Monday, February 29, 2016

Overflow Parking

If someone parks a car in front of your garage, making you unable to either enter or leave it, what can you do? Usually, nothing.

Unless you own a forklift.

I like that guy.

Sunday, February 28, 2016


My Facebook trending items widget is filled with items about the Academy Awards presentation tonight. Some of the items are essentially useless but are also the point of the proceedings -- such as the actual awards themselves, when we learn which entrant in a particular field had more votes than the others in a highly specialized opinion poll.

Some of the items are essentially and functionally useless, such as the endless list of what dress a particular actress or presenter is wearing.

The stream has served one useful purpose, though. It has confirmed that my decision to ignore the telecast was the right one, and so I now descend into a flurry of self-congratulation...Darnit, you won again, Oscar!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Family Business

Sometimes the children of a business founder grow up and take their role in the family firm. The name may then be changed to reflect the new generation's input: "Smith & Sons," "Smith & Daughter," "Smith Family Co." or something like that. Usually the "family" names tend to crop up when grandchildren hit the picture, as a way of shortening the potentially cumbersome length promised by the addition of new generations.

Had such a convention not existed, the Fujiwara running the Keiunkan Inn in central Japan's Yamanashi Prefecture would certainly have created it, since the current generation is the 52nd to run the hotel, founded by Fujiwara Mahito in 705 AD. The nearness of Mount Fuji and the area's hot springs have helped keep the hotel an attraction of its own instead of just a place to stay while visiting someplace else.

Keiunkan is certified by the Guinness book people as the world's oldest hotel. Sometime in the next few years, its guest registry is expected to surpass Mount Fuji as the tallest point in Japan. Rates start at about $300 a night in U.S. dollars. Feel free to mention my name; it's guaranteed to draw as blank a look there as anywhere else on the globe.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Missing the Target?

Writing at Bleacher Report, Mike Freeman offers statements from several National Football League team representatives that they won't again be "fooled" as they were when Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel interviewed during the 2014 NFL Combine.

Manziel had enormous upsides on the football field during his career with Texas A&M University, but he has since proven an off-field headache because of run-ins with law enforcement, bad behavior at bars and allegations of domestic violence. There had been hints of problematic behavior while Manziel was in College Station, but the NFL reps Freeman quotes say that his interviews and statements at the Combine allayed concerns. Now many of those people say they were fooled by Manziel, and have taken steps to reduce the risk of bringing on talented players with downsides that outweigh their virtues.

I think it's hard to say that any efforts will really make that much difference when a top-level performer comes a-dazzlin'. Some teams, as Freeman notes, will not care. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, for whatever reason, the Oakland Raiders acquired a reputation as a particularly rowdy bunch, and their organizational chart was said to include their own parole officer. It helped lend them an image, whether there was substance or not to the idea that the Raiders were any wilder than any other group of young men with fame and lots of money.

But others will at least want to care, if for no other reason than Roger Goodell might hit one of his stopped-clock moments and drop a significant and deserved hammer on some miscreant or another. And some -- maybe even most -- NFL offices are staffed by decent people who want to care because they prefer their product to come from decent people as well.

Even those people, though, will probably want to believe the best of a young man who says the problems of his past will remain there; he's not bringing any baggage to camp except a gym duffel. Who wouldn't? And many young people make mistakes that they don't make again, and experience functions as it ought by teaching them better ways of handling problems or conducting themselves. Many others want to change, even if the steps needed to do so prove beyond them.

Fame and notoriety are great enablers of misconduct. Just about every human being spends the first two years or so of his or her life being the center of the universe, with every need and whim met at the drop of a howl, and the remainder of that life learning that the opposite is true. Few of us master that concept, and the catering that comes with fame slows the process if it doesn't actually stop it. Athletes are vulnerable, of course, but so are teachers and my own profession of clergy (being the only one in the room who already knows the answers while everyone else in the room is required to listen attentively can help one find oneself self-exalted in the extreme).

I wonder if the best answer for teams that are worried about sending millions of dollars into the pockets of an on-field savior and off-field millstone is to try to spot the faker. Maybe it could be to try to teach him (or her) instead. That might be the harder road. It might even be impossible. But you'd hope it would be worth the try.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

On Walden Pond, Dude

In a perfect storm of early 21st century wackiness, a fellow is running a Kickstarter campaign to pay for a deluxe edition of Henry David Thoreau's Walden, only in updated language.

Matt Steel believes that folks will really groove on Thoreau's ideas and vision if they can only get past his 1854 language. Because Walden is in the public domain, he doesn't have to get anyone's permission to perform his update. Once the revision is complete, Steel plans to have it made available as a hardcover, printed on archival paper, in a cloth slipcase and foil-stamped cover.

Acculturated writer Stephanie Cohen asks an interesting economic question: Who's going to buy a fancy edition of a modern revision of a book they aren't reading now when it's free?

And although I'm not one of Thoreau's biggest fans, I would think that part of the pleasure of encountering his argument is the way he uses language to frame it. After all, we're not talking about pre-standardized spelling like Chaucer or the days of the thees, thous, eths and ests of William Shakespeare. Thoreau wrote in 1854. He could have offered plain brown wrapper prose if he'd wanted to. Part of the learning that comes from reading Walden is having to look up Thoreau's metaphors and allusions and translating them into modern terms for oneself. That's what sharpens the mind -- not having it done for me.

Oh well, I guess I could be wrong. Perhaps Mr. Steel will next tackle a famous work from some nine years after Walden. He might be able to get it down below 250 words.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Learning Lessons

My church will be giving scholarships to its graduating seniors this May. The checks won't be large, but they're a little bit more than a trip to Burger King. Our standard joke when receiving the applications is to say something like, "Well, at least it'll buy a textbook." The same joke about the same amount used to be made when I was the one filling out the applications, only then we said "textbooks." The problem of excessive textbook prices -- for books which might get used only in part -- is not new, nor is it getting better. Even the electronic and digital revolutions seem not to have been able to bring it down.

This item at Big Think notes how a phenomenon called "disruption" is sometimes required in order to fix broken systems or move them out of ruts they happen to be in. The disruption might create a new system, but it might also prompt an existing system to make needed changes.

A good historic example of a disruption is Martin Luther. Because of his protests against some pretty un-churchy activities, several new churches began, all distinct from the Roman Catholic church that dominated Western Europe. We call this the Reformation. But sometimes overlooked is the Roman Catholic response to Luther's criticisms. Church leadership found that even a heretic can be right twice a day and cleaned up several of the problems against which Luther had spoken in what's usually called the "Counter-Reformation." The German monk and his church door vandalism brought about many of the changes he said were needed, even though he himself found it necessary to move on from Rome's oversight.

As Robert Montenegro's article points out, Uber helped bring change to the taxi industry it sought to subvert. Once the cab companies didn't succeed in getting the ride-share operation run out of business, they wound up adopting some of its features in order to compete and stay viable.

Montenegro shows that this disruption has yet to reach the college textbook industry, to the dismay of student vertebrae and parental wallets everywhere. The Samuelson-Nordhaus Economics is in its 19th edition, published in 2009, weighs in at three and a half pounds and runs 744 pages. It's been revised, updated and reformatted, but it's the same book that's been used since 1948, and I would welcome examples of any other ways in which college in 2016 is the same as it was in 1948.

The problem, Montenegro says, is that while all of the information found in these topless towers of paper is readily available in free or less expensive versions elsewhere, it's not in a combined format. He says it will take someone preparing a great textbook, marketing it and getting it adopted by professors and thus used by students, for free. Once that happens, then it could be viewed on a subscription basis or even offered at no cost so students could access it. Traditional textbook publishers would have to adapt and that could bring their prices down and options up also.

But the burr under that saddle is the reality that textbook companies and other folks involved make a lot of money selling their wares, and have a lot of money invested in the current model. They're chary of kissing either sack of cash goodbye. While smaller schools and liberal arts colleges across the country are having trouble making ends meet, the major universities of our nation have learned one economic lesson well: How to turn your money into their money. And they seem unwilling to test other options anytime soon.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

From the Rental Vault: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

John Landis wrote the first draft of his An American Werewolf in London script in 1969, before he had accomplished much in the movie business. The story was thought to be too funny to make for a good horror movie but too scary for a real comedy, and Landis didn't have the pull to get it on the table.

Fast forward to 1981, after Landis has put together a couple of little movies called Animal House and The Blues Brothers. Suddenly Universal Studios has enough money on hand to help Landis film his "horror comedy" and do it with state-of-the-art production and effects.

David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are two American college students hiking in England. While crossing the North York Moors, they become lost and are attacked by an immense wolf. Jack is killed, and David hospitalized in a coma for three weeks. The police think a deranged killer attacked them, but David remembers a wolf instead. He develops a whirlwind relationship with a nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) and goes home with her when released from the hospital. Things seem OK until a ravaged and definitely dead Jack appears to him and warns him: They were attacked by a werewolf, and David will begin transforming with the full moon and continue the deadly cycle. David dismisses the warning as a hallucination. Until he can't any longer.

Landis demonstrates a good deal of wit in his script and dialogue, and Dunne's deadpan (sorry) performance as Jack's decaying friend helps nail down much of the humor. He also takes full advantage of the stereotypical British cheerfully unruffled demeanor -- David's London victims aren't noticeably perturbed by their undead state when they begin to haunt him too, although they do want him to kill himself and release them from their limbo.

Naughton hits a great groove as a man at sea in a different culture -- and then even more at sea when he learns of his lycanthropy. Agutter is sweet, strong and intriguing as Alex. Landis also took the effort to secure the rights to good soundtrack music, acquiring three versions of "Blue Moon" as well as "Bad Moon Rising" for certain scenes. And no few men of a certain age will forever associate Van Morrison's "Moondance" with the love scenes featuring the lovely Ms. Agutter, seen at the appropriate time in life to leave the maximum impression.

Rick Baker's transformation effects, with many techniques shown onscreen for the first time, earned the first-ever Academy Award for Best Make-Up. Werewolf had an OK reception on its release, but has shown itself to have long legs and is one of Landis' most popular movies.

Other aspects of its impact are less impressive, including the 1997 CGI-heavy and character-light sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris. And though Landis successfully mixed horror with comedy by not watering down the horror to get the laughter, dozens if not hundreds of movies exist today that lay claim to both of those genres but lack nine-tenths of Werewolf's wit. Werewolf has laughs in the middle of horror, most of these later movies try to earn their laughs from their horror. The former is edgy; the latter is a condition in the DSM-IV.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Write It Right

When I read this blog entry at Inside Higher Ed, in which professor John Warner describes the hoops he has to jump through to get his college students to forget what they learned about "essays" in high school, I have only one thought:

Thanks, Mr. Love, for assigning those two research papers junior year in American History. I'm pretty sure the only thing that helped me lift my undergraduate GPA from dismal to mediocre was the fact that I knew how to write a real essay with an argument, supporting evidence and a point.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Get Me a Ticket on an Airplane...

Here's a list of nine of the most isolated towns or villages in the whole world.

I'm currently trying to decide if I want to send Donald Trump to one of them, or maybe send all of his supporters, or move there myself.

Well, the reason I'm not sure which one to choose is that while the knee-jerk response is that the third one is an unbelievably mean thing to do, good arguments can be made that the first two are pretty rotten themselves.

Saturday, February 20, 2016


There's a few places in the United States where you can't pump your own gas. You are allowed complete and total control over a ton or more of metal and plastic, which you may direct at three-digit speeds in any direction you choose. Although such an opportunity may be limited by your swift encounter with law enforcement, you possess it, along with the ability to do the consequent amount of damage to yourself and other items or persons.

But you must not open your own gas tank, insert the hose and squeeze the lever, dispensing gasoline into that vehicle. Apparently some drivers are simply not smart enough to do this properly without the aid of the gas station attendant. Oregon has had such a law, although starting this year it holds that its nighttime rural travelers can marshal the mental capacity necessary for this task. Its urban population remains ignorant. And come to think of the kinds of laws the city of Portland passes, there may be something to that.

The good folk at Mental Floss take a look at New Jersey's regulations on this issue, and where they stem from, since the Garden State also prohibits self-serve gas stations. There's some irony in there: New Jersey favorite son Bruce Springsteen may be sprung from his cage on highway 9, but not until he lets the attendant fill his tank.

Anyway, New Jersey's rule dates back to 1949, with safety the stated rationale. As the article notes, the self-serve ban ensures the gas station owner has control over the gas dispensing process and increases public safety. Sounds nice, but some accounts at the time note that the law blocked gas station owners who wanted to offer self-service stations from doing so. And as those who remember the days when stations would offer both can tell you, self-service costs less. Which means that the owners opposed to self-service were able to get the New Jersey legislature to protect them from having to lower prices.

Somebody got serviced, alright.

Friday, February 19, 2016

A Telling Headline

My own thoughts, for what they are worth, about Go Set a Watchman, its provenance and merit, can be found here. The interesting thing to me is that when the national newspaper of record, the New York Times, published her obituary following her death Friday, the headline makes no reference to it, identifying Harper Lee as the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Period.

That strikes me as for the best, too.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Nobel Octet

Writing at Real Clear Science's Newton Blog, Tom Hartsfield suggests that had they been awarding Nobel prizes during the lifetime of Isaac Newton, the famous developer of the Laws of Motion could have pulled down eight of the beasties with his body of work.

Hartsfield suggests that the laws of motion, the law of universal gravitation, the orbital mechanics of celestial bodies, the law of universal heating and cooling, formulation of modern color theory, a particle theory of light and the development of the modern reflecting telescope would all have earned ol' Ike seven science Nobels. The eighth would have come in the area of economics, where Newton developed a standardized monetary system and fought counterfeiting as the head of the national mint from 1699 through his death in 1727.

You might make that eight and a half, because I'm pretty sure Newton and Gottfried Liebniz would share a prize for their parallel creation of calculus. But since they fought over who was first with that little brain cruncher, I don't know if "share" would be the right word.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Final Mix

A University of Iowa business management professor has developed an algorithm that offers some predictions about whether or not a movie will be a box-office success.

According to his formula, for example, the upcoming Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice has a one-third chance of striking box office gold. Those may not seem like good odds, but they're better than a lot of people have given it, so the studio may look favorably on Professor Kang Zhao.

Zhao's formula weighs things like the personnel involved in the movie, as well as whether or not some of them have worked together before and how well those collaborations turned out. Genre, time of year released and other data are also plugged in. The formula isn't exact, since it says that R-rated war movies are the least likely to cover their production costs. And the Screen Rant article points out that Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds was in fact an R-rated war movie that did quite well for itself.

But no algorithm is perfect, so Professor Zhao's formula can't be faulted for not knowing that Quentin Tarantino's formula of "Quip + blood + caricature + word eruption + blood" would have done so well. The next move may be for studios to try to make their formula for creating movies match Professor Zhao's formula for success. Once that happens, we can probably count on seeing the same movie over and over again, under different-sounding titles and with some variation in casts or settings.

Or maybe that's already happened.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Experts in Their Fields

George V. Higgins was an assistant U.S. Attorney in Boston in the early 1970s when he decided to try to put on paper the world of organized crime that he saw in his work. Using his ear for the way the mostly Irish small-time criminals he dealt with talked, Higgins wrote most of The Friends of Eddie Coyle in dialogue. Conversations between criminals, between cops and between cops and criminals make up the bulk of the novel, which was hailed by authors such as Elmore Leonard as one of the top crime novels ever written.

Coyle is a low-level gunrunner for an Irish mob who's been nabbed on a hijacking charge and faces the choice of prison or informing on other criminals. Out of fear and a sense of honor, Coyle resists the pressure to inform on the people he knows best, but takes advantage of a chance to squeal on some other crooks he's not directly connected to. But the federal agent working him isn't satsified and wants more.

Again, Higgins writes the novel largely through the conversations the characters have with each other. It takes a little to get into the rhythm of the style, but his ear for the dialogue is sharp enough that it doesn't take long before you can "hear" them talking and follow better. The surprise once you do is how banal the back-and-forth actually is. None of these guys is ever going to get listed in any top 100 collection of movie quotes.

But that's not really a problem, since as a prosecutor Higgins was familiar with just how unglamorous crime actually is when it's in real life and not onscreen. Friends offers a nice corrective to the semi-romanticized vision of organized crime offered by Mario Puzo and some others. That, plus Higgins' skill at developing his low-level lowlifes into real people, more than justifies the place The Friends of Eddie Coyle holds in crime fiction.
After winning a bet by getting his first novel Inherit the Stars published, James Hogan decided he kind of liked writing and figured he'd take another shot at it. Dissatisfied with the way faster-than-light (FTL) travel was often shown in science fiction novels, he decided he would try to build a story around the process by which an FTL drive was discovered, and extrapolate it from then-known scientific principles. The result was 1978's The Genesis Machine.

Bradley Clifford is a brilliant researcher who spends his day hours working for a government-directed research facility and his spare time researching the strange behavior of subatomic particles. But the political climate frowns on research without application -- specifically military application -- and his private hobby gets him on the bad side of his bosses. When he quits and joins a like-minded co-researcher at one of the last private research foundations around, he pursues his own research to fantastic implications. But that draws the attention of the same military and government officials he just left, and they pressure Clifford to use his work for their purposes. How will he maintain his principles while not sacrificing his friends and allies to government pressure?

A design engineer by trade, Hogan shows real skill at exploring and explaining the science that drives his story. The characterizations are rather flat, which makes the final twist he sets up a little artificial as well. The politics and the "villains" of the piece are barely more than caricatures at best and more often cartoonish than anything else. Although he had more than a handful of good science fiction novels left in him, Genesis finds him doing pretty well at the science but leaving a lot to be desired in the fiction.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Oh, That's How!

At Ask the Past, Harvard history prof Elizabeth Archibald has combed the archives of the great writings and learned what advice was given in 1530 to young men on how to behave at dances.

Antonius Arena is her source, and upon reading the paragraph it becomes clear why girls dance with each other at middle school soirees: Young men between the ages of 12 and 14 are guilty of every one of the sins he lists.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Wave on Wave

Bored Panda is running a contest collecting cool pictures of waves as they break onshore or curl just before doing so. Fast shutter speeds are your friend when you want to take pictures like this, and I believe some color correcting happened as well, but they're all pretty much amazing.

I picked the one above, by Dave Sanford, because as the comment below it points out, it calls to mind Neptune/Poseidon coming ashore from his watery realm.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Joy Immeasurable!

For yet a third time since this blog began, I am able to offer an item which centers on quark-gluon plasma. This primordial substance from the very beginnings of the universe has been officially recreated at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.

Some six years ago, I noted that an experiment revealed a material that might have been the world's most fun substance to type and/or say, but the recent experiments have confirmed it.

I am going to need a moment alone to compose myself; the possibility that there will now be more opportunities to type "quark-gluon plasma" have made me almost too emotional to type.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Run That By Me Again

You may remember that in 2014, the Little League Baseball team Jackie Robinson West, out of some pretty tough neighborhoods in Chicago, won the Little League World Series.

You may also remember that starting late in 2014 and going into 2015, allegations began to surface that JRW had used players who did not live in its designated areas and were thus ineligible. Eventually, Little League Baseball concluded that some of the JRW players should not have been on the team and stripped it of its title.

So now in 2016, we have the lawsuits. Specifically, we have a lawsuit from the parents of some of the JRW players against Little League Baseball, ESPN, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith and the guy who works for suburban Little Leagues who is supposed to have blown the whistle on the matter. The suit alleges that these people knew about the residency questions but did nothing and continued to use the JRW team and its great story to enrich themselves. The plaintiffs, who include the JRW coach, are asking for monetary damages and reinstatement of the 2014 title.

What's interesting to me in scanning the lawsuit (it's available at the bottom of the story on the DNAInfo site) is that there's no flat-out denial of the allegations -- unless I missed it. Which means that the people suing are essentially saying, "Well, even if we cheated you already knew about it and didn't stop it, so give us back our trophy and pay us some money."

It's going to take more than instant replay to help me figure this one out.

From the Rental Vault: Twinbill

Senior Inspector Lui Ming-chit (Andy Lau) walks a thin line with the Hong Kong Police Depar tment. His unit is responsible for investigating high-profile crimes and bringing in the perpetrators, but those same crimes are often pulled off by criminal masterminds who are ruthlessly effective at cleaning up loose ends. Though Lui is a man who by temperament and by oath desires to uphold the law, the increasing viciousness of the gang led by Cao Nam brings him closer and closer to lawlessness himself as he seeks to end their reign in 2013's Firestorm.

Hong Kong action star Lau has excelled at playing mostly quiet and fiercely determined characters through his career. They will kick some serious tail when necessary, but not before. At first glance Ming seems like the same kind of person, but the brutality he faces from Cao Nam's gang drives him to the breaking point. If the law can't protect the weak and defenseless, why should it become a shield behind which Cao Nam and his cronies hide? Another plotline has gang member and ex-con To Shing-bong (Gordon Lam) trying to use his connections for a "retirement score" and rekindle his life with girlfriend Law Yin-Bing (Yao Chen). But its driving force is Lau's exhaustion with To's lies and double-life, and the exhaustion barely flickers next to Lui's imminent explosion.

In a lot of ways, Firestorm carries its violence too far. In an attempt to show the weight of Lui's burden and the amoral viciousness of Cao Nam's gang, it takes its own steps over the line and seems to invest in violence for violence's sake, rather than as a narrative function. In its attempt to show a police officer losing his ability to see that it takes more than words on paper to make his actions right, Firestorm becomes a movie that can't see it takes more than putting violence on the head of a villain to make it tolerable.
James Wormold (Alec Guinness) has an unenviable job: Selling vacuum cleaners in pre-Castro Cuba (which is probably not as bad as selling vacuum cleaners during Castro's reign; there are degrees of unenviability). His daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) is enrolled in an exclusive and expensive school, and her needs are eating away at more and more of his finances.

Nevertheless, he's not eager to jump at the additional revenue stream offered by the shadowy intelligence man Hawthorne (Noel Coward), because it involves attempts to spy on the Cuban government -- and as a spy, Wormold makes an excellent vacuum cleaner salesman. But he agrees, and becomes Our Man in Havana in the 1959 adaptation of the 1958 Graham Greene novel. In order to keep the money flowing, Wormold convinces Hawthorne he is running a string of agents -- actually people he knows or just points to on the street. He sends in a sketch of a vacuum cleaner as stolen plans for a Cuban rocket. His importance confirmed in the halls of intelligence, Wormold is sent Beatrice Severn (Maureen O'Hara) as a covert secretary. Now he has to keep someone in the dark about his deception when she is around him every day, and he has the additional problem that enemy agents have intercepted messages sent back to him -- and they believe every word of them as well.

Audiences used to wise old Ben Kenobi may be surprised to watch Alec Guinness be shifty, deceptive and more than a little bit of a coward as Wormold. He keeps rationalizing his little scenario as harmless until he realizes that the real intelligence game is played by hard rules as well as for keeps, and by then its almost too late. O'Hara is winsome as the earnest but at first clueless secretary who begins to see a worthwhile man in the beaten-down Wormold. As a satire of how easily those claiming responsibility for a nation's intelligence networks can be fooled, Havana works quite well too.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Heavy Sounds

The confirmation of "gravity waves" recently announced by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) does a lot of cool things, even though many of them are really just opening the door for other cool things.

There are four basic forces in the universe: electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force and gravity. Scientists have long theorized that the four are actually connected in some way and under some conditions might even be of the same force. The condensing process has already started, as you can see with the first item on the list: Electricity and magnetism, though they may have different impacts and effects in the world, are manifestations of the same force. So far, gravity has resisted combination with the other three, but the discovery of gravity waves may offer progress towards creating a unified field theory.

Gravity waves also confirm Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, which predicted them when it was published in 1915. But years without any solid observed evidence or even hints made scientists wonder, and even Einstein himself questioned their existence. He almost published a paper refuting that part of the theory, but was persuaded he had been right the first time.

Now that gravity waves have been confirmed, better detectors will come soon and be able to use them to open many new areas of astronomic study. Knowing what to look for will allow many different kinds of measurements not possible for instruments using only electromagnetic and nuclear means of detection.

And the coolest thing of all is that one of the scientists who was in on the early development of the LIGO lived to see the concept prove successful -- computer scientist Heinz Billing was born the year before Einstein published his theory and now, at almost 102, he has seen confirmation of what had been sought ever since.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Some This and Some That

-- Asher Elbein at The Atlantic muses on why the company Superman built can't get a handle on Superman. Short answer, my version, is that they spend all their time tinkering with Superman (costume changes, power levels, origin, etc.) and pay little attention to Clark Kent. The old comic book saying is that the way Superman is different from Batman is that Superman is just an identity Clark Kent puts on to help people, while Bruce Wayne is an identity that Batman puts on to give him cover to fight crime. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster obviously got it in creating the hero, Christopher Reeve and the Salkinds got it in the movies, Mark Waid and Alex Ross got it in Kingdom Come, and Melissa Benoist gets it as she portrays Supergirl in her TV show. But DC Comics mostly don't get it.

-- A Star Wars fan and sci-fi journalist tracked down the actor who played the pilot who referred Obi-Wan Kenobi to Chewbacca and Han Solo. Fortunately, footage of him still existed since George Lucas sold the franchise before digitally replacing him with a Gungan.

-- Scientists are using the physics of how pancakes form -- it has to do with the speed that water escapes the batter while its being cooked -- to investigate how they can treat glaucoma. One treatment for the eye condition involves small slices in the sclera of the eye to reduce the pressure of the built-up fluid behind it. The pancake study can help model the most efficient way to do that. The downside is that scientists will now need to spend some extra time on the treadmill after eating their experiments.

-- Now, you might think that, given the number of athletes involved and the costs of an education, that the line-item for tuition, room and board for collegiate athletes would be larger than just about any other athletic cost. Well, according to CNN, you'd be a little off.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Thy Print Seals Thy Fate, Varlet!

Scientists at the University of London are re-examining the wax seals often used in medieval times to sign documents or ensure they were not opened, in order to see if the wax contains fingerprints.

One part of the project is to compare the fingerprints to each other -- not every seal carries prints, but enough do that some documents attested to be from the same person can be checked out to see if that's true. Another will be to compare them with modern fingerprint databases and see how unique fingerprints might actually be. The usual thought is that no one in the world has your fingerprints but you, and no one who ever lived has had them before. The older prints might prove that repetition does happen every now and again, even if spread out over a period of hundreds of years.

This may be O.J. Simpson's big chance.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Continuing Sagas

For most of the first two-thirds of Jonathan Kellerman's 31st Alex Delaware novel, Breakdown, there is a sense that he's doing something different. Zelda Chase, a minor blip on television in a momentarily hot sitcom, first met Alex when his mentor asked him to examine her five-year-old son. Zelda was very troubled and Alex's mentor was treating her, so it was his job to determine if the boy was OK. He did so and didn't think much about the case in the ensuing years. Until he gets a call that Zelda Chase has been admitted to a psychatric hospital suffering from a complete psychotic break. Alex never treated Zelda, but his mentor's gone and his name is the only one on the record.

Zelda's non-communicative, and there's no sign of her son. Alex sticks with the case because he wants to find out if the boy is safe, and then it becomes even more curious when Zelda walks away from a halfway house and is later found dead. Alex's efforts to find some clue about Zelda's son unroll her history as her psychosis left her less and less able to function in society. Her show's cancellation pushed her into homelessness, and from there further and further down a confused and dark path. This part of the story is a fascinating blend of psychology and detection, as Kellerman mixes plenty of real-life situations into his narrative. Zelda's hushed-up mental problems recall actress Margot Kidder's real-life struggle with bipolar disorder. The lack of treatment for seriously mentally ill persons is lived out on the streets of major American cities every day. The use of mental illness as a pawn to try to advance this or that personal agenda gets reported now and again as well. The subordination of a performer's health to the needs of public image may be a little more under the radar, but the real-life tragedies we've seen show its reality too.

Had Kellerman continued to run that string as Alex and his friend, LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis, look for clues to where Zelda's son might be and what motivated her, Breakdown could have been one of the best of this long series. For whatever reason -- perhaps because he's a murder mystery writer and he felt the book had to have some flesh-and-blood culprits -- he switches gears and tries to give us actual killers and some other victims. In order to do this, we get Chapter Eleventy-Billion and Two of "Rich Bastards Treating People Awfully Thinking Their Money Will Insulate Them." It's lifeless compared with the earlier section of the book and feels very stitched-on.

Kellerman writes the book he wants to write rather than the one I want him to write, and he's sold millions of books so his judgment is probably way better than my own. But I still can't help but see Breakdown as a huge missed opportunity, one that sinks to the middle of the pack when it could have stood head and shoulders above.
At the end of 2014's The Burning Room, Harry Bosch got pushed out of the Los Angeles Police Department by some supervisors that had been itching to get rid of him for years. He's out of sorts and mostly drifting until his half-brother Mickey Haller comes to him with the case of a man accused of murder. Haller is defending the man and wants Bosch to look at the case because he believes his client is innocent. Bosch wants nothing to do with working for the defense, brother or not, but Haller eventually talks him into it.

Once involved, Bosch's own sense of curiosity keeps him going. The prosecution's case is sloppy and the investigation has holes. But is he willing to completely cross the line and become one of "them," the people who help the criminals he's spent 30 years putting away? The Crossing outlines the struggles Bosch faces with this issue, both internal and external, and offers a good picture of a man trying to figure out which part of his driven nature will win out -- the search for the truth or loyalty to the side of the good guys?

Connelly is still humming alone in the Bosch series with only a few slowdowns over its history. The fan-pleasing double bill of Bosch and his "Lincoln Lawyer" half-brother offers some new angles to view both the crusty detective and the smooth-talking attorney. Bosch's own daughter has absorbed a lot of his "cops vs. the world" mentality and isn't happy with his decision to work for a man whose job is getting criminals freed, even if they're guilty. That conflict helps build her character more than has happened recently as well. All in all, The Crossing is a good addition to both Bosch and Haller series and a nice twisty suspense outing in its own right.
Last year, I noticed that the spread of electronic books and self-publishing was a boon for fans of genre fiction, as it made bringing titles in their preferred lines a lot easier to bring to "print" or e-reader. With reduced production costs, authors could put their work out there with their own resources, or publishing companies would recoup expenses early enough to risk some more titles.

Of course, that sometimes means some real crud gets published, but it can also mean, in cases like Christopher Nuttall's "Angel in the Whirlwind" series, some good finds and fun reads.

Falcone Strike is the second in the series about Katherine "Kat" Falcone, a young woman captain in His Majesty's Commonwealth Space Navy. Kat's homeworld is a colony whose founders transformed it into an aristocratic oligarchy and her position as the youngest member of one of the more powerful families has let her go pretty much her own way. She's relished the challenge of military service and loss of the cloying world of high society and whispering politics she previously had to look forward to, but the long arm of family influence may have done her in. In The Oncoming Storm, she found herself promoted to command many years ahead of other officers, and perhaps given a position for which she wasn't ready. Now, in Strike, she has earned some respect from her fellow spacers, but has quite a ways to go before she's looked upon as anything other than a privileged dilettante playing at war by the wider service.

And war has come to the Commonwealth, as it finds itself facing the world-gobbling religious fanatics of the Theocracy, a fundamentalist regime that believes all worlds must be brought under its particular religion. Nuttall carefully blends elements of current religions into the Theocracy to keep it from being too closely identified with any of them, and doesn't dig too deeply into its theology. While this makes for some confusion for the reader, it lets him focus on his story instead of defending his plot choices against charges of bigotry.

Nuttall's good with characterizations -- Kat herself may have more than a few hints of being an Honor Harrington clone, but she's branching out as her own person quickly. He's also good with space battles and action scenes. He's less adept with keeping his spatial geography clear to a reader and he stops his narrative for an expository lecture and once or twice a sermon more often than he should. But given the low expense involved and the interesting characters he's developing, that's not too much baggage to keep space-opera fans from signing on to sail with Kat Falcone.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Can I Drive a Stick or What?

As the picture below indicates, there are some people who participate in the Pinewood Derby when they are Cub Scouts, and then there are people who make it a calling:

The "Cedar Rocket" reached a top speed of almost 50 miles an hour and is constructed from a single log of the tree. With the pollen, one hopes, removed.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Watch Out for Red Lectroids

Since Pluto was demoted to "dwarf planet" status in 2005, the same grim pedants who insisted it wasn't a real planet have also insisted that our solar system has eight planets circling its sun. Recently, though, researchers have found some unexplained motions that suggest a large planet far on the edges of the system, and we may be back to nine planets sometime soon.

Most stars with planets have at least one planet called a "super-Earth," because it's rocky like our world but several times its size. Our solar system doesn't, as far as we've discovered, which makes us weird. But the hints provided from other observations suggest where it might be if it exists, and computer simulations of how the solar system formed offer some reasons why it might be there.

Of the currently known and named planets, Neptune was first predicted by its gravitational effects on Uranus. Those clues allowed Johan Galle to find it while observing on September 23, 1846. The possible Planet Nine is quite a ways farther out, but we have much better instruments today.

Locating a ninth planet will not necessarily put an end to the list of planetary bodies that revolve around our sun, but history teaches us that traveling to Planet Ten is not as easy as it sounds, and could bring the danger of invasion.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Tables Telephonically Turned

Telemarketing exists to annoy people. The companies that engage in this form of sales say that it exists to help them sell products, but we do not have to get too scientific to compare the amount of annoyance telemarketing creates with the number of sales it actually makes to see which purpose is more greatly fulfilled.

So a fellow who plays with artificial intelligence designed a program that will respond in such a way as to keep the telemarketer on the line as long as possible. and thus maximize the amount of time he or she wastes instead of just dropping them and letting them move onto the next call.

I kind of like the idea as a concept, but would probably not use it myself. For one, setting up the robot encounter involves a toll call, and the whole idea behind never responding to telephone solicitations is to not spend my money. For another, while I have no qualms about wasting the time of any of the operators working for some of the shadier companies that don't care about do-not-call lists and other legal niceties, I'm less comfortable dragging down job performance for someone who may really need that job.

My preferred method of dealing with telemarketers is to not pick up the phone if I don't recognize the number. Legit callers can leave a message and I usually call them right back. But if for some reason I'm stuck with a telemarketing call, I say, "I don't respond to phone solicitations, but thanks for calling. Bye." Then I hang up. I think being polite to people matters, and being polite to people I'd rather be impolite to probably matters more.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

What the 7734?

Anyone who remembers the introduction of handheld calculators to the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s probably recalls learning to spell words with the numbers. Anyone who was in junior high school during that period probably recalls learning to spell curse words with numbers, such as the four digits in the post title. Hint: Turn your computer upside down.

Of course, calculators grew more advanced and specialized, even while the prices came down. There were scientific calculators that did logarithmic functions in addition to basic arithmetic. There were calculators programmed with functions that handled the math used in financial planning, like compound interest calculation.

In 1981, Hewlett-Packard introduced one such model, the HP 12C, which sold for $150. Its list price on today's HP website is $69.99.

Yes, an electronic product first offered 35 years ago is still being sold today -- and it doesn't even work like a regular calculator. By that I mean it's not built so you have to use what's called algebraic notation. That's the kind of entry that would look like an algebra equation when written out. Punching in the old standby "2+2" in order to find that it equals four requires pressing three keys -- one of them twice. For everyday math this doesn't take an excessive amount of time.

But for the more complicated math that accompanies financial planning and market questions, algebraic entry is relatively slow and clumsy compared with the system that the HP 12C is designed to use: Reverse Polish notation (RPN).  A little practice lets someone enter an equation in RPN quite a bit faster and with fewer keystrokes than the standard method, reducing the possibility of hitting a wrong button and improving accuracy.

And this little gem has remained so useful for some financial services people that it's being sold basically unchanged 35 years after being introduced. By contrast, Microsoft released its Vista operating system for purchase in 2007 and ended its mainstream support for the system in 2012 -- giving it an effective life of one-seventh of the HP 12C. Sure, you can't play games on the calculator. But given how crappy a system Vista really was, there were plenty of times you couldn't play games on it, either.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Hand Up?

The other day, folks in Madeira, Portugal, were a little put off their feed by this rather worrisome cloud in their sky, because it bore no small resemblance to a fist.

We Okies, of course, do not much respond to clouds until the weather muppet trying to scare us to death tells us it's rotating.

Then we go out on the porch to look.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

This 'N' That

-- Clare Foran, writing in The Atlantic, attempts to answer the question, "Why Mike Huckabee lost in 2016." She uses a lot of words, but the shorter version of the answer is, "Because he's Mike Huckabee and if no one voted for him in the weak 2008 and 2012 GOP fields, his belief that someone would in the in the stronger and larger 2016 field was delusional."

-- A legal information site lists some things that bicyclists do that may annoy drivers but which are perfectly legal. I'll not dispute that with them for a moment, but I'll remind them that cars are obeying laws of physics that have a higher price for ignoring and that no one has ever found a way to make car drivers better at paying attention. The careless and inattentive driving citation the car driver gets when he plows into you in the left-turn lane you legally occupied will look great taped to your body cast.

-- All the education in the world and not one atom of sense. A group at the University of Oklahoma has posted a sign outlining that the line, "I must have called a thousand times" from Adele's song "Hello" helps normalize sexual harassment. The real problem with dumb stuff like this is how hard it makes the job of teaching and working against actual sexual harassment. Who could take this group seriously now?

-- Budding alternative history folks may sharpen their pencils on these ten scenarios about tweaks that might have made life in our solar system very different -- if it was still even possible. Some of them are plausible, such as the Earth without a moon or Jupiter having gained enough mass during formation to actually ignite as a star. Some of them are less so, such as the Earth and Mars switching places.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Think-About Things

Our fair state of Oklahoma has been undergoing a crisis recently regarding funding of our public education system. Although a little more diversified than 30 years ago, we are still heavily depending for revenue on the production of a primary product, oil. You may ask any Latin American country in the early and middle part of the 20th century how well that works out for revenue when the bottom drops out of the market for your primary product. Be prepared for extensive scoffing.

In addition, our legislature recently passed a series of measures that would trigger tax cuts when projected state revenue collections hit certain levels. When the price for the black gold was high, we hit those targets and the cuts were triggered. But soon afterwards, the price dropped and in addition to the funds we lose from reduced production revenues, we also take a hit from the decreased state income because of the lower tax rate. Every state agency has been directed to cut expenses because the money coming from the state isn't there, and schools are among those hardest hit. A ballot measure from 1992 puts any tax increase to a popular vote if it doesn't get a 75% supermajority in the state legislature, which means that rescinding the cut is an uphill slog.

The president of one of the state's two large universities, David Boren, has gotten a measure on the ballot that would impose a statewide one-cent sales tax to fund education, focusing mainly on teacher salaries, which are lower here than in surrounding states (Edit: This measure is not yet on the ballot but is collecting petitions to see if it can be. My apologies). Sales taxes, of course, are regressive because the amounts take a larger percentage of smaller incomes. They're also often one of the few ways small towns and counties can raise revenue, and this man who lives in a free house and gets paid pretty well by different corporate boards in addition to his university check is president of a place that pays its football coach about 135 times the average salary of a public school teacher.

Recently, the meme at the top of this post gathered some views after it used information from a news story that compared Oklahoma legislators' ranking among their peers to Oklahoma educators' ranking among theirs. The figures used place our lawmakers at 15th in the nation and our teachers at 49th, and the meme then closes with the snarky, "Time to change the pay SAID NO LEGISLATOR EVER."

The meme highlights several things. One is that public policy discussion by meme is as useful as spouse-hunting by restroom wall graffiti. You select for the lowest amount of serious thought and you target people whose goals are probably not your own.

And I'm not at all sure it's a valid comparison. Teachers are generally paid according to a salary system, in which the income they are due is divvied up weekly, biweekly or monthly and then paid out on a nine-month or twelve-month schedule. But while Oklahoma also pays its legislators via salary, some states don't. They pay per day for days the legislature is in session, and all but five of them offer per diem reimbursements for expenses incurred while in session or mileage costs. One, New Mexico, pays only the per diem, and its state legislators receive no compensation. How do you compare actual legislative pay between states that base it on days in session or days worked and those which use annual salaries? What would the rankings look like if you found a good working formula and did that? We'll get right on that, SAID NO MEME EVER.

You can choose to ignore my point of view if you like, and you may want to even more once I tell you I think just about every ranking of teacher pay or per-pupil expenditure is of very limited value in trying to figure out what's needed to repair or improve a public education system. Dollar amounts alone do not tell the whole story: Teachers in Chicago have an average annual salary about 50% higher than Oklahoma's and I don't know of any metric that puts their student performance at 50% better. Of course Chicago teachers face a lot of problems Oklahoma teachers don't, or they face much worse versions of them. But that just highlights how a strict dollar-for-dollar comparison doesn't really tell us what's needed to fix the respective schools.

Solutions like President Boren's will wind up solving very little. Pumping more money into a broken system is like pouring more water into a leaky bucket. It will raise the level briefly but the holes will still drain it, perhaps faster than it comes in. The state legislature and the governor worked together in 1990 to pass an education reform act that allotted half a billion dollars to the state school system over five years and earmarked several revenue streams for the Department of Education alone. Did it do enough to fix the problems? Obviously not. And the subsequent passage of the supermajority requirement for tax increases meant that there was next to no chance of following up the cash infusion from the 1990 act once it ran out, guaranteeing that the same problems the system faced in 1990 would one day resurface.

The problems with salaries and school funding are real: Our teachers are not paid what they should be, nor are our schools funded at the level they should be.

The problems with the revenue stream are real: The tax cut was an iffy idea at best considering how hard it would be to go back to the higher rate when need arose. And it made no sense whatsoever to tie the triggers to projected future income instead of to past or current income or to an average of them over several years.

But the problems with a 19th century educational system are real too. It's organized for an agrarian culture without the ability to artificially cool buildings during summer. Its funding and governing structures assume myriad small populations near to but mostly isolated from each other by slow travel. Its methods and instruction principles have as much to do with the Procrustean production of two-legged voting and tax-paying citizen widgets as they do with educating students for their own growth and flourishing as thinking human beings. That many teachers manage to bring about 21st century people testifies to their ability to work in spite of the system that employs them, not because of it.

Do I know how to fix those problems? It's been 25 years since I followed and covered education for my newspaper and had thorough knowledge of its issues on local and state levels, so no, I probably don't. But I'm not the one who's taking taxpayer money to keep an eye on those things. Elected, appointed and hired public employees are, and it's hard to argue against the idea that they're failing as miserably as did most of their predecessors over the last 50 years to do anything about it.

Given the human ability to la-la-la-la-not-liiiiisten I fear solutions won't come until something completely breaks down and brutal necessity mothers enough invention and courage to try to construct a public education system with the world of the 21st century student in mind. And I also fear that if the state somehow manages to find a Peter with a wallet fat enough to let Paul boost teacher salaries and per-pupil expenditures from their rank in the high 40s to the low 40s or even high 30s, the people who can make that change happen will smile and wave and say they've handled things and la-la-la-la their way long enough that when the problem reappears they'll be sipping retirement coffee and shaking their heads at what the world is coming to and why their barista can't make change.