Friday, January 31, 2014

Mixed Emotions

So on the one hand, the Milwaukee Brewers made glad the hearts of everyone who loves baseball and respects self-deprecating humor done well when they announced that they will honor former Milwaukee ballplayer, announcer and commercial pitchman Bob Uecker with a statue in the uppermost row of their stadium.

Uecker had made a pretty good name for himself by accurately describing his less-than-storied career as a catcher -- he used to tell Johnny Carson that he had been signed to play for the Milwaukee Braves for $1,000, "because that was all my dad could afford." In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was added to Miller Brewing Company's "Miller All-Stars" satirical commercials. Directed by an usher to leave his seats next to some patrons clearly tiring of his yammering, he made a claim based on his fame as a former pro: "I must be in the front row." In the next scene, he is of course alone in the nosebleed section of a mostly empty stadium.

The back-row statue will actually be the second honoring Uecker, who has another outside the stadium along with three other Milwaukee baseball names. Reading that was where the mixed emotions come in, because of one of the other three statues. Not, of course, the one of Hank Aaron, whose baseball career began with the Braves in Milwaukee before they moved to Atlanta and who ended his career with the Milwaukee Brewers. Nor the one of Robin Yount, the Hall of Fame third baseman whose entire illustrious career was with the Brewers.

But there is one of current Major League Baseball Commissioner and former Brewers' owner Bud Selig, a man who has visited upon us the annoyance of interleague play, the silliness of linking World Series homefield advantage to the outcome of the All-Star Game and the absolute abomination of the 2002 All-Star Game, which he called after 11 innings as a tie. The only previous All-Star tie came in 1961 because of rain. If there is any fitting monument to Selig, a man who has left the game more or less leaderless since his tenure as commissioner began --  first in an acting capacity in 1992 and then officially in 1998 -- it is not a statue. It is a scorecard with a tie game on it. Or better yet, a rainout.

But to end on an up note, pitchers and catchers begin reporting in just under two weeks. And time begins on March 31.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Picket Line at the Study Hall

Bloomberg writer Jonathon Mahler offers a little analysis about Wednesday's filing by some college football players to form a union in order to guarantee some health benefits and a share of the enormous profits colleges, coaches, and the NCAA rake in from their sweat, blood and sometimes bone.

The good that labor unions have brought to the modern world is undeniable. Also undeniable is that a number of those unions are today led by people who have their own agendas and pocketbooks and who are more interested in those than the rank and file membership of their organizations. So I'm of mixed emotions about this idea. And of course I'm also torn because the lawsuit was filed by those Paragons of Virtue, Nobility, Being Nice to That Budweiser Clydesdale Ad Puppy and Defenders of the World Against Illini Communism, the Northwestern University Wildcats.

On the one hand, as my opening paragraph might lead you to surmise, I believe that the convenient fiction of the "student-athlete" is in many cases a shrinking fig leaf that colleges use to get out of paying their players a fair share of the money they make for the college at which they are enrolled. On the other hand, a collegiate player's union would, I believe, be swiftly co-opted by some of the same operators who use their membership's woes and desires to line their own pockets. Being exploited from a home office instead of the dean's office is not much of a good trade.

Mahler makes a good point that the establishment of a union might halt the fig-leaf shrinkage or at least slow it down. The NCAA might be able to engage in a controlled demolition of their mendacious model instead of the outright obliteration that will probably come someday from some judge's ruling. The thing about a controlled demolition is that you can sometimes shape what comes after the current structure is down, and maybe even use some of the old material.

But I think he also makes a good point that no one has ever accused the association of foresight and that they will probably keep fighting until their entire system crashes around their ears and they're forced to build a new one according to a court order -- which they will neither write nor be able to ignore.

It's kind of the way things usually go with the NCAA, though. They're a pretty good example that not everything with the word "collegiate" in its name is run by smart people.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

First Prize? Far Out, Man...

So the Denver County Fair, since marijuana is now legally able to be bought and sold in Colorado, will add judging of marijuana plants and a joint-rolling competition this year.

The actual pot plants will be judged off-site, and only photographs of them will be displayed at the actual fair. And the joint-rolling contest will use oregano instead of cannabis.

The change was made at the suggestion of the pie and pastry contest division, whose officials were worried that none of their products might survive long enough to be sampled and rated if the marijuana competitors or judges were to stumble upon them.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Firm Resolve

The United Nations Security Council Monday passed unanimously its Resolution 2133.

In it, UN member states are urged not to pay ransom to terrorist groups who have kidnapped someone and who intend to use the money to finance terrorist operations. Private citizens or companies are also urged not to pay these ransoms.

Does this mean that if a group is just a plain old garden-variety criminal enterprise kidnapping people in order to pay  for a new supply of blackjacks or cement mix for overshoes, the UN says that's OK? How exactly will kidnappers certify themselves as regular organized crime instead of terrorists? "Sure, we broke a few legs and we burnt a couple of stores what was late on their protection fees, but we didn't aim for the violent overthrow of the government and established social order or eradication of the state of Israel." Does the group get a sticker from the U.S. Attorney General? "This seal affirms that the holder is a traditional criminal organization operating according to the standard principles of graft, corruption, extortion, money-laundering and prostitution but has no known affiliations with any politically active terrorist groups and would, if called upon by their government, unhesitatingly make such groups an offer they couldn't refuse." The current AG and staff seem to have difficulty keeping track of who are good guys and who are bad guys, so how well would they do differentiating between groups of bad guys?

The United States Ambassador to the UN and others say that this resolution takes aim at the "terrorist business model." Its author says that Resolution 2133 "breaks the cycle" of terrorists kidnapping people, getting paid ransoms which fund their operations and emboldened by that success repeat the formula.

Sure it does. Terrorist leaders across the world just threw up their hands and said, "Well, how are we supposed to raise money now? Our already illegal method for doing so was just targeted by a United Nations Resolution. You know guys, I'm OK with breaking the laws of a society I've declared the sworn enemy of everything I stand for, but what are we supposed to do against this?"

Everybody involved in the creation and writing of this resolution has, I believe, a good heart and a sincere desire to see things like kidnappings as well as terrorism come to an end. I don't mock that at all. But I do mock the idea that the United Nations has any kind of power to address those issues or that what little influence they can bring to bear is best brought out by a Security Council resolution. But then, when it comes to the UN the more accurate name for the neighborhood wherein resides its headquarters should probably be Mock Turtle Bay.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Total Concentwation

A preview clip from DC Comics upcoming DVD release Justice League: War shows Batman being snarky, while also being Batman.

This looks like fun.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Bit of a Stretch

Regular readers -- both of you -- will know that I often enjoy seeing scientific underpinnings for many artistic works. Learning the mathematical relationships of musical notes, seeing how color changes or symmetry or other factors influence what we appreciate in art, and so on are subjects that continue to fascinate me, often well beyond my ability to easily grasp the science involved. Fortunately, there's Tylenol.

But these ideas can be carried too far. Way too far, as The New Republic's William Deresiewicz points out in his review of a book by Michael Suk-Young Chwe that suggests Jane Austen was a modern-day game theorist. "Game Theory" is the name given to a study of strategic decision-making. It models these decisions, usually made by a group of people rather than just one or two, in mathematical terms.

Now, sometimes wildly improbable claims can be backed up by research or at least by coherent logic. Given a set of assumptions that are at least as likely to be true as to be untrue, then this or that judgment or conclusion may be reached and considered plausible. Chwe, however, does nothing of the kind if Deresiewicz is at all accurate in his reading.

Without reading Chwe's book, of course, there's no way to be definitive about his work's quality or lack thereof. But the idea that a woman writing as the 18th century turned into the 19th would be expressing thoughts in a field of study not well-developed until the middle of the 20th century doesn't pass the smell test. The thought that she was a game theorist unawares also has some significant holes -- you don't stumble onto the kind of developed math involved in these theories like you might stumble onto the Pythagorean Theorem.

Another logician, William of Ockham, is associated with what's called the "principle of parsimony," meaning that simpler explanations are more likely to be true than more complex ones, and it's on the proponent of the more complex answer to prove why he or she is right. Applying the principle of parsimony to the question, "Why did Jane Austen write novels?" we find ourselves rejecting the possible answer, "In order to explain a theory that would not be invented for more than 100 years" in favor of the answer, "She liked telling stories and she got paid when she did."

Game, set and match.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Thirty Years On

Friday marked the 30th anniversary of the Superbowl commercial from Apple that announced its new "Macintosh" computer. Yes, the Superbowl used to be played in January. The commercial was the unofficial start of the "commercial wars," or using supposedly extra creativity in producing ads for the big game's extra visibility. There's not always a whole lot of evidence that this actually happens.

Anyway, over at Wired, you can observe a photo gallery of Mac's growth and changes over the 30 years. It's a little light on photos of some of Macs actual machines, especially leaving out some of the missteps the company made --  one of which, the Performa 5200, I owned and struggled with using through most of grad school and which some Mac enthusiasts consider the worst Mac ever. I should, of course, have known it would be such, since it was basically a beige plastic box. Oh well.

Friday, January 24, 2014

From the Rental Vault: In Translation

A common complaint about some modern movies -- a justifiable one, too -- is that they are all style and no substance. That is, the moviemakers invest so much in the way their film looks and sounds that they overlook things like a coherent plot, engaging or realistic characters, having something meaningful to say, and so on.

Such a movie is usually the product of clumsiness, lack of skill or lack of caring (or if you're Rob Zombie, Paul Haggis or Eli Roth, all three). Deft moviemakers and actors can often work within the constraints of their style to create films that are enjoyable and might offer a comment or two on the human condition.

Director Takashi Nomura, adapting a noir crime novel by Shinji Fujiwara and working with Japanese action-gangster stalwart Joe Shishido, does just that in his 1967 Nikkatsu production A Colt is My Passport. Shuji Kamimura (Shishido) and his partner Shun Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio, who looks a lot like Tommy Lee Jones) have pulled off a mob hit and are trying to leave the country to lie low for awhile. But the yakuza organization whose leader they killed has many resources and is hot on their trail. Shuji and Shun wait for transport out of the country in a rundown dockside hotel, where they meet the waitress Mina (Chitose Koboyashi). She might help them, or her own ties to to the underworld might get them killed.

The title sounds more like a gritty Western, and Nomura and music director Harumi Ibe supply a score heavily influenced by spaghetti westerns as well. The meshing of styles works better than a first thought might suggest, and offers some room for considering how the Wild West of our stories and imaginations might fit into a modern society: Would the characters John Wayne played in movies be inside or outside the law as we have it today? Would the criminal Shishido plays still be a criminal if he were on a dusty street ready to pull his six-shooter instead of in a Tokyo apartment pinpointing his target through a high-powered rifle scope?

Passport can certainly prompt such questions, but even if you don't want to mess with them you can still enjoy the hard-boiled crime drama that was bread-and-butter for both Nikkatsu and Shishido through the 1960s and early 1970s.
So imagine that James Bond, putting his mission to save the world from a megalomaniacal baddie with a nuclear bomb on hold to woo a comely lass, did so not with his usual banter and double-0-entendres but instead with a song and dance number and a saxophone solo...

Welcome to spy movies, Bollywood-style, in the 2003 thriller The Hero: Love Story of a Spy.

Top agent and master of disguise Arun Sharma has to thwart the designs of terrorist Ishaq Khan, who has access to nuclear material through rogue elements in his own Pakistani government. Khan wants to complete a nuclear weapon and when Arun's efforts derail his plans, he has to relocate to Canada. Arun, presumed dead in an attack from Khan that also apparently killed his fiancée Reshma, gets a lead on the millionaire financier aiding Khan and travels to Canada to thwart their new efforts.

Because we're watching a Bollywood movie, there's a love story as well as a love triangle, and there are more than a couple of large-scale musical numbers like the one mentioned above. There's also some commentary -- although the villainous Khan is a Muslim and motivated by the extremist jihadi ideology we see in Al Qaeda and others, Arun is also a Muslim but entirely different. He insists on a practice of Islam that emphasizes its charity for the poor and protetction of the weak. Such a message may seem pretty standard to us, but it's not nearly as common in Hindu-dominated India and Indian cinema.

It's the kind of message that probably couldn't come from lesser stars, but Arun is played by the "Action King of Bollywood," Sunny Deol, whose reputation in Hindi cinema carries a lot of weight. He's aided by Preity Zinta as Reshma, the village girl he falls in love with while on assignment (because he's a character in a Bollywood movie, he's a male with a pulse and she's played by the spirited, engaging and irresistible Preity Zinta, that's why), who is herself a highly respected voice in Indian entertainment.

Hero may not be the best translation of a Bondish gadgets-guns-and-gams spy action movie into the Bollywood format. It's about an hour too long, has probably two more musical numbers than it needs and sometimes takes seriously what it should wink at as silly. But it is a load of fun and the impatient may always employ the fast-forward button when necessary.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Real DaVinci Code

Here's what Leonardo wrote in order to get a job as a guy who makes things blow up.

It's almost like he was applying to be a MythBuster...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Eyepatches Cost Extra

A fellow asks Cecil Adams at The Straight Dope how much it would cost to fit out his own pirate ship, given the rather high and romanticized profile that piracy has had in popular culture in recent years.

Adams' answer: Around $36 million for a proper three-masted ship, cannon and assorted ne'er-do-wells who would probably be just modern enough to insist on being paid regular wages instead of taking a traditional cut of the profits. Somehow Adams avoided suggesting that the would-be lord of plunder pay his men according to their physical limitations or gifts -- by which I do indeed mean he should offer a buck an ear -- but fortunately for you, I went there.

Anyway, Adams notes that the most well-known modern pirates, mostly Somalis working in the Arabian sea and northeastern Indian Ocean, did not clear enough to justify such an expense, based on the best guesses about ransom, lost cargo and so on. He also notes that Somali pirates tend to have much lower overhead, eschewing three-masted ships and cannon for Zodiacs and AK-47s. Some of those are free for them (they are, after all, pirates), but even someone who feels a need to start out relatively under the radar by purchasing these items could find them for a good deal less than $36 million.

Adams closes by pointing out that traditional pirates as well as the modern-day crews tend to have short effective careers as well as short life-spans -- the two may be connected, in fact. However, the boardroom and trading floor "pirates" of the financial sector often escape the exposure of their misdeeds unscathed and frequently net substantial profits. But he overlooks another potential area, that of elected office, in which it is not unheard of to use your position for personal gain while actually being paid for it with public funds.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

I Am Mr. Roarke, Your Host...

At lunch at a minister's meeting today, we had a discussion about fantasy conversations with parishioners. One was the conversation with the family explaining why they managed to attend church only about 35-40% of the time. The excuse is familiar -- between school and the every-activity-under-the-sun schedule they have created for their family through the kids, "Sunday morning is the only one when we can relax and we don't have to get up."

A number of fantasy answers were proposed, but my favorite was the simplest, and the one I may perhaps summon for myself on that last Sunday before I retire:

"I don't care."

Welcome to Fantasy Island...

Monday, January 20, 2014


Toward the end of each year, we often see news items that tell us what words the Oxford English Dictionary has added to itself, representing how language has changed and expanded.

Here, you may find an addition the OED folks feel is representative of the year you were born, as well as a link to the first known use of that word. For those born in 1964 such as myself, the word chosen is the unsurprising "Beatlesque," given that the Fab Four made their first U.S. appearances early in the year. If you subscribe to the OED, you may also search for a more personalized word, sorted out by month -- that is, a word which first appeared during the month of your birth.

Alas, I am not a subscriber, so I will remain ignorant of the more specific word. I suspect that my own contributions to the language were non-verbal noises throughout most of my time on earth in 1964, though, and I have to admit that I cannot claim to have originated any of them.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Check Yourself

This rather long piece at Outside the Beltway delves into an interesting fact about a lot of scientific studies that get published: They're probably wrong.

The whole thing should be read, and it would be worthwhile to take a look at the original piece from The Economist that the Beltway article references. The issue is not that the scientific method itself is flawed. It isn't -- the process of predicting or guessing results and performing experiments which either confirm or refute the predictions remains one of the best methods humanity has ever devised for finding out how things work.

Nope, the problem is not with the method of investigation, but more with the method of disseminating its results. Regular human failings like confirmation bias are joined by professional pressure to publish, a preference for data and results that show something new rather than confirm something already known and over-reliance on fallible peer review to weed out error.

Both pieces highlight a 1998 study which showed that people about to take an intelligence test did better when they imagined a college professor than when they imagined a soccer hooligan. In April 2013, a journal article reported that nine separate experiments failed to reproduce the results claimed by the 1998 researchers. Which to me only makes sense. The average soccer hooligan has to keep a raft of team statistics straight in his head while slamming it against other hooligans' fists, while the average professor just has to slam the door shut on any challenge to his or her worldview once acquiring tenure.

Of course that's a ridiculous rationale, but the idea itself is ridiculous enough that some of those nine experiments should have been done back in 1998. Both the Beltway and Economist articles point out some of the reasons they weren't, which help lead to the problem they're talking about. Although any truly innovative result should engender skepticism not only among scientists but also the press that reports on their work, the combination of a need to grab eyeballs and the absence of any significant cost of getting something wrong only make a bad problem worse once it hits ink, digital or otherwise.

I am not entirely sure what I should do with this newfound reason to be skeptical about the results of scientific studies. Right now I'm leaning towards eating Twinkies, French fries and Quarter Pounders with cheese for the rest of my life, but I'm still open to how often I should replace the above menu with pizza and chicken fried steak with gravy.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Mars Pranks!

So the other day the Mars rover Opportunity was tooling along the surface of the Red Planet, taking pictures and examining things like it usually does. It sent a picture of what was in front of it. Then a couple of "solars" or "sols" later, it sent another picture of what was in front of it; which was the same place (a "solar" is one turn of Mars on its axis, or day. The Martian day is about 45 minutes longer than a terrestrial one). But this time there was a rock there.

The story notes that NASA scientists say the two most likely theories are that Opportunity flipped a rock over into its path when it was turning around or that a meteorite landed on Mars and a piece of the rock that flew up when it hit (called "ejecta," which sounds vaguely like something that would gain me the kind of hits on my blog I don't want) landed in front of the rover.

Of the two, the first is considered much more probable than the second, especially because one of Opportunity's wheels has stopped working properly and as it drags the ground it could scoot a rock along in front of it pretty easily.

Of course, they are the scientists and I am just a guy who runs my mouth, but I am dismayed by the lack of attention paid to the possibility that the rock is a sign of the activity of the repulsive ulsio, or many-legged Martian rat. Or alternatively, that it represents debris from a test of the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator.

But sometimes it's hard to get scientists to keep open minds.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Bag o'Grab

-- Dizzy Dean is supposed to have said, "If you can do it, it ain't braggin'." Minnesota eighth-grader Easton Gamoke sank a full-court last second shot to win a game. When the TV crew came to interview him, he did it again.

-- Popeye hits 85, and still nobody knows what he's saying under his breath.

-- Kirsten Powers points out that "no protest" zones used to keep anti-abortion protesters away from clinics could very easily be used to silence enviromental protests at a company headquarters, anti-war protests at a military base and so on. You'd think somebody smart might have told the Massachusetts legislature that could happen, but legislators try to avoid smart people because they make them uneasy.

-- I'm already nervous enough about the vacation I helped pay for, ABC. I don't want to tick off the most powerful man in the free world any more, thank you very much.

-- The Atlantic offers a guide to spotting a narcissist online. I would have thought it would be pretty easy; it's someone who puts stuff online and doesn't get paid for it...hey, waitaminute.

-- A study shows that using a red plate can help you reduce your foot portions as a part of a plan to lose weight. I think reducing the load so that you can tell what color your plate is might be a big help too.

-- To really be patient takes a satellite: After 10 years and several million miles, the European probe Rosetta will wake up and make ready to rendezvous with an asteroid to study it. In November, it will land a probe on the asteroid to take samples. I think Rosetta's a little on the shy side.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Double Feature

Harry Fabian is a guy who figures he's just one score away from the big life he's dreamed of, when he can tell everyone who's ever looked down on him what they can do with their downward looks. But his belief that life has somehow cheated him out of that score leaves him desperate, and desperate men aren't always smart. Especially when they're small-time to begin with.

Tough-guy Richard Widmark might not have been the first thought to play a loser like Harry, but he replaces his usual swagger and bravado with a believable and brittle front of aggrieved conviction that he's been cheated out of his rightful fame and fortune in 1950's Night and the City. When the chance to break into the wrestling promotion business comes his way, Harry grabs at it, in spite of the risk of confrontation with Kristo (Herbert Lom), the promoter who's currently cornered that business. Also in spite of the fact that he has to cheat and swindle most of the people he knows to get the stake to get started. When pressure on the scheme builds, Harry finds his inherent weakness may keep him from closing out the deal and gaining the success he feels he deserves.

Night is set in London, which helps give the American Harry a sense of displacement -- he's an outsider to start with. And director Jules Dassin keeps to the seedier and still war-ravaged sections of London that emphasize the low-rent character of the people we're watching: No one here is looking for England's finest hour nor would they know it if they saw it. Like many a noir classic, Night is filled with people who keep cutting corners until they're left with no place to stand, and whose yearning for the big score blinds them to the small treasures they'll eventually lose in its pursuit. Widmark makes as believable a weasel as he did psycho in Kiss of Death, and Gene Tierney shines as his long-suffering fiancée, whose own attachment to Harry is her weakness.

Hollywood, afraid of what association with Communists and former Communists would do with its box office, created the self-censoring "blacklist" during Night's filming, which would mean that Dassin never made another movie in the United States. It's a fine send-off, even if it only had to be that because the industry that always congratulates itself on its courage can never find that quality when its bottom line is under fire.
Whether Dassin would have consented or been acceptable to star Marlon Brando in 1961, the fact is that when filming for Brando's company's One Eyed Jacks began, he had no director. Originally given to Stanley Kubrick and developed by Sam Peckinpah, Jacks' pre-production process wound up with a multi-vocal script and a fired Kubrick (who officially left in order to work on Lolita). So Brando volunteered to take the reins himself, although he pointed out in his own biography that he didn't know what he was doing.

Production for the straightforward revenge story at the heart of Jacks went about as well as could be expected with an...odd Brando at the helm. Sometimes he was too drunk to direct or to act his role as Rio, a gunslinger looking to even the score with former partner Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), who abandoned him and left him to be arrested by Mexican authorities. Once he kept the entire cast and crew waiting for the "perfect wave" to be filmed off the Monterey coast. A movie production budgeted at $1.8 million came in at $6 million, and Brando never directed again.

There's an interesting movie buried somewhere inside Jacks, even if it's not particularly visible to the naked eye. The amoral Rio may be betrayed early in the story, but he's already demonstrated a lack of character that makes that seem like much less a tragedy for the audience than for him. As he moves into his quest for vengeance, that same lack of character brings collateral damage right and left to those with him until a kind of epiphany strikes, showing him the emptiness of his quest and the life he lived before that. Brando, who said he wanted a movie full of grays rather than black and white, seems not to believe in that change enough to flesh it out as either director or actor, so it passes by without much reflection. Malden's Longworth is a curious mixture of rectitude and license, and his story leads towards the kind of resolution that might make him confront his own failure to live up to the standards he seems to demand, but that doesn't really happen. Katy Jurado, Pina Pellicer, Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson all turn in top work on their roles, but they labor in heavy seas and their efforts can't turn Jacks onto a more coherent course.

In the end, Jacks stands up as a good model of a movie that could have done some fascinating exploration of humanity and the human condition within the boundaries of the traditional Western if the people making the movie had allowed themselves to work within the genre. But their choice to try to deconstruct the genre and reconstruct it as they wanted it to be means they have neither center to hold their work together nor boundaries to give it definition, and thus it dissipates as you might expect.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Pot + Pourri

-- Let's not send this guy off as the ambassador to Themyscira. On second thought, why don't we? Pair him up with Bob Filner and John Edwards and savor the comeuppance cornucopia.

-- Several days of relentless coverage of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's problems when staffers closed some lanes of a high-traffic bridge have had the expected results.

-- I've got a feeling this is gonna smell baaaad come the thawing out...

-- Spend more and more, get less and less.

-- I don't hafta run fasta den da Tyerannasawrus Rex. I just hafta run fasta dan youse.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

All in Balance

For a number of reasons, I was feeling pretty stupid today. Then I caught the last 30 minutes of Rise of the Planet of the Apes -- a movie I had decided on the basis of previews to skip because it looked like it had no reason to exist, let alone take $10 of my money -- because it was on before Justified.

Now I'm thinking I wasn't so dumb after all.

Monday, January 13, 2014

They Would Not Feel So All Alone...

Apparently, a semi-official Iranian news agency has blown the lid off a massive human/extraterrestrial conspiracy that explains both the cabal secretly running Washington, D.C. and Adolf Hitler's rise to power: Fear, O Reader, the reach and power of the Tall Whites.

Although one might think that this could be a warning of what happens when Scott Brooks plays both Nick Collison and Steven Adams at the same time, it seems more likely that the agency has gotten hold of some whacko conspiracy stuff, and of course you could knock me over with a feather to learn that the Internet holds such.

Alternatively, we could suppose that some folks in Iran are trying to play catchup with Colorado...

Sunday, January 12, 2014

What Did I Just Type?

While I might know the answer to that question if I look back and reread the previous words, I may not know if I just rely on the motions of my fingers -- because according to a study done at Vanderbilt University, my brain doesn't know what they were doing while they were doing it.

First study subjects did a standard typing test. Then they were shown a blank QWERTY keyboard and given 80 seconds to write the letters in their proper spaces. While the typing test showed high levels of accuracy, especially for trained typists, the average number of correctly placed keys on the blank board was just 15. In other words, the fingers know what to do even when the brain doesn't.

The study author is a graduate student named Kristy Smith, working in the psychology department. But she shows how her findings have a much wider application with her quote: "This demonstrates that we’re capable of doing extremely complicated things without knowing explicitly what we are doing."

If there is a better description of the operation of the federal government in the 21st century I cannot imagine it. Nor, for that matter, can my fingers.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Paging Dr. Jones, Dr. Henry Jones, Jr.

A recently-translated Hebrew text, a magazine article suggests, may have clues about the location of several treasures from the biblical era of the Kingdom of Israel, including the Ark of the Covenant.

Built to hold the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Ark was placed in the original temple finished by King Solomon. A few hundred years later, it was lost either when the Egyptians looted Jerusalem or when the Babylonians wrecked the city; no one knows for sure. The translated Treatise of the Vessels seems to have clues to the location of the Ark and several other treasures from Israel during that era.

Finding it, of course, could still be difficult. And no, not because some of the accounts of the treasures being spirited away for safekeeping attribute the action to angels, or because the Treatise itself dates from the 1400's, about 2,000 years after the events it is supposed to examine.

But because the scholarly work of the translation is found in a book called Old Testament Pseudepigrapha More Noncanonical Scriptures Volume 1. It's going to take one of the world's greatest archaeologists to dig through musty layers of syllables that thick.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Boldly Go, Eh?

Just when you think six years of nattering on leaves you with nothing to say, the Internet makes you believe in miracles again.

Come now two Canadians, each expressing a devotion to matters of extraterrestrial life above and beyond that which is seen in most folks.

Star Trek superfan Line Rainville remodeled several rooms in her basement to look like the bridge of the original starship Enterprise from the television series. She wanted a movie viewing room and decided, about a year and $30,000 ago, to give it a theme from the bridge of the ship in the 1960s version of the series. Rainville's gone way past where I would go, and I kind of consider myself a fairly devoted fan. But kudos to her, because it looks pretty cool and she seems to have figured out how to alter some of the original design to fit her space and her needs for what she wanted. Trading Spaces designer goofballs take note: It's possible to be weird in a way that people actually like!

Paul Hellyer, who served as Canada's Minister of Defence (you can tell it's Canadian by the British spelling) during the administratuion of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in the 1960s, said in an interview on Russian television that believes extraterrestrials live and walk among us right now, many so humanoid we can't tell the difference. They have been giving us their advanced technology as we have matured socially; our slow progress in that arena is one reason they have held back the higher levels of stuff. This is not as outlandish a scenario as it seems; we could do a lot worse than have ourselves under the watchful eye of Tommy Lee Jones.

A Defence Minister with a...unique...view of exactly what constitutes an "alien immigrant" is certainly not the weirdest thing that PM Pearson left his country. Upon his retirement in 1967, he helped in the selection of Pierre Trudeau as his successor to lead Canada's Liberal Party, and that worthy's ten-plus years of service are generally matched only by a Jerry Brown governorship in bringing the wacky.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Happy Birthday To Me!

Or more precisely (and piratically), to me blog. Six years ago today, I posted its first entry, with the title "Why Am I Here?" As a person, I have been asking that question for much longer than six years and am sure I will continue to do so for much longer as well. I am certain that I have at least inspired more people to ask that question about the blog, if nothing else.

The logo, which is a picture I found online of a cat that clearly believes that slaying everything that breathes will not provide enough death to satisfy its anger, has remained mostly the same. My "favorite" post has changed now and again through the years; in recent times as I've scanned through the blog history it's been this one.

For those of you who have tolerated and been amused, informed or entertained by the blog -- or been amused by the fact that I expect anything written here to be amusing, informative or entertaining -- my gratitude. For those of you who were not, please send me a receipt for the amount spent to access the blog and I will pay you back fourfold (which means if you got your internet connection just to read this, you may need more help than I do). And for those of you who are just now coming to the blog, I am very sorry that the contest in which the finder of the secret word earned unbelievable amounts of cash and prizes ended yesterday.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Win, Place and Show

It's been 28 years since readers first met LAPD detective Peter Decker and the woman he would marry, widow Rina Lazarus, in 1986's The Ritual Bath. The pair were married by 1991's Day of Atonement, and over the course of the next 17 books they have raised Rina's sons, their own daughter together, helped guide Peter's daughter Cindy and now are the foster parents for Gabe Whitman, introduced in 2011's Gun Games. Kellerman has always mixed the police procedural world of Decker with the family life centered on Rina and their family's Orthodox Jewish practices, and continues to do so in the 21st Decker/Lazarus novel, The Beast.

Eccentric millionaire Hobart Penny has been found dead in his apartment. Along with him is a fully-grown female Bengal tiger, but the tiger didn't bash Penny's skull or shoot him with a .22. Decker and his team must unravel several layers of mystery about Penny, his more and more bizarre life, and a list of suspects who might have reason to want him dead. In the meantime, he has to cope with Gabe's romance with his girlfriend from Games, whose mother does not approve of her daughter's relationship with him.

Series fans will probably appreciate the no-nonsense procedural elements wrapped around the bizarre circumstances of the case, but they will probably see it as a little Rina-light since most of the home-life part of the story is taken up by Gabe and told from his point of view. Kellerman is apparently going to take her time developing Gabe's character arc, which is much less of a problem than it could have been as she dials down the descriptions of the physical side of their trysts that made Gun Games a rather uncomfortable read in spots. Beast's ending suggests a new direction for the series. Kellerman is too skilled to really be said to be in a rut at this point, but the new take might very well remove some of the deja vu feeling that's been clinging to the series over the last four or five volumes.
The Roman Catholic church, Freemasonry, the Founding Fathers and the ancient lost continent of Atlantis are settings and groups frequently used as key elements in modern thrillers. Apparently, author Thomas Greanias figured why not throw them all into the mix in his first novel, 2005's Raising Atlantis. Archaeologist Conrad Yeats and Australian linguist (and nun) Serena Serghetti explored evidence of the lost continent found in the inhospitable Antarctic. The sequel, The Atlantis Prophecy, picks up in 2008 as Conrad must solve a puzzle given to him on his own father's tombstone while again joining Serena against the Alignment, a sinister cabal of military and financial leaders who operate behind the scenes to restore Atlantis' brutal dictatorship and extend it throughout the world.

Their clues take them through the major buildings and monuments of Washington, D.C., seeking out a document from George Washington that could spell the end of freedom and democracy in the United States and throughout the world. It's all very silly, and although Greanias writes far better than a lot of other people working in this field, his plot holes, weak characterizations and predictable storyline make Atlantis a mostly empty thrill ride that vanishes from memory not long after the back cover is closed and the book heads to the donation pile.
Dan Waters was a con man who had so many identities he wound up with none of his own, not even for his son Rollie. Rolllie watched and learned the tricks of his father's trade, but instead of working people for his own sake he's actually doing so as an undercover investigator for the United States Marines. When he's yanked out of an assignment and thrown into the brig, questioned about a large amount of missing money authorities believe Dan took, Rollie will have to confront his own past life without most of the preconceptions and cover-up stories he's told to comfort himself.

Screenwriter David Rich creates the elements of an interesting character in his first novel by giving Rollie his shady progenitor and a background that's a little shady on its own. He can also maintain tension pretty well, create believable dialogue and has a deft hand with action scenes. But he has two problems in making Rollie a regular companion for the thriller novel reader. One, his story in Caravan turns this way and that until it winds itself up in knots. And two, Rollie Waters is a pretty unlikable main character. His devotion to duty and smart mouth redeeem him to a degree, but overall he's nobody you'd spend much time with. Or the $10 paperback price that you have to come up with for the privilege.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


-- A philosophy professor (!) defends the now-defunct Bowl Championship Series method for selecting which teams compete for a national championship in college football. She gets into some great detail, pointing out that the number of collegiate football teams makes a true wide-field playoff impossible -- the professional National Football League can have a playoff because it has only 32 teams, and collegiate basketball can have a wide-field playoff because it doesn't involve an hour of being pounded on by 300-pound men. The only question about the new four-team playoff system, in which the four will be chosen by a panel of 13 football experts, is whether the fifth-ranked team complains this year or we wait until next.

My money is on this year.

-- I feel like I should write First Lady Michelle Obama a letter explaining my purchase of her birthday gift, an extended vacation stay in Hawaii following the presidential Christmas vacation. I am somewhat embarrassed, because I generally do not buy birthday gifts for women who are married to other men, as it seems a little inappropriate. How do I mean that I am paying for it? Well, although President Obama will pick up the personal expenses out of his own pocket, the extra government aircraft, extra security detail necessary since the First Lady is not at the White House, and other expenses similar to that will come from federal money. Meaning, of course, yours and mine, providing that you are a United States taxpayer.

I would write a letter to the president explaining myself, but it's not necessarily wise to admit to a man you bought a birthday gift for his wife. He might beat you up, and by "beat you up" in this case I mean "call in a Predator drone strike on you."

-- Come, Mr. Tally-Man, tally me least in Berlin, that might have been an even more interesting activity than encountering the deadly black tarantula, as banana shipments intended for several Berlin supermarkets instead were found filled with cocaine. I think we all know what kind of meaning this would bring to the announcement over the PA: "Aufräumarbeiten Sie in Gang 9."

Monday, January 6, 2014

Well, Obviously...

According to the quiz at this site, if I were to be played in a movie, my character would be in a light romantic comedy and played by Brad Pitt.

I'm not sure about some aspects of this. Although I do live in a small town in the rural south, I am not comfortable with the idea of being a guy who leaves his wife for an affair with someone at work with whom he then has several children prior to actually marrying her.

But the paycheck would probably be nice.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Rest in Peace, Brother Everly

One of my favorite versions of the classic Everly Brothers' "Bird Dog."

Originally written by Bordleaux Bryant, the song almost had a spoken-word section done in the voice of a then well-known dog puppet. The Everlys overruled their producer and gained their third  no.1 country chart hit with it in 1958. "Bird Dog" was a no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Although today, if "Johnny kissed the teacher," she would probably be arrested or become the subject of an hourlong Nancy Grace special. Especially since his action made "him the teacher's pet now" and allowed him to have influence over classroom discipline to the point that "he even made the teacher let him sit next to my baby."


Phil Everly died Friday at 74.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Quittin' Time

I suppose if you're going to leave your city council seat halfway through your first term, tendering your resignation in Klingon is one way to do it.

The town mayor says the move by the soon-to-be-former councilmember is "unprofessional" and "an embarrassment."

He apparently has not watched a lot of C-Span if he thinks this is an embarrassment.

Friday, January 3, 2014


Back in 1964, science fiction author Isaac Asimov offered some predictions about what the world would look like 50 years hence. He was kind of wrong, but also kind of right about some things.

One of the things I think he was right about was the danger of modern boredom. It has caused any number of societal ills, from Twitter to Justin Bieber to the Obama administration.

Oh well. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Party Hart-y?

Well, I'm certainly glad I didn't do this again...

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Secret Solved?

I think I've learned part of the alchemy of selling to Half-Price Books -- skip the paperbacks, be sure you have four or five current titles and keep the overall number at about 20 or less.

The bottom line is that if  you give them stuff they already have lots of, they won't offer you nearly as much as you think they should. That doesn't always work, of course. I brought in a good load of stuff I use in my church work, and the two workers making fun of it didn't know I was in the aisle next to them. I didn't hear them say this, so I can't be sure, but I think I got a lowball offer in order to see how I would react (these two clerks were more surly than professional in a couple of other interactions I'd had with them before). I took it happily -- the key was for them to get rid of the books for me, and any money was more money than I walked in with -- and I think I may not have made their day.

Today's clerks, by contrast, were professional, courteous and cheerful. That's usually the rule at HPB; the other pair were the exception.