Friday, March 31, 2017

Stranger than Fiction

Note: It seems appropriate that this item somehow did not post at the designated time on March 31 as scheduled. The re-post has it showing up at the time I had originally selected, but not appearing until almost a day later. Go fig.

If you think your life is like a Twilight Zone episode -- and I wonder how long it will be before no one understands that reference -- allow this website to help you create one of your own.

Sorry, though. "In one of the more important elections in a while, both major parties nominated people so awful that whoever won, the rest of us lost" is not a Twilight Zone episode, but instead the real world we live in.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Quiet, Please

Mental Floss shares this map of the noisiest areas of the country. Excessive noise can cause serious health issues. Of course, that doesn't take into account the content of the noise, which means that some noisy areas (Washington, D.C., cough, cough) are more unhealthy than others. Just saying.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Unbelievable Precision

I'm not buying this Los Angeles Times article about how many jobs in the United States are at "high risk" of automation in the next 15 years or so.

It's not because I think it's some kind of "liberal media" cliché that's trying to talk about bleak economic news in order to get people thinking negatively about the current president. It's not because I think that jobs won't get phased out by innovation and advances in automation. It's not because I think that the story ran because the figures were less for Europe and all newspaper reporters have a goal of making America look bad. That's ridiculous.

No, I'm not buying it because the analysis firm that conducted the research and survey came up with a figure of 38 percent. Not a rounding number like 35 or 40. Nope. A precise oddball figure of 38. Which is also ridiculous. There's no way anyone could come up with that kind of number, whether the time frame is the next week or the next decade. If the analysts had said "a third," or "around a quarter" or even "more than two-fifths" that would sound like a reasonable guess or even aa reasonable result for speculative analysis.

But 38? Nah. Go back to the drawing board and come up with a vaguer answer. It's easy. Just look at the way politicians talk about budgets: The closer they get to exact dollar amounts the more nervous they are. Only when the talk turns to values like "several billion" or "almost a trillion" do they seem relaxed.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Knock, Knock. Who's There? Meaninglessness...

Over on Existential Comics, Jean-Paul Sartre and Søren Kierkegaard show up at your door in order to prove that there are worse things than door-to-door salespeople or folks who want to inform you about their particular understanding of deity.

At least when those people leave, either unaided or with the assistance of a properly-placed shoe, you feel better about things.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Christmas in March!

Physics World has premiered a series of free e-books that cover different topics of interest related to the discipline. They're called Physics World Discovery and so far there are five of them, on topics ranging from dark matter to the use of physics in modern financial market strategy to cancer research.

Did I mention they're free? They march alongside a handful of other series on some scientific topics that range from layperson-friendly to pretty technical.

And did I mention they're free? I'll be busy over here for awhile.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Live From New York! It's Saturday Evening!

NBC has decided that the last four episodes of this season's Saturday Night Live will air live in the country's western time zones that had been showing it on tape delay. The entire continental United States will thus see the show at the same time, even though it will technically be "earlier" on the West Coast.

SNL usually starts at 11:30 in its native Eastern Time zone and 10:30 in your humble correspondent's locale. It will still do that, but the four-episode experiment will have it start at 9:30 in Mountain Time and 8:30 Pacific Time. Hawaii and Alaska will still be scared to check Twitter feeds, as they will stay on tape delay. Otherwise the show would be on at 5:30 PM in Honolulu.

When asked if any other changes were planned, show officials said, "Absolutely not. We will continue to honor Will Ferrell's legacy by remaining unfunny no matter what time zone you're watching from."

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Apocalyptic Pitch

I've used some What If? questions before as subjects to natter about, but I had never gone all the way back to the first edition of the page in 2012. It seems relevant as we approach the beginning of baseball season.

A questioner wonders what would happen if you tried to hit a baseball thrown at 90% of the speed of light. The short answer is that you wouldn't -- if the ball could somehow be accelerated to that speed within an atmosphere its collision with the atoms of air in front of it would create a massive release of energy that would be the next best thing to an atom bomb going off.

And if it happened in Yankee Stadium during a Yankees-Dodgers series, well, it might just turn into the best thing period.

Friday, March 24, 2017

You Can Say What You Mean

A couple of years ago, we noted the problem faced by the all-natural dairy company Ocheesee Creamery in its attempt to sell skim milk. The problem: They were selling skim milk and calling it that.

As the original item notes, the state of Florida had established a definition of skim milk. It is milk with the cream skimmed off, and then processed by an injection of vitamins A and D. Thus, the Ocheesee Creamery could not sell its skim milk -- which was made when they skimmed the cream off to use to make the products in their name -- unless they added the vitamins (the cream contains most of milk's vitamin A and D). Or unless they labeled their all-natural skim milk as an "imitation milk product."

The problem for the Ocheesee folks was that they marketed themselves as an all-natural dairy. To add the vitamins went against their brand, as did the idea of labeling their milk "imitation." Their only other choice was to pour all of the skim milk down the drain and wreck their financial base.

Ocheesee sued Florida for the right to label the skim milk they were selling "skim milk." A district court in Florida, apparently suffering from the same affliction as the one fogging the understanding of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, ruled against the dairy. But the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found a dictionary, looked up "skim milk," quoted the definition in its decision and ruled in favor of the dairy.

The state of Florida can, of course, appeal the ruling to the United States Supreme Court. This would cost money, so you might wonder why it would bother, but you can never tell if a government is thinking.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Trade-Offs

On the one hand, it would be kind of useful to have economist Friedrich Hayek around today, to maybe be a clear voice pointing out just how wrong President Trump's trade policies are now and are going to be later. The libertarian-leaning professor believed that a group of human beings, interacting together in trade under what he called "the rules of just conduct," could thus operate a society for the benefit of as many of its members as possible. No one human being could possibly know enough to plan out such a society, he said. It had to grow on its own. The president also believes society has to grow on its own, just as long as it does it the way he says.

But on the other hand, Hayek, who died 25 years ago today, would have to try to get his message out to people in the midst of a media machine that pays more attention to what the president tweets and thinks Al Franken knows more about the U.S. Constitution than a sitting federal judge. Being as he would be just a couple of months shy of his 118th birthday, he would probably find better uses for his time than to try to convince them.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Coincidence? Perhaps...but Perhaps Not!

Headline:

NASA: "Giant Mars Volcano and Earth's Dinosaurs Went Extinct About the Same Time"

Tars Tarkas: "Oops."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ripper Redux

For reasons of his own -- perhaps because for him the Ripper killings were not ancient history but current events -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never set his genius creation Sherlock Holmes on the track of London's most infamous killer. It's been left to others to do so, sometimes with the blessing of the Doyle estate and sometimes not.

Lyndsay Faye's first novel was one of those with the blessing, as she pitted Holmes' brilliance against Saucy Jack's demented bloodlust in her 2009 Dust and Shadow. Faye is a fan and student of 19th century crime-solving and of Holmes in particular, and she works hard to get the proper voice for her story's narrator, Dr. John H. Watson, M.D. It's not Doyle's Watson, who was ordinarily more phlegmatic and less rattled by his friend's strange obsession with mystery solving and abrupt manner. But it is Watson, which puts readers where we belong -- outside the blazing incomprehensible genius of Holmes and doing our best to keep up.

As Faye writes the story, Holmes' great mental faculties are stretched almost to breaking by the need to stop the madman from killing more women. He feels the pressure of the entire city's near-panic at the murderer in their midst and frustration at his inability to see inside the mind of something mostly unknown to the 19th century -- a sociopathic serial killer. But he wonders -- if he really can get inside Jack's mind to guess his identity or his next move, will he be able to come back out? Or will it break him entirely?

Faye, as mentioned above, creates a recognizably Victorian voice for her narrative, and pays attention to period detail with a keen observational eye. The world may or may not need novelizations of the fictional Sherlock Holmes tracking or apprehending the real-world Jack the Ripper, but if it's going to have them then hers is better than many others.
-----
Skip forward into the 1900s, and Clive Cussler and Justin Scott bring their turn-of-the-century hero, Isaac Bell, onto the trail of a brutal killer stalking women in the United States and leaving them dead and mutilated. The more Isaac probes the mystery, the more he begins to wonder if he is tracking someone who's been at this game a long time. Someone who -- perhaps -- tried out his trade at first in the London slum called Whitechapel but who for know is known as The Cutthroat.

Isaac, the chief investigator of the Van Dorn Detective Agency, comes to the case when a young woman turns up murdered in her room. Her father had hired the Van Dorns to find his daughter, but Isaac had not put much worry into the actions of a nearly-grown young woman who had apparently chosen to make her own way instead of her parents' way. Isaac feels personally responsible for the oversight that put the young woman into her killer's path instead of home safe with her parents, so when other bodies, similarly disfigured, turn up, he persuades his boss to devote the agency's resources to finding the killer or killers.

Cussler and Scott lay a couple of interesting cards on the table. In the 1911 world of the novel, there is as yet no national law enforcement agency or even any real coordination and information sharing among police departments. Only the Van Dorns with their nationwide reach (they're modeled on the real-life Pinkerton Detective Agency, but without the strikebreaking), can see all of the puzzle pieces, such as strings of similar murders or disappearances in cities across the U.S. By setting the action in and around a traveling national production of Jekyll and Hyde, they highlight an interesting moment of showbiz, as technology allowed stage productions to mount more spectacular touring shows even while it is creating the movie business that will all but kill them.

But they also rely on brief segments from the killer's point of view which really do nothing but try to emphasize his chameolonic capacity for disguise. A couple of the described murders offer links to clues Isaac and his team will uncover, but not many. The rest bring a real taint of ugliness to what is, even when it's dealing with sabotage and murder, a series basked more on derring-do and adventure than modern psycho-killer Lecter Lite tales. This taint makes Cutthroat one of the lesser entries in the Bell series.
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Arthur Byron Cover's 1979 An East Wind Coming opens with the Wolfman attacking Lois Lane, only for her to be saved at the last second when Sherlock Holmes teleports the werewolf back outside the city.

Then it gets weird.

None of these characters, except for the Wolfman, are named although folks who follow comics, pulp fiction and old movies will probably recognize them. "Holmes," for example, is never called that, only "the consulting detective." Watson is "the good doctor." Sydney Greenstreet's Maltese Falcon character is "the fat man." And so on.

In Cover's "Great Mystery Trilogy", an un-named calamity at some time in the future wiped out most of the human race. But the creatures who caused the problem, as a way of trying to make amends, give the remaining humans amazing power over matter and mortality. They are "godlike men," to distinguish them from the "mere men" they were before. Interestingly, some of the most powerful among them choose to refashion themselves as different movie, comic book and pulp magazines. So Sherlock Holmes, Captain Marvel (the first one) and Lois Lane all find themselves coexisting with each other, basically not doing much of anything except in rare emergencies like the Wolfman's attack. The adaptations aren't perfect, and the cast frequently breaks character to act like more recognizably modern people than their assumed identities.

The consulting detective fears this ennui will lead to significant problems for the godlike men. It's already pushed some of them to create a slum based on old London's Whitechapel, and he fears that one or another godlike human will decide to make his statement about society by becoming a new Jack the Ripper, Once that happens, the detective and others among the most poweful of the altered humans must track and stop him or else the rising tide of terror and uncertainty could endanger their existence.

The series' first volume, Autumn Angels, was very much a product of its boundary-pushing time and context -- the late 1960s and early 1970s in the circle of one of science fiction's "mad geniuses' Harlan Ellison. Wind tones some of that down in favor of a little bit more linear narrative, but is still very head trippy. It's also very dialogue heavy and interested on transgressing lines related to sexuality, philosophy and the meaning of existence. The combination ages quickly, making it easy to lose interest in the sketched-out plot after wading through page after page of conversation and explicit sexual encounters.

By the end, East Wind feels as dated as some of the pulp greats it uses as Cover tries to say something about human existence and satisfaction, using them as his own heiroglyphic alphabet. They can generate some slight interest on their own as we read to see which one is which and who a particular character is supposed to be, but that's not enough to keep deciphering the whole thing from being more than a chore and a half.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Ha Squared

Two scientists have published a paper that links the reason that puns are funny (and they are, shut up) to an effect of quantum physics called "superposition."

Physicist Kirsty Kitto of Australia and psychologist Liane Gabora of Canada examined what the brain does when we hear a pun or similar kind of wordplay-based joke. As most folks know, the humor of a pun (it is so there, shut up) comes in when words that sound exactly alike or maybe just similar are used in two different and incongruous settings.

Well, Kitto explained that a superposition, a central feature of quantum mechanics,  says a single particle can be in two states at one time and it doesn't "make up its mind," so to speak, until it is measured. Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger found this so weird he created his famous thought experiment involving a cat that was technically dead and alive at the same time, with its demise coming at the hands of a random quantum fluctuation that either poisoned it or didn't.

Puns, Kitto and Gabora said, work like that. They are based on a single set of sounds that works one way in one sentence and another way in another sentence.

The paper doesn't create an actual equation to gauge the funniness of a particular pun, since humor has a strong subjective element to it. So all of the people who don't want to think puns are funny can continue to do so and not feel like they're trying to deny science. After all, the cats probably didn't think Schrödinger was all that funny either.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Meanwhile, in a Top-Secret Laboratory...

Mild-mannered physicist responsible for the creation of material used in dental fillings by day...secret scientific super-sleuth by night. It's...Detective X!

This may have been the only secret agent ever named "Wilmer."

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Johnny B. Excellent!

A much younger Friar once read a music critic say that you should never trust a rock musician who can't play Chuck Berry music. I've read a lot of gunk from music critics that hasn't lasted past the turned page, but that theorem has yet to let me down.

The only thing that could still those flying fingers and famous grin has done so, as Berry "caught Maybellene at the top of the hill" today at 90.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Bob's the Bomb

And by "Bob," I mean the supernova given that nickname seen in the spiral galaxy NGC 5643. Astronomer Rachel Beaton, who works with the team that first observed the supernova, is the one who gave it the nickname Bob.

Its technical name is SN2017cbv. The galaxy containing it is also home to the supernova SN2013aa, which as far as I could tell has no nickname. The interesting thing about Bob is that we seem to have caught him as he begins the explosive phase of his existence. The apparent magnitude of SN2017cbv increased by almost 2.5 times in the first day since it was spotted.

The headline at the Astronomy article isn't exactly accurate -- SN2017cbv isn't going on "right now." It's roughly 60 million light years from us, which means that astronomers are observing what happened in that spot 60 million years ago. North America, Europe and Asia were all one landmass, as were Antarctica and Australia. South America, Africa and India were all separate continents. It was about 6 million years after the end of the dinosaurs, and mammals had expanded to fill the environment, with some being what we would today consider "medium-sized." The closest thing around to us were squirrel-like critters called "plesiadapiformes," who are thought to have a common ancestor with primates.

As for what's going on "right now" in whatever spot SN2017cbv occupied when it blew up 60 million years ago? Well, we'll know that sometime around 60,002,017 AD.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Ye Olde Tooth Care

Apparently the basic outline of tooth care has not changed overmuch in the last 300 years, at least in English-speaking cultures.

Ask the Past quotes Thomas Raynalde in The Byrth of Mankinde with dental advice to seek the help of a professional for a thorough cleaning, although he recommends "a Barber" to "scoure, rubbe, and picke them cleane, and white." Dentists were yet to be known. Regular care of teeth in between visits is advised, especially to "picke them cleane that no meate remaine and putrifie betweene the teeth." Nothing turns off a social encounter like having meate putrifie in your mouth.

Whitening could be achieved by grinding white river pebbles into a fine powder and mixing an ounce of that with a "dramme of Masticke," or sticky plan resin. Apply this to the teeth to keep them "fayre and white," but "beware yee touch not, ne vexe the gummes therewithall."

Because even fayre and white teeth can't help you if you've got vexed gums.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Real Deal

Commandos are an excellent source of action story heroics -- from World War II when they first began to be used and called by that name even to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Their daring tactics and obvious bravery sometimes lend them an outsized reputation for effectiveness and impact, as historian James Owens outlines in his 2012 book Commando: Winning WW2 Behind Enemy Lines.

Owens shows how a handful of officers saw the need for small, quick striking forces to attack different enemy positions that needed Allied attention, so to speak, but didn't warrant full-scale assaults. Gradually, they developed several units for this clandestine work, which focused on sabotage more than anything else although they did sometimes involve gathering intelligence. Commando soldiers needed an extra helping of daring, bordering on recklessness in some cases, as well as the intelligence and initiative to operate on their own and make snap decisions. Additional training in close-quarters combat, languages, explosives and some decidedly non-sporting methods of dispatching the enemy silently also formed part of the commando skill set.

In reality, most commando missions cost heavily in lives, as sometimes less than half a team would return from a mission. And few paid off with the designed results and a particular installation or facility destroyed or crippled by the raid. Owens outlines this all quite clearly and makes a similar point towards in summary remarks at the end of the book. Whether the commandos of WWII were effective more in the minds of their fellow soldiers seeking any signs of fighting back during the dark times pre-D-Day, or in setting Axis forces off-kilter in fearing a raid on any dark night, Owens is clear that they were all brave men who believed their cause as well as the sacrifices it sought worth the risks they took.
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In most states, the highest-paid public employee is not a governor or legislator -- it's a coach, probably football or men's basketball, at a state university. Usually, supporters of that kind of situation point out that the coach brings in enough revenue to his school to justify the large outlay. Whether you accept the proposition or not, the weight of the money involved is one of the many places where "the green" of cash tilts the scales in the supposedly amateur world of college sports. And this green is that which Mark Yost's 2009 book Varsity Green explores.

Although the book's subtitle mentions corruption in college athletics, Green almost has an ambivalence about the subject in some ways. For example, in the area of coaches' salaries, Yost admits that the gap between the best-paid coaches and other tax-funded state employee salaries is large. But, he says, large chunks of that compensation comes in contracts with athletic wear suppliers and other companies. The actual taxpayer share is really not as outsized as the bottom line figure would suggest. He seems to gloss over that these contracts aren't available to folks who do not lead premier college athletic programs and those implications, though.

Yost does describe just how much money flows through an athletic department when a football team makes a postseason bowl game, for example, and notes how well bowl officials themselves are compensated for what seems like less than arduous work. He notes several other areas where the massive amounts of cash involved can seriously threaten the supposedly amateur nature of college sports and perhaps the futures of the young men and women at the heart of all the fuss: the athletes. But Varsity Green's incomplete focus and its rather easygoing attitude towards attribution and footnoting weaken its potential lesson to college sport consumers or participants.
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Heather Mac Donald regularly graces the pages of City Journal and other more conservative news and news/opinion outlets with her work, which is always data-driven and unwilling to accept status-quo answers if they aren't supported by that data. She's focused on social issues through most of her career, with some special emphasis on crime and law enforcement. 2016's The War on Cops draws particularly heavily on issues she discussed in her first two books, 2000's The Burden of Bad Ideas and 2003's Are Cops Racist?

Mac Donald wrote War following several violent demonstrations in the wake of police shootings and accusations that even honest police officers worked within systems that targeted minorities. In response, she notes the rise in crime rates in the areas where minority populations live, as police are unwilling to risk their careers or even their lives and take actions that could wind up on YouTube without context or official support. Police officers less willing to confront wrongdoers and suspects will only embolden and encourage criminals and leave other citizens less protected.

Aside from the later riots, demonstrations and incidents, War doesn't cover significantly different ground than Burden and Are Cops Racist? The new incidents are larger, more violent and unfortunately deadlier versions of events from the 2003 book, and the police retreat from more assertive law enforcement is an accelerated version of the responses seen in that book as well. Mac Donald does examine a sustained allegation of police misconduct as well as the more specious ones, but she also spends some time on financial issues affecting unionized prison employees and guards, which seems to stray afield of her central idea. The connection is not drawn very clearly. Some other chapters are not substantially different from their earlier appearance in different magazines.

The War on Cops is not necessarily an inaccurate or useless book, but it draws conclusions that require more support and spends a lot of time re-covering ground that this very author has been over extensively before.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Mathematical Wreckoning

Since it's "Pi Day," or March 14, let's check in with a retired math professor who may wind up blowing mathematics into a whole new area -- if he doesn't blow it up first.

The professor's name is Harvey Friedman, and he's been thinking about the foundations of mathematics for about a half a century. You might think this is unexceptional, as even a journalism major with a master's of divinity could grasp the basics of math: 2+2=4, and so on. The problem is a Austrian named Kurt Gödel, who dropped the hammer of his "Incompleteness Theorem" on his discipline in 1931.

In its simplest form, the Incompleteness Theorem says that any system which uses natural numbers -- the kind of numbers we use to count things -- has at least one proposition in it that can't be proved within that system. That means even basic arithmetic can't be proved using basic arithmetic. As the article at Nautilus suggests, once you create another system to prove the first system, your second system will have its own unproveable propositions, and so on.

Since Gödel, mathematicians have mostly banished the idea of incompleteness into fields where it can't be avoided and worked in the rest as though it didn't have an impact. It's what we do in everyday life as well. We may not be able to prove basic arithmetic, but since our lives work just fine when we assume it's true, we'll go ahead and assume away. One mathematician in the article estimates that as much as 85 percent of the discipline can be carried out based on a certain set of axioms and proofs that can safely say, "Kurt who?"

But Friedman thinks that way of looking at math limits it. If all of math grappled with concepts of incompleteness, infinity and some others that create equations and problems that can't be easily solved, then it might paradoxically find itself answering more questions than it does now. He's developed something called "emulation theory" which does that, and thinks that more reflection and work on it could find the same idea affecting other areas of mathematics and maybe even non-mathematical subjects as well.

Whether this will allow me to balance my checkbook on the first try, I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Dark of the Night

The picture at Astronomy Picture of the Day demonstrates why Spain designated its Monfragüe National Park as a dark-sky preserve. Such zones, with little or no light pollution from nearby artificial sources, allow astronomers their best possible views for exploration. In the United States, Death Valley is such a zone.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Topsy-Turvy

Writing at The Smithsonian, Carl Abbott laments the tendency of political candidates to say that they intend to come to Washington, D.C. to "drain the swamp."

It's a phrase usually employed by outsiders and leveled against their opponents, presumably Washington insiders. If such people ever had good motives, they have been warped or stained by their time in the Washington swamp. Abbott says that the metaphor came about because of the long-held belief that the city was built on an actual swamp, which was translated into the figure of speech which we hear used today.

But the area that became the District of Columbia was never swampy, Abbott says, pointing out that George Washington, who selected it, had pretty significant experience as a land surveyor and would have been unlikely to select a poorly drained or situated site. Subsequent drainage or sewage problems stemmed from inadequate facilities for the removal of waste and excess water, rather than any inherently mucky quality of the ground. Abbott quotes several early 19th-century sources to demonstrate his thesis.

Which leaves us in the interesting state of acknowledging that labeling Washington, D. C. a swamp is inaccurate in a literal sense but dead on target as a figure of speech. In this case, the metaphor represents reality better than reality does.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Grumble

So early tomorrow morning, at about 2 AM, all of the clocks are supposed to jump forward an hour and that will make it daylight much "later" in the day.

Government: There's nothing we won't screw with.

Friday, March 10, 2017

A Pirate Looks at Whatever the Mandatory Retirement Age Is Now

Jimmy Buffett, who has parlayed a single Top-10 song ("Margaritaville") and a laid-back beach bum persona into a four-decade career, is about to branch out into a new arena.

Buffett is already the owner of two restaurant chains and a merchandise store but has decided, in a move befitting the Baby Boom generation of which he is a part, to open Margaritaville-themed retirement homes. Despite the image he often projects, Buffett is actually a savvy businessman and wide-ranging artist. He's created Broadway plays and written three books in addition to recording and touring.

Here's a suggestion for a reworking of "Margaritaville" into its new setting:
"Wastin' away again in Margaritaville.
 Searchin' for my
Lost glass of teeth..."
Best of luck to Mr. Buffett; the place sounds like it would be a heckuvan interestng time.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Norwegian Blues


Sometimes, having the blues can even be a little uplifting...when they're the background color of a photo of a seaside city in Norway, anyway. The photo was taken by Maciej Kurkiewicz and can be found at National Geographic. Click the link; they've got a lot of great images.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Illini Communism Detected!

Surely you don't think there's some other reason that CBS will shorten its NCAA Men's basketball Championship tournament bracket reveal show by a half-hour, do you?

Yes, yes, I know -- last year's version was silly and delayed the bracket reveal long enough that Twitter leaked the information before CBS's talking heads could finish. But in the very year when the tournament might possibly have meaning for the first time in its 79-year history, the show is shortened.

Isn't it possible that the deep state forces of Illini Communism, knowing that any exposure to the upstanding purple paragons of loving your mom, eating your vegetables and saying your prayers will only reflect poorly on them, engineered the lost half-hour? I say that without a thorough investigation, that thesis cannot be disproven.

The Illini may themselves earn a berth in the tournament. In which case it will be the job of the Northwestern University Wildcats to take some time off from rescuing puppies, saving lost kittens, helping Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren across the street and conducting experiments on quark-gluon plasma to give them the thrashing they so richly deserve.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Enduring Problem

It seems that the tendency of pet cats to wander where and when they will is not a new one.

According to Ask the Past, a method in use in the late 1400s involved rubbing butter on its nose and legs for three days running. The information comes from a 15th-Century French document called The Distaff Gospels, a collection of things known and shared by women of that era.

It is probably unsurprising that a French solution to a problem involves food, but it would seem to me that a much simpler method of keeping the furry little psychopathic mooches around would be to actually give them some. That plan has some definitely strong history behind it.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Curtain

Turner Classic Movies is one of the few of my overabundance of cable channels that I still watch, and along with baseball season the main reason I still have cable. A cool thing about watching some of the great old movies it showed was learning a little bit about them before the show started, as host Robert Osborne would introduce them with some information about the movies themselves or the actors in them.

Most of the hosts TCM uses for their different movie programs are pretty good, but there will definitely be a hard time filling the slots as classily as Osborne did, as he passed away today at 84.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

In Reverse

Apparently, attending Middlebury College in Vermont will flip the education process end for end and make students who attend there dumber than they were when they started school.

Middlebury's residents -- "students" seems like a misnomer for them -- shouted down, ran out and then later attacked a guest speaker on campus, Charles Murray, Murray may or may not be someone you want to listen to, given some of his earlier work and his tendency to simply report results without giving much attention to how his reporting may be heard by others.

But when you decide to stage a live-action version of "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2," then you pretty much crossed the line and lost even the microscopic fig leaf of political action that the "heckler's veto" grants you. Middlebury's residents are just thugs. And that's the charitable interpretation.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Come All You Young Fellows, What Follows the Sea...

Some historians make the case that the war between England and France that finally ended Napoleon's reign was the actual First World War, with combat and conflict in nearly every corner of the globe before it was over.

One area of operations was the Caribbean, where French economic interests ran parallel to Spanish -- making the job of an English sea captain no easy task, since he had to sort French enemy from Spanish neutral, and he could never be certain if Spain was still an ally. Into this turmoil sails Charles Hayden and the HMS Themis in 2014's Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead, the fourth Hayden novel from S. Thomas Russell.

Hayden has survived incompetent and vengeful superiors and the prejudice aimed at him for having a French mother to command the Themis. Ordered to act against England's enemies in the Caribbean both private and national, he finds himself the rescuer of two Spanish nationals who will complicate things immeasurably for him.

Every publisher would like to lay hands on the "next Patrick O'Brian" to draw in fans of nautical and historical fiction, and the first three books of the Hayden series showed significant promise from Russell. He's an experienced historical fiction writer and seemed to have something of a hand for tales of seagoing adventure. Until is a major stumble, though. The sea battles and period detail are pressed into the service of a soap-opera plot and ludicrously contrived romance whose finish is visible from the moment the principals are introduced. It remains to be seen if there is a fifth volume of Hayden adventures and if it can bounce back from this low point. Russell writes other fiction as well and hasn't ever brought the Hayden books out annually, so as of now it's all a waiting game.
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Most Napoleonic-era nautical fiction focuses on the conflict between England and France, but some other naval action was going on as the 19th century dawned. The fledgling United States Navy was trying to dissuade North African nations from raiding US commerce and either ransoming or enslaving crews. In 2016's The Shores of Tripoli, James L. Haley takes us along with Bliven Putnam as he sails into battle on the USS Constitution against the "Barbary pirates."

We meet Putnam as a very young man, but one feature of many navies of the time was the enlistment of very young men and the placement of great responsibility in their hands. Haley follows the timeline of the US's struggle against the pirates, beaching his hero for quite some time (long enough for an amusing courtship with the delightfully intelligent and independent Clarity Marsh) before bringing him back under arms. Putnam takes part in the U. S. Marines' march across the desert to attack one of the pirate strongholds in addition to serving during sea battles and raids.

Most of Haley's work before now has been non-fiction history without any special focus on the sea, but he seems to adapt well so far. He steps wrong in a few places story-wise and puts his characters through paces our earlier acquaintance with them would suggest they would not take. Given that the war against the Barbary pirates was not very short or focused, it's not surprising that Putnam's story also lacks a little focus. Subsequent novels will work better if Haley can maintain narrative discipline to keep his characters...in character, so to speak and to keep a straighter storytelling path. The Barbary conflict is ripe for some sea yarns, so he should have the room to work and improve.
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Julian Stockwin has one of the two or so ongoing nautical fiction series that has had some legs and staying power as he writes of the life and voyages of Sir Thomas Kydd. Kydd began life at sea as a pressed man in 2001's Kydd and has been climbing the ranks of success, wealth and fame for 17 novels to date. Now a respected and well-known captain, Kydd begins Inferno on vacation while his ship HMS Tyger is repaired. But he is soon recalled to duty when His Majesty's government decides it cannot let the navy of Denmark fall into Napoleon's hands, even if that proud nation is unwilling to meekly hand over control of its warships to a foreign power.

Kydd's own role in the siege of Copenhagen will also involve a rescue of the exiled King of France, while his friend Renzi Stone and Cecilia, Kydd's sister and Renzi's wife, try to work on the addled King of Denmark to achieve a diplomatic solution. History tells us how well that works out, and Renzi and Cecilia find themselves trapped in the besieged city when it comes under fire from English forces pressuring the king to capitulate.

Stockwin spends probably less time with Kydd in Inferno than in any other of the novels so far. While understandable, since the naval role in the siege was mostly blockade and that would leave our hero with little to do, it makes for a scattered entry in the series. Stockwin's elegant language and deft hand at battles on sea and land haven't flagged, but when those tools are employed to relate the stories of a bunch of people who aren't our main cast, then attention can wander. The Battle of Copenhagen happened in 1807, so we're in sight of the climax of the global fight against the Emperor Napoleon and Stockwin himself said he saw the Kydd series as having 20 books. So there are probably three more to help him raise the quality back to former levels, which is more than enough time when the dip is this shallow and that overall quality this good.

Friday, March 3, 2017

And Get Off My Lawn

I have a problem with the upcoming live-action version of Beauty and the Beast.

Now, since I have frequently confessed herein that I am a person mired deep in traditional Christian theism, you might think my problem comes in the form of the revelation that LeFou, who plays the bumbling sidekick to the vain and villainous Gaston, is gay. At least one theater in Alabama has decided not to show the movie because of that.

Au contraire. Sure, I can't understand the decision, since LeFou is at best an incidental character whose main job is help Gaston sing about himself. If I were a gay person, I would think that a company that really wanted to make a statement about me would rework the story so that the aforementioned Gaston recognized his macho pose as an act of denial and it was his selfless act of love that allowed the Beast to regain his human form. Whereupon they would set up house -- or castle -- together. This would have the added advantage of allowing the heroine Belle to demonstrate she did not need a man to complete her.

Instead, one of the more buffoonish characters of the movie is shoehorned into blazing this trail. A lot of television shows claim a mantle of courage for featuring same-sex relationships but make sure the couples are smokin' eye candy like in Supergirl and Wynonna Earp. The titillation factor means their claims of courage rest on some seriously sandy soil: Our shows are Brave and Daring and Diverse -- just as long as the diverse ones are also teh hawt. So too Beast is Making a Statement with a Gay Character -- as long as he's not a very important one.

But that's not what bugs me about this movie. What bugs me is that it's being made at all. What will be added to the classic story by reprising the 1991 animated smash only with human actors and computer-generated imagery? Lumiere is no longer a hand-drawn animated candelabra voiced by Detective Lenny Briscoe. Now he's a computer-generated animated candelabra voiced by Obi-Wan Kenobi! Cogsworth is no longer Major Charles Emerson Winchester III; he's now Gandalf/Magneto! (And as regards the sexuality of characters in the movie, maybe a gay Cogsworth would have been a more fitting tribute to the gay actor David Ogden Stiers, who voiced him in the animated movie.)

But what about seeing Emma Watson as Belle? So what? Belle doesn't diverge widely from Hermione Granger, the Harry Potter role that made Watson an international star. Trying to say that in this movie she's a different independent, bookish, smart young woman who thinks for herself and doesn't pay much attention to whatever tradition says her role is supposed to be? And frankly, Watson's own intelligence, independent-mindedness and strong character make her close enough to Belle that in every trailer I've watched, I've never thought of the character as Belle -- only as Emma Watson.

Anything can be adapted; Beast was a smash Broadway musical and paved the way for several similar staged versions of Disney movies. So it's not as though there aren't other ways to experience amazing stories like that brought to life by Mouse Magic in 1991. But in its best work, among which Beast is surely numbered, Disney didn't put forth awesome and iconic animated movies. It put forth awesome and iconic movies, period. The definitive version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast has been made, and it was released in 1991.

So if you ask me in the next few weeks if I plan on seeing Beauty and the Beast, my answer will be "Probably not. I've seen it already."

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Actually, You Probably Will Need Roads

Dumb ol' Isaac Newton and his laws of motion say so, anyway.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

No Damn Way

I'm not meaning to pick on Brazil this week, but this news item about what two of its scientists used to make the flour they in turn made into bread demands an immediate response.

And since Andressa Lucas and Lauren Menegon made their flour from cockroaches the response can only be the one contained in the post headline.

But, they say, even a mixture of 10 percent cockroach flour increases the bread's protein content by 50 percent.

No damn way.

The difference in taste, they suggest, is all but imperceptible.

No damn way.

The United Nations says we will run out of land to farm to feed the number of people on Earth by 2050, and "insect farming" will probably be necessary to avoid mass starvation.

No damn way.

Insect farming is much less greenhouse-y and thus easier on the climate.

No damn way.

Insect flour can be completely used, with no residue.

No damn way.

The two scientists are now turning their attention to developing usable insect flour from crickets and mealworm beetles. It's beyond me why someone doesn't speak to them about this before they turn more bugs into bread.