Monday, November 30, 2015

Smile for the Camera

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

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

Sunday, November 29, 2015

They Still Can't Fly

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

Remember. Please be curious, but well-behaved.

Stories of Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Secret Tut

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

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

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

Friday, November 27, 2015

Word Clouding

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Rational Holiday

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bagpipes on Camels? Genius!

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2015

Turn the Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Alien Planet We Live On

This is a year old, but Wired magazine's photo slideshow of some out of this world sights that nobody had to leave the planet to shoot is still pretty cool.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

There Are No Words...

Let's say you lived in England sometime just before calendars needed four digits instead of three, and you had a hankering to describe an amount of things. You had, for whatever reason, found a thousand somethings and it turned out there were a thousand of the thousand somethings. You could write "a thousand thousand," but you were about out of paper and didn't have the room for it.

According to this article by Pierre Bienaimé at Nautilus, you would have been out of luck, because "million," the word we would use, didn't exist yet. Language researchers suggest that there wasn't a need for the word because most people rarely encountered anything in that kind of quantity. Most people's worlds were pretty limited. Rich people might have thousands of certain kinds of animals and kings might have thousands of men in their armies. But at least in Old-English-speaking areas, you could account for almost every number you'd regularly run across by referring to multiples of those thousands.

Bienaimé's article points out that the word "million" was probably imported from French along with a lot of words we use today, in the years following William the Conqueror's 11th century invasion of the British Isles. Advances in mathematics and encounters with wider regions of the world than those known before meant people ran across the idea often enough that they grabbed a word to use to replace the clumsy "thousand thousand." The doubled phrase retains a kind of archaic flair and that seems to be the usual purpose if it's used today.

Words, whether newly minted or not, do seem to crop up as they're needed. When I bought my first computer, it featured an amazing 56K modem, meaning of course that it could transmit 56,000 bytes of data every second. In discussing speeds and file sizes, we often used "K" as a descriptor. "Meg" or "megs" and "gig" and "gigs" get used more often today, and we are probably on our way to whatever shortened version of terabytes and petabytes we will be bragging about in five or ten years. Or sooner.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Graphic Representation

Earlier today a friend posted a like on Facebook of an infographic from a site that loves science almost as much as it loves adolescent vulgarity. It came originally from this article at Vox. None of the following is a reflection on my friend, because she is much smarter than me (her choice of friends notwithstanding) and loves science, the elimination of disease and approppriate vocabulary.

The infographic and article were originally published last summer about the time of the Ice Bucket Challenge meme, in which people challenged each other to have a bucket of ice dumped on them in connection with raising money for research into ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The Vox writer had the laudable goal of pointing out that there are several things more likely to kill more people each year that could use some funding for research as well. She didn't address several of the other problems surrounding social media challenge activism, but that wasn't her purpose.

Critiques of the original infographic, which used circles of different sizes to show which diseases kill more people and which receive the most donations, caused its revision. The version you can currently find at both sites is supposed to have circles re-scaled to have their area represent the figures it's comparing, rather than their diameter. The latter exaggerates the real differences.

A post on this blog notes that problem, as well as several others, with this kind of chart. And as its update points out, the "money raised" category doesn't show the total amount raised to fight the particular disease listed. It shows the amount raised by a particular charity's event. In other words, the $54.1 million figure shown in the blue circle isn't the total raised in the U.S. to fight our number one killer, heart disease -- it's the amount raised by the "Jump Rope for Heart" event. If you donated to some other event that targets research into stopping heart disease then your giving wasn't represented in that $54.1 million. Are the events the same? Do they happen in the same time frame? If all we have is the infographic, we don't know.

You might think you would still be on pretty solid ground guessing that the total amount donated to fight heart disease isn't as much as the total amount given for either of the two causes that top it on the graphic. But science is about testing guesses to see which of them are more accurate. And as this comment on the post at the Statistical Modeling blog points out, figures for 2013 (the graphic dates from 2014, so those are the latest figures at the time) show the total funds raised by the American Heart Association exceed those raised by the Komen Foundation.

Which means that the graphic is accurate but needs a title that better describes what it shows: That the fundraising totals of selected events conducted by certain charities to raise money for their causes don't match up with the rankings number of people killed by those diseases. But not only is that a much more cumbersome title, it's not particularly useful information.

That, though, is par for the course for a site who's "crucial facts to understand the Israel-Gaza crisis" list in 2014 originally included a reference to a bridge between Gaza and the West Bank that would have been one of ten longest road bridges in the world. If it had ever existed -- and that fact, I believe, can be tested by experimentation.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

So Much Is now Clear

George Lucas says that if he could be any character from his Star Wars movies, he would be Jar-Jar Binks.

I am suspicious of this statement. On the one hand, Mr. Lucas knows the near-universal hatred of Jar-Jar and is massively trolling us all. He knows his prequels were widely despised, he knows his decisions to continuously tweak his original movies to meet his current sensibilities (Han shot first!) have been dismissed as hackery, and he knows that many if not most of the people who love the movies now realize how heavily others influenced the story he's claimed was solely his vision. So why not say you would be Jar-Jar, in order to cause all of these people to Force-choke themselves into unconsciousness in their own rage?

On the other hand, Jar-Jar Binks is an unavoidable aspect of the Star Wars universe. Yes, his presence is a painful reminder of the series' worst moments. Yes, he is deeply intertwined with memories of painfully bad dialogue ("Hold me, Ani!") and bad acting (Hayden Christensen). Yes, we cannot see him without remembering the eruptions of wish-fulfillment hackery that dominate the prequel movies (midichlorians, the pod race, Trade Federations, Darth Maul, Jango Fett...) But we can't truly be rid of him or completely divorce him from the story we have in front of us.

So in a real sense, George Lucas is already Jar-Jar Binks. And he always will be.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Thirty Years of Messy Fun

On November 18, 1985, a young man was about to discover the success of his tuna-fish baited tiger trap:

...As Stupid Does

A couple of scientists at a Hungarian university joined with a researcher at Baylor University to do some scientific research on what exactly constitutes stupidity. In case you are wondering why Hungarian researchers would partner with someone from a college in Waco, Texas, the name of the Baylor prof is Zoltan Kekecs, and who wouldn't want to have a name like Zoltan on your scientific paper?

I would have thought they would publish excerpts from the Congressional Record and left it at that, but I would make a poor scientist or at least a lazy one. The study culled stories about stupid events from news sources and the internet -- there was apparently no shortage -- and selected ones that were clear and relatively brief (The omission of Congressional Record excerpts now seems to make more sense).

The incidents were then rated for stupidity on a scale of 1-10 and examined to see what psychological factors might influence the actions. They came up with these elements of stupidity: 1) confident ignorance, or taking high-risk actions without the skill or knowledge to do so safely, 2) absentmindedness or lack of practicality, basically boiling down to not paying attention and 3) lack of control, meaning obsessive or addictive behavior.

Because the students conducting the research were Hungarian college students, a group that runs roughly four-fifths female, a fourth category was considered before being rejected as too specific: Hülye boyfriends who never call back because they're playing video games.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Half Full, Half Empty

One of the upsides of the end of President Obama's term will probably be the exit of Secretary of State John Kerry from the public stage. Kerry, whose visit to France following the deadly terrorist attacks on the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo featured James Taylor singing to the French people that they had a friend, spoke in Paris about last Friday's terror attacks on several locations.

Among the many words he managed to emit during his remarks were these: "There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of – not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they’re really angry because of this and that" in reference to the Hebdo attacks.

Now, what Secretary Kerry probably meant was that while the people who shot up a magazine office at least claimed they'd been pushed to it by the magazine's continued insults of their religion, the attackers Friday didn't even offer that kind of rationale. He may have meant that this attack hurts more because it's even more senseless than the previous attack, but he phrased it poorly.

However, shouldn't a diplomat with a long history of service in legislative work with other nations have enough of a clue to elide that sentence right out of his remarks, even if he's only talking to the staff at his own embassy in a city that's still mourning its dead? Shouldn't he know that trying to make that kind of comparison has no good side? Shouldn't he bloody well read his own blankety-blank speech to see what's in it before he says it out loud?

I've said it before -- whatever shortfalls George W. Bush had as a conservative and a president, I regret my 2004 vote for him less and less every time Secretary Kerry opens his mouth.

Still a long way to go, though.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Three Books Read

Though technically retired, former U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Gil Shannon finds he's still on the payroll of the U.S. government, which still has enemies that need to be dealt with from a long distance away, without anyone knowing, and permanently.

In his third outing, Gil finds he's been betrayed by someone in the secret corridors of the powerful, and now he's in someone else's crosshairs. Only by teaming with some Russian special forces soldiers who have no great reason to care whether he lives or dies can he find out who's on his trail, how to stop the enemy before the enemy stops him, and how to stop the terrorists who've got a plot several layers deeper than Shannon initially knows.

McEwen co-wrote the Chris Kyle biography American Sniper, and uses some real-world scenarios as the framework for Shannon's mission and exploits here. He takes Shannon into full he-man mode in Wolf, removing the inconvenient domestic life that might have kept him from chasing new targets and new dangers every few months. McEwen and co-author Thomas Koloniar craft great action and combat scenes and a good yarn to set them in, but Shannon himself is losing dimension as the series progresses rather than gaining it. Gil Shannon is indeed a badass hero, but he's on his way to being much more of a "cipher elite" than the "sniper elite" of the series title, blending in to the world of beach-read tough guys instead of standing out as his own man with distinctive flavor and characteristics.
Clive Cussler usually limits the world-saving to Dirk Pitt, his carbon copy Kurt Austin and Corporation head Juan Cabrillo. Isaac Bell and Sam and Remi Fargo seem to work on smaller scales most of the time, which is probably to their benefit.

Russell Blake follows up on his initial outing as Cussler's co-author with The Solomon Curse, a yarn that find our favorite anthropologist/archaeologist/multi-millionaire adventurer couple assisting a friend diving on a possible new find at Guadalcanal. The area is rumored by native villagers to be cursed, and just enough bad things happen that the Fargos and their friend lose all local help. But as they conduct their own dives and learn more about the potential discoveries of the site they're exploring, they realize they may uncover long-buried historical secrets -- that not everyone wants found, or at least not found by the Fargos. Civil unrest on the islands makes their situation a little more hazardous, and allows their enemies excellent cover should the interloping Americans suddenly disappear.

Blake builds on his decent first outing, He sketches the turbulent political background of the Solomons quite well and uses it equally well to backlight his story and add danger for Sam and Remi. He tones down the couple's banter to more acceptable levels -- banter is good when well-done, but Blake is not yet the one to push those boundaries -- and makes several of the native characters more than just the  equivalent of indigenous extras in a Tarzan movie. His main story about the treasure hunt and learning the possible secrets behind both its discovery and later attempts to hide it moves well, but the medical subplot stuffed into the corners makes little sense except as someplace to hide a villain.

But he is improving, so there's no reason to let the Fargo series sail on its own way just yet.
Gene Roddenberry's different Star Trek series featured at least one character who sharpened the show's frequent pondering of the question, "What does it mean to be human?" In the original series, Leonard Nimoy's half-alien Spock was often the focal point of that kind of narrative, and in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the android Data took the role. This situation placed him at the center of many of the series' storylines, which was unfortunate because next to blunderkind Wesley Crusher, Data was the most annoying character on the show. The only positive development of the awful Star Trek: Nemesis movie was his death.

The different Trek novels, though, proved that in space no one can keep you dead, to riff off another franchise's tagline, and so a 2012 novel brought him back and allowed him to try to also resurrect his constructed daughter Lal. Data no longer serves with Starfleet, but instead tries to keep himself hidden so he can continue to explore his humanity and raise Lal. In The Light Fantastic, his secret is discovered by the hologram of Dr. James Moriarty, who had been tucked safely away inside a memory module since TNG's sixth season episode "Ship in a Bottle." Unfortunately, the destruction of the Enterprise-D in Star Trek Generations wiped out part of the memory cube and erased the daughters he and the Countess had, and he is now desperate to escape the data-storage reality for real reality so they can make real lives for themselves -- including, apparently, real children. Being as he is a villain, Moriarty has managed with tricks of technology and plot contrivance to kidnap Lal until Data provides him and his computer-generated paramour Countess Regina Bartholomew with real bodies.

Got all that? And we haven't even mentioned the appearance of original series character Harry Mudd and references to at least one other episode, as well as some one-and-done characters from TNG. The overwhelming level of continuity familiarity required is one of Light's major problems, although it brought several friends. Also troubling is that Lal's development presumes the adolescent illogic, tantrum-throwing and immaturity of 21st century suburban American youth to be a universal pattern. All of that continuity isn't put to any actual use beyond name-checking almost every artificial life-form Star Trek episode of note. And all of Lang's sympathetic descriptions of Moriarty and of his noble character overlook the fact that his original creator wrote him as an evil person. Sure, he's fictional, but he stepped onstage as a villain and not a Charming Misunderstood Anti-hero Awaiting the Right Circumstances to Show His Innate Nobility.

Light is a great example of a Trek novel written not simply as fan service, but as deep-weeds high-learning-curve meandering in the minutia in order to try to gin up some kind of point about something -- in this case, the precarious status of artificial life forms in the Federation universe -- and connect it to something in the real world. Though made and not born, they have been invested by the narrative with real feelings and dreams (and so are pretty much like every other character in every fictional narrative) and so they stand nobly awaiting the recognition of their agency and right to exist by their makers. We readers are meant to understand how important it is that we accept People We Don't Understand as well, in spite of how different they are.

But TNG had a whole series run to toss this question around with the character of Data, and it did so now and again despite his regularly exceeding the maximum allowed level of dilithium-powered annoyance. Lang's conglomeration of a bunch of the series' other artificial life forms adds nothing to that discussion, and it does so very confusingly. There isn't really a lot of light in this story at all, nor is it fantastic so much as it's, "Huh?" "Wha?" and "Meh."

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Targeted Recall

There's a problem with a particular style of air bag that has apparently brought about a lot of automobile recalls. Many companies sent out the notices to thousands or even millions of owners.

Rolls-Royce sent out one. I kind of have to wonder if at that point it just makes more sense to pick up the phone and call.

(H/T Dustbury)

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Slice of Quantum

Pi or "π" is commonly found in geometry and math. It's the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter and it can't be expressed exactly as a fraction or a decimal: No fractional expression is correct and the decimal neither ends nor repeats.

But π can be expressed using a mathematical formula, first written by English mathematician John Wallis in 1655. It's an infinite string of integers derived from a calculus equation. Wallis was on pretty shaky ground when he developed it, because the actual calculus it uses was still about 30 years in the future from him. But his formula bore out, and was later shown to be a corollary of a formula for the sine function developed by Leonhard Euler.

And now π has shown up in, of all places, quantum mechanics. A physicist at the University of Rochester had his students figure out the energy states for the energy states of hydrogen atoms. Adding energy to the atoms changes their energy states, but it doesn't happen in a smooth ascending curve. There are only certain levels of energy the atoms can have, and they jump from one to another the way a car shifts from one gear to another. The physicist, Carl Hagen, wanted his students to use a different method than the most common one in order to learn some different things.

Tamar Friedman, a visiting assistant professor, worked with Hagen on the project and they discovered that the different formula they used created reduced to the Wallis formula. In other words, the mathematical relationship between the different energy states of a hydrogen atom involved good ol' π.  And, as another professor commenting on the work noticed, almost nothing involved in learning this connection required modern machinery, computers or testing. It could have been found some time ago and proven just as easily.

It's certainly a neat connection between the quantum world and classical scientific disciplines, whether it ever takes researchers anywhere or not. And makes one wonder what other little hidden linkages lurk behind the next classroom experiment.

Friday, November 13, 2015

I See a Red Door

The competition to create the darkest black substance possible is not merely an exercise in marketing to fans of The Cure. A black or very dark surface looks that way because it reflects the least amount of light possible. Surfaces which absorb high percentages of light are more sensitive to light, and that means they can see and distinguish otherwise very faint light sources.

Telescopes love that.

So NASA is a place that is always very interested in advancements in light absorption. Some of the latest, according to this Physics World item by Jon Cartwright, involve the use of "carbon nanotubes," or carbon molecules arranged in a cylinder. The diameter of the cylinders can be as small as a fraction of a nanometer -- and for comparison, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. The "forest" of collected nanotubes reflected almost none of the light that struck it, absorbing 99.5 percent of all the light rays that reached its surface.

Fine-tuning the density of the nanotube forest can increase light absorption. A group at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute produced a coating that absorbed 99.955 percent of light rays, and the substance "vantablack," noted in an entry in this space here, absorbs 99.965 percent of all light that reaches it.

The problem with many of the nanotube coatings, of course, is that they can't survive temperature and pressure extremes that may be associated with space telescopes or solar panels or other potential uses. In other words, while it's a black that looks great on the shelf, it's not one you could wear anywhere.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


Jackie Robinson's appearance in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform in 1947 brought about the end of a lot of things, but not all of them had been ugly.

The segregation that had kept some of the nation's best ballplayers off the national major league stage was ugly. Some of the great Negro League baseball teams and the communities they built were perhaps less so. Either way, the altruism of the major league owners and managers willing to break the color barrier ended in large part when it came to compensating Negro League owners like they might other teams. The top players left and the fans' attention turned towards people who looked like them but who now wore the uniforms and played in the green cathedrals of the best of the best. The leagues and teams they left behind, about on a par overall with the top AAA clubs of the nation, couldn't sustain that as a business model and folded.

In some places, though, regional groups of ethnic-dominated teams either continued or rose up. The ESPN website has a great photo essay on the Community AllStar Baseball League, 12 teams of mostly African-Americans that play in South Carolina. As the old Negro Leagues teams folded, players who were either past their prime or who had never been quite good enough to make the major leagues, no matter how much better they were than everyone else, began organizing small-team tournaments in different regions. A little more organization brought about leagues, such as the Community AllStar.

Baseball needed to be integrated (as did the rest of the society and nation), and it probably had to be done by one strong and principled owner basically kicking the wall down with the aid of at least one strong and principled player. But if it could have been done with more of a plan and more of a vision of baseball's role in African-American communities, then there might be a whole lot more Community AllStar leagues around the country, and it's hard to see that as a bad thing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Grown-Up Found?

I posted an update to Tuesday's item about the communications professor at the University of Missouri who tried to bully a student reporter away from coverage of protests at that school. The professor, Dr. Melissa Click, has since issued both a public statement of apology and personally called the student reporter she confronted and apologized to him. Good for her, and it is well past time for some of the other adults seen in similar videos also bullying student newspeople to do the same. This note is also at the top of Tuesday's item.

Next Editions

Joe Pickett's friend Nate Romanowski has a checkered past and in the eyes of most of the federal law enforcement people he meets, he ought to be behind bars. But recent events mean Nate has a pardon -- from the government at least -- and he's headed back to the Wyoming county Joe patrols as a state game warden.

But Joe has problems of his own. His foster daughter April ran off with rodeo cowboy Dallas Cates and now Cates is back but April isn't. The Cates family is close-mouthed to say the least and they don't get any more communicative when April is found along a roadside, beaten into a coma and near death. The least Joe wants to settle for is for Dallas falling down some stairs after being arrested, but there's no evidence and he's having little luck finding any. Nate will be little help, as someone close to him has gone missing and he needs to know not only where she is, but whether or not her disappearance means he needs to be on the run again.

And there's a side plot involving sage grouse.

Endangered is the 15th Joe Pickett novel from C.J. Box, and he is fully comfortable with his descriptions of the rugged Wyoming countryside and its residents. The Cates family bears more than a little resemblance to the Bennett clan of Justified season 2, but insular backwoods families aren't uncommon in thrillers. There's probably one or two many coincidences between Box's different plotlines, but since we have a book in front of us it's not like we're unaware we're following a made-up story. He skips some of the more improbable Nate-centered stuff from Force of Nature, too, which is a wise choice.

Box is in a sweet spot of his series in that he's found a good groove that hasn't yet become a rut. By allowing the family concerns Joe faces to move along as he and his wife and daughters age, he can change the scenery enough to make the mysteries and problems Joe faces stay interesting over time.
 One of the knocks on the practice of "profiling" terrorists is that eventually it won't work, as the terrorist organizations find recruits who don't fit the profile -- and may even look more like the people down the block than the fanatical faces on the evening news.

Brad Taylor gives a group of such sleeper agents the name "The Lost Boys" because of the history he creates for them and lets the extralegal Task Force gain a hint of them and their plans. Pike Logan and his team have to track their few known leads to even get on the Lost Boys' trail, let alone try to catch up or know where it will end up. And once on that trail, the one thing they do find is that time is not their friend in The Insider Threat.

Former Special Forces soldier Taylor has given his Pike Logan series a healthy dose of realism when it comes to combat and the stress it brings, especially when the combatants face each other from the shadows of espionage operations and not across an open battlefield. He continues to do that in this latest story, showing Pike and his team members often on the frayed edge of stress overload fighting both enemies and the clock. Threat is more scattershot than some earlier books in the series, with what seems like a wrinkle too many and a couple of unneeded cast members to follow and mine for motives and information.

The action scenes still pop, though, and the tension the characters face feels real even if Taylor's prose style is still pretty meat-and-potatoes and he's still on the learning curve of figuring out how to show his readers things instead of telling them. Pike and his team-mate Jennifer are continuing to develop in their own character arcs and two newer cast-mates, the Mossad agents Aaron and Shoshana, are given more screen time to find their own best fit in the narrative. The Pike Logan series remains an important and enjoyable for the espionage thriller fan.
Victor the assassin has survived because he gives free rein to two qualities most people try to moderate: paranoia and ruthlessness. Whether someone is really after him or not, it won't matter if they're rendered unable to do anything about it, so Victor is generally pretty quick to go about rendering in haste and repenting at leisure, if at all.

Unfortunately, in The Darkest Day, the threat develops before Victor can be aware of it and he barely scrapes out of a trap laid by Raven, another assassin as cunning and ruthless as he is. In order to neutralize this latest threat, Victor must think like his opponent to find the trail -- which may be a tougher job than he realized, because Raven is a woman.

Over the course of four previous works with Victor, Tom Wood has tried to vary his formula enough to keep readers interested in a paranoid sociopath who mission in life is to end the lives of others for money, and he's generally been successful. Victor has just enough tattered remnants of a moral code to offer a reader a foothold in his narrative, and when he's paired with a sympathetic character that narrative amounts to more than a plain, "Will Victor kill his enemies before his enemies kill Victor?" Wood has hit enough success with the series that the answer to that is an obvious, "Yes," so why would you read that story? 

Day relies heavily on a long chase through blacked-out Manhattan as Victor reluctantly partners with Raven to get out of a trap set for both of them -- her employers are ready to remove her from the board too, as she has outlived her usefulness to them. It's more than a little repetitive and could lose an episode here and there, and the "sympathetic character" role doesn't much fit the story's other ruthless assassin, Raven. Wood also seems to be trying a little too hard to restore the "anti-" part of Victor's role as anti-hero and thus Day offers some off-putting moments and a post-ending coda that just feels mean. It's the weakest of the series, but Wood has a good track record and subsequent volumes may have better story choices than this one does.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Lesson Learned

(Wednesday update: As many outlets have noted, Dr. Click has resigned the courtesy appointment and issued both a public apology and a personal one to the reporter she confronted. Good for her. Some of the other adults seen in similar videos badgering and bullying student newspeople have yet to follow her lead.)

The young Friar, as he thought about colleges, included the University of Missouri. He was from Missouri and actually had a cousin who graduated from the journalism program he considered applying to. But out-of-state tuition with relatively small prospects of sufficient financial aid put it off his list.

Which is a good thing, because now he doesn't have to return his diploma to a journalism/communications school that hires people who don't have a single stinking idea about what their discipline is supposed to represent. My apologies for the link to the overwrought and link-farmish Daily Caller, but there weren't many stories of any kind highlighting Dr. Click's boorish behavior, and the DC link was the least overheated of what I saw. Here's a link to The Daily Mail's story about the incident, which is a little better. (America's paper of record now has an item about the incident as well).

If you don't want to click on their page, the short version of the story is that during the protests staged by Mizzou students against their president, assistant professor of mass media Dr. Melissa Click obstructed a student journalist trying to cover the event and called for "muscle" to "help me get this reporter out of here." Which was a change from Saturday, when she apparently asked for media coverage of the protests.

You may think what you want about the protests, about the words and actions of former University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe and about how students perceived them. I might suggest you chuckle at the irony of Wolfe only feeling real pressure once African-American football players said they would not suit up, practice or play, or at how academic folks who didn't like him but have always hated collegiate sports had to grit their teeth and smile along. But that's as far as I go in suggesting what you think of the overall series of events.

In consideration of the incident in the video, though? Well, we've got a teacher calling for "muscle" to bully a student. A student who was covering an event on public property at a public university. A university renowned for its journalism program. An event designed to garner publicity for a cause. It's pathetic.

Some have called for Dr. Click to be fired, but I disagree with the idea she should be booted off the Mizzou campus. She quite obviously belongs in school, but among those in front of the lectern rather than behind it.

(ETA: The faculty of the actual school of journalism at Missouri, where Dr. Click holds a courtesy appointment outside her position in the communications school, is conducting an e-mail vote about whether or not that courtesy shall be withdrawn. I might not have had to send that diploma back after all.)

Monday, November 9, 2015

Plutonian Volcanoes

As New Horizons sets its course for the distant Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 (it'll get there on January 1, 2019), scientists are still learning one new thing after another about its encounter with Pluto.

Including that Pluto may be like Neptune's moon Triton in having volcanic mountains that occasionally erupt not with magma, but with ice. The two mountains near its south pole haven't been confirmed as "cryovolcanoes," but data available so far show a lot of similarities.

Cryovolcanoes happen when icy slush boils out of a mountain on a planet with a solid icy surface. Triton is regularly affected by Neptune's gravity, producing enough internal friction to create heat that makes the ice nearer the planet's core behave more like magma than like solid rock. As the surface shifts around the slush flows beneath it and sometimes bursts through at thin points near raised peaks.

Pluto lacks such a large nearby gravity source (Neptune its closest neighbor but is usually several million miles too far away to stress it that much), so if the two mountains are cryovolcanoes, the candidate list for the source of the heat is now being explored. The likely candidate is radioactivity in its core, as the elements from which Pluto was formed decay and emit heat in doing so.

It'll be interesting to see what other surprises our far-wandering friend produces as more and more New Horizons data is transmitted and studied.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Value of Social Media

Former Genesis drummer and solo artist Phil Collins has considered himself more or less retired from the music business, but recently remarked that he may re-think that status.

In response, people who don't like Mr. Collins' music started a petition to prevent his unretiring. As of this writing, almost 4,000 people have signed it. Now, I don't think any of the people who signed the online petition are actually dumb enough to believe the United Nations -- its designated recipient -- can do anything to prevent Mr. Collins from recording and releasing new music or deciding to perform concerts. Although you never know about people who think online petitions matter in the slightest.

And while it's really sad that there are several thousand people unashamed to let the world know just how tacky they can be, it's not as though we're in danger of running out of tacky people any time soon. Some of the ones on the list might even have reproduced already.

This incident actually has a significant bright side, which is exposing how little value petitions have -- and saying no small thing about how little value social media has in producing real change in the world. The people who created this particular petition just wanted to make a mean little joke about a musician they think has had his day and from their point of view was not all that great when he was having it.

Real petitions are used to bring measures to public ballots or recall elected officials. Online petitions matter so little that one trying to censor a pop musician sits on the page next to one from Pakistan teen Malala Yousafzi asking a global education foundation to fund school for girls in impoverished countries that don't make female education much of a priority. And in case her name has slipped the brief attention spans of the online community, Ms. Yousafzi has had skin in the game of educating girls in cultures where that activity is looked down upon or outright opposed. The million-plus signatures on her petition reflect approval of her work and an awareness that she is invested in it.

Someone who circulated a physical petition, knocked on doors or gathered names at a Wal-Mart to get Phil Collins to stay retired would face questions like, "What's your problem? Don't you have enough to do? Why don't you try to do some good in the world?" Get asked that kind of thing enough and embarrassment can reach levels sufficient to clue in almost anyone not named Trump so they get the point and start doing something useful. But thanks to "the world's platform for change," a couple of clicks and some typing allow the same mean, tacky idea to help bring together a bunch of mean, tacky snickerers and face nary a query. This is definitely an instance in which a petitioner is more than free to keep his change.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Rocket Science Illustrated

This picture details all of the things that went inside the Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon. It's a pretty complicated piece of equipment, I think you'll agree.

From the Rental Vault: Carve Her Name With Pride (1958)

Actors given the chance to portray a monumental character or national hero are sometimes ambivalent about the role. It could typecast them so much their careers are essentially over. It could backfire if the movie stinks, whether or not their performances actually contributed to the stinkage or not.

But sometimes the role, its risks and its rewards are welcomed with gratitude, as British actress Virginia McKenna welcomed her 1958 casting as Violette Szabo in the British movie Carve Her Name With Pride. Szabo married a French soldier near the beginning of World War II but became a widow and mother in short order. Her bilingualism brings her to the attention of British military intelligence officers, who recruit her to serve behind enemy lines in France. Only her devotion to her late husband and belief her country needs her make her willing to risk capture and possible death to team up with French resistance fighters and spy out German troop movements.

McKenna is one of British cinema's best-known and best-loved performers, earning the 1956 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for her role in A Town Like Alice and a nomination for the same award for her Szabo portrayal. She would later earn an Olivier Award in 1979 while starring opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I and gain her greatest recognition for playing naturalist Joy Adamson in 1966's Born Free. She carries most of the movie, as male lead Paul Scofield's Tony Fraser and other cast members all play off her lead.

McKenna vividly highlights Szabo as an ordinary woman who felt she must answer when duty called, in spite of her responsibilities as the single parent of a young daughter. Even though Name takes some liberties with history, it tries to stay faithful to Szabo's story in honoring her service. That makes some scenes a little leaden, as reality is rarely much like a movie, but Carve Her Name With Pride is a fine tribute to a courageous woman, very well acted by the whole cast and especially McKenna.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Some Writing, Some Typing

At almost 800 pages, Hell's Foundations Quiver is the longest of David Weber's eight "Safehold" books. You could make a good argument, too, that it does the least to move the story of Safehold forward of any of those eight.

We begin with the forces of the Charisian Empire solidifying their control over the nation of Siddarmark and preparing to face the immense armies of the Church of God Awaiting marshaled by the nation of Harchong. We end with most of that mopping up finished and the forces of the Charisian Empire preparing to face the immense armies of the Church of God Awaiting marshaled by the nation of Harchong.

In between, Weber tests our patience harder than a doughnut tempts a desert hermit by doing almost nothing to advance the main storyline of attempts to wrest control of Safehold from the Church so technology can be rebuilt enough to fight and defeat the genocidal Gbaba race that has almost wiped out humanity. He tests it with multiple-paragraph diversions like one that explains why a ship attacked by two of our heroes has a poop deck for grappling hooks to catch on.

Or long conversations that inform characters about events we readers have just witnessed happen. Or third and fourth and fifth run-throughs of chief villain "Zhaspar Clyntahn" causing more concern and worry to those around him when he is menacingly quiet instead of exploding with volcanic rage as he usually does. Or used to, anyway.

Or repeated reminders that Safeholdian years are not Old Earth years. Or the ridiculous variant spellings of proper names that are used according to no logic whatsoever to try to demonstrate language drift. "Cayleb Ahrmahk" and the like are bad enough, but since the Harchongese have mostly Mandarin-derived names they achieve a whole new level of narrative killing. Every other word Safeholdians use, which we would presume would also show the language drift, is plain ol' English, as are almost every proper noun that's not a person's name -- "Green Valley" doesn't become "Grayn Vahlay," for example.

The frustration level hits such a high mark because Weber is a top storyteller with a great tale to offer who still has some great scenes and character development gems buried in the landfill of undisciplined prose that clogs the rest of the book. The Safehold books can be better. They have been better. So it's tough to figure out why it's going to be very hard for one of them to be worse than this one is.
Back in 2005, Julie Kenner started a fun little series that imagined what it might be like if a woman who was definitely not an infringement on the copyrighted character Buffy the Vampire Slayer but who did the same sort of thing retired to life as a suburban mom but found her thirtysomething self called back into the hunting lifestyle. Carpe Demon established Kate Connor as a woman fully committed to home and hearth -- until an old man from the pet food aisle at Wal-Mart stalks her to her home and tries to kill her.

He was, of course, a demon and his attack signals that Kate's years of peaceful domesticity have come to an end. The wry and witty series ran at a book a year until stopping at 2009's Demon Ex Machina. There were any number of possibilities. Buffy ended in 2003 and as she faded from public consciousness pastiches based upon her lost their sales power as well. Kenner had also written up a very tangled web of major and minor plotlines involving Kate, her daughter from her first marriage Allie (and Allie's late father), her second husband Stuart, her old mentor, the Vatican-based corps of Demon Hunters to which she had belonged, and so on. It didn't really mesh well with the comic tone that had elevated both Buffy and Kenner's own series. And Kenner was writing several other series as well, some of which hit sweeter spots in the zeitgeist and probably seemed like better investments of time to both her and her publisher.

So Kate's story went on hold until 2014's Pax Demonica, in which Kate and her family travel to Rome to meet with the leaders of the forces fighting evil and learn what they could about all of the recent problems that seem to have coalesced around them. Kenner still has her gift for wry observations and gives Buffy creator Joss Whedon a run for his money in the quippy dialogue department. She's sketched her characters more than painted them, but they are well-formed and realistic sketches of people placed in very unusual circumstances -- you could see people acting like this (if they learned that demonic beings would sometimes inhabit the recently dead in order to use their bodies to do evil things, that is).

But the story is pretty thin, feeling padded in several places. That it seems to set up a new conflict for Kate to handle while not really resolving some previous threads doesn't make a reader feel particularly forgiving about second and third and fourth visits to some scenarios and situations. If there are indeed chapters yet untold in Kate's story some of them probably should have been in Pax Demonica in place of some of what's there; it does not at all feel like a book that had five years to cook.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Secret Knowledge

The "Roots of Unity" blog at Scientific American has a post on ten secret trigonometric functions that your math teacher never taught you.

It's interesting, even given that if you judge by my grades, there were some not-so-secret trig functions I never picked up either. Blogger Evelyn Lamb points out that the ten less-common trig functions are various combinations of the basic sine and cosine. While they might be more curiosity than calculation for us today, they served important roles in doing math prior to the invention of good calculators. Logarithmic tables and slide rules used to do the same things -- actually, I guess they would still do the same things, if people used them.

Maybe the best use for the ten "secret" functions today would be as the hook to hang a suspense novel on. By using one of them -- the excosecant, for example, because it sounds cool -- our hero can decode some ancient mystery and prove that Moses looked nothing like Charlton Heston, a secret that the Vatican's clandestine assassination squads will kill to keep. They use poisoned needles in their pectoral crosses, garrotes made from their clerical collars and explosive rosary beads to dispatch their victims.

I bet Dan Brown is working on that book right now.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Shades of Data Processing

One of the things for which Apple's late co-founder Steve Jobs is given credit is the idea of designing the outside of the computer as much as the inside. During an era of endless beige boxes, he came up with the idea of translucent colored plastic and launched a thousand and one hipsters. The original iMac led to an entire new concept of computer design that influenced not only desktop machines but laptops and other equipment as well.

I once heard someone say they understood him to have been influenced by the contrast between the design of the Borg spaceships on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the starships piloted by humans and other races. The utilitarian Borg drones flew in gigantic cubes -- after all, there is no air resistance in space so who cares what shape a ship has? But the Federation and even most of its enemies flew in ships that featured sleek design elements and evidence of an obvious aesthetic dimension.

I've never seen anything in print that backs up the idea Jobs really was influenced by the Trek designs, but even if not it's a great illustration of the mindset of people who bought Apple products: How their computer looked mattered as much to them as did how well it worked.

However, as this group of images of computers from the late 1970s and early 1980s shows, the idea of colorful design didn't necessarily originate in Cupertino. Sure, the cabinets are uniformly rectangular (and huge!), but several of them have colored panels or accents. And according to the blog entry, this kind of design was pretty common up through the end of the decade, which means that at one point in time, the endless cloned beige boxes were themselves an innovation. So maybe it will all come around again, as it often does in clothing fashion as well.

But not the three-piece corduroy suit. That's got to stay buried.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Bloomin' Desert

Most of the time, the major sights from Chile's Atacama Desert come from the many observatories based there. It's height, remote location and clear dry air make excellent conditions for astronomers and telescopes. There's not much else there; it is a desert after all.

But every few years, there's enough rain for something like this to happen:

More photos can be found here.

Two Alvins, Two Albums and No $%&*@ Chipmunks

Brothers Dave and Phil Alvin are sometimes credited with creating the modern genre of Americana music, but they would probably say they weren't creating anything, just keeping great music alive when the fickle and superficial attention span of chart success turned itself elsewhere.

The brothers first gained attention and success by fronting the Blasters, easily one of the top roots-rock bands of any time and certainly front and center during their own late 1970s-early 1980s heyday. Dave left the Blasters in 1986 while brother Phil kept the band going, and their personal differences aired out now and again with some minor public bickering. Phil's health scare in 2013 apparently covered enough of the breach for them to record together again, and they released Common Ground -- an album of Big Bill Broonzy cover songs -- in 2014. As they explained, while they might have fought about a lot of things, they didn't fight about Big Bill Broonzy.

Broonzy was a blues and folk singer-songwriter less well-known than pioneer rockers like Chuck Berry or blues superstars like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. But his many blues and folk songs generally reflect more deeply than his better-known peers on some of the same subjects. The Alvins use their best tools to create faithful updates of a dozen Broonzy nunbers. Phil with his voice and Dave with his guitar both perform and transform the originals while remaining faithful to Broonzy's own sound. Dave sings as well, but doesn't try to put his lower register to use in places it doesn't need to be -- and the duets add a dimension that the old Blasters records never had. The pairing is most effective on the opener "All By Myself" and on "Stuff They Call Money," while Dave's lead vocals on songs like "Southern Flood Blues" capture the folkier dimension of Broonzy's songs

Both in a personal sense for people who were fans of the Blasters and who liked it better when the brothers got along, and in the artistic sense where their complimentary gifts added up to even more than the considerable sum of their parts, Common Ground was a welcome new chapter of American music.
The success of Common Ground led Dave and Phil to try their luck again, only this time picking from several catalogs instead of just one. Their love for Joe Turner shows up as three of his numbers make the cut for 2105's Lost Time, but others range from Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey to James Brown.

These adaptations are in some ways even looser than those from the earlier album, although once again the Alvins' love for their source material shines through. "Rattlesnakin' Daddy" draws from both earlier sources, folk blues singer Blind Boy Fuller and country crooner Hawkshaw Hawkins, and then spins the results in with Dave's vocal strut to make an immensely fun leer-and-a-wink brag.

Lost Time opens with "Mr. Kicks," from Oscar Brown, Jr.'s unstaged musical Kicks and Co. The Alvins' version of the story of "Satan's sinning servant" who lures people to destruction with a hollow promise of fun and excitement marries Chicago blues to Broadway lyrics for a caustic story of temptation. Phil's plaintive vocals on "Please Please Please" invest the number with as much energy as James Brown ever gave it even if their vocals aren't at all alike.

And again, the brothers select excellent songs for their duets, like the folky hand clapper "Papa's on the House Top" and the gospel singalong "If You See My Savior." Age seems to have taught them how to better blend their singing, so that Phil's energy and volume don't blow Dave's laconic baritone away as they might have during the Blasters days. A reviewer at Allmusic says that if the Alvins want to keep releasing annual batches of these awesome covers until the sun sets on them that will be just fine with him, and it's very hard to disagree.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Untold Stories

James A. Riley supplements his work on the monumental 1994 Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues with various magazine articles and with full-length biographies of two of black baseball's top stars; one who played exclusively in the segregated era and another who benefited from integration in the late 1940s and '50s.

It seems like it will forever be Buck Leonard's fate to be known in terms of someone else. While playing for the Homestead Grays between 1934 and 1950, Leonard was called "the black Lou Gehrig" to pair with Josh Gibson, "the black Babe Ruth." Gibson and Leonard batted third and fourth for the Grays for many years and formed a very dangerous heart of the order for opposing pitchers. Nowadays, Leonard might be more likely to be thought of as "the other Buck," to avoid confusion with the Kansas City Monarchs' Buck O'Neil, one of the best-known ambassadors of the Negro Leagues during the 1990s and 2000s.

But Leonard was his own man, working from age 13 on to help support his widowed mother and five brothers and sisters before deciding to try to make a living playing baseball. He hooked on with the Grays in 1934 and began posting stellar batting averages; despite Gibson's deadly power few tried to pitch around him because Leonard would make them pay for the move. Leonard was offered a major-league contract in 1952 but figured that at age 45 he would not perform well enough to continue making the argument that African-American players deserved the same shot at baseball glory as everyone else.

Touches like that are some of the best parts of Riley's 1995 co-authored autobiography of Leonard, in which the author serves more as an interview transcriber than anything else. While Leonard is clear that many of the Negro League's best players could have excelled on any major league team and some of them, like Gibson or Satchel Paige, might have dominated, he has no illusions about the playing level of the leagues overall. Few Negro League teams would have regularly competed for titles if they had been transferred directly into the majors, Leonard said, because the mid-level Negro League players didn't match their journeymen American and National League counterparts.

The reality of segregation in the US during these years also meant, Leonard said, that most Negro League players did not spend a lot of their time wishing they could play in the majors. That's probably the most damning testimony to the evil of the practice -- some of the sport's greatest players simply accepted they'd never be given the chance to show themselves as such until they were too old for it to matter.

Leonard's hometown had not offered high school for African-Americans so his education had ended with the eighth grade. During his playing career, though, he had earned his GED and following his playing days worked for schools and founded a realty company. He was also an owner of the minor-league Rocky Mountain Leafs. Leonard died in 1997 at the age of 90. He had been elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972 along with his late teammate Gibson.
Twelve years younger than Leonard, Monte Irvin had been considered as one of Branch Rickey's candidates to break the color barrier established by unspoken agreement in baseball in the 1880s. But the skills he had demonstrated playing for the Newark Eagles during the late 1930s and 1940s had eroded during his wartime service, and Eagles co-owner Effa Manley wouldn't allow him to sign a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system unless her team was compensated.

By the time that Irvin felt he was ready for top-level competition again, Rickey had signed Jackie Robinson and Manley's threatened lawsuit pushed him to drop any work with Irvin. The New York Giants signed him instead, and he debuted in 1949. The next year, he was called up to a regular position with the Giants and played with them until 1955. Giants manager Leo Durocher assigned Irvin an unofficial role as mentor for the young Willie Mays, both on and off the field, and Mays frequently lays some of his success in baseball on Irvin's early help.

With Riley's help, Irvin describes these parts of his life in the 1996 Nice Guys Finish First and goes on to detail his work as a scout for the New York Mets in the late 1960s and as a public relations specialist for then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn in the 1970s. Kuhn's absence when Hank Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th home run in 1974 meant that Irvin was the one to present him with baseball's official recognition. Irvin was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973 and currently serves on its Veterans Committee.

Learning that Monte Irvin is a nice guy is no great revelation to anyone who followed his career. The book provides an interestingly different look at Jackie Robinson from the perspective of a competitor. The Dodgers-Giants rivalry carried a lot of energy and while Irivin's respect for Robinson's abilities as a player and pioneer clearly shows, it's also clear he wouldn't canonize his frequent opponent. And Irvin echoes Leonard's opinion that while the Negro Leagues had players who would easily rank with the best around, he thinks its brand of individual-heavy, team-light baseball would have a tough time competing. Negro League players benefited from time in the minors when major league teams signed them, but more for the experience playing in the major-league system and style than for any development of playing skills.

Irvin is 96 as this is written and is the oldest living member of the 1954 New York Giants World Series team, which finished out its regular season with a blistering September largely fueled by his hitting.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Ends and Odds

-- Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei wanted to buy a million Lego bricks to make something, and it's certain that it would have had political content. The company that makes Lego keeps itself out of political matters and chose not to sell them to him. Being the impish sort of protest artist that he is, Ai decided to ask people to donate the bricks to him for his artwork, but as this article at Foreign Times points out, he can still afford the bricks and could have bought them in bulk from somewhere else. And while I applaud pretty much anyone who puts a thumb in the eye of commie dictators, dogging on a company for wanting to keep their metaphorical nose out of politics is kind of cheap. So I bought a couple of Lego sets that I will donate to a local Christmas toy drive.

-- We often see how habitat reduction harms animal species by limiting where they can live and putting them in the path of human expansion. But for some species of wolves in the Eastern half of the US, habitat reduction has brought them to the place where they are mating with coyotes and larger domestic dogs to create a critter that hunts in both wolf and coyote habitats and has gained the muscle and jaw strength bred into domesticated large dogs -- so much that they can bring down small deer when hunting solo and a grown moose when in a pack. The jury is still out over whether or not it's a full-fledged new species or just a successful set of hybrids, but nobody seems to doubt increased human habitation and depletion of proper wolves with whom to mate brought it about.

-- A study at Loyola University suggests that people who believe themselves experts in a field are fairly close-minded towards new ideas. That's a problem, but another one is often a bigger headache: The number of people who become experts in a field who then think that makes them authorities in unrelated fields. That problem is why we have people asking celebrities about politics and politicians about how to save money.

-- 598 years ago yesterday, a German monk named Martin Luther did a spot of exterior decorating and kind of changed things.