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: