Monday, March 31, 2014

Telling Statistics

Since Major League Baseball opens its 2014 season today and time, therefore, begins, we might peruse The Atlantic's county-by county map of which parts of the United States like which baseball teams:
The original can be found here.

The mapmakers used number of likes for an MLB team's official Facebook page, grouped by county. Whichever team had the most likes in a county "won" the county. So you an see that much of Texas leans towards the Arlington-based Rangers, except for the patch of Astro fandom around Houston, three counties where there wasn't enough data to pick one, and a few counties in black that we'll get to in a minute. It also holds most of my home state, leaving out the northeast corner of Cardinal rooters, some more of that black and Dewey County's longstanding support for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Chicago Cubs have a good swath of Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, while the Chicago White Sox hold the city itself and a few surrounding counties.

The westernmost baseball fans in America, the residents of Kauai County in Hawaii, root for the East Coast Washington Nationals. There are no counties, it seems, where a plurality of folks root for the Toronto Blue Jays, the Oakland Athletics or, as you might guess, the New York Mets.

Now, about that black color. It is, of course, the color representing counties where the majority of Facebook likes go to the New York Yankees. Yes, the Yankees hold 27 World Series rings, more than any other team in the major leagues. But as everyone who has read their Tolkien knows, one finds the source of the power of the Ring in "the land of Mordor, where the shadows lie." Unfortunately for the good of our nation's soul, it seems Mordor has a long and varied reach.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Unclear on the Concept, Part 3

The latest missive from the cable company in its continuing dispute with Viacom (motto: Pay us like it's 1999 and everyone watches our channels) says that the response to their offer of taking fewer Viacom channels was to make the rate increase even higher than it was for the whole 15-channel package.

The company says it's gotten feedback from us that we we don't want to pay more for channels we watch less (since the basic non-premium package has something like 55 channels on it, I would say that paying attention to this feedback is a recent development). So they're investigating some other channels they might offer, and they list a few. Instead of a network that offers reruns of 227, they'll air one that offers reruns of That's My Mama.

While that seems like a meaningless switch from my point of view, I imagine it makes sense from the cable company's perspective. If they're going to air channels that few people watch, they're going to air the cheaper ones.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

It Is a Good Day to Die...After This Next Round

The Tin Man Brewing Company in Indiana is brewing Warnog, the world's first Klingon beer. The brewers say that it has a bold flavor created by the addition of cloves to a traditional rye malt.

I am not sure about this. My understanding of Klingons is that the only time they use the word "clove" is when it precedes the phrase "my enemy's skull in twain." But maybe they're mellowing.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Unclear on the Concept, Part 2

The second "it's not our fault" e-mail from Ye Olde cable television company has now landed, saying that Viacom has made its offer, requiring a substantial rate increase for channels that have declined in viewership.

Yeah, tell me more about that.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Picket Line at the Study Hall Part 3

Should this ruling from the National Labor Relations Board stand, "student-athletes" around the country who receive scholarships from the university where they play their sport will wind up redefined as university employees, and thus allowed to unionize.

Although different groups of players might seek different things, the Northwestern University players who filed the complaint with the NLRB do not, at this time, seem to want to be paid for their work on a professional athletic scale. After all, their contention is that the scholarships they receive already constitute payment for their services.

The hinge pin for their complaint is the reality that scholarships are renewable season-by-season, at the coach's discretion. They have been admitted to the university they attend and receive a scholarship, and in return they are expected to play the sport in which they have been recruited. Should they not play or practice in a manner acceptable to the coach, their scholarship will not be renewed, and the chances of them remaining enrolled in the university drop dramatically. This, the Chicago-area office of the NLRB ruled, means the university employs them.

As the columnist at the second link notes, the National Collegiate Athletic Association will fight this move from helmet to cleats. Should they be forced to give up the fiction that most of the athletes at high-level competitors in most of the revenue-producing sports are students in the same way that I am an athlete, many other fictions will follow into the sunset, along with many dollars. Since the NCAA will spend a significant number of those dollars opposing all of this, their chances of prevailing are pretty good.

Their chances of being something other than a slimy cartel that makes money off the skills of kids who are unlikely to see too much of that money for themselves are the usual pair of slim and none, with the usual caveat that slim has departed these environs.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Unclear on the Concept

I (and most every other subscriber) received another whiny "It's not our fault" e-mail from Cable One this week, telling us how hard they are working to make sure that they are still able to carry Viacom channels after their agreement with Viacom expires March 31. Much like last fall's disagreement with Turner Networks, if the companies are unable to resolve their differences, there will be many blank spaces on my television where there used to be channels.

The channels at issue: BET, Centric, CMT, Comedy Central, MTV, MTV2, MTV Hits, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Nick Teen, Nick Toons, Spike, TV LAND, VH-1, and VH-1 Classic.

Good thing they sent me the e-mail. I would never have noticed.

(Edited to change to Cable One rather than a credit-card company)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


A questioner at the What-If xkcd site asks about speed limits being "radar-enforced." Naturally, the phrase means that Johnny or Jeanette Law will be using his or her radar gun to measure my speed as I drive, and invite me to stop and chat about the cost effectiveness of said speed should it exceed posted limits.

But what if the gun were used to generate enough radiation to actually stop or slow down my truck? Radiation does exert pressure, so there is an amount that would prevent my forward motion.

Unfortunately for me, the officer employing the radiation-emitting device and folks within a significant mileage radius, that amount of radiation has other effects -- such as vaporizing us all. While this would be effective in halting my scofflaw ways and police officers know they may be called upon to risk their lives in performance of their duties, the non-repeatability of the tactic probably argues against its deployment anytime soon.

Monday, March 24, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Two Kinds of Mad

Improving technology in the 1950s and early 1960s allowed moviemakers to film big! movies, epics that matched outsized storylines with sweeping camera vistas and town-sized casts. The Ten Commandments bowed in 1956, Cleopatra in 1953, Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, and so on. But it wasn't until the early 1960s that the idea of an epic comedy took hold, when director Stanley Kramer brought It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to the screen with a top-level comedic cast and a roll of extras and cameos that might as well have said. "Everybody Else." 

World grabbed vaudeville, silent-film, radio, early sketch-TV and stand-up comedians for its sprawling looney-bin ride with five groups of people who happen to overhear dying mobster Smiler Grogan's (Jimmy Durante) directions to the loot from a long-ago job. After an unsuccessful attempt to fairly divide the money, each group decides poverty can take the hindmost and they all race to the site, a park in a coastside California town some 200 miles away. Naturally, their attempts to gain the lead and sabotage each other go laughably wrong while police keep discreet surveillance and report their progress to police Captain T.G. Culpeper (Spencer Tracy). Culpeper arrested Grogan for the robbery of a tuna factory but could never find the loot, and Grogan never squealed.

As their prize gets closer and their efforts get more and more frenzied, the different searchers lose more and more of their composure and reserve. Sid Caesar's Melville Crump shows this most clearly, as the calm and rational dentist becomes a disheveled, paint-spattered dynamite-happy version of Captain Ahab over the course of the movie.

Kramer premiered a three-hour version of the movie and the studio trimmed an hour for general release. Most copies seen today have most of Kramer's premiere version with some missing bits. His original cut was supposed to have been something like five hours long, which would have been unendurable. As it is, World could use a significant trim; the Spencer Tracy storyline has way too much detail and ten minutes of Buddy Hackett screaming is about forty minutes too much. It's also unreasonable to believe that many pickaxes could be around Ethel Merman's supremely obnoxious Mrs. Marcus character and not a one of them winds up buried in her skull. 

A lot of the fun in World is playing spot the cameo (my favorite is the Three Stooges as firemen at the Rancho Conejo airport, and Jack Benny has the best use of a signature line). It's unlikely a movie like it could get made today; comedy has divvied itself up into too many specialties to be able to bring together a cast of this kind of breadth and recognition. Give Dane Cook a cameo where he "su-fi's" one of the money-chasers? Have Larry the Cable Guy growl "Git'r'done!" while piloting a plane? Who outside their fanbases would recognize those moves or catchphrases? And who would care? The different Muppet movies probably come closest, and they've mostly been made by people smart enough to keep them under 100 minutes long (the two recent Disney studio Muppet movies, capitalizing on Millennial nostalgia as much as their own comedy, bloat closer and closer to the two-hour mark). Although as much an artifact as good movie, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is plenty of fun that's enhanced by judicious use of the fast-forward button.
During the filming of 1980's Tom Horn, Steve McQueen noticed a difficulty breathing. He would subsequently be diagnosed with cancer, making the biographical tale of a 19th-century Western wanderer lost as his world changed the legendary tough-guy actor's next-to-last movie.

Horn was based on Horn's own autobiography, written and told to a Wyoming cattleman friend, and is a recognizable version of supposedly historical events.

Horn drifts through the Wyoming wilderness after stints as a scout and interpreter for the U.S. military in the Southwest, as well as a deputy and Pinkerton agency operative. In 1901 he takes on a role for a local cattlemen's association to stop rustlers, with the approval of the local U.S. Marshall. But the association, aware of the changing world of the new 20th century, is less and less comfortable with the violent tactics Horn perfected in the 19th. They resolve to take care of the problem he represents by fair means or foul, and since they prefer to be behind the scenes and not in front of Horn's deadly skill with a rifle, the scales tip towards foul. Their change of heart and personal matters leave Horn angry, but whether or not that's angry enough to cross the line of the law remains to be seen.

McQueen was a top actor as well as an action hero, and he brings Horn to the screen as a scruffy product of the plains mostly confused by the way the world around him has changed from what he knew. Most of the rest of the cast just react to him, some adequately and others less so, offering confirmation of the change and commentary on what they think of Horn himself by way of those reactions.

But Horn the movie is seriously unfocused and unclear on what it wants to say about the transition. Is the change from the wide-open West of Horn's youth to the more civilized surroundings of that day a gain? A loss? A mixture? Something else? The multiple director changes and eventual helming by rookie William Wiard leave the movie unable to make up its mind about that question and strand McQueen's work in the middle of performances from competent but uninspired co-stars and the muddle of a story that doesn't know where it wants to wind up so it just ends.


So, does anyone think that Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner will put this guy, who pushes his disabled son in a wheelchair so they can run a marathon together, on his cover like he did the soulless pig scat who set a bomb down next to an eight-year-old boy and ran?

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Meetings are indeed almost worthless.

I personally have always considered committees as proof that human beings evolved from animals that had tails and liked to chase them. Since the shrinkage of the tail into our stunted coccyx, we were not able to engage in this behavior anymore, and had to develop a new method of doing so. Being as we were a pretty cooperative species prior to the invention of reality television, we created a system whereby we could help one another engage in an activity that was just as useless as tail-chasing: The committee meeting.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Wrapped Up Like a Bathroom on the Right

Pomona College English Department Chair Kevin J.H. Dettmar observes that our mis-hearings of the less-intelligible parts of rock songs often help us develop our own abilities to think and understand things -- not just the songs.

These mis-hearings are usually called mondegreens, working with the term Sylvia Wright coined in 1954 to describe her mis-hearing of a poem her mother read her in her childhood. The post title conflates two of the better-known: "wrapped up like a douche" from Manfred Mann's version of Bruce Springsteen's "Blinded by the Light," which was supposed to be "cut loose like a deuce" (Springsteen) or "revved up like a deuce" (Mann); and "there's a bathroom on the right" from Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon on the Rise," which was supposed to be the title line, "There's a bad moon on the rise."

Anyway, Prof. Dettmar notes how some other mondegreens develop when people who can't understand the lyrics of a song study them to try to figure out what's being sung. Those, unlike the two from my title, may have some deep meaning of their own and those of us developing them may prefer our own version to the ones actually written down. He cites rock critic Dave Marsh's careful study of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which produced a version of its admittedly hard-to-comprehend lyrics that varies pretty widely from what a lot of people understand Kurt Cobain to be growling and shrieking. He insists that the meaning he assigned "Spirit" and the story behind it was better than the actual one, and even though Marsh's preference for his own version of the facts will not surprise anyone who's read him, Prof. Dettmar's suggestion is that the creativity such efforts engage is a way we can learn how to think. He recounts his own mondegreen from a Gang of Four song and how it did that for him.

There's a lot to what Prof. Dettmar says. My own mondegreen version of this involves the old Irish folk song "Follow Me up to Carlow," the story of how Irish forces led by the Lord of Ranelagh, Fiach Mac Aodh Ó Broin, defeated English troops in 1580 at the Battle of Glenmalure. I first heard it on Londonderry Aire by the Kansas City Celtic trio Bully Ruse, and then later on Live at Six Strings and Coffee Beans, by another Kansas City Celtic and folk music trio, Tullamore.

The chorus praises the valor of the Irish forces, and especially the valor and leadership of Ó Broin. One line runs, "Fiach will do what Fiach will dare." Reading that, I would have said the word starting with F is pronounced "feeyach" or maybe "feeyak." But it's Celtic, so the actual pronunciation is more like "fay'" with a kind of glottal stop at the end; in fact the full name Fiach Mac Aodh Ó Broin is usually Anglicized to "Fiach McHugh O'Byrne." So when I heard the line the first time, I heard "Fay' will do what fay' will dare," which is not different enough from "Faith will do what faith will dare" to keep a fellow in my line of work from filling that in as the meaning. When I had the chance to read the actual lyrics I was disappointed, as I liked my version much better.

But on the other hand, now I get to say, "Faith will do what faith will dare" as my own aphorism. So there's that.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Better Not Forget the WD-40

The new destroyer U.S.S. Zumwalt is one of the most advanced fighting machines afloat. It fires guns that will put more than half of its GPS-guided, rocket-assisted shells less just more than half a football field away from a target 100 miles distant.

And most of the aiming work is done by the guns before shell ever fires, using the same kind of technology that allowed the Mighty Mo to pound the snot out of Imperial Japanese forces 70 years ago. The Zumwalt uses the same kind of mechanical analog computers that helped aim warship guns before digital technology was even envisioned, and if you read the Ars Technica story at the link, you'll read how the navy studied the situation back when digital sensing and fire control systems were first being developed. The officer in charge of that department said the study showed no discernible improvement when using non-analog systems.

Of course, when the incoming shell weighs the same as a Volkswagen Beetle, then whether it's off by a couple of feet would seem to be a somewhat academic exercise.

(ETA: Forgot; H/T Unequally Yoked)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Three of Styles

Harlan Coben has become the king of the "random present-day encounter opens up deep dark past and connects to dangerous criminal event" thriller, but as Missing You shows, he would probably rule that roost even if it were a more common genre.

NYPD detective Katherine "Kat" Donovan was engaged once, but her fiancé left her and more or less vanished at about the same time her father, also an NYPD detective, was shot and killed. The one-two punch has left Kat functional, but largely disconnected from life. When a friend signs her up for a dating website, she peruses it after drinking a little too much and is surprised to find Jeff, her ex-fiancé, listed. She contacts him, but he seems strangely distant. Is he hiding something? Is he connected to the college student who's come to Kat for help in finding his missing mother, also a user of the same website? Kat works to find those answers as well as close out loose ends from her father's murder, but she may wind up learning things that she did not want to know. She might also learns things others don't want her to know, and they could take deadly steps to protect their secrets.

As always, Coben's storytelling skills are so good you don't realize how huge a set of coincidences you've swallowed until after you've finished. Kat and her friend Stacy are witty and make fun-to-read banter. Except in a few spots, the pace stays swift and the narrative doesn't meander. Like in several of his most recent books, it's the lead character's desire to come to terms with the painful past that leads them into the larger conspiracy or crime. The larger matter in Missing is a lot more plausible that some of the others he's spun, and he offers a more realistic trigger for all of these events that doesn't require the lead to be an idiot, a la Stay Close, or off-puttingly unlikeable, as in Caught. The resolution to the "at-home" issue is soapy and borderline silly, but it's working from the least interesting part of the story anyway.
You cannot read, write or write about American West fiction without acknowledging the presence of its two towering names, Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour. The early-century Grey and mid-century L'Amour combined to define most of the genre's aspects for modern audiences, giving shape to what Western movies would later make onscreen essentials -- wide-open country, lone drifters, fast gunhands, life defined by a code of honor as much as the law, and so on.

But other names also hold their places of respect, like Elmer Kelton and Max Brand (Frederick Schiller Faust), or Matt Braun. Braun's 1976 Buck Colter is a textbook version of the classic Grey-L'Amour pattern, with young, green and tough cowhand Buck striking out with a few companions to make his mark in the wide, wild West. He and some partners want to try to stake out their own territory and run their own herd instead of spending all of their time working for the cattle barons of the Cimarron, but those barons aren't overly eager to carve another piece out of the pie, and they will be ruthless in stamping out competition. But in Buck, they find a man whose early tragic losses mean he doesn't scare easily and backs down even less easily. The confrontation is inevitable.

Braun has some quality work, but Buck Colter isn't likely to rank among it. The story and characters add nothing to the genre, and while many people who've read L'Amour say some of his books lack something, I would imagine few would define "something" as "clumsy sex talk/scenes and flatulence jokes."
And speaking of Mr. L'Amour, although most of his catalogue is set in the American West, he wrote other historical fiction as well. His long saga of the Sackett family starts in 17th century England, for example. His 1984 novel The Walking Drum relates the story of Mathurin Kerbouchard, a Celt from the Brittany coast in the 12th century, who seeks revenge against the man who destroyed his home and killed his mother, and also travels to learn about the fate of his father, said to have been killed or captured while at sea.

Much of Drum is travelogue, as Mat moves from his homeland to Moorish Spain, and then eastward into modern-day Ukraine and Turkey. His keen eye and quest for knowledge find a home in Cordoba, but troubles there with one of the nobles -- a lady is involved -- push him away and put him back on his quest. L'Amour researched the era and offers plenty of detail about the cultures and societies through which Mat travels.

One of the things which prompted L'Amour to write the book, he says in an afterward, is that few North Americans know much of the history of the world outside of their own continent and Europe, and that historical fiction is one of the best teachers. He's right on both counts -- whether all of the information they pick up is accurate or not, there are a lot of people who know more about feudal Japan thanks to James Clavell's Shōgun or Victorian-era India because of M.M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions. And even if what they learn doesn't prompt them to find better and more in-depth research, they still know more than the people who pick up neither novel nor textbook.

But a lot of factors keep Drum from being that kind of novel for the 12th century. For one, it's too long and repetitious -- Mat gets in trouble, fights his way out, gets in more trouble, fights his way out, lucks into one quest resolution, etc., etc. For another, Mat himself is something of a jerk. He's casual and dismissive in his relationships with women, seeing them as pretty much fancies of the moment who are worth his time when he's around but not worth any kind of commitment. L'Amour lets one of the interchangeable series -- the Comtesse Suzanne -- get in her own verbal shots in the sparring, but in the end she's not even the last "love" Mat will have in the story. And finally, L'Amour drenches his narrative with the research he's done like a student writing a report who crams everything in to say, "See what I learned?" L'Amour said he enjoyed the 12th century and Mat so much that he planned to write two or three more novels about him, but never got the chance before his death in 1988. The end of L'Amour's story was a major loss for modern genre fiction, but the end of Mathurin Kerbouchard's was nowhere near as unwelcome.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Question, If I May...

That question is not, "Does The Daily Caller overwrite both the headline and the impact of a recent NASA-funded study on the story "NASA-funded study: The way to save Western civilization from collapse is communism?" Because the answer to that is obviously, "Yes." As far as I can tell, the study nowhere uses the labels communism or Marxism. Its call for a more egalitarian ethos in a society so that resources are not hoarded by a few can be answered by a variety of social structures other than communism. My own outfit offers such a one in the second chapter of the book of Acts, for example.

No, the question is what in the world is NASA doing funding a study on the economic factors that feed into the collapse of societies and/or civilizations? Its initials, for reference, stand for National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Unless I've missed it -- and trust me, I am among the nerd corps that would be very much likely not to miss this -- we have no civilization in space at this time. In fact, the only things NASA puts in space these days can't form a society or a civilization because NASA can't put people in orbit, and people are currently a required ingredient to form a civilization -- although there is no guarantee that they will do so.

If we traded walking on Mars for this, then I want to talk to whomever was doing the bargaining on our end and sell him or her some astral property to which I will have title, just as soon as I can print it out. Idiots.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What's the Frequency...Hedwig?

Had you told me that he original idea behind the modern practice of shifting frequencies so that a transmitter and receiver could talk to each other with less chance of being overheard had originated during World War II, I would have has a pretty standard picture of the inventor in mind. White lab coat, glasses, slightly unruly hair, etc. I would have been wrong, because the picture of one of the co-inventors would have looked more like this:

Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, actually patented a frequency-hopping system for guiding radio-controlled torpedoes and getting around signal jamming, along with composer George Antheil.

But as the story at the link notes, the military decided not to use the Lamarr-Antheil system, although the two went far enough with their proposal to secure a patent and military officials took it seriously enough that they would not allow the plans to be printed during wartime. The above picture is a magazine cover from 1997, the year the Electric Frontier Foundation honored her and Antheil with its Pioneer Award and a year before Wi-LAN bought a 49% stake in her patent for an undisclosed amount of stock. Lamarr and Antheil's proposal is at the basis of modern wi-fi systems.

Lamarr died in 2000, having lived long enough to see the validation of the idea she and Antheil developed.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Apocalypse Now

There's a Russian TV guy talking about turning the United States into radioactive ash and George Will is quoting Eric "Otter" Stratton from Animal House.

I'm pretty sure that's game over, man.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

I Voted! Don't Shoot!

One exit poll conducted on the referendum to allow Crimea to remove itself from Ukraine and become part of Russia is running at 93 percent in favor of the change.

From the deepest hellish regions of the damned, Josef Stalin was heard to tut disapprovingly at this latest incarnation of Muscovite dictatorship, suggesting that in his day, an exit poll of 93 percent would have resulted in the Siberian exile of the entire precinct, the Lubyankan imprisonment of the poll workers and the outright execution of whatever idiot dared breathe accurate numbers out loud.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Both Sides of the Law

Spy novelist Matthew Dunn, if his publisher's bio is to be believed, comes by his espio-knowledge the old-fashioned way, by having worked for the British MI6 intelligence agency. In Slingshot, his third "Spycatcher" novel, he continues to chronicle the exploits of Will Cochrane, an operative with a special joint MI6-CIA task force that handles jobs other agencies either can't touch or don't want to acknowledge need doing.

Though the Cold War may be over, the behind-the-scene game of spy vs. spy continues.  A Russian national wishes to defect in Poland -- although handled by Polish intelligence, word is that unknown operatives want the defection stopped, so Will and his team are called in to shepherd the operation. But it goes bloodily wrong.  Digging into the operation, Will learns that Russian intelligence wasn't behind the raid, and that a conspiracy with roots in the chaos following the breakup of the Soviet Union has plans that could bring death to millions. He and his team must track the conspirators while battling possible infiltration of their own ranks, while Will himself faces the reality that the man behind it all knows how to strike at him personally.

Over the course of the three books, Dunn has polished his narrative style and sharpened his gift for writing a high-tension action scene. Slingshot flows much better than the earlier two novels, although it still has to pause and stop for a discourse on character motivation now and again instead of weaving that information into the story itself. The resulting stop-and-start pattern is all the more frustrating because the way Dunn builds the character of a top assassin is integrated into the narrative, meaning he knows how but sometimes chooses the shorter route. Despite this and despite a more tangled cast of characters than he really needs, Dunn puts together a good spy yarn that doesn't waste a reader's time.
Continuing his collaboration with Justin Scott, Clive Cussler brings Van Dorn Detective Agent Isaac Bell into the 1920s in his sixth adventure, The Bootlegger.

In 1921 Bell finds himself in the middle of the illegal activity spurred by Prohibition, as the title suggests. Agency founder Charles Van Dorn has been seriously wounded by a mysterious rum-running ship and Bell will bend all of the agency's resources to find the person responsible. But his quarry may be more than a simple criminal, with a plan that could endanger the entire country.

As usual with these "co-authored" thrillers, most of the work is done by the name in smaller print. Scott has been on the Bell series since the second book and keeps the story moving as Bell himself pursues his prey, from New York City to Detroit to the Florida Keys. He keeps Isaac smart, tough and resolute and his villains appropriately nefarious. He also helps nail down the historical setting, showing how organized crime began crowding out small-scale bootleggers and building the empires that would be ruled by the likes of Al Capone and how the Bolsheviks who seized power in Russia sought to export their revolution to other nations.

Though Scott may have been the hands on the keys, he hews closely to the Cussler formula of straight-ahead action, attention to technical and historical detail, enough characterization to help the reader know who's who and what they're doing and making sure everything has a satisfactory resolution. Sure, Bell is a stereotype of the tough, square-jawed man of action, and Scott draws him about an inch deep. But because he fits that stereotype, Scott doesn't need to waste more time telling us about him; we know the stereotype so we know the character.

Although it's certainly possible for a Cussler-franchise novel to offer less than that, it's also certain that those asking for more should pick a different writer.
Psychologist Alex Delaware has dealt with his share of dangerously unbalanced people before, but most often it's been through his friendship and consulting with Los Angeles Detective Lieutenant Milo Sturgis. But Constance Sykes, involved with a child custody case in which Alex has been called to consult, proves herself a much more potent threat when the case doesn't go her way.

Jonathan Kellerman's Delaware series reaches number 36 with Killer, and it offers both a little bit of welcome spark as well as some confusion. The case of Sykes v. Sykes soon involves murder as well as threats on Alex's life, giving it a sharpness that some other recent Delaware novels have lacked. It also offers a larger part for his longtime partner, Robin Castagna, who has been more or less background for the last ten years or so. Alex and Milo have to sift through meager evidence that itself adds little to their understanding and in reality often confuses them even more.

Kellerman does a better job of outlining those red-herring characters and leads than he has done in some recent novels, giving them some real weight and depth. The presence of Robin in more than just the obligatory trip-to-her-shop scene is also welcome, and Kellerman has his usual sure hand at descriptions, dialogue and narrative.

The Delaware novels aren't really mysteries where the reader is given the same clues as the protagonists and can figure them out, but Killer is clumsier than usual about introducing its wrap-up act and does so in a way that points to the solution long before it actually arrives on the scene. Even so, some of the better touches make it a novel much more likely to stick in the mind than some of its more forgettable predecessors during the last decade.

Friday, March 14, 2014


Volunteers cleaning out a pond in Hampshire in England found a Dalek head.

I can conceive of no way for this to end well for the human race unless the invasion is delayed until after Series 8 begins...

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Le Bag du Grab

-- Senator Dianne Feinstein of California is a wee bit upset with the idea that the Central Intelligence Agency was spying on the United States Congress (those not wishing to sully themselves with electrons from the National Review may click here for much the same information). To wit, Sen. Feinstein says that the agency looked at computers accessed by members of the panel she chairs, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, when the committee was investigating the CIA for something it did. The Committee thought the CIA should stop, the CIA didn't want to stop and so, Sen. Feinstein says, it snooped into the computers looking for a way to head off the investigation.

I also am not impressed with the CIA in this matter; one must question the judgment of any agency with the word "intelligence" in its title that believes such would be found in the United States Senate.

-- We may have an explanation for the sometimes...different...worldview of U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston. In a speech this week, she offered praise of the Constitution of the United States, which had governed us for "400 years." This has led some to conclude that Rep. Lee is actually from the 22nd century, a time in which said Constitution, adopted in 1787, might indeed have been around at least 400 years.

My own solution is that the Congresswoman is not from our future, but instead from a parallel universe. In this alternative Earth, the United States was indeed formed in the 17th century and the Constitution adopted in 1687. Also, the resolution of the Vietnam War was significantly different and there are still two Vietnams, as Rep. Lee suggested in 2010. And Neil Armstrong took an even bigger step for mankind than he did in our world, planting the flag of the United States on Mars instead of just the moon. Usually, Rep. Lee is able to conceal her allohistorical origins, but she occasionally slips up. I for one certainly hope that she is at some point able to return to her timeline and allow her counterpart to return to our universe, but I don't know if anyone is researching the topic.

They should be, of course. Because the alternative explanation is that the voters of Texas' 18th Congressional District send someone to Congress who is not simply presumed to be empty in the attic but proven to be so.

-- According to Harry Reid, multi-billionaires Charles and David Koch don't want the United States to help folks affected by fighting in the Ukraine. Or at least, they're ambivalent enough about it that they want to be sure they get some kind of tax break out of any deal that includes passage of a bill providing relief. Since the brothers previously allowed the Majority Leader of the United States Senate to mock the way the names of two private citizens is a homonym for a slang reference to cocaine, we might also surmise that the dingy gray smear that occasionally presides in the Senate is from another universe.

One in which neither thought nor decency ever developed.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The State of Reading

Parade magazine recently ran a list of what suggests are the top downloaded books in each of the 50 states. I'm not sure about their figures, to be honest, because several of the books for different states seem kind of counter-intuitive.

Scribd doesn't sell the books like a Nook or Kindle; subscribers pay a monthly fee and can access the books and other documents the site has in its library. The site has faced many complaints that it features unauthorized uploads of copyright work, but it usually responds by taking down the problem title.

Anyway, here were a couple of the "Huh?" books for me. I find it kind of hard to believe that people in Alaska want to read about ice cream, so I'm not sure their most popular book is really Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book. On the other hand, Alaska has plenty of ice, so maybe people get it for the recipes. My own state is apparently a big Lisa Scottoline fanbase, with lots of us reading her debut novel, Everywhere That Mary Went.

An embarrassingly large number of Tennessee "readers" have downloaded Tucker Max's I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. To be specific, the actual number of Tucker Max readers which should prompt embarrassment is any number greater than one. Except in California, where Mr. Max currently resides and which can be excused on the basis that he more or less has to be counted as a "reader" of his own work. New York might be likewise embarrassed at the tendency of its citizens to download the book by "comedienne" Sarah Silverman, but one wonders if someone who reads her book without a pistol pressed into his or her temple by a large person with a broken nose would be capable of embarrassment.

Very few of the books are older or anything like classic literature; Texans are big fans of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express but much of the rest of the nation is into airport novels, teen lit and tripe like the aforementioned ordure of Mr. Max and Ms. Silverman. Rhode Island probably comes off looking the best, as its readers prefer the great Elmore Leonard's tie-in to the TV series Justified (itself based on one of his short stories), Raylan: A Novel.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Mighty and Meh

Since the early 1940s, DC Comics has paired their two major names in several different titles; Superman and Batman started teaming regularly in World's Finest Comics in 1941 and kept at it in that title until 1986. In 2003, DC revived the concept with the Superman/Batman series, which featured the two as wary allies but not necessarily friends. The opening story arc of that comic was released as the sixth DC direct-to-video animated movie in 2009's Superman/Batman: Public Enemies.

Lex Luthor, president of the United States, has built his own super-team, but his old enemy Superman and Gotham City's guardian Batman still distrust him. Luthor frames Superman for the murder of Metallo, claiming the radiation from an approaching kryptonite meteor has driven the Man of Steel mad. But it turns out that Luthor himself is the mad one, having decided to let the meteor hit so he can rule what remains of Earth after the destruction. Superman and Batman, assisted by Power Girl, must gather data on the meteor so they will know how to destroy it.

The official line on Public Enemies is that it is not a part of the DC Animated Universe continuity that included the animated television shows of the 1990s and early 2000's. The look is entirely different, drawing much more on the style of Ed McGuinness, who drew the original "Public Enemies" arc in the comic. It is, frankly, ugly and stilted, aiming at a more realistic look than the stylized "Animated Universe" shows but failing to have any style of its own.

But Warner Bros. made exactly the right call in bringing DCAU voice actors Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly and Clancy Brown back for their roles as Batman, Superman and Lex Luthor. The three are experienced with the characters and know how to play off each other as well as individually to give more believability than you'd think to a story about guys in colorful longjohns that also features a multistory rocket shaped like a composite of Superman and Batman. And Conroy, even though he's only voiced the role, really is Batman in a way Christian Bale's graveled dialogue can't match.
In 2011, DC did a universe-wide revamp of its characters called "The New 52." Continuity, stories and character looks were almost all thrown out and re-envisioned for what the company thought modern readers wanted. Whether or not that's true, significant sections of fandom were displeased with the new character traits, costumes, origins and the overall belief that the change was more about revenue than storytelling.

Last month, Justice League: War became the first of the direct-to-video releases to focus solely on New 52 storylines and characters. The prognosis is not good, if these are going to be the established versions of the characters.

Mysterious winged creatures are apparently abducting people in Gotham City, and Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern of Sector 2814, is investigating. But you don't investigate in Gotham without drawing the eye of the Caped Crusader, and Lantern quickly finds himself paired with a reluctant Batman in tracing the monster that was actually taking the victims. They find alien technology and visit Metropolis to ask its resident alien -- Superman -- what he knows about it. They get off on the wrong foot, but barely manage to get on the right page together before more of the aliens attack and build a dimensional bridgehead for their invasion force and leader, Darkseid, Lord of Apokolips. The three team with Wonder Woman, the Flash, Shazam and the newly-created Cyborg to try to fight off the invasion, but keeping Darkseid from getting what he wants is never easy.

War features some fun moments between the heroes -- the Batman-Green Lantern interaction noted here earlier is one of them and Wonder Woman's discovery of ice cream is a hoot. But all of the problems that plague the New 52 -- Superman's kind of a lunkhead; Captain Marvel's called "Shazam," is a steroidal version of the 15-year-old punk thief Billy Batson's supposed to be and manipulates lightning -- plague War as well.

Add in that we've seen all this before: Darkseid invaded Earth at the end of the Justice League Unlimited series (and about a half-dozen other times, I think), and the narrative of War could be mistaken for the storyline of 2012's Marvel's The Avengers if the two were in the same lineup. Also add in that the 79 minutes of the movie is about 5 minutes of character interaction, 10 minutes or so of exposition and better than an hour of punching and exploding, and you have a movie kickoff to the animated version of "The New 52" that is just about as meh as the print version.

In another "Marvel-ous" nod, there's a mid-credits scene that would be a kind of prologue to the second "New 52" Justice League movie, based on another arc of the Justice League titles. The scene sets up the new movie, but neither it nor the movie that preceded it give much reason to spend time watching the new one whenever it gets released.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Chance Missed

Well, if you were looking to buy a Soviet-era long-range bomber on eBay, you have missed your chance. Whoever was selling the Tupolev TU-95 has pulled it, no explanations offered.

The TU-95 played the same role in the U.S.S.R.'s Cold War strategy as the B-52 did for the United States, although it was a turboprop instead of a jet. It would carry large amounts of bombs long distances, with the ability to deliver a heavy nuclear payload deep inside the United States in the event that war began.

This particular aircraft had been modified to fire cruise missiles (in much the same way the venerable Stratofortress was updated for modern munitions) and had only 454 hours of flight time. It was posted by a German seller, but had been a part of the Ukrainian air force before decommissioning and was on a Ukrainian runway when offered for sale.

Of course, given the current geopolitical situation in the area, it may be that the Ukrainian air force has decided to hold on to it for awhile, just in case.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Might Be and Might Have Been

In 1981 Larry Niven and Steven Barnes teamed up for a book called Dream Park, in which mid-21st century technology allowed for realistic live-action fantasy role-playing games. A company called Cowles Industries has built an amusement park featuring different exhibits and attractions along those lines, with the ultimate "ride" being a full-scale adventure game mockup which is recorded and marketed like a movie.

In short, Niven and Barnes created the ultimate Dungeons and Dragons fantasy, in which the games are not only "real," but have crossed over into pop culture entertainment. The next novel in the series came out in 1989, as technology had started overtaking the vision that Niven and Barnes dreamed up. They tweaked their use of holography and other tecnhiques for The Barsoom Project, a novel in which an important ambassador's niece, playing a game modeled on Inuit mythology, may be the target of an assassin. A former player, her mind unbalanced after an earlier gaming disaster, is back in the same game where the disaster happened. How did she get past the screening process? Is she the assassin? Is it someone else? What kind of corporate shenanigans is the Middle Eastern billionaire up to against Cowles Industries, and is he involved?

Like Dream Park, Project is more of a mystery hybrid than a straight sci-fi novel. One plot thread concerns the characters in the game attempting to win it, another concerns the players portraying the characters and their interactions and another follows the mystery of who's behind the criminal activities in the corporate arena. Security chief Alex Griffin has to unravel the third thread while keeping an eye on the second one, balancing that with the interests of the paying customers running the first.

Niven and Barnes created a very interesting world with the Dream Park series, and most of the fascination in the novels hangs on how the "games" interact with the technology that creates them. Their characters are interesting as a group, but not so much as individuals and fleshing them out is perfunctory at best. But the pair create a fast-moving, fun "what-if" yarn that marries its fiction elements well to its science and is a fun afternoon of reading.

The only real problem is the title -- it refers to a Cowles Industries proposal for testing different kinds of surface-to-space transport systems on Mars to avoid catastrophic accidents on Earth, and has nothing to do with the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs' imagination. A significant letdown indeed.
It's sort of an open secret by now that the original Star Wars novel, published a few months before the movie came out, was not written by George Lucas even though the cover said so. Sci-fi writer Alan Dean Foster, with a trio of his own novels and some well-received adaptations of the animated Star Trek episodes under his belt, was contracted to write the movie novelization, as well as one for a potential sequel.

Lucas had no idea if his homage to old-timey spaceship serials and mythology would succeed at the box office or not. If it didn't, whatever sequel might come out of the studio would need to be low-key and low-budget, and would probably have looked a lot like 1978's stripped-down Splinter of the Mind's Eye. When it was written, Harrison Ford hadn't been signed yet for a second movie, so Han Solo's not in the book. Low potential budget, so no space battles.

But since Star Wars blew the box-office wide-open, Lucas was able to command quite a few more resources and we wound up with The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and, unfortunately, the prequels. Del Rey books published Splinter anyway, and it's generally seen by fans as something in between Star Wars and Empire.

A number of its tweaks to the so-called "canon" of Star Wars history, though, prompt other groups of fans to set it outside the official timeline. Luke Skywalker seems a lot better with his lightsaber than he will be in Empire, for one. Luke and Leia Organa, later revealed to be siblings, are most definitely un-sibling-ish about some of the feelings for each other. The Force is somehow amplified by a jewel called the Kaiburr Crystal, instead of being more connected to an individual's own abilities.

Some fans suggest elaborate workarounds to explain the differences, but others just chalk it up to the fact that Lucas had never really thought out his whole Luke-Leia-Darth Vader storyline until he was making Empire. When he furnished Foster the rough drafts and early scripts the author used, the possibility of Luke and Leia as a romantic couple still existed in his mind. Lucas has always claimed otherwise, but he's shown himself more and more to be a hack who had a handful of good ideas, got lucky a couple of times with them and has coasted on that rep ever since.

Splinter itself is not a bad book; Foster was hitting his stride with his own stories of Flinx, a young man trying to find himself in a wide-open galaxy and so he moved over to Luke Skywalker pretty easily. The narrative and dialogue match his customarily wry tone. In the story itself, Luke escorts Leia to a secret rebel conference but damage to Leia's spacecraft forces a landing at a hidden Imperial mining colony and in trying to make their way off-planet, the pair are forced to get help from a local who tells them about the Kaiburr Crystal. The pair resolve to recover it before the Imperial forces -- including a certain man in black with a deep voice and a well-known breathing pattern -- get their hands on it. Even though Foster has his usual problems with writing female characters (he really can't), he still gives Leia the ability to pilot a spacecraft and fight a lightsaber duel of her own -- a lot more than Lucas did in three whole movies.

Splinter is interesting mostly to Star Wars completists and Foster fans, but offers some appeal as a window into a Star Wars universe somewhat different than the one we came to know. The furry aborigines who battle Imperial troops sort of hint at the Ewoks -- although they're not nearly as annoying -- swampy Mimban presages Dagobah, and a creature called a "wandrella" might have given rise to the space-worm that nearly ate the Millennium Falcon.  And playing "spot the reference" is at least more fun than watching that stinkin' pod-race, finding out about midichlorians or listening to Natalie Portman say, "Hold me, Ani."

Saturday, March 8, 2014

It's Coming Right At Us!

An enormous cloud of gas called the "Smith Cloud" or "Smith's Cloud" is headed right at the Milky Way galaxy at about 54,000 miles per hour. It's 11,000 light years long and 2,500 light years wide, and it's got its own magnetic field that will keep it from being cooked in the million-degree band of gas that surrounds the galaxy. The cloud was discovered in 1963 by astronomy student Gail Bieger, but was named Smith's Cloud because she found it before she got married and immense clouds of gas do not have to change their names.

And it'll be here sometime between the year 30,002,014 and 40,002,014. Give or take.

Should we be around then (our sun will still have close to 5 billion years left on its meter, but there's no guarantees for carbon-based life forms dumb enough to watch Anchorman 2), we'll probably be OK because the projected point of impact is somewhere in the galaxy's Perseus Arm and we are comfortably a couple of arms over in the Orion-Cygnus Arm.

Since the cloud is made up of hydrogen, the most likely result of its streaming into the multiple gravity wells and eddies of a galaxy is the triggering of a round of star formation. The gravity will cause the cloud to start to clump, and continuing clumping is the way small pockets of hydrogen turn into large ones which may turn into stars.

If for some reason Smith's Cloud takes a little turn and heads for our planet, NASA has already developed a defense plan, which can be implemented immediately even though the cloud is sbout 40,000 light years away. An equally immense cloud of hot gas will be directed at Smith's Cloud, which should negate the interloper's velocity and act something like a firebreak.

The "counter-cloud" will be generated by aiming Vice-President Joe Biden at the section of sky which contains Smith's Cloud and asking him to tell what he thinks he knows. This request must be worded carefully though, because if the Vice-President is asked to tell what he actually knows the resulting cloud of hot gas will not be large enough to affect an incoming turnip.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Couldn't Hurt

UC Berkeley math professor Edward Frenkel suggests that schools overhaul the way they teach math, because its self-limiting to the basics never allows students to get into some of its most fascinating areas.

The teaching method, he says, is set in stone (and may very well have been; we learn how to solve quadratic equations the same way people did in the 9th century) and bears as much relationship to the true art and beauty of mathematics as a painted fence does to a great work of art.

Professor Frenkel is, of course, predisposed towards seeing beauty and art in math being as how he's a mathematician and all, so he may be overstating some of his case.

On the other hand, considering the blunt force neurotrauma that was high school math class, what could it hurt to try something new?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Two Thieves

Our first thief is the enigmatic Prince, whose high-tech gadgetry, fighting skills and nearly supernatural level of cool give him all he needs to steal just about anything. But immediately after the prologue in the 2010 Hindi-language movie Prince, we encounter our potentate of thieves wounded and without his memory.

An assistant fills in some gaps from the night before, but many still remain. A beautiful woman named Maya, who claims she is his girlfriend, tells him what has happened...but can she be trusted? Is she who she says she is, or is she one of the several law enforcement agencies closing in on Prince? And if she is who she says she is, what about the second woman claiming to be Maya, and her story? What about the third? And what about the crime boss demanding Prince turn over loot from a job he doesn't remember pulling?

Vivek Oberoi in the title role has to spend a lot of the move looking confused, which is good because the audience will need to mimic him. Although some of the special effects, music and look of Prince are really first rate -- some of the first call to mind work from The Matrix -- and alhough Oberoi and Aruna Shields (the actual Maya, whichever one she is) are a charismatic couple, the movie they are in never hangs together long enough to figure out what's really going on. Complexity in a caper story is no bad thing, but flat-out obscurity disengages the viewer enough that by the time we find out everything that's happening, who is really who and what side each of them is on, we're left with only shrug-level interest. The mix of silly humor and jarring brutality in several spots doesn't help, so by the time the audience does pick up the truth, they will probably wish for their own bout with amnesia.
On the other end of the effects spectrum is the story of sneak thief Frank Weld (Frank Langella), who has more or less retired from his profession and lives alone in upstate New York in a year not too far from our own.

In 2012's Robot & Frank, Frank's adult children (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) worry about him because he has obviously begun losing his memory and really isn't able to live on his own. His son buys a robotic assistant (given voice by Peter Sarsgaard and movement by dancer Rachel Ma) who is supposed to make sure Frank eats healthier and keeps his mind occupied. Naturally, Frank hates the robot. Until, that is, he learns that the robot has not been programmed with any special respect for following the law, and is an invaluable aide in committing burglaries. But robot partner or not, advanced age does not a flawless sneak thief make, and so Frank finds the law may be more onto him than he has thought.

Robot & Frank has quite a few things to say about how our society handles its inconveniently aging members and demonstrates the burden an aging parent can place on children who have their own lives to live. Does the hurried rush to change and make up-to-date everything help or hurt those who are becoming confused by the quickening pace of life, let alone whatever medical condition they may face? Where is the balance between a caretaker allowing an older person to retain independence and handling responsibilities children would just rather avoid?

Jake Schreier can play around with those questions without breaking the bank on CGI whiz-bangery, throwing in a touch or two here and there to make this world different enough from our own that a semi-autonomous robot seems plausible. Robot is simply a short dancer in a plastic suit, voiced by an actor. The movie is Langella's to carry, and he does so very well (with the possible of exception of Daniel Day-Lewis, Langella could have replaced any of the 2012 Best Actor nominees and improved the field substantially). Susan Sarandon as a librarian in town who draws Frank's eye, Marsden and Tyler as his children, Jeremy Sisto as a small-town sheriff and Jeremy Strong as an officious twit all support him very strongly, making Robot & Frank a fine little movie that not only tells its story but says a little something into the bargain.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

They've Fallen and They Can't Get Up

During the heyday of Star Trek novel publication, Pocket Books put more than a hundred books into print telling stories from the original 1960s series as well as later spinoffs The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Voyager and Enterprise novels started showing up as the franchise glutted the market and also some non-broadcast series like Peter David's New Frontier books.

One characteristic of most of the novels during the saturation period was how little attention they paid to each other's continuity. Paramount Studios gave some strict general guidelines, but overall very few characters or plots from one novel would show up in another unless they were written by the same author or by authors who knew each other. The retrenching of the different series during the 2000s revised this policy and organized the books into a similar continuity, almost like a gigantic shared-universe novel by several different authors. The Next Generation especially was reined in, with the galaxy's politics determined by the overwrought, overwritten, and not over soon enough Destiny trilogy by David Mack. Mack gave the origin of the cybernetic Borg, as well as offering a welcome solution to remove them from the Star Trek universe. Without his deus ex (literal) machina twist at the end of the triad, the unstoppable villains would clearly have assimilated everything in time. Doing something necessary does not mean doing it well, and Mack's 2008 trilogy demonstrates that in lingering, leaden detail.

The success or failure of this new idea is in the eyes of the readers; you can guess my view. Part of the problem is that the TNG series is seriously a product of its time, a 1980s-1990s version of utopia as imagined by Gene Roddenberry at his least imaginative. It had some great episodes and moments, such as "The Best of Both Worlds" two-part episode or the First Contact movie. But it's just not that interesting a place.

The Titan series follows now-Captain William Riker in his long-delayed first command of the exploratory vessel U.S.S. Titan, and exhibits the problems with the approach. Of the TNG main crew, only Riker and his wife Deanna Troi are around, joined by Voyager's Tuvok. Minor characters from books and different television episodes appear, which is probably of little interest to those beyond the core fandom unless the books are well-written enough to bring those people to life.

Few of them are, and Michael Martin's Fallen Gods is not among them. It relies far too heavily on its own series history to help keep the characters straight, including the apostrophe-laden list of new aliens who make up the "most biologically varied and culturally diverse crew in Starfleet history." It also relies on events from Martin's previous Trek novel, Seize the Fire, to a story-stunting degree and spends too much of its time on a story arc it shares with several other novels that describes the fertility crisis of the relatively heretofore minor (in series terms) Federation race of Andorians.

Fallen Gods' own main plot, involving the remnants of a species barely surviving on a planet threatened by a pulsar's radiation, is not particularly interesting either and wraps up too neatly.

The overabundance of bad Trek novels during the 1980s and 1990s produced some serious clunkers, but I would rather subject myself again to the worst of them (Kathleen Sky's Vulcan and Death's Angel, Margaret Wander Bonnano's Dwellers in the Crucible, A.C. Crispin's Yesterday's Son and just about anything from Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath lurch dully to mind) again because as badly as they may stink, they stink with the cast of characters I know, rather than a roster taken from the "also featuring" crawl at a TV episode's end.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


A Business Insider writer features some words that have fallen into disuse, compiled by a guy who's written a book and keeps a Tumblr blog about them.

While I was reading the article, I was struck by a sudden memory of an old Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, in which Captain Picard attempts to understand and communicate with an alien species. I know, I know, that doesn't narrow it down much, but this particular episode was interesting because the alien (Paul Winfield) spoke a language that could be translated but which still made no sense. He would say things like, "Temba, his arms wide," and Captain Picard would understand the words but not the meaning.

Eventually the Enterprise crew figured out that the aliens spoke in metaphor, using stories and myths from their past to communicate whole concepts instead of just individual words. The above phrase, if I remember right, meant the alien wanted to give Captain Picard a gift. The way that Chinese writing consists of pictographs representing words instead of letters representing sounds might be seen as somewhat similar.

So with that in mind, I thought I might come up with some metaphors for a couple of the forgotten words. Instead of saying, for example, "ultracrepidarian," which is supposed to mean "someone who gives opinions on subjects they know nothing about," we might say, "Chris Matthews, his mouth open."

And instead of saying "snollygoster," which is "A shrewed(sic), unprincipled person, especially a politician," we would say, "Harry Reid, his stench abundant." Instead of "zwodder," which is "a drowsy and stupid state of body or mind," we would say, "The electorate, relying on televised political news."

Although it's not in the article's list, I have also heard that the abandoned word "blogger" originally meant, "someone who runs his or her mouth." We probably don't even have to create a metaphor for that one; it pretty much translates directly.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Super Slo-Mo

Entertainment Weekly's online edition reports on an update for the app for George R. R. Martin's glacially advancing fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, which opened in 1996 with Game of Thrones. That's also the name by which the HBO series based on the books is known. The app update, scheduled for later this month, will offer new character and location descriptions.

It will also feature a chapter from The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series which will be published sometime. Martin has previously published a chapter from Winds on his website, then promised a second chapter in the paperback edition of 2011's book five, A Dance of Dragons. That sample chapter never materialized, but perhaps the fact that the app chapter will be from the viewpoint of fan favorite Tyrion Lannister will help ease their disappointment.

In the meantime, Entertainment Weekly fleshed out its story by offering a preview of the preview: The article features an entire paragraph from the forthcoming sample chapter.

Don't rush things too much, George...

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Lunch on an Icy Day

Usually the first Sunday of the month means an afternoon worship service at the community nursing home. Sleet started falling almost exactly when I left, which meant our musicians stayed home and the temperatures kept the residents in bed (the nursing home has adequate heat, but it feels colder inside when you know it's 18 degrees outside). One lady braved the chill and we prayed together. She went back to her room and I went to Braum's.

Near our town is a church home for young women who have trouble with their families and don't live at home while they try to work that out. Some have been removed by the court, and some have suffered abuse of one kind or another, but others just need to learn some new ways to handle ordinary family situations while their parents do as well. My own denomination runs several of these, although this one belongs to another branch of the service. Like many of them, regardless of denomination, our neighbor home offers a pretty full-service livestock training operation, including showing animals at different fairs and events.

A group from the home was returning from a show and stopped at Braum's for some ice cream while I was having my late lunch, all of them in full cold-weather animal tending gear, an impossibly charming blend of Carhartt and chatter that made it all but impossible to remember the sleet and frigid air outside.

I don't know how it's possible to look bulky and cute at the same time, but these young ladies and their well-used jackets and overalls pulled it off. One in a group next to me had ice cream instead of a hamburger ("It's freezing out there and you want to eat ice cream?"), and when the young man behind the counter brought it out to them the consensus was that he was very cute. Said consensus was reached after he had left, of course.

Hope you had a great show, ladies, and may your return home be soon and joyful.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Bought and Sold

Over at The Pope Center, a professor critiques the current higher education model that suggests students are customers of their college or university.

Although he says universities should remember to hold themselves accountable to the students, parents, alumni and taxpayers who send them money, they probaby err when they see the students as customers of their services. He lists a number of damaging effects that this mentality visits on the university and its primary purposes of educating people and promoting the life of the mind in individuals and society as a whole.

He overlooks one, though, as I see it. One of the major guiding principles of any business is that the customer is always right. Nobody who says this really means that every customer is correct in every detail of the business's interactions with them. What they mean is that their ultimate goal is to build and maintain relationships with customers, and that said goal is much more important than winning an argument with a customer about some issue. Should a sales clerk disagree with a customer, the manager knows that people will apply to be sales clerks, but he or she has to go out and hunt for customers. Therefore, the manager will side with the customer in the event that the sales clerk has not already gone ahead and done so.

You can see how this would be a problem for a university or college. Students are not always right. In fact, their presence at college assumes they are right at best occasionally and more likely rarely. If they weren't, they wouldn't need to be taught things. This goes across the board -- if I already know how to do something, then I wouldn't necessarily take the class.

For example, a quick assessment of my skills prior to 9th grade algebra would show that I did not know how to solve a quadratic equation. Had I tried, I would not have been right. Had I seen myself as a customer, then I would have expected to have been deemed right whether I was or not, which would have been swell for my self esteem and my grade point but of no value whatsoever to my ability to solve quadratic equations.

The student-teacher relationship doesn't fit well into the customer model. Yes, teachers provides a service for which the students (or their proxy, either Mom and Dad or you and me, via Uncle Sam), pay. But that service is unlike many in that it presumes students are wrong to start with and need to be set straight.

Maybe there's a course somewhere that teaches that.