Thursday, February 28, 2019

His Honor Rests in Peace

Duke, the Great Pyrenees who was write-in elected four times as the mayor of Cormorant Village, Minnesota, has passed away at 13.

Duke was elected mayor four times, first in 2014, and served as an unofficial ambassador for the village at festivals and events. He retired last year, when it became clear he could no longer perform his duties.

Now that's a good example for modern politicians to follow, except it would probably leave us with a lot of empty chairs at local, state and federal level. On the other hand, how that's a bad thing I'm not sure I could say.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Karma Not Real

It couldn't be, or else when Michael Cohen swore that unlike everything he said with complete conviction when he worked for Donald Trump, this time he was telling the truth, the lightning strike would have leveled not only the Capitol but most of Washington and parts of neighboring states.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Perception

Over at Live Science, writer Emma Bryce unpacks some of the possible reasons people hate the venerable font Comic Sans.

One of the most likely reasons seems to be overuse -- it started showing up where it didn't have any real place and so it became annoying.

The font creator, though, seems to have the right idea about the whole matter. He lives in France, grows olive trees and practices calligraphy. The fact that there is actual organized antagonism towards a font does not appear to have made much difference in his life at all.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Extended Friday

By the time the early 1980s rolled around, Robert Heinlein had amassed a curious dual reputation. He was the Science Fiction Writers of America's first Grand Master. He was one of the genre's "Big Three" along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. With Stranger in a Strange Land, he had written one of the first sci-fi novels that grappled with questions about the human condition at levels approaching those usually reserved for sniff-down-your-nose literature.

And for most of the previous 15 years, almost everything he had published was uninspired, unintelligible or both. While Glory Road and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress both had their moments, Farnham's Freehold zigged and zagged in unexpected places and sank whatever interest it might have developed by relying on a thoroughly unlikable lead character. The lumbering Time Enough for Love cried out for even a little of the authorial discipline that had made Heinlein a top short-story writer. And I Will Fear No Evil was published while Heinlein was struggling with potentially lethal peritonitis, meaning his ability to give it anything like the attention it needed was just not there. Fear is the kind of novel that a sprawling hot mess looks at and says, "Bless your heart."

After Time Enough was published in 1973, Heinlein continued to struggle with his health. Finally fit enough again to create a novel, he greeted the 80s with The Number of the Beast. It did little or nothing to correct the idea that the great author's muse had packed up and moved on, mixing satire, parody and homage in confusing dead ends and whatnot.

Then came 1983 and Friday. The story of an advanced "artificial person," it tells about a series of incidents in the life of Friday Jones sometime in the 21st century as she searches for something -- mostly herself. Friday is a courier for a military and espionage private contractor in the Balkanized remains of the United States and Canada. Her work takes her around the world and sometimes off of it to space stations and other places near Earth. We meet her when an operation goes bad and she is captured and tortured for information from her employer. After some recovery time, she takes vacation with her family, a group marriage in New Zealand. But when they learn her heritage they divorce her, and she finds solace with some new friends, the wealthy Tormeys. It's while visiting the Tormeys that Friday is cut off from her employer and headquarters by a worldwide series of terrorist strikes called Red Thursday. The middle third of the novel is a travelogue across the different countries that used to be the United States as she attempts to get back to HQ. Once the reunion finally happens -- in a totally different context than she expected -- Friday takes on some new assignments before her boss's death dissolves the company. Her first private assignment heads her out of the Solar System to one of the distant colony worlds, but also puts her in danger of losing her life even if she succeeds.

The narrative takes awhile to describe because it's less of a single plot and more of a string of events through which Friday moves. The novel might have been better split into three or maybe even four connected shorter stories so that a reader would realize upfront he or she is not dealing with a strictly one-piece arc on Friday's journey to find a real place for herself. It could also benefit from a trim -- a sequence where Friday enlists with a private military contractor in order to try to get back into her home Chicago Imperium is really just padding and definitely takes longer than it needs to for even its small benefits.

Nevertheless, Heinlein's decision to exchange his thinly-clad philosophical musings for something like an actual series of events and happenings was warmly greeted by sci-fi readers. Friday was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel, something no one had even bothered trying to do for Number. It has Heinlein's trademark immersive world-building, offering a picture of where and how our characters live with just one or two well-chosen details. It features some of his pretty on-target forecasting, showing a society in which cash is all but absent and governments and others keep track of people by the use of credit or electronic money. Heinlein also suggests that some future conflicts will be fueled not by nation states but by corporations, through hired mercenaries offering fighting, courier or espionage services.

Friday's aforementioned "strung-together" characteristic weakens it, no matter how much it improves on its predecessors of the previous 15 or so years. It also suffers from Heinlein's career-long difficulty in writing women characters. Friday herself, though female, has a pretty masculine personality. She seems a lot more like a "tough broad" character from 1940s movies with an amped-up sex drive than a real woman, which only highlights for readers the reality that we're listening to what a man thinks a woman's voice is like. Heinlein starts out by showing how much of Friday's life is driven by her awareness of her lab-grown heritage and search for a place to belong, but he tends to wander away from that drive too often to let it be the peg on which a complete narrative could hang.

Like a lot of Heinlein fans, the return of actual events to a Heinlein novel put me over the moon when I first picked up Friday. Reread many years later, its flaws are pretty clear and it doesn't match up as well to his better work. But when considered with his other "late period" output, spanning from 1980 until Heinlein's death in 1988, Friday takes the prize. Its linear structure, likable central character and refusal to dally with mysticism and multi-dimensional frippery all offer something none of the others can match.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Omission

Someone told me the Oscars were tonight. Turns out I saw as much of the Oscars broadcast as I saw of the Oscar-nominated movies and performances -- no more than I wanted to.

Like, Black Panther. Into the Spider-Verse. Incredibles 2.

You could say I've gotta get out more. Or you could say the entertainment industry needs to give me a reason to want to get out more. To-may-to, to-mah-to, I suppose.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

What Is Your Emergency?

Our Congress is preparing to vote on a resolution blocking President Trump's state of emergency declaration with regards to our nation's southern border. Several representatives and senators don't believe illegal immigration is a problem at all, several more do believe it's a problem but don't believe that the president's demand for a wall is the way to solve it. Still more accept those two ideas but don't believe the president needs a national declaration of emergency to get funding for his wall, or they may believe that this issue is important but doesn't get to the "emergency" level.

And of course there are people who would slap the cookie out of a child's hand if they learned the president once smiled at a person who built the plant where it was produced.

Amongst the rhetoric from those supporting this resolution are a good many statements citing the proper separation of powers as outlined in the Constitution. It's Congress' job, we're told, to pass legislation that pretends to funds what the government does. If the president objects, he may veto the legislation. But he's not entitled to just sign the pretend funding legislation and then declare an emergency to shift the money around the way he wants. That power's not in the Constitution, so unless some body of boneheads somewhere changed things around to give him that authority, well, he can't just seize it for himself.

Appearing as the "body of boneheads" in this episode will be the 94th Congress, who in 1976 passed HR 3884 (introduced by New Jersey Democrat Peter Rodino) on a 388-5 vote. HR 3884 became the "National Emergencies Act" when it passed the Senate without a roll call vote and was signed by President Gerald Ford. The act delegates 136 distinct statutory authorities to the president; 123 of them can simply be invoked by the president without Congressional input and they can only try to stop them afterwards.

As this column at The Week points out, 31 of the 59 national emergencies declared since the act's passage are still in effect. The other 28 were declared taken care of by the president himself -- not one was revoked by an act of Congress. It's entirely possible that this particular emergency should be revoked, based on any number of reasons that sound good to me. But the idea that the current congressional leadership has suddenly developed an appetite for its congressional duty of crafting, debating and passing legislation for which senators and representatives may be held accountable by their constituents is, as the column notes, ridiculous.

This isn't a new problem, as James Q. Wilson's 1987 article from The Public Interest describes. Even without a Lexis-Nexis search, I can bet I'd find exactly zero complaints from these new stalwart defenders of congressional prerogatives about the 13 emergency declarations during then-President Obama's two terms. There are days when I wonder which is worse -- that these twerps expect people to believe what they say or that they don't.

Friday, February 22, 2019

2-22-80; 4-3

Why yes, Al. Yes I do.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Somewhere, Sam Donaldson is Smiling

Hilde Lysiak of Brooklyn, NY, has been running her own newspaper, the Orange Street News, since 2014. Considering that she was born in 2006, that means she's put quite a bit of her life into the business.

The News started out as a family newspaper with crayon articles about events in the Lysiak home, but soon expanded thanks to modern media technology. In 2016, Hilde overheard police talking about "something big" and found out it was a murder committed just a few blocks from her home. She went to the crime scene, gathered information and published her report (with the aid of her reporter father) and then went back to film a short video news segment. The News beat other area publications and news outlets by several hours.

Earlier this week, Hilde was in Patagonia, AZ, and was tracking down a story about a mountain lion when she encountered a Patagonia Marshal who stopped her and asked for her identification, then responded rather huffily when she told him she was a reporter working on a story. Rather than remembering that he was talking to a 13-year-old kid, the marshal then threatened to have her arrested and thrown in juvie when she was not as cooperative as he wanted her to be. Out came Hilde's cell phone to record the interaction, and the marshal then threatened her with arrest or problems if his face was recorded and posted online. At some point, he gets the idea he's not going to win and drives off.

The Town of Patagonia, the story at Reason notes, said it reviewed the situation and has "taken action we believe to be appropriate." Since it's a personnel matter they don't go into detail, but you couldn't color me surprised if the "appropriate" action involved one of the marshal's superiors frequently saying the word "dumbass" to him while reviewing the incident.

I would love for Hilde's parents to give her permission to interview the couple dozen or so Democratic candidates for president right now, as I believe she would not come away satisfied with the boilerplate balloon juice they are now permitted to get away with. The rest of the press corps, could, of course, continue to bulldog President Trump over his choice of breakfast cereal. Cue Jim Acosta, shouting from the back of the room: "Mr. President! Doesn't your choice of Rice Krispies -- known for their explosive snap, crackle and pop -- clearly indicate you want to get us into a war with Liechtenstein in order to satisfy Vladimir Putin's displeasure at his inability to locate it on a map?"

In any event, perhaps one of the best statements from Hilde about her journalistic ambitions comes from a September 2015 story in Columbia Journalism Review. In it, she says she doesn't really want to work for a newspaper when she grows up.

She wants to run one.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Round-Em-Up

-- At Gizmodo, an item which talks about the great lengths Amazon is going to in order to keep a lid on its plans for a streaming series set in the world of the Lord of the Rings. They include a locked writers room with a security guard and fingerprint access. Undisclosed: What kind of lengths Amazon will go to in order to prevent this series from sucking as bad as the Hobbit trilogy did are not included.

-- Last year three professors revealed that they had sent faked articles to academic journals, which instead of vetting them and finding out they were fakes, ran with them. The result should have been kind of a wake-up call to academia that it's submerged itself so deeply in jargon, identity politics and monomaniacal worldview that it can't even tell truth from fiction anymore. Instead, the university that employs the only one of the three to hold an untenured academic position has decided to see if he should face disciplinary action. They're not shooting the messenger, but they may indeed decide to fire him.

-- "Dark matter" and "dark energy" are terms that cosmologists, physicists and some other scientists use to describe certain unknown but theorized substances. What gets used in which instance can be confusing, so physicist and writer Sabine Hossenfelder offers a quick explanation here. What's interesting to me is that "dark matter" would better be described as transparent than dark because it doesn't absorb light the way dark things do. It's just completely unaffected by it. Also that "dark energy" is also better thought of as transparent and isn't actually energy either. And that the SyFy Network was stupid for canceling its TV show Dark Matter while keeping the less and less interesting Killjoys on the air. That last one may be my opinion rather than Dr. Hossenfelder's, though.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

From the Rental Vault: The Fire Down Below (1957)

The "smartest people in the room" theory suggests that someone wanting to hire a team might not necessarily look for people with the most experience in a particular area. Rather, someone who demonstrates they're intelligent and creative could, when pointed at a problem or project, come up with an idea that the experienced person might not. A group of such geniuses could be capable of anything, whether they knew all that much about the field or matter at hand or not. Similar ideas lie behind movies that assemble large casts of stars, figuring that such powerhouses of talent and charisma are bound to make even "meh" material a sure-fire hit.

The former idea produced Enron and a book of that title by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. The latter idea has given rise to any number of box-office clunkers when it becomes clear that some movie stars are better in their natural element no matter how great their performing cast winds up being, such as 1957's Fire Down Below, directed by Robert Parrish and taken from the novel of that name by Max Catto.

Fire is a story of folks generally dealt bad hands by life who have been burnt one too many times and are now trying to get by as best as they can. Even though it's filmed in Technicolor and set in the Caribbean, it's got noir written all over it. So naturally Felix,  the older, harder man in a potential love triangle is played by Robert Mitchum, a man whose drooping features and cynical wit would have invented film noir if it didn't already exist. The femme fatale Irena, an expatriate European lady with a shadowy past -- meaning much of it is unknown and the rest is not pretty -- is played by Rita Hayworth, whose personal life seemed like it came from a novel. Tony, the youngest leg of the triangle, is a wandering son of a wealthy man who doesn't yet want to anchor himself to regular life and so hooked up with Felix to make small-scale smuggling runs with their Jamaican partner Jimmy Jean (Edric Connor) in the tramp steamer Ruby. He's played by Jack Lemmon, a miscasting that sets Fire laboring against a strong headwind. Lemmon even at that point in his career was terrifically talented and his mantle held a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. But nothing about his demeanor either personally or professionally suggests the baggage of the past carried by his co-stars, making him simply unequal to Mitchum as a serious candidate for Hayworth's affections.

And when Fire shifts to focus on Lemmon solo when he is trapped inside a doomed cargo ship even the rather lightweight buildup of tension it's produced to that point blows away. Lemmon's Tony is the youngest and least interesting of the three, so no matter how good Lemmon is playing him it doesn't matter because the far more intriguing Felix and Irena are offscreen.

In the end Fire is more interesting for some coincidences and incidentals than for the movie itself: It was Hayworth's first movie in four years, Lemmon composed the harmonica theme used in the movie and would later play a "Felix" in one of his best-known movies, The Odd Couple, and Mitchum became so fascinated by the island music scene that he recorded an album called Calypso Is Like So. It was re-released in 1995.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Timely and Smart

I recently re-read a book from 2000 about the aftermath, impact and some possible reasons for the Columbine school shooting in 1999 (It's shelf-culling time and the book is kind of dated, but more on that in a potential future entry).

One of the things that struck me was the relative slowness of the usual suspects with their responses. Stuff about violent video games, violent images in the media and so on took a week or so and some considerations of the incident and issues surrounding it were prepared over a considerable time. Now we react with light speed and with opinions and comments that demonstrate every second of the thought taken to create them.

Which makes this piece by Emily Richmond in Columbia Journalism Review so interesting, as she suggests education reporters and others take a serious look at the way journalism covers such shootings when they happen at schools. Overloaded coverage has caused several significant overreactions by schools and other institutions, Richmond said, and the notoriety given to the shooters may push someone over the tipping point who would have walked back from the brink otherwise.

It's worth reading the whole thing, and if I were still in that business it's something that would make me think about the different crimes and misfortunes I had covered and whether or not I had been as responsible as I should. It's the kind of thing you'd hope a lot of newspaper, magazine and website editors would take a look at and at least play around with in some discussions or staff meetings.

TV? Nah, that's beyond hope. Whatever journalism used to be done in that medium is mostly gone & the best thing one can hope for is for the 24-hour-maw to get distracted quickly by the next shiny thing that comes along.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Wide, Wide World

One of the odder things that happened to me when I started watching more movies via DVD and streaming than in the theater was my appreciation for Indian movies, such as the well-known phenomenon of the "Bollywood film." These may be action, comedy, romance or even superhero movies that have the extremely unexpected musical number or three in them, like an old MGM musical.

From these I developed an interest in the nation of India itself. At more than a billion people, it's the world's largest democracy. Better than a century of British rule was in many ways harsh and destructive to the nation and its culture, and in many ways a prime example of racially-influenced imperialism that needed to depart the historical stage. But that same century planted the roots of a nation that values the rule of law, the rights of the individual and freedom of conscience, at least among the upper and middle classes of its society. Despite containing many different and possibly hostile cultural and religious groups, India maintains its democracy -- although it sometimes does better at maintaining a clean democracy than others.

Although we may have a stereotype of what an Indian "looks like," it's important to remember that this vast country contains all kinds of people, more even than our own wonderfully diverse melting pot. Polish photographer Magdalena Bagrianow, traveling in one section of India, found some folks who don't really match that stereotypical appearance but are as much Indian as the biggest Bollywood box office star around. This post at Bored Panda shows some of the portraits she took at the fairgrounds and on the streets of a town called Pushkar, and they are fascinating.

Of course, one of the most interesting things to me is that these are pictures taken by a Polish photographer. Around this ol' world we certainly live in different cultures and have different ideas about what matters most in life. But it's still the one planet.

Below is the first picture in the collection Bored Panda displays, a young Kalbelia woman named Suman. Bagrianow has another picture of Suman a ways down the list. Kalbelias are a tribal group of nomads who still move around quite a bit in their districts of India, although animal control laws have put an end to their traditional practice of earning money by displaying their skills at cobra handling.

Many more pictures from the journey are at Bagrianow's Instagram page.


Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Right Address

Monday marks "Presidents Day," which we in modern times have adjusted to be the date of many silly sales and honoring all of the men who have held the office whether they merit it or not. Of course, no one who hasn't had to try to do the job really knows what it's like. But if you try to tell me that one-monther William Henry Harrison, acme of incompetence James Buchanan or the vile Woodrow Wilson deserve the same recognition as the effective manager Eisenhower, let alone the greatness of Lincoln or Washington, I will say you've probably taken United States history sometime in the last 20 years.

In any event, since the holiday was originally focused on Washington and later added Lincoln (in most states, anyway), it 's a good time to contemplate Lincoln's famous Gettysburg address. This 2014 essay at National Affairs allowed political science professor Diana Schaub to do so, and is worth your attention. Re-reading the actual address itself -- three paragraphs, ten sentences, 272 words -- wouldn't be a bad idea either.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

No Longer Knocking

Scientists at NASA today officially ended the 15-year Opportunity Mars Rover mission, saying that all of their attempts to wake the probe following last summer's planet-wide dust storm have failed. Although Martian skies are now clear enough for sunlight to reach the rover's last known location, it's believed that the storm left a thick enough cover of dust on Oppotunity's solar panels to prevent them from drawing power.

Of course, since the original mission had Opportunity moving about 1,000 yards over 90 days following its first signal on January 24, 2004, it's not like it didn't meet design specs. In the nearly 15 years it was active, the rover traveled 28 miles and sent back more than 200,000 images. It combined with the other rover from the mission, Spirit, to find evidence that Mars had a wet past and could have supported microbial life during that time.

Spirit got a wheel stuck and went to sleep during the Martian winter in 2010. The official end of attempts to contact Opportunity marks the official close to what was called the Mars Exploration Rover mission, which began with the launch of Spirit (officially Mares Exploratory Rover-A) in June of 2003 and then Opportunity's launch the next month. They landed in 2004 on opposite sides of the Martian equator and began their work.

One hopes that, should humanity decide to get off its duff and see what's out there in this universe, someday a spacesuit gauntlet will wipe a couple of solar panels free so that NASA can send a final shutdown command to the little dune buggy and let it officially go to sleep. Thanks to the work of the rover engineers and crew, we'll certainly know where to look.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Pack a Bag

If I ever visit London, I'm going to carve one day out of my journey for a visit to Cecil Court, one view of which is provided by Suzanne Plunkett:


"Booksellers Row?" Just try to keep me away.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Series Business

Around the turn of the century, Dave Duncan put together a series of nine novels about a group of swordsmen and bodyguards called "the King's Blades." They concerned the kingdom of Chivial and the best swordsmen on the planet, the dedicated and magic-marked fighters who wore the name of the King's Blades. Each of them was governed by a magic spell and supernaturally empowered to guard their different wards, who had bonded with them by piercing the Blade's heart during the incantation. There were six adult and three young-adult-styled novels, and when Duncan finished them with 2004's The Jaguar Knights, he moved on to other series and worlds.

But fortunately for fans of the series, he discovered he had at least one more tale of Chivial and its gallant knights left to tell, and released it in 2017 as One Velvet Glove. When three Blades are "retired" from their duties and freed from their enchantment, they find themselves with one real skill -- fighting -- that has a limited market value in a relatively peaceful time. Sir Rhys, Sir Sharp and Sir Trusty decide to visit Rhys' father, the Blade Sir Spender, to learn more about a possible lost treasure he had a hand in once. The bulk of The Velvet Glove is Spender telling the story of the treasure to the three younger men, and then all four uniting to seek its present whereabouts and allay their poverty-stricken existence.

Duncan's return to Chivial is just as witty, heroic and swashbuckling as the earlier books -- the influence of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks is strong and well-used. Our heroes quip bravely in a melee, fight ferociously for their comrades and their wards and outwit villains with their brains as much as their swordpoints. Sometimes Duncan's addition of some more modern aspects to his suave, swaggering swordsmen jar a little, but he manages to fit them into the story properly and not overwrite those details so much it gets distasteful. Velvet Glove's story is a little murkier than some of the earlier books but not enough to dampen the fun.

Duncan passed away in 2018 but not before announcing he had another Blades adventure ready to go. When The Ethical Swordsman releases later this year, the series sadly will come to an end. But unlike so much fantasy writing published today, tales of the King's Blades reward re-reading, as the dashing heroes (and no few heroines) of Chivial are only marginally less fun to travel with when we know the destination than when we don't.
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Although some sense of normalcy is coming to Peter Ash's life -- his PTSD-induced claustrophobia has eased considerably as he has been keeping company with June Cassidy -- he is still restless and not always comfortable staying in one place. June asks him to help her friend Wanda Wyatt, a war correspondent/photographer in Memphis who's been receiving strange threats. When Peter arrives he finds the threat partially realized, as someone has driven a dump truck into Wanda's house. Finding the threat and dealing with it -- as well as dealing with the theft of his truck by a youthful offender he doesn't really want to have to hurt -- will occupy Peter plenty in Nick Petrie's fourth novel, Tear It Down.

Petrie says in his acknowledgments that he wanted to write a book touching on race issues in today's south, and he both does and doesn't. Or rather, he doesn't do it very well. The title, Tear It Down, refers to what some of the villains want to do to Wanda's house in order to find what they're looking for on its site. It's also a phrase heard a lot in the last year or two regarding statues that honor Conferederate war veterans or leaders, said in opposition to those who claim such monuments and statues are only celebrations of heritage and history. Given that the main motivator in the plot against Wanda is an issue of supposed heritage connected to a well-known Confederate figure, the parallel has large signs pointing to it to be sure we don't miss it. The subplot with the young thief, a boy trapped in Memphis's underworld by his own poverty and the city's economic stagnation, is also best described as "unsubtle."

Tear It Down seems loose and unfocused, with a strung-together plot that is busier fitting the author's agenda than it is in fitting together. Petrie's writing is still great, with Peter's friend Lewis showing up to provide help in his borderline unlawful manner and a shoot-em-up car chase that probably can't be equaled unless you start comparing it to movies. Probably with some more eye on narrative or more time to let his ideas develop, Petrie could have written an excellent suspense novel with some commentary on race in the U.S. As it is, he's written one that's not much above "meh."

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Cinematiquette

Some of these movie etiquette guidelines from a hundred years ago could be used today.

But what would really be nice is a moviemaker etiquette guideline that would suggest it's bad manners to make a dumb movie. Some might suggest that the penalty is hanging but I think that's way too harsh.

Lifetime exile to a desert island full of the latest DVDs but only a Betamax video player might be more appropriate.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Countdown

As the second full week of February nears, so does the annual arrival of that great, well-known holiday: Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 12. Or thereabouts, depending on your preferred team.

Kiss my tuckus, winter.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Here's Looking at Euclid

The interesting thing about geometry is that it's real in a couple of ways. There's what we call Euclidean geometry, named after an ancient mathematician/philosopher, that we use in everyday life to measure things. In it, parallel lines never converge and the sum of the angles of a triangle always equals 180 degrees.

But we live on the surface of a sphere, which means that the endless plane we imagine when we construct our Eucledean drawings is really curved. And on a curved surface, parallel lines do intersect and the angles of a triangle add up to more than 180 degrees.

As this quote on Math Blab from English mathematician G. H. Hardy suggests, his brother and sister number wonks have constructed several such non-Euclidean geomtries, each of which is perfectly internally consistent despite their significant differences from one another. The only thing that changes between them are their initial assumptions.

For some reason, contemplation of the different descriptions of the world that can hang together and be internally real proves peaceful this evening. Although I presume that if I were a math student attempting to master that understanding for the purpose of an exam or project my serenity might diminish -- just like the distance between two parallel lines drawn on a sphere.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

I Got Better

"She turned me into a newt."

And this is how.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Catching Up

Oops, we left Sherman and Ernest in the middle of their quest to prevent the rise of land-dwelling life and never saw how it ended.

Not well, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Test Pattern

Lo, I am a Gen-Xer, so I must slack. Tomorrow, I shall return to my tasks.

Also, with the lights out, it's less dangerous.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Spies and Lies

Barry Eisler's last "new" John Rain novel, 2011's The Detachment, combined Rain and his sometime partner Dox with characters from another of Eisler's series, Ben Treven and Daniel Larison. Plot silliness and against-character stumbles made it an underwhelming combination. Since then Eisler has done two Rain prequels and introduced a new series, starring the driven Seattle PD detective and child abuse avenger Livia Lone.

The Killer Collective opens with Rain solicited to perform three assassinations in is usual "indistinguishable from natural causes" style. Since two of the targets are women he declines, only to find his would-be employer unwilling to accept Rain's personal limits in his trade and targeting Rain himself for elimination. This will prove ill-advised.

In the meantime, Livia Lone has been working with federal agents on a horrific child-abuse ring that may begin to uncover some prominent names. But orders come from higher-ups to pull the plug on the investigation and before Lone can reach out to find other means to continue she learns the people she was working with died in a mysterious plane crash and she herself is the victim of an assassination attempt. She contacts Dox, whom she befriended on an earlier personal mission of vengeance, and he brings her together with Rain and some other figures from the earlier books. Obviously one question is whether or not the group can uncover the conspiracy that has ensnared them, but another is whether or not they even have the same goals in mind beyond survival.

Eisler gives Collective a much smarter and more plausible hook than The Detachment, and cleans away the need for a lot of setup by having the major villain make the decidedly stupid move of trying to hire Rain to kill Livia Lone. It allows him to swiftly loop in most of his cast members and sets up a legitimate reason to bring Rain's estranged flame Delilah into the mix as well. The combustible cast offers plenty of the requisite banter, action and head-butting, and Eisler even manages to include storylines of Rain and Delilah's reconciliation and Dox's burgeoning relationship with the haunted Livia. It's almost too much and there are places where the story shows the strain -- the final confrontation with the mastermind has a little bit of a rushed feel to it even though it tops off a well-told Mission: Impossible-style scheme to lure him in.

In any event, Collective is the combined-cast Magnificent Seven-styled romp that Detachment never was, giving Eisler a legitimate plot in which to insert his top-level action scenes and characterizations. It shows there may be life going forward rather than backward in the John Rain series, and offers some hints for intriguing new directions for the Livia Lone books as well.
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Matthew Quirk has shown a knack for creating heroes that seem familiar at first but have a little bit of a twist to them as well as unexpected layers and motives. His reformed con man/lawyer Mike Ford moves in the topmost circles of the power elites, while John Hayes is a former assassin looking to come to terms with what he has done and what circumstances all too often force him to do again.

With The Night Agent, Quirk brings forth Peter Sutherland, an FBI surveillance specialist whose impeccable honesty and record stem from a shadowy source. His father was accused of trading secrets to the Russians and took his own life before the case could be proven one way or the other. The inconclusive result and the suspicious nature of the FBI culture have Peter resigned to little or no chance of advancement in his career. Until he's tapped for a special duty assignment at the White House itself. Unfortunately the job is a lot less than advertised: He's to monitor a specific phone line and if it ever rings, call his supervisors and report whatever is said.

The second time the line rings in his year-long tenure, it's a young woman named Rose who passes along cryptic information given to her by her aunt and uncle just before their home was invaded by armed gunmen. Rose barely escaped but learns her aunt and uncle were killed, and Peter finds himself strangely drawn to her case, even though he's not really involved. But as he finds out more about Rose and about her aunt and uncle he begins to sense she is linked to a plot that has something to do with his unusual assignment and the high-level administration officials he reports to. A second attempt on her life convinces Peter his by-the-book history won't serve either of them as they try to stay alive and unravel the secret plots they've stumbled into.

As in his other books, Quirk gives his lead a slightly off-kilter characteristic that not only makes him more interesting but also helps move the story. Peter's need to be the spotless white knight in order to throw off the stigma of his father's name propels him to take risks he might otherwise skip and intervene on Rose's behalf when she is threatened. The identity of the main opponent shows up pretty early, but Quirk hasn't structured Night Agent as a whodunit: Readers know who the bad guy is but Peter and Rose don't, so we'll follow them while they keep looking. Rose is far more than just a damsel in distress, displaying her own level of aplomb and ability that can make readers question if she is really what she seems to be.

Night Agent is a quick-paced and layered thriller, humanizing its characters beyond the ciphers and tropes that populate so much of the genre: You not only want to see how it ends, you actually care about the trip to get there.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Expiration Date

The big LIII is over. Batter up!

Saturday, February 2, 2019

From the Rental Vault: Code of Silence (1985)

Although these days his persona is one of invincible hero, Chuck Norris actually began his career playing heavies, usually getting his just desserts in the last reel. Even when he moved to being the good guy, the arena was still focused on martial arts action. The major difference was that instead of being unbeatable by anyone except the hero, he was now just unbeatable.

In the midst of his escalating superhero-dom, Norris showed up in Andrew Davis's Code of Silence, a movie about a Chicago cop that had been floated as a "Dirty Harry" possibility until Clint Eastwood passed on it. As Eddie Cusack, Norris doesn't spend nearly as much screen time in martial arts mayhem as he does in his previous movies. He's still the hero and still tougher than ten roofing nails, but his bad-assery is limited to strictly human levels instead of the outsized exploits he'd be known for later.

Cusack and his tactical squad are waiting to take down a major cocaine dealer as soon as their informant gives the signal. But a rival crimelord also has designs on the cocaine and cash, and the hit leaves behind a roomful of bodies, wounded officers and a young man shot by panicky burnout cop Cragie (Ralph Foody) who tries to cover the mistake with a drop gun.

The ensuing gang war only amplifies the bloodshed, as Luis Camacho (Henry Silva) swears revenge for his murdered brother and kills most of the family members of the crimelord, Victor Luna, who engineered the hit. Only Victor's daughter Diana (Molly Hagan) remains alive, and she's safe only because Cusack thwarted her abduction. Luis eventually manages to get to Diana, though, threatening her life unless Cusack can produce Victor Luna. Abandoned by his fellow officers because he breaks the titular "code of silence" and won't stand by Cragie in the complaint against him, Cusack has to take on Camacho's thugs himself.

Silence is a no-frills crime drama, sketching its characters in broad familiar strokes and letting the actors fill in the blanks as needed. Davis doesn't meander from his path either, showing the ability to weave action set pieces into a story that would make Under Siege and The Fugitive successes as well. Cusack has his share of encounters with baddies, of course, but Davis doesn't design them as martial arts displays. They're in service to the overall plot, not showcases for flying fists and feet. Even in the finale, Cusack causes most of his mayhem with an automated police robot, not his fists. The role doesn't ask Norris to do much beyond be tough and stoic. Except when he interacts with Hagan, when it asks him to be stoic in a paternal, big-brotherish manner. He's more than capable of meeting that standard and by joining the rest of Code of Silence in not doing more than it needs to, makes a watchable 100 minutes of tough-cop crime story.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Sometimes Bad Is Bad

When a basketball game begins, spectators can usually tell there is a difference of opinion between officials and players as to what constitutes a foul.

Generally officials will call things fouls that the players would rather they not call, but since each official is different, the players adjust. One official calls a push at the lightest touch of a hand, whereas another allows more contact during the flow of the game as long as it doesn't impede the other player's ability to perform his role within the rules.

When players who like a loose game find themselves refereed by officials who don't, what we often see are frequent whistles during the first few minutes as the players learn how the officials will call the game and the officials learn how much players will press against the edge of the rules without going past the line. Whistles then taper off as the boundaries clarify, or as the players who can't adjust draw enough fouls to sit out for awhile in favors of players who can.

But a sure sign you are watching officials who are just plain bad at their jobs is when players can't adjust because of inconsistent standards and they remain frustrated throughout the game. And there are just as many play-stopping calls in the fourth quarter as in the first. While tonight's local contest between the young women's teams was enough of a blowout it didn't matter, the officials' poor performance probably directly affected the outcome of the young men's game. And as a true sign of their ineptitude, it would have affected the outcome of the game no matter which team won.

I suspect we won't see these gentlemen in stripes again here for the brief remainder of the season.