Tuesday, April 30, 2019


Although Easter Sunday was several days ago, a new question just popped into my head. We know, according to the gospel accounts, that most of Jesus' followers deserted him during his trial and that most of them stayed away as he was being crucified. Maybe the mob of people mocking him prevented all but a few of them from getting closer. Maybe they were still afraid. According to John's gospel, at least one disciple, Jesus' own mother Mary and several other female followers were close enough to hear Jesus speak.

Of course the news had to spread quickly, even in a time with only in-person spoken communication. People outside Jesus' inner circle, large groups who heard him teach or witnessed his miracles, would have been told of the trial and execution of their rabbi. Friends he might have made during his ministry would learn too, and I am sure they all expressed sadness at the loss of their leader, teacher or friend.


Do you wonder if, when word reached the nearby village of Bethany, home of sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, instead of weeping, Lazarus smiled a small wry grin and said, "Wait for it..."

Monday, April 29, 2019

Social Medium

The title refers to the person folks may have to employ to reach a big chunk of the people who will be on Facebook in 2100 -- because by that time, according a research study, there will be more dead people or "zombie profiles" on the social media site than living ones.

The study was conducted by two researchers at Oxford University, which means that a whole bunch of my particular belief bubbles have burst. If the trends they observed continue, then there could be as many as 4.9 billion dead Facebook profiles as the 22nd century dawns. I have no idea if they are right. I do know that even if the situation somehow happens as they suggest and it is for some reason a problem for someone, it won't be one for me because I'd be 136 years old and whether breathing or not, I'll probably have a lot more important things on my mind.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Seeking and Finding

The first decade of the 21st century saw a mini-explosion of "Gospel According to..." books that connected the Christian message with different elements of popular culture. It grew mainly from two sources -- the willingness of pastors and theologians to engage with some of that culture and the vastly improved quality of enough cultural elements to make it worthwhile.  Robert Short could write The Gospel According to Peanuts, but there was no call for The Gospel According to The Dukes of Hazzard (See, Bo and Luke, making their way the only way they know but with that being more than the law will allow? That's the Galatian legalizer controversy right there, man!).

Mark Pinsky's The Gospel According to the Simpsons kicked off the trend, but few of the subsequent books were written by someone with Pinsky's background as a longtime newspaper religion writer. And some of the qualified writers picked material more because they liked it than because there was any real theological substance to it, meaning the trend shallowed out sooner than most. But it's fun to run across books that take both poles of their inquiry seriously enough to make you think about them.
Gregory Thornbury and Ned Bustard didn't compose a whole book that looked for Christian themes and connections in the venerable sci-fi show Doctor Who, which was probably a wise choice. The show began in 1963 and had a multi-year gap during the 1990s before a modern reboot made it probably better-known than it ever was during its original run. There have been a legion of show-runners, writers and actors who've brought us the adventures of a certain Galifreyan "Time Lord" in his slightly malfunctioning time-and-spaceship called a TARDIS. Which means there are both an overflow of connections and a lack of any one overarching theme to try to use. So Thornbury, a philosophy professor, and Bustard, a graphic designer working mostly for religious groups and institutions, solicited essays from a variety of people about some of the many different connections they saw in different episodes of the show.

The writers of 2015's Bigger on the Inside come from several faith traditions. Some are academics and some are religious professionals. They share an enjoyment of the Who universe, its quirks and foibles and fun. Some are written with a more academic tone, complete with endnote vapor trails, while others are a little more casual. None dive too deeply into their subject matter, which is a good idea for a show that has often had its lead actors menaced by people inside a variety of different ill-fitting rubber suits. Who episode writers probably rarely, if ever, intended to teach some kind of theological truth. But any work of art that wants to try to wrestle a little with questions of human existence is going to open itself to having those questions answered by theological-minded folks, and the essays of Bigger do that.

Organized according to different Christian doctrinal issues like the prayer, the problem of evil, temptation and so on, each chapter focuses on an episode in which the action and resolution address its titular issue in a manner reflective of some traditional orthodox beliefs on the subject. Some of the chapters are stronger than others, and a couple strain enough at their reach that their inclusion might have been reconsidered.

A major strength of Bigger on the Inside is the use of episodes from the pre-reboot era, 1963 to 1989. Though hampered by more primitive special-effects technology, many of these episodes offer some intriguing handles to grab hold of for questioning. Especially as writers during this era were less concerned with the kind of overt messaging that can torpedo the entertainment value of just about anything. Most of the essays presume some familiarity with the show and its universe, so a "non-Whovian" reader might do well to have the Wikipedia entry for the show open while reading. Either way, Bigger on the Inside offers some fun ways to think about important things like Incarnation and which Doctor and companion were the best (Tom Baker as the 4th Doctor and Louise Jameson as Leela, according to your humble blogger).
When you combine a songwriting and poetic voice like Bruce Springsteen with a firm Roman Catholic upbringing you get a catalog filled with Biblical allusions and theological claims about the nature of human existence, the role of God and the reality of the divine in everyday life. So Springsteen was tailor-made for one of the "Gospel According to..." books, and indeed Unitarian minister Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz wrote one in 2008. It was not one of the shallowest among that trend of titles, but Symynkywicz's decision to organize his book as an album-by-album exploration and finding a single theology or single idea running through the entire catalog limited his ability to dig deeply into the more meaningful parts of Springsteen's work.

Rutgers University Professor of Jewish Studies Azzan Yadin-Israel took a different tack when preparing his own 2016 work, The Grace of God and the Grace of Man. Yaddin-Israel's professional work involves exploring texts themselves, such as ancient Jewish poetry, Biblical writings, the Talmud or different midrashic commentaries on Old Testament stories. He decided to examine different Springsteen songs as texts themselves, rather than as clues to a single or small number of main themes. He also focuses only on the theological questions or issues raised in the song itself, rather than Springsteens's own religious beliefs and opinions. Obviously those beliefs influence the material, but Yaddin-Israel takes Springsteen's own admonition seriously: "Trust the art, be suspicious of the artist. He's generally untrustworthy himself." Yaddin-Israel wrote before Springsteen often reinforced that idea in his own Broadway show, but he still refrains from trying to link what a particular song may say to what Springsteen himself might say on a particular matter.

Yaddin-Israel divides Grace into three parts. In the first he explores Springsteen's earlier catalogue, up through Darkness on the Edge of Town. It's the most self-consciously poetic period of his work, filled with outsized characters and word-blizzard street folktales that resolve only at a little distance. The center section revolves around different theological themes and the way different songs express them. This section combines songs from different eras of Springsteen's career. The final section picks a handful of songs in which Springsteen writes and sings a "midrash," or retelling, of a Biblical story to highlight an aspect of its meaning or even an alternative understanding.

In focusing on Springsteen's most overtly theological and Biblically-influenced writing, Yaddin-Israel chooses to leave out parts of the catalog that have less of those qualities. This means that some of his more famous work -- like the entirety of Born in the U.S.A. -- won't be found here or will be referenced in passing. Many of those songs may reflect on their subject matter just as deeply as some of the ones that Yaddin-Israel includes, but their lack of theological or Biblical flavoring puts them off this particular menu.

All three sections, as well as an insightful introduction covering the possibility of gleaning theological insight from pop or rock music and an interesting conclusion about these influences in Springsteen's writing, are worth reading. The middle section organized along themes bogs down a little and probably reaches for some of its allusions, but it's still a rewarding read.

That conclusion mentioned above is one Springsteen himself has reached, according to several interviews. His Catholic school upbringing remains a part of his songwriting vocabulary in the same way that the blue-collar life of Freehold, N.J., does, and the same way that the cars-and-girls rock and soul songs of the 1950s and 1960s do. My own Methodist founder, John Wesley, referred to himself as a "man of one book," meaning that his speaking and writing was so infused with Biblical imagery and language that he used those scriptural passages as his own language. Springsteen is by no means a man of one book, but the same book which influenced Mr. Wesley walks through his words and songs more than many might suspect. I wonder if I could pitch that to a publisher...

Saturday, April 27, 2019

News of the World

Alexis Madrigal, writing at The Atlantic, has a short report on the results of some recent survey work done by Pew Research about Twitter users.

The headline says it all: "Twitter is Not America." Madrigal's piece details some of the characteristics shared by those who use the micro-blogging platform, and also drops some nuggets that distinguish the casual tweeter from the dedicated user. It's an interesting read, and Madrigal includes a link to the actual Pew study he's commenting on.

I have to confess to mixed feelings when I first read the headline, though. I was torn between a feeling of, "Well, duh" and "Thank God!" I decided to feel both.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Numbers Game

After winning the Heisman Trophy, University of Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray re-thought his commitment to professional baseball, including his selection by the Oakland A's. Instead, he decided to go the professional football route, declaring for the NFL draft and being selected as the #1 pick by the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday.

There is now much discussion about what size of contract Murray may be offered by Arizona, with all kinds of numbers thrown about. Were I Mr. Murray,  one of the major numbers I would want on the table during negotiations is 3.2.

Because that's how many times Cardinals quarterbacks were sacked per game in the 2018 season, and if they hold to that mark this year then Mr. Murray will need to build his aspirin and Ben-Gay use into his financial picture.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Math Signs

If I burrowed down into it, the root of my struggles in grappling with math is probably impatience. I try to skip steps and when solving equations or writing a proof that's a no-no. I cannot imagine how much harder it would be if I were also hearing impaired, but it turns out that there are plenty of people who have significant hearing loss who work in mathematics. And they've developed special signs for many of the mathematical terms that they use in their work.

What's interesting in reading this interview with Dr. Jess Boland, a British physicist, is learning that the special math signs are like many everyday signs: They often visually represent some aspect of the spoken term that they're translating.

Many people, including your humble blogger, have learned how to "fingerspell" and even memorized a few simple signs in order to try to be able to help deaf people either get to someone who signs better, or at least to a piece of paper and a pen. But fingerspelling is slow going and easy to goof up. It's not how we talk anyway, we talk in words. The words are combinations of sounds, not a series of letters we have to put together in our heads.

Folks who can't hear, though, don't recognize the combination of sounds. So sign language creates a visual sign to represent each word -- in this way it's a lot more like the Chinese language in which  words or parts of words are often represented by a different symbol rather than a string of characters.

The sign often has some visual clue to an aspect of the word it represents. The American Sign Language (ASL) sign for "man" involves a gesture starting from the forehead, because men used to wear hats. The sign for "boy" is the sign letter "b" opened and closed as though on the brim of a cap, which is something that boys rather than grown men used to wear.

Sign language also operates according to a different grammar. ASL, for example, may have a different subject-verb order than spoken English or drop definite articles. There is a term for signing the way people speak, called Signing Exact English (SEE). Sometimes deaf people learn that as well, especially if they work with a lot of hearing people and rely on lipreading or written communication. If the hearing people in that environment learn sign in order to communicate, they may find SEE easier to pick up than ASL.

In any event, Dr. Boland uses British Sign Language (BSL). It's not the same as ASL, probably varying even more than British English does from American English. ASL users, when spelling a word, will use just one hand, while BSL users will spell with two. The irony is that if she were signing and speaking at the same time -- Dr. Boland has experienced most of her hearing loss fairly recently -- hearing Americans would understand her better than ASL users would because of the differences in the two.

At the link you can see short video clips of Dr. Boland demonstrating some of the specially developed math-related signs; there is a YouTube channel devoted to them as well. Fair warning, the channel only shows you the signs. Which means that while I can now sign "pyroclastic density current" in BSL, I still have to look it up before I have the slightest clue as to what it means.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Overhead View

This site frequently gives NASA a lot of grief because it's a government agency and...well actually that's enough reason right there.

But they do plenty of cool stuff and they do plenty of stuff right, such as their Visible Earth website. It's a collection of photos of our planet taken from way, way up there. Below is one such image, taken of the Egmont National Park in New Zealand. Check it out and get a different point of view than you're used to. Literally.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Civilization That Drinks Together...

When European explorers reached the American continent, among the largest groups of people they found were the Aztecs in Mexico and Central America, and the Inca in South America. But before the Inca dominated Peru, it was home to a large nation of people called the Wari. Their particular civilization arose sometime around the year 450 and lasted until about 1000.

The Wari had no written records that we can find, and of course they were long gone by the time Spanish and Portuguese voyagers landed in the area where they had lived. So any information we learn about them comes from archaeological work. That's slow going, and it wasn't until 1950 that researchers even knew where the capital city of their empire was. As the story at Popular Science says, the Wari empire stretched along a strip of land about as long as the distance between Jacksonville and New York City. Which is a lot longer when shank's mare is the only way you have to get from one end to the other.

Archaeologists wondered how the Wari maintained such a far-flung empire. The Romans, of course, had their fantastic road system, but how did people limited to foot travel manage to stick together for more than half a millennium in an area that featured some pretty rugged terrain? How did they build a common culture?

The answer, apparently, was in a particular way of brewing corn beer. Originating in the area around the capital, the Wari developed a certain recipe for Ye Olde Brewksis that it exported to areas which it dominated militarily or economically. Breweries using the recipe were set up in new areas and the product apparently had a variety of cultural and social uses that made the Wari's new neighbors/conquests happy to join in. As far as archaeologists can determine, none of these ancient breweries continued operating much past the time that the Wari civilization collapsed around 1000 AD, which makes them think the Wari beer blend played a large role in uniting the people.

"A civilization held together by beer? You don't say," said every Irishman who's ever lived. "Sure and they must have been fine upstanding folk; 'tis a pity we never met."

Monday, April 22, 2019

Mic Flop

An attempt by MSNBC reporter Mike Viquiera to question special counsel Robert Mueller Sunday morning as he left church has drawn some fire from people on both sides of the opinion line regarding Mueller's recently-concluded probe of the 2016 presidential election.

More right-leaning folks think Mr. Viquiera was wrong to confront Mr. Mueller when the latter was leaving church, with a lot of them using the word "ambush." Whether that label is hyperbole or not, the report was clear that the news crew waited outside the church and Mr. Viquiera even said he had a few "prepared questions" ready. Mr. Mueller simply said "No comment" and drove away, which should probably give you a clue as to how important he thinks Mr, Viquiera is in the scheme of things.

Some left-leaning folks also criticized the choice of venue for the questioning, with a couple of them also wondering why reporters weren't trying to pin Mr. Mueller down during a time when it might have been a little more useful, such as during the probe itself.

I agree that the set-up is rude -- Mr. Viquiera, there's not a lot about sticking a camera in someone's face when they're leaving a church service that's "as respectful as possible."  And I agree that "interview" attempts while Mr. Mueller was actually at work on his investigation make a lot more sense from a news perspective.

But I actually want to critique Mr. Viquiera on other grounds, to suggest he is guilty of an offense much worse, and it's this: Just how stupid and attention-hungry are you, Mikey? If you really thought that the man whose entire volume of comment during the two years of his project could fill about one paragraph was suddenly going to answer your loaded interrogatories, then you need to stick your diploma back in the oven because your bread ain't done. If you knew he wouldn't answer then what was the goal? Get your face on the camera asking him questions? Projecting an image? To whom, and for whose benefit? Your own highlight reel, or your network's promo videos?

What kind of substantive news was going to result from surprise questions blurted out at the car door? What kind of detailed observation or explanation of a two-year legal process was going to happen? "Well I'll tell you what. You know, I don't have any of the documents or material that I worked with here in front of me and my family would like me and the Mrs. to get home in time to share in the Easter ham. But because you jumped out of the bushes and caught me before I could get inside my car, I'll stand here and try to walk you through a process that about two and half people in the bowels of the Justice Department legal library understand and summarize the decision-making process that I took about 400 pages to explain in the report."

There are lots of things news reporters and writers do today that some commenters like to seize on as reasons for "why people hate the media." I don't know if this incident amounts to one of those -- plus I don't really think that we should hate the media, either individually or as a group. But I am definitely starting to get a picture of why no one should take Mike Viquiera seriously.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

See the Other Side?

We're often told that if we tried to see things as people of another point of view see them, we can increase understanding and perhaps decrease conflict. Some recent survey work suggests that this idea works only when the right steps are followed.

The problem comes when the other perspective is guessed instead of actually learned. In other words, if I guess what someone who disagrees with me thinks about an issue I will probably make a lot of errors when I do. But if I listen to the other person explain his or her perspective -- and by "listen" i don't mean "pause for breath in between stating my own beliefs" -- then I might gain some understanding about how they actually see things and thus understand them better. Which is the goal anyway, and apparently the study suggests that the shortcut we like to say we can take of imagining what another person feels just doesn't work.

All the same, though, I still think that the old saying of, "Before you judge others, you should walk a mile in their shoes" to be valuable. Because, of course, that way when you judge them, you will be a mile away, and you will have their shoes. I couldn't find the original source for this quote. The internet seems to think it's from Jack Handey or Steve Martin according to the top answers but the internet has a very short view of history and for some reason the idea that G.K. Chesterton said it is sticking in my mind.

Pretty good advice either way.

(For those interested in this sort of thing, this is post number 4,000 on this wee corner of the internet. Or, from another point of view, this is the four thousandth time I have pretended that someone other than me is interested in what I have to say.)

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Pause

Two thousand years ago tonight the Sabbath nears its end, and the time for rest draws to a close. There is work to be done, and it will be the last night that anyone has to go to sleep thinking they're alone and forgotten.

Friday, April 19, 2019


Nothing happened 30 years ago. Nobody took a picture of it. Thousands of people didn't die, just a couple hundred. Because we say so, that's why, and you'd better play along if you know what's good for you.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Deadly Eggs

Mired as I am in my traditional Christian theism, I don't think that Easter egg hunts best represent the purpose of the holiday. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with them, kids have fun and I have a lot of fond memories of dyeing eggs with my parents and sister when I was a kid, and then the two of us hunting them after Mom and Dad hid them.

Little did we know how dangerous it was. Thankfully, our friends at the University of California at Berkeley -- or at least their lawyers -- have shown us the way. Families of university employees were invited to an Easter egg hunt on campus last Sunday. They lined up, some for as long as a half an hour, in order to hand a waiver form to a university employee and then the child in question was released to pick up his or her allotted five eggs that had been placed on the flat grass field in plain sight.

By signing, the parents acknowledged that this particular activity at the 25th Annual Easter Egg Hunt and Learning Festival carried risks, which ranged from minor injuries such as scratches to "catastrophic injuries including paralysis and death."

So now we have learned that the best way to measure the success of an Easter egg hunt is by the number of catastrophic casualties or fatalities it produces, or, we hope, fails to produce. Good to know.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Shadow Knows

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors rejected a permit for an apartment building that would have included 15 below-market units, because on the longest day of the year, it would have cast a shadow over about 18% percent of a nearby park -- for just about 100 minutes.

And if you look at this special map of San Francisco, printed in Forbes, you can see all of the more than 100,000 instances of reported findings of human feces in public since 2001, most likely by some of the city's 7,500 or homeless residents. Because of the concentration of incidents in certain areas, you can see the phenomenon casting some shadows of its own.

Killing below-market housing for folks stuck in one of the most expensive cities in the country -- while folks who can't afford the housing in that city take a dump on the sidewalk. Ah, 21st century, your dream of progress shines bright!

Monday, April 15, 2019


You know, I may live long enough to see an American get back to the moon after all.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Three Strikes

Margaret Wander Bonanno might be forgiven a certain ambivalence towards the Star Trek franchise, considering the hatchet work Pocket Books did on her submitted manuscript for Probe, a follow-up novel to the successful Star Trek IV movie. Bonanno suggests that after the book had been rewritten at Pocket's direction, about 7% of her manuscript remains. I haven't read the original, so I don't know if the percentage is a good or a bad thing. If the missing 93% resembled her 1987 Strangers From the Sky? Then her book, originally titled Music of the Spheres before being reworked into a movie sequel, would be worth a read.

But if it resembles her Star Trek debut, 1985's Dwellers in the Crucible, then oblivion is a good place for it. Bonanno posits that the United Federation of Planets, in order to reduce the risk of war between its member systems, created the "Warrantors of Peace." These are basically hostages, relatives of the leadership of the different planets, who will be immediately killed if their native world opens hostilities against a fellow Federation member. Six Warrantors are kidnapped from their Vulcan facility by Romulans, who are working with the Klingons in a plan to stir up civil war among Federation members. During the course of the novel, the only two surviving Warrantors are the human Cleante al-Faisal and the Vulcan T'Shael. Most of Dwellers concerns the way the two women bond in order to resist their captors, in a way that's intended to be in some measure a commentary on the friendship developed between Kirk and Spock. The major role played by one of the regular Enterprise characters is the espionage mission by Hikaru Sulu to infiltrate Romulus and rescue the Warrantors.

Dwellers is not necessarily a bad novel by itself, and had it been published in its own universe it might not be as silly. But given that the entire concept of the Warrantors makes no more sense in Trek's United Federation of Planets than it would if applied between states in the U.S., there's an uphill climb out of absurdity that Dwellers can't make. How exactly would a representative government with elected officials choose its world's Warrantor? If an autocratic planet's leader decided that the advantage of attacking and taking a nearby world outweighed the loss of whomever had been pressed into service, well, too bad for that relative.

By the early 1990s, Paramount had begun instituting some more rigid guides for Trek novels that put an end to Trek-universe books that focused on anyone other than the main characters, which meant that the whole Warrantors concept could fade into memory. After an 11-year hiatus, a new regime at Pocket welcomed Bonanno back for some more novels, all of which have been well-received and which eschew the nonsense of her first Trek voyage.
Jay Allan's "Blood on the Stars" series about an interstellar war between the nominally democratic Confederation and the autocratic, vaguely Romanesque Union began in 2016 with Duel in the Dark. The Confederation battleship Dauntless, needing significant repairs and carrying a crew in need of significant rest and downtime, is sent back from the main defense line for maintenance, crew rotation and time off. Unfortunately for the ship, crew and Captain Tyler Barron, a distress call en route uncovers a covert Union operation to attack mining worlds. But the political and military leadership fear the attacks are a feint and won't release anyone to help Barron and the Dauntless. They'll have to handle the problem alone, and even if it is just a feint it may be more than the stressed ship and crew can manage.

Allan's writing is better than average, and he does a decent job of showing space battles and giving the Dauntless an air of exhausted desperation. He uses the semi-Roman culture of the Union forces to give their commander some dimension that "enemy commanders" don't always have in space opera. But he's treading ground that's well-marked -- gone over time and time again by authors able to offer something different, some tweak or another that makes their version of the Hopeless Battle Snatched From the Jaws of Defeat at the Very Last Minute something that sticks with the reader. Allan doesn't bring that tweak, either in Duel or in any of the three or four subsequent novels where the Dauntless crew is in the very same Lonely Fight for Their Lives.

So in the end, there's no real reason to read Duel instead of re-reading one of those better space-opera tales. And probably not much reason to read the string of "Blood on the Stars" books that follow it, either.
Kurt Schlichter is probably better known as a political commentator, both in writing and on some television appearances. After serving in the United States Army, he took up the practice of law, focusing on free speech issues and similar matters. Friends with Andrew Breitbart, he began writing for the latter's Big Hollywod site, offering entertainment industry commentary with from a conservative perspective. Schlichter was blunt, pugnacious and almost always utterly convinced his point of view was the right one -- useful qualities for one's lawyer even if not always as beneficial outside the courtroom. Schlichter eventually moved on from Breitbart to Townhall, continuing to broaden his focus to include other political and cultural matters. The switch saw the quality of his commentary decline, which is not the arc you'd expect from someone leaving a Breitbart site. Reading any of his columns today requires a glossary to match the people Schlichter dislikes with the adolescent insulting nickname he coins for them -- their plentifulness makes it clear where the majority of the thinking of any particular column was directed.

In 2016, Schlichter turned his hand to adventure fiction with The People's Republic, a novel set a few decades from now after what we call Red and Blue America have actually split into two different nations. Coastal or Blue America becomes the People's Republic of America, a land with a totalitarian regime enforcing the ultimate limits of politically correct progressive lunacy. Gun-loving freedom-minded folks kept the name United States of America, and they also kept their sanity about all of the hot-button issues in today's headlines. Two more novels in this universe, with the lead character of special forces operator Kelly Turnbull, have followed. The current is Wildfire, in which Kelly has to infiltrate the PRA and work with his enemies to locate a terrorist group that wants to release a deadly virus code-named Wildfire. Infected people begin to act like zombies, attacking anyone near them, and only quick intervention with massive antivirals can save someone infected. Kelly has survived one exposure to the virus, so his former boss drags him out of retirement to hunt it down.

Schlichter lifts from a dozen sources to paste together his unsurprising story. The relationship between Kelly and PRA agent Kristina Carter owes clumsy nods to the Sylvester Stallone/Sandra Bullock partnership in Demolition Man. A scene in the abandoned Pentagon, now home to different tribes of homeless, draws on Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The split US trope is an old one, frequently done much much better, as in Robert Ferrigno's 2006-2009 "Assassin" trilogy.

There are some desultory chase scenes and dialogue in which Schlichter renders his view of modern progressivism with all the subtlety of a rhino on a rocket, but most of the book is Kelly putting bullets into bad guys in repetitive gunfights. Although Schlichter insists in his introduction that his vision of the two nations is a warning, not a prediction, the obvious glee he takes in showing the progressive PRA as a 100% failure makes that hard to believe.

In interviews and elsewhere, Schlichter has said the Kelly Turnbull books are meant to be seen as at least partly satirical, and he claims that he writes some of the scenes as over-the-top in order to be funny. How well does he succeed at humor? We can borrow an example of the Schlichter wit from his current columns about the presidential race in order to find out. Among the derisive nicknames Schlichter gives the vast Democratic field is one for South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an out gay man with a difficult-to-pronounce last name. Schlichter calls him "Pete Buttplug," which tells you about all you need to know about the humor you'll find in Wildfire and the other Turnbull books, should you make my mistake of reading one.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Why Social Media Sucks -- Part I've Run Out of Numbers

Earlier this week, computers analyzing data from eight different radio telescopes produced a picture of the gas and debris that surround the event horizon of the supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy called M87. In the center of that ring was a dark region that astronomers usually call the "shadow" of a black hole, since the actual black hole itself is a phenomenon with gravity so powerful not even light can escape.

Naturally, most news stories left out some of the important details and said that the scientists had taken a picture of a black hole. As that news sped around the internet, many people dubbed themselves unimpressed by the image, which is not very clear, offers little sense of scale and could be bettered by photo-imaging software on your average desktop. Some writers decided to make a little fun of both the hoopla from the scientists as well as the blasé attitude of those shrugging at the discovery, but at least one found herself stepping on her keyboard as her article required two corrections of some pretty basic facts about M87.

The "face" of the project quickly became Dr. Katie Bouman, who posted a picture of her own delight when the image was finally revealed. Dr. Bouman was one of a team of 200 or so people who worked on the algorithms that collated and interpreted the immense amounts of data required to produce the image. She also posted pictures of a larger part of her team and made clear just how many people actually worked on the project, from facilities all over the world.

But Dr. Bouman is a young and attractive person whose sheer Christmas-morning glee at the success of this project was tailor made for a widely-shared photo. A number of political figures, who seem to know even less about this project than did all the headline writers, seized upon her presence to highlight the Very Important Role a woman scientist played in this historic event, apparently believing she either did it all herself or was in charge of the project. In their defense, news outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times did much the same.

These possibly well-meaning but not very smart folks placed Dr. Bouman in the line of fire of people who were happy to point out that she was a part of a team, but also claim this was another example of a woman being given more credit than she deserved in order to satisfy some feminist standard. These not well-meaning and not very smart folks didn't take the time to learn that she had not claimed credit for the whole project.

As far as I can tell, nearly everyone involved with the coverage of this event is awful and should make a public commitment to reading things more carefully -- and by more carefully, I mean, "More than the headline, dopes." The only person I really like, after reading what she's said about the project, is Dr. Bouman. She got married in September, helped develop and reveal an image of a black hole shadow and landed a job as an assistant professor which will start in the fall. And she won't be 30 until next month.

May your good fortune continue, Doctor.

Friday, April 12, 2019

New Life Plan?

This looks like the kind of self-help guide I want to buy.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Not Very Good News

Not long after I began the path that would lead me to hearing a call into the ordained ministry, someone lent me a cassette tape (yes, this story is that old) of Rick Elias' second album, Ten Stories.

Although he was at that time locked into the niche market of contemporary Christian music, it was one of that niche's most wide-open and experimental periods. Out from under the saccharine ballad format with its measure of "Jesus per minute mentions" and not yet locked into the thousand and one variations of praise and worship choruses, CCM covered as many genres as any other. The heavy DIY ethos of the punk and new wave scenes didn't hamper performers whose goal was the glorification of their Savior, not themselves.

Elias was at heart a rocker with folky sensibilities and Ten Stories was a heavy rocking album that had oddball, twisty lyrics that took time and brainpower to decipher. He was definitely singing about theological and faith matters, and he was definitely singing about them from a Christian perspective, but every time an image cleared it revealed another layer and another thought that put a listener's brain back to work.

The singer would later join up with Rich Mullins as a part of the latter's Ragamuffin Band, and participate in tribute albums and tours after Mullins' death in 1997. As the obituary notes, Elias wrote songs for That Thing You Do, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Dawson's Creek. He also helped produce albums for some fellow CCM artists.

The opening track on Ten Stories, "I Wouldn't Need You (Like I Do) is full of poetic images taking a look at a question of human existence and purpose, some of which play off each other and some of which I still don't get. But the chorus from which the title is drawn is clear enough, and in the times when I wonder why I follow this path, I remember one of those plain-spoken phrases: "And they tell us down here we can save ourselves/But that isn't very good news/'Cause if I could have/I would have saved myself/And I wouldn't need you like I do."

Thanks, Rick.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

It's How You Play the Game

Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield has started the 2019 season the way he finished the 2018 season: Hitting the baseball at least once in every game. Merrifield hit at least once in the last 20 games of 2018 and on Monday tied the club record by hitting safely in the tenth game of the current season.

As with most batting-related records in Kansas City, the streak mark was the property of George Brett, who set it in 1980. Merrifield was tied with Brett for exactly one day, as he made it 31 today against Seattle.

And how did he do it? With a man on third and two outs and his team down by one, Merrifield laid down a perfect third-baseline bunt that not only broke Brett's streak, it scored the run to tie the game. It's an excellent way for Merrifield to make his mark.  He began his major league career as more of a utility infielder but has through hard work and patience worked himself higher and higher in the lineup and into a role as a top hitter.

And knowing what kind of ballplayer Brett was, it no doubt pleases him also to watch the record fall in this fashion.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Bored to Death?

At Existential Comics, we learn why philosophers make lousy super-villains.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Captains Marvel

Last week's release of Shazam means that there are currently two characters named Captain Marvel out on the screens these days. The one belonging to Marvel Comics is called Captain Marvel, and so is her movie. That's because Marvel Comics -- or whoever owns them these days -- owns the trademark on the name "Captain Marvel."

The hero now named Shazam was called Captain Marvel when he debuted in Whiz Comics back in 1940. Through a confusing series of lawsuits and oversights, DC comics eventually acquired the character but not the trademark. That means that while they can call their character Captain Marvel, they can't market him that way. So no "Captain Marvel" in a comic book or movie title, no Captain Marvel toys or whatnot. DC finally gave in and just started calling the character Shazam (which is kind of weird when you think about it, because it's saying his name aloud that brings down magic lightning that transforms him from hero form to teenage boy & vice-versa).

Anyway, because Marvel's movie and its stars for some reason decided to stir up the specter of sexism as the major or in some cases only reason to not like it, some online comic communities tried to gin up a feud between the "real" Captain Marvel of Shazam and the "fake" Captain Marvel of Captain Marvel. Most of the people directly connected to both movies weren't having it, and even though I waited until Shazam came out before going to see Captain Marvel, I'm not buying it either. Although I will insist until my proverbial last breath that the name of the Big Red Cheese (as his villainous detractors call him) is not Shazam but Captain Marvel, I'll just refer to him as the first Captain Marvel, which is accurate and doesn't make any quality judgments about the characters or the movies.

As for the movies themselves, they do make an interesting contrast, both as vehicles for their stories and as vehicles for their different company's theatrical plans. Captain Marvel is a set-up of sorts for Avengers: Endgame, previewing the character who will play a role in defeating or perhaps undoing the work of Thanos in Infinity War. It's set in the 1990s, as we see the woman warrior Vers (Brie Larson) struggle with symptoms very much like PTSD while serving with the Kree elite Starforce strike unit. Both her mentor and the ruling Kree AI tell her she needs to learn to keep her emotions in check.

But a capture by the Skrulls and a subsequent escape leave Vers stranded on Earth, where she learns she is actually the missing test pilot Carol Danvers. She finds allies in S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), her friend Maria Lambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) in trying to uncover her past and thwart a villainous plot -- but exactly who among all of the plotters are the real villains is a question that has no clear answer.

Larson was dogged in early previews for having a mostly stone-faced demeanor, showing little or no emotion. That's unfair, considering that her character's superiors are directing her to suppress emotion in order to increase her effectiveness. It's also unfair considering that this particular iteration of Marvel's "Captain Marvel" isn't the most interesting one available. It's by no means the worst -- that title probably goes to the original green-and-white suited lunkhead Stan Lee and Gene Colan whipped up in 1967 to maintain their trademark.

But the 1970s version of Carol Danvers, who out-dueled Jonah Jameson to get the salary she wanted and to get him to call her "Ms. Danvers" rather than "Miss," or the current Kamala Khan both offer more substantial story possibilities. Both characters go by "Ms. Marvel" rather than "Captain," but that's not hard to change.

The story's latter third fills the screen with pixelated pyrotechnics and battle scenes, losing the focus on the human actors in favor of CGI spectaculars. Captain Marvel has some light moments and fun bits and it has the plus of showing a strong and self-actualized female lead, but its major tones lean towards the dreary. If I hadn't decided I might miss some key element of Endgame by skipping Marvel, I probably would not have bothered. It's earned almost a billion dollars worldwide as I write, so that means sequel prospects are good and the moviemakers have another chance to convince me I should care about these characters.

Shazam had the burden of trying to continue a two-movie renaissance of sorts for DC superhero properties. Through Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman and Justice League, the Zack Snyder vision of superheroics was grim, glowering, gray and grinding. It was also failing miserably. But beginning with Wonder Woman and continuing in Aquaman, the company had a couple of hits and seemed to have found their own formula for getting people to not only watch what they put on screen but even like it. Would Shazam continue that streak? Chances were good that a lighter tone would dominate, considering that the original Captain Marvel universe included a talking tiger named Talky Tawney and three "Lieutenant Marvels" called Tall Marvel, Hill Marvel and Fat Marvel after their human identities of "Tall Billy" Batson, "Hill Billy" Batson and "Fat Billy" Batson. The latter three gained their own powers after meeting the original Billy.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) was seemingly abandoned by his mother when he was young. He hasn't adapted well to foster life and has been placed in his last-ditch foster home with a crew of other children who welcome him even though he isn't always nice to them. A defense of his friend Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) leads to an encounter with the ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Honsou), who gives Billy the powers of ancient figures of history and myth when he speaks the word "Shazam" aloud. As Shazam (Zachary Levi), Billy finds himself stronger, faster, invulnerable and (supposedly) wiser. But he draws the attention of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who wants the knowledge of the Rock of Eternity that Billy now has.

Large parts of Shazam are played for laughs, as Levi and Grazer stage their best homage to Big, only with a superhero suit and powers. Some of the humor hits and some doesn't. Sivana is a truly evil villain, acting in ways that clash with the lighter tone of the Levi-Grazer scenes. Shazam works better than any of the Snyderesque visions of the DC universe, but it labors with its own flaws.

Although unofficial lore suggested that the adult Captain Marvel was more or less teenage Billy in his grown-up and super-powered form, the contrast previously presented little problem for the idea that we were reading about a hero who had the wisdom of Solomon. Plainly put, an adolescent of 1940 was far more mature than an adolescent of 2019, and had an easier time being an adult hero. Of course wisdom needs development, but we really don't see much of what the "S" in the name should be contributing.

As Shazam tries to play to more mature audiences with a superhero story that touches on issues like family, the impact of abandonment, and responsibility to others, it also tries to pitch to jokey humor and convince an audience that there's a reason to see a DC movie instead of rewatching The Avengers, Superman II or Spider-Man: Homecoming. That's really too much for any one movie, and the seams show.

Both Captains Marvel movies probably do better among fans of their respective characters than with the general public, even the general super-hero movie public. Their flaws are related but different. Captain Marvel really doesn't do enough justify its own existence; it's backstory for Endgame. Shazam, on the other hand, tries too hard to justify not just its own existence but that of the cinematic universe of which it is a part. Both movies would have been better if they had been created as ends in themselves, rather than as means to further ends down the road.

But considering that among their competition is yet another adaptation of Stephen King's Pet Sematary that doesn't understand what King meant when he said it was the book, at the time, that "scared him the most," what have you got to lose?

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Welcome to the Jungle

A man suspected of rhino poaching -- or technically, a man suspected of attempted rhino poaching -- was apparently killed by an elephant and his body eaten by lions last week. When family members contacted game rangers to see if the remains could be recovered for burial, only a skull and a pair of pants were found.

The man's four suspected accomplices, who tried to carry his body out of the game park, were arrested and were expected to be charged with poaching. The park director issued a statement of condolence to the man's family, which included the following: "Entering Kruger National Park illegally and on foot is not wise."

Most of us, of course, are used to our position at the top of ye olde food chain because we do not live in areas where there are wild animals large enough to eat us. In other areas of the world, it is not so. "Opposable thumbs?" one lion was heard to comment. "Oh yeah, they were delicious."

Saturday, April 6, 2019

A Wardrobe Out of This World

For an early celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing at the Explorer's Club, Buzz Aldrin wore a suit printed with rocket ships, one blue sock with white stars and one with red-and-white stripes.

As you can see in this Business Insider photograph, there's no cool like Apollo cool. Also, if Buzz Aldrin didn't exist, we'd have to invent him.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Three Things to Read

My headline literalism game is strong, people.

-- Terry Teachout on the development of the Western and why, contrary to the opinion of many, it really isn't dead.

-- If you see a squirrel three feet long that's got four different colors of fur -- including a two-foot tail -- you might have been over-served. Unless, of course, you live in Malabar, India, where you have actually spotted a shekru, or Malabar Giant Squirrel.

-- Back during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, an American woman named Elizabeth Swaney competed in the skiing halfpipe for the Hungarian team, since she had Hungarian grandparents. As one of the sort of modern "X-Games" kinds of sports, the halfpipe is supposed to feature some aerial acrobatics and tricks, but Swaney simply skied up and down one side of the pipe and then the other, coming away with the lowest score of the Games. Other halfpipe skiers welcomed and congratulated her on achieving a dream to be an Olympic athlete; commenters on Twitter and Instagram, as well as real world journalists whose own athletic achievements had never been cause for notice derided her. Last month California Sunday Magazine writer Davy Rothbart profiled Swaney and showed what a neat story she really has, as she works toward her next challenge: Competing on American Ninja Warrior. The CBS sports writer who said Swaney accomplished “the real American dream: Scamming the system to achieve your life goals while doing the absolute bare minimum to get there," meanwhile, co-hosts a podcast and has almost as many awards as Swaney has Olympic medals.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

What Did You Say, Primate?

I've given two possible names to the picture in the header, found one day in a random search for an angry cat face. One is, "You should be running." The other, which I think I've mentioned here once or twice is a suggestion that extinction won't erase the insult which has been done to this poor tabby, something along the lines of "There isn't enough killing."

I like both dogs and cats. But since leaving the parental abode, I've only had a cat. I mostly lived in places either dog-unfriendly or which would accommodate only those small yipping things that people call dogs but which no self-respecting wolf would stop to urinate on. The cat in question lived 20 years and although I still like them, I found I like hairless couches, carpets and clothes too.

Cats are famous for their aloof nature, which is a genteel two-word phrase that we all know how to express in terms more suitable to the barstool. And, for that matter, probably more suitable to the cat's mindset. But a researcher in Japan conducted a study in which she found that cats probably differentiate enough among human vocalizations to understand which one we mean as their name. She said the cats probably don't associate the sound with their own sense of identity the way dogs do -- I'd wager the only sounds cats associate with their own identities are the names of deities -- but they do connect the sound with treats, food and petting, so they respond to it.

Cats, on the other hand, would probably deny that they pay attention to any sounds that humans make. According to the article, dogs have a 20,000 year head-start on cats in the living-with-humans area, so they have been bred to associate the noise we make as their name with their own sense of identity, in whatever way they perceive that. We also domesticated dogs intentionally, whereas cats domesticated themselves when they found the stupid two-legged things stored their food in big buildings that attracted -- and fattened -- lots of delicious mice.

Cats, we might imagine, would probably see things differently. They would see that relationship as them domesticating us, but badly because we are so very stupid.

In any event, researchers noted that cats recognizing their names does not mean they will answer to them unless, in accordance with their creed, they damn well please.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Me, Meet Myself...

This one's fun -- when he was still a young man and a writer of history, Winston Churchill's attention was drawn to an American novelist named Winston Churchill. The two corresponded and even met once, when the English Churchill visited the states.

Born to a British father and an American mother, Churchill when addressing the United States Congress shortly after Pearl Harbor offered, “And by the way, I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way around, I might have got here on my own.”

I once saw that a person with my name on Facebook had a listing of books he liked, and I sent him a message noting the coincidence. He "friended" me and we now enjoy the confusion produced when we comment on each other's posts. Especially since he lives in New Zealand and I here in good old Oklahoma. It's really good when he wishes me a happy birthday, since it comes a day "early" for those of us on this side of the International Date Line. So it looks like I am not only the kind of narcissist who wishes myself a happy birthday, I do it on the wrong date.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Bucket o' Bolts

The first car I ever bought -- with the assistance of my folks -- was also the only new car I have ever bought. The three successive vehicles to bear the label "Friarmobile" -- all Toyotas -- were purchased used. Which means I've not had to care for a long time about the fact that there's a whole lot that goes on in selling and buying a new car that's just flat-out icky.

Among those things is the fallacy behind the idea of "manufacturer's suggested retail price" or MSRP. Nearly every car commercial you will ever see offers new wheels at some significant number below MSRP. It helps create a sense of urgency for the buyer. The way the number gets used, one would believe that it's something the carmaker came up with that represents the cost of building the car, plus some profit margin. Therefore, sales that throw out such figures have to be very limited time offers, because otherwise no one would make any money and the dealer and manufacturer would go out of business.

Of course, most folks pay zero attention to car commercials except when they're buying, or more of us would notice that the cars seem to almost constantly be offered at some steep discount off MSRP. Which would again be economically impossible. If, that is, MSRP represented what its name suggests. But it doesn't.

For one, as Jack Baruth notes in this article at Hagerty, no one really knows how much it costs to make a car. Maybe some costs can be calculated, such as how much the manufacturer paid for the pieces it will assemble into a car, but many others can't. Trying to results in a mare's nest of interlocking expenses and such that has no real resolution. Just read the first few paragraphs of Baruth's article and you will see enough variables to make accountants close the spreadsheet and reach for the vodka.

I have family that buy new and like to buy whenever the warranty on their current vehicle runs out, since that puts them into the "Major repair costs" zone. To each his or her own, and it's not like I'm a canny wheeler-dealer that's made any salesman go home unhappy. But at least while I'm tooling around in my used-vehicle market, I'd like to think I'm being taken for less of a ride.

(H/T Dustbury)

Monday, April 1, 2019

Oh...Never Mind

The headline on this article at Real Clear Science might lead you to think you would be reading about one thing, but you would actually read about something else:
"What Is Brain Waste?"
It's about proteins that build up in brain tissue following the cellular respiration of the neurons the tissue contains. One of the things we need sleep for is to allow the brain's "glymphatic system" to remove the waste proteins.

As for the other possible interpretations of "brain waste," well, after you've run down the list of a variety of kinds of studies degrees, anything to do with the Kardashians, most of what Sean Hannity, Michael Moore, Ann Coulter or Maxine Waters says, almost everything on Buzzfeed, half of what any TV meteorologist says, anything that comes out of Nicolás Maduro or Raúl Castro's mouth, the Statement of Ethics of the International Olympics Committee, the UN Commission on the Status of Women (or, for that matter, anything the UN says about Israel other than Resolution 181) and so on, you've pretty much wasted enough of your brain already.