Monday, December 30, 2019


Chinese prosecutors: "This pastor has subverted the power of the state!"

Chinese courts: "That'll be nine years and 50,000 yuan!"

Jesus: "Atta boy, good and faithful servant."

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Oh, You Didn't Know?

The good folk at Mental Floss came up with a list of 20 things about the 20-year-old spoof movie Galaxy Quest that folks today might not know.

The one I like is that it was ranked the 7th best Star Trek movie in a fan poll at a 2013 Trek convention. Not enough groups of people recognize a quality piece of satire done so well that they actually consider it a part of the canon that it satirizes. Kudos, Trekkers.

Friday, December 27, 2019

That's What Christmas Is All About, Charlie Brown

Obviously without the characters, art and vision of Charles Schulz, The Charlie Brown Christmas Special would never have made it onto television, since Schulz created the Peanuts strips from which the special grew.

But the wonder of Peanuts and Schulz's vision wasn't enough by itself to get the show to air, as it required producer Lee Mendelson for everything from stalwartly defending the choice to cast real children as the voices, to including the passage from Luke, to writing the lyrics of "Christmas Time is Here." Mendelson went on to work on more than 50 Peanuts specials and even a couple of movies, but none of them matched that wonderful first outing.

Mendelson went to help Schulz pitch scripts in the eternal realm, passing away on Christmas Day at 86.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Causing Friction

Often scientific breakthroughs in today's physics come on the scale of the incredibly small, incredibly large, incredibly fast or incredibly weird. But the field includes the study of very basic concepts that were known, even if not named, hundreds or even thousands of years ago. And many physicists like to study them, too, and uncover the weirdness that rests behind ideas we encounter far more often than we do quantum field theory.

One such idea is friction, and one such scientist is Andria Rogava of Ilia State University in Georgia -- the country, not the state. Rogava plays a lot of tennis and one day decided to stack the used tennis balls he had in his office, when scientific curiosity drove him to arrange them in several different configurations in order to see which ones were stable. Because tennis balls are not perfectly smooth, even when new, they have more friction when they touch each other. That means that making them move past each other requires more energy than it would to make smoother objects move past each other when touching. Physics World named Rogava's pictorial of his stacks one of its photos of the year, and the original blog entry from May can be found here.

The increased friction between tennis balls means that it takes more gravitational energy to make them fall apart than it would, say, racquetballs. Rogava tries to find configurations of the tennis ball stacks that use the friction to stabilize the stacks, even one with 25 tennis balls that stands nine levels high. He also includes a video of one of his stacks falling apart when only a single ball is removed in order to refute folks that say he glues the balls together somehow.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Top This!

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo fires his latest blast in the ongoing battle to be the dumbest child of the late Mario Cuomo. He vetoed legislation that would have expanded the ability of federal judges in New York to perform marriages -- legislation that passed the NY Assembly 144-2 and the NY Senate 61-1. His reasoning? Some of those judges were appointed by President Trump, who does not "embody" the "New York cornerstones" of "diversity, tolerance and inclusion." Thus they cannot be permitted to perform weddings. Unless of course they pay a $25 fee to one of those online pretend churches and get licensed to perform weddings in the state.

You know, for a guy who's supposed to despise President Trump so much, Gov. Cuomo seems to be working awfully hard to get him re-elected.

Monday, December 23, 2019


Today I presided at a graveside funeral service on a day just cold and windy enough to be a bit chilly unless you were standing in the sun, on a hillside cemetery looking down onto rows and rows of the days gone by, and listened to the man's great-granddaughter sing "How Great Thou Art."

I would not be an atheist for all the money that's ever been minted.

Friday, December 20, 2019


Berkeley Breathed has been drawing Bloom County again for awhile. Now Gary Larson has given his The Far Side an online home as well. Could this mean that Larson might draw some new cartoons himself now and again? And if he does, could it be that Bill Watterson follows suit, bring the late 20th century's best comics back to entertain us, even if they bypass the atrophying newspapers in which they used to appear?

C'mon, Season of Miracles, don't fail me now!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019


As we near the end of 2019 we may expect lists of the best and worst things of this or that category that have happened since January 1. The New York Times lets us know which books its editors consider the ten best of the year here.

I don't know if I have any quarrel with any of the inclusions -- I haven't read a one of them -- and I might in fact peek at one or two. The Club sounds interesting, for one. But each entry boasts a quote from the original NYT review, and accompanying Ben Lerner's The Topeka School is this sentence:
Lerner’s exhilarating third novel, after “Leaving the Atocha Station” and “10:04,” rocks an emphatically American amplitude, ranging freely from parenthood to childhood, from toxic masculinity to the niceties of cunnilingus, from Freud’s Oedipus complex to Tupac’s “All Eyez on Me.”
After reading this from Garth Risk Hallberg's review originally published in October, I realized that not only do I not know if I want to read this book, I don't even know what the bleep Hallberg is talking about. I know several of the items he refers to, but he's combined them in ways that make no sense.

You may be thinking that, because I sometimes write little book reviews in this space I might somehow be comparing my work to Mr. Hallberg's. By no means. He writes impenetrable word salad and I riff on airport novels, but ain't no one cuttin' ya boy any checks for this stuff.

Clearly, I am doing it wrong.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019


What became known as the Battle of the Bulge began 75 years ago today during World War II. German forces moved strongly against the Allies through the Ardennes Forest in an attempt to split Allied forces.

The battle was one of the costliest in the war in terms of lives and while the high body count delayed the Allied invation of Germany for several weeks it may have hastened Germany' defeat because of their own severe losses in men and matériel. A successful counteroffensive might indeed have split the Allied forces, but Germany faced the same kinds of problems that eventually doomed its Reich. It lacked the immense resources the United States could bring into the war and had no ability to project power against the strongest member of its enemy coalition, the United States. A different outcome for the Battle of the Bulge might have prolonged the loss, but in the end the fatal flaws of the Axis Powers would probably have proved too great to overcome.

Monday, December 16, 2019


December 15 was National Bill of Rights Day and celebrates a pretty important part of our national agreement on how we're going to live together and operate our country. Lots of people these days would, it seems, like to replace statements that guarantee freedoms with those that guarantee safety, conveniently overlooking that safety can't be guaranteed.

According to some sources, other days are also celebrated on December 15, among them Cat Herders' Day. George Washington, elected by his fellow delegates to preside at the Constitutional Convention that created the main body of the document and its first 10 amendments, might have appreciated the coincidence.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Mebs! Mebs!

Researchers working on newly-discovered ancient Egyptian graves think they may have discovered actual evidence of small cone-shaped headgear frequently shown in Egyptian art.

The cones were initially believed to be symbolic, the way that halos are often shown around Christian figures in medieval artwork. But a group of scholars working in modern-day Amarna have examined graves in a mostly-untouched cemetery and found several of the bodies are topped with cones that match those shown in the artwork.

Some mysteries remain to be solved, though. One inscription under a family shown with the cones was recently translated to read, "These people are from France." Scientists are not exactly sure what this means, given that people living in what is today's France during the the time period in question would not have given themselves or their region that name.

Thursday, December 12, 2019


President Trump, as many people have noted, is a man of poor character, poor impulse control and more narcissism than half of Hollywood put together. It's tempting to say he says some of the stupidest possible things that can be said by a self-proclaimed conservative person in politics.

Yield not to temptation, though, for comes now one Michael Dale Huckabee of Arkansas -- the man who would not quit the 2008 race for the GOP nomination even after it became mathematically impossible for him to win, saying, "I didn't major in math, I majored in miracles...." The former Arkansas governor and two-time primary loser today dropped this one on the world: President Trump would be eligible for a third term if he won re-election next year, "due to the illegal attempts" to remove him from office.

It was late, I was tired and I'd thought about going to bed without posting. Thanks to Mike Huckabee, I rolled my eyes so far back in my head I had to call AAA to pull them back in line and now I can't sleep.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

One Better Answer Remains

Each month Astronomy magazine -- the best reading money I spend, period -- has a question section called "Ask Astro." Earlier this year, one of the questions Astro answered had to do with the Voyager space probes, which were launched in the 1970s, greatly increased our knowledge of our solar system and are now speeding outwards into interstellar space.

A Mr. Richard Feder, of Ft. Lee, NJ, writes...oh, wait. Wrong bit. Mark from St. Louis, MO, asks Astro if we should expect those space probes to return to Earth. Astro uses the question for a quick and thorough explanation of the idea of escape velocities, or speeds necessary to get out of the gravity well of a planet or star like our Sun. As he points out, the probes are both zipping along far too fast and are well beyond the range where the Sun's gravity could turn them around, so his answer is no, we should not expect the Voyager probes to return to Earth. While he's technically correct, I think Astro would have made a whole lot of new fans if he had given us the answer almost everyone really wants to hear:

"Yes. When we go get them."

Monday, December 9, 2019

Off the Diamond

In the months following the Pearl Harbor attacks, the United States military branches mobilized thousands and thousands of men for fighting on the land, sea and air. Before its new pilots could take to the air and begin learning how to fly their deadly machines, the different military branches knew they had to make sure they were in fighting shape, both mentally and physically. So at several different locations around the country they instituted their Pre-Flight Training schools to shape their recruits into fighters. Interestingly, sports competitions were part of the regiment of training in addition to survival and outdoor living skills.

Among those recruits were well-known athletes and celebrities, many of whom took to that part of their training well. The curious coincidence led to "all-star" teams of athletes playing against each other for morale-boosting public relations events as well as meeting training goals. The Chapel Hill Pre-Flight Training School hosted, among others, Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky and employed a local youngster named Jimmy Raugh as a ball boy. Raugh's daughter, writer Anne R. Keene, discovered a trunk full of Pre-Flight School memorabilia following his death and it launched her on a mission to tell the nearly forgotten tale of teams like the one on which Williams himself played, the Cloudbuster Nine.

Keene weaves parts of her own story with her father into the pair of stories about how Pre-Flight was developed and planned, and how Williams and his class went through the training regimen. It jars the flow on a couple of occasions. Since the mystery of why her father quit baseball as a young man and why that choice caused him such misery is at the core of this part of the memoir, wanting to know how it will wind up distracts from the other storylines. Keene was able to interview some surviving members of the school to learn how it affected their lives, and uses those stories in line with the way Williams used the knowledge of physics and aeronautics he gained during the training to improve his hitting when the war ended.

Some might wish that Keene had stuck to one narrative frame or another -- her father's story, the history of how Pre-Flight was developed or Williams' own time in the program. Realistically, though no one of the three offers more than a long magazine article's worth of material and after so long it may not be possible to recover enough information to fill a whole book. If another attic somewhere houses a trunk of dusty records of one or another of the Pre-Flight schools, then Keene's book will be an excellent foundation on which to build a fuller picture of this fascinating corner of the story of World War II.
The memorabilia cases of a spy agency are intentionally cryptic, displaying items that will almost certainly have far more back story buried in classified files. One case in the Office of Strategic Services section of the Central Intelligence Agency museum displays two baseball cards, those for a journeyman catcher for five major-league and two minor-league teams during the 1930s named Moe Berg.

In addition to his rather undistinguished baseball career, Berg worked for the OSS -- the CIA's predecessor agency -- during World War II, playing a role in identifying some potential resistance groups in Axis-controlled territory and assessing how far along Germany's atomic weapons program had advanced. After starting college at New York University, he finished his undergraduate studies at Princeton and later earned a law degree from Columbia University.

The usual gloss on Berg's life hits these high points, but writer Nicholas Dawidoff's 1994 debut biography The Catcher Was a Spy digs deeper. He seemed to have a gift for picking up languages, which led him to be included on some off-season baseball tours of Japan. Filming the trip for the MovieTone news company gave him access to areas that more official agencies didn't have, and military planners later used some of his footage in outlining bombing runs and strategic capabilities of Japanese defense forces.

Dawidoff outlines Berg's relatively successful missions for the OSS during WWII, as well as a much less successful stint with the successor CIA in the Cold War period. More than most other sketches of Berg's life, he also unreels the former spy's semi-nomadic later years, spent living with family and friends and supported largely by the kindness of friends. Some of these later sections sag, as similar events reoccur, only with different people. Berg's eccentricities grew with time, to the point that some people were uncomfortable with him and his brother threw him out of his house. Through interviews with people remembering their time with Berg, Dawidoff shows how Berg's calculated and crafted persona became so deeply rooted in him that he sometimes wondered if anything about him or about others was real or faked.

There's the quick-hit profile of Moe Berg, the intellectual ballplayer with Princeton diploma and a law degree, who undertook secret missions for his country during the years of WWII. And there's the more layered picture of a man who shaped himself to what others expected of him in order to get what he wanted. Dawidoff shows both. Even though there's not a lot more to learn, The Catcher Was a Spy offers enough to peek behind the public projection of a man who might have been a secret even to himself.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Shaker Scandal?

When I was a reporter, I would sometimes find myself without something to do or cover, so I'd dig around the AP wire thread to see if anything showed up that could be stretched out into a story with a local angle. Or even an interesting one. Sometimes the strategy worked, and sometimes it didn't and I looked like a guy who was desperate for something to throw my byline over in order to justify my paycheck.

Over at Business Insider, James Pasley assumes that role with his photographic essay on how President Trump has bigger salt and pepper shakers than does anyone else eating at the table with him, and how his three predecessors were content with condiment dispenser equality.

Every time I see a story like this I both groan and roll my eyes. The eyeroll comes from the obsession of the majority of media outlets in finding any possible way to make the President look bad, especially compared with other presidents and doubly especially with former President Obama. And some of it comes from the fact that President Trump is a twerp. The groan comes from the realization that these idiots will not stop doing stuff like this until the president is re-elected in 2020, based at least partly on the belief of his supporters that if the mistrusted media are against him this much, he must be doing something right.

We're in for four more years of this crud and the best hope the Democrats have of defeating the president challenged an 83-year-old man to pushups the other day because he didn't like the question he was asked.

Saturday, December 7, 2019


So 78 years ago today, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service visited Pearl Harbor and asked to have their collective ass well and truly kicked. Although the request was more than a little impolite, the United States generously obliged.

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Good Old Days

At this item at Ask the Past we can see advice on how to make waffles, circa 1393. One of the ways places a slice of cheese between two layers of batter.

We've lost so much of our ancestors' wisdom.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Knowing the Answer

When I open a new tab in my browser, I'm shown a series of articles that may or may not pique my interest and offer me a diverting read. Sometimes they do, although sometimes they are also just a couple of steps above clickbait.

One I read recently had been taken from a BBC report, and it was about how airlines have lengthened scheduled flight times in order to make it more likely that the flights will arrive on time. It's interesting enough, but what caught my eye, of course, was the explanatory headline: "Why Airlines Make Flights Longer on Purpose." The BBC article does explain the rationale behind the change, but invoking ol' William of Ockham gives us a more honest, if not very specific answer. Why do airlines make flights longer on purpose?

Because they suck, we're stuck, and they don't care.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019


Dan Piraro offers an explanation/excuse for poor math grades that I wish I'd thought of.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Election Shruggery

1. Montana governor Steve Bullock ended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency today. Part of his statement: " has become clear that in this moment, I won’t be able to break through to the top tier of this still-crowded field of candidates." No offense intended, Steve, but that became clear to the rest of the country on May 14.

2. Former Pennsylvania representative Joe Sestak did the same a day earlier, saying that his inability to get media attention hamstrung his fundraising and thus hampered his campaign. I'm tempted to say that's a sort of tautology: I couldn't get any attention so I couldn't get any money, and because I didn't have any money I couldn't get any attention. But it's hard to feel sorry for Sestak about that, since he entered the race on June 23, even later than Bullock did, and became the 25th official candidate for the Democratic nomination. In what world does he think that the last guy in a crowded, exhausting field of people rarely heard of outside their own state lines will get substantial press coverage?

3. Senator Elizabeth Warren has said that she intends to be the last president ever elected by the Electoral College. Although she plans to win the old-fashioned way in 2020, she wants her second election to come from direct popular vote. Aside from the fundamental unfairness this plan makes clear -- if successful she would probably also become the last president to ever visit Wyoming or Idaho, since their combined populations don't quite equal that of Brooklyn -- it's another instance of Senator Warren having at best a pen-pal relationship with whatever she happens to be talking about. The Electoral College is in Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States of America.

As I describe the two ways by which Article 2, Section 1 can be changed, see if you can spot the HUMONGOUS GLARING FRICKIN' FLAW in Senator Warren's plan to eliminate it once she becomes president so that her second election comes via direct ballot. 1) A new Constitutional Convention is called for by two-thirds of the state legislatures, and then approved by Congress. Any and all legal challenges to this unprecedented action are overturned. The new convention does not include an Electoral College in its revisions, and this new one is ratified by the states. 2) Congress, by a two-thirds majority of both houses, calls for a Constitutional amendment to eliminate the Electoral College. This call is in no way slowed or otherwise interfered with by legal challenges. Three-fourths of the state legislatures approve it. In both of these hypotheticals, all of these things happen between January 21, 2021 and November 5, 2024.

Now, of course you noticed that time frame is, in the eyes and minds of anyone who lives on this planet, science fiction. And you noticed that Senator Warren assumes she will win the nomination and the general election in 2020. And you noticed that she also assumes she will win them in 2024. But none of those things are the capitalized flaw I mentioned above. No, that flaw is reserved for the halibut-smack-in-the-face fact that the President has absolutely no role in any of the steps above. In either scenario, the President is simply another citizen of the United States, who may ask Congress or state legislatures to begin the process but who may be swiftly told "No" and shown the door. So what we could see play out would be this:

(Hypothetical)President Warren: "Mr./Madam Speaker, I ask Congress to request the states approve amending the Constitution to remove the electoral college."

Speaker of the House/House Minority Leader, depending on which party holds the majority, or the Senate Majority Leader or Minority Leader, or possibly the leaders of 17 state legislatures: "Buzz off."

The End.

Sunday, December 1, 2019


The problem with glitter is that when you spill it, it gets everywhere. Floor, clothes, couch, galaxy 15 million light-years away...