Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Appliance Wars!

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

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

Monday, February 27, 2017

Six Rings to Bankrupt Them All

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Up Front...

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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Signal Interruption

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

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Plot -- the Math

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Trappist Jam!

A star named Trappist-1 after The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope that found it has seven earth-sized planets orbiting it, and three of them are the right distance for water to be liquid if they have water.

The Trappist scope saw two planets in orbit around the star, classed as an "ultra-cool dwarf." It's much smaller and cooler than our sun, so planets can be relatively near it and still be potentially habitable. Other telescopes, including the Spitzer Space Telescope, confirmed those two and found five more, which were announced today.

The star is only 39 light years from Earth, making it a fairly near neighbor as far as interstellar distances go. So someone get that frickin' warp drive up and running already.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Critic Thinking

Writing at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Joseph Luzzi considers why some eminent critics have gotten it wrong when it comes to negative first judgments of works later held in high esteem.

Sometimes, he notes, some famed critics slammed work that would later be well-respected, or work that others considered such in which the critic went against the tide of approval. Voltaire, for one, derided Shakespeare, Dante and Jean-Jaques Rousseau, which amounts to two clean misses and a foul tip. He didn't do it because he hated them personally, except for Rousseau, since the other two men had died centuries before Voltaire was born. So why, Luzzi asks, and considers some other misjudgments as well in seeking out a reason.

Eventually, he supposes that the works so misunderstood represented a new direction of literature, poetry or thinking that critics didn't recognize or appreciate. Only after some time had passed were these disruptive works seen in their proper light. It doesn't explain why Voltaire hated Dante and Shaespeare, but then there were a lot of things Voltaire said that make no sense, like Candide or The Maid of Orleans.

One possibility that Luzzi overlooks is that the critics who lambaste material later considered great were the ones who got it right and the majority opinion got it wrong. Some of his cited examples were indeed mistaken assessments. William Wordsworth is an important poet, and Francis Jeffrey got him wrong. But at least one is dead on target: Anne L. Goodman said Catcher in the Rye stinks, and she's right. Holden Caulfield's adolescent angst is wearying for anyone over 25 and is all the more annoying for playing into that age group's belief that their insights represent something more profound than they will be able to have when they are older and less innocent.

That might be the kind of re-assessment some well-known works need, too. A careful examination to see if the emperor's new clothes are as real as the deceitful tailor has said they are.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Bah! Humbug!

Today is Presidents' Day in the United States, a day originally supposed to celebrate the birth of the first president, George Washington. He was born February 22, 1732, although when he was actually born it was known as February 11, 1731 because England and its colonies were using the Julian Calendar and because dates before March 25 were considered part of the previous year.

The switch to the modern Gregorian Calendar happened in 1752, and the birthday migrated to the date we use today. No word on whether or not Washington tried to swing two birthdays a year; we know he was scrupulously honest but he would not have been lying to call either day his birthday since each of them was according to different calendars. Today would be February 7, 2016 if we were using the system under which Washington was born, but we would have already had the election either way so at least we wouldn't have that mess to do again.

Anyway, Washington's birthday was made a Washington, D.C. federal workers' holiday in 1879. In 1885, it became a federal holiday in all national government offices. Back in those sensible times, folks had the quaint idea of celebrating Washington's birthday on -- get this -- his birthday, Feb. 22. Government by 1971 had become much more sensible, instituting the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that mandated federal holidays be on certain Mondays of their respective months in order to create more three-day weekends, It is tempting to blame this on then-President Richard Nixon, but the Act was actually passed in 1968 and is therefore one more thing caused by the 60s. The act set the Washington's Birthday holiday as the third Monday in February, guaranteeing that it would be between the 15th and 21st and never fall on Washington's birthday. The 60s made a lot of people fuzzy about dates.

The migrating date and the proximity to Abraham Lincoln's birthday (February 12, 1809) began to move us towards considering the day "Washington and Lincoln's Birthday" as it is observed in several states and then "Presidents' Day," which honors all the men who have served in the office.

Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review, suggests the day be eliminated entirely as a holiday. He notes that by morphing it into "Presidents Day," we celebrate some real zeroes in the White House and some men who, charitably, are less than zero. I'd be on board with this. If I'm going to pay for Joe and Jane Bureaucrat to have a day off, it at least ought to be in the summer when they can post stupid drunken beach selfies and amuse the rest of us.

Or it at least ought to celebrate the two top presidents we've ever had, Washington and Lincoln. There have been some other great ones and some pretty good ones who've earned a tip of the cap and a heartfelt thanks for your service. And there have been plenty who have earned having the door held open for them while decent folk chuck them out on the seat of their pants. But those two men -- the one who in more ways than we realize helped shape our republic and the one who managed to hold it together -- stand head and shoulders above the crowd. None of the others come close.

And while I'm at it I'm taking Tom and Teddy off Rushmore too. Jefferson was an excellent president and in some senses one of the greats, but he wasn't George-and-Abe level. Roosevelt got some good things done, but he was also one of the instigators of the expansion of the role of government. His successors took things way past where he would have ever gone, but they couldn't have if he hadn't helped start the engine. And he's on Rushmore because he was the best Republican in the White House between Lincoln and the monument's design in the mid-20s; Calvin Coolidge was in office then and would not have approved a statue of himself.

Williamson sees the elimination of the holiday as a way to try to reduce the "unelected king" atmosphere that's increasingly surrounded the presidency since the middle of the 20th century. The undisguised fawning over former President Obama and current President Trump is an extreme example of the problem, approaching worship, but we've been becoming more and more deferential to someone we've hired to run our country for some time.

So rename the holiday Washington-Lincoln Day and if someone wants to think special thoughts about the nation's chief executive they can do it on October 16. And federal employees can show their appreciation by showing up for work.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Continuing Story...

Barry Eisler's John Rain series got a makeover a few years ago when he regained the rights to the first six books and reprinted them with his preferred titles. He had turned down a contract with a press for the next book in the series and continued it with the self-pubished The Detachment on Amazon's Thomas & Mercer imprint in 2011. It's not certain that he should have.

The first six books of the series traced a character arc as the assassin Rain started to come to terms with what his work had cost him personally. His few close friends led him to question whether or not he should continue what he was doing. This doesn't spoil anything, but 2007's The Killer Ascendant brought the arc to a solid close.

So Eisler has to take a few pages at the beginning of The Detachment to undo everything he'd done up until that point, giving short shrift to characters and resolutions readers had spent several hundred pages following. Once that's done, he sets up a pretty shallow rationale for Rain and his partner Dox to join up with two more Eisler characters, Ben Treven and Daniel Larison, to hear out a proposal from intelligence guru Scott Horton: take on three assassinations that will cripple a conspiracy that seeks to scare the United States into martial law with horrific terror attacks. Rain doesn't trust Horton, but the chance to prevent hundreds if not thousands of innocent deaths and somehow make up for the misery he's caused pushes him into the job. It isn't long before he figures out that mistrusting Horton was probably the right move, and the lesson could cost him and Dox their lives.

The Detachment's action scenes are top-notch, as Eisler uses his own training in martial arts to aid descriptions of its hand-to-hand fights. But the plot is pretty ridiculous and its main engine requires Rain to shift into stupidity overdrive in order to get moving. A reader can get the impression that even Eisler is saying "Oh, c'mon!" to himself at one or another turn things take. Rain's introspection takes over in too many places, veering close to placing our assassin on an analyst's couch.

Graveyard of Memories, the eighth John Rain book, is a prequel of sorts that's set before the series' beginning. That might be the right take, as The Detachment makes a good pitch that the John Rain novels haven't much more future than one of his targets.
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John Sandford's Virgil Flowers has had to handle some oddball cases as we've read him over the years, but two tigers stolen from the Minneapolis Zoo may top them all in 2016's Escape Clause. Traditional Chinese "medicines" use body parts of tigers, so the clock is ticking on whether or not Virgil can find them before they're killed and dismembered for processing.

He's also got to worry about his girlfriend Frankie's sister Sparkle, who's shown up unexpectedly with her boyfriend, a priest who is celibate only when he's not on sabbatical like he is now. She's investigating companies that exploit migrant labor, and she's cute enough to make Frankie remind Virgil she carries a knife.

There's probably about a short story's worth of real plot in Escape Clause, as whole sections of the book seem like times when Sandford decided to throw some funny lines and goofball characters on the page for grins. The B-plot with Sparkle does nothing important and manages to gum up the forward movement of the main tiger-theft narrative. B-plots are no problem in most books, but when the main storyline is a ticking-clock kind of construct, then their digressions aren't so welcome.

Sandford still remains a rarity among a lot of crime writers in that his criminals are not suave super-geniuses but generally rather dumb people looking for a short cut to get what they want. If they thought a little harder, they'd either come up with a better short cut or realize there wasn't one, but they don't. And because they start out kind of dumb, sooner or later they make a dumb mistake that leads Virgil straight towards them. It's a welcome change from all of the Lecter-wannabes that reign in the bestseller lists, but that difference is about all Escape Clause has going for it.
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John Wells remains the only CIA operative who ever successfully penetrated Al Qaeda, but that was a long time ago and most of what he's done with the agency since then has been as himself. He's also begun something of a domestic life with his ex-fianceé Anne and their daughter Emmie, which is where we find him when The Prisoner opens.

But someone at the top levels of the CIA is selling out secrets that are getting agents and assets killed. It's only a matter of time before one of those secrets causes something catastrophic to happen on the level of a September 11 attack -- or worse. So when Wells is called, he reluctantly returns to service. The plan: infiltrate Afghanistan and adopt a cover as a jihadi and get himself captured, to be sent to a secret prison site that houses top terrorist operatives who may have clues as to the mole's identity. In order for the plan to work only the commander of the prison guard can know who Wells really is, so he may be in as much danger from his own side as he is from his enemies.

Berenson writes with a style that's clean and straightforward enough not to stall the narrative but still has an elegance a lot of spy novels lack. He offers plausible motives for most of his cast and the resolution of the different plot threads follows directly from their movement forward. The Prisoner features several great action set pieces, including a taut prologue that highlights some of the problems the mole is causing.

But he's done a lot of this before. Wells has an adult son from a previous marriage, who's made clear that Wells too often abandoned family for work before. The "only the warden knows" undercover operation happened at least once in just about every 1970s and 1980s cop and crime show and Berenson doesn't bring anything new with it here. There might be some new things to do with John Wells, the spy who actually converted to Islam while undercover, but Berenson doesn't bring any of them up in The Prisoner.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Southern Exposure


The above picture is a view of Jupiter from high above its South Pole. It's from the Juno probe currently hanging around our solar system's largest planet, running measurements and taking snapshots.

The view is one we've never seen before. With the exception of Pluto and Uranus, all of the planets in our solar system (Shut up! It is so a planet!) orbit the sun in what's called the "invariable plane" of the solar system oriented more or less like we are. Pluto varies widely from this plane, and Uranus is tilted so far over (more than 90 degrees) that it would look more like it was rolling around the sun rather than orbiting. At a tilt of 177 degrees, Venus is upside down.

But since the rest of us are on about the same plane, with not much more than 5 degrees difference in our orbital paths, it's impossible for us to get an angle that shows the top or bottom of any of the other planets from any of our earthly vantage points. It takes satellite missions that are designed to alter their orbits every now and again to look at parts of the planets we can't see.

Which in Jupiter's case we technically haven't done. As a gas giant, Jupiter has an incredibly huge, thick and dense atmosphere through which we cannot see. Whatever is solid deep inside that later remains a mystery to us and probably will for some time. It would take a satellite to dive down into the atmosphere, yes, but one a whole lot tougher than anything we can make now to survive the extreme winds, temperatures and pressures of the Jovian atmosphere.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Where Have You Gone, Professor Kingsfield?

There is something called the United States Court of International Trade, and it recently handed down a decision on an issue that involved actual lawyers and judges spending actual time in court. I say that because when I tell you what issue was at hand, you will not believe it was a real thing.

Snuggies are blankets and not anything like priestly vestments, Judge Mark Barnett ruled.

If you need reminding, Snuggies are the "blankets with sleeves" which are advertised on television as a handy way to cover up with a blanket and still be able to use your arms without exposing them to the frigid air from which the blanket protects you. The United States Justice Department, which you would think would have some better things to do, had argued that Snuggies were in fact garments. The wide, flowing sleeves and long gown-like construction, the department said, was similar to academic robes or the cassocks or robes worn by some religious groups.

Judge Barnett noted that academic garments usually close in the back -- which, considering the sedentary lifestyle of a high percentage of academics, is something for which one may give thanks. Priestly vestments may close in the back instead of the front, but they actually do have closures and the Snuggie does not.

You are perhaps wondering exactly why this is a matter before the United States Court of International Trade. Well, Snuggies are imported rather than made in this country,  although probably not for long once someone tells President Trump about them. The department of Customs and Border Protection -- which also, you would think, would have some better things to do -- ruled they were garments. The company that imported them sued the government for this suggestion and thus, someone at the Justice Department who will probably not include this case on his résumé got the job of trying to convince a judge that Snuggies were just like a priest's or professor's robe.

So why did the Customs and Border protection office make such a ruling? Were they attempting to protect the domestic blanket industry against the incursion of this sleeved infiltrator? Did a Congressman have a brother-in-law in the hospital gown manufacturing biz who'd gotten a deal on some red polyester fleece and was looking to turn it over? Nope. Were they just opposed to the idea in general, figuring that there were already things called sweaters and sweatshirts in the world? Nope again.

Imported blankets carry import duties of 8.5 percent of the cost. Imported garments carry import duties of 14.9 percent. Uncle Sam was fine with you buying Grandma a nice little gift she could use to watch TV and not turn the thermostat up to Mohorovičić discontinuity levels. He just wasn't fine with taking less than 10 percent of the money.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Nobody Saw Me Do It, And You Can't Prove Anything.

I am sure that many of you who saw this notice about a theft of rare books immediately suspected me. Thanks, but I'm not that clever.

Actually, the person who is suspected of ordering the books be stolen is known as "The Astronomer." Which means this whole scenario is being transferred into Final Draft files in at least a dozen Hollywood basements even as we speak.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Slumbers Rouse

Over the last two or three days, pitchers and catchers have been reporting for spring training. Position players will arrive within the next couple of weeks.

And the sun did look a little brighter today, I believe. Hope it did for you, too.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Stacking the Wax

So according to a survey of eBay sales run by the folks at Forbes, the three favorite vinyl albums in my state last year were Dirt by Alice in Chains, Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morrisette and Fleetwood Mac Greatest Hits by, um, Fleetwood Mac.

There are several expected appearances by Led Zepplin, the Beatles and several other mega-selling artists. And some unusual coincidences. Ohioans,  Rhode Islanders, Tennesseeans, West Virginians and cheeseheads from Wisconsin share an affinty for Fas – Ite, Maledicti, In Ignem Aeternum by the French "black metal" band Deathspell Omega. The survey's methodology doesn't mean that this seven-year-old album with ditties like "The Repellent Scars of Abandon and Election" was actually 2016's best-selling record in five states. It just means that it was bought at a rate higher than each state's share of the total vinyl sales in the U.S.

On the other hand, author Bailey Brautigan says that the survey was limited to eBay's top 100-selling albums for the year. Which means that a seven-year-old album by a French black metal band that doesn't have a website and releases no information about even who its members are was one of the 100 best-selling records on eBay in the U.S.

I'll be scratching my head on that one.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Holding Again

More driving. Peace!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Winner?

"I can sell a lousy book faster than anything around."

-- Twitter-using "internet influencers"

"Here, hold my beer."

-- James Patterson

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Or It Could Be...

This post at io9 shows what may be the look of the Klingons in the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery television series.

As shown, the Klingons do not resemble pretty much any earlier version of the species, usually cast as the Federation's main antagonist in any era before Star Trek: The Next Generation. Some folks have attempted to explain how the differences can be reconciled with previous versions of Klingons, from the original series, movies and then the weird attempt to retro-fit a reason for the differences from Star Trek: Enterprise.

Of course, the most logical explanation is that the people making the show can't leave well enough alone. While Worf from ST:TNG is the best-developed Klingon character in the Trek Universe, the three best Klingon villains are Kor, Koloth and Kang (John Colicos, William Campbell and Michael Ansara, respectively). And they were good with a little face paint and fake facial hair.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Bring Out the Pitchforks and Torches!

So someone wants to help former Commissioner Bud Selig not have the stupidest idea ever in baseball, that time he allowed the All-Star Game to end in a tie.

In the 2017 season, the low levels of rookie ball will experiment with a rule change that starts extra innings with a runner on second base. When a baseball game is tied after 9 innings, play continues until one team finishes an inning ahead in the score or unless a boneheaded commissioner decides to commit blasphemy and declare it over. These extra innings are played just like every other inning in a baseball game -- to get on base, you have to get a hit, a walk, or be hit by a pitch.

But under the proposed change, the team at bat would start inning ten -- or whatever inning might be selected -- with a runner on second base. If there's no score, then we go to the other team, who starts their at-bat with their own man on second.

Major League Baseball's Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, who should know better but has apparently been testing bat strength with his head, favors the experiment as a way of trying to reduce the stress on a team and fans of dealing with some 18-inning monster contest. He holds that the change would be no big deal:
“It’s baseball. I’m just trying to get back to that, where this is the game that people come to watch. It doesn’t mean you’re going to score. You’re just trying to play baseball.”
No, Joe, this is not baseball. It's a gimmick, just like that stupid gimmick of having the league that won the All-Star game have home-field advantage in the World Series. Or like another proposed gimmick, not having to throw all four pitches for an intentional walk. You can mount a case that these changes would make games go more quickly and help maintain fan interest. But so would going to six-inning games, or maybe having three-pitch walks, or whatever. And those changes that would actually be better because they wouldn't be stupid gimmicks and wouldn't add some weird circus aspect to extra innings.

The best commentary I saw on this proposal was a meme that opened with the NFL, following Sunday's silly sudden-death Super Bowl, saying, "I've got one of the dumbest overtime rules of any sport. Pipes up the MLB: "Here, hold my beer."

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Holding Pattern

Meetings, driving. See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Three, So-So

A cool retro silhouette decorates the cover of Brett Battles' 2016 romp The Excoms, which is absolutely fitting for what is essentially a comic book without pictures.

Five lethal specialists from both sides of the law find themselves disavowed from their most recent employers and shanghaied with an offer to go to work for a mysterious outfit called "The Committee." Their work would be extralegal and in some cases downright criminal, but it turns out all five are in a place where they've got nothing to lose so they take the offer. Their first job: locate several kidnapped students who are being held for ransom, before the ransom can be paid or the students left to their fate.

Naturally, the team is full of witty and bickery tension that slowly develops into mutual respect for their various skill sets. Two of the characters, assassin Ananke and wheelman Ricky Orbits, have appeared in Battles' Jonathan Quinn series as minor characters, and the book's epilogue seems to suggest a crossover is in the works.

Battles is too skillful to leave the five as one-dimensional ciphers even though he doesn't waste a lot of space or effort to differentiate them from each other or from the archetypes each represents. And he wields his usual skill with action sequences and high-tension suspense, not meandering, stalling or padding his narrative with anything it doesn't need. There's nothing wrong with The Excoms, which makes for a pleasant diversion that probably won't stick in the memory longer than it takes to drop the book off at the used book store. But it can't be pressed into much heavier service than that, so it remains to be seen if that can hook enough readers to make the series continue.
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Gibson Vaughn went into the Marines to avoid jail -- literally. Convicted of computer-aided attempts to destroy the career of then-Senator Benjamin Lombard, he was presented with the choice of enlistment or imprisonment by his trial judge. Now out of the Marines, his life is no easy road thanks to Lombard's vengeful nature. So in spite of his suspicions, he accepts an offer from Lombard's former chief of security to help track down Suzanne Lombard, the senator's daughter who disappeared without a trace 10 years ago.

Vaughn's close friendship with Suzanne helps sway him to join the hunt. But the cold trail 10 years old suddenly offers a pretty warm reception and he may disappear himself before he can find out what happened to Suzanne in Matthew Fitzsimmons' 2015 debut The Short Drop.

The mystery at the center of Drop is properly twisty and turny, but Fitzimmons can't really seem to focus in on any of his characters well enough to keep them consistent from scene to scene or situation to situation. When the conspiracy at the center of a story is nice and convoluted, then it's important that the characters can keep pulling us along as they wind through it. But if we can't get a good handle on them then it's tough to follow them on their journey, and Fitzsimmons leaves a lot of blurry edges. The unsavory aspects of more than one lead character and the coincidental introductions of several others weaken the story as well. A third Gibson Vaughn novel is expected later this year, so Fitzsimmons may have gotten the firmer grip on his story and his characters that would be needed to make subsequent novels exceed the very average Short Drop.
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CIA analyst Kera Marsal had a bright future at the agency before she decided to take an offer to join a private company that was "sort of" of allied with official covert agencies but able to operate with a little freer hand and some different resources. Her employer tasks her with learning what's happened in the case of several creative-minded folks who've seemingly vanished from the face of the earth -- something that you'd think impossible in the 21st century. She finds a connection but it only poses more questions and also starts to draw links to the multimedia titan ONE Corp., which may have more interest in the outcome than they should -- and which may have a distinctly predatory dimension.

2014's End of Secrets was Ryan Quinn's second novel and first thriller (The Fall was a kind of modern take on A Separate Peace). It has an interesting premise that stems from real as well as imagined concerns about the modern "surveillance state" and what could happen once its technology wasn't just held by the state. But for a CIA analyst with high potential Kera has an uncanny ability to make dumb decisions for pretty much no reason beyond advancing the plot -- they have no organic flow at all. Quinn spins out storylines that don't really lead anywhere and never tie back into the main plot, and none of his good-guy-and-gal characters seem to be aware that their enemies have superlative surveillance technology -- even though they're surrounded by it -- until after it burns them.

It's possible that some of the dangling plot threads were meant to be picked up in the second Kera Mersal story, The Good Traitor, but Quinn hasn't done much to close the deal with the readers about whether more time with Kera is really something they want to spend.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Loco Logos?

One of the great things about minor league baseball teams is that they have some really interesting logos. Often the team names have some local flavor or connection, and they are generally far more inventive than some of the major league clubs. Like the Fayetteville Swampdogs of the Coastal Plain League, for example.

Here's some random logos picked out and made fun of, in several cases deservedly so --  that Daytona Cubs logo looks like it was dated before it was ever introduced (the team is now the Daytona Tortugas and sports a somewhat less rad logo). The Michigan Battle Cats indeed seem like they would be more at home yelling "It's morphin' time!" instead of play ball, and team members are probably relieved that they now play for the Great Lakes Loons.

Were I a Winnipeg Goldeyes fan, I am not sure I could buy an item with the team mascot on it, as I would be afraid that my T-shirt would eat me in my sleep.

The state's two minor league squads are OK as far as names go, with the AA club having the local color of being the Tulsa Drillers and the AAA club indulging the boring habit of taking its major league partner's name and being the Oklahoma City Dodgers. North Texas hosts the Frisco RoughRiders, who sport a tubby Teddy Roosevelt for their logo. So none of these teams will present much embarrassment when seen in the coming summer.

Monday, February 6, 2017

'Cause a Cat's the Only Cat Who Knows Where It's At

Writing at the New Statesman, John Gray explores what cats can teach us about how to live our lives.

It's an interesting article and one that points out current efforts to reduce or even eliminate cats in some areas relies on some pretty significant misunderstandings of how the furry little psychopaths conduct their lives ("However we damn well please, primate." -- the cats).

And, to some surprise for those of us who have known cats and lived with them, the lessons are not limited to "It's never too early for a nap" and "There's never a wrong time to kill something and leave it on the porch."

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Straightened Priorities

So the Super Bowl went into overtime. When the game opened, I as a Kansas City Chiefs fan was as interested as I have been in any Super Bowl since IV-- not very.

I was sort of hoping for a Falcons victory, because they've not been all that often and because today is Hank Aaron's birthday. He didn't play football, but he has made Atlanta his home and it would have been nice for that kind of a win for a "hometown hero" of sorts. I was also sort of hoping for a Patriots loss, because Tom Brady is a smarmy cheater and it's never unpleasant to watch cheaters lose.

Either way, the highlight of Super Bowl Sunday for me was that it's now just 56 days until Opening Day and nine days until pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Middling West

Journalist Jeff Guinn has explored a number of unsavory characters in his non-fiction books, including Charles Manson, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Cash McLendon, the protagonist of his three Western novels so far, can be a weak man now and again but is nothing like the criminals Guinn has profiled.

Which doesn't mean there aren't unsavory characters in the McLendon novels, and 2017's Silver City brings back one from the initial story, Glorious, to settle things between them once and for all. Ted "Killer Boots" Brautigan has been dispatched westward once again because word of Cash's appearance has reached his former father-in-law, Rupert Douglass. Douglass frequently uses Brautigan for deadly work he can't accomplish with his wealth, and sends him out to bring Cash back.

Brautigan will team with a pre-O.K. Corral Ike Clanton to home in on Cash and get him out of the bustling frontier town of Silver City by kidnapping Gabrielle Tirrito, the woman Cash moved west to find and ask for forgiveness. Cash, along with Gabrielle's other suitor, schoolteacher Joe Saint, pursue Brautigan prepared to take his life or sacrifice their own in order to rescue her.

Silver City is easily the least of the three Cash McLendon novels so far. Its opening act, with Cash finding his way in Silver City and enjoying the blessings of fame that come with survival of the Adobe Wells battle, is light and fun, and helps demonstrate the depth of character our rather shallow hero has developed since we first met him. Once Brautigan makes his move, though, we settle in for a grinding chase story that rinses and repeats until the end of the novel. Brautigan is brutal to Gabrielle. Cash and Joe Saint hate each other. Brautigan is brutal to Gabrielle. Brautigan is brutal to Cash. Silver City might have made an interesting novella or even short story, but as a 400-page book it's a chore -- and although chores are necessary it's a very rare one indeed that you actually enjoy doing.
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Louis L'Amour died in 1988, and at the time nearly all of his 100-plus books were still in print, something that can still pretty much be said nearly 30 years later. His transition to the brand name in Western fiction was well under way when he published Catlow in 1963.

The pace at which L'Amour wrote novels -- about three a year from the mid-50s on -- meant that the likelihood of some lesser work slipping in amongst the High Lonesomes and Hondos is pretty high, and Catlow is a good candidate for the list.

Abijah "Bijah" Catlow and Ben Cowan grew up together and were close friends, but as they grew older they saw each other less and less. Ben took to the badge, and while Bijah initially stayed to the right side of the spirit of the law if not its letter, he soon crossed all the way over. Ben did his best to avoid the areas where Bijah worked, not wanting to either kill or jail his friend, but eventually they cross paths when Ben is on an assignment to track down a payroll thief. Bijah escapes and heads to Mexico, where he intends to pull off a retirement-level robbery, and Ben trails him. While on opposite sides of the law, they find themselves on the same side as allies fighting for survival in the harsh Mexican desert.

Catlow is mostly a string of action set pieces loosely tied together with some musing on Ben's part about his "frenemy" and the philosophical implications of their relationship. L'Amour sets up characters and storylines that he never resolves later in the book, almost as though he forgot about them. The verbal sparring between Bijah and Ben is fun (L'Amour was a lot wittier than he's often given credit for) and the descriptions of the desert chase and what it means to try to live in such a wasteland have an elegant quality to them. But these parts are not well-mixed, nor are they prepared once thrown together.

The reader who expects Serious Literature from the pen of Louis L'Amour labors under a rather silly delusion about L'Amour's goal in storytelling. Though L'Amour was an intelligent and well-traveled man with a life almost as exciting as one of his characters (John Wayne was supposed to have called him "the most interesting man in the world," well before the Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery started selling Dos Equis in the United States), he did not generally aim to write anything other than interesting and entertaining stories. His intelligence and native curiosity made the best of those stories something more than just a fireside yarn, giving them questions and commentary on matters of the heart or of life, but the list of such output is short. Catlow's problem is not that it isn't great literature -- it's that it's a poorly-told story. But when it comes to L'Amour that's also a short list, so the next one, whatever it is, is very likely to be a lot better.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Illusion?

At the recent National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump (I think that's pretty much never going to look real) repeated his desire to see the United States Congress do away with what's called the "Johnson Amendment," added to the Internal Revenue Code in 1954 by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson.

It restricts the kinds of things that tax-exempt organizations can say in the political arena. Pastors, for example, can talk about issues from the pulpit but can't endorse specific candidates. Neither can churches. They can print "voter guides" which tell how legislators have voted on specific issues or how they have answered questionnaires prepared by one group or another.

Because of the First Amendment to the Constitution, churches are exempt from most taxes. The theory behind the Johnson Amendment is that in order to maintain the separation of church and state upon which the exemption rests, churches can't take sides in actual political races, even though they can obviously take sides on issues that affect them.

Bills to do away with the Johnson Amendment have been introduced before, and it seems that there's already a couple in the mix this year as well, probably hoping to ride on the president's free publicity for them. None have ever passed, and even if this year is different, it's very unlikely that they would be in effect before being challenged in court. There's no way to know how the Supreme Court would eventually rule, but even courts with conservative majorities over the years have upheld the idea that the First Amendment draws a line between churches and governments.

I'm personally in favor of the amendment; as I told someone the other day it helps churches avoid crossing that line by setting up a barrier even before you get to it. But some of the pushback seems to be coming from people who don't have a lot of experience with churches. They suggest that if the Johnson Amendment is repealed, then we will have pastors endorsing candidates from the pulpit, and congregations en masse marching down to the voting booth to do exactly as their ministers have said.

Well, I've got a little experience with congregations, and I have to say that the next time they all do exactly what I say will be the first. A bunch of them average about one Sunday a month in worship attendance. Either because they're afraid, or they don't know exactly how to approach it or in a few instances they think it's supposed to be my job, they rarely reach out to new people and invite them to worship with them. If I had the ability to get them to do what I say, I sure wouldn't waste it on something as silly as whether Nancy Pelosi has a job or not.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

You'll Have the Whole World in Your Hands

In another one of those jobs that sound more interesting than the one you've got now and which you may never have realized existed until now, the Bellerby & Co. Globemakers are taking applications to be an apprentice globe maker.

The trick is that Bellerby globes are hand-painted rather than printed out, meaning that quite some time -- as long as six months -- can elapse between when you get hired and when you're actually making a real globe. The painting is done on shaped strips of paper called "gores," which are pieced together on a sphere in order to make the globe. It's obviously easy to make a mistake in matching the lines across the different gores, so the process requires a lot of practice.

And you don't even want to think about what happens when you get a globe gore too warm...

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Sleep Easy

This article at Time magazine interview the guy who wrote a program that beat human beings at poker. He explains how it happened. The short answer is that computers can do a lot of math really fast, and he designed the program to do the kind of math that helps win at poker.

Also, since a lot of poker playing is reading one's opponent as closely as one reads the cards, a computer has the advantage of not too many giveaway nervous tics.

This is not as big a deal, I think, as some people might like it to be. After all, the computer beat people at poker. But who designed the computer? It's like the video of the orangutan who figures out how to use a saw to cut a tree limb. That's pretty cool, all right, but not as cool as being the species that designed the saw. I don't figure on waking up to either Terminator or Planet of the Apes tomorrow morning.