Thursday, December 31, 2020

Guv'mint Gotta Guv'mint

Sometimes people ask me why I don't want the government to help people, with the insinuation being that I don't want people to get help. That's not it at all.

It's just that it's almost impossible for governments to get it right when they try. Back during the beginning of the pandemic, when we were worried about shortages of ethanol-based hand sanitizer, several distilleries switched some of their production lines to making it. After all, they know how to work with ethanol.

But because of new regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the distilleries that made the santizer became "monograph drug facilities" that made an over-the-counter medical product. To do that, the FDA requires a license, and to receive a license, the FDA would like distilleries to do a little favor for them: Write them checks.

The craft distilleries that switched their production lines managed to use their facilities to help reduce potential shortages and keep their workers employed when other government regulations forced them to shut down much of their more lucrative business activities like tasting rooms.

We often focus on elected officials as the source of many of our problems, and when we hear a self-serving primadonna like Missouri's Josh Hawley talk about how he will not vote to certify the results of Electoral College balloting when Congress is sworn in January 6 it's hard to believe they are not the biggest factor in government dysfunction. Term limits are suggested as the curative for this particular ill and maybe they would do some good. It would be nice to have something that automatically prevents Hawaii voters from making Mazie Hirono the nation's problem instead of just theirs.

But something like the FDA assessing distilleries facing economic hardship with licensing costs to allow them to be able to pitch in and help doesn't come from elected officials. It comes from un-elected government workers who have no term limits. No legislator proposed the fees. No Representative argued for them. No Senator approved them. And as idiotic as the elected personnel we hire to run our government may be, they frequently find themselves without a candle to hold when compared to the un-elected personnel somebody else hired.

Sometimes in football games a runner out of the backfield will lose yardage because he runs into his own offensive line. The linemen are trying to help but wound up destroying the play they were meant to make happen. Poor people have enough problems without playing the running back in that scenario to the federal government's offensive line.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Something's Missing

This video shows the amazing work of the Boston Dynamics people in programming their robots to dance -- pretty darn well, in fact -- to the Contours' "Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)?"

Of course, the robots have no idea what it means to take the floor to that song with a cute girl and sing along with the chorus and mean it and then get to follow it up with a slow song, so I think human beings are still way in the lead.

Monday, December 28, 2020

So It Begins

On this day 20 years ago, an unknown Midwestern town began its days of terror as the first Snow Goon lurched to life. 

Friday, December 25, 2020

The Queen's Speech

Her Majesty is not, of course, my head of state nor am I her subject; our forebears settled that question more than 240 years ago. But I still appreciate her public addresses to her nation, of which she has made an uncharacteristic three so far this year. The third comes as a Christmas message.

I don't know whether it's the accent, the no-nonsense demeanor, her slight resemblance to my grandmother, the fact that she witnessed so many of the 20th century's major events firsthand or some other quality, but I greatly enjoy hearing the monarch speak. Certainly much more than I have enjoyed hearing just about any U.S. head of state speak over the last quarter-century. In my lifetime, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have been the two presidents whose best speeches came as much from their own abilities as from the texts prepared for them.

George W. Bush's best moments were his off-the-cuff remarks and gestures, like in the rubble of the flattened World Trade Center towers or in throwing out the first pitch of the world series. Lyndon Johnson's best work was behind the scenes, not behind a podium. Barack Obama had one good speech in 2004 and he's been giving it ever since. And no one would suggest that Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter or the elder George Bush could have done as well as the Queen in delivering this address to her people in a very challenging Christmas season.

How will President Biden's Christmas oratory compare with the Queen's? Well, we'll have a good chance to compare next year at Christmas when he delivers this speech.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Achtung!

Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder is a German professor who produces videos explaining scientific concepts. Although Dr. Hossenfelder is a native German the videos are in English, as is her blog.

As we all know from movies, a German accent is indispensable for a scientist in order to sound smart (unless the scientist is a Nazi, in which case it is essential for sounding evil as well as smart). So in her most recent entry linked above, Dr. Hossenfelder offers lessons on how to speak like Albert Einstein in order that the average person may sound properly intelligent when discussing some topic of physics.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Civilization Advances

Again some unsung genius harnesses the wonders of modern science for the betterment of humanity.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Would You Like to Try Again?

This article is a couple of years old but still worth scratching your head over. Slate magazine assembled a panel of voters who ranged from writers to musicians to nominate the songs they thought would be added to the so-called Great American Songbook in the coming years.

The "Songbook" concept is pretty malleable -- it's not an actual book but instead a more or less widely accepted canon of jazz and pop music standards frequently covered and reinterpreted by vocalists. So it could pretty easily accumulate new songs even though there's no set criteria for inclusion. Some general characteristics include relatively more complex lyrics and a kind of flexible character that can be adapted by a wide range of singers and stir a wide range of emotions.

So the Slate panel nominated its own candidates and the article at the link gives the top 30. It's a pretty dumb article and not only because of some of the songs -- which we'll get to in a minute. Whoever wrote the intro rightly pointed out that the Songbook acquires new tunes according to no set formula. But then the writer whiffed by calling Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" "a commercial disappointment from a critically derided band." Journey may have been critically derided during its late 70s and early 80s heyday but "Believin'" hit #9 in the Billboard Hot 100 and sold a million copies. The article hadn't been published for very long before someone -- probably someone old enough to listen to the radio in 1981 -- engineered a correction that suggested "Believin'" was a commercial disappointment compared to the other singles from the album. But considering that "Stone in Love" didn't chart and "Still they Ride" barely cracked the top 20, some more correction is in order.

In any event, when we get to the songs themselves we have to first confront the question, "Wha," as in, "What were you people thinking?"

Included on the list are several rap and hip-hop tunes -- I'm a big fan of some old-school rap, in which clever rhymes and even cleverer wordplay elevate a rapper and his or her tune above the wannabes and competitors. But the panelists, exploring mostly music from the last 25 years or so, include songs with a blizzard of unrhymed free-form sexual boasting and FCC non-compliant verbiage unlikely to be covered on any wide basis.

A few suggestions make sense, like Idina Menzel's Frozen soundtrack smash "Let It Go," but for every one that does is another that makes none. Like Liz Phair's "**** and Run," in which the singer laments awakening next to yet another in a long string of one-night stands instead of being in a relationship. I'm no professional music critic or writer who can make Slate's list, but I think one pretty strong indicator a song won't make the Great American Songbook is that you can't sing it in front of Grandma.

It's hard to say what exactly the panelists thought made their suggestions a good fit for the Songbook concept and maybe that's the problem, that they didn't really know themselves. Either way the idea that someone is going to karaoke or re-record a version of Eminem's "Lose Yourself" in, say, 2065, means these suggestions may be filed and forgotten.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Eureka! Uh-Oh...

One of the problems astronomers and cosmologists have is figuring out how far away things are.

Not things in our solar system or things nearby -- things far away. Stars and such are light sources and ordinarily we figure a brighter light is closer to us, and vice versa. But stars vary in brightness. So something that looks very dim to us might actually be very bright but far away. Or a big cloud of whatever might be between us and it, so we see it as though we were looking through sunglasses -- only we have no idea how much light the sunglasses block.

We determine how far away closer objects are by "parallax." This describes how something appears to shift position if we look at it from one point and then move to another point and look at it again. Measure the apparent change, do some math and voila! Distance measured. Again, objects far away in space have almost no noticeable shift for about as far apart as we can distance ourselves on earth, so astronomers look at them once and then again six months later. This gives them an observational base as wide as the Earth's orbit around the sun, which is about as wide as we can manage.

The European Space Agency satellite Gaia has observed thousands of parallaxes over the past years from its orbit a million miles out from Earth, providing data for some of the most precise measurements possible. We know better than ever before how far apart things are, which makes astronomers very happy. If we know a certain kind of star is exactly so far from us and we know what it looks like, then when we find that same kind of star somewhere else we can compare brightnesses and compute a distance for the new star as well. And by "we" of course I mean astronomers, since my brain got fried several algorithms back.

This is great news for astronomers and has them quite pleased. Until it doesn't, as Natalie Wolchover writes at Quanta Magazine. Because one of the things the more precise distances tell us is that the universe's rate of expansion is faster than we thought it was, without offering any explanation as to why that might be. In other words, by answering one question scientists have posed at least one new one. Which is OK by them because they like that sort of thing -- especially when the new question apparently has no ready answer. If we figure everything out, after all, then it won't be long before boredom sets in and we don't have much of an answer for that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Erm...

Colleges and universities are places of learning, where people go to acquire knowledge and sometimes to develop specific skills though training and education.

The people who provide this information are called, variously, professors, instructors, doctors, lecturers and so on. They share the characteristic of extended study within a field and the task of communicating some of that study to students who enroll in their classes. Outside their fields their knowledge is often no better or worse than any average person, even though some of them will claim that their expertise in, say, entomology (specifically butterflies) means their understanding of population theory merits the same deference to their policy ideas despite evidence to the contrary. In other words, colleges and universities employ as instructors people who are really smart and knowledgeable in one or two directions and more or less average in most other directions.

Outside the classroom, though, colleges and universities employ people who think that indoor balconies in a college dorm are a good idea, which would indicate that those people are dumb in every direction.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

What's Up? Doc?

As a person of conservative views on economics and politics who voted for "the other Jo" last month, Dr. Jill Biden's honorific is not the one in her family that bothers me. The "Mr. President" title soon to be assumed by her husband will, I believe, produce many more problems than will her legitimately-acquired academic title.

Joseph Epstein, in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, disagrees with me at least so far as being unbothered by Dr. Biden's title, and since our modern media is fundamentally unserious this has become a thing and is well on its way to becoming a kerfluffle.

Mr. Epstein's inartfully-made point is that we use the title "Dr." a lot more often than we should. Honorary degrees as well as actual degrees granted after not particularly rigorous work provide people the opportunity to tack those two letters onto the front of their name and lend an air of authority not otherwise justified to their words and opinions. This is why we sometimes see Very Important Writings on some subject or another by a person identified as "Dr." given great weight by people even though they hold a doctorate in an entirely different field.

But because Mr. Epstein used Dr. Biden's title as the hook for his column, cue the hue and cry over his clear and rampant misogyny and sexism. I've no idea whether Mr. Epstein is a misogynist, sexist or rampant. I attended the university where he used to lecture but do not remember ever having taken a class he taught. Perhaps he intended to insult Dr. Biden. Perhaps he only intended to criticize academic title inflation and devaluation. If so, he should have been smarter about his tone because he offered plenty of red meat on which the silly-saurus beast of modern media culture might feast by addressing Dr. Biden in a manner more ribald than respectful.

Although I take sexism seriously (I'm against it) I do not take the dust-up seriously because the people huffing about don't take it seriously. No charges of sexism were leveled at Mother Jones writer Tim Murphy when he said that Michelle Bachmann was falsely calling herself a "Dr." based on her juris doctor degree. Folks who hold a JD rarely use that term and not every state bar association permits it but it is considered by and large legitimate if not advisable. The confusion of doctors with lawyers has happened before.

I'm not much at odds with disliking the over-use of the title "Dr." In the academic settings of the classroom or symposium it fits well. Outside them, I am happy to use the title if someone holding a Ph. D. or other form of doctoral degree requests it. I am also happy to think such a request pretentious. There are a lot of modern academic programs that have given their end-stage degrees "doctoral" statuses they do not really deserve. I can say this because I hold a degree that's been similarly inflated; my Masters in Divinity would have been a bachelor's degree until the early 1970s when a couple of bells and whistles were tacked on in order to raise it to the master status. The work load is today considered masters-level, but I don't know how many modern degrees can compare favorably with the work load of their counterparts from 50 years ago.

If this is all a little TL;DR for you, then I guess I could condense it into this: Mr. Epstein goofed by making his point in a less-than respectful manner but there's still an idea buried underneath the goofiness that could do with some consideration even if it's not all that important of a matter.

Besides, there's only one Doctor. The definite article, you might say.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Inferia Criteria?

A couple of years ago Mental Floss writer Rebecca Pahle created a list of the most annoying holiday songs ever, which was updated this past week. I'm not sure what the update was since the story doesn't identify it, but the notice is right there next to the date so I'm sure there's a change in there somewhere.

What there isn't are songs that really matter. I won't say Ms. Pahle is wrong about their annoyingness because I've heard of one or two and they are indeed annoying. But the bulk of them are completely foreign to me and it seems that to be annoying a Christmas song should have the potential to be heard. I've delved before into which Christmas season music I find annoying and why so there's no need to rehash that mess -- or bring "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" into my brain again.

But even if you disagree with me and find it to be a wonderful song, I think we'd probably both say that it's hard to be all that annoyed by Sean Banan's "Gott Nytt Jul" because I had literally never heard of it until reading Pahle's article. Seems like another reason to stick with hymns for Christmas.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Artificial Tunage

So the Spotify music streaming service is trying to develop a system in which an Artificial Intelligence algorithm will compose music with no human input whatsoever.

I suppose that the proper way to phrase the question is something like, "Why?" or "What do they want to accomplish?" or something equally measured and polite. And avoiding the comparison jokes that imply how a significant percentage of the pop music released today seems to have no human input whatsoever either. So I'll do both.

Nah, I can't. I'll ask the question in the way I think it is best phrased: "What the hell do you want to go and do that for?"

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Slice of History

Every now and again historians turn their skills onto matters worthwhile...

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Mach 1 -- And Beyond

There are many tributes online today to General (USAF ret.) Chuck Yeager, who passed away yesterday evening at his home at 97. Yeager's list of accomplishments merits all of the tributes, with perhaps his peak coming in 1947 when he became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound in level flight. An act he accomplished with broken ribs and a sawed-off broom handle in the cockpit to lever the door closed because he was too sore to do it with his arm.

The Tom Wolfe book The Right Stuff put his accomplishments on a bigger stage by acclaiming him as "the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff" (although Yeager disagreed about the value of the phrase in describing what makes a good pilot). The 1983 movie of the book, directed by Philip Kaufman, served as a springboard for even more interest in Yeager and his place in the development of supersonic flying and space flight, and he published a biography in 1985 called Yeager

Yeager developed a scholarship program at Marshall University, which is located in his home state of West Virginia. The Yeager Scholars program is the top academic scholarship offered by Marshall and is not limited to science and technology coursework but includes studies in the arts and mastery of a modern language. Students will also spend a summer at Oxford University as well as as other international studies. He began this in 1986, even though he had never had the chance to attend college himself. Students who complete the four-year program, which pays all tuition, fees and room and board, receive a medallion with a bust of Yeager and the phrase "Only the Best."

His piloting skills were undeniable, his combat record amazing -- although Yeager himself flew a propellor-driven P-51 Mustang he pointed out that the first time he saw one of Germany's Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters he shot it down. Yes, he said, it wasn't very sporting because the jet was preparing to land and he surprised its pilot but it was still a jet and he still waxed it. His leadership was clearly excellent; he entered the United States Army Air Corps as a mechanic Private and retired as a Brigadier General. But his most lasting legacy will be the generations of young people who are given the chance, challenge and means to make a difference throughout the world because of the scholarship program at Marshall University. That's a pretty unbeatable record too.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Over (and Done) Hyped

At Looper, Ziah Grace offers a list of movies that studios hyped, sometimes quite strongly, which never wound up being made or released.

The list of movies hyped that should have never been made or released is somewhat longer.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Motormouth

My distaste for sports announcer Joe Buck's work has been noted before. I'm pretty sure I now need to add Cris Collinsworth, who apparently does his color commentary on a pay-per-word basis.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Where Credit Is Due

I had thought about a post outlining the way that real scientific research, experimentation and the like had given us a vaccine for a new disease in less than a year, and pointing out how stupid stuff like "autonomous zones" and "Green New Deals" had absolutely nothing to do with that, but it turns out Dan McLaughlin at National Review already did.

He probably got paid for his, too.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Road Not Taken, Because the Web Design Was Ridiculous

Sometimes a post title gives away the joke. For those who think they have read many entries and have not yet been introduced to anything they might think of as funny, indulge me, because sometimes amusement is my intention even if not my execution.

In any event, this item at the New York Times is a list of the 25 greatest actors of the 21st century (so far). I didn't recognize the first one and thought I might be able to riff off of that and make fun of the way that I don't know who any of these people are. But I did know a couple of the next four or five and I quit after that because the weird way in which the photos and copy appeared as I scrolled wasn't worth the time spent in order to find out who Times writers Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott think are the best actors of the first 20 years of the century.

And in any event the headline misleads; Dargis and Scott are considering the best actors on the big screen for the past couple of decades; stage and television actors apparently need not apply.

Monday, November 30, 2020

I'll Take "Think Outside the Box" for $100

The recent death of Alex Trebek leaves the venerable TV quiz show Jeopardy more than a little adrift. The show taped only half its season before going on break, and it doesn't want to just write off half a season. The studio probably wouldn't like to lose that much money coming out of pandemic-related hiatuses anyway, plus the many people who worked on the show with Trebek say he would have disliked a mid-season shutdown for its harm on the people with everyday kind of paychecks.

So far it seems like the plan is to get a rotating roster of familiar Jeopardy faces to finish out the season before making a move to a more permanent successor. The first is all-time winner Ken Jennings, whose 74 consecutive wins tops all other contestants. Some folks suggest Jennings should get the job permanently, but there are a number of problems with that. Chief among them is that he's a jerk. Or, more fairly, that he knows how to portray one on social media. You'd hope that Jennings, like a lot of other meatheads who use the platform, simply gave in to temptation to say something in front of people but without saying it to anyone's face. But even though the miracle of pre-taping can make certain similar outbursts would never make it on air, if they happened they'd be bound to have a corrosive effect on the show and its image.

Levar Burton is another potential permanent successor and would probably do a good job -- but here's where I, who will never be found guilty of being a very woke feminist, would like to stake out a spot for women. In a conversation via comment a couple of weeks ago with blogger Brian Noggle, I suggested Mayim Bialik would be a good choice. Bialik is personable and capable of projecting some nerdy host charm and holds an actual doctorate in neurobiology -- she was the Big Bang Theory cast member who already knew the science words in her script.

Brian also suggested actress Danica McKellar, perhaps best known as Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years and as the author of several books encouraging school-age girls to discount the idea that math is for boys and girls can't succeed at it. McKellar would probably also be able to project the kind of calm authority-with-a-twinkle-in-its-eye at which Trebek excelled. She's no slouch in the classroom either, graduating summa cum laude from UCLA with a degree in mathematics and being a named developer of something called the "Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem," explained in a paper she and another undergraduate helped their professor research and write.

I'm not a person who figures a woman should get a prominent role just because up until now a man's always had it. But part of me would like to see strong campaigns for either or both McKellar and Bialik if only because the eventual choice to go with yet another dude would help show what a fib show business tells us when it talks about its progressive and egalitarian character.

Plus, at 63 Burton's smack in the middle of the baby boom, while both Bialik (44) and McKellar (45) are Xers. It'd be kind of a nice change to see an Xer get a job instead of yet another Boomer.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Mystery!

The original John Calvin developed the doctrine of predestination as a way of trying to accomodate the absolute sovereignty of God in a world which also included the total depravity of fallen humanity. The more recent holder of that name dispenses with such matters in favor of even deeper theological questions in a reprint from earlier this week:

Could tigers be happy in a heaven where they couldn't eat people? And would people be happy in a heaven where there were no tigers?

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Rollin', Rollin', Rollin'

Over at Twisted Sifter, we find a link to a article about a scientist who was studying the riding of bicycles. In an experiment related to his paper, he turned a bicycle loose without a rider 800 times and mapped the different routes it followed before falling over.

The interesting thing is that the number of repeititions led to a largely symmetrical collection of paths. Although it's unlikely the bike followed the exact same path more than once, it begins each time on a similar straight line before beginning to wobble. Bunches of the wobbles start out the same before diverging, and only in a very few does the bike travel the longest distance before it falls over.

The map shows a couple of things -- one, we can see how an algorithm works. The equation is tweaked with at one variable or another and produces a different result, and the bike is tweaked by hitting an imperfection in the road, feeling a gust of air, not receiving a push at its precise balance point, and losing energy the longer it travels. 

We also see how an algorithm doesn't always work and why sometimes, Amazon suggests really odd books for you given your previous taste. The "tweaks" in both the algorithm and the paths of the bike are random and can't be predicted with much precision. Until more data gets entered -- in the form of more tweaks in either the algorithm or the bike path, there's not very much that can be predicted about where the bike will end up on this attempt. When Amazon's algorithm acts before it has enough data, it might wind up recommending you read a book about and printed in ancient Sanskrit. You'll tell it no and it will make that another tweak in its path.

And by the way: 800 times! I hope that was done over a couple of days or so.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Fraud Fraud?

The most interesting response in this Gizmodo story in which some scientists were asked to name the biggest scientific fraud of the last 30 years comes from a lady named Felicitas Hessellmann, a researcher at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Most frauds, she said, aren't all that big. Really big frauds can be hard to pull off, especially in a world of instant communication. So most frauds are middle of the road, making it hard to find a big one, let alone name one as more fraudulent than another.

On the other hand, the ones the other two interviewees name -- the tobacco industry's in-house research labs and the claim that vaccines cause autism -- were pretty big frauds. So maybe the answer's usually somewhere in between.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thanksgiving

Ate meatloaf.

Not sorry.

May you have much for which you are grateful.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Backfire

By several accounts, President Trump is acknowledging that his attempts to question and even overturn vote totals he believes are in error will not succeed. He's set the transition process into motion and directed his staff to cooperate with the incoming folks likely to be working in a Joe Biden administration.

But of course he's not stopping his claims that the 2020 presidential election was so steeped in fraud that, rather than narrowly losing, he actually won by an amazing landslide. Both the president and his legal team continue to lay the blame for his defeat at the hands of incompetent or dishonest election officials. Or an electronic voting system run by a company whose leadership donated extensively to Democratic caniddates. Or thousands if not millions of fradulently cast mail-in ballots. Or anything, apparently, other than his own lack of discipline, immaturity and manifest character deficiencies and the fact that, as lousy of a candidate as Joe Biden is and as much of a grifting hack as Joe Biden is, he possesses the indisputable advantage of not being Hillary Clinton.

And here's the thing I think a lot of people overlooked. He's going to keep doing so. Donald Trump will literally never stop claiming the 2020 election was stolen from him until he's buried in a hideously garish golden coffin. And major media outlets will remain consistently unable to see that what they claim are an endless series of dunks on the president actually give him exactly what he wants: endless notoriety. And everybody who predicated their support for Biden on the idea it would send Trump home to obscurity will have to put up with seeing and hearing about him almost as often as they do now.

It's kind of ironic. More than one anti-Trump pundit or politician hinted that in order for some of the civil unrest the nation's been responding to in various cities and states to disappear, Biden would have to win the election. That'll probably turn out to not be good enough in the long run to keep the break all windows crowd at home.

What would have been certain if Trump had won, though, was that his time on the national stage would have a natural end. He'd serve his four years and then go the way of ex-presidents, especially if they are Republican: To being treated as if they did not exist. The one use to which they are put -- comparison with some current Republican as a way of proving just how crazy Republicans are today -- would clearly not suit the president. Yes, he'd be president and yes, the media would not be able to shut up about him for five seconds and they'd keep shoving his face onto the screen. But after four years it would be over, because there are term limits on presidents.

There are no term limits on whiners. The president can and will, once he leaves office, continue to claim the election was stolen. He'll use it as a launchpad for a 2024 run. He'll never go away now, and everyone who thought they were getting rid of him will find out he'll perform a kind of perverse Obi Wan Kenobi and become more powerful even though they thought he'd been struck down.

And his opponents have only themselves to thank.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Somebody Wake Zarathustra

A helicopter with some folks from the Utah Department of Public Safety and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resource was flying in southern Utah, counting wild bighorn sheep when it spotted something.

A shiny metal monolith, standing all by itself in a red rock cove. The different departments are investigating but as of today still didn't have a handle on what exactly the thing was supposed to be or who put it there. The best theory right now is that it may be part of some oddball art piece, which, maybe. I dunno.

I mean, I'm not saying it's aliens...

Saturday, November 21, 2020

The Latest

James Grant has been writing the adventures of Jack Reacher since 1997 and as he's come into his mid-60s he's been wanting to take a break and retire from that work. So he talked with his younger brother Andrew Grant, himself the author of a few adventure thrillers, to see about first partnering and then taking over the series. The logistical issue comes in the names involved -- James Grant writes as Lee Child and Andrew Grant under his own name. So Andrew Grant became Andrew Child for the purposes of the Reacher series, and their first collaboration hit bookshelves a few weeks ago under both of their names: The Sentinel.

Reacher's traveling through a small Tennessee town when he spots a man about to be ambushed by some thugs. Despite his lack of permanent ties he's not in favor of that sort of thing so he stops the attack -- emphatically. After the thugs make their escape -- some less conscious than others -- Reacher learns that he's saved a man nobody in town likes much at all. Rusty Rutherford was the town's information technology manager and a ransomware attack has locked up all of the town's information. Although he'd been warning them about the security breach, the town government and the rest of the citizens would rather blame Rusty than blame themselves and he's the town's most hated guy. He's trying to prove his innocence but doesn't know why anyone would try to kidnap him, which intrigues Reacher enough that he starts digging into the matter while hanging around to watch Rusty's back. The whole mess turns out to involve Russian cyber-warfare, sleeper agents, neo-Nazis and some good old-fashioned murder. All Rusty has is Reacher. Anyone who's read any of the previous 24 books has a pretty good idea how that is likely to turn out.

The younger Child brings pluses and minuses to his first outing with the iconic hero. On the plus side he offers some of liveliness the series had in its first ten years or so. Never chatty, Reacher had grown more taciturn and misanthropic and made recent books something of a drudge to move through. On the minus side he doesn't have his brother's economy with words and comes across as more of a Reacher pastiche than an actual Reacher adventure. That may settle out as he moves forward.

Sentinel's plot is more than a little outlandish once all of the layers of the onion are peeled back, but that's not exactly foreign to the series. As the series creator James Grant is more than entitled to continue it in whatever manner he wishes and he's also entitled to think his brother is the best choice to do that. Over the next couple of books, if we see Andrew Grant write more and more like Andrew Child then Reacher may become both more recognizable and more interesting.

-----

We observe Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly's main character, from outside of his head -- the Bosch books are in third person and although there is some interior narration it doesn't often hit a level of deep introspection. Usually the introspection has been left to the first-person books featuring lawyer Mickey Haller, Harry's half-brother, and lately detective Renee Ballard. The Law of Innocence continues that trend, diving even deeper into Mickey's heart and mind as he finds himself defending the one client he can't afford to let down: Himself.

A fishy traffic stop leads to the discovery of a body in the trunk of the Lincoln Lawyer's eponymous ride, and judges and prosecutors who have lost out to Mickey in the past are not predisposed to cut him any breaks. Mickey knows he's not guilty and the people who know him best agree. He's pretty certain he'll be able to get a "not guilty" verdict but he knows that won't be enough: If he wants to continue his life as a lawyer he'll need to prove himself actually innocent and the only way to do that is to find the person who really killed his former client. But clearing that extra hurdle won't be as easy and he has a greater chance to end up on the wrong end of the jury's decision.

As mentioned above, interior dialogue and introspection have been a feature of the Haller books, as we learn about Mickey's character when he explains how lawyers do things during a trial and how he approaches them. Those observations are sharpened by his predicament and when he finally confronts the reality that he may not be able to expose the falsehoods marshaled against him we see further inside Mickey's head and heart than in any earlier book. Innocence has some flaws -- some characters leave the stage in a rather perfunctory fashion and wind up rendering their part of the story far more superfluous than is good for the overall story. The eventual resolution of the case seems to sputter more than detonate and robs the story of a potentially powerful element as it closes out. A little more time and energy spent in either or both of these areas would move Innocence into clear four or even five-star territory but even thus limited it's a reminder of why people who like compelling and thoughtful legal and police procedurals wait for Connelly's next book. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

Demo

A grandfather in Vietnam showed his grandchildren, who were expecting, how they needed to hold a baby when they bathed it, using a video link and a...cat.

The purpose of the video was to demonstrate the way to support the baby's head, how to dry a baby by wrapping, how to clean behind the ears and keep water from going into the nose and so on. The cat apparently cooperated quite well.

No water was used in the simulation. Grandpa didn't get this old by being dumb, you know.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Prophetic

Today's Calvin and Hobbes reprint offers two propositions. One of them is clearly true while only time will tell for the other one. The potential one is that Calvin will be legendary.

The clearly true proposition is that "Any idiot can be famous."

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Error in Judgement

There are several rising tides on Facebook recently -- the eternal upswing of everyone telling everyone else, "You're doing it wrong" when it comes to COVID-19 is just one of them.

Another old familiar friend is the assertion that all of the people who didn't vote like I did didn't just arrive at different conclusions or err in interpreting facts or proceed from mistaken assumptions. They were flat-out stupid (or evil, or racist, or whatever.) I just can't get behind this idea, and not only because I have friends who didn't vote the way I did. It just defies logic to assert that 153 million Americans were not only wrong, they were evil and stupid...

Monday, November 16, 2020

Lambor-giddy-up-and-go!

Problem: You have a donor kidney that needs to travel the 300 miles between Padua to Rome as fast as possible, and the Paduan hopsital doesn't have a helipad.

Solution (if you're the Italian State Police): Fit out the trunk of your department's Lamborghini Huracan as a refrigerated compartment and hit the gas. You'll get there in two hours.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Worst!

The "winners" of the 2020 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been named, crowning the writer with the worst opening sentence for a supposed novel.

The contest is held by the San Jose State University English Department and is named for Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose purple prose often wound up being not descriptive or evocative -- but just bad. His opening sentence of the 1830 novel Paul Clifford began with the simple phrase "It was a dark and stormy night" but quickly falls apart into a sloppy mess. Paul Clifford was, despite the scorn heaped upon it over the years, a best seller.

San Jose State has held the contest since 1982. Most of the time it's fairly interesting, although after almost 40 years one tends to get the impression that the entries are just pacing over familiar ground. Since none of the sentences are from actual novels and since they are deliberately composed to be as bad as possible, my suggestion for livening things up a bit would be to use actual novels published during the year of the contest. It seems like it would be more in the spirit of an actual Bulwer-Lytton novel, since those were not deliberately written to be bad and since many of the touches a modern audience derides were often a part of the common way of speaking of the time.

You'd probably have to limit it in some way, though. The ability to self-publish brought about by ebooks would produce far too many candidates to be sorted through -- even though there are some hidden gems in the field the rest make the value of good editing abundantly clear. And it would probably be a good idea to retire some best-selling authors after their first win or two or they would dominate the field.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Middlin'

I suspect that a lot of political satirists have been divided during the presidency of Donald Trump. On the one hand, he's a serious goofball who offers a wealth of material of which fun can be made. On the other hand, every time someone jokes about what the president might do, using wacky exaggeration to make the point in a funny way, he'd go ahead and do exactly that thing or something so far beyond it that they just give up and stare dumbly at the screen.

Although he's still insightful and perceptive and he still knows how to throw a funny line in a way that a lot of supposed modern online commentators and satirists can't match, P. J. O'Rourke's A Cry From the Far Middle has a distinct atmosphere of staring dumbly at the screen in a few too many places to be some of his best work.

The idea hinted at by the title is that someone with a long history of libertarian and conservative policy ideas finds no home with the protectionist, undisciplined and shallow man in the White House. But if opposing him means throwing in with the even wackier and lunatic wokery of the Democratic party that person doesn't feel like that's a choice either. Thus, "the far middle." Spectator USA columnist Bridget Phetasy uses the phrase "politically homeless."

A couple of longer introductory essays offer this idea as a frame for the pieces in the book, many of which have already appeared in O'Rourke's American Consequences magazine. And of course O'Rourke is a consistent enough thinker that his worldview does stay more or less connected to this central thread. But sometimes it's more less than more, and several of the short essays don't really hang together as solidly as some earlier books, such as Holidays in Hell, Give War a Chance or the magnificent Parliament of Whores.

One of the things that anyone following the news to any degree over the last four years could probably discuss ad æternum is how exhausting the process has been. The news cycle has operated at warp speed, with major events being subsumed and forgotten in mere weeks, if not days. Cry may be laboring with that burden, rendering even O'Rourke's mighty satirical eye a little sleepy. Reading it, you'll still probably laugh and learn -- just not as much as you might have wished you could.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Meme Loaf

I didn't really have the time to do this but thought it would have been funny -- the overall 2020 election furnishes at least three opportunities to create memes that use songs by the vocalist Michael Aday, better known as Meat Loaf.

Meme #1 would have a picture of the Democratic leadership team of the House of Representatives, with the caption "I want you." Next would be a picture of President-elect Joe Biden, and the caption is, "I need you." Then the third picture is Mitch McConnell and the caption, "But there ain't no way I'm ever gonna love you," and then the fourth frame or however it's built would just be text: "Darling don't be sad: Two out of three ain't bad." Of course, this meme presumes that the Republican candidate wins one or both of the Georgia runoff races, or maybe that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin gets tired enough of people like Sheldon Whitehouse or Richard Blumenthal that he wants to stop seeing them in caucus meetings and switches parties.

Meme #2 begins with a picture of President Trump and is captioned, "I would do anything for love." Then we have a picture of the president-elect and a repeat of that same phrase. And in the third picture is a ballot marked for Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgenson and the final caption, "But I won't do that."

And Meme #3 is just a picture of the president-elect at a podium giving a speech, with former United Kingdom parliament member the Right Hon. Neil Kinnock standing next to him over the phrase, "You took the words right out of my mouth."

As for the Loaf's best-known hit, "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," well, that doesn't seem applicable to anything about the current election. You'd probably have to go back to the 2004 Democratic vice-presidential nominee or the top of the 1992 and 1996 tickets to get a good fit for that one.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Eeeee-Books

In 2015 the prolific Christopher Nuttall introduced Katherine "Kat" Falcone, a young officer in His Majesty's Tyrian Navy taking her first command. The youngest of one of Tyre's ruling families, Kat was widely seen as having had her path smoothed by her powerful relatives to a position she was not qualified to hold. But she proved more than equal to the task and soon became a top commander in the Tyrian Navy's fight against the expansionist Theocracy, a space nation bent on enslaving every world possible to its repressive religion. In 2017 Kat led the assault on the Theocracy's home world, setting the stage for a second sequence of novels that Nuttall called "The Embers of War." With Debt of War he closes that trilogy and brings the Tyrian civil war that bloomed in the aftermath of the war with the Theocracy.

Kat and forces loyal to the king are on Caledonia, one of the main Tyrian words and headquarters of the groups loyal to the throne. The House of Lords remains on Tyre, marshaling resources to defeat the king and bring him to heel; they're led politically by Kat's brother and militarily by her best friend, William McElney. Nearsighted politicians on both sides try to goad the respective military forces to attack, but even though Kat knows that would be a risky move she also knows that the king's side can't afford a long war of attrition. The Tyrian homeworld will soon be able to return to war footing production and overwhelm the king's forces with sheer weight of metal. William, on the other hand, has just learned information that completely upends the basis of the conflict and could convince Kat she has been wrong all along -- can he manage to get it to her?

Despite his high-volume output Nuttall doesn't rush material into print; Debt of War's style flows cleanly if not with any particular flash of bells and whistles. He also keeps his characters straight; Kat remains pretty much the same throughout the series, as does William. There's a bit of a disconnect between King Hadrian in the initial books and in the trilogy that shows signs the transition between the two roles he plays in the different storylines wasn't as smooth as it could have been. And the frequent observations about the need to take a risk to end the war even though the downside is complete disaster grow a little tiring. The Debt series could probably have fit into two books. But still it's a pretty interesting take on the space opera genre: What if the brave and insightful commander at the center of it all, the one whose dash and daring brought victory after victory to her homeworld...chose the wrong side?

-----

Alex Cassidy has a pretty good reputation as an FBI senior agent but she's been put in charge of a crop of misfits. Several of them have been eased out of other offices because they're more of a problem than they're worth in the eyes of their previous supervisors. Nevertheless, they work for the FBI and they're supposed to solve crimes, so Alex will make them work as a team and get the job done in Mark Ravine's first novel, The Tech. As for the odd coincidences and breaks that seem to serendipitously make their jobs easier and offer leads when it seems there weren't any to be had? Well those are just plain good luck...or are they?

Each chapter in The Tech outlines one of the cases the unit is handling, and highlights Alex's efforts to smooth out their rough edges and get past whatever hangup kept them giving other supervisors trouble. As they do, evidence that something else is going on, both on the side of the bad guys as well as the good guys, continues to mount and indicate conspiracies behind the crimes they're facing. Alex and her team had better solve at least one of them or else they may be in danger of more than reputations as troublemakers.

The Tech is full of first-novel touches, including stilted dialogue and frequent choices to tell instead of show the reader something. The different team members are tough to keep separated and sorted as to what their trouble spots where, especially when those seem to vanish and reappear according to no real narrative pattern. There are some interesting ideas here and clear hints of an overall storyline with some real legs to it, but subsequent novels will need a lot of polishing to bring that out.

It could also be considerably shorter. The individual cases might be necessary to peel back deeper and deeper layers of the conspiracy and other mysteries surrounding this particular FBI field office but put between the same covers they make for a pretty long slog. The Tech could have benefited greatly by being a series of short novellas with a slightly longer resolution novel, like Stephen King's The Green Mile or Dean Koontz's "Nameless" series. Sure, King and Koontz can make a publisher do any number of things that a first-time novelist can't, but it's hard to argue that slicing the chapters up into even more distinct chunks could have helped refine and tighten the overall story and given the two interesting final answers some more impact. If Ravine returns to these characters maybe he'll have the chance to do something like that.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Preview

In today's Sherman's Lagoon, Hawthorne the crab gives a clear picture of the way that government most often operates. It's one we'll probably have even more chance to learn about during the new administration, too.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Seriously?

The platypus was already a weird critter. It's got a bill shaped like the bill of a duck. It's got a beaver-like tail. It's got otterish feet -- the back ones of which, in males, feature a venomous spur. It uses electrolocation to find its prey, which means it literally senses the electric fields of other animals. It lays eggs instead of giving birth to live young like most other mammals.

So how does one of the world's weirdest animals handle itself in one of the world's weirdest years? By being found to glow in the dark under UV light.

We can't be living in a simulation. Nobody could make up stuff like this.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Coming to a Close

Over at the long post blog, a long post in the form of a review of Terry Brooks The Last Druid, the 29th and chronologically final book in his world of Shannara novels.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Prepare to Twiddle!

I read some updates on rookies my preferred baseball team has drafted over the last few years. Checked out the story about how a retiring favorite player closed out his career with an eighth Gold Glove. Caught up on midweek reports about my preferred baseball and football teams. Read some more from a third book in a space opera series I like. Paid my bills. Called a friend to wish her happy birthday but had to leave a voice message. Every now and again looked at a Tweet stream from National Review writers about how some different candidates were doing.

Going to bed glad that loosened ballot access let me escape yet another Sophie's choice election, but without knowing who actually won. They'll still have won in the morning.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Gathered Up

-- Apparently the players of the National Basketball Association would like the next season to begin in January 2021. Team owners, though, are worried about the potential revenue loss if they start after Christmas. That loss wouldn't necessarily happen on the front end but during the playoffs and finals (which amount to the only real part of the NBA season anymore anyway), when they would compete with the rescheduled Summer Olympics. The situation prompts two thoughts: 1) When you're worried your league will lose viewers to the Olympics, whose 2016 ratings fell anywhere from nine to 25% from the ratings of the 2012 games, you may have bigger problems than scheduling. And 2) I hope it happens and the billion dollars is a wild underestimate. Until the league realizes that the people being oppressed by the Chinese government are people before they are a revenue stream I hope it loses money by opening the door and turning on the lights in the office.

-- Tomorrow is the election. There may not seem to be much for which to be thankful but I am glad I live in a state that eased its ballot access laws a few years ago, so when the major parties come to me and say, "Pick your poison," I can say, "I'll just have water." Sure, water that has foreign policy ideas that made more sense in 1920 than 2020 and a running mate who may be an actual anarchist, but still, it's better than poison.

-- Writing at Real Clear Education, Mike Sovo highlights a resource called iCivics, which he says can "help students make sense of the 2020 election." iCivics was founded by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and although she was definitely a sharp and intelligent person, I think "making sense of the 2020 election" asks more of iCivics than it -- or maybe anything less than Holy Writ -- can do.

-- Reading the Variety obituary for Sean Connery, who passed this weekend at 90, is a reminder that he was both a larger-than-life action star and a top actor. Perhaps towards the end of his career he was in some ways just showing up onscreen and being Sean Connery the way that John Wayne spent most of his last dozen or so movies just being John Wayne. Even so, his presence gave weight and entertainment value to some pretty dull movies that would have never been heard of without him in the billing, and his uncredited cameo in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood movie showed that sometimes he didn't even need the billing.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Been There, Done That

So the Washington Post ran an opinion column from Stephen King about Tuesday's election. In it, King suggests he now understands the reason that people voted for Donald Trump in 2016, but warns that given the conditions of 2020, making choices like it was 2016 is probably not a good idea. That's true, but...

It's pretty silly. It rides its central metaphor -- Trump's 2016 voters wanted to "kick over the apple cart" -- too far by saying that 2020 requires us to vote for Joe Biden to "set it upright again...but we'll all have to pick up the apples." King says he understands the 2016 Trump voters but still speaks of them as though they were children who threw a tantrum. They may very well be exactly that, but olive-branch appeals to an opponent's better nature fare poorly when the non-extended hand is still covering a snicker.

King's "Trump voter" in mind is a convenience-store clerk who surprises him back in 2016 with her preference for Trump. In another bit of silliness he gives her the pseudonym "Annie" even though he doesn't use her last name and doesn't identify where she worked at the time, and she doesn't work there anymore anyway.

King's point is that although the impulse of the 2016 voter may have been understandable, the results have been awful: Trump has done poorly at his job and has deepened and hardened the divisions that his candidacy exposed. I completely agree with the first and don't deny the second. But I think King gives far too little credit to Trump's opponents, who seem to have taken every opportunity to join him in making things worse.

But the Washington Post leaves one question glaringly open: Who cares what Stephen King thinks? Sure, he's not dumb, but his degree is a Bachelor of the Arts in English, not foreign policy or economics or political science. He probably spends a reasonable amount of time informing himself of the events of the day via news media, but he's never demonstrated any particular genius for uncovering surprising new points of view -- and he doesn't do so here. It's not that he's wrong, it's just that he doesn't offer anything new, anything that a few million Americans don't also think. None of those few million Americans had an invitation from the Post to share their wisdom with the world, only Stephen King. And why did Stephen King get that chance? Because he's sold lots of books and people know his name. In other words, WaPo readers were presented with this particular point of view for no other reason than that its holder is a celebrity.

Please correct me if I err, but thinking that celebrity somehow confers special insight, wisdom or ability to understand, comment on and handle complex modern issues -- like, say, the problem of illegal immigration or of China's power grabs on the world stage -- and that we owe the opinions and policy suggestions of the famous more deference because of their fame is one of the mistakes that got us here. I'd figure the Post might give us a little help in the course correction.

Friday, October 30, 2020

...In Your Eye!

Once upon a time there was no mud on the Earth.

Or there was, but it didn't stay in one place very long. Any excess of water flow or some other disaster rinsed it right out into the sea, where it would eventually sink to the bottom of the ocean after smothering a bunch of fish near the shore.

Then plants started taking hold on the land and spreading out everywhere, and the mud stayed put because the plants kept it from sluicing along with any old rainstorm that happened by.

And everything changed.

At least, that's what geologists like Neil Davies have figured out happened by studying things like the fossil record and the shapes of ancient and current rivers and seashores. When mud sticks around it alters the flow channels that water makes and gives rivers shapes more like the ones we know. Bends create new environments as water finds places that are still rather than rushing, and new life develops. Most current theories suggest plants began to spread out and establish themselves on dry land between 450 and 350 million years ago -- about the same time that Davies and other geologists see an an increase in the levels of mud that stays on the land instead of washing out to sea. If you try to imagine a world without as much mud on the land, Davies says in the above-linked  article at Knowable magazine, Earth "becomes a very different kind of planet."

The new environments -- both of the mud itself and of the new conditions it creates -- lead to different forms of life succeeding where they might have died out before or barely clung to a niche corner of their world. That alters the environment even more as the new forms use its conditions to thrive and reproduce.

Genesis 2 suggests that God created plant and animal life, including human beings, "out of the ground," and while the fossil record shows life existed before plants started keeping mud out of the ocean, the muddy change allowed life to take new directions, one of which apparently led to us. So it would seem that whether you prefer to read Genesis 2 literally or you blend its understandings with those uncovered through scientific observation, God has done some amazing things with mud.

Which is kind of sobering when a look at the modern world suggests that what we do with it most of the time is sling it at each other in the months before elections.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Some Back Catalog

A wealthy restaurant owner is on trial for the murder of his wife. A crucial piece of evidence was found by a Los Angeles Police Department detective with a suspected but unproven shady past. The rich man's lawyer would like some dirt on the detective to help create reasonable doubt and spring his client, so he hires Elvis Cole to dig into that past and see what comes. Ordinarily Elvis wouldn't get himself into the middle of something like this but he's got enough doubts of his own that he'd like to learn some of the answers.

Sunset Express, the sixth Elvis Cole novel, was published in 1996 and so just about every incident that you think might be a kind of commentary on the way celebrity and money can influence the legal system (O.J. who?) is intended to be one. Crais is clear that while the system is meant to function a certain way, the reality of fallible and self-interested human beings, combined with enough resources, can put a thumb on Lady Justice's scales. As Elvis, who fancies himself not naïve in these matters, digs into the past and present issues, he becomes both suspicious and disgusted. His developing romance with Lucy Chenier may not be the only thing the case endangers, as signs of a conspiracy make him a liability that someone wants dealt with...preferably permanently. Elvis and his friend, the taciturn tough-guy Joe Pike, may have more than celebrity culture to deal with before everything is over.

Cole does the "wisecracking P.I." bit better than most, for the simple reason that Crais is funnier than a lot of other authors who try it and he writes a better book. Express finds him in a good groove in both of those areas, although the interactions with Lucy, her son Ben and Lucy's ex-husband seem like they would have been better in a different book. Conversations with Lucy give Elvis a chance to comment on the wackiness of LA's "scene," but otherwise they feel like pitstops in the main storyline. Even so, Express is one of the better books of one of the better smart-aleck sleuth series on the shelves.
-----
Often thrillers and spy novels that put their leads into contact with the highest circles of power will create fictitious versions of the real people in those offices. The agent might have an important role in saving, say, the President of the United States, but it won't be any actual president. The author might, if he or she has a low view of said president, create the fictional one to mirror the worst aspects of the real one, at least as they see them, but the character will still be fictional. Ted Bell mixes and matches his real world analogues with fictional characters as they encounter his top British agent, Alex Hawke. Among the actual people that he's cast is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who owes Hawke a debt for the latter's help in stopping an attempt to recreate Imperial Russia in Tsar -- a debt because the plotters intended to succeed over Putin's dead body.

The wily and vicious Russian president opens the tenth Hawk novel, Overkill, by surviving another assassination attempt -- but he has to flee the country in order to do so and is cut off from his power base by the oligarchs who tried to remove him. But Putin still has allies, and he has a plan as well. In the meantime, we find Alexander Hawke on a hunt for his kidnapped son -- a significant problem not just because he doesn't know who took the boy or why, but because the list of potential suspects and old enemies is almost too long to count. The two men will once again converge in unexpected ways as Hawke needs to not only find his son, he needs to try to block Putin's bloody plan for revenge and a return to power.

Overkill has just enough focus to its outlandish plot to keep things moving from start to finish, although whether that's a desirable outcome is left up to the reader. Bell's whimsical take on some aspects of the spy thriller, when married to a sensible plot, make for a fun romp around the world. His choice to include real world characters adds an interesting flavor (in one novel, Prince William and Prince Harry employ their actual military training to help protect their family from terrorists). But in this case, the mix is uninteresting, the overall plot uninspiring and the results is a book well below average for Lord Alexander Hawke.
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Michael Connelly has been writing his Harry Bosch character for a long time and has aged him pretty close to real time over the course of his 20 or so books. That means that Harry's getting up in years and while he may be just as dogged a detective as he ever was, his physical limitations start to show. It also means that the series itself could start to show wear -- there's only so many times Harry could confront superior officers who care more about politics than about finding whatever justice is available for those unable to speak for themselves -- the victims that murderers have left behind.

In 2017, Connelly brought a new character into the loosely connected "universe" centered on Harry and his half-brother, lawyer Mickey Haller: LAPD Detective Renée Ballard. A confrontation of her own with a sleazy superior left Ballard on the "Late Show," one of the detectives who responds during the night shift when a body is found but who usually hands the case off to another detective if it proves more involved. In 2018's Dark Sacred Night, Ballard meets Bosch, as the latter is snooping through LAPD files -- after hours, because he's been put out to pasture. He's hunting information on an old murder of the teenaged daughter of a woman he met during his most recent case. Ballard doesn't turn Bosch in, but she also lets him know he shouldn't be sneaking around. His drive to solve the case, though, appeals to her and the pair find their deep desire to bring killers to justice gives them common goals -- and perhaps common enemies in the LAPD authority structure that looked the other way when Ballard was harassed and Bosch was sent packing.

Although Connelly's stumbled now and again by sliding into some of the crime genre's tropes, he still produces quality work and uses its familiar palette to paint realistic characters in realistic and engaging situations. Neither Bosch nor Ballard are ideal folks, but their shared quest for justice draws readers in and makes them people to root for. "Everybody counts or nobody counts," Bosch says, and his dedication to that potentially corny idea sells the reader on it as his clear passion. Ballard seems similar although she has her own twist on the idea; it's not just cloned from the older detective.

The story of the murdered teenager and her mother in recovery was used in the most recent season of Amazon's Bosch series, but the TV version actually has some more resonance and makes some better choices than Connelly does in the novel. Still, Dark Sacred Night does the necessary work to bring the pair together and set the stage for how Harry Bosch can be a viable character as he ages past the ability to take on the physical demands of his job. But it does so while keeping Renée Ballard and interesting and complex character in her own right; future collaborations will allow Connelly the luxury of writing about two interesting people in the same novel.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Preservation!

In 2008 some folks in Norway built what's called the Svaldbard Global Seed Vault, a repository for seeds from a wide range of plants. In case of global catastrophe, humanity's remnants can go to the vault and retrieve seeds for most of the plans that now exist on the earth. This could come in handy in re-starting agriculture.

Now the Oreo company has done something similar, just up the road from the Seed Vault, in order to ensure that the potential survivors have not only the supplies needed to bring grains, fruit and vegetables back to a devastated Earth. They will now be able to reintroduce Oreos amidst the devastation. The vault contains not only a supply of the cookies but also the recipe for making more. Such civic-mindedness is definitely to be thanked, and I would encourage all persons to commit the coordinates of the new vault -- 78° 08’ 58.1” N, 16° 01’ 59.7” E -- to memory for their own good.

Hostess was asked about similar plans with the Twinkie, but a company spokesperson pointed out that Twinkies are almost certain to survive any disaster that does not completely annihilate the planet and so a vault is not needed. Another spokesperson assured us of the same durability regarding Keith Richards.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Blue Tunes

Although Melody Gardot has experimented with several styles and rhythms of music during her career, her roots in quiet, reflective jazz have always remained, sometimes more above the surface, sometimes less. With her fifth studio album, Sunset in the Blue, Gardot circles back to those roots but expands her palette to add orchestral arrangements to the spare drums, keys and bass that brought her into the business on Worrisome Heart. The result is a wonderful time tunnel to the middle of the 20th century; a simultaneously relaxing and recharging visit to the era when vocalists reigned supreme in the craft.

Sunset opens with "If You Love Me," a plea to the potential lover to declare his feelings and intentions -- but gently and carefully, as might befit a couple who have both seen their share of hurried heartbreak: "Come in close but come in slowly, now." "C'est Magnifique" follows, mostly in Portuguese and easily  one of the most beautiful performances Gardot has ever recorded -- her voice light enough on the ear it wouldn't leave tracks in the snow as she and Portuguese vocalist António Zambujo trade back and forth in a duet that sounds for all the world like the opening theme to a lost Audrey Hepburn movie. The title track is a wistful lament on the inevitable passage of time, and Gardot tucks two more numbers in Portuguese into the middle of the album, the dreamy "Um Biejo" and peppy "Ninguém, Ninguém." The latter's upbeat rhythm belies its   wistful reflection on a past relationship -- perhaps one of the same ones that brought the singer of the first track to her caution about going slow.

"From Paris With Love" is a sketch of an afternoon in one of that city's cafés, moving then into the reflective "Ave Maria" and delicately lovely covers of Henry Mancini's "Moon River" and Frank Sinatra's version of Sammy Cahn's "I Fall in Love too Easily."

"Little Something," a duet with Sting, closes the album with a bright dance floor rhythm the covers up the two protagonists promising each other that they "could be a little something," a playful kind of fling without the baggage and attachment that weighed down the relationships that each of them had before. But both have a hint of desperation in their words. On the one hand they try to convince the other that such a fling would be a fun, no-strings-attached time together. But on the other they sound as if they're trying to convince themselves that they can enter such a relationship without developing the attachments from the past -- and trying a little too hard, at that.

Although her experimentation yielded some good music, the return to this style of quiet jazz makes it clear where Gardot's strengths as a songwriter and vocalist lie. Sunset offers evidence that even within that style there's plenty of room to stretch as an artist and still make one of the year's top vocal albums.

Edited on 10/27/20 to correct lyric quote.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Third Places Finished?

Sometimes research tells you what you already know. Writing at The American Institute for Economic Research, Brad DeVos outlines how the COVID-19 pandemic and measures to slow its spread have brought significant stress into people's lives by isolating them.

DeVos specifically addresses the way that mandated pandemic precautions have removed so-called "third spaces" from many people's lives. The term was coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe places where people often congregated that was not home or work. Neighborhood taverns, gyms, bowling allies churches and the like offer places where people encounter other people but do so without the structured expectations of the workplace. Their lack has removed a place or environment where people could help shed stress and take part in enjoyable, relaxing and potentially recharging activities as a group.

The article isn't a long exploration of the idea but I think DeVos's understanding is on target. But even more than that I like his ending -- a hope that when we have dealt with the virus through a vaccine and learning how its spread can be prevented we return "to normal." Not, he says, the proverbial "new normal" that has no place for third spaces and their role, but actual normal that does include them and lets them once again fulfill their vital role in the spiritual and emotional health of our society.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Photoshop Phun

In 1944's Anchors Aweigh, Gene Kelly danced with the cartoon mouse Jerry of Tom and Jerry fame, offering an intriguing first look at how animated images might blend with the real world. In 1988, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? took the concept a much greater distance by mixing animation and real-life actors throughout an entire movie.

Along the same lines, Jakarta-based artist Andhika Muksin puts Disney characters into real life scenes, sometimes blending the animated heads onto actual human bodies and sometimes just putting the entire character into a photo. Checking him out at these two Bored Panda pages is certainly more fun than the final presidential debate of the 2020 campaign, no matter who you intend to vote for.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Pinnacle

Lots of kids love dinosaurs and can tell you half a million things about them that no one over the age of 12 remembers.

Nathan Hrushkin has them all beat, finding four bones of a juvenile hadrosaur while poking around the Alberta Prairies in Canada with his dad. Adult hadrosaurs are fairly common finds in the area but not juveniles, and the team sent to explore it found more than 30 more hadrosaur bones nearby.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Purpose!

So you've slogged through some political and news posts and made yourself depressed, because it seems like the only thing that would be worse than the one guy winning the election would be the other guy winning it. Then you happen across a post for something called Mathemalchemy, in which a couple dozen artists/mathematicians are going to collaborate on a "large multimedia art installation that celebrates the creativity and beauty of mathematics." It'll be unveiled in a little under 300 days.

So there's something to look forward to after all!

Monday, October 19, 2020

Prophecy!

Straight from 1990, Calvin and Hobbes offer an excellent picture of the ballots that confronted us in 2016 and which we will see in a couple of weeks.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Compulsive

There's rarely a reason to read a political book about a presidential administration produced while that president is in office. Former staffers write a couple of hundred pages to say, "If only they'd have listed to me!" Others let Bob Woodward quote them, by name or otherwise, saying the same thing. Or they're about things that just happened a couple of years ago and can still be looked up.

Donald Trump's presidency provides even more incentive to avoid books supposedly detailing its inner workings, adding only to the wonder the reader must feel: If he was indeed so awful, why did you agree to work for him? It's not like he was secretly vain, pompous, boastful, etc...

Byron York's Obsession fulfills one of the few real needs for books about the Trump administration: A clear look at what the hell happened with one or another particular feature of it. York, a reporter for The Washington Examiner, traces some features of the buildup to the impeachment investigation and probe from late 2019 and early 2020 and their relationship with what's usually called "the Russia probe" connected to the investigation by Robert Mueller.

Large amounts of the book come from York's reporting on Mueller, impeachment and related matters at the time, as well as later interviews to add perspective. Since the Examiner is a conservative-leaning news outlet and York is a former staffer at National Review, one might be tempted to dismiss Obsession as a an exercise in Trump apologia. And frankly, Regnery Publishing's subtitle "Inside the Washington Establishment's Never-Ending War on Trump" doesn't help. But York outlines clearly the way some of the president's own deficiencies -- hubris, narcissism, unwillingness to believe someone else might know something he didn't -- contributed to his problems. Interviews with former staff, members of the legal team, campaign and transition team officials make clear that all too often, the president did not know what he was doing and should have listened to others who did.

On the other hand, his opponents seemed little better. Obsession's title is probably aimed at them and the way that several of the leading figures against Trump made it clear early on that they would take whatever steps and grab hold of whatever pretext presented itself to not just work against him and his policies but destroy his ability to even attempt them. Impeachment is an excellent example. Was there ever a chance that House Democrats could produce evidence that would make Senate Republicans remove a president of their own party from office? Perhaps slightly, at the beginning, but the secrecy, missteps and bungling of Reps. Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler in their respective areas snuffed it out. It could not succeed yet extensive and expensive efforts were still poured into it, occupying both Congress and the administration while the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to take shape in China.

York offers another example, perhaps even more telling, in his second chapter. On January 6 following a presidential election, members of Congress are sworn in for their new terms and they help certify the results of the Electoral College. Since those votes have already been sent to different federal and state officials, the certification is almost always ceremonial. But not in 2017. With then Vice-President Joe Biden presiding, Democratic Representatives rose time and time again to debate the results of the election. Well of course, one might say. There was considerable room to do so. But none of the complaints were co-signed by a Senator as they needed to be in order to be heard. In other words, none of the Representatives who rose to speak intended to legitimately object to the totals. They only want to say they were objecting, rather than directing energy and effort toward things the president might want to do that they could stop.

Reading Obsession, we watch Democratic leadership and others opposed to the president who try to bend any process at hand to the end of removing him from office, whether it has any chance of success of not and no matter what happened to that process through their efforts. It calls to mind the possibly apocryphal Vietnam-era quote about destroying a village in order to save it.

Like most books written from a point of view, Obsession tends to emphasize things that support the point and elide some of those that don't. But it still prompts a question. President Trump is cast by his opponents as a man of little character, unfit for the office he holds. They predicted before he was elected and have pointed out since then that his bad character and lack of discipline and competence would damage our political culture and possibly our republic. Whether those qualities have done so to the degree claimed may still need to be resolved, but that he has seems clear.

But as Obsession explains, what isn't clear is why the people who swear they oppose him have helped him do so.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Champeen

With the Los Angeles Lakers win in the 2020 NBA Championships, LeBron James now has his fourth title as well as fourth Finals MVP Award., reigniting talk about whether or not he or former Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan is the GOAT or Greatest of All Time. Jordan has six rings and six Finals MVP awards, which would seem to make the answer clear.

Nay, nay, O Tolerant Reader! Arguments over matters like this are what sports fans live for, especially when the players involved never went head-to-head. Multiple controlling factors are in play, such as whether or not Jordan would have been able to dominate as he did in today's game of professional basketball, or whether James would have been able to do the same in the 1990s. James, it is pointed out, has taken three different teams to titles, whereas Jordan won only with the Bulls. Exactly wrong, scoff the MJ crowd, who suggest instead that instead creating and maintaining a decade-long dynasty was the greater task.

William C. Rhoden, writing for The Undefeated, suggests that the tag of greatest clearly belongs to James. He cites the current superstar's impressive achievements but adds in the off-court dimension, where James' activism far outshines Jordan's well-known bottom-line reticence in political matters.

Figuring out whose on-court accomplishments top the other's is an exercise left for the student, but if we're going to add in off-court factors I have to point out that Michael Jordan never held the company line on its submissive pose to the Chinese market or side-stepped his league's subservience to a genocidal regime. MJ never suggested that a tweet supporting democracy protestors in Hong Kong was "misinformed." So I'm not willing to tip the cap to Mr. James just yet.

As for my own two cents regarding on-court matters? I'll cast my vote for and leave the last word to Bill Russell:


ETA: Tolerant Readers indeed. Many typos fixed today, 10/17/20

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Perspective

So I understand the candidates for president from the two major parties held dueling town hall sessions tonight. I spent a bit of time cruising through the Natural Wonders section of Atlas Obscura and seeing some of the very weird -- and cool -- places that dot our planet.

Once again, I am victorious!

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Where We're Going, We Don't Need Roads

The Tesla Roadster that Elon Musk launched into space on a test flight of his SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket just did a flyby past Mars, complete with spacesuited mannequin behind the wheel. It's in a solar orbit that will fly past Mars and Earth both several times over the next few million years.

Musk is a weird cat and sometimes a complete jackass, but he also does some pretty cool off-the-wall stuff now and again.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Dragon Misfire

The first half of Ted Bell's Alexander Hawke series was finely written, tightly plotted spy fiction with a touch of outlandishness; a kind of millennial James Bond for the 21st century. Starting with #7,
Phantom, Bell began to lean on some of the genre's more tired tropes and spend less time making his plots fit together. He also kept going back to the well of killing whatever woman with whom Alex became involved in order to motivate the hero, a practice pop culture calls fridging. This, the 11th Hawke novel, so disposes of not one but two paramours in the course of its dual plotlines and would be given a negative star if such a rating existed. Some spoilers contained below.

While recuperating from an encounter with a vicious assassin. Alex Hawke is summoned by the Queen for the kind of discreet and ruthlessly competent service he has consistently provided in service to crown and country. But this request has a bit of a personal dimension as well, since it concerns a missing royal grandson last seen in a Bahamas nightclub owned by two notorious Chinese criminals. Though he may not be exactly 100% just yet, Hawke has enough in him to answer Her Majesty's call and woe betide any who stand in his way.

In a parallel story set during World War II, the new Chinese ambassador to the United States begins his job almost simultaneously with the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan and the declaration of war. Though he is meant to serve as a diplomat, Tiger Tang will find himself enmeshed in both British and American espionage work during the war, side by side with an Englishman named Ian Fleming and with Horatio Hawke. Their descendants will meet also, as the grandchildren of Tiger Tang own the club, Dragonfire, where the royal grandson was last seen and where Alex Hawke will begin his search.

While Bell's writing in Dragonfire is just about as good as it has ever been, it's being used in service of two barely connected plots that have only the flimsiest reason to be between the same covers. The Tiger Tang narrative is interesting enough but neither it nor the hunt for Prince Henry makes a full story and combined the seams show clearly.

In the course of his hunt Alex reconnects with China Moon, a People's Republic secret service operative whom he crossed paths with several years ago. An old romance is rekindled as her loyalty to her nation and its goals take second place to her love of Alex. But wait, you ask. As I recall, in Overkill, Alex rekindled an old affair with Sigrid Kissl -- is he two-timing her? Of course not! Bell had Sigrid Kissl killed back in chapter 6 at the hands of renegade super-assassin Shit Smith, who will not, by the way, be seen again in this book. Sigrid is not even given the courtesy of being fridged for the current narrative, only a potential future one. China Moon will herself be killed in an epilogue, with Bell doubling down on his grotesque habit of killing any woman with whom Alex grows close.

It's not common to find so many hack habits and choices in a book by an author of Bell's clearly demonstrated but pointlessly employed skill. But he's a published best-selling author and if his publisher permits he can indulge himself however he pleases.

The reader, on the other hand, is cautioned against indulging him at all.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Prediction

Way back in 1990, Calvin describes pretty much the exact reason that most political coverage and discourse today is not only awful, it makes no sense.