Saturday, March 31, 2018

No Debits

My favorite sport is still baseball. But when the National Hockey League has things like this, it makes it really easy to pick a #2.

Scott Foster, an accountant who played goalie for the Western Michigan University Broncos about a dozen years ago, is on backup as an "emergency goalie" for the arena in case either team loses both of its regular goalies. Most of the time that means watching the game from a good seat and having a good time, but in the Chicago Blackhawks Thursday game against the Winnipeg Jets, Chicago started the game one goalie down when starter Anton Forsberg hurt himself during the morning skate practice. So Foster was signed to the emergency one-game contract.

When backup Collin Delia went down with fourteen minutes left in the game, in came Foster, who racked up seven saves and allowed no goals during what may very well be his entire pro hockey career. The Blackhawk crowd greeted his first save with an appreciative roar, and the team presented him with their "championship belt" in the locker room afterwards.

Gabriel Baumgaertner, writing for Sports Illustrated, outlines a way that major league baseball could conceivably have a similar arrangement with an "emergency backup catcher" on hand in case the same kind of need arises. He puts a couple of restrictions on it to avoid making the backup too much of a liability and points out a couple of things that the team employing the backup might have to overcome. For example, to qualify for the spot a candidate would have had to have played collegiate, professional or highly-comptetitive recreational baseball within the last three years and pass a Major League Baseball evaluation and physical. He also wouldn't have to hit.

It's a little complicated, but this rule has an advantage over this year's minor league experiment of starting extra innings with a runner on second base: It's not the single stupidest thing ever devised by the mind of man. Plus, it could be fun. The Blackhawks operation is going to get a lot of public relations mileage out of the "regular guy plays a night in the pros" thing, and Foster himself had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. What's bad about that?

(Charles has a video here.)

Friday, March 30, 2018

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Tough Guys, Tough Reads

If you enjoyed Chad Zunker's debut, The Tracker, and want to pick up the second book in his series about former foster child Sam Callahan, make certain you check the title and date before you start it -- because Shadow Shepherd is so similar to it that you might grab the wrong one.

Either way, you're going to watch Sam -- now a lawyer -- get stuck in a hazardous situation when a semi-clandestine but legal job turns into a criminal conspiracy that has him stuck at the center of it. Sam is on the run once again, pursued by people who seem to have a keen interest in him disappearing without a trace. This time he's back with his girlfriend Natalie, but that proves to be more of a minus than a plus when shadowy forces kidnap her and tell Sam to do what they say or else she will be killed.

Shepherd is in so many ways a retread of Tracker that Zunker has Chad ask himself how he keeps getting into situations like this. Natalie, a reporter, winds up in the hands of evildoers because she has the stunningly stupid habit of meeting anonymous callers late at night without any backup, watcher, self-defense strategy or situational awareness.

Sam has a number of interesting features that could make him a great character, such as his juvenile criminal history and foster family background. The series could be interesting because it takes its characters' religious faith seriously. Zunker includes some interesting domestic touches in the life of Sam's lead FBI pursuer that show he wants to write about real people more than ciphers. But as long as the stories keep having Sam break ribs in one scene only to fistfight a few hours later, or create a super-assassin who's so well-known his nickname is on CNN but who eludes law enforcement at every turn, or similar ridiculous credibility collapses, there's no point in sifting through them for the good stuff. Shepherd's ending, which is supposed to give context to what's all happened before, only doubles down on how unnecessary it is to read both it and Tracker. And without some reason to expect improvement, there won't be much reason to read either of them or any of the ones that follow.
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James Reece is home from a disastrous mission in Afghanistan. He and the other members of his SEAL team were ambushed on a mission that never felt right from the start, and only two of them survived. When the higher-ups start asking him questions about how the debacle happened, he gets a definite sense they are looking to hang the failure on him. Rotated back to the States, he barely lands before learning that his wife and young daughter were killed in what police call a random home invasion. But Reece knew he was delayed in getting home and that he was supposed to have been there when the murderers arrived. More and more things are adding up, but they're adding up the wrong way and he finds himself under the gun, on the run and with just a handful of people he can trust. His enemies could stretch into the highest levels of the government, but that won't matter once Reece has established their guilt; their power won't keep them off of his Terminal List.

List author Jack Carr is a retired SEAL and brings great verisimilitude to the scenes of combat and his action sequences with Reece. Armament, tactics, procedures -- all carry a real aura of authority. His pacing is good, although there are plenty of first-novel bumps and stumbles. Some time and experience will probably help polish the rough edges and help Carr find ways to move his story forward without resorting to action thriller clich├ęs, and List offers some hints of something there worth polishing.

The major drag on that possibility is Reece himself. Reece is obviously driven by vengeance against a hidden conspiracy of power-hungry people who wiped out first the men under his command and then his family in an attempt to cover their tracks. When he visits violence on those people, we might be a little taken aback by the level of it but the idea itself is part and parcel of the story we've bought into.

Unfortunately, more than once Reece demonstrates a willingness to threaten those outside the conspiracy in order to get to his targets, including their own spouses and children. In at least one other place, he also displays a callousness towards folks who have become enmeshed in his problems because they were trying to help him. Those things may be plausible or they may not, depending on the reader, but they definitely take readers out of his corner and drain away sympathy they may have felt for him.

The polish that comes with practice will be a pretty natural progression if Carr writes more stories about James Reece. Being a little more aware that a protagonist's threatening of one child to help take vengeance for his own is a good way to make a reader say good-by will be a choice. We'll just have to see which way Carr decides to lean.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Long View

So if you happened, for some reason, to feel a little disgusted with the world and think everything's a wee bit rotten, you might look at this picture:


Called the Coma Cluster of Galaxies, it's a shot in which almost everything you see is a galaxy like our own Milky Way. Since Ye Olde MW contains billions of stars, you can quickly get a sense of how scary big the universe really is, and place things like President Trump and a useless press corps that won't stop talking about his extramarital affairs in their proper place in the universe.

Miniscule.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Re-Thinking Thinking

Existential Comics enlists existentialist/absurdist philosopher Albert Camus to demonstrate to a couple of physicists why they shouldn't think that the only thinking is done within their own discipline.

The physicists bully a couple of Greek-robed philosophers. But Camus confronts them with his notion that the only real philosophical question is suicide -- whether the actual suicide of despair at life's meaninglessness or philosophical suicide by embracing the idea that external sources such as religion give life meaning.

But Camus also upbraids the philosophers for being the kind of dorks that are ripe for being picking on. You know, the kind of discussion philosophers have all of the time anyway: Who are the biggest dorks -- us or the scientists? There are some deep issues involved, after all.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Return of the Writing Dead

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you may know it's written by a Robert B. Parker fan. Some of the Spenser novels published between the mid-1970s and late 1980s are among the top mystery private eye yarns ever put to paper and more than one offers you a chance to use your head for something other than just parking your fedora.

Parker's death in 2010 left a big hole in the genre, even if most of his output through the 1990s and early aughts was less than his best. His publisher decided to try to fill the hole in their income stream by recruiting new writers to handle his characters. By the time of his death Parker had added Paradise, Mass. police chief Jesse Stone, Boston private investigator Sunny Randall and old West gunslingers Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch to his stable. Putnam handed the Spenser reins to Ace Atkins, which has worked out fairly well so far. None of the Atkins Spensers hit the level of the series' best -- but they're nowhere near as off as some of the cut-and-paste jobs Parker himself threw out there. Michael Brandman could never find the handle or the groove on Jesse Stone, and Reed Farrell Coleman hasn't demonstrated any reason he should have been handed the series when Brandman's term was finished. Robert Knott started out mediocre with Cole and Hitch and has gotten steadily worse.

But Sunny Randall, the series Parker initially developed in consultation with actress Helen Hunt with an eye towards a movie or perhaps TV project, has lain dormant. Parker seemed to have already quit the series himself. He wrote six Randall novels, the last published in 2007. Sunny had the misfortune of being born during Parker's doldrum period and although one or two of her books were pretty good reads, Parker never seemed to know how to make her as interesting enough to gain much attention.

Apparently, though, Putnam has now found its muse, tapping sports reporter Mike Lupica to bring Sunny back to life in November with a book called Blood Feud. Lupica has written some mysteries and young adult novels as well as his sports column and some sports-related books, and the announcement says he was a longtime Parker friend.

It's very much a wait and see kind of thing, I believe. Lupica has the same problem that Brandman and then Coleman had in taking a character that Parker had not really defined that well and trying to continue her. Spenser is simply more established and more clearly outlined than any of the other leads Parker wrote about, so there's less material for them to work with (Knott has a similar problem, with the additional burden of being a sub-par writer). And, as I said to a friend who is also a Parker fan, I've only read some of Lupica's sports stories and none of them made me say, "This guy should write a book." His reply, "I can't wait to not read that."

It'll be an e-book checkout from the library at best, I think. Putnam's had four guys continue Parker's books and they're batting .250. I'm not sure I trust its judgment on a new player.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Alien World Next Door

At this link in Cosmos magazine, you can see some photos of ten places on Earth that give a pretty good impression of being somewhere else entirely.

The first one, in fact, the Wadi Rum in Jordan, has doubled for the surface of Mars in a couple of movies. No. 8, Mexico's Cave of Crystals, looks familiar to anyone who watched one of the Christopher Reeves Superman movies. But the environment is nothing like Supes' Arctic Fortress of Solitude, with near 100% humidity and temperatures pushing 140° F. It's not an alien world, but it requires near spacesuit-level protective gear to spend even a few minutes inside.

The Darvaza Crater in Turkey, the result of a failed oil mining attempt by the Soviet Union in 1971, is sometimes called "the door to hell" because its natural-gas fueled flames have been burning continuously since then. When told of the nickname, both the White House and the Capitol said in unison, "Hold my beer."

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Twisted

So I typed the name of the person who killed 17 people at a high school in Florida last month into Google, and I got 8 million and some hits.

I typed Arnaud Beltrame into Google and I got just under 700,000 hits. Sure, the Florida murderer has been on the news scene for longer, but Col. Beltrame is the French police officer who traded himself for one of the hostages in a Friday terror standoff in the southern part of his nation. Police cornered the gunman in a supermarket and when they heard shots, they stormed inside. Beltrame had been mortally wounded.

It seems pretty easy to blame media outlets when they pay more attention to women who claim to have had affairs with the president than they do to Congress passing a spending bill not a single member had read. We can get chapter and verse on who Pres. Trump slept with while married but we can't get anyone to devote more than a few minutes of attention to why the mokes on Capitol Hill think the country will shut down, the sky will fall and life as we know it will end if they don't spend $1.3 trillion dollars as soon as damn possible.

But the disparity in searches seems to suggest that they have an accomplice in their fascination with the facile, and that would be us. As long as we keep wanting to read and listen to the wrong thing, they'll keep spewing the wrong thing. The double-sided fascination with train wrecks -- we can't turn away and they're happy to show us more -- gave us our current president, who seems more than willing to maintain the supply of grotesquerie upon which both beasts can feed.

I seriously doubt we can fix him. But maybe we can fix us. It's just barely a start, but at least here's a couple more Google opportunities to get Arnaud Beltrame's name a little higher on the hits list.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Shut Up

At the risk of the invitation to take my own medicine, I offer a short list of people currently speaking a lot who shouldn't.

-- This item at Mediaite notes that former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, two grandfathers who have recently been pointing out how each other "should be" handled and how they'd be the ones to do it, share ten Vietnam-era draft deferments between them. Trump's were for bone spurs and Biden's were for asthma.

-- Parkland, FL, high school student David Hogg went through an awful thing when a gunman shot and killed 17 of his fellow students. His response has been to call for regulations on guns, especially the type of gun used by the shooter at his school. That's an established policy position which he has every right to advocate -- in fact, if it's what he believes he has an obligation to do so. But when he starts in with lines like "our parents don’t know how to use a ****ing democracy, so we have to," he sounds like he ought to ditch the lecture tour for some time in class. History would probably be good, and maybe English, because the interview at The Outline suggests he doesn't know a lot of adjectives.

-- Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who is retiring this year because it looked like he would have a pretty tough time winning the Republican nomination for his re-election, let alone the general election, is giving his well-coiffed mane a scratch or two over the idea of challenging President Trump for that nomination in 2020. You have to wonder: If you are stepping down because the voters of your own state's party organization want to vote for someone else, why would you do any better in a national primary?

-- Karen McDougal, a woman who claims she and President Trump had an affair back in 2006, was asked in an interview what she would say do the President's wife, Melania Trump, if given the opportunity. She said she would say she was sorry, and that "I wouldn't want it done to me." You wonder if she would want her spouse's hypothetical lover to offer details about the affair on national television, but that's not nearly as bad a thing to do, apparently. Blogger Ann Althouse is a little tougher on her than that, for what it's worth.

-- The President, of course, should start thinking more before speaking and should stop tweeting altogether.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

From the Rental Vault: Yankee Buccaneer (1952)

While filming Against All Flags in 1952, star Errol Flynn broke an ankle during a swordfighting scene, just before shooting was scheduled to finish. That left the set with several months down time while he recovered, and Universal Studios decided to get some use out of the sets while he was down. So they tweaked the ship a little and knocked together Yankee Buccaneer, a B-level swashbuckler headlined by Jeff Chandler with Scott Brady and Suzan Ball as primary support.

The USS Essex, under the command of David Porter (Chandler), is looking forward to orders that would direct them home for a refit and some leave. Instead, they find their own former midshipman David Farragut (Brady) back on board as a lieutenant, carrying orders that will have them disguise themselves as privateers in order to track down pirates who have been preying on American merchant cargos. When the ship puts in for stores and some repairs, they acquire Countess Margarita La Raguna (Ball), a Portuguese noblewoman trying to warn her countrymen of a plot by Spain to collude with pirates and steal the royal treasury as it is sent from Brazil back to Portugal. Farragut naturally falls for her but can't reveal the secret of the ship's true mission, which leaves Margaret convinced he is a pirate. Farragut's impetuous manner draws Porter's ire, whose by-the-book nature is already edgy with this wild scheme.

Buccaneer is solidly in the second tier of seaborne swashbucklers -- Chandler was a popular actor coming off several hits and even an Oscar nomination for playing Cochise in the 1950 Western Broken Arrow. But though he was a solid performer, he usually played the same kind of square-jawed intense authority figure he played here and the role didn't stretch him much. Most of the looser and more active scenes go to Brady; even when the movie tries to tease a competition between them for Ball's affections it doesn't really work. Brady has some of the swagger Farragut needs but doesn't get to display it too often. Ball, only 18 at the time and playing against men who were 10 and 16 years her senior, demonstrates the prerequisite pluck of a swashbuckler heroine and a bit of her own cleverness more than once. 

Charles Peck's screenplay plays out far too leisurely for real swashbuckling, meandering around for close to an hour before actually pitting the crew of the Essex against any real foes. It does have a nice dungeon sword melee and George Mathews as Link the bosun offers some humor, but it also has far too many lulls that could have been replaced by action, romance or a combination of the two. Director Frederick de Cordova, who would later helm The Tonight Show during the reign of the mighty Johnny Carson, can never really find the gas pedal to tighten anything up.

When Flynn healed up from his ankle injury, the ship set was returned to the look it had for Against All Flags so he could finish that movie, and may have welcomed the return to the quicker pace.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Details

Sherman the shark demonstrates to his lobster friend why you should always read the fine print, even if it is your friend showcasing his Nostradamus-like precognition.

Another long day of travel and meetings, so I bid you goodnight.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Gathered Sundries

-- The real problem with an Alabama sheriff who bought a house with money from a fund supposed to be used for food for jail inmates is not that it's illegal. Apparently, it is legal, which sounds like a much bigger problem.

-- A Facebook meme says that President Trump is the first president since 1897 to not own a dog. On the one hand, I wonder what the meme creator's got against William McKinley (who did own a parrot, a couple of cats and some roosters, leading to some speculation that Tom and Jerry is actually sly political commentary on the Gilded Age). On the other hand Trump's inability to understand basic economics like trade policy bugs me a lot more (It's the first item on this list).

-- A professor says that when her students are discussing the Shirley Jackson short story "The Lottery," they can't bring themselves to condemn the practice of human sacrifice that's at the center of the story. My suggestion is to create a grading lottery that operates precisely the same way the story does, only with a guaranteed F on an assignment for the name drawn instead of death. See if they get it then.

-- United Airlines isn't going to carry pets for awhile, at least until it gets a handle on why it's sending them to the wrong place or killing them. Would have been kind of cool if Massachusetts voters had done the same thing regarding Kennedys in their 1970 senatorial elections.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Marching On

One of the things noted in stories about last week's death of physicist Stephen Hawking was that his work had a lot to do with trying to find theories that could reconcile gravity with quantum theory. An experiment proposed by three physicists in two recent papers could pave the way for that to happen.

"Quantum theory" is called that because it supposes things we see as flowing forces are actually discrete particles if you look closely enough. To the naked eye a stream is flowing water, but it is actually made up of water molecules that are so small our eyesight can't pick them out. Matter may seem like it is solid, but we know it is made up of tiny atoms, and between those atoms is open space. It's just that on the scale of everyday life and existence, the atoms are so small that they appear to be a single object.

Three of the four basic forces of the universe -- electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force -- have been demonstrated to be, at their most basic level, quantized. At that level they are not smoothly flowing forces but instead are individual particles, smaller than atoms themselves.

Gravity has resisted joining the group. Its particles have been theorized and named gravitons, but neither they nor any proof of their existence has ever been found. Part of the problem is that gravity is very very weak compared to the other forces, which means that the effects of its quantum nature are very hard to detect. Put a hand into a stream of moving marbles, for example, and it will not be tough to feel the effects of the individual marbles that make up the stream. But put it into that earlier-mentioned stream of water and there will be no sensation at all of the individual particles, just the force of them all flowing together in the same direction making up the current.

One of the interesting things about the experiment proposed in the two scientific papers is that if it is successful, it will still not detect gravitons. It will only show whether or not certain effects happen as if there were gravitons and gravity is also a quantum phenomenon. If the experiment works like the scientists hope, then their results will be the same results as they would get if gravity is quantized. It will still leave the question open and leave scientists hunting for those particles -- and nagged by the possibility that other things might have caused the experiment to turn out that way. Sure those things would be weird and unexpected and not at all what anyone would have seen coming.

But the universe has been known to do that, so the hunt will continue.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Invulnerable Bracket

Everyone I see online is talking about how the University of Maryland-Baltimore County's win over the Virginia Cavaliers has completely wrecked their NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament bracket. Not mine. It's still 100% on target.

Now sure, this is the first time in the tournament history that a number 16 or bottom seed has beaten a number 1 or top seed. And UMBC did more than squeak out its win; the Retrievers administered a 74-54 thumping that could very well cause every Cavalier to transfer out next year in order to avoid wearing that uniform again.

But how could my bracket still be unspoiled? Am I claiming to have chosen the right winner for every game played so far during the tournament? Not at all. I'm just claiming I made all of the right picks:


Saturday, March 17, 2018

Smorgasbook

It didn't take much to be a pulp science fiction hero in the 1940s. Give a fellow a catchy name, a spaceship, a ray gun and some robots, and he was set. "Captain Future" was one such hero, with adventures chronicled by Edmund Hamilton between 1940 and 1951. Toei Animation produced a 53-episode anime series of the Hamilton stories that ran from 1978-1979. Modern sci-fi writer Allen Steele was a fan of the stories and in 2017, rebooted the characters with a modern understanding of the solar system and what it would take for human beings to inhabit and travel through it.

The result was Avengers of the Moon, an origin romp showing how the orphaned Curtis Newton came to have the companionship of a seven-foot robot named Grag, an android named Otho and the disembodied brain of scientist Simon Wright, a friend of Curt's murdered parents. When he becomes an adult, Curt learns the identity of the man who ordered the killings and decides to pursue him to avenge their deaths. In order to keep the man from suspecting his connection to the crime, Curt adopts the name Captain Future when he deals with government agents. One of whom, Interplanetary Police officer Joan Randall, happens to be quite attractive and is assigned to be the watchdog on Curt and his friends, much to the sheltered young man's consternation.

Steele does a good job of adapting the 1940s vision of the solar system, space travel and scientific achievements to a more real-world 21st century understanding while retaining as much similarity as possible to Hamilton's descriptions and ideas. He writes Avengers with a distinctly juvenile or young adult feel, although the book isn't advertised as one. He also tries to give a more realistic perspective of what characters in the described situations might feel and how they might react, and he definitely updates Joan Randall into a more modern character who kicks some villainous booty on her own without Curt's help.

For whatever reason, Captain Future didn't make the pop culture transition out of the 1940s like Buck Rogers or E.E. Smith's Lensmen. Steele's resurrection of the characters and universe is probably quite welcome for fans and a nice discovery for those who were unaware of Hamilton's stories. As of this writing there's nothing on Steele's website to suggest whether or not he will write more Captain Future novels, but both of those groups would probably enjoy it if he did.
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Scottish historical novelist David Donachie has published, under his own name and two pen names, more than 30 books, most of which concern life aboard ship in the age of sail. His longest and most successful series is that concerning John Pearce, an illegally pressed or "recruited" seaman we meet in 2004's By the Mast Divided.

By law, Pearce could demonstrate that he is an educated man rather than a common laborer or criminal and be released from his service. But his association with the rebellious politics of his father makes him reluctant to identify himself publicly. Ralph Barclay, the captain who ordered the impressment of Pearce and his fellow "volunteers," did so illegally and so he is not inclined to let Pearce near any kind of authority that might have to take an interest in the captain's crimes. So Pearce is stuck, along with a group of men he had just met when the press-gang raided the tavern where they were. Barclay is also stuck, commanding a clumsy frigate with a clumsy crew on mere convoy escort duty. Whether or not such a slapdash collection can survive battle with the French, let alone triumph, is an open question.

Donachie offers a slightly different take on the Napoleonic sea novel than some of the other major series of the period. His lead character is an illegally pressed landsman who has to learn the ways of the sea, but he offers viewpoint passages from several other characters as well, including Captain Barclay. Rather than living up to his ship's name, HMS Brilliant, Barclay proves to be a barely competent captain, dreaming of far more glory than his modest strategic and tactical gifts will place within his reach.

Divided is an OK beginning for a series but still rather shaky. Donachie doesn't seem to trust his readers to figure many things out. For example, the book title refers to the division between officers and crew in the Royal Navy of the day, with the latter allowed aft of the mainmast only on specific duties. But rather than trust the reader to see that division explored in the narrative, he puts a rumination about it in Pearce's mind and connects it to his egalitarian political beliefs.

Also a problem is that few of the characters are all that likeable, and many of those are relatively minor. Pearce himself, though he proclaims convictions of the equality of all people, pretty clearly seems to hold himself superior to almost anyone he meets. It makes it harder to root for him, although since this is currently a 14-book series, it may be that Donachie intends to make him aware of the flaw and desirous of correcting it. Divided is by no means terrible and its flaws shouldn't prompt casting subsequent volumes aside, but it does set before them an awful lot of work to make the journey one a reader might want to take.
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Mark Waid and Alex Ross's 1996 limited-run series Kingdom Come told the story of a world with beings with great power but without great responsibility. In their near-future impending dystopia, super-heroes were hard to tell from super-villains, as concern for the innocents they were supposed to protect too often loses out to the desire to win battles. "Justice" no longer means apprehension of a wrongdoer, but all too often comes as an execution, and the great names of the past like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have stepped off the stage.

The four-issue series was successful enough for DC to contract with longtime Superman writer Elliot Maggin to put it into a novel format. Maggin had written two earlier Superman novels, The Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday, so he was thought to be a good choice for the Superman-heavy story of Kingdom Come. But unlike his earlier books, in Kingdom Come Maggin was novelizing an already-written story. He could flesh things out and add the layers that a novel had room for, but Waid and Ross had already established the Start, Finish and Stuff That Happens In Between.

As in the comic book, a minister named Norman McCay finds himself tapped by the supernatural avenger known as the Spectre to observe and guide the spirit in an upcoming major battle between meta-humans. The battle will be catastrophic, something on the order of the Battle of Armageddon alluded to in the Book of Revelation, and the Spectre wants a human being to guide him into assessing who is at fault. The reappearance of Superman following a devastating disaster in Kansas, rather than defusing the conflict, only seems to amp it up. Batman has been attempting to maneuver behind the scenes to control matters but his plans didn't include a reunited Justice League that escalates the use of force and coercion to a dangerous level.

Maggin performs his role quite well, creating scenes and tension with words where the comic book used Alex Ross's painted art. There are places where it seems he would have liked to have steered some of the story on a slightly different heading but he doesn't, largely contenting himself with expanding Waid's narrative and dialogue.

Kingdom Come is slightly less successful as a novel than it was as a comic book, primarily because of the newness of painted comic book images at its time of publication and Ross's skill in that area. But the story both comic and novel share is strong enough to stand even without images. As Norman McCay watches from behind the scenes at the side of the Spectre, he sees people who have to figure out how they should act towards the giants in their midst and what they should expect from them. The questions, "What do I do with the gifts I've been given and how am I supposed to act?" have a long history and Maggin, in bringing it home without the benefit of artwork, makes a welcome if slightly redundant contribution to the legacy of the Kingdom Come project.

(The long-post blog has an entry on the comic series here.)

Friday, March 16, 2018

Sundries

-- Charles Hill drops some shade on the idea of minor league baseball's adaptation of a rule starting all extra innings with a runner on second base. He is more measured than I am; my immediate response was that of Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes.

-- Ben Franklin had some advice on good ways to live life as a rational, reasonable member of society. It was pretty good in 1726 and it's pretty good today, too.

-- Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder offers a brief outline of Stephen Hawking's contributions to physics.

-- Tomorrow the Chicago Plumber's Union will dye the Chicago River green as a way of marking St. Patrick's Day. This item notes a way in which the famous backwards-flowing river might be considered an even better symbol of things Paddy actually taught.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Test Pattern

Traveling. Tired. Tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Keeper of the Red Pill

In 1999's The Matrix, Lawrence Fishburne's Morpheus famously offers Keanu Reeves' Thomas "Neo" Anderson a choice between two pills, blue and red. The blue pill will lead him back to his previous life, able to explain away the weird events he's undergone as a dream or hallucination. The red pill, on the other hand, will allow Neo to "stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more."

Physicist Stephen Hawking, who died March 14 aged 76, would probably not have said he was able to show exactly how deep the rabbit hole of the universe goes, but he was most definitely someone who pointed out that it was a lot deeper than most people cared to imagine.

Hawking earned acclaim for, in the first place, outliving a 1963 diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, commonly known as "Lou Gehrig's disease." About ten years later, some time after his initial diagnosis suggested he should be dead, Hawking found out something peculiar about black holes, those bottomless pits of gravity so strong that not even light could escape them: They leaked.

After applying quantum theory to the idea of black holes, Hawking's equations said that they would drizzle out radiation and particles over the eons until they eventually evaporated. Although there would never be any way to determine what those particles had originally made up, the particles themselves would somehow continue via what would be called "Hawking radiation." Like many great scientific discoveries, it was accidental; as the New York Times obit mentions, Hawking said he was not looking for these particles. “I merely tripped over them. I was rather annoyed,” which demonstrates why most universe-changing discoveries should be accompanied by British understatement.

Hawking radiation and its implications have been considered one of the markers on the path of "unification theory," or attempts to connect gravity, which seems to govern the universe on a larger and visible level, and quantum theory, which governs its at its smallest and most basic level. The relationship between gravity and quantum theory still puzzles physicists today and experiments continue to see if it is even possible to detect what individual quanta or particles would make up the force we call gravity.

The wider world came to know more of Hawking following the publication of his 1988 book A Brief History of Time. The popular explanation of some aspects of modern physics became a bestseller. It brought much wider attention to the man who had chosen to let his physical condition dictate neither his lifespan nor his ability to contribute to his field and the world around him. Copies of the book became ubiquitous; Spy magazine noted a spate of younger celebrities holding them while wearing clunky glasses as they sought to be taken more seriously. If you want to pick up your own copy, get a first printing with the Carl Sagan introduction, where he describes Hawking laboriously signing his name to the ancient roll of the Royal Society of London in a book that also bore the signature of Isaac Newton, and the response of the gathered scientists observing it. It’s a moving scene, but later editions only had Hawking’s own introduction.

In his other life as a pop culture phenomenon, Hawking appeared in person or by voice on several television shows with science appeal, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation. He played himself on episodes of The Simpsons and Big Bang Theory as well. He advocated for people with disabilities, reluctantly at first because he had not found his own life or work limited by his ALS. But when he realized how effectively he could demonstrate what disabled folks could do with proper help, he accepted a higher profile in such advocacy.

In later life Hawking showed a little more dyspepsia in some of his public statements. In a 2010 book he declared that the discipline of philosophy was “dead,” having failed to keep up with science. In 2014 interviews he labeled himself an atheist, although in Brief History he had been more open-minded about what, if anything, human beings might understand about the ultimate meaning of things around us. These later-life prejudices were unfortunate. At least one young traditional theist found his mind expanded when he first encountered the anthropic principle in History, and the Hawking who asserts instead of questions seems somehow smaller.

Hawking was inspirational even if he didn’t much care for the designation. His 1970’s work would have changed physics and cosmology had it come from a fully able scientist but it stands higher because it came from a man who wasn’t able to stand or write on his own and had to visualize the equations in his head while developing them. He leaves a legacy of great impact as a physicist and as a human being, and it seems to me that he did so in large part because in physics and physical limitations, he eagerly sought nothing less than the truth the proverbial red pill is supposed to offer. The universe is weird, and the human mind will not be limited by such things as physical handicaps unless its owners choose to let it be.

(ETA -- sorry about all of the typos. Originally posted from an iPad keyboard)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Test Pattern

AT&T seems to be having issues with reliable connectivity, so we will resume your regularly-scheduled grumpiness tomorrow. With extra bonus grumpiness caused by the glitches!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Some Sundry

-- As the webcomic Existential Comics notes, if you think it's hard to be a werewolf, imagine how hard it would be to be an existential werewolf, reconciling the bestial instinct of the wolf with the desire to be one's own authentic self.

-- A brief poem helps one put parental promises into perspective.

-- A news media that devotes so many of its limited resources to every twist, turn, nuance and nausea of a relationship between President Trump and a woman he's supposed to have slept with, but says not much more than bupkis about the economic harm that his steel and aluminum tariffs will cause, does not need "fake news" in order to merit being ignored.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Time Change

You think you had problems setting all of your clocks ahead an hour? Think about these guys at Stonehenge:




(Found here.)

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Iffy Forecast

At the link, the photo shown is an infrared view of the underside of Jupiter's clouds on its south pole. The images were taken by Juno, a spacecraft orbiting our solar system's largest planet and learning quite a bit about it.

The thing that's kind of mind-blowing is that the central cyclone is surrounded by a bunch of them in a kind of rosette pattern, and each of them is somewhere between 3,500 and 4,400 miles in diameter. At the equator, the diameter of the entire Earth is just under 4,000 miles. There are eight more surrounding the center cyclone at the north pole, each about 2,500 miles in diameter.

Weather prediction on Jupiter would probably be pretty easy: "It's going to storm. A lot. Forever."

Friday, March 9, 2018

From the Rental Vault: The Protector (2005)

When Tatchakorn Yeerum was growing up, he idolized movie martial artists like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. He would imitate their moves while doing his daily chores.

When he grew up, he took the stage name Tony Jaa and began working in movies in Thailand himself, first as a stunt double and then as a co-producer and director with his mentor, Panna Rittikrai. His breakout came in 2003 with the lead role in Ong-Bak: Muy Thai Warrior, a story of a villager trained in the martial art of muy thai who defeats gangsters to recover a precious village artifact.

He didn't travel far, character-wise, for his second role in 2005 in Tom-Yum-Goong, marketed in the United States as The Protector. He plays Kham, a member of a family that has traditionally raised and guarded the elephants that serve the King of Thailand. The King doesn't use war-elephants any more, except as display, but Kham's family maintains their service in their village.

When a scheme to steal the elephants brings the loss of two of Kham's favorites and the murder of his father, he seeks out the thieves -- both to recover the elephants and take his revenge. The trail leads him to the underworld of Sydney, Australia, and enmeshes him in the power struggles of a ruthless syndicate. Friendless except for a handful of people he meets who speak his language, Kham has a lot of fighting ahead of him, which is fortunate, because he has a lot of rage to visit upon those who stole his charges.

Tom-Yum-Goong in many ways fits the formula of the martial arts movies that Jaa grew up admiring, only updated with modern camera and stunt work. Story and acting take a backseat to the fighting and the stunts, with the appeal of the movie aimed directly at fans of martial arts brawls. The criminal enterprise and police corruption plot exist only to frame the fight sequences.

Chan took martial arts fighting sequences in an entirely different direction, making use of furniture, buildings and random items laying around the set to choreograph an almost slapstick-toned battle. Jaa stays more inventive than just punch-kick-throw but doesn't inject as much humor into his own sequences. Jaa and Rittikrai tweaked muay thai fighting into a style they called muay kodchasaan, incorporating an elephant's defensive use of its trunk into Jai's own moves and countermoves.

Investment in other aspects of the movie are limited. Jai does make a convincing rural naif in the city, apparently thinking he can land at the airport in Sydney and start walking around in order to find his elephants and their kidnappers. Petchthai Wongkamlao as a Aussie-Thai policeman who helps Kham probably gets the most fleshing out after Jaa, but any depth comes as much from his own work as anything the script gives him.

But Tom-Yum-Goong doesn't aim to be anything other than a quickly-paced action movie, and it delivers on that promise. It helped cement Jaa's position in Thai moviemaking and eventually earned a sequel, released in 2013.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Conditions

The wind was a little chilly, the sun went down too early and neither the local heroes nor the visitors performed all that heroically -- although the local nine obviously had some more rust to knock off than their foes.

But it was a baseball game, so it'll do.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Sights

I thought about trying to load low-res versions of some of these into this post but couldn't narrow down my favorites. So check out some of the finalists for the 15th Annual Smithsonian Photo Contest. Even though I'm not posting them here, I'm partial to "Rain," "Joy," "Ray of Zeus" and "Sardines in the Sun."

I'm also kind of impressed with what the eclipse watchers in the last photo on the page, "Summit Eclipse," had to do to reach their viewing point: Two days of backpacking, one day with 12 hours of climbing and crossing two glaciers. That's dedication.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Sundry

-- Paging Mr. Hitchcock, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock...

-- Then there was that time that the satirical religious and social commentary site The Babylon Bee just reported a story instead of having to make one up.

-- When TV weather forecasters get it wrong -- with or without the apocalyptic rhetoric their ratings-driven profession demands they offer -- we just gripe at them. Or about them. Josef Stalin had them arrested and sent to the Solovetsky Islands before eventually executing them. Let any Venezuelan or North Korean meteorologists who might read this blog take heed.

Monday, March 5, 2018

What Are the Odds?

If you learned that the city of Las Vegas had asked a scientific association never to return to its premises for a convention, you might suppose a couple of things might have happened.

Perhaps the labcoat set went whole-hog for hedonism, awash in entertainment and opportunities supposedly not available to them ordinarily. That's probably the way the movies would have it, anyway, offering plenty of opportunities for shy guys with taped glasses to find beautiful dancers who saw past the unexciting exteriors to the sensitive, devoted and caring guy beneath them. Scenes of unbridled licentiousness and a happy ending with a knockout you could take home to meet mom?  Throw in a wacky madcap sequence where some of the more lovable of the misfits get lost, wind up in Reno where prostitution is legal and completely misunderstand what kind of hotel they've stopped at for the night? Box office, baby!

Another possibility is that the geniuses -- geniusi? -- brought their formidable gray matter to bear on things like probabilities and odds and such and cleaned out the casino coffers down to the last cheap plastic chip. Scorning mechanical aids, they rapidly computed in their own brilliant heads the chances of winning and the best bets to make and all of those winners almost bankrupted the hotel. That might be the scenario for a more modern and woke movie, especially the convention was made up of people under-represented in the STEM fields. It would be even better if the casino/hotel was a Trump property or at the very least owned by a wealthy white bigot who secretly referred to all of the scientists by racist and sexist slurs.

Alas, neither of those stories is the actual reason why Las Vegas bid a final adieu to the American Physical Society after the group's convention back in 1986. The APS had settled on Vegas after its initial site in San Diego fell through because of a hotel scheduling mixup. Staying at the MGM Grand, they did indeed cause a record-low take for the hotel, but not by playing the games and beating the house. They did something even smarter.

They didn't even play.

Casino hotels offer lower room rates and lots more freebies like food, drink and other comp items because they expect to make it back and more at the table. Plus, the lower rates help visitors think they're getting a deal even though they blew the difference in rates shooting craps. A big group of people who just stay at the hotel and take the freebies cost them big money.

Physics Central's "Buzz" blog offers a couple of reasons why the APS attendees didn't play, such as the weird idea that the convention-goers actually went to their convention. The lack of ready cash common to most graduate students played a role. But, the writer notes, there's also the significant likelihood that scientists did recognize the odds of the different games, remembered that casinos aren't in business to lose and decided they had better causes to which they could give their money away.

Whatever the cause, the MGM Grand and apparently some association representing the entertainment and hospitality took revenge on the nerds by asking the APS not to come back. It's easy to understand why, of course. It's not just the financial loss. What if all of the other guests took a look at the smartest people in the room and noticed them not playing casino games and gambling?

You don't want that kind of bad example getting around.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Right Words

The good folk at Mental Floss have published a list of 10 Oscar winner speeches that were 10 words or less in length.

I'm willing to bet viewers wouldn't hear very many of those tonight.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Spy Games

Former CIA operative Jason Matthews sold the movie rights and a contract for a sequel to his debut novel, Red Sparrow, before it even hit the stands in 2013. The movie stars Jennifer Lawrence, who's gotten moderate-to-high praise for her work, and Lawrence Edgerton, who could not have been more miscast as Nate Nash. Matthews won an Edgar award for best first novel by an American in 2014. Palace of Treason was released in 2015 and the third book of the trilogy beat the movie to the punch by a few weeks, coming out in February 2018.

The "Sparrow" of the title is Dominika Egorova, a world-class ballerina whose career was cut short by an injury. Since her mother requires expensive medical care that the average Russian citizen can't pay for, Dominika goes to work for her uncle in Russian intelligence. He maneuvers her into the Sparrow School, where male and female operatives are trained to seduce targeted foreigners and provide blackmail material used to get them to provide information on their own countries. On assignment, she begins a recruitment of Nathaniel Nash, a young CIA officer. They realize their mutual attraction and Nate eventually convinces Dominika to serve Russia by betraying its corrupt leaders and spying for the United States.

By the time of The Kremlin's Candidate, Dominika and Nate's affair is a poorly-hidden secret to his superiors. But since she has begun rising in the Russian intelligence hierarchy, they do not stop the pair from occasional meetings. The problem now is that with the recent passing of the CIA director, a weak president is narrowing his list of choices for a successor, and one of them is a longtime Russian mole. Should that person get the job, Dominika would be immediately exposed and arrested.

Red Sparrow was a great debut novel, even mining Dominika and Nate's respective attempts to recruit each other for humor as neither of them were aware that the other was working on them for that purpose. Through it and Palace of Treason, Dominika began to rebuild the humanity crushed out of her at the Sparrow School and in the brutally sexist ranks of Russian intelligence services. Candidate is still good but a much weaker ending than it should have been. Matthews has produced some 1,400 pages of book, but he doesn't really have 1,400 pages of story, and Candidate is where that shows the clearest. There's a pointless sojourn in Macao and a horrendously complicated final act in a Vladimir Putin-owned villa when the jaws of the trap seem ready to close on Dominika and Nate. For whatever reason, Putin alone among real-world characters is not replaced with a stand-in and his weaving into Dominika's plotline seems lumpy and badly stitched together. The flow of the first two books is not present, with uninteresting retreads in the role of villains and coincidental plot elements that do not fit well together.

The "Red Sparrow" trilogy is a good one because Matthews writes well and knows his tradecraft from time in the field, and because in Dominika, Nate and some of their immediate circle he's created some great characters a reader wants to root for. But ending their story after Red Sparrow alone or trimming the three books into two would have strengthened it significantly.
-----
Kyra Stryker first joined the "Red Cell," the CIA's quirky think tank, in the 2012 novel of that name. She was a rookie agent hung out to dry for the mistakes of her superiors, but managed with the help of Red Cell curmudgeon Jonathan Burke to demonstrate considerable talent for the work. By the time of 2018's The Last Man in Tehran, Burke has retired and Stryker is the chief of the Cell. But she'll need her old colleague's help -- and no small amount of luck -- to prevent a deadly confrontation between Israel and Iran that's on high boil. Clues following a devastating attack on an Israeli port point to the Islamic Republic, but Kyra and others have heard whispers that things are not as they seem. A mole hunt by the FBI leaves far too many in the Agency unwilling to risk drawing attention to themselves by making decisions or taking risks. Will Kyra and Jonathan be able to head off a war that could leave the entire Middle East a wasteland? Can elements within the clandestine services of the two antagonists walk their nations back from the brink?

Henshaw is a former CIA analyst himself and has a good handle on the "office work" side of intelligence gathering -- after all, the purpose of gathering intelligence is to know what is going on so someone can do something about it. He also gives the bureaucratic side of things solid authenticity. Your office may have politics, but combine imagine what it would be with people whose very business is sneaking out secrets and hiding their own and who've been trained to do so. There's a little less fieldwork than the earlier Red Cell novels, at least by our principals. Still, Kyra travels to Iran to meet with a British asset who might be able to help her learn the source of the attack on Israel.

Henshaw has a handy hand with an action scene and doesn't take the easy routes with his different characters even if they walk some familiar ground. Rather than pulling stock character quirks off the shelf to differentiate them from each other, he takes the time to explore their backgrounds and give them some depth.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Crediting

On March 2, 1791, the Rev. John Wesley, founder of the branch of the company for which I labor, passed away at 87. Finally feeling old age after an illness the year before, he spent the last several months of his life in one place, the exact opposite of how he had spent most of the previous six decades.

He took to his bed in late February and weakened over the course of the five days leading up to March 2. On that day, he was said to have sung hymns and recited scripture with a weakening voice as his strength continued to fail. Among his last words were "The best of all, God is with us" and "Farewell."

His tomb in London has a brief recounting of his extensive preaching, traveling and organizing the revival movement that would be come the Methodist church. But immediately after it admonishes those who might pay credit to the wrong actor in that drama: "Reader, if thou art constrain’d to bless the instrument, give God the glory."

I would think a similar sentiment would come from the more recently departed mass evangelist of his time, Rev. Billy Graham. And I suspect the two gentlemen will be sharing stories when they happen to encounter one another in the hereafter they both proclaimed to such great effect.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Give It a Whirl

You might be forgiven for thinking the Earth's rotation sped up considerably for this picture to be taken, but it's just a combined picture made up of many long-exposure images of stars. Still pretty cool.