Sunday, September 30, 2012

Let Your Penalty Flag Fly!

So now that the regular referees are back with the NFL, there'll never be another bad call and no one will ever boo a zebra again, right?

Sorry buddy, I already own one bridge in Brooklyn. As Brian Goff points out at The Sports Economist site, regular referees have blown calls many times, sometimes just as badly as the replacement referees were supposed to have done. We don't have instant replay and coach's challenges because we all want to review what a great call the ref made, after all. Goff notes that a bad call from 2011 gave the Green Bay Packers a win just as surely as last week's awful call robbed them of one.

Blown calls and official mistakes are part of every game that includes fallible human beings. "Instant replay" makes me chuckle because the idea is that those fallible human beings will eliminate or severely reduce mistakes now that they have the chance to see the same play in stop-motion or from a different angle. Of course they will reverse some mistakes. But sometimes they won't be able to tell anything new from the video and they still have to make a human judgment about what they saw. And sometimes what was the right call may get reversed because the new angles or slow-mo view will show something that looks like it happened but didn't.

Because blown calls are a part of every game, it's not really accurate to say that this mistake or that mistake "cost the team the game." It's the team's job to take the game out of the referee's hands. Yes, the referee made a mistake on a call. And the defender made a mistake on the coverage. And the halfback made a mistake when he cut left instead of right. And the quarterback made a mistake when he threw into coverage. And so on.

And yes, before those of you who remember that I am a Kansas City Royals fan start carping, I have no problem agreeing that Don Denkinger blew the call at first base in Game Six of the 1985 World Series. But it was in Game Six -- the World Series goes seven games and as Denkinger himself noted, if the St. Louis Cardinals had batted better than .120 through the first six games they wouldn't have needed a Game Six, let alone Game Seven.

So cheer the return of the regular refs. Despite being the lowest-paid guys on the field, soon enough they'll take the blame and the boos for being more responsible for losses than the millionaires who surround them.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


A metronome is a weighted oscillator that ticks back and forth at a constant speed. Musicians use it to help keep time when they're practicing.

If you have more than one metronome, you have to tick them exactly at the same time in order for them to match with each other. Get enough metronomes, say, 32 or so, and you will not be able to get them to synchronize exactly unless you've got some kind of mechanical metronome ticker with 32 fingers.

Or, as the video at the link shows, unless you set them on a movable surface. Apparently the moving metronome transmits its kinetic energy to the movable surface, which in turn transmits its kinetic energy back to the metronome and to all the others. Eventually, the transmitted energy finds a balance of sorts and all of the metronomes are exactly matched. You can hear the matching click noise get louder as the video progresses and more and more of them get into sync.

Now, if I were mean I would make some joke connecting the movable surface with the concept of relativism -- that there are no absolute truths -- and how that concept winds up making everybody the same, just as the movable surface erases all differences between the metronomes. It takes the immovable surface -- or maybe the idea that there is absolute truth -- to keep them all individuals. But I'm not mean.

What? Oh shucks, I guess I am.

(ETA: I may be following more in Dustbury's footsteps every day, which is not a bad place for a blog to be. Charles has his own observations on this idea, secured from another source, here.)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Continuing Stories

David Weber continues to describe the struggle of human beings to reinvent technology so they can overcome a conspiracy designed to restrict it to the most basic levels in Midst Toil and Tribulation, book number six in the Safehold series.

The Safehold books translate the Protestant Reformation into a science fiction setting, as humanity's last remnant hides from the genocidal Gbaba alien race. The original colonists created the Church of God Awaiting in order to cement their plan to keep technological innovation below the threshold the Gbaba could detect. But some rebels disagreed and before they were destroyed, they created an android designed to awaken many years later and counteract the Church. Midst continues telling the story of the Charisian Empire's fight against church forces in the vast Republic of Siddermark, devastated by Church forces the previous year. We also see the android Merlin reflect on the amount of death his actions have caused and wonder if he is on the right path, and follow the journey of the daughter of a murdered prince as she decides for herself what faith she can follow and remain true to the God she believes in.

Weber handles this all fairly well, regressing a few times into his mode of conversation after conversation instead of story movement. He does not do as well with Merlin's self-reproach and Irys Dakyn's spiritual quest as he did with How Firm A Foundation's "close-up" stories -- the contrast between the vulnerable human gaining faith while the invulnerable android begins to doubt would have strengthened the story if the connection had been drawn more clearly. But he relates a number of battles very well, playing to one of his strengths. If you're been sticking out Safehold so far, Midst won't give you reason to quit.
After an interlude in his past, Jack Reacher returns to the present, hitchhiking though the Midwest on his way to Virginia. He's still got an idea of meeting the military policewoman he "met" via phone in 61 Hours, but he's not going to get there just yet. The car he grabbed a ride from has three people in it who are not what they seem, and two of them are even more not what they seem as the story unfolds.

Reacher will wind up teaming up with a dubious FBI agent to uncover dual conspiracies, and although one of them is on the side of the good guys, that may not matter to them when he crosses their lines. Which, being Reacher, he will definitely do more than once.

Wanted Man's action goes back and forth along rural stretches of highway in Nebraska and Kansas as pursuers and pursued double back to avoid detection and reach their respective destinations. Child seems to do the same with his story, as Reacher and the FBI agent rehash the "I should arrest you/No you shouldn't" dance several times. In some places, it seems like Child has read some parodies of his own work and is trying to outdo them. Wanted Man is by no means as bad as Bad Luck and Trouble or Nothing to Lose, but it reads like a book that would have been better as a short story. Still, if you're a Reacher fan, Wanted Man gives you no reason to leave the series behind (We'll let Tom Cruise do that).
The Measure of the Magic concludes Terry Brooks' two-volume tale of what happened to those spared from the Great Wars' catastrophes by the magic of Hawk in The Gypsy Morph. In the five hundred years since the Great War, the humans, elves and others living in the valley shielded by Hawk's magic have flourished, but they are not ready when that shield finally comes down and the outside world begins to work its way into their peaceful lives. Far from the empty wasteland they believed it to be, that world has its own people, who have their own ambitions. And it has a demon, whose goal is to kill the bearer of the Black Staff of magic.

That bearer is Panterra Qu, a former tracker and friend to tracker Prue Liss as well as Elven princess Phryne Amarantyne. They oppose the power-hungry religious leader Skeal Eile and the usurper of the Elven throne, Phryne's stepmother Isoeld. As well as the nameless demon, who begins to manipulate behind the scenes for his own ends.

Because his Shannara books have generally been cut from the same cloth, and because his "Jerle Shannara" trilogy was one long chase scene strung over three books, Brooks has often been accused of lazy storytelling. It may or may not be true in other places, but it's beyond evident in Measure. The plotting is sloppy, the characterizations messy and the continuity difficult to follow.

Passages that display evidence of time and work ride next to stretches that scream "I'm fresh out of the word processor without benefit of any editing beyond spellcheck!" One character -- in a pre-industrial society half a millennium removed from the technology involved -- refers to adhesive tape as casually as would you or I. Phryne seems like a different character every time we meet her, and several characters have the same "I just killed someone and I can't handle it" response almost down to the dialogue. Brooks seems to set up potential sequels with Measure's end, but unless he tries a whole lot harder to convince readers there's a story there I can't see the point. Weber's and Child's latest entries in their respective series may not make you decide to quit them, but Brooks has come within a sheet of paper of prompting that very decision.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ya Think?

Golly gee whillikers, it turns out that Jesus may not have been married after all.

Despite the hoopla from some of the usual credulous suspects, a papyrus fragment that's supposed to be from around the year 400, containing a text in which Jesus is supposed to allude to having a wife, may not be authentic.

Now, if you're of a thinking bent, you may be wondering what kind of authenticity I'm talking about here, and which part of the papyrus find is actually being questioned. Do I mean that the papyrus doesn't date from 400 AD? Do I mean that the Coptic text written on the fragment doesn't date from 400 AD? Do I mean that the text in question isn't an independent attestation to Jesus' marital status but is instead a compilation or copying of an already existing "Jesus was married" narrative?

You're way ahead of the folks at, say, The New York Times, who slugged their original story "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" and waited until the eighth paragraph to let the scholar presenting the fragment -- Dr. Karen King of Harvard -- caution against speculation (before speculating for the next twenty). In fairness to the Times, Dr. King herself apparently called the fragment "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife." Which, so much for not speculating.

The cautionary piece linked first says that Dr. King's paper about the fragment will be published pending analysis and testing of the papyrus and ink to determine if those things do indeed date from around 400. Which is the normal fashion for these sorts of things, even though the Times seems to have overlooked questioning its sources about that little step of the process.

If there's a journalistic malpractice in the coverage of this matter, either from the Times or others, it's not so much in interviewing Dr. King and reporting on her claims. It's in accepting them before scientific testing is done and without making a call or two to a scholar who represents a different school of thought about the supposedly early documents on which Dr. King has focused during her career. It almost seems like they were seduced by the trappings -- Dr. King holding the oldest endowed university chair in the nation, having a "garret office in the tower of the Harvard Divinity School," that wonderfully mysterious secret and ancient-y sounding word "Coptic," and so on -- and thus felt no need to check out whether or not these were the droids they were looking for.

To borrow a phrase, I learned in journalism school to take almost everything everybody said with a grain of salt until I checked it out for myself. The wilder the claim, the bigger the grain. It would seem that writers and editors at The New York Times have, in this instance, bought into Mayor Michael Bloomberg's healthy eating crusade and have been on a sodium-free diet, and that a number of others have joined them.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Far Distant

The scientists looking at the universe through the Hubble Space Telescope have had their Extreme Deep Field (XDF) camera for awhile. To mark the 10th anniversary of the XDF, the other day they released some of the pictures it had taken compiled into a view of the universe from almost 13 billion years ago, only 500 million or so years after it came into being.

The picture at the Hubble site contains more than five thousand of the universe's most ancient galaxies, with each galaxy containing hundreds of thousands, if not millions of stars. As the graphic at the piece shows, those 5,500 incredibly dim and distant galaxies can be found in a piece of the sky dwarfed in apparent size by our own moon.

So if you were thinking that the whole world might be collapsing around you, think for a bit about how you relate to that immensity in terms of both age and size. I've had a couple of pretty long days this last week, and I can tell you, contemplating that pretty much just peaced me right out.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Travel Pages

I'm currently reading a used book that someone marked with a hotel business card. It's always interesting to find these little tidbits in previously used books (and in this case it's almost the most interesting thing about the read by far, but more on that another time).

An earlier find led me to realize that the plane ticket might not be the most expensive part of a trip to Hawaii, at least if I intended to eat. This one gives me a link to a hotel in Newcastle, Wyoming (interesting, since I've lived in a town called Newcastle before). It's apparently a resort kind of place near the Wyoming/South Dakota border and boasts of being able to visit several national sites like Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills. I've no idea what its rates are because the hotel site lacks online registration or room information, and the national travel sites can't find it.

But hey, if I ever find myself in Newcastle, Wyoming, I'll be able to return the hotel's business card to it. Providing it actually exists, that is.

Monday, September 24, 2012


I kind of wonder what this way of thinking would do when applied to the modern telephonic devices we use today. I imagine at least one would say, "Don't answer your stupid phone when someone is talking to you, you incredible boor."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Brush with Greatness

A couple of astronauts on the International Space Station were having some trouble fixing a bolt on the outside of their orbiting home. It needed cleaned off so it would properly fit, but the ISS for some reason lacked a brush that could be used to do that and be used by spacesuited astronauts.

So Sunita Williams and Akihido Hoshide found some tape, a toothbrush and a piece of metal they could grip in their suit gauntlets and a gen-u-wine space station fixer doodad was deployed and allowed them to clean and successfully seat the bolt.

So far NASA has refused to comment on the rumor that the pair were planning to reveal a warp drive powered by dental floss.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

You Could Even Say It Glows...

Back in the 1950s when we didn't understand radiation as well as we would later, the government tested nuclear weapons out in the middle of the desert. The idea was to see how destructive the blasts would be, as well as how much radiation would be found at certain distances from the explosions.

Scientists also wanted to know how much radiation certain substances would absorb -- following a nuclear blast, for example, would food that hadn't been destroyed but still not all that far away be safe to eat? They also, fortunately, tested potable liquids for drinking safety. Among them: Beer.

According to the story, radiation effects on samples a thousand feet away from the blast as well as two miles away were minimal, meaning that the beer would be safe to drink "in an emergency." I am not sure how helpful this information is. Although as a grownup I am a tee-totaler, this was not always the case. In college, it seemed that many circumstances would fit into the category of an "emergency" that required drinking beer. For example, you could enter a room in which beer was present, an obvious "emergency" that would mean you would need to drink it.

Tastewise, the beer was rated as a "little strange-tasting." Again, going back to collegiate days in which one of the most important considerations about the acquisition of beer was the relationship of the price of the beer and the cash, change or third-party-cashable checks on hand, I have to confess that much of what I consumed may very well have been irradiated if the standard is "a little strange-tasting." On the other hand, considering the hygiene situations at some of the places where said beer was purchased, a little germ-killing radiation might not have been such a bad idea.

Friday, September 21, 2012

On the Grid

Driving through Oklahoma on a Friday night -- a half-dozen high school football games on the radio at least. Lions and tigers and bears and bulldogs and bobcats and wildcats and more...oh my!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Book Passage

I once read a description of the difference between what's called "literary fiction" and what's called "genre fiction." Genre fiction, I believe, was made up of books that nobody writes about, but everybody reads. Literary fiction was made up of books that everybody writes about, but nobody reads.

Genre fiction is, quite simply, fiction that fits inside a certain genre of story -- like science fiction, mysteries, romances, thrillers, horror and so on. The author's main purpose is to create a story pleasing to the people who like to read that sort of thing and to do it reasonably well. Although I've never heard an equally clear definition of literary fiction, I understand that most of it has to do with an author's intent to describe some aspect of the human condition -- sometimes through the narrative or sometimes through the use of the language itself -- and the story being told is not the main reason for the novel's existence.

The lines aren't always that clear. Some genre authors comment on the human condition within the boundaries of their own arena, and others are obviously paying as much attention to their use of language within that field as any literary author does. Dan Simmons, James Lee Burke, Robert B. Parker and some others are often recognized for the quality of their writing as for their yarn-spinnin' skills. Literary authors cross the bridge the other way, too. Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon, for example, have all written future dystopias or alternative history novels, usually a province of science fiction.

Justin Cronin's first two novels were strictly literary. His first, Mary and O'Neil: A Novel in Stories, won the Pen/Hemingway Award and the Crane Prize, two pretty distinguished honors in the literary field. It's got 42 customer reviews on Amazon the day I type this. The first novel in Cronin's vampire/post-apocalypse trilogy, The Passage, has almost 1,500. But as mentioned above, he's not the first literary author to make a move into genre or popular fiction.

The Passage tells of a world decimated by a plague that turns people into mutants that resemble the vampires of legend. It opens with the story of Amy, a six-year-old abandoned girl picked up by a government lab selecting subjects for experiments with a strange virus uncovered deep in South America. The initial virus promoted quick healing and made those exposed to it tough to hurt or kill. Experimentation has enhanced those factors, along with the strength of the people injected with it and even some of their mental powers. But they crave blood from mammals and other warm-blooded creatures, and when they escape, chaos swiftly follows. These "virals" kill many people but infect a small percentage, creating new monsters to join them. Amy escapes with the help of a sympathetic FBI agent, and the first section closes with her facing the new ruined world.

Cronin then switches to almost 100 years later, to a small city in California guarded by battery-powered searchlights at night. The virals shun light and even when they enter it they're slow-moving and much easier to kill. Peter, a young man living in the town, waits for his brother Theo to return as a viral, remembering the power station supply expedition in which Theo was taken. If Theo returns, Peter will kill the monster he has now become.

Over the next few weeks, the community's carefully-structured society begins to break down as strange influences creep into the minds of many of its people. Peter and several friends decide to travel to Colorado, accompanying Amy, now appearing to be an early adolescent and containing clues about the start of the virus -- and maybe how to stop it and defeat the virals themselves.

Much of The Passage is travelogue, as the company travels through what used to be the Western United States and deals with attacks by the mutants, the need to forage supplies and encounters with other uninfected communities. Peter is our source of reflection though his own musings on what he's seeing and learning, although we occasionally work through the senses and thoughts of some of the other characters. The problem is that the reflections are frequently repetitious, and many of the different scenes and events are themselves repeated: A character believed to have been lost is found again several times, for example. Careless storytelling is also common, such as telepathic vampire creatures that seem unaware of some important actions being planned by their human enemies. Such attributes make The Passage a slow slog, and don't inspire great desire to revisit this world in the next two books of the planned trilogy.

The ending, in more ways than one a middle finger upraised in the face of the audience, closed the book on any plans I had to finish out either next month's The Twelve or the projected 2014 conclusion to the series. Cronin may have got some of the blockbuster-novel writing technique down in slathering an undisciplined narrative over far too many pages, but he must have been absent on the "Don't tick off your audience before the series is done" day.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1945): Objective, Burma!

Although it's not hard to imagine a war movie being controversial, Raoul Walsh's Objective, Burma! has a rather singular pedigree in the protests it earned. A fictionalized version of the missions of "Merrill's Marauders," a paratrooper division that conducted search-and destroy raids in southeast Asia during World  War II, the movie drew heavy criticism from English lawmakers and even Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Most of the fighting in the Burma theater was done by British, Indian and other U.K. Commonwealth forces, but Objective largely leaves them out in favor of one of the few American elements serving in the area at the time. It was eventually released in England in 1952, accompanied by a filmed apology to the British armed services.

It's definitely one of the better war movies cranked out during the 1940s. Walsh and star Errol Flynn don't hesitate to show the American soldiers heros for their dangerous work, but they trim down the artificial rah-rah that some other movies roll around in. Flynn is Captain Nelson, who commands a paratrooper division given the task of blowing up a Japanese radar station inside occupied Burma. They succeed, but Japanese patrols cut them off from their rendezvous with their pick-up planes and they have to try to return to their base on foot, surrounded by Japanese soldiers and hunted by patrols.

Flynn and his fellow castmembers fill the traditional soldier roles you often see in war movie, and they do so quite well. In fact, several of them give the characters unexpected dimension, helped along by Alvah Bessie's Oscar-nominated story and dialogue. One weary trooper, asked by his buddy what he plans to do when he gets out of this mess, says, "Two things. One, I'm gonna kiss my girl like she's never been kissed." "What's two?" the buddy asks. "Then I'm gonna take off my parachute," he's told.

Walsh's direction boosts things as well. He uses little to no music during some intense scenes, more of which involve waiting for combat instead of the fighting itself. Overhead shots emphasize how the soldiers in both armies could appear and disappear in the thick jungle, as quiet scenes are suddenly but briefly disturbed by the appearance of men, but soon fall back to the same quiet as though no one was ever there.

Objective has a little bit of a rough edge with regards to the Japanese soldiers and the way the men speak about them, but I imagine that seeing your friends fall to the enemy bullets and bombs didn't sweeten the milk of human kindness towards them -- and since I wasn't one of the ones facing down those guns and planes, I'll take a pass on criticizing the movie for being of a piece with its times.

Some unexpected reflection on war and soldiering, and more than a hint of recalling Xenophon's Anabasis make Objective, Burma! a legitimate holder of its title as one of the better World War II movies .

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Didja Hear?

Well, according to a lot of headlines I read today, Jesus was married.

Yes, it seems that a scholar examining an ancient piece of papyrus written by Coptic Christians somewhere around 400 AD has translated it, and in it is a phrase in which Jesus says "My wife...she will be able to be my disciple."

You may be a skeptical sort and wonder why one fragment of a document written four centuries after the events it's supposed to describe matters at all. Well, because the scholar says it does and...she's a scholar. Dr. Karen King says the text is proof that some ancient Christians followed a tradition that Jesus was married. We might believe that, until you realize that although the difference between 1 AD and 401 AD may not be so great to us, it's pretty darn great by itself. Go back 400 years in our nation and the only Europeans on the North American continent were the remains of the Jamestown colony and Spanish explorers in Mexico and Florida. That's just a wee dram different than today, dontcha know. Why we would expect 1 and 401 to be any less different from each other than 1612 and 2012 is beyond me. Jesus certainly could have been married, but one sentence in one document dating 400 years after his life on earth will not carry me across that river.

In seminary, I ran across bushwa like this all the time. In one breath someone would tell me the gospels could not be considered reliable accounts of Jesus' life because they could be dated no earlier than 90 to 150 AD (that question's open, but never mind). And in the next breath some of the same scholars would laud some fragmentary text dated no earlier than 400 or even 500 as related to an authentic strain of some early Christian tradition, silenced and covered up by the winning side (kept down by the Man! #Occupy Nag Hammadi!)

In the end, a writer on one of the blogs in the "Progressive Christian" portal points out the only thing that can be proved beyond a doubt by this text: That the person who wrote it apparently believed Jesus was married. Even that's shaky; the Revelation of St. John speaks metaphorically of the church as the Bride of Christ and that could be going on in this piece too. So I'm not too worried about the traditional orthodox theism in which I remain mired being upended any time soon.

I am worried about one thing, though. Since this item is all over the news now, I am concerned that the usual suspects won't have anything to "rock the foundations of Christian belief" come next Easter.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Blockbuster Showdown

The Avengers vs. The Dark Knight Rises. Fire away, O fellow geeks!

(ETA link to my own opinion)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Don't Tell Mayor Bloomberg...

...But there's a youngster nearby who is pretty much swimming in sugar, despite the Mayor's busybody ban on soda glasses larger than sixteen ounces. Reports that he chose that size so he wouldn't need more than one glass for his brain are, as yet, unconfirmed.

Of course, the youngster is question is the star IRAS 16293-2422, some 400 light years away, And the "sugar" in question is actually molecular clouds of glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar that has been found orbiting this young star.

The glycolaldehyde molecules are being drawn inward toward IRAS 16293-2422 and whatever planets may be closer insystem. Should there be a small rocky planet with significant liquids on its surface, those sugars could eventually be the foundation of life on it, since glycolaldehyde is one of the molecules that makes up RNA, a chemical compound essential to life. It's possible that, some billions of years from now, beings on that planet could study the universe around them and wonder, like we do, if there is anyone else out there.

I'm imagining they'll be a lot smarter than Mayor Bloomberg.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

And so on, Ad Infinitum

You may have seen streets that have speed cameras installed to monitor how fast people drive down them. They replace the black-and-whites that hang out there with a radar gun primed to nail J. Random Speeder when he or she commits the act of too-rapid transportation.

The speed cameras, of course, can catch every speeder on a stretch of road, while John Law only nails a couple of them. He or she has to fire up the squad car and pursue the miscreant, pull them over and write them a ticket. While that's going on, drivers can sneak past at a pretty good clip. The cameras just record the violators, get plate numbers and then the ticket shows up in the mail.

But since the cameras are unmanned, they lack the ability to guard themselves that an armed officer possesses. Which means they can be vandalized, stolen or even destroyed. So Prince George's County in Maryland has come up with a solution: They will install cameras that will watch the speed cameras.

Yes. There will be cameras which have as their task the monitoring of other cameras. A law enforcement official explained that the traffic cameras cost in the low-to-mid six figures and so replacing them or repairing them too often drains the county treasury. The cameras which monitor them are much less sophisticated -- no one cares how fast the vandals are driving -- and so the expense is considered worth it.

The official in question is the Commander of the Automated Enforcement Section (one hopes the cameras are better at taking orders than they are at protecting themselves), who has as his job the monitoring the cameras and their work. No word as to whether or not an Officer Murphy is among those under his command.

(H/T Yeah Right)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Fish, Barrel, Etc.

While bookstore browsing today, I saw something that the only phrase I can think of for it is "anti-marketing." The second post-Robert B. Parker "Jesse Stone" novel has just been released, and it is called Fool Me Twice.

You may remember that Michael Brandman, a screenwriter for the Jesse Stone television movies based on Parker's character, was tapped by the Parker estate to continue the series after the author died. You may also remember that his initial volume, Killing the Blues, was a blisteringly bad piece of work that would make Leonard Pinth-Garnell say, "No thanks. I have standards."

Naming Brandman's second Stone throw Fool Me Twice invites -- nay, begs -- for the kind of mocking review that should be read aloud in a pinched English or William F. Buckley accent. It's like sending a 40-pound second-grader with half-inch thick taped glasses, a pocket protector and a holster for his inhaler to the National Playground 6th Grade Bully Convention at lunch time while he's holding a $20 bill.

But I may never know how bad Fool Me Twice is, because, as in the proverb from which the title is drawn, I've been fooled by Brandman once and I ain't a-wastin' my money on his second effort. I have a friend who sends me a passel o' books now and again that he gets from some of his friends who work in publishing and if that collection includes Fool Me Twice I may -- doubleplus repeat may -- read it then so I can indulge my inner snotty New Yorker magazine review writer.

On the other hand, that would mean acknowledging in public that I read Fool Me Twice and, like Mr. Pinth-Garnell, I have standards.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

What a Movie!

A few thoughts occasioned by viewing Raiders of the Lost Ark at an Imax theater:

- This being, I believe, the first Imax movie I've ever seen, holy moley! When the screen's so big that I have to sort of not watch it as I try to climb the stairs because it disorients me when the scene shifts quickly, that's a movie!

- Thank goodness that George Lucas was not solely responsible for Raiders, because this rerelease would have been as wrecked as the original Star Wars trilogy. The swordsman probably would have been digitally altered to fire a bullet from his scimitar handle before Indiana pulled his gun. Stephen Spielberg did digitally alter a print of E.T. to replace the guns the federal agents brandish at one point with walkie-talkies (leaving us with the image of walkie-talkies that have a place for a trigger finger), but even he says that when people want to watch the movie, they should watch the 1982 original.

- John Williams is sometimes not considered much of a classical composer, because so much of his work is done for movies. I don't know about that, but I know he's a master of the movie score -- Raiders would have about a thousand percent less impact without his work. The slightly ominous theme connected to the Ark itself, the first time Indy's triumphant tune sounds over one of his feats of daring -- all of these make a great movie an awesome one.

- Although movie theaters could do a lot more towards improving their product, when we see a piece of cinematic wonder like Raiders, we recognize that there is a purpose for a big screen, a purpose for a massive sound system, a purpose for the community of the audience -- and that none of these can be realized no matter what home system one might be able to build. Movies were made for theaters, and this one highlights that better than most.

- The space shuttle launch sequence short that preceded the movie contains a sentence that always twinges a little bit for me, and maybe for anyone who can remember 1986. Even though the phrase is "Atlantis, go at throttle up," I'm always reminded that's the last communication to the doomed Challenger just before its explosion.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Font of Wisdom?

A psychologist at the University of Illinois took time off from helping subvert the forces of good and being a part of the nexus of all evil in the universe and discovered something interesting about how people might read an article.

He had folks read a short article on capital punishment after answering a survey that helped identify them as politically liberal or conservative. Afterwards, they answered questions about how intelligently the article was presented and so on. The article was pro-capital punishment. The trick was that half the folks read it in regular 12-point Times while the other half read it in Haettenschweiler, a Germanic-styled typeface that is not easy to process.

The liberal-minded folks who disagreed with the article and who read it in the normal typeface tended not to think the argument was very carefully worked out, while the conservative folks did (that's not always a good way to get a split on capital punishment; I am a pretty conservative character but I oppose the death penalty). But liberal-minded folks who read it in Haettenschweiler showed no difference from the conservative-minded ones in their percentages of agreement or disagreement with the article's position. A similar experiment with a non-political issue produced similar results -- a typeface that is harder to read seems to promote more careful reading.

So if you want people to pay attention to the details and nuances of what you write, you can print it in a legible but more difficult typeface to enhance their focus and concentration.

Of course, there's also the possibility that they're not part of an experiment that requires them to read something, and seeing an article printed in a less-easily read font might cause them to wad it up and throw it away. And in this case, by "they" I probably mean me.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1998): The Cheap Killers

Although Michael Mann's Miami Vice ended its television run in 1989, Hong Kong action director Clarence Fok was still desperately wanting to grow up to be just like Mann when he helmed the stylish but empty hitman action yarn The Cheap Killers in 1998.

Sam Cool (Alex Fong) and Yat-Tiu (Sunny Chan) are a pair of contract killers in the Hong Kong underworld. They are reliable and ruthless, which is why their boss hires them to hit a high-level triad chief. But their flamboyance leaves them vulnerable, and Yat-Tiu's attraction to another mobster's young wife Ling (Kathy Chow) exposes them when law enforcement starts to put the squeeze on their employer. Forced to flee, both are wounded and hide out while they take the time to heal their bodies and their minds.

Killers is full of slow-motion shots of Fong and Chan striding toward the camera in the kind of linen ensembles Sonny Crockett trotted out in 1985 and of the pair as they dispatch their enemies and pursuers. Although a number of heavy emotional scenes were probably supposed to add depth and dimension to the pair, the storyline and dialogue prove too great a burden for any of the cast to overcome. The Cheap Killers is well-named, as it isn't worth a whole heck of a lot.

Monday, September 10, 2012

No Authorial Authority

If you ever want to know why you shouldn't trust Wikipedia for anything meaningful, this essay/letter from author Philip Roth should help you out.

Roth happened to be reading the entry for his novel, The Human Stain. He noticed an error; the article said he drew inspiration for Stain from a certain person's experiences. He knew he had actually drawn the novel from a different person's experiences and actually didn't really know the person the entry claimed influenced him. He had a representative contact Wikipedia with his concern; they responded by saying they needed secondary sources to back up Roth's claim.

In the essay, Roth goes into great detail about how the incidents in the life of a friend of his led to the novel, a story of a college professor hounded because of innocent comments deemed racially insensitive.

I'm pretty sure that's one that the Encyclopedia Britannica wouldn't have gotten wrong.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Ultracold Fermions Simulate Spin-Orbit Coupling

Sometimes there are headlines you just have to repeat, even when you have no earthly idea what they mean.

Here's the story if you're enough of a masochist to try to figure it out. I can usually puzzle my way through these since most non-scientific-journal articles aim at folks who don't have any specialized education in the field at hand, but this one is beyond me.

There is an intriguing note at the end -- apparently the experiments described in the article may help in the search for a subatomic particle called "Majorana fermions," which have the property of being their own antiparticles. Since an antiparticle is exactly like a particle except for its electrical charge -- electrons have a certain mass and a negative electrical charge; anti-electrons have the exact same mass but a positive charge, for example -- that would seem to mean that Majorana fermions somehow have both positive and negative charges at the same time. I don't think that's supposed to be possible, but I've spent the last couple of hours trying to figure out spin-orbit coupling and my head hurts waaaaaaaaay too much to be sure.

(Ed. 9/10 to correct "Majorama fermions" to "Majorana fermions")

Saturday, September 8, 2012

In Defense of Liberty

As a private institution, Vanderbilt University has every right to curtail certain Constitutional guarantees on its campus. Students, faculty and staff voluntarily join the Vanderbilt community, and therefore they come in eyes open to the fact that the school will limit both their freedom of assembly and freedom to practice their religion without interference.

If people don't want those Bill-of-Rights basics abridged, then they can go to school or work somewhere else, because Vanderbilt does not operate as an extension of a state government, as do public universities. The irony that Vanderbilt essentially uses the guarantee of free assembly as a protection for its policy to take away that same guarantee from its student organizations is lost on university administrators, but then most things usually are.

Does this mean that the Northwestern University Wildcats victory over the Commodores -- achieved by scoring 10 points in less than 40 seconds with under two minutes left in the game -- is actually some sort of divinely-instituted or karmic justice? Well, I'd never say that. But I have the right to.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Scaredy-Cat! Scaredy-Cat! Scaredy-Cat!

So watching a favorite TV rerun while you're procrastinating may not be actual procrastination -- it may be a way to get your brain recharged to go after your task with renewed energy.

A researcher at the University of New York at Buffalo found that our brains like the "break," so to speak, of watching something we're already familiar with. That could explain why we get a little bit more enjoyment from an appreciated rerun than you'd think it would merit when everything we're seeing is already known to us.

I'm not sure of all of the neurological ins and outs of the research, but I know that there are some reruns I'll watch again and again. WKRP's turkey episode is one. The Frasier episode in which the entire cast pursues a romantic liaison with one another while at a weekend cabin will get me every time. And the post title is taken from a Cheers episode in which Sam is challenged to a phone-number collecting contest by the obnoxious Henri, when Henri gets the first hint that he may not have the inside track that he thought he did. I've seen it a dozen times and I crack up every time.

It also has a valuable moral to teach. Sometimes, even when you win, you lose.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Thanks, Grumble...

Natal day, with lots of well-wishes and around plenty of family. Grumpiness will return tomorrow at its regular time.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Speeches and Spoken

Given the political. Party conventions of last week. And now going on. I thought I would. Write this entry. In the manner. Of those speeches. Apparently achieving. Political office. Removes the ability. To speak. In complete. Sentences!

Having now listened. And watched! Enough of these. Speeches. To have made fun. Of them. I will no longer. Pay any attention. To them. And I will get. My news. And information! From the written word. Because. Reading about. The speeches. Is so much easier. Than trying. To listen. To these. Morons talk.

And I don't. Just mean. Joe Biden.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What A World...

Tonight at the food pantry our church cooks for once a month, I noticed one woman checking her smart phone for messages. Another carried one with an earpiece. The man who coordinates the meal begins the devotional time by asking everyone to silence their cell phones.

I don't begrudge anyone their cell phones or think that having a $500 phone means they're somehow not poor. I've no idea what their circumstances are.

But I have to note that when people who qualify as "poor" in 2012 can own technology that the richest people in the world couldn't have owned in 1992, it couldn't hurt to give a little thanks for the world we live in today.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Riddle Me This, Caped Clunkhead!

Most folks are sort of familiar with Neil Hefti's theme from the 1960s Batman TV show. But as the video below points out, the Dark Knight was not the only one with a song. Frank Gorshin as The Riddler had one too, and it is...definitely weird.

Although I always thought that Gorshin was the one Batman TV villain who could have translated from the camp of the show into the play-it-straight style of the movies. He already had the psychotic manner down pat and just needed a little tweak to make it menacing. And he sure as heck would have been better than the ridiculous version served up by Jim Carrey in Batman Forever. For your enjoyment:

Print Job

For as often as we're told that the new online media is the wave of the future, it seems to find itself plagued by some of the same old problems.

I always wonder where this kind of payoff was back when I was working in the news biz, but then i remember i worked for a small-town daily and it reminds me of why.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1961): Blast of Silence

When he was preparing to shoot Blast of Silence, director Allen Baron was supposed to have offered the role of hitman Frank Bono to his friend Peter Falk. For no pay.

Falk was ready to take the job but got a role in Murder, Inc., instead, for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Baron took the Bono role on himself as well as directing the movie, considered a defining piece of noir moviemaking by many.

Bono is a contract killer working out of Cleveland, brought to New York City to murder a low-level mobster. Although he grew up in New York, he hasn't been back for some time and as the movie develops, we see he has built an essentially solitary and anti-social existence for himself. He interacts with so few people, in fact, that he hasn't ever bothered to come up with a cover story for what he does. That causes him problems when he runs into some other people who grew up in the same orphanage he did and begins to throw him off his game. Clumsy attempts to reconnect with Lorrie (Molly McCarthy), a girl from his past, leave him almost unable to deal with a contact who wants more money in order to keep quiet about Bono's role in the upcoming hit.

Baron is adequate as Bono -- he doesn't seem comfortable in front of the camera, but that helps showcase the character's discomfort in his own skin. Larry Tucker as Big Ralph, the contact who tries to blackmail him, is appropriately creepy and the rest of the cast doesn't embarrass themselves, although McCarthy is the only one called on to do much beyond line readings.

A voiceover narration by an uncredited Lionel Stander gives the movie its noirish philosophical spin, but its sometimes ruminating tone clashes with the flat just-the-facts-ma'am story and performances. There are some fascinating long shots of Manhattan as Bono walks along the streets at Christmas, but overall Blast of Silence is more valuable as an artifact that anything else. The affectless performances, the narration and the heavily stylized camera work look tailor-made for a Mystery Science Theater sendup, as the movie approaches being a parody of its own noir genre.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Joke's On You!

Knock, knock.

Who's there?


Banana who?

Knock, knock.

Who's there?


Banana who?

Knock, knock.

Who's there?


Orange who?

Orange you glad you aren't Syracuse Orangemen defensive back Keon Lyn, whose late, out-of-bounds hit with about a minute left let the valiant, stalwart, upright and clean-living Northwestern University Wildcats finish a 60-plus yard drive to win a game 42-41 after Syracuse had fought back from being down 35-13?

Radio Nowhere, Pt. 576

Lots of time on the road in the last few weeks, which means time with today's Top 40 because those stations often have the clearest signals in ye olde middle of nowhere. Some of it's catchy and fun, some of it's...otherwise.

I think it'll take a lot of work to come up with a song that displays more crass stupidity and less subtlety thatn Flo Rida's "Whistle." They call phrases that have cleverly suggestive secondary meanings "double entendre," and I've sometimes read clumsy such attempts derided as "single entendre."

Rida's song is a rare example of "zero entendre," a phrase I just coined that describes an attempt at wit so lame as to make listeners even dumber than the lyricists who wrote it.

(Edited for typos. Stinkin' iPad keyboard...)