Thursday, April 30, 2020

Angles & Lenses

By using different lenses and taking pictures from different angles, photographers Ólafur Steinar Gestsson and Philip Davali show how the same exact grouping of people can be made to look like a crowd when they are actually spaced widely apart. Visuals in news media are used to enhance a story and give it some added dimension, but sometimes that added dimension is spin.

As the first president I ever voted against -- I've changed my thinking somewhat -- used to say, "Trust but verify."

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Primates Can Be Taught

Cultural anthropologists tell us that human beings domesticated wolves who over time became our faithful current friends: Dogs. The relationship began primarily because human beings found dogs useful as companions, guard animals and so on.

Cats, on the other hand...

Sunday, April 26, 2020

What in Tarnation?

While the "Case of the Roman Dodecahedron" sounds like a mystery novel title, it's the story of an actual mystery that archaeologists and historians can't solve.

According to the good folk at Mental Floss, the first such object, an example of which is pictured below, was found in the 1730s in an English field, alongside some Roman coins.

Since then quite a few have been found along the northwestern side of the old Roman Empire, running from Hungary to England. They're all different sizes, but they share the obvious features: They're all 12-sided, each side with a different-sized hole in it and at each corner is a small knob. And no one knows what they are. Possible suggestions of military use, a piece in a game, religious significance and so on each have something to recommend them, but each also falls short in one area or another.

It seems impossible that something so ubiquitous in one area of the Empire would have absolutely no mention in any surviving written record that would tell us what it's good for. On the other hand, Twitter's everywhere these days and no one can say what it's good for either, so maybe we're a little bit like the Romans in a couple of ways.

(ETA: clarified that the pic is of a more recently discovered dodecahedron and not the first one found)

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Spot, Marked

Sheltering in place and stuff has put your humble blogger in something of a punk mood (despite some unease with some of the lyrics to "Anarchy in the U.K.," I have never understood Johnny Rotten's snarled "I wanna be/anarchy" so well as I do right now).

So surprise! One of the original Los Angeles punk voices, X, dropped a brand-new album earlier this week, several months earlier than planned. Alphabetland is the first time all four of the original members have released anything since Ain't Love Grand in 1985. Despite the fact that the youngest original members are 64, the 11 tunes they rip through in 30 minutes can best be described by the sentence that several of them repeat in the above-linked Randall Roberts' Los Angeles Times story:

"It sounds like an X album."

It does. Hope my neighbors like it.

Friday, April 24, 2020


I'm thinking that a whole lot of classes in the fall will open with remediation of what was supposed to be taught in the spring, for a couple of reasons. As this professor notes, it's next to exhausting to have to try to teach via online conferencing, and it seems likely the other end of it will as well.

I can't say I saw this before we started the large-scale work with online meeting and instruction, because I didn't. I can say I was leery of it and didn't want to try because I didn't think I'd do it very well. Looks like I might have guessed right.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Victory Over Communism!

Joe Bob Briggs, the "drive-in movie critic" persona created by journalist John Bloom, would often include a section in his newspaper columns called "Victory Over Communism!" in which he would highlight a still-operating drive-in theater in some part of the United States, during a time in which the number of those theaters was rapidly shrinking. He was especially ebullient when a closed drive-in would re-open.

Joe Bob is probably in his own version of a redneck ecstatic fugue state this week, as the entire box office report for the entire United States comes from one drive-in theater in Ocala, FL. As the story at Slashfilm explains, there are of course quite a few drive-ins operating across the U.S. during the COVID-19 closedown, but apparently only the one in Ocala is showing first-run features instead of oldies or other already-released movies and reporting their gross sales. It showed two, the Marcel Marceau biopic Resistance and the weirdo psychological thriller Swallow. The total box office reported for the week was $33,456.

Joe Bob would probably say you should check it out, but then Joe Bob always said "check it out," so that may not be much of a guide.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Back in Business

As different states test the waters of gradual economic reopening, it's nice to know that the vicious totalitarian regime whose secrecy and lack of concern for its own people made this crisis so much worse than it had to be has been able to keep its operations functional.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Turning the Page?

There's a point in the introductory section of Joseph Bottum's The Decline of the Novel in which he offers a kind of summary statement about why the particular art form under consideration has declined. We live in a culture that more and more looks only to the natural and material for explanations about being and behavior. We didn't stop asking questions about existence, but we did stop asking them of written fiction. "The novel didn't fail us," he says. "We failed the novel."

At first glance it's the kind of plummy nose-in-the-air quote that folks who read a lot of popular fiction have grown to expect from people who still invest a lot of time in what's usually called "literary fiction." Our coarse and uninquisitive modern culture doesn't aspire to the kinds of deep exploration of what it means to be a good person. We interrogate much shallower art forms in that quest these days. Even some of the classic fields are so dominated by iconoclasts and would-be transgressors that it's tough to listen to the crude and offensive conversations they may prompt. Sure, Andres Serrano might want us to think about how cheap we have made our most precious ideas and concepts by turning them into assembly-line lowest bidder merchandise, but all we see is that he has taken a picture of a plastic crucifix in a jar of urine. The thesis statement's just a little too crude to get past and get into the discussion.

Bottum's question, though, does run deeper than that first glance suggests. The phenomenon he's investigating is tough to deny. For a big chunk of our most recent history, from sometime in the middle of the 17th century up through about the middle of the 20th, people who thought about serious things relied on written novels to spark their questions and thoughts. Many of them might indeed be members of a social and cultural elite, but not all. For these people, Bottum says, novels became the way we explained ourselves to ourselves. They addressed questions of existence: What does it mean to be a good person? How do we figure out who we are? What is the meaning of life? Prior to the Protestant Reformation, these questions were largely answered in the community of the church. The magisterium of the Roman Catholic church had fairly definitive answers to them and the authority to give those answers weight.

But as religious life and faith unmoored itself from that magisterium and grappled first of all with Scripture itself as a source of answers for those questions of life, the authority for the answers diffused a little. In Bottum's terms, we started explaining ourselves to ourselves rather than accepting the magisterium's explanations.

The novel was the vehicle for this exploration and explanation. Through crafted stories, people explored how other people handled different situations and incidents in life. Of course the answers were those of the author, but the author's goal was to create works of internal logic sound enough so that the answers could withstand examination. Pleasurable reading or what we sometimes call "mind candy" was still done, of course, but those who wanted to be taken seriously about things when talking about them imbibed serious work too.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th, authors took on other goals, such as social change. Upton Sinclair wanted to advance the cause of socialism with The Jungle, but he was less successful at that than he was in bringing about reform in the meat-packing industry. Other art forms took on the role the novel had held, especially movies and later television. When people wanted to be taken seriously in discussing the human condition, the pallette of their conversation was more and more onscreen than on the page. There weren't many novels that folks would have been expected to have read to enter those conversations, but there were movies they would have been expected to see. Today the movies have given way to television -- top-level shows such as The Wire, Breaking Bad or The Sopranos make up the language of the discussion these days.

At the same time, our confidence in the ability of science and natural explanation to offer a purpose for living eroded. The idea that a fictive imagination could provide what the evidence of our senses clearly said did not exist -- purpose -- became more quaint and old-fashioned. Sure, people still read fiction for serious reasons, such as finding the meaning of some core concepts of living or of the ways in which we deal with one another, but the inquiry is not so deep as before and the belief that serious discussion requires assimilating this or that author's perspective is not at all a given.

Decline doesn't necessarily address one way in which writers facilitated the decline of their art form: Impenetrability and reluctance to accept an open search for answers. Don DeLillo, for example, is considered by many people to be one of the foremost novelists writing today. He may be; I usually can't get more than a hundred pages into one of his non-linear narratives before returning the book to the library. He's often lauded for things like "the complexities of language" and in one of his own quotes about the purpose of what he does says, "Writers must oppose systems. It's important to write against power, corporations, the state, and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments..." If there are answers to human existence that might somehow have something positive to say about power, corporations, the state and such, well, you won't find them here.

The problem could be with me, of course. But I'm a serious person who takes seriously questions of human existence and enjoys exploring them. If novels aren't going to help me do that (and by and large there are many that do; not even everyone writing today opts for providing artificial and predetermined answers to those matters for people who already agree with them), then why read them?

That's the one gap in Bottum's otherwise interesting thesis. At only 150 pages it seems strange to suggest potential cuts, but the latter sections outlining the modern part of the decline could stand a trim, or at least a tightening up. But overall, The Decline of the Novel is a book as well as an idea that's worth some consideration and reflection.

Monday, April 20, 2020


The post title is a favorite principle of mine, as I believe I have mentioned before. It suggests that an issue or problem be dealt with by the smallest level of government required, rather than everything by just one level like the feds.

Ernest the fish demonstrates another view of the principal in Friday's Sherman's Lagoon strip, as it seems Hawthorne the crab has had the politician's ultimate nightmare happen to him.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

We Have Liftoff (Or We Will Soon)

There's busting out of quarantine, and then there's busting out of quarantine. Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are scheduled to fly aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon craft and rendezvous with the International Space Station on May 27.

The privately-funded launch vehicle will be the first time the United States has put human beings into space since the space shuttle Atlantis took off in July of 2011. Since then, we've been hitching rides.

Elon Musk may be kind of a twerp, but his company is the one that will let the only nation to have ever landed people on the moon get back into space on our own. I'll settle for that.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Less Than

Matthew Quirk's 2019 novel, The Night Agent, was his first standalone outing and offered an interesting hero in an intriguing situation. His second, 2020's The Hour of the Assassin, is...less good.

Nick Averose is a security consultant retired from the United States Secret Service. One of the things his company does is test out security measures by trying to thwart them, and the book opens with him doing just that for the firm employed by a former CIA director. He breaches the security, "tags" the director and all seems well, except that as soon as he's finished the director's house is truly breached by some bad guys who leave him dead and a mountain of evidence pointing to Nick. Nick then goes on the run in order to clear his name and find out whose behind setting him up and killing the former spy chief. Unfortunately, since the target was a former spy chief, the list of suspects is long and the trail of the truth will lead to some of the most powerful and ruthless people in Washington.

Assassin is a quilt of bits of other spy thriller novels stitched together with thin characters, clumsy plotting and infodump editorializing on the "way Washington really works." The narrative engine is driven by scenarios seen in dozens of other stories and not really retooled for the story at hand. The central plot is a worn re-tread easily seen coming as soon as its principals are introduced. There is only one real unpredictable twist and it proves ultimately meaningless to the novel's resolution. Nearly every character has either a speech or internal monologue about the aforementioned "way Washington really works" and the ending set piece has Nick trying to save not one but three damsels in distress.  Even though Nick's found his home, computer and business compromised, he still heads right towards his young female hacker employee in order to learn answers, putting her in danger. And though these shadowy operatives have shown they can get into his home and everywhere else, he doesn't even act like his wife Karen's cell phone might be bugged. That's not the only phone goof; at one point Nick takes a call from Karen on a cell phone he left behind at a house from which he escaped several pages earlier.

In an interview at The Real Book Spy, Quirk said he initially had a more complicated plot for Assassin and rewrote it extensively based on editorial advice. So it's up in the air as to whether Quirk or the publisher wanted a barely-veiled commentary on 2018's Brett Kavanaugh situation. Whoever it was got his or her wish, but they sure didn't get much of a book to read.
Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath played large roles in the initial stages of officially published Star Trek fiction. Together they edited both New Voyages collections (one of which contained one of their stories) and they produced four of the first dozen or so novels, among the few authors who put out work in both the initial Bantam Books and the later Pocket Books groups. They were prominent members of the initial fan communities that began to produce the first fan conventions.

And they offer solid proof that bad Star Trek fiction wasn't limited to the later glut years, as all four of their books have a text-to-subtext ratio that resembles an iceberg and depend heavily on characters who may share names with those we saw on the screen but resemble them little otherwise. It's hard to say which of their four books is the least successful, but 1982's  The Prometheus Design makes a strong case for itself out of the four.

A rising tide of senseless violence seems to be gripping the known galaxy, with formerly peaceful people and stable diplomatic relationships deteriorating across the Federation. The Enterprise is investigating the way these phenomena have been seen on the planet Helvan but the survey team itself falls victim. James Kirk is separated from the team and only recovered after being exposed as an alien by the Helvans; his recovery is incomplete as he has significant memory loss that leads to irrational outbursts. Starfleet Admiral Savaj boards the Enterprise to examine the situation and continue the mission, and he demotes Kirk in order to replace him with Spock as captain. Spock tries to deal with the deteriorating situation by invoking "Vulcan code of command," a codicil that Vulcans demanded in return for Starfleet participation. A Vulcan who invokes this code demands instant and unquestioning obedience to every order given. A later return to Helvan with both Spock and Savaj as part of a survey team puts them in danger as the truth behind the mystery and its actors is finally revealed.

As with all Marshak-Culbreath Trek stories, the key plot point turns on weakening, even feminizing Kirk in the face of the true alpha male of the crew, Spock. At one point Kirk is even something of a prize fought over by the two Vulcans, who have been mysteriously enlarged by the antagonists so that the Marshak and Culbreath Kirk is even smaller and weaker than usual compared to Spock. The "Vulcan code of command" device is, no pun intended, illogical and the pair's vision of what Vulcans are like is never seen again in the history of Trek fiction.

Prometheus winds up in a tangle of discussions and monologues meant to either obliquely or directly explore ideas that the two authors consider important, such as objectivism, libertarian philosophy, sociobiology and genetic determinism. It's pretty heady stuff for a show that once had its lead fight a man in a lizard suit amongst a set of papier-mâché rocks, and it is done with little effort at making it a vital part of the narrative. Marshak and Culbreath may have had something to say, and it might even have been something worth saying and good to hear -- but it's been stuck in such a lumpy, clumsy and bizarre novel that it never gets the chance to be properly introduced and judged on its own merits.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Product Placement

An instagram used with the handle "freelanceford" has created a site for a studio called "Brand Name Films." The movies show an idea of what certain products would be like if they were turned into different kinds of movies and starred big-name actors.

All of them are pretty funny and some of them are top-level clever. Charlize Theron as the "last surviving member of the Morton empire" who tries to bring salt back to a world whose people have been denied it in Salt in the Wound plays on Theron's action-heroine vibe and the classic Morton Salt girl label. Hugh Jackman in what looks like a gambling caper film Mr. Pringle also seems like some good casting.

And you know, if someone asked me to put five bucks down on the idea that Tom Hanks might one day star in the biopic of Orville Reddenbacher and call it Poppin' I might just go ahead and take that bet.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Roles of a Lifetime

One of the things I noticed when I looked at Brian Dennehy's filmography after reading about his Wednesday death was its length -- between television, movies and live theater the man had a couple hundred roles; he never stopped working. One movie is scheduled to come out later this year and another one doesn't have a release date. He had three movies out in 2019 when he turned 80 and three out the year before that, and a recurring role over the past three years in James Spader's The Blacklist.

Although Dennehy owns two Tony awards and a Golden Globe, my favorite roles of his came in during the 1980s -- 1985's Cocoon and Silverado, 1986's F/X and 1987's Best Seller. He usually played dramatic roles although every now and again took on a comedy. He wrote five TV movies in the 1990s; four as a series and one standalone. He directed those five along with one other and also an episode of the early 2000's suspense anthology series Night Visions.

At 6'-3", Dennehy usually loomed in every scene he played, especially when he was younger. One of the most interesting features of some of his performances is how lightly he wore his size -- in one scene in Silverado he almost literally skips across a saloon floor.

Dennehy didn't always pick the best productions, but no matter how much of a stinker you were watching him in you knew you were going to get the best performance he could force the script to let him give. Friends and family, obviously, will miss him. But fans, not so much, since he left so many performances behind to rewatch.

From the Rental Vault: White Vengeance (2011)

Although imperial China has a long history, the very first imperial dynasty, the Qin, had a short lifespan, falling victim to what was seen as its own cruel tyranny once it forged its many different predecessor kingdoms into a single nation. After just 15 years in power, the Qin fell apart into two main kingdom groups and several smaller ones in 206 BC. The two most significant powers were the Western Chu, led by the Hegemon-King Xiang Yu and the Han, led by the King of Han, Liu Bang. Formerly allies, Xiang Yu sent Liu Bang to the far edges of the former Qin Empire in order to keep him at bay. But the wily Liu Bang didn't stay pent up in his outland realm and almost immediately began a campaign to retake power and the lands ruled by Xiang Yu. He won a final battle over Xiang's forces in 202 BC and established himself as Gaozu, the first Emperor of the Han Dynasty, which would last four centuries.

This history is the framework on which the 2011 Donnie Lee movie Hong Men Yan was based, taking for its title a banquet at the Hong Gate that was a major meeting between the two leaders. When it was released in English, it was given the title White Vengeance in reference to the strategy game weiqi or go played by the two leaders' respective advisers in the movie. Liu Bang's side played white and was defeated and humiliated by Xiang Yu, but his later victory was seen as his revenge.

The movie plot keeps the main characters and events but shifts them in order to make the four-year struggle between them fit into a 2 hour, 15 minute movie. Quick scenes establish the battlefield camaraderie between Liu and Xiang, and then Liu's humiliation when he is initially sent off to a far kingdom with the errand of seeing Xiang's consort Yu to one of his palaces. At first Liu tries to rival himself for Yu's affections but she returns to her true love, Xiang. Though at first it seems Xiang's forces are too powerful for Liu to win, he eventually wins over the support of some of the other, smaller kingdoms and faces Xiang with a larger army as two meet at Gaixia for a final confrontation.

Given the convoluted history of this time between the end of the Qin dynasty and the founding of the Han -- my recap leaves out at least a dozen kings, generals and advisors -- trying to tell the story is a daunting job for director and writer Lee. He structures it almost as a series of discrete episodes with some dialogue packages designed to cover the intervening events, but it's entirely successful.

Part of the problem is casting; Xiang Yu's fatal flaw as a leader was said to be his cruelty and viciousness but as played by Feng Shaofang he's more somnolent than sinister. He saves the most emotion for scenes with his advisor Fan Zeng and a little bit for some concluding scenes with Yu (played by Liu Yifei, star of the live-action version of Disney's Mulan). Otherwise he's mostly blank. Leon Lai doesn't do much better as Liu Bang, most of the time giving off an air of grim puzzlement.

The role of Yu is also not very creative; she's almost an ornament to be competed for until the very last of the movie and the way the movie presents Liu Bang as desiring her could have opened the door for her to have been far more active and interesting. Historically that probably was the role Yu had, but the movie's already taken plenty of liberty with the actual events and one more couldn't have hurt. Lee seems to want to show us the people at the center of these swirling and violent events more than simply recite the complicated history but his own storytelling choices and the overly mannered and restrained performances from his three main cast members drain White Vengeance of most of the heat the title would lead you to expect.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020


"Jury nullification" happens when a jury finds "not guilty" someone who clearly is, because jury members believe the law under which that person is convicted is somehow unjust. In general, "nullifcation" happens when someone in authority acts the same way about an enforcement of the law. If a sheriff's deputy sees me at midnight driving on a county road faster than the posted speed limit but he does not stop me because he believes that the posted limit ought to be raised during times when traffic is almost non-existent, that's nullifcation. If he doesn't stop me because it's cold and rainy and he doesn't want to get out of the cruiser, that's common sense.

I use the example of sheriff's deputies because four sheriffs in the state of Michigan believe their governor overstepped her authority when she extended her state's lockdown rules to prevent people from buying more things and engaging in more activities. Governor Gretchen Whitmer labeled products such as paint, flooring, and furniture "non-essential," so stores can't sell them. Gardening supplies are out, but legal pot is in -- as Michigan State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said, "You can buy weed but not seeds." You can also buy lottery tickets.

But you can't drive to a second home within the state of Michigan. Unless of course you are not a resident of Michigan and you are driving to it from your home outside the state. This makes the stated rationale a little hard to understand -- if the measure is truly meant to prevent people from COVID-19 hotspot areas from exposing people in more rural upstate areas to the virus, why would out-of-state residents be OK while in-state ones were not? Unless perhaps we remember that while out-of-state residents might bring the virus with them, they will definitely bring out-of-state dollars.

In any event, the four sheriffs say that the Governor has claimed authority she does not have under the law to do these things, so they will not enforce some of the new rules.

Which highlights the problem of politicians who move from difficult yet understandable restrictions on movement and commerce to onerous and stupid ones. People get that since the virus is mostly commonly spread through micro-droplets expelled during sneezing, speaking or coughing, they are wise to stay about six feet away from someone so the droplets will be much less likely to reach them. So they will stand behind the taped boundary at the supermarket and greet each other from a distance. But not buying garden seeds? Being allowed onto a lake or river in an unpowered boat but not in one with a motor?

Even when the creator of such restrictions explains them no one buys it and that makes it less likely that they will be followed. Which in turn makes it less likely that the more sensible ones will be followed as well. Right now in Michigan it's just four sheriffs, but it could easily grow. If forty thousand people decide Saturday they're going to drive to a vacation home -- a number I just plucked from the air, by the way; I have no idea how many people in Michigan own vacation homes -- then the roughly 1,900 Michigan state troopers will have no practical way to stop them, even if they're all on patrol at the same time.

People may be dumb panicky dangerous animals, but they most often react to a dumb rule the same way -- they either ignore it or obey it only when someone is watching. And their confidence in the rule-makers erodes -- if they think I can't be trusted to buy begonia seeds when I know darn well I am the safest begonia gardener in the neighborhood, then they're probably wrong about that hand-washing thing or that six-foot thing or that whatever. Stupidity may be widespread but it's generally only dangerous to us when we're engaging in it.

Unless we get elected to office. Then it gets worse, and it's waaaay more dangerous to others.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Strike Two...

Random person in Kentucky trying to discourage church from meeting in person Easter morning: "Let's spread nails all over the parking lot! The nails will keep Easter from happening!"

Pontius Pilate: "Yeah, about that..."

For what it's worth, I think the in-person meetings are not a wise decision. Our church has been streaming its service via Facebook Live. But still, someone should have thought for a bit...nails?

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Catching Up

Following a series of personal tragedies, Jonathan Quinn and his former apprentice Nate have parted ways. Both Quinn and his partner Orlando think that Nate will return in time, but their current job won't let them give the relationship the time to heal that it needs. It involves a particular quarry, and the only person to have ever seen that quarry and live is Nate. So in order to complete their freelance mission they will need to team up again, ready or not. But Nate's off the grid and they have to find him, which will turn out to be the easy part of 2018's The Fractured, the 12th Quinn novel.

Quinn creator Brett Battles has been expanding his novel's universe, adding in novels featuring a team of misfits called the Ex-Coms and giving Nate some work and adventures of his own. But the centerpiece has always been Quinn, primarily a "cleaner" who visits what would be a crime scene if it wasn't for his work in disposing of corpses and some of the attendant mess that accompanies whatever events led to their corpsification.

Books 10 and 11, which set up the tragedy mentioned above and its aftermath, were not high points of the series and in a lot of ways, The Fractured represents a return to better things. Quinn has his own team with their idiosyncrasies, and although they are not played as much for action comedy laughs as are the Ex-Coms there's a lighter tone through much of the book that the previous two lacked. Battles also moves the relationship between Quinn and Nate forward through the plot and activity of the book, rather than artificially tacking on resolutions somewhere at the end or waving antagonisms away before things get going. And he creates a plot on which to hang his caper rather than the extended chase scenes that dominated the narratives of Quinn Nos. 10 and 11.

Quinn's behind-the-scenes theater of operating has always made his series a little more interesting than a lot of thriller universes, and even though the jobs he and the team do now are more traditional espionagiatin', with The Fractured Battles managed to right his ship and steer it in a more interesting direction.
One of the more interesting new additions to the late Clive Cussler's work was his creation of Isaac Bell, a turn-of-the-20th-century operative for the Van Dorn detective agency. Although the author liked to sprinkle crossovers between his numerous series around, the distance in time between Bell and the modern series made that mostly impossible. But in The Gray Ghost, Cussler and co-author Robin Burcell let Isaac start a caper that will be finished nearly a century later by husband-and-wife adventurers Sam and Remi Fargo.

In 1906 Bell thwarts the theft of a Rolls-Royce prototype car called the Gray Ghost, but he is unable to clear the name of the man he believes was falsely accused of the theft. In modern times that unlucky fellow's grandson turns to the Fargos for help in clearing his grandfather of involvement in the Gray Ghost theft -- because the car has gone missing again and it's rumored to be carrying a chest of rare gold coins.

Burcell has made Sam and Remi far more interesting than any of the previous co-authors with whom Cussler worked since she joined the company with 2016's Pirate. This is still a Cussler novel, meaning we don't expect depth in the characters or exploration of the human condition. We expect heros, villains, clashes between the two and characters who daringly do their derring-do with the appropriate amount of sangfroid and quippage. But while Burcell manages to do all of that, she's able to make the Fargos a little bit more than just a cross between Nick and Nora Charles and Indiana Jones. She's also significantly better at writing Remi than her male predecessors.

And she's no slouch on the action, giving the Fargos plenty of scrapes to get into and out of, as well as making skillful use of the device of notes from Isaac's case files that help them in their dual goals of recovering the Gray Ghost and clearing their friend's grandfather's name. As mentioned before the Fargos are by far the frothiest series that Cussler created, but Burcell has managed to make it highly palatable froth.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Voice of Calm

In 1940, the 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth spoke on the BBC Children's Hour to children who had been sent away from urban areas and even to other countries to protect them from Luftwaffe bombs. It was her first public address to the nation of which she would one day become queen.

Last week, the 93-year-old monarch addressed her country again in a move designed to shore up spirits made restless and irritable by social distancing and quarantines in the face of the COVID-19 virus. She referred to that 1940 speech and spoke of her confidence in her nation and its people to survive and remain resolute in the face of the crisis.

This week she doubled down by presenting a first-ever Easter message, audio of which was sent out over the royal family's social media accounts. In it, she said. "Easter isn't canceled; indeed, we need Easter now as much as ever."

Still not sorry about 1776 and all that, but the lady knows how to communicate calm, resolve and a conviction that the crisis will end and something like the normal we knew will come back. I suppose it helps to have heard this guy speak now and again also.

Friday, April 10, 2020


In the midst of the burned-out cathedral and a pandemic, the Archbishop of Paris held a Good Friday Mass. It was open-air, because it was one of the safe parts of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, damaged by fire last year. And only seven people attended, because health restrictions in France also prohibit large gatherings.

The Archbishop is something of a colleague, albeit in another branch of the outfit that might or might not recognize me as such. But I still marvel at the way that even from a burned-out and ruined house, the gospel still has something to say to a very troubled world.

I'm also going to poke a little fun at

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Useless UN, Again

Its name would suggest the United Nations Human Rights Council would be the subset of the UN that checks into the human rights records of nations around the globe and reports on them when they're not what they should be. They've even got a guide to follow since the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its third meeting, before the group even had its own building in New York City.

You'd think if you have a group that's going to police the world's human rights records, you'd have the group's members be places that do pretty good on human rights. But that's because you think and as far as their record indicates, the United Nations does not. Members of the General Assembly elected China to membership on the Council this week, even in the midst of a number of questions about the Chinese regime's truthfulness about the early spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Even folks who consider that matter to be an open question have to turn blind eyes to things like the systematic oppression of China's Uighur population. There are some folks who have compared the regime's actions toward this group to Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews, which is not entirely accurate. Extermination is not the official goal, and Xi Jinping doesn't wear a mustache. And let's give them credit where it's due -- once the regime became serious about stay-at-home orders they took steps to make sure folks comply, such as welding sick people inside their homes.

No rational plan for monitoring and promoting human rights in the world would include the Chinese government's representation on the group in charge of the project. But then, it's not like this particular group at the UN has ever had it together very well, since back in March it praised Iran for its human rights record.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020


I'll give Owen Jensen, the White House correspondent for Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), the benefit of the doubt on the question he asked President Trump last week. Jensen noted that even though "non-essential" businesses were shuttered in an attempt to keep people from gathering and potentially infecting each other with the COVID-19 virus, grocery stores, fast-food restaurants and pharmacies were all still open and people still gathered in them. "...why even take a little chance? Just shut it all down temporarily." Jensen said.

The president didn't answer, which may mean he likes Jensen and didn't want to tear a strip off him about his dunderheaded question. But lots of people noticed, and they have held Jensen up to serious mockery -- partially if not totally deserved.

Now, Jensen's outlet EWTN is connected with the Roman Catholic Church. Several commenters and religious opinion writers have questioned why certain businesses were labeled essential and allowed to remain open while religious services have been prohibited if they include gatherings of more than 10 people. It's possible that Jensen wanted to set up a question about that matter but got cut off before he could.

Even that rather charitable reading of his intent, however, doesn't explain why Jensen doesn't know that the federal government doesn't have health and safety shutdown power -- governors and mayors do. It's one reason why calls for nationwide closures and shelter in place orders go unfulfilled: the president doesn't have those powers.

And, dumb question about grocery store closure aside, that's something a White House correspondent should know.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Gray's OK; White's Alright

At least, if the method of obtaining black hair is anything like that recommended in 1650's A Brief Collection of Many Rare Secrets. Once I tell you it involves "twenty or thirty Horseleaches, or as many as you can get" you don't really need to hear anymore. But if you want to, you can check out the rest of the recipe in this item at Ask the Past.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

A Few Ends and Odds

-- I don't often link to Hot Air because the writers are sometimes a little overzealous in their criticism of their opponents. I don't have a problem factoring point of view in when I read things but not everyone likes to, and I think I test readers' patience enough without laying that one on them too. Nonetheless, this piece by Jazz Shaw sums up pretty clearly what airlines will do differently after these firms are saved by largesse from the public treasury. The short answer: Nuttin. No promises of returned leg or headroom, no improved inflight service, no end to fees for just about anything you want to do with your baggage. They only promise they will gladly take the money. Yay.

-- It's not just the Venezuelan economy that's sinking fast. The Venezuelan Navy patrol boat Naiguata attempted to make the Portuguese cruise ship Resolute turn into a Venezuelan port, claiming it had entered Venezuelan territorial waters for what were probably nefarious purposes. The Resolute declined the invitation, so the Naiguata rammed it several times to force it to enter the harbor. And then it sank.

-- The key to being a wise philosopher is to recognize when you encounter someone with greater wisdom yourself, as this edition of Existential Comics makes clear.

Friday, April 3, 2020

From the Rental Vault: American Assassin (2017)

The war on terror has no battlefronts, no divisions, no maps or territorial objectives. Its initiators make a point of attacking non-military sites and slaughtering non-combatants, and those who would defend against them can't limit themselves to the old traditional understanding of war. They will need ruthlessness, cunning and the ability to strike from the shadows just as surely as do their foes, breaking the laws of war as surely as they break the laws of nations.

CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy thinks she's found a new soldier for her fight in Mitch Rapp, a young man who lost his girlfriend in a terror attack and later managed to infiltrate the very terror cell that planned it. Raw, unskilled and undisciplined, Rapp will be trained by veteran operative Stan Hurley in order to join him in a hunt for sinister forces who've acquired plutonium, a nuclear trigger and the expertise to build a working atomic bomb. Though at first they think they're tracking Iranians they find that a rogue American operative, one who has history with Hurley, is deeply involved and deadlier than anyone else on the board. Except, perhaps, for Mitch Rapp, the titular American Assassin.

Assassin is based on Vince Flynn's 2010 book of the same name. It's the origin of his CIA uber-agent, Mitch Rapp, even though it's written well into the series. Flynn wrote it as a flashback, setting it in the early 1990s, but moviemakers decided to bring it into the modern day. Teen Wolf and Maze Runner star Dylan O'Brien takes on the role of the driven Rapp, with Michael Keaton as Hurley and Sanaa Lathan as Irene Kennedy. Taylor Kitsch is the rogue operative Ghost.

The underlying mood of every Rapp book Flynn wrote was barely (and not always) contained rage. Rapp worked with a love of country and a deep desire to make every terrorist everywhere pay for the loss of his girlfriend in the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing. Rapp seethes pretty much from title page to endpaper, only marginally less at the people on his side who he believes stand in the way of What Needs to Be Done. By contrast, the movie version of American Assassin is curiously bloodless -- perhaps because O'Brien's wooden instead of cold-blooded performance doesn't communicate much of anything at all, let alone rage. He's not helped much by the script, which alternates between telling us how out-of-control Rapp is and having him constantly be dressed down by Hurley about putting the mission first and deceased colleagues out of mind.

Assassin really only breathes when Keaton is onscreen; he seems like the only cast member who figured he should work for the paycheck the studio cut him. Granted, the script is nothing special. The closest I've ever come to real espionage is the regular consumption of airport spy thrillers but even I can spot the holes in the intelligence tradecraft shown in this movie. But Keaton takes what he's given and works harder with it than it deserves in order to make Stan Hurley the most interesting person on the screen; it's not only his picture on the poster that's outsized compared to the rest of the cast.

American Assassin was conceived as the potential first in a series of movies based on the Rapp books, now being written by Kyle Mills following Flynn's 2013 passing. Its box office was respectable but about as uninspiring as the movie itself and no plans to follow it up have ever been seriously discussed.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Looking Forward

The first best thing about gaining control over the spread of COVID-19 will be the reduction in risk for people likely to be hardest hit by it. The second will be the lightening of the burden borne by health-care professionals, and the third will be the return of children and teachers to their classrooms.

The fourth will be the end of my social media feed's endless presentations by everyone I know telling me I'm doing it wrong.

Of course they're not addressed directly to me. But some people have a rather exalted idea of how many people see their posts. Yes, if my posts are public then theoretically everyone can see them. But in reality not even everyone on my friends list sees them; I have no doubt that some folks have unfollowed me over the course of my time online and of the remaining people I've probably receded enough into some of their pasts that they just scroll on by unless I include a clever eye-catching image.

So in reality, if I choose to post a meme/sermon telling people it's time to get it together or pay attention or take this seriously or think of the vulnerable or some other phrase that makes it clear I as the poster am much much wiser and more compassionate, the only people I'm going to tell that to are people I already know. And despite their obvious poor judgment in friend selection, I'm pretty confident they understand what they need to do. If they don't, and they've ignored health officials, presidents, celebrities and newsMuppets, I can't for the life of me figure out why they'd pay attention to me.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Never-Ending Battle

Unfortunately Berke Breathed did not provide another edition in his annual April 1 series Calvin County, but the Calvin and Hobbes reprint does feature another thrilling battle between Stupendous Man and the evil Baby-Sitter Girl.