Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Permanent Record

We're sometimes told that true leadership shines in a crisis. The mayor of New York City is about as bright as a blade of grass, in both senses of the word "bright."

Since NYC has been dealing with the most COVID-19 infections and serious consequences, the mayor issued a shelter in place directive and prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people. He got in a last workout at the Y before it went into effect, of course, because he's tone-deaf that way.

Well, not everyone has been diligent about the emergency order -- it seems some houses of worship have continued to gather and those meetings have exceeded the 10-person limit. Quite properly, the mayor mentioned this problem during a press conference and warned that such gatherings could bring citations. He probably pushed a little too hard when he said law enforcement agencies could be called to shut the services down; threatening folks with the power of law enforcement may get them to do what you want but it will never get them to help you do what you want.

But then he went ramming speed with the stupid, saying that congregations which repeatedly violated the executive order could find their houses of worship shut down "permanently." This is just dumb whether he meant it or he was exaggerating for effect. If he meant that a repeated violation of the emergency order would actually lead to the forced shuttering and disbanding of a religious congregation then he has no understanding of the First Amendment -- either in terms of freedom of religion or freedom peaceably to assemble. The mayoralty of our nation's largest city sometimes seems to attract those whose egos can be seen from space, but none of them to this day have believed they had the authority to override the United States Constitution. That sound you heard when he said what he did was the sound of every lawyer in the country opening up a blank "new lawsuit" form on their computers and getting ready to type in the name of the first religious group so affronted.

Of course, the mayor could have been using a little hyperbole. He would not be the first New York City person holding high office these days to do so. But because everyone knows the threat is an empty one, it just makes him sound ineffective and dumb. It lessens the impact of the actions he might legitimately take and also lessens -- if this is possible -- the tendency of his people to take him seriously.

It will be a pleasure to watch Mayor DeBlasio fade into obscurity when term limits prevent him from running again. Few deserve it as much as he has shown himself to do.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Faint Heart Ne'er Won Fair Hand

Jeremy Cohen of Brooklyn, NY, is not a man of faint heart. And though he has yet to technically touch the fair hand of Tori, his neighbor across the street, he's proving to be a mighty winning character either way.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Round Up!

-- I don't know how much time documentary moviemakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin spent in creating their Netflix miniseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness about former Oklahoma wildlife park owner Joe "Exotic" Maldonado-Passage. But from my point of view it was all wasted, because I know how much time I'm going to spend watching it.

-- Fifteen years ago this week, Christopher Eccleston introduced himself to Billie Piper. Or rather, the Doctor introduced himself to Rose. "Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life!" Thus began the reboot of the famed British science fiction television show Doctor Who. It had shuttered in 1989 and had a sputtery attempt at a reboot in 1996. But for some reason the 2005 version took and Who fans have been getting their fix ever since. Eccleston played the Doctor for only one season and remains the best incarnation of the newer group of episodes, although the way showrunners and writers have tried to make the Doctor do and be things the Doctor doesn't do or be very well (have a romance, comment on current social issues, etc.) have hamstrung most of the other performers taking the role since Eccleston began it.

-- In an attempt to squash Scottish identity during the Jacobite uprisings, the English parliament banned kilt-wearing in 1746. This step, taken after the decisive English victory at Culloden, was supposed to render the Scots as culturally English as they were politically. As this article at Mental Floss notes, the ban was successful in moving the kilt off the everyday wear list for Scotsmen -- but it had the reverse effect in the realm of culture, as wearing it became a sign of Scottish defiance and diversity. The ban had overlooked a different but equally important aspect of Scottish culture: thermonuclear-level stubbornness. Against such, a little thing like the law of the land stood no chance.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Viral Insanity

One of the burdens borne by folks who live alone during our time of crisis is that one of our means of engaging with the world -- ye olde internet and its simple cousin, Social Media -- is also the source of large amounts of weapons-grade stupidity. Hence my quote of National Review writer Jim Geraghty yesterday as he observed there is a very narrow window of appropriate concern about COVID-19 and it almost precisely coincides with one's own opinion of what that concern is.

But now and again comes an opinion which you would think literally could not be held by someone able to type and form sentences. Dr. Sophie Lewis, writing for Open Democracy, suggests that the COVID-19 crisis provides us with an opportunity to take a critically needed step regarding the family: abolition.

Dr. Lewis notes a couple of things in her article which are true. For example, the requirements to shelter in homes present significant danger for people in abusive situations. Because of the web of dependency in which they're enmeshed, abuse victims often have a lot of trouble leaving their abusers for good. Safer-at-home requirements add a layer to that and make it harder to overcome, and restricting the abuser to the home presents more opportunities for abusive behavior to manifest.

She also notes that many homeless people can't effectively shelter in place because the shelters themselves are poor environments for social distancing to begin with and only grow worse if they are filled with people dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues. The homeless often have more physical health problems than others which can leave them more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection and less able to survive a bout with the virus.

But her proposed solutions include the abolition of the nuclear family, freeing prisoners from jails and seizing hotels and large privately-owned homes and letting workers go live in them while still paying them for not working. I'll freely confess I lack the imagination to picture a society organized along these lines, so I'll take Dr. Lewis's word that her ideas would solve the problems she identifies. But the number of problems it creates in their place would easily dwarf them, with the main one being that we had allowed our nation's laws to be designed by a whacko.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Goldilocks Zone

At National Review, Jim Geraghty observes something that he's seen on social media when it comes to discussions of COVID-19 and related matters. I'm not sure how well posts on their "Corner" blog track so in addition to linking I'll paste it here:

Social media is doing a terrific job of explaining a universal truth about the coronavirus. Anyone who is less worried than you are about they or their loved ones catching the coronavirus is naive, reckless, uninformed, oblivious, and/or only cares about the economy, money, and profit, and not human lives.

Anyone who is more worried than you are about they or their loved ones catching the coronavirus is paranoid, obsessive, neurotic, cannot understand risk or statistics, and/or only cares about abstract statistics “bending the curve,” and doesn’t care about lost jobs, lost businesses, and all of the misery and menaces to public health that come from the sudden onset of economic hardship.

Apparently there’s a really narrow window that is just the right amount of concern about the coronavirus.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Time to Read

According to this article by Alison Flood at The Guardian, directions to self-quarantine, maintain social distance and stay at home have led people to understand they have more time to read books. Which has led to increased book sales, both at brick-and-mortar stores before increased restrictions closed them and ordered online.

Flood interviewed some people who figured the down time was a good opportunity to consume not just bestseller fiction but some of the major literary works that we were always told we were supposed to read but never got around to. Stephen King is tackling James Joyce's daunting Ulysses and another reader George Eliot's hefty Middlemarch.

Obviously readers and lovers of literature can appreciate the consequence of this societal shutdown even while we don't care much for its cause. But I'm concerned. Given that King is in a phase of his career in which he is barely if at all reined in when it comes to word count and manuscript length, I am not sure it's the best idea to let him explore a 260,000-word account of one single day in Dublin.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Shortest Distance

The old saying goes that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. That's clear the way we usually picture it, with a line linking two points on a flat surface or map.

And it's true on weird shapes as well, as this post at Curiosa Mathematica indicates.

If you were to find yourself on a shape like the above, you should probably first stop doing drugs. But if it turns out that you really were standing on this strange surface and you started walking straight ahead at 0º, you would wind up following the orange line. After which you might need some drugs, specifically dramamine.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Head Scratcher

The above photo of a fox that randomly jumped up onto a car windshield of a man who had a camera and the presence of mind to use it won the top prize in the United Kingdom Mammal Society photo contest.

Ol' Reynard has the look of a creature that has seen his distant canine cousins hanging out with these slow and clumsy primates and decides to get a closer look and see what all of the fuss is about. Judging from this photo at least, he seems distinctly underwhelmed.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Point of View

If chickens were able to conceive of and visualize an afterlife, what would they hope to gain when they arrived?

Dan Piraro theorizes.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Swallows and Capistrano Probably Still OK

But some of the "nature reclaiming its own during quarantine" photos aren't. The dolphins in a well-known photo are in Sardinia, not Venice. The swans frequently hang around a Venetian island and aren't back just because there are no boats in the canals.

Of course, as Natasha Daly notes in the National Geographic article, the waters in the canals are clearer because of the reduced activity. But that mainly means you can see the fish that live there most of the time anyway.

Daly also links to Paolo Ordoveza, a man who runs a Twitter account called "PicPedant" that debunks incredible photos that turn out to be made up. Ordoveza also corrects people who claim to have taken photos that are real but which were actually shot by someone else, leading to the possibility that we may be close to finding the first worthwhile account ever on Twitter.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

When All You Have Is a Shovel...

NASA's InSight Mars lander has a device called a mole that is supposed to jackhammer into the Martian soil and collect a wide range of scientific data that hasn't been available from surface-only instruments.

Unfortunately, the mole hit a clump of Martian soil that was too thick for it to properly penetrate. Every time researchers told it to try the mole pushed the lander up instead of pushing the drill through the clump.

If you encounter this problem in a carpentry project, the usual solution is some kind of pilot hole or additional pressure on whatever you're using to penetrate the surface. This is why you might see someone leaning down over a drill to put more weight behind it. That solution was not available to the InSight team since the nearest person who could lean on the drill was more than 35 million miles away. Another option is to whack the driver and pound it through the obstruction in the same way that a hammer's impact drives a nail into whatever it's set on. This, it turned out, was something the lander could do.

And so the lander operators took the shovel that was used for scooping soil samples and, as the mole was trying to hammer into the soil, whacked it. The additional impact force worked and the mole was able to penetrate more deeply than just with its jackhammer feature alone. Since the shovel was striking the mole in just about the same spot that its power and fiber-optic cables connected it to the lander, a lot of skill and practice was required. So even though the problem was discovered early the operating team is only just now trying it out.

The number of other problems that could be solved by whacking them with a shovel is left as an exercise for the student.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Augustine Was Right, Part MMCII

A couple of days ago, Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot was inspired when she saw a video clip of an Italian musician serenading his street with a trumpet version of John Lennon's "Imagine." So she enlisted a number of celebrity friends and associates to sing the song, each one taking a different part, and posted it on her Instagram feed.

For which she was summarily savaged and the project widely denounced. Typical of this display of humanity at its toilet-paper hoarding finest was Heather Schwedel's ranking of the individual performances at Slate. Schwedel ranked each celebrity's slice of the song from least worst (#24) to worst (#1) and bumped Gadot herself up to #3 for having the idea to start with. Twitter again proved itself the go-to venue for thoughts that should remain unexpressed as people jumped on the celebrities for not giving everyone else all their money.

Now ordinarily I'd be the last person to defend "Imagine," which is one of the more vacuous songs from John Lennon's significantly vacuous 1970s output. The song is a lullaby designed to make socialist kids fall asleep before they can start to ask it questions it can't answer ("Mr. Lennon, when you imagine no possessions, what happens to your room full of fur coats?") The Italian trumpeter's version is one of the better ones I've ever heard because it has none of the words. However, let the record show that if Ms. Gadot would like to sing me to sleep with this song she is entirely within her rights to do so. Given that I am roughly 20 years her senior I ought to doze off after about a verse.

Be that as it may. Ms. Gadot likes the song, finds it kind of inspirational and thought it would be a neat idea to get some other famous people with whom she's friendly to put together a sometimes serious, sometimes goofy rendition as a diversion in a time of anxiety and crisis. It's not art, it may have been a "good-hearted but not good-headed" idea. Whatever. If we can be expected to nod along to every glurgy poem and gooey reflection about all of how the viral crisis is affecting our society and every self-righteous hectoring lecture about how we're doing this for the good of those who can't help themselves, if we can be expected to remember "We Are the World" and Live Aid as awesome moments of human kindness and achievement instead of free food handouts to the warlords starving the people we wanted to help... We can put up with a couple dozen atonal warblings of one of the most shallow "important" songs ever recorded, instigated by a nice lady who wanted to do something nice for people who followed her social media.

Except that, as noted in the post title's reference to St. Augustine's doctrine of humanity's complete sinfulness apart from a relationship with its Creator, it seems we can't.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Confession Part 2

As a follow-up to yesterday. I was talking with someone about coronavirus news coverage -- we were both lamenting its possibly-wrong-never-uncertain nature. He said that at least we were ahead of our ancestors because when something like this struck they had no ability to get information from one place to another with any speed, meaning people didn't know what was going on.

I'm not sure -- they had no information and knew nothing, but it seems like we have a biblical-flood level of information and we know very little more. We should be better off, but it doesn't seem like anyone wants to wait and learn before speaking.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020


I feel like I should get something off my chest regarding the COVID-19, called "the coronavirus," and all of the reverberations it's had through American life as well as around the world.

I don't really know much of what's going on yet. And from what I can tell, the only thing that separates me from a lot of the people writing about it and talking on news channels about it is word count.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Cats and Dominos, Living Together

It's not quite the mass hysteria you'd think it would be, as this video found on Neatorama indicates.

Monday, March 16, 2020


David Housewright is one of several Minnesota-based authors writing in the detective/crime fiction arena, with the most famous being "Prey" series author John Sandford. He works with two lead characters -- his original series followed private investigator Holland Taylor for a handful of books before he introduced and ran with Rushmore McKenzie for several years. In 2018 he returned to Taylor and has since brought the total of that series to five books. The 17th McKenzie book is due in May. Housewright has a good ear for dialogue and a way with a smart-aleck quip that sometimes matches up with the legendary Robert B. Parker. His usual work is a solid three-to-four star effort and when he's really on, like with the McKenzie mystery Dead Boyfriends, he produces some of the detective genre's top modern work. But when he stinks...
At the urging of his parents, Holland Taylor has taken the case of their elderly neighbor scammed out of her life savings, but the only problem is if he tries the usual ways of getting it back the chances he'll do so in time to do the victim any good are small. The con man has covered himself quite well. So Holland decides to try some shadier means, enlisting the help of a computer genius friend to play with the con-man's life and force him to return the money in 1998's Practice to Deceive.

The genius's abilities, though, mean Taylor has access to more than simple ring-the-doorbell-and-run pranks. He is able to make the grifter's wife, who didn't know about his activities, think her husband was having an affair. The con-man's real-world job in the financial sector is targeted too, with Taylor and his friend electronically trashing his reputation and reliability. He eventually gives in, but before he can get the money to Taylor he's killed -- it turns out that he was doing financial work with some rough folks as well. And before Taylor can find out who killed him, he becomes the target of the same kind of harassment he'd been dishing out.

Practice is only the second Holland Taylor book, and although Housewright smoothed out some of his first-novel wrinkles he makes the narratively fatal decision to have his lead character be an adolescent jerk. The professional tarring he and his computer friend lay on the shady financier is understandable, but when they give him the appearance of infidelity they bring harm to his innocent family. Taylor notes this in passing but it seems to have zero impact on his schemes. The solution to the mystery of who killed the con-man comes into the story like a shanked drive from another fairway and puts an end to what was already a pretty lousy outing for Holland Taylor and his cast.
Rushmore McKenzie -- don't use his first name, please -- got very wealthy when he quit the police force, because he apprehended an embezzler and as a newly-minted private citizen he was able to keep the full reward from the insurance company. But he can't get away from helping people out now and again, especially when they need it and few others can provide it, as in 2008's Madman on a Drum.

Although his longtime friends Shelby and Bobby Dunston have the FBI on their side when their oldest daughter Victoria is kidnapped they also need McKenzie, because the kidnappers want money and the Dunstons are a law enforcement family of modest means. McKenzie has the money and agrees to deliver the ransom, but before the funds are assembled he does some digging to try to figure out who the kidnappers are. Some initial leads uncover some of the mystery but not all, so McKenzie must risk delivery of the ransom to get the little girl back.

For most of its length Drum ticks along fairly well as a gumshoe procedural as McKenzie and a parole officer try to track down an ex-con involved in the abduction. It begins to drag, though, as Housewright uses his story to preach a sermon about how hard prison time sometimes creates re-offenders rather than curbing them. It's not that the idea is untrue or that it couldn't be a good hanger for a detective story plot, it's that Housewright decides to shoehorn it in as lectures from different characters for paragraphs at a time, and then hit the reader over the head with it through the story resolution.

The finale manages to do two seemingly opposite things at once: Come out of nowhere yet be utterly unsurprising. Housewright generally tries to make his stories more mysteries than straight procedurals, with clues to a final denouement scattered through the story. But the preachy tone and clumsy endgame make this madman's Drum a bummer.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Time Passages

At an interesting website called you.regettingold.com, you can enter your birthdate and compare, among other things, how distant things are in the past compared to how old you are now.

Turns out that my birthday is closer in time to the first powered flight crossing of the English Channel in 1909 than it is to today. The upside is that almost 90% of the people born on my birthday are still living, but almost the same percentage of site visitors are younger than me.

I suppose it'll be interesting to see what historical events my age approaches -- or is it distances? -- as I hang around the planet.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Activate Nap Mode!

Over at Bored Panda, Liucija Adomalte and Li Nefas collect 40 pictures of cats sleeping in odd places. At least, they seem odd to us, since to cats they all amount to sleeping in the same place: "Wherever I damn well please, primate."

My favorite is #3, in which we see Whiskers taking her ease inside a birdcage while said cage's occupant sits on top with a decided "WTH?" air about him.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

I Ain't Afraid of No Hyperspectral Terahertz Ghost Imaging

One of the fun things about scientists is the way that they are excited by stuff that makes everyone else go, "huh?" The above technique, described in this article by Belle Dumé, is probably a good example. I imagine that more than 9 in 10 people frown at the phrase "Hyperspectral Terahertz Ghost Imaging" and say to the people who are celebrating it, "Hey, good for you!" and hope very strongly they don't explain it.

But I'll give it a shot. As the article notes, "Terahertz" (THz) describes an electromagnetic wavelength -- in other words, radiation. It passes through substances that block visible light but it's less energetic than Xrays so much less likely to damage living tissue. And it has another advantage in that it shows the electromagnetic spectrum of the substance being imaged -- which earns it the label "hypespectral." That's cool for scientists because spectral analysis tells them what something is made of. Imagine a selfie that could show what chemicals and molecules made up someone's skin, for example.

But it turns out that a lot of the details scientists want to study are smaller than the THz wavelength, which means that they don't show up on an THz images. The THz waves kind of skip right over them. When scientists would try to focus the waves to get these small details in their images, then the increased energy would change them -- sort of like how an object may look different depending on what color of light is shined on it. In the same way that a viewer couldn't see the real color of that object, the scientists doing THz imaging wouldn't see what their subjects really looked like. They might get the image, but they would destroy the electromagnetic spectrum that showed them what the object was made of.

This is where "ghost imaging" comes in. If I read Dumé's article correctly, then the project team led by photonics professor Marco Peccianti uses a combination of lasers and THz wavelengths and via computer algorithm sort of swaps one for the other so the image produced has extremely fine detail and the full electromagnetic spectrum. It's similar to ultrasound imaging, where a computer translates the results of high frequency sounds aimed at a target object into an image even though no electromagnetic radiation ever passes through the target.

When perfected, the technique could allow a medical team to electromagnetically biopsy a tumor without any surgery, or chemically analyze samples without altering them. Which would be pretty cool and is probably a good reason to be excited if you work in photonics, even if no one around you knows why you're so giddy.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Now We're Ready for Easter!

It didn't really feel like Lent yet, in the same way that for many people it doesn't feel like Christmas if there's no snow on the ground (these people all live in the Northern Hemisphere, by the way). But comes now Candida Moss writing for The Daily Beast, who having perused at least one biblical studies journal brings forth in deathless prose our annual assurance that Easter is on its way with her March 9 article "Everyone's Favorite Gospel Is a Forgery." Because you see, we just can't have Easter without some clueless uncovering of the kind of research nearly every seminary or religious studies student has seen just under a million times about how Everything You Ever Believed About the Bible Is Wrong, You Credulous Uneducated Simpletons.

Dr. Moss reports on a March 2020 Journal of New Testament Studies article by Dr. Hugo Mendez, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. In it, Dr. Mendez suggests that a long-held belief of New Testament scholars -- that the gospel of John and the three letters that bear the Apostle's name come from a community of believers perhaps originally founded by the Apostle himself -- is untrue.

Beginning in the 19th century Biblical scholars began to seriously question whether any of the gospels were written by their named authors. The ancient world was not nearly as persnickety about actual authorship and accepted the practice that followers of a particular teacher might publish work under that teacher's name even if he didn't actually write it. Mark, it seemed, was written first. Matthew and Luke seemed to have drawn on Mark and an additional document, as well as their own sources. Since much of these studies were being done by German scholars, the letter Q came to be the shorthand name for this theorized shared source as the German world translated "source" is Quelle.

John, on the other hand, was clearly recognized as the product of an entirely different set of source material. Scholars skeptical of the claim that the author was the actual Apostle himself suggested that it may have come from a religious community he founded and which gathered up sayings and stories he had related about Jesus into the gospel and then the three "Johannine Letters." Dr. Mendez, though, thinks that this community didn't exist.

The actual journal article is behind a paywall. Though Dr. Moss is herself a New Testament professor (at the University of Birmingham in England), her work for The Daily Beast includes articles such as one linking modern Peloton use with the ancient practices of mortification of the body by Christian hermits and martyrs. So color me reluctant to lean heavily on the kind of analysis she produces for TDB. But my guess is that Dr. Mendez breaks no new ground and offers evidence that suggests his conclusion may be accurate, nothing more. At least, the little that I can glean from the article abstract at the JNTS site hints he's not saying anything I didn't hear more than once while at seminary myself.

In any event, Dr. Mendez is a piker when it comes to fiddling with the gospel of John. German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, beginning with his early 1941 monograph Das Evangelium des Johannes (published in English in 1971 as The Gospel of John) suggested that John contains a specific Signs Gospel within its accounts and he actually re-arranged large chunks of the book to better suit his interpretation.

Bultmann's radical transformation of the gospel was so extensive that few New Testament scholars are willing to accept it, even when they approve of other conclusions he made in this work and elsewhere. When a friend posted a link to the DB story on his Facebook page, I commented that Bultmann, reading this work, would have said simply, "Halten Sie mein Bier."

Tuesday, March 10, 2020


In Sherman's Lagoon, the title character shark learns that there are any number of ways for your food to disagree with you.

Monday, March 9, 2020

To Kill To Kill a Mockingbird

Early on in Aaron Sorkin's saga of adapting Harper Lee's well-known novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Sorkin and the production company were sued by Lee's estate for planning on deviating too widely from the novel. The producer sued back, and the case was settled in 2018.

Sorkin had said that he was presenting characters in a different light than either Lee or original movie screenwriter Horton Foote. As someone who thinks Sorkin has never equaled his Sports Night TV show from 1998-2000, I had little interest in his revisionist take on Tom Robinson, Atticus, Scout, and Jem Finch or Boo Radley. So until I read this review at Mockingbird I had no idea what kind of screwing around Sorkin had done, and it seems clear that I was not the worse off for not knowing.

Most folks have probably seen a production of To Kill a Mockingbird, since a playwright named Christopher Sergel had written one some 50 years ago. In the leadup to the opening of the Sorkin version, producer Scott Rudin had the production company formed to produce it sue to make sure no performances of the Sergel adaptation would be staged within 25 miles of any city it deemed a major metropolitian area that might host a touring version of Sorkin's play -- even for companies that might have already purchased rights to perform the Sergel version.

The bullying move was called out by many, causing Rudin to offer permission to those companies to perform the revisionist Sorkin adaptation. He said the offer was intended to "ameliorate the hurt caused here," which makes it clear he does not know what "ameliorate" means.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Confidentially Crud

Given the incredible liberties that screenwriters Sean O'Keefe and Brian Helgeland take with their source material, the only honest way for a Robert B. Parker fan such as your humble blogger to review the Netflix release Spenser Confidential is in two separate arenas. How does it succeed on its own and then how does it succeed as an adaptation of Parker's best-known character and his world?

As to the first, the answer is a weak meh. Mark Wahlberg plays the title character, an ex-cop just released after a five-year sentence for thoroughly punching a superior officer. He moves in with an old friend, gym owner Henry Cimoli (Alan Arkin), who puts Spenser up with a new fighter he is training, Hawk (Winston Duke). But the police captain is murdered the very day Spenser is released, and when officers question him about it he becomes curious himself. The apparently neat frame of another officer for the crime motivates him to find the truth, and he is able to enlist Hawk and Henry to his cause, as well as his (sort of)ex-girlfriend Cissie (Iliza Shlesinger).

The entire main cast -- all of whom are Friar favorites -- work very hard to make the O'Keefe-Helgeland script better than it has any right to be. They succeed but since the original material started out so far below adequate they can barely manage to elevate it to the aforementioned meh. Banal predictability means not a single development in the story can sustain the slightest suspense. Plot holes wide enough for an 18-wheeler keep the narrative swerving from side to side in often futile attempts to avoid them. Had Robert Parker never written a Spenser book or had these characters been removed from any connection to the books, Spenser Confidential would still be a solid exhibit in the case that Netflix has more money than it knows what to do with.
But Robert B. Parker did write Spenser novels, and the inevitable comparison between his version of the characters and the Spenser Confidential version makes the latter a nearly complete failure. It's not simply that O'Keefe and Helgeland changed the characters' backstory, relationships and in a few places substituted entirely new characters to take familiar roles. Robert Urich brought a lightness of spirit to Spenser that Parker didn't often intend in the 1980s Spenser for Hire, so changes by themselves are not necessarily harmful.

Meaningless changes, though, made for no discernible reason are another matter. Some may be intended to bring a comedic element into the mix and the question of whether or not that's a good idea is made moot by the dismal execution. Again the cast tries as hard as they can but short of giving them the authority to rewrite the script they're fighting a lost cause.

Several gushing reviews on Confidential's Facebook page note that the movie's ending sets up sequel possibilities, and one commenter said they could make several movies since Parker and his successor Ace Atkins have written dozens of Spenser novels. But as seems clear, O'Keefe and Helgeland don't need any published novels as guides for their movies: They are more than capable of sucking all on their own.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Ultimate Vindication

Back in 2013, Mats Järlström challenged a ticket that his wife got for running a red light. She wasn't pulled over but was instead nailed by a camera. Järlström said that the timing of the camera was wrong and drew upon his experience working for the Swedish Air Force and his degree in electrical engineering. His data impressed the Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE) enough that they wanted him to address them, but the state of Oregon decided to fine him because they said he was representing himself as a professional engineer even though he didn't have a license as one.

Of course, Järlström hadn't called himself a registered engineer when presenting his research to the state so he didn't pay the fine, he paid a lawyer. In 2017 the state said they wouldn't impose the fine if Järlström didn't try to represent himself as a professional engineer, but both he and the group he was working with wanted something a little stronger than a state bureaucrat's promise to lean on. Last year, a federal court forced Oregon to recast several of its licensing procedures and the fines accompanying their violation.

And this week, the ITE updated its standards for timing on red-light cameras in ways that take into account the speed and size of the vehicle, deceleration rate, whether or not it's turning and so on. Their guide in doing so? Järlström's "extended kinematic equation" that he had initially presented when he thought his wife's ticket was wrong. If the state of Oregon wants to keep its traffic light cameras updated, they will have to use the very same research results for which they once tried to fine Mats Järlström.

You win some, and then sometimes you really freakin' win some.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Round 'Em Up

-- California Assemblyman Evan Low introduced a bill that would fine stores with more than 500 employees $1,000 if they marketed toys or clothes in spaces segregated by sex. In other words, if G.I. Joe is not on the same aisle as Barbie, then someone is going to get a ticket. I have no idea if there is marketing research that shows whether separate or mixed areas make for better sales for stores. I don't live in California or shop for toys so I don't really care what burdens its representatives want to inflict on its businesses. But then I read the rationale for Assemblyman Low's introduction of the bill: "A spokeswoman for Low’s office said that inspiration for the bill came from the 9-year-old daughter of one of Low’s staffers. The child told Low that she didn’t like how boy and girl sections were separated and that he should make a law against that." Since this is either A) untrue or B) one of the stupidest reasons possible for passing a law I think someone ought to put Assemblyman Low's proposal in the closeout aisle.

-- Writing in Mother Jones, assistant editor Becca Andrews recalls a 2017 interview in which Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg said since he was 75 and had a lot of things to do, he might run for "president of my block association, but not much more than that." Some folks might believe that the former NYC mayor has changed his mind, but I'm not so sure. Given Mr. Bloomberg's limited understanding of what it takes to farm and his belief that people from Texas pronounce it "Tay-has," he might very well be, in his mind, running for the president of his block association. Because his block is the only part of the country that matters, ya see.

-- Former FBI Director James Comey, who managed to find almost all of the wrong steps he could take in his job during the 2016 campaign and afterwards, tweeted his endorsement of former Vice-President Joe Biden. A member of Mr. Biden's campaign responded by making fun of Mr. Comey. Despite this obvious play for my support, I remained a registered independent and did not vote for Mr. Biden in today's primary election.

Monday, March 2, 2020


The cool thing about being an engineer is that if something you use doesn't work in the way you want it to, you can either figure out a way to change it or just build something that does.

Justine Haupt of Brookhaven National Laboratory did this when she became frustrated with some of the glitchier features of a touchscreen smart phone, like the way that it can start random functions when you hold it against your face and accidentally touch them with your cheek or ear.

She didn't go back to what's often called a "dumb phone," or a cell phone with pushbuttons. She built a phone that runs with a rotary dial. Pictures and a description of what the phone does are at the link.

The next step is obviously to recruit Sarah from The Andy Griffith Show and put her to work. When we are mistakenly accused by the government of a crime because they say we were inciting terrorist activity, she will be able to vouch for the fact that we were just talking about buying Jeff Dunham tickets because she will have listened in on the conversation herself.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Precision Language

Economics professor Tyler Cowen noticed that a nearby library is being renovated and expresses his fear that the remodeled structure will have fewer books rather than more. He created a German neologism to express that fear:


I started to read the comment thread, thinking that because professor Cowen is an extremely intelligent man the people who read his posts -- your humble author excepted -- must also be extremely intelligent and I would benefit from perusing the discussion. I was wrong; there was a bunch of sniping about censorship and then a bunch more sniping about how public libraries are an artifact of a past life that we need to leave behind.

Very fun post, though.