Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Non-Fiction

The "Trail of Tears" was the name given to a forced relocation of Native Americans living in the Southeastern United States. Different nations -- primarily the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole -- were required to leave their lands so they could be settled by Europeans. Uprooted and sent to modern-day Oklahoma, many perished on the journey as well as after their arrival. Although these nations had a significant urban presence in the southeastern US, their recovery after the relocation was not swift. They maintain significant presences in their resettled lands today, but the entire story offers a good example of just how poorly Native Americans have been treated by the United States government.

And still are, Naomi Schaefer Riley says in her 2016 book The New Trail of Tears. Riley sketches a host of social and economic ills faced by modern Native Americans that continue to produce misery for them today, long after active efforts to exterminate them via soldiers and rifles have ceased. She lays the blame for many of these on outmoded government policies that prevent Native Americans from using their own land the way every other citizen of the United States can and which deprive them of access to the same court and legal system every other citizen can access. Those policies provide a lot of bureaucracies with reasons to exist and bureaucrats with paychecks, but may or may not actually help Native American people or allow them to help themselves.

Riley paints a picture about as bleak as the northern plains winter scene on the cover. The centerpiece points of her proposed solutions -- allow tribal members some measure of private property rights over the land they live on and increase tribal members' access to redress through non-tribal court systems while overhauling and reforming the tribal ones -- might very well help but would require the kind of paradigm shift usually unavailable to the bureaucratic mind. The ancestors of today's Native people were forced to leave their lands in order to satisfy the interests of wealthy and powerful people; today they are being forced to remain behind in a system that serves those wealthy and powerful folks and notes them only incidentally, if at all.
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Often students from inner-city or less well-off schools don't move towards work in the hard-science world of things like physics. It has less to do with whether or not they are smart than with whether or not they even believe they can succeed in fields where few share their forming experiences. And additional layer of work comes when we focus on minority students from those same schools. Stephon Alexander has been one of those students who's worked to try to nudge the door open behind him for other talented students who may not think they can measure up. The Brown University physicist has also published papers on several theories in modern cosmology and physics that are often cited by others in the field.

And he's a jazz saxophonist who had the privilege of working a little with legend Ornette Coleman. His 2016 book The Jazz of Physics offers some reflections from these two fields and interests in his life and how they might intersect.

Jazz is structured as a semi-memoir of Alexander's own developing interest in both jazz and physics. Interest in the one helped fuel thought and interest in the other, he found, as he progressed through his schooling. The improvisational nature of jazz seemed a nice fit for the theoretical and largely mathematical work being done on the cutting edges of cosmology and physics. A saxophonist could improvise through a solo only if he or she knew how the different notes would sound together and which combinations and riffs worked and which didn't. Exotic ideas such as string theory or the multiverse -- which might never be proven experimentally -- can only be acceptable if they agree with things that can be verified, like the formulas used to express them.

Alexander is poorly served by his publisher with his book's subtitle: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe. He really doesn't ever offer anything like that, nor does he pretend he's going to. Some discussion of how waves in the universe immediately after the Big Bang could be seen as sound waves is interesting, but it's in no way the centerpiece of the book. Jazz is an interesting read even in its memoir guise, because Alexander thinks about interesting things. The book can prompt a reader to do so as well, but it never really makes a good case for why it should be a standalone book instead of an extended essay in a journal or magazine.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

You Said It, Mister

Tomorrow is the birthday of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, the man who as Prime Minister of England during World War II might have had one of the largest roles in saving Western civilization from Nazi overthrow.

Churchill was born in 1874. His speeches during the war, especially in the dark days of constant German air raids when it seemed like Great Britain alone was left to fight off Nazi power, are credited with giving the people encouragement to continue to fight and hold out. Churchill apparently believed that the United States would enter the war sooner or later, but whether he ever actually said it would have been better if it had been sooner no one really knows.

His 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech at Westminster University in Missouri sounded an alarm that totalitarian despots didn't all vanish when Hitler was vanquished, and that a wartime ally had become a Cold War enemy.

Churchill himself didn't like all of the praise given him for his wartime role, believing that his countrymen and women were the true heroes of the hour. From a speech he gave on his 80th birthday:
I have never accepted what many people have kindly said - namely, that I inspired the nation... It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion's heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar. I also hope that I sometimes suggested to the lion the right place to use his claws.
I have the mad respect for Winnie, but I have to disagree with him slightly. It's tough to read the following and think that it didn't offer at least a little of the heart behind the roar:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
I mean, it's no "Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it," but it did well enough for its time, right? No, here I'm going to go with the assessment of Edward R. Murrow -- himself no slouch with the wordsmithery:
He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Calculated Risk

Some writers at Science 2.0 helpfully weigh the different risk factors involved in running the bulls at Pamplona, Spain.

They suggest that while the goal of most of the people who stage athletic events is a zero-risk event -- safer surfaces in track events, big pillows underneath the pole vaults, etc. -- that option is not available in the Pamplona runs because the race itself is the risk, and the risk is part of the point of running the race. Therefore the risk cannot be non-zero.

While I am sure these people are all smarter than me, I have to disagree with their conclusion. My risk of being gored or stomped by a bull in Pamplona is exactly zero, because never in life am I going to run down the street in front of multiple tons of horned beef. Should one of the bulls of Pamplona desire my departure from this mortal coil, he'll need to get himself slaughtered and cooked on a grill someplace where I eat and thus place his deadly red meat into my system. That's not only his best shot, it's his only shot, so he'll have to figure out in his dim bovine mind just how much he hates me, someone he has never met.

It just ain't worth it, Ferdinand.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Satisfaction

Being as I am a fan of baseball, I've always been a little perturbed at the legend that the late and unlamented vicious dictator Fidel Castro may have been scouted and offered a contract by the New York Giants (sometimes the offer is from the Washington Senators). He supposedly turned them down.

It's a pleasure, then, to read Today I Found Out and learned that this is a false story -- that while major league scouts may have taken a look at Castro, they saw nothing they wanted. He apparently had high-school level stuff and as a pitcher, he made a great murderous despot.

He also, upon attaining power, banned professional pay-for-play baseball in Cuba. Perhaps he thought that if he couldn't make money playing baseball, then no one else in Cuba should either. It is, after all, what he did to the rest of his nation's economy.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Unusual Day

That I disagree with President Obama regarding a matter of foreign policy is not in any way new or noteworthy. He completely misses the boat in commenting on the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, ignoring the massive amount of human suffering brought about by the man and his policies.

But that I agree with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is...unexpected. Nevertheless, Rep. Pelosi's statement on the dictator's not-soon-enough demise notes both the oppression in which Castro engaged and the fact that his little brother hasn't done squat to end it. Kudos, Madam Minority Leader. This one you got right.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Mister Jones and...Us?

Jennifer, writing at JenX 67, notes a generational cohort that spans the border between the Baby Boomers following World War II and the Generation X crew made famous in the 1990s. The name: Generation Jones.

I'm on board with identifying this subset -- as a member, I can say that I didn't feel culturally much at home with Boomrs or Xers. I lacked many of the cultural touchstones that helped define them and the ones I did have didn't seem to strike the mainstream of either group. Jennifer says that the name draws on the idea of "keeping up with the Joneses," and desiring a better quality of life like that of our predecessors, which I'm not so sure about. Not long after The Big Chill came out and helped some serious 60s nostalgia take over movies, TV and radio, I found myself quite sick of it. Yes, unemployment was more of a problem during our entry into the workforce, but after peaking in 1981 it started a nearly 10-year decline.

Jen notes a book written about the group by Jonathon Pontell called Generation Jones which she is on the lookout for. If you track down a copy, drop her a line at her blog.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Fogbow?

It's a real thing, and it's what you get when the water droplets that form a rainbow are much smaller than normal, about the size of those that make up fog.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

It's All in the Presentation

In case you were thinking your Thanksgiving turkey was going to be the most spectacular centerpiece of a holiday meal, check out these instructions from the mid-15th century on how to prepare a peacock for the table in such a manner that it looks like it is both alive and actually on fire.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Frontiers

Imagine that Isaac Newton saw not a falling apple, but a rising bubble of air in his bath and thus conceived not the existence of gravity but the principles of hot-air balloons. And imagine that not only did the planets of the solar system have breathable atmospheres, but so did the space in between them, so that sailing ships could navigate from one to another as they did the continents on Earth.

That's the world -- with some steampunk overlays -- in which David Levine sets his Arabella of Mars romp, giving us the story of Arabella Ashby's journey to save her brother and her family's fortune from a greedy and potentially murderous plotter. Mars is on the frontier of the British Empire's vast holdings, and when Arabella learns of the scheme she has no way to warn anyone except by taking ship for Mars, which she doesn't have the money to do. So disguised as a boy -- because proper young ladies don't crew ships in this early 19th century any more than they do in ours -- she gets hired on a trading ship bound for Mars, hopefully in time to thwart the evil schemer she's chasing.

Some of the details of this alternative world are excellent. For example, Levine posits "trade winds" that sweep between the planets to make journeys of millions of miles possible for sail-driven craft. Some asteroids are forested sources of timber for masts and water for survival. Ships use the principles of hot-air balloons to rise far enough above ground to catch the winds from one planet to another.

But the story itself is pretty pedestrian. Levine pays some lip service to the idea that the inexperienced Arabella needs to learn how to do things on board one of these interplanetary sailing craft but usually has her smarter, faster and better than just about anyone else she's around. There's really very little tension even in the most extreme dangers she faces, because there's really no possibility that she'll fail to conquer everyone and everything set against her. The voyage from Earth to Mars takes up enough of the book that the final act seems rushed.

Levine did an excellent job in dreaming up a work in which technology that's recognizably Regency-Era can make interplanetary travel feasible. Grant him a couple of assumptions, and the rest of things hold together. But not enough of that kind of thought went into plotting out his story arc and giving his characters some genuine depth beyond recognizable tropes. The book is sometimes listed as "Adventures of Arabella Ashby #1," so he may get some more chances.
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Although he was definitely a propagator of the "mythic West" that didn't always jive with history, Louis L'Amour also had a decent handle on frontier living and could tell stories with a lot more reality that the standard six-gun shoot 'em up. In Bendigo Shafter, he wraps the story of the creation of a community carved out of the wilderness around a coming-of-age tale of the title character.

The little caravan with Shafter and his brother has stopped to ride out the winter season and members have built shelters. These improve over time as many of the people in the caravan decide to see what they can make of the area, figuring they might move on in a few years. Shafter is sent west with the group's savings, directed to buy cattle to both help the new community survive and to provide an ongoing source of income. Even though he has been given opportunities to improve his thinking and other skills associated with survival, this journey represents his first step into the independence and responsibility of adulthood. The obstacles he overcomes help him forge a man from the raw material that kind community members had provided.

L'Amour's main intention with Shafter seems to have been showing the parallel between the development of the little community and of Shafter himself as both face obstacles in their paths, and trying to use a story to describe what he thinks goes into making a grown man from a boy. As he's showing these ideas in the first two thirds of the book, it's a compelling message and a compelling story. But when he switches over to a more lecturing style as the book winds down, Shafter loses its way and a lot of its charm. L'Amour led an interesting life both before and after he became an iconic storyteller of the American West, so his ideas on what he believes would be a meaningful philosophy of life are worth a listen. But when they take over the story that's supposed to illustrate them, it gets hard to do so.

Monday, November 21, 2016

I Don't Know if They Thought This Through...

NASA teamed with the National Oceanic and Atnospheric Association to launch an amazing new weather satellite this past weekend. Both weather observation and forecasting are expected to take major leaps forward when the satellite goes operational. But there's one problem.

The satellite is named the Geostationary Operational Enviromental Satellite-R, abbreviated "GOES-R" and pronounced "gozer."

The last time this world had a visit from a "gozer," we had to take the extraordinary risk of crossing the streams in order to rid ourselves of her. There's no guarantee it would work again, and the results could very definitely be very bad. Not as bad as this, but still pretty awful.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Faking Fakery?

Buzzfeed ran a story suggesting that all of the fake news sites throwing around made-up stories might have influenced the election, Many of the sites were trying to be funny, some were trying to work as satire and offer commentary with their humor and some were simply trying to get a rise out of the people they knew might be offended by the story they were "reporting."

As do most things online these days, the fake news stories found their way to Facebook. Most people's news feeds were pretty littered with them, as well-meaning but overly-credulous friends shared links suggesting things like Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump. In my own case, diligent use of the "Hide all stories from X" selection reduced their number after a few weeks, although it's truly amazing how many different Facebook pages can be set up proclaiming one political position or another is evilstoopid. And often doing so using a pretty limited set of words, most of which George Carlin would advise you not to say if you are on television. And many of which were misspelled, since rage-typing is not the most careful of typings.

Anyway, it seems that Buzzfeed's story about faking uses some research methods that are, shall we say, less than careful. So the fake news stories may not have had as much bearing on the election as the original story indicated. Which is not to say that the stories have any value -- my own unscientific sampling of a few shows them to have been written by people who were most definitely the smartest persons writing those stories, and others written by people who have an an unerring ability to make themselves laugh. Your current scribe may have committed misdemeanor- level versions of those same offenses, by the way.

So Buzzfeedˆs piece winds up as another failed attempt to find some kind of trickery or hidden flaw that produced the candidates and election result we had. But reality suggests to us something different: Voters in each party are responsible for the miserable excuses for candidates those parties sought to put forth for the office, and voters from both parties are responsible for the election outcome. And that is in no way fake news.

More's the pity.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Other Than That, Mr. Pence...

A tizzy was caused when Vice-President Elect Mike Pence decided to attend a performance of the hit Broadway show Hamilton. His arrival was greeted by a mixture of boos and cheers, the latter indicating that the audience must have had a significant number of non-New Yorkers in it.

At the end of the play, the actor portraying Aaron Burr -- you know, the bad guy who shot and killed the title character -- addressed Pence, saying that many marginalized and minority folk believe the administration of which he is a part will not pay attention to them and their rights as Americans. Hamilton, of course, features minority actors portraying the primarily white European Founding Fathers. He finished by saying, "We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us." Pence was leaving as the statement began but remained in the hallway long enough to hear it all.

President-Elect Donald Trump predictably overreacted via Twitter, demanding an apology. The actor, Tony Award-winning Brandon Victor Dixon, fired back on Twitter and said he appreciated Pence's willingness to stay and hear everything he said. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda said via Twitter that he was proud of the cast for taking their stand. No grown-up communication methods were harmed -- or used -- in this exchange.

Although I think it's a little unfair for an actor on stage to call out an audience member unless there's a cell phone involved -- remember, the actor has a microphone and stage lights while the audience member doesn't -- this strikes me as kind of a big ol' nothing, except for being a clear sign someone needs to stop Trump from tweeting or else we're going to have to put up with this crap for the next four years.

And as a friend said, this is hardly the worst thing to have happened to a Republican at a play.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Window to When

We're accustomed to seeing old photographs in black and white because that was the simplest and least expensive manner of making them for many years. Taking color pictures was possible, but it was complicated and expensive. If you happened to be a wealthy chemist who got the gift of a special railroad car with its own  darkroom from your kinsman Tsar Nicholas II, then you could probably handle it.

Which Sergey Prokudin-Gorskii did, taking color photos of life in many of the most far-flung areas of Russia in the years leading up to World War I and the later Bolshevik revolution. Prokudin-Gorksii was impressed by the many different kinds of people he met in his enormous country, and wanted to use the fascinating technology of color photography to teach children about their diverse homeland. Unfortunately, said WWI intervened, Nicholas made some disastrous decisions that set the stage for the Communia takeover and Prokudin-Gorskii got the heck out before he could be comradized.



The variety of cultures he found is indeed fascinating. We're accustomed to thinking of Russia as gray, cold and oppressed -- and thanks to Vladimir Putin, that last one is making a comeback -- but that's just what you might call "European Russia." As the photo above shows, the vast nation included an astonishing variety of peoples and cultures, and it still does. More of Prokudin-Gorskii's photos are available here, at the Library of Congress.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Real Winner?

A person on reddit crunched some numbers and Brilliant Maps posted this interesting result as a take on last week's presidential vote.

Had "Did Not Vote" been a candidate, it would have won in a landslide of almost Reaganesque proportions with 490 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton's 32 and Donald Trump's 16. In only seven cases did the vote for one of the actual candidates running exceed the number of eligible voters who stayed home: Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.

None of the nation's largest electoral prizes would have gone to either candidate -- including New York, the declared home base of both of them. So if you're all wound up about the results, rather than blame the people who voted for the candidate you didn't like or some third-party doof (sheepishly raises hand), you might save some disapproving glances for the people who didn't even do that.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Hello, Stranger?

It will be interesting to see how this turns out.

Robert Heinlein's 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land is on tap to be adopted for television by the SyFy Network -- not as a movie, but as a series. This will be, as they say, a challenge. The book represented a significant swerve for Heinlein, who had ridden to success on short stories and several novels for young readers referred to as his "juveniles." It played with narrative styles and was much more "adult" than just about anything Heinlein had written before. It played fast and loose with the ideas of free love, concepts of religion and a whole lot else.

Today it's probably his best-known work, and the pasting it took at the hands of critics on publication hasn't prevented it from becoming a cult novel -- in at least one case, literally. Basic cable has loosened its prohibitions considerably, but there is an awful lot of HBO-level stuff in Stranger. Plus, it's complex to say the least (obtuse if you follow the lead of its contemporary reviewers) and may take more effort to follow than a modern TV audience likes to grant.

So we'll just have to wait and see, I guess, if TV can grok science fiction's first Grandmaster and his most famous novel.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Developing Photos

Paramedic Chris Porosz would, in his down time in his job in Petersborough, England in the late 1970s and early 80s, take pictures of people he saw on the street.

Over the last few years, he's worked to track down some of his original subjects and stage re-creations of the photos that he took back then. They're pretty fascinating -- I like the unrepentant punker who is recreating his pink mohawk for the modern picture. I suppose that if you have enough hair 40 years later to make an 18-inch high pink mohawk you probably should.

Information about the book in which Porosz collected the old and new snapshots can be found here, at his website.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Substandard Issue

Except for brief cameos, most of the team that series hero Troy Pearce worked with in the first book of Mike Maden's "Drone" series is absent from its fourth novel, Drone Threat.

Which leaves the engine of the book resting on Pearce's shoulders as he navigates both Washington insider politics and his chosen specialty of electronic drone warfare to hunt down a new threat to the United States. A drone somehow managed to breach White House security, land on the lawn and bear a message: Fly the ISIS flag over the White House or face catastrophic retaliation for every day the demand is not met. Troy, as a newly-appointed administration official creating policy for drone warfare, needs to engage in threat-thwarting while also trying to pin down its source and survive the even more hazardous world of White House infighting.

As in previous books, Maden's knowledge of drone operations and electronic warfare is top-rate and he explains it well within the narrative, rarely veering towards plot-stalling infodumps. He's less capable at characterization, but since this is the fourth book in the series he's been able to sketch his main players fairly well by now. The sidelining of the team detracts from some of the fun of the series at the start, as Maden tries to do some more exploring and building with Troy himself. It's not awfully done, but it's not his strong suit either and combined with a plot that yanks back and forth in annoying rather than mysterious ways it helps drag Drone Threat to the bottom of the Pearce series. Without the extra team members and their dynamics to flavor the story, we're left with cut-and-paste set pieces that retread ground the earlier books have already worn smooth. Something really unusual will be required to give this series some oomph if it returns for a fifth outing.
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I really don't know what to write about David Weber's 19th "Honorverse" book, Shadow of Victory. I mean, I know what I think of of it -- it's terrible. It's better than 700 pages of stuff that's already happened. Weber fills in some backstory and offers different points of view of many of the events covered in other recent books in the series about Honor Harrington and the Star Empire of Manticore. He does so in numbing detail filled with his favorite clichés. One storyline -- a revolt against corporate masters on a planet first settled by folks from a particular area of Old Earth -- seems to exist only so Weber can exercise the Spell-Czech app he has apparently installed on his computer.

So the temptation is to go full snide, set phrases to "kill" and vent my spleen so much that wind whistles through it. Shadow represents some of the worst features of modern genre publishing. There is no meaningful editing going on here, either for length or style or narrative clarity. Shadows exists because Baen Books knows a big chunk of Honorverse fans will buy anything with Weber's name and one of David Mattingly's Generic Sci-Fi Scenes on its cover. It exists because Weber's desire to tell about important developments in his story in as thorough a detail as possible -- and the belief that he needs to -- dovetails nicely with Baen's desires to sell bigger books with bigger price points.

And although I've thrown a little trash its way in the above paragraphs, I still love the Honorverse and I had more fun reading the first seven or eight Honor Harrington books than I did with a lot of other space opera out there. I think Weber's imagination has provided three of the more fun and interesting universes -- the Honorverse, the Safehold series and the War God fantasy series -- in modern science fiction and fantasy, and I'm grateful for the stories in them. That gratitude and the belief that he's still got great work and fun left in him wars with the desire to give Shadow of Victory the thrashing it so richly deserves, and I say that knowing I've already given in to the temptation I claim to be resisting. So I'll stop with: Shadow of Victory is not good. You probably shouldn't read it, because it might make you want to give up on the Honorverse entirely, and that would be too bad.
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The first five books of Tanya Huff's "Confederation of Valor" series focused on Confederation Marine Sgt. Torin Kerr's gutsy and heroic work in keeping the Marines under her care alive. But when she found out more about the war in which she'd been fighting than she was supposed to know, she ditched military service and opted for some more clandestine work she felt could do more good against the Confederation's real enemies -- whoever they were.

An Ancient Peace details the first such mission -- investigating a supposed cache of ancient super-weapons on a lost planet. Shady elements have been selling grave-goods from the race that gave up those weapons, which leads intelligence services to think they're hunting in the right place. Torin and her team are to investigate, but find the ancient grave to be a series of lethal traps and misdirections. They have to survive them if they want to even get out of the vault alive, let alone report what they find. Oh, and there's the gang of grave robbers that got there ahead of them, setting off many of the booby traps and making it that much more difficult for Torin's team. So even though she's not serving anymore, Torin has people depending on her to get them out of an impossible situation in one piece. Lucky for them.

Peace is a lot less interesting than earlier Torin Kerr books, reading more like a very well-written Dungeons and Dragons module than anything else. The weapons are the MacGuffin of the plot, pitting her team against both the clock and a deadly opponent and serving as a kind of fulcrum for this next arc of "Valor" books. But the search for them offers little more than a series of puzzle-solving set pieces and fun banter. Huff does that well, as always. But after finishing An Ancient Peace, it seems like it would have worked a lot better as a short story or novelette, losing some of the set pieces while gaining strength and some narrative legs.

Tragic Letdown

For those who were thinking that there would be no more shiny objects to distract George R. R. Martin from completing his Song of Ice and Fire story.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Perspective

This picture at the Astronomy Picture of the Day site shows about one degree of view of the sky, photographed by Juan Lozano de Haro. If you do click on the link, you will note the spiral galaxy NGC 891 in the upper right, which looks like it is about an inch long on my computer screen.

It's actually so large that if you were at one end of it and turned on your SuperDuperBright flashlight, people on the other end wouldn't see it for 100,000 years. This makes it roughly equal to our own Milky Way galaxy in size, and it has an estimated 400 billion stars. It's so far away that if we aimed our ExtraSuperDuperBright flashlight at it, no one in it would notice for about thirty million years.

So while I definitely think Donald Trump is a twerp and a half, sights like this make it tough to get too bent out of shape about his election.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Watch Your Language

At Mental Floss, you can find a handy list of "old-fashioned swears" to use in your moments when it seems profanity is required.

The list is interesting, although I don't know if these words constitute "swear words" the way we think of them today. Many of them come from oaths that the speakers might have taken more seriously than we do some of the four-letters we sling around. But the author is right on target that overuse has robbed many of our current words of their shock value and power. When every other word is the four-syllable combo that implies the subject is Oedipus in full-on Jocasta-shipping mode, then a user loses the ability to use it to truly insult someone.

All he or she does, in fact, is show a vocabulary too limited to think of something new.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Calendar Note

Today's holiday has been brought to you by your United States government, which in 1954 voted to officially change its observance of the end of World War I -- "Armistice Day" -- to "Veterans Day."

The ability to keep such a government and to have a say in how it operates has been brought to you by veterans.

Thanks much, ladies and gentlemen.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Universal Cure?

According to one Edward Topsell, writing in 1658, the cure for a runny nose was simple: Kiss a mouse on the nose.

Well, sure. If you told me that in order to cure my runny nose I had to buss a mouse on the snout, I'd tell you that I felt a whole lot better.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Zip!

Laser physicists in Munich have developed a method to record the change of states of electrons in atoms when they are struck by light. Those changes happen incredibly fast, in a period of time called, wonderfully, a "zeptosecond."

The specific study was done on helium atoms, which have two electrons. When a light with enough energy strikes a helium atom, the energy is absorbed in one of two ways -- either all of it by one of them, or half-and-half.  Either way, one electron is ejected from the atom, and the new process, described in the story, can see that happen because of its "zeptosecond" shutter speed. The actual duration of a zeptosecond, if you are curious, is a trillionth of a billionth of a second -- slightly less than the attention span of the modern media.

One of the project directors described how the process could help verify quantum behavior previously only predicted by theory: "“We can now derive the complete wave mechanical description of the entangled system of electron and ionized helium parent atom from our measurements.”

He did not add, but we may assume it as understood, that we now have a good reason to use the word zeptosecond, which is almost justification enough.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Yes, I Voted

Once again I eschewed the sticker ("I didn't do it! Nobody saw me do it! You can't prove anything!"), but I did in fact vote.

It felt better than I thought it would. Although they certainly won't ever hear it directly, the process of voting allowed me to tell both of the grasping, power-hungry self-idolizing septuagenarians representing the major parties that I would rather have a pot-smoking ex-governor who has a shaky grasp of foreign policy, a shakier grasp of religious liberty and a none-too-certain understanding of his own party's philosophy as my president than either of them.

I don't care which of them wins. Some things might get a little better under either of them, but a whole lot's going to get a lot worse. The interns might be safer under President Clinton 2.0 (at least, as long as the First Ladykiller is elsewhere), but as long as gun-buying remains popular, Second (and other) Amendments are likely to be safer under a President Trump who's never met a wind he couldn't bend to.

Neither of them is fit for the office they seek, neither of them is fit to receive a salute from the grimiest enlisted personnel dancing just this side of a court-martial and neither of them is fit for the difficulties of steering our nation through the events of the day.

The only proper response a decent person should have made to either of them saying they wanted to be President is, "So what?" By marking my ballot today, I did that.

Monday, November 7, 2016

A Little Reading

Scott Chrostek is the pastor for the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection's downtown Kansas City church plant. In less than 10 years, the satellite of the megachurch in the KC suburbs has grown large enough that it is building its own facility -- the first church construction in downtown KC in more than 80 years.

Misfit Mission uses some stories of the downtown church's founding and growth to outline Chrostek's thesis that God frequently employs people most everyone would consider unsuited or maybe even unsuitable for the tasks at hand. From his own move into the ministry from a career in finance to his selection for the job of planting the downtown ministry -- putting a Detroit-area native into a city he'd never visited before the project came up -- he considers himself first among the misfits, so to speak.

The stories of how Chrostek and other members of the church firmly believe that God not only frequently fits square pegs into round holes but often prefers to do so make interesting reading. They're sometimes humorous and often inspirational. While they illustrate the thesis fairly well, Chrostek doesn't do as much as he might to highlight just how they do so. In some of the stories, the "misfit" dimension of the people under discussion seems less apparent as they succeed either in what they're trying to do or prove more than adequate for the job. While he seems to make the connection explicit in the earlier chapters of the book it is not always as much so later on.
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A lot of modern popular Christian thinking centers on ideas of God being an escape hatch from suffering and doubt in life. There are probably times when this is so, but frequently we read about biblical people whose encounter with God did not provide instant clarity and freedom from all doubt and darkness. Christian history also features many such people, and in modern times Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light lets us know that even the most committed of believers sometimes finds no smooth path through faith.

Eric Elnes, pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation in Omaha, writes to those folks in 2015's Gifts of the Dark Wood. The "dark wood" of the title comes from Dante Alighieri, who begins his strange journey in Inferno in a "fearsome dark forest." Elnes suggests that rather than fearsome, for the Christian the "dark wood" of failures and doubts offers opportunities to walk more closely with God than ever before.

His willingness to honestly confront the uncertain or lousy times of life is more novel than it should be among modern believers, making Gifts a worthwhile read whether one is dealing with trials or not. The marketing of the book is less helpful. The phrase "soulful skeptics" in the subtitle sounds a lot like preening among people who consider themselves a little too sophisticated to settle for everyday religion. Publishing blurb that says the book is for "anyone who prefers practicality to piety when it comes to finding their place in this world." The older description of piety as "holy living," or actually living out what one believes in the real world despite circumstances, makes it a better description of what Elnes is talking about than the marketing person at Abingdon thought. 
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Pastor Rich Wilkerson, Jr., uses the metaphor of his childhood sandcastle building as a lens to look at four people in Luke 7 in his 2016 book Sandcastle Kings. No matter how elaborate a sandcastle he and his brother built, the next tide washed it away. Sandcastles do not last. Wilkerson links the idea of sandcastle building to Jesus' words in Matthew 7 about buildings that rest on rock versus those that rest on sand. Like the castles made of sand, the latter do not survive storms.

Each of the four people in Luke 7 that Wilkerson discusses has rested some dimension of their self-identification in the things of the impermanent world. When they encounter life's storms, whether ordinary or severe, that self-identification comes crashing down. Only by rooting our lives in Jesus himself can we build lives and selves that weather storms.

Kings is written with a breezy and simple style that might not be directly aimed at young people but which will probably be best received by them. Wilkerson also has aimed more at people beginning their relationship with Jesus than those who may be searching for paths of deeper discipleship. Most of what he says is operating in the binary "with Jesus or apart from Jesus" arena. This is perfectly legitimate and doesn't preclude reading Kings for fuel on a disciple's journey, but it does add an extra layer to that task.

The third section -- dealing with John the Baptist's question to Jesus about his Messiahship -- is probably the one that most addresses issues that confront people already in their walk with Jesus. The fourth, expounding on the nameless woman who washes Jesus' feet while he eats at the house of Simon the Pharisee, seems most focused on those who may not have started that walk. The kind of fuzzy focus weakens Sandcastle Kings and might make you wish it had been packed together a little more tightly.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Step Aside, SMOD

The discovery a couple of years ago of the Higgs Boson, a particle predicted back in 1964 but not detected until much later, has led to some neat confirmations that help support the Standard Model of physics. This is good.

On the other hand, it's also led to confirmation of some potential dangers associated with what the Higgs Field, created by the boson, might do. One of them is collapse and destroy the entire universe. This is bad.

That said, the headline on Big Think's article on the matter is kind of misleading -- thank goodness. The headline refers to the field's collapse and the subsequent destruction, which is called "vacuum decay" as a "self-destruct button for the universe." This label implies we could actually do something to bring about the catastrophe, when in fact we not only can't, we wouldn't even know it happened.

The reason I say thank goodness is that if this collapse really were a "self-destruct" button we could somehow access, there would be people who might consider triggering it before Tuesday. While most of us, er, them would probably reconsider and figure that neither a Clinton 2.0 or Trump administration actually justified destroying the universe, that light might dawn too late for some and endanger us all.

(The "SMOD" in the title is the acronym for Sweet Meteor of Death, a more limited version of the same concept that merely involves wiping out life or civilization on just our planet, instead of the entire cosmos.)

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Stylin'

When you are as gifted with language -- real and imagined -- as was the late J.R.R. Tolkien, you are capable of using a significant number of words to say, "Bite me." But in doing so, you make it sound so much better and dial the insult factor way up past eleven.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Help Him, Rhonda...

"Privilege" is a buzzword used to highlight how people who've had different experiences view the world through the lens of those experiences. Like a lot of concepts, the kernel of truth at the center has been wrapped up in so much silliness that an idea we could potentially use to try to understand one another better has become a club to hit people over the head with.

After all, who could deny that my experiences growing up in a medium-sized city during the 1970s and 1980s affected how I look at the world? And who could deny that someone who grew up in a different city or different era would see things differently? Makes perfect sense. But then using those differences to say that one or the other of us needs to shut up makes...less than perfect sense. By a mile.

How bad can it get? Comes now Ben Ratliff, writing for the New York Book Review about the Beach Boys. While their songs may seem like jaunty and fun little slices of 1960s California coastal life, Mr. Ratliff alerts us that they are "poems of unenlightened straight-male privilege, white privilege, beach privilege."

Now, I know what straight-male privilege and white privilege are, and I can even acknowledge that they do exist, although not nearly so often or oppressively as some would say. Those phrases describe real things.

But what the hell is "beach privilege?" Seriously, what the hell is beach privilege supposed to be? What special status is conveyed by a song and look that recalls the last stretch before the land gives up? What extra rights and abilities come with sand? Is the oppressive power strictly an oceanfront feature, or are lake and river beaches also just another instance of the man trying to keep the people down?

Is there not enough real oppression around the world that Mr. Ratliff has to claim that the little deuce coupe is an agent of the 1 percent? Are there not enough real problems that we have to picture the little old lady from Pasadena when we fight the power (I know, not a Beach Boys song. But beach privilege is everywhere, dude).

Those are rhetorical questions that I wouldn't expect Mr. Ratliff to answer, operating as I do with the privilege of having a blog that would be nowhere near his radar.

That's all for now. I need to go out and learn how to surf so I can continue to tread the masses under my huarache sandals.

(H/T Kathleen Timpf)

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Postponement

Last night (or early this morning), the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, the first such win for the franchise since 1908. This event effectively armors 2016 against being terrible, no matter what Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton does to it come Tuesday.

Of course, whichever of them wins is going to make 2017 through 2020 pretty rotten, so even as something as mighty as a Cubs Series win can only delay the inevitable.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Deep Breath Time?

David Harsanyi, writing at The Federalist, suggests that, despite what at least one candidate claims, Tuesday's presidential vote will not be the "the most important election in our lifetime."

Harsanyi suggests that since the candidates are not vastly different except in a couple of areas, since neither of them is likely to do too much to "fix things" and since neither of them is likely to be very effective at whatever their agendas may be, there are important ways in which it doesn't matter at all which candidate we elect.

I certainly think he's onto something if he sees both candidates as equally ineffective. So it would make sense to not lay too much weight on what one or the other of them says about what they want to do.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Some Questions Need Not Be Asked

A pretty clever person researched the top 3 responses to Googles' Autocomplete search function for each state and region, and then entered them on a map of the United States.

Autocomplete, if you don't know, is a function that Google has that will complete your search question with some of the most commonly-typed searches. You start typing a question, such as, "Why is ____ so...," and Autocomplete finishes it for you. A question that has been asked by more people shows up higher on the list of possible finishes for your sentence.

One interesting thing is that most of the top questions seem to be complaints or whining. Folks exploring Kansas, for example, were most likely to ask why Kansas was so hot, so windy or so boring. Others asked why Florida was so weird, bad or hot.

Another interesting feature is that most of the questions about some places imply that the old "There are no dumb questions" assurance from your teacher may not have been as solid a statement as she thought it was. The number-one question asked about Minnesota, for example, was "Why is Minnesota so cold?" That one is indeed a poser, as it is for North Dakota. It's only the second-most common question about Alaska, though.

I may be risking my credibility here, but it might be that Google searches don't always attract the smartest questions. But I'm not sure where to go to look that up.