Wednesday, February 28, 2018


-- Although there are only three major species of elephants today, there were more many millennia ago, and they apparently interbred rather easily when the opportunity presented itself. According to this paper, the ancient tuskers were quite easily down with O.P.P. -- Other Pachyderms' Pachyderms.

-- Michael Moore, in attempting to demonstrate a belief that women were better than men, tweeted all of the rotten things women hadn't done. A woman writer, knowing that Moore was full of crap (OK, low bar), tweeted back at him the names of women who had specifically done all of the things he said no woman ever had. This proved that Moore is a dodo-head, which is another way of saying the sun came up this morning.

-- Aw, isn't that sweet? The International Olympic Committee decided that that the Russian Olympic program is all better now and free of doping. Except for those two athletes who got sent home. And the fact that a condition of reinstatement was supposed to be Russia admitting they cheated. Which they've never done. But hey, the IOC has a reputation for spinelessness to uphold.

-- Oprah Winfrey has said that she would need a sign from God to run for president. In seemingly unrelated news, the number of atheists in the United States has dropped precipitously.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Continuing Stories...

In his second outing as a now un-disavowed asset for the CIA, Court Gentry, "the Gray Man," becomes involved in a plot to aid Syrian expatriates trying to topple their dangerous dictator. He helps kidnap the dictator's mistress when she is in France and get her to the rebels, but discovers she will help no one unless she is reunited with her infant son. The baby has been kept secret by both the mistress and the dictator (who, by the way, is not named Bashar al-Assad), but without him she will not cooperate, no matter what the people holding her try to do.

So Court, against his better judgment but feeling a responsibility to help people against the murderous regime ruining Syria, agrees to try to get in and sneak the baby and his nanny out of the country in Mark Greaney's 2018 Gray Man outing, Agent in Place.

Greaney built the Gray Man series with a Court who was always on the run, having been targeted by elements within his old agency who believed he could threaten their positions with his knowledge. But he brought Court back into the fold in 2016's Back Blast, working for the CIA again but also allowed to take on some of his own outside projects. The kidnapping of Bianca Medina is one of those, but Court finds that the people he's dealing with are amateurs blundering around in a world that is far too dangerous for them. That's one of the reasons he decides to help them by rescuing the baby.

Unfortunately, Agent in Place is significantly weaker than earlier Gray Man novels. It's easily twice as long as it needs to be. Court's Syrian travelogue doesn't have nearly enough importance for the space it's given, and it's founded on a clunky premise that suggests not enough time taken to make it work. Scenes set in France and later Greece that describe what's happening with Bianca while Court is in Syria are also explored in much more detail than they need to be. Greaney opens the novel with a cliffhanger scene and switches to a "One week earlier" flashback for the meat of the story that makes you wonder if he also was unsure the main plotline would actually hook a reader.

The Gray Man is his habitual never-say-die, kicking-ass-and-taking-names self, usually a few steps ahead of his opponents and always much tougher. And it's interesting to see him so purely motivated by his knight-errancy, but the indifferent execution of Agent in Place saps that interest quickly over the course of a novel that needs both shortening and focusing.
The body is in a suburban den of a family who found it when they came home from dinner. It shows no signs of where the murder had taken place, and the removal of the hands and shotgun blast to the face meant Los Angeles Police Lieutenant Milo Sturgis has no clues at all about the crime. His call to his friend Alex Delaware, a psychologist who helps him puzzle out the human factors of some of his cases, is a foregone conclusion. So begins Night Moves, the 33rd Alex Delaware novel by Jonathan Kellerman.

When Alex and Milo interview the family of the upper-middle-class suburban home that now houses a murder victim, they can't find any connection between the victim -- whoever he is -- and the homeowners. But the homeowners themselves present a curious picture to the pair, with their nuclear family surface showing several cracks. They set that aside, though, as they try to find out who their victim is, even though strange things keep drawing their attention back to the cul-de-sac where the body was found.

Different Delaware novels have different styles, depending on how Kellerman writes them, and Night Moves can be grouped with the procedurals. The goal of the story is finding out first who the victim is and then who killed him. The different leads and trails are spun out through Milo and Alex interviewing witnesses, spitballing possible theories of the crime and tracking down clues.

Night Moves spends a lot of time headed down a particular blind alley with a head-scratching payoff without any real purpose. In trying to stay ahead of the reader, it spins and reverses until the actual killer and motive comes from beyond the left field foul pole. It's not that Night Moves is particularly lazy or uninspired, but it does seem to try to wring a Shocking Twist out of what could have been quite a bit better as a plain-Jane procedural and the connection is not nearly organic enough to work.

Monday, February 26, 2018


Eighty-six years ago, one J. R. Cash was born, who would later change his first name at the direction of the United States Air Force to John. He would be better known as Johnny.

As always, the wearing of black on this day is optional. Remembering those who are held back, on the other hand, is strongly encouraged.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Wanna Be Like You

King Louie just sang about it, but thanks to several artists we can see some ideas about what animated nonhuman characters might look like if they were drawn as people. Several of them are absolute riots (my favorite is Pinky and the Brain on page 4, but the Warners on page 3 and the original Looney Tunes crew on page 2 are close behind).

Some of them don't work at all -- if I'd been the compiler, the last five or six could have been left off without much loss. But still it's a lot of funny creativity.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Something in the Air

It's a little old, but I pretty much love the look on the face of the lady at this link when she takes her first unassisted breaths after a lung transplant, after suffering for years from misdiagnosed cystic fibrosis. She's obviously pleased, but at the same time she has the look of someone at the top of a very steep ski run not at all sure she should start down.

Friday, February 23, 2018


Oklahoma's school teachers, frustrated by inaction on state funding for schools, are considering a repeat of a 1990 walkout that succeeded in prodding action from the state legislature at the time.

Teachers stayed away from class, with many visiting the state capitol to explain themselves, for four days that year and eventually moved the state legislature to pass what was then House Bill 1017. Governor Henry Bellmon, who had supported the package of funding increases and reform measures, signed it into law as the Education Reform Act of 1990. The young Friar, then reporting for a newspaper, covered that rally. He did so in fear that one of his own former teachers might see him, drag him bodily into the capitol building and show legislators exactly why teachers should be paid more than they were, but fortunately that did not happen.

Although I can agree with those who see the current situation as a crisis-level event on a par with that year, there may be too many differences between 1990 and 2018 to allow a walkout to be as effective today.

The problem most recently manifested itself with the failure to pass the measure called "Step Up Oklahoma," which would have increased some state taxes to fund teacher pay increases as well as some other areas of the state education system. Since State Question 640 amended the state constitution in 1992, tax increases require either a 75% majority of both state legislative houses or simple majority passage as a general ballot measure. The state House could not reach that threshold.

The first wrinkle for a walkout today deals with the makeup of the state legislature. In 1990 it was majority Democratic, but today it is majority Republican. The state teacher's union, the Oklahoma Education Association, most often supports Democratic candidates and officeholders. Democratic legislators were quite a bit more apprehensive about a group of pissed-off teachers and their union  than Republicans, many of whom won office in spite of OEA opposition. A drive to elect more educators and educational supporters in the 2016 election cycle produced few victories, suggesting to many Republican legislators that their offices don't depend on the goodwill of traditional educational power bases.

Another wrinkle is the aforementioned 75% threshold for tax increase legislation. Legislative leaders in 1990 had to get 50% of their caucuses to accept HB 1017. They could have 49% cranks who would never ever ever vote for any kind of tax increase ever ever and still get a bill passed. The higher percentage also means that the remaining opposition is likely to be tougher to convince. The walkout was designed to bring pressure on the legislators to pass the bill, but the pressure on today's lawmakers is already pretty darn high. The remaining holdout representatives -- a mix of Republicans and Democrats -- are solidly committed to their various reasons for opposing the tax increases any education funding measure would require. Their motives may be sincere or venial, but if they've held out this long they're a lot more likely to keep it up.

As OEA director David DuVall notes in the Tulsa World story, the 1990 walkout had the advantage of a very easily understood goal: Passage of HB 1017. Teachers could say, "We're out of here until you pass this bill." A 2018 walkout would need a similar lodestone. Students at Bartlesville High School walked out of class Friday morning to signal support for their teachers, and the response of one local legislator -- who voted against the Step Up package -- was to suggest folks support three separate house bills that he said would allow for a teacher pay increase. Whether that's true or not, it makes for a pretty nebulous rallying cry.

The largest elephant in the room in terms of hurdles the 1990 group didn't have to deal with is leadership ability among the politicians involved. Henry Bellmon may not have been Cincinnatus, but he was a considerably better leader than the current governor, Mary Fallin. Bellmon was a Republican dealing with a majority Democratic legislature (and a Democratic State Superintendent of Schools) and got a reform and funding package passed. Fallin is a Republican dealing with a majority Republican legislature and Republican superintendent and has watched more than one measure be defeated. Her entire political career has consisted of being in the right place at the right time and her deficiencies in leadership ability have been clearly exposed in this running battle.

Legislatively, the state Senate has stepped up; during the recent special session Senate President Pro Tem Mike Schulz has been able to get the 75% margins the tax increase bills required. 1990's President Pro Tem, Robert Cullison, was similarly effective. The House, on the other hand, is a different matter. Rep. Steve Lewis had taken the Speaker position from Jim Barker in 1989 and was a co-author of the 1017 measure. Current Speaker Charles McCall has been lukewarm at best to most of the measures brought forward, even when he votes for them.

As mentioned once before, the contemporary Friar isn't at all sure he knows how to fix the many broken aspects of the state educational system. Perhaps a properly timed teacher walkout would prompt funding and reform measures that could work. But if it's just an expression of frustration with the process and the people running it, there's not much point -- that's way too common of a feeling for people to take notice of how anyone decides to show it.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Timing Is Everything

Usually when an astronomer, professional or amateur, takes a picture of a piece of sky through a telescope, they will compare it to older pictures of the same spot to see if there's something new hanging around. You check your image against the older ones, and if yours have something new, then astronomers have a new toy to play with. Often it's a supernova or another temporary phenomenon. Most of the time these comparisons are made with archives or records, perhaps online or perhaps at an observatory, and they may have to go back several years to see if the new image actually shows something new.

Or in the case of Argentine amateur astronomer Victor Buso, you can compare against your own shots taken about 45 minutes earlier and find a supernova that more or less just happened while you were watching. And to make it even cooler, these are the first images you've shot with your new camera that you were just testing out.

Buso took the pictures in September 2016 and major observatories immediately started studying the supernova, called SN 2016gkg. This made for the chance to observe its development more or less in real time, unlike any supernova "shock breakout" ever before studied.

Supernovae happen when really big stars use up all their hydrogen and start burning the leftover elements. Rather than the nice stable fusion process produced by hydrogen, other elements make for a much more unstable reaction that eventually leads to a really big explosion. How big? Well, the one Buso saw was in a galaxy 65 million light years away on a 16-inch telescope that he has in a home-built observing tower on his roof he calls Observatorio Busoniano. He spent less on the scope than most people spend on a used car. (You can see a picture of Buso and his scope here). So your eclipse glasses would probably not be enough to look at it if you were closer.

Type II supernovae are a little wonky. The interior core of the star collapses and then explodes so quickly that the star's outer layers are undisturbed, like a tablecloth being pulled from under the dishes so fast they stay in place. Those layers don't blast outward until the shock wave from the explosion hits them, and that's what the locksmith from Rosario, Argentina, captured with his new camera. Astronomers had not seen that process happen right in front of their lenses before, so they now have a wealth of new data to examine and theorize with.

In reality, of course, Buso did not see SN 2016gkg explode as he watched. Since it's far away -- 65 million light-years, remember -- the light from the event had been traveling 65 million years and finally reached the earth that September night. So it didn't happen in 2016 -- more like 64,997,984 BC, which is a long, long time ago.

Waitaminute. A gigantic explosion a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away? You don't suppose...

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Just As He Was

If you accept the Rev. Billy Graham's view of the way the world is, most of his first experiences in the life to come are going to be greeting people who are going to thank him for words he said that convinced them to accept it as well. Graham passed today at the age of 99.

Although there were wrinkles -- such as audiotapes that captured anti-Semitic remarks made with President Richard Nixon and a dustup with Harry Truman, the first president he ever met -- Graham's career was notable for a lack of personal or financial scandal. He made the decision early on to accept a regular salary only from his organization's crusades, rather than any percentage of the donations. The BGEA books were always open for inspection. And like other members of the original core leadership of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, he was never alone with a woman other than his wife. When William Martin was writing his 1992 biography of Graham, A Prophet With Honor, Graham's staff and friends were told to give him whatever access he sought. Martin's statement on Graham's passing says Graham "was not a perfect man, but he was an uncommonly good one."

During a season of scandal among well-known clergy folks, the sardonic Christian musician Terry Taylor wrote "Billy Graham," a song his band the Swirling Eddies included on their album Outdoor Elvis. Uncharacteristically sentimental, Taylor and his bandmates sang:
I don't know about those other guys
There's something in the back of their eyes
But Billy, you're the man who don't use sleight of hand
Ain't wearing no disguise
I love you, Billy

I love the simple things you say
And you never seem to get in the way
No one is quite like you
Compassionate and true
"Just as I am," I say
I love you, Billy
Although many many reunions are doubtless involved in Graham's passing from this life to the next, Graham himself said he would have a question for his Lord regarding the incredible career and reach he had been able to accomplish: "Why me, Lord?" That he would ask it of the great blessings he'd been given is a large part of the answer and perhaps one of the things many of us, both in his line of work and elsewhere, could take as a lesson.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Space Opera Double Feature

After bringing Philip Lynx (Flinx)'s quixotic search for his parentage and quest to save the galaxy from impending disaster to a close in 2009's Flinx Transcendent, Alan Dean Foster turned his hand to a wide variety of other books. At first Transcendent was described as the last Flinx and Pip (Flinx's reliable venomous telepathic flying snake) adventure, but Foster equivocated on that idea and the ending of the book itself left the door open to revisit our hero at a later time.

2017 proved to be that later time, as an old friend tracks down Flinx and his wife Clarity on the ocean world of Cachalot to ask a favor in Strange Music. On the technologically un-advanced planet of Largess, the daughter of a local chieftain friendly to the Commonwealth has been kidnapped. And Commonwealth technology -- specifically weapons -- has been showing up among the Largessians, who resemble the seals of Earth in appearance. Flinx's friend would like him to investigate the matter -- quietly -- so that they can learn what they need to know without being officially present. Flinx's own telepathic gifts could prove useful, but also useful will be his ability to carry a tune. The Largessians "speak" only in song and all but ignore beings who don't, even if those beings use the Largessian language to do so. After some discussion with Clarity, Flinx agrees and is off on another adventure. It's not nearly on the galaxy-threatening scale of his last outing, but the dangers involved could put an end to his own personal existence if he's not careful.

Foster is at a point in his career where he can write what he wants when he wants, and he probably waited for a really good idea to come along before shaking Flinx and Pip out of retirement. Casting all of the speech with the Largessians as song means writing that dialogue in a sort of non-rhyming couplet that probably took quite a bit of work and presented him with a new challenge. It's effective and although a little tough to follow at first, eventually the "reading ear" tunes into it. The adventure itself is almost a kind of romp given what Flinx has had to accomplish before, but he and his guide perservere (with his guide bearing more than a passing resemblance to the otter Mudge from Foster's Spellsinger books). Staying away from Flinx's personal quest for his heritage and galactic disasters gives Strange Music a lighter feel, more like one of the earlier books in the series, and the singing Largessians help make it a fun story to read.
Former Confederation Marine Torin Kerr continues to protect and serve the galaxy as a member of a quasi-law-enforcement agency trying to keep a lid on illegal weapons technology trade. In A Peace Divided, she's also still tasked with the job of following leads to legendary ancient weapons made by a now-vanished race. But a group of mercenaries, also led by a former Confederation Marine, has learned of an archaeological dig on a planet that may lead to that technology and they're holding the scientists hostage until they find the clues they want. Torin and her group need to rescue the scientists, learn who's backing the mercenaries, and put a lid on anything else they might find. Oh, and if they find any clues about the sentient plastic-like hive life form that manipulated the galaxy into war a couple of decades ago, that would be a plus.

Tanya Huff served in the Canadian Naval Reserve and has an appreciation for the military thinking and lifestyle that animates and sometimes even drives Torin. She creates a variety of species in this Confederation and offers each one unique physical traits and gifts. She also has a knack for springing one of those differences into the story just when a reader might have forgotten that the characters are of different species. In the Confederation universe, humans and a couple of other Younger Races have been brought into spacefaring civilization because the Elder Races, attacked by a group called the Primacy, had forgotten how to fight with any effectiveness. Torin's group will actually join with some Primacy fighters as well to try to rescue the science team.

Sometimes the narrative details can get a little confusing as Huff moves her story along. Torin is anything but loquacious and her laconic manner flavors the larger story. Divided has an important storyline hinge on the idea that handgun-sized weapons were removed from society hundreds of years ago and their reappearance is a shocking development; it seems unlikely that over the course of centuries no one would look at a gun and say, "You know, I bet we could make one like this you could use with just one hand." Even so, Divided seems more focused and has more depth than the previous "Peacekeeper" book with Torin, and the introduction of the different Primacy races gives it something new to explore. The third and what is now being called the final "Peacekeeper" novel is due in the summer of 2018; what happens to Torin following that remains to be seen.

Monday, February 19, 2018


It's good that all of the Russian athletes who couldn't be proven to be using performance enhancers were allowed to compete in the Olympics anyway. We wouldn't want innocent folks to be tarred with the same brush as the guilty ones...what? OK, nevermind.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Simplest Explanation

At Atlas Obscura,

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Reptilian Cunning

Well, we've been found out. We couldn't fool Hassan Firuzabadi, senior military advisor to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who discovered that the United States had been using lizards to spy on Iran's nuclear program.

I guess what's most embarassing to the world's premier superpower is that the Iranians actually thwarted our lizards, somehow blocking their natural ability to attract atomic waves and thus deduce the location of secret Iranian nuclear research sites. I don't know about you, but I think every one of those lizards deserves to lose his or her pension. On the other hand, Mr. Firuzabadi's remarks prove that you need not be the congresswoman from Texas' 18th Congressional District to be a really dumb government official.

I heard someone on a podcast say that the proper response from us is for CIA Director Mike Pompeo is to call a news conference and say, "We have been accused of using lizards to spy on Iran."


"We are."

Friday, February 16, 2018

In Case of Emergency

I attended a local high school basketball game with my father tonight. We were ready to hear the national anthem to start the game, but the version on the PA wasn't working. The pep band was present, but they didn't have the music for the anthem in their books.

So we sang it. Kind of a neat experience.

Thursday, February 15, 2018


-- Pitchers and catchers have started work at their respective professions, and position players will show up to the sunny spots in a few days.

Can't happen soon enough.

-- Driving home from the gym, I heard the glorious slice of trashy pop-punk known as Transvision Vamp's "I Want Your Love." On my radio. Thanks, Ferris!

-- Luge sledders slide down an icy track at speeds of more that 80 miles an hour while laying on their backs. Skeleton sledders slide down an icy track at speeds of more than 80 miles an hour while laying on their stomachs. I've been watching the Winter Olympics to see which group is crazier and I'm not sure. I do know that they're all braver than I am.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a time of preparation for the great and glorious day of the Resurrection. I gave a brief meditation at our service tonight, in which I suggested that we Christian folks observe Ash Wednesday and Lent to remind us that we live in a Good Friday world. I presumed to say that we remind ourselves of this fact as a way of cluing us in that this world needs as much Easter as it can get and we are the ones who are supposed to bring it.

May it be so. And may you, O Tolerant Reader, find the season of Lent a blessing. Should that not be your way of thinking, substitute whatever good wishes suit you better.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Step One

Psychology professor Tania Lambrozo wrote an opinion piece for National Public Radio about one of the problems facing her discipline, that of repeatability. Scientific experiments are supposed to be replicable, which is a sign that the conclusions they reach are probably accurate. If water boils once at 212º Fahrenheit, then it may or may not be a fluke. But if a second research team boils water and also finds that things steam up at 212º, then the experiment is considered to have demonstrated something true.

Lambrozo's article is interesting, but the most instructive piece for me was the suggested course of action she set for herself after a discussion with another scientist: Aim to be less wrong.

That's something I think I might be able to manage.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Can't Tweet This

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow and for his orphan, to do all that may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

-- Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Classroom Management

Sometimes we think that being able to receive wisdom from the great minds of history would be a great and wonderful thing. But it's possible that the ideas expounded by these great thinkers might have made them terrible teachers. Existential Comics offers a hypothetical scenario of trying to learn under the great Greek philosopher Socrates.

There's no way of knowing if Socrates actually taught in any way resembling this (he probably didn't), but it would sure explain his severance package.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Back To Normal

For awhile I was worried that the International Olympic Committee had grown a spine and integrity. You may remember that they dropped the hammer on the Russian Olympic team after discovering widespread cheating on drug tests. You and I probably think that banning a country from participating means that athletes from that country would not be at the Winter Olympics that just opened in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

But you and I are not members of the International Olympic Committee. The Pyeonchang games will not have a Russian flag, nor will the Russian national anthem be heard. But 168 Russian athletes will be competing as "Olympic Athletes from Russia," because they won their cases with the Court of Arbitration in Sport that they can't be proven to have cheated.

As the writer of the story notes, one of the features of the Russian scheme to foil the World Anti-Doping Agency's tests makes it tough to find evidence that would prove any cheating happened.

It's nice to know things are back to normal: Some of the world's best athletes compete against other great athletes and have great stories, for a few the dream turns into reality as they stand tallest to receive their honors.

And down in the sewers, the people who run this show line their own wallets under cover of those dreams and dreamers. I sometimes wonder that they can stand their own stench.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Fire It Up!

This item at Wired opens up some of the secrets behind the wild drone show that was a part of the Winter Olympics opening ceremonies. It's an interesting article, but having watched some of the ceremony while on the treadmill, I'd say that the highlight is what it always is. Watching the athletes; mostly young, having the times of their lives as the center of attention of a huge production, about to compete on the biggest stage in the world and in general cuter than a crate of kittens.

This is their moment. There will be time enough to talk about the slime that runs the show starting tomorrow.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

What a Long, Strange Trip It Still Is

Quantum entanglement theory: I say that no two quantum systems or particles can ever be measured separately again once they've interacted, no matter how far apart they get. Changing one means instantaneously changing the other. I'm about as weird an idea as you can get.

Quantum temporal entanglement theory: Hold my beer.

As stated above, entanglement theory has been a part of observed quantum phenomena since the early days of quantum physics. Take two electrons and let them interact. They have, among other qualities, one called "spin." Any pair of electrons will have one of one spin and one of another; change the spin of one and the other one switches. So far so good, except the electrons will continue to interact in that way at any distance. Which means they somehow transmit information between them instantaneously, paying no attention to the fact that nothing can travel faster than light in normal space. Move the two electrons one light-minute apart (about 11 million miles) and flick on a light at the very instant you change the spin of one of them. By the time the light reaches the second electron -- a minute, naturally -- it will have already changed its spin. Albert Einstein called entanglement "spooky" and considered it evidence that quantum physics had a flaw. It's also sometimes called "quantum nonlocality."

Physicists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem did an experiment in which entangled particles affected each other even when their existence did not overlap in time. Team leader Eli Megidish playfully asks if the experiment means that the photon from the past reached into the future and affected the photon there, or if the changing photon of the future reached back in time to affect the photon of the past.

Now technically, Einstein's theory of relativity points out that the future and past talk is in the eye of the beholder. From the perspective of the person with the first photon, the change made reaches into the future. But from the perspective of the person with the final photon, the change reaches back into the past. And, relativity tells us, they are both right because scientific laws are the same everywhere and no point of view can take precedence over another.

But all that does, it seems, is make entanglement an idea that's weird, instead of an idea that's mega-hyper-super-duper-flipping weird. Which is, of course, where the fun is for physicists.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

From the Rental Vault: Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

"What if?" stories are popular in comic-dom, with Marvel even running a monthly series for several years under that title. What if this event happened differently, or this character didn't die? Some of those questions make good stories and some make lesser ones, but the appeal of an alternative history remains strong.

DC comics had done stories like that as well, and in 1989 released one in a prestige book format called Gotham by Gaslight. Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola spun a tale of the Batman supposing Bruce Wayne was born in Victorian times and was confronted with the era's greatest unsolved murder case, that of Jack the Ripper. Although not originally labeled such, Gaslight sparked the DC "Elseworlds" imprint that started a long string of speculative what-ifs. It had its own sequel in 1991, Master of the Future, which was written by Augustyn but drawn by Eduardo Barreto.

The DC Universe animated movie series adapted the story for the 2018 release Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. Screenwriter Jim Krieg faced some obstacles in bringing the tale to the screen; notably the length. The original 52-page one-shot simply did not have enough story in it to make an hour-length animated movie. Krieg and director Sam Liu added in some more recognizable "Batman history" Easter eggs, brought in a few elements from the Master of the Future sequel and included a Victorian-era Selina Kyle (Catwoman, in modern times) as an actress who's also stalking the Ripper in order to protect the lower-class women of Gotham's slums. The interaction between Bruce Wayne (voiced by Bruce Greenwood) and Kyle (voiced by Jennifer Carpenter) helps give a slightly different flavor to this version of the obsessive Wayne quest for justice. The Victorian-era Bruce seems better able to realize the limits of his pursuit and allow room for other people in his life.

Nearly every other decision made by Liu and Krieg, though, makes this particular adaptation one of the weakest in the DC Original Universe Animated Movies series. The animation style resembles the old DC Animated Universe of the 1990s rather than Mignola's grungy Victorian look, flattening the difference between the Batman of the 1890s and today. While much of the individual character animation and some of the combat scenes are well-drawn, a lot of the background work and the multiple-character scenes are flat, jerky and repetitive.

Stripping Batman of his tech and super-computer expertise ought to leave us watching the World's Greatest Detective uncover clues and trace the trail of the Ripper; we get some brief and irrelevant flashes of deduction that wind up not having any real role in uncovering the villain's identity. That identity is completely different from the printed comic, in a twist that makes no sense either within the story or the history of the Batman in general.

Gotham by Gaslight is one of the better-conceived and better-received "Elseworlds" tales, with Augustyn crafting a world that places familiar touchstones in a properly shifted context and logically coherent framework. It more than most had the potential for a monthly series through offering something other than just the same ol' Batman in a restyled costume for a different era or different situation. The animated adaptation throws almost all of that out the window and while it does create an interesting new space for Selina Kyle, that's nowhere near enough to outweigh all of the poor choices studio creators made in bringing the story to the screen.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Thinking Through

Although we don't always accept the idea, the ways we think about the world, about what's in it and about what, if anything, is responsible for it, all shape each other. Ideas about one part of existence influence ideas about other parts, unless we decide not to reflect on the consequences of our ideas and just accept what someone else says without thinking.

The latter choice has never crossed the mind of United Methodist theologian Schubert Ogden, and his 1992 book, Is There Only One True Religion or Are There Many? offers a good example. The book was initially a set of lectures about the topic of truth in religion, edited and slightly revised for publication during Ogden's final year of teaching at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. I was in the class he taught in his final semester, although our class did not directly address the subject matter of the book.

Ogden points out that Christians today are confronted far more often with people of other religious faiths than in earlier times, and are also confronted with an unpleasant reality of history: People have done wrong in God's name, especially to people of some of those other religions. Christians have grouped themselves mostly into three different responses to those other religions, but as Ogden considers these responses he sees problems with each of them.

Up through the end of the 19th century, most Christians held an exclusivist understanding of the relationship between their faith and other religious faiths: Christianity was the true revelation of God and other religions were not, or at best were faulty and clouded version of the truth. Much of the damage done to people of other religions was done in the name of this exclusivist position. As Christians began to realize the wrongs they had done in the name of their faith and began to learn more about other religions as well as their own faith, many moved from an exclusivist understanding of their faith to an inclusivist one -- that many other religions did indeed possess part of the truth. In fact, some people who practiced these faiths with integrity and dedication were probably included in the salvation God promised, although they arrived at it by other means. Coming into vogue in the middle of the 20th century was pluralism, which reduced borders between different religions even more. Most religions have similar goals, this idea suggests, and they are different ways of arriving at the same truths.

Ogden's commitment to process philosophy and process theology leave him uncomfortable with all three of these positions. The first two require Christianity to be the norm by which other religions are measured, and process theology's understanding of God doesn't accept that idea as credible to human experience or even as appropriate to a proper understanding of Jesus Christ himself. Pluralism asserts that religions have common grounds and common goals, but careful and respectful understanding of different religions helps us see that they are not as similar as a pluralist would want us to believe.

Although he is careful to say he does not claim his fourth option is the right answer, Ogden obviously leans towards it. He suggests that there may be one or more true religions, since religions are ways that human beings try to handle the ultimate questions of existence: Why are we here, and what is the meaning of life? Obviously for Ogden, Christianity fulfills that definition and he considers it a true religion, but he does not follow the exclusivist claim that it's the only true religion.

Is There Only One True Religion is clearly and logically argued, with each step building on the previous ones and all of the assumptions plainly laid out. For folks who disagree with the concepts of process theology, or for those who don't accept Ogden's statements about the impossibility of determining the original apostolic Christian witness, his rejection of one or more of the other options is not as necessary as he believes. The world today is not the strictly clockwork universe that helped inspire Alfred North Whitehead's development of process thought -- things like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and quantum nonlocality make room for a lot of weirdness that clocks don't measure so well. Ogden also doesn't address anywhere Paul's assertion in Romans 1:20 that proper knowledge of God is available outside the Christian tradition and that verse's impact on the three options with which he is inclined to disagree.

Your humble blogger has mentioned he works mired in his traditional Christian theism, which means that he doesn't share Ogden's process theology or the thoughts that proceed from it. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of worthwhile material to consider in Is There Only One True Religion, and effort spent discovering where one's thought is congruent with or diverges from Dr. Ogden's is likely to be rewarded with a better understanding of those thoughts.

Monday, February 5, 2018


Nearly 100 years ago, British cartoonist W. K. Heselden predicted the down side of the modern cell-phone:

We should have listened.

Sunday, February 4, 2018


With a Hail Mary heave batted down in the end zone, Super Bowl LII comes to an end with the Philadelphia Eagles taking their first title of the Super Bowl era, the 2017 NFL season closes and the league can start trying to figure out how in the heck it can regain the viewers it has hemorrhaged over the past two years. I have no advice for them on this matter, having become one of those more indifferent viewers, but any plan that starts with telling Roger Goodell to go get a job has got to be a step in the right direction. After that, I'd suggest stop PO'ing your audience and lying about head injuries, but they can take that under advisement.

In any event, Super Bowl LII (which is tough to resist pronouncing, "Super Bowl Lie") brings forth the following observations:

-- This was really a great game of football. Not a lot of flags (although a little too much replay), top players making top plays, a game that really does come down to the very last play of the game, enough defense to make the helmet-head stat wonks happy but not so much the game gets boring. Too often the only "Super" is in the name, but not this year.

-- Justin Timberlake's fans enjoyed his performance, which was nice for them. His climb into the stands and selfie with a young fan was a good touch. Although a Minneapolis show might seem a natural fit for a Prince tribute, the "duet" with a recording of His Royal Badness just highlighted how good the late Purple One was in his own Super Bowl halftime show, and the comparison was not friendly to Timberlake. Also, the short routine towards the end with dancers in bright red, yellow and blue jackets was a reminder that we were watching a Mouseketeer, and highlighted the question, "Why are you on this stage?" Of course, the same question was relevant in 2004, when Timberlake disrobed Janet Jackson onstage. It's a little sharper question in a year of the "#MeToo" movement as to why the male half of that controversy is performing again while the female half is not, but that tone-deafness could be one of those things that firing Goodell could take care of.

-- Kudos to Pink for fighting through the flu to sing a fine rendition of the National Anthem.

-- If Cris Collinsworth had been with Al Michaels on Feb. 22, 1980, he would have said, "Yes, Al, I do believe in miracles, and I remember watching one in a game a couple of years ago..." and started a story that would not have ended until someone clocked him with a puck.

-- Commercials? I dunno; I was on the treadmill at the gym and switched on some podcasts when they came on.

-- The most important thing about the game is that pitchers and catchers report a week from Wednesday.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Mega Watt

Awards for individual efforts are generally thought of as nice by players who earn them, although most will quickly say they'd rather hoist a championship trophy any day.

The National Football League announced its different winners today, honoring players who excelled in different categories as well as first-year players who stood out compared to their fellow newcomers. Almost all of these awards include the word "player," as in "Defensive Player of the Year," and others. But the NFL gave one award this year to a player for work off the field, honoring Houstan Texans' defensive end J. J. Watt for being instrumental in raising $37 million for relief in the Houston coastal area after Hurricane Harvey it it in August. Watt's initial goal had been $200,000, but he got an easy Category 5 response to his appeal and hit the eight-figure amount.

The award given to Watt was named after Chicago Bears' running back Walter Payton, whose liver disease diagnosis in 1999 sparked him to campaign for organ donation awareness, especially among minorities and other populations where transplant patients have difficulty finding matching organs because of genetic mismatches. It is named, quite simply, the "Walter Payton Man of the Year" award, beginning in 1999 after Payton's death. Before that it was the "NFL Man of the Year Award," the title it had when Payton himself won it in 1977.

Watt's co-finalists were players who helped launch a cutting-edge heart research center and led public awareness and fund-raising drives to combat human trafficking.

No mention is made of yardage, tackles, receptions and the like. The Walter Payton award winner need not be an exceptional player. He just has to be an exceptional man -- and kudos to those who demonstrate themselves worthy of the honor. Not for the award's sake, but for what they did that brought it their way. Bravo, Mr. Watt.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Sniffing Out Clues

--Dan Piraro in his Bizarro strip identifies one of the key factors canine detectives use in narrowing down their list of suspects.

-- Calvin deals with one of the major existential crises of living in areas with cold weather.

-- Tank McNamara is hunting for his Sports Jerk of the Year for 2017, with nominations closing today. Strip artist/writer Bill Hinds may have bitten off more than he can chew; he could wind up renting space in other strips to handle the crush of nominations.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Men in Blecch

It's kind of hard to say how you feel about the news of a movie franchise reboot when you learn that the company involved has decided not to cross the franchise with the cinematic version of 21 Jump Street.

Writers, release date and director for the rebooted Men in Black franchise are apparently set now, and the aforementioned Ultimate Idiocy of Known Space is off the table. The story at Variety suggests that the reboot will not try to duplicate the roles played by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and will probably make one of the lead characters a woman.

The Men in Black in the movie were super-secret agents responsible for maintaining order on Earth and keeping secret the presence of aliens who often emigrated here in disguise or used our planet as a way-station traveling to somewhere else. Using a "standard-issue neuralyzer," the MiB could erase any memory of contact with them or an alien being and replace it with another that explained the strange circumstances people might vaguely recollect.

It was based on a six-issue comic book series that also traded on the idea of a conspiracy to hide the "real world" from the general populace, although in the comic the hidden world included supernatural elements and the MiB also killed in order to maintain their cover. It's significantly darker than the Smith-Jones movie of 1997.

Neither of the Men in Black sequels did as well as the original, even though the third movie featured Josh Brolin doing a dead-on hysterical impression of Tommy Lee Jones. The reasons not to reboot the franchise are many and varied; not the least of which are the fact that the concept worked because of the two lead actors' charisma, rapport and selling of the material. Revisiting the same concept with two other actors will bring...what, exactly? Ghostbusters ought to demonstrate what kind of empty vessel results when an old concept is brought back without any new idea to fill it out. Will the new version aim a little closer to the comic series' darker tones? That'll work: Remember that fun, light-hearted movie where Tommy Lee Jones deadpanned and Will Smith quipped their way through a battle with aliens? Now it will have evil zombies and mutants and the heroes will kill people! Bring the kids!

Sure, it's been 20 years since Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith teamed up to clean up "the worst scum of the universe," but nobody's used a neuralyzer on nearly enough people to make this idea any good. All it demonstrates is that once you've gone beyond lecherous actors, producers and such spinning stories as to why they're not guilty of what anyone else who did what they did would be guilty of, the creativity output of the modern movie industry drops to zero pretty quickly.