Thursday, May 31, 2018

Test Pattern

Long day. Hurting head. Back tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018


Our conference’s ordination night. Beyond words, again.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Corrective Action

The New York Times helpfully walks us through a letter a retired teacher received from the White House, which she corrected for grammar and punctuation and stuff.

As the Times notes, some of the things the teacher dinged President Trump on were things that probably weren’t wrong. Or at least if they were wrong they were wrong the same way that President Obama and President Bush were wrong in some of their letters.

What the Times does not do is tell us why the hell any news outlet is bothering with this irrelevancy and why the ones that do should still be considered news outlets.

Monday, May 28, 2018


In its drive to produce content, Netflix has seized upon the comedy stand-up special as a pretty solid moneymaker, seeing as how they are cheap to produce and often have name recognition built in. They’ve even managed to raise the profile of several comedians and comedy writers, like the way Ali Wong’s Baby Cobra made her one of the better-known comedians working in the field. In 2018, she released her second special, Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife, with more observations about race and culture, with some notes about pregnancy and motherhood as well. In a seeming showcase of deja vu, Wong is again filmed on tour in her third trimester, this time with her second child.

Her onstage persona seems to be a kind of cross of Chelsea Handler and Sam Kinison, alternating almost ominously quiet deadpan with manic loudness. Even though Handler is one of my least favorite comedians — and I will happily make the case that she’s not really a comedian at all — Wong makes it work pretty well and manages to omit some of the weakest parts of Handler’s schtick in favor of channeling Kinison. In several places, her stories and jokes demonstrate significant creativity.

Unfortunately, she too often goes for the gross-out or low-hanging fruit of using profanity for shock value — something it hasn’t had since Lenny Bruce started annoying censors. The tendency leaves Hard Knock Wife a much weaker outing than it should. It could be interesting to see Wong write a show where she had to “work clean,” not because my ears wilt at profanity but because I think the challenge would force her to really use her clearly demonstrated talent and creativity to make more funny punchlines and fewer gross-out gags run into the ground.
Married comedians Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher decided not to spend time apart on the road during a recent tour and so they broke their act up into three distinct parts. Leggero did a set of jokes, Kasher did a set of jokes and then the pair of them did a little bit of scripted material before calling volunteer couples up from the audience for “relationship counseling,” i.e., a mild roasting. Their Netflix special was also filmed with a very obvious baby bump as Leggero was expecting the couple’s first child.

The Netlflix version breaks the three parts into about equal portions and opens with Leggero’s set. She offers some political as well as biographical material, commenting on the strangeness of some of her family and also throwing out observations about pregnancy and impending motherhood. Kasher follows with his own jokes, which lean heavily on biography. Given that he describes his mother as a militant deaf feminist, he has a lot of stuff to pick from.

The two individual sets are the weakest links of the three, for different reasons. Leggero’s onstage character is standard Handleresque vacuous mean girl and she does a few too many jokes in service to it instead of in service to getting laughs. Her Trump jokes are not at all new or very creative. She lands some punchlines, though, and if she were to fully commit to the onstage persona as itself the butt of a joke she might make it funnier. Kasher’s growing up years are simply hilarious as told, but he also retreads a lot of familiar ground as he tries to make some well-known tropes funny by making them more vulgar.

Their shared set is the funniest and the most fun, since Leggero tones down her persona and the pair of them are obviously having fun working together. They also clearly like their audience and appreciate the people who come onstage to have a little fun made of them. That set offers some solid ground for similar work if the couple decides to try it again, and could easily make another special worth watching.
Steve Martin and Martin Short met on the set of the movie The Three Amigos, and have been friends ever since. Earlier this year they performed together in a tour titled An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life. The title alone offers a clue as to the kind of wry self-directed humor you get when you watch the special of the same name.

The pair have long histories in comedy, stretching back to the twilight years of “Old Showbiz” in Martin’s case. They make fun of no one more than they make fun of themselves and each other, with frequently hilarious results. They work with a variety of settings, moving from standing in front of the audience to a kind of storytelling segment in easy chairs to musical numbers. Short’s oddball Broadway number is less funny for its actual material, for example, than it is for the way he uses it to poke fun at himself. He also trots out one of his longtime characters, Jiminy Glick, as a “ventriloquist’s dummy” for Martin as they make fun of several politicians and celebrities. They are equal opportunity needlers, mocking Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren right alongside Sarah Sanders and Ivanka Trump.

It’s not all jokes. Martin plays his banjo for a couple of numbers and they’re joined by his backup band, the Steep Canyon Rangers.  Language-wise, only one profanity surfaces, twice, and again the two veterans uses it to mock themselves and each other. It is, however the proverbial “MF bomb,” so be advised if that bothers you. Of the three, the Martin & Short special is the funniest, even with Short’s weak spots. Wong, Leggero and Kasher demonstrate they can get some laughs now, but they have a ways to go to show they’ll be able to get them when they are in their late 60s and early 70s.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Who Run Bartertown?

On a website I read now and again, I saw a story that asked if a certain thing was possible "in Trump's America." The author didn't really go on to say if this thing was possible or not; he just took  President Trump to task for calling members of a criminal gang "animals."

I'm a little leery of dehumanizing people via labeling them myself, but the thing about the article that sort of bugged me was the phrase "Trump's America." I see it a lot, and it's usually connected to an opinion that there's something wrong and it's the president's fault. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't; I'll leave that to other folks to decide and for still other folks to make a lot of hay over it. But I'll push back against this "Trump's America" thing, like I would against "Obama's America" or "Bush's America."

Because it's not. It's my America. It's all of those the article writers' America. It's our America, and all of the touch me not unclean spirit down-your-nosery they can summon from their righteous keyboards changes not a bit of that. England's government, technically, belongs to the Queen. She reigns there, which is why British warships are called Her Majesty's Ship So-and-So.

But in our government, we don't have a ruler. We have an employee. Sure, sometimes we make stupid hiring decisions, but that happens mostly because the two firms to which we outsourced the job search come back with some really awful candidates. Still, he doesn't own the country and it's silly to put his name on it.

One person secured a majority of electoral votes by convincing about a fifth of the country to vote for him. That's it, period. He didn't change everything; he can't. Because if he could, then the last guy could have too, but if he had, then this guy shouldn't have been able to get elected.

So stop whining about how it's "Trump's America" and start thinking about how it's your America just as much as his, and how you might go about convincing people what there is about it that needs fixing. You won't sound so above-it-all, but none of us are that much above it anyway.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Legislator's Dream

The United States Department of Agriculture has a research project that involves the spread of a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. It can infect humans, who usually pick it up when they ingest or inhale the bug in a form called an oocyst. This can happen when meat containing oocysts is eaten undercooked, or through exposure to them in contaminated water, soil or cat feces (hence the inhaled part of the exposure).

USDA scientists obtain oocysts for study by feeding toxoplasmic-contaminated meat to kittens, who then shed them in their feces. Cats are, according to the department, the only animal which excretes the enviromentally-resistant form of T. gondii to be studied. After the oocysts are collected over a period of two to three weeks, the 2-month old kittens are killed and incinerated.

A group called the White Coat Waste Project has brought the practice to light with claims that killing the kittens is unnecessary. Once the kittens have stopped shedding oocysts in their feces, they are no longer contagious for ol' T. gondii and could be adopted out. The USDA disagrees, no doubt picturing the lawsuit that would follow should someone adopt one of the experimental kittens and then contract toxoplasmosis.

The Project cites Centers for Disease Control and Agricultural Research Service findings that show that when treated, the kittens are no longer contagious, but the United States Department of Agriculture isn't going to believe something just because it came from a government agency. After all, they're a government agency and so they know just how unreliable they can be. Off the record, of course.

Anyway, a couple of members of congress caught wind of the Project's complaints and one of them wrote a letter to the Secretary of Agriculture asking for details about the USDA's killing of kittens. They then teamed up to introduce legislation that would bar the USDA from tests which “subject cats to potentially painful or stressful procedures." They named it the Kittens In Traumatic Testing Ends Now Act, which has the acronym KITTEN Act because of course it does.

They thus are able to go on record as passing a law to protect kittens. Should anyone vote against it, their election opponents can literally ask them why they would vote to kill kittens. The campaign ads write themselves.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Fording Not Recommended

The above photo shows a river of lava flowing from the volcano Kileuea during the current eruption on Hawaii's big island. This page at The Atlantic has the photo and several others.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Legal Cheating

So Hasbro is planning to release a special "Cheater's Edition" of Monopoly this fall, which will contain legal ways to circumvent the rules.

If that sounds confusing, then you probably have a better understanding of the word "rules" than Hasbro does. What the new version of the game has is some suggested "cheats," such as moving someone else's token, paying them less than you actually owe them, and so on. "Cheat cards" in the center of the board outline what rewards you will get if you manage to pull off your nefarious deed unnoticed. And they also spell out the penalty if you do not.

Hasbro said the new version of the game comes in response to surveys that show many Monopoly players cut corners and such when they are trying to win the game. If you own Hasbro stock, you might want to take notice of the fact that they had to survey their customers to learn this.

But teasing aside, this sounds like a neat new wrinkle in the game. People who want to try to cheat will still do so, but now there are specific penalties if they get caught. One of the problems with the previous "improvisational" cheating was a lack of clearly defined consequences for the miscreants. Swirlies might be the acceptable punishment in one setting, while being forced to wash the dishes after dinner might be required when the game was played among family. Although swirlies might not be out of bounds in that arena either.

Now, though, someone who wants to take the risk but fails to cheat successfully will have a clear fine or punishment printed out on the card. The element of risk-taking to earn a little extra cash follows the purpose and atmosphere of the rest of the game, too.

The limited number of potential cheats is probably a wise decision. If there were too many, then some sly scoundrel might devise an entirely new strategy even more devious than the printed cheats: Playing strictly by the rules. Diabolical!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018


This view of the Milky Way, taken near the Grand Canyon, can serve as a useful reminder of the quality in the title when events and issues and such begin to weigh a little. All is so much, much greater than the cramped and warped vision of the small.

From Astronomy's Picture of the Day.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Points of View

In this item at Mental Floss, a veterinarian outlines some of the best ways to hold your cat so as to minimize the scratches you wind up with afterwards. According to the headline, the article offers "The Right Way to Hold Your Cat, According to a Vet."

There was originally a companion article, called "The Right Way to Hold Your Cat, According to Your Cat." It was scrapped because it was waaaay too short, saying basically, "However I damn well please, primate."

Monday, May 21, 2018


A rhesus macaque monkey being shipped to a Texas wildlife refuge got out of its cage and roamed the San Antonio airport for awhile this afternoon.

He didn't mess up any flight schedules before being tranquilized and returned to his travel container to continue his journey. He was apparently a research animal that had been retired from research programming and was being sent to the refuge to live out his days as he saw fit.

Rumors that when captured, he said, "Take your opposable thumbs off me, you stinking hairless human," are, as yet, unfounded.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Why the Internet Exists

It's so Archy Jay of Kerala in India, who goes by the nom de show business "The Snake Charmer," could create a metal cover of the theme song from Marvel Studios' The Avengers.

On the bagpipes.

Jay's work is why the idea of "cultural appropriation" as a pejorative is utterly without merit. After hearing a piper play with a Swiss metal band, Jay turned from performing as a singer in her own metal outfit to the idea of playing the pipes herself. Unable to find a teacher where she lived, she began e-mailing pipers across the world to see if anyone could help her learn via online instruction until one did.

Her YouTube channel features several metal/pipe crossovers, and her cover of some songs by the American metal band Lamb of God drew the attention of the band's drummer, who posted links to them on his own Facebook page.

Jay crossed some more borders in March of this year, when she teamed up with the American piper Chelsea Joy (the "Dame of Drones") and Scottish piper Jane Espie (the "Phantom Piper") to record a mashup cover of the Dropkick Murphys' "Shipping up to Boston" and Metallica's "Enter Sandman."

I have run out of words.

(PS. If you were asking, does the chanter on her pipes emerge from a stylized dragon's head, the answer is yes, of course it does.)

Saturday, May 19, 2018


The Neuroskeptic, writing at the blog of the same name at Discover, suggests that a recent experiment which appears to indicate that the memories of one snail can be transferred to another via the injection of RNA material needs some more work.

Among the other problems is that the test snail's "memory" that was transferred might simply have been an increased sensitivity response instead of an actual memory. Given what passes for brains in snails, this makes sense. I may be misunderstanding, but I think the Neuroskeptic is saying that the transfer is more like the body developing an allergy after being injected with tissue from someone's else who has that allergy. Probably best for the people involved, too, as the method of training the snail to recoil from touch -- the memory that us supposed to have been passed on -- involved electric shocks. And as the 1957 movie The Monster That Challenged the World showed us, mollusks (of which snails are one) are very vicious creatures when riled and enlarged to hundreds of times their normal size.

The Neuroskeptic's caution is kind of a bummer. I was figuring on seeing if I could get some memories injected into me so that I could understand those math classes that ate my lunch in high school. On the other hand, I could foresee members of the Kardashian clan selling their RNA for injection so people could have memories of being famous, meaning that they would be famous after doing even less than a Kardashian did to deserve it.

I was also sort of hoping that the technique might lead to the development of its opposite as well, in which we could have memories completely removed. The aforementioned Kardashians are on that list (I would, in fact, argue for laws that made the treatment mandatory). So is most of what Elizabeth Warren or Sean Hannity has ever said. And the horrible sight of my 2016 presidential ballot, asking me to select the electors for either Donald J. Trump or Hillary R. Clinton. Sure, there was also the choice of selecting electors for Gary Johnson, and that's the choice I made. But those other two? Brother, that's one abyss that gazes back at you hard and it's a memory I'd rather paper over and forget it's there.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Overhead View

In this item at Business Insider, we can see some photos of the Kilauea eruption in Hawaii. Taken from the International Space Station.

That's some mighty big fuming.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Because Reasons

Writing at Inc., Christina DesMarais cites some scientific studies in giving a few brief reasons why daily reading of an actual physical book is good for you.

My reason for recommending daily reading is that paramecium never read anything either, and you should want people to know the difference.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018


What kind of a world do we live in that may torpedo a Star Trek trilogy by Wrath of Khan and Undiscovered Country director Nicholas Meyer but permit a Star Trek movie from the exhausted cathedral of retread schlock that has made up Quentin Tarantino's ouevre since roughly 2000?

One which needs to be replaced by an alternative universe as quickly as possible, that's what kind.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Man in White

The death Monday of Tom Wolfe leaves only a few left of the writers who in the 1960s and 70s pioneered what came to be called "new journalism." It married reportage with literary techniques in long-form pieces that were anything but a bare recitation of who, what, when, where, why and how.

Wolfe may have had the largest impact of the list, exposing the emptiness of "radical chic" in the late 1960s, the pretentiousness of wide swaths of modern art and architecture a few years later and the steely core of test pilots and astronauts in the growing years of the Mercury space program and supersonic flight. Through fiction he showed late 1980s New York City a picture of itself warts and all and uncovered the color line that wasn't completely erased by the green cash flow of the New South. He lifted the lid on the creepy gumbo of hedonism, new Puritanism and shallowness of the modern university.

His novels rested on a journalist's reporting and his journalism had fiction's flair, perhaps because he did not simply write words the way we do when we're just communicating information. Wolfe used language -- every facet of it on which he could lay his hands. Funky punctuation? All of those literary devices we were supposed to memorize in English class like alliteration or onomatopoeia? Multiple voices in narration and dialogue? All of those and more. If Winston Churchill was supposed to have mobilized the English language and sent it into battle, Wolfe mobilized it and sent it out to help people understand an increasingly weird and troubling world. It may sound like a much lower goal, but all Churchill had to do was defeat the Nazis. Wolfe had to explain why people paid money for a Jackson Pollock painting.

In reflecting on this loss with a friend who used to work at the newspaper with me, we discovered that one of the most depressing things about Wolfe's passing is the way it highlights how few successors he and other new journalism wizards have working today. Wolfe's success was probably as much alchemical as it was anything else, but one of his secrets was his command of the linguistic and stylistic rules with which he played fast and loose. Knowing them, he could choose obedience, transgression or some mixture so that he could make his points. Imitators, raised on a diet of transgression alone, have little to no understanding of how to communicate anything other than their own self-worth.

In National Review's blog The Corner, Richard Brookhiser offers a brief appreciation for Wolfe and his gifts, closing it with what would serve as a fine epitaph: "He enriched American letters and life."


Monday, May 14, 2018

The Numbers Game

People who think that ridding humanity of religion and such will remove the weirdness and episodes of random oddball wackiness from the world will probably continue to be disappointed as long as there's math around. Case in point is an irrational number that goes by the name phi or the Greek letter Φ. Like its more famous cousin π, Φ comes from a geometric relationship. It's a way to divide a line in such a way that the ratio of the two unequal pieces added together to the longer piece is the same as the larger piece to the smaller one. And like the other one, it never repeats and never ends, starting out as 1.618033 and going on from there.

The ancient Greeks calculated the number, called the Golden Ratio because of its aesthetically pleasing quality. But things started to get weird when Φ started showing up in nature. Such as the spiral shell of  a nautilus, which spiraled inward along the same ratio as the line. Botanists found it showing up in the distribution of leaves on a tree branch -- if not exactly, close enough often enough to be significant. Modern researchers have found it in different qualities on the molecular level.

Astrophysicist Mario Livio, in 2003's The Golden Ratio, reviews some of the places Φ is supposed to have shown up across history. He finds that in a lot of those cases, Φ's either not really there or the similarity to it is something of a coincidence. It probably didn't influence the construction of the pyramids or the way Da Vinci painted Mona Lisa, for example. But it does show up in enough different places to be weird enough.

The chapters get a little repetitive and it's possible that Livio could have dropped one or two suspected appearances of the Ratio that turned out to be incorrect. But he's a gifted science writer with a real knack for moving complicated concepts into the realm of lay understanding, and he leaves plenty of room for a readers to figure out for themselves what they think about the prevalence of Φ in the universe and why this particular mathematical expression shows up as often as it does in the real world.
Irrationality in math is not the same as in other arenas. In fact, if the old definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, mathematical irrationality is its opposite. Irrational numbers are ratios that can't be expressed as a fraction of integers -- they never repeat, no matter how many times the division in the ratio is carried out. Which is one wrinkle with them already -- how do we know a decimal never ends and never repeats? Simple math alone can't get us there; irrationality requires a mathematical proof of its existence.

Some irrationals are common and famous -- π as the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter is one. Some showed up when mathematicians got curious about what might happen when they played this or that game with numbers or equations, like the mathematical constant called e. In his 2017 book The Irrationals, mathematician Julian Havil offers some of the history of irrationals, first discovered by ancient Greek and some Hindu mathematicians. He explains how some of the better-known were first discovered and how new ones appear even in math today. The ability of computers and their ability to calculate immense strings of digits mean mathematicians are less sure than they used to be about the non-repeating aspect of irrationals -- they probably don't repeat, but there may be some wiggle room.

As in some of his other books Havil is not shy about using mathematical formulas and equations, many of which are blank space to people who didn't progress much beyond pre-calculus and have forgotten large swaths of that. It may be unavoidable but it's an unfortunate feature of what is a really interesting set of ideas about our weird ol' universe.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Navigating the Shoals of Gratitude

Linus learns in Sunday's Peanuts reprint that it can be tough getting the right card for Mother's Day when you have a...competitive sibling.

Hope all the moms had a happy day.

Saturday, May 12, 2018


I gave some thought to the predicament of the Terrus Museum in Elne, France the other day.

The predicament is that more than half of the 140 paintings supposedly the work of Etienne Terrus featured buildings constructed after the painter's death in 1922. The broader problem is that some other French museums might wind up to have been displaying forgeries, but that's for another day. I'm here to help the folks in Elne.

And my suggestion is that the change the name of the museum or the focus of its display. Rather than being a museum of art, they should change to become a museum of forgeries. They could keep the genuine stuff in its own wing with explanations and everything, but they would feature the best-executed forgeries on the planet.

Sure, that's not as highbrow as a museum of art might be, but it has the advantage of getting some use out of what would otherwise become useless canvas. Just sayin'.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Surely You're 100, Mr. Feynman!

A hundred years ago today, Richard Philips Feynman was born in Queens, New York, and physics had no idea what was coming its way.

Feynman was among the developers of the atomic bomb used against the Japanese in World War II, but his most lasting contributions to physics were his work on quantum electrodynamics and some works on physics itself written for lay readers. He was, in a way, Stephen Hawking before Stephen Hawking came along.

The technical side of his achievements had to do with the way light and matter interacted on the most basic, or quantum, level. Feynman built on the work of Paul Dirac and was awarded a co-Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 alongside Shin'ichirō Tomonaga, and Julian Schwinger. He was sometimes criticized as a misogynist or someone who thought poorly of women, but it might be noted that Feynman was the one who encouraged his sister Joan to study astronomy and astrophysics. He was an imperfect human being, of which there is no shortage.

Feynman was almost certainly one of the highest profile physicists working during his time, with a fame outside the scientific arena that stemmed from a volume of autobiography from which this post title is cribbed: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. Six Easy Pieces and What Do You Care What Other People Think are among his other works, as are the well-received recordings, The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

Sometimes when remarking on someone who has gone on, we (rhetorically) ask what the world do now without this titanic hero or incredible genius. The implication is, of course, that neither will do well. Feynman would be among the many to demur from that statement. He would suggest that the world will get along fine without him, which is probably true.

But if he hadn't been here to explain it, on the other hand...

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Real Story

So the official explanation for the Red Rectangle Nebula is that it's surrounded by a thick dust torus that pinches its outflow into cones joined at the point. The gravity of the torus changes what would ordinarily be a spherical shape into this:

I'm more inclined to think it's a wormhole to another region of the galaxy. Since it's 2,300 light-years from Earth, you'll just have to take my word for it.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

I'll Be Back

Yes, it's all fun and games until the robot turns around and fixes you with its cold, mechanical gaze:

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Stories and Histories

Given the presence of a reality television star in the current White House, publishers have found a lot of traction in some remembrances of the actor who worked there 35 or so years ago. Former press aide Mark Weinberg joins the crowd with one of the more interesting views in Movie Nights With the Reagans. His memoir covers the Reagan White House practice of watching movies together on Fridays or Saturdays (sometimes both) when the president and his wife were staying at Camp David on the weekend.

Weinberg selects several movies that the First Couple and their staff members watched over the course of Reagan's two terms. Some of them were contemporary movies, such as Ferris Beuller's Day Off or Ghostbusters. Some were classics from the Reagans' own days in Hollywood, like the role of George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All-American that gave Reagan his longtime nickname of the Gipper. Or the only movie which featured them both, Hellcats of the Navy. Reagan himself chose the movies that the group watched, and if there was some informal discussion afterwards often helped serve as a resource for people who didn't know much about the technical details of how a movie gets made.

Each chapter relates a particular movie to some aspect of Reagan's presidency, the national mood or some current event high in the public awareness during the 1980s. Nancy Reagan was known for her campaign against illegal drug use, substance abuse being something both she and the president had seen firsthand during their Hollywood days. Both Reagans were irritated by what they saw as the unnecessary casual marijuana use in 9 to 5 and it firmed her resolve in that campaign.

Weinberg wrote a memoir rather than a biographical or historical sketch; he probably didn't take notes of the post-movie discussions and so can't really relay what would probably have been some of the most interesting material surrounding the Camp David "movie club." But Movie Nights offers a fun few hours of nostalgia in remembering the world when some of today's "classics" were first released and some of the events that surrounded them. It also spurs a sense of melancholy for a time when even a Hollywood establishment that was in almost lockstep opposed to a president and his policies could honor him as "one of their own" at a televised gala fundraiser for a hospital. Or two men with such different ideas could remain friends and show support for one another as well as Reagan did when he invited Warren Beatty to screen Reds at the White House. Try selling that script today.
On first hearing, the idea that the character of Don Diego de la Vega, or Zorro, was inspired by a 17th century Irishman would seem to be on the level of Ensign Chekov claming that Russia invented everything. But it's actually true. Zorro creator Johnston McCulley was inspired to write his serial novel The Curse of Capistrano after reading a book called Memories of an Imposter: William Lamport. That book was a translation of the 1872 work Memorias de un Impostor: Don Guillén de Lampart.

Gerard Ronan's 2004 The Irish Zorro sets out to cover the Lamport story and explain just how a Wexford-born minor nobleman wound up in Mexico to begin with, let alone serve as the inspiration for one of the great swashbuckling heroes of the pulp era. But it runs into some of the same problems that earlier works on Lamport faced and adds a couple of its own.

Lamport died after lengthy imprisonment by the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico City. He had been accused of inciting rebellion among the native tribes, black and mixed-race people living in the Spanish possession of Mexico. Records of his trial, as well as his own prison writings, are fairly complete. Also reasonably-well attested is the record of his time in the Spanish military and at Spain's court. During the 17th century, their shared Catholicism made Spain and Ireland frequent allies in different European conflicts, and Lamport was in one of three Irish regiments who fought for Spain against Swedish forces in the Spanish Netherlands. Lamport's birth to a family of Irish merchants seems to be documented as well.

But the story becomes a lot murkier in between, though, as the only source available is his own account of his early years, written while he was in prison. That's not a problem by itself, but the details could stand some corroboration. Lamport claimed to have been arrested in London for distributing Catholic pamphlets as a boy, then escaped and spent two years sailing with pirates before entering Spain and enrolling in one of the many colegios that country provided for its Irish friends.

Ronan accepts Lamport's account more or less at face value, which would also not be that much of a problem except that he offers no footnotes or endnotes. In his foreward he claims that the search he undertook to learn the details of Lamport's life involved such a complicated network of documents that footnoting them would have doubled the size of the book. There's no reason to doubt him. But The Irish Zorro sports a florid style and packs more than a few other folks stories into its second half, perhaps to make up for the fact that almost the last third of Lamport's life was spent imprisoned and thus narratively somewhat static. Either way, the book really needs the footnotes to make it useful.

Lamport's role in his attempted revolt is interesting, and the constitutional monarchy he envisioned that would replace the Spanish king and enfranchise the native-born folk of Mexico was well ahead of its time for that region of the world. It seemed to incorporate some of the same ideas developed by John Locke and owed a lot to the limited idea of royal power that governed England. Examining those writings and the political philosophy behind them might have made an interesting journal article or historical monograph, but The Irish Zorro tries to pad its story out and take some rather outsized claims of its subject at face value, seriously weakening its own value in the process.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Campus Shenanigans

So some students at Reed College have made a list of demands to change the curriculum of a couple of basic-level courses most students take. They want the courses to study more writers and people of color and other marginalized groups -- in fact, that's all they want the courses to cover, zeroing out white and European writers entirely.

I thought one facet of the modern wired-up generation was their innate connection to irony and ability to sniff it out in situations that unhip old people would take seriously. But now I'm not so sure. Because I may have this wrong, but aren't these students demanding to pay to be taught only what they want to be taught?

Sure, most of the time people only want to hear what they already want to hear or believe to be true. It's called confirmation bias, and it explains 90% of the audiences of people like Sean Hannity or Lawrence O'Donnell.

Almost everybody can or has been guilty of proclaiming that this or that news organization or person offers the unbiased truth, which just so happens to coincide with their own worldview. A liberal person suggests that someone who wants to find out what's really going on in the world should listen to or read mainstream news outlet coverage like one of the old Big Three networks or well-established papers such as the New York Times or Washington Post. Those are trusted names without a real heavy ideological lean.

But just 7 percent of journalists called themselves Republicans, while 28 percent called themselves Democrats according to this Washington Times story from 2015. But you can't take that story seriously, because the Washington Times is an identifiably conservative-leaning news outlet and they skew the facts. And so on.

Most of the time, though, a responsible person tries to combat their own confirmation bias by taking in information from other sources -- responsible ones, of course, but sources that he or she knows come at things from a different ideological point of view. The Reed students, on the other hand, want to double down on their own confirmation bias. Part of their goal makes sense -- we learn more about humanity the more human perspectives we consider. But they want to replace what they see as silencing of marginalized perspectives with the silencing of what I suppose they would call privileged perspectives. What if the perspectives were the same? What if it turns out that some long-dead Greek philosopher is actually an ally of the oppressed when we learn what he had to say about them in his own time? Might a long history of the same idea and the same critique of power strengthen its case?

Well, because Reed students can't be bothered to learn ideas they don't want to know, they won't know. And they'll have spent close to $2,300 per credit hour to do that. Reed's website says it has a program in economics, but it doesn't seem like the student group making these demands has sampled any of those courses.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Missile Any

-- Because of a sex scandal, the Nobel Prize for Literature will not be awarded in 2018. Writer Tim Parks makes a pretty good case that the project of trying to compare literatures across linguistic and cultural backgrounds is a tough if not impossible task in any event. He questions whether members of a particular culture are the best judges of a literary work and its impact within its own culture, let alone trying to assess the relative rankings of such work. It's a pretty good point, which one might wish King Carl XVI Gustav to notice and junk that particular committee and its work.

-- In an intriguing experiment, Finland opened a restaurant earlier this year built around the concept of having your food delivered there from another restaurant. Working with a restaurant app, the place called Take In offered tables, cutlery and a bar, and seated diners at one of its own tables while they waited for delivery food to come from another restaurant. That's an interesting idea.

-- This item at The Great Courses Daily notes what should be the obvious conclusion that so-called multitasking is usually constantly switching monotasking, with predictable results in the efficiency of all the tasks involved. Even walking and texting made it tougher to keep oneself on course much of the time. Which is the part that intrigued me the most, since it quoted a journal called Gait & Posture. How can print be dying if there is a journal called Gait & Posture?

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Test Pattern

Day included church men's breakfast, local service projects, worship prep, church youth commencement attendance. Film at 11, and new post tomorrow.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Purpose Undetermined

I can understand that students today might have difficulty reading clocks with hands and the numbers arranged around the edge of a circle. They see digital timepieces much more frequently.

I can't understand the response of some schools to remove the old-fashioned clocks and replace them with digital ones. My lack of understanding grows from two sources:

1) Once upon a time, even those of us who lived prior to the digital clock era didn't know how to read clocks with hands. Although I can't remember exactly when it was, I have an image of a teacher moving hands around a brightly-colored clock face and asking us to tell her what time that showed, and also of a test that had pictures of clocks set to different times.

2) Aren't schools the places where people LEARN THINGS THEY DON'T HAPPEN TO ALREADY KNOW?!?!?!?!?! Because if the story at the link is correct, some schools in Merrie Olde England, when confronted with students who lack knowledge, don't even think about, oh, TEACHING THEM. Nope, they just consider student ignorance too high a mountain to climb, something we'll just have to learn to live with.

How about the counter-argument, that students would simply be wasting time in learning how to read time in the obscure format and that time could be spent more usefully elsewhere? Well, that presumes it takes longer than oh, a couple of hours to teach kids which hand points to hours and which one points to minutes. And if it does, well, then the kids aren't the only ones in the room laboring under a heavy burden of ignorance.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Who Caught Who?

This set of pictures shows some of the early entries in a National Geographic photo contest. The entry referenced in the post title shows a leopard catching a stork — or vice-versa.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Watch V. Warning

Visiting family, and their extended family checked weather and were calling because of the word “tornado,” which offered us the chance to explain the difference between a “watch,” in which we check the TV now and again and a “warning,” in which we go outside to watch.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018


While the latest empty maw of a "story" was consuming the nation's attention by chronicling the unfunny Grade-Z bullying schtick of a comedian who was simply following the lead of the Unfunnny Grade-Z Bullying Schticker-in-Chief, an anniversary happened in a government agency.

The four members of the Federal Election Commission passed the mark of collectively having 32 more years of work than they were supposed to. Commissioners are appointed for finite terms, but since the governmental persons who are supposed to appoint their replacements haven't, then they haven't stepped down. And two spots on the Commission remain open because of the same problem. It's one thing for a government agency to never die, long after whatever original purpose moved has been fulfilled. It's a whole other thing for the people serving as its governors to never quit and never get replaced, sometimes for more than a decade after their actual term ended.

Naturally, as the story notes, they have new offices.