Sunday, January 20, 2019

Tip of the Cap

To Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles -- who founded a religious revival movement that continues to this day. Mrs. Wesley  passed on many of her ideas about theology and spiritual things to her children, including those two sons, and her words influenced their own thinking and teaching.

She would have been 350 today had she not passed in 1743 at the much more plausible age of 73.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Eternal King?

As guessed earlier this week, Sherman the shark and his friend Ernest have traveled back in time to keep a particular ancient animal from beginning the transition from sea to land. Unfortunately, they find that the animal is already demonstrating some human-specific characteristics; they may be too late!

Friday, January 18, 2019

Word

Thanks to the efforts of the good folks at Mental Floss, you can learn a couple of neat things about that invaluable friend of English comp writers, the thesaurus.

The one that interested me the most was the knowledge that Peter Mark Roget, the man credited with the development of the modern English thesaurus (the best-known of which bears his name today) was also a medical doctor. His birthday of January 18 is observed as "Thesaurus Day."

And he invented the log-log slide rule, a specialized version of that old mathematical tool that displayed the logarithm of a logarithm and thus allowed the user to directly manipulate roots and exponents in calculations.

My doctor's pretty cool, but I don't see him branching out like that.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Wrong Way to the Right Place

Retired political reporters, I am sure, probably look at today's headlines and offer thanks to whatever deity, human agency or random chance in which they believe that they are in fact retired political reporters.

Because otherwise they would have to find a way to write about the two septuagenarian pre-schoolers at the center of a Washington, D.C. hissy-fit in such a way as to help keep us mindful of the authority of the positions involved. And said septuagenarian pre-schoolers make that anything but easy.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi withdrew the invitation to President Donald Trump to deliver the State of the Union address in Congress later this month. She cited the current partial shutdown of the federal government as the reason, saying that the shutdown would make it difficult for the Department of Homeland Security and Secret Service to do their jobs and properly protect all of the government figures in the building for the speech. I have no idea if she believes this herself, but if so she is the only one. Her more likely intent was to embarrass the president, which is a stupid thing to do for many reasons.

It's a move certainly beneath the dignity of the office of Speaker of the House, but the stupidity comes in thinking that anything could embarrass this president. Matt Murdock's Daredevil may be "the man without fear," but Donald Trump is the man without shame. Attempts to do so have never worked, and Representative Pelosi is not a smart woman if she thinks she can manage to shame a man who carried on with an adult film star while his wife was still opening baby shower gifts.

The president, for his part, proved that not only is it a bad idea to expect childish gestures to shame him, it's a bad idea to try, because childish tit-for-tat gestures are among his slender cabinet of talents. He withdrew permission for Pelosi and a group of congressional leaders to use military aircraft on a tour of Afghanistan and other countries in which the U.S. has troops stationed, suggesting they fly commercial instead.

It would be easy to say that this tantrum makes them both look bad, but neither has ever looked anything else so why should this back-and-forth be any different. The only positive development that may come from all of this is the very real possibility we will not have to endure a State of the Union speech this year. A memo was good enough for George Washington and it ought to be good enough for all of the significantly weaker successors modern times have inflicted on the office. I think there's a better than even chance that Speaker Pelosi will find a reason to withdraw the 2020 invitation as well, which could mean we would have two years without the meaningless spectacle of what is usually one of a President's worst televised speeches.

Unfortunately I think we will get only a temporary reprieve. If the Republicans regain the House of Representatives in 2020 or if the Democrats win the White House in 2020, then we'll see it resume.

Or rather, someone will see it resume. I haven't watched that speech in more than 20 years.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Podcasting

One of the neat things about the dearth of listenable radio stations in most areas of our country today is the rise of the podcast. Tablet + podcast + cassette adapter = highway diversion when traveling two-plus hours to a meeting. The variety is immensely greater than even the most eclectic radio station menu, and the downloadable nature of the format means that a desired program can be listened to when convenient, rather than only when broadcast.

Book Lab is a podcast by Canadian science journalist Dan Falk and science writer Amanda Gefter that discusses what are usually called "popular science" books, as opposed to specialized textbooks. The popular books are meant to be read by a well-educated but non-specialist audience, and succeeding at that task requires a bit more dexterity than the creation of a teaching textbook. Falk and Gefter have a couple of award-winning popular science books between them, so they make a kind of natural fit for discussing similar offerings.

Format-wise, the show opens with a single book that both of the hosts have read and they work through it, explaining the subject matter, what the writer says about it and whether or not they think the project succeeds. Then each offers a shorter take on a book that's "on the nightstand," explaining it in briefer detail and answering questions from the other about the content and why they picked it.

Book Lab has a very NPR-show feel to it, right down to the jazzy piano music bumpers between segments and Falk's broadcast-professional presentation. Gefter is just as articulate and informative, but her tone is not quite as radio-ready as Falks. Although both have their own specialty areas of study and interest, they've covered many areas of science through the books they discuss. Both are engaging personalities and work well together, leaving a listener better informed not only about a few books but also the scientific discipline it covers. The only real complaint I have with Book Lab is the infrequency with which Gefter and Falk release shows; since their first episode in December 2014 they've only done 19. Which is probably savvy from their point of view, marketing-wise, because it never hurts to leave your listeners wanting more.
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Quillette is an online magazine founded in 2015 by Australian writer Claire Lehmann. Its podcast focuses primarily on issues the magazine has covered, digging deeper through interviews with other writers and newsmakers they have covered.

Like the magazine, the Quillette podcast trends heavily into the heterodox and iconoclastic in both its subject matter and the way it's approached. Although heterodoxy in today's media world most often means a more conservative perspective, Quillette doesn't hesitate to publish or interview anyone, left or right, connected to the subject at hand. Meghan Murphy, a radical feminist blogger whose general politics would probably clash with Quillette's more libertarian leanings, wrote for the magazine and sat for an interview to discuss her removal from Twitter. Lehman and other members of the Quillette staff may disagree with Murphy on much, but they stand four-square behind free speech and believed Murphy's story and experiences offered a good handle for exploring the issue.

Unlike some other podcasts that cover interesting subjects from a libertarian or even right-leaning point of view, Quillette allows its interviewers far more time than just a quick 10-minute segment. Interviews last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, and primary interviewers Toby Young and Jonathan Kay do an excellent job exploring the topic of the hour through their conversations with their subjects.

Most of the actual reporting done under the Quillette banner goes into the magazine's stories. The podcast interviews can provide some significant contrast and background but they are not intended to be street-level reporting and writing. All told, Quillette is an excellent way to either deepen our knowledge of the world around us or gain some new perspectives on perhaps familiar topics. And so far, at least, writers and bloggers have diligently dug simply for information for a story, rather than treat their work as a tool with which to slam or embarrass one office-holder or another.

Those persons may certainly find themselves embarrassed now and again, but that's not the name of the game -- just a wonderful side-benefit..

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Contributions

Sherman the shark, in discussion with his friend Ernest, attempts to come up with contributions of value that can be attributed to human beings, or "beach apes." Ernest seems to believe there are none, but Sherman demurs and credits us with inventing Oreos.

The discussion is held in light of the discovery of a fossil that shows where life diverged to produce land animals and the aforementioned land-dwelling primates. Since Sherman's Lagoon creator Jim Toomey has been known to be looney, it's possible we'll see a time travel series in which lagoon denizens journey back in time to prevent the rise of human beings. So stay tuned; it may even turn out that we're good for more than snack cookies.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Climate Change

Humphrey Bogart died on this day in 1957, and although the world continued to turn as always, it was not quite as cool as before.