Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Good Night, Mr. Bond

When Roger Moore took over as James Bond in 1973's Live and Let Die, the franchise had been weathering some rough seas. Sean Connery quit after You Only Live Twice, to be followed by On Her Majesty's Secret Service with George Lazenby. Lazenby's performance satisfied no one, including himself, so a large check was waved in front of Connery to get him back for Diamonds Are Forever. He was done again. So Roger Moore, known at that point as television's Simon Templar from The Saint, took up the Walther PPK and license to kill, with the movies taking some more comedic turns to match the smoother and suaver Moore.

Everyone's got their own opinion, but I've held Live and Let Die and its successor The Man With the Golden Gun to be two of the weakest films in the franchise. They're nowhere near as bad as Moonraker or Die Another Day with Pierce Brosnan, but I can skip them without qualm. Things did not look good for the Moore era as Bond (Moore's final two outings, Octopussy and View to a Kill, are also forgettable).

But his other two entries, The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only, were two of the better movies in this long-lasting franchise. Moore kept his unflappable cool but the storylines, both of which involved strong female leads with driven agendas of their own, added just enough grit to give them some real impact. They bookend Moonraker, which indicates how important a decent story that's not too silly is to a Bond movie.

Moore had the ability to not take himself too seriously, which helped leaven the often-clunky narratives of the Bond movies. Even his turkeys have a few shining moments.

After finishing with Bond in 1985, Moore acted in a few movies and other roles but spent much of his time working for UNICEF and other charities. He died today at the age of 89.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Wheeere's Johnny?

A quarter of a century ago, the last real King of Late Night retired. His preferred successor, David Letterman, crashed and burned in a mess of predatory behavior towards interns and bitterness. NBC's chosen successor, Jay Leno, was good for little more than making sure Americans got their Recommended Daily Allowance of smarm and then some. None of the people who would now be on my television after 10:30 -- if I bothered to turn it on then -- are worth the movement of my finger on the remote.

Aaron Goldstein, writing at National Review, muses on Johnny Carson's manner of handling political humor. Carson made plenty of fun of politicians -- they are, after all, worthy of mockery in so many ways -- but his was an equal-opportunity snicker. He made fun of whoever was in the White House because that person was in the White House. He made fun of politicians who said or did dumb things because they did dumb things that could be made fun of. He opened his monologue on the Monday of his last week on the air by thanking Dan Quayle for making sure he'd have enough material for that last week by delivering the infamous "Murphy Brown speech."

But he viewed his platform as a place to tell jokes, not to try to bend things to his own political will. Carson's nephew, interviewed in the Goldstein article, says that Carson even eased up on the Richard Nixon jokes when told they were causing the 37th president to drink more heavily.

Would Carson have made fun of President Trump? Of course! He made fun of Private Citizen Trump when the self-proclaimed artist of the deal kept having to declare bankruptcy and decided that marriage was less of a commitment and more of a "Spin the Bottle" game. He would have made fun of Trump tweeting and giving seventeen different stories about the same event and not filling government posts and a host of other things that the 45th President is screwing up. But he also would have made fun of former President Obama, and former President Bush and former President Clinton and Al Gore and Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Vladimir Putin and...you get the idea.

Nobody would have ever called Carson "woke." But he didn't have to be. He was good -- at a level that the likes of Stevie Colbert and his oral sex jokes are unlikely to achieve. Or understand.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Malicious Math?

Of course, the issue is not that folks on the internet have a hard time solving this particular math puzzle. As the story at Mental Floss indicates, there's more than one way to do it and neither of them are just plain and simple.

No, the issue is that this poser was an extra credit problem on a first grade math test in Singapore, if the original poster is to be believed. It's possible, although I'm a little skeptical. But I might not have come up with anything like a decent guess in grade one through 12, so probably don't go by me.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Small Screen, Big Stage?

Adam Rogers, writing at Wired, suggests a good reason to look forward to the projected Star Trek: Discovery series due from CBS this fall.

Not the obligatory nod to the series' "wokeness" of having two women in the lead command positions -- that's neat but Voyager had a woman in command of the starship and it didn't make that series any better than meh most of the time. Kate Mulgrew is an excellent actress and the new show boasts Michelle Yeoh -- at least in the pilot -- but Kate couldn't save crap like these and if the same sort of stuff comes with the new show it might be best to leave it an undiscovered country.

Nor, judging from the trailer, is the key in the look of the show. It appears the showrunners like J. J. Abrams' lens flare schtick and we seem to be eyeing yet another redesign of the Klingons. Christopher Lloyd, Michael Dorn and Christopher Plummer weren't great Klingons because of makeup; they were great Klingons because they were good actors given good roles who ran with them (and in Plummer's case ate every bit of scenery set before him with relish and zest in the best Star Trek tradition). Michael Ansara, William Campbell and John Colicos were good with makeup and without, as were the stories that contained them. So again, we're back to waiting and seeing what we actually get for a show instead of marketing.

In my mind, the thing Rogers gets right is the greater viability of Star Trek as a television series rather than a movie franchise. While the first rebooted Trek movie was pretty good with a number of good moments, the sequels have offered literally no reason to watch them. The original Trek movies were hits because they featured our icons in new stories, up on the big screen with a big screen budget. Some of them were good as well as popular, with The Wrath of Khan standing out as a story worth the attention had there never been a Trek fandom or television series. The Next Generation movies highlighted the problem. Their finest hour, First Contact, was a solid story with fine acting, pacing and impact. Tweak it a little, swap the iconic Enterprise for another ship, switch the characters' names around and you could have just as good a movie as one with the NG cast.

Star Trek stories without the icons aren't "movie moments." And Rogers notes they're just big summer blockbusters with a couple of acts of tension-making before a big third-act FX splash. We don't know these versions of the characters the way we got to know them in three years of episodic television and so there's no real reason to care what they do unless the story provides one -- which the writers for those movies didn't do. Sure, we've had seven years of the new version, but only three "episodes" of their lives. Which puts us in the same place a 1966 audience was after "Where No Man Has Gone Before" aired on Sept. 22 of that year: With a lot of miles yet to be traveled.

Television, on the other hand, can offer extended time with characters so we can get to know them. Showrunners can build a world or, in this case, a new corner of a world we know. We can learn why we should care about Sonequa Martin-Green's Michael Burnham or Michelle Yeoh as Phillippa Georgiou.

So while I'll quibble with what I see as some of the sillier things Rogers says in his article, I'm in agreement that Discovery will put Star Trek back where it belongs and where the franchise as a whole has always fared best: On television.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Two Pounds of Pure Rage

I found the header picture for this blog doing a search once for "angry cat," and it was quite obviously one of those. The person who posted it didn't give it a title, but I've thought of a couple over time. "You should be running" is one. "Not enough killing in all the world to make me happy" is another. Because, frankly, this picture looks like a cat that plans to start killing when he gets out of the pool and stop when he's the only living creature left on the planet, and he'll still be ticked off.

His younger colleagues are featured at this post at Bored Panda. Their rage is cute because they are far too small to do any of the damage they want to do; it's hard to rip out throats when you're six inches tall.

No. 2 is kind of like what I imagine a Klingon would look like if it were eight weeks old and covered with fur. But my fave is No. 3, who looks as if it has just been awakened and is deciding whether to conquer the world or slaughter it -- and is thinking that conquering might be a little too much work:


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Impossible Non-Fiction

It may look like an old-fashioned item from Analog, but a purported vacation guidebook to the Solar System bases its listed attractions on the actual conditions of the planets and moons it lists.

The authors are scientists and use the latest data about our neighborhood to describe the possible sightseeing options for wherever you happen to find yourself. They take the license that we could actually right now travel to any of those places, which is the kind of sad part. But maybe someday, and anyway it's a cool-looking book. Once it's not just one more thing I'd have to pack, I might check it out.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Three-Fer

Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett feels a little bad about the way Dallas Cates wound up behind bars -- but since Dallas' family was a group of murdering psychopaths and attempted to kill several people, it's not a crippling level of remorse. Although Joe proved mistaken about Dallas' role in the attack on his daughter April, there were no mistakes about his role in the rest of the matter.

But now Dallas is out -- will he target Joe and his family for his own revenge? If he does, will the plot be straightforward or involve a more subtle line of attack? And can Joe, working with his friend Nate Romanowski, stop Dallas when he makes his move?

Those are all good questions, but C. J. Box doesn't summon a lot of vitality in answering them in Vicious Circle. His choice to make Dallas' plan a lot cleverer in Dallas' mind than in reality is a welcome one, since nothing we've seen about the man before now suggests he's some sort of criminal genius. And Joe does use some old-fashioned detective work to look for clues to mount his case against Dallas and his remaining family members. But the whole novel has a listless quality and most of the plot developments are telegraphed well before they happen, lessening any real suspense in the narrative. Now that Box has tied up the loose ends of the Cates family, here's hoping the next Pickett novel can find some oomph and feel a little less phoned in.
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Lucas Davenport is no longer an employee of the state of Minnesota, investigating its crimes. He's now a United States Deputy Marshal, given a sort of carte blanche to investigate the cases that interest him or where he can lend a special kind of expertise. A drug dealer ripoff in Biloxi, Mississippi that leaves behind five bodies -- including a child -- is just such a case. And when the scanty evidence points to a vicious and exceptionally skillful thief, Lucas is hooked.

But in Golden Prey, the 27th Davenport novel, Lucas is without his usual information conduits and extensive knowledge of his hunting ground and its residents. He knows Minnesota -- but he doesn't know the five states he'll visit to learn what he needs to know about his quarry. It will stretch his abilities in the hunt, and the presence of two cartel enforcers also tracking the stolen money means whatever clues and witnesses he might find could have a very short shelf life

John Sandford does use the new setting to his advantage in freshening what could have been a fairly standard chase story. Lucas himself wonders -- is he any good without his usual contacts and networks? Can he operate in a much less certain environment? These elements help redeem a rather confusing final act and offer hints of some potential as Lucas adjusts to his new role and situations.
-----
Ace Atkins continues to acquit himself well in extending the life of the late Robert B. Parker's iconic Spenser in Little White Lies as Spenser investigates a case brought to him by his girlfriend Susan Silverman.

Connie Kelly fell for a con man, but she wasn't the only one. M. Brooks Welles seems to have pulled the wool over a lot of eyes, passing himself off on television as an intelligence expert and ex-CIA operative. Of course, Connie was the one who wrote him a check for $300,000, and she would like Spenser to find Welles and get her money back.

When Spenser pursues the case, it turns out that Welles has plenty of secrets -- just not the ones he claims to have. It won't make much difference for Spenser, though, because some of the people with whom Welles shares his secrets are more than willing to get rough to keep them. They'll need to learn that getting rough with Spenser and his friend Hawk is a losing proposition.

As mentioned before, Atkins has done the best of the Parker legacy writers by writing the character of Spenser instead of just aping Parker's style. In this, his sixth outing with the cast, he's got firm hold of the way they interact and how to move their story forward. He delves a little into some backstory for Hawk, but not so much he dilutes the charismatic enforcer's impact. Atkins also handles the Spenser-Susan relationship well, navigating them through a potentially thorny conflict of interests as Spenser tries to learn how to help Connie without compromising Susan's professional ethics.

There's every potential for Atkins to step wrong -- as he's done in his own Quinn Colson series -- and Lies relies a little too much on storylines cribbed from some other Spenser novels. But it's still a good interpretation of our old friends and worth continuing to follow.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

First Step

There was a couple who posted YouTube videos of them "pranking" their children, but people who saw them said the so-called pranks were actually cruelty and abuse. Two of the children have been placed with their biological mother, and investigations are ongoing to determine status and placement for the others.

It's not for me to say whether the children should stay with the pranking parents or not, or what kind of monitoring should be done if they do (although I lean towards "pretty freakin' extensive"). But there's no doubt these were some pretty awful things, if what I've read of them is at all accurate, so someone should figure out what's going on.

And maybe throw in a "that's enough of that" to the jerks who post videos on Nov. 1 of the kids' reactions to being told Mom and Dad ate all the Halloween candy. There should be better ways to get your video shown on late-night television.

Monday, May 15, 2017

You Can't Do This on a Plane

Get pizza delivered when you're stuck, that is.

Passengers on a New York-to-Washington train were stuck in Delaware when the train quit working and apparently had little or no food and water for those on board. So some ingenious travelers ordered pizza from a delivery service in a nearby town, and the veteran delivery driver navigated the terrain to deliver the long-awaited pies.

Well, I suppose you might be able to call for pizza to be delivered if the plane is stuck on the tarmac or something, but airlines don't open the doors once the plan is away from the terminal. And United jets probably have .50 mm cannon turrets on the fuselage to nail Mr. Domino's before he gets too close.

On the other hand, when a train quits working it doesn't fall out of the sky. So maybe it's a wash.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Test Pattern

Packing, loading, driving, unloading, etc, and whatnot.

Back tomorrow.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Self-Evident

Someone asked me the other day why I don't go to see as many movies as I used to and why I wind up watching a lot of international stuff or non-theater releases on my iPad.

Well, I just read today that someone's getting paid to reboot the "Halloween" slasher franchise again. Yes. A third iteration of the hulking Michael Myers in his creepy white mask stabbing people. Wait, I'm sorry if that spoiled it for you; I realize there's a possibility that someone might go to a "Halloween" movie and not know it's about the creep in the white mask stabbing people.

And this isn't someone with a GoPro and a YouTube channel -- it's an actual Hollywood studio and actual Hollywood writers and directors. Sure, they were responsible for Pineapple Express, but that was a real live Hollywood release even if it did ace out all of its competition for Stupidest Damn Non-Electoral Thing of 2008.

Co-creator Danny McBride says they are attempting to remove some of the supernatural touches added to Michael Myers in later movies. Their Michael, he says, will not be some demonic being impossible to kill.

Yeah, if only. Look, if having Swill Czar Rob Zombie direct an iteration of your franchise can't kill it, then it really is an unstoppable force. But not supernatural. More like sewage.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Assorted

-- This item at Atlas Obscura notes that during the ramping up of railroad technology in the mid-19th century, there seemed to be a spate of madness aboard trains when they were in motion, Various causes were suggested: The motion affected the brain inside the head, the noise overwhelmed the senses and reason, and so on. Eventually, as no real cause was found and suspicion grew that the real problem was that some folks who boarded trains were a little off already. The phenomenon has recently arisen again in connection with a modern transportation system, flying, although in this case it's the frickin' owners who are crazy.

-- The last sentence in this Ask the Past item on how to improve your memory or at least avoid damaging it. Sayeth one Guglielmo Gratarolo in The Castle of Memorie about things that can be hurtful to the memory: "Also immoderate sleepe and violent vomiting." My undergraduate GPA is now explained.

-- Am I weird to think that a place called the American Writers Musuem would own some actual text artifacts?

-- The Spectator features an article by David Butterfield on ten commandments that a good public house or "pub" should live by. I can find no quibbles; in fact I may try to see how these might apply to the establishments operated by members of my own clerical profession.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Does Not Compute

Scientist Janelle Shane recently gave the neural computer network she developed the job of coming up with pickup lines. She did this by collecting many of them and feeding them into the network and seeing how well it could learn the technique.

Shane notes that the data collection process for this particular project was rather gross. In the end, the network was able to reproduce the basic formula but wound up stymied by the plays on words on which most of these lines depend. Some of its offerings made actual sense, although they may not have been what last-call lotharios would see as smooth: "Are you a candle? Because you are so hot of the looks with you." Or simple and direct, like, "I want to get my heart with you." "You look like a thing and I love you." And the always reliable, "Hello."

And some of them are incomprehensible: "Hey baby, I’m swirked to gave ever to say it for drive." Or "If I had a rose for every time I thought of you, I have a price tighting."

On the other hand, some of those latter lines could intrigue a lady more than the supposedly smoother come-ons. She might want to hang around to see just what the heck you were talking about, or what wild phrase you might come up with next.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Little Refresher

Three minutes and nine seconds of pure cool, thanks to Brother Ray and Quincy Jones adapting Rudy Toombs' "One Mint Julep:"



Genius indeed.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Homework Pays Off

At Mental Floss, they've compiled a list of seven scientific advances that came about from school projects. The students, working either alone or in collaboration with a more experienced scientist, developed their respective projects into some significant breakthroughs in the different fields in which they worked.

I confess none of my science projects was ever going to be anywhere close to even a minor scientific discovery, unless it was how fast one could be completed when the previously-forgotten deadline loomed.

Whatever started growing in my ill-tended undergraduate refrigerator, on the other hand, was most probably unknown to science. Maybe that was for the better.

Monday, May 8, 2017

My Keyboard Asplode

Former President Bill Clinton will team with thriller author James Patterson for a new political suspense novel, set for a 2018 release.

The novel represents a joint effort by the men's two different publishers. It's also probably one of the first co-author jobs involving Patterson where he will have to do most of the writing work. Mr. Clinton has written only nonfiction; his tale-spinning has been mostly in the spoken-word milieu. And if you think it was easy to not type "oral" there you are sadly mistaken.

Patterson will probably write a large part of the book, relying on Clinton for perspective on what it's like to be a sitting president since it will feature one as a lead character. Clinton's own work in his four earlier books, according to interviews, was highly collaborative and usually involved a first draft from him and then a team effort in polishing and editing. Patterson's work with co-authors has been rumored to be sometimes little more than signing his name on the cover and on the back of the royalty checks. But before he could swing that kind of gig he had to make his bones writing his own stuff, so he will probably manage here.

The title? The President Is Missing. Rumors that Clinton's response to that decision was a smile, wink and the statement, "I bet I know where to look" are, as yet, unfounded.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Finns for the Win

I can't ever remember needing a thousand cans of beer at one time. But apparently the folk of Finland have a better imagination than I do. And they have a thousand-pack available to handle it.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

You Can Dance to It...Or Maybe You Can't

Have you ever wondered why no one made a synth-pop song about the quantum uncertainty exemplified by Schrödinger’s cat?

Well, wonder no longer, because now someone has.

Friday, May 5, 2017

New Digs

Getting to Mars? Pretty tough gig.

Living on Mars once we get there? Probably even tougher.

I still think we'll do it. I'm more and more pessimistic that I'll live to see it unless I'm around to join the Nonagenarian Brigade, but I think eventually private enterprise will combine with human desire to see what's over the next hill will make a way to do it.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

This Speech is Free

Writing at The Washington Post, Catherine Rampell notes a new poll which, if accurate, shows that 49% of the people who responded to it are silly twits who should not be allowed back into a voting booth until they can demonstrate they understand the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The poll was taken in light of recent campus events in which industrial-sized toddlers threw tantrums serious enough that the adults involved were unable to complete their planned activities. In much the same way that a two-year-old's meltdown in the grocery store can make mom or dad head home and schedule the trip for later, the chanting children afraid of all ideas but their own have forced speakers to record their talks for online viewing or in some cases cancel altogether. Were this poll -- asking whether or not campuses should allow guest speakers to appear if their words "are considered hateful or offensive by some" -- conducted on an actual campus, we would expect a large group to respond the same way their emotional peers respond to naptime at the day care center.

But the new poll was not conducted on a campus and includes the responses of everyday Americans who are supposed to be more grown up than that. And if it's right, 30% of those people think universities should not have such speakers on campus, with 19% being unsure about it. The questions in the poll are reprinted exactly as they were asked, so there's no guesswork involved: 30% of the people responding have forgotten what country they live in and 19% require spinal reconstruction.

We can allow that people didn't listen closely to the question, I suppose, and maybe they didn't notice the words "considered" and "to some." The problem is that "hateful" and "offensive" are by definition subjective standards. Sure, some speech is clear, cut-and-dried hateful and would be seen as such by everybody.

But most such speech lives in a gray area that requires one to accept a particular definition of hate or offense in order to consider it hateful or offensive. I, for example, mired as I am in my traditional Christian theism, would consider a speech advocating mandatory readings of Phillip Pullman in church to be offensive. Many people, though, would not think it offensive at all and might want to hear this presentation. According to the poll 30% of people think that I, in my role as "some," should be able to prevent that speech from being given because I consider it to be offensive.

The irony in this situation, I think, is that most of the speech that really is hateful and offensive should be heard more often because exposure to it frequently drains it of power. In my example, a regular reading of Pullman would quickly point out how lightweight his thought is when it comes to theism. When you hear a good old-fashioned anti-Semitic "Jews run the world!" ranter start going off, you figure out pretty quickly what a load of hooey it all is. When people watched the ilk of Bull Conner set dogs and fire hoses on polite, well-dressed folk who wanted to do radical things like vote in elections and sit down at a lunch counter, even those who probably retained quite a bit of racial prejudice started saying, "That's not what this country is about."

And I'll confess overreacting with my suggested remedy to the problem. I'm not in favor of disenfranchising people who should know better -- if for no other reason than on some issue or another I've been among their number and will be again. People who don't know what they're doing have just as much right to vote as people who do. Even if it seems the former are already distinctly over-represented in elective office.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Box Office Bonanza

One the one hand, it's kind of impressive that a three-hour musical, the sequel to a two and half-hour musical, performed in Telugu beat a movie with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson at the box office. So hats off to Baahubali 2: The Conclusion.

On the other hand, the aforementioned Hanks and Watson vehicle was the awful The Circle, so the Tollywood release didn't have to try as hard. Tollywood, by the way, refers to a movie made in India that resembles a Bollywood movie but is filmed in Telugu rather than Hindi.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Up Side, Down Side

On the up side, Middlebury College is saying that it actually took some disciplinary action against students whose near-riot prevented a professor from speaking on their campus and sent another professor to the emergency room. Middlebury says that no description of the sanctions will be released until all of the students identified have been dealt with, and that as far as they can tell no Middlebury faculty were involved with the events once they proceeded beyond the ugly but physically harmless shout-down phase.

Their decision to wait until everyone's been handled seems pretty wise -- announcing what happened to certain students now could open them up to legal challenges if punishments for subsequent malefactors were different from what had already been handed down. I'm thinking these li'l darlings might be prone to suing, and Middlebury is going to take every step possible to cover its institutional behind.

On the down side, the chairman of the school's political science department apologized to "the wider Middlebury community" for co-sponsoring the original event. No word yet on what his response was to young children whom he may have forced to eat their vegetables without consulting their desire to supersede said vegetables with ice cream.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Signing Off

I've used information and photos from the Cassini space probe orbiting Saturn several times on the blog, because it's been a workhorse satellite and investigated so many fascinating things about one of the solar system's most fascinating planets.

But the probe is running low on fuel, so later this year it will be sent on a course into Saturn's atmosphere to destroy it. Scientists consider that although the possibility of some kind of life on Saturn's moons is faint as far as we know now, and the chance that Cassini would crash into one of the moons in question is slight, there's no reason to risk it.

After all, if there's an intelligent species living under the icy surfaces of one of Saturn's moons, we'd really rather not have our first interaction with them be littering.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Which Is Worse?

So I'm wondering whether political posts on Facebook are worse than the autoplay recipe/craft/construction/lifehack videos, or vice-versa?

I realize that the question is more or less the same as wondering whether one thumbtack in the shorts is more or less of a pain in the ass than two, but I figure asking the question will help quell the murderous thoughts they both inspire.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Test Pattern

Church retreat this weekend. Posting Sunday, maybe.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Engineering Idiocy

So an electronics guy in Oregon showed evidence he says proves red light cameras don't always work right. On some right turns, it will show people doing something illegal even though they actually don't. He showed his research at a national traffic policy conference. Then he took it to the Oregon Board of Examiners for Engineering, who immediately set out to correct the flaws in the camera system.

Just kidding! They fined him because they said he called himself an engineer when he wasn't one, and if he wasn't one then what he did wasn't engineering. So there was absolutely no problem whatsoever with the cameras, because all of the people who paid money so they can call themselves engineers in the state of Oregon said so. Or at least the board that handed out the licenses they paid for did, anyway. They contend that the state of Oregon has control over who gets to use the word "engineer" to describe themselves.

Just in case you thought California had a monopoly on stupid state government actions with a Pacific exposure.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Prize Thoughts

Your Templeton Prize winner for 2017, Alvin Plantinga, is considered responsible for a great deal of the presence of religious thought in modern philosophy. Plantinga didn't hold with the idea that a religious person -- including a Christian such as himself -- had to leave his or her faith behind when considering the issues philosophers consider.

Congratulations to Dr. Plantinga, and here's hoping the prize continues to annoy Richard Dawkins.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Science-ish Variety

-- A lot of the hoo-rah over the "March for Science" indicates a poor understanding of science? Color me shocked.

-- Leonardo of Pisa, better known as Fibonacci, is best-known today for the numerical sequence that bears his name. You start with 0, then 1, then the next number is the sum of the previous two numbers (so, 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8...). Now, this sequence was actually known long before he lived in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. His actual major achievement was convincing Europeans to ditch the III's, IV's and XVIII's of the Roman system and adopt the Hindu-Arabic numerals we use today and employ the zero to denote positions such as tens, hundreds, thousands and so on. He demonstrated the simpler system in a book called Liber Abaci, which had nothing to do with candelabras but showed everyday folk how to use the new system to calculate in everyday life. While appreciated by many for his work, the fact that Liver Abaci also introduced "the word problem" into math is held by some -- most students doing homework -- to tarnish his legacy

-- Physicists have created a "superfluid" which has the property of "negative effective mass." Essentially, that means it reacts in precisely the opposite way you would expect: Push it left, it goes right. Although this is the first time such a substance has been created in a laboratory, most parents say that their children frequently demonstrate the exact same characteristics. And note: The substance acts like it has negative mass; it doesn't really have it.

-- Playing Monopoly in Klingon? "I have a house on that property. You owe me rent." "I burned down your house and slaughtered all of its residents. I owe you nothing."

Monday, April 24, 2017

Assortment

-- The United Nations continues to demonstrate its worthlessness as it names Saudi Arabia -- a kingdom in which women are permitted next to no legal rights -- to its Commission on the Status of Women. The Saudis join Iran as "one of the countries that have no damn business at these meetings except as targets of resolutions condemning their treatment of women." The Commission's newest member recently established a Girls Council chaired by Princess Abir bint Salman, who was required to address its initial meeting by video because she was not permitted to be in a room in public with men to whom she is not related.

-- I have criticized tennis player Serena Williams for her lousy attitude and general ability to be an amazing jerk. But she demonstrated restraint and class in responding to some really ugly comments by former Romanian pro Ilie Nastase. Vlad Tepes was quoted as saying, "Thanks for taking some of the heat off, Ilie."

Oops. Missed It!

Saturday marked the 39th birthday of the Mission from God, as John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and a band loaded with talent debuted "The Blues Brothers" on Saturday Night Live.

If you'll pardon me, I need to go save the St. Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage and determine whether or not I am on Lower Wacker Drive.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Such a Deal!

Although I've never published a book myself, I have friends who have -- some through self-publishing outfits and some through the traditional means.

Since it's their business and not mine, I've never asked what they made on royalties or what they were paid in advance. But you want to bet that if I did, none of them would say that they cleared almost four-fifths of a million dollars on a book that sold about three thousand copies?

Which goes to show that I should become friends with New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who declared that figure as income on his tax returns. Because everyone who likes to write should have a friend who can clear $245 a copy in author royalties on a book Amazon's listing for $13. Or at least should have that friend's agent.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Oooookay

Spent some time driving on the state highways over the last couple of days and noticed a sign before entering construction zones.

Obviously, those areas can be very dangerous for workers and motorists need to pay careful attention when driving through them. It's one of the reasons speed limits in the zones are so much lower. Bright orange signs, lights, traffic cones -- several things are in use to alert drivers to their need to slow and watch closely.

But one sign, I'm not sure of. "Don't hit our workers! Avoid $10,000 fine," it read.

Because not severely injuring or even killing another human being through inattention isn't reason enough?

Friday, April 21, 2017

RIP, Library...

Replacing library books with digital materials is...neither the best nor the worst idea in the world. But it makes some kind of sense from a particular point of view, and it does still involve research materials and information.

But replacing them with nap pods? Yeah. Life of the mind my grumpy middle-aged tuckus.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Insults From the Auld Sod

Generally, insults inspire comebacks. Sometimes, the verbally challenged will come back with a physical blow. Sometimes the cerebrally challenged will come back with a lame, "Your mom!"

But for the life of me, I can't figure out how you'd come back from being told you were a "moulting desert ram." I don't even know what it means. So I suspect most people engaging in a battle of wits with an Irish person from the early medieval period would have to slink away in shame.

Not to mention if you were called a "horn of an infertile cow," "son of stammering, surly, puffed-up foreign woman" or "comb of a castrated cockerel, smoky-colored, bent and crooked."

Of course, if you also were an Irish person of the early medieval era, you could whip out some counterattacks. Letting the person who just insulted you know he's a "boiled cow's udder" ought to set him back on his heels a little.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

From the Rental Vault: The Spoilers (1942)

Though he had definitely gained star status by 1942, three years after his breakouit in Stagecoach, John Wayne carries third billing in this tale of Alaskan gold miners and corrupt officials. He's actually beneath the villain of the picture, played by Randolph Scott. And both men stand behind femme fatale Marlene Dietrich.

Wayne, Scott and Dietrich's version is the fourth of five tellings of the Rex Beach novel: hard-working miner Roy Glennister (Wayne) and his partner Dextry (Harry Carey) find themselves on the wrong end of a swindle engineered by corrupt gold commissioner Alexander McNamara (Scott) and a crooked judge. The law being somewhat far distant from Nome, Alaska in 1900, Roy is probably going to have to take matters into his own hands. On his side is saloon owner Cherry Marlotte (Dietrich) and the judge's niece Helen Chester (Margaret Lindsay), but Cherry's unsure about Roy's affections while Helen is in the picture and her support for him in his fight is just as uncertain.

Scott played villains about as often as Wayne did -- next to never -- but his straight-arrow carriage and tough demeanor make him a great foil for Wayne's two-fisted miner. Rather than a shifty nature or crude character, his ability to charm Cherry and match Roy stare for tough-guy stare make him all the more dangerous an opponent. The threat of physical confrontation pays off in a great six-minute fight scene with a mass brawl that involved 30 stuntmen and acrobats and took 10 days to shoot.

Wayne's best onscreen romances came when his female lead's character was as strong as his and unintimidated by his toughness and swagger. Whether those women took their cue from Dietrich's performance here or not is hard to say, but if there was ever a woman unintimidated by a man, it was Marlene Dietrich. Cherry is her own woman, and while she has obvious feelings for Roy she doesn't let him or those feelings for him run her life. She's not inclined to wait for him to choose between herself and Helen but instead forces the issue herself at several points rather than always react to whatever Roy does.

The Spoilers would get one more telling, in 1955. Wayne, Scott and Dietrich would appear later in 1942 in Pittsburgh, and Wayne's Batjac Productions would produce the first Scott-Budd Boetticher-Harry Brown collaboration, Seven Men From Now.

Beach's oft-told story, itself based on real incidents, offered nothing unique in the world of the Western, But the top-level talent of Wayne, Scott and Dietrich make the 1942 edition of The Spoilers one of the stronger movies of the genre as well as overall.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Gnarly Waves

I'm a science fiction fan, but the below picture taken last year on the shores of the Gulf of Oman illustrates how you don't have to dream up an alien world to have an alien-looking landscape. All you need are some stars, a planet and some plankton:


Monday, April 17, 2017

Smashin' Passion

A college professor, writing at The American Interest, muses on some of the problems going on in modern campus political life. Specifically, the problem of groups of students shouting down campus speakers they don't like and in some cases engaging in behavior that actually endangers people.

The professor, Flagg Taylor of Skidmore College, works his thoughts through last month's riot at Middlebury College which put one professor in the hospital so the students wouldn't have to listen to the controversial Charles Murray. He recounts a discussion of the incident between two writers, one of whom says he has trouble because he does "want to salute the passion of the students" even though the Murray talk ended in violence. The other writer counters that it's too bad that the students had never learned "any virtue carried to an excess becomes a vice."

And there, Taylor says, is the problem. Students, whose forebrains are still developing and who sometimes are shaky on consequences as a result, might indeed develop passion and engagement but lack the wisdom to know how, when or how much to deploy them in any given situation. It's possible to be passionate about something awful, as Reinhard Heydrich and Mohammed Atta demonstrated quite clearly. Student activists are nothing like those evil men, but their inability to govern their passions will one day lead to a confrontation of some kind in which someone will be seriously hurt or even killed.

There's a phrase I've heard before that says one goal of a person seeking enlightenment is to learn how to keep his or her passion "within due bounds," or to "circumscribe" them. Passion, engagement and commission are valuable tools in achieving goals or making needed changes in society and the world. The idea behind an education, of course, is cultivating the mind to be able to best use these tools. Anything else is a tantrum.

And the problem when full-sized people throw tantrums is that no one thought that child-proofing their environments was necessary and something's going to get broken.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Coupla Reads

Donald Westlake's taciturn thief Parker meets Tom Lindahl one afternoon when the latter is out for a walk in the woods. Of course, Parker's in those woods because he's on the run from a police net that's hunting him and two other men who've just pulled off a robbery and he's more or less completely cornered when the rifle-toting Lindahl sees him climbing a hill.

Lindahl offers Parker a way out of the net and a place to hide for awhile -- but he has an agenda of his own. His racetrack employer did him wrong and he yearns to hit them back where it hurts by stealing their money. He didn't quite know how to go about doing that but now that an experienced thief has shown up he knows who to ask. For his part, Parker needs money that can't be traced to him or his recent job and even though there are a hundred complications and an amateur's clumsy fingerprints all over this one, he hasn't got many choices.

The 2006 Ask the Parrot is part of the "comeback Parker" set of novels Westlake wrote between 1997 and his death in 2008. This second group is sometimes faulted for having less of the bare-bones simplicity of the first set of Parker stories from 1962 to 1974, and while Parrot has a lot of virtues it shares some of that lack of focus. Westlake's pseudonymn "Richard Stark" matched the Parker stories well, in that they lacked the kinds of frills and whistles common to some other tough-guy tales set on either side of the law. A reader learned about Parker or others in the stories the same way they learned about each other -- by watching the action.

We see Lindahl's bitterness painted that way, alongside Parker's usual cool competency, but there are complicating characters and backstories that dissipate and slow down the linear progress of the main narrative. We do what we always do with Parker, which is get from point A to point B in a solid, entertaining fashion that wavers neither left nor right, but we spend a couple of beats too long glancing to the side while we're doing so.
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While some authors will stay with a series characters for far too many novels until they become little more than exercises in pressing the "Ctrl + V" keys, mystery writer Reed Farrell Coleman has taken the more challenging course of exploring different characters rather than just cashing checks by going through the motions with proven commodities. Best-known for his Shamus award-winning Moe Prager series, Coleman branched out in 2016 to introduced Gus Murphy, an ex-Long Island police detective whose life was broken by the tragic death of his son.

We meet Murphy in his second outing having achieved some fragile measure of peace with a new girlfriend and a friendship with his co-worker Slava. That'll be broken when Slava's mysterious past crops up at their backwater Long Island airport hotel and Murphy's old friend introduces him to a man who wants answers in the death of his adopted granddaughter. Neither case is as simple as it seems, both reveal unexpected deadly inner layers and their intersection in the person of Gus Murphy is pretty much nothing less than a target on Murphy's back in the 2017 What You Break.

One of the problems of the first Murphy novel was the unrelieved bleakness of his outlook and situation. No one who's never lost a child can know the hurt of those who have so it's tough to find resonance with someone who has. Coleman keeps the fact front and center in Murphy's life -- which is probably where it is for people affected by that kind of loss -- but it creates a barrier to connecting with him that never goes away. That story, Where It Hurts, offered some steps forward for Murphy but What You Break walks them all back. Into this unrelieved gloom Coleman tosses two separate characters with backgrounds of hideous atrocity and an assortment of "twists" to his main storylines that really aren't too surprising. Gus's depression and heartbreak may be natural, but all of the rest is Coleman's own choice to wallow in gray misery.

Where It Hurts offered readers a reason to say, "Well, we'll see" about an established author's new series, a new voice and a new cast of characters. What You Break says, "Well, we saw. And nope."

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Two Thousand Years Ago...

The world waits, while the very source of its existence rests in a tomb. Everything that would fight against human flourishing rejoices in its win.

But the reign will be short. Sometime tonight, after midnight, stone will scrape on stone and the borrowed cave will be empty and the world will be full once again and it will no longer be finished.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Cart, Horse...

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel doesn't think his city's schools are doing their job of educating the students in them. A number of things, like test scores, graduation statistics and the naked eye back him up on this.

So he's proposed a solution. In order to receive their diplomas, Chicago seniors will have to show "an acceptance letter to a four-year university, a community college, a trade school or apprenticeship, an internship, or a branch of the armed services." In other words, the only people who can have a Chicago public school diploma are the ones who've managed to transcend the dismal system in which they have been laboring for the last 12 years.

The statistics in the Huffington Post story say that nine out of every 10 Chicago public school students has to take remedial courses at whatever college they attend because they can't do the very things that a high school diploma is supposed to indicate they can. That 91 percent figure is from 2014 but I can't imagine it's dropped much since then, if indeed it's dropped at all. It's almost as though the Mayor doesn't want to give kids a diploma until he can be assured that the city's school system hasn't completely wrecked their chances at a future.

And it's kind of a weak goad in any event, because he's only talking about the actual piece of paper itself. Many of those post-high school options in his list kind of require a student to graduate in order to enter them, which means the student has to be listed as having fulfilled all the requirements to do so. Universities don't accept incomplete high school transcripts. If I'm accepted to a four-year university, what the heck do I need the piece of paper for? My mom can probably tell you where my high school diploma is but I have exactly zero idea. Even for people who like to cover an office wall with diplomas and certificates the value of a high school diploma is marginal -- if there's limited room and one has to go, then adios alma mater.

Having worked at a college before, I can point to a lot of anecdotal evidence that few high schools really get students "ready for college." Time management skills, study habits, reading for information, ability to write clearly -- and that's before we get anywhere near actual knowledge content. Smart kids who went to good high schools were not really prepared for the changed environment of campus life and the university classroom. So while they may be worse than a lot of others (and better than a few), this is not a problem limited to Chicago schools.

Mayor Emanuel's proposed solution, on the other hand, has less of an excuse for its seeming cluelessness. The Mayor attended suburban Winnetka's New Trier High School (he was at the west campus when it was still open), identified as one of the nation's top schools in national magazines as far back as the 1950s. From there he went to private Sarah Lawrence College and picked up a master's from the private Northwestern University.

So he oughtta be smarter than this.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Are We There Yet?

Parents driven insane by that question from the back seat would probably lose it completely if their journey was by way of the New Horizons spacecraft. Its last stop was Pluto during the summer of 2015, and nearly 2 years later it's only halfway to the next -- the Kuiper Belt object 2014MU69.

Ol' MU is somewhere between 10 and 30 miles in diameter and takes 295 years to go around the sun. It's more that 45 times as far away from the sun as we are, about 4.1 billion miles on average.

Even using the space-based Hubble telescope, not much more than 2014MU69's orbit can be made out from Earth. But New Horizons will probably tell us some more starting on New Year's Day in 2019. After it finishes it's 157-day nap, that is. If those blasted kids would give it a rest.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Hi, Mom!

I think this article at Awful Announcing has it right -- of all the things Dorothy Mengering did on her son David Letterman's talk shows, her appearances at the Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Nagano and Salt Lake City were probably the best.

I couldn't find this quote online, but my favorite memory of her appearances was during the Lillehammer games, following the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan mess. Letterman was badgering her about news about the rivalry and bizarre incident it involved while she was talking about different competitors. She stopped for a second, looked at him through the camera feed and said, in a very mom voice, "There are other skaters, David." The audience roared and Letterman was at a loss for words for a moment before he started laughing too.

It doesn't matter if you sent her to Lillehammer to tape some bits for your famous late night talk show -- Mom's gonna mom, and ain't nothing you can do about it...

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Science!

BigThink reports on a National Public Radio story that shows how it's more economical to order the largest size pizza available. It may cost more in terms of money paid out, but the larger pies give more value for their money.

At last, science we can use.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Roundup

-- At The Christian Century, Brian Doyle muses on why baseball may be best encountered on the radio. He acknowledges that being present at a game is the top choice, but after that comes the choice of voluntarily limiting ourselves to just one sense in experiencing the game -- hearing. Atmosphere plays a big role, but Doyle suggests that the open invitation of the frequently repeated phrase, "For those of you just tuning in" is a huge part of the appeal. The late tuners are as welcome as those who indulged themselves in all the pregame show, and on equal footing. I like the idea -- one of the best things about Major League Baseball's app is that you can listen to radio broadcasts of any game currently being played, from either team's home station. It's a case of technology actually expanding what already exists instead of supplanting it with something that is perhaps less.

-- United Airlines has some new publicity it didn't want after a variety of cell phones showed security officers dragging a man from a plane because he did not agree to take their deal of a hotel stay and travel voucher in exchange for a later flight. As always, the flight was overbooked because that makes the most financial sense for the airline despite its inconvenience for travelers -- something about which airlines give less and less of a damn every year. Four seats needed to be cleared so four United employees could travel to the next airport where they would work. No one took the offer voluntarily, so the airline used a computer to randomly pick which passengers would take it involuntarily. The man in question was so selected but refused and was dragged off (it's Chicago, after all). Mollie Hemingway, writing at The Federalist, points out that United has done itself some real harm by being too cheap -- they stopped the bidding at $800, but if they had kept inching up someone would have said yes, and they would have been out a whole lot less than whatever they settle the lawsuit they're going to face. The first item on this list notes how an economist pointed out the initial problem to them. Maybe they should have had an economist on call for instances like this, but I'm betting the real problem was a security moke who decided "dis guy is gettin' off dis plane one way a duh utter." Who will probably be available for hiring in the very near future.

-- Should Scotland decide to leave the United Kingdom, which it's going to vote on again sometime soon, might it decide to join Canada? A Canadian writer of Scots descent offers the idea, saying that Scotland would be the third largest province of Canada and is closer to Newfoundland than California is to Hawaii. Canada has a large population of folks with Scot heritage -- one of its provinces is Nova Scotia, after all -- and the atmosphere could be pretty congenial to the match. Of course, it opens up the possibility of conversations that contain sentences like, "Oh, aye, eh?" which might make Scots even harder to understand than they are now.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Searching Every Which Way

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, is recruiting everyday folks to help them scan images taken by its Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer Mission. The idea is to examine the images and distinguish actual objects from photographic artifacts or glitches in the images. Searchers are told they may find a stellar object closer to the Sun than Proxima Centauri or the hypothesized Planet 9.

In fact, the web-page's headline says, "Help scan the realm beyond Neptune for brown dwarfs and planet 9." Brown dwarfs are objects bigger than Jupiter but smaller than the sun that never really gained enough mass to ignite like a star would. They don't fuse hydrogen but may fuse some other elements in order to radiate in the infrared spectrum. Since they don't shine like stars, one could be closer than Proxima, a little under four light-years away.

So this is a pretty cool deal, but it's being falsely advertised. We've got a planet 9 and it's called Pluto, no matter what the Greedo-shot-first dopes at the International Astronomical Union say.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Nearby But Far Out

Don't take my word for it. Mosey on over to the April 4 entry at Astronomy Picture of the Day to see a wild view of a sun halo and airplane contrail.

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Great Debate

Writing at Quanta, Jennifer Ouellette explores some scientific research that suggests life moved from the sea to dry land in order to take advantage of the better visual information available to un-submerged eyes.

The research, conducted by a scientist at the beacon of truth, hope and kindness to small kittens (Northwestern University, for you new readers), suggests that animals which operated above or out of the water could see food much better than could those which stayed under water. The expanded information menu might also have driven the development of brains and thinking -- just like with a computer, a larger information pipeline requires a larger processor or it shuts down. And gets eaten, but that usually doesn't happen with computers.

The NU scientist, Malcolm MacIver -- who with that homophone name pretty much had to be an engineer -- began following his idea when studying a critter called the black ghost knifefish, which is probably one of the cooler animal names around. The flounder, trout and lung fluke would like a word with management forthwith.

The knifefish generates electricity to sense its environment and seems to do so with about the same perceptive capability of a sighted fish, even though it required a ton more energy to do check out its surroundings. MacIver figured out that was because light doesn't travel very far underwater and so fish don't devote a lot of brain space to processing images. A study of fossil records showed eye size increasing when animals were in either very shallow water or actually out of it, suggesting they received more information the drier it got.

According to the article headline, life left water because the view is better. In opposition, we present Horatio Thelonius Ignatius Crustaceus Sebastian, who offers his argument in musical form:




Thursday, April 6, 2017

Open up the Surly Gates

They've been temporarily renamed in honor of Mr. Donald Jay Rickles, who passed away today at age 90. As several people in the article noted, you were nobody until he called you nobody.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Who Rule Bartertown?

It'd be hard to top, as far as high school experiences go, finding out and publishing information that got your principal canned. But some student reporters in Pittsburg, KS, did just that.

An ordinary "Meet our new principal"-type assignment turned into an exposé about how the incoming administrator's qualifications were, to say the least, not what they seemed. Educational achievements from questionable institutions, work experiences that didn't add up and so on were brought to light, and the just-hired principal resigned before even officially starting the job.

Now, it seems there may be some legitimate differences of opinion about the resigned principal's actual qualifications. The college in question, which is not accredited now, might have been at the time she took coursework since that was some 20 years or more ago.

But what doesn't seem at issue to me is that the administration and board of the school district are ill-qualified to select a principal of any kind. If high school student journalists can find out stuff like this, you have to wonder why search committees of educational professionals can't. Of course, maybe it's not the case that they couldn't find out the info and check out the record.

Maybe they just didn't bother -- which makes it hard to say what's worse.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Dietary

You know, not that there was much of a danger I was going to run out and buy a bunch of kale anyway, but it's always nice when evidence and research tell us something's been hyped a little bit too much.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Everybody's in First Place

Today was the official Opening Day of Major League baseball.

All day long.

Yeah.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Wacky World

Modern travel and communications -- at least in most of the developed nations of the world -- tend to obscure the reality of geography in a lot of arenas where it's still one of the most important factors.

Some of those arenas are military operations, nation-state security goals and political agendas and economics. Which, as Tim Marshall's 2016 Prisoners of Geography reminds us, contain about 90 percent of the decisions nations make in their policies and foreign relations. Marshall argues that few of these geographic realities have been changed by modern transportation and the internet. Policies which fail to take into account the Russian need for a warm-water port and belief that it needs a buffer across a broad flat plain aimed at its central cities, for example, will sooner or later crash into reality. Modern nations created by borders drawn in the late 19th or early 20th centuries may bear little correlation with ethnic groupings or the geographic features of an area.

Marshall doesn't offer exhaustive historical or geopolitical analysis, touching on high points and broad themes in his different chapters. But he makes a good case that there are factors at play in the way nations relate to each other, or the way that different people groups within nations relate to each other, that can't be dismissed just because they're inconvenient to a world view. Former President Obama spent a lot of time learning that, and I suspect President Trump will as well. We can hope some of the people who work for him have studied a little more and are a little less surprised. Marshall's book would be a pretty good starting point.
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On the one hand the 2016 election, with its potential to develop interesting, diverse and variously qualified presidential candidates instead devolving into the mess that it was, would seem easy fodder for political humorist par excellence P. J. O'Rourke.

On the other hand, the whole thing was so bizarre, awful and exhausting that O'Rourke's collection of essays on the season, How the Hell Did This Happen?, has its own quality of exhaustion and just doesn't quite measure up to his earlier levels. When one of his opening jokes wondering how we would up with the candidates we had is kind of a rerun of a similar question he asked about the 1988 candidate field in Parliament of Whores, you can get a sense that he may not want to try too hard.

That's not really the case, but almost all of the chapters in the book started life as magazine articles or columns in other publications. They've been lightly revised to fit together between the same book covers, but the cumulative effect is like playing solitaire with 50 cards -- you can go through the motions but it's not a real game. A couple of chapters originally written for Forbes that outline how drafting billionaires' money to pay for everything the rest of us want only works for a short time are vintage O'Rourke. They're funny, sharply realistic and packed with the kind of reality that "reality-based" politicians and activists seem to overlook with frightening consistency.

Much of the rest of the book repeats the kinds of things O'Rourke noted in Parliament and to a lesser extent All the Trouble in the World and Eat the Rich. In fact, the presidential chapters of Parliament seem prescient in their description of the way we vote less for presidents than priest-kings. Much of Barack Obama's public support came from people who thought he would show Canute that a ruler really could stop the tides. Much of Donald Trump's support base has similar ideas, although the tide involves illegal immigration rather than oceans.

Perhaps it's just the awfulness of this particular campaign doesn't lend itself to mockery and satire. When the real world contains a Mike Huckabee who thinks he can win the nomination and the office, when it contains a guy who owns two homes but calls himself a socialist, when it contains an actual President Trump...well, what the hell can a satirist do with that?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Fool's Gift

Bloom County creator Berke Breathed published his "April Fool's Joke" suggesting that Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson had come out of retirement to collaborate with him in on a new strip.

It is, of course, not true. But even the one strip published to make the joke is awesome. This is how you win April Fool's Day:


Friday, March 31, 2017

Stranger than Fiction

Note: It seems appropriate that this item somehow did not post at the designated time on March 31 as scheduled. The re-post has it showing up at the time I had originally selected, but not appearing until almost a day later. Go fig.

If you think your life is like a Twilight Zone episode -- and I wonder how long it will be before no one understands that reference -- allow this website to help you create one of your own.

Sorry, though. "In one of the more important elections in a while, both major parties nominated people so awful that whoever won, the rest of us lost" is not a Twilight Zone episode, but instead the real world we live in.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Quiet, Please

Mental Floss shares this map of the noisiest areas of the country. Excessive noise can cause serious health issues. Of course, that doesn't take into account the content of the noise, which means that some noisy areas (Washington, D.C., cough, cough) are more unhealthy than others. Just saying.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Unbelievable Precision

I'm not buying this Los Angeles Times article about how many jobs in the United States are at "high risk" of automation in the next 15 years or so.

It's not because I think it's some kind of "liberal media" cliché that's trying to talk about bleak economic news in order to get people thinking negatively about the current president. It's not because I think that jobs won't get phased out by innovation and advances in automation. It's not because I think that the story ran because the figures were less for Europe and all newspaper reporters have a goal of making America look bad. That's ridiculous.

No, I'm not buying it because the analysis firm that conducted the research and survey came up with a figure of 38 percent. Not a rounding number like 35 or 40. Nope. A precise oddball figure of 38. Which is also ridiculous. There's no way anyone could come up with that kind of number, whether the time frame is the next week or the next decade. If the analysts had said "a third," or "around a quarter" or even "more than two-fifths" that would sound like a reasonable guess or even aa reasonable result for speculative analysis.

But 38? Nah. Go back to the drawing board and come up with a vaguer answer. It's easy. Just look at the way politicians talk about budgets: The closer they get to exact dollar amounts the more nervous they are. Only when the talk turns to values like "several billion" or "almost a trillion" do they seem relaxed.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Knock, Knock. Who's There? Meaninglessness...

Over on Existential Comics, Jean-Paul Sartre and Søren Kierkegaard show up at your door in order to prove that there are worse things than door-to-door salespeople or folks who want to inform you about their particular understanding of deity.

At least when those people leave, either unaided or with the assistance of a properly-placed shoe, you feel better about things.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Christmas in March!

Physics World has premiered a series of free e-books that cover different topics of interest related to the discipline. They're called Physics World Discovery and so far there are five of them, on topics ranging from dark matter to the use of physics in modern financial market strategy to cancer research.

Did I mention they're free? They march alongside a handful of other series on some scientific topics that range from layperson-friendly to pretty technical.

And did I mention they're free? I'll be busy over here for awhile.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Live From New York! It's Saturday Evening!

NBC has decided that the last four episodes of this season's Saturday Night Live will air live in the country's western time zones that had been showing it on tape delay. The entire continental United States will thus see the show at the same time, even though it will technically be "earlier" on the West Coast.

SNL usually starts at 11:30 in its native Eastern Time zone and 10:30 in your humble correspondent's locale. It will still do that, but the four-episode experiment will have it start at 9:30 in Mountain Time and 8:30 Pacific Time. Hawaii and Alaska will still be scared to check Twitter feeds, as they will stay on tape delay. Otherwise the show would be on at 5:30 PM in Honolulu.

When asked if any other changes were planned, show officials said, "Absolutely not. We will continue to honor Will Ferrell's legacy by remaining unfunny no matter what time zone you're watching from."

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Apocalyptic Pitch

I've used some What If? questions before as subjects to natter about, but I had never gone all the way back to the first edition of the page in 2012. It seems relevant as we approach the beginning of baseball season.

A questioner wonders what would happen if you tried to hit a baseball thrown at 90% of the speed of light. The short answer is that you wouldn't -- if the ball could somehow be accelerated to that speed within an atmosphere its collision with the atoms of air in front of it would create a massive release of energy that would be the next best thing to an atom bomb going off.

And if it happened in Yankee Stadium during a Yankees-Dodgers series, well, it might just turn into the best thing period.

Friday, March 24, 2017

You Can Say What You Mean

A couple of years ago, we noted the problem faced by the all-natural dairy company Ocheesee Creamery in its attempt to sell skim milk. The problem: They were selling skim milk and calling it that.

As the original item notes, the state of Florida had established a definition of skim milk. It is milk with the cream skimmed off, and then processed by an injection of vitamins A and D. Thus, the Ocheesee Creamery could not sell its skim milk -- which was made when they skimmed the cream off to use to make the products in their name -- unless they added the vitamins (the cream contains most of milk's vitamin A and D). Or unless they labeled their all-natural skim milk as an "imitation milk product."

The problem for the Ocheesee folks was that they marketed themselves as an all-natural dairy. To add the vitamins went against their brand, as did the idea of labeling their milk "imitation." Their only other choice was to pour all of the skim milk down the drain and wreck their financial base.

Ocheesee sued Florida for the right to label the skim milk they were selling "skim milk." A district court in Florida, apparently suffering from the same affliction as the one fogging the understanding of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, ruled against the dairy. But the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found a dictionary, looked up "skim milk," quoted the definition in its decision and ruled in favor of the dairy.

The state of Florida can, of course, appeal the ruling to the United States Supreme Court. This would cost money, so you might wonder why it would bother, but you can never tell if a government is thinking.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Trade-Offs

On the one hand, it would be kind of useful to have economist Friedrich Hayek around today, to maybe be a clear voice pointing out just how wrong President Trump's trade policies are now and are going to be later. The libertarian-leaning professor believed that a group of human beings, interacting together in trade under what he called "the rules of just conduct," could thus operate a society for the benefit of as many of its members as possible. No one human being could possibly know enough to plan out such a society, he said. It had to grow on its own. The president also believes society has to grow on its own, just as long as it does it the way he says.

But on the other hand, Hayek, who died 25 years ago today, would have to try to get his message out to people in the midst of a media machine that pays more attention to what the president tweets and thinks Al Franken knows more about the U.S. Constitution than a sitting federal judge. Being as he would be just a couple of months shy of his 118th birthday, he would probably find better uses for his time than to try to convince them.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Coincidence? Perhaps...but Perhaps Not!

Headline:

NASA: "Giant Mars Volcano and Earth's Dinosaurs Went Extinct About the Same Time"

Tars Tarkas: "Oops."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ripper Redux

For reasons of his own -- perhaps because for him the Ripper killings were not ancient history but current events -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never set his genius creation Sherlock Holmes on the track of London's most infamous killer. It's been left to others to do so, sometimes with the blessing of the Doyle estate and sometimes not.

Lyndsay Faye's first novel was one of those with the blessing, as she pitted Holmes' brilliance against Saucy Jack's demented bloodlust in her 2009 Dust and Shadow. Faye is a fan and student of 19th century crime-solving and of Holmes in particular, and she works hard to get the proper voice for her story's narrator, Dr. John H. Watson, M.D. It's not Doyle's Watson, who was ordinarily more phlegmatic and less rattled by his friend's strange obsession with mystery solving and abrupt manner. But it is Watson, which puts readers where we belong -- outside the blazing incomprehensible genius of Holmes and doing our best to keep up.

As Faye writes the story, Holmes' great mental faculties are stretched almost to breaking by the need to stop the madman from killing more women. He feels the pressure of the entire city's near-panic at the murderer in their midst and frustration at his inability to see inside the mind of something mostly unknown to the 19th century -- a sociopathic serial killer. But he wonders -- if he really can get inside Jack's mind to guess his identity or his next move, will he be able to come back out? Or will it break him entirely?

Faye, as mentioned above, creates a recognizably Victorian voice for her narrative, and pays attention to period detail with a keen observational eye. The world may or may not need novelizations of the fictional Sherlock Holmes tracking or apprehending the real-world Jack the Ripper, but if it's going to have them then hers is better than many others.
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Skip forward into the 1900s, and Clive Cussler and Justin Scott bring their turn-of-the-century hero, Isaac Bell, onto the trail of a brutal killer stalking women in the United States and leaving them dead and mutilated. The more Isaac probes the mystery, the more he begins to wonder if he is tracking someone who's been at this game a long time. Someone who -- perhaps -- tried out his trade at first in the London slum called Whitechapel but who for know is known as The Cutthroat.

Isaac, the chief investigator of the Van Dorn Detective Agency, comes to the case when a young woman turns up murdered in her room. Her father had hired the Van Dorns to find his daughter, but Isaac had not put much worry into the actions of a nearly-grown young woman who had apparently chosen to make her own way instead of her parents' way. Isaac feels personally responsible for the oversight that put the young woman into her killer's path instead of home safe with her parents, so when other bodies, similarly disfigured, turn up, he persuades his boss to devote the agency's resources to finding the killer or killers.

Cussler and Scott lay a couple of interesting cards on the table. In the 1911 world of the novel, there is as yet no national law enforcement agency or even any real coordination and information sharing among police departments. Only the Van Dorns with their nationwide reach (they're modeled on the real-life Pinkerton Detective Agency, but without the strikebreaking), can see all of the puzzle pieces, such as strings of similar murders or disappearances in cities across the U.S. By setting the action in and around a traveling national production of Jekyll and Hyde, they highlight an interesting moment of showbiz, as technology allowed stage productions to mount more spectacular touring shows even while it is creating the movie business that will all but kill them.

But they also rely on brief segments from the killer's point of view which really do nothing but try to emphasize his chameolonic capacity for disguise. A couple of the described murders offer links to clues Isaac and his team will uncover, but not many. The rest bring a real taint of ugliness to what is, even when it's dealing with sabotage and murder, a series based more on derring-do and adventure than modern psycho-killer Lecter Lite tales. This taint makes Cutthroat one of the lesser entries in the Bell series.
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Arthur Byron Cover's 1979 An East Wind Coming opens with the Wolfman attacking Lois Lane, only for her to be saved at the last second when Sherlock Holmes teleports the werewolf back outside the city.

Then it gets weird.

None of these characters, except for the Wolfman, are named although folks who follow comics, pulp fiction and old movies will probably recognize them. "Holmes," for example, is never called that, only "the consulting detective." Watson is "the good doctor." Sydney Greenstreet's Maltese Falcon character is "the fat man." And so on.

In Cover's "Great Mystery Trilogy", an un-named calamity at some time in the future wiped out most of the human race. But the creatures who caused the problem, as a way of trying to make amends, give the remaining humans amazing power over matter and mortality. They are "godlike men," to distinguish them from the "mere men" they were before. Interestingly, some of the most powerful among them choose to refashion themselves as different movie, comic book and pulp magazines. So Sherlock Holmes, Captain Marvel (the first one) and Lois Lane all find themselves coexisting with each other, basically not doing much of anything except in rare emergencies like the Wolfman's attack. The adaptations aren't perfect, and the cast frequently breaks character to act like more recognizably modern people than their assumed identities.

The consulting detective fears this ennui will lead to significant problems for the godlike men. It's already pushed some of them to create a slum based on old London's Whitechapel, and he fears that one or another godlike human will decide to make his statement about society by becoming a new Jack the Ripper, Once that happens, the detective and others among the most poweful of the altered humans must track and stop him or else the rising tide of terror and uncertainty could endanger their existence.

The series' first volume, Autumn Angels, was very much a product of its boundary-pushing time and context -- the late 1960s and early 1970s in the circle of one of science fiction's "mad geniuses' Harlan Ellison. Wind tones some of that down in favor of a little bit more linear narrative, but is still very head trippy. It's also very dialogue heavy and interested on transgressing lines related to sexuality, philosophy and the meaning of existence. The combination ages quickly, making it easy to lose interest in the sketched-out plot after wading through page after page of conversation and explicit sexual encounters.

By the end, East Wind feels as dated as some of the pulp greats it uses as Cover tries to say something about human existence and satisfaction, using them as his own heiroglyphic alphabet. They can generate some slight interest on their own as we read to see which one is which and who a particular character is supposed to be, but that's not enough to keep deciphering the whole thing from being more than a chore and a half.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Ha Squared

Two scientists have published a paper that links the reason that puns are funny (and they are, shut up) to an effect of quantum physics called "superposition."

Physicist Kirsty Kitto of Australia and psychologist Liane Gabora of Canada examined what the brain does when we hear a pun or similar kind of wordplay-based joke. As most folks know, the humor of a pun (it is so there, shut up) comes in when words that sound exactly alike or maybe just similar are used in two different and incongruous settings.

Well, Kitto explained that a superposition, a central feature of quantum mechanics,  says a single particle can be in two states at one time and it doesn't "make up its mind," so to speak, until it is measured. Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger found this so weird he created his famous thought experiment involving a cat that was technically dead and alive at the same time, with its demise coming at the hands of a random quantum fluctuation that either poisoned it or didn't.

Puns, Kitto and Gabora said, work like that. They are based on a single set of sounds that works one way in one sentence and another way in another sentence.

The paper doesn't create an actual equation to gauge the funniness of a particular pun, since humor has a strong subjective element to it. So all of the people who don't want to think puns are funny can continue to do so and not feel like they're trying to deny science. After all, the cats probably didn't think Schrödinger was all that funny either.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Meanwhile, in a Top-Secret Laboratory...

Mild-mannered physicist responsible for the creation of material used in dental fillings by day...secret scientific super-sleuth by night. It's...Detective X!

This may have been the only secret agent ever named "Wilmer."

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Johnny B. Excellent!

A much younger Friar once read a music critic say that you should never trust a rock musician who can't play Chuck Berry music. I've read a lot of gunk from music critics that hasn't lasted past the turned page, but that theorem has yet to let me down.

The only thing that could still those flying fingers and famous grin has done so, as Berry "caught Maybellene at the top of the hill" today at 90.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Bob's the Bomb

And by "Bob," I mean the supernova given that nickname seen in the spiral galaxy NGC 5643. Astronomer Rachel Beaton, who works with the team that first observed the supernova, is the one who gave it the nickname Bob.

Its technical name is SN2017cbv. The galaxy containing it is also home to the supernova SN2013aa, which as far as I could tell has no nickname. The interesting thing about Bob is that we seem to have caught him as he begins the explosive phase of his existence. The apparent magnitude of SN2017cbv increased by almost 2.5 times in the first day since it was spotted.

The headline at the Astronomy article isn't exactly accurate -- SN2017cbv isn't going on "right now." It's roughly 60 million light years from us, which means that astronomers are observing what happened in that spot 60 million years ago. North America, Europe and Asia were all one landmass, as were Antarctica and Australia. South America, Africa and India were all separate continents. It was about 6 million years after the end of the dinosaurs, and mammals had expanded to fill the environment, with some being what we would today consider "medium-sized." The closest thing around to us were squirrel-like critters called "plesiadapiformes," who are thought to have a common ancestor with primates.

As for what's going on "right now" in whatever spot SN2017cbv occupied when it blew up 60 million years ago? Well, we'll know that sometime around 60,002,017 AD.