Sunday, December 31, 2017

See You Next Year

The clock winds down on 2017, and your humble blogger is pretty wound down himself. So we will end the year with a wish for blessings for you all after the calendar does its flipover.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Throw the Book at Them

California is host to a number of weird things that make it the justifiable butt of many jokes, but this idea sounds like one that ought to spread.

While the library board in Los Angeles County recently voted to end late fees for patrons under 21, they did not offer any amnesty for current fines. So the library developed its "Read Away" program, which forgives $5 in fines for every hour spent reading at the library. Since a balance of $10 suspends borrowing privileges, the alternative route allows kids who may not be able to get that kind of money to "work off" the debt through reading.

The young lady whose story leads off the article, in fact, logged more reading time than she needed to erase her fine -- once she got into a book, she lost track of time and couldn't put it down.

I bet that kid's going places.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Do Your Best!

You might argue that it'd be tough for someone with Lucy Van Pelt's attitude to have much of a good year. But Snoopy gives it a shot!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Cover Art

Want to find out where your favorite New York City album cover picture was taken, and perhaps take your own picture? Check out Bob Egan's PopSpots blog, where he shows the sites, superimposes the album cover on a current photo and describes how he tracked the place down.

Some of the fun is in seeing how much some of the areas have changed, or how their backgrounds have changed, in the time since the original pictures were taken. Skylines look different, new stores replace old ones, some spots get upgraded, benches or ornaments are added or removed, and so on.

Egan is an exhaustive researcher, which leads to some, shall we say, obscure acts as well as better-known ones. In the Central Park section of the site, he features a picture of counterculture musician David Peel, used on Peel's 1972 album The Pope Smokes Dope. My knowledge of music doesn't hit hipster level by any means, but I'm not too bad when it comes to my familiarity with some obscure performers. Still, I had never heard of Peel. After listening to some cuts on YouTube, I can see I didn't miss much.

Although if I ever want to sit in the same spot Peel did when he had his picture taken sometime in the early 1970s, I can. Which is still kind of cool.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


I can't imagine the circumstances under which I would change my decision to not vote for Donald Trump if he runs for a second term as president in 2020. He was unfit for the office in 2016 he remains so.

But when stuff like this keeps happening, I become more and more concerned that no matter who the Democrats nominate to run against Trump, he will win. It's one thing to have such a raging case of stunted adolescence that you think a box of horse manure is a political argument. It's nothing more than a case of shouting "Look at me I'm clever and rebellious" with an action instead of those words themselves.

Then top it off with the idea that this psychology professor compares his act with both Martin Luther and Jesus and you get a prime example of someone who does more to convince you to vote against whatever candidate he supports than any negative campaign mudslinging ever could. Jesus confronted the money-changers in the seat of their power structure face to face; he didn't leave a box of manure on their doorstep and run.

Mocking this professor on the Luther comparison is a little iffier -- Luther frequently said he "s**t on the devil." Luther was also bothered by constipation and spent much of his time on the toilet -- time which he put to use by writing and thinking. He claimed that's where he was when he finished up most of his 95 theses later nailed to the Wittenberg church door. But since the comparison made by this guy is "95 feces" to "95 theses" we can probably work figuring he knew little of that part of Luther's story.

There are good cases to be made against much of Trump's program. Some of his supporters will never be convinced of them, in the way that some of President Obama's supporters could never be convinced of his many and varied limitations. But some might be, in the course of discussion and reasoned argument. Sending a box of crap to one of Trump's cabinet officials won't do it, though, and the pride the creator takes in his work clearly indicates that he needs to turn over his office to an adult.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Art History

Mel Blanc gave Bugs Bunny his voice and attitude, but it was animator Bob Givens who created the wily wascal's wiseacre mug and rubber-limbed physique.

Givens got that job in 1940, shortly after coming over to Warner Bros. studios from Walt Disney. Bugs had already appeared in a couple of cartoons, but no one was really happy with the character line. They wanted less cute and more con-man, which Givens supplied for the 1940 short A Wild Hare. He had also brought Elmer Fudd to a look much more familiar to us today.

Givens passed away this week at the age of 99. Bugs is still with us and may indeed wind up being immortal -- which means that in a way, Bob Givens will be too.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Maybe Meta, Maybe Not

Randall Munroe, creator of the witty and often thought-provoking xkcd comic, offers an opinion on the true meaning of Christmas in this strip:

According to the characters, the true meaning of Christmas is the actual search for the true meaning of Christmas. This has come about because of all of the different stories, movies, books and such that search for the true meaning of Christmas, many of which find it in a lot of different places.

I'd agree that all of the different "true meanings of Christmas" that seem to be found in popular media might make one wonder whether or not there is a true meaning. I'm not sure of Mr. Munroe's own religious beliefs, but your humble blogger remains mired in his traditional Christian theism. So he departs from Mr. Munroe in this way -- there is indeed a true meaning of Christmas that is not really touched on by all of the different things that say they are about the true meaning of Christmas. But that meaning is not the quest itself. Instead, it is God's choice to enter creation as the divine second person of the Trinity, the Logos, is born as a human baby in the town of Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago -- give or take.

But whether you, O welcome reader, hold that belief or not, I would wish you a Merry Christmas nonetheless.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Test Pattern

Busy couple of days prepping for the Christmas Eve services, so blogging for the next couple of days is light. Blessings on the birth of a Savior!

Friday, December 22, 2017

Fluids' Dynamic

If you're ever poured a colored liquid into clear water you've seen now it first billows outward before diffusing throughout the container. And you've probably noticed how the amount of liquid poured and how fast it's poured affects the shape of the billowing. Although the action seems to produce similar results from similar amounts and speeds, it would seem impossible to predict with any great accuracy how the two currents would interact.

But believe it or not, there are mathematical equations that describe those changes to a degree that scientists can often predict not just something as simple as two liquids in one container but the interactions of ocean currents and airflows in the atmosphere. They're called the Navier-Stokes equations and they've been around for almost two hundred years. Claude-Louis Navier and George Gabriel Stokes didn't work as a team to develop them, but their development of how to apply Newton's laws of motion to elastic materials linked up and were collected under their names. Navier is one of the 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel Tower and Stokes held the Lucasian Chair in Mathematics at Cambridge -- a job also held by Isaac Newton, Paul Dirac and Stephen Hawking, among others.

Navier-Stokes equations help meteorologists forecast weather changes. Air behaves like a very, very thin fluid so the equations can predict some of its motions. Oceanographers predict changes in sea currents depending on the temperature or relative strength of some motion in the water. Both groups will use computers to build models of likely air or water behavior given starting conditions. Because new factors can change conditions in an instant, those predictions are not necessarily as precise or accurate as they would be in computer simulations.

As their name indicates, the Navier-Stokes equations are mathematical operations. They have proven more than adequate to describing the physical world in which we live. This means that physicists, as well as oceanographers, meteorologists and other scientists who work with fluids are quite satisfied with them. Mathematicians, on the other hand, aren't. Mathematicians deal with equations that may or may not apply to "real world" situations; either way they focus on the numbers and such involved as abstract concepts instead of physical things.

And the mathematicians think that the Naver-Stokes equations may have a problem or two when they are handled outside of their real-world contexts. Under certain conditions, the equations describe two possible states for a fluid at the same time, which is a no-no (unless you're doing quantum mechanics, but that's another beastie). The example in the story at Quanta magazine is of a perfectly still glass of water. When the Navier-Stokes equations are turned loose on it under certain parameters, then you have a glass of water that either stayed still all night or at some time spontaneously erupted in the glass and then returned to its still state. Ghost Hunters and similar shows notwithstanding, that sort of thing doesn't happen. But even if it did, the Navier-Stokes equations should tell an observer which one it was rather than coming up with both answers at the same time.

If the math crowd does figure out that the Navier-Stokes equations are flawed, they probably won't get abandoned. After all, Albert Einstein showed that Newton's own Laws of Motion got a little wrinkly when things were either very fast or very small, but we still use Newton's understanding most of the time. Things rarely move that fast and even though we know the very very small is real, its fuzziness doesn't translate to everyday-sized objects. So the physicists, meteorologists, oceanographers and others will probably keep using them (although the meteorologists on TV will usually choose whichever model allows them to monger the most fear).

The possible dichotomy does provoke interesting possibilities. One of the things that Einstein did with his theories of relativity was explain a kink in Mercury's orbit that plain ol' Newtonian physics couldn't. Could the mathematical inadequacy of the Navier-Stokes equations prompt some new world-flipping paradigm shift? Who knows? But it will be fun to watch.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Keep on Searching

Writing at The Sports Economist, Kurt Rotthoff outlines how the current playoff structure for bigtime college footbal's championship an easily be expanded to a 24-team field, adding only one more week of play.

Rotthoff suggests that current schedules would work just fine if conferences got rid of their own championship games and left an open week for the extra layer of playoff games.

Left unaddressed are all of the official and unofficial opinions brought up to tell us how a playoff is the only way we can determine an actual national champion. Rather than trying to figure out which two teams should play for the title, we'll have four teams to make sure the qualified teams get the chance to play.

But if Rotthoff is right, then not only is a four-team playoff inadequate, so would an eight-team playoff be. No, we need to have a 24-team playoff series in order to learn who the real national champion is.

Oh well. At least the players will all have useful degrees with good employment prospects.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Senatorial Good News

-- Alabama has had all of its overseas ballots come in, and it is now mathematically impossible for Roy Moore to win the special election held last week. The number of overseas ballots, combined with the number of provisional ballots cast and now upheld, does not come close to bridging the gap between Moore and Doug Jones, the winning Democrat. Moore continues to refuse to concede and may not do so until Jones is defeated by a less loathsome opponent in 2020. Although his strong proclamations about doing God's work suggest that he might reconsider that decision if the Almighty himself said, "Roy, it's over."

Not that I would tell you how to pray or anything.

-- Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who last week promised to resign following reports and photographs of inappropriate behavior, has now said he will resign on January 2. Franken was funny for several years on Saturday Night Live and wrote a couple of funny books -- Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Why Not Me? But as his political star ascended, both his likability and sense of humor faded away. Some of the things that Franken is accused of might be open to different interpretations about their severity and the appropriate steps to take. That's a good discussion to have, but I suggest we stop it until after Franken books his flight to Minneapolis and we can be sure he's really gone.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Nothin' Common

This space has previously praised Keely Smith, a torch and standards singer who gained fame with husband Louis Prima before forging a respectable solo career. Smith passed away Saturday at 89, from what her publicist said was mostly likely heart failure.

She cemented her role early on as the "straight" one of the duet with Prima, well known for his antics while singing. She didn't hit the heights of some other female standards singers, but carved out a respectable niche for herself with more than a few memorable numbers. Among them were her duets with Frank Sinatra, most especially "How Are Ya Fixed for Love," where she showed she could match the Chairman swagger for swinging swagger. Smith recorded an album of Sinatra hits in 2001, which earned her a Grammy nomination.

Smith took some artistic risks, recording an album of Beatles songs in 1964 that landed a number fourteen hit on the UK charts. But she mostly stuck with the standards, taking time off from most performing after 1965 in order to raise her two daughters. A 1962 concert recorded at the Hollywood Bowl gives an impression of what kind of act Smith might have developed on her own, but what she apparently considered the more important task took priority.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Last Jedi

J.J. Abrams' 2015 Star Wars movie The Force Awakens was welcomed for breathing some life into a movie series made into a clunky wreck by George Lucas' three prequels. It was also dinged for rehashing plot, narrative strands and other beats from the three original movies and not really doing enough with its new characters. Considered fairly, Awakens earns both its praise and condemntation.

Rian Johnson, who both wrote and directed the new The Last Jedi, fixes some of Abrams' problems but creates enough of his own to leave one of the biggest questions facing Awakens still unanswered.

Three narrative arcs run parallel in Jedi -- Rey has found the gone-hermit Luke Skywalker and works to get him to either rejoin the fight against the First Order's attempt to reestablish the Empire or train her to use the natural Force abilities she has found. Working against them is Luke's nephew Kylo Ren, who has turned to the Dark Side of the Force and tries to lure Rey over to his side in service of Great Leader Snoke. Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron and General Leia Organa try desperately to shepherd the remnants of the Resistance away from a pursuing Snoke and Kylo, working against time and shrinking fuel supplies. Reformed Stormtrooper Finn joins a Resistance mechanic named Rose to search for someone who can help them defuse the First Order hyperspace tracker.

Johnson avoids some of the note-for-note repeats that hobbled Abrams. He also, along with Daisy Ridley as Rey, Adam Driver as Kylo and Mark Hamill as Luke, creates one of the better narrative threads of the entire series of movies. Driver makes Kylo much more than a one-note villain, even in the scenes where he's the most villainous. And 40 years have improved Mark Hamill's acting no little bit -- his grumpy old Jedi turn is magnitudes more convincing than anything he did in the original trilogy. Especially when he questions the whole purpose of the Jedi and their supposed mastery of the Force -- he's deep in bitter despair over failures personal and public. Ridley balances her poles of questing student and self-sufficient warrior well, alternating between asking Hamill to teach her and push him towards rejoining the fight.

The fleeing Resistance ship storyline is less successful, weighed down by giving Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo a role in the story that could have easily been filled by Carrie Fisher's General Leia Organa. It serves mainly to help cool the hotshot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) by having him clash with the wiser and more seasoned Leia. The character needs it, since he's pretty much directly responsible for massive Resistance ship and personnel losses.

Its companion plot, in which Finn (John Boyega) and a new character played by Kelly Marie Tran travel to a casino planet to enlist a codebreaker who can help them sneak on board Snoke's ship and disable his tracker, is even less successful and has basically no reason to be present. Its removal would drop Jedi back closer to the two-hour range, tighten up the story and reduce the narrative fuzz that weakens the much stronger Rey-Kylo-Luke plot.

The biggest question Abrams failed to answer in Awakens was "Why is this movie here?" The 1983 Return of the Jedi finished and tidied up most of the conflicts set up by Star Wars and expanded through The Empire Strikes Back. Sure, like every major studio release these movies exist to make money for the studio. But there was nothing left to explore narratively that hadn't been explored forwards and backwards by dozens of novels to warrant a trip back to the Star Wars universe. Johnson hasn't answered the question either, and by saddling his one really solid plot with two others that range from "meh" to "WTH?" he can't really cover up that failure. Jedi is definitely better than Awakens, but in the end it's still short of getting over the "So what?" hump.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Take Wing

Today, 114 years ago, the Wright brothers made humanity's first powered flight of a heavier-than-air craft, on a sandy North Carolina beach. Orville Wright had the honors, but brother Wilbur took one of the next test flights later that same day.

Both brothers flew their untested craft from a prone position, the high-water mark for legroom in an airplane and something which airlines have been working tirelessly to correct ever since.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Applied Physics

Apoorva Jayaraman is a performer and teacher in the Indian art of Bharatanatyam, a stylized form of dance and movement that has its roots in ancient Hindu religious texts. She dances and choreographs Bharatanatyam shows in several countries, and organizes workshops on the art. Currently she's taking a look at how this and other classical Indian arts are not only entertainment or artistic expression, but might actually help Indian society and culture build knowledge of the world.

She also holds a PhD in astronomy from the University of Cambridge in England and a masters degree in Physics from Trinity College at Oxford. Her thesis explored how galaxies form, and she had articles in several different scientific journals during her academic career.

The interview at Physics World doesn't really dig too deeply into how physics or astronomy intersect with Bharatanatyam, which sounds to me like one of the more interesting parts of her work. Some Bharatanatyam dances connect with Hindu creation myths and it would be fascinating to hear someone with cutting-edge astronomical training reflect on where the two would overlap or possibly have friction. It could also be interesting to hear how some of her understanding of the elements of physics, such as motion, balance, body position and others, affects how she moves when she dances. About the only place where the conversation touches on those matters is when Jayaraman explains that her training as a scientists helps her be aware of what she does not know, in addition to what she does know.

Physics World suggests in its headline that even though Jayaraman's professional life followed the path of Bharatanatyam performance and instruction, she's still a scientist in many ways. When I read how she compared the stability of income as an artist to that of an astronomy professor -- "This has obvious repercussions on its financial viability as a career choice." -- I knew that Dr. Jayaraman indeed remained a scientist.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Data Discussing

A couple of friends recently posted Facebook items related to this link at Makers, which says it shows the "best and worst states for women in 2017." The Makers link goes to a study reported at MoveHub, with a story written by Patrick Gilligan.

Makers is a networking site for women in business, with stories, videos and interviews with successful women in a variety of fields. MoveHub is a site that offers information about different areas for people considering moves, focusing on moves overseas.

It doesn't take a lot of time on the internet to find a host of infographic-y items that rank states, countries or regions according to different criteria. Even the significant chunk that aren't outright clickbait dangle the ranking lure in front of readers, banking on curiosity and the competitive impulse to grab an eyeball and make it hit that link. Depending on the criteria you like to use, it's not hard to get a set of rankings that puts a preferred area on top or on the bottom.

But the majority of these pieces, clickbait or no, are junk -- or at the very best can offer no proof that they're not junk, unless the ranking being discussed is a narrow one based on clearly measurable data. The MoveHub piece, for example, cross-referenced "data for the gender pay gap, political representation in the state legislature, equality in education, accessibility to health insurance, reproductive rights and the number of incidents of violence against women at the hands of men." The colored map in the story lists the sources for different studies used in the cross referencing, but leaves out the individual studies themselves. We also don't know which group was responsible for which set of data -- sure, you can guess that the National Conference for State Legislatures is the source for statistics about how many women serve in elected office per state, but what data do the Americans United for Life or Kaiser Family Foundation provide?

We don't know if these studies dealt with the same kinds of populations, beyond a reasonable assumption that they compile data about women. So we don't know if a combination of their results to produce rankings is reliable -- unless similar groups were studied, then the data won't combine well. Did the MoveHub researchers weight some criteria more heavily than others? For example, did rates of violence against women by men figure more heavily into the final tally than equality of education? It's not out of line to note that female victims of violence by men come from many educational backgrounds, nor is it out of line to wonder if some women might consider the safety of themselves and their children a little more important than access to doctoral programs. Perhaps they don't -- but nothing in the MoveHub story clues us in about which it might be.

When we look at the criteria MoveHub used, we can raise some more questions. How were these chosen? Were women themselves surveyed to find out that these five were their top concerns? If so, where is that data? Once they were chosen, were rankings from just one study put into the MoveHub formula, or were several combined to help correct for the possibility of outliers or inadvertently skewed results? If just one study was chosen: Did it have the best data set and survey methodology, or was it at the top of the Google search results? Or did it have the result that best matched the author's intent? 

Why did MoveHub only use the number of incidents of violence against women by men? Wouldn't women also be concerned about incidents of violence against them by women, too? Hawaii is ranked at the top of the 50 states, singled out for its extremely low rate of women murdered by men. Would the rate change if it was simply women murdered? A woman murdered by a woman is just as dead as a woman murdered by a man. It might not change the rate or the rankings in that category much at all, but we don't know based on the info MoveHub uses.

And what do some of these categories actually measure? Did the gender pay gap study compare men and women with equal or similar jobs, or did it lump all jobs together without considering what difference that might make? "Reproductive rights" is a pretty broad term, even though a lot of folks on both sides of the issue seem to want to limit it to abortion. Access to abortion? Public funding for in vitro fertilization for women who can't have children? What markers did the study or studies MoveHub uses measure in ranking the states? In the paragraph about the worst state, Oklahoma, we're told that legislation was introduced that would require a woman seeking an abortion to have permission from the baby's father. But did that legislation ever become law? (Spoiler: No) So what quantifiable difference does it make?

What's "equality in education?" The state's two top universities split the difference on male-female enrollment, with the University of Oklahoma 51-49 in favor of women and Oklahoma State University 51-49 in favor of men. The third-largest school, the University of Central Oklahoma, goes 59-41 in favor of women, and most of the other smaller regional colleges in state cluster around that 3:2 ratio. How did whichever group that conducted that study rank states? What made a state do well on their study?

And to close, what was the actual statistical difference between the top and bottom tiers in the study? Yes, there's a nice map and numerical ranking that puts Oklahoma and four other states in a deep warning shade of red to show how awful they are, but what were the actual differences in that murder rate, mentioned above, between Hawaii and Oklahoma? Or between any other two states? If I make a billion dollars a year and eight others make a billion dollars plus one apiece, I rank at the bottom of the income stats. But I probably won't care, because the difference is so very small and because I've got a billion reasons not to.

You might think I'm having a little hissy about this one because it puts my state at the bottom and there may be something to that, although I dismiss the same kinds of ratings fluff that put us towards the top as well. And for mostly the same reasons: No clarity about how the data are selected or weighed, no clear definition of categories or rationale for choosing them, and nothing to suggest that any of the data have been compiled or researched by anyone with any training or background in statistics or surveying.

Oklahoma is like a lot of places in that it could move faster to help women gain real parity and equality in its society, culture and governing systems. It probably lags behind some but is ahead of others. Arguments that it's the best place in the world for women will lean on some weak reeds indeed and will get shut down before very long. But "the worst state for women?"

I'm not a woman. Except for three periods of five years or less in other states, I have only lived in Oklahoma, so my experience of other states is limited. Moreover, I wasn't a woman when I lived in them, either. So is Oklahoma the worst state for women? I don't know, but neither does MoveHub.

The difference is I'll admit it.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Certain Cure!

Just in time for the Christmas office party season, we have advice from William Vaughan's 1612 guide, Approved Directions for Health, via the Ask the Past blog.

The esteemed Mr. Vaughan suggests that a certain way to prevent drunkenness though one might "drinke great store of wine" is to beforehand consume the roasted lungs of a goat. Or possibly raw coleworts, which we would today probably label cabbage.

To sober up those who didn't dine on goat lungs before the party, one might again administer coleworts, or "great draughts of vinegar."

Although we commonly laugh at much of the medical advice given in past ages, I can see how this might work. I am pretty certain that if I ate the roasted lungs of a goat I would not get drunk, because there is no way that wine, liquor or anything else would stay down long enough for my body to process it. My stomach would begin working by the "Fool me twice, shame on me" principle.

But I think the cure for drunkenness is on shakier ground. While the consumption of large amounts of cabbage or great draughts of vinegar would probably have the same projectile effects as goat-lung casserole, millennia of research has yet to show any connection between upchucking and sobering up. Although laboratory conditions weren't present, personal anecdotal evidence from my own experimental phase backs this up.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Raise Your Sights

Here in the third orbital path out from Sol in the year 2017, things may have seemed like they were, well, crappus maximus. But there were really quite a few cool things that went on, and one of the arenas where that happened was astronomical photography. The good folks at Atlas Obscura have compiled some cool shots (and one artist's conception) to stimulate both wonder (Jupiter's clouds, photo #7) and curious imagination (Saturn's hexagonal north pole -- just why does it have such a regular shape?).

The advent of the tablet has signifcantly reduced the need for printed calendars to be placed on the wall, but I still buy one or two for backups. Most of the time they're astro-photography of some sort. What goes on down here, good and bad, is important, of course. But it's good to lift one's gaze now and again to remember where we are on the scale of things.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Names Matter

Although I often read the conservative news/opinion site Hot Air, I usually don't link it because the opinion items are often a little over the top and most folks would not trust their news judgment because of their very clear political stance. But this one was just about smack on the money in noting that the four Port Authority police officers who jumped on the "Fumblewear Bomber" who attempted to blow himself up near the PA bus terminal are far more deserving to have their names known than his.

So Anthony Manfredini, Jack Collins, Sean Gallagher, and Drew Preston, may the road rise to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back and may you live long and fulfilling lives. And to the sad sack who you stopped from blowing himself and a lot of innocent people up, may you come to realize the error of your ways and spend as many days as you have left in repentance of your wrongs.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Sometimes It Is Easy Being Green

At least, when you're photographed under the green aurora visible from the Austenfjorden Fjord in Norway, it is.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Voting for Less

Your faithful blogging servant has at various times outed himself as conservative in political, economic and theological thinking -- although in the case of the latter he usually likes to use the terms "traditional" or "orthodox."

Nevertheless, he is not a Republican by voter registration, He will frequently vote for Republicans, however, although it is not because he believes they will do a better job of getting a conservative policy agenda enacted into law. It is because he believes that Democrats will do much much worse at getting a conservative policy agenda enacted into law.

All of that said, there is no way to look at the plight of Alabama conservatives and use any rational calculus to determine how to vote in that state's upcoming United States Senate special election. They face a choice between a Democrat whose position on abortion is "Sure, why not?" and former State Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, whose flaws are numerous. Some of them are longstanding and some of them have come to light more recently.

Agonized, some Alabama conservatives have broken for Moore, rationalizing that making Democrat Doug Jones their senator would be Chicxulub-level bad. Writing for National Review, Kevin Williamson makes the case that however bad it would be to elect Doug Jones to the Senate, it would be at least as bad to elect Roy Moore. He's persuasive.

I don't feel sorry for Alabama Republicans. They cast the votes in the primary that got them in this mess, back when it was only obvious that Moore was unqualified rather that clear he was weapons-grade creepy. But I don't feel any desire to see them punished -- they're talked themselves into a situation where they think "Senator Roy Moore" is a win. How much worse off could they be?

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Read West, Young Person

Writing at Signature, Lorraine Berry finds that even though the moral landscape of the mythic American west differs greatly from the landscapes we cross today, the written works of the genre can still have some interesting things to say to us, if we want to pay attention.

This space is on record many times that the Western, in both written and cinematic form, has a lot of philosophical and artistic life in it yet. It's always pleasing when someone else discovers that as well. Myths, including those of the Western, may be mostly legends wrapped around a kernel of truth of varying size. But even myths get told for a reason, and studying them can perhaps clue us in to some interesting things once we stop looking down our nose and tutting about how things "weren't really that way at all."

Friday, December 8, 2017


-- In 1956, Alfred Bester published the science fiction novel The Stars My Destination, in which human beings have the ability to "jaunt," or teleport instantly between places. Every time some airline does something like this, I come a little closer to literally praying for that novel to come true in my lifetime, so I can pop into the CEO's office and laugh at the way his business collapses around his ears.

-- U.S. skier Lindsey Vonn, asked whether she would accept an invitation to the White House if she wins gold in next year's Winter Olympics, said, "Absolutely not." She said she plans to represent "the people of the United States, not the president." Ms. Vonn overlooks a couple of things -- despite his generally repulsive character, President Trump is a person who is in the United States and although I'd have to look it up, I don't think many U.S. athletes have ever considered themselves to be representing the president serving when they competed. I know why Donald Trump thinks everything is about him, but I can't understand why anyone else does.

-- You don't like telephone scammers. I don't like telephone scammers. Nobody likes telephone scammers. This guy really doesn't like telephone scammers.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Poles Apart

Seventy-six years ago, a lot of brave men responded to a sneak attack as best they could to save their shipmates and buddies and hold off their attackers; more than 2,000 didn’t make it.

Today, an ugly man whose career began with humor but devolved into bitter smarm, arrogance and attempts to hide his lechery behind self-righteous pomposity talked about what a great guy he was but how he’s forced to quit anyway.

Should have waited a day, Al. Dec. 7 already has enough infamy to go around.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Ah, For a Really Fast Rocket

Stories like this are very often intriguing, prompting speculation about what life might exist on these other potentially habitable worlds, or what they might look like when we are finally able to go there.

But sometimes they're a little depressing, because they highlight the reality that we can't go there -- we're stuck here, and here is a place that's afflicted with way more than its share of reasons to want to go there. Grandstanding twerps, careless hacks, name-calling hypocrites, grotesque creeps and the blinkered or willfully delusional people who support them, bullies without end who use their power to degrade and prey upon victims -- and some foolish people who defend them...

The world of dreams that helps the subconscious process and deal with the strains of the day has a lot of work to do tonight.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

International Olympic Committee Provides Historic Hint It May Have a Spine

If you were hoping to cheer on some Russian athletes in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, you are out of luck. In a move that could actually be the first step in its evolution to vertebrate status, the International Olympic Committe has told that country to not bother showing up.

What seems to have turned the tide is widespread evidence that the various shady performance-enhancing shenanigans indulged in by different Russian athletes and teams were not just good old-fashioned cheating. They were policy, set at the highest levels of Russian Olympic organization. One Russian official was banned for life from any involvement with any Olympics-connected event -- which may actually help lighten the guy's workload, since he's in charge of Russia's World Cup soccer organizing committee. That organization's governing body, which has had its own shenanigan-y episodes, has said the IOC's punishments of Russia would have no impact on the World Cup.

Russia will appeal, of course, but even if it doesn't win the whole matter may be moot, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested that his nation will boycott the 2018 games if it is banned from them.

In other words, you didn't fire us, we quit. The East German judge gives that one a 10.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Cool Library, Bro

The Tianjin Binhai Library, shown in this post on the Twisted Sifter site, is mighty mighty cool. The shelves curve around in waves, and their stacked construction also helps create the staircase and seating for library patrons.

While it has room for an amazing 1.2 million books, government censorship means that you could only check out 1.2 of them. Which 1.2? Well, try it and see, comrade. No one will punish you if you select one of the forbidden volumes. We promise. Here, we'll even pinky swear on it.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

What Did He Say?

The folks at Open Culture published a listing from the Foreign Service Institute of which languages are the hardest for native English speakers to master. The FSI is the language-training service for the US government, and the article also includes a map of Europe color-coded to show some of the languages for that part of the world.

The European map is interesting because of the little gray patches on the edges of England and Ireland. One seems to be in Scotland, one in Ireland and one in Wales -- although the map legend says those areas are unclassified, we can presume that they are where the languages of Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Welsh still have a fairly strong hold. We can presume that these languages are difficult to learn because it's pretty tough to know what Scots people are saying when they're speaking English, the Irish are deep into a pint of stout and Welsh doesn't even have any frickin' vowels in half the words.

In the list we see languages divided according to difficulty, along with the hours of study needed to learn them. The first group has languages considered the most similar to English and they are usually mastered the quickest. It's interesting because although many of the languages are similar to English they are not all that similar to each other -- your average Afrikaans speaker can't just stroll down a Lisbon rua and begin chatting up the ladies without some serious language software on his selfoon.

The two hardest tiers are languages that come from mostly non-European cultures which also frequently use different writing systems than English. German doesn't reach that level, for example, because although the German alphabet has some additional characters in it like ẞ, it still has a lot in common with English. But the other languages listed vary widely from the English language and the strongly European-derived brand of culture of the US.

Not listed on the chart is the arrangement of jargon your average woke college student or politician at a press conference speaks on a regular basis -- although most of the words involved are recognizable as English, they have been strung together in an arrangement that makes no damn sense.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

I Canna Give Ye Any More, Cap'n!

The firing of Voyager 1's back control thrusters may be as close as we get for awhile to Scotty telling Captain Kirk he's at maximum power, since the spacecraft has actually left our solar system and is as qualified to be called interstellar as the Enterprise.

NASA scientists wanted to try to fire the jets as a backup to Voyager's attitude control thrusters, which are getting on in years and not as reliable as they used to be. They're used to keep the communications antenna aligned with Earth -- but at Voyager's immense distances, even microscopic errors in the thrust could mean a loss of communication from the spacecraft. Scientists wondered if the back thrusters, which hadn't been fired in almost 40 years, could be used instead.

So they labored over ancient computer code, designed a plan and sent the signal to Voyager to test it. More than 19 hours later, they received data that showed the plan would work. For awhile, anyway, as the back thrusters have to be heated a bit to work and there's only so much power available to do that.

Of course, this is what NASA's saying in public. Because if the thrusters were really set to fire in some kind of automatic response to a nearby alien spaceship, do you really think they would tell us?

Friday, December 1, 2017


Second game of the basketball season for the local high school tonight -- the young men won in double overtime but the young women were on the short end of a 30-point hammering.

But they should not feel all that badly about it, because they're still playing -- while bellowing John Wooden-wannabe in front of me is long past the days that he seems to think are important enough to bust a lung over.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Saltire Celebration

It's not nearly as famous as March 17, but Nov. 30ith is the feast day of one of the three patron saints of nations on the British Isles -- St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. Several other nations also claim Andrew as their own particular patron.

Andrew, the apostle who introduced his older brother Peter to Jesus, was not thought to have visited the island himself, even in the most obscure church traditions. His relics, however, were brought there sometime around the 9th or 10th centuries and he was said to have intervened in a battle won by Scot king Óengus II in 832 after a prayer by that king for a sign of victory. He saw an X-shaped cross in the clouds when the sun came up the next morning.

Tradition says that Andrew was crucified in Greece on an X-shaped cross since he did not believe he was worthy to die on the kind of cross used in Jesus' execution. His brother Peter is supposed to have made a similar request and was crucified upside-down as a consequence. This cross, called a "saltire," forms the basis of the flag of Scotland and it joins the cross of St. George to make the English national flag. One of the questions that cropped up during the Scottish independence referendum a couple of years ago was whether England would change its flag should the measure pass.

There is no known connection between Andrew and bagpipes -- but since pipes are awesome, there dinna really need t' be, d'ya ken, laddie?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Ha! And Again, Ha!

Considering how often airline personnel seem to blame computer glitches for the problems faced by paying passengers, it is quite satisfying that such a glitch may leave them without enough pilots for two weeks in December.

Their computerized leave request system is supposed to deny leave if no one is available to take assigned flights during the time involved. But whoopsie, somehow the alarm didn't trigger and now the airline is in scramble mode to find reserve pilots or entice vacationing pilots back by offering them 150% of their usual pay for any flights they return to handle.

No word yet on whether American has contacted United Airlines to see if any of its security personnel are available to "request" the pilots come back to work.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Cat Is The Hat

At least, that's what it looks like in the picture from Cynthia Bennett of the two animals that accompany her and her boyfriend when they go hiking.

The dog is named Henry and the cat Baloo. No word on when Bagheera may be expected to join the tribe.

Other photos of the adventuresome duo may be found at the link.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Constant Struggle

Today I was sorely tempted to comment on a lot of my friends' Facebook posts, but I resisted, which is probably a good thing in the end. Not because I think I'm all that wrong, but because there's not really much of a point in being right in this particular arena.

Since today ends in a y, President Trump did something dumb and offensive. At a ceremony honoring Navajo codetalkers who helped keep communication secret during World War II battles, he made a lame joke about Senator Elizabeth Warren, referring to her as he often does by the name "Pocahontas." Warren, who represents Massachusetts but was born in Oklahoma, used to claim Native American heritage despite scant evidence thereof.

Now I have no problem making fun of Senator Warren, and I think it should be done more often. But the venue was wrong, the occasion was wrong and technically the joke was wrong, as the more common slam is to call her "Fauxcahontas," a neologism highlighting the speciousness of her claim.

So naturally a couple dozen people I know had to post links to the story along with assorted expressions of outrage, varying from disgusted butler eyeroll to full-on Olbermann froth. After I had seen the sixth or seventh, the temptation was great upon me to comment on each one something like: "You mean Trump is awful? Who knew?"

Because what is the point of raging out and buying yet another ticket on the Ischemia Express when President Trump does or says something awful, offensive, stupid or a winning combination of all three? He's going to do it again. Probably before the week is out and maybe even before the day is out.

Spending all of your time and Facebook feed linking to those instances will gain you what, exactly? It's hard to imagine the major media outlets not reporting on one of Trump's nuclear gaffes, so you're not informing anyone. People who don't like Trump and didn't vote for him (raises hand) are probably committed to the same path should he run again in 2020 (keeps hand raised). I suspect that should the Democratic party wise up and nominate someone under 70 who isn't interested in taking all of our money and who doesn't equate everyone who's ever been inside a church with Tomás de Torquemada (and who isn't Hillary Clinton), a large number of people who voted for the president in 2016 won't do it again.

I'm as disgusted with President Trump's behavior as I was with Candidate Trump's behavior. For that matter, Reality Show Trump and Real Estate Con Artist Trump were no picnic either. But I'm not going to waste my life, clutter my social media and burn out my cranial capillaries telling people what they ought to already know. Which, come to think of it, may also be behind my choice to refrain from commenting on all those posts.

Sunday, November 26, 2017


I don't much care for presidential spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders' boss. I don't think much of her father Mike, whose unserious White House campaigns helped pave the way for the unserious campaign that finally succeded -- Sanders' boss Donald Trump. And presidential spokespeople are part of an elaborate media dance in which reporters pretend that they have a purpose other than self-aggrandizement and spokespeople pretend they are offering information.

But good grief! American Urban Networks' White House correspondent April D. Ryan is on the fast track to making Sanders look good. Ryan has previously asked Sanders questions like whether or not the administration for which she works believes slavery is wrong. Now, some members of the Trump administration have offered up historical judgments regarding the Civil War and its causes which would make most people wish they thought about what they said before they said it -- bringing nuance where contrast is more in order, for example. But does Ryan actually think there are people in the Trump administration who are in favor of slavery and would be dumb enough to tell her?

So now, after Sanders tweeted a picture of a chocolate pecan pie, Ryan tweeted as well, suggesting that the picture was not of a pie Sanders baked but was a stock photo or lifted from a television show. Now, that's the kind of sophomoric joke I'd expect more from somewhere like Daily Kos, but it's an actual joke. Ryan continued to dog the issue, though, demanding a picture of Sanders baking the pie and putting it on the table. At first, Ryan seemed to have stopped short of requiring a notarized signature or documentary footage, but she had yet to prove how far one can go without a single clue.

Sanders saw Ryan's tweets and offered to prove she bakes the pies in question by baking one for Ryan. At this point a lot of people would have decided to go along with the joke and accepted the pie, even if journalistic ethics might suggest it should be donated away. But not Ryan. Her response may have been intended to be funny, but its awkward phrasing gives you pause -- she wants to watch Sanders bake the pie and put it on the table, but she won't eat it because "you guys don't like the press." That's the part I think was supposed to be funny, but the stalker-ish "watch you bake it and put it on the table," combined with the situational grasp Ryan has demonstrated before makes me wonder.

Early in the history of this blog I made fun of a reporter who asked then-President Obama what most "enchanted" him about the job of being president. That kind of prostrated hero-worship clearly signaled some members of the press weren't going to play their proper antagonistic role towards the president. Their writing and reporting would not be very useful to people trying to be informed about the world around them.

Now we have the opposite. The mindset that every single thing said by Trump or one of the people who works for him must be challenged and "properly verified" clearly signals that some members of the press will smother their readers with minutiae rather than inform them of legitimate (and significant) issues raised by the administration's words and actions.

I'd suggest that Ryan ask Sanders some substantive and meaningful questions -- there are plenty -- but I don't find myself willing to take her seriously anymore, so it hardly matters. And so we find members of the press bringing their institution to the place where it doesn't really matter whether or not they're telling the truth or whether or not anyone trusts them.

Because if a reporter is going to get this worked up about pie and then turn down free food, then why would you even pay attention to her?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Holding Pattern

Computer restart issues following system update. Drive home from family Thanksgiving which included great meals and hot tub demolition.

Blogging will wait. Peace.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Location, Location, Location

Sometimes the problem with being a hobbyist or collector is finding outlets that stock or sell the material that interests you.

Well if you’re a record collector, the the “Vinylhub” section at Discogs can help you when you’re jonesing for the wax by showing you where record stores can be found...anywhere, all around the world (There are none, as you might imagine, in North Korea. Yet another reason it sucks to live there).

It’s an awesome resource, but might could stand some upkeep; a couple of stores listed as being near me don’t exist anymore. If I’m ever in Qatar, though, I’ll know where to go looking for tunes.

Thursday, November 23, 2017


The asteroid Oumuamua seems to be the first one that we’ve seen that we know comes to us from another solar system. Astronomers will probably be able to find more such wanderers in the future as computer-aided skywatching becomes more widespread.

”Oumuamua” is a Hawaiian name that connects to the wandering nature of the object; it combines Hawaiian words into a name suggesting “scout” or “messenger.” The picture at the link is an artist’s conception of what Oumuamua may look like. The general shape is known, but not details.

As stories about the asteroid describe, its trajectory suggests that it came from an area currently occupied by the star Vega. But because of its speed, we know that Vega wasn’t there back whenever Oumuamua was. Characteristics of the orbit suggest it is a natural object and not a spacecraft.

Or maybe that’s what we’re supposed to think.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017


Welcome to post number 3,500 on this here blog. And Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Putting the Band Back Together

It'd be really hard to find a way to call Justice League a very good movie. Depending on what you stacked it up against, it comes off as "pretty good" or maybe "not as bad as that," but that's about as far as you can go.

But it's probably the most fun of any DC Comics live-action movie since Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson danced with the devil in the pale moonlight back in 1989. A wide-ranging team of directors, producers, post-producers and writers couldn't really hope to create a movie with a unified feel, but JL features some substantial stretches that demonstrate good directions in which to move this cinematic universe forward.

This strand of what's marketed as the "DC Extended Universe" began with 2013's Man of Steel, Zack Snyder's grim take on a mopey Superman. It continued with 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and this year's Wonder Woman. JL builds directly on the Dawn of Justice storyline, picking up in a world uncertain of its direction and anxious about its future after the death of Superman. Some people are even more anxious: Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), aka Batman and Wonder Woman, who have indications that some alien force is preparing to invade the Earth.

Wayne tries to recruit other metahumans to fight the coming menace, though he strikes out with Arthur Curry, the Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Barry Allen, the Flash (Ezra Miller). Diana has about the same luck with Victor Stone, Cyborg (Ray Fisher). But when Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, voicing a character whose CGI does not seem to have received enough of the $300 million budget) makes his move on the unearthly computers called Mother Boxes, the others join in. Together they can slow Steppenwolf, but not stop him, and Wayne hatches a desperate plan to bring back the man who can tip the scales -- the late, lamented Superman himself (Henry Cavill).

Stories about the production of JL suggest that it began with the same kind of dark tone that made its two predecessor movies such a chore to sit through. Some signs of that layer remain, but a lot of the movie was reworked following the "grimdark" backlash and the warm reception for Gal Gadot's brighter, more heroic turn in Wonder Woman. Diana and Bruce have a kind of buddy-cop movie vibe that hints a movie with the two of them could be a lot of fun. It leans heavily on Affleck's "Grumpy Old Batman" portrayal and Gadot's kick-ass charisma, which shows how strong portrayals help make JL more than it ought to be. Momoa's biker-jock turn as Aquaman and Miller's geeky kid brother vision of the Flash help a lot as well. As Cyborg, Fisher has an important role in the storyline but his character lacks the development of the others. He's also having to work against the fact that the Cyborg character is the least well-known of the historic Justice League members. And someone must have seen Cavill's turn in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and told him to aim his Clark Kent more thataway, because gone is the Glowering Brow of Steel. As a friend said, "It was fun to see Supes be a hero again."

The tone switch, as incomplete as it is, offers some reasons to want to see where the DCEU goes next, which absolutely none of its movies to date have done. Wonder Woman took place far enough before this timeline to stay more or less separate from it, so I set it to one side. Suicide Squad I ignore completely.

Wither the League now? A post-credits scene suggests some possibilities, and they give an initial impression that the next steps might not be yet another "world in peril of destruction" scenario. There looks to be an immense load of DC movies in the development stage in the coming years, though, so there's no telling when that tale might be set before us. A less-than-robust box office didn't help. But if this is the only live-action Justice League we get, it'll be good enough.

Monday, November 20, 2017


Some Justice League thoughts tomorrow, maybe. In the meantime, there's not too many places that apparently look more abandoned than an abandoned airport, as the folks at the Cheap Flight Finder blog point out with this collection of photos. Especially the one still showing that a flight to Paris is now boarding, some 16 years after the place closed.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Press 1 to Shut the Hell Up!

Over at Dustbury, Charles quotes a tweet from someone who discovered a novel way to talk to a human being instead of a recording: Drop a high-volume F-bomb. Another tweeter says that her friend developed the software package involved with this feature, in which profanities trigger a dump from the automated system to a breathing person.

I guess there's no way to know if that's really a feature (it might require a certain volume level in addition to the magic words, or activate only after a certain number of "Press X now" levels have been waded through). I don't think I'll try it, but I suppose you never know what you'll do when temptation comes along. Plus I usually feel far readier to swear at some of the human beings who are not as smart as the automatic system.

My own comment on Charles' entry refers to what we are being told will be the increasing number of "driverless" cars, which will also run on computerized decision trees. Even though the car systems will be much more sophisticated than the phone answering ones, will they have the same feature of dumping to a human being on hearing certain profanities? Because if they do, then New York City is going to be a place where driverless cars will never work. The only thing that limits street swearing there now is that some attention has to be paid to the road; give an NYC drivers the freedom to cuss out whoever they want in whatever direction they want whenever they want and Manhattan is going to be the FCC's nightmare.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

I Tell You Boys, It's Harder Than It Looks

The first sound you hear:

Brother Angus's fusillade would not have sounded half so good, and neither would Bon Scott's sly snarl nor Brian Johnson's brawny, boozy growl, without Malcolm Young's rhythm making a foundation that could bear the weight.

It's not exactly kosher for someone in my line of work, and there's some here and there I can't really say yes to, but AC/DC hit a Godzilla's sweet spot of rock, blues, punk and metal that they made their own and nobody else's. Watch them on the 2015 Grammy Awards to see what happens when rock and roll invades the froth of the modern music industry.

RIP, Malcolm Young.

Friday, November 17, 2017


-- "This is Qatar Airways Flight Made-Up Number, Doha to Bali. I am declaring an emergency."

"Roger Qatar Made-Up Number. What is your emergency?

"A passenger's wife just checked his phone and found out he was cheating, and she told everyone on the plane, so all the women want to kill him."

"Roger Qatar Made-Up Number. Two armored divisions will greet your flight upon landing."

"Make it three. The flight attendants are helping."

-- A makeup artist went into a store called Sephora last week and saw a display of eye shadow that had been ruined. She snapped a picture and posted it to her Facebook page, saying the makeup had probably been ruined by a child. Her post sparked much comment, ranging from agreement with her and triumphant claims that the commenters' kids are taught not to do stuff like that to parents pointing out that not every mom can afford kid care and sometimes kids get away and out of sight for a bit. The two things that struck me were 1) She actually never saw a kid do this, so she really has no way of knowing. And 2) I don't know beans about eye shadow, but when I hear an estimate of $1,300 worth of product being destroyed I picture much larger quantities. Maybe the real offense is how much showoffy pay for what ought to be everyday stuff.

-- A kindergartner asks science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker at Five Thirty-Eight what the world would be like if there were no number 6, and sparks some interesting speculation from some math professors. Turns out that things would be very different, and maybe some things -- like life itself as we know it -- might be actually impossible. So I'm all in favor of keeping six and all of the other numbers we have, even though I'm kind of keen on Koerth-Baker's suggestion about renaming 6 as splorfledinger.

-- You may or may not agree with Daniel Ritchie's review essay on the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Coriolanus here in The Public Discourse. I kind of like it, but I'm prone to thinking that more of our problems come from how we respond to things around us rather than the things themselves, and that's generally where he goes. Either way, it's something else that a 400-year-old play can resonate with political and cultural situations of today. Nice job, Bill.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Grand Illumination

National Geographic is famous for its photos of events, people and phenomena from around the world. It inspires some great submissions from its readers, too, such as this one by Mike Olbinski.

Although I must confess that the bright orangeish light on the far right of the pic makes me uneasy. It's probably just another lightning flash, or maybe the sun setting in the far-off distance. But it bears an unsettling resemblance to a certain Lidless Eye...

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lord of the...What Did We Buy the Rights to, Again?

Author J.R.R. Tolkien's son Christopher was not happy with the big screen adaptations of his father's work, so when the last movie in The Hobbit showed, it seemed unlikely that anyone else would get the chance to make moving picture versions of either it or Lord of the Rings.

And there was a tug-of-war going on anyway -- the movies made mints and mints of money, which meant that studios saw the potential for even more hiding in the back of Frodo's little hole in the ground. But Jackson's versions of the first three movies were widely loved and seemed for many people to be the definitive cinematic version of the story. Even if Christopher Tolkien relented and sold the rights to someone else -- and there were plenty of people who disliked Jackson's take and wished for a "true" Lord of the Rings -- what kind of market is there in remaking a blockbuster that's less than 20 years old? How would this truer and purer LOTR get made?

Then along came HBO's Game of Thrones TV series, and a whole 'nother avenue seemed to open up. Perhaps the best way to offer a retelling of Middle Earth would be a small-screen version, using the length of a season to really open up the story and give it what it needed to work? We learned this past week that we will one day find out, as Christopher Tolkien recently retired from managing his father's estate and Amazon TV bought the rights to develop a TV series using the Middle Earth universe.

As more information comes out, it seems that the show's creators will look to a time between The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the LOTR trilogy. This space retains the right to significant skepticism that what comes will be all that good, lining up roughly with the arguments presented by Jarrett Stepman here. Amazon TV has produced several shows, and I personally enjoy their take on Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch books. I haven't been drawn to watch any of the other shows they've produced, some of which have good notices and some not.

But if the target audience is folks who watch Game of Thrones, then it's very possible that we'll have elves and hobbits and dwarves, only they'll be players on a stage not much like Middle Earth. Stepman overwrites the differences a little, but he's on target in that Tolkien, for all of his direct experience of real war, produced a fundamentally more optimistic work than Thrones' author George R. R. Martin. The choice to create new characters and storylines from whole cloth means an even greater chance that we'll see things that have names we know but little else.

It's hard to shake off the apprehension that Amazon's development people saw swords and magic and just started totaling up receipts. This doesn't mean a Middle-Earth themed TV show couldn't be made. The Silmarillion, Tolkien's tale of the creation of Middle Earth, humanity, the elves and whatnot, would be impossible to present as a movie but could easily be worked out over a TV season or two. The problem there is that The Silmarillion is exceedingly complex and probably pretty resistant to the kinds of leveling that TV series need in order to reach wider audiences. Getting it "right" would probably mean creating a show that might be watched by enough people to fill, say, Wichita.

So in the end I suspect we'll wind up with something that has Tolkien's name on it and, as I said, things in it that have the same names he gave to them. Even though they don't really much look like what he wrote about and the world isn't much like the one he envisioned. But we'll know how to deal with it.

Assuming we watched any of the Hobbit movies, that is.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Turn the Page

The idea of a James Bond adventure written by Donald Westlake stirs the imagination, and the veteran author was approached about the idea after Pierce Brosnan took on the role with Goldeneye. Eon Productions didn't buy the treatment, so Westlake reworked it some and filed it away. The good folk at Hard Case Crime publishers printed it earlier this year as Forever and a Death, but without the presence of any Bond-like character.

Engineer George Manville suspects something about his employer, multi-billionaire Richard Curtis, because Curtis seems to have it in mind to "remove" an environmentalist who survived the test of a brand new way to demolish and clear land for construction. Manville and the survivor -- student Kim Baldur -- find themselves on the run from Curtis and his minions when it becomes clear to them that the magnate has a more lethal demonstration of his technique in mind, in concert with the theft of billions of dollars from Hong Kong banks.

It's hard to imagine that Westlake, famed for his direct and unadorned storytelling style, would have felt that Forever was ready for publication. The protagonists set up by the first half of the book largely disappear in much of the second half, and it clearly demonstrates the need to be trimmed of several repetitive scenes and a latter half that wanders away from the people we've spent a couple hundred pages getting to know.

Forever features an interesting villain, a fascinating villainous plot to gain power and more than one great gem of a Westlake scene. But for whatever reason, the author did not revisit it before his death to pare it down and perhaps retool several spots for better narrative flow and to make more sense.  This is one case in which the unsolved mystery of what a Westlake-written Bond would be like is far better than the solution that his estate and Hard Case Crime have offered.
After a detour to the Jack Reacher of the past in Night School, Lee Child brings us back to the present-day travels of the drifting knight-errant in The Midnight Line, days after he and Michelle Chang broke up a seedy internet-based murder ring in Make Me. Reacher has continued to drift around as he wishes, and Chang has decided she can't do that, so she has gone home to Seattle. Reacher hops a bus and at one of the courtesy stops, he spies a woman's West Point class ring in a pawn shop window. A Point graduate himself,  Reacher wonders what would bring someone to part with something that signified years of hard work and achievement. So he starts to ask about it, first with the pawn shop owner and then with the person who brought it to him, and so on. Although most of the people he speaks to are reluctant to answer him and seem to have more to hide than just a simple transaction, Reacher is a persistent questioner. The trail takes him to Wyoming and people with other kinds of secrets to hide as well.

Line is surprisingly intimate for a Reacher novel, with a small cast and a lot more focus on other people involved the story. While there is a villain whose greed starts the whole mess into which Reacher pokes his nose, much less time is spent on the bad guys of the story and some of the ones who fill that role turn out to be less bad than unfortunate. Reacher's trademark fights are sprinkled much more lightly through the story and he more frequently uses the threat of violence to get what he wants. These factors make it a much more introspective and thoughtful outing than we're used to with the big fella, offering a different flavor to what has more often than not been a formula in some of his books.

Child still drops in a couple too many descriptive digressions in which Reacher or someone else analyzes something for several pages, and his writing of Reacher's thought processes in setting his travel directions, in both the front and back ends of the novel, feel artificial and mannered. Midnight Line is a really good Reacher novel and a good candidate for the series' top two or three, but a little fine tuning along those lines and others could have made it something really special.
Michael Connelly has given Harry Bosch a long history of chasing criminals in the Los Angeles area, first with the LA police department and then, more recently, as a part-timer with the San Fernando PD. In Two Kinds of Truth, Connelly brings the two strands together, as new developments in an old case threaten the conviction of a murdering rapist and a double homicide in San Fernando points to a much larger and more dangerous scheme.

Back in his earliest days as a detective -- before we met him in The Black Echo -- Harry and his partner arrested Preston Borders in a rape/homicide case. Borders was convicted but a modern DNA test of the evidence suggests another man committed the crime. Harry doesn't believe this, so he decides to investigate the matter himself despite official disapproval from his old department. In the meantime, a double murder at a storefront pharmacy in San Fernando shows signs of connections to illegal drug rings and organized crime. Harry has to decide how much risk he will take in order to unravel those connections and hold the top crooks responsible.

The parallel tracks of the two cases make for an interesting contrast, as Harry remembers his days as a new detective, learning under a veteran partner. In the current case, he is the seasoned veteran teaching young detectives how to work the crime and draws from the lessons he has learned. A short time undercover on this case offers a new experience for him, opening a window into the lives of people he has frequently dismissed. There are great supporting player appearances by his half-brother, lawyer Mickey Haller and Haller's lead investigator, Cisco, and also Harry's former partner Jerry Edgar.

Although the story is good and offers some good development for Harry as a character, it's weighed down by uncharacteristically second-rate writing by Connelly. In several places, he commits the cardinal sin of telling us something about a character or event instead of showing us or putting the information in the mouth of someone in the book instead of his authorial voice. There's a third minor mystery that feels far more like a padded epilogue than part of our story; it needed some much stronger connections to fill any useful role. Truth is not a bad book -- Connelly may not be capable of anything lower than a "meh" -- but it works under the weight that some more effort could have made it much better than it turned out to be.

Monday, November 13, 2017


It's easy to look at the major events of today's news and just become disgusted. Everyone's vile, it seems, and their vileness is small and cramped. It's a parade of people who do wrong things that don't even make any sense. Shooting someone to steal money is wrong but there is a logic to it. Shooting kids in a church? Coercing someone over whom you have power to have sex with you is wrong but there is a clear end in mind. Coercing someone over whom you have power to watch you masturbate? Megalomaniacs who want to rule the world make sense, even if they are evil in their intent and actions. Megalomaniacs who want to rule Twitter?

So on the treadmill I watched Silverado, and the good guys won, and the bad guys lost, and the music and the horizons were wide open, and my spirit feels a little less cramped for awhile.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


I’m certain that when Stephen King saw this list of the world’s longest novels, he felt either inadequate or challenged. We’ll know which sometime in the next several years, I would imagine, depending on whether he spins out one book or several.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Heavy Metal Thunder!

You can find the rest of the finalists for the 2017 Comedy Wildlife Photo awards here. My favorite is the one above from Katy Laveck, in which it is obvious that the simian riding pillion is belting out Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild." What else would you sing on a motorbike?

Although I have to give the penguins headed to church photo some props as well.

Friday, November 10, 2017

This Place Looks Familiar

You can take a trip to the gently rolling hill seen whenever anyone opened up Windows XP, although it probably doesn’t look so much like that without all of the filters.

The Atlas Obscura article notes that people do come by to snap a pic, many more drive past without noticing. It reminded me of reading that when the band U2 took the photo for the cover of their Joshua Tree album, they were supposed to have just stopped their van somewhere on the highway, with the intention of preventing folks from making it some sort of pilgrimage site. I can’t find any links to that statement, so my brain could be undergoing some 30-year fading.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Forty Years Later...

The above image of Bruce Springsteen, a photo taken by Rob DeMartin during the current Springsteen on Broadway show, inspired an updated version of a classic song that seemed to fit the Boss's current stern visage:

You got a public street to walk on; the sidewalk’s OK too
And I spent more on weed’n’feed than you spent on your stupid shoes
You’ll trample the grass, mess up the hedge,
Knock over the birdbath, and wreck all the flower beds
Oh, you got no respect for my property
“No trespass” signs you pretend you don’t see
Don’t know if it’s ’cause you’re young
Or because you’re a bum, but get the hell off my lawn!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Name That Rock!

On the first day of 2019, the New Horizons space probe will fly past a distant small object currently called "(486958) 2014 MU69" or MU69. The project is currently soliciting nicknames for the planetoid, which will get an official name after the flyby is complete.

Contest organizers seem to have learned from the "Boaty McBoatface" silliness brought on by a similar contest by the British Antarctic Survey in 2016. When the survey asked for names for its new exploratory vessel, the above name was submitted and won the most votes. The BAS did give the contest name to one of the ship's remote-controlled vehicles, but gave it the more grown-up name of Richard Attenborough.

This contest only promises a nickname for MU69 and screens the submissions it offers for the vote. As mentioned, the International Astronomical Union will give it an official name after the New Horizons visit. At first it might seem something like "Far Far Away" would be a good name for the most distant object human beings have ever studied up close -- about 4 billion miles from Earth. But when you consider that the nearest star to ours is about six thousand times as far away as MU69, it suddenly doesn't seem all that far away at all.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Broader Perspective?

Twitter announced that it will allow all users to now access a feature that's been beta-tested over the last several weeks and post tweets that are 280 characters long instead of the 140 limit that has been a part of the site since its beginning.

Although some high-profile users are less certain of the new options -- the "model, TV host and cookbook author" Chrissy Teigen announced she will neither exceed 140 characters herself nor retweet posts which do, ending a lot of speculation about her reaction -- Twitter is going ahead with the plan.

The new limit will bring about some changes, of course. With double the potential wordage, Twitter users will formulate more developed thoughts, express more considered opinions, offer greater context for their statements and in general raise the platform's level of discourse... hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

I knew I'd never be able to get through that sentence.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Choosing Words

Upon reading actor Wil Wheaton's response to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan's tweet offering his prayers for people in Sutherland Springs, TX, one might be tempted to say, "Shut up, Wesley." This would be the wrong thing to do.

For one, "Wesley Crusher" was a character played by Wheaton in Star Trek: The Next Generation." So "Wesley Crusher" didn't tweet anything. For another, that phrase is at the center of a troubling response to the unpopularity of the character Wheaton played, during the time he himself was a teenager.

"Wesley Crusher" was a ridiculously implausible creation, a teenaged genius allowed to pilot a starship because Gene Roddenberry could still disguise the exhausted fumes of his creativity enough to have the weight to argue the character onto the show. But that's not Wheaton's fault. It's also not his fault that when the show was faced with two characters fast becoming narrative deadweight and two actors not really talented enough to reverse that trend, showrunners booted Denise Crosby's "Tasha Yar" instead of him. Sure, that meant that TNG now had only two female featured players and both of them were stereotypical feeling/reactive women's roles instead of the active one that Yar had been designed for. And fans were now going to be stuck with at least a dozen variations on "boy genius saves the day" episodes before they could finally unload him in season 4. But none of that is really Wheaton's fault either. He was a kid actor, and like most kid actors he basically played himself in whatever situation the script presented. The situations usually ranged from mildly implausible to flat-out silly, but he did what he could do.

The disapproval should be saved for the character's creators, the showrunners and the lazy scriptwriters who reached back for the same stock boy genius savior trope.

Even had it been Wheaton's fault, the large amount of haterade directed at him personally was uncalled for, and caused him some significant stress and problems. Mocking his clearly vile tweet with a phrase -- "Shut up, Wesley" -- meant to recall what more or less amounted to him being bullied by wrong-headed fans would itself be wrong.

So is the solution to say, "Shut up, Wil Wheaton?" While this would be legitimate since Wheaton is a real person, it would also be the wrong thing to do.

You see, Wheaton, along with similarly callous vulgarians like Michael Ian Black and Michael McKean, are people who are primarily paid to say words other people write down for them. The more they Tweet and talk like this, the more people realize that their own words -- and whatever thoughts skitter along the vast empty steppes behind them -- merit neither compensation nor attention. Which will bring us that much closer to the day when they will be heard only by each other, and people with ideas, potential solutions and compassion can be heard by those of us interested in such things.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Crisis Resolved!

At first I was worried, because it seemed like setting the clocks back would mean it was an hour longer until the real sport returned. Fortunately, though, we set the clocks forward on March 11, more than two weeks before the Blessed Opening Day and get back on track.

I was relieved. Football's OK as far as it goes, but there's only so long I can pretend the NBA regular season matters before I dissolve into gales of laughter.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Fall Back

It's the time change -- I'm going to go get back that hour of sleep that Donald Trump owes me. See you in the future.

Friday, November 3, 2017

So What Happened?

A Facebook friend suggested that "for 11 minutes, there was peace on Twitter." She was referring to the fact that Thursday, an employee of Twitter on his or her way out the door shut down President Donald Trump's Twitter account and it stayed down for 11 minutes.

And of course she was wrong, because Twitter itself didn't go away for those 11 minutes and it remains the knee-jerk exercise in group think that it has been for most of its existence.

Twitter initially said that a glitch of some kind caused the shutdown before learning about the gift its former employee left behind. Twitter spokespeople said they are investigating the matter to learn how it happened.

Few tears would fall from these eyes if the president never Tweeted. Things would be a lot calmer. Few tears would fall from these eyes if Twitter itself didn't exist -- not entirely because without Twitter I think it's impossible to have a President Trump. Maybe largely, but not entirely. It is here, though, and many people use it and it's become a medium of expression for them.

Unless some overgrown toddler has a tantrum and decides to play games, that is.