Monday, April 30, 2018

Lucky Seven

In high school chemistry I was pretty glad when I managed to complete the project that had us making aspirin. I think I got a B.

George Wang, a student at the Oklahoma School of Science and Math, outstripped me just a bit. He proved a fundamental tenet of chemistry wrong. And got himself published in a chemistry journal.

Carbon atoms, most of the time, can form four bonds with other atoms. This helps it play its role in the creation of things like alcohol or methane. Under very specific circumstances, carbon can form six bonds with other atoms; a team of German scientists discovered this in 2016 and called such atoms "hypercarbon."

Wang's chemistry teacher asked his students if it was possible to form more; which most scientists believed a carbon atom could not do. Wang discovered that if carbon was in a form called "tropylium trication," it could actually form seven bonds, and when his teacher checked his work they collaborated with a University of Oklahoma professor and published it. The seven-bond carbon could turn out to have practical uses, rather than just be an oddball scientific anomaly.

Wang himself has already been accepted to Stanford University, where the article at Inverse says he "hopes to study chemistry."

I bet they'll let him.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Reaper Hangs Ten?

Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" has a surfy-vibe to the rhythm guitar line, but musician Bruce Lindquist decided to go full out by replacing the vocals with some properly gnarly fretwork.

It certainly brings a new meaning to the word "wipeout."

(Hat tip Yeah Right.)

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Don't Inhale!

So something occurred to me as I made the first of 2018's weekly assaults upon the Bermuda (actually at this point of the year it's more of an assault on henbit and dandelions, but still...they task me. They task me, and I shall have them!). It being a little windy, I found myself breathing in the pulverized bits of leaf and bloom, and I wondered what long term effect this might have on my health.

My body's immediate response is something along the lines of: "Incoming greenery! Activate hay fever!" I can lessen the effects of that with a shower, extra attention given to washing the face and some spritzes of saline up the nostrils to help wash out green stuff or pollen that may have lodged there. But could there be a long term effect? I don't really know, which on the one hand prompts me to quit cutting the grass. On the other hand, there's no one else to do it and I'm not in the mood to pay, so I wind up on the Allergen Throne, defending the realm against the threat of a yard tall enough to alert code enforcement officers and harbor rodents.

It could be worse, of course. According to Thomas Lupton's 1595 volume A Thousand Notable Things, I could have inhaled basil -- with the predictable result of breeding a scorpion inside my brain that would not only a long time grieve me but at the last kill me.

Unfortunately, in researching this I learned that henbit is of the same genus, lamium, as basil. Please don't try to visit; I would prefer you remember me as I was, with a brain free of predatory arachnid arthropods.

Plus, if I discover that basil/henbit brain scorpions are contagious, I have a few people I want to meet before I go.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Test Pattern

Wearying day. Back tomorrow.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Surely, This Life Was Good. And Educational.

The man responsible for a large number of educational earworms, Bob Dorough, passed away Monday at the age of 94. Dorough wrote many of the songs used in the Schoolhouse Rock! project of short cartoons which aimed to teach kids some basic facts about things like math, the parts of speech and history. These would air during the sessions of cartoon and sugary-cereal bingeing that constituted a kid's Saturday morning during the 1970s and 80s.

Dorough wrote the music and lyrics for all 11 multiplication videos and sang all but two of them, "I Got Six" and "Figure Eight." One of them, which I'd forgotten, actually introduced the concept of the duodecimal or base 12 counting system. Given our ten fingers and toes we adapted a base-10 system, but we do use 12s in keeping time and in some measurements.

After that first set of videos was finished, Dorough was joined by other writers but did contribute some more during the new series. He sang less often as well.

The series ended in the early 1980s but returned in 1994 with Money Rock, a set of videos designed to teach basic economics like budgeting, interest and loans and even the national debt. Unfortunately these are not required viewing in order to be sworn in as a public official. Dorough wrote only "The Check's in the Mail" in this series but sang on "Dollars and Sense," "Tyrannosaurus Debt" and "This for That" as well.

A special series was commissioned for the Bicentennial, covering some aspects of U.S history and the operation of the government. Dorough wrote and sang on two of the original nine episodes, "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" and "Mother Necessity," and helped write "Sufferin' Till Suffrage." He also was involved in two of the three additional America Rock tunes. One was 1979's "Three Ring Government," which involves separation of powers and which should probably be played on heavy rotation in Capitol & White House elevators for the next billion years. "I'm Gonna Send Your Vote to College" explains the workings of the Electoral College in the election of the U.S. president and could have been useful to the 2016 Clinton campaign.

Dorough also contributed to one song in the Science Rock series and a couple in the Earth Rock ecology-based series. The latter never aired on television but was released on a DVD. He continued to work well into his later years, releasing albums up through 2015, but would almost always be called on to do one of his Schoolhouse songs at a concert.

Sesame Street has a lot to recommend it in a lot of ways, but when my mind reaches back to try to grab hold of how to use a part of speech or understand one of the functions of government, more often than not it's bebopping along to the words and tunes of good ol' Mr. Schoolhouse, Bob Dorough. Rest in peace, Teach.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

White Tie and Tails

Since today is World Penguin Day, the good folk at Mental Floss have compiled 20 facts about the best-dressed bird in the world.

They unfortunately get one wrong right off the bat, saying that all 17 species of penguin are found in the Southern Hemisphere. As all good fans of the Looney Tunes know, "Playboy" Penguin is actually from Hoboken.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

First Star on the Right...

You know you are a big honkin' space nerd when the promise of a new map of the galaxy -- with more than 500 million new stars -- gets you a little giddy. I'm afraid I must take to my bed.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Sanity Located

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rendered into law what just about anyone already knew: Animals can't own things.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had sued a photographer for the proceeds from a photo on his camera. While that camera was unattended, a macaque named Naruto had taken a couple of selfies with it. PETA said that the monkey held the rights to the photo, while the photographer, being a human who owned the camera and who understood things like ownership, rights, proceeds and whatnot, believed that he did.

A lower court agreed with reason and the photographer, and now the 9th Circuit has as well. PETA's lawyers said they are studying the decision and will decide later if they will appeal. The organization's lawyer said that Naruto "shouldn't be treated any differently from any other creator simply because he happens to not be human."

Which indicates that certain humans probably should be treated differently, or at least kept away from sharp objects before they hurt themselves.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Ah Ha!

At Existential Comics, Plato's words hint at non-philosophical reasons he might have disdained poetry. It appears to be the age-old story.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Reading Rules

So the self-identified "Editors of GQ" prepared a list of 21 books that you don't have to read, kind of a counter-weight to those many lists of books you are supposed to read as well as lit class syllabi everywhere.

Among the actual Gentleman's Quarterly editors who prepared the list are several modern authors, a number of whom fortunately have new books coming out later this spring and summer. Each, in addition to absolving you of the need to read a so-called great book that really doesn't live up to its rep, offers a book that you can or should read instead.

In a couple of cases, the alternative selection is said to cover the same ground as the good features of the better-known work but also offer more good stuff or at least correct all of the flaws of its bad stuff. For example, Lauren Groff (whose new collection Florida will be published June 5!) suggests that instead of reading Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, people should pick up Jean Stafford's The Mountain Lion instead. Dove, she said, "features the cowboy mythos, with its rigid masculine emotional landscape, glorification of guns and destruction, and misogynistic gender roles" that are a "major factor in the degradation of America." Lion's tale of a brother and sister wrestling with stereotyped masculine and feminine roles in pre-WWII Colorado would be "a strong rebuttal to all the old toxic western stereotypes we all need to explode."

Now, Lion may do exactly that and be just the corrective that American society needs, or it may not. Modern American men seem more enamored with the Nintendo culture than that of the Wild West, but Groff might have thought about these matters more than I have. Either way, though, the majority of the list is one writer or another suggesting that a traditional "should read" title is really not all that great and should really be replaced by another "should read."

Sometimes their analysis of the better-known work is spot on. Catch-22 probably has some important things to say about the horrific nature of war but Joseph Heller buried them in his non-chronological blizzard of absurdity, so Emily Robbins is fully justified in saying that you're no worse off for skipping it. But what vaults Inaam Kachachi's An American Granddaughter into the role Catch-22 has held beyond Robbins' confession she "never could get into" the older book? And why is Robbins' inability to get into Heller's book worth any more than anyone else's? Stop asking questions like that, kid. We've got some iconoclasm to do!

There's some real value in reading a book everyone says is great, agreeing that it's great and then later on revisiting it and one's opinion of it. André Aciman is properly dismissive of the glory, laud and honor offered to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Instead he suggests reading Olivia by Dorothy Strachey -- coincidentally an inspiration for his own novel, Call Me by Your Name. But that misses the point of assigning Catcher to adolescents. Holden Caulfield's overwhelmingly inflated opinion of himself as the only one who sees the truth and who can save the others like him resonates with many teenagers. It's the same rationale that makes youth the saviors of the world/civilization/whatever in the legion of young adult dystopias following The Hunger Games.

It's only when you re-read Catcher as an adult you realize what a self-important little jerk Caulfield is; the lesson is that some years of experience can teach you some things about the way the world works that you didn't know when you were younger and as smart as Holden Caulfield.

Some of the critiques are real head-scratchers and offer an impression that the evaluator is far more silly than insightful. Jesse Ball, author of Census (published March 6!), says that folks who say you really should read the Bible are off-base. Whatever good it has is outweighed by the part that is "repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned." Instead, if you are the kind of person who was attracted to read Scripture because of the "naughty bits," you should pick up Agota Kristof's The Notebook. Now, I haven't studied enough to know, but I'm going to guess the Venn diagram of the sets"people who want to read the Bible" and "people who want descriptions of animal-human intercourse in their fiction" shows a very small overlap. If Ball has no blinkin' idea why people read the Bible, why should I or anyone else care what he says about whether or not they should?

That may sound like a nitpicky question, but it actually highlights the real weakness of the GQ piece. So many of the contributors seem so completely clueless about the novels they're evaluating that you can't rely on them. Meaning that if you want to know whether or not you should read these books, you'll probably have to read them yourself to see. Which kind of undercuts the list premise; it may be that the "Editors of GQ" need to read their own pitch a little more carefully.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Hell at 30,000 Feet

In case anyone believed that airlines were really interested in passenger comfort and an enjoyable flight experience, check out their interest in the Skyrider 2.0. It's a "seat" that actually involves the passenger more or less standing upright while resting on a saddle, slung together in rows that are a grand total of 23 inches apart.

When will these abominable operations go bankrupt and get taken over by someone who actually does think that it might be a good idea for people using your service to have a good time doing so? Not soon enough.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Wrong Number

A Fresno State University professor who greeted the news of Barbara Bush's death with a classless and brainless tweet (but I repeat myself) drew a lot of ire from people who think that rejoicing in the sadness of human beings over the loss of their loved ones is an inappropriate act.

The professor proved her adult bona fides by taunting people who said she should be fired, claiming she has tenure and earns $100,000 a year. California, of course, is well known for paying a lot of money for a lot of nothing, so the professor does not necessarily stand out.

The professor is, of course, right that she should not be fired for her words. But in a not-too-surprising development, she is wrong about the reason. Fresno State's response makes it clear that she was voicing her own opinions and, for want of a better word, thoughts. She was not representing the university or claiming that her opinions were the opinions of the university. Thus, her speech is protected, and unless Fresno State's employment agreement specifically punishes protected but vile speech with termination she can't be let go.

After the taunting, the professor set her account to private. Unless she specifically allows it, no one can see her tweets, which is a kind gesture but probably too little, too late to raise people's opinion of her. Among the taunts she made was to include a phone number where she could supposedly be reached, but it was actually a suicide and crisis hotline. That particular spasm of maturity could turn around to bite her, especially if there were persons unable to get through on the line because operators were busy with the calls generated by her lying about how to get in touch with her. That kind of malicious mischief might earn her some action on the part of the school or perhaps allow her to take her act on the road to a local courtroom.

Her books have begun to accumulate one-star ratings on Amazon, and her profile at Rate My Professors is restricted. On the one hand, it's sad that people resort to those kinds of juvenile responses. On the other hand the verified ratings at Rate My Professor do say she is inspirational, so I suppose that explains it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Setting a High Bar

During the middle year of her husband's term in the White House, First Lady Barbara Bush was invited to give the commencement address at Wellesley College. The invitation caused consternation among some students, who thought that a woman who had gained prominence and position by her own efforts rather than by being married to a president would be more fitting. Wellesley's Class of 2017 was less convinced that mattered.

In any event, the students registered their complaint with the administration, but neither demanded the invitation be withdrawn nor tried to shout Mrs. Bush down when she spoke. So she arrived at the podium on June 1, 1990, accompanied by Raisa Gorbachev, and not only spoke to Wellesley's class of 1990 about the kinds of things commencement speakers always talk about, but did so in the context of those who disagreed with her selection.

This speech was the source of the quote seen frequently in online tributes, in which Mrs. Bush urged the graduates not to forget the human relationships that made life truly matter:
"At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent."
It drew some applause at the time, as did her quote from the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But it was a line closer to the end of her short talk that won the crowd that day.

“And who knows?" she began. "Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse...," she continued, setting the hook.

"...And I wish him well,” she finished, hauling the crowd to its feet with a roar from the graduates and an impish smile of her own at the response. Game, set and match.

She had a couple of more sentences left in closing, but she'd earned her Washington Post headline: "Barbara Bush, Wowing Wellesley." RIP, Mrs. Bush.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Just Teasing

The Internal Revenue Service offered taxpayers and extra day to file their returns because its system for e-filing got glitchy and had to be shut down.

Unfortunately, the glitches will get fixed and people can go back to paying their taxes again before the week is out.

For one brief, shining moment...

Monday, April 16, 2018

From the Rental Vault: The Sea Wolves (1980)

Although thousands of miles away from the battlefields of Europe, India was the site of its own theater of World War II, with a large focus on the shipping the Allies sent through the Indian Ocean to the southeast Asian front against Japan. In early 1943, German U-boats are having a field day against Allied shipping, seeming to know exactly were merchant vessels as well as military craft will be traveling. British agents Col. Lewis Pugh (Gregory Peck) and Capt. Gavin Stewart (Roger Moore) are tasked with finding the source of the information and stopping the secret transmissions putting the Allied ships in the Nazi crosshairs in the 1980 movie The Sea Wolves.

Unfortunately they learn the transmissions are secretly coming from a German freighter anchored in the neutral Portuguese harbor of Goa, meaning that British military can't touch it. The actual leak source can't be traced, so Pugh and Stewart recruit retired soldiers from the Calcutta Light Horse reserve unit to stage a commando raid on the freighter and destroy its transmitter. Pugh travels with the majority of the unit via a decrepit river craft that should allow a stealth approach, and Stewart pulls strings onshore at Goa to entice the German sailors ashore and distract from the sabotage mission in the harbor. He also finds himself in an affair with a beautiful widow, Agnes Cromwell (Barbara Kellerman), who may be something other than what she seems.

The Sea Wolves has a lot of fun with its over-the-hill commando squad, featuring some longstanding character actor mainstays of British moviemaking as well as a few headliners like David Niven and Trevor Howard. Peck is his usual stalwart self and fits right in with the English cast despite his all-American background. Moore offers a slightly toned-down version of his James Bond antics, although he does manage to be the only cast member with a romance. But it's hard to see "Gavin Stewart" in anything he does here, especially since the character is an intelligence agent.

The movie is based on a 1978 novel by James Leasor, who combined a couple of real-life operations from WWII to make his Boarding Party. One of those operations featured the real life Calcutta Light Horse and was similar to the raid described in Wolves, and it might have been worth it for screenwriter Reginald Rose and director Andrew McLaglen to have developed a script from that actual incident. Wolves itself at two hours starts to slog more than move and could jettison a half-hour to its great benefit. Some of the espionage escapades from the first hour and the entire Moore-Kellerman storyline are good candidates; neither strengthen the movie's centerpiece raid by the middle-aged commandos finally given the chance to do their part for their country in a meaningful way.

As it is, The Sea Wolves isn't so much of a chore it can't be enjoyed, but its construction makes the fast forward button a lot more tempting than a movie-maker would like it to be.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Recently, in the Eternal Realms...

Death reached out a long skeletal hand to tap a shoulder. Its scythe was poised in the other, ready to make his point, so to speak, if this next subject balked. Sometimes they did that, balk, not believing it was truly their time or thinking that they could bargain or bluff their way past the inevitable.

Usually the eyeless stare quashed that notion, the empty bony sockets offering nothing that a person could see and no spark of hope. If that failed, the babbling would trail away when the eyes traveled down to the mirthless namesake "death's head grin" that signaled neither mercy nor compassion, just implacable assurance that the time for bargaining and complaining and imploring was over.

Sometimes, though, neither hollow gaze nor mirthlesss grin persuaded a person that this was indeed and truly the end. A small tilt of the scythe, then, the blade somehow seeming at once to be both ancient and pitted and worn but bitterly sharp, promising a touch that would burn and rip as much as it cut. The scythe was enough. It was always enough.

The shoulder straightened as the bony finger touched it. It and its companion squared, and they rotated as their owner turned, his own eyes shaded under bushy brows and boring into those same eyeless sockets that stilled dissent. Brows furrowed, a chin thrust forth like a weapon. Death hesitated, unaccountably faltering, but then asserted itself and raised its hand again, beckoning with its finger.

"Come with you?" the man said, and sneered. Sneered! At Death! "I don't think so, Skinny. Now why don't you drop that toothpick. And. Give. Me. 20!"

Unbelievably, Death found its grasp on its scythe loosening, the iconic dread blade clattering on the ground. Death dropped to its hands and knees, then rose up and down on bony phlanges and tarsals, joints clicking as it did pushup after pushup.

Sgt. R. Lee Ermey, United States Marine Corps (Ret.), raised on eyebrow in satisfaction. "You see, there are three ways to do things, Mr. Death. There's the right way, there's the wrong way, and there's my way. And from now on, you miserable sack of doggie treats, we are going to do things my way."

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Kings of 18th and Vine

During major league baseball's shameful segregationist era, African-Americans who enjoyed the game could go to white major league games, where they often had to sit in remote sections of the ballpark and root for the white players. Or they could attend Negro Leagues ballgames and sit where they wanted -- often in the exact same parks that would force them into the bleachers when white teams played -- and watch their own heroes on the diamond.

The Kansas City Monarchs were one of the most successful of these teams, establishing themselves with a reputation for quality play and classy behavior that earned them notice on both sides of the color line. The Monarchs were also unique in that they were the only Negro League team to be owned by a white man, promoter J. L. Wilkinson. William Young's 2016 book, J. L. Wilkinson and the Kansas City Monarchs: Trailblazers in Black Baseball, explores some of the history of Wilkinson and the team he managed for most of its existence.

Young traces as much of Wilkinson's history as is known, starting with his own time as a ballplayer and then the two traveling baseball teams he managed before founding the Monarchs. He shows how Wilkinson's history with them -- one an all-women's team and the other the multiracial "All-Nations" team -- showed him the path to financial viability for unaffiliated baseball teams lay along a route of barnstorming and a top-quality on-the-field product. The creation of a traveling lighting system allowed the Monarchs the chance to schedule extra games during one of their tours, adding them on after people were home from the work day.

He also puts the history of the Monarchs in the context of their two affiliations, the prewar Negro National League and the postwar Negro American League. Young traces the development and impact of the team from its beginning in 1920 through the heights of the postwar period, to Jackie Robinson's breaking of the baseball color barrier and the decline of the Negro Leagues when segregation ended. Wilkinson understood branding before it was a term, and the Monarchs' brand was the best-dressed, classiest and most gentlemanly-acting team you would find. The owner was frequently known to front the cost of a suit for a new player, very often the first one he had owned, upon signing him.

Young is a professor emeritus in religious studies at Westminster College in Fulton, MO, so he knows well how to research and how to demonstrate his source material. Perhaps because a book on a baseball owner and team is not his usual fare, he sometimes sounds a little chatty, and he only hints at some of the differences between the cultures of African-Americans who came of age during segregation and those from more integrated societies, whether through location or time of birth. But he presents a great amount of material in a very readable platform and doesn't mince words about the financial shenanigans white team owners conducted as they took the best talent from Negro Leagues teams and offered little, if any, payment in return. His book is a good addition to the shelf of any history-minded baseball fan.
The Monarchs formed a large part of the culture of Kansas City, MO, especially its jazz and blues district centered on Vine Street, either at 18th where the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is today or at the legendary 12th Street intersection, now the site of a park. White baseball offered the Kansas City Blues, an American Association minor-league team, but black baseball offered the cream of the crop of its division of the sport and drew well among white fans. Famous jazz musicians and other African-American athletes such as boxing champion Joe Louis made the area their preferred stops when visiting the region, adding to the big-league feel of the team and its culture.

This history gets a good outline in Janet Bruce's 1985 work The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball. Bruce shows, as Young will show later, how the team gained much of its reputation (and income) through traveling games played against local semipro teams throughout the southern and midwestern United States, and even into Mexico. Team members' sophisticated dress, high-class attitude and quality of play brought an aura of "big city" baseball to towns which otherwise could only read about the big leagues or see some clips in newsreel footage.

Bruce also, like many historians writing about Negro Leagues baseball, shows how many different partcipants and fans of the teams had differing goals: Owners wanted to make money, players wanted to be paid to play a sport they enjoyed and were good at, fans wanted to see men who looked like them on the field. But many African-American civic leaders and newspaper writers saw the leagues as institutions which were designed to play themselves out of existence -- to prove that black athletes could play baseball at the elite level and that white fans would pay money to see them do it. They would by quality of play and support prove the owners' fear of negative consequences at the box office unfounded and show that black players were excluded solely because of bigotry.

Bruce traces this arc and shows how the Dodgers' signing of Jackie Robinson, plus the widespread broadcasts of major league baseball on first radio and then television, brought about the end of Negro Leagues baseball as a natural result. She's also clear that major league team owners, by refusing to regard the Negro Leagues as organized baseball, could justify acquiring its stars for minimum compensation. Instead of partnering with the Negro Leagues, major league owners simply drained them until they were vacant shells, in much the same way that school integration would erase and close so many African-American schools in order to integrate majority white schools.

Monarchs is in many ways remarkable by offering one of the earliest modern tellings of this story. Bruce wrote in 1985, nine years before Ken Burns' Baseball documentary would put the history of the Negro Leagues in front of the nation at a much higher profile than ever before, and in her "Acknowledgments" section she highlights how scattered were the sources she had to search for her work. Much of the interview and archive material she gathered for Monarchs forms the research material available at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, founded five years after her book was published.

One quibble with the book is the two-column page layout which makes it a little tougher to read than the usual one-column format. It could have been a quirk of a mid-80's university press trying something new or trying to save money, and in any event doesn't reduce the important of Bruce's book for fans of baseball, American cultural history and of race relations during the 20th century.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Date Noted

So did anything bad happen to you today?

Well if it did, the date had nothing to do with it. For real.

Just my opinion.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Forgetting Is Death

Today is Yom HaShoah, or the Day of Remembrance for the World War II-era Holocaust that killed six million Jews and perhaps as many of some other ethnic groups the Nazis thought the world could do without.

This article at the New York Times suggests that memories of the atrocity are fading, with almost two thirds of people in a survey, aged 18 to 34, unable to identify the concentration camp Auschwitz. This situation demonstrates clearly that the words and actions of those labeled Holocaust deniers are ultimately unlikely to succeed in convincing people that the Holocaust either did not happen or the numbers involved are much smaller than six million. Poll respondents rejected the denier's claims.

On the other hand, if we wind up not remembering that the Shoah happened, well, we won't need to deny it, will we? We'll just be surprised when it happens again.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

From the Rental Vault: The Sweeney (2012)

British moviemaking has also had its share of modern upgrades to older media, such as 2012's The Sweeney, based on the 1970s television show but retooled to contemporary times.

"The Sweeney" is a nickname for the London Metropolitan Police Force's "flying squads," tasked specifically with handling armed robberies or other violent crimes. The name comes from Cockney "rhyming slang" and derives from the way the name Sweeney Todd rhymes with "flying squad."

Veteran British movie and TV tough guy Ray Winstone plays Jack Regan, a detective inspector who commands the squad. He is old-fashioned in his methods and not at all hesitant to use violence in his attempts to take down violent criminals. Those kinds of tactics don't make him many friends in the 2010s, and Regan's squad becomes the target of an internal affairs investigation despite its success in capturing criminals.

A senseless murder in a jewel robbery captures the squad's attention, and Regan pieces together clues that point to an old opponent recently released from jail. He's brought in but the squad lacks any evidence to tie him to the crime and he has to be released. While still trying to build a case against him, the squad has to respond to a bank robbery by men armed with military weapons and that pursuit brings tragic results and Regan's suspension. Unwilling to back off as ordered, he finds himself further in trouble and thrown in jail, leaving other squad members to try to work for his release and track down the bank robbers.

The bigger movie budget offers cinematographer Simon Dennis and director Nick Love the chance to play with some interesting contrasts, such as putting the gritty, tough-as-nails flying squad in a sleek, ultramodern office. Running chase scenes through a museum and across a crowded square build good tension with their visuals and camera angles.

But the rest of The Sweeney wears its TV influence clearly; it's not much more than a longer and more violent episode of a show than could be shown on television. There's next to no character development for any of the cast. Regan's right-hand-man George Carter, played by British hip-hop star Ben Drew, does have to try to suss out his own internal conflicts over whether to support his boss and mentor or protect his growing family by holding the official line, but even that resolves without a lot of fuss. The rest of the cast of ciphers is far more completely wasted. Hayley Atwell as a female officer having an affair with Regan is probably supposed to offer some depth, but Winstone is 25 years her senior and looks every bit of that and more. The romance is never believable.

Winstone himself doesn't use any of his well-earned charisma to do much more than grump, grouse and slap people around. He's not helped by a script that gives us no reason to root for Regan since every single obstacle he has to overcome stems from his own screwups. From a borderline psychotic attack on a superior officer to leading his handgun-toting detectives in a disastrous pursuit of three men with automatic rifles, we can never really accept that Regan knows what he's doing or knows how to lead the team of which he is the supposed father/mentor figure.

All movies require some suspension of disbelief and police dramas are no different as they juice up a story with more action than most real police officers will see throughout an entire career. But director Love, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn't craft a story that holds its own internal logic, never mind match with reality. He sets Regan up as the Tough Guy Who Cuts Corners But Gets The Job Done but offers story point after story point that undermines that idea and shows Regan at the end as someone who's learned nothing from all of the problems he caused. Meaning that for all its visuals, clever patter and effort by the cast, The Sweeney can't overcome enough of its plot holes and script weaknesses to be anything more than a big ol' bag of pony 'n' trap.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Polls Schmolls

If only real politicians could have the proper response to opinion polls, as demonstrated here by Calvin's dad.

History will vindicate him indeed.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Nice Ice

At this link, you can see some of the pics Russian photographer Kristina Makeeva took of Lake Baikal in southern Siberia. It's the largest freshwater lake in the world and does amazing things when it freezes.

The link is to a Google translate version of her site. The original, complete with Cyrillic alphabet, is here, in case you're a person who prefers to use another translator site instead.

Almost as amazing as the photos is that there are still people using LiveJournal.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

So Much Winning

Over the past several days late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel and early night opinion show host Sean Hannity traded insults about a joke Kimmel told about First Lady Melania Trump's accent.

The fight happened on Twitter, a fitting venue for the intellects involved. Hannity called Kimmel out for what he thought were cheap shots on Mrs. Trump for supposedly giving the impression of greater involvement in the White House Easter Egg hunt than she had. Of course, few First Ladies have had direct involvement in preparing for this event -- can you picture Hillary Clinton or Nancy Reagan dyeing the eggs or hiding them on the White House lawn? But things that any president or president's family member might have done that excited little comment are an Abomination unto the nostrils of Decency when done by a Trump and so fair game for mockery.

It'd be nice if they were fair game for humor, but one learns not to ask more of Kimmel than he can deliver; instead he felt that insinuating Hannity was a homosexual was a proper form of insult.

Hannity, for his part, opened by equating Kimmel's blatantly sexist middle school sniggery from his old The Man Show with the kind of behavior of which Harvey Weinstein is accused. He skipped any kind of connection with the kind of behavior that got his former studio co-employee Bill O'Reilly sued and fired, perhaps because he defended O'Reilly now and again in the midst of that mess.

It might have been nice if Hannity had used his show's resources to exploring exactly how commentary and jokes against presidential families have varied over the years, but again one knows not to ask more of him than he can deliver.

It seems as though Kimmel has brought about an end to the feud with an apology, as noted in the story above, although it is somewhat back-handed and it's snarky enough to make one question his sincerity. Admittedly he's a Hollywood celebrity, so questioning his sincerity is an early move in the game, but still.

I'm kind of sad that the feud is over. Not because it was creating a spectacle worth watching; neither man demonstrated any more creativity than their careers have given us a right to expect. In any event it was all happening on Twitter so I had just about zero regular exposure to it until someone without enough to do wrote a news story on it.

No, I'm sad because if it had escalated enough we might have been able to get together a campaign to put both men on a deserted island to hash things out for good. Who do I think would have won in a fair fight between Hannity and Kimmel?

We would. Remember, it's a deserted island, and I didn't say anything about going back and picking them up.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

You Could Even Say It Glows

Puffins are small, funny-looking sea birds with colorful bills, but until a random idea struck ornithologist Jamie Dunning, no one knew just how colorful they were.

A related bird had a bill that fluoresced in ultraviolet light, and Dunning wondered if the same was true for puffins. While taking a break from regular research, he shone a UV light on a dead puffin and saw the same sort of effect. At the time the story was written, no tests had been done on live puffins to see if the effect was somehow limited to birds that had bloody well passed on. Special eyeshades had to be designed to protect their eyes from the UV light.

The interesting thing, Dunning notes, is that the fluorescing beaks are seen by humans only in UV light but are probably visible to puffins in regular sunlight. Not lit up like a Led Zeppelin poster, but still as some color we don't have a name for or a way to visualize. Bird eyes see light in a mixture of four colors instead of three, meaning that it's pretty much impossible for us to imagine what the world looks like to them. Except that newly-drycleaned suits strongly resemble targets.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Real Men Wear Plaid

Today was National Tartan Day, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath on this date back in 1320.

There's an International Day as well, with the U.S. holiday beginning 20 years ago with a Senate resolution.

I'll observe it by quoting a singer I saw once at a Scottish festival: "England forever! And Scotland for a wee bit longer!"

Thursday, April 5, 2018

For the Win

There are a lot of funny visual puns in this collection of off-kilter cosplay outfits from different science fiction conventions. But for me, the winner is #3:

Here's hoping Wakanda can survive an invasion by Inspector Jacques Clouseau...

Wednesday, April 4, 2018


Fifty years ago today a voice was not stilled, despite the desire of a misguided man to do so. Usually these days when U2 perform their famous tribute song to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bono revises the erroneous timeline of the original lyrics -- the shot rang out after 6 PM on April 4, 1968 instead of "early morning."

A lot is made of the words King used in a sermon just before his death, telling listeners that he had seen the promised land, even though he might not get there with them. In truth, of course, he got there first, but it was his vision of that promise that made so much difference -- though not yet enough -- in the lives of so many -- though not yet enough.

May those who honor the man King preached about, the one whose resurrection was marked just a few days ago, remain committed to guiding as many as we can to that promised land.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Beyond the Farthest Star

Astronomers, thanks to an accident of gravitational lensing, have spotted an individual star at a distance so great they can usually only find galaxies. They nicknamed it Icarus, which in a way seems strange because that individual had his problems when he flew too close to the sun and this one's as far away as anything anyone's ever seen.

The scientists think the star is about 10 billion light years away, which means we're seeing light that started heading towards us when the universe was only about 4.4 billion years old. It's almost certain that Icarus, a blue supergiant, is no longer there, having burned out or blown up long ago.

Which means that if the same gravitational lensing accident made us visible from where it is, we're still safe from aliens visiting upon us the consequences of sticking ourselves with a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump for president.

Monday, April 2, 2018


Over at the long-post blog I finished an appreciation of Steven Bochco's three greatest hits on television, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue. I'd been noodling with it for awhile, and Bochco's passing yesterday spurred the effort. Thanks for some fine TV, Stevie.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

We Can Rebuild Them

Or we can make a CGI versions of what they would have looked like, in the case of seven ancient structures considered in this item at Forbes. Duncan Madden's article examines ruined monuments, temples and forts, using images developed by some technicians at Expedia.

In a couple of cases, such as pyramids in the Mexican sites of Coba and Teotihuacán, there's a considerable amount of remains to work with. Filling in some gaps and adding the finishing work that archaeologists are pretty sure covered them shows what they would have looked like in their primes, but the basic shape remains.

Others, such as the Temple of Jupiter in Pompeii or one of the milecastles along Hadrian's Wall, have to be reconstructed pretty much from the ground up. Seeing them as they would have existed when new-made, but still in their modern settings, is interesting.

The Luxor Temple, in the city of that name, has a large part of its structure intact but the animation again shows what archaeologists and others know would have been there when it was built. It's pretty impressive too, but I can't help but think that it looks like the kind of thing Donald Trump would have put his name on.