Saturday, May 31, 2014

Paired Dissonance

Once, early in the history of this blog, I came across a news story listing the winners of a particular academic prize at Harvard University. Since the thesis titles were excellent examples of obscurantist academic boilerplate, I made fun of them.

Now there is a Tumblr blog that takes some of those same kinds of titles -- which are exact in their specificity and almost meaningless in their hyper-precision -- and imagines what they would be if they were recast as "clickbait" phrases "Clickbait" is a name for a kind of headline that is designed to play up the most intriguing feature of a story in order to tempt people into clicking on it while reading other things online. The only problem is that sometimes clickbait is not always, um, truthful, and almost always oversells the uniqueness of the story to which it leads. When you click on the bait expecting one thing, you might find something else entirely that may be slightly related to what you expected but is not at all as shocking, interesting, intriguing or whatever as the clickbait head led you to believe.

Since PhD dissertations are frequently packed with academic jargon and the tortured sentence structure which academic writing encourages, they would definitely need clickbait headlines in order to draw readers. Of course, the rest of the paper, other than the headline, would be the same old deadly dull academic prose. A solution to that situation has not yet arisen.

Friday, May 30, 2014

A Gathering

-- The sequel to the lame Andrew Stanton John Carter would have been awesome, says one of the main reasons the first movie was so lame.

-- Back when the makers of Doctor Who made their 50th anniversary special, they (spoilers!) included a cameo by the actor who played the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker. Baker played the character longer than any other actor did (the alien Doctor occasionally "regenerates" into an entirely new body. He does this at about the time the actor playing him decides to move on), and his loooong scarf, curly hair and inquisitive manner were more or less the iconic version of the Doctor until the modern reboot. The cameo was a surprise, and this video that shows various people reacting to Baker's unexpected appearance is almost as much fun as are videos of cute pandas. One of the two young women in the first may have made a trip to the emergency room as her friend excitedly pounds on her arm at the sight of Baker's aged but familiar face.

-- Dracula might get drunk if he drank the blood of a drunk person. You wouldn't.

-- Watch some ballet dancers move in slow motion. Just your everyday, average defying of gravity.

-- The SpaceX company revealed their design for a manned spacecraft. It's probably a good thing they're building one, as the Russians have made noises about maybe not giving U.S. astronauts a ride, and they're the only ones servicing that particular location these days.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Invisible WIMPs?

At first, scientists were pretty sure something called "dark matter" existed because when they looked at the way the universe behaved, it seemed obvious that there was something there. What it was, nobody knew. And in fact, there was no evidence that it existed.

This would make sense, since the "dark" part of the name means that it didn't radiate energy or do anything else that either our senses or our sense extensions like telescopes and other instruments could detect.

More recently, some evidence for dark matter's existence has shown up because of the one thing it does have, gravity. When astronomers look at things far away, the light, radio waves, x-rays, etc. that they use to observe them is "warped" slightly by gravity of things in between us and them. When that warping happens but no source of gravity is visible, then the most likely candidate is dark matter.

So now the question is, what makes up dark matter? Everyday matter is made up of atoms and the subatomic particles which make atoms. Dark matter can't be those, because we can see them. The "guess" name for the mysterious substance's components is "Weakly Interacting Massive Particles," or WIMPs. They have mass, because they have gravity. They interact weakly, compared to regular particles, which is why they have to be detected by gravity.

But WIMPs are still a theory, until some evidence of them can be found. That's tough, because of that whole "weakly interacting" thing. So the hunt goes on.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

One Theory to Rule Them All

One of the long time quests of physicists is to unify the four basic forces of the universe into four faces of one force -- to simplify things, in other words. As this article from Scientific American points out, sometimes making things simple is the hardest job of all.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

If You Only Have a Brain...

So after he died, Albert Einstein's brain was preserved so it could be studied. Since his thoughts -- particularly regarding special and general relativity -- more or less changed the world and changed the way physicists looked at it, the intent was to see if any particular physical difference in his brain could explain some of his insight.

Although different studies had some initial results that showed some slight phsysiological differences between Einstein's brain and the average human brain, more detailed work suggests there are really very few such differences. In other words, genetics and whatever other factors one may believe play a role in creating a person didn't give ol' Albert any more to work with than they give anyone else.

It was all about what he did with it.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Service and Sacrifice

Although we usually think of our nation as having four military branches -- Air Force, Army, Marines and the Navy -- we really have five. Mostly viewed as a rescue unit or as a semi-police force interdicting illegal traffic on the shorelines, the United States Coast Guard is in fact a branch of the military, created in 1915.

Coast Guardsmen saw heavy action in World War I and World War II, often piloting the landing craft used to deposit Marines on beaches during landings. One such guardsman, Signalman First Class Douglas Munro of South Cle Elum, Washington, earned the service's only Congressional Medal of Honor when he risked himself to evacuate Marines under attack at Guadalcanal, and then to protect the evacuating boats loaded with escaping men.

Munro was hit at the very end of his sweep, but the two remaining crewmen on his craft continued to protect and guard the other landing boats as they made their way back towards safety. Some reports suggest that Munro regained consciousness long enough to ask if all the Marines had been picked up, and upon hearing that they had, he died.

On Memorial Day, Signalman Munro's story can serve as a good reminder that our nation's military encourages and has honored selfless acts of bravery that do not always involve the taking of lives. Such a fact should go without saying, but there seem to be too many, both in the service and obviously among its many critics, who believe otherwise. Douglas Munro -- one among many -- proclaims that they are wrong.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ten Things About Doing It Yourself

Mythbuster Adam Savage offers his ten commandments about making things, which are probably worth taking a look at, given how he got to be kind of famous by making thngs.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

That Old Beholding Eye

Earlier this year I bought a couple of "For Dummies" books about some basic math disciplines with hopes of improving my drastically underwhelming understanding of those subjects. Slogging through them has triggered a couple of high school memories (of the actual subject even!) and shown me that one of the reasons I did poorly in these subjects as a youngster was laziness.

My mind has to work hard to follow all of the steps of math and it apparently likes shortcuts and hopping around a lot better than it likes hitting B, C, D, and E when going from A to F. Unfortunately, math is something where shortcuts are themselves quite clearly defined and which require their own special set of steps, meaning that skipping around and cutting corners is not the way to solve equations. In other words, I can probably learn some of this material, but I don't think I have a math mind.

An infographic at the Physics World blog highlights the results of a psychological study of mathematicians in order to try to figure out some of the things that make a math mind tick. They focused on the habit that some scientists have of describing equations as "beautiful," which seems like an odd word to use for an equation. But by doing MRIs of the mathematicians' brains while showing them different equations, they saw electrical activity in the same part of the brain that's active when people see things that are pleasant in appearance.

The qualities of a beautiful equation are actually some of the same qualities that go into making up what most of us think are beautiful -- symmetry, simplicity and significance. The winner of the "mathematical beauty contest" was an equation called "Euler's Identity," which reads like this:

eiπ+ 1 = 0

Although it may not seem simple to those of us for whom the mixture of letters and numbers brought ruin to our dreams of becoming astronauts, the infographic shows how it has those qualities of symmetry, simplicity and significance. Each of the letters, both Latin and Greek, represents a fundamental mathematical constant, meaning that they can't be reduced in form, which are themselves the basis for understanding many other mathematical fields. It's a special case of Euler's formula, which establishes the fundamental relationship between the trigonometric functions (functions of angles) and the complex exponential function (describing how numbers change in relationship to each other in functions).

I'll take the mathematicians' word for this being a beautiful equation -- although I can see how it matches the criteria they set forth, it doesn't strike me as "beautiful" the same way a natural scene or work of art does. Which is why I don't think I have a mathematical mind.

On the other hand, I may be selling myself short, because according to the infographic, the equation by Srinivasa Ramanujan describing the progression of the infinite series 1/π:

is considered very very ugly.

I have a hard time disagreeing.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Dumb As a Truck?

Collin Raye, who had some hits on the country charts during the 1990s, asks whether or not a large portion of the music played on country radio today is...well...dumb.

His answer: Yes, it is, and it's focused on the same limited set of items and scenarios over and over again, in such a way that eventually people will stop listening to it. I think he's onto something. My alarm radio is set to a local country station because it also has a state and local newscast during the morning show, and in between the information is a parade of trucks, spittin', farmin', fightin' and other things that make the same song over and over again and create music that, as I read somewhere, "may be tired, but sure isn't Haggard."

Raye focuses on this music as performed by young male country singers, and calls it "bro country." But the ladies have their own share of guilt, with nearly every female singer or female-led act now supplying their albums with at least one sluts-in-boots track a la 2004's "Redneck Woman" from Gretchen Wilson. And the boots better be paired with a spectacular set of gams shown off in cutoffs.

This ends this test of the Emergency Middle-Aged Rant Against How Things Are Today. We now return you to your regular pop culture, also known as "proof that the ranter is correct."

Order Up!

Give me French fries, and give them to me now.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Mileage Factor?

The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) has a lot of old satellites hanging out in "retirement" orbits where they are unlikely to collide with currently used or inhabited hardware like communications satellites and the International Space Station. Often those orbits are designed so that the unused craft will eventually re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.

But the agency recently signed over the rights to one old satellite to a private group that intends to try to use it for new missions. If the group can communicate with and take control of the satellite, NASA will let them use it for their own experiments.

This could be interesting, and if it pans out would be worth pursuing on a larger scale. Since NASA itself can't actually put people in space anymore, farming more and more pieces of itself to people who are still interested in the universe beyond our world might be a good idea.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Post Burke

After lawyer, child protection advocate and author Andrew Vachss ended his best-known Burke series with 2008's Another Life, he published several standalone novels before taking a crack at another recurring series. When he did in 2012, using the mercenary Cross and his crew for hire, he didn't really break new ground.

Blackjack borrows the story Vachss wrote for the Dark Horse comic book Predator: Race War in the early 1990s and tweaks it to remove references to the hunting alien made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1987 movie. He then combines it with a previously published short story about Cross's crew and ties them together rather loosely around some of the characters of the comic book adaptation.

The alliance is a shaky one, and the seams show clearly. The second story, in which Cross and his crew have to try to outsmart a crimelord who has taken one of their own captive, seems very much like what it is: A second story grafted into the first one's tale of mysterious murders coming to a head in a prison already boiling with racial tension. Both are told in Vachss' over-the-top pulp tough-guy prose, which doesn't work nearly as well here as it did when helping the career criminal Burke present his tough-guy face to the world. For Burke, the image was part of the affect and the face he showed the world to protect himself and those he loved. But with Cross and company, it's image with no substance behind it to care about. The mysterious entity or entities that are at the root of the killing are left unexplained; whether Vachss takes them up again in later Cross books is yet to be seen and makes the already retread-y Blackjack lose even more of its good will.

Cross and his mercenaries were great characters in small doses in several short stories Vachss collected over his career, but this version of their chronicles limps badly from the start and stumbles over its creator's sermonizing attitude and the incomplete revision and union of the source materials.
With 2013's Aftershock, Vachss created a completely new stage for himself by introducing us to former French Legionnaire and mercenary Adelbert Jackson and his wife Dolly, herself once a nurse in a worldwide medical relief organization. "Dell" created new identities for them after they fell in love so they could vanish from the radar of the kind of people who'd hired him, and they settled in a small Pacific Northwest coastal town.

But small towns and idyllic scenery often hide dark secrets, and some of those begin to come to the front when a star high school athlete shoots a fellow student on the last day of class. The student -- Mary -- was one known by Dolly and she believes there is much more to the shooting than the bare facts of the case. She enlists Dell's help in learning the truth -- for although Dell's skills may not have been employed on behalf of the innocent on any regular basis prior to this, they will be just as effective in uncovering the dark narrative that played out that day, and he will employ them as ruthlessly on this mission as he has on any other.

Aftershock has a lot to like about it. Dell and Dolly's relationship offers a nice change from Burke's marriage to revenge. A lawyer Dell enlists early in the novel has a nice character arc in which he discovers he has both honor and a spine and employs them both.

It also has a lot that's much less likeable. Part of the quest to learn the truth behind Mary's actions involves a mean con game run on a young girl. This apparently becomes OK when the wise Guru ex Machina Therapist deems her as nothing but a sociopath -- I guess because using people as a means to an end is acceptable when they're people who use others as means to an end. Dell and Dolly encourage more than one young woman shamed by body image issues to accept themselves as beautiful for who they are -- but it's OK for Dell to make fun of one of the prosecuting attorneys for his appearance by using a cruel nickname instead of the character's actual name. Some of the better set pieces are lifted from Vachss' earlier novels without much tweaking. And we spend quite a bit of time uncovering the identity of someone who began the criminal conspiracy that ensnared Mary -- even though we don't need to. Plus, Vachss once again spends a lot of time giving his characters speeches about the points he wants to make, instead of following his earlier career pattern of allowing the story itself to unveil and emphasize those points.

Both series hold promise. And the Burke series had devolved into a lot of long monologues from Burke or his family of choice about things Vachss wanted to say, so a fresh start was not a bad idea. But Cross needs some serious ironing out and Dell and Dolly need to dial back the self-righteousness to give either of them legs to really last.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Oh, the Possibilities!

Here are another couple of sets of movie posters that re-imagine the movies with different casts, made in a different time and then promoted in the style of that time. There are several that are very cool, but when I saw this one:

I immediately realized any and all work at holographic recreation of creepy "living dead" performances by pop stars must cease in order to devote the efforts of every movie studio with an animation department to making it a reality.

The only thing that would justify setting it aside would be putting Bogie -- or maybe Peter O'Toole -- in a "what-if" version of Serenity.

Monday, May 19, 2014

What's the Word?

Sometimes when you are writing you want to use a word to describe something but even the deepest dive into Roget's seas leaves you with nothing. So you make one up.

Authors have done this for probably as long as there have been authors (Ookla: Me want to describe for others how you smear colors of paint on wall to represent creatures in our era but me lack pithy verb to do so. Mock: Why not say "painting?" Ookla: Brilliant!  Mock: And it can describe result of action as well, being both verb and noun! Ookla: Uh-oh...)

But not every author who neologizes and portmanteaus his or her way through their text creates a phrase that not only they, but everyone else starts to use. William Shakespeare is probably one of the best known in the field, but he has many surprising companions. Paul Dickson's Authorisms goes through a few of them and presents short essays about some of the words' origins.

Where a few of our best-known words came from is rather surprising. The world "Martian," for example, is probably about 750 years old in the English language, coming to us from Geoffrey Chaucer. But it didn't start getting used as a noun, denoting an inhabitant of the Red Planet, until the late 19th century. Before that, it was mostly an adjective, describing something that might, it was thought, be found on Mars.

This is really not a mysterious process -- it happens in pop culture today, although the origination of some of the words is a lot more obscure. Although the word "selfie," for example, is almost ubiquitous today, no one really knows who first began using it to describe a picture take of oneself with the camera on one's telephone or some other digital device.

Which is probably better for that person or persons' health and well-being, anyway. Who would want that sin on their conscience?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Unwritten Law?

At Lowering the Bar, San Francisco lawyer Kevin Underhill writes of a sign installer who, while installing signs that limited the time one could park in a certain area, received a ticket for parking in that area longer than the time limit.

Mr. Underhill takes a moment or two to sketch the legal arguments in the case, in which the sign installer appealed his citation to a municipal judge and lost. He suggests that a particular municipal code in Santa Barbara, where this scofflaw was taught that the law should not be scoffed at even though it wasn't yet written down, shows that the sign installer was probably in the right.

He also says this kind of silliness is "often short-circuited, or should be, by common sense." I'd find it hard to disagree. The officer may dispose of his or her own time as he or she sees fit. But while in uniform, that time is supposed to be set aside for the service and protection of Santa Barbara citizens, who part with some of their property to remunerate the officer for doing so. You'd have to stretch the concept of "service and protection" to Ralph Dibney proportions to include this bit of silliness -- meaning someone owes someone some money, but it ain't the guy who got the ticket.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Congrats, Class of 1595!

Sure, my iPad has all that sleek design mojo going for it, but if you want to find a scientific toy with some real artsy cred, you have to head back to the days of the Renaissance:

This astronomical compendium, known to have been owned by Grand Duke Ferdinand I de' Medici in 1595, contained several instruments cleverly folded within the small case, including a sundial, various lunar and solar volvelles, a compass, tables of latitude, and a perpetual calendar. Volvelles are wheel charts that are sometimes thought of as analog computation machines; lunar and solar volvelles helped the user determine the position of the moon or the sun.

There is a Windows version which, of course, snaps shut at random intervals for no reason whatsoever.

Friday, May 16, 2014


Looks like we've got a few months left before the scientists with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN fire the thing back up and create the black hole that will destroy us all, so it'd probably be a good idea to finish that project you've been working on.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Writing Dead

Of the three "zombie Parker" series that other authors have continued since Robert B. Parker's death in 2010, Ace Atkins writing the "Spenser" series has consistently written the best books as well as done the best job of capturing the characters that Parker wrote. With Cheap Shot, his third outing with Parker's signature Boston private investigator, Atkins continues to find his groove in continuing Parker's characters as well as building with and on them.

New England Patriots linebacker Kinjo Heywood is feared on the field, but off it tries to be a devoted family man to his son from a previous marriage. The team hires Spenser to see who may be behind what might be attempts to intimidate Heywood or provoke him into some sort of tabloid-fodder meltdown. But then Heywood's son Akira is kidnapped, and Spenser now has to contend with an image-conscious team, a grieving and distraught family and a whole lot of attention from both media and federal law enforcement. Good thing Spenser has Hawk and his apprentice Zebulon Sixkill, "Z," to watch his back and add some muscle when he needs to confront force with force.

Beginning with his initial Spenser outing Lullaby, Atkins seemed to have made the decision to try to write the character Spenser rather than try to write like Robert B. Parker. The Parkeresque narrative, dialogue and wit, he may have reasoned, would flow from the characters themselves. It has not been a completely smooth transition, but each time out Atkins seems to have some more confidence in his take on the characters as well as his ability to do his own things with them. He's helped by the way that Parker's own last two or so outings with Spenser were significant bouncebacks from years of dull and lackluster predecessors: Parker hooked readers into caring about Spenser again, and Atkins can capitalize on that.

He still has some work to do. His plots twist once or twice too often, and he does not yet have a really firm handle on Spenser's friend Hawk. But he is producing some work with depth and reflection, something Parker in his prime did better than almost anyone, and so makes another outing with this vision of Spenser a worthwhile one.
On paper, Michael Brandman was the best positioned of the Parker Corps for success. Jesse Stone had a fairly high visibility because of several good CBS made-for-TV movies about him starring Tom Selleck. The Stone novels had yet to see any of that late-career rebound showing up in the Spenser series. And Brandman had worked closely with Parker in making the Jesse Stone movies.

The only problem was that Michael Brandman had never written a book in his life, and his inexperience showed. His extensive history in television included a lot of writing, but screenplays and novels are different beasts. Brandman's first Stone novel, Killing the Blues, had a pale echo of Parker-styled speech from Stone and other characters. But as you might expect from a writer who has spent years relying on the camera to establish scenes, set moods and create tones for characters and what they say, the dialogue was the best part. Almost everything else was clunky and bland, neither setting a scene very well or flowing with any rhythm or smoothness of its own. By 2013's  Damned if You Do, Brandman's third Stone novel, that part of his writing had improved but was still below average -- let alone anywhere close to what Parker himself produced. His style and descriptive language still rely heavily on assistance from what the camera will show -- only in novels, there's no camera available.

In Damned, Jesse and his Paradise police department investigate the murder of a young woman found in a seedy hotel. Her long-term history will have an impact on Jesse and her short-term history will uncover a sort of bidding war between two vicious prostitution rings, either of whom would be much happier if a certain small-town police chief either let the matter go or vanished from the earth. Jesse also digs into potential mistreatment of a friend living in a long-term residential care facility and acquires enemies as ruthless as the pimps, even if they use lawyers and multimillion-dollar bank accounts instead of fists and firearms.

Damned is not a bad story and if it either featured Brandman's own characters or had been his first essay at bringing Parker's characters back to life it would earn him a second look from a lot of publishers. But it was neither of those things, and so starting this year, three-time Shamus Award winner Reed Farrell Coleman will take over the telling of what goes on in Paradise, Mass., and in the life of its police chief Jesse Stone. It may be small consolation to Brandman, but he did finish his Stone turn with better work than he started. But time and Putnam wait for no man.
On the other hand, actor/screenwriter Robert Knott's second turn with Parker's Old West lawmen, Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch warrants an immediate buyout of whatever contract the publisher signed with him. Knott's first Cole and Hitch novel, Ironhorse, was a run-of-the-mill Western that could have been written by any reasonably competent author and which would have been no different if its leads had been lawmen Dole and Fitch. That's not all on Knott; aside from the first two books in the series Parker himself did little to make the lawmen stand out from their crowded field.

But as shrug-worthy as Ironhorse was, it's light-years better than the convoluted and contrived plot, lifelessly flat and wooden characters, nauseating dialogue and pulled-out-of-the-author's-hat endgame that Knott foisted on Putnam and the Parker estate with Bull River.

Cole and Hitch have caught up with a Mexican national wanted for murder in the United States. But no sooner do they get him to jail for trial than they learn that the town's largest bank has been robbed -- by its own president. He shows back up worse for wear, but neither the money, the robbers nor the bank president's pretty wife are anywhere to be found. And the president himself may not be everything he's claimed to be. Cole and Hitch partner with local lawmen and a couple of surprise allies to chase down the money and the fugitives.

Bull River has none of Parker's narrative sassiness and the Cole-Hitch interchanges plod with so little life and verve you'll want to check your own pulse after reading them. The truth of the bank president's connection to the robbers and the bandit Cole and Hitch capture at the beginning of the book comes out gradually -- perhaps meant to seen like peeling back the layers like in an onion. But it happens in such a stuttering stop-and-start manner that it seems a lot more likely Knott had no idea where he was going until a few pages before he got there. He overshoots the usual Parker page count by about sixty, much of that because he recycles conversations and character interactions several times.

River can't even keep its own clichés straight -- the Mexican robber is said at the novel's opening to speak excellent English but his dialogue varies from almost pidgin to Republic serial stereotyping to semi-standard 21st century English, and he switches between using a first-person pronoun and talking about himself in the third person with no apparent reason. It also comes with plenty of typos and dropped words -- Virgil asks if a character named Comstock is connected to the Nevada silver mining strike called the "Comstock Load" before he and Everett make fun of the man's weight by referring to him as a load. Of course, the pun doesn't work if you write the wrong homonym and you don't call it the "Comstock Lode," since lode is the actual word for a vein of ore.

But we shouldn't be too hard on the editor. He or she probably didn't want to read this all that closely either.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How Will They Pay in Peoria?

It's a question the city of Peoria, IL (or at least its insurance carrier) is probably going to have to answer soon, as the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois announced Monday that it's going to talk to Peoria city officials (or at least their lawyers) about a little recent city business, and it wants to hold that talk in front of a judge.

Someone found a fake Twitter account using the name and photo of the mayor of Peoria. When city officials learned of it, they tried to get Twitter to take it down. Twitter allows for parody accounts (perhaps recognizing the superficiality of its actual accounts) and didn't move as fast or as far on the request as Peoria and its mayor wanted.

So the city got its police department involved, eventually raiding a house, confiscating computers and phones, holding people for questioning and charging a guy whose name was on the internet account that had been used to set up the fake Twitter feed with possession of marijuana. Which he apparently did have. But he had not set up the fake feed; that was on another person picked up from work after the house was raided. That's the fellow on whose behalf the Illinois ACLU would like to have its sit-down with city officials, in the presence of the aforesaid judge and possibly a dozen of the city officials' peers.

I'm thinking it doesn't get that far, and the conversation between the lawyers of the different parties is going to be mostly numerical, interspersed with phrases like "How much do you want?" and "How much do you got?" and "I think my sofa would look really good in the mayor's office."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Maybe Not

The current buzz author in the fantasy world -- thanks to his ever-expanding Song of Ice and Fire series and the HBO television show Game of Thrones which is based on it -- is George R. R. Martin. In a recent Rolling Stone magazine interview, Martin pointed out places where he differs from the genre's most prominent name, J. R. R. Tolkien, and where he believes his work differs from Tolkien's dominating Lord of the Rings.

A lot of people go along with Martin. They see his Song novels, which are replete with rape, incest, slaughter of innocents, betrayal and other things you can see or read about in the news seven days a week and twice on Sunday, as an "adult" version of the less bleak, more traditional tale-spinning of Tolkien. My description may clue you in as to where I am on this matter.

Mere Orthodoxy's Jake Meador thinks that Martin's take on Tolkien is less than fully reflective, as he outlines here. Meador suggests that Martin does not seem to really take seriously some of the perspective that Tolkien's experiences and beliefs might provide for interpreting his work. I'd agree -- whatever else Martin says about Tolkien and aside from the fact that his own fantasy epic is terminally ill with bestseller's bloat -- the reading of Tolkien as attributed to him in the RS interview is not particularly careful. But he's had a lot of typing to do, so it's understandable.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Appropriate Actions

The Soviet blockade of West Berlin ended 65 years ago today.

And neither Harry Truman, Lucius Clay nor the RAF used any stinkin' hashtags.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Free Is Expensive

An article at Pocket Now details some of the reasons why municpality-provided wireless internet -- often thought of as free public wi-fi -- is a bad idea.

It boils down to two primary issues; cost and privacy. My surprise is that people were still talking about municipal wi-fi. Current wireless technology would require a lot of routers to cover an area, as well as the lines and power to run them. Cable television and phone companies already have that infrastructure built, meaning they just have to piggy-back their new stuff on top of already-built equipment. If I remember correctly the very little of my econ classes that stuck, these items are referred to as "sunk costs" for those companies, meaning they have already paid for the material.

Cities would have to buy and install the systems, which would not be free, and they would recoup expenses through one or several of their usual revenue streams like water and sewer bills, licenses, sales taxes, etc. Free, therefore, would not really be free.

Them's the breaks, kid.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Touque-Wearing Looney, Will You Please Go Now?

We may never know who in the world is the dumbest person. Contestants may be hiding their dimness under a bushel, which would imply enough intelligence to be disqualified from the competition. And every time we think we have found -- or become -- that person, someone always comes along with an overwhelming urge to one-up the putative winner.

But an unnamed Toronto resident is in the front of the pack, having complained to a local library that the Dr. Seuss book Hop on Pop promotes violent actions towards fathers. The library, in a display of wisdom one would hope to be universal, ignored the complaint.

Rumors that hopeful fathers bought every copy available in Toronto bookstores to present to their spouses while containing a card reading "Hint, hint!" are, as yet, unfounded.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Secret Agent Men

John Wells may think he has a lot in common with Roger Murtaugh, but he keeps being pulled back into the spy game, at a potentially devastating cost to his personal relationships. This time he's doing a favor of sorts for his old boss and friend, Ellis Shafer, and his old other boss and non-friend, Vinny Duto. But a simple information interview mires Wells in a scheme targeting CIA operatives in the Far East and uncovers a dangerous new advance in Iran's nuclear weapons program. Is the "counterfeit agent" of the title the man feeding information to the Americans? Is it a former CIA station chief running his own operation? Or is it Wells, whose heart may no longer be in a game where hesitation and lack of focus can be deadly?

In his eighth Wells novel, Alex Berenson does a good job of layering in his villains, his conspiracy, the mystery behind it and the motives of the people involved. He does a little less well with his protagonist, at times losing his handle on Wells and his motivations. Wells' current romantic partner wants him to choose between life as an agent in harm's way or life with her and has given him a deadline for making his choice. This should be a serious matter given the context of the relationship, but it only crops up now and again in a couple of out-of-context reflections, seemingly to remind Berenson of that development as much as us. And the Islamic faith Wells adopted as his own, something that might set up an interesting conflict between him and the often Islamic-supremacist enemies he fights, gets two whole paragraphs out of close to 400 pages. While the story itself is tightly woven and a lot of fun to read, this is a series that has often promised more but not completely delivered.
Retired Delta Force Lt. Colonel Brad Taylor has some knowledge of the sharp end of the fight, and used that knowledge to build authenticity into his initial Pike Logan thriller. Logan operates with a special, extra-legal group called the Taskforce, which has as its mission stopping threats to the United States whenever and wherever in the world they show up.

In the series' second novel, 2012's All Necessary Force, a mission in Cairo has left a Taskforce member dead and another seriously wounded. Logan counted both men as friends, and so has special motivation for finding out the cause of the problem and in thwarting the terrorist cell behind it. But Logan's connection to the Taskforce is not what it used to be, and the plotters may already be on U.S. soil -- where the Taskforce is forbidden to operate. The steps Logan may have to take to protect his country could drive away his new partner, Jennifer Cahill, as well as make him the same kind of killer he pursues.

Taylor also relies on his experience to use his story to ask some interesting questions. If the Taskforce must have absolutely reliable operatives of the highest character in order to be trusted with its extra-legal authority, what might happen to those same operatives if their missions force them to take steps that war with that character? Can they still be trusted? Should they be? What does giving that kind of authority to hunt the bad guys whenever and wherever and however do to those who have it?

Force still has plenty of rough patches, and Taylor tends to address his questions directly rather than leaving them to be discerned by a reader. But he is asking them, which sets Logan and his Taskforce company a little ahead of the espionage suspense thriller pack and makes them a fun, even though violent, read.
Dewey Andreas, on the other hand, doesn't really ask those kinds of questions very often, and in 2013's Eye for an Eye, a personal tragedy has given him even less of a reason to do so than before. He's out for revenge, and the government agencies that he's worked with in the past can either use his desire and help him or they can get the heck out of the way.

Dewey pretty much saved the country in his initial outing, Power Down, and then saved the world in both of his subsequent adventures -- once from a nuclear war between India and Pakistan and once involving Iran and Israel. But here his motives are strictly personal, which only makes him deadlier than usual.

Coes' most obvious antecedent for his hero is the late Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp, was also often The Only Man for the Job as well as The Only One Willing to Do What It Takes to Get the Job Done. But Coes does not have Flynn's style or skill, and he relies more heavily on clichéd storylines like the hero's loved ones threatened or the grim avenger protagonist. He's also less cautious about some of his real-world research; he threw a slew of errors of fact into Coup d'Etat and gave Dewey the ability to travel at superhuman speeds.

Power Down was an inventive story with a not-so-run-of-the-mill credible threat to the United States into which Dewey was dragged by the logic of the narrative. Coes returns to that pattern with Eye, but with a padded storyline, villains and motives out of the Espionage Thriller 101 textbook. He's certainly better than average in the genre and his writing style continues to improve as well as maintain its strengths -- detailed action scenes that grip hard and don't let up. But he also has plenty of room for the improvement that Power Down suggested readers could expect.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Out, Out, Damned Plot!

Here's a list, via io9, of ten authors who repudiated some of their own books.

The list is kind of interesting, and shows how more than a few writers have ambivalent relationships with some of their most famous work. It also shows a little counter-productivity. Stephen King asked that his pseudonymous 1970s suspense novel Rage, about a high-school shooting, go out of print after a couple of actual such shootings in the mid-1990s. So a copy of the paperback's first printing now goes for almost $900 on eBay. Like the initial limited printings of The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, the scarcity of the work has raised its profile rather than pushed it to the background.

King would probably have been a lot better off letting Blockade Billy go out of print. Or Under the Dome, or Wizard and Glass, or Duma Key, or The Regulators...

Sisyphus, please call your office.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Live + Animated

Every country and culture has its tried-and-true genre movies, which are often good frameworks to use for comedy. Mel Brooks used horror movies and Westerns to create Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. It doesn't always work, as Amy Heckerling found out when she made the gangster-film spoof Johnny Dangerously, or Sylvester Stallone when he made the gangster-film spoof Oscar, or Eddie Murphy when he made the comedy crime movie Harlem Nights. Some genres may work better than others.

Japanese moviemaking has a genre called jidaigeki, which usually refers to movies about the Edo Period between about 1600 and the mid-1800s. The warrior samurai frequently feature prominently in them, and Japanese directors have used jidaigeki as a comedy framework also, as Hiroyuki Nakano did in 1998's Samurai Fiction. The young son of a clan officer sets out to retrieve a sword stolen from his family by another samurai. Two of his friends come along to help, and the young man's father sends two ninja along to protect his son and keep him from dying at the hands of the much more skilled sword-thief. During his pursuit, the young man meets an aged samurai sword master and his young daughter, with whom he falls in love.

Nakano made his movie in black and white after the usual pattern of jidaigeki films, but included an updated rock and roll soundtrack and random illustrative color splashes (red fills the screen when someone is killed, for example). He is heavily influenced by Quentin Tarantino as well as great Japanese moviemakers, with the title itself calling to mind Tarantino's 1994 Pulp Fiction. But the plot is cluttered enough to flatten the laughs, relying more on punchlines and sight-gags than on humor built into the story the genre's own absurdities. It might make for enough laughs, but they're not very lasting, and neither is Samurai Fiction.
Current internet culture has a big place for anime, or Japanese animated television series and movies, but that art form's exposure was a lot more limited in 1998 when Sunrise Studios and director Shinichirō Watanabe began making the sci-fi/Western/noir/crime drama Cowboy Bebop. Bebop, in fact, played a large role in raising the profile of the genre from kid's movies or gross underground stuff to actual adult entertainment.

Enough so that in 2001, Watanabe also created Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heaven's Door (retitled Cowboy Bebop: The Movie in the U.S. to avoid lawsuits), a feature-length adventure of the bounty-hunting crew of the spaceship Bebop in the late 21st century.

The explosion of a tanker truck on a busy Martian highway has killed hundreds, but the perpetrator can't be found. Authorities issue a fantastic reward for his capture, which draws interest from Spike, Faye and Jet, especially because the guy they were already chasing was supposed to be driving the tanker. A chemical company responsible for the deadly substance spread by the explosion has dispatched their own agent to try to track down who's responsible, and her path will cross the bounty-hunting "cowboys" of the Bebop. It'll probably take them awhile to warm up to each other.

Watanabe wanted to create a movie that kept the feel of his series but took full advantage of the longer time available as well as the bigger budget. He mostly succeeds, with a fighter-plane chase and a mano-a-mano bout between Spike and the villain standing out as some absolutely amazing animation -- especially when you consider that it was all hand-drawn.

Bebop the movie keeps some of the series' flaws -- characters tend to monologue a bit much and Faye's got a costume and figure straight out of some middle-schooler's sketchbook. But it also keeps its strengths -- literate, layered, well-done and with people who seem real even though they, even more so than most movie characters, are just images on a screen. It's easy to see why this movie and TV series helped the art form not just open the door, but kick it in and snap off a few shots as well.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Assigning Value

Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder won the National Basketball Association's Most Valuable Player award for 2014. In his acceptance speech, he promptly and sincerely talked about everybody but himself.

That'll do nicely.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Big Little Project

When I putter around in the garage, I may get some old moving boxes or unneeded junk cleaned up.

When Momir Bojic putters around in his garage, he creates an oaken VW Beetle.

I may lack ambition.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Quite a View

Want to see what they see on the International Space Station?

Here's a link to a live stream from the station; periodically the feed goes dark when the station is in the "night" portion of its orbit. Do not be worried by the Blue Screen of Death; it doesn't suggest alien invaders have destroyed the station but is just the periodic loss of signal that happens as the ISS orbits.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


Students and faculty at Rutgers University have proven they have little to no interest in free speech by staging a large enough tantrum to cause former United States Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to decline the invitation to speak at their commencement. Unwilling to sully their ears with viewpoints other than their own, the group had planned even more elaborate and larger-scale moves, prompting Rice to allow all of the students who wanted to celebrate their graduation from college to do so without having to look the other way as polite people often do when under-supervised toddlers have fits in public.

The university will now tap someone as its commencement speaker who is probably lower profile, less controversial, and OK with the idea that the only reason he or she is speaking is because the original selection bowed out. My suggestion is that commencement ceremony organizers do not select a substitute, ask Rice about how long her speech would have been and simply have everyone in attendance sit there for that length of time. But looking to Rutgers -- whose president waited a year or so before telling his staff to exclude him from dealings with two companies on whose boards he sat and from whom he took a $300,000 paycheck and which delayed firing an abusive basketball coach until after he qualified for a $100,000 bonus -- to do the right thing is an unproductive course of action.

Rutgers, of course, is also the university that paid Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi $32,000 to tell its students to "study hard, but party harder" in the same year that it paid commencement speaker (and Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author) Toni Morrison $30,000. This suggests to me that the Rutgers community is ignorant not only of the value of free speech, but of worthless speech as well.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Rimshot Ad Infinitum

Famed physicist Stephen Hawking says that the creation of artificial intelligence, or "AI," could be the worst mistake in human history...

...obviously, no one told him MSNBC hired Al Sharpton.

...obviously, no one told him people pay for Lady Gaga records.

...obviously, no one told him about President Obama's selection of a running mate.

...obviously, no one told him about the Green Lantern movie.

...obviously, no one told him about the cancellation of Firefly.

...obviously, no one told him about Keith Olbermann going to work for Current TV.

...obviously, no one told him about Justin Bieber.

...obviously, no one told him Tina Brown bought Newsweek.

...obviously, no one told him Dutton Juvenile published a Joy Behar children's book.

...and so on...

Thursday, May 1, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Look East

In feudal Japan, highly trained mercenaries used as spies and assassins were called the shinobi. Because of the peculiarities of marrying Chinese character writing with the Japanese language, another name for these fighter/assassin/spies was ninja. Once the Tokugawa clan won the shōgunate at the Battle of Sekigahara, use of the shinobi assassins diminished even while legends of their abilities grew.

The 2005 movie Shinobi: Heart Under Blade keeps aspects of the actual story of its namesake and doubles down on the legends, representing its shinobi as something more like the X-Men mutants than secretive mercenaries, each with a unique "fighting style" that works out much the same as the superhuman abilities of the comic book mutants.

Although the fighting has ended under the new shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shinobi are still restless. The warring clans of the Kouga and Iga villages have not fought each other for many years and now seek excuses to do so. But the two heirs to the clan leadership -- Gennosuke of the Kouga and Oboro of the Iga -- have, like two teens in Verona a few years earlier, fallen in love. They vow to stop the bloodshed, but find themselves enmeshed in a scheme by Tokugawa to eliminate the risk they pose. Five of the deadliest of each clan and village will battle each other, with the winner to help select Tokugawa's heir -- but he has a plan they do not know.

Joe Odagiri as Gennosuke and Yukie Nakama as Oboro have most of the dramatic work in the movie; other cast members just fill in their roles as super-powered fighters and fight with their super-powers. A couple of the battle episodes lead to a little reflection on the part of the fighters, and the bookend scenes with the star-crossed couple require some acting. Much of the rest is skillfully executed dueling, which draws on long enough that one wishes Tokugawa had asked each clan leader for only three warriors apiece. But even at about 20 minutes too long, Shinobi is an action film asking for and prompting thought from its audience.
Modern Hollywood is rightfully derided for taking something that works and doing it over and over again in decreasingly creative ways. But it's not so much of a new technique; when Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell brought in good box office in 1951's His Kind of Woman, Howard Hughes reteamed them the next year in the South Seas crime drama Macao.

The pair meet on board a ferry from Hong Kong to Macao when Nick Cochran (Mitchum) helps Julie Benton (Russell) fend off an amorous suitor and she lifts his wallet. On-the-lam Cochran can't find work in Macao, but Benton helps him out of a jam with the local corrupt police captain, only to find herself hired on as a singer by casino owner/crime lord Vincent Halloran (Brad Dexter). Halloran has his own designs on Benton and, seeing Cochran as a rival, maneuvers to get him out of Macao. Thinking Cochran's a New York City police detective under cover, Halloran makes a potentially lethal change in plans that could also endanger Benton as well as the traveling salesman both have befriended, Lawrence Trumble (William Bendix).

As in the earlier movie, chemistry between Russell and Mitchum carries a lot of rather tired story. Macao had the problem of its first director, Josef von Sternberg, being neither the artiste he fancied himself nor capable of directing a Mitchum-Russell crowd-pleaser. von Sternberg's name remained on the titles, but Nicholas Ray was supposed to have finished a lot of the movie and Mitchum himself helped create bridging scenes between the original director's oddly unconnected episodes. The pair of leads, Mitchum and Russell, display increasing affection for each other and imply a great deal more. Dexter is a cool and contemptuous villain and Gloria Grahame has a small but important role as his mistress.

Macao did well enough at the box office and has done better critically as years have gone by. Contemporary reviewers dismissed it as lightweight, but later audiences have appreciated the Mitchum-Russell byplay and the extra touches from Graham, Dexter and Bendix.