Thursday, February 28, 2013

Staying Power

When she suddenly appeared at the top of the charts in the 1990s, Lisa Loeb managed to both twist and solidify the image of the female singer-songwriter for much of the last 18 years. With retro cats-eye glasses that gave her a sort of nerdy hipster image (before that image was even really known as such), literate and confessional lyrics that dove into the deep end of intimacy, relationship issues and the melancholy reality surrounding them all and a quirkily cute air, she summoned the Manic Pixie Dream Girl when Zooey Deschanel was still in junior high.

Loeb's also had a yen for catchy pop hooks -- it might not seem that the same woman who sang "Stay (I Missed You)" could also write "I Do," but she did and often mixes the two. After spending the last half of the last decade focusing on children's music, Loeb opened 2013 by releasing her first "grown-up" album in almost 10 years, No Fairy Tale.

Loeb mostly skips the low-key acoustic folk style that's characterized her work for a collection of power-pop think pieces that highlight her gift for inventive wordplay. "Matches" and "Married" are bright and fun-sounding twists on her usual relational musings, with the latter adding some of the perspective that years and her own life as a wife and mother have given her. While "Ami, I'm Sorry" is definitely in the mode of the folkie-confessional Loeb that hit with "Stay," "The '90s" is a sly jab at nostalgia about the pop culture of a decade when the idea of a single pop culture began to fall apart. When the it girl of the 1990s, the one who was so "indie" she had a number one hit without even a record deal, says she doesn't want to go back there, then you might have a hint it's time to grow up.

Fans who adore Loeb's confessional writing and her folk side may not enjoy No Fairy Tale as much as some of her earlier work, but it'll be hard to find someone having more fun on a record than she is here. And it turns out her fun is about as contagious and engaging as her introspection, which makes Fairy Tale a great candidate for frequent repeats.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Tread Lightly

You know, reporter Bob Woodward has sometimes been said to embellish his stories and even to have made up facts and interviews. So when he says he felt that an e-mail response to his questions of a White House official was a "veiled threat," it's hard to know for sure if he was exaggerating. Or even if he wasn't, it's not easy to determine from the language of the e-mail exactly what the response from the official was intended to mean.

But if Woodward's right, that's one incredibly dumb senior White House official. Ask any living Nixon administration official how good an idea it is to be on the wrong side of Bob Woodward. I'd imagine deliberately ticking him off could only be worse than that.

Someone may have stepped in a pile of doo-doo that he or she may quickly find is quite a bit more than ankle deep.

Van the Man

One of the neatest things about Van Cliburn, the celebrated pianist who died Wednesday at 78, was that he was from Kilgore, Texas. He was born in Louisiana but grew up in Texas, a reality the sometimes coastally snobbish classical music world had to deal with every time he would entertain with his skill and heart.

The other neat thing (and probably the top neatest thing, to be honest) was the Van Cliburn competition, an international piano contest that featured and awarded some of the best up-and-coming classical pianists in the world. Cliburn himself rose to fame as a 23-year-old winner of an international music contest held in Moscow in 1958, and his competition served as a great way to ensure that the music he loved could continue to be performed and loved by gifted and talented artists long after he passed from the scene.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

We Can Rebuild Him...

The article on this prosthetic hand that can send sense impulses back along its circuits that can trigger nerve reactions doesn't mention cost. Forty years ago, the going rate for such a hand, along with an eye and two legs, was $6 million, but I imagine things have to be adjusted for inflation.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Solidly Transparent

They warned me that if I voted for Mitt Romney we'd have an administration that cloaked itself in secrecy, avoided the press and tried to have discussions among elected officials closed off from the media and public view...

...and they were right!

Sunday, February 24, 2013


Physics professor Rhett Allen, blogging at Wired, suggests which way you should choose in the age-old question, "Would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or a hundred duck-sized horses?"

Dr. Allen uses physics and known properties of the size, density and mass of horses and ducks to arrive at his answer. In brief, it depends on what you mean by "horse-sized." If you mean the duck has dimensions equivalent to those of a horse, then you should pick the horse-sized duck, because in all likelihood it wouldn't be able to walk very far or very fast and would not be at all agile in a meleé. It would be too big for its two legs to carry it well.

If you mean a duck that weighs as much as a horse weighs, you get a very different scenario: Your duck is the size of an ostrich or an emu, which move pretty darn quickly and are highly maneuverable, giving it a considerable edge over you in a fight.  Thus you should attempt to placate it with a very large mound of whatever it is that ducks eat that has the same effect as chocolate does upon irritated female companions or family members.

So Dr. Allen would pick the hundred duck-sized horses, and so would I. Especially if we were near a pond; horses don't naturally float like ducks do and if you get them out in the water they're too busy swimming to attack you.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Best Picture Pictures?

A writer invites her 7-year-old daughter to judge what this year's nominees for best picture may be about, based only on the posters (she is too young to see any of them. Way to reach out to that future audience, Motion Picture Academy).

Several of her guesses are very funny and some of them would probably have made better movies than the ones the posters actually represent. According to her mom, the young Jeanette-Siskel-in-the-making is picking Lincoln to win the Oscar.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Death From Above!

At least, a new government initiative will be death for you if you're a brown tree snake on Guam.

Brown tree snakes apparently got to Guam during World War II, hitching rides on military vehicles or some other part of the high-level traffic at the island during that conflict. In the ensuing years, they have wiped out several species of native Guam birds and almost destroyed many others.

Should the slithery genocidists manage to hitch another ride, they might spread to other islands where birds don't know how to handle a nocturnal, tree-dwelling predator. Hawaii is particularly worried about an infestation. So the U.S. Department of Wildlife will drop dead mice on the snakes while they're still stuck on Guam.

This will be harmful to the snakes not because they're slow and can't dodge a falling mouse. Although I suppose that might happen. Brown tree snakes, you see, are perfectly OK with eating something that's already dead -- many snakes aren't -- and these mice will have been fed aspirin Tylenol before they pass away. This is not because Wildlife officials think the snakes would stop eating birds if they didn't have headaches or something. After all, if the problem is the snakes multiplying too quickly, the experience of many husbands will show that the presence of headaches usually serves to reduce the activity that typically leads to offspring. Cutting back on the headaches would not achieve any reduction in reptilian birth rates.

As it happens, another feature of brown tree snakes is that the acetaminophen found in aspirin Tylenol is poisonous to them. If they eat an acetaminophenized dead mouse, then they kick the bucket. On the off chance a human eats the dead mouse, the acetaminophen will not harm him or her. What eating the dead mouse does, on the other hand, is still open to question.

"Mice, eh? I never heard the like," St. Patrick of Ireland said when reached for comment.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Show That Never Ends? Reloaded

In which we meet a new character, who calls our protagonist for his service visit on Wednesday afternoon and while asking if anyone can meet him at the house, finds and reads out loud the notation on the call sheet, "Can't meet in afternoon," and tells our protagonist that he will cancel the call and note it down for Thursday.

And in which we will meet a fourth character, Third Technician on Phone, who is called Thursday afternoon to see if there is a problem with the service visit since none has been made during the entire day that the protagonist has stayed home and the end of the business day is approaching, and who says, "The call slip says Friday and it needs to be in the morning, is that right?" and who also says "I'm very sorry, sir" many times, as though it is an incantation that will somehow erase the substandard and indifferent service Cable One has provided.

And who, it should be noted, greets the protagonist's question, "Can you give me a single reason why I shouldn't be a customer of another company right now?" with silence.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

From the Rental Vault: The Last Rites of Joe May (2011)

Aging man alienated from family and mostly alone encounters single mom. Man is initially reluctant to interact with mom and family but is won over by spunky adorable child. Mom and family face looming crisis. Can aging man's intervention help resolve the issue, allowing them a fresh start? Take that reliable formula, most recently spotlighted by Rob Reiner and Morgan Freeman in The Magic of Belle Isle, give it a rewrite by Chicago author Nelson Algren, and you will have 2011's The Last Rites of Joe May.

Aging hustler Joe May (Dennis Farina) returns from a seven-week stint in the hospital to find his landlord believed him dead and rented out his apartment. Left without a home or car and with just enough possessions to fit into an overnight bag, May seems prepared to spend his night on the street until the woman who now lives in the apartment (Jamie Ann Allman as Jenny Rapp) with her young daughter (Meredith Droeger as Angelina) offers to put him up. Eventually they strike up an arrangement whereby Joe stays and helps Jenny with the rent, which she has trouble covering.

Jenny has other troubles, such as an abusive boyfriend (Ian Barfield as Stanley Buczkowski) who's also a Chicago cop. So does Joe, who can't find any of his old compatriots willing to stay in the hustling game or any respect from the street-level crime bosses who run it. Although Joe and Angelina bond, Jenny's boyfriend and his violence loom over everything and Joe's own inability to keep up with 2011 stands out as much as his 30-year-old leather coat.

Droeger is very good as the street-wiser-than-she-should-be young Angelina, showing a child's tender-heartedness towards the adrift old man now in her life even while she builds her wall against what she sees Stan doing to her mother. Allman and Barfield play their rather familiar roles well also.

But the movie is Farina's to carry and he does so unbelievably well. A former Chicago cop, the actor spent a good portion of his life around a thousand Joe Mays, and he carries the combination of tattered dignity, bemusement at a hyper-accelerated world, sadness at the loss of bridges burned and what used to be and conviction that he was one break away from having it made as though these qualities were his own. Though usually a looming tough guy, here Farina manages to transform himself by turns so that he seems like an emptying husk or a servant begging for a favor. His role is just as clichéd as any of the others, but since he's given so much more time and screen to work with, the sterotype of the aging hustler becomes the brush with which he paints, rather than the usual paint-by number outline that a lesser actor would fill with factory-issued colors.

Joe Maggo wrote and directed Joe May, and his direction betters his script. Chicago's gllittering lakeshore is nowhere to be seen and its towers only appear briefly in the background. The gray wintry West Side is the backdrop for characters who themselves seem to lack most of spring and summer's sense of life. Those choices combine with his cast's skill to elevate Joe May into a movie that can give you something to think about long after it's over.

Farina had some low-level buzz for an Oscar nomination after Joe May screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, but it didn't amount to either a win or a nomination. Given that the nominees for that year included George Clooney starring once again as George Clooney in The Descendants and Brad Pitt's solid but perfectly ordinary turn in Moneyball, it looks like Academy voters are the ones who pulled a hustle.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Show that Never Ends?

Scene 1: Interior; study. A MAN is on the phone:

Man: Then I'll need someone to come fix the modem?
Technician on Phone: Yes, it's definitely a problem with the signal coming in. I actually have a spot open for a technician tonight.
Man: I have a meeting tonight from 5:30 to 6:30.
ToP: All I have tomorrow are all-day slots.
Man: I'm not available from 10 to 3; I can't get home then.
ToP: Well, you can call when you get home and then they can schedule a service call.
Man: OK.

Scene 2: Next day. MAN is on the phone again:

Man: Yes, I need to schedule a service call for my modem and TV. I'm not getting any Internet and my TV reception is not clear.
Second Technician on Phone: Have you checked out the connections?
Man: Yes, I called yesterday and the service person walked me through the troubleshooting and saw it was defnitely a problem with the signal coming into the house. She said to call when I was back home so I could schedule a technician.
SToP: I'm afraid I don't have any service slots open for this afternoon. Can you be home tomorrow?
Man: Well, only in the morning. I have church activities all afternoon and I can't get back until after 7.
SToP: We try to have our technicians finish before 5. I'm sorry, we only have the all-day slots; I can't reserve specific times. They can call you when they're on the way and say when they're coming.
Man: I understand, but I can't leave during the activities in the afternoon, no matter whether they call me or not.
SToP: Well, I can put that you'd prefer morning, but they can't guarantee that.
Man: That's fine, but if they call in the afternoon I can't meet them; it's not just "prefer." You might as well tell them if they are calling in the afternoon to go ahead and get another call, and I'll just call Thursday.
SToP: I'm sorry, all we have on Thursday is all-day.
Man: Well, we'll try that, and if it doesn't work I'll call to tell them when to come pick up their equipment.

Cable One Television: We'll repair our malfunctioning equipment at our earliest convenience, regardless of your schedule, and any lost service days won't cost you a dollar less on your monthly bill!

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Word to the Nervous

If that meteor smacking Russia made you a little antsy, you'd probably better not read this about the upcoming show expected to be put on by Comet PANSTARRS.

It's just likely to be bright and visible. It's not going to hit us, so you don't have to worry about any Hot Fudge Tuesdaes coming up soon.

As far as anybody knows, anyway.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Real Life Animation

This clever artist added Calvin and his tiger Hobbes, as well as Calvin's parents, to some real-world pictures that kind of matched the backgrounds Bill Watterson drew in the cartoon.

Calvin and Hobbes is one of those things that there should be more of than there is. Just sayin'.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Don't Drink and Orbit

When you're a distiller, you experiment with the conditions that create your product. Does it age differently if you store it in different materials? If you add certain substances to the stored liquid, does it change the taste or the content?

And if you store it in space, does it mature differently?

Well, maybe not every distiller asks that question. But the Ardberg Distillery, makers of Scotch whiskey, did, and they currently have a batch of their product in orbit on board the International Space Station. Although it's not in an actual oak cask, it is being stored with oak chips of the same kind that makes up the casks. The same amount from the same original distillation is being stored and aged at Ardberg's own facility, and after a couple of years they will be measured against each other.

Ardberg has so far not addressed the rumor that this experiment is the first step towards the production of Romulan Ale.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Bookish Twinbill

About a year ago, I noted a poll which asked which of several hyper-specialized academic press books a person was likely to read. It may surprise you to read that I made fun of those books.

One of them I did not mock, though, and that was Thomas Aiello's The Kings of Casino Park, a brief history of the 1932 season of the Monroe Monarchs Negro Southern League Baseball team. I said that I might pick it up someday, but I was fortunate enough to receive it as a gift. Aiello, a history professor at Valdosta State University in Georgia, researched the short life of the Monarchs and some of their impact on community life in their small northwestern Louisiana town.

Like most southern towns, Monroe was highly segregated and had a reputation as the "lynch law center of Louisiana." Its newspapers routinely ignored African-Americans unless they were mentioned in arrest reports. But the 1932 baseball season of the Monarchs rallied the town together behind them as they took on and beat some of the premier Negro League teams of of the day and laid statistical claim to a berth in the NSL's World Series. For some games, as many as half the seats at the Casino Park stadium were set aside for white spectators, and Monroe's two newspapers regularly ran stories about the team's fortunes.

Statistically, the Monarchs finished the first half of the NSL season in first place. But according to Aiello, owner collusion among more powerful teams from the larger cities put the larger market Chicago American Giants in the lead instead, the owners reasoning that a championship series featuring the league's smallest city would be a box-office bust. Aiello suggests artfully designed forfeiting standards created the switch, but other works on Negro Leagues history disagree.

Aiello notes that the Monarchs success didn't solve Monroe's racial problems and that living patterns in the city today retain much of their segregated character. But the power of sports fandom was such that for about four or five hours each weekend, black and white Monroe united behind a group of black athletes who represented their town.

As a baseball nut, I would have liked some more baseball history of the Monarchs' players. Although they produced only a couple of Negro Leagues superstars, Hall of Fame pitcher Hilton Smith and outfielder Willard Brown, they had several of the era's better players, either on their way up or on their way back down. Aiello also could have spent less time speculating on the league owners' shenanigans and more time examining the direct impact of the team on their segregated town. He interviews the team owner's granddaughter, but few others who might remember that time or hearing their parents talk about it. But he's produced an excellent introductory sketch of a hidden chapter of the Negro Leagues' history and one worth checking out.
Susannah Cahalan was a 24-year-old reporter for the New York Post. She was one of the paper's better young writers and had a pretty bright career arc ahead of her. Then one day in early 2009, she started experiencing strange behavior -- paranoia, drastic mood swings, nausea, visual and auditory hallucinations, seizures and exhaustion. Not many days after that, she was checked into a hospital.

She remembers nothing of what happened until almost a month later.

In Brain on Fire, Cahalan retells her story, piecing together the missing month from medical notes, diary entries from her friends and family and security tape footage. Although she displayed all the symptoms of mental illness, she was actually suffering from a rare auto-immune disorder. An infection had produced antibodies, and those antibodies were for some reason attacking her own brain. As they fought against the chemicals that allowed her brain to process the world and respond to it in a normal fashion, Cahalan's brain created symptoms in her that literally mimicked mental illness.

Her condition baffled doctors until a new neurologist performed an older test on a spur-of-the-moment whim. It showed him that Cahalan's brain was somehow disordered, and that gave doctors the clue to her condition that allowed them to treat her.

The first two sections of the book, in which Cahalan tells about the onset of her symptoms and then about the missing month, are probably the strongest. She uses a basic, no-frills writing style instead of trying to overwrite the events and that serves her well; they're already pretty intense.

In the third section, Cahalan describes some of her recovery from the point where she starts remembering things again, as well as some of the things she learned about her condition and others who have had it. It's not as strong as the others; suffering from a lack of a single focus. She starts some interesting reflection on memory and how even the normally functioning brain can create memories of events that didn't actually happen, as well as some explorations of how the brain operates and how hers was affected, but she doesn't follow either very far and they end just as they start to get interesting.

Brain on Fire, though, is still an excellent memoir of a harrowing time in Cahalan's life, related with wit, grace and skill. Even though she may not pursue reflection on what it might mean to understand that a simple chemical imbalance in the brain can duplicate almost exactly the symptoms of serious mental illness, or on what it means when we consider the plain ol' electrical origins of our experiences and memories, her books offers the reader a chance to do so and some good places to start.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A, B, ©, D, F

The first story I ever remember writing down came in the second grade, I believe, when I told how a caveman named Big Muscles invented the polka dot. For the curious, it involved him spilling some of his paint as he prepared to make a picture of some animal on the wall of his cave and the spilled paint taking on series of circular shapes.

If I were to try to write the same story in a second grade class today in Maryland, the state of Maryland would assert it owned the copyright on the fruit of my seven-year-old imagination and its synthesis of reading about cave paintings and the assignment to write a story about either A) The invention of the polka dot or B), a day of raining frogs (Believe me, if I knew why I remembered this stuff I would direct that ability towards recall of more useful information).

Maryland's department of education proclaims this copyright, apparently, as a way of trying to make sure teachers don't start selling lesson plans they created on school time using school resources. Most businesses own such work product and the school may be reminding its teachers of that.

But trying to claim copyright of the students' work? The blog post cites a quote from a Wired article on the subject, from a law professor who notes that those who originate work are the presumptive owners unless some other kind of contract is in place. Maryland is in deep legal stuff if it tries to claim otherwise.

So, should young Junior amble off to pre-kindergarten and apply his brilliant eye for color and form to the paper his parents bought for his school supplies, using the crayons his parents bought for his school supplies, and create a masterpiece that the curator of the Louvre insists must, must take its rightful place with the Great Masters and money is no object? Well, that unobjectionable amount of money goes to Junior, Mom and Dad and not one dime to to school system. Nor to Junior's sister, as she ratted him out during the Missing Cookie Affair. Unless, of course, the school system can produce a signed contract wherein Junior relinquished his rights to his work, based on it being produced under the auspices of the school.

And that's unlikely, because pre-K Junior has yet to master writing his entire last name and thus finds it difficult to sign such a contract. He can, however, provide a lovely over-color of periwinkle.

(H/T Dustbury)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Soda Illogic

Students at Yale University are smart enough to have an average SAT score of better than 2200 on the three-test model. They are smart enough for more than 95% of them to be in the top 10% of their high school graduating classes. They are smart enough to have 223 Rhodes Scholars since the program began in 1903, more than any other American university except Harvard and 24 ahead of third-place Princeton. They are smart enough, according to a Yale University senior who writes for the school paper, to recognize statements from a "Big Soda" spokesperson as "tripe."

But they are not smart enough, according to that same senior, to decide for themselves not to drink the unhealthy carbonated beverages and support the evil corporations making money by contributing to the obesity problem of our nation. So the college should ban soda vending machines and not dispense it at on-campus dining rooms and eating places.

I think someone should have taken a course that offered the definition of "mutually contradictory statements."

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Down Time

That moment, when you can see on a high school athlete's face that she's stopped paying attention to her coach, not because he's still shouting instructions as if the team can come back from 20 down, but because she knows he doesn't really have a clue.

The Squids are Aflight

For a long time, apparently the species of squid known as the Japanese flying squid was thought to be more accurately named the Japanese jumping squid. The 8-inch mollusk had been seen airborne, but scientists didn't think it was flying so much as jumping into the air, the way "flying" fish and dolphins do.

More careful observations, though, have shown that when it leaves the water (using an expelled jet of water for propulsion), the flying squid actually uses its fins to glide and can travel as far as 100 feet before re-entering. That's far more than a mere "jump," being comparable to an average human being traveling almost three football fields through the air. Or a tall building in a single bound if your thinking goes that way, which is a power and ability far beyond those of mortal men.

These squid are small, as mentioned above, so we're not talking about the giant Captain Nemo-styled variety hurtling through the air to wrap its tentacles around unwitting prey before carrying them into the inky depths. Of course, if that's been happening we wouldn't know about it, since the victims are gone and the squids ain't talking.

Scientists in the story say that the squids take wing -- or "fin," I guess -- in order to escape predators. Suddenly being 100 feet away from something with a mouthful of teeth is a useful survival mechanism. But they note that their presence in the air may mean they are subject to predation by birds, who can more easily pluck their tasty treats from midair instead of underwater.

The birds were heard to say, "Hey can someone read us the rest of the article so we can know where to go to find these things?"

Monday, February 11, 2013

Rank Rankings

So five colleges recently announced that they misreported data to U.S. News & World Report that was used in the magazine's annual college rankings. Some of the bad data came from miscalculations and some came from misunderstood statistics. One college said the bad data came from a flaw in its data-reporting systems that dated back a decade. If I were a parent, I'll feel comfortable sending several years of annual salary to a place that left a data-reporting bug in its software for the last ten years.

There's no indication that the mistaken numbers happened maliciously in most of the cases, but a few are questionable. The story says that folks at Insider Higher Education surveyed admissions officers and 91 percent said they believed that other schools deliberately misreported data to get an edge in the recruitment game. A few even said they believed their own college had done so.

The real problem is that a lot of the ranking formula relies on a school's perceived prestige: That is, a school is ranked highly because, well, everyone knows it's a great school. Why does everyone know that? Because it's ranked highly! Other factors, such as the rates of alumni giving, would seem to have very little to do with what kind of education a school offers. The data the magazine uses to prepare its rankings comes from surveys the schools themselves fill out, and even if some categories are supposed to be strictly data-driven, there are others that have a lot of subjectivity in them, like "peer assessment." That describes how a college is viewed by other colleges similar to it. So Harvard and Yale agree to say each other's really swell, and that helps their rankings. But maybe they also agree to say Dartmouth is basically "Grade 13" of high school, and that pulls Dartmouth down.

I attended a pretty good private college and got a decent liberal arts education, in spite of myself and despite what my transcript would show. A lot of it apparently stuck, but a "conduct report card" like we saw in early grade school might have showed that I lacked any great amount of initiative when it came to my assignments. Would I have been better off had I gone to one of our large state universities or to a small liberal arts college close to home? Maybe so; it's impossible to say, but at least I could have divorced that witch Sallie Mae by now.

And that's the key. Colleges use artificial things like the U.S. News rankings and things that may no longer be accurate, like historical prestige, in order to justify the significant amounts of cash they remove from a family in order to get Junior a diploma that's supposed to get him a job. The rankings may tell someone which diploma is worth more, but it's highly unlikely that they can tell anyone where they'll get a better education. Too much of that depends on the educatee, and U.S. News doesn't have those numbers.

(Full disclosure: My undergrad alma mater, Northwestern University, is actually ranked 12th in the nation in the National Universities category, which gives no weight to the cosmically important category of "fighting Illini communism." My graduate school, Southern Methodist University, is ranked #58 in the same category, although the seminary which is connected to it and which granted my degree is not listed; there is no category for it. The college where I used to work is #26 in the "Regional Universities: West" category; there are 150 colleges listed in this category but many of them are unranked, which means they didn't return complete or accurate data in U.S. News' survey.)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Dial Up

Ever wonder why your phone keypad looks like it does, with the "1-2-3" at the top instead of at the bottom like a calculator?

You can thank John Karlin, an industrial psychologist who worked for Bell Labs in the middle of the last century. Karlin died late last month at 94.

The button arrangement is one of the many things that Karlin and his laboratory helped design that persists today even in our cell phones and the layout of the touch-screen "keys" on a smart phone. When Bell developed the technology to make pushbutton phones, they experimented with several designs in order to make them easier to use. Eventually, square buttons in a 3x3 grid, starting at the top left with "1," won out. It combined ease of use with dialing accuracy, an important selling point. Even though an accountant or bookkeeper might be able to dial quickly and accurately on a phone that was organized like an adding machine or calculator, most folks did better with it the other way round. So that's what Bell started making, adding the "0" at the bottom and later adding the "*" and "#" keys on either side of it. The latter, of course, is one of the things which makes Twitter so very much fun and such a useful tool for communicating complex ideas and information.

Karlin was also the fellow who got the phone company to switch from the combination of letter-number dialing to all-numeric. Phone numbers used to have two letters at the front that represented a word. Sometimes the word indicated where the phone with that number was, but not always. My own home number during my days as young Friar had originally been based on the letters FE a decade or so before I inherited it, which stood for "Federal" and gave no guidance at all as to its location.

But the two-letter combination limited the, er, number of numbers that could be created, so Karlin engineered a switch to the all numeric listings to expand the options. Apparently people hated the change, but like with so many things where the supplier has a legal monopoly, they were stuck with it.

The most fascinating part of Karlin's obituary is that Bell worked to design its technology to fit what people did or could do, rather than throw it at them and make them adapt to it. There are a lot of folks making devices, appliances, software, transportation and whatnot today who do nothing of the kind. They create something and then force people to adapt to it. Whether or not the change is a good idea or even necessary isn't a major factor in the design or the decision.

You don't have to be an industrial psychologist to understand that idea's a little cracked.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Message Understood?

Scientists who work with the Mars rover Curiosity have found what looks like a shiny piece of metal sticking out of a rock. Both of the rover's mast cameras have taken its picture, which means it can be viewed in 3D, but the tiny object mystifies NASA scientists. Leading guesses at this point are some mineral that is harder in substance than its surroundings, leaving it exposed when those surroundings eroded away. The shininess could be a result of the mineral's structure or composition, but only more study can offer more clues.

Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of Thark, released the following statement: "We have offered an exchange of metal to the strange mechanism from Jasoom as a sign that the mighty Tharks would have peace with these visitors of another world. But should they not desire peace, they shall find that the blades of a thousand thousand green warriors await but the bidding of their Jeddak to leap from their scabbards as the fierce banth does leap upon its prey, nor shall they rest until they or every enemy gasps out his life upon the ground. I, Tars Tarkas, have spoken!"

Friday, February 8, 2013


At a site called New Geography, economists and other crunch numbers to look at different trends in different areas of the world.  Here are a couple of interesting ones concerning the area in which I live: 1) not everybody is flying over the so-called flyover country; a significant number of folks and jobs are landing there and staying. And 2), the supposedly dull and backwards burg of Oklahoma City actually ranks sixth in the country in the growth rate of one of the highest income job fields, professional, scientific and technical services.

We'll leave the light on for you.

Issue of the Day

It is a fine day indeed when there is a new issue of Astronomy on the stands at the area Hastings. I'm aware that some people might not be all that excited about a headline reading, "Stellarvue's 6.3-inch refractor tested."

I can only feel sorry for them, much as I do for those who dislike bagpipe music.

Thursday, February 7, 2013


What started as a standard "From the Rental Vault" entry morphed into a long post over at the long post blog. Feel free to muse over how much I need an editor.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Forbidden Element

Over at io9, you can read about an element that was discovered in 1864, until it wasn't in 1927.

The element, called "nebulium," was first observed when scientists began using spectroscopy to detect elements via the light wavelengths they emitted when heated -- the light shining from them would be aimed at a prism, which would split it into its component parts. An unknown element could be heated, the light viewed through a prism, and then its identity discovered when the resulting readings were matched against known elements.

The same technique was used to figure out which elements were in stars. Their emitted light, viewed through a prism, created a spectroscope reading that showed what they were made of. This is the way helium was first discovered, for example. It was actually detected in space before it was ever known on earth.

Nebulium, though, presented a problem. Scientists had also been organizing elements based on certain characteristics of their atoms. These characteristics tended to group them together quite nicely, becoming the modern periodic table. But nebulium, supposedly created in interstellar gas masses called nebulae, didn't fit on the periodic table. So either spectroscopy was wrong, or the periodic table was wrong. Scientists didn't know what to do.

But in 1927, astronomers uncovered the secret: Nebulium was actually oxygen, only in a form unknown on earth. The oxygen in the nebulae had been "double ionized," which meant it was shy two electrons and it was highly energized trying to grab those electrons from anything nearby. When it lost that energy, it emitted a photon, which is what made the light.

Spectroscopy and the periodic table both turned out to be right, and nebulium went from being called "forbidden" because its spectroscopic signature was in a place elements supposedly couldn't be to being called "falsified" because it never really existed.

There's probably a lesson in there but I'm not sure what it is.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

He Made Everything...Groovy

Reg Presley, lead singer for the 1960s garage band standouts The Troggs, passed away Tuesday from lung cancer at 71. The Troggs are, of course, best-known for their 1966 single "Wild Thing." They were the second band to release the song and Presley's alternately mumbled and howled vocals matched the basic three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust guitar crunch perfectly -- which is why no one remembers Jordan Christopher and the Wild Ones 1965 version of "Wild Thing."

For my money, the two best covers of "Wild Thing" were done by X and by the late comedian Sam Kinison. The X version got its fame in the 1989 movie Major League, although it was originally released as a single in 1984. It was the theme music whenever the erratic reliever Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen), formerly of the California Penal League, was brought into the game. Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Mitch Williams later earned the "Wild Thing" nickname in real life. Billy Zoom's guitar line was a good deal more urgent than the original and X singer Exene Cervenka eschewed Presley's somewhat sleepy (or hung over) vibe, but the X version carries the strength of the song from the garage of the 1960s to the underground club of the 1980s just fine.

A year before Major League came out, Kinison reworked the song in a sort of novelty version, playing off his reputation for screaming rants. The accompanying video featured several well-known rock musicians and the then-famous Jessica Hahn, the church secretary whose affair with televangelist Jim Bakker brought down the latter's religious media empire. Kinison starts with the original lyrics but then inserts his howled rants against the woman of the title. He implies her wildness includes infidelity: "Every time I kiss you I taste what other men had for lunch;" cruelty: "The only thing that gets you off is to see me in pain;" and untruthfulness and false self-presentation: "Why didn't you tell me you were a demon from hell?" His over-the-top screed makes fun of the way folks who talk down their exes exaggerate awful qualities that seemingly appear out of nowhere.

Although fun in its own right, the 1988 single "Wild Thing" by rapper Tone Loc is unrelated to the Troggs hit except by title.

The best thing I read from among the online obituaries for Presley was this: "He is survived by Brenda, his wife of 49 years..." Reg, I think you knew for sure.

Monday, February 4, 2013

From the Rental Vault: The Frogmen (1951)

The United States Navy Sea, Air, Land (SeAL) forces were the subject of movies long before Kathryn Bigelow chronicled a version of their most recent success in Zero Dark Thirty.  Back in 1951, Lloyd Bacon directed Richard Widmark, Dana Andrews and a cast of talented up-and-comers in The Frogmen, a story centering on the work of the Navy's Underwater Demolition Team during World War II. The UDT teams -- called "frogmen" -- were the ancestors of today's SEALS.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Lawrence has taken command of UDT 4 after its previous commander was killed. Lawrence is not a particularly genial sort, and his square-rigged by-the-bookishness rubs the easygoing frogmen the wrong way. His team questions his courage after a mission disaster and his apparent unwillingness to expose himself to danger for his men. Lawrence's response -- crack down harder on discipline -- seems to have exactly the opposite effect to what he wants, and the men seek a transfer out of his unit. He has to prove both his courage and his humanity to them in order for their major strike against a Japanese submarine pen to succeed without casualties.

Widmark, usually cast as a more-or-less genial sociopath on the wrong side of the hero spectrum, does an excellent job as the conflicted Lawrence. He wants to build a camaraderie with his men, but he wants even more to complete missions successfully, and feels that completions and commendations should be a sufficient common ground with the team he's supposed to lead. When they're not, he finds himself without tools to handle situations the book never seemed to anticipate. Dana Andrews, as the senior noncommissioned officer on the team, at first tries to help Lawrence but is himself alienated by the commander and winds up as distant from him as the rest. Jeffrey Hunter, Gary Merrill and Harvey Lembeck offer excellent support in the well-known roles of team daredevil, wise old sage and wisecracking Noo Yawker, respectively. Robert Wagner and Jack Warden show up in early-career bit roles, kicking off long runs on large and small screen.

Much of The Frogmen's action was filmed underwater and the studio worked closely with the Department of Defense and the Navy in order to improve technical accuracy. It's kind of stunning to realize that reconnaissance on enemy-held beaches was conducted by men wearing board shorts, equipped with nothing more than a swim mask, flippers, a recording slate and a knife. And it's little wonder that the men who entered battle so lightly equipped developed into today's SEALs, equally as confident in their own abilities no matter how great the obstacle. Current and past SEALs, in fact, sometimes cite a viewing of The Frogmen as an incident that sparked them to seek out their service.

Although it's not any kind of great cinema, The Frogmen wraps a tight, no-frills story with fine performances, realistic personal conflicts and well-filmed action set pieces to make a solid offering well worth an hour and a half of anyone's time.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

From the Rental Vault: Kelly's Heroes (1970)

Although he was not yet the major power player he would become, Clint Eastwood in 1970 was one of the biggest box-office draws in Hollywood. He used some of his clout to re-team with his Where Eagles Dare director Brian G. Hutton to make Kelly's Heroes, a dark comedy/satire of war that was supposed to comment on the war in Vietnam through its World War II story. Unfortunately, since Eastwood was still two years away from securing virtual independence via Harry Callahan's .44 Magnum, he and Hutton were forced by studio heads to make cuts in their movie and thus tone down both its anti-war message and much of its character development.

Eastwood plays Kelly, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1944 who was busted back to private as a scapegoat in an operation that went drastically wrong and cost many Allied lives. Now under the command of "Big Joe," a sergeant played by Telly Savalas, he is a part of a unit ordered to pull back from the front in the face of German resistance. Rather than be allowed time off near an inhabited village where the soldiers might find some recreation with booze and women, they are given leave in the middle of nowhere. Kelly, meanwhile, has discovered through a German POW the location of about $16 million worth of gold bars. They're in a bank in a town about 30 miles behind the porous German lines. Working with a canny supply sergeant (Don Rickles) and a loopy tank commander (Donald Sutherland), Eastwood develops a plan to rob the bank and acquire the gold, to be secreted somewhere and retrieved later. When the rah-rah General Colt (Carrol O'Connor) hears radio communications between the units of the AWOL force, he believes they're the aggressive attacking force he needs and speeds off to find and commend them.

There may be something to Eastwood's claim that the movie was chopped up by the studio, because it's a mismatched set of action pieces and supposedly satirical scenes that never gel. On the other hand, it's hard to see how including the more anti-war elements and character development would have helped Kelly's Heroes, since it can never decide what kind of movie it wants to be.

Is it an acid commentary on what war does to otherwise good people? Is it the same kind of commentary, only focusing instead on how the chaos of war allows freedom for criminals that they'd never be permitted in peacetime? Is it a broad satire on war, showing how the really clever soldiers are in it for an angle and only out to save their own skins, while the gung-ho patriot types are all idiots? Is it a parody, in which O'Connor's Colt wears a bathrobe with Eisenhower jacket lapels and his general's stars and Eastwood, Savalas and Sutherland face down a German tiger tank along a dusty street, complete with Morricone-styled music? Or in which Donald Sutherland plays his tank commander the way a tank commander might be if he were Donald Sutherland in 1970, complete with hippie gibberish about "negative waves" and "dig this beautiful day."

Neither the audience nor, apparently, the director or stars can ever figure out what movie they're making, and as a result they make one that's nothing much. Eastwood is said to have thought the film after the cuts were made a pretty routine romp, but he's wrong. It's nowhere near that good.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Where It's Like Today

Mild weather, bright sunshine, no workshops or meetings or required-but-not-important reports, and it finishes with of all things a small-town high school basketball homecoming.

Well-played, Mr. Murray Attaway. Well-played indeed.


I know some folks who wouldn't touch The National Review unless it was to move it out of the way while they grabbed a copy of Mother Jones, and who wouldn't read an article by a guy who helps run Americans United for Life if you taped it to the inside of their eyelids -- I'm kind of leery of anything Mike Huckabee endorses myself.

But those folks might miss this neat appreciation of two recently-passed giants in their respective fields, jazz master Dave Brubeck and St. Louis Cardinals baseball great Stan "The Man" Musial. More's the pity, and I hope that Musial forgives me for using "giant" to describe him; I meant it strictly in the generic and not the New York/San Francisco sense.

I try to keep my eyes open for great writing when it shows up in Mother Jones (it does) and The Nation (it does there too, sometimes) or other opinion outlets whose politics I consider misguided at best. I'm sure I could do better (I could), but I try. Why, some days I even believe that Noam Chomsky has a good article in him somewhere.

Yes, the glass is indeed half-full. Why do you ask?

PS -- Pitchers and catchers report in nine days. Time begins March 31. Avoid the rush, start hating the Yankees today!  

Friday, February 1, 2013

Siren Sounds!

They warned me that if I voted for Mitt Romney, we'd have important cabinet positions filled by marginally-qualified former GOP officeholders who weren't really up to the jobs they were being given and behind-the-scenes manuvering to give white men power while undercutting women and minorities.

And they were right!

She Is Somebody!

When we last left young Blær Bjarkardóttir, the 15-year-old girl was suing her government for the right to be known by the first name her parents had given her. In Iceland, where she lives, there is a list of approved names which one can name one's children, and since Blær is a girl and Icelandic's gendered language considers the word blær a masculine noun, she was listed as "Stulka" on all government documents. Stúlka is the Icelandic word translated into English as "girl," which means her passport and listing in the Icelandic National Registry (think "census") was "Girl Bjarkardóttir."

Well, she won her case in Reykjavik District Court and can now legally be herself. This means the Reykjavik District Court did the absolute minimum on the list of right things to do. The best thing, of course, would be to throw out the idea that a government has the power to limit your identity in such a way -- but baby steps, I guess.

Blær didn't win a complete victory. She had sued the government for 500,000 Icelandic krona for damages, but the court didn't award her anything. This is not as big a letdown as it sounds; the story at the link says that 500,000 krona is about $3,950.

Iceland may have some bigger problems.

(H/T Dustbury)