest his energy in getting pot legalized. In an ordinary year, I can't find too many policy reasons I would vote for him, especially given the near certainty that he will not win.

But this is no ordinary year. The foulest stench is in the air; the funk of forty thousand hours of political ads and debates and conventions, and the only thing that Mr. Johnson has to recommend him is that if I mark the box next to his name on Nov. 8. I can look at myself in the mirror on Nov. 9 and probably corral the completely understandable impulse to ram my head through the wall behind it.