Friday, June 28, 2019

Fiddling Around

At Twisted Sifter, a music lover is -- well, not exactly born, since he's a toddler -- but certainly created, as a youngster hears a violin played for the first time and is absolutely fascinated by both instrument and musician.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Art Looks at 40

In The Hollywood Reporter, Rich Cohen finally gives the true proto-classic the respect it deserves, on the eve of its 40th anniversary.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019


Writing at Mockingbird, Sarah Condon explores how often Christians like to lay the blame for bad things at the foot of the devil, and how little that tendency squares with that entity as it is described in the Bible.

It's a good meditation -- the upshot is that we all too often tell Ol' Scratch to put his feet up and sit a spell because we'll do fine sinning all by ourselves without his help.

The omission mentioned above is the criminal absence of Geraldine Jones, who was one of the major proponents of this way of thinking during the late 1960s and 1970s, even appearing on television to spread her message. She made no apologies for her teaching, explaining that what we saw was what we got.

Unfortunately Sister Geraldine never explained where she developed this way of thinking, although there is some speculation that she was taught it by the Rev. Leroy of the Church of What's Happenin' Now.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Smear Job

If you'd asked me, I would have thought the above picture of Ahura Mons on the asteroid Ceres was actually someone playing around with Photoshop or attempting to change the landscape of some photo -- and not doing a very good job of it.

But according to this item at Astronomy Picture of the Day, the current best guess is that a mud bubble pushed up through the surface ice in a location with a lot of reflective material, probably salt, before freezing.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Thirty Years Ago Today

And, in spite of the fact that the first two Superman movies were pretty good and left their own mark, super-hero movies would never be the same again.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Sobering Funny

For the last five years plus, Mike Chase has been tweeting a federal crime each day. Earlier this month he collected many of them in a book, which varies between the funniest and most depressing publication ever created outside of an actual government document.

It's funny, of course, because some of the laws are very stupid. While there is almost certainly some sense behind regulating how much cash a person may have when he or she leaves the country, or mandating that he or she report the amount, some of the specifics are ridiculous. You can't leave carrying more than $5 worth of nickels, for example, reported or otherwise. You could face up to five years in prison if you do.

These are not simply outdated laws which were never repealed and which circumstances make enforcement (or violation) unlikely. Some of them are more recent. We could understand that astronauts would not want to be bothered by people asking them to take things on their trips so that those things could be accurately described as having been to space. We could understand that NASA might want to prevent such annoyances, and also prevent astronauts from engaging in some side hustles that involved taking unauthorized things into space that could later be sold. Especially these days, when we don't have our own ride into space and have to hitch from people who might decide to charge us by the ounce.

But there is an actual federal law -- not a NASA policy, not a workplace rule, a Federal law prohibiting you or me from asking that such an item be taken into space unless we ourselves are going into space with it. Again, not taking such an item or hiding it in the astronaut's packed socks, but just asking. According to Chase, it's 18 USC §799 & 14 CFR §1214.604(a).

Well, what's the not funny or depressing part of that? It's this: There were, once upon a time, people in the United States government who were willing to have you or me shot dead rather than go to the trouble of telling us no when we asked to have something taken into space by an astronaut. Overblown? No. Federal law is enforced by Federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI or the US Marshals service or Department of the Treasury, or so on. These law enforcement agencies employ armed people to apprehend the people accused of breaking federal laws. If we are accused and we resist they are authorized to use legitimate levels of force to apprehend us, and if we suffer injury in the process they're immune from prosecution and it's our fault. If we resist with a level of force that makes these agents fear for their lives or the lives of people around them, they can shoot us. And even if someone later finds out that we didn't ask any astronauts to carry anything into space, we are still dead and they are still employed.

Of course it's an unlikely scenario. Of course most interactions with law enforcement, even antagonistic ones, do not end in fatalities or even permanent injuries -- the regular claims of certain lawyers notwithstanding. The issue is that people who make laws and regulations were OK with the possibility, however unlikely, of those outcomes.

Some things should very much be against the law. Decriminalizing murder because sometimes murderers who resist arrest get shot, for example, is a bad idea, and people who want to pass laws against murder can, I think, look in our mirrors and say, well, this has to be done in order for us to have a civil society. We might not like knowing someone died while resisting arrest for the law we passed against murder, but we could live with ourselves.

Could we live with ourselves knowing that someone died resisting arrest for carrying three full rolls of nickels in their pockets across the border, instead of just two and a half? Or for asking some NASA flunky to sneak a stamp into an astronaut's suitcase? I'd hope not. And for what it's worth, I'd be happy to vote for any candidate who said that his or her primary job if elected would be working to repeal those laws.

Along with most if not all of the rest of them that Mr. Chase lists on his Twitter feed.

Thursday, June 20, 2019


Eric Swalwell: I think that the son-in-law of a president would actually stay in his position at the White House long enough for me to fire him if I'm elected. I'm the most clueless person in modern American politics.

Roy Moore: Hold my beer.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Government Is Confusing

It appears Rep. Eric Swalwell of California misunderstands a number of things about how our United States government operates. A few months ago, he seemed to suggest that the United States military might employ tactical nuclear weapons in order to enforce hypothetical laws against gun ownership. He later claimed he was joking in an obvious use of hyperbole, but given that the conversation apparently did feature the potential use of force to bring about those laws' intended design, it was at very least a joke in poor taste.

But them came a Q&A in the New York Times recently in which Rep. Swalwell, now one of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, explained what kind of policies a Swalwell administration would pursue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among the steps he would take would be the firing "on day one" of Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of current President Donald Trump, who is this administration's point man on Israeli-Palestinian policy. I've linked to a Washington Free Beacon article about the story because the Times piece is behind the paywall.

Rep. Swalwell most certainly overestimates his chances of getting anywhere near the Oval Office without a tour group. But he also does not appear to understand that often, presidential staffs and advisors leave when the President who hires them leaves office. I suspect that even Jared Kushner has more pride than to hang around long enough to be fired by Eric Swalwell.

But as mentioned, whether or not Mr. Kushner has a job in the White House come January 2021 is unlikely to have squat to do with any decisions made by Rep. Swalwell.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Met His Match!

In today's Calvin and Hobbes reprint, Stupendous Man finds himself unable to counter the power of Mom-Lady's Mind-Scrambling Eyeball Ray.

I know the feeling, bro.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Science Words

This article at Symmetry is the third in their series of lists of words that mean different things when scientists say them than when the rest of us say them.

It's interesting how some of the science-based meanings resemble the regular meanings, just tweaked somewhat. For example, both the ordinary and scientific use of the word "uncertainty" involve things that we don't know. But while the ordinary use of the word describes a condition, such as "I have uncertainty about the outcome," the science-based meaning more often refers to the specific amount of uncertainty in a measurement. "The results of this test are X," someone might say. "What's the level of uncertainty?" "Plus or minus five percent."

Smaller uncertainty amounts are better when scientists are trying to find things out because it means they consider the results more reliable. Larger uncertainty amounts are less useful, because the correct data could be so different from the measured result that subsequent experiments can't use it as input.

Another word, "tunneling," actually doesn't mean what you or I would ordinarily mean when we say it. We would talk about the process of digging a tunnel through something, like a mountain. But "tunneling" to a physicist describes the way a particle, through the uncertainty of quantum processes, appears to have gone through a solid object without leaving any trail of having done so.

Some words, not listed, will be the same, although the scientists may be using them in a much stronger sense than you or I would. If I say, "oops," for example, I mean I have made a mistake, probably a relatively minor one. You would turn to me and ask, "What?"

But if a physicist says, "oops," what he or she means is, "It's already too late to start running." You would turn to me and ask, "W-" before every molecule in your body exploded at the speed of light.

Important safety tip, when you think about it.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Paint It Whack

National Review's Kevin Williamson isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I would encourage you to read his recent piece at the magazine's online site about our United States Representatives who have become exercised about the proposed paint scheme of the next Air Force One jets.

As Williamson points out, occasionally the presidential planes are replaced by newer ones. This is good, because otherwise we have the leader of the free world flying around in a C-54 Skymaster and it's not easy to get parts for a 77-year-old aircraft. Plus the cruising speed of 190 mph would make getting to those summits with Kim Jong Un verrrrry long and boring.

So new jets are in the pipeline, scheduled to go into service in late 2024 or early 2025. The White House has suggested a red, white and blue color scheme that certain folks in Congress don't like because they think it will look too much like the current President's own private jets. The House Armed Services Committee voted 31-26 to require any interior or exterior changes to presidential aircraft appearance to have congressional approval.

Williamson notes that a representative from Connecticut actually voiced the concern about the decreased fuel efficiency that may be caused by the weight of the new paint job as opposed to the current one -- the additional color, you see. Now, it may be that the representative from Connecticut overheard someone read something about Congress taking back legislative power it had ceded to the executive branch. I say "overheard" because other options, such as reading, are not credible. It's more likely that he wants to ding the president and lacks the political power or intelligence to come up with another idea, but it may be the other reason. I pledge to vote for Bill DeBlasio in the Democratic primary if any serious person anywhere ever had this situation cross his or her mind in connection with the separation of powers issue. "Mr. President, the executive branch may now be performing almost all of the functions designated to the legislative one, but that doesn't mean you can just paint the American president's plane red, white and blue without our approval!"

The Connecticut representative, by the way, chairs the HASC seapower subcommittee, but if you ask yourself why he's chiming in on an aerial matter you should stop -- that way madness lies.

The problem is not just that things like this little flap are, to use the cliché, "how you get Trump." I'm resigned to the fact that the only person working harder than Democrats to see Trump re-elected is Kellyanne Conway. Every time they open their mouths, Democratic presidential candidates demonstrate that they don't know how to beat Trump, they only know how to beat up on Trump. They are determined to take their second greatest chance to win the White House in modern times and do with it exactly what they did with the first: Nominate an unsuitable candidate who will run a campaign that could not help Donald Trump more than if he designed it himself.

The problem is that actions like this are repeated on small and large scales every frickin' day. For example, should the House Armed Services Committee feel a need to play with airplanes, it might note that the new fighter plane on which our nation has spent just under half a trillion dollars doesn't, er, work. If only there were a legislative committee charged with reviewing matters that dealt with our nation's armed services!

Instead, the tiny, tiny brains of the HASC leadership will concern themselves with what the President's airplane looks like. The Hill's story on this vote has committee members saying that this vote is in no way a ding at the President. We may now posit a Congressional Uncertainty Principle similar to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of physics. Just as a it is impossible to know both the precise location and momentum of a subatomic particle, it is impossible to know if some representatives' lies are more blatant than they are stupid, or vice versa.

Williamson's article is worth reading, as is his conclusion: Get rid of the whole specially-built aircraft entirely. If the Queen of England can fly British Airways, then the President of the United States can fly on a commercial airplane. I would extend his idea, though, and suggest to the voters of a number of states -- especially Connecticut and California -- that they have some other baggage they should unload as well.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

I Would Walk 500 Miles

As I creep through middle age, I require some medication adjustment to keep Ye Olde BP where it's supposed to be. An unpleasant side effect of the first attempt was a boost in Ye Olde Uric Acid, leading to Ye Olde %&#*@ Gout. Unlike the usual attack, this one subsided as soon as the new meds left my system (and since it's a diuretic, that didn't take all that long).

After Ye Olde %&#*@ Gout goes away, I sometimes really do feel like walking 500 miles, because the joy of walking about without wanting to amputate my foot is just that great.

Instead I walked to lunch, which is more like 500 yards. But, you know, intentions and all.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Spectra of Space Opera

One feature of a lot of mid-20th century science fiction was its restriction to our own solar system. Plenty of adventures happened across the galaxy but authors often played among the planets and moons that accompany us around good ol' Sol. Some of that work became dated as we learned more and more about the other planets and bodies nearest us, but the idea still gives an interesting frontier flavor to stories that use the same kind of system. Rather than speculated planets orbiting other stars, we deal with places the average person might see with a backyard telescope.

Writers Glynn Stewart and Terry Mixon use that kind of setting for an old-fashioned style interplanetary adventure that carries more than a whiff of those older stories in their "Vigilante" duology and followup series, "Bound by Stars." Brad Mantruso is the only survivor of a vicious pirate attack on his family's freighter, rescued by a passing military spacecraft. Swearing vengeance for his lost kin and fellow crew, Brad changes his name and begins his mission of revenge by developing a company of space mercenaries who can help him search for and eventually defeat the pirate band that attacked him. The first novel in the series, Heart of Vengeance, outlines how Brad begins that quest and learns that fulfilling it will be more complicated than he at first believed -- because there is more than meets the eye to the pirates he hunts and the depth of the conspiracy could be far more than one man -- or one crew -- can handle.

Stewart and Mixon have taken full advantage of modern technology in both self-publishing and working with their own independent publishers. Each has an output well past the dozen-book threshold without the use of smeary Xerox machines and more typos than all those monkeys who are supposed to be turning out Shakespeare, and without the presence of a traditional publisher. Though some of that output isn't as polished as it might be with a traditional press, it's tough to write a couple dozen books without seeing some improvement (There's hope, Dan Brown readers! There's hope! Even if it is about 20 years off), so Heart of Vengeance runs smoothly most of the time.

The pair paint a background of Heinlein juveniles and Tom Corbett's square-jawed interplanetary heroism and in front of it stage stories with 21st century sensibilities, scientific knowledge and levels of violence, and it's enough fun to occupy a reader for several hours.
On the other end of the scale is Christopher Ruocchio's galaxy-spanning "Sun Eater" series, a tale related by Hadrian Marlowe near the end of his life. Hadrian is humanity's savior from the alien Cielcin but also its greatest villain, as he brought salvation at the cost of four billion human lives when he destroyed a sun.

Empire of Silence is the first of the series, telling of Hadrian's early young adulthood as a princeling being groomed for a life as a member of his planet's elite. But when he learns that his father plans a different path than he himself desires he decides to flee that future and the suffocating control it represents. His father has never been a warm man but Hadrian's attempts to thwart his will bring out a level of cruelty and brutality that nearly shatter the young man. He eventually escapes, at a great cost, and begins the path that will lead him to the adult Hadrian who is telling us the story we're reading.

Space opera works share a lot of DNA -- that's one the reasons its ancestor name of "horse opera" was coined for Westerns -- so the tale of a privileged young technocratic man who finds himself when he has to rebuild his life under trying and primitive circumstances is not going to break a lot of new ground. Dune is the most obvious antecedent, but Frank Herbert was more concerned with explaining ecology while Ruocchio seems more invested in exploring characters. Empire also echoes a lot of Patrick Rothfuss and Lois McMaster Bujold's work, but this might also stem more from working with some of the same ideas than deliberate derivation.

Nevertheless, the similarities combine with the length to weaken Empire's appeal. And Ruocchio's decision to make the whole work an exploration of character also works against it because our central viewpoint character is a selfish and callow jackass. Speeding up his arc of improvement and significantly trimming some of Ruocchio's "world building" wouldn't hurt the story at all. I may wind up waiting awhile to 
to see if those moves are made before dishing up the rest of the Sun Eater series  once it's finished.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

So Close!

Alas, Opus, you just couldn't resist...

Monday, June 10, 2019

The One With the Dumbass Parents

That the bad behavior examined in this Atlantic article is being committed by parents rather than students is only one of the ironies involved. Another is that had Sidwell Friends Academy stayed a little truer to its roots the level of animosity would shrink drastically: "Friends" or Quakers are pacifists known for their mostly gentle and inoffensive ways.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Ready for a Close-Up

The picture of the asteroid 10195 Bennu here was taken from such a short distance that many of the individual rocks and boulders that make up its surface are visible.

But it's not the closest view we will get of the near-Earth asteroid as the same spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx, will touch down on its surface during July of next year, pick up one of its rocks, and return to Earth in 2023. Just as long as it's careful not to bring back anything other than the rocks.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Who Are You?

This interactive map replaces the name of a town with the person from that town who was Wikipedia-searched the most.

It's interesting which towns are included and which aren't; some of the places where I have served in my fair state don't make the map as separate communities, even though they're larger than where I'm living now. It seems they've never produced anyone famous -- but whether that's a good or a bad thing is an exercise left for the student.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Tweeting Bird or Cowardly Lion

It's pretty helpful to have the anniversaries of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and D-Day close to each other on the calendar, because each of them offers us examples of people risking their safety and even their lives in the cause of human freedom.

And the two events shine bright lights on those who, it would seem, would not have been among them. Such as the micro-blogging platform Twitter, which mysteriously suspended or closed down the accounts of Chinese dissidents a day or so before June 4, then reinstated them a few days later. "Oops," the company explained. As a part of routine monitoring of fake or scam accounts, they often suspend bunches of accounts in accordance with regular policies. After review, legitimate accounts go back up, but that review can take a day or so.

A couple of thoughts on The Federalist's story. One, writer Helen Raleigh should have gotten more than one source. It's certainly possible that the whole thing was a coincidence or an overreaction by dissidents who see the hand of their former government in every action. It's possible the man she's quoting was exaggerating, or the people he spoke with were exaggerating.

Two, someone at Twitter is very very dumb, or at best dismally unaware of history. It seems the company's trackers didn't connect an uptick in the number of Chinese-language accounts being flagged to the anniversary of a Chinese government crackdown. Did it accurately explain what happened? Were the accounts suspended because they were among the "false positives" their routine monitoring practice can generate, and not because of pressure from the Chinese government? Perhaps so. But being unaware of the impression generated by the suspension of a significant number of dissident accounts in the days leading up to the anniversary of Tiananmen is a show of more than moderate ignorance.

Given the way that tech and entertainment companies have a reputation for bowing to the whims of those who control one of the largest markets in the world, a little extra thought about the coincidences might have been a good idea. Because although the company's explanation may be the right one, the simplest one is that they did exactly what they are accused of, again, and that if D-Day had failed we'd be seeing a similar "Oops!" about mass suspension of the accounts of European refugees starting around June 4.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Two Plus Two Equals Five!

Thirty years ago today the Communist Chinese government ended the Tiananmen Square protests in the most expedient way possible: Arresting, beating and killing protesters until no one was left. Inside China itself, the day was marked only by the totalitarian regime taking extra care to make sure no one inside or outside China had any reason to think this day was somehow different than any other day.

Places were people are free to give voice to their thoughts did mark the day, though, with everything from candelight vigils in Hong Kong to praise for the protestors and their cause from United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The latter was roundly denounced by the Chinese government.

Really, the only proper response to said government is a mere two words long. The second word is "you," but the first can't easily be expressed here in a blog read by this author's mom and members of his church.

The Chinese regime, as with all totalitarian regimes, is unable to actually do what it wants everyone else to do: Forget Tiananmen ever happened. Its own ham-handed attempts to close down discussion or notice of the protests and their bloody end only help ensure that we will remember the unnamed man who faced down a row of tanks far, far longer than we will ever remember the bloody-handed thugs who ordered the tanks to roll and the soldiers to shoot.


Over at the long post blog, a (get this!) long post with some observations about reading Batman comics today.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Set Weapons on Sneer

Although the show wasn't named after him, by far the most lasting impression of the British science fiction series Blake's 7 was Paul Darrow's Kerr Avon, and with good reason. Avon's kiloton-level disdain for his fellow freedom fighters constantly warred with selfless and even altruistic actions on their behalf, as he risked his own life and safety to save the people he would in the next instant mock as thick-headed morons. The only way to pull off that kind of character dichotomy succesfully is with powerful acting talent, which Darrow readily brought to his quirky show that often tried to exceed its limitation but didn't always succeed. Darrow died this week at 78.

The "Blake" of the title was the freedom fighter Roj Blake, who wound up commanding a small group of dissidents fighting the authoritarian Federation from their salvaged alien starship Liberator. Blake is an idealist but Avon, who eventually occupies the role of second in command, is a realist and frequently argues against Blake's plans. Darrow's ability to zip a deadpan one-liner combined with a raised eyebrow Leonard Nimoy could only hope to match gave real weight and heft to what were often silly storylines and indifferently-acted scene-chewing. After Jaqueline Pearce's Servalan, the dictatorial president of the Federation, attempts to seduce Avon with the promise of power and her own love, he kisses her, seemingly swayed by her vision. But then he pushes her to the ground, showing her he knows her plans for power don't include sharing it. "I'd be dead in a week," he sneers.

Although he worked steadily in British television and on stage, Darrow was almost always better-known as Avon. He embraced the type-casting that came with his role, helping buy the rights to the series from its creator's widow with hopes of making a mini-series and titling his autobiography You're Him, Aren't You? after the response he often got when out in public.

Blake's 7 ran from 1979 to 1981 and was in many ways the first knock at the science-fiction television door of the cynical anti-hero who nevertheless winds up being more heroic than he or she would like. Ambiguous characters and settings such as Deep Space Nine, the Battlestar Galactica remake and the like are the norm today, reflecting a much more realistic view of humanity than the two-tone palette of Good Guys and Bad Guys facing off over blasters. Kerr Avon helped pave the way -- although he'd be quick to tell you he doesn't know why, because there was nothing it in for him.

Sunday, June 2, 2019


Forty years ago today Pope John Paul II landed in Warsaw, capital of the nation in which he had grown up as Karol Wojtyla. In so doing he exposed some of the weaknesses of the ruling Communist regime and laid the groundwork for how the Roman Catholic church would erode its power. Polish Communist officials could neither prevent the Pope's journey to his homeland or keep people from coming to see him, and their impotence went a long way towards reducing fear of the regime and increasing Poles' boldness in seeking human rights and economic reforms.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

New, Shiny...and Empty?

At Popular Mechanics, Darren Orf has a couple of rueful observations about the recent video upgrade of the lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

Some big-time fans used modern technology to make the duel far more elaborate and insert touches of realism such as damage to floors and walls when the sizzling laser swords struck them. Also added were swifter movements and some things we saw Force-capable duelers do in later movies, like smacking your opponent with flying machinery. Ghostly audio cues from Revenge of the Sith remind us of the first fight between Kenobi and Vader (then still Anakin Skywalker).

Orf notes that even with some new bells and whistles, the end result of the fight is the same: Kenobi seems to surrender at the last second in order to give his friends a chance to reach the Millennium Falcon and escape. Vader swings his saber through the old man's body, but instead of a bisected foe he finds nothing but empty robes.

I'd make an observation or two of my own, pointing out that the enhanced fight is not unlike the video tweaks series creator George Lucas added to the original three movies when he released them on DVD. Sure, the technology of today can give us a better-looking fight than could the technology of 1977. But the meaning of the battle and its outcome has nothing to do with how elaborate and kewl! its visuals are: It comes from the dialogue between Alec Guinness and James Earl Jones, and from the smile on Guinness' face as he lifts his lightsaber away from its guard position so Vader can strike him down.

Which is one of the reasons that the simpler, more primitively shot fight between Kenobi and Vader carries so much more weight than, say, the hopping pixels of Yoda vs. Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones. Yoda, a puppet voiced by Frank Oz in the original trilogy, is just lines of code in Clones, pitted against a stunt double topped with Christopher Lee's digitally-inserted head. Guinness and David Prowse, the man inside Vader's armor, had to make their fight look real. The 78-year-old Lee and puppeteer Oz barely had to show up. As in so many other areas in both the lame prequels and the more recent sequels, the difference is clear.

And really, far more than convincing.