Thursday, January 31, 2013

I Bet Walt's Smiling...

I missed Wreck-It Ralph in theaters, so I hadn't seen Disney's new short Paperman until it went online recently.


One of the knocks on some of the computer-generated movies is that the characters have a sort of sameness to them. Which one came from Pixar, which one came from DreamWorks, which one came from Disney itself...just by looking, it was impossible to tell. The movies themselves were often fantastic -- any Toy Story, Wall-E, The Incredibles and so on, but hand-drawn animation had a distinctness of style that the CGI lacked.

But to make Paperman, Disney developed a technology to blend hand-drawn style animation like that in its great films such as Snow White or Beauty and the Beast with the detail and background that a hand-drawn feature just didn't have the time to include.

Call me a fanboy, but I'm looking forward to what might come from this new process and idea. Which is kind of what Uncle Walt was supposed to be about a lot of the time himself, as I understand it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Save Bambi? Go to Jail!

One day a couple of years ago an Indiana police officer and his wife found an injured fawn on their neighbor's porch. They rescued it and nursed it back to health, planning on raising it until it matured and could survive on its own in the wild.

One day this past summer, an official with the Indiana Department of Conservation found out they had the deer. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources said the deer could be dangerous and so they wanted to euthanize it. This is a funny position for a Department of Natural Resources to take. After all, the U.S. Treasury doesn't just throw away the money it prints...never mind.

Anyway, the day that the deer was scheduled to be put down (requested last meal: salt lick, hold the hunters), it escaped from its rescuers' back yard. For ordinary folks, that might be the end of it, although the police officer's commanders might want him to review jail security procedures. Some of the people he arrests might be almost as smart as the deer and present a greater risk of escape. But not for the brave bureaucrats of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources! The police officer and his wife have been charged with a misdemeanor count of "unlawful possession of a deer," which carries a maximum fine of $2,000 and up to 60 days in the county lockup. It also carries with it the question as to what exactly constitutes lawful possession of a deer in Indiana, but the online information provided by the state of Indiana is not clear.

Now, the police officer and his wife probably should have called a zoo or wildlife refuge to take care of the deer. We think of them as timid and mild, but deer have some pretty powerful legs and if threatened can kick the stuffing out of you or even cave in your skull with a lucky strike. Mating season and other times can bring out aggression in them and like any animal, if they for some reason feel cornered or threatened they will fight. They are wild animals and are not a good fit for a developed neighborhood. A police officer has a special duty to the law and might need to be mindful of the example he or she sets with respect to it.

But does that mean that the couple should have to face the possibility of fines and -- however unlikely --  jail time for this mistake? If your answer is yes, you should probably move to Indiana. They've got some jobs for which you might be an excellent fit.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Who'd A Thunk It?

Apparently 'tis the week to pick on cats.

A science reporter for the BBC gives us this story, in which we are told that cats in the United States kill lots of birds and small animals (apparently cats in England dress them up and have tea). This follows on the heels of the notice earlier in the week about the fellow in New Zealand who wants cats gone because they kill birds.

I can't mock the reporter too much -- since the New Zealand thing hit and she had before her an item on a similar topic, she wrote it up and sent it out to gather what eyeballs it may. That's part of her job.

On the other hand, the folks who did the study? That would be scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and some from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, which means that part of this study belongs to you and me because we paid for it. They reviewed a lot of other studies that examined the predatory abilities of cats to try to make a good guess about how much killing they were doing. And they found out that cats indeed do kill other animals.

You and I are the proud co-owners (along with 300 million or so of our fellow citizens) of a study that says predators prey on animals that are their prey, and then they kill them. I intend to frame mine.

Dreamers Would Ride...

You know, when you get that iTunes email describing new releases and the first one on the list is an acoustic version of Justin Bieber's Believe, you can really, really hope that tapping the little trashcan icon would actually make that album disappear as easily as does the e-mail.

But it isn't so.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Warning Fulfilled!

They warned me that if I voted for Mitt Romney that the administration wouldn't make it a priority to close the indefinite detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba...

...and they were right!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

This May Not End Well...

So a dolt in New Zealand wants to phase house cats out of his little island. He says it's because they kill birds, and he apparently would rather have birds around than cats. Less intellectual competition, perhaps?

He figures people should spay or neuter their cats, then not get another one when the one they have dies. Undomesticated cats can be caught and euthanized, which should be done for free by city and town councils because veterinarians charge too much. People who adopt cats from shelters would be required to purchase a microchip inserted under the feline's skin, so the government can keep track of who owns what cats.

There are more problems with this plan than its originator has brain cells (I set the bar low). For one, there's no such thing as "free" euthanasia of animals. The supplies or equipment used must be purchased from someone, and the person performing the task is unlikely to do it for free (and if they volunteer to do so, then they should probably have a chip put under their skin so the local police know where they are). It's going to cost someone something, and by someone I mean, "the residents of the particular town or city who pay higher taxes or fees to fund the process."

Then there's the problem of human beings engineering the environment, which works something like never. Obviously removing predators will enhance bird populations. But will the birds then over-populate and require periodic mass killings? Will there be other potentially problematic side effects from an increase in the number of airborne digestive tracts? New Zealand's dry cleaners haven't stated their position on the matter yet, but I'm betting they're weighing it carefully.

Or the problem of an unelected dimwit trying to control a society. New Zealand is not the United States, but there's enough similarity to say that we have sufficient problems with elected dimwits doing this -- they don't need volunteer help.

And the final problem? There are 1.4 million domesticated cats in New Zealand, compared with 4.5 million human beings. I couldn't find data on how many undomesticated cats live there, but for grins let's say there's one feral feline for every two sedate little house cats. That makes just more than two million sneaky little furballs, whom even the dim mind behind this idea recognizes as "friendly little serial killers." Who see in the dark way better than we do.

Probably shouldn't have given up that tail and forgotten how to climb trees, primate.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Broken Windows?

So you may have read that the Sacramento Kings are going to be bought by a group of folks from Seattle, who are going to move the NBA team to that city so they can have the team they've been whining about losing since their previous team moved to Oklahoma City.

Among the buyers are, apparently, some folks who help run Microsoft, or at least folks who made a lot of money from the software giant, and at least one California legislator is a little steamed. While he does not actually say, "Dis is a nice little business you got here. Be a shame if anything were, you know? Do you smell smoke? I smell smoke," he definitely captures the tone quite well.

I don't think this will end well for the California legislature if it gets pushed too far. For one, I don't know that Microsoft founder Bill Gates rides horses, rendering that tactic inapplicable. For another, if it comes down to lawyers and money (sometimes known as a "2/3 Zevon"), Gates is a man who really does have a dollar for every time someone called him a nerd, and then some. California? Not so much.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Low Usage, Low Wattage

Whether you disagree with their position or not, it's hard to argue against the fact that a lot of the people who say they're defending the Second Amendment's right to bear arms make use of the right they say exists: They own guns and they shoot guns, for recreation or practice or training.

Sometimes I read things that make me wonder if, should someone ever take a serious run at the freedom of the press clause of the First Amendment, there'll be any serious users of it left to try to defend it.

Then there's Al Gore, former U.S. Senator and former Vice President and former television news network owner, who says that television news has been harmful for democracy. I need to go back and find my fourth grade social studies teacher who told me "democracy" meant "government by the citizens of a state" and tell her it actually means "Al Gore's net worth." Who knew?

And news of George Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss's retirement -- which will leave the Senate with one less cool senatorial name -- has prompted both Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich to say they won't run for the open seat. Rumors that both men explained their decisions with a similar statement: "We found out not running is a cheaper and easier way to achieve the same results we would get if we did run" are so far unfounded.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Notes for Problem-Solving

So the fine folks at Mental Floss found several things that playing certain kinds of music can do and they put them together in a list.

Some of them are pretty obvious -- No. 4 says that if you don't want teenagers hanging around your space, play some classical music and they will leave. But that's not just teenagers and not just classical music. A Fye Music Store I used to visit was frequently, for some reason, playing uniquely vapid tunes over its PA system (and often no other kinds of music, which would sort of make you wonder about their inventory). Unless I had a specific purchase in mind, I usually didn't linger when one of those albums showed up and left to shop another day. I recall one day cutting my browsing short and heading to the counter to check out. The clerk asked, "Find everything you were looking for?" and I answered, "No, but I can feel myself getting stupider with every second of that song." I of course can't remember the song, which shows you that brain cell death is not always a bad thing.

No. 10 is pretty interesting. Apparently a study from 1999 showed that playing German music on a PA system in a wine story boosted the sale of German wine, and playing French music did the same thing for French wines. Study subjects didn't remember anything about the music they'd heard, either, so it wasn't as if the strains of "Grossvater Tanz" made people consciously choose to reach for the wine from the vine of the Rhine.

Of course, other unofficial surveys have shown that playing bagpipes can make people drink Scotch. This is because many people are philistines wha' nae appreciate the pipes and they "can't find anything to make [them] pass out quicker." These people are, of course, to be pitied and kept away from sharp objects and matches.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Amazonian Masterhood?

The rise of as one of the go-to sources for book buyers has produced some problems. A story in The New York Times highlights how a book about Michael Jackson's later years was sort of swarmed by negative book reviews written by MJ fans. Their one-star reviews drove the book's rating down and at one point, enough people complained about physical copies of the book being defective that the online retailer stopped selling them for a couple of days. The author thinks the all the negative reviews hurt sales of his book.

Negative reviews often hurt book sales, but the problem here is the suggestion that the majority of those writing the downchecks are slamming the book without reading it, in order to wreck its sales and get people to avoid it. The reporter at the Times apparently didn't ask one of the Facebook coordinators of the group that's taken responsibility for slamming the book if he believed the reviewers had read the book they were rating. At least, if he did ask, he didn't include the answer.

I've no idea of how accurate the book is, and even less interest. It would seem to me that fans of Jackson might have a warmer regard for a book that claims his "not guilty" verdict in a trial for the molestation of young boys was justified, and relies on his lawyer in that case as a source, but again -- no idea, less interest.

I've more of an interest in Amazon's que será, será, approach to screening their reviews for false negatives as well as false positives. Apparently, it's a worse for a writer to get his or her friends to improperly puff a book than it is for haters to get their friends to improperly slam it. But on the other hand, that attitude could lead to more and more people paying book reviews the attention they deserve: None.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Nobody Does It Better...

Submitted without comment from here:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Noteworthy Day

A high school friend of mine is in Washington, D.C. for the public Presidential Inauguration ceremonies, being held this year on the national holiday set aside to honor Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The holiday, of course, makes it particularly meaningful to President Obama because of his heritage. And the coinciding holiday and inauguration are particularly meaningful to my friend because of his heritage.

I've no doubt the president will soon say something that reminds me why I believe he is one of the least sufficient men to hold this office in recent memory. He may even do so today -- he has the gift.

But that won't detract from me being pleased that my friend can attend the ceremonies. I understand this has great significance for him, even if I can't really walk in his shoes and fully grasp that significance. So I'll just be happy for him and people like him. The other can wait a day.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Cleaning up the City

If you're going to wash windows at a hospital where children are fighting cancer and other deadly diseases, why not go ahead and give them a little thrill?

The best part (watch the video) is the way that "Spider-Man" posed for pictures with the kids after finishing his task. I guess the jury's still out on whether or not super-heroes are real, but it seems pretty obvious that ordinary, every-day heroes can be found just about anyplace -- even hanging off the side of a building, wielding a squeegee.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Can't-Miss Hit!

One of the things that old (or middle-aged) grumps say about pop music in current times is that it's predictable -- there's really no room for innovation or originality because so many of the songs are tailored to be hits rather than to express any creativity or art.

On the one hand, that's exactly right. Of course, it was exactly right when we middle-aged grumps were listening to pop tunes as well. The reason "Imagine" or "We Built This City" aren't dumber than "My Humps" or "Die Young" is the same reason there's an absolute zero temperature -- you can't reduce the energy level of a substance below zero and you can't get any dumber than John Lennon, Starship, the Black-Eyed Peas or Ke$ha did with those particular songs. Yes, it's packed pretty tightly down at the bottom, but to borrow a phrase from Messrs. Lieber and Stoller, even though it's always crowded, you still can find some room. Lady Gaga has built a career on that principle.

On the other hand, the idea that pop songs are predictable is only partially true, say about 60 percent. Scientists at the University of Bristol gathered some statistics of hit songs on the United Kingdom music charts. They examined several characteristics, such as loudness, harmonic complexity, tempo, time duration and so on. They measured which songs charted higher and which ones stayed on the charts longer. When they had done all of this, they developed an algorithm that tried to predict whether or not a particular song would be popular. Pandora does something similar when you create a "station" or playlist from a particular song.

Since they used hits from the last 50 years, they also charted trends in hit singles. Before the 1980s, danceability was not a factor in a song's chances to chart well, despite what kids rating records on American Bandstand would say. Slow-tempo songs and ballads were likely to do better during that same time frame than they would today.

Although the algorithm's overall success rate was about 60 percent, it did much better at predicting chart position during the first half of the 1990s and since the year 2000. It did a much poorer job of predicting chart success during the last few years of the 1970s and the early 1980s. The article suggests that may mean that these years were "particularly creative and innovative periods of pop music."

As someone in his teens and early 20s -- the prime pop-music-buying age -- during that period, I can't disagree. And I can also now say that pop music really was better when I was younger. It's been proven by science.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Say That Again?

Despite the advent of things like the Siri program on some iPhones and the thrice-cursed automated call centers that almost every company seems to use, it's actually kind of tough to get a computer to understand the human voice.

Things like background noise, regional accents, words that are homophones and so on can greatly affect whether or not what your computer heard is the same as what you said.

Another problem, not mentioned in the article at the link, is that many times, what I and many people may say to our computers is anatomically and theologically impossible. And let's not get into the computerized voice-recognition menus at places like the phone company -- although it would be correct to say that the program's parents were never married, the reality is that the reason for that statement has less to do with the alleged loose morals of said parents and more to do with the fact that programs don't have parents.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Long Wait Brings Long Wind

The publication of A Memory of Light, the final volume in the epic Robert Jordan fantasy series Wheel of Time, inspires a long post over at the long-post blog.

"New Metamaterial Camera Has Superfast Microwave Vision"

Scandal erputed today as scientists displayed a new kind of sensing device that may replace airport scanners and allow police officers to detect concealed weapons at a distance. Although scientists are pretty excited about the possibilities of cameras that perceive microwave radiation instead of optical light, reporter Clark Kent caused a stir when he audibly responded to the news with a "Hmph. Big deal."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


-- At what height can you drop a steak into the Earth's atmosphere so that it will be cooked by the time it hits the ground? Technically, it can't be done, although you can get the outside of it pretty well charred before the charred layer is stripped off by turbulence. You can achieve the same results by bugging your dad when he's grilling.

-- Remember those great days when the White House responded to the online petition to explore creating a Death Star with humor, sending back a memo with lots of Star Wars laughs and acting like cool folks who got the joke? Yeah, not any more. The new limit probably won't stop the goofy petitions but I imagine will at least keep some of the other embarrassing ones -- like this one asking the White House to tell Harry Reid's Senate to do its job -- out of the news. I can't disagree; if there were 100,000 people who cared that much about whether or not Senators did their job we'd have a lot of different Senators.

-- Hey Lance, don't go away mad. Just go away.

-- At the bookstore the other day, I saw a book called The Essential Chomsky, collecting some writings of linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky. Curiously, Mr. Whipple was nowhere in sight.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

x(y) •∑ = A

I have no idea what the string of symbols I typed in the headline reads, but according to a survey mentioned here, if I include it in an academic paper I increase my chances of getting an "A."

I thought for a minute how this might have improved my indifferent undergraduate GPA, but then I remembered I took only a handful of classes that included math or science and realized they wouldn't have budged the overall figure by that much.

Monday, January 14, 2013

One Chart to Rule Them All

Some folks who have fun with The Lord of the Rings have put together a flow chart that shows how Gandalf the great wizard solves his problems.

It's pretty neat, but I'm not sure Gandalf would be able to follow it unless it was translated into the proper Middle Earth runes.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

I've Got a Hole in Me Pocket

Or I would, if I tried to carry around an actual $1 trillion platinum coin, one of the sillier ideas that has come out of Washington D.C. in recent weeks as a way to deal with the fact that Congress can't stop spending money.

In a few weeks, the government will run out of the authority to borrow money. But since they spend more than they take in, they can't keep running things without that authority, so there will have to be a vote to raise the debt limit. You and I, of course, can't do that even if we asked our banks very nicely, but we are not special enough (in every sense of that word) to be a part of the federal government.

Some Representatives and Senators don't want to raise the limit -- at least, not without a chance for some goodies to fall their way first -- so they are threatening to vote against any measure to do so. If enough of them do that, then the government can't borrow any more money and a lot of government services will shut down. Eventually, someone will notice (Hey, I haven't had any junk mail in weeks! This is awesome!) and then we will have to fuss about it.

The $1 trillion coin solution suggested that the Treasury Department use its own authority to mint a platinum coin in the denomination of $1 trillion and thus give itself the ability to spend $1 trillion more. Now, that coin would not actually have $1 trillion of platinum in it. As the article at notes, $1 trillion of platinum at the recent selling price of around $1,600 per ounce would need more than 42 billion pounds of platinum and if minted in the proportions of a normal quarter, it would be big enough to be seen from space.

If, of course, you found another nation that would be willing to take you into space. Because among the many things that 42-billion pound coin would pay for would not be any kind of manned orbital vehicle launched by the nation that minted it.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Verrrry Carefully...

The above is the answer to the question, "How do you give an elephant a vasectomy?"

If you would like more detail, RealClearScience's Newton Blog has it here. The headline: "How do you make a raging elephant fire blanks?"

If you're referring to how to perform the same act on a politcial party that uses the elephant as its symbol, the answer is, "Nominate the guy who lost to the guy who lost the last general election." See 2012, 2008 and 1996 for examples.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Partly Cloudy With a 50% Chance of Batman

The phenomenon known as apophenia describes finding patterns in what are actually random collections of data. And the pattern found in this model prediction offers a symbol that Commissioner James Gordon knows very well.

Apparently, Gotham City is located somewhere near Austin.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Chickens, Roosting!

They told me that if I voted for Mitt Romney that the govnernment would be run by nothing but middle-aged rich white guys...and they were right!

In other news, today marks the beginning of the sixth year of these natterings. January 9, 2008, (also a Wednesday) was the first post. This means that any extraterrestrial civilizations more than five light years away from earth still hold out hope for the intelligence of humanity; those closer have been exposed and can no longer make that claim with any conviction.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Dead Man Writing

Seen at the bookstore: Something called Robert B. Parker's Ironhorse, a continuation of the late author's Western series featuring lawmen and gunslingers Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. Parker published four novels with the pair, of which the first two were the best, the third serviceable and the fourth forgettable.

Parker's estate has so far commissioned three writers to continue some of his different series. Television writer and Jesse Stone movie scripter Michael Brandman has been continuing the work of the police chief of Paradise, Mass., in a truly lame manner. Brandman has very little of Parker's ear for dialogue and no sense of his storytelling and narrative rhythm. His books will be one of the reasons the trees wipe us out when the Ents come back and wake them up.

Mystery writer and journalist Ace Atkins has continued Parker's mainstay, the work of private detective Spenser. Atkins' first outing was immensely better than either of Brandman's and not a bad piece of work in its own right. A first-class novelist, Atkins seems to have found a way to write Spenser without trying to write a Parker pastiche, and make it work well.

So what's the expectation for actor/producer Robert Knott, who has taken up the reins on Cole and Hitch? I'll confess to very low optimism levels, to be honest. For one, Knott's never written a book before. Like Brandman, he helped adapt an earlier Parker work (Knott co-wrote and co-produced the movie version of Appaloosa) but hasn't ever put anything of his own between covers. For another, the extremely un-Parkerian number 371 stands out -- that's the page count for Ironhorse, and it's easily 80 higher than any collection of Parker's spare, unadorned prose.

Eventually, some copies of Ironhorse will make it to the used book store and we'll see if I'm being unduly pessimistic. If I'm not, and Knott follows Brandman's lead, at least that might mean that if the estate chooses to continue the Sunny Randall novels the odd-even pattern might put them in the hands of a decent author.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


I'll tell you how to fix the real estate market right here, bub.

Probably help some ranchers as well.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Cosmic Fetch

Space pioneers will have to face a lot of problems. One of the largest is that they are space pioneers, doing things no one has done and going (boldy) where no one has gone before. This means that they will more or less be their own experiments in how to do things, and that can pose problems. A mistake in the lab might mean a trip to the janitor's closet for a mop and bucket. A mistake a million miles from Earth would probably mean a trip to an even greater beyond than the travelers were currently voyaging through.

So some folks at NASA, maybe among the few who still try to think big when they think of what a national space agency ought to be doing, have an idea about how to practice some of the things that long-term manned missions will have to handle. They suggest we basically go rope an asteroid, haul it back to the ranch (or maybe just Earth orbit) and then use it to practice some of those things. The same techniques, of course, could be used to take an asteroid that has a poor understanding of Earth's personal space and haul it somewhere else.

Among the possible test runs could be extracting water or minerals from the asteroid so that space missions might not have to haul everything they needed along with them inside their ship. Nobody who plans a vacation along our interstate highway system hauls every gallon of gas they'll need from the trip in the back seat (the temptation of the kids to test other drivers' reaction times with improvised Molotov cocktails might be too great, for one). When the tank is empty, they find a gas station and they fill up.

Could manned space missions operate the same way? Well, if an unmanned probe has gone and snagged an asteroid to make it handy, then scientists and astronauts can test techniques for checking out how feasible such an idea is.

Although the story at doesn't mention this directly, having an asteroid around that's small enough to move could simplify the missions even more. If you've got a big rock floating around and you know you'll need a big ship to take people someplace, you don't have to build the ship -- you can get by with building big motors and attaching them to the big rock. Then you can slap a building on the rock or even just dig some big rooms inside it.

Of course, the whole project depends on NASA thinking forward. Although that's tough, it's possible. The other obstacle is depending on the politicians who spend money on bankrupt solar panel companies to think forward as well.

So obviously, the plan is doomed.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


An old joke Oklahoma teachers tell is that whenever surveys or rankings come out about per-student spending or test scores or some other field in which you would want your state to do well, they would look at the list and then offer thanks for the existence of Mississippi.

From now on, every time a story or opinion piece or blog post comes out that highlights something dumb either of my state's two senators might say (and it's not hard to do), I will be offering thanks for the voters of Nevada.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Know Thyself

According to The American Freshman Survey, America's college freshmen think they're pretty darn good at what they do.

Unfortunately the massive downers who read their test scores think otherwise. Seeing this made me think of a conversation I had earlier this week with a friend who's teaching graduate business courses at a state university. He's just been doing it for a semester, but he said he'd run into a couple of problems with his grading. Apparently, he believes in it, and I guess a couple of the students in the class took exception to the idea of their work being evaluated against a mean ol' objective standard.

Since they're in classes to earn graduate business degrees, the chances are good that even if they find a way to slide through school without being seriously tested they'll eventually run into someone who will pretty much insist on things being done a certain way. This person will be called a "boss" if they work for someone else, and this person will be called a "judge" if they own their own company.

I'd just make a surface guess, but I think the problem comes less from younger folks these days being told often and oftener that they're special. I think it comes from a failure to understand that being special doesn't automatically translate into success or skill. I've had several friends who, in the last year or so, have had children. Those children, none more than two years old, are all special. But not a one of them can read worth a darn. They can't drive a car. They can't solve...or say... a quadratic equation (Yes, I can, but it will take awhile and more than one attempt). I'd hesitate to let them vote...not because I think we'd be any worse off if they did but because requiring children to pay attention to politicians is just plain cruel.

All of those tasks must be learned. Some we learn well. Some we learn less well. Some we learn and then dispense with once we move beyond the arena in which their knowledge is important (this is known as the "When am I ever going to use algebra in real life?" effect). Some of us are gifted for some of them, and some of us for others. My friends' children will be no different, and they will be no less special no matter what their gifts and aptitudes. But unless they pay attention in math, they'll get the kind of grades I got, and dealing with financial reports, tax returns and the checkbook will be the same kind of long hard slog it is for me.

And no report card worth the paper it's on gives out grades in self-esteem.

Friday, January 4, 2013


You know, when you hear Bruno Mars' ersatz Police tune "Locked Out of Heaven" on the radio, it sounds pretty good.

Until you switch stations and hear the real thing.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sorry, You're Not on the List

Ah, perhaps you're thinking of the response your at-best-U-list Friar would hear were he to try to crash some swank Hollywood bash filled with the beautiful people and their large bodyguards.

No doubt you would be right, but in this case I'm referring to a 15-year-old Icelandic girl named Blaer. Or, in the eyes of her government, "Stulka," which is Icelandic for "girl." According to official Icelandic records and law, the young woman does exist, but she does not have a first name. The error stems from a mistaken understanding by the priest who baptized her, as he believed the name was permitted when it actually wasn't.

Yes, you read that right. In Iceland, and according to the story at the link, a couple of other countries in Europe, you may choose your child's name from a list of officially approved names that meet certain criteria. Young Blaer has the problem that Icelandic is a language with gendered nouns, like Spanish or German and her name, which translates into English as "light breeze," takes a masculine article when it is just a regular old noun instead of a name. Had Blaer been born a boy, she likely could have had her name approved through the special application process. Of course, there would be the problem of being a boy named "Light Breeze," but that's for the schoolyard to handle. In all official government documents, Blaer can't call herself Blaer, but has to identify herself as "Girl."

The story goes into some detail about how names can get approved even if they're not on the list and what names have recently been given approval and which ones haven't.

In college, I had a journalism school classmate from Iceland, and she was a neat person who had a lot of interesting things to teach about her homeland. But in spite of that and in spite of all the other neat folks from Europe I've met in my life, I have to say that stories like this make me positively ecstatic that my forebears got themselves off that utterly ridiculous continent just as lickety-durn-split as they could.


With The Intercept, Dick Wolf joins the ranks of the hit TV-producers turned novelists. It's actually a pretty small club, with only Stephen J. Cannell and Steven Bochco having met the membership requirements in recent years.

And Wolf may be the only active member -- Cannell, creator of The Rockford Files and The A-Team, among others, passed away in 2010 and Bochco, who brought Hill Street Blues, L. A. Law and NYPD Blue to the screen seems to have been a one-and-done novelist. Wolf, of course, is the creator of the Law & Order franchise of shows, the first of which began in 1990 and which is still represented on air by Law & Order: SVU.

In The Intercept, Wolf sticks with the agency that brought him fame and fortune. Jeremy Fisk is an NYPD detective assigned to the department's Intelligence Division. It's an anti-terror unit modeled on the CIA that's designed to ferret out and stop terror attacks directed at the United States' largest target, New York City. A would-be bomber aboard an international flight is thwarted by some passengers on the eve of the dedication of the new Freedom Tower on the site of the old World Trade Center twin towers. They are celebrities and their successful defense is seen as a good omen for the ceremonies, held over the 4th of July holiday.

But Fisk is uncertain -- another passenger on the plane, from Saudi Arabia, has disappeared and reports of him pop up at troublesome places. Was there another plot behind the hijacking attempt? What is actually going on?

Wolf knows how to pace a story; his career in episodic television means The Intercept never bogs down or meanders but heads straight from start to the finish. He also has a great sense of location as he describes action in Manhattan. As the detectives and others move from place to place it doesn't feel as though the writer is using a travel map of the city to tell us where they are.

On the other hand, none of the characters in The Intercept has much depth to them, and there are quite a few places where Wolf the novelist is apparently expecting Wolf the TV producer to hire actors to show what's going on. Regular watchers of the original Law & Order got used to expecting the L&O twist, where everything that had been leading detectives and viewers in a certain direction was suddenly turned on its head and moved us along a completely different path. Wolf sticks one of those just before his final act, leaving him with nowhere near enough space to flesh out the new direction and give it the weight of the previous storyline. The storyline itself is shot full of holes -- the only way Fisk learns who the actual villain of the piece is comes from a sort of diabolos ex machina, a completely random and nonsense choice by that character to do something that is guaranteed to make sure police will know who he is. Throw in a senseless late-story murder that screams, "I'm a significant event created only in order to provide a sense of pathos and tragedy!" and you have an unpromising debut.

In the end, The Intercept plays out like one of the later-season episodes of Law & Order, when the show labored under the weight of its own clichés and Wolf's own tendency to use it to preach whatever cause he might be supporting at the time. Whatever flashes of suspense, fun and good storytelling it manages to show are never brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and the reader who finishes isn't rewarded for loyalty but is instead the target of a blown raspberry and a "Nyah, nyah nyah." Wolf says he is working on the next Fisk novel; here's hoping we get one of those patented L&O twists and it turns out to be a lot better than what came before.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Victory for Science!

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have determined that one of the appeals of women wearing high-heeled shoes is that the shoes produce a walk which exaggerates the wearer's feminine attributes.

Of course, the first thing to wonder is just how someone gets a job like that. But putting that very important question aside, the article makes a couple of assumptions that I don't think are warranted. The writer suggests that, when asked why they wear high-heeled shoes, many women would respond that the shoes improve their appearance and make them feel more attractive, and he believes the root of that feeling is the increased height that the heels provide. I disagree. Although I am now a middle-aged guy who is far too grown-up for such things, I recall from younger days that, "Wow, those shoes make her look really tall" was not even in the top 10 things I or my fellow healthy young men might say when observing a woman wearing high heels.

The writer also seems to think that this research is somehow groundbreaking or new. But there is actually a great deal of published literature on the subject, including Young, A., Scott, B., and Young, M., "Girls Got Rhythm" (1979); Hooker, J.L., "Boom Boom" (1961); Tucker, T., "High-Heel Sneakers" (1963); Long, S. and Stevenson, W., "Devil With a Blue Dress On" (1964) (also Ryder, M. and Wheels, D., 1966); Troup, B. and Penniman, R., "The Girl Can't Help It" (1956) and many others.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


Chicago Tribune online headline:

"Northwestern ends bowl drought"

Mayan Daily News headline:

"Ancient Mayan priests: We were a little off on the date"