Saturday, August 31, 2013


Lots of people probably know that the traditional keyboards on our computers are descended from those on typewriters, with the most common being called "QWERTY" for the first six letters on the top row. This particular keyboard design came about as a way to decrease the possibility the metal typewriter arms would jam when struck in too quickly in succession.

Touch-typing methods were developed to teach the way to type without looking at these keys and also speed up typing. Which means that the QWERTY keyboard is pretty much engrained in our modern machines, even though today a key doesn't move a metal arm and striking the letters too quickly doesn't necessarily mean a jam on your computer keyboard. Periodically people will advocate for a better design, but the near universality of QWERTY usually means they are niche layouts at best.

Some parts of the world use different configurations, and the good folk at Mental Floss review a few of them here. These aren't places where entirely different alphabets mean different keys altogether, like Arabic or Hebrew or the katagana characters of many Asian languages. Hebrew, for example, has letters that represent sounds that the Latin alphabet may use two letters to show. Latin alphabets use "sh," for example, to designate the sound that children across the country are becoming reaccustomed to hearing as school starts. But in Hebrew, that sound is represented by the letter shin, or "ש." A Hebrew font loaded onto a machine with a regular Latin keyboard, QWERTY or otherwise, will probably put the shin on the "w" key because of the resemblance, since the "s" key will be occupied by the letter sin, which looks exactly like shin except for a differently-placed dot that the Blogger interface can't, apparently, represent.

Read anything written in French and you will notice that accent marks are a lot more common. Same with Spanish. French-speaking countries modify the QWERTY layout primarily by using a couple of different symbols in the number row and inverting the shift function. While we type the number and use shift to get a symbol, the "AZERTY"  keyboard types the symbol, which is often one of the accented vowels. You have to shift to get the number.

No. 6, or the "JCUKEN" layout, does feature a lot of different characters since it uses the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. Cyrillic is a mixture of the Latin alphabet and some modified characters from the old Slavic alphabet.

Of course, all of the most up-to-date keyboards with the most efficient and ergonomic designs in the world can't keep people from writing stupid stuff. See any congressional mailing or three-fifths of what goes into the editorial page of any major newspaper for examples.

Friday, August 30, 2013

From the Rental Vault: A TCM Trio

Although I've yet to hit the halfway mark on the century meter, I spend a sizable portion of my TV-watching hours on Turner Classic Movies. It's re-introduced me to classics, uncovered unknown gems and demonstrated that mediocre moves existed before 1970. Here's a slate of snippets caught on-air and fully viewed thanks to the good folks at Netflix.
In some ways James Cagney functioned like Robert Downey, Jr., does in movies today. He had the ability to sell pedestrian dialogue and ordinary stories (like Downey's Sherlock Holmes outings) so well that viewers could invest in them even though the movie itself might not have been worth it had he not been a part of it, as well as the ability to bring an extra shine to worthy material (like the Iron Man movies and The Avengers). 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) is an example. Very loosely based on the Office of Strategic Services' work during World War II, Rue is the story of the training and deployment of clandestine agents into occupied Europe in the days leading up to the Normandy invasion. Actual OSS director William Donovan, upon reading the script, lodged enough objections that producers removed the "OSS" name from the story. Later, of course, the modern Central Intelligence Agency was formed from the OSS beginnings.

As Bob Sharkey, the man the federal government hires to train the new agents, Cagney brings his trademark intensity to what starts out as a background role. But midway through the movie, the rookie spies deploy to get information on a German scientist -- aware a little too late of the double-agent in their midst their leaders knew of from the start. Cagney himself takes a hand in trying to meet with the French resistance and salvage the mission, even though as an agency official he risks many secrets falling to the enemy if he's caught.

The movie is still mostly Cagney -- the one-named Annabella and Frank Latimore show up and hit their marks, and Richard Conte hangs about for awhile, but Rue dawdles when Cagney is offscreen and moves fast enough when he is on that its implausibilities fade into the background. For its own sake, Rue isn't much, but as an example of how a big star can not only carry but magnify a mundane movie, it's worth a little time.
Most every day, a passenger train sails on through the town of Black Rock, NV, without stopping. Then one day it did, and disabled veteran John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) disembarked.

Macreedy says he wants to find a Japanese farmer he understood lived in Black Rock, to fulfill an obligation to a wartime comrade. The townspeople, led by oligarch Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), seem uninterested in helping him. At first it's just small-town insularity, but soon enough Macreedy finds hints of something a lot more sinister. Smith's thugs include Ernest Borgnine and James Coburn, and they up the harassment level slowly until Macreedy must take a hand of his own on a Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).

Director Josh Sturges uses a number of contrasts to tell his story -- small-town community for insiders vs. suspicion of outsiders, the middle-aged, overweight and disabled Macreedy vs. the war veteran capable of quick, decisive violence, American pride in WW II victory vs. shame at its treatment of its own citizens of Japanese descent, and so on. Each by itself could have hamstrung Bad Day, but combined they help maintain suspense through the very end of the movie. Although spare and unadorned, the story offers some important fuel for thinking about war, its aftermath, the silence of shared shame and the consequences of living in fear.
In the late 1940s, if you wanted to cast a guy as a heavy in your middle-budget noir movie, you called Lawrence Tierney. When director Robert Wise began work on Born to Kill (1947), an adaptation of the James Edward Gunn novel Deadlier than the Male, he called Tierney for the role of the brutish and brutal Sam Wilde.

The role of the femme fatale Helen Brent went to Claire Trevor, earlier known as John Wayne's love interest in his breakout Stagecoach. Helen's a wealthy woman staying in Nevada for what used to be called a "Reno divorce" -- as Nevada law allowed for easier divorces, people would often live in the state long enough to establish residence and file the paperwork. Just before she leaves, she finds a boarding house neighbor and her male companion murdered, but she slips town quietly instead of telling police and involving herself. On the train, she meets Sam and the two intrigue each other. Sam tries to pursue a relationship when they arrive at Claire's home, but learns she is already engaged to another man.

So the violently homicidal Sam -- the viewer knows he killed the pair at the beginning of the movie but Claire doesn't -- instead takes up with her stepsister, the innocent Georgia. Sam's aim is to get close to Georgia's money and stay close to Claire, with whom he remains involved. But as secrets begin to slip away, both his plan and Claire's become more difficult, as well as dangerous to others.

Born is a fine bleak noir, with broken people trying to corner a game or work an angle against everyone but themselves, only to find they are a part of someone else's game too. Trevor is excellent as the brittle Claire. She's sometimes icy and sometimes seeming to be warm and human but never too far from her primary interest: herself. Walter Slezak as a private detective closing in on some of the secrets helps spur the tension as he digs, and Elisha Cook, Jr.,  as Sam's pal Marty is in his own way scarier than Tierney.

Really, the only false note is the way Tierney is supposed to be some kind of magnet for the ladies. His droopy features, simmering anger and open resentment of anyone and everyone make an unappealing package; even when he's supposed to be charming Georgia he's crude and borderline loutish. But he excels at capturing the explosive violence Sam only occasionally controls (it may not have been only acting, as Tierney spent some time behind bars for different assault arrests and no few convictions), and the other is minor enough to be ignored.

You're Doing It Wrong

You know, when the people who run your school system are this dumb, it's hard to believe that their students are going to learn very much.

Ah, I see.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fish Tale

During the Jurassic Era some 160 million years ago, a fifty-foot long fish today named Leedsichthys problematicus swam in the oceans of the earth. Scientists examining fossil remains of the fish believe it to be the largest fish to have ever lived on the earth.

This claim was immediately countered by another group of scientists who claimed they had found fossils of an even larger fish, but it got away.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fifty Years of Dreaming

On August 28, 1963, six men, including a black Baptist minister from Alabama, spoke at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

And it's the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words that we recall most today, especially from the last third of his address where he began repeating the resounding refrain about his dream of equality and justice. It's about at that time, in fact, where he switched from speaking to preaching, relying on the rhythms and cadence and language that sounded from his pulpit on Sunday morning. Today, the "I Have a Dream" speech is considered one of the finest in America oratory, and certainly ranks at the very top of anything any modern public figure has said.

It was, in a way, a national sermon, prophetically proclaiming the dangers of hatred -- not only for the oppressed, but for the oppressor. King believed that while those who were hated could find help and healing in the arms of God when that hatred grew strong, those who hated would find no rest from the poison that corroded them until they could set down their hatred and embrace the kinship of all humanity as creatures of God. He was a pastor, and his words tried to call to those other sheep as well. That they have had great success is evident. Many speakers at an event today marking that 50th anniversary pointed out that no law segregating lunch counters and bathrooms and water fountains and theaters and buses or anything else would pass muster today. My own parents might not be as enlightened as modern society might wish in matters of race, but they considered the slur we today call "the n-word" as the equivalent of any of the magic four-letter words that earned rebuke, solitary confinement in one's room until dinner and eventually, a date with some soapy toothpaste substitute.

That we have much to do is also evident. Today's foes are not bullying sheriffs and willfully blind public officials who would not even make the effort to disagree with King's ideas because that would have meant listening to them. Today's foes are cultural tendencies to exalt the ignorant and violent, to denigrate responsibility and achievement, and to view as somehow more culturally authentic words and behaviors that King might have been among the first to lament and urge be abandoned. They are those who mean well but who accept less, and by doing so expect less, and by expecting less encourage less, until less becomes the norm. And they are still those who believe that the ultimate arbiter of human quality is melanin, and that people who have amounts similar to their own are somehow better than people who don't and who feel justified in separating and treating as "other" any who do.

As is proper, the president of the United States spoke on this 50th anniversary of such an important declaration of what his nation promised to be, and of what it should be and could be, and how its people could encourage that to happen. You do not have to read this blog for very long to learn that my own opinion of this president's policies and abilities is not high, but he has shown a gift for speaking. Today he was good -- he didn't touch the speech of 50 years ago, but another 50 years can go by and we will still be waiting for someone who could. He didn't match his own personal best from the Democratic National Convention in 2004, a speech that turned the national spotlight towards him, but he was good.

And he himself was a man who 50 years ago would have been one of those told to drink over there, sit over there, go eat somewhere else, who would have been the target of the hoses and the dogs and the batons and the vicious words of hate. Yes, he is targeted by those who dislike his policies, and he draws no small amount of hateful rhetoric, but the president who hears none of that has yet to be born or to serve. The fact is that the man who stood where King stood at the Lincoln Memorial today as the chief executive of the United States of America is one who would have had to have stood with King if too many white people wanted seats on the bus. He would have had to drink with King from water fountains that said "colored," or sat in balconies instead of on the main floor of the theater, or eaten at the back door of the restaurant because no one would seat him, or walked with King past hotel after hotel until he finally came to one that would allow him to stay.

But he does not have to do any of these things. People stand when he enters. Traffic stops when he passes. The powerful call him, "Sir," and address him not just as "Mister," but "Mister President." Martin Luther King Jr., had he not been slain just five years after this speech, would be 84 today and very possibly alive to see this.

And although he might have had to pinch himself to see if he was still dreaming, he would have found -- I hope to his great pleasure and satisfaction -- that he was not.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Chickens, Roosted

They warned me that if I voted for Mitt Romney we'd have our national defense posture left in the hands of some ill-qualified shoot-from-the-lip Republican who would flap his gums about the U.S. taking unilateral military action in a world trouble spot, unhindered by international agreements or the positions other nations might take.

And they were right!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Jaw, Dropped

Limited internet access during vacation kept me from my regular review of the Astronomy Picture of the Day, so I had no chance to share this mind-blower of combined ultraviolet images of a Venusian eclipse of the sun.

The colors, man...look at the colors...


The Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher has been considered kind of the face of the team over the past few seasons. He's got a funny-sounding name, he plays defense, and he plays one of the positions that often involves hitting people in the open field (linebacker). Although he was not elevated to the deity-level of Mike Ditka or the demiurge status of Dick Butkus, Urlacher was probably one of most Bears' fans favorite players.

But based on this recent interview, I think we can omit raising Urlacher to the pantheon of Bill Swerski's favorites.

Yeah, if you watch the interview, you can tell that Urlacher is mostly joking. But Ditka never would have said that -- not without leaping through the video screen and planting Wilson face-first into the turf.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

What a World

I'm posting this update from an airplane, several thousand feet in the air. Even though Louis C.K. is more often misanthropic than observant, and even though he has a marked tendency to low class behavior, his observations in the routine, "Everything's amazing, but no one is happy" are dead on target.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Don't Forget the Motor City

I'm visiting relatives in Michigan this week and landed at the airport in Detroit. That area and a few others visited by tourists and people who come from out of town to spend money are generally well-kept, but other sections have problems like this.

"Left behind" was the phrase writers Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins borrowed to write their series of books on people who remained on Earth when the true believers were gathered up to heaven. It's also a pretty good description of the people who live in one of America's iconic cities. A variety of corporate and corporate-crony corrupt folks used it to make as much money as they could and then got out. What we see in the bankrupt Detroit of 2013 are those whom they left behind.

Only I'm not sure that "heaven" will play any role in this particular set of events.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Book It On Outta Here

Over at Dustbury, there's a link to a story about a reading contest that a library changed when one kid kept reading the most books.

The first thing they did was ban him from the contest, and then change it into a lottery, where every entrant's name will be put in a hat and a winner drawn at random.

Although I'm not someplace where I can research it, I imagine the library uses some amount of public funds. I suggest that whatever level of government funds it receives be combined among all of the agencies that get that money and one name drawn from a hat to get all the money. Or maybe a random pairing of budgeted needs and available funding. And if the library doesn't get one of the accounts that has enough money for it to operate, then it needs to save money first by firing everyone who came up with the idea to change the contest.

Serious Building

It's not a topless tower of Ilium, but a 112-foot spire made from Lego bricks is pretty darn impressive. As the story mentions, this pretty much represents the culmination of the dream of every kid who ever clicked two bricks together.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Long Time Ago, With a Design Far Away...

...from the one we eventually wound up with.

Because George Lucas likes to sell the idea that Star Wars is a cohesive whole that sprang from his mind fully developed, from every Anakin pod-race Jar-Jar (sorry about the language) mistake to every "No. I am your father" brilliant moment, we can forget that the franchise really did develop over time.

This set of pictures and links at Visual News shows some of the development of the logo of the famous franchise. In initial publicity, the movie's name was simply printed in something like existing fonts, tweaked a little here and there. Over time, different logos came into being for publicity materials until Lucas commissioned someone to design something very close to the logo we know best today. A little bit of tweaking, and we have the font we have come to know and love -- except in the prequels, which we know and suffer through when we have to. The Visual News piece is an abridgement of a much more elaborate history here.

Of course, a geek-level overload of information about how Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Obi-Wan, Vader, R2-D2 and C-3P0 came to be the people we know today can be found here. You should probably have a lot of spare time before you start digging into it, though, because reading it from start to finish would bring you to a long time from now.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Flashback Trio

The mid-1980s saw three novels take a look at the world of that time through the eyes of young adults living it. Two focused on young people in the fast lanes of the coasts; the third used a teenage girl in small-town Kentucky.
Less Than Zero, with a title taken from an Elvis Costello song, was the only one of the three written by a person in the age range being explored. Bret Easton Ellis was 21 and a student at Bennington College in Vermont when it was published in 1985, although he had been working on it more or less since his high school years in southern California. Although the central character of Zero is a rich college student from southern California back from a New England for Christmas break, Ellis is clear it's not autobiographical.

Clay, back home from college, looks up old friends and spends time with them on the party circuit as he did before he left for school. He finds the things that used to enliven or at least entertain him now shallow, and the people with whom he shared those experiences shallower still. Attempting at first to recapture the feelings he remembers by intensifying some of his partying, Clay finds himself more and more alienated from his friends and their activities.

Ellis is sometimes given credit for foreshadowing the emptiness of modern celebrity culture, in which people named Kardashian or Hilton are famous for doing nothing or for doing things that make nothing look good. But wealthy cultures especially have produced vacuous hedonists since the days of the vomitorium, so he's hardly a prophet. In the end, Clay is a young man who finds he has nothing in common with the place he left, but hasn't bothered to try to move himself forward in any way. If his old scene means less than zero, Clay has barely breached positive numbers and seems unmotivated to add to himself in any way.

Ellis uses a fairly affectless style, perhaps in order to expose the emptiness of the characters' pursuit of experience after experience -- how eventually they have all become deadened to even the depravity they are supposed to be reveling in. But the combination of his flatly-written prose and the increasing banality of the debauchery it describes make Zero a chore to get through, and after you have, you have a hard time coming up with any reason why you did.
Jay McInerney, along with Ellis, Tama Janowitz and Mark Lindquist, was identified in a 1987 Village Voice article as one of a "literary Brat Pack," paralleling the cinematic Brat Pack who often starred in John Hughes' movies. McInerney earned the inclusion with his 1984 Bright Lights, Big City, the story of a young magazine fact-checker whose personal life spirals out of control thanks to setbacks and the mid-80s Manhattan party scene.

McInerney wrote Lights in the second person, which means our narrator is never named and we know him only as "you." "You" is a 24-year-old from the midwest who moved to New York City with his wife, Amanda, an aspiring model. Unable to land a writing job, he hoped to get his foot in the door as an editor and fact-checker. But when Amanda's modeling career takes off, she leaves him and he is unable to deal with this tragedy on top of his mother's death. Increasing investment in the drug-fueled Manhattan party scene doesn't help and he continues to lose more control of his life as he attempts to hold on to his memories of his wife.

Lights is meant to have some comic edge to its exploration of the narrator's troubles, but it reads more like someone took a mid-period Woody Allen movie, rewrote it into second person and added cocaine. Its central revelation -- that sorrow floats and can't be drowned (or snorted away), and that doing whatever feels good will eventually wind up leaving you not feeling much of anything -- is not nearly world-shaking enough to sit through 180 pages of second-person weirdness to get to.
Ellis, as mentioned, was 21 when Zero was published, and McInerney 34 when Lights came out. Bobbie Ann Mason, by contrast, was already 45 when her first novel, In Country, was released in 1985, following a successful collection of short stories. Being older probably gave her a head start on reflecting on the human condition, since she'd had some more of it in her life.

In the summer of 1984, a year of Springsteen and Michael Jackson, Samantha "Sam" Hughes graduates from Hopewell High School in Kentucky. Her father died in Vietnam before she was born. Her mother has recently remarried and moved to a nearby city. Sam and her uncle, Emmett Smith, still live in Hopewell, but her mother wants her to move in with her so she can attend college. Sam wonders who will take care of Emmett, the only real father figure she has ever known but who came back from his own Vietnam experience damaged enough for her to be unsure of his ability to take care of himself.

Through the summer, Sam tries to learn about the war that took her father's life as well as understand something about what she wants in the world. Does she want to stay in Hopewell to care for Emmett and probably marry her boyfriend Lonnie (locally famous for sinking a string of jump shots during a senior season basketball game)? The placing of the Vietnam War Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., provides a spur for both her and Emmett to seek their answers.

As an exploration of character and condition, In Country stands well above either Zero or Lights. It lacks the former's poisonous indifference towards its own characters and the latter's arty affectations, and it roots its meditations and narrative in experiences much more common and relatable than the lurid revelries of the American coasts. I read In Country and I want to find out what Sam will learn and what Emmett will do -- none of the cast of either of the other two novels evokes that response. Ellis doesn't care enough about his to give them humanity and McInerney doesn't care enough about his to give his narrator a name, and if they don't care, why should I?

Like Clay and "you," Sam learns that she wants answers beyond what she's always known. But unlike Clay, she takes steps to find them, and unlike "you," she doesn't run from them and hide behind a mound of white powder. Is that because Mason had enough perspective to look at that verge-of-adulthood time of life with a clearer eye that the others, who were too close to really see it? Maybe. Either way, she produced the best book of the three, and the least famous. Oh well.
All three books were made into movies. In Country features a fantastic performance by Emily Lloyd and a not-bad one from Bruce Willis. I never saw the other two so I can't really say anything about them.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Another Typewriter Falls Silent

The death of Elmore Leonard leaves modern crime fiction with significant dearth of its iconic figures, although Leonard himself wrote in several genres.

Leonard was one of those who wrote genre fiction, but did so with a skill and style that elevated much of his work above the crowd, and some of it to prompt serious reflection on human life and its meaning. Bookshelves are poorer for the work of his that will now not be written.

Monday, August 19, 2013

And You Look...Mahvelous

That may be something that musicians want to pay attention to in competitions.

A social psychologist, Chia-Jung Tsay, developed a study that used brief audio and video clips of concert piano finalists, some of whom won their contests and others of whom did not. A group of music professionals, as well as a group of people who just listened to music, were presented with audio only clips of the musicians and asked to judge whether or not the performer had won.

Neither the experts nor the amateurs were any better than random chance at picking the winner when they just heard the performance. When they heard the clip and saw video, they did a little better. But when shown a video only, both groups beat the average.

Tsay followed up by asking a group of people to judge qualities like passion or motivation, which competition judges often use as criteria for rating performances. Again, they used audio clips and video clips, and people matched the professional judges' opinions far more often when seeing the performance.

Our evolution to weigh visual clues more strongly -- given that we humans aren't all that great in terms of the rest of the animal kingdom when it comes to hearing and smelling -- probably plays a large factor, Tsay said. But I believe she overlooked the obvious answer, as explained by Billy Crystal in his "Fernando's Hideaway" sketch during the 1984-85 season of Saturday Night Live: It's better to look good than to feel good, and you look...well, you know.

Question Contains Its Own Answer

I started to wonder how it's possible that San Diego mayor and former Democratic congressman Bob Filner could be so clueless as to figure he could still do his job, let alone keep it, and then I remembered why we are being subjected to him in the first place. I can't see how he would act any differently if there were such a thing as an allergy to clues and it afflicted him, so I will say that's exactly what he is.

Please, Mr. Filner, remove yourself to obscurity and there labor in secret to do the kind of good you should have been doing until now.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Skates Optional

If the freezing system at a hockey rink breaks, then it's tough to have the game. Ice skates, as you might imagine, don't work so well when there is no ice around to skate on.

Unless, of course, you play underwater hockey.

Which, despite the fact that "How to Play Hockey Underwater" sounds like the annoyingly but typically pretentious title of a Grantland piece, is exactly what it sounds like. There is a puck, and there are sticks. In this case, though, the puck is larger and the sticks are smaller. Unlike a regular hockey puck, an underwater hockey puck is heavier so it will not float but rest on the bottom of the pool. The sticks are smaller in order that the players can actually wield them while underwater -- the greater density of water would make the resistance working against the larger stick so strong the sticks themselves would be next to worthless.

Players use snorkels, goggles and fins so they can see underwater and swim slightly submerged towards where the puck is. But to get to the bottom of the pool, they have to hold their breaths and dive down, and when they run out of air they have to surface and the puck may then get taken away by an opponent who has just returned to the depths.

It sounds like it's a fun game to play and to get good at, but I don't know about watching it. A spectator poolside could never see what was going on under the surface, so unless there are underwater cameras and screens to show their feeds, I don't know that this is going to take off on television. But if the players have fun, I imagine they won't care much about that.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


-- I didn't need a lot of reasons to avoid Kick-Ass 2, the sequel to a movie I never saw that figures a good take on super-heroes is to have them be foul-mouthed children. But reading some of the way Mark Millar, who created the comic on which the movie is based, thinks about the role of women in the stories he writes... Well, I gained a couple of new reasons to do so.

-- The sun is going to flip its magnetic field soon, and that will probably mess with a lot of stuff. Or it might not. Either way, it's an aspect of nature and creation that we can do absolutely nothing about, and will happen whether any modern-day would-be Canute reads a speech or not.

-- The return of Kurt Busiek's Astro City, one of the smartest comic books available today and some work that's smarter than a lot of non-comic books, will keep me headed back to the comic shop at least once a month. I had figured on that going by the wayside when Legion of Super-Heroes finished its run this month. Sales figures are down -- which is a shocking development, I know, considering that writer Paul Levitz has spent much of the last year killing off his cast. Astro City's return is welcome in itself, but also as a sign that creator Kurt Busiek is in good health.

-- When you've lost Darth Vader...

Friday, August 16, 2013

New Experience

Give a baby a lemon, and he or she will probably at some point try to eat it or chew on it. A photographic exhibit of some of those results can be found here.

Yes, some of them are obviously put off by the sour taste. But some of them, judging by their expressions, aren't even going to wait for you to make lemonade.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

At the Core

I didn't say much about Oprah Winfrey's claim that a store clerk in Switzerland wouldn't show her an expensive handbag because she (Ms. Winfrey) is African-American.

For one, I believe that days are made better by ignoring Oprah Winfrey. For another, lots of people had been saying stuff about it, and most of them were either more insightful or funnier than I would have been. I can't remember where I saw my favorite joke, but it was something along the lines of how this might be one of the first times in the history of salespeople, who frequently work on commission, that one of them chose not to show the more expensive item.

As the link above notes, the shop owner and Switzerland have apologized to Ms. Winfrey. As another story notes, the store owner would kind of like to chat with the media mogul and denies anything like what Ms. Winfrey says took place actually happened. Ms. Winfrey, who was doing an interview to publicize her new movie -- a fact which is mentioned in most of the stories about this incident -- says she is sorry the whole thing got blown up so big.

What I'd been looking for, though, hadn't shown up yet. The Daily Mail story does note that Ms. Winfrey, who frequently speaks out on animal treatment issues and who received a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals award in 2009 for her anti-fur stance, was called to task by a Swedish animal rights group for eyeing a crocodile leather bag.

But so far I've seen nothing about the fact that Ms. Winfrey was going to the store to buy a new bag to go with her dress for Tina Turner's wedding, and the bag she looked at was $38,000. Yes. Oprah Winfrey, who grew up in poverty so severe she wore dresses made from potato sacks when she was a child, was going to spend thirty-eight thousand dollars on a purse to go with a new outfit. That's about a grand below the poverty line for a family of eight, and it was going to be spent on a purse.

Now, Ms. Winfrey earned her money. She can spend it however she wants, and I would be aghast at and against anyone who tried to write rules that said where and how much she could spend, or how much a shop could charge for its wares. She made the money and she's entitled to dispose of it as she sees fit.

But I have my opinion, and I'm entitled to dispose of it how I see fit as well. Even if the incident happened exactly as Ms. Winfrey said, rather than as the store owner says, the fault is not in any snooty store clerk's attitude. The fault is in the obscenity of planning to spend $38,000 on a purse.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What The...?

The Missouri State Fair has banned a rodeo bullfighter (they don't much care to be called "clowns") for life because he wore a mask that looked like President Obama and participated in a fairly tasteless and borderline racist skit that mocked the president.

You can read about the skit at the link and at some other stories, although there seem to be some variations in the way it's told. From what I can tell, it doesn't sound very funny and even though I think President Obama has been a lousy chief executive, I would probably have thought it disrespectful had I seen it. But if unfunny, tasteless mockery of a sitting president is a banning offense, then NBC should have had a hole in its schedule at 10:30 PM Central time on Saturday nights from January 2001 to January 2009 and Michael Moore would have disappeared from public view after Fahrenheit 9/11. Which is probably something anyone who paid to see Sicko would have appreciated.

But back to the Missouri State Fair, who have banned a rodeo bullfighter from jumping in front of a ton of angry hamburger ever again within its borders. I'm not an alarmist who sees a crumbling Constitution just because everyone waxes indignant when their own oxen are gored. But sweet heavenly day, what the hell is being substituted for thought at the Missouri State Fair? They have not only banned the guy, they're going to review their contract with the entire association of which he is a part! Some folks have said the Missouri governor should skip a traditional breakfast he sponsors at the fair because of this.

How looney is this mess? It's made Texas Republican Steve Stockman -- a man who made noises about impeaching the president should he enact firearms regulation through executive order and who seems to want to keep an open mind about the president's citizenship status (look that last one up yourself; all the links I found were on sites I don't want to connect with) -- sound reasonable when he invited the banned bullfighter to perform in his district:
“Liberals want to bronco bust dissent. But Texans value speech, even if it’s speech they don’t agree with. From Molly Ivins to Louie Gohmert and every opinion between, Texans value free and open political speech. I’m sure any rodeo in Texas would be proud to have performers.”
Stockman referred to a rodeo bullfight skit using a President George H. W. Bush mask in 1994 as not drawing anything like this response, and again, he's right, meaning he may have wasted his entire ration of stopped clock moments in one news story.

I know Missouri stayed with the Union during the Civil War, but I was wondering if we could get a review of that call. Or since it's not legal for one state to secede from the rest, maybe we could figure out a way for the other 49 to secede from Missouri.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

However Many Channels And Nothin' On...

Some TV folks recently commented on what might happen if our television channels were "unbundled," and instead of being forced to buy groups of channels, we could just pay for and watch the ones we wanted to.

For most of us who watch television, that would be a great thing. If I land on more than a dozen different channels in a month, that means that Kathy Ireland, Angie Harmon and Phoebe Cates must have teamed up to kick Guy Fieri's bleached blowout off Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives or Firefly is back with a deal to be aired on Lifetime, OWN, QVC, TLC, HGTV and C-SPAN 2.

For the people who run the cable companies or who own those channels with whom we would make some bye-bye, it would be a bad thing. Advertisers are funny about the concept of buying commercials on shows no one watches. No commercials means no shows, which means no channels. The people in the story estimate no more than 20 of our current national channels would survive unbundling. No one seems to be able to offer any reasons why this would be a bad thing for anyone other than the companies that can't survive unless they force you to buy something you don't want in order to get the few things you do want.

Such a move might focus the spotlight on the fact that some of the shows that have the biggest buzz and get the most media attention are really niche items more than anything else. Read online entertainment news or even print entertainment magazines and you might think that HBO's Game of Thrones and Girls were shows that most of the country was watching. But Thrones' rating highs during season three were between 5.5 and 6 million viewers. The May 14th episode of NCIS (spoiler: Gibbs wins) racked up more than 18 million watchers. That same night, the shows Grimm, Body of Proof and Golden Boy all had as many or more people watching them as the Thrones high, and the latter two of those have been cancelled. Girls is even more of a niche item, with its high-water viewer mark around a million and usual audience about the size of Oklahoma City.

The ratings for the HBO shows are thought of a little differently, of course, because they are on a premium channel -- one you have to pay extra to get. And many viewers are OK with waiting until the episodes are released on DVD (or with pirating them) instead of paying the extra HBO cost. A future of nothing but premium channels is a nightmare for any cable company and for the overwhelming majority of television networks subsidized by the 20 or so that most people watch. 

Unbundling would probably also be a step along the road of switching from a network model of broadcasting to a show model of broadcasting, in which people might just buy only particular shows they want to watch. For example, I am a big fan of Justified, but I don't imagine I tune in its network, F/X, more than twice a month for anything else, and probably not at all during the show's off-season. If F/X is unbundled from other networks I don't want to watch and wouldn't pay for (Hey, Comedy Central! How you doing?), then I am sure someone somewhere will start to ask the question, "Why am I paying for this whole network when I only watch one show?" You might hope that F/X would think about that and start to make more shows that would grab people's interest (and as I understand it, they have other good shows people like. I'm probably not any network's target demo anyway).

But instead, they could react like the cable companies are doing and fight tooth and nail to keep their network from being "unbundled." Rather than adapt as Chicxulub approaches, they would prefer to roar and stomp the ground and say, "Pay no attention to that impending meteor of doom behind the curtain!"

Imagine with me one step further, in which you not only didn't pay for channels you don't want to watch and shows you don't want to watch, but within individual shows you didn't pay for segments you don't want to watch. I could pony up whatever the price was to watch any Dennis Miller segment of The O'Reilly Factor and ignore the rest of the Factor's blowhard host and his shenanigans. It's what I do anyway, but this way I'd be doing it for less money. I'm having trouble finding the downside to that.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Art of the Deal

I preach for free.

Committee meetings and conference paperwork will cost you $50,000 a year plus health insurance.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Varying Inversely

This whole article on a human brain-mapping project is pretty interesting, but I was particularly struck by the quote that closes the fourth paragraph:
“Think about it,” says neuroscientist Konrad Kording of Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. “The human brain produces in 30 seconds as much data as the Hubble Space Telescope has produced in its lifetime.”
"As much data," yes. As much useful data? Probably not. See Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, any Survivor contestant or any person employed at either 1 1st Street or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. for details.

Saturday, August 10, 2013


-- When National Geographic was a magazine produced by the National Geographic Society, it was a valuable resource for people who wanted to learn about the world and see things in it that they might never see otherwise. Once it became a TV channel, it quickly turned into the same exploitative trash signaling our downward cultural spiral as every other piece of reality show ordure.

-- Some burglars stole office equipment from a group that helps victims of sexual violence. Then they figured out who they'd robbed from and gave it back, along with a note of apology. That part is nice, but no pats on the back for people who will at some point in the future break into some other office and steal stuff that doesn't belong to them instead of getting jobs and contributing to their community. Want me to think you're a good person? Either don't steal in the first place or if you already have, turn yourself in.

-- By using heat to manipulate molecules, scientists painted a version of the Mona Lisa on a surface one-third the width of a human hair. The process is called ThermoChemical NanoLithography, which is, interestingly, long enough that to write it in via the same process that created the "Mini Lisa" would require an entire human hair.

-- Some Minnesota voters made the news when they elected someone to office whose qualifications for that office and understanding of the world may be a little sketchy. Oh, and one Minnesota town re-elected a four-year-old as mayor.

-- Hmm. Curiously, I find myself agreeing with Senator Rand Paul, who is sometimes kind of flaky and has some weird friends. But as he says, it's hard to be against this kind of use of unmanned drone aircraft. I suggest Domino's Pizza look into this idea very very soon.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Failing Up

Twenty years ago, Apple introduced the Newton Message Pad, a handheld device that could store a calendar, manage contacts and send a fax. It was supposed to be able to recognize handwriting, meaning that if you took the special stylus and scrawled a note on the surface, the computer would translate your note into your calendar or contacts. And it was a miserable failure.

The article at Wired examines the matter in greater detail, but from what I can tell there were two major reasons the Newton failed -- both of these reasons made it something that returning Apple CEO Steve Jobs hated, and so it was quickly disposed of.

The first reason is that the original handwriting recognition software was not good and by the time the company developed a better one, the Newton was already doomed. The second was that it was developed in 1993 instead of 2013, or even 2003. According to the article, project designers wanted a handheld device that, in essence, freed the computer from the desktop. But that was what PDA devices like the Palm Pilot were doing better, for less money. The extra computing jazz that the Newton had wasn't of much use for someone who wanted to keep contacts handy, keep notes and so on.

But this being 1993, when the idea of a fast internet connection might be something like a 28K modem, there was nothing for that extra computing jazz to do. So Apple killed the Newton, but kept its parts around. Lo and behold, today anyone who uses an iPad or even an iPhone is using some of the technological ideas used in developing the Newton.

Would there be an iPad had there never been a Newton? Probably -- but without the dismal failure of the earlier device, it would have been a lot easier to create an iPad that had some of the same detracting features and hamper the newer machine's ability to be useful and catch on.

So failure is indeed not an option -- it's just that sometimes, it's not an option because it's a necessity.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Hour Come Round at Last

As the Neatorama headline indicates, timing is indeed everything. What looks like just strangely placed stencil graffiti becomes, at night, a complete work when a streetlight casts a shadow in the proper place.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

From the Rental Vault: Changed Histories

In the years leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, two competing parties struggled for control of the Japanese government. The militarist party, helped by then-Colonel Hideki Tōjō and then-Captain Isoroku Yamamoto and led by Prime Minister Giichi Tanaka, won out in its campaign to strengthen the Imperial armed forces and secure territory through conquest.

But in the late 1920s, the outcome of that struggle was still in doubt, and the publication of the Tanaka Memorial, supposedly a plan by the prime minister for world conquest, caused quite a bit of uproar. Its authenticity is still an open question.

The authenticity of James Cagney's fictionalized version of that publication -- 1945's Blood on the Sun --  is not -- it's got very little to do with the actual history and a lot more to do with giving Cagney a chance to be a tough guy in pre-war Tokyo. He's Nick Condon, editor of an English-language Tokyo newspaper, and his stories exposing some of the militarists desires for Manchurian Chinese territory have him in hot water with the prime minister's secret police. Believing Condon knows where a secret copy of the Tanaka Memorial is, the prime minister has him falsely arrested to discredit him and bring pressure to get the memo and turn it over. Is Tanaka's mistress, the Chinese-American Iris Hilliard (Silvia Sidney) on Condon's side also? Or is she playing her own game?

Many of Cagney's movies have him playing James Cagney, and Blood on the Sun is no exception. He's as cerebral as he is physical, and the judo training he took for the movie's fight scenes helps make them as convincing as his banter with Sidney or his verbal sparring with the police. There are some stereotyped accents from some of the characters, but the lead villains of the piece speak precise English without any pidgin and Cagney himself appreciates several Japanese customs. The Japanese had worse treatment in any number of WWII-era movies -- aside from that low-key stereotyping and the fast-and-loose treatment of history, Blood on the Sun spends less time running down its villains and more time letting Cagney be Cagney all over the screen. (PS -- Boo to Netflix for renting the colorized version).
By the early 1960s, the Silver Age of comics was in full flower, which left some comic book publishers with a conundrum. They had some great new heroes, but what about the greats of the World War II era and early 1950s? How could they mesh?

Enter the idea of the alternate universe, and in 1961, modern Flash Barry Allen met his Golden Age counterpart, Jay Garrick. Soon after, the Justice League of America would meet their own Golden Age forbears, the Justice Society of America, in the "Crisis on Earth-Two" story. In 1964, the JLA ran into a different kind of parallel world in "Crisis on Earth-Three," where they fought the super-powered Crime Syndicate of America. The idea of mirror-images of the heroes of our world as villains has stayed around since then in various forms. In 2010, Warner Animation mixed the original 1964 story with the 2000 Grant Morrison JLA: Earth-2 graphic novel to bring out Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths as its 14th direct-to-video animated superhero feature.

Lex Luthor, the last hero of his world, has traveled to the world of the Justice League of America to enlist their aid in fighting the Crime Syndicate -- Ultraman, Super Woman, Johnny Quick, Power Ring and Owlman. The Syndicate has been slowly freezing out the authorities of the world through fear and is building an ultimate destructive bomb to complete their takeover. The heroes of the JLA are the last hope of Luthor -- and his world.

Even though the heroes agree to help, they realize a punch-out-and-lock-up strategy won't be any help after they leave, so they have to try to weaken the Syndicate's base and the people's fear. And the discovery of alternate worlds causes a psychotic break for Owlman, whose own plans may be even more dangerous than the Syndicate.

Warner recruited several name actors for different roles, although James Woods as Owlman, the alternate Earth's version of Batman, is the only one to stand out. Dwayne McDuffie's script takes some interesting explorations of what familiar characters might be like on the other side of the legal fence -- what kind of hero would Lex Luthor's strengths and weaknesses make him? In the JLA world, Slade Wilson is the mercenary assassin Deathstroke. But in the Syndicate world, he is the president of the United States -- how do his character traits show up in the new role? An unfortunately brief stint for the Jester -- a heroic version of the Joker -- tantalizes on those lines more than informs, but the dialogue between Batman and Owlman offers some interesting thought about what might make a hero or a villain out of the very same person.

The overall uninspired voice-casting hampers Crisis, but the fun of playing "Spot the evil twin" and the deeper-than-expected character examinations make it a diverting and interesting 77 minutes.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Here and There

-- In an interview, author Bret Easton Ellis claims he doesn't care how The Canyons, his independent film starring Lindsey Lohan, is received. Interestingly, another guy named Brett (spelled with the proper number of T's) doesn't care about Bret Easton Ellis's independent movie The Canyons. Nor about anything that Ellis has written (although to be fair, he has read only Less Than Zero and about 80 percent of American Psycho).

-- Once Alex Rodriguez left the Texas Rangers to play for the team voted Most Likely to Suck Your Soul to the Seventh Circle of Hell (the New York Yankees, and shame on you if you didn't know that), it was easy to stop caring about what he did on the baseball diamond. Of course, once he started hanging around Madonna, it was not only easy but imperative to stop caring about what he did off the baseball diamond. A writer at celebrates the guys playing today who didn't make A-Rod's choice to get their extra edge from a chemistry set.

-- The Kansas City Royals are five games above .500 and it's August 6th. Sounds to me like physics' many-worlds hypothesis has some new evidence, because this seems like a different reality than the one I've been living in for the last 28 years (so of course as I write they're getting creamed by the sub-.500 Minnesota Twins. O fickle Fate!)

-- Sharknado was a stupid movie. But a "gatornado," on the other hand, is apparently an historical fact, according to this story which quotes an 1887 New York Times account of the incident. Of course, living in Okie-Land, we are familiar with animals that go for a ride on the twister express and then land wherever the thing drops them.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Out of Our Depth

One of the things that two different eyes gives us is the ability to use our binocular vision for depth perception. People who have only one working eye or who may have one very dominant eye have more trouble judging the distance of things than those whose eyesight is evenly matched. People who have been blind for some time who may have their sight surgically restored often take some time to learn how to judge distance based on visual cues.

Are we born with this depth perception, though, or do we learn it the way we learn to walk and learn to talk? In the early 1960s, two researchers conducted tests first with human babies to learn if they had to develop the ability to judge distance and thus lessen their chances of falling or grabbing for something and either smacking it because it was too close or missing it because it was too far away.

It turns out that babies probably begin to develop the ability to judge distances visually at about the same time they start to move around enough that they could fall off something and hurt themselves. The researchers found that animals which are mobile from birth or at a very early point in their lives had that ability much sooner than human infants.

It seems only fair that animals develop the ability to perceive depth much earlier than do people, as people develop the ability to be relentlessly, ridiculously shallow -- take any Kardashian as an example -- long before animals do.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

It'll Be on the Exam

One of the claims of the wired world is that its natives -- who are considerably younger than me and should reconsider their presence on my lawn -- can "multitask" or pay attention to several things at once. Usually this ends up with them paying actual attention to the thing that interests them and pretending to pay attention to the thing that doesn't.

Such as phone vs. math class.

But on Reddit, someone posted the story of a student who used a phone in class apparently one too many times, whereupon it was confiscated by the teacher. Since this was a math class, the teacher then re-set the phone passcode and gave the student a way to find it.

A math problem.

Have fun, digital boy.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

A Warning to the Dead

Beware. A Klingon warrior is about to arrive.

"I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means"

Inigo Montoya's well-known caution to Vizzini might have a little problem when it comes to these words on a list at Mental Floss -- because they are their own antonyms, or opposites.

Unless carefully deployed, they can offer a sentence whose meaning contradicts the intended meaning entirely. While context can sometimes help, it's not always a guide for some of the words on the list, such as No. 7. You may try to make your meaning of the word "trim" clearer by saying, "trim the tree," but you still leave open the question of whether or not you are decorating it or pruning it.

This effect, of course, is different from the way that politicians use words to mean the opposite of what they say. They will often use words that have a fairly clear meaning, but they will use them to imply an entirely different conclusion by the technique known as "lying."

Friday, August 2, 2013

Double Booked

The Spanish Civil War was both a preview and a concentrated form of a clash between two of the vilest ideologies ever invented by fallen humanity -- fascism, as the catspaw of its most extreme version called National Socialism and the Stalinist strain of the poison of Communism and Marxism. In the late 1930s, devotees of both dueled in Spain, allowing the Nazis to "field test" many of the weapons they would later turn on the rest of Europe and allowing Soviet dictator Josef Stalin a number of access points to up-and-coming political folks in Western Europe and the United States. They wrecked the country without much thought for the people who lived there -- many of whom spent the war dodging bullets and trying to live in the midst of all of these people supposedly fighting on their behalf.

Into the midst of this sordid slice of 20th century history, thriller writer Stephen Hunter sends Robert Florry, a shabby would-be writer coerced into spying for England's MI-6 intelligence agency. Florry is supposed to link up with his former Eton classmate, Julian Raines, who is writing about the war while also fighting in it and who may have been recruited as a Soviet spy. Florry is supposed to learn what he can about Raines' connections and loyalties, and act accordingly. The amateur spy's mission will be made that much harder by the presence of a Russian spymaster and former New York City gangster who's a part of one of the many Communist groups using the Spanish war for their own ends, as well as a young Englishwoman who is there to help the Nationalist cause and with whom Robert is falling in love.

Hunter is best known for his series of books about covert military sniper Bob Lee Swagger and wrote Tapestry of Spies (formerly The Spanish Gambit, after a chess strategy) earlier in his career. But as a movie critic for The Baltimore Sun at the time, he has plenty of writing experience and Spies features him already well in command of his pacing, narrative and style. He may write airport novels, but he writes them at a higher level than a lot of authors; one of the reasons the Swagger series gained notice and a movie deal.

Spies, though, does suffer from the fact that its bleak context settles into the characters and renders them as unpleasant as their circumstances. None of the people involved are the slightest bit likeable, and even those who may be on the side of right are folks you'd not care to spend time with -- nor are you at all assured they're on the side of right for anything like the right reasons. In the end, Spies is an excellently-prepared dish that still isn't anything you want to eat or that you enjoy if you do.
If there was an official title called "Dean of Alternate History Novels" the competition would be for second place, because Harry Turtledove is far and away the winner. Between his imagining of how things might work if World War II was interrupted by an alien invasion or how U.S. history might have been different had Robert E. Lee not been a litterbug, Turtledove has sent his mind wandering around the land of what-ifs and found a number of treasures.

Starting in 2003, Turtledove began a series of young-adult novels featuring people who work for a company called "Crosstime Traffic." In their world, the discovered technology of moving between different histories has allowed the company to set up secret agents in different timelines where things in the past happened differently. Crosstime Traffic uses the technology to purchase things that the home timeline is a little short of and to monitor the more technologically advanced alternates that might also develop the technology and use it to attack the home timeline.

In Curious Notions, the second in the series, Paul Gomes is a Crosstime employee with his father. Together they run an electronics and toy shop in a San Francisco in which Germany won World War I and later developed atomic weapons to effectively control the world. The shop, called Curious Notions, makes money because it sells items that are better than anything available from the "native" shops. But that same feature has drawn the notice of German authorities and Chinese criminal organizations, which places Paul, his father and a "native" family to that San Francisco in the sights of two ruthless enemies.

As a young adult novel, Notions wastes little time on much beyond the story itself. The characterizations are broad, and although Turtledove includes some passages where Paul and others reflect on the implications of time travel and altering history based on one's own knowledge, he doesn't dig very deep in doing so. His workmanlike meat-and-potatoes prose doesn't really allow him to write a story for younger readers that also explores deeper questions, a la C. S. Lewis. But like the rest of the series, Curious Notions is a solid story that might make a young adult reader try to dig into some of the real history Turtledove uses and learn something as well as enjoy him or herself.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Clearer View

I am reliably informed by most media outlets and many of the movies featuring them that the "millennial generation" born between 1980 and 2000 are spoiled and interested only in themselves, and that members of the different military services are either wild-eyed borderline sociopaths who slake their hunger to dominate, maim and kill by donning their country's uniform or ordinary folks whose exposure to same twists them irreversibly so that they can never fully return to or be at peace with everyday civilian society.

It seems that this picture may not be entirely correct. United States Marine Corps Lance Corporal Myles Kerr was running a race in his hometown on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan when he saw a nine-year-old boy struggling to finish. The boy had lost his group and asked Lance Corporal Kerr if he would run with him to help him finish. The Marine then sent the rest of his unit ahead and stayed behind to encourage the boy to finish the 5K run, and ran so that his own finish time was a full five seconds slower than his new partner.

Lc. Cpl. Kerr, the story notes, was bemused by the attention he has since received, and said, "I was just doing what any man would do."

Leave no one behind, indeed.

(One is advised to overlook the story's frequent references to "army fatigues" and "army friends" as mere errors born of misinformation.)