Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Teller of Tales

When author Clive Cussler realized he was selling a lot of books, he decided to take some of the profits and make part of his fictional world a reality: He founded a real-life National Underwater and Marine Agency to help find and preserve shipwrecks and other pieces of nautical history. It didn't have the same role as his fictional NUMA, which was often on the cutting edge of oceanograpic research, but it did quite a bit. More than 60 wrecks have been discovered by the real-life NUMA, including the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley in 1995. The Hunley was the first submarine to sink a warship other than itself. Cussler was himself an avid explorer and traveler, and shared with his central character Dirk Pitt a love of classic autos. He passed this week at 88.

Since the turn of the century Cussler has operated with a stable of co-authors to handle the several series of novels that bear his name. The last book out under his name alone was 2007's The Wrecker, which began the early 20th century adventures of detective Isaac Bell. Only he and they know how much of the story came from Cussler and how much from the co-author, but given the relatively uncomplicated nature of most Cussler works it's likely that some of the series will continue. His son Dirk Cussler has been co-writing the main sequence of Pitt novels since 2004's Black Wind, and one might assume Cussler fils has his father's blessing to continue.

Anyone who reads a Cussler novel looking for insight into the human condition or answers to the deep questions of life has been listening to whoever told Rick Blaine to go to Casablanca for the waters. Cussler aimed to give a reader some escapist pleasure contained in a bright dust jacket and the few times he ventured to Make a Point it concerned his beloved oceans and their residents, and he succeeded far more often than he failed. He had the odd habit of inserting himself into his novels in cameo roles, and would make it a joke by having the characters almost remember the fellow they kept meeting in book after book. In a discussion with friends about the news of Cussler death, I said, "The style could be stilted, the characters thin and the clichés thick in a Cussler novel, but the man could yarn."

He could, he did and when it turned out that by doing so he could make money he used what came his way to try to make the world a bit better place. That indeed is a worthy tale to tell, and to have told of oneself. Fair winds and following seas.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020


In today's reprint, Snoopy forgets something he should remember, with embarrassing results. I mean, of all the Peanuts cast, you'd think he would remember Charlie Brown's name...

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Shutterstock Stock Shudder?

The Smithsonian Institute turned 2.8 million images loose into the internet, for use as a downloader would see fit.

Good thing I hadn't just bought an image library license...

Monday, February 24, 2020

Round and Round

Over at Vulture, Molly Young writes about "garbage language," or the horrendous outpouring of nonsense phrases, acronyms, repurposed words and whatnot that afflict people who try to work in businesses and offices.

Part of Young's purpose is to try to find out why this kind of language has become the kudzu of the workplace. Even when communications consultants or advisers come in and -- often using their own special cache of garbage language -- point out how this sort of stuff makes it harder to be understood than easier, it persists. If by some miracle it's killed, it rises like an unstaked vampire and feeds until the problem is as bad or worse than before. I've always thought that some of the fuel for this kind of lexical fog was similar to that found in academia: If I hit a sufficient percentage of obscurancy in my communication you have to keep me around because you don't know what I'm talking about and you don't want to have to do my job yourself.

According to Young, one of the reasons people deploy garbage language is also part of its greatest problem: It confirms, she says, that delusion is an asset in the modern workplace. The speakers of garbage language convince themselves that their verbal deformations are actually better than the plain brown wrapper of the basic grammar textbook. They are being more precise, more descriptive, more efficient! One or another of them who might have read an avant-garde stylist like Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson might even believe they are being more creative. Lord knows Wolfe could press a word into service for which it did not seem fit, until after he did it, and they believe they might just tread that path too.

But they don't. As Young says, it's a delusion. For most everyone who tries to do a job, the best memo is not exciting or zingy or cutting edge in its vocabulary. It's the one that spells out what the job is, how it needs to be done, who should be doing it and when it should be finished. In the course of my working life I have run across a couple of supervisors who understood that. May their tribe ever increase.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Learn Something New

We're coming up on the 40th anniversary of one of sports' great moments, in which the United States Olympic hockey team beat the Soviet Union Olympic hockey team in what is called, thanks to Al Michaels' joyous question, "The Miracle on Ice." Sports writer Joe Posnanski put together a sidebar list of "10 Interesting Facts You May Not Know About the Miracle on Ice" for his Sports Illustrated article.

The one fact that anyone who remembers the game knows, of course, is that the commies lost. But then again, they've made a practice of doing that everywhere but the faculty lounge, so I suppose it's not that interesting.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Another Man

The well-known picture of four neatly-dressed African American young men sitting at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, is one of the iconic images of the Civil Rights movement. It was taken in February, 1960, on the second day that the men sat there, waiting to be served but denied because of evil of segregation and the color of their skin.

There is a fifth man in the picture, who is sometimes not noticed as much because he is working. Charles Bess was a busboy at Woolworth's and he was working behind the counter as he often did during that time in his life. In this story at Bitter Southerner, Sayaka Matsuoka reports on some of his impressions of the day and of its long term impact. She notes that when Woolworth's finally desegregated its lunch counter later that year, Bess and the other African-American employees were invited by the counter manager to be the first ones served. They changed out of their work gear into their street clothes and had a meal, right in the middle of the shift.

I'm always impressed with the people who led so many of the drives for desegregation. Their very mannered, respectful and calm demeanor made liars out of the segregationists who talked about riots and outside agitators and the like. It helped bring many people to their cause, even some who might be a little iffy about other matters concerning racial equality, because they could see these plain, ordinary working American folks being harassed, threatened, beaten and worse just because they wanted what were their rights as American citizens to travel, live, eat, drink, vote and go to school wherever they desired.

And every now and again we get to uncover the story of one of the people who wasn't on the front lines but who got to stand taller, hold a head up higher and live like a full and free citizen because of what the front line folks did. And that's pretty good too.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Color Me Impressed

Synesthsia is a condition in which a person's senses don't operate the way that they do for the majority of people. Music may affect their sense of smell, for example, or looking at a painting may produce feelings of taste. It can be tough for people to handle until they become more comfortable with their differences and perhaps establish workarounds in order to have sensible conversations with other people about what goes on in a regular day.

Bernadette Sheridan, an artist, sees letters and numbers as colors. This is called grapheme-color synesthsia, and she says it usually happens with names. Although she hears the sounds of the names, her brain is working to translate those sounds into letters and then into colors. In this article at Medium, she shows how this process can leave her not remembering a name so much as a sequence of colors, something like the old signal flags that ships used for communication before radio. If the name has a pretty common grouping of letters, she might mistake it for a similar name with many of the same colors. And once she knows how to spell a name, she says she associates it with color blocks for all of the letters, even ones that are silent or are sound differently depending on their surrounding letters.

Sheridan created a website called in order to try to illustrate how she sees the letters and colors connect. And for the specific tendency she has to assign them for names, she added a section that lets a user type in a name and see the colors that Sheridan assigns to the letters. She points out that even someone else with grapheme-color synesthesia might not see the same colors, so it's not a universal guide.

And being an American in the 21st century, Sheridan found a way to make a little bank off her different view. You can buy prints of one, two or three names from her at Etsy.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Internet Justifies Existence

For most of my adult life, I held it as an iron rule that nobody but Ray Charles should be allowed to play the song he'd made a hit, 1959's "What'd I Say."

Then, during one of the random playlists I cued up while working this afternoon, YouTube offered this:

I stand corrected.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Out of Gas

Illinois State Rep. Camille Lilly took some lumps over the last few days about legislation she introduced which would have prevented people living in Illinois from pumping their own gas. Currently, New Jersey is the only state which prohibits self-serve gas stations. Oregon used to, but then tweaked its law so that in its more rural areas, gas stations could offer self-service if they wanted to. Portland residents were still considered not bright enough to properly operate a gas pump, and, well, my mockery just ran aground on the shoals of All Too Plausibility.

In any event, Rep. Lilly has backed off the outright ban it seemed that her proposed legislation would have enacted. She now says that the proposal "had some verbiage that was not my intent at all." She only intended to address safety and convenience issues at gas stations and said that she intended to start a conversation about those issues and others related to the overwhelming prevalence of self-serve stations in relationship to full-service ones.

As I have no direct knowledge of Rep. Lilly, I believe I should take her at her word unless some reason appears to tell me to do otherwise. I have no problem believing she proposed legislation she had not fully read without any intention of it becoming a law that people had to obey. And I have no problem believing this because lawmakers do it all of the time. Just recently this space noted an Oklahoma lawmaker who wanted to prevent companies that make things like "soy milk" from calling it soy milk and making them call it "soy extract."

I have no problem believing that legislators want to "start conversations" and "begin discussions" and whatnot, since the majority of them at the state and federal level rarely seem to want to do the work that people voted them in to do and pay them to do, which is craft and pass legislation in order to help maintain an orderly and just society insofar as is humanly possible.

Certainly there's an alternative explanation. It's possible, of course, that Rep. Lilly proposed something dumb that she didn't realize would make people angry. She could admit that and withdraw the legislation, or she might even say something like, "Well, this law may make people angry and if we pass it I may lose my legislative seat, but this is important enough that I'll pay that price." But now we've entered the realm of science fiction, a strange world where legislators legislate, people start their own conversations and folks who live in Portland are smart enough to pump their own gas.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

A Century

A hundred years ago today, representatives from eight clubs met at the YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri, to organize what would become known as the Negro National League. The first regulated group of baseball teams for African American players excluded from major league baseball, it would last until the beginning of the Great Depression.

Other leagues would follow, some of them formed around the teams that survived the NNL's demise. A Negro American League began in 1937 and ran until desegregation and economic realities forced its disbanding in 1962. A successor Negro National League formed in 1933 and played until 1948, when surviving teams joined the NAL.

The history of the teams, leagues, champions, statistics, stars and such is complicated. Had the most powerful owners banded together in the years prior to Jackie Robinson's signing by the Brooklyn Dodgers, could they have forced better terms from the major league teams and created an arrangement in which some of the storied franchises like the Kansas City Monarchs, Homestead Grays, Newark Eagles and Indianapolis Clowns continued to exist? Could a more visionary major league owner demonstrated the folly of excluding gifted players and a devoted fandom by recruiting legends such as Buck Leonard, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell or Satchel Paige?

Perhaps. History proceeded as it did, though, and we can't know what the "what-ifs?" might have meant for Negro League baseball teams and their stars, we can only know what was real. Which will be enough, because the teams were real, the players were real, and the example of human beings refusing to accept the idea that they were "second class" in any way was real as well.

Should your travels, O Tolerant Reader, ever take you through Kansas City, Missouri, and should you have the time, you could do worse than visit the Negro League Museum and perhaps see for yourselves what those players knew and tried to say: Sure, it's about baseball. But it's always about more than baseball.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

It Hurts to Say Goodbye...Because I'm Smiling so Big

I watched the savant of sanctimony Pat Robertson walk out of the 1988 GOP primary with nine percent of the vote, having captured the party delegations of exactly four states. In 2008 I watched the sultan of smug, Mike Huckabee, go to the elimination that math promised him even though he "majored in miracles," securing about a sixth of the delegates that eventual nominee John McCain would win.

But I can't ever remember looking forward to watching a candidate suspend a campaign as much as I am to Senator Elizabeth Warren's all-but-inevitable annoucement. Even a brief list of her gaffes, fibs and political nonsense would stretch my word count well into four digits. Lying about Native American heritage, lying about her kids attending public school, lying about being fired for being pregnant, lying about...well, you get the picture. The reactor-level smarm of asking the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court to read aloud a question about whether or not his reputation would recover following the impeachment trial, rather than having the guts to say something like that in her own voice and words. The Klaatu-like inability to connect with or react to ordinary human beings in any way that marked a feeling of connection with them. The vacuous speciousness of her "I have a plan for that" mantra describing an assortment of shallow talking points that might work in a science contest diorama of Earth but not in the one everybody really lives on.

I am under no illusions about the ballot choices facing Americans in November. The incumbent, a man who can't get out of his own way for more than 18 hours and whose narcissism and childish ego simply will not allow the national conversation to have anything other than his own exalted self as the center. A man who insists on slapping a thick coat of buffoonery over a few legitimate accomplishments and who thus demands again and again that you remember he is of unfit character to hold the office wherin he sits.

As for whatever rough Voltron slouches out of Milwaukee in July, created Toei-like from the mess hammered together from a pretend-Democrat Socialist, a couple of bored billionaires, the two-term mayor of America's 306th largest city and twenty-plus others not good enough to beat them? No thanks. The only political party of which I've ever been a member is almost dead solid certain to supply a candidate for whom I could never vote. Given the sea in which she swims, would a President Warren really be that much worse than a President Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, Inslee, DeBlasio, Swalwell or Williamson would have been had the stars aligned for them and shot deadly meteors at the entire roster of their opponents? Probably not.

But she is uniquely oleaginous in enough ways, as hinted above, that it will be a pleasure to not see her name when the votin' comes 'round. Yes, as stated before I am merely waiting for the Libertarian Party to put a name on top of the ballot I intend to mark. And certainly, the ability to vote directly against her would have been satisfying. But even more satisfying is learning that the members of the senator's own party will not even present me with that choice. Waving goodbye to a relentlessly scheming simulacra made of relentless ambition and little else is a lot of fun. But, lazy as I am, it will be even more fun for my former fellow Democrats to do it for me.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Real Life Cinema

This graph at Information is Beautiful compares movies that claim to be based on actual events to the courses of those actual events to see how real they are.

As you can see, it varies. And by clicking on a particular spot in the movie, a pop-up will explain how any particular scene in question either matches or deviates from reality. The graph creators researched the movie scenes for accuracy using books they were based on or other resources that describe the actual events. They give a range of options, allowing for some scenes that mix truth and falsehood as well as those which are either dead on or blatant falsehoods. And they have a category for scenes they could neither prove nor disprove because the information isn't available.

The explanatory blurbs at the bottom suggest that the crew behind the graphs will work on some other movies as well. That could be interesting, as sometimes the "true events" named in the promotional material are so drastically altered that the move isn't anything like "true." I can't remember the flick in question, but several years ago a friend after seeing a particularly partisan movie posted that the alleged actions taken by the characters representing real-life United States intelligence agents greatly angered him. I'm pretty sure I never saw the movie, but as he described it I would have been angry watching those scenes as well.

Unfortunately, when I was reading some interviews and articles with the people on whose accounts the movie was based, as well as some of their own reflections on the events it's supposed to show, it turned out that the movie version of those incidents was, well, wrong. It had shifted its pieces around so much that when they were put together they formed an entirely different puzzle. So that rather than being angry at what really happened, I would have been angry at what the screenwriter and producer had said happened, and they had crafted their version of events to evoke exactly that response. We usually call this "fiction," and it's a fine art form. But while things that happen in fiction sometimes resemble events that happened in real life, they aren't based on them. They're still the products of the creativity of the writer, artist, musician or moviemaker. It doesn't make them fake.

But it doesn't make them real, either.

Monday, February 10, 2020

North Americana

With iconic Americana guru T-Bone Burnett producing, The Secret Sisters (Laura and Lydia Rogers) showed up in 2011 with a self-titled album that answered the question, "What if Phil and Don Everly had been women and had released an awesome album of country music about 10 years before their 1950s heyday?"

For their follow-up three years later, the Rogers' sisters felt like expanding their pallette, both in terms of recording their own music as well as covers, and in advancing their sound so they didn't get pigeonholed as purely a retro act. Put Your Needle Down brings the same great harmonies heard in the debut, but this time allows them to roam into 1950s girl-group territory like their Brandi Carlisle co-written "Black and Blue" and  garage-band rock like their cover of P.J. Harvey's "Pocket Knife."

The sisters wrote more songs on Needle than they had on their debut, even receiving permission to finish out a Bob Dylan demo, "Dirty Lie," from Dylan himself. In their hands it gathers up some torchy, blues and jazzy elements that would have made it a great flip side to Peggy Lee's version of "Fever," setting it up as probably the album's best track.

Fans looking for more of the same as they heard in the debut album would have been pleased mostly by the very Everlyesque "Lonely Island" and disappointed by a lot of the rest of what they heard. The Rogers sisters were in just as fine a voice as they were in the first record but their desire to stretch themselves didn't amount to Secret Sisters Part 2 and may have put them outside of Burnett's sweet spot as a producer. Needle did not sell as well or garner the approval of the earlier record and led to the pair getting dropped by their label. Legal troubles added to their burden and they considered leaving music performing.

But eventually signed as an opening act by Carlile for a 2015 tour, the Rogers' found a muse again and would return to the studio for 2017's You Don't Own Me Anymore. This time produced by Carlile -- herself a wide-ranging synthesist of American music styles -- the album was a crowd-funding success that earned a Grammy nomination. A fourth album is due later this year.

Even if Needle didn't have the pitch-perfect recreation of the 1940s-era sound of their debut and was held down by a couple of songs that could have been better left for some more work, it's still a clear sign that The Secret Sisters and their music are worth blabbing about.
When The Band wrapped up its career as a touring outfit in 1976, people probably envisioned several solo projects would commence forthwith. Between Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel, at least, there lay the potential for a wide range of folk-influenced, meat-and-potatoes mid-tempo rock to spread throughout the charts in the next few years.

But that didn't happen -- what did happen was the group reforming in 1983 without Robertson, who himself didn't record anything new until a self-titled album in 1987. He explained the hiatus: "I wasn't so sure I had something to say." The desire to do music that both meant something to him and sounded different from what he had done with his former bandmates fueled the experimental nature of several of Robbie Robertson's tracks and his decision to work with Daniel Lanois as a producer.

Although it didn't wind up being a "concept album," Robertson's songwriting began with the concept of a mythical "Shadowland" parallel world that drifted alongside the real one, following the shadows left by clouds. It let him roam from writing "Fallen Angels," a tribute to his former bandmate Manuel, who had taken his own life in 1986, to the indictment of the ravenous culture fame machine, "American Roulette," to the lament of a Native American soldier damaged by his wartime experience in "Hell's Half-Acre."

Robertson's reflection on his Native American heritage helped build the lyrics to "Broken Arrow" -- one of the reasons it sounds better than the Rod Stewart remake even though Stewart's a better singer is because Robertson is exploring his own history though it. He approaches a warning about environmental issues in "Showdown in Big Sky" from the same perspective, mixing it with gospel and biblical imagery that will also swirl together in "Testimony." Lyrically, the most ambitious song is probably "Somewhere Down the Crazy River," a noirish memoir of a steamy nighttime encounter that alternates spoken-word segments with the titular chorus.

Sonically, Robertson travels from the hard rock of "American Roulette" and "Hell's Half Acre" to the anthemic "Sweet Fire of Love," and "Showdown" -- the former being an actual collaboration with U2. "Fallen Angel," featuring backing vocals from Peter Gabriel" and "Broken Arrow" are the most Lanois-ish songs of the album, heavy with synth atmosphere. "Crazy River," as befits its storyline motif, alternates between spare instrumentation behind the narration and its soundtrack-like chorus, backed by an echoing Sam Llanas of the BoDeans.

Having waited 11 years to be sure he had "something to say," and having spent three years and $750,000 crafting that something, Robertson showcases both how much of The Band's best work came from Robertson himself and how much his later experiences in moviemaking and movie music had influenced him. He may not have been as direct and focused as a solo artist as he had been when part of an ensemble, but the new vision and reflection spawned in the intervening time made for a fascinating new direction for one of rock music's most deep-thinking wordsmiths.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Swimming His Own Path

Although one might think that the annoying little ditty "Baby Shark" is so well known that everybody knows the words, Sherman the shark proves that such assumptions may not be warranted.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Solo Jam

One of the ways that Google Maps, as well as several other mapping apps, determines traffic level on a street is how many phones are sending their locations to the Central Scrutinizer -- oops, sorry, I mean, to the app.

So a fellow in Berlin put 90 phones in his little red wagon and walked down the middle of a Berlin street. Although the traffic was light enough he could literally walk down the middle of the road the app read the presence of 90 slow-moving phones and signaled to all users the presence of a traffic jam.

I think I'm just going to get my church members to check in with their phones on Sunday morning, in order to give me some really good attendance numbers, and then let them go on about their business while I take a nap.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

He Was Spartacus

In 1996, Issur Danielovitch was given an award for lifetime achievement in his field. He'd suffered a stroke the year before and it limited his speech, and so his son and friends urged him to just say "Thank you," when presented with the award and then leave.

But Issur -- who years before had changed his name to the more movie-friendly "Kirk Douglas" -- said he looked at the crowd and felt he had to say more. So he did, thanking his four sons for being "proud of the old man," thanking his wife and thanking the people who were saluting him with the honor. Douglas went on to write several books about his life after the stroke, which stretched from the mid-90s to today as he passed away at the age of 103.

Douglas's death leaves only very few connections to what is sometimes called Hollywood's "Golden Age," a time when public relations departments, studios and cooperative media worked together to make sure that the great stars of the time remained larger than life instead of tarnished by the tawdry characteristics found in lesser mortals. Douglas, though by any measure one of the great stars of this era and a definitive movie tough guy, was one willing to step outside the illusion. He claimed that as the producer of Spartacus his championing of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo played a central role in breaking the so-called "blacklist" of leftist writers and actors following the McCarthy anti-communist fervor. That claim's disputed today, but it seems clear that when someone of Douglas' stature weighed in by using and crediting Trumbo that the list's power had greatly evaporated.

Douglas played in more than 90 movies and dozens of stage shows. In addition to the stalwart Spartacus, he's probably best remembered as the tough guy, bad or good, whose seemingly jovial smile masked a hair-trigger ability to detonate an explosion of violence, either verbal or physical. Like many of the biggest names of the movies' golden years, he was an icon in almost every appearance -- but unlike some of his contemporaries, he had the acting chops to help you see the character instead of the actor.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Super Sundry

-- My preferred National Football League team, the Kansas City Chiefs, won in their first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years. This win fit their post-season pattern in that they came from behind with a blizzard of scoring in just a few minutes of play, led by uber-QB Patrick Mahomes. The lesson for opposing teams seems to be not to let Mahomes get behind by more than 10 points unless there is under, say, 12 seconds to play in the game.

-- Demi Lovato sang a fine rendition of the national anthem a little bit more than a year after being hospitalized for a near-fatal opioid overdose. It was only her second public live performance since she took a break following the overdose for treatment.

-- Megastar couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé stayed seated for Lovato's performance, which is understandable given that Jay-Z is partnering with former San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick in his activism trying to call attention to the injustices faced by minority populations in the United States. Many people objected, which is understandable given that the anthem and flag are widely considered to represent not simply our nation but also those who have sacrificed greatly for it, and that a show of disrespect to the flag is often seen as a show of disrespect to those people. Many news outlets covered the protest gesture, which is not understandable at all.

-- Kansas City defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi has been sponsoring one free adoption at the KC Pet Project after every Chiefs win. So after the Super Bowl victory, Nnadi said that the adoption fees for every animal at the project's shelter which became eligible for adoption on or before Feb. 2 would be covered.

-- The halftime show by Shakira and Jennifer Lopez drew criticism from people who believed it to have been inappropriately suggestive. Many women argued back, saying that women who had no real problem with Adam Levine's shirtless performance in Super Bowl LIII did not have much room to criticize the ladies' saucy work in SB LIV, and they criticized the women for tearing other women down instead of supporting them. From what I could tell, many of them emphasized their criticism by calling the critics "Karen," which has become a word expressing derision towards a certain kind of middle-class, usually white woman who leans a little bit towards self-righteousness. I wasn't able to find any actual Karen who criticized the show, although I suppose there were some.

-- Most of the commercials were stupid and boring. The lone exception was the Bill Murray ad for Jeep, which reprised his Groundhog Day movie about a man who keeps repeating the same day in his life. The Doritos ad had the brief moment of Sam Elliot's mustache helping him in his dance contest against Lil Nas X but was otherwise silly.

-- Super Bowl LIV was followed by Fox's The Masked Singer. In 1970, the last time Kansas City won the Super Bowl, the game was followed by Lassie. Super Bowl IV is the clear winner here.