Sunday, November 30, 2014

Gael and Blues

Listening to albums in a language other than my own is never a guaranteed proposition. Being a word guy, I like to know what's being sung, and great lyrics are often grist for the mill of argument, inspiration and aphorism. But every now and again what's being sung isn't the key, and Catriona Watt's Cadal Cuain (Ocean Sleep) is a great example. Watt is a native Gaelic speaker and sings in that tongue, but she uses her voice and the instrumentation to produce atmospheres within the song that communicate the meaning as much as lyrics might do if their meaning were known.

Watt's piano, flute and string-based instrumentation offers a firm foundation for her vocals, underlying the words without distracting from the sound of her singing. Her voice is probably the strongest and most effective tool in her kit, as she demonstrates in the a cappella opening track, "Ailein Duinn." The sprightly "A' Bhean Eudach" follows, proving your feet don't need to know what the words mean to get to moving. A return to a cappella singing, this time with sing-along harmonies, happens with "Ailein dhuinn A Ni 'Sa Naire," showcasing the range that Watt and her bandmates will deploy on their rest of the album. The skill and musicianship demonstrate why Watt won the BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year Award in 2007.

In the end, Cadal Cuain is a lovely-sounding album but those who aren't followers of Scottish and Gaelic traditional music might wind up taking a pass unless they simply love the sound of a lovely voice and strong, dreamy melodies. Which is easy to do. But the advice either way is to purchase the actual CD, as the liner notes have translations of the songs. And fie on Foot Stompin' Records for not making a digital booklet available with the album download anyway.
By the nature of the roughness of the instruments and experimental nature of the process, almost all music started out as "tribal" or "folk" in one form or another. There were fiddlers before violinists and reed flutes before flautists. The fact that most people today put "bagpipes" in the context of crisp clattery snare drums and soldierly rows of jacketed, tammed and kilted pipers and "Amazing Grace," "Scotland the Brave" or "The Marine's Hymn" doesn't change their origins as a weird, wailing instrument of battle, clan rebellion and mourning.

So meet Clanadonia, a drum-and-pipe outfit heavy on the drums whose aim, according to their own Facebook page, is "to spread Bagpipe and Drum fuelled mayhem amongst the general public throughout the known world...then have coffee and perhaps a wee biscuit." The band has about a 20-year history but only two recorded albums, the second being just released. The first, Keepin' It Tribal, came out in 2007 and introduces them quite adequately.

Most of the numbers are instrumental and feature the up-tempo piping and thundering percussion that are Clanadonia's signature. "Sherramuir" is a musical arrangement of the Robert Burns poem "The Battle of Sherramuir." The vocals are adequate but not special, which lends some authenticity to the rough edges of the music. Some, like "Tyler's Lament," are more traditional pipe tunes without percussion that ride the waves of the wailin' reeds. "Samba Ya Bassa" combines the two styles, and then there are songs like "Tu-Bardh," named after the band's lead drummer Tu-Bardh Wilson (sometimes Wulsin) who looks like he just walked off the set of Braveheart. It opens with a pipe call, and then the drum rolls join, propelling the song at a speed Michael Flatley could only dream of, urged on by an occasional background howl from Wilson. If the Highlanders had played more music like this, even Englishmen might have danced.
"The blues" conjures up certain images and ideas, both about its practitioners and what they say in their songs. Much of the time blues songs are straight laments, every now and again with a jump number slipped between the layers of sadness to provide some room for dancing.

So when Robert Cray's fourth album and major label debut Strong Persuader arrived in 1986, a lot of blues fans did not know what to make of it. Although the first single, "Smoking Gun," seemed to track along with the "My woman's done me wrong" arc familiar to every male blues musician since Robert Johnson, the title was taken from the third single, "Right Next Door (Because of Me)," and it flipped that whole scenario on its ear. Cray sings of a man who has seduced the woman next door and listens through the walls as their relationship breaks apart because of his actions. Even when he hears her weeping in the aftermath he realizes any gesture on his part would be worthless, as shallow as the one-night-stand he persuaded her to agree to.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Cray declines offers to provide him fortune, redemption and existential joy:
You can give me an hour alone in a bank
Pay all my tickets, wipe the slate blank
You could buy me a car, fill up the tank
Tell me a boat full of lawyers just sank
Because, as the title says, "Nothin' But a Woman" will truly improve his day and life. The peppy horns and bouncy lead guitar emphasize his upbeat declaration. The same kind of style helps "I Guess I Showed Her" get its joke across -- that the man who "showed" his lady by moving out has wound up much worse off but doesn't quite seem to know that. Blues purists have supposedly downchecked Cray because of his significantly denser lyric content and willingness to mix both soul-music horns and soul-music-flavored vocals into standard blues arrangements. But his long career offers proof that Cray knows something about what he's doing, and Strong Persuader is one of the high points of a great music career.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

At the Edge of Beyond

Later this week, the New Horizons probe from NASA will "wake up" and begin manuevers to bring it on course for Pluto.

The probe was launched in 2006 and has been in a sleep mode for much of its journey to save wear and tear on the electronics and reduce mission costs. Scientists hope to use it to study Pluto proper and some of its moons including Charon, the largest. This will be the first detailed study mission of what used to be thought of as the ninth planet until its reclassification by the International Astronomical Union in 2006. The reclassification happened after the launch, but there was no real way to tell the probe not to bother because it was only headed towards a little old dwarf planet anyway.

In fact, it's a bit of a chore to tell New Horizons anything these days, as it is far enough away from the Earth that signals take five hours to make the journey from home base to spacecraft, and then five hours to come back the other way. This may be one reason why parents of teenagers were selected for the Mission Control team, as they are used to significant delays in response to communication.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Or It Could Be Because...

Neuroscientist Jonthan Touboul actually did a study using real math and and observation and everything to figure out why hipsters look alike.

More specifically, Touboul studied the patterns of behavior of any "anticonformist" and determined why they will probably end up looking like each other. Hipsters, although it might pain them to learn it, are a newer edition of the anticonformist trend among people and simply represent the most recent iteration of a recurring human tendency. In other words, they are all people who want to look different, but they want it at the same time.

But the reason all hipsters (or grunge rockers, or punk rockers, or hippies, or whatever) all look alike could be that they all want to be different at the same time that they want to have the security of a group. There is a powerful magic in the drive to be the one to hear the Ultimate Hipster Nirvana (State of Being, Not Musical Group) Phrase, "Hey, who are you listening to? I've never heard that band before."

Because hearing it means that you are unique, and other people like your choices. The ability of the human brain to want two contradictory things at the same time should not be underestimated.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Big Darn Heroes

In one sense, every movie is unique, even if it's a sequel, remake, shot-for-shot homage or mockbuster cash grab. The cast is different, the story treatment is different, the technology is different, and so on. Some quality -- or lack thereof -- distinguishes a movie from all of the others like it, so even though it's yet another version of a hundred-and-twice-told tale, it has something of its own. But often, even though that something is real, it's irrelevant.

But 1984's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension! is unique in the other way -- there's never really been anything quite like it. You can sum it up in one sentence: Peter Weller plays Buckaroo, a physicist/neuro-surgeon/test pilot/rock star/superhero who has to lead his team in saving the world from the 8th dimensional Red Lectroids from Planet 10 and their evil leader Lord John Whorfin.

But that one sentence leaves out so many things -- Weller's deadpan take on the role at face value, John Lithgow's maniacal scenery chomping as Whorfin/Emilio Lizardo, the great throwaway lines (Christopher Lloyd growling, "It's not my G-----n planet, monkey-boy" or howling at Lithgow's fiftieth mispronunciation of his name), the resemblance of the good Black Lectroid aliens to laid-back Rastafarians, Ellen Barkin's goofiness, Jeff Goldblum's neophyte membership in the Hong Kong Cavaliers (Buckaroo's band and team of troubleshooting heroes). Buckaroo has to be watched repeatedly to get it all, and has to be watched to get it at all. Words alone won't do it, and even then there's no guarantee a viewer will get hooked.

Like the Adam West Batman TV series and movie about 15 years or so before it, Buckaroo is a Precambrian version of modern geek culture, where even the most fantastic of situations is permeated by a kind of ironic self-awareness. Without Weller's Buckaroo, there's probably no Buffy the Vampire Slayer, no Malcolm Reynolds, no Robert Downey, Jr./Tony Stark, no Chris Pratt/Peter Quill, etc. But don't watch it because of that. Watch it because there's never been a better physicist/neurosurgeon/test pilot/rock star/superhero ever shown on a screen, of any size, anywhere.
Silver-Age Superman fans know Brainiac as the green-skinned evil super-genius who menaced the universe while wearing a pink bodysuit and pink boots. The "menacing" part might have to have been taken on faith, given the outfit, but Brainiac was responsible for shrinking Kandor, the last remaining city of Krypton, down to bottle-size and keeping it for display.

Geoff Johns rebooted the hyper-intelligent supervillain in a 2008 story arc called Superman: Brainiac which morphed him into an unstoppable cyborg bent on amassing universal knowledge and the destruction of whatever he didn't need. That storyline is the basis for the 2013 DC Universe Animated Original movie Superman: Unbound, the 16th in the DCUAO series.

Superman's encounter with an exceptionally tough alien probe brings a mystery, part of which is solved by his examination of the probe at his Fortress of Solitude and part of which is solved by the memories of his cousin Kara Zor-El, Supergirl. She remembers the probes attacking the Kryptonian city of Kandor before it was sliced from the surface of its world by the mysterious skull-shaped ship of the Coluan cyborg Brainiac. Kara knows Brainiac will eventually follow his probes to Earth and repeat the pattern, so Superman begins a hunt for the collecting evil genius. An initial fight at Brainiac's ship leads to another fight in Metropolis and elsewhere on Earth, in which Kara must overcome the fear that still lingers after witnessing the Kandor attack and being powerless to stop it.

Unbound has a neat touch of showing the difference between Superman, who's been an immensely powerful being for as long as he can remember, and Supergirl, who knows what it's like to face overpowering opposition. It does fine at telling the straightforward action story of the two Kryptonians vs. the evil genius, and also adds in Clark Kent/Superman's problems in his relationship with Lois Lane. The two relationship subplots give the movie its extra depth, even though Kara's character design is the cheesecake-y version from that time frame that is kind of squicky when used on what is supposed to be a teenage girl just old enough to drive.

Those issues aside, Superman: Unbound makes for a solid entry in the DCUAO series and has the added bonus of deviating enough from the comic book arc as to leave out any need to revisit the interminable, clunky and highly uninteresting "World of New Krypton" mega-story that followed it in print.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Needed Advice

There are, for some reason, a spate of articles at different web magazines about how to talk to relatives whose politics differ from yours, while you are required to be in close proximity to them during the Thanksgiving holiday.

Personally, I'm thinking that if the only time you talk to each other enough for politics to come up is when you're at home for the holiday then you may have some other stuff going on besides political differences. And I don't know why it takes a bunch of web articles to say, "I'm not talking about this now" or "I don't think this is going to go anywhere so I'm bowing out."

It's not that I agree with everything everyone in my family believes. But they're grownups and I play one on TV, so we can all leave it at that and remember Grandma or listen to what the kids did or something else that doesn't have anything to do with politics. Those idiots take up enough time already.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Take #8,442,839 for the Team

Penn State University is selling some of its patents, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation pays special attention to one of them here.

That patent, which is #8,442,839 as referenced in the headline, is titled "Agent-based collaborative recognition-primed decision-making."

Yes, you read that title right. Someone at Penn State patented teamwork. The EFF people note that the patent would probably not hold up if someone tried to collect use fees from someone who attempted to solve a problem using teamwork. Legal reasoning would probably point out that teamwork's use predates the patent's 2005 filing (Messrs. Roosevelt and Churchill are suspected to have relied on it just before the middle of the last century in ridding the European continent of some truly pestilential vermin). Which just goes to show you how silly some of this is, because not much more than the sense God gave a grasshopper would seem to be necessary to understand that you can't patent something like teamwork.

Of course, viewed from another angle, it could be that patent #8,442,839 doesn't cover all teamwork so much as some specific aspects of it, like meetings. Which would require people who wanted to hold meetings to get a license from the patent holders or pay whatever fee they deem appropriate.

I could get behind that idea.

(H/T Ars Technica)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Glaringly Apparent?

Over at Cracked, a writer suggests four reasons to fear a possible Ghostbusters 3 movie, which has been bandied about in so many forms that the only thing about it that can be said for sure is that nothing can be said for sure (I'm not linking the post because the writer is a bit more free-range with his vocabulary -- for no reason I can tell other than the fact that he can type four-letter words and the teacher can't see him -- than I like to direct you to, O Gentle Reader).

He overlooks the single largest reason we should fear Ghostbusters 3: Ghostbusters 2. I would have thought it kind of obvious.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Oh, What an Entangled Web We Weave, When First We Practice to Perceive

Fifty years ago this month, physicist John Bell submitted a paper on what his fellow physicists called the "Einstein Podolsky Rosen paradox," a feature of subatomic particles that made no sense whatsoever, that Albert Einstein himself called "spooky" and which even today we probably do not really understand.

Subatomic particles like electrons have certain qualities, like polarity and "spin." When physicists say these tiny bits of stuff have spin, they do not mean the kind of spinning done by a top, a planet or a four-year-old trying to get dizzy, but another kind of feature entirely that is mostly beyond my brainwaves. Anyway, if get a pair of particles together and you know that their combined spin is zero, you know that they have opposite spins from each other. And if one changes its spin, then so does the other -- instantaneously. Which is, according to what physicists know about the universe, the speed of light and the laws of nature, impossible.

It may not look impossible at short distances, because the speed of light is so fast (186,000 miles per second, if you remember) that human perception could never pick up the lag. But even when the pair of previously entangled particles is separated by significant distances, the instantaneous change still happens. No experiment has shown any reason to suppose that the two particles would not continue their linkage, even if they somehow found themselves billions of light years apart.

Prior to Bell, quantum physicists mostly ignored entanglement since it didn't have much of an impact on what they were doing. But it remained, a gaping hole in quantum theory's ability to describe the world. If my theory of the way the world works requires things to happen that contradict things we can already prove true, then I have to do one of two things: 1) Explain why what we think is happening isn't happening or 2) Explain how the theory really does cover what's happening. There is a third, but it's really just abandoning the whole theory as unworkable. This is the kind of choice you make when all of your other ones fail.

But Bell's paper began exploring entanglement and insisting on keeping it in the mix as a part of the explanation for how the world works. Later developments have put a little light on what's happening with those two particles, but Einstein may have had one thing right about the phenomenon: It's spooky.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Cold War Wind-Up

Earlier this month, many people marked the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, part of the several things that signaled the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. With the exception of a handful of countries and a significant majority of university campuses, these events put a period on the inadequate economic and political system called Communism. Theories about how and why this happened abound, but many center on U.S. President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II and Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Secretary Gorbachev was the youngest of the four and is is the only one still living.

John O'Sullivan's The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister sketches several elements of the leadership and activities of the three Western leaders during the late 1970s and into the 1980s when events began to coalesce. John Paul became a face for freedom's struggle by being selected as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in 1978, Baroness Thatcher was elected Prime Minister in 1979 and President Reagan took office in 1980. O'Sullivan describes how each of the three initially came into leadership positions after some time on the sidelines, and focuses primarily on their interactions as they opposed the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations. He offers some side information on how they interacted with each other, especially Reagan and Thatcher.

John Paul's role in strengthening Poles who insisted on religious freedom helped expose the economic weaknesses that had begun the erode Soviet power. Moscow did not have the resources to help Polish Communist leaders put down the freedom movements without overwhelming force, and the prospect of being frozen out of international trade left that option unusable. After O'Sullivan offers these details, he mostly switches to the role of Reagan, supported by Thatcher. PPPM reads quickly and offers substantial footnotes to look at more expansive treatments of the era's history and primary sources. Although the three did not necessarily coordinate their activities or even do the majority of their work at the same time, O'Sullivan's idea is that the three of them each took a swing at their Cold War opponents that eventually succeeded in breaking up both the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union.
The news coverage I remember of the Reykjavik summit in 1986 was almost uniformly bleak, because no great agreement came from the meeting. But as Ken Adelman, who was on the arms control negotiating team at Reykjavik, points out, most of what would be a 1987 treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) was hammered out in the sessions at the Höfði House.

Adelman's eyewitness account of much of the negotiating sessions is the meat of Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours that Ended the Cold War. He also describes some of the lead-up to the summit and its context -- news organizations following Raisa Gorbachev around the city because they'd brought immense teams to cover an event that was going on behind closed doors, for example.

According to the way Adelman saw it, one thing that media coverage got both right and wrong was the role of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) space-based missile shield. This plan, usually referred to "Star Wars" because of its near science-fictional operating system of lasers shooting at rockets, was something Reagan believed in passionately because of his hatred of the threat of nuclear annihilation. Adelman notes that Reagan believed in SDI more than some of its planners, possibly being overly optimistic about the timetable for its effective completion. His commitment to it would not allow him to agree to test it only in the laboratory instead of in the field. Whether Gorbachev believed SDI would work or not, he knew that Reagan did and he remained firm.

But faced with increasing economic troubles at home, the USSR eventually had to turn resources from military use to other areas, and the 1987 INF treaty conceded the point. Adelman may overstate his case; whatever major role Reykjavik played in the collapse of Soviet power was not the only factor. Much subsequent writing on the end years of the Cold War downplays Reagan's work and sometimes even Gorbachev's, focusing on economic tides that neither man would have had much success in turning or reinforcing. But it's difficult to imagine stolid party oldtimers like Konstantin Chernenko or Yuri Andropov "smelling the coffee" of economic reality the way Gorbachev did, and Gorbachev himself said that the negotiations and treaties would probably not have happened had he been across the table from anyone but Reagan.

The Cold War ended either way, and whether it happened because stalwart defenders of freedom led three major opponents of Soviet power or because economic inevitability picked that decade to come due or because of a mixture of both views, it's interesting to revisit events I can remember and judge how I see them after a few more years turning calendar pages. Both books are worth the time and can offer material worth thinking about.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Some Days, It Is Easy

Despite the problems noted by a certain wise and well-known frog, some days it's absolutely awesome to be green:

Photographer Max Rive took this image of the Northern Lights at the Austnesfjorden Fjord in northern Norway.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thankful Potpourri!

-- A hundred and ninety-four physicists have determined that peanut butter has no apparent effect on the rotation of the earth. The hundred and ninety-fifth demurred, saying the evidence was inconclusive. He's also still unsure about Crest toothpaste and Trident gum.

-- What does the fox say? "I'm pretty darn cute,"  over and over, in these photos from Russian miner Ivan Kislov. I'll copy one. All ahead, "Awwwww-factor 10," Mr. Sulu:

-- Thanks to the good folk at Mental Floss, here are nine words that started out as errors. Understandably, they are still compiling the list of political careers that started out as errors and the latest estimates have swung back to the chance that the list will be finished before the heat death of the universe.

-- The University of Iowa is digitizing a collection of some 10,000 science fiction fanzines, dating back to the 1930s and containing hand-drawn fan art as well as early work by some big-time names. I sense the possibility of a strong, stay-at-home-while-reading-for-hours-on-end disturbance in the Force...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Bart Gummer, Please Call Your Office

A species of glow-in-the-dark worm has been discovered in the Amazon which lures its prey into its jaws with a phosphorescent glow and then closes its jaws around the unhappy light-seeking prey.

Entomologist Aaron Pomerantz said the worms apparently feed much like the fictional graboids of Tremors -- and I am not the one making the comparson, he is. They emerge from the ground to snap their jaws shut on their meals.

Dr. Pomerantz could offer no information on whether or not the carnivorous glowworms (which, as my Dave Barry Fan Club card requires me to tell you, would make a great name for a band) picked the wrong, ah, gosh-darned rec room to break into.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Moment of Observance

All fluorescing-nosed reindeer will dim their lights for five minutes on Dec. 24th in memory of Arthur Rankin, Jr., who passed away in Bermuda last week.

Monday, November 17, 2014

You Keep Using that Word

Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis think they have found the genetic markers that may have helped ancestral wildcats shed much of their original behavior to become the domesticated housecat of today.

Researchers examined the genome map of a domestic Abyssinian housecat and compared it with the genomes of a couple of Near Eastern wildcats, which are Tabby's nearest cousins. Several genes, such as those governing control of fear responses and the ability to learn new behavior, were different in each brand of cat. The scientists noted that a decreased fear response and ability to learn would be important traits for cats that were adapting to live in a -- somewhat -- social relationship with human beings.

When presented with the results of the research, housecats were heard to respond, "Say 'domesticated' one more time, monkey-boy."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Dead on Revival

Throughout his career, Stephen King has always been comfortable mixing genres as needed to tell his stories. He moves relatively easily between science fiction, fantasy and, of course, the place where he made his bones -- horror.  The Stand was mostly science fiction with horror overtones, and Firestarter was almost wholly sci-fi. The Dark Tower was largely fantasy, although it had sci-fi elements and played with horror in almost every volume. Only occasionally, such as in Christine, 'Salem's Lot or It, does he write more or less straight genre horror fiction.

Revival continues the mix. Jamie Norton first meets Charles Jacobs more than 50 years ago, when he is six and the new minister pays a call on his family. The folk of the small Maine town grow to appreciate the young minister and his family, but a tragedy will drive Jacobs from his pulpit and send him on a path that brings him in contact with Jamie several more times -- each darker than the last. Jacobs' obsession will lead him nowhere good, but the question is how far Jamie will follow, and if at the last he can forget a promise and a debt in order to stop what might happen.

King, more than most popular horror fiction writers, understands better what actual horror can be. Few horror novels and next to no horror movies today do anything other than startle, disgust and frighten. But King, like some of the people he dedicated Revival to such as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth and Shirley Jackson, gets that real horror has an existential dimension with which no bloodthirsty teen-slaying hockey mask wearer can connect. Revival has plenty of creepy moments and quite a few queasers, but at its core it concerns the kind of horror that brings madness. Lovecraft and the others on Revival's dedication page were all gifted at writing such tales. In fact it may be that the written word is better able to capture that sense true existential horror, leaving a reader undistracted by excellent (or awful) special effects and the constant need to sate the blood-soaked audience's appetite for "creative" gruesome demises of pretty people.

The problem, of course, is that a world in which people pay Eli Roth and Rob Zombie to make movies and then more people pay to see the movie has a short supply of the ability to reflect on written descriptions of horrific situations and beings. A modern audience reads about the title character in "The Call of Cthulhu" and shrugs -- a giant octopus-faced dragon man? What's scary about that? But people of Lovecraft's day paid attention to the other aspects of the Elder God, such as his utterly evil nature and his existence before this universe came to be, and understood Lovecraft to be writing about the existential horror humanity must face when it encounters things it can't defeat or control.

King's also had people miss this point. When he called Pet Sematary a book he thought was too scary to finish, he wasn't referring to its supernatural events but to its all-too-possible real-world horrors against which there is not nearly as much protection as we might wish. It will be interesting to see if this happens with Revival as well.

All that said, there's not a lot to recommend the book. It's King's second midrash on Arthur Machen's 1890 short novel "The Great God Pan," following his 2008 novella N. It's got the by-now familiar bucolic Mellencampian small-town opening, followed by a shattering series of events that exposes the dark shadows alongside the bright memories. Then we have a brief return to normalcy, even if the new normal itself is a bit darker with the perspective of age, before we move towards an all-too-readily-perceived conclusion. Many of Revival's set pieces echo other King work, which can lead to a game of spot-the-source that's in the end more fun and makes more sense than the novel itself.  There's the obvious nod to N, echoes of his sci-fi-themed Firestarter and Tommyknockers, some gloss from the 2009 short story "Morality," the slice-of-Baby-Boomer-life of The Body, It and Christine, and so on.

These combinations, paste-ins and retreads ultimately hamstring the potential impact of Revival's horror to which they were supposed to lead. When finished, it feels less like a peek at some real horror of human existence and more like someone tapped H.P. Lovecraft to finish an R.L. Stine book -- both are fine as what they are, but they don't fit together well at all.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


The Week offers four simple steps to avoid being taken in by an internet hoax. They are pretty obvious, like the "check out what you've read with other sources" think. To me that's kind of a "duh," but I used to be a reporter and the crusty old salts who taught our classes used to say, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out first."

I'm afraid that the four steps, while useful, can't guarantee that someone will never get taken in by an internet hoax again. There's only one such method, which the writer omits, but which I will include as the fifth step: Don't ever get on the internet.

Well, that one's blown.

Friday, November 14, 2014

'Nother Cool Picture

You might think the above picture was some sort of artwork created for a science fiction story, especially when you learn the photographer's name is Maciej Winiarczyk and the picture was taken at a place called Jokulsarlon Lagoon.

Believe it or not, the picture is from Iceland (our old friend the Bardarbunga Volcano, actually) and Maciej Winiarczyk is from Caithness, Scotland. Which leads one to wonder how the name Winiarczyk sounds in a brogue, or if the Scots simply throw up their hands and call him "Winnie."

In any event, the spectacular image combines the Milky Way, the Aurora Borealis and the glow from Bardarbunga in an image which makes even non-tokers say, "Wow, look at the colors!"

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Hitchin' a Ride

So there's a space probe sitting on a comet that's zipping along through space, and it's taking pictures...

Yeah. That's pretty cool.

(A slideshow of some of the images may be found at Wired, where this image came from).

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


If the first marathoner (Pheidippides, for the curious) had run his famous last race today:

The original may be found here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

In Honor of the Day

From legendary Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko, via the website of his son David, a modest yet entirely reasonable proposal for how to properly observe Veteran's Day (Hint: It involves government employees going to work).

Thank you for your service, ladies and gentlemen.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Elegant, Yet Unnecessary

At this link, one may find explained a way of telling the temperature using crickets, an idea most people first encountered on the sitcom Big Bang Theory. It involves careful observation and is based on a number of interesting biological phenomena. Yet it has a weakness, in that it relies on counting the cricket's chirps -- one of that annoying insect's most annoying features. So I propose a method which will be almost as accurate but much quieter:

1) Look at a thermometer.

2) Kill the damn cricket.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

King and the Wall

As we mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, this opinion piece by Paul Kengor in The Washington Post explores speeches made at the wall 50 years ago by America's leading civil rights hero, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Kengor notes that King's speech is usually overlooked, but describes how he used a discussion of the civil rights struggle in the United States to make parallels with East Germans and East Berliners in a way calculated to slide past the Communist party watchers and be understood by his audience east of the wall.

We've probably no way of knowing how many East Germans began to think about the freedom they deserved and were being denied by their own government and its leader, the Soviet Union. But it stands to reason that the same message preaching the elimination of hate, the elevation of the oppressed, and the dignity of all humanity that prevailed against segregation in the American South would not have fallen on deaf ears in the German East. In proclaiming the freedom necessary for all people and the opportunities such freedom must require in order to be real, King may have taken the first blow to the Wall, twenty-five years before it fell and barely three years after it was built.

But then, oppression almost always carries the seeds of its own destruction.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

What Are Words For?

The Oxford English Dictionary has had such a large role in defining the English language (see what I did there? Nyuk nyuk!) that for awhile around the turn of the previous century, they actually published a book that defined words that didn't make it into the OED because they were too local, too rarely used or too outdated.

As the good folk at Mental Floss note, the sixth and final edition of The English Dialect Dictionary, published in 1905, contained 70,000 words -- meaning the runner-up bracket for the OED had as many words as a whole lot of abridged regular dictionaries.

They've collected 50 of them and encourage people to try to work them into conversation, seeing if we can't place them back into regular English usage. Several on the list would have immediate application, it seems clear to me. No. 20, "inisitijitty," is very apt in connection with a cable television network spokesperson explaining to me why I should buy his or her company's premium channels.

No. 15, "eedle-doddle," describes someone unable to act decisively in a crisis. Few better descriptions of the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can be conceived. But I would recommend the usage of eedle-doddle only if you intend to use its companion word denoting someone unable to act correctly in a crisis, "Gingrich."

No. 18, "floby-mobly," describes the feeling of not being necessarily sick, but definitely less than your best. "That's it!" the American electorate shouted as one this past Wednesday morning, realizing that though they had indeed thrown many of the bums out of office, the Law of Electoral Conservation of Bums states that for every bum defeated, there is an equal and opposite bum elected. Or in some cases, the electorate may have felt downright "dauncy" (No. 13) about the aftermath of their voting.

I would go on, but the contemplation of electoral politics has rendered me in need of as many nipperkins (No. 26) as I can get my hands on.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Those Catchy Tunes!

A scientific survey reported here has identified the Spice Girls' 1996 hit "Wannabe" as the "catchiest song of all time." I can't argue with the numbers they report, but I'm not so sure about the conclusion.

The researchers set up a website and determined how long it took survey participants to recognize a song. It took people an average of 2.29 seconds to recognize "Wannabe." The rankings are not separated by much; "Billie Jean" was in 15th place but the average name-that-tune time for it was only about three-quarters of a second longer than "Wannabe" at the top spot.

There's obviously a little latitude going on here in several areas. The first is in the song selection, which only goes back into the 1940s. Toss, say, "Beethoven's Ninth" into the mix or "The Star Spangled Banner," and you might see some significant challenges to that 2.29 seconds time. The website the experiment uses is hosted in the United Kingdom, so substitute "God Save the Queen" or "Rule Britannia" in for "Banner" if you like. In fairness, the "catchiest song of all time" label comes from headline writers rather than the scientists themselves, so we can't lay the "all time" silliness at their door.

And "quickest recognized" doesn't necessarily equate with "catchiness." I might recognize "Wannabe" faster than "Oh, Pretty Woman" too, but that doesn't mean I want to listen to it instead of the Roy Orbison classic. In fact, I'm pretty sure I don't.

In any event, the scientists are researching the effect of music on memory as a way of trying to find out more about Alzheimer's Disease, so bravo to them all around. And I'd probably make a lousy test subject anyway, because when I read about the story, the song that "Wannabe" kept bringing to my mind was this one:

(H/T Yeah Right, where Allison also questions the recognizable/catchy equation)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Playing on the Space Station

You know, when even your hours off work let you have this kind of fun, you have a pretty cool job...

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Apollo's Gleam in a Titan's Eye...

My mind is pretty much just blown by the coolness of this image, captured by the satellite probe Cassini, of the sun reflecting off the hydrocarbon seas of Titan, Saturn's moon. Of course, you may believe that my mind being blown by this image means that I am a little at sea when it comes to defining coolness...

Shows how much you know.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Election Day

Voting: That act in which we tell a bunch of people who have been annoying us for months to shut up and get a job, and we tell the rest of the people who have been annoying us for months to shut up and get back to work.

I love this country.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Get Out of My Vote

I have discovered a major advantage to being registered independent of party.

I am less likely to receive a "we know you did/didn't vote" notice from either party organization, as has happened in several places around the country leading up to election day tomorrow. Both parties, it seems, have sent mailers to registered voters noting how often they have voted in recent elections. One Democratic party mailer in North Carolina ends with this sentence: “If you do not vote this year, we will be interested to hear why not.”

Should I have received such a notice, I can guarantee I would have voted. If I were still a registered Democrat and received a notice with that kind of language, I would resolve to vote for the Republican, and send notice to the party headquarters that I had done so and why. I do not care if the GOP nominee was David Bleepin' Duke; he would have my electoral support.

I take voting seriously -- if I have skipped an election, it is because my former party has nominated someone as objectionable as the other party has and I want no blame for whichever loser wins and subsequently makes losers out of the rest of us.

I will presume to speak on behalf of many registered voters of several parties and say that if those who send out letters about our voting frequency would like us to vote more often, they should make more of an effort to nominate candidates who do not suck.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Election from Heck

In federal terms, Tuesday's election is a "midterm," meaning that the president is not on the ballot, even though he apparently wishes he was. But in state terms, this is the year we Okies select our chief executive, and our options are not good.

The incumbent is Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican. Gov. Fallin has done little memorable while in office. She can point to no landmark legislation or accomplishment, which is about what one might expect from her given her previous record in elective office. Her 2010 campaign was essentially about being in the right place at the right time. She timed her candidacy to follow a popular Democratic governor who had done nothing to build the party and bring forth a good successor. Although the state Democratic nominee who did emerge -- then-Lt. Governor Jari Askins -- was clearly better qualified as an executive and leader, Gov. Fallin was able to take advantage of nationwide anti-Democratic sentiment and state Democratic party futility to win handily. Gov. Fallin offers no more reason to vote for her now after four years in office than she did in 2010.

The Democratic nominee is Rep. Joe Dorman of Rush Springs. Rep. Dorman has heavily stressed his commitment to improving Oklahoma's educational system, and attacked Gov. Fallin's role in the system's current struggle. Many people support him because of the changes he advocates, even though he is almost certainly doomed to see few, if any, of his proposed reforms clear a legislature dominated by the opposing party. Oklahoma's system, which elects its state superintendent of education, will probably hamper him even more, even though the unpopularity of incumbent Janet Barresi offers him a weight to hang around Gov. Fallin's neck, as they are both of the same party. Supt. Barresi lost in the primary, meaning she has no real bearing on this election. GOP candidate Joy Hofmeister does not seem to share Rep. Dorman's proposals, and even if Democrat John Cox wins, he may have his own version of a reform agenda and divide support for whatever a Governor Dorman might seek to implement.

I know people who have met Rep. Dorman personally and who consider him a good person. I have not met him but have no reason to doubt their opinion. But I could under no circumstances vote for him, because of some of the mechanics of his November 2013 proposal to allow executed criminals to donate their organs. I snarked on it at the time, but right now I'm scared of it in all seriousness.

In a practical sense, the proposed legislation is an excellent example of someone not thinking their idea through. No Oklahoma prison currently has the medical facilities necessary to remove organs in such as way to maintain their viability for donation. Either a state prison system that has had to reduce personnel even while incarceration rates rise would have to spend its limited budget to build this facility, or condemned people would have to be transported to a surgical center capable of these operations -- a security risk and a considerable expense added to the already pricey death penalty process. Rep. Dorman is neither the first nor last politician to put forth as legislation an idea that is unworkable in the real world. But when the centerpiece of your campaign is a proposed package of reform legislation, a record of proposing poorly-thought out legislation doesn't recommend you.

It is the moral arena, though, where this idea crosses over from impractical to horrifying -- and disqualifying. Oklahoma's current method of execution is lethal injection, which generally renders a person's organs unsuitable for transplant. The drugs used to kill the condemned shut down much more than just the heart, and they do it in ways that create permanent damage. Therefore, Rep. Dorman proposed that the condemned be anesthetized and the organs then removed before brain death occurred -- literally death by vivisection.

This idea is nightmarish and represents the first rung on a ladder that could climb to the same kind of action in other people whose lives are somehow determined to be not important enough to continue, either by society or by themselves. Persistent vegetative state? Late stage Alzheimer's? Late term aborted baby? Depressed person who wants to end it all? Person serving life without parole? Quadriplegic? Wherever the line would be redrawn after accepting that a person's parts are somehow more than their whole would be just a temporary slowdown en route to the next catalog of spares.

Some folks would probably suggest that Rep. Dorman didn't think about the idea that way and didn't consider the moral implications of proposing that the state kill someone by removing their vital organs while they were still alive. Fair enough; but being dense about a monstrous idea instead of intentionally monstrous about it is also not a qualification for my vote.

Rep. Dorman already has little enough to recommend him, even against a second-rate candidate like Gov. Fallin. The inadequacy of the GOP candidate and the significant likelihood that the Democratic candidate doesn't think very deeply about his actions make me glad there are not one but two Independent candidates on the ballot.

Because, you see, at least I still have a choice.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Fall Potpourri

-- Here are five things that you thought you knew but you really didn't know.

-- Here are five things that you thought you knew about spiders but you really didn't know.

-- If the Earth triggers an avalanche on an asteroid, who gets sued? And who files the suit?

-- When Benjamin Franklin proposed Daylight Savings Time, he was probably joking.

-- Can the electron wave function be trapped and divided? Now, you don't think I'm going to spoil that for you, do you? Go read it and find out for yourself.