Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Annual Event

Today at our Annual Conference -- the yearly meeting of the state's United Methodists -- we heard some awesome reports about the great work being done by different agencies of our church. And we closed with the ordination service, which included one of my former students.

Somehow, I can't manage to be my grumpy self today. Better get some sleep so I can be back to normal tomorrow.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Oh, There It Is!

So scientists have been wondering for years where part of the universe is.

Quick version, the universe is expanding as part of the effects of its beginning in what's usually called the Big Bang. Gravity acts against that expansion, slowing it down. When scientists compared the rate of expansion with the amount of matter they could see in the universe, the figures didn't match. The expansion was a lot slower than it should have been given the amount of matter they could observe.

One explanation has been "dark matter," or a kind of matter that can't be detected by the kinds of telescopes we can build. Its existence is sort of inferred by some models of how the universe began and by some observations of the known universe. Another is that much of the matter is in immense, very hot streams of matter called filaments, earlier mentioned here. Again, although they were theorized to exist, actual observation of these filaments had been limited.

Enter 22-year-old Amelia Fraser-McKelvie, doing a six-week summer internship at the University of Monash in Australia. Under the guidance of a university astronomer, she was to use an X-ray telescope to search for the filaments. And so she found them. What scientists had spend decades searching for, she found before even finishing her undergrad work, and the results were published with Fraser-McKelvie getting top billing over her two mentors in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Both of the mentors are Ph.D.s

Unfortunately, the sober nature of science asserted itself and the paper was titled "An estimate of the electron density in filaments of galaxies at z~0.1," rather than the more definitive "How I Spent My Summer Vacation."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

From the Rental Vault (2009): Raging Phoenix

Why this movie is called Raging Phoenix is kind of hard to figure out. It could be that the character played by martial arts champion Yanin "Jeeja" Vismistananda is an aimless drifter who finds purpose for her life and is reborn, like a phoneix from the ashes. Or it could be that the English-language marketing company that distributed it thought Raging Phoenix was a cool-sounding name.

Either way, this Thai film stars Vismistananda as Deu, a young woman whose life lacks direction, purpose and pretty much everything else. Failed relationships, failed career in a band, being left behind as an afterthought by an international business mogul mom leave her feeling pretty much worthless about herself. She is exactly the kind of victim that a criminal gang, the Jaguars, seeks to abduct to be sold into slavery in underworld brothels. But their attempt to take Deu fails when she is rescued by Sanim, (Patrick Tang), a martial artist master of a kind of fighting called "meyraiyuth." This fictional martial art mixes inebriation with breakdancing moves to pound on and defeat opponents.

Sanim and his two friends, Dog [Feces] and Pig [Feces], eventually agree to train Deu in meyraiyuth to help them combat the kidnapping gangs. A previously unknown partner, Bull [Feces], subjects her to a final test, in which she learns that the source of strength for the meyraiyuth fighter is not alcohol, but emotional pain. The five decide to try to infiltrate the Jaguar lair and end their reign of criminal terror, as well as rescue Sanim's fiance, Pai.

The acting and English voicework are pretty standard fare and don't stand out as especially good or bad. The fight scenes are expertly choreographed and although they may go on a little long, they are almost worth watching in their own right. It helps that Vismistananda is cuter than that video of a mom cat hugging her dreaming kitten and a martial arts expert on her own. She's cast in the mold of the 1980s/1990s pint-size punching pixie Cynthia Rothrock, but is a better actress. Just don't anyone tell Rothrock I said that; I like my kneecaps where they are, thanks. 

Raging Phoenix tacks on a sci-fi-ish ending act that adds a ton of new information and storyline and almost sinks it. The spectacular fight choreography, though, pulls it through at the finish and leads to a surprisingly complex final scene. That, plus the exploration the concept of fighting strength that comes from emotional pain, sets Raging Phoenix a bit above the usual martial arts fare.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Bummer. Times Two or More

On a visit to a nearby Hastings books and music store, I saw an endcap display with what may be a sign that the publishing world is over-specializing.

About a dozen books were displayed under the heading "Teen Dystopia Sale." Checking out the titles, I learned this means exactly what it says -- these are books about "dystopias," or bad times, written for teens. A "utopia" is a paradise, a dystopia its opposite. The most well-known title on the endcap was Mockingjay, the concluding volume of Suzanne Collins "Hunger Games" trilogy. All three of those have been top sellers. In the trilogy, a semi-totalitarian government deceives people and drafts teens for a kind of "survival of the fittest" tournament pitting them against teens of other districts.

I didn't recognize the others, but they shared the same kind of worldview -- a totalitarian state, either along 1984 or Brave New World lines, that controls people's lives until challenged by a brave young person or group of them. If I remember anything at all about being a teenager, I can see exactly why these kinds of books are popular. If I thought about it, I probably realized that parents, teachers and bosses weren't really cruel and ruthless dictators, but I bet I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it whenever one of them didn't allow me to do something I wanted.

I imagine the books also speak to something that kids share with adults -- a deep desire to matter, to do something that makes a difference. In a world in which you are subject to so many unfair! rules that are not your own, it can be even easier to feel as though you don't matter than it is for adults.

As for the books, I'd bet they parallel a lot of genre fiction -- some top-level work, some that's good storytelling if kind of lightweight and a load of stuff that one day the Ents are going to want an accounting of when we total up how many trees it took.

I'm not sure about the contest Hastings was running, though. If you win, you get a 20-book pack of teen dystopia fiction -- and that seems like a whole lot of moping, even for a teenager.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Starts Making Sense

Sometimes people wonder out loud at the folks who spend millions of dollars to be elected to positions that pay in the hundreds or maybe even just tens of thousands of dollars. It ain't the paycheck, pal. It's the bonuses, like knowing what laws will be passed dealing with financial markets, commodities or other areas people invest in. When you know what the law will permit or remove, you can place some bets accordingly, which is pretty much what buying stocks amounts to.

As the story notes, the reputations of the different parties would suggest that the party I left, the Democrats, would underperform the party I'll never join, the Republicans. Reputations are sometimes unearned, as Ms. Richardson writes -- Dems outperformed the market more than four times better than the GOP did during the years the survey covered, 1985-2001.

A different study noted how well Senators do in the market compared with schlubs like you and me who don't get to write the laws but just have to live with them, which I noted here. Nice to see that bicameral cooperative spirit hasn't faded in our modern age.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pull Up Ol' Dollar and Sit a Spell

Today is John Wayne's birthday; if he were alive he would be four days younger than my grandmother. Who is, by the way, still kicking, especially if you make her mad and you're standing in front of her wheelchair...


This morning a buddy sent me a link to some pictures from the Chicago Cubs appearance in the 1918 World Series, the last time before this past week that the Cubs played at Boston's Fenway Park. The pictures are pretty interesting, given that many of them haven't been published before and may not have been seen since they were taken.

One thing we both remarked on was that the pictures were taken by a high school student allowed onto the field before and (sort of) during the games themselves. Obviously, the idea of a high school kid allowed to take pics on the field during any game, let alone the World Series, is out the window. Sports leagues today control their images as carefully as possible, and it's hard enough to keep some athletes from acting like jerks in front of the regular cameras (cough -- Andrew Bynum -- cough) without adding some random high schooler into the mix, taking pictures of who knows what when the PR flacks ain't lookin'.

My buddy said that stadium security would grab the kid's camera, probably taking the memory card (or film, if he was old school) and maybe even smashing it. Then they'd shuffle young Jimmy Olsen out of the stadium with some kind of long term ban attached to his name so he couldn't get back in, now or any other time. And worst of all, he might very well get loogied by a player.

Probably wouldn't even let him keep his Cracker Jacks.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


The post now before you is the one thousandth entry in the "Friar's Fires" blog, which began in January 2008 as a spin-off from my sermon postings. It exists mostly because although I now serve churches, I remain at heart someone who very much wishes he was Mike Royko and who, thanks to the wonders of the internet, can pretend to be exactly that.

Over the course of these three and a half years, by far my most visited post is this one from September 2008, not because anyone was clamoring for my particular viewpoint about a silly young Italian woman auctioning off her virginity but because I used the "now we're just haggling over the price" joke as my set-up. Apparently a lot of people want to know where that quote came from, and Google conveniently sends some of them my way when they look it up via Google search. Thanks, Larry and Sergey -- couldn't have done it without you.

My favorite post is a tougher question. I have a soft spot in my heart for this one, in which I adapt the theme song of the Lee Majors TV show The Fall Guy into Shakespearish language based on the proximity of their birthdays. I like most of them about the same, though, so I guess we'll leave it at that.

My traffic level is not high -- according to the statistics kept by Blogger, which go back to May 2009 I'm a touch above 8,000 total page views. My comment level is even lower. But I don't know if people who blog for others have as much fun as people who blog for themselves anyway. Is there an audience for random reviews of airport novels, assorted Netflix offerings, occasional science news focusing on astronomy, geek-speak blurbs on comic books, mockery of collegiate stupidity, baseball, the amazing shallowness of a good deal of modern pop culture and so on? Well, yes, but I'm pretty sure that the set of the audience for the above list is an identity with the set of the writer of said blog, meaning I may be the only one who's interested in the things I blog about.

Anyway, I was pretty sure that I would eventually reach a thousand posts -- I know some people take a hiatus from blogging or sometimes just give it up entirely. But since without my own unique personal point of view the internet would just be a vast sea of sanity, rationality and even-handed reasoned opinions, I'm going to keep plugging along.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sometimes, You're Not Helping...

Survived another bout of Okie tornadoes. May's our time to get 'em.

Also survived several hours of on-air weather personalities insisting that the smears of bright color on their screen were more informative than the smears of bright color on some other station's screen. Neck and neck as to whether weather or weathermen were more dangerous.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Death From Above!

That's what Australians face as the residents of Darwin in the Northern Territories deal with a menace the likes of which cause strong men's hearts to turn to water: drunken lorikeets.

Apparently, the birds eat some kind of fruit or food which contains alcohol and they handle their booze about as well as you might expect in a critter that barely outweighs two Butterfingers and has a correspondingly small brain. Folks who wish to draw comparisons between brightly-colored drunk birds with tiny brains and the average collegian on a spring break trip may do so.

It's a little dangerous for the birdies, though, as alcohol is far more toxic for them than for human beings and causes them significant medical problems much sooner than it does for people. And, lacking opposable thumbs, lorikeets are rarely able to dial 911 when their bro overdoes it and requires a stomach pump. Although noisy and annoying when they've consumed whatever it is that affects them -- again, cue spring break partier comparisons -- a grounded lorikeet is less dangerous in at least one area: Since the birds have a mostly liquid diet, their digested food is removed from their bodies in a mostly liquid form. And if they're airborne or perched up above...well, you know.

I'm pretty sure, though, that I will file the phrase "drunken lorikeet" away for future use to describe someone who's acting like a fool.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fleas of a Thousand Camels, Please

Watching Firefly on the Science Channel is fun, because you see the show the way it was originally meant to be aired, with commercial breaks and all.

But it reminds you that it's six years old and only lasted half a season and you have to think to find a good curse which to invoke on the network executives who wrecked and canceled it because you've called down so many that you're running out of new ones.

Wish I Knew What to Say

An open letter to people who accepted Harold Camping's prediction of a May 21, 2011 rapture:

Words fail me when I try to tell you how sorry I am for you and how badly you must feel. You woke up believing you'd end the day in Jesus' presence but that didn't happen; I can't even imagine what kind of disappointment that might be for you. I mourn that with you even if I don't accept Mr. Camping's teaching. I look forward to being with Jesus someday myself and I know how much I anticipate it, so I know to have that not happen when you expected it would must be very hard.

I don't know if you're feeling disillusioned or let down about your faith as a whole or just about Mr. Camping's teaching. I'm a Christian too, and I'm praying your faith weathers this crisis -- if there's a Christian someplace who hasn't made a mistake and believed a wrong teaching or authority, I'd like to meet him or her and say, "Bless your good fortune!" I've accepted ideas that turned out to be wrong and I've agreed with teachers that turned out to be wrong, but I'm grateful that God forgives those kinds of errors.

You or some people you know may have made some life decisions based on your belief that your earthly life would end and your heavenly life begin on May 21. I pray for help for the people who did so, that they might reacquire old jobs, rebuild savings and get their lives back on track.

You and I disagree about some matters regarding Christ's second coming, I imagine. I don't know whether that stopped you from praying for me and people who believe like I do -- for many of you, it sure sounds like it didn't, so thanks for those prayers -- but I'm going to make sure it doesn't stop me from praying for your faith in Christ to survive this test and be stronger.

Signed, a brother in Christ

Saturday, May 21, 2011

From the Rental Vault(2008): Legend of the Tsunami Warrior

Originally released in 2008 as Queens of Langkasuka, Legend of the Tsunami Warrior is a Pirates of the Caribbean/Star Wars/Aquaman meld that goes on a little too long and meanders around a little bit too much to be a great action picture. Even so, its big scope, big vision and big ideas make it more fun than a lot of the things that will decorate multiplex screens this summer, and it's both shorter and less expensive than Avatar. Plus, no James Cameron.

In the early 17th century, a Thai coastal city-state contracts with a Dutch armorer to build some overpowering cannons to defend itself from enemy kingdoms and pirates. But the pirates attack the transport fleet, killing the builder and sinking the cannons. Only the Dutchman's Chinese apprentice Lim Kium and baby Pari survive the attack.

The pirates are led by Black Raven and a scheming prince who is the enemy of Langkasuka, its brave Queen Hijau and her daughters, Biru and Ungu. They collect armies to pressure the city, and make several attempts to infiltrate the palace with assassins. One such attack is led by Black Raven himself, and is thwarted by the warrior Jarang who kills the Raven's wife.

Meanwhile, Pari's own small attempts to fight Black Raven's pirates have brought the pirate's wrath down on his village, costing everyone, including his new bride, their lives. Pari wants to learn the ways of Du Lum magic, a kind of oceanic symbiosis, so he can attack the pirates and take revenge. But the Du Lum master White Ray will not teach him, because Pari wants to use Du Lum for violence and be controlled by his hatred. Even without the Du Lum, he is a great fighter and joins Jarang in rescuing the two princesses from Black Raven's island lair -- only everyone believes Pari and Ungu killed when they are trapped on White Ray's island by the monsoon season.

It's all pretty entangled, and it gets more so when we start to see family relationships wound into the mix. Thai films tend to be pretty heavily censored, so the actors playing Pari and Ungu have a hard time selling the idea that they have fallen in love; they act more like a couple of high school freshmen in a Ferris wheel car. Some of the English-language voice actors who dub the movie don't do it any favors; Queen Hijau's entire part sounds read out of the phone book. But the last hour pulls out the action as Pari and Jarang battle the pirates, both in their lair and in a great battle between Langkasuka's fortress cannon and the recovered great cannon used by the pirate ships.

Plus, the characters are trying to deal with some big concepts like vengeance vs. forgiveness, the snowballing effects of violence, the responsibility of duty and so on. Whereas the creative geniuses in the world's premier movie industry are serving up the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie and Hangover 2. Gotta hope the Thai moviemakers are slow learners in this regard.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fish in the Barrel, Unscathed

Yes, a radio preacher has proclaimed that tomorrow, May 21, will see the Rapture, a time when faithful believers will in some fashion or another disappear from this world and go to Jesus. Like many Christians of a wide range of theological beliefs, including Left Behind coauthor Tim LaHaye, I am pretty sure he's wrong.

But no, I'm not going to make fun of him or the people he's convinced. If he's right, I'll have plenty of time -- either immediately in the event that I'm taken up as well or after seven years of Tribulation -- to apologize. If he's wrong? Well, I already think the church does much too good of a job of shooting its own wounded or kicking them when they're down, and that means I probably shouldn't join in if I want what I say to be taken seriously.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cash for Class

Presidents at our state's universities have said that tuition hikes are likely if state lawmakers approve the proposed 2011-2012 budget, which cuts their state funding by 5.8 percent.

David Boren and Burns Hargis, presidents of the state's two largest schools, said they will work to try to keep the percentage of increase in the single digits, but it will be difficult because more people want to enroll in college. Perhaps those two gentlemen might audit a math class or two, or maybe I should, because according to my rudimentary arithmetic more than four percentage points buffer the amount of cuts from the dreaded double-digit territory. One of us added wrong.

Last week, President Boren's school okayed a $2-million-plus per year contract for its men's basketball coach, an amount the university refused to disclose until the regents meeting that approved it. Boren himself earns north of a half a million, not counting benefits and his retirement income from his days as a U.S. Senator and governor of Oklahoma. Like students, he lives in university housing, but unlike them, he doesn't have to pay room and board.

Hargis, not having served his school as long as Boren has, doesn't match those compensation figures, nor do the coaches at his school match the figures (or longterm success) of the coaches at Boren's. My point, though, is that there are a number of areas where these schools spend lavishly, while they proclaim they walk a razor-thin line of poverty that means cuts in their state funds -- heck, even a failure to increase their state funds by as much as they ask for -- have to be passed on to students.

Salaries have to increase, budgets have to increase, so tuition has to increase. No other option presents itself, ever.

Maybe it's not only my math that's off.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Academically Adrift

Although Richard Arum and Josipa Ruska offer extensive statistical data and some eye-blindingly thorough explanations of their survey methods (Academically Adrift is almost half "Methodological Appendices"), their findings about what college students learn boil down to a pretty simple conclusion: Time spent studying improves learning.

Even though I myself am burdened with two college degrees from fine liberal arts institutions, this is what I would have guessed to be the case. In fact, I can offer anecdotal evidence of its truth, as I did a lot more studying for the second degree than I did the first and can cite my respective GPAs as evidence. I am, however, far too small of a sample to be statistically relevant.

I'm also relying on my grades, which Arum and Ruska don't do. Even if grade inflation didn't exist, it would be tough to say that an "A" earned at one college signified the same mastery of material that an "A" at another college did. And a grade is not the best measure for ferreting out whether students have done some things that almost every college says it wants to train students to do: Think critically and learn to communicate ideas clearly, especially in written form. They use a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment that's designed to measure the ability to critically evaluate information, formulate and express an argument. They compare students scores on this test, given when the students arrive at college and then again two years later. If the students are learning, their scores on the CLA will go up.

Which, a lot of the time, they apparently don't. Overall increases in CLA scores are not large, and one of the factors that seems to reduce student improvement even more is involvement in things other than classes, homework and studying. Students who don't take many classes that involve at least forty pages of reading per week and twenty pages of writing per semester don't show much of a CLA increase. Nor do students who spend a lot of time in other activities, like their social lives, outside jobs and fraternities or sororities.

The last part amuses me; it fits my undergraduate experience to a T regarding non-academic pursuits and outside jobs, but it contradicts most of what the student life staff at the college where I used to work claimed in their meetings with prospective and incoming students and their parents. They would always puff the non-classroom aspects of life on campus, and one especially recommended joining the Greek system to just about every incoming student we had.

Of course there's nothing about a social life or outside work that automatically drives down test scores or learning. But the old standby notion of time on task makes clear that time spent elsewhere isn't time spent studying, and sometimes 18-year-olds aren't the best at time management to make sure they're putting everything into their schoolwork that they can.

Arum and Ruska have taken some flack for basing so much of their research on student performance in one test, and they acknowledge its limitations. But their idea is borne out by a lot of common-sense parallels in other areas, and it ought to prompt some serious self-examination by colleges about what they're doing and how it relates to what they say they're doing, which is educating young people. That's not something a lot of people anticipate happening, though, because of the potential impact on admissions.

"Work your butt off and you might learn something," after all, doesn't look nearly as good on a recruitment brochure as pictures of smiling students seated on the grass outside, surrounding their slightly quirky yet obviously passionate instructor as he or she explores with them the meaning of life.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sold Out!

The plan today was to see the local minor league baseball team play a day game, which the way God intended for baseball to be watched -- there's a reason they call those big poles artificial lights, after all.

Alas, the plan was thwarted because the game was sold out. And by "sold out," I mean, "the team gave away huge bunches of tickets to schoolchildren and even though large chunks of those tickets and seats went unused when kids stayed in school and, like, learned things, they still couldn't sell them to anyone else."

Monday, May 16, 2011

Wowsie Wowsie Woo-Woo

Previously, the worst thing that had ever happened to the Flintstones franchise was its use of Rosie O'Donnell in the live-action edition of the title, but since most folks like to just assume those never happened, that particular abomination unto mine nostrils doth not exist. Yea verily (The only bright spot in the otherwise awful The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas prequel is Ms. O'Donnell's absence).

In the animated realm, the worst thing that had ever happened to the show was The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show, a vision of the wacky life of Fred and Wilma's daughter Pebbles and Barney and Betty's son Bamm-Bamm at Bedrock High. The post title comes from what their friend Bad-Luck Schleprock always said just before pointing out what a lousy day it was. In a bit of strange coincidence, Pebbles' voice was supplied by Sally Struthers, who had another job playing the daughter of a blue-collar loudmouth in live-action TV.

But the Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm travesty has now been surpassed, as 20th Century Fox TV and Warner Bros. Television will allow Seth McFarlane, annually a strong competitor for Least Funniest Man Or Voice On Television, to reboot the classic "modern Stone-Age family" according to his own blinkered, vulgar humor-free vision.

Bad-Luck Schleprock was right. This is a miserable day.


Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich add their names to the list of people who won't be our next president.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Hey Thor...

Your lordship of Thunder may be in jeopardy.

Two years ago, this team won 23 games. Yes, two years ago, this team won 23 games. And now, they face the mighty Dallas Mavericks for the Western Conference Championship. Yes, they face the Dallas Mavericks for the Western Conference Championship.

Some thoughts during the game...

1) OKC will see Memphis again. Especially if the Grizzlies manage to sign Marc Gasol. The Griz are young, talented, mostly classy and hungry for a title of their own. They've got a top-level coach in Lionel Hollins, and some of the mistakes they made in this series they won't make again. It's enough to make me like the NBA. A little.

2) Yeah, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant just can't figure out how to work together, can they?

3) If there was ever a moment I wish David Stern had dictatorial powers over his league, it's now, so he could make Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom spend a season shagging free throws & picking up towels for either Oklahoma City or Memphis. Maybe they could learn something.

4) Dallas ain't gonna be easy. Win or lose, the Thunder will come out of this series with a whole lot of black and blue, and not only in their uniforms.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

All Things Being Equal

Over the past two days, 2008 Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul both confirmed they will not be president in 2012.

From the Rental Vault (1969): The Good Guys and the Bad Guys

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a lot of Westerns dealing with the theme of the dying "Old West," the period romanticized -- and largely created -- by the Hollywood mythmaking machine. The stars of the great oaters had aged, and the cut-and-dried sensibilities represented by the heroes and villains of those movies didn't play as well with audiences or younger actors as they had a decade or so earlier.

Some, like Lee Marvin's Monte Walsh, dealt with this passage in a bittersweet way -- a lot of tragedy and pathos leavened with some wry humor. Others, like Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, showed men and some women who stubbornly refused to change, dying with the death of their time on the stage.

And still others used straight-out crowd-pleasing comedy, like the 1969 Robert Mitchum-George Kennedy outing The Good Guys and the Bad Guys. Mitchum is James Flagg, the aging marshall of a town called Progress that looks to live up to its name and which is run by the sly Mayor Randolph Wilkens (Martin Balsam). To Wilkens, Flagg represents the past in a day of automobiles, paved sidewalks, curbed streets and forward thinking. When he comes forward saying he's had word the notorious outlaw Big John McKay (Kennedy) has been spotted nearby, Wilkens wants nothing to do with Flagg's anachronistic notions of posses and riding out to round up the ne'er-do-wells.

Kennedy himself has been left behind by time a little -- his role in the robber gang is not what Flagg thought, and a senseless killing pushes the two to team up to thwart the heist planned by Waco (David Carradine).

Mitchum and Kennedy work well together, offering ample evidence that the quarrelers-turned-buddies trope didn't originate in the 1980s. Both are really too young for the "time passed them by" bit; Mitchum was 52 when the movie was made but was born looking that old so it's hard to tell. Kennedy was only 45. Director Burt Kennedy (no relation to George) keeps the action humming and the humor light -- as one might expect from the director of James Garner's sly Support Your Local Gunfighter and Support Your Local Sheriff.  David Carradine is appropriately grungy as the evil Waco, and Martin Balsam plays his stuffed-shirt, fast-talking mayor to the hilt -- Harvey Korman may have had him in mind when he was romping around as the evil Hedley Lamarr a few years later.

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys more or less goes through the motions, opening no new ground, taking on no new ideas and adding nothing to the Western that hadn't already been added by a couple dozen movies before it. But it's well-made, well-acted and a fun romp for anyone who's not interested in being a pretentious boob about forty-year-old movies.

Friday, May 13, 2011

From the Rental Vault (1968): Will Penny

Although Charlton Heston is probably best known as a kind of icon -- the definition of a movie star with some, but not overly much, acting talent -- in a number of smaller films he showed himself to be an actor with a lot of range and far more willing to challenge an audience than crowd pleasers like Ben-Hur, El Cid or The Ten Commandments might indicate.

Will Penny is one of those movies, and Heston was supposed to have said the 1968 Western was one of his favorite roles. He plays the title character, an aging cowboy whose search for work during the off-season of cattle drives lands him watching a herd overseen by Alex (Ben Johnson). Penny finds his cabin occupied by Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) and her son Horace, abandoned by their guide on their trip through the mountains. With it being winter, the pair have no chance of crossing the mountains alive and have squatted in the cabin against ranch foreman Johnson's direction.

Over the course of the winter, Penny and Charlotte grow close, and Horace awakens a fatherly side the cowhand didn't know he had. But a family of oddballs, led by the wildly loony Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasance), have also crossed paths with Penny before and figure he owes them for the family member he killed. They will force a showdown before things can settle.

Heston, himself in his mid-40s when the movie was made, captures Penny's ambivalence between the nomadic only life he's ever known how to live and his desire for family and roots brought to the front by Charlotte and Horace. And he leaves enough unsaid in his performance that at the end, the viewer doesn't really know whether Will Penny is a man of strength or a coward. It's definitely some of Heston's best work and quite a bit more worthy of an Oscar than was his role in Ben-Hur, as good as that was (And given that Cliff Robertson's Charly and Peter O'Toole's Henry II of The Lion in Winter were in the running, it would have been an unlikely win anyway).

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Replacement Roundup

Well, some issues Blogger had over the last day or so disappeared the real Thursday post, so you'll get some of this instead.

-- Thor was a pretty good movie; a lot better than I had feared. They wisely eschewed the Elizabethan dialogue Stan Lee created for his version of the Thunder God but left his speech just archaic enough for some fish-out-of-water segments. And Asgard looked phenomenal. Somewhere, Jack Kirby is smiling.

-- Look, I know that Will Ferrell created half a hand's worth of funny characters during seven years on Saturday Night Live, fewer than Denny Dillon but spread out over a much longer tenure. And I know that he's put out two decent movies (Anchorman and Stranger than Fiction) from a list that's easily thirty movies long. But that's still no reason for the media to play such a cruel joke on him as to say that he'd be given the Mark Twain Prize for America Humor. What? It's real? Joke's on me, I guess.

-- Rumored that Ashton Kutcher will replace Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men. Of all the things Charlie Sheen has done, his failure to kill that show is the one that simply can't be forgiven.

-- Sportswriter Jason Whitlock likes to say that he gives forth the opinions that other sportswriters don't think of or are too chicken to say. Sometimes that's true. And then sometimes, when he says things like the pairing of Dwayne Wade and LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, he's just dumb.

-- Is there anything the Scots can't do with booze?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


If you go to a movie theater and the power keeps blinking out, meaning that they have to try to start up their fancy digital projector from scratch with every blink (and the process isn't a short one), they'll offer you a pass to see a movie anytime if you get tired of waiting around.

If you ask, "What about the ten bucks I spent on snacks that I for darn sure wouldn't have paid that much for anyplace under the sun that wasn't a movie theater?" then they're not nearly as accommodating (for the record, I didn't expect anything like a full refund there and I'd have been happy with a gesture as small as a one-dollar gift certificate).

I really wish I could figure out why people wait for DVDs or video-on-demand to watch movies in their homes instead of at the theater. It seems like there's an answer there someplace, but I just can't seem to make it all fit together.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Family Business

Good luck getting computer time if you're visiting the Kellerman household. Between mom Faye, dad Jonathan and oldest son Jesse,  there is no room at the keyboard. Mystery is the latest from Jonathan, featuring his mainstay character, the psychologist Alex Delaware. Delaware's best friend, LAPD Lt. Milo Sturgis, often consults with him when trying to unravel a particularly thorny murder that may have some psychological motivations. In Mystery, the victim is a young woman that Delaware and his ladylove Robin Castagna actually saw alive when they had a last meal at a favorite old hotel and restaurant before it closed. The mystery referenced in the title begins with trying to find out who the young woman was, let alone who was responsible for her death. Milo and Alex find themselves involved in the world of very high-end online dating, as well as some of the stock characters of rich folk who live sordid lives behind the well-manicured lawns and mansion walls they show to the world. As the 26th Delaware novel, Mystery offers very few surprises. Milo and Alex banter and use their individual styles to gain information from the people they interview. There's an interesting sidelight as Alex consults with an old patient who wants to be able to prepare her young son for her impending death from cancer, but mostly this is Kellerman pere skillfully traveling a well-worn path.
Faye Kellerman's "Decker/Lazarus" novels might prompt some initial head-scratching in a new reader -- the Decker and Lazarus involved are husband and wife, but only the husband -- LAPD Lt. Peter Decker -- is an investigator. His wife, Rina Lazarus, doesn't actually get involved in the crime-solving business. But given the focus on family and its role in the lives of her characters, Peter and Rina are more of a team than a lot of other literary partners. In Hangman, Decker and his detectives are confronted with a young nurse hanged at a construction site. Other than a penchant for partying, the victim doesn't seem to have anything in her life that would bring about this kind of horrific death, which leaves Decker and his crew stumped. Decker himself is distracted. Many years ago, teenager Chris Whitman confessed to a crime he didn't commit to spare his girlfriend Terry McLaughlin the trauma of a trial; when the truth came out and Chris was freed, the pair married and they have a son, Gabe. But Chris is now a contract killer and Terry is worried about his instability. When they both disappear, Decker seems to have little choice but to bring Gabe into his own home while he tries to find out what happened. Although all the Kellermans are practicing Orthodox Jews, Faye is the only one who includes that dimension in the lives of her characters. Food customs, table fellowship, hospitality traditions and the like are all woven into the story at almost every point. Faye Kellerman's books may sometimes feel as much like a story about a family in which one of the members happens to be a homicide detective than they are about a homicide detective and his cases, but that's a large part of the appeal for her fans and it adds layers to her works that not all crime or police stories offer.
The Executor is Jesse Kellerman's fourth novel and follows the pattern he's developed so far of excellent odd-numbered works and even-numbered ones that are so-so at best. Unlike his parents, Kellerman fils doesn't write novels with recurring characters, although the central characters of his last three novels have a significant whiff of similarity that approaches interchangeability. Like Trouble's Jonah Stem and The Genius's Ethan Muller, Joseph Geist is an educated young man not exactly sure of his place in the world. Dedicated to what he calls "the life of the mind," Geist is at the end of his rope in many ways -- his girlfriend has broken up with him and kicked him out of their apartment, and his academic work is stalled by an advisor who thinks very little of him and by his own inertia. He answers a curious ad in the campus paper from an old woman seeking a "conversationalist," and finds himself enjoying the "work" of discussing great ideas with German expatriate Alma as much as he appreciates the regular pay. Alma, for her part, appreciates Joseph's company enough to invite him to move into a room in her huge mansion, helping solve his last problem of not having a place to stay. His situation seems ideal, but events soon turn it otherwise. The younger Kellerman has also worked more in the psychological thriller vein than his parents, who have trended towards the procedural aspect of crime writing. Executor's failure comes in its protagonist. Joseph is unsympathetic at best and annoying at worst when we meet him, and it's hard to care about whether or not he will make the right choices when confronted with the chance to do so, or what kind of consequences the wrong choices might mean for him. After the story of a basically good person confronting evil in Trouble and of a shallow person learning how to lift himself up in The Genius, The Executor offers an unlikeable person whose we have little reason to care about. Since it lacks Trouble's grotesque interest in grotesque details, The Executor is not nearly as bad, but it's definitely a disappointment following The Genius.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Hello, Goodbye...

Sixkill was the last Spenser novel Robert B. Parker finished before his death in January 2010. Starting next year, Spenser's cases will be written by Ace Atkins; whether he will work with outlines or fragments Parker left behind or write completely new works from the start isn't completely clear right now.

Jumbo Nelson, a crude and overweight celebrity, is on the hook for murdering a young woman who died in his hotel room. A lot of evidence (and most of the media) points at him, but Capt. Martin Quirk of the Boston Police Department has his doubts. And he also has Spenser, a private investigator who can continue poking around the Nelson case after Quirk's superiors have leaned on him to accept the face-value version of things and move on to others.

Jumbo may or may not be guilty of murder, but he needs no trial to be convicted of being a first-class jerk. Soon after meeting, Spenser has to deal with his bodyguard, former college football star Zebulon Sixkill, mostly in order to satisfy Jumbo's ego. Like most folks who face off with Spenser, Sixkill or "Z" loses, and Jumbo fires him. But Z wants to know how Spenser could beat him and so continues to hang around, and Spenser sees something worthwhile in the former bodyguard and so begins to teach him.

Parker weaves Z's biography of athletic superstardom and betrayal into the story of Spenser trying to find out what happened the night the young girl died in Jumbo's suite. We see how he became bullying bodyguard of an even bigger bully at the same time we see Spenser try to teach him to be more. We're probably meant to see some parallels between the story of the young woman who died and Z himself, but Parker seems not to have had the time to polish that connection.

Sixkill ranks with the last handful of Spensers that Parker produced before passing away. Though nothing like the works of his peak period of the mid-1970s through the late-1980s, it's head and shoulders (and knees and toes, really) above the series entries from about 1990 through 2010. There's not very much new here -- Spenser helped an aimless young man find direction in Early Autumn, and dealt with wacky Hollywood types with buried dark secrets in Stardust (as did Sunny Randall in Blue Screen). Jumbo's situation copies the Roscoe Arbuckle murder trial of 1921, although Arbuckle was reputed to be quite a bit more likable than Jumbo.

Astute Parkerphiles will note this is the second Spenser in a row lacking the laconic leg-breaker and Spenser companion Hawk. Was Parker fashioning "Z" Sixkill as Hawk's replacement? Was he going to star in his own series now that the Sunny Randall series seemed more or less over? There's no real way to know. It is kind of satisfying for Parker's last full Spenser to feature his mainstay character training someone younger, passing on knowledge that he had to a new generation. And it's satisfying for Parker's version of the character -- which some close-minded folks (like myself) will probably insist on calling the real Spenser once Atkins' Spensers start being published -- to bow out with a quality entry rather than one of the retreads that have dragged through the last 20 years.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Day!

If your mom's not with you or for some reason you'd rather not remember her specifically today, find someone's mom and say "Happy Mother's Day." Otherwise, don't forget to tell your mom.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

When Is an Asteroid Not an Asteroid?

When it's more like a pile of space rubble loosely held together by gravity.

Astronomers determined that the asteroid Kleopatra is not actually a solid body, but even so it still has two moons of its own. We tend to think of asteroids as solid bodies and most of the larger ones are, but it seems that Kleopatra is as much as 30% to 50% open space (Legislative Body/Jersey Shore Cast Member/Network Television Executive Member Braincase Metaphor Alert!)

Even though it's more of a pile of rocks than a single solid body, Kleo has a couple of moons of her own. Franck Marchis from the University of California, Berkeley, one of the astronomers observing Kleopatra, said the group studying Kleo proposed naming them after the twins the real Cleopatra had, Cleopatra Selene II and Alexander Helios. A group whose letterhead must take up about half the page, The Committee on Small Body Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union, accepted the proposal and so Kleopatra's moons are named Alexhelios and Cleoselene. Expect someone living in Berkeley to give a child one of these names within the next five years.

Whether or not asteroids are single bodies or dense collections of rubble might actually matter more than we might think. Marchis said if most asteroids in the early solar system were like Kleopatra, then planetary cores would probably have formed faster.

Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II were born in 40 BC to Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Alexander probably died from illness as a child, as there are no records of him having any role in any wars, scandals or anything else after his parents committed suicide and Octavian conquered Egypt on his way to becoming Caesar Augustus. Cleopatra II was married to King Juba II of Nemidia by the Emperor Augustus, and was sent with her husband to organize the outlying Roman province of Mauretania, in and around modern-day Algeria.

Cleopatra herself, of course, took her life rather than be captured by Octavian. And Kleopatra the asteroid seems to be proof that the words Shakespeare put in her mouth are not entirely accurate: here is indeed something quite remarkable beneath the visiting moon.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Someone Had a Good Idea

And that someone was an assignment editor at Time magazine, who sent reporter Tim Padgett to Florida to interview a group of high schoolers about Osama bin Laden, his death, and what was going on around them on Sept. 11, 2001.

These high schoolers, you see, were in the second grade on that Tuesday morning, and they were very excited because the President of the United States was visiting them during their reading time. During the reading, one of the president's helpers informed him of the first plane hitting one of the Word Trade Center towers in New York City.

Kudos to Time for wondering what the kids thought then and finding out what they think now. And an extra kudos to the young people themselves, for seeing something that bipedal sack of mendacity Michael Moore couldn't quite figure out: That the seven minutes President Bush took to finish his time with those youngsters couldn't have changed a thing that happened in New York and Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, but it made a big difference for those little kids.

And kudos to Mr. Padgett for asking the questions and writing the answers in a way that lets the students communicate their understandings, rather than his own.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Justified Finish

Last night wrapped up the second season of the F/X series Justified, featuring Timothy Olyphant as Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens. Here are some very spoilery thoughts on the season, so don't read if you don't already know how things wind up and want to watch it for yourself.

The Good: The evil Mags Bennett gets her comeuppance, and ends her life in an eerie echo of the way she poisoned Walt McReedy, Loretta's 's father. After all of the death she's orchestrated, she ends her life knowing two of her sons are dead because of it and Loretta, the young girl she hoped to raise, knows Mags killed her father. I'd also been worried earlier that we would see Loretta want to return to Harlan because the loving family that was sheltering her was too boring for her. Fortunately, she came back seeking revenge for her father rather than a return to the pot-selling business, and equally fortunately, she was talked out of taking it.

The Bad: I found Boyd Crowder wrestling with living an upright life a lot more interesting than a Boyd Crowder who returned to being a criminal, primarily because we've already seen him be a criminal in Season 1. I also thought the slide was too abrupt; after the botched mine robbery/murder Boyd simply says, "This is who I am?" He's been far too complex for a switch-on/switch-off change like that. It felt like a D&D character flipped from "chaotic good" to "chaotic evil" on a dice roll. And although I like what Winona brings to Raylan's character as well as their respective portrayals by Natalie Zea and Olyphant, I think her pregnancy leaves the pair in an awkward position. I'm afraid most of the possible resolutions are pretty "TV-ish," like a miscarriage or Winona leaving Raylan...again. Justified has mostly resisted those kinds of things and I hope that continues; the writers have been inventive in supposedly retread situations so far and easily could be again.

The Ugly: Dickie Bennett, duh. Websites and reviewers are talking Emmy for Margo Martindale's role as Mags and, er, justifiably so. But Jeremy Davies can't be far behind for his work as the utterly craven and loathsome middle son of Mags. Not as smart as big brother Doyle but not as tough as the late Coover, and lamed by Raylan during a particularly violent fight in a youth baseball game, Dickie managed to develop the only character trait he had -- ratty meanness -- to a fine art. His stringy hair, patchy beard, unwashed face and whiny sadism/cowardice make Dickie a roach you yearn to step on, completely erasing earlier roles as the earnest Lost physicist Dan Faraday or the idealistic Saving Private Ryan translator Corporal Timothy Lapham. Dickie, like most roaches, survived the Bennett extermination at the end of the show and so may return. But as the one who shot Boyd's love Ava, whatever life he has will be harried and possibly quite short, whether Ava survives or not.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Sometimes You Learn From Your Mistakes...

...sometimes you don't.

Grit in Your Grits

Dirty South is the fourth book by former Auburn football star and reporter Ace Atkins to feature Nick Travers, a former college football star who teaches and writes about the culture and history of blues music in the South while doing some amateur investigating on the side.

Atkins was a crime reporter for the Tampa Tribune when he published Crossroad Blues in 1998, the first Nick Travers story. The "dirty south" of the title is a name for a genre of hip-hop music that gained popularity starting around 2000, coming from clubs and DJs in the south and along the Gulf Coast. It's said to differ from the east coast and west coast schools of hip-hop by focusing more on the beats of the songs and maintaining an emphasis on partying and living large instead of politicial or social commentary even though it doesn't exclude them.

A young man with a bright future in this genre, the 15-year-old ALIAS, is being recorded by Nick Travers' old football teammate but is also being courted by a rival producer whose criminal connections are as real as his talent-spotting. Nick's friend Teddy calls him in because he knows of Nick's earlier success in amateur sleuthing and because ALIAS has been swindled out of nearly a million dollars that Teddy now owes to the rival producer. The problem: Teddy doesn't have the money and the rival has threatened his life if he doesn't come up with the cash. Nick needs to get the brooding young rapper to explain how he was conned so he can find the grifters and either get Teddy's money back or point the rival producer at someone else.

Although white, Nick has significant ties in New Orleans' black community, especially with some of its blues and jazz musicians of a generation before him. He finds himself operating a little at a loss when he talks to the rappers and their entourages, unfamiliar with their music and much of their lifestyle. By the same token, ALIAS is out of his own element when he stays with Nick's friends for safety. The culture clashes make for some interesting exploration and Atkins handles it well.

Dirty South is a fine crime novel and wears its noir perfume not inelegantly. Atkins is no Dashiell Hammett  -- whose 1921 investigation of the murder charges against movie star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle formed the plot for Atkins' own 2010 Devil's Garden. But he has significant skills and a knowledge and love of the places he's writing about, and deploys them well in service of his story. Although Dirty South is a bit thin on the action and somewhat more confusing than the earlier Travers books, it's a rewarding read for the crime-novel fan who may want to reflect a little bit after putting it down when it ends.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Movie...

I'm on a mailing list to a movie spoiler website and was recently sent a link to the spoiler for the upcoming movie Thor. I deleted it right away, because I want to see that movie and if I read about it, I will wonder why I should bother.

It's kind of interesting to me that I'll only look at the spoilers if I don't want to see a movie or if I've already seen it, to check if there's something I missed. Apparently a lot of the time these days, I want to know what happened in a movie but I don't want to sit through it. Which is weird, because there are a ton of movies I've seen a bunch of times but which I will sit through again anyway. And others that I look forward to watching when they air on TV, even though I might even own a DVD copy.

I'd say it has to do with the low quality of modern movies, but I don't think that's the case. I think there are great movies made today and I think there have been crappy movies made since the invention of film. But I do believe that the volume of crappy movies is enough that I've gotten picky about what I want to spend my money and time on. So as long as someone else who's already spent their money and time is willing to write out what they had to sit through, I'm golden.

Monday, May 2, 2011


Some folks watching kids football in Florida are betting on the games. OK, that is what it is, I guess. Folks will bet on anything, and apparently the people noticed by the ESPN report may be drug dealers and criminals rather than coaches and parents, even though there seems to be a sprinkling of the latter among the bettors.

But some of the dealers also apparently recruit kids to play on teams, offering a few thousand dollars to a mother or her son when the family is just scraping by and dad's not on the scene or in prison. They'll also pay kids money when they make big plays, but when they get too old for the youth league football, the money dries up and unless they've kept up their schoolwork, they don't play in high school. No high school play means no college play, and no college play means no NFL play, and that means jobs washing cars or spending time in jail because of the criminal activity introduced by the bettors.

The real kicker is the clueless dude who runs the league, who said he wasn't aware of how bad the problem was until shown footage from the ESPN investigation. Maybe he's right, which means he should resign because as the guy who runs the show he darn well should have known. Especially since the betting, drug and alcohol use goes on right on the sidelines of the games his league puts on, which means he must not have been to a game in awhile. And that would be another reason for him to step down.

(H/T National Review Online: Right Field)

Sunday, May 1, 2011


According to astronomers, the first stars after the Big Bang behaved kind of funny.

They were short-lived for stars, with lifetimes measured in the hundreds of millions of years instead of billions. This generally indicates very large stars, with the smallest being ten times the mass of our sun. Such a star would swallow the inner planets, including us, if it were to replace our own sun. Very large stars burn through their hydrogen and helium fuel much faster than smaller stars do, for which we can be thankful because the longer endurance gives life time to show up.

But when astronomers studied the leftovers of these gigantic early stars -- think pathologists only using telescopes and other instruments, studying things billions of light years away that have been dead longer than the Earth's been around -- they found that the remnants of these massive stars also showed signs that only match the smaller stars like our sun. And again, as mentioned before, the smaller stars last longer and that didn't fit the window of time necessary for these stars to have blown up and scattered their elements throughout the universe. We know they did this because those other atoms currently exist, look through telescopes and write blog posts.

Aha, scientists said! What if these gigantic stars also spun at a very fast rate? Computer simulations, conducted by several scientists including the wonderfully-named Urs Frischknecht, say that could solve the problem and this possibility warrants more study. These "spinstars" could have affected the way galaxies form and a good deal of the appearance of our modern universe.

Should the remains are studying emit an audio signal something like this, it will be considered pretty convincing evidence that they are in fact spinners -- er, spinstars.