Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Reasons to Avoid New York City

-- Incoming mayor Bill de Blasio, seizing upon his predecessor's ability to do many things right quietly while doing everything else wrong loudly, pledges to open his term with an assault on the carriage rides in Central Park. "We are going to get rid of horse carriages, period," he said at a news conference. There are a number of problems with Mayor de Blasio's pledge, aside from it being an extremely unpopular idea for many New Yorkers and visitors.

Chief among them is that it's not up entirely up to him. I don't know whether outlawing horse carriages would require legislation from the city council or be possible with a mayoral diktat. But even if he can do it all on his own, it'll still fall to the decision of some judge someplace, because this is America, and when you pass rules people don't like, they avail themselves of the surplus of lawyers we have in our fair land and put your behind in court. So he can pledge all he wants; there's no guarantee he'll do what he said. This is a dumb thing politicians often do, but I can understand that, given some of the "by-products" of the animals in question, the mayor is extremely jealous of their ability to produce it while doing something useful and wants them out of public view post-haste.

-- Kathy Griffin is threatening to be her usual classy self during CNN's New Year's Eve coverage. I am not certain who CNN's target demo is if Anderson Cooper is trying to drum up interest in his broadcast by suggesting that a 53-year-old woman will appear on the program topless. But we can only hope that New York City police and other anti-terrorism forces on duty will shut her down before she can do any serious damage.

Monday, December 30, 2013


Something I overlooked last week.

When I set out Christmas morning to drive to my parents' house, I had the radio set on a station from Dallas that plays music from India. I listen to it because it's something different, because I've developed a strange fondness for songs from Bollywood musicals and because I like the dance tunes. Yes, they are in Hindi and I can't understand what they're singing, but I can't understand half of the mush in the dance tunes on the Top 40 station either, and they're allegedly in English.

Anyway, I was listening while getting my iPad ready to plug in and play some sermons on the drive home (somebody else's -- even I don't have enough ego to want to listen to three hours of myself). While I was listening, the DJ gave a brief meditation on the meaning of Christmas, even to a person who is not a Christian, and then played a song in appreciation of the transcending meaning of the season. The song was by Celine Dion and I don't remember what it was -- I have a hard time telling her stuff apart also.

But I sat and thought for a moment. A Hindi-language station playing out of Dallas, Texas, had a Hindu lady reflect on the meaning of a Christian holiday and honor it by playing a song by a French-speaking Roman Catholic Canadian woman.

I love this country.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

It's the Little Things

At Big Think, astrophysicist Ray Jayawardhana talks about how to know a supernova is there even if you can't see it.

The answer is neutrinos, the little weird particles that are so small they usually zip around the universe without hitting anything. To find them you need very large detectors that are also sensitive enough to know when a neutrino has hit them. Supernovae, which are massive explosions that happen when massive stars finally run out of juice to keep burning, tend to fire off massive amounts of neutrinos -- they emit as much energy in the explosion as the sun will during its entire lifetime (something around 10 billion years, give or take). So when a detector senses such a surge, it knows something's happened.

As Dr. Jayawardhana points out, the neutrinos will reach the detector even if there's a large gas cloud or some other phenomenon between us and their source. So we would know a supernova might have happened without seeing it.

What struck me was what he said was the kind of kickoff event for neutrino astronomy, back in 1987. Three different detectors showed a result that indicated some kind of massive explosion in a nearby dwarf galaxy. The "surge" that told scientists the explosion happened and where?

A whopping two dozen neutrinos. My guess is if they ever detect three dozen, it'll be time to get right with your Maker, 'cause whatever pumped out that kind of surge is going to play merry Hobb with the old life-continuing-on-the-planet thing.

Saturday, December 28, 2013


I can remember when a jammed typewriter carriage meant a mess on your paper because of all the letters typed on top of one another. Which goes to show you how I lacked imagination, because artist Pablo Gamboa Santos used those same overlapping letters to create pictures, which he calls "The Qwerty Project.". The one above is a detail from DaVinci's The Creation of Adam, and the one below is the upper part of the Statue of Liberty. It would probably not be Charlton Heston's favorite.

Several others can be found at the link.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Never Learn

A couple of weeks ago, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee forgot that he was just as likely to welcome 2017 as a private citizen if he sought the Republican nomination as he was if he didn't seek it and made some noises about considering a bid.

So just after Christmas, former Oklahoma State Senator Randy Brogdon seems to have done something similar, only in a more official way. Brogdon will actually run to challenge incumbent Governor Mary Fallin for the GOP nomination for governor. Though I hold conservative positions on many issues, I am no fan of Gov. Fallin, who is a small-scale version of the all-image, little-substance-and-even-less-ability politician dominating many levels of government today and writ largest at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

But has Mr. Brogdon done anything since his 2010 bid for the nomination managed to scare up a whopping 39% of the vote to suggest he can defeat Gov. Fallin, who now wields the mighty mallet of incumbency? No, unless being appointed the Deputy Commissioner of the Fraud and Investigations Unit by Insurance Commissioner John Doak has mystical powers of which I am unaware.

Who challenges Gov. Fallin for the nomination is a moot question for me, since I'm not a registered Republican, and Mr. Brogdon's decision will affect me marginally less than it will Gov. Fallin. But when I look at the "major names" involved in next year's gubernatorial race and realize that our state will make its choices from among Gov. Prom Queen, the guy who could barely get a third of the conservative-minded people he claims are his natural constituency to vote for him last time and a guy who doesn't mind harvesting organs from still-living people, I wonder why I -- or anyone -- should show up in November.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cheesehead Wisdom

In an interesting twist, the state of Wisconsin has developed a way to use dairy products to actually unblock something: Icy roads.

State highway departments will combine cheese brine, a salty water mixture left after cheese has been processed, with their rock salt to help melt ice on roadways. If it works, then the state can spend less on rock salt and cheese processing plants will have to clean up less brine before dumping it into wastewater facilities.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Louder in the Balcony

The first reference point that might come to mind for the Canadian trio The Balconies is The White Stripes, and not just because he Balconies feature a brother and sister and Jack and Meg White used to be coy about whether they were siblings or spouses (spouses, for the record, now "ex"). A little like the Stripes, the Balconies play big-time power pop with a lot of different flavors mixed in, and amazingly do so with just a guitar, bass and drums.

And also with their not-so-secret weapon, lead singer Jacquie Neville. Her voice has a roller-coaster level range and enough power to give the Balconies first EP, Kill Count, all the loudness and punch a good power-pop record needs (The band has since become a quartet, putting original drummer Liam Jaeger with Jacquie and brother Stephen, up front with a guitar of his own).

The band members' classical music training gives them musicianship a lot of other groups lack, which allows for a much wider range of expression even in the more limited field of pop and rock music. On the title track, Jacquie Neville's staccato phrasing on the verses helps drive the urgency that begins with the ululated backup line. "Tiger" has a dreamy repeated chorus that leads into big-crunch verses and Jacquie's vocals moving up and down the scale the way Kelly Hogan sang with the late '80s Georgia outfit The Jody Grind. "Battle Royale" and "Serious Bedtime" are both hook-happy sing-along earworms that will stick long after playing (although a fellow in my profession should note that the latter's advice to "do it in the dark" because "no one sees it" is contraindicated by some authorities).

The band's full-length album Fast Motions is scheduled for release soon and if Kill Count is any guide, it should be on your wish list if you're a fan of melodic, loud, well-crafted power pop with a range of other influences.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Rockin' Around in NYC...

A crew of dancers, organized by Mashable, putting a smile on the streets of New York City. All those short sleeves sure look cold, though...

Monday, December 23, 2013


When Robert B. Parker died in 2010, he was survived by several beloved characters and one partially-begun manuscript. The characters have been continued by other authors, in forms good, meh and ugly. The manuscript was finished by Parker's longtime literary agent Helen Brann and was published in October as Silent Night. It's the last novel featuring Parker's mainstay character Spenser that has any of Parker's own work in it.

Christmas is nearing, and Spenser finds himself with an unusual client -- an off-the-books home for street kids that's dedicated to helping them acquire skills they need to get out of their current dangerous situations. Someone is trying to intimidate the center out of its home, and the owner can't go to the police because he's unlicensed. So he's in touch with Spenser, who will seek out the intimidators and explain to them why they should desist from their actions. And by "explain," of course, I mean "threaten, punch, threaten, punch," repeated as necessary. How the center is connected to a wealthy Puerto Rican philanthropist and exactly how a beautiful retired tennis pro connects to the matter will have to be unraveled as he proceeds.

Brann does an immensely better job than Michael Brandman in capturing the characters she's using, quite a bit better than Robert Knott and maybe a little bit worse than Ace Atkins. Part of the reason could be that Atkins writes his own stories with Spenser while Brann is trying to finish one that Parker started. She has a good ear for Parker's dialogue, but it's not perfect and many places show that she is deliberately trying to write with another author's style rather than her own. She also does some things with the cast that Parker would probably not have done, but that may be a matter of opinion.

Parker himself had really just started Night, and had reached the introduction of the center director when he died. He never outlined his novels, so the story direction and character decisions were mostly Brann's ideas. The resulting collaboration betters some of Parker's own lesser work during the late 90's and early 00's, even if it doesn't come very close to his better books. While its main appeal may be as the site of the last of Parker's own words, Silent Night has some merit of its own as well. And if Parker's publisher is going to continue to use zombie versions of his characters to run its printing presses, they at least offer this much.
Irish-born John Connolly was the first author from outside the United States to win the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel, for 2000's Every Dead Thing. He also picked up a Bram Stoker award for Best First Horror Novel, which should tell you that his private eye fiction is just a leetle different from some of the usual product on the shelves.

The Black Angel is the fifth novel in the series that began with Thing, focusing on former NYPD detective Charlie "Bird" Parker, whose cases don't always involve purely natural elements. It seems supernatural forces of several kinds are at work in the world, and for some reason Charlie and his clients are often caught up in their work. In Angel, we start to get a hint of why that might be.

Although he is trying to make a new life for himself with his infant daughter and her mother, Charlie gets pulled back into a case when a young woman important to one of his friends is missing. The case will involve some truly terrifying criminals and supernatural beings who may number among the angels who fell with Lucifer.

Connolly excels as a writer and a storyteller, and uses the events of Angel to highlight the conflict within Charlie's life. He has in mind some commentary and consideration of some important issues in human life, like salvation, redemption, morality and compassion. But those same gifts make the bleakness of that life and sordid details of the crimes almost too vivid. In the end, Charlie Parker novels are probably an acquired taste, and might be best read with a lot of other, lighter-toned and more hopeful books in between them.
"Space opera" is a label given to science fiction that doesn't spend a lot of time on its science except as a backdrop for the story and characters. Think Star Wars. It derives from the older term "horse opera," used about Westerns that followed patterns as familiar as any opera and varied only with the characters inside the story and how they handled the tried-and-true conventions of their genre.

Michael Cobley's "Humanity's Fire" series, begun in 2009 with Seeds of Earth, is space opera in its purest form. Human beings fled Earth when an alien race moved to destroy it, relying on three colony ships that scattered themselves randomly through the galaxy. One of the ships found a habitable world humans named Darien, and they settle there with the cooperation of the native life forms, a sentient species called the Uvovo that has a kind of semi-mystical connection with Darien's ecology.

One day, the political conflicts of the rest of the galaxy catch Darien's little backwater up in their maelstrom, and the colonists find that Earth was not destroyed but rescued by another space nation. Although they seem like benefactors, those other aliens have their own agenda, and what happens to the humans or their adopted world in pursuit of that agenda doesn't concern them much. The humans of Darien, Earth and perhaps the other two lost colony ships need allies to survive, let alone win.

Cobley is a competent stylist who draws good word pictures and creates easily relatable characters. Yes, his aliens act an awful lot like humans and the technology of his universe as uneven as the plot needs it to be, and Seeds is too long, especially as the beginning of a series of equally long books, and too sloppy to be first-class space opera. But it's a good diversion and done well enough not to overly strain the disbelief suspension system.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


Most any park you visit is likely to be the home of a number of squirrels. According to this article at Gizmodo, this condition is the result of one of the very few examples where human beings have attempted to manipulate the ecology of an area with success.

Squirrels were introduced to urban parks beginning in the 19th century, because when people visited the parks the little critters were fun to watch and provided reminders of the country in the midst of city living. In fact, cities would plant nut-bearing trees in the parks to help create a habitat for the squirrels.

Squirrels are also big on college campuses, and the proximity of humans makes them somewhat bolder than the ones found in general neighborhood areas. At my alma mater, in fact, there were one or two fuzzy little bruisers disinclined to give way when you walked along one of the non-sidewalk trails.

So why are parks filled with squirrels? Because people put them there. It's the exact same answer if you replace "parks" with "Washington, D.C.," only this particular group of people are called "voters."

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Just Off R'lyeh Way...

Although you might think that the picture below would be a good approximation of the Lighthouse of Cthulhu, it's actually on the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan, and represents what happens when wind-blown water forms icicles on the lighthouses at St. Joseph North Pier.

Some more pictures of the fantastic shapes the combination of wind, water and freezing temperatures create around the lighthouses can be found here.

(H/T Leah Libresco)

Friday, December 20, 2013


The Sanctuary is Raymond Khoury's second novel, coming two years after the long-delayed sale and 2005 publication of his first, The Last Templar. But the reader might be forgiven wondering about that, since the two books carry significant similarities and Sanctuary has enough Basic Composition-style mistakes to make it look much more like a first novel or first draft.

The main plot concerns an archaeologist kidnapped by an evil doctor known only by the Arabic word usually translated "doctor," the hakeem. He's seeking a lost formula that may provide immortality, said to have been carefully guarded by a succession of custodians through the years and originating in a remote wilderness in the Middle East. Archaeologist Evelyn Bishop has been kidnapped because she is believed to have information about the formula, and her daughter Mia and a mysterious CIA agent must track her down before the hakeem learns what he needs to know and her usefulness comes to an end.

Unraveling the story depends a lot on three separate flashbacks, which are dropped into the narrative out of order and confuse just as much as they illuminate. Khoury keeps his main narrative moving along well enough, but his style is extremely careless -- four separate things "rocket" in one direction or another in less than a page, and one of those things is a pair of eyes. I'll let you decide what that's supposed to look like. A shot man drops "like blubber." A sudden panic for one character "garrotted her stomach."

So far, Khoury has done a lot better with his series novels building on The Last Templar. Neither of his standalones have measured up; The Sign was a shrill sermon masquerading as a suspense novel and Sanctuary is a recipe that takes stale and unappetizing ingredients, prepares them poorly and sets them out long before they're ready.
Dean Koontz could probably be compared with Stephen King in many ways -- they are contemporaries and they write primarily human-centered fiction that weaves the everyday world with some very strange places, characters and ideas. Although both made their initial successes with horror and horror-related novels, neither has stayed exclusively in that field.

The comparisons aren't exact, though. Both are excellent storytellers and write with smooth, clear styles that don't fall so much in love with their own words as to become incomprehensible. But King probably has more of a literary gift and has in recent years, for better or worse, turned his hand to the production of work that tries to Say Important Things. He succeeds now and again, but he fails just as often and those failures are indeed yucky.

Koontz, on the other hand, seems more content to spin some great yarns which, if they happen to provoke a thought or two, so much the better, but that's not his first goal. From the Corner of His Eye is one of those kinds of books. Koontz said the story idea for the 2000 novel came to him after reading some articles about what's called the "many worlds theory" of quantum mechanics. Oversimplified, that theory suggests that there may be many universes besides our own -- in fact, every universe which might exist actually does exist. Corner offers the idea that these universes relate to human actions and choices, and that some rare individuals have the ability to transfer objects between the worlds. Or maybe even access them.

Bartholomew "Barty" Lampion and Angel White are two preschoolers in the late 1960s who have this kind of gift. Both came into the world through tragedy, and although they don't meet until later in the novel, both are also intertwined with the killer Enoch Cain, called "Junior" because he hates "Enoch." Corner is largely the story of Barty and Angel beginning to display their gifts and of Junior seeking them out because of his belief that a spirit-being of some kind named Bartholomew will mean his end.

Like most of Koontz's work, Corner flows easily and moves much faster than its nearly 800 pages might seem to suggest. Koontz is a devout Catholic and usually includes some kind of theistic worldview in his novels, here weaving it with the many-universes idea underneath it all. An especially neat touch is that his evil killer is not the usual supernally smart and urbane wicked genius but instead a stupid and vain sociopath whose violence stems straight from his inability to accept that other people's lives don't have anything to do with him.

Corner has some interesting ideas, even if the story in which they're embedded isn't likely to stick with you for very long. But that's something Koontz does well, has been doing well for some time and will probably continue to do well for some time more.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Friar's Grail

Do I even have to tell you how much I wish this turns out to be feasible and work?


The original "laugh track" machine, complete with the programming log showing when it was used, was found in a storage unit recently.

Sound engineer Charles Douglass recorded laughter from several sources, such as comedy shows like Red Skelton's, and then set up a machine that would play that laughter or applause at the touch of a key. By using different key combinations, he could avoid -- mostly -- the laughter sounding too repetitive and he could vary the length of the laugh or applause. The Laugh-Track machine is how a show like Gilligan's Island, for example, could have audience laughter even though there was no way that its set could have been built on a sound stage. Same thing with Green Acres or The Beverly Hillbillies.

As is fitting for one of the most annoying inventions ever created, the link leads to a page with an autoplay video, one of the most annoying internet features ever created. It was also written by someone who doesn't know the difference between affective (caused or influenced by the emotions) and effective (having an intended or expected effect), and that make me chuckle a little.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Here Now the "News"

Conan O'Brien offers up yet another instance of why, if the verb that describes your primary method of gathering information is "watch" instead of "read," you are not likely to know very much. He played clips from 20 local TV newscasts of a story about self-gift buying that include an identical quote.

One possibility, of course, is that several stations decided to report on this matter and the different folks who write the copy the TelePrompTer muppets read are all equally uncreative. I would certainly grant the uncreativity, but I don't think the writers at 20 stations can all randomly stink in exactly the same way.

When I worked at the newspaper, one of the things we would do if we received a press release we wanted to run was to call the person releasing the information to get a quote or two of our own and gather information they may have left out. At the very least we would rewrite it, tightening the wording and cleaning it up to better match newspaper style.

But not so at your local televised news: In this instance, whatever agency gave them this particular item package also gave them the script, and it seems that at some 20 or so of them, the script went into the broadcast unedited.

Broadcast news: an oxymoron right up there with jumbo shrimp.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship?

The discovery of cat skeletons several thousand years old has given anthropologists some clues as to when human beings first began to domesticate cats.

An archaeological dig in China has found skeletons at what was probably a millet farm operating about 5,300 years ago. Cat skeletons have been found at the dig, with indications that they fed on the mice who fed on the millet, in order to reduce the amount of millet-feeding mice hanging out around the storage bins.

The researchers think that wild cats began hanging around the farm villages because the grain attracted a lot of mice, and they could spend less time hunting and more time napping. The animals and the people probably then developed the relationship as the cats got used to the humans and the humans proved adept at providing food during non-mouse times as well as scratching that place on their foreheads between their ears that they can't quite reach themselves. Other villages would have seen the utility of having furry little sociopaths around who could get into small mice-friendly places inaccessible to humans and picked up a couple of their own to begin the same process.

I imagine cats would quibble with the story's terminology, though. The scientists say that this arrangement was when cats were domesticated. Cats, on the other hand, would say it was when they were hired. And then they would remind us we are probably behind on paying them, so they will go take a nap now.

Monday, December 16, 2013

No Limits

You can make anything if you have enough Legos, including things that never really existed, like Rivendell of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

An Actor and a Movie Star

Among my least-favorite days would have been yesterday, as legendary actor Peter O'Toole passed away at the age of 81. That he was nominated for an Oscar eight times but never won says as much about the excellent quality of some of his competition in his early races, as well as the myopia of Academy voters during the latter ones.

The title of the post is a nod to his Oscar-nominated role as Alan Swann, the Errol-Flynn-esque swashbuckling actor appearing on a live TV show in the 1950s, in 1982's My Favorite Year. Confronted with the reality that the show is live, Swann panics -- he has not been before a live audience since he was a very young man and the idea terrifies him. "I'm not an actor!" he laments to Mark Linn-Baker's Benjy Stone. "I'm a movie star!"

He was, of course, among the best of both.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

It's a Mistake

On the PhysicsWorld blog, physicist Len Fisher reviews a book by science writer Mario Livio called Brilliant Blunders. I haven't read the book, but the review certainly makes it sound interesting -- a history of what some of the best-known scientists got wrong before they got it right.

It's interesting because it seems like too often most of us think of the scientific process as working to get everything exactly right and completely explained. But far more often, it's a string of attempts to make a different mistake instead of making the last one over again (actually, if you do something different and make the same mistake over again, you're likely on a path of discovering something also), and learning the answers to questions with which you started almost always prompts more questions. Even the most painstakingly accurate description of what happens still leaves an investigator wondering how it happened as well as why. And seeing how those questions, if they have only one right answer, have an infinite number of wrong ones, most of science would consist of making those aforementioned blunders.

I look forward to checking out the book as soon as the backlog of other fascinating books dwindles a little bit.

Friday, December 13, 2013


There is only one good thing in the case of the young man in Texas who received probation after a drunk driving accident that killed four people. The defense attorney had argued that his parents, who until the civil judgments start rolling in are very wealthy, had over-indulged and spoiled him so much that he had no concept of self-limiting his behavior, bad or otherwise. That argument prevailed, and he will now spend 10 years on probation while the judge tries to find a good long-treatment facility.

And therein lies the only good thing -- this verdict was rendered by a judge and not a jury. It may be only the slightest of upsides that there is only one person this utterly stupid than 12, but there aren't many places to look here for a better one.


Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a failed presidential candidate in 2008, has said he sees an opportunity for him in the 2016 campaign for the Republican nomination for president.

Mr. Huckabee seems to have overlooked the lesson taught by Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain in 2012 -- the best, cheapest and least embarrassing way to not be president is to never run in the first place. "I lost to one guy who lost to Barack Obama and more or less tied with the other one" is not a résumé-builder.

I probably share some ideas with Gov. Huckabee, but not enough to want to waste time on him.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Weird World

At Wired.com, writer Matt Simon describes the process by which a particular fly lays its egg inside an ant. Said egg then grows up to be a larva that takes control of the ant's brain so that the ant behaves normally while the larva grows, then goes off to die in a place that flies like better than ants do while the ready-to-grow-up larva secretes a chemical that dissolves the tissue that keeps the ant's head connected to its body.

A good number of folks in public office and most of MSNBC's lineup after noon and Fox News' lineup after 7 PM CST may now be explained.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Matters That Matter

Although he's been writing for more than 30 years, Pulitzer-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer had never collected his work into a book until the release of Things That Matter, a collection that covers much of that career and many of the diverse subjects to which he has put his mind and words.

Krauthammer has pretty much always been a foreign-policy conservative, but he began his writing career as what he calls a "Great Society liberal" and only began to move rightward in the mid 1980s. Most of the columns collected in Things come from this later period of his work, a decision probably made in light of the general theme of the collection. Krauthammer writes mostly about politics, but he has a wide range of other interests from baseball to science to music to math and Things includes several of these columns. He'd originally intended to collect nothing but such non-political columns, but as he reflected on the idea of the book, he came to understand that unless the politics of a society function properly, then even the best cultures and civilizations are endangered. Since he now sees some of his earlier political positions as wrong, he doesn't include them here.

Obviously, people who don't share Krauthammer's more conservative leanings might not enjoy Things as much as those of us who do. But his writing is elegant, fun and he offers over and over again concise and clear lessons on how to construct an argument to present one's position. With a previous career in psychiatry and medicine, he values precision in language and straightforward linearity in communicating his thinking. It may be that someone who disagrees with Krauthammer's ideas will still disagree with him after reading his position, but they will know better why they disagree and will have sharpened their own arguments by measuring them against his.

I'd demur from Krauthammer's suggestion that unless a society gets its politics right -- in other words, operates a government which both protects and empowers its citizens -- nothing else really matters. I think that the two interweave a lot more than that and politics by itself can't be "right" in that sense unless people are right. A society of people taught respect for each other and themselves from their early days is a society much more likely to accept a rule of law designed to foster the same thing. Laws and policies may prohibit certain behaviors and have an effect on people scared of punishment, but how much stronger a society in which people are eager to do right instead of just not do wrong.

That minor shade of disagreement aside, Things That Matter is an excellent sampling of the later period of one of the best columnists writing today, whether a reader shares his ideas or not. One hopes he does not wait another 30 years for the follow-up.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Heated Exchange

German researchers have found a way to generate electricity directly from heat, solving what had been a persistent problem when the energy created by such systems also effectively created its own insulation, stopping the energy flow.

These "thermionic generators" create electricity based on the temperature difference between two metallic plates that are separated by a vacuum. When one plate is heated, electrons "evaporate" from its surface just as molecules of a liquid evaporate when the liquid is heated above a certain temperature. These free-floating electrons then condense on the surface of the cooler plate, the way that water vapor condenses on a surface that is cooler than the surrounding air. Since the two plates now have a charge differential because of the transfer of electrons, an electric current will flow between them.

The problem has been that when the plates are separated by more than three to five micrometers, too many electrons can build up between them. Electrons, you may remember from science class, carry a negative charge and the "electron cloud" that forms between the plates blocks the current transmission. Like charges repel each other, and a cloud of negatively-charged electrons repel the evaporating negatively-charged electrons, meaning they can't condense on the cooler plate and create a charge differential and a current. Since a micrometer is one millionth of a meter, that means if the plates separate by as much as a spiderweb's strand of width the electron cloud is too thick. But if they touch, they lose the temperature differential and electrons don't transfer from one plate to another. This is called the "space-charge problem," and it has kept scientists from using thermionic generators even though they've been known for more than 60 years.

Researcher Jochen Mannhart figured out how to create an electric field between the two plates, which allows the electrons themselves to keep moving instead of building up in a cloud. It allows for a much better current transmission and power generation.

Mannhart and others want to continue to develop the process to increase the generator efficiency. Thermionic generators are obviously much simpler than turbines, which are the usual way that power plants generate electricity now -- and they could be much more efficient. They might also be able to generate electricity from much lower-temperature sources, such as solar heating or even the waste heat from car engines.

A practical thermionic generator would also mean the world finally has a use for Rush Limbaugh or Lawrence O'Donnell -- although both men do almost nothing but generate hot air, the lower temperatures such a generator would require might be well within the range they and others produce on a consistent basis. This is good news, as the oxygen such folks have previously wasted to inflict their opinions on us might now be considered an acceptable expense in the generation of electricity. I was going to suggest that electricity be used to shock them into silence when they said something stupid, but that would sort of block the power generation aspect of my idea.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Jurassic Backwash?

A person asks the What If? fellow over at xkcd how much of the water on the earth today might previously have been in someone's soda.

The answer is a very small percentage. Although the water we drink is processed by our bodies and by sewage treatment facilities and then by nature itself, the best guess on how much water human beings have gulped down over the years of our existence is much smaller than the total amount of fresh water on Earth, let alone the amount when you add in the oceans.

Although, the answer guy notes, the long reign of the dinosaurs and their vast numbers mean that the water molecules in your glass right now, even though they are unlikely to have previously touched human lips, almost certainly once allowed T. rex or one of his relatives to quench their thirst.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Scenes from a Snowy Day

At the Gym...

-- Had anyone asked me before today what I thought of the Bravo TV shows The Millionaire Matchmaker and Shahs of Sunset I would not have known what to say, beyond wondering if I was being kidded by savvy young folks who knew these were Onion-style parodies and wanted to watch the middle-aged grump talk about how much more dignified television was when Phil Donahue was on it. But thanks to the woman who had hold of the remote control when I arrived, I now know these shows are real. And awful. So much for a network that once aired Jazz Counterpoint and its own sponsored production of Romeo and Juliet.

At the Store...

-- Nothing's as empty as the shelves that held the cans of window de-icer two days after the storm hits.

-- The fellow in front of me was in serious danger of not being able to double the "20 items or less" limit with the 30-plus items he pulled from his cart. Fortunately, his shopping companion came with an armload of condensed milk cans just before he finished checking out and he waited until after everything was totaled to add two packs of cigarettes to his order. Which meant the mathematical magic trick of making 20 equal to 40 -- performed only by self-absorbed folks in checkout lines -- came off without a hitch. Except for the Hispanic gentleman behind me, whom I overheard whisper "¿Cuarenta?" to his wife.

On the Street...

-- Several city employees giving up their Sunday off to run road graders and front end loaders over the streets as the ice finally slushed up enough for them to remove it. Thanks, guys.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Krackdown on Korruption!

The new president of the International Olympic Committee is warning the Indian Olympic Committee that if it doesn't get its act together, then Indian athletes may not be allowed to compete at the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi, Russia in 2014 or the Summer Games in Rio in 2016.

Well, given that the IOC hasn't yanked sponsorship from Russia despite that nation's less-than-tolerant attitude towards gay men and women; given that it didn't tell Lebanese athletes to pack up and go home when they whined about having to see Jews when they practiced in London; given that it went ahead in 2008 and held the games at yet another nation which has a rather cavalier attitude about its citzens' and its neighbor's citizens right to life, let alone liberty and you can just forget about that pursuit of happiness; given that it allows participation by nations which are just as bad or worse, you have to wonder. Just what has India done that merits this kind of extreme threat?

It's selecting corrupt or potentially corrupt officials for its national Olympic committee. Specifically, it's selecting one particular official who served 10 months on corruption charges related to his role in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. The Commonwealth Games are an athletic competition held by nations which were formerly part of the British Empire.

The IOC takes the position that any Indian national charged by the Indian police should not serve on India's Olympic organizing committee. The Indian committee counters that people who have been convicted of a crime and served more than a 2-year sentence shouldn't serve.

Neither position holds a lot of water; the IOC's idea that just being charged with a crime is enough to get you booted creates an onerous burden, especially since not every nation's government is against the idea of using its judiciary to implement public policy -- like shutting up people who criticize it. Their idea is to attempt to create an utterly squeaky-clean Cæsar's wife of an organization in order to deflect the frequent charges of corruption within the IOC itself as well as different national organizations, but this plan relies on the idea that only those charged with crimes are guilty. It overlooks the possibility that those who haven't been charged may be just as corrupt, but they're a lot better at it and haven't been caught.

India's counter sounds good at the start, in that you should actually have to be convicted of something before being barred from service or removed from office, but that whole "served less than two years" makes it a little iffy, as though it's a standard designed to permit the one guy they really want. Tying the conviction to athletic or sporting-related cases might make more sense.

In any event, the staring contest will be resolved one way or the other, and the decidedly non-athletic seat warmers in suits will declare themselves to have abided by their principles and to have taken a stand.

The opinions of the Indian athletes, whose chance to represent their nation, neighbors and people on the world stage is riding on all of the gold-medal chest puffing amongst committees, will not be sought.

Friday, December 6, 2013

They Stole What?

Some thieves in Ireland have shown themselves to be downright mean as well as stupid, all in the same act.

The mean part comes in the theft of a field full of ripening Brussels sprouts, being cultivated by Irish nuns for sale at nearby farmer's markets and organic grocery stores. Brussels sprouts are not annual crops. They take two years from planting to be mature, so the theft robs the nuns and their helpers of two full years of their work and sets them that far back in producing revenue for their farm.

The petty thieves -- a description of character of those who would steal from nuns, not of the amount stolen -- will probably, a spokes-sister says, sell them to organic food markets themselves for Christmas and make a profit on work done by others. Previous thefts have been smaller amounts probably meant for personal consumption, she said, meaning they were not unexpected or harmful to the farm's bottom line.

The stupid part comes in when you realize that the thieves stole Brussels sprouts -- a form of vegetable second in yuckiness only to those being used in a compost pile. They must have planned their escape route to have been devoid of stop signs, as it is doubtful anyone dumb enough to steal Brussels sprouts would know enough that they could start up again once they'd stopped.

(PS -- yes, I know the story says "Brussel sprouts." But the official name is taken from the capital of Belgium, which is "Brussels." Why am I so familiar with a vegetable which I hate? Know thine enemy!)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Offer of Services

It seems Harvard University has the problem of grade inflation. Far too many students are receiving A grades, with no indication that they are doing all of the work they need to do to earn A grades.

Should Harvard require it, I will be happy to allow them to register me as a student in order to increase their diversity. I can guarantee I will execute an academic plan that has almost no chance of earning an A, and since I know what kinds of grades I got as an undergraduate, I have every confidence in my ability to pull it off.

On the other hand, I guess if I had gone to Harvard, I wouldn't have gotten those grades as an undergraduate.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


When I worked at the newspaper and we were sent to cover a meeting or perhaps a speech by someone, we had developed a kind of unofficial competition for how many times people used certain clichés. Some that were so overused as to mean almost nothing, like "re-invent the wheel," were worth more points. People who covered Chamber of Commerce-type events usually won; business folk are excellent cliché wielders.

However, designer Duncan Fitzsimmons of London actually did re-invent the wheel, or at least refine it a little bit, to make a detachable wheelchair wheel that also collapses down into a smaller space. This allows wheelchair users to enjoy the greater leverage larger wheels provide but still store the pieces of their chair in a relatively small space, such as an overhead bin in an airplane.

Looks like he was really thinking outside of the box on that one.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Coming and Going

Apparently, one of the few things that's as costly as paying a university administrator is to cease paying a university administrator as he or she leaves employment.

But it's all about the learnin' and the students and life of the mind and stuff.

Monday, December 2, 2013


Real Clear Science's Newton Blog offers some helpful tips on understanding some of the things a television weather personality says when discussing weather conditions and forecasts.

They specifically describe what it means to say that a barometer or barometric pressure is such-and-such a figure and either falling or rising. It has to do with the way that old-fashioned barometers used a column of mercury and measured its height, which would vary with the external air pressure. Falling air pressure predicts storms or other bad weather, while rising air pressure indicates clear weather ahead.

Newton is a science blog. So it leaves out that an important factor in understanding your average weatherperson is to remember that he or she is above all a paid employee of a company that wants your viewership. Being such, he or she is not going to do much to counter the not-so-subtle implication that to switch away from the station's coverage of the weather to some other outfit which lacks its ultra-high-tech gizmos and tried-and-true tested and trustworthy TelePrompTer Muppets is to court instant soggy and windy death.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Three Strikes

Newspapering in the 21st century is a precarious position, and a reporter who's growing up in the shadow of his late father, one of the last of the great roving investigative journalists, doesn't have it any easier. The thinned-out modern version of the craft he practices makes it even more difficult to live up to the accomplishments of someone who worked when news, newsgathering and news consumption were still considered important parts of the U.S. political and cultural arena.

So Chris Turley knows he's "lucky" to be near a building explosion and able to both save people and report on it when the building blows up while he's waiting to meet a source. The source doesn't show, but opportunity does, and it begins to send Chris up the ladder of journalistic prominence. The source offers another anonymous tip that brings front page work for him, but it also starts to bring the attention of law enforcement at both local and federal levels. Is Chris doing more than just report the news? And when the source turns out to have plans of his own, will Chris's next byline be in the obituaries?

Rosenfelt offers a little commentary on the role of media as his reporter character quickly becomes the story instead of reports on it -- modern news media has at least as much to do with entertainment as it does information and many of its highest-profile practitioners owe more to their profiles than their practice. But his story is jumbled and clichéd, his villain's abilities more than a little preposterous and his "shocking twist" pretty obvious from early on. He gives Wire a healthy helping of wry through Chris and his newsroom colleagues in a way that rings pretty true, but the flaws with the basic story outline and implausibility issues send him to an interior page behind the real estate ads.
With The Chalk Girl, Carol O'Connell's signature character Kathy Mallory became a little less quirky and a little more annoying, as did O'Connell's story about her. In the new It Happens in the Dark, things go pretty much completely off the rails. O'Connell seems to lose control of her plot, characters and storyline early on and never regains it. Mallory herself is less of a character in the story than a cipher the other characters react to -- usually in awe or fear or moonie puppy-dog crush.

The story concerns a murder -- or is it? -- at the performance of a play, happening on a night which followed someone else in the audience dying. Mallory has to investigate the weird world of actors, playwrights, critics, stagehands and producers, and her notable lack of patience for ordinary folks is stretched thin by the eccentric theater crowd. Stir in a decades-old mystery surrounding a family murdered in their home, and you have a knot that Lt. Columbo would have looked at and said, "I'm putting in for vacation."

A half-dozen rereads are required to know what goes on every dozen pages, and the payoff is meager enough to be worthy of very little of that work. Mallory fans showed a lot of disappointment with Chalk Girl, and it's hard to imagine O'Connell winning many of them back with the gooey mess she offers in Happens.
Fortunately for thriller writers, history has no shortage of mysterious circumstances surrounding well-known figures, and the abundance allows for some variety in their central conspiracy/cover-up/espionage whatever. Englishman Scott Mariani takes on some of the questions surrounding the early death of famed composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in his second Ben Hope novel, The Mozart Conspiracy.

Ben is a former British special forces soldier who now makes a living as a sort of principled mercenary and security specialist. He will take on some pretty rough jobs, but only when the lives of innocents are at stake -- at which point all bets for the perpetrators are off. When the sister of an old Army buddy calls him saying she thinks her brother's death wasn't the accident everyone claims and that someone now seems to be targeting her, Ben will be drawn in to a shadowy world where a cabal of wealthy power-players seek to expand their reach -- and protect it from prying eyes. Does the buddy's book project -- an investigation into Mozart's death -- have something to do with the plot? And will the forces that seemed aligned against the composer now target Ben?

Mozart is strictly paint-by-numbers thriller writing. It edges out Dan Brown by having better writing and less inaccuracy, but Mariani basically changes Mozart to MacGuffin and skips any chance to weave the world of music, composition and history into his story. The Army buddy was a pianist and his sister sings opera, but they could have had any other jobs and affected the plot not at all.

The rote characterizations, rote recitations of those in the shadows moving the levers of political power and threatening those who would expose them, rote scenery and rote action set pieces do almost nothing to help The Mozart Conspiracy convince a reader to take more time with Ben Hope thrillers, and the nasty ending Mariani tacks on wrecks whatever minor goodwill he may have built up.