Thursday, December 31, 2015

"Shut up," They Explained

That old joke sums up these top eight campus censorship moments from 2015, as compiled by Robby Soave of Reason.

Colleges have gotten a lot of press recently as being places where spoiled little twits whinge about everything from faked hate crimes to insufficiently authentic ethnic dishes in the cafeteria. The rhetorical question usually follows a sad head shake at the silliness of the whole mess: Do these people learn anything in college?

But as Soave's list notes, it seems pretty apparent that the spoiled little twits learn quite well from the older twits who teach them and who run their colleges. We had something similar at the college where I used to work; the school newspaper ran an editorial cartoon that mocked claims that the Confederate battle flag was merely a sign of heritage. The cartoonist suggested that lynched African-Americans were just as much a symbol of that "heritage" as was the battle flag. The flag had too much blood and hate in its history to be anything else in the eyes of too many people; like the swastika it had become irredeemable.

The message was unsubtle and pretty unskillfully done. And as you might imagine, when it was tossed into a community where the majority of members were people just breaking out of concrete thinking, that message was missed pretty much entirely. The offense of representing the lynchings overwhelmed and completely obscured the intended anti-racist message the cartoonist wanted viewers to get. Turmoil and tumult followed, a diversity council was created and my boss had a title relating to diversity added to his portfolio. He and both of his successors are upper middle class and white, by the way.

We used the word diversity quite often in subsequent months and for all I know they still do. Whether or not more minority population students graduate from there was never determined.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

What Did He Say?

Earlier this month, a group of mathematicians met at the University of Oxford in England to discuss something one of their number, Shinichi Mochizuki, calls “inter-universal Teichmüller,” or IUT, theory. Dr. Mochizuki first offered his proof to the maths community in 2012, when he posted his five hundred page proof online.

As you might expect when it comes to a 500-page math problem, the number of people who really understand it doesn't require exponential notation. It may not even require you to remove your shoes to count them up. The conference may have had a goal of explaining Dr. Mochizuki's work, but in the end organizers found themselves settling for the idea that more people than ever before "kind of" get it. And they "kind of" get it in the same way I "kind of" get stochastic oscillators, and while I know that stochastic oscillators are equations that predict trends in stock prices based on their high and low prices over a given length of time, I could neither create nor solve one even if you told me the answer was Angie Harmon's cell phone number and favorite restaurant.

Anyway, frustration amongst the mathematical community over the proof is at a high level, as it seems Dr. Mochizuki feels no obligation to travel the world and teach his proof and some of the folks who say they do understand his work haven't had much success in passing along their knowledge.

And after a couple hours reading up on just the names of the things Dr. Mochizuki writes about, I am no closer to offering a witty yet clear description of what IUT theory is even about, let alone what the proof is supposed to prove. My only victory is that I arrived at this place without having to travel to Oxford and spend four days listening to math professors talk about it, which is probably cheaper for me and requires much less aspirin.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

An Arc of Tea

The below photo is what it looks like when you take a picture at the exact second you sling hot tea into -40 degree air in front of a sunset.

It's also a pretty good visual representation of what you feel like on a day when everything goes right.

(On an unrelated note, you may have spotted that I did not indicate whether the -40 was in Celsius or Fahrenheit. That's because the -40 mark is the one temperature at which both scales converge, and -40 in one is -40 in the other.

In the most precise scientific terms, I believe the actual temperature is referred to as "frickin' cold, man.")

(H/T Bored Panda)

Monday, December 28, 2015

On Second Thought

Science magazine's Retraction Watch blog lists the top 10 scientific study and paper retractions of 2015.

Retractions can happen for a number of honest reasons, such as the discovery of a previously overlooked error in research. But it can also happen for dishonest reasons, and some of the papers on the list committed one of those sins. The reason such actions earn retractions -- essentially decisions on the part of the author that the papers no longer officially exist -- is that deliberate fudging of data or the creation of false peer reviewers means that the conclusions of the paper may have been influenced by something other than the plain facts of whatever study or experiment is its subject. Other scientists in the field might be able to run the same experiments in order to verify the result, but many of the rest of us can't. If the study becomes the basis for public policy, health recommendations, treatment protocols and the like, the people who use it have flawed information that may wind up producing the exact opposite of the desired result. A second group of researchers were unable to get the same results as the original experimenters in item no. 1, for example, which led to the discovery of falsified survey data.

My favorite is no. 5 -- a paper on detecting plagiarism had to be pulled because the author plagiarized part of the paper, and the folks at Retraction Watch found the notice of retraction on April Fool's Day.

The frequency of retractions and the difficulty in creating reproducible results is one reason that Real Clear Science writer Ross Pomeroy at the site's Newton Blog has decided to ignore nutrition studies. Pomeroy doesn't mention the Retraction Watch article directly, but that's a whole other kettle of fish. Battered and deep fried, as a matter of fact.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw!

Or, perhaps not, in these photos from the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards, which recently crowned its winner:

To be honest, I like the silver runner-up photo better: 

My suggested cutline might be something like, "Slowly, Bambi began to remember what he'd been doing last night..."

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Good Ol' Moon

The rare Christmas full moon might make you think of a couple of things. Among them for me is this list of items about how life on our planet would be different without our near neighbor.

I couldn't find the original source, but the item regarding much smaller tides prompted a writer I remember to speculate on whether or not we have any dry land life forms if we had no moon. The smaller tides mean many fewer chances for life forms to be exposed to a sort of mixed-version environment and produce far less pressure to develop air-breathing capability.

Take it away, Sebastian!

Friday, December 25, 2015

From the Rentaul Vault: Dhoom 3 (2013)

For the third installment in the blockbuster Dhoom series, supercop Jai Dixit and his partner Ali Akbar make their way to Chicago in pursuit of a bank robber who's leaving behind an Indian-styled clown mask and a Hindi phrase in his daring, highly visible and very lucrative robberies. Jai suspects circus owner Samar Khan is behind the thefts, but he has no way to prove it and gets booted from the case when he makes an accusation that seems to prove false.

Khan, for his part, is balancing his activities with a burgeoning affection for his new aerialist Aaliya. His mission is more than mere theft, but as he nears the completion of his quest the stakes get higher and he's less certain of his own intentions.

Storywise, Dhoom 3 isn't particularly different from either of the first two movies: Jai is the very definition of cool, Ali is a goofy skirt chaser who sometimes hurts more than helps and the main criminal antagonist has a significant back story. The use of Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan as the thief in this movie and box-office queen Katrina Kaif as Aaliya, along with some spectacular Chicago visuals, set it apart from the first two by virtue of which famous faces and which famous places are in the poster. But otherwise people who've been watching the series will see some variations on familiar themes.

They're well-done themes, though, as Khan and Kaif add to the usual chemistry between Abishek Bachchan as Jai and Uday Chopra as Ali. Vijay Krishna Acharaya moves from writer to director fairly smoothly and takes full advantage of his Chicago setting. Production-number wise, the title credits tap number and Kaif's aerialist displays are the best of the show.

Dhoom is a Hindi word best translated "bang," and cast and crew offer plenty of bang in a series that isn't ever much more than spectacle -- but it's a fine spectacle indeed, although a little overlong and plagued by flashbacks.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Look Up!

Christmas will feature a full moon this year, for the first time since 1977 and the last time until 2034. Of course, traditionally a slightly different astronomical phenomenon is associated with that date.

Not quite as old are these long-lost glass plate images taken through a telescope built at the tail end of the 19th century. Retired astronomer Holger Pedersen headed down to the basement kitchen of the Niels Bohr Insitute to brew a cup of tea and found more than 300 plates from the earliest days of a telescope at the University of Copenhagen Observatory.

Staffers at the observatory are being surveyed to see what the next move is; the front-runner at this point is to send Pedersen out for pizza to see what he digs up then.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Sleuthing and Forsoothing!

The Tournament was considered a departure for thriller author Matthew Reilly when it appeared in 2013, as it featured no high-tech gear, a teenaged girl and her teacher as protagonists and not a lot of fisticuffery.

Of course, since it's a hidden few months in the life of Queen Elizabeth I before she took the throne and it's set in 1546-47, some changes could be expected.

Suleiman the Magnificent, the greatest Ottoman Sultan, has called on the rulers of the nations in Europe and even in Asia to send forth their best champions of chess for a tournament in Constantinople. England's candidate, selected by King Henry VIII, is a friend to Roger Ascham, the tutor to Princess Elizabeth. Roger decides to travel with the caravan and take his teenaged charge away from a palace threatened by the plague and swarming with intrigue. He also reasons it will help broaden her experience should she ever have to take the throne of England. Once in Constantinople, the English contingent is enthralled by the ancient and exotic city, as well as surrounded by a host of other historical characters, like Michelangelo, Ignatius of Loyola, Ivan the Terrible and Suleiman himself. But they also find foul murder afoot, and Suleiman enlists Roger's keen mind and deductive reasoning to solve the crime. Elizabeth, acting like a mix of Dr. Watson and Nancy Drew, accompanies him so he can keep watch on her.

The Tournament carries with it a lot of issues, ranging from cultural to religious, but probably not that many more than a lot of suspense thrillers and murder mysteries do. Yes, the religious leaders of the story are almost uniformly vile and vice-ridden, the Muslim Turks treacherous, sneaky cheaters, and I don't remember if any villain ever actually twirls a mustache but if not it's because he's clean-shaven. The chess match conceit is supposed to offer the book a structure as Ascham tries to outwit an opponent as he would if they faced each other across a board, but it's pretty flimsy. And Ascham offers Reilly an excellent example for how to see the 16th century through a 21st century center-left political and cultural lens as he drips disdain on all the backward folks that we would drip disdain upon were we to meet them.

Still, much of that could be forgiven, but...  The Tournament challenges the Implausibility Barrier with Suleiman, Ivan, Ignatius, Michelangelo and Elizabeth gathered in the same place and time for a chess tournament. In order to coerce disbelief into hanging from that high a wire, it needs one thing above all others: Fun. There are plenty of lurid sex scenes courtesy of a lusty teenage lady-in-waiting and her eagerness to describe them to Elizabeth, as well as the rich and powerful who slake their lusts upon the poor and powerless. There's plenty of Ascham bemoaning the superstitious yokels with which this time and place have saddled him and commiserating with Michelangelo about the doof-itude of the undeserving rich and powerful. But there is so little fun served up on a table set for that kind of whimsy that long before The Tournament ends, you're reading just so you can find out who did it and get out of that book.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

On Further Consideration

You might wonder how in the world Politifact could give Donald Trump it's 2015 Lie of the Year award, given that he's still got eight days to work in another one, until you read that he earned it through multiple statements rather than just one. So the award can always be retrofitted to add in whatever else he might spout off between now and the 31st.

Thanks for the Tip!

Paste magazine helpfully presents me with a list of the 20 songs I most want to avoid for the next three days.

To be fair, their list is actually of the most-played songs during the days leading up to Christmas. And also to be fair, I will listen to Nos. 4 and 14 pretty much anytime, and no. 19 now and again. And to continue on the path of fairness, my desire not to hear No. 10 has everything to do with the overplayed treacly song and nothing to do with the singer. No. 15, though, involves the overplayed treacly song and the treacly singer.

Here's one I'd like to hear more often:

Monday, December 21, 2015


Lots of nations have launched rockets with varying payloads, and a few of us have launched rockets with people riding in them.

What hasn't been done so well is designing rockets that take off and then land so that they can be easily used again. For all of its spaceplane appearance, the U.S. space shuttle didn't make orbit without huge external engines and fuel tanks.

While the manned capsules of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions for the U.S. and Soyuz flights for the Russians returned to Earth with their crews aboard, they required massive boosters and engines that were use 'em and lose 'em. Most of the time these boosters were designed to splash in the ocean to avoid potential harm, and promptly sank. While some have been recovered in recent years, they're fit for museum display and little else.

Until now.

After a couple of failed attempts, the Space X company successfully landed its rocket booster from a recent mission to launch some communications satellites. Reusable rockets will reduce the cost of space missions as well as make it possible for them to happen more often: It takes less time to check out and repair an existing engine than build an entirely new one.

I may live long enough to see people return to the moon after all.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Keep Calm and Knit On

You know, when I read stories like this I no longer wonder why this woman's country at one time ruled nearly a quarter of the globe.

I only wonder how they were ever stopped at a quarter.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Pinch of This, Dash of That

The above picture shows a false-color images of one of the bright spots noticed on the asteroid Ceres by the Dawn spacecraft. Ceres sports several of these splotches, and until just recently scientists had no good guesses as to what they were made of.

Now they believe after studying a bit more data gathered from Dawn that the splotches are deposits of hexahydrite, a form of magnesium sulfate. That's a salt, which might make you wonder if NASA was going to get a mission together to send an astronaut to Ceres to throw some over his or her shoulder and avoid some truly cosmic bad luck. But since "salt" is a catchall name for a kind of molecule that forms when an acid and a base meet on equal terms and just kind of chill out, we may be spared that necessity since hexahydrite is not table salt.

On the other hand, magnesium sulfate is what we commonly refer to as Epsom salts, which makes you wonder what kind of being has feet big enough it needs a whole asteroid sprinkled with the stuff to have around to soak them. Maybe that avoiding-bad-luck space mission would be a good idea after all.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Force Awakens

With The Force Awakens, director J.J. Abrams attempts his second resurrection of a major science fiction franchise. He rebooted Star Trek in 2009 and now starts to bring the long-awaited conclusion to the Star Wars saga that began in 1977.

Star Wars creator George Lucas has long claimed that his first three movies, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were the middle trio of what would be a total of nine movies. After Jedi in 1983, he didn't speculate on when he would do any of the other six or in what order he would do them. The three prequels began with The Phantom Menace in 1999 and earned widespread derision. After Revenge of the Sith in 2005, Lucas was said to be done with the story entirely, and even sold the property to the Disney company in 2012. Fans gained something of a new hope that Disney would step in and complete the final three movies now that Lucas was mostly out of the loop. That in fact happened, and so The Force Awakens, episode seven in the nine-episode saga, opened today.

While the defeat of the Emperor broke the Empire's power and allowed the restoration of the Galactic Republic, not all went smoothly for our central trio of characters. Han Solo and Leia Organa proved to have difficulty sustaining their relationship, and a betrayal by one of his Jedi students led Luke Skywalker to vanish from sight and pursue a lonely hermitage. Some Imperial forces have rallied around a banner called the First Order, and to counter them General Leia has organized a Resistance. Both pursue information on Luke's whereabouts, and the quest winds up at the planet Jakku, where it ensnares a scavenger woman named Rey and a deserting stormtrooper named Finn. The information to find Luke has been hidden in a droid, the rolling BB-8, and it's vital that the info get to the Resistance before the First Order uses its immense Starkiller weapon to destroy the words on which the Resistance is based.

This should all seem awfully familiar to anyone who's ever watched Star Wars or heard much about it in the almost 40 years since it was released, since it follows almost beat-for-beat the dilemmas our heroes encountered in the first movie, only bigger and louder. In case you miss that point, a holographic briefing displays the original Death Star to compare it to the Starkiller weapon.

Abrams seems to be attempting a sort of soft reboot of the franchise, retelling key elements of the original story in a somewhat more realistic manner. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are both better actors than Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher were in 1977, which helps, and the best performer of the original trio, Harrison Ford, carries most of the narrative weight given to them in the new story. It's still Star Wars, of course, which means there are only tendencies towards realism instead of actual realism; this is not a Ronald-Moore style reboot of Battlestar Galactica.

The Force Awakens is not at all a bad slam-bang popcorn movie, but it faces significant obstacles of its own and creates several more for episodes eight and nine. Whatever the faults of his prequels -- and they are legion -- George Lucas made movies that had some reason for being. How did Luke's father become who he was and do what he did? They weren't strictly necessary by any means, but they at least answered already existing questions.

Abrams' sequels have to create the questions. They're telling us a story, but can they tell us why they're still telling the story of people who already won? "Well, what happened to Luke and Leia and Han after Jedi?" is waaaay to generic a question to drive a story. Return of the Jedi left a pretty satisfying conclusion in place: Emperor dead, Empire defeated, everybody's relationships clarified, Anakin Skywalker turned back from the Dark Side of the Force. So why are we still toiling around with these people? Abrams is pretty much chained into using the main characters from the earlier movies or else there's no point in calling what he's doing Star Wars, but is there a "so what?" to go with the "what?"

As of the end of The Force Awakens, there's not -- which leaves us looking to the next movies to provide one and leaves The Force Awakens a lot weaker.

Digital Makes Everything Easier

Including, we might note on the weekend where the seventh Star Wars movie opens, movie theft.

Theaters today receive their digital movies as computer files, often downloaded from dedicated and secured servers. Thieves who want to pirate them may try to break into the servers, somehow "eavesdrop" on the transmission, or maybe even break in to the movie theater's projection computers.

Of course, there's always the option of just bribing a theater employee to somehow allow access to the network for copying, or to play the movie so that it can be recorded onscreen: Set up a camera of some kind in an empty theater late at night, hit "record," and play the movie. Sometimes a bootlegger will surreptitiously record the movie during a regularly scheduled performance, meaning there could be interruptions as other people in that aisle need restroom breaks or begin conversations picked up by the bootlegger's equipment.

In moviedom's earlier days, enjoying a pirated copy of a movie meant having to own a 35mm projector, because projectors were the only ways you could watch a movie. As home video cassette systems became widespread, then the pirates had a suddenly wide-open field of customers who didn't need expensive projectors and screens. All they had to do was get one copy of the movie, play it and record it onto videotape, which could then be dubbed as many times as it would stand before becoming a murky mess.

The key, though, was getting your hands on a copy of the movie, and the only places that could happen were movie theaters that were showing it. In some cases, that meant breaking in to the movie theater. In others, like the one mentioned here in Mental Floss, it meant robbing the theater at gunpoint so you could get a copy of Return of the Jedi.

Because no one was hurt and because I remember working at a movie theater, I could laugh a little at the guy who planned to steal the print and sell it to a taper. He first had to wait around until the movie emptied out (because it's hard to steal a movie while it's playing) and then while the theater employee unspooled it for transportation. Before digital movies, the film was on several reels, and one of the things we had to do when a new movie was delivered was splice it together into one continuous length. You used the projector to unspool it from the several different reels onto a large horizontal reel (the weight of the combined whole movie would break or bend a spindle if the whole thing was vertical), using special sprocket-holed tape to link them together. The thief in the story had to wait while the movie was unreeled from the large plate, cut apart at the tape, and then loaded into the individual shipment reels.

Turns out after all that work he found an honest video store owner who set him up with the FBI, and they promptly arranged a sting where he met two agents who watched a reel of the movie to be sure it was the right one and then arrested him. He received a sentence of five years probation and 120 hours of community service, which he spent trying to remove a piece of gum from the theater floor.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

You Say "Student," We Say, "Income Source"

Some different thoughts come to mind when reading this note on how the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sent warning letters to 17 colleges recently about their agreements with credit card companies that allow the companies to market to students.

There's certainly some relief that someone's watching schools that do this. There's also some relief that there are only about a fifth as many colleges that allow companies to market to their students as there were in 2009, when Congress passed a law boosting the disclosure requirements.

But there's some uneasiness in knowing that 17 of 25 randomly-selected colleges refused to provide copies of the contracts they have with the companies, as the law requires them to do. And the law doesn't mean that the CFPB has to be the one to make the request -- theoretically, I could mail as many requests for contracts as I have stamps and every college that receives one is legally required to send it to me. So could you.

And it's kind of gross knowing that colleges, which have already played a large role in helping their students acquire significant debt, allowed a business that is also a rather sizable player in the owing more money than you can pay game access to market to their students.

I mean, the college may exploit the student and student's family for money at just about every turn at a rate that jackrabbits past inflation and buys them things like the considered wisdom of Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi. But at least at the end of that the student gets a nicely lettered piece of paper with a pretty university seal and the student's own name on it that says he or she sat through four or more years of classes in a reasonably conscious state. The value of that piece of paper may shrink more and more every year as colleges build ever more esoteric and useless specialties, but at least when their own colleges exploit them, students do receive something.

But letting outsiders exploit them as well seems cheap and tawdry, like a significant other who expects you to make out with his or her friends as a part of the relationship. But then, Robert B. Parker's first published words -- "The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse" -- have always told more truth than people would have believed.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Readin' Baseball

Lonnie Wheeler has excellent baseball writer credentials, collaborating on several biographies (including Hank Aaron) and some extended essay collections. His 2015 Intangiball draws on a lot of that history to examine how unmeasurable qualities influence the play of baseball players and teams. Players, managers and writers throw around words like "character" and "grit," but what do they mean when they say those things? How do they influence play and game outcomes? Can they be developed, or does a player have to start out with them? If so, can they be nurtured and passed on?

Wheeler loosely relies on the Cincinnati Reds' history and player development since roughly 2010 as the main framework for his exploration, but he also brings in stories of other well-known players who were said to embody the kinds of qualities he's talking about: The two mentioned above, as well as professionalism and chemistry.

He explains how these qualities are not necessarily as unmeasurable as people might think, and that when you start digging into them you might find they are labels for other things that are more easily quantified -- but not entirely. "Professionalism," for example, may be a way of referring to a player who shows up for practice and games on time, plays hard during the game, looks for ways to improve his skills, play and other abilities, and hopes, by example, to bring others to his level. That last bit is the key, because while time on task and efforts to improve can be clearly observed, "inspiration" is a lot harder to pin down. Some hard workers inspire other players to emulate them, but some do not.

Wheeler does offer some interesting things to think about among those "subtle things that win baseball games," as his subtitle calls them. That Intangiball falls short of being a full exploration of the qualities under consideration speaks more towards their inability to be pinned down than to Wheeler's inability to corral them.
Dayton Moore went from being a member of one of the top front offices in baseball to running one of the worst when he left Atlanta for Kansas City in 2006. Written after Kansas City's Game 7 loss in the 2014 series but before the successful 2015 campaign, More Than a Season is a quick run-though of his own life in baseball and some of the decisions and mindset he brought to his new team, and how that helped them build their successful program.

Season's subtitle is "Building a Championship Culture," and Moore's book reads more like an exploration of leadership principals with baseball examples than a straight baseball memoir. He describes how he learned things along the way about what kind of things build organizations and what kinds of things tear them down. He also talks about how the Kansas City Royals did not turn around overnight and how their dedication to the process he outlined did not answer all of the objections and questions right away.

While Moore does discuss some baseball-specific matters, such as the decision to build from the farm system up instead of buying big-name talent and hoping it could be melded into a cohesive team, much of the meat of the book could translate to many different kinds of companies, organizations or operations. That aspect is probably Season's top selling-point, as its 200 or so pages don't have room for nuts-and-bolts-level examinations of how the Royals found Lorenzo Cain or tracked down Eric Hosmer. But on that level -- and to some degree on a personal application level as well -- More Than a Season can be worth the brief time it takes to read.
Roger Kahn, along with Thomas Boswell, is probably one of the top living baseball writers working today. His The Boys of Summer stands next to Boswell's Why Time Begins on Opening Day as one of the best explorations of baseball's appeal, its uniquely American identity and the kind of philosophical speculation that it can inspire among its fans given to thinking about such things.

In 2000, a couple of years after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased down Roger Maris' single-season home run record but before steroid use and doping marred their achievements and brought many others into question, Kahn explored the history and some of the thinking behind the sport's primary competitive relationship: That between pitcher and hitter. His The Head Game takes a look at that relationship and its effect on the game from the pitcher's point of view, since it is his throw towards home plate that drives the subsequent actions.

Kahn takes a look at what the game's top pitchers said about their work, digging all the way back to its earliest days as a national-level sport at the hinge of the 19th and 20th centuries. For those men, he relies on published interviews or biographies, but he conducted his own interviews among those still living who date from later eras.

Although Head Game could be summed up as a "what's the pitcher thinking?" book, the diverse personalities, understandings and strategic visions of the different men involved give it a much greater depth. It suffers from the exclusion of Negro League giants such as Wilbur "Bullet" Rogan and Satchel Paige, but since Kahn is focusing on the American and National League's top pitchers, the fault for that exclusion lies mostly with the owners, players and managers who supported the segregated system from the 1880s to 1947.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

From the Rental Vault: Tees Maar Khan (2010)

On the one hand, it would be tough to succeed as a thief and a con man if every time part of your plan went well everyone heard music and your name whispered in song.

On the other hand, Tabrez Mirza Khan (Akshay Kumar) -- known professionally as Tees Maar Khan or "the Khan of Cons"-- is the lead character in a Bollywood comedy heist movie, so random music and song and dance numbers are a routine part of life. Khan is being extradited to India after an arrest in France, but he escapes and returns to his old haunts and aspiring actress wife Anya (Katrina Kaif). Crimelord brothers get him to agree to rob a train of priceless antiques, and Khan decides he will pretend to film a movie near the village of Dhulia and enlist the villagers in a scheme to pull off the heist. Anya, despite her limited talent, is the female lead and a popular but greedy and dim movie star is conned into the male lead role.

Khan's presence unexpectedly solves a great problem facing Dhulia and he begins to feel guilty about duping the villagers. He resolves to cut them in on the profits of the robbery, but all may not go as smoothly as he has planned.

Tees Maar Khan owes a great deal to the 1966 Peter Sellers' movie After the Fox and the 1999 Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy film Bowfinger. It saunters a little through its story rather than moving as quickly as a heist picture usually needs. Bollywood movies are often longer than a straight-story version because of the obligatory musical productions, but Khan features only three of those and could stand to lose about a quarter of its story. Kumar handles the comedy aspect of his role well but isn't quite as charismatic and charming as an onscreen master of thieves and con men should be. Katrina Kaif deftly shifts between wooden semi-talented actress and airy vanity and gains a proper share of laughs. She also has the designated showstopper song-and-dance number but it happens a little too early in the movie, leaving some pretty long segments looking drained by comparison.

Khan was reviewed as an average movie, with some praise for the choreography and Kaif's dancing, so naturally it was one of the biggest hits of the year -- Indian critics seem to have as little in common with their countrymen's opinions as do those here. It's fun enough, but more tightly edited or perhaps with another musical number it could have been quite a bit better.

Monday, December 14, 2015

An Overlooked Reason?

This little entry at The Guardian notes that between 1999 and 2014, the average best-selling book has gotten 25% longer -- up to 400 pages from 320.

The book people interviewed for the story talk about things like readers preferring "long and immersive narratives," or the reality that a book ordered online intimidates less because its length isn't always noted before the order is placed. Electronic books may also play a role. If you do not have to lug around one of those one and a half-pound monsters but only access it as a weightless electronic file on a feather-light e-reader, you may not care as much.

Left out was one of the more obvious reasons, at least to me: Publishers can charge more money for longer books. Tell someone they've got to part with $35 for the 336-page suspense novel The Girl on the Train and they cast a disbelieving glance upon you. But note that's the suggested price for Stephen King's thousand-page Under the Dome and you can see the buyer think, "Well, that's steep but look at how long the thing is! That's like, less than four cents a page, and it doubles as body armor and battle mace in case of home invasion!"

I don't mind long books, or long book series, if they're long for a reason other than some authors' lack of narrative discipline and publishers' lack of scruples at how much of my money they can get out of my wallet. But it's a very, very rare long read that couldn't have been made better by being a little shorter and a little tighter, and it's an even rarer long read that is made better by lengthening.

Now if you'll excuse me, there's a new Stephen King book out and I've got to hit the gym to get ready to buy it.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Good Thing or Bad Thing

On the one hand, it's kind of neat that a TED conference completely banned electronic devices during presentations at a recent conference in Geneva. If you were in the room while the talk was being given, then you didn't check your cell phone or other device. I thought it was interesting that the author noticed a few people who seemed to take notes in order to keep themselves awake. I have done the same thing when attending presentations that I know will either not interest me or which have no relevance to what I do but are required.

On the other hand, it's kind of disappointing that this is seen as some kind of retro-innovation, returning us to a time when we didn't tune out a speaker in order to check something more important on some handheld device ("The Kardashians did what? OMG!!!).

Many people who speak in public shouldn't but have never been told that, and sitting through one of their demonstrations thereof is surely a chore. But while propping the head upon the hand in order to properly brace it before leaving the lecture hall for the bounding Spanish Main or the dead sea bottoms of dying Mars or the deepest jungles of Africa is a rudeness known only to the perpetrator, lighting one's face with the deadened pallor of the backlit screen disturbs all those around one and is definitely easily known to the speaker.

Who may then call upon you to answer a question, and no one can Google what they did not hear said.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Double Boxcar Dynamite?

Several sites have noted that today marks the day that Frank Sinatra would have been 100 years old. It's also the birthday of novelist Patrick O'Brian, blues singer Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, who was the first artist to chart with "Hound Dog," game show host par excellence Bob Barker, and Hirsch Moses Wonsal. The latter was best known as movie producer Harry Warner and together with his brothers Albert, Sam and Jack founded what would be come the Warner Bros. studio

Twelve-twelve seems to be a creative date of birth.

Friday, December 11, 2015

On Narnia's Secret Service

It was kind of interesting to see headlines that uncovered C.S. Lewis' wartime work with the British intelligence agency sometimes called MI-6.

Although different actors, authors and others served in a variety of capacities in World War II, the role played by the creator of Narnia and famed Christian apologist was not known. Alas, it was limited to his giving a talk on the cultural commonalities between the people of Iceland and England, meant to help turn popular opinion away from the twisted version of Germanic culture preached by the Nazis.

This talk was recorded and then broadcast via radio to Iceland's cities and towns as a way of easing Icelanders' tensions over British occupation of their land. Iceland's strategic importance in the North Atlantic theater was great, but the Allies could spare no troops to hold it. Thus Lewis' recorded lecture (he was a well-known pop culture figure of the time in European radio) as one of the many moves made to help Icelanders identify with the Allies and stay on their side of the fight.

"Agent Aslan" would have been much cooler, of course, but we can't have everything when we stick with reality.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Word Count

Way back in 1972, Robert Fiengo and Howard Lasnik published a scientific paper in a journal called Linguistic Inquiry. The title: "On nonrecoverable deletion in syntax."

"Nonrecoverable deletion" is a kind of gap in communication that can't be figured out by the context of what's being said. The article at Real Clear Science's Newton Blog explains how a lot of our communication involves gaps or incompletions, but we understand what's being said because the statement comes in a recognizable context. That context makes the unspoken or unwritten words implicitly there even if they aren't explicit.

The previous sentence has an example of a recoverable deletion. The full sentence would have ended with "explicitly there" in order to match the information given in the phrase "implicitly there," but most people reading it fill in that blank. The missing information is "recoverable" from earlier in the sentence. Fiengo and Lasnik's paper argued in favor of what linguists called the "Recoverability Condition" by means of a very simple but profound argument: Their paper is completely blank. They use no words at all.

You can see where this leads. By leaving out everything, they have made it impossible to deduce implicit communication from context, because there is no context. If there's nothing there to start with, then nothing's there to be left out and consequently there's nothing to figure out.

This is opposed to most modern political speeches and opinions given on television and the internet, which mean nothing or even less but use a great many words to say it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Yat's a Yotta Years!

You may remember from high school science or a non-turkey WKRP in Cincinnati episode that matter is made up of atoms, which are in turn made up of particles like protons, neutrons and electrons. If you took a little more science or you are a nerd who regularly scours the internet for this kind of stuff, you may have learned that subatomic particles themselves were made up of things called quarks.

And if you sometimes don't sleep and wonder about things like this, you may have asked whether or not atoms would eventually break down and the particles that make them break down as well. Which would be a pretty depressing situation, except that you and I would be physically broken way down past our constituent atoms and probably not capable of depression anymore. How long would that take? Are those particles breaking down now? Even though there are countless numbers of them in the universe, so it would take millions or even billions of years for them all to break down, could you or I happen to roll a cosmic snake-eyes and have a bunch of our atoms break down right here and now?

Apparently not. Scientists at the Borexino detector in Italy experimented to see if they could detect electron decay and predict how long it would take for one to actually break down. Turns out a single electron would take 66,000 "yotta-years" to break down. This comes out to 660,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years, or five quintillion times the current age of the universe. In other words, we will probably never see even one electron break down anywhere in the universe for as long as beings exist to detect electrons and see if they are breaking down. So you may strike "death by unexpected subatomic decay" from your list of possible concerns, and Merry Christmas to you!

In an unrelated but kind of also nerdy-cool note, the Borexino detector is what's called a "liquid scintillator," which is a very cool phrase I expect to turn up in a Dr. Who episode, and a couple of the descriptions of this method have the acronyms PC and PPO. This would make it, of course, C-3PO, and all of my nerd circuits are now shot and I will need to have me a little lie-me-down.

Period Pieces

After changing his name and re-creating much of his personal history, Patrick O'Brian moved to a village in southern France in a region called Catalonia, which spans parts of France and northern Spain. Among his earlier works as "Patrick O'Brian" is a short 1953 novel about a village in this region called The Catalans.

After a time journeying in the far East following World War I, Alain Roig returns to his home village of Saint-Féliu to find his family in turmoil. His middle-aged and respectable cousin Xavier, who is also the mayor of Saint-Féliu, is engaged to Madeline, the young daughter of a local grocer. The Roig family feels its property and wealth at risk from this threatened intruder -- who knows what silly ideas a middle-aged man may indulge for his young and flighty new bride, and how much those ideas might cost? Madeline's family, for her part, is none too pleased with the match either given the age gap.

Alain learns that Xavier hopes Madeline will save him from what he sees as his own lack of feeling, but as he winds deeper into the situation he finds that he is falling in love with Madeline, and she with him as she really does not love Xavier.

O'Brian's trademark wit is a splendid feature of his better-known Aubrey-Maturin series, and here it helps solidify the vision of a small town invested in its own small concerns as the great issues of the world. It has its own national and cultural flavor, but Saint-Féliu is the same sleepy small town that can be found in every corner of the world, staging its own version of the same kinds of drama playing in them all.

The wit and tone are probably The Catalans' strongest feature. While O'Brian uses his characters to explore ideas about how often people seek to use others to find what they think they lack in themselves, the story itself is a little light to carry much weight in that area. Alain is clearly drawn,  but Xavier and Madeline seem a little too much like stock characters added from the shelf and so the plot that rests on their triple base is unsteadier than it should be for best results.
Len Deighton has had two major arenas for his fiction work -- the deep dark recesses of intelligence work in Cold War Europe and the battles of World War II. His 1993 novel City of Gold, set in a Cairo dreading the arrival of the brilliant German general Erwin Rommel, mixes the spy game of the former with an important but sometimes overlooked WWII theater.

Major Bernie Cutler has the task of ferreting out a spy who's been feeding Rommel detailed information about Allied troop movements and plans. Giving that kind of information to the Desert Fox is more or less handing him the keys to Cairo and to England's possessions in India, and Cutler's superiors are feeling the pressure to produce the agent or at least stop the leaks. So, therefore, is Cutler. But he has an additional source of stress: He's not actually Bernie Cutler, but a prisoner Cutler was transporting when he had a fatal heart attack, who has adopted Cutler's identity as a way of escape.

Other clandestine agents swirl in the mix of 1942 Cairo, from Zionists looking to establish a foothold in the former-and-future Israel to black marketeers whose only allegiance is to profit. Deighton has his usual deft hand at sketching out interesting characters with only a few bold strokes before sending them off into the narrative and his usual way with wry and world-weary dialogue. But City of Gold seems to have just a few of the pieces of a much more extensive work and a largely offscreen resolution that can make a reader check page numbers to see if something's been left out.

Obviously Deighton felt that enough of the story of City of Gold had been told that he could type "The End," but he needed to do more to show his readers why he thought so.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Thirty-Five Years of Bloom

On December 8, 1980, the first-ever Bloom County debuted in newspapers, bringing smiles, penguins and dandelion breaks into the world. Creator Berke Breathed brought his cast to your newspaper daily, then weekly, and then weekly again in different forms over the ensuing decades, recently returning to the fray via a (so far) web-only Bloom County 2015 on his Facebook page and here. The first strip, below:

The entry for Bloom County at Toonopedia notes how it was originally derided as a Doonesbury knockoff, and Breathed himself has been clear how much he admires Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau.

The drawing styles have some similarities (The last strip of Outland, the successor to Bloom County, highlighted that by showing the newly outed Steve Dallas eloping with Doonesbury's Mark Slackmeyer). But it's hard to read a Doonesbury strip, especially over the last three decades or so, without getting a feeling that part of Trudeau's message is how important Trudeau is. Breathed has rarely taken himself that seriously.

Toonopedia also suggests that the topical nature of Breathed's work makes Bloom County a 1980s period piece. Perhaps, but as the 2015 edition of the comic shows, some things never change. The odious buffoon Donald Trump still offers a target, silliness in the news and culture can still merit mockery and while knowledge may increase exponentially every few years, dumb seems well able to keep up.

Monday, December 7, 2015

From the Rental Vault: Thunder Road (1958)

Lucas Doolin's having a hard time. A war veteran back home running the family business, he's under pressure from regulatory agencies on the one hand and larger firms who want a piece of his market share on the other. Together, those forces may squeeze him out of a line of work that goes back a couple of generations.

Of course, the problem for Lucas is that his family line of work is moonshine running, the regulatory agencies on his tail are law enforcement and the larger concerns are big-city mobsters willing to shed blood to make some money. As played (and written and produced) Robert Mitchum, Lucas will have to navigate situations as twisted and dangerous as the hills of Harlan County Tennessee's Thunder Road in order to keep his lifestyle and his life out of the hands of others.

Mitchum was said to have heard a story about a Tennessee moonshine driver who had crashed with a full load while trying to outrun pursuers, and it inspired him to write the original story that was adapted for the movie. By that time a powerful enough star to control some of his own productions, Mitchum recruited the eccentric Arthur Ripley to direct and tried to sign Elvis Presley to play the character of Robin Doolan, Lucas' younger brother whom he wants to keep out of the moonshine business. Elvis's manager Tom Parker asked for a salary equal to the cost of the movie, so the role went to Mitchum's son James. Thunder Road was in the same time frame as Presley's two best movies, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, so who knows what might have happened had Parker cared about more than his own wallet?

Thunder Road does a good job of showing how deeply the production of homemade, untaxed -- and therefore illegal -- liquor is woven into the economy of the poor farmers of the Tennessee hill country. Both Lucas Doolin and his father Vernon (Trevor Bardette) operate their business as much out of pride, independence and tradition as economic benefit. Troy Barrett (Gene Barry) is a government agent who recognizes Lucas' reasons but enforces the law because it's the law. Keely Smith as Lucas' girlfriend Francie Wymore and Sandra Knight as Roxie Ledbetter, the object of Robin's affections who carries a torch for Lucas, add humanity to the story -- they show the outlaws don't live in a vacuum but have lives to live outside of their dangerous business.

Mitchum's movie is sometimes called "the perfect drive-in movie," referencing a kind of movie heavy on the cars, chases, loner anti-heroes dripping charisma and cool and the real potential for tragic human costs. That it takes all of those elements and blends them according to a good script and tells its story with solid, competent acting puts Thunder Road well ahead of the pack. It's a load of fun in any setting, even if it probably is best heard through a tinny window-hung speaker and seen through the windshield of a parked car, one with tailfins as sleek and swift as any rocket ship in flight.

Super Repellant!

Two chemists at the University of Massachusetts have developed a method to create a coating that would be "omniphobic" -- it would repel all liquids that people tried to put on it.

If it proves practical, then it could make graffiti vandalism very difficult but make cleaning such surfaces quite a bit easier. Paint wouldn't stick and if it was somehow laid on thick enough to create a coating when it dried, a quick swipe of the cleaning rag would remove it. Other stains would also wipe off easily.

The word "omniphobic," of course, literally means "afraid of everything," although there is a different word used for that condition. But it's used in chemistry to describe coatings that repel several kinds of substances, and the one Liming Wang and Thomas McCarthy created is not the first attempt. Such substances, although they make it difficult for liquids to stick to their surfaces, do not literally repel everything. For that you need a Donald Trump speech or Kanye West interview.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Immortality's Ups and Downs

Several of the ghostwritten works which keep Robert B. Parker's characters alive after the author himself passed away in 2010 have been noted in this space, and generally Ace Atkins' work with Parker mainstay Spenser have earned the highest marks. Rather than try to write like his late predecessor, Atkins apparently chose to try to write the characters and so produced recognizable versions of them.

For the most part, 2015's Kickback follows in that trend, although Atkins seems to suffer from a continuity lapse or two that makes some of the supporting cast come off oddly. Spenser is hired by a woman whose son was sent to a hardened juvenile detention facility for a fairly minor prank. The no-nonsense judge who sentenced him seems to have a habit of that kind of draconian punishment and the woman thinks her son and other kids are being mistreated out of line with their crimes. Spenser, as his wont, uncovers more than just a bullying judge misusing his authority, as he and his friend Hawk wind up taking on organized crime outfits that have an unusual interest in keeping a tough judge on his bench. They'll defend their interests in their usual way, though, meaning that Spenser and Hawk will need to be about the toughest men in Boston in order to see the case through and survive. Fortunately, they probably are just that.

Atkins has come the closest of any of Parker's successors to getting his ear for zippy dialogue and has firmly grasped Spenser as knight in tarnished armor, touched more than a little by the seamy world in which he has to work but unbowed in the strength of his convictions and desire to see the right thing done. He continues to do so, but Kickback's versions of both Boston Police investigator Frank Belson and mobster Vinnie Morris ring more false than true. Belson owes Spenser for the safe recovery of his wife but here acts as if the private investigator is part of the problem. Morris doesn't seem a good fit as a mob boss instead of a gunman, but that thread may continue to develop.

A bigger problem is the way Atkins wants his book to be an indictment of private prison companies and the corruption that plagues the industry. There's certainly a good case to be made on those counts, but Kickback's ham-handed treatment lacks only a mustache-twirl or two to be straight-up silent-movie melodrama.

The bungled characterizations and political cartoon plot ultimately hamstring Atkins' fourth Spenser novel. More than either of its three predecessors, Kickback has the air of 90s-00s Parker works that had flashes of style but not much else.
Reed Farrel Coleman has a problem. He's got the job of continuing one of the other Parker series that the publisher and Parker's estate considered bankable, stories about Paradise, Mass., police chief Jesse Stone. Part of the problem is that Parker created Jesse at about the time he was entering a professional doldrum of cut-and-paste segments, uninspired storytelling and putting on paper stuff that truly tested a fan's resolve.

Only two or three Stone novels were all that good, and the character simply doesn't have strong definition. Spenser has Hawk, Susan, Belson and Quirk, the city of Boston and several other people and places against which he can be seen and measured. Jesse has a couple of reoccurring subordinates but a rotating cast of girlfriends and a city that morphs and develops new neighborhoods and people as each new novel needs them.

Coleman's other problem is that his style differs wildly from Parker. His Shamus Award-winning Moe Prager novels focus on the gregarious central character and use a voice that matches his loquacious manner. A loquacious Parker character is one who speaks more than three sentences at a time. This means that whatever hazy form Parker had been able to give Jesse Stone has very little overlap with the one Coleman sets forth. In a note about Coleman's first Stone novel I said these are characters with the same names but seem almost nothing like the people we've met.

The Devil Wins starts out by trying to work around that problem, by demonstrating how we're seeing the same characters but with a different eye, and Coleman has some success. But the indistinctness of Paradise and its people mean he can't keep it up. The story, about how the discovery of a recent murder victim leads to a much older crime that directly affects some of the people to whom Jesse is closest, doesn't help much. Coleman lifts a large part of its engine and pieces from his 2005 Prager novel The James Deans and spends the second two-thirds of the novel telling us things about Jesse and what he's thinking that Parker would have showed us with a bit of dialogue or pithy description.

Not being as good a writer as Robert B. Parker is no crime; if it were then there would be about seven billion people in jail and a couple of people too busy writing to watch them. But The Devil Wins is not only a sub-par version of Parker, it's a sub-par version of Reed Farrel Coleman and its negatives mean it never gets going anywhere.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Unfunny Sums?

A group of psychologists and linguists from two different continents decided to study what qualities make a made-up word funny to our ears, and they created a mathematical model that can roughly indicate that.

Researchers from the University of Alberta in Canada and the University of Tübingen in Germany -- who probably should have noted in their paper that even though Tübingen is a real word and not a made-up one it is funnier than "Alberta" -- showed some 900 test subjects some of 6,000 made-up words that sound close to real words in order to see which ones were more likely to make them laugh.

They winnowed this list down by eliminating the obscenity sound-alikes because everyone has an inner 12-year-old that will snicker at them and showed those words to another group of test subjects. The words that were combinations of unlikelier sounds were funnier than the words that sounded more like real words. "Himumma" was deemed funnier by itself than "advical," for example, and while it is unlikely anyone has used "himumma" since Jackie Gleason departed this earth, I suspect that "advical" has actually been heard in a Joe Biden press conference.

In his interview with Quartz, the lead researcher invoked German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer -- and again, "Schopenhauer" is pretty funny for a word that's not made up -- who believed that humor involves not merely incongruity but unexpected incongruity.

And who wouldn't pay attention to thoughts on humor from this guy:

Friday, December 4, 2015

Dancing Forever

Although Robert Loggia had something like fourteen thousand movie roles, most of them as some kind of tough guy on one side of the law or the other, this may have been the best thing he ever got to do onscreen:

Loggia passed away today at 85 from complications from Alzheimer's disease.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Building Blocks of the Universe

When the people who proposed the metric system originally created the measurements used in many countries and in most scientific work, they created standard lengths and measures against which other measuring devices would be tested. There was a standard meter stick, a standard kilogram weight, and so on.

But as science advanced, the need for even more precision in measuring arose -- and the standards themselves were not as unchanging as people once thought. Though protected as much as possible from outside interference -- wouldn't do to have someone drop the kilogram and nick a piece off of it, for example -- the regular processes of atomic decay and other physical transformations continued. The meter stick looked the same to the naked eye and every meter stick measured against it could be calibrated well enough to do every day measurements, but it had altered enough that some of the very smallest measurements that scientists needed to make could not be made accurately enough using it.

So new standards were created, that relied on unchanging physical phenomena, such as wavelengths of certain radiation. But the standard kilogram is still measured against a physical object. Since 2010, scientists have suggested defining the standard kilogram in terms of the Planck constant, and the measurements for that are supposed to be finished this year. That constant, labeled h, is the smallest division or quanta into which physical action can be divided. Since it's so small, defining h can require some very precise measurements.

Or, as this article in Physics World suggests, you can do it at home with Legos. The actual machine that measures the constant is called a watt balance, and it can be built with the famous plastic blocks. While the Lego version of the watt balance will not have the precision of the multi-million dollar device constructed in a lab, it can do it well enough for almost any measurement used in everyday life.

Except for measuring the pain of stepping barefoot onto a Lego brick at night. That cannot be quantified with current technology, and it may never be.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Little Po, a Little Pu, and a Dash of Ri

-- An article in The Telegraph wonders if the inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic was stonewalled (heh) by Freemasons. Having observed a group of Freemasons spend nearly 40 minutes discussing how to mow a strip of grass about 12 feet wide by 40 feet long, I am skeptical that they could have blocked an official inquiry into the cruise ship sinking. Now, if that inquiry had been an item of regular business during a lodge meeting it indeed might not ever have been finished, but that's because of the one brother who wants to know why everything costs more now than it did when he was 25.

-- Many magazines, online and hardcopy, carry lists like this one, of books to read that discuss the idea of leadership; it seems like I see at least two every week. The idea "Stop reading and start leading" seems not to be under consideration.

-- On this day in 1823, U.S. President James Monroe issued a diplomatic statement by his Secretary of State and eventual successor, John Quincy Adams, that suggested the nations of Europe stick to their own sandbox. The goal seemed to be the protection of fledgling democracies in Central and South America from being retaken by Spain or overtaken by some other power. Having not much of a navy and even less of an army, the Monroe Doctrine initially had success based on the willingness of the British Navy to back it up; England also favored the idea of other European powers having no automatic access to New World resources. Later on, the U.S. was able to back up the concept with its own resources, but found that eliminating European overlordship did not guarantee democratic rule in Central and South America. With a few standout exceptions like Costa Rica, those nations have proven capable of instituting dictatorships and autocratic rule all by themselves.

-- A Honolulu woman was surprised to learn her bank listed her as $1.4 trillion overdrawn on her checking account. It was caused by a software glitch. Your federal government is also surprised it's several trillion dollars overdrawn. It was caused by a voting glitch.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

From the Rental Vault: Sharky's Machine (1981)

Burt Reynolds liked William Diehl's 1978 debut novel Sharky's Machine so much he optioned it himself. He said it reminded him of tthe 1944 noir classic Laura, one of his favorite movies. Once optioned, he looked around for a director to help bring the story to the screen and had no luck, until John Boorman suggested Reynolds take the chair himself.

It was a measure of his box-office clout at the time that Orion Pictures agreed even though Reynolds' first two directing efforts were widely panned. The 1981 adaptation of the Diehl novel wound up being probably his strongest big-screen directing work -- he was widely praised for his behind-the-camera efforts on the Evening Shade sitcom, but not for either of the two movies he would later helm.

Sharky's Machine has a kind of TV movie visual feel to it, although its violence would have kept it off any small screen in 1981 and probably sent it to basic cable today. Reynolds doesn't try to do much more with the camera than use it to tell the story, which could have been either a result of his limitations as a director or his awareness of those limitations. Either way, it puts the acting performances and the narrative at the center of the movie, which is probably what most actors want anyway.

Tom Sharky (Reynolds) is a top Atlanta Police Department narcotics cop whose mistake on a high-profile bust embarrasses the department enough it busts him to the Vice Squad, a collection of burnouts and dead-enders who probably deserve most of their reputation for loserdom. The accidental discovery of a high-end prostitution ring leads the squad to Dominoe (Rachel Ward), a big-money call-girl whose clientele includes some of the city's major political leadership. As the squad members set up round-the-clock surveillance of her apartment to see if they can uncover the people running the ring, Sharky finds himself drawn to Dominoe -- or at least the version of her he sees and hears through the cameras and microphones -- and becomes dangerously entangled in the case on a personal level when he witnesses a shocking crime via the surveillance equipment. The case has roots and branches at many levels of official and unofficial leadership of the community, and Sharky's connection to Dominoe puts them both in the middle of a deadly contest.

Reynolds' flamboyance -- especially during his "car-crash-movie" phase of the late 70s and early 80s -- tends to obscure his abilities as an actor. Although Machine was labeled a kind of "Dirty Harry in Atlanta" movie by a lot of people, including Reynolds himself in a joke made to Clint Eastwood, Tom Sharky is not the ruthless avenger of the .44 Magnum. He's less confident, less sure of himself, less detached and not as stable. His weaknesses allow him to breach professionalism and common sense to create a Dominoe that doesn't really exist and then believe himself to have feelings for her. Reynolds' usual macho swagger fills much of his screen time and smoothly-executed jokey banter with the veteran character actors who are the other parts of the "Machine," but it looks less like swagger and more like an act as he introspectively spies on and pretty much stalks Dominoe.

Ward was really the only rookie on the movie, since Reynolds surrounded himself with familiar faces and friends in the other primary roles. She projects cool until finding herself a target for the criminals who run her life, and manages to realistically create both the imagined Dominoe in Sharky's lens and the real one who is frightened and angry when he enters her life. Vittorio Gassman does his usual elegant turn as a ruthless crime boss and Henry Silva is characteristically insane and creepy as his brother and right-hand man.

Machine was a decent success at the box office, probably owing more to Reynolds' face on the screen than his eye behind the lens, and earned some critical praise as well. Its Laura-derived plot and over-contrived corruption narrative can be quite easily set aside in order to enjoy its noir-lite atmosphere, fine performances, and well-maintained tension.

Stay Seated

Sixty years go today, Montgomery, AL seamstress Rosa Parks declined a bus driver's order to give her seat to a white man and move to the rear of her bus. Her subsequent arrest sparked a bus boycott that played a large role in reclaiming civil rights for African-Americans and ending segregation laws.

That Ms. Parks was not the first person to be arrested for such a refusal and that she was an officer in a local NAACP chapter doesn't detract from her actions. She received many threats because of the high profile of her case, and its circumstances led civil rights organizations to choose it as a vehicle to obtain a Supreme Court ruling on segregation laws. The local activist groups met and elected a new young Baptist minister as their president, putting Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., into a role which he would use to transform a country.

Montgomery's black citizens, in protest of the bus segregation, boycotted its buses for more than a year until the city repealed its laws. They either took black-owned cabs, whose drivers charged only bus fare prices for those going to and from work, or walked -- some as much as 20 miles.

Rev. King would later say that Ms. Parks' arrest was the catalyst for the Montgomery movement more than its cause, which is probably a good way to see it. The injustice she suffered was small only when compared to the lynchings, beatings and cruelty visited on African-Americans throughout the country in years following the Civil War and into the 20th century. But the optics of the indignity forced upon this dignified woman crystallized that injustice in a way that removed the option of looking away and made change a reality.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Smile for the Camera

Above note a picture of gravitational lensing in action, as the light from several distant galaxies is bent by the presence of massive amounts of matter between us and them.

As this article from Astronomy notes, the warped space-time presents excellent proof that Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity is correct, since it claims matter causes such warping. The Cheshire Cat appearance of the combination of galaxies seems rather appropriate, as Einstein carried more than a bit of Mad Hatter about him and his theories have led to some very deep rabbit-holes indeed.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

They Still Can't Fly

As the Thanksgiving holiday weekend draws to a close, a round-robin interview with some of the creators of one of the most famous televised Thanksgiving observances in U.S. history.

Remember. Please be curious, but well-behaved.

Stories of Science

The short version of the history of Europe involves a long period of intellectual stagnation following the fall of the Roman Empire until the Renaissance began in the 1400s. The Catholic Church was a slight help in some respects by salvaging some historical records and such, but was mostly a hindrance as its leadership refused to acknowledge any possible scientific advances if they contradicted the Bible.

Physicist and science historian James Hannam would beg to differ. In his 2001 book, The Genesis of Science, he argues instead that the Middle Ages offered several scientific advances that laid the groundwork for the major leaps forward that came from pioneers like Galileo and Copernicus. And far from being a hindrance to scientific and intellectual development, he says, the church and some of its officials and teachers were among those building that foundation.

Although a little pugnacious in his assertions and style, Hannam doesn't argue that the Middle Age church was responsible for all of the advances that led to our better understanding of the world where we live. He is quite clear, however, that the idea of pure stagnation between Alaric's spring break blowout in Rome in the fifth century and Nicolaus Copernicus' noodling about planetary orbits in the 15th is unfounded. And, he points out, the monks and religious scholars at the universities of Europe were those reflecting on the philosophies of Aristotle and other ancient Greek thinkers -- even more so after they were able to find manuscripts thought lost through contact with traders from the Islamic countries where they had been copied.

On the one hand, Hannam's working against a lot of preconceived notions. Even our terminology reinforces these ideas -- we talk about "Dark Ages," "Middle Ages," and a "Renaissance." That may fuel his tendency to overwrite his case a little. On the other hand, the idea of a full millennium of intellectual stagnation ending only when some Athena of Italian culture broke out fully-formed doesn't make much sense. Meaning that these preconceived notions, like a lot of others, merit some reconsideration and maybe reconceiving. Here's hoping that Hannam's book sparks a little of that.
Eric Scerri is a chemistry professor at UCLA who also writes on the history and philosophy of chemistry. He's written several books on the development of the periodic table of the elements, that odd tiered chart we may vaguely recall from high school chemistry classroom walls.

A quick summation of the history of that table opens his 2013 book, A Tale of 7 Elements. From there he gets into the main part of his story. In the late 19th century, as the periodic table neared the form we have it in today, it accounted for most of the elements known to people at the time. But there were seven gaps -- places where the table's organizing characteristics said there should have been elements. The problem was that no substances known at the time matched what those characteristics should have been. So Scerri describes how the seven were ferreted out by researchers and scientists.

Anyone who thinks that science is a dispassionate quest for the truth unadulterated by human failings like pride, greed and nationalism will learn some things from the stories Scerri offers. Those failings and several others are on full display as claims and counterclaims are made by one team or one scientists or another, research corners are cut and contradictory evidence covered up or ignored.

Even the advancing technology that aids the search -- and in the case of a couple of the previously unknown elements is the only thing that makes their discovery possible -- doesn't completely remove the human element from it. Scerri spends perhaps more time than he needs in explaining the development of the table itself, but his clear writing style goes easy on the chemistry terms and works to explain the ones he has to use.

The book closes with a couple of entries in the search for the elements that come after the original ones listed by Dmitri Mendeleev, the ones theorized but which are so unstable their atoms exist for only fractions of a second before breaking down. So there will be plenty of opportunities for scientists to show they're human all over again, even if some of the last centuries' spats may be exchanged for new ones. Given the weirdness of the modern American college campus, at least, there's a significant likelihood of that.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Secret Tut

According to Egyptologists, there is an excellent chance that King Tut's tomb contains some hidden rooms unsuspected until now.

Tutankhamun was the boy-king who ruled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. He, Queen Nefertiti and the Pharaoh Akhenaten were at the center of an attempt to remake Egyptian society and religion by royal decree. They failed when an Egyptian general staged a coup, brought back the polytheistic religion of Egyptian antiquity and erased almost all references to the three from historical records.

The hidden rooms, if they exist, were apparently concealed by the way that the outer rooms were built and probably required some elaborate construction techniques. It's not easy building hidden rooms into a condo made of stone-a, after all.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Word Clouding

A couple of researchers at Stanford University took a look at scientific papers which had to be retracted and compared them with ones that were found to be sound or which were retracted for reasons other than academic fraud.

Academic fraud can cover everything from fudging observational data to just flat-out making stuff up. Scientists are human beings, and sometimes when they confront data that doesn't match their theories, some of them will do like many of us will do and adjust the facts to fit the theory instead of the other way around.

The pair examined some 20 million words in papers published between 1973 and 2013, and they found that both third-person pronoun use and linguistic obfuscation were higher in retracted papers. Both are often seen as techniques used by people when they are lying. Evidently we feel we can create some distance between us and the untruth if we don't use first-person pronouns, and piling on the verbiage can leave so many interpretations available that the fibber can say, "Whoops! That's not what I meant." Or it may be that when linguistic obfuscation -- which is probably more commonly referred to by initials signifying bovine alimentary end-product -- is laid on thick enough, smart scientists are afraid to question it lest they be thought of as dumb for not understanding what everyone else does.

One of the researchers said it might be possible to develop software that would scan papers for that kind of language and prompt journal editors to take a second look at ones that exceed even the usual dry academese word salad that sounds a whole lot like linguistic obfuscation to folks outside of the relevant discipline. Programmers would need to be careful, of course, to create algorithms that wouldn't show too many false positives. Those could harm reputations and bring suspicion to people who write with perfect honesty but dull style.

They would also need to keep the software away from all political speeches and statements. It's bad enough to know that almost every one of those rat bastards is lying; seeing it proven by science would probably lead to voter turnouts in the single digits.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Rational Holiday

Being thankful -- it's not just for Turkey Day.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bagpipes on Camels? Genius!

Pakistan's Desert Rangers found themselves with some bagpipers and some camels, and they thought what anyone else would think -- the bagpipers need to be riding those camels.

Although it wasn't easy, they managed to get it done, and the results were glorious.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

From the Rental Vault: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

For his fifth outing as Impossible Missions Force agent Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise finds himself up against an organization called the Syndicate, made up of missing, disavowed and presumed dead agents from around the world -- and headed by one of the most brilliant and ruthless. The only problem -- CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) has convinced the United States Senate that the IMF is out of control and they have shut it down and recalled its agents.

Hunt has to rely on his own abilities and a few trusted friends in order to track down the leadership of the Syndicate and prevent them from gaining the resources they need to spread terror around the globe and create a kind of shadow government that will control everyone else. Along the way he will also team up with Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a discredited agent who may be working for the Syndicate or for her own government. Either way, she is most certainly working for herself and whether or not that helps Hunt is by no means determined. Also undetermined is if Hunt will hold things together long enough to track down and expose the syndicate, or if his desire to beat the Syndicate leader, rogue English agent Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) has clouded his judgment.

Whatever his shortcomings as an actor, Cruise has always been able to project manic intensity, and he does that again here. Simon Pegg as Benji Dunn, Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell and Jeremy Renner as William Brandt all reprise their roles from earlier movies and hold their places in the choreography. The final third of the movie has some pretty good twisty-turny spy v. spy chess between Lane and Hunt, but up until that it's a series of random action set pieces, only a couple of which really rise to the occasion and some of which are largely repeated from earlier movies. Christopher McQuarrie and Drew Pearce's script does almost nothing new with the characters or universe: Solomon Lane's omniscient game-playing echoes Owen Davian from the third movie; the disavowed Hunt-on-the-run is a repeat from entries one and four; the "rogue" IMF echoes no. four, and so on.

While the contest between Lane and Hunt gains some extra flavor from the personal level of conflict, a lot of the energy behind that comes because Lane shot a young female agent at the beginning of the movie in front of an imprisoned Hunt -- again echoing a move by Owen Davian and another example of a female character existing to be terrorized and killed by the villain and motivate the hero.

Paramount and Cruise have confirmed that a sixth Mission: Impossible movie is in the works. Without some indication that it's going to be something different than what's happened before, this may be the time to join the secretary in disavowing any knowledge of the IMF's actions.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Turn the Pages

Although John Camp (writing as John Sandford) has made most of his name writing about cops investigating crimes, he's had a couple of hits with novels about the computer hacker and thief Kidd that range into the techno-thriller category. It involves a space voyage to Saturn and an encounter with aliens, but his 2015 collaboration with photographer and physicist Ctein (I have no idea how to pronounce it. Or why) Saturn Run is as much in that vein as it is science fiction.

A random set of images from a telescope calibration shows an object moving towards a gap in Saturn's rings and decelerating -- something no natural object could do. The United States has learned of the object first but doesn't really have any ships available to make a journey that long. China has a probe planned for a Mars voyage, so the U.S. must try to repurpose a space station for the voyage and get underway to reach the alien artifact before the Chinese can. They develop a way to do this, crew the ship and get it underway. Even though the Chinese ship has already blasted off for Saturn, the more advanced propulsion of the U.S ship, the USSS Richard M. Nixon, means it will arrive first. If nothing goes wrong, that is, and there's no shortage of people and interest groups who would like to see something do just that.

Since he's set his book about 50 years into the future, Sandford doesn't have to posit a great many cultural changes, One of his protagonists, Sandy Darlington, could stand in for Virgil Flowers in that series of books without too much trouble. There are enough tweaked details to set a different stage than the one we live on in 2015, but not so many we don't recognize the people. In that area, Run reads like a Heinlein or Allen Steele hard sci-fi novel, paying the kind of attention to detail that distinguishes both authors. It of course most resembles Arthur C. Clarke's  2001: A Space Odyssey more than anything else, especially in the first two thirds of the book. This part of the story, concerning the voyage out to Saturn and the crew interactions, makes for interesting reading, even if the final third focusing on the confrontation with the Chinese starts to drift before very long.

Sandford relied on Ctein's technical expertise to create a realistic Saturn voyage set in the late 2060s. All of the principles the pair uses for their ships' propulsion systems are known and the technological advances needed to make them completely possible. In an afterward, Sandford said he didn't want to depend on what Greg Benford calls "wantum mechanics," or the kind of jargonistic deus ex machina that's just several variations on the theme of "reversing the polarity" to haul the plot out of the fire. He succeeds, and his writing skill manages to avoid most of the techno-dumps that some authors of the genre drown in.

While Run may avoid wantum mechanics, it's rather full of wantum characterizations and wantum twists as well as a lot of dramatic setups that never really pay off. Sandford spent plenty of time getting his tech right, so knowledgeable folks won't roll their eyes at his rocket science. But they'll do it plenty at the coincidences and contrivances that litter the book, especially the last third. And these weaknesses leave Saturn Run an ultimately unsatisfying voyage.
Peter Decker and his wife Rina are settling in to their lives in an upstate New York college town, where Peter works for a small town police department and Rina teaches part-time. The longtime Angelenos aren't sure about the winters in their new home, but the closeness to their adult children and distance from LA's hectic pace make up for it.

The discovery of a body in the woods near the end of the fall semester challenges the small department, but it seems to be a pretty clear-cut suicide. As Peter and his sometime partner, Tyler McAdams, probe the insular world of the math department where the young man was a star, they find plenty going on beneath the surface but no reason to discount the coroner's ruling of a suicide. Until a second body is found, and then it turns out that the world of higher math can have just as many devious twists and turns as any other when people start dying, in Faye Kellerman's 23rd Decker-Lazarus novel, The Theory of Death.

As is often the case with long-running series, Kellerman has found a comfortable groove with her characters. Her relocation of them to upstate New York offers some new ways to consider them and the move to a small-town setting provides several new stages on which they can perform. Rather than direct a team of detectives to investigate a crime, Peter works his own shoe leather. Used to quick responses from large nearby forensic facilities, he chafes at the delays his current bucolic locale offers. Rina herself -- Rina Lazarus when the series began but Rina Decker since entry #4, Day of Atonement -- finds herself with enough time on her hands she can accompany Peter on some of his official business. Her presence proves a great help, as does that of McAdams, in town to study before his first semester law school finals.

Much of the first half of the series turned on Peter's study of and assimilation into Judaism, Rina's faith and that of his biological parents. The second half so far has turned on the couple's seemingly irresistible urge to parent and mentor teens and young adults. Peter and Rina welcome Tyler's presence and Peter is grateful for his help, but they both are firm in their direction that he study for his law school exams. Peter also continues to guide Tyler in his work as a detective, even though the younger man may not stay with the force, and the couple also play the yenta a little for him and an eligible young woman.

Theory revolves around a lot of somewhat esoteric math, but Kellerman uses her detectives -- who have no idea what the students and professors are talking about -- as a stand-in for those readers who have no idea what the students and professors are talking about so the mathematicians can explain their fields in more lay terms. Theory manages to take its new locations, situations and cast members and put an excellent shine on a well-known series.