Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Should I?

So this headline at Real Clear Science reads: "A Huge Cosmic Void is Repelling Our Galaxy."

Somehow a large space without any galaxies (so you know it has to be huge) is pushing our local group of galaxies away from it. But the headline could be taken in any number of ways...

Nah, too easy. We'll come back tomorrow and see what's up.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Have Tough, Will Travel

Peter Ash's time in the miltary in Iraq and Afghanistan left him with no visible scars, but he now suffers from a claustrophobia that keeps him sleeping in his truck or outdoors and makes almost any time indoors a stress-filled proposition. Thus he's the title character in Nicholas Petrie's debut novel, The Drifter. But when Ash learns a fellow Marine committed suicide, leaving behind a widow struggling to make ends meet, he ventures back into society to help her.

And finds a suitcase stuffed with money and explosives under the porch he's repairing. Did it belong to his late friend Jimmy, who had moved out several months prior to his death? Where did he get the money if it did, and what's been planned with all of the explosives? Will the original owners come calling for their material, and can Ash protect his Jimmy's widow Dinah and her two children?

The obvious comparison to the ex-military drifter not trying to cause trouble but finding it anyway is Lee Child's Jack Reacher, and Child himself offered a laudatory blurb about the book. Petrie is a lot less mannered and stylized than Child when it comes to things like fight scenes or action sequences  -- no two-page discourse on tranquilizers and their delivery systems for him. Ash's drifting tendencies are a little more organic than Reacher's, stemming from his PTSD claustrophobia rather than just vague wanderlust. And Ash is friendlier as well, partnering with a local crime boss who once knew Jimmy and Dinah and feels some obligation to her.

Even with all the comparisons, Peter Ash is more than just a Millennial generation version of the late-era Boomer Jack Reacher. Petrie writes his own story with his own goals in mind, and Drifter, despite some implausibilities and a rather hurried ending, stands on its own as a solid debut and a welcome invitation to further -- and farther -- travel.
-----
Nick Mason may have been a crook, but the time he's serving now was a setup. After he straightened out for his wife and new daughter, old acquaintances roped him into one last easy job. Which went bad and brought about the death of a cop, and earned Nick 25 years in prison. Five years into his time, Chicago crime lord Darius Cole presents Nick with an offer that gets him out early. He takes it.

But though no longer behind bars, Nick is no less a prisoner, as the condition of his release is an agreement to answer a call from Cole's lieutenants to do whatever Cole asks. Naturally, Cole doesn't ask him to man the Salvation Army Christmas kettle. As Cole's orders lead to more violent and more dangerous crimes, Nick finds himself drawing more attention from the police and less able to try to re-establish a relationship with his ex-wife and daughter -- who may become targets themselves.

The Second Life of Nick Mason is tautly written, quick-paced and never lags. Nick and the other characters are well-drawn and Steve Hamilton's hand with an action sequence is already well-practiced in his Alex McKnight series. It struggles with some pretty improbable turns of events and implausible actions on the part of some of the people in it, but not so much as to slow down the story.

The sequel to Second Life already has a May publishing date, and I have no desire to read it. Nick's life is bleak and by the end of this book he's really no better off than he was before. The friend who passed this one on to me noted that real noir -- which Hamilton shoots for and largely hits -- doesn't really work well for a series character, and I think that's right. Maybe if Nick gets a third life that's not so depressing I can check back in.
-----
The above-mentioned Jack Reacher is probably the premier tough guy on the literary market today, and for his 21st outing, Lee Child takes him back to 1996 for a strange training assignment in Night School. In 1996, Reacher was still an investigator and still in the United States Army, having yet to adapt his wandering lifestyle. He finds himself in a "class" with two other men -- one FBI and one CIA -- and all three are assigned to uncover the meaning of a cryptic message from an undercover agent in a jihadi terrorist cell in Europe. An unnamed American wants a hundred million dollars for...something. Reacher and his "classmates," along with his co-investigator Sgt. Frances Neagley, need to find out who the American is, what he's supposed to have that's worth $100,000,000 and who in the terrorist community is trying to buy it.

Child has been dropping these flashback novels into the regular series every now and again with mixed results. On the plus side, it helps him dodge the fact that in the regular timeline his main character is pushing 60 and a little less likely candidate for unstoppable fighting machine who's irresistible to the ladies. On the down side, some fans prefer the rootless traveler to the Reacher who's still a part of a heirarchy and structure. Night School probably won't convince those folks, but it does let Reacher work as an investigator and in the shadowy world of espionage instead of having to punch out yet another back country oligarch whose wealth, power and control issues make him dangerous to the poor people he bullies.

As before, Child does a decent job of writing the 20-years-ago Reacher with a little bit lighter touch that the current version. Unlike the last flashback novel, 2011's The Affair, he spends less time showing us how Major Jack Reacher prefigures Wandering Knight-Errant Jack Reacher and more time telling his story. He also does a credible job setting a story in a world that is pre-9/11 in its concerns about terrorism, but still working under increasing stress following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Child hints that 9/11 organizer Osama bin Laden plays a role in the group seeking a new avenue of attack against the United States.

Night School also tones down the Superman antics Child sometimes scripts for his mainstay character, allowing the story to move forward with some fewer "Oh, please" eyerolls. Time spent reading it is time passed much more than time wasted, and that's enough to ask of any Jack Reacher adventure.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Not-So-Heavy Metal

Harvard physicists may have created solid metallic hydrogen, a discovery which could lead to many cool things, including room-temperature superconductivity.

More testing needs to happen in order for the researchers to be sure of their find, and as the story at Physics World notes, some other physicists are skeptical. Hydrogen is the lightest of all elements, with its atoms consisting of just one proton and one neutron. Liquid and solid forms of elements exist when the atoms in them lose enough energy that they begin to connect with each other -- the solid form having the least amount of energy in it of all. Apply enough energy to a solid and it will melt into a liquid. Apply even more and it will boil into a gas. At almost any temperature and pressure in the universe, hydrogen stays a gas.

That's almost any temperature and pressure, that is. Jupiter and Saturn are formed largely from liquid metallic hydrogen, as the conditions in their huge interiors allow for it. But solid metallic hydrogen remains elusive, even though two physicists predicted its existence more than 80 years ago. The Harvard team may be able to fulfill that prediction if their initial findings bear out.

If solid metallic hydrogen has been created, it could be candidate for superconductivity for electrical currents. Conductive materials that are cooled down below even some of the coldest temperatures ever recorded have been shown to lose their resistance to that current flow, reducing the amount of energy needed to push current through the medium. Those temperatures are almost always too low to maintain without great effort. But if the solid metallic hydrogen exists, it could be a candidate to become such a material at regular temperatures, which could open up all kinds of new fun stuff for scientists to play with. In the meantime, they'll keep checking their work to see if they're right.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

All Booked Up

This cool treehouse in a Lapland forest probably charges a lot more than I can afford, even without the whole plane ticket and everything.

But when you go to bed, you can watch the aurora borealis, and it's pretty frickin' far away from the mindless blather of Donald Trump and the equally mindless knee-jerk responses of the large portion of his opponents. So I'm going to start saving those pennies.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Stunned!

I laud my alma mater, Northwestern University, because it is the vanguard of the fight against Illini communism -- a danger of which far too few people seem to be aware. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have its flaws. Sometimes really big ones.

However, this item does not represent a flaw as much as it makes you wonder why a particular study was done. Economics prof and university president Morton Schapiro and econ prof David Figlio gathered data from first-year students between 2001 and 2008, looking for indicators that showed which instructors were the best teachers. They then compared the results with those that showed which professors ranked highest in resarch.

Here's the stunner: No correlation. Now, while it's kind of nice to have at least one empirical study on hand showing that skills at research do not necessarily imply skills at teaching, and vice-versa, it's also sort of a non-surprise. It's almost like the fields of teaching and research are different from each other and success in one of them may require skills which the other one doesn't, or even skills that might hold one back in pursuit of standing in the other!

Now, they didn't survey students going back to my days on campus -- which is good because a number of those events are directly connected with large brain cell die-offs. I bet, though, we would have reported much the same data as our successors did some 20 years later. I could not have told you for the life of me which of my professors was a top researcher, even when they were instructors in my field and major. But I could tell you which ones were lousy teachers. And even though the judgment of an undergraduate about a teacher's quality may lean a little heavily towards ease of passing the class, simplicity of assignments, wittiness of lectures and "coolness" or something similar, we'd probably have still been in the ballpark.

The study doesn't say that great teachers can't be great researchers, or the flipside either. It just says the two don't have any correlation. You'd kind of hope that the fact that one of the profs conducting the study was the university president would have an impact on who gets hired to teach at that school. I guess undergrads at NU will see, and we'll all discover whether President Schapiro is a good learner, or just a good researcher.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Building a (Plastic) Ivory Tower

The University of Cambridge in England is looking to hire a professor of "play, development and learning." The chair is endowed by a grant of £4 million from the LEGO Foundation.

The actual goal of the center -- called the Centre for Research in Play, Development and Learning (PEDAL) -- and the professorship funded by the grant is to study how play affects children's development and learning. Previous work in the area hasn't been coordinated, so it will be up to the PEDAL center to put all of the pieces together.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Braw Laddie

January 25th was the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns, and many fans of his poetry and of Scot heritage celebrate this night (or another near to it) with a meal and party.

I looked through some Burns poems for something suitable for the observance, but nothing really jumped out this year. It's worth noting that he wrote several poems on the occasion of this or that election or on politics itself -- those caught my eye but were mostly too long to grab a snippet for a blog post.

Elections today might inspire poetry as well, but it seems it would be mostly of the kind one might read upon the wall of the stall in the public necessary...

All Leak, No Information

The post title could describe a government official's dream -- a leak to reporters that satisfies their desire to find out things official spokesmen don't say but which contains no actual information whatsoever. But I'm referring to the problem that a black hole causes in the universe, as outlined very clearly in physicist Sabine Hossenfelder's recent Starts With a Bang entry at Forbes.

A black hole is what's left after a gigantic star blows up -- a core of matter compressed so much and so dense that nothing, not even light, escapes its gravitational field. Although theorized for some time, black holes weren't confirmed until scientific instruments were developed that were able to measure the gravitational effects they produced.

All well and good, except that Stephen Hawking led a team that showed black holes would in fact emit some radiation -- it would "leak," so to speak, out of them. This Hawking radiation is completely random, forming no waves or anything like that. What it means is that over time, even black holes evaporate and dissipate the energy they have built up. That time is exceedingly long but finite, and the universe has a lot of it to give.

By itself that's no problem, and in fact it helps square things with the second law of thermodynamics about how everything eventually runs down. The problem crops up when we consider, as physicists do, the way that particles and radiation are "information carriers." By information, they don't mean knowledge or facts from a book, but something sort of like the history of the particles and energy under consideration. Hossenfelder's example is a book burned to ash. If the smoke and the ash are retained, it is theoretically possible that the book could be reconstituted from them, since the atoms making up the smoke and the ash are the same as those that made up the book, only transformed by the application of heat. Of course, she notes, theoretically possible doesn't mean easy or in this case at all likely. Some future level of technology might be able to pull off the trick, but not today's.

This same principle, that natural processes can run backward or forward, applies to everything, even Donald Trump's hair. Theoretically, it should be possible to determine what material actually makes up the hair and how it was created but as a wise man once said, that could take years and cost millions of lives, so it probably won't ever be attempted. Non-physical qualities, such as Cory Booker's self-respect, aren't subject to these laws and may appear or disappear as needed.

Hawking radiation escaping from a black hole has no information. Nada. Zip. There is no way to determine whatever it was that fell into the part of the black hole from which the radiation leaked. The process can't run backwards, which is against the rules. Hossenfelder gives brief outlines of four main theories about what's going on with the information but notes none of them come to any real conclusions. She's pessimistic about any near-future breakthroughs in the matter.

Obviously the problem will be "solved" on that day in the far future when the last black hole has completely evaporated -- but there probably won't be people around to witness that or even anything remotely like days, for that matter. So in the meantime it's sitting around and scratching heads and noodling on keyboards and doodling on notepads and a lot of "What-ifs?" and "Do-you-thinks?" Because despite the rock solid opinion by some that we understand everything about the way the universe works, reality reminds us that some of the information we require for that to be true is on a need-to-know basis.

And according to the universe, we don't need to know. Yet.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

From the Rental Vault: The Berlin File (2013)

Despite the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany in 1990, the formerly divided city of Berlin retains a sort of "spy mystique" that makes it a natural setting for espionage thrillers for many countries. So while it might not be the first thought for a cloak-and-dagger tale about a North Korean agent, Ryoo Seung-wan's The Berlin File fits the location just fine.

North Korean Pyo Jong-seong is in the middle of an arms deal with Russians and Middle Eastern terrorists that goes bad. He escapes but none of the evidence he finds leads him to any kind of firm trail to those who set him up. South Korean Jung Jin-soo pursues Pyo, but also uncovers a mare's nest of intelligence agencies with interests in the broken deal and can't figure out if Pyo is his quarry or some kind of double agent. When Pyo learns that his wife, translator Ryun Jung-hee, is the target of a Pyongyang hunt for a mole, he may find out that his enemies are the only people he can trust.

Ryoo's spy story has the proper amount of backstabbing, covert motives and skullduggery, mixed with scenes of high-tension violence and confrontation. His Berlin is bleak and washed-out, fitting in with the closed-off lives led by two of his protagonists, Pyo and Ryun. The actors playing them, Ha Jung-woo and Jun Ji-Hyun, display the blank affect you'd associate with two people married at government order who work in service to one of the most cult-like states in the world. Since feelings can't always be directed or controlled, they have learned to show none, even towards each other. Only when they wake up to their potential danger do they wake up to their feelings for each other.

Han Suk-kyu as the South Korean Jung Jin-soo is the most colorful character in the movie, as much cowboy cop as government agent even though his agency has its own rigid rules and lines he's supposed to stay within.

The spy shenanigans that drive the plot wind up a little too twisty for full satisfaction, leading to an answer that seems both complicated and inadequate at the same time. And Ryoo's obvious desire for a thoughtful action picture with flair struggles in the gray Berlin palette he's chosen to paint with -- it frames Pyo and Ryun well initially but becomes too limiting the more it moves along. Those limitations aside, though, The Berlin File delivers on its promise of a taut spy thriller with as much weight in its characters and story as in its cloak-and-dagger set pieces.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Quotations

In a recent Facebook post, I offered up an observation that the peaceful transfer of power on Inauguration Day was pretty neat, and was a sign of something that couldn't be obscured by the likes of Donald Trump or all of the people whining about him (Let's be clear -- criticism he's earned and he will earn more before this day is done. Whining is like the guy screaming no while President Trump took the oath of office).

I then said all I could do for the next four years or so was remember the greatness of the system of government we have and hope for the best from the people in it, including the twerp at the top.

Someone I've known for 25 years then commented unfavorably on my post and wound up deploying a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer about stupidity. It's from a letter he wrote marking the tenth anniversary of Adolf Hitler's rise to power. The quote was in a picture that pairs the first paragraph of the letter with a smaller headshot of Bonhoeffer. He was a Lutheran pastor whose writings on discipleship and resistance to tyranny have offered some pretty important ideas for Christians and non-Christians alike in how to confront state-sponsored evil or injustice. He was jailed for participation in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and executed.

As I said, the quote in the picture held the first paragraph of the letter, which ends with the caution, "Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous."

I looked it up, because as Abraham Lincoln has warned us, you shouldn't believe everything you read on the internet. The part quoted in the picture is about one quarter of the whole letter, which goes on as Bonhoeffer defines the stupidity he's speaking of and how he does see that it should be engaged. You can find it in his Letters and Papers from Prison Vol. 8, and a website that has the whole letter online here.

Bonhoeffer's use of "stupidity" refers more to the way people seem to follow along in movements when large groups gain power or offer a cause in which to be swept up. It's not, he says, a matter of intellect because some very intellectual people manage to be stupid in this way and some very non-reflective people manage to avoid it. Probably we would today use phrases like "herd instinct" or something similar. Stupidity is cured not by listening to a reasoned argument, but from being liberated from the sweeping current of power to which the stupid have surrendered their liberty.

It's a little paternalistic, but that's understandable. When your opponents are literally Nazis, it's tough not to be smarter than them and probably even tougher not to sound like it. In any event, it's clear that Bonhoeffer suggests not complete disengagement from the stupid but engagement along different lines than reasoning and argument. He notes in his closing paragraph that his thoughts on stupidity "utterly forbid us to consider the majority of people to be stupid in every circumstance." Which would seem to mean that it's possible for anyone to be stupid, if the right cause or right leader comes along that meshes with the way of thinking that can sweep them along.

Now you might think that I would win the argument by quoting Bonhoeffer's entire letter rather than just the part that's been memed. Nope. Long before I could use the rest of the letter in the discussion, my friend followed the leading of the truncated version and stopped dealing with the person considered stupid -- me -- and both unfriended and blocked me. So I lose.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Intergalactic Kegger, Coming Up!

This experiment must happen. Soon. And often.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Here, Kitty Kitty Kitty

Although Yale University is thought of as one of the best in the world and we could surmise it employs some of the smartest people in the world, I am not always sure if that's true.

A psychiatry professor there wanted to see what happens in our brain during our feeding behaviors (when eating Brussels sprouts, the brain seems to be weeping and wailing, "Kill me now! Kill me now!"). So he used an experiment to "turn on" a section of a mouse's brain that's connected to its amygdala, a more primitive part of the brain that wakes up when we're being predatory. The laser light shined on li'l Squeaker's gray matter turned him into a wee ravening beast, attempting to attack and eat just about anything in his cage except other mice. Including things that aren't actually edible, like bottle caps and rolls of tape. He didn't stop until the laser was switched off.

Now, Mr. Jinks, Jerry and Scratchy's opinions to the contrary, mice are considered dangerous mostly in their potential to spread disease, as they are small and couldn't eat very much of you if they tried (Mouse restaurant sign: "This pinkie toe free if eaten in one hour!") But there are a whole bunch of them, so finding a switch that turns them into bottomless pits of hungry rage doesn't seem like such a smart idea to me.

Of course, I didn't graduate from Yale, so I may be missing something there.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Snow the Crows!

Earlier this month a snowfall decorated the trees in Portland, OR, and at one plaza  downtown, crows later landed on the trees. It produced this sight:


A crime-scene technician in a nearby police office building saw it from a window and quickly used one of the department's cameras to get the shot, and the Portland Police Department posted it.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Non-Fiction Pairing

Lucas Mann spent the 2010 season living in the Iowa town of Clinton and following the fortunes of the Class A minor league Clinton LumberKings. Then he wrote a book about it, Class A Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere.

Not about Clinton or the Clinton LumberKings, but about Lucas Mann spending a season with them, and therein lies the problem. I don't really know Lucas Mann and although I have no reason to believe he is anything other than a fine person, I don't really care about what the 2010 season of the LumberKings meant to him. Details about the players and the season are liberally salted with anecdotes about Mann's own high school baseball days and the personal events that he himself went through during the season.

Like the title suggests, Class A baseball can be found just about anywhere in the United States, and the connection between the smaller cities where it's played and the young men who spend one or maybe two seasons there on the way up or down can make for interesting reading. Major League baseball's acquisition of talent from different Latin American countries brings players from a completely different culture to small-town America, also an interesting subject on which Mann touches way too briefly.

In the end, Class A Baseball is less an exploration of the community and sport at its center and more of a diary exploring the author. And like most of us, he's not half as interesting to any of us as he is to himself.
-----
In the world of high school, popularity, athleticism and "cool" rule. Studiousness, introspection and following one's own path are quick routes to Outcastville, Nerdom and Loser Central. A lot of modern media imitates this pattern; there is literally no other reason to care about what happens in the life of any Kardashian other than they are the "popular kids" in the pop culture lunchroom.

Author Alexandra Robbins thinks that's not wrong in a moral sense, but also in a real-world conditions sense. The race of life after high school doesn't usually go to the strong, swift and perfectly coiffed, but to the goofballs that get stuffed in lockers and swirlied until bald. By not following the crowd when in school, they develop the confidence to make their own choices as adults and often do so to their material as well as personal benefit. After all Bill Gates never tackled a quarterback, but he could buy every one of them today if he wanted.

Robbins' 2011 book The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth tries to make this case by exploring several students who live on the fringes of their different schools and communities. They share that status though they differ in home life, parental support and many other factors. She interviewed the students extensively and spent some time shadowing them in their daily lives. As a part of the study she's doing, she presents each student with a challenge that could help them break part of the shell that's keeping them confined to their pre-set roles and largely unhappy.

Robbins is a skillful interviewer and her thesis is probably more right than wrong. But she has in Geeks and other books developed a habit of casting everything in its most sensational light possible -- nothing like internet clickbait, but definitely shaded to grab attention as much if not more than enlighten. The case studies here tend to blend, echo one another and even repeat themselves. We learn after a little space that one of the main people Robbins followed was not a student but a teacher, and see the same Lord of the Heathers scenes enacted by adults as by students. After that, though, not a lot distinguishes one storyline from another.

I'm all for students thinking for themselves and breaking the social shackles of high school caste systems as early as possible, and I think the same strengths that prompt that help us succeed in later life. Robbins gets somewhere along that same line, but still imperfectly. A better exploration and explanation await.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Test Pattern

Wild day. Back tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Long-Established Fact?

Well, this item from 1651 settles it, then...

Monday, January 16, 2017

Counting Down

The solstice is past, the days begin to lengthen and preview magazines are soon to appear. Opening Day is 76 days from the day of this post, but in the meantime we can still read about the great variety of experiences and history of humanity's greatest achievement -- baseball.

OK, that's hyperbole, but still, I'd like to see a chimp or a bonobo figure out how far the pitcher's mound should be from home plate.

-----
About a hundred years ago, organized baseball weathered the last serious challenge to the two-league structure that has dominated it through most of its history as the Federal League played two seasons with major-league caliber players -- some even swiped from the already-existing American and National Leagues. Even though it only played two seasons, the FL's demise set the stage by which baseball as we generally accept it today is organized. It also bequeathed the holy site of Wrigley Field, which was originally the Chicago Whales' Weeghman Park before being taken over by the National League's Cubs.

Financier Daniel Levitt -- a baseball fan, member of the Society for American Baseball Research and historian -- examines the courtroom, financial and ownership sides of the FL's history in 2012's The Outlaw League and the Battle that Forged Modern Baseball. Levitt's own financial background and long history with SABR equips him for a good and thorough explanation of how the Federal League began and some clues as to why and how it ended. A modern perspective may consider the two existing leagues sort of co-eternal, but when the Federal experiment began in 1913 the American League itself was less than 15 years old. Plenty of good-sized cities had a hankering for major-league quality play, and FL organizers found individuals and groups with pockets deep enough to supply stadiums and the start-up capital for eight teams. Initially operating without teams on the majors' rosters, the FL in 1914 decided to grab for the big time, using those deep pockets to pay star players well above what the existing leagues would offer and trying to bust the reserve clause by which AL and NL teams kept players tied to their rosters.

Unfortunately the revenue didn't materialize, and the owners of the National and American League combined to hold the line against the upstarts' incursions. A lawsuit filed by the FL against the owners of the other teams was left to languish by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis until finally decided in 1922, and its holding that baseball as an entertainment wasn't subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act allowed for the current two major leagues and several minor leagues as feeder or farm teams. By then the FL had folded, with several of its teams bought out by AL and NL owners and at least one owner allowed to buy an NL team.

Levitt's style is a little dry over the course of 267 pages, but his research is thorough and his understanding of some of the ins and outs of financing and legal matters top notch. He leaves a few questions open, such as whether the Federals considered using players from existing Negro League teams such as the Chicago American Giants or All-Nations traveling team that would become the Kansas City Monarchs. Had they done so, they might have been able to expand both fan base and revenue, as well as challenging the so-called "gentlemen's agreement" not to hire African-American players. Of course, there may be no records reflecting that the FL owners ever considered the move, but it could have been good for Levitt to have touched on the matter.

Small questions like that aside, though, Outlaw League is still a very good account of more than just the brief history of the Federal League, measuring its impact as well and demonstrating how those two short seasons more than a century ago still affect the sport of baseball today.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Techno No-no?

Ryan Britt, writing at Inverse, puts his finger on something that had been needling the back of my mind in watching the recent rise of science fiction television shows and movies.

On the one hand, we nerdfolk kind of enjoy watching our preferred genre of entertainment get blockbuster-level production values and be given serious thought. But on the other hand, as Britt notes, there seems to be a common theme running through much of the latest output -- a kind of technophobia, which you might think would be counter-productive in an arena that often relies on pretty advanced technology to set its stages and scenes.

It's not that I oppose the worldview that suggests we be a lot more careful with technology than we are. Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death may have been written about television and such, way back in 1985, but I firmly believe it has just as much to say about the internet and the modern obsession with staring into small screens. But when every series or movie carries that idea as its philosophical center, then not only does it start to make things boring, it sabotages the vehicle by which that philosophy hopes to enter the cultural conversation.

Britt's short piece made me think of a problem I ran into a few weeks ago while looking for a movie or something to download to my iPad for some treadmill watching. I was in the mood for something sci-fi, but once I waded past the endless sea of Syfy Network zombie/monster crap, I was left with a lot of eeeevil technology parables. "Can't there be one new thing with great starships spanning the galaxy and searching out its mysteries?" I asked myself.

Seems like I may not be the only one wondering.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Other Worlds Than These

Larry Correia's most popular works have been in what's called the "urban fantasy" genre, which combines magical beings and backgrounds with the everyday world where most of us live. His "Monster Hunters International" is an excellent example, suggesting that most of the monsters ever thought of in story and legend were real, and that secret agencies exist to fight against them. In Son of the Black Sword in 2015, he tried his hand at high fantasy, telling the story of the great warrior Ashok Vadal and his quest to redeem himself after learning the shocking truth of his own early life.

Ashok lives in a world threatened by demons who rule unmolested in the deeps of the waters surrounding his land. He serves the rule of the law, established to guide humans when it became clear that those who claimed to follow gods and deities were instead simply using those beliefs to maintain their power. A Protector, gifted with a magical black sword, Ashok is the elite of the elite until tragedy strikes and he is sentenced to an impossible quest as punishment. But other Protectors hunt him, and he will have opposition both before and behind in his fight for redemption.

Correia drew on Hindu myths for his ideas and some of the features of Ashok's world, but tells his own stories with them. He formalizes his authorial voice from the rough and tumble brawl of the MHI series and leaves out the broad humor for some more subtle laughs (Ashok, about to battle a demon in a fight that will almost certainly kill him, apologizes with perfect propriety to a family whose home he invades and promises to compensate them afterward if he lives).

Son is the first of a projected trilogy of the "Saga of the Forgotten Warrior," and offers a good start. If Correia can maintain for two more books, he'll have a quality entry in the crowded field of epic fantasy series.
-----
Although he's ranged across the science fiction and fantasy landscapes in his 45 years as an author, Alan Dean Foster is probably best known for his novels in the universe of the Humanx Commonwealth, a sprawling galactice milieu dominated by humans and the insectoid Thranx. In 1982's Nor Crystal Tears, he told the story of the first contact between the two disparate species, and the bold action taken by some of their more visionary members that helped birth their most beneficial union.

Ryozenzuzex lives on the frontier Thranx colony world Willow-Wane, where he has always felt vaguely out of place in the highly ordered society of his people. Growing disgust at official impotence against raids and attacks by the aggressive reptilian AAnn, plus a fantastic report from his premate's distant relatives about another alien species, set him off on a journey where he will leave his home and life behind for a chance to learn what he can of the world beyond Willow-Wane. Accompanied by the wealthy poet-philosopher Wuuzelansem, he eventually connects with these strange beings, who wear their skeletons inside their bodies and call themselves humans. Ryo develops a friendship with two humans, Bonnie and Loo, and resolves to not only get them back in touch with their homeworld, but to take steps to cement a contact between the two species. It will require him to risk even more than he already has, with no guarantee even that will be enough to overcome the mutual mistrust.

Foster's gift as a writer has always been his vivid descriptions of non-terrestrial ecosystems and life, and the best sections of Tears focus on Ryo's growth and young adulthood. His imagination allows him to describe life on alien terms in ways that remain recognizable and relatable. The Thranx frequently seem like amusingly fussy academics but every now and again Foster drops in a tidbit that reminds readers they're following non-human beings. He keeps his focus on the hundreds of generations of antipathy human beings have towards bugs, and how it influences the way they deal with Ryo. But he gives the Thranx the same kind of prejudice to overcome, since human beings resemble in construction and scent the predators who hunted them in their prehistory.

Tears falters a little once Ryo and his human friends begin interaction with the human society that sent them. Much of the last third of the book seems sketchy and somewhat rushed, with the ending especially feeling hurried and artificial. It's still a good first-contact novel, standing out by offering much of its story from the perspective of the non-human species. And for Foster fans, it's a nice look at the initial steps that would create the Amalgamation backdrop for his best-known work.

Friday, January 13, 2017

(I Don't Care That You) (Can't Get No) Satisfaction

This article at Spiked is talking mostly about universities in the United Kingdom, and it front-loads with some of the usual items about stupid trigger warnings.

But it does have a pretty important point at the end of the story, which is that a lot of this nonsense stems from the idea that a university's mission concerns the satisfaction of its students. If that's the case, then just give them the diploma and 4.0 they want and send them on their way.

If, on the other hand, a university decides to concern itself with the education of students, well, then, there will be times when they are not very satisfied. Which is not the crime that some university administrators seem to think it is.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

"Convoy" 2017 Begun?

Volkswagen, which brought back an updated version of its classic Beetle a few years ago, has now unveiled a retooled Microbus.

It's called the ID Buzz, and if it ever goes into production, it will be an electric vehicle. It will also be capable of self-driving, and VW says that the dual electric motors will allow a 0-60 mph acceleration in 5 seconds.

As far as I can tell from the story, although the color shown is not precisely chartreuse, there should be room for 11 long-haired Friends of Jesus. Indeed, since the driver's seat can turn to face the rest of the cab while the car is in self-driving mode, they can probably have a sing-along.

But in the interests of safety, the ID Buzz will not be able to put the hammer down beyond 99 mph.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Careful Examination

I've spent much of my news-reading time today gathering information about some rather unsavory and potentially damaging habits of the President-elect.

I'm talking about George Mason University economics professor Don Boudreaux's commentary on the Prez-elect's understanding of trade, both international and otherwise, of course. Because I'm a grownup and I'd like to figure out what the guy about to sit in the Oval Office doesn't know diddly about (quick answer: lots).

Every blithering idiot who salivated over, repeated, retweeted and chortled about the made-up crap that made-up crap dispenser Buzzfeed offered has made it that much less likely people will pay attention to reports about the actual flaws Donald Trump will bring to the presidency. They will certainly pay less attention to reports on them from said idiots.

The wind has been sewn, and the reaping time nears.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Gang Aft Agley

So Hasbro wants to add some different tokens to its famed board game Monopoly (Hasbro is the current owner of the franchise). It's asking people to vote among a handful of choices.

Not necessarily a bad idea, but they have involved Buzzfeed, which lays a heavy hand on the side of the scale that reads "suck."

Monday, January 9, 2017

Not Overdue, but Maybe Overdone

Libraries have limited shelf space, and despite the claims we may see that nobody reads anymore, they regularly purchase new books which are checked out and (avert your eyes!) read from cover to cover.

Of course, the new books require shelf space, which means older books have to go. Sometimes a library will dispense with extra copies of a former bestseller no longer in such demand. Sometimes it will unload a copy that's seen better days. And sometimes it will trade out a full-sized hardback for a smaller edition, such as a rebound "library-cover" paperback.

But sometimes it will just have to get rid of a book entirely. How can librarians determine which books are more burden than boon? Quality might be one way, of course. Anything Al Franken wrote after 1999. Or anything that Ann Coulter wrote, ever. James Patterson, Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer could do the library more good as buck-a-copy fundraiser sales than they ever did as actual novels.

That way, though, lies madness, if for no other reason than having to justify buying the crap in the first place. So there is, as so often these days, an algorithm. It sorts books according to how often they are checked out, how long they stay out, which users are more likely to seek them out, and several other factors. Books which rank highly on the algorithm get to stay. Books which do not go bye-bye. The process seems disturbingly similar to the way teenage social circles function, but never mind.

A problem can crop up when an algorithm says that a book should be yanked, but then for some reason it suddenly becomes popular again (blasted Hollywood!). The library must then spend money to get a new copy of a book it tossed.

Enter the seemingly great idea of one George Dore of the Orlando library: Create a virtual patron who would check out books and keep them above the boot line on the algorithm. Dore and an assistant created a job, address and driver's license number for their virtual reader, and now we see why it was not such a great idea. By doing so they created a "false public record," which is not legal.

Attention came to the scheme when it turned out that their virtual patron checked out more than 2100 books in a nine-month period and kept some of them only an hour. It helped raise their branch's circulation rate by almost 4 percent, which seems like a lot more than necessary to keep a few books on the shelves. Some of the branches in the Orlando system are funded based on circulation numbers, but Dore's is not one of them, which speaks either to his honest intentions or his failure in research.

Amusingly, the online magazine Mental Floss, in choosing a stock photo to go with its story on the matter, chose one of a gently curving set of shelves stuffed with brightly-colored book spines. Which, upon closer examination, are all blank.

Meaning that this story about a fake library patron is illustrated with a picture of fake books, and that's probably got something significant to say if I could just figure out what.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Clock is Ticking

So if you're stargazing in 2022, you'll see a bright red spot in the constellation Cygnus. If you don't, it means that Calvin College astronomy professor Lawrence Molnar was wrong.

Molnar's team used images from the space-based telescope Kepler to determine that the object KIC 9832227 was a "contact binary," or two stars that are actually touching. They will merge and create a red nova, which is one of the less explosive kinds of novas that exist in the universe.

The team predicts the actual nova will be visible in 2022 by comparing it to another contact binary that spawned a red nova, V1309 Scorpii. Many of the energy levels and outputs of the new pair match V1309, which had its biggest flare a few years ago. Scientists went back to its earlier images and measurements and developed a time-table for how long it took V1309 to go boom, so Molnar thinks the same pattern will hold for KIC 9832227.

If the prediction is right, then for about 6 months in 2022 Cygnus will have a new bright point of light visible to the naked eye. If it's wrong, pretty much everyone will know. As Molnar says, "You won’t need a telescope in 2022 to tell me if I was wrong or I was right."

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Skellig Stay

The remote hermitage where Rey finally finds Luke Skywalker at the end of The Force Awakens may have seemed like another fantastic computer-generated imagery creation (landscapes are easy, people are hard) but was a real place. Including the 600 or so steps Rey climbed to find him.

It's an abandoned 7th century monastery on the island of Skellig Michael, about eight miles off the coast of Ireland. At times threatened by Viking invaders, the monastery was inhabited until the monks moved back to Ireland sometime in the 12th century.

And if the eight miles and 600 steps weren't enough to help you find some solitude, there is yet another small oratory on a higher peak, designed for a single monk at a time. You might or might not be as mired in traditional Christian theism as is your humble blogger, but it is tough to imagine not finding at least some sense of peace after spending some time on this little spot of land.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Careful There

On the one hand, this idea floated by National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver makes a lot of sense. A pay-per-view plan that allows fans to purchase viewing of parts of games. The relatively small court and high speed of modern basketball usually mean fairly close contests, and those invested in just the final score may not want to see the first 35 minutes of traveling, grabbing, flopping and posturing. Great plays will make highlight shows, or at the very least YouTube, so they won't be missed. People like me, who follow the local team but don't watch much else, especially until the post-season, would be interested.

But on the other hand, Silver's suggestion might help reinforce the idea that the last five minutes of an average NBA game -- which can last quite a bit longer than five minutes with time-outs, intentional fouls and TV commercial breaks -- are the only five minutes of the game that matter. The league already has a problem drawing casual eyeballs during the pre-playoff season since so many of its teams make post-season play. They may not want to create the same problem for themselves on a game-by-game basis with this idea from Silver.

Of course, in the end what will decide the matter is how much money the leagues and television networks can make off the plan. What it does to the game or the fanbase is a secondary concern.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

If Not Them, Then Who?

"What if?" is a question that science-fiction authors sometimes ask themselves to come up with a novel, tweaking this or that fact in order to create a world sort of like ours, but with a significant twist. These are called "allohistories" or "alternative histories."

But sometimes historians use what-ifs to get a picture of the history surrounding an event or person uninfluenced by their presence. Significant discoveries and important people color our recollection of the rest of the world around them, giving us an unalterably weighted picture of their era.

Writing in last month's Nautilus, Philip Ball does a little of that kind of sketching with some of the major discoveries of science. If the particular person associated with a great discovery or theory had not existed, would the same idea have been developed or uncovered? And who would have been most likely to do so?

In just about every case, Ball thinks that the discovery would have been made anyway. In some cases, the person he puts forward as the most likely candidate was already working towards the same idea and simply came in second in the history we know. Christiaan Huygens, for example, studied collisions and was definitely on the path of Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion and had already derived an understanding of the Second Law.

Some of the famous scientists explicitly mention their forbears and it's not tough to believe those same forbears might have come to the conclusions their successors did. Albert Einstein's theories of relativity came about because the Scot physicist James Clerk Maxwell had already predicted the speed of light was a constant, and Einstein started wondering what would happen if that were so. Maxwell died young, about 35 years before Einstein published, and it's not a stretch to believe he would have started playing around the same questions that teased Einstein.

Ball suggests that many of the great discoveries he's examining would have happened at about the same time as they did anyway, perhaps even earlier. A couple might have been delayed -- Ball sees Johannes Kepler as the most likely person to formulate Copernicus' view of the heliocentric solar system, a few decades after Copernicus' own work.

He leaves examination of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection until the last. Ball holds that it's pretty tough to figure out which of the many competing understandings of evolution floating around the 19th century might have taken hold had the naturalist himself never lived. When you add in that Darwin's original theory has been added to over the years based on new discoveries about genetics and DNA, the reality is that the most plausible modern evolutionary theories could have shown up coming from several of those old competitors, especially since modern theory carries features of those old theories in them.

Ball comes to a pretty reasonable conclusion about the theories he checks into, which is that someone would have figured them out anyway. Since they describe reality, then eventually someone would have tripped over them. Relativity describes the universe and whether Albert Einstein or someone else describes it doesn't change that.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Bigger Than Bigger Than Life

Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge starred Andrew Garfield in the story of Desmond Doss, a pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II whose heroism as a medical corpsman earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Pointing out just how cutting edge this here blog is, I had a little item on Doss back in 2011. I'm still waiting on Mel to return my call.

The movie compressed certain characters and scenes and left others out to make a narrative that fit the time frame and arc, as movies often do. But this movie, as Mary Katherine Ham notes, actually left things out because real-life Desmond Doss was even more awesome than the movie version. My favorite is the cave rescue he helped in 1966 -- I guess heroes gotta hero, no matter what the situation.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Difference of Opinion

"Bats avoid collisions by calling less in a crowd"

-- article in Science Daily

"That's bats#%*t crazy"

-- New York City cab drivers

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Pen is Mightier than the Lightsaber

Before 1987, the late Carrie Fisher's friends, family and co-workers probably knew she was ironic, witty and had a sardonic eye on life that went well beyond her years. But the rest of us knew her primarily as Leia Organa, the heroine and leader of the Rebel Alliance against the Empire in Star Wars. She had some key roles in other well-known movies, like Hannah and Her Sisters and Shampoo, but her enduring image was the brave, no-nonsense freedom fighter from that galaxy far, far away.

Then Simon & Schuster published Postcards from the Edge and everything changed. The book is the story of young actress Suzanne Vale as she attempts to put her life together following a nearly fatal drug overdose, and is considered loosely autobiographical. Fisher's own problems with drug abuse and a similar overdose and rehab stint were fairly well-known. Her later diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the challenges it presented would get their treatment in later books, but at the time Postcards was published, that was all yet to happen.

But far from being just a lightly-veiled memoir, Postcards does the double duty of showing Suzanne trying to reconstruct both her self and her life as well as casting a slanting satiric eye on the fame machine of Hollywood. "Maybe I shouldn't have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares? My life is over anyway," the story starts, and never loses its threads of either honesty or humor. Fisher switches between first-person "journal entry" sections and third-person narratives, and adds in point-of-view pieces from some other characters as well.

As befits a character undergoing rehab and therapy, Suzanne spends a lot of time introspecting, both to herself and to others. She doesn't spare her own shortcomings and failures from her mocking edge, making a reader wonder how much easier things might be for her if she were a little easier on herself, which may very well be a question Fisher asked her own mirror now and again.

Postcards offers a hilarious and sad look at how a person seeking her self in the entertainment industry's culture of emptiness and superficial reality is left to make that self, only she's got nothing for tools and material except that same emptiness and superficiality. Her lucky landing of a good therapist gives her something real to work with until she finally learns she is something real she can work on, and then go forward. Again, that probably echoes a lot of Fisher's own experience, and though her own journey forward from her time in rehab was neither straight nor simple, she did manage to put together a life that let her thrive and create before ending too early last month at 60. If Postcards is just a chronicle of the start of that life, then we can be grateful it is funny, entertaining and poignant. If it also was somehow a tool Fisher used to help construct the life she was able to live, then I'm all the more grateful for it.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Vamoose, Verbal Varmints!

I have no idea about the academic standing of Lake Superior State University in Michigan's Upper Peninsula area. I suspect that lower Michigan residents, some of whom are related to me, probably call it "U-per U" now and again.

But they provide one of the finest services known to speakers of the English language each year when they suggest words that should never be spoken or written again. The number of stupid ways of saying stupid things, especially online, is progressing faster than the infinite number of monkeys can type them. But LSSU stands bravely in the gap with their list. Its ultimate impact may only be symbolic in the face of the torrent of first-time-clever, second-time-not-so-much, nth-time-stupid-and-really-not-all-that-clever-the-first-time-anyway phrases and words we see.

Perhaps some rich person should consider funding an entire research department at LSSU dedicated to this task, offering classes and degrees in it. The major could emphasize clear and simple communication, the use of words in organized formats to explain, persuade, illustrate or entertain, and increasing students' abilities in the area by examining the work of others who demonstrate special skill or talent in it.

Sixty years ago that would have been called an English department, but considering what goes on in those programs you could probably call it whatever you wanted these days.