Saturday, October 31, 2020

Been There, Done That

So the Washington Post ran an opinion column from Stephen King about Tuesday's election. In it, King suggests he now understands the reason that people voted for Donald Trump in 2016, but warns that given the conditions of 2020, making choices like it was 2016 is probably not a good idea. That's true, but...

It's pretty silly. It rides its central metaphor -- Trump's 2016 voters wanted to "kick over the apple cart" -- too far by saying that 2020 requires us to vote for Joe Biden to "set it upright again...but we'll all have to pick up the apples." King says he understands the 2016 Trump voters but still speaks of them as though they were children who threw a tantrum. They may very well be exactly that, but olive-branch appeals to an opponent's better nature fare poorly when the non-extended hand is still covering a snicker.

King's "Trump voter" in mind is a convenience-store clerk who surprises him back in 2016 with her preference for Trump. In another bit of silliness he gives her the pseudonym "Annie" even though he doesn't use her last name and doesn't identify where she worked at the time, and she doesn't work there anymore anyway.

King's point is that although the impulse of the 2016 voter may have been understandable, the results have been awful: Trump has done poorly at his job and has deepened and hardened the divisions that his candidacy exposed. I completely agree with the first and don't deny the second. But I think King gives far too little credit to Trump's opponents, who seem to have taken every opportunity to join him in making things worse.

But the Washington Post leaves one question glaringly open: Who cares what Stephen King thinks? Sure, he's not dumb, but his degree is a Bachelor of the Arts in English, not foreign policy or economics or political science. He probably spends a reasonable amount of time informing himself of the events of the day via news media, but he's never demonstrated any particular genius for uncovering surprising new points of view -- and he doesn't do so here. It's not that he's wrong, it's just that he doesn't offer anything new, anything that a few million Americans don't also think. None of those few million Americans had an invitation from the Post to share their wisdom with the world, only Stephen King. And why did Stephen King get that chance? Because he's sold lots of books and people know his name. In other words, WaPo readers were presented with this particular point of view for no other reason than that its holder is a celebrity.

Please correct me if I err, but thinking that celebrity somehow confers special insight, wisdom or ability to understand, comment on and handle complex modern issues -- like, say, the problem of illegal immigration or of China's power grabs on the world stage -- and that we owe the opinions and policy suggestions of the famous more deference because of their fame is one of the mistakes that got us here. I'd figure the Post might give us a little help in the course correction.

Friday, October 30, 2020

...In Your Eye!

Once upon a time there was no mud on the Earth.

Or there was, but it didn't stay in one place very long. Any excess of water flow or some other disaster rinsed it right out into the sea, where it would eventually sink to the bottom of the ocean after smothering a bunch of fish near the shore.

Then plants started taking hold on the land and spreading out everywhere, and the mud stayed put because the plants kept it from sluicing along with any old rainstorm that happened by.

And everything changed.

At least, that's what geologists like Neil Davies have figured out happened by studying things like the fossil record and the shapes of ancient and current rivers and seashores. When mud sticks around it alters the flow channels that water makes and gives rivers shapes more like the ones we know. Bends create new environments as water finds places that are still rather than rushing, and new life develops. Most current theories suggest plants began to spread out and establish themselves on dry land between 450 and 350 million years ago -- about the same time that Davies and other geologists see an an increase in the levels of mud that stays on the land instead of washing out to sea. If you try to imagine a world without as much mud on the land, Davies says in the above-linked  article at Knowable magazine, Earth "becomes a very different kind of planet."

The new environments -- both of the mud itself and of the new conditions it creates -- lead to different forms of life succeeding where they might have died out before or barely clung to a niche corner of their world. That alters the environment even more as the new forms use its conditions to thrive and reproduce.

Genesis 2 suggests that God created plant and animal life, including human beings, "out of the ground," and while the fossil record shows life existed before plants started keeping mud out of the ocean, the muddy change allowed life to take new directions, one of which apparently led to us. So it would seem that whether you prefer to read Genesis 2 literally or you blend its understandings with those uncovered through scientific observation, God has done some amazing things with mud.

Which is kind of sobering when a look at the modern world suggests that what we do with it most of the time is sling it at each other in the months before elections.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Some Back Catalog

A wealthy restaurant owner is on trial for the murder of his wife. A crucial piece of evidence was found by a Los Angeles Police Department detective with a suspected but unproven shady past. The rich man's lawyer would like some dirt on the detective to help create reasonable doubt and spring his client, so he hires Elvis Cole to dig into that past and see what comes. Ordinarily Elvis wouldn't get himself into the middle of something like this but he's got enough doubts of his own that he'd like to learn some of the answers.

Sunset Express, the sixth Elvis Cole novel, was published in 1996 and so just about every incident that you think might be a kind of commentary on the way celebrity and money can influence the legal system (O.J. who?) is intended to be one. Crais is clear that while the system is meant to function a certain way, the reality of fallible and self-interested human beings, combined with enough resources, can put a thumb on Lady Justice's scales. As Elvis, who fancies himself not naïve in these matters, digs into the past and present issues, he becomes both suspicious and disgusted. His developing romance with Lucy Chenier may not be the only thing the case endangers, as signs of a conspiracy make him a liability that someone wants dealt with...preferably permanently. Elvis and his friend, the taciturn tough-guy Joe Pike, may have more than celebrity culture to deal with before everything is over.

Cole does the "wisecracking P.I." bit better than most, for the simple reason that Crais is funnier than a lot of other authors who try it and he writes a better book. Express finds him in a good groove in both of those areas, although the interactions with Lucy, her son Ben and Lucy's ex-husband seem like they would have been better in a different book. Conversations with Lucy give Elvis a chance to comment on the wackiness of LA's "scene," but otherwise they feel like pitstops in the main storyline. Even so, Express is one of the better books of one of the better smart-aleck sleuth series on the shelves.
Often thrillers and spy novels that put their leads into contact with the highest circles of power will create fictitious versions of the real people in those offices. The agent might have an important role in saving, say, the President of the United States, but it won't be any actual president. The author might, if he or she has a low view of said president, create the fictional one to mirror the worst aspects of the real one, at least as they see them, but the character will still be fictional. Ted Bell mixes and matches his real world analogues with fictional characters as they encounter his top British agent, Alex Hawke. Among the actual people that he's cast is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who owes Hawke a debt for the latter's help in stopping an attempt to recreate Imperial Russia in Tsar -- a debt because the plotters intended to succeed over Putin's dead body.

The wily and vicious Russian president opens the tenth Hawk novel, Overkill, by surviving another assassination attempt -- but he has to flee the country in order to do so and is cut off from his power base by the oligarchs who tried to remove him. But Putin still has allies, and he has a plan as well. In the meantime, we find Alexander Hawke on a hunt for his kidnapped son -- a significant problem not just because he doesn't know who took the boy or why, but because the list of potential suspects and old enemies is almost too long to count. The two men will once again converge in unexpected ways as Hawke needs to not only find his son, he needs to try to block Putin's bloody plan for revenge and a return to power.

Overkill has just enough focus to its outlandish plot to keep things moving from start to finish, although whether that's a desirable outcome is left up to the reader. Bell's whimsical take on some aspects of the spy thriller, when married to a sensible plot, make for a fun romp around the world. His choice to include real world characters adds an interesting flavor (in one novel, Prince William and Prince Harry employ their actual military training to help protect their family from terrorists). But in this case, the mix is uninteresting, the overall plot uninspiring and the results is a book well below average for Lord Alexander Hawke.
Michael Connelly has been writing his Harry Bosch character for a long time and has aged him pretty close to real time over the course of his 20 or so books. That means that Harry's getting up in years and while he may be just as dogged a detective as he ever was, his physical limitations start to show. It also means that the series itself could start to show wear -- there's only so many times Harry could confront superior officers who care more about politics than about finding whatever justice is available for those unable to speak for themselves -- the victims that murderers have left behind.

In 2017, Connelly brought a new character into the loosely connected "universe" centered on Harry and his half-brother, lawyer Mickey Haller: LAPD Detective Renée Ballard. A confrontation of her own with a sleazy superior left Ballard on the "Late Show," one of the detectives who responds during the night shift when a body is found but who usually hands the case off to another detective if it proves more involved. In 2018's Dark Sacred Night, Ballard meets Bosch, as the latter is snooping through LAPD files -- after hours, because he's been put out to pasture. He's hunting information on an old murder of the teenaged daughter of a woman he met during his most recent case. Ballard doesn't turn Bosch in, but she also lets him know he shouldn't be sneaking around. His drive to solve the case, though, appeals to her and the pair find their deep desire to bring killers to justice gives them common goals -- and perhaps common enemies in the LAPD authority structure that looked the other way when Ballard was harassed and Bosch was sent packing.

Although Connelly's stumbled now and again by sliding into some of the crime genre's tropes, he still produces quality work and uses its familiar palette to paint realistic characters in realistic and engaging situations. Neither Bosch nor Ballard are ideal folks, but their shared quest for justice draws readers in and makes them people to root for. "Everybody counts or nobody counts," Bosch says, and his dedication to that potentially corny idea sells the reader on it as his clear passion. Ballard seems similar although she has her own twist on the idea; it's not just cloned from the older detective.

The story of the murdered teenager and her mother in recovery was used in the most recent season of Amazon's Bosch series, but the TV version actually has some more resonance and makes some better choices than Connelly does in the novel. Still, Dark Sacred Night does the necessary work to bring the pair together and set the stage for how Harry Bosch can be a viable character as he ages past the ability to take on the physical demands of his job. But it does so while keeping Renée Ballard and interesting and complex character in her own right; future collaborations will allow Connelly the luxury of writing about two interesting people in the same novel.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020


In 2008 some folks in Norway built what's called the Svaldbard Global Seed Vault, a repository for seeds from a wide range of plants. In case of global catastrophe, humanity's remnants can go to the vault and retrieve seeds for most of the plans that now exist on the earth. This could come in handy in re-starting agriculture.

Now the Oreo company has done something similar, just up the road from the Seed Vault, in order to ensure that the potential survivors have not only the supplies needed to bring grains, fruit and vegetables back to a devastated Earth. They will now be able to reintroduce Oreos amidst the devastation. The vault contains not only a supply of the cookies but also the recipe for making more. Such civic-mindedness is definitely to be thanked, and I would encourage all persons to commit the coordinates of the new vault -- 78° 08’ 58.1” N, 16° 01’ 59.7” E -- to memory for their own good.

Hostess was asked about similar plans with the Twinkie, but a company spokesperson pointed out that Twinkies are almost certain to survive any disaster that does not completely annihilate the planet and so a vault is not needed. Another spokesperson assured us of the same durability regarding Keith Richards.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Blue Tunes

Although Melody Gardot has experimented with several styles and rhythms of music during her career, her roots in quiet, reflective jazz have always remained, sometimes more above the surface, sometimes less. With her fifth studio album, Sunset in the Blue, Gardot circles back to those roots but expands her palette to add orchestral arrangements to the spare drums, keys and bass that brought her into the business on Worrisome Heart. The result is a wonderful time tunnel to the middle of the 20th century; a simultaneously relaxing and recharging visit to the era when vocalists reigned supreme in the craft.

Sunset opens with "If You Love Me," a plea to the potential lover to declare his feelings and intentions -- but gently and carefully, as might befit a couple who have both seen their share of hurried heartbreak: "Come in close but come in slowly, now." "C'est Magnifique" follows, mostly in Portuguese and easily  one of the most beautiful performances Gardot has ever recorded -- her voice light enough on the ear it wouldn't leave tracks in the snow as she and Portuguese vocalist António Zambujo trade back and forth in a duet that sounds for all the world like the opening theme to a lost Audrey Hepburn movie. The title track is a wistful lament on the inevitable passage of time, and Gardot tucks two more numbers in Portuguese into the middle of the album, the dreamy "Um Biejo" and peppy "Ninguém, Ninguém." The latter's upbeat rhythm belies its   wistful reflection on a past relationship -- perhaps one of the same ones that brought the singer of the first track to her caution about going slow.

"From Paris With Love" is a sketch of an afternoon in one of that city's cafés, moving then into the reflective "Ave Maria" and delicately lovely covers of Henry Mancini's "Moon River" and Frank Sinatra's version of Sammy Cahn's "I Fall in Love too Easily."

"Little Something," a duet with Sting, closes the album with a bright dance floor rhythm the covers up the two protagonists promising each other that they "could be a little something," a playful kind of fling without the baggage and attachment that weighed down the relationships that each of them had before. But both have a hint of desperation in their words. On the one hand they try to convince the other that such a fling would be a fun, no-strings-attached time together. But on the other they sound as if they're trying to convince themselves that they can enter such a relationship without developing the attachments from the past -- and trying a little too hard, at that.

Although her experimentation yielded some good music, the return to this style of quiet jazz makes it clear where Gardot's strengths as a songwriter and vocalist lie. Sunset offers evidence that even within that style there's plenty of room to stretch as an artist and still make one of the year's top vocal albums.

Edited on 10/27/20 to correct lyric quote.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Third Places Finished?

Sometimes research tells you what you already know. Writing at The American Institute for Economic Research, Brad DeVos outlines how the COVID-19 pandemic and measures to slow its spread have brought significant stress into people's lives by isolating them.

DeVos specifically addresses the way that mandated pandemic precautions have removed so-called "third spaces" from many people's lives. The term was coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe places where people often congregated that was not home or work. Neighborhood taverns, gyms, bowling allies churches and the like offer places where people encounter other people but do so without the structured expectations of the workplace. Their lack has removed a place or environment where people could help shed stress and take part in enjoyable, relaxing and potentially recharging activities as a group.

The article isn't a long exploration of the idea but I think DeVos's understanding is on target. But even more than that I like his ending -- a hope that when we have dealt with the virus through a vaccine and learning how its spread can be prevented we return "to normal." Not, he says, the proverbial "new normal" that has no place for third spaces and their role, but actual normal that does include them and lets them once again fulfill their vital role in the spiritual and emotional health of our society.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Photoshop Phun

In 1944's Anchors Aweigh, Gene Kelly danced with the cartoon mouse Jerry of Tom and Jerry fame, offering an intriguing first look at how animated images might blend with the real world. In 1988, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? took the concept a much greater distance by mixing animation and real-life actors throughout an entire movie.

Along the same lines, Jakarta-based artist Andhika Muksin puts Disney characters into real life scenes, sometimes blending the animated heads onto actual human bodies and sometimes just putting the entire character into a photo. Checking him out at these two Bored Panda pages is certainly more fun than the final presidential debate of the 2020 campaign, no matter who you intend to vote for.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020


Lots of kids love dinosaurs and can tell you half a million things about them that no one over the age of 12 remembers.

Nathan Hrushkin has them all beat, finding four bones of a juvenile hadrosaur while poking around the Alberta Prairies in Canada with his dad. Adult hadrosaurs are fairly common finds in the area but not juveniles, and the team sent to explore it found more than 30 more hadrosaur bones nearby.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020


So you've slogged through some political and news posts and made yourself depressed, because it seems like the only thing that would be worse than the one guy winning the election would be the other guy winning it. Then you happen across a post for something called Mathemalchemy, in which a couple dozen artists/mathematicians are going to collaborate on a "large multimedia art installation that celebrates the creativity and beauty of mathematics." It'll be unveiled in a little under 300 days.

So there's something to look forward to after all!

Monday, October 19, 2020


Straight from 1990, Calvin and Hobbes offer an excellent picture of the ballots that confronted us in 2016 and which we will see in a couple of weeks.

Saturday, October 17, 2020


There's rarely a reason to read a political book about a presidential administration produced while that president is in office. Former staffers write a couple of hundred pages to say, "If only they'd have listed to me!" Others let Bob Woodward quote them, by name or otherwise, saying the same thing. Or they're about things that just happened a couple of years ago and can still be looked up.

Donald Trump's presidency provides even more incentive to avoid books supposedly detailing its inner workings, adding only to the wonder the reader must feel: If he was indeed so awful, why did you agree to work for him? It's not like he was secretly vain, pompous, boastful, etc...

Byron York's Obsession fulfills one of the few real needs for books about the Trump administration: A clear look at what the hell happened with one or another particular feature of it. York, a reporter for The Washington Examiner, traces some features of the buildup to the impeachment investigation and probe from late 2019 and early 2020 and their relationship with what's usually called "the Russia probe" connected to the investigation by Robert Mueller.

Large amounts of the book come from York's reporting on Mueller, impeachment and related matters at the time, as well as later interviews to add perspective. Since the Examiner is a conservative-leaning news outlet and York is a former staffer at National Review, one might be tempted to dismiss Obsession as a an exercise in Trump apologia. And frankly, Regnery Publishing's subtitle "Inside the Washington Establishment's Never-Ending War on Trump" doesn't help. But York outlines clearly the way some of the president's own deficiencies -- hubris, narcissism, unwillingness to believe someone else might know something he didn't -- contributed to his problems. Interviews with former staff, members of the legal team, campaign and transition team officials make clear that all too often, the president did not know what he was doing and should have listened to others who did.

On the other hand, his opponents seemed little better. Obsession's title is probably aimed at them and the way that several of the leading figures against Trump made it clear early on that they would take whatever steps and grab hold of whatever pretext presented itself to not just work against him and his policies but destroy his ability to even attempt them. Impeachment is an excellent example. Was there ever a chance that House Democrats could produce evidence that would make Senate Republicans remove a president of their own party from office? Perhaps slightly, at the beginning, but the secrecy, missteps and bungling of Reps. Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler in their respective areas snuffed it out. It could not succeed yet extensive and expensive efforts were still poured into it, occupying both Congress and the administration while the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to take shape in China.

York offers another example, perhaps even more telling, in his second chapter. On January 6 following a presidential election, members of Congress are sworn in for their new terms and they help certify the results of the Electoral College. Since those votes have already been sent to different federal and state officials, the certification is almost always ceremonial. But not in 2017. With then Vice-President Joe Biden presiding, Democratic Representatives rose time and time again to debate the results of the election. Well of course, one might say. There was considerable room to do so. But none of the complaints were co-signed by a Senator as they needed to be in order to be heard. In other words, none of the Representatives who rose to speak intended to legitimately object to the totals. They only want to say they were objecting, rather than directing energy and effort toward things the president might want to do that they could stop.

Reading Obsession, we watch Democratic leadership and others opposed to the president who try to bend any process at hand to the end of removing him from office, whether it has any chance of success of not and no matter what happened to that process through their efforts. It calls to mind the possibly apocryphal Vietnam-era quote about destroying a village in order to save it.

Like most books written from a point of view, Obsession tends to emphasize things that support the point and elide some of those that don't. But it still prompts a question. President Trump is cast by his opponents as a man of little character, unfit for the office he holds. They predicted before he was elected and have pointed out since then that his bad character and lack of discipline and competence would damage our political culture and possibly our republic. Whether those qualities have done so to the degree claimed may still need to be resolved, but that he has seems clear.

But as Obsession explains, what isn't clear is why the people who swear they oppose him have helped him do so.

Friday, October 16, 2020


With the Los Angeles Lakers win in the 2020 NBA Championships, LeBron James now has his fourth title as well as fourth Finals MVP Award., reigniting talk about whether or not he or former Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan is the GOAT or Greatest of All Time. Jordan has six rings and six Finals MVP awards, which would seem to make the answer clear.

Nay, nay, O Tolerant Reader! Arguments over matters like this are what sports fans live for, especially when the players involved never went head-to-head. Multiple controlling factors are in play, such as whether or not Jordan would have been able to dominate as he did in today's game of professional basketball, or whether James would have been able to do the same in the 1990s. James, it is pointed out, has taken three different teams to titles, whereas Jordan won only with the Bulls. Exactly wrong, scoff the MJ crowd, who suggest instead that instead creating and maintaining a decade-long dynasty was the greater task.

William C. Rhoden, writing for The Undefeated, suggests that the tag of greatest clearly belongs to James. He cites the current superstar's impressive achievements but adds in the off-court dimension, where James' activism far outshines Jordan's well-known bottom-line reticence in political matters.

Figuring out whose on-court accomplishments top the other's is an exercise left for the student, but if we're going to add in off-court factors I have to point out that Michael Jordan never held the company line on its submissive pose to the Chinese market or side-stepped his league's subservience to a genocidal regime. MJ never suggested that a tweet supporting democracy protestors in Hong Kong was "misinformed." So I'm not willing to tip the cap to Mr. James just yet.

As for my own two cents regarding on-court matters? I'll cast my vote for and leave the last word to Bill Russell:

ETA: Tolerant Readers indeed. Many typos fixed today, 10/17/20

Thursday, October 15, 2020


So I understand the candidates for president from the two major parties held dueling town hall sessions tonight. I spent a bit of time cruising through the Natural Wonders section of Atlas Obscura and seeing some of the very weird -- and cool -- places that dot our planet.

Once again, I am victorious!

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Where We're Going, We Don't Need Roads

The Tesla Roadster that Elon Musk launched into space on a test flight of his SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket just did a flyby past Mars, complete with spacesuited mannequin behind the wheel. It's in a solar orbit that will fly past Mars and Earth both several times over the next few million years.

Musk is a weird cat and sometimes a complete jackass, but he also does some pretty cool off-the-wall stuff now and again.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Dragon Misfire

The first half of Ted Bell's Alexander Hawke series was finely written, tightly plotted spy fiction with a touch of outlandishness; a kind of millennial James Bond for the 21st century. Starting with #7,
Phantom, Bell began to lean on some of the genre's more tired tropes and spend less time making his plots fit together. He also kept going back to the well of killing whatever woman with whom Alex became involved in order to motivate the hero, a practice pop culture calls fridging. This, the 11th Hawke novel, so disposes of not one but two paramours in the course of its dual plotlines and would be given a negative star if such a rating existed. Some spoilers contained below.

While recuperating from an encounter with a vicious assassin. Alex Hawke is summoned by the Queen for the kind of discreet and ruthlessly competent service he has consistently provided in service to crown and country. But this request has a bit of a personal dimension as well, since it concerns a missing royal grandson last seen in a Bahamas nightclub owned by two notorious Chinese criminals. Though he may not be exactly 100% just yet, Hawke has enough in him to answer Her Majesty's call and woe betide any who stand in his way.

In a parallel story set during World War II, the new Chinese ambassador to the United States begins his job almost simultaneously with the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan and the declaration of war. Though he is meant to serve as a diplomat, Tiger Tang will find himself enmeshed in both British and American espionage work during the war, side by side with an Englishman named Ian Fleming and with Horatio Hawke. Their descendants will meet also, as the grandchildren of Tiger Tang own the club, Dragonfire, where the royal grandson was last seen and where Alex Hawke will begin his search.

While Bell's writing in Dragonfire is just about as good as it has ever been, it's being used in service of two barely connected plots that have only the flimsiest reason to be between the same covers. The Tiger Tang narrative is interesting enough but neither it nor the hunt for Prince Henry makes a full story and combined the seams show clearly.

In the course of his hunt Alex reconnects with China Moon, a People's Republic secret service operative whom he crossed paths with several years ago. An old romance is rekindled as her loyalty to her nation and its goals take second place to her love of Alex. But wait, you ask. As I recall, in Overkill, Alex rekindled an old affair with Sigrid Kissl -- is he two-timing her? Of course not! Bell had Sigrid Kissl killed back in chapter 6 at the hands of renegade super-assassin Shit Smith, who will not, by the way, be seen again in this book. Sigrid is not even given the courtesy of being fridged for the current narrative, only a potential future one. China Moon will herself be killed in an epilogue, with Bell doubling down on his grotesque habit of killing any woman with whom Alex grows close.

It's not common to find so many hack habits and choices in a book by an author of Bell's clearly demonstrated but pointlessly employed skill. But he's a published best-selling author and if his publisher permits he can indulge himself however he pleases.

The reader, on the other hand, is cautioned against indulging him at all.

Saturday, October 10, 2020


Way back in 1990, Calvin describes pretty much the exact reason that most political coverage and discourse today is not only awful, it makes no sense.

Friday, October 9, 2020

This Will End Well

The customer-review social media platform Yelp will now allow people to call out businesses that display racist behavior. If you have questions, that's because you have more neurons than does the Yelp "User Operations Team" that decided on this new feature.

Sure, if you read the company's post at its blog you see language that says the warning will go up in order to let people know that an accusation has been made and so there might be an influx of bad reviews by people who just want to run the business down but who have never been a customer. And you see them saying that if an alert -- helpfully colored scarlet, doncha know -- is added to the page then there will be a link to a "credible news source" that reports on it.

As Kyle Smith notes at National Review, the world of social media reviewing platforms is often less than worthless. It's not just restaurants; I listen to a dozen or so podcasts regularly and they all ask you to give them five-star reviews because anything less than a 4.8 gets overlooked.

The problem is that it's not hard to create a sensational enough claim of racist treatment that it makes headlines in "credible news sources" even though it will later turn out to be false. And the removal of Yelp's scarlet R will draw a tenth of the attention that its placement did, perhaps permanently harming the business. That might be an acceptable risk if the placement of a racism warning via Yelp did anything real to advance the cause of racial equality, but no one who doesn't work for Yelp thinks that it does.

If they're going to go through with it, though, they might need a sweeping of their own house for starters.

Thursday, October 8, 2020


Writing at First Things, Leah Libresco outlines why bad art may not be the best thing for us. It's an interesting piece and one item stood out because it's an opinion I already held: The CGI Yoda from the Star Wars prequels, despite its ability to hop all over the place in a lightsaber duel, is not as good as the simple puppet voiced by Frank Oz in the original trilogy.

The rest of the article is good, too, and Libresco fortunately doesn't mention bad blogs.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020


Some more fun with the past, as artist Stuart Humphryes takes some rare old photos -- shot in color via a process called autochrome -- and tidies them up to look modern. As you can see in the pics displayed on his Twitter feed, Humphryes doesn't colorize black and white pictures, he restores color in the faded autochromes. By making them look like modern shots, he highlights how we tend to see the past as fuzzy, faded or a wash of grays when it was really just as bright and colorful as today is.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Just One

A few years ago I found and noted a story that noted how the earliest-serving president with living grandchildren was Prexy #10, John Tyler. Because both he and his son had the habit of begetting children late in life, there were two living grandsons for Tyler, even though they had obviously never met him .

Late last month Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr., passed away at the age of 95, leaving his brother Harrison, 93, as the last surviving grandchild of John Tyler. The three generations of Tyler men stretch across four separate centuries, with John being born in the 18th century (1790), his son in 1853 and his grandsons in 1925 and 1928 and surviving into the 21st century.

Unless of course they're members of the long-lived Howard Families, in which case there's no telling how long they may last.

Monday, October 5, 2020

So What?

This item at Inside Higher Ed highlights how 1,500 alums of Rhodes College -- the alma mater of Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett -- have signed a joint letter opposing her nomination. The letter's authors also refer to the way that the current Rhodes president said the nomination reflected well on the school:

“We are likewise firmly and passionately opposed to Rhodes administrators’ attempts to embrace Amy Coney Barrett as an alumna of our beloved alma mater. We oppose this embrace because we believe both her record and the process that has produced her nomination are diametrically opposed to the values of truth, loyalty, and service that we learned at Rhodes.”

Now, anyone can have any opinion they like about Judge Barrett or her nomination. The letter is amusing in the way it opposes the college president's "attempts to embrace Amy Coney Barrett as an alumna of our beloved alma mater." The letter's authors seem to have overlooked that if she is in possession of a valid diploma and transcript, then Judge Barrett is in fact an alumna of their beloved alma mater no matter what the president -- or they -- say about it.

What the letter fails to do is to tell me why I should care what the authors and signatories think. Their opinion is supposed to carry more weight because they too went to Rhodes College, some of them at the same time as Judge Barrett did? That argument makes no sense. I have a number of classmates who would cast doubt on my qualifications for my current line of work, given that my goals and behavior as an undergraduate do not match it in the slightest. None of the people who supervised my candidacy and ordination process would have cared if my classmates had submitted a public letter opposing my ordination if they evaluated me as fit for the role.

Things like this seem to be more and more common these days -- the many times direct descendant of some Confederate general or another is quoted as not opposing the removal of the statue of their ancestor as though their particular opinion carried any more weight than anyone else's. I have yet to read a one of these stories where the interviewer asks the one question that matters more than any other: So what? And since no interviewer asks it for me, I do it for myself and ignore their opinions as swiftly as I can unless they offer some other and much better reason that I shouldn't.

Sunday, October 4, 2020


Friday night's passing of St. Louis Cardinals' great and Hall-of-Fame pitcher Bob Gibson brought forth many stories and memories, as often happens when a top-tier figure in a sport dies.

An apocryphal story suggests that, after Gibson surrendered a grand slam home run to journeyman Pete LaCock, he said it was time to retire. Another claims that when Gibson faced LaCock many years later in an oldtimer's game, he plunked him with the first pitch. There's no hard evidence for either story, but listening to the way the competitive fire drove Gibson they sure sound like they could have happened.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Two Two-Star

In his main professional life, Dr. Ian K. Smith holds a lot of laurels as a leading physician advocate for healthier lifestyles and has several books offering ways to change habits and develop better health. Earlier in his career, he also tried his hand at novels, publishing the techno-thriller The Blackbird Papers and the shadowy conspiracy expose adventure The Ancient Nine. Recently Smith returned to the world of fiction, bringing Chicago private detective Ashe Cayne to the page as he hunts for a missing North Shore socialite.

Ashe resigned from the Chicago Police Department when he wouldn't go along with a conspiracy to cover up a racially-motivated shooting -- and the significant settlement he received from the CPD helps him pick and choose his cases. Initially he's reluctant to help find Tinsley Gerrigan, a twenty-something free spirit with a habit of going under the radar now and again and the money to do it. But he decides to do so anyway although it's not too long before he finds out that the important truths of the case remain Unspoken, and the secrets could prove deadly for him in the novel of that name. When Tinsley's boyfriend -- a young African-American man lifting himself out of the poverty and criminal connections of his family background -- is found dead, the secrets swirl more deeply but no less dangerously.

Smith does a good job of setting his scenes in Chicago's different and divided neighborhoods and giving the reader a sense of place. Ashe is clearly cut from the tough-guy detective mold and Smith sets him up with a background of his own as part of a well-off African-American Chicago family partially -- but only partially -- insulated from that city's troubled racial past and present. He has deft enough hand at humor to make Ashe's quip game worth the trouble.

But the novel suffers from uneven pacing and a cast of characters that expands too quickly at just the right plot point. As he describes the Gerrigan's wealth, he lays the hyperbolic comparisons on thickly enough to become repetitive, and at several points the prose clunks noticeably. There's a side plot with a defrocked abusive priest that has literally no bearing on the rest of the story and is just a slightly gamy waste of space. Ashe's quasi-legal enforcer backup "Mechanic" owes a lot to Spenser's Hawk in Robert B. Parker's novels. You could even make a case that Unspoken borrows a lot from Spenser's debut The Godwulf Manuscript, with a missing heiress pulled into illegal and dangerous doings via connections with subversive political groups. Smith throws those connections into the story almost out of nowhere rather than grow them organically as Parker did, but in either event the plot is common enough to tough-guy detective fiction to make a true plotlifting unlikely.

Ashe Cayne offers loads of possibilities as a character. Chicago's racial history belies the idea of racism as an exclusively southern phenomenon and the way he mixes that situation with the privilege of wealth and solid connections with both cops and criminals could bring interesting conundrums his way. A second novel is set for release in August 2021 and if Smith can smooth out his prose, ditch the tendency to parachute drop pivotal characters into the story quite late in the game and either leave out or make relevant Ashe's habit of vigilantism, then it might be a good step into an intriguing series.

A recurring theme for Louis L'Amour is that a move west requires people to begin to think in different ways and pay attention to things around them -- the way they are used to handling the world in which they live will not work in this radically different environment. If they don't adapt swiftly, they'll have eternity to contemplate their errors.

In that sense, 1973's The Quick and the Dead sums up in one story what L'Amour has said in many previous ones. Duncan McKaskel, his wife Susanna and their son Tom are traveling west to make a life they will not be able to make for themselves in the established structures and cities of the East. But they maintain too many connections to Eastern ways and values that will not help them at all as they confront Native Americans and outlaws. The first have a culture and civilization Duncan does not understand and the second are simply predators on two legs -- but both have too many sharp edges for the novice to handle safely.

Fortunately for the McKaskels, they encounter a drifter named Con Vallian, who stops at their fire one night for coffee and for some reason even he doesn't quite understand, decides to help them navigate the uncharted and potentially dangerous new world they've entered. He grows to like them, admiring the courage all three of them show in not backing down when they confront trouble. Vallian is certainly part of what the McKaskels need to survive their first months in the West, but it remains to be seen if he's enough to keep them -- and him -- alive.

Quick has a curiously cursory feel, as though L'Amour were otherwise occupied when setting the story to paper. It's got a lot of interesting ideas scattered through the narrative but really never spends much time picking them up and looking them over. The lessons L'Amour would like to teach and commentary he would like to make are visible, but only just and they need more excavation than they're given. For example, on the one hand we've the McKaskels, a group of people shaped by a civilization featuring the rule of law. On the other we've the rustlers and outlaws who chase them, adhering only to the law of taking what they want when they want through the power of the gun and respecting none of the values the McKaskels are used to. Bridging them is Vallian: He too seems to set store by the right to have person and property unmolested by others, but he'll use naked force if necessary to preserve them and in whatever level is necessary to see his will done. When confronted by a superior force who wants to attack people to whom he owes nothing, which way might he fall? Quick may want us to think it asks that question, but it never does so seriously. Although L'Amour gives Vallian a handful of lines appreciative of Susanna's beauty and spirit, he's never really presented as any serious threat to take or tempt her from Duncan. Nor does there seem to be much doubt that he will take their side rather than abandon them.

It may be that expecting a Louis L'Amour Western to explore questions like that is asking too much, but L'Amour never shied away from commentary on the human condition or consideration of larger issues within the context of his genre. The Quick and the Dead goes far enough to hint at these kinds of thoughts and ideas, but doesn't pursue them enough to make it as interesting as it could have been.

Friday, October 2, 2020

In Their Footsteps?

Existential Comics makes the point that a lot of people who claim to follow this or that school of philosophy are more or less name-droppers without much genuine understanding of the thinking they claim to emulate. In this cartoon, Friedrich Nietzsche is forced to deal with two people explaining his thought in just such a manner.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Location, Location, Location

A few weeks ago, staffers at the New York Times got twisty because the paper's op-ed section ran a signed piece by Sen. Tom Cotton that argued President Trump should deploy National Guard troops to quell riots in major American cities. The Times killed the piece before it could run in a print edition and opinion editor James Bennett "got resigned" from his job.

Turns out that Times staffers actually are pretty much OK with forceful intervention in the face of civil unrest -- as long as it's done by the totalitarian Chinese government. At least, none of them have so far objected to the presence in their pages of a piece supporting the crackdown on personal freedom in Hong Kong.

As the post title suggests, the old real estate maxim really can apply to just about anything.