Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Feel-Good Algorithm

Dutch neuroscientist Jacob Jolij offers a good argument that while there may be an equation for everything, not everything is an equation.

Meeri Kim wrote a Washington Post story about Jolij's research into what kinds of songs make people feel good and why they do. According to Jolij, it has to do with positive references in the lyrics, the tempo and the key. He used a survey of the most popular "feel-good" songs of the last 50 or so years to try to sort out these characteristics and see which ones correlated with listener response, and then built a formula that would describe which songs were more "feel-good" than others.

Some of the research is obvious, of course. Minor keys can make us apprehensive while major keys don't, and faster tempos usually seem to energize us more, even when the songs are from the same band. I'll have AC/DC's "Let's Play Ball" on the iPod shuffle for a treadmill session but probably not "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution," because the first song is a lot faster.

Jolij points out the highly subjective nature of his research. Even with his feel-good formula, he notes that the memory attachments we have for different songs increase their impact on our moods, either up or down. The list of Top 10 Feel-Good songs his formula produces has an excellent example.

The top feel-good song of the last 50 years or so is Queen's 1979 single "Don't Stop Me Now." The article has a list of the top 10 and it's interesting to me that the only song on the list I couldn't remember at all was that one. I listened to an album-oriented rock (AOR) station during those years, so I know I must have heard the cut off the 1978 Jazz album, but I had no memory of it. It was a top 10 song in England but peaked at 86 in the U.S. I checked it out on YouTube and liked it well enough, but still had zero memory of it and it produced no particular upbeat mood for me.

On the other hand, the number 10, Katrina and the Waves' 1985 single "Walking on Sunshine" will get my fingers snapping in a heartbeat, put me in a mood to take an extra spin around the block until it finishes on my car radio and brighten just about any day it shows up. It doesn't have any ties to specific incidents in my life beyond being played at college parties I probably enjoyed, but because I remember it there's an uplift that the Queen song doesn't produce.

I'm also curious about the time frame of the study. No quotes in the story or the press release from the company that released it indicates why it only went back to the 1960s and it would be interesting to see where some of the earliest rock and R&B hits placed in terms of their feel-good inducement. Because, nothing against Billy Joel (who did an outstanding version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at last night's Game 3 of the World Series), but LaVern Baker's 1956 "Jim Dandy" has it all over his 1983 "Uptown Girl." And given how his relationship with the woman who starred in the video ended, Joel might say the same today himself.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Do It Yourself

One of the effects of electronic books is cost-reduction in getting a book published -- it just doesn't cost as much to get a data file in front of viewers as it does to fund the ink and paper and labor of a physical book. This means many books that might not otherwise get the chance with an audience can do so, which has been a decided blessing for folks who like to write genre and niche fiction and a definite if somewhat less decided blessing for those of us who read those genres and niches. One of my favorite niches is military-themed space opera, and a recent perusal of the Kindle catalog produced a wealth of new titles. Here are three of varying quality.
Like a lot of well-read military sci-fi buffs, H. Paul Honsinger has a fondness for the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian and a yen to translate them into the same kind of tale, only among the stars and spacelanes instead of the Seven Seas. His "Man of War" series is up to three volumes and features Union Space Navy Lieutenant Commander Max Robicheaux and Dr. Ibrahaim Sahin and the crew of the USS Cumberland as they battle against the Krags. The ratlike aliens want to enslave or exterminate humanity because it will not acknowledge the Krag's own divinely ordained pre-eminence among all species.

In the first book, To Honor You Call Us, Max meets Ibrahim and receives command of the Cumberland, a ship with an undistinguished history at best. He has to try to turn around his troubled command and crew while hunting for a secret Krag supply base -- a mission that only gets harder when his discovery of the supply corridor lets him stumble on a planned Krag attack that would seriously weaken or even cripple the human war effort.

Honsinger has some skill and style, which he polishes with each new volume. He doesn't waste a lot of time giving technical details of how the ships traverse interstellar space beyond what's needed to demonstrate Robicheaux's firm leadership and add the proper miiltary protocol color to his scenes. He can be quite funny, highlighting the "otherness" of the allied amphibian Pfelung race to good comic effect as well as the eternal bureaucracy of the military mind that travels into space along with humanity.

He does stray into the realm of Expository Didactia often enough to slow his narrative, and in many cases where he should show something he wants the reader to know he shortcuts and tells us instead. But the high-tension space battles and fairly deft employment of wryness, courageous heroes and intriguing characterization earned him a shot at Amazon's 47North label, which will continue to print new adventures of Max and Ibrahim and the crew of the Cumberland.
Unlike Max Robicheaux, Captain Jackson Wolfe of the Blue Jacket is near the end of a long and hard career in Warship. A native of Earth in a loose confederation of star nations that sees Terrans as low-browed yokels, he has been barely tolerated for the duration of his service, which is now nearing its end. So, in fact, is the Blue Jacket and the Ninth or "Black" Fleet that contains it. Humanity's expansion through space has yet to find anything hostile, so anachronisms like warships and their hard-drinking captains can be retired to save money better spent elsewhere.

Except that after a routine courier mission, the Blue Jacket enters what should be a populated star system and finds no trace of the people who live there. A second system is equally devoid of human life, but it is hosting a gigantic alien spacecraft just finishing up its destructive business and that will be enough for Wolfe. His aging, underpowered and underweaponed destroyer is all that stands between several heavily populated star systems and certain destruction.

Dalzelle had another space opera series under his belt before starting "The Black Fleet Trilogy," so both his narrative and plotting flow more smoothly than a lot of other do-it-yourself ebooks. He puts together plausible intra-crew conflicts and good space battles. Wolfe's resentment and hiding out in a bottle are laid on thick enough to be unpleasant in the earlier stages of the book but take a back seat when battle is joined. Warship carries a pretty heavy tone that would get tiresome over three books; here's hoping the next pair can lighten up a bit.
Nick Webb also sets his "Legacy Fleet" trilogy in a universe where many years of peace make humanity unready when a sneak attack happens. The ISS Constitution is one of the oldest ships still serving, a drain on resources and manpower that needs to be mothballed in order to create a more modern fleet. Her captain, Timothy Granger, is almost as much of a relic and his blunt, suffer-no-fools-no-matter-their-rank has won him few friends in the service.

But when the alien Swarm reappears 75 years after their complete defeat, armed with new technology and the means to defeat the newer ships of the human fleet, the Constitution may be the only ship capable of still fighting them off long enough to save Earth itself. And Granger may be the only captain who can pull it off.

If you're a sci-fi fan and this scenario sounds a little familiar, that's because it's behind both versions of Battlestar Galactica and the number of point-to-point similarities between the television series and the first book in Webb's trilogy is more than statistically significant. Webb's style and narrative don't offer much of a hook on their own, and he doesn't spin the story out enough in this first volume for it to be very sticky in its own right, until the very end. Enough questions show up in the very last pages to offer some possibility Webb plans to take his story in a different direction.

And as long as the series stays on the Kindle Unlimited program that lets me read it for free while I have my Amazon Prime subscription, that's just enough to make me take a look at future volumes. After all, I'm going to be on the treadmill anyway and they'd have to be pretty bad to be worse than the real estate fixer-upper shows that folks who work out when I do seem to prefer.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Sweet Science

So perhaps, come Nov. 1, you have a lot of candy laying around. Maybe the kids didn't eat it all, or maybe you didn't have any trick-or-treaters, or maybe you never give candy away but used the season of Halloween as a cover for some extra purchases.

Of course, you could eat all of this candy and make your stomach sad and your dentist wealthy. But even more fun could be some of these ten experimental uses for your remaining treats.

Some of them are familiar standbys, like the wintergreen sparks or the Mentos-Coke fountain. Others may have more silliness than science, like the M&M Duels. But a couple of others have some intriguing scientific content, like observing the different design possibilities presented by mass amounts of M&Ms, because of their shape. Any job that involves studying how many M&Ms can be put into a container and how they sort themselves out according to space in that container can't be all bad.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

It Just Keeps Going and Going and Going...

Even after a hundred years, Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity keeps being proven correct and helping discover new things about the universe.

Ol' Al must have known his stuff.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Los Odds y Las Ends

-- The conventional wisdom holds that chameleons change their color as a form of camouflage and protection from predators. That's not entirely true, according to researchers, who found that the little lizards change color pretty much constantly, and the color changes can indicate their moods. Leaving aside how you might judge a lizard's moods (My tongue doesn't feel sticky today -- sad color!), that doesn't necessarily exclude the idea of color changes for blending-in purposes. Such as: "My mood is not wanting to get eaten, so I think I will reflect that by a mottled mix of greens and browns that coincidentally exactly matches my surroundings and makes it difficult for avian predators to spot me."

-- Thirty years ago today, the Kansas City Royals defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 of the "I-70 Series" edition of the World Series. Another layer of playoffs have been added since that time, so the day that represented the end of the 1985 series is the beginning of the 2015 one. As a Royals fan, I am of course hoping for a similar result.

-- Has there ever been a stupider faux-profound ad slogan than the one for the Amazon Echo bluetooth speaker? "I just spoke to the future, and it listened." Taken from a Gizmodo review headline, the phrase embodies negative meaning -- not only doesn't it mean anything on its face, it means nothing when connected to its product. If I were for some reason minded to pay money for a gadget that did what I said when I spoke commands out loud, I would want one that would be really useful: "Find Angie Harmon's phone number. Wipe out Harry Reid's pension. Make Al Sharpton and Bill O'Reilly live in the same two-bedoom apartment and get real jobs." All the Echo does is the same stuff it would do if I pressed the right buttons, without the minimal hedge against sloth of requiring me to press the buttons.

-- Science, which often talks about things in increments of light-years, femtometers and picograms, has some really weird measurements. For example, did you know that you actually receive a dose of radiation from eating a banana, and that the dosage is sometimes used as a basis for measurement? The amount of ionizing radiation is .1 microsieverts per banana, which of course means nothing to most of us who have no idea how much radiation is in a microsievert or in a full-size sievert either, for that matter. This figure is sometimes referred to the "Banana Equivalent Dose." The important number for those of you who enjoy bananas is 35 million, because that's how many bananas you'd have to get together to kill a person with radiation. You'd be in just as much danger from the weight of all that fruit, and in any case would probably have perished quite a bit earlier from whichever beautiful bunch o' ripe banana hide the deadly black tarantula.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Unclear on the Concept

There has been a lot of fuss and feathers among fans of the zombie show The Walking Dead, where a main longterm character adopted the "dead" part of the show's title in its most recent episode. On the pop culture blogs I read, there is a good deal of "Told you so!" about the character's death, since it happened because he had given an undependable character a second chance.

"In this world it's survival," goes the analysis. "In this world forgiveness gets you killed. Humanity gets you killed." Well, no. The screenwriter gets you killed, because you are a character on a TV show. Moreover, you are a character on a TV show -- in one of the tiredest and most tiresome of genres, zombies-run-amok -- in which a lot of people get killed on a regular basis. The screenwriter could have created a situation within his or her fictional world in which a character showing humanity could have survived, but chose to create one in which that character did not.

I recall a similar discussion after the movie The Dark Knight. I'll warn it may be a spoiler, but it's a seven-year old move that's on basic cable all the time so I can't imagine it would be. Two boats of people are trying to cross the Gotham River to escape Gotham City, which is endangered by the Joker. One boat has children and families, and the other has vicious inmates from the prison whom authorities do not want to risk having inside Gotham if the Joker's plan goes off. They are being moved elsewhere so they can be locked up safely.

But the Joker makes an announcement. He has planted bombs in each boat and given them the trigger to the other boat's bomb. If they detonate the other boat, they will survive. The boat with Gotham's elite has the usual corporate sleazes on board, one of whom takes the detonator but in the end doesn't have the courage to murder even ruthless criminals in cold blood. The boat with the criminals and guards has some weak-willed guards who dither about pressing the button until one of the criminals says something like, "Give me that thing so I can do what we know we need to do." The guard -- who may win the title in the Dumbest Correctional Officer in Existence sweepstakes, does so, and the hardened criminal flings it overboard. See! people said after watching the movie. There's more humanity in even a vicious criminal than in a corporate sleazebag one-percenter!

Well of course there is, because that's the way Christoper Nolan and David Goyer wrote it. That's the story they wanted to tell, so that's the one they told. There's nothing wrong with the idea and nothing inherently implausible about a vicious criminal deciding not to blow up a boatful of innocents. Yes, there's plenty implausible about the idea that an entire division of correctional officers would sit around and watch their colleague demonstrate himself a ninja-master of Stupid Fu, but this is a movie in which a man dresses like a bat and chases criminals. It certainly might happen that way, given the story, but there's nothing that demonstrates this is the way it must happen -- meaning the choice is in the hands of the screenwriters.

Stories allow authors and screenwriters to comment on the human condition, and that commentary can be more useful or less useful depending on how closely the story follows what we know about human behavior. After being forgiven by Bishop Myriel even though he has beaten and stolen from him, Jean Valjean is stunned and confused. If we think of how we might react if we are forgiven for our wrongs, we can easily imagine the same feelings, which means Les Misérables can offer some insightful commentary on law and grace in our lives.

But a gruesome death-by-zombie can't do the same kind of commentary, because no one's ever been turned into zombie chow because they gave someone a second chance. So there's no good gauge to judge the plausibility of the response and no way to see it as anything other than a narrative choice made for narrative purposes.

And I guess I should point out that you might want to take what I'm saying with a grain of salt, since I think the last good zombie move was the Thriller video.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Oddly Specific

I am sure that each of the apps that Jill Duffy writes about in PC magazine are as helpful as she says they are, although I didn't see any that I had to have for myself.

I don't know how you come up with 59 of them, though. At that point I either hunt up one more that seems pretty OK or I drop nine of them.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Irish Eyes Are Smiling

Maureen O'Hara, the red-headed movie star who starred with and held her own with some of the biggest, macho-est names of classic Hollywood has passed away at 95.

The sound you hear isn't thunder -- it's the chairs scraping as Messrs. Ford, Wayne, Power, Flynn, Fairbanks and Stewart stand up from the table to welcome one of the few women who matched up against them all and came out either even or on top.

Cosmic Treat!

At first mention, the idea of a comet containing alcohol and sugar may prompt the thought, "Why can't one of those crash into the Earth?"

But it turns out that we're not talking about a space margarita with a side order of bon-bons. Neither of the two chemicals involved are in consumable format, mass quantities or otherwise. But they are complex organic molecules that can help scientists get a clearer picture of what Earth was like about the time it was formed. Comets date back to the time of planetary formation, but since they didn't become part of a planet, they haven't been smacked around by meteors, subjected to tidal stresses from their moons or been fiddled with by the current tenants. A look at a comet is a look at what was around about four and a half billion years ago.

So it's interesting that these complex organic molecules were already here even as the planets were forming. Scientists are sure that says something about how life came to be, even if they're still not entirely clear on what "something." is.

Friday, October 23, 2015


His tour with Clive Cussler's "Oregon Files" done, Jack Du Brul returns to his own series character: geologist, adventurer and do-gooder Philip Mercer, in The Lightning Stones. 

Mercer's old mentor and father substitute following the death of his parents has been murdered, and he wants to know why. When he digs into the old man's research, he finds clues to a strange mineral that draws lightning during storms. A multimillionaire invested heavily in clean energy has found a use for it that will help make him rich -- if it doesn't destroy the earth's weather first. Mercer will have to stay ahead of the ruthless profiteer's schemes and solve a decades-old mystery to avenge his friend's death and save the world.

The "Oregon Files" weren't substantially different from Du Brul's regular gig in style and tone. Mercer is tough, dogged, good in a fight and smart enough to figure out what's going on around him. He never gives in, never quits and never shies away from violence if that's what the situation requires. Du Brul is still gifted at action sequences, managing to make plausible an outrageous river ride in a flooded house torn loose from its foundations.

He obviously wants his characters to have more depth than a lot of thrillers do and succeeds at some level, even though a good deal of that depth comes from direct exposition rather than being built into the narrative. Either the limitations of the genre or of Du Brul's own narrative skill keep him from being able to completely hide the wizard behind the curtain.

The Mercer books don't usually rely as much on scientific gadgetary whiz-bang as did the "Oregon Files" but have plenty of science-y goodness to entertain the techno-thriller fan. If they don't hit quite as high as their author aims, they still manage to rise above the herd and aiming high doesn't seem like a bad way to write a book.
Although his lead character, Mitch Rapp, was a man given to neither moderation nor observation of the finer points of the law and due process, Vince Flynn's unadorned but fluid writing and an occasional episode of unexpected depth had made the character one of the best of the best-selling Tough Guys Not Afraid to do What's Necessary.

Flynn's 2013 death from prostate cancer, at age 47, left the series with quite a bit of room to work, as Rapp himself was supposed to be only in his mid-40s. His estate and publishing house decided to continue the series with thriller author Kyle Mills, which I at the time was uneasy about. The one Mills novel I'd read didn't inspire confidence that he could continue to keep on the right side of self-parody with a character that could easily head that way if handled wrongly.

So it's a pleasant surprise that The Survivor, Mills' first outing with Rapp, is a lot better than expectations. He makes some good storytelling choices that help him succeed and set the field for him as a different author than Flynn with a different voice. The story itself is a kind of sequel to Flynn's last Rapp book, The Last Man. The CIA is still reeling from the fallout of Joseph Rickman's betrayal and now has to deal with the reality that Rickman's exposure of its secrets may not end with his death. Rapp has to ferret out the twisted electronic trail of Rickman's betrayal through several different layers before enemy operatives do. Pakistani security chief Ahmed Taj has his own plans for the data and a ruthlessness that may even outstrip Rapp's.

By keeping his first novel strongly tied to Flynn's last, Mills has a good guide about how to carry the story forward in a tone similar to his predecessor. The characters and the situations are not entirely pre-set, but Mills can rely on the earlier novel's echoes as he plays his own tune. Mills also makes overt Rapp's thinking about the way he is living his life and how that may end up, allowing him to move forward as well as allowing the author leeway when he moves outside those echoes. He's not writing Rapp exactly the way Flynn wrote him, but he's already pointed out in the narrative that he's doing so.

All that said, a lot of the seams show. Mills doesn't have Flynn's fluidity and too often steps outside the narrative to tell readers something that Flynn would have showed us. A couple of episodes that demonstrate Rapp's legendary impatience with bureaucracy and red tape seem a little obviously set up for that purpose instead of just flowing from the storyline itself. And despite his better-than-expected handling of another author's character, Survivor still shows itself as one author handling another author's character. The hope for a reader is that since Mills is currently contracted for two more Rapp novels he may be able to integrate his own voice with the character that fans have come to follow.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

He Who Has the Yolk Makes the Rules

It's been a long time since I liked mayonnaise -- nowadays I think it's gross. And there's the little matter of it being bad for you even if it hasn't gone over, which it can do pretty quickly without you noticing until you're paying the price for your lack of vision.

But if I was the American Egg Board, I would be very interested in mayonnaise, especially since I would be made up of representatives of the country's largest egg producers. And apparently, I would be very interested in a company called Hampton Creek. Because they make a vegetarian product resembling mayonnaise which they call "Just Mayo." And being vegetarian, they don't use eggs, which I as the American Egg Board must quash post-haste.

You might have worried that we do not have an official definition of mayonnaise, but allow the Food and Drug Administration to allay your qualms. We do, and it includes the specific phrase, "an ingredient containing egg yolks." Therefore, Hampton Creek may not claim their product is mayonnaise. Nor, for that matter, can Lou Gossett, Jr., use it as a nickname for Richard Gere's character in An Officer and a Gentleman, even though his name is actually Mayo, unless it can be proven that Gere includes ingredients containing egg yolks. This is unlikely, for even though Gere is not a strict vegetarian he generally limits his meat eating to fish.

In any event, the American Egg Board was apparently eager to help the FDA ensure that the egg production industry remained free of threats from boutique vegan condiment substitutes. Staff joked in e-mails about using organized crime techniques against the San Francisco-based company such as "hits." An e-mail from the actual President of the Egg Board references someone on her staff, apparently, who was supposed to be able to block Just Mayo from being sold at healthy-foods retailer Whole Foods.

So in other words, a regulatory board whose members are all from large companies that make the products it's supposed to regulate intend to work together with those companies to make sure another company can't get a seat at the sandwich-spread table.

Government regulation. It's what's for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

This Day, Forward and Backward

-- As nearly everyone online except my Mom and Dad have noted, today is the day that Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett Brown arrived in their DeLorean time machine after leaving the year 1985 to come to "the future." The funniest thing I saw was a friend who posted a link to faux news item about Michael J. Fox being arrested for "insider sports betting."

-- In real events, today was the day that the USS Constitution was launched in 1797. Although currently drydocked undergoing a refit, Old Ironsides is a commissioned United States Navy warship and is the only active USN warship to have sunk an enemy vessel in combat. The vessel with which it shared that distinction, the guided missile frigate USS Simpson, was recently retired from service as the Navy builds a newer class of missile frigate. The Simpson sank the Iranian fast attack boat Joshan in 1988. This article at Popular Mechanics compares the two frigates and offers a picture of the Constitution next to a ship of Simpson's class.

-- Also in real events, today in 1805, 27 British ships under the command of Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson kicked the hindquarters of 33 French and Spanish ships under the command of two admirals not as good as Nelson was. At the end of the battle, the Royal Navy had lost Nelson but still had 27 ships; the enemy had 11. His flagship, HMS Victory, holds a ceremonial position like the Constitution and is still commissioned. It is the oldest commissioned warship still afloat, as it was launched 33 years before the American frigate in 1765.

-- In 1529, Pope Clement VII named King Henry VIII of England a Defender of the Faith for his 1521 publication defending the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic church against Martin Luther's contention that there were only two. The relationship between the throne of England and the Holy See...deteriorated after that.

-- On this day in 5,000,002,015 AD, the sun will become a red giant and swallow the earth.

Hey -- I've got a better shot at nailing that one than Zemeckis did with his flying cars.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Opposites Attack!

We're certainly used to the idea of words that have antonyms, or opposites. And we have all used words that seem like they should have opposites but don't.

The good folk at Mental Floss have hunted up some words that do have opposites, although those opposites are not very intuitive. Déjá vu's opposite is not vuja de, despite what you may have heard. It's actually jamais vu, which translates from French as "never seen." Technically, the first one references a new event that feels strangely familiar. So the second describes a familiar event that feels as though it has never happened before, like finding your car keys before you are late to work.

"Ambidextrous" means being equally skilled with either left or right hand. The opposite might be simple ordinary left- or right-handedness, but the Mental Floss researchers suggest it's really "ambilevous," which means you are equally clumsy with either hand. On the other hand (heh), I'm not sure how that's different from ambidextrous. Both hands have the same skill level; it's just that it's pretty low.

In science-fiction stories, there are sometimes robots or androids that gain intelligence and free will. If they are mobile, then they might be called "automatons," or "self-movers." Though machines, they have become capable of desiring and directing their own movements. Giant computers that become self-aware are generally not called automatons, because they can't move. Unless they also develop mind-control powers and force their human servants to pick them up and carry them places.

The opposite of automaton is a "heteromaton," or something that can act only when moved by outside forces. An example of this would be a politician, whom we notice can only move or speak when acted upon by outside forces in the form of opinion polls.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Fantastic Ordinary

At the beginning of the 20th century, Antarctica was an unexplored icy hell that only a handful of explorers had visited, and then only for relatively brief times.

Today, it has an ATM cash dispenser.

What a world.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Fat (Wallet) Beat!

I just ran across this item, in which a techie takes apart a set of Beats headphones -- sometimes called "Beats by Dre" -- and finds that the components used to make the $200 retail for about a tenth of that cost.

The item at the link is actually a follow-up post. When the authors ran the original, they found out via commenters that they had bought counterfeit Beats headphones. The repeat review bought two pair of certifiably genuine equipment and found that the real deal cost about $20, which was $4 more than the fake ones had. In fact, the writer notes, he was able to build a very credible version of the phones using half of the knockoff components.

On the one hand, I guess it's kind of a scandal that Andre "Dr. Dre" Young and Jimmy Iovine's name in the manufacturing represents a literally exponential markup. On the other, I think it's a little more of an indictment that there's a market for two hundred dollar headphones plugged into some personal .mp3 player. The compression rate of most digital audio removes much of the delicacies of sound you'd be supposed to use high-end audio equipment to experience anyway, so it's hard to see what your money buys.

In any event, Mr. Young has proven himself a rather low sort of coward and though he has said positive things acknowledging his wrong actions, for my part anyway items connected to his name need not be purchased.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Two Tickets to Paradise...Later

When last we left the Illinois Lottery, it had stopped writing its larger lottery winner checks because the state comptroller was forbidden by law from writing checks when there was no state budget. Since Illinois law directs that any checks larger than $25,000 must be written by the state comptroller, well, oops. Apparently the money was there, but it was impossible to legally dispense it, which was a situation that probably made little sense to the people who had spent their money on tickets and won.

Wednesday, the Illinois Lottery announced a much simpler reason why they would now not make payments more than $600 to any lottery winner: Not enough money in the rest of the state coffers to cover writing a check for the winnings. It seems they had been using the rest of the state's operating funds to cover these smaller amounts with the idea, I guess, of replacing it with lottery proceeds when the budget impasse ended. The impasse continues, the checks still can't be written, and there is less money now than there was in July when this mess started. So unless you won $599 in the Illinois Lottery, your winning ticket reads "IOU."

There being people who are owed money and there being a large sluggish faceless entity which can be said to owe them that money, an eruption of lawyers has occurred.

Lottery winners have hired then on the assumption that a lawsuit will be resolved before the budget impasse is solved and that their lawyer's fees will not reduce their own winnings too significantly. The first of those is probably a push but I would not give good odds on the second.

They are taking aim at the state lottery system and suggesting the word for an enterprise that promises large winnings if lucky numbers are drawn but then does not pay those winnings is "fraud." One attorney believes that as much as $288 million has not been paid since the 2014-15 fiscal year ended June 30. This means that if the budget impasse is solved, then in addition the other payments it's delaying -- like half a billion dollars to the state pension system -- Illinois will immediately be on the hook for almost a third of a billion to its own lottery winners. Plus whatever fees it will have to pay to litigant attorneys in the settlement and to its own lawyers for defending it.

Two things are suggested in this Government by Kafka scenario. One, it seems fairly obvious that whatever else President Barack Obama did or did not gain during his time in Illinois government, he wholly acquired its bookkeeping methods. Two, it may be believed that once the Illinois governor and legislature finally solve their budget fight, they should hang their heads in shame. I think they would be better advised to start buying Illinois Lottery tickets. Although they're probably prohibited from winning, the system is going to need all the cash and publicity it can get.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Honorverse Duet

In his introduction to 2014's A Call to Duty, Honorverse creator David Weber said he and co-author Timothy Zahn really needed to credit Tom Pope, a longtime Weber fan who has assembled a wide-ranging database of the fictional universe that helps maintain continuity. Without Pope's research, Weber said, the new series set in the early history of Harrington's Star Kingdom of Manticore would not have run nearly so smoothly. So in this second volume, A Call to Arms, Pope hits co-author status.

This "Manticore Ascendant" series is, as mentioned, set early in the history of the star nation that Weber's heroine Honor Harrington will one day serve. And it's a time when Manticore's future is nowhere near assured. External threats and political infighting threaten its three planets, which have yet to discover the wormhole junctions that will make them an economic powerhouse. Travis Long is a young officer in Manticore's Royal Navy and trying to learn how to marry his spit-and-polish standards to the Navy's spit-and-baling-wire reality, His personal struggles mirror his nation's quest to maintain independence while lacking a lot of the resources to do so. Both will collide with shadowy forces that want to add Manticore's resources to their own -- but they'll be satisfied picking clean the corpse if need be.

Pope's attention to research detail helps line these earlier-set books up with the time frame of the main sequence. But it's Weber and Zahn who have to make a reader care about people who are facing a danger that we who read the later books know is not likely to happen. In both books so far they have done so with their focus on Long and gradual broadening the cast into the upper levels of political maneuvering that affect him. Although only the three authors can say for certain how the job is split, Zahn's influence reining in Weber's penchant for over-long stretches of conversation and dialogue is easy to spot, since those narrative-muffling exchanges are kept to a minimum. The final mix keeps us connected to the characters and the unfolding mystery of how the Star Kingdom of Manticore came to be what will bring us Honor Harrington herself. After all, in this case the existence of books set well after this period tells us what happened. So far, Weber, Zahn and Pope have managed to keep us interested in how it did and who was involved.
Weber began his Harrington series in 1992 with On Basilisk Station, and in it our intrepid heroine commanded a ship of the Star Kingdom of Manticore against the far larger People's Republic of Haven. Manticore remained Haven's superior on the fields of battle because of its robust interstellar trade and Haven's corruption. And in case Weber hadn't made it clear he was writing a Horatio Hornblower England v. Revolutionary France-in-space novel, the leader of Haven was Rob S. Pierre.

But the two nations have found a common enemy after many years of fighting, and are now allied against the Mesan Alignment. This cloak-and-dagger corporation has as its goal the establishment of a genetic caste system throughout as much of the galaxy as possible -- with its own directors as tyrant oligarchs. Master spies Victor Cachat and Anton Zilwicki, of Haven and Manticore respectively, have been moving against Mesa's backstage shenanigans for some time and have helped uncover enough of the conspiracy to unite their formerly antagonistic governments. Now in Cauldron of Ghosts Cachat, Zilwicki and their team infiltrate the Mesa homeworld to try to gain proof of the conspiracy and perhaps even bring Mesa a freedom its people have never known.

For this series, Weber teams with sci-fi author Eric Flint, who is a well-known name in military-based science fiction in his own right. Again, while it's hard for anyone other than the authors to say how much each one contributed, Flint has less success than Zahn in reducing the amount of "meeting minutes" scenes to which his colleague is prone. The espionage plotline is handled deftly, but the pair telegraph the villains' atrocities with almost anesthetized clumsiness. The Mesans are exploding bombs in their own cities to create a "terrorist threat" they can use to justify harsh measures, and as soon as we meet some ordinary person going about their business in the middle of a chapter, we know what's coming. The replication of these scenes lengthens and deadens the story, and helps make Cauldron one of the weaker entries in its particular Honorverse series.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

First Star on the Right...

John Masefield's 1902 poem "Sea Fever" has the line, "And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by," quoted even by William Shatner while playing a 23rd century starship captain.

By his time, of course, computers would be essential for navigation, especially for a craft traveling among the stars. But even today, satellite and GPS systems have replaced the old wooden-hulled navy standby of navigating according to the position of the stars overhead. In the late '90s, US Navy sailors no longer had to learn celestial navigation as computers had mastered the art with far greater accuracy.

But now, the possibility of hacked GPS systems or of a ship's computer systems getting some kind of bad bug or virus have alerted the Navy to the need for a backup system -- the human eye and the stars above. The Naval Academy at Annapolis has reinstated a short class in the basics of using a sextant and map of the night sky to determine positions and courses.

Hang in there, cursive. There may be hope for you yet.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Barrier Broken

On this day in 1947, United States Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager became the first person to achieve sustained flight faster than the speed of sound.

What the website doesn't say but what Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and Yeager's own autobiography note is that he did it with two broken ribs he earned by falling off a horse two nights before the flight designed to go supersonic. He sneaked off to a veterinarian to have them wrapped and a friend sawed off a broom handle so he could use it as a lever to seal the hatch of his plane. The idea of reporting the injury and either delaying the flight or letting someone else take it was apparently not considered.

Right stuff indeed.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Pyramid of Sadness

Is the saddest thing about this piece in The Washington Post's "Wonkblog" that someone wrote almost a thousand words about how people who can spend more money on breakfast sandwiches get a better breakfast sandwich for doing so? No.

Is the saddest thing about it the fact that the newspaper which broke the Watergate story and has been a leading institution of the Fourth Estate for decades actually ran a piece that was almost a thousand words about how people who can spend more money on breakfast sandwiches get a better breakfast sandwich for doing so? No.

Is the saddest thing about it that the person who wrote almost a thousand words about how people who can spend more money on breakfast sandwiches get a better breakfast sandwich for doing so will actually be paid for this effort instead of having to pay the newspaper to run it and everyone else to read it? No.

The saddest thing is that the person who wrote almost a thousand words about how people who can spend more money on breakfast sandwiches get a better breakfast sandwich for doing so will probably be paid enough money to afford one of those better breakfast sandwiches and will consume it without a hint of either self-awareness or irony.

Disturbing News

So, everyone who was expecting George R.R. Martin to buckle down and finish his bleak, uninteresting and increasingly sclerotic fantasy mega-series A Song of Ice and Fire in his (or their) lifetimes?

Sorry about that.

Monday, October 12, 2015


This year's Nobel Prizes in the sciences were recently announced, and one of the interesting things about the prize is that because sometimes it honors cutting-edge scientific discoveries it is given for something that turns out to be wrong.

Real Clear Science's "Newton Blog" notes a few of those here, and while a couple of the ones it lists are pretty obscure, at least one of them is rather high profile. Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who created the first nuclear reactor, was awarded the 1938 Nobel for physics. Fermi said that by bombarding the elements thorium and uranium with slow neutrons, he had created two new elements. It turns out he had made his original substances change into new elements, but it was by nuclear fission and they actually turned into previously existing elements. When confronted with experimental verification of his mistake, Fermi added a footnote to his Nobel acceptance speech that indicated the change.

Of course, the mistake is what led Fermi to subsequent experiments that allowed him to create the first nuclear reactor with a self-sustaining reaction -- meaning it could keep itself going without requiring extra energy to be pumped in. In science, incorrect answers are rarely dead ends and often serve more as signposts towards new directions than anything else.

One might wish for that kind of happy circumstance when the Nobel committee makes similar mistakes in other award areas, but its members have of late proven relatively impervious to self-awareness. With a couple of welcome exceptions, of course.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Playtime's Over

School exists because we assume without some kind of instruction kids won't learn things they need to know, like reading, writing and standing in line to go to the bathroom. Recess exists because we figure that kids below a certain age need some time when they're not being told what to do and they can run around and scream like the barbaric little banshees they are.

Enter the "recess consultant," a person hired by a school district to tell it how to tell kids how to play. Some schools in Edina, MN, have hired the company Playworks to "remake the playground experience into more structured and inclusive play time," according to this story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The general idea, which is not a bad one, is to try to corral the worst behavior recess can bring about, like bullying or name-calling.

But when an executive of the company says that, "The aim is to build skills that would make kids 'incredibly successful adults,'" then there's a quite obvious layer o' flim laying atop the flam here. Using the phrase "incredibly successful adults" ought to disqualify anyone from working around people with unformed and impressionable minds, like children and Hollywood celebrities.

And the company's combination name that joins "play" with "work" tells you everything you need to know about what's going on in their plans. Recess will no longer be the brief time of the school day you can have to yourself to let your own imagination run free -- you pick from designated games that will be explained to you by an adult who will loom over your every action and word to make certain they conform to the model.

I speak as one of the kids who was chosen last or next to last in most playground activities. I didn't much care for it, but it seemed pretty clear to me that other kids were chosen because they were faster than I was or better hitters or knew the game better. And every now and again I got to be the team captain (it rotated) and I picked the same way everyone else did. Speedy, strong and athletic first, and then down to my own cohort of the uncoordinated at the end.

While I wouldn't describe myself as an "incredibly successful adult" and I will now pray daily that no one ever does, I've put together a half century of not screwing either me or anybody else up all that badly, notching some small achievements in my two professional fields and being of use to folks now and again. And the kids who always got picked first and maybe bullied smaller kids a little or made fun of them? You can find some of them by typing their names into the offender database search for the state department of corrections, which may indicate that "success" at recess has a lot less to do with what kind of life you live than the people of Playworks think.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Trips to the Moon

This Flickr page has a collection of photos from all of the Apollo missions from 7 to 17 in the late 1960s and early 1970s, culled from the official feeds from the Johnson Space Center. Some of the collections are repetitive; when you're photographing stuff that it will take a multi-stage rocket and the latest in technology to get back around to see, you may snap more than a couple safety shots.

There are a lot more images of the later missions -- apparently time and resources allotted to documenting the experience of flying to the moon and back increased in them. Even with all of the repeated images and some that show autofocus was not yet a standard feature on cameras, the page is a great way to look at the craft and astronauts who remain the only human beings to ever have set foot on a surface other than Earth's.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Shocking Photos

At Live Science, Tia Ghose writes about a photography project that captures the shock waves a jet makes when it crosses the sound barrier.

And all it took was a 150-year old technique to do it. You can read the full explanation at the link, but basis deals with the fact that both the jet and the sound it makes affect air density, which in turn affects the way light passes through the air.

The method was first developed in 1864 by Austrian physicist August Toepler. He, of course, did not use it to photograph jets going supersonic, there being nether jets nor airplanes nor much understanding of how fast sound traveled. Scientists upgraded Toepler's technique to be used on moving planes traveling fairly close together at high rates of speed. Their insurance company promptly upgraded their premiums.

And there was an actual real-world purpose to the experiment, which will help scientists study how the shock waves of sound-barrier breaking affect things nearby.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Sudden Awareness!

You know, the more I read about what's posted on it, the more I think some prankster invented Twitter so we would all know just how stupid celebrities are.

That's enough for today.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


A questioner at the What-If site of asks what would happen if the Earth were made up entirely of protons and the moon entirely of electrons.

The longer explanation can be found at the link, but the spoiler version is that while the proton Earth might be kind of catastrophic, the all-electron moon would create a special kind of black hole that would warp space-time around it and might even spread outward and destroy the universe. Obviously, since this has not happened to us yet -- the best efforts of the folks at the CERN Large Hadron Collider notwithstanding -- our moon is made up of ordinary atoms and not electrons by themselves.

If it ever does happen, the destruction will spread outward at the speed of light. Which means it would take millions or billions of years to reach distant galaxies or the edges of the universe, who would not know what horrible fate is hurtling towards them.

Since that already happens every time Michael Moore opens his mouth in range of a microphone and that signal is sent outward from Earth, our perfectly ordinary and non-cosmos-destroying moon doesn't mean we get off the hook just yet.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Don't Go in the Water

With the existence of liquid water recently being confirmed on Mars, the question has probably been asked about whether or not one of the little robots trundling around the Martian surface could be sent to investigate.

The answer is, well, no. Some of the reasoning is practical. Curiosity is 30 miles away from the area where scientists believe liquid water exists on the Martian surface. Its top speed is something under one-tenth of a mile per hour, meaning that journey would take it almost two earth weeks with its figurative pedal pressed to the metal. And that's if the terrain between the rover and where it would be headed is smooth, flat and solid, which it isn't.

A more substantial obstacle is a 1967 treaty that forbids any Earth nation from sending any spacefarer or probe near an extraterrestrial source of water for fear of contaminating it. Microbes can be hardy little duffers and there is no guarantee a journey of 145 million miles through the vacuum and hard radiation of space has killed them all, especially since some of the vital rover components are shielded from the radiation and whatever might have remained alive in there would be as protected as the instruments.

The story at the Mental Floss link offers the interesting supposition that water might be studied by a future probe that is given the ability to 3-D print its own little probe minions, since those would be about as Earth-microbe free as could possibly be. That capability isn't a part of the upcoming rover missions scheduled for a 2020 launch, so it may be awhile before we get to see what's in a sample of real Martian mineral water.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Making the Rounds

Reading one of the many thrillers that hinge on the old order of the Knights Templar makes one wonder what contemporary institution the suspense aficionados of the 2800s will have as the most common grist for their mills.

James Becker sets The Lost Treasure of the Templars, his seventh novel and the first of a new trilogy, in the light of that order of military monks' secretive existence and mysterious end.  Bookdealer Robin Jessop acquires a centuries-old container designed to look like a book, complete with booby trap and encoded parchment scroll. Her search for the code's key brings in David Mallory, a former police officer who's become an expert on encryption since leaving the force. It also gains the attention of a ruthless, clandestine Italian-based operation that dispatches assassins to acquire the long-lost book-container and its scroll, and make certain that no one who's seen the scroll is around to tell anyone about it.

Robin and David object to this plan, and do so with enough success to begin a multi-continent chase and quest to solve the parchment's meaning. David believes it could be the key to finding the titular treasure, and also the only way they will be able to convince the authorities they were the targets of attempted violence rather than its perpetrators.

Compared with one of the best-known minings of the Templar history, The DaVinci Code, Becker does quite a bit better with the history of the order and the political machinations that eventually brought it down. And while his recounting of one of the Templars' final battles in the Holy Land is detailed, fast-paced and engaging, much of the rest of the book isn't.

His dialogue is stilted and he treats every scene as less of an episode and more like an instruction manual, outlining every step as Robin sends an e-mail or David closes down his computer. He tries to maintain some tension by not having the couple fall in love already (although it's hard to imagine them not doing so somewhere in volume 2), but they don't have character dimension to make the delay of the inevitable all that interesting. They're also annoyingly sanctimonious; during one conversation about the persecution of the Templars they remark on how awful it is that religious people do such evil deeds when atheists never have. "Annoying" is as much as this kind of (un?)holier-than-thou bit is worth; how can one get too worked up about the opinion of two grown adults who've apparently never heard of Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge or North Korea?

In any event, while the story starts out with a pretty conventional treasure of wealth, by the end of the volume we're getting hints of a "true" treasure that will, of course, rock the foundations of the Church who will do anything to prevent its discovery. All of this puts the trilogy on a short leash; if the colors keep matching the numbers like this then somewhere about halfway in book 2 will be a good stopping place.
As he's been wandering around the country, Jack Reacher has seen a spot on a map called "Mother's Rest." He's curious about the name and decides to visit this tiny railroad stop to learn its origin. But an unfriendly populace wants him and the pretty private investigator he's met there to get gone, and Reacher has never been someone who pays much attention to people who tell him what to do without being able to live up to the title of the series' 20th novel, Make Me.

He and the investigator, Michelle Chang, will find themselves headed to Oklahoma City, Arizona, Los Angeles and Chicago on the trail of the secret of Mother's Rest and what Chang's missing colleague was searching for when he came there. They'll deal with an investigative reporter, Eastern European crime lords, and an über-hacker who searches the "deep web" to try to find clues to the mystery.

Childs has dialed down some of the sillier aspects of a couple of recent Reacher stories -- he may win every fight, but it costs him more than skinned knuckles. In the same time, he's dialed up some others. A stairwell confrontation in Chicago takes pages as Childs describes at length the options facing both men and their decisions to a level that steps right on the border of self-parody (and makes you wish one or the other of them would slug either Childs or you to get the scene over with).

Whether or not Childs is on target with his research into the deep web and some of the other story features isn't super-important. He uses them plausibly enough to give Reacher some serious figuring out to do and some nasty villains to battle, which is just about what anyone reading the series could or does ask for.

The main question Reacher may face in the coming years is how Childs will handle his aging. He's passing 55 if Childs keeps to the timeline established early in the series and it may be about time to enter the sort of slow aging Robert Parker granted Spenser sometime in the mid-1990s. But then that's always the problem authors face, because it's a whole lot easier to write after you're 60 than it is to kick ten or eleven guys' behinds at once.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A PhD in Pumpitude?

Had they worked in Washington, D.C., Dana Carvey's Hans and Kevin Nealon's Franz might have had to show proof they were educated enough to help all the weak little girly men try to turn their little spaghetti arms into muscle.

The D.C. city government was mulling a recommendation from its Board of Physical Therapy to require personal trainers be licensed, and to make the requirements for licensing be either a two-year college degree or some other kind of certification. So technically my headline sacrificed accuracy for alliteration; our favorite faux Austrians would only need an associate's degree under the rules the Board adopted.

Board members said their goal was to protect people from folks who might take money from unwitting folks in exchange for ineffective or even dangerous workout regimes. This sounds OK, until you realize that the Board of Physical Therapy is made up of licensed physical therapists -- people who might be interested in keeping a thumb on the scale when it came to who gets to tell people how to exercise.

The good people of Washington, D.C. (they exist. Who knew?) fussed at their city government about the idea that someone needs a college degree in order to say, "Just five more, man, come on, you can do it!" So the mayor booted the chair of the PT board, which saw the writing on the wall and adopted seriously scaled back regulations. The city council is considering a bill that would wipe the whole mess out in any event.

My little joke in the last paragraph and the SNL caricatures aside, personal trainers are often a big help. They don't always bring new knowledge to a client -- anyone who doesn't realize that eating better and exercising more is a good way to trim pounds and get healthier didn't pay attention to their otherwise sadistic gym teacher -- but they do provide encouragement in changing habits and standards to meet.  So I would want to see the good ones prosper and the bad ones languish, which I think is something that can happen without a group of folks with a vested interest in making being a trainer harder to do passing laws that make being a trainer harder to do.

Plus, this could set a dangerous precedent. My sampling of the internet reveals that many people represent themselves as bloggers when they can't write, aren't funny and wouldn't know satire if it smacked 'em on the fanny and said, "That'll be twenty bucks, sugar." Some agency could decide that bloggers should be licensed in order to protect people from lame humor, reviews of airport novels and Bollywood movies and grumpy cultural harrumphing. And then where would I be?

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Grab that Grab-Bag!

-- Adrian Letchford and his colleagues at the University of Warwick analyzed the number of citations an article had in other scientific journals and compared that number to the number of words in the title. Shorter-titled words were cited more often. The title of their article in Royal Society Open Science: "The advantage of short paper titles," which shows they seem to have learned from their research.

-- "Diversity" is a grail for many, and probably no place more so than the hallowed halls of academia. But what does it really mean? If you don't have the time or desire to read Peter Wood's 2004 Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, you can scan Michael Bradley's examination of it here. At the college where I used to work, my supervisor made a lot of noise about diversity, but the way he used the word it basically meant enrolling more minority students and he was certain that was good. But neither he nor the administrators above him seemed to be as certain about how to make sure diversity in August translated to diversity in May four years later, nor as interested in developing it.

-- While I was away from the office, it seems a number of folks learned that Pope Francis had met with Kim Davis, a county clerk who refused to issue licenses to same-sex couples and was jailed for contempt of a court order directing her to do so. According to the different opinions I've read, this either means that Pope Francis completely endorses Ms. Davis' beliefs about religious freedom, or that he was tricked by some members of his own staff into meeting with her even though he does not support her, or variations on those themes. Beats me; what I do know is that pastors sometimes meet with people that they disagree with and those meetings don't always imply endorsement. I know, I've seen me do it.

-- The jihadists of ISIS are working great evil on the people of the areas they control, and they are also working evil on the history and heritage of those regions. It seems as though the nations of the West that espouse religious freedom can't find a way to smack them back down to keep them from brutalizing people, so some folks are trying to smuggle out those most at risk from the soldiers. Some archaeologists are doing the same with the artifacts and historical treasures in the barbarian's path.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Take Two

On the other hand...sunrises.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Unclear on the Concept

So I'm staying with my sister while attending a conference in the city where she lives. Her place is on the north side of the city while the conference is on the south side. Since it starts at the time the normal workday starts, that means I make what for everyone else is a normal "workday" commute.

I've done this before. and find it interesting that sometimes as little as a three-minute difference can separate zipping down the highway from the dreaded Interstate Parking Lot. It's kind of random, too, because the clogs don't happen at the same exact time every day.

Which means that there's no set time to leave that guarantees a smooth commute. It's a roll of the dice, and the problem is this: If you "lose" and leave too late so you get stuck in traffic, then you're stuck in traffic. That's just plain annoying and may mean you wind up late if the stuff is particularly thick that morning.

But if you "win" and leave early enough that you miss the traffic and cruise along fine and dandy, then you cover the distance in quick time. Which is not nearly as much time as it takes when you're stuck, which means that your "win" is that you get to work early.

That's a funny kind of win.