Monday, August 31, 2015

Paging Mr. J.G. Wentworth...

Casinos are not in business to lose money, but they are always reliable about one thing: If you win, they pay out. To do otherwise would be bad for business, and a big winners are a huge part of the advertising campaign. Smiling people dripping zeroes from oversized checks brings in folks thinking that if those people won, so can I!

A state-run lottery ought to work that way, but maybe not. A couple that recently won the Illinois lottery found themselves receiving a notice with only one "o" in it,  the middle letter of the well-known abbreviation "IOU." The representatives in Illinois' legislature have yet to pass a budget, which means the state comptroller can't write checks, and lottery prizes of more than $25,000 have to come from the state comptroller. Uh-oh.

It's not that the money isn't there. Unlike most government operations, lotteries generate their own revenue and don't pay out more than they take in. So in other words, the money is there because all of the people who bought their lottery tickets didn't do so with IOUs. State lotteries are kind of persnickety about that. So, for that matter, are just about any local, state or federal operation when they're owed money. Try sending the IRS and IOU and see just how fast the amount O'ed gets really big.

But the Illinois comptroller is prohibited by law from writing checks when there is no state budget. And because no one ever thought about this possibility, the laws establishing the lottery didn't allow for an alternative way to release the funds.You're actually better off winning a smaller prize in the Illinois Lottery these days, because if it's under $25,000, the comptroller can still write you a check. Kind of like petty cash, I guess, although I leave to you, O Frugal Reader, what kind of an operation considers $25,000 petty cash.

There is a kind of wonderful irony in this for those who, like myself, think that there are very few things government bureaucracies do well these days. One of those things, we have probably said at one time or another, is giving away money. And now it turns out that the state of Illinois isn't even good at that.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

This and That

-- The interesting thing about this professor's advice to new graduate teaching assistants is that it seems pretty much to presume that none of these assistants have had much if any training in classroom management or pedagogy. It always struck me as a little ironic that public school systems require degrees that take four or five years to earn in order to be able to teach their students, but universities may not look for much beyond a degree in the field. I've been involved with schools of different sizes and backgrounds, and while smaller colleges and liberal arts schools often feature excellent teachers, there's no guarantee that the person handling 700 18-year-olds at Ginormous U's "Introduction to Basic Whatever" course ever did more than be the smart kid the teacher left in charge when he or she had to step out for a moment.

-- Donald Trump says he trademarked the phrase "make America great again" because other people running for the Republican nomination for president are copying him and using it. "There you go again," the guy who used it first might have said to the Trumpster if he were still living and could be bothered to have an opinion about a candidate as unserious as AquaNet's favorite son.

-- Kanye West has got a little trip ahead of him in order to get back to reality. It's pretty sad, considering that the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards show brought the top level of class we've come to expect from it.

-- Hannibal's over. I've got no clear concrete suggestions, but I'd like a couple of TV shows that don't lionize sick sociopaths who eat people, maybe? And it will be nice to be able to read a pop culture site without having to worry about tripping on the polysyllabic purple prose it seemed to inspire in everyone who talked about it.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


Although their impact may be shrinking in an era of ebooks, vanity publishers can still be a very enticing trap for the unwary author. Unlike traditional publishing houses that either assume book production costs themselves or sometimes charge a portion of them against royalties, vanity presses take a fee from the author to print the book.

Depending on their level of investment in the business of publishing and the level of investment of the author in the process, the vanity press might proofread and edit the manuscript, or it might not. If they don't, then whatever typos or groaningly bad writing make up that manuscript are just transferred to the printed book.

A group of science fiction authors decided to use a "sting" manuscript to expose a vanity press that was claiming it was a real publishing house that only accepted quality submissions and then professionally processed them into books that met the industry standard. The group wrote the chapters in different voices with only bare outlines as to what to do and deliberately wrote them as amateurishly and awfully as possible. They left out a chapter and replaced it with a duplicate of an earlier chapter. They used a software program to generate one. Their collective pen name was "Travis Tea." In short, they made it as obvious as possible that they were not submitting a work that was ready for publication.

Their target, however, accepted it, only backing out when the group revealed their hoax and then claiming that the pre-production editing process had discovered the unpublishable manuscript was indeed unpublishable.

It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if the group had continued to push their plan as did the journalists who pulled off the Naked Came the Stranger prank in 1969. A columnist for Newsday decided that the American bestseller lists were dominated by work that was full of lurid sex scenes but had no actual literary worth or even skilled writing. Along with 24 colleagues, he produced the aforementioned work, which proved his point by selling 20,000 copies before the authors revealed their hoax and another 70,000 after that.

On the one hand, it's good to see folks who prey on unknowing would-be authors exposed for what they are. A state vanity press outfit once saw the old sermon blog and e-mailed me to suggest I publish the sermons and perhaps sell the books as a fundraiser for the church. The woman went so far as to quote me a price but backed off when I said that I had once worked for a newspaper and I was conditioned that the only checks involved in my writing would have my name in the "pay to the order of" line rather than the signature line.

But on the other hand, while the hoax explains the awful novel that the sting crew produced, we're still left with no explanation for all of the crap regular publishers shovel out into the world, and even less explanation for why people buy it.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Next Stop: Kuiper!

NASA has decided which object the New Horizons probe will stop by and visit next: A piece of floating real estate that goes by the name 2014 MU69.

The 30-mile diameter rock is a part of what astronomers call the "Kuiper Belt," an area of small objects that stretches from Pluto outward and which is one of the outer layers of the solar system. It's named after astronomer Gerard Kuiper. It's not the most distant group of objects in the solar system, though. That would be the Oort Cloud, which is a still-hypothetical sphere of small icy objects thought to be a possible source for comets. The Oort cloud, if it exists, is thought to be between two thousand and five thousand times as far from the sun as is the Earth.

While 2014 MU69, discovered by Hubble telescope researchers last year, is not quite that far away, it is still a billion miles more distant than Pluto and New Horizons won't reach it until January 2019. Except for course corrections, regular systems checks and the completion of downloading all of the data it gathered from Pluto, scientists plan to put the probe to sleep for the journey. They say this is to conserve energy, but it may also be to forestall three and a half years of "Are we there yet?"

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Hold the Peanut Butter

Nancy Warner was making jelly and she ran out of fruit to flavor it with, so she used the next available thing: Beer.

One winter the Vermont architect and archaeologist, who canned like crazy as a hobby, found herself with lots of cans, lots of sugar and fruit pectin, but no fruits to give her jelly flavor. But she did have a lot of beer, and she had heard of jelly made with wine. So she began experimenting, and today she's moved into a commercial kitchen and makes 3,000 jars a week.

Even though the jelly retains much of the beer taste, sweetened by the added sugar, polishing off a jar will not put you at risk of a traffic stop. The cooking and chemical interaction with the sugar removes the alcohol.

I suppose technically the jelly could be made with any beer. A peanut butter and Guinness sandwich sounds intriguing, but I would hope good taste would prevent the creation of Blatz jelly. Consuming Blatz without the benefit of its wisdom-deadening alcoholic properties? That way lies madness.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Printed Matter

The technology of 3-D printing is still being developed, as people figure out more and more things that can be created by printing out thin layers and gluing them together.

This story at Smithsonian shows how a team at MIT developed a 3-D printer that uses molten glass to make some pretty fantastic objects. Rather than create a series of thin plastic or resin layers cut to certain shapes, this printer extrudes a thin stream of molten glass through a nozzle. The nozzle moves in patterns directed by a computer according to the image the user sets, and layer by later builds the object.

The video the story refers to is here, and the resulting objects are amazing. Traditional glass manufacture might be able to approximate the finished pieces, but probably without the precision available to the machine.

Here's one of the printed objects, on display with a special light in order to create some interesting effects:

Here's another object from the same printer:

Several items from the "print run" will be on display at the Smithsonian's museum next year.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Forty, Still Runnin'

Born to Run turns 40 years old today, its iconic status as music in its own right and a launching pad for Bruce Springsteen's big-league career firm on the earth and in the airwaves. As many of the items noting the anniversary point out, that status was never assured until the record was released, and the 14 months taken to create it led a lot of people to wonder if it would ever come out or if Springsteen's career would consist of two well-received but commercially underwhelming records of R&B street poetry.

But an early version of the title track had been in significant rotation on some influential East coast radio stations for several months, meaning that when the single and album released on the same day following Columbia Records' promotional campaign, the best description was "detonation." Born to Run was a Top 10 album in its second week of release and led to the fortunate/unfortunate Time and Newsweek cover twinbill.

"Thunder Road" opens the album with a quiet piano and harmonica sequence before "A screen door slams" and we are off with Mary and her lover, the narrator. As their story progresses, other instruments gather and the sound builds until the singer offers Mary her chance to escape the town he feels is a trap for them both. "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" follows, the musical biography of the formation of the E Street Band in its best-known lineup.

The third track, "Night," is one of the album's lesser-known songs along with "Meeting Across the River." Its narrator has no Wendy like his counterpart from the title song, and he still seeks her while he tries to inject life into his existence through his time behind the wheel. "Backstreets" closes side one with a story of two lovers who have each other and little else. A later Sprinsgteen might contemplate whether that would be enough but here he just tells the tale in wistfully bitter words.

Side two opens with Ernest "Boom" Carter's staccato roll before the Wall of Sound guitars and keyboards kick in -- no delicate lead in here, and we are caught up immediately into the urgency and passion of the title track. The singer is convinced that not only is there something better than his current workday life, he and Wendy will never find it where they are now -- leading to the irony of one of New Jersey's best-known songs being about leaving New Jersey. Instrumentally, "Born to Run" alternately swirls and hammers, leaning on the sweep of horns and strings as the narrator cajoles and promises Wendy a better life and then pummeling sequences of guitars and drums to emphasize the street racing and highway dreams aspect that's the closest thing to salvation their current life can offer.

"She's the One"'s icy piano base dances around a fairly standard tale of a man who loves a woman that doesn't return his affection equally, if at all. Again, a later Springsteen would probably have added some depth to both characters, with both the man's passion and the woman's coldness being more than they seem at first, but here we only see them as presented. It's not the most fully realized picture on the album, but within its limitations it offers some vivid images. Most of those come from the music itself more than the lyrics Springsteen sings.

"Meeting Across the River" tells the story of a small-time guy looking for a bigger score, but with such a somber air that it seems as much pre-eulogy as narration. It's the other "other" track, along with "Night." Although Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) stations often played many songs from an album instead of just the singles, neither "Meeting" nor "Night" showed up on the dial very often.

Born to Run closes with "Jungleland," the last "epic" Springsteen would try until 2009's "Outlaw Pete." In it the Rat, a hood with gang affiliations, meets his love the Barefoot Girl and drives away, following one of Springsteen's most common symbols of true love triumphing. But the Rat has not come to the night with clean hands, and both the police and his gangland life have made it impossible for this dream to come true. "Jungleland" was also one of the last of Springsteen's lyrically dense story songs, with the characters who came in later albums having much more of an Everyman or Everywoman identity. The word-packed images gave way to plain-spoken declarative sentences. It's easily one of the most majestic songs instrumentally the E Street Band created, with what is probably Clarence Clemons' finest saxophone solo moving the Rat's story to his end and epitaph.

Though Springsteen's discomfort with Columbia's promotional efforts led to an early end of the campaign, "Born to Run" stayed on the charts for 29 weeks. The willingness of that old AOR format to play songs other than an album's hit singles kept almost all of the tracks in front of listeners, and Springsteen's ability to infuse his performances with a religious zeal made sure that his fans stayed in love with its best tracks. Although singles chart success would have to wait for 1980 and "Hungry Heart," Born to Run kept Bruce Springsteen in the music business. It also added a challenging level of instrumental and lyrical complexity to the rock side of rock and roll, until that point (with the exception of The Who), found mostly in mid-tempo folk and Ozymandian progressive rock extravaganzas. Myth and poetry in popular music no longer required misty shores and mountains -- it could be found on the asphalt and under a street rod's shiny hood.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Not Reading

Some incoming first-year students at Duke University deserve half a pat on the back for their decision to skip their school's summer reading entry.

Duke, like many universities, assigns its incoming students a book to read and schedules discussions for the new students during their first days on campus. These books are rarely burdened with actual deep content and frequently represent some idea or theme that's trending among college administrators.

This year, Duke picked Fun Home, a long comic book (which is all a "graphic novel" is, and I say that as a fan of comic books) written and drawn by Allison Bechdel. Bechdel chronicles her difficult relationship with her closeted gay father and her experiences discovering her own sexuality as a lesbian woman. I've never read it, so I don't have much to say about it.

Incoming Duke first-year student Brian Grasso made clear and public his choice to skip the novel. He said that reading and viewing the graphic depictions of sexual situations would compromise his religious and moral beliefs (Full disclosure: Duke is affiliated with my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, but that probably doesn't mean much to a significant percentage of its faculty, staff and students).

The reason I give Mr. Grasso and his fellow skippers only half a pat on the back is that they should be saying they won't read the book because there's no reason for them to do so. Colleges choose this pseudo-intellectual exercise supposedly as a way to introduce their new students to the concept of the life of the mind which is a feature of their university communities.

But the books are almost always shallow, rarely offer anything but sentimentalism or empathy mining and carry absolutely no consequences if ignored. Students receive no grades for their discussions or projects and can't be expelled if they skip the book, show up to whatever session the college drags them to, sit quietly and leave when it's all done. I may be misremembering my own 18-year-old thinking, but I didn't exactly need lessons in how to ignore assigned reading.

So fight the power, Mr. Grasso, but don't stop halfway. Reject the idea you have to read this comic book, not because it has some pictures that might compromise your faith journey, but because the whole project is lame and requires someone to put a stake in its heart.

(Note: I selected the USA Today story because it came closest to the middle in the reporting on this matter -- it lacked the full-throated cheerleading for the protesting students I saw on several more conservative sites and the snarky mockery in most of the more left-leaning coverage. Nevertheless, it's not perfect, as writer Alexandra Samuels seems to think that the students' faith requires the label "alleged" when their willingness to buck their school's system and listen to the snickering put-downs of many of their opponents would indicate that faith is actually there and not merely allegedly so.)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Hot Hits in the Hot Season!

This infographic at Personal Creations shows which songs dominated the charts for the most weeks during each summer for the last 50 years.

It seemed like "My Sharona" was a #1 hit for more than six weeks in the summer of 1979, but my memory of Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" that far back is a little fuzzy. I do remember that when it fell out of the top spot, it was replaced by Robert John's drippy "Sad Eyes."

My friends and I couldn't figure out how that song was number one when almost everyone hated it, even girls. It didn't even have the saving grace of being a good slow dance song because it was about a sad breakup that was happening because the singer's wife or steady girlfriend was coming home and the fling had to end. In fact, just a couple of years ago "My Sharona" came up in a conversation with a high school buddy who made a point of saying, "And that 'Sad Eyes' crap that came after it, blecch!"

At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon (which I am not; I am a middle-aged curmudgeon, thank you very much), I will point out that a bunch of summers after, say, 1993 offered stuff that makes me wish for "Sad Eyes." I've got plenty of music made in the 90s, Oughties and Teens, so it's not just that I think stuff from when I was younger was better. But it seems that what floated to the top of the charts during those years was hardly the best that year offered. This is not unique to these decades; I am willing to bet that the summer of 1974 offered much better and more sensibly punctuated music than Paul Anka and Odia Coates singing "(You're) Having My Baby."

I listen to Top 40 radio so I can know what the youth in my church are talking about, and I can't recognize more than a handful of those songs -- which means that even though I heard them, they didn't stick with me at all. And of the handful I recognize, I can probably say I like two or three (especially that "Call Me Maybe." That sucker's an earworm par excellence!)

Which is, I guess, another exhibit in the argument that Famous Don't Mean Fantastic, which is proven or disproven every other day or so depending on which example you want to cite. I don't know if that one will ever have a definitive answer. What does have a definitive answer is how awful it was to listen to a Top 40 station during the hot season in 2013. Twelve weeks of "Blurred Lines?"

A cruel, cruel summer indeed.

(H/T JenX67)

Saturday, August 22, 2015

When Is Skim Milk Not Skim Milk?

Well, when it's skim milk, at least as far as Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Adam Putnam and Florida law are concerned.

The Ocheesee Creamery, run by Paul and Mary Lou Wesselhoeft, wants to market their skim milk as skim milk. They make it pretty much the way the name describes. They take whole milk and skim the cream off it. The cream contains most of the fat found in milk, which is why people trying to lower their fat intake choose it. Dairies often do this not just to create skim milk, but also to process the cream for sale as well, either as cream or churned into butter.

Skimming the cream also reduces the amount of vitamin A in the milk, since it's a compound found mostly in the cream and not in the rest of the milk. Florida law requires people who want to market skim milk as skim milk to inject vitamin A back into the milk after the skimming process has removed it. The Wesselhoefts say their customers don't want any additives in their skim milk, and so they don't put anything into it. Fine, says Florida, but you can't label that as skim milk. You have to label it “Non-Grade ‘A’ Milk product, natural Milk Vitamins Removed.”

In other words, according to an actual state law and some soulless automata fueled by real taxpayer dollars, genuine skim milk that comes straight outta Bessie and gets the cream skimmed off has to be labeled as imitation skim milk.

A couple of years ago, some bureaucratic homunculus ordered the Wesselhoefts to stop selling their skim milk unless they changed the label to the above phrase. Since the majority of their customers are folks who are looking for natural foods, they figured they wouldn't sell too many bottles that way. Although the Ocheesee Creamery still skims the cream in order to sell it, they now have to pour the milk left behind down the drain. Last year, they decided to sue on First Amendment grounds, saying that the United States Constitution gives them the right to call skim milk by the name skim milk.

During oral presentations in court, the state agency's lawyer said that skim milk has to have vitamins re-inserted because people expect their whole milk and skim milk to have the same nutritional value. That seems a weak argument, as Floridians probably expect their state agencies to be run by people whose neurons can fire without jumper cables and they are presently being disappointed there as well. The judge in the case also appeared skeptical of the value of that position.

The lawyer said that the genuine skim milk was "literally imitating" the skim milk with the re-added vitamins, which is proof right there that there are some words you don't need to understand in order to be a lawyer.

P.S. -- If the suit is successful, I hereby allow the Ocheesee Creamery to use "Straight Outta Bessie" in their marketing free of charge.

Friday, August 21, 2015

History Booked

Not too differently than the way the cowboy kind of sums up a lot of folks' idea of America, the samurai warrior sums up a lot of folks' ideas about Japan. The strict codes of honor, fearless attitude in battle and disregard for their own safety or their lives colors a lot of images people have of even modern-day Japan, though they might be seen by modern Japanese as every bit as outdated as the cowboy does to a lot of Americans.

Jonathan Clements' A Brief History of the Samurai is exactly that, sketching how the warrior culture began in medieval Japan and grew gradually into a dominant force overpowering the nominal authority of the imperial court. He also outlines the peak of samurai power during the isolationist feudal totalitarian years of the Tokugawa Shōgunate and its decline and downfall when modernizing movements helped restore the Emperor Meiji to power. Clements touches briefly on how the samurai ethos influenced the military commanders in the years leading up to World War II as well as a lot of Japanese entertainment culture in the postwar years.

He takes seriously the word "brief" in the title, sometimes to the point of fogginess for a careless reader. Some of the principals in several episodes have similar names and losing track is easy to do -- but someone exploring the final years of the English Plantagenets could do the same trying to sort out all the Henrys. Only pivotal episodes are dealt with in any detail, but Clements includes a listing of more extensive works to explore for people who want to learn more detail of, say, the Ashikaga Shōgunate between the 1330s and 1570s.

Clements helps clarify several details about samurai culture and offers some good guides for sorting out which popular pictures are kind of lacking and which are closer to the mark, as well as the aforementioned sources for more research. Both the demystification and the overall broad history are helpful work.
Dayton, Ohio's Wright brothers were not necessarily the first people to get a heavier-than-air powered craft to fly. They were, though, almost certainly the first people to get it to fly for any length of time, under control, and land under its own power, so they are considered the inventors of the airplane. Most planes today rely on principles of aerodynamics first learned by the brothers as they studied birds and gliders in the first years of the 20th century.

Historian and biographer David McCullough's new book tells the story of the brothers' development of their Wright Flyer and takes them up through the creation of an airplane manufacturing company in 1910. It is much less intensively detailed that some of his other books, such as the Pulitizer-prize winning Truman and John Adams. McCullough only sketches the brothers' early years growing up Dayton, focusing on details that will have their role in the story of the airplane's creation but not much else. It offers a wider role that many have previously allowed for their sister Katherine Wright, the only Wright to earn a college degree, as she helped them during their time in Europe demonstrating their machine and training new pilots. And it does not focus heavily on the engineering side of the Wrights' development of their wing design or technical explanations of it.

But as always when reading McCullough about the people he's studied, we learn about the people he's studied. As mentioned, neither brother attended college and they began their professional lives as builders and repairers of bicycles. When they decided to try to create a powered heavier-than-air craft, they began by writing the Smithsonian Institute for information on birds and by writing to other aeronautical researchers for what they had studied. Having amassed their material, they started tinkering first with small gliders, learning from them, and then building bigger gliders. These larger gliders were first used in Kitty Hawk, N.C., and from studies of their performance came the actual Wright Flyer of 1903.

McCullough, using letters from the brothers to their sister and father, Bishop Milton Wright, outlines the creation of the camp at Kitty Hawk, dealing with its people and weather, and the methodical journey towards the first flight. As it details Orville and Wilbur's dogged and careful work, the central sections of The Wright Brothers read not unlike an Edwardian-era episode of Mythbusters: Experiment, failure, evaluate, experiment, success, evaluate, new experiment, and so on (Orville's mustache even evokes Mythbuster Jamie Hyneman's). McCullough ends the book's main section with a 1910 flight in which the brothers flew together -- their only such flight, as they had previously decided one of them must survive any possible crash -- and one with their father, An epilogue handles their trouble with patent lawsuits, business issues, Wilbur's early death from typhoid just nine years after their first flight and Orville's survival into the days of supersonic aviation.

Some folks, including some typically hyperventilating Amazon reviewers, fault The Wright Brothers for its lack of technical detail and expansion of the brothers' lives in pre- and post-Kitty Hawk days. But McCullough, whose biographies of Presidents John Adams and Harry Truman weigh in at 750 and 1100 pages respectively and who also wrote a 700-page history of the building of the Panama Canal, could have written that kind of book if he had wanted, so it seems best to judge Wright Brothers on its own terms. And on those terms -- a story of how two self-taught, meticulous and daring brothers at the turn of the 20th century figured out, step by careful step, how to fly -- it performs quiet well indeed.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

My Name Is...

Robert Krulwich, writing at National Geographic's "Phenomena" blog, wonders about who the first person in history might have been to write his or her name.

He speculates that it would have been a male and probably a person of high rank, such as a king or other official. He thinks the person would have been male because, he says, males tend to be "early adopters" of new things, which is a phrase I don't understand. I mean, I understand what "early adopter" means, but I've never heard of anything that suggests men are more prone to do this than women. In fact, as I understand classic male-female quest partnerships, the female is usually the one to more quickly adopt a new idea, such as using a map or stopping to ask for directions. Males as a group are portrayed as resisting this innovation, usually upon existential grounds: "We are not lost! I know exactly where I'm going!"

I do think the person would have been a male, though, because the earliest cultures we know with writing tended to be heavily patriarchal. Frequently held as second-class citizens, perhaps unable to own property or viewed as less reliable witnesses -- much as they are today in the human-rights backwater of most of the Middle East, for example -- there would have been little reason for a woman's name to be inscribed in a clay tablet or for difficult-to-make writing materials being "wasted" to record one.

As it turns out, Krulwich discovers he is wrong, at least so far as the earliest known recorded name. It turns out to be on a preserved clay tablet from Mesopotamia that dates back about 5,000 years, and the word on it that's probably a name could be the man who recorded a barley transaction: Kushim. Now, there could be older written names that predate Kushim, or it could be that Kushim is not a name at all but some entirely different word that is clear as day to a Bronze-Age scribe but clear as clay to a 21st-century linguist. So we don't really know.

But thinking about it did give me pause. The idea of having a specialized set of sounds that represents an individual is itself a quantum leap forward in perception. From a sort of undifferentiated self to the idea of individual existence is a huge leap, one which very few living creatures seem to have made. Not very many animals seem to understand themselves as selves, to get a little philosophical.

Moving from there to the idea that a particular group of sounds will encode that individual in the conversations and thoughts of others is yet another huge stride. "Oog" becomes more than the sound you make when the woman you are dragging by the hair to your cave discovers the prehistoric version of a kick in the jewels and acts upon it. It now represents you. From now on, when people who know you say, "Oog," they will mean you. Since the name has such unpleasant associations for you, you will probably wish to change it soon, but still, the idea has taken hold.

And then we go to the idea of making marks that represent the sound that is your name, so that from now on, you are denoted not only by a particular set of sounds and an embarrassing story that you wish the guys would stop telling, but also by a particular set of marks either etched on a soft surface or drawn on a flat one. While this is phenomenal, it also means that your embarrassing story will be known by anyone who reads those marks, even long after you are gone. This inspires you to leave for another part of the world where they don't know how to write yet, dwell among them and clonk in the head anybody who likes to draw things.

But having now wound my brain up thinking about the quantum leap in human perception that first spoken and then written language truly are, I will insert the control rods and damp that down, or else it will be dawn before I get to sleep.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Morale Booster

At about the time I begin this post, on an afternoon 203 years ago, a couple of wooden warships started shooting at each other. One was the HMS Guerriere, commanded by Captain James Richard Dacres, a French-built British frigate. The other was the USS Constitution, commanded by Captain Isaac Hull, which was about to earn a nickname it carries to this day.

The Royal Navy was the most powerful instrument of war the world had ever known, and allowed a small island to extend its reach so far around the globe that the saying was, "The sun never sets on the British Empire." Its superiority in firepower, ship-handling, gunnery and maritime technology made it a fearsome foe -- especially if the opponent was an upstart pipsqueak of a nation sounding off to the very people from whence it came, like a child telling his or her parents where to get off. Royal Navy self-confidence was such that Dacres felt his Guerriere could defeat this American in single-ship action, even though it mounted six more guns and had a broadside firing weight almost double his own.

But because that upstart pipsqueak of a nation had in fact come from the mighty Royal Navy, it had a few skills in shipbuilding and ship-handling itself. The frigates the Americans created in this 44-gun class were not only larger than the class of the same name in the Royal Navy, they were tougher-built and carried larger and stronger guns. No small number of American sailors had learnt their trade under a Union Jack, and admiration for the Royal Navy was widespread enough among American officers that they could not help but emulate the British model of professionalism, first-class gunnery and fighting spirit.

Those factors, combined with Guerriere's aging timbers and masts, gave Hull and Constitution the victory. Guerriere's fire was largely ineffective, aimed high at masts and rigging to try to disable Constitution. The fire directed at the hull was likewise undamaging. When a cannon ball bounced off the hull, a sailor was supposed to have cried out, "Huzzah, boys! Her sides are made of iron!" Though the battle was not particularly relevant militarily, the effect on morale of beating the mighty Royal Navy one-on-one in the open sea was great, and helping the US Navy establish a sense of its own power important as well. "Old Ironsides," though retired from active duty, remains a commissioned warship in the United States Navy and its officers and crew are active seamen on special duty. Her current captain, Cmdr. Robert Gerosa, Jr., is her 74th commanding officer.

When Dacres came aboard to offer his sword in the manner of accepted naval surrender, Hull refused to take it from him as he had fought too gallantly to be shamed so. In his official letter to the Admiralty about the battle, Dacres for his part included this: "I feel it my duty to state that the conduct of Captain Hull and his Officers to our Men has been that of a brave Enemy, the greatest care being taken to prevent our Men losing the smallest trifle, and the greatest attention being paid to the wounded who through the attention and skill of Mr [John] Irvine, Surgeon, I hope will do well."

Constitution is currently in dry dock being restored to a more seaworthy condition. She sailed on this day in 2013 to commemorate her victory over Guerriere, and as long as she remains afloat she can remind us of a time where even enemies who had tried to sink you could be recognized for their courage. And perhaps even someday become an example of how to treat people who have not even tried to shoot you, but who only disagree with your politics.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

From the Rental Vault: Quests

Somewhat lesser-known than the John Ford-John Wayne partnership, the Anthony Mann-James Stewart team up also produced some of the best work of both men, especially in the genre of the Western. The 1953 drama The Naked Spur was the third of the five Westerns they did together, and was another example of Stewart stretching beyond his easygoing earnestness into some deep psychological and moral waters.

Howard Kemp (Stewart) is pursuing the murderer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) for the bounty, and finally tracks him down with the uninvited but necessary help of dishonorably discharged cavalry lieutenant Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) and hardscrabble failed prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell). Ben reveals that Howard is no lawman as he has implied, but instead a bounty hunter who just wants the $5,000 reward for Ben's capture. Roy and Jesse claim a third of the reward and insist they will accompany Howard. Ben immediately starts to set them against each other, building suspicion and mistrust using their greed. He also uses the presence of Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), the daughter of another outlaw, whom he has been protecting since her father was killed. His goal is to reduce the number of his captors or to set them against each other enough he can find a way to escape before he is returned to Abilene and hanged.

Mann shot Spur on location in Colorado, with only a cave scene done inside on a stage. The early spring setting allows for the contrast of greening plants and the remnants of snow banks, signaling the mix of life and frozen deadness inside Kemp's own spirit. Stewart demonstrates he was always more than just a kindly fellow, going from brimful of rage to sad regret and bewildered pain and back again during the journey. Ryan excels at Ben's Mephistopholean joy as he plays with the other's heads, doing it seemingly as much for the fun as for his escape plan. Leigh, up until then working mostly in ingenue roles, is no shrinking violet or just a foil for the men. Although her role is a little sketchier and less independent than a modern audience would like, she still has her own motivation and action within the parameters of the story.

Today Jimmy Stewart is known as much for his morally conflicted roles with Alfred Hitchcock as he is for the upstanding characters of It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But it seems likely that without transitioning as he did with his work in Mann's movies and especially their Westerns, he would not have painted with gray nearly so well as he did with Hitch.
Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty in 17th century China, a new young emperor has decided to end the secret rule of palace advisor Wei. Wei gets wind of the threat and escapes. The emperor sets the Imperial Assassins, his secret police, to search for Wei and kill him. A high officer in the secret police gives the task to three skilled but impoverished agents, who track Wei down but are then tempted by his vast wealth. How they handle the offer of the bribe and its consequences is the story of Brotherhood of Blades, a 2014 martial arts movie that was well-reviewed on release but fared poorly at the box office.

The three leads fall into familiar types -- there is a grizzled veteran, an innocent newcomer and a hero in his prime. Each has a secret need for the kind of money that Wei offers. The veteran does not have the bribes to purchase a promotion to which he has long been entitled but can't get because richer men buy it first. The hero has a favorite courtesan whose freedom he wishes to purchase so they can begin a life together. And the newcomer has a secret that another person knows, and that other person is a ruthless blackmailer.

Blades plays out pretty much as expected; its strength is in its well-choreographed fighting and its solid if uninspired three main cast members rather than in very many surprising twists and turns. Webs of corruption will ensnare the poor but honest soldiers, high-level officials will manipulate and scheme, and so on and so forth. Only Dong-xue Li as a mercenary blackmailer and Qing Ye as a druggist's daughter offer much depth or anything surprising in their characters.

But those strengths of competent performance, unadorned story and well-executed action set pieces make for a good afternoon diversion and something of an interesting meditation on what it might really cost to get the one thing you want more than anything.

Monday, August 17, 2015


Botanists are keeping an eye on a corpse flower plant that's getting ready to bloom at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

The plant, which is technically named Amorphophallus titanum -- a name that seems to fuse associations both kinky and creepy -- blooms rarely, sometimes only once in ten years. When it does bloom, it gives off an odor like decaying flesh, which is where it gets its more common name. Although the scientists at the Gardens know the plant is approaching the stage where the flower will bloom, they don't know just when. Biological phenomena are not always as regularly timed as things like geysers.

I saw a comment on one version of this story that noted the coincidence between the expected stinky unveiling and this week's premiere of the A&E Network show Fear the Walking Dead. It's the spinoff of their hit show The Walking Dead, which is itself based on the long-running comic book The Walking Dead.

All of these shows and comics are about dead people who walk and try to eat the brains of the living. I think the new show is about how the dead try to find a way to walk that instills fear. I suspect it will be a shambling kind of walk with mouths agape and decaying flesh rotting from their bones, but since the response that idea evokes from me is trying to contain "Goodgriefanotherfrickinzombieshow?" within a single yawn, you might want to consult other sources.

I think this really all is just coincidence and there are no similarities between the coverage of the corpse flower and Fear the Walking Dead. On the other hand, the live feed of a giant plant in a pot does seem at least as interesting as another frickin' zombie show.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Am I Sure About This?

Math blogger and professor Terence Tao offers some advice to folks in his field that, it seems to me, provides useful thinking about several other arenas as well.

Tao suggests that if a mathematician tries to solve a problem and comes up with an immediate, brilliant obviously correct answer, he or she should test it out even more thoroughly than an answer that shows up after lots and lots of hard slogging. In other words, Archimedes should probably have said, "Eureka! Maybe!"

Although it's not exactly like Tao's suggestion, I find myself applying a similar principle when I write sermons, for example. There are times when the perfect illustration or saying or turn of phrase occurs to me, one which will reveal exactly what I intend to say in a manner so clear that the fidgety pre-schoolers in the eighth pew will be able to use it to convert Richard Dawkins.

The problem, of course, comes when I then try to build my sermon and find that getting from where I start (the Biblical text) to where I want to go (my brilliant thought) is by no means the straight and direct path I thought it was. It winds, meanders, doubles back and contorts in order to make the journey, which is a clue that no matter what I might have thought from the start, the actual truth is not as fun: I can't get there from here. In fact, on more than one occasion I have found that my perfect illustration or brilliant idea turns out to be -- this is embarrassing -- completely wrong. Which is probably a relief to those pre-schoolers, who can go play on the swings instead of flying to England to witness to Richard Dawkins.

Now, this doesn't always happen. Sometimes those flashes of insight are almost as brilliant as I think they are and they do work as perfectly as I hope they would. After all, Archimedes was right about displacement. But we both found that out when we tested our work.

Most of the time this blog, of course, undergoes no such testing, which no doubt now makes sense to those of you who continue to read it.

(H/T Leah Libresco)

Saturday, August 15, 2015

It's a Bag You Grab -- It's a Grab-Bag!

-- Over at Inside Higher Ed, Rose Cameron of Penn State University suggests that one way for university departments to increase their productivity and creativity is to kill committee meetings. I think she is dead wrong, because she does not say that committee meeting should be killed everywhere, not just in the ivy-covered walls of academia.

-- The only good thing about the depressing popularity of Donald Trump's candidacy for the Republican nomination for President is that it seems to have rekindled the fire of creativity in one Berkeley Breathed, the creator of Bloom County. Almost at the same time as Trump's rise in the public's (obviously drunken, bloodshot and nearly blinded by a month-long attempt to diffuse hashish into one's system through corneal tissue) eye, Breathed launched Bloom County 2015 on his own Facebook page. So far the only place to see the new cartoons is as "photos" on Breathed's page. He's obviously zinging Trump, but he's also zinging what passes for political discourse in 2015 by mocking the name-calling Trump both engages in and seems to inspire in his detractors, and he's doing it with wit that hasn't shone this bright since the late '80s. Vaya con frickin' Dios, Jon Stewart -- Prohibition is over and your 3.2 snark-watered political satire is no longer required.

-- At Mere Inkling, Rob Stroud has a quick discussion of the idea of Muses, touching a little on what C.S. Lewis said about the concept as well as a little meditation of his own. The Muses were originally figures from Greek mythology who inspired and guided artists and creative folks. Certain Muses -- and I believe they were all female -- might inspire painters, others sculptors, musicians and so on. There were also Muses for science. Urania guided and inspired astronomers, for example. Stroud then asks his readers what their own Muses might be. He seems to limit them to the classical Greek or Roman ones, which also limits me. There is no muse for general writing; several cover different kinds of poetry. I might think the Muse for my blog is Thalia (comedy) while you, Patient Reader, may think Melpomene (tragedy) is more fitting. I'll go outside the regular pantheon and claim my Muse is Mike Royko, the irascible and brilliant Chicago newspaper columnist. Not because I am all that brilliant, but because when I close one eye, squint and hold my breath until I'm giddy I can think my better pieces are on a level with his for a full five seconds before dissolving into laughter.

-- Isaac Newton developed a theory of gravity, the Laws of Motion and (along with Liebniz) calculus, thus giving students for generations reasons to curse his name. He was obviously brilliant, and interestingly enough, he was also highly religious. He didn't much care for the idea of the Trinity and for a couple of other orthodox Christian beliefs, but he is an excellent example that unflinching probing of the universe around is is not automatically incompatible with religious belief. Several other articles on Newton are also listed at The New Atlantis in its "The Unknown Newton" symposium.

Friday, August 14, 2015

No Trespassing!

There are a lot of people who don't like the remote-controlled aerial vehicles that are proliferating these days. Some folks have tried to get laws passed regulating them. Some others have warned the will shoot them if they cross over their property.

Eagles don't negotiate or give warnings.

They just pound on the drone and knock it out of the sky.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

From The Rental Vault: Trio!

Reporter Joe Miller (Ben Lyon) is torn -- on the one hand, he is sick of the small-potatoes news he gathers from the San Diego waterfront and would love nothing more to earn his way out of here to a reporting gig on the East Coast closer to his long-distance sweetheart. But on the other hand, he keeps thinking that if he sticks things out, he'll land a scoop on the human traffickers smuggling Chinese immigrants into the country. He knows the ring is led by Eli Kirk (Ernest Torrence) but he has no way to get close to Kirk's operations -- until a chance meeting with Kirk's beautiful daughter Julie (Claudette Colbert). But will Ben's pretend romance stay pretend, or become real? And what will Julie do if it does, especially since Ben is close to breaking his story? I Cover the Waterfront, from 1933, unspools this melodrama.

The first few years of talking movies -- Waterfront was made only six years after Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer, the first major talkie -- were a strange hybrid of silent and sound styles. Director James Cruze had made some well-received movies in the earliest eras of the motion picture, but he doesn't seem to be able to take advantage of the greater mobility and other possibilities the more advanced technology of 1933 offered. Torrence, on the other hand, a kind of Alan Rickman of his day known for his playing of steely-eyed villains, bridged the gap well and easily multiplied his villainy by his voice. Lyon and Colbert anticipate the snappy patter of later screen couples/antagonists and display a back and forth no set of title cards could keep moving fast enough.

Waterfront was made pre-Hayes Code, meaning that whether Julie was actually swimming nude when Joe meets her or not, it is certainly implied that she was. It's a good showcase of early versions of some of Hollywood's best mid-century themes, like the screwball comedies, repartee-heavy romances and noir classics that would dominate those years. It unfortunately also displays the backward racial assumptions of the era regarding the Chinese and other Asian people. The actual racism -- ethnic name-calling, etc. -- is less than the racism by omission we see in never learning much of anything about Eli Kirk's victims, so Waterfront is more uncomfortable than unwatchable. While the discomfort should be mild enough to not turn most folks away, some might still wish to take a pass.
The best parts of 1975's The Eiger Sanction come in the climbing sequences and the throwaway insults and one-liners -- and it could use a much healthier dose of both.

By 1975, Clint Eastwood had a significant amount of clout as a director and box-office star. He used it to direct the adaptation of Trevanian's book The Eiger Sanction, about an assassination requiring the hitman to do his work while climbing the deadly Mt. Eiger.

Eastwood is Dr. Jonathan Hemlock, an art professor who used to be a government assassin. He used his earnings to buy some of his favorite pieces of art, and the organization that used to use him now blackmails him with threats about asking the IRS how many college professors can afford a multi-million dollar art collection. Hemlock carries out the first hit with no problem but refuses the second, so the blackmail dial is turned up. A little sweetener is thrown in: the target was probably an agent who betrayed Hemlock's team and caused the death of a friend. His exact identity isn't known, but it is known he will be part of a team trying to climb the Eiger -- and Hemlock, in addition to being an art professor and assassin, is also an expert climber who has failed to conquer the Eiger before. Thus persuaded and tempted, he begins training with his friend Bowman (George Kennedy). Along the way he will have to thwart an attempt to kill him from former partner Miles Mellough (Jack Cassidy) and the betrayal by a woman he has met, Jemima Brown (Vonetta McGee).

As mentioned above, some of the one-liners are outstanding. When a flunky tells Hemlock he's been sent to collect him, he says, "My superiors want to see you." Hemlock replies, "That doesn't narrow the field very much, does it." The climbing sequences are also phenomenal. Eastwood did many of his own stunts, and several serious injuries marred the production filming at the Eiger. But there aren't enough of either. There's plenty of Bondesque babe-bedding, but Eastwood is far too laconic to pull off 007's suave charm. The training section of the movie has some great cinematography of climbing in the desert Southwest, but stuck haphazardly into a time-wasting side plot with Mellough. And there's barely a half-hour of time on the actual mountain, in a movie whose title features the mountain!

Eiger more or less flopped at the box office, and Eastwood blamed Universal Studios before heading out the door. He would return to his Western roots with the 1976 revenge drama The Outlaw Josey Wales, gaining some more experience strengthening his skills in the more familiar surroundings.
After several years of toiling in one B picture after another, John Wayne had finally grabbed his star with 1939's Stagecoach. The question now was whether he was a one-timer or had staying power. Republic Pictures, the source of a lot of those B titles, gathered up Wayne, his Stagecoach co-star Claire Trevor and director Raoul Walsh, gave them an A-picture budget and a screenplay fictionalizing William Quantrill's bloody terror in Civil War-era Kansas. The result, 1940's The Dark Command, was a top-reviewed and well-done return on their investment that helped solidify Wayne's box-office power.

Wayne plays Bob Seton, a cowboy traveling with a shady dentist (Gabby Hayes) who helps drum up business by punching men out when they insult the president. This being Kansas in the years leading up to the Civil War, business is good. When the pair hit Lawrence, Kansas, they decide to stay awhile, not the least because Seton has spied Mary McLeod (Trevor), the beautiful daughter of the town banker. Mary's attentions, however, are on schoolteacher William Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon), who soon finds himself at odds with Seton as they compete in an election for the new town marshal. Seton wins, and the bitter Cantrell decides to acquire wealth and power by working the other side of the law-enforcement street. Like Quantrill on whom he is based, Cantrell raids both Northern and Southern sympathizers equally, robbing from anyone who has anything. His raids draw attention from Seton, who suspects him but can't prove anything, and the gap between Seton and Mary widens when he has to arrest her brother for shooting a man. The brother was played by Roy Rogers in one of his earliest big-picture roles; Command therefore is the only movie in which famed screen cowboys John Wayne and Roy Rogers worked together.

The five main cast -- Wayne, Trevor, Pidgeon, Hayes and Rogers -- all nail their roles, as does Marjorie Main in a small but important part as Cantrell's mother. Wayne and Trevor continue the sparring they developed in Stagecoach, with Trevor now portraying a respectable woman of society and Wayne far more nimble and expressive verbally as well as physically than he would be during most of his icon years. Pidgeon is very convincing as a man whose ambition and greed drive him to take what he feels is rightfully his, whether or not it's legitimately his at all. Hayes and Rogers fill in their own smaller roles with confidence and skill; Hayes displaying his great gift for irascibility and comic timing and Rogers showing he was as much an actor as a "singing cowboy."

The Dark Command isn't as famous as Stagecoach, and although Walsh wouldn't work with Wayne nearly as often as John Ford would, it was easy to see that with good direction, a solid story and talented castmates, John Wayne came by his movie stardom honestly -- he was a pretty good actor in the right places at the right times.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Showers Forecast

At the Astronomy Picture of the Day site, today's photo is a series of images that shows a meteor exploding as it enters the atmosphere, with the Milky Way galaxy as the background.

It's a good image to accompany a reminder to hang out tonight under the stars in a low-light area to watch the Perseid meteor shower, which will have best viewing between midnight and dawn. Unlike an eclipse, it is safe to look directly at the meteors as they burn up in our atmosphere.

On the other hand, if it seems a particular meteor is not leaving a streak as it crosses the sky but is only getting somewhat larger and brighter, it is a good idea to begin invocation of such deity as seems good to you. And to make ready for one helluva insurance claim.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Musical Nation-States

So what if you decided to take all of the nations in the world and move their populations to the country whose rank in area matched its rank in population: Move the most populous country to the biggest one, and so on and so forth.

A few years ago, Frank Jacobs talked about such a map and posted it at Big Think. There are a few interesting features.

First of all, four countries wouldn't have to move. Ireland, Yemen, Brazil and the United States could stay right where they are, as their population rank matches their square mileage rank. Noam Chomsky would doubtless say that this is a result of U.S. imperialism and suggest we pay reparations to the Khmer Rouge, but Noam Chomsky thinks his bunions are the result of U.S. imperialism.

Some countries would no doubt like the switch. Iceland gets to leave its icy rock in the frozen North Atlantic and tuck into Luxembourg. The desert nation of Egypt probably freaks out over suddenly becoming the islands of Indonesia. India may like the extra room afforded by Canada, but those winters are going to take some adjusting.

And you can probably bet there's some Esperanto-speaking twerp somewhere who wishes there was some form of world government that could make this happen. Fortunately, wishes are not even horses -- they're just wishes. Even the dumb ones.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Book Bin

Clive Cussler's latest collaborator in his "Oregon Files" series is Boyd Morrison, who got his start with some thrillers of his own. In his Oregon Files entry, Morrison references one of his own characters, Tyler Locke, whom we first meet when he joins a beautiful archaeologist on a hunt for Noah's Ark in 2010's The Ark.

Dilara Kenner has been told by an old family friend that she needs to find Locke, but her search is hampered by the fact that people are trying to kill her. The friend himself died before he could tell Dilara what he wanted her to know, leaving her and Locke with the twin tasks of puzzling out what kind of conspiracy is involved and keeping the conspirators from killing them. The hunt for the Ark, an obsession of Dilara's archaeologist father, plays a role as well, but just exactly how is buried beneath legend.

Morrison writes a lot like Cussler when he's on a roll. His action scenes zip along with a lot of energy and punch, and they're focused and well-drawn. Character development is limited and done not much better than adequately -- and in some cases less than that. Morrison also screeches the story to a halt for a several-page lecture/discussion on why the Noah story has to be a myth (wooden boat that big couldn't survive, no evidence of global flood, etc., etc.), all of which has a role to play in the story but which probably could have been woven into the story instead of thrown into it as a roadblocking expository conversation.

But he doesn't completely sink his story with those, and he has a villain with an appropriately weird and terrifying scheme to end and/or take over the world, so while thriller fans can certainly find better novels in their genre, The Ark represented a promising beginning for Locke's adventures.
Although Jean Merrill's 1964 The Pushcart War is marketed as a young reader's book, it carries a significant dose of satire that can make adult readers chuckle and would probably require those young readers to stretch their heads a little bit. Which is never a bad idea, come to think of it.

In the New York City of 2026, trucks have come to dominate the landscape, some of them so huge that cars can't even see around them anymore. The Three -- owners of the three largest trucking companies -- have colluded to squeeze out any attempts to regulate their industry and to make common cause with political officials who can keep things running their way. One day a truck backs into the pushcart of Morris the Florist, wrecking it and knocking him into a pickle barrel. The pushcart operators of New York City gather and decide something has to be done or their way of life and businesses are in danger of extinction.

Under the lead of Maxie Hammerman, the unofficial Pushcart King, and a woman who comes to be known as General Anna, the operators create a pea-shooter they can use to flatten truck tires and make it clear to New Yorkers that the trucks are the problem. Although the first phase of the pea-shooter campaign is a success, there are several more obstacles to overcome in order to make the streets safe for all traffic and counter the The Three's plan to eventually remove all vehicles from the streets other than trucks.

Merrill writes her tale as a young person's historical account of events already explained for adults by academics, published ten years later to help keep the lessons of the conflict in mind. She has a wry tone that offers laughs for younger readers as well as some that might go past their heads but which adults appreciate -- not unlike the best Disney movies. She initially set her conflict in 1976 and used it as an allegory about bullying. It was wildly successful, earning Merrill a 1965 Fulbright Fellowship and giving rise to The Pushcart Prize, an annual anthology of the best work from small presses. I remember it being a pleasure to read when I was a kid and it's a pleasure to re-read and think about today. Ronni Silbert's homey little illustrations only add to the fun of the book.
A lot of long-running series will find ruts after awhile, as the author simply marshals a different version of the expected set-pieces and runs them out with some new names or newer features. Although there are times that reading Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis has offered a distinctly familiar feel, Jonathan Kellerman has often put out some effort in bringing something new to the table when he presents his latest edition of their work, 2015's Motive.

Detective Sturgis has found a case that relates two seemingly unconnected murders, so he consults with his friend, therapist Alex Delaware. The two women didn't know each other or have any connection, so it's unclear why the killer seems to have chosen them. As Sturgis and Delaware probe the more recent of the two killings, they find several people with motives to want the woman, Ursula Corey, dead. But the leads don't pan out, until a completely unexpected turn leads the pair not only in a new direction, but also an old one.

Kellerman spends time investigating the idea of "motive," hence the name of the novel. Several people benefit from Ursula's death, which gives them motives to want her killed. But are those motives strong enough to move people to actual murder? And when the killer is discovered and the particular bends in his or her mind that are used to justify the murders and their signature revealed, then our principal characters muse a little on how things that just irritate ordinary people or make them angry can bring about the murderous response of the unbalanced killer.

All that speculation makes Motive interesting, even if the interest is undercut by how many different bit players and how much misdirection Kellerman provides. The repetition of the motif makes its own rut that the story needs to climb out of. Even so, Kellerman's determination to try to keep his familiar characters fresh and try something new is welcome, whether or not the execution is as laudable as the intention.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Big Engines that Did

A few years ago, owner Jeff Bezos decided to use some of the money I've sent him for books to find the engines of the original Apollo missions, including the rocket that sent Apollo 11 in for the first moon landing.

The old Saturn rockets were multistage affairs which would ditch their used-up engines as they gained altitude, lightening the load and allowing the rockets to build up speed for escape velocity. The course for the launches sent the empty stages and engines into the Atlantic Ocean, and Bezos figured that since people knew about where they landed, someone could go looking for them. If that someone had a boatload of money, that is, which he happily discovered he did indeed possess.

The engines were found and have been raised, and are now being identified and prepared for exhibition, probably at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The expedition actually found parts from more than one flight, restorers learned after they removed enough corrosion to find serial numbers.

The parts will be prepped to be displayed in as close to an "as is" state as possible, the project directors said. Other exhibits shows the pristine-condition engines that have never been used, so there's no point in making these look like them.

There were no efforts being made to find Apollo 18, as recovery project managers said, "That bomb sank way to deep to ever go after it."

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Little Extra "R"

The thing I like best about this idea is that the teacher, when he found out what the problem was among his poorer students, also figured out a way to fix it through doing something he already did.

A teacher in Nashville, Matthew Portell, asked his students to read a certain amount of time each day, but one of the students said he didn't have any books in the house. Knowing that this was probably an issue in more than one home, Portell tried to find a way to get books into the homes and hit upon the idea of making the donation an event by using a fleet of bicyclists to bring them to the different schools.

I have a friend who once described how a teacher "punished" a fourth grader by publicly shaming her about an incident connected to a reading and book-buying program. I'd have some reservations about leaving that woman alone with her own children, let alone giving her responsibility for anyone else's. Find me a school system that attracts Matthew Portells and rids itself of this other kind as quickly as possible and you have found me a school system I will always vote for in bond issues.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Timey Wimey

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, AKA that big unlit spot in between South Korea and China that starves its own people, has decided to reset its clocks to a time zone it used prior to Japanese invasion in the early 20th century.

On Aug. 15, the 70th anniversary of the nation's liberation from Japan in World War II, North Korea will turn its clocks back 30 minutes to be at Greenwich Mean Time +8:30. One might think that this would not involve much work, given the level of technology North Korea currently enjoys, as there would be fewer clocks than in more advanced nations. But considering that a significant percentage of DPRK clocks probably are hand-wound, it'll probably even out.

The CNN story notes that North Korea already uses its own calendar, dating from the birth of founding dictator Kim Il Sung in 1912 and calling that year one. The Korean word translated "year" is Juche, so we are actually in Juche 104. Again, while you might think that this would create some confusion, much of North Korea lives like large parts of the world did in AD 104, so the gap is not as wide as it could be.

As for freedom from the cult of personality surrounding said founder, his son and now grandson, well, that's not yet on the calendar even though it'll probably get here someday.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Fiction and Non

In Reconstruction-era history, "the Redeemers" were conservative-thinking, pro-business Democrats in the South who worked to defeat Republicans and African-Americans who had taken political office immediately after the Civil War. Although Ace Atkins' stories of ex-Army Ranger Quinn Colson share a locale with those folks -- rural northern Mississippi -- the redeemers of his book's title are probably two men who look to gain some redemption from a man they believe cheated them.

The pair, Mickey and Kyle, seek revenge against Larry Cobb, a man who sued Mickey almost out of business and stiffed Kyle on a large contracting job. Mickey knows how to get into Larry's safe and recruits Kyle along with a professional safecracker to commit the robbery, which nets far more money than it should as well as some incriminating evidence Larry probably shouldn't have committed to paper. That evidence helps to point the finger at Tibbehah County crimelord Johnny Stagg, who had thought he solved his problems when his hand-picked candidate defeated Quinn in the sheriff's election. But the robbery goes bad, Johnny's partners want assurances Larry's evidence will go bye-bye and Quinn as a private citizen is no less of a pain than he was as a lawman.

Redeemers is the fifth Colson book and allows for some payoff to several storylines that have built over the course of the earlier novels. Atkins maintains his sharp character development and careful plotting, but this fifth book is well under the standard set by earlier ones. Atkins is a southern native and current Mississippi resident, so he has an edge on a lot of writers in offering authentic rural southern flavor. He's employed that well for an air of realism in the Colson books, but for whatever reason in Redeemers he sets his Faulkner to stun and layers the rural color on so thick his readers have to mentally stop and cough every few pages. Nearly every character at one point travels to some rural chain restaurant or independent convenient store with some semi-illiterate cutesy name for a meal that would make the First Lady's eyes roll back into her head as she swooned 'pon the fainting couch. There are daddies, mamas, granddaddies and whatnot every time you turn around, and although I didn't literally count I'd be surprised if the book goes 10 pages without Atkins writing the word "titties." And of course there is a Piggly Wiggly grocery store, which is without fail referred to as "the Piggly Wiggly."

It's hard to say what prompted this spate of terminal Tennessee Willliamsitis; perhaps Atkins saw the praise of the authenticity of earlier books and thought he should double down, or perhaps he was worried that his continuing the Boston-based work of Robert B. Parker's Spenser would cause his kudzu gland to atrophy.

But it's not hard to say what the choice does to Redeemers. It wrecks it, and gives Atkins a lot of ground to make up if there is to be a sixth Quinn Colson novel.
Almost 30 years ago, economist and Stanford professor Thomas Sowell published a book outlining what he sees as some of the reasons we have different political views in society. The 1987 A Conflict of Visions was reprinted in 2002 and revised in 2007, but the basic thesis remains the same.

Sowell believes that the root of political differences can be found in ideology -- which is not by itself a new claim to make. His identification of those ideologies, however, is not exactly the same as we often see in fights between conservatives and liberals or progressives. Sowell sees one group as holding what he calls an "unconstrained" view of human intellect and ability, which means that they believe people -- some of them, anyway -- are smart enough to figure out the best answers to all current problems and make them happen. The other group holds a "constrained" view of human intelligence and nature. These people think that attempting to address problems without paying attention to the accumulated wisdom and understanding of preceding generations is a bad idea. Human beings can't know everything and can't necessarily find the perfect solution to any problem, let alone all of them.

Generally, folks who operate with an unconstrained vision of humanity fall into the liberal or progressive camp. Those who hold to a constrained vision will tend to be more conservative. Sowell points out that very few people hold to pure views at either end and are more likely to have a mix of beliefs.

Having laid out his understanding, Sowell then goes on to address a few of the social and political questions usually on our mind in terms of these competing visions. Anyone who reads him regularly knows he holds to the more constrained vision of human capabilities, but he generally does a pretty fair job of explaining both sides. The book tends to drag as Sowell gathers perhaps too many different examples of the two visions, but overall it's a good way to start thinking about our modern political differences and where they come from.

Those who share much of Sowell's thinking can obviously benefit from his discussion of different political and social arguments, but even people who disagree with Sowell about which vision is a more accurate description of the world would be well-served to take some time to explore one way of understanding why they believe what they believe. After all, taking a long-held belief out for a spin and seeing what it may or may not still have under the hood is rarely a bad idea.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

To Be or Not to Be

Over at the long-post blog, there is a long post on how Schrödinger's cat might say something about the mind of God. You may ask yourself, "Why would I want to read that," which is OK, because I was asking myself a similar question about writing it while I did so.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Why Read? Why Read This?

In last month's Commentary magazine, literature professor Gary Morson writes about why undergraduates might not like to take literature courses.

He suggests that a lot of the dissective, theory-based and politically-drenched study of literature done today turns students off -- not that they necessarily disagree with the ideas produced by the dissection or theory criticism, but that those ideas are often things they already know. So there's no point in taking the class. Morson recalls a student who took a course on Huckleberry Finn she did not enjoy, and he asked her what she learned about the book. "We learned it said slavery is bad," she said. Morson said he thought that if you didn't know that before you read Huck Finn, then you needed something more than a literature course.

The article is long but worth the read. In summary, Morson says that the purpose of the best literature is to help people break free of what he calls "the prison of self" in order to see something about the world in a different way than we do as we sail on through our lives. The authors who create the most fully realized, fully authentic characters help us identify with them so that we might imagine what we would do in their shoes, or even what they might do in ours. Of course they are doing what the author wants them to do, but if the author is consistent in his or her vision of humanity and the humans that make it up, then those actions can be worth mulling over.

I'd agree (which I'm sure would relieve Morson no end were he ever to learn of it). In this space, I often review genre novels and other "mind candy" books because 1) I read a lot of them on the treadmill and 2) nobody's paying me to write big thinky pieces on big thinky books, so I only do that when I get a hankerin' to. And some of the highest-level genre fiction has something to say about humanity and its situation just as much as does any fine literary fiction; the Sir John Fielding mysteries from yesterday's post are good examples.

But I still like to wade into one of the great classics, even if it's only a few pages at a time at night before nodding off. I may have started Les Miserables when I was 43 and not finished it until after I turned 44, but I did finish it and I like to hope I'm the better for the slog. How would I react were I the unjustly accused Jean Valjean? Or Bishop Myriel? Would I be the rigid legalist Javert? If so, how would I respond when I found my legalism could not explain the world I saw? What would Valjean or Myriel or Javert do when confronted with this particular problem in my life? Which one would I want to be more like?

Although I love a lot of genre fiction, I never find myself asking what would I do if I were Captain Kirk. Not because I would not want to be Captain Kirk -- his social life is far better than mine, especially if you include interspecies romance, and he never fails to save the galaxy. But because I know what Captain Kirk is going to do: Make time with the green gal and kick some Klingon Sa'Hut. I read about him because I know he's going to win and I want to ride along, not because I want to know how he interprets human existence. I read Louis L'Amour because I know that bad guys who cross Sacketts become late bad guys and I like watching them lose. The paths of the vile villains and cunning sorcerers stop when they cross the mighty thews of the grim Cimmerian Conan, who deals out his wrath with a great and contagious gusto (It really is best to crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women! Who knew?)

But I would ask those questions of a Karamazov brother or the nameless prisoner of the Chateau d'If or of Sidney Carton or Macbeth or Samantha "Sam" Hughes. I wouldn't do it, of course, if I didn't know how, and when I was 18 or 19 years old, I didn't. Morson's point is not enough literature courses teach students this empathic jailbreak from the cell of the self, and so they see no reason to repeat the dry parsing and culture-matching that happens in too many classrooms.

(As a postcript, it is worth noting that Professor Morson teaches at the beacon of wisdom and knowledge that is Northwestern University. Interestingly, the other Big 10 school in Illinois, known primarily for being a hotbed of Communism and the real-world example of  Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "Hellmouth," also made the news recently, as the "top party school" in the United States.

Judge for yourself. And choose wisely)

Monday, August 3, 2015

Mystery and Suspense!

Sir John Fielding was a real person, the man who created the first London police force in 1750 with his brother Henry. Although blind, he served as magistrate in London after his brother's death and continued to develop some of the methods modern police forces still use, such as keeping files of criminal records.

Journalist Bruce Alexander Cook, writing as Bruce Alexander, began a series of mysteries featuring the "Blind Beak of Bow Street" and the young orphan he begins to train as an investigator and lawyer, Jeremy Proctor. Blind Justice was published in 1994 and followed by nine other Sir John Fielding mysteries before Cook's death in 2003. Rules of Engagement was partially complete, and Cook's widow Judith Aller and writer John Shannon finished it and used it to finish the series as well, publishing it in 2005.

Lord Lammermoor has leapt to his death from the Westminster Bridge and the coroner has ruled "death by misadventure." But his good friend, the Lord Chief Justice, can't accept the ruling and asks Sir John to investigate, which he and Jeremy do. They find themselves following a shadowy trail through those who follow the science of Anton Mesmer and trying to crack open secrets hidden in the highest levels of English society.

The mystery has Cook's usual ear for period dialogue, careful research and old-world touches such as addressing the reader directly now and again. The resolution following, which is probably the part undertaken by Aller and Shannon, has some of the flair but not the flow of the rest of the novel. But the pair are to be thanked for offering some resolution for the characters rather than leaving them hanging, and they do a better job than many might.

All eleven volumes are delightful reads, full of historical detail, Georgian features, fun characters and twisty mysteries. Rules doesn't sit at the top of the heap, but it is a satisfactory and proper conclusion to the Fielding series which leaves readers in the way it should: Sad the show is over but very very glad they came.
John Gilstrap's tales of Jonathan Grave, a former super-secret commando and currently an off-the-books rescuer of hostages and the like, can be frustrating. Gilstrap's great at creating main characters that you like and want to read about, and in 2015's Against All Enemies, he even gives some depth and dimension to his villain. He writes great action scenes, crisp dialogue and funny buddy bickering.

But he also can be very talky and Enemies has that quality on 10,000 candlepower display -- his heroes actually share many of the views of the villains who want to overthrow the government but their commitment to the rule of law and their ability to spot the flaw in the overthrow plan keep them on the side of the good guys. Which they tell us, over and over again.

So when Grave and his main partner, Boxers, track down a former colleague who's gone rogue, and find he's less of a problem than the people he was seeking out, they have to suss out the proper course of action even though it won't necessarily be the legal one. That lets them lecture various and sundry characters, including each other, on why what they're doing is right.

Gilstrap also throws in some left turns in a couple of characters for what seems to be no real reason other than he can, which jars the narrative and actually leaves a sour taste on what should be a much more satisfying finale. More than once, Grave and Boxers have provided a high-octane and satisfying thrill ride, but with Against All Enemies, as with too many of the series, there are enough stumbles to make you wish someone would have tinkered with the motor a little bit more.
Technically, 1971's The Throne of Saturn is a thriller or a science fiction novel and not a mystery. But if you've ever read author Allen Drury's 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Advise and Consent, you might just scratch your head about how both books could come from the same brain.

In the late 1970s, satellites discover that the Soviet Union is well along in a planned manned mission to Mars. Under presidential pressure, NASA steps up its own planned Mars mission and under even more pressure, selects an astronaut crew based on public opinion. This puts Dr. J.V. Halleck, then America's only black astronaut, on the mission, as well as press darling and astronaut-disliked Jazz Weickert. Veteran Conrad Trasker and Pete Balkis complete the crew. Sabotage and racial tension continually threaten to derail the mission, and when the crew start testing equipment on the moon, all of these problems boil over in a deadly climax.

Drury's style in both books is pretty straightforward and unadorned, what you might expect from someone whose beginning years as a writer were spent reporting. His energetic anti-Communism remains as well, and his attention to the sordid details that underlie the public lives of well-known people. In Advise, those well-known people were politicians, while in Throne, they're astronauts and NASA personnel. Perhaps that's one source of Throne's problems: The idea of a seamy soap opera going on behind the scenes of the players on the Washington, D.C. stage stretches no credulity -- especially in a post-Clinton, post-Sanford age. But placing astronauts and bureaucrats in the same costumes is a much looser fit, and Drury puts as many love affairs, unrequited love affairs and extramarital affairs into the later manuscript as the former.

Halleck is a bizarre caricature of a black activist; it's difficult to believe operating at his level of permanent outrage would qualify for the astronaut program or be the only African-American astronaut, especially given Drury's conjecture of a permanent U.S. manned space station. The mission commander has the hots for Halleck's wife and actually conducts an affair with her, the wife of his subordinate officer. And the heavy, heavy hand with which Drury writes his politicans and protestors makes them cartoons as well, and not in a good way. While his own political thinking helped Drury give a focus to Advise, it only hamstrings Throne. The cover describes Throne as "A Novel of Space and Politics," but in truth it should be a "A Novel of Space, Unrealistic Politics and a Lot of Ridiculous Peyton Place Retreads."