Saturday, June 30, 2018

Gathered Scatter

-- If you have any love of blues music or a desire to learn about its place in 20th century American culture, you should check out the Blues Unlimited podcast. Hosted by Steve Franz in his persona of "Sleepy Boy Hawkins," it features an encyclopedic catalog and deep dives into almost every aspect of this quintessentially American style of music.

-- The idea of a municipality that keeps the doors open with speeding citations and parking tickets usually calls to mind some dot on a rural highway where all the locals know how to avoid the speedtraps and parking shenanigans. Or the city of Chicago, take your pick.

-- At the Utne Reader, Edward Slingerland explores the Chinese philosophy "wu-wei" in an excerpt from his book on the subject. The underlying premise of wu-wei is "don't try too hard," reasoning that sometimes, the harder we try to do something the more we get in our own way. The solution? Not trying as hard, which is itself a tough cookie to figure out. Although my undergraduate GPA proves that at certain times in my life, I have mastered this particular way of thinking.

-- Adam Sternbergh, writing at The Walrus, wonders how the loss of communal TV watching will affect the medium and the watchers. He notes how, when he binge-watched a particular series on Netflix and wanted to chat about it with someone, he had a very hard time finding another person who had seen the show and shared his enjoyment of it. The article may be the only time I have ever seen anyone refer to the Saturday morning cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian since I was a kid watching it myself.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Test Pattern

Long day. Back tomorrow.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Clearly Superior

Our nation's first president, George Washington, is often considered one of the top two presidents we've ever had, usually paired with Abraham Lincoln.

One of the kudos given to Washington is that even though he probably could have gone on being re-elected every time he ran, he voluntarily returned to Mt. Vernon after just two, setting a precedent that wasn't broken until Franklin Roosebelt's third term. Nowadays, thanks to the 22nd Amendment. no president can serve more than two terms by law, but before that it was more or less the force of Washington's example.

Some suggest that Washington laid down the mantle of the office as a way of demonstrating how government officials in the new republic should consider themselves to be servants for just a limited time before returning to private life. It's certainly possible, although it seems that nobody believes that to be true anymore.

It could also be that Mount Vernon was the home of one of the nation's largest distilleries, producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey at its peak, and that after two terms of dealing with the issues and complaints of his fellow citizens he figured he was going to need every last drop of them. Today, of course, we've reversed the situation in that it is exposure to the grinding wheels of government that drives the governed to drink.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

More Fun With Photoshop

Brazilian artist Gabriel Nardelli Araújo, in his work "The Canvas Project," carefully excises people from their surroundings in some famous paintings, and then inserts them into modern photographs, using the computer program to give them dimension to match their surroundings.

The above is my favorite of the bunch. Talk about a trusty steed!

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Pictures From a Past

Lots of people find old family photos when cleaning out the attic. Check out this article at Mother Jones, which offers a glimpse of Asya Ivashintsova-Melkumyan's find of roughly 30,000.

Her mother, Masha Ivashintsova, had been an avid photographer but had never displayed her work. Given that most of Ivashintova's pictures were of life in the Soviet Union from about 1960 on, and given that the Soviets were at best ambivalent about any version of chronicling that life other than they one they put out, most of the pictures had never been seen.

Ivashintsova-Melkumyan is digitizing the negatives and pictures she found, which apparently cover roughly the last forty years of the 20th century. Ivashintsova continued shooting even though she was deemed mentally ill by the Soviet government and spent many years going in and out of the USSR's "mental health system." Her crime was not being able to keep a job. For this, she was given the choice between a prison term or involuntary commitment to a "psychiatric care facility." A decade of Soviet mental health treatment more or less broke Ivashintsova, her daughter said, which might be a good thing to remember if you get ideas about how Communist rule was just a way of guaranteeing human rights, only from a different perspective.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Super Mess

Readers' Note: (I know, I know. I may presume too much by the placement of my apostrophe). This entry will have spoilers for the CW's series Supergirl, which ended last week. Skip if you haven't watched but plan to.

Supergirl is a show that has, through all of the ups and downs of its three seasons, done only one thing consistently: Waste its great resources. Season one put the title character, Supeman's cousin who goes by the secret identity of Kara Danvers, in the middle of a silly love triangle between nerdy Kara-worshipper Win Schott and hunky James Olsen. So the talent that Melissa Benoist brought to defining her role as a young woman trying to cope with a vision of herself as powerful and free to guide her own actions was wasted in order to move Schott into the friend zone and gaze wistfully at Olsen.

Season two opened with a Tyler Houchin run as Superman -- he's Supergirl's cousin from Krypton who got here first -- that every DC moviemaker ought to be required to memorize. It flits around through the season until disintegrating into a sloppy mess of an alien invasion storyline that has everyone, Superman included, proclaiming Kara the bestest everything ever.

As we open season three, Kara remains deeply affected by the loss of Mon-El, the man she loved who had to be sent away from Earth to avoid its atmosphere. In order to thwart the invasion, lead had to be spread throughout the earth, and it is deadly to Mon-El's race of Daxamites. Kara's pain is only magnified by the engagement of her stepsister Alex to police detective Maggie Sawyer; she mourns her loss while Alex prepares to begin a new life. But over the course of the season, Alex and Maggie's relationship will founder as they discover they have different goals, and Kara will learn that Mon-El is not as gone as she had thought he was. J'onn J'onzz, the last green Martian who helps run the agency tasked with defending the Earth from alien menace, will learn he may not be the last after all. James Olsen will find out that not every Luthor is as awful as Lex, and the whole world will find out that lost Krypton may not be lost enough.

It turns out that a secret Kryptonian cult sent three beings called Worldkillers to Earth just before the planet exploded, and their plan is about to come to pass. The Worldkillers will cleanse Earth of its life and allow a new Krypton to be established. The leader of the Worldkillers is Reign, but she is still fighting to emerge from her human identity of Samantha Arias -- Kara, Alex and Lena Luthor's friend.

On hand to fight against the Worldkillers -- to some degree, anyway -- are Mon-El and two members of the Legion of Superheroes, a team he helped found when his escape ship went a thousand years into the future. They want to stop Reign and her partners so one of them does not end up becoming Blight, a villain who will almost destroy the galaxy in their time. It's no happy reunion for Mon-El and Kara, though, because one of the Legionnaires who came back in time is Imra Ardeen -- Mon-El's wife.

Although all of that seems like it would make for a lot of juggling and perhaps be too much to handle, the season's 23 episodes should have been enough of a palette to make the picture happen. It wasn't. It might seem reasonable to lay some of the blame on the loss of showrunner (and creator) Andrew Kreisberg, who was let go in late 2017 after credible allegations of sexual harrassment came to light. But the problems predated Kreisberg's departure and none of them cleared up after he was gone. Outlining the plot holes and lack of focus in which Supergirl was drenched throughout this term would take a couple of blog entries themselves, and even then it probably wouldn't be exhaustive.

This is a show with some top talent in Benoist, Chyler Leigh as Alex and David Harewood as J'onn J'onzz, and plenty of above-average talent like Mehcad Brooks as Olsen, Chis Wood as Mon-El and Odette Annable as Samantha Arias/Reign. It's got a great context with CW's "Arrowverse," a well-received set of shows with DC superheroes that brings goodwill and a considerably brighter tone than the gloomy DC cinematic offerings. But it never uses those tools properly for any length of time. For every great moment from Benoist or Leigh, there's a pointless episode on the history of Win Schott. There are episode arcs that invest great time and energy in plotlines or characters that will disappear one or two weeks later. There is truly lazy writing.

If you want to dismiss my complaints as personal, feel free, but it's my personal feelings that keep me hooked on a show long past the time I should have ditched it. I think Benoist nails the Super-person/Secret Identity tension better than anyone has since Christopher Reeve and I love to watch her play with it. I am a Legion fanboy and seeing Legionnaires with flight rings on my TV, fighting evildoers, sent 9-year-old me into hyperdrive. Casting Carl Lumbly, the voice of J'onn J'onzz in DC's animated shows, as this J'onn's father is a great touch. Those kinds of things keep me watching in spite of episodes like "Not Kansas," possibly the worst episode of sci-fi-oriented television I have ever seen. And I watched a hologram cop save Laura Branigan from mobsters in an '80s show called Automan.

Maybe season four kicks off with the kind of bang that can regenerate the goodwill this show should have. Maybe the CW actually rejects some lousy scripts instead of filming everything that comes over the transom. Maybe someone says, "We've got a cast that can handle some heavy lifting. Why don't we see what they can do?"

Maybe. I hope.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Melee (Updated)

So I partly blame All the President's Men.

Not the book, the movie. The filmed version of the story offers reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as saviors of the Republic through their reporting on the Watergate scandal. But the book sees things differently: Woodward and Bernstein set out to uncover the truth, and once that's done the Republic can save itself. The former version is the one that's taken hold today, both inside and outside the media itself.

The idea's problematic at any time. It caused journalists to band together to support then-President Obama even when he was wrong. It's caused them to oppose President Trump at any cost and at every opportunity. He is a threat to the Republic, they are its saviors and so he is their enemy. President Trump happily agrees that he and the media are enemies and is eager to further the conflict with his conduct and the conduct of his administration. Of course, he and his people see themselves as saviors of the Republic in this battle, but they agree that the Republic is endangered by the likes of their enemies.

In the press room, this shared worldview fuels things like CNN reporter Jim Acosta's tantrums and Playboy and Sentinel newspapers reporter Brian Karem's press room rant. It also fuels deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders' forays into her own bullying behavior, such as snarking on Acosta's supposed intellectual deficiencies. Now, Acosta may be a twerp who spent his school years regularly being relieved of his lunch money or he may not, but the person with the microphone has the power and Sanders used hers poorly in this case. You might think her experience at the White House Correspondents Dinner would have attuned her to this, but at least in this case, it didn't.

It's not long before every appearance by someone identifiable with one side or the other becomes an occasion for battle. Seth Rogen declines to take pictures with Representative Paul Ryan after taking them with Ryan's sons (he did not know who they were until they introduced their father) and adds in a lecture to Ryan in front of the kids about what an awful person he is. A restaurant owner decides that Sanders' presence in her establishment cannot be allowed and so asks her and her party to leave (and later courageously attributes to her staff the desire to have Sanders removed). A group of people surrounds DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at a restaurant and chants at her until she leaves. Protestors confront Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi after a screening of the documentary about Mr. Rogers -- proving that whoever they listened to, it sure as hell wasn't Fred Rogers -- and heckle her until she calls the police.

Maybe these are ways decent people behave and maybe they aren't. It's kind of worth noting, I suppose, that except for Rogen all of these brave folks have picked on women, but maybe that's just coincidence.

Anyone who's read memoirs from reporters or government officials from previous administrations knows that the press and public relations staff serve different goals. They always have, even when the government isn't doing anything wrong or trying to cover something up. But even in the chilliest of times, such as the Reagan administration, the PR folks talk about the ways they worked with the press corps to make sure they could do their jobs. And the press folks talked about how the PR flacks did what they could to get information out to the public.

Do these people actually believe they're saving the Republic, as I allude to above? Maybe not in so many words, but reading what they say leaves little doubt that they believe they are fully justified in treating their fellow human beings absolutely awfully. And you would hope they wouldn't do that unless it was for what they thought was a very important cause, even if it isn't specifically saving the Republic.

It's almost certain to backfire on them, though. People who might have decided to vote for anyone who runs against President Trump in 2020 may figure that as bad as he is, folks who mob women at restaurants and movies are worse and at the very least they may stay home instead of voting for the President's opponent.

Even if that doesn't happen, such actions are, well, wrong. Period. End of line. If the Republic gets saved or their cause prevails, it will be in spite of them, rather than because of them.

ETA: Karem should be credited for his moderating comments on a CNN panel discussion Monday morning. While addressing California Rep. Maxine Waters' call for mobbing Trump cabinet officials if they are seen in public, Karem said he would have served Sanders in spite of their differences.

Saturday, June 23, 2018


-- At The Diplomat, Dr. Namrata Goswami writes about some of the potential uses and problems that would greet President Trump's creation of a sixth branch of the United States military, the United States Space Force. I'm a space nut but I'm not at all sure what to think about the president's move. It might be better if it waited for a day when we could put personnel in space ourselves without hitching a ride on a Russian rocket. Plus, most space opera fans know that a nation or planet with a spaceborne military wing calls it a Navy.

-- Tuesday is a primary election day here in our fair state. One of the advantages of registering as an independent is the ability to ignore the great mass of folks seeking a party nomination. As 2016 demonstrated, the major party nominees may both be worthless and completely unfit for the office they seek. So paying attention to them in order to see which of them deserves your vote less is a chore indeed, but how much worse if you have to pay attention to them as well as the people deemed not good enough to beat them?

-- South Carolina Democratic congressional candidate Joe Cunningham, on learning that his GOP opponent Katie Arrington was injured in an auto accident, immediately suspended all campaign activities "until further notice." No word on how long he will wait to start up again, but the hiatus while Arrington is still being operated on and recovering from the accident is the kind of action we should have a lot more of.

-- Writing at American Consequences, P. J. O'Rourke defends the Electoral College system by which U.S. voters cast ballots for electors, rather than for candidates. The electors then meet and cast ballots for a presidential candidate based on whichever system operates in their home state. Maine and Nebraska allow splits along the line of the percentage each candidate on; the other 48 are winner-take-all.  O'Rourke, who is smarter than I am, ably defends the system as a way of keeping the densely-populated coasts from dominating national races. He omits one key benefit, though. Since there are only 538 electors, that means that only 538 people were required to vote for either of the awful hairballs our system coughed up in the summer of 2016. The rest of us were off the hook -- we didn't vote for candidates. We voted for the candidates' slate of electors from our state. Whew.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Built for It

Despite what you may think, the above building is not the tavern you just left after one too many pints -- it's a tea room called the Crooked House of Windsor. Check out the details here.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Words Matter

The death today of Washington Post syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer prompted a lot of reflection from opinion writers, politicians and public figures -- those who agreed with his generally conservative take on things and many who did not. The former, of course, lament the loss of a friend or at least one of the most articulate voices advocating their point of view. The latter said they will miss an almost uniformly gentlemanly and courteous opponent with whom they could disagree cordially.

One of the better notices comes from Krauthammer's fellow columnist, George Will. Will described Krauthammer as having "more brain cells to spare than the rest us have to use," which sounds pretty on target.

The universe, it seems, likes seamy and sordid irony. Political commentary loses one of its most thoughtful voices, and the major immaterial matter occupying the chatterati was a coat worn by Melania Trump when she visited a shelter for children of persons seized after crossing the U.S. border illegally. It says, "I really don't care? Do U?" Apparently it's a $39 item available from a designer, and while I don't know that it's the best look for a 48-year-old woman -- it seems more fitting for a teenager -- I also can't imagine that makes a lick of difference to what her mission was. She wanted to see the centers and be a presence at places central to the current controversy over how to handle children of those families that make the illegal crossing. According to a USA Today story, the pictures of the children moved both Mrs. Trump and her stepdaughter Ivanka to push the president to end the family separations. Which would argue, contra the coat, that she did care.

And the president, with characteristic gracelessness, suggested that the message was intended for the media, not the children or their families.

Several friends posted on their Facebook feeds some story or another about this matter, along with uninventive snark about it that "couldn't even!" I was on the brink of losing some friends as I considered posting comments and responses. A good handful of those folks had been the same ones who interpreted the Donald/Melania body language at the Inauguration as PROOF!1!1! that the president was an abuser. For people who hate this guy so much, they sure spend a lot of time posting about him.

Before I typed my responses, I considered how Charles Krauthammer might have told them that they were being shallow idiots. Then I realized: He wouldn't. A willingness to engage with what's printed on a coat as though it were in any way meaningful does not indicate a willingness to hear about how meaningless it really is. He'd have turned the page and gone to a baseball game. Which I couldn't do, but I could listen to one on the radio.

So I did.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Location, Location, Location

If you want to know what kind of neighborhood you might have lived in, say, when the dinosaurs became extinct, check out this handy globe and map at Dinosaur Pictures.

Continental drift gives us volcanoes and earthquakes, but it also means that the Earth did not always look the way we know it today. The original supercontinent Pangaea split up over millions of years as it became our current setup, but the map will show you where a particular street address would have been on that land mass, as well as others throughout the last 750 million years or so. Sometimes that land mass was under water, and other times it might have been under a glacier. It may have started out in an entirely different hemisphere.

What this kind of thing might mean for folks who consider themselves the center of the universe is, I guess, an open question.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Measure of Freedom

Today is the holiday "Juneteenth," marking the 1865 notification of African-Americans in Galveston, Texas, that they had been freed by the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

Abraham Lincoln had signed the Proclamation in 1862, setting it to go into effect on January 1, 1863. It initially covered slaves held only in areas that openly rebelled against the United States, and of course it was tough to enforce in any area that Union forces had not retaken. News of Robert E. Lee's April surrender didn't reach Galveston until May, and the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi operating west of the Mississippi River did not lay down its arms until June 2. Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 troops occupied the port city on June 18, and the next day Granger publicly read a declaration of emancipation.

Of course, we know that the former Confederate states, beginning in the 1890s, began pushing back the rights of African-Americans until in some cases their worlds were even more restricted than before. Northern cities did not always offer much better; African-Americans walking through the Chicago suburb of Cicero, IL, were at no less risk of their lives than those who lived in the South might be walking in a "white" area of one of its cities. It would take the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to enable African-Americans to regain any significant portion of what they had lost after the Reconstruction era and problems undeniably persist today in spite of that progress.

Only four states -- Hawaii, Montana and both Dakotas -- do not have some kind of official state observance of the Juneteenth holiday. Although resolutions to create a federal recognition have been introduced in Congress from time to time they have not established it yet. On the other hand, it is on the Apple iOS system's official calendar, so government recognition may be a moot point.

Obviously the population for whom Juneteenth means the most are modern African-Americans whose ancestors were owned by other people. But it has a national dimension as well. The Declaration of Independence suggested that the leaders of the American colonies held that God had created all of humanity as equals who possessed rights simply by virtue of being a human being. Since some of those signing the document owned slaves, it's sometimes said that the Declaration was hypocritical, or at least those signers were. It seems more likely that they were simply limited in their thinking, and as time moved on we came to understand that they fell short not in their ideals, but in the execution of them.

Step by step across the decades, brave and visionary men and women have reminded America that it promises its citizens some things and have sought to elevate it so that it will live up to make those promises real for all of those citizens. Martin Luther King referred to the Declaration as a promissory note that civil rights activists wanted "cashed," so to speak, for America's black citizens as well as its white ones. The suffragettes whose victory was sealed by the 19th Amendment wanted the same for America's female citizens as well as its male ones.

The nation unfortunately took almost as many steps back after Juneteenth as it took forward to get there. But the holiday and the Proclamation it represented showed that such steps were possible, and made many Americans realize that if their fellow citizens could be arbitrarily denied equal rights, some day they might be also. Those seeds may still have a way to go before fully flowering, but without that first bloom celebrated on June 19, 1865, none of the rest might have ever followed at all.

Monday, June 18, 2018

To Coin a Phrase

Today in 1815, Napoleon was the first man to meet his Waterloo, ending the foul little Corsican's reign of terror across Europe.

As to why ABBA decided to make a love song using the name as the theme, who knows? But they did, won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with it and their career was off and running.

Sunday, June 17, 2018


Railroads that pass over roadways are common, as are other roadways. At some airports, even airliners cross over highways, leading to an interesting view as you enter and exit the bridge.

But a highway at Gouda in The Netherlands is probably one of the most interesting of all, as it passes underneath an aqueduct that carries boats. The pictures at Atlas Obscura show how a yacht looks as it crosses over the busy multi-lane road. It might be hard to keep your eyes directly on the road in front of you when that happened; better to be a passenger than a driver.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Pardon Me?

In the most recent Bloom County, Steve Dallas learns that sometimes absolution comes at far too high a price.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Old Familiar Faces

This entry at Bored Panda shows several forensic reconstructions of people from the past; some famous and some not. Scientists and artists used computer software to develop the reconstructions from bones, aided by contemporary descriptions of the people involved. It's pretty fascinating.

And it's kind of nice to know that Maximilien Robespierre suffered from a lot of minor irritations that affected his health and appearance. It's not truly justice for the man who helped transform the French Revolution into the Reign of Terror and pave the way for the rise of the bloodthirsty Napoleon, but it's something.

Thursday, June 14, 2018


I had always been a little curious about the "Stanford Prison Experiment," a supposed exercise in which two groups of people were assigned to be either guards or inmates. The experiment was conducted at Stanford University in 1971 and claimed to show that just that minor exercise of power brought out innate cruelty in the group acting as guards.

My curiosity came from wondering how ordinary folks degraded so quickly. Certainly there are people in authority who abuse their power. Professions in which one is a part of a group that has power over another group that is essentially powerless can tend to draw people who like to exercise that power or abuse it. But not everyone's a closet sadist, and the idea that just a few hours of being on the top side of a massive power imbalance would prompt abuse never really sounded true to me.

Turns out that the experiment, like a lot of famous psychological experiments that are supposed to show how rotten people can be, was fabricated. It had always been given a bit of a side-eye based on questionable ethics and such, but writer Ben Blum dug deeper into the records of the experiment, following the trail of French documentary moviemaker Thibault Le Texier who had researched and prepared his own exposé.

Blum's interviews show that one of the supposed breakdowns that stopped the experiment early was faked. The cruelest guard deliberately went over the top and crafted a character based on guards from Cool Hand Luke, even faking a southern accent he didn't really have.

Writing for Vox, Billy Resnick notes several other famous psychological experiments have problems being reproduced and seem to feature coaching from the experimenters which probably skewed the results. Although many of these experiments are decades old, information eroding their credibility is only lately being confirmed. Some required many years of work and research to be debunked.

Which effort, it seems, according to both stories, pales in comparison with getting the fraudulent or suspect findings out of the classroom. The Stanford Prison Experiment seems to have been clearly refuted, and it only took forty-seven years. It may take another forty-seven to get it out of basic psychological textbooks.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Mission Accomplished

Last week this space noted the pledge of Country Time Lemonade to help children's lemonade stands that run afoul of zealous brain-dead bureaucrats and law enforcement officials. Country Time will pay up to $300 to offset fines that the illegal beverage tycoons may incur, which is an excellent way to offer one of the most useful responses one might make to such a bureaucrat: Bite me.

Compassion International has demonstrated another good way to stymie the killjoys. A trio of brothers set up a lemonade stand over Memorial Day in Denver, CO, as a way of raising money to donate to the charity. They operated near the Denver Arts Festival, selling cups of lemonade for about a seventh of the cost of the official Arts Festival vendors. Someone called the police and they had to shut the boys down because they did not have the needed permits. No one knows exactly who squealed, but my suggestion is for police to see who at the Festival looked the most like someone who'd been sucking on lemonade's base ingredient -- because anyone who would call the cops on a kids lemonade stand which is raising money for charity has earned the label sourpuss.

Anyway, the stand got shut down and the boys' mom started a Kickstarter campaign to raise some money to be sent to one of CI's sponsored children. Then the company itself heard of the matter and invited the boys to set up a stand in their parking lot. Which, the Denver Chamber of Commerce would like you to ignore, is in Colorado Springs.

Between their sales in the parking lot and the Kickstarter fundraiser, the boys collected more than $8,000 for the charity and their sponsored child. The city of Denver collected a lousy PR incident. And, one hopes, whomever ratted out the brothers has collected a painful boil or two, which was mistakenly doused with lemon juice.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

From the Rental Vault: Jack Reacher (2012)

The casting of Tom Cruise as Lee Child's wandering hero Jack Reacher brought no small amount of consternation and confusion from Childs' fandom, who go by the collective name "Reacher Creatures." The Jack Reacher of the books has about a foot of height on Cruise, often using his physicality to get his way even before he throws a punch. But Childs himself said that the attitude Cruise brought to the role was even more important than getting an actor who matched the size of the character in the books. So Cruise took to the screen in 2012's Jack Reacher, based on Childs' 2005 One Shot novel.

One Shot was a good choice as a basis for the movie, offering a properly twisty plot as Reacher probes what seems to be an open-and-shut case of a former U.S. Army sniper gone bad. James Barr's fingerprints and van put him at the scene of a sniper attack that killed five people. He can't really say one way or the other, because an attack by other inmates left him in a coma. Before that, though, he told investigators one thing: Get Jack Reacher. Because Reacher had investigated an earlier case against Barr, one that got dropped because Barr's victims were themselves criminals and because Reacher himself promised Barr any kind of repeat performance would bring him back for an accounting. Barr's attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), convinces Reacher to help her so that he can get his own questions about Barr answered. With Reacher doing the pulling, the fabric of the case against Barr starts unraveling, which only makes things more dangerous for Rodin and Reacher. Of course, the more dangerous things get for Reacher, the more dangerous things get for those trying to stop him.

Cruise does seem to have a feel for Reacher's relatively uncomplicated view of the world. He spends his life on the road, riding buses, stopping where he wants to stop and only staying as long as he likes. He also sells Reacher's keen observational eye and supreme self-confidence, as well as his ability to move from zero to maximum breakage in an eyeblink. Pike is not simply a shrinking violet female role in an action picture, displaying her own brainpower and guts as called for. Reacher slims down the One Shot plot, excising the character of Barr's sister. Director Christopher McQuarrie takes full advantage of Cruise's desire to work action sequences himself, without stunt doubles, and helps the actor convey the intensity that makes up so much of Reacher's character.

And Cruise does sell the role, even though he's essentially playing a variation on his Mission: Impossible character Ethan Hunt. Or Thomas Anderton of Minority Report. Or Pete "Maverick" Mitchell from Top Gun. Or heck, maybe even Joel Goodson from Risky Business; Cruise has never leaned towards demonstrative roles during his career and especially in his action pictures the main differences have been the supporting cast and the context of the story.

Jack Reacher did decent box office, but not enough to propel the character into the film series the studio wanted. One more Reacher movie hit the screens, 2016's Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Despite pairing Cruise with the kick-butt charisma of one of the better action-movie actresses working today, Cobie Smulders, it was less successful than the first movie and the studio put any plans for extending the series on hold.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Because the Cause

At last night's 72nd Tony Awards, Robert De Niro introduced his friend Bruce Springsteen by dropping the F-bomb about President Donald Trump. Now, neither De Niro nor Springsteen are fans of the President, but that still seems like an odd way of introduction.

But it is an excellent way to increase the chances that the President will be around for awards ceremonies nos. 75-78. It convinces absolutely no one who supported the president to change his or her mind. It's probably not possible to poll everyone who voted for President Trump in 2016, but I literally cannot imagine a single one changing his or her mind because an actor said, "Eff Trump" on national television and a roomful of showbiz folks stood up and applauded. It accomplishes nothing
towards the goal of ending the president's time in office at one term. It offers no reasons to vote against him, describes no weaknesses in his policies, provides no counter-policies that will correct the damage he has done, puts forward no new ideas that oppose his, and so on. The audience at Radio City Music Hall can clap as long as they want; neither they nor De Niro did one effin' thing to bring about a world where Donald Trump is not president when the sun sets on Jan. 20, 2021.

Yes, things were stirred up. Yes, people are talking about DeNiro's use of ye olde F-bomb (why is not exactly certain. It's not the first time he's ever said it). And they'll talk about it for a few days, maybe less if something interesting happens in Singapore while the president is meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Then it will disappear, because the number of people who care what Robert De Niro thinks is not nearly as large as he thinks it is, and all this incredibly lazy and low-cost protest gesture will have done is be buzz-worthy for about an hour and 27 minutes before being forgotten.

And it is lazy. There are sooooo many targets the president presents for those who would like to criticize him. His blinkered trade policy. His stupid tweets. His disrespect of people who disagree with him. His disrespect of his own staff. His incomplete grasp of foreign policy. His creative relationship with accuracy. His lack of character. And so on. De Niro engaged none of these with his F-bomb. He may have touched on a couple of them in the followup, but because he couldn't control his own mouth not even that will get much notice. Joe Scarborough, no fan of the president, noted on his Morning Joe talk show that Steve Schmidt, another non-fan of the president, took De Niro to task on those grounds. With his words, Schmidt said, De Niro had taken opposition to Trump down to Trump's level. Strategically that fails because Trump is the king of that level. Morally it fails because that level is not one of decency or good character.

Writing at the conservative news and opinion site The Federalist, Joseph Wulfsohn reminds us that the kind of naked disdain displayed by De Niro also motivated significant groups of 2008 and 2012 Obama voters to vote for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

At National Review, Kyle Smith notes that the publicity De Niro's received overshadows the actual Tony winners who were supposed to be honored Sunday night. That probably wasn't a deliberate choice on his part -- the only reason he was there was to introduce someone else, after all. I have no way of knowing De Niro's actual thought process before he spoke, but if it didn't focus on a righteous conviction that he had to Say Something! and show his antipathy for a man he considers malignant at best I would be surprised. But De Niro is an actor, a performer, and performers have a hard time laying hold of courses of action that don't place them front and center of things, whether they should be or not.

So that's where Bobby is, at the center of the storm with issues and awards and recognition for others all taking second billing to the Man of Courage who dared to say in front of a live microphone words that probably a third of the country say amongst themselves daily. It may be hard -- mostly on others, of course -- but I told that guy off! I said, "F*&% Trump!" right out there in front of everyone!

What gets said afterwards? Hey, who the eff knows?

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Tough Guys

Laird Barron made his name with primarily supernatural and horror tales, but with 2018's Blood Standard, he takes a spin into the world of hard-boiled crime fiction by introducing Isaiah Coleridge, a former mob enforcer exiled to upstate New York.

Isaiah crossed his immediate superior and it was only the intervention of his outfit's top man that kept him from being "retired" in the traditional manner. Working at a mom-and-pop horse ranch might make him wish he were dead, but instead he takes to the work and the people, beginning to build a new life. But the man he attacked and embarrassed hasn't given up the idea of vengeance, and when the ranch owners' granddaughter disappears, Isaiah's search will raise his profile enough to pinpoint his whereabouts and put him back on a target.

Standard drips tough-guy charisma, with Isaiah as a kind of typical bruiser-with-a-surprising-brain character. Barron alternates between Isaiah's violent encounters with local thugs and criminal gangs and short introspective monologues that highlight his intelligence. He handles both well, mostly not getting carried away with the self-reflection to the point it stalls the narrative. He also uses Isaiah's quick wit to highlight the same quality. The fight and action scenes hum along well, accelerating the story's pace while onstage before slowing back down once over.

Barron tries a little too hard in some places, offering a few too many threads of Isaiah's past for just one book to handle well. He also seems to want to flesh out details of the northern and northwestern crime syndicate Isaiah served more than Standard really needs. It could be unfamiliarity with a new genre or the need to establish the world in which Isaiah's going to operate, in case a series develops. Either way, the missteps don't overly weaken a strong first outing for a new tarnished knight whose search for redemption won't be easy.
Video evidence seems clear: A small cell of Muslim terrorists commit a deadly attack with guns and explosives outside a Dallas NBA game, killing hundreds. Other evidence leads to the men as well, and tensions run high as politicians stake out tough positions on how to combat terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. President Vinnie Duto is not so sure everything is as it seems, and when he gets a tip that a South American asset has information that might uncover the inner layers of the scheme, he sends one of the few men he trusts, John Wells, to Colombia to retrieve the information. Sure, they hate each other, but both know that they share a commitment to the safety of the nation and the ability to get the job done.

Which is good, because the simple retrieval mission isn't all that simple, and Wells finds himself facing threats from a brand-new direction as shadowy players on the world stage try to take a hand influencing the upcoming U.S. presidential election in The Deceivers.

Berenson has set Wells up by now in mostly a troubleshooting mode, rather than as an active asset for the Central Intelligence Agency. It's a good move, since it allows him to pick and choose the kinds of things Wells can respond to rather than having regular overseas postings or tours of duty. It also reduces the bureaucratic infighting storylines, which is good because those wear thin quickly.

Although the idea of terrorist massacres as false flag operations from another malevolent actor helps lend The Deceivers more of a mystery than some other books in the John Wells series, the book as a whole seems to have wanted some more time for development. We spend a lot of time learning how the cell that commits the first attack is tricked into it -- which is fine as reader misdirection but still given more screen time than it needs. The foreign leader trying to manipulate events and the U.S. candiate he's trying to support are thinly veiled, if at all. The presidential candidate is so obviously a stand-in for Donald Trump -- and not a smart one -- that it pushes the story too far towards commentary instead of plot and narrative. Berenson had an interesting idea, but The Deceivers takes too many shortcuts on the way there for readers to keep up as well as they should be able to.
In Silken Prey, Lucas Davenport faced off against Taryn Grant, a wealthy woman whose desire for power and lack of scruples propelled her to the United States Senate in spite of Lucas' best efforts. But Taryn's sights are set on higher offices, people are still getting in her way and she has just as much ruthlessness to take care of that kind of thing as ever. Plus the contacts with people who know how to "take care" in the kind of permanent ways that she prefers, in John Sandford's 28th Davenport novel, Twisted Prey.

As a United States Deputy Marshal, Lucas has resources as well, and he employs them to try to expose the ties between Taryn and the shady operatives she employs. For her part, Taryn shows ready to strike at Lucas from any angle, including his family. Making things personal, however, is probably a mistake where Lucas is concerned, because he operates according to his own limits, and those don't always stop at the edge of the criminal code.

Sandford wastes little time in slotting our familiar characters into their assigned roles, helped out in this instance by the re-appearance of an earlier villain in Taryn Grant. As in many Prey novels, the investigators know who's behind the crimes they're checking into, but they don't know what that connection looks like or have evidence to prove it. They keep turning over rocks until they find what they need to make their moves. As usual, he keeps things pretty lippy, as nearly every character displays nicely dried wit at one level or another. While it might have been interesting to see Taryn move against Lucas "the Washington way" rather than through the mercenaries she employs, Twisted Prey is as satisfactory a Sandford novel as you're going to find, and that's no faint praise.

Saturday, June 9, 2018


So it's my understanding that the Golden State Warriors won the National Basketball Association championship, beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in four games.

Cavaliers star LeBron James, who left the team to win a title with the Miami Heat before coming back to his hometown squad and winning a title with them, is at the end of his contract. He has supposedly said he would be interested in signing with Golden State.

I'm not sure about the veracity of that last report. I was going to do some research and find out if it was true or a rumor but then I remembered that I had as much interest in the matter as President Trump has in watching his language, so I just typed this and hit "Publish."

Friday, June 8, 2018

A Stand for Lemonade Stands

Movies would have us believe that corporations are filled with evil geniuses who plot to enrich themselves at the cost of environmental damage, public trust, poor people's jobs and the death of every kitten on the planet. The real world shows they are more often run by panicky folks that fold at the drop of a social media hat.

But every so often the genius label gains a little evidence. Comes now Country Time, makers of lemonade and lemonade mixes, to offer a helping hand when overzealous bureaucratic twerps regulate kids' lemonade stands out of existence.

Most people are smart enough to recognize that food safety laws, small business ordinances and the like are important but should probably not be set in stone when the offender needs training wheels or a car seat to get to court. But far too often, the brain rot caused by being an unelected official with power over their fellow humans makes some code enforcement officer or other agent decide to cite the youngsters for their unlicensed commercial activity. News stories get written, chamber of commerce directors start drinking at 9 AM, older and smarter bureaucrats realize with fright that some of these people will actually run things someday and little kids find themselves strangely drawn to Straight Outta Compton.

Well some Luthorian genius at Country Time decided to set up a fund that would help kids pay the fines the Brobdingnagian municipal code -- emphasis on "nag" -- imposed. The company will help pay up to $300 -- and don't you know that some tourism director somewhere is wailing over how to fix the image of a city that would fine a kindergartner three hundred dollars  -- in case Junior Businessman or Businesswoman runs afoul of the outfit that can't keep the streets paved but figures it has to protect people from warm sugary fruit-flavored beverages bought with pocket change.

Sure, it's not creating a cleanup site that even Scott Pruitt might gasp at, but how long are these diabolical corporate masterminds going to keep helping people evade the law? When will some selfless regulatory Roland step forth (anonymously) and enact a code that will prevent Country Time from helping these scofflaws? The Republic waits!

Thursday, June 7, 2018


A couple of days ago marked the 295th anniversary of the birth of economist Adam Smith. A fellow who likes free trade as much as I claim to should have remarked on that, but I didn't.

You could complain, of course, but I like to think ol' Smitty would have been on my side as I told you that you get what you pay for.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018


Thanks for Western civilization, gentlemen.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Read the Whole Thing

-- I was going to write something about how hard it was to get myself agitated about President Trump's "I can pardon myself" tweeting, but it turns out that Charles Cooke wrote it instead. Yes, Cooke writes for National Review and is thus a pure evil who divides his time between clubbing baby seals and stealing candy from random toddlers, but he has just spent several years becoming a United States citizen and so he's pretty up on his separation of powers and constitutional clauses and such.

-- The cool thing about Stephen Colbert is how he is willing to hold powerful people accountable for what they say and not cut them breaks just because he happens to like them.

-- This is ridiculous. Her plotline in The Last Jedi was not really necessary but was hardly the worst aspect of the movie. Even if it had been, the fault for it lies not with Kelly Marie Tran but with the lazy script. But even if it had been her "fault," what's the point of harassing someone's social media account because of dislike for a character?

-- You can't stop the signal.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Self-Contained Instrumentation

When the Apollo astronauts went farther from Earth than any human had ever been (or has been since), they relied on the most advanced computers then available to guide their spacecraft around the moon and back. Of course, the computers have since been surpassed by devices we can carry around in our pockets, let alone mount on a spaceship.

But their backup navigational device has not been improved on since the Apollo missions and would probably be recognizable to its inventors: A sextant. The concept dates back to Isaac Newton, but the format used by ships (until modern navigational systems were developed) dates to the first half of the 18th century.

The theory was that if onboard computers failed because of a power loss or some other malfunction, the astronauts could still navigate because of the sextant's ability to measure angles and provide data to calculate their position. The possibility of Soviet interference with signals from the ground was also considered a danger, and the sextant made sure the astronauts could navigate without constant information from ground control.

The article linked at Astronomy includes a video showing how astronauts used the sextant for space navigation as well.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Crime (Does and) Doesn't Pay

Detective Inspector Simon Fenchurch seems to have weathered one of his life's greatest storms after a reunion with the daughter kidnapped when she was a child. But he and his wife are villains in the girl's mind, as she was raised by another couple she considered her actual parents. And since Fenchurch's investigation into that couple's role in a massive pedophile ring led to their imprisonment, his daughter Chloe has little interest in reforging any familial bonds.

But their paths will be forced to cross when a student at Chloe's college is found murdered and Fenchurch's department catches the case in Ed James' fourth Fenchurch novel, 2018's In for the Kill. Initially, he has a green light to investigate, as long as his daughter is not involved. Naturally she will prove to be, creating personal and professional dilemmas that could cost Fenchurch everything professionally and personally.

As in earlier novels, James does a good job of painting Fenchurch as nearly constantly operating on the ragged edge, exhausting both his own energy and his superiors' patience. But In for the Kill still feels disconnected and incomplete. It features too many characters taken from the headlines in order for James to offer commentary on the 2016 U.S. election, conservative immigration policy and several other issues that would seem to have little bearing on an east London police detective. The ultimate resolution to Fenchurch's family problems is far too pat, with two-thirds of the novel pushing it one way before an abrupt and unearned reversal that is beyond unconvincing.

In for the Kill might be a kind of re-set for the series, closing out one of the major arcs that animated Fenchurch through the first three books and offering some new directions. If so, that would make it more useful; if it's just another book in the series it's by far the low point of the collection.
With each outing, Ace Atkins gets more comfortable and surer in writing about Robert B. Parker's iconic Boston private investigator, Spenser. In Old Black Magic, his seventh Spenser book, Atkins offers a combination of solid Spenserian voice with a confusing mystery that takes one twist too many and doesn't really make as much sense in the end as it should.

Twenty years ago, a museum theft rocked the Boston art world and the paintings stolen have never been seen since. Now paint chips from one of them have been sent to a Boston journalist and the museum's board of directors wants a private detective to help broker the payment the museum will make to those who have the paintings now.

Of course, it's not that simple, and when the initial payoff goes bad Spenser will have to find the stolen artwork his way. Whether his way will sit well with the museum directors and the old mobsters who may have been involved in the original theft has yet to be seen, but that's not the kind of thing that keeps Spenser from doing what he thinks is right.

As mentioned above, the core of Magic is a mystery: Who took the paintings and where are they now? Whether because the whole puzzle won't fit together or the picture in Atkins' mind simply doesn't come across to the reader, the ultimate solution to those questions has too many threads to really feel finished. That misstep is a shame, because Magic features one of the best pictures of Spenser's mobster pal Vinnie Morris since 1995's Walking Shadow. It would take a die-hard Parkerphile to deny that these are recognizably Parker's characters, but they're working in service to an idea that probably needed some more development time in order to rise to the next level.
When most of the major parties in the fighting in Northern Ireland hammered out the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, sectarian violence on the Emerald Isle began to fade into the background of history. But in the years prior, living in Belfast was not too different from living in a war zone. The combination of religious and political divisions, massive unemployment and economic downturn made a poisonous stew that chewed up ordinary citizens, civic workers and, as Adrian McKinty writes about, police officers.

We meet detective Sean Duffy, a Catholic detective in a Protestant department, in 1981 during the last days of Bobby Sands' hunger strike in The Cold Cold Ground. Sands is near death and tensions in Belfast are near the breaking point or in some cases past it. Bombings and riots are nearly nightly occurrences, and into this mix Duffy's department is alerted to what may be a serial killer targeting gay men. Leads are hard to come by, given that homosexuality is illegal in 1981 Northern Ireland and few of the community want to talk to the police. The revelation that one of the victims is connected to the Irish Republican Army only makes things worse for Duffy's chance to find the killer.

McKinty sets his story in neighborhoods and areas where he himself grew up, giving Ground a solid foundation. He builds on it with a raconteur's flair for description that almost never chases rabbits or sags into flabbiness. His handle on some of his characters and plotting isn't quite as firm, as they sometimes do and say things that advance the plot but with only a shaky narrative basis. Duffy himself is front and center with all his flaws; it makes for a more realistic character but can also make a reader wonder just how long bad personal choices could go on without affecting his performance or even health.

Even so, The Cold Cold Ground is an excellent transformation of classic noir tropes such as tarnished knights and the search for meaning in the midst of meaninglessness. McKinty weaves them into the troubled history of his native land like a modern bard staring into an empty whiskey glass and wondering whether anyone hears what he's trying to say.

Saturday, June 2, 2018


-- Broward County, FL, Sheriff Scott Israel had better have made some really good investments. For one, the problems his department had in properly responding to February's school shooting continue to mount. So he is unlikely to win re-election if he runs in 2020. Plus, it's tough to see a law enforcement operation or consulting firm hiring him if he doesn't run; I can't imagine that his name on such a company's organization chart would be a big draw for business.

-- USA Today ran a map showing where authorities had intercepted shipments of marijuana coming from Colorado. It highlighted the different states which had caught the smugglers, indicating them with a light blue color. Colorado was indicated by a dark blue color. Except it wasn't actually Colorado, it was Wyoming. In the graphic designer's defense, both states are square.

-- Man, who could have foreseen that Roseanne Barr would say something racially charged and completely offensive in a public forum?

-- Comedian Samantha Bee used one of the language's ugliest words to describe Ivanka Trump in a segment suggesting that her photo with her son was in poor taste given the way her father's immigration policy has been separating families who have come to this country illegally. She's apologized for that. As for the suggestion that Ivanka dress in something "tight and low cut" to talk to the president about that policy? The crickets rage.

-- An article at the pop culture site Pajiba suggests that the word Bee used should be reclaimed by women as a means of self-empowerment, the way many African-Americans have reclaimed the so-called "n-word" which had been used to degrade and insult them. Since men have often directed that word at women with a similar intent, women should feel free to use it themselves to demonstrate that their would-be belittlers do not have the power to do so. Thus, the writer says, Bee should be supported for...using the word as a way to insult and belittle Ivanka Trump. There must be a paragraph my computer doesn't show.  Either way, the article won't be linked here; feel free to look it up yourself if you have a high tolerance for writers who think profanity is shocking or more authentic than other words.

Friday, June 1, 2018


If you want to avoid getting hit by lightning, this post found at Atlas Obscura will show you where you should live.

My home state, given our usual love of storms, is not among the rare strikers. As if tornadoes weren't bad enough.