Monday, December 31, 2018

Unlearning

Scott Sumner, an economist at George Mason University, offers a case about why economics education shouldn't push behavioral economics so hard at an early stage of economics education.

"Behavioral economics" is apparently a blending of some basic economic theory with social science concepts that, at least as Sumner sees it, tends to dilute some of the essential economic information a basic econ course needs to teach. Instead, he said, the basic course should show students how data demonstrates that a lot of things that seem like they should make sense and work actually don't, and how economics can give someone a better idea of what really goes on.

I don't have nearly enough knowledge of the field to know whether or not all of the fallacies Sumner lists in his article are indeed fallacious, although I suspect he could offer some good data that show they are. What does resonate a little is that a big part of educating people is helping them unlearn things they know that aren't true. A person in my field spends a significant amount if his or her time doing exactly that -- probably more than once, and probably upon himself or herself as much as anyone else.

As in so many other fields, it's not that we don't know things. It's just that we know so many things that aren't so.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Superhero TV

Note: This piece will contain spoilers for both the first season of Titans and the third season of Daredevil. If you are waiting to watch either of those in order and learn of their plot developments the old-fashioned way, stop reading and come back after you have done so.

DC's digital television series Titans presents a bit of an irony. The way the characters are shown in this version of the story presents some intriguing possibilities and some people you might want to get to know better in more episodes. But this first season of episodes they are in will need some significant retooling in order to give those characters some stories you would want to spend time watching.

Titans is the story of a group that in comics has often been called the "Teen Titans." It began in the 1960s with some of the teen sidekicks to main-character heroes, giving them their own organization and adventures. The team has changed over the years -- the TV show is not the only one to portray all of the team members as actual teenagers, nor to label them simply "Titans" without regard to their age. The show begins with Dick Grayson, better known to many comic fans as Robin, the first sidekick to Batman. Grayson is no longer the Boy Wonder at the side of the Caped Crusader but is instead a police detective in Detroit. He rarely dons his trademark suit and has left Gothan and his former guardian, Batman/Bruce Wayne, because he sees the violent holy war that Batman wages against criminals to be a slippery slope to becoming too much like them.

Robin meets Rachel Roth, a young woman who's got troubles corporeal and otherwise. She seems, when her emotions are strong enough, to have the power to work magic. But a group hunts her with an eye towards ending a threat they say she poses by ending her. Meanwhile, a woman named Kory awakens with few memories but an awful lot of power, and a green-striped tiger proves to be a boy named Gar who can morph into different animals. Over the course of the season the four will come to depend on each other as they learn who Rachel and Kory really are and try to keep Rachel safe. "Kory" is the Tamaran princes Koriand'r, sent to Earth to somehow stop Rachel, aka "Raven," from becoming the doorway into this dimension for her father, the demon Trigon. Along the way they encounter costumed crimefighters Hawk and Dove as well as Donna Troy, the former Wonder Girl, who aid them in their efforts.

The story is part of the problem -- the Trigon-Raven relationship holds no surprises for anyone who's ever followed any version of the Titans in comics or animation. This version of the tale brings nothing new and leaves the season's overall narrative arc with a weak and hollow core. And too much of what we see subscribes to the notion that "darkness" is automatically the path to meaningful, intelligent storytelling. So we have darkness mistaken for depth, but much of the time Titans also mistakes grimness for darkness and brutality for grimness, leaving us three degrees deep into hackery masquerading as narrative. The early fridging of Dick's new partner, Amy Rohrbach, is an example, as is the history of Hank Hall as Hawk. Trigon's illusionary fantasy temptation of Dick that closes out the season is another.

Should showrunners be able to shed their own illusion that they have to try to tell dark stories in order to tell meaningful ones -- or even manage to actually tell a dark story instead of investing in brutality and grimaces -- then Titans might manage to craft a story that builds on these interesting characters and portrayals instead of weighing them down.
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Netflix's Daredevil season three gets back on a lot of right tracks that season two jumped. It ditches all of the supernatural foofooraw of "The Hand" organization. There's no Stick. There's no maddeningly inconsistent Elektra overwhelming whatever acting ability Elodie Yung may have commanded. There's no Punisher. The story falls back on the strengths of Charlie Cox's Matt Murdock as a person and a hero when he is connected to his friends Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, as well as his weaknesses in both areas when he tries to work alone. Rather than waste time humanizing the villainous Wilson Fisk we see him brilliantly manipulative and ruthless, his hand in matters exposed only after it's too late to try to thwart his move.

So naturally Netflix canceled it.

The business reasons for doing so seem clear -- Disney now owns the Marvel studios which license the character of Daredevil and they are likely to want to bring their own version of him and his universe into production as soon as their Netflix deal is up, so why waste money building something you're going to lose anyway? And from generalized reports, viewership of nearly all of the Netflix/Marvel shows has declined from their initial outings, which makes continued investment in the properties even less likely.

But there are creative reasons as well. Some of them have plagued the entire partnership project -- seasons that should have been significantly shorter with less sagging in the second half. Or poor narrative decisions, like killing Mahershala Ali's Cottonmouth halfway through the first season of Luke Cage. Or including Iron Fist, a character whose powers derive from ancient mystical arts, in an environment of what are supposed to be "street level" heroes instead of cosmic avengers (or Avengers).

Season three of Daredevil, despite its welcome back-to-basics approach, carries several of these same burdens. It's once again too long. An entire episode apiece is devoted to telling us the backstory of  Benjamin Poindexter, the rogue FBI agent who will become the assassin Bullseye and of Karen Page herself. Sure, the former is interestingly done in a semi-surreal minimalist flashback vision -- sort of an Our Town of the damned. And it's about time for the latter, since Page has played major roles in three seasons of Daredevil, and a season of The Punisher and showed up in The Defenders. But Bullseye's past is unnecessary and Page's could be told in about two scenes of conversation and neither requires anything like the screen time they get. Plus, Bullseye's own tale really just serves as a basis for yet another female character introduced solely for the purpose of her murder being used for its impact on a male character -- the tired fridging trope referenced above.

But they bog down the forward progress of the overall story, which is Vincent D'Onofrio's Fisk character manipulating events to get himself freed from prison and have Murdock's Daredevil discredited in the process. Murdock's loss of faith, already weakened by the events of Defenders and the losses it meant for him, produces a ruthless and calculating fighter who is willing to cross almost any line in order to stop Fisk, even if it makes him a criminal himself. Foggy Nelson and Page each try their own routes to get to Fisk and the three learn that they are unable to counter his strategy and ruthlessness on their own. Peter MacRobbie as Fr. Paul Lantom and Joanne Whalley as Sr. Maggie push Murdock to examine whether or not his abandonment of his faith is as big a mistake as his abandonment of his friends.

Season three of Daredevil shows that the creators of the Netflix Marvel shows could learn from their mistakes, as they shed many of the elements which made the show's second season nearly unwatchable all the way through. But it seems they didn't learn enough, or at least way too slowly, so now fans of the great work done by Cox, and co-stars Elden Hensen and Deborah Ann Woll and a strong supporting cast will have to wait and see whether or not these versions of the characters have a future. Unfortunately, tuning in next week won't help us answer that question.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Emphasis

A friend posted a link to a personal inventory exercise she planned to do at the end of the year, in which she tried to list all of the things she had done right in 2018, as well as all of the things she thought she had done wrong. The purpose is to help a person look at their accomplishments as well as failures, in order to both see what went wrong as well as remind himself or herself of what they did well. Doing this can help us maintain skills and strengths and recognize what might need to be changed in the coming year.

Interestingly, one of the sentences I would write about what I did right this year uses the exact same words that would show up in a sentence that describes what I did wrong.

Right: "I deleted almost every political Facebook post I saw, no matter who it came from.

Wrong: "I deleted almost every political Facebook post I saw, no matter who it came from.

As you can see, the question of emphasis matters a great deal. But I certainly know where -- and how -- I can improve in 2019.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Far Out

No matter what you or I do to ring in 2019, it will just not be as cool as the New Horizons spacecraft, which will celebrate the day by doing a flyby of a ball of ice 6.5 billion miles away from Earth.

The object is in our solar system's Kuiper Belt, an region of small bodies that surrounds the solar system beyond Pluto. The best pictures of KB Objects or KBOs have so far revealed little, but New Horizons will zip past 2014 MU69 at a distance of just under 2,200 miles, or three times closer than it came to Pluto in 2015. So it should get some great detail, unless 2014 MU69 has a moonlet or rings or some other nearby pal that scientists didn't see before plotting the course. The six-hour communications delay means that if there is something out there to hit, the probe will have smacked it long before mission controllers know about it.

2014 MU69 was given the nickname "Ultima Thule" a Latin phrase from antiquity referring to a place beyond the edge of the known world. As a KBO, it's probably leftover material from the early planetary disk that orbited our sun before eventually clumping into planets. This means that any data returned by New Horizons will show us things about the earliest days of our solar system.

After buzzing Ultima Thule, New Horizons is scheduled to be steered around a few other KBOs to investigate them. During that time, it will be downloading its gathered data from this flyby to scientists, a process that could take up to a year because of the distance and necessarily reduced download speeds.

Just in case you thought your old dial-up service was slow.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Laugh While You Can, Primate

Science fiction author Larry Niven includes among the peoples of his Known Space series the Kzinti, a race of intelligent felines that act a lot like terrestrial felines in that they tend to want to conquer and/or eat other species whom they encounter.

Should anyone ever decide to try to make a movie set in the Known Space universe -- and it's unlikely that anyone will, because it's complex and Niven is a quirky writer who makes a quirky world -- there will be no need to build CGI to represent the Kzinti. Just take some of the pictures below of Maine Coon cats, snapped by Robert Sijka, stick Andy Serkis in that motion-capture suit that's made him a millionaire and map the pictures onto the suit footage. Voila!

See the four below to get an idea of what I mean -- at the link you can see others, as well as the usual pictures of ridiculously cute kittens.


Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Numbers

David Berlinksi is among the leaders of writing so-called popular books about different aspects of math -- some that is highly advanced, as in The Advent of the Algorithm, and some that is very very basic, as in 2011's One, Two Three.

Berlinksi assigns the basic mathematical functions the group name "AEM" or Absolutely Elementary Mathematics. The four major functions of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are outlined as the building blocks of far more complicated functions and equations. Berlinksi also digs even deeper, offering ways to think about even the idea of "number."

Berlinski holds doctorates in philosophy and mathematics, so he is a good choice to explain math concepts in terms that don't lean too heavily on equations. His purpose in One, Two, Three is to suggest answers for these simplest and most basic questions about AEM and to show how such answers can be deduced via logic from some very simple assumptions.

One, Two, Three is both aided by and labors under Berlinksi's habit of breezy and almost flippant writing. On the one hand he largely succeeds in getting complex ideas boiled down to terms that most people can understand, and presents his arguments in ways that can be followed without specialized knowledge. But on the other hand, his tone sometimes crosses over into flippancy in ways that can slow readers down while they finish rolling their eyes.

He too often sacrifices some clarity and direction in order to make a witty observation and in more than one place sticks in some jokes for their own sake rather than explanatory value (yes, O Tolerant Reader, this blog does the same thing quite often. However, it's the product of some moke running his mouth and not someone explaining a potentially difficult subject. Judge for yourself what kind of damage that can do to explaining an idea). Whether or not Berlinksi is actually all that impressed with his own wit, he gives a good enough imitation of being so to make several parts of One, Two, Three way more annoying and way less useful than they could have been.
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Of all the people who probably hide their heads at the goofs they have made, the person who named "imaginary" numbers is probably among them as far as the field of mathematics is concerned.

So-called "imaginary" numbers describe the square roots of negative numbers, which are impossible to calculate using plain integers. The square root of 1, for example, is 1 because 1x1=1. But the square root of -1 seems impossible to figure, because the only way to get to -1 is to multiply two different numbers together. A negative number multiplied by another negative number leaves a positive number, not a negative one. At some point, mathematicians decided that there would be a square root of -1, and it would just be a 1 that was on another "axis" than the regular positive-negative line. But since the number didn't seem to have any real-world analogue like positive and negative numbers did, it somehow got hung with the tag, "imaginary." So today we say that the square root of negative 1 is i. The square root of -4 is 2i, and so on.

Retired electrical engineering professor Paul Nahin outlines some of the development of i through the history of mathematics in An Imaginary Tale. Some early cultures refused to acknowledge the existence of a quantity that could be squared to form a negative number, and even into the Renaissance and enlightenment years the so-called "imaginary" numbers were considered at best unimportant. They were not useful except in specialized cases and it seemed even mathematicians had reservations about dealing with numbers that didn't represent any real quantity.

Today, i and its counterparts find widespread use in many areas of math, and the only reservations that seem to continue deal mostly with the use of the word "imaginary." Nahin explores how important i is in many fields of engineering, especially his own. This part of the book -- about the latter two-thirds -- is heavily laden with equations and formulas and is going to be beyond most non-mathematician or non-engineer readers. He probably would have had to lengthen the book considerably to bring that subject matter within the grasp of the lay reader, but that doesn't make the string of equations and engineering language any easier to navigate.
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Most of the time we use math we do just that: use math. We rarely think about things like why numbers come together the way they do. Or why certain mathematical functions and relationships seem to matter in the world of actual things as well as within the realm of pure equation and solution. But almost every mathematical advance throughout human history has often stemmed from and also sparked some serious thought.

Luke Heaton's A Brief History of Mathematical Thought skims through history and sketches some of the thinking that accompanied the ciphering. He begins as close to the beginning as possible, offering some ideas on how our stone-age ancestors may have begun to progress beyond the simple counting of objects into understanding the numbers behind the counting had relationships that could be regularized and predicted. At what point, for example, did some forgotten genius figure out that two of anything added to three of that same thing would always make five of that thing? If you had two rocks and were handed three, you did not need to count all five of them over again -- you could add the three to your two and know you had five whether you counted them or not. And once people had developed this understanding, how did it change their civilization and culture?

History is better in the earlier sections, such as the one mentioned above and others that deal with numerical development among the ancient Greeks, ancient Indians and other civilizations. It's also a good overview of how the switch to Arabic numerals and the use of the zero as a place-keeper propelled scientific thought far beyond what had been possible with cumbersome systems like Roman numerals. Later sections, though, deal with more esoteric subjects within math and their impact seems less obvious. Heaton offers reasons to spend some time pondering non-Euclidian geometry, for example, but has fewer explanations about how this particular wrinkle affects the way we live and work. Still, History is a good primer on what kind of thought can come from dwelling on even the most mundane of numerical tasks, as well as how that thought has shaped who we are today.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

May the day be so to you. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Big Blue Marble

A day in advance, because Christmas Eve marks the 50th anniversary of astronaut Bill Anders' famous "Earthrise" photo -- the Earth as it was seen rising over the moon.

This Astronomy Photo of the Day site also has a link to a recreation of what a video of Earthrise would have looked like, as well as a colorized version of the actual first Earthrise photo, taken in black and white.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Got to Admit It's Getting Better

I'm a person who enjoys sunlight and some of my favorite times of the year are when it stays light late into the evening. So today, the first day after the Winter Solstice, is the day things start to get better because every day from now until June 2019, we will have a little more sunlight than the day before.

Plus, there are only 95 days until Opening Day, so I've got that going for me.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Genre Puzzle

Mena Massoud, who has the title role in the upcoming live-action remake of Disney's Aladdin, says the new version of the animated classic will not be a comedy or a musical.

Massoud says the movie will have elements of comedy and definitely some singing and dancing, but it can't really be pigeonholed into either genre. Which makes sense. Because it's already a part of another genre entirely, the "shameless cash grab." You might think that's not really a genre, since most of the movies that get made today seem to qualify, but I'm finding it hard to imagine this movie being grouped any other way.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The More Things Change...

A friend recently posted an interesting observation about morning news in the first day or so after President Trump announced the United States would pull its troops from Syria. The interesting thing was that CNN -- a network which is, we might charitably say, ambivalent whether or not the president should be impeached or impaled -- had heavy coverage and commentary on the pullout. But during the period my friend watched, Fox News -- an outlet which is, we might charitably say, ambivalent about whether to bow or to scrape to the president -- had very little coverage at all. Apparently a news event was a news event only as it suited the distinct purposes of the network.

I gave my own long-held response, which was that if the verb people used to describe their primary method of newsgathering was "watch" instead of "read," they would have a hard time convincing me they were well-informed. I'm a softy these days -- when I first said that I allowed for no such possibility.

Anyway, it stirred my memory of a Bloom County comic from 1985, which this journalism major enlarged and put on his desk:


Opus' soliloquy highlights how even thirty years ago the image-centricity of television news had a firm hold on its broadcast. Even though all three men who anchored the major networks' nightly newscasts had solid journalism backgrounds -- for all of their flaws each of them was more reporter than any 20 TelePrompTer muppets who torment airport travelers and waiting room patients today -- they were also each carefully crafted for their respective images.

If Berkeley Breathed were drawing this strip today, it would probably have a couple dozen panels to illuminate the wide range of choices Opus faced. And his closing panel might have had our intrepid penguin reading from a tablet instead of an actual dead tree newspaper.

But the outcome remains the same. The less work our brains have to do to acquire content, the less worth the content has -- be we primates or flightless waterfowl.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Not Getting It

This story in The New Yorker by Osita Nwanevu is about a welcome development -- steps towards trying some different ways to keep criminals from re-offending have passed through Congress. But it misses so much of the important material in an effort to keep President Trump in the middle of things by talking about stupid stuff he's said about criminals.

Mr. Nwanevu, like most journalists working today, can't seem to understand that there are things in this world that aren't about Donald Trump. It's possible to leave him out of entire paragraphs, although it seems like no one wants to.

Funny thing, for all that the press and the president despise each other, they find themselves in agreement about the desire to make him the center of everything. You'd think they'd figure out they were on the same page and one of them change their ways, but I guess not.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Strange Visitor & Stuff

-- Last year's funky flying rock, ‘Oumuamua, that visited our solar system, has turned out to be even funkier as scientists have studied it. This article in Scientific American outlines some of the oddball things about our strange visitor from another star.

-- If you're curious about where some of the different scenes in old silent movies were filmed, you can explore them here at Silent Locations. You can see how many different scenes were filmed on the same spots, where those spots are on a map and in some cases an overhead photograph, and some pictures of what they look like today. No audio.

-- Once again the good folk at Mental Floss have found some words we used to use that we ought to use again, this time related to winter and Christmas. My favorite is quaaltagh, a Manxian Celtic word that describes the first person you see on Christmas or New Year's morning (or the first guest to enter your house on those days). This person was supposed to have some bearing on what kind of year you will have after seeing them. I have never been so grateful to not have a single news channel on my TV. That way I can avoid all of the over-stuffed egos displaying their devotion to apolausticism.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Right Stuff

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the first time human beings left Earth's space for another locale (Launch Date: 12/21/68), Astronomy has a nice interview with the 90-year-old Jim Lowell, the pilot of Apollo 8's command module.

Lowell is better known as the commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission and was played by Tom Hanks in a movie about that incident. But he was the one who first had to figure out how to fly around the moon when it came time for later missions to do more than just orbit a few months later. The nautical fiction buff in me enjoyed him mentioning he had to learn how to use a sextant in order to properly navigate his way around the moon and back to Earth.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Matching?

At The Columbia Journalism Review, Cherie Hu writes about how the importance of placing music on streaming platforms has served to homogenize it -- would-be pop stars write not from the heart (or elsewhere) but to the algorithm.

Given that CJR's purview is journalism, Hu also brings in what the ephemeral nature of Algo-Rhythmic music does to music magazines or music reviewers: What do you write about when a trend in music barely lasts long enough for you to print an article about it? Hu says that many of the magazines are writing more now about recording or playing sessions and the like instead of offering a critique or even a review of a song or album.

Supposedly "give the people what they want" is a formula for success. But in this instance, what the people seem to want is less and less inventive, less and less appealing and more and more generic. Ephmera, meet ephemera. I just know you two will become good friends.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Internet Justifies Its Existence

Every now and again we find something in the online world that can make the ordinary run of pain-in-the-rear content and tone subside, because the something is just that cool.

Such a site is Animagraffs, which collects animated diagrams of the way several things work. You can see how an electric guitar creates sound when the strings are played, how a sewing machine works and several other mechanical objects. Some diagrams show non-mechanical processes, like the way our eyes work to process images or how a cheetah's skeletal structure, interior organs and even fur color patterns combine to make it the speedily efficient hunter that it is. One even shows you how you can moonwalk properly.

There might be a question about one or two explanations, though. One diagram claims to show how credit scores work, but it contains no reference to chicken entrails or the blood of one's firstborn. I'm suspicious.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Atmosphere

Attended a basketball game at my old high school tonight along with my father. Although the school has a shiny and spectacularly appointed new field house, each year they hold a throwback game in the old gym -- the one where middle-aged grumps like me used to watch the games.

I did not have a decibel meter with me so I can make no scientific observations, but I am pretty sure the roar when a young lady sank the game-winning three-pointer with less than five seconds left was much louder in the old building than it would have been in the new one. Sometimes improvement doesn't improve everything.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Ships of All Seas

Ebooks and the like have been a boon for writers and consumers of genre fiction, as self-published works become easier and cheaper to produce and existing publishers can take more risks on what might otherwise be marginally performing material. Since the margin is smaller, so is the risk and therefore the chances someone will take that risk go up.

Military space opera has been a great beneficiary of this trend, for better or worse. It seems like a lot of its devotees fancy themselves able to put together an interesting space navy yarn and the now lower bar allows more of them to do so. The smaller expense of an e-book or Kindle purchase -- smaller, that is, except in cases when authors think waaay too highly of their work -- nudges the reader towards a buy. As you might expect, a lot of the product is dreck. But not all of it, and so comes now Siobhan Dunmoore of the Commonwealth Space Navy as she battles invading Shrehari forces in front and her own sometimes corrupt, sometimes incompetent chain of command behind.

Eric Thomson introduced Dunmoore in 2014's No Honor in Death, as she tried to rehabilitate her own shattered soul and the proverbial "worst ship in the fleet," the Stingray. By book 4, 2017's Victory's Bright Dawn, she commands the Q-ship Iolanthe, designed to lure raiders into range with its clumsy appearance before unmasking mighty weapons and destroying opponents. An unscheduled refueling stop brings a shocking discovery, as both an out-of-the-way colony and its naval depot have been attacked and nearly destroyed. Some clues point the way to the raiders, so the Iolanthe will try to hunt them down aided by soldiers from the colony. But several things about the raid itself seem off to Dunmoore and her perceptive crew, so they keep an eye open for trouble. The only problem is that they may be looking in the wrong direction when it crops up.

Thomson has several novels set in his Commonwealth space universe under his belt, so he's developed a good sense of pacing and character building. His own experience in the military gives those aspects of the story solid founding, and he makes his heroes likable and villains nasty. He lays his in-crew banter on a little thick and makes his narrative more self-aware of it than it really should be.

But his smartest idea is to build each Dunmoore novel around a central mystery. In some cases it's a literal whodunit, in others the need to reconstruct events; either way it puts a lot more gas in the motor than just a string of battles and confrontations. The Shrehari antagonists don't show up in every book, but even they get enough backstory to make us respect Dunmoore's primary nemesis, Brakal.

Thomson has two other series set in this universe, but so far the five Dunmoore novels have them both beat. They also help set Siobhan among the ranks of fine space skippers worth spending a few afternoons with.
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Historical fiction, particularly that centering on the wooden walls of Great Britain during its conflicts with France, also benefits from the greater opportunities e-publishing provides. Books can come out much more quickly as well; between July 2014 and April 2018 Andrew Wareham offered the fourteen-book "Duty and Destiny" series following Sir Frederick Harris while also publishing entries in at least two other series over most of that time.

Enough such novels arrive that the reader might think His Majesty's Navy was crewed by none other than fictional officers, so a wise writer might shift his scene a little in order to stand out from the rest. Chris Durbin does exactly that, setting his "Carlisle and Holbrooke" series during an earlier iteration of the Anglo-French conflict: the middle of the 18th century. There is no heroic Nelson, no magnificent Trafalgar victory and no Napoleon overshadowing things -- in fact, this is the time that will produce those men and events and its interesting to see the foreshadowing crop up.

Durbin also makes one character, post-Captain Thomas Carlisle, a Virginian. The insular closed society of naval command isn't entirely sure what to think of this colonial outsider, and is often not at all welcoming to him. His First Lieutenant, George Holbrooke, began the series not particularly committed to the Navy as a career except he had failed at most others but has grown in stature, authority and wisdom by the time we open The Jamaica Station, the third book in the series.

Carlisle and Holbrooke, aboard HMS Medina, rescue a Spanish colonial governor while patrolling the waters around Jamaica in a search for pirates and French privateers. Although superficially friendly and obviously thankful, the Spanish official is clearly hiding something. With the help of Lady Chiara, Carlisle's wife, the secret is uncovered, but it still has heavy consequences. When Carlilse is wounded, Holbrooke takes command of Medina to continue the cruise and await the chance to raid an enemy convoy, striking a bold alliance with two English privateers to do so.

In Station, Durbin gives Holbrooke center stage for much of the book, as he did with Carlisle in an earlier series volume. It's a wise choice, allowing the series to unfold a little more deliberately and giving us two different points of view during similar events. The experienced Carlisle handles combat one way while the younger and more impetuous Holbrooke acts differently. Thus a ship-to-ship action is not just a cut-and-paste of the thunder of guns and flying splinters but is given a different life when seen through different eyes.

Durbin is also a deft hand at character sketching, bringing Carlisle, Holbrooke, Chiara and others to life with realistic interior thoughts and winsome manners. He knows how and when to wax witty in a manner matching his time period and its people, and if the whole geography and history of who is one whose side and where sometimes seems cloudy in The Jamaica Station, it was probably more than a little blurred from time to time for those living the events, as well. Durbin has published three Carlisle and Holbrooke novels in just more than a year, so those hooked on the pair's adventures will probably not have to wait long to set sail with them again.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Yuletide Tunes

Recently in a conversation about music, I was unable to stop my eye-roll when the conversation turned to Christmas music. "What's the matter?" I was asked. "Don't you like Christmas music?"

Well, that depends on what we mean when we say Christmas music. If the list is "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," "What Child Is This?" and the like, then yes, I very much like Christmas music. But if we're talking about "Winter Wonderland," "Let It Snow," "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts)," "All I Want for Christmas Is You?" and such, well, then I suppose I have to start an argument because those are not Christmas songs. They are seasonal songs, to be sure, and a lot of them reference the Christmas season in particular, but they are not about Christmas.

As you may gather from my profession and my frequent references to being mired in orthodox Christian theism, I believe Christmas to be about the birth of Jesus Christ. Songs which focus on that event and its meaning are "Christmas songs." We'll stretch the definition here a little bit to include Advent songs that concern the time leading up to Christmas itself, but the key is the presence of Jesus, either by name or implication.

So there's no way "Winter Wonderland" is a Christmas song. In fact, Richard Smith's lyrics never mention Christmas at all. Yes, it gets played all of the time at Christmas. Its Wikipedia article suggests it's been covered more than 200 times -- which is one of the reasons I can't stand hearing it anymore. Modern recording artists whose ranges and styles don't match it try to sing it more or less as written and fail, and others try to re-arrange it to suit their style and wind up with messes that make you want to stay away from any version of the song at all because you're so sick of it.

"The Christmas Song," which is also sometimes labeled as "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" after its first line, is probably even more ubiquitous and is an example of songs that are about the Christmas season instead of Christmas. The focus is on a few Rockwellian Christmas images and some Santa Claus-ery but nothing that roots Christmas in its originating event. Not even the great Nat King Cole could make this slice of Mel Tormé's schmaltziest syrup sound good and it is a reason to leap for the radio station button at the first hint of its first notes, no matter who's smothering to death under its lyrics.

Those two, plus multiple offenders "White Christmas" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" might have been marginally acceptable on initial release but the fact that no one covers any other Christmas songs means that no matter where you go, you'll hear three or four nearly identical versions of them within 30 minutes. The same goes for the shudderingly awful "Jingle Bell Rock," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" or Mariah Carey's more recent, "All I Want for Christmas Is You." The latter is a fine little pop song but has been covered to death.

If I'm going to listen to some Christmas season music, why not check out some stuff that's way more fun, like the Kinks' story of a charity Santa getting mugged in "Father Christmas?" Or the Waitresses' spunky "Christmas Wrapping," which I cannot believe has not become a Hallmark Christmas movie. Or for that matter, AC/DC's "Mistress for Christmas," which I cannot believe has not become a premium cable Christmas movie.

Modern artists have done some interesting covers of real Christmas songs, such as the Rondelles cover of "Angels We Have Heard on High." Billy Idol has an entire album of Christmas and seasonal music, with "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" being the standout. Patty Smyth commits the sin of covering "The Christmas Song" but redeems herself with a lovely "Do You Hear What I Hear?" cover. Most people know Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," but fellow heartland rock giant Bob Seger makes the "Little Drummer Boy" a mighty percussionist indeed.

Those stand out because usually the modern performers stick to the seasonal music, like X covering "Jingle Bells."

The real problem with today's rotations of "Christmas music" are the painfully limited playlists and cookie-cutter covers of the lightest-weight tunes in the holiday catalog. So I suppose I'm going to be lumped in with the Christmas music Grinches who would rather listen to just about anything than what gets pumped out of store stereos and adult contemporary radio stations between Nov. 15 and Dec. 31. That's OK -- we can agree to disagree.

Unless you bring up anything involving Alvin or a chipmunk. Then you're facing a huge load of ye olde bitumen in your stocking, and I will rat you out to Santa myself.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Test Pattern

Again, O Tolerant Reader, I must beg your forgiveness that the blogging portion of my day was taken over by other things.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Uh-Oh

As Dan Piraro notes in Sunday's Bizarro comic, the thin atmosphere we find on other planets is going to make some very important activities much more difficult to do. Meanwhile, philosophers Avicenna and David Hume discover that even when people take completely opposite views about the same set of evidence, they may still find areas in which they agree.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Myst-ery

Evan Nicole Brown, writing at Atlas Obscura, catches up with Robyn and Rand Miller on the event the 25th anniversary of their ground-breaking video game Myst.

Reading the duo's talk about the development of the game -- something which up to that point was like no computer video game that anyone had ever seen -- is interesting. They detail some false starts, some curious features, and delve a little into what current gaming culture derives from Myst.

Much less noticeable is that, aside from Microsoft Solitaire and Words With Friends, Myst is the last video game I've ever owned or purchased. Apparently I'm left behind.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Evidence

Yet another reason why baseball is better than football. This year's Heisman Trophy winner, Kyler Murray, is already signed with the Oakland Athletics for $5 million and will head for spring training in 2019.

Some might think it uncharitable to view Murray's win as an example of a baseball player winning the top college football award for what is basically a spare-time hobby. Others will instead think of it as simply accurate.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Sunset

The death of former U.S. President and World War II veteran George H.W. Bush puts a slightly different spotlight on this Dec. 7, which is sometimes called Pearl Harbor Day. At the United States Navy base in Hawaii, ceremonies will proceed this year without any survivors of the USS Arizona, the battleship which sustained the heaviest crew losses in the Dec. 7, 1941 attack.

About 300 of the Arizona's 1,100 crew survived the attack and sinking of their ship. This year, five men, all in their 90s, remain. None of them, though, are able to make the journey to Hawaii.

A couple of the people in the story are concerned that the loss of World War II veterans will somehow distance us from those events and cause them to fade in national memory. It will indeed be sad when the last WWII veteran passes away and we lose direct contact with an event that changed the world forever.

But on the other hand, that's the way of things. As the men who fought in World War I passed away, the impact of the Armistice signed on November 11 lessened. So we got Veteran's Day. Succeeding generations interpret event anniversaries in ways that connect to and affect their own times rather than just do the exact same things by rote that were always done. I recognize the importance of November 22 in our nation's history, as the assassination of then-President John F. Kennedy had an impact on society and culture that in many ways still echoes. But I was born after it happened, so I have no direct connection to it and it does not affect me like it did those who can remember it.

On Sept. 12, 2019, people will become eligible to vote who will have lived their entire lives after 9/11. It will have shaped the world in which they live, but it will still be something they did not experience and did not live through. Whether that kind of turning of time's wheel is for the best or not, it's not open for debate or change. The day will come when those last five crewmen rejoin their shipmates, and no one living can tell visitors to the Arizona memorial why it's there the way that they could. Those visitors -- us, and those who come after -- may wonder. There's nothing wrong with that. The only wrong will be if, after wondering, none of them ask. That's the part that worries me.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Scarecrow, Please Call Your Office...

At The Great Courses, the site's "Great Courses Daily" blog transcribes some of a lecture from Dr. Indre Viskontas about the common understandings of the way that the hemispheres of the brain interact with each other.

Most of us have probably heard people describe themselves as "left-brain" or "right-brain," emphasizing whether or not our first tendencies are to handle the world analytically or aesthetically. Dr. Viskontas traces the history of how we first began to learn that different regions of the brain tend to handle inputs differently, and how there's some correlation between areas that handle and respond in a more fact-based way and others that seem more active when a person is being creative or artistic.

But the kind of hard divisions we're used to talking about, he says, are mostly bunk, or at least very exaggerated. For one, some of the first experiments that showed the hemispheres tending to handle different sets of responses were conducted on people who had the connections between the two brain hemispheres severed. This commissurotomy was done on patients with severe epilepsy and often produced good results in limiting seizures, but today those patients are far more likely to be treated with medication.

In any event, the experiments were done on people who had two sides of their brains that couldn't talk to each other -- a condition that most of the human race does not endure. So even if one side or another of our brains tends to be a center for one kind of information processing and activity it doesn't matter, since for almost all of us both sides of our brains talk to each other. Which means the suggestion that behavior, responses and the like can be sort of predicted depending on which hemisphere is active in people is not really accurate either, because most of us will use both halves of our brain in handling most situations.

Except, of course, for modern politicians, most media folks and celebrities who think they should bother us with their thoughts on important matters. These people tend to use neither half of their brain most of the time.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Tariff Riff

I'd thought about using my fairly limited knowledge of economics -- ably assisted by Thomas Sowell -- to explain why President Trump's labeling himself a "Tariff Man" shows he don't get the trade thing very well.

But then Samford University professor Art Carden dreamed up some new words set to the tune of Billy Joel's "Piano Man," and I realized I didn't have to. Which was good, because that Sowell book is kind of heavy.

Monday, December 3, 2018

No One Told Thee Life Wouldst Be This Way

In case you had the idea that coffee-houses originated in 1990s Seattle, or 1950s New York, or somewhere else in our supernally hip modern era, check out this article at Building History, which notes that Sir Henry Blount, traveling through Turkey in 1634, found that the Turkish folks would sometimes spend "two or three hours in cauphe-houses, which, in Turkey, abound more than inns and alehouses with us."

No word on whether he found one that housed a group of six young adults who seemed to have a surprising amount of time during the day to lounge about one of those establishments instead of going to work.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Test Pattern

Good day, but a long one. See you tomorrow.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Public Official

Mikhail Gorbachev has been known to say that only then-President Ronald Reagan could have "won" the Cold War through the determination and strategy he used both in negotiating with the Soviet Union and the hard line he took against it. If so, it's probably also true that few, if any, people could have managed the actual collapse of the USSR and its satellites with as little bloodshed as Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush. Bush passed away today at 94.

Bush's knowledge of foreign policy and his experience in both intelligence and diplomatic areas, plus his cool head in times of stress, outpaced just about everyone else who vied for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. Senators Bob Dole and Jack Kemp probably had the leadership qualities needed, but neither of them could match Bush's foreign policy résumé. And neither they nor any of the rest of the "Why did you bother?" list had Reagan's endorsement.

Bush is sometimes considered a failed president because he only served one term before being defeated by Bill Clinton. Critics suggest his ability to step on his own tongue at any given moment, his failure to capture the national momentum he drew during Operation Desert Storm and his reversal of his clear pledge not to raise taxes weakened him against the younger, hipper and most definitely smoother Clinton. I don't know that any of those things were his greatest mistake. Nor, would I suggest to the snickers of many, was it the selection of Dan Quayle as his running mate. The list of other candidates he'd beaten in the primaries included men like Al Haig and Pat Robertson, so going way outside the box wasn't the worst idea.

Looking back at the 1992 election, it seems like Bush's biggest mistake was in not finding a way to quell or pacify quirky Texas businessman Ross Perot. Perot won no electoral votes but did rack up almost a fifth of the national popular vote, probably drawing more from Bush than from Clinton.

In any event, Bush wasted little time grieving his loss, staying active in public life in several areas of interest to him and partnering with Clinton to help raise funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The last U.S. President to have fought in World War II and the last from the "Greatest Generation," his presidency and foreign policy achievements could be seen as following the path of that generation in handing off to their children the world they had carefully shaped and worked hard to improve.

And much like they did with everything else, those Baby Boomer children made a mess of things. Probably should have listened to their elders.

Friday, November 30, 2018

No Snake-Handling Required

Today is St. Andrew's Day, celebrating the feast day of the patron saint of Scotland. It is not nearly so well-known as the feast day for the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick.

The imbalance is likely to continue until scientists develop a method for dying a beer (and the Chicago River) plaid.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

May not Know What It Means, But It Sure Sounds Cool

We present another in an occasional series of great headlines of science articles that sound cool even though your humble correspondent has no flippin' idea what it means:

"Bose Einstein condensate may reveal supersolid’s secrets"

It'll take a couple of reads to get to my usual dim and partial understanding of this topic, although I was surprised to find out that supersolids are controversial. Unfortunately, the article does not tell us what they did in order to become so -- which may be the secret that the Bose Einstein condensate will reveal.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Because Reasons

So Walt Disney is re-making The Lion King for 2019, following its 2017 success with a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast.

Of course, the new Lion King won't be live-action, since animals don't talk or do other things that people do, like sing catchy songs about slackerdom as a life philosophy. It will still be an animated movie, but as I understand it, it's being called "photorealistic." Meaning computer-generated. This space is on record as suggesting that the Beauty and the Beast remake existed primarily as a cash grab (although a number of Friends of This Space -- FOTS -- think differently. The one I'm thinking of didn't review the movie on his blog, just on his Facebook. So -- sorry, no link). But it did at least feature real human beings in front of our eyes as the Beast characters.

Lion King will have none of that. It is essentially another animated movie, except that this one's done entirely by computer. The original was a mix of hand-drawn and computer-generated imagery (such as the wildebeest stampede). The video found at the above link at Bored Panda shows some of the shot-for-shot similar scenes, although there are supposed to be some different scenes and a new character or two. As with the Beast, I have no desire to see it. I've already seen The Lion King, and if I have need to watch it again I own a copy. It has no more appeal than did Gus Van Sant's color remake of Psycho. So I can say I have no reason to see it.

Which doesn't mean Disney has no reason to make it. We'll have to wait until summer 2019 wraps to see how many millions, if not billions, of individual rea$ons it has, even though they will all boil down to just one.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Touchdown

NASA, that strange mix of Murphy and magnificence, landed the InSight probe earlier this afternoon, safely finishing off a seven-month, 300 million-mile journey. All indications suggest the probe is in the place scientists want it to be, and it will spend the next two months or so getting ready for its scientific mission.

InSight, which is an acronym for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, will deploy a small container of seismology equipment to check out "marsquakes" and such, as well as a heat probe that will dig about 16 feet under the surface of Elysium Planitia to see whatever may be seen down there.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

A Bit Off-Target

The recent death of longtime Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee drew a lot of tributary words from folks in the industry he helped shape as well as others appreciative of his work.

Comedian Bill Maher, on the other hand, wasn't as complimentary about Lee's impact on modern culture. He didn't disparage Lee personally, but he did question whether or not the impact was positive. Comic books were primarily a kid's medium, he said, and their dominance of pop culture reflected that culture's a lack of seriousness. Only a culture that took comic books so seriously, Maher said, could have elected Donald Trump as president.

Now, the immediate low-hanging fruit would be to correct Maher and say that only a culture that took comedians so seriously could elect Donald Trump as president. The amount of truth in that depends on the comedians in question -- if we include Maher then the statement holds but that's only because he so badly combines comedy and social commentary. His career has been built on using sarcasm and smirk to try to deepen and fortify his satire, and on trying to sell a libertine as a libertarian.

But comedians who employ better perception, better understanding and, let's face it, better jokes in service of their own social commentary aren't hard to find. In fact, some of the best are good enough at their jobs that you laugh even when you don't agree with the point of view or the commentary. So we should probably dismiss that entirely understandable but off-target first response to Maher's remarks.

There's something that the remarks circle around, though, that's worth thinking about a little. Not just to see where they miss, but also where the truth might be more likely found. Maher's not so wrong in suggesting we have a shallow culture, even though I disagree with the idea that an interest in comic books is a symptom of that. I'd suggest instead that a better marker for the shallowness is our investment and interest in celebrity instead.

By "celebrity" I'm talking about people who are either famous for nothing more than being famous, such as the Kardashians, or people whose opinion is lent greater weight because of their fame. Using Maher's example, in this second case it would fine to give weight to Stan Lee's thoughts about the nature of responsibility, for example (Hint: it comes with great power), because Lee's own work and the work he helped oversee display some real thinking about these ideas. But I'd be foolish to consider his fame to be any reason to pay attention to what he says about, say, gamma radiation, because he probably didn't know any more about it than I do.

Yet our culture constantly weighs celebrity as a reason to pay attention to something someone says, even when there's no other reason to believe they know anything about whatever the subject matter at hand happens to be. That's fine when it sticks to advertising. Bob Uecker says Miller Lite tastes great and is less filling? Good enough for me! Even if he's wrong, the consequences are short-term and not very great. Matthew McConaughey says I should check out Lincoln automobiles for...well, I don't really know because I don't understand what he's talking about, but again, no biggie.

When celebrity infects politics and other matters, though, then a culture shallow enough to depend on it gets lousy results. In modern US politics, a lot of people would trace this thread to the first televised presidential debates, where John Kennedy's photogenic good looks contrasted to Richard Nixon's decided non-photogeneity.

Depending on your political persuasion, you blame a celebrity-led culture for the presidencies of either Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. While both men earn a share of blame for using celebrity to bolster their candidacies, it was more of an extra than the founding principle of their campaigns. Both men had serious governmental executive experiences in their respective governor's mansions. Both had well-developed views on public policy and the issues they wanted to address -- positions that demonstrated paying attention to some authority, whether or not it was an authority their opponents wanted to accept. Their celebrity -- Reagan's Hollywood career or Clinton's sax solo on Arsenio Hall, for example -- aided their campaigns but did not comprise them.

Now people's mileage may vary but I would suggest both President Trump and his predecessor relied far more on celebrity than substance. Neither former President Obama's time as an Illinois state senator nor his brief tour in the US Senate features any great distinguishing work or legislation. But not long into his 2008 campaign he morphed from "first-term US Senator Barack Obama" into "Obama," a one-named celebrity candidate who drew crowds, coverage and approval just by showing up. President Trump's record of public policy knowledge and achievement is even scantier, but his name-recognition from years of New York tabloid coverage and a successful stint as a game-show host meant his celebrity showing was very high. That was enough to get people to pay him attention even though he's never demonstrated expertise on much other than tacky gold leaf and serial extramarital affairs.

Now, fame and notoriety -- both earned and unearned -- have always carried some cachet, and using celebrities to sell things has a long history. It seems only in the last couple of decades, though, that we've become people who see them as signals of knowledge and trustworthiness on issues where they have no business doing so. What sparked that? What made us so ready to listen to actors, singers and others when it comes to matters where we should instead seek out the advice of people who've spent long years studying those matters? Who started giving them the platform to bring those opinions before us? To heck with reasoned analysis -- who do we blame?

Well you see, back in 1993 Comedy Central had this show called Politically Incorrect...

Friday, November 23, 2018

Green Blues

Brian J. Noggle recasts the Eric Clapton classic with reference to current events.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thankful?

According to this article, the two cities that landed half of Amazon’s new headquarters may find themselves less than thankful for their good fortune as time goes on. Thankful or not, the tab will probably wind up totaling more than the good city fathers of both areas let on.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Saying Thanks!

The Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter ran several ads saying thanks and paying tribute to the late Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee.

Company boundaries were nonexistent, as main rival DC Comics also honored Lee for his contribution to their mutual industry. My favorite ad, though, is the one below from the original six folks who made up the Avengers from the 2012 movie:


Scarlett Johansen, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans were all stars to one degree or another, with a little bit of success under their respective belts. But their participation in the Marvel movies that began with 2008's Iron Man and its quirky little post-credits scene (that made at least one adult male movie-goer actually giggle like a little kid when Samuel L. Jackson showed up as Nick Fury and said the words "Avengers Initiative") set most if not all of them up for life professionally as well as probably financially. The ad shows that they know who to thank, and that they bought and ran it shows they are the kind of people who would do so.

That's kind of cool.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Singular Address

November 19th is the anniversary date of Abraham Lincoln's famed "Gettysburg Address," and it's a good occasion to read and reflect on it. It often spurs different thoughts, depending on other things that may be going on in the world.

Today, the thought that occurred was the unlikelihood of any modern politician being able to create such an amazing impact with ten sentences and 270 words. I almost thought about whether or not there were any modern politicians who could appreciate the impact of Lincoln's words, but stopped before I depressed myself too much.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Test Pattern

Conference paperwork. Both creativity and ability to post in a manner appropriate to a family-type blog are at dangerously low ebb. Back tomorrow.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Reenactment

Here are some fun CGI recreations of a few famous castles in England, Scotland and Ireland, shown with pictures of what they look like now, as well as animated GIFs of how they were reconstructed.

Of course, it's kind of confusing because the present-day pictures of the ruins are labeled "Before" and the reconstructions are labeled "After," when technically they show what the castles looked like before they fell apart.

It's a bit of a head-scratcher, but the pictures are neat.

Friday, November 16, 2018

From the Rental Vault: Outlaw King (2018)

Like a lot of people who know a little bit about history, David Mackenzie understood that Mel Gibson's 1995 blockbuster Braveheart was not an accurate retelling of the 14th century Scottish war for independence. But unlike a lot of those people, Mackenzie could do something about it and did, by making a movie about the man who ultimately won the throne following those conflicts, Robert the Bruce who was to be crowned Robert I, King of the Scots. So he did, distributing it through Netflix as Outlaw King.

Gibson's movie focused on freedom fighter William Wallace, named one of Scotland's Lord Protectors as Scottish nobles attempted to remove the heavy English yoke from their necks. Wallace is not to be found in Outlaw King except in part, as a piece of his drawn and quartered corpse is displayed in warning to potential rebels. A scene which included a meeting between him and Robert was trimmed from the final version of King.

As a more faithful retelling of some of the events surrounding Scotland's fight for independence, Mackenzie succeeds, as this Popular Mechanics article outlines. But as a plain ol' movie, it lags considerably in many areas. Some scenes feel curiously drawn out while others are choppy and rushed. A number of plot points hinge on what happens to certain characters but we don't learn enough about them to figure out why these events are important, either to Robert or to the story. Mackenzie cut about 20 minutes from the version of the movie shown at the Toronto International Film Festival so it's possible some of the flow and explanation we're looking for is in those minutes, but their absence harms not just the pacing but the whole payoff of the storyline.

Chris Pine largely succeeds in showing Robert as a man haunted by the years of fighting that precede the timeline we're watching, and rendered weary and detached by it all. The people around him may want to play this particular game of thrones, but he's tired of it all and would rather sit it out. A pair of scenes showing the harsh way Edward I of England imposed his rule on the Scots are meant to show us how Robert awoke to the injustice of that rule but they flash so quickly it's hard to see how they have that great of an impact. Billy Howie sounds mostly one note as Prince Edward (later Edward II) -- desperate mania to prove himself a worthy successor to his father and proves mostly a cardboard cutout rather than a properly hate-able villain. Florence Pugh displays stalwart strength as Robert's imprisoned wife Elizabeth, but again whatever arc she is supposed to have stumbles through the end in more of a series of vignettes rather than full development.

Robert eventually decides to drop his guerilla campaign in order to face Edward in battle, unwilling to be an "outlaw king" any longer. One of the cut scenes showed him meeting a haggard Wallace when the latter is hiding out, his cause and support vanished. Retaining that scene could have helped show why Bruce suddenly decides it's time to fight in the open as he realizes only a decisive defeat of the English can end his de facto exile, end their oppressive rule and free his family.

Historical dramas rarely hit the screen at anywhere above 80 percent in accuracy, because real history stubbornly refuses to conform to the most effective storytelling aesthetics. Real people mix heroic and base qualities, events don't always match a good narrative sequence and resolutions can take quite awhile to flesh out clearly. Mackenzie may have reached his goal of showing a more historically accurate vision of the Scottish wars of independence, but he probably needed a little more Maxwell Stoddard in the mix in addition to some more foundation and some earlier fire from his lead. History is made up of facts, but movies are made up of legends and Outlaw King doesn't have nearly enough of the latter.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Assortment

-- Batkid wins again, as the boy who saved San Francisco during his Make-A-Wish experience five years ago now lives a mostly ordinary life...cancer free. Biff! indeed.

-- A missing piece of the famous ancient computing device, the antikythera mechanism, may have been found near an equally ancient Greek shipwreck. As the story notes, there is no evidence yet that proves the new artifact is a part of the mechanism. Tech support has suggested that operators apenergpoieste ten kai energpoieste ten xana* and see if that works.

-- In this Bizarro outing, Dan Piraro illustrates how other sports acknowledge the superiority of baseball. No one not playing football ever wears a football helmet on the sidelines, and the team store of every other sport sells a baseball cap with the team logo on it. Just sayin'.

*Turn it off and then turn it on again.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Thinking Aligned

At Awful Announcing, Andrew Bucholtz thinks that the way that sports media have covered the National Basketball Association as it opens its 2018-19 season suggests something.

Bucholtz notes that even in-game events, like the recent dustup between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, have drawn coverage that focuses as much if not more on what the spat means in light of Durant's upcoming free agency (Note from an OKC Thunder fan: Don't buy any #35 Warrior gear). Fewer pieces focus on whether or not the two can coexist well enough to allow the Golden State Warriors to play at a high level.

Sure, you can make the case that nobody outside of the Golden fan base cares how the league's version of the Harlem Globetrotters vs. the New Jersey Generals turns out. But still, Bucholtz says, the imbalance is interesting and may even be a part of a trend. Other stories show a similar pattern. It seems, Bucholtz says, that the media covering the NBA care more about the post-season and the next season than they do the current regular season.

Well I'll be darned. The media really are just like the rest of us, aren't they?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Time Stampin'

At Plus, Antonella Perucca describes the ways that the mathematically hip could write all of the numbers necessary on a clock face by using only one number.

The trick is to put that number into several different math functions, the answers to which shake out to be the proper chronological digits.

This could be a useful way to help students test their knowledge of different equations or functions. But since some schools are ditching clocks with hands because students don't know how to use them -- and the schools apparently don't know how to teach -- it probably won't be a widespread activity.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Limitlessness of Imagination

Although he spent a lot of his later years bending his talents more towards self-promotion than some might like, and although he might remember the creation of many iconic Marvel Comics characters as more in his ledger than some others would say, Stanley Martin Lieber left this world having increased its overall portion of creativity much more than most other people did.

As Stan Lee, which was first a pen name and then later his legal one, he had a huge share in the creation of comic book icons like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and others. Disputes between Lee and artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko may have muddied the waters of origin too much to ever know from whose mind what detail sprang, but Lee's influence is undeniable and significant. As a writer and editor at Marvel, Lee oversaw a more human kind of hero behind the masks and under the capes. The "secret identity," if there was one, wasn't just a convenient device for soaking up some page count: It influenced who the heroes were and how they behaved, and introduced the idea of flaws and failures into the four-color funnybook world.

Sometimes that way of thinking didn't work so well, as when Lee greenlit the death of Peter "Spider-Man" Parker's girlfriend Gwen Stacy. For all of the advances made during the 1960s, Spider-Man writer Gerry Conway and Marvel book editor Roy Thomas couldn't open their Parker/Spider-Man box wide enough to encompass a married Peter Parker, so they decided to permanently remove her. "Realism" could deal with a hero mourning the loss of his love but was apparently stymied by the idea of a normal family life.

Still, the idea of truly human heroes -- whether biologically human or not -- took root and grew throughout the industry. It found its way into other companies and other storylines, and fueled some of the best prestige events in the medium, such as Watchmen, Marvels and Kingdom Come. It's the foundation for the conflict in the Kurt Busiek/George Perez JLA/Avengers crossover, and underlies Busiek's superlative Astro City series and to a large degree even Bill Willingham's Fables. An even more reality-based vision of the superhero world was fleshed out in "The Ultimates" series of books from Marvel, and the current Marvel Cinematic Universe works very much from the Ultimates vision of the characters.

In later years Lee maintained a heavy public appearance schedule, relishing his opportunities to interact with fans as often as he could manage. If some of that interaction fed his vanity as well, it's hard to begrudge him enjoying the kudos he had worked pretty hard to merit.

Lee was born to Jewish immigrants but for much of his adult life was agnostic about the idea of actual deities. So we can't be sure just exactly what he might have believed about an afterlife and what it contained. It would be fitting, of course, for this great prince of storytellers to open his eyes in a realm of endless tales, each one greater than he could have ever possibly imagined and building without end -- and it wouldn't be such a bad place for anyone else, either -- so why not hope that's what is indeed the case and say as Lee himself would have said:

Excelsior!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Edumacatin'

Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder reflects a little on a list she found of the way some machines that "learn" don't necessarily do so in a way that we might appreciate.

Among the unforeseen consequences: When hooking a type of learning processor called a "neural net" to a Roomba automatic vacuum in order to increase its speed by limiting bumper contacts (those are when the Roomba bumps into something, backs up, and starts off again in a new direction). So the Roomba learned to drive backwards, since it doesn't have bumpers on the back. Not really any faster and perhaps a little wearing on the device's housing, since it will still bump into things.

Another person set up a neural net that will "reward" a self-driving car that it is able to drive faster. So the net began driving the car around in small but speedy circles.

Perhaps a good thing to remember if we want to understand what it might mean to literally take things "literally,"

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Original Meaning

Today we remember Nov. 11 as Veterans's Day, set aside to honor men and women who have worn our nation's uniform in peacetime and war, and what they sacrificed on behalf of their fellows and their country.

Originally, of course, Nov. 11 was Armistice Day. A century ago as I write this, thousands of soldiers were just a few hours away from learning they might very well live to see Christmas and return home to their families. Today they are all gone, mostly seen in grainy photos or perhaps remembered as grandfathers by those who are grandfathers today.

But still they were here, and they offered much, even all, for a cause they were told was right and for each other. So when we say thanks to the service men and women still among us now, we might offer one as well for those of another era. A century may have thinned the memory and immediacy of their offering, but it mattered much to them at their time. And perhaps if we do so we can guide those in November of 2118 as they look back to our day.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Pear-esy

In this recent Existential Comics, St. Augustine discovers that even the strongest spirit can have its weaknesses.

And they were delicious.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Speaking Out

Recently, the AbeBooks site, which sells used and antiquarian (AKA expensive used) books as a subsidiary of Amazon, said it was going to cut off sales to five countries entirely: the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, South Korea and Russia. Although little information ever came out, the company said it had to do with payment processing.

That didn't sit well with about 600 booksellers in 27 countries, who pulled their inventories from the website for a couple of days to get their point across. They did, and it seems that AbeBooks will not drop those countries from their roles at the end of the month as previously planned.

Stories on the matter say that the real problem was a lack of transparency in the decision. Without a clear reason why those nations presented a problem for the company, other sellers felt that they had no protection against being suddenly and mysteriously dropped themselves.

We'll have to see what happens eventually, but this has been an interesting exercise in watching some purveyors of a more old-fashioned product guide the behavior of one of the most modern sectors of today's economy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Sounds Like a Plan

According to a recent study, growing up in a house with a lot of books is good for you.

I've got the house with books part down. I'm still working on the other bit.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Voting With a Purpose!

Ah, Election Day! A day in which we ordinary citizens engage in a privilege secured for us by people who fought long ago, and kept safe for us by others who have fought in the meantime and who stand ready to do so today. It is an important day for people who live in a republican democracy, as we elect our officials and speak out on some issues directly before us.

We're often told that our participation in voting sends a message. Different people suggest different messages and different audiences.

To people of other nations, perhaps new to the idea of actual citizen participation in government, we send a message that shows how this is supposed to work: People make their choices, the ballots are totaled, and those who win the election take office while those who leave office do so peacefully and with at least some good will for their successors.

To younger people of our own nation, we send a message that shows how citizenship brings with it some responsibilities along with the privileges we like to enjoy. Speaking out may be important and sharing opinions may be important, but the actual casting of a ballot is the only action with guaranteed results -- even if we don't care for the results that come from the ballots all those other people cast.

To dictators who rule with iron fists out of fear that their own people might depose them if given the chance, we say, you are right to fear. With the snap of a counting machine long-standing personal empires of power and privilege disappear as people do that most human of things: change their minds. The ballot box ignores seniority in office, committee chair positions, businesses and people who owe someone a favor and everything else in the face of simple math: 50 percent plus one means hasta la vista, baby.

But most important of all as I consider it is the message our voting sends to the office holders and candidates whose names are on the ballots. The people who have sapped our phone minutes with robocalls. The people who have stuffed our mailboxes with campaign literature that used to be beautiful trees. The people whose television, radio and online ads filled every available nook and crevice like a foul sludge. The people who told us that they embodied all of the best of the wisdom of the great founders of our nation almost as though they were those very founders raised again to walk the earth. The people who told us that although they were not here to go negative, they did feel it was important to ask why their opponents could produce no evidence that they never played foosball with the bleached skulls of shelter puppies.

And the message we send to half of them is this: Leave us alone, and go get a job. To the other half we say: Leave us alone, and get back to work. After some six months or more of listening to them, we are finally able to make them listen to us, and it is a wonderful feeling indeed.

Monday, November 5, 2018

What You See

It's been a long day, so I leave you with a simple link to some trippy illusions at Nautilus.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

From the Rental Vault: St. Elmo's Fire (1985)

I have a small soft spot of nostalgia for Joel Schumacher's "Brat Pack" outing, the ensemble picture St. Elmo's Fire. Following on the heels of the Baby Boomer's The Big Chill in 1983 and the high school introspection from earlier in 1985, The Breakfast Club, Fire seemed like it was the movie talking about people closer to my age at the time (The irony there being that stars Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy played in both Breakfast Club and Fire, aging some four or five years in the span of four months). The seven friends shown in the movie have just graduated college and are starting out in the workforce and adult life, with varying degrees of success.

But real life, it turns out, is complicated, and the safety net provided by the college environment is nowhere to be found out in that world. Party man Billy (Rob Lowe) finds that no one hires for those skills, which is even worse when you are married with a child. Alec (Nelson) and Leslie (Sheedy) see that living together may not be just a step along the path to marriage -- especially when Alec has a somewhat different understanding of monogamy -- and Kevin (Andrew McCarthy) discovers that just because your longtime crush breaks up with her longtime beau doesn't mean she wants to start something with you. Kirby (Estevez) will come to know that there are some good questions to ask the fair maid you've worshiped from afar, like "Do you have a boyfriend already?" Jules (Demi Moore) will learn that an affair with your married boss will not give you job security and that credit card debt is not an ideal fiscal foundation. Wendy (Mare Winningham) seems to discover that asserting yourself and creating your own life can involve finally consummating a relationship with the bad boy she's always fantasized about, but since he's planning on moving away and the movie ends right afterwards, it's kind of hard to say that's any sort of progress.

The script, by Schumacher and Carl Kurlander, is not really any kind of straight narrative as much as a series of snapshot vignettes. But the way the characters interact in those vignettes suggests there is supposed to be some kind of story arc, which means Schumacher and Kurlander's script is just not any good at pulling it off. The two or three crisis moments that are supposed to set up a resolution ring false, and the real problem is that with one or two exceptions, the whole group is a bunch of jerks. The major life lessons that they are supposed to acquire come with a healthy helping of "Duh, you idiot," and the talented cast has so little to work with it's tough to feel good for them when they finally take their Big Step Forward into Grown-Up Life. Especially since for several of them Grown-Up Life seems to still be pretty solidly adolescent.

As I said, I have a couple of nostalgic soft spots for Fire. In addition to remembering it "finally" as a movie about folks in my own age and experience bracket, I resonated a little with McCarthy's character, a fledgling reporter dealing with an unrequited crush on one of his best friends (Although Schumacher and Kurlander's breakthrough event for him was pure fantasy -- the Washington Post is not going to give column inches to a 22-year old to write a piece called "The Meaning of Life").

But it's a lousy movie from stem to stern, nostalgia notwithstanding. Had it not come out only four months after The Breakfast Club it would have been seen as a clear attempt to capitalize on that movie's success, but the truth is that ensemble coming-of-age stories are not uncommon. It's just that Schumacher and Kurlander are nowhere near as talented as Lawrence Kasdan (Chill) and John Hughes (Club). Columbia Studio execs may have thought they were getting a younger version of their Big Chill smash, but they would up with a clumsy mess that is far better remembered from across a span of years than watched in real time.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Offstage

Russian Igor Lipchanskiy has some fun Photoshopping himself into the space just outside some famous album covers. Some are pretty funny, like the first one from Prince's Prince album. Some aren't quite as funny, and I have to confess that some of them make no sense to me.

On the other hand, some of the album covers as is make no sense to me, either, so I suppose that's not all on Mr. Lipchanskiy.

Friday, November 2, 2018

If Elected, I Pledge to (Insert Issue Here)

Demetrios Pogkas and David Ingold, writing at Bloomberg, break down what percentage of campaign ads have dealt with different issues in different parts of the country.

So it seems these totals can hint at what things are on the minds of the voters in those areas. Thus, immigration issues rising to the top in some areas of California, Arizona and Texas makes sense because voters who live in those areas are faced with that problem a little more acutely than are voters in Des Moines.

According to the map, many of the ads run in my own fair state concern education issues, most likely educational funding. This past spring's teacher walkout put the matter squarely before us (or at least reminded us it should be squarely before us), so people running for office have made their positions on the matter an important feature of their cases as they are put before the electorate. Voters in Hawaii and some areas of Georgia, Alabama, Oregon and Maryland are also seeing a lot of ads on these issues.

The top concern of ads in by far the largest geographical area of the country is health care. But, as Pogkas and Ingold point out, all that means is that health care matters were the subject of the most ads. Whatever was on point in the second largest number of ads may still have take up a lot of airtime. So while health care issues may have headlined the most commercials in Florida, the "All those damn kids and their loud music" ads were probably in a comfortable second place, with "Mandatory deportation to Georgia for stepping on my lawn" in third.

As I read the story and the number breakdowns, a couple of thoughts occurred to me. As mentioned above, ostensibly these ads represent the concerns of the voters and thus the candidates responding by informing the electorate of their position on those concerns. Campaigns probably relied on poll data gathered from likely voters to determine their ad content. But I'm wondering why California 20th District Representative Jimmy Panetta has been airing so many ads about guns, He whupped his challenger, independent candidate Ronald Paul Kabat, 103,000 - 20,000 in a June 5 primary. Is gun ownership an issue so on the minds of the CA-20 voters that it could erode his 65-point lead? Or is Panetta someone who wants to trumpet his position on gun issues and doesn't really need to worry about what impact it will have on election day?

Also, I am not at all sure about the standards the Bloomberg staff used to determine what a particular ad was really about. Because based on my own non-scientific survey, most political ads were about what a rat bastard the other candidate was. Sure, he may have been a rat bastard who was going to tax the $5 Grandma gave you for your birthday so that Elizabeth Warren could use it to light her stove pilot. Or she was a rat bastard who was going to make kindergartners work in the oil fields in order to earn the money to have Crayons (New color: Light Sweet Crude).

But long before that we learned that the candidate himself or herself was the veriest incarnation of Steve (or Stephanie) Rogers imaginable, right down to the star on the shield, while the opponent was the kind of person who believed in depilating kittens with road tar -- at least until something crueler came along.

What Pogkas and Ingold's story can teach us, though, is that while political ads are useless as sources of information they are essential to candidates getting our votes. That reality does not make us as an electorate look good, by the way. Let's say a random New Mexico candidate realizes health care is a big concern for the voters he or she wishes to sway. The common-sense solution is that the candidate publishes a position paper on the issue and voters who want to know where the candidate stands on it read the paper. Then they decide how they might like to vote.

Unfortunately, since our far more common practice is to not pay attention to anything more than three paragraphs long (meaning that getting here makes you quite uncommon, O Tolerant Reader) and to forget even that between now and election day, out come the commercials and ads. But neither medium lends itself to detailed explanations or positions. So the only way to maximize their impact is to contrast the election as a choice between me -- a person who stood up and saluted the National Anthem when I was in the womb -- and my opponent, who lines his catbox with shredded rags of Old Glory itself.

But there is yet hope. The article says that the blank areas of the map, found in Alaska, are ones where ads were not measured. In my eternal sunshiny optimism, though, I shall prefer to believe they are the Blessed Lands where no political ads, measured or otherwise, are ever aired.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Six of One, a Half-Dozen of the Other

On the one hand, the below picture of a meteor shower in Mongolia shows that in many ways, meteor showers backdropped by fantastic astronomical phenomena taken where there is no light pollution all look alike:
On the other hand, when they all look like that, well, the similarities are actually a plus.