Friday, September 22, 2017

Deep Dives

For the first half of the 20th century, major league baseball was segregated by race -- not by any written rule, but by a "gentleman's agreement" among owners and league executives to not give any African-American player a real shot at a contract or spot on any team.

But baseball was too much of an American pastime to keep Americans out of it, even Americans segregated, marginalized and derided for the color of their skin. And so the Negro Leagues were born, lasting as an organization from roughly the first of the century through a few years after Jackie Robinson re-integrated the major leagues in 1947. Several biographies and histories of the teams and stars of the Negro League teams tell the stories of the game and its impact on segregated African-American urban life -- that strange parallel existence by which entire cities and cultural structures grew up in the areas to which the people had been confined. Black doctors, black businesses, black hotels, black restaurants and so on formed a complete society that rarely needed white support to survive. Black baseball was a part of this structure, and so was a black press that reported on it. Media professor Brian Carroll has written two books on the relationship between the African-American press and Negro League baseball, of which 2015's The Black Press and Black Baseball, 1915-1955: A Devil’s Bargain is the second. It focuses on several "slices" of the overall half-century story rather than laying it out in detail, using them as a way to understand the complicated relationship.

On the one hand, Negro League owners and executives saw the black press as a booster for what they were doing. The news outlets of a particular city had a responsibility to make that city's team look good. The initial chapter, which covers the way that individual newspapers enlisted on different sides of owner fights in 1915, shows how this quickly reduced them to owner mouthpieces (Indianapolis and Chicago papers allowed the different team owners a column to respond to each other in print).

Reporters for black newspapers agreed with this to some extent. Carroll highlights the history of the Negro League's "East-West Classic" and the way that papers and writers trumpeted its financial success and cultural demonstration of black equality. The way that the Classic's gate outdrew the competing Major League All-Star game some years features prominently in their writing. Their boosterism during Robinson's first season ignored a reality that the job was harder on him than anyone knew.

But increasingly, reporters and editors used their platform to argue and work for the integration of American society, including baseball. And as Carroll notes, the success of their efforts spelled the end of the Negro Leagues, as major league owners classified its teams as independent operators and simply raided the best talent. Aspiring young black ballplayers set their sights on major league uniforms and joined major league farm systems, leaving black fans with less and less reason to support separate teams that reminded them of their marginalized past. Carroll closes the book with a chapter on the role of the black press in pushing for desegregation in spring training facilities in the American South during the 1960s, the last remnant of official racial separation in baseball. The "devil's bargain" of the subtitle refers to the way that when the goal of official integration came to pass, it consigned to history the teams so important to 20th century black culture.

The Black Press is a little dry in tone, less so in describing the colorful feud of the first chapter than elsewhere. The Routledge Press sports history research format confines Carroll to relatively few pages and probably helps drive the vignette structure of the book. So although he brings to light an important part of American sports and press history, a fuller treatment will also be welcome whenever it arrives.
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Mathematics has always had two main branches -- applied and what is often called "pure." Applied math is what we do when we figure how much paint we need for a certain size of wall or try to balance our checkbook. It's also found in physics, design and engineering work. "Pure" math usually describes work with formulas or equations that are being used in the abstract. Their numerals or variables don't refer to any physical measurements or qualities. Work in this field can seem as much philosophy as math and, at least in the time of the ancient Greek originators of some of its fields, functioned the same way.

In fact, for some groups like students of Pythagoras, math and geometry were as much religion as anything else. When advances in calculation and working materials in the mid and late 1800's led to a resurgence of abstract math, a number of folks revived its connection to religion as well. Daniel J. Cohen in 2007's Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith traces the rise of this trend as well as its eventual end as mathematicians worked to professionalize their discipline.

Cohen starts by showing how the largely unchanging equations and laws of math offered security to a lot of folks bewildered by the rapid pace of technological change during the 19th century. Equations related to each other and their concepts moved and changed completely independently of things that happened in the "real world." The relationship between the lengths of the sides of a right triangle was the same whether the triangle was drawn on paper or existed only in the mind of the person thinking about it. This regularity in abstraction appealed to intellectual folks who were also devoted people of faith, as it seemed to offer a parallel to their religious understandings.

Cohen focuses on a handful of professors at schools in the United States and England, and the way their interest in math began to dominate their religious thinking and philosophy as well. They're all Unitarians or in some cases Deists, as those branches of faith had stronger appeal for the highly educated men involved in this loose movement. Some are names less well-known today than in their time, although George Boole's work in logic during the 1850s led to a lot of the concepts underlying modern computing and what's called "Boolean logic" in search engines. It's how you use AND or NOT in a search window to limit the results. Both Boole and his contemporary Augustus De Morgan used their pattern of logical formulation to describe their religious ideas and to try to falsify those of some opponents.

The end of the wave came as mathematicians moved to set themselves on a more professional footing, in part to reduce the attention they were having to pay to people who came up with flawed "solutions" to unsolvable problems, like the exact value of π. But the only way they could distance it and support the idea that mathematics was its own discipline was to trim away its connection to others, including theology. Narrow minds in both fields pushed against the idea of bridges between them and helped contribute to a supposed gulf between faith and science or scientific ideas that many accept as real today.

Cohen doesn't have a tight focus on the non-mathematical aspects of his subjects lives, and although the biographical details humanize them he doesn't always draw clear connections between the facts he includes and their bearing on the math-theology connection which his book is supposed to explore. DeMorgan especially was prone to feuds with other scientists, such as Michael Faraday, and we don't learn exactly why the details of it bear on the central idea. To some extent Boole and certainly De Morgan aren't really religious as much as they are spiritual or metaphysical, but they do apply their work to some religious themes.

But math can hold the same appeal for the intellectual and religious today as it did in the 19th century, and so Equations offers a quick picture of a time when the idea of a religious scientist was not the oxymoron limited thinkers would hold it to be today.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Eternal September

Am NPR story from earlier this month relates the history of Earth Wind and Fire's "September," a 1978 hit that is one of the evergreens of the dance floor, radio playlist or windows-down volume-up drives down a sunlit boulevard.

Writer Dan Charnas tells the story of how the song was written, how it got its "ba-di-ya" chorus and why the specific date referenced is the 21st. According to the headline, the main purpose of the story is to explain the song's longevity and its popularity. Charnas' story is a cool little slice of history, but the headline is asks the wrong question. We don't need to read a retrospective on "September" to understand why it's lasted so long and why people will still groove to it 39 years later. We just have to push "play:"


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Can't Stop the Signal

"May have been the losing side...still not convinced it was the wrong one."

--Malcolm Reynolds, five hundred years from now

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Today's Text

A reading, suitably interpreted for the day:

Aye th' Lord be my Cap’n, I’ve all that I need.

He puts a wind abaft th' beam; he sets a course f’r smooth waters; he sets me heart at ease. Sure an’ once ‘tis all done we do give him honor for it.

Even though I’ll sail in th’ roughest seas, I be fearin’ no lee shore, f’r his hand on th’ wheel is sure, an’ ne’er do we miss stays.

Never in life does he stop our grog f’r nothing, an' sees he we’ve all et well afore there’s a row; we’ve prize money an’ booty t’ spare.

Surely ‘tis blessing an’ favor all me days, an’ I shall sail in his crew ‘til th’ waves close over me head an' beyond.

Reader:
Th' word o' the Cap'n f'r th' people o' th' Cap'n;

All:
Arrr!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Empty Screens

This guy is smack on the money about how hard it is to watch an older movie on Netflix's streaming service.

Zach Schonfeld writing at Newsweek points out the very limited selection the streaming service has when it comes to movies made before 1970. I switched when the gym where I used to live got wi-fi and it was easier to stream something onto my tablet on the treadmill. But I'm thinking about switching back or maybe trading out for one of the other services Schonfeld mentions. And for that matter, everything he says about classic older movies goes and maybe even double for international movies. It's not hard to exhaust the catalogue in your fave genre if you even just want to catch two or three a week.

Netflix has some of the same misconceptions that a lot of modern culture seems to when it comes to these classics. Most of today's great directors started out on a diet of those iconic movies and it inspired their own creative visions. As bad as the screen scene is today, I shudder to think of what it might be like if future filmmakers get moved to study the craft based on a menu of Will Farrell, Judd Apatow and David Gordon Green.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Strong Constitution

On this day in 1787, 39 men signed a document outlining the new method by which the United States would govern itself. The initial Articles of Confederation had proved unworkable, and delegates had been meeting to hash out a new proposal. Sept. 17 was their final meeting, at which they signed the document in order for it to be sent out to states to be ratified.

So today we celebrate Constitution Day, with a little bit of melancholy at the realization that most of the political figures who take an oath to uphold and defend said Constitution see it mostly as a tool to be used rather than rules and limits to be followed. But this was probably bound to happen; the Constitution may be great but it's not magic or anything. And it would probably take a supernatural force to bring their attention to what that document says they should and should not do.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Test Pattern

The worn-out Friar got his tartan on at the Oklahoma Scotfest in Tulsa and listened to some great music, so he will return tomorrow.

Friday, September 15, 2017

...And I Feel Fine

The end of the world -- and its aftermath -- is a fertile field for growing stories. Whether it ends via natural disaster or human-caused calamity, the tales of those who survive feature challenges, heroism, ingenuity as well as the darker impulses spurred by the will to survive at the expense of others. Here are three visions of How It All Ends and What Comes After.

Sci-fi authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle made a big splash with their 1974 alien first-contact novel The Mote in God's Eye. The collaboration was enjoyable enough that they turned their hands to a disaster novel in between their respective solo work. The result, 1977's Lucifer's Hammer, is not really a science fiction novel even though that's where you're likely to find it shelved. Instead we watch several people in the months preceding a comet smashing into the Earth, what happens to them and others on that day, and their struggle to survive and rebuild their society in the months afterwards.

Both authors have the science backgrounds to flesh out the technical aspects of smashing the Earth with a giant comet, and they set most of their novel in and around Southern California, an area they lived in and knew. It may seem as though the first section of the novel, setting up the characters and their own specific situations, drags a little, but Niven and Pournelle are taking pains to show what kind of life the comet, nicknamed "The Hammer," will destroy. The section outlining how each of our main characters either does or doesn't escape the effects of the comet strike is harrowing and realistic.

The post-strike section, centering on the battle between a roving anti-technological cannibal army and an enclave working to survive and rebuild, feels a little less focused, but that may stem from the strength of the section on the day of the impact. Niven and Pournelle comment on what they believe are the keys to humanity's survival by showing which kinds of responses to disaster succeed and which fail. Those choices are not entirely organic, and could use some more supporting evidence to make them seem less arbitrary. The characterizations are largely solid, although only two of the female leads are very well drawn. Hammer could probably benefit from some tightening and maybe cast slimming but it's still a great end-of-the-world yarn that is less outdated than its 40-year-old pedigree might suggest.
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Walter M. Miller spent most of his active writing career working in short stories. The only novel he published during his lifetime was the 1960 post-apocalyptic triptych A Canticle for Leibowitz, about life at different periods following a nuclear World War III.

Canticle's action begins several hundred years after the war, in a monastery in the Desert Southwest. Civilization has only begun to recover, as in the aftermath of the war technology and advanced knowledge were blamed, rooted out and destroyed wherever they could be found. The monastery is the home of the "Albertian Order of Leibowitz," monks who carry on the work of Isaac Liebowitz, a Jewish engineer who spent the tumultuous postwar years collecting, hiding and preserving books and knowledge. The first section concerns the canonization of the Blessed Leibowitz as St. Leibowitz. In the second, set 600 years after the first, secular leaders want to try to control the knowledge contained at the abbey and political struggles with the church lead to schism. The third section, set 600 years later, sees humanity with advanced technology and colonies in other solar systems. The Order now works to preserve all knowledge, particularly important as two major powers seem set on again fighting each other with nuclear weapons.

The action isn't the focal point of Canticle, as Miller uses his characters and narrative to explore topics like the role of religious faith as a transmitter of knowledge and whether secular and ecclesiastical power structures can really co-exist. Starting with the wry irony of the title -- an order of Roman Catholic monks named for a Jewish electrical engineer -- Miller aims to tell the truth as he sees it but to do so following Emily Dickenson's admonition to tell it slant. The post-apocalyptic world of Canticle serves mostly as a way for Miller to skew things enough to bring that slant to bear and make readers think in order to uncover the ideas at the core of his work.
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The post-apocalyptic setting of Robert Adams multi-volume Horseclans series is also important mainly as a backdrop, but in a much different way. The plains and eastern U.S. after a devastating nuclear war functions like Robert E. Howard's Hyborean Age -- as a backdrop for some down-and-dirty sword-slinging, hacking and slashing action.

In the series' first novel, 1975's The Coming of the Horseclans, we meet Milo Morai, a man who has lived for centuries, saw the nuclear holocaust of 1980 and helped its survivors develop a nomadic culture modeled on different plains Indian tribes. Milo is one of the Undying, a group of immortals who can be killed only by suffocation, decapitation or drowning. He had sought others of his kind but not found them, so when the novel begins he is returning to the Horseclan people he founded. They have flourished, communicating telepathically with their mounts and with genetically engineered saber-toothed cats developed before the war. The bulk of the novel recounts how the Horseclans invade the decadent kingdom of the Ehlens (Hellenes), Kenooryos Ehlas. These Greek-speaking people had invaded the U.S. after the war and established themselves on the Eastern seaboard.

Throughout the novel -- and the whole series -- Adams stops now and again to lecture about politics, religion and the corrupting effects of civilization. These exposition asides frequently stall the narrative and have the additional effect of making the author appear like a jerk if you happen to hold one of those opinions on the downside of his literary nose.

Features such as that lessen the fun of what should be a big ol' sword-and-sorcery romp across the remnants of the old world, and Adams is simply not enough of a stylist like Howard and other earlier writers to overlook the digressions. The tale-spinner's inability to know when to shut up and spin leaves Coming and the rest of the Horseclans series at a solid C+ instead of the B or B+ its elements give it the potential to be.

Arrivederci, Cassini

NASA sent its Cassini spaceship into the Saturn atmosphere early this morning, insuring its radioactive fuel and any possible Earth microbes it carried could never accidentally contaminate a world where life might develop. Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus offer that possibility given their interior oceans, and the Cassini team decided to be certain no unplanned rendezvous between them developed.

The story at the Los Angeles Times recounts some of the highlights of the probe's 13-year exploration of Saturn and its moons, including the Huygens lander that sent back pictures of Titan's surface in 2005 (Huygens was designed to prevent contamination possibilities, making it safe to land).

It also points out how close the mission came to being scrubbed by budget cuts, and how those same kinds of cuts limited the instruments that the ship carried. Maybe the upcoming New Frontiers project and tier of missions should take a hint from NASCAR and decide to sell a little advertising -- space nut Jeff Bezos would probably cough up at least seven figures to have the Amazon logo on the side of a satellite headed to Titan.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Unexpected Benefits?

NBA Commissioner Adam Sliver, thinking out loud the other day, mused about how to make his sport's game broadcasts look more like a video game, with things like onscreen stat windows and such that are linked to the player. He thinks that would be a way to draw more eyeballs to those broadcasts, or at least keep folks from tuning out.

Aside from the clutter making it harder to watch the game, Silver overlooks a significant difference between the video game screen and the actual game screen: The former features action controlled by the viewer, which makes the real-time stat windows important to gameplay. When the clock ticks down, you want the ball in the hands of the best shooter and stopping to check a stat sheet kind of mars the flow.

But an actual game is not controlled by the viewer, shouted suggestions at the TV screen notwithstanding. So the stats will just clutter that screen.

I feel pretty safe about baseball either way, though. If the idea is to try to keep the attention of modern microscopic attention spans by clogging things with information, baseball should be safe. Its intermittent activity and measured pace would mean that the stat windows would stay stationary for most of the game -- and they would probably be taken down after not very long because baseball resists efforts to bring artificial excitement to that pace. We can hope that perceptive folks would see this before such an idea is tried and we have to put up with it before its inevitable disappearance.

Of course, Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre is known for supporting stupid ideas for changing the game, so we may have to endure the experiment anyway.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Never Ending Battle

When DC Comics did it's "New 52" retcon several years ago, I thought it was pretty dumb.

When Grant Morrison revealed a villain plaguing Batman was actually his supposedly-dead father, Thomas Wayne, I thought it was pretty dumb. I also thought it was pretty dumb that Thomas Wayne was, instead an immortal evil ancestor of Bruce "Batman" Wayne, also named Thomas.

When DC moved into its "Rebirth" storylines, I was hoping that some of the New 52 silliness would go away, and it seems like it has.

But then stuff like this creeps in the back way, and I just give up. BTW, spoilers for the current Superman storyline at the link, so don't look unless you already know the story or don't care about finding it out without reading it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Number on a Napkin

In some contexts, the number on the napkin was the prize of the evening -- an attractive person of the opposite sex had responded to witty overtures and winning ways, and graced one with a phone number to be used for later conversation and arranging another meeting.

Nowadays, of course, one gives someone else one's digits, usually entered into a cell phone. As in the days of the desired napkin, those might be false -- but a quick call can show that even before one leaves the bar, so that alternative targets may be selected.

Physicists are not like other people. During December 2013, a group of them gathered at a bar and they also wrote down numbers on a napkin: Their best guesses as to the final estimate of Planck's Constant that would be generated by their particular project.

The group worked with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which was trying to measure the constant in order to help redefine the kilogram. Earlier definitions relied on the International Prototype Kilogram, a physical object created in the 19th century to be the standard weight. Over time, its weight and mass have varied -- not enough to make much of a difference when someone stands on the scales or smuggles cocaine but more than enough to hobble scientific experiments requiring precise measurements.

At its 2011 meeting the General Conference on Weights and Measures decided to redefine the kilo in terms of Planck's Constant. Different groups have been experimenting to find more and more exact figures for the constant, and when the NIST group made the most accurate determination to date back in 2013 the team gathered to celebrate.

During the celebration, the ten gathered wrote down their own guesses as to what value would eventually be submitted to the General Conference:


The napkin was sealed in a plastic bottle and put into the foundation of the next level of the project, NIST-4. Recently, the project was able to make a determination of even greater accuracy with its NIST-4 device, and checked the numbers against the final submission. Shisong Li of China (5th from the bottom) earned the prize, as his guess of 6.62606990000 × 10–34 was closest to the submitted value, 6.626069934 × 10–34.

Another celebration followed, this one featuring a rum cake with the submitted value in icing. In some areas, it seems, physicists may be quite a bit like other people.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Marketing

If philosophical debates were like this cartoon from the Existential Comics page, then a lot more people would probably study philosophy a lot younger. It might then be possible that folks in their early 20s would legitimately know a significant percentage of what they already think they do.

That would be a development Bernie Sanders would hate since it would probably mean he'd be a selectman in some Vermont hamlet isolated by snow nine months out of the year instead of a senator and the root cause of Hillary Clinton's failure to be president. But not to worry, according to news stories about Mrs. Clinton's book, she has a lot of other people to blame and it'll take her some time to go through the other seven billion people on the planet before being left alone at last with the only real culprit,

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Keyboard Stilled

Jerry Pournelle, half of the duo that produced the great Mote in God's Eye and Lucifer's Hammer, passed away a couple of days after returning from a science fiction convention.

Other than having just sent a finished manuscript to a publisher or just told the best joke in the room, finishing a fun con is probably the way in which Pournelle would most like to have stepped off this mortal coil. Most modern military sci-fi and space opera traces roots back to his work in the early 1970s. His right-leaning libertarianism makes a lot of people see him as one of Robert Heinlein's truest heirs in both tech-savvy "hard" sci-fi writing and cantankerous politics.

Pournelle's collaborations, with Niven alone or with Niven and others, will probably outlast some of his own work in terms of impact on the science fiction field. Re-reading some of what I enjoyed as a young Friar exposes some of the weaknesses of a solo Pournelle work, a few of which are mentioned in the review of Mote linked above. But none of those collaborations would be what they are without him, and so he himself has stamped something indelible on the genre.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Script Doctor Needed

So depending on which media bubble surrounds you and your opinion, you have probably heard about two Hollywood showfolk offering opinions on the causes of the devastating hurricane which hit southeast Texas and another which is about to hit Florida. Jim Culver, writing as JimmyC on the Threedonia blog, compares the two here. Threedonia's a pop culture site written from a mostly conservative perspective that I often like to read even if it does sometimes show less charity towards people holding other points of view than I'd hope to see.

But Culver is about the only writer who's drawn the comparisons between press coverage of comments from Kirk Cameron and Jennifer Lawrence on the brutal storms and their impact on the United States. He points out that Cameron's comments have drawn the usual derision from the usual suspects who claim that the born-again actor says Harvey and Irma are signs of God's wrath against a US that has fallen away from God. This repugnant and wrongheaded view is a lot more common than it should be, usually voiced by folks like Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell or others blessedly lesser known.

The only problem, Culver says, is that Cameron didn't say the hurricanes were God's punishment. He said we don't know the reason behind them -- other than understanding the basic meteorological processes involved -- and so the best response is a humble acknowledgement of the awesome power involved and a commitment to pray for and help the victims.

Lawrence, on the other hand, is characterized in the Fox News story about her comments as having said that the hurricanes are Mother Nature's wrath against the us for having elected Donald Trump. Now if supernatural beings were in fact punishing the U.S. for things, it's hard to argue that they would just gloss over electing a venomous charlatan to its highest office (TM George Will).

But watching the original interview with Lawrence or reading the quotes from the stories makes it hard to characterize them as "blaming Trump for the hurricanes." There's a connection, but it's pretty round-about. Lawrence suggests that climate change has made hurricanes worse, human beings cause some of the worst of that change and need to take it seriously, but the nation's leader denies such a connection. The fever swamp of outrage in response to his immaturity and shoot from the lip Tweeting is depressing enough. Combine it with the images of devastating flooding and damage and it's all a lot for people to take.

Now, is that the kind of gauzy reasoning one might expect of a 27-year-old asked about subjects on the public radar but a little beyond her expertise? Pretty much. Is it, "Jennifer Lawrence blames hurricanes on nature's wrath over Trump election?" Nope. Not even close enough for horseshoes.

Script doctors are writers brought into a production to fix problem areas or scenes, or occasionally by actors who want a favorite scribe to reconfigure their dialogue into styles they have an easier time working. In the current situation, the popular wisdom is probably that Lawrence and Cameron need script doctors to stop them from crediting physical phenomena to vengeful deities.

Since neither of them really said what the popular wisdom says they did, then the real need for a script doctor is for the media outlets which inexplicably pay attention to what folks of everyday intelligence say about stuff, just because those folks happen to be famous. And then get it wrong.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Lexicographical Rubbish Heap

Stories appear each year that announce new words which make it into the dictionary, but how do dictionaries decide what words to leave out?

There is indeed a process. Online dictionaries don't remove words, since a single entry takes up very little data and you might as well keep everything. That's what search engines are for, after all.

But printed dictionaries sometimes have to, because otherwise even the simplest editions, designed to help students or people learning to speak English as a second language, would get too cumbersome to use. Several categories exist before a word completely disappears, such as notations that it is historical (Now hist.), or even an obsolete (Obs.) term. If a word hasn't been used since about 1930, it gets labeled obsolete and is a prime target for reduction depending on the purpose and scope of a dictionary.

The cutoff is much earlier if the word is an obsolete or compound form of a current word, about 1800. So there goes our hope of never hearing about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders again. On the other hand, they provide solid job security for the word "carbuncle."

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Vet Messages

Some veterinarians have those marquees with changeable letters and messages, and Bored Panda gathers up a few of them. I think the first one is the funniest (and almost certainly true), while I'm sure there are many dogs who would dispute the last one.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

All-American Semis

Tomorrow Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, CoCo Vandeweghe and Madison Keys will play semifinal matches at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, making up the first all-American semi-final in the women's bracket since 1981.

That year, Martina Navratilova -- a native Czech but naturalized American -- beat Chris Evert and Tracy Austin beat Barbara Potter to reach the championship match, which Austin won. It's the first Grand Slam women's semi filled with stars and stripes since 1985.

Some fun -- and patriotic -- tennis on tap!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Test Pattern

Travelin' Friar. See you tomorrow!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Some Thinkings...Maybe

Edited 9/5/17 to add:

Several news stories point out that Mr. Obama enacted the DACA policy as a temporary measure after several legislative attempts to get a similar policy were defeated in Congress. That sort of mitigates the hits he takes on relying on executive instead of legislative action, but not by much. Before Sen. Edward Kennedy passed away, the president's party enjoyed a supermajority in both houses of Congress. And in any event, it leaves the same problem on the table of trying to do with executive action something that is properly done by legislation.

President Trump announced today that he would end an Obama administration policy called DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Then-President Obama created the policy in June 2012 to allow illegally immigrating people who were brought to the country as children to receive a deferment from prosecution or possible deportation, and to obtain work permits. The thought process was that even though these people entered the country illegally, they may have done so as infants or young children and had grown up in the United States.

Trump will delay suspending the policy for six months to give Congress time to figure out a way to replace it or to create a policy enacted through legislation. Many people are unhappy with the president's choice.

A popular argument against suspending DACA made among my circle of friends and acquaintances is a religious one. There are several passages in the Old Testament in which the Israelites, now established as a nation after their time in the wilderness, are enjoined to care for people traveling through their land. Much as Jacob's family were cared for in Egypt during a time of famine, so are the Israelites to care for other wanderers. Most of the quotations I've seen generally seem to use the passages correctly, although it's amusing to see the sudden popularity of Leviticus-based legislation among folks who usually don't have much use for its regulations regarding, say, same-sex relationships.

Even so, that argument doesn't convince me. I very much want to see my nation's culture and society reflect Biblical ideas about the worth of persons and how we treat each other, but I balk at the idea of wholesale conversion of such ideas into laws. The problem with a government that tries to draw its legal codes and structure from a religion is that before long it will want the influence to be a two-way street. I am not keen on the people who run the Department of Motor Vehicles also running my church.

One friend posted a Facebook status that said "Letting him (Trump) end DACA is evil and cruel." And here we come to the rocks on which DACA founders.

I'm sympathetic to the idea that people brought illegally over the border in their parents' arms are now, years later, more American than they are anything else. I'm also sympathetic to the idea that people shouldn't pay for other people's crimes. I haven't studied immigration policy nearly closely enough to know the best policy solution for this issue, or what laws should be enacted to carry it out.

But I am sure that whatever solution is created should come from enacted legislation rather than presidential fiat, and that's the problem with DACA as it exists now. A president created it, and a president who thinks differently can end it. Many people point out that ending the policy will expose almost 800,000 people to imprisonment or deportation, but the reason they are so exposed when they had thought themselves safe was that the person who "saved" them didn't, or at least he didn't finish the job.

In our government, the president is charged with executing the laws of our nation. Congress passes those laws. Mr. Obama used his authority to decide not to enforce certain immigration laws against a specific set of people -- children brought here illegally who are now grown. They were thus safe from prosecution while he was president, and would have remained so until a successor decided to enforce those laws. Which is what we have happening now.

My friend may or may not be right that ending DACA is evil and cruel, but because DACA came into being as a presidential whim it can depart in the same way. Mr. Obama probably was and is concerned with how the people affected by DACA are treated and about the problems their situations create for them. But he was not concerned enough to try to get a law enacted that would have made that concern outlast his term. You might say that the timing of the DACA policy, five months before a presidential election, means that it was at its core a cynical grab at Hispanic voters. This would make you more cynical than me, but not very much, because I'm pretty sure that possibility motivated some of the folks in the White House even if not Mr. Obama himself.

Whatever the cause, though, the reality is that from January 20, 2009 to January 5, 2011, Mr. Obama's party controlled the White House and both branches of Congress. Had something like DACA been a high priority, it could have been made into law at any time during those two years. Persons now upset by the end of DACA may blame Mr. Trump for ending it, but they should also blame Mr. Obama for half-assing it in the first place and giving the current president the opening.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Killjoys

Killjoys was one of the other space opera shows SyFy debuted when network officials in effect "apologized" to science fiction fans for feeding them CGI critters and '80s television stars mired in movies that stretched the definition of "creative idea" to event-horizon levels. Its initial outing was fun although a little light on narrative heft.  It also labored to created its own identity from its dozens of action-show antecedents, not always successfully.

It just finished its third season and SyFy ordered 20 more episodes, to air over two seasons and bring the story to a conclusion.

Killjoys keeps the same strengths it brought in the first season, building on them as showrunners, writers and actors become more and more familiar with their world and their characters. Our three leads are no longer bounty hunters but now work to build an army to thwart the invasion of an alien species called the Hullen. These parasitically bond with human hosts and take over their bodies. The aliens are led by a woman named Aneela who is a dead ringer for our heroine Dutch, and solving that mystery will occupy a large part of their work to find a way to defeat the Hullen.

As before, the show features some really good work by the cast, especially Luke Macfarlane as D'avin Jaqobis. Storylines for the other two leads -- his brother John and Dutch herself -- lean heavily on him and he anchors them well while building his own character too. Aaron Ashmore as John and Hannah John-Kamen as Dutch are good but a notch or two below Macfarlane, and the supporting cast ranges from solid to "able to keep up."

Killjoys is fast and funny, quippy and quick-witted, featuring likeable leads well-supported by the other characters. The acting, as mentioned, is good to very, very good.

And it makes not a lick of sense.

Entire episodes this season wind up as throw-aways, resolving or re-setting characters who haven't mattered yet and won't matter later to the main plot of fighting against the Hullen. Neither the first season's corporate oligarchy nor the second season's shadowy conspiracy nor this season's advancing armada fit together in any kind of solid backdrop against which to project real tension. The image of an onion is often used to evoke the idea that a subject or person is multi-layered, with each outer layer removed revealing a new inner layer. Killjoys is an onion made of smoke, with each removed layer showing nothing more than another impenetrable fog. Showrunners wisely limited each season to 10 episodes apiece, because even the funniest jokes wear thin when that's all that's there.

Sci-fi fandom being what it is and the internet and 2017 being what they are, devotees of the now-canceled Dark Matter have thrown shade on shows the network did renew. But Matter creator Joseph Mallozzi points out that as a SyFy-acquired rather than a SyFy-produced show, Matter's bubble was a little more fragile than the others and it was always going to be the first to go if the network wanted a change. Dark Matter's cancellation didn't make Killjoys a weaker show; it was that already in spite of hints about what it might be if showrunners spent some time connecting all of their pretty moving parts.

But whatever the opinion one has of it, Killjoys now has 20 episodes to see if it can hammer some sense out of its mare's nest of a universe and cure its narrative ADD to bring about the finish that its hardest workers have earned for it.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Still Under Warranty?

Tuesday NASA will observe the official 40th anniversary of the launch of the two Voyager space probes. Voyager 1 launched Sept. 5, 1977, 16 days after Voyager 2. Even well after finishing their primary missions of data collection about the outer planets of our solar system, the two probes have continued to send information about its outer reaches, crossing into interstellar space in recent years and giving us our first glimpses of what it might be like when we step beyond our neighborhood.

And so it's fitting that the Astronomy Picture of the Day site at NASA gives the dynamic duo their own movie poster, seen below:


Someday we'll probably be able to go out and find those things and check out what they're doing now -- here's hoping it doesn't take another 40 years to figure out how to get there.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Reborn

What would you do if you had a second chance to be you? Would you be better? Worse? The same? How would you decide?

In SyFy's Dark Matter, that chance is given to six strangers who wake up on board a spaceship with no memory of who they are or how they got there, even though they seem to have retained several aspects of their personalities and skills -- many of which seem to connect to the astonishing variety of weaponry on board with them. Orginally a limited-issue comic book, Dark Matter was a part of SyFy's sudden recollection that science fiction involved more than flying sharks and bad CGI crocodile mutants. It just finished its third season, so this may have mild spoilers for viewers who haven't watched the whole show.

During the course of the first season, the crew of the Raza discovered they almost all had rather colorful pasts, and in bits and pieces began to re-learn their histories. But while they re-acquired factual knowledge about their pasts, they didn't actually regain the experiences, meaning that what had shaped them before didn't shape them now. They were able to respond to situations and circumstances very differently than they had before their memories were wiped because they were now truly new people. At first just a few begin to really explore this concept but eventually they all commit to new paths, even choosing to retain the numbers they gave each other when they awakened instead of using their old names.

At its best, Dark Matter keeps this question at the top of whatever adventure or caper the crew is handling -- who would you be if you didn't have to be you? Over three seasons that issue has fallen a bit lower down on the narrative ladder but the show's strongest episodes keep some focus on it. The exploration is helped by some really good actors in several of the roles, especially Melissa O'Neil as Two, Roger Cross as Six and Anthony Lemke as Three. Jodelle Ferland as Five and Zoie Palmer as the ship's android given a little less to work with but are still very good.

Season Three has some weaknesses, as the former Four, Alex Mallari, Jr., continues his struggle to rule the Zairon Empire as its rightful emperor, Ryo Ishida. He chose to have his memories, stored in the ship's computer, restored as a way of helping him regain his throne. But the turmoil of the court and the corporate war raging across the galaxy make that a harder task than he thought, and Ryo's ruthlessness threatens his former shipmates. Mallari is perfectly fine as a stoic warrior type, but the court intrigue storyline asks more of him than he currently has available in his actor quiver. The strands that weave through him are some of those season three weak moments.

Even so, Dark Matter was one of the network's stronger shows, with strong characters, some witty dialog and a general story arc that, while not perfectly defined, did seem to have some direction.

SyFy announced today (Sept. 1) that it cancelled the show; whether it plans for some kind of movie to resolve the Season 3 cliffhanger is as yet unknown. If we're lucky, this move will leave room for more episodes of Z Nation and Wynonna Earp, which means that much more time to read books.