Friday, November 17, 2017


-- "This is Qatar Airways Flight Made-Up Number, Doha to Bali. I am declaring an emergency."

"Roger Qatar Made-Up Number. What is your emergency?

"A passenger's wife just checked his phone and found out he was cheating, and she told everyone on the plane, so all the women want to kill him."

"Roger Qatar Made-Up Number. Two armored divisions will greet your flight upon landing."

"Make it three. The flight attendants are helping."

-- A makeup artist went into a store called Sephora last week and saw a display of eye shadow that had been ruined. She snapped a picture and posted it to her Facebook page, saying the makeup had probably been ruined by a child. Her post sparked much comment, ranging from agreement with her and triumphant claims that the commenters' kids are taught not to do stuff like that to parents pointing out that not every mom can afford kid care and sometimes kids get away and out of sight for a bit. The two things that struck me were 1) She actually never saw a kid do this, so she really has no way of knowing. And 2) I don't know beans about eye shadow, but when I hear an estimate of $1,300 worth of product being destroyed I picture much larger quantities. Maybe the real offense is how much showoffy pay for what ought to be everyday stuff.

-- A kindergartner asks science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker at Five Thirty-Eight what the world would be like if there were no number 6, and sparks some interesting speculation from some math professors. Turns out that things would be very different, and maybe some things -- like life itself as we know it -- might be actually impossible. So I'm all in favor of keeping six and all of the other numbers we have, even though I'm kind of keen on Koerth-Baker's suggestion about renaming 6 as splorfledinger.

-- You may or may not agree with Daniel Ritchie's review essay on the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Coriolanus here in The Public Discourse. I kind of like it, but I'm prone to thinking that more of our problems come from how we respond to things around us rather than the things themselves, and that's generally where he goes. Either way, it's something else that a 400-year-old play can resonate with political and cultural situations of today. Nice job, Bill.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Grand Illumination

National Geographic is famous for its photos of events, people and phenomena from around the world. It inspires some great submissions from its readers, too, such as this one by Mike Olbinski.

Although I must confess that the bright orangeish light on the far right of the pic makes me uneasy. It's probably just another lightning flash, or maybe the sun setting in the far-off distance. But it bears an unsettling resemblance to a certain Lidless Eye...

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lord of the...What Did We Buy the Rights to, Again?

Author J.R.R. Tolkien's son Christopher was not happy with the big screen adaptations of his father's work, so when the last movie in The Hobbit showed, it seemed unlikely that anyone else would get the chance to make moving picture versions of either it or Lord of the Rings.

And there was a tug-of-war going on anyway -- the movies made mints and mints of money, which meant that studios saw the potential for even more hiding in the back of Frodo's little hole in the ground. But Jackson's versions of the first three movies were widely loved and seemed for many people to be the definitive cinematic version of the story. Even if Christopher Tolkien relented and sold the rights to someone else -- and there were plenty of people who disliked Jackson's take and wished for a "true" Lord of the Rings -- what kind of market is there in remaking a blockbuster that's less than 20 years old? How would this truer and purer LOTR get made?

Then along came HBO's Game of Thrones TV series, and a whole 'nother avenue seemed to open up. Perhaps the best way to offer a retelling of Middle Earth would be a small-screen version, using the length of a season to really open up the story and give it what it needed to work? We learned this past week that we will one day find out, as Christopher Tolkien recently retired from managing his father's estate and Amazon TV bought the rights to develop a TV series using the Middle Earth universe.

As more information comes out, it seems that the show's creators will look to a time between The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the LOTR trilogy. This space retains the right to significant skepticism that what comes will be all that good, lining up roughly with the arguments presented by Jarrett Stepman here. Amazon TV has produced several shows, and I personally enjoy their take on Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch books. I haven't been drawn to watch any of the other shows they've produced, some of which have good notices and some not.

But if the target audience is folks who watch Game of Thrones, then it's very possible that we'll have elves and hobbits and dwarves, only they'll be players on a stage not much like Middle Earth. Stepman overwrites the differences a little, but he's on target in that Tolkien, for all of his direct experience of real war, produced a fundamentally more optimistic work than Thrones' author George R. R. Martin. The choice to create new characters and storylines from whole cloth means an even greater chance that we'll see things that have names we know but little else.

It's hard to shake off the apprehension that Amazon's development people saw swords and magic and just started totaling up receipts. This doesn't mean a Middle-Earth themed TV show couldn't be made. The Silmarillion, Tolkien's tale of the creation of Middle Earth, humanity, the elves and whatnot, would be impossible to present as a movie but could easily be worked out over a TV season or two. The problem there is that The Silmarillion is exceedingly complex and probably pretty resistant to the kinds of leveling that TV series need in order to reach wider audiences. Getting it "right" would probably mean creating a show that might be watched by enough people to fill, say, Wichita.

So in the end I suspect we'll wind up with something that has Tolkien's name on it and, as I said, things in it that have the same names he gave to them. Even though they don't really much look like what he wrote about and the world isn't much like the one he envisioned. But we'll know how to deal with it.

Assuming we watched any of the Hobbit movies, that is.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Turn the Page

The idea of a James Bond adventure written by Donald Westlake stirs the imagination, and the veteran author was approached about the idea after Pierce Brosnan took on the role with Goldeneye. Eon Productions didn't buy the treatment, so Westlake reworked it some and filed it away. The good folk at Hard Case Crime publishers printed it earlier this year as Forever and a Death, but without the presence of any Bond-like character.

Engineer George Manville suspects something about his employer, multi-billionaire Richard Curtis, because Curtis seems to have it in mind to "remove" an environmentalist who survived the test of a brand new way to demolish and clear land for construction. Manville and the survivor -- student Kim Baldur -- find themselves on the run from Curtis and his minions when it becomes clear to them that the magnate has a more lethal demonstration of his technique in mind, in concert with the theft of billions of dollars from Hong Kong banks.

It's hard to imagine that Westlake, famed for his direct and unadorned storytelling style, would have felt that Forever was ready for publication. The protagonists set up by the first half of the book largely disappear in much of the second half, and it clearly demonstrates the need to be trimmed of several repetitive scenes and a latter half that wanders away from the people we've spent a couple hundred pages getting to know.

Forever features an interesting villain, a fascinating villainous plot to gain power and more than one great gem of a Westlake scene. But for whatever reason, the author did not revisit it before his death to pare it down and perhaps retool several spots for better narrative flow and to make more sense.  This is one case in which the unsolved mystery of what a Westlake-written Bond would be like is far better than the solution that his estate and Hard Case Crime have offered.
After a detour to the Jack Reacher of the past in Night School, Lee Child brings us back to the present-day travels of the drifting knight-errant in The Midnight Line, days after he and Michelle Chang broke up a seedy internet-based murder ring in Make Me. Reacher has continued to drift around as he wishes, and Chang has decided she can't do that, so she has gone home to Seattle. Reacher hops a bus and at one of the courtesy stops, he spies a woman's West Point class ring in a pawn shop window. A Point graduate himself,  Reacher wonders what would bring someone to part with something that signified years of hard work and achievement. So he starts to ask about it, first with the pawn shop owner and then with the person who brought it to him, and so on. Although most of the people he speaks to are reluctant to answer him and seem to have more to hide than just a simple transaction, Reacher is a persistent questioner. The trail takes him to Wyoming and people with other kinds of secrets to hide as well.

Line is surprisingly intimate for a Reacher novel, with a small cast and a lot more focus on other people involved the story. While there is a villain whose greed starts the whole mess into which Reacher pokes his nose, much less time is spent on the bad guys of the story and some of the ones who fill that role turn out to be less bad than unfortunate. Reacher's trademark fights are sprinkled much more lightly through the story and he more frequently uses the threat of violence to get what he wants. These factors make it a much more introspective and thoughtful outing than we're used to with the big fella, offering a different flavor to what has more often than not been a formula in some of his books.

Child still drops in a couple too many descriptive digressions in which Reacher or someone else analyzes something for several pages, and his writing of Reacher's thought processes in setting his travel directions, in both the front and back ends of the novel, feel artificial and mannered. Midnight Line is a really good Reacher novel and a good candidate for the series' top two or three, but a little fine tuning along those lines and others could have made it something really special.
Michael Connelly has given Harry Bosch a long history of chasing criminals in the Los Angeles area, first with the LA police department and then, more recently, as a part-timer with the San Fernando PD. In Two Kinds of Truth, Connelly brings the two strands together, as new developments in an old case threaten the conviction of a murdering rapist and a double homicide in San Fernando points to a much larger and more dangerous scheme.

Back in his earliest days as a detective -- before we met him in The Black Echo -- Harry and his partner arrested Preston Borders in a rape/homicide case. Borders was convicted but a modern DNA test of the evidence suggests another man committed the crime. Harry doesn't believe this, so he decides to investigate the matter himself despite official disapproval from his old department. In the meantime, a double murder at a storefront pharmacy in San Fernando shows signs of connections to illegal drug rings and organized crime. Harry has to decide how much risk he will take in order to unravel those connections and hold the top crooks responsible.

The parallel tracks of the two cases make for an interesting contrast, as Harry remembers his days as a new detective, learning under a veteran partner. In the current case, he is the seasoned veteran teaching young detectives how to work the crime and draws from the lessons he has learned. A short time undercover on this case offers a new experience for him, opening a window into the lives of people he has frequently dismissed. There are great supporting player appearances by his half-brother, lawyer Mickey Haller and Haller's lead investigator, Cisco, and also Harry's former partner Jerry Edgar.

Although the story is good and offers some good development for Harry as a character, it's weighed down by uncharacteristically second-rate writing by Connelly. In several places, he commits the cardinal sin of telling us something about a character or event instead of showing us or putting the information in the mouth of someone in the book instead of his authorial voice. There's a third minor mystery that feels far more like a padded epilogue than part of our story; it needed some much stronger connections to fill any useful role. Truth is not a bad book -- Connelly may not be capable of anything lower than a "meh" -- but it works under the weight that some more effort could have made it much better than it turned out to be.

Monday, November 13, 2017


It's easy to look at the major events of today's news and just become disgusted. Everyone's vile, it seems, and their vileness is small and cramped. It's a parade of people who do wrong things that don't even make any sense. Shooting someone to steal money is wrong but there is a logic to it. Shooting kids in a church? Coercing someone over whom you have power to have sex with you is wrong but there is a clear end in mind. Coercing someone over whom you have power to watch you masturbate? Megalomaniacs who want to rule the world make sense, even if they are evil in their intent and actions. Megalomaniacs who want to rule Twitter?

So on the treadmill I watched Silverado, and the good guys won, and the bad guys lost, and the music and the horizons were wide open, and my spirit feels a little less cramped for awhile.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


I’m certain that when Stephen King saw this list of the world’s longest novels, he felt either inadequate or challenged. We’ll know which sometime in the next several years, I would imagine, depending on whether he spins out one book or several.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Heavy Metal Thunder!

You can find the rest of the finalists for the 2017 Comedy Wildlife Photo awards here. My favorite is the one above from Katy Laveck, in which it is obvious that the simian riding pillion is belting out Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild." What else would you sing on a motorbike?

Although I have to give the penguins headed to church photo some props as well.

Friday, November 10, 2017

This Place Looks Familiar

You can take a trip to the gently rolling hill seen whenever anyone opened up Windows XP, although it probably doesn’t look so much like that without all of the filters.

The Atlas Obscura article notes that people do come by to snap a pic, many more drive past without noticing. It reminded me of reading that when the band U2 took the photo for the cover of their Joshua Tree album, they were supposed to have just stopped their van somewhere on the highway, with the intention of preventing folks from making it some sort of pilgrimage site. I can’t find any links to that statement, so my brain could be undergoing some 30-year fading.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Forty Years Later...

The above image of Bruce Springsteen, a photo taken by Rob DeMartin during the current Springsteen on Broadway show, inspired an updated version of a classic song that seemed to fit the Boss's current stern visage:

You got a public street to walk on; the sidewalk’s OK too
And I spent more on weed’n’feed than you spent on your stupid shoes
You’ll trample the grass, mess up the hedge,
Knock over the birdbath, and wreck all the flower beds
Oh, you got no respect for my property
“No trespass” signs you pretend you don’t see
Don’t know if it’s ’cause you’re young
Or because you’re a bum, but get the hell off my lawn!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Name That Rock!

On the first day of 2019, the New Horizons space probe will fly past a distant small object currently called "(486958) 2014 MU69" or MU69. The project is currently soliciting nicknames for the planetoid, which will get an official name after the flyby is complete.

Contest organizers seem to have learned from the "Boaty McBoatface" silliness brought on by a similar contest by the British Antarctic Survey in 2016. When the survey asked for names for its new exploratory vessel, the above name was submitted and won the most votes. The BAS did give the contest name to one of the ship's remote-controlled vehicles, but gave it the more grown-up name of Richard Attenborough.

This contest only promises a nickname for MU69 and screens the submissions it offers for the vote. As mentioned, the International Astronomical Union will give it an official name after the New Horizons visit. At first it might seem something like "Far Far Away" would be a good name for the most distant object human beings have ever studied up close -- about 4 billion miles from Earth. But when you consider that the nearest star to ours is about six thousand times as far away as MU69, it suddenly doesn't seem all that far away at all.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Broader Perspective?

Twitter announced that it will allow all users to now access a feature that's been beta-tested over the last several weeks and post tweets that are 280 characters long instead of the 140 limit that has been a part of the site since its beginning.

Although some high-profile users are less certain of the new options -- the "model, TV host and cookbook author" Chrissy Teigen announced she will neither exceed 140 characters herself nor retweet posts which do, ending a lot of speculation about her reaction -- Twitter is going ahead with the plan.

The new limit will bring about some changes, of course. With double the potential wordage, Twitter users will formulate more developed thoughts, express more considered opinions, offer greater context for their statements and in general raise the platform's level of discourse... hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

I knew I'd never be able to get through that sentence.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Choosing Words

Upon reading actor Wil Wheaton's response to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan's tweet offering his prayers for people in Sutherland Springs, TX, one might be tempted to say, "Shut up, Wesley." This would be the wrong thing to do.

For one, "Wesley Crusher" was a character played by Wheaton in Star Trek: The Next Generation." So "Wesley Crusher" didn't tweet anything. For another, that phrase is at the center of a troubling response to the unpopularity of the character Wheaton played, during the time he himself was a teenager.

"Wesley Crusher" was a ridiculously implausible creation, a teenaged genius allowed to pilot a starship because Gene Roddenberry could still disguise the exhausted fumes of his creativity enough to have the weight to argue the character onto the show. But that's not Wheaton's fault. It's also not his fault that when the show was faced with two characters fast becoming narrative deadweight and two actors not really talented enough to reverse that trend, showrunners booted Denise Crosby's "Tasha Yar" instead of him. Sure, that meant that TNG now had only two female featured players and both of them were stereotypical feeling/reactive women's roles instead of the active one that Yar had been designed for. And fans were now going to be stuck with at least a dozen variations on "boy genius saves the day" episodes before they could finally unload him in season 4. But none of that is really Wheaton's fault either. He was a kid actor, and like most kid actors he basically played himself in whatever situation the script presented. The situations usually ranged from mildly implausible to flat-out silly, but he did what he could do.

The disapproval should be saved for the character's creators, the showrunners and the lazy scriptwriters who reached back for the same stock boy genius savior trope.

Even had it been Wheaton's fault, the large amount of haterade directed at him personally was uncalled for, and caused him some significant stress and problems. Mocking his clearly vile tweet with a phrase -- "Shut up, Wesley" -- meant to recall what more or less amounted to him being bullied by wrong-headed fans would itself be wrong.

So is the solution to say, "Shut up, Wil Wheaton?" While this would be legitimate since Wheaton is a real person, it would also be the wrong thing to do.

You see, Wheaton, along with similarly callous vulgarians like Michael Ian Black and Michael McKean, are people who are primarily paid to say words other people write down for them. The more they Tweet and talk like this, the more people realize that their own words -- and whatever thoughts skitter along the vast empty steppes behind them -- merit neither compensation nor attention. Which will bring us that much closer to the day when they will be heard only by each other, and people with ideas, potential solutions and compassion can be heard by those of us interested in such things.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Crisis Resolved!

At first I was worried, because it seemed like setting the clocks back would mean it was an hour longer until the real sport returned. Fortunately, though, we set the clocks forward on March 11, more than two weeks before the Blessed Opening Day and get back on track.

I was relieved. Football's OK as far as it goes, but there's only so long I can pretend the NBA regular season matters before I dissolve into gales of laughter.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Fall Back

It's the time change -- I'm going to go get back that hour of sleep that Donald Trump owes me. See you in the future.

Friday, November 3, 2017

So What Happened?

A Facebook friend suggested that "for 11 minutes, there was peace on Twitter." She was referring to the fact that Thursday, an employee of Twitter on his or her way out the door shut down President Donald Trump's Twitter account and it stayed down for 11 minutes.

And of course she was wrong, because Twitter itself didn't go away for those 11 minutes and it remains the knee-jerk exercise in group think that it has been for most of its existence.

Twitter initially said that a glitch of some kind caused the shutdown before learning about the gift its former employee left behind. Twitter spokespeople said they are investigating the matter to learn how it happened.

Few tears would fall from these eyes if the president never Tweeted. Things would be a lot calmer. Few tears would fall from these eyes if Twitter itself didn't exist -- not entirely because without Twitter I think it's impossible to have a President Trump. Maybe largely, but not entirely. It is here, though, and many people use it and it's become a medium of expression for them.

Unless some overgrown toddler has a tantrum and decides to play games, that is.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Old Jokes

Over at Today I Found Out, a piece outlines the oldest known jokes found in ancient tablets and writings. They demonstrate that humor does not always translate along across cultural boundaries -- Sumerians particularly.

Some of the jokes from ancient Greece draw a chuckle or two, although they seem a little like one of Henny Youngman's old routines. Which, I am certain, would have been gleefully pointed out by Don Rickles, were he still living.

Folks in my profession are known for attempting to include humor in our sermons, not always to good effect. Some of my colleagues simply insert an opening joke into the presentation whether it relates to the subject or not. Others of us will try to wax wry within the bounds of our topic, with better or worse results.

We follow in the footsteps of the first known Christian sermon, preached by the Apostle Peter in Acts 2. He opens by refuting the suggestion that the people infused with the Holy Spirit were in fact infused with more mundane spirits: "These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning!"

He was soon beaten and thrown into prison. Which should be a caution to more public speakers, both religious and secular.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Things That Shouldn't Be There -- Again

Recently, an M-class red dwarf star about 600 light-years from Earth was discovered to have a planet. This is not uncommon; M-dwarfs are the most common stars in our galaxy and many of them have planets.

But the wrinkle comes in when we look at the size of the planet, which scientists figure is about the size of Jupiter. In our own system, the Sun outsizes Jupiter by about a thousand times. But NGTS-1b orbits a star about half the size of our Sun, which makes for a star-planet ratio unprecedented in astronomy so far. Only three M-drwarfs have been discovered to have gas giants in orbit, and none of them is anywhere near as large as Jupiter.

So once again, the universe offers up a surprise to the people who keep looking at it and wondering what it's like -- which is part of what we call science, after all. The people who think all the science is settled and we know everything about stuff? Well, they're not looking for new things, so they probably won't ever find any.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

NCAA -- Being and Nothingness

You may have read a couple years ago about a deal where some classes on the schedule at the University of North Carolina turned out to be, strictly speaking, fake. They didn't really meet or exist or anything, but students signed up for them, got course credit for them and often posted pretty good grades.

Oh, and almost half of those students were also UNC student-athletes. You probably don't need me to tell you that student athletes make up nowhere near half of its student body. But if you do then it might be that you work for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which earlier this month decided that the fraud UNC committed against academic standards, the idea of education, the taxpayers and supporters of UNC and its own students was not its problem.

You see, it turns out that because half of the students who gained from the fake classes weren't student athletes, then by gosh and golly the NCAA sees this as a matter for the school to decide itself. After all, it says "Athletes" right there in the name and far be it from the NCAA to get itself mixed up in the academic side of university life. That's "school stuff," and the NCAA knows it's out of bounds. And the outsized role UNC plays in men's college basketball has absolutely nothing to do with it, you nattering nabob of negativism.

Shannon Watkins, who wrote the Noble Center article linked above, brings the proper amount of dripping scorn to bear on the mummer's dance of a university at Chapel Hill. She points out that even though the fake class mess has been cleaned up, all of the conditions that spawned it still exist. Student athletes are still admitted to UNC even though their grades and test scores fall below the minimum standards for college readiness. They're still expected to achieve above-average marks in classes paced for students with higher scores who don't have the equivalent of a full-time job in the form of athletic practices and competitions. And they're brought on without any concern for what this might mean for their future if they aren't among the microscopic percentage of athletes who play their sports professionally.

Sure, the chances are good that someone would sue the NCAA if it went ahead and dropped the hammer UNC earned right smack in the middle of its Tarheel tail. And given that the technicality around which the organization wound its invertebrate self, the chances are also good that a judge would toss any sufficient penalty and rend the tattered sackcloth of its credibility even more.

So UNC will be allowed to keep the gasoline and matches that started this fire as long as they promise to never play with them again. And the kids who signed up for the fake classes get to keep their fake A and B's.

Whether or not they can identify any of the letters that come after them, though, is apparently not anyone's concern.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Switching On or Off

This "storymap" shows some of the differences in nighttime lighting around the globe between 2012 and 2016. It's a pasted-together version of some satellite photos, as obviously the entire world can't be in darkness at the same time.

Physically, that is -- metaphorically is another matter entirely.

As the text shows when you scroll down, there are several areas that change in between the two different maps. Northern India lights up big time, indicating the arrival of electrical power to that part of that country. Some areas of North America lose nighttime brightness, which has more to do with improved lighting technology than actual loss of lighting.

Syria, unfortunately, goes dark for an entirely different reason, that being the brutal war waged by its dictator against his people. And North Korea remains dark for much the same reason, althought it's less from an outbreak of a dictator's war against its people than the continuation of it.

Sunday, October 29, 2017


Halloween is a cool holiday for kids who get to shift their imaginations into overdrive an pretend to be just about anyone or anything within the limits of Mom and Dad’s budget and craft skill set. I like it for them.

Me, I’m just glad when it’s over so Hollywood will slow down its rollout of crappy horror trash for awhile and I can watch television without an ad for one of those excreta showing up every five minutes. Am I a humbug? Maybe. But I miss the appeal of movies that view human beings as talking squibs who scream on cue.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A What Hat?

Back in 1315, a physician in Valencia wrote to his sons, studying in Toulouse, with some practical advice on how to dress warmly now that it's getting cold.

Most of the ideas are ones we'd be familiar with and some of the advice is pretty good. Although I have to confess I might have been wearing a "sausage hat" without knowing it, since I have no idea what one is.

Friday, October 27, 2017


The online Master Boddington's stationery shop created a new line of products designed for kids in order to help them learn how to actually write letters with their pencils or pens, called the "Secret Society of Letter Writers."

It's kind of like the old pen pall setup, I guess, but I can see where the idea of the "secret society" part might loop in some kids. And training to actually write by hand a whole letter instead of tap out some texts is kind of cool. Makes me wish I was young enough to join.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Happy Birthday, World!

More exactly, a happy birthday to all of creation, at least as far as James Ussher, Church of Ireland Bishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, was concerned in 1650.

He reported that the creation of the world, as described in the book of Genesis, happened at 9 AM on October 26, 4004 B.C. The actual date he picked was different, but it was on the old Julian calendar and it becomes Oct. 26 when converted to Gregorian.

Although Bishop Ussher's supposed precision earns mockery today or at least a mild chuckle, it actually represented a considerable scholarly endeavor for his time given what people in 17th century England and Ireland knew of the world. He studied ancient histories of the Roman, Persian and Babylonian Empires and several different Hebrew texts of the Old Testament to make his calculations. His method was more or less sound, but his data inputs were suspect.

Which means Bishop Ussher gave us an early description of the "Garbage in, garbage out" principle of bad data skewing a good process into producing bad results. So although he did not fix the date of creation, he did predict the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

It Is Indeed a Shame

The death of Antoine "Fats" Domino Tuesday at the age of 89 leaves just two of rock music's earliest drivers still kicking -- "Little Richard" Penniman (84) and "The Killer" Jerry Lee Lewis (82). They're not the only two early rock musicians who survive today, but they are by far the biggest names and influences from the mid-to-late 1950s on that list.

Like them, Domino was primarily a keyboard man, but was quite a bit smoother and more sedate although every bit as talented. His genial nature (and size) made the kind of acrobatic ivory work that defined the other two men just not at all his style. Even his hits were more easy-going, with 1957's "I'm Walkin'" and 1958's "Whole Lotta Loving" probably the speediest tempos he released. He scored more sales in rock and roll's early years than anyone besides Elvis Presley.

Domino varied from the rock norm in some other ways as well -- he married Rosemary Hall in 1947 and stayed with her until her death in 2008. They had eight children, all of whose names begin with the letter "A." At first missing and rumored dead after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Domino was discovered to have been rescued and was able to move back to the area when it was cleaned up. He played occasionally at different benefits and also at New Orleans' famous Tipitina's concert venue.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

To Ban a Mockingbird

Writing at The Federalist, Megan Oprea offers some thoughts on why a Mississippi school district should not have taken To Kill a Mockingbird off of its reading list.

The principal says that the book has made some students uncomfortable -- almost certainly referring to a racial slur used in frequently in Harper Lee's novel of 1930's small-town Alabama. Oprea points out that's sometimes a good thing. When reading of an injustice or a wrong, we ought to feel uncomfortable enough to see that it or things like it don't go on, as it lies within our ability to do so.

She notes that Elie Wiesel spent most of his adult life insisting that people remember the Holocaust, or else the same factors that spawned it might gain hold again and bring about a similar atrocity. Lee never experienced racism as did the African-Americans of her novel, of course. But some real people did and it was far worse than any discomfort I might feel reading about it. If helping to lessen the kind of prejudice that pushed down an entire group of people because of the color of their skin requires me to feel a little squicky about a word here and there, well, it seems like it's the least I might do.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Too Far?

Dan Piraro offers a vision of the season’s favorite flavor that may be just a little too much.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sights of the Past

One of the problems in earlier years in researching and exploring the history of baseball's Negro Leagues was a low availability of resources. Newspaper accounts were primarily in black papers and many of those had not been collected or organized. Photos were hard to come by.

But in recent years, as the records from papers like the Chicago Defender and others have been much more widely available, a lot more data on the teams and players has surfaced. So have pictures, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame site has a new collection of more than 200 images of the well-known teams like Homestead Grays and Kansas City Monarchs as well as some of the lesser-known teams and players.

Well worth checking out!

See What You Can Do When You Use Your Brain

The naming of Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe as a World Health Organization "goodwill ambassador" has been rescinded.

Saturday, October 21, 2017


Tedros Ghebreyesus is the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), and he fibbed earlier today on Twitter. He said he was "re-thinking" the appointment of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador.

Dr. Ghebreyesus does not seem to understand that thought cannot have been involved in initially selecting Mugabe, therefore the decision to retract the honorary appointment is actually "thinking" instead of "re-thinking.” Mugabe is on record more than once defending the practice of extra-legal arrest and torture. His kleptocracy and corruption have so wrecked the Zimbabwe economy that he schleps his 93-year-old carcass out of the country for medical treatment. He's had journalists who wrote things he didn't like arrested and tortured.

In making the largely ceremonial appointment, WHO said that Mugabe would focus on non-communicable diseases such as heart attacks and strokes. Considering that Mugabe's own organ of that name must indeed be a shriveled and dried out husk, it seems that the WHO statement was designed to induce strokes more than prevent them.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Learning to Fly -- And They Won't Have Wings

An online op-ed that I can't find now pointed out that one source of the so-called "snowflake" tendencies seen in many youth and young adults is parents who are competing in the arena of Extreme Coddling.

But I don't need to find the column, because this story in the New York Post illustrates its point clearly. Parents who fill out kids' college applications and call bugging admissions counselors, even for graduate school? Parents who call claiming to be the children themselves? Sheesh.

The topper, if it's not apocryphal, is the claim that a woman called asking to be able to do an internship in place of her daughter, since her daughter had so much anxiety about doing the internship herself. As a non-parent, I know that I don't fully understand how much parents love their kids and want to help them. But anyone -- anyone -- should be able to see that doing something in place of someone else robs them of whatever benefits that person wants from the experience. Part of me thinks that the internship business should have agreed, and then when the mom showed up help the daughter escape so she could learn how to actually live her own life.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Can You Hear Me Now?

There's "No Smoking," and then there's "NO SMOKING, IDIOT!"

Even though I think smoking is a smelly and awful habit, I'm not really in favor of demonizing the people who do it. But since gasoline fumes can be as flammable as gasoline itself, and since fumes are pretty much an inevitable by-product of pumping gas, I don't believe this employee was outside the lines in the slightest.

After all, you'd think the doof with the cigarette might get the hint when the gas station attendant actually begins to prep the fire extinguisher to be used. But printed signs may not be the only thing he has trouble picking up on.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Eeny, Meeny...

A self-proclaimed "space nerd" offers some reasons why humanity's first attempt at colonizing another world should not be Mars, but instead Saturn's moon Titan.

Writing at the National Public Radio website, Amanda Hendrix shows how Titan's thicker atmosphere and stable surface would be a better bet for successful human colonization than Mars. She makes some good points, but I have to confess I don't much care which other spot we take a chance on as long as someone rises from their respective hindquarters and legitimately does something about either of them.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Memory and Symbols and Omelets

On arriving at Northwestern University many years ago, I was kind of surprised to discover that there was a Nazi on the faculty. Or so said a publication I found in the student center, which went into great detail about what it said were his beliefs and why the university had to reject him, ignore his tenure and fire him.

It turns out, of course, that he wasn't actually a Nazi. He was a Holocaust denier, which is gross and evil enough, but he didn't teach history. He taught in the school of engineering. He had written a book outlining his beliefs shortly after gaining tenure, and the university had an officially recognized student organization whose sole purpose -- spelled out in its name, even -- was to get him fired. For his part, he stayed on the side of the line that kept him under tenure's umbrella. He never claimed official university sanction for his views and he never brought them into his classroom. Other than an article or two here and there he never wrote anything else about the Holocaust beyond his one book, although it seems he kept some level of activity among similarly-minded people.

By the time I was a senior the official committee to get rid of the guy had kind of fizzled out and folded into a larger committee which included that point of view. I remember a discussion with one of its members, an earnest freshman whom I asked, "Who pays attention to a history book written by an engineering prof?" I was assured that his work held great currency among several groups, a list of which I was provided. I later checked them out, and as far as I could tell they were groups that already believed what the guy said.

All of this came to mind when reading the cover story in the latest issue of National Review, an essay reflecting on the centennial of the October Revolution that paved the way for Imperial Russia to become the Soviet Union and spread misery, death and dopey dorm-room utopias across the globe ever since.

Article author Douglas Murray notes that the 20th century spawned two hideous totalitarian ideologies that murdered millions of people, Nazism and Communism. Today, any kind of association with Nazism or its ideas draws scorn upon the belief holder, in the same way that his denial of the Holocaust brought scorn and exacting scrutiny on the professor at my alma mater. Openly wearing a swastika symbol is a good way to get mocked and perhaps assaulted. Its appearance as graffiti on a college campus will prompt official investigations and consequences on the perpetrators, if they can be determined.

Nazism is rightly discredited and rightly judged as an ideology of evil, always linked to the horrid results of its most comprehensive attempt at implementation. Whatever positive benefits it had for Germany in the years leading up to WWII are rightly judged not worth its cost to Jews, a host of other ethnic minorities and anyone else that its thuggish leadership disliked.

No such scarlet badge of shame is awarded to Communism, Murray notes. Its modern devotees have few, if any, official student committees on campuses seeking the ouster of professors who may be among them. Even though when you add up the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Eastern Europe, North Korea and so on, the number of people who needed to die to enable the worker's paradise is probably in the nine digits (and counting), the thought of shunning Communist ideas is nowhere nearly as automatic as that of shunning Nazi thought. Professors who denied the reality of the Khmer Rougue's killing fields were given platforms to do so. Although the weight of evidence of Pol Pot's attempt at genocide eventually convinced many, some people today still suggest that the idea of more than a million dead (out of a population of only 7 million) is exaggerated.

Even the iconography is treated differently. A quick internet search for T-shirts with swastikas comes up with that symbol inside the universal red-circle-and-line "not allowed" design or heavily Hindi-styled to make it clear that the picture represents the Indian symbol rather than the later German one. Shoppers who want the plain Reich-styled version have to hunt some pretty creepy sites. But a similar search for a hammer and sickle will find all kinds of artsy representations on high-profile T-shirt sites. It's not hard to find Alberto Korda's picture of the murderous Che Guevara on a shirt, poster or other item either.

Murray's essay is worth reading. It's an historical sketch of Communism's history, from the view of an admitted opponent in a magazine that's never going to be a friend of that movement. Readers may make such correctives as they believe the evidence warrants, and you may not agree with either him or me either way.

There's no mystery at all as to why anyone who'd like to give Nazism a second bite at the apple are roundly dismissed and rejected. Their ideology is demonstrably harmful and tainted. But it's still curious as to why Karl Marx's fan club seems to have no end of second chances. George Orwell once noted that he seemed to find Communism's excesses excused by its defenders in light of the necessity to stand firm against imperialism and oppression. If you want to make an omelet, he said he was told, you have to break some eggs. All well and good if you're not one of the eggs, but he noted that even if you accepted the premise, none of his opponents seemed ever to have an answer to the question, "Yes, but where's the omelet?

Monday, October 16, 2017

Flash Bang

For astronomers, the exciting thing about this particular bang was that they saw it with traditional measuring instruments and with gravity-wave detectors. All of the previous gravity-wave detections have not been visible to other instruments -- sort of like hearing a sound but not knowing where it came from. But now something has been both seen and "heard," so to speak, which has the telescope set mainlining caffeine to stay awake and watch it.

As the story notes, astronomers think that this discovery could open up entirely new ways of studying what's out there. One of them quoted didn't have too many concrete predictions, but he did say, "'s going to be exceptional."

I'd put some money on that.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Hints of Tint

At Vintage Everyday, another group of Victorian-era photographs given color by modern technology. I enjoy these, as they are good reminders that only the film was monochrome in the days of our grandparents and so on; the world had the same amount of color it has had always.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


Chuck Yeager became the first human being to fly an airplane faster than the speed of sound in controlled flight on this day 70 years ago. Before him, it's certainly possible that some planes headed into steep dives passed the sound speed mark, but they were rarely controlled when doing so and the fact that they often plunged into the ground made confirming their airspeed difficult.

A couple of years ago, Yeager Tweeted some of his memories of the flight and the tests leading up to it. He's apparently still pretty sharp at 94 and continues to make appearances today, and obviously has fun with Twitter. Although unlike the venomous charlatan (™George Will) in the White House, other people have fun with his Tweets as well.

Friday, October 13, 2017

From the Rental Vault: The Bitcoin Heist (2016)

The advances of technology in security pushed "heist" movies into the realm of high-tech thrillers -- and now that technology has sneaked into the realm of the actual currency itself with Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, the stakes get higher. Ham Tran, a rising director in Vietnamese moviemaking, combined the tech and the caper to make his 2016 crowd-pleaser Sieu Trom, or in English The Bitcoin Heist.

Police inspector Dada is on the trail of a hacker and computer criminal called the Ghost. But when an attempt to arrest him goes wrong and nets only a lowly accountant, she is publicly shamed and suspended from the force. Her suspension is a cover, though, for her to recruit a team of folks to take him on from outside the law. This latitude lets her enlist people she's arrested herself and put their skills to use to infiltrate the Ghost's operation and get evidence that will let the legal authorities arrest him.

Tran keeps his action humming and the story doesn't ask much of the cast beyond working some familiar stereotypes -- the charismatic light-fingered con man, the aging forger, the nimble cat burglar and so on. They have a little extra touches of depth, like a past relationship between Dada and the con-man/magician Jack. Or that cat-burglar Linh and forger Luhan are daughter and father, and tween Linh gets a crush on Jack that embarrasses him and irritates Luhan. The story gives Linh and Luhan a couple of sweet bonding moments as well.

Heist comes together easily, taking advantage of Tran's familiarity with what has been a regular crew of actors. It's light, despite attempts to give some weight to the story of hacker Vi, played by Vietnamese rapper and pop star Suboi. It also doesn't really know where or how to end, stretching things out for one last con and twist despite not really setting the stage for them. Tran would have done better not aiming so high and just letting the caper nature of his story carry it over the finish line instead of getting artsy and serious. But the zippy running time and the competent cast counterbalance the missteps and make Heist a fun picture.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Decisions, Decisions

So recently two intermittently-talented celebrities suggested that fans who also supported Donald Trump were less than welcome. Earlier this week Eminem got more press than he had in years by using an awards show performance to freestyle a rap against the president. Seth Meyers, who used to be on Saturday night live and now occupies one or another of the late-night talk show desks, has chimed in, suggesting that its time for people who watch his show who are also fans of Trump to make a decision.

I can see how it might be a problem for some, but as it turns out we can solve the matter easily with just a slight tweak of the initial conditions. Both men, as well as a number of other performers, suggest that people must choose between supporting Trump or being their fans. But I think that if you properly frame the situation by eliminating the "either/or" aspect of it the way forward is obvious. I am not a fan of Donald Trump, Messrs. Meyers and Mathers. But neither am I a fan of either of you, so I trust you can now rest easy at night.

Oh, and go away, so that we can get some people to offer substantive discussions about the president's failures and flawed policies instead of pseudo poetry and smirking.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A Whatsit By Any Other Name...

As they often do, the good folk at Mental Floss offer up a list of some interesting and obscure words, grouped together under some theme or another.

However, the headline of the story overpromises: "10 Things You Didn’t Know Had Names." I did know what "badinage" meant and from time to time I even use it in a sentence. Thus, I believe writer Adrienne Crezo owes me a word. Which one? Well, if I knew that it wouldn't qualify for the list now, would it?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Your Potluck Game Is Strong

The city of Binissalem, Mallorca, takes the third Friday of September off. The whole town. And then that evening they all put tables and chairs out in the streets and have what can only be described as literally a community meal.

Yes, literally, because all 8,000 people in town, along with as many as 12,000 visitors, sit down at the table with each other in the sopar a la fresca. Folks work with their neighbors as to how big the group will be, who will cook and who will supply tables and chairs, who will help set up and take down, and so on.

Mallorca (sometimes spelled "Majorca," because both the double-l and the j in Spanish are most often voiced as a "y,") is a Mediterranean island belonging to Spain. It's the biggest of an autonomous group of islands called the Balearics. And a place it might be fun to visit long about that third Friday in September in order to join the village in its highest achievement.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Breaking News!

Charles Hill at Dustbury makes sure to help CNN stay out in front of keeping people informed.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Not Backing Down

This isn't my favorite Petty song, mostly because of overexposure than any defect in the song itself. But it's a good way to pay respect to a Gainesville boy.

Saturday, October 7, 2017


Bop on over to the Pop Sonnet website and have some fun. And be kind of amazed at the wordsmithery that can make a modern song lyric fit the sonnet pattern, sound properly Shakesperean and still mean the same thing as the lyrics do.

Friday, October 6, 2017


Napoleon "Nap" Dumas is a small-town New Jersey police officer living in the same house where he grew up. His father's death is more recent, but he remains haunted by the death of his twin brother Leo many years ago. Because death of Leo and his girlfriend happened the same night that Nap's girlfriend Maura left town never to be seen again. When Maura's prints are found in a car connected to a murder, Nap is determined to find out where she is and if she is indeed still alive, no matter what targets his determination hang on him.

Don't Let Go follows the familiar Harlan Coban pattern of a modern-day character dealing with a long-ago tragedy in the middle of a seemingly peaceful suburban environment. Leo's death has been accepted by everyone as the awful result of teenage stupidity, but not by Nap, at least not fully. Maura's disappearance is too coincidental. The lack of processing keeps Nap from really engaging in the world around him, even though he has close friends and a reasonably happy-looking life. The house of cards tumbles down and his obsession over what happened to Maura takes the driver's seat when the prints are found, though, so we watch that life crumble.

As always, Coben's storytelling skills can mask a lot of flaws and are good enough so that it's not until after the last page is turned that you start asking things like, "Um, why did that happen that way again?" Don't Let Go is brimful of convenient coincidences and just-so situations that don't hold up under much questioning. The ultimate resolution keeps twisting until it's almost silly instead of surprising, and nearly every revelation Nap uncovers is preceded by a character saying, "I'll tell you, but you're not going to like it." The same is not exactly true of Don't Let Go, as you probably will like it while you're reading it but a couple hours later will not be sure why you bothered.
Cam Richter has been given a load of reasons from some powerful people to keep his nose out of investigating the death of his employee, Allie Gardner. Everyone from the FBI to the security boss at the local nuclear power plant Allie may have visited suggest he let them handle her death, even when it turns out she was poisoned with a radioactive substance. But Cam, a former sheriff's officer turned private investigator, doesn't trust any of them and knows he's the only one more interested in finding out what happened to Allie than in protecting secrets and screw-ups.

2008's The Moonpool is the third Richter novel, following The Cat Dancers and Spider Mountain. Cam has settled in to his role as a private detective, wealthy enough to do the work he wants and let someone else do the work he doesn't. Allie was one of his detectives who liked following philandering husbands, so the first suspicion at her death falls on her previous cases. But the presence of radioactivity in her body turns attention to the Helios nuclear power plant, and no one there is much interested in letting a private detective with no security clearance nose around to find answers.

Deutermann has an easygoing style and has done a clear job of painting Cam over the three novels in the series to that point. Although Spider Mountain had significantly tamed the Plot Hole Syndrome that tangled Cat Dancers, the remission seems to have been only temporary, as the condition returns in force here. Both the ultimate villainous plan Richter has to thwart and the roadblocks he has to handle to get there are vaguely drawn and more than a little ridiculous where they aren't. Even Allie's death, the original spark for the who sequence, winds up resolved with an "Oh, by the way" quality that can make you wonder why any of these things happened -- or, indeed, why you should sit through more of them.
There are some spoilers in this one. Wait if you haven't read Sleeping Beauties yet and still want to find out what happens the old-fashioned way.

Writers Stephen and Tabitha King have three children, two of whom have become writers themselves. Youngest son Owen teams up with Dad for the fantasy horror novel Sleeping Beauties, the story of what might happen if all of the women in the world were to suddenly go to sleep and not wake up.

Although they include a couple of brief scenes of other parts of the world, the Kings focus their story on Dooling, West Virginia, home to a women's prison and not a lot else by way of economic prospects. Clint and Lila Norcross are the two main protagonists out of a cast list that runs into the low 70s. Lila is the sheriff and Clint is the psychiatrist at the prison. While Lila struggles to avoid sleep, she and Clint focus their attention on Eve, a strange woman arrested just before the "Aurora Event" began who seems have much more knowledge about it than anyone else as well as supernatural powers. But Eve isn't answering questions -- not in any way that makes sense -- and there are no answers on the horizon. If none can be found, then the human race is in big trouble, because the women aren't waking up and anyone who tries to open one of their mysterious cocoons becomes the victim of their homicidal rage.

The Kings quite obviously intend their novel to have some comment on the way women are treated even in more enlightened Western societies. Eve's dialogues and warnings make that clear, and the plot includes plenty of toothless evil rednecks and such who bully them and take advantage of their power. The women's prison might as well have "Attention Cliff's Notes Readers: Important Metaphor" emblazoned on its walls.

Whatever their intent, their execution is pretty poor. The rage cocooned women have when disturbed sounds like two men chuckling over how grumpy the little darlings are when you interrupt their naps. Halfway through the book we find out that the spirits of the sleeping women have been brought to another world, without men (except for the boy babies being born).  Eve says they can make a world without men's evil and train the boy babies how to be better than the rotten bastards infesting the old world. Except that in the end, born of motives never explained, she offers the women a chance to go back to the old world if they want. Which they do, largely because their feeling of being needed depends on the fact that the men won't survive without them -- making even this ultimate choice less about them than about men. The Kings also drop an question of racial injustice into the story almost at the very end, long after it has any chance to develop into something. So they conveniently tell us how important it is in the series of "what happened to these people" epilogues.

You might wonder why this review of a fiction novel chooses to engage with its politics rather than the novel itself. Because the novel itself is like a story being told by a very bright four-year-old, and that's hard to engage. Its 700 pages could drop by at least half if we didn't see incident after incident repeated and rabbit after rabbit being chased as the Kings' narrative discipline goes to hell in the presence of this or that shiny object.

Don't believe me? Ask the talking fox.

Thursday, October 5, 2017


We ignore the wisdom of the ancients at our peril!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Too Much Risk

In today's Peanuts reprint, Snoopy reminds himself that a beagle's got to know his limitations.

Meanwhile, Calvin decides that he doesn't want to gamble on the idea that Rosalyn his baby-sitter and his parents share a very macabre sense of humor.

And Søren Kierkegaard demonstrates two things -- how the reality of inevitable death can actually spur people to chance something new and why existentialist philosophers make terrible ad agency reps.

These have been your funny pages. Hope you had fun!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Taking the Prize

Three physicists who discovered a way to watch the universe through gravity have earned the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics.

Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne developed a way to detect gravitational waves as they travel through space, much the same way that light does. Albert Einstein predicted gravity waves but since gravity is so much weaker than any of the other four basic forces of the universe, its waves are much smaller and harder to detect. Even the super-sensitive LIGO detector developed by Weiss, Barish and Thorne only sensed waves created by the collision of two black holes -- one with three dozen times the mass of the sun and the other with almost thirty solar masses.

The rules for the physics prize specify that the achievement has been "tested by time," to help reduce the chance that the prize is awarded for a discovery that later proves to be something different. This can mean that there's as much as a 20-year lag between a discovery and an award. But the implications of being able to detect and measure gravity waves are huge enough to warrant the award less than two years after the first confirmed detection was announced.

Were he still around, Albert Einstein would no doubt congratulate the LIGO teams on their achievement. And then stage-whisper to someone standing nearby, "I knew that already."

Monday, October 2, 2017

Get Lucky Sometimes

This song got played a lot by a younger Friar who seemed to think he needed to hear it. Hang in there, TP.

This earlier read "RIP," but the first reports of Petty's demise proved inaccurate. His condition is not good, though, so your good thoughts and/or prayers for his family would be appropriate either way.

Added 12:30 AM Tuesday: As he has now passed, my prayers for a peaceful rest.

Sunday, October 1, 2017


Not everyone can be a professional astronomer, but thanks to this handy guide from The League of Lost Causes, featured at NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day, you can evaluate lights in the sky just as good as they can:

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Point of View?

A photographer featured at Bored Panda has taken close-up pictures of spiders' feet. Magnifying tiny details hundreds of times, the photos show what appears to be soft fur and tiny little paws.

The headline suggests that pictures may change the way one looks at spiders. I find this unlikely in my case, since I don't think the corpse left behind when I smash it with any handy object will have such intriguing detail.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Boo-Boo Redux

Because the last billionaire who bamboozled people into thinking that the ability to have a TV show a lot of people watched was the same thing as running the country is working out so well.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Liz Phipps Soeiro, Will You Please Go Now?

One of the finer ironies of this incredibly graceless response from the above-mentioned school librarian is that she rejected Melania Trump’s donation of Dr. Seuss books — in order to prevent her students from reading them in her library — during Banned Books Week.

As the story notes, she overstepped her authority and received a reminder explaining so. One can only hope it was in verse.

Heart of the City

Fabulous worship experience at Resurrection Downtown in Kansas City. With an accordion, no less.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Retail Woes

At a conference in Kansas City, so I visited a Container Store. They sell a brand of modular shelving that I like and I needed two shelves to help me finish out a unit. They can be ordered online, but I thought since I was in the area anyway, why not just pick them up?

Me to clerk while holding sheet with shelving items listed, since they weren’t out on the sales floor. “I was needing to get these two items.”

Clerk calls manager, who is on another call, so she goes to the back room of the store to talk to him directly. She returns.

“We don’t actually keep those in the store anymore; they would have to come on the truck, which would be here Wednesday.” Since I won’t be here until next Wednesday, I decline. I’ll wind up ordering them anyway, because they will get to my house as fast as they would get to a store, even if I lived here and could come back by and pick them up.

I wish I could figure out why retail stores seem to be having trouble keeping business.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Dear CBS Television:

I write to express my enormous gratitude at your recent kind gesture regarding your new televsion series, Star Trek: Discovery. You aired the premiere episode on your broadcast station and are airing the remaining episodes on your subscription streaming outlet, "CBS All Access."

I do not know how you knew I was a devoted Star Trek fan, but you did, and you realized that I might have some residual feelings of guilt about not subscribing to the service. I had previously suggested that the return of the show to an episodic television format brought it back to its strongest platform, which meant that my decision not to subscribe could have been seen as mildly hypocritical. If I wanted the show to succeed, should I not take part in making it happen? Wouldn't my support be in name only if I waited around for it to appear on other streaming services or on DVD for rental? Surely the minor inconvenience of having to acquire yet another streaming service was minimal compared with my responsibility to see that Star Trek: Discovery succeeded?

And I will confess I felt a little bit uneasy about my decision -- not enough to change my mind, because I was not going to buy another streaming service for just one show. But still, the concern remained: Were I and the people like me going to take this great opportunity to have real Trek back on TV and screw it all up? And then I watched the episode that was aired over the regular broadcast channel.

You removed all doubt and all concern from my mind that I would screw this up -- I could not do a better job of that than the people involved in the show already have. The writers, the cast, the designers -- it was a group effort. From the ridiculous back story written for our protagonist to the uniform redesign to yet another Klingon redesign -- and this one easily the ugliest and most pointless yet -- to red-shirting Michelle Yeoh and turning Doug Jones into a hoofed mixture of Niles Crane and Miss Cleo...

I could go on, but it would feel like I was just bragging on how much you cared about even the small amount of guilt I felt over not subscribing, and how hard you worked to reassure me that my decision was the right one.

Plus, I figure you have a lot of thank-you notes to read. The estates of Lee Cronin and Edward J. Lakso to Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman for getting them a friend in "worst Trek script ever" jail. William Shatner to David Semel for a compadre in goofiest direction. Wil Wheaton to Jones for making "Wesley" a not-so-automatic object to the phrase "Shut up" on a Starfleet bridge. John Logan to Bryan Fuller for some competition in the "Dumbest classic character retcon/redesign" category.

I'll let you get to it. I figure you'll have a lot of time on your hands soon enough.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Peaked TV

Even though the book has yet to be published, Showtime has bid a whole bunch of money to turn The President is Missing, a collaboration between thriller author James Patterson and former president Bill Clinton, into a television series.

Patterson and Clinton announced the book in May. It won't hit bookshelves until 2018, so Showtime's press release about the the whole deal is skimpy on details. Rumors that the former president, when told who had picked up the book for adaptation, commented "I'm the one who gets to write those scenes, right?" are as yet unconfirmed.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

No Flag League

I was at a restaurant this evening and watched the last few minutes of the Kansas City Chiefs' win over the Los Angeles (?) Chargers. I enjoyed rookie Kareem Hunt's ridiculous cutback that gave him his third 50+ yard TD run in as many games.

I have no idea what Hunt did when the national anthem was played. And I don't really care. One of the last things I watch any sporting activity for is the conduct of wealthy or extremely wealthy people when the song is played. I don't even watch them when I'm at a game, because I'm facing the flag with my hand over my heart.

Of late, though, this conduct has become something that Matters a Whole Lot. The fracas began last season when San Francisco 40'ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick was spotted on one knee while the anthem was played and when asked about it, suggested that he could not salute the flag of a nation in which minorities were so oppressed. He connected his position to well-publicized shootings of African-American men by police.

Kaepernick quickly proved sub-optimal as a spokesman for a justice movement. At a press conference, his T-shirt featuring the murderous thug Che Guevara joined his practice socks featuring pigs in police uniforms to make a clear and convincing case that he was not a man to be taken seriously. The issue bubbled along for the 2016 season, mostly under the surface as the number of players who followed his lead stayed relatively small.

This year it has become a much bigger deal, as a few players again began the season either kneeling in prayer, staying seated on the bench or taking some other posture besides standing on the sidelines. Since some did so in groups, fan displeasure mounted and things began to be a little more heated. Then President Trump, who has never met a situation his mouth could not make worse, weighed in. At a political rally in Alabama, he suggested that players who did not stand during the anthem should be fired. Predictably, many more players decided to kneel or do something other than stand during the game today than had done so before. One news story I saw said it was about four last week and more than 100 today. Good job, Mr. President.

At Soldier Field today, the Chicago Bears knelt with their arms interlocked. Only one Pittsburgh Steeler, Alejandro Villanueva, came out during the anthem, and he saluted the flag while it was played. Villanueva served in the United States army and earned a Bronze Star for valor. Coach Mike Tomlin kept his team inside while the anthem was played, the way that most college teams do and the way most NFL teams did up until just a few years ago. Tomlin said he kept his players inside so that they would not be forced to choose one way or the other, but he probably realized that Villanueva would feel a little differently.

Of course the President made things worse by injecting himself into the situation, but he has neither the brains nor the character to do anything else. What is interesting is how far afield the whole mess has moved from what was supposed to originally motivate Kaepernick. Players who may have thought he was a goofball are now asserting his -- and their -- constitutional right to respond to the anthem as they see fit.

Highly-paid professional athletes make fragile spokespersons for political issues in any case, and that goes double when the issue touches on things like privilege. They are textbook cases of people who have money, prestige and influence for no other reason than their strength, speed, size or skill. They've been given special treatment and advantages. When they critique the system which has significantly blessed them, a careful touch is required. Kaepernick choose poorly. People overlooked why he did what he did to take offense at what they saw as disrespect of the nation and its flag, guaranteeing his position would never get the attention or hearing he said he wanted. Just like with the president, everything became about him -- although I'll give Kaepernick the benefit of the doubt that he got there through a lack of forethought than by jonesing for any and all spotlights to turn his way. No such doubt for the president.

And so we are subjected to the players' opinions of the president, the president's opinion of the players and commentators opinions of both. It's enough to make you yearn for the measured opinions and probity of Howard Cosell.

He Might Just Do You In

Charles Bradley didn't get to have a very long career, releasing his first album in 2011 at the age of 62 and passing away Saturday in Brooklyn. But the Screaming Eagle of Soul packed a lot of punch into those years, bringing to bear all of the years he had been working small gigs and also appearing as a James Brown tribute act.

His appearance in the opening minutes of the third episode of Netflix's Luke Cage series was one of the performances that helped that show's strongest element: The music. Here he performs with the Extraordinaires, who were among current and former band members, friends and family with him when he passed.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Real World

Remember how, back in 2014, a terrorist group in Nigeria called Boko Haram kidnapped about 300 female students from a school in Chibok? And remember how a lot of famous people took selfies where they looked really serious and held up a piece of paper with the phrase "bring back our girls" and a hashtag on it, and all kinds of famous people used that hashtag on their Twitter feeds for a few days or maybe even weeks and it fixed everything?

Me neither.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Deep Dives

For the first half of the 20th century, major league baseball was segregated by race -- not by any written rule, but by a "gentleman's agreement" among owners and league executives to not give any African-American player a real shot at a contract or spot on any team.

But baseball was too much of an American pastime to keep Americans out of it, even Americans segregated, marginalized and derided for the color of their skin. And so the Negro Leagues were born, lasting as an organization from roughly the first of the century through a few years after Jackie Robinson re-integrated the major leagues in 1947. Several biographies and histories of the teams and stars of the Negro League teams tell the stories of the game and its impact on segregated African-American urban life -- that strange parallel existence by which entire cities and cultural structures grew up in the areas to which the people had been confined. Black doctors, black businesses, black hotels, black restaurants and so on formed a complete society that rarely needed white support to survive. Black baseball was a part of this structure, and so was a black press that reported on it. Media professor Brian Carroll has written two books on the relationship between the African-American press and Negro League baseball, of which 2015's The Black Press and Black Baseball, 1915-1955: A Devil’s Bargain is the second. It focuses on several "slices" of the overall half-century story rather than laying it out in detail, using them as a way to understand the complicated relationship.

On the one hand, Negro League owners and executives saw the black press as a booster for what they were doing. The news outlets of a particular city had a responsibility to make that city's team look good. The initial chapter, which covers the way that individual newspapers enlisted on different sides of owner fights in 1915, shows how this quickly reduced them to owner mouthpieces (Indianapolis and Chicago papers allowed the different team owners a column to respond to each other in print).

Reporters for black newspapers agreed with this to some extent. Carroll highlights the history of the Negro League's "East-West Classic" and the way that papers and writers trumpeted its financial success and cultural demonstration of black equality. The way that the Classic's gate outdrew the competing Major League All-Star game some years features prominently in their writing. Their boosterism during Robinson's first season ignored a reality that the job was harder on him than anyone knew.

But increasingly, reporters and editors used their platform to argue and work for the integration of American society, including baseball. And as Carroll notes, the success of their efforts spelled the end of the Negro Leagues, as major league owners classified its teams as independent operators and simply raided the best talent. Aspiring young black ballplayers set their sights on major league uniforms and joined major league farm systems, leaving black fans with less and less reason to support separate teams that reminded them of their marginalized past. Carroll closes the book with a chapter on the role of the black press in pushing for desegregation in spring training facilities in the American South during the 1960s, the last remnant of official racial separation in baseball. The "devil's bargain" of the subtitle refers to the way that when the goal of official integration came to pass, it consigned to history the teams so important to 20th century black culture.

The Black Press is a little dry in tone, less so in describing the colorful feud of the first chapter than elsewhere. The Routledge Press sports history research format confines Carroll to relatively few pages and probably helps drive the vignette structure of the book. So although he brings to light an important part of American sports and press history, a fuller treatment will also be welcome whenever it arrives.
Mathematics has always had two main branches -- applied and what is often called "pure." Applied math is what we do when we figure how much paint we need for a certain size of wall or try to balance our checkbook. It's also found in physics, design and engineering work. "Pure" math usually describes work with formulas or equations that are being used in the abstract. Their numerals or variables don't refer to any physical measurements or qualities. Work in this field can seem as much philosophy as math and, at least in the time of the ancient Greek originators of some of its fields, functioned the same way.

In fact, for some groups like students of Pythagoras, math and geometry were as much religion as anything else. When advances in calculation and working materials in the mid and late 1800's led to a resurgence of abstract math, a number of folks revived its connection to religion as well. Daniel J. Cohen in 2007's Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith traces the rise of this trend as well as its eventual end as mathematicians worked to professionalize their discipline.

Cohen starts by showing how the largely unchanging equations and laws of math offered security to a lot of folks bewildered by the rapid pace of technological change during the 19th century. Equations related to each other and their concepts moved and changed completely independently of things that happened in the "real world." The relationship between the lengths of the sides of a right triangle was the same whether the triangle was drawn on paper or existed only in the mind of the person thinking about it. This regularity in abstraction appealed to intellectual folks who were also devoted people of faith, as it seemed to offer a parallel to their religious understandings.

Cohen focuses on a handful of professors at schools in the United States and England, and the way their interest in math began to dominate their religious thinking and philosophy as well. They're all Unitarians or in some cases Deists, as those branches of faith had stronger appeal for the highly educated men involved in this loose movement. Some are names less well-known today than in their time, although George Boole's work in logic during the 1850s led to a lot of the concepts underlying modern computing and what's called "Boolean logic" in search engines. It's how you use AND or NOT in a search window to limit the results. Both Boole and his contemporary Augustus De Morgan used their pattern of logical formulation to describe their religious ideas and to try to falsify those of some opponents.

The end of the wave came as mathematicians moved to set themselves on a more professional footing, in part to reduce the attention they were having to pay to people who came up with flawed "solutions" to unsolvable problems, like the exact value of π. But the only way they could distance it and support the idea that mathematics was its own discipline was to trim away its connection to others, including theology. Narrow minds in both fields pushed against the idea of bridges between them and helped contribute to a supposed gulf between faith and science or scientific ideas that many accept as real today.

Cohen doesn't have a tight focus on the non-mathematical aspects of his subjects lives, and although the biographical details humanize them he doesn't always draw clear connections between the facts he includes and their bearing on the math-theology connection which his book is supposed to explore. DeMorgan especially was prone to feuds with other scientists, such as Michael Faraday, and we don't learn exactly why the details of it bear on the central idea. To some extent Boole and certainly De Morgan aren't really religious as much as they are spiritual or metaphysical, but they do apply their work to some religious themes.

But math can hold the same appeal for the intellectual and religious today as it did in the 19th century, and so Equations offers a quick picture of a time when the idea of a religious scientist was not the oxymoron limited thinkers would hold it to be today.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Eternal September

Am NPR story from earlier this month relates the history of Earth Wind and Fire's "September," a 1978 hit that is one of the evergreens of the dance floor, radio playlist or windows-down volume-up drives down a sunlit boulevard.

Writer Dan Charnas tells the story of how the song was written, how it got its "ba-di-ya" chorus and why the specific date referenced is the 21st. According to the headline, the main purpose of the story is to explain the song's longevity and its popularity. Charnas' story is a cool little slice of history, but the headline is asks the wrong question. We don't need to read a retrospective on "September" to understand why it's lasted so long and why people will still groove to it 39 years later. We just have to push "play:"

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Can't Stop the Signal

"May have been the losing side...still not convinced it was the wrong one."

--Malcolm Reynolds, five hundred years from now

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Today's Text

A reading, suitably interpreted for the day:

Aye th' Lord be my Cap’n, I’ve all that I need.

He puts a wind abaft th' beam; he sets a course f’r smooth waters; he sets me heart at ease. Sure an’ once ‘tis all done we do give him honor for it.

Even though I’ll sail in th’ roughest seas, I be fearin’ no lee shore, f’r his hand on th’ wheel is sure, an’ ne’er do we miss stays.

Never in life does he stop our grog f’r nothing, an' sees he we’ve all et well afore there’s a row; we’ve prize money an’ booty t’ spare.

Surely ‘tis blessing an’ favor all me days, an’ I shall sail in his crew ‘til th’ waves close over me head an' beyond.

Th' word o' the Cap'n f'r th' people o' th' Cap'n;


Monday, September 18, 2017

Empty Screens

This guy is smack on the money about how hard it is to watch an older movie on Netflix's streaming service.

Zach Schonfeld writing at Newsweek points out the very limited selection the streaming service has when it comes to movies made before 1970. I switched when the gym where I used to live got wi-fi and it was easier to stream something onto my tablet on the treadmill. But I'm thinking about switching back or maybe trading out for one of the other services Schonfeld mentions. And for that matter, everything he says about classic older movies goes and maybe even double for international movies. It's not hard to exhaust the catalogue in your fave genre if you even just want to catch two or three a week.

Netflix has some of the same misconceptions that a lot of modern culture seems to when it comes to these classics. Most of today's great directors started out on a diet of those iconic movies and it inspired their own creative visions. As bad as the screen scene is today, I shudder to think of what it might be like if future filmmakers get moved to study the craft based on a menu of Will Farrell, Judd Apatow and David Gordon Green.