Thursday, October 31, 2013

From the Rental Vault: Cops and Robbers

By 1986, the "bickering buddy cop" movie had worn thin and was well into being an overused trope, headed towards the land of the tired cliché. But that didn't stop them from being produced, so Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal teamed up as Chicago police detectives who want to try to solve one last case before retiring to a life of ease and safety in Running Scared.

The pair are naturally unorthodox in their methods and skirt the letter of the law on a regular basis, providing heartburn for their captain and fodder for lawsuits. Hines is an unattached bachelor with a not-very-serious relationship with a woman who has a wealthy boyfriend, and Crystal is officially divorced but still attached to his ex-wife -- who now plans to marry a dentist. When they arrest up-and-coming drug dealer and kingpin wannabe Jimmy Smits, they almost get killed because of sloppy decisions and their captain enforces a vacation on them. Their sojourn in Key West convinces them to put in for retirement and buy a bar on the islands as soon as their final 30 days are up, but Smits was released and they vow to return him to jail before leaving for good. Unsurprisingly, it's not that simple.

The highlight of the movie is the Hines-Crystal relationship; they light up the screen whether kvetching, arresting, chasing or shooting the bull with each other. Other than an el-track car chase, the action pieces are so-so and probably do more to make a viewer wish they would end so we could get back to the snappy patter of the two leads. None of the other roles matter all that much except for Dan Hedaya as the pair's beleaguered captain; Joe Pantoliano's screen time is too brief and none of the women do much more than decorate the scenes they're in. That, plus about a half-hour too much of movie, make Running Scared an amusing nostalgia piece that can offer a lot of fodder for YouTube clips but isn't worth enduring much more than once. 
Fiercely independent crews of master thieves need to lay low from their respective home bases after pulling large-scale jobs. So Hong Kong jewel thief Chen and his crew, along with South Korean safecracker and con man Popie and his crew, will join with master thief Macao Park to rob a multimilion-dollar-value diamond from the mistress of top Chinese gangster Wei Hong in 2012's South Korean heist film The Thieves.

The job will be tough enough in one of the city of Macau's highest-security casinos, but complicating the caper are some murky interpersonal relationships on the two teams and Macao Park's history with Popie. Since everyone involved is by definition a criminal, the trust level between the two teams is not high, and neither is either team's trust in Macao Park. As it turns out, several players have their own separate agendas that could put them all in Wei Hong's crosshairs as well as draw attention from the police.

The theft itself is about three-fifths of the way through the movie, offering plenty of time to watch the meticulous planning and the gamesmanship of the post-caper maneuvering. The large cast -- there are close to a dozen major players -- means there's not a lot of time to flesh out our characters, but director and co-writer Choi Dong-hoon uses flashbacks and brief onscreen interactions to establish as much about them as his story needs us to know.

The Thieves is some excellent escapist fun with a surprising amount of depth in its story as the drama plays out. It's one of the top box-office movies in South Korean history and while it doesn't do quite as well on a small screen as it probably did in theaters, it's definitely worth the look.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Bag O' Anything

-- A scientist reports on his work for a paper that suggests a whole lot of nutrition research has had problems and may need to be re-thought. That made today's French fries at lunch taste that much better and I feel a whole lot less guilty about the sausage egg biscuit for breakfast a couple of days ago.

-- The "coldest place in the universe" is apparently the "Boomerang Nebula," a pre-planetary nebula about 5,000 light-years from Earth. Pre-planetary nebulae, of course, are stars at the end of their life cycle but are not gaseous clouds about ready to become planets. Sometimes science's descriptive capabilities could use a little tune-up. The Boomerang is actually colder than the look given the project's lead researcher when he forgot his anniversary; something heretofore believed scientifically impossible.

-- If you are a male toadfish, you have problems attracting the ladies. Not because you are ugly -- after all, you're trying to land a female toadfish, who is herself no great easiness on the eyes. But because your particular brand of booty call -- a "bellowing, foghorn-like" one, to be precise -- may be blocked by your toadfish bro's series of short grunts design to reduce your appeal. Which just goes to show you that while pimpin' may not be easy, being a toadfish is even tougher.

-- ...photons and electrons, living together...mass hysteria!
bellowing, foghorn-like call
bellowing, foghorn-like call
bellowing, foghorn-like call
bellowing, foghorn-like call
bellowing, foghorn-like call

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

History? What History?

Actor Sean Penn, speaking last night with Piers Morgan and seen by what must be at least tens of people, suggested that some of the folks in the United States Congress are a bit short-handed on the reality cruise and need some professional help.

Penn suggested that these people -- who seem, incredibly, to be only those who disagree with his own political opinions -- should perhaps be committed involuntarily to a mental health facility by executive order.

By so doing, Penn offers substantial evidence for those who would like to claim he is an utter fool (line forms to the right. Please, no shoving; we're experiencing the usual heavy demand at this time and your claim will be heard in the order it was received). Government-sponsored psychiatric imprisonment was a feature of the old Soviet regime that was criticized even by governments that thought Ronald Reagan a bomb-happy Armageddon junkie.

Penn's choice to cloak his suggestion in rhetoric of concern offers even more evidence for those who would claim he is an arrogant jerk unable to believe that any idea opposed to the two or three dusty bulbs rattling around his vacant skull could come from principle, reason or even blindly-held conviction. So smart, so wise is he that the only possibility that he can entertain for holding a position different from his own is that the holder can't process reality. Morgan offered more than a little proof of his own simpleton leanings by not laughing the pompous windbag off his set.

It also betrays his inability to see the implications and consequences of his own ideas. Should the precedent be established of psychiatric committal of those who differ from the ideas of those in power, what does he think would happen to him in the event of a GOP presidential victory? Nothing, of course, because no one could think of Sean Penn as a threat, no matter how wide the gap between their opinions and his. He's a fountain of narcissistic ideas no principled leftist would accept, scraped from the shallowest end of the thought pool because it's as deep as his vanity allows him to go.

On the other hand, the largest group of people who think that everyone disagrees with them is insane are...the insane. So Penn may be in more danger of an invitation to a soothing white room than he knows.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Bud the Dud

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig continues to demonstrate why he should be fired as soon as possible and ignored at all times.

ETA: I originally typed "Bug Selig," because my fingers are smarter than my brain.

The Science Is Solid

Not all scientific and mathematical investigation is used to find out new things. Sometimes it's used to test things everyone knows to be true, either to prove whether or not they are in fact true (such as Mythbusters) or to test out a procedure or theory. If a theory or process comes to a known conclusion, but does so independently of any previously known methods, then it stands on pretty solid grounds.

This may be why some folks with Wired and The Food Network teamed up to run a statistical analysis on things that make food better, and which ingredients did that work with the most number of foods.

At least, that's the reason I figure. Because anyone who doesn't know that bacon is in fact a "miracle food" that makes everything better is just hiding from the truth.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Walking on the Really Wild Side

A song from the Velvet Underground, by the late Lou Reed. Reed was one of the performers at the Great Jubilee Concert in Rome in 2000, appearing with several other artists before Pope John Paul II as a way to raise funds for debt relief for poor nations.

Reed died today at 71.

Say It's So, Joe

Sports columnist Joe Posnanski riffs on some of the weirdness of Game 3 of the World Series, won by the St. Louis Cardinals on an obstructed basepaths call in the bottom of the ninth.

Posnanski offers a more-than-complete explanation of some of the managing decisions and miscues that led up to that call, as well as the playing errors that brought about Allen Craig's awarded base when he tangled up with Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks.

He says mostly everything that needs to be said, and the whining about a World Series game ending on an umpire's call should probably just go away. There's no section in the rule book about which rules should or shouldn't be enforced in big games, or shouldn't be enforced if they will end a game, or shouldn't be enforced because they don't take intent into account and it's a big game, and so on. This isn't basketball, where a superstar has to be found with an opponent's wallet in his own pocket before being charged with a foul. This is baseball, in which the rule book is the rule book. I say that as a Kansas City Royals fan who knows that my team's lone World Series title owes a lot to a blown call and my favorite player was indeed out on the pine-tar call.

Boston catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, whose ill-advised and errant throw set up the call, had he best words about it all: "If the rulebook says obstruction, you tip your cap and walk off the field and take it like a man."

His teammate, Boston's Game 3 starting pitcher Jake Peavy -- who seemed to be living up to the homonym of his name -- could do well to listen to Saltalamacchia's words. Instead, he by said he hoped plate umpire Dana DeMuth could rest well that night after his call, adducing to an earlier disputed call by DeMuth as well. Of course, third base umpire Jim Joyce made the call, not DeMuth, who only confirmed it by not overruling Joyce.

Maybe the Sox pitcher needs a pair of glasses, as well as a copy of the rule book.

Maybe Next Time...

Reading Blood Oath is fun, but after a bit it starts to feel familiar, as though you've read this before. That's when you start recognizing the many works that have pieces of the story Christopher Farnsworth uses for his novels about a 140-year-old vampire bound by a magic oath to protect the President of the United States and the rest of the nation from the kinds of threats the Secret Service can't handle -- because they're just as supernatural as he is.

Farnsworth works from a supposedly real-life incident in which President Andrew Johnson pardoned a man convicted of murder and accused of drinking his victim's blood. That incident seems a little over-stated, but it makes a good hook for the story. Continuing to serve those in the Oval Office through history, Nathaniel Cade has thwarted no small number of eldritch plots against the US and defeated enemies that could have endangered the entire world. His handler is retiring and the new one is taking awhile to get up to speed, but a plot to create unstoppable undead berserker assassins is moving forward and Cade doesn't have the time to coddle him.

As mentioned above, it doesn't take too long in the novel to start to recognize some of its features. Mike Mignola's Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development also features agents who battle threats beyond human existence on behalf of the U.S. government -- the best-known being Hellboy of comic book and movie fame. Fred Saberhagen offered several novels with vampires as central characters and gave them quite a bit more depth and nuance than the usual fanged horror of the movies (So did P. N. Elrod, but Saberhagen is by far the better writer), and the syndicated television show Forever Knight featured a vampire who had sworn off human blood and who tried to solve and prevent crimes as a small way of paying back for the evil he had done.

Farnsworth can keep a story humming, and he doesn't do badly at stitching these different pieces together, but he treads some well-worn trails and doesn't try very hard to spruce them up -- a female villain sells out not for greed or the lust for power, but for the fact that she doesn't want to look old. The new liaison, former presidential aide Zack Burrows, is a Callow Youth With Dreams of Power but Surprisingly Deep Resources of Grit When Needed. Cade is more interesting, as Farnsworth tries to make him speak and act like a being who looks upon humans as food might. But as interesting as a few of the tweaks of "The President's Vampire" are, there's not much reason to hunt them up outside of a used book store.
After his debut, The Last Templar, Raymond Khoury wrote two other books before returning to that book's main couple, Sean Reilly and Tess Chaykin. The Sign, from 2009, was the second of those.

A mysterious sign appears in the air over Antarctica with no visible source or means of transmission. The television crew there to cover an ice shelf collapse captures it on film, and before too long learns of a connection to a desert-cave-dwelling priest. When the sign reappears in Greenland, people around the world begin wondering if it represents the arrival of extraterrestrial beings or maybe even a divine agent. The television crew, a man whose brother disappeared while working on a technologically advanced but secret project and the priest begin to learn not everything is as it seems. Powerful forces have an agenda for the sign's appearances, and they will guard it at the cost of the lives of anyone who gets in their way.

Khoury uses both his heroes and villains to highlight what he believes are flaws in how religious people have handled the modern world, paying particular attention to climate change issues. He does so about as subtly as a tip-toeing rhino and chokes his narrative with too many separate character threads that he does not have space to properly develop. Each lead gets his or her own chunk of personal historical background instead of the room to show us who they are, and Khoury makes the same mistake when it comes to the ideas he would like to get across.

Khoury is a good storyteller and above-average stylist with a handy way about an action scene. But he wants very much to Say Something Important, even though he is nowhere near a good enough novelist to do so. Of course authors since the dawn of papyrii have intended their work to comment somehow on the human condition. But a commentary invites reflection, engagement and perhaps even give-and-take discussion. Khoury doesn't comment in The Sign so much as he lectures, hectors and -- ironically given his presentation of religious people -- preaches. He does so with character speeches and expository passages that make an already complex narrative sludgy and slow.

Without taking the time to really novelize his ideas instead of narrating them, Khoury makes his case in The Sign a pretty much take-it-or-leave it proposition. And since that flaw also hampers the story's flow, you might be better off making the latter choice.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Being Fair to Middlin'

One of the reasons the small community where I now serve didn't have as hard of a slump as many in the state has been the presence of three facilities that offer blue-collar semi-skilled jobs, such as those for welders and other workers that require some training and preparation even if they don't need college degrees.

Jobs like these offer some of the best routes to economic mobility -- they may not be a way to get rich, but they offer a family a chance to help their children acquire education and degrees that can in turn be the keys to success for the motivated. So creating them is vital to economic growth.. Even though some critics knock places like Texas for touting job growth numbers by saying the majority of those new jobs are low-skill, low-income service industry work, like at a fast food restaurant, five of the eight metro areas which have more mid-skill jobs today than in 2007 are there. My own boring old Oklahoma City is number five on the list.

Communities that don't find ways to increase these kinds of jobs or which emphasize amenities for the well-heeled wind up with a sort of two-tiered system with a lot of poor people employed in retail and service industries, a few wealthy people in finance, business and information services, and a wide gap in between. Modern Detroit offers a good example of the endpoint of that kind of setup, and Chicago a good view of that process while it's under way.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Paging Mr. Tarkin, Mr. Grand Moff Tarkin...

A group of Japanese scientists have successfully tested a new system for examining an asteroid. That part probably sounds pretty boring, until you learn that the new system involves shooting a space cannon at the asteroid and landing in the crater to study what the impact uncovers.

The Hayabusa-2 probe will launch next year and rendezvous with the asteroid 1999 JU3 in its orbit between Earth and Mars sometime in 2018. It will then fire a 17-pound projectile at 1999 JU3, which will leave a mark, and then land in the mark to collect sand analyze amples, hanging around until late 2019. Then it will take off and return to Earth in late 2020.

If there are any life forms living on 1999 JU3, they will probably wonder if we have any understanding of the old "knock and run away" game, since Hayabusa-2 will take four years to get to their door and hang around for a year and a half after knocking with its space cannon.

Other asteroids were considered for the experiments, but they were deemed "too remote to make an effective demonstration."

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Other Day Upon the Stair...

Last year, physicists at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland discovered proof of the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle which, by creating a Higgs field, gives mass to other subatomic particles -- meaning everything. Theorized in the early 1960s, the particle was undetected until technological advances allowed scientists to search for it and detect its existence.

Now some scientists in Switzerland, as well as some in France, have gone one better and found a particle that isn't actually there, which they are calling the "leviton." It was first theorized by Leonid Levitov in 1996.

Technically, the leviton is not a particle -- which means it, like the man upon the stair, isn't "there" in the sense that a person, platypus or proton is "there." It's a "quasiparticle," which is the name given to an effect which at the quantum level behaves in many ways as it would if a particle were there. If something walks like a particle and quacks like a particle but isn't a particle, then it's a quasiparticle.

The leviton is of interest to physicists because it shows up with the excitation of as little as one electron. Atoms in a metal or conducting material carry a current when they are excited by an energy source. Electricity applied to one end of a copper wire excites the electrons at that end of the wire, which in turn excites the electrons in the atoms next door, and so on, until it gets to the light switch at your house. Better conductors use more of that energy to keep the current flowing and lose less in the transmission.

A leviton is a quasiparticle that can get started with just one electron instead of a series of them, which means it takes a low level of energy to get it going and keep it going. Every transmission in modern technology, from electrical wires to information on computer microprocessors, has the transmission of current or energy at its root. The "wave" phenomenon of the leviton quasiparticle can do so with a very low level of energy, meaning potentially much smaller and more efficient electrical circuits

Levitov, as the story notes, is pleased the quasiparticle he predicted has been found, and said he is OK with the name, which he didn't pick. It's probably just as well they used his name, since the project head for the leviton discovery is named Christopher Glattli, and a "glattliton" would probably be pretty awkward to say.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Reading is Fun...damental

I've never listened to Mark Levin on the radio for any longer than it took me to change the station; he has a graceless manner and attitude that make him even less appealing than the usual run of airwave shouter. And that manner often bleeds into his written work, which means my encounters with it are also rare.

But a couple of excerpts of The Liberty Amendments piqued my interest, so I dug in and found it a good deal less heated than Levin usually manages, with some definite food for thought whether you agree with his ideas or not.

Levin's thesis is that the modern federal government differs wildly from the vision of the initial founders, having been brought to such a state by various folks with various agendæ who used the wiggle room in what proved to be imprecise wording in the original operating instructions, the United States Constitution. Levin suggests a slate of amendments to tighten these loopholes and return the function to something closer to these original intentions. Since elected federal officials are a large part of the problem, he favors the amendment process that works through the states, using the second model from Article V.

Whether the amendments he proposes are good ideas or not are up to you to decide if you've read the book. I confess some hesitancy about providing the United States Congress a limited ability to void decisions by the Supreme Court, and I'm not convinced by Levin's interpretation of the Marbury v. Madison case that established modern judicial review. We're talking about Congress here. On the other hand, if no special wisdom attaches to being a United States representative or senator, we should probably remember that "Supreme Court Justice" is not an automatic IQ-raiser either. Supreme Court decisions have supported slavery, affirmed racial segregation and upheld the WWII internment of American citizens of Japanese descent, and the overturning of some of those cases happened many years later. Why should the justices' fallible understandings be privileged over all others?

Term limits are thrown around as a solution to many problems that they may in fact not lessen at all. We can always vote the bums out and every now and again we do. But even though poll after poll shows we even think our lawmakers as a group are as dumb as 535 sacks of hammers, we keep viewing our particular sack of hammers as just what the nail in front of us needs. As long as we expect everyone else to get rid of their congressional idiot while we retain ours, we're stuck in a kind of prisoner's dilemma limbo of legislative inadequacy.

The Liberty Amendments may or may not contain realistic solutions to our nation's problems, and it may or may not be a collection of political thoughts tailored through language and presentation to meet a current vogue of libertarian-leaning expression. But Levin has identified some of the problems that are behind or underneath the problems we see all the time, and he's brought a much less heated view of them to these pages than he often does. Serious consideration of those problems, at least, is not a pointless task.
One of the problems almost anyone has in trying to get even a sliver of understanding of the quantum physical processes by which our universe goes about its merry way is that they involve math and concepts which are often beyond the limits of most people without advanced degrees in the field.

Another is that many of the people who write about this kind of science are used to writing for the others who understand the math and the sometimes incredible concepts that quantum mechanics offers at just about every turn. Physicist James Kakalios, who teaches physics and astronomy at the University of Minnesota, is not one of those people. Kakalios has a gift for communicating complex concepts in ways that can be understood, and finding examples and illustrations that offer clear analogies to the subject under study.

In his second book, The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics, Kakalios makes some of the fantastic devices and stories of old pulp fiction and comic books as takeoff points for identifying how many modern devices such as MRI machines rely on quantum mechanics to operate. For example, Dr. Jon Osterman is a character in Alan Moore's famous comic book Watchmen. An accident transforms him into a super-being who goes by the name Dr. Manhattan, and the comic suggests that the source of Dr. Manhattan's powers is that he has complete and conscious control over his quantum wave function. Kakalios, referring to different things Dr. Manhattan does in the story, explains what a quantum wave function is and how being able to control it would lead to feats not too different from those in Moore's comic.

Kakalios's humorous but clear style makes him fun to read even if he has several stop-and-back-up-to-try-to-get-that-idea-straight moments. But he's also good at explaining what some bizarre concepts like quantum tunneling and quantum entanglement actually mean using his Buck Rogers examples. Serious engagement with Amazing Story can move that adjective from its older meaning of confused and befuddled to the more modern one signifying wonder and astonishment, and it's well worth the time.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bullies Bullies Mean Bullies

As I was not a large, fast, or imposing youngster, and as I did well with ye olde schoolwork, I was from time to time picked on. It's no fun. Encouraging and or pushing adults in authority to exert it and clamp down on incidents of bullying is a good idea.

Filing a bullying complaint against the coaches of a high school football team that beat your kid's high school football team in a 91-0? That's a bad idea. When you step out on the field and you don't play well, you're going to get thumped. Sometimes, you're going to get thumped so bad you get sympathy cards from rented mules. If you don't like that, don't step on the field, because there are only so many things the team in the lead can do to reduce the carnage, as the winning coach noted in his interview.

Rumors that living descendants of General George Armstrong Custer were considering a similar claim until they were dissuaded by those pointing out the counter-claim could get quite dicey have, as yet, proved unfounded.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Great Expectations

Being as I have some Scot and Irish blood, I am wont to denigrate the Sassenach because...well, just because, I suppose. But the Royal Navy was never a slouch, and today marks the 208th anniversary of England's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

England lost no ships but a sharpshooter during the battle fatally wounded the brilliant Admiral Horatio Nelson. Nelson, having done his duty as his pre-battle message to the ships of his fleet spelled out, died later in the day. The link has some others to several more pieces about Nelson and the battle itself.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

See the Big Picture

American artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada had an idea for a really big portrait. So he got a GPS system, a crew of volunteers, 2,000 tons of dirt, 2,000 tons of sand and some assorted large amounts of grass, stones, and string, and created an 11-acre picture from a photo. It's so big that it has to be seen from the air.

Of course, the developing time was about 18 months, which may make this an impractical sort of thing to do on a regular basis.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Modern technology has allowed for airplane seats to be constructed of materials that are not as bulky but just as strong. The obvious solution would be to put them in place and allow airline passengers a little bit of extra space so that they don't risk an assault charge every time they inhale.

Obvious, but not to everyone.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Bag O' Stuff

-- Oreos are probably not as addictive as cocaine. But they can make your teeth look pretty bad for awhile.

-- A couple of people asked where I got information on the musical scores of the two different Superman movies. The opinions I share come from my own dimly flickering intellect. For technical information, you cannot beat Film Music Notes, a blog that analyzes music from movies. It goes into way more detail than I could use and in most cases, more than I understand (dimly flickering, remember?), but it is a great way to break down movie music with the tools of music theory.

-- Even though I can't watch baseball tonight, baseball is a game that reads well, too. So there, Cable One.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Capitalizing on the success of the 2009 TV miniseries based on his novel The Last Templar, Raymond Khoury turned FBI agent Sean Reilly and his girlfriend archaeologist Tess Chaykin into a franchise with 2010's The Templar Salvation. In 2011, Khoury moved the pair away from medieval-based Vatican intrigue with the southern-California-based The Devil's Elixir.

Reilly answers a call from an old girlfriend who has just been attacked, along with her four-year-old son Alex. He flies to San Diego to help her and soon finds himself involved in a deadly struggle with a sadistic and ruthless narcotics cartel leader who seems to be able to reach inside Reilly's law enforcement world at will. Reilly doesn't know if he can trust anyone -- including himself and his own past -- but he will have to find some way to take the cartel leader down before the leader gets to him and begins production of a lethal new psychotropic drug that could mentally cripple millions.

Khoury, who has worked extensively as a screenwriter, lays out great action scenes and has a style that doesn't get in the way of the narrative, even if it's not going to be on the the PEN prize people's radar. Elixir seems well-researched and has a good number of keep-you-guessing twists, but it also has some extraneous scenes and characters that start episodes which either never resolve or turn out to be incidental. Khoury also succumbs to the lecture temptation a couple of times as he explains some aspects of the drug trade as well as how many hallucinogenic drugs work in the body, and the last act of the book takes a sudden weird X-Files turn that makes that part of the ride a lot bumpier than it should be.
Robert B. Parker's private investigator Spenser met his longtime love Susan Silverman in the series' second novel and they were paired off as a couple in the third. But in 1981's A Savage Place, Spenser slept with a woman he was guarding, newscaster Candy Sloan, and that infidelity has continued to echo in their relationship. When 1983's The Widening Gyre opens, Susan is in Washington, D.C., working as a part of the doctoral degree she is earning from Harvard, and the strain of earlier events and the separation is telling on Spenser.

He accepts a case working security for Massachusetts Representative Meade Alexander, who would like to be Massachusetts Senator Meade Alexander. The Alexander campaign has received threats and harassment, and Spenser begins his time with them by reasoning with some of the harassers in his accustomed style. But Meade Alexander tells Spenser he's being blackmailed to drop out of the race -- his wife Ronni has been indiscreet and a videotape will be released unless he supports his opponent. As Spenser digs into the blackmail, he finds organized crime connections that will make his job that much more dangerous. He'll also find himself confronting some of his personal issues as he tries to adjust to some of Susan's decisions.

No small amount of Spenser fandom hates Susan Silverman, and there's no denying that in later years Parker used Spenser's interactions with her as a kind of crutch to pad his narrative. Gyre also takes a much deeper dive into the psychotherapy arena than Parker had done previously, and not everyone who wants to read tough-guy private eye fiction is as fascinated by that path of self-discovery as was Parker. He will give Susan and Spenser similar relationship issues at least twice more during the series in books that kind of echo the three-book arc begun here in Gyre.

And in Gyre, for whatever reason, the issues and the conflict carry much more weight. Possibly because the issues are not all on Susan's side and because Spenser himself wonders about whether or not he has said and done the right thing -- and whether the right thing is enough to do. Yes, the main case of the story is almost secondary, but Spenser's work on it parallels his discussion with Susan and his feelings about the attenuating of their relationship reflect in his work on the case.

Parker always writes of the head and the heart as much as the fist, but in Gyre he interweaves them better and more closely than he does in almost any other novel, and creates a conflict with no certain resolution. Even the title, taken from W.B. Yeats' The Second Coming, offers a mix of hope and uncertainty -- Yeats' speaker sees a Second Coming approaching, but the condition of things makes him wonder whether what comes will bless or curse the world it enters. Spenser learns that Susan seeks a way to renew herself, but he does not know whether the new Susan will have a place for him, or that he will want to fill whatever place she does have.

This kind of introspection wouldn't be Spenser without the requisite smart-aleck retorts and tough-guy attitude, along with a brief scuffle or two, which Parker provides. Gyre's heavy emphasis on Susan, the Susan-Spenser relationship, psychological issues and Spenser's own self-examination may turn off fans who want their private eyes punching, drinking and scoring the dames. But those features actually make it one of the best and most interesting of the many Spenser novels, even when considered as a part of the earlier third of the series that represents its high point.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Man Can Fly

Coinciding with the release of their 75th anniversary of Superman video, DC Comics also put together a page that annotates the different versions of the Man of Steel as seen since his debut in 1938, as well as some of the other characters seen in the short.

The neatest things are the rotoscope-looking scenes of Christopher Reeve and Henry Cavil in their respective outings. Man of Steel director Zack Snyder worked with animator Bruce Timm to create the video, and they included different theme songs that came along with the various serials and TV shows that featured the World's Greatest Superhero, woven into John Williams' scores from the 1970s movies and Han Zimmer's from 2013's. That's probably the only less-than-stellar aspect of the video -- my opinion that Zimmer's music is indistinguishable cookie-cutter especially when measured against Williams' instantly recognizable overture, is on record.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

From the Rental Vault: Robbers and Robbers

Color moviemaking dealt the classic noir style a serious blow -- removing the natural contrasts of black and white and the ability to reveal or conceal important elements of a shot simply by darkening its shadows. Colors complicated those elements and not every director tried to compose his or her shots to be able to use color and still provide a noir look to go with noir characters and noir storylines.

Michael Mann, on the other hand, has always been a visual stylist as a director -- that flair was one of the things that made the mid-80s Miami Vice such a buzzed-about show. Thief (1981), Mann's first feature as a director, showcases many of the scenes he would use in Vice and his other TV attempt, the 1960s-set Crime Story: Long shots of rolling car tires on wet streets, lights and signs reflected of those same streets and other wet surfaces, scenes broken up by lines and patches of shadow and dark blues, and so on.

James Caan plays Frank, an ex-con who uses a bar and used-car dealership as cover to mask his main job as a thief and break-in artist. Professional and independent, a mistake by his fence enmeshes him in the larger organized crime scene in Chicago at a time when he's trying to move himself to the "dream life" he's long envisioned. A confrontation following a successful job will push Frank to extreme lengths that may mean he has to sacrifice either his independence or his successful "cover" life.

Mann used reformed safecrackers and thieves to advise the production crew on the tools they would use and to train the actors to actually use them -- he had an actual specific safe rather than a mockup bought so it could be broken into more realistically. He also hired some Chicago police officers for smaller roles -- the mighty Dennis Farina debuts as a mob soldier -- and mentioned that when the crooks and the cops talked between takes they found out they had probably crossed paths before in real life.

Caan is phenomenal and the supporting cast with an exception or two matches him. Tuesday Weld, as Jessie,  the woman with whom Frank tries to build his dream life of a family and home, has a smaller role but is by no means a throwaway. She's as strong as he is and insists on her own vision for their life together as well. James Belushi as Frank's partner Barry resists mugging for the camera and Robert Prosky as mobster Leo is alternately paternal and terrifying in his debut role (in one scene, Mann shoots Leo from Frank's point of view as the latter lays on the ground, with the upside-down view of Prosky lending his threatening words extra ugliness). Why Willie Nelson has the role he does is something only Mann can explain, but he's not onscreen enough to damage too much.

Mann would revisit some of the same themes in his 1995 Pacino-DeNiro epic Heat, but already in Thief he was demonstrating his excellent eye for scene composition and use of visuals to communicate emotions and narrative without using dialogue. It's the first chapter in several great careers.
The 1971 James Garner spaghetti Western A Man Called Sledge is also a study in contrasts, although probably not in the way the moviemakers wanted or in one designed to maximize its impact and success.

At that time best known as the colorful rogue gambler Bret Maverick in the 1950s TV Western of the same name, Garner plays Luther Sledge -- a man who is not at all a colorful rogue but instead a journeyman robber with a wide and vicious ruthless streak. When he learns of a regular and immense shipment of mined gold, his intent to rob it disrupts his relationship with his gang enough they consider deserting. His eventual plan, to get himself inside the same federal prison where the gold is stored at one stop on its journey, doesn't ease their misgivings much. But longtime partners Ward (Dennis Weaver) and Hooker (Claude Akins) decide to go along. Naturally, the plan goes other than smoothly, even once the gold is in the robbers' possession, and its bright lure will test longtime allegiances.

Garner is an amazing actor usually given less credit than his talent deserves, but he's miscast as the obsessive and cruel Sledge. That he does well in the role doesn't change the fact that a watching audience expects James Garner in a caper movie to out-clever the dull authorities with a wink and fast patter. The Vic Morrow - Frank Kowalski script flashes that kind of dialogue and scene all too rarely. It also uses a strange poker game featuring the movie theme song instead of dialogue to introduce some later conflict among the gang, a technique that pretty much shouts "weird 70s movie bit."

Even though the movie was shot in Italy, features a number of Italian actors and was produced by Dino De Laurentis, in contrast to the usual spaghetti Western practice the majority of the main cast are Americans and tough-guy actor Morrow directed as well as co-wrote. He probably should have gone ahead and cast himself as Sledge, as the role seems much better fitted to his violent onscreen image than Garner's. As it is, A Man Called Sledge is a dish that needed some different ingredients and more time in the oven to be appetizing.

What's Arabic for "Chutzpah?"

Syrian thug Bashar al-Assad has "joked" that he should have won the Nobel Peace Prize instead of the international organization that will eventually fail to remove chemical weapons from his country, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Many of the notices I've seen of this say it "may be seen" as "inappropriate." Indeed. Mr. Assad should understand that if he wanted the Nobel Peace Prize, the appropriate timetable prohibits you from authorizing the remote-controlled death of your own citizenry until after you have won.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Who Cares if It Fits Under the Tree?

If you're been wanting to buy your third-or-fourth-or-maybe-somewhere-on-down-the-list favorite blogger a Christmas gift, look no further.

Do I have any idea how to assemble this thing? Nope. But I will by golly learn. Because, to mix my nerdy metaphors, "Do. Or do not. There is no try."

Sunday, October 13, 2013


So tonight was the season 4 premiere of AMC's zombie show The Walking Dead, based on the comic book of the same name. A writer at The Atlantic compares it to AMC's other buzz-heavy show, the recently ended Breaking Bad. He believes Bad to be better.

For me, of course, the shows share something more fundamental. I've never watched more than a handful of episodes of either one and don't intend to. But I am kind of bummed, because I thought we would stop hearing about Breaking Bad by now.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

You're Doing It Wrong...

Ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, things just haven't worked right amongst its old "member" nations and provinces. You can be darn sure that even though your average Josef, Konstantin or Yuri might very well have "won" his election with more than 70 percent of the vote, he would have waited until after the election was over to release the results.

It shouldn't be that hard -- if that Venezuelan thug Chavez could figure it out, anyone should be able to.

Friday, October 11, 2013

An Honor Just to Be Nominated...

I have seen several online pieces lamenting the Nobel Committee's decision to award the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international (you can tell by the "s" in "Organisation") group that's supposed to be ridding the world of chemical weapons. Most of these folks believe the award should have gone to Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager shot in the face by a Taliban gunman who opposed her going to school and singled her out for her many statements about the education of girls. A few folks thought it should go to NSA leaker Edward Snowden or convicted national-secret-discloser Bradley Manning, but I think they're getting the proper care and that shouldn't happen again.

I'm not sure I agree the OPCW award was the wrong choice.

Oh, I agree that Malala was far more deserving of the award -- the Taliban congratulating the Nobel people for not giving it to her is proof enough of that. And I agree that if there ever was a year to bestow the honor on the OPCW, it probably wasn't one in which Syrian thug Bashir Assad nearly got his wrist slapped for gassing the hell out of his own people and the number of times anyone quoted or talked to the OPCW about the matter was next-door-neighbors with zero.

It's just that Malala -- who is still only 16 -- has many years ahead of her to try to continue to win hearts and influence people as she has already been doing. Although she is known in many corners of the world and respected in most of the civilized ones, she has really only just begun the work she can do, and only accomplished a little of the potential that awaits her. Nobel Laureate or not, targeted for assassination or not, young Ms. Yousafzai is very likely only at the front end of what should be a great life of work for peace, education and understanding.

But I'm willing to bet that this award is pretty much the high-water mark for the OPCW, given its quarter century history of nothing much. Like Al Bundy living his life off the four touchdowns he scored in one game, they'll be trading on this recognition for the rest of their existence. And since nobody ever said they wanted to be Al Bundy when they grew up, we should let them have their bound-to-be-brief moment.

And Just Keep Bookin' On

Although Jonathan Kellerman's protagonist therapist Alex Delaware sometimes describes himself as a kind of "danger addict," Kellerman's best Delaware novels use the psychologist's point of view as their center rather than the police angle. As his more recent books have moved into a police procedural mode, their distinctiveness and quality have lessened.

Guilt brings psychological themes back onto the stage more prominently than they have been in awhile, but they don't directly affect the story as much as they might. The discovery beneath a storm-downed tree of a long-buried infant skeleton brings Los Angeles police lieutenant Milo Sturgis onto the case, along with his friend Alex. Was there a greater crime than just a clandestine burial? Another gruesome find nearby makes the case more urgent. Alex and Milo will interview several people as they try to follow leads in each case. Some of Alex's interviews will have more to do with his profession than his hobby of helping Milo, but also wind up having little to do with the case.

Kellerman throws a Hollywood power couple into the mix that thinly disguises its mix of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Paris Hilton, Madonna and several other famous goofballs, but the switch to focusing on them comes in such a way as to seem almost like a different book. In fact, an important element of the original story is dealt with as more or less an afterthought even though digging into it takes up much of the first half of the book.

Guilt is a good enough read for a Delaware fan, with a few welcome sparks of the series' earlier psychological focus. But Kellerman doesn't ever seem to let those gain traction in the story, and the novel itself meanders more than it ought before winding up a little too fast.
John Sandford's Virgil Flowers books are written with unofficial co-authors, people with whom Sandford has worked or who are close friends. Storm Front's helper is Michele Cook, who worked at a Minnesota newspaper with him.

Flowers is an investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the state's main investigative agency. He handles a portion of the state for the agency's lead investigator, Lucas Davenport -- the protagonist of Sandford's "Prey" series -- and also seems to pick up on whatever oddball cases come along. So when Israeli antiquities officials determine a potentially valuable and historically explosive artifact was stolen by a Minnesota professor and minister who's now back home trying to sell it, you know who will get the call.

A pair of thugs who work for a Turkish crimelord, some Hezbollah agents, and no small amount of mystery surrounding the Israeli antiquities expert will not make finding the thief or the artifact nearly as easy as Virgil believes or wants.

Front has a definite comic tone -- the Hezbollah spies are more interested in finding out which bars are better for picking up women, and the Israeli agent brings large empty suitcases to carry back American purchases she can sell at home tax-free. Virgil wants this case over because he would really like to more closely investigate the female ringleader of a supposed timber scam -- and not solely for law enforcement purposes.

It reads like Sandford and Cook wanted to write an Elmore Leonard novel, only instead of Leonard's assortment of originally quirky characters and situations, they try to Elmore-ize some stock tropes from NCIS and Breaking Bad, then throw in Virgil in some of the more cut-and-paste dialogue, responses and situations Sandford has put to paper.

The Flowers novels have been uneven, depending pretty significantly on what kind of story the co-author brings to the table, and there's nothing that says Elmore Leonard or Donald Westlake were the only people who could write comic crime fiction. But Front might have been a lot better with some more time and consideration given to actually writing it rather than re-typing a bunch of other sources.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Surly Bonds, Slipped

Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter's death today leaves just one of the original seven, John Glenn, still living.

Carpenter is the only astronaut I ever met -- a buddy was involved in some PR work for an OKC-area science and math charter school and had invited me over when Carpenter was giving a presentation to the students, most of whom were younger elementary age. They were at first restless, since he was basically a grandfather-looking guy who had done something that was ancient history to them, not even being the first man to do it. But then he looked at them.

"You know, with our program today, you all are just about the right age to be the people who go to Mars."

They were hooked on the rest of his brief presentation about space and the space program and what was going in it at the time.

Carpenter also explored "inner space," helping pioneer underwater exploration and living. He once spent 30 days living in an underwater habitat.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Get Me Rewrite!

Gizmodo often reports on neat science news I don't always see, but I think with this story, they messed up a little on their headline.

The story is about a report from the BBC that some researchers have managed to make a nuclear fusion reaction that "broke even," or in other words, didn't take more energy to make than it created. Nuclear fusion would provide energy on a much greater scale than anything now currently in use, and would do so with much less waste that nuclear fission or even many of the non-nuclear methods of power generation we now use.

Nuclear fusion's problem is that it usually requires things to be very hot and at a very high pressure. The hydrogen bomb, for example, is an uncontrolled nuclear fusion reaction. But in order to start it, bomb-makers have to include a small nuclear fission reaction to make things hot and heavy enough for fusion to begin (Fusion "fuses" atoms, fission splits them. This is why fission creates nuclear waste, because the leftover material is radioactive).

So even though scientists have known how to produce nuclear fusion, they have always had to use more energy to create the conditions for fusion than they got out of the fusion reaction. Such conditions would not be helpful in supplying energy needs. The fuss over supposed cold fusion back in 1989 happened because if fusion could be produced at normal temperatures, fusion reactors could be built.

In the 2013 experiment, scientists used lasers to produce the conditions for the fusion reaction, and preliminary reports suggest it produced at least as much energy as was used to make it -- it "broke even." Some of the commenters at Gizmodo, though, seem to doubt that result, and they sound like they know more about it than me -- even though their comments would indicate that I know more words than they do, or at least when not to use certain ones.

So the headline says, "Nuclear Fusion has Broken Even for the First Time Ever." But of course, that's not the case. Nuclear fusion breaks even all the time, all over the universe. It's even doing so in our own solar system.

About 93 million miles away, in fact.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Long View

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences today announced the winners for the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics -- two gentlemen who figured, 50 years ago, that there had to be something there that they weren't seeing. English physicist Peter Higgs and Belgian physicist Francois Englert are the two men who, when studying the atom in the late 1950s and early 1960s, came up with the idea of a subatomic particle that helped create a field which gives mass to other particles (and thus, to everything else).

Earlier this year, researchers uncovered direct evidence of the Higgs boson, sometimes known as the "God particle" because of its essential role in the existence of existence. The discovery confirmed Higgs and Englert's theories about mass and its role in what physicists call the Standard Model of how things are what they are.

The CNN story notes that among the first to pop the champagne (and, no doubt, measure the trajectory, distance and landing spot of the cork for comparison to other corks) were the researchers at CERN, the laboratory and particle accelerator where the experiments that actually discovered the Higgs boson took place. Few seemed to feel left out that the two men who predicted the particle got a prize while they, the people who actually found it, didn't. That is the way of things in physics, one researcher said. 

After all, it's not as though Higgs and Englert were awarded their prize back when they first theorized the particle. I mean, if you awarded a Nobel Prize based on potential achievement rather than any actual record, why, it might turn out that you had bestowed an honor on someone which they might turn out to not really deserve.

A Question

I think the "Gestapo tactics" quote is an overreaction, but given some of the events in this story, as well as the barricades put up to block off open-air monuments and drive-through lookout lanes for natural features, the evictions of people from homes they own and so on, I have to wonder. Does the employment application for the National Park Service actually include a place where prospective rangers can indicate they were the little power-tripping suck-up who always got picked to watch the class when the teacher stepped out into the hall, and if so, is it a trigger for automatic hiring?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Making It up as You Go

Turns out the Russian government has no plan to deal with an alien invasion. And these people want to be considered a world super-power again.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

From the Rental Vault: Station and Town

The last of the "Ranown Series" of Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, Comanche Station (1960) tells the story of sometime bounty hunter Jefferson Cody, who has made a habit of ransoming white women taken captive by Comanche raiders. Cody lost his own wife that way and his obsession relates to the next-to-impossible chance that he will find her one day.

As he returns the rescued woman Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates) to her home, the pair are joined by a rough-and-ready trio led Ben Lane (Claude Akins), themselves bounty hunters who prove much readier to straddle the legal line than Cody. Cody's own history with Lane makes him leery of sharing a journey and all too familiar with Lane's murky sense of right and wrong. He will have all he can handle to make sure both he and Nancy Lowe make it home safe amid danger from pursuing Comanches and their own companions.

Like the rest of the Boetticher-Scott compilations, the simplicity of the story and cast strengthen the movie and use Scott's acting gifts to their best effect. He's a straight shooter in every sense of the word, as a contrast to Akins' Ben Lane. Lane shows as much bravery, strength and humor in many cases as Scott himself, but his willingness to cross the line of legality mean the two men can only be opponents. The easy-going Akins sells this idea well.

No genres are subverted in Comanche Station, and no themes and ideas revised. It's a straight-ahead cowboys-and-villains-and-Indians story, showing how some ordinary people in extraordinary situations deal with the fire: Some lose their dross, but some are consumed.
The conventional wisdom in movies these days is that studio movies are CGI-laden blockbusters with formula plots, writing and characters. True creativity and performing genius, we are told, happens in independent films, where people who really love movies work, dedicating long hours to achieving the dream of having their ideas find the screen. There, the cineaste says, lies the true greatness of 21st century moviemaking.

And then there's 2004's The King of Iron Town. It's indie, it has indie actors, an indie setting, an indie director and so on, but it's strictly pedestrian in plot, acting and execution. Tyler Wells (Mickey Fisher) is a former high school sports star feeling his age as he nears 30 (?). He seems stuck in a dead-end job at a local manufacturing facility, where his inability to string together successive days of mature behavior threatens his ability to stay working. He loves his wife Hope (Kate Airrington) but lacks a lot of maturity in that role too. It's hard to suggest he develop that maturity, though, when his attempts to heal a breach with his younger brother Gabe (Dominic Bogart, probably no relation) -- the most adult thing he's doing -- have little success.

A chance to compete in the Iron Masters King of the Ring boxing contest offers Terry a chance to...well, what exactly is tough to say. A last hurrah? Proof he's still a jock? Something to be proud of? King doesn't really know, and none of the cast is good enough to offer a solution to be ferreted out of the unfocused script.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Wisdom of Youth

An excerpt from a book that describes some experiments to show how babies learn is given the headline "See How Your Baby Detects Dolts."

The experiment is pretty elaborate and involves positioning yourself, the baby and several objects in the right places, and reading it sounds like quite a bit of work. The fact that when babies randomly point into the air they are actually aiming in the direction of Washington, D.C. from wherever they are sitting should be enough of an answer.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Sideshow that Never Ends

Although my still-aboveground "temporary" line remains in place and uncut, meaning I have television and internet service, I can no longer watch Turner Classic Movies or baseball playoffs on the Turner Broadcasting System channel. I also can't watch CNN, Headline News, Boomerang and the Cartoon Network, but I usually didn't.

As my Cable One communications rep whined to me in an e-mail the other day and the Cable One CEO has been whining on commercials while wearing a stylish regular-guy denim shirt, darned old Turner wanted a tremendous price increase to carry channels with declining ratings. I now probably owe all of you a new keyboard, since charging lots of money for channels nobody watches in order for them to watch the half dozen or so they want is in fact Cable One's business model.

I don't want to watch Headline News; I can get anything they have either from CNN, MSNBC, Fox or online. I've never watched it when I've been outside of an airport, and I am pretty sure whoever the airport's cable company bills for its service, it isn't me. But I have to pay to get Headline News delivered to me in order to be able to watch a channel I do like, such as the aforementioned Turner Classic Movies. Or ESPN. Or the Major League Baseball network.

In other words, Turner is doing to the whiners at Cable One exactly what the whiners at Cable One do to every stinking subscriber they have. So I think the whiners at Cable One should shut up and pay, because that is exactly what they think I should do.

A second whining e-mail came the other day, saying that even though Cable One still had an agreement in place for a few of the Turner channels, once they stopped carrying the others, Turner pulled the plug on the remainder. Again, this is exactly the way Cable One behaves towards its subscribers. I have a bundled service, and if I only paid the internet portion of my bill, they would not only yank the TV portion I didn't pay for, they would also yank the internet portion I did pay for, because I had not paid all of my bill. So my response is the same -- Cable One should shut up and pay, because that's what they would tell me to do if I tried the same trick.

And once again, I will be curious to see if my bill is any less for the month of October, since I am not receiving all of the channels I signed up for. I doubt it. I think I shall soon spend a diverting afternoon considering other possible internet and television service providers. Not because I think they won't overcharge me or require me to pay for stuff I don't want in order to get stuff I do want: Of course they will.

But at least they haven't asked me to feel sorry for them when someone else does to them what they do to me every month.

Mere Alcohol Doesn't Thrill Them at All

So some scientists studying ultracold neutrons have been having a problem with their subjects not staying where they need to be in order to be properly studied, as detailed in the Physicsworld article, "Do ultracold neutrons get a kick from nanoparticles?" My headline implies they get no kick from champagne.

Physicists will cool the neutrons down to bare minimums above absolute zero in order to slow them down enough to study. Generally neutrons are moving much too fast to be looked at carefully; even so-called "thermal neutrons" are moving at about half the speed of sound. But thus cooled, a fast jogger could outrun one. Neutrons also tend to zip right through things, since they are incredibly small and most things are made up of much more space than thing. But again, the ultracold neutrons (UCNs) are more likely to bounce off other atoms and thus stay inside their containers -- usually made of copper or stainless steel and called bottles.

Except that some of the UCNs are not staying put. And since neutrons experience all of the basic forces of nature (strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, electromagnetism, gravity and chocolate) the ones that don't stay put mess up physicists' experiments to learn more about them and test theories about those forces. One of which in that list I may have made up.

Scientists wondered why the UCN's "leaked" out of their container, and the physicists in the story suggest that they may get an energy kick when they collide with a vibrating nanoparticle, and that energy kick boosts the UCN's energy level enough that it can in fact zip out of its bottle. Other physicists think other explanations more likely, pointing out that since the bottles are cleaned between experiments, the presence of free-floating nanoparticles is unlikely. This, of course, would depend on how good scientists are at washing dishes, and we will have to leave that determination up to their respective spouses.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Balloting and Perfection

Sportswriter Joe Posnanksi reviews some of the history of Baseball Hall of Fame voting here, in light of the recent retirement of the great Mariano Rivera. The question is not whether or not Rivera will enter the Hall; he certainly will and almost as certainly in his first year of eligibility, 2018. But will he be the first ever unanimous selection?

Posnanski thinks no, because there are some members of the Baseball Writers Association of America -- those who vote on Hall selections -- who believe no one should ever be a unanimous pick. That belief has produced some bizarre results, which he outlines as he suggest 20 players who should have been unanimous selections -- that is, there is no logical baseball reason to vote against their induction into the Hall except for some sort of external-to-baseball ideas such as the aforementioned no unanimous picks rule.

For example, Hank Aaron won election to the Hall of Fame in his first year eligible with 97.8 percent of the vote. This means that nine people voted against the idea of one of the classiest players in the history of the game, a man who legitimately set an enduring record and who did it in the face of vicious hatred, opposition and bigotry, being in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Posnanksi notes these nine people, whoever they were, should be ashamed of themselves. I can't disagree.

Some players didn't get unanimous votes perhaps because they weren't quite as great as the greatest ever and since the greatest ever didn't get the lock, neither should they. Despite the fact that such a move might demonstrate that modern BBWAA members are smart enough to correct the mistakes of their predecessors, apparently that doesn't need to happen. Since 19 writers thought Ted Williams and 22 thought Stan Musial did not belong in the Hall of Fame, then 9 figured George Brett shouldn't be there either.

Posnanski notes that 54 people didn't vote for Bob Gibson and they would be afraid to admit so in public. I think it would have been neat to have forced the reveal and then allowed them to explain themselves to Gibson from a distance of 60 feet, 6 inches while he held a baseball. They would be given a bat and helmet to protect themselves during the discussion.

Of course, therein lies part of the problem. Those who have created ridiculous arcana like the "no unanimous picks" rule are not themselves baseball players, but the clucking clacks who click their keyboards about baseball. The most clueless batsman who ever lived and put on a major league uniform deserves the Hall more than any of the people who vote on him.

Posnanski leaves out the most egregious violation of Hall sensibility of all, of course, because his focus is on players who deserved unanimous votes. But the absence of Buck O'Neil, the man who through Ken Burns' Baseball film became the way much of America would learn about the history of the Negro Leagues, who was the first African-American coach when he worked for the Chicago Cubs and was instrumental in the development of the wonderful Negro League Museum, is a crime against the space-time continuum. It's the kind of distortion of reality that ought to disqualify a universe from supporting life, such as if gravity operated differently and didn't permit the formation of planets.

However stupid were the voters who thought Mickey Mantle shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame, or Carl Yaztremski, or Bob Feller, they have nothing on the members of a special 12-person committee who, meeting in 2006, voted in Effa Manley for helping her husband run the Newark Eagles and 16 others, but didn't vote in Buck O'Neil. Medical science has always posited that there is a certain level of brain activity below which the body's autonomic functions such as breathing and heartbeat can't operate -- that you can in fact have an IQ too low to sustain life.

I've got a dozen examples that say that idea's wrong.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Gasp! Swoon!

Remember how the Los Angeles Unified School District, in a move that was dumb enough to outshine the usual stupidity of people who run school systems, spent one billion dollars to buy all of its students iPads?

Of course, the iPads had security software to keep the little darlings from surfing social networking and music streaming sites, making sure they used the machines only for educational purposes. And of course, it took a couple of the little darlings about a week to figure out ways around the software.

So now the LAUSD is collecting all of those iPads from its students, with no indication of when they will be returned. Since they were to take the place of textbooks, that leaves some of the students in something of a lurch.

The miracle is that any student stuck in this district comes out knowing how to tie his or her own shoes.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

MacGyver Goes Green (With Envy)

Richard Dean Anderson's title character was a bright guy who usually got himself out of jams with as little violence as possible and a wizardlike ability to make common items into just what he needed to dispose of either bombs, traps, bad guys or other imprisoning situations. He always carried a Swiss Army knife, useful because of its many tools combined into a small space.

Were he to have seen this particular 100-function knife created in Germany in 1880, though, he might very well have gone into a funk at all of the different tools, implements and blades it possesses, since it would far outstrip the one he carried. Indeed, he might believe he had found the actual perfect tool except for two small flaws:

1) It contains a gun, and Mac hated guns.

2) It offers no tool to erase MacGruber, the painfully stupid and unfunny character, sketch and movie created by Will Forte, from the space-time continuum and thus improve the entire universe in immeasurable ways.