Sunday, March 31, 2019

Improvised Procrastination

You know, it's amazing how much time you can while away watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? videos on YouTube.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Pieces of the Puzzle

So, were you and I waiting by the screen to see when we would finally know whether or not the number 33 could be expressed as the sum of three cubes?

Of course you weren't -- you, O Tolerant Reader, have a life and I have an inability to math very well. Nor, I imagine, did we know that there was a search on for that number. In any event, the solution to k = x³+ y³+ z³ when k = 33 has been found: (8,866,128,975,287,528)³ + (–8,778,405,442,862,239)³ + (–2,736,111,468,807,040)³ = 33.

For some numbers, the equation solves simply. You can write 29 as 3³ + 1³ + 1³. For others, there is no solution. Any number that has either 4 or 5 as a remainder when you divide it by 9 can't be written as the sum of three cubes. So while 33 has this newly-found solution, 32 will never have one. Divide 32 by 9 and you get 27, with 5 left over.

Andrew Booker of the University of Bristol wrote the algorithm which found the number. He figured the supercomputer running it would take six months to solve the problem, but it actually took only three weeks. There only two numbers between 1 and 100 that had never been solved were 33 and 42, and now only 42 remains. Booker will train his algorithm on that next, although the search will involve even larger numbers than the quadrillions that solved for 33.

One reason to find the answers to these so-called "stubborn numbers" is because mathematicians don't really like having unsolved equations laying around. Another is that finding solutions like this can play a role in some future attempts to find proofs for k = x³+ y³+ z³, or proofs that use it.

Left as yet undiscussed is the possibility that solving this polynomial for 42 might just be the way to find three cubes that add up to everything.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Time Begins...And Never Stands Still

Thomas Boswell's great book on baseball offers his understandings of Why Time Begins on Opening Day, suggesting that for the baseball fan life and the world really are a little different thanks to their appreciation of the game and some of its unique features. The lack of a clock, the length of a season, the reality that the best hitters who ever lived miss more times than they hit...all of these have a special resonance for the game's fans.

But time never stands still, either, and today's Opening Day games, featuring all 30 Major League Baseball teams, have not a single player who was active in the majors during the 20th century. Adrian Beltre and Bartolo Colon were the last from that time. Ichiro Suzuki's 20th century time was spent playing in Japan's major leagues.

Anyway, "Play ball!"

Wednesday, March 27, 2019


Alas, in today's reprint, Calvin falls for the age-old fallacy that furious effort spent in trying to cobble together something at the deadline is the same as careful planning and directed work.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019


And then there was that weird day when a legislative body passed a sensible law.

The Texas State House of Representatives passed a measure onto the state Senate that would allow youngsters to have lemonade stands without fearing that law enforcement would shut them down. Two state representatives actually voted against the measure -- but as one explained in the House Journal, he had meant to vote yes. Two were absent, but one of that pair explained that had she been present, she would have voted yes. The other hasn't said anything yet but probably should pretty quickly.

That leaves exactly one legislator who voted no, and as her statement reads in the journal,
I support children selling lemonade and the spirit with which the law was written. However, I do not support removing local control and denying public health authorities the ability to protect our communities by ensuring health and safety standards are met.
She represents part of suburban Dallas and is in her first term -- and whoever may decide to run against her in 2020 has just been handed the campaign commercial of a lifetime.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Twenty Years

Although there had been shootings at schools before -- perhaps the most publicized was a 1979 San Diego attack Bob Geldof wrote about in "I Don't Like Mondays" -- April of 1999 saw what we have come to think of as the pattern by which such shootings are known today. On April 20 of that year, two seniors walked into Columbine High School and murdered 12 classmates and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves.

Columbine grabbed the national imagination like earlier shootings had not. Perhaps because it was one of the first and certainly one of the worst to happen in the era of the 24-hour news channel. Speculation and opinion that might have been limited to a neighborhood barstool rant or smeared-ink mimeograph newsletters found empty hours ready to be filled. Body-blows to the national psyche such as Waco and Oklahoma City helped ramp up the temperature of national discourse. President Bill Clinton's affair with an intern, followed by his partisan impeachment and equally partisan acquittal, didn't exactly reduce the volume.

Two years after the shooting, Christianity Today editor and writer Wendy Murray Zoba (now just Wendy Murray) published Day of Reckoning, a book which tried to examine the shooting, its immediate aftermath and the following year from a religious perspective. Zoba interviewed some students, parents and people in the town of Columbine and tried to fit together the puzzle of why and how two young men could generate so much hate for their fellow students that they wanted to kill as many of them as they could.

Like many secular examinations of the shooting, Zoba considers the rise of violent entertainment in society and relative ease with which the two acquired guns. Given some access to some of the shooters' online journals and such, she sees how some of the original narrative -- two friends bullied so far they snapped -- started to fray. As more of the journals and videos the pair made came to light, some experts suggested one was probably a sociopath and the other depressive and apathetic.

Zoba unpacks some of the narratives that were important to the shooting at the time, such as whether or not student Cassie Bernall was indeed the one asked about her belief in God before being shot. Another chapter dealt with a man from another state who felt moved to bring crosses to the school site to memorialize the dead students and teacher. Initially he had 15, which included the two shooters. But one victim's father consistently tore down any display that included 15 of any kind of memorial, even at one church of which he wasn't a member.

Day of Reckoning adds a little to the Columbine conversation, asking questions about whether or not the perfect surfaces of the affluent suburb had an emptiness of spirit that contributed to the poison in the hearts of the shooters. Murray conducted most of her interviews only about a year after the shooting, when there were still lawsuits and questions thick in the air. Several of the people she talks to are guarded about what they say because of it, and many might still have been weathering their own storms.

Perhaps because of a sensitivity to the still-grieving community, perhaps because Murray felt unwilling to push too far the people who spoke with her, Reckoning doesn't feel as cohesive today as it did in its time. Murray's a competent writer but does much better in the shorter magazine format -- given room to say more she doesn't do as well in holding focus as she does with smaller word counts. Still, reading it offers some powerful contrasts with today.

For one, everything was so much slower in 1999. Today folks offer opinions about such an event while the ambulances are still en route to the ER -- and given that most of these opinions are on Twitter they're neither educated, informed or worth the time. But even the pushiest indictment of "gun culture," Michael Moore's carefully assembled package of half-truth Bowling for Columbine, didn't come out until 2002.

Other things have changed as well. When the Broward County Sheriff's Office was criticized for its poor response to the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the standard which its officers failed to meet was one that was put in place after Columbine -- enter, seek out and engage the shooter, reduce civilian casualties as much as possible. Some remained the same; Murray outlines just how many missteps Colorado law enforcement officials made during the post-shooting investigation in dealing with the media and release of information. No one was as self-aggrandizing as suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, but several people revealed they'd been promoted past their competence level. Then, as now, school officials struggled with how religious they could be in the days following the massacre. Many of the tributes and memorial gifts left at the fence now surrounding the school were crosses and Bible verses, and they were supposed to be cautious about such signs and displays.

Murray hints at the idea that a culture with a reduced spirituality and connection with the divine makes a Petri dish for people to bring forth evil. But she leaves it at more of a hint level than anything else which may be wisest in the end. Because saying, "A society that paid more attention to God and less to its own violent amusement would be less likely to have a Columbine" is a non-starter. Where it's simple, it's not true but where it's true, it's not at all simple. Murray's book, like the massacre itself, seems a part of a past day, and as the Columbine class of '99 winds down their 30s we get reminders now and again that though we live in a different world than the one which brought us the tragedy of April 20, 1999, we still find some of the same problems.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

A Random Group of Short Items

-- Author George R. R. Martin weighed in with an opinion about the hit movie Captain Marvel, which he liked quite a bit. He's also a big fan of the character, saying she could "eat Iron Man for lunch and have Thor for dessert, with a side of Dr. Strange." Now, could she finish Martin's ever-expanding, never-ending, A Song of Ice and Fire? Probably not -- but having Thanos finger-snap half of its 1.7 million words away would probably have us a lot closer to finishing than Martin ever will be.

-- In anticipation of the upcoming release of Avengers: Endgame, is running a contest. The winner will watch all 20 Marvel movies released to date, live-tweet about it and meet with some of its folks to talk about the experience. These are Marvel Studios movies, only, of course. None of the Sony Spider-Man movies, the pre-merger Fox X-Men movies or Fantastic Four flicks. My counter-offer: gives me $200, I watch The Avengers, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Dr. Strange and The Black Panther, we all pretend Guardians of the Galaxy 3 has a reason to exist and then Marvel Studios leaves us alone until it's taken enough time to write a movie that's more plot than hole.

-- Today I Found Out: The Queen of England could not legally be prosecuted for a crime committed while she was Queen, so she is immune from the consequences of her actions like British monarchs before her.
Oliver Cromwell: Hold my beer.

-- Since Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation seems not to have uncovered any concrete evidence of collusion between President Trump's 2016 campaign and the Russian government, there will be some fallout among different groups and people depending on what they wanted to see come from that investigation. Tyler Cowen outlines some of those winners and losers here, but he concludes with this very welcome idea:
The biggest winner of course is the United States of America.  It seems, after all, that we did not have a president, or even presidential staff, who colluded with the Russians.  Maybe you wanted Trump to go down on this one, but that is most of all big reason to celebrate.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Ring Toss

It's pretty boring in the Kuiper Belt. Most of the activity in the solar system happens closer to the sun, which is why comets take a dive in close every few decades. The critters on the third planet haven't sent many of their funny little robots out your way, and the first two of those didn't even wave when they zipped by.

But Haumea, a dwarf planet more than four and a half billion miles from the sun, has something that those flashy interior worlds don't: A ring. Back in 2017, astronomers watching Haumea pass in front of a star saw evidence of a thin ring of debris that circles it just more than 1,400 miles from its equator. Unfortunately it's not in the path of the New Horizons probe that scanned Pluto and Ultima Thule, so we may have to wait to learn more about the ring and just why this small egg-shaped world has one.

And minus two to the article writer, who takes not just one, but two opportunities to call Pluto a demoted dwarf-planet. Boo.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Prescription: Sample Your Wares

Bookstores are among my favorite businesses on the planet. One of the neat things that's been happening in the last few years is the survival and strengthening of the independent bookstore. Endangered and dying in the 1990s because of giants like Border's and Barnes and Noble, the independent store watched the megabox domination crumble when pushed up against Amazon. A well-run bookstore is one of my most-loved places to be, and one where I can easily waste more hours in a day than is good for my punctuality.

But sometimes they're stupid, such as the Whitcoulls chain in New Zealand. In the aftermath of the horrible massacre in Christchurch, the chain has pulled from its shelves the book 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson.

Peterson is a Canadian professor who has gained a significant following with his no-nonsense approach to what can seem to be a crazy modern world. He's gotten flack for refusing to use people's preferred pronouns when addressing them if those pronouns contrast with their obvious gender. In 12 Rules, he offers some common-sense ways for people to help reduce stress in their own lives and make them better people for themselves as well as those around them. A self-declared agnostic, Peterson has no real problem with those who adapt his rules to fit a more religious way of life even though he doesn't really frame them that way. He is not known for any public stance on Islam or its practitioners. The book itself does not address Islam or argue against it.

Current speculation is that someone in the chain saw a picture of Peterson hugging a fan, who was wearing a T-shirt that said, "I am an Islamophobe." Because of this, it's thought, the chain feared he might be linked to anti-Muslim sentiment. We don't know, because Whitcoulls isn't talking.

We do know, however, that among the books still on their shelves and available for online ordering is a book called My Struggle, written while the author was in prison for treason. Published in 1925, you would probably know it better by its title in the author's native German language: Mein Kampf.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Not Humdrum

"Drone" as a sound describes a constant noise, sort of in the background and unchanging. Drone photography, on the other hand, is anything but unchanging and in the background. This page at Bored Panda shows the top 25 pics in an international drone photography contest, showing what kind of amazing images are available when shooting angles and such aren't limited by clumsy old human beings.

At least a couple of the drones seem to have traveled a little ways more distant than intended. Number four gives the definite impression of being taken on another world, while numbers two and five were obviously taken somewhere in Middle-Earth.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Scandal Revisited

A century ago, several of the Chicago White Sox took money to throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Thanks to a pretty good movie made from Eliot Asinof's 1963 book Eight Men Out, most folks today think they have the facts of the story down. But as the Society for American Baseball Research shows at the linked page, there are many things about which someone could say, "Say it ain't so" and be reassured that it was indeed not so.

Both the book and the 1988 John Sayles movie exaggerate some facts, make up some others and straight-out whiff on still more. This appendix offers a more extensive list of the errors, and the SABR folks include links to several articles and more extensive research to document their charges of error.

The truth, of course, is that the broken-open scandal, representing what was at the time just part of the overall gambling problem baseball faced, could have wrecked Major League Baseball. Although owners tried to coast a little through the 1920 season they eventually realized they had to clean things up. If you can't trust the score, why watch the game? Under Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of baseball, the leagues took care of the first step they needed to clean up their game. They would not take the next step until the Brooklyn Dodgers started Jackie Robinson at first base in 1947. Although Landis had many opportunities to link his name with that historic step he never did, and left it as a credit to Happy Chandler and Branch Rickey.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019


Economist Don Boudreaux uses a metaphor about balls and strikes to describe the operation of the free market, suggesting that in a truly free market the consumer makes certain pitches "hits" by swinging at them and others "balls" by not swinging at them. The seller, or pitcher, can claim something should have been a strike, but from the point of view of the batter, if it had been a strike then he would have swung on it.

The point is a pretty good one and I'm rarely averse to a succinct explanation of the way the free market works, but my favorite piece of the post is the quote that Boudreaux lifts from a 2007 George Will column about a young pitcher facing St. Louis Cardinals great Rogers Hornsby:
"Rogers Hornsby, who averaged .400 over five years, was facing a rookie pitcher who threw three pitches that he thought were strikes but that the umpire called balls. The rookie shouted a complaint to the umpire, who replied: 'Young man, when you throw a strike, Mr. Hornsby will let you know.'''

Monday, March 18, 2019

Layers of Duh

The dumb website Buzzfeed has published an opinion column by two college students who confronted Chelsea Clinton when she attended a vigil for victims of the mosque massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Now, Buzzfeed is not dumb for publishing the piece -- they were dumb before and they would still be dumb if they didn't give the two women space for their thoughts. They've drawn some heat for doing so but I personally don't mind all that much. For one, it's Buzzfeed. It's not like they've got a reputation to uphold. For another, my thinking on stuff like this follows the old joke that says liberals want conservatives to shut up, but conservatives want liberals to keep talking. Why?

Well, for one it's the whole freedom of speech thing. My experience is that free speech is not a conservative value, but as more and more folks on the left buy into Herbert Marcuse's bushwa about "repressive tolerance," you might begin to worry. I may just be fortunate to know smart and principled liberals who have limited their mistakes to accepting my friendship, but I think most folks accept some notion that one's political leanings or point of view don't remove them from the umbrella of the first amendment. The ones that don't are just louder.

For another, as soon as some folks -- like the two women who confronted Ms. Clinton -- start explaining themselves, they do more damage to any idea they're supposed to be supporting than any opponent ever could. What happened was that Ms. Clinton attended a vigil Friday night for those killed in last week's massacre. While she was there, the two women confronted her angrily, one filming while the other blamed the massacre on feelings stirred up by the former first daughter's tweets criticizing Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar's anti-Semitic remarks. That single tweet, one woman alleged, caused the atmosphere that led to the massacre.

Now if this idea doesn't sound whackadoodle to you from the start, then head over to Buzzfeed and read the elaboration. Are there potential grounds to believe Ms. Clinton was being an opportunist by attending the vigil? Sure -- she is, after all, a Clinton. But on the other hand she's also a person and may have thought a good way to show solidarity with Muslims following this tragedy was to support the vigil. Are there potential grounds for believing her single tweet saying that anti-Semitism from elected leaders is bad helped spur the massacre in New Zealand? No, not on this planet.

When confronted, the pregnant Ms. Clinton said she was sorry that the students felt that way about what she had tweeted. Others shouted out, "What does that mean?" I can't read her mind, but when I use those words I usually mean, "This is a bad time for me to point out you just said something exceedingly stupid."

In the Buzzfeed article, the women attempt to explain both the reasoning behind their point of view and their actions, ignoring another old saying: When you're explaining, you're losing. We could refine it: When you're explaining why you got in the face of a pregnant woman at a prayer vigil, you are most definitely losing. If you need another sign you've erred, realize your actions caused this headline: "Trump defends Clinton," as Donald Trump, Jr., said Ms. Clinton was the wronged party in this exchange.

The smart thing to do is to say something like, "I was angry and lashed out in a way I wouldn't have otherwise. I'd welcome the chance to meet with her sometime to talk about what I was trying to say." The dumb thing is to let a clickbait factory like Buzzfeed take advantage of your youth by letting you try to explain yourself -- not because they really care about what you believe, but because they care about the traffic you will generate.

In the end, it seems like the thing to do is to paraphrase Zed from Men in Black: "Congratulations! You're everything we've come to expect from years of modern undergraduate education."

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Lucky Day

Hope everyone had a fun day pretending to be Irish!

By the way, did you ever notice how people are more than happy to down a pint of stout to celebrate the patron saint of Ireland, but seem really averse to the idea of a plateful of haggis on St. Andrew's Day?

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The (Welcome?) End of an Era

Over at The Federalist, New Yorker and theater manager David Marcus muses on the death of the last "Golden Age" Mafia don, Carmine Persico. With Persico's death, Marcus says, the last of the so-called "Five Families" crimelords is gone, and so too may be the romanticized view of organized crime that's been part and parcel of American popular culture since the early 1970s.

Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather is an amazing movie, but the same pop culture that never digs deeply enough to see the real meaning of anything failed to appreciate what it actually showed. It picked up the swagger of lines like, "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli" or supposed crime family phrases such as "sleeps with the fishes" to represent the death and watery disposal of an unfortunate soldier.

But the pop references missed the way that Al Pacino's Michael Corleone slowly loses the humanity and life he began the movie with, as he becomes more and more involved in the illegal work of his father's organization. Animated and lively as the movie begins, his face and manner slowly ossify over its arc until he can stand in front of a priest and repeat the baptismal formula for his infant nephew while men acting on his command murder his enemies and at least one innocent bystander.

Though it's roundly criticized and definitely flawed, Godfather Part III shows the ultimate end of these choices: Michael howling as he holds his dead daughter in his arms, shot by an assassin sent for him, and then dying many years later, alone.

The romantic vision of daring outlaws and colorful characters penetrated entertainment culture until it became the preferred way of processing stories about these awful people. We bust out another Pacino line, "Say hello to my little frien'!" overlooking how Scarface's Tony Montana had just shot his new brother-in-law and best friend in a cocaine-soaked rage, and put his sister Gina in the path of men who want to kill him.

Marcus talks about how the diffusion of the Italian ethnic identity, both geographically and ethnically, has combined with crime bosses who like not being in the papers to leave no successors to the real life godfathers and made men from the Mafia's heyday. It wouldn't be the worst thing if we had one less reason to think better of the people who flaunt the law rather than those who tried to obey it.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Tune Type

I will never not use a computer keyboard if it is available. Since I don't know how to touch-type, the ability to backtrack and correct errors is essential. I pause, O Tolerant Reader, so that you may recover from being overwhelmed with gratitude for the immense edifice of technology that exists so that I may continue my decade-long pretense of being Mike Royko.

However, I love old typewriters. By which I mean the cast-iron manual machines with keys that had to be hit with a sledgehammer and which could double as ammunition for the USS Missouri's 16-inch guns. I am frequently tempted to buy ones I see in antique stores even though they would be only decoration.

So this typewriter, which was designed to type music onto scores, is fascinating to me even though I would have even less use for it than I would for a regular old Underwood Battlestar model. The carriage allowed the paper to be adjusted so the notes would be on the proper staff and in the proper relationship to each other. The first patent was issued in 1936 to Robert H. Keaton, and then a revised keyboard version was patented in 1953. Not many seem to have been produced, and the 1953 model went for $225 -- a little over two grand in today's terms.

So in other words, it's ridiculously expensive and can have no use in any aspect of my life as I neither read nor write music. My desire to own it has thus increased by almost the same amount as the price.

Thursday, March 14, 2019


George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen offers an opinion on the recent revelations that some people don't know how to buy Junior's admission to college. Cowen suggests the scheme -- which involved direct payment to university officials who could guarantee admission to the briber's children, rather than the hint that mom and dad think a new library would look awesome on campus -- shows a weirdly dualistic view of college.

On the one hand, the parents obviously wanted their kids in top schools (although as an Okie, I have to wonder about those parents willing to break the law to get their kid into the University of Texas). Which means that the kids' presence in those schools, and whatever benefits accrued from it, was something the parents valued.

On the other hand, they didn't value it enough to take advantage of the many legal advantages they had that would have made admission to a preferred college more likely. Tutoring, test prep, résumé-enhancing activities -- there's a long list of options open to folks who have the money to pay for them. And each of those options is a leg up on the average applicant. In one sense, admission was only worth buying -- it wasn't worth earning.

Several of the news stories focused on how many of the students concerned might not have qualified for admission had their ticket not been purchased under the table. Of course, universities admit academically suspect students all the time in exchange for revenue -- it's called college athletics. While most smaller schools and many sports fill their team rosters with true student-athletes, quite a few of the schools involved in this scandal have have shown up in exposés of young people who made it onto campus without being ready for anything but the playing field. And when they excel on that playing field, all kinds of money rolls into the school coffers and coaches' pockets via endorsement deals and the like. None of it rolls to the students, of course, because the school is already offering them the benefit of a highly useful degree.

It's an immense mess, which makes it kind of ironic that it can really be described in one word: Ick.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Not Made Up

I'm on record that I won't vote for Donald Trump if he runs again in 2020. I say that because the circumstances under which I would vote for him are almost impossible to conceive: An evil scientist using either cloning technology or time travel presents us with a modern living version of some dictator like Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot, and said reanimated meanie wins a spot on the ballot. For whatever reason, the vote total of the entire nation is known before the election and the forecast is a precise tie. I was somehow missed in the poll and so my vote will break the tie. In that case, I would indeed vote for Donald Trump -- which shows you how likely the scenario is.

But back in the real world, I won't do it. Although if he somehow grabbed hold of the idea that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations and kick the entire crew out of the country, and made said eviction happen (hey, he is a landlord, after a fashion), I would move closer towards the idea. Why? Well, consider these two items.

At its March 11 meeting, the UN Commission on the Status of Women announced that two new member nations would be joining: Nigeria and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nigeria's got a problematic record on human rights in general so it's a shaky choice, but Iran?

Here's another recent news item about Iran. Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes after being convicted on charges of spreading information against the state, insulting Iran's supreme leader and spying. Of course each and every charge is made up (adult word warning!) horseshit, because the government of Iran is a theocratic dictatorship that does not tell the truth. The government's real problem with Ms. Sotoudeh is that she represents women charged with things like not wearing a hijab head covering in public. The nine separate charges were handled in two trials, one of which was held without her present.

The semi-utopian vision of the UN's founders is completely understandable as they tried to not only make sense of an incredibly bloody decade of horror across the world but prevent a repeat. Perhaps the UN matched that vision for a time, but it's long since past. That vision would have cut Iran off from the world -- pointing out that if its leaders wanted to live in the 14th century they were welcome to do so, but nobody else was going to. Or do any business with those who did.

The modern UN, though, elevates these medieval monsters to having a say in how the world's gathered nations measure rights for women around the world. Who wants to be a part of that rot?

I expect numerous condemnations of Israel to be forthcoming.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


-- Good ol' Lewis Carroll took a break from imagining the strange journeys of a young girl named Alice and wrote a book of mathematical puzzles called Pillow-Problems. One of them suggests that a person imagine any three points on an infinite plane. What, Carroll asks, is the probability that the triangle they form is obtuse? For reference, an obtuse triangle has one angle greater than 90º -- the obtuse one -- and two angles smaller -- the acute ones. Some mathematicians played around with a new way to solve the problem and came up with an answer: 83.8 percent of those triangles will be obtuse. A related question: Given any three members of any legislature, what is the probability that all three will be obtuse in the other sense of that word? The answer is left as an exercise for the student.

-- Many people get tattoos with what they are told are Chinese or Japanese characters that are either translations of desired phrases or symbols of some sought-after characteristic. Many of those people are fooled.

-- Sometimes the Iditarod sled dog race is thought of as an individual sport, because there's just one person involved. Although the dogs are called a team, the degree to which they are indeed a team with their human can be overlooked. Until it can't.

-- As always, it's entirely possible for a politician to support a good idea at several steps along the process, even up to putting his or her name on paper enacting laws to make that idea happen, and then torpedo the good idea by not giving it any actual money.

Monday, March 11, 2019

That Most Satisfying Sound

My Facebook newsfeed has begun to feature highlight clips from the spring training games played by my preferred team, the Kansas City Royals. It being spring training and highlight clips being what they are, this means my newsfeed has a lot of home run videos.

And boy, does the smack of bat against ball sound pretty darn good.

Sunday, March 10, 2019


Thanks to Mr. Time Change, it's later than it feels like, and I'm wiped. I'll allow Sally Brown to offer a version of what kind of blog post I would have written if I'd gone ahead and written one.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Reading Discovery

One of the things that scientific theories are supposed to do is describe reality. If theory A says things should happen a certain way and they don't, then something about theory A is off. The theory might be mistaken, or the measurements and calculations on which it's based overlooked something important. If checking and more re-checking, followed up by new measurements or even new experiments, doesn't show the results, then it may be time to scrap theory A even though it's been accepted for hundreds of years and is the basis for most of the way people understand things.

All of these things happened when astronomers in the middle 19th century noticed that Mercury's orbit around the sun shifted a little bit each time. The story is described in Thomas Levenson's 2015 The Hunt for Vulcan.

The perihelion precession seen when Mercury transited the sun during an eclipse should not happen if Mercury was following Isaac Newton's laws of motion. Well, everything followed Newton's laws of motion, so obviously some other factor had to be affecting Mercury's orbit. French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier had a pretty good idea what it was: Another planet inside Mercury's orbit, whose own mass goofed up that orbit. Since the same theory had led to Le Verrier's discovery of Neptune, it seemed to make sense. He worked out how big the planet would have to be and about where it would have to be found in order to produce Mercury's precession. It even had a name: Vulcan. The only problem was that decades of observation failed to find any evidence Vulcan existed. Although some astronomers claimed to see an intra-Mercury planet transit the sun during several eclipses during the second half of the 19th century none of them were firm enough to convince scientists such a planet existed. They convinced Le Verrier, though, because Newton's laws had been proven over and over again on earth as well as in space. His death in 1877 did not end the search or the frustration over the unsolvable puzzle of properly measuring Mercury's orbit. The idea that Mercury's orbit just jinked around on its own was plainly illogical.

Not until Albert Einstein's theory of relativity was published in 1915 was the mystery solved. Einstein described gravity completely differently than did the classical Newtonian equations, and when his theory was used to predict Mercury's motion as observed during a 1919 eclipse, it matched precisely. The need for the planet Vulcan disappeared (at least until Gene Roddenberry wanted a name for a race of extraterrestrials 45 years or so later).

Levenson outlines the whole saga clearly and doesn't take the attitude that we modern folks have any reason to look down our noses at Le Verrier and the others who believed they had found Vulcan. He effectively highlights the frustration most observers felt at their inability to see something that they knew had to be there. Trying to see something that close to the sun was hard enough anyway, and having effective observation limited to the brief minutes of solar eclipses made it even harder. Telescopic technology of the time produced irritating false leads that didn't hold up when the next chance to look came around.

The Hunt for Vulcan is a great telling of how something everyone knows to be true is...until it isn't. Einstein wasn't so much trying to explain Mercury's motion as he was working out some aspects of his theory of special relativity that he found incomplete. In fact, that prediction was one of the few real-world applications of general relativity until about 1960, when it became the foundation of astronomical observations of peculiar new phenomena like black holes and neutron stars. Hunt is an excellent example of what happens when scientists get to say what science fiction giant Isaac Asimov says are their favorite words. Not, "Eureka!" but, "Hmm. That's odd."

Vulcan doesn't have a place in the actual map of the solar system since it doesn't exist. But its postulation and the story of the hunt for it serves as an excellent cautionary tale about being too sure that everything about anything is really known for certain.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Concept Ungrasped

Chicago lawyer David Simon, no doubt meaning well, writes, "Not too Big to Fail: Break up the Catholic Church."

The number of misunderstandings may not equal Martin Luther's complaint list, but it is long. Who, for example, is going to bring this breakup about? No liberal democracy in the world asserts the right to control the Catholic churches within its own borders, let alone those in other countries. And those totalitarian states that do try find the efforts don't work well and in any event certainly don't export themselves. China may assert the right to appoint the bishops who will guide Catholic churches in China and elements within the church leadership might misplace their spine and agree, but clandestine churches continue to meet without government approval. And it seems unlikely that bishops in the unruly American Catholic churches would assent to being directed by Chinese officials. Should suggestions be made we might even find American bishops agreeing with each other on something.

So there is no exterior authority that can force the Roman Catholic church to divide. Would internal authorities do so? Jettison 2,000 years of Christian teaching about the church being the institution founded by Jesus himself and handed off to Peter? A note: As a Protestant I'm not at all convinced that the one true church can completely identify with only one earthly communion, but I'm trying to think as though I were a part of the church Simon says should break up.

Whether the church divided on national lines, diocesan lines or other criteria, Simon points out that there would be some with histories of corruption and abuse and others without. "But as with non-Catholic churches, both worshippers and clergy would vote with their feet, move to better-run churches, and thereby impose competitive discipline, financial and otherwise, on poorly run churches." Yes. That's exactly how people who are serious about doctrine and theology choose the church they attend.

Simon suggests that such a breakup, however it happens, would significantly reduce the crime and corruption the worldwide Roman Catholic organization is simply too immense to handle. He overlooks, I think, the reality and ubiquity of good ol'-fashioned human iniquity. The only dead-solid certain way to significantly reduce the crime and corruption in a church is to empty it. And that carries other problems.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Test Pattern

Traveling, tired and forgot to bring Bluetooth keyboard. Back tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

From Dust You Came...

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, in which Christians prepare to properly celebrate and observe what we consider the single most important event in the history of...well, everything. If your choices include the observation of Lenten discipline, may it bring you closer to Christ.

If they don't, or if you are a person who takes a pass on your friendly blogger's traditional Christian theism, give a thought to checking out one of that faith's outlets in about 40 days. And please forgive me if I'm praying you change your mind.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Mistress of Disguise

That would be Chinese makeup artist He Yuhong, whose skill at her craft allows her to transform her face into any one of dozens of others, from living performers to the subjects of paintings. Several photos of her finished products can be found at this item at Bored Panda. She also publishes YouTube videos showing how she works and has other pictures on her Instagram site.

Some of the transformations are pretty startling, and even when she details them on a video you still want to ask her how she did it. Which I suppose I'll ask if I ever meet her in person.

Unless I already have met her and didn't know it...

Monday, March 4, 2019

Captain Ahab Not Happy?

The good news of the recovery of the bowhead whale in the oceans near Alaska carries with it an odd extra feature: Some of those whales may be more than 200 years old.

The bowhead's extra-thick blubber made it a prime target of the whaling industry of the 19th century. While there were only 1,200 of them as recently as the mid-80s, scientists today estimate their numbers as high as 14,000 (Apparently the bowheads spent the 90s having a lot of fun). Evidence suggests the whales may live very long lives when not menaced by one-legged rage monsters, and the author points out some of today's bowheads may have been alive when Herman Melville was writing Moby-Dick in 1851. Which would make some of those older bowheads some seriously swinging cats if they were part of that population surge in the last 20 years.

Of course, Ahab's nemesis was a sperm whale that he finally encounters in the southern Pacific Ocean, but anyway...

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Number Trouble

I was among those who enjoyed the fact that Oklahoma University quarterback Kyler Murray was already signed to play professional baseball for the Oakland A's when he won the Heisman Trophy. I appreciate football and follow several teams, but it's one of the games I stop watching when my teams are done. I prefer baseball, but that's just me. If you think differently, well, it's a free country and you are entitled to be as wrong as you want to be.

At some point, someone convinced Murray he should give the National Football League a try. No one truly knows his reasons. I have heard people speculate that a football payday could be larger than the one he had guaranteed with the A's, but I haven't really followed the matter closely enough to know if that's true.

If it is so, however, someone might want to make sure that Murray knows what the athletes in different sports are actually paid. On hearing that the Philadelphia Phillies will pay Bryce Harper $330 million over 13 years, Murray said, "Everyone makes a big deal of him making $300 million. There's quarterbacks making more per year than him."

Harper's money is guaranteed. Whether he has one at-bat for the Phillies or a thousand, one thing is certain: Come 2032, Bryce Harper will have paid Uncle Sam a substantial portion of $330 million.

Aaron Rodgers made $33.5 million last year, which is certainly more than the $24 million per year Harper's contract averages, but Green Bay will not be paying Aaron Rodgers $33.5 million for the next 13 years. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has $100 million of his $150 million guaranteed. No NFL player, according to sources cited in the story, has ever made $300 million from the NFL.

And the chances are pretty good that the first player to do so won't be a 5'-10', 195-pound quarterback with only one full college season under his belt.

Saturday, March 2, 2019


-- Friedrich Hayek's personal copy of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, complete with Hayek's own penciled commentary and annotations, will be up for auction at Sotheby's later this month. Such a doubly concentrated dose of the rationality of a free-market economy and the irrationality of the thought that human beings can plan an economy might be enough to overcome the ignorance of public officials who think otherwise. But there's only one copy and there's a whole lot of ignorant administrators and legislators.

-- Jesse Singal, writing at Reason, suggests that we not feel as though some kind of justice was done when a young adult fiction fan mob succeeded in getting writer Kosoko Jackson to pull his debut novel. We might tend to feel that way because Jackson was a part of a similar effort that wound up causing first-time author Amélie Zhao to pull her book. Both of them, it seems, were insufficiently woke. Singal is right, of course. All of the wonderful schadenfreude covers up the fact that books are being pulled for some weird reasons, protested by people who may not even have read them. That Jackson finds himself hoist on his own petard is not cause for amusement. OK, not much amusement. OK, first feel upset about the censorship and then you can feel some amusement.

-- SpaceX successfully launched its Dragon Crew capsule into orbit to rendezvous with the International Space Station. It carried a fully-monitored test dummy named Ripley in order to record what kinds of g-forces and other stresses a real flight crew would have and make sure those weren't dangerous to flesh-and-blood folks. It'll be nice if SpaceX succeeds with this project and we can stop hitching rides into space on Russian Soyuz craft. In fact if we keep it up, one day we'll be able to lament the state of modern technology by truthfully saying, "If we can put a man on the moon...," which is something we can't do right now.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Who Needs the Twilight Zone?

2017 Alabama United States Senate special election: You probably couldn't get any weirder than me, what with all of the crazy stuff alleged against GOP nominee Roy Moore that let a Democract win this seat.

2020 Alabama United States Senate regular election: Hold my beer.