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.
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.
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 (√Čvelyne 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.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Pain in the Grass

The town government of Gardendale, AL, joins the list of political bodies that needs a nice swift Gibbs slap to alert it to a reality: People who insist that teenagers pay $110 for a business license to mow yards for summer spending money are, best-case scenario, the stupidest people in three counties.

To his credit, the mayor of the town recognizes that issuing citations to kids who don't have the license would be a really good way to get his town mocked by everyone with a medulla, and says he would like to work out a way to avoid that. The real prize goes to a man with a lawn-mowing business mentioned in the story. He is supposed to have said that if he sees the granddaughter of a woman quoted in the article mowing yards for pay again, he will call the city of Gardendale and put them in the position of issuing one of those fines.

The story is second-hand and may not be true. But if it is, I suspect that gentleman is not cutting grass to earn money. He's cutting it because he's facing an IQ test and is trying to incapacitate his closest competition.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The View Out of the Office Window

If you're Dutch airline pilot JPC van Heijist, the view out of your office window is pretty spectacular. And you have the photography skills to share it.

Lest one be worried van Heijist is performing the aeronautical version of texting while driving, it should be noted that pilots have co-pilots who can take the wheel if they want to snap a photo. As well as auto-pilots. So he probably won't get a ticket or anything, unless he lands someplace like San Francisco or Chicago. He could draw a fine in the former because it's the kind of city government that can't let something go by without offering its advice or coercing some behavior. He would draw a fine in the latter because the city is desperately starved for money.

Unless his uncle is an alderman. Then he's off the hook.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

It's No Contest!

CNN wins the title for the stupidest article connected to the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The cover, of course, featured the actual 1967 Beatles amid cutouts of a number of famous and obscure people, including wax figures of the 1964 version of the world's best-known Liverpudlians. It's become iconic, and served as the basis for the cover Frank Zappa wanted for his We're Only in It for the Money album. But a nervous record company, smelling potential lawsuits, put the Pepper-parody cover on the inside gatefold when the Beatles' record company objected.

CNN, in the person of Brandon Griggs, assessed the cover as too full of obscurities (which was intentional from the get-go) as well as too white and too male. The majority of the folks on the cover were chosen by the Beatles themselves. But rather than take them to task, Griggs puts cover co-creator Jann Haworth, 75, on the target for helping cause the problem. She pleads guilty in the article of having 1967 ways of thinking in 1967 instead of being woke enough to recognize the needs for minorities and women the way the much smarter Griggs can do from his perch in 2017.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Basketball Ghosts

Writing at Awful Announcing, Holly Wetzel suggests that if the upcoming Golden State-Cleveland NBA finals is not an awesome series of games, then the NBA could be in big trouble, since its current model offers little incentive for casual fans to watch games not involving their own preferred team.

I think she makes a good point about the disinterest provoked by the league's current arrangement and extensive post-season schedule, but I think she's a little optimistic about the impact of a great series. I'm probably within that "casual fan" bracket, although I really like basketball. I just think the version of the game offered by the national pro league is not all that fun to watch, and the only time it's interesting is when I care about the outcome because of being a fan of a particular team.

So whether the Warriors and the Cavaliers have a great series or not, I'm not much invested in the outcome beyond hoping that the Warriors lose again. And that's not really a reason to watch.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Over at Ask the Past, we learn how one might be advised to eat an avocado if one were living in the Victorian era.

The most obvious advice is overlooked: When confronted with an avocado and asked how best to eat it, the proper response is: "Don't." At least it is for me. Along with Brussels sprouts. And broccoli. And asparagus...

Monday, May 29, 2017

Great Minds Think of Type

Late last week, I posted an item about the development of the typewriter. Charles over at Dustbury has just recently posted a photographic item about a typewriter as well, highlighting a version of the machine that you paid to use.

Just deposit coins into the proper place and you are given an amount of time in which the typewriter will work. Once the time expires, you have to insert more coins or declare your novel or essay finished. Ray Bradbury used a coin-operated typewriter for the manuscript of "The Fireman" on it, which later became the novel Fahrenheit 451. In an interview, he called the book his "dime novel," because those were the coins the machine accepted and he used 98 of them to complete it.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Choose Your Own Hackneyed Genre!

This cartoon offers a handy way to generate a horror movie plot by choosing different items from each column. It's fiction, of course, because it involves far more creativity and effort than modern horror movie writers put into their work. You might think it incomplete because it doesn't offer a section for nudity, which is pretty much ubiquitous in the genre. But it's not listed because it's assumed to be present in every choice.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Category Holy COW, That's Huge!

The Juno satellite recently returned photographs of Jupiter's south pole, which swarms with cyclones the size of the planet we live on.

"The National Weather Service has issued a severe storm warning for the entire surface of the Earth. There is a 100% chance of poisonous hail the size of Buicks and wind that will literally rip your face off. We advise you forget about survival and start getting hammered like we are."

Friday, May 26, 2017

Hunt and Peck

This item at io9 offers a pictoral history of the typewriter, from its earliest concepts up through the first versions of computerized word processors.

We're so used to the keyboard now it seems like it's the only possible way to do things (although there are probably more efficient setups than the QWERTY arrangement). But as the "typing ball" shown below indicates, the choice was not necessarily so obvious from the beginning.

It would be interesting to see what might have happened had the format remained closer to this instead of the rectangular rows of keys we use now.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Summer of '77

Forty years ago today, 20th Century Fox released a sci-fi movie with a mostly unknown cast bolstered by a couple of British stalwarts and a guy who'd gotten some good notices in American Graffiti.

Then -- as now -- Han shot first.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Memory Whole?

Writing at Wired, Brian Raftery notes a wave of nostalgia for some cultural touchstones of the early 2000's (specifically 2000-2006) and suggests that the speed of pop culture today means such a wave may be the last one we ever see. We don't want to wait around for an era to become fuzzy enough in our memories that only its good parts get remembered.

Raftery also suggests that cultural and entertainment fragmentation means there just aren't any dominating cultural events and themes any more. The 50s birthed rock and roll, the 60s birthed mass stupidity, and so on. But what cultural touchstone connected to all of society post-2010? What's called "prestige television" may dominate online entertainment mags and twitter feeds, but those are shows watched by a relative handful of people. A band has a ubiquitous single but ten minutes later can't get its next song played on the radio station that comes over the tinfoil in Bernie Sanders' hat.

The easy target here is to suggest that few people are going to be nostalgic for stuff that's crap. Would that were true, but the existence of a third Halloween reboot says otherwise.

But I do have a reason to lay alongside Mr. Raftery's that he doesn't seem to consider. Nostalgia requires memory. Rose-colored selective memory, to be sure, but memory nonetheless. And a culture that celebrates and is mediated so much by ephemera probably doesn't produce a lot of rememberers.

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 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


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.
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


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


-- 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 Schr√∂dinger’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


-- 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


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.
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."