Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Language Barrier

An orca whale in an aquarium in France has been taught to squeak sounds that mimic human words and to give them on cue.

"Wikie" doesn't actually speak in the sense of knowing what the sounds she makes means, of course, but the researchers are keen to explore what her learning the sounds might mean about whale communication and how bright our seagoing mammal friends might be.

There are already hints that the lessons have improved Wikie's appreciation of how human beings communicate, as after-hours microphones have picked her up humming this rather appropriate tune.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Doing Your Sums

Ordinarily math shows things fitting together in a predictable and orderly fashion. One object added to another object makes a pair of objects. Our intuition and experience of the world suggest the outcome of this operation, and when we apply math to it we find out that our intuition was right.

Except when it isn't. Mathematician Julian Havil offers several scenarios in which the "usual thing" produces the exact opposite of what intuition and experience suggest in his 2007 book Nonplussed! He also outlines the mathematics behind events that should be impossible -- like, for example, why a cone can roll uphill, unaided by outside forces.

Oddball things like these generally involve much more complicated math than simple arithmetic. Havil, who taught math at Winchester College for more than 30 years, is quite well equipped to lay out the various formulas that show why, for example, the 13th of a month is more likely to be a Friday than any other day of the week. Or why a bad sports team can improve its performance by adding worse players than its opponents do.

Nonplussed! is, in fact, pretty formula heavy. Havil has written on this topic in some other books and also on other numerical and mathematical topics, but this particular volume is aimed at readers with a basic working knowledge of calculus. He sets up the problems verbally, but in explaining how the counterintuitive results come about he leans much more heavily on equations that will make little sense to those without such knowledge. It doesn't really harm the book but it does significantly limit the potential audience.
Very broadly speaking, there are two kinds of math problems in the world: Ones which can easily be solved by a computer and one whose solutions can be easily checked by a computer. "Solved" in this sense means "proven to be true for any value of the variable." Checked means that if a number is plugged into the equation, it can be seen if the equation still makes sense or if it produces an impossible answer.

The set of solvable equations is called P. The set of checkable equations is called NP. And one of the biggest questions in mathematics, one whose solution could make the world a completely different place, is does P = NP? Georgia Tech computer science professor Lance Fortnow has spent much of his career considering this problem and writes about some of the history of its investigation in 2013's The Golden Ticket: P, NP and the Search for the Impossible.

Current mathematical thought suggests that P ≠ NP, although it can't yet prove that to be true. Fortnow outlines what kind of solutions to world problems might happen if P = NP, such as a wide range of cures for cancer not now possible. It would also make some things significantly more difficult, such as online security. Current online security relies on equations that can't be easily solved because of the number of digits they use and immense number of possible number combinations. But in a P = NP world, those equations could be solved and so computer security would become much more complicated.

Fortnow also describes some of the history of different attempts to determine whether we live in a world where P = NP or where P ≠ NP. He offers some thoughts on what the development of quantum computing, which is projected to be immensely faster than current computing, might mean about getting a definitive answer either way. He keeps the formula and equation use to a minimum, saving much of it for appendices for the readers interested in that part of the story.

The Golden Ticket is a great introduction to a math problem that few people know about and even fewer understand, and a good way to try to start thinking about it and its implications. Although Fortnow doesn't delve much into the philosophical implications of the P, NP problem, he provides enough of the basic tools for the curious to begin that part of the journey themselves.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Still Burning

I missed this appreciation of the 30th anniversary of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, published in the long-ago world of 1987. Bruce Bawer notes how Wolfe's first novel after a career of long-form journalism occupies a unique place in 20th century American literature. He measures it against some similar efforts by budding writers of the time and finds it still excels them, useful and productive to read in spite of its paleolithic pay phones and green-on-black CRT computer monitors.

Wolfe published three more novels. A Man in Full's exploration of class and race in the New South of Atlanta also drew praise, although Bawer noted that a few writers were less happy with it than with Bonfire. The third novel, 2004's I Am Charlotte Simmons, took aim at the culture of political correctness and hedonism that decorates many modern universities. These were cows too sacred for a lot of modern writers and they subsequently downchecked Charlotte Simmons and Wolfe's abilities as a novelist entirely. He would return to fiction in 2012 with Back to Blood, a novel that revisited a lot of themes he'd already covered and sold poorly. Whether he went to the novelist's well once too often or, perhaps, without the fully-formed ideas that fueled his earlier three fiction books is hard to say. Since then he's stuck to nonfiction -- which is still often a more fun and challenging read than a lot of literary stuff decorating perfectly good blank pages today.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Time Approaches

Yes, it does. In a shade over two weeks, Rogers Hornsby is freed from his lonely window vigil, as are the rest of us who follow humanity's highest sporting achievement. Pitchers and catchers report for spring training Feb. 13 and 14.

In the meantime, here's an article about how the stadium for next week's Super Bowl is so energy-efficient that it will offset 100 percent of the energy used to heat it. Scientists were unable to determine whether apathy generated by this year's contest between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles had any effect on that energy use figure. Not because the amount was small, of course, but because they could not determine if the immense amount of apathy surrounding the game added to the overall energy use by requiring more energy to counter it or if it subtracted from the energy use by being basically negative.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Darned Statistics

The Democratic majority leader in the lower house of the California legislature, Ian Calderon, wants restaurants to cut down on their straw usage, so as to reduce the amount of waste plastic introduced into the environment.

If the law he introduced passes, then the unfortunate wait staff person who offers you a straw without you asking for it could face a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail. Were I resident of California, you know of course what I would do. Yes, get the hell out of there as lickety-durn-split as I could, of course, but in the meantime I would ask every server I had for two straws and mail one to Assemblyman Calderon.

Is the reduction of waste plastic a worthy goal? Sure. Are straws a source of that? Well, probably. I've tried to get myself in the habit of not getting a lid at a fast-food restaurant unless I intend to take the cup with me. It's been a long time since I was prone to spilling my soda and it's not really needed, and that way I can trim some of my own plastic waste creation. Would it be a neat idea if servers started giving out straws just when patrons asked for them, or asking before handing them out? Sure it would, and it would probably help trim that amount of waste.

But a law, with a six-month jail term and a $1,000 fine? The bill is rock-solid evidence that someone has taken the business end of a straw, inserted it deeply into Assemblyman Calderon's cranial cavity and switched the Dyson on full. It is, frankly, a wonder that his head has not collapsed due to the unequal pressure between the atmosphere outside and the hollow, echoing vacuum within. That someone on his staff managed to figure out they should remove the fines from the bill is no credit; this is not an idea you should walk back from as much as one you should never have had. Zapping restaurant servers with six-month jail terms and $1,000 fines when most of them make less than minimum wage is like citing children for illegal lemonade stands.

As the article at Reason notes, the ultimate fun of this entire episode of "Who Votes for These People?" comes here: The only printed source for the amount of waste generated by thrown-away plastic straws is a phone survey done by Milo Cress. Mr. Cress called straw manufacturers and surveyed them on straw use back in 2011.

When he was 9.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Keep on Truckin'

Someone missed out an opportunity by not licensing Robert Crumb's "Keep on Truckin'" cartoon and stenciling it on the side of the Mars Opportunity rover, which marks 14 years of work this month.

Opportunity began its mission in January 2004 and is currently exploring the appropriately-named Perseverance Valley and the Endurance Crater. It will apparently cease its work when you pry the Martian soil from its cold dead manipulators.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sayin' Grace

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, the poet of Scotland. I don't know if you marked this event, or if you are wont to say a grace before you dine, but let me offer this suggestion if you're in such a mind. From 1791, and according to Burns scholars, extemporaneous:

O thou who kindly dost provide
For every creature's want!
We bless Thee, God of Nature wide,
For all Thy goodness lent:
And if it please Thee, Heavenly Guide,
May never worse be sent;
But, whether granted, or denied,
Lord, bless us with content. Amen!

I don't usually do so well when given the same opportunity. Bless ye, Rabbie.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

I'm Just Going to Leave This Here

Contestants in a Saudi beauty festival were disqualified for using Botox.

The contestants were camels, and their owners were found to have used the skin-tightening toxin to alter the shape of the animals faces and lips.

You thought FFA got serious...

Monday, January 22, 2018

Clearing Some Tabs

-- Dear sweet heavenly day, Stephen King has had an actual idea: A Law & Order series including vampires. Sure, there have been vampire cop shows before, most notably the 1990s Canadian syndicated show Forever Knight. And Angel began with the conceit of Buffy's former boyfriend working as a kind of private detective, prowling the much-meaner-than-believed streets of Los Angeles. But King means the actual Law & Order universe, with the "chung-chung" and voice-of-Moses intro and everything. Someone riffing off of King's Tweet suggested an intro, but I think this would be better: "In the criminal justice system crimes are divided into two separate but equally serious groups: Natural crimes handled by human police officers and attorneys and supernatural crimes, handled in secret by a different kind of investigator. These are their stories."

-- So the federal government was shut down for an entire weekend and Monday. Furloughed workers will receive their pay in arrears; since the shutdown itself did not even last an entire payroll period it's unlikely that their checks will look any different than they would have otherwise. Good thing I didn't invest in any "I survived Shutdown 2018" merchandise.

-- Time to pick up that Philadelphia Eagles' fandom banner I last waved in 2005.

-- Some evidence suggests the sky may not be falling after all.

Sunday, January 21, 2018


Writing at The New Atlantis, Alexi Sargeant goes into great detail about why the recent use of CGI to recreate actors who died is not just creepy, it's more steps than you want in the direction of movies that have nothing to them and wind up not mattering.

Sargeant focuses on the recreated Peter Cushing we saw in Rogue One, filmed and released more than 20 years after Cushing died and 40 years after he played the role in question, the Grand Moff Tarkin. His take is a little different than many, which complain about the "uncanny valley" that exists when we look at faces which are supposed to be real people but which are whipped-up collections of pixels. Even the most perfect give many people a mild case of the creeps. The complaint says that the technology is still limited and these kinds of recreations should wait until that valley can be bridged.

Sargeant, on the other hand, says that better recreations might eventually close the gap but that will actually make things worse. We'll have a Peter Cushing indistinguishable from the actual one, for example, who can be superimposed over a stand-in actor for blocking and reaction purposes. Except we won't. We will have a digital recreation of the way the actor looked in one particular role (pretty darn scary) that will only do what the director wants. Sure, actors are supposed to read the dialogue written for them, even when George Lucas writes it. It's what they get paid for. But they bring some of their own vision for a character to the performance, and they speak with their own intonations or inflections. Does a line need to carry sarcasm? Compassion? Anger? Do those emotions need to be visible on the surface or masked? Historically, those questions are answered collaboratively, with ideas ad suggestions from directors, other cast members and even -- saints and angels preserve us -- the writer.

There could still be collaboration in determining how a CGI actor delivers lines and responds to other characters onscreen, of course. But one voice won't be heard, and that's the voice that belongs to the face we're watching. Valley-spanning improvements that lead to more "resurrections" like this will wind up disenfranchising the very person whose skill and sensibility made the role important in the first place.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Establishment

The last time Virgil Flowers was in Trippton, MN, the school board tried to kill him. At least this time the homicidal administrators he encountered in 2014's Deadline are behind bars, but the town of Trippton has coughed up another mystery -- and another body -- in the middle of winter, and Virgil is called on to help figure it out in 2017's Deep Freeze.

This time, the victim is Gina Hemming, the Trippton High School Class of 1992's queen bee, who is found in a rare open patch of water on the frozen river, after she was killed and her body dumped. The last people to see her alive were some classmates helping to plan the class reunion, and since this is Trippton there's a decent chance the killer is one of them. But as a bank president, Gina had been able to develop other potential enemies, so even the class reunion committee isn't a slam dunk.

Exactly who the killer is, how the murder happened and how Gina's body ended up in a river some distance from her home are all things Virgil will have to find out in the midst of an icy small-town Minnesota winter. While trying to help out a private investigator who's looking into the creation of of ersatz talking Barbie dolls that have a rather different set of sayings than those parents want to hear from kids' toys, which may wind up being the more dangerous job.

Freeze is fun and a little better put together than Deadline, rolling its B plot into the main narrative a lot more smoothly than that novel did. "Sandford" is the pen name of Minneapolis reporter John Camp, so the description of the folks and scheme caught up in the Barbie knockoffs carries a lot of authentic features. And he continues to use realistically schlubby people as criminals rather than posit every backwoods hamlet as the home of a Master Criminal Genius.

It limps a little because of some needless salacious details about Gina's private life and more sympathy for the B-plot criminals than they merit given their own threatening moves. But the more disciplined narrative and the attention to the main thread help it to being one of the better novels in the series since the first few books.
First Tyson Connor started flashing much more cash and expensive material than any teenager should have. His working mother Devon didn't quite believe his stories about where it all came from but she couldn't prove him wrong. Then Tyson disappeared, so Devon has come to Elvis Cole to find her son. As Elvis digs deeper into exactly what Tyson and his friends have been doing, he learns that the kids themselves may not know what kind of trouble they have stirred up, nor who else is chasing them down. Even with his friend, the tough guy's tough guy Joe Pike along, there's no telling if Elvis can extract Tyson from the mess he's in. Or get out of it with his own skin intact.

The Wanted is the 17th novel featuring Elvis and Joe (three of the series have Joe as the POV character). Crais has been able to maintain his wit and keep Elvis in top form as a wisecracker. His penchant for Hawaiian shirts and Disney-character office accessories makes him seem deceptively lightweight until he has to pick up his end of a scuffle or bad-dude staredown. It's one of the things that's helped distinguish him from Robert B. Parker's Spenser. Pike is there to be stoic or menacing as necessary and he fills that role well; Crais doesn't make the mistake of using things we've learned about Pike from elsewhere to flesh him out if Elvis doesn't already know them.

That said, The Wanted isn't on the high end of the Cole-Pike series. For one, its pair of stalking hitmen owe more than a little to Jules and Vincent, but lack enough of the Travolta-Jackson charisma to make them amusing or interesting. For another, Tyson is a thoroughly unlikable little twerp whose friends are lightly sketched stereotypes that are even harder to like than he is.

Crais has been up and down through the course of the series, with some top-level work and some stuff that seems like setting the word processor on autopilot, so there's no reason to suspect Wanted signals a downturn. But its subpar status does make a reader a little more eager for the next volume and a little bit of redemption.
Ex-Mossad operators Aaron and Shoshana don't officially work for the government of Israel any more. Which means they do things the Israeli government wants done but doesn't want anyone to know they want them done. Pike Logan and the operators of the Taskforce know how that kind of game works, since they do it every day. When Aaron disappears and Shoshana is the target of an assassination attempt, the Taskforce's routine surveillance of an arms dealer turns out to be a deeper and more dangerous mission than they thought. Not in the least because working with Shoshana could be just as lethal as working against her and because the Taskforce's oversight board has no interest in the matter beyond stopping an arms deal. The fate of Aaron and the ultimate design of the plotters is not their concern. But it is Pike's. Guess whose vision wins out.

For his 12th tale of the Taskforce, retired special forces officer Brad Taylor didn't hang his story on an item from news headlines. He tried instead to spin up a yarn on his own, which makes for more focus on our characters than on explaining the evil plot, which is pretty simple at its base. It's a nice change of pace but doesn't reduce the suspense thriller mayhem level all that much. When Pike tries to rein in Shoshana's almost instinctive bloodlust, he's reminded of the same tendencies in himself and recognizes how Aaron is the Israeli assassin's link to humanity the way his partner and teammate Jennifer is for him.  It's not a literary-level exchange but definitely owes a lot to Nietzsche's abyss and what happens when one gazes into it too long.

The plot doesn't hold together as well as some of the other Logan tales that have real-world headlines as a peg; Taylor seems to work better with that kind of anchor. And Shoshana's anxiety-inspired mania starts to wear on a reader about two-thirds of the way through the book, especially when an episode of it seems to follow immediately after another declaration of belief in Pike and his plan. But a little extra work on the people he's been telling us about is welcome, and there's a fun little episode in the middle of the story that retells one of the mishaps Taylor had when researching it. If Taylor's next novel also leans a little more heavily on character than plot, well, he'll probably be better at it the second time around. And if it doesn't we have some more depth to our team of heroes and a little more reason to care about what their dangerous missions may cost them even when they survive.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Test Pattern 2

Breathing is better. Cognition and ability to focus, not so much ;-)

Trying again tomorrow, perhaps.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Test Pattern

Picked up the crud -- and while I'm sure blog posts aren't disease vectors, medication leaves me alternating between fuzzy and asleep. It just took me five tries to type "asleep."

So doctor tomorrow, quiet tonight.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Political Science

Arizona: We've got the craziest primary in the world! Featuring a guy who's only walking around outside of bars because of a presidential pardon. Nobody can top that!

Maryland: Hold my beer.

Some Suspense!

Lots of news writers think they have a novel in them, but Washington Post columnist David Ignatius actually has -- ten so far. Nine are espionage thrillers, including his latest, The Quantum Spy, and they all take advantage of Ignatius' career focusing on international events and issues.

Quantum Spy hinges on the development of a "quantum computer," which will have information processors that use the properties of quantum mechanics to make themselves faster than even the best super-computers available today. Different researchers in the United States hunt down different routes to find one that works, while Chinese spies look for information from them and try to build from that research.

CIA agent Harris Chang is part of the U.S. effort to counteract Chinese operations and perhaps find sources to learn about China's own research into quantum computing. He's on an arc for big things within the agency, although there's still an undercurrent of mistrust regarding his Chinese heritage. Harris is the son and grandson of immigrants but grew up in the US and had a distinguished career in Iraq.

When a recruitment operation goes awry some of the blame attaches to him even though the fault was another officer's. The ripples from the failure spread outward, as Chinese intelligence learns who Harris is and simultaneously sews misinformation designed to bring him under suspicion and reaches out to him to try to bring him to China's side. Harris is curious about his family past, which the Chinese handler seems to know, but is not at all tempted to work for the enemy. Nevertheless, suspicion against him mounts and he struggles against what he knows to be an unfair judgment. Harris will have to work against his own colleagues as well as Chinese spies in order to clear his name, uncover the real mole and help close the trap on a foreign intelligence chief his boss wants to suborn.

Ignatius' other novels have a reputation for simple storytelling, direct movement, and plausible, clearly explained "MacGuffins" that drive the plot. Quantum Spy bats one for three, as he helps outline in pretty understandable prose exactly what kind of leap quantum computing could be for the country that develops it first. But his characterizations are either inconsistent, as in Harris Chang's case, or flat, as in the case of the eventual mole. Harris is either a great blooming espionage talent, a hopelessly naive lunkhead or a troubled young man disconnected from a past he wants to find. His role doesn't change organically so much as based on what a particular scene calls for. The mole and other characters that have pivotal roles come in way too much like generic entries from central casting, espionage thriller office. Their actions and motivations read more like entries from a file card than people making choices or responding to others.

There's an interesting cat-and-mouse game buried in The Quantum Spy and an interesting parallel between scientists trying to drag sense our of the randomness of the quantum universe and spies trying to drag sense out of the turns and counterturns of the espionage game. But the only way to find those things is to try to drag sense out of the mare's nest of a novel they're in, and that's work that a better story wouldn't ask of its readers.
Thomas Perry has a strong history with both series characters like Jane Whitfield and hitman Michael Schaeffer, the eponymous Butcher's Boy of his first novel, and standalone books. His 2018 The Bomb Maker pits security specialist and former LAPD Bomb Squad commander Dick Stahl against an unnamed genius building brilliant -- and deadly -- bombs designed to work against a bomb specialists' own training.

The Bomb Maker has a lot of strong points. Extensive research lets Perry detail the way Stahl and the anonymous bomb maker approach their work, creating the atmosphere of a life-or-death chess game as the two men make move and countermove. The tension is higher on Stahl's side because a mistake will cost him his life, but it's equally high for the bomb maker as Stahl's continued success builds the pressure on his unbalanced mind.

Although he is brought back only temporarily, Stahl quickly becomes involved in an affair with one of his subordinates, Diane Hines. Her presence on the bomb squad raises the stakes for him, since she too could fall to the bomb maker's twisted genius.

The affair between Dick and Diane is a little far-fetched, beginning on the evening after they first work together and progressing rather quickly from there. The course of true love may not be supposed to run smoothly, but when the story telling it has just as many fits and starts it makes things fall apart pretty quickly. The Bomb Maker is loaded with padding, some of it related to the bomb maker himself and others to different characters. And not even all of those are connected to the main story, which makes their lines even more rabbit trails than they might be otherwise.

The Bomb Maker is a rare miss for Perry, whose usual gift for narrative focus and realistic dialogue deserts him and undercuts the tension-filled disposal scenes and conflict between the Stahl and the bomb maker himself. It's not really a dud, but it certainly doesn't pack the punch he's led readers to expect.
Over the course of a 40-plus year career as a novelist, practicing physician F. Paul Wilson has woven together several of his books as a part of a Secret History that outlines a battle between good and evil on a cosmic scale. First the Adversary Cycle, then the interweaving Repairman Jack series and now the Intrusive Cosmic Entities (ICE) sequence. The latest began with 2017's Panacea and continues with The God Gene.

Medical examiner Laura Fanning and mercenary Rick Hayden are still recovering emotionally from the events of Panacea when a chance news item lets Rick know his brother is missing. Although they were both adopted and differed in age, Rick believes he needs to track his brother Keith, who liquidated all of his assets and disappeared into Africa after finding a strange blue-eyed primate. Laura accompanies him despite the danger, and the pair find themselves facing smugglers, unscrupulous pilots and a brilliant scientist who may be past the edge of madness and who might endanger them all to fulfill his deadly plan. But their discovery of what at first seemed like a lost species of lemur might be even worse, leading to events that could endanger the lives of millions.

Wilson's medical background gives him a very good handle on the genetic oddities of the primates at the center of the story and the so-called "God gene" they share with humans. In more than a few places his exposition enters MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) territory, but most of the time it's in small enough doses to stay within the story. And after 40 years, he can write characters who are fairly engaging in spite of their shallowness and strongly stereotypical nature, as well as maintain tension across several acts of his story.

But he trips over many of the same things that hobbled him in the Repairman Jack series -- at crucial points he takes a left turn into the supernatural and invalidates nearly all of the terrestrial work he's done. In one of those novels, Jack's own arrogance leads directly to the deaths of two people he tried to help, but before we can see this take any toll on him we ramp up into the World Beyond and the problems of two dead people don't amount to a hill of beans. When we learn the secret behind the strange primates and their connection to Rick's missing brother, we almost immediately veer into the realm of the Intrusive Cosmic Entities and most of the science we had seen put to use in understanding the primates is rendered meaningless.

Wilson's a confessed fan of the "eldritch horror" of H. P. Lovecraft and ties most of his Secret History into a dispute between beings as vast and unknowable as Cthulhu itself. But he rarely manages the transition from the mundane to the macabre as well as Lovecraft did and it sends him off track all too often. He can write horror thrillers -- Midnight Mass is one of the better vampire stories of the last 25 years and it skillfully weaves its horror and action thriller elements together. But when it comes to his signature meta-series, he can too often be too clever for his own good. The God Gene is one of those times.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Test Pattern

One of those long days. I'll take a shot at two posts tomorrow; if youv'e found this obscure little corner of the internet then you should get more than this as a reward.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Simple Solution

Some historians are trying to figure out an ancient board game dating from the days of the Roman Empire. It was discovered when construction in Slovakia unearthed the tomb in which it was found, along with part of the occupant's skeleton and other grave items.

The game board -- and if you look at the picture at the link you will see it is literally made of boards -- is a 17x18 grid of squares and some black and white counters in different sizes. While other archaeological and historical records provide some possible hints, there's nothing that suggests exactly what the game is or how to play it. It resembles a Roman game that went out of fashion about 300 years earlier than the man in the tomb was buried, but there are significant differences that make the more recent game still a mystery.

I would offer them my game expertise, but I come from a group of friends that had a habit of making up our own rules for games even before we lost the official printed set that came in the box, so I would probably not be much help.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

From the Rental Vault: Twelve O'Clock High (1949)

Distance in time compresses the past. From our 21st-century perspective, World War II took only a few calendar pages, hopping from Pearl Harbor to D-Day to the atomic bomb without too much thought for what happened in between. The Axis were doomed to lose; historians who asses their economic and military capabilities can demonstrate that so clearly it seems unthinkable anyone would miss it.

But those days, weeks and months were not quick flips of a calendar page for the people who lived them, and the men who fought against Adolf Hitler's "Fortress Europe" saw no foregone conclusion as they bled and died assaulting it. Sometimes the survivors carried scars inside as grievous as the wounded wore outside. The 1949 Twelve O'Clock High offers the story of a fictionalized American bombing group and the cost that fighting during the war's darker days of 1942 exacted from its soldiers.

Gregory Peck is Brigadier General Frank Savage, given command of the 918th Bomb Group when his friend, Col. Keith Davenport, proves incapable of continuing. The 918 has gotten the reputation a a hard luck squadron and the Army Air Force fears if the tide isn't turned it could affect not only other groups but even the possibility of continued fighting against the Axis. Savage comes in as a hard case, believing that the pilots and crews of the 918th's B-17s need to be challenged in order to regain the kind of pride in their unit and their work that can make them effective again. His rough edges contrast with Davenport's compassion, and all of his pilots request transfers to other units. But he's sold the group adjutant, Major Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) on his plan, and the transfer paperwork is delayed while Savage pushes forward. Eventually he begins to see fighting spirit renew in the others, but will he be able to bear the weight that he's brought on himself to make that happen?

Peck was nominated for an Academy Award and probably would have won in almost any other year they handed out Oscars, but he was up against Broderick Crawford in All the Kings' Men, who took the statuette. He was also up against Kirk Douglas in Champion, Richard Todd in The Hasty Heart and John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, which goes to show you how tough it was to win an Oscar for 1949. The granite voice and stern authority Savage shows come naturally, but it's Peck's skill as an actor that convey the desperation behind his pushing and the gradual build of stress while maintaining the tough exterior. When he finally begins to learn he may have pushed himself too far it's a complete shock to him that such a thing is even possible, even while we could see it happening. Peck and many others consider To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch his finest role and it probably is, but Frank Savage is played so well that it would headline any lesser actor's résumé.

Actual combat footage is used in the only battle scene, towards the end of the movie, but the Air Force reconfigured several B-17's to match their wartime appearance to be used in takeoff and landing sequences. But the movie doesn't need a bunch of battles to support its story; the one is enough because some of the most important combat is internal in the men who are flying the planes and those who are commanding them. The whole cast, made up of lesser-known names and up-and-comers of the time, builds a solid foundation for Peck's work in their more reactive roles. Jagger took home a Best Supporting Actor award for his work, the only one he earned in a career that held almost 100 different roles in movies and television. It's his 1949 discovery of a certain jug in an antique shop that sparks a trip to the now-abandoned airfield and the memories of 1942, but his portrayal of Stovall through the rest of the story gives Peck the ways to develop Savage's narrative arc.

About the only false note in Twelve O'Clock High is the main marketing campagn. "A story of twelve men as their women never knew them" is the poster tagline -- ridiculous, because the story is about 85 percent Peck, five percent Jagger, five percent Hugh Marlowe as the initially disgraced Lt. Col Ben Gately and five percent everyone else. The poster also pictures Peck roguishly smiling at an attractive nurse, suggesting the kind of romance marketing departments thought movies needed. The uncredited Joyce Mackenzie plays the only nurse with any speaking part (in fact, the only woman with lines in the entire movie), and her sole conversation with Peck is seen through a window.

But that kind of silliness is on the studio, not the people who made the movie, and it wouldn't be the first studio to be really really dumb. At least they were smart enough to release Twelve O'Clock High, so we can forgive them their numbskull marketing in order to watch Peck's great performance and director Henry King's great movie.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Signed Off

Legendary sports broadcaster Keith Jackson, who retired about a dozen years ago, was labeled by The Sporting News "like Edward R. Murrow reporting on World War II, the voice of ultimate authority in college football." He combined inteligent analysis, a deep vocabulary and the right dash of down-home phrasing to sell his brains as just another fellow watching the game and telling you what was going on. Jackson died Friday evening at 89.

Stories about his career note that he called a lot of games besides college football, including the events at several Olympics and a long stint at ABC's Wide Word of Sports. But the gridiron was the place where he will be remembered best, a voice from past days that could give you the impression you were still watching students who happened to play football for their school or college. In the later days of his career he mostly called games on the west coast where he lived, although he was brought in for special occasions like the 100th meeting of Michigan and Ohio State in 2003 as well as the centenary of the OU-Texas game in 2005. One of my sports-watching pleasures was hearing the voice of Keith Jackson call a game with my college's team, the year the Northwestern University Wildcats won the Big 10's berth in the 1996 Rose Bowl following their improbable 1995 season.

Jackson's idiomatic speech and surprisingly broad source material was one of the many reasons to enjoy listening to him do a game. He once said that he was never afraid to turn a phrase, whether it meant quoting "Shakespeare or Goethe." Kirk Herbstreit wouldn't know Goethe from Gerta, or why he would want to quote him in a game featuring college students. Jackson was one of the only people I heard to regularly pronounce the second "o" in "sophomore." Young men of my acquaintance in college, engaged in some thoroughly sexist male gazing upon our fairer fellow students, once broke up when one of our number adopted Jackson's booming baritone to say, "Look at that walk, and only a soph-o-more! Whoa Nellie!" The young lady in question was too far away to hear him, but she did hear us break up and demonstrated her opinion of our maturity with a properly dismissive eye-roll.

There's nothing that says a modern sportscaster couldn't have the education and flash the erudition of Keith Jackson from the broadcast booth, and you'd think with so many channels carrying games these days someone would. If you wonder why they don't, I guess you'd have to ask the people who hire them.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Changing Everything!

Facebook head Mark Zuckerman says he's directed the staff that oversees Facebook's newsfeed to change its algorithm so that users see more posts from their friends and family and fewer from news sources and ads disguised as posts.

I guess this will be OK. The next item I buy from a Facebook advertisement will be the first, and I'm one of the people who likes to see my friends' posts of kid pictures and such. I've signed up for several groups that also post updates on my feed, and of course if I didn't want to see them I could unfollow or leave the group. But I've mostly developed a tune-out switch for the kinds of stuff that I'm supposedly going to see less of.

Now, should my friends decide to share a news item to which they are subscribed, I will still see it. That's not such great news. As you might expect of people whose standards are low enough to friend me, some of these people have really lousy judgment when it comes to their news sources. Friends on both right and left post links to stuff from sites that wouldn't know a fact from their favorite ice cream but who know it's true because it shows how awful their preferred enemy is. Or is that non-preferred enemy? Not sure.

Anyway, if the algorithm changes mean that my newsfeed will not only be devoid of pretend ads and the latest PROOF! OBAMA/TRUMP/PELOSI/SCHUMER/WHOEVER secretly BATHES IN THE BLOOD OF AMERICAN KITTENS entries but also of reposts of said items from people who could show a little more discernment in their choices of friends as well as news? Well then it'll be welcome.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Steamy Science Fiction

The late 19th and early 20th centuries -- particularly the time between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and World War 1 -- seem to be a favorite era for steampunk science fiction writers to set some alternative history stories involving steam-engine dirigibles and the battles in which they fought.

Robyn Bennis sets her 2017 debut novel The Guns Above in such a world, beginning the story of Josette Dupre as she serves the aerial navy of Garnia in the midst of deadly war. Women have been allowed in the Garnian navy, but never in command of an airship and indeed, most of the time prohibited from even being aboard in combat. Josette will change all of that, but part of the reason is that she has angered a high-ranking officer who puts her on an untested experimental ship in order for her to either fail or get killed. He even places a spy aboard also, with orders to chronicle or pitch in, if possible, on either option. Josette knows this and would have no problem with the spy, if he weren't rather charming and, incredibly, a much better and fairer person than his employer.

Bennis spends significant time describing how the airships work and how the crews have to work them -- regular shifting of ballast, for example, is needed whenever a crew member decides to go from the front of the ship to the back. It's detailed, because Bennis is a scientist and this kind of thing is important, though not much more distracting than descriptions of ship rigging in Napoleonic naval fiction. But the technical side isn't worked into the overall narrative as seamlessly as it might be, and it squeezes out space that could have fleshed out some characters beyond the two leads.

As such novels do, The Guns Above winds up with our heroes in a spectacular battle against overwhelming odds that will require bravery, cunning, strength, endurance and more luck than all Ireland for them to survive. Some of the survivals are pretty much given, but the point of stories like this is much more how survivors make it and what it costs them than the simple "Will they or won't they?" Bennis' answers to the how and what questions are interesting enough to make a second cruise with Josette and her crew worthwhile.
The era also makes a good time frame for young adult sci-fi, as there are still enough old-fashioned social morés to keep the sexual content relatively chaste but things have begun to progress enough that plucky female heroines can rise to the occasion and demonstrate heroism through their courage and intelligence. So Jon Del Arroz begins his stories of Zaira von Monocle in such a time, as her native Rislandia faces off against the evil Wyranth Empire in 2017's For Steam and Country.

Zaira's mother died years ago, and when her father disappeared more recently she was left alone to run the family farm, with help from her neighbors. But a lawyer has found her and shown her what her father left her as a legacy: his airship. Although Baron von Monocle served the King of Rislandia, he was the sole owner of the ship and Zaira may now do as she pleases with it. When she journeys to the capital to discuss the matter with the king, she learns that her father was quite a bit more than he seemed, and that the conflict between her country and Wyranth has dimensions and dangers she knew nothing about.

Del Arroz doesn't make Zaira an impossibly competent Mary Sue; showing her as being very much a 16-year-old doing her best in a situation well outside her comfort zone. She makes mistakes, she lets people down, she puts herself and others in danger and then she learns from her errors. It's a nice character arc.

But it's only outlined rather than fully painted, and the majority of the other characters in the book are much less well-developed. Like most YA novels, the emphasis is on keeping reader interest while moving from beginning to end rather than on dawdling over character or plot points. The aeronautics are more assumed than explained and sometimes they or the geography involved get confusing. In spite of that, though, younger readers could find a lot worse examples than the brave, honest and compassionate Zaira von Monocle who insists on equal treatment and proves herself well worthy of the same.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Bunched Up

-- I don't know that the Golden Globes awards show was under any obligation to highlight some of the actresses and women whose personal stories ignited the recent wave of attention paid to the way powerful men in the entertainment industry abused women. If the Hollywood Foreign Press Association wanted to give its honorary award to Oprah Winfrey, it wasn't required to suddenly switch it to Mira Sorvino, Rose McGowan, Asia Argento or any of the other victims of predators. But since a number of actresses invited activists along as their "plus ones" for the evening, it could have strengthened their statement considerably if the night was full of the faces that had been hidden and silenced in this awful mess and not those of their abusers.

-- My impression of Fire and Fury is that it's got some problems in the way it approaches history, but leaving out some important information that might bring a reader to different conclusions than the ones the author prefers. The heavy European focus and omission of Pacific and Asian incidents puts too much of a thumb on the scale to make the thesis really convincing. After all, American bombers conducted raids just as deadly to civilians in Tokyo as English bombers did in Germany. What's that? There's another book called Fire and Fury? What's it about? Well, why the hell would I want to waste my life reading that?

-- I've crossed a lot of rivers and even some lakes in my life but I'm pretty sure that no one in 3987 will be talking about it the way we note this crossing today.

-- So a high schooler wrote Albert Einstein about a geometry problem she and her friends were assigned to solve, and Einstein wrote back. This was often his habit, especially when his correspondents were children. He gave her the clues to get started on the answer, but his penmanship and lapse into German handwriting made it look like he got the answer wrong, and several news stories had some fun with the discrepancy. Some humorless scolds didn't, among them the teacher and principal of the student who wrote the letter. They didn't like being bypassed for the answer and so offered a pretty clear diagram of what a snit squared looked like.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Ten Years Burnin' Down the Road

Ten years ago at this minute this blog had its first post, which was more or less a little placeholder saying why it was here. At the time my online work was posting weekly sermon manuscripts at the Flatlands Friar blog, but my inner Royko felt the need to tell everyone what I thought about other things. Since there was and is no way to make sure everyone hears those thoughts, I opted for the illusion of blogging instead. It's hardly anywhere close to everyone, but at least it can encompass anyone.

The first real post came five days later, in which I opined that players who pretend a routine tackle establishes them as the Lord of Time and Space are annoying, as are the plethora of college bowl games and the BCS system. The plethora remains annoying, but I did not foresee the national bowl playoff system and its additional layer of annoyance.

I had only eight posts all of that month -- I didn't move to daily posting until November 2010. My most popular post according to Blogger stats remains this one -- not because of what I wrote, I am sure, but because of the well-known story I quote in it. I don't know that I have a favorite one, but I have a soft spot for this one. And this one. I became more disdainful than I thought I would be of the International Olympic Committee. And I spent more time than anyone should noting the exploits of the space-time continuum's dumbest congressperson, Sheila Jackson-Lee. I've blurbed a lot of books, some music and some movies, grumbled at things and blathered at length.

Thanks for paying attention.

The Horror!

2016: I feel pretty sure I presented the American people with the two worst choices for President they could ever vote for in a lifetime.

2020: Hold my beer.


Alabama: We think we deserve the gold medal for goofiest not-ready-for-prime-time candidate for the United States Senate.

Arizona: Hold my beer. 

Monday, January 8, 2018


In case you had wondered why you've never seen a vulture sitting on a snowman:

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Revenge of the Gobblers

The Ohio town of Rocky Ridge has been having problems getting its mail delivered -- rain, sleet and dead of night may get the brush-off, but the swift completion of the couriers' appointed rounds has indeed been stayed -- by wild turkeys.

Seems a group of the birds -- which is called a "rafter" according to the story -- have been flocking around the town in large numbers and attacking mail carriers when they attempt to make deliveries. Rocky Ridge city ordinances don't allow for anyone to open fire and turn the turkeys into drumsticks, so they're stuck until they can convince the birds to move on. The first tactic has been to ask Rocky Ridge residents to stop leaving birdseed out for the turkeys to eat.

There seems to be no apparent reason for the turkeys to have gathered at the small Cleveland suburb, although one mail carrier did record a strangely repeating pattern in their gobbling. When played in front of a group of telegraphy hobbyists, the pattern proved to be a message in Morse code: "Deliver Carlson, and no one else has to get pecked." This message was dismissed, as the only person named "Carlson" who has history with turkeys was a resident of Cincinnati, not Cleveland.

But the dismissal seems premature. Although turkeys' flying ability is sometimes overestimated, it is well-known that they cannot read road maps.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Gathered Up

-- Even though England does not actually have a First Amendment as we do in the United States, it has historically been committed to the principle of freedom of speech. In a lot of areas lately it's been a little iffy on the topic, but this proposal to fine universities that use safe space rhetoric, speech codes and the like to silence speakers would be a nice sign of a turnaround.

-- "So they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly..." And then a couple generations later, they turned around and moved back.

-- The death of astronaut John Young leaves five living men out of the 12 who have walked on the moon. At 82, Apollo 17's Harrison Schmitt is the youngest. Actuarily, it's probable that I will live to see a 13th person take steps on our satellite, but by no means certain.

-- Watch for falling iguanas!

Friday, January 5, 2018

I C-c-c-call Your N-n-n-number

The forecast highs from an Iowa TV station weather broadcast this past week line up suspiciously well:

The rumor is that dialing the recorded lows will allow you to hack into the President's Twitter feed, but no one knows how to dial a negative number. It's probably just as well -- a direct tap into something that empty and meaningless might cause mass depression among phone users.

(H/T Dustbury)

Thursday, January 4, 2018

How I Spent My Christmas Vacation

Electrical engineer Jonathan Pace of Tennessee lent his computer to a project called GIMPS -- the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search. It's a kind of crowd-sourced project that links multiple computers to increase their processing power. And on Dec, 26, Pace's computer was the one that found the largest known prime number and 50th Mersenne Prime, after six solid days of computing.

Volunteers download a software package to run that searches for the prime numbers, which are numbers that aren't divisible by any number other than themselves and one. They have no pattern and so the only way to check if a number is prime is to start dividing it by all of the numbers smaller than it is. This can work early on, but by the time we get into large numbers it takes longer and longer, requiring calculations done at computer-only speed. Even then, Pace's six-day run shows that the job is not easy.

The number was given the name M77232917 because it is 2 raised to the 77,232,917th power, minus one. It has more than 23 million digits. The computer found it by multiplying 77,232,917 2s and then subtracting 1.

Mersenne Primes take their name from the French monk Marin Mersenne, who in the 17th century offered a theory about certain kinds of prime numbers that today bear his name. M77232917 is just the 50th Mersenne Prime. They're found by multiplying two together x times, where x represents another prime number, and then subtracting 1. So 3 is a Mersenne Prime, because 2 multiplied by itself is 4, minus one is 3.

They also generate what mathematicians call "perfect numbers," which are numbers whose proper divisors add up to the number. The smallest perfect number is 6, because 6 is divisible by 1, 2 and 3, and 1+2+3 = 6. The perfect number from M77232917 has more than 46 million digits. Perfect numbers so far are all even, which is interesting because other than 2 itself, all prime numbers are odd.

These numbers are so huge they exist in complete abstraction -- there is not enough of anything in the universe to require them to actually count it. But immense primes have proven useful in cryptography and internet security, so the search goes on. And for Pace, M77232917 = 3,000, because that's the cash prize he's eligible to share in following the discovery.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Go Pump Yourself

I remember in the mid- to late '70s that service stations started having two different sets of pumps. One set was "full-serve," which mean that an attendant would come out and pump your gas. If the station was really old-fashioned, that same attendant might wash your windshield and check your oil as well.

The other set of pumps were "self-serve," which meant that you got out of your car and pumped your own gas. Eventually, gas station owners realized that they could save quite a bit of money by making all of their pumps self-service and not hiring pump attendants. The advent of pay-at-the-pump technology has only strengthened the station owner's case for the current model.

Except in two states, Oregon and New Jersey. This space has mocked New Jersey for its version of the law, and now it's Oregon's turn.

Oregon lawmakers said that gas stations in cities of less than 40,000 can, if they choose, offer self-serve pumping options. They don't have to, and in larger cities the option is still off the table. This seems halfway sensible, although the reaction of some of Oregon's citizens to the new law taking effect demonstrates many of them would not know "sensible" if it bit them on their rainy gray asses.

Twitter responses were telling -- some people said they would refuse to pump their own gas, while others warned of the danger confronting any untrained people who dared to handle the Hose of Death. Remember -- this is not a law mandating that every gas station in a town of 40,000 and under immediately abandon all motorists to the Jundland Wastes of the pump island. It is a law allowing stations to offer self-serve if they choose to.

Like in New Jersey, "safety" was one of the cited rationales for the previous code. Another was that by requiring service stations to have enough employees to man the pumps, the law helped put people to work. That's true, but the same logic could be employed to require Oregon's newspapers to be set in hot lead type, since that requires many more workers than computerized offset presses. Or to require Oregon's citizens to register their complaints about the law via telegraph instead of Twitter, in order to keep Morse operators and telegraphers employed. Although that last one has some undeniable appeal, since I don't know Morse code and could ignore the complaints my washed-out fellow citizens were making.

I have family in Oregon, and some friends live there as well. They are good people. Probably most of the people who live there are good people. But the silly reaction from those who see a gas station pump as though it's a one-tentacled cousin to Cthulhu demonstrates one thing clearly: These folks need to get out more.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Test Pattern

Internet seems weird at home and office (AT&T both places), so we’ll see what happens tomorrow.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Unclear on the Concept

The science news site Live Science offers a fine list in its "Health" section of the eight "biggest happiness findings" of 2017. The first is that sharing can help make kids happier. This may be true -- although the parental forcing of said sharing is not all that much fun, the sharing itself can often be, as shared enjoyment is multiplied enjoyment.

I don't know if that's the reason that sharing makes kids happier, nor do I know any of the remaining seven ways on the Live Science list. That's because it's in one of those individual slide formats where you have to advance each slide in order to read a piece of the article or learn the next item. And the ninth biggest happiness finding is that skipping lists in slide format is a lot more fun than wading through them.