Sunday, August 20, 2017

Neither Rain Nor Sleet Nor Depth of Sea...

Although a couple more underwater mailboxes have popped up around the world, the post office box at Vanuatu lays claim to being the first such operation. It's 10 feet beneath the surface, about 160 feet from land, and is an actual post office box that will receive your special waterproof plastic postcard, marked with a special embosser so the postmark ink won't smear.

If you want to do the real experience, you have to snorkel, dive or hold your breath long enough to go below and float your card into the slot. Or you can ask someone able to do those things to drop it off for you. (There's also a land-based box for the wimps).

Then, at 3 PM each day, the mail is collected from the box to be sent off to its destination. The local post office used to train its folks to scuba dive so they could pick it up themselves, but found it easier to enlist the aid of local dive masters who could pick the mail up for them.

The story at Smithsonian says that the box in Malaysia is 130 feet below the water, which is the maximum depth for a certified, experienced recreational scuba diver using tanks with normal compressed air.

And it would seem that the most unsurprising thing about this whole idea is its origin: The local postmaster and a resort owner whipped it up over drinks.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Dig Straight Through to...Where Are We Again?

The saying is "Dig a hole clear to China," with the idea that China is on the opposite side of the world from us.

But as you can learn by having fun on this online "Antipodean Map" page, China is actually not directly on the other side of the world from the United States. "Antipodes" is the name for two points that are directly opposite each other on a solid object. New Zealand and Australia are called that because when they were first discovered by Europeans, they were considered to be "the other side of the world."

Someone who wanted to dig a hole through the Earth and come up in China would have to do two things:

1) Figure out how to survive the incredible heat and pressure of the Earth's core, and

2) Start in South America

Almost any straight line from the continental U.S. directly though the center of the Earth will wind up in the Indian Ocean. We have almost no antipodean land, in fact. Granada, CO, is the antipodes for the Íle Amsterdam, about halfway between Madagascar and Australia. It's home to a research station with about 30 workers who rotate on and off. Íle Saint-Paul, about 50 miles away and even smaller, is the antipodes for Cheyenne Wells, CO. Its research facility is not even permanently staffed.

Until someone fixes that whole temperature (just shy of 10,000º F) and pressure (3,600,000 atmospheres) thing, though, it'd probably make more sense to fly or take a boat.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Law and the Jungle

There's a legislature that has a rat problem. Doesn't narrow the field much, does it?

This legislature is the British Parliament and the rat problem is literal, as in members of ye olde genus Rattus scampering about offices, break rooms and cafeterias. A member of parliament brought four cats to address the matter but health and safety officials banned them -- demonstrating that even with that beautiful British diction, bureaucrats are unable to grasp facts with either hands or their feeble minds. Because several other government offices do allow cats to live on the premises and provide sharp, pointed arguments to Mickey's uglier cousins why they should relocate.

Some might say the bureaucrats are on the rats' side, sensing a kinship. This uncharitable suggestion insults at least one of the groups involved.

It's possible that the bureaucrats are worried about the example cats would set. They are seen to spend a great deal of their time sleeping but would probably accomplish their task nonetheless, after hours being an excellent time to present one's threats and ultimatums to the scurrilous scurriers with the proper level of bloodthirsty rending. By comparison, bureaucrats are usually very industrious while accomplishing next to nothing, and should the cats succeed in their mission some might wonder why those possessing opposable thumbs seem unable to do so as well.

The cats, of course, would not wonder. They would simply take a nap until another twitchy little nose tried to poke itself into the hallowed halls of the Palace of Westminster and then resume their work.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

All Is Not Lost?

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has said he doesn't see umpiring for his sport as a field amenable to automation. Which means no robot umpires.

Which means there are still limits to the dumbness of the changes that Manfred is willing to tolerate, despite evidence to the contrary.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Lines Around the Block

I know what you're thinking -- you see this Washington Post story about a company that offers to pay people to stand in line -- only if they're cool enough.

And you're saying, Friar, there's nothing about that for you. You are nowhere near cool enough to be selected to stand in line and be one of the beautiful people that draws in other people.

Au contraire, Faithful Reader. I am in fact way too cool to stand in line for something I wouldn't do unless someone paid me. Wait, what, you may ask?

You're not cool enough to know.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Petard, Hoist!

This item from the BBC News, ironically in its arts and entertainment section, notes something interesting about the dying magazine industry: Some of it seems not to be dying.

Writer Stephen McIntosh looked at a recent magazine and circulation report in England and found that news and news/opinion magazines like The Economist and The Spectator showed sales increases. Other similar publications also had some bumps, even factoring in things like paywalls for some online articles and other web-based content.

The people McIntosh talked to suggest that the rise of quickly-disseminated general news -- sometimes too quickly, in a fashion that has to be walked back or which proves later to be inaccurate -- means that people also want to have some analysis and context to help understand the blizzard of data thrown their way. Publications that can produce that get readers, and if they can make their content good enough, then they can get readers who will pay for it.

Celebrity, gossip and fashion mags, though, are still seeing sales slumps. I've got no opinion on the value of fashion magazines, but there seems little downside in the reduction of celebrity and gossip outlets. The slump's probably only worth one or two cheers, though, rather than three, since the content moves out of the checkout line and onto everyone's phones.

The one or two cheers comes because these particular organs have long been invested in things that turn out to be ephemeral or are of interest only because the people doing them have been in movies or television. A guy starts an affair at work and winds up leaving his wife for the other woman, but a few years later it turns out he's not that great a catch for her either. It happens all the time and if everyone involved lives in a trailer no one but those affected care much about it. But if those involved are named Jennifer, Brad and Angelina, well, then stop the press! We now even have celebrities who are famous for no reason whatsoever, who all seem to be named Kardashian or Jenner.

Having nailed their colors to the mast of ephemera, these folks now find themselves adrift because the ephemera has found a medium much better suited to it: The here-today-gone-in-20-minutes world of online celebrity gossip.

McIntosh notes that Vogue magazine recently did a large photo spread and interview with Jennifer Lawrence, a very good young actress who has been interesting before and may be again. But since all of the content went up online before the issue hit the stands or subscribers' hands, they took away any reason to actually buy the magazine. They're caught between offering enough online content to create buzz but keeping the free stuff at a low enough level that there's still a reason to pay for the rest. It's hard, though to feel sorry for publications that have trafficked in the least appealing aspects of the lives of people who just want to act, or sing, or live out their muse in some other way.

Whether the bump in news magazine sales is an actual long-term upward trend or just a bump has yet to be seen. But if the slide in the others' sales is a trend as well, then we can only hope the celebrity and gossip website will follow its path someday.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Truth With Pictures!

Just gonna let Mr. Opus do the talkin...

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Faster Than Superfluid Helium...

I've often said that one the reasons I blog is because it lets me pretend I am Mike Royko.

Another reason is the opportunity I have to write, every now and again, about quark-gluon plasma. For some reason, this particular substance, existing only under the most extreme conditions in particle accelerators, is as much fun to type as it is to say, and occasionally during the blog's 9.5 years of existence something about it has crossed my path.

Today it's an article from Physics World, which reports that quark-gluon plasma has set a record as the fastest-rotating liquid yet created. The plasma is created when gold ions are fired into each other at great energies, and then the quarks that make up the ions become "deconfined," which means they break down into individual quarks instead of making up larger subatomic particles. The gluons that hold them together also break apart, and the substance that results is a state of matter called "plasma."

Since we're talking about amazingly small bits of matter, the collisions are usually at an angle, so the plasma starts out with a high rate of rotation. Scientists measure the speed by seeing what gets thrown off the glob of plasma as it spins.

The previous record holder for spin velocity was something called superfluid helium, which is a peculiar liquid-ish state of that gas reached when it is cooled to almost absolute zero. It has zero viscosity (the measure of how "thick" a liquid is -- pancake syrup has greater viscosity than water, for example), so it can spin up a vortex at 107 rotations per second. Quark-gluon plasma, by comparison, creates a vortex that spins at 1022 rotations per second. A tornado about 60 yards wide with 300-mph winds spins at about three-fourths of a revolution per second.

Cosmologists think that the universe, right after the Big Bang, was a lot like quark-gluon plasma until it cooled down enough for subatomic particles like protons and electrons to form, so they want to learn about it and see what it can tell us about that very early universe. It may even be able to explain the electoral victories of Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren.

Or maybe not. There's only so much one can ask of a substance, no matter how cool its name is.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Long View

The folks at Bored Panda compiled some very interesting long-exposure pictures seen at different photography sites around the internet, These shots are made by keeping the camera shutter open and allowing the single frame to "see" things move instead of just capturing one static image.

Although I shot a few of these kinds of pictures -- some inadvertently -- when I worked for the newspaper, I was shooting with regular film. I'm not 100% sure how the technique works with digital photography without the image just turning into a video. But someone obviously knows, and thus we have some cool stuff like this:

Don't know why California is spending stacks of cash on high-speed rail when it appears that Budapest already has warp-drive technology on its trains.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Darkness Falls Across the Land

From the time machine, Uncle Walter talking about something that's going to happen just a few days from now,  a full eight years after his death:

1979 Total Solar Eclipse TV News Report from Michael Kentrianakis on Vimeo.

The interesting thing will be seeing if the nightly newscast report of the eclipse coming August 21 will be anywhere near four and a half minutes long. Broadcast news attention spans are a whole lot shorter these days.

Thursday, August 10, 2017


Now in his seventh outing with the enigmatic Victor the assassin, Tom Wood is starting to write himself into a bit of a corner. On the one hand, if he leaves Victor as a completely amoral killing machine who never changes, then he's stuck writing the same book over and over.  Even with Wood's skills, that's going to wear out not long after the half-dozen mark -- Andrew Vachss' career criminal Burke changed little and became repetitive, going downhill after book #8 with an exception or two.

But if Victor grows as a character and regains his humanity or develops a conscience, then eventually he's going to get to a place where he doesn't want to stay as a pure killer for hire and the series hits a stop, like Barry Eisler's John Rain. Mark Greaney seems so far to have crossed this divide with his Gray Man series, but he's only one book into the rehabbed version of his killer for hire, so we have to wait and see.

The other alternative is to go forward and then back up, which is unsatisfying and unfortunately the choice Wood makes in The Final Hour as he puts Victor back on a collision course with Raven, the female assassin he was uneasily allied with in The Darkest Day. Victor finds himself with a much higher profile than he likes, especially as it concerns people with the desire and ability to end his career and his life. So he decides to go as far underground as possible with a permanent solution -- have Raven kill him and then he can sink far enough below the radar to re-establish himself.

Naturally, it's not that simple, because Raven has her own share of enemies with whom she has to deal, and before the story winds up, both predators could find themselves each other's prey into the bargain.

Wood's smooth style is as elegant as ever; although this is most definitely a rough-and-tumble adventure narrative he never falls back into stodgy action-writer prose or techno-babble. But in addition to the above-mentioned hurry up and slow down problem, the situations Victor and Raven face quite obviously have more layers, waiting for subsequent novels to be uncovered. That's fine in itself, but it leaves Hour murkier than it should be. If those later books furnish the confrontation it sets up, that will help the series out in that area, but Wood will still need to figure out how to keep his character's arc from flatlining.
Jonathan Grave succeeds at his hostage rescue missions because he doesn't let anything else get in the way of the goal of getting the PC ("Precious Cargo") away from danger and back to safety. Other people, other issues are not his concern, no matter what he may feel about their situations. So even though something's gone wrong with the mission to rescue a kidnapped federal agent in Final Target, he's got backup plans and he and his partner "Boxers" won't have any great trouble getting out of the mess they're in.

Until he runs into the orphanage with a bunch of kids and Grave realizes he's the only chance they have of escaping torture and death at the hands of the local drug lord pursuing Grave, Boxers and their rescued hostage. If the kids don't go with him, they'll all die. But if they do, then they might still die, only they'll bring the three men down with them.

In this 9th Grave novel, Gilstrap has a good handle on the roles his characters play in their adventures. Grave and Boxers quip and snipe at each other, Boxers sees an uncomplicated black-and-white world where anything he doesn't think is his problem isn't his problem, Grave often doubts himself over the lines he's crossed and violence he's committed in the names of his various missions. The action set pieces hold their tension and keep the novel's pace nice and quick, and the plot hangs together through the required suspense thriller twists.

Target is more or less an extended chase scene, with some interludes back in Washington, D.C. as Grave's other team members try to unravel the mystery of the snafus that started this mess. Although sometimes the physical goals and the different groups involved get a little fuzzy, the presence of the orphans offers a new wrinkle that makes Target one of the stronger entries in the Grave series.
The first four Myron Bolitar novels were mostly fun romps that touched the sports agent turned crime solver and opened up some old doors in his past but never left any real new marks. But 1998's One False Move left him broken personally and professionally, so 1999's The Final Detail finds Myron on the beach. Literally, on a remote Caribbean island with a woman he's just met. No one, including his business partners and his family, know where he is. But when his friend Win sails up to the beach in a yacht, Myron knows there's trouble he can't run from any more.

The trouble is the murder of one of Myron's clients, Clu Haid, and the arrest of his business partner, Esperanza Diaz, for the crime. Esperanza has hired an attorney herself and won't let Win or Myron even try to help her. But Myron can't stay away and begins his own investigation, even though it becomes clear through the arc of the story that he is not yet back to his old self. His judgment and thinking still impaired, Myron may find himself not only the target of a police investigation but also of the forces that targeted Clu -- who won't be satisfied at just arresting him.

Coben uses his complicated story to begin to try to grow Myron up a bit -- his willingness to cross legal and ethical lines in pursuit of what he considers justice has consequences, and he begins to see them the more he looks at things in front of him as well as those in his past. Although the tone remains fast and funny, deploying both quips and quirky characters at a rapid pace, Coben opens up the consequences of the kinds of action Myron has taken and tries to move his characters deeper into a universe with actual morality and context. It's murkily done, as Myron's self-doubt veers close to moping and as a villain asserts a moral privilege that most of the rest of the book has said is in no way warranted.

Detail marked a different direction for the Bolitar books as Coben tried to mix the upbeat swashbuckling of Myron and Win's earlier work with some darker and more poignant themes. He had mixed success with the new recipe, hitting some very high notes but also some serious clunkers. As an early step on the new path, Detail isn't firm enough yet to be either, and winds up a middling outing with the world's only crime-solving sports agent.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

R-r-r-r-rings Have R-r-r-r-ridges!

At least, Saturn's do, as shown by this photo from the Cassini spacecraft.

When one of Saturn's tiny nearby moons is in a certain position related to the rings, then it affects how dense is the material that makes them up. The regular orbits of the moon produce alternating dense and less dense areas of the ring, but I blame Donald Trump.

No, I don't. I blame Hillary Clinton.

OK, not really. I blame neither of them. At least not for this.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Pickin, Pickin & Grinnin

There were a lot of great guitar videos to choose from to honor Glen Campbell on the event of his passing today at 81. Any of the "Dueling Banjos" clips, whether from 1973 with Carl Jackson or 2012 with his daughter Ashley. The "William Tell Overture" clips, either with the full orchestral accompaniment or just a backing band. A ton more, and not hard to find.

But since Campbell often had to war against the perception of him as a goofball country bumpkin, I picked this one where he is paired with another fantastic string-slinger generally thought of as more doofus than musician, Roy Clark.

Watch the fingers fly!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Test Pattern

Lots of road time today. On the upside, I had a Coke Zero that inspired me to rebel against the rule of an unjust king:

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Ah, the Sound

When the crack of a bat is followed by the roar of a crowd realizing that this ball could...go...all...the...way!

That's a mighty fine sound right there, my friends.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Test Pattern

Attempting to write a post, but the local power co-op flinches at lightning and everything keeps blinking out. Trying again tomorrow.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Parents Just Don't Understand

In today's Calvin and Hobbes reprint, we see yet another example of the rule-bound establishment thwarting the imagination of a young scientist and attempting to keep hidden the impact of his diligent research and experimentation.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Not Even James Bond...

... could make an AMC Hornet look cool. But the one he tried it in is up for auction, just the same.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

No Sparkling Allowed

Apparently the movie Lost Boys was a bigger deal for some people than I thought, because I've seen a ton of 30-year tributes to the mullets-and-mousse vampire movie that had probably the most fun with ye olde nosferatu of any movie until Buffy and her pals showed up.

I mostly remembered it as my introduction to Australian rocker Jimmy Barnes, who joined with INXS on "Good Times," a cover song included in the movie's soundtrack. A quickie video spliced some movie scenes into an earlier performance clip of the band and Barnes playing the tune. I may be mistaken, but it's just possible the fellows had consumed some good ol' Aussie lager or similar beverage before filming.

The post title, of course, is a reference to whatever the heck those things in the Twilight movies were supposed to be. No self-respecting stake would want to be wasted on one of them.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

What The?

Imagine you spent four or so years enrolled in a program to study journalism. You took classes that helped you sharpen your writing, and taught you some of the ins and outs of interviewing and how to get the information a news story needed to have. You learned how to make sure that you covered all of the bases in a story, not skipping details that you knew but your readers might not.

So you get out and eventually you wind up with a job at the Boston Globe. That's a top tier, old-line newspaper that often breaks stories with national implications. You're not in New York City, but you're in a place where Stuff Happens, and you are one of the people charged with making sure folks know about it.

Then you pitch a story about how counties in the path of this month's total eclipse of the sun voted mostly for Donald Trump for president.

What ought to happen is one of two things. Maybe you wake up and realize in sobriety's cold early light that just because something sounded good when you were drunk doesn't mean it would sound good in the real world, so you keep it to yourself and save a lot of embarrassment. Or you actually go through with it and you find all of the money and time you've invested in your journalism education and career doesn't keep the editor from laughing at you like you walked in front of the Queen with your fly down.

But this being 2017 and Donald Trump being the sum total of all evil in the eyes of many, you get permission to write and run the story. Of course, you quickly find out there's really no story so you have to pad like hell with non sequitirs and old news, but that doesn't matter because it gives you a chance to get in some swipes at the president.

And so you wind up with this, little knowing that at some point in the future when the Boston Globe is either dead or a supermarket shopper given away free at Roche Brothers, your story will be what someone writes on its tombstone.