Monday, August 31, 2020


In the upcoming Nerf battle between the Boomers and the kids at Sherman's Lagoon, the language of the referee prompts Filmore the turtle, one of the Boomers, to ask if said referee is actually unbiased. The fact that such a question draws a penalty seems to lead in that direction.

Some might suggest that the referee -- Hawthorne the hermit crab -- is in fact a Gen-Xer. Perhaps -- but I have my doubts, especially if it turns out he favors one side. Because many of the Xers I know wish that, in the battle between Boomers and Millennials/Zoomers both sides could not only lose, but leave them the hell alone. Hawthorne seems far too invested in the outcome to belong to a cultural group who numbers among its definitive albums one called Nevermind.

Sunday, August 30, 2020


They say that a pen and blank paper can take you anywhere that your imagination can dream up, but I don't know if this Instagram post is exactly the kind of journey that saying had in mind.

Friday, August 28, 2020


When famous people pass away there are two kinds of loss. For the family and friends, there is the loss that anyone in their position would feel on the loss of their loved one, because the famous person was, for them, just that: A loved one.

For fans a very keen part of the loss is the reality that they will produce no more work. Chadwick Boseman's death at 43 from colon cancer obviously strikes his family and his friends much more deeply than it does people who did not know him personally but knew his work. We, of course, are sad about the loss of someone that young but we also feel some loss over the work we will no longer be able to enjoy. Boseman was best known as T'Challa, the Marvel Comics hero Black Panther. But he had also played Jackie Robinson in 42 and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall -- two pioneers who were the first African-Americans in their respective arenas: Robinson in modern baseball and Marshall on the United States Supreme Court. He was an actor whose movies you could go see for the enjoyment of his performance, even if the movie itself might lack a little luster. That does indeed matter.

But what matters far more is that he was a husband, a son, a friend -- and my condolences and prayers to those who named him that whose loss is much greater than all of the wonderful performances now reserved for the stage eternal.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Tread Carefully

The recent police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha seems to have sparked several professional athletes in many leagues to boycott their games as a way of expressing their protest and their desire to see change happen.

This space has mocked the National Basketball Association's "social justice slogans" on the backs of player jerseys, since the league continues to ignore human rights abuses in its number one new cash market, China, while singling out awful but far less frequent wrongs committed here. The boycotts deserve about the same kind of sneer.

But it's worth pointing one caveat out, however, that for their own sake I hope pro athletes remember when they're considering a work stoppage as a form of protest. The only reason we pay attention to them is because they play. The only reason they have fame is because they play. The only reason journalists ask them what they think is because they play. The only reason they become multimillionaires for their performance in kids games instead of worrying about a mortgage is because they play. The only reason they are in a position to push the culture in the direction they'd like it to go is because they play.

If they stop playing, we stop caring -- President Trump's Twitter feed notwithstanding. Without the platform of professional sports on which to stand, a big chunk of the professional athlete world is made up of guys who went to college for a year or earned an airy-sounding degree that qualifies them for nothing any more special than anyone else. 

So you see, guys, it's not that being a professional athlete makes your opinion any more or less intelligent than anyone else's. But it is what makes people pay attention to that opinion -- so if you don't athlete, why would we care?

(Edited 8/28 to reword last paragraph and clarify my thought a little bit.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Along for the Ride

Want to watch the Perseverance Mars probe as it heads out on its journey? You can do so here, through up to the minute mapping and some cool inernetery. Animation shows you where the probe is, where some other satellites are and where the planets are. You can rotate the solar system so you're looking at it from the plane of the ecliptic and see why the probe's course does not head straight from Earth to Mars. Take a look.

Or you could watch Bette Midler on Twitter make fun of Melania Trump's accent. The internet, proving that it will indeed go to insane and fetid lengths to be completely open, has both.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Answer, But Don't Answer

Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris responded to a question from ABC's Robin Roberts last week, and the way she did signals one of the biggest problems in politics today.

Roberts asked Senator Harris about her 2009 book, Smart on Crime, in which she said that one of the things our nation needed to help deal with its crime problem was more police. "Do you still think that?" she asked. Sen. Harris proceeded to not answer the question in any way, shape or form in a classic example of a politician talking about what he or she wants to talk about, not what the interviewer asked about.

The problem is not necessarily with Sen. Harris's former or current position on what America needs to do in order to get a good handle on crime. People can observe similar situations and collections of evidence and reasoning yet draw different conclusions from them. Nor is the problem really the fact that Sen. Harris chickened out of answering Roberts' softball question. Roberts shouldn't have let her blather on (and to the credit of Averi Harper, the author of the written story, she calls Sen. Harris's non-answer a non-answer), but agreeable media folks have always allowed politicians they liked to weasel their way out of tough questions.

No, the problem is that Sen. Harris could have done something very simple. She could have said, "Well, 2009 was a different time and the issues we face now need a different kind of solution." Or she might have said, "Based on what I knew then, that is what I thought. But we've obviously learned a lot in the last few years that's made me question whether or not I was on the right track." Or something similar.

Hell, she might even have told the truth and said, "Well, I was a district attorney who had an eye on being attorney general back then, so I said things that made me sound like a law-and-order person. Now I'm the Vice-Presidential nominee in a time where large chunks of our most vocal constituents hate cops, so I'm going to say something different." Sure, such a quote would be in every Republican ad buy between now and November. But some of those same large chunks of Democratic voters hate President Trump even more than they hate cops, and if beating him requires them to put a pandering authoritarian even they didn't like very much just one 77-year-old brain-surgery-survivor's heartbeat away from the presidency, well, then that's what they'll do. Sen. Harris openly admitting her duplicity would hardly matter.

But Sen. Harris did none of those things. Her response was a spinal-taffy tap dance she engaged in for one reason and one reason only: To avoid an admission she was wrong. Even though everyone knew that she was either wrong then or wrong now she couldn't admit it. Bill Clinton just couldn't admit he'd smoked pot in the 1970s, so he said he "didn't inhale." Barack Obama just couldn't admit he'd attended a church pastored by a raving bigot, so he said, "Gee, I must have missed those sermons." President Trump, of course, had this problem before he became a politician but he displays it daily.

Nobody likes to admit they were wrong, but for some reason political folks develop a terror of doing so like unto that which Adam Silver feels anytime someone says "Uyghur." And it's really a crippling flaw. The very first time some newbie office holder steps up to the mike in a situation where he or she should say, "I screwed up" but mouths something else demonstrates they are at best unperceptive and at worst cynical fibbers. And nobody, no matter what they say, really votes for such a person even if they mark that name on the ballot.. They just vote against that person's opponent.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Big Little Picture

Some more fantastic images, displayed as a part of the 2020 Macro Art contest of the International Garden Photographer of the Year competition. The pictures at the article at My Modern Met have some fantastic diversity, although they have in common that they are taken very close up and make very small things appear to be very large.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Funny Ha-ha

This interesting episode of Existential Comics explains why, even when philosophers fail at being funny, we still laugh at them.

Since EC is intended to be a humor strip there is a joke involved, but the punchline depends on Sigmund Freud being a weirdo rather than him being actually funny.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Second Take

One of the artists who uses photo editing software to post pictures of celebrities with their younger selves has also recently offered a series of them posing "with" some of their well-known roles.

Some of them work better than others; Hugh Jackman and Millie Bobbie Brown do not really look like they are in the same picture as their characters Wolverine and Eleven, and Tony Montana looks more like he's standing next to a cutout of Al Pacino than the actor himself. Johnny Depp does look like he is actually posting for a shoot with his version of the Mad Hatter, but you kind of wonder why the pic doesn't use the far better-known Jack Sparrow.

In any event, it's a fun series and worlds better than I would have managed, so take a look and enjoy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

I'm Not Sure...

Automation can produce disruption as machines and computers take over jobs that human beings used to have. But that process, while creating significant problems for the people who are put out of work by the new technology, at least has a purpose. A man named Liam Porr recently used an artificial intelligence (AI) program to write clickbait on a blog and drew quite a few hits to his computer-generated post.

Computers: Doing the jobs humans shouldn't do...

Monday, August 17, 2020


Back when I worked for a newspaper in 1988, I wrote a story about how much local video store owners looked forward to the major party conventions. Networks used to pre-empt a whole week’s worth of shows for “complete coverage,” gavel-to-gavel.

Young me was aghast at how civically irresponsible this was, because the idea that conventions mattered still lingered in the body politic and in me as well. The reality that conventions were useless multi-night commercials, stage managed down to the last robotic smile, didn’t sink in for a couple more cycles. If the few minutes I caught of tonight’s Democratic National Convention indicate anything, it’s that, like scientists trying to drain that last degree of warmth in order reach absolute zero, the virtual conventions of 2020 are straining toward absolute irrelevance.

Good think we’ve got Netflix...

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Revenge of Woodstock

 But he always seemed like such a pleasant little bird.

Saturday, August 15, 2020


I think I’ve referred to this before, but this event right here is one of the biggest reasons there needed to be a season for Major League Baseball. I’m glad it’s been included in the short season.

Friday, August 14, 2020


Sam Lee Jackson put his "Jackson Blackhawk" series of not-always-legal-but-still-right adventures on the literary map starting in 2018. Thanks to the wonders of modern digital publishing, he had several novels in the series out and and being enjoyed by readers in a short time, and it gave him the space to add another favorite genre, a Western, in 2019, with Shonto's Kid.

Circumstance puts several different individuals on a stagecoach in the Desert Southwest, but it also puts a target on them -- one of the passengers is one step ahead of the law with a lot of money and outlaw Long Bedeaux has it in mind to take that money for himself and not much care what happens to everyone else on the stage. A brothel owner starting over, Miss Lucy, manages to get herself, another woman and a young boy taken along when the outlaws can't find the passenger or the money. None of them, outlaw or innocent alike, know they are headed to a showdown with an orphan raised by legendary tracker and gunfighter Shonto Page and now known to most as Shonto's Kid or just plain Kid. The Kid and his Comanche friend John Daisy don't know the kidnap victims, but since Bedaux and his men have tried to kill the pair they'll be more than happy to rescue the victims in the process of putting the outlaws down.

Shonto's Kid is very much an "old-fashioned" Western, relying as heavily on coincidence and convention as any entry in the genre. It has a more modern lack of squeamishness about things like sex but it seems Jackson intentionally aims at trying to recreate the classic paperbacks of the mid-20th century. In that he succeeds and his straightforward sharp style moves the story along smartly. The action sequences and gun battles tighten down as they should and while Jackson doesn't waste time or words he sets their stages well and tidily ends them up before they start to drag.

In fact, Shonto's Kid is enough of a classic Western that its many antecedents show through a little too clearly. The Kid's origin recalls that of the title character in Louis L'Amour's Flint, and the stagecoach sequences and finale owe a lot to the movie of that name as well as to Paul Newman's Hombre. The patchwork construction and too-lightly disguised source material makes Shonto's Kid more Xerox than homage, something that Jackson's sure-handed prose skill can't quite overcome.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Power to the People!

 Chicago looters strike a blow against oppression!

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

How Now Should We Live

I was tempted to title this entry "The Meaning of Life" after the very silly idea from St. Elmo's Fire that Andrew McCarthy's 24-year-old character would be able to write an article with that headline in The Washington Post. It was pretentious, but a different kind of pretentious than is the idea I will now inflict upon you, O Tolerant Reader.

In recent years I have come more and more to sympathize with the hidalgo Alonso Quixano, a 16th century Spanish noble whose binge-reading of medieval chivalric romances unhinges him to the point he decides to be Don Quixote de la Mancha, a knight-errant who will right wrongs and serve his nation. As Miguel de Cervantes describes him in his foundational novel, Don Quixote is clearly delusional, believing inns to be castles, prostitutes to be great ladies of the realm, a nearby farm girl his designated Lady and a neighbor farmer, Sancho Panza, his squire.

Cervantes suggests, using medical knowledge of his day, that Quixano is clinically insane due to a physical malady (his brain dried out). But a few hours spent in the company of modern political leaders and would-be leaders or the immense heap of Rocinantean by-product marketed as entertainment can easily bring on a strong Quixanian temptation.

Who, watching the bully Derek Chauvin kneel unconcerned on the neck of George Floyd, would not prefer Marshal Matt Dillon of Dodge City? Who, listening to the malicious sniping of the United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, would not prefer the straightforward and blunt confrontation of Tip O'Neill? Who, watching the careening narcissism of President Trump's style of governance, would not prefer the drab malaise of Jimmy Carter or the optimism of Ronald Reagan? Who, watching the disturbed freak show of American Horror Story, would not prefer The Twilight Zone?  The reader can provide his or her own examples, no doubt, from just about every field of entertainment, politics or public figures.

Despite some of the wonders of our modern world, a lot of those things were better than a lot of the things that are around now and human beings mostly have a yen for better things. Might a miscreant molest a woman in Gunsmoke, just as Ed Harris's Man in Black character does in Westworld? Yes, but rather than become a multi-season protagonist he will be dealt with swiftly, put either behind bars or in a pine box by Matt Dillon by episode's end. Which is preferred? Sure, the swift justice of the past may not be the way things really happened then or today, but relying on a show about intelligent robots weakens the counter-argument.

In 1966 Burt Ward comically declared "Holy ashtrays!" and some 300-odd other similar exclamations as Robin the Boy Wonder in television's Batman as he and Adam West climbed the outside of buildings thanks to transparent thread pulling their capes as they walked in front of a camera on its side. In Amazon's 2019 super-being show The Boys, Jack Quaid kills the degenerate "hero" Translucent by detonating explosives inserted in his colon and new super-team member Starlight is forced to fellate current member the Deep in order to join. Which is preferred?

The 21st century makes it hard to point fingers at poor Alonso Quixano, but easy to sympathize. His delusions were triggered when he overdid his reading about stories from the good old days and he decided to live like that was the real world. The modern Quixanian temptation comes not from overexposure to the past but from even minimal exposure to the present. 

Alonso Quixano dove deep into fantasy because he thought the past was better than the present. Maybe instead we'd phrase it that present seems so clearly to be much worse than the past.

Either way, the giants are still just windmills. And the public arena is littered with dried-out brains.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Lows and Highs

Light spoilers follow. You may wish to read the book first but the reveal in here isn't really too much of a twist.

Alan Lee's Mackenzie August is a compelling character whose attempts to grapple with the realities of his life as a private investigator make for very interesting reading. He's quippy (in a good way; Lee is actually funny and writes funny dialogue well) and his self-examination has a religious dimension that a fellow in my profession finds particularly intriguing. His description of how the woman in his life, Veronica "Ronnie" Summers, is trying to figure out her real self after a horrid upbringing and young adulthood is also well-done and reflects a care not always taken with female characters in tough-guy detective novels. While all of those features can be found in the fifth novel of the August series, Only the Details, they don't matter a lick because the story which contains them is so very, very stupid.

One of the less compelling features of the August books is their conception and handling of organized crime, which seems to owe more to comic books and bad Mario Puzo ripoffs than the more realistic world inhabited by the flawed characters on our side of the good guy line. Mack wouldn't be the first private eye to arrive at an uneasy and semi-respectful truce with the folks on the wrong side of that line, but all of the commandments, codes and a upright "honor among thieves" tropes Lee uses stretch credulity until it snaps in half. And unfortunately for Only the Details, its entire plot turns on a cooperative venture among different bodies of organized criminals to stage one of the most hackneyed clichés of '80s low-budget action movies, the faux-gladiator tournament in which our hero must fight to the death in order to survive.

The combination alone would wreck the book, but Mack comments more than once to his captors about the stupidity of their whole concept -- a lesson Lee should probably have taken to heart and scrapped the plot in favor of one that wouldn't have made Michael Dudikoff say, "Who writes this stuff?" Mack also lectures them extensively on why their ideas are so wrong in big and sometimes repetitive dialogue chunks that are only barely lightened by Lee's witty dialogue.

It's a rare series that doesn't have at least one dead mackerel slapped down on the nice white linen tablecloth and left there to stink the place up. Details is the fifth of seven Mackenzie August books (as of this review in August 2020) and it's the first one to really tank this badly. By steering away from his John Wick-ish concept of organized crime and from recycled American Ninja movie plots, Lee will probably produce better work as the series continues. 


One of the reasons critical darling comic series Astro City had such an intermittent publishing life was that creator/author Kurt Busiek spent large chunks of the 1990s dealing with health issues eventually discovered to be the result of mercury poisoning. The interlocking narratives and richly-built world of Astro City, he said, demanded a level of concentration and effort that the sickness had made impossible.

Before his illness, Busiek completed Confessions, held by a number of Astro City fans as one of the top story arcs in the series. It focused on one of the city's nighttime vigilantes, the Confessor, and unspooled his secrets as public opinion soured on super-heroes amid several crises and a secretly mounting alien invasion. The conflicted central character, the widely-ranged slices of life in Astro City and the realistic way that ordinary folks tried to grapple with a world of heroes and villains with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men (and women) carried all of the strengths of Busiek, cover artist Alex Ross and series artist Brent Anderson, and very few of their weaknesses.

Long illness-related delays and a rotating series of publishers made subsequent story arcs shine less brightly, or at least quite a bit more unfocused and harder to follow. When Busiek at full strength reignited the series at DC's Vertigo imprint, he once again started showing why even a mediocre Astro City stood significantly taller than some other creator's best efforts. And while the tail end of the Vertigo period had some serious clunkers, its 2014 Victory arc, focusing on the the Greco-influenced Wonder Woman analog Winged Victory and a threat to both her work and her hero status, challenges the earlier Confessions for the title of Astro City's best overall arc.

Winged Victory's foes are going on low-level crime sprees, getting caught and hinting that they actually work for the hero herself. Former residents of her shelters, run as both recovery and education schools for women and girls victimized by abuse and other crimes, are claiming that she is a fraud. Astro City's Superman-analog, Samaritan, is also Winged Victory's lover and offers to help her as she needs. She declines -- partly because she believes she teaches the women who look to her by her example and she needs to continue to demonstrate her independence, and partly because she has no idea how the attack is being mounted or who's behind it. The Confessor, Astro City's version of Batman, appears on the scene with evidence of an electronic trail that may hold the answers. But even if he tracks the culprit down, will the damage to Winged Victory's reputation and work be too great to repair? And will her willingness to let men help her fight the threat cut her off from the source of her power?

Busiek doesn't let the limitations of dialogue and exposition forced on the comic format by the need for artwork keep him from writing characters and a story that goes deeply into their motivations and thoughts. Victory's previously unknown origin sheds a lot of light on the foundation for her non-heroic work and Busiek shows how her concern for its continuation keeps her from falling back on the old super-hero standby tactic "Just Start Punching." He establishes a great relationship between the three leads and spends time making sure some potentially cardboard characters do more than just show up. By the end of the story, all of our three main characters have grown in different ways as they've seen how choices they have made in their lives until now might actually have offered their opponents avenues of attack.

Anderson is as reliable as ever in conveying emotion as well as action and feeding the comic junkie's need for cool art. Ross's covers are, as almost always, superb and are subtle twists on iconic scenes between the three mainstream comic heroes on which Samaritan, Winged Victory and the Confessor are modeled.

One appealing part of the Astro City project was how it was not only told great super-hero stories with great characters but how it also commented on the comic medium and its history. If Busiek ever manages to do that as well as he did in the Victory arc alongside Anderson, Ross and colorist Alex Sinclair, he'll have another fine feather in his cap.

Sunday, August 9, 2020


Hanging out with the folks for dinner and caught one of the network newscasts and remembered why I stopped, even before they became so Trump-centric.

Story 1: Civil unrest in Beirut following this week's massive explosion, as protestors demand to know what the heck their government was doing by storing 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in a hot, unsafe warehouse. Duration: Approx. 22 seconds.

Story 2: America's Got Talent judge Simon Cowell falls off of an electric bicycle and breaks his back in six places, and is now being monitored following surgery. Electric bikes are now a thing because they're enviromentally better than cars but the electric motor on them reduces the strength needed to power them and makes them a favorite among aging Baby Boomers. Who, consequently, can find themselves with more broken bones that younger folks when they fall off. AGT's season premiere up in the air following injury. Duration: Bit more than two minutes.

A national newscast spent just about six times as long on a story about a talent show judge as it did about the site of a world tragedy. This is why what's sometimes called "liberal bias" is hardly the modern media's worst problem.

Friday, August 7, 2020


Writing at New Discourses, James Lindsay covers a recent low-scale dustup among academics about the idea that 2+2 could equal 5.

As Lindsey points out, a number of different academics in different fields attempted to "prove" not that 2+2 did equal 5, but that it could and the idea that it 2+2 always and must equal 4 is a form of hegemonic thinking. Lindsey's piece is long, but the upshot of it is, of course, that 2+2 equaling four is not hegemonic thinking, it's plain old logical thinking. And the idea that 2+2 could equal 5 is not a form of open-minded thinking, it's plain old illogical not thinking.

There were a couple of hilarious examples of folks trying to come up with situations in which 2+2=5. One involved two factories with two machines apiece and an assortment of spare parts. If the factories were merged and the assorted spare parts were assembled into another machine, then 2+2 would equal 5! Except, as Lindsay points out, the example actually proves that 2.5+2.5=5, which is the exact same kind of statement as 2+2=4. Other finagles may have smelled mathier but none of them provided any real case for saying that 2+2=5.

Sure, Kurt Gödel's "Incompleteness Theorem" makes it impossible to prove that 2+2=4 using just plain old arithmetic. But in the history of humanity's use of simple arithmetic it has always done so and every mathematical operation which has assumed basic addition to be true has shown itself to work. 

Lindsey quotes some of the tweets that sniffed down their collective noses at his posts (Jack Dorsey, I don't know if you are a praying man but if you are, a fit subject for your most fervent, ground groveling petitions is that karma is not real, because if it is your invention has loaded you up with enough of the bad kind to keep you reincarnating as a bug long past the heat death of the universe). It emphasizes something that people in my line of work need to remember.

People who follow Jesus and proclaim him as Lord are not, if they obey the instructions, permitted to hate other people. Especially just because of disagreements over worldviews.

But we are not required to pretend they are not stupid as all get-out.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Why Yes, This Is a Pleasant Outcome

The season is truncated, weird. It's a house of cards that could collapse any day with a handful of bad medical reports, it has no fans in the stands except when weird CGI is used to play Let's Pretend. It has some weird rules that will probably stick even though they shouldn't.

Worse, my preferred team has had a terrible start -- if this was a regular season they would have begun with an 8-27 record as of tonight. They haven't been able to hit when needed and they've left more runners stranded than there are people at the ballpark (and this year that's not hyperbole). COVID-19 and injuries left them with a starting rotation that was a welcome sight to every team they faced.

But then, like it sometimes does, the dam bursts. The bats awaken (and are no longer afraid!) Pitchers throw the ball past the hitters instead of to them. And even if there's a pretty good chance that in the very next game things might still be no good, at least tonight they treated their opponent like Conan treats his enemies.

And it was glorious.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

I Think I'm Going to Kathmandu...

Well, probably not really, in spite of Bob Seger making it sound like a cool place to visit. But thanks to these photos from Ashraful Arefin, I can see pretty clearly what it would look like if I did go.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Go Home, Algorithm: You're Drunk (And Dumb as My Algebra Grade)

Hunting a little for some reading material in the professional vein, I entered some currently-owned titles I enjoyed into Amazon to see what kinds of similar works might be found. There are apparently gremlins about, as the "sponsored products related to this item" indeed contained sponsored products, but they were not in any way related to this item.

For example, every title I entered is apparently related to How to Be an Antiracist. After seeing it pop up three times in a row I tried a completely different kind of book and to my surprise found out it was also related to Ibram X. Kendi's bestseller. I could (and more or less do) chalk this up to Amazon honchos thinking that more people need to read Dr. Kendi's book. Which, fine. Their company, they get to express their point of view and they get to tell underlings to tweak the search algorithms to make that book show up in almost every search. They can even hide under the cover of the "sponsored product" label and say that they told you up front you'd be seeing stuff they think you need to see along with stuff you might be trying to find.

But as is often the case with complicated algorithms, alteration in one place has ripples throughout the system. In checking out John Cogan's The High Cost of Good Intentions, I found it is related to Thomas Quinn Miller's Cradle of the Gods - The Soulstone Prophecy Book 1.

Cogan's book is about how government programs designed to aid people in need have become bloated, inefficient cash blasters that seem to do everything for the people in need except help them.

Miller's book, according to the description:

In the world of Allwyn, a war has led to the downfall of humanity. A thousand years later, the survivors live on the fringes of a vast dwarven empire.

Ghile, one of the last humans, is preparing for his Rite of Attrition in a settlement known as the Cradle of the Gods. Meanwhile, Almoriz the Sorcerer and his apprentice Riff arrive in Ghile’s village for their annual visit.

Their meeting sets forth a series of events that changes Ghile's life forever. He is marked as the Stonechosen, and wields powers of the gods themselves.

But Ghile is not alone; others chosen to fulfill the prophecy are also traveling to the Cradle, seeking to destroy him. The time of the Stonechosen has come.

I have before in my life read such combos of post-apocalypse and fantasy (Hey, Terry Brooks! How you doing? Stephen King! How about that Dark Tower?) and may do so again, but I have never in my life heard of Thomas Quinn Miller. And unless one of the mystical powers of the gods themselves wielded by Ghile is a TANF card of unlimited supply, I'm not seeing the crossover.

Even more fun, among the algorithm which isn't supposed to include sponsored material (also known as material that an author or publisher paid Amazon to bump up a little) called "Books you may like" is Mary Trump's Joe Biden campaign contribution, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man. The idea that this is a book I may like is so completely wrong that we will need to have the universe repeat the Big Bang/Big Crunch cycle of collapse and rebirth at least three more times in order to contain the distance between it and the truth. I can't stand to read social media posts about the president, so why on earth would I inflict a book about him on me and become the first person to violate the Geneva Convention against myself?

Again, how Amazon runs is Amazon's business (and business has never been better, I'm sure). But I'll look forward to the day when Jeff Bezos figures enough people own Dr. Kendi's book or Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility and the algorithm can be reset to its far less glitchy previous state.

Monday, August 3, 2020

From the Rental Vault: Harlem Nights (1989)

Eddie Murphy was at the peak of his influence in the late 1980s and leveraged it to be able to produce and direct a movie featuring some of his own heroes amid a largely African-American cast. Coming out several months after Spike Lee's debut Do the Right Thing, some movie writers suggested Harlem Nights could also be important to African-Americans in the movie industry, since Murphy's greater star power would mean bigger box office. It did indeed make more money; $95 million to Right Thing's $37 million, but it did not post numbers like previous Murphy vehicles and did not do well with critics.

In the later years of the Great Depression, Club Sugar Ray is a Harlem hotspot, a dance club also offering gambling and fronting a brothel owned by Madam Vera (Della Reese). Ray (Richard Pryor) runs the club with the help of a younger man whom he raised as his own son, Vernon "Quick" Brown (Murphy). Although de facto segregation still divides New York City, Club Sugar Ray has white clientele as well and it success draws the attention of mobster Bugsy Calhoune (Michael Lerner). Calhoune starts leaning on Ray for a percentage of the club and brothel take, using corrupt cop Phil Cantone (Danny Aiello) as his weapon.

Ray realizes that he can't win in a fight with a mobster at Calhoune's level so he decides to shutter the club and run a con game on Calhoune. The complicated plot relies on the mobster's greed as well as Cantone's and on the cleverness of Ray and Quick.

Seen from a 30-year distance, some of the reasons for Harlem Nights' underperformance at the box office are even clearer today without Murphy's megawatt stardom overshadowing them: It doesn't have very many laughs for a comedy, it's glacially paced for a caper movie and it's got far too many moving parts for a star vehicle. Murphy was a first-time director and had also written the script, which left far too few voices to crop up and say, "Are you sure this works?" Murphy himself, recalling the movie many years later, remembered how all of the comedians on the set (Redd Foxx, Arsenio Hall, Thomas Mikal Ford and Robin Harris also had roles) kept everyone laughing non-stop between takes -- but he never seems to be able to channel any of that humor or energy onto the screen.

All of the performances are competent; most of the cast had quite a few roles in their filmographies even if only in bit roles. If Murphy's vision had been augmented with some advice on the script and direction, and if he had been able to make up his mind which direction he wanted to take -- comedy, caper flick or high-concept star vehicle -- Harlem Nights could have helped break through some of the stereotyping walls built around African-American directors and their work. Lee and other directors like John Singleton were proving that an African-American-directed movie centered on African-American experiences with an African-American cast didn't have to be a comedy or belong to the "blaxploitation" genre of the 1970s. A critical success for Harlem Nights might have demonstrated such movies could also perform at the box office and broken a lot of barriers (All but the most virulent racists figure out how to deal their differences when it comes to the color green). But the curiously lifeless result of its combined talents kept that from happening, and leaves the movie itself memorable for what it failed to do instead of what it did.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Mixed Signals

One the one hand, ESPN is to be admired for their work in uncovering the deep hypocrisy of the National Basketball Association's presence in Xinjiang, China, operating a player development academy not many miles from the Uighur concentration camps run by the Chinese Communist Party.

On the other hand, as the league begins play, the site's NBA news feed is once again filled with the faux-edgy, hip, gossipy headline stream ("There's no denying the beef between Harden and Giannis") that signals business as usual in toadying up to the same organization that stonewalled, stalled and apparently flat-out fibbed when asked about its lack of response to reports of abuse at its school. Not to mention fawning features on how the league is helping its players promote their desire to see social change. Checking out the site feels like watching a puppy who realizes that he's not going to be put outside for making a mess on the rug.

The players can't really be blamed for not knowing all that much about bad situations in other countries where their league has significant financial interests. Even if they follow news it's hard to find coverage of those things in the midst of yet another example of how Donald Trump is really the worst no we mean the worst for real this time. Maybe it's cynicism to suggest that league officials are encouraging the players in their own interests and causes in order to make sure they don't look too closely at what might strike at the heart of league interests and revenue streams.

And maybe it's not. Be nice if someone tried to take a look at that.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Go East, Young Man!

One of the problems that faces the writer of Napoleonic nautical fiction is that there are a number of times when the scene, so to speak, switches to land. The great Nelsonic battles destroyed the power of the French fleets at sea, and then the constricting blockades prevented their repeat. This was certainly well and good for the nations needing to keep the Corsican tyrant bottled up on the continent, but the author who wants to put his or her hero forth in the proper atmosphere of derring-do is left with refitting a few single-ship actions to be conducted by the novel's characters instead of their actual historical participants.

Author Julian Stockwin, whose stated goal of his Kydd series is to get his hero from pressed man to admiral, finds himself even more constrained as many of those single-ship actions are not the kind that helps a rising and ambitious post-captain keep the notice of those over him who could guide his career towards the hoisting of his own flag. So in several of his more recent Kydd novels we've found our hero spending quite a chunk of narrative without a hint of powder-smoke to be found. The series' 2019 entry, To the Eastern Seas, remedies that a little by making Sir Thomas Kydd the prime mover of the British takeover of the Dutch East Indies, giving him a role in transforming England's commercial empire into the political one that would dominate most of the 19th century.

After a brief reunion with his wife Persephone, Kydd is ordered to India as a means of reinforcing the crown's protection of its East India Company ships. Pirate activity is biting the bottom line and a speedy, deadly frigate with a bold and innovative captain is needed to deter their depredations. But once on station in India, Kydd finds that there are political intrigues aplenty -- between royal officials and Company leaders and even between colonial officers themselves as they try to avoid the kind of overreach that would win them no new ground as well as leave current possessions open to French or Dutch attack. Although Kydd was in these waters before as a common seaman, the additional expectations of a captain in polite society present him with unfamiliar waters that may bring him even more hazard than the enemy.

On the one hand, Eastern Seas doesn't spin its wheels -- Stockwin puts Kydd on the scene of several events connected to England's interests that happened in that place and time where his courage and cleverness help save the day. On the other hand, Kydd seems out of character in more than a couple of places. In one, he takes steps that he should see clearly would be threatening to his own commanders and look like attempts to undermine their authority. In another, his worries about the absence of letters from Persephone and the kind of thoughts it provokes him to seem like a very artificial problem, wrapped up neatly in an almost dismissive paragraph.

Stockwin's writing is as strong as ever. His opening description of the return of Admiral Collingwood's fleet superbly paints both visuals and their emotional impact. The secondary narrative of the Tyger's new first lieutenant and his growth arc as a character is as well-done as anything in the series. But Eastern Seas lacks any real sense of weight as a sequence of events in Kydd's life and career. And it presents a main character curiously unaware of things he's already demonstrated at this point to be able to perceive quite clearly, for what appears to be no reason other than, "Well, otherwise there's nothing going on." It certainly improves on some of the more lackluster recent series entries, but it's still a little too easy to say, "But to what end?"