Sunday, September 30, 2018

Test Pattern

Long day. Tune in tomorrow.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Out of the Ashes

This story at My Modern Met is neat because it tells how a woman, photgraphed in the aftermath of a World Trade Center tower collapse on September 11, 2001, found the street photographer who had snapped her image on that day.

Joanne Capestro was covered in the dust of her former workplace, having gotten outside the North Tower just a few minutes before it collapsed from the heat of the fire on the 87th floor. Phil Penman, documenting some of the impact of that fall on the areas of lower Manhattan closest to it, took her picture. Several years later, when Penman's work was displayed in the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, a museum staffer recognized her and was able to get her in touch with Penman.

This past August, Capestro married her fiance and she asked Penman to be the wedding photographer.

There is within the human being a drive of some kind to bring forth goodness from wrong -- a fellow in my line of work might think of it as a feature of the imago Dei, and as a matter of fact I do. This one's a little thing, not much measured against the awfulness of that day. And yet that awfulness still can't crush it down, as small as it is.

Worth thinking about, I hope.

Friday, September 28, 2018


I suppose that it's good this entry on how to treat "freshmen" at college dates back to the 14th century. Otherwise the authors would probably have to sue National Lampoon for the creation of the Animal House movie.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Small-Screen Series

Probably some spoilers here. Fair warning.

Tom Clancy's protagonist Jack Ryan has made it onto the silver screen several times, played by four different men so far. Amazon created a series with John Krasinksi starring as the hero, updated to operate in 2018 instead of the closing years of the Cold War, called Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan.

Ryan, a CIA analyst whose expertise in the financial sector makes him good at looking for terrorists by following the money that funds them, thinks he has found signs of a major plot mounted by a shadowy terrorist called Suleiman. When he forces the hand of his superiors in freezing the transactions, he finds himself called on the carpet for exceeding authority as well as tipping Suleiman that someone's watching. His supervisor enlists him in the project to find out and thwart the plot, putting Ryan more on the operational side of things than he has been before. Although he served in combat as a Marine, the kind of murky, ghost-hunting game played by the CIA leaves him a lot more unsure of himself than he prefers. Suleiman's complex plot keeps the agents on their back feet and trying to guess his next move.

Krasinksi came to fame by starring as the mild-mannered everyman Jim Halpert in The Office, and he brings much of that same regular-guy low-key energy to his portrayal of Ryan. It's effective, as Clancy initially conceived of Ryan as much more of a desk man a little out of his depth when he was in the field. Krasinksi's Ryan is competent, intelligent and driven but is by no means one of the hard-charging hoo-rah operatives that swagger in the background of the show. He's easily the highlight of the show as well as its star, even though Wendell Pierce as his boss James Greer and Dina Shihabi as Suleiman's wife Hanin also stand out in important roles.

The first season's story is uneven as it swirls around its cast, though. Suleiman is a pretty stock character and his ultimate plot seems to owe a little too much to Wile E. Coyote for someone as clever as he's supposed to be. Side plots like one involving a drone operator waste time. While Ryan's burgeoning romance with Cathy Mueller gives a couple of good windows to develop his character and show what's inside, it doesn't really do much for her except show us why she might be endangered as Suleiman's plot enters its endgame.

As his novels continued and expanded, Clancy turned Ryan from Clark Kent to Superman, as well as a lot less interesting. By the time the 1990s arrived, the major obstacle to Ryan's thwarting of whatever nefarious plot he faced was Clancy's need to fill pages and take arms against whatever political threat he saw facing the United States. But it was when Ryan was less sure of himself and wielded less power that he was a more interesting character, relying more on the authority of his knowledge and insight than his position and paladin-like personal honor. If Krasinski continues to project the same Regular Guy persona as Ryan, and the scriptwriters develop more and borrow less, Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan might navigate the gap where Clancy himself faltered, and stay out of the dead-end swamp of the Bestseller Bloat Uberman that claims too many interesting characters.
After three seasons, the SyFy network faced the need to cancel one of its two "on the bubble" space opera shows, Dark Matter and Killjoys. Since the network owned Killjoys, it would still make money even at lower ratings than Dark Matter, and that made the decision pretty clear. Michelle Lovretta's show about space bounty hunters wrapped up in a galactic conflict was given two full seasons to wrap up its storyline, one of which just finished airing.

Lead bounty hunter "Dutch" (Hanna John-Kamen) begins the season in "the Green," a kind of Matrix-ish space accessed by pools of green goo. That same goo has transformed thousands of humans into Hullen, a sort of super-soldier who has secretly worked to undermine the human governments preparing for a takeover by Aneela (also John-Kamen). At the end of Season 3 Dutch joined Aneela to enter the Green and fight the Lady, a being who lives inside it and who is behind the actual invasion plans. Left outside are her partners, John and D'av Jaqobis (Alan Ashmore and Luke Macfarlane), suddenly caring for their previous enemy Delle Seyah Kendry, (Mayko Nguyen) now a Hullen and very pregnant with a child Aneela had implanted in her.

The team eventually reunites and plots with the remnants of their old bounty-hunter service and other fighters to counter the Lady's machinations. Dutch will have to learn more of her own history and that she shares with Aneela, while D'av must deal with the realities of fatherhood to a very different young man. They're racing against time, because while Dutch learned what she needs to defeat the Lady, they'll have to get it ready before the Lady overwhelms Aneela and escapes the Green.

Part of Killjoys' problem beginning with the last season was its complete lack of sense. Having established the main threat of invasion by an armada of fast-healing, fast-acting, super-strong alien-controlled humans, it meandered through several dead-end sequences that grabbed whole episodes worth of time and did nothing to aim our protagonists at the threat. It ended in a hurry, trying to catch too many threads up at once to show any of them clearly. The same problem continues through Season 4, with the additional issue of spending 10 episodes trying to keep the Lady inside the Green, only to let her out in the final episode cliffhanger.

John-Kamen and Macfarlane continue to offer excellent performances in service of a plot that makes them more exhibits in a display than pieces of a story. Add Kelly McCormack's turn as Zephyr Vos to that roster, but as in the other two cases the top-level acting is just there, rather than resting on any real narrative foundation.

Season 5's 10 episodes air in 2019, and if Killjoys is to succeed at coherence it will take every one of the 420 minutes of airtime to put what we've already seen in enough context to give the resolution any more meaning than it might have had if the whole story was told in a two-hour movie.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Varmint Rehab?

The charges against a woman who had been arrested after housing animals during recent hurricane-related flooding in North Carolina have been dropped. She had taken several animals in at a warehouse that she was renovating to operate as an animal shelter and administered medication to them during the flooding.

Animal control authorities demanded the animals be turned over to them under threat of a warrant, and then the woman was arrested for the medication she gave them while housing them, since she is not a veterinarian. The press release from the district attorney goes to great lengths to point out that the official county shelter would have housed the animals during the flooding for free, and also says the woman had previously been "censured for the unauthorized practice of veterinary medicine."

All of that may of course be true, and perhaps some animal owners would have been wiser to take their pets to the county shelter or to check that it was open. It might also have been wiser for the woman herself to try to reach the shelter rather than house and medicate the animals herself.

If so, then the smartest thing for the county to have done would have been to issue a strong statement to that effect, warning people against possible substandard shelters who might offer unlicensed medical care. The second wisest thing, counter-intuitively, would have been to have followed through on the charges in some way -- a citation, a fine, community service, whatever. That would have shown they took the matter as seriously as they said they took the matter. But by charging her and then dropping the charges just a few days later, they look like bullies who demonstrated their power in order to keep folks in line who might want to help animals.

In essence, the county has walked into this situation and said, "Dis is a nice place! It'd be a shame if anytin' was to, ah...happen to it."

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A Century of Smart

A hundred years ago, a theorem was put forth by mathematician/physicist whose work was lauded by Albert Einstein, David Hilbert, and Hermann Weyl that's still of value today -- in fact, it helps answer a lot of questions raised by Einstein's own theory of general relativity.

This genius was a woman named Amalie Emmy Noether, and "Noether's Theorem" was only one of the areas where she contributed to the growth of science in a time when she could barely get a university to pay her to teach, because she was a she. Her main work was in the development of abstract algebra, a division of that discipline which deals with categories and groups instead of just individual variables. The theorem that carries her name was almost a footnote to her career, but it lets physicists connect the concepts of conservation to the symmetries of a system.

When scientists talk about conservation of one value or another, they mean that value describes a total amount that doesn't change, even if the thing being labeled might change form. The law of conservation of energy, for example, says that energy can't be created or destroyed, only transformed. A piece of wood contains potential energy locked up in the structure of its atoms and molecules. When it's set on fire, that energy transforms into heat and light, as well as physical residue -- but the total energy in any "system" containing the wood doesn't change. Other fuels are more efficient at creating the energy and leave less residue. The more efficient you get, the more energy you wind up with, on up the ladder to things like atomic explosions. Since most of the potential energy in the A-bomb fuel becomes energy, it has tremendous explosive power -- this is why no one gets excited if Kim Jong-Il lights a match but they frown upon his scientists playing with plutonium.

Noether's Theorem relates that quality to a system's "symmetry," which in physics terms mean that when something happens a certain way under certain conditions, it will happen that way under the same conditions no matter where or when they are. When I was reading about this there was a split-second where I almost understood exactly what that relationship was, but it didn't stick, so I'll leave you to figure it out if you want to give it a shot.

Noether, a Jewish pacifist, lost her job in 1933 when the Nazis took power and emigrated to the United States. After an operation to remove a cyst in 1935, she seemed to develop a severe infection and died at 53. Her "afterthought" of a theorem will probably be around for a lot longer, unless we somehow discover that conservation or general relativity are incorrect. It seems unlikely, but science is about the strange and unlikely, so who knows.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Page Parade

Jesse Stone is back in Paradise after two months in a rehab facility in his native Arizona. Committed to dealing with his alcoholism, he's unsure exactly how he might do that back in a familiar environment and facing familiar pressures. When a young African-American woman is attacked on the beach and signs from the crime point to a case Jesse handled after he moved to Paradise, the pressure increases. Race-related vandalism only raises the temperature, and things teeter on the brink of exploding when one of Jesse's own officers, herself a young African-American woman, is involved in an officer-related shooting that seems to have its own racial motives. The usual suspects of outside agitators make their appearance and Jesse is kept at arm's length from the investigation. But there are too many coincidences, and he puts together a shadow team to check into some aspects of the whole series of events that match up a little too perfectly. Holding his town -- and himself -- together will test Jesse's newly-won sobriety for certain but may make it -- and him -- short-lived.

After the debacle of Debt to Pay, it became tough to justify buying any more of Reed Farrel Coleman's Jesse Stone series. We may pause to give thanks for libraries, who fall on that grenade for us. The second writer to continue Robert B. Parker's stories of the troubled police chief of Paradise, Massachusetts, Coleman had not only not overcome the problem of writing one of Parker's less-developed characters, he had delivered an ungainly stinker of a story to boot. Hangman's Sonnet was not nearly as bad, but it didn't offer much reason to believe that Coleman would actually ever find a good way to marry his much less laconic and sparse style with the few features of Jesse Stone Parker had actually been able to outline.

In Colorblind, Coleman actually seems to make some steps forward in that area. He still writes a dozen words where Parker might have written a pair, and a couple of key features of the plot make a little too much out of coincidence themselves. But when he's writing Jesse's own words or narrating his thoughts, he does manage to offer some of the terseness that was Parker's own stock in trade. The storyline is significantly stronger than Coleman's earlier Stone outings, even if it seems a little too flashy for one of Parker's characters. But the choice to actually cast Jesse as an alcoholic and have him deal with that situation and its consequences gives Coleman a handle to use to move Jessie somewhere -- something that Parker himself never managed to do.
By 1999, Robert Crais had settled in to a solid routine for his wise-cracking Los Angeles private investigator, Elvis Cole, and Cole's friend, the taciturn tough guy Joe Pike. As L.A. Requiem opens, life for Elvis has been moving fairly well also, as his girlfriend Lucy Chenier and her son have moved to Los Angeles as well for her new job.

When Pike calls Elvis for help he's surprised to learn of Pike's connection to a Los Angeles political string puller named Frank Garcia -- Pike was in a serious relationship with Frank's daughter Karen, who's missing. Before Elvis and Pike can make much headway in trying to find her, she turns up dead. Now Frank wants the pair involved in the investigation, too, much to the consternation of the Los Angeles Police Department. They don't have much use for Cole, but they absolutely hate Pike for what they believe to be his role in the death of his former partner when Pike was a member of LAPD. When suspicion in Karen's death falls on Pike, they are only too happy to try to arrest him or worse, with Elvis caught in the current. Lucy hasn't really been connected to Elvis when things are this rough, and she finds herself uneasy when it seems his loyalties weren't what she had imagined.

Requiem upgrades the complexity level of the Cole-Pike series considerably, offering us some of our first looks behind Pike's mirrored shades. Much of the conflict in earlier novels was mostly external, but now Elvis finds himself on unfirm ground internally as well. He may not have known much about Pike, but he was certain about what he thought he did know. His relationship with Lucy seemed clearly moving forward, but now he finds that he may not be able to offer her some things she wants from that relationship -- nor can he change who he is in order to do so. The unexpectedly deep and layered character drama elevates L.A. Requiem enough that the rather drawn out and shakily-built ending don't really harm it as much as it might have one of the other, more plot-driven novels in the series.
Sean Parnell's first book, Outlaw Platoon, was a nonfiction account of his time fighting in Afghanistan and was well-received for its deep dive into the lives and minds of the men with whom he fought for his country. But, as he says in his acknowledgments section, he also had an idea for a novel, and the success of Outlaw Platoon got him in the door of an agent and publisher for Man of War.

Eric Steele is one of the Alphas, a clandestine set of operatives who handle particularly rough jobs to achieve US intelligence and military objectives. They often operate outside established guidelines and are answerable only to the highest levels of the administration. After finishing a mission, Eric learns that one of his own former contacts and friends has gone missing -- along with the portable nuclear device he created. He's tasked with finding out what happened and recovering the nuke. But he learns that his opponent is Nate West, his own mentor and trainer believed to have died in an explosion set by the allies of one of the many men West had killed or captured. Only Nate didn't die, he wants revenge on the administration officials who he believes set him up, killed his family and almost killed him and he has a nuclear device to do it. With the initially unwilling and unwelcome assistance of CIA agent Meg Harden, Steele and his handler Demo have to figure out Nate's next move and stop him before he can get hold of a way to detonate his deadly new prize.

Parnell has a great wealth of technical knowledge and the way that technology has shifted some parts of modern warfare. He writes a great action scene, injecting a sort of swashbuckling attitude into his combat that a lot of other espionage thriller writers either won't or can't do. Both hero and villain have the proper swagger one expects of the well-trained badass, and Meg is no slouch in that department herself.

The story surrounding those scenes is a lot weaker, and the characters other than those on the sharp end a lot shallower and cartoonish. Nate's backstory may have been meant to lend him some sympathy and pathos, but he's basically a too much of a one-note evil sadist for it to work. One of the key behind-the-scenes villains is a woman in a high position of authority whose ambition to succeed a weak president led to disaster for some of those serving under her -- and who's a predatory lesbian to boot. A plotline regarding the health of the president and the way the vice-president is being forced to carry more and more of the weight of guiding Steele's mission has some nice personal touches but adds more fog than focus.

Man of War offers some hints that Parnell might be able to create an intriguing series with Steele and serves up some potentially interesting characters. With one novel under his belt he may have learned some things he wants to do differently in order to rely less on stereotypes and pet peeves and more on more realistically drawn non-protagonists. If he doesn't, there's no shortage of better series and better characters to occupy a reader's time. But if he does he might place a solid new set of reads into the pipeline.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Return of the Varmints!

When last we saw the Wayne County animal control office, it was busy deciding what charges to file against a woman who had kept 17 rescue animals in her as-yet-unlicensed shelter during the rain and floods that accompanied Hurricane Florence.

They have now arrested the woman who operates the rescue operation, Tammie Hedges, and charged her with 12 counts of dispensing medicine without a veterinary license. It seems she gave amoxicillin to some of the animals -- not prescription-grade amoxicillin but the kind that can be bought over the counter. She also "administered an antibiotic ointment to a white Siamese cat." The only action which seems to be iffy is the use of Tramadol, a Schedule IV opiate that requires a prescription.

In any event, we might need to remember these actions were taken during the middle of a hurricane. The shelter owner was not hanging around the Bark Park in a hoodie and sunglasses with a tube of triple antibiotic ointment, saying, "What's the matter, Bowser? Ya ain't chicken, are ya?" Which would probably be ineffective anyway, as Bowser would only recognize the word "chicken" and he would either begin looking for one or run to his owner for a treat.

One thing mystifies me about this latest move. The initial order to surrender the animals came, as best as I can tell, from the kind of nameless bureaucrat we all enjoy dealing with so much. Thanks to things like civil service protection and their ability to call upon Regulatia, the suffocating demonic spirit of the hitherto-unknown Central Office of the Inferno (Slogan: "You only thought the Inner Circle was Hell!"), these people are immune to consequences such as firing or being trained to provide client satisfaction.

But the decision to charge Ms. Hedges seems to have been made by someone in the office of the Wayne County District Attorney, who is an elected official. Despite all manor of sacrifices such as their own character, common sense and in many cases any shred of decency, elected officials have proven unable to tempt Regulatia to protect them as well. They have been forced to rely on Incumbus, itself a powerful being but not from the deep nether regions of the danmed that spawned Regulatia and therefore less effective at protecting its minions and slavish devotees.  Thus, the decision to charge a woman with 12 criminal counts for actions taken while protecting animals during the middle of a hurricane could possibly have electoral repercussions.

Wayne County should be so lucky.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The One With the Weird Ideas

In honor of the 24th anniversary of Friends debuting, here are a few strange ideas people had about what was really going on in the show. Including one that all six of the main cast are actually inpatients at a mental institution.

Most of them are silly, but one thing that's kind of interesting to contemplate is that Ben, the son born to Ross and his ex-wife Carol during season one, would have turned be 23 years old this past May. The triplets that Phoebe gave birth to as the surrogate mother for her half-brother and his wife (his former teacher), are 20. Emma, the daughter Ross has with then-girlfriend Rachel Green, is now old enough to drive. And the twins that Chandler and Monica adopted in the series finale are in middle school at age 14.

Now those kids are the ones who are going to need the therapy.

Friday, September 21, 2018


I was a little worried, because reading this story about a woman in North Carolina who offered to keep pets for storm evacuees who couldn’t afford to board them was coming dangerously close to renewing my faith in humanity.

After all, our elected officials in Washington work very hard to present examples of what happens when pure, refined, unadulterated ambition gets let loose: It feeds, first on everyone else and then on the possessor’s character and credibility until nothing is left. But here we have a woman who was worried about animals in the face of potential flooding from Hurricane Florence. People may not take pets with them when they evacuate, either because the people are human-shaped homunculi built from offal or because they know they can’t pay the cost to board them somewhere safe. But Tammie Hedges offered low-income families and the elderly a place where their animals would be watched, in a warehouse above the flood line. She, 17 cats and 10 dogs rode out the storm safe and dry. Something like that can make you wonder if you’ve been mistaken and your misanthropy is unwarrranted.

Comes the hour, comes the man, in the form of a county animal control supervisor who nailed Hedges and her fledgling nonprofit shelter (she’d been planning to set one up and had the warehouse ready but no permit) for operating an unlicensed animal shelter. Rather than do something like say, “OK, you need to get these animals back to their owners ASAP,” or, “In a couple days or so any you still have need to be brought over to us,” animal control officers told Hedges and the others to sign all of the animals over immediately or they would be back with a warrant to seize them. And they opened an investigation into the unlicensed shelter to boot, with the potential of charges — as yet unspecified.

It’s nice to know that even in the aftermath of a major hurricane government bureaucrats are still fully capable of fulfilling their function of being utter jerks.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Missed Opportunity

Of all the times to not be an artist...

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Take a Picture

Last year’s total eclipse of the sun for those of us in the United States produced some great photography. When one of those is visible in parts of the world with widespread regular airline service and modern roads, the number of folks who get their shot at taking a shot of it is much much larger.

And the creativity involved seems to increase as well. Photographer Jon Carmichael had the idea of trying to snap the event at an altitude high enough to see not only the moon eclipsing the sun but also it’s shadow on the surface of the earth.

Carmichael had the good luck to find a flight that would travel the path of the eclipse at the time and angle that he wanted. Since it was a Southwest Airlines flight, he couldn’t be sure he would get a window seat and was prepared to bribe someone if necessary. But Southwest, a company with a particular genius for quirky marketing behavior, guaranteed him a window seat. The flight captain also made a special outside inspection to clean the window where Carmichael would sit (said quirky marketing genius not being confined to the office) and the pilots circled the plane a few times during the eclipse itself to make certain he and all of the other passengers got a good view.

The results of Carmichael’s work are visible at the link. Because of the wonders of digital media, he shot more than 1,200 photos, but 108 is the one he chose as his official print.

You can also, of course, see a fine promotional video about Carmichael’s project, produced by and courtesy of Southwest Airlines.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Already Ordered

Like any writer or person in the opinion-expression business, Charles Krauthammer aimed to have the last word. Thanks to his estate and his son Daniel, he will.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Squirrel Roberts?

The tagline for this picture in Bored Panda's page of photos from the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards is "Caught in the Act," which I don't quite see. Some of the commenters get closer, with lines like, "Whoa there, everybody just calm down."

My own would be something along the post title, as Mr. Sciuridae here has more than a little of Oral Roberts' "Be healed!" look about him. Either way, it's a funny pic and there are several more at the link.

Sunday, September 16, 2018


You may have heard that the universe is made up of some different kinds of things. There's the very-likely-to-be-found dark matter, the something's-got-to-be-there-but-we-don't-know-what-for-sure of dark energy, and ordinary matter.

Dark matter and dark energy are postulated because the universe acts like it has a lot more mass than we see when we look at it. But until just this summer, even some of the ordinary matter hadn't been detected. We could only see about two-thirds of the ordinary or "baryonic" matter that should be there. This bugged scientists -- the whole idea behind dark matter and dark energy is that they're hard to find. The "dark" in their name refers to the way they're not supposed to interact with any other particles except through gravity. They don't reflect light or other radiation; they don't emit any radiation, and so on. So scientists had made their peace with the idea that those two things might require a lot of work to track down.

But baryonic matter was what the visible universe was made of. Any scientist who wanted to cast his or her eyes on a sample of it just had to look in a mirror -- and be doubly reassured, since both the mirror and the person in it were made up of baryonic matter. The fact that a third of it hadn't been accounted for was a wee bit galling.

However, several astronomers looking at quasars noticed that their view would sometimes be obscured, and eventually discovered massive filaments of superheated oxygen. Some more study and experimenting uncovered that these filaments of Warm-Hot-Intergalactic-Medium (WHIM) added up to the missing third of baryonic matter, likely solving this particular mystery.

Now just where the other 96 percent of the universe is, we've still got to figure out.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Brochure Booboo

An art school in France is blaming its U.S. communications company for darkening the skin of some of the people in a photo featuring its student body, and replacing some of the actual students who are white with darker-skinned folks who don't attend the school.

College brochures, of course, work hard to make sure that they feature a nice variety of melanin and both X and Y chromosomes in the promo pictures. Preferably sitting around outside on a manicured green lawn, absorbing knowledge from the cool, laid-back prof who isn't afraid to teach outdoors when the weather is nice. I used to work at a college, and I can count the number of non-art profs who would teach out of doors on one hand -- subject retention went through the basement when the lecture was presented in the great outdoors with its myriad attractive distractions, not to mention its distracting attractions.

Another thing that the brochures at the college where I used to work would leave out: International students. I worked there for five years and I can count on the other hand the number of international students I saw in any promotional literature not aimed specifically at that pool of recruits. The dearth was one of the marketing office's blind spots. Another was the careful attention paid to properly camouflaging the school's connection to a church denomination. It has a top-level set of programs in the performing arts and the admissions office for some reason believed that being too overt in mentioning the church that founded the school would make it harder to recruit the top students for those programs.

One of the several focus groups and such that tried to create mission or branding statements for the college met with different groups of employees and students to test out some of the ones they had developed through surveys. We were shown five or six and asked to respond to them in different ways, as well as pick which one we thought best described the mission of the school. "Well, none of them describe the mission of the school for my community," I said. "The people in my denomination's churches would figure on some mention of faith, or a life of faith and none of these do that."

"Well, if you had to pick one," said the market research company employee who was probably not happy he drew the group with the associate chaplain, "which one would be closest?"

I shrugged. "But I don't have to pick one," I said. "And none of them include what I think ought to be essential to the mission of a church-related university." After some silence he moved on; I saw his co-worker make some mark on her tally sheet but I have no idea what it was. In any event the new mission slogan came out a month or so later and I think lasted for almost a year before we had a new strategizing routine tossed at us to develop a new slogan. I can't recall what either of them were, of course.

Thursday, September 13, 2018


Not a post about the upcoming holiday, but about what happened when someone mistyped a word and just possibly helped hasten the Allied victory in World War II.

Jake Rossen writes at Mental Floss about the time that the Bletchley Park codebreaking operation recruited a cryptogamist named Geoffrey Tandy in 1939. The Ministry of Defence wanted scientists to help with efforts to crack the secret German military codes; this operation included brilliant mathematicians like Alan Turing.

The problem: A codebreaker is a cryptogramist, with an "r." A "cryptogamist" like Tandy studies algae. For two years, Tandy worked with the group but was more or less extraneous.

Until the day in 1941 that the Allies recovered papers from a sunken German submarine that showed how to use the German coding machine Enigma to decode encrypted German messages. Papers that were waterlogged. Papers that needed highly specialized techniques to be dried out and still remain both legible and intact -- techniques not entirely dissimilar to those that a cryptogamist might use to dry out fragile algae for study.

Sucks to be you, Adolf.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A Troll Tongue With a Nice View

The Troll Tongue rock formation in Norway is in the foreground of an intricately detailed portrait of the Milky Way. Looks like we picked a pretty good place to live.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Simplicity Itself!

We present another in our occasional series of science-related headlines that just beg for attention, even if it's almost impossible to know what they mean:
"All-inorganic perovskite nanocrystals illuminate the future of scintillators"
In as close to a nutshell as I can find, what this means is that a particular kind of nanocrystal known as perovskite will assist physicists when they use the process of scintillation in experiments. "Scintillation" is the conversion of photons to visible fluorescence so they can be seen. This conversion is important to several medical and astronomical procedures.

Ordinary scintillation has just about reached its useful limits with equipment currently available, though, meaning that scientists will not be able to perform more precise and more involved experiments using the process. Previous experiments have extended scintillation's reach by using perovskite nanocrystals, a particular setup of molecules that responds to different energy levels. But until recently, those nanocrystals have been made up of a hybrid of organic and inorganic material -- only now Dr. Xiaogang Liu at the University of Singapore has used an all-inorganic form of the perovskite nanocrystal to produce even more detailed images.

But of course I don't have to tell you that, O Tolerant Reader...

Monday, September 10, 2018

Sneak Thief

At the Washington Free Beacon, Joseph Bottum explores a recent fuss at YouTube involving copyrights and composers dead for almost three centuries.

Bottum relates some other news stories on the matter, in which people playing music from Johann Sebastian Bach in videos on YouTube were told that they were playing copyrighted music and it would have to be taken down or they would have to allow advertising on the video. The idea is kind of ludicrous, because Bach's music has long been in the public domain and can be played by anyone who can master it.

The problem, it turns out, is that certain performances of Bach pieces are indeed copyrighted by the music companies that released them. When the YouTube algorithm that sniffs around and looks for copyright violations encounters the computer code that makes sounds like the sounds it knows are copyrighted, it flags them and the person who posted the video gets a notice about it.

Bottum's point is that any human being checking on this would know that you can't copyright music in the public domain and that someone who plays Bach on their very own piano is not stealing music from anyone even though the songs sound the same. But an algorithm is too simple-minded to make a judgment call like that. YouTube makes the whole thing more of a mess because it makes it hard to file a notice to undo the violation.

It's a problem that YouTube doesn't have an incentive to fix unless someone sitting on a bench makes them, which means we will probably have to wait on America's favorite number one-hit: a lawsuit.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

For the Win!

A comic strip that's funny, mocks consequentialist utilitarianism and makes fun of Peter Singer?


Saturday, September 8, 2018

Timing is Everything

I could do this.

Of course, I would have left the lens cap on.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Back to the Drawing Board

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decided to put it's new "Best Popular Movie" category on hold after a lot of people pointed out a significant flaw: It's a silly idea.

A lot of the criticism aimed at the idea labeled it a kind of ratings grab, acknowledging that recent  Academy honorees were movies that nobody went to, so nobody cared to watch them win or lose the Academy opinion poll. With the new category, Academy members could keep rewarding stuff they liked and offer the television-watching (and movie attending) masses a bone by sending a statue home with one of those movies they liked.

Whether the problem is that Hollywood forgot how to make top-quality movies that also attracted people to the theaters or Academy voters have for their own reasons been drawn to movies that didn't interest anyone who had to pay for tickets is a question beyond my ability to research. Either way, the performance category Oscars are still what they have always been: An opinion poll among a small group of people with their own tastes and interests. Until those interests intersect more with those of the people who buy the tickets and might watch the show, that "might" is going to stick around no matter how many gimmick categories the Academy dreams up.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Part We Missed

A quote attributed to G. K. Chesterton has him answering a letter from the editors of The Times of London about what is wrong with the world with the following statement: "Dear Sir, I am." It's certainly one of those that sounds right, even if there's no documentation to back it up. In either event, Chesterton did write a book called What's Wrong With the World that could be said to have included him as a culprit, even if not stated that way in so many words.

The saying comes to mind when listening to Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse's opening statements from Wedesday's hearings on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court. Sasse offers a defense of Kavanaugh's qualifications and then adds some thoughts on why the hearings are such a ridiculous circus (aside from the fact that Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are two twerps who want to be president more than they want to do their jobs as senators and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is just a twerp). What's the major problem with Congressional hearings on judges, Sasse asks? Well, a la Chesterton, he says the major problem is Congress. Not because it contains so many people who couldn't get real jobs if their parents owned a company -- that's the voters' fault for electing them.

But because a cowardly and lazy Congress has abdicated its job of making legislation, handing it over to the executive branch and its faceless unelected bureaucrats and the courts and their law-creating instead of law-interpreting rulings.

Sasse's statement, which makes up about 90% of the sensible words said Wednesday, was lost in the midst of the craven pandering from Harris, the utterly bone-headed self-aggrandizement of Booker and the disassociation from reality of Whitehouse. It's too bad, because the second half of his words would be exactly right even if he was talking about a judge he opposed.

Of course, if a legislative branch operated like it was supposed to it wouldn't have any appeal to folks like that, since it would require a sense of shame and the ability to work something other than a mouth.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Three Reads

Although T. Jefferson Parker works primarily in the detective and criminal suspense genre, he's always had a bit of a literary bent and a tendency to insert the sort of "extras" that those kinds of novels like to use as prybars for opening up the human condition for their commentary. In 2006's The Fallen, that quirk is the synesthesia that affects San Diego police officer Robbie Brownlow.

Robbie was thrown from a sixth floor window but survived his injuries. The experience has colored his view of the world and also scrambled some of his senses: Sometimes when people talk he can see colored shapes that indicate the emotions behind their words. It's not constant but it sometimes lets him know when people are lying to him, which comes in handy when he's talking to people about crimes that may connect to them.

Robbie and his partner, the aggressive McKenzie Cortez, have found a body in a Jeep -- a former police investigator named Garrett Asplundh who's crossed over to investigating potential wrongdoing by police or other public officials. A tragedy in Asplundh's past suggests he may have taken his own life, but the clues don't add up that way and Asplundh was apparently on the trail of high-level corruption that people probably would have been ready to take drastic steps to stop. Since finding out the truth about the victim's death might expose that same corruption, Robbie and McKenzie could be in the same crosshairs.

Parker wisely doesn't overuse Robbie's synesthesia by making him some kind of telepathic human lie detector who instantly sees the truth behind lies. He can only "see" what his other senses suggest to him, so even if he believes someone's deceiving him he doesn't know about what or what the real story might be. The restraint allows the procedural aspects of Fallen to unwind at a steady pace, although Parker does throw a personal crisis or two for Robbie that doesn't seem to have a place in a standalone novel. He may have thought about more than one book with these characters but if so decided against it, so those threads are left dangling. Fallen is still a solid effort, with a slick story, engaging characters and Parker's trademark mix of laconic narration and vivid description.
Clay Edison usually winds up on the scene of a crime after it happens -- he works for the Alameda County Sheriff's Office as a coroner. But his investigative instincts keep him on the hunt when he meets up with a mystery, even if his superiors try to keep him focused on the more everyday aspects of his job. In A Measure of Darkness, his second outing, the father-and-son team of Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman give Clay a puzzle in the midst of a tragedy.

A non-scheduled house party is the scene of a shooting that leaves several people dead and wounded. Clay is called to the scene and finds another body -- a young woman who was strangled instead of shot and was nowhere near the gunfire. Before he can figure out what happened to her he has to figure out who she is, and that's going to be a tough task in and of itself. Clay's only given a limited time to probe the case before handing it off to regular investigators, and when the leads he develops only wind up posing more questions his leash -- and the amount of time he has to find justice for this victim -- grows significantly shorter.

Kellerman the elder has been writing the Alex Delaware novels for the last thirty years and so knows his way around a police procedural. Kellerman the younger has a handle on the mindset more in line with someone Clay's age and has shown a somewhat defter hand at exploring the interior dimensions of a character. Although she's not credited here, Kellerman matriarch Faye has been the clan's best hand at adding the dimension of family life to a story and may have been a behind-the-scenes influence on the novel, since the presence of Clay's recently-released-from-prison brother plays a big role in the story, as does his own developing relationship.

Measure offers a cameo from Kellerman the elder's Delaware but doesn't otherwise reference earlier work from either man. The Clay Edison novels seem significantly more promising than the pair's supernaturally-tinged "Golem" series, so we can hope they stay on this path and leave the other behind for awhile.
Although detective fiction writer David Housewright is far better known for his Rushmore McKenzie novels, he began with a more traditional private investigator named Holland Taylor in 1995. Taylor appeared in three novels, finishing with 1999's Dearly Departed, before Housewright switched to McKenzie. He returned to Holland Taylor's Minneapolis to check in with the former police officer just this year, in Darkness, Sing Me a Song.

Housewright doesn't move Taylor ahead the full 19 years since his last outing but does let some time pass. Taylor's relationship with lawyer Cynthia Grey has collapsed, but he's entered a partnership with former rival investigator "Freddie" Fredericks. The pair have been hired by attorney David Helin to find evidence that will clear Eleanor Barrington of killing her son Joel's girlfriend, Emily Denys. The problem is that most of the evidence they can find suggests Eleanor probably did it and against it they have only Eleanor's word she didn't. Since Eleanor is an exceptionally unpleasant woman with an unhealthy relationship to her son, the weight seems to be pretty heavily on one side.

As Taylor digs more and more into the everybody-loved-her Emily, he finds she lacks much history at all. His attempts to see who she really was lead him to a small town torn by new, environmentally invasive industry that seems at first to have nothing to do with Joel or Emily, even though the Barringtons own land in the area. But some corporate weasels, a paranoid militia group and a suspiciously similar murder draw his attention, and make the entire matter significantly more dangerous than it was when it started.

Taylor is quick-witted and Housewright makes him and a number of his castmates quite funny, with the Taylor-Freddie repartee standing out especially. The narrative wanders a little too much and keeps Taylor on site at the scene of the earlier murder longer than it really ought to. Even though the trigger-puller seems pretty obvious just about halfway through, Housewright keeps trying to throw in more spins to keep readers interested. That tendency affected the earlier trilogy as well. Like an over-reaching gymnast whose stretch for one more twist keeps her from sticking the landing, Housewright could never resist the extra swerve even though it caused an unbalanced story. Likeable characters made those three books work (or didn't; one of the reasons Practice to Deceive fails so completely is that Taylor is such a horse's ass in it).

Holland Taylor is a character who's fun to spend time with but who can become a trial when his creator doesn't make that likeability a strength or keep his eye on the ball in telling a story. A fifth Taylor novel is due in January, and the odd numbers have so far served him better than even ones, so we shall see.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018


It seems that Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California have knowledge denied to most of the rest of us. Specifically, they know who the Libertarian candidate for president will be in 2020.

How's that go, you ask? Well, both have been mentioned as people interested in running for the Democratic nomination for that office. But their ridiculous grandstanding about a Supreme Court nominee whom they have already said they will oppose, combined with the timing of their fundraising e-mails (sent out while they were childishly interrupting other people trying to speak), make it as impossible to vote for them as it already is to vote for the incumbent, Donald Trump, should he choose to run again.

If I believe that Sens. Booker and Harris -- as well as several others -- acted this way deliberately, and that they themselves want to be the Democratic nominee, then I am forced to believe that they know who the Libertarian party will nominate and want me to vote for that person. They should have just said so and saved themselves a lot of embarrassment. Yes, I know, they've demonstrated an invulnerability to that feeling, but it's possible the light will dawn someday and they will develop the capacity for shame.

Someone's gotta be the first.

Monday, September 3, 2018

From the Rental Vault: The Hangman (1959)

So once upon a time, Ginger Grant, Davy Crockett, Steve McGarrett, Ben Cartwright/Commander Adama and Thelma Lou were all in a movie together, which starred Robert Taylor and was directed by Academy Award nominee Michael Curtiz.

The movie, The Hangman, was billed and marketed as a Western, but it was really more of a character drama than an oater, with no gunfights and only one outing of Ye Olde Fisticuffs to speak of. Taylor plays U.S. Deputy Marshal Mac Bovard, who is out to track down the last man accused of a Wells Fargo holdup that resulted in murder. Bovard has a reputation as dogged and merciless, bringing in the worst criminals to face justice at the end of a rope, so he has gained the nickname "The Hangman." The problem is that he's never seen the man, John Butterfield, and has no way to identify him. When Bovard gets a lead on a town where Butterfield might be, he finds a woman who knew him when he was serving in the Army who can identify him. But Selah Jennison (Tina Louise) owes Butterfield and is reluctant to betray him to the law, even for the $500 reward Bovard offers. She refuses, but he cynically predicts she will come around.

Once at his destination, Bovard becomes suspicious of a man named Johnny Bishop (Jack Lord), but local sheriff Buck Weston (Fess Parker) says he will have a hard time convincing anyone that Johnny Bishop is any kind of criminal. Bovard counts on Selah Jennison to make the identification, but when the days drag on without her arrival he grows frustrated. When she finally does arrive she doesn't identify Bishop as Butterfield, but the suspicious Bovard doesn't trust her.

Taylor is far and away the biggest name in the cast, with his co-stars either best known for TV roles like Parker or Lord, or relative newcomers like Louise. He displays Bovard's bitter cynicism well, blaming it on all of his years of hunting and moving among the worst of humanity. Fess Parker's easygoing manner offsets him well, as his Sheriff Weston seems genial even when expressing frustration at Bovard's obsession and mistrustful nature. Tina Louise was said to have hated the impact her three-year stint as airheaded actress Ginger Grant on Gilligan's Island had on her career. She demonstrates here that she did have a pretty good range, handling the different layers of Selah Jennison's pivotal role with more than a little skill.

Hangman, based on a story by Western writer Luke Short, tends to be a little talky in spots and sometimes tells when it should show, as though Dudley Nichols' screenplay doesn't trust his cast to act instead of read exposition. It swerves Taylor back and forth between the cynicism that he claims to hold and regretful ruminations on that same attitude without as much foundation as it should have built. It suggests a relationship between the 48-year-old Taylor and 25-year-old Louise that makes little sense and has even less foundation. But it's still interesting, and offers some food for thought on what can turn an idealist bitter, and what might also manage to make a bitter person rediscover his or her ideals.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Interesting Dilemma

Some moon dust has been stirred in the past week as people who've seen the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man have noted it doesn't have a scene in which Armstrong actually plants an American flag on the surface of the moon.

Armstrong and crewmate Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, in the lunar module Eagle. The self-effacing Armstrong never sought publicity and was uncomfortable with many aspects of the notoriety that came with being the first human being to set foot on a place not Earth. He rejected the idea that he himself had any special qualities or deserved that much attention, not quite understanding that people didn't think he landed on the moon because he was special, but that he was special because he landed on the moon. Other than the official 1970 release First on the Moon, co-written by Armstrong, Aldrin and mission pilot Michael Collins, Armstrong kept quiet about his life for many years. In 2005, James Hansen published the Armstrong biography First Man, on which the movie was based. Armstrong passed away in 2012.

Having not seen the movie itself -- it's not scheduled for release in the U.S. until October -- the only kind of comments I can make are about what other people have said. A lot of people, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, have slammed the decision to leave out the flag planting. On the other side, Armstrong's sons Rick and Mark and Hansen himself have said the flag is clearly seen in several shots of the time Armstrong and Aldrin spent on the moon. So maybe we all ought to wait and see for ourselves.

And in the meantime, we can remember why nobody pays actors to say their own words. Ryan Gosling, who was minus 11 in 1969, plays Armstrong and he responded to the perhaps premature flag flap with some silly words, to wit: “I don’t think Neil viewed himself as an American hero, quite the opposite.” And, “I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement and that’s how we chose to view it.”

First Man director Damien Chazelle has got a couple of strong directorial outings to his credit, helming J. K. Simmons' Oscar-winning performance in Whiplash and Emma Stone's in La La Land.  He fares less well as a writer, dragging down his batting average with The Last Exorcism Part II and 10 Cloverfield Lane. Still, that's not a reason to condemn the movie a month before it's out; as the younger Armstrongs and Hansen have both said it's not like the movie has no flag, or replaces the Stars and Stripes with the UN banner or a multi-colored MTV logo. It just doesn't show the actual moment of planting the flagstaff in the lunar soil.

Which in the end doesn't matter anyway, because on July 21, 1969, the actual Neil Armstrong put an actual American flag on the actual moon and, unless we've had some sneaky extrasolar visitors in the ensuing 49 years, it's still there. Here's hoping we go back one day and see for ourselves.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Gathered Up

-- A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I find myself disagreeing with economist Tyler Cowen about a lot of things, even though I liked the idea behind his new book and what he was going to do with the proceeds. He's helpfully offered some evidence as to why I give some of his opinions the short end of the shrift.

-- The Lego people claimed that you could build anything with their Lego Technic bricks. In order to prove it, they built a Bugatti Chiron using more than a million of the little plastic late-night carpet caltrops. More than that, they put a bunch of Lego motors in it to power it (top speed: 18 mph) and batteries to power its lights. As you can see at the link they had someone actually test drive it. The Lego version of the Chiron does tip the scales at about 700 pounds less than its metallic counterpart, but engineers had no idea of how safe it might actually be. After spending more than 13,000 work-hours building it, no one had the heart to crash it into anything.

-- A drifting planet a dozen times as large as Jupiter has been spotted drifting through space about 20 light years from our solar system. Although it's drawn scientific attention because of its unusual aurorae, it doesn't look like we're in for a real-life version of When Worlds Collide any time soon, since this potential visitor does not have its own star. Nor, comparing its name of SIMP J01365663 +0933473 to that story's "Zyra," does it sound much like a place to check out for a vacation.