Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Latest

Former crime reporter Michael Connelly has toyed with some other characters as leads in his novels, although he continues to rely on detective Harry Bosch and lawyer Mickey Haller as his mainstays. With 2017's The Late Show, he brings Hollywood Division night shift detective Renée Ballard onto the stage.

Ballard is Connelly's first female main POV protagonist since Void Moon's Cassie Black. She's working "the Late Show," the nighttime shift that's just one step up from crosswalk duty, because she filed a sexual harassment complaint against a supervisor and was hung out to dry by her fellow officers concerned more with their own careers than the truth. Late Show detectives may make the first contact with a crime victim, but their cases are almost always handed off to daytime officers who close them and make the arrests.

But not unlike Harry Bosch, Ballard stays in the harness because she wants to solve crimes and speak for those who can't speak for themselves. Occasionally she can take a case to the finish and bring that closure herself. On the night we meet her, she manages to become involved in three such cases and finish them out -- a credit-card theft, the brutal beating of a transvestite prostitute and a multiple-victim murder at a nightclub. To work them, she'll have to cross paths with her former co-workers and the supervisor who tried to assault her, putting her career on the line when she believes they won't do the job right. And she might find herself the target of more than harassment if her suspicions are right.

Connelly seems as though he plans a full trip with Ballard, unwrapping her character only gradually and leaving several layers to go even by the end of the novel. At this point, she's interesting and appealing enough to hope he continues. Connelly is probably at his best when telling the tales of tarnished knights in pursuit of justice, and it's worth it to see where Renée Ballard will plant her banner and draw her sword next.
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After many years dodging the responsibility, Gabriel Allon has finally taken up the mantle of the director of Israel's intelligence service in 2017's House of Spies. His enemy Saladin, the Iraqi terrorist pursued in The Black Widow, is in hiding, his network supposedly a shambles. But Gabriel regard's Saladin's survival as a failure and fears the mastermind is only recuperating and rebuilding his organization.

Daring and deadly attacks in London prove him right, and Gabriel is ready to agree when his friends at British intelligence ask for his help in bringing Saladin to bay. As the director, he's not really supposed to get his hands dirty in the operational theater, but Gabriel will disregard precedent to get Saladin. His avenue will be a French jet setter, Jean-Luc Martel, suspected of being a drug supplier.

Allon chronicler Daniel Silva uses Gabriel's new position to introduce a couple of extra wrinkles into his story, but House of Spies is mostly tried-and-true riffs on the concept behind Mission: Impossible. Gabriel's team works out an elaborate con to get a handle on Martel and squeeze him for his drug contacts, which they believe will get them to Saladin. Silva hasn't lost any punch or gotten flabby in this, his 17th Allon novel, but he is treading some familiar paths. Maybe giving Gabriel some time in his new role will offer Silva some chances to branch out and try new ideas; it would be a welcome change to avoid the possibility of getting into a rut.
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The lazy second half of Ben Coes' 2016 Dewey Andreas adventure First Strike put the author in a deep hole. Its repetitive and clichéd brutality was easily the worst set of chapters he's put into print and could make a reader wonder if Dewey had any life left.

For 2017's Trap the Devil, Coes offers a solid if unspectacular yes, putting Dewey on the trail -- and in the sights -- of a shadowy conspiracy within our own government instead of another round with international terrorists. On a limited duty assignment offering extra security for the U.S. Secretary of State, Dewey finds himself implicated in the secretary's assassination and on the run from French security forces. Intermittent contact with allies at the CIA and other colleagues gives him hints of the shadowy cabal and its plans, but will it be too late to thwart their deadly scheme?

Coes has done best with Dewey operating solo, usually in hiding and in almost as much danger from his own side as his enemies. He spends a large part of Devil working that angle, with good results. An extended sequence on a train, with at least three different groups of heavily armed fighters looking to kill each other, delivers some high-tension action and solid suspense. Coes is good at navigating the line between good tough guy masculine prose and he-man overkill, and he continues to do so here. 

Some implausibilities in the plot and in more than one of Dewey's fantastic feats bring a little more eye roll than is good for even an espionage thriller novel, but Devil remains a substantial improvement on the one-star outing of First Strike and rescues the series from the "used to read him" pile.

Friday, July 21, 2017

A Little Bit of Sense

At first blush, this item would seem like another in the long line of municipal governments or associations doing stupid things, like telling war veterans not to fly their national flag or shutting down kids' lemonade stands.

Because that is exactly what FOUR code enforcement officers did recently in the Tower Hamlets area in London, raiding a lemonade stand being run by a university professor and his five-year-old daughter. The desperadoes committed the ultimate offense in modern life -- they did something without getting a permit. The squad of officers saved Tower Hamlets from certain anarchy by ordering the stand shut down and fined the miscreants £150, but helpfully noted that the amount would be only £90 if "paid quickly." This being London instead of Chicago, that was probably the truth rather than an attempt at a shakedown. In any event, the little girl was in tears and sounds quite distraught based on the account given by her father.

A modicum of sense prevailed at the town offices, however, which immediately canceled the fine when learning of it and promised to call the professor and his daughter to apologize for their treatment. "We expect our enforcement officers to show common sense, and to use their powers sensibly. This clearly did not happen," the spokeswoman said.

It's hard not to love the British gift for understatement. One would think -- if one thought -- that the proper thing to do when confronting a child's lemonade stand is to go on about one's business. If one lived in a city that for some reason included children's lemonade stands as a fit subject of governmental regulation and could not leave it before the screen door of the house slammed shut, then one would perhaps buy a cup of lemonade from the youngster and quietly let Dad know that she shouldn't do it again because of the city ordinances.

If for some reason one's neurons have refused to engage enough to present these very simple ideas, then one would think that the sight of the five-year-old child's tearful face would clue one in that one had been dumber than a microcephalic brontosaurus and should figure out a way to redeem this utter embarrassment of a situation. But no evidence presented suggests that these FOUR men can cobble together enough functioning gray matter to realize these things, and so they will now be mocked and belittled.

It's possible that the FOUR code enforcement officers involved might believe that their employers have thrown them under the double-decker bus. But that's not the case, gentlemen. No one had to throw you -- you pretty much dove right underneath it all on your own and you have earned every bit of snide and derision thrown your way.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Ripped to Shreds

The end of the third series (British television uses "series" where American television uses "season") of the BBC show Ripper Street left former Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) living peacefully outside of London with his recently rediscovered long-lost daughter Mathilda (Anna Burnett). Amazon had arranged to shoot and air a third series after the disastrous second outing on BBC had more or less killed the show.

Unable to leave well enough alone, Amazon decided to produce a fourth and fifth series that brought Reid and his daughter back to Whitechapel in London and Reid back to the police force. He now serves as an inspector under his former assistant, Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn), who took his place as chief inspector and who lives with his wife, former prostitute Rose Erskine Drake (Charlene McKenna). The American Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) is around as well, continuing to work as a pathologist for the police and trying to find a way to save his wife, Susan Hart (MyAnna Buring), following the exposure of her role in the disaster that overshadowed much of Series Three.

Reid at first pretends as if he is back because he wants to work again, but it becomes clear he has another agenda. Jackson's quest to save Susan from hanging appears on the surface to be purely legal, but it has another layer as well. And some vicious, almost bestial murders plaguing Whitechapel bring back memories of the Ripper case from eight years earlier. Naturally all of these threads will intersect, bringing tragedy to close out Series Four and driving the action of Series Five.

If Series Two wrecked the show and Series Three offered a nice, tidy repair job that left viewers feeling a little better about the whole thing, the last two sets of episodes destroy most of that goodwill. They stem from a narratively ridiculous comeuppance involving a tertiary character towards the end of the third season and the return of one of the second season's biggest liabilities, Chief Inspector Jedediah Shine. Although the jumbled arc of Series Two was supposed to make Shine a major antagonist for Reid, it never did so and there's no reason for him to be exhumed for this story.

There are some bright moments. The budding romance between Sgt. Samuel Drummond (Matthew Lewis) and Reid's daughter Mathilda is sweet and often amusing, as Macfadyen goes into full "dad mode" glower at Drummond every time he sees him at the station. The writers manage to capture the elaborate speech rhythms of the late 19th century and Macfadyen continues to demonstrate his mastery of it.

But most of the rest stinks. Especially disappointing is the way that Charlotte McKenna is called on to use her performance to undo everything that the previous episodes had done with Rose's character, building a breakdown and collapse that have absolutely no narrative foundation. The Whitechapel Golem storyline is ridiculous and also lacks a full foundation, offering more holes than plot.

This space's earlier judgment was that Series One was all the Ripper Street anyone really needed, but that if for some reason a viewer took in Two, then they should by all means have a go at Three in order to wash out the bad taste. The problem with Four and Five is that they've tapped their narrative flow from the dumbest part of Three and they never rise above their origins. The old saying is that if something's not broken, don't try to fix it. On the other hand, if your plan for fixing something that actually is broken winds up making things worse, then that's also a reason to stop. Which is what should have happened with Ripper Street once Edmund Reid came back from his time at the sea.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Original Bing Translator

Just outside the town of El-Rashid in Egypt, 218 years ago today, Pierre-Francoise Bouchard took a second look at a stone that diggers had unearthed. Napoleon had ordered his engineers to pay special attention to unusual items they found while exploring, since he had an interest in history.

Bochard noticed that the 3½ by 2½  by 1 foot slab of granite had writing on it. In fact, it had writing on it in three languages: Hieroglyphic Egyptian, which had died out in the 300s, demotic Egyptian, which was still spoken, and Greek. The stone, eventually named after the Anglicized version of El-Rashid, "Rosetta," dated from the time the Macedonian Ptolemiads ruled Egypt and proved to be the key to finally translating Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The British defeated the French and took the stone to England in 1801, where the hieroglyphics were finally translated a quarter-century later. Since hieroglyphics are picture-writing rather than alpha-numeric, the usual decoding methods don't work in translating it. Common sounds don't necessarily show up as common characters, since two different words might be represented by two different images even though they shared similar sounds.

Today the Rosetta Stone is displayed in the British Museum. It was moved to Paris on the 150th anniversary of its discovery and displayed in the Louvre for a month. Egypt asked for it back in 2003 but the museum refused and sent them a replica. Given the unrest in Egypt over the last decade or so, that might have been a good idea.

Although it's incomplete because part of the stone has been lost, enough remains to be able to tell that it contains King Ptolemy V's "Memphis Decree." Modern NBA fans might be excused for thinking it says, "Play the kind of defense that your opponent will feel in the morning," but it is actually an expression of hope for the reign of Ptolemy V. Essentially, what might be the most famous text in the known world is a PR blurb.

Ptolemy V ascended to the throne at five following the death of his father and the murder of his mother -- who was also his aunt. His mother's murderers were his regents until a rebellious general gained control over him and persuaded him to order them killed, whereupon the general became the regent. Your second grade year was probably a lot calmer.

The Ptolemiads were one of the groups inheriting parts of the empire that Alexander the Great had conquered. The other two were stronger, and divvied up the overseas holdings of their weaker neighbor. One of them, Antiochus III the Great, gave his daughter Cleopatra (not that one) to Ptolemy in marriage as a part of the peace treaty. Either she was not easy to live with or Antiochus was an awful father-in-law, because when he was at war with Rome Ptolemy sided with the Romans. This proved wise; the Romans defeated Antiochus at the Battle of Magnesia (the Seleucids couldn't stomach the Roman attacks) and Antiochus died three years later trying to rebuild his power and treasury.

And you thought the Trumps and the Clintons were bad.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Right From Wrong

Astrophysics professor Matthew R. Buckley, one of the last people at Rutgers University who still thinks, decided to prove something he thought was true: Dark matter, the mysterious substance theorized to be the bulk of the universe's mass even though it can't be seen and has yet to be detected, couldn't form massive structures like planets.

Buckley figured that dark matter would not be able to release heat like normal or "baryonic" matter. It doesn't have photons like the everyday stuff does (one of the reasons it's dark and not detectable by any method that uses light), and photons play an important part in allowing clumps of atoms to relase the heat that they generate as they gather. If they don't release the heat, they can't solidify.

But if dark matter had a process to shed the heat, equivalent to electromagnetism in baryonic matter, for example, then it could clump together into large structures. It might even be able to form dark matter galaxies. They wouldn't last long, though, because among the other things baryonic matter has are forces that prevent gravity from collapsing its large clumps into black holes unless they are under extreme conditions like a supernova.

Dark matter planets, on the other hand, would be small enough that gravity wouldn't exert as much pressure on them and they would not collapse like a larger structure would.

Since dark matter emits no radiation, it would be almost impossible to find such a planet except by accident, such as being close enough to it to be affected by its gravity. And as Buckley points out, landing on one would be difficult. Despite our solid appearance, we are mostly empty space at an atomic scale (Insert Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders joke here according to your own personal preference). So is the Earth. Something called electrostatic repulsion keeps our atoms from sinking into the space between the Earth's atoms. But there would be no electrostatic repulsion between dark matter and baryonic matter, so we would just sink through to the center of the planet as its gravity drew us inward.

The speculation about a dark matter planet is pretty interesting, but one of the neat things to me was the way that Buckley and his colleague Anthony DiFranzo set out to prove one thing and wound up offering an entirely different idea when the evidence led them that way. Now that's science.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Who New

The announcement has been made, and the role of the 13th Doctor will be played for the first time by a woman, British actress Jodie Whittaker.

Internet entertainment sites seem full of people making fun of male fans who complain about casting a woman, although to be honest the profile of the complain posts seems quite a bit lower than that of the mockers up to this point. For my money, Hayley Atwell would probably have been the right choice, but her time as Peggy Carter in the Captain America movies and the Agent Carter television show may have made her too identifiable with another role for the comfort of the producers.

Whittaker has a number of things going for her. For one, she's 35 and in the BBC-TV video announcing her she definitely looks like a grown-up. Since the series returned in 2005, the most disastrous run has been the whiny emo 11th Doctor played by then 26-year-old Matt Smith. Stories about the Gallifreyan Time Lord work best when he -- and now she -- can project some aura of authority. They also have worked best when the Doctor's relationship with his -- and now her -- Companions is a bit parental. Smith's mopey crushes on his female Companions rang false with the character no matter how well he acted. Although the arc which has him marrying Companion River Song is an excellent example of how not to write a Doctor Who story, that's not really Smith's fault as much as the writers and showrunner Steven Moffat.

Whittaker also has some good credits behind her, most notably the dramatically weighty part of Beth Latimer on the BBC series Broadchurch. The mother of a murdered child is not an easy part to play, and had she done it poorly the series would not have been the hit it was.

Ultimately, the gender of the actor who plays an alien being able to move around through time and coincidentally takes on a new form every time the actor involved quits the show is probably not important. If new showrunner Chris Chibnall, who worked with Whittaker on Broadchurch, understands that, then there's no reason Whittaker can't do well in the role. If Whittaker is simply the Doctor and projects the same level of authority that most of her male predecessors have done -- something women do all the time, on and off screen -- then complaints about her gender really will prove to be silly.

If, on the other hand, she is the Female Doctor, and her existence as a woman after 13 previous regenerations as a male is Something Very Important That Will Teach Us All, then Whittaker's casting is simply self-righteous virtue-signaling and will be a significant burden for her and the show's writers to overcome. Paul McGann holds the title for the least amount of time playing the Doctor, working primarily in one 1996 television movie as the 8th Doctor. If Chibnall and other producers cast Whittaker solely to Make a Statement and they follow that up by paying no attention to what makes the Doctor the Doctor, then there's a good chance she'll compete with him.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Seeing Clearly

On the night that Donald Trump was elected, I posted a Facebook status expressing gladness that since Gary Johnson appeared on my ballot, I could vote for someone who was merely mediocre instead demonstrably unfit of character for the office of President of the United States.

A friend of 35 years unfriended and blocked me within five minutes of the post. She was "sickened" by my vote and "feared for our country" because of Pres. Trump's win. Blocked, I didn't have the chance to tell her I would respect her choice and wish her well, and that I considered the loss to be mine. I can't say that the outcome of that election made me all that happy either, but fearful for our country?

As long as it has people like these who banded together to help strangers in dire need, not a chance in hell of that, sweetheart.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Closer Look

The real question scientists need to solve when they examine their new photos of Jupiter's Great Red Spot -- a massive storm which could easily swallow our planet -- is whether or not the Juno's photos also show several native Jovian life forms standing on their porches and watching it approach.

If so, it seems very likely that we would be able to communicate with them.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Test Pattern

At camp. Internet spotty. Posting intermittent. Back for sure on Friday, maybe once or twice in between.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Page and Screen

The original Logan's Run novel is a good lesson in how science fiction can get caught by events, even when it's set in the future. William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson's 1967 novel extrapolates from the swell of young people seen in the Baby Boom and the pressure of overpopulation to set its stage. In this world, the 20th century closes with a revolt by teens and young adults, who make up more than 80 percent of the six billion people on the planet. Unwilling to accept their elders' plans to force families to stop at one child, they instead institute a regime of mandatory state-conducted suicide at the age of 21. The execution of everyone over that age and handing control of society over to a supercomputer called the Thinker cements the system in place. "Deep Sleep" operatives or "Sandmen" enforce this ultimate law, hunting down and killing anyone who does not report for death on their 21st birthday.

Logan 3 is a Sandman, loyal to the system although questioning the purpose of the hedonistic society he's supposedly protecting. When he meets Jessica 6, the sister of a runner he hunted, his questions deepen. And then his own Lastday happens, and Logan decides he himself will Run and seek a safe haven called Sanctuary, beyond the reach of Sandmen and the Thinker, where people can live out a normal lifespan.

Nolan has said one of the points of the novel is demonstrating how a society without age lacks any kind of roots or sense of understanding. The beginning chapters help demonstrate this idea to a degree, but it fades away into an echo once Logan and Jessica begin running. At that point, the novel turns into a long high-tension chase sequence. We get hints of the empty pleasure-seeking that's fueling the ennui of their society. We see some unusual aspects of the society that pairs Brave New World license with Nineteen Eighty-Four groupthink. But they remain mostly hints, as Nolan and Johnson press the pedal to the floor and run Logan and Jessica through one peril after another.

Some aspects of Logan's world offer food for thought. The aforementioned inability to grow or build anything when life is ended just as mature thought and innovation begin to develop is one. The emptiness of pure libertinism is another. But the main lessons turned out to be a miss. Nolan and Johnson wrote in 1967, as youth unrest began peaking and showed signs of some of the violence that would end that decade and begin the next. They extrapolated the increase in young people and the pressure of population growth, but didn't anticipate the effect of abortion and birth control on birth rates in First World countries. They also overestimated the effects of population pressure, seeing the crisis point at 6 billion. That figure was reached in 1999, a year earlier than they suggested, but did not provoke a global revolt.

Overtaken by the real world, Logan's Run winds up as an interesting sci-fi page turner, a little deeper than average but ultimately less impactful than the movie made from it.
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Said movie was made almost a decade later, and reflects the reality that some of the people who said never trust anyone over 30 had passed that milestone and found themselves surprisingly trustworthy. Screenwriter David Zelag Goodman tweaked the Nolan-Johnson novel in several respects. The mandatory age of death was 30, rather than 21. Humanity was confined to a single domed city instead of spread out across the world, probably as protection against some unnamed holocaust. And rather than a quiet death from toxic gas, a ritual spectacle called Carrousel supposedly offered a chance for a kind of reincarnation called Renewal.

Michael York plays Logan 5, still a Sandman but one now artificially aged to his Lastday in order to infiltrate an Underground Railroad-type organization offering Sanctuary to Runners. Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter), has some connection to the Sanctuary operation but is appealing to Logan in other ways as well. He begins by using her to gain access to the Sanctuary operation but eventually changes to go on the run for real and develops real feelings for her. They find a path to the world outside the City and are forced to deal with how much of the life they have known is a lie. Logan's former partner, Francis 7 (Richard Jordan), has pursued them and they will have to confront him as well.

York, Agutter and Jordan are all quality actors and generally handle their material well. They sometimes overmatch it and York especially is pushed into the kind of scenery-chewing reserved for William Shatner. Peter Ustinov is amusing and interesting as the Old Man they encounter in the ruins of Washington, D.C., but his role is more or less decoration. Agutter's character starts out with some depth and potential interest, but once the chase begins in earnest she has less and less chance to steer the action.

Most people who write about the move Logan's Run mock the 1970s-era special effects, which do look horribly dated by today's standards. The City is obviously a miniature, and Roscoe Lee Browne's teeth and lower face show plainly beneath his android costume. But it pioneered several advances, including the use of holograms and Dolby stereo sound on 70mm prints. The Carrousel sequence featured more than two dozen wire-lifted performers and was easily the most complicated scene of its kind.

Johnson, who passed away in 2015, seems rarely to have commented on the movie. Nolan frequently mentioned his dislike of it and the changes in the screenplay. But several of them, such as corralling the setting to a single city and introducing a hazardous Outside, impart to the story more logic than did the novel. And some others had to happen to get the story onscreen -- keeping the upper age limit at 21 might have meant shooting the movie with Danny Bonaduce and Maureen McCormick. Not to mention a complete rethinking of the decadence and hedonism against which Logan reacts; none of that would have been filmable with an under-21 cast.

The movie Logan's Run has a little more staying power than the book, primarily as an early example of some of today's well-developed film technology and as a precursor to the big sci-fi silver screen breakthrough that Star Wars would kick off the next year. Absent those characteristics, though, it also remains dialed in as a solid "a little better than average."

Friday, July 7, 2017

In the Event of a Water Landing

Technically, it would be a methane landing, because that substance is liquid at the temperatures on Saturn's moon Titan.

But the calmness of those lakes means that probes that might eventually be sent to Titan would have a whole other range of options about their touchdown. On the other hand, any errors in landing could lead to the strange phenomenon of a spaceship reaching its destination only to flounder because of some mistake, design flaw or unforeseen accident. It's not every day you'd lose a satellite to Davy Jones.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Not Getting It

The key factor of this story is not how Home Depot is reconsidering their dismissal of an employee who followed a kidnapper to keep an eye on his location for police.

It's not how the guy got let go because this was his second writeup in a month, meaning it was not just this particular violation of safety policy that got him canned.

Nor is it how companies create policies that mandate employees not try to thwart crimes -- which makes sense if the crime is someone in the store with a gun but not so much when they shadow the criminal from a distance at the suggestion of the police dispatcher.

No, the key factor is that someone to whom Home Depot pays money was dumb enough to fire a guy who helped stop a child abduction. Policy, shmolicy -- if I'm a manager, I'm letting this one slide because even Bashir Assad recognizes what a bad move it is, PR-wise, to fire a guy who helped stop a child abduction. Perhaps the wrong employee's status is being reviewed.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Hot Dogs and Apple Pie Included

For the last nine years, the Iowa Cubs AAA baseball team has hosted a special naturalization ceremony on July 4. This year 30 people from 19 different countries became citizens at Principal Park in Des Moines. It's hard to get more American than that.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

There's Gonna Be Fireworks

Thanks to writer Lynn Ahrens and singer Grady Tate, we can celebrate our national holiday with some style. Magna Carta's cool and all, but it doesn't swing like this:

 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Location Location Location

In a few billion years, there will be no doubt about the reality of climate change or the culprit thereof: The sun will have started expanding and heating up. Sometime between 1,000,002,017 and 2,000,002,017, the Earth's mean surface temperature will be hot enough to boil water, because the sun's energy output will have increased over that time.

This is before the sun expands in a planetary nebula and pretty much cooks the planet to a cinder.

Ethan Siegel, writing at Forbes' "Starts With a Bang" science blog, considers a reader question about a way to deal with the problem. Could we move the planet out of the neighborhood, to the point where all of our water wouldn't turn into Bernie Sanders/Donald Trump exhalations and leave us with the frightening possibility that Chris Christie could decide our baked lawn was his new favorite sunning spot?

Shuffling off to a new orbit would have the advantage of requiring little maintenance, Siegel points out. Once we've moved, we've moved. Space- or atmosphere-based solutions that would reflect more of the sun's energy and keep us cooler would need to be kept up, and one failure could be catastrophic. Terraforming Mars would also require a lot of care and attention, since the same things that caused the Red Planet to lose its atmosphere and water a few billion years ago are still present. Mars is too small to hold a thick atmosphere without help.

On the other hand, as Siegel describes the engineering involved, moving something as big as a planet might be physically possible but practically impossible. Moving the Earth might cause more damage than the project was trying to prevent.

Of course, the likelihood is than in a billion years or so whatever critters we've turned into have probably become smart enough to be ready to bail off this rock when it gets unlivable. That us, unless evolutionary processes have failed to rid us of non-survival characteristics like the appendix and Congress. If we still have those we're doomed.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

What a Glorious Time to be Free

An overlooked item of July First-ness: Sixty years ago, scientists from 67 countries began an 18-month cooperative venture called the International Geophysical Year. The idea was to share data and team up for experiments by allowing scientists from other countries to bring their expertise to other nations' observational sites.

I mostly remember it as the source for much of the data I read in the children's science book "All About" series. In his first solo album in 1982, former Steely Dan songwriter, pianist and singer recorded a semi-wistful remembering of what the future was supposed to look like during the years of his childhood. He titled the song "I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)." It is perhaps the only Billboard Hot 100-charting song written about scientific research, and the post title is taken from a line in the refrain. Both the idea and the song remain pretty cool today, sixty and thirty-five years later, respectively.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

July 1

-- Today in 1963, the United States Post Office began using ZIP codes. The ZIP initially stood for "Zone Improvement Plan," because the new five-digit codes were supposed to make mail easier to deliver than the older city-only Postal Codes. ZIP codes were made mandatory a few years later, and the ZIP+4 began to be used in 1983.

-- Today in 1867, Canada was created when the British Parliament enacted the British North American Act (later called the Constitution Act). It united three separate colonies into a Dominion, which gave them the status of a separate nation within the British Empire. Good day, eh?

-- Although it will technically begin on Monday, July 1 is usually marks the start of the fiscal year for most state and federal government entities. So if you live in Illinois, you're about to watch your state government become a worse investment than those offered by the famed Nigerian barrister e-mails. Rumors that Abraham Lincoln's spirit was seen wandering the halls of the Illinois capitol saying, "I'm from Kentucky, dammit!" are as yet unconfirmed.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Tempest in a (Sewage-Filled) Teapot

We are currently in a lather about a tweet from President Trump. No, another one.

Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski had tweeted something earlier this week about the President, who responded with a tweet mocking her and co-host/fiance Joe Scarborough. He suggested they had been begging him for a visit to his Mar-a-Largo resort but he had refused them, saying that Brzezinski was bleeding after plastic surgery.

Scarborough and Brzezinski wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post this morning, refuting the president's claims and supplying evidence for their version of events. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said the tweet hurt attempts to create a more civil tone in Congress and said he did not see it as an "appropriate comment." Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee called on Trump to resign. A little-known blogger with the picture of an angry wet cat as his header thought everyone should shut up already.

And I really do, because I don't care in the slightest about this entire episode.

I don't mean that I think the president's tweet is acceptable -- it's not. It's beneath the dignity of the office and demonstrates that Donald Trump is unfit for that office. But we knew that already. We knew that every time he made noise in earlier election cycles about running, we knew that when he became a candidate, we knew that when he won primaries, we knew that when he won the nomination and we knew that when he won the election. I'm not going to bother to look up what percentage of the people who voted for him did so because they genuinely saw him as the lesser of two evils -- or perhaps saw Hillary Clinton as the more evil of two lessers -- but I'm betting it's high. I personally believe Trump somehow thinks he's being funny when he does this crap, but his grade-Z Rickles reject insults -- Mika had a facelift 'cause middle-aged chicks worry about their looks and she's 50, yuk-yuk -- don't even have that going for them. Anyone who needed this particular tweet to understand that Donald Trump is unfit to be the president of the United States has not paid attention. Ever.

Nor do I think that Scarborough and Brzezinski -- who always make me think I've woken up in one of those Friends alternative timelines, where Chandler and Phoebe were the two who got together and became TV pundits -- are some sort of martyrs. They gave the Trump candidacy plenty of oxygen early on, making it harder and harder for legitimate candidates to actually offer reasons why we should support them. You built ze monster, Joe und Mika, so you deal mit him! Scarborough had an unremarkable three terms representing Florida's 1st Congressional District and Brzezinksi worked in television news, and there's nothing about either of them that merits the president's harsh and inappropriate tweets. But his harsh and inappropriate tweets don't suddenly elevate them, either.

I want Paul Ryan to pipe down because he needs to be too busy running the House of Representatives to bother with the media firestorm over irrelevant crap like this. The White House is not going to be a major supplier of adults in the room, Rep. Ryan, so you need to step up. I want Sheila Jackson Lee -- who has said we've landed on Mars, the United States is 400 years old, hurricane names are too white and has some of the highest staff turnover in Washington -- to pipe down because I dislike remembering that 150,000 people will vote for her.

Most of all, I don't care about the president's nasty tweets because I'm more concerned about his incoherent foreign policy, his foolishly protectionist trade policy, his shaky grasp of basic economics, his inconsistency on issues like immigration and health care policies and a host of others. Despite a few bright spots like James Mattis, Neil Gorsuch, Nikki Haley and probably Jerome Adams, President Trump is already building his Democratic opponents a solid case in the 2018 elections. Compared to these things, the tweets mean less than the product that comes out of the other end of the bird.

I'm a lot more concerned with how lousy a president he's making than how lousy a human being he is.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

From the Rental Vault: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Movie fans sometimes label the years from 1989 to 1999 as a "Disney Renaissance." Sparked by the critical and commercial success of The Little Mermaid, the Mouse House hit the screens with 10 movies during that time period, several of which rank among their best-known products and rival those created during the studio heyday of Walt Disney's lifetime.

One feature of most of these renaissance-era releases is the use of well-known actors as the voice cast, with the standout example being Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin. Demi Moore and Kevin Kline were probably the best-known names in the 1996 release The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with title character Tom Hulce rounding out the marquee names. But Notre Dame is sometimes the forgotten cast member of the renaissance show, eclipsed by Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.

It's not hard to see why; it's pretty easily the most "adult" of the list, with references to ideas like infanticide, lust, attempted mass murder and damnation. Esmeralda, the character voiced by Moore, seems to have spent more time studying with Jessica Rabbit than Snow White, and Kevin Kline's Captain Phoebus acts quite aware of the difference. "Look at that disgusting display," huffs his superior, Judge Claude Frollo, when seeing the Gypsy Esmeralda dance. "Yes sir!" Phoebus replies, raising his helmet visor for a better view.

The story is based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, although there are some new characters added and the ultimate fate of several others is changed. Probably for the best, or else Disney might have been sued by the parents of some severely traumatized children. Killing Bambi's mom is nothing compared to what goes on in Hugo's book.

Quasimodo (Hulce), is orphaned when Frollo (Tony Jay), pursuing his Gypsy mother to arrest her, causes her death. Frollo is about to kill the baby when the Notre Dame cathedral archdeacon confronts him, forcing him to let the malformed baby live. Frollo agrees, on the condition that the boy live at the cathedral and never go into the outside world. He grows to become the bell-ringer, befriended by three stone gargoyles who help make his life enjoyable -- and who provide proper Disney comic relief. Many years later, Frollo seeks military reinforcements to either eliminate the Gypsies or drive them from Paris. His new officer, Phoebus, is uneasy with this work from the start and, growing deeply fond of Esmeralda, decides to work against Frollo. Quasimodo winds up working with him when his own crush on Esmeralda endangers her and draws Frollo's wrath.

As mentioned above, Notre Dame is probably one of the most adult-level animated movies Disney produced during its history, and certainly during the renaissance decade. Mulan had massive battles and Pocahontas the threatened execution of John Smith, but neither had Notre Dame's undercurrents of Frollo's genocidal hatred of the Gypsies and his lust for Esmeralda. But that greater maturity may make give it a more lasting impact than some of the other renaissance-era movies and certainly helps elevate its quality.

It's by no means perfect -- during production Moore took her best shot but eventually told producers her husky voice was not equal to the task of her single song, "God Bless the Outcasts." Singer Heidi Mollenhauer doubled her and has a great voice, but her performance is really too smooth to match the tone of Moore's spoken lines.

Even at only 91 minutes, the movie drags, probably having one song too many. My vote for eviction goes to "A Guy Like You." The comic-relief gargoyles don't fit as well into the storyline as the Beast's enchanted housewares, and this number featuring them really emphasizes how their presence and antics don't match the tone of the rest of the movie.

And (spoiler alert!) Disney wimps out in the end by having the beautiful Esmeralda fall in love with the handsome Phoebus instead of Quasimodo. The studio often touts its support of diversity. But when given the opportunity to actually be brave enough to have a movie about how un-beautiful surfaces may cover kind and beautiful souls follow through on its premise, creators chicken out. Yes, Quasimodo's unrequited love is handled gently and with dignity. But the move is inconsistent with everything we've been told for the previous 50 minutes and robs Esmeralda of some of the depth and quality of her character.

Even with those flaws, though, Notre Dame is rightfully a part of Disney's decade-long string of hits that marked the end of the hand-drawn animation era for American studios and the beginning of digital and CGI work. And the time spent with Quasi, Esmeralda and Phoebus is not wasted, either on an entertainment level or in sparking some reflection on how we answer, "Who is the monster and who is the man?"

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Flight of Fancy

Alaska Airlines has chartered a flight that will zip above the clouds to watch the coming total solar eclipse that will be seen in the United States on August 21.

They're not selling tickets, although a special giveaway next month will make two seats available to the general public. The rest of the passengers will be selected astronomers and guests.

I'd most certainly love to be on that flight. Observing an eclipse from 35,000 feet would rank up in the cool range of life experiences.

But there's something even more amazing about the flight. Something that makes it even more appealing in the days of modern air travel, which in the eyes of most people who have to do it, sucks.

Alaska Airlines will use an airliner that has 181 seat capacity, but they're limiting the passengers in order that everyone gets the chance to view the eclipse. So there will be fewer than 100 people on this 181-passenger craft, guaranteeing something rarer than a total eclipse:

Legroom.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Good Ol' Social Media

Helping ruin lives and discourage people from helping others in need! It's the best way to enable people who don't know much not only demonstrate that conclusively, but harm others in the bargain!

Monday, June 26, 2017

A New World

Twenty years ago, Bloomsbury Press let loose a first novel by an unemployed single mother, and a whole lot of things happened because of it. The writer was J. K. Rowling and her children's book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Four years after the book came the first movie, which made international stars of Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry, and Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger. Rupert Grint, who played Ron Weasley, has kept working as an actor but has a lower profile than his former castmates.

Stone, which swapped Philosopher for Sorcerer when it crossed the Atlantic to the United States (that anniversary will be next year), was the first of seven books telling the story of Harry, "the boy who lived." As an infant, he survived a magical attack by the evil Lord Voldemort that killed his parents. In order to keep him safe from Voldemort -- who seems to have disappeared, but no one is sure -- Harry is kept out of the world of magic and magicians, and given to his non-magical or "Muggle" aunt and uncle. But when he turns 11 and comes of age to study magic at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, school officials summon him to begin, and he takes his first step into a much larger world than he dreamed existed.

Harry also learns of the evil Voldemort and his role in the deaths of Harry's parents. He meets Hermione and Ron and school headmaster Albus Dumbledore, as well as antagonists like Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy. Rowling has a number of delightful scenes showcasing Hogwarts' quirky take on the English boarding school and succeeds in making her central trio of friends utterly charming young people who are easy to root for as they learn and grow through their own courage and determination.

Stone is often classified as a "young adult" book, but it's a better fit in the children's section. The character names telegraph character -- Malfoy's associates are named Crabbe and Goyle, and the teacher who is hardest on Harry is named Snape -- and both the action and the pace are more fit for late tween and early teen readers. The epic conflict that comes in later books is only hinted at in this first one, which fits well because the bulk of the protagonists are themselves 11 and 12. Rowling does an excellent job of giving them properly "childish" roles and adventures in this great struggle -- the extremes and high stakes of the later books would ring untrue with these characters on stage.

But by the same token, Stone shows one of the bricks that will be used to build the character of the people who confront Voldemort more directly as they get older and more powerful. Intentionally or not, Rowling pitches each book at a little bit more mature level as the thinking and responsibility of her main characters matures. The later books don't lose her central vision of what it takes to confront the reality of evil although they do have to haul around the extra pounds of their bestseller's bloat.

Harry and his friends probably helped keep more kids than we can count interested in the idea of reading instead of diving into a screen somewhere. Although others have done it with more art and a smaller page count, Rowling presents a vision of how building good character in the young helps them confront the challenges they face as they enter adulthood -- even if that challenge is the most powerful evil wizard in centuries and taking him on might cost you everything.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Liftoff! Liftoff!

Sometimes Elon Musk sounds like a twit, but his company SpaceX has just launched and landed two rockets into orbit in the last 48 hours.

Cool stuff in space may yet happen before I die.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Grown-Up Problems

Writing at The Spectator, Lara Prendergast notes how a lot of the political commentary thrown about in recent years tends to cast things into terms taken from Harry Potter books and films. She points out that it's not particularly useful way of framing debate, and I think she's definitely onto something.

Throughout Twitter, Facebook political posts and sometimes online opinion pieces, there is no end to labeling President Donald Trump, for example, as Harry's evil enemy, Lord Voldemort. And that does exactly bupkis in addressing the real flaws with Pres. Trump's agenda and actions. His protection-minded trade policy is a serious problem with the one and his inability to shut off his damn Twitter is one with the other. Conservative or libertarian folks disagree with him on those matters and might find common cause with some liberal or progressive people in working against the president. But how do you work with someone who, instead of articulating a position, reposts a meme putting the famed orange mane atop a picture of Ralph Fiennes in full Voldemort make-up? How do you coordinate legislative strategy with people who plan on a mass mooning of a presidential motorcade?

This isn't new. Comic book artist Alex Ross painted a scene in 2006 showing then-president George W. Bush as a vampire biting the neck of the Statue of Liberty. Now, did the Patriot Act and other forms of post-9/11 surveillance need some talking about now and again? Of course. Regular review of a whole lot of government actions is a good idea, and especially of ones that hold so much potential for abuse. And you would not have to talk to too many conservatives before you find some who would enthusiastically support such reviews. Did Ross's painting contribute to that discussion in any way? Nope.

Prendergast closes by pointing out that the world is too complicated to be dealt with by a Sorting Hat. Bingo. Things like that trade policy misconception mentioned above will take some real work and real thought to be thwarted -- and neither Harry, Dumbledore or J.K. Rowling herself are going to be much help.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Put Down the Shovel

Earlier this year, Marvel Comics canceled a couple of titles written by some well-known political and cultural writers, such as Ta-nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay. At the time, a company official decided to demonstrate how easily he could place both feet in his mouth by saying that buyers simply weren't interested in the diversity-emphasizing titles that his company was publishing. I have no idea if that's true or not, but it's a dumb thing to say.

I wonder, though, if readers might have some more interest in Hispanic or African-American heroes if they weren't such obvious attempts to pander to a way of thinking that wants them. A lot of readers might be interested in a Hispanic hero, but are they really happy when that hero blows up years of continuity by taking on the role of Spider-Man? The diversity may or may not be a problem, but the obvious smell of a stunt storyline almost certainly is.

Which brings us to Captain America as a Hydra agent, a recent storyline that has turned Steve Rogers into one of the evil organization's top fighters. It involves time-travel and a lot of silliness, and it is almost universally hated. But the tone-deaf leadership of the company isn't finished with it yet, although it's trying to tease some kind of resolution to bring back the real Captain America -- sometime.

The problem? A lot of readers are just tired of waiting for the company to wake up to their mistake and fix it. The writer at The Mary Sue is a little on the snarky side, but I'm betting her complaint is widely shared: Stop teasing us by saying you might end this ridiculous storyline soon and just end it, because we're pretty close to not caring and not picking up the title once it gets back to where it should be.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Han's Older Brother, Chuck, Was Never Seen Again

For some reason, we're going to get a Han Solo Star Wars movie that shows Han's story before he meets Luke, Obi-Wan and the crew. It's a movie that has to clear a very high bar of "Why is this here?" to clear. Which means that the Lucasfilm/Disney people running it are holding some pretty tight reins, and among those people are Kathleen Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan. Both of them have a decent track record of creating crowd-pleaser movies that are often high-quality as well.

Initially, the thought seemed to be to shake things up a bit by hiring the maverick directing duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Lord and Miller have worked mostly on comedies, and it apparently their vision of the movie leaned comedic. Kasdan, who helped write Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back and is sometimes credited for saving the whole Star Wars franchise from George Lucas' excesses, felt the character was not comedic, but quite a bit more selfish and sarcastic. Push came to shove, and producer Kennedy backed her longtime colleague. Lord and Miller were fired this week. Ron Howard has been tapped to finish the movie.

Lord and Miller themselves have been professional and gracious in their on-the-record comments following being let go. A lot of reaction on some of the entertainment news sites is less so, as Howard is viewed as a "safer" choice than they were and less likely to test the Star Wars universe with something different. More than one writer lamented the change, with some equating the Lord and Miller Solo with Edgar Wright's aborted run on Ant-Man.

Now, I think this is a movie that has no reason whatsoever to exist, but that's because I'm not a Disney shareholder. Even though I'm a Star Wars fan and I enjoyed Rogue One, I'm still on the fence about whether or not I'll see any of these prequels in the theater. After all, "Star Wars" and "prequel" don't inspire confidence already. But we'll see.

In any event, I have to wonder about the complaints. On the one hand, we've got a director who's responsible for Splash, Cocoon, Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, among others. On the other, we've got a duo who have directed four movies, one of which is the entertaining The Lego Movie but two of which are 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street. Nothing says Lord and Miller would have bombed or made an awful movie but at worst this is an even swap and is more likely a trade up. I'm still a lot more likely to wait for this to hit Netflix, but now I might not have a backup rental downloaded for the treadmill in case it stinks too bad to finish.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Present, Future, Past

I'll pay my irony fine first and note that I lean skeptical about the value of the internet in solving a whole lot of issues that face us in today's world. I hold social media activism to be almost completely ineffective -- it mostly seems to work as a way of bullying private citizens who've said unpopular things or done stupid stuff. I live and work in areas of my state that don't always have the latest and fastest zippadeedillion-MbPS connections and among people who were born way too early for the benefits the online world offers. I think the failure of Los Angeles schools' "buy every student an iPad" was the most instruction that superintendent had done in years.

So you'd think that Andrew Keen's The Internet Is Not the Answer would be right up my alley. And although it's got a lot to recommend it, much of the complaint that Keen levels against the online world varies between snootery and lamenting the post-bovine exodus notice of the barn door position.

The first section of Answer outlines the creation of the technology and software that eventually became our modern internet, highlighting different milestones along the way such as the development of browsers and the interactive "Web 2.0" that allowed online retail to take off. Keen suggests the originators of the internet's "prehistoric" ancestors in the 1940s through the 1980s were motivated by Cold War concerns and desires to spread knowledge and information around as widely as possible. But most of the modern features of our online world have come from people who saw the potential to make a whole lot of money. Keen may not like this, but short of government ownership of the internet, it's hard to see many other ways it could have developed. And although the monetized internet presents several problems, it does in fact help solve a lot of others and allow more people to access more information and benefits than they ever have.

Keen also includes another lament against the way that modern technology has allowed folks to flood the marketplace with music, books, articles and such that aren't very good, drowning some of the better art and creativity in mediocrity. Video processing technology means that anyone with a few thousand dollars can pretend to be Steven Spielberg with a camera, but not everyone with a few thousand dollars has Spielberg's vision and gifts. A lot of these kinds of complaints amount to a lament that the barbarians are no longer at the gates -- they've bought the house next door and are decorating their mailbox with the skulls of their vanquished foes. But who is Keen to judge who are barbarians, who are not and whether or not that skull-sculpture is actually more interesting than whatever the community art collective stuck in the window of its subsidized downtown loft?

Keen's strongest points address things like way that many of these companies make immense profits from data we give them for free, and how the game is rigged against people who figure the company should pay them for the data. It leads him to suggest that, rather than an internet user Bill of Rights, we really need an internet entrepreneur's Bill of Responsibilities. But the success of the Volstead Act offers a pretty clear example of how easy it is to force or coerce people into being responsible. No, the internet isn't the answer. Until we get a clearer idea of just what question we're asking, though, figuring out any answer is going to be a tough job.
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Complaints against the modern university's production of weapons-grade balloon juice have been around for a long time, although they have mostly been the province of more conservative-minded folk. Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind gave respectable cover for people who would identify as liberal but who were seeing goofy ideas grab hold of their respective disciplines and render them inaccurate, distorted or in many cases, just plain silly. It's kind of interesting to look on some of those works some years down the line and see if their alarm was warranted.

The concepts of literary criticism and theory were beginning their inroads in 1997, when Australian history professor Keith Windschuttle published his The Killing of History. Although he would later move significantly rightward in his politics, Windschuttle was still a centrist when Killing was published. And like many moderate or leftist folks who have to confront views similar to their own taken to extremes, he seems somewhat at sea in parts of his argument.

Windschuttle's core claim is that folks who practice a broad range of politicized writing and study that's often lumped together as "theory" are exerting their influence on historical research and writing. His view as a historian is that such writing needs to communicate the central facts of its subjects in the clearest and most engaging manner possible. Writing about the Civil War as a whole, for example, needs to include things like major battles and some of the people and forces that played roles in them. A book focused on a diary of a poor farm family affected by Lincoln's 1863 conscription order lights up a small corner of that time, but someone who learns it backwards and forwards has not learned the history of the Civil War.

But the literary theorists and social critics were claiming that just that kind of change was needed to do "real history," and focus on the voices previously drowned out by the privileged few. Windschuttle acknowledges the gaps, but says reconstruction of the missing material is a job for a novelist, not a historian.

Windschuttle spends a lot of time explaining and exploring the roots of the theories that offer this new and to his mind, vague and often inaccurate form of history. He ventures into some very deep weeds in these sections, devoting a number of pages to critiquing, for example, the idea that Karl Popper's falsifiability model is useful for historical research. Some of these are far too jargon-rich for folks who don't work with history for a living, and Windschuttle writes in a mostly academic style that doesn't much leaven these pages.

More interesting to us in 2017 are Windschuttle's cautions against the ultimate result of history modified by theory and social criticism. When we see people insisting that statues be removed and building names be changed in order to wipe "unpleasant" history from our public view, we can see that although history ain't dead yet, it's got a pretty bad cough that it ought to see the doctor about.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Good Days Indeed

It occurs to me that in this mid-June, when we have the largest amount of sunlight available to us, we sports fans are also not distracted by basketball, football or hockey. We can therefore concentrate on baseball.

This seems quite appropriate to me, and worth enjoying.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Getting Closure

I am trying to figure out a reason not to shut Olympia, Washington's Evergreen State College down, burn the buildings, salt the earth and erect a memorial saying, "Here died free speech, common sense, the rule of law and Western civilization at the hands of thug toddlers, cowardly administrators and the fact that no one involved had a single damned clue."

I'm having a hard time doing so.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Happy Other D-Day!

In honor of Dad, who taught us many things.

Some of which he may regret:


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Dad of the Century

Just in time for Father's Day, some collected advice from Homer Simpson. Homer edged out Al Bundy this year, although Chicago's best-known high school football star turned shoe salesman is expected to make another strong run for Father of the Year in 2018.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Fairytale Wedding?

Ah, Internet! When you have almost convinced me that you are the province of troglodytes, the vacuous and those in need of the swiftest of kicks in the pants, you go and find something like this item.

A couple was taking their wedding photos on the street when a little girl walked by with her mother. Seeing the bride in her white wedding dress, the girl immediately thought she was the princess on the cover of her favorite book. Her new heroine posed for a couple of pictures with her and gave her a flower from her bouquet.

Shandace Lerma, Scott Robinson and their photographer Stephanie Cristalli make up for a whole lot of 140-character worthlessness. Kudos.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Growin' Up

A decade ago, columnist Diana West took aim at what was then a burgeoning flight from adulthood among 20-somethings in the United States and connected it to the nation's seeming inability to defend the civilization and culture that had created and strengthened it.

In The Death of the Grown-Up, West argued that the flowering of the Baby Boom generation in the 1950s began a national trend of focusing not on people with experience, wisdom and knowledge but instead on young people with angst, restlessness and a hankerin' for whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it. West suggests that the exaltation of youth culture, channeled through music and other entertainment media, reduced the appeal and importance of "grown-up" virtues like self-discipline and delayed gratification, with consequent cultural, societal, political and economic problems. And rather than self-correcting, society doubled down on its youth-ophilia to the degree that much of the entertainment, popular culture and advertising we see presupposes youthful and youthful-appearing-ness as not just a virtue but the height of virtues. So that now, when the edifice of Western civilization that created the freedom we all enjoy, is under attack, we can't defend it. And we might even be cooperating in pulling it down.

West scores a number of points and has quite a bit of fun with supposed adults who spend their time playing video games while living in their parents' basement. But she's a columnist writing a polemic rather than an in-depth look at a cultural phenomenon, and her attitude comes across as cranky rather than critical. One of her main worries seems to be that our lack of adulthood hamstrings us in the cultural battle with Islamicism and Islamist terror. That's certainly a point, but the kind of glorification of transience she deplores and comments against should trouble us whether we were in a cultural showdown or not. Plus the political correctness that she sees as the core of our current weakness doesn't really need adolescence to fuel it. West's rant is fun if you agree with her but empty if you don't, and offers little in the way of solutions beyond turning down the music, getting rid of the ball cap and getting a job. And staying off her lawn.
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Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, writing ten years later, is working the same field as West did, but his The Vanishing American Adult tackles its subject matter with significantly more seriousness and more focus on solutions than symptoms.

Sasse is a Harvard-educated historian who came to the Senate after a six-year term as president of Midland University. He also sees a generation failing to move beyond its adolescent infatuation with its own awesomeness, but he looks for historical causes and finds what he thinks to be solutions based on them. This isn't a scholarly work with a lot of footnotes, although there are endnotes for the curious and a moderate index.

Part of the problem, Sasse says, is that the very natural desire of parents to keep their children from harm has put them into situations where they have rarely, if ever, been forced to think for themselves, face hard choices, cope with adversity or endure hardship now in return for a gain later. The problem will boil down, as he moves through the book, to a culture that does not invest real time or self in anything it does, from vacationing to reading to work. The solution will come from reacquiring those habits, and that will happen at the direction of parents who want their children to be able to cope with life. Such moves will mean recovery of the understanding of adolescence it initially bore -- a transitional period when children acquire adult habits, understanding and skills -- and abandoning its current meaning as a goal to be reached and retained as long as plastic surgery and silliness make possible.

Sasse has a better handle on the real problem than West does and better ideas of how to counter it -- or at least, he has asked more questions of the problem in order to find its roots. A number of his ideas -- helping young people learn how to suffer, persevere and handle adversity instead of avoiding it, for example -- are on target. But in this book, anyway, he doesn't have much of a notion as to how these solutions can be applied to communities where none of the fabric of adulthood remains, such as devastated inner cities. He more or less acknowledges that but doesn't go much farther.

Vanishing is still a better book about the United States' eternal adolescence than is Death of the Grown-Up, and thinking about what it says much more likely to produce something concrete. It may not have everyone's roadmap out of the snowflake culture in which we seem inundated, but it's got a pretty good one for enough people to get things started and figure out how to help the rest.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Australian for "Turkey"

The old Foster's Lager "How to speak Australian" ad campaign would show pictures of sizable items and label them with a word for a much smaller item -- such as a picture of a shark with the word "guppy" -- then show one of the big Foster's "oilcans." "Fosters," the announcer would say. "Australian for 'beer.'"

When it comes to an extinct species of turkey, Progura gallinacea, the campaign may have been more on target than the company realized. The bird was as tall as a kangaroo and unlike modern turkeys, it could fly. The largest specimens found in the fossil record suggest a size of about 15 pounds, which is a goodly weight of flying bird and would have deterred the New England Puritans from feasting on it or doing anything else to irritate it.

But Progura lived in the Pleistocene Era, which ended just under 12,000 years ago, and so did not overlap humans during any period for which we have historical records. Which is probably just as well -- the practice of selling turkey legs at Renaissance fairs to simulate primitive barbarian food would have been significantly more difficult when said legs come from a critter as much as six feet tall.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Spies Like Us, Eh?

During the years of World War II before the United States entered the conflict, Canada proved to be a very useful partner in below-the-radar connections between the US, which it bordered, and Great Britain, of which it was a part. One such connection was Special Training School No. 103 on the northwest shores of Lake Ontario, colloquially known as "Camp X." Several hundred people were trained there for covert operations behind enemy lines during the war, taking full advantage of its prime location for relaying shortwave radio messages and its proximity to a wealth of French-speaking recruits in Quebec. A joint Canadian-Hungarian television show, premiering in 2015, showed a fictionalized version of the camp and the work of some of its recruits. X Company ended a three-season run in March.

The show focused on one team of agents operating first in France and then, for the final season, in Poland. It also involved a German officer and his wife, as well as agents back at the main camp in Canada. The hook for the first season was the attempt to integrate Alfred Graves (Jack Laskey) into the team, in order to take advantage of his photographic memory. But Alfred also suffers from synesthesia, and sudden loud noises or shocks can render him nearly catatonic. The gruff commander, Duncan Sinclair (Canadian TV mainstay Hugh Dillon), pushes Alfred onto a team over the objections of its leader Aurora Luft (Évelyne Brochu), propaganda guru Tom Cummings (Dustin Milligan), muscle man Neil Mackay (Warren Brown) and radio/tech whiz Harry James (Connor Price).

The first season concerned operations in the French countryside and near Paris in 1941 and early 1942. Different German leaders or scientists are about to develop something that could strengthen the German war effort and team members must discover their secrets or end their threat by more lethal means. The backdrop storyline is the risk Alfred's strengths and weaknesses pose for the team and the realization that a lost comrade may not be lost at all. Countering the work of the spies is Gestapo officer Franz Faber (Torben Liebrecht), who with his wife Sabine (Livia Matthes) has a son with Down's Syndrome -- something at best shameful and at worst treasonous for the perfect race of the Third Reich.

Season two picks up the pace as the team tries to gain the trust of the Fabers and gain intelligence from Franz. Aurora pretends to befriend Sabine by taking advantage of the young woman's loneliness, and other agents seek ways to protect the Jews remaining in Paris from being completely rounded up and sent off to a fate that rumor and whisper are beginning to suggest is unspeakable. The Germans mount a covert sabotage operation against Camp X, bringing some of the camp staff into play alongside Sinclair, especially his aide Krystina Breeland (Lara Jean Chorostecki). The arc of the season bends towards sabotaging Geman intelligence and strengthening French resistance groups to prepare for the August 1942 raid at Dieppe. With the right combination of circumstances, the Dieppe raid could have been the prelude to an invasion of Europe, but its disastrous results only showed the Allies how far they still had to go to be ready for that kind of move. The team is left shattered and separated in the wake of Dieppe's failure.

The final season opens with the remainder of the team at first working to establish new leadership for the French resistance, but that plan and storyline disappear by the second episode and we turn to a secret plan to increase German fuel production based in Poland. Franz and Sabine are being forced to work with the Allied spies, although not entirely unwillingly as they have come to realize the horror that the Nazi regime has imposed on their nation and its values. Aurora and Alfred must deal with their feelings for one another, and Neil faces the reality that brute strength alone can't solve the problems he's dealing with, either internally or externally.

Season one is easily the best, as Alfred's synesthsia more or less disappears in the final two seasons unless a writer remembers it. Both it and his eidetic memory are hinges for major plot and character issues for the entire team over the course of these eight episodes. Season two tries to deepen the characters as it introduces conflicts into their established roles and worldviews, but most of this is done without much grace and although talented, few of the cast can exceed their material. X Company definitely offers the idea that there were honorable German citizens who only wanted to serve their country and had no knowledge of the horrors behind the Nazi curtain. But it's a tepidly-made claim that relies mostly on supporting players. And its role in Faber's actions is made secondary to blackmail.

Season three is a hot mess, throwing aside much of two years' worth of character development in favor of a wrapping-up storyline that takes 10 episodes to tell a story better suited to five. Never rigorous in its concern with actual intelligence tradecraft, in season three X Company abandons all pretense of being about real spies instead of entertainment-biz spies. It abandons its connections to real or realistic WWII events for a glaringly fictional thriller MacGuffin that never convinces.

The season is salvaged by the same strengths that propelled it during the first two -- the world-class acting from the core of its international cast. The Canadian Brochu, English Laskey and Germans Liebrecht and Matthes are much better than the material they're handed and do much more with it than it deserves. Liebrecht and Matthes especially, with the greatest distances to bring their characters, are worth watching in the middle of the fast-forwarding that the rest of the season invites.

Which in the end is a very Canadian thing -- to politely offer the best part of something to someone else. And while this quartet, with some support from Brown, Chorostecki and Dillon, can't completely redeem a wrecked third season, they do enough to put the show as a whole into the plus column.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Taking the Number VIII Train

Geography buff and college student Sasha Trubetskoy studied some history along with his favorite subject, geography, to map out some of the roads the Roman Empire built across Europe.

He then drew them as a subway map:

You may note that while most roads lead eventually to Rome, not all of them do. The lines on the island of Sardinia serve only that island; to get from there to a road that does lead to Rome will require a boat. And while Cato the Elder may have worn himself out insisting Cartago delenda est, it remains a stop on the African coastal line due west of Sicily.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Changing Times

I finally did see Wonder Woman this weekend, and found it pretty darn good. But a curious thing has happened to previews shown before the movie begins. I've always understood them as a way to whet an audience's appetite for movies to be released.

But judging from what I saw, the movie studios very much want me to skip Rough Night, Wish Upon and quite a few others. Maybe I'm doing something wrong.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Bat-Signal Shines in Vain

Adam West, whose relatively brief portrayal of the Caped Crusader Batman in the late 1960s more or less ended his career as an actor while it offered him a whole new one as a celebrity, passed away Friday at 88.

West donned the intentionally campy version of the cape and cowl in 1966 for a version of the Batman story aiming at kids while serving up as much goofy fun as possible for the adults -- and no small amount of double entendre whenever Julie Newmar did her guest spot as Catwoman. The best way to describe it is that the show's creators and actors didn't take themselves or their parts seriously but played it as straight as an arrow for those who did -- mostly children.

Compare West's version to the 1940s Columbia serials Batman and Batman and Robin. The costumes, props, action and story are just about as silly as anything William Dozier and Lorenzo Semple, Jr came up with. Television's Joker Cesar Romero didn't shave his mustache and had white greasepaint failing to cover it up; in the 1949 Batman and Robin Johnny Duncan wears pink tights over his legs, which are rather more adultly hirsute than would be proper for Bruce Wayne's youthful ward, Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Robin, the Boy Wonder. But the Columbia pictures took themselves quite seriously. The small-screen version of Gotham City had a much more realistic view of what they were doing and thus both had and provided much more fun.

Adam West was a big part of that. You have to wonder if his ability to be the butt of a joke helped him when he found out that after the show ended, he couldn't get many roles anymore, and wound up living off that short three seasons of work from 50 years ago. Actors have been known to take themselves waaaaaay too seriously (such as, say, Leonardo DiCaprio on climate or Ted Nugent on foreign policy). Maybe West's sense of humor helped him settle with the idea that he would spend the rest of his life talking about that one role, with a few things coming his way now and again that themselves mostly stemmed from the notoriety it brought.

Either way, he brought a whole lot of fun to a whole lot of people and that's not a bad legacy at all.

Friday, June 9, 2017

People Not to Go to the Movies With

Writing at The Washington Post, Sarah Pulliam Bailey notes how the ethnicity and religion of the star of the new Wonder Woman movie has put many cats amongst several sets of pigeons.

Gal Gadot is Israeli and Jewish. She served a two-year stint in the Israeli Defense Forces, a requirement for most citizens of her country. So naturally Lebanon banned the movie.

That's the start, as Bailey works her way through a mare's nest of opinions about what it means for a fictional character in a summer blockbuster to be played by a woman of a particular religion and ethnic background. Is she to be considered white? Is she an oppressor? Does intersectionality, a concept whereby one trumps another perceived victim by accumulating more victim categories, play a role in how we should feel about the movie's success and Gadot's stardom? Is the reality of a blockbuster with a woman at the top of the bill a triumph for women or a disaster for people of color and oppressed or potentially oppressed religious minorities because Gadot "looks" white? Or is she white, since Jewish people have been historically oppressed through much of history, mostly by evil Christians? Or since today's Israelis are themselves supposed to be evil oppressors in their modern nation-state, do we go back to seeing her as a non-victim again?

I have no idea, and even less interest. I finally plan on seeing the movie this weekend, and the only thing I will demand is that none of these people are in the auditorium when I do.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Test Pattern

Ah, moving! It doth cast the blog awry. Perhaps more anon.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Down, Dino


Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dino Paul Crocetti, better known as Dean Martin. Martin was an all-round showman, best known for his singing although he acted and hosted a variety show that displayed a pretty good comedic talent. He died on Christmas day in 1995.

The above cover is from his second full album, Pretty Baby, and may depict ol' Dean wondering what he can possibly do when faced with the temptation placed before him.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Fit to Remember


Thanks for saving Western civilization!

Monday, June 5, 2017

End Program

So 500 years after Marty Luther's little door redecoration, a church in Wittenberg, Germany, installed a "robot priest" to give blessings. It uses a touch screen, can dispense its words in five different languages and its hands light up.

There are a lot of responses to this exhibit, which the church says is mainly done as a way to spark discussion about technology's role in religious life and faith. One could note that this is, for many people, the perfect priest because it does only one thing: Bless them in a language of their choosing. In fact, for a significant slice of modern society, this idea represents their perfect God, since it would be a God who asked nothing of them and accepted everything they did as OK, no harm no foul.

It could be a sign that people almost always look for novelty spectacle instead of substance. You can print out the pre-recorded blessing the robot priest gave you, along with the scripture it quoted -- somehow that's way more exciting than the printed Bible that offers some context for that scripture?

All of those ideas occurred to me, but the one that jumped to the front was that this is all happening in Wittenberg, where Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the church door in his own bid to start debate and reform what he saw as a corrupted church hierarchy and theology. Is a society that oohs and aahs over something that's the functional equivalent of a Zoltar machine capable of handling a debate with almost 100 talking points? Or would the bottom of the sheet of paper be crowded with everybody's "TL;DR" notation?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Rumble in the Cosmos

The LIGO detectors in Washington and Louisiana "heard" its third gravity wave just after the first of the year, and researchers published the report late last month.

Albert Einstein's theory of relativity predicted that gravity would travel or propagate in waves, like light and radiation do. But gravity's weakness compared with the others meant those waves would be very tiny and almost impossible to detect. Which in fact they were up until the creation of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory a few years ago. Technology which wasn't even a dream during Einstein's lifetime has proved his theory to be largely correct.

Even this super-sensitive detector can catch only hints of the gravity waves that all objects have, as far as we know. And it catches them from amazingly powerful events, such as the orbital dance between two massive black holes, the most powerful gravitational sources we know. But technology will improve on the LIGO, so that smaller gravitational waves might be discovered. More study may even reveal that gravity has a wave-particle duality resembling that of light.

Now the universe has been weird for just about as long as human beings have lived in it -- and probably was before, but if intelligent life existed then it hasn't been talking. Thanks to the LIGO and subsequent and improved detectors, it seems like it's going to get weirder.