Friday, February 28, 2014

Mapped Out

I've no particular fondness for the old art of diagramming sentences, although I imagine if I had practiced it a little more carefully when it was assigned in school I'd be better at writing today.

But still, it's interesting to see how the opening sentences of some classic novels look when all laid out on their branches and lines. Naturally, Franz Kafka's is one of the most complex. Herman Melville's Moby-Dick may be one of the more involved works in the English language, but its opening sentence is notable for requiring no dependent branches, just a straight line.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Skedaddlin' Pulsar

When a star like our sun runs out of fuel, it expands and then more or less peacefully collapses into a white dwarf. Stars bigger than our sun tend to blow up in novæ or supernovæ, then collapse into super-dense neutron stars or even black holes.

Neutron stars aren't all alike. Some of them, as they spin, emit jets or "pulses" of high-energy particles and are called "pulsars." Scientists study the frequency of the emissions and figure out how fast the neutron star is spinning.

So the pulsar IGR J11014-6103 prompts a lot of questions, because it's doing something other pulsars don't do: zipping along through space at close to five million miles an hour.

Now, everything in space is moving. Our planet, as we know, revolves around our sun. But our sun and solar system are also revolving, around the center of our Milky Way galaxy. That galaxy is moving as well, and when you throw in the way the universe expands, you've got a whole lot of motion in your interstellar ocean.

But IGR J11014-6103 has motion in addition to all of those others, wobbling around as it spins and zips along, meaning those pulses it emits are immense -- 37 light years long. If God hired you at age 18 to clean that up and gave you a vacuum that moved as fast as the speed of light, you would have been getting the AARP newsletter for five years by the time you finished.

The jets are "visible" to radio telescopes, and pulsars were first discovered by them when astronomers started using those kinds of instruments. IGR J11014-6103's jets are not visible in the radio spectrum, though, but in the X-ray spectrum. It's as if a dog whistle could be heard by humans but didn't register with Fido at all.

And as with most weird objects that don't match the profile of other objects they're supposed to be like, astronomers are looking forward to the fun of figuring out just how in the heck the darned thing got where it is, does what it does and looks like it looks.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

You Can Always Learn

So Baltimore Orioles prospect Josh Hart met Frank Robinson the other day, but didn't know who he was.

Since Robinson is an Oriole legend (and no small shakes in baseball as a whole), Orioles manager Buck Showalter gave the 19-year-old Hart an assignment: A one-page report on who Frank Robinson was and what he had done.

Hart completed the report, and learned a great deal about someone important to his team (two World Series wins), to baseball (only man ever to win MVP titles in both leagues) and to what was possible for Hart himself as an African-American ballplayer (first African-American man hired to manage a major league ballclub).

Now Mr. Hart knows something he didn't know. And by watching the way the young man handled the assignment, Mr. Showalter knows something about him, too, that he probably couldn't have learned on the diamond.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Wizard for the Win!

Ozzie Smith cements his position as the greatest shortstop of all time!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Dips and Dives

Mickey Haller's not doing so well when we catch him at the beginning of 2013's The Gods of Guilt, the fifth novel featuring him from former reporter and Pulitzer finalist Michael Connelly.

When we met Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer, he was a defense attorney who would only take clients he believed innocent. At the close of 2011's The Fifth Witness, Mickey was throwing his hat in the ring for Los Angeles County District Attorney. We never see the actual election, but Mickey notes in passing as we begin Guilt the failure of his campaign and an incident stemming from a case that cost him deeply on a personal level.

And we also see him using flat-out dishonest trickery to help a guilty man go free, using any scheme to get the jury -- the "gods of guilt" of the title -- or the system to work to his advantage. His new case links to an old one, and his current client's actual innocence initially is less of a spur for him than is the desire to find out what happened to his former one. That changes as things progress, but Mickey's work for his client turns over some nasty rocks, which hide even more nasty things that aren't happy to be uncovered.

Connelly uses a kind of flippant, superficial tone in writing the Haller books, as opposed to the bleaker and more world-weary voice of his other series featuring LAPD detective -- and Mickey's half-brother -- Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch. It fits the different character, and helps ease the fact that as the book begins, our hero has become a guy who's kind of tough to like or to root for.

As the story moves, Mickey realizes he has to argue the case of his own actions before another set of "gods of guilt," in this case the guilt he feels for the mistakes he made and the consequences they bring about. Whether he succeeds in doing so in the courtroom or not, that greater judgment will continue to dog him until he finds ways to comes to terms with it.
The fight to free humanity's last world from the legacy of megalomaniacal madmen goes slowly.

And so, too, does the latest volume in its chronicle, David Weber's Like a Mighty Army. It's the seventh in the "Safehold" series, which tells how human beings fled their doomed world to escape the genocidal Gbaba and established a low-tech colony on a planet they named Safehold. A dispute rose between those who wanted to lay low and quietly redevelop technology in order to come back and defeat the Gbaba and those who wanted to remain low-tech forever. The second group won, and for almost 900 years humanity has been under the thumb of the Church of God Awaiting, which that faction established to control Safehold's culture and restrict its technology.

But for the last seven years, the android duplicate of Nimue Alban, in the guise of the warrior-monk Merlin Athrawes, has fought against the church and brought several Safeholdian nations into alliance against it. Nimue's android body was an insurance policy the destroyed faction left in order to try to regroup and begun humanity's return to a technological society.

Weber stumbled pretty significantly in the series' fourth book, A Mighty Fortress, which read like a series of meeting minutes as he showed endless conversations about plans and very little of the actual execution of those plans and the action therefrom. No. 5, How Firm a Foundation, was a complete reversal, the best the series had been since its first volume, and No. 6, Midst Toil and Tribulation, not quite as good but still a great read.

Army, on the other hand, returns to the long hard slog that wrecked Fortress, only with endless digressions about the troop movements and numbers instead of councils and meetings (although those show up too). Readers can put up with those kinds of things, as well as Weber's habit of cliché-ifying himself -- here he adds his habit of noting that so-and-so was "tall for a citizen of such-and-such country," frequently parodied in spoofs of his Honor Harrington books. But the putting up depends on the story moving forward, and except for a couple of new and potentially interesting twists, it doesn't.

The Safehold universe offers an author the canvas for a sizable and intricate work -- even after Nimue/Merlin's allies defeat the Church they will still have to rebuild their world to be able to support spaceflight and then defeat the Gbaba. But at this point, it's almost like Weber has decided to paint each individual thread of that canvas, and although the hope he has many creative years left is reasonable -- he's only 61 -- there may be nobody around who cares to look at the finished work once it's done.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

How I Spent My February Vacation

So I took a few days off to hang around my seminary library and put in some serious research hours on a couple of projects. Here are some things that struck me during them:

-- The library itself has some new bells and whistles (there's a new book scanner that will download pages to a .pdf on a zip drive or just e-mail them to you. I would never have finished researching a paper) but is largely the same. Filled with seminarians and a few undergrads who like studying where the old people are because they'll be quieter. You still leave with a handful of 2x2 paper squares covered with lines like: "BT 378 .P8 B24 2005," which is a Library of Congress book number that you will go look up in the stacks, copied down from the card catalog listing.

-- The campus has changed and it hasn't. The east side has a whole lot of new stuff, including a huge art museum. And a strange outdoor sculpture made up of about 60 feet of see-sawing metal bars that undulate in a wave fashion and which pretty much beg undergraduates to play around with. But the interior oval looks almost exactly the same, carefully designed to obscure the fact that you are in the middle of Dallas.

-- Undergraduates are still as cute as puppies, from the young women who wear wildly inappropriate clothing (knee-boots with tights and a T-shirt that allows other people signifcant information about undergarments) to the young men who still haven't learned how to put the bill of their caps in the front. When I was here I was a decrepit 28 years old, so I was never "one of them," always observing undergrad culture from a different perspective. So I can mock them and ignore how we tried to dress like Duran Duran and Pat Benatar. Although when visiting a nearby restaurant popular with the Greek-letter set I will say I saw more Wayfarers than I had since 1984.

-- Study for its own sake can be a whole lot of fun, but I will say I have not bludegoned my brain that hard in a long time and it was out of shape. The library stayed open until 11 (or 6 PM on a couple of nights), but I was usually done by 5. It takes a lot of neurons to herd polysyllables, and mine had punched the clock and gone home.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


So the producers of Anchorman 2, the sequel to one of Will Ferrell's two good movies, are going to rerelease it with almost all of the jokes removed (it's a good thing they told us) and replaced with raunchier ones. The highly improvised shooting of the movie meant that there were alternate jokes for almost every one included in the movie.

A brand new version with even cruder unfunny jokes? These people know their marketing!

Friday, February 21, 2014


According to the ancient Torah (and repeated in the book of Hebrews), a priest interceded with God on behalf of the people, and vice-versa. The High Priest risked exposure to God's overwhelming otherness to offer a sacrifice of atonement, in a very real sense standing in harm's way on behalf of the people he was to serve.

Or maybe it's not all that ancient:

A Ukrainian Orthodox priest, complete with shield, goggles and gas mask -- and cross -- at the ready, on the site of the protests in that nation. The priests have been standing between protestors and troops to try to defuse the rioting and protect people.

(H/T Threedonia. Photo from Agence France-Presse)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Paging Thor, Paging Thor...

So Saturday is supposed to be Ragnarok, which is the end of the world in Norse mythology. It may turn out to be a big bust, like the Mayan end of the world was back in 2012, but at least if this one comes through and the heroes of Valhalla return to battle the forces of Hel, there will probably be mead.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Going Home!

Since they already are home, that will be a toughie. Finland's hockey team eliminated the host Russian team from medal contention today with a 3-1 win and a famous spectator in the arena.

I do feel kind of bad for the Russian hockey players, who only wanted to win big in front of a home crowd and who aren't a part of their national leadership's recent "Back to the U.S.S.R." initiative in terms of bullying neighbor nations and internal dissidents.

But that picture of ol' sad Vlad kind of makes up for it.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Going for Gold!

Someone should ask the International Olympic Committee when it added "arresting passers-by" to its list of Winter Games competitions, because the Russian government seems to think it's an event.

Of course, it could have been worse for the pedestrian non-protesters. They might have been dogs.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Probing Question

So apparently if you're the prime minister of New Zealand, you may be required to respond to an official query about whether or not you are a shape-shifting reptilian life form from another planet.

An author with an...interesting...set of beliefs about world leaders and their actual origins made what's called an Official Information Act for proof that his country's leader, John Key, was indeed such a creature. The OIA is similar to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request of governmental agencies in the United States.

Minister Key responded that he saw a doctor and took the additional precaution of seeing a veterinarian on the chance that he might in fact have been just such a shapeshifting alien but not known it because he was a sleeper agent who believed himself human until contacted by his scaly overseers. He found that he was not.

He was having a little fun with the request. The actual official response to the OIA request was to decline it, saying that the document in question did not exist or it couldn't be found.

I'm thinking an FOIA request demonstrating proof of competence in the White House and the U.S. Capitol might generate a similar response to the official one from New Zealand -- that no such document exists or it could not be found. At least if they were secretly reptilian shapeshifters that might create hope that there would be something they could do right, even if that something was destroy the earth and herd its inhabitants to the feeding pens.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

These Laugh at Eleven

A sound system at the European Space Agency's testing facility in Noordwijk, The Netherlands, may be the loudest sound system on Earth. ESA folks claim that if it was fired on maximum output, it could kill a person exposed to it directly. It's not used for that, though -- it's used to test how well delicate satellite construction stands up to the powerful sound waves generated by rocket motors at liftoff.

But I bet "Won't Get Fooled Again" would sound great on it...

Saturday, February 15, 2014


Not sure where I come out on this one. Anders Breivik, the waste of a perfectly good colon who killed 77 people at a Norwegian summer camp in 2011, has threatened a hunger strike if the amenities of his imprisonment are not improved -- including the replacement of his PS2 game system with a modern PS3.

On the one hand, although I am opposed to the death penalty (and yes, Mr. Breivik tests my opposition mightily), I cannot find any regret in me were Mr. Breivik to take himself off the count in this rather uncomfortable manner. On the other hand, the idea of Mr. Brievik being strapped down while a feeding tube is jammed down his gullet -- or more fittingly, while a 250-lb Norwegian prison guard sits on his chest and each day crams a pound of lutefisk into the same and minds not the effect of his efforts on Mr. Breivik's dentition -- has a notable appeal.

I suppose either way, the real victory will come when we may relegate Mr. Breivik to history and then the oblivion of an unmarked grave.

Dr. Who Across the Pond

A Tumblr blogger suggests some actors who might have played the iconic Timelord if the show had been made in the United States instead of England.

He seems to mostly have gone for a similarity of appearance to the appropriate BBC actor; I can't think of too many other reasons to have Nicolas Cage chew his way through the Tardis (and given how much of a ham-fest the show often was in its earlier incarnation, that's saying something).

On the other hand, I would have loved to have seen what Vincent Price would have done with the role. Probably not been too ruffled at the sight of the horrible alien beasties, I would imagine.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Victory on the Horizon!

OK, all you lily-livered, namby-pamby peacenik patchouli-sweating anti-military types who have been whining for years about how the presence of a large and technologically advanced military is of no benefit whatsoever to our nation? Put a sock in it. You're done:

Pizza with a three-year shelf life.

You're welcome, you goofy hippie.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Peruvian-born Daniel Hannan is quick to point out that he doesn't think the actual English language helped "invent freedom" and create the modern world -- it's the people who spoke it and the societies they developed that did so.

In Inventing Freedom Hannan, a British citizen and member of the European Parliament, suggests that the culture of what he calls "the Anglosphere" is what a lot of people actually refer to when they speak about some of what the modern world derives from Western civilization. Aspects such as the rule of law, respect for individual property rights and other freedom-buttressing characteristics arose out of some peculiarities of English society that date back very far and which help such societies succeed.

Hannan suggests that some of the earliest immigrants to what would become England brought a tradition of settling disputes and creating laws from amongst the people themselves. Even if a tribe had a chieftain, or later a king, that ruler was himself subject to limitation by the laws of the land. Those he ruled could bring a complaint against him for transgressing those laws. In practice, such an act was usually limited to other fairly powerful people rather than the common folks -- it was the barons rather than the basket-weavers who brought King John to heel at Runnymede -- but it was still a restraint not seen as much in continental nations. Magna Carta wasn't a universal franchise or a declaration of equal rights regardless of race or sex, but it's hard to get to those things if you bypass it.

Over the history of the Anglosphere, many of its conflicts and revolutions have been about returning such rights to the people, or safeguarding them or expanding them, Hannan suggests. Even the American Revolution was sparked by movements that demanded for themselves the rights Englishmen had on the home island much more than it sought a separate nation. Hannan suggests today's Anglosphere is England, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, tentatively Ireland, to a greater and greater degree India and potentially South Africa. He suggests development of the latter three to the level that they are instituting legal and political structures that aim at holding their governments to account in the same way the ancient traditions held the king to account.

There's a lot to what Hannan says. Gandhi may have snarked that he thought Western civilization "would be a very good idea," but he was canny enough to know that the British who occupied his country had a society and a legal system which would ensure his nonviolent resistance would work, especially once he convinced the average John Bull of the rightness of Indian independence. The modern world's greatest (by which I mean worst) totalitarian systems -- National Socialism and Communism -- only gained tenuous footholds in Anglosphere nations (unless you include college campuses). The British Navy was essential to ending the slave trade.

Hannan probably overwrites his case. He acknowledges some of the Anglosphere's features in other nations, but doesn't dig too much into their history there. His look at English influence in India, although it acknowledges how such influence began as a very un-Anglospheric occupation, is kind of sketchy and could use detail.

But on the other hand he has a different point than reciting India's history or South Africa's history or that of the U.S., Canada or any of the others. And even if the English legal and political heritage he covers is more correlative than causative of some of the high points of the philosophies of liberty, politics and government, his survey is still significant food for thought on these matters.
I should say up front that P.J. O'Rourke is one of my favorite authors, and was one even back when I was a good deal more liberal in my politics than I am today. I think no book describes exactly how modern government doesn't work better than his Parliament of Whores. His Eat the Rich and All the Trouble in the World do a better job of explaining economics and the problems of world poverty and ecological concerns, respectively, than any course or seminar I've ever heard on either set of topics. He is smarter, funnier and a much better writer than I am.

So my disappointment with The Baby Boom is probably magnified by my appreciation of his other work; for whatever reason O'Rourke starts out tilting at the foibles of his people (he was born in 1947) but seems to pull up before getting to a full charge.

O'Rourke sets the Baby Boom boundaries at 1946 and 1964 (other measurements use 1940 and 1960, but these are fluid). He begins by sorting subgroups within the Boom, calling the late-40s crew "seniors," the early-50s births the "juniors," late-50s "sophomores" and early-60s "freshmen." He defines each group by what kinds of cultural trends connect to it and (since these are Boomers) what kind of cultural debris it leaves behind.

But having sorted the groups, O'Rourke then spends most of the rest of the book on a memoir of his own Baby Boom experiences. The four classes enter that only as a way for him to point out how he's highlighting a selected slice of Boomer experience. The late Boom (such as myself) had some distinctly different experiences than did early-Boomers like O'Rourke.

The memoir is funny enough and it offers some departure points for observations on the impact of what O'Rourke calls the Boomer's "antinomian" culture (translation: Boomers are OK with rules until they have to follow them when they don't want to). But it leads to an unfocused closing essay that circles back to the primary Boomer obsession -- the self -- and details good things that have happened in the world since Boomers started showing up. It leaves out how many of those good things came via previous generation's leadership of the Boomers (in the same way that others led the Greatest Generation in saving the world in WWII), and glosses right over how Boomer narcissism hamstrings them in taking up that leadership mantle for those who follow them. It's almost as if the extended memoir gets O'Rourke feeling sentimental enough he's like a teacher who can't give a favorite student the deserved low grade. Parliament, Rich, and Trouble are worth re-reads and frequent consultation. Boom probably won't be.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ave, Cæsar! Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Television -- especially television comedy -- would not be what it is today without Sid Caesar, the mastermind behind Your Show of Shows who died today at 91. Everything from John Stewart to Saturday Night Live is still walking the same path Caesar and his prolific staff sketched out from 1950 to 1954.

Caesar's success led him to a number of personal problems, including addiction, that he managed to overcome with the help of therapy, his family and friends. In later life, he tried to use those experiences when he would offer advice or talk about his career and what he learned. One of his best ideas is in the quote with which the New York Times closes his obituary:
“Everybody wants to have a goal: I gotta get to that goal, I gotta get to that goal, I gotta get to that goal,” he said. “Then you get to that goal, and then you gotta get to another goal. But in between goals is a thing called life that has to be lived and enjoyed — and if you don’t, you’re a fool.”

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Three Okie Tunes

Note: I know these people and they are all great folks for whom I am very glad for their various successes!
Now well into a music career that began when she was still in high school, Maggie McClure's new full-length album Time Moves On highlights the maturity that a few years of living can give to an artist's songwriting. She still focuses on relationships and exploring their various ins, outs, ups, downs and how those can be navigated, but she does so as someone with a little bit more of an adult perspective and experience.

The maturity shows most clearly on the album closer, "It's Alright," in which McClure reflects on the end of a relationship -- although she sings, "maybe we can turn back time," her voice belies the belief, and she follows by saying "but if we don't, it's alright." Sometimes being an adult means knowing that wanting something badly enough isn't enough. The couple at the core of "Reset" both seem to understand that maybe they are both wrong, and that they could both give up a little in order to work through a situation. And in "Central Time," the Oklahoma-born-now-Los-Angeles-based McClure muses about how roots are important, but they exist to nourish you to stretch yourself. She both wants and doesn't want to leave the "central time" zone, but in the end accepts that in order to do something she wants she may have to move on.

Like her earlier work, Time is sprightly, piano-based pop, although one or two of the songs offer up some more guitar, like "Troubled Heart." McClure puts her songs square in the best part of her register, phrasing and singing a little like mid-90s Lisa Loeb. It's a particular style of music, and it may seem like there's a glut of piano pop woman singers on the airwaves, but McClure's simplicity and directness help her make her own mark with her work.
Weatherford, Oklahoma's Green Corn Revival went through some significant changes following their first full-length album, 2010's Say You're a Sinner. Co-vocalist Natalie Houck and her husband Ryan, who played guitar and just about anything else with strings, moved on to their own project, Honeylark (see below), along with drummer Kenny Holloway.

Vocalist/guitarist Jared Deck is now much more of a solo singer; his wife Jacy handles keyboards and backs him up along with Cora Gutel. The Decks also handle the majority of the songwriting, collaborating on three tracks while Jared alone pens the rest.

Obviously. a shakeup like this changes things beyond just lineups. As mentioned above, Jared Deck and Natalie Houck were more or less co-leads, and Deck solo sounds different. He has the same power and range and uses it just as effectively as before, though, and by October 2013 the revamped lineup was ready to release Bound for Glory with help from Kickstarter.

The band is still traveling through many of the same areas, reflecting on relationships with wry introspection and sometimes upon larger matters, not always with the same effect. "You never realize what the future could hold until it's broken," Deck sings in "Hall of Mirrors." "The places you would try to conceal all the lies have been conceded," he continues a little later, apparently wondering if the hall of mirrors he's been building can show anything as it really is.

Glory digs deep into the imagery of both America and the Great Plains and fuses them: "Waving wheat take me back to the seed/Bathe me in an ocean of dust/The watcher waves her mighty torch to the sea/Bring me your poor and your crushed," Deck sings in "Give Me Liberty."

But sometimes the words hang together cleverly but don't hold together to point anywhere. "When a man rob God/he's a-robbin' me," Deck sings in "I'm Alive." "But the banker and the preacher, they can rob for free...good God/Thank God/For the I.R.S." Anybody who thinks he's being robbed by banks and churches but looks to the Internal Revenue Service for protection is due for some second thoughts -- and the rest of the song has a similar problem. Many songs offer a listener several understandings to select from, maybe even varying between listenings depending on the listeners' moods or experiences. But ambiguity is more of a "Hmmm" than a "Huh?" and here I'm left with more of the latter.

A couple of other songs try to work around similar issues, but the sound of the record is still awesome. Even "Alive" is an irresistable earworm with hooks woven around the kind of Sergio Leone-meets-the-Ramones sound that made Sinner such a great listen. GCR is definitely a band trying to find out where it's going after so many changes, but Road is an excellent start even if it has a few steps back (or sideways) mixed in with its forward motion.
As mentioned above, Natalie and Ryan Houck, along with Kenny Holloway, moved on from Green Corn Revival in 2012 to form their own project, Honeylark. A few songs and a video dripped out over the following months, with the release of their first album, Heavy, in December 2013.

The Houcks were feeling led into different musical areas and Heavy makes that very plain -- it opens with a swingy Gothic ode to a black widow spider in the windowsill, "Widow," and continues with "Love is Red," in which Houck sings "You almost killed me" before ululating the next line, "Your love almost killed me."

"Afternoon" is a ragtimey duet between Houck and Oklahoma singer Fiawna Forte about being more of a morning person and not much caring for those waning sunlight hours. The verses stay light and twangy, with the grumblier chorus emphasized by heavier, much more rock-sounding instrumentation.

Heavy allows Houck to use her voice in several different ways than the Americana model of song favored by GCR, and she takes full advantage of it, creating an entirely different set of characters in the songs on Heavy. Although focusing on folk and country instrumentation like banjos, accordions and the like, the album never limits itself sonically to just those sounds -- "Hospital" ends with a "Brick in the Wall"-styled build of orchestral instrumentation that no picker and grinner ever envisioned.

There's always a danger in trying to describe an album or sound by referencing other artists, but the best word picture for Honey is probably "the duet album Leon Redbone and Maria McKee always wanted to make, except when they did Leon decided not to sing." Whether Honeylark maintains its diverse directions or hones in more on one or the other is yet to be seen, but it should be worth finding out.

Monday, February 10, 2014


Achmed or Jeff Dunham, please call your office...

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Musicians Are the Coolest

Especially if they play the sculpted ice instruments created by New Mexico-born Tim Linhart, who now lives and works in Sweden.

Linhart sculpts the plates that make up the different pieces of several instruments, then "glues" them together by using water that freezes in place. Actual music-making parts of the instruments, like strings and bridges and necks, are made of regular materials.

Playing them takes special care, as the body heat of the musician can make the instrument go out of tune or even fall apart. Each set of instruments is made for only one season, and Linhart makes another the next winter.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Profiles In Something Other Than Courage

The below post references NBC showing the Sochi Olympic Winter Games Opening Ceremonies as they happened, including the glitch in the snowflakes-becoming-rings display.

Lest anyone think that the network is somehow taking a brave stand for Telling the Truth No Matter Who It Ticks Off, it's worth noting that it removed the International Olympic Committee's anti-discrimination statement from its televised version of IOC president Thomas Bach's initial address. Bach was making a reference to Russia's discrimination against gay men and women, which might almost be enough to make Westboro church happy.

And it its warm-up intro describing the history of Russia, a voice-over referred to the rule of the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union and surrounding states as "one of modern history's pivotal experiments." Yup. A pivotal experiment in terror, oppression, mass murder, silencing dissent, bullying or invading neighboring nations, etc.

It seems like the Peacock is picking up where it left off two years ago in London.

Reality Is What We Say It Is, Russian Edition

Anyone who watched the opening ceremonies for the 2014 Olympic Games, being held in Sochi, Russia, noticed that the special-effect snowflakes that were supposed to expand into the Olympic rings had an 80 percent success rate -- that is, only four of the rings worked.

Unless, of course, you were a Russian watching them on your Russian state TV network, in which case you saw a break to rehearsal footage with a mostly empty stadium with five functioning rings.

The malfunction shows that the Russians should have learned a little from Chinese Olympic officials, who allowed only Beijing's televised feed of the ceremonies and thus had no other footage than their own to point out the CGI additions to their fireworks or the cute girl lip-synching the Chinese national anthem because the one who sang it had crooked teeth. By letting NBC have their own cameras, the embarrassing glitch was there for all to see.

There's a little irony in the two failures. Chinese culture pretty much invented fireworks, which means that the totalitarian thug regime which runs the place today couldn't even get right something with which its country has more experience than any other in history. And now at the Russian Winter Olympics, we've got the increasingly totalitarian thug regime of Vladimir Putin, messing up with...snow.

But on the up side, since President Putin seems to like bringing back symbols of the former Soviet Union, there's a good chance that whoever messed up on the snowflake rings will have a lot of time to study snow pretty soon.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Chickens Roosting Again!

They warned me that if I voted for Mitt Romney important foreign service posts like ambassadorships would be filled by people whose only qualification was that they raised money for the campaign...and they were right!

(P.S. Sorry for the PJ Media link for those friends who consider them too partisan. I often do not like their tone either, but they were the least objectionable place I could find a link to the YouTube clip where the State Department spokeswoman won't answer if a candidate for the ambasssadorship to Argentina speaks Spanish)

(P.P.S. Yes, presidents of both parties have done this same sort of thing pretty much since the beginning of the republic. It was just as shameful when they did it. But as I recall, I was told to expect a new way of doing politics with this particular administration. Meet the new boss)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Star Bright

This item at Space is partly interesting because it explores how Polaris or the North Star, is actually a Cepheid variable whose brightness changes over time.

But it's also interesting because we learn that astronomers had to rely on old-fashioned backyard astronomers and others to continue to observe Polaris as it waxed, because the newly installed observing equipment in their telescope was too sensitive to be able to look at the increasing brightness and see what they wanted to know.

It may be time to check out manual typewriters on eBay...

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Hammerin' 80

An article in Slate this week shows how much of the early civil rights movement was driven by a desire for what author Tanner Colby calls "agency." African-Americans, he said, desired most of all to be able to live their lives as they chose, live where they chose, drink from whatever water fountains they chose, eat at whatever restaurants they chose, and so on. A push for such agency in education, however, was thwarted when the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case resulted in the closure of African-American schools and the shipping of their students to integrate previously white schools.

Whether or not Colby is right about the impact of busing and integration, his description of a desire for agency can be seen clearly in Hank Aaron's 1990 autobiography, co-written with Lonnie Wheeler, I Had a Hammer. Aaron, born in Alabama and subject to segregation through the first part of his baseball career and vicious racism as he closed in on Babe Ruth's home run record in 1973 and 1974, uses the metaphor of a hammer to describe his bat and what he accomplished with it -- both on the field and off. The title plays on the old folk song, "If I Had a Hammer."

Aaron actually began his career in the Negro Leagues, helping the Indianapolis Clowns win a title in 1952, and was one of the last African-American stars to play in the Negro Leagues before signing with a major league team. With their major stars no longer prevented from signing with major league teams, the Negro League teams were already declining and soon to disappear. The then-Boston Braves (coincidentally, the last team for which Babe Ruth made a major league appearance, in 1935) signed him to a minor-league contract in 1953, but they had moved to Milwaukee before he was called up in 1954. Aaron spent the next 20 years with the Braves, moving with them to Atlanta in 1965. The Braves traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers in 1975, and Aaron retired after the 1976 season ended.

Hammer spends a good amount of time describing the segregation and racism Aaron faced during early years on Southern minor-league teams -- frequently not being allowed to stay at the hotel with the team or eat in the restaurants where they dined. He describes assumptions made about his character because of his race -- sportswriters would call him a "natural hitter" rather than discuss how Aaron spent long hours reviewing opposing pitchers and their habits in given situations. The overt character of the racism he confronted waxed and waned over his career -- it increased when the Braves moved to Atlanta but by that time his own stature as a player had increased and insulated him from some of what he had faced earlier. It also follows up on Aaron's professional and public service work after his playing career ended. One of the first African-Americans to serve in upper management of a major league team, he used his position and influence -- his "hammer" -- to work against cultural prejudices as well as the remnants of legal racism in baseball and in the Atlanta community.

Hammer ends in 1990, so a reader wanting to know more about Aaron's life since then, including his thoughts on Barry Bonds' breaking of his home run mark and other issues connected to the steroid era, should seek out Howard Bryant's 2010 The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. 

Hank Aaron turns 80 today, having wielded his hammer and borne its weight both on and off the field with purpose, strength and grace. Baseball is certainly the better for his having played it, but baseball is not alone in that benefit.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Why just sled, when you can sled and paint?

Monday, February 3, 2014

Picket Line at the Study Hall Part 2

Sports business writer Kristi Dosh offers some more observations on the idea of collegiate athletes forming a player's union.

Dosh notes some other pretty high bars the initiative would have to clear in order to become reality. One is the complexity of the situation, as well as the politics. First, the National Labor Relations Board would need to demonstrate political independence to approve the union -- and given that universities are fertile fund-raising grounds for political candidates and the universities don't want their athletes in a union, that seems unlikely. Even if they did, Dosh points out that later editions of the NLRB have been known to overturn what their predecessors did, so today's union could be tomorrow's memory.

Plus, any NLRB ruling would be limited to private universities. Athletes at public, state-run universities would have to navigate the regulations and filing process for their own state, or be involved in a case taken to the United States Supreme Court that would override all state legislation if decided in their favor.

But one of the major reasons schools will probably fight the idea, Dosh notes, is that accepting "student-athletes" as actual employees of the university will imperil the athletic department's non-profit exemption status with the Internal Revenue Service. All of those generous donors who help fund university athletics might re-think their generosity if their generous donations were no longer a generous tax deduction as well: "Sorry, coach. A million to the library is a million off my taxable income, but a million to you is just season tickets and a set of barbells with my name on them."

Dosh notes that Congress has traditionally bid the IRS and NLRB to keep their hands off collegiate athletics and the money involved (there's that donor thing again) and its members are unlikely to change now. My only caveat to her idea is that the unwillingness to change will last just as long as the revenue produced by siding with universities and their supporters outweighs the potential revenue from putting collegiate athletics on the tax rolls. Uncle Sam's pretty good at keeping an eye on that particular balance and knowing when it tips his way.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Behind the Curtains

Scott McEwen writes about what he knows when he tells the story of U.S. Navy Master Chief Gil Shannon, a deadly SEAL sniper who finds himself forced to go rogue to help rescue a helicopter pilot being held by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan in Sniper Elite: One-Way Trip. That's not because McEwen was himself a sniper, but he was the co-author of American Sniper, the war memoir of the late Chris Kyle, who was a SEAL sniper operating in the Afghan theater, as well as several others. Just before being sent on a covert assignment in Iran, Shannon learns that the Taliban have captured a female helicopter pilot who has often flown him and his team to their missions. He also learns how political concerns block a rescue attempt. But when he returns from his assignment, he realizes that several of the independent-thinking types on his own SEAL Team Six and the US Army's Delta Force have mounted just such a mission, which failed. Shannon then uses his connections in the military and among the area villagers to mount his own rescue attempt.

Trip is a mostly meat-and-potatoes read of tough-guy soldiers who will buck the wimpy suits in offices to make sure none of their comrades are left behind. McEwen and co-author Thomas Koloniar handle the narrative smoothly, and lift it a couple of notches above the usual blowups and blood he-man soldier books as Shannon reflects on what years of bringing death from a distance have done to what kind of a man he is. They obviously draw on McEwen's work with Kyle. It's a reflectiveness found in most real-life soldiers even if not in their print and onscreen counterparts, and it gives a reason to check out what McEwen and Koloniar continue to do with Shannon and his fellows.
Ryan Kealey is having a Michael Corleone moment, and not one of the good ones. He's trying to work himself out of the field in the intelligence game, not trusting a generation of officials and agents who rely on data mining, electronics and seemingly everything else but the judgment and expertise of trained and knowledgeable men and women in the field. But once he thinks he's out, he gets a call, and he gets pulled back in. In The Courier, the Iranian military has managed to get its hands on a nuclear weapon, and that could mean disaster for an American city if Western agents can't recover it. Kealey will team up with Iranian-born nuclear physicist Rayhan Jafari, whose knowledge of the Farsi language could be crucial to finding the nuke and wresting it from enemy hands. But she is an amateur in the intelligence field, and Kealey will have to make some dangerous alliances to be certain the nuclear weapon and its fanatical courier are kept from destroying its target.

Courier is the fifth Kealey thriller from Andrew Britton, but doesn't rely so much on a known cast of characters and back story it loses a new reader. Britton has an excellent sense of pacing and maintains the tension at a high level, especially once Kealey and Jafari enter the field and begin their pursuit of the bomb and its carrier. The ending, though, fizzles when it takes most of the resolution of the chase and the plot out of the hands of the lead characters we've been following and hands it off to a relatively minor player. It's a misstep that leaves The Courier much, much weaker than it should have been.
For the United States, the Robert Hanssen case from 2001 is certainly one of its worst intelligence disasters, if not the actual top. Hanssen sold U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union and then to Russia from 1979 to 2001. For Great Britian, the top (or bottom) spot is taken by the so-called Cambridge or Trinity Five, a group of four known and one suspected agents who sold British secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II and into the 1950s before defecting to the U.S.S.R. The ring, some of whom held high positions in the government as well as British intelligence, were all students at Trinity College in Cambridge University and thought to have been recruited then. In The Trinity Six, Charles Cumming supposes a sixth member of the ring, previously kept hidden by the MI6 foreign intelligence service, whose identity is about to be exposed by a journalist. That journalist dies, and her friend, college professor and Russia expert Samuel Gaddis, takes her research and tries to follow her leads to expose the long-forgotten spy. But intelligence services like to keep their secrets secret, and they have fewer qualms than many about how they do so. And there may be some others involved, with even fewer scruples. Gaddis has begun a game with stakes far beyond faculty politics, and one he is not ready to play.

The actual Trinity/Cambridge spy ring serves mostly as a MacGuffin for Cumming, as it is the secrets behind the secret that will both drive Gaddis' search and his enemies' moves to stop him. So a significant part of the story seems wasted; much of it could have been trimmed to move into the meat of the narrative a lot more quickly or to give it more of a purpose for being there. Gaddis himself isn't someone you'd root for if you had many choices; he begins a relationship during the early part of the story and not long after contemplates how he will make a move on a researcher he's met during a records search. He's also not too bright; doing things to put himself in danger as well as those close to him and failing to grasp how far ahead of a college professor actual professional spies might be in a spy-related matter.

The combination drains The Trinity Six of much of the interest it could have had; Cummings' wry tone and ability to keep from telegraphing a plot twist make it barely palatable but nothing that would add him to any list of must-reads.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Unfair Advantage

When I goof at my job, there's a misprint in the bulletin or I read a word wrong or I visit the wrong hospital.

When the Hubble Space Telescope goofs at its job, it makes cool art: