Saturday, April 30, 2011

Unusual Sighting

For some reason, I woke up very early this morning and was unable to go back to sleep. So I sat down on the couch with the TV at low volume, in the hopes I would doze at least while watching.

In a surprising development, a rerun of Law & Order was on. But as I paged through the guide channel, I noticed some unfamiliar words in the synopsis: "Greevey and Logan." And then another strange word: "Stone."

For those who may be unfamiliar with the 20-year history of Law & Order, Greevey and Logan are Max Greevey and Mike Logan, respectively the senior and junior partners in a pair of detectives who are the "police who investigate crimes" as mentioned in the show opener. Greevey was George Dzundza and Logan was Chris Noth, and although Logan had several years on the show and later reappeared in the spinoff Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Max Greevey died in the second season opener (more or less off-camera, as Dzundza had already departed the show).

"Stone" was Ben Stone, played by Michael Moriarty, and was one of the "district attorneys who prosecute the offenders." Moriarty left in 1994, after outspoken criticism of then-Attorney General Janet Reno's remarks about violent television shows (like Law & Order) led producer Dick Wolf to bid him farewell. Wolf and others, however, claim that Moriarty's erratic behavior led to his dismissal.

Either way, it's almost impossible to see one of these for some reason -- they either air, apparently, very early in the morning or not at all. Some of them show a TV series that was looking for its stride -- early episodes carry a heavy load of cop-show and lawyer-show cliches that are much rarer during stronger middle seasons, before Law & Order developed and was buried by its own cliches. But some of them, because they lack the tired shorthand that many later-season episodes used to paper over story holes, demonstrate why this show became well-known and well-liked.

Appearing after Hill Street Blues sort of sputtered to an end and while L. A. Law was tiring itself out, Law & Order offered a much more realism-styled police and legal procedural with quality acting and stories. I say "realism-styled" because five minutes of conversation with any police officer or lawyer will point out that the show itself is not particularly realistic.

It was certainly nice to remember this time of the show, with episodes that even at their clunkiest have a freshness constant reruns have taken from the later ones.

Not nice enough to regularly wake up at 4 AM, though, not as long as Netflix exists.

Friday, April 29, 2011

"No," He Said.

G.P. Putnam's Sons has announced that they will turn the late Robert B. Parker into V.C. Andrews by farming out two of his book series to other writers.

That is not how the Putnam press release phrased it, of course, but in essence that's what's going to happen. Andrews was a writer of Gothic-influenced teen fiction that despite some, er, uncomfortable themes, sold like mad. Her death in 1986 left some of her series unfinished, her fan base unsatisfied and her publishers unremunerated. Andrews' estate commissioned a writer named Andrew Niedermann to continue her existing series and begin new ones under her name.

Putnam will use crime fiction writer Ace Atkins to continue the Spenser series and Michael Brandman, the producer and co-writer of the television Jesse Stone movies, will continue that character. Atkins has produced some good crime fiction and has even done some semi-documentary-styled writing with Wicked City and Infamous. He's a sharp storyteller and knows his genre well, and his blog shows him to be a devoted Parker fan.

But he ain't Bob Parker.

Brandman, as mentioned above, collaborated with Parker and actor Tom Selleck on the Jesse Stone movies released by CBS. The last three of the series were stories pretty much created out of whole cloth rather than adaptations of the novels. The work produced some excellent television drama and the collaboration allowed Selleck to garner an Emmy nomination and the author's approval. Brandman also worked with Parker on the A&E Spenser movies from the late 1990s and early 2000s and could definitely be said to have a good handle on Jesse Stone and know Parker well; Parker respected his work on both productions.

But he ain't Bob Parker.

If less than 95% of Putnam's decision to continue these characters stems from something other than money you may color me shocked and awed. Notice it is his two most popular characters that will continue -- no mention is made of the slower-selling Sunny Randall series, moribund since 2007's Spare Change, or of Parker's Western novels with Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, or of the young-adult books he'd begun in the last few years. I've no reason to doubt the praise Parker's widow Joan offers to both Atkins and Brandman or to doubt her pleasure at seeing her husband's creations live on, but I certainly wish the estate had followed the lead of Charles Schultz's children, who decided that Schultz' iconic Peanuts comic strip would not be written or drawn by anyone else following his death.

Will I check out the zombie-Spenser and nosferatu-Stone? Probably, especially Atkins' take on Spenser since Stone had grown less interesting over time. Brandman's version of Stone debuts in September, and Atkins says he has his first Spenser book finished and it will appear next spring. But I'll probably wait for the paperbacks or check them out of the library, and either way the borrowed time for both series won't be extensive.

A friend who's also a big Parker fan (and who actually had the honor of having RBP blurb one of his own books), put it this way: "I think I'm done with Spenser, Jesse Stone, and anyone else 'ghostwritten'...'cause the guy I wanna read is a ghost."

Methinks, Protesteth too Much, Etc., Etc.

Today I did a non-scientific survey of the different news sources, blogs and whatnots that I read for information. I did this by reading them, which I do all the time, but this time I'm calling it a non-scientific, informal survey.

A single subject dominated coverage on many, if not most of them: The wedding of England's Prince William to Kate Middleton, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (I may have my royal titles mixed up, but I think that's William's title until either his grandmother or father pass away, at which time he becomes the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. Should, Heaven forbid, they pass away simultaneously, William of course becomes King William V of England).

The only subject that came close to people noting, commenting on and so forth about this wedding were all of the people who firmly and with great dripping disdain declared their passionate disinterest in the entire affair, a disinterest so monumental it had to be explicitly shared with us all, lest its absence suggest to someone the hideous possibility that the authors might actually be interested in this entirely uninteresting affair.

I am not myself terribly invested in this, although a a history-interested person and a fellow who likes traditional institutions I don't much mind the British having fun with their long-standing institution of the monarchy. And of course I hope William and Kate, who seem like two nice people, have a long and happy life together and are able to use their fame and position to do good things.

So, just for today, in their honor: England forever!

And Scotland for a wee bit longer.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Trump Ugly

With President Obama politely asking the State of Hawaii to waive its policy on publicizing long-form birth certificates so everyone could see his, one might think that a potential presidential candidate who has been riding that horse for awhile to be somewhat abashed.

But one would then never have heard the name "Donald Trump" before. Starting with a March appearance on The View, Trump began needling the president about the fact that his so-called "official birth certificate" remained unviewed. Because the president's father was not a U.S. citizen and because he spent early years in Indonesia and because not every firing neuron creates an actual thought, a significant number of folks wondered if he was in fact a natural-born U.S. citizen. If he was not, then he was not qualified to be the president, under Article 2 of the Constitution.

Despite the terror that should have been stirred up by these words -- "President Biden" -- many of these folks asserted that all of the "secrecy" meant President Obama had something to hide. He had, of course, produced a certificate of live birth, which Hawaii has used as proof of birth in many situations. The issue had ebbed until Trump began hammering at it again in his usual blunt fashion.

At the same time, Trump began making noise about running for President again. He did this about 10 years ago and tested the waters with the book The America We Deserve before he decided to bow out. He is no more of a serious candidate now than then. I don't mean he is or isn't serious about running -- only the man himself can know his own mind on the matter. I mean that he's not someone who should be seriously considered as a candidate for President of the United States.

He's been saying four main things about his potential candidacy: 1) President Obama is doing a very poor job, 2) President Obama's hiding something about his birth, 3) China's planning on taking us out not with missiles but with mortgage notes, 4) He's really serious about running.

To answer these, I say: 1) I agree, but the list of people who'd do better includes neither me nor Mr. Trump, 2) President Biden, 3) Probably shouldn't have your signature clothing line made there, then and 4) He was really serious about Marla Maples, too.

The interesting thing to me is that a Trump candidacy would be, in one sense, a logical extension of the kind of candidacy that Obama ran. It would focus on celebrity, name recognition and some kind of indefinable aura of destiny rather than any great level of demonstrated ability, commitment or practical vision. And while Trump probably has some positives that Obama does not, I believe a Trump presidency would be just as awful as the Obama presidency has been.

His commitment over the years has been to one person: Donald Trump. News stories show he's been happy to donate money to political candidates across the board, and he's made political statements on issues that sometimes contradict his own earlier statements and positions, earning him no love from the conservative constituency he seems to be courting.

It's an oversimplification, but what I want from a president is someone who, when I think about them, I emphasize the word "President" rather than the name. For Obama -- and certainly for the lion's share of his supporters -- the emphasis in the phrase "President Obama" is on the word "Obama" rather than the office of the presidency and the leadership of our nation. And when Trump says the sentence "I want to be president" in his mind, I believe the mental italics are on the word "I" instead of "president." (As an aside, I think this same mindset exists among way, way too many Sarah Palin supporters as well, even if I'm less convinced it's the way the woman herself sees things, and that would present us with a number of the same problems)

During initial seasons of his unscripted show The Apprentice, Trump National Golf Club manager and executive vice president Carolyn Kepcher was one of the associates Trump used to monitor the progress of those vying to win a job with a Trump organization. Over the course of the first seasons of the show, Kepcher's no-nonsense demeanor, business savvy and camera-friendly looks earned her some celebrity status of her own, which the Donald apparently felt was getting in the way of her doing her job of running his golf courses. So he booted her, even though it was highly unlikely Kepcher was going to eclipse his fame or name on the door.

I have a really hard time believing that an ego like that would be able to stand coexisting with the 500-plus similar egos fulminating under the Capitol Dome, not to mention whatever cabinet secretaries he might appoint, and even more not to mention the self-importance of the Washington, D.C.-based media. If by some miracle Trump should win the GOP nomination and then by an even bigger one win the presidency itself, I imagine he would become the second president ever to resign from office as he grew ever more frustrated with how much the job wasn't about him and figured that resigning was the only way he could make it be that way.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Betting Man

Well, tomorrow night is Steve Carrell's last night on NBC's The Office.

I bet you can't find a single entertainment news event that interests me less.

He's being replaced by Will Ferrell for the remainder of the season?

Will you take a check?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Moses for the Win!

Cecil B. DeMille's second production of The Ten Commandments won its extensive time slot when it aired Saturday night.

I've seen it at least a dozen times and I love every cheesy, hammy, historically-and-Biblically suspect minute of it. If I ever get the chance to be on a soundstage, you better believe that "Woe unto thee, O Israel!" will be the first phrase I try to boom out...

Monday, April 25, 2011

Christians Are...What, Exactly?

An old and well-worn saying, attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli via Mark Twain, suggests that the three kinds of lies are "lies, damned lies and statistics." University of Connecticut sociology professor Bradley Wright takes a look at what we supposedly know based on news stories and other reports of surveys, opinion polls and the statistics they produce in his book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...and Other Lies You've Been Told.

For example, many people inside and outside the church believe that the percentage of younger people attending church has diminished over time, and that the church is "losing young people." He notes a widely-quoted statistic that suggests only four percent of today's teens will be evangelical Christians by the time they reach adulthood, but then points out that this statistic comes from a study that's not very reliable because of limited sample size and confusingly-worded questions.

Surveyors prefer larger sample sizes because they have a wider variety of respondents. Calvin used to poll himself and suggest to his dad that parenting techniques change based on the poll results, which favored the commencement of driving lessons and the abolition of bedtimes. His small sample size skewed the results his way.

Survey takers also prefer questions to be as clear and specific as possible. "What's the best color for a vehicle?" seems like a simple question, but the answers may differ if people have different pictures of what a "vehicle" is. Asking, "What's the best color for a pickup truck?" for example, would offer clearer results.

So, Wright says, the particular survey that produced the 4 percent number has a lot of problems and shouldn't be counted on without references to other statistics that would back it up. When he analyzes data from a couple of better-conducted surveys, the General Social Survey and the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, he finds that there is a dropoff in numbers of young people attending church over the last half-century or so. But it's not nearly what the much doomier forecast says it is and it tracks pretty well with the percentage of all people who've stopped attending church.

Wright also points out that surveys like this may provide some good information about what things are like when it was done, but they're not nearly as useful in extrapolating future events. Since the future hasn't happened, we have no way of knowing what factors may affect things like religious participation. Wright notes that in 1822, Thomas Jefferson predicted that "there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian." He based it on the increase in Unitarianism in the U.S. in the early 19th century, but that increase didn't continue and today's Unitarians number .5% of the U.S. population. He also cites this xkcd webcomic, which uses the trending increase in the number of a woman's husbands (day before yesterday she had none, but as of yesterday she had one) to predict that by next month she'll have four dozen husbands and thus she needs to invest in bulk wedding cake.

The first chapters of the book, which take apart the methodology of surveys and point out why people should question survey-based information just as thoroughly as they question any other information, are the most interesting. The later ones, in which Wright takes on some of the myths about Christians that are supposedly "common knowledge," are also interesting at first, but begin to repeat themselves after awhile.

On the whole, though, Wright has written a clever brief introduction to the ins and outs of surveying and its good and not-so-good uses, as well as providing some reasons to re-think some of the things we Christian folk might believe about ourselves -- as well as what we believe others think about us.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


It is the day. The only day.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Wait! What Do I See?

Today would have been Roy Orbison's 75th birthday, and it's interesting to consider what his career might have been like if he hadn't passed away back in 1988.

At the time of his death, Orbison was in the middle of a career resurgence thanks in large part to his role with the Traveling Wilburys, an MTV-beloved supergroup also featuring Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. He'd even recorded Mystery Girl, his first solo album in almost a decade, which would be released after his death and chart at #2 in the U.S.

Orbison's "comeback" predated similar later-in-life revitalizations of his contemporaries by several years. Johnny Cash's 1994 American Recordings, Loretta Lynn's 2004 Van Lear Rose and Jerry Lee Lewis's 2006 Last Man Standing all owe some of their concept to the critical success Orbison had with Mystery Girl, which counted Lynne, T-Bone Burnett, Bono and Tom Petty gutarist Mike Campbell as producers (Petty, Campbell and the rest of the Heartbreakers would also play a role in Cash's resurgence).

This comeback also came earlier in his life, when Orbison was in his early 50s. Cash was 64 and less than nine years away from his own death when he made American Recordings with Rick Rubin. Lynn was 70 when working with Jack White on Van Lear Rose, and Lewis 71 when his smoking series of duets was released. Had he not passed away, would Orbison have been able to follow Mystery Girl with similar success, as Cash did with the later "American" albums?

A lot of things leaned that way -- for example, Orbison's style of music went well with the songs he was singing. Cash did the same throughout the entire "American" series, as did Lynn. Although still talented and gifted beyond most folks' wildest dreams, both artists realized they were not teenage rebels any more and so they didn't sings songs that pretended they were.

But Lewis and the then-66-year-old Ringo Starr just sound creepy singing "Sweet Little 16" on Standing, (even though Lewis and Merle Haggard kick quite a bit of younger artist booty with "Just Bummin' Around.") A misfit between the singer and the songs is even more harmful to the Jack-White produced The Party Ain't Over, Wanda Jackson's 2011 album. When a 73-year-old woman sings about "quivers down my backbone/Got me shakin' in my thighbone," cringes follow. Septuagenerians have natural sexual desires and urges, of course, but expressing those desires in a manner more apt to those bipedal collections of hormones called teenagers is just a little skin-crawly.

Orbison, on the other hand, didn't sing anything weird, squicky or just plain creepy on Mystery Girl. As in most of his career, his songs were about loves gained and lost rather than hot mamas tumbled or not. Even his major libido-laden 1963 hit Oh, Pretty Woman is about an adult woman, not a girl.

It would certainly have been interesting to have seen how Orbison's voice would have handled the last 20 or so years, and what kind of material he might have added to his catalog as he dealt with the probable diminishing of that magnificent gift. Perhaps he would be contemplating a kind of retirement after 20 or more years of high creativity and quality output. Perhaps he would now be making a second comeback, having faded away again sometime after that 1988-89 high spot. No way to know.

In any event, we have the music he did release and it's a large and impressive enough group of songs to satisfy old fans and reward new listeners as well.

Edited to change post title -- I misquoted Mr. Orbison.

Friday, April 22, 2011

And He Said...

"It is finished."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The New Command

"For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'

"In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'

"For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."

First Corinthians 11:23-26
New Revised Standard Version

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Blasphem -- yawn -- y!

This year hasn't mustered much of a controversy to go with the Easter season and Holy Week. Usually we get media frenzy over some completely misunderstood archaeological discovery or some rabble-rousing fringe professor publishes a theory that will shake the foundations of the faith or something.

So far, all 2011 has given us is a Time cover story on Rob Bell's book Love Wins, in which Bell questions some aspects of traditional Christian teaching about damnation. This could be a real splatter-fest, except that Bell's book was published several weeks ago, religious bloggers kicked it around before it was printed as well as right around the time it came out and the fallout is mostly over by now. The story was written by Jon Meacham, who has apparently decided that dooming one newsweekly was not enough.

Stefani Germanotta made a late run at vandalizing the season with the release of her song "Judas" last Friday. Ms. Germanotta, who inexplicably would rather be known as "Lady Gaga," said she wrote the song as the words of a woman to a man who has betrayed her. As she explained in a radio interview,  the song is about "honoring your darkness in order to bring yourself into the light, [...] You have to look into what’s haunting you and need to learn to forgive yourself in order to move on."

That certainly sheds light on the refrain: "Judas Juda-a-a, Judas Juda-a-a, Judas Juda-a-a, Judas Gaga."

Ms. Germanotta, who was raised Roman Catholic, said she intended no commentary on Christianity with the song. Which of course explains the cross on the single cover art, the repeated mentions of being a "holy fool" and the music video with an actor as Judas and Ms. Germanotta as Mary Magdalene.

I don't know. I think blasphemy needs to take a marketing course, because all this stuff does is bore this traditional Christian theist out of his mind.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"I" Before "E" Doesn't Help if the Word's Wrong to Start With

A friend e-mailed me to let me know I had a name wrong in an earlier post. I had called southwestern Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains southeastern Oklahoma's Ouachita Mountains. I made the correction, put out a contract on his life, and thought some about the two words, which on their surface don't much resemble each other.

Like many of our Oklahoma names, they derive from Native American names -- tribal names and place names both. We have towns, streets, counties, rivers, creeks, lakes, mountains and what have you that take their names from one Native American language or another because during the last part of the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries, many native people were resettled here. Towns grew up and maps were drawn well before the lands were opened for white settlement and later statehood, They were named by the people living there and many of those names remain. Until I went to college in Chicago, I never considered that there would be people who didn't know how to say Tahlequah, Pottawatomie, Pushmataha, Kiowa or Okfuskee.

Those names may often be spelled quite differently, because phonetic attempts to render the Native words into European languages didn't always match. In the town where I grew up, there was a street called Chickasaw, and I learned to say that pretty much the way it's spelled: "chik-uh-saw." But when I moved into the area southwest of Oklahoma City, I found a city there that spelled its name "Chickasha" and pronounced it "chik-uh-shay," not the "chik-uh-shah" I would have expected. My mispronunciation was but one of the many lessons I needed to learn there, of course.

It gets weirder when the words migrated into different European languages. Wichita and Ouachita are related and refer to related tribal groups, although not the same group. The first Europeans the Ouachita people met were French. This happened around 1700, when they were living in what is now northern Louisiana. The French explorers wrote the closest phonetic equivalent they could to the people's name for themselves, calling them the "Ouachita" because when you write in French the sound that English represents with "w" you use "ou," like in oui. Also, the French language usually renders the written "ch" to sound a lot more like what English writes as "sh."

Although the Ouachita people were mostly absorbed into the Natchitoches Tribe by 1720s and today are enrolled in the Caddo Nation, their name remains on several geographical features in southeastern Oklahoma, southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. Some of them, like the mountains mentioned above, use the French-derived spelling, while some, like the town of Washita or Washita County, use the Anglicized spelling.

The Wichita people, by contrast, were found in western Kansas, western Oklahoma and west-central Texas. Their name can be found on cities, rivers and mountains through this area, ranging from Wichita, KS down to Wichita Falls, TX. Their language belonged to the Caddoan family of languages, like the Ouachita people in Louisiana, and the first Europeans they met were Spanish, coming up through what is now Mexico (I'd never rely on Wikipedia for something I was turning in for a grade or publishing, but since this article is pretty comprehensively footnoted and I'm just writing a blog post, it'll do unless you want to go the the library yourself).

Rather than a single tribe, the Wichita people seemed to be some smaller tribes that shared the common Wichita language. They were mostly village-based, although they did follow the bison during a hunting season and only returned to their villages after the season was finished. First compressed by aggressive Apache and Osage people and then by European settlement and disease, they now have a tribal government headquartered in Anadarko, OK, for what is known as the "Wichita and Affiliated Tribes," and includes the Wichita, Keechi, Waco and Tawakonie peoples. Their name, as mentioned above, is used today for several cities, towns and geographical features.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Political formula:


1. If AR = OR, then proceed to step 2

2. If HO = FA, then proceed to step 3

3. If S = C, then substitute new values:


Commercial prophecy:

Does anyone else, when they see the AT&T internet commercial that shows the guy shopping while riding a giant computer mouse around town, think of the morbidly obese folks in their automated chairs in WALL-E?

What the day brings:

Monday? Check. Large check written to the federal government? Check. Not quite as large but still too darn big a check written to the state government? Check. Gorgeous day outside to remind me of who's really in charge of the world I live in? Check. Guess we'll call this one good.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

How Did Standard Get to Be Standard?

Nearly every CD, DVD, CD-ROM or whatever we insert into our computers, players and stereos is 120 millimeters across. Ever wonder why?

Why not a nice round decimal number, since we're measuring in the metric system to start with? Why not 100 mm, a "decimeter" in that system? In the original manufacturing formats, a decimeter would have held about an hour's worth of music, which is itself a pretty standard unit of time. The 120 mm version holds about 74 minutes by comparison, surely an odd measure.

Way back in the late 1970s when the format was being developed, two companies were working together to create it, Sony and Philips. As they were doing so, they were setting many of the standards that are common to us today, like the sampling rates and disc construction. Both Sony and Philips aimed at a 60-minute playing time, Sony with a 100 mm disc and Philips with a 115 mm disc. Various tales suggest why the 120 mm format was used, ranging from the story that the Sony president's wife liked a particular performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that was 74 minutes long and wanted it to fit on one disc to the fact that Philips, through its PolyGram record company division, was well ahead of Sony in the manufacturing end and that Sony had to push for a different-sized format in order to make sure it didn't start out the CD business well behind its competitor.

Whatever the whole story is, you might stop and think that about how many things, from shelves in desks to CD cases to album art to DVD boxes to the size and construction of computers has been influenced by that decision, and that decision wasn't made with a thought towards any of those things. I try to remind myself of stuff like this when I get to thinking I can predict what's going to happen in the future.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Iron River

Iron River is the third book T. Jefferson Parker wrote featuring Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy Charlie Hood, who is currently working with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on cases involving drug and gun smuggling across the California-Mexico border.

We met Charlie in L.A. Outlaws, when he tangled with part-time robber Suzanne Jones/Allison Murietta. We saw him begin to be involved in the larger smuggling world by squaring off against corrupt cops in Renegades, and Iron River finds him temporarily attached to a unit working in far southern California and trying to take down drug smugglers and gun runners. Their efforts sometimes seem to have little or no effect in stemming the massive flow of weapons into the hands of corrupt officials and narcotic-dealing warlords in Mexico, the "iron river" of the title.

Charlie and his fellow team members find themselves searching for one of their members whose killing of a drug lord's son brought about his kidnapping. At the same time, there are hints of a large gun deal being brokered with a bankrupt gun manufacturer who doesn't seem to spare much thought for just who might be buying his weapons. How is Bradley Wilson, Suzanne's oldest son, involved? And what role is being played by an accident victim who had Charlie's number in his pocket and a lot of knowledge about ATFE activities that he shouldn't have?

So far, the Hood books have had a lot of classic noir trappings -- the bad guys have a little bit of good in them and the really bad guys don't, and the good guys have something of a darker edge themselves and they don't always win. Iron River keeps that atmosphere alive, showing Charlie as a man in the middle of fighting for a lost cause, maybe because he's the kind of guy who thinks those are the only kinds of causes really worth fighting for. Parker has made Hood an introspective sort, using his handwritten letters to a father with Alzheimer's as a kind of "thinking out loud" device to help us pause and reflect. He's kind of a thinking man's tough guy, or maybe a tough man's thinking guy, depending on your point of view.

Before L. A. Outlaws, Parker wrote mostly standalone crime novels, but he's said in interviews he sees there being about six Charlie Hood books in all, together forming one longer narrative. Border Lords, the fourth Hood novel, was released earlier this year so we probably have a couple more years before Hood's story is finished out. So far, it seems worth the journey.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Ill-Prepared Remarks

Jumped-up boxscore reader and former blathering head proves that in some discussions, the best response to one's opponent is, "Shut the heck up."

Money With Wings

A fellow named Nate Silver blogs (among other things) at The New York Times about different economic topics that interest him. Recently, he played with some numbers to figure out which U.S. airports tacked on the most extra money for the privilege of buying $8 slices of pizza and staring at ugly carpet and CNN until your plane takes off.

You can read his methodology in the blog entry, but to sum up, he tried to control for the different factors that increase flight cost, like flying longer distances or flying to smaller airports that can't take advantage of economies of scale. Then he used data from the Bureau of Transportation to try to match similar itineraries among different airports and then compare costs to find a fair market value, and then compare that to the actual fare price. Other factors include distance from large cities or the presence of so-called "legacy airlines" like American or United.

Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport (Texans, apparently, can't settle for just being "international") wins the overcharge race among the nation's busiest aiports. Silver says they tack an extra $85 onto the cost of a ticket for flying out of Houston. Newark International Airport charges you an extra $72 for flying out of New Jersey, which might actually be money well spent considering that you are flying out of New Jersey.

On the other end, Ft. Lauderdale Hollywood Airport in Florida charges you less than the market cost by $90. Silver says that the high traffic at destinations like Florida or Las Vegas could help explain how the charges can be kept lower.

A check of the chart that compares all of the top 230 airports in the country shows that all three Oklahoma airports on the list are in the overcharge bin. Tulsa International adds $45 to the fair market price, Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City adds $54 and Lawton/Ft. Sill Regional wants an extra $151 from you to get over the Washita Wichita Mountains. Sure, Denver International Airport may give you a $25 break to get over the Rockies, but remember, you're already a mile up in the air when you start.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

No Soap

ABC Television is canceling two of its remaining soap operas, All My Children and One Life to Live. Although I haven't really seen either of them in years, except for glimpses on the gym TVs, I did watch both shows in college. And before you think that's weird, the TV room in my all-male dorm filled each weekday at the noon hour to catch the latest episode of AMC, or "Kids," as we called it when I was there. And not all of the viewers were from the nearby all-women's building coming over because we had a better TV, although we did.

The young gentlemen with whom I lived watched the show for some very specific reasons. Namely, Susan Lucci, the Original Cougar who, though nearing 40 at the time, would have lacked for no escort at any time or place she wanted to show up on campus. Also Marcy Walker, who was just a couple of years older than some of us and whose "bad girl" Liza Colby character provoked significant interest amongst the fellows. Also, Kim Delaney, Carmen Thomas and a a number of other actresses whose talents we greatly admired. I once used an old press pass from the paper at which I interned to wrangle a quick interview with one of those actresses when she and a co-star made an appearance at a Chicagoland mall, and got my notebook signed. My GPA wishes I had applied the same kind of creativity towards my classwork.

Seeing that my dorm held a large number of Northwestern's football players, the different commercial breaks gained football-themed names. The long ad break in about the middle of the show was, of course, "halftime." The quick break just before setting up that day's cliffhanger scene was the "two-minute warning." Any bedroom scene with any of our preferred characters mentioned above was a "touchdown."

Fewer watched One Life to Live which came on later, although the consensus was that Mitch Laurence was a bad dude in both senses of the word and his sweet-talking of a prison nurse in a scene before he left the show for a bit, accompanied by Sade's "Smooth Operator," was quite apropos. From time to time OLTL featured plots centering on time travel, underground cities, out-of-body experiences and all sorts of other weird stuff.

Almost anyone watching either of these shows could see them for the silly stories that they were. Although some of the actors involved really were talented and sometimes had scenes here and there that really let them display that, much much more of their work showed why soap operas are so easily mocked. Most of the storylines are stale and stabs at making them fresh were usually even sillier. Even so, they were fun for us at the time.

ABC's plans are to replace them with Revolution, a "health and lifestyle" series that will document one woman's weight loss and lifestyle change over the course of five months. Each week will finish with a reveal of what has changed for her over the previous few days. Yeah, that sounds a lot more exciting than wondering whether or not Mitch will succeed in his latest attempt to get hold of Victor Lord's fortune.

Also taking the time slot will be The Chew, a food-oriented lifestyle series that immediately soars towards the top in the "Worst Show Name Ever" sweepstakes. Of its four hosts, only Dorm Room Diet author Daphne Oz is not a veteran of some other lifestyle show, and she is the daughter of Dr. Mehmet Oz, one of the chatter-heads Oprah Winfrey has inflicted on the world. Ms. Oz, a Near Eastern studies graduate of Princeton, will help cover nutrition issues.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Records by the Book

What would your favorite record album look like if it had been a book? This fellow has a couple of ideas. I kind of like the U2 cover and the pair of Queen albums, but they're all interesting. Hopefully he doesn't run out of ideas.

(H/T Yeah Right)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Credit Rating

Apparently, the latest vote-off from American Idol was something of a shocker. The judges -- folks who've done pretty well for themselves in the music industry in front of the mike or behind the scenes -- couldn't believe that the phone-in vote totals sent singer Pia Toscano home. I don't watch the show, so I'll take their word for the surprise of the boot and for the quality of Ms. Toscano's singing.

At least one record company would like to get together with Ms. Toscano so they could both make some money, but the contract she signed in order to appear on American Idol apparently precludes her from recording on her own for quite some time. Through her representatives, she denied that some sort of done deal already existed, so it seems she knew the terms of her contract even if some overly excitable members of the entertainment media didn't.

One note in the story cracked me up. The reporter's second unnamed source -- AKA "another American Idol insider" said that the contract was designed to make sure the show's winner got his or her shot at the big time before any other contestant did. Specifically, the source told the writer. "If you start having singers who were voted off charting before the show has wrapped, then the entire process loses credibility."

I believe that statement carries with it a very large assumption...

Monday, April 11, 2011

Roundin' Third and Headed for Home

A link not so much because of the open comment thread it contains but because of the picture being used. On April 11, 1947 Jackie Robinson took a big lead in making our nation a better place. Sure, baseball is just a game, but it's hard to imagine us being one nation and working together if we aren't able to play together.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dang Big Bang

Although not the Big Bang, of course, a honking good-sized explosion is being observed by astronomers who are scratching their heads about what it might be.

After all, if it were the Big Bang, we wouldn't be able to observe it, since that event created all that is. Meaning that if we were being created, we wouldn't be here to observe it, and if we could observe it, we'd have already been created and whatever we were seeing couldn't be the Big Bang.

Now I'm scratching my head, too...

Saturday, April 9, 2011


The city of Plymouth on the island of Montserrat was evacuated back in 1995 because of the danger a nearby volcano posed to residents. A couple of years later, said volcano erupted, offering Plymouth something to share with Pompeii besides the initial letters of their names. The folks at BuzzFeed have some pictures of that now half-buried, all-deserted and mostly wrecked city, here.

Two of the wildest to me are nos. 23 and 25, a buried church and courthouse, respectively. When you see what used to be the upper floor on one building or the steeple on another now halfway under the surface of the ground, that's plenty eerie.

Friday, April 8, 2011

There Was an App for That...

Scientists examining the Antikythera Mechanism -- which is not the title of a Dr. Who episode, a Robert Ludlum novel or the name of a new indie band -- have determined that it does some more things than they thought it did.

The mechanism dates back to the second century BC and was discovered in 1900. A complex set of gears with Greek zodiac and Egyptian months inscribed into two rings on its face, it was thought to be some form of timepiece and was later discovered to predict the locations of the sun, moon and the planets known at the time it was built.

But lately scientists studying it figured out that it would also indicate the apparent speed of the sun at different times of the year. The ancients thought the sun traveled around the Earth. Since it doesn't, since the orbit of the Earth around the sun is an ellipse instead of a perfect circle and since the Earth is tilted on its axis, the sun would seem to move faster or slower at different times. The Antikythera Mechanism can be set up to measure this different speed.

Since the mechanism essentially performs a mechanical function that produces different results based on the different inputs it may be given, scientists regard it as a kind of analog computer, the oldest of its kind in the world. It predates Charles Babbage's "Difference Engine" by some 1,900 years. The precision construction and complexity would not be matched again until the 1300s in Europe, when astronomical clocks that served similar functions were developed.

Devices such as the Antikythera Mechanism seem to have died out sometime after the era to which it dates. Theories explaining this are numerous, but many scientists point to the fact that some of the last-known devices similar to it bear Greek letters that transliterate as "Parathyro Anoigma." Although there is no exact translation for the terms in the ancient Koine Greek, the closest equivalent appears to be "Windows Vista."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What's That Doing There?

One of the things these huge supercolliding machines are supposed to do -- aside from create the black holes that will swallow the Earth and end life as we know it -- is find subatomic particles whose existence is theorized or predicted by other phenomena but which have never been directly observed themselves.

Among these elusive little fellas is something called the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is thought to be the particle that creates the Higgs effect (what else), a possible reason that other particles have mass. British physicist Peter Higgs (aha!) suggested in the 1960s that matter exists in kind of a lattice network that affects how much mass it has. Actual changes in mass are, for want of a better word, a little weird. A satellite on the launchpad will weigh much more than that same satellite in orbit around the Earth because of its distance from the planet. But its mass remains the same. To change the satellite mass, for example, we could start knocking off pieces of it, but it's very unlikely that the mass will change while it just sits there. It's also unlikely we could change the mass very much before security guards showed up and arrested us for vandalism. Or arrested you, anyway, as I would claim that I didn't want to break the satellite but you plied me with strong spirits until I lost my ability to reason.

Higgs bosons are the particles that would create the Higgs effect and thus affect the mass of other particles, and finding them would help scientists nail down some important information about gravity. That would allow them to complete something called the Standard Model, or an explanation of how the different forces in the universe operate. The Standard Model already does a pretty good job of explaining how the strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force and electromagnetism work, but gravity has stumped scientists so far.

Anyway, that's why scientists are looking for the Higgs boson and why they build huge machines that smash particles into each other at nearly the speed of light, in order to create the extreme conditions under which it and other particles like it can be detected if they are real. At the Tevatron accelerator near Batavia, Illinois, an experiment concerning the Higgs boson showed an unexpected bump in the data that may be an entirely new particle, previously unsuspected. The data is all very preliminary, and the bump could be something ordinary, like a glitch in the readings someplace. Nevertheless, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland are going to run similar experiments to see if they get some of the same results.

Should the particle exist, it may turn out that scientists didn't exactly know the things they thought they knew. Scientists, of course, are used to that sort of thing. Blowhards who make grand pronouncements based on incomplete or even outdated understandings of science, on the other hand, may have a harder time of it.

If the particle does exist, it would be a fine end for the Tevatron facility, which is expected to close down operations in September. Negotiations for a corporate sponsorship, unfortunately, fell through.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Theory's Right, Anyway

There are days when you've got nothing to say, and on those days it would be a good idea to say nothing.

What? Oh, crap...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

April Ehh...

That's how the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament ended last night as the Huskies of the University of Connecticut beat the Bulldogs of Butler University 53-41 to win the national championship.

And thus March Madness gives way to April Blandness as the tournament's two top teams can't score 95 points together and wind up collegiate basketball's 2010-2011 season with a score that would embarrass a lot of high school teams. Yippee! Yes, I can see why college football needs a playoff system instead of the current Bowl Championship Series mess or the old subjective voting polls method. Without a playoff, we'll never have the excitement of two of the best teams in the country playing for all the marbles! We'd never be able to see the top levels of talent square off against each other and display the game at its peak, as it's meant to be played!

Although to match this kind of finish, we'd probably need to have a couple of teams in the bottom half of the top 10 fight each other all game long only for the team that wound up with a field goal and a safety to beat the team that had just a field goal...


Some parents of Rutgers University students are a little peeved to find out that the university to which their pride, joy and large checks go paid one Nicole Polizzi more for one night's work from behind a podium than they pay for nine months of work by their children.

Ms. Polizzi, better known as "Snooki," is one of the cast members of the unscripted MTV show Jersey Shore -- an infliction for which show creators may find themselves in a special, newly-created level of Original Guido Dante's Inferno. Rutgers recently paid the 23-year-old $32,000 to speak to Rutgers students. This is a third more than the average year at Rutgers costs. It's $2,000 more than Rutgers will be paying author Toni Morrison to speak at its 2011 undergraduate commencement (To be fair, while Ms. Morrison holds both a Nobel and a Pulitzer prize, Ms. Polizzi is often more intelligible).

The money Rutgers paid Ms. Polizzi came from what are called "student fees" or "student activity fees." That's the name the college gives to the money it will take from you because as long as they slap it on a bill you'll pay it, even if you don't really know what it's for. Again, to be fair, there's a good chance the college doesn't know what it's for either. Some student activity money is spoken for. It helps to subsidize athletic spending at quite a few colleges, or to pay off construction of under-used stadiums or arenas. It may be directed to specific speaker series or other campus activities.

And some of it gets thrown into a fund that a school's student senate will spend on activities of different sorts during the year, subject to the school's guidelines and whatever voting procedures that student senate applies to itself. So basically, the school takes a sizable chunk of "student activity fee" money, sticks it in a bank account and tells a group of 20-year-olds to figure out how to blow it before May. This is how you end up paying more than a year's tuituion at a supposedly prestigious four-year university to someone the age of some of your students who has yet to finish her veterinary technologist program at her local community college.

See, college students are sometimes prone to acting on a whim. Awaiting full development of their forebrains, they will do things without considering the consequences because those things seemed like good ideas at the time and because that very same not-yet-finished forebrain development was unable to deter them from doing so. Having already made the poor decision to watch The Jersey Shore and pay attention to its cast of anti-examples, they will now make the poor decision to bring one of those cast people to their campus and spend real money to do so.

University administrators, who might be counted on to say things like, "You want how much so you can listen to who?" rarely intervene in these matters. They realize requiring student senates to make sensible decisions about student activity money would hamper their ability to use the activity fee as a tool to maintain the illusion student decisions matter in the slightest. They may not even monitor the use of activity fee money all that closely, leaving themselves unable to roll back spending they would not have approved of or that was technically illegal according to university guidelines.

The college where I used to work held an annual springtime event that was designed to be some fun outdoors and provide several pictures for recruitment brochures and admissions marketing. Even though the college claimed the name (and took the money) of the denomination to which I belong, that claim never played a role in deciding what kind of entertainment was brought to campus. One year we featured Tone-Loc, best known for the late '80s version of "Wild Thing" as well as his ode to aphrodisiacs, "Funky Cold Medina." The headlining band's lead singer displayed an impressive vocabulary -- he was able to work both the four-letter word for sexual activity, its adjectival form and its combined form as favored by Samuel L. Jackson into most of his sentences.

Another year, the headlining band displayed some wonderfully-realized misogyny in the free-range vocabulary of its lyrics. When this fact was brought to the attention of a vice-president who handled this part of student life, he did not know that the band had this kind of song in its repertoire. He hadn't checked, he said, he had just "trusted the students."

I've worked with campus ministry in one form or another in almost all of the years I've been in ministry. I love college students. More than 90 percent of the ones I met were bright, sincere and good-hearted young people who hungered to find out about their reasons for being here and for ways to make things better. College students made putting up with the administrative garbage and two-faced nature of the church-related college at which I worked bearable. I wouldn't trade a day of the chance I've had to work with them for a winning lottery ticket (I might split a Powerball entry, though. Hey, I'm paying off loans too). But I wouldn't trust them with hundreds of thousands of dollars of someone else's money to be used at their discretion any more than I would trust them to turn down pizza.

Actually, I have to wonder why these Rutgers parents are surprised. Giving Ms. Polizzi $32,000 for her time is exactly the kind of decision I'd expect in this situation. After all, every day we can see federal and state legislatures make bizarre decisions about how to spend other people's money, and those persons are nominally grown-ups. Take away that nominal adulthood and even the implication of making considered decisions, and you end up having enshrined for all time that your bastion of higher education, your center of great learning, your ivory tower of rare and deep thought...wrote a new-car-sized check to someone best known as "Snooki."

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Mannish Birthday

Although it is not the seventh day of the seventh month, today is the birthday of one McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters. Born this day in 1913, Muddy passed away at the end of April 70 years later. There are bands which do not list him as an influence.

They should not be trusted.


Anna Holmes, writing for Newsweek, isn't all that impressed with Tina Fey's new biography, Bossypants.

Holmes is the creator of the Gawker subsidiary website Jezebel (It's a Wikipedia link if you're not a Jezebel or Gawker fan), which tries to emphasize entertainment and showbiz-related news about or of interest to women. Fey's position as one of today's leading female entertainers and the first female head writer of Saturday Night Live makes her memoir of interest to Holmes and to many women, but Holmes says that Fey's choices not to delve too deeply into her life lessen Bossypants' impact as a memoir.

On the one hand, one might also want some more from Fey and sympathize with Holmes at what gets left out, but on the other hand, it's kind of hard to do so. Fey wrote about her own life, and she gets to choose what she tells and doesn't tell. You might say she should be OK with revealing herself since she decided to release a memoir, but she's under no obligation to meet Holmes' or anyone else's expectations about her story.

And it may be that Fey's life isn't that interesting. I don't mean that as a slam. I admit I haven't found her all that funny; SNL's "Weekend Update" under her tenure was about as dismal as it has been post-Curtin/Aykroyd (the Dennis Miller years excepted). She presided over some of the weakest seasons not produced by someone named Doumanian of a franchise that's had a lot of weak seasons. Although Mean Girls displayed wit and fun, Baby Mama and Date Night lacked both and 30 Rock gets most of the few laughs it gives me from Alec Baldwin. But humor's subjective and a lot of people laugh at Fey's work, plus she consistently uses her fame to help a lot of worthy causes, so all that means is I'm not the target audience for her comedy or her book.

By "not that interesting," I mean that Fey seems like a person who goes to work, does her job, raises her family and doesn't seem to be afflicted with the belief that fame equals sainthood, entitles her to be a jerk or makes her somehow more worthwhile as a person than someone who lacks it. She's an ordinary person whose everyday life happens to be lived out in some extraordinary circumstances and that's a situation that often makes for some rather ordinary memoir-ization.

I can't imagine buying Bossypants, although I suppose I'd pick it up if I ran across a copy and had nothing else around I wanted to read -- celebrity memoirs usually disinterest me greatly even when I'm a fan of the celebrity. But either way I'll try not to hold against Ms. Fey that she made the mistake of living and writing about her own life, rather than whatever life I might have preferred she lead.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Blue-Eyed Devil

Blue-Eyed Devil, Robert B. Parker's final Western, is a little bit of a mixed bag. The fourth book featuring the team of Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, it's quite a bit better than its immediate predecessor, Brimstone, but not up to the level of either Appaloosa or Resolution.

Cole and Hitch are back in the town of Appaloosa, to find that law-keeping there is a bit different than it used to be when it was just the pair of them. Now Appaloosa has a chief of police and twelve police officers, and they don't have much need for the kind of quick-draw law the pair are best at. But an Appaloosa saloon does, since it turns out the chief is running more of a protection racket than an honest legal system, and the saloon owner hires Cole and Hitch to keep things peaceful.

In the meantime, they are joined by their friend Pony Flores, a half-Indian sometimes bandit, and Flores' half-brother, Kha-to-nay, who's wanted by the law for killing an Indian agent and by the Pinkerton Detective Agency for robbing a bank.

Pony's presence, along with Kha-to-nay's overpowering rage against the white people invading his land, bring things to a head, setting up a chain of events that will also pit Cole and Hitch against the police chief, a land baron and his hired gun. They'll return to Brimstone, a town now guarded by another pair of gunmen, to enlist reinforcements. And Allie, the shallow and vain woman Virgil Cole unreservedly and inexplicably loves, will complicate things.

It's all a rather unsorted mess, almost like two shorter stories sloppily stitched together into one much less coherent single one. Parker also seems unable to make the Allie and Virgil relationship at all believable given how completely screwed up, immature and selfish she is. One of the strengths of Resolution was Allie's absence -- not so much because of her own problems but because Parker just can't resist making her the source of trouble and then even doing a little kicking when she's down.

Parker repeats some key scenes several times, such as when Hitch notes that Virgil seems to look at nothing but sees everything. None of the different plot threads are as slipshod, lazy or unimaginative as the evil minister of Brimstone, but none of them have very clean resolutions, either -- in more than one case, the answer seems to have been pulled out of the air.

Parker's final Spenser novels, published posthumously, seemed to be the product of a man who realized that he was nearer the end of his career than the beginning and wanted to leave behind some work that showed he still had much of his storytelling gift. It's possible Blue-Eyed Devil went into the pipeline before that idea was fully formed, because it carries a very definite "coasting" vibe that diminished so much of what Parker wrote since the early-to-mid-90s.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

An Open Letter

Dear Rutgers University --

Please stop using the word "university" in your name. Thank you.

Every Other University in the World, Including Those That Were Basically Dreamed up to be Loan-Skimming Scams From the Feds As Well As Those That Don't Really Exist but Send Out Diplomas if You Send Them a Check

Friday, April 1, 2011

Chuck Norris? Oh, Please Pt. II

Another day, another Gurkha soldier sends thirty times his number in enemy combatants packing.

Quick recap if you don't want to read the story: One night, Sergeant Dipprasad Pun was manning his guard post, all alone, when thirty-plus Taliban fighters tried to overwhelm it. Sgt. Pun gathered up his weapons, went to the roof, and proceeded to disperse said enemy fighters, killing three and wounding several more before the remainder wised up enough to realize they weren't going to win this fight. 

This follows last year's incident in which a retired Gurkha soldier stopped thirty-plus bandits from robbing a train...with his knife. 

Let's make sure we don't ever wind up on the wrong side of these guys...

Musical Time Trip

Spent the afternoon at the OU Medieval Fair, where I saw a number of pewter dragons holding glass marbles being sold as jewelry.

BUT I also heard these guys. And these guys.  And these guys, whose set drew folks of just about every nationality in attendance. Some folks didn't stick around for the whole thing, to be sure, which means I guess there are people whose souls are not stirred by the sound of the pipes. To them, I sincerely say:

Heaven'll be nae the fun for ye, nae the fun a-tall.