Saturday, December 31, 2016

Some Stuff (Nonsense Already Provided)

-- An intriguing article at The Economist examines the practice and power of silence in our daily lives. The sub-headline reads "Where, how and why to be quiet," and there is a nod to Mark Twain's advice about remaining silent so as to leave some question about one's own foolishness. It might seem churlish to note Twain picked up the idea from scripture (Proverbs 17:28) except that the notice is in a sentence about what Ignatius of Antioch told the early Christians at Ephesus. And a number of other answers to the where how and why to be quiet direction apply, of course. Such as, "When your name is John Kerry." Or, "When your name is Bill O'Reilly."

-- Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek offers a possible silver lining to the looming Trump presidency in a comment on a Kevin Williamson article from National Review. Williamson writes about the way modern government seems to have given our presidents more of the trappings of the kings and such we supposedly wanted no part of. Boudreaux suggests that someone as completely oafish, incompetent, narcissistic and immature as Trump will push us to pay more attention to the man behind the curtain than to the Great and Powerful Oz. Hmm, we may say. The presidency is obviously a hard job, but if that moron can win it then it can't be all that special. I'm skeptically hopeful. Demonstrated displays of petty incompetence haven't thrown people off their love for government so far, especially when they're playing the role of Paul and someone else is saddled with the part of Peter.

-- Charles over at Dustbury calls attention to an article that highlights how the Environmental Protection Agency may declare Fairbanks Alaska in serious noncompliance with clean air regulations, as a way of getting them to try to reduce their use of burned wood to heat their homes and such. Richer people have access to gas and oil heating systems, but poorer folks not so much, so they burn a lot of wood in order to not die. I've not been super-thrilled with Scott Pruitt as our State Attorney General, surely, and I think that the belief that he will "destroy" the EPA is some serious falling-sky alarmism. But on the other hand, maybe some destructin' is called for...

-- Our midnight stroke will flip our calendar page and make 2016 into 2017, and I certainly hope it is a good one for you. Blogger's stat platform gives at best a fuzzy picture of how many readers I have, so I have no idea how many of you there are, but if I have offered you either entertainment, sleep aid or removed the need for you to take fludrocortisone, then I am glad to have been of assistance and grateful for your time.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Proof, Pudding, Etc...

A couple of days ago I suggested that it's not particularly sensible to think that the many things contained in 2016 which depress us will suddenly cease because the year in the modern calendar becomes 2017.

Comes now a variety of state legislatures to ensure -- as only a government can-- that 2017 intends to make a strong run at being even sillier. Illinois may have a $13 billion budgetary shortfall, but it also now has a state artifact, the pirogue canoe. California will insist that any item purportedly signed by some famous person must have a certificate of authenticity if it is to be sold for more than $5. No word on whether a signed statement of authenticity will need its own signed statement of authenticity.

Las Vegas will allow marijuana consumption, but the law did not pass without a requirement that casinos feature several extra-large signs informing gamblers that potato chips may not be used in place of casino chips.

The real question such laws pose is not how we as a species survived before we had legislative government, but what we will do now that the evolution of our intelligence has so obviously ceased.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Who Watches

Here's a link to a New York Times feature that maps out which television shows are the most popular in different areas of the country.

I'm not sure which depresses me more: how many of the show titles are completely unfamiliar to me or how popular some of the ones I've heard of are...

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Using Fame's Fortunes

The number of famous people who have died in 2016 seems to many people to be larger than usual, or perhaps it's a matter of which ones passing away that makes the difference. Some have been outsized figures in their fields, like Prince and David Bowie, while others have been celebrated pop icons known as much for their membership in a particular pantheon than their own work, like Carrie Fisher.

Some people, prompted by the perception that the number is higher, have suggested that it makes 2016 a much worse year than other years. I can understand the thinking, but I reject the idea. For one, many great things happened in 2016 as well, and there were quite a few good and bad things involved no one famous whatsoever. There were also several bad things that happened which should have gotten a lot more attention than they did, such as the destruction of Aleppo, Syria. Any news organization which put up more coverage of any Kardashian whatsoever than of the massacre of innocents in that city deserves to be sentenced to listening to former President Jimmy Carter's official spokesman discourse at length on how much better the world would have been if he had won a second term.

But perspective is called for, I think, and about a lot more things than celebrity deaths. I saw a friend post on her Facebook page about how she was almost glad that her husband had not lived to see "this," referring to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Now, she was married to him and I wasn't, and she was commenting on the day after the election when many perspectives were a little warped. But I couldn't help but think that "this" was a time which also included the man's granddaughter, whose birth he did not live to see. And I think he might have counted it worth the ugly election and ugly election result to meet her.

It's also kind of funny to think that we'll get a sudden do-over Sunday when the calendar flips to 2017. The reality is that many iconic entertainers will be in their 80s and 90s, and folks in that age range tend to die in greater numbers than younger ones do. The reality is that many Boomer and X-er-aged icons did their bodies a lot of damage when they were younger, and while getting clean definitely lengthened their lives it can't turn back the odometer. And the reality is that a lot of people responsible for great achievements, like first to orbit the earth or first to break the sound barrier, are also in their 80s and 90s, and are no less subject to actuarial laws than anyone else.

Don't get me wrong. I'm saddened when someone whose work I enjoy or appreciate passes away. Same thing when it's someone who pioneered something important. But I didn't know them personally, so the effect is quite a bit smaller than otherwise. Plus, if they are famous for having actually done something, as opposed to 95% of the people TMZ writes about, then we still have their work. Sure, no new Prince music, but Purple Rain continues to reward after multiple listens. In addition to her iconic role as Leia in the Star Wars movies, Carrie Fisher wrote some hilarious books. Those remain.

In the end, if we're honest, we have to admit that we can continue the best part of the work done by our idols and icons. Singer George Michael sang a couple of songs and pursued a couple of activities a fellow in my line of work disagrees with. But after he passed, we began finding out that he was regularly and greatly generous with the money his music had earned him. Any of us can do that, even if we can't match Michael digit for digit as far as the amounts are concerned. In that sense, perhaps we can bring ourselves a little closer to the folks we mostly appreciated from afar, because we might find ourselves doing the exact same thing in memory of those whom we did know directly. Either way, there will be lot worse legacies left behind than one like Michael's, and it's hard to argue against stretching that one out as far as it could possibly go.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Not Easily Replaced

Stanford economist and columnist Thomas Sowell sets aside his keyboard for a well-earned rest. Unfortunately, that means that media coverage of economics will be much the poorer for it, but he's 86 and he's probably earned it.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Pay Up

I'm a book lover, and I like to own older books from a time when book design involved more than "make cheaply, sell otherwise." But I'd draw the line at $36,000 spent on a copy of Alice in Wonderland. Someone at ABE books, on the other hand disagreed.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Nailed It!

Watching old television show DVDs with the family.

That curtain rod dress is pretty much the best sight gag in the history of television.

Saturday, December 24, 2016


In less than an hour it all starts anew. Lord at Thy birth, come.

Friday, December 23, 2016

You Can't Get There From Here

A quick glance at this ancient Roman map from the historian and geographer Strabo will show you why, since it's got things like scale and direction pretty looped out.

It is interesting, though, how much is recognizable around the Mediterranean Sea, the area with which Romans and their Greek predecessors would have been most familiar. Although it's pointing more east-west than north-south, the boot of Italy can be pretty clearly discerned. "Iberia," or Spain, looks a lot like Spain looks on a modern map.

But the inability to accurately compute longitude at sea -- something that would not come about until the 18th century -- meant that the proper orientation of the known lands was not within a Roman mapmaker's power to reproduce. Which may have been a good thing for a lot of the Empire's neighbors -- can you imagine how far they might have gotten if they'd had real maps?

Thursday, December 22, 2016


I'm a big fan of the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes and when younger, was a fan of some of the sequels. These days, only Escape seems all that watchable, as we see some of the intelligent apes from the original movies somehow manage to recover the astronaut's spaceship and slingshot back through time to the world that had launched it to begin with.

I said watchable, not sensible. In any event, both the first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes and the final films in the series, Battle for and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, are hackneyed and in the case of the last one just plain silly. Which considering the premises of the series, is saying something indeed.

I saw the 2001 Tim Burton version of the story that tried to mix the first movie with the Pierre Boulle novel from which it was drawn, doing so without much success. I've watched none of the more recent remakes, which revolve around Andy Serkis moving around with a motion-capture suit on so the intelligent chimpanzee Caesar can be superimposed on him via computer. Apes get smart and take over -- in this case, because a plague has wiped out most of humanity. I've seen it before, and I'm a cheap meanie who doesn't want to waste time or money on this particular retread.

The new series is up to its third episode, the July 2017 release War for the Planet of the Apes. Reading the pop culture site io9, I learned that it will contain a character from the original 1968 movie. A mute human girl is shown playing with a metal logo plate taken from a car -- a Chevrolet Nova. Stranded astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) bonds with a woman he names Nova (Linda Harrison) in that movie, and apparently the girl in the 2017 movie is the same person as the adult woman in the 1968 one, according to a story in Entertainment Weekly. Even though the movies in the reboot series are taking place in the first half of the 21st century and the 1968 movie is supposed to have happened in 3978. Makers of the current movie say that the story will explain the matter.

In case you thought that a squadron of irradiated human survivors using a school bus in attacking a treehouse village of intelligent apes was the silliest thing this particular franchise has ever brought about.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Solstice With the Mostest

So today is the shortest day of the year, and after today we get more and more sunlight each day for six months.

Largely symbolic, I know, but with the way today was, I'll take it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Muon Musin'

Some scientists at the Pierre Augin Cosmic Ray observatory have a question about muons. Like, why are there as many of them as there are when the Standard Model of physics says there shouldn't be. Trouble is, they can't really answer that question yet.

Muons are among the subatomic particles produced when atoms or other subatomic particles collide at great speeds. When those collisions happen in the Large Hadron Collider, then all the measurements show the proper amounts of leftovers. But cosmic rays strike the Earth's atmosphere at much greater speeds than those created by the LHC, meaning the collisions have much greater energy. They also happen out in the wide-open spaces rather than conveniently amidst a number of detectors and instruments.

The latter situation means that it's pretty tough to get exact measurements of what kind of leftovers a cosmic ray collision produces -- including a solid figure of how many muons it dumps out. A guesstimate procedure described in the blog entry at BackRe(Action) which is completely opaque to me offers a possible amount of muons and muon energy these high-velocity collisions produce. And it's more than it should be, compared with other kinds of energy coming from them.

The Standard Model of physics says how atoms and subatomic particles behave when certain things happen, and describes what all of those things are made of. Its strength is that things which it has predicted have often been shown to be true once measuring capabilities have advanced as far as the predictions. But this estimate does not match the Standard Model, meaning that either the method of producing it is flawed (possible) or there's something going on the Standard Model doesn't account for. Since it will be pretty dang difficult to create laboratory conditions in the upper atmosphere where the cosmic rays collide with air molecules, that means that scientists either have to massively upgrade the LHC or build a collider that can duplicate the energies of cosmic-ray speed collisions. It may take awhile for the technology and money to meet that need, but it is likely to happen someday.

What's interesting is that this problem is the kind of thing that often happens when scientists learn their frame of reference has been either too small or too slow. The geocentric universe blew up when Galileo saw Jupiter's moons and Saturn's rings. Isaac Newton's clockwork universe blew up when Albert Einstein started asking about things that moved faster than Newton could have considered. Could this be about to happen again? Who knows? But I imagine it may make a generation of physicists a little jealous of those who will come after them who have the opportunity to find out.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Poppy Off

Poppies are often displayed in the nations of the United Kingdom in November as a way to memorialize war dead. The most common day to show them is November 11th or near it, as that day marks the end of World War I. In the United States, it was originally known as Armistice Day before becoming Veterans Day and marked as honoring all military veterans. Sports teams, especially national ones, may include a poppy on team uniforms for contests near that date.

But FIFA, the international body governing soccer last heard from being charged with a massive bribery scam, fined the governing bodies of four national teams for displaying the memento. Displays of religious or political emblems are strictly forbidden, the association says, so the poppy emblems will cost those teams some money.

No word yet on whether or not the FIFA officials who may soon be wearing jail ID numbers will have to pony up for the privilege of doing so. You kind of hope not, because it'd be hard to work off a five-figure fine in a prison laundry.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Scoundrels and Rogues

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a cinematic version of what used to be called the "Star Wars Expanded Universe." Dozens of books told us about what had happened in the Star Wars universe before we met the characters in Star Wars, what happened in and around the events of the first three movies (and then those icky prequels) and then many ventured into the future of the far, far away galaxy's long time ago.

When Disney and J.J. Abrams brought forth last year's The Force Awakens, the Expanded Universe was more or less erased from "official" Star Wars continuity. The continued story would now take place onscreen, and while some of the events that took place before the original movies might still have happened in the Star Wars history, most of them would be excised also.

So although there were a half-dozen or so different versions around of how the Rebel Alliance managed to get the plans to the Death Star, officially no one knew how it happened, or why the Empire built a superweapon that was so easy to blow up. Until now, that is, as director Gareth Edwards and writers Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll and Gary Whitta lay out the courageous actions and daring mission of the people who made Luke Skywalker's "one in a million" shot do what it did.

Ne'er-do-well Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) finds herself rescued from prison transport by members of the Rebel Alliance on Jedha. They want her to lead them to her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), the Imperial scientist who designed the Death Star. But Jyn has not seen her father since he was "drafted" by Imperial official Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and she escaped to avoid being used as a hostage, so the search will be complicated. It will be more complicated because Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the Alliance officer leading her mission, has his own orders. And it will be still more complicated because Cassian's reprogrammed Imperial Enforcer Droid K-2SO (voice by Alan Tudyk) hates her. Along the way the quest will gather up two drifters who may have ties to the Force (Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen) and an Imperial pilot whose defection set these events into motion (Riz Ahmed).

It's not as complicated as it reads, especially for people who are already versed in Star Wars lore. And for them, there are some great callouts to that lore, such as the Kyber/Kaiburr Crystals from the book Splinter of the Mind's Eye that power the Death Star and Yen's character being one of the Whills, from George Lucas's earliest version of the Star Wars story being "from the journal of the Whills."

The Force Awakens had a big problem overcoming the "so what" question -- Return of the Jedi left the Emperor and Darth Vader dead, Luke a full Jedi Knight and Leia and Han united, so what was there left to do? Although it scaled part of the way up the slope, it left some of the rest of that climb to subsequent episodes. Rogue One doesn't have that problem, but it does need to overcome the reality that we know the Death Star plans will get through to the Alliance, because otherwise there's no Star Wars to begin with. Since we know what, it will have to make us care about who and how, and it partially succeeds.

Jones and Luna create two deep and well-realized characters who are driven as much by their inner conflicts as they are by their hatred of the Empire. But the rest of the cast is basically a Crayola fill-in of the remaining story picture. Yen and Wen are cool fighters and have some trademark Star Wars funny battle quips but little else. Tudyk seems to be doing his best "Anthony Daniels before his morning coffee" impression. Darth Vader's brief but important role is a neat part of the story, and even though James Earl Jones at 85 does not sound like James Earl Jones at 45 he's still Darth Frikkin' Vader. CGI versions of the late Peter Cushing's Governor Tarkin and a couple of other characters jar their respective scenes.

I've seen several friends offer their ideas about where Rogue One ranks in the movie lineup, and I'd put it in the top half myself. There can never be another "first Star Wars," so the smart play isn't to try to recreate the magic as much as it is find some magic of your own amid what's already there. The Rogue One crew manage that not too badly. Given that projected future "Star Wars Anthology" movies are about how Han Solo and Boba Fett came to be the people we met in the original trilogy and will have to carry a heavy "so what?" burden, then it might be safe to bet it's going to stay in the top half for some time to come.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Christmas Faves

At the link, you can find a map showing which Christmas movie is the most popular in each state in the U.S.

If the figures are accurate, then South and North Carolina and Kentucky have the best taste in the union (A Charlie Brown Christmas), with Mississippi and Wyoming (How the Grinch Stole Christmas) running a close second. Connecticut (Christmas in Connecticut) seems a little full of itself.

And I have never been more ashamed of my fellow Oklahomans in my entire life. Elf?

Friday, December 16, 2016

From the Rental Vault: Z Storm (2014)

Given that the zombie craze has given us crappy television, crappy novels, crappy movies and crappy comic books, you might be forgiven in thinking that David Lam's 2014 Hong Kong crime drama Z Storm was a part of that ordure oeuvre. But while it has a definite lurching quality, there is nary an undead to be seen during its zippy 92 minute running time.

Investigator William Luk (Louis Koo) has had a whiff of a major financial swindle in the offing that involves high-level financiers, government officials and corrupt law enforcement. He spends much of the movie trying to get a handle on someone involved who can open a window into the scheme, and let him gather evidence to stop it and arrest the conspirators. He's blocked by sneaky lawyer Malcom Wu, played by Michael Wong, who runs interference for his top-level money boss. Shady police inspector Wong Man Bin helps keep the bad guys a step ahead of Luk, threatening or otherwise silencing potential witnesses.

Though it has a high-powered cast to go with its high-powered Hong Kong action pedigree (Lam and producer John Chong were at the helms of some of the biggest titles in the Hong Kong crime action genre in its 1990s heyday), Z Storm never shows any common thread in its various scenes and set pieces. Although we know they're a part of the same story because they have the same characters who talk about the same things, there's no internal consistency that helps the narrative build up from a start to a finish, and no sense of real movement along the way.

Come to think of it, the relationship Z Storm bears to those 1990s action movies is not considerably different than the one the shambling undead are supposed to bear to real people, so maybe that stand-alone 26th letter indicates more than I thought. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Best Bills

Virginia ratified the Bill of Rights 225 years ago today, making them the law of the land and triggering full support for the new Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation under which the United States of America had previously tried to operate. Massachusetts had balked at the new formal unless it included the ten spelled-out rights that the Bill of Rights specifically guarantees.

Technically, the Bill is just a group of ten amendments -- the first ten amendments, to be precise -- to the overall Constitution. They create an excellent framework within which the federal government operates, and they are actually written in plain enough English that they can be understood by most anyone today.

Any vagueness they may exhibit has been eisegeted into them by different groups which want the opposite of the plain text to prevail but would rather not do the hard work of getting an actual amendment passed. Or they may realize that it's a lot easier to find a judge who agrees with you than it is to find two-thirds of both houses of Congress and then three-fourths of the state legislatures who do.

Anyway, we find that the initial ten amendments have been very useful for the past two centuries and a quarter, and we may hope they continue to be so for another 225 years.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Meow Mix?

Charles at Dustbury links to an item that asks how loud it would be if all of the cats in the world meowed at the same time.

The answer: Very, if you're standing near them. Not so much if you're far away.

But it's all moot, because at least 80 percent of them will have gone to sleep.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Honda engineers are developing an electric vehicle called the NeuV, which will have an interesting feature aside from being ugly and too small to dent a Beetle.

A system of cameras and sensors inside the NeuV will "read" the driver and then engage him or her in conversation in a manner appropriate to the emotional cues the system perceives. As a person drives the car more, then system will get better and better at reading the emotions and driver and car will "grow up" together.

There are no plans as yet to make the NeuV a self-driving car, which is probably as wise a move as could happen in the middle of this rather loopy idea. Sports fans going home in their NeuVs after a bad loss could suddenly find their cars zooming towards bridge abutments -- "zooming" probably being a relative term here. Inebriated people in a NeuV cockpit could "infect" the car with their behavior, leading to a law-enforcement conundrum: The person in the car might have been drunk but wasn't actually driving. So we could see a wave of drunk tank remodeling as NeuV-friendly cells are constructed while the miscreant buggies both charge and sober up.

Since the cars will be speaking with their drivers, they will probably require different language modules. NeuVs sold in the South would definitely need to know how to say, "No, I will not make a buzzing sound so your friends will think I'm a John Deere mower. You're in a NeuV. Deal with it." NeuV's sold in New York, however, will probably need their language software to have the Carlin app to better interact with their own drivers as well as drivers in nearby cars.

Monday, December 12, 2016

They're Coming Right at Us!

They'd probably burn up in the atmosphere before actually hitting anyone, but it sure doesn't look like it, does it? Which makes me just a touch glad that someone else took it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

This Again?

Having tried to convince us that Pluto is not a planet, astronomers now have decided to rename a bunch of stars, in several cases by returning them to names closer to the ones they had in the languages of their original discoverers.

One of those is Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to our sun at only four light-years away. The anglicized version of its Arabic name is Rigil Kentaurus, and that name has now been deemed the official moniker of Alpha Centauri A and B.

Of course, there's also a red dwarf star connected to the renamed two-star system which has been called Proxima Centauri. It was not renamed, leaving us wondering just what Proxima is proximate to, since its nearest neighbors are not centauri but Kentauruses.

And also leaving us wondering why scientists are fussing with stuff like this instead of figuring out ways to get to these stars and see if there are any local residents who might tell us what they call them.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Fish in a Barrel, Redux

So it appears that chimpanzees recognize other chimpanzees by their behinds, the way humans recognize each other by face. This fact was discovered by real researchers and as noted in the abstract at the link, published in a real scientific journal. Otherwise you would think it was a hoax.

In related news, chimpanzees were compared to college seniors in their ability to recognize the President-elect of the United States, the current cast members of The View, the retiring Minority Leader of the United States Senate, Sean Penn, Michael Moore, Bill O'Reilly, Newt Gingrich, Bill Maher, Kanye West, Al Sharpton, every Comedy Central host and thirty-seven of the known Kardashians. The chimps did better in almost every category except the Kardashians. However, they appeared to be puzzled when viewing the identification photos -- the reason why was eventually determined when one chimp learned enough human sign language to ask why all of these humans were walking upside down.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Summa Everything

-- Amazon has created a store that doesn't actually need to take your money. Check in with your smartphone, load stuff into your cart and sensors enter it into your "virtual cart" so when you walk out your Amazon account is charged for the items you take with you. I'm guessing some real people are needed for the folks who might decide to take "walk out without paying" more literally than they should, or for those knuckle-dragging Philistines actually insisting on using cash. One problem I can see -- if you decide you don't actually want an item it gets removed from your ticket when you put it back on the shelf. I've shopped Wal-Marts, K-marts, and grocery stores big and small for 30 years. The number of shoppers who put something back where they got it can be totaled up on one hand.

-- I may offer something else on this piece from Physics World -- providing I can manage to understand it -- but in the meantime, I must note that it contains the phrase "sonic Lamb shift" which my Dave Barry fan club membership required me to note would make a great name for a rock band.

--Scientists studying neutrinos have seen hints that there are differences between neutrinos and anti-neutrinos which could tells us why we have a universe made up of matter instead of one of antimatter (in which everyone, even babies, would wear evil goatees) or one that's empty because all of the antimatter and matter annihilated each other. And by annihilated, I don't mean a Buzzfeed-Voxy EVISCERATION, but literal wiping out until none are left. Which not even Jon Stewart could do on his best day.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

"Zero G, and I Feel Fine."

As many have repeated today, "Godspeed, John Glenn."

Those were the words Scott Carpenter said to Glenn just before he lifted off in 1962 on his way to be the first American to orbit the earth. The post title is what Glenn said when his spacecraft Friendship 7 achieved orbit.

Grounded by fame, Glenn was not allowed aboard another spacecraft until 1998, when at 77 he flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery as a payload specialist and as the subject of experiments on what effects space travel might have on older people. He flew with six of the luckiest astronauts ever, because they got to go into space with John frickin' Glenn.

A combat pilot in World War II and Korea, Glenn gave early indication that although he might be a textbook straight arrow, he was also a legitimate badass. There's pretty much no other word to describe you when you go into combat with Ted Williams as your wingman.

On Dec. 8, 2016, John H. Glenn, Jr., took a flight that was not limited to LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) -- because now, neither is he.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Living in Infamy

Seventy-five years ago today, Japanese planes attacked the United States naval and air base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It didn't turn out well for them in the end although they had some pretty good initial success.

Later this month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become the first leader of his nation to visit Pearl Harbor while in office. The visit is seen as reciprocating President Obama's visit to Hiroshima in May.

Some questions have been raised about what PM Abe will say during his visit. President Obama issued no formal apologies for United States actions to end the war, which included dropping two atomic bombs. Most people don't expect PM Abe to apologize for the Pearl Harbor attack either. It's possible to make more of a case that of the two nations, Japan might be the one which needed to apologize -- Pearl Harbor was unprovoked and a sneak attack, while the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were part of an effort to shorten the war before an invasion of the Japanese main islands cost perhaps millions of lives.

But even if that's true, the people who ought to be apologizing are the leaders who authorized the attack. Japan doesn't even have the same form of government that it had in 1941 (the Emperor is no longer a divine ruling figure). And Abe wasn't born until fourteen years after the attack. As even the youngest warriors on both sides of the conflict near the end of their ninth decade, you'd have to wonder what purpose an apology from what is now one of our closer allies in the Pacific would even mean.

The time frame for an apology to have meant something was in the ten to fifteen years after the war, when some of the same pre-war leaders who assented to the attacks were still around and some have even returned to the government. But since we were too busy rebuilding both of the nations we'd just helped smash flat to the ground, we never got around to asking for one.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Well That's Big of Them

The state legislature of New Jersey passed a law that says its student loan repayment agency won't go after families to pay back student loans for children who have passed away.

Now, ideally someone would have a life insurance policy on himself or herself to cover discharging debts, especially when the estate consists of not much more than day-old pizza in the mini-fridge and a used copy of The Norton Anthology of American Literature. But college students don't always think ahead like that, so the state's Higher Education Student Assistance Authority -- which is kind of an ironic name considering that their main job is "assisting" students in writing them checks -- has been known to be a little pushy in insisting on payback. And by "a little pushy" i mean requiring a woman to pay back $16,000 on her son's student loans after he was murdered. And suing a cancer patient after refusing to allow him to defer loan payments during treatment.

The new law brings New Jersey more in line with federal student loans, which are generally considered discharged if the borrower dies or becomes permanently disabled.

Obviously the law will now prevent abuses such as those listed above. But I guess that the sad thing is it took a law to prevent people from suing a cancer patient and forcing a murdered man's mother to pay his student loans. But bureaucratic pettiness and inflexibility can't be banned with a general regulation, so I guess we'll just go one step at a time.

Monday, December 5, 2016

From the Rental Vault: Pursued (1947)

Robert Mitchum played his strongest roles in noir and Western pictures (he said of his acting style that he had two: On a horse and off). Raoul Walsh's Pursued takes a shot at mixing the two styles and comes off with an uneasy, uneven blend that doesn't make up either its own or its audience's mind about what it's supposed to be doing.

Mitchum is Jeb, orphaned as a boy when his family is gunned down in a firefight at his home. He is taken in by Ma Callum (Judith Anderson) to be raised with her own children. But he remains haunted by the loss of his family and his frustratingly vague memories of the night they were killed. It leaves him unable to bond with the Callums and both brothers grow up resenting what they believe to be favorable treatment of Jeb by Ma. But he has fallen in love with his foster sister Thor (Teresa Wright), and even the machinations of Ma's brother-in-law Grant Callum (Dean Jagger) seem unable to pry them apart. Jeb's return to town as a triumphant war hero inflames even more resentment and the schemes against him take on a deadly edge.

While the setting is Western -- New Mexico in the early 1900s -- the shrouded inescapable past and hidden motives come straight out of the film noir playbook. Nothing says that the two genres can't mix, but Niven Busch's screenplay doesn't manage to get them there. We're told different motivations for the characters, but they never live them out in any convincing way. People seem to do things just because the story needs them to be done in order to get from one scene to the next.

A director like Walsh and actors like Mitchum, Anderson and Wright have the chops to almost bring Pursued across the finish line, but not without a clear sense that things could have been better.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Delivery Extra

Astronomy offers a short item on a newly-discovered near-Earth asteroid, 2015 TC25, which is currently the smallest-known asteroid in our neighborhood. It's also apparently the brightest near-Earth asteroid, covered in a reflective surface that reflects more than half of the light that shines on it.

According to the headline, the 2-meter 2015 TC25 could "fit in your living room." This is no doubt true, but it would probably make a heck of a mess getting there. I would hope the owners bought moving insurance.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Strong Entries

In 2004, Mike Moscoe adopted the pen name Mike Shepherd and moved ahead a couple of generations in his "Society of Humanity" universe to start writing the adventures of Kris Longknife, a very young officer in her planet's Navy with a long family tradition of trouble, guts and glory. With 2016's Kris Longknife: Bold, Moscoe/Shepherd winds up the first main arc of Kris's life as he brings her to the negotiating table of her family's deadliest enemies.

Vicky Peterwald and her father, the Emperor of Greenfeld, are at odds -- mostly because the Emperor's new wife wants to kill her. Vicky has gathered several Greenfeld planets in support of her, but she does not want to completely break with her father to outright attack her stepmother. The Emperor has asked for a cease-fire and wants Kris to mediate it. Vicky and her father sincerely desire rapprochement. Her stepmother the empress sincerely desires Vicky's death and that of anyone who stands between her and power, which includes Kris Longknife. This won't turn out well for the empress.

Bold makes a few missteps -- the number of characters in the series who have been attacked in a motorcade should alert pretty much all of them to take the subway for the rest of their lives, and Shepherd drops another such incident here. He spends rather more time on the opulence of the meeting and conference room than the details warrant. The Greenfeld-focused action moves the main storyline away from the mysterious near-human race Kris has fought several times before in defense of her home star-kingdom, which is really the more intriguing narrative in the series.

But he keeps his heroes witty and brave without the suffocating level of sang-froid David Weber piles on in his "Honorverse." And by making Kris a mother -- it involved sabotage, so don't ask -- he's added a new layer to her character and new concerns for her as she tries to do the right thing and prevent others from doing the wrong ones. Shepherd says in an afterward that Bold brings Kris to a turning point in her life and adventures, and so the changing tone helps set the stage for the next chapters in the story.
Harry Bosch has been run out of the Los Angeles Police Department, although it cost them the losing end of a lawsuit to do it. He now works part time at a small city department surrounded by the LA metropolis and takes on an occasional private investigation as well. In his official capacity, he's caught a string of sexual assault cases that suddenly seem to show a linkage and a disturbing pattern of escalation -- but nothing else that offers any clues about the criminal. In his private capacity, he's been hired by an aging wealthy businessman to search for a son the businessman may have fathered almost 50 years ago. Both cases will test his wits and he will find areas of them intersect his own life in unexpected ways in 2016's The Wrong Side of Goodbye.

Michael Connelly's 21st Harry Bosch novel shows little sign of the coasting that can plague long series. The search for the missing son -- who may or may not have ever really existed -- brings Harry into some close contact with his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. The connection he feels with the people surrounding the most likely person to be that lost son drives him forward in the case even when most of his reason for pursuing it disappears. The assault case heightens his concern for his daughter, who now lives near her college campus in an apartment the cop side of Harry will never believe his safe enough. Connelly makes a good choice to have Harry pursue two separate cases, as it allows him to avoid padding either of them in order to have them carry the weight of a novel alone. He uses recurring characters like Harry's daughter Maddie and his half-brother layer Mickey Haller judiciously and never just salted in for the sake of a walk-on appearance.

The Bosch character gained a slightly higher profile with two seasons of Amazon's Bosch TV series, meaning Connelly could easily start churning out second-rate work at a pace designed to keep his publisher and investment manager happy but let his fans down. So far, that hasn't happened, and Goodbye is one of the strongest Bosch stories of the series.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Good Start

Major League Baseball's new labor agreement removes one of Bud Selig's dumb innovations -- giving the league which wins the All-Star game the home-field advantage in the World Series. But rather than go back to the old alternating American League-National League patterns, home-field will be awarded to the pennant winning team with the best regular season record.

Granted, the frequency of interleague play has removed a lot of the spectacle of the All-Star game. And since players may play for four or five different teams in their careers, the matchups of seeing the best stars of the game take on the other best stars of the game isn't as unprecedented as it has been before.

But tying home-field to the mid-season break winner was a panic-button move brought on by Selig after he ignored a basic law of professional baseball -- no ties, ever -- and allowed the 2002 All-Star game to end just that way. So its demise is no great loss.

Now if they could just close the Hellmouth under Yankee Stadium...

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sharpen That Razor

This article at The Federalist suggests that different views about the possibility of extraterrestrial life can imply several things about a person's worldview. Specifically, the willingness of some of today's more aggressive atheists to invoke them and their actions as a solution to the Fermi paradox suggests how these thinkers wind up invoking an unprovable solution with no more empirical evidence for it than for some kind of deity.

Now, the writer seems to me to have an overly-simplified understanding of the Fermi paradox (which asks, if there's life on other worlds, why haven't we heard from some of them yet) and probably does the same to the views of some of these more energetic atheistic persons. But that's beside the point. He suggests that the use of William of Occam's guide to answering a question produces an answer which makes these other folks reach for their silly solutions.

This guide, often called "Occam's Razor," says that the simplest solution which covers all the bases is usually the right one, and warns against needlessly complicated answers. So when Fermi's paradox asks where are those other life forms and someone answers, well, maybe we humans are the first species to have developed the ability to look around for our neighbors? Or someone else answers, well, maybe the other aliens are more evolved than we are and are waiting for us to catch up before talking? Those are needlessly complicated (and his dismissal of them needlessly snippy)! Occam's Razor means that the simplest answer to Fermi's question "Where are the aliens" is "There are none!"

From there we proceed to several more snippy paragraphs targeting folks like Richard Dawkins who have themselves not slouched in sniding religious believers. Although it goes against my grain to rein in someone who's knocking Dawkins' statements from pillar to post, I think this piece ignores a fundamental flaw in its eagerness to get its licks in.

I don't question the use of Occam's Razor in answering the Fermi Paradox -- but I think the writer here doesn't apply it properly. He says that ol' Will's maxim answers Fermi's question with, "There are none," because that's the simplest possible solution. That's the error. There is another solution, which you might consider equally uncomplicated or perhaps even less complicated: Where are the aliens?

We don't know.

But "we don't know" makes a poor rhetorical weapon. Though it's definitely accurate, it offers no sharp edges for cutting remarks and no weight to bash straw opponents. All it's got is humility and honesty. Which don't seem to be needed in this discussion, at least according to one of the statements being made in it.