Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Strike the Banned?

I'm a believer in a free press. I'm a believer that, aside from a narrow range of circumstances such as a demonstrable security issue or definite likelihood of damage or injury, government at national, state and local levels has absolutely no business in limiting adults' access to printed material. While I also believe that parents should have the right to request an alternative title for a school assignment if the book the school chose colors outside their lines, I think that a better choice is talking out the problem issues with the child.

All that being said, I'm grateful for Ruth Graham's Slate piece arguing that "Banned Books Week" suffers from an overly broad definition of "banned." The reality is that even a book taken out of circulation from the public library or removed from student access for whatever reason isn't truly "banned." Copies still exist and can be bought, even if for a very dear price.

Censorship is a serious matter, but when an anticensorship group has as one of its slogans, "I read banned books," it's demonstrating it should read some of its own material more closely. If the books are available to be read and you can announce that openly, then it seems to me hard to call them "banned."

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Tunin' Around

I once read a description of Divinyls lead singer Christina Amphlett as a fusion of Debbie Harry and Angus Young, and that description was probably never more apt than on their first international release, 1983's Desperate.

Zooey Deschanel's bright eyes, quirky manner and sunny smile may embody the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" trope found in a lot of indie movies and media, but well before her was Amphlett, the Maniac Pixie Dream Girl with a much more feral light in her eyes and smile.

Amphlett and guitarist Mark McEntee were the only constant ingredients in an career of changing styles and sounds, but on Desperate they are in full hard rock mode with a little punk edge supplied by Amphlett's howled, scowled, shrieked and wailed vocals. This is not "I Touch Myself."

The album's overall tone is driving and urgent, ranging from the opener "Boys in Town" to "Siren" to the closer, a cover of the Easybeats' 1966 hit "I'll Make You Happy." Richard Harvey's drums propel these and other faster numbers at a thrashing pace, and guitarists McIntee and Bjarne Ohlin add the air of desperation the album title suggests. Even the poppier entries like "Only Lonely" or "Only You" are kept on the shadowy side of quirky by Amphlett's hiccupy kewpie vocals -- they sound like what might happen if someone gave Batman villainess Harley Quinn a recording contract. "Victoria" features what's probably her most mainstream vocal performance of the album, but McIntee's dissonant guitar gives the song a haunting hook that builds towards and almost Broadway-styled full-on belt-it-out ending.

Despite her trashy schoolgirl look and aggressive sexual posture, Amphlett sings as a person contemplating and reflecting on important matters, especially of the heart. The "Boys in Town" see little beyond her surface except for the one who's "not like the rest/you've heard of matrimony/They've all flunked the test." It's probably a reflection of an earlier time that even for a hardcore punk like the one Amphlett sings about in this song, the thing that sets one boy in town apart from the others is the possibility he might think about the commitment of marriage.

Four more albums would follow before the Amphlett/McIntee duo finally parted ways in the 1990s, including the 1991 diVINYLS, which contained "I Touch Myself," their biggest hit. Amphlett maintained her off-kilter persona and McIntee his powerful playing through all their different styles. They reunited after the band was inducted in the the Australian Recording Industry Association Hall of Fame in 2006 and recorded several new songs along with some live dates, but never put together a full album in this incarnation. They ended again in 2009 and Amphlett died of breast cancer in 2013; she had been unable to have either chemotherapy or radiation treatments because she suffered from multiple sclerosis.

Her friends and family created a foundation helping to promote breast cancer awareness and the importance of self-examination for women. In a move that would certainly have brought out Amphlett's trademark psycho-Tinkerbell grin, it was called the "I Touch Myself Project."

Monday, September 28, 2015

No News

"Liquid Water Still Flows on Mars"
-- Astronomy headline
"We knew that."
-- Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of Thark

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Books for the Win!

I'm a frequent reader of digital books. Any of the bestseller here-today-forgotten-tomorrow stuff that I consume while on the treadmill just works better on my iPad, because I don't have to hold down pages or turn them. The ability to read them for free by checking an e-book from the local library (with a similar ability -- not free but at a great cost reduction -- from Kindle Unlimited) only adds to the convenience.

But for stuff I care about, trees have to die. That's not as bad as it sounds, as a lot of paper made today comes from trees grown for the purpose and harvested the way we harvest wheat to make bread. In other words, there's no evil CEO somewhere cackling while watching minions harvest millennia-old sequoias to service the public's insatiable need for James Patterson schlock. Plus, when I buy a book I can be certain that it will say the same thing tomorrow that it says today -- and altering a digital book is as easy as 1, 10, 11 (base 2).

And it turns out I may not be alone. Sales of e-books and Kindle reading devices seem to have plateaued for the moment, which caused Medium writer M. G. Siegler to opine about the death of the "death of books" meme. Perhaps it's the physical actions of holding the weight of the book in both hands, of turning a page, of watching the thickness of the pages of what has happened replace the thickness of what is to come. Maybe it's the fact that there's no frickin' battery to charge.

Isaac Asimov, in an essay I can't find online right now, once suggested that the ideal "cassette" or replacement for a book would come with its own viewer and be self-powered, requiring no hookups or special devices to enjoy. Such a system already existed, he said, in the form of the book itself. A simple knowledge of reading is all that's required to get started, and there is no external power source required. I'm not sure if Asimov's prediction will hold true or if some new technology will make more inroads against the sale of real printed books, but for now, it seems like the book will not quietly follow the CD and DVD into a completely digital format.

Plus, you can't stack Kindles to build a fort.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Taking Initiative

Sports teams commonly put the arm on their municipality if they decide they want a new stadium. Team owners are rich people who didn't get to be that way by spending their own money if they could spend someone else's instead, so threatening to take a team down the road apiece has been a solid tactic.

My favorite baseball team, the Kansas City Royals, is going to build four baseball fields and indoor training complex and cover the operating costs themselves.

The catch is that the complex is actually not for the team, but instead for youth in the area of 18th and Vine, the once-vibrant center of African-American life and culture in segregated Kansas City. In recent years, the Negro League Baseball Museum and Jazz Museum have been the centerpiece of new investment in the area and some limited revitalization.

The museum was the result of decades of work by the Negro Leagues unofficial ambassador, Buck O'Neil, who spend his last working years as a scout for the Royals and then as a regular fixture in the Royals organization. This new Kansas City Urban Youth Academy will be built in the same neighborhood with an eye towards helping its youngsters who have little else in the way of help. State and local governments are partnering with Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association to develop the Academy and run it.

The Royals will also partner with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to offer more than baseball and softball lessons, trying to teach life skills to kids who might not get to learn them in chaotic home environments.

General manager Dayton Moore said he had been developing the Academy plan for the last year and a half, meaning it should be thought-out and well-planned and won't wind up a cleared field and some rusty construction leftovers. Given Moore's recent successes in his day job, there is definitely some reason to hope that.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Read 'Em

Every time I see something written about the silliest levels of our culture I wish Mike Royko were still alive and writing (He'd have been 83 last Saturday if he was; he'd probably be telling me to let him off the hook already so he could retire).

But he's not, so in the meantime I'll be grateful for Matt Labash, whose work this space has previously extolled. Labash has the cover story for the Oct. 5 Weekly Standard, covering what he calls the "Cocked Fist Culture" of modern society's obsession with division, privilege and microaggressions.

Weekly Standard leans conservative, and one sees the expected and justified ripping of the silliest dimensions of the microagression obsession, from its historical roots to today's surreal manifestations. But Labash is a reporter and a great writer who realizes that if he's going to take digs at a way of thinking that reduces real people to mere sums of their racial, sexual, economic and whatever other attributes, he should probably not overlook talking to real people. So he does, and his article is far richer for that personal encounter, and well worth the read.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Far Sunset

If you were standing on Pluto, that would mean a couple of things.

1) You live in an alternative and way cooler universe where bureaucracy and political leaders who deserve only half of that description did not short-circuit space exploration almost as soon as it started.

2) The sun would look like a small point of light, the way stars look to us here on Earth. But it would be a very very bright point of light that you probably couldn't look at for very long.

Still, you would have a sunset, and thanks to a picture or two from New Horizons, we know it would look something like this:

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

I Think It's Over

The man who had Deep Thoughts long before Jack Handy, former New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, passed away Tuesday at 90.

Berra was in 21 different World Series as a player, coach or manager, and won 13 of them. He's the only person to bring an American and a National League team to the World Series, went into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 and has the reputation of being one of the top catchers in baseball history. His was the glove into which Don Larsen pitched the only perfect World Series game ever, back in 1956.

He's best known as the fellow who never said all the things he said, producing such long-lasting head-scratcher quotes as "When you come to a fork in the road, take it," "It's deja vu all over again," "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded" and the one from which the post title is taken, "It ain't over till it's over."

Berra is one of the last of the mid-century Yankees Empire of Dominance and is an excellent representation of how, while any good and right-thinking baseball fan of course hates the Yankees, there were a lot of Yankees it was easy to like back then. Here's hoping his strategy worked and there will be a lot of people ready to pay their respects to Lawrence Peter Berra in the next few days.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

To the Lab!

This post on Scientific American's "Ask the Brains" feature has a headline that asks an important question: "Can Napping Make Us Smarter?" Sleep researcher Kimberly Cote then offers a few hundred words of an answer.

Although I am not a professional researcher, I know that a central tenet of science is that assertions must be verified by experimentation. Therefore I do not simply acccept Ms. Cote's conclusions just because she directs the Sleep Research Laboratory at Brock University in Ottawa, Canada, and just because these answers appear in Scientific American.

Like any real scientist would, I will investigate these assertions for myself, via extensive research. Starting tomorrow afternoon, after the church secretary leaves for the day.

Monday, September 21, 2015

More Different Follow-Up

Secret Service Director Joe Clancy seems to have some awareness of the optics of the idea of using armed uniformed police officers to move kids with cancer out of a park where they're holding a candlelight vigil to raise money to stay alive.

Rather than the bloodless e-mail "regrets the miscommunication" response available to reporters last night, Clancy called one of the directors of the vigil's sponsoring organization and apologized for the treatment. He offered to come to a meeting and apologize in person and to give tours of the training facility to the kids the organization helps if they would like them. Another spokesperson confirmed the service would review its closing and notification procedures.

Someone somewhere deep within the bowels of the White House bureaucracy still deserves a stern talking-to, but at least we have learned that the Secret Service is led by an actual human being.

A Bureaucrat by any Other Name Would Smell Just as Much

Leave us count the stupid on the part of the United States Secret Service and Park Police as they booted kids with cancer out of a park, shut them out for several hours and prevented their candlelight vigil intended to help raise awareness and funds for pediatric cancer research.

Obviously the Secret Service has a difficult job that sometimes requires them to inconvenience other people. Their priority is protecting the president and vice president and their families. But...

There are ways and there are ways. One of them is probably not using armed uniformed police officers to herd kids with cancer out of Lafayette Park near the White House, close and lock the gates behind them and then let them stand outside looking in until they get tired or need to take their medications and have to go back to their hotels.

Writer Jonathan Last suspects that some of the rude and shameful actions by people we pay for may have their roots in an earlier White House choice to not use its display lights to signal support of the group as a part of its second CureFest for Cancer. The group's choice to hold its vigil in Lafayette Park -- after obtaining all of the proper permits and such -- came after that decision was made.

And it's a sign, I think, of what kind of horse's asses gravitate towards bureaucratic power that I can't automatically dismiss the thought that one of these soulless suckholes saw the vigil as a way of showing them up for their refusal and decided to get back at organizers by forcing a situation that would require a no-notice last second evacuation of the park. I would very much like to dismiss it, but the tyranny of the petty is demonstrated at all levels of government with the kind of frequency that makes it impossible to do so.

Given that the official statement from the Secret Service spokesman only "express(es) its regret for not communicating more effectively with this group concerning the timeline for protectee movements in the vicinity of Lafayette Park," it doesn't seem like there's any real awareness of what it looks like when you boot kids with cancer out of a park where they're trying raise money for research to keep themselves alive. That kind of bland-speak may be what you say to someone agitating for a nuclear freeze or an end to the National Strategic Helium Reserve. But it's not how you say you're sorry for kicking kids with cancer out of a park when they're trying to raise money to keep themselves alive. A human being would know this; I recommend the Secret Service public information office hire one forthwith and charge this person with its communication needs. Their current model has not proven adequate.

I'm sure that folks somewhere will wish to blame this on President Obama, and since I don't like him I would like to mark it against him as well. But given what we have seen of him as a father and his emotional comments following the 2011 Tucson shooting that took the life of a nine-year-old girl in addition to injuring a congresswoman, I simply do not believe that he would have deliberately orchestrated events to boot kids with cancer out of their vigil. I doubt he knew about the vigil or that anyone told him what was happening. That decision is off his plate.

But now that he knows, another decision is on his plate. He's shown a willingness to address kids victimized by bullying bureaucratic idiocy and unfair judgements. It would be a mark of distinction if he were to do so in this situation as well.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Melmac 101

I probably would have failed professor Joseph Howley's first test if it had been offered to me as an undergrad.

Howley, in an attempt to reduce the number of people "shopping" his class by signing up but only intending to stay long enough to see if it was easy or not, hid an instruction in his syllabus directing his students to send him a picture of Alf, the puppet alien star of his own sitcom in the 1980s. As of the original story, eight students in his class of 20 had sent in the pictures, and even though it had gone viral, some 12 still had not when it ran last Tuesday.

Howley said he learned something interesting about his students: None of them knew who Alf was and they had not seen the show. He said it helped him get a picture of the age gap between himself and his students.

Similar ideas have been used before. For its 1982 tour, the band Van Halen had created a special stage and light show that required extra electrical capacity to properly work and a properly supported floor to hold its great weight. They included this information in the contract rider for the concert, but knew that many venues might not read it. So they also inserted the famous "no brown M&M's" rider to see if the staff at the venue had read the contract and made the necessary stage arrangements.

Now, as to the reasons I would have failed Professor Howley's test. The first was that I was probably not always a careful reader of syllabi as an undergraduate beyond noting the dates of tests and projects due. The second is probably a bigger hurdle: Alf did not debut until after I had graduated and I would not have known what in the world he was talking about.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Arrr-cheology -- Gettin' to the Bottom o' Piracy

Thanks to the good folks at Mental Floss, you can learn the origins of some common pirate stereotypes on International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

I've been on the road six out of 18 waking hours today, so that's all we have. May all your galleons be filled with gold and crewed by cowards!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Follow-Up Follow-Up

Well, oops!

Following their snarky nurse comments earlier in the week, the women of The View find their show ending the week with two fewer sponsors than it began. Technically, the two sponsors are "pausing" their adds, which makes sense. Both make far too many products that are marketed to the show's female-heavy demographic to stay away forever, but at least one of them markets a lot of medical supplies and certainly wants its nurse customers to know it stands by them.

But the pause suggests to View network ABC that the sponsors were not pleased with the comments or the rather watered-down apology that followed the next day. Joy Behar, who had questioned why Miss Colorado contestant Kelley Johnson was wearing a "doctor's stethoscope" with her "nurse's costume," said she was not paying attention to what was being talked about. Co-host Michelle Collins had mocked Johnson's monologue about her care of an Alzheimer's patient named Joe as "reading her e-mails" and the next day said that the View hosts loved nurses -- she had been talking about the talent competition and was "misconstrued." Moderator Whoopi Goldberg told those who had been offended that they needed to listen better. "You have to pay attention," she said, indicating that she probably hadn't been.

For the nurses' part, their national association has accepted the apology, probably realizing that protracting this matter could start to look petty and vindictive on its part. Individual nurses have responded in a variety of ways, judging by articles and blog entries my Facebook list has been linking to.

To move to an opinion that carries little weight, I think the sponsors and the nurses association have the right idea. The women on The View said something stupid and mildly insulting considering the intellectual throw-weight of the source and venue. This was pointed out to them and they issued what passes for an apology from a media celebrity these days. The sponsors have shown they don't much care for this kind of carelessness but aren't planning on modeling their behavior on irritated toddlers (who don't read, so I'm safe). The national nurses association has done the same.

And those of us who are wont to get a snicker when vacuous celebrities trip over their own feet have had a couple. I'm ready to move on, not needing to pay more attention to this matter because of a deep and abiding faith that they will do it again.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


My experience reading Stephen King's 2009 Under the Dome is sort of like King's experience writing it. He made two tries, in 1972 and 1983, at a novel which featured people trapped in a limited environment. The earlier version was called Under the Dome and the second attempt was called The Cannibals. Some 37 years after King's first attempt, the thousand-page reworked final product appeared on the shelves. Among his published works, only the uncut edition of The Stand is longer.

I made two tries at reading that reworked final product; once soon after it was published and another a couple of years later. Recently, my third attempt was successful; I changed tactics this time by picking up where I had stopped earlier and shortening the novel to a workable length. The obvious joke is that the reading felt like it took 37 years, but it didn't really. No more than five at the outside.

The story is pretty well-known, especially since CBS has run a three-season adaptation of it that was just canceled a couple of weeks ago. The town of Chester's Mill, Maine, is abruptly severed from the rest of the world in late October by a transparent, unbreakable but semipermeable force field in the shape of a dome. Outside the dome, military and scientific specialists try to learn the dome's secret so they can rescue the town. Inside the dome, of course, is far more interesting.

"Big Jim" Rennie, a car and meth dealer and unsubtle stand-in for King's vision of former vice-president Dick Cheney, uses his favor-dealing and blackmail information to gain control over the city council and police force that remains in Chester's Mill. But government emergency response teams outside the dome communicate that they are placing former U.S. Army officer Dale "Barbie" Barbara in charge, provoking a confrontation with Rennie. In and around said confrontation are a host of characters ranging from colorful to bloody unbelievable as the power struggle threatens the town and efforts to find the dome's source and perhaps remove it.

There's really very little special about Dome other than its size and the fading novelty value of its situation. Most of the conflict between the characters could have any backdrop whatsoever. Big Jim doesn't need an unexplained force field to surround his town in order to try to gain control of it. A sociopathic killer losing what's left of his mind to a brain tumor doesn't need the dome to begin a sickening murder spree -- especially in a Stephen King novel. There's a hyper-devout pastor who secretly helps Big Jim move meth and another who's actually an atheist and a teenage genius who finds out how the dome is being made and so on and so forth, all in the pedestrian style that makes ambling with King a pleasure but a long walk with him a bleary-eyed marathon. Whatever value Dome might have had is lost in the logorrheic landfill of the final product of King's unrestrained typing and Scribner's unalloyed greed.

King said his initial idea for the novel came during the 1972 oil and gas crisis, bringing home to him the interconnected nature of the only world we, as humans, have at this point. The ecological issues faced by the people under the dome are seen by him as a kind of allegory for the same issues on a planetary scale. King said he wanted to talk about those issues "without whamming the reader over the head" with them. He fails at that, fortunately in a more metaphorical sense, because literally whamming the reader over the head with Under the Dome would result in significant injury and probably felony-level assault charges in most states. With the sentence being required to do community service by re-shelving Under the Dome every time it comes back into the library.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

This Citation Is Garbage!

So in Seattle, your trash can get a ticket.

If your trash contains more than 10% of food or recyclable materials, by volume, then someone will put a sign on it, you'll get a notice from the city on your garbage bill and you'll get an extra dollar tacked onto said bill for every offense. If Seattle has weekly trash pickups, that could mean an extra $8 or $10 on your bill every other month, I presume. Seattle bills bimonthly.

Now, I recycle as I am able. Plastic bottles for certain, since plastic has an excellent turnover rate into new useful configurations. The stain-resistant carpet in my house has a significant percentage of plastic in its fiber. A couple of ladies at the church cut plastic shopping bags into strips and weave them into mats we can donate to homeless shelters. We also gather up aluminum and other metals to take to a nearby metal yard.

But there gets to be a point where the recycling bug is just plain dumb, and Seattle has put that point farther back in the rearview mirror than Lubbock, Texas. For one, no extra steps of measuring or assessing the trash will be taken by the city garbage collectors, who will themselves receive no extra training in how they might judge the division of the average load of trash. As Kevin Williamson explains at National Review, this would be like trying to not only guess how many jelly beans are in a jar but also determine what percentage of them are of a particular flavor. He doesn't note an extra burden -- imagine that jar was not transparent but Hefty-bag opaque so you couldn't tell if someone had slipped a volume-hogging Butterfinger into the midst of the jelly beans. We will now pause for a moment while we all savor the thought of a Butterfinger/jelly bean hybrid snack.

Back to the mockery: The idea of a $1 per violation fine is insulting, as it is meant to do no more than nag Seattle residents. Traffic fines are stiff in order to convince speeders to slow down. Fines for other crimes help recover the costs of prosecuting the offenders, remove ill-gotten gains from those who got them illy and send a warning message to others contemplating the same transgression. But a $1 per offense fine is just trolling people who don't meet the standards Seattle bureaucrats have set for their garbage. It's the same as a restaurant server deliberately getting a difficult customer's order wrong just to set them off.

The move is supposed to help Seattle hit its goal of recycling 60 percent of its trash, getting it over the 56-percent hump it's apparently been stuck on for some time. If the city and its residents were serious about reaching that mark, then they would hire people to separate the trash when it comes in, or design some kind of sorting system in place at its landfills. But that would cost a lot of money, and when it comes to money, the good folk of Seattle don't believe in just throwing it away.


Yesterday I posted an item about The View co-host Joy Behar saying something dumb about Miss Colorado's appearance in the talent competition of the recent Miss America pageant. Today on the show, Ms. Behar said she wasn't paying close attention to the pageant broadcast or the conversation going on around her and did not know Miss Colorado was in her work clothes to offer a monologue drawn from her experience as a nurse.

On the one hand, one can certainly sympathize with Ms. Behar not paying attention to the conversation on The View. On the other, ABC is writing her checks to do that and so she should probably come up with another defense of her remarks.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

This May Sting a Little

This blog has previously gone on record with the claim that Joy Behar talking makes the whole world stupider.

Ms. Behar, once a co-host of The View who failed in her own talk show, has been doing a stint on her former gig and decided to try to prove me right. In a discussion of the Miss America pageant that aired earlier this week, she and the other hosts talked about Miss Colorado, a nurse named Kelley Johnson who for her talent used a patient's e-mail to her as a monologue. Miss Johnson works primarily with Alzheimer's patients.

What seemed to mystify Ms. Behar was why Miss Johnson, in addition to her nursing scrubs, was wearing what the host called "a doctor's stethoscope." Many nurses promptly called her out for being an idiot, although to judge by the ones posting on my Facebook news feed they were rendering that as an opinion only and not a professional diagnosis.

The nurses helpfully pointed out that many nurses in both hospitals and doctor's offices check patients' vital signs and examine them before they are seen by a doctor, and they use things like stethoscopes to do so. Should Ms. Behar be in need of medical attention any time soon, the chances are that the first person who examines her will be a nurse, and probably one who has just held his or her hands in an ice bucket for as long as he or she could stand before beginning the exam.

Said nurse will use a stethoscope and perhaps several other "doctor's instruments" in that examination, all of which are likely to have been well-cooled also. But probably not an otoscope, because all they'll see through it is what's on the other side of Ms. Behar's head and that won't tell them much more than they already know about what's wrong with her.

ETA: I've seen several people point out that it's likely that whatever nurses Ms. Behar encountered in any medical appointments she has had in recent years would have been using "doctor's stethoscopes" as well. This means that she has either been neglecting regular checkups or she has paid no attention to the people helping to treat her. I know which way I would bet, but I don't like her so that may not be a good guide for you to follow.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Get These Kids a Grant!

Two Seattle sisters still in elementary school created a helium-balloon craft that took their payload -- a picture of their cat and a Lego R2-D2 -- to the edge of space, 78,000 feet in the air, and recovered it when it landed.

Rebecca Yeung, 10, and Emily Yeung, 8, mounted small cameras on their craft, named Loki Lego Launcher after said feline and posted the videos on YouTube. They also padded it with styrofoam in case of a water landing and used a GPS device to find it when it came down four hours later. The picture at the link points out how the sisters used a variety of power tools to form their craft from broken arrow shafts.

Meanwhile, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced it will have a TV channel in November and stood around and waved while the only nation capable of putting a human being into orbit sent some folks up the the International Space Station.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Little Joy

This space has frequently lamented the too-early demise of Joss Whedon's western-flavored space show Firefly. Just a half a season and a movie is all this excellent television series could get from a network that thought running the initial episodes out of order would be no problem for potential viewers.

It's been 10 years since Firefly aired and a lot of people have tried to find its lightning and get people to watch them unleash it. Most have failed, some miserably and some less so.

Back in 2013, Michelle Lovretta, creator of Showcase's Buffyesque Lost Girl, pitched her idea of a western/spaceship blend to Canada's SpaceTV. In April of 2014 the ridiculously renamed SyFy network in the US signed on to co-produce, and Killjoys aired this summer. It tells the adventures of three bounty hunters in a distant planet/moon system called the Quad, who work for a company that different nations and warring factions have agreed can be neutral in their conflict as long as it sticks to business. The business is executing warrants, which could range from anything to property recovery to hostage exchanges to felon tracing to actual executions. These agents are called "Killjoys," partly because the slang term for cash in this society is "joy," and if they need to they may kill to make some.

Dutch (Hannah John-Kamen) leads the trio and is the most experienced agent. She is initially aided by junior partner John Jaqobis -- the "s" is silent (Aaron Ashmore) -- but later adds John's older brother D'avin (Luke Macfarlane). John is the idealist, Dutch and D'avin each hide a Secret Past That Is Catching Up to Them.

While Lovretta's love of Firefly is obvious in the way she crafted her show and characters, she doesn't try a simple note-for-note recreation. Rather than the eight-member crew of Serenity, the Lucy only carries three, although the ship itself seems to have an artificial intelligence. There are Evil Shadowy Corporate Types and a fun mix of cultures, but our trio work with them more than try to stay away from them.

On the other hand, the show's world has a high learning curve to step into and rather than use its pretty well-worn TV tropes as pigments to color its portraits it just runs them out there as is. The quippy portion of the dialogue is pretty well-written, but much of the rest is cut-and-paste from a hundred other action-oriented TV shows where the leads Really Care For Each Other But Bicker Because They Are Afraid to Show It.

But on the gripping hand, the trio of John-Kamen, Ashmore and Macfarlane are likeably charismatic and have good chemistry. John-Kamen's dance background helps give her fight scenes some interesting grace, Ashmore has good genre cred from Smallville and Warehouse 13, and Macfarlane does pretty good at mostly hiding his aforementioned Secret Past. Some pretty cool techno music scores a lot of the fight scenes, which sort of make you wish the show had gone full Bollywood and just made some of those scenes flat-out musical numbers.

Watched weekly where its clich├ęs can fade a little bit in between viewings, Killjoys is probably a lot easier to take than done in a binge session. Overall, it's sort of like being given O'Doul's when you'd like to have a Guinness. It's disappointing, but the reality is we're not going to get our Guinness of Firefly anytime soon and in small doses, O'Doul's can grow on you.

(Edited 11:00 PM Sunday to change character name to "D'avin" instead of "D'aven.")

Saturday, September 12, 2015

In Memoriam

Johnny Cash would be 83 had he not died on this day in 2003, and given the number of unhealthy habits he acquired and kicked during his lifetime, it would be surprising if he was still around.

Fortunately his music is, including what became his theme song with its always-timely reminder to be mindful of those who are held back.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Worth Considering

Unequally Yoked blogger Leah Libresco offers an interesting idea that's based on some thoughts she had a few weeks ago, flipped over on the other side.

Libresco, in the earlier post, transposed the idea of "gateway drugs" to behavior. There's stuff that we know is illegal, and there's also stuff that may or may not be illegal but which is close enough to the actual illegal stuff we should shy away from it as well.

She used an example of police officers who used excessive force in an arrest. There are some behaviors -- striking a restrained restrained suspect who is no longer resisting, for example -- that are illegal. But there are other levels of force that are in kind of a gray area. Even if they are not actually illegal, they get very close and might be considered illegal in some circumstances, crossing the line into brutality. Wise, professional and well-trained officers will generally try to avoid those behaviors as well, since they will be less subject to misinterpretation and less likely to cross over the line by mistake.

In this post, Libresco considered what kind of behaviors might be close to something that you wanted to do, which might become gateway drugs towards accomplishing those. It's really an interesting idea, because it prompts us to take a serious look at how we'd like to live our lives and plot out the steps we take to get there.

The progressive character of the 12-step program could be seen this way. It looks at alcohol or whatever substance is being abused as a failed attempt to cope with life. The goal of all twelve steps is to successfully cope with life, and each step engages behavior that gets closer and closer to that. The earlier steps remove the failed coping mechanism of the abused substance, and the remaining ones are designed to try to help repair as much damage as possible and then the latter ones to better handle new troubles as they arise.

Either way, I'm glad Libresco kept worrying at her earlier thoughts and came up with the new view. It'll be worth thinking about.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Blue-Eyed Century

Mark Steyn, a man who is a little too frequently too harsh in his politics for a lot of people (including, from time to time, me), but who among modern writers has few peers in recapping the popular music of the mid-20th century, is writing up a hundred of Frank Sinatra's songs in the centenary year since Sinatra's birth.

This week he takes on the history of "Nice 'N' Easy," the title track of a 1960 Sinatra release. It's a great story of the song and its writers, how it almost didn't make the cut for Frank but then did, and how he kept up his relationship with the songwriters until his very last days. Steyn leaves out the barbs that sometimes disfigure his political writing. He's almost always funny but when the funny is also mean it's not necessarily a pleasant read.

Links to all of the other songs discussed so far are at the end of the piece, which could make for quite a little bit of time exploring the art of one of the country's most iconic singers and performers.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Captain Trips, Please Call Your Office

Some French scientists are planning on trying to awaken a giant prehistoric virus that had been found frozen in Siberia. They assure us that they will only do so once they can be sure it will pose no harm to human beings.

"Sounds like a plan," the Walkin' Dude said smiling.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Breaking News!

Donald Trump, in an interview for his biography, said something dumb.

Wait, that's not news? Crap. We'll try again tomorrow.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Well, Everyone Knows That!

In another of an occasional series, we take a look at a headline that simply must be repeated far and wide, even if maybe a dozen people in the world understand it. From the Science 2.0 site, we have:

Superbradyonic Vacuum And Quantum Entanglement

The unusual feature of this headline is that I actually know what part of it is talking about. "Quantum entanglement" is the feature of some pairs subatomic particles that allows them to affect each other instantaneously, which should be impossible. If you pair up a couple of electrons, some of their physical attributes will correlate. If one has a clockwise spin, then the other will have a counter-clockwise spin, for example. If something changes the spin of the first electron, then the second one will change as well. This will happen no matter how far apart they later become. and the second change will be instantaneous.

That's impossible because even light, the fastest phenomenon in existence, has a finite speed and there is no way that the information about the change could reach the second particle any faster than light could. Since light takes a definite, if incredibly small, time to go from one particle to another, then information should as well.

Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen described this effect in a paper in 1935. Einstein never liked entanglement, calling it "spooky."

"Superbradyonic vacuum," on the other hand, I got no idea about, unless it happens to be a description of what's inside the footballs used by the quarterback of the New England Patriots.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Reasoned Opinion

Blogger and law professor Ilya Somin, writing at the Foundation for Economic Education, offers some possible reasons why smart politicians say stupid things.

There's a few obvious assumptions in his question, but I think they're justified. Given the number of politicians in the world, the idea that there would be two or more of them who are smart -- thus allowing the use of the plural -- seems reasonable. And there's probably no reason to wonder why stupid politicians say stupid things. It's because they've opened their mouths and words have come out, and those words have no source other than the politician's own brain.

Somin suggests that smart politicians say things that people want to hear, and all too frequently what the people want to hear is nonsense. They don't necessarily see it as such, but it is nonsense nonetheless. Some politicians in the last several years have said that requiring everyone to buy health insurance and requiring insurers to fund treatment even for illnesses that existed before coverage began will lower the cost of insurance. A lot of economists said that was nonsense, and so it happens to be. But a lot of people wanted to believe it. They wanted it to be true. They wanted to believe that the insurance industry drew up a plan to lower or cover insurance costs. So they did, and they turned out to be wrong.

Extensive polling data can tell politicians what people believe. And those who really want to be elected might say some of those things even if they disagree with them.

It's some business when being smart means knowing you will have to say something dumb in order to get what you want.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

For Me? You Shouldn't Have!

Tomorrrow, O Patient Reader, marks the birthday of your Humble Correspondent. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration decided to give him a present by making the following famous photo from Apollo 8 its Astronomy Picture of the Day for that date (even showing up a bit early):

Friday, September 4, 2015

Nerd to the Nth Degree

Suppose you are noodling around with math one day -- I hear that people who can use math for more than balancing their checkbooks do this all the time -- and you come up with an interesting sequence of numbers. Say it's 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21...

You would like to perhaps inform the world of your discovery, but before you do, you would like to check previous research to see if anyone has ever come up with this series of numbers before. If you were to claim it for you own and find out, say, some random 13th-century Italian who went by only one name (no, not her) had figured it out some eight hundred years ago, you might be embarrassed.

You might have to ask around of your friends who were also mathematicians, but that alone might not be enough. You might consult some reference works, but your discovery could be too obscure for them.

Enter Neil Sloane, creator and curator of the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, who will save you from humiliation and shame by pointing you to A000045 on said sequence and introduce you to Leonardo Bonacci, better known as Fibonacci. Sloane first developed his catalog on index cards in 1964 before moving first to print editions and then to an online format. Thanks to volunteer helpers, the OEIS works like a wiki database, allowing mathematicians to discover not only that someone might have discovered their discovery quite some time ago, but what other discoveries might relate to it as they help explain each other.

The interview at Quanta is pretty interesting, but one thing it didn't seem to note is that Sloane is a mathematician in charge of cataloging and managing a list of lists of numbers. It's hard to imagine a mathematician finding a happier situation.

Thursday, September 3, 2015


I was thinking I'd been having a pretty trying couple of days, wrapped up in a pretty trying couple of weeks, and so on and so forth, which has had an effect on regular sleep.

Then I read about this critter, a leech which feeds off the blood vessels inside the rectums of hippopotami. Leaving aside all of the grossness of how you have to travel to get to your feeding site and everything going on around you, there's the cosmic unfairness that you are genetically programmed to do this. You don't get to say, "Well, maybe I'll be a hippo knee leech," or, "You know, crocodiles have blood too and I bet a fellow could get a good tan riding on one of their backs."

Nope, your DNA has rolled snake-eyes on you from the start and you show up designed to swim around until, um, opportunity presents itself, at which point your instincts kick in and you go where no man has gone before or wanted to. I wonder about what kind of worldview such a creature would have, if it were gifted with the ability to reflect upon its condition -- although I suspect that a mass leech suicide might be the actual result of that enhancement,

But if you were one of these things and you could think, which would be worse? A universe with a deity that had designed you for exactly the role you played? Or one in which natural selection winnowed out the less successful related species around you until you were the only one remaining, and in which traveling up the wrong end of alimentary canal of a giant artiodactyl ungulate was the best you could hope for. If you were the winner in the Darwinian Derby of your particular biome, what in the heck did the losers do?

I think I'll rest easy tonight.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Genre Trilogy

Alan Dean Foster's sprawling Humanx Commonwealth universe was still in its toddler stages when he sent his hero Flinx on a journey to find his unknown father in 1977's The End of the Matter. Both the title and the 11-year gap until the next novel chronologically in the series suggested that this part of that universe had finished, and even the unresolved resolution of the quest more or less gave that impression. In many ways that helps Matter as a story and novel.

His search for his birth mother complete, Flinx returns to his homeworld and adoptive parent, Mother Mastiff. He wants to visit with her, relax and learn whatever clues she may still remember that could lead him to his birth father. After the events of Orphan Star, Flinx has the wealth and wherewithal to make that search, but the information is frustratingly thin. His acquisition of the nonsense-spouting alien Abalamahalamatandra ("Ab") and of the enmity of the galactic assassin clan known as the Qwarm complicate things even while he pursues his slimmest lead yet. Which lead will take him into an arena that bodes catastrophe for three worlds, as well.

Matter is was the fourth Flinx book written although third in chronological order for the series at that time. It was also the 14th or 15th book Foster had written, including his extensive catalog of movie adaptations (The Dark Star, Star Wars, etc.) and his novelizing the Star Trek animated series episodes as well. It shows a much greater polish than the initial two books in the series but keeps Foster's dry and witty tone. Since the focus is on both Flinx's quest for his father and his hunt for a way to save three worlds menaced by a deadly stellar phenomena, there is less of the ecological exploration that Foster likes to do in creating the alien biomes of his novels. But the sense of conclusion, incomplete as it was, seemed to encourage Foster to help his first major series character to go out on top, and Matter remains one of his best books.

The Flinx series would get a 1983 prequel but start moving forward again in 1988. The nine subsequent adventures of Flinx and his mini-dragon flying snake Pip are quite a bit more scattered and unfocused. Although they would help Flinx learn as much of the truth about his origins as he could, provide a grand tour through the Humanx Commonwealth and are entertaining reads in themselves, they wind up feeling a lot like an extended and sometimes overstretched coda to The End of the Matter.
In Monster Hunter Nemesis, the fifth book in his history of the clandestine war waged against monsters in the world -- they're all real, by the way -- Larry Correia turns his attention to Agent Franks of the Monster Control Bureau. We've only seen Franks so far from the viewpoint of others, primarily the freelance fighters of Monster Hunter International. Being as Franks is a federal agent and MHI sees the feds as more hindrance than help, that hasn't been a particularly kindly perspective.

Franks himself doesn't get any kindlier when he's the center of his own book. He lives by the code that people who say violence solves nothing simply haven't been violent enough. But now he's been framed for a deadly attack on MCB headquarters and shadowy government forces have reminded everyone involved that even though he hunts monsters, Franks is a monster himself, who needs taking down by any means necessary. Since Franks knows what's behind the frame-up and the conspiracy, that's going to be easier said than done.

Nemesis is the second book of the series to go outside our main viewpoint character, new and extremely talented MHI recruit Owen Pitt, and it's a good choice on Correia's part. The Monster Hunter books are fun and often funny mind candy, but the three books so far focusing on Pitt's story have been slices of the same pie and breaking them up is a series-saving move. Seeing Owen and company follow the same exact path they've already walked loses excitement quickly. Although the plot is still more or less the same -- small-scale brawl, conflict set-up, larger brawl, full-out battle -- using someone new gives a peek at a few different corners of the Monster Hunter universe. It also allows Correia to vary his fight scenes some, although they are what he does best and he sticks with his strengths whenever possible.

The series has also featured a slow build to a major monstrous crisis, and while Nemesis features the main MHI cast only as walk-ons, it builds into that as well. Correia has nowhere claimed that his Monster Hunter series is anything but a good-time smash and shoot romp, and he delivers exactly that in Nemesis, with enough extra flavor to keep a reader along for the next stop.
Former war correspondent and cameraman Jon Steele's first foray into fiction, "The Angelus Trilogy," wraps up with this year's The Way of Sorrows, bringing Jay Harper, Katherine Taylor and their surrounding casts into battle with the evil forces that want to see humanity enslaved and chaos reign.

Way opens with a resolution of sorts to the cliffhangers that closed Angel City, but the resolution itself leaves more questions for Harper and Taylor in their respective arenas. There's plenty yet to learn before the villains can be brought to battle, but events may not give them the time.

Like Angel City, Way lacks a first-person narrative from Marc Rochat, the Lausanne Cathedral bell-ringer whose point-of-view sections infused volume number one, The Watchers, with a real sense of magic. Steele also reduces some more of the cosmic elements of the earlier parts of the series to as much of a science-fiction premise as the urban fantasy he began with. Some of that is interesting, but it also helps bake the magic out of the story, and that dimension was one of The Watchers' most compelling aspects.

And where in the first two books Steele eschewed most of the "this is how things really happened and all traditional Christian teaching has been wrong" patter that makes so many religious-themed thrillers annoying, he drops a lecture doing exactly that into an otherwise mundane travel sequence. The final battle is a little confusing and requires a couple of page-flips backwards to re-set the scene now and then.

Steele's excellent style and vivid characters remain, though, although this climactic volume understandably leans more on Harper as its main protagonist and leaves Katherine Taylor in about the same place she started. "The Angelus Trilogy" winds up as a good set of reads, even if it doesn't really live up to some of the promise of the first volume.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Old Age and Cunning

So reading this article in the Telegraph leaves me with a couple of questions:

1) The numbers are weird -- why would 50 be the new 42 instead of 40 or 38.75? The story says it's because people who took the test at 50 scored the same as people at 42 did when they took the test six years ago. Which, since those people are now 48, means people like me are smarter than people two years younger than me. But we knew that ever since those little twerps showed up as sophomores when we were seniors.

At least, I think that's what it means. The jumble of numbers and ages is kind of a tangled skein and I'm not at all sure I did the math right. Which may boot the results for the whole thing right there.

2) Why did someone not tell me this almost a year ago when it could have done me some good? I've got less than a week left before I'm 51 and we all know how washed-up that means the ol' thinker's going to be. I could have spent this last year challenging those slack-jawed 48-year-old mouth-breathers to all kinds of feats of intellectual strength and battles of wits and not only made some money but proved that my attic ain't full o' junk, bub.