Wednesday, July 31, 2019


The Booker Prize "long list" finalists are named, and I have questions. For one, how do books that haven't yet been published make it on the list? I know that Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie write the kind of literary fiction that contests drool over,  but shouldn't the book actually be in print before it's eligible for prizes?

Judges actually had to sign a non-disclosure agreement before being allowed to read Atwood's The Testaments, a sequel to her 1986 The Handmaid's Tale. This tempts me to reveal the entire plot of that novel here when it's finally published in September, but I've already read The Handmaid's Tale and the prospect of another sojourn in Atwood's dreary dystopia doesn't tempt at all. There's also the fact that even if everyone who reads this blog read the spoilers I'd "ruin" the book for a number somewhere in the middle three digits.

And another question: one of the nominees is called Ducks, Newburyport, and it's a 1,000-page sentence. The book is apparently -- and I say apparently because there is no damn way I'm going to pay money to find out for myself -- an internal monologue of a middle-aged Ohio woman ruminating on all kinds of things in the world. The Goodreads blurb about it says it's "A scorching indictment of America’s barbarity, past and present, and a lament for the way we are sleepwalking into environmental disaster."

I say it's nothing of the kind. If the author really wanted to indict "America's barbarity," then she wouldn't have written a pretentious and impenetrable 426,000-word sentence to do it. If she really wanted to "lament...the way we are sleepwalking into environmental disaster," she wouldn't have provided such a potent aid to bringing about the "sleep" part. Or killed a thousand pages worth of trees per book in doing so.

On the other hand, could it really sell enough copies to bother that many trees, even at a thousand pages a whack?

(H/T Dustbury)

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Ought There Be a Law?

A few weeks ago, I suggested that Missouri Senator Josh Hawley was coloring outside the lines with his USA Today op-ed complaining about the deliberately addictive nature of social media. I had no idea how far outside the lines Sen. Hawley wanted to go; as he has now introduced the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act to force social media companies to act the way he thinks is best.

It's tempting to just mock the senator for his bill's stupid acronym name, but if we did that every time some lawmaker wants to make a splash with something he or she knows won't happen then we would have time for nothing else. Sen. Hawley wants to make social media companies get rid of continuous scrolling and other features that keep and hold people's attention. He wants those companies to have a default setting on their home pages that boots users after 30 minutes unless they set their own time limits, and renew those settings every month. And even if people do set longer times, the social media platforms will be required to have a pop-up every thirty minutes telling them how long they've been on the site.

Another thing that would be a no-no would be autoplay videos or audio except on sites specifically designed to stream playlist content like Spotify. Or ones like this.

Yes, Sen. Hawley's own homepage has an autoplay video. I have no doubt he has a perfectly rational explanation for why his proposed SMART Act wouldn't apply to his own website, but I don't really care. If you can't suss out how it's going to look to have an autoplay video on your own page while you stump for your stupid bill that wants to get rid of autoplay videos, then you ought to think -- if that option's available -- twice about using the word SMART in your proposal.

Sen. Hawley's bill is designed to fight something that he says is designed to be addictive. Well, those always work. Again, there can be all kinds of responses to his claim that social media addiction is bad for people and thus, bad for the country they make up. Agree, disagree, tell him to get off your lawn, whatever. But even if it's a good claim, it's bad law. Sen. Hawley is OK with putting people in jail if they let you look at Facebook for 31 minutes without you telling Facebook that's what you want to do and Facebook telling you that you've been looking at it for 31 minutes. Who goes to jail here? Company CEO's? Coders? Shareholders who own stock in the company?

The immediate impact of this bill if it became law would be a hundred thousand coders writing workarounds for the popups and time limits. Would they be subject to arrest for doing so? Or if the companies added, say, a premium level of service in which you paid a nominal fee to ignore everything Sen. Hawley wants to tell you to do -- what then? All the senator will have done is made the companies richer while not solving the problem he says he wants to solve. Or maybe we could have new laws that didn't let them do that, because we don't have nearly enough laws already.

Maybe I'm just being grouchy, but I have a problem understanding why someone can look at the federal government and say, "Those are the people we need to tell social media companies what to do." There are municipal governments willing to put a 79-year-old woman in jail for feeding stray cats that come on her porch. Why in the world would we want even bigger and dumber levels of government to try to control and direct something as fluid as social media?

Or perhaps Sen. Hawley is actually thinking of job security. As many senators before him have shown, advocacy for dirt-dumb ideas is a sure way to make sure that one's own party will be happy to have you stay in the Senate rather than try for bigger jobs where you could do even more damage.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Think Bigger

Last week BuzzFeed wrote up an interview with Chris Wetherell, the man who headed a team that wrote the code behind the "retweet" button on Twitter. He now regrets it and says he had misgivings about the idea even when he was developing the feature.

For those who, like me, ignore as much of Twitter as possible, the retweet button is a shortcut replacing the acts of copying and pasting the old tweet and it's poster's handle into a tweet of your own. Instead of doing those things, users can now send along a tweet along to as many people as they want with a single program feature. The button allows groups to coordinate their approval or disapproval of a tweet much more quickly. It was instrumental in the development of Twitter mobs, which can spread a mistaken or objectionable tweet to thousands of people almost at once, letting them do the same or response en masse to the original poster.

Wetherell sees the feature he created as part of the problem with modern social media because it lessons even the briefest of delays between offense and response. It allows the most passionate and devoted users to drive conversations far beyond their actual number and impact -- just more than 2 percent of the US population drives about 80 percent of Twitter traffic. What's left is a simulacra of real political dialogue and discourse. Sure, it has differing viewpoints, expressed by the people who hold them, but it has almost no reasoned or elaborated response to them. There's no conversation, just mutual antagonistic shouting.

Wetherell is partly right: The retweet feature has caused a lot of the problems prominent in social media. But only partly, because the actual truth is that much of the damage can be laid at the feet of Twitter itself. The platform, whose small character limit prohibits the deployment of developed thoughts or considered opinions, has always rewarded snark over substance. All the retweet button does is make the awful worse.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

From the Rental Vault: Footloose (1984)

Two of the things the 2011 remake of Footloose made clear were (1) How much the movie needed the then-new music video channel MTV to succeed and (2) how dumb the original movie really was. Without videos to keep the movie imagery in front of people 24/7, even the high-energy soundtrack could not have made this movie the blockbuster it was. And only the top-level performances of Kevin Bacon, John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest and, surprisingly, Lori Singer could give Dean Pitchford's retread script the marginal shading of realism that it has.

Ren McCormack (Bacon) and his mother have moved from Chicago to the town of Bomont, Utah, where Ren quickly finds himself on the outside of town society looking in. Naturally rebellious, he finds the small town's restrictive culture even more repressive than do his classmates who've grown up there. The focus of the generational divide that's smothering Bomont's young people is rock music and dancing, both of which aren't allowed in city limits. Ren manages to make a few friends, including Willard (Chris Penn) and his girlfriend Rusty (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Rusty's friend Ariel Moore (Singer), the unruly daughter of what seems to be Bomont's only pastor, Shaw Moore (Lithgow). But Ariel's current boyfriend -- an abusive jerk -- and Ren's reputation for troublemaking only drive the wedge deeper. He decides that he has to get the city council to rescind its dancing ban and let the town teens enjoy themselves a little in order to save Bomont from itself.

As Pitchford writes his story, Ren's main antagonist is not Shaw Moore as much as the town of Bomont itself. This focus highlights a number of the narrative clunkers Footloose works with -- such as a Utah town where everyone sounds like they're from Georgia and a small rural town with its own high school gymnastics team. It's possible to imagine a Utah town without a Latter-Day Saints presence, but the rest of the story gaps show up even worse when watching this movie some 35 years after release.

As mentioned above, Footloose is saved by its cast and its soundtrack. It's Bacon's first major leading role, and his charisma and talent keep Ren from being the cardboard Teen Rebel the movie could easily let him be. Lithgow brought his two Academy Award Supporting Actor nominations to playing Shaw Moore, and invested him with genuine compassion and feeling where just about any other actor would have played a broad fundamentalist caricature. He's not a cruel fun-killer but a man who genuinely believes he is doing the right thing. Dianne Wiest takes the small role of Vi Moore and crafts a place as the conscience that Shaw hasn't listened to for too long.

One surprise a repeat watching can show is how well Lori Singer does in giving dimension and depth to what could also have been a caricature role. She makes clear that Ariel's bravado and sexually aggressive presentation mask her own grief at the loss of her brother and the estrangement from her father. When Shaw confronts and chastises book burners, Singer's face shows a dawning realization that her father is carrying his own burdens and dealing with them as best he can. He doesn't consider preventing her from enjoying life as his primary job after all. The rest of the cast does fine in their supporting roles but don't have the same room to stretch them and settle for what they're given.

As mentioned above, the Footloose soundtrack, with its insanely catchy Kenny Loggins title track, Deniece Williams' dance rouser "Let's Hear It for the Boy," Mike Reno and Ann Wilson's slow dance "love theme" "Almost Paradise" and Bonnie Tyler's anthemic declaration "Holding Out for a Hero" was a case of excellent timing. Music videos for the first two helped propel them to chart dominance and all four served to keep the movie on the pop culture burner longer than it merited.

Footloose had only limited success as a stage musical and as a remake -- probably because the original movie's success was so very much a product of its time. Even the movie poster was more or less unrepeatable, as a modern audience would have wondered at the Walkman on Ren's waist and the strange headphones over his ears. Nostalgia can make a brief return visit to Bomont, Utah, a fun little trip and even highlight some previously unnoticed features. But the story of its great awakening and of the people in it was a product of a particular time, and that time has passed.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Sunspot Baby

Every 90 minutes, the International Space Station rotates around the Earth, and depending on where you're standing sometimes it passes between you and the sun. When it does, you can capture it in a picture -- if you have the right equipment, as photog Rainee Colacurio did.

Friday, July 26, 2019


-- The Wyoming Valley West school district, in the news earlier this week for telling parents if they didn't pay their kids' lunch bills they could lose said kids to foster care, received an offer from a local businessman to pay the whole back debt amount of $22,000. The school board president's first response: "No." After the businessman wrote an op-ed in the local paper describing the exchange, the school board president got back in touch and accepted the money. With that, the shortfall -- .0275% of the school's annual $80,000,000 budget, was cleared. The need for remedial civics education among elected and employed school officials in the Wyoming Valley West school district remains.

-- Today the instruction "Smile for the camera!" is a part of any portrait session for at least a few shots. In the days of the great artists of the Renaissance, smiling was rarely a part of the process. Here at Bored Panda is a series of famous paintings altered by an artificial intelligence program to show what the subjects might have looked like if they were smiling. Several paintings are changed entirely by this one small alteration.

-- Fans of the rap duo Insane Clown Posse often call themselves "juggalos" and may sometimes paint their faces in the distinctive black and while angular design worn by the performers. In addition to indicating fandom of the ICP, the two-tone look also defeats facial recognition software by fuzzing up the program's ability to detect contrast in and around the eye area. Now, if you try to rob a bank in juggalo makeup and get caught anyway, this blog disclaims all liability for you pulling a dumb stunt like that in the first place.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Tomorrow Is Another Day!

Writing at National Review, Jim Geraghty offers a telling insight into why so many people don't take modern politics at all seriously. Following Wednesday's testimony from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, many leaders and leading voices in the Democratic-led United States House of Representatives talked about how our nation is in a crisis moment.

The rhetorical flourishes were made with, flourish. Phrases were set to stun. The late President Richard Nixon, who resigned rather than face certain impeachment, was invoked. Many copies of Roget's were consulted in order to produce the verbiage necessary to convince those reading and listening to these representatives that we are in grave peril. The loyal opposition party, the last bastion of liberty standing against the president's Russian-sponsored plot to overthrow the rule of law and government of the people, by the people and for the people, drew its verbal line in the sand. It nailed its colors to the mast. It burned the ships of waffling and faint-heartedness. It performed various and sundry other metaphors denoting how it would speak truth to combed-over power and say, "Here we stand, we can do no other!"

Tomorrow it will go home for six weeks.

As Geraghty points out, when you go home from work for six weeks -- although the assorted members of Congress will doubtless engage in some campaigning and constituent service, so they'll sort of work -- you only do so if there's nothing coming up in those six weeks that you think will require your immediate attention. So either President Trump is the greatest threat to the Republic since Jefferson Davis and must be stopped -- in which case you stick around and maybe heft a bale or two in the cause of stopping him -- or you're just making noises with your mouth in order to get you and people like you elected to office again by providing sound bites to stir up the people to pull the lever for you like the government-goodie-activated robots that they are.

You may say I'm a cynic, but I'm not the only one. Today's Friary cynicism may be born of middle-aged grumpiness, but it was learned early on in one of the humblest of settings: newspaper coverage of small-town city and county government. It was there the belief in the idea of public officials as public servants ran smack into the idea of public officials as manipulative meatballs who would say whatever they needed to say and do whatever they needed to do in order to preserve these tiny little ponds in which they could pretend they were larger-than-average fish. And if those two "whatevers" were to oppose one another? So what.

And the bigger the political stage? The bigger the dissonance between tone and action. The bigger the shrug when the actors get called out on the mismatch between their dialogue and their blocking.

We could say that we'd be better off if we threw them all out and started over. But the problem then would be that we'd be left with the people who want those jobs and already tried to get them. And failed.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Ordinary Bizarre

Dan Piraro, with the help of Wayne Howath, creates the daily single-panel cartoon Bizarro, which is supposed to be a look at the weird parts of the world. So it's kind of odd that Wednesday's strip is actually a straightforward truth and not bizarre at all.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Tinted Truth

At Oddee, we find some color names that we may not have known about. More than the good old standbyes like blue, green, yellow; more than the slightly out there ones like mauve, puce or maroon -- these are really wacky.

I have to confess I'd run across the word "malachite" before, although I thought it was just a name of a mineral. I didn't realize it's also the name of a particular shade of green. Some are recent inventions, named in modern times, like "razzmatazz." Crayon scientists put together this particular shade of reddishness in the 1990s and it was named by then 5-year-old Laura Bartolomei-Hill, who won a contest. "Gamboge" is older, a name for a dark spicy mustard that traces back to the 17th century.

In part two we encounter "Drunk-Tank Pink." You might think this is the color of the elephants seen by the residents of such rooms, but it's actually a shade painted in holding cells because it has calming effects.

I don't know who decided what order to list these colors, but they made an excellent choice in the middle of page one. First we have "United Nations Blue," which is a shade of that color specifically designated for that moribund money pit. We're told it's similar to the "Dodger blue" of the Los Angeles baseball team, but "not as vibrant," and I think someone's just trying to get me to like them. The real kicker is that UN Blue appears right below "Caput Mortuum," a shade of purplish-brown seen as iron rusts. The literal translation of the Latin is "worthless remains" or "dead head," which seems to match the UN quite well also.

Monday, July 22, 2019


After a nice round dozen books following Daniel Leary and Adele Mundy in their adventures with the Royal Cinnabar Navy, David Drake takes a side-step with To Clear Away the Shadows. While staying in the same universe, he introduces a new pair of characters to follow, Harry Harper and Rick Grenville. The pair are serving aboard an RCN exploratory vessel, The Far Traveler, which is searching long-settled but relatively isolated worlds that might hold clues to a previous species called the "Archaic Spacefarers."

The new move has mixed results although it's an overall positive at this point. Drake had hit a few ruts with his Leary-Mundy series, such as trying to find yet another way to describe how Adele's servant Tovera was basically a sociopath with an inexplicable loyalty to her employer. As the Alliance and Cinnabar settled into a sort of cold war with each other, Daniel and Adele had only so many opportunities to mix in with small-scale conflicts that could restart major hostilities if they didn't handle things right. So fresh characters and a fresh setting offer a chance to leave the ruts before they deepen too far. Harry and Rick are engaging characters, albeit a little too callow in more than one instance. And the supporting cast in The Far Traveler has their own interesting features and provides more characters with actual agency and agendas than the main sequence series has featured.

On the other hand, Shadows seems much more like a handful of loosely-connected but separate stories than a single-thread plot, and the seams show more than is good for them. They would be better served by either being even more separate, as Drake's first set of Hammer's Slammers space mercenary stories were, or more unified in narrative structure. Shadows offers reason enough to hope that Drake decides to travel with Harry and Rick again, but shows clear room -- and need -- for improvement.
This space's hopes for Blood Feud, the initial outing of Mike Lupica writing Robert B. Parker's female private detective Sunny Randall, were not high. Parker had created Sunny during a time when his own skills seemed to be more typing than writing, leaving the Randall cast predictable and a little lifeless when compared to his better Spenser work. He'd left Sunny in 2007, connected to Paradise police chief Jesse Stone (another Parker series), but subsequent Stone authors evicted her from that storyline and she floated in limbo. At the time, my opinion was that I'd never read anything by Lupica that made me think he should write a book, let alone be one of the people continuing a Parker series.

Which makes the fair-to-middling success of Feud a pleasant surprise. Sunny's ex-husband Richie Burke has divorced his second wife, so the pair find themselves connected every now and again when they are of a mind to be. Then Richie is shot. Though he survives, Sunny takes it personally and starts digging into the attack. But then another gunman kills Richie's uncle, and both Sunny and Richie's Irish mob family starting upping the pressure on people to provide information to stop a potential war. Ex-cop Sunny isn't happy with the Burkes' lawless tactics, and the Burkes aren't happy with the information Sunny starts to uncover. She may wind up targeted by the people she's trying to help.

Lupica gives Sunny some of the Parker trademark smart-assery and in some cases improves on his efforts. Other Parker continuations have a range of successes -- Ace Atkins has a good handle on Spenser, Michael Brandman and Reed Farrell Coleman have both largely whiffed on Jesse Stone and Robert Knott clearly has no idea what he's doing with Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. Lupica actually develops Sunny as a character, giving her an arc of growth as she digs into the past of her former in-laws and tries to sort out some of her own personal issues in therapy. Sure, once Parker established the character he didn't do squat with her, so any movement is good. But Feud does more than just the minimum and puts more effort into its story and character growth than Parker did in all six of the Sunny Randall books he wrote.

Plenty of Parker fans would buy whatever came out with his name on the cover (and Coleman and Knott, especially, have been building a mountain of evidence bearing that out). So Lupica didn't have to try. But he did, and even if Blood Feud doesn't hit Parker's peak levels it's better than it had to be and it's good enough to give him a second outing.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Ploonet? Please!

Astronomers studying planets that orbit other stars - called "exoplanets" -- have wondered why they've yet to see any evidence of moons around them.

Some exoplanets are not much larger than Earth, which means any moons they have would probably be pretty small. Our large moon relative to our size is outside the norm. But many are also gas giants, which might be expected to have observable moons. So far, they've been scarce.

Enter the "ploonet." It's a theorized moon that, through the gravitational shenanigans of its solar system, escaped the pull of its planet and began orbiting its star on its own. Personally, I have no problem with the theory of planets and moons enough affected by gravitation and orbit patterns to separate.

But I do have a problem with the dumb-looking, ugly-sounding word "ploonet." An amalgam of "planet" and "moon" or "moonlet," it's meant to capture the hybrid characteristics of a body that started it's life orbiting a planet but which wound up orbiting a star. I'm inclined to send them back to the drawing board for a new name. Or if more drastic measures are required, then send them over to the English department to request a new name for the newly-found class of orbiting bodies, whatever it may be.

Unless they're ready to give Pluto back it's planetary status. Do that, and maybe we can talk about this "ploonet" thing.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Small Step, Big Leap

I think I've noted before that a preschool-aged Friar watched the moon landing and then later Neil Armstrong's historic first step onto the lunar surface at his grandmother's house. It was on a tiny oval screen embedded in a huge cabinet in her living room.

I've reflected more than once what it must have been like for her -- born seven years before powered flight, living long enough to see human beings land on the moon. Of late a somewhat meaner thought has occurred to me: That she, born in 1896, saw something that no one born in 1996 has ever seen: human beings standing on the moon. Sure, they've seen film, and they can listen to every second of the mission, but they're seeing events from their past.

Maybe they'll get to see it for real one day.  Hope so, anyway.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Education Needed!

Off the top of my head, I can't remember the exact process by which I paid for school lunches as a child. It seems like in junior high we brought our own money but I don't really recall the process during elementary school.

A lot of schools today use an account system in which parents are billed for the lunches their children eat, either in full or in part depending on whether or not they qualify for the free or reduced federal lunch program. This can mean late payments every now and again, either because the parental pay cycle doesn't match well with the lunchroom billing cycle, because it slipped someone's mind or because the parents are slackers. So now and again we get stories about how students have to eat a very basic meal instead of the regular one because their accounts are in arrears. Or about lunchroom personnel who may (or may not) risk their jobs to feed students who've been listed as delinquent.

And then there is the cabal of Einsteins in charge of the Wyoming Valley West School District in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. They recently created a form letter to be sent to the unpaid accounts, in which the district officials say the parents could be taken to "delinquency court" if they do not pay their balances and the outcome of those proceedings could include removal of the children from the family home into the foster care system.

This came as news to Joanne Van Saun, Luzerne County Children and Youth Services executive director, for the very simple reason that the county DOESN'T EVER DO THAT. The agency does not, never has and apparently never will remove a child from a home because of unpaid bills. No one contacted the Luzerne County Sheriff's Office to see if they have a debtor's prison, but that seems to be because the officials of Luzerne County -- unlike the officials of the Wyoming Valley West School District -- live in the 21st flippin' century.

In another story, we read that the district considered serving the more basic meal to students whose parents hadn't paid, but received legal advice against that move. I am not certain what chain of reasoning cautioned against a PB&J entrée while recommending an unenforceable fictional threat, but I hope the Wyoming Valley West School District did not pay money for it.

The worst part about this mess -- for me, anyway, because I don't pay taxes in the Wyoming Valley West School District and thus am not getting tapped to fund the brain trust that came up with this letter -- is the horrible injustice done to the concept of foster care. Despite what the savants of the district would have you believe, foster care is not meant to punish parents. It is meant to rescue children from dangerous or potentially dangerous home situations. Whether or not the average person on the street understands it that way is not really that big of a deal, but you would hope officials in a public school system would get it, seeing as how they also deal with children. Perhaps Luzerne County should give some thought to removing kids from Wyoming Valley West schools and placing them in an alternative school system.

Part of me would like to see someone decide to send the letter back to the district with a big ol' Molon labe written on top. That would force it to spend money on court filings and attorney fees only to have some crusty old judge to bang a gavel on their heads and make them write 1,000 times, "I will not abuse the power of the state in order to make my life easier." But that would be the kind of action which would use the children as props or tools in a struggle between adults and if school district officials can't see how wrong that is, then the parents are going to have to instead.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Absolutely Awful

Yeah, I know that President Trump tweeted some really dumb things about four first-term Congresswomen. And I know that in response they said some dumb things as well. I know that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said some dumb things on the floor of the House of Representatives. And plenty of other representatives said dumb things when discussing and voting on whether or not stupid tweeting was an impeachable offense (Hint: If it's not bad enough to get taken down by Twitter, it probably doesn't clear the Constitution's "high crimes and misdemeanors" language).

And I know that people at a campaign rally for the President said some stupid things as a group. And some other people said dumb things in response to that. I saw one person actually say that when folks chanted "Send her back!" it called to mind the shouts of the crowds to Pilate's offer to free Jesus in the gospel of John: "Crucify him!" As if politicians needed any help in feeding their God complexes.

But the worst thing I read all week was none of those. It was this, in Ars Technica. Three times as many American children in a survey would rather be a YouTube content provider than an astronaut. In fact, video blogger was the number one profession chosen by the 3,000 kids in a survey commissioned by LEGO.

Barely 10 percent of the kids surveyed wanted to be astronauts -- and yes, given the regular reports of other surveys that suggest not many more than that can find England on a map, maybe redirecting them from wanting to pilot multi-ton spacecraft over populated areas is a good idea. A third of them want to be video bloggers -- and here's the thing about that. It's not a job.

Sure, video production is a job and a specialized skill. Writing interesting content to be recorded and broadcast is a specialized skill as well. But production and content creation are the jobs -- not video blogging, and three minutes of skimming YouTube will offer dozens of examples of video blogs that have neither. I would be very surprised if a significant portion of the aspiring video bloggers had any idea of what kind of skills were needed to become successful in that field, or had spent any time developing them.

There are about 75 million people under 18 in the United States. If the Harris Poll commissioned by LEGO is accurate, twenty-five million of them want to be video bloggers. I'm not worried that all of those kids will actually become video bloggers -- "what I wanna be when I grow up" is a malleable concept. I'm just stunned into a melancholic stupor that a third of America's kids want to sit in front of their laptop cameras and say "um" for five minutes, and part of me now wishes I still drank.

(PS -- I know that the poll suggests that more than half of Chinese schoolchildren want to be astronauts -- or "taikonauts," as China calls its space travelers. Trusting numbers from China is like trusting Bill Clinton with the intern phone directory. On the other hand, given the number of people who would like to get out from under that nation's increasingly repressive regime, maybe those kids are counting on steering the rocket in a different direction come splashdown time.)

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Fifty Years Ago Today

Part of the fun of watching this is hearing the unflappable Cronkite repeating "Oh, boy!" like everyone else watching.

Then there's the whole "going to another body in space for the first time in human history" thing (pipe down, Erich von Däniken). That's fun too.

Monday, July 15, 2019

More Worlds to Conquer

Because cat pictures have already dominated social media and taken over the internet in this world, a gentleman named Thibault Charroppin has used the miracle of technology to allow them to take over fictional, sports and other entertainment worlds as well. He digitally inserts Lizzy -- who acts under the nom de stage "Owl Kitty," into movies and sports footage. My favorite is when Lawrence Fishburne's Morpheus makes his famous offer of the blue pill of illusion or the red pill of truth, this time to Owl Kitty instead of Keanu Reeves' Neo.

Naturally Owl Kitty eats both of them.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Posting to Resume

Been away at church camp and thus blessedly ignorant of what Donald Trump and Megan Rapinoe think of each other. I'll allow you to remain blessedly ignorant of what I think of them while I catch up on some fine Wimbledon matches that I missed. Regular posting will, as the headline says, resume tomorrow.

PS -- Let's just say my impressions of the both of them allow them vast room for improvement that's getting vaster all the time. Sorry -- I gave in to temptation.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Hazy Skies

We usually use "pop" today to talk about popular music that isn't rock and roll or country; if we were going to pin down a genre sound that most went with it I suspect it would be something dance-oriented or connected to rhythm and blues.

This use relates to one of the label's original meetings because it distinguishes the style from other kinds of music, as it did when "pop" began to be used to describe the standards of the middle 20th century -- music that featured big bands and orchestras but which wasn't as intricate as classical symphonies and operas. Vocals and lyrics took center stage in these songs, and instrumental flairs served largely to showcase what singers were doing in front of them. The arranger and band-leader played a major role in giving a song its sound, and often the same song might be recorded or performed by a wide variety of vocalists.

That meaning of "pop" was probably in the back of Bruce Springsteen's mind when he described his latest release, Western Stars, as inspired by the "southern California pop records of the late '60s and early '70s." Such music might have some folky or country twinges but was much more in the vein of the collections of standards recorded ten or twenty years earlier. Western Stars, with its large-scale orchestral arrangements, successfully evokes those sounds on several tracks. But all too often that's as far as the success goes, as Springsteen pairs these arrangements with some of the slightest lyrics he's put on record.

"There Goes My Miracle" may best illustrate the album's clear strengths and weaknesses. Employing an amazing voice that seems like it would be impossible for him to conjure after forty-plus years of four-hour stage shows, Springsteen fronts a moody, atmospheric arrangement -- but with a nine-time repetition "look what you have done," almost as many "walk walkin' away"s and so on. "Hitch-Hikin'" and "Hello Sonshine" are equally spare with their words, also to the degree that they almost seem designed to say nothing.

Springsteen said he wanted to offer some character-centered story songs as in past albums such as Nebraska or Darkness on the Edge of Town. But in those earlier albums, even on the stripped-down Nebraska, the relatively simple arrangements were lyrically dense enough to carry their narrative. That same kind of fully-fleshed storyline shows up on Stars in the title track as well as "Sleepy Joe's Cafe" and "Drive Fast (The Stuntman)" The rest of the lineup displays daubs of color that leave the impressions of characters and maybe even a hint of story, but no true portrait.

In the pop standards sometimes called "The Great American Songbook," arrangers like Billy May or Nelson Riddle knew that the built up sonic wash of strings in one song doesn't always vary much from one in another song. And as the label "standard" suggests, they also knew that they might well be recording the same number host of artists had already recorded. But they didn't intend to create something new from a completely blank slate -- they intended the orchestra or band to create a sonic backdrop for the vocalist to do his or her thing: Frank Sinatra's swagger, Dean Martin's charm, Johnny Hartmann or Nat Cole's raw emotion, Kay Starr's wistful dreaming, and so on.

On Western Stars, Springsteen recreates the sound behind those standards and on far too many numbers he offers songs that certainly could have been written by any number of artists. But at least in this sense of the label, he is not really a pop singer and the genre does not play to his strengths. Sonically it's an interesting experiment and certainly the kind of ambitious project you'd hope an performer of Springsteen's stature would take a shot at. It's more interesting than other late-career disappointments like Workin' on a Dream, but it's a failure nonetheless.

Friday, July 5, 2019

@ Me

Item: Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson would like people to stop making fun of congresspeople. She would like it so much, in fact, that she wants to have them prosecuted for it.

Dear. Rep. Wilson:

The only way your cowboy hats would look stupider is if they were on my head instead of yours.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Spies and Mysteries

Sometimes  a mystery writer wants a location in which to set his or her protagonists so we find ourselves in cities or towns with the same names as those we know, although they're a little bit altered to suit the narrative. Robert B. Parker's Boston home for Spenser is very clearly mapped onto the Boston we might visit. Sometimes the writers make up new cities, as Evan Hunter did when writing the 87th Precinct novels as Ed McBain. His Isola is New York City, but swapped out so Hunter can manipulate it in ways to which the actual NYC might not lend itself.

And then sometimes the writer just changes the whole world. Len Deighton allowed the Germans to successfully invade England in SS-GB, and Malcolm Mackay made the Darien expedition a success in order to make a northwestern seaport in an independent Scotland and tailor the city to his liking in In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide, the first novel set in the aging and deteriorating port of Challaid.

The alternative historical elements play mostly to set the scene of the story and disappear whenever we're moving through the narrative itself. Characters still Google things and have iPhones, and aside from a couple of mentions of different sports teams and a King of Scotland, the different world doesn't intrude on the plot. It centers on the murder of a small-time money launderer, which goes unsolved by the police long enough for the man's girlfriend to hire her own agents to find out what happened. The girlfriend, Maeve Campbell, has an interest in finding the killer because the police suspect her. The men she hires, young Darian Ross and experienced ex-cop Sholto Douglas, are more than happy with their fee but have to navigate a tightrope as they look into the murder. Non-police investigators are either licensed detectives -- and thus police lapdogs in corrupt Challaid -- or "researchers" technically unable to probe a crime legally. Even when Ross and Douglas produce a suspect, the sinister operators of Challaid's organized crime rings and the corrupt police officers in league with them seem to have the pair and Maeve herself spot on a target for their own plans.

Mackay's best known to this point as the writer of the "Glasgow Underworld" series that began with the story of a hit man in The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. He displays significant crime and hard-boiled tale chops in that series and puts them to good use in these new stories as well. Although Ross and Douglas are mostly on the right side of the law, they live and move in a world where those lines aren't always as bright and the actors on the stage not as clearly categorized. Cage suffers from some inconsistent world-building -- Mackay likes to use interstitial news articles and such to set up the history of the Challaid world and the people in it. But he doesn't always tie these intermissions into his narrative as solidly as he could in order to make their speed-bump characteristics worth the time. The plot complicates itself into enough confusion that the actual solution to the crime makes just a bit more than no sense at all.

Mackay displays style and a gift for crafting hard-case, world-weary characters who stubbornly cling to ideas of honor and human dignity in a life that rewards neither. So a couple more novels in the world of Cage could be worth the read, but unless he manages to give his plots enough backbone to stay coherent enough to know what those characters are doing then any that come along after that could very well be consigned to the pages of histories that never happened.
National Review political correspondent Jim Geraghty has written plenty of political commentary and a couple of non-fiction works, in addition to the clever satire of the kudzu of federal bureaucracy, The Weed Agency. With Between Two Scorpions, he tries his hand at the espionage suspense thriller with equally promising and problematic results.

CIA operative Katrina Leonidivna meets an old contact who claims to know about a plot against the United States with powerfully disruptive consequences. She dismisses his warnings as a con, rigged up to help him escape the consequences of his many double-dealings, but when an explosion kills him and a group of innocent people and almost kills her, she decides to look into the claim. Her husband Alec Flanagan and a crew of misfit operatives from several branches of the United States' different clandestine services will also probe the information her late informant tried to provide. But their clock shrinks considerably when shadowy terrorists begin strikes designed not to maximize body count but to exploit some of the fault lines of modern American society. Katrina, Alec and the rest of their "dangerous clique" have little info and less time to stop the plot before it weakens America from the inside, perhaps permanently.

Like a lot of people who have to write every day, Geraghty has little trouble dropping an engine into his story and keeping it going. The characters exist almost entirely on the surface at this point, with just a few of them getting any exploration in detail. But since he's envisioned this as a series he probably plans to save closer looks at other team members for later stories. The terrorist plot itself turns on some shamefully plausible ugly behavior on the part of people given the right kinds of stressors and seems far more conceivable than is comfortable.

The character exposition and exploration isn't stitched as smoothly into the plot as it needs to be and sometimes seems more infodump than introspection. Geraghty, who proves himself a funny guy on his Three Martini Lunch podcast, should also dial down the jokeyness inside his story. Thrillers work fine with humor, but some of what Alec and his coworkers do for laughs grows from a setup/punchline combo more than it comes from the story. These elements feel more like scenes from a 1980s action-comedy TV show than a high-stakes espionage tale.

But Scorpions offers loads of potential and it's more than possible that as Geraghty hits a better and more focused stride that the Dangerous Clique could click for quite awhile.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Politics Coughs up Another One

After helping the Republican party lose a Senate seat it had held for 20 years because of various unseemly actions attributed to my past, I decided I should try to run for the full term of the seat I couldn't get people to give me for just two years. I'm the worst politician at reading an electorate in the country today.

-- Roy Moore

Hold my beer.

-- Scott Israel

Monday, July 1, 2019

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

In today's reprint, Calvin confronts the reality of the passage of time, with all of the measured response, calmness and serenity you would expect from him.