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 basked 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.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Ye Olde Tooth Care

Apparently the basic outline of tooth care has not changed overmuch in the last 300 years, at least in English-speaking cultures.

Ask the Past quotes Thomas Raynalde in The Byrth of Mankinde with dental advice to seek the help of a professional for a thorough cleaning, although he recommends "a Barber" to "scoure, rubbe, and picke them cleane, and white." Dentists were yet to be known. Regular care of teeth in between visits is advised, especially to "picke them cleane that no meate remaine and putrifie betweene the teeth." Nothing turns off a social encounter like having meate putrifie in your mouth.

Whitening could be achieved by grinding white river pebbles into a fine powder and mixing an ounce of that with a "dramme of Masticke," or sticky plan resin. Apply this to the teeth to keep them "fayre and white," but "beware yee touch not, ne vexe the gummes therewithall."

Because even fayre and white teeth can't help you if you've got vexed gums.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Real Deal

Commandos are an excellent source of action story heroics -- from World War II when they first began to be used and called by that name even to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Their daring tactics and obvious bravery sometimes lend them an outsized reputation for effectiveness and impact, as historian James Owens outlines in his 2012 book Commando: Winning WW2 Behind Enemy Lines.

Owens shows how a handful of officers saw the need for small, quick striking forces to attack different enemy positions that needed Allied attention, so to speak, but didn't warrant full-scale assaults. Gradually, they developed several units for this clandestine work, which focused on sabotage more than anything else although they did sometimes involve gathering intelligence. Commando soldiers needed an extra helping of daring, bordering on recklessness in some cases, as well as the intelligence and initiative to operate on their own and make snap decisions. Additional training in close-quarters combat, languages, explosives and some decidedly non-sporting methods of dispatching the enemy silently also formed part of the commando skill set.

In reality, most commando missions cost heavily in lives, as sometimes less than half a team would return from a mission. And few paid off with the designed results and a particular installation or facility destroyed or crippled by the raid. Owens outlines this all quite clearly and makes a similar point towards in summary remarks at the end of the book. Whether the commandos of WWII were effective more in the minds of their fellow soldiers seeking any signs of fighting back during the dark times pre-D-Day, or in setting Axis forces off-kilter in fearing a raid on any dark night, Owens is clear that they were all brave men who believed their cause as well as the sacrifices it sought worth the risks they took.
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In most states, the highest-paid public employee is not a governor or legislator -- it's a coach, probably football or men's basketball, at a state university. Usually, supporters of that kind of situation point out that the coach brings in enough revenue to his school to justify the large outlay. Whether you accept the proposition or not, the weight of the money involved is one of the many places where "the green" of cash tilts the scales in the supposedly amateur world of college sports. And this green is that which Mark Yost's 2009 book Varsity Green explores.

Although the book's subtitle mentions corruption in college athletics, Green almost has an ambivalence about the subject in some ways. For example, in the area of coaches' salaries, Yost admits that the gap between the best-paid coaches and other tax-funded state employee salaries is large. But, he says, large chunks of that compensation comes in contracts with athletic wear suppliers and other companies. The actual taxpayer share is really not as outsized as the bottom line figure would suggest. He seems to gloss over that these contracts aren't available to folks who do not lead premier college athletic programs and those implications, though.

Yost does describe just how much money flows through an athletic department when a football team makes a postseason bowl game, for example, and notes how well bowl officials themselves are compensated for what seems like less than arduous work. He notes several other areas where the massive amounts of cash involved can seriously threaten the supposedly amateur nature of college sports and perhaps the futures of the young men and women at the heart of all the fuss: the athletes. But Varsity Green's incomplete focus and its rather easygoing attitude towards attribution and footnoting weaken its potential lesson to college sport consumers or participants.
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Heather Mac Donald regularly graces the pages of City Journal and other more conservative news and news/opinion outlets with her work, which is always data-driven and unwilling to accept status-quo answers if they aren't supported by that data. She's focused on social issues through most of her career, with some special emphasis on crime and law enforcement. 2016's The War on Cops draws particularly heavily on issues she discussed in her first two books, 2000's The Burden of Bad Ideas and 2003's Are Cops Racist?

Mac Donald wrote War following several violent demonstrations in the wake of police shootings and accusations that even honest police officers worked within systems that targeted minorities. In response, she notes the rise in crime rates in the areas where minority populations live, as police are unwilling to risk their careers or even their lives and take actions that could wind up on YouTube without context or official support. Police officers less willing to confront wrongdoers and suspects will only embolden and encourage criminals and leave other citizens less protected.

Aside from the later riots, demonstrations and incidents, War doesn't cover significantly different ground than Burden and Are Cops Racist? The new incidents are larger, more violent and unfortunately deadlier versions of events from the 2003 book, and the police retreat from more assertive law enforcement is an accelerated version of the responses seen in that book as well. Mac Donald does examine a sustained allegation of police misconduct as well as the more specious ones, but she also spends some time on financial issues affecting unionized prison employees and guards, which seems to stray afield of her central idea. The connection is not drawn very clearly. Some other chapters are not substantially different from their earlier appearance in different magazines.

The War on Cops is not necessarily an inaccurate or useless book, but it draws conclusions that require more support and spends a lot of time re-covering ground that this very author has been over extensively before.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Mathematical Wreckoning

Since it's "Pi Day," or March 14, let's check in with a retired math professor who may wind up blowing mathematics into a whole new area -- if he doesn't blow it up first.

The professor's name is Harvey Friedman, and he's been thinking about the foundations of mathematics for about a half a century. You might think this is unexceptional, as even a journalism major with a master's of divinity could grasp the basics of math: 2+2=4, and so on. The problem is a Austrian named Kurt Gödel, who dropped the hammer of his "Incompleteness Theorem" on his discipline in 1931.

In its simplest form, the Incompleteness Theorem says that any system which uses natural numbers -- the kind of numbers we use to count things -- has at least one proposition in it that can't be proved within that system. That means even basic arithmetic can't be proved using basic arithmetic. As the article at Nautilus suggests, once you create another system to prove the first system, your second system will have its own unproveable propositions, and so on.

Since Gödel, mathematicians have mostly banished the idea of incompleteness into fields where it can't be avoided and worked in the rest as though it didn't have an impact. It's what we do in everyday life as well. We may not be able to prove basic arithmetic, but since our lives work just fine when we assume it's true, we'll go ahead and assume away. One mathematician in the article estimates that as much as 85 percent of the discipline can be carried out based on a certain set of axioms and proofs that can safely say, "Kurt who?"

But Friedman thinks that way of looking at math limits it. If all of math grappled with concepts of incompleteness, infinity and some others that create equations and problems that can't be easily solved, then it might paradoxically find itself answering more questions than it does now. He's developed something called "emulation theory" which does that, and thinks that more reflection and work on it could find the same idea affecting other areas of mathematics and maybe even non-mathematical subjects as well.

Whether this will allow me to balance my checkbook on the first try, I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Dark of the Night

The picture at Astronomy Picture of the Day demonstrates why Spain designated its Monfragüe National Park as a dark-sky preserve. Such zones, with little or no light pollution from nearby artificial sources, allow astronomers their best possible views for exploration. In the United States, Death Valley is such a zone.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Topsy-Turvy

Writing at The Smithsonian, Carl Abbott laments the tendency of political candidates to say that they intend to come to Washington, D.C. to "drain the swamp."

It's a phrase usually employed by outsiders and leveled against their opponents, presumably Washington insiders. If such people ever had good motives, they have been warped or stained by their time in the Washington swamp. Abbott says that the metaphor came about because of the long-held belief that the city was built on an actual swamp, which was translated into the figure of speech which we hear used today.

But the area that became the District of Columbia was never swampy, Abbott says, pointing out that George Washington, who selected it, had pretty significant experience as a land surveyor and would have been unlikely to select a poorly drained or situated site. Subsequent drainage or sewage problems stemmed from inadequate facilities for the removal of waste and excess water, rather than any inherently mucky quality of the ground. Abbott quotes several early 19th-century sources to demonstrate his thesis.

Which leaves us in the interesting state of acknowledging that labeling Washington, D. C. a swamp is inaccurate in a literal sense but dead on target as a figure of speech. In this case, the metaphor represents reality better than reality does.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Grumble

So early tomorrow morning, at about 2 AM, all of the clocks are supposed to jump forward an hour and that will make it daylight much "later" in the day.

Government: There's nothing we won't screw with.

Friday, March 10, 2017

A Pirate Looks at Whatever the Mandatory Retirement Age Is Now

Jimmy Buffett, who has parlayed a single Top-10 song ("Margaritaville") and a laid-back beach bum persona into a four-decade career, is about to branch out into a new arena.

Buffett is already the owner of two restaurant chains and a merchandise store but has decided, in a move befitting the Baby Boom generation of which he is a part, to open Margaritaville-themed retirement homes. Despite the image he often projects, Buffett is actually a savvy businessman and wide-ranging artist. He's created Broadway plays and written three books in addition to recording and touring.

Here's a suggestion for a reworking of "Margaritaville" into its new setting:
"Wastin' away again in Margaritaville.
 Searchin' for my
Lost glass of teeth..."
Best of luck to Mr. Buffett; the place sounds like it would be a heckuvan interestng time.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Norwegian Blues


Sometimes, having the blues can even be a little uplifting...when they're the background color of a photo of a seaside city in Norway, anyway. The photo was taken by Maciej Kurkiewicz and can be found at National Geographic. Click the link; they've got a lot of great images.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Illini Communism Detected!

Surely you don't think there's some other reason that CBS will shorten its NCAA Men's basketball Championship tournament bracket reveal show by a half-hour, do you?

Yes, yes, I know -- last year's version was silly and delayed the bracket reveal long enough that Twitter leaked the information before CBS's talking heads could finish. But in the very year when the tournament might possibly have meaning for the first time in its 79-year history, the show is shortened.

Isn't it possible that the deep state forces of Illini Communism, knowing that any exposure to the upstanding purple paragons of loving your mom, eating your vegetables and saying your prayers will only reflect poorly on them, engineered the lost half-hour? I say that without a thorough investigation, that thesis cannot be disproven.

The Illini may themselves earn a berth in the tournament. In which case it will be the job of the Northwestern University Wildcats to take some time off from rescuing puppies, saving lost kittens, helping Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren across the street and conducting experiments on quark-gluon plasma to give them the thrashing they so richly deserve.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Enduring Problem

It seems that the tendency of pet cats to wander where and when they will is not a new one.

According to Ask the Past, a method in use in the late 1400s involved rubbing butter on its nose and legs for three days running. The information comes from a 15th-Century French document called The Distaff Gospels, a collection of things known and shared by women of that era.

It is probably unsurprising that a French solution to a problem involves food, but it would seem to me that a much simpler method of keeping the furry little psychopathic mooches around would be to actually give them some. That plan has some definitely strong history behind it.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Curtain

Turner Classic Movies is one of the few of my overabundance of cable channels that I still watch, and along with baseball season the main reason I still have cable. A cool thing about watching some of the great old movies it showed was learning a little bit about them before the show started, as host Robert Osborne would introduce them with some information about the movies themselves or the actors in them.

Most of the hosts TCM uses for their different movie programs are pretty good, but there will definitely be a hard time filling the slots as classily as Osborne did, as he passed away today at 84.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

In Reverse

Apparently, attending Middlebury College in Vermont will flip the education process end for end and make students who attend there dumber than they were when they started school.

Middlebury's residents -- "students" seems like a misnomer for them -- shouted down, ran out and then later attacked a guest speaker on campus, Charles Murray, Murray may or may not be someone you want to listen to, given some of his earlier work and his tendency to simply report results without giving much attention to how his reporting may be heard by others.

But when you decide to stage a live-action version of "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2," then you pretty much crossed the line and lost even the microscopic fig leaf of political action that the "heckler's veto" grants you. Middlebury's residents are just thugs. And that's the charitable interpretation.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Come All You Young Fellows, What Follows the Sea...

Some historians make the case that the war between England and France that finally ended Napoleon's reign was the actual First World War, with combat and conflict in nearly every corner of the globe before it was over.

One area of operations was the Caribbean, where French economic interests ran parallel to Spanish -- making the job of an English sea captain no easy task, since he had to sort French enemy from Spanish neutral, and he could never be certain if Spain was still an ally. Into this turmoil sails Charles Hayden and the HMS Themis in 2014's Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead, the fourth Hayden novel from S. Thomas Russell.

Hayden has survived incompetent and vengeful superiors and the prejudice aimed at him for having a French mother to command the Themis. Ordered to act against England's enemies in the Caribbean both private and national, he finds himself the rescuer of two Spanish nationals who will complicate things immeasurably for him.

Every publisher would like to lay hands on the "next Patrick O'Brian" to draw in fans of nautical and historical fiction, and the first three books of the Hayden series showed significant promise from Russell. He's an experienced historical fiction writer and seemed to have something of a hand for tales of seagoing adventure. Until is a major stumble, though. The sea battles and period detail are pressed into the service of a soap-opera plot and ludicrously contrived romance whose finish is visible from the moment the principals are introduced. It remains to be seen if there is a fifth volume of Hayden adventures and if it can bounce back from this low point. Russell writes other fiction as well and hasn't ever brought the Hayden books out annually, so as of now it's all a waiting game.
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Most Napoleonic-era nautical fiction focuses on the conflict between England and France, but some other naval action was going on as the 19th century dawned. The fledgling United States Navy was trying to dissuade North African nations from raiding US commerce and either ransoming or enslaving crews. In 2016's The Shores of Tripoli, James L. Haley takes us along with Bliven Putnam as he sails into battle on the USS Constitution against the "Barbary pirates."

We meet Putnam as a very young man, but one feature of many navies of the time was the enlistment of very young men and the placement of great responsibility in their hands. Haley follows the timeline of the US's struggle against the pirates, beaching his hero for quite some time (long enough for an amusing courtship with the delightfully intelligent and independent Clarity Marsh) before bringing him back under arms. Putnam takes part in the U. S. Marines' march across the desert to attack one of the pirate strongholds in addition to serving during sea battles and raids.

Most of Haley's work before now has been non-fiction history without any special focus on the sea, but he seems to adapt well so far. He steps wrong in a few places story-wise and puts his characters through paces our earlier acquaintance with them would suggest they would not take. Given that the war against the Barbary pirates was not very short or focused, it's not surprising that Putnam's story also lacks a little focus. Subsequent novels will work better if Haley can maintain narrative discipline to keep his characters...in character, so to speak and to keep a straighter storytelling path. The Barbary conflict is ripe for some sea yarns, so he should have the room to work and improve.
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Julian Stockwin has one of the two or so ongoing nautical fiction series that has had some legs and staying power as he writes of the life and voyages of Sir Thomas Kydd. Kydd began life at sea as a pressed man in 2001's Kydd and has been climbing the ranks of success, wealth and fame for 17 novels to date. Now a respected and well-known captain, Kydd begins Inferno on vacation while his ship HMS Tyger is repaired. But he is soon recalled to duty when His Majesty's government decides it cannot let the navy of Denmark fall into Napoleon's hands, even if that proud nation is unwilling to meekly hand over control of its warships to a foreign power.

Kydd's own role in the siege of Copenhagen will also involve a rescue of the exiled King of France, while his friend Renzi Stone and Cecilia, Kydd's sister and Renzi's wife, try to work on the addled King of Denmark to achieve a diplomatic solution. History tells us how well that works out, and Renzi and Cecilia find themselves trapped in the besieged city when it comes under fire from English forces pressuring the king to capitulate.

Stockwin spends probably less time with Kydd in Inferno than in any other of the novels so far. While understandable, since the naval role in the siege was mostly blockade and that would leave our hero with little to do, it makes for a scattered entry in the series. Stockwin's elegant language and deft hand at battles on sea and land haven't flagged, but when those tools are employed to relate the stories of a bunch of people who aren't our main cast, then attention can wander. The Battle of Copenhagen happened in 1807, so we're in sight of the climax of the global fight against the Emperor Napoleon and Stockwin himself said he saw the Kydd series as having 20 books. So there are probably three more to help him raise the quality back to former levels, which is more than enough time when the dip is this shallow and that overall quality this good.

Friday, March 3, 2017

And Get Off My Lawn

I have a problem with the upcoming live-action version of Beauty and the Beast.

Now, since I have frequently confessed herein that I am a person mired deep in traditional Christian theism, you might think my problem comes in the form of the revelation that LeFou, who plays the bumbling sidekick to the vain and villainous Gaston, is gay. At least one theater in Alabama has decided not to show the movie because of that.

Au contraire. Sure, I can't understand the decision, since LeFou is at best an incidental character whose main job is help Gaston sing about himself. If I were a gay person, I would think that a company that really wanted to make a statement about me would rework the story so that the aforementioned Gaston recognized his macho pose as an act of denial and it was his selfless act of love that allowed the Beast to regain his human form. Whereupon they would set up house -- or castle -- together. This would have the added advantage of allowing the heroine Belle to demonstrate she did not need a man to complete her.

Instead, one of the more buffoonish characters of the movie is shoehorned into blazing this trail. A lot of television shows claim a mantle of courage for featuring same-sex relationships but make sure the couples are smokin' eye candy like in Supergirl and Wynonna Earp. The titillation factor means their claims of courage rest on some seriously sandy soil: Our shows are Brave and Daring and Diverse -- just as long as the diverse ones are also teh hawt. So too Beast is Making a Statement with a Gay Character -- as long as he's not a very important one.

But that's not what bugs me about this movie. What bugs me is that it's being made at all. What will be added to the classic story by reprising the 1991 animated smash only with human actors and computer-generated imagery? Lumiere is no longer a hand-drawn animated candelabra voiced by Detective Lenny Briscoe. Now he's a computer-generated animated candelabra voiced by Obi-Wan Kenobi! Cogsworth is no longer Major Charles Emerson Winchester III; he's now Gandalf/Magneto! (And as regards the sexuality of characters in the movie, maybe a gay Cogsworth would have been a more fitting tribute to the gay actor David Ogden Stiers, who voiced him in the animated movie.)

But what about seeing Emma Watson as Belle? So what? Belle doesn't diverge widely from Hermione Granger, the Harry Potter role that made Watson an international star. Trying to say that in this movie she's a different independent, bookish, smart young woman who thinks for herself and doesn't pay much attention to whatever tradition says her role is supposed to be? And frankly, Watson's own intelligence, independent-mindedness and strong character make her close enough to Belle that in every trailer I've watched, I've never thought of the character as Belle -- only as Emma Watson.

Anything can be adapted; Beast was a smash Broadway musical and paved the way for several similar staged versions of Disney movies. So it's not as though there aren't other ways to experience amazing stories like that brought to life by Mouse Magic in 1991. But in its best work, among which Beast is surely numbered, Disney didn't put forth awesome and iconic animated movies. It put forth awesome and iconic movies, period. The definitive version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast has been made, and it was released in 1991.

So if you ask me in the next few weeks if I plan on seeing Beauty and the Beast, my answer will be "Probably not. I've seen it already."

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Actually, You Probably Will Need Roads

Dumb ol' Isaac Newton and his laws of motion say so, anyway.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

No Damn Way

I'm not meaning to pick on Brazil this week, but this news item about what two of its scientists used to make the flour they in turn made into bread demands an immediate response.

And since Andressa Lucas and Lauren Menegon made their flour from cockroaches the response can only be the one contained in the post headline.

But, they say, even a mixture of 10 percent cockroach flour increases the bread's protein content by 50 percent.

No damn way.

The difference in taste, they suggest, is all but imperceptible.

No damn way.

The United Nations says we will run out of land to farm to feed the number of people on Earth by 2050, and "insect farming" will probably be necessary to avoid mass starvation.

No damn way.

Insect farming is much less greenhouse-y and thus easier on the climate.

No damn way.

Insect flour can be completely used, with no residue.

No damn way.

The two scientists are now turning their attention to developing usable insect flour from crickets and mealworm beetles. It's beyond me why someone doesn't speak to them about this before they turn more bugs into bread.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Appliance Wars!

According to what if? from the author of the webcomic xkcd, a toaster will work inside a freezer. Primarily because the toaster gets a lot hotter than the surrounding air, while the freezer's divergence from air temperature is not nearly as pronounced.

I am uncertain as to how this will work into the classic Rock Paper Scissors game, but someone needs to make it happen so we can be blessed by hearing the phrase "Toaster Beats Freezer" on a regular basis.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Six Rings to Bankrupt Them All

Of all the lousy things that have happened to Venezuela over the last couple of decades, like Hugo Chavez and frequent visits from Sean Penn, it seems they have dodged at least one bullet: Their neighbor Brazil hosted the 2016 Olympics instead of them. And writing in USA Today, Nancy Armour sketches just how quickly the glory of the XXXI Olympiad has become a dingy Scooby-Doo set.

Armour lines up the International Olympic Committee as one of the culprits, as a culture of corruption and entitlement fuel explosive expansion of estimated Olympic venue costs. The Cato Institute's David Boaz details some of the significant cost overruns of recent games, with the most fiscally responsible edition being (of all places) the 2004 Athens games that only cost 60 percent more than the original estimates. When Greece sets the standard for your economic spending over the last 20 years, then your model has some flaws.

The system is so screwed up that even a losing bid costs money for years afterwards. Chicago was one of the candidates for the 2016 games, with then-President Barack Obama flying to Denmark in 2009 for the final IOC vote as a show of support. The IOC showed itself a little smarter than the national Democratic Party and recognized that while Mr. Obama was pretty fabulous at getting people to support himself, he was not so great a help for someone else. Chicago went out in the first round of voting, much to the surprise of CNN, which had a nice fancy countdown graphic set up and preparation for a whole morning of voting coverage.

In order to fund that bid, Chicago did things like rent its parking meters to a group of private companies. For seventy-five years. In order to lose in the first round of Olympic voting, the city gave up its share of parking revenues until the 100th anniversary of the Games of the XXIII Olympiad in 2084. The city used public funds to buy a hospital complex as a site for the Olympic Village -- land which is now valued at about 15% of the cost Chicago taxpayers laid out for it. But at least that'll be paid off 60 years before the city gets its parking meters back.

Boaz notes Anne Applebaum's suggestion that if this trend continues, then the only kinds of places that will compete to host Olympics are those where voters get to make choices like which tank will run them over during human rights demonstrations. Notably, the two remaining candidates for the 2022 Winter Olympics are China and Kazakhstan. So the choice before the IOC is to have yet another Olympics in a brutally repressive authoritarian country (the same one it did in 2008) or have it in a slightly less repressive authoritarian country but run the risk of Sacha Baron Cohen showing up every time they turn around.

My money's on Beijing. I think that, for all its thick-headed corruption, the IOC is aware that everyone already thinks it's a joke and they don't want to give them any help laughing.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Up Front...

Today would have been the 85th birthday of the Man in Black. Take a moment to remind yourself of the ones who are held back, and spare a thought for how you might improve their lot.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Signal Interruption

At a weekend retreat--see you Sunday, probably.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Plot -- the Math

According to who you read on the matter, there are only a very few basic plotlines in most of literature. For what it's worth, of the groupings at that link I kind of favor the "Seven basic plots" entry. The one-basic or three-basic entries look kind of generalized to me -- by the time you fuzz things up enough to say there is only one basic plot in all of literature you've loosened your definitions enough that you really can make anything sound the same as anything else.

Some mathematicians at the University of Vermont analyzed the words in more than 1,300 works of fiction available at Project Gutenberg and came up with six basic story arcs based on the kinds of words used in different parts of the book. About 85 percent of the works studied fit into one of these six arc patterns, described in the first graphic in this story at Scientific American. By graphing the relative happiness or sadness of the words in the story, the arcs showed up.

Another group of researchers, working in Poland, found that sentence lengths in 113 books repeated in a fractal pattern. That is, they repeated on a larger scale each time when graphed from beginning to end. More stream-of-consciousness novels like Finnegans Wake have extreme repeating patterns, but more traditional narratives show more moderate patterns. The Polish study could represent the first time anything about Finnegans Wake has made a lick of sense to anyone other than author James Joyce himself (and the jury's out on what he knew).

Analysis such as this is possible with computers that can scan and sort massive amounts of data, like the word counts of more than a thousand novels. Does it show anything we didn't already know or suspect? Probably not, as the idea of the basic types of plot is not a new one. Authors who gravitate to certain kinds of experiences or views of the human condition might work with just one or two of the different emotional arcs most of the time. In the end, it's not as if literature can be placed on some kind of graphic scale as the stolid J. Evans Pritchard would have had us believe if he had been real. But as one of the Vermont mathematicians pointed out, the "tons of data" generated by the Human Genome Project has begun to help us understand ourselves. Perhaps the tons of data in this project, he says, may help us to understand stories.

Sounds like a good idea, and I think the data will help us answer a lot of questions about stories we tell, why we tell them and why we seem to come back to the same arcs over and over again. But I bet there's one question it won't answer: What made us able to understand these things before we had the computers and the math to do studies like this? Does the arithmetic support the intuition? Excellent! But from whence came the intuition before the arithmetic was supplied?

It's the kind of thing you might have to write a novel to explain.