Sunday, July 31, 2011

Important Safety Tip

Which is, don't hang out near the lions' watering hole this coming August 14th.

According to this research, you are more likely to be eaten by a lion before the moon is out the day after a full moon. The next full moon is August 13. So from sunset until moonrise on August 14th, you and I are prime cuts at Simba's deli counter.

The reason is the combination of leonine hunger and darkness, both of which are greater after sunset before the not-quite-full-anymore moon rises. As the moon waxes, the nights have more brightly lit hours in which even clumsy poor-scent-organ having human beings will notice a quarter ton of feline death hanging out with that certain gleam in its eye. Thus, lions have more trouble catching prey, especially since most of their prey are critters that run fast, jump high or can do both. Trouble catching prey means hungry lions.

After the full moon, the hours before moonrise are not at all well-lit, meaning Leo and Leona can get within paw-whapping, jaw-snapping distance of a whole lot of things that might otherwise spot them coming.

Of course, the danger is relatively light in any case. Researchers studied nearly 500 lion attacks in Tanzania that happened in the 21 years between 1988 and 2009. That works out to just over 250 full moons, meaning there were slightly less than two attacks per full moon in a country of about 40 million people. That puts your risk of being attacked by a lion during a full moon at about .00000005 percent, which falls even more if you do not happen to be in Tanzania.

Unless, of course, that's what the lions want us to think.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Never Trust a TV Channel Over 30...

Up unaccountably early this morning after a week of church camp, I surfed some televised soporifics in hopes of returning to slumber. I didn't succeed, but I ran across an interesting sequence of broadcasts on the VH-1 Classics channel.

Monday marks the 30th birthday of the former Music Television, or MTV, and some of its partner channels are airing programs from over the original's lifetime. I surfed in during some footage from Live Aid, the 1985 two-continent benefit concert to raise funds to send food to African famine regions. Airing at the time I watched was part of the set by Queen, whose frontman Freddy Mercury managed to get nearly every one of the 72,000 people at London's Wembley Stadium to sing choruses with him. The late Mr. Mercury, a showman who really has yet to be equaled in pop music, strutted, stalked, vamped and air-guitared his way across the stage costumed in nothing more elaborate than a T-shirt and jeans. Among the songs played in the part I heard was "Radio Ga Ga." An aside to Ms. Germanotta -- the "Ga Ga" of the title is not a complimentary reference.

As "Radio Ga Ga" ended, original VJ's Nina Blackwood and Alan Hunter threw us to a commercial break, and the break from the Live Aid broadcast coincided with a real one. When we returned from break, we skipped ahead several years in MTV history to watch Ashton Kutcher snicker like a vapidly mean middle-schooler through an episode of his lame Candid Camera ripoff Punk'd. At least, I'm assuming that's what he did; I hit the channel button after about 15 seconds so I don't know how the rest of the segment went.

A music and pop culture writer for the St. Petersburg Times muses about the history of the channel, but since he's a real reporter instead of a guy running his mouth, he interviewed some original MTV people, including the perpetually cute Martha Quinn. Quinn points out that one of the real differences with the MTV of the days when it aired music videos and today is not just the difference in programming, although Jersey Shore and its ilk are a large part of why the channel is awful (I may have added that last part myself). Today's videos would be driven by what's popular in young ears -- meaning significant portions of the day might look like Glee re-runs. Quinn says that in her early time with the network, some of the rebellious attitude may have been manufactured, but a lot of it was real because the channel was something entirely new and no one could guarantee success. Today, with MTV a brand name, there is no edge to ride on and no risk is being taken.

I might disagree with how much of the rebel attitude was manufactured vs. how much was real, because popular music has carefully crafted its image since there have been images to craft. But she's right in that there is virtually no risk involved in MTV programming anymore. It breaks no new ground and rebels against nothing, going along with the flow and airing what it does only because people watch what it airs.

More's the pity.

Friday, July 29, 2011

From the Rental Vault: The Train

Although he was certainly one of the biggest box-office draws of his era, Burt Lancaster had an affinity for some melancholy spins on his action, war or Western crowd-pleasers. Working with John Frankenheimer, director of The Manchurian Candidate, he helped create one such movie in the 1964 black-and-white war picture The Train.

Near the end of Germany's occupation of Paris, German Colonel Franz von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) has hundreds of priceless works of art crated up to be taken to Germany. The musuem curator contacts the French resistance to see if he can be stopped. The cell, led by Paul Labiche (Lancaster), decides not to try to save the train, saying it will be too great a risk for their diminished numbers. Labiche is the switching director of a Paris trainyard, and has created a plan to stall a German artillery train so it can be bombed by the Allies. Other cell members and some engineers have decided they will try to stall von Waldheim's train long enough for the Allies to retake Paris and save the art. Against his will and better judgment, Labiche joins their efforts, which are equal part sabotage, Mission-Impossible-style caper and straight-up espionage. As the human cost of stalling the train mounts, Labiche must decide if the price is worth it, while von Waldheim comes closer and closer to completely losing it in his desire to get the train into Germany.

Frankenheimer's direction elevates the trains themselves to star status in the movie -- their ponderous weight and immense strength at the mercy of the minimal contact between wheel and rail parallels how the movie's two antagonists barely manage to contain the energy behind their efforts. He includes a number of deep-focus, long tracking shots that add layers of realism to the action. Things are never still; a railyard is full of workers and soldiers moving about their business behind the leads as they talk, offices scurry with activity as German soldiers burn documents they can't transport or leave behind.

Lancaster is, as usual, a massive presence in almost every scene where he plays against other actors because of his stature. Only when he's alone and outdoors does he seem normal-sized or at all vulnerable to injury. Scofield's intensity starts out icy as he finesses his way past a general's appropriation of all trains for military purposes, then begins to burn with mania as his plans keep being thwarted. Both men seem as unable to change their course as a train is to leave its tracks, even though the human beings have a free will the machines do not.

The black-and-white photography -- The Train may have been the last major action picture not filmed in color -- adds to the bleakness of the story and the setting. There are plenty of taut action sequences among the brilliant performances, but The Train isn't what modern audiences would call a thriller -- it shows victories as well as defeats have costs. It's still well worth its two-hours-plus running time and the thinking it might bring about.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Murder Squared

Television producer/bestseller writer Stephen J. Cannell set up his mainstay series character, Shane Scully, to travel in a slightly different direction in this, his 10th novel featuring the LAPD detective. But Cannell died about the same time The Prostitute's Ball was released, meaning that Scully's new direction forms an end to his adventures rather than a bridge.

Scully is assigned a new partner, flashy detective Sumner Hitchens. Nobody in his unit likes Hitchens, who made a mint selling the story of one of his cases to a major studio. "Hitch" seems more into deal-making and showbiz than police work, and Scully is not happy. He's even less happy when his media-hungry new partner and he catch a case involving the murder of a major Hollywood producer and two high-priced escorts at a wild party featuring several other escorts and even more Hollywood elite. Scully thinks "Hitch" doesn't have his mind on the job, but they catch an astounding early break and manage to make serious headway on the case very quickly. The problem is that their evidence also draws out information about a 25-year-old cold case that will only complicate things.

Cannell's novels, like much of his television output, are pure froth. Well-sketched but not terribly innovative characters, witty but not very deep dialogue and interesting but not very challenging twists make for a quick but not memorable read. You could probably read the Scully novels about every six months or so and enjoy them just as much because they're unlikely to stick with you much longer than that. Cannell has developed Scully as a character over the course of the series; he began as a loner but now is deeply connected to his wife, son and many of his co-workers. It's a good example of a writer figuring that airport novels gain just as much from time spent on their characters and plots as do Serious Literary Works and being willing to invest that time on them. Just because it's the literary equivalent of a hamburger, to paraphrase Stephen King, doesn't mean it can't be made a darn fine hamburger by a cook who takes some pride in his or her work.

It would have been nice to have seen what new ideas Cannell had planned on trying with Scully and his cast, but The Prostitute's Ball serves as a good place to wish them all farewell and happy literary trails.

Hey! You Sank My Faith You Have Any Ideas Left at All

Seen on several sites so far these last couple of days -- a trailer for a movie version of the old "Battleship" game.

I give up.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

From the Rental Vault: Ashes of Time Redux

Although I'd probably not be the kind of guy to catch a lot of international movies in the theater, DVD is a pretty good way to open out my horizons to things I might not otherwise see.

One of my main reasons for skipping foreign films when they're onscreen is that I too often find myself missing things going on while I'm reading the subtitles. There's often a lot of great things happening on the screen besides the faces of the people who are talking. And even in the closeups, I might miss a facial expression or gesture while my eyes are busy following the dialogue at the bottom of the screen. But when I watch a DVD, I can pause or back up if I find myself wondering if something happened that I missed. Or I can watch it all again right then and there -- the 2002 movie Hero with Jet Li has some uses of color and light that just beg for repeat viewing, for example.

Had I seen Ashes of Time Redux -- famous Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai's 2008 re-edit of his 1994 movie Ashes of Time -- in a theater, I probably would have been ambivalent at best and more likely downright negative. Its elliptical storyline and stylized fight scenes leave a viewer saying, "Waitaminute. What just happened?" waaaaay too often for enjoyment in a theater that wouldn't oblige me by backing up and running it again.

Nearly every online entry I read about this movie explains the story differently, so here goes nothing as I try to sketch the plot. In ancient China, a semi-retired swordsman named Ouyang Feng acts as an agent for still-active sword-fighters. Ouyang is bitter, cynical and contemptuous of the people who hire his fighters' services and is no sweet source of light to his friends, either. The bounty hunters who work for him, from the Blind Swordsman to Hong Qi to his own friend Huang Yaoshi, all leave him as they find something they wish to love more than fighting and money, but Ouyang remains. The movie is set up so that the tale of how each swordsman finds meaning in his life is its own short story, although some elements of each narrative leak into the others.

Wong said Ashes of Time was based on the 1957 novel Legend of the Condor Heroes, even though nothing in his movie bears any resemblance to that book's story of two men on opposite sides of the conflict between the Song and Jin Dynasties. The Hong Kong movie industry prides itself on orderly, economical shoots, but Wong took two years and nearly 40 million dollars to finish Ashes of Time, and even managed to shoehorn another move, a parody of the Condor novel called Legend of the Eagle-Shooting Heroes, into the production schedule using the cast members of Ashes of Time.

Action-movie fans or people who follow what the Hong Kong studios call wuxia films, or stories of swordsmen and soldiers in ancient China, will probably not find a lot to like in Ashes of Time or its later re-edited cut. There's way too much talking, the battle scenes are stylized to the point they look like a series of blurred still images and the movie loops around itself too many times to follow easily. But Ouyang's stubborn resistance to seeing people, even hardened killers like himself, make connections with others and his continued rejection of that possibility is a pretty fascinating character study. If you do pick it up, keep that DVD remote handy so you can back up and catch a scene or two again and figure out just what happened. Or to press stop if it finally exhausts your patience.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Fifth for the Fourth

For his fourth Mickey Haller novel, Michael Connelly brings us The Fifth Witness. We first met Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer, so-called because he had no permanent office and worked from the back seat of his Lincoln. Matthew McConaughey played Haller in a movie version of that book earlier this year, a fact that helps Connelly write a nice little joke at one point of Fifth Witness.

The Haller books are much lighter in tone than Connelly's Harry Bosch stories, as Haller seems much less damaged by life than his police investigator half-brother. Fifth Witness is no exception, even though the matter in the middle is as serious as any other -- a mortgage banker has been murdered. The accused, Lisa Trammel, was already Mickey's client because the bank the man worked at was foreclosing her house and he had been taking on foreclosure work in light of the drying up of criminal practice. Lisa maintains her innocence, which earlier on in the series would have been a must for Mickey, as he refused to represent someone unless he believed the person was innocent. These days, he's not so idealistic.

But innocent or not, she's a significant pain as a client, believing her statement of innocence is the same as innocence and continually getting in the way of Mickey's efforts to represent her in the trial and in possible media exploitation of the case. He also has to deal with a tough prosecutor with her eyes on the prize of the district attorney's office sometime in her future and get a lot closer to some shadowy connections to organized crime than may be good for him.

As always, Connelly's writing flows smoothly over the pages, carrying the reader along in the current of the story pretty much effortlessly. His explanations of how he puts on his case and why he does what he does in the courtroom ring true and their wry nature offers interesting flavor to the story.

Some expository dialogue about the mortgage foreclosure crisis makes for a few eddies in the current but they don't slow things down too much and are never so long you lose the story when you skip them. Mickey takes on some definition as a character as he tries to find a way to deal with the not-as-over-as-he-thought-it-was relationship with Maggie McPherson, his first ex-wife and mother of his daughter.

Fifth Witness doesn't carry as much immediacy as the earlier Mickey Haller books, almost as if Connelly is using it to set something else up in a later volume. But it is still well-ahead of a huge percentage of its companions on the bookshelves and can be enjoyed for the beach read it is.

Monday, July 25, 2011

From the Rental Vault: Lawman

One of the things that makes modern societies possible is the rule of law. Ideally, it holds everyone equal. Those who have money are the same in its eyes as are those who have none; those who are well-known gain no more traction against it than do those known to no one but their own friends and family. A flawed humanity means such a system remains ideal instead of fully realized, but it's the goal at which a society has to aim in order to guarantee equality of all and the protection of their rights.

But the law is just a code -- it requires people to enforce it as well as accept it. When that code is held higher than the people it is supposed to protect, it can become an idol that in the hands of its worshipers eliminates the very protection it was meant to provide. Jered Maddox (Burt Lancaster), the town marshal of Bannock, may very well be such a man when he rides into the town of Sabbath to seek the cattlemen whose drunken spree in his town left an old man dead in 1971's Lawman. But those men work for Vincent Bronson (Lee J. Cobb), a local cattle baron who owns most of the town, including the Sabbath town marshal, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan).

In the hands of director Michael Winner -- who would later direct Charles Bronson's Death Wish and a 1978 remake of The Big Sleep -- Bronson takes a different tack than the oligarch in standard Westerns. He says he will make restitution for the damage and the death, offering more than anyone would get if the men stood trial -- Maddox acknowledges that the Bannock judge's verdicts can be bought easily. But Maddox demands the letter of the law be followed, and violence begins to spiral out of control.

Winner, an English director, was gifted with an amazing cast in his first American movie. In addition to Lancaster, Cobb and Ryan, we find Robert Duvall fresh off his emerging roles in True Grit and M*A*S*H* and just before he would earn an Oscar nomination for The Godfather. Dr. No himself, Joseph Wiseman, plays one of the townspeople who has his own past with Maddox.

Although Lawman offers a lot to think about concerning the need a society has for humanity, mercy and justice to find ways to co-exist with the law, it offers a number of tantalizing asides in the form of some of those other characters that can frustrate because they're offering too much to be dismissed as background but not enough to justify the time spent with them. Winner's movies were frequently lauded for their style but faulted for their lack of discipline in just that sort of way. Lawman succeeds because its top-level cast forces real characters from Gerry Wilson's scattered script and Winner's rabbit-chasing direction, but in different hands it could have done a lot more than just succeed.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Makes Sense

Church camp looms -- where at least I'll know why people act like adolescents...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fighting Stance?

Nearly a hundred people dead at the hands of an evil man in Norway. A young woman barely a quarter of a century old dead, probably because she tried to fill the hole in her soul with poison instead of something alive.

Time to hit the knees.

A Father and Son Affair

While thriller and mystery writers age and their output slows or diminishes in quality, their longtime fans want the stories to keep coming and the new fans want new works to come out while they mine the earlier catalog. Some hire ghost writers or take on collaborators who do much of the heavy lifting of the actual story-telling while the famous names edit, polish and add their own voice in order to satisfy their fanbase.

Sometimes, the more famous writer picks out a collaborator from less-established authors or those looking for a break. And sometimes, they find the collaborator right under their own roof, as Dick Francis did with his son Felix, Clive Cussler did with his son Dirk and W.E.B. Griffin did with his son, William E. Butterworth IV. Of course, being the son of a famous writer is no guarantor of writing ability or talent. The Francis duo seem to be handling the meld smoothly, but Dirk Cussler has taken a little time to get up to speed with his father Clive -- not a huge liability since Clive himself is a great yarn-spinner but no master of prose style.

And then there are the Butterworths. Griffin, who was born William E. Butterworth III, has had a long career with several series of action/adventure novels set in World War II, in modern counter-terrorism and, with the Badge of Honor series, modern-day big city policing. Griffin's own style reads almost like a parody of tough-guy red-blooded adventure novels -- he is one of the few post-pulp-era writers I have ever seen who uses the phrase "bountiful breasts" as straight description without any irony whatsoever. But his son's influence has smoothed the stories considerably and reduced the guffaw factor by several times. Vigilantes is a good example.

Detective Matt Payne, one of the mainstay characters of the Badge of Honor series, finds himself trying to solve the mystery of a series of "pop-and-drop" murders in Philadelphia. Someone is tracking down men who accused of sexual crimes against women or children who either fled after posting bail or who escaped conviction on a technicality, and killing them. Although Philly police aren't all that broken up by these deaths, the worry that a rise of vigilantism could do a lot of harm and endanger innocents as well as the guilty. A millionaire who offers a reward for the capture of some of these felons -- dead or alive -- isn't helping matters.

In Griffin (the elder Butterworth)'s hands, one could see this story filled with a speech or two about taking the streets back from criminals and some similar ham-handed narrative killers. But Butterworth IV weaves the preaching into the story, basing much of his exposition on real-life reporting or stories about actual areas of Philadelphia and events that happen there. I'll pick up a Griffin solo book if I can't find anything else on the shelves, but the Griffin-Butterworth collaborations are actually fun reads. I hope that Butterworth IV can maintain this kind of output when his father passes on or finally retires and that it's not just a luxury he has while collaborating.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Say Goodnight, Gracie

Sometime in the next few weeks, there will be no more open Borders -- the retail chain was unable to get a bidder to bring it out of bankruptcy and so will close everything down and liquidate all its merchandise. This means the end of the Waldenbooks chain as well.

The company president released a statement -- e-mailed to those of us enrolled in the Borders Rewards program -- in which he listed the many great things the stores had done and lamented the "headwinds" the chain had faced. The first part has a nice self-pitying air, pretty much telling us just how much we're going to miss Borders when it's gone in a passive-aggressive style that would do any teenage breakup tell-off note proud. The "headwinds" list doesn't include "and a string of boneheaded decisions by management," such as late adoption of e-readers and steadily shrinking inventory that made trips to the store less and less productive.

This means our area's remaining Borders store, in Norman, will be closing up soon. I visited the other day and bought something, just for the chance to remember what it was like when the store was new. I'm not going to mess around with trying to buy some fixtures -- we've seen just how many clues the people running that operation lack and fool me twice, etc., etc. I also thought I'd wish some of the employees good luck. They're not the ones who were around when the store opened, of course, but they've been helpful and pleasant most of the times I went in. I was able to do that, and I'll wish a general good luck to them all, though I've no idea if Borders' employees number among my pairs of readers.

For the record, those wishes will be a little less heartfelt for one of the clerks working today, who informed several of the customers she was helping how much she was looking forward to getting out of Oklahoma now that nothing was keeping her. When she was getting paid by money spent by us loutish Okies, I guess the place wasn't so bad. I do wish you well, ma'am, but I would add that, given your desire to emigrate, you are not only welcome to leave, your leaving will be welcome.

New Name

Jen X, who has blogged under the title "Are You There, God? It's Me, Generation X," has changed her blog title to "Memoirs of a Dutiful Xer." Its position on the alphabetical list at the right has changed accordingly.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Death, Hollywood Style

Literally nothing in long-form television drama today would be what it is without writer and producer Steven Bochco. Ensemble casts, story arcs -- the list of things he brought to the small screen through Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue is a long one.

In 2003, Bochco joined writer and producer Stephen J. Cannell in the club of "Hit TV Show Producers Who Write Best-Sellers." It's small; I think they may be the only two members. Unlike Cannell, who wrote quite a few books, Bochco has so far had just one, the semi-satirical mystery Death by Hollywood. Eddie Jelko is an cynical Hollywood agent -- which is saying the same thing twice -- who has a client, a writer named Bobby Newman. At the end of a really bad day in which his wife leaves him and Eddie (temporarily) fires him, Bobby happens to look through his telescope and see a crime being committed. Rather than call the police, he sneaks over to the house to see what he can learn, and slowly develops the idea of a screenplay from what he's seen. Detective Dennis Farentino investigates the crime, and several paths cross each other while he does.

Bochco's insider Hollywood knowledge gives Jelko's cynical spin a lot of realism; he's very definitely writing what he knows. Eddie plays a minor role in the story overall, but since he's telling it like someone might spin a yarn over drinks, his voice comes through the dialogue, action and descriptions.  That voice wanders off sometimes into side-stories and anecdotes, and a few of those stretch the reader's patience but never cross the line into complete distraction. Bochco, who had a tussle on his hands when he first showed NYPD Blue because of its adult language and frequently racy situations, doesn't shy away from those at all in the book.

For whatever reason, Death by Hollywood remains Bochco's only book. The story plays out in such a way that a sequel wouldn't work, but surely other stories remain in his head and if this one's any indication they'd be fun reads as well.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Forty-two years ago today we became the first and so far only country that could put a human being on another world.

Tomorrow we become a country that has to be grateful that its astronauts' spacesuit gloves have thumbs, 'cause sticking one out when the Russians fly by is the only way those astronauts make it into space.

Friar's gonna be a little grumpier than usual for the next couple of days.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dark Tower Downsizing

Universal Studios has wisely decided not to try to create a movie/TV version of Stephen King's epic The Dark Tower series of books.

King's story of Roland, the last Gunslinger, and his quest first to locate and then to save the Dark Tower that lies at the hub of all reality, took him thirty-plus years and seven books totalling more than a million words to finish. Last summer I ruminated about the series at the long-post blog -- check out the entries in May and June of 2010 if you're interested or unable to sleep.

Although it's rooted in a monumental mythic story and has some fantastic concepts and characters at its core, The Dark Tower is, especially in its later books, a sprawling mess whose authorial conceits, lack of storytelling discipline and gaping plot holes cripple it beyond most folks' willingness to stick it out to the end. Universal's latest plan to bring the story to screen -- which would have involved three movies and at least one television series -- offered far too many exit points for the casual fan and the folks who count up how much money gets spent vs. how much money comes in decided the risk was too great.

Some multi-volume series -- Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and maybe Narnia (although the jury remains out) -- have the ability to maintain audience interest across several years and several movies. Even though the core of that audience knows, through its love of the source material, nearly everything that's going to happen, they'll line up to see it onscreen and the story itself appeals to a wider base. Plus, the movies are pretty good or at least un-awful enough that they don't turn people away from the next installment. Some -- Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, for example -- lack the fan loyalty, widespread appeal or quality of movie needed to keep that interest. Some are inexplicably popular, even though both the movies and the books they draw from stink. Twilight, I'm talkin' to you.

Universal has decided The Dark Tower is probably in the second group. And although they're a lot more knowledgeable about the movie biz than me and so probably don't care what I think, I'd have to agree ;-)


Regarding the updated presentation of Superman scheduled in DC's upcoming reboot, Grant Morrison tries to explain why the Man of Steel won't be wearing his iconic costume:
"Does he wear a skintight ballet suit? No, not today, and I don't think anyone falls for it," Morrison says. "And if the skintight ballet suit has to come into it, I want to have a really good explanation.
"We've been given a lot of leeway to change Superman and answer some of those questions that grown-ups ask nowadays: Why does he look that way, and why does he wear those pants?"
Yes, because the most unrealistic thing about a man who flies, bends steel in his bare hands, is faster than a speeding bullet and who came to earth as a baby in a rocketship from the planet Krypton is his clothing.

As mentioned a couple of days ago, comic book superhero creators are going to try everything in the world to jazz up interest in their product except, it seems, telling their readers stories of the heroes they want to read about. The major downside is that when stores and distributors and such close down because of the stunted vision of people like Morrison and DC co-publisher Jim Lee displayed in the story, it's the clerks and workers who'll be out of their jobs. People like Morrison and Lee will be able to find someone else just as dumb as the folks at DC who hired them, so they can keep underwriting that stunted vision and they can bury a few more icons.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Alimentary Airways!

It seems that one way a breed of tiny snails spreads to new environments is to be eaten by birds in one area and then, um, deposited by those same birds in another area after the process of digestion is over.

A certain breed of Japanese bird on the island of Hahajima feeds on the tiny land snails scientifically known as Tornatellides boeningi, which is Latin for "sucks to be you." About 15 percent of the snails the birds eat survive the digestion process and emerge healthy -- if not exactly happy -- into whatever environment the birds happen to be overflying when nature calls on line 2. No word on how many of that 15 percent survive the impact with car windshields, freshly cleaned suits or bald-headed men. The snails then begin their new lives in their new environment, grateful for their microscopically tiny brains that are not capable of holding on to memories of how they got there.

One scientist quoted in the story said that the discovery of this form of migration came about because researchers saw snails from different areas interbreeding and that the distances involved seemed much greater than one would expect a snail only 2.5 millimeters across to travel. For comparison, 2.5 millimeters is smaller than a Tic Tac. There is no truth to the suggestion that the eaten-by-birds theory was initially rejected until it was learned snails have no regard for personal hygiene in their breeding partners (see Spring Break, College Students On). This scientist said that researchers would continue to examine T. boeningi to learn if the snail had other ways of being transported long distances. It would seem unlikely that they do, as almost every other method would be preferable to the one outlined in the report.

I bet you expected me to make a joke at some point comparing the experience of T. boeningi to flying today's airliines, but that would really be too easy. Also kind of inaccurate, as generally more than 15 percent of modern airline passengers survive the experience while, as mentioned above, only about 15 percent of the snails survive the birds' digestive tracts.

A better comparison would be the way the airlines treat your luggage.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

You're Doing It Wrong

Someone should tell Herman Cain that an easier -- and less embarrassing -- way to be sure you're not elected president of the United States is just to not run in the first place.

Not the Worst Loss

Japan beats the U.S. Women's team in the World Cup Finals on penalty kicks -- the Americans missed their first three kicks and couldn't hold the Japanese team off enough to keep it even.

Although the U.S. team more or less gave Japan their first score to tie it at 1-1 with some clumsy play in front of the goal, it's hard to feel too bad about the loss since this is one of the few good things to happen for Japan this year. These women will go home as heroes to a country that has some need of them, following the earthquake and tsunami of this past March, and you really have to feel kind of good about that.

Plus, this is Japan's first championship in FIFA Women's World Cup, and it's always nice to see someone new take home the trophy. So, women's soccer, see you next year in London and in 2015 up in the Great White North, eh?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

What The?

I've babbled a little about a few of Lee Child's Reacher series here before, here, here, here and here. Although Child has been writing the series since the late 90s, a movie featuring Reacher hasn't hit the development stages until just recently. One Shot, one of the books I haven't written about, will be directed by Christopher McQuarrie and is supposed to start filming this fall. Reacher will be played by Tom Cruise.

Now, I don't think I ever mentioned this, but one of the things about Reacher that Child made an essential part of his character was his size -- he's six-foot five. Tom Cruise is not; I found a variety of listings online but five-foot-seven seemed to be the most common and I can't imagine that he's taller than me at five-nine. In other words, a brownish-haired dude who's a touch over five and a half feet is supposed to play a blond bruiser who's a touch under six and a half.

When Cruise was first rumored to be in the running to play Reacher, I traded e-mails with a friend who'd introduced me to the series and offered this potential scene: 

Reacher held up his hand. "Just a minute," he said. He walked over to the office couch where a flunky was sitting, waiting to be useful. It would have been a long wait anyway, so Reacher lashed out with a locked-finger death strike, crushing the flunky's larynx and collapsing the artery that led to his brain.

The flunky lurched to his feet, not knowing that he had less than two minutes before his speeded-up pulse would exhaust the blood supply in his brain and cause a fatal stroke. He was too busy worrying about the air he couldn't get through his collapsed windpipe and staggered against the wall.

Reacher dragged the couch -- megalomaniacal bullies were always into big leather sofas like this Lorimar with its solid wood frame and steel springs, each of which could be made into lethal weapons or lock picks as needed, instead of nice easy sectionals -- towards the desk. He missed ottomans.

Reacher stood on the couch and stared at this puffed-up little dictator who thought having a little money made him a big man.

"What did you say?" he asked.

Although One Shot is one of the better Reacher books, I'm not optimistic about this movie, and in fact think it may turn out to be a pretty accurate description of how many Reacher films made by this pair get to the screen: Just one.

Honor Among Thieves

Donald Westlake wrote quite a bit, and among the many top-quality works he offered were a series of novels about the professional thief Parker. He published these under the pseudonym "Richard Stark," in a group from 1962 to 1974, and then picking them up again in 1997 until his death in 2008. Flashfire is a part of the later group, published in 2000.

Flashfire opens with Parker and three other thieves -- Melander, Carlson and Ross -- finishing a successful heist. Parker, having provided the distraction to let the other three rob a bank, meets up with them to split the take and return home. But when he finds that the trio actually planned to use the money from this job to finance one much larger -- and riskier -- he decides to take his money and bow out. But they need his money to finance their second job, so guns are drawn, crosses are doubled and Parker is left with a fraction of his share and a promise he'll get paid back. What the other three will learn is that Parker's going to handle the paybacks and he'll make sure they get exactly what they've got coming to them.

Westlake made Parker hardboiled enough to crack a black hole, and tells his story in straightforward, unadorned style that resembles Evan Hunter's "87th Precinct" work as Ed McBain -- if Hunter's work qualified as "police procedurals," Westlake's might be thought of as "crime procedurals." Flashfire does offer some interesting extras in the person of Leslie Mackenzie, a realtor Parker uses who has a sharper eye than most people and bigger dreams about her future that she thinks he might be able to bring about. Parker's also trying to figure out who sent a hit team after him and how he can get that particular wrinkle ironed out without dying. Even with some different layers, Flashfire is a perfect example of how a great writer can ratchet up tension, describe intricate details, paint vividly realized characters and tell a fantastic story with the same words you'd find in a Tom Swift book -- certain adult Anglo-Saxon expressions aside, of course.

Parker presents a conundrum for a reader -- he's our main point of view character and our protagonist. We tend to root for those people when we read novels, but this particular protagonist is also a vicious criminal. Throughout the series, we see Parker presented as a man who won't kill unless he has to, but of course he's the one who defines whether or not he has to, and many of those decisions don't involve self-defense. The people in his shadowy world have made their own bed, of course, and there are those like Leslie who choose to risk entering it and so can be held responsible for rolling their own dice. But some just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and their lives end in order to ensure Parker can escape or that no information about him can get out. That's practical, pragmatic and just common sense in Parker's world, but it's not admirable.

I've no problem calling myself a Westlake fan -- or even a Stark fan, given that Westlake's other books come with a different enough voice that most folks could probably tell the difference even with a cover and all distinguishing names removed. But I can't say I'm much of a Parker fan, and I'm certainly glad to encounter him only in the black and white of the printed page where he works.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Paved Paradises and Parking Lots

One of my favorite comic shops, Norman's Atomik Pop!, is not paradise, nor is it about to be replaced by a parking lot -- it's one store in a small shopping strip and its neighbors would be surprised to find themselves under the asphalt. But it is about to close, and it is about to be replaced with nothing, which is one of the ideas behind the refrain in the Joni Mitchell song "Big Yellow Taxi" to which the post title refers.

Atomik Pop! has been in that Norman location for a long time, operating under two or three different names, as I remember. It was here when I moved to central Oklahoma in the late 80s and has been one of the places I've gone to buy books ever since: When I moved to Dallas for school I'd stop by on the drive up through Norman, when I lived in SW Oklahoma I could take the Highway 9 spur in and pay them a visit.

A couple of people have been working there for as long as I can remember, and of course there have been others who've come and gone. It sells comic books, naturally, but it's had gaming stuff, Pokemon cards, T-shirts and whatnot, and in recent years even included some of the costuming kind of stuff that some people like to dress up in for conventions. For several years, one of the clerks was a very cute young lady who may have been the only female peer with whom some of the less socially adept customers -- remember, this is a comic book store -- could actually speak, as they shared so many of the same interests.

There are a lot of reasons Atomik Pop! is closing -- like every brick-and-mortar store, they face competition from online retailers with immense inventories and lower prices. Just as e-books are eating into the sales of real books, so are web-only comics growing in popularity. Fewer people read comic books, and even fewer kids are getting into the groove of doing so.

Some of that problem is, of course, self-inflicted by the comic book industry. I've made fun of the dumb upcoming reboot planned by DC Comics, or of ridiculous-even-for-comics storylines like Grant Morrison's Batman R.I.P. and Batman International runs. Crappy high profile superhero movies like Green Lantern, Spider-Man 3 and The Fantastic Four haven't helped at all. During the eras of some of their most widespread success, comic books wove together elements appealing to kids and to adults who were OK with suspending enough disbelief to accept men and women who fought crime wearing capes and longjohns. Call it telling kids stories with adult sensibilities or telling adults stories in a way that reached kids too -- the characters, the art and the tales they made kept longtime readers hooked and enthralled new ones every day.

But not today, not often enough. Superhero books seem to rely on big stunt stories and such, like the upcoming DC reboot. Lightning struck once with Crisis on Infinite Earths, so it can strike again with another big crossover-type series -- we don't need a good story, we don't need to present the heroes our readers look to us to provide; all we need is to stick the word "crisis" in there somewhere and we're gold! We'll just darken it up a little so it'll be more adult -- who cares if that means parents won't let their kids buy it or it makes for a story that hinges on details the little tykes won't understand? We're not writing for kids anymore!

And so the buying pool shrinks.

There are writers who do get it and do understand that one of the crucial jobs of the heroic comic is to grab the imagination rather than the amygdala, to soar instead of muck, to offer champions instead of charnel. They acknowledge the world they write and draw isn't the real world but instead the world we might all wish for, but even when they do they offer the idea that the choices you and I make could bring into being more of that world than we see right now. But they are few, and the publishing houses' belief that more books equals more bucks means they get crowded out.

And so the buying pool shrinks.

Go independent and you can find some great work, but you can also find page after page of four-color carcinomas with which no self-respecting alimentary canal would wish to be cleaned nor any self-respecting ordure accept as a companion at the flush. Their creators, far from being urged to get the professional help their metastasized misanthropy suggests they need, are regarded as subversive, transgressive and courageously revolutionary for producing books that repel the casual buyer at the same time they appeal to their own undiscriminating group of fans.

And so the buying pool shrinks.

The clerk I spoke with the other day, who's been there a long time, said he figures eventually only really big metro areas will boast physical comic book stores as the dwindling group of buyers goes more and more online. That's the way the free market operates, and it's still the best measuring tool for determining what works and what doesn't in the arena of buying and selling. If the comic book industry published things people wanted to buy and read, it would not be in so much trouble and neither would its stores. When the day comes that it's decayed itself out of existence entirely, some of the folks making its decisions may then finally see the consequences of the decisions they made.

But remaking Paradise from a parking lot won't be an easy job. Might require powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, in fact. Might be a job for...Superman. Hope someone will be able to find him.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Oh, Behave!

You ink-stained wretches get your minds right, and stop that thing where you say statements in some kind of interrogative manner that implies someone has to respond, or we won't let you in where we keep the nice things.

That sound you heard was Sam Donaldson coming out of retirement with a promise to kick somebody's ass.

To-may-to, To-mah-to

In the little "Where did you come from" box along the right side of the page, I get updates that tell me where different visitors to this blog arrived from. Most of them, anyway, as the little widget has a feature that allows people to opt out of having their visit recorded. My Blogger account page will show me those, but we can't see that on the main page.

Anyway, a recent visitor came from the town of Bolivar, Missouri. That interests me, because my mother was born near Bolivar and lived the first few years of her life on a farm there. Technically, the municipality closest to the home was Halfway, today boasting about 175 citizens and named, so Mom said, because it was halfway between the larger towns of Bolivar and Buffalo. But when they "went to town," they went to Bolivar. Which they pronounced to rhyme with "Oliver."

Most of Bolivar's original settlers came from an area near the town of Bolivar, Tennessee, and so they named their new town after their old town and after the South American revolutionary who was the old town's namesake, Venezuelan-born Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco. He was usually known just as Simón Bolivar, pronounced according to Spanish custom as "See-MON Bo-LEEV-ahr." But in Missouri, where a statue honoring him was given to the town in the 1950s, he is plain old "Simon Bolivar," pronounced "SY-mon BALL-eh-ver."

Bolivar -- and since you are probably not reading this out loud, you can pronounce his name however you like in your head -- acquired a fanbase in the United States early in the 19th century because he fought to free the nations of South America from Spanish rule. England's former colonies had no problems rooting for a local boy who wanted to kick a far-off snooty landlord to the curb, and so Bolivar was sometimes even called "the George Washington of South America."

His efforts resulted in freedom from Spanish rule for several countries in South America, first as one large nation called Gran Colombia, of which Bolivar or El Libertador was president from 1819 until just before his death in 1830. That country dissolved into the present nations of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama soon after Bolivar passed. It claimed coastal areas of what is now Costa Rica, Guyana, Peru and Brazil, but never exercised any real authority in them. 

Gran Colombia did not contain the present-day country of Bolivia, which was named after Bolivar in honor of his efforts to help it free itself from Spanish rule. However the official name of Venezuela, one of the successor nations to Gran Colombia, is República Bolivariana de Venezuela, or the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. And that country's thuggish loony-toon president Hugo Chavez dug up Bolivar's body last year in order to test it for evidence that El Libertador was murdered by Colombian generals.

Bolivar himself, given the challenges of ruling a large, well-dispersed population in a time and geography that made distant communication next to impossible, became increasingly authoritarian in his rule and proclaimed himself a dictator in 1828 -- maybe that's why Hugo likes him so much. His vision of a republic that valued and protected individual rights against the powers exercised by the state or by the wealthy mostly collapsed, he resigned in April of 1830 and was dead of tuberculosis by December. No small number of lesser leaders have found the challenges of bringing democratic republican government to different Latin American nations more than they could handle, so it's hard for history to judge him too harshly.

And in any event, his nickname of El Libertador gave the school sports teams of his namesake town one of the more unusual -- and definitely cooler -- names as well. Bolivar High School athletes take the field to bring glory to their alma mater as the Liberators. Nobody's named a mascot after Hugo Chavez yet -- although the University of California at Santa Cruz would seem to have had him in mind, their logo was chosen in 1986, while Chavez was still a mostly unknown Venezuelan Army captain plotting to overthrow his government.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

One Win Away

When Abby Wambach uses her head, good things happen. Against Brazil, her last-minute header salvaged a tied score that led to the shootout the U.S. Women's Soccer team win.

Against France, Wambach headed a corner kick for a goal that broke a 1-1 tie and energized her teammates en route to a 3-1 win over France that sent the American women into their first World Cup final since the 1999 championship team. They face Japan, who beat Sweden in the second match of the day.

If this U.S. women's team wins a championship of its own, I'm thinking Wambach could earn some significant coin in shampoo endorsements: "This head wins world titles -- I wouldn't trust it with just any shampoo," or something like that.

Here's hoping she gets the chance!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

You Made What?

The online edition of Life magazine has a slide show with some wacky stuff people have patented. Don't know if any of them ever got built, but if they did, the builder better have had his permission slip in order.

Staff Sgt. Leroy A. Petry

Pause and reflect. Another giant walks the earth.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Believe What You Want to Believe

"Jesus being God isn’t farfetched to me...The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that’s farfetched."

Yes, sometimes he is a windbag who poses a little bit too much. And maybe he and his bandmates "turned their backs" on their irony-laden work of the 90s in order to "settle for" All That You Can't Leave Behind, How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and No Line on the Horizon.

But then he'll say something like the above, found reprinted here, and I can't help but think how many folks just got the reality of the gospel stood up in front of them bigger than life and twice as bold because he did. Heck, it even reminded me of a couple of things, and I talk about the gospel for a living. ;-)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Set the Date

If you're scheduled to play the U.S. Women's team in World Cup Soccer action on July 10, you might as well not even show up. On July 10, 1999, Brandi Chastain's ice-cold penalty kick drilled the side of the net to give the Americans a 5-4 edge in the shootout and the FIFA World Cup title over China.

In 2011, Abby Wambach's header in the 122nd minute tied the match against Brazil 2-2. Then all five U.S. penalty kickers scored, giving them a 5-3 mark and the quarterfinal win. Wambach joined the team four years after the win over China, and scored a gold medal-winning header in the 2004 Summer Olympics in extra time. That goal was also against Brazil.

According to an online translation site, the applicable phrase in Portuguese is "Nós nunca tivemos uma possibilidade," or "We never had a chance."

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Say What?

VH-1 shows music-themed movies every so often, and today one of the offerings was what folks in Chicago sometimes call "Da Flick," or The Blues Brothers.

Released in 1980, the movie tells the story of orphans Jake and Elwood Blues, two black-suited musicians who try to reunite their band after Jake is released from a prison stint. Their goal is to stage a concert and raise enough money to pay the property tax assessment on the orphanage where they grew up, saving the homes and jobs of the "only family we got," Sr. Mary "The Penguin" Stigmata and Curtis the janitor.

VH-1 shows the censored version, which is hilarious because of the poor quality of the dubbing. John Belushi, Jake, was probably dubbed by his brother Jim since he had passed away in 1982. The brothers do not sound alike; Jim's voice is notably deeper on the frequent occasions where he is called upon to save VH-1 viewers from Jake Blues' free-range vocabulary. The scene in which the brothers run a group of Illinois Nazis off a bridge is truncated to leave out Henry Gibson's racially-inflammatory remarks and the first line of the group's pledge to German dictator Adolf Hitler. Cab Calloway's Curtis scoffs at the brothers' hope he could survive the sale of the orphanage by saying "Shoot! What's one more old person to the Board of Education," only of course he did not say "shoot" or "person."

The dubbing is also funny because VH-1 is the network that has already infected the world with The Surreal Life, Flavor of Love, Rock of Love, I Love New York, Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, Sex Rehab with Doctor Drew, Charm School, Scott Baio Is 45...and Single, Scott Baio is 46...and Pregnant and so on. I'm pretty sure that after all of that swill they've vomited into American homes, balking at the four-letter Anglo-Saxon word for fecal matter is a textbook example of straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel.

Friday, July 8, 2011

You Can Get There From Here, But Where's "There?"

Geography class never included places like these, seven "micronations" that exist mostly within the minds of the people who live in them and made them up.

Reading the story, it seems like some of these micronations were founded by people with senses of humor. The folks in Molossia, for example, pay U.S. taxes (because that's where they legally live, "Republic of Molossia" or not). But they call it "foreign aid." Molossia also claims 49,881 square miles of Venus, but is curiously tight-lipped about whether or not they pay taxes to the relevant Venusian authorities.

I had not realized that people made up new nations on a more or less permanent basis, but I was used to certain areas of my house being designated as sovereign territory by those who occupied it at the time. Such as my sister's room, so identified by a sign that that said, "Keep Out! This means Brett!" Or either restroom, claimed as a private domain by my father with the ceremonial ritual known as "Tucking the Folded Newspaper, Magazine or Book Under His Arm and Entering Said Restroom After Dinner." I shall leave to your imagination which method proved more effective at deterring illegal immigration into said sovereign territory.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Good Job, Mr. President

And again, in a non-snarking way. I'm not liking most of his work in the job, but since I'd rather not drive myself to insanity about it, I like when I run across his actions I think are good. It gives peace to my spirit, among other things. It helps me remember that in back of policies and actions I think are at best misguided and at worst farcically mistaken is a real live person, and the Founder had a couple of things to say about how real live persons should be treated by His followers.

President Obama decided this week he will send letters of condolence to families of military personnel who commit suicide in combat areas. Previously, these letters were sent only to the families of personnel killed in combat, but the president reversed this policy with his decision. I think it's a good one; among the roles of the president is Commander-in-Chief and as such he has a responsibility for all military personnel. Recognizing that the families of soldiers who take their own lives grieve just as much as those whose lives are taken by the enemy and that those families too deserve a recognition of their loss from the Commander-in-Chief seems to me a no-brainer, and kudos to President Obama for making it so.

I'd Have Been Cheaper

According to this blog entry at, among the many projects of the 2009 economic stimulus was a healthy expenditure to bring broadband internet to areas that didn't have it. The blog reports on a paper written by economists Jeffrey Eisenach and Kevin Caves, which is abstracted here.

One of the things that stood out is that the Rural Utilities Service, the federal agency that was overseeing the broadband extensions, brought broadband internet access into some areas that hadn't has broadband internet access since...wait, some of the people already had it? Really? Oops, our bad. Well, there were still a significant portion of people in those areas who lacked any kind of broadband...what, 3G was already there? OK, that may bump the total a little, but still there has to have been a significant number of households without

Really? The RUS project in southwestern Montana, one of the three that Eisenach and Caves studied, addressed the complete lack of broadband access to seven homes? At a cost of about seven million dollars apiece? I would have happily taken an alternative to our local communications co-op for about ten grand, or less than one one-thousandth of that cost, but nobody from the RUS was knockin' on my door.

Too bad -- I'd have been happy to help.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Davenport Unearthed

John Sandford, the pen name of former newspaperman John Camp, has been writing the "Prey" series featuring detective Lucas Davenport for more than 20 years now. In terms of cases Davenport has to solve, there's not a lot of new things for Sandford to put to paper. In terms of Davenport himself, there remains unexplored territory, and the best parts of Buried Prey, the 21st Davenport novel, cover those explorations.

An urban renewal project uncovers the bodies of two children who went missing more than 25 years earlier, and opens up unpleasant memories for Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Affairs investigator Lucas Davenport. He worked part of the case when he was a uniformed patrolman with the Minneapolis Police Department, and has never felt good about the way it was resolved. Yes, a suspect was found with evidence linking him to the crime, but Davenport believed some leads were let go and has always wondered if the suspect was really the guilty man. He also dislikes how he backed down to unofficial departmental pressure to let the case go. Minneapolis PD's cold case unit starts to work on the case, but so do Davenport and his old partner, Del Capslock. Both men feel this may be their last best chance to catch the killer.

Sandford includes a long flashback of Davenport working the case when it originally happened, and it's easily the most interesting section of the book. We see Davenport much earlier, much less sure of himself and much more eager to prove himself than he's been through the "Prey" series. The dogged determination and intuitional leaps he makes are already there, of course, but they have yet to be refined. When the case returns to the present, we proceed mostly along a path Sandford has used before as Davenport and other investigators piece together clues and track the killer. Only his wife Weather and adopted daughter Letty's interactions with Davenport and his friends as they all try to make sure the vengeful detective doesn't go too far offer much of a different flavor from the last five or six "Prey" books.

Sandford hasn't fallen into a complete rut -- even though Buried Prey shares storyline elements with earlier books in the series, it doesn't feel like a cut-and-paste job from them. But it may be time to give some serious thought to your character's next steps when the best part of his latest story is the flashback. Buried Prey is certainly a decent read, but it could have benefited from a little more digging around.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

From the Rental Vault: The Road Warrior

So what do you do when you're going to release a sequel in the U.S. to a movie that pretty much nobody in the U.S. saw?

You retitle it, of course, so what was Mad Max 2 in its native Australia and most everywhere else became The Road Warrior here in the States. And thus a thousand grade-Z post-apocalyptic movies were spawned from George Miller's vision of a blasted, blighted wasteland damaged by war, disappearing resources and further degraded by vicious survivors. While many of them managed to get some of the look right, none of them measured up to the high-octane thrill ride of Road Warrior.

Mel Gibson, complete with his natural Australian accent, returns as Max Rocketanksy, a former police officer whose life crumbled into ruins along with the remnants of the civilization he was trying to protect. Now a wanderer in the wastelands of the Australian interior, he finds his fate intertwined with a group of people who've managed to keep an oil refinery working long enough to pump out the gasoline they need to reach more habitable areas. Standing against them are a masked man who calls himself the Lord Humungus and a group of leather-wearing, mohawked bikers who want the gasoline for themselves.

When Road Warrior came out, several reviewers noted that it was modeled on some classic Western themes -- the besieged townfolks, the mysterious stranger who may or may not save them, the wide-open and beautifully desolate country and more than a few others. Gibson has a handful of lines and there are long stretches of the movie where the story is told without dialogue and with only visuals, music and ambient noise.

Many of the special effects look dated more than 30 years after the movie's release, especially the fast-forwarded sequences meant to show fast action. But nothing beats the final chase scene and only Raiders of the Lost Ark rivals it. So set aside the dated effects and the endless series of derivative knockoffs that meant food on the table for a lot of mediocre pretty actresses and mediocre square-jawed anti-heroes but nothing much for anyone else. Such as the people dogged by insomnia and the limited film library of the USA network's old Up All Night series, for example. Return to a time when Mel Gibson was an Aussie actor people liked, the visuals of a decayed world following some catastrophe weren't hackneyed retreads and an action movie director might decide his work should be a little artistic as well as energetic. Take a ride on a white-line nightmare with The Road Warrior.

Monday, July 4, 2011

It's Heads, It's Tails, Just Call Me Confused

Lucifer's Tears is the second novel by James Thompson featuring Finland police inspector Kari Vaara. Following the harrowing events of the debut story, 2010's Snow Angels, Vaara and his pregnant American wife Kate have moved to Helsinki, Finland's capital and largest city. There, Vaara takes a job on the Finnish equivalent of an American police unit's homicide squad. He and his new partner investigate a brutal murder and find out there is much more to it than meets the eye, while Vaara also discovers his partner may be a little too tightly wrapped. But between his daughter's imminent arrival, the mysterious migraines that almost debilitate him and another case that may have international implications, dumped on him by his superiors, Vaara has little time to baby-sit the new partner.

Although born in the U.S., Thompson has spent the last 10 years living in Finland and has a good handle on the cultural aspects of Finnish life. Those kinds of details help draw interest in the initial pages of Lucifer's Tears, but too much of the story turns on a bewildering array of Finnish wars and conflicts between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Word War II, and conspiracy theories about who really did what during them. Thompson develops Vaara quite well and does a decent job with Kate, but many of the rest of the characters are straight out of central casting: swaggering Russian businessman, the weak bureaucrat police commissioner, and so on. He tries to create some family tension -- Kate's brother John drinks too much, and her sister is an Evil Religious Right-Winger, but both are such caricatures that they add nothing real to the story.

Thompson wraps things up with chain of coincidences that is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever seen -- and I've read three Dan Brown novels. A lot of murder mysteries and crime novels rest on things coinciding a little bit better than they do in real life, but Lucifer's Tears concludes with so many of them it gives the impression Thompson looked at his watch, said "Wow, look at the time!" and typed, "And then the butler did it. The end!" No, that's not a spoiler. There's no butler in the book. The decision to write the whole novel in the present tense adds to the smack of artificiality and contrived vibe Lucifer's Tears offers. After sampling the series with it, I'm content to trust Inspector Vaara to keep Finland safe without any more monitoring from me.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Gentlemen's Final

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic both demonstrated the qualities of a gentleman in their post-match remarks after today's Wimbledon championship. Djokovic, the winner, was nothing but classy in referring to Nadal, and Nadal for his part didn't say anything that would make Djokovic's victory somehow cheaper.

Great match, too.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

All of the Above

I hadn't seen this before; I like doing crossword puzzles, but the local paper's aren't really worth the time and since the Dallas Morning News no longer ships up here I can't catch the good New York Times one.

The GIF is an animation showing how retired Butler University math professor Jeremiah Farrell designed the Times crossword for Nov. 5, 1996. The center clue was "Lead story in tomorrow's paper, with 43-across." Well, Nov. 6 was election day. So the lead story was going to be which candidate, Democrat Bill Clinton or Republican Bob Dole, won the presidency.

Sure enough, some folks filled out the clues and found the answer at 39-across to be "Clinton elected!" Wow! Was the New York Times so good they could predict the outcome of presidential elections? Probably not, although they could read opinion polls and conclude that the former senator from Kansas was not likely to win. But that's not what was going on in the puzzle.

Was it an example of the paper's supposed liberal bias now infecting even the innocent crossword puzzle? Not really, because some people had filled out some of the same clues with some different words and got the result "Bob Dole elected." Farrell had designed the puzzle so that seven of the "down" clues had two answers that each differed by only one letter apiece. Depending on which set of answers you chose, you either predicted the 1996 election or you were told to go sit in a tank with Michael Dukakis.

Farrell has designed quite a few puzzles for NYT puzzle editor Will Shortz. Despite his specialty -- and degrees -- in math, chemistry and physics, Farrell edits Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics and apparently finds his affinity for numbers no barrier to being clever with words. Word Ways doesn't have much online content, but the little bits available at the link look like a lot of fun.

Not enough fun to make me take a math course for a grade, mind you, but fun nonetheless.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Eat Some What, Monkey-Boy?

So if you've ever ticked off a crow, it will remember your face for at least five years.

What's more, according to the research reported on in the Discovery article, it will somehow tell other crows about you so that they will also remember you were mean to their feathered friend and dislike you accordingly. Teenage boys everywhere would recognize this kind of behavior as that exhibited by their ex-girlfriend's friends, who have tried and executed sentence upon him based on her testimony. Upon encountering you again, they might caw at you in a scolding manner -- the crows, that is. Teenage girls will simply pretend you don't exist.

Or the crows might call together a mob of their buddies, tellingly referred to as a "murder" of crows, and they will all caw at you together and perhaps dive-bomb you until you walk off. Unless you live in Bodega Bay, California, in which case it's been nice knowing you.

Something about this that's really interesting to me is that we know the average crow brain is not very large -- and I'm in no danger writing this, since crows can memorize faces but they can't read. We also might imagine that to a crow, human beings probably resemble each other as much as crows resemble each other to human beings. But in some way and for some reason, a significant portion of the crow brain is dedicated to photographic recall of the faces of specific members of an entirely different species who have acted in a hostile manner. Talk about meaning it when you get mad.

On the other hand, this data could also be used to prove you don't have to have much of a brain to hold a grudge. That's kind of depressing to a fellow who, on his mother's side, has roots in a Scot clan whose clan motto translates "Never forget."