Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I Wanna Be A(n About) Paperback Writer...

Jon Steele's 2011 The Watchers was a top-level blend of urban fantasy, suspense thriller and Ludlumesque international intrigue. The fact that it was the initial novel of a trilogy was, for a rarity among such projects, good news rather than a sign a publisher which thought it could hook a reader with an ordinary-length story smeared across three books.

The 2012 follow-up, Angel City, continues the story of the struggle between angelic beings and their human allies against an array of darker forces, who themselves have allies both witting and unwitting. Jay Harper and Katherine Taylor continue their roles in the battle, separated by distance and by having memories of each other and time working together in Lausanne erased. Jay follows up a mysterious artifact left behind by a vanished religious sect, and Katherine copes with raising her son Max under the watchful eye of the supernatural organization that helped Harper rescue her.

Angel City is substantially weaker than Watchers. The cliffhanger ending is much more of a tease than Watchers' "perhaps there's more" finish, and the absence of Lausanne Cathedral bell-tender Marc Rochat's point-of-view narrative line drains the second volume of the magic and the heart the first one had. Katherine, having avoided isolating imprisonment/ enslavement at the hands of supernatural evil, spends much of the book in isolating imprisonment at the hands of supernatural good. Harper again seems a little lost and disconnected as a result of his memories being purged, but this time we already know what he is and so his search is less engrossing.

Even so, Angel City continues a fascinating story and displays Steele's gift for visualization and description very well. One reviewer suggested that so far, "The Angelus Trilogy" reads like Paradise Lost by way of Raymond Chandler, and both of those antecedents are promising enough to await the third volume expectantly.
"The Sundown Riders" is a series of loosely-connected novels by Ralph Compton focusing on wagon-drivers and teamsters in the American West. Devil's Canyon was the fourth of six and the last one to be published before Compton's death in 1998. None of the series re-use the exact same characters, although along with most Western heroes, they tend to be cut from the same cloth.

Faro Duval and his three partners take on a job to get mining and food supplies from Santa Fe in New Mexico territory to a potentially amazing gold strike in Utah. They will have to battle the elements and deadly bands of Ute tribesmen whose territory lies between the city and the claim site. And although the claim owners have tried to keep the news of their find a secret, other and less scrupulous ears have heard the news and make their own plans to acquire the gold. Some of those ears may be a part of the supply train itself.

Compton writes a straight-up, no frills "story of the old West" after the pattern of Louis L'Amour. He lacks L'Amour's style and skill, but he doesn't pretend to have them and keeps within his limitations. There are more than a few clumsy story elements and scenes that don't have much purpose other than to offer yet one more obstacle for Faro and his partners to (naturally) overcome, but someone who picks up one of Compton's books seeking highbrow literature has been, like Rick Blaine seeking the "waters of Casablanca," misinformed.
This is both the actual second novel from Harlan Coben and the second one to be re-released as a paperback. Initially published in 1991, Miracle Cure was reprinted in 2011, complete with a suggestion by Coben to first-time readers that they should pick up one of his later books instead.

There's something to that. Even more than his first novel, Play Dead, which was also reprinted some 20 years later, Miracle Cure is a product of its time. It focuses on a clinic whose research offers promising signs of a complete cure for the AIDS virus. Today, as different drug treatments allow persons with HIV to live many years beyond their original diagnosis, both the idea of the AIDS cure being a "breakthrough" and the stigma and mystery surrounding the disease seem a little mystifying themselves.

A secretive clinic may have indeed discovered the cure for the virus, but the three patients whose clinical results seem to prove it works have been viciously murdered. One of the researchers has committed suicide...or has he? Reporter Sara Lowell and her husband, NBA star Michael Silverman, are pulled into the matter when her network does a story on the clinic and Michael himself is diagnosed with HIV (Cure was in fact published before Magic Johnson went public with his own diagnosis in late 1991). Will the killer now target Michael, even if the treatment cures him? Will the powerful forces opposing the clinic's goal go too far in their prejudiced and misguided efforts? What secrets are the clinic staff themselves keeping?

Coben's disclaimer note on the reprint suggests that Miracle Cure is preachy, and boy howdy is he right. Several times we stop the story in order for different characters to offer Important Commentary on the real-world equivalents of some of its own events, such as prejudice against people with HIV, bigotry by those who see the virus's early isolation to gay men and IV drug abusers as a kind of Biblical judgment, and so on. Other than its protagonists, Cure offers a cast of cardboard cutouts, such as the Important Senator With a Secret, the Man-Hungry Hot Babe Who Gets Too Close to the Action for Her Own Good, the Close-Minded Religious Leader Whose Public Piety Covers His Greed and Hatred and the Vicious Killer With an Odd Character Quirk (he's really into clothes and his appearance).

But when he isn't stopping to sermonize, Coben deploys these standard pieces with the style and skill his later readers would grow to appreciate, and he keeps his story humming in between lectures. His focus on family and relationships is already apparent, and he also already had his knack for using them in his narratives. Read in 1991, Miracle Cure probably would have put Coben on the "give him a couple more chances" list. Read twenty years later, it's an interesting look at both the upside and downside of what he would be doing over the course of his career.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Stating the Obvious

Every now and again, you just run across those headlines that simply must be shared, even though you (and most everybody else who reads your blog) will have absolutely no idea what they mean:

Beam spot size as a function of excitation levels of magnetic quadrupoles

Monday, April 28, 2014

Or Maybe...

A writer at The Conversation UK suggests that the recent discovery of a potentially earthlike "exoplanet," or planet orbiting another star than our sun, could actually be bad news for humanity.

The simplified version of his reasoning goes like this: If there are a lot of planets that support life and life usually builds to a form that is self-aware, reasoning and capable of searching the universe for other life like itself, then we should have heard something from one of those planets by now. Since we haven't, that means that one of those "ifs" is wrong: either there are not a lot of planets that can support life, or life doesn't tend to self-awareness or it doesn't develop the capability of searching through space for other life like itself. This is called the "Fermi paradox," or even more simply, "Where the heck is everybody?"

A potential reason such life doesn't develop that capability is that it's destroyed by natural calamities or it destroys itself. If that's the case, then the discovery of another planet with life and especially with technologically advanced life increases humanity's chances of being one of the disappeared everybodies that some other species is wondering where the heck they are.

It's also possible, of course, that there's another answer entirely and we've no idea what it is.

But that wouldn't make much of an article.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Pay Attention!

This item at Science 2.0 suggests that solving the mystery of quantum turbulence is just as important as finding the Higgs boson was, but that the people working on it haven't made it as widely known as had the folks with the Higgs project.

Well, consider my part done.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Do the Math

Occasionally, scientists will conduct experiments with animals that show how other living creatures can do some of the things we thought only people could do. Koko the gorilla, for example, communicates through sign language.

A new study shows how rhesus macaque monkeys could be trained to recognize two sets of symbols, with as many as 26 symbols in the sets, and also add the symbols together in a form of arithmetic. Some folks may read about this and suggest the monkeys' arithmetical abilities demonstrate the dividing line between human beings and other animals is not nearly as solid as we would like to think it is. Sure, someone might counter, the monkeys seem limited to just basic math instead of algebra or calculus, and they don't always get the right answer. But there are a number of people (author raises hand sheepishly) who are not so hot at those things either. So the difference is just a matter of degree, not of kind, and that bright dividing line we hold to is on shaky ground.

Maybe. But I doubt it. After all, who dreamed up the arithmetic the monkeys used? And who dreamed up the experiment to show they could? And who trained them to do it? And who wondered whether or not another animal could do some of the things that human beings do?

You get the picture.

You want me to be really amazed, you show me some monkeys who dreamed up an experiment to see whether or not people will fling their feces at each other as a form of insult.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Why Are You There?

It's a question I want to ask Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA), who want the Federal Trade Commission to investigate ways to keep magazines from using photograph-altering software to enhance the appearance of people in their photographs.

I am unsure which assumption the two Congresswomen make is the stupider: That there's some way to measure acceptable amounts of altering when alteration finds, or that any government agency at any level should be involved in the matter.

Although a number of caffeine-heavy compounds promise people that their consumption will bring alertness and ease fatigue-caused roadblocks to cognition, no product has ever been shown to actually increase human intelligence. Washington D.C. water, on the other hand, can certainly be seen to reduce it a hundredfold.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

What Are You Thinking, Monkey Boy?

This Slate article about feline cognition studies (hint: They're not easy and there haven't been very many) has an interesting headline: "What are cats thinking?"

The possibilities are numerous, but I suspect many of them are thinking, "What would the annoying primate in the white lab coat taste like with a little salt, and I wonder if I can trick it into salting itself before I put it out of my misery?"

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Though his output volume never matched theirs, Arthur C. Clarke is frequently thought of as one of science-fiction's "Big Three," along with Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, by the genre's fans and historians. Best-known for writing first "The Sentinel" and then its book-length version, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke had a more literary bent than either of his American counterparts. He also had a more literary style than the plain-prose Asimov or the workmanlike Heinlein, although he never overdressed his sentences and his narratives are clearly understandable.

Clarke was also known for thinking about the implications of different scientific discoveries, questions and realities, which he does in his 1986 novel, The Songs of Distant Earth. Clarke suggests that a then-mysterious feature of the sun's radiation actually implies that it will go nova in just a couple of thousand years. Humanity, unable to travel faster than light or make spaceships of any size travel even close to that speed, sends out automated ships with frozen genetic material to land on habitable planets and produce and raise human beings to continue their species. The three islands of the ocean world Thalassa have lived a peaceful and fairly stress-free existence for several hundred years, until an unexpected communication tells them that a ship from Earth's final days has entered their new solar system. A breakthrough allowed high acceleration for high-mass objects, meaning the ship itself carries the bodies of a million people in suspended animation.

Just a few crewmembers leave stasis to prepare for the next leg of the voyage, and Clarke spends most of Songs exploring the differences between the artificially engineered Edenic society of the Thalassans and the harried survivors who watched the Earth burn in a blazing sun. It's kind of interesting, although the degree of interest can vary depending on how much a reader agrees with what kind of society Clarke thinks is ideal. He mostly buys into the idea that people free of all sorts of cultural baggage like religion and traditional sexual mores will be free of jealousy, violence and war, which is probably up for more debate than he would like to admit.

Clarke's best novels always asked questions about humanity and its place in the universe, leaving readers to decide for themselves what answers might suit. Songs does that to a degree, but in a court its questions might be considered too leading to be useful in learning all that much.
Over the course of a six-book career, magazine writer and sometime comedian Greg Gutfeld has taken on more and more of a role as a social commentator. Self-identified as a libertarian, he hosts the late-night satire program Red Eye and is on the afternoon news roundtable discussion show The Five, both on Fox News.

Not Cool is probably Gutfeld's most "serious" book yet, in that he offers a proposal and develops an argument for it over the course of the whole thing. Since he's a humorist, it's not actually all that serious in tone, and he makes his argument with a healthy dose of jokes, satire and mockery.

That argument is that the quality known in modern culture as "cool" is really a way of turning core values on their heads -- to say that good things are bad and bad things are good. When pop culture defines something or someone as "cool," it arbitrarily assigns them worth that they probably don't deserve. It's hard to notice the number of magazine covers, websites and silly programs that have at least one Kardashian in them and disagree with this thesis. Popular musicians, actors and athletes who leave behind a kite's tail of child-supported offspring are often excused because they're cool, Gutfeld notes, but a dad who sticks out a dull job and a mortgage to help raise his children isn't. Comedian Chris Rock makes a similar observation when he says one of the biggest jobs a father has is keeping his daughter off the stripper pole.

On the one hand, Gutfeld's argument is low-hanging fruit for people who think seriously about things. "Cool" too often substitutes image and affect for examination and discernment. And Gutfeld is still waaaaay to ready to dump in one of his semi-subliminal punchline derailleurs when he should try to limit them and grow the laughs from the absurdity of his subject. But he's still right, and the only real problem is that many of the people who ought to read and consider what he's talking about likely won't. Because he's a middle-aged white guy, and as your present author can attest, it's harder to get less cool than that.
Tom Clancy's Hunt for Red October started out as a submarine novel that grew into a kind of alternative history in the "Ryanverse," as he brought hero Jack Ryan onto a larger and larger world stage. Hunt took place in a 1984 more or less like our own, but later books diverged widely from real history.

Larry Bond may be heading in a similar direction with his own submariner, Jerry Mitchell. Jerry boarded his first boat in 2005 in Dangerous Ground, again in a world not so different from the 2005 outside its pages. But in 2013's Shattered Trident, he posits a 2016 China Sea war among Asian nations that sends the world on a different path even though it extrapolates from several current actual situations.

China's aggressiveness and need for natural resources have led it to some instances of not-so-hidden conflict with Vietnam and Japan. Those two nations, using a model from a Japanese economist and historian, combine with others to try to forestall a Chinese grab for oil-rich territory. The United States has allies on one side, but a realistic view about the destructive costs of a war with the world's largest nation on the other. Diplomacy seems to offer no paths through the crisis, and even the limited fighting has damaged the world's economy. And Jerry Mitchell, newly in command of the U.S.S. North Dakota, is in the middle of the mess.

Bond and writing partner Chris Carlson do a better job of creating characters than Clancy did and leave out the "Men's Adventure Magazine" style that made Clancy laughable once he left the battlefield. Bond and Carlson spend much more time outside of their submarines as they chronicle the history of their conflict, which weakens Trident to some degree. And they have Jerry be the one to offer the Idea So Crazy, It Just Might Work that helps resolve things, even though they haven't offered much support for him doing so.

If Trident is a step into creating a "Mitchell-verse," it has the advantage of tighter narratives, less laughable dialogue and prose and more storytelling discipline than Clancy's late '80s and '90s doorstops. With its behind-the-scenes governmental maneuvering and examination of conflict causes, it reads more like John Hackett's 1979 The Third World War: August 1985 than a straight-up submarine thriller. Even though it's plenty good enough, that could still mildly disappoint genre fans.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Strange Views

Japanese director Seijin Suzuki made his reputation turning out low-budget, crowd-pleasing crime thrillers called "yakuza movies," ostensibly chronicling that organized crime outfit in 1960s Japan. He regularly relied on tough-guy stalwart Jo Shishido, and he also regularly went a little wild within the limited conventions of his genre, throwing in scenes, characters and symbolism more at home in an art film.

He did all of those things in 1967's Branded to Kill, which features Shishido as Goro Hanada, a top-ranked hit man forced to defend his life against his own syndicate when he fails on an assignment. The movie bombed, with audiences having little patience for Suzuki the auteur. And so it got him fired from Nikkatsu Studios, whom he successfully sued, and who in return helped keep him from directing another feature film until 1977.

The simple plot -- Hanada must contend with his own criminal bosses, his money-loving wife and the mysterious assassin Number One -- is wound around a lot of weirdness. There's the fact that Hanada really, and I mean really, likes the smell of boiling rice. There's his falling for the mystery woman Misako, and the unreliability of his wife, whose expensive tastes get more expensive at just the wrong time. And there's the psychological warfare waged by Number One, which confuses the viewer almost as much as it does Hanada.

Suzuki is hailed as an influence by several modern action directors, including Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. And today Branded is seen as a stellar example of absurdist satire and of creativity within the low budgets of genre filmmaking in the 1960s. It is all of those things, but like a particularly ugly ancient statue from a lost civilization, its value outside of that context is critically limited.
The era of the "spaghetti Western," or Western movie made in Europe with mostly European actors and a sprinkle of American stars, had largely run out by the mid-1970s. But that didn't stop Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus from hiring Italian director Gianfranco Paolini, tough-guy B-actors Lee Van Cleef, Jack Palance and Richard Boone and stirring them together with one of the lamest narratives to come from any country in 1976's God's Gun. Warning, I'm going to "spoil" this one in the sense of telling what happens. But in another sense, nothing could really spoil a movie like this.

Palance and his gang of robbers -- the more disposable of whom actually wear bell-bottomed jeans to go with their 1970s salon haircuts -- descend upon the small town of Juno City to wait for a money-laden stagecoach. They bully townspeople, have their way with the womenfolk and threaten anyone who tries to stand against them, including the sheriff (Boone). Father John (Van Cleef), who has tried to bring a gang member to justice, is killed and the saloon owner (Sybil Danning)'s young son (Leif Garrett) flees town to bring help. Which happens to be Father John's twin brother (Van Cleef), the gunslinger who reformed a little bit less than Father John did: He put down his guns but did not take up a cassock. Oh, and it turns out that Leif Garrett is actually Jack Palance's son, because Palance had assaulted his mother during the Civil War. Palance inexplicably now warms to the idea of being a father, even though he's "under the gun" of Van Cleef.

It's sillier than it sounds, and was so awful that Boone actually walked off the set before his dialogue could be dubbed. Another actor -- who sounds just like Richard Boone in the sense that Gilbert Gottfried sounds just like James Earl Jones -- provided the voice.

There could have been a couple of interesting ideas somewhere inside this story, and the cast members could probably have pulled it off. All of them except for Garrett were old pros with enough experience to get the job done and even he had more than a dozen roles under his belt. But for whatever reason, the only thing that happened was the version of God's Gun that came out in 1976, and if you need a final proof of its quality, the DVD release is from Troma Entertainment, home of The Toxic Avenger, The Class of Nuke 'Em High and Redneck Zombies.

Monday, April 21, 2014


According to map blogger Nik Freeman, there are five million census blocks in the United States that don't have a single person living in them.

There are days when moving to one of those places sounds juuuust right...

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Game Winner

To me, there are a couple of interesting things about this guy's scheme to game the McDonald's Monopoly giveaway.

One is that he got away with lifting almost every valuable piece for six years before someone snitched to the FBI, and he had been snitching a selection of them for six years before that. As this story notes, the people who fraudulently obtained prizes were expected to return them, but just take a look at how long of a list that is.

The other, much cooler thing, is that the guy at the center of this all had also mailed one of the top winning pieces to St. Jude's Children's Hospital. But rather than stop payment on the stolen piece's prize payouts or insist the money be returned, McDonald's continued to pay the hospital its $50,000 annuity.

Of course, thanks to inflation, the "million-dollar" prize at the top of the game won't be worth $1,000,000 by the time the last payment is made. According to a formula here, it'll be worth about $833,000. And then there's what Uncle Sam grabs hold of, but that wily fellow has proved resistant to indictment.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Mooning Around

According to ancient Greek mythology, Cronus, the deity whom the Romans appropriated to give the backstory for the god Saturn, swallowed his children whole because he did not want one of them to overthrow him as king of the universe. They might pick up that idea because that's how Cronus himself got the job.

Cronus' wife Rhea hid their son Zeus, tricking the devouring dad into swallowing a rock instead. None of the ancient myths suggest Cronus was all that bright. When Zeus got older, he gave father dearest a Olympian version of ipecac, causing him to vomit up his children (and the rock), who promptly overthrew him. Another version of the story says Zeus used a sword and freed his sibs a little more messily.

But the planet Saturn seems to be operating a little differently, as recent observations show that it may be trying to create a moon at the edge of one of its rings. Whether or not the moon manages to stay a moon or disintegrates back into the rings has yet to be seen, and will depend more on the ice of which it is in the middle than on anything about the planet Saturn itself.

Which means the planet is already showing more brains than its namesake.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Justified Lines

I found this version of Dave Alvin's "Harlan County Line" a few weeks ago and have been playing it about once a day ever since.

Alvin wrote the song for the great television show Justified, and the original appears on his album Eleven Eleven. Justified just finished its fifth season -- for which I as a fan am grateful, for though it had some very interesting moments, the season as a whole is the bottom of the list. Yes, the first season seemed to be kind of disjointed, and yes, the third season couldn't find a focus and wasted Neal McDonough.

But even though the fifth season seemed designed as fan service -- Raylan no longer had his baby mama/ex-and-maybe-future wife and fanbase haterade magnet Winona around, so he could chase anything in a skirt out of it, and Boyd Crowder got to be all criminally genius Boyd Crowdery (except when he was dumb as dirt), and intentionally dumb as dirt Dewey Crowe had a whole family of Crowes around -- it still stunk, by Justified standards, anyway. Season six is the final one, so here's hoping for the odd-even pattern to continue and we get a great sendoff.

And, just for the record, Alvin's "Harlan County Line" is so much better than the lame Gangstagrass-performed "Long Hard Times to Come" that it may actually be a crime to use the latter as the show's theme song. I don't know Kentucky law well, but I'll look into it first chance I get.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Can't Stop the Space!

Look closely at the T-shirt NASA astronaut Steve Swanson is sporting in this selfie on the International Space Station.

Serenity lives!

The original picture, and a link to buy the T-shirt, can be found here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Comic Book Twinbill

Frank Miller followed up his landmark "End of the Batman" story The Dark Knight Returns in 1987 with a version of the beginning of Bruce Wayne's war on Gotham City's criminals called Year One. In 2011, DC's animated movie outfit put that story on the screen as Batman Year One.

Wayne returns to Gotham after several years abroad, training himself for his mission of fighting crime after witnessing his parents' deaths at a criminal's hands when he was just nine years old. His initial work has limited success, and he realizes the need for a psychological dimension to his crusade. Inspired by an invading bat, he begins to create the costume, weapons and other gear that will make the Batman the scourge of Gotham's underworld.

At the same time, police lieutenant James Gordon, newly transferred from Chicago, is finding the Gotham City PD to be little different from the criminals they're supposed to thwart. His refusal to take part in the corruption isolates him in the department, especially since the police commissioner is more or less best buds with local crime boss Carmine Falcone. Gordon and Batman become unlikely allies in reining in both the criminal police and the criminal criminals in their first strikes against crime in Gotham, aided at one point by the even more unlikely ally Selina Kyle, now wearing a costume of her own and committing robberies as Catwoman.

Year One was an excellent, tightly-written crime drama in which the fact that one protagonist dressed up in a costume to scare people was incidental to the main story. The movie adaptation wisely follows suit and both writers and artists hewed closely to Miller's noirish dialogue and artist David Mazzucchelli's stylized, simple artwork. Several of its narrative elements showed up in Christopher Nolan's vision of Batman in his movie trilogy. The voice cast does good work, with Bryan Cranston standing out as Gordon. Batman fans who want to see Bruce Wayne become their hero probably enjoyed Year One the most, but it's good entertainment for anyone who likes super-hero stories with a noir crime drama edge.
Note: This review will contain spoilers in order to offer a better explanation of the opinions it expresses. If you want to find out how Flashpoint: Paradox ends using the old-fashioned method of watching it, stop reading now.

Every now and then, it seems the comic book DC universe gets tangled up and complicated and hard to figure out. In 1986, the company dealt with their multiple worlds problem with the year-long maxi-series crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths, and a problem-solving technique was born. It was employed again in the mid 1990s to handle timeline issues in Zero Hour. Both series changed the DC universe in multiple ways, and both were responses to storytelling situations that were becoming such mares nests that they hampered ongoing storylines and limited creative possibilities.

Then came 2011 and the decision to unload decades of continuity and completely revamp DC's universe with "The New 52" project. The editorial decision was to introduce this new continuity through yet another maxi-series crossover, focused on the Flash and called Flashpoint. 2013 saw that tale put into motion in the 17th DC animated feature, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox.

Barry Allen, the Flash, responds to a break-in at his museum and finds a trap set by Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash. The Justice League helps him thwart Zoom's plan to destroy Central City. But we next see Barry awakening at his desk in a very different world, one threatened with destruction by a war between the Aquaman's Atlanteans and Queen Diana's Amazons. And he himself has no speed powers, although he finds that his mother, killed in a criminal break-in when he was a boy, is still alive.

Allen tracks down Batman, only to learn that he is not Bruce Wayne but Bruce's father Thomas. The street mugging which he knows took the lives of Thomas and Martha happened differently in this world, in which the parents survived but Bruce was killed. Thomas became to Batman to fight crime, and Martha went mad and became the Joker. I include that last tidbit even though it matters not at all to the plot, but that's OK: So does Flashpoint Paradox.

Eventually, Batman helps Allen recreate his Flash-originating accident (on the second try), and the two join with remaining heroes to defuse the Amazon-Atlantean war before it destroys the Earth itself. In the meantime, there are several scenes showing both Amazons and Atlanteans murdering lots of people, some of whom have counterparts in Barry Allen's universe and some of which might not. These scenes mean nothing, but they do make the movie longer..

In the final confrontation, Allen learns that he himself screwed up the world when he used his speed to break the time barrier and save his mother. Even his limited journey through time set up ripples that messed up Batman's origin, started the Amazon-Atlantean war, sent baby Kal-El's rocket into Metropolis instead of Kansas, and so on. He will have to break the time barrier again to stop himself and return the world even as the one he's now in is destroyed. He's successful, but some of the ripples remain, and thus we have the New 52 universe, which is not as different from the old timeline but is not exactly the same, either.

Flashpoint Paradox is easily the worst of the DC animated features. The character designs are just awful, the drawing is ugly, and in the crowd scenes especially the animation is as limited as the old Super Friends TV show. The story has more gaps than narrative, and wastes time in giving different characters cameos that show up for not much more reason than showing how the characters are exactly the same/entirely different than they are in mainstream continuity.

Part of the problem is that this story exists pretty much only to set up the New 52, one of the lousier ideas to come from Dan DiDio's Bad Idea Factory in some time. It's an obvious combination of retread ideas, (alternate dystopian timeline, butterfly effect, don't mess with history), dashed off and offered up with little imagination and less heart. People sometimes look at bad books and lament the trees that they represent, anyone who looks at a DVD of Flashpoint Paradox can lament all the plastic shopping bags that we gave up in order to create it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Great Day

OK, so maybe I'm laying the diamond celebration on a little thick, but if you want yet another way in which baseball is superior to, say, the federal government?

Today, April 15, both federal and state governments (most of them, anyway) impose their deadline for you to give them money you worked for, which they will then use for several purposes. Some of those purposes, like national defense or the interstate highway system, are useful, needed and well done. More of them are needed but done very poorly and a large plurality are not needed, not useful and done poorly in ways only a massive bureaucracy could manage. For example, we spend money each year to have a spokesperson for the Vice-President of the United States in order to keep Joe Biden from making an even bigger joke of the office than it is, and Joe goes off on a regular basis and renders that spokesperson moot. And probably quite frustrated.

But on April 15, baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, in honor of the man whose dignity and courage under tremendous pressure not only broke the "color barrier" existing in Major League Baseball in 1947, it kept it broken. Robinson's number, 42, has been officially retired by every major league team, after the last person wearing it via a grandfather clause, Mariano Rivera, retired from play in 2013. No other ballplayer has that honor. You tell me which is better.

Although the growing trend among major league teams to all wear 42 on April 15 probably confuses the heck out of Vice-President Biden.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Lightman Redux (And More!)

-- The other day, I mentioned a book by physicist Alan Lightman. If you'd like to read something by the good doctor for free, check out this book review in the Washington Post.

-- In the future, Andy Warhol said, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. The problem is, that each moment of those 15 minutes takes a full 15 seconds to make, meaning some people will be famous for far longer than they should be. See Al Sharpton or any Kardashian for examples.

-- Because the brochure offering a chance to visit the Deeps of Pluto would almost certainly look darn cool, here's hoping this is true.

-- A bunch of top-level violinists played several of the instruments while blindfolded. Among them were several made by the great Antonio Stradivari, but in the blind tests the musicians couldn't tell these from brand-new violins. Of course, they didn't really need the top concert players; I guarantee no one could have told a Stradivarius from a K-Mart Special if I was the one sawing away...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Let's Read Two!

Since baseball season has started, leave us peruse and remark upon two books concerning America's national pastime. The title, of course, is in honor of Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks, who always looked upon a great day with enthusiasm and was known for wanting to make almost every game a double-header, if he could.
You might not know it if you've looked at any season's standings since about 1992 or so, but the Kansas City Royals used to be one of the power teams of the American League. Frequently division champs, twice American League champs and once World Champions (ah, 1985...). America's middle city was a semi-desirable place for a lot of ballplayers to ply their craft, and one of the reasons the team performed well was left-fielder Willie Wilson, whose tough bat and speedy legs fueled no few Royals wins (Wilson's .308 average in the 1980 American League Championship Series tied KC's premier batsman George Brett).

Wilson also dealt with some of fame's demons, and was one of four Royals who did time for a misdemeanor attempt to purchase cocaine in 1983. He rebounded from that to continue to be a vital part of the team in the 1985 Series win, but injuries hampered his career later in that decade and he went to Oakland as a free agent in 1990 before ending his career when the Chicago Cubs released him in 1994.

Inside the Park outlines this part of Wilson's life, as well as many of his post-baseball struggles and how he overcame them. He dealt with depression, financial setbacks and a second round of substance abuse, and was forced to sell his Series ring at a bankruptcy auction in 2001 (The board of his charitable foundation purchased and presented a replica of the ring to Wilson to mark Inside the Park's publication).  The book, which reads mostly like a transcription of several interviews, allows Wilson to own up to his faults, offer his side of a couple of issues and outline how he came back from his problems, finally managing to make his life outside the baseball stadium match the quality of his game inside it. It's a good redemption story, probably mostly of interest to Wilson fans and Royals fans but still offers something in its own right as an account of coming back from being very, very far down.
And speaking of very very far down, we may cast our eyes upon the Chicago Cubs as they figure into George Will's centenary survey of Wrigley Field,  A Nice Little Place on the North Side.

Will is best-known as a conservative opinion columnist, so folks who like the idea of firing people because of what they believe would probably want to take a pass on his book, even though he inserts next to no politics and only a little free-market economics.

Cubs fans are probably known for their love of Wrigley almost as much as they are known for being the victims of a team which abuses them anew every year. And Will, who now lives in Washington, D.C. and roots for the hometown Nationals, knows their pain. Born in downstate Illinois at just about the right time to take advantage of the rise of radio baseball, he followed the Cubs through most of his childhood and adolescence.

Once establishing his bona fides as a Cubs fan (the usual sign is considered to be permanent tear tracks down the cheeks), Will offers a quick but engaging skim of the century that Wrigley has spent at Clark and Addison, from the team's actual beginnings elsewhere in Chicago through its long, long post-World War II slide. He poses an interesting question: Has the team's emphasis on its ivied home played a part in its hapless history? Can a ballpark built when the only thing a ballpark was supposed to do was give people a place to sit and watch the game be what a team needs in the 21st century?

As expected of the erudite Will, we meet Greek philosophy and thinkers of many kinds and ages who would probably be surprised to find themselves tasked with explaining aspects of baseball, but the same skill that made Men at Work and Bunts engaging reads for thinkers and fans alike makes it all work. Possibly the only misfire is the book's dedication to current Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who may have overseen an economic boom for the sport but is still guilty of many grievous sins. I'm thinking about writing the Washington Post to get Will fired because of that.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Marlin Perkins, Please Call Your Office...

The existence of photo software that lets skilled folks alter almost any image so that it's next to impossible to tell it's not real sometimes lets photographers cheat.

But hard work still exists, and Russian photographer Katerina Plotnikova worked with animal trainers to get these fascinating photos with models and a variety of critters. My two favorite ones are below:

Mr. Bear is a gentleman...

And after a couple too many, Mr. Bear gets a little fresh...

I always knew ursinoids couldn't hold their liquor.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Run the Numbers. Run, the Numbers!

It's candidate filing time here in Oklahoma, which presages a a little attention paid to opinion polls. Little because most of these races are not anywhere near the funding level which allows big campaigns to afford the endless polls of more nationally important races. For which I think everyone involved can offer thanks.

Anyway, I thought about opinion polls and statistics and such when reading this piece on how almost any study could be tweaked to get the results the study creators want to get. Carefully choose your factors, select your cutoff date, tailor your questions' wording properly and you have got a fine supporting cast of numbers that show everyone just how right you were.

That was kind of depressing, so I went to read about a hand-held jet engine instead.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Messy Mind?

Charles Hill at Dustbury links to an observation about how the idea of multiple windows open on the computer "desktop" is not really much of an aid to work and efficiency, nor does it resemble a real desktop.

The multiple-windows-reduce-efficiency idea is probably true, but as for not resembling a real desktop, well, I can cast no stones about cluttered workspaces...

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was the first Jewish person to be nominated to serve on the highest court in the United States. Confirmed in 1916, he served until retiring in 1939 and is considered to have been one of the greatest defenders of the right to free speech and the right to privacy to have served on the Court.

Although his opinions in several cases were dissents, they provided the reasoning that later Courts would use in writing opinions where Brandeis' original ideas were now held by a majority. It would probably be interesting to hear Justice Brandeis' opinion of the NSA phone-tapping efforts. Since he was also opposed to several of the Roosevelt administration's New Deal innovations, and wrote opinions limiting presidential discretion and authority, it would probably also be interesting to hear what he thought of the plethora of executive orders and signing statements issued by the current president and his predecessor.

In any event, Justice Brandeis is highly regarded for his courage, ethical standards and insightful mind. The university that bears his name has shown itself utterly unworthy of the honor and should rescind its use of that name as swiftly as the chisels can manage.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Second Coat...

Over at Friar fave what-if.xkcd, we learn that there has not yet been enough paint made in the history of paint to cover the entire land surface of the Earth.

But in about another 85 years or so, there will be. Of course, that total includes indoor paint as well, which would probably wear away pretty quickly. We might have to wait awhile longer.

Monday, April 7, 2014

America Held Hostage, Day 7

It has now been one week since CableOne stopped carrying Viacom channels because Viacom wanted more money for its declining channels than CableOne wanted to pay for them.

Around the country, the effects of this deprivation are noticeable. Many former CableOne subscribers have switched to other providers so channels such as MTV and VH-1 can remain on their screens. Those who have not switched have noticed a collective IQ jump averaging nearly 10 points. Several have reported breakthroughs in cold fusion, faster-than-light space travel and developing at least three different mathematical equations for predicting prime numbers.

The National Academy of Sciences has called on CableOne to stand firm in its resolve to leave shows like Mob Wives, Black Ink Crew and Teen Mom 2 off the air, suggesting that the United States could leap to the front of the nations of the world in scientific achievement in just a few more weeks. "It's a matter of national security," a spokesman said.

Dingy Gray Smear Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) insisted that CableOne and Viacom work out their differences, at least in Nevada, prior to his re-election campaign in 2016. "We can't afford too many intelligent, well-informed voters," his office said. "Other politicians both left and right, aided by having principles, standards and a detectable amount of character, can get by when their electorate can walk and chew gum at the same time and breathe through their nostrils. We can't take that risk."

America's "millennial" generation, accustomed to receiving their information from funnymen John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, have been surprised by the alternatives. "I watched this old guy on my parents' TV, and he just sat there and read the news story," one said while his iPhone was charging. "I mean, nobody laughed, he didn't say $@&% even once. And did you know that they put the news out on paper that you can read? It's true! I found this big stack of folded-up paper in my dad's bathroom and when I opened it out, there were all of these stories about stuff going on all over the world. Really! And they do a new one every day!"

Note: None of the above is true, except for the part about no Viacom channels. The absence of Teen Mom 2 from some 790,000 U.S. households has not ushered in a utopia of intelligence or dramatically improved anyone's life.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Know Everything, Understand Nothing

That, Tim Harford suggests in the Financial Times weekend magazine, is what so-called "Big Data" often amounts to, as he interviews economics professor David Spiegelhalter.

He notes the case of the Google Flu Trends project, which sought to predict flu outbreaks faster and more accurately than the Centers for Disease Control. At first, it did that, using the patterns of folks searching for information on flu and flu symptoms. Until it didn't: in 2013 Flu Trends predicted an outbreak nearly twice as severe as actually happened. The problem should be obvious. Google can easily count how many people search for information about the flu. But Google has no clue about why those people search for the information.

Of course the company can guess how many people meant to type "flue" because they wanted their chimneys cleaned or how many might be getting information for a not particularly well-documented report for class. They can even survey sample audiences to install this fudge factor into their algorithm and make better guesses. But they will always be guesses, because on the other end of the search window is a human being with unknown and, to the tabulators at Google, unknowable motivations.

Huge assemblies of information are only that. Without organizing principles or questions asked of them, they remain columns of numbers without significance. But different questions can elicit different patterns. We can see this most clearly (and pretty repulsively) when we watch politicians comment on events or new information. What to people of character may be a tragedy or disaster is to others ammunition for agenda advancement. In less disgusting circumstances, those with distinct opinions will comment on the exact same statistic in ways that mean entirely different things.

Human decisions introduce random elements to any amount of data that leave a gap between it and its meaning. Physicist Alan Lightman's essay "Smile," collected in 1996's Dance for Two, illustrates this by spending about a thousand words describing both the audio and visual processing done by ear, eye and brain when a man sees a particular woman standing on a dock. "All of this is known," Lightman writes after this detailed description. "What is not known is why, after about a minute, the man walks over to the woman and smiles."

The man's reason may be guessed, of course. He recognizes the woman as a friend. She may be a former classmate long unseen. She wears some collegiate or school garb he knows. She has spinach in her teeth. She's hot. We can guess, but we can't know without asking the fellow. Or checking to see if he is me, in which case our number of potential answers shrinks enough to make the guesswork a lot easier: She's Angie Harmon or Sutton Foster, my eyes are open and the part of my forebrain that asks me if this is really a good idea has been hit with a tranquilizer dart and put to bed.

People talking about issues use a phrase to warn against trying to use a single phenomenon as proof of their point: "The plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data.'" In a similar vein, the plural of "fact" is not "wisdom." Google it and see.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Big Ol' Jet Airliner

Want to know what planes are overhead right now? Check out for a look.

Note: The planes on the map are not to scale. Which is good, otherwise something realllly ugly is about to happen over Dallas.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Seen at the Faire

I was able to make a brief pilgrimage to Norman to visit the Medieval Faire and to hear these fine folks. And these ("We're going to play some bagpipe songs. And they're going to be loud.") And these rapscallions as well. Not to mention this death-defying trio.

Some other things I saw:

-- A lady on a motorized scooter who had it decked out as a horse in full skirted regalia, complete with stuffed horse's head (non-Godfather variety) in front of her steering controls.

-- Belly dancers who made me wonder if the belly ought to be dancing so readily when the dancer wasn't.

-- Men in tights who should definitely consider loosening up.

-- Little kids who don't care if they don't have rhythm yet as long as they have fun.

--  A local TV station's "storm chaser" truck and weather frou-frou display, because heaven knows we don't have enough reminders that we're entering storm season in Oklahoma and that if we watch some other channel we're all going to die.

-- A group of Chinese exchange students enjoying turkey legs and Scottish and Irish bagpipe music as the show was explained to them by their host/interpreter. Who was Hispanic (I love this country).

Thursday, April 3, 2014

E.T. Phone Home Call Me

Former president Bill Clinton says he would not be surprised if aliens visited Earth someday. I would imagine, in fact, that be might be glad to see them.

He also said he hopes it would be a peaceful visit, rather than the kind imagined in the 1996 Will Smith blockbuster Independence Day. You are certainly not alone in that, Mr. President.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Go Light Your World?

Possibly, considering sculptor Andy Yoder made a version of it from painted matchsticks, glued to a frame.

But probably not, since his safety-minded son doused all of the matchsticks with flame retardant before the project began two years ago.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Survival Trait?

So, you may remember having been told that zebras evolved their striped pattern as a way of visually confusing lions, thus allowing them to either hide or get a head start and avoid the evolutionary dead end of being eaten and turned into lion dung.

Apparently, according to a study in Nature Communications, the stripes are more likely to be a method for avoiding being bitten by flies, which do not land on striped surfaces. Researchers correlated information from several studies that showed the most likely evolutionary benefit of the stripe pattern is avoiding flies. Both zebras and other striped or partially-striped animals existing today and in the past have been Leo's lunch with enough regularity to suggest that he's got no problem picking them out of a crowd of savannah grass.

Which kind of makes you wonder just how smart Mother Nature is, if she's given the zebra a way to avoid being bitten by an insect that it outweighs some seventy-five thousand times instead of one to avoid being bitten by a feline predator as large or even larger than itself.