Friday, May 31, 2013

Strike or Spare

Start out wondering what a bowling ball would be like if it were made the size of the planet earth...and come to the realization that it might wind up not too different than the moon...and then think about those implications. Rest easy.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Early Nothing

The zero is worth more than nothing. Without it, we would not have a place-holder that makes modern math possible. The ancient Roman system, seen every now and again on clocks and movie credits, is incredibly unwieldy when you get to doing anything more than add and subtract. And if there's a string of numbers, even adding and subtracting might bo awry, meaning that it's the existence of the zero that allows us to balance our checkbooks.

Of course, the existence of the zero merely makes such balancing possible. As the federal government regularly demonstrates, zeroes can also be used to spend money that technically it doesn't have.

No one really knows when and where the zero was invented, although the best guess is that it comes from an ancient Asian culture. The earliest known use of the zero comes from 683 AD, on a stone tablet in Cambodia. It was lost during the vicious Khmer Rouge regime. A writer for Discovery magazine found it again so it can be displayed in a museum.

That's the earliest known zero. To view the latest known zero, simply turn on any show with "Real Housewives" in the title.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Today I found out that not only is there almost no nit which the government will not pick if it for some reason feels it necessary, there is no upper limit to the amount of sense such decisions will not make, and a near certainty that however they come to be made, they are wrong.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Three Different Books

Several years ago, journalist Joel Engel was conversing with retired Los Angeles police detective Danny Galindo about cases and Galindo told him the story of convicted rapist Willie Fields and his arrest in 1956. It took a little while before Engel came back to the case and finished a book about it, but his L.A. '56 tells a very important story about law enforcement, race and culture in Los Angeles in the 1950s.

Fields spent several months during 1956 terrorizing the parking spots and lover's lanes of L.A., posing as an undercover police officer to separate the couples and assault the girls and young women. Because Fields is black and his victims white, Hispanic or Asian, and because Los Angeles in 1956 is as segregated as anywhere the Stars and Bars once flew, police can't get a lead on him. But they have another possibility, a former black LAPD officer fired for dating a white woman. The case is weak and Galindo knows it, but he also knows that the deck is stacked against the accused man unless he can find the real criminal. His growing affection for one of the witnesses in the case threatens to complicate things even more.

Even though it's a true-crime book, Engel manages to give L.A. '56 a hard-boiled, noirish feel and weave politics -- departmental and otherwise -- into his narrative to show as much as anyone could of what law enforcement and racial issues were like in southern California in the mid-1950s. He pulls few punches when assessing how easily the former officer is suspected, arrested and nearly railroaded into prison. He also gives full credit to the way the detectives, led by Galindo, went to work to try to find the real attacker once it was obvious they had the wrong man.

Engel tells L.A. '56 mostly in the present tense, but might have been stronger with the more ordinary third-person past. Either way, it's a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of an incident in U.S. history that's probably not as much in the past yet as it should be.
Full disclosure: I know the author of this book, he's a swell guy and it's cool that he got his book published.

Technology has opened up a wide range of publishing options for people who have a book they would like to get in print, bridging the gap between the traditional royalty-based presses and self-publishing "vanity" presses that the author pays to print up copies of his or work. Tate Publishing is one of those bridgers, working like a little bit of both and through them, books like Adam Shahan's 2010 The Fall of the Four come into print.

In the Seven Provinces, young Aaron, his friend Anna and her father Oronus find themselves at odds with Eleazar Graff, the senior religious leader in the land's faith in the Four. Having found the mystical Chest of Worlds, Aaron and the others may have the key to unlocking the secrets of the Raujj, a kind of magic that has been unavailable in the world for a long long time. But Graff also seeks the Chest, with a plan to use it to overthrow faith in the Four and establish himself as God.

Fall would probably have benefited from processing at a more traditional publishing house, with tighter editing to smooth out and unknot several tricky passages in the story. Visualizing the physical world of the Provinces, let alone the political, social and religious organizations, takes a lot of work that a reader might rather spend following the characters and the story. The post-apocalyptic, steampunk-influenced semi-Edwardian world Shahan uses for his story feels like it's worth looking into, but it's as if the lens for doing so still needs another couple of good cleanings and we have trouble making out what we're looking at.

In fact, Fall might have been best served by being repurposed as a juvenile, a la Robert A. Heinlein's Scribner works, or young adult-oriented read like James Patterson's Maximum Ride novels. Tate, a Christian-oriented business, reins in anything too graphic in the fields of sex and violence and that sort of nudges Four's style into a more "family-friendly" worldview anyway. Add to that substantial disentanglement of the world of the Provinces, some editorial polishing to help lean up and bring out the grain of Shahan's good grasp on his narrative and characters, and we would have something that would in no way be the next Twilight. But that's a good thing. So is Fall, and if it still has room for improvement, it's more a sign than technology alone hasn't caught indie self-publishing up to what the major presses can do yet, bringing things to print without benefit of the full process.
Every time I reread Christopher Moore's 1994 debut novel, Practical Demonkeeping, I want to go buy new copies of his The Lust-Lizard of Melancholy Cove and Island of the Sequined Love Nun, just so I can throw them across the room and not have a shopkeeper call the police on me.

Moore's initial mix of mythology, humor, fantasy, whimsy and commentary was a kind of australopithecus from which work like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Zombieland and Warm Bodies evolved. "You'll have power. You'll be immortal," the book's tagline tells us. "But there's a Catch. And he eats people." That's because Catch is a demon, conjured up sort of unwillingly in the early decades of the 20th century by a now-defrocked priest named Travis. Catch gives Travis immortality and the power to sort of control the demon's actions, but he's still a demon, and his form of sustenance is people. Though Travis tries to steer Catch towards eating people who deserve it, he's not happy anymore with the cost of his immortality and power.

Travis and Catch come to Pine Cove, where they will face off against the Djinn, Catch's ancient foe, and the allies the Djinn recruits to his cause.

Moore excels at planting his fantastic elements in the middle of everyday life in a small California coastal town, weaving them together as well as Joss Whedon ever did in Sunnydale or Stephen King in Derry. His straight-man-styled narrative makes the quirks of the Djinn and dark humor of Catch stand out all the more and makes Practical Demonkeeping that much more fun.

What happened to Moore following this book is a mystery. Aside from a brief reanimation in Bloodsucking Fiends, nothing he's done in the nearly 20 years since comes anywhere close and much of it has been just awful, as the aforementioned Lust-Lizard and Island demonstrate. But every couple of years you can haul Practical Demonkeeping off the shelf and reread it for a few hours of supernatural chuckles and a little insightful commentary on what might make even good people seek evil...and what that choice will cost.

Monday, May 27, 2013


Remembering those who served, gave, and gave until all they had left to give was themselves, and then gave that too.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

And Now, About My Lawn...

So, in the last couple of weeks, The Office television show ended. Also in TV news, Community apparently got very bad and is getting worse, we finally (almost) met the title character in How I Met Your Mother and episodes of Arrested Development became available to stream online. Saturday Night Live lost two cast members who have had large roles on the show in recent years. On the big screen, the Hangover movies aired the finale of the trilogy and Fast and Furious churned out number six in its franchise.

Musically, singer Miguel caused some concern when his stage-dive at the Billboard Music Awards almost seriously injured a fan. Nikki Minaj caused an uproar when she more or less lap-danced rapper Li'l Wayne during their duet. Rapper Chief Keef grumbled at Katy Perry -- by means of a Tweeted threat to strike her -- when she Tweeted something negative about his latest song, and Perry quickly apologized.

I realized after catching up on some of this stuff via links on different pages or news crawls on TV that I have officially become a curmudgeon. Not because I didn't know who three-quarters of these people were or had watched barely a half-dozen episodes of their different shows; that just means I'm out of touch. No, I'm a curmudgeon because I'm trying to figure out a way to get that last one-fourth out of my brain altogether.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


Scientists tell us that the different whiz-bang contraptions they've developed to slam atoms into each other at incredible speeds couldn't possibly produce black holes that would destroy the earth.

It's just what we'd expect them to say, of course. We're still all doomed.

Friday, May 24, 2013


-- Maybe the fellow who runs Abercrombie and Fitch shouldn't have been quite so gleeful in describing how his store caters to attractive people instead of everyday slobs, especially everyday slobs who happen to get around via other means than their feet. I'm curious as to how reconfiguring the entryways would cause "permanent damage to the Hollister brand." I would have thought seeing the name "Hollister" on some of the knuckle-draggers who sport it would already have done that.

-- In far more important news, Jalopnik set a team of researchers to determining just what car Superman is compacting on the cover of Action Comics #1, his first appearance. They found out someone else had already addressed the question and that there was no exact match, but either a 1937 De Soto or 1937 Plymouth seems closest to what Joe Shuster drew. Jalopnik has not investigated whether or not Superman had insurance or what exactly the claim form would be for having your criminal get-away buggy accordioned by a strange visitor from another world.

-- The question is not why it took da Bears so long to retire the great Mike Ditka's jersey. The question is how Terry Stoepel, Bob Wallace, Mel Tom, James Scott, Mitch Krenk, Keith Ortego, Will Johnson, James Coley and Ryan Wetnight avoided dropping dead on the spot after daring to touch the sacred number.

Thursday, May 23, 2013


Scott Adams has wandered around some weird places ever since he got very famous, and sometimes his Dilbert cartoon strip has gone there with him. But when he's right, he's very, very right.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

An Ace and Two Deuces

Robert B. Parker's "legacy" authors have been hit and miss so far, but it's not that complicated -- Michael Brandman's Jesse Stone novels have been pure miss and Ace Atkins' version of Spenser now has its second hit (the jury is still out on Robert Knott's Ironhorse, one of the Cole-Hitch Westerns, because I haven't read it yet).

In Wonderland, longtime Spenser friend Henry Cimoli, who runs the gym where Spenser and his companion Hawk work out, has some trouble at his condo. The people who want to buy out Henry and other condo dwellers have started to use high-pressure intimidation as a sales pitch, and Henry would like a little backup from his friend. Hawk is unavailable, so Spenser relies on Zebulon Sixkill or Z, the "apprentice" he began training in Parker's last finished Spenser manuscript. The buyout folks have some connections to newly-legalized casino gambling in Massachusetts, which means some connections to the kinds of folks Spenser is used to dealing with. Z has less experience in these circles, so he still has to learn how to handle temporary setbacks as well as people who may not be what they seem. Shady politicians will also get their look in and complicate matters.

Atkins' first Spenser outing was good and his second improves on it. I made the observation that he seems to have decided to try to write Spenser the character instead of imitating Parker, and the choice pays off with a set of characters, situations and dialogue that would sit in the top half of the Parker Spensers. Atkins' Spenser is more like the detective as Parker wrote him in the late 1970s and early 1980s, since Atkins is now the age that Parker was then and that colors his style. It's welcome and even if it isn't Parker, just like before it's still Spenser and it's better than a good three-quarters of the dead trees on the bookstore shelves.
Once he got a handle on his own substance abuse, Dr. Lou Welcome decided he would try to help others in the same boat. One of them was Dr. Jon Meacham, who one afternoon seems to snap, killing everyone in his office before shooting himself. Welcome knows Meacham was doing well and can't understand his rampage, so he does a little investigating to try to see what happened and salvage his own work with medical personnel in recovery in Michael Palmer's medical suspense thriller Oath of Office.

But then a number of people in the Washington, D.C. suburb where Meacham lived seem to make similar inexplicably reckless choices, and Welcome finds himself with more of a mystery than he thought. Throw in a high-level White House connection and this iceberg may have secrets that some folks wouldn't hesitate to kill to keep.

Palmer writes with a smooth style and has a pretty deft hand at weaving medical details into his narrative. He creates engaging characters and relationships between them, especially Welcome and his teenage daughter Emily. But he telegraphs a lot of his endgame and derails that story with a very late-page expository memo about the science behind his villain's scheme, and more than one twist in the plot relies on Welcome either being high-octane stupid or never having read a thriller novel before. Or maybe both. Palmer also teases a relationship that has no possibility of going anywhere and just manages to take up space. Oath isn't critical, but it's hardly ready to be up and about.
Jericho Quinn is an Air Force investigator tasked to a special operations unit used to seek out and either expose or neutralize terrorist threats that can't be addressed through normal channels. State of Emergency is his third tale.

When a Cold-War era backpack nuclear bomb goes missing and explosions kill dozens in the U.S. and Russia, intelligence points to a shadowy network led by a Latin American sociopath. Quinn and his team have to track down the nuke, the radioactive material smuggled to its intended user and see if they can thwart his plan. Much like James Bond might have to match wits with a villain out in the open, Quinn will have to do so in a grueling multi-stage motorcyle race through South America.

Cameron has no special standout flair for story or character and State more or less continues the trend. Quinn and his team have Character Traits that could have been randomly assigned from the Thriller Central Prop Department -- Quinn's a motorcycle buff, his friend Thibodaux has seven kids, and so on. He also doesn't believe there's any such thing as piling on when it comes to his villains doing Evil Deeds to indicate that they are mwuh-hah-hah eeeeevil, which leads to an overload of ugliness that permeates the rest of the book. Whatever good Cameron can muster, like a fast-paced story and a good action scene, is left smelly from the overdose of cruelty he layers on far too thick.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Leave No One Behind

Back in November, the news first broke that an Oklahoma City high school was in danger of graduating only 20 members of its senior class of just more than 100.

Although it was in a poorer neighborhood, low student achievement didn't account for the majority of the problem. Over the course of several years, staff at the school had not kept up with where their students were in relationship to statewide graduation requirements. Students had not taken enough courses and had not completed required courses in time, so only 20 members of the class of 2013 were on track to graduate with their class in May. The rest faced either several more months, perhaps even another year, of coursework before they could reach the minimum standards to receive their diplomas. The cold reality was that many of them might not come back for that year, not deeming the diploma worth that effort -- many of their peers had dropped out before completing high school, so what would be the point.

A new principal replaced the one under whose watch the problems grew and dedicated herself and the staff to the extra hours, extra work and long hard grind to enable as many students as possible to make up the missing work in the six months remaining before commencement. What would have been just a twenty-person graduating class at Douglass High School will instead on Saturday be ninety-one strong. Five more will graduate after summer school.

That's a result -- and an effort -- that the school's namesake would probably like very much.

Monday, May 20, 2013


In light of today's terrible storm and damage in my home state, I invite you to give to a reputable charity organization that assists people in storm-damaged areas. If you do not know of one or would like a suggestion, please comment and I will provide you with information. Should you be of a praying disposition, they would be welcome. Should you not be, your positive and sympathetic thoughts would be equally welcome.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Set a Course for Adventure

The O'Jays may want to have a word with the municipal government of Prague about its plan to have some of the cars on its subway trains be "singles only."

It seems that in Prague, the old advice about never making eye contact with someone on the subway doesn't always hold true, and city officials are considering having one car per train be one of nothing but single folks. Those single folks, of course, might meet up and soon become ineligible for the car.

The potential problems are what happens if one's spouse or significant other learns that one has traveled in the car, whether or not by accident. I'm also not sure how single status will be verified. Either way, it will be interesting to see if the Prague subway hires a wacky conductor named Hlodavec who after retiring from his job runs for a seat in the Czech Parliament.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Trekkin' 2

If J.J. Abrams could can it with the lens flares and have his screenwriters conceive of the distances in space a little more realistically, he would probably be able to make a close-to-perfect Star Trek movie. As it is, with Star Trek Into Darkness, his second entry into the venerable franchise, he has made a darn good one.

The pluses from his first movie are still here: Zachary Quinto makes a first-class Spock, and brings his own acting skill to the role when needed. Karl Urban makes Dr. McCoy what he's supposed to be, the cranky conscience of the Enterprise story.

In Darkness, though, Abrams gets added help from Chris Pine in playing a James Kirk who is learning a great deal about what being a captain means -- and it's not always, "I get to do this however I want 'cause I am Jimmy T. Flippin' Kirk." The first film's view of Kirk as a broody Troubled Rebel brought out some of the weakest points of Pine's casting; namely his 90210/Dawson's Creek appearance and style. With him established as a ship's captain, that dimension of the character fades mostly into the background.

Darkness also gets more use out of Simon Pegg as Scotty, giving him some pivotal plot points, and also adds some dimension to Zoe Saldana's Uhura, allowing her to kick some tail in a way Nichelle Nichols probably would have loved to do.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays the villain of the movie, a man willing to commit terrorist acts in order to achieve his ends and willing to use any means or persons in order to do so. I read one review of the movie that said the script and story don't really let him take his place as one of the great "Star Trek villains," but given the circumstances of the movie and the story that's actually a good choice. Into Darkness sets up the well-known "five-year mission" of the original television series, offering Abrams and company a chance to continue reducing their use of touchstones from the original series and strike out on their own.

It's by no means perfect -- the aforementioned lens flares and stupidly compressed distances are a problem, and we have a Klingon interlude for just about no reason whatsoever. But Darkness keeps the Enterprise sailing true and keeps us interested in what may happen next.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Distance Past

I've sometimes made jokes about how stars a certain distance away are just now discovering things about our pop culture based on the distance the signal has traveled to reach them. Those signals travel at the speed of light, so a star 10 light-years away is just now receiving material that went out into space in 2003. This means that on August 1, they will encounter Gigli, and the tragic thing is that because any signal we send now would also travel at the speed of light, we have no way to warn them.

Someone over at xkcd drew a little star map that showed just what pop culture references beings that might or might not live at certain stars would be familiar with. Judging by that, whoever lives near Kappa Reticuli ("Here's lookin' at you, kid") Alpha Serpentis ("Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn") or Beta Trianguli Australis ("I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse") probably thinks the best of us. The worst view of us is probably held by anybody who just picked up a Will Ferrell movie. Or Gigli, but I imagine those civilizations are probably planning on exterminating us before we infect the rest of the galaxy.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Three Strikes

Joe Hunter has spent his life working for -- sometimes unknowingly -- a sort of global intelligence initiative called Arrowsake. He's semi-retired now, recuperating from wounds suffered in a previous mission. Then Don Griffiths, a man with whom he has a not-so-fond past while working with Arrowsake, calls him for help. Griffiths' daughter has died in a car accident, but he thinks it was murder, at the hands of a former Arrowsake target who's supposed to be dead. Joe at first doesn't believe Don, but events soon help him change his mind, and he's on the run with Don and his family, squaring off against a crew of violent hired killers who outnumber and outgun him about ten to one.

Blood and Ashes is the fifth Joe Hunter novel from former police officer and security consultant Matt Hilton, and follows in its predecessors' path of action, action, action and then a little more action. Although technically not 100% following his injuries, Joe has a pretty simple operating plan for dealing with bad guys: 1) Point. 2) Shoot. If those are not available, they may be replaced with Stab, Punch or Kick.

You have to know a lot of the history from the earlier Joe Hunter books in order to get a good handle on him, and the places where Hilton pauses to catch you up on it show he's a lot better at writing Shoot, Punch, Stab or Kick than dialogue and exposition. The story is strangely disjointed, with characters and set pieces appearing for no real reason except to provide targets for the aforementioned Four Horsemen of the Joepocalypse. The Hunter novels don't do anything to single themselves out as really poorly written or executed, but they don't do much to single themselves out as better than average, either. You'll probably have a hard time recalling much of the book once the last page turns over.
Kay Hooper's "The Bishop Files" tells stories of a semi-secret paranormal unit investigating crimes that involve psychics or psychic phenomena. With The First Prophet, she branches out beyond the Bishop novel characters and adds in elements of a much wider conspiracy, involving a shadowy group that seems to be amassing psychics for some nefarious scheme. But there's also a group that's opposing them, and both are trying to secure a hold on newly-developed psychic Sarah Gallagher. After she was mugged and struck on the head six months earlier, Sarah finds she has developed a strange second sight, some of which involves knowing the future.

Novelist Tucker Mackenzie has his own reasons for trying to find a legitimate psychic, but he arrives in Sarah's life just as it seems she is targeted in some kind of plot. Do the plotters seek Sarah's death, or just Sarah? No one knows, and the pair will have to use all the cleverness they can manage in order to stay ahead of the hunters and survive.

The First Prophet is either an extended chase scene broken up by expository lectures, or an extended expository lecture broken up by chase scenes. The characters are not particularly distinguishable, the in-narrative logic of the psychic phenomena not particularly solid and the writing not particularly noteworthy. The ending obviously sets the stage for a series of sequels, but not very much about The First Prophet intrigues me enough to want to read them.
So many U.S. printed books carry the tagline "international bestseller" it's kind of interesting to encounter someone whose internationalizing started from somewhere else. Arnaldur Indriðason has been publishing crime and thriller fiction in Iceland for more than 15 years and has had a couple of his novels made into movies. One, Mýrin, was made into the 2006 movie Jar City, Iceland's entry in the foreign-language film category of the Academy Awards.

His popularity has risen enough that translations of some of his earlier work have begun being released in the U.S., including the 1999 Napóleonsskjölin, translated by Victoria Cribb and printed in 2011 as Operation Napoleon. Napoleon opens with a 1945 plane crash on an Iceland glacier; a German plane with both German and American officers aboard.

Fifty-five years later, a secret U.S. Army operation is underway to recover the wreckage, recently resurfaced because of ice shifts and storms. A young man named Elías sees the operation and then disappears, but not before calling his sister Kristín and telling her about it. Now mysterious men pursue Kristín with possibly deadly intentions, and she has to unravel the puzzle of the plane, the U.S. detachment and where to find her brother while staying one step ahead of the men chasing her.

Napoleon was Indriðason's third novel and doesn't represent the much smoother story-telling skills he would demonstrate as he progressed. Kristín's chase seems scattershot and her ability to elude capture and locate the recovery operation a lot better than a bureaucrat should have. Indriðason puts three or four anti-U.S. Army rants into her dialogue for no real reason and ignores the simple fact that a quick in-and-out operation to recover what's inside the plane -- which is want the U.S. forces really want -- would have been simpler, less likely to be discovered and a whole lot more sensible.

It's hard to say much about the style, since it's a translation. Whether the flat blandness of the novel comes from Indriðason or from Cribb as she rendered it into English is tough to tell, especially since I speak exactly one word of Icelandic if you count "Reykjavik." And since that's the capital city of the country, you probably shouldn't. Napoleon is a shade more than below average, leaving a reader on the fence about pursuing further Indriðason novels. But if found used, they're probably worth the time.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Nerd Fight!

A dispute between rival science fiction fan clubs brought the police on the scene at a convention being held in England.

Apparently, the disagreement was sparked because members of one club had felt the other club was attempting to disparage its event and reduce attendance. When a leader of the rival club showed up to get an autograph, he was asked to leave and then the traditional offer to settle matters outside was apparently given and accepted. Police were called, and they intervened before any (more) eyeglasses needed fixing and everyone went home uninjured. No one, it seems, could agree on whether to use a d12 or d20 die to roll for damage, and participants faced the daunting prospect of having to both give and receive actual blows, which no one was in favor of. A suggestion to engage in mutual swirlies was tabled, as there did not seem anyone present to receive the lunch money that such activity normally extorted.

The dispute was between two general science fiction fan clubs rather than between fans of different shows or genres within science fiction. Those, of course, can only be settled with blood. Or they would be, if things like phasers and lightsabers really worked. Star Trek and Star Wars fans in particular are known to see red at what they believe are unwonted claims of superiority made by those who follow the other show or movie -- the exception being J.J. Abrams, who sees only green these days when he looks at either franchise.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

That Toddlin' Town

-- Let the people who might investigate you know that you can investigate them too? Check.

-- Keep saying things the way you want them to be instead of the way you said them? Check.

-- Be dismayed, shocked or outraged at scurrilous behavior by underlings, about which you had no knowledge at the time, even though it had been going on for months? Check.

-- Keep pushing to make sure an embarrassing show of incompetency doesn't get any deep checking out until after an election is over and then fuss about it when the information shows up? Check.

That's the Chicago way.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Unclouded Day

My iTunes frequently offers me the option to back up my data to "the Cloud," which is a neat-sounding name that actually means "someone else's much bigger computer." A Cloud, in reality, is a network of servers that store data and can be accessed by users from any online system.

If I create a document and store it on my computer, the only way I can get to it is by opening it on my computer. I can store it on some sort of portable data format, which 30 or so years ago might have been magnetic tape or punch cards and today might be a flash drive or, if I'm old school, a CD-ROM. If I do that, then I can open it on another computer if that computer is compatible with my storage format. These days, almost every computer will operate a flash drive as long as it has a proper USB port. But if I encounter the rare computer that doesn't, or if I've been limited to using a CD-ROM but find a computer without an optical drive to read it, I'm in trouble.

Cloud computing, on the other hand, lets me store the document on another server with which I have contracted to do so, like I might rent a mini-storage facility. The document is on that other server, so anytime I need the document I can access it as long as I am able to get online. So I could get it even through a portable device like a smartphone with a data plan, or a tablet, or even a plain, old-fashioned computer that is plugged in to the internet. The idea is that I am no longer tied to my original computer or even portable data storage, and I can access all of my information from anywhere, anytime.

Unless the Cloud were to decide I can't.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Excess Plastic

The modern version of Lego bricks were first sold in 1958, and since then, the Danish company that makes them has put nearly half a trillion out into the world. This guy did himself some cipherin' with his sums and his guzintas, and found out what you could make if you used all 474 billion of them.

Turns out to be a bunch of houses, a few Empire State buildings, just under 3,000 White Houses, and so on. You could even build an entire Great Pyramid of Giza. Only one, though.

I didn't do the math, but my suspicion is that if you subtracted from that 474 billion Lego blocks all of them that disappeared into the couch cushions, you could manage, maybe, a garage for your Hot Wheels. Which your sister would step on.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Public Employee

You might wish to disparage my fair state by pointing out that the highest-paid public employee here is University of Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops. But you would have to disparage quite a few other states -- half the country, to be precise. According to this article at Deadspin, 26 states in the U.S. have a college football coach as their highest-paid public employee. A 27th state, Minnesota, has a tie between its football and basketball coaches.

Another 13 states pay a college basketball coach more than they pay any other public employee (Connecticut pays its women's basketball coach more than anyone else). The weirdos in New Hampshire give top dollar to a college hockey coach.

This leaves just ten states with someone other than a college sports coach as the highest-paid public employee. Alaska, Montana, Vermont and Delaware pay the most to a university president. The Dakotas and New York put the med school dean at the top, while Massachusetts gives that honor to the med school chancellor. Maine pays its law school dean the most.

I don't know what to make of the values of these states based on these figures -- I suppose you could say it means our society thinks too highly of college football and basketball coaches, and that Maine thinks too highly of lawyers. But what, then, do you make of Nevada, whose highest-paid public employee is a plastic surgeon on staff at a state medical school? The theory of value kind of breaks down there, because if there's any state that values plastic surgery too much, it's the one just to the west of Nevada.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Bridging the Mote

That horrible pun is not to be found in a post at the long-post blog, a spoiler-heavy piece on Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's classic The Mote in God's Eye.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Couple o' Reads

Since hitting the higher levels of the Minnesota state police agency, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Lucas Davenport has handled criminal cases that touched on political matters. But in Silken Prey, he finds himself in the middle of a case in which the apparent crime not only has political elements, it could decide a United States Senate race.

Incumbent senator Porter Smalls is cruising to re-election despite the wealth, political savvy and media-friendly looks of his opponent Taryn Grant. But then a campaign volunteer discovers child pornography on a computer in his campaign office, and even though Smalls denies any involvement his chances for re-election are plummeting fast. The Minnesota governor isn't convinced Smalls is guilty, so he asks Davenport to investigate quickly and quietly -- he has no love for Smalls but he dislikes the idea a campaign can be influenced this way. Lucas' trail winds through computer experts, political gamesmanship and an assortment of the usual thugs and ne'er-do-wells he'll need to brace for information. And it begins to point in a direction that will have him facing off against one of the more ruthless opponents he's encountered in his career.

Sandford cruises through Davenport's investigation with the fluid style that's won him many awards, both in fiction and in print journalism. Writing this smooth takes work, practice and skill, and he has all three. He's allowed a little rust in Lucas's armor as the investigator nears his mid-century mark, and he for some reason includes a major role for Kidd, the master computer hacker character he's used in a less-popular series originally written under his own name. Kidd's inclusion doesn't really add to the story -- my personal thought is that Sandford is setting up a two-part crossover tale to finish up in a Kidd novel, but we'll see -- but it doesn't do any notable harm, either. Detractors may complain that the Davenport novels are just another cop series, but there are literary novels that are worse-written than the Prey series and not nearly so much fun to read.
Although only two nuclear weapons had ever been deployed in wartime, frequent testing of more and more powerful bombs left many people wondering how much of the world would be left after a full-scale nuclear conflict. Science fiction novelists began the supposing the earliest, with journalist Harry Hart "Pat" Frank's 1959 entry Alas, Babylon as one of the first. Later understandings may have revised projections about the world after a nuclear holocaust -- mostly downward -- but Frank's novel remains one of the standards.

It does so not so much from its prose or characters, since Frank wrote in a mostly matter-of-fact style and it's hard to tell his cast apart except when he specifically identifies them. But his triggering cues, in which one superpower comes to believe it can win a thermonuclear war and an accidental misfire provides the excuse for the conflict, were frighteningly realistic. Frank was working for the Civil Defense department during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and probably had more than one question tossed his way about how things might work out, since his triggering incident started out just as small.

Alas tells the story of the people of Fort Repose, a fictional Florida town unhurt in the bombings and left mostly free of radiation by weather and a few lucky misses. Over the course of the novel, borderline alcoholic Randy Bragg becomes the de facto leader of the community at Fort Repose and realizes he can't ignore the responsibilities the situation places on him. His brother Mark, a high-ranking Strategic Air Command officer, sent his family away from Omaha when war looked likely and Randy must now care for them.

Most of the novel is taken up with survival strategies adopted by the folks of Fort Repose, physically unharmed but cut off from the rest of the country. Intermittent broadcasts let them know that there is a functioning United States government, and Randy bases much of his authority on that, as well as his ability to organize his neighbors for their own defense. The Reposians have to adapt their diet to avoid radiation-heavy foods, set up working medical and care systems and defend against raiders.

Frank touches lightly on what The Day, as the Reposians call it, means for racial relations in the late 1950s southern United States, but doesn't dig into it deeply. He also works with 1959 knowledge of radiation, a global nuclear exchange of weapons and their effects, which is incomplete according to modern standards. Subsequent end-of-the-world stories might have a more lurid style or more up-to-date science, but Frank's clarity of plot and implication have kept Alas, Babylon on high school reading lists for years as a good novel to try to learn how to read for meaning and idea as well as to find out what happens.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Remote Locations?

Apparently, during CNN's morning broadcast yesterday, anchor Ashleigh Banfield interviewed correspondent Nancy Grace via satellite. From about 30 feet away, in the same parking lot.

Leave aside why anyone would want to interview Nancy Grace anyway -- there's always the danger that she will respond to your questions and you'll be forced to listen to her -- and incidents like this help us remember that much of the time, most of television news is about the television and not about the news.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

No Effects Required

Digital effects have rendered the kind of stop-motion animation of which Ray Harryhausen was a master obsolete. Powerful software and creative artistry can blend fantastic imagery into the middle of an otherwise ordinary scene so well that only a frame-by-frame, pixel-by-pixel examination can tell the difference, and sometimes not even then.

But Harryhausen, whose death at 92 was announced today, came first. Without his willingness to try pretty much anything when it came to putting the wild, weird and way-out on screen, later special effects artists might not have tried the things they did, or developed the new technologies needed to do them.

And it's not hard to make a case that some of Harryhausen's best work exceeded some of the multi-million dollar spectacles of the last couple of decades. Compare The 7th Voyage of Sinbad to any of the Star Wars prequels, and it doesn't require much imagination to see how Harryhausen's eye and sensibility would have improved the latter. Because there's no way that he would have allowed a character like Jar-Jar Binks, and a Harryhausen stop-motion creation would have been a hundred times more lifelike than Hayden Christensen.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Getting Smarter

An article in Forbes suggests that older minds make better decisions. I agree with this idea just as completely as I would have disagreed with it 30 years ago, and just as completely as people 30 years younger than me disagree with it now.

The article is by a researcher who's a part of a new study center at Stanford University that's going to be examining longevity and its impact on how we live. It's going to pay attention to some of the physical neurological changes in our brains as we age that may offer clues to understanding the kinds of things we may take for granted. That neurological knowledge may be interesting, but I am not certain there will be a lot of new discoveries about larger issues rising out of this research. And that's because it is indeed studying things that we take for granted, and we take them for granted because they are often true.

For example, the idea that older minds make better decisions is obvious to anyone who's turned over enough calendar pages to understand the idea of gaining wisdom through experience. Even 18-year-old me, who would scoff at the idea that the decrepit wreck he would one day become could be smarter than he was then, understood that the gap in knowledge between himself and the person he was at eight came largely through experience. He knew more than that third grader because he had done more things than the third grader had. His inability to then flip that equation over to realize that others -- such as his father, for example -- might also have more wisdom because they had done more than he had was something he had yet to lose.

Although the institute will probably open up some interesting areas of learning how the brain works, there is already quite a body of research that supports the idea that older brains make better decisions. Middle-aged brains, for example, did not make Justin Bieber famous. They made Aldo Nova and Milli Vanilli famous, but they did that back before they were middle-aged.

(H/T Big Think)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Are You Sure About That?

Recently, my Facebook news feed has shown a couple of different pictures with the meme "Well, another day has passed and I didn't use algebra once." I have no doubt that these people did not. I often don't myself.

Of course, the people who invented the computers or mobile devices we used to tell everyone that information did, so ye olde al-jabr apparently got used one way or another.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Hitting the Triple

When Robert Downey, Jr., donned the red and gold armor of Iron Man in the 2008 movie of the same name, his performance was hailed but was also a kind of unobserved landmark in superhero movies. Christopher Reeves had shown that superhero stories could be told in ways that recognize some of their sillier aspects but still say serious things when he first played the Man of Steel in 1978's Superman. Michael Keaton proved that so-called quirky or comic actors could convince as heroic figures, even those containing as much darkness as the Batman mythos, in 1989's Batman.

Downey's Tony Stark/Iron Man rests on both of these pillars. His arc of transformation from a fairly callous billionaire arms manufacturer to a wounded hero forced to confront the reality of his past work is a reframing of an old question: Am I my brother's keeper, and if so, how? Does a man with Stark's kind of technical knowhow and resources have a responsibility to the people who might be harmed by the things he builds? How will he exercise it if he does?

Iron Man 3, which kicks off the 2013 summer movie season, continues to dig into the character of Tony Stark, building mostly on events in last year's blockbuster The Avengers. On the surface, things look good for Stark. He's a hero who saved New York City, his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) has found some stable footing and his business is going well. But below the surface, turbulence threatens. A kind of post-traumatic stress following his work with the Avengers brings on anxiety and panic attacks. He refines and re-invents his suits of armor with a manic intensity, and those twin troubles are wearing on Pepper. It may not be the right time to tackle a shadowy terrorist called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), but events make the Mandarin's campaign personal and so Stark challenges him. A business competitor, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), poses more potential problems as he develops biological agents that might produce people powerful enough to rival Iron Man.

Large parts of the movie reduce Stark to working without his armor, which forces him to confront how his obsession with it has been alienating him from those around him and even from himself. Downey uses the unmasked "down time" to good effect, and Paltrow also doesn't waste the additional screen time and opportunities she's given to build her character. Kingsley is properly menacing as the Mandarin and Pearce gives an excellent sketch of what a Tony Stark who never found a conscience might be like.

Iron Man 3 is probably the movie that Iron Man 2 should have been, but Marvel Studios' decision to use 2 as a building block for The Avengers blurred its focus so much and sapped so much screen time that the story -- building off Warren Ellis's "Extremis" story arc in The Invincible Iron Man comic book -- could not have developed as well as it did. The earlier movie's palladium poisoning is a more urgent dilemna for Tony Stark than his emotional turmoil, but given the latter to use, Downey makes the most of it. Superhero movie series have usually had trouble by the time the third movie comes out, but Marvel seems to have dodged the jinx, thanks to good performances by Downey and Paltrow, solid direction from Shane Black and a good story from Black and Drew Pearce.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Catch Some Waves

It'd probably be fun, to be certain, but even the best surfer never caught waves like photographer Pierre Carreau. Carreau used wide-angle lenses and high-speed cameras to capture them frozen in time, giving them the appearance of sculptures. Pretty fascinating.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

From the Rental Vault: Lost and Found

Henry Hathaway was one of Hollywood's most consistent directors -- rarely a shining talent but even more rarely a dud. Screenwriters Ben Hecht and Robert Presnell, Jr., were two of the most respected scribes in the movie business. Rossano Brazzi had come off top-rated English language turns in South Pacific and The Barefoot Contessa. John Wayne was John Wayne, and Sophia Loren was Sophia Loren.

So go figure how all of these talented folks could collaborate in 1957 to produce one of the least energetic and most lifeless movies of all of their careers, Legend of the Lost. Wayne was in the middle of a small handful of movies that took him away from the American West or the World War II battlefield to some different locations and different roles, mostly to poor results. Legend is nowhere near as bad as The Conqueror, but that's mostly because it lacks enough energy, focus and direction to really hate. Trashing it, as many have done to Wayne's portrayal of Genghis Khan in Conqueror, is like karate-chopping jello.

Wayne is Joe January, an expatriate American guide living in Timbuktu and trying to earn enough money to pay off his debts and leave. Hired by Paul Bonnard (Brazzi), he sets out to find a legendary lost city that Bonnard's father was supposed to have found before he died. Dita, a prostitute living in Timbuktu, is enthralled by Paul's vision of using the treasure in the lost city to help the poor. She is also drawn to him because her work has left her at best indifferent to men and his religious convictions mean he is not interested in her. But the journey across the blazing Sahara, in which the three nearly perish before finding the city and its water, reforges each of the trio and their relationships to each other.

Part of the problem may be a bad audio mix that leaves the heavily-accented Brazzi almost unintelligible during crucial parts of his exposition of his beliefs and motives, rendering Paul's later actions equally unintelligible. Part of it may be a story that depends heavily on Dita's life as a prostitute even though 1957 big-screen morés don't really allow enough to be said about that to clarify the picture. Whatever the reason, Legend earns a top spot in only one category -- biggest waste of potential. When your movie has John Wayne playing opposite Sophia Loren and Legend is all you manage, somebody somewhere was laying down on the job.
Submarine warfare presented unique opportunities for moviemakers who wanted  to  tell stories high on suspense, with built-in sources of natural tension that didn't require a lot of exposition or setup. Several great ones have been filmed over time, most of them descended in one way or another from Cary Grant's excellent 1943 entry, Destination Tokyo. Filmed while WWII was still ongoing, it tells a fictionalized version of preparations for the April 1942 bombing of Tokyo, conceived and led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle.

Grant commands the U.S.S. Copperfin, an attack submarine selected for a special, secret and dangerous mission. After a rendezvous in the Aleutian Islands where Copperfin picks up a military meteorologist, it must sneak into Tokyo Bay to allow him and a team to land ashore in Japan, gather information about weather conditions and munitions factories, and transmit the data to raid planners.

At two hours plus, Destination is packed with story, some of which seems very familiar because it's been done many times between the movie and today. The grizzled veteran cook, wet-behind-the-ears new sailor who grows up through adversity, carefree womanizer and man haunted by the past all show up, as does an instance of emergency surgery performed by someone who's "not a real doctor," a depth-charge duel and several sailors who reminisce about life back home are all there.

But the elements work together in spite of their familiarity, thanks to a great cast headed by Grant, John Garfield, Robert Hutton, Dane Clark and Alan Hale. And thanks to an excellent screenplay by director Delmer Daves, Steve Fisher and Albert Maltz, who give these incidents the right amount of "just doing my job" polish that keeps them believable (the emergency appendectomy, for example, is based on an actual incident in which a pharmacist's mate had to peform such a surgery aboard ship).

In movies as well as writing, clichés are certainly something to avoid. But every cliché started out as a real incident, and Destination Tokyo shows that the story at the root of the quickly stereotypical "submarine picture" could be a very good one indeed.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Beat the Tweet

Matt Labash, one of my favorite writers and author of some of the best long-form journalism of the last few years, takes some words -- more than 8,000 of them -- to denounce the micro-blog Twitter.

Labash does more than offer the standard list of deficiencies of a Twitter-heavy culture, such as the immediate expression of the shallowest thoughts or responses, its corrosive effects on language and so on. He checked out the Twitter-drenched SXSW music, film and cultural festival at Austin and highlighted how easily the ability to instantly and constantly interact with a cyberspace community becomes the need to do so, and how that tendency damages interaction with a present physical community.

My own feelings can be summed up in far less than 8,000 words: Twitter stinks. Does my economy vs. Labash's prodigality mean I am a better writer than he? In no way. He got paid for his words and I received only the warm feeling one gets from a completion of an act in the creative process. I leave to you the determination of which pays the bills.