Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thought through? Or: Thought? Through!

Berkeley High School, like many high schools across the country, has found a problem with a gap in student achievement that breaks across racial lines. Often, schools with such gaps try to find ways to raise the test scores and grades of the minority groups on the theory that they can, with the proper tools, teaching and motivation, achieve just as well as the higher-performing students.

Berkeley, however, will take a different approach. They will figure out new ways to reach out to those students who are not reaching their full potential. And they will stop reaching out to those students who are.

The Berkeley High's School Governance Council, a group of students, parents and teachers, has recommended the school cut five science lab sections -- which the council says have mostly white students -- in order to redirect resources to reaching the other students. A council member who spoke to the newspaper said the decision was "virtually unanimous," which shows that, whether or not he did well in science, he has no idea what either of those words mean.

One of BHS's science teachers points out that while the advanced placement or AP labs may reach mostly white students, there are minority students in them also. The teacher doesn't mention it, but achievement in AP labs and classes is often heavily weighted when students apply to elite colleges or in scholarship applications -- so some of those minority students who would lose their labs might have much more difficulty in being accepted or in paying for college following high school.

On the one hand, there's a certain ugly but undeniable logic to the suggestion. If the school wants to use resources to reach underperforming students, it will have to take those resources from somewhere. On the other hand, the council's stated rationale -- the labs reach white students and we need to help non-white students so we'll take away what the white students have and give it to the other ones -- is bigotry writ fairly large. There are, one might assume, some other course offerings that BHS could trim to gain the needed resources to improve education among those who need the most help. Fortunately, BHS puts its course catalog -- more than 90 pages, which I think is longer than some smaller colleges -- online so we can check out what some of those courses are.

There is, for example, the "Social Justice Seminar" course "Social Justice, Social Responsibility and Social Change." Really? Takes a whole year to teach kids "Vote, pay your taxes, don't break the law, do unto others as they would do unto you, love your neighbor as yourself and look out for the little guy?" Maybe even the high-performing Berkeley students aren't that smart.

BHS offers a semester-long course in "Popular Culture in 20th Century America." This is a course that presumes teachers know more about pop culture than students, which is a non sequitir of monumental proportions. The pop culture teachers would know more about is the older pop culture, AKA "What my parents liked," and I think we know how much teens love to hear their parents talk about the music they liked, movies they saw, and cool clothes they wore.

There are others. The PE department offers year-long courses in "Funk Aerobic Exercise," badminton (teacher recommendation required for placement in the advanced group), and a semester-long ultimate frisbee course.

A superficial view to be sure, but the point is that the council which recommended the cuts could have found plenty of trimmable things on which BHS spends its taxpayers' money that could free up resources for needed work among its low-achieving students. Especially considering that those labs also serve minority students.

Instead, Berkeley High's School Governance Council seems quite happy to be a school that would rather tell smart minority kids whose performance in an advanced placement lab might have earned them shots at MIT that it's more important for them to have the chance to take a semester of ultimate frisbee. That choice may or may not have been thought through. But it certainly indicates a group of folks who are through with thinking.

(H/T to Erin O'Connor, who used the headline I wanted to use)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Free Is in the Eye of the Beholden...

While watching TV late at night at the folks' house, I saw a new commercial for a service that charges you for a credit report. Well, technically, they don't charge you for a report -- that's free. But you don't get the report unless you enroll in a credit monitoring program, and that costs you a monthly fee after the trial period.

Of course, the law allows a person to request a report of their credit history free of charge once every 12 months -- including from the company that runs the service that isn't completely free.

The company has made several try-to-be-clever commercials with their curly-headed protagonist detailing, in several musical genres, how his inattention to his credit rating left him unable to buy a house, cool car, mountain bike, modern cell phone or to get a good job.

I also noticed that, according to Facebook, I had a chance to become a fan of the band. I'm pretty sure that "fan" isn't synonymous with "someone who wishes you would just shut up and go back to making French-language movies about infidelity," so I passed. Funny thing here -- the lead "singer" is French-Canadian and speaks English with a decided accent, so his voice in the commercials is dubbed. The songs were written by an ad guy who's also responsible for that ubiquitous faux-Cockney gecko who shills for an insurance company.

Maybe there's some kind of repellent that would get rid of them both.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Get My Grinch On...

I hate snow more than 90% of the time I see it anyway, so when it's mixed with 40 mph winds, sleet and doled out in half-foot-deep-or-more amounts, I find myself assuming a wrath towards it of near-Biblical proportions.

I am, of course, a man of peace and I wish to be at odds with no one on earth. I own no weapons save for those socks I didn't wash the last time I wore them to mow the lawn. But should anyone brave the elements, come to my home, knock on my door and sing "White Christmas" to me, I shall direct upon that person the Gaze of Instant and Painful Death. And it will be several minutes before I am sorry.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Gotta Watch Them Verbs

This article by author Naomi Wolf suggests that Carrie Bradshaw, the character played by Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, became "feminism's foremost philosopher." But how can you take Ms. Wolf seriously?

It's not because Bradshaw is what we quaintly used to call a "fictional character" and thus has no philosophy not given her by writers, Ms. Parker and show producers (one of whom I went to college with).

Nor is it because this fictional character was a shoe-obsessed airhead who spent most of the show chasing after a man (Chris Noth's "Mr. Big") who, from what I hear, frequently treated her poorly.

No, it's far simpler than that. Second paragraph, first sentence. Ms. Wolf says the show "centred not around a couple," using that funny British spelling because this article appears in a British paper. It is impossible, of course, to center or centre around anything. You may orbit around something, you may revolve around something, you may circle around something or you may wander around something.

But you can only center on something. Remember, the center of a circle is the point that is equidistant from all points on the circle. That means it has to be one location, and that means it can't be "around" anything.

Just a former reporter's pet peeve. I feel better now.

Yet Another Big Honkin' Lump of Coal... me, to go with the egg on my face for not following the article about Dr. Nathan Grills far enough to find out that the Australian professor was spoofing scientific articles about silly subjects, something I of course hold very dear.

In fact, Dr. Grills plays Santa and he says he does so out of a belief in what he calls:
...the true meaning of Santa. The true Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a very generous man who gave of all his wealth to bless others who were in need. This was a reflection of one of the greatest gifts given to humanity: the baby Jesus. We need to reclaim Christmas for the beauty of giving and loving.
Oh, it gets worse for me yet. In his everyday work, Dr. Grills studies HIV transmission in rural areas of India to see how charities can help victims of the disease in those regions. I feel like I just kicked a puppy...that is, I feel like this his how I would feel if I ever had kicked a puppy, because I am not the kind of person who would do such a thing, although based on how I made fun of this really neat guy you probably shouldn't take my word for that.

As one of the people who made fun of your spoofed study, Dr. Grills, I certainly apologize, on the one-in-a-million chance either of my readers ever meets you and mentions my earlier post to you. And the study itself is pretty dadgum funny. It gave me a ho-ho-ho for the day.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Another Big Honkin' Lump of Coal

To the apparently underemployed Dr. Nathan Grills from Monash University in Australia, who suggests that the image of the right jolly old elf, all chubby and plump, promotes obesity in children.

The tradition of leaving Santa a glass of brandy also promotes an image of drunken driving, Dr. Grinch -- Grills, I mean -- says. I respond thusly:

1) As we learned from any number of Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, the reindeer are sentient. Santa can have as much brandy as he wants; he has nine designated drivers and one of them has an illuminated nose.

2) I'd imagine that after Santa's "helper," AKA "Dad," sweats through the midnight, midnight-plus-one and perhaps midnight-plus-two-and-three hours to put together that blasted bicycle, he's earned a swig, so lay the bleep off, Doc.

3) Children love Santa, but children do not want to be Santa. There is no waiting line to perform chimney-work, for example.

4) A glass of brandy and a mince pie left out for Santa? Australians have some different holiday traditions, it would seem. No wonder the old lush never touched the milk and cookies my sister and I made sure were left for him.

You know, if university professors like Dr. Grills and the fellow mentioned the other day keep this up, all that coal is going to make people start questioning their ecological commitment.

You're Looking in the Wrong Place

Sometimes, even famous people I like say things that don't make much sense. Sam Elliott, the only man alive whose mustache could probably beat Chuck Norris's in a fair fight, thinks the reason that New Line Cinema didn't make sequels to 2007's The Golden Compass was because the Roman Catholic church put too much pressure on them to shelve the project.

Compass was based on the first -- and best -- of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" fantasy novels. Pullman is an English writer who despises C.S. Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia" children's novels and was initially pretty upfront that his works were designed as a sort of "anti-Narnia," although he didn't use that term.

Pullman misreads Lewis at a number of critical points. His trilogy has the disadvantage of having enough attitude and agenda for three books, but having story enough for only one and a half. And New Line was facing the reality that a film based on the best book of the series draws a 42% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and carries the barely better than break-even score of 51 at Metacritics.

New Line was also facing a wretched financial picture, managing to somehow squander the mint of money that came from The Lord of the Rings trilogy into several year's worth of box-office underwhelmingness. They spent between $180 and $200 million on Compass and had an initial domestic take of barely $70 million (Mr. Elliott's figure of an $85 million gross comes from who knows where). New Line, in fact, went under and was bought out by Warner Bros. less than three months after Compass was released.

This writer notes that the church has protested a number of things which have gone on to do quite well, among them a handful of little movies about an English boy wizard, a gal from the Detroit suburbs who's sold a record or two, and some books about vampires written by a Mormon homemaker.

So I'm going to take the risk of disagreeing with Mr. Elliott, who's one of my favorite character actors, and say that the real reason no one's going to make any sequels to The Golden Compass has more to do with The Green Paper than any religious influence that the Roman Catholic church holds over the board of directors of New Line Cinema or its successors.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

One Big Honkin' Lump of Coal

That will be on its way forthwith to one David Kyle Johnson, an assistant professor of philosophy at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Professor Johnson takes to the Baltimore Sun to enlighten us all about how wrong it is to encourage children to believe in Santa Claus.

Professor Johnson also provides another fine example of my thesis that professors don't have enough to do.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Due Credit

Since I dinged Stephen King for uncomplimentary comments about military folks, it's proper that I acknowledge his good gesture to National Guard troops from his home state of Maine.

About 150 soldiers scheduled for deployment in January will get bus tickets home thanks to King, who donated $12,999 towards their tickets from a training base in Indiana to Portland and to Bangor, Maine's major cities. The cost was $13,000, but King is apparently a bit of a triskedekaphobe and didn't want to jinx the troops, so his assistant put in the extra dollar.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Like Getting Socks for Christmas...

At least, it seems that's how a large chunk of the good folk of Illinois feel about the idea that terrorists now housed at a facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be moved to the Thomson Correctional Center in the western part of the state.

I'm pretty sure they don't see this as a good substitute for the Olympics they were supposed to get in Chicago. Granted, a number of the gentlemen who might be housed at TCC might have some athletic feats in mind, such as the Exterior Fence Pole-Vault, the Underground Handmade Tunnel Endurance Crawl or the Multiple High-Velocity Projectile Obstacle Course Dodge.

But I believe the fanfare that accompanies Olympic sports might not be welcomed by the athletes practicing the above skills. In fact, I'd suspect they wouldn't even want anyone to know about the contests until well after they're over.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Two letters that can represent great possibility and an open doorway to achievement.

And they can also be the biggest quagmire imaginable, making it utterly impossible to move forward or, in many cases be taken seriously. "If we'd done this" or "If this hadn't happened" are fine statements to include in an overall review of events and policy. But after awhile, they're as useful as old fish and smell little better.

With that thought in mind, feel free to read this Newsweek piece by David Rakoff, in which he shows an attitude that still whines about the 2000 presidential election and the outcome.

I can understand how many people might like to dream about a world in which George W. Bush was not elected president. But every bit of energy expended in such a dream is energy that can't be used in order to deal with the world the way it is, and Rakoff's piece about how everything would have been better if Gore had won is just mean-spirited wishful thinking.

And it plays fast and loose with facts, too. Rakoff refers to a signing ceremony for the Kyoto Treaty regulating greenhouse gas omissions taking place in his alternate March 2001. Of course, President Clinton signed that treaty in 1998 but never submitted it to the Senate for ratification, which would make a "signing ceremony" a bit of a redundancy.

Ah, but who cares! The article's point was to take snide jabs at all of the author's favorite targets by giving them fates he felt they deserved, and to show how everything bad that happened from 2000-2008 was President Bush's fault.

So at least one person had fun with it, anyway.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Whatcha Hidin' There?

Astronomers have discovered that Alcor, a star in the handle of The Big Dipper constellation, has a previously unseen companion.

It's kind of par for the course for stars in that particular constellation, as many of them have shown up with unexpected companion stars as observing equipment improved and astronomers were better able to make out details. Alcor is a large bright star and the companion is a red dwarf star, one of the most common stars found in the universe. That's on the occasions when they're found, of course, as they are pretty dim compared to other stars and often are overlooked.

The new star will be named according to the conventional practice of the International Astronomical Union, which designates mutiple-star systems with letters of the alphabet. So it will be called Alcor B, and the former Alcor will now be called Alcor A in light of the discovery.

There is no truth to the rumor that the appearance of a previously unknown companion to Alcor prompted the IAU to consider renaming it "Tiger."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

About Face!

Signs of intelligent life have been found amongst the members of the Sussex Squares homeowners association in Virginia. They have agreed not to tell 90-year-old Congressional Medal of Honor honoree Col. Van T. Barfoot (ret.) to take down his flagpole, and they've agreed to stop threatening to sue him if he doesn't.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

From the Vast to the Minute

Here are some pictures from the other end of the King's realm mentioned last week.


One of the morning shows at the gym had a piece on dogs who compete over obstacle courses and such. At some point it probably involves catching a frisbee, too.

And they had a small demonstration, which was a relief because at first the tag on the screen said "Dog Show" and I was worried this was one of those things where the dogs are blow-dried and trimmed and styled to a degree that must shame the ancestral wolf within. At least I hope it does.

The dogs, coached by their people, ran through a couple of tubes, jumped some low hurdles and dodged back and forth between some upright poles. The thing was, they looked like they were having an absolute blast, even though everyone's breath was steaming and the people were all bundled up against the cold.

And I suppose I might have myself a blast too if I were a dog and doing these sorts of things: I get to run! I get to jump! I get a treat! And I am a good dog! A very good dog! I do not possess a spoken language to express my overflowing happiness, so I will lick your face instead!

I've seen other kinds of these shows, too, where the dogs do indeed catch the frisbee, and another where they are supposed to run and jump as far as they can into a tank of water, and several other contests. There's probably a sour-faced animal rights activist group somewhere that thinks these things are awful and exploitative and whatnot, but I seriously hope a Great Dane whizzes on their collective natural-grown-hemp-fiber pantlegs.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Mixed blessing?

So once again my alma mater will play in a bowl game. Northwestern is in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, FL, on Jan. 1. The Wildcats play the Auburn Tigers. Which probably means we won't be breaking our streak of bowl losses anytime soon.

But it's a New Year's Day bowl game, even if it is named after a restaurant. The Outback Bowl began life as the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1986 as a late December bowl game. (There was a Hall of Fame Bowl beginning in 1975, but it specifically matched small schools against each other and didn't have much of a profile). It switched to the January set the next year and has been there ever since. It's been the Outback Bowl since 1994.

We'll just have to see if this will be the game where we Northwestern alums get to stop saying, "Northwestern University: Losing bowl games -- and graduating the people who run the companies you work for -- since 1949."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?

The Sussex Square Homeowners Association of Henrico County, VA, has sent a letter to Col. Van T. Barfoot (ret.), telling him he can't have a free-standing flagpole on his front lawn.

The 90-year-old Congressional Medal of Honor winner likes to raise the flag each morning and lower it at sunset. But since the homeowners association doesn't like his flagpole, he has until 5 PM Friday to take it down or get sued. Should he lose his lawsuit, the association would also ding him for legal costs.

Can we count the different stupidities here?

1) Having your notice to a 90-year-old man written and delivered by a law firm and threatening to have him pay your legal bills if you have to sue him.

2) Denying an application to said 90-year-old man to erect a flagpole even though the association bylaws don't explicitly forbid it, on aesthetic grounds.

3) Getting hot and bothered about a flagpole in a yard owned by a 90-year-old man. How long do you think this is going to be a problem?

4) Telling one of fewer than 100 living Congressional Medal of Honor recipients -- who by the way also earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star and a Purple Heart during his career -- he can't fly the American flag the way he wants to.

As my headline suggests, who thought this would be a good idea? And digging a little more, let's see what Col. Barfoot did to earn his nation's highest military honor. We can find it at the Medal of Honor Society website, but I'll summarize. He captured three machine-gun nests and 17 German soldiers. By himself. Later in the day, he faced down three tanks and shot one in the tread with a bazooka, disabling it. While on his way back to his unit after blowing up a German artillery piece, he helped two wounded soldiers back to safety.

I figure that guy who gave three tanks the hairy eyeball and a bazooka round when he was 24 may have lost a step or two in the ensuing 66 years. At 90, he may not be what he once was. But I'm betting he's still got enough in him to handle a county homeowners association.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Iam adveho Rex

Advent focuses us on Christmas, which focuses us on the birth of a baby. It is a good thing to do.

It's also a good thing to remember that the baby would grow into a man, and that in a way that human language can't fully explain, that man would simultaneously be a first-century Jew as well as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and has always been the engine of creation itself as God's own Word.

The Boston Globe's "Big Picture" site offers a daily reminder of just a few small parts of this King's realm, with some help from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


I read towards the end of October that November was being set aside by folks who blog as a time to try to post at least once a day. It has a name that combines letters of its words into some slightly menacing Soviet-era agency-sounding word, but I forget what it was.

Well, I thought I'd try it. After all, I used to write at least five days a week when I worked at the paper, and I did that for a few years. Let's see if I still can, I sez.

I can, it turns out, although it's not as easy as it was when the city council or the school board or the police went and did something that gave me a ready-made topic. Hunting up your own stuff every day is a little bit harder work, even with the whole internet at your disposal. Some things I don't care to write about at all, some I don't care to write about any more, and some I don't care to learn anything about them in order to write more. Some posts said what I would have said, so why do that over and over again.

The only day that's kind of questionable was Sunday, Nov. 15. All I posted was a link to the sermon that went up on my sermon blog. But on the other hand, I posted the sermon, which is about as long or longer as most of the things I post here, so I'm inclined to let myself off with a warning.

This exercise really broadened my respect for some of the best daily columnists and such, like my favorite, the late Mike Royko. Nine hundred words, five or six days a week. Even with research assistants to handle the legwork, that ain't shabby.

My respect for the worst columnists, of course, remains quite narrow.

(ETA: Andrew Sullivan is actually the worst columnist/pundit who writes in any kind of a national forum, but I choose not to link him.)

Monday, November 30, 2009


The version of the impending health-care reform legislation passed by the House of Representatives includes a stipulation that products sold in vending machines have labels visible on them or somewhere near them that discloses their nutritional information, including calories.

This is really good. Because I can't count the number of times I would have skipped the bag of pork rinds (311 calories and about 20 grams of fat per 2 oz bag) and instead picked up a healthy Snickers (100 calories and 5 grams of fat per bar) if I'd just known their respective nutritional information.

The problem seems to me that most people who get snacks from vending machines already know they're really bad for you and so they would either not be getting them at all, or getting them anyway because they don't care. So the labels wouldn't do much. And the labels on vending machines that held healthy snacks wouldn't do much good either; the dust of months or even years of non-use would obscure them.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


First Oklahoma City Thunder game tonight, as Dad and I wrap up the holiday bachelor weekend -- state football seminfinals Friday and Saturday night, plenty o' college and pro griddin' on the tube, and now a trip to the Ford Center. Random observations:

1) The Thunder do a pretty good show in the downtime, off-the-floor type stuff. Lots of little contests, a T-shirt "Gatling gun" kind of device that I would love to wheel into the sanctuary some Sunday, stuff like that. Fun atmosphere.

2) It was announced that we were at "family night." Could be that's why we had so many contests with little kids, but I expect that happens all the time. Maybe the "family night" part was that the Thunder Girls did their main dance routine in long pants instead of the hot-pants or hot-pants-and-chaps outfits they had on the rest of the time.

3) The visiting Houston Rockets won, 100-91. The key to winning a game in which your team plays like slop is to play another team that's playing even sloppier. Oh, and have them not rebound worth two cents, especially on the offensive end. Whether or not this was the Rockets' game plan, it's the game they wound up with, pulling ahead in the second half and staying there.

4) The Rockets' road uniforms are kind of ugly. Their warm-ups, an interesting combination of a small red stripe on a dried-snot color jacket and pants, were ugly and not at all kind about it.

5) Most of the game features more modern urban-styled & hip-hop music, plus a lot of handclappy stuff. But when the time came to rile the crowd into its most supportive frenzy, out trotted the Four Warhorses of the Classic Rockalypse: AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," Metallica's "Enter Sandman," Guns 'n' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" and the hoariest old stallion of them all, Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." Maybe it's because of where we live?

6) Ford Center's a great place to watch a basketball game -- even from the high seats. You get a pretty much unobstructed view of the court and you can catch anything you miss on the big screen.

7) The Thunder helped serve a meal last week at the Oklahoma City Rescue Mission. Kudos squared to team members for pitching in a little bit in their community.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

It's a Secret!

And it is! Don't tell anyone, because I'm not supposed to know this, I bet. I overheard it tonight at the Class 6A semifinal game between the Jenks High School Trojans and the Southmoore High School Sabercats.

I mean, it's explosive info. It's a conspiracy beyond anything any flat-Earther, Obama-birther, or 9/11 truther has ever imagined. It makes the moon-landing-was-faked conspiracy look like just a little white lie. At first I thought I should keep it quiet, but then I realized that if I didn't tell, then I might be a target for people who want to make sure this stays under wraps. Only if the information was widely known could I evade the possibility of assassination!

So, here it is: The state school sports association tells referees to make calls during football games that will keep big games from being blowouts so people will stay interested. No, really, it's true! I heard the guys behind me in the Jenks section saying so! At first, I didn't believe them either, but you didn't see what I saw. Time after time, the referee or the line judge or someone else in a striped shirt (stripes -- divided loyalties, perhaps?) would make a call against the Jenks Trojans for no reason.

That's right, for no reason at all. Nobody ever threw a quarterback to the ground (he tripped), nobody ever held (you gotta let 'em play!), nobody was ever offside (he was drawn off!) and nobody ever moved while set at the line of scrimmage (that was the wind blowing his jersey! Did you see that mosquito on his eyeball? He didn't take his meds!)

And again, I wasn't sure. The guys who were talking about this were behind me, about ten rows up, while the zebras were limited by being right on top of the action, so it's pretty obvious who was making the right calls.

Well, I hope it worked, this high-level conspiracy between a high school sports association and part-time, paid-by-the-game officials. But we'll have to wait until next year to find out. If lots of fans attend Sabercat games in 2010, coming off this 12-2 season, then we'll know the conspiracy worked.

But it'd probably still be wise not to say anything about it. You never know who's listening.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Time Machine (w/sides)

Walking into a Billy Sims Barbecue has a definite time machine feel to it. The decor is football-themed, as befits the Heisman-winning running back who played at the University of Oklahoma in the late 1970s, and the pictures are filled with coaches who wear red Sansabelt, flared leg slacks of some mysterious artificial fiber, display serious sideburns and sport plain white running shoes decorated with a single red swoosh. They also do not wear visors, but prefer to squint manfully into the sun.

Players in the photos, including Sims and fellow Sooners Joe Washington and a couple of Selmon brothers, wear awesome natural hairdos that probably had Earth, Wind and Fire drooling with envy and, when smushed under a helmet, offered better protection than any headgear worn up until very recent scientific advances.

TVs display OU games from the 1970s and early 80s glory years, notable for some of the sports jackets worn by broadcasters that are of the hang-glider lapel style, done in plaids that would shame a peacock and are probably best not seen in modern HD format by viewers not wearing welder's masks. These games are textbooks in the famed wishbone offense, and fans of the forward pass will likely be disappointed unless one team is down by 40 or up by 50, at which time this unreliable modern innovation may be used for the entertainment of the walk-ons allowed to run it.

The barbecue is good, and can be properly consumed in an atmosphere well-seasoned with the scent of mesquite and a delicate haze visible upon entering.

The only real question, one supposes, is why it has taken Sims so long to open a shop in Norman, after stores in Tulsa, Broken Arrow, Sapulpa, Duncan and Edmond. I suspect a Longhorn plot.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Some Thanksgiving 2009 observations:

1) If you don't like turkey all that much -- and me and my dad don't -- then IHOP is a more than adequate substitute.

2) Watching an old newsreel of World Series played more than 50 years ago is better than any network's NFL pre- or post-game show.

3) Watching such a game is a kind of an alternate world -- you're watching a baseball game, and there are more neckties in the stands than you'd see at a bank.

4) As a Kansas City Chiefs fan (thank you for your condolences), I hate the Oakland Raiders. It's expected, you see. But as with any worthy adversary, you must recognize their strengths and offer grudging admiration for their good qualities. So I have to say that seeing the Raiders wear white jerseys is just wrong. They're the Oakland Raiders, a team you used to be able to make fun of as the only NFL team whose organizational chart reads: Owner==>General Manager==>Head Coach==>Parole Officer. Seeing the Oakland Raiders play in white is like watching Darth Vader use the Force to tickle someone.

5) I'm thankful for these things and many others. Blessings to you and yours on Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"Life" at a Discount?

The Washington Monthly magazine has a college guide, and on it there is a blog. Blog author Daniel Luzer opines upon some of the many recent studies that question the expense of a college degree. Some of those studies suggest that the expense is too high for the value of what is received.

Mr. Luzer demurs, and says this:
The problem with this is that the “did college pay off” question is based on the premise that it’s college that we should be questioning. As most people who went to college understand, the most important lessons that one learns in college are life lessons, which are economically difficult to measure.
I have to say that it is quite possible life lessons were the only lessons that I picked up from my undergraduate career that stayed with me. A number of them, of course, were of the "Don't ever do that again" variety. I remember a few things from some of my courses; I remember more from my journalism courses than from others, but my transcript already indicates that would be the case. Most of what I remember are some adventures and the stories that go with them. I also remember some people, not very many of whom I've stayed in touch with all that well -- it seems that a shared aversion to sobriety does not the eternal friendship make.

So I guess some of those things count as "life lessons," which might kind of undercut my disagreement with Mr. Luzer except for the fact that I was a prime example of someone who probably didn't need to go to college when he did. I spent way more time outside the classroom and library than in them and didn't really do anything there I couldn't have done for a lot less money at a nearby school or community college. Fast-forward about ten years to my time in seminary and I can boast of graduating with honors and of a probably 99% attendance rate. I was more mature, more invested in the work and paying for it myself, and all three of those combined to motivate me a whole lot more than anything ever did as an undergrad.

And I really have to disagree with him on the idea that life lessons -- whatever they are -- are "economically difficult to measure." Sallie Mae sends me a measurement every month, and without fail they encourage me to send my own back to them.

(H/T Phi Beta Cons)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Adventure novelist Clive Cussler published his first Dirk Pitt adventure in 1973. Pitt, the director of special projects for the National Underwater and Marine Agency, is an accomplished oceanographer, engineer and thwarter of evil, world-dominating plots. Together with his lifelong friend, Al Giordino, Pitt has found lost Atlantis, uncovered what seems like a dozen lost treasure ships, and won the affections of many a comely lass.

Along the way, Cussler has become quite the brand name in the techno-thriller game. His own company, which he named after the fictional government agency Pitt works for, has uncovered more than 60 shipwreck sites. And having become a brand name, Cussler and his publishers have begun to branch out by having him work with co-authors to produce more books than he could do on his own.

The NUMA Files, co-written with Paul Kemprecos, were the first spin-off in the Cussler-verse, debuting their own series with 1999's Serpent. They detail the adventures of NUMA underwater researcher Kurt Austin and his co-worker, Jose Zavala. Austin and Zavala pretty much reflect Pitt and Giordino for the most part; Austin collects antique pistols while Pitt collects antique cars, for example. A word-substitution of "Pitt" for "Austin" and "Giordino" for "Zavala" wouldn't produce a single difficulty in following any of the eight NUMA books.

A lot more interesting in terms of the cast are The Oregon Files, which spun off on their own in 2004's Golden Buddha. Juan Cabrillo, his multi-talented crew and their disguised super-boat the Oregon first appeared helping Pitt in Flood Tide in 1997. Cabrillo is the chairman of a private company called The Corporation that use their weapons, high-tech know-how and expertise to handle delicate operations that a government or client might not want a public connection to. Cussler began the series with Craig Dirgo, his co-author on two books describing some of his shipwreck finds. After the first two, he switched to working with thriller author Jack Du Brul. The variety of characters, multiple plotlines and Mission: Impossible-styled tactics enliven this series considerably.

Begun this year in Spartan Gold, the Fargo adventures tell the stories of husband-and-wife treasure hunters Sam and Remi Fargo. Like nearly all Cussler characters, the Fargos are very at home in the water, and are also calm in a crisis, quick to take action and very good shots. Co-authored with Grant Blackwood, the story carries a Nick and Nora Charles meet Indiana and Marion Jones vibe. The Fargos make excellent partners and neither hesitates to bring the other down to earth if the need arises.

Cussler himself wrote the first novel of the Isaac Bell series, The Chase, in 2007. Bell is a no-nonsense detective working in early 20th-century America, using both his brains and his aptitude for action to solve the case. With the recently released The Wrecker, Cussler partners with Justin Scott to send Bell off to the races on his own adventures. The Bell series so far shows a good eye for period detail and quick-paced action pieces.

Beginning with 2004's Black Wind, Cussler's son Dirk began co-writing the main series of novels. Black Wind also saw Pitt's twin son and daughter, whom he never knew until he first met as adults in 2001's Valhalla Rising, take a more central role to the story. The pair, Dirk Pitt, Jr., and Summer Pitt, seem very much chips off the old block when it comes to undersea work, exploration and megalomaniacal baddie-thwarting.

According to an interview with Kemprecos, his way of collaborating with Cussler casts the better-known writer in the role of story suggestion, some rewrite guidance and other discussion. Kemprecos said he does most of the writing and it's pretty reasonable to assume the other men, all of them with more than one book to their own credit, do so as well, with one exception.

Reading each book reinforces that idea. The irony is that although Cussler has gotten to be a better writer over the years, reducing his clunky dialogue, detours for technological explanations and whatnot, almost all of his co-authors write better books than he does. Kemprecos is probably the least adept of the bunch, with Du Brul and Blackwood vying for a top spot. It's unclear how the co-writing works when Cussler works with his son, but those books tend to show some of the same flaws as Clive Cussler's solo material.

But what does make Cussler's books work -- and what's helped make him the kind of brand name that can generate these multiple series with multiple co-authors -- is his attitude towards his storytelling. Almost like an old-fashioned pulp writer, Cussler seems to get that the idea is to tell the story. Leave the preaching and the lectures at home, leave the political philosophy to the philosophers and just tell the story as lickety darn split as it will stand. When you're done, tell another one.

It won't win any literary awards and it probably won't generate any courses at Harvard, but it's an approach that has brought a lot of enjoyment to a lot of readers and turned more than a few on to the research that is being done in the oceans of our world. There'll be worse legacies, I'm sure.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Clash of the Titans!

The standard tell-off to a bully picking on a smaller person is "Why don't you go pick on someone your own size?" It's meant to get the bully to stop and maybe induce a little shame by pointing out the bully is not playing fair and is in fact picking on a smaller, weaker opponent who can't fight back effectively.

When I read this story in the Financial Times, I had the feeling that Microsoft, News Corp. and Google had all finally found someone their own size to pick on. This could be kind of like watching the giant monsters smack each other around Tokyo.

And yes, my mention of the Financial Times could legitimately be considered a kind of name-dropping designed to showcase my vast intellect. Of course, everyone who knows me knows I'm compensating -- my intellect is not that vast, especially in certain areas *cough*math*cough. And other than my pension fund, I don't play around with too much financial market stuff.

Let's just say that my financial picture is well-suited to the arithmetic skills I possess. Hey, I know what size I can pick on...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

I Vant to Drink Your Gaseous Stellar Matter...

Scientists have been studying a binary star system about 25,000 light years from Earth called V445, in the constellation Puppis.

This may have been one of the later-named constellations, as puppis in Latin translates to "poop deck" of a ship -- the raised deck at the rear. I'm figuring they were really reaching for them if they were naming constellations after ship decks. Some planets have been found orbiting stars in Puppis and we'd better hope they are uninhabited, because anyone who lives on them might be kind of ticked off when they learn what constellation we put them in: "You say this word 'poop' also means what? Your mom! And also, die, earthling scum!"

Anyway, V445 has been shown to have what's called a bipolar shell, and I can think of too many jokes for that to pick just one. What that phrase means in astronomy is a shell of gas expanding in two different directions that signals the star has gone nova or exploded. The reason it's done so is that this so-called "vampire star" has sucked the matter out of its companion star and now shines brighter than its "donor."

And again, it would be a good idea if no one lived near this star, because when we look at its vampire act, we're seeing what it actually did some 25,000 years ago, when human beings first moved into southern Greece and into upper North America via the Bering Strait land bridge. Which means their star was a vampire long before Stephenie Meyer wrote her Twilight Saga and we would have a real dilly of a copyright infringement lawsuit on our hands.

A Weekly Dose

Of sermonizing, up at the Flatlands Friar sermon blog, here.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Really, Senator Reid?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada made a speech during the discussion this evening about the Senate's health care reform bill. In it, he urged his colleagues to vote in favor of allowing debate on the bill to begin. Reid said this step was important to the nation and its people, saying that if the Senate did indeed work to pass health care reform legislation, "this nation will finally guarantee its people the right to live free from the fear of illness and death."

Free from fear of illness and death? That's a mighty tall promise from a man who couldn't keep a governor under indictment for corruption from appointing his own choice for U.S. Senator to replace an outgoing senator and getting that Senator seated in spite of Reid's pledge it would never happen.

And another thing -- if the Senate has had the power to free us from "fear of illness and death," shame on it for having never done so before. Even if the principles of biology, physics and chemistry mandate that people will get sick and/or die no matter what some demagogic politician says, they shouldn't have to walk around scared of it.

Watch for Falling Protons

The good folk at the potentially universe-ending Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland have begun revving the machine up again following a boo-boo in September of 2008. You may wonder why it would take them fourteen months to go back online after a system shutdown.

Dude, they're ramming subatomic particles together at near light speeds at temperatures where the lightest gases known to science become liquid. We should want them to take all the time it takes. I'm certain the Swiss do. And the one quote that says it's a "much better understood machine" than it was a year ago when it was first turned on? Well, let's hope that's a little scientist humor because otherwise we have to deal with the fact that they didn't understand the thing when they first turned it on.

So far, so good, LHC scientists report. But if you should happen to notice every molecule in your body exploding outward at the speed of light while all life as you know it stops instantaneously, then you'll know something went wrong. Also if you hear "Uh-oh" followed by a very loud bang.

On the other hand, if it works, I think the Swiss government has an option to put a miniaturized hadron collider in the latest version of the Swiss Army knife. So that'll be cool.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Rah Rah Ree! Kick 'em in the Knee!

Technically, my high school ceased to exist in May of 1982 when a guy whose last name started with a "Z" walked across the stage, handed our principal a puzzle piece, got his diploma and shook hands with the school board president. We were consolidated with our crossstown rivals that fall, and the new school had a new mascot, new colors, new school newspaper name and so on. The kids a year behind us had the new name, and our school faded into history.

So when I see the high school from my hometown play sports, I root for them, but I don't know if it's the same as when you root for your old alma mater.

High school is probably one of the last arenas for sports where the team really does represent the group it's named for, and where the team members are actually a part of the community they represent.

It doesn't happen in the pros -- players switch teams or are traded, and they might not even own a home in the town where they play. And as for being a part of that community? Well, try jumping the fence at some multi-million dollar mansion to offer your favorite guy a few pointers on his play and see how long you last before you find yourself gripped by the long arms of the law.

Major colleges are much the same. Elite players may have their own dorms, where ordinary students don't get to live. They almost certainly have their own schedules, with classes set at times that allow for practice and they focus on majors that don't add overwhelming study hours to the full-time job of being a "student-athlete." Lots of them won't graduate with anyone they started freshman year with, if they graduate at all.

But in high school, the star QB might have the locker next to yours. You might have been at his sixth birthday party. The high-scoring forward on the girls' basketball team might be your big sister's best friend, or maybe she's your lab partner in chemistry.

That kind of community connection is one of the reasons I enjoy watching high school sports, fans in the stands and all. So when the school that replaced mine -- the Bartlesville Bruins -- was scheduled to play not far from my current town, I made plans to go.

The night represented pretty much the perfect high school football scene: It was cold, so people were huddled up in the stands. Mist fell for much of the game, sometimes pretty heavily and anyone who had a hood on ducked under it. As befits the visiting team, the band was in street clothes but just as loud as they might have been at home.

It was a tough night, though. The high-octane Bartlesville offense sputtered through most of the game after a first-series interception stalled a drive deep in the opponent's territory. The pitch-and-catch machine that hung 40 points on 2008 state runner-up Jenks didn't show. But the defense that most of the season had more holes than a chain-link fence and let 2008 state runner-up Jenks ring up 60-plus on them did.

I'm afraid I bailed at 35-14, with about five minutes left in the first half. Hey, it was cold, mist was falling and I could hear the game just fine on the radio inside my dry truck cab and the one inside my warm home. The final gruesome 49-28 thumping wasn't as close as the score showed.

Ah well. Basketball starts in a couple weeks. New sport, new chances. Good luck, Bruins. Wildcats are rootin' for ya...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fear the Death Kernels!

In honor of this ABC News report on how those great tubs o' corn will kill you (although the report does not note that a number of recent releases may make that seem like not such a bad thing if it were to happen before the movie was over), and with apologies to Rev. Dodgson:

'Twas dimming, and the middle rows
Did slowly fill from either end;
Restless were the waiting droves,
Would these previews ever end?

"Beware the Tubbocorn, my son!
The oils of fat, that clog like that!
Beware the tasty treat, and shun
The greasy butter vats!"

He took the plastic straw in hand:
and plunged it in the sugary draught—
Ne'er did he think the name "calorie",
Which he prob'ly should have thought.

And as in non-caloric thought he sat,
The Tubbocorn, kernels aflame,
Came swift in reach of grasping hand,
Butter-glistening as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The careless hand did carve its track!
The tub was bare, but his hair
was full of scattered snack.

"And hast thou slain the Tubbocorn?
Doomed thou art, sclerotish boy!
Thy infarction may...strike this very day!"
He lamented with no joy.

'Twas dimming, and the middle rows
Did empty out from either end;
Smugly sat the carping droves,
One more pleasure at an end.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Special Features, Like Sound and Picture...

When the combined Disney/Pixar venture Up was released on DVD, lots of people bought it. Other people rented it, either at a store or through mail-rental services like Netflix.

And the people who rented it found a funny thing: There was no closed-captioning. Of course, if you're a deaf person, "funny" isn't so funny, because closed-captioning is the main way you watch movies and TV shows. Lip-reading isn't always easy with folks on a screen.

It turns out that the company had pressed a bunch of no-frills copies of the movie so those could be released to the rental services. Lots of DVDs these days come with special add-ons, such as "making of" short features, previews, deleted scenes, documentaries and so on. Movie companies rely on those add-ons to sell more expensive editions of the DVD.

On the one hand, someone with Disney lacks some gray matter if they figure closed-captioning as a "special feature." For someone without hearing, it's not an add-on. It's vital to their understanding the movie they're watching.

And this move also says something interesting about all of these "special" add-ons. Namely, that they're not all that special. Evidently the company figures that if you just rent the full-featured edition and watch the extras once, you'll see all you want to. They're not special enough to watch more than once. Which makes me wonder why they're special enough to add ten or twenty bucks to the price of the DVD, but I'm betting that the movie studios would develop their own hearing problem if people started asking them that.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Uh-Oh -- We've Already Found Him Once...

Believe it or not, we're almost to the end of our first decade of this new millenium, century and so on. Which means it's time for many many lists about best and worst movies, music, TV, moments, etc., of the decade. We get them in years that end in "9" because: 1) There's little confidence that what's going to be produced in the year that ends in "0" is really going to be that much better or worse; 2) We can always make up a new list next year and say this year's list was really a "so far" list and 3) Folks who make up the lists somehow keep forgetting that decades actually end with years that end in "0," since they start with years that end in "1."

Anyway, a writer at this movie blog noticed another story that showed how many of this decade's top-grossing films (so far!) were from original material and how many were based on other media, like a book or TV show, or were sequels.

No films in the top 10, box-office wise, were ideas dreamed up by someone specifically for the movie screen. You have to drop all the way down to No. 15, where 2003's Finding Nemo sits. Want a second one? Keep going down to No. 30 for last year's Kung Fu Panda from Dreamworks.

We hit a real patch of creativity, now, as the next three films are all original material. Although, since one of them is 2008's confusing super-hero mess Hancock, we can see that "not taken from a movie, book or other media" does not equal "good."

But then it slacks off again until No. 45, where we run into the end-of-the-world clunker The Day After Tomorrow, which backs up the aforementioned "Hancock Postulate." And also, Irwin Allen might question its originality.

In the top 50 moneymakers of this decade (so far!), we have exactly nine non-sequel, non-derived movies. Not necessarily a problem, because sometimes really great movies are adapted from books or other media, and sometimes the second chapter in a story is as well-done as the first. But it does show how much of a play-it-safe game the modern box office has come to be.

And it's also kind of interesting that only two of those nine were movies aimed at an adult audience. The others are all animated films mostly directed at kids.

Well, at least we have one more year to try to reverse this trend. I'm sure that 2010 will teem with original offerings designed to capture that elusive box office cash!

Oh. Never mind, I guess.

Monday, November 16, 2009

And, For the Record...

Bill Belichick is dumb not just for going for it on fourth down when his team's up with 2:08 left in the game and he's on his half of the field and Peyton Manning's salivating from the other sideline about his chance to get the ball in his hands that close to the end zone.

But as is noted here, he's really really dumb for having Tom Brady throw to Kevin Faulk when he has Randy Moss and Wes Welker in uniform and probably ready to catch a pass thrown in their respective directions.

Information, That's What I Need, Some Information...

Way back when I was a young friar, still in high school, I had United States history with the feared George Love. He was a tyrant, we were told by those juniors who survived his course. He required weekly research projects put on index cards about some topic in U.S. history. He would flip a coin in class and say, "Oh, too bad. Pop quiz." He never used the book, he just talked for the fifty minutes or so of class and expected you to take notes on what he said and then use that information to answer test questions. He required a research paper each semester!

Mr. Love was also a devoted anti-communist and I remember his bookshelves were filled with little paperbacks with titles like You Can Trust the Communists(To Be Communists). The author of this 1960 million-seller, Australian physician Dr. Fred Schwarz, died earlier this year, which is something I had not known but ferreted out with a quick Google entry. If I lived in China, I'd have no guarantees such information would be freely available.

Mr. Love and his copy of Dr. Schwarz's book came to mind when I read this report on President Obama's speech to Chinese university students at Shanghai.

Students had the chance to ask the U.S. president questions, one noted that they were trained for an afternoon in how to do it and told they had to have "a friendly manner." The White House streamed the event live on its website. The local Shanghai TV station broadcast it live, but wouldn't you know it? The darn national online feed went down 20 minutes before the press conference and was replaced by a kids' program. No national TV station aired it, and the official Xinhua news agency didn't stream it either. Although Xinhua did publish a transcript, including the president's answer to an internet question in which he said internet freedom like the U.S. has is a strength.

But they later deleted that part.

Although Mr. Love taught me a whole lot about some important skills that generate learning, we always found his 1950s-style anti-communisn kind of amusing. That kind of ham-fisted blunt-force trauma presentation of an idea just seemed so amateurish and laughable.

I think the Chinese government could have learned a lot from Mr. Love.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Out of Reruns!

New sermon is up over at the sermon blog.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Paging Mr. Clooney or Mr. Sinatra...

Those gentlemen used their respective eleven-man contingents to rob casinos. The Associated Press uses their eleven-person group to fact-check a 430-page book.

Health-care bill with monumental impact on our economy and society. Two wars, one of which is under serious scrutiny by the administration as it develops a policy to move forward. Potentially renewed housing finance crisis regarding FHA. U.S. Army major shoots and kills 14 fellow soldiers on his own military base after years of warning signs he might be dangerous. U.S. Treasury decides on a second bailout of General Motors' finance arm, GMAC. President makes first trip to Asia. Attorney General decides to try 9/11 planner in federal court, rather than military commission. Nine states, including some of the country's most populous areas, face possibly disastrous budget shortfalls. Our nearest neighbor to the south has actually asked for United Nations peacekeepers to bring back order to Ciudad Juárez, a city right across the Rio Grande from El Paso, TX, that's seen more than 2,000 murders so far this year out of a population of 1.5 million due to the drug trade and organized crime (New York City, with more than 8 million people, expects fewer than 500 murders in 2009).

These and a baker's dozen of a baker's dozens of issues are facing people today, needing some serious digging, explanation, context and examination, and the Associated Press assigns eleven people to produce a 700-word "fact-check" of Sarah Palin's book.

Someone wrap up the "free press" clause of the First Amendment for storage until we're ready to use it again.

Friday, November 13, 2009


When you use a public gym, and you shower up afterwards, you have the choice of using your own towel or one of the ones the gym provides. There are advantages to using your own, but it means you are then stuck with a wet towel in your car or truck for the rest of the day, and after awhile the scent can tend to overpower even the mightiest pine-tree cutout air freshener hung from the mirror. So many people decide to use the towels provided by the gym. Here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Although the whitest towels are obviously the newest, that does not necessarily make them the best ones to select. Public gyms tend to work on a budget, which means they do not buy the high-end, deep pile soft towels that you may prefer at home. The newest towels may also be kind of rough, like sandpaper that hasn't yet been used. With similar unpleasant results.

2. Towels that aren't eye-blindingly white will probably be softer. But again, because public gyms work from a budget, they wish to get the most use possible out of all of their supplies and equipment. This means that a towel will be kept for the maximum possible time, and it may have lost absorbency to the point that the towel you select will actually just move the water around your body, rather than dry it off. This will be embarrassing when you put on your pants.

3. If, when you arrive at the locker room to change, you see that there are relatively few towels left on the towel shelf, it is probably a good idea to snag one and put it in your locker. Sometimes the gym staff is a little short-handed in the ol' laundry room and there may be none left when you return from your workout, which will mean you have to try to dry yourself with your clothes. This is rarely effective.

4. In the workout room itself, my gym offers hand towels which you can take with you to mop sweat off while you work out. They also offer, for some reason unknown to humanity, what can only be described as dish towels for the same purpose. Do not use these; they have the consistency of paper towels and are useless unless you sweat only once during your workout.

5. These towels have in fact been used by other people with drying habits other than your own. On second thought, don't keep that in mind. Get it as far out of your mind as possible. Far, far out of your mind. Look, a flower...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Looking in the Wrong Place?

The Vatican recently held a conference where scientists discussed the possibility of life on other worlds.

A statement summing up the conference work also included the idea that investigating this matter was a worthwhile endeavor for scientists and the Vatican Observatory.

Meanwhile, both of the people still watching Keith Olbermann confirmed he doesn't live on the same planet as the rest of us and welcomed the Vatican to the party.

Casey Jones, You'd Better Watch Your References...

Did you know the state of California was in a severe budget crunch, facing the reality of slashing many public services that help some of its poorest residents?

The University of California at Santa Cruz doesn't. Yes, that's right. They're going to spend as much as $68,000 on an archivist for The Grateful Dead Archive of Dead memorabilia and whatnot.

UCSC acquired the Dead collection back in April of last year, when it offered what the band's guitarist Bob Weir called "the sweetest deal" of the places they had considered to donate their many years worth of fan mail, posters, ticket stubs, art and other items. Other places had not seemed as enthusiastic about the collection and one apparently asked the Dead to pay to have it housed on its premises. In the real non-rock-star world, of course, people often have to pay for extra space to store the crap they don't want but can't bring themselves to throw away in non-university archive sites called "mini-storages."

The job sounds interesting, but the list of minimum qualifications is curious. Does it make sense that the person who's going to archive material for one of the most laid-back and free-flowing jam bands in rock music history has to have "excellent analytical, organizational, and time management skills?" And while the position does call for "expert knowledge in the history and scholarship of contemporary popular music, or American vernacular culture, preferably the history and influence of the Grateful Dead," it seems to require no awareness of what a long, strange trip it's been.

(H/T Erin O'Connor.)

Some Pics of the Neighbors... has some eye-popping pictures from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. A couple of the wildest ones show the tracks from one of the Mars rovers which landed in 2004 (#9) and part of the Pathfinder lander that operated during the summer of 1997 (#7). The overhead view of a 1,600-foot-tall dust devil (#21) is kind of interesting, too, when you consider that's more or less a tornado 200 feet taller than the Sears Tower (which no one calls the Willis Tower even though that's who now owns it).

Warning -- these are large pics, there's a lot of them, and the page can take awhile to load.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Unwelcome Visit

So I've now seen a couple episodes of the reboot/remake/do-over/whatever V, ABC's new version of the 1980s lizard-aliens-invade-the-earth show.

I'd speculated that this might be ABC jumping on the cheesy-show remake bandwagon, trying to catch the Battlestar Galactica lightning in a bottle.

Like that remake, V boasts some very updated and pretty-impressive-for-TV special effects. The story of the new show models on the older one, but doesn't follow it exactly, again like the BSG reboot.

It also boasts some ideas that seem lifted straight out of that reboot, too. While the Visitors are still lizard aliens masquerading as humans (and again, some of them -- particularly the females -- seem awfully mammalian to be reptiles), we now see that they've had disguised Visitors on Earth for some time, hiding in plain sight by wearing cloned human skin. Anyone could be a Cylon -- I mean, a Visitor! We have no way of knowing! We also see, at the end of the second episode, the previously dead lizard-in-FBI-agent-disguise played by Alan Tudyk wake up, no longer dead, a la the downloaded and eternally resurrecting Cylons androids of BSG. Heck, we've even got one of the BSG people on the cast, as Rekha Sharma goes from playing deep-cover Cylon Tory Foster to playing potentially troublesome FBI agent Sarita Malik.

Fellow Firefly alum Morena Baccarin joins Tudyk, playing Anna, the commander of the Visitor contingent. Stars of Lost, The 4400 and other well-known shows and cult favorites dot the credits.

But it seems as though the showrunners paid more attention to casting than they did to writing their show. The reveal of the Visitors' less-than-benign intentions happens way too early, with little or no buildup. The script includes laughable moments like New Yorkers greeting a peace message broadcast from the underside of a gigantic spaceship hovering over their city with spontaneous applause. Spontaneous middle fingers, maybe, along with a few "Hey, yer blocking the bleepin' sun, ya moron!" The characters are stock, from a single-mom FBI gal to a priest conflicted between faith and modernity. It's shabbily, poorly done, with the hints of very interesting possibilities within only adding to viewer frustration.

And the stunt-casting really only serves to remind people of all the good sci-fi on television that's not happening now. Baccarin and Tudyk highlight the undeserved and all-too-early cancellation of the far superior Firefly. Joel Gretsch reminds The 4400 fans that their show died because of a chintzy network and the writers' strike, leaving them hanging from an unresolved narrative cliff.

Redemption is still possible. As long as the showrunners stay away from the terminally stupid things the original series did, like Willie the lovable nerd V, and duplicate the original's correct moves (like casting Original Bada** Michael Ironside), there's a chance. About as slim as the survival hopes of a guinea pig onboard a Visitor ship, but a chance nonetheless...


It's Veteran's Day in the U.S.A. and so I offer my thanks to those who served or who are serving. I got to do so in person at my gym today, to one of the guys who works there who's a year or so out of the Navy and going to school nearby. Also to his wife, who's finishing a hitch in the Air Force and who probably knows several ways to kill me without dropping heavy ordnance on my head for all that she weighs maybe a buck-ten and seems far too nice to shout orders at people.

I never served, but I come from a family with a swabbie and four jarheads just one generation back and who knows what else if you go back beyond that. So thanks, gentlemen and ladies.

Mike Royko, as always, has the appropriate suggested celebration for the day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Targeted Advertising?

I receive Borders coupons in my e-mail way too often for the health of my budget, but an interesting one showed up in the inbox today.

I can get Stephen King's new novel, Under the Dome, for 40 percent off the list price of $35, with my coupon. Drops it to $21, if you're curious. And if I go ahead and buy it at Border's, they'll give me a coupon for 20 percent off my next purchase. Which will probably be a bottle of Advil or something; Under the Dome weighs in at 3.6 pounds and 1088 pages. Of King's books, only the vanity edition of The Stand, containing stuff edited out of his original 1978 bestseller, is longer. The manuscript King mailed to his publishers was reportedly 19 pounds.

Amazon will let me order it for half off, charging me $17.50. They also have a collector's edition available for $40.50 -- marked down from $75 -- but it weighs an even four pounds and that diminishes whatever interest the $40.50 price tag left behind, which wasn't much. It's printed on special paper, has printed endpapers, illustrations by a New Yorker magazine cartoonist and includes a deck of cards with those illustrations.

Of course, if I order the plain vanilla edition from Amazon I have to pay shipping, which ups my total from $17.50 to $21.49 and bumps me past my Borders coupon price. Had I wanted to pre-order, I might have gotten it for as little as $9 -- about what the paperback price will be when that's released -- as Amazon, Wal-Mart and Target fussed at each other for awhile with those ridiculously low numbers. And if I had a Kindle electronic book reader, I could have Under the Dome for $9 right now, no shipping, and that little device weighs about one-sixth as much as the hardcover version. But I'd have already had to drop $259 on the Kindle, so it kind of evens out. Barnes and Noble will part with a copy if I part with $21, same as Borders, and Hastings will do so if I give them $17.50.

Or if I wait awhile, this sucker will be clogging the remainder tables at several major stores and I can probably score it for maybe $5. If I want to, that is.

The novel is about what happens when a force field suddenly descends on a small town in -- remember, this is Stephen King -- Maine. In an interview with Time, King said he cast his villains in a George W. Bush/Dick Cheney mold. Doesn't the prospect of yet another aging Baby Boomer using the dusty, arthritic remains of his storytelling gift to creak out how awful Pres. Bush was and spending better than a thousand pages to do so excite you? I'm certainly covered with bump of goose myself.

And while all of the price breaks reduce the cover price considerably, none of them do anything to shrink that 1088-pages number or guarantee that this book won't do what nearly every King book since the early 1990s has done: Start off well, get tired about halfway through and then spend the last two-fifths of the book muttering repetitiously like an old guy cranky about the kids on his lawn but too stove up to do anything about it.

The search for the best price on Under the Dome did turn up something interesting, though. This isn't the first book with that exact title. Arthur Foley Winnington Ingram, the Bishop of London from 1901 to 1939, apparently collected some of his shorter writings in a book with that name and published it in 1906. I may have to check into it.

Doesn't seem like Borders has a coupon for it, though.

Monday, November 9, 2009

And Great Was the Fall...

"I saw the decade end, when it seemed the world could change, in the blink of an eye."

Mike Edwards, "Right Here, Right Now"

Sunday, November 8, 2009

What These Books Need Are a Couple of Quicker Endings...Like on Page 2

Suspense stories, espionage thrillers, crime novels and the like all revolve around some potentially harsh stuff. Our hard-boiled or deep-cover heroes sometimes have to break some rules or heads in order to save the day or solve the crime. Some of what they do can be a little ugly to read, but we handle it when it's done to make sure the hero can win or when it's not something the writer lingers on. The ugly incident happens and then the story and we readers move on.

But sometimes the whole book is ugly, and you just can't wait for it to be over. Perhaps it's the killer's point of view sequences a lot of suspense thrillers seem to like, or the creepy extended scenes in which the writer uses the voice of the victim to describe his or her -- usually her -- own death. James Patterson is one of the best(worst?) examples of this; two of the deaths in his new novel Swimsuit are tailor made to be filmed by Eli Roth or fit into a Saw movie.

Michael Walsh's Hostile Intent is his first thriller. He's previously written music criticism and a few novels, including a sequel to Casablanca called As Time Goes By. In Intent, he introduces Devlin, a super-spy so secret that when the novel opens, even the President doesn't know he exists. Devlin is called in when terrorists invade a school in an Illinois town and hold hundreds of students and teachers hostage. He in turn calls on his special operations unit, who only know him by phone and e-mail, since none of them have ever met him. Although the rescue is mostly successful, the suspicious late triggering of the explosives signals to Devlin that something else is going on and that flushing him into the open may have been part of the plan.

Intent is ugly through and through. Not a single character is anyone you want to root for. Devlin is supposedly our hero, but after a woman he fatally shoots in his home turns out to have been an FBI agent, he "felt bad about the woman. But that was the job." Walsh racks up a high body count, especially of his female characters. He's also partial to reruns -- two different innocent bystanders at different terrorist attacks die the same way, from projectiles through their eyes and into their brains. He dwells a queasily long time on some of the atrocities the terrorists commit.

Some of this might be marginally more acceptable if Intent were a better book. It's difficult to know what's happening at any given time in the story, which might be fine for philosophical literature but destroys an action-suspense thriller. Devlin out-gadgets James Bond, to a degree that's narrative deadening. He has the lastest and bestest Jargon Mark V Gear, but so does the other side, so the suspense is supposed to hang on whether or not he can babble his techno before his enemies techno their babble. Secret rooms in public restrooms, secret switches on sinks, wiretaps that can pretty much hear what people think, powerful guns that must, must be described in exact detail nearly every time someone uses them, blah blah blah.

Vince Flynn's Term Limits is a fast-paced suspense novel with an ugly plot. A group of former military operatives decide that one of the biggest problems the United States faces is its own corrupt leadership. So they kill some senators and congressmen, and threaten to kill more unless the remaining leadership does serious work on a balanced budget and criminal justice reform, for starters. But Congressman Michael O'Rourke, himself a retired Marine, feels he may know who this shadowy group is and he also fears he may have given them the information that influenced their choice of targets. He's also conflicted, because the men who died were definitely a part of the problem in Washington, D.C. Term Limits is Flynn's first novel, and features some of the people we will later see in his Mitch Rapp books. Flynn nails some of the backroom scheming and gamesmanship that the politicians begin to try to play with this crisis, even when their own lives are at risk. And although he's got a few too many, "I can't tell you over the phone, you'll want to drop what you're doing and meet me" scenes, he was already able to zip the action along.

The problem is that his heroes are men taken it upon themselves to force the government to do what they want it to do. What they want it to do may make sense -- and they may be the only terrorists ever to include the phrase "zero-based budgeting" in their demands -- but nobody asked them to and no one gave them the right to take the law into their own hands. Allusions to the Declaration of Independence and to the Founding Fathers fall short; the Founders were duly elected representatives of the people of the American Colonies who met in public rather than hide behind assassins' masks. It's unappetizing and makes it difficult to care about even our protagonist O'Rourke, since he sympathizes with the assassins and even begins, at one point, to work with them.

Even so, Term Limits outdoes Hostile Intent, which Walsh intends to be the first of several books featuring Devlin. When I finished Limits, I stacked it up to donate to the local book drop. When I finished Intent, I dropped it straight into the dumpster.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

I Predict 1990

This article in the online edition of The Scientist takes a look at the tendency of scientists to make sometimes loopy predictions. Lots of factors influence this trend, among them securing money for research, political pressure and even prejudgment of results.

The article notes some of the better-known predictive failures, such as the overpopulation fears generated by 19th century predictions from clergyman Thomas Malthus and in the 1960s and 1970s by Paul R. Ehrlich. Ehrlich, building on some of Malthus' ideas, suggested that million-death famines would sweep the world by the mid-1980s and that food rationing would happen even in the United States. Since he is a professor -- specifically an entomologist who focuses on the study of butterflies -- he has a tendency not to admit he's wrong and he now claims that he never made predictions.

The Scientist article notes that scientists often get into the most trouble when they work far outside their field, and I think it might be fair to suggest an entomologist works outside his field when he makes predictions about human population.

I'm old enough to remember the predictions of widespread fuel shortages during the oil embargoes of the 1970s. Science fiction guru Isaac Asimov whipped up a little ditty called "Life Without Fuel" for Time magazine that warned of a worldwide collapse to pre-Industrial Age levels because of a dependence on fossil fuels that ran unchecked until they ran out. Being the sci-fi nut that I am (OK, "geek"), this one's always stuck with me. While Asimov was smart enough to say that his thoughts were based upon a worst-case scenario, he added a snarky little "But that couldn't happen, could it?"

On the one hand, science is about predicting things and then testing the predictions. Certain information suggests a hypothesis, or statement about what would be true if the information is accurate. Experiments are designed to test the hypothesis, and if the prediction bears out, it is considered more or less settled knowledge.

The problem with the kinds of predictions that the Scientist article explores, of course, is that they aren't painted as hypothetical but as factual. And the only "experiment" that will verify them is time, which might also prove the predictions wrong. Except sound-bite media, opportunistic political operatives, a forgetful populace and the ol' PR machine combined to cement the prediction in people's minds as established fact.

I've done a little forecasting here and there, and been wrong just as much as right. So I guess I'll have to fall in line and admit the only thing we can know for certain about the future is that it hasn't happened yet.

(Post title taken from the 1987 Steve Taylor album of that name. Mr. Taylor didn't actually make any predictions in the album.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

It's How You Play the Game

LOSER: House Minority Leader Representative John Boehner (R-OH) for quoting from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence but saying he was quoting from the preamble to the United States Constitution at a rally in Washington Thursday.

LOSER: MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow (UH-OH) for going one step too far in correcting Rep. Boehner by claiming the Constitution doesn't have a preamble, which it does. It's the part at the front that has the really big "W" on the first word.

WINNERS: We, the people, for being able to strike two more yammering yammerheads off the list of those whose opinions we're supposed to listen to just because they happened to be in front of a camera when they gave them.

Update 11/7 -- Ms. Maddow fessed up to her boo-boo and played the
Schoolhouse Rock clip "Preamble" to boot. Kudos.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Thrilla, Vanilla and a Puzzla...

Mitch Rapp knows there are rules, and probably somewhere deep down inside he wishes he could follow them. But he's in a fight -- the global war against terrorism -- where the enemy uses the rules against him and he doesn't have time to play nice. Vince Flynn's CIA operative began his career as an assassin, and even though he's reduced some of his fieldwork in Act of Treason, he's still fighting the bad guys with every tool at his disposal. When an explosion targets presidential candidate Josh Alexander's motorcade and kills the candidate's wife, everyone thinks terrorism. As Rapp begins to dig into the matter, he finds hired assassins, political shenanigans and some ugly secrets that muddy the picture considerably. Flynn doesn't hesitate to show Rapp's flaws: Although he's one of the good guys, he's also got a high jerk quotient that can make his "by any means necessary" attitude a little over the top. But even though we wouldn't want to sit down and have coffee with the guy -- he might kill us with one of those little packages of creamer, for one thing -- we wind up glad he's on our side. Flynn keeps the action humming, wastes few words and has an ability to write simple declarative sentences that rarely miss the mark or derail the storytelling. He's got an ear and eye for the ego-obsessed myopic political animal point of view that's got few peers. And he shows he can add some unexpected layers to his tough-guy take-no-prisoners hero in some of his other adventures, such as Consent to Kill, so thriller readers might want to take a couple spins around the block with Mitch Rapp.
Nothing makes you appreciate a good thriller writer like reading a mediocre one, and Brad Thor's The Last Patriot will definitely make you appreciate a good thriller. Scot Harvath, a former Navy SEAL turned consultant to the U.S. Secret Service, is decompressing from a difficult mission and his own sense of being betrayed by those he serves with his girlfriend, Tracy Hastings. Tracy -- a high-level bomb disposal expert -- is herself recovering from injuries she suffered in a blast that involved Harvath's operations. But Harvath's instincts can't be turned off, and his quick eye saves a man from being killed in a bomb blast in Paris. The man is doing top-secret research into a possible lost sura of the Koran on behalf of the President, and has found that the keys to the riddle can be found in papers, inventions and research of Thomas Jefferson. Harvath is on the run from the French authorities and trying to outwit Islamic fundamentalists who want the potential threat of this lost sura covered up. He's aided, at first unknowingly, by secret agent Aydin Ozbek. Thor writes with all the finesse his surname suggests -- most of the people in the book are indistinguishable from each other, the action grinds to a halt for expository lectures on history and technology and he often introduces female characters for the express purpose of getting them killed and motivating the men. The DaVinci Code-styled quest to solve a puzzle adds zero suspense to this pretty plain vanilla tale.
Jonathan Kellerman's mainstay character has been Alex Delaware, a psychiatrist who consults with the Los Angeles Police Department and helps them solve some pretty out-there crimes. In Bones, he introduced the half-brothers Moses Reed and Aaron Fox. Reed is a by-the-book LAPD detective, and Fox is a former officer now working as an expensive private investigator. They dislike each other no small amount, but they find themselves working parallel lines in looking for disappeared college student Caitlin Frostig. They also wind up looking at the strange life of a Hollywood director's family as one of the director's children may be involved in the matter. Kellerman, as usual, writes in a fluid style that moves the story along quickly, although he seems to have to pad it in more than one place to fill out the airport-novel page count. His psychiatric background helps him detail the tension between the brothers believably. The way the seemingly unrelated matter of the director's family takes center stage is kind of off-putting, especially since Kellerman sort of clumsily fashions him as a Michael Moore caricature with a grafted-on Passion of the Christ-style film to make him, in the book's characters' eyes, even less likable. Fox and Reed have a great deal of potential as a pair of crime-solvers and as a hook for some new kinds of stories, but True Detectives seems rushed. Maybe Kellerman can take a little bit longer with later books if he chooses to return the duo to the stage.