Tuesday, July 31, 2018

It Keeps Going, and Going, and Going...

Measurements of a fast-moving star have provided another instance of Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity accurately describing the universe.

Scientific teams watched a star as it moved around the super-massive black hole at the center of our galaxy (Sagittarius A* or Sgr A*). They then measured what they saw against what several different theories of gravity said they would see if those theories were accurate. The star's motion made it a good candidate because the immense gravity of Sgr A* made it move pretty quickly. The different theories predicted different things would happen and those differences are more apparent at higher speeds than lower ones.

Einstein's general relativity provided predictions that matched the observations. Not bad for the 100-year-old side project of a Swiss patent clerk.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Hot Dog!

This space occasionally notes the transgressions committed by petty bureaucrats and doofi with badges who cite and shut down kids with lemonade stands and similar small-scale entrepreneurs. Most of the time the small-business folks run into regulations that might as well have been written by their larger competitors to strangle competition in its cradle.

But every now and again there are public servants who remember that their jobs are to benefit the republic rather than paper over their own inadequacy and feelings of inferiority. Minneapolis teen Jaequan Faulkner set up a hot dog stand that operates on the city's north side. He went all in this summer after a couple of earlier attempts to which he didn't fully commit.

Then he got the call from Minneapolis Health Department inspectors who told him he didn't have a license to operate a food selling business and he wasn't following city codes in food preparation and other areas. They found out about him because someone without enough to do -- I don't gamble but I'd put five down that the caller owns a restaurant near where Jaequan operates -- complained about his business.

Ordinarily this would be the place where health department folks would close the teen down, either with the proper amount of shame and embarrassment at having to treat a kid like the owner of some rat-haven greasy spoon or without. But the department staff went over the requirements Jaequan would need to meet and trained him in how to operate his grill and clean up according to health codes. They showed him what equipment he would need. And when he passed his health inspection, the inspectors paid the cost for his license!

Bureaucrats acting like human beings and helping members of the public achieve their goals? What a wondrous marvel, this modern world we live in.

(H/T Mother Jones)

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Lunar Lodging?

Back from a mini vacation, so here's a quick link to a roundup of pictures from 1960s-era space-themed hotels.

The theme seems mostly visible in some of the extras rather than room decor, at least in the pictures featured. The ad copy can tout "space bubble dividers, new styrene lighting" and "daring new interior colors," but it's still a couple of beds, a couple of chairs, a TV, a table and a bathroom.

What is definitely a product of the times is the ashtray on the table. Finding one of those in a motel room today would most certainly border on science fiction.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

In Progress

At Atlas Obscura, a series of interesting pictures of some famous landmarks during their construction. The oldest is an 1844 photo of Nelson’s Column being erected in Trafalgar Square.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Ought There Be a Law?

Alex Tabarrok, writing at Marginal Revolutionreminds us via an essay from Stephen Carter that every law is backed up by the state, which is entitled to use lethal force in making sure its policies are carried out. Break a law, get arrested and fined or sentenced. Resist, and get taken down. Resist too strongly and get hurt. Resist with dangerous force and possibly get shot and die.

Which means, as Tabarrok notes, that the city council members of Santa Barbara, California, are willing to kill a waiter or waitress for bringing you a plastic straw.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Stellar Cartography

Many flags in the world feature stars, and this item at Twisted Sifter shows how often they are placed in particular locations on those flags. You can see a bunch are at the center. Apparently only one wacky country has 50 stars in the corner, judging by the relative faintness of the outline.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Things That Make You Go, "Hmmm..."

A vast lake of liquid water may have been found underneath the southern polar ice cap on Mars.

"You don't say," said Xodar, Jeddak of the First Born.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018


-- I'm apparently not all that smart, because not only have I not read any of the books on the longlist for the Man Booker prize, I'd never even heard of any of them.

-- Today is the 35th anniversary of the famed "Pine Tar Game" in which Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett hit a home run that then wasn't, until it was again. Naturally, since it brought about an intrusion of judges and lawyers into the great game of baseball, it involved the Yankees.

-- A food cart in Portland, Oregon was set up downtown near the offices of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement government agency. ICE office workers, as well as others, bought lunch from the cart, whose owners used the proceeds to help fund a non-profit agency that helped provide food and other supplies for Portland's homeless population. Until folks demonstrating against ICE started cursing and threatening cart workers, including the owners' 21-year-old daughter. So they've shut the cart down, which will mean less money to help Portland's homeless. I always thought the phrase "too stupid to be believed" was hyperbole, but these days I wonder.

-- The Trump administration will spend $12 billion to help out U.S. farmers who are being hurt by retaliation against the tariffs the administration imposed in the president's trade war. A couple of observations, one obvious and one less so. The obvious one is how nonsensical this move is given that the economic woes the farmers are facing are the result of government actions that could be rescinded and allow them to make their own money instead of taking everyone else's. The less obvious one is that the aid will come through a program that dates back to the Great Depression, which ended almost eight decades ago. The government program, of course, didn't.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Summer Strategy

According to William Vaughn, writing in 1612, there were steps one could take to avoid "cholerick symptomes."

The cautious are advised to "beware bloud-letting, Physick and venerous acts." Which was probably not such great news for those married to doctors.

On the other hand, you could now "boldly sleepe in the after noone," which I think I am going to try tomorrow. If it works I've got the first half of July to catch up on, so I may try a little "sleepe in the fore noone" as well.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Performance Art

Pop culture crazes used to last a lot longer than they do now, which is one reason that the CB radio wave occupied a couple of years during the last part of the 1970s. Among the interesting things it produced was the spoken-word hit "Convoy" by Bill Fries, under the name C.W. McCall.

The internet being the internet, there's at least one page dedicated to the story of a massive group of trucks tearing through the nation's highways, undaunted and unstopped by law enforcement. It has performance clips of McCall doing "Convoy" live -- after a fashion -- and it mostly involves him telling the story of the aforementioned convoy, led by the Rubber Duck and Pig Pen. McCall switches between a CB mike and a regular one as he narrates the events of "the dark of the moon on the 6th of June" and re-creates the Rubber Duck's dialogue from that night.

There's an oddball connection between "Convoy" and another spoken-word novelty song, 1982's "Valley Girl." Both contain the phrase "fer sure fer sure," although "Convoy" uses the double construction only once and "Valley Girl" repeats it every time the song comes to a chorus.

Both also spawned movies, although Valley Girl didn't involve songwriter Frank Zappa at all, and Convoy is something Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw might want left off their respective filmographies.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Way It Didn't Happen

In a lot of ways, alternative history fits oddly on the sci-fi shelves, since much of it reads more like historical fiction than anything with spaceships, aliens or ray guns. Authors work in it for several reasons, one of them being the chance to write that kind of historical fiction without worrying about the speedbumps provided by actual events. Sometimes these "allohistorical" novels try to show us something about the way real history worked by shifting actual events to another stage. Harry Turtledove did this with a ten-volume series that gave the Confederacy a victory in the original Civil War and then moved the major conflicts of both World Wars to the American continent, complete with its own horrifying Holocaust.

S. M. Stirling has written several kinds of alternative history novels, and his most recent Black Chamber falls squarely in the first camp: It's a historical spy romp through a tweaked version of World War I that has Teddy Roosevelt back in office when William Howard Taft dies before he can win the Republican Party nomination for president in 1912. Roosevelt makes decisive moves to strengthen America and implement his progressive agenda, and among those moves is the creation of a spy agency known as "the Black Chamber."

A top Chamber agent is the Irish-Cuban Luz O'Malley, who is posing as an Irish-Mexican rebel allied with the Germans (Roosevelt invaded and annexed portions of Mexico) in order to gain information on a secret German weapons plan. Luz has to work with the German agent Horst von Duckler while keeping him at arm's length so he doesn't discover who she really is -- although he's rather delightful to have around. Ciara Whelan, an American working with Irish rebels against England and also aiding the Germans, will play a role as well, but on whose side?

Chamber opens with several high-octane set pieces as Luz cements her faux-alliance with Horst by fending off attacks from "enemy" agents. But once it gets to the actual German weapons plot things bog down considerably, as Stirling over-indulges in flashbacks and musings from Luz about her own history and the state of the world. Her own close ties with Roosevelt allow her to reflect on how his re-election has made almost everything better all the way around. The reality is most of the book between that point and the final act kickoff could be chopped from the book and leave the story arc no worse off. Luz's impossible competence leeches the narrative of suspense and life, and her impossibly 21st century outlook amongst the backward provincials helps not at all.

Stirling can write some great adventure yarns within a tweaked but plausible world, as in The Peshawar Lancers. He can play with fun characters and create a different reality with just a few strong strokes, as in that book and his "Lords of Creation" duology. Why he does neither here in favor of a clunky narrative, drab characters and evangelizing for Teddy-knows-best progressivism (with a dollop of authoritarian sauce) isn't at all clear.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Small Step, Giant Leap

Today marks the 49th anniversary of the most monumental achievement in human history, as the late Neil Armstrong took a step made possible by countless technicians, scientists, engineers and others, and planted the first human foot on a body not the Earth. Eleven more men would follow in the next two and a half years.

May more tread that path, and extend it, soon.

Thursday, July 19, 2018


-- The football coach at the University of North Carolina worries that moves to make football safer for players, so they can engage in leisure activities like thinking after they turn 55, will cripple the game. Even more troublesome, he says that if the game goes, so will the country. Lighten up, Francis.

-- Although it's not the occasional strip Existential Comics, Sherman's Lagoon offers a pretty good example of why you can't prove a negative.

-- There's a World Emoji Day? Flying cars and space travel in the future, my ass.

-- Because they don't take up too much of my brain, I read a lot of suspense thrillers and spy novels on the treadmill. The former often revolve around an investigator pursuing an impossibly brilliant serial killer, perhaps in order to save a victim -- most often female -- who isn't dead yet. I know, that sounds like Criminal Minds, but the show is crap and I don't watch it. I've been veering away from the dead girl thrillers, though, because they have even less variety than a CM episode and for some reason a lot of authors think they have to toss in a couple of pages telling us about the girl who's going to be killed and maybe even the terrifying pursuit and murder itself. Sadism, counter-intuitively, isn't very inventive. Alice Bolin write a book about the phenomenon as it relates to TV, and talks about it with writer Hope Reese at Longreads. I don't know how much I follow along with Bolin's politics, but I agree with her that this is a laaaaazy trope you could wish supposedly creative people would stop relying on.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

El Béisbol

The Negro Leagues History page has some neat explorations of Cuban newspaper baseball coverage from around the turn of the 20th century. Players banned from Major League Baseball before 1947 because of their skin color could often find work playing for Cuban teams during the offseason. In the early days of baseball, light-skinned African-Americans sometimes claimed to be Cuban in order to be allowed to play on teams with white players.

Technically, owners would claim that the players were Cuban in order to keep them on the team. And after a few years of this, most African-American players stopped accepting the idea that they had to pretend to be something they weren't in order to play the game they wanted to play. Organized Negro League baseball, when it began, offered opportunities to do just that and were sometimes considered the first step on the path towards integrated play.

Either way, reading about baseball's history in Cuba is interesting. A persistent rumor suggests that formerly living Cuban dictator Fidel Castro had a tryout with either the New York Yankees or Washington Senators. It's not true; while Castro was certainly evil enough to be a Yankee his baseball skills were nowhere near major-league tryout caliber. He was responsible for ending a significant feature of baseball history, though, by shutting down the Cuban Winter League and forcing the minor league Havana Sugar Kings to move. That doesn't really stack up very highly against all of the death and misery he caused, but it shows that ol' Shrubbery Face was a jerk in small ways as well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Skills Lacking

A thief who broke into an escape room business and promptly got himself trapped has had his bail set at $40,000.

You kind of wonder why the judge would bother. It's not like this guy is likely to successfully get away even if he's out of jail.

Monday, July 16, 2018


There may be some more to write about this discovery later, as scientists learn some more about the results of data they collected in September. If their initial work bears out, then researchers could solve the mystery of the origin of cosmic rays, the name given to high-energy particles that bombard the earth but are stopped by our atmosphere.

Investigation and observation showed that a high-energy particle detected at the IceCube Neutrino Laboratory in Antarctica last year came from a distant galaxy called TXS 0506+056. It's actually a special kind of galaxy called a "blazar," which is a galactic nucleus with a supermassive black hole that creates a jet of matter aimed at the Earth. The matter, which travels at nearly light speed, doesn't come from the black hole itself but from the process of the black hole "eating" matter that falls into it.

The thing that make me sit and think was this: TXS 0506+056 is four billion light years from Earth, which means that the neutrino began its journey when the Earth was still forming.

Four billion light years away. Take the distance light travels in a year: about 5.9 trillion miles. Now multiply that by four billion -- a number big enough that if you started counting seconds at your birth you would reach it about three months before your 127th birthday (for grins, how old would you be if you kept counting until you reached a trillion? Two and a half months shy of your 31,710th birthday). You get a mileage figure something like 2,360,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

And now, four billion years later, a particle with a mass so small it hasn't been measured yet zipped into the earth and by random chance happened to not be one of the hundreds of trillions of neutrinos that pass through our planet's atoms every day but hit something. More than that, it hit something where we had instruments to see the results.

And then we figured out where it came from.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

Maybe We Do Need Roads?

A stretch of road in Utah's Arches National Park gives the impression that it's a "highway to Mars."

That'd be nice.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

E.T.! What's Up!

Chances are good that if we talked like that to a being from another world it would not understand us. But what would it understand? How would visitors begin to solve our languages and allow us to solve theirs? All of that surmising, of course, that said visitors were planning on speaking to us instead of serving us for dinner and that said visitors made sounds like ours. Some pretty sensible science fiction features insect-based life forms whose speech comes from clicks made by hard mandibles instead of air expired past a fleshy tongue and lips.

So a conference of linguists gathered a couple of months ago to kick the idea around. The major takeaways seemed to be that we would probably manage to make ourselves understood eventually, provided that our new friends were interested in what we said, and that we could also assume ourselves into complete misunderstanding if we didn't remember we were talking to alien beings.

The initial article at Astronomy also includes a link to a longer exploration of whether or not there could be some kind of universal principles underlying not only our language but also the alien one. It explores how we've previously thought that we might start by sharing basic math concepts, which don't change depending on where you live. But even among different human groups there are languages that approach the concept of numbers differently, like the Piraha tribe of Brazil. They don't really conceive of discreet numbers as much as they do groups of things. You could probably assume that the ability to calculate precisely would be required in order to achieve spaceflight or interstellar communication, but it might not be.

Some studies have also been done of brain development that show how people's brains can change when they change their methods of communicating. People who learn sign language, whether deaf or hearing, see some changes in the way they think and in what parts of their brains do.

So if the aliens are peaceful folks whose language helps stimulate the parts of our brains that apparently prevent us from seeing something on the internet and not completely losing our colons over it, we should wish they would hurry the heck up and get here. Because I can't see a lot of those brain parts getting used.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Breaking News!

Note: The following is not true. It is intended to mock, in no particular order, President Donald Trump, former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Senator Elizabeth Warren, the people who created the "Trump baby" balloon, the people who gave money to the campaign, U.S. Representative Maxine Waters and news media that treated this event as anything other than a monumentally silly stunt. If any of these categories applies to you, I apologize for making fun of you.

Except for Rep. Waters. She's earned it.

In a stunning reversal of almost everything he has ever done, President Donald Trump today announced a raft of significant policy changes while traveling abroad.

"It was the baby balloon thing," the president said. "The presence of a 20-foot helium balloon, not quite 100 feet off the ground, for two entire hours made me re-think all of my policy positions." Trump announced the following:

-- The withdrawal of the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill the United States Supreme Court seat left vacant by the retirement of Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. Trump immediately submitted Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren's name in Kavanaugh's place and promised to lobby for a constitutional amendment to allow her to remain a Senator while serving as an associate justice. "It's the least I could do for this wonderful, wonderful woman," he said.

In a statement, Warren said that while she was honored to be considered, she had pledged on principle to oppose all of Trump's nominations and so would vote against herself. "I just do not have any confidence that any nominee from this president will put the interests of the poor people of America in front of the rich people," she said. "I cannot in good conscience support my nomination and would urge my fellow Senators to vote against me."

-- The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency would be re-tooled and renamed to reflect its new mission, becoming the Immigrant Cupcake Experience. "We're going to let these brave people, these good people, be paid from the federal treasury to eat cupcakes supplied by the best pastry chefs in the world," Trump said. "I was told the government did not have enough money to do this, so I immediately ordered the National Mint to print more." When informed that while there was no National Mint, there was a U.S Mint, the president ordered the name be changed. Upon learning that money was actually printed by the Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Trump ordered the new National Mint to mount a military coup on the BEP in order to carry out his instructions.

-- Declared himself guilty of allowing Russian president Vladimir Putin to write-in "three hundred million ballots" in the 2016 election and sentenced himself to a fine of "three trillion dollars. It has to be trillions," he said. "Trillions and Trump start with the same letters." When it was pointed out that he had received only 69 million votes and that in fact there were not three hundred million registered voters in the United States, the president removed all restrictions on voter registration and encouraged people to vote as many times as they wanted, whenever they wanted. "That's how they do it in Chicago, you know, and that's a great, great city. Tremendous city."

Trump supporter Newt Gingrich, being asked about the president's new policy positions, said, "Well, the president is always so many movies ahead of his opponents that the full impact of these policies is probably beyond the understanding of most people unless they're as smart as me. I think you'll be surprised when you see the results, and it will be clear that he's got the other side right where he wants them."

Trump then told Vice-President Mike Pence that he was fired, appointed his former opponent Hillary Clinton to Pence's spot and resigned in her favor. Gingrich had no direct comment on this move, but he did smile knowingly and nod.

California U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, who has made "Impeach 45" a rallying cry at many events, denied that Trump's resignation would cause her to re-think her strategy, "This president is not a legitimate president, so his resignation cannot be legitimate," she said. "I am going to introduce an impeachment resolution against President Clinton and demand that she re-install President Trump so we can impeach him as he deserves."

A spokesman for the group that created the balloon, which was funded through online donations, said, "It's amazing what you can do with $40,000 of other people's money." When asked if the group planned on turning its attention to other causes, such as world hunger or human trafficking, the spokesman said, "Well, we would set up a campaign to do that, but people are still giving to this one. We don't want to confuse our donor base with two campaigns."

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

From the Rental Vault: Warlock (1959)

Although some great Westerns happened along during most decades that we've had movies, the 1950s stands out for offering some of the tops in the field -- both as Westerns and as movies. Hollywood's top directors, actors and screenwriters did not disdain the genre but often viewed it as the pallette they used for their work. It could serve to get an important idea in front of people who might not otherwise encounter it, as long as it was a good story with good work.

Warlock, with Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Dorothy Malone and Anthony Quinn, was one of those "thinking person's" kind of Westerns. Widmark teamed with one of his favorite directors, Edward Dymytrk, to bring Fonda and the other top-level cast on board in filming Robert Arthur's adaptation of Oakley Hall's Pulitzer-nominated novel.

The southwestern mining town of Warlock is suffering because it is not incorporated and can't hire a sheriff of its own. Stuck with ineffective deputies, the townspeople are at the mercy of outlaw leader Abe McQuown until they decide to bring in gunslinger and town tamer Clay Blaisedell (Fonda) as a marshal. Blaisedell, along with his partner Joe Morgan (Quinn) set up shop in a saloon and soon begin to impose their own order on the town and the outlaws, forcing a confrontation.

As tensions have built, one of McQuown's crew -- Johnny Gannon (Widmark) -- has grown tired of the killing and decides to take on the role of deputy sheriff. His desire to uphold the law puts him at odds with his old friends but not entirely on the side of Blaisedell, whose authority is primarily backed up by his speed with a gun rather than a statute. Gannon's growing relationship with Lily Dollar (Malone) complicates the entire situation, especially since she has come to Warlock to see Blaisedell killed for gunning down her fiancé. Blaisedell himself is growing closer to townswoman Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michaels) and thinking about settling in Warlock, to the consternation of his partner Morgan.

First known as the psychotic gangster Tommy Udo in 1947's Kiss of Death, Widmark rested on a string of great roles by the time Warlock came around. He was originally cast as Blaisedell, but lobbied studio heads to get Fonda for the part so he could take the against-type role of Johnny Gannon. At first merely disgusted with the violence of McQuown's gang, Gannon gradually grows to understand that the rule of law can in fact make things better -- including a man like him. His belief in it transforms him and instills in him an honor he might have thought was lost, if indeed he ever had it at all. Widmark completely sells the idea of a man who increasingly finds dignity within his work and then, almost as though surprised, within himself.

Fonda's eerie calm renders Blaisedell almost as a kind of automaton. He's on the side of order, no doubt, but it's an order imposed by his will and his willingness to kill rather than statute or any kind of consent of the ordered. In some ways it previews his villainous turn in Once Upon a Time in the West nine years later: he's flat-out evil in that but here is still more than a little scary as a man who knows only his own law and will. As a relationship develops with Jessie Marlow, Blaisedell begins to think he can settle down himself, despite the opposition of Morgan. That opposition, combined with an almost doglike devotion to the first man to overlook his handicap, pushes Morgan to try to manipulate events so that Blaisedell defeats not only McQuown but also Gannon.

It's a fascinating swirl of humanity, made even more so as we see the two women in the story grow closer to the two different men. Gannon and Blaisedell both seem to grow as the relationships develop, but events will prove which, if either, actually becomes a different man than he has been.

Although the scenery is classic -- a dusty town, a steely-eyed lawman, a cruel villain and a gal with a heart of gold -- the screenplay, direction and performances open up wide ranges of human experience to exploration and discussion. Warlock is as stylized as any Western when it comes to the real-world history of its time and place. But it shows that when talent, intelligence and craft are brought to bear on the human condition, the genre of the vehicle is no obstacle to quality and insight.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Test Pattern

At camp. Spotty internet; intermittent posting. Old posts still available for those having trouble sleeping.

Saturday, July 7, 2018


-- Later in life artist Steve Ditko's personality and devotion to Ayn Rand's objectivist philosophy made him a rather quirky, iconoclastic and reclusive character. But during his heyday, the quirky iconoclasm made his work Spider-Man definitive for the character, and his incredibly wild and trippy visuals made Dr. Strange's mystic world seem like a real place. In addition to that work with Marvel, he created the Creeper, a DC hero whose borderline sinister and deranged persona prefigured some of the grim and gritty antiheroes of the 1990s. Ditko passed earlier this week at 90.

-- One of the many sins of the radically vapid "Purge" movies is that if you are trying to find the poignant 2008 short film of that name by Brad Kammlah, or perhaps either the Finnish book or movie adapted from Sofi Oksanen's 2007 play of that name, your search engine work will take you instead to the brutally stupid work of series creator James DeMonaco. "Creator" is not an accurate word to describe either the process by which these movies emerged from DeMonaco or the quality of their content, but this blog's posts also appear on Facebook, where they are read by my mother.

-- I know a lot of people who are freaked out enough by spiders -- the idea that some spiders actually fly, and they do so by means of electric fields, would probably make them catatonic. Except of course for Dave Barry fans, who realize that Electric Flying Spiders would make a great name for a rock band.

-- London's mayor Sadiq Khan gave permission to a group that wants to fly a 20-foot balloon depicting US President Donald Trump as a whiny orange baby while the president is visiting the city on July 13. London Metropolitan Police and air traffic authorities will have a say-so on whether or not this comes to pass, but $21,000 people have contributed to a crowdsourced fundraising campaign to purchase, fill and float the balloon. Coverage of this silly idea has been extensive. Meanwhile, reporting on possible trade legislation the White House would like introduced and passed -- which would take pretty much all tariff-making authority away from Congress and give it to the President and end US participation in the World Trade Organization -- has been slight. And much of it is focused on the unfortunate acronym the proposed bill has acquired. You know, the important stuff.

Friday, July 6, 2018


At Medium's "The Blklist" blog, Kate Hagen offers a very extensive review of the death of the chain video store, its few remaining outlets and the strength of independent video rental stores in Los Angeles. Hagen's piece touches on several aspects of these events, and if you don't live in Los Angeles you might decide that section of the article merits mostly a scan and not careful reading.

Now, I usually don't precisely stream content through either of the services that I use. I usually download it to the iPad as a "rental" and then watch it on the treadmill at the gym -- which does not have wi-fi -- and then it conveniently disappears if I for some reason forget to delete it. And of course I can pay cash for a rental as well, with a title that I can download and watch sometime within the next month.

But as Hagen's piece notes, the number of titles available to people who want to stream content is, well, pathetic when you compare it to the number of titles that even a small video place had in stock. Many have barely four digits in their catalog, with one or two having five. And many of those, said at least one person whose exercise routine involves frequent use of the service, suck.

Hagen also points out that many classic titles aren't available to stream, and the catalogs themselves don't go back more than a quarter century. Search engines seem optimized to push the company's own content, making a search beyond their sometimes quirky categories frustrating.

She outlines a couple of groups that are trying to find a way to start an actual video rental store, combining tactics like crowdsource funding and actual donations from people who want to help. Or who want to unload the crappy discs they have on someone else; one of the would-be store runners said the call for open donations brought in a lot of copies of Adam Sandler movies and Borat.

The title deficit is not all on the streamers, of course. Some movies have complicated ownership or distribution rights. Some featured music that was licensed only for a finite time (watch any episode of WKRP in Cincinnati from the 2007 20th Century Fox DVD release to hear what kind of a problem that can create).

The frustration that the limited catalogs provide can make a person consider buying DVDs of favorite movies and building a personal collection to make up what the streamers lack. Then the reality that these would have to be boxed up and moved and that one is in a profession where such things happen sets in, and one just makes do. The Wedding Singer's not that bad, after all.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Circle of Life

At one point in the classic cinematic masterpiece Animal House, Boon and Otter remark on the way Douglas C. Niedermyer, sergeant-at-arms, is bullying Delta Tau Chi pledge Flounder during an ROTC class:
Otter: He can't do that to our pledges!
Boon: Only we can do that to our pledges!
They then strike him with a well-hit golf ball.

It is beyond human knowledge to be certain how the members of a certain pride of lions in the Sibuya Game Preserve name or identify themselves, but it may be that at least a couple of them passably imitated Otter and Boon when they discovered poachers in the preserve who were presumed to be hunting rhinoceri for their horns. Lions will not generally tangle with a full-grown rhino, but they do eat younger members of a herd they might catch unawares.

Be that as it may, the lions decided that they could kill two birds with one stone -- so to speak -- by eating the poachers. They thus protect their potential future meals of small rhinos and get a snack in the bargain.

Game wardens believe that there were at least three poachers, having discovered the remains of three sets of clothing and assorted parts to three people. There may have been more but the lions aren't talking, even under the threat of double secret probation.

ETA: Fellow Okie blogger Charles has a take on this news as well!

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Read the Whole Thing

I thought about using Independence Day as an occasion to write an appreciation for the positive impact the American Revolution has had on the world.

Then I read Jeffrey Roberts Hummel's piece at The Library of Economics and Liberty and realized I didn't have to, because the San Jose State University econ prof had done it much better. I always like finding those articles before I write one of my own.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Care Not Had

Neil Paine at Fivethirtyeight outlines how the Golden State Warriors are playing games with the National Basketball Association salary cap in order to stock players that will increase their immense chances of winning another NBA title.

I'm looking forward to when this detonates in the face of the millionaires who've thrown the rule book out the window along with their checkbook balances. The NBA already puts a product on the floor that's not worth watching unless you have an interest in one of the teams playing. As the Warriors render the regular season increasingly meaningless, at some point people will quit watching the way they do when you know the end to a story you're not enjoying all that much anyway.

At least when the collapse happens we may get some competitive seasons again. The NBA playoffs include so many teams and last so long because the league knows you quit watching when your team is out, but spreading the talent around might put some of those outcomes in doubt, anyway.

Monday, July 2, 2018

New Real Estate

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy believe they have the first images of a new planet actually in the process of becoming a planet, orbiting a star called PDS 70.

PDS 70 is about 340 light years from Earth, and is a kind of star called an orange dwarf. Now, I know what you're thinking, but that joke would be waaaaay too easy to make. Plus, he's 6'-2". An orange dwarf is the name given to a star larger than the cooler red dwarf stars found in large numbers around the universe and smaller than the yellow main sequence stars like our sun. Because it's smaller, the motion of a planetary mass in its orbit makes more of a wobble than there might be in a larger star, so astronomers have suspected for some time that PDS 70 has a planet.

So the Planck folks directed their instruments towards the gas cloud surrounding the small, dim star. Most theories of planetary formation involve a large cloud of gas condensing into a small solid mass and no, I'm not going to make that joke either. Careful study revealed that a planet was indeed forming in the gap, and the new planet had taken shape. Since the process is a very long one, scientists are unlikely to see much change in the new world, called PDS 70b, over time. But they have learned several things about it, such as how far away it is from its star and how long it takes to orbit. Currently circling its primary at about 22 times the distance the Earth is from our own sun, PDS 70b takes 120 years to complete one orbit.

Scientists also noticed that it was incredibly hot, with a surface temperature of about 1,700º Fahrenheit. Our own solar system's hottest planet, Venus, runs about 870º Fahrenheit, while we average about 61º if you mix all the readings together on ol' Terra.

Better instruments might show us more about PDS 70b, but they may not as well. Its thick, opaque and superheated atmosphere makes it impossible to see what's really going on there.

Which sounds pretty much exactly like the rest of the news and political logorrhea going on today, so maybe I should have made those jokes after all.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

From the Rental Vault: Whispering Smith (1948)

By the late 1940s, Westerns were starting to show signs of a maturing movie genre -- eschewing some of the sillier conventions of the genre like the idea a bandana "mask" would prevent a miscreant from being recognized by people he was around every day -- and offer more layered and nuanced characters than the simple assembly-line oaters of earlier years.

The transformation wasn't complete, so movies like 1948's Whispering Smith still have genre tropes like the aforementioned non-disguising masks and horse chases. It mixes them with characters who have to figure out how to come to terms with the moral dilemmas they face.

Alan Ladd is the title character, railroad detective Luke Smith. He earned his nickname for his quiet mannerisms and speech, but he is dogged and deadly when it comes to outlaws who menace the line he works for. While pursuing the last of a bandit trio, he meets up with an old friend, Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston). A gunshot wound puts him up convalescing at the home of Murray and his wife Marian -- a situation that could wind up significantly complicated by old feelings between Smith and Marian Sinclair (Brenda Marshall). Murray's ambition has led him to a foolish partnership with shady rancher Barney Rebstock (Donald Crisp). That and the tighter restrictions the railroad home office place on emergency rescue and salvage crews like his push the friends apart and push Murray towards the shady side of the law himself. Smith does his best to pry Murray away from Rebstock and his gang, but pride and greed prove stronger.

Whispering Smith was the last of five movies Ladd and Preston did together, and was the first major Western for Ladd after his rise to success in This Gun for Hire and The Blue Dahlia. He offers a kind of proto-Shane -- like that later gunman he understands that he can't offer the kind of settled life he would owe to people who loved him. Preston's larger-than-life persona faces some of the same issues, as new policies cramp the kind of free-wheeling anything goes rules by which he and other railroad rescuers and salvagers have always lived. Marshall invests Marian with a deep sense of longing for the man she once loved and of loyalty to the man she loves now. In spite of Murray's descent she offers to abandon their secure ranch life in order to escape the consequences of his actions. Whispering Smith was her second-to-last movie role; she would retire from acting about two years after it was finished.

Whispering Smith was based on a series of stories by Frank Spearman and would later become a TV series with Audie Murphy. The mixed palettes it uses to paint its characters and more ambiguous storyline paved the way for some of the great "thinking Westerns" of the 1950s, including Ladd's own Shane or Preston's The Last Frontier. Though it still wears its Western pulp novel conventions quite openly, it offers a clear example of how a talented storyteller, cast and crew need not be limited by the genre.