Friday, September 30, 2011

Fire Insurance?

Wherein the word "fire" in the post title is actually the verb used to let someone know their services are no longer required.

The company that insured our Oklahoma Methodist churches dropped us awhile back, because we were making more claims than they were taking in premiums -- hail and ice storms will do that to you. It was tough to find someone who would insure our group, and they did with the caveat of a $25,000 deductible on hail and wind damage. We've had to replace both the parsonage and church sanctuary roofs since I've been here, and the total cost of both of those wouldn't hit $25,000, but I imagine some larger facilities might still find the coverage useful (and no, there isn't a separate package that leaves out hail and wind damage so you can pay a smaller premium. You some kind of radical, bub?).

At 1:02 PM, according to my e-mail inbox, I received a notice saying that the new quotes would come out and we had to decide by the end of business today if we wanted to stay with that plan or try to get one on our own. At 1:30, I received the actual quote. So in that three and a half hours, I carefully researched available coverages, rates and companies. I contacted all of our church trustees and had them meet to vote on calling an emergency meeting so they could vote to keep the conference package or choose one of the others.

Nah, I'm kidding. Because both of those e-mails came to my inbox while I was somewhere on I-35 in eastern Kansas, returning from the Leadership Institute referred to in previous posts. I didn't get to read them until 7:30 PM, well after I had any chance to e-mail or call to gather anyone and well before the contact person in the insurance company would be back in his office Monday morning. So we have higher premiums and less coverage without even lifting a finger. But it could be worse.

The government might try to fix it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sounds, No Silence

My sister lives near the Missouri River in downtown Kansas City, which mean the night is filled with the sounds of freight trains and barge horns. This is, oddly enough, not nearly as disruptive to sleep as you might think. Some of that comes from the fact that the house where we grew up was near the tracks, and we heard trains many nights, until we grew used to them. Even today, I love the sound of a far-off train whistle or horn. Unless, of course, that train is blocking the road I want to drive on. Then I'm wondering why whoever shipped that cargo couldn't have used a truck.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Seat of Knowledge

The people at Church of the Resurrection are way smarter than me and have been doing this Leadership Institute thing for a long time. But I'm going to call them out on using folding metal chairs for a three-hour seminar on church financial giving. Now, despite what many may say, I don't actually think with the part of my body that was most in contact with the chair. But even so, there's only so much abuse I can hand it before it starts telling my brain, "Game over, podjo." Fortunately, I took notes.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs...

For some reason, some interstate highways have markers every two-tenths of a mile. Mile markers, of course, are useful and everybody understands why we have them. They tell you where you are on the highway. They tell the nice officer where your breakdown is so the tow truck comes to the right place. They tell the other nice officers where you're trying to elude them. But every two-tenths of a mile? That's so close you can almost read the next one. At highway speeds, that's less than ten seconds apart. I can't figure that one out. Unless someone in state government knew someone with a sign franchise. It still would be silly, but it would be the old familiar silly.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Sanity For Shore!

This action alone would make me vote for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were he to enter the presidential race. The governor ended a tax credit that paid several thousand dollars to MTV networks for their production of the sewer documentary The Jersey Shore.

Of course, I'm not a Republican, so I wouldn't have a chance to vote for him unless he won the nomination, which I don't think he will since he doesn't seem to plan on running in 2012. But should he run in the future, his telling the front runners for the gold medal in bad behavior that they can do whatever they want as long as they don't expect New Jersey taxpayers to foot the bill would merit a vote. Heck, I may even vote for him for New Jersey governor, depending on how lax NJ voting law enforcement tends to be.

Some may wonder if the governor worries that Shore participants might stir up opposition to his re-election if they read about this move. I believe the danger is small.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Uncle Pennybags' New Digs

I had no idea that Hasbro last year redesigned the classic board game Monopoly to add the new version Monopoly: Revolution.

With a circular board, property prices in seven figures instead of three, electronic bank cards instead of paper money and sound effects that play when you do things like go to jail (you'll hear a door slam), it's certainly different than the best-known version.  Some custom-made boards in the 1930s were round, but the usual shape has always been square.

The use of the cards is also not completely new, as they were a part of an electronic banking edition of the game released a few years ago. I see a little irony there, as the new U.S. currency designs sometimes make a guy who grew up with nothing but greenbacks think he's using Monopoly money. Of course, the current administration is working as hard as it can to increase the similarity.

Probably one thing that stays the same is that a majority of the really good deal-making happens off the board, as you try to get your opponents to sell you property you want or see how much you can get out of them for property they want. Such situations may prompt defensive strategies as well. Yes, Boardwalk is doing me no good since you own Park Place, but as long as I have it and you don't it's not doing me any harm either.

An item worth noting for those interested in purchasing the new version. It requires 3 AAA batteries, which are not included. Can't get something for nothing, after all.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Dial Tone...

More roof work today; I got nothin'. And the Wildcats had a bye week.

Next Saturday, though, comes the ultimate showdown against the forces of evil headquartered in Champaign-Urbana. I hope you know which side you're on.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Existential Question?

Worked on a roof today, so I just have this little one: Why does a fast-food restaurant focusing on Mexican food use an actor with a Scottish accent for its commercials?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Quicknet Flixster?

OK, here is my bold stand on the issues with Netflix and its apparent soon-to-be companion company, Qwikster (or something like that): I am absolutely considering making no changes whatsoever.

Yes, you read that right. A quick opinion poll of the relevant persons in my household has revealed the unanimous belief that the company's decision to separate its streaming movie business from its mailed DVD business will have no impact whatsoever on current subscription plans. That's because I belong to the mailed DVD service and don't stream movies, so I don't really care what happens to that part of the service.

The hoo-ra began when the company announced it would begin charging separate fees for the streaming video service and the mailed DVDs. To receive both, people would need to pay more than they did now, and that announcement had the results one usually expects when people are asked to pay more. They calmly and reasonably researched the costs involved in producing what they consumed, realized that companies are in business to make money and that they can't pay their employees with the good feelings they would receive from giving away their services and accepted the decision that they would have to pay more for what they were getting.

I'm kidding. They started whining up a storm -- although the "they" was pretty much limited to the people who either wanted both services or were interested mostly in the streaming part. We Neandertals who insisted on receiving a physical shiny disk to offer into our DVD altar so we could commune with the spirits who lived inside the magic box in the living room were not really all that perturbed, because we were still getting what we wanted and what we paid for.

The company made things worse over this past weekend when it announced that the Netflix brand would stay with the streaming service and the mailed DVD company would be renamed Qwikster, complete with a separate website and everything. And I have to say, as long as my movie queue and subscription are ported over to the new site, I'll probably stay pretty even-tempered about the mess.

The irony is that people like me were most of the company's problem. According to this article, we cost it money and the ultimate goal of the reorganization plans should have been to get shut of us. Lots of people seem to agree that streamed content is the future and the snail-mail service has too many strikes against it to survive -- not the least of which is the looming insolvency of the US Postal Service. But the move to unload us ticked off the people it wanted to keep -- the streamers -- because they had to start paying for something they had begun to think they were entitled to get for free.

Now, will I eventually purchase streamed content? Probably -- I don't now because I don't own the right equipment and Netflix's own streaming options didn't match what I wanted to watch often enough to make me buy it. When it all eventually shakes out, then I suspect I'll be ready to make the change. Until then, I remain a calm Friar in the midst of a sea of virtual tumoil. Although I entertain a smile or two at how badly the Netflix corporate honchos -- who justify their pulling down of some pretty hefty coin by pointing to their decision-making skills, market savvy and leadership -- have stepped in the poop.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Staying the Same While Changing

I attended a funeral today for the father of a church member. He was 91, and had served in the Army during WWII like many men his age.

He received military honors at the graveside, including the playing of "Taps" and having his casket covered by an American flag, which was given to his eldest daughter. Of the three soldiers present, I imagine only the bugler might even have been born when the man was still in the service, and that's a stretch. Neither of the two sergeants folding the flag had been.

One, obviously a Native American, was surnamed Kirk. The other, whose family had equally obviously hailed from India, was named Jain.

"Taps" has been played at United States military funerals for a long time. Flags have been presented to the surviving family members for a long time; the man whose service we attended might have seen a number of them although he was never in a combat role in the war. I imagine the Army in which he served looked quite a bit different than the two soldiers presenting his flag.

And yet they folded it just as carefully, and the bugler played just as wholeheartedly, and the words "with the thanks of a grateful nation" were spoken just as sincerely even though the man these soldiers honored had never been known to them nor they to him. Even though his Army and his time of service were for them a part of history they only heard of and read about, he had been a soldier himself, and they showed the same respect as they would have to one of their own comrades had he fallen at their sides.

Traditions connect us to the past. They help those who have gone continue to teach and communicate with those still here. When we listen to their message, we may learn what we handle or confront today has been confronted before. Or maybe we can just express our thanks for those who before us handled and dealt with the things they did, that we might be here to deal with what we face, even if it different. We receive some traditions, and we pass them on or perhaps create our own.

How will we teach those who come after us? It's a question worth some time.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Show Them the Money

And by "them," of course, I mean the federal government.

All of the shifting around of colleges to different athletic conferences seems to be headed in the direction of creating three or four "super-conferences" that combine the elite teams of college football with whatever teams they want to hang around with, and then everyone else can join up with whoever they want and be seen on a 3 AM cable rebroadcast.

These moves happen because of money. No other reason. Coaches may want to join up with other powerhouse teams so that their teams can compete with other elite teams, but the ultimate deciding factor is money, and how much of it can be made with the changes. Which is really interesting since the actual participants in all of this mess are technically non-profit institutions that aren't supposed to be about making money. At least one congressperson told The New York Times that his institution, which is right now a non-profit outfit but which would like not to be, would be verrrry interested in the results of these realignments. In the same way, a local mob boss is verrrry interested in whether or not a shopowner has fire insurance.

All of this comes on the heels of the Jim Tressell resignation and the allegations by a University of Miami booster than he gave a lot of players a lot of money. The Miami allegations, of course, remain to be proven.

And The Atlantic magazine once more makes me glad Andrew Sullivan left it and enabled me to read it again by printing a nice long article about how the modern NCAA may make a lot of noise about amateurism and student-athletics, but it operates as a cartel designed to deflect criticism from and protect the actual state of college sports. Which involves schools, coaches and a whole lot of other people getting rich while the people who make them rich get three hots and a cot. That does not remain to be proven. In fact, the nearby university today announced it'll pay its head football coach $34 million over the next seven years. It will continue to pay its players nothing, even though they are the ones who do the work and risk the injuries that could leave them unable to earn anything like what their coach earns.

Although athletic directors, university presidents and the NCAA may see these new super-conferences and their associated television deals as great sources of new revenue, they may yet turn out to be the source of the system's downfall if the feds really do think there's some money to be tapped. Because while there are many things the federal government does poorly, finding money and separating it from its previous owner is not one of them.

(H/T The Sports Economist)

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Barry White Tunes Didn't Help?

Apparently not. As this article describes, it takes a team of several to help these white rhinoceri mate.

Although the problem in this particular case involves a foot injury to the female that leaves her unable to be mounted by the male without risking serious injury (I would have thought the horns would have been part of the problem as well), another reason rhinos need assistance in this area might be that they are really, really ugly and they don't drink.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Killing Something, All Right

It must be tough to be a forger. Success, after all, means that you make something that no one will recognize as your own.

Michael Brandman is no forger. He was specifically selected by the Robert B. Parker estate to continue writing Parker's character Jesse Stone, the police chief of Paradise, Massachussetts. In a way, that robs him even of the forger's greatest reward -- a work indistinguishable from the original -- because everyone knows he's not the original. His highest achievement would be a tepid, "I couldn't even tell it wasn't the real guy."

And for Brandman's first outing with Stone in book form, Killing the Blues, he doesn't earn that. There is no sense that, absent the apostrophe "s" on the cover, a reader would say, "Did I just read a lost Parker manuscript?" Brandman, a television producer and writer, collaborated with Parker and Tom Selleck on the first Jesse Stone TV movies, and later just with Selleck when the movies began to tell stories not in the books. Parker was pleased with their work, but Brandman's TV limitations show up from the first page of Blues and never really go away.

Jesse and the town of Paradise are getting ready for the summer tourist season. An ambitious -- and beautiful -- event planner is ready to bring thousands of visiting dollars to town with some big-name concerts. The council hired several police officers to help keep things orderly during the summer. But a car-theft ring has picked out Paradise as a new area of operations and the council wants that stopped, fast. Plus, a man Jesse arrested and beat up when he was a Los Angeles police officer on the edge of an alcoholic breakdown is out of prison and may be headed to Paradise for revenge.

If you think this sounds like it would make a better TV movie than a book, you're right. Brandman's non-novel Jesse Stone movies added TV melodrama to the character that Parker's novels neither had nor needed (with the exception of the silly Trouble in Paradise and sillier Strangers in Paradise), and the TV melodrama is all over Blues. Brandman has an echo of Parker's ear for dialogue, and that's where he's able to come closest to capturing what made Parker's best work so good. Even if the words the characters say sound like what Parker's characters would say, "sound like" is as good as it gets, and it doesn't get there very often. The action, description and other non-dialogue story elements don't come close -- they read like someone took Parker's characters, wrote a story about them and then had someone who knew Parker's style try unsuccessfully to polish them into it.

Brandman throws out the possible romance Jesse started with Sunny Randall, a female private investigator Parker wrote a few books about but whose series had died out in 2007. Whether or not this was a good decision -- Parker had just paired them up again in his final Stone novel, Split Image -- it's handled poorly as an offscreen event relayed through clumsy exposition. Brandman has characters say and do things against their established roles and ignores series continuity more than once.

The problem with having another author continue a series with his or her own ideas, rather than filling out an already-written outline like Brandon Sanderson is doing with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, is the question: Why does this moke get to write his vision of these people instead of me? If the book is very very good, that fanbase might be mollified. But Blues will soothe next to no one who figures their ideas for Stone and Paradise, their ability to adopt a Parkerish voice or even their basic abilities as writers are just as good as or better than what we've been given. Blues could have caught a break for not being Parker if it had been good, but it barely manages meh.

Mystery writer Ace Atkins will be taking up the Spenser novels starting next year, and expectations for his work are probably higher. Parker's last couple of Spensers were much better in quality than the series had been for years, and Atkins has a pretty good track record of his own for fine detective novel work. Brandman should have had the easier at-bat because of his familiarity with the Stone character and the lackadaisical quality of the last several Stone novels, but Killing the Blues is at best a foul tip -- and at that maybe a foul tip called by the umpire instead of seen by anyone else on the field.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Black Knights Over Purple Reign

With apologies to Rudyard Kipling:

If Persa's sidelined but Kolter ain't quite,
Young Trevor Siemen just might put it right:
He'll dive for the TD and tie it up tight,
If your D can stop Steelman the soldier.
Stop, stop, stop the drive of the soldier . . .

But if you let 'em score and three minutes remains,
You've got the time! You can tie it again!
'Less a fourth-and-one drop makes all your hopes vain,
An' hands the win to the soldier.
The last-minute win to the soldier

Makes a one-and-two mark for the soldier
Gives you the loss to the soldier,
So-oldiers, twenty-one - fourteen!

Friday, September 16, 2011

From the Rental Vault (2006): The Jade Warrior

The Jade Warrior has an odd pedigree -- it mixes a Chinese wuxia or martial arts film with the mythology of the Finnish Kalevala. The Kalevala tells the story of the ancient gods of the Finnish people, the way the stories of Asgard tells of the ancient Norse gods and the Olympian myths do the same for ancient Greece. According to The Jade Warrior, some of the Kalevala and the story of a demon in China around 2000 BC are two parts of the same myth. That's because the hero Sintai, a warrior monk, was born of a Chinese father and a mother from "a far-off land," or Finland. The movie was released in 2006 under the Finnish title Jadestouri. It was also the first Finnish movie ever released theatrically in China (being co-produced by a Chinese company), under the title Yù zhànshì.

Sintai is destined to battle the Last Son of the Noctris, a demonic spirit that desires to bring Hell to Earth by using the Sampo machine. But the demon can't activate the machine by himself, since its maker designed it so that only his own descendants could use it. Sintai is one such descendant, so the demon seeks out the combat as well. Sintai is promised Nirvana if he defeats the demon, leaving behind his endless earthly existence. So he wants one day of life as a normal person before this happens, and he takes that "day off" in the village of his friend Cho. There he meets Pin Yen, with whom he falls in love and for whom he will take risks that may have tragic consequences.

Our modern track shows us the less-than-adept smith Kai, who lives near a major city of Finland. He and his girlfriend Rorja have broken up, and when she moves out of town, she takes some leftover junk from their old apartment to an anthropologist who runs an antique business on the side. The anthropologist has recently discovered a well-preserved corpse, along with a mysterious container, and he finds that container and Kai are somehow connected.

The movie switches back and forth between the stories in a way that can at first be a little confusing but it sorts out readily enough. The fight choreography is fascinating and uses CGI to enhance rather than replace some of the actual human moves. Sintai and Pin Yen realize their feelings for one another as they spar (well, it is a movie), and the fight itself moves more like a dance than combat. Director Antti-Jussi Annila stages this scene in the midst of the village but has the other villagers continue about their normal tasks, all of them but one unaware of the fight in their midst. Other visual touches -- large and small -- during different confrontations are equally stunning.

Markku Peltola as the antique dealer/anthropologist and Zhang Jingchu as Pin Yen are both very good, but Tommi Eronen is more than a little wooden in his dual roles as Sintai and Kai. That works when he is the stalwart but inexperienced Sintai, but it hampers his portrayal of the lost seeker Kai. Krista Kosonen looks pretty as Rorja, but that's apparently about all she's supposed to do.

I found The Jade Warrior worth a look -- but even if you disagree I can guarantee it will be the best movie mixing ancient Chinese and Finnish mythology you will see this year.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Setting a Sub Standard

As a young Friar, I was able to combine a pair of asthmatic lungs, physical ineptitude and general nerdiness into being a kid who breathlessly awaited his permissible bicycling range to expand enough to include the public library.

Among the many books I checked out -- they had a whole room devoted to nothing but children's books! -- were the adventures of a red-headed submariner called Sailor Jack. Written by Selma and Jack Wassermann in the 1950s and 1960s, the books covered a number of Sailor Jack's adventures. The series actually spanned several reading levels. A couple were obviously for beginning readers, based on the extremely large type size and limited vocabulary. One, Sailor Jack Goes North, detailed the sub's mission under the Arctic ice pack to be the first submarine at the North Pole and was aimed at a lot higher grade-level. It paralleled the real-life voyage of the U.S.S. Nautilus, the first submarine to make a submerged transit under the polar ice cap. The Wassermanns, together and separately, also wrote several books on education and another series about a mischievous monkey named Moonbeam, but the former had no pictures and the latter seemed silly.

Sailor Jack comes to mind when reading Dangerous Ground, the first of Larry Bond's two books focusing on young submarine officer Jerry Mitchell (The other is a previous Friar read, here). Not because Bond and unlisted co-author Chris Carlson write like the Wassermanns, but because the straightforward submarine adventures they've made are just plain fun, like good ol' Sailor Jack and his crewmates.

Mitchell is a jet pilot when an accident injures his wrist just enough to keep him from being able to properly work cockpit controls. Rather than leave the Navy or take some surface ship assignment, he wrangles a berth in the submarine training program and finds himself assigned to the U.S.S. Memphis just before it heads out on an unusual mission. Mitchell already has a steep mountain to climb to get up to speed in how to be a submarine officer, and he's not helped by Captain Hardy, a micro-manager whose demands for perfection make Mitchell's hard job even worse. But the captain himself is under the politically heavy thumb of a woman scientist at whose request the president himself has ordered the Memphis to conduct a search for nuclear waste dangerously near Russian territorial waters.

Bond paints no deep characters here, although he does try to offer some personality for most of them. A few of the other submarine officers tend to blend into one another, and some of the character development happens a little too fast and a little too conveniently as we near the end of the story. Bond and Carlson do cram their book full of technical details about Navy procedures and submarine operation, but since Mitchell is learning this the same time we are, it fits with the story. It may not interest everyone, but those details were fascinating to me and more than covered some of the plot's weaknesses.

I guess I read the Sailor Jack books a good dozen times apiece, at least, fascinated by the submerged world of the submariner then as now. I remember being upset that my mom wouldn't let me check out all 13 the library had on the shelf at a single time. Bond and Carlson put together a great old-fashioned submarine thriller that made me hope they put to sea with Lt. Mitchell again sometime soon.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I Shall Taunt You a Second Time!

George Weigel, the biographer of a man who probably didn't insult very many people, laments the death of the truly clever insult. Modern insults by well-known figures tend to focus on different bodily functions and are expressed in terms of George Carlin's well-known seven words or similar terms. Or instead of being witty, they're just mean, like the odious Sean Penn's words about people who criticized his visit to Haiti. The repulsive Penn said he wished those critics would "die screaming of rectal cancer." Aside from the fact that such a condition would deprive those critics of the one organ designed to truly appreciate the odious Penn for what he is, it's not really all that witty, especially for a man who claims to be as smart as he does.

Folk of letters and politicians of earlier days, though, could whip up some doozies. Lady Astor told Winston Churchill that if he were her husband, she would poison his soup. Churchill replied that if he were her husband, he would drink it. Weigel quotes Oscar Wilde: "Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go." Nineteenth century Speaker of the House Henry Clay, on meeting party enemy Senator John Randolph on a narrow sidewalk over a muddy street, refused to give way. "I never step aside for a scoundrel," Clay is supposed to have said. Randolph tipped his hat, stepped into the mud and said, "I always do." Those two would also trade gunfire in an 1826 duel that left neither seriously injured.

Weigel omits my favorite, originally ascribed to a member of the English House of Commons in the 18th century, John Wilkes. Wilkes was considered a radical reformer who had the funny idea that the people of England should vote on who would represent them, rather than the representatives already in the House of Commons. He also supported American independence. Such views didn't land him on the good side of House of Lords member John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich. Montagu traded on Wilkes' reputation as a libertine when he was supposed to have said, "Sir, I do not know whether you will die upon the gallows or of the pox." Wilkes was supposed to have responded, "That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship's principles or your mistress."

The exchange hasn't been completely verified, and a lot of people suggest it occurred between 19th century political rivals William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Either way, I've got it memorized on the chance I ever get to use it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What'll Ya Have?

One of the things that I learned when I went up to the Great Gray North for school was that people spoke differently than I was used to. Not just a matter of accents, but different words.

Among them were different words for a generic carbonated beverage. Even though "Coke" is a shortened form of "Coca-Cola" and is itself a registered trademark for that company, a lot of people used it to refer to any carbonated beverage that wasn't Sprite, Mountain Dew or Seven-Up. "I'll have a Coke," they say, and when the person offering the drink says "Well, I've got RC," the response is, "That'll be fine."

Other words are "pop" and "soda." A guy created an internet survey to see which words were most often used in what parts of the country. Since it's a reader-response survey, it's not necessarily a very accurate sample but is probably good enough to get a rough idea.

The smaller map breaks down the responses to the survey by county; click on it to get more detail. You can see that the word "pop" prevails in the northern and northwestern parts of the country, while the word "coke" is used more in the southern. "Soda" is the primary word at home according to people in the New England and the Southwest, as well as a curious outlying area around St. Louis.

Well, I've gone and made myself thirsty, so I'm headed out to get a diet coke. Or, since that's the actual name of what I'm going to have, I guess I should say Diet Coke.

One neat side note: The county-by county map was prepared by two folks right here in Oklahoma, who work at East Central University in Ada. Talk about a real-world application of knowledge!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Blue Widows Bites

The Blue Widows is Jon Land's sixth novel featuring the off-again/on-again investigating couple Ben Kamal and Danielle Barnea, who find themselves up against shadowy plotters working out of Saudi Arabia. The fanatics they face have a sinister plan to humble the U.S. that's code-named "the end of all things," and the Palestinian-American Kamal and Israeli Barnea reunite after an estrangement to try to stop the plot.

Both of them will find their own families and family histories deeply intertwined with those of their opponents, and the only way to defeat their enemies requires them both to face family issues from their respective pasts.

Land writes a serviceable enough thriller and knows how to keep his action scenes brisk and to the point. He displays little of the same discipline when it comes to his actual plotting, throwing in more coincidences than a Victorian melodrama and tossing in characters who are either too important for the brief stage time they get or not nearly important enough to rate the work spent defining them. In a couple of cases, they are both. Land also has a few too many important things happen "offscreen," so to speak, as we learn about some major events only through the secondhand testimony of others, rather than any of our lead characters. The flashback sequences that explain both the title and the roots that led to the current crisis are clumsily inserted, lurching backwards to pick up some vital details before jackrabbiting forward again with the storyline we'd been following. They make the book the equivalent of a teenager learning how to drive before he or she understands gradual pressure on the brake and accelerator pedals.

Reader enjoyment of The Blue Widows is likely to depend on a willingness to overlook those kinds of problems. I picked up my copy off the clearance shelves at a used book store, which generally helps my overlooking, so although Widows has some serious dead spots, I suppose I liked it well enough. Just not well enough to tackle any more cases with Ben and Danielle.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Par for the Courts

Ah, Serena Williams. How kind of you to ensure that Samantha Stosur deserved her U.S. Open win over you, in every way possible.


From a fellow who calls himself a "proud American" today, and some of his friends, one way to remember what happened.

Just as a note to evil: Notice how you didn't win. Used to that yet?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Scenes From a Deathbed

Our local Border's Books and Music closes for good Tuesday, but today was probably my last chance to go by -- and judging from the shelves, my last chance to find something to buy, as well.

This particular store holds a lot of my history, as related before here. So I went more to walk around and look and remember than to find bargains. Here's some of what I saw.

1) This album, which may be the very copy that came marked as my order by mistake. I thought about buying it but I never really liked the title track and it was the only one I'd ever heard. Apart from the gentleman from DeKalb, Illinois who had ordered the album I mistakenly received, I guess I don't know anyone else who liked it either.

2) Empty shelves. Seeing anyone's business and livelihood reduced to bare walls is kind of sad, but when the shelves in question once held all manner of thoughts and explorations, that's kind of magnified. The history of real people who lived and died and affected their world -- and in turn, affected ours. People who reflected on what it meant to be a person and how to try to live a life of significance, sometimes through the novelists' fiction and sometimes through the philosophers' essays. But now nothing.

3) The irony of hearing "Video Killed the Radio Star" while browsing among the remains at a bookstore going out of business. I hope the empty shelves are less prophetic than were the Buggles.

4) A friend, going away.

A Feline Confrontation

With apologies to Ogden Nash:

The panther is a kind of a wildcat
    Today it was more of a mild cat.
    Vainly in wait did the Panther D crouch,
    But often said, "Ouch."
    When called by the EIU Panthers,
    'Cats anthers.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday Night Lights

Some things I learned at the local high school football game:

1) It's kind of neat when the bands applaud each other after they each finish their shows. Chances are pretty good most of their applause in the stands comes from their parents, as many folks hit the concession stands or the restrooms, so getting applause from people who know how hard you worked because they've been doing the very same thing since the first of August probably feels pretty good.

2) "Blitzkrieg Bop," complete with "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" chant is a marching band song? I'm not sure if the brothers Ramone would think this was cool or just plain weird. Although they might hold it to be both.

3) Note to a local player: When you're down 20-3 and you've just made one of the rare tackles on an opposing receiver that actually stops him shy of a first down, you should probably cut out the trash-talking on the guy you put down. Or at least tone it down enough the line judge doesn't have to yank you by your sleeve towards your own side of the ball. There'll be plenty of trash to talk after you've done your job more than once in a row.

4) Note to some of the other local players (and coaches): If your quarterback has to run for his life on a regular basis from someone pursuing him from the right side of the line, it is OK to move a blocker over there.

5) There are few sights better than the sky slowly darkening behind stadium lights and grandstands as those lights and the full moon brighten.


President Obama's speech was on four of the five television stations shown at the gym, because two of them were tuned to news/talk networks and two of them were on a couple of the regular Big Three networks.

After his speech, we threw to the various commentators and pundits who told us what the president had just done with his speech. They were all incredibly annoying. And so I thought, "What if we took all of these blowhards and just put them in a room together?"

That's it, you may ask? Not very original, there. And not really barbed or acerbic, not a lot of venom there if you're not going to say something after that and just go with the tired "What of we put them all in the same room" thing.

Hey -- I didn't say the room had a door.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Back to the Footure

Nike will release 1,500 pairs of special "Nike Mag" shoes for auction and donate the proceeds to Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's Disease research foundation. The Nike Mag was the shoe Fox wore as Marty McFly, a 1985 teen who bounced back and forth in time thanks to his professor friend in three Back to the Future movies.

In the second movie, Marty makes a trip 30 years into his future, to the year 2015, where he encounters hoverboards, flying cars, holographic 3D movie advertisements, jackets that adjust themselves to the wearer's size and the aforementioned Nike Mag. Unlike the 1985 version worn by Fox, people who buy the 2011 model will not have to have battery packs in their clothes with wires running down to the lighted portion of the shoe. They also don't lace themselves as do the shoes n the movie.

It's nice of Nike to make a substantive gesture like this for Fox's foundation, but there is no getting around the fact that the shoes are just plain ugly -- it's hard to imagine people actually wearing them. They don't look particularly comfortable, either.

One interesting note is that the replica Mags have the Nike name on them -- which few Nike shoes other than deliberately retro styles have had for several years. Most of the company's shoe offerings these days just feature the iconic swoosh without the word "Nike." But movie designers in 1985 didn't foresee that, so when they made their 2015 shoe, it had the word on the back heel and on the strap.

All this means that scientists have got just about three years to get us hoverboards and flying cars. Someone had better get cracking.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Empire May or May Not Have Struck Back

Sorry about another Star Wars post, but I ran across this link, which is a review of sorts of the original script science fiction author Leigh Brackett submitted for the then-untitled sequel back in 1978, just after the first movie had become a blockbuster.

George Lucas had read some of Brackett's space-opera science fiction and apparently liked the thought of what she could do in his universe with Luke, Leia, Han and the rest. Her work on movie classics like Humphrey Bogart's The Big Sleep (adapted from her own short story) and John Wayne's Rio Bravo probably impressed him as well.

The author of the site notes that Brackett, ill from cancer, died soon after submitting this first draft. It has several familiar story points, but many of them show up in different ways. There is no Yoda, but Luke learns the ways of the force from a froglike character named Minch. No Hutts, bounty hunters or carbonite, as Han Solo turns out to be the stepson of a powerful political figure he and the other rebels contact to try to win support for their cause.

The draft itself can't be put online, although some pirated copies are around the net -- surprise, surprise. But the synopsis here makes it obvious that the finished product made a much superior movie, with The Empire Strikes Back usually considered the best of the six. Had Brackett lived and her draft been accepted, she probably would have made many of the revisions ultimately done by Lawrence Kasdan that gave us the movie we saw in 1980.

Some Star Wars lore suggests that Lucas was unhappy with Brackett's submission either way, and there's probably no way to ever know for sure. Even if it had been utterly and completely awful, though, it's got one thing going for it that would instantly catapult it into the top rank of Star Wars movies had it been filmed as written: No Jar-Jar Binks.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


The natal day was observed, as these days often are in developed nations during the 21st century, with a couple of phone calls and far too many Facebook congratulations to enable me to maintain my curmudgeonly character.

Those were very welcome, but the best part of the day was getting to deliver some donated school supplies to one of our area elementary schools and watching the counselor's eyes light up at the abundance of crayons and brightly colored pencils no less than I imagine my own did when I first contemplated that box of 64 -- sixty-four! -- different shades with which my imagination might put to paper any idea that came to it.

And the other best part came in getting to finish the day in worship at the nearby campus ministry and receive the greatest gift ever given, the Eucharist and all it symbolizes.

We'll have to count this one as a win.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Community Booster

"So, you liking Carrollton so far?"

It was an unsettling question. Not because I had any strong negative opinions about Carrollton, or that I was hiding something from its people. Carrollton was where my grandmother had lived for the seven years of my life that I knew her and where my aunt had spent most of the rest of her days, so I liked what I knew of the town just fine. Cute little old small town, central courthouse square, old-fashioned artery-clogging diner -- everything you'd care to find.

Wasn't the circumstance, either -- although we'd returned for my aunt's funeral, she had been declining for awhile and the knowledge she was at peace was more welcome than it might have been otherwise. Wasn't the fact that I was kind of being singled out by the old man with his cup of coffee asking me the question. I was dressed for the funeral in a shirt and tie, and on Thursday morning at the McDonald's where we'd stopped for breakfast, I stood out. Plus, Carrollton is small enough that most folks probably know most other folks who live there.

But since I was standing at a urinal, engaged in the business that often occupies one when standing at a urinal, I did not know what kind of answer to give. I think the old man thought I was someone he knew and never really realized his mistake, but either way I blocked off the first dozen smart-aleck answers that came to my mind and just said, "Seems like a fine place."

Sunday, September 4, 2011

I Spy The Spy!

The Spy is the third Clive Cussler-brand novel focusing on some of the detectives of the Van Dorn Detective Agency, Cussler's fictional version of the real-life Pinkerton Agency. It's the second where Cussler collaborates with Justin Scott, who has written several mysteries and maritime adventures under a couple of different pen names.

Set in 1908, The Spy finds lead Van Dorn investigator Isaac Bell in the middle of an arms race as different nations try to update their navies using new technologies in guns, armor and propulsion (Robert K. Massie's 1992 Dreadnought details the real-world version of these efforts leading up to World War I). Germany and England eye each other as potential enemies, and each would like to enlist the United States on its side -- or at least ensure that the younger nation stays neutral. Across the Pacific, Japan is rapidly modernizing and would like to be certain that the U.S. is either no rival or at most one with a weakened and outdated Navy. So when three top engineers working on different aspects of the U.S. dreadnought battleship program die in accidents or suicides, there is no shortage of suspect nations once the coincidence is realized.

Into the mystery steps Bell, working as a private agent for a nation that has at the time a significant vacuum in its intelligence-gathering. Remember, in 1908 we have no FBI and no CIA. Intelligence falls to the members of the Secret Service, which also has to investigate crimes involving the Treasury Department and has recently added presidential protection to its duties. The Van Dorns and Isaac Bell are, naturally, the only ones who can probe the mystery and untangle the web of a mysterious spy who seems to be working for all parties at once to create as much chaos as he can manage.

The Isaac Bell books are part detective story, part suspense novel and part techno-thriller, even though they're set in the early 20th century. Much of Bell's work and success hinges on his ability to use the latest technology to his advantage, such as the Van Dorn's on-site photo lab where film taken by an agent in the morning can be seen as a printed picture the very same day. He also has a keen mind and is a man (naturally) of action, as capable with his fists as with his brain.

Cussler and Scott -- probably mostly Scott -- manage to layer on a flavor of an Edwardian adventure written at the time -- our heroes are stalwart, our heroines brave and beautiful, our villains nefarious and sneaky. Even though it's not an exact match, that atmosphere helps make The Spy a terrifically fun story to read as Isaac matches wits with his opponents, investigates the crimes and races across the country via his special Van Dorn railroad pass to try to catch up with the spy. It makes for a great vacation in the early 20th century and is a good reason to put future Isaac Bell stories on the book-buying list.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Battle at Alumni Stadium

With apologies to William Shakespeare, King Henry V and St. Crispin:
…Then shall their names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Fitz the Coach, Colter, and Smith,
Trumpy and Budzien, Dunsmore and Schmidt,
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And St. Gregory’s feast shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But they in it shall be remembered-
Those few, those happy few, that band of Wildcats;
For see! Colton to-day did shed tacklers at ease
Shall he be my QB; tho’ he no Dan Persa?
This day shall gentle such condition:
And NU fans in Chestnut Hill now a-couch
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their purple cheap whiles any speaks
That saw ‘Cats trounce Eagles on this fair day."

Friday, September 2, 2011

...The Show That Never Ends...

So you may have noticed that Texas A&M University notified the Big 12 Conference that it plans to join with another athletic team conference as of July 2012.

I cannot even begin to contemplate the idea of considering the option that this matters.

There are many reasons. For one, my truck is older than the Big 12. There is no storied legacy. There are no traditions steeped in years of repetition, no bridges between the eras built when children of the digital age reignite flames first lit by children of the Great War, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Summer of Love, the Disco Era, or even MTV. The lifetime of every single student on a Big 12 campus -- barring the odd 6th-grade super-genius or two, and they're probably at MIT -- encompasses the entire history of the Big 12, whether you date from the 1996 start of competition or the official formation announcement in 1994.

For another, the Big 12 has always carried an air of artificiality to go with its shallow draft in the sea of years. It's all of the Big Eight Conference (89-year history) plus four Texas schools from the old Southwest Conference (82-year history). Both of those older conferences had several different lineups and realignments under their belts, but they consciously kept the strand of continuity between their current incarnations and the historic ones. The Big 12, though, was clear that it was not The Big Eight Plus Four or The South-ish West Conference and cut the ties to the past.

The Big 12 is new, it's jerry-rigged, and now it's probably bye-bye. Sports talk radio Wednesday (I was on the road and had few other choices -- if you think radio in any mid-sized city is a wasteland, try radio on the interstate) was full of opinions about the opinions other people had expressed. At least two of the hosts -- I think it was two, but they're interchangeable so I can't be sure -- were certain that "(OU Head Football Coach) Bob Stoops would join the Pac 12 (or 10, or 16, or whatever it is right now) today if he could get out of the schedule."

Headlines speculate on which school might be asked to replace A&M, while others try to evaluate the position of a particular school in the new environment. We're told that T. Boone Pickens, a multimillionaire who has no official position at any university or conference other than that of Writer of Massive Checks to OSU Athletics, would like to see Texas Christian University brought in. The writer doesn't tell us why that matters more than the choice preferred by Norman walkabouter Three-Hat Harry, because while we all know that the size of Pickens' bank account is only reason anyone in this mess cares about Pickens' position, it's kind of gauche to say that in public. We can put the opinion in print, but we can't tell you why we're putting it in print. Standards, doncha know.

Meanwhile, at the various dogs all these tails are wagging, tuition rises faster than inflation, classes the size of some small towns are taught by adjuncts for whom English may be a third language or by some bored prof committing death by PowerPoint on a battlefield scale, young adults learn that they can act like animals as long as they commit no sins against diversity, graduates hock diploma frames to pay back student loans and seniors learn that employers don't much care about uncovering the patriarchy-silenced voices of 13th century Lithuanian quilt makers, because your resumé lists your "previous experence."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away...

George Lucas didn't like the idea of messing around with already-released movies just to suit anyone's whims, even if the anyone happened to be the person who created said already-released movie:
These current defacements are just the beginning. Today, engineers with their computers can add color to black-and-white movies, change the soundtrack, speed up the pace, and add or subtract material to the philosophical tastes of the copyright holder. Tomorrow, more advanced technology will be able to replace actors with “fresher faces,” or alter dialogue and change the movement of the actor’s lips to match. It will soon be possible to create a new “original” negative with whatever changes or alterations the copyright holder of the moment desires.
Han shot first.