Thursday, May 30, 2019


While watching a couple of videos of tracks from Bruce Springsteen’s upcoming Western Stars release, I scrolled YouTube’s sidebar suggestions of other videos to watch. Among them: “Trapped,” which while not being a Springsteen composition, may be the most ‘80s song in his catalog.

The song was originally by reggae artist Jimmy Cliff, who wrote it in 1972 and watched it do pretty much nothing as a single. The lyrics use the language of a controlling or damaging romantic relationship to express a feeling of oppression in the singer’s culture — a pledge to “someday walk out of here again” could be seen as a promise to drop the bad relationship or throw off the oppression to take the human rights the singer is due.

While touring Europe in 1981, Springsteen bought a tape of Jimmy Cliff songs and liked “Trapped” well enough to try to arrange it for his E Street Band. Cliff’s arrangement had the jaunty rhythm common to reggae but Springsteen slowed the tempo, led with solitary, somber chords from Roy Bittan’s synthesizer and punctuated the song with the kind of anthemic chorus he and the E Streeters were known for. He debuted his arrangement of “Trapped” in England in May of 1981 and it stayed on the set list when the tour returned to the United States.

Then in 1984 a little thing called Born in the U.S.A. happened, and suddenly the devoted but middle-profile fandom that Springsteen had built through the 1970s and early 1980s became mega-stardom. “Trapped” was a popular concert number and made the set list for this tour as well; Springsteen shows had always been more than a simple showcase of his own songs and had their own entertainment modules that never saw an official album release.

In 1985, the famine relief project USA for Africa recorded the single “We Are the World,” featuring dozens of music stars. All money from sales went to famine relief for a variety of sub-Saharan countries, in a ramping up of the Christmas 1984 Band Aid project “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” USA for Africa also wanted to release an album to help raise funds, and several artists donated new or unreleased tracks for it. Springsteen donated an August 1984 recording of “Trapped.” Neither it nor any other donated song was ever released as a single, but “Trapped” hit #1 on what was then called Billboard’s Top Rock Tracks chart and spent 11 weeks in that chart’s top 40. The “official” single release of that time frame, “Glory Days,” spent longer on the Top Rock chart but peaked at #3. Released as a single, of course, it also charted in the regular Top 40.

“Trapped” was the only We Are the World song to gain radio airplay other than the title single and frequently the best-reviewed track on the album. In an interview, Cliff said he appreciated that his song caught Springsteen’s ear and he liked the arrangement — he also liked that through one of his songs, people in difficult situations were getting some help they needed.

The chart position and heavy airplay on album-oriented rock (AOR) stations are things that would probably not happen on radio today. Like many middle-aged people, I am convinced that things were better when I was younger, but in some cases there’s evidence to back me up. The idea that a station’s playlist would include a non-single cover of a decade-old obscurity doesn’t compute at all. None of the various iPod programs that pass for radio station playlists today would have room for it, and no radio station personnel would be given the leeway to play it. That’s if the DJs are actually in the studio when songs were playing instead of being piped in from a station somewhere else or just pre-recorded themselves.

Sure, in terms of music released for purchase these days there’s more variety and diversity than there probably ever has been. But since no one ever gets to hear any of it, the diversity rings a bit hollow. This week circumstances have had me listening to the radio in my truck instead of the podcasts I usually download and play. And so in my own little way, I guess I can also say, “Seems like I’m caught up in your trap again” to the shallow cookie-cutter, lowest common denominator programming on my dial. But I’m headed home tomorrow, so Mr. Podcast can help “teach my eyes to see/beyond these walls in front of me/And someday I’ll walk out of here again.”

Tuesday, May 28, 2019


Physicist Murray Gell-Mann’s exploration of the subatomic realm led him to surmise that what were previously thought of as basic particles — electron, proton and neutron — might be composed of still smaller particles combined in unique and specific ways. He hypothesized these particles and some of their qualities in 1964, as did another physicist working independently, George Zweig. In 1968, experiments at the Stanford Linear Acceleration Center proved the particles exist and in 1969 Gell-Mann won the Nobel Prize.

But in some ways even more important than his discovery of these little bits was his naming of them. Because of Murray Gell-Mann, we will always have a use for the letter Q in Scrabble or Words With Friends, because he’s the one who named them quarks.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Day of Honor

I saw an explanatory meme that helps focus our attention on the sort of "two-part" holiday of Sunday and Monday, Memorial Day. Armed Forces Day celebrates those who wear our nation's uniform. Veterans' Day celebrates those who have worn our nation's uniform but have taken it off after honorable service. Memorial Day celebrates those who will forever wear the uniform.

Many thanks, gentlemen and ladies. May we be worthier of your sacrifice than we have been.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Mona Lisa Speaks!

Well, she looks like she speaks, anyway, after the iconic image is processed through a model developed by the Samsung AI Center.

The machine learning program maps facial landmarks on a source face and applies them to the landmarks on a target face, and then makes the source face do what the target face does. So the brief clip a little ways down the page shows Mona Lisa's face mimicking the speaking motions of a particular target face. The program has a couple of different ways of mapping, and some look better for some faces than others.

I'm not so good at lipreading, and of course I don't speak Italian, but if we were to get animation of the actual Mona Lisa speaking I bet it would be something like, "Can you hurry up, Leo? This robe is sweltering!"

Friday, May 24, 2019

One-Third Right but all Wrong

Missouri Senator Josh Hawley ran an opinion piece in USA Today about what he thinks needs to happen to social media. In a time when more than a few legislators want to see companies like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram broken up because they're too big and supposedly too powerful, the freshman Republican goes several steps more: He wants to see them all die and wither away.

Social media, Sen. Hawley says, have come to function in people's lives like addictive drugs. And that's not a byproduct or a bug but a feature of their business model. They make money by selling advertising, and the way they guarantee advertisers that there will be people who watch the ads is by creating an experience designed to be addictive and time-wasting. We would all, Sen. Hawley says, be better off without them.

When it comes to Twitter I won't argue with Sen. Hawley one bit. Being useless would be a step up for the microblogging platform, which encourages rash, poorly reasoned and unconsidered responses to events or comments. Instagram I've got no opinion about because I've never messed with it. I personally find Facebook a useful communications and publicity platform that lets me put out a lot of content for next to no cost and get it in front of most of the eyeballs I want to see it.


Telling me that social media is bad for me may or may not be true. It may or may not be something I need to hear. But it is with certainty not Senator Hawley's place to tell me about it. The senator graduated with honors from Stanford with a degree in history. His law degree is from Yale. He's clerked for United States Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. He's the reason we don't have to listen to Claire McCaskill anymore. Those are all good things, but none of them suggest any special knowledge about the human psyche or how social media affects it. Meaning the only reason he's putting this opinion forward for consideration is because he's a United States Senator, and social commentary and engineering is not a Senator's job.

You can word-search the Constitution's Article 1, both inside and outside the Senate's specific section 3, and you won't find "parent" anywhere therein. Former Pennsylvania representative Rick Santorum had this problem back when he wanted to be President. He wanted to talk about the problems that sexual libertinism had created in the country in the years since we went meshuggah sometime in the 1960s, even though the job he wanted us to give him has nothing to do with that sort of thing.

Sen. Hawley is doing the same thing. If I knew him personally his opinion on the problems caused by social media might interest me. If he were using that opinion as a means of describing some sort of overall worldview to draw a contrast between him and an opponent it could be useful. But I don't and he's not and there's nothing in his background that makes his two pennies matter more than anyone else's.

If he was in the House I could say, "Representative, shut up and represent," but, "Shut up and Senate" doesn't make much sense. So I'll go with "Pipe down and legislate," although I'm under no illusions such instructions would ever gain Sen. Hawley's attention or be followed if so.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Award Winning

Although the name and the awarding organization might suggest a narrow list of potential awardees, the Libertarian Futurist Society's Prometheus Award has, in its 40-year history, gone to works which could clearly be classified as liberal, progressive or conservative as well as libertarian. The 2018 version of the award, however, went to a book that was very definitely libertarian in outlook and plot action, as well as reminiscent of some earlier works and awardees: Travis Corcoran's The Powers of the Earth.

Powers is set in 2064, some years after a discovery of anti-gravity has allowed a group of settlers to colonize the moon. The technology is jealously guarded by the Lunar settlers, installed on a handful of bulk freighters that retro-fitted to be airtight and maneuverable in vacuum. The national governments of Earth, particularly the vapid former talk-show host in the White House, see the Lunar colony's financial and natural resources as means to prop up their own shaky regimes, while the Lunar settlers see the moon as a place where they can live the way they want: Free from old Earth's stifling and nonsensical mare's nest of laws and regulations. When a supply ship is hijacked by a US military unit a shooting war seems inevitable, and the outnumbered settlers seem bound to lose.

But so did George Washington.

Corcoran seems to have made Powers deliberately similar to Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, down to the inclusion of an artificial intelligence on the side of the libertarian-leaning colonists. He has his own touches, such as a pack of genetically enhanced dogs who can reason and talk, and the considerable narrative space he spends on the terrestrial leaders and their shenanigans. The additional material adds to the page count (Powers is the first of a two-part story; Causes of Separation was published in 2018 and is a 2019 Prometheus nominee) but not much overall to the story. Corcoran is strongest when he's engaging with some of the hits and misses of Heinlein's work; when he's offering commentary on what bugs him about today's world the story tips towards jarringly broad and boring satire.

Powers would benefit from significant tightening of its narrative focus. In the hijacking that starts the conflict the crew tries and bloodily fails to retake control of the ship several times, for example, to no discernible purpose because one or two would have worked. The sequences with the enhanced dogs and their accompanying human wander around the main plot thread with limited intersection and even more limited utility. The Powers-Causes duology is not as didactic and dull as Atlas Shrugged, but it leaves a Randian whiff behind it and presents a very limited case for earning the LFS's top award given it by a vote of the society's members.
That case gets even more limited when you pick up a couple of the novels Powers beat out for the award, such as Karl Gallagher's Torchship (like Powers, Torchship is a part of a larger work, Gallagher's "Torchship Trilogy"). Even though this first novel of the trilogy is constructed as a series of connnected vignettes about the Fives Full tramp freighter and sometime passenger ship, it still has a coherence Powers lacks. If the other nominees are as much better than the winner as Torchship is, then you could make a good case that 2018's LFS voters should ask for a do-over.

Michigan "Mitchie" Long hires onto the Fives Full as a pilot after demonstrating her math abilities. Humanity's explored worlds are roughly grouped into three categories: those that allow limited networked computers, those that don't and those that have been taken over by artificial intelligence. The interstellar "torchships" need to be able to navigate on the mathematical calculations of their human pilots as well as computers, depending on which planetary system they're in. The Fives' small crew is a colorful group of characters so Mitchie fits in, even though she's concealing her primary role as a spy. She fits in well enough to develop a rapport and then relationship with the ship's mechanic over the course of the three novels, as Gallagher describes humanity's conflicted response to the menace of the artificial intelligence and its own infighting.

But aside from Mitchie's spy work the crew of the Fives Full are just folks trying to keep flying and find a job to enable that -- and in the same way that Powers draws from Harsh Mistress, Torchship draws from Joss Whedon's Firefly. Gallagher writes engaging and likeable characters, and has created an interesting world in which they work. He's set up circumstances to make sliderule-style calculations and wrench-and-spanner ship repairs plausible in a world of faster-than-light travel.

Although Gallagher doesn't entirely stick the landing in the third novel of the trilogy, the world of Torchship is a fun place to visit. It would seem as though he's ended the story as the third novel draws to a close, but there may be room for more stories in this universe -- and they'd certainly be welcome.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Clue Not Apparent

A couple I know are the union of a church musician and a doctor. When they had kids, they quite logically decided that the church musician would work part time and the doctor full-time, in order to get the best benefit of their combined financial and parenting resources. The church musician did not see the need to peg the earnings needle as the only concern.

Now, my walking around the pronouns will clue you in that the father and husband is the church musician and the mother and wife is the doctor. But every parental couple works the same numbers in making the decisions that are best for their families or help them meet their own personal desires, Very often, the mother decides to stay home during early childhood, or consider the job she wants based on how much freedom it provides her to be with her children, whether or not it offers maternity leave and how much, and so on. Choices like this have a heavy influence on what is called the "wage gap," where the earnings of men and women are compared and the wages paid to women found wanting. More realistic surveys, which control for those kinds of choices and other different career path decisions, show the gap to be narrower.

Senator Kamala Harris, who wants to be the Democratic nominee for president, recently proposed a policy that would require companies to obtain an equal pay certification showing they pay their male and female workers the same, or demonstrate that factors such as experience and performance have caused the gap. Companies which didn't hit that mark or properly document the acceptable reasons for not hitting it would have to pay fines of 1 percent of their daily profits for every day they failed to do so. It's hard to tell from the proposal if the fines would apply to companies which paid female workers more than male workers -- probably a rare happenstance but certainly possible.

There's just one problem. Not with the idea of equal pay for equal work, that's only fair. And not with Sen. Harris's plan, which has far more than one problem. And not with the irony that Senator Harris, as a member of one of the two houses of the legislative branch of the government, could introduce legislation today that could create the certification regime she wants to see happen.

No, this problem is that the men who work for Sen. Harris's legislative and campaign offices make, on average, six percent more than the women. Obvious, Sen. Harris's candidacy can't be supported.

Because of hypocrisy? No, of course not. Every human being manages to display a little hypocrisy, and if hypocrisy by itself would keep you from voting for someone then the first Tuesday in November is just another day for you.

No, it's because of the dumb. Apparently neither Sen. Harris nor anyone in her office, in the leadup to this rollout, thought to take a look at their own pay book to see if they could meet the standard they were calling for. If they had, it might have even helped her push her cause: "Good intentions aren't enough," she might say. "Even when you know equal pay is important, you have to keep a close eye on things or they could get out of balance." She could close with the usual, "I'm Kamala Harris, and I approved this message," but then add in another shot of her surrounded by some female campaign staff. "And if you were thinking of giving to my campaign, you might put a couple of extra dollars in the envelope. Some of my employees just got a raise."

Or some other method of handling the matter -- that's an issue better left to wiser political minds than mine, of which there are many. What's disqualifyingly dumb is to never ask, "Hey, how do our salaries measure up on this?" What's flat-out stupid is to think no one else will ask either, including conservative-leaning news outlets who've done it before.

There's no way I'll be voting for President Trump in November of 2020. Although I'm not unhappy with some of his results, he remains a man of unfit character for the office. I'm currently registered as an independent, but in my state my former party allows independents to vote in its primaries. If for some reason Sen. Harris looks strong by the time our primary elections roll around, I'll definitely take advantage of that opportunity and vote for someone else. If I want a president who overlooks the most basic facts about his or her own policy proposals and isn't smart enough to game out the most obvious responses to them, then I'll just stay home because I'm already watching that show.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Potentially Lethal

The sci-fi suspense show Stranger Things, set in the middle of the 1980s, has drawn a lot of praise for its well-handled cultural mileu. In its upcoming season, it will take on one of the most potentially dangerous challenges yet -- it will introduce "New Coke" to the story.

In 1985, the Coca-Cola company tweaked its recipe to produce what it called a "sweeter and smoother" drink. They were immediately denounced and the "New Coke" roundly rejected; in less than 80 days the old formula was returned to production as Coca-Cola Classic (Peter Jennings actually broke into an episode of General Hospital with a news bulletin announcing it). New Coke became "Coke II" in 1992 and was discontinued ten years later.

The company is making a half-million cans of the product, complete with 1985 labeling, in connection with its use on Stranger Things. So the question now is: Will the popularity and success of Stranger Things bring a revival of "New Coke?" Or will the disaster of New Coke wreck Stranger Things? There's no way to know for certain, but I hope the show's young stars socked those salaries away in a college fund.

Because the end will come swiftly.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Fighting Words

One of the more common things said about military strategy is that military leaders all too often plan to fight the last war, and only wake up to a new reality when it's either too late or almost too late. Former 82nd Airborne paratrooper and private military contractor Sean McFate, now a professor at Georgetown and espionage thriller author, draws on all of his experiences and studies in outlining how 21st century warfare will differ from 20th -- and how ill-prepared the United States is to fight it -- in The New Rules of War.

McFate patterns his book on the ancient classic by Chinese military genius and philosopher Sun Tzu, The Art of War. He lists ten rules of how technology and time have changed the way that war is likely to be fought, moving away from the realities that have dominated military thinking since the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War in 1648. Decisive outcomes, with clear victors and clear losers, will give way to achieved objectives and contained disorder. Massed armies and immense war machines will be overtaken by weaponized cyber tech and media. Rather than send national armies into harm's way, private military contractors will be hired to press the fight and carry the burden. And some of their employers might be corporations and international agencies instead of nation states.

McFate writes clearly and directly, offering plain-language explanations of his premises, deductions and conclusions without getting into too much technical jargon. He evaluates the shortcomings of current military thinking and thinkers with enough zest that you could think he's replaying some actual conversations in which those thinkers didn't listen to different points of view, but his tone is overall that of a reporter advocate rather than polemicist. Some of his points seem self-evident in light of headlines while others are less convincing, but there's enough substance to New Rules to make listening to McFate's arguments well worth the time.
While we often speak of "World War II" as a unified conflict, historian Victor Davis Hanson points out that the battlefields around the world between 1939 and 1945 offered several very different war experiences. Different enough, he says in The Second World Wars, that it's more accurate to talk about them in the plural. Fighting in the North African desert was not the same as attacking Italy, which was not the same as the push south through France from Normandy, which differed from the aerial battle in the skies of Britain, which itself was nothing like the experience of the Marines attacking the Empire of Japan through the Pacific.

In fact, even the combatants weren't identical. U.S. forces were active in both European and Pacific theaters, as were the British, but French and Italian fighters were mostly at work on their respective sides in the Old World, and Russian forces were next to nonexistent outside Europe until the very end of the conflict. According to Hanson, it was the varied theaters of combat, combined with the more or less untouched manufacturing capacity of the United States, that made the Axis defeat almost a certainty from the time they drew the US into fighting.

Hanson's primary field of study is classical Greek and Roman history rather than the modern era, but he notes that several of the mistakes made during WWII fighting echoed those made in that classical era. While Axis forces could easily dominate the European continent, they lacked the ability to project their power any distance beyond those shores. Germany, for example, did not have a single aircraft carrier and thus completely lacked any capability to slow the American war manufacturing effort. And it was the manufacturing capacity of the Allies, Hanson points out, that ultimately defeated both Germany and Japan. When a plant in Michigan is turning out one B-24 every 63 minutes, that makes for a lot of airplanes to drop bombs -- too many for either enemy to stop, and far more than either enemy could produce.

This capacity, Hanson points out, was obvious to the Axis leaders and should have deterred them at least from trying to fight the US -- and probably should have made them leery about starting hostilities at all. Had they stopped with their initial gains, they might have had time to consolidate them enough to strengthen their hand for later fighting, but once they engaged forces beyond their ability to project power, the outcome was close to certain. And the tragedy, Hanson says, is that millions of people around the world, military and civilian alike, died in order to prove true an answer that should have already been seen.

Hanson offers great detail of how badly the Allied manufacturing capacity outstripped the Axis powers -- in some cases to an almost repetitive degree. But that fact in itself highlights the point he makes about the lopsidedness of the resources both sides brought to bear. He's published several books on classical history and has an easily understood authorial voice, communicating large amounts of information without jargon or fuzzy language. The Second World Wars does travel some familiar ground, but it does so from a very interesting and unexplored perspective, shedding new light into the arena.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Own Private Idaho

A weird thing was done once in Idaho. All of the state's public regulations were set up so they have to be officially renewed by a vote of the state legislature each year.

This year, the two houses of the state legislature had a bit of a tiff over some inner workings of that mechanism, and thus they did not reauthorize any of the state's regulatory code. Meaning that on July 1, 8,200 pages of state regulations will go bye-bye. The governor of Idaho can opt to keep some of them, but only as emergency regulations in force until the legislature re-convenes in 2020. He could technically opt to keep none of them or propose his own, but has indicated he doesn't plan on that drastic step.

Now we're just talking regulatory codes, not legal ones. If you decided to knock over a liquor store in Boise on July 2, you are just as likely to draw the attention of Idaho's law enforcement community as before. So what the governor plans is to get input from the state agency heads about which regulations they need to keep and which they don't. Rather than an accretion of sometimes outdated codes and rules, everyone can redesign their regulatory structure from the ground up.

It's likely that few legislatures would enact sunset codes for regulations today, especially if they were the ones who had to renew or reauthorize them. That's work, and every day spent making laws is a day not spent putting the arm on people for money or campaigning. It may indeed be hard work to learn enough about how state agencies operate to discern what kinds of rules they need to function, but that's part of the job of legislating. The presence of national media outlets in Washington, D.C., may allow federal lawmakers to shovel all of their authority onto the executive branch in order to carve out time to appear on cable news, but taint happnin in the Boise statehouse.

Friday, May 17, 2019


The object listed as M5, a nebula, in Charles Messier's catalog of stellar phenomena, was actually a globular cluster -- a very old, tightly packed clump of stars so close together that Messier's telescopes couldn't see the individual members.

You sort of wish that Messier had been able to see the different stars in M5, though, because he was bound to come up with a better name for such a magnificent sight than the clumsy (and ugly) "globular cluster."

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Average and Not

Former mob enforcer and hitman Isaiah Coleridge is making a new life for himself in upstate New York. Free from the danger his former associates will want to pay him the traditional "severance package" of their business, he's used some of his shadier contacts to become and officially licensed private investigator and takes actual legitimate cases. Of course, he still knows -- and is known by -- members of the extended criminal outfit for whom he used to work, and he knows that one way to stay on their good side is to help them when they ask for favors. A local boss calls in one such marker when a low-level criminal turns up dead and decapitated by weapons that had been used on a previous victim. The similarities are enough that coincidence isn't enough to explain them, so Isaiah is called on to find out what does explain them. Isaiah's hunt will lead him into parts of his own past as well as the history of the area's underworld, and the journey may leave him without a future.

Black Mountain is Laird Barron's second outing with Isaiah, and his second large-scale work outside his usual horror genre. He doesn't have to spend as much time setting the stage and introducing cast members, allowing him to expand the story and exploration of what kind of man Isaiah is. The introspection offers some of the more interesting sections of the book, as Isaiah remembers how he learned some of the ins and outs of mayhem and murder for hire from an interesting mentor. Barron's given Isaiah the traditional gumshoe's wry self-regard, especially as he tries to figure out just what it is that made him decide not to do mayhem and murder anymore. The choice bemuses and even amuses him a little.

But since Mountain doesn't need to introduce the supporting cast it seems as though Barron really doesn't know what to do with them, offering them a few repeated cameos before shuffling them to the side. The actual mystery that drives the plot for the novel winds up branching out a few many times, leaving it tough to figure out what happened, what's happening as it's wrapping up and what the heck just happened. The loss of focus could be Barron finding his stride in the format and it's to be hoped he gets a handle on it, because Isaiah is an interesting character with a funny voice and intriguing story. Detective noir fiction is filled with knights that have some tarnish on their shining armor, but Isaiah offers the twist of one who's learning that there may be some shine under the coat of tarnish he's worn for years -- and his surprise at the path of discovery.
As John Sandford has moved Lucas Davenport solidly into the life of a United States Marshal, some of the "Prey" series featuring him have taken on similar characteristics as Lucas chases down a fugitive or fugitives and runs them to ground. That's not necessarily a formula rut for Sandford, who has shown an ability to add characters and atmosphere to the mix well enough to keep the action moving and make a good yarn.

But in Neon Prey, the 29th book in the series, nearly every gift Sandford has deployed to keep interest and to distinguish his chase novels deserts him as he presents a disconnected series of set pieces, needlessly gruesome violence and cruelty and a set of some of the most repugnant villains he's ever spilled onto a page -- with the most repugnant not even really getting the comeuppance the story merits. Each of several encounters between the Marshals and the criminals winds up inconclusively -- mostly because it feels like Sandford took a look at his page count and realized he needed to keep going in order to hit novel length.

One of Sandford's major strengths has been his willingness to have some of Davenport's criminal antagonists be, for want of a better word, stupid. Often lowlifes elevated to a stage far past their station by pure dumb bad luck, they stay steps ahead of their pursuit not through any innate intelligence or skill -- just luck. And Sandford has usually spent the time with his antagonists to show how dumb they are. Even if they have backstory that might make them sympathetic, we can see how they've freely made the wrong choice time and time again in pursuit of what seems to be the shortcut to the good life.

Time spent with this particular gang, though, reminds me more of a quote I can't find now, by a former Gawker staffer ruminating about his work. It was something about how their whole method of operating was to stick their hands down into the worst muck they could find, lift it up in front of people and saying, "Look at this!" Nearly every interlude with the bad guys of Neon Prey felt like that, now and then with the added yechh of Sandford attempting to be funny with them.

It's tempting to wish that Neon Prey had been an e-book or Kindle format only, so that it could be recalled and all traces of its existence erased. But that might let Sandford off the hook when fans said, "Hope you try harder next time," so I guess I'll use my Infinity Gauntlet snap for something else.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Wrong, But That's Alright

Writing at Backreaction, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder points out an important feature of the discipline called "quantum mechanics." It is, she says, wrong.

Given that Dr. Hossenfelder is a theoretical physicist, this could seem counterproductive to her work. But as she explains, what ails quantum mechanics ails every scientific worldview so far created by human beings. Classical Newtonian mechanics, for example, is "wrong" because it does not correctly describe the behavior of very very small or very very fast objects. But if you decide you want to become a champion at billiards, immersing yourself in Newtonian physics would be a good step to take.

Quantum mechanics, Dr. Hossenfelder says, assigns quantum properties to the particles that make up the atoms that make up things. "Quantum properties" in this case means the attributes that are held by matter's most basic building blocks, such as (in some cases) being both and neither a wave nor a particle until a measurement is taken -- and then becoming either a wave or a particle depending on what is being measured for.

But the interactions between quantum particles also have quantum properties, and the realm of science that tries to probe and explain this phenomenon is called "quantum field theory." It's necessary because basic old quantum mechanics doesn't involve the extra level of weirdness added when the particle interactions come into play. Like Newtonian physics can't explain the very small and very fast, quantum mechanics can't explain what happens when this "second quantization" occurs.

It's sort of a matter of frames of reference, although those are my words rather than Dr. Hossenfelder's. Within the frame of reference of everyday activity and normal-sized objects, Newton's your guy. As mentioned before, the very small and very fast require a call to the bullpen for Einstein. But to account for the strangeness added when the interactions between the very very small are considered, you have to bring in Paul Dirac and company.

Even though it's wrong, there are a lot of occasions when quantum mechanics proves very useful for explaining some of the things going on in the universe. Dr. Hossenfelder paraphrases a statistician named George Box, who said, "All models are wrong, but some are useful." Wisdom, it would seem, would come in knowing which models are useful in which situations, and when they might need to be laid aside for others.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Funnyman

In noting the death today of Tim Conway, I debated whether I should post the clip in which he plays a dentist with his very first patient and leaves Harvey Korman (and the audience) a mess or the one in which his never-ending story in front of "Mama's family" puts them all under until Vicki Lawrence -- in character -- destroys the entire room with a well-placed question.

So yeah, both. Why not?

Monday, May 13, 2019


The coolest thing about books is that someone is always writing one that brings together ideas you might not have thought of matching up, between the same two covers.

There are times I can't believe I was ever young enough and dumb enough to think that the day would come when I would know as much as I would need to.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

And "Wow!" Back Atcha!

You may have seen an item that featured a recent performance of Mozart's "Masonic Funeral Music" in Boston by the Handel and Haydn Society. As the last echoes died away a youngster can be heard expressing his awe over what he's seen by saying, quite audibly, "Wow!" The crowd loved it and their applause was as much in agreement with him as it was for the performers (Charles Hill of Dustbury noted it here).

The H&H Society wanted to find their young fan to thank him for his spontaneous appreciation and eventually did, and you should go read the story because it only gets better from here.

Friday, May 10, 2019


So apparently there are more billionaires per capita in San Francisco than any other city in the world.

Which makes you think they could do more with all of the people crapping on their sidewalks than map it, but it would seem not.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Exploration Commenced!

Started searching through YouTube for some good videos of former Wild Kingdom co-host Jim Fowler, who passed away earlier this week. His second-best gig was coming on The Tonight Show and showing a variety of animals to Johnny Carson, who was always game for the weirdest and wackiest critters Fowler could muster.

After spending a good hour or so cracking up at how much fun Fowler had springing surprises on Carson, I decided on the appearance where Fowler brought Doc, a Celebes ape, onto the show and Doc decided to play a little fisticuffs with Carson. This one is a highlight for several reasons, chief among them how Fowler pretty much loses it when Doc punches Carson and then when Carson gets into a goofy-face war with Doc.

The other reason is the knowledge that if Doc laid one into any current late-night host, said host would pass smooth out, wake up crying and file a lawsuit.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Time Travel

A digital artist who goes by the name Mat envisioned what the Marvel Cinematic Universe might have looked like had it been made 20 years ago, at least in terms of the actors cast in the roles. I think these things are almost always fun, even if they sometimes have some inexplicable choices.

For one, I don't know why you trade Tom Cruise for Robert Downey, Jr., as Iron Man, given that Downey and Cruise are just a couple of years apart in age. The only real reason, I guess, is that Cruise was hitting new fame heights during the '90s and Downey was busy serving time and trying to get clean. That idea overlooks that while Downey had kicked his addictions and was working steadily when he starred as Iron Man in the movie of the same name in 2008, he had not yet hit the superstar status he would later enjoy. It was the Iron Man role, in fact, that helped put him on that level.

I also can't buy Leonardo DiCaprio as Captain America. He simply does not project the right image for the role. But I do think Denzel Washington as Black Panther would have been cool to watch, as well as David Duchovny as the Hulk.

I'm hoping Mat continues his reimaginings and carries them back beyond the '90s; trying to see what classic Hollywood talent would have made the super-hero role their own could be even more entertaining than this exercise.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019


Since the movie has been out for more than a week, this note will have many spoilers for Avengers: Endgame. If you haven't seen it, be thus warned.

What came to life with a 37-second spot at the end of the credits for 2008's Iron Man comes to a mostly satisfying conclusion with a three-hour galaxy-spanning tale of revenge, resurrection and redemption in Avengers: Endgame. The movie opens with a quick scene establishing the horror that befell Clint "Hawkeye" Barton, as his entire family vanished from existence while his back was turned. It jumps to a space-marooned Tony "Iron Man" Stark recording what may be his last message to his love, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Thanos the Mad Titan (Josh Brolin), having gained the power of the Infinity Gauntlet, has used it to destroy half the life in the universe. The remainder, we find, may have survived -- but they may have been destroyed in their own way as well. Tony is rescued, but rejects the remaining Avengers team in a biting scene between Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans). Without him, they still manage to find Thanos and chase him down, hoping to take the Gauntlet and undo his work. But they find that Thanos has destroyed the Gauntlet and the power stones that make it work, and in a rage Thor (Chris Hemsworth) decapitates him.

The movie jumps to five years later; Natasha "Black Widow" Romanov (Scarlett Johanssen) directs a team of heroes from a base at the old Avengers headquarters. Cap works with her as they try to return a sense of order to the world, and Carol "Captain Marvel" Danvers (Brie Larson) does the same across the galaxy. Into the mix comes Scott "Ant-Man" Lang (Paul Rudd) finally freed from the Quantum Realm by a random rodent that activated his long-delayed recall. After learning what has happened, he visits Cap and Natasha to tell them that his experience in that realm suggests real time travel is possible, and if the kinks are worked out, they could travel back in time to steal the stones, create a new Infinity Gauntlet, and undo Thanos' work.

They need a scientific genius who can make such a machine and turn to Stark, who has married Pepper and has a daughter. Although no longer bitter towards the Avengers, he still refuses to help, saying time travel won't work and even if it does, it might make things worse. The next genius on the list is Bruce "Hulk" Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has come to terms with his dual existence and lives a life with Bruce's mind in the Hulk's body. He makes a machine that sort of works but won't get the job done, until Tony relents and brings a working plan. Thor, depressed at his earlier failure to kill Thanos, and Barton, now a vigilante bringing death to criminals who survived Thanos' destructive plan, are brought back to fill out the team. They target three different earlier times when the stones were known to be present in order to maximize the limited number of trips their time machine can make.

The "time heists" go off more or less well, but Hulk learns the stones have to be returned to their original times or the timeline will split. Tony and Cap have to add a side trip to gain more fuel for their own time travel when a glitch allows Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to grab the Tesseract containing the Space Stone and escape. Clint and Natasha learn one of them will have to die in order to obtain the Soul Stone and although each tries to be the one to make the sacrifice, Natasha ultimately falls to her death and allows Clint to retrieve the stone. It's during one of the heists that the Thanos of the past learns of the heroes' plan and comes forward in time himself to thwart it, arriving just after Hulk has donned the Infinity Gauntlet and snapped his fingers, restoring everyone Thanos wiped out. He intends to seize this reconstituted gauntlet and this time, wipe out all life, rebuilding it along the lines he thinks best. The final hour or so of the movie is Thanos and his forces battling not only the Avengers who have gathered so far, but all of those now returned to existence by the Hulk. Thanos wants the Gauntlet and the Avengers try to get it to their substitute time machine and take it back to the past.

Endgame is full of great moments: The Hulk posing for selfies, Tony's daughter catching him saying a few four-letter words he's not supposed to say, Thor grousing at Rocket Raccoon, Past-Gamora looking incredulously at Present-Nebula when told she will fall in love with Peter Quill, and so on. The fight sequence has some amazing still shots and set pieces. There are at least three "cavalry charging down the hill to the rescue" moments that are worth the ticket price by themselves. Each of our major heroes faces more than just the need for caution in their past, as they confront personal challenges they had not expected to face. The two leads -- Tony and Cap -- are each given a great conclusion to their stories. Tony dies knowing he saved everyone, including those closest to him. Cap, via time travel, gets to have the life with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) that his long-ago sacrifice denied him.

In that sense, it is a much more satisfying movie than I would have thought when I walked out of the theater after Infinity War, which was a strung-together sequence of failed last stands that staked its pathos on the "deaths" of characters we knew would come back. It takes its time setting up the new harsh reality facing many of the original team: Natasha burns the candle at both ends in trying to put the Humpty Dumpty of Earth together again, Cap tries to offer a place for reflection in survivors' support groups, coming to terms with forces he can't fight, and so on. All of the original six Avengers serve up the high-quality of acting that has made their superheroic jaunts stand so far above what this genre often sees. Downey's performance, whether the Academy recognizes it or not next February, will be better than at least half of the Best Actor in a Leading Role nominees.

But it has more than a few dings in the paint, also. The sequence of tracking Thanos down, only to learn that what he had done couldn't be undone, would have been a better fit as the end of Infinity War. It would have given that movie some weight, concluding it with an actual realtime loss instead of a magicked-up collection of blowing dust that was supposed to signify the deaths of characters whose own sequel movies had already been announced. Barton's role as Ronin, a lethal vigilante, adds just about nothing to the overall story. Endgame makes fun of the many movie "rules" of time travel but it's easy to lose count of the number of times it violates its own supposed temporal logic -- including in its gift of a happy ending for Cap. Thanos' overall plan is still stupid -- given ultimate power, instead of creating resources for everyone he kills half of them. But since he also apparently killed half of all life, rather than just all sentient life, he's left the resource problem exactly where it was when he started. In between some of the great poses and set shots in the final fight sequence is a confusing mish-mash of murky CGI that makes it tough to know what is really going on. Although the post-credits scene of Infinity War could lead to the belief that Captain Marvel would have a pivotal role in Endgame, no such role existed. She plays a minor part in tracking Thanos down at the beginning of the movie and shows up to add some guns, soldiers and punches to the end, and disappears in between. There's no Phil Coulson at the end, during Tony's funeral, and there should be.

As a sort of conclusion to an era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of the most amazing creations of moviedom since a certain scruffy nerf-herder, farmboy and Your Worship battled an evil empire and a part-time archaeology professor went on a treasure hunt, Endgame does the job. Not perfectly, but probably better than many people, including me, would have thought possible. It makes a good place to stop, too. Tom Holland's Spider-Man is worth some watches, Black Panther is interesting in his own right and might stay that way in sequels and perhaps Benedict Cumberbatch's Dr. Strange as well (if they can figure out a much better use for Chiwetel Ejiofor's Baron Mordo than Madman Trying to Take Away All the Sorcery). But Guardians movies are boring quip-fluff, Ant-Man and Wasp films never managed to set the hook and Captain Marvel is far too deep a dive in the deep weeds of the Marvel Universe to be worth the time.

Another actor may take up the shield (and do so worthily) and another character don the armor of Earth's mightiest knight-errant. But it's Evans' stalwart conviction and Downey's rueful, haunted tarnish that made these movies great to watch, and their departure will mark a good time to say good-bye.

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Revenge of the Hack

I've got a bad feeling about this.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Snorting Shrimp?

Over at Dustbury, Charles notes how researchers looking for micropollutants in English water wildlife found it, but represented in some unforeseen ways.

To wit, they found things like cocaine in the shrimp. It was just trace amounts, leaving the puzzle of how to make a "Say hello to my little frien'" joke about hundreds of miniature Tony Montana's White Powder Mountains as yet unsolved.

Scientists theorize that the shrimp ingest the cocaine, as well as the other drugs they found, when those drugs are dumped down toilets or off of bridges in order to prevent seizure by police. Or simply because it's the easiest, if not best, way to dispose of old legal drugs as well. Which makes a lot more sense than figuring out how the shrimp cut a line on a mirror while underwater, let alone how they snort the stuff not having nostrils and all.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Better Than Life Day

Today has been the unofficial "Star Wars Day" across many English-speaking countries, because of the amusing pun that can be made from the date. Say the date, "May the fourth," add "be with you," and behold! You sound like a young Jedi who has just lost his or her front baby tooth.

It's a little more somber than usual because of the recent death of Peter Mayhew, who was the original actor inside the furry suit of Chewbacca the Wookie. Although Mayhew never spoke a recognizable word of dialogue and spent his entire onscreen time hidden behind the dog/bear/simian mask of Chewie, he was one of the movie series' most popular figures. He did many conventions, was rarely if ever anything other than gracious to fans and often expressed his awareness of how lucky he was. He didn't have many other roles, but he didn't really need them.

Here's hoping that wherever he is, the fuzzball is laughing it up indeed.

Friday, May 3, 2019


Ordinarily, when Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii says something it's a good time to remember than in some conversations, the phrase "please stop talking" can't come too early.

But when U.S. Attorney General William Barr appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify to issues regarding the report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Sen. Hirono's questions -- which featured far more accusatory than interrogatory tones of voice -- some other thoughts came to mind.

One is that AG Barr has much more patience than I do. At one point Sen. Hirono interrupted him to say, "Give us some credit for knowing what the hell is going on around here." My response would have been something like, "It'll have to be credit, Senator, because you sure as hell haven't earned it." AG Barr did not say that or anything like it.

After hearing and reading about this session, I am now torn between believing that the voters of Hawaii are irredeemably dumb or irredeemably evil. If they indeed believed that Sen. Hirono was the best person they could send to Washington on their behalf, they were very dumb. I looked up both of her Senate campaigns, and in neither of them did she face an actual shapeshifting alien lizard intent on conquering our planet so that we humans might become a food source for them. Thus "dumbest choice in the history of choices" is the only other option.

On the other hand, it could be that the voters of Hawaii think no better of Sen. Hirono than anyone else does, and they decided to get her as far away from them as possible as many days of the year as possible. When she is in Washington, D.C., she is ten hours flight time away. But in order to do that, they had to put her in the U.S. Senate, despite what that means for the rest of us. The only name for that is evil.

(5/4: Edited to correct Attorney General's first name)

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Big Clouds Have Little Clouds

The Large Magellanic Cloud is actually a galaxy, but it was named as it was because until telescopes improved, no one could tell it was not a part of our Milky Way. It has, as the picture below shows, clouds of its own that surround the young stars being formed in it.

At least, they were young 163,000 years ago, when the light we see today left them for the long journey to our eyes and instruments. In order to know what they look like now, we'll have to wait until some time around the year 165,000 AD.

Give or take.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Pulp Fiction

Lester Dent wrote a brigade of stories in the pulp magazines of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, under his own name and, more famously, as Kenneth Robeson. It was as Robeson that he wrote both magazine and novel versions of the Man of Bronze, Doc Savage.

Dent is also well-known for his "Master Fiction Plot" for creating 6,000-word pulp magazine short stories. It's an outline into which an author inserts his or her own ideas and creativity in order to create a short story that will grab readers and, more importantly, publishers who write checks.

The formula is no doubt a good one, and scans of pulp stories show that many successful writers used it. It also, of course, helps to have talent, an intense curiosity about new things and an ability to understand them, which Dent did.

There are probably a lot of important modern writers who would give Dent's formula short shrift, seeing as how his mainstay character was a near-superman who could also operate on his enemies' brains in order to "remove their criminal tendencies" and send them back into society as productive citizens. But he built himself a long and profitable career with it and entertained an awful lot of people. And you have to wonder: In today's world of doorstop-sized multivolume arboreal slaughterhouses, would one of these critics be able to actually write a 6,000-word story?

Of course. I suspect most of them could, as long as you gave them a 1,500-word limit.