Monday, December 30, 2019

Worldview

Chinese prosecutors: "This pastor has subverted the power of the state!"

Chinese courts: "That'll be nine years and 50,000 yuan!"

Jesus: "Atta boy, good and faithful servant."

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Oh, You Didn't Know?

The good folk at Mental Floss came up with a list of 20 things about the 20-year-old spoof movie Galaxy Quest that folks today might not know.

The one I like is that it was ranked the 7th best Star Trek movie in a fan poll at a 2013 Trek convention. Not enough groups of people recognize a quality piece of satire done so well that they actually consider it a part of the canon that it satirizes. Kudos, Trekkers.

Friday, December 27, 2019

That's What Christmas Is All About, Charlie Brown

Obviously without the characters, art and vision of Charles Schulz, The Charlie Brown Christmas Special would never have made it onto television, since Schulz created the Peanuts strips from which the special grew.

But the wonder of Peanuts and Schulz's vision wasn't enough by itself to get the show to air, as it required producer Lee Mendelson for everything from stalwartly defending the choice to cast real children as the voices, to including the passage from Luke, to writing the lyrics of "Christmas Time is Here." Mendelson went on to work on more than 50 Peanuts specials and even a couple of movies, but none of them matched that wonderful first outing.

Mendelson went to help Schulz pitch scripts in the eternal realm, passing away on Christmas Day at 86.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Causing Friction

Often scientific breakthroughs in today's physics come on the scale of the incredibly small, incredibly large, incredibly fast or incredibly weird. But the field includes the study of very basic concepts that were known, even if not named, hundreds or even thousands of years ago. And many physicists like to study them, too, and uncover the weirdness that rests behind ideas we encounter far more often than we do quantum field theory.

One such idea is friction, and one such scientist is Andria Rogava of Ilia State University in Georgia -- the country, not the state. Rogava plays a lot of tennis and one day decided to stack the used tennis balls he had in his office, when scientific curiosity drove him to arrange them in several different configurations in order to see which ones were stable. Because tennis balls are not perfectly smooth, even when new, they have more friction when they touch each other. That means that making them move past each other requires more energy than it would to make smoother objects move past each other when touching. Physics World named Rogava's pictorial of his stacks one of its photos of the year, and the original blog entry from May can be found here.

The increased friction between tennis balls means that it takes more gravitational energy to make them fall apart than it would, say, racquetballs. Rogava tries to find configurations of the tennis ball stacks that use the friction to stabilize the stacks, even one with 25 tennis balls that stands nine levels high. He also includes a video of one of his stacks falling apart when only a single ball is removed in order to refute folks that say he glues the balls together somehow.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Top This!

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo fires his latest blast in the ongoing battle to be the dumbest child of the late Mario Cuomo. He vetoed legislation that would have expanded the ability of federal judges in New York to perform marriages -- legislation that passed the NY Assembly 144-2 and the NY Senate 61-1. His reasoning? Some of those judges were appointed by President Trump, who does not "embody" the "New York cornerstones" of "diversity, tolerance and inclusion." Thus they cannot be permitted to perform weddings. Unless of course they pay a $25 fee to one of those online pretend churches and get licensed to perform weddings in the state.

You know, for a guy who's supposed to despise President Trump so much, Gov. Cuomo seems to be working awfully hard to get him re-elected.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Choices

Today I presided at a graveside funeral service on a day just cold and windy enough to be a bit chilly unless you were standing in the sun, on a hillside cemetery looking down onto rows and rows of the days gone by, and listened to the man's great-granddaughter sing "How Great Thou Art."

I would not be an atheist for all the money that's ever been minted.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Comebacks

Berkeley Breathed has been drawing Bloom County again for awhile. Now Gary Larson has given his The Far Side an online home as well. Could this mean that Larson might draw some new cartoons himself now and again? And if he does, could it be that Bill Watterson follows suit, bring the late 20th century's best comics back to entertain us, even if they bypass the atrophying newspapers in which they used to appear?

C'mon, Season of Miracles, don't fail me now!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Huh?

As we near the end of 2019 we may expect lists of the best and worst things of this or that category that have happened since January 1. The New York Times lets us know which books its editors consider the ten best of the year here.

I don't know if I have any quarrel with any of the inclusions -- I haven't read a one of them -- and I might in fact peek at one or two. The Club sounds interesting, for one. But each entry boasts a quote from the original NYT review, and accompanying Ben Lerner's The Topeka School is this sentence:
Lerner’s exhilarating third novel, after “Leaving the Atocha Station” and “10:04,” rocks an emphatically American amplitude, ranging freely from parenthood to childhood, from toxic masculinity to the niceties of cunnilingus, from Freud’s Oedipus complex to Tupac’s “All Eyez on Me.”
After reading this from Garth Risk Hallberg's review originally published in October, I realized that not only do I not know if I want to read this book, I don't even know what the bleep Hallberg is talking about. I know several of the items he refers to, but he's combined them in ways that make no sense.

You may be thinking that, because I sometimes write little book reviews in this space I might somehow be comparing my work to Mr. Hallberg's. By no means. He writes impenetrable word salad and I riff on airport novels, but ain't no one cuttin' ya boy any checks for this stuff.

Clearly, I am doing it wrong.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Nuts!

What became known as the Battle of the Bulge began 75 years ago today during World War II. German forces moved strongly against the Allies through the Ardennes Forest in an attempt to split Allied forces.

The battle was one of the costliest in the war in terms of lives and while the high body count delayed the Allied invation of Germany for several weeks it may have hastened Germany' defeat because of their own severe losses in men and matériel. A successful counteroffensive might indeed have split the Allied forces, but Germany faced the same kinds of problems that eventually doomed its Reich. It lacked the immense resources the United States could bring into the war and had no ability to project power against the strongest member of its enemy coalition, the United States. A different outcome for the Battle of the Bulge might have prolonged the loss, but in the end the fatal flaws of the Axis Powers would probably have proved too great to overcome.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Holiday!

December 15 was National Bill of Rights Day and celebrates a pretty important part of our national agreement on how we're going to live together and operate our country. Lots of people these days would, it seems, like to replace statements that guarantee freedoms with those that guarantee safety, conveniently overlooking that safety can't be guaranteed.

According to some sources, other days are also celebrated on December 15, among them Cat Herders' Day. George Washington, elected by his fellow delegates to preside at the Constitutional Convention that created the main body of the document and its first 10 amendments, might have appreciated the coincidence.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Mebs! Mebs!

Researchers working on newly-discovered ancient Egyptian graves think they may have discovered actual evidence of small cone-shaped headgear frequently shown in Egyptian art.

The cones were initially believed to be symbolic, the way that halos are often shown around Christian figures in medieval artwork. But a group of scholars working in modern-day Amarna have examined graves in a mostly-untouched cemetery and found several of the bodies are topped with cones that match those shown in the artwork.

Some mysteries remain to be solved, though. One inscription under a family shown with the cones was recently translated to read, "These people are from France." Scientists are not exactly sure what this means, given that people living in what is today's France during the the time period in question would not have given themselves or their region that name.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Error

President Trump, as many people have noted, is a man of poor character, poor impulse control and more narcissism than half of Hollywood put together. It's tempting to say he says some of the stupidest possible things that can be said by a self-proclaimed conservative person in politics.

Yield not to temptation, though, for comes now one Michael Dale Huckabee of Arkansas -- the man who would not quit the 2008 race for the GOP nomination even after it became mathematically impossible for him to win, saying, "I didn't major in math, I majored in miracles...." The former Arkansas governor and two-time primary loser today dropped this one on the world: President Trump would be eligible for a third term if he won re-election next year, "due to the illegal attempts" to remove him from office.

It was late, I was tired and I'd thought about going to bed without posting. Thanks to Mike Huckabee, I rolled my eyes so far back in my head I had to call AAA to pull them back in line and now I can't sleep.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

One Better Answer Remains

Each month Astronomy magazine -- the best reading money I spend, period -- has a question section called "Ask Astro." Earlier this year, one of the questions Astro answered had to do with the Voyager space probes, which were launched in the 1970s, greatly increased our knowledge of our solar system and are now speeding outwards into interstellar space.

A Mr. Richard Feder, of Ft. Lee, NJ, writes...oh, wait. Wrong bit. Mark from St. Louis, MO, asks Astro if we should expect those space probes to return to Earth. Astro uses the question for a quick and thorough explanation of the idea of escape velocities, or speeds necessary to get out of the gravity well of a planet or star like our Sun. As he points out, the probes are both zipping along far too fast and are well beyond the range where the Sun's gravity could turn them around, so his answer is no, we should not expect the Voyager probes to return to Earth. While he's technically correct, I think Astro would have made a whole lot of new fans if he had given us the answer almost everyone really wants to hear:

"Yes. When we go get them."

Monday, December 9, 2019

Off the Diamond

In the months following the Pearl Harbor attacks, the United States military branches mobilized thousands and thousands of men for fighting on the land, sea and air. Before its new pilots could take to the air and begin learning how to fly their deadly machines, the different military branches knew they had to make sure they were in fighting shape, both mentally and physically. So at several different locations around the country they instituted their Pre-Flight Training schools to shape their recruits into fighters. Interestingly, sports competitions were part of the regiment of training in addition to survival and outdoor living skills.

Among those recruits were well-known athletes and celebrities, many of whom took to that part of their training well. The curious coincidence led to "all-star" teams of athletes playing against each other for morale-boosting public relations events as well as meeting training goals. The Chapel Hill Pre-Flight Training School hosted, among others, Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky and employed a local youngster named Jimmy Raugh as a ball boy. Raugh's daughter, writer Anne R. Keene, discovered a trunk full of Pre-Flight School memorabilia following his death and it launched her on a mission to tell the nearly forgotten tale of teams like the one on which Williams himself played, the Cloudbuster Nine.

Keene weaves parts of her own story with her father into the pair of stories about how Pre-Flight was developed and planned, and how Williams and his class went through the training regimen. It jars the flow on a couple of occasions. Since the mystery of why her father quit baseball as a young man and why that choice caused him such misery is at the core of this part of the memoir, wanting to know how it will wind up distracts from the other storylines. Keene was able to interview some surviving members of the school to learn how it affected their lives, and uses those stories in line with the way Williams used the knowledge of physics and aeronautics he gained during the training to improve his hitting when the war ended.

Some might wish that Keene had stuck to one narrative frame or another -- her father's story, the history of how Pre-Flight was developed or Williams' own time in the program. Realistically, though no one of the three offers more than a long magazine article's worth of material and after so long it may not be possible to recover enough information to fill a whole book. If another attic somewhere houses a trunk of dusty records of one or another of the Pre-Flight schools, then Keene's book will be an excellent foundation on which to build a fuller picture of this fascinating corner of the story of World War II.
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The memorabilia cases of a spy agency are intentionally cryptic, displaying items that will almost certainly have far more back story buried in classified files. One case in the Office of Strategic Services section of the Central Intelligence Agency museum displays two baseball cards, those for a journeyman catcher for five major-league and two minor-league teams during the 1930s named Moe Berg.

In addition to his rather undistinguished baseball career, Berg worked for the OSS -- the CIA's predecessor agency -- during World War II, playing a role in identifying some potential resistance groups in Axis-controlled territory and assessing how far along Germany's atomic weapons program had advanced. After starting college at New York University, he finished his undergraduate studies at Princeton and later earned a law degree from Columbia University.

The usual gloss on Berg's life hits these high points, but writer Nicholas Dawidoff's 1994 debut biography The Catcher Was a Spy digs deeper. He seemed to have a gift for picking up languages, which led him to be included on some off-season baseball tours of Japan. Filming the trip for the MovieTone news company gave him access to areas that more official agencies didn't have, and military planners later used some of his footage in outlining bombing runs and strategic capabilities of Japanese defense forces.

Dawidoff outlines Berg's relatively successful missions for the OSS during WWII, as well as a much less successful stint with the successor CIA in the Cold War period. More than most other sketches of Berg's life, he also unreels the former spy's semi-nomadic later years, spent living with family and friends and supported largely by the kindness of friends. Some of these later sections sag, as similar events reoccur, only with different people. Berg's eccentricities grew with time, to the point that some people were uncomfortable with him and his brother threw him out of his house. Through interviews with people remembering their time with Berg, Dawidoff shows how Berg's calculated and crafted persona became so deeply rooted in him that he sometimes wondered if anything about him or about others was real or faked.

There's the quick-hit profile of Moe Berg, the intellectual ballplayer with Princeton diploma and a law degree, who undertook secret missions for his country during the years of WWII. And there's the more layered picture of a man who shaped himself to what others expected of him in order to get what he wanted. Dawidoff shows both. Even though there's not a lot more to learn, The Catcher Was a Spy offers enough to peek behind the public projection of a man who might have been a secret even to himself.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Shaker Scandal?

When I was a reporter, I would sometimes find myself without something to do or cover, so I'd dig around the AP wire thread to see if anything showed up that could be stretched out into a story with a local angle. Or even an interesting one. Sometimes the strategy worked, and sometimes it didn't and I looked like a guy who was desperate for something to throw my byline over in order to justify my paycheck.

Over at Business Insider, James Pasley assumes that role with his photographic essay on how President Trump has bigger salt and pepper shakers than does anyone else eating at the table with him, and how his three predecessors were content with condiment dispenser equality.

Every time I see a story like this I both groan and roll my eyes. The eyeroll comes from the obsession of the majority of media outlets in finding any possible way to make the President look bad, especially compared with other presidents and doubly especially with former President Obama. And some of it comes from the fact that President Trump is a twerp. The groan comes from the realization that these idiots will not stop doing stuff like this until the president is re-elected in 2020, based at least partly on the belief of his supporters that if the mistrusted media are against him this much, he must be doing something right.

We're in for four more years of this crud and the best hope the Democrats have of defeating the president challenged an 83-year-old man to pushups the other day because he didn't like the question he was asked.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Anniversary

So 78 years ago today, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service visited Pearl Harbor and asked to have their collective ass well and truly kicked. Although the request was more than a little impolite, the United States generously obliged.

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Good Old Days

At this item at Ask the Past we can see advice on how to make waffles, circa 1393. One of the ways places a slice of cheese between two layers of batter.

We've lost so much of our ancestors' wisdom.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Knowing the Answer

When I open a new tab in my browser, I'm shown a series of articles that may or may not pique my interest and offer me a diverting read. Sometimes they do, although sometimes they are also just a couple of steps above clickbait.

One I read recently had been taken from a BBC report, and it was about how airlines have lengthened scheduled flight times in order to make it more likely that the flights will arrive on time. It's interesting enough, but what caught my eye, of course, was the explanatory headline: "Why Airlines Make Flights Longer on Purpose." The BBC article does explain the rationale behind the change, but invoking ol' William of Ockham gives us a more honest, if not very specific answer. Why do airlines make flights longer on purpose?

Because they suck, we're stuck, and they don't care.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Brilliant!

Dan Piraro offers an explanation/excuse for poor math grades that I wish I'd thought of.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Election Shruggery

1. Montana governor Steve Bullock ended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency today. Part of his statement: "...it has become clear that in this moment, I won’t be able to break through to the top tier of this still-crowded field of candidates." No offense intended, Steve, but that became clear to the rest of the country on May 14.

2. Former Pennsylvania representative Joe Sestak did the same a day earlier, saying that his inability to get media attention hamstrung his fundraising and thus hampered his campaign. I'm tempted to say that's a sort of tautology: I couldn't get any attention so I couldn't get any money, and because I didn't have any money I couldn't get any attention. But it's hard to feel sorry for Sestak about that, since he entered the race on June 23, even later than Bullock did, and became the 25th official candidate for the Democratic nomination. In what world does he think that the last guy in a crowded, exhausting field of people rarely heard of outside their own state lines will get substantial press coverage?

3. Senator Elizabeth Warren has said that she intends to be the last president ever elected by the Electoral College. Although she plans to win the old-fashioned way in 2020, she wants her second election to come from direct popular vote. Aside from the fundamental unfairness this plan makes clear -- if successful she would probably also become the last president to ever visit Wyoming or Idaho, since their combined populations don't quite equal that of Brooklyn -- it's another instance of Senator Warren having at best a pen-pal relationship with whatever she happens to be talking about. The Electoral College is in Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States of America.

As I describe the two ways by which Article 2, Section 1 can be changed, see if you can spot the HUMONGOUS GLARING FRICKIN' FLAW in Senator Warren's plan to eliminate it once she becomes president so that her second election comes via direct ballot. 1) A new Constitutional Convention is called for by two-thirds of the state legislatures, and then approved by Congress. Any and all legal challenges to this unprecedented action are overturned. The new convention does not include an Electoral College in its revisions, and this new one is ratified by the states. 2) Congress, by a two-thirds majority of both houses, calls for a Constitutional amendment to eliminate the Electoral College. This call is in no way slowed or otherwise interfered with by legal challenges. Three-fourths of the state legislatures approve it. In both of these hypotheticals, all of these things happen between January 21, 2021 and November 5, 2024.

Now, of course you noticed that time frame is, in the eyes and minds of anyone who lives on this planet, science fiction. And you noticed that Senator Warren assumes she will win the nomination and the general election in 2020. And you noticed that she also assumes she will win them in 2024. But none of those things are the capitalized flaw I mentioned above. No, that flaw is reserved for the halibut-smack-in-the-face fact that the President has absolutely no role in any of the steps above. In either scenario, the President is simply another citizen of the United States, who may ask Congress or state legislatures to begin the process but who may be swiftly told "No" and shown the door. So what we could see play out would be this:

(Hypothetical)President Warren: "Mr./Madam Speaker, I ask Congress to request the states approve amending the Constitution to remove the electoral college."

Speaker of the House/House Minority Leader, depending on which party holds the majority, or the Senate Majority Leader or Minority Leader, or possibly the leaders of 17 state legislatures: "Buzz off."

The End.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Oops!

The problem with glitter is that when you spill it, it gets everywhere. Floor, clothes, couch, galaxy 15 million light-years away...


Thursday, November 28, 2019

From the Rental Vault: The Far Country (1955)

Director Anthony Mann and James Stewart made six movies together through the early and mid-1950s, and the collaboration is often credited with helping Stewart shed enough of his "aw-shucks" image that he could convince audiences of his moral ambiguity in his later movies with Alfred Hitchcock. Both star and actor relied heavily on the standard features of westerns, working within and through them to give Stewart believable dimension in his performances.

The Far Country came in the middle of their period of working together. Jeff Webster (Stewart) and partner Ben Tatem (Walter Brennan) head north to the Klondike Gold Rush but plan to finance their stake and operations with the proceeds from selling cattle to the mining community of Dawson in the Yukon. But on their arrival in Skagway, the port nearest the path into the gold rush area, Jeff runs afoul of a local self-appointed and corrupt judge named Gannon (John McIntire). His cattle are seized and he's forced to hire on with saloon entrepreneur Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman) in order for him and Ben to even reach the mining area. Though he outwits Gannon and regains his herd, he exposes himself as someone willing to manipulate others without much scruple if it gets him what he wants, and he shows little need or desire to offer help to others in need unless it benefits him as well. As the situation in Dawson deteriorates into one not much different from Skagway itself, Jeff's attitude alienates him even from those who have been his friends, like fellow miner Rube Morris (Jay C. Flippen) and the beautifully earnest Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet). Though it carries most of the trappings of the traditional Western, Mann and Stewart make sure that the conflict between the white hat of virtue and black hat of villainy happens much less on a dusty street than within the hearts of the characters.

The Far Country is in many ways the least satisfying collaboration between Mann and Stewart. Stewart's laconic manner and easy-going style don't back up Jeff's misanthropy and selfishly cruel "look out for #1" attitude. Too often it seems like Borden Chase's script teleports between narrative moments instead of navigating them, giving Jeff's arc a strangely truncated feeling. And this may be mildly spoiler-y, but by the end of the movie Jeff receives a redemption he has done little to earn, given the harm his brusque self-interest has brought to those who care about him.

Only McIntire rings true, and then only as the movie progresses. At first a seemingly eccentric jurist after the manner of a Judge Roy Bean, his malevolence slowly moves to the front until it glitters in the eyes behind his genial smile and verbal flourishes.

Although it's created out of whole cloth, Far Country borrows much from the different filmed versions of Rex Beach's 1906 The Spoilers, down to the hero facing a choice between a somewhat shady lady closer in age and temperament to himself and a younger, fresher face that symbolizes innocence. The familiarity of the storyline, the disjointed nature of Jeff's character arc and the frequently double-minded nature of the narrative leave The Far Country a confused and confusing destination.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Simplicity

Not to be outdone, the Lego company surpasses Tesla by unveiling its own "shatterproof" truck with an even lower carbon footprint and which actually lives up to the description:


Monday, November 25, 2019

No. It Isn't

Inside Hook reprints an item from a couple of years ago by Reuben Brody about the dreaded "discussions" that might happen with less enlightened family members during the Thanksgiving holiday.

Brody's list of ways to have these conversations seems pretty thoughtful and would, if adopted, probably go a long way towards defusing full-scale family brawls about this or that issue. His opening paragraphs, though, unfold the idea from the headline "It’s Your Civic Responsibility to Talk Politics at the Dinner Table This Thanksgiving" and need to be flat-out disobeyed or at the very least ignored as though they were never written.

Because it's not my "civic responsibility" to wreck everyone's dinner by putting my own political hobby horses onto everyone's menu. It never has been. That doesn't mean we reflexively shy away from the subject whenever someone brings up a political opinion, unless we want to. We can engage or not, and at whatever depth we wish. But it is not our responsibility to talk politics -- and even if it were, I would like the heads-up to come from someone other than J. Random Writer.

The kicker, though, comes in Brody's reason that this talk is our responsibility. It's because in the era of President Trump, we have large groups of people who talk past each other if they actually find themselves in the presence of someone who thinks differently. Thus, Brody says, we need to re-learn how to actually converse with another person, even about subjects on which we disagree. That's almost certainly true, but we won't do it by spending a couple of uncomfortable hours annually in the presence of family members or friends with different ideas in their heads and sharp metal objects on the tables before them.

It's our civic responsibility to be...well, civil to each other. It was so, long before the idea of living in the White House entered the president's proud, arrogant and myopically narcissistic head. It will be so, long after he has left the White House and the Democrats have rediscovered the part of the country they've been dismissing as knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers for the last four years.

Besides, far too much of my time is already taken up by the President and the troop of of Martin Van Buren wannabes who want to tell him he's fired. I'd rather not lose a holiday to it as well.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Explainer

In the latest edition of Existential Comics, Friedrich Nietzsche attempts to explain to his supervisor why he should not be fired from his job. And in doing so, he offers clear and convincing evidence of why he should be.

Philosophy has a cost for its devoted practitioners.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Comparison

You know it's been a week when you read a post about the lizard people overlords some folks still believe exist and think, "Well, that's not so weird..."

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Itinerary

Writing in Scientific American, Charles Wohlforth and Amanda Hendrix outline a good case why Saturn's moon Titan would be the best bet among the bodies in our solar system for humanity to colonize. They say that it's atmosphere and other factors make up for the distance and provide people with their best chance to make a survivable, long-term place to live.

Personally, I don't much care where we go as long as we get going. But that's just me, reflecting on today's news cycle featuring copious doses of impeachment kabuki and the emptier reflection sparked by an empty debate. Your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

One Big Day

Just about every place in the country has some regionally well-known band that tears up the local clubs and commands a devoted following amongst the locals. These days they are far more likely than not to have some kind of indie release going on -- a Spotify playlist if nothing else. But in days of yore, the ability of a local act to get signed by a label and release a record, let alone an actual Top 40 song, was a much rarer thing.

So when New Hampshire-born, Boston-based quintet Face to Face hit #38 with "10-9-8" in 1984, that was quite the deal for them. Principal songwriter Angelo Petraglio's dissection of the way two people in a relationship danced around their countdown to ultimatums had, in the famous words of the American Bandstand quote, a good beat that you could dance to. Laurie Sargent's powerful assertive vocals gave it a different sound than a lot of other new-wavy dance tunes and things looked like they might pay off for the group, who had been playing clubs and shows -- mostly in New England -- since the late 1970s.

But the Arthur Baker-produced Face to Face was not the best representation of how the band sounded, they felt. Edgier rap numbers like "Under the Gun" were quite different from the bulk of their material, so they drew back from that sound on 1985's Confrontation. It did poorly enough that Face to Face and Epic Records parted ways, and the band signed with Mercury records for what would turn out to be their final disc together, 1988's One Big Day.

Day continued the trend of Sargent co-writing songs with Petraglia and other band members, as well as moved towards a more country-rock sound that anticipated No Depression magazine and the alt-country scene by several years (After the band broke up, Petraglia went on to produce and co-write with Kings of Leon -- winning a Grammy in doing so, in fact).

The different sound gave Sargent the chance to use different textures of her voice and feature more of guitarist Stuart Kimball in a more traditional way than had the dance-styled numbers of the first two records. The stretching served the band well -- the opening track, "As Forever as You," puts both of those tools at the service of some excellent poetic imagery for a song that should have kicked in the doors of every AOR radio station in the United States. Sargent belts "Change in the Wind" into as much urgency as she can manage and helps create the clear sense of impending change the title implies. "Never Had a Reason" ruefully recounts the moment when a separating couple parts ways and the major change they both now face in this new solitary life. "The Day I Was Born" warns listeners that the narrator/singer may seem trustworthy and loyal but in truth has a more selfish and less idealistic agenda, and "She's a Contradiction" suggests the same thing about a friendship the narrator has with a woman whose first interest will almost always be herself.

Although the same record company official who signed the band to Epic worked with them at Mercury, the label did not have a clue about how to market this kind of hybrid of literate roots rock fronted by a powerful and expressive female singer. They weren't alone: Geffen Records never knew what to do with Maria McKee and Lone Justice after signing them, either. Face to Face disbanded just a few months after Day was released, playing a final show in front of a rowdy club crowd in Boston in October 1988. Petraglia went on to produce and write as mentioned above, Kimball joined Bob Dylan's touring band, Sargent burrowed deeper into the emerging alt-country scene with other bands and reflective, low-tempo solo records and bassist John Ryder and drummer Billy Beard continued to work in the Boston music industry.

My exposure to Face to Face happened when I one day caught the video for "As Forever as You" on MTV, sometime in the early spring of 1988. Sargent, who was (and pretty much still is) as arresting a performer visually as she is aurally, along with the fountain-of-youth theme of the video, held my interest immediately. In the pre-internet days, only a trip to the record store could help you unwrap your new potential music interest and mine did exactly that -- when I heard the rest of the album and read the primarily Sargent-Petraglia-penned thoughtful lyrics, I was hooked.

I used to view with anger the failure of the music business to make hits out of quality and deserving artists while shoveling out literally ersatz gunk like Milli Vanilli. If the combo of label, music press and radio stations could put copies of Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" into the hands of hundreds of thousands of listeners, it was almost criminal they couldn't do that with stuff that was played better, sung better, written better and maybe even said something thoughtful into the bargain.

As I aged, though, my whine diminished. The "industry" was designed to favor image and pose over substance and it still is. Even the current review of One Big Day at the online database Allmusic suggests that the album "needed" a cover from some other local Boston act that was trying to break out in order to "get them out of their formula." I still wish that Face to Face, along with a host of other bands that crowded the edges of notoriety in the mid to late 1980s, had made it big, but I stopped being angry about that sort of thing awhile ago, as it didn't have much purpose. Now, I'm just a little melancholy over all of the good stuff people never got to listen to, and all of the artists who had to -- and still have to today -- keep their day jobs while mokes who tattoo their own faces amass fortunes they blow through in about 18 months.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Video Ladies

At his blog Noblemania, writer Mark Tyler Nobleman published a series of interviews a few years ago with the actresses who played in iconic music videos (The item at the link is with the woman who played in Journey's "Separate Ways" clip). Most of them had fun and even a few years of moderate notoriety in their own communities or among friends.

Which makes this a nice little piece of nostalgia, rather than the series of creepfests it could have been.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Clears That Up

Pictures taken underwater use the light that penetrates the water's surface to show the image. Obviously at great depths that light is nonexistent, but even at relatively shallow, brightly lit levels the water affects what color the light is. All but the very clearest water can give objects a blue tint when they are seen underneath.

Which means that the colors we see in underwater photography are not always true, by being shaded with a blue tint that's more or less heavy depending on how deep the water may be. It may also flatten colors and cause them to look the same when the objects being photographed actually range widely in color.

Enter oceanographer Derya Akkaynak and engineer Tali Treibitz, who developed an algorithm to shift images' color so that we can see what the objects in the photos would look like in normal above-the-surface sunlight. As you can see scrolling through the pictures, the differently colored light that filters down through the water can alter the color considerably from what the item would look like if it were not underwater. Like a lot of little digital tweaks that exist in the world, it may or may not wind up offering much benefit to people -- but it is pretty cool to look at either way.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Torn!

Poor Opus! Two of the smartest people...um, well, one smart person and one smart basselope, anyway, differ on how to uncover meaning in the life around them and he just wants direction.


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Still Wrong

Once the Disney+ streaming service was finally up and running, fans watched favorite shows and movies to which the mouse owned the rights. Including Star Wars. Which now has yet another version of Greedo the bounty hunter confronting Han Solo that doesn't acknowledge the plain and simple truth: Han shot first. No simultaneous shots, no quick-draw attempts from Greedo, no provocative utterances -- just shooting first in order to save his skin, 'cause that's the kind of guy he was supposed to be then.

Although it's not really possible to top Jar Jar Binks as the worst digital development new technology allowed George Lucas to put on the screen, this whole mess is coming close.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Rebuttal

In a BBC interview promoting her new book, former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who lost two major bids for the White House, said "many many many people" are urging her to think about running again.

We have frequently noted how many skills of retail politics Ms. Clinton lacks. Anyone with two eyes and ears has noted how divisive her last run was. Since she would face the same opponent again and be no more likely to draw forth his good side now than then, we may expect at least that much division. We sometimes overlook how her 2008 run brought more than a few grumbles among Democratic women party leaders who thought then-Senator Obama's campaign staff adulterated (heh) their primary campaign against her with sexism. Some even publicly toyed with the idea of voting for GOP candidate Mitt Romney. In short, this woman is no unifying figure and has not been for many many many years.

Now, in the event that these people she mentions actually exist and are not a) all in Ms. Clinton's head, b) members of her household staff wanting freedom from her presence, c) a few folks wildly exaggerated the way politicians (and, of course, some clergy) do or d) a flat-out bald-faced lie, I have but one thing to say to them:

Shut the hell up, you morons.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Open Field

At Nautilus, Brian Gallagher makes a case for having professors who study why people are sometimes stupid, as well as the phenomenon of stupidity itself.

The subhead asks the question, "Why aren't there more people studying the science behind stupidity?" and it seems to me that the clear reason is data glut.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Test Pattern

Early dark makes a middle-aged grump sleepy. Back tomorrow.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Victim of Variety

People who've grown up entirely in what Casey Kasem used to call "the rock era," dating from when "Rock Around the Clock" hit #1 in 1955, have a lot of music backed up in their minds. Even if we listened to only one particular genre we live in a world with rock and pop music playing as a soundtrack at every clothing and grocery store and inside every mall. It was a major part of almost every movie and television show.

Which just means that when one of those songs from somewhere during our lives turns into an earworm, there's no telling where it might come from. Recently, I've had on heavy rotation three songs that have nothing to do with each other -- two have explanations but one I can't figure.

The version of Oingo Boingo's "Dead Man's Party" from an April 1987 concert gets a lot of play around Halloween and it's pretty irresistibly catchy. So when it made an appearance a couple of weeks ago in its usual holiday mode I found myself "pressing play" on the YouTube clip three or four times a day.

Jon Landau once tabbed a hard-working New Jersey rocker as the "future of rock and roll" and it wasn't John Lyon. Although as "Southside Johnny" and backed by the Asbury Jukes he toiled in the same clubs and venues as Bruce Springsteen and his E-Streeters, lightning never struck for him. But in the early 80s video era, programmers hungry for the next Bruce rolled the dice on Southside, promoting his single "New Romeo" and giving it a funny video with the singer as a sad sack running into a now-famous former girlfriend and her entourage. The band ditched "Asbury" from its name for this album, "In the Heat," and allowed some more modern sensibilities to undergird its solid soul sound, which makes the single more listenable than some of the cookie-cutter material from earlier efforts. It never made the charts, but it's been stuck in my head ever since I found an old mixtape that had the single on it and checked it out on Ye Olde Tube as well.

But prefab 80s rockers Night Ranger and their 1984 single "When You Close Your Eyes?" I got nothing, except maybe it was all over the radio that year and so it's planted firm in some neuron or another that was unfortunately missed in the Great Friar Brain Cell Die-Off of 1986-1992. I'm pretty sure 20-year-old me is disgusted at the results.

The problem, of course, is that the YouTube algorithm keys up Survivor's "Can't Hold Back" right after Night Ranger and now I've got another one stuck in there.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Literacy

At Quanta, John Pavlus writes about a new "artificial intelligence" program called Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) that regularly scores better than human beings on a particular kind of reading comprehension test.

The test measures how well a reader -- whether he, she or it -- comprehends material they have just taken onboard. It sounds a lot like some of the old Standard Reading Assessment tests I remember from school, only without the crutch of the multiple choice sorter. You could usually bet that if there were four possible answers that two of them were so obviously wrong it was funny, a third might sound OK but clearly showed some fatal flaw and the fourth was not just a right answer but the only possible right answer when the test-taker fired up more than two or three neurons.

Anyway, some old AI programs did really badly on the test, but it turns out that BERT regularly chalks up an 80 or 80 plus (kudos to Quanta for making the scientists in the illustration all resembled Sesame Street's Bert, by the way).

Some linguists and other scientists, though, think that BERT and similar problems "understand" what they read a lot less than they have just figured out some shortcut tricks that get to the right answer without knowing how or why it is right. It could be, for example, that my method of solving a multiplication problem featuring two three-digit numbers without a calculator or paper -- what's commonly called a wild-ass guess, for the curious -- will give me the right answer in that particular time. But it doesn't mean that I solved the problem. It just means that in this particular case my shortcut worked.

Although I found the article and the discussion very interesting, I think the headline hints at the reason it's ultimately moot and probably will be for the foreseeable future. It reads: "Machines Beat Humans on a Reading Test. But Do They Understand?"

Because if the AI was going to read like a person does, then the question would be something more like, "But Are They Inspired?" Because that's one of the things that reading can do. Leaving all the testing, algorithms, programs and shortcuts aside -- along with the nagging little reminder that the programs were created by people, not by themselves -- and that seems like a bar that it'll take BERT awhile to clear.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Shuffle Paw Change

At Bored Panda, you can find the results of a photo project by husband-and-wife photo team Kelly Pratt and Ian Kreidich -- 40 pics of ballet dancers posing with dogs. The duo frequently work with the Saint Louis Ballet and other dancers around the country and brought that expertise to the shots.

I'm hard pressed to say whether I like better the shots where the dogs seem to want to join in the dancing fun, leaping in mid-air like the dancers themselves, or the ones where they're just being ordinarily doggy and sniffing the face of the human who leans over to them. And there's a couple where Fido has that "WTH?" look at the strange contortions the two-legged critters are making. I pretty much like them all, and this has quickly become one of my favorite dance photography collections by anyone not named Lois Greenfield.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Highs and Lows

Eric Thomson's Commonwealth universe spans several centuries, and he has sets of novels in different eras of human expansion through the galaxy. Captain Siobhan Dunmoore's time includes the war with the fierce Shrehari -- a group of intimidating space warriors who aren't too much unlike the Klingons of Star Trek. By the time of When the Guns Roar, the sixth book of Dunmoore and her crew, the war is going well for the humans and poorly for the Shrehari. The latter, plagued by the problems associated with weak leadership and a corrupt bureaucracy, keep rotating their best commanders to retirement or worse and elevating incompetent people with good connections.

While the humans have their own problems with people promoted beyond their competence, they've had the luxury of some significant wins and have taken advantage of the way the Shrehari underestimated them when the war began. Dunmoore and her disguised battle cruiser Iolanthe have brought about several of those victories -- enough that the Admiralty wants her brought into a larger squadron to dislodge Shrehari invaders from systems they captured at the start of the war. Dunmoore chafes at the restrictions the chain of command places on her and the way inexperienced but ambitious officers want to ride her people's hard work to their own promotion. Meanwhile, the disgraced Shrehari commander Brakal retires to his people's equivalent of the House of Lords and works to make his government accept reality: Continued war against the hairless apes of Earth will bring destruction and defeat his Empire may not survive.

He may or may not have intended to do so, but Thomson makes the Brakal segments much more interesting than those with his series protagonist. He's structured most of the Dunmoore books as mysteries that the captain and her crew must solve before they bring their real enemies to battle but doesn't follow that model here. Several plot threads of Dunmoore's part of the book wrap up abruptly and rather clumsily, especially when compared with the charismatic Brakal's race against time to bring about his bloodless coup and save his people. In fact, those segments are actually the strength of the book and make Guns a good entry of this series and a fun read.
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The rise of electronic publishing has let Jack Reacher creator Lee Child branch out a bit from his one-per-year schedule of Reacher novels. A handful of short stories and novellas, freed from the need to find themselves homes between the covers of printed books, have come out in digital format and let Child put out some quick and punchy -- pun intended -- stories about his wandering knight errant that couldn't sustain a full novel. About a third of the way into Blue Moon, a reader could be forgiven for wondering if it should have been one as well.

Reacher, on a Greyhound approaching an unnamed Midwestern city, spots an older man with a large amount of money in his pocket who's being targeted by a potential mugger. Being Reacher, he moves to thwart the crime and finds himself drawn into the circle of trouble being experienced by Aaron and Maria Shevick, an elderly couple enmeshed in a vicious world of loan sharks, warring criminal gangs, unethical computer entrepreneurs and soulless bureaucrats. Though the rival Ukrainian and Albanian criminal gangs have extensive numbers of thugs and guns on their side -- and don't even realize the Shevicks are caught up in their fight -- they'll learn that Reacher is never worth fighting against.

Child has dumped some clunkers in this 24-book series, but rarely has he crossed the line into, well, boring. We spend several chapters learning what exact problem the Shevicks face -- several more than we need to, with the couple themselves drawing the matter out with an unexplained reluctance that disappears with no more reason than it existed. The generic city that Child creates, unidentified so he can make it match the characteristics he needs for his story, feels flat and unreal. While the final battles with the different groups of bad guys come off with Child's usual panache, the buildup meanders and winds confusingly, offering repeated sequences that don't help clarify just where we are on our path to the endgame.

Blue Moon doesn't read like a novella or short story stuffed to make a full novel, but it does give the clear impression that it would improve immensely if it dumped about half of its length. It's not objectively lousy like TripwireBad Luck and Trouble and Nothing to Lose, but it's most definitely meh. If the Reacher books were all summoned to give accounts of themselves and defend the series, Blue Moon is the one that would say, "The Jack Reacher series is one with a long tradition of existence to its readers" and then stop, at a loss to offer much more than that.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Intriguing

If your commencement speaker is Kurt Vonnegut, you will get some weird input. As this item at Kottke notes, he let the class of '78 at Fredonia State College in on his theory that there are not four seasons but six.

In between the autumn of September and October Vonnegut places a season he calls "locking," made up of November and December. Even though all of November and the first two thirds of December are technically autumn, they don't really feel like September and October. Then we have winter in January and February, followed by "unlocking" in March and April. Those months have traditionally been considered part of spring, but their ability to spin up bitter cold and nasty storms means they don't feel very springy.

I think he was onto something; and of course seasons are kind of arbitrary anyway. Remember that below the equator they are the exact opposite of those above the equator. So the "dead of winter" may be January or February up here, but it's July or August when you go south. And the different regions of the world have different seasonal impacts anyway. In some parts, you have only wet and dry, and they don't necessarily match with any lineup of spring, summer, winter and fall.

However you label it, I hate cold, gray and damp. And while I readily acknowledge that leaves losing their chlorophyll and displaying other colors can be a vivid and amazing sight, the problem is that the colors are a lie. They do not represent bright life, they only disguise approaching death. At least winter is honest about it.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Country United!

Today, the United States can finally begin to be of one mind about politics, as the last remaining person in the country who thought Beto O'Rourke would be the Democratic nominee for president in 2020 finally realized that would not happen.

In other news, new areas of agreement appear to be nearing as more people in the campaign of Senator Kamala Harris begin to discover she will not be the nominee either.

Unfortunately, the fantasy that former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can be president, though fitfully and painfully laid to rest in 2016, seems to have regained some traction amongst certain deluded individuals.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Mistaken Assumption

At Medium's "OneZero" blog, Dave Gershgorn writes about how the combination of a powerful algorithm and extensive data sets means the Spotify streaming music site "knows exactly what you want to listen to," according to the headline.

Except, of course, it doesn't. At least the different times I've tested the waters with it, anyway. If you get a hankering for an outlier number among your fave bands or artists, then it's not long before the algorithm runs out of things that resemble what you picked and it flails around through things that might be in the vein of the tune you've chosen, if you can somehow manage to squint your ears. It may include songs where your entered performer worked with someone else, and start to veer away from the entry you made because it finds more of the other performer. And it doesn't know that some of those duets or band appearances are really not what you want to listen to: I enjoy a lot of Keely Smith's music but I've got little patience for the vocal mugging and goofoffery of her onetime husband Louis Prima so I don't really enjoy listening to their joint work. Spotify don't know that and it takes it awhile to learn unless I spell it out in some way.

Sometimes it leaves weird gaps. Playlists that include the mid-80s cowpunk outfit Lone Justice ought to lead a listener to singer Maria McKee's solo work, since she has performed that way far longer than she ever did with the band. But it doesn't. Enter either Lone Justice or McKee into the search engine and get the one you enter, but no recognition the other has any work at all. Not to mention the omission of Lone Justice's second album entirely. Sure, they show up as other entries under the "related artists" button, but that's not the algorithm finding them -- that's me.

And of course there are the bands which aren't, for whatever reason, on Spotify. Old musicians, niche acts, favorite small-scale performers who don't rise to the service's notice.

I don't really have anything against Spotify or other streamers other than how they pay artists the next best thing to nothin' for their work. But the idea that its algorithm -- or any algorithm -- knows "exactly" what I want to listen to is silly. After all, I don't always know, so how will a program?

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Gravity Shmavity

As some folks on a photo-taking excursion found out, humpback whales are biiiig critters. Even more so when they leave the water so close you can count those stripey-looking things on their bellies.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Nice Try, Mr. Comey

If any reader of this post happens to be in touch with former FBI director James Comey any time between now and election day, please let him know that his offers of bribery -- as tempting as they may be -- will not induce me to vote for President Trump in November 2020.

(And yes, I know he was making a joke. So was I. I know full well I have no readers).

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Dancing!

I like this kid, who dropped the T-shirt he was holding to reveal a "Fight for freedom - stand with Hong Kong" shirt once he saw that the arena "Dance Cam" was on him. Cameraman yanked it around to get him out of frame but I bet he sweat some later on.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Time Capsule



Thirty-four years ago this month, I sat down in front of my stereo with some new albums, some 45s and one of Maxell's finest products in a dorm room in Evanston, IL to put together a tape of the stuff I liked best so I could carry it in a Walkman -- said Walkman fitting in my backpack much better than said stereo did.

I recently found this particular cassette in cleaning out some boxes. I think I made close to 30 in all before switching to a CD player that could play with both headphones and an adapter plugged into my car's tape deck. The one pictured above, creatively titled Tunes IV, is probably the only one I still have. I don't know if it would play without breaking.

Judging by the playlist, I had recently seen the Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer movie Into the Night, which featured some killer songs by B. B. King on the soundtrack along with a couple of R&B standards like "Let's Get It On."

I had also recently attended a record sale because I remember unloading several 12" singles a few years ago with titles I see on the tape, and some of them had the good old "promo copy only - not for sale" stamp on them. Tent record sales did not pay much heed to such, it seems. I went to more than a few of these during my Chicagoland days, but the one that sticks out as having the best collection of loot was in a tent in the parking lot of a mall in Skokie. The search engine answer says that would be the Old Orchard Mall, but I don't remember. They could have come from Big Daddy's Records and Tapes or Rose Records in Evanston, but I don't recall ever coming out of either of those with that big of a haul at one time.

The 45s, on the other hand, were almost certainly from Laury's Discount Records, which had a store basically across the street from campus. They were not from Vintage Vinyl, which was the Jack Black character from Hi Fidelity made into a business.

Since this was the fourth one of these I'd made, I'd gotten the process down pretty well. I'd also recorded a big chunk of songs off the Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-1974 box set for my parents, so I'd mastered how much time to leave between songs and where to drop the needle so I could be ready to un-pause the "record" function at the right spot. Using the "pause" button made sure that the tape would not have a bunch of start and stop clicks on it in between the songs. I could also gauge how much time was left on a 45-minute side to see whether I had room for another song or it was time to flip it over.

The major purpose of these tapes -- which I don't remember calling "mixtapes" even if that's the most common word for them now -- was to have the songs from an album you really wanted to hear available without the baggage from the album. That was also the purpose of the 45s -- I'd heard the Charlie Daniels Bands' "American Farmer" on the radio and Daniels was, I think, donating some of the profits to Farm Aid. But the rest of the Me and the Boys album, with the exception of "Drinkin' My Baby Goodbye," was eminently skippable. And "Take on Me" was the first and second-to-last US charting single from Hunting High and Low from A-ha -- the rest were interchangeable synth-pop weighed down with singer Morten Harket's pretentiousness that were just as skippable.

Another purpose was sharing music with friends -- trading stuff around to showcase new tunes or record something for someone else who in turn sent along what you might request.

And there was the most serious purpose, of course, which was to pass along a tape to a crush with songs that you wanted him or her to like while including musical hints that you also wanted him or her to like you. Mixtapes as icebreakers, though, were usually a high-school tactic. By the time you were in college they were meant to communicate things in an actual relationship; your chromium dioxide Cyrano shows your Roxanne the feelings your own de Neuvillette words could not.

That taper was 21, and imagined his next few years getting his foot in the door at a newspaper somewhere, preferably a city of some size, where he and his buddies would hang out at a neighborhood pub that on weekends featured cover band versions of '60s soul and R&B classics, and close out the late Fridays and Saturdays with a drenched, buzzed, tired swaying embrace of Someone Special as the slow last sax solo kept the night alive for a few more measures (He even had Someone in mind, but that proved a non-starter). He wound up at a county-seat daily where a whole lot of the people he met thought an adult with a library card was kind of peculiar, but that path led him to hear and answer the great call he serves today.

It's a better life, if only because it's real and the imagined one owes more to assorted scenes from movies than to reality. But every now and again a reminder crops up of what that other life was going to be and the memory is sweet before history and reality add the tang of melancholy.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Total Response

I often chuckle when I see headlines along the lines of, "So and so did something, and Twitter was not having it," or "Twitter calls out" some social offender or other. It refers to the way that a large number of similarly thinking Twitter users will pile on to an undesirable tweet or statement or action someone does.

I chuckle because it's ridiculous. For one, most people signed up for Twitter use it pretty infrequently. And as that story notes, the group of frequent users doesn't share a lot of demographics with the majority of American society.

And I chuckle at the idea that Twitter is some kind of independent entity that responds to events with some kind of will of its own. Twitter is a social media platform with at least 150 million users and at most one mind.

Monday, October 21, 2019

To Immortal Memory...

Two hundred and fourteen years ago the Royal Navy won at Trafalgar, putting paid to the last serious Napoleonic attempt to break its blockade and dominance of the seas. It cost them the slight, one-armed and one-eyed man who might have been their greatest commander, Admiral Horatio Nelson. Though Nelson's personal legacy was mixed -- his one child came not with his wife but from a long affair with a married woman, for example, and his daughter was named "Horatia" -- his professional impact is difficult to overestimate.

Nelson's body was returned to Gibraltar packed in a cask of brandy, where it was transferred to a lead-lined coffin filled with wine. His Majesty's sailors then began referring to their rum as a "drop of Nelson's blood," and a time-keeping shanty grew from it. It's usually titled "Roll the Old Chariot Along," but now and again appears under the alternate heading.

Pure and dulcet perfection of tone, as the video makes clear, is not required to present it to the masses.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Worth It?

When he won in 1992, Bill Clinton was seen as a boon to the Democrats, showing a path forward for a party that had been sitting in the hole George McGovern dug for the previous 20 years. He was able to gather the southern voters who had taken a chance on but been burned by Jimmy Carter, and who had been left to shrug confusedly at Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

Whether it was true or not, several Democratic leaders felt a second George H.W. Bush win would mean decades of being an also-ran party when it came to the White House, as Bush the elder could institutionalize the Reagan Revolution and marry it to the kind of middle-of-the-road GOP Bush represented. In defeating him, Clinton showed that Democrats could run viable candidates and win elections -- an important message in a country that tends to bandwagon winners.

But Bill brought baggage -- a platform for the political ambitions of his wife Hillary. Although her Senate win was fueled as much by the part of her image that generated sympathy for the wife of a known adulterer and womanizer, she probably could have found a way to stay in the public eye had Bill been either more faithful, more truthful or more careful. From the Senate she cast her gaze on her own presidential run, which finished with the embarrassing primary loss to a first-term senator from Illinois just two years removed from his own state legislature. She did her party duty by taking a role in the administration of her former opponent, and from that undistinguished tenure made a second "can't miss" run for the Oval Office.

She found, unfortunately, a country far more divided than she had known when she was more active politically and one far less willing to forgive her disdain and complete lack of skill as a retail politician. So she went down in defeat again, this time to a man who'd been a Republican for about 15 minutes and who engendered nearly as much antipathy as she did. In the process she deepened the nation's political divisions and served as a reminder that a chunk of the Democratic party looks upon large swathes of the United States citizenry as bigoted Neandertals.

And she continues to do more to help Republicans and President Trump than almost anyone who doesn't work for his campaign except maybe Beto O'Rourke. As Taylor Millard writes at Hot Air, her recent intimations that Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 race, is a "Russian asset" may or may not be as unhinged as they sound. But either way, they are incredibly stupid.

A number of GOP folks have tired of the president and seek an alternative to him, as well as to the current three Democratic front runners -- one of whom pretends to not be a millionaire, one of whom pretended to be Native American and one of whom pretended to be Neil Kinnock. And while Gabbard seems a little too ready to be friendly to foreign autocrats, she'd at least reduce the number of them on the Oval Office speed dial down to one. They might squint and hold their nose to vote for her, but they'll down a bottle of bourbon and pull the lever again for Captain Combover if one of the current three leaders wins out.

Every time 2016's defeated nominee blasts forth with yet another of her deranged theories about her loss that doesn't include an admission that she was a lousy candidate who ran a terrible campaign, she reminds iffy voters why they didn't want her in the White House. And she reminds them of the party that nominated and supported her, and why they believe they can't trust it.

Things were pretty good for Democrats, White-House wise, from 1992 to 2000. But the price continues to be high long after they figured they'd made the last payment for it.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Once Upon a Time...

Much of the time I think Quentin Tarantino is a twerp, and it's tough to forgive him for bringing Eli Roth into contact with people who let him make movies, but every now and again he does something right. QT will not recut his recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood release to meet Chinese censorship demands that his movie be nicer to Bruce Lee.

This means Hollywood probably won't show in Chinese theaters and Chinese fans will see pirated versions if they see any at all. Let's hope someone emails this story to Steve Kerr.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Kinda Sorta

Since Kyle Mills began writing the late Vince Flynn's signature character, Mitch Rapp, with 2015's The Survivor, he's managed to bring some positive contributions to the on-edge assassin's story that helps keep the books from turning their familiar path into a rut. In his third book, Enemy of the State, Mills even made a Rapp version of a buddy movie, teaming him with characters from earlier books. Sure, those characters were definitely not prizes and the team less stable than hyped-up plutonium, but Mills somehow managed to bring the word "quirky" into the Rapp universe in a way that worked.

But Mills' most recent spin with Rapp, Lethal Agent, seems to have fallen into the rut side of things, using a lot of standard Rapp and thriller motifs in pretty tired ways. Mullah Sayid Halabi, thwarted by Mitch Rapp in his plans to stir up chaos throughout the Middle East and export it to the West, has come to believe his own pride caused Allah to desert him and allow Rapp to succeed. His new plan won't involve armies or combatants but weaponized viruses. The disease may even spread back into his own homelands, but those who do not die will be the true believers, servants of Allah who can rebuild society along his desired lines. Halabi's plan will use deception and misdirection to bring death to the unbelieving West. And after a disastrous attempt to kidnap Rapp fails, he decides he will even leave his revenge up to the will of Allah himself.

For his part, Mitch Rapp finds himself operating in the unfamiliar world of Mexican cartels, expert in neither the language nor the culture of his enemies. The sketchy clues which point him in this direction could be a part of Halabi's plan or another layer of deception -- with Rapp hung out to dry while a ruthlessly ambitious senator uses the nation's own enemies as stepping stones in her bid for the White House.

Despite the interesting characterization that Mills gives to Sayid Halabi, Agent is really not much more than a series of action set pieces strung together without a lot of organic reasoning behind them. Mills even offers up a segment of Rapp as the quarry in a version of the Most Dangerous Game trope that's nearing its centenary year. Rapp shoots these guys, then he shoots those guys, and in between he grouses about politicians, even the best of whom are just a little bit better than no good. Mills' commentary on our nation's modern divided political landscape comes in didactic diatribes, either from one character or another or extended speed-bump musings.

Mills' own work showed enough mediocrity to make the decision to sign him to continuing Mitch Rapp stories an iffy proposition. Unfortunately Lethal Agent is pretty much what they might have feared they would get from a Kyle Mills version of the hero. But since Mills had done well until now, there's good reason to hope he will be back in the swing next time.
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There's something fun about reading stories set in places that you know and have seen, so Bryan Thomas Schmidt's first "John Simon thriller," Simon Says, has some neat features for folks who know Kansas City and the surrounding area. Schmidt references known streets, locales and landmarks in his story of a police detective operating in KC as the 21st century's third decade bleeds into its fourth. Electric cars, some autonomously driven, and other day-after-tomorrow tech clues the reader that we are not dealing with today's world but doesn't make things so weird that we can't relate.

Simon and his partner stake out a warehouse based on a tip from a snitch -- and find themselves in a gunfight over containers of stolen tech and art. Both belong to a wealthy and well-connected gallery owner and the pressure to make the case perfect comes quickly and heavily. But before the pair can even start the investigation,  Simon's partner is kidnapped and witnesses go missing as well. Because of his personal involvement, Simon is frozen out of the investigation and finds himself with only an artificial android, Julian, as help in digging where he's not supposed to.

Schmidt has edited a number of books and anthologies and his first novel, The Worker Prince, earned an honorable mention in Barnes & Noble's science fiction awards for 2011. As you'd expect from an editor, he has a good command of pacing and keeping his narrative on track. He doesn't commit too much exposition although sometimes he could have done with some more showing than telling. And he lets the sense of place he builds with the Kansas City streets, suburbs and neighborhoods give his story flavor without overwhelming it.

But the story itself and its characters are very much paint-by-numbers echoes of other work. Even the artificial person is just another interchangeable "fish out of water" partner to the gruff Simon. To some degree every crime procedural uses lots of the same elements: Harassed superiors, stifling bureaucracies, corrupt and powerful people ruthlessly covering their tracks, strained family relationships, heroes whose connection to past days and simpler ways mystifies and embarrasses their "modern world" co-workers. You could also say, though, that every painter uses the same three primary and three secondary colors and blends they create; but some produce masterpieces and others produce advertising. Both Schmidt and the Simon series could grow into something, but the former will have to work more into his potential in order for the latter to do so.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

UN Worthless. Also, Water Wet

You kind of wonder which is more pitiful. That the United Nations Human Rights Council will have as one of its members a country that runs out of toilet paper, or that the government of Venezuela thinks that being a member of the HRC is somehow a win.

The real losers, of course, continue to be the people of Venezuela, who will still have to get up in the morning and decide the best use to which their paper money should be put.

Looks and Sounds Like!

Man, what Frank Gorshin could have done with this technology!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Shooting Star!

Last Friday, a meteor apparently flashed through the sky over Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China; lots of cameras recorded the flash but there seems as yet to have been no reported impact.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James had no comment.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Knowing the Material

Eimi Haga saw an animated television program about ninjas when she was a child. Now a student at Mie University in Japan's Mie Prefecture, she signed up for a course in ninja history and was assigned a report on a visit to the Ninja Museum at Igaryu. Professor Yuji Yamada told students they would get extra credit for creativity.

When Ms. Haga handed in a blank piece of paper, the professor probably thought that it was not the first time he'd been given a blank assignment that would probably involve some kind of plea for mercy. But while Ms. Haga had indeed include a note with her assignment, it was not an appeal for academic leniency. It was an instruction to heat the paper. When Professor Yamada did so, words suddenly began to appear, as Ms. Hagi had used the technique of aburidashi to write her assignment. That process mixes crushed soybeans with water to create ink that disappears when it dries. It only reappears when heated.

Prof. Yamada was impressed enough with Ms. Hagas' work that he awarded her a top score for just the manner of her presentation once double-checking that the content was at least adequate. I have to say that I now wish I had taken a course in the history of ninjas, because a number of my assignments would probably have been improved if they were only partially visible.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

You Cannot Be Serious

I was going to make fun of an article published in the journal called The Contemporary Pacific by Dr. Holly M. Barker of the University of Washington. In it, Dr. Barker tales the creators of the show to task for assuming that they may use Bikini Bottom, a lagoon off the Bikini Atoll, as the setting for their show.

Back during the middle of the last century, the Bikini Islands were used by the United States for nuclear testing. The islanders had to be moved because their homelands became too irradiated to be safe, and so Dr. Barker thinks that setting the show there "normal[izes] the settler colonial takings of indigenous lands while erasing the ancestral Bikinian people from their nonfictional homeland." The show's theme song "provide[s] the viewer with an active role in defining Bikini Bottom as as a place of nonsense," since it points out that Sponge Bob's activities are often nonsensical.

Dr. Barker concludes with this admonition: “We should be uncomfortable with a hamburger-loving American community’s occupation of Bikini’s lagoon and the ways that it erodes every aspect of sovereignty.” I am not certain if this means that we are OK with the lagoon's occupation by hotdog-loving Americans, or perhaps souffle-loving Americans. Or vegans, who presumably would openly hate hamburgers.

See, I was going to make fun of it, but then I thought that this had to be a joke article. It had to be one of those jargon-fests that professors make up sometimes, in which they deploy the language and concepts of their discipline in service of a "serious critique" of some lightweight pop culture phenomenon. I didn't want to be the one who didn't get the joke. But as it turns out, Dr. Barker has been grinding this particular gear since last year and it's not a joke at all.

And I realized that there was no way to make more fun of this article than its existence already did -- my own mockery would be spitting in the ocean. In American coastal waters, of course, so as not to salivially colonize any folk dwelling anywhere else.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Tripling Down?

As the NBA quickly moves towards becoming the National Basket Association, many of its corporate partners are keeping solidarity with it. ESPN was mentioned the other day, and now Nike has bravely decided to hide all of the merchandise from the Houston Rockets in its mainland China stores. The offensive tweet that began the whole mess, of course, came from a Houston Rockets manager.

You remember Nike, of course, the corporation that bravely hired a guy who hadn't played a down of professional football in almost three years to be a spokesman, then rolled over and ditched an entire line of shoes for him because he'd heard the symbolic "Betsy Ross" flag on them was used by some white supremacists somewhere. They did this because their new spokesman was a man of character who stood by his values even when it cost him. If they were right then he ought to be disgusted with them now.

Fans at two NBA preseason games with small signs referencing Hong Kong and, in one case, the persecuted Uyghur minority, had them taken away at games in Washington, DC (you know, where the leaders of the free world go about their business) and Philadelphia (you know, where some of that freedom stuff got started).

The Rockets themselves, through a representative, clammed up when a CNN reporter asked superstars James Harden and Russell Westbrook about the matter, saying "Basketball questions only." The most amusing part of the video is when the camera switches back to Harden and Westbrook after the reporter is cut off and gives up the mike, as they sit stone-faced. To its credit, the NBA says the team rep shouldn't have done that. Perhaps because Harden's already spoken his lines, via Twitter, and they don't want to risk Westbrook going off script. Steph Curry mimicked his coach's "I dunno?" shrug about the matter but did manage to laugh at President Trump's juvenile tweet mocking Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

Understandable. Probably his fault anyway.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Missed It by That Much

At Astronomy Picture of the Day, we find that a project to take pictures of the Milky Way also caught a meteor blazing its way down to Earth. It makes for a cool picture and a reminder to be very glad that someone else took a picture of a flying rock buzzing past an airplane.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Enough Cowardice to Go Around

Plenty of people have taken the National Basketball Association to task for its craven groveling after the Houston Rockets' general manager tweeted support of pro-freedom protestors in Hong Kong. The league has shown that as necessary as a spine may be to playing the actual game of basketball, it is not necessary for managing the professional league of teams which do so.

Some NBA figures, such as Steve Kerr, have been singled out for special criticism. Kerr is quick to blast President Trump for his many failures but considers a regime currently imprisoning nearly an entire ethnic group a real head-scratcher to understand.

Disney-owned ESPN, in an effort to help out one of our nation's great sports, is being pretty quiet about the whole thing also. Or it could be that Disney doesn't want the dictatorship ruling China to close its movie market to Disney productions and turn off that sweet international box office cash flow.

Mitt Romney was mocked during the 2012 presidential campaign when he said that corporations were people, too. He meant that corporations were made up of the people they employed, but in this instance we find some that really are people. Gutless, greedy people.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Kids May Yet Be Alright

Those crazy millennials! When given the opportunity to have all of the keenest tech at their fingertips in settings that wow every visiting dad who can picture himself watching the game on them, they seem to want...books!

Alia Wong, writing at The Atlantic, recounts how students seem to lean towards libraries that do things libraries have always done: Provide access to information and the curation of that information so as to be able to find what they need to learn things and finish assignments. In fact, some of the surveys and an increasing pile of research suggest that paper books help those tasks better than do e-books and journals. Actually I think you could make an end run around the electronic journal thing if you looked something up and then wrote it down in a notebook, giving yourself the benefit of physical text and note-taking.

As a licensed middle-aged grump, I of course prefer libraries with books in them and think wholesale commitment to whizbangery is very likely an expensive and trendy boondoggle. At the college where I used to work, I recall that when the new business school building opened, the university president touted it as one of the most technologically advanced facilities in the state, if not nation. When I've been in that building since then the cutting edge tech of 2004 is either painfully outdated or flat-out gone. The whetstone necessary to keep that edge cost a lot more than he thought it would.

Turns out that while college textbooks and academic journals are ridiculously expensive, they're ridiculously expensive only once -- rather than every other year. Good job, meddling kids.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Conflicted

I'm of two minds about the latest issue of National Review, which has several stories highlighting the flaws of Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and of her ideas.

On the one hand, highlighting how wrong-headed Sen. Warren's much lauded plans are is a good idea. Demonstrating how clearly her ideas clash with reality is needed.

On the other hand, the last time the staff at NR decided to devote most of an issue towards explaining the flaws of a particular presidential candidate was in January of 2016. And it didn't work out so well.