Friday, July 31, 2020


Michel Foucalt, who brought a lot of bad ideas into the world, learns that equating things with prison isn't the same as actually being in prison.

Thursday, July 30, 2020


So earlier today the president tweeted (the placement of those two words together should tell us one of the major things wrong with politics in the 21st century) an idea he had in response to the complete mess of a Congressional primary in New York that featured voting by mail. If one primary could bring so many problems, what would a national election do? Some parts of the country have had mailed ballots for some time and so they'd probably handle it OK but if there's a large margin of error in, say, Michigan or Ohio, will we ever really know who won? Perhaps, President Trump said, we should consider postponing the election until we were sure we could conduct it safely and accurately.

While I share the president's dim view of the reliability and accuracy of an election with a large number of mailed ballots, his proposed solution is ridiculous. We held an election in the middle of a bloody civil war and we can hold one now. Plus there's not much chance the US Postal Service will solve in a few extra weeks the myriad problems that have been beyond its ken for decades. I saw several commenters suggest that President Trump was not really serious about the idea and knew it was unlikely to happen. He was more likely attempting to set the stage for which of his heirs or offspring might seek the Republican nomination in 2024: "They" stole the election in 2020 so we need to make that right this time! It's a dumb strategy and is more likely to weaken that hypothetical candidate that help them, but when we move outside the areas of self-promotion and infidelity we tax the president's faculties overmuch.

But the real ignorance came from the volume of people who viewed this tweet as a genuine threat to the Republic. My FB feed is filled with sage political savants -- or at least it has pretended to be for the last few years -- but it seems like none of them remember a single thing about their high school government classes. The election date is set by law and can only be changed by law and guess which branch of government handles laws (or used to, anyway)? The legislative one, one house of which is controlled by the opposition party. In conversation online I tried to be genteel about holding the idea that a Nancy Pelosi-controlled House of Representatives would assent to a delayed election but here I'll be plain: That's about as stupid as you can get without your brain activity falling below the level needed to sustain autonomic function.

And even if it were to happen it wouldn't matter. When a president's elected term ends he is no longer president and presidential terms end at noon on January 20 of their fourth year. It's in the Constitution, the document that so many people have claimed devotion and attention to and knowledge of in recent years. Even if President Trump convinced Congress to delay the election until after Inauguration day he would no longer be president because the Constitution says so. Fears of literally any other outcome are of less use than fears of being simultaneously struck by lightning and a meteor. The 20th Amendment doesn't explicitly cover such a scenario -- its creators weren't as smart as Facebook commenters -- but we'd probably have as an interim president the senior GOP Senator who was not up for election this year. I think that's Chuck Grassley but I'm not sure.

I understand why millennials and Zoomers don't get this: nobody's taught civics in school since Newt Gingrich mattered in Congress. But I've seen people my own age who lay claim to great wisdom and insight so misunderstand some of our government's most elementary features that they do all but wail and gnash their teeth over the chance that they will not be governed by a doddering plagiarist come 2021.

This whole daylong tempest reinforces my belief that one of the worst features of having Donald Trump as president has been his elevation of some of the least consequential and appealing elements of our national life -- not just as his supporters but as his enemies.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020


When Rachel Denhollander stood during Dr. Larry Nassar's sentencing hearing in January 2018 and spoke of his abuse, its effects on her and on his hundreds of other victims, she included notes of her pity for him and hopes he would seek forgiveness for his wrong, because she knew that God would accept his genuine repentance as he accepts any who repent. Many Christian writers highlighted her words, even though they had to squirm a little uncomfortably later when Denhollander described how her own church did not support her stands on dealing with the reality of abusers in their midst.

Both aspects of this story are laid out in her 2019 memoir, What Is a Girl Worth? which she titled based on a phrase and idea from her victim impact statement. She asked the judge in the case to impose the maximum sentence possible on Nassar as a sign to other abused and assaulted women and girls that they were not worthless, despite their treatment by those who exploited and manipulated them.

Denhollander doesn't limit her book to just the time she spent competing in gymnastics and was Nassar's victim, and then the later years of the trial and its impact on Nassar's employer, Michigan State University and the United States Gymnastics Association which used him as a staff physician. She offers a brief sketch of her career as a gymnast, including the nagging injuries that developed for which she was sent to Nassar for treatment. She also outlines how she met and then developed a relationship with her husband, trying to describe how the abuse she suffered at 15 affected her ability to trust and relate to him. She notes that the long-distance quality of their relationship may have actually helped them because they could advance in levels of intimacy at a distance that didn't set off as many of her alarms and flight responses.

When the story gets to the initial newspaper account about Nassar that began to uncover the depth of his crimes and the complicity of supposedly controlling organizations in covering up the abuse, Denhollander moves to more of a diary format, walking through the phases that moved from news story to accusation to trial to testimony and then to her sentencing speech. Here her voice is that of a strong adult rather than a victimized child; her abuse affected who she is and left her with scars that may not disappear for a long time but it does not define her. She can note the irony her discovery that her research on the therapy Nassar claimed he was using meant that she knows more about it than he ever did, since nothing of how he abused his victims is a part of that technique.

The story may seem a little unfocused to some readers, but Denhollander wants to try to answer people who legitimately wonder how abuse victims such as herself don't go to authorities and how the abusers might get away with their crimes in full view of parents, guardians or chaperones. She offers a powerful story of how predators such as Nassar capitalize on the trust of their positions and the desire of good people to believe that no one could really be that kind of a monster. She also highlights how his enablers, even though they might have been deceived themselves, can effectively render the powerlessness victims feel permanent by not fulfilling their roles of governance and protection.

Her book is something of a hybrid of reporting and memoir, an attempt to show the impact of these events on a larger public scale and on her own personal history. It includes the significant role played by her faith, both as a place of unfortunate human failing and the eventual source of the true answer to her title question: Everything.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Pi Poetry

The good folk at The Aperiodical created a contest for poetry similar to the well-known Japanese format of haiku. Only instead of the usual 5-7-5 syllable arrangement, they altered it to 3-1-4 -- the first three digits of the mathematical term π or pi -- and called it "pi-ku."

A couple of them are pretty clever. The winner was not only mathematical in composition, but also in subject matter:

Or, perchance, truth

Monday, July 27, 2020

Back in the Day

Artist Jelena Popovic, working on a project for Budget Direct Travel Insurance, used computer imaging to reconstruct what six endangered ancient sites would have looked like when they were first built and being used.

Every time I think I should just delete my browser I run across stuff like this. Well played, Internet. Well played.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Matthew 11:17

"We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn."

Saturday, July 25, 2020


When Quinn Colson returned to his hometown of Jericho, Mississippi, in 2011, his desire to learn more about why his uncle, the Tibbehah County sheriff, took his own life led him to uncover dark and ugly deeds beneath the surface of the small town. Over the next several books, as Quinn took on, lost and regained the role of sheriff himself he started peeling back the layers of the fetid onion of corruption that went from Tibbehah County all the way to the top of the state and its movers, shakers and fixers. In recent Colson novels, Ace Atkins hs ramped up the confrontation level as Quinn became more and more of a problem to those folks and their attempts to deal with him kept failing.

The ninth Colson book, The Shameless, ended with Quinn clinging to his life following an ambush. As The Revelators opens, we find time, effort and support from his friends and family have Quinn ready to take advantage of the mistake his opponents made: Leaving him alive. But he finds that political maneuverings will be tougher to handle than he thought. The power brokers installed an acting sheriff in his stead and have taken the reins of authority in Tibbehah County in a firm grip. Though federal agents close in on both the corrupt behind-the-scenes players and their more overt agents and operations, Quinn's resources will be small. The popular law-and-order moves of his replacement and his handlers make that the people of Tibbehah County less happy with Quinn's more nuanced approach as well.

The Revelators earns credit for not following the pattern of earlier books and for creating some final resolution in the long-building feud between Quinn and the corruption of Mississippi politics. Whether this arc was a part of Atkins' plan all along or something that developed a few books into the series, it's dominated the most recent half of the Colson novels and not always to their benefit. More than one story of Quinn uncovering the nefariosity of the supposedly respectable folk of Jericho, and the protection the powerful offered to those clearly disrespectable folk wound up with a tag that promised more of the same. Atkins' increasingly suffocating use of his local color trappings have made what started as a tight series into a set of repeated wearying marches through the same grimy morass. Yes, The Revelators ends with a tag that suggests some of the old sleaze will slide into the newly created vacuum, but with the Big Bad of state corruption and its connection to organized crime gone the series has a chance to recover some of its momentum.

As for The Revelators itself, the plot hangs on a main villain who's a thinly disguised Donald Trump with some Boss Hogg seasoning. Quinn's replacement taps into what Atkins presents as barely-veiled racism on the part of everyone in the county except for Quinn and his friends and family, indicting everyone for the villain's misdeeds. In earlier novels Atkins used that reality to give tone to his work but for whatever reason by the time we get to The Revelators it's just the constantly clanging gong dominating any other note.

Atkins has created several series over his career, as well as producing fictionalized treatments of some real-life crimes and events. Following the death of Robert B. Parker, he began writing novels with that author's mainstay literate tough-guy Boston private eye Spenser. The Revelators completes a Colson arc and could be a good stopping place for this particular series. Especially if Atkins maintains the interest in repetitive political commentary and stereotyped characters that have dominated the last four or so entries.

Friday, July 24, 2020


After helping the folks out with an errand and having lunch I visited a nearby museum. It's been around a long time and I remember going to it when I was young.

One of the exhibits is a collection of different pottery vessels from native tribes dating back hundreds of years -- in a couple of cases probably a round thousand. It's a good focus for some thinking and reflection. Those people, if they'd been choosing what should be around a thousand years after them would probably not have picked bowls or pitchers, but that's what made it. When I wonder what from today will be around in 3020, I figure it will probably wind up being something as ordinary as a bowl. Granted, we've greatly expanded our catalog of useless things -- hey, Twitter, how ya doing? -- but we still have ordinary stuff.

History is worth reflecting on. Especially because when you don't know it you're liable to say something stupid like "Donald Trump is our first racist president" and ignore presidents who were literal slave owners and another who actually re-segregated the federal government. Or that in the case of African-Americans "in America and in society there ain't been no damn movement for us" literally one week after paying tribute to a civil rights leader who suffered a fractured skull as a part of a movement to end segregation and was later elected to Congress.

Who cares what happened in the past anyway, right?

Thursday, July 23, 2020


Public monuments should be subject to public approval. If a constituency wants to remove a statue of someone, then it more or less should probably be removed. Of course, this should be done by a ballot box and with proper re-positioning of said statue as a part of the plan. Cowardly people who don't want to push against anything that might push back and who might not even know who the statue is of do not make up a constituency.

It would probably better to add something to the statue instead of removing it, as a way of making sure the history the statue is supposed to represent and the history its placement represents are fairly explained. Many of the monuments to Confederate soldiers in different town squares went up not in the immediate aftermath of the war, but during the early part of the 20th century as a way of reinforcing the idea of Jim Crow laws and segregation. A new marker could be placed on them describing how bigotry and prejudice during those times prompted the spate of remembrances and their monuments.

So when I read that the United States Congress is weighing a bill to remove the bust of 19th century Chief Justice Roger Taney, I immediately disagreed. It's not because I like Taney. He served as Chief Justice from 1836 to 1864 and wrote, among other decisions, the horrid majority opinion in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857 that claimed that African-Americans, whether free or enslaved, had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." It was an opinion that echoed earlier rulings in which he had concurred, such as Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) that ruled states which did not permit slavery still had to honor federal fugitive slave laws.

As the first Chief Justice after the great John Marshall, Taney also had a role in shaping how the federal judiciary would operate alongside the other branches of government. He helped decide many cases on issues other than slavery that created some of the concepts of the way government law-enforcement agencies are allowed to operate. He opposed President Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, a bedrock legal principle that Lincoln tried to work around in order to arrest saboteurs and other potential Confederate sympathizers.

Be that as it may, his decision in Scott is by itself enough to make his tenure a disaster -- an associate justice actually resigned in protest. Which is exactly why his memorial bust should remain on display in the old Supreme Court chambers inside the U.S. Capitol. Our current dependence on the court to make law instead of interpreting it -- because none of those supposed to make law have time in between campaign fundraisers and talking-head appearances on cable TV news shows -- means that too often we defer to the court as though its nine members are somehow wiser than either the 545 members of the legislative branch or the one member of the executive branch. Admittedly, their intellectual superiority over certain legislators and executives can be taken as a given, because some of the first two groups are very dumb. But the courts still get it wrong. They are fallible human beings who can operate just as much from prejudgment, confirmation bias, incorrect assumptions and plain ol' political agendas as can anyone else, and they often do.

As long as a bust of Democrat Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1836 to 1864, remains on display we have a good reminder how that court can indeed get it wrong and what happens when it does.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Out of Order

As with the previous Gabriel Allon book, The New Girl, I'll tag this one for spoilers in order to explain why I didn't like it at all, especially given how much I enjoy the Allon series overall.

In both of his careers -- as an art restorer and as one of the top operatives of Israel's secret service -- Gabriel Allon has frequently crossed paths with the highest levels of Vatican leadership, even winning the friendship of Pope Paul VII and his private secretary, Archbishop Luigi Donati. So when the elderly pope finally passes, Gabriel isn't surprised that Donati contacts him. He is quite surprised, however, when his friend wants him to probe the circumstances of His Holiness' passing, because there are a number of things about the death that raise questions. The presence of a secret letter to Gabriel from the pope only adds to the mystery, but soon enough shadowy players in Vatican politics begin to make their moves. Are they linked to radical nationalist movements in several European countries that aim to place a sympathetic candidate on the throne of Peter? And what long-hidden ancient document had the pope found in the most secret Vatican archives, and why did he want Gabriel to have it? Not everyone wants those questions answered, and the silencers seem ready to move with deadly effect.

In remarks on the 19th Gabriel Allon book, The New Girl, I suggested it was a low point of the series and I eagerly awaited the usually reliable Daniel Silva's follow-up. Had I known that it would be a Dan Brown novel, I would probably have been less eager.

Of course, The Order is head and shoulders above anything Brown's ever published. Silva's characters have depth, he writes better and even his "secret that will shake the foundations of the church" is more plausible. Instead of a secret marriage of Jesus that produces a family tree that coincidentally results in the attractive young woman who's romping around Europe with a middle-aged professor, Silva imagines a written report by Pontius Pilate to the Emperor Tiberias, defending his work as the Governor of Judea. In it, contrary to the assertion of the four canonical gospels, Pilate takes sole responsibility for the death of Jesus. The choice to hide this document and stand on the four gospels of the New Testament, The Order asserts, is the major reason behind the long history of European anti-Semitism and hatred of the Jewish people.

Like Brown, Silva leans on a few selected New Testament scholars to support his claim. They're more mainstream and less outlandish than Brown's sources, but they still seem rather carefully selected to support the idea Silva needs in order to fuel his narrative.

Well, no one reads spy thrillers to learn church history and Christology, so it ordinarily shouldn't matter. Unfortunately, The Order bogs down time and time again so Donati or another church scholar can exposit the necessary church history to let Gabriel himself offer lectures about the horrible impact of the early church's decision to suppress Pilate's report and lay on Jews the guilt for Jesus' execution. The villainous cabal that wants to suppress the Pilate document and put its own man in the papacy is moved by a desire to return the church to a place of power over national governments and by a hatred of immigrants. The national leaders involved are barely-altered versions of actual nationalist movements in European politics today. Silva has Gabriel theorize about how poorly one of those nationalist leaders would respond to a potential pandemic that, gee whillikers, sounds a lot like the COVID-19 crisis actually going on in the world today.

A writer of Silva's caliber could easily be given absolution for reliance on a narrow, slanted theology and the tired trope of his MacGuffin being yet another Suppressed Secret Document That, if Revealed, Would Rock the Foundations of Christianity. But those problems, combined with a sloppy, stop-and-go narrative, unusually lifeless villains and a rather unsurprising fizzle of an ending, make a reader want to see some pretty significant acts of contrition before granting it this time.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Big Ol' Small Step

Today, of course, marks the 51st anniversary of the first moon landing. Recent developments make me think I might live to see us go back, and maybe even farther out. Fingers crossed, knock wood, etc, etc.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Play Ball! (Fingers Crossed)

Even though it begins with the weird mutant version created by Calvin and Hobbes, this week possesses a greater than zero chance of ending with baseball.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Side Effects

The American Council on Science and Health is not always considered a reliable source of information on health policy issues. Although it's a non-profit policy think tank, it receives significant funding from industry sources in areas it may investigate and not everyone is sure that its reports are always free from the influence of those donors.

Granted, most such policy analysis and advocacy groups probably keep an eye out for donor interests, but it's still enough to make sure we peer at the fine print of ACSH research and findings.

In any event, this item from the ACSH doesn't have much of an "industry" angle as it explores five consequences of government and public health agency missteps in dealing with the COVID-19 virus. As writers Alez Berezow and Josh Bloom point out, the problem is not that agencies like the Centers for Disease Control or World Health Organization got things wrong. Getting things wrong and then questioning why they were wrong is how science progresses, and the official name of the virus includes the word "novel" because it's new and we've never dealt with it before. So wrong answers are expected along the way.

But, Berezow and Bloom note, all too often the agencies appeared not wrong but flat-out incompetent. That may have been the result of poor communication techniques or information flow, but the whole point of a public health agency is that it brings information to the public. Miscommunication undermines a core part of the mission.

Berezow and Bloom leave out the heavy influence the Chinese Communist Party held over reports and activity from the WHO, which only helped fuel the conspiracy mongers who filled in the information vacuum with everything but hidden lizard-people to the Illuminati. But the items they do note are troubling enough.

Anyone who's voted in more than two elections has come to understand that a large portion of elected officialdom lacks that most esoteric of qualities we call "ability to understand things." We accept this because we understand that in many cases their role is to be the telegenic face of the wonks in white coats who do understand things and who can convey them to the telegenic non-understanding policymakers in small monosyllables that don't crowd the synapses required to pander to voters. Part of the bargain, though, is the belief that the wonks have either an idea about what's going on or a clear awareness that they have no idea about what's going on but do have the tools and methods to find out.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, the anti-Midas touch of 2020 has struck again and this time turned our wonks into zonks.

Friday, July 17, 2020


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Astronomy Picture of the Day page has been showing pictures of the comet NEOWISE over the last several days, with today's putting the long-tailed comet against the backdrop of some northern lights.

An archive of several NEOWISE pictures is also available at the link. Despite the appearance the long tail presents, the comet is not actually heading towards Earth. The tail moves with the comet and is not a trail it leaves behind, and NEOWISE is quite a safe distance away.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020


Most every famous painting has a model behind it, even if only sketched by the artist. As the painting was created, of course, the image of the model became the image in the painting. Since few of even the greatest artists painted what we would today call a "photorealistic" style, the image on canvas doesn't necessarily tell us what the person really looked like. They're probably close enough that we would recognize them if we met them, but there would still be differences because the painted image comes from the artist and is influenced by him or by her.

Comes now one Denis Shiryaev, an artist who used a neural network to examine the faces found in these paintings and create from them possible faces of the models used. Since the only evidence we have for what these people looked like are the paintings themselves, there's no guarantee that the images the network developed represent what those models "really" looked like. But the process produces images that look like photos of real people, and so we can see what kind of face might have inspired the artists' imaginations.

The network-developed images range from beautiful to ordinary, which helps us understand both the role that the inspiration and talent of the artist plays and the fact that sometimes the ordinary is a step on the way to the extraordinary.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020


-- Yesterday's mail contained a form from a life insurance company with whom I hold a policy. Said policy was purchased when I was about a year old by my parents -- as an investment vehicle rather than because they thought I was at risk of perishing. At any more risk of perishing than any other toddler, that is. The form told me that the company did not have a verified address for me and needed me to write, call or visit them online to either verify the current address or supply a new one. Since this form reached me via the mail, you might think such contact to be superfluous. You would be wrong. Verifying the address by using contact information provided by the company in a letter to me required a good half-hour of being placed on hold, checking information, being placed on hold again, hanging up because of being on hold for 15 minutes, renewing my acquaintance with the company's prerecorded system, being placed on hold, checking information again and being placed on hold a fourth time. I closed the conversation by asking the customer service rep with whom I was dealing -- who had a lot more on the ball than the first one with whom I spoke -- why verification was needed when they had successfully reached me via my current address. "I'm not sure, sir," was the reply. "Is there anything else I can do for you today?

-- In the July 27 edition of National Review, Ross Douthat recounts his experience of watching the Star Wars prequels with his kids and finding he dislikes them less than he used to. The article is titled, "How I Learned to Appreciate the Star Wars Prequels." My own description of how I learned to appreciate the Star Wars prequels is pretty simple: I watched The Last Jedi. After seeing Rian Johnson's bizarre combination of iconoclasm, preachiness and narrative illogic, even "Hold me, Ani" doesn't sound so bad. I was going to say, I watched The Last Jedi and Solo: A Star Wars Story, but even I'm not dumb enough to fall for that.

-- After reading my Facebook news feed over the last couple of weeks, I'm thinking of creating my own 2020 Face Mask Challenge. It would go like this:

1. If you believe face masks should be worn in order to help reduce or slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, then put yours on. Don't tell me why.

2. If you believe that face masks should not be worn because the call to wear them is more about public control than public health, then do not put one on. Don't tell me why.

You may note a similarity in elements of the two challenges.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Can't Explain

For much of the last 40 years, once the three fundamental forces of the strong and weak nuclear force and electromagnetism could be shown to have enough similarity to suspect that in high-energy conditions they might very well be a single force, physicists have searched for a Grand Unified Theory or a Theory of Everything.

Such a theory wouldn't actually explain everything, but it would combine those three with the fourth fundamental force, gravity. And such a theory might allow for a quantum theory of gravity, something which has also eluded scientists.

Over those years, quite a few theories have been floated, some of which have more plausibility than others. And while many of them are able to make their mathematics work, they have yet to produce any experimental confirmation. Even the exotic concepts of string theory, which posit as many as 12 different dimensions, make some predictions about the observable universe. If such and such a thing happens, a theory suggests, then the theory is a plausible explanation for it. Even stronger evidence would suggest that the theory is the most plausible or even the only plausible explanation.

So far, though, none of the proposals for a Theory of Everything have been able to make such predictions. That hangup either pushes scientists back to the drawing board to start over completely or try to tweak an almost-got-it type of theory to make it work. Sabine Hossenfelder, who is fast joining John Polkinghorne as one of my two favorite physicists, suggests another possiblity. There is no theory of everything and gravity can't be reconciled with the other three forces in any situation which human beings could experimentally create or imaginatively dream up.

Dr. Hossenfelder doesn't say there is no such theory or that no one will ever find or deduce it. She says that a Theory of Everything isn't necessary right now in order to do physics and explore the universe. The standard model accounts for the three quantum forces and General Relativity accounts for gravity and we find ourselves able to observe and explain much of what we see going on according to those frameworks.

As for the quest for a Theory of Everything, it may not be possible to supply one at the current level of human technology. Some kind of dramatic breakthrough might allow us to design and conduct experiments at energy levels magnitudes higher than we can now, but until then the candidates for the Theory of Everything are as much philosophy or even theology as they are science. That last sentence, by the way, is mine and not something Dr. Hossenfelder says. But admitting that we're not there yet in terms of our ability to construct a unified theory could free up a lot of powerful scientific gray matter to tackle other matters. It's just that scientists, apparently like cable news talking heads, won't accept that sometimes "We don't know" is a chronic -- but not necessarily debilitating -- condition.

Saturday, July 11, 2020


David Ricciardi's Black Flag begins with an interesting idea and benefits from his less ponderous prose style compared to some other genre writers working today. But it eventually wastes these strengths on a paint-by-numbers story with very few twists that actually surprise and a narrative path that breaks almost no new ground.

Somali piracy, thought to have been contained by naval patrols and better-defended target ships, has returned. But this time the pirates seem to be top-level operatives, equipped with advanced combat weaponry and using precision military tactics. There are no crew ransoms and no negotiations for returned cargos -- just ships and people disappeared without a trace. Jake Keller's boss at the CIA, Ted Graves, wants him to find out who's running the pirate operation and put him to work against targets that will help accomplish U.S. foreign policy goals. Two Somali warlords -- Badeed and Yaxaas -- are the prime suspects, and Jake works with in-country asset John Pickens to navigate the deadly maze of Mogadishu's twisted power structure and uncover the pirate network as well as its spies in commercial shipping. His encounter with Athena Romanos, one of the owners of the targeted tankers, will leave him questioning what Graves wants to accomplish and how far he wants to trust both his own superiors and the pirate network they want to use.

Ricciardi obviously researched both Somalia's recent history and the seemingly insoluble problems the country faces. He takes some extra time to sketch backstory for the two main villains and sets them against each other in an arrangement that hints at quite the game of chess we can expect to be played between them. But having done so he pivots to an extremely predictable set of outcomes for almost all of the lead characters, written almost as if he had allotted Black Flag only a set amount of creativity and he used it up in the first half. Careless writing -- like an enemy gunman shouting at his men to keep firing a page after said gunman took a round to the temple and "crumpled to the ground instantly, as if his entire skeleton had been removed" -- doesn't help matters much either.

As a character, Keller carries some interesting backstory of his own and that allows for interesting possibilities for his missions and adventures. But Black Flag, despite its well-researched scenario and promising beginning, won't be one of them.

Brett Battles takes another step in his Quinn universe franchise, continuing to write about Quinn's partner, Nate, and his "hobby" of bringing justice in cases that regular law enforcement has been unable or perhaps even unwilling to solve.

In Insidious, Nate makes the tragic discovery of a woman's body while hiking one morning. Although he usually avoids the police he risks exposure by using one of his false identities to report the death. He thinks that may be the end of it, although the voice in his head that he identifies with Liz, his late girlfriend, is a lot less settled about that idea than he is, and as it turns out there is more to the death and to the deceased herself than it first seemed. Nate's friend Jar, a Thai computer hacker, is also disturbed by the case because of its resonance with her own past and insists that they do their own investigation. The announcement by police that their primary suspect was found dead makes Nate wonder if he's overlooked something.

Insidious is the second of Battles' "Night Man" series focusing on Nate. These stories are told from Nate's point of view and in first person, which often adds a smart-aleck sense of humor less apparent in the main sequence novels about Quinn and his team. Nick is wry and quick-witted, which makes for an engaging narrator and an easy read. Battles also does well at exploring the way Nate and Jar's friendship is developing -- hinting at the possibility of a romantic dimension down the road. But as he demonstrates, both characters have enough damage to them that any journey along those lines needs to be a slow and very careful one. His work in this book with Nate and Jar is probably some of the best character development Battles has done as an author.

But Insidious earns a down check because of the Lifetime-movie qualities of its narrative engine. In its early stages, when Nate and Jar work to uncover clues and solve a mystery, the open questions engage readers and keep their interest. But the resolution of that plot and the mystery the pair uncover is melodramatic at best and maybe better described as just silly. Insidious could also use some tighter editing; there are at least a couple of occasions when characters who are supposed to be wearing full face coverings mouth words to each other to coordinate their actions.

There's not much deep or lasting about the Night Man series, but it'd be easy to find suspense reads much less well done and without the solid handling of character development Insidious provides. It's a read that passes the time without deadening the brain.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

What's in a Name? Don't Ask...

Brian J. Noggle muses about the possible upcoming name change of the Washington Redskins. He considers one of the suggestions, "Washington Warriors," but warns it will probably not work because "Warriors" is also one of the problematic team names associated with Native Americans.

Even though the organization says that no Native American images or icons will be associated with the new team name or logo, the word "Warriors" could itself be too problematic.

Although many of the Native-related nicknames have logos and images only lightly brushed by tribal imagery, others wade pretty deeply into stereotyped versions of Native people. While the drive to eliminate them all could go too far, I have to say that erasing "Redskins" doesn't seem out of line. Some of the other names and nicknames were chosen as ways of identifying with the strength or dignity of certain Native tribes or individuals. But the word "redskin" was pretty much always a slur, so it's next to impossible to defend.

But of course, sorting that out would take attention to detail, history and nuance, and there's precious little of those qualities in use in just about any debate in our nation at the moment.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Nice Work if You Can Get It

Brian Dowling is a pretty well-known entertainment photographer with some big names in his portfolio. He's also one of the best salesmen I've ever heard of, because he managed to get someone to fund a project where he did a little bit of traveling around the world for three summers and took pictures of beautiful red-headed women in 20 countries.

His Kickstarter campaign to produce a book of the project had a goal of $18,000. By the time it had finished, he'd raised more than $33,000. He printed a thousand and sold them all.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Check Out This Swell Target I'm Wearing

My own mockery is, I'm sure, an unread drop in the bucket of those with wide audiences noting (again!) just how incompetent New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio is. A quick perusal of the mayor's Twitter feed finds no reference to what may have been one of NYC's deadliest non-9/11 weeks in decades. There is, however some bragging about bringing broadband internet to low-income neighborhoods and approval of charges filed against a woman who wildly overreacted to being asked to put her dog on a leash.

Mr. Mayor, if you want people to stop dunking on you, stop handing them the ball.

Waves of History

The crowded nature of Napoleonic-Wars era naval fiction leaves other eras as relatively open fields for authors to work in. Some choose to stick to the tales of wooden walls by predating the late 18th and early 19th century era most commonly featured. Other choose to explore the transition from sail to steam as technological advances created deadlier weapons and deadlier ships. The men who crew them, though, are as human as ever and the conflicts still hinge on them and the courage they display, as well as the costs they are (or are not) willing to bear.

Antoine Vanner takes a look at Her Majesty's Navy in the early 1880s through the lens of the young officer Nicholas Dawlish. Although Dawlish himself knows no Navy other than steam-powered, he's serving under officers who started their careers as boys aboard the ships of sail. The future of the navy will be in the hands of the younger men who can seize on the new technology and think in its world instead of trying to adapt themselves to it with one foot in each. Dawlish is ambitious for advancement, and the Royal Navy has not yet completely shed its devotion to advancement by influence rather than solely on merit.

In Britannia's Spartan, his bravery and the influence of a powerful admiral have landed him command of one of the RN's newest; the steel-hulled cruiser HMS Leonidas. As a part of that cruise, Leonidas will help with a diplomatic mission in the Far East, trying to secure allies among the Chinese and Korean people in the face of the modernizing and expansion-minded Empire of Japan. Though it should be a simple mission of ferrying diplomatic correspondence and the like, the underlying conflicts among the different factions will boil over and put Dawlish in the midst of the fight, in an area that still holds some frightful memories of his first bloody battles. Only the most precise handling will allow him to survive the diplomatic crisis at hand, and only bloody courage can get him through the enemies he faces on land and sea. Like the Spartan general for whom his ship is named, Dawlish knows that if he comes back with anything less than success, there's not much reason to come back at all.

Spartan is the fourth of the "Dawlish Chronicles" and the best to that point in the series. The initial volume was a grand adventure and had the advantage of fresh characters but the drawn-out chases, retreats and last stands grew a little repetitious. Spartan has the advantage of an actual sea battle, something the real-world history of the period furnishes few opportunities to record. Napoleonic-era writers can always tuck a frigate skirmish in here and there because of the worldwide nature of that conflict, but the British Empire was not in open conflict with many powers during the 1880s, at least not on the open sea. Vanner takes advantage of the near-complete unfamiliarity Dawlish and other officers have with the Korean and Japanese people they meet and their culture. He does well turning the narrative on some features of the widening division between expansionist and moderate groups in the Japanese military.

Through its first eight books the Dawlish Chronicles have been uneven, but Britannia's Spartan's tighter narrative focus, twisty diplomatic turns and more cohesive structure make it one of the series that shouldn't be overlooked.

Monday, July 6, 2020

He Done Told You Once

Charlie Daniels will probably forever be best known for his tale of a wager and music contest between a young man named Johnny and the Prince of Darkness. He may not have been the best fiddler in modern country, southern rock, gospel or bluegrass music, but it's hard to imagine anyone else who's in the top 10 in all four of those categories.

Here, performing at a church conference in Jerusalem in 2013, he opens by playing the Israeli national anthem, "Hatikvah" before segueing into a blistering performance of "I'll Fly Away." We thus have the spectacle of an audience singing along in Hebrew accompanied by one of America's proudest rednecks, proof that music bridges a lot more divisions than do politicians, activists, screaming in people's faces and pulling down statues because they can't fight back.

Daniels closes the Alfred Brumley classic with a little call-and-response testimony about how "one of these mornings" he's going to spread his wings and fly away. The little chuckle and grin this promise brings to his face makes this clip a highlight listen on YouTube today as the fast fiddle is stilled and the crown of an enormous hat breaks through the clouds at the Pearly Gates.

Daniels was 83.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Honoring the Unbowed

Major League Baseball has developed its plan for a shorter season in the midst of the pandemic that may yet get derailed by events. If it were any other year I'd almost be OK with no season, but this year is the 100th anniversary of the first meeting among potential owners that would create what we today call the Negro Leagues.

The Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City has been having short videos posted that feature a "tip of the cap" from different people to those historic players, honoring their refusal to be sidelined from an important part of American culture by the limited vision of too many owners and players. Ex-big leaguers, former presidents, four generations of the family of integration pioneer Jackie Robinson and more offer a brief salute and a literal tip of the cap to these players and managers.

So in this year it seems as though, despite all of the problems we're having, baseball should play a season of some kind. Even if it's short, even if it's in empty stadiums, even if it's weird -- they played in spite of monumental opposition. Giving it a shot seems like the right thing to do.

Friday, July 3, 2020


The National Basketball Association and the National Basketball Players Association agreed on a list of phrases that reference different social causes important to players that they can wear on their jerseys when they return to play at the end of this month.

For the first four games, the players can wear a jersey with their preferred phrase in the place of their name. After that, they can go back to using their name, or they can continue to have their slogan on their jersey above their uniform number but their name will be printed below it. Or they can choose to just stick with their name from the beginning.

The story has a list of the names, apparently taken from an ESPN report. Some of them are head-scratchers and may not be seen on very many jerseys, such as "Group Economics." Some would be excellent suggestions, such as "Mentor." NBA stars are held in high honor by a lot of young people, especially young men, and they could create and support programs that paired some of those youngsters who are in, say, poverty situations or in families without fathers, with adult men who could help them develop as empowered, responsible and dignified members of their community.

But as expected the league remains far too craven to offend its Beijing cash drawers. So "Uygher Genocide" is not on the list, nor is "Freedom for Hong Kong," "Remember Tiananmen," "End Nike Sweatshops" or any similar slogan.

One player said that the jerseys would allow the players who had taken an interest in the social justice causes to keep the spotlight on those causes. The concern among some had been that, once games resumed, the focus would go to scores, game performance, playoff chances and so on. But now, "With these jerseys, it (social justice) doesn't go away."

As long as it doesn't endanger the revenue stream, anyway.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Prescient Peanuts?

Back in 1973, did Charlie Brown discover one of the problems of medically-recommended face-coverings, as described in today's reprint?

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Big Nine-Oh

Yesterday I missed the chance to note the 90th birthday of the great economist Thomas Sowell, a man good enough at his job that he makes economics understandable to a mathematical chump like me.

Sowell no longer writes a regular opinion column, but he does roll out a book pretty regularly, and we can hope he continues to do so for whatever time he remains.