Friday, December 31, 2021

From the Rental Vault: Red Notice (2021)

Caper movies walk a fine line. The centerpiece is usually a skillful and daring heist performed against impossible odds and armies of guards. Something has to be stolen, but a caper movie is supposed to carry itself lightly, so the theft may be committed against an evil opponent, a faceless corporate museum or a private hoarder unwilling to share his or her treasures with the world. Otherwise an audience may disconnect once it realizes it's cheering for criminals and some poor person is going to suffer the loss of a treasured and perhaps irreplaceable heirloom or beloved personal item.

Second, the thieves must be basically good people. Yes, they're breaking the law, but they're not really hurting anyone. Hapless guards may succumb to knockout gas or find themselves locked in a now-empty vault after being outwitted by our clever protagonists, but no one is seriously or permanently injured. They're just having fun and using their great skills to get rich quickly and proceed to their life of ease that precedes the closing credits.

And most of all, there must be some surprising twist that no one saw coming -- in fact, no one even saw that no one saw it coming and this unanticipated twist can send the audience home happy if it's pulled off and rolling their eyes if it isn't.

The Netflix offering Red Notice, featuring what should be a power trio of Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot, overlooks several of these important points and thus winds up with an audience that may ask itself, "Why did I watch that?" Johnson is John Hartley, a by-the-book FBI profiler who helps Interpol nab the skilled thief Nolan Booth (Reynolds) until skilled thief Sarah Blake (Gadot) plants evidence for Interpol that Hartley is not an FBI agent at all and gets him thrown into the same Russian prison as Booth. They escape, and Hartley realizes that in order to clear his name, he's going to have to help Booth steal the second of three golden eggs made as presents for Cleopatra so he can turn it over to Interpol. Blake keeps complicating things and eventually the trio must find the third, long lost egg, in order to achieve their individual goals.

The three leads have good chemistry. Johnson and Reynolds are essentially playing themselves and Gadot shows she can pitch in with the quips as well as either of them. But fun dialogue and likable leads only go so far, and Red Notice winds up frequently funny without being at all fun -- the cast is having a heck of a time, but it all stays onscreen and doesn't make the move to the viewer. The set pieces are all predictable -- Johnson will win his with brute strength, Reynolds with slick patter and misdirection and Gadot with smoking hottery diverting the opponent before kicking his butt. And there's too many of them; Red Notice is a nearly two-hour movie that should have been a half-hour to 40 minutes less.

Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber, a co-producer along with Johnson, has said that sequels are possible -- but Red Notice in some ways already feels like a sequel. If you're a fan of '80s movies, imagine watching Jewel on the Nile before Romancing the Stone and you'll have a pretty good sense of what it's like seeing Red Notice.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Tip of the Cap

As a Kansas City Chiefs fan, I of course despise the Raiders -- wherever they're from these days -- and all of their works. But anyone who's followed football knows about the coaching abilities of their former head man John Madden and respects his work.

And in a world where watching a football game means choosing between Joe Buck, Cris Collinsworth or Tony Romo, Madden's work in the booth can't be valued highly enough. So a moment of silence and tip of the cap indeed to Madden, who passed away today at 85.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Humbug Indeed

Writing at The New Republic, Natalie Shure explores what condition may have actually ailed A Christmas Carol's Tiny Tim Cratchit, the young boy whose envisioned death is one of the pieces of the puzzle that changes Ebenezer Scrooge from a wealthy miser into a wealthy philanthropist. After muddling around with several choices, she settles on a form of non-pulmonary tuberculosis usually called Pott’s disease. It attacks the spine and like its cousins that affect lung tissue, is often made worse by polluted air, crowded conditions and poor nutrition -- all situations in which Ms. Shure believes young Tim would have found himself.

After getting paid for a summary of A Christmas Carol and for some quick literary analysis of same, Ms. Shure then strengthens her paycheck by reporting other guesses about the youngest Cratchit's illness and including a sentence suggesting she will set right what 19th-century Londoner Charles Dickens misunderstands about 19th-century London. 

Ms. Shure suggests that Dickens' primary motivation was to advocate a restoration of specifically Christian charity among the wealth of the day. Dickens himself, corresponding with a government official who had helped research and publish a Parliamentary report on the devastating state of poor children in industrializing England, had already made plans for a pamphlet on the matter but later withdrew from that plan after Carol's success. One of his goals was to make the broader public aware of the plight of poor children who, denied adequate nutrition, health care and education, could slip away as easily as did Tiny Tim. Though the youngest and least well of the Cratchit brood, both his presence and absence affected them greatly.

Anyway, back to Ms. Shure, who after several paragraphs confronts the obvious reality she has avoided to that point: Tiny Tim suffered from nothing, because Tiny Tim wasn't real. You'd think that would be a good endpoint for a silly article, but Ms. Shure then points out that the thousands of real Tiny Tims throughout the factories and mines of England's growing industrialization did suffer and their modern incarnations do as well. Only "robust social welfare programs funded by progressive taxation and a strong public sector capable of delivering crucial health care resources to the entire population" can save them and they can't rely on the hope that the world's plutocrats will be suddenly and spectrally moved to share the wealth that will make a difference in the lives of the world's poor.

In the last paragraph, we finally learn that this whole misreading of Dickens and misunderstanding of his efforts to help the people at the bottom of his society has had the purpose of advocating that the government take under threat of law what Christianity would ask be given out of sacrificial love.

Ms. Shure redeems herself slightly by noting that in her favorite version of A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit is played by Kermit the Frog and his wife by Miss Piggy. But she throws it out the window by closing with an aphorism from the stupidist Marx of all, Karl, that makes clear she's not much better with the New Testament than she is with Charles Dickens: "God bless us, everyoneto each according to his need, from each according to his ability."  

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Teacher Teacher

An interesting article at Liberties Journal opens by quoting some college students lamenting the quality of instruction they were receiving. Professors were disengaged, they meandered during their lectures and frequently explained material poorly in response to student questions.

The hook is that this discussion happened almost a hundred years ago, in a meeting of delegates from 20 colleges held at Wesleyan University in 1925. To the extent today's students care about learning anything in between bacchanals and indignant protests, they could probably say similar things. A few do, says article author Jonathan Zimmerman, but those "paying customers" are widely outnumbered by the ones who want a memorable experience (much of which they will render themselves unable to remember) and a credential for a job that will put them comfortably in the upper middle class.

Zimmerman, a former professor at New York University and now at the University of Pennsylvania, names the usual suspects: A research-dominated faculty culture, little or no training in actual pedagogy, grade inflation, etc. To this he adds a feature from our modern age, in which professors are afraid to present challenging ideas in certain areas of discussion for fear of stirring up a mob against them for their clearly fascist bigotry -- even in fields that discuss nothing that could honestly be described as fascist or bigoted.

My own time as an undergraduate is some 35 years ago and while some of these trends had started to curve upward, I proudly possess a transcript that proves grade inflation had not been adopted by several professors. Most of my time in campus ministry has been in smaller regional universities, where students are far more likely to encounter instructors more interested in teaching than in advancing in their field through research. 

The irony seems to be that the value of the college as a credential for where one starts in the world seems to vary inversely with the likelihood that one might actually be taught something. Professor Zimmerman would like to see a world where more colleges offered that likelihood -- and maybe things at prestige universities or large state research schools will one day break down so much that such a world will return. It happened in response to student critique and dissatisfaction a hundred years ago, at least for awhile, and maybe it will happen again.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

This Is my Sad I've-Been-to-Space Face

The Federal Aviation Administration has decided to get out of the business of deciding which people are astronauts. The number of people launched into near-space by various billionaires is rising too fast and since none of them do anything but sit there -- except for the three minutes or so they float around in zero G -- they don't really fit our classical picture of an astronaut who actually does something while in space. They are what test pilots in the 1960s called the Mercury astronauts: "Spam in a can."

On the one hand, it's kind of neat that we now have so many people going on these space-border rides that we have to narrow our definition of being an astronaut. And we can all marvel that a government agency quits doing something, while whatever part of us that is libertarian can be minutely cheered that a function which the government doesn't really have any business doing will no longer be done by the government. It will be a very small and quiet cheer, of course.

Should I ever be lucky enough to get a ride on one of these existing or in-the-works projects, it will be after January 1 and because that is after the Federal Aviation Administration stops designating people as commercial astronauts, I will not get wings.

But since I would have been able to get up to the very border of space (or even beyond it, depending on what future flights in this area may hold), I most certainly will not care one dadgum bit even if I have to draw my wings on a piece of paper and safety-pin them to my lapel. Because I will have been to space.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Ouch

Peter Jackson's recent documentary The Beatles: Get Back shows hours of footage shot as the band prepared its final album, Let It Be. The film was shot at the time and only a very truncated version appeared, but Jackson took the many hours available and created a far more complete picture in his eight-hour documentary.

Contrary to the widely-held opinion that John Lennon's second wife, Yoko Ono, broke up the band because of her intrusive presence, Jackson suggests that she didn't have that much impact at all. Although she's frequently around during recording, writing and the rest of the process, she's not pushing her ideas or whatnot into the discussion. 

At least one article I read shows that the band broke up not because of anyone's significant other, but because as the four members grew older they found that they had less and less to say together. Their respective muses no longer pulled in the same direction and in order to follow them, "The Beatles" had to become John, Paul, George and Ringo once again, separated from their common milieu. Given the leeway to exercise their own creativity with, say, solo albums or working with other bands, perhaps they could have stayed together when the ideas or the mood struck. That option, for whatever reason, wasn't explored or maybe wasn't even considered possible.

Other reviews have said different things. Amanda Hess, writing at the New York Times, suggests that Ono is actually engaged in her own work of creativity as a performance artist. By being ever-present but always silent, she was offering commentary on how women were marginalized by the rock music culture. Hess thinks this is of a piece with Ono's public comments on that matter and the dedication she puts on her song "Potbelly Rocker."

Folks, can, of course, think what they want about Ono's artistic ability. The idea that she broke up the Beatles overlooks the robust ability of all four men, especially Lennon, to be arrogant elitist asses all on their own. For her 1971 "show" at the Museum of Modern Art, Ono had released flies on the museum grounds which the public was invited to track as they dispersed across the city. I think that says most of what needs to be said about her work (The flies were also sprayed with her perfume to carry her scent, but in reality liquid sprayed on insects often suffocates them).

But the article subhead says that in Jackson's documentary, "Ono is a performance artist at the height of her powers." That's just mean.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Give It Up for Buck O'Neil

It should have happened while he was alive, but at least it has happened. John Jordan "Buck" O'Neil is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Friday, December 3, 2021

All Things JWST

If you want to know about the developmental history of the about-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), then Natalie Wolchover's lead story at Quanta will tell you everything and then some. Wolchover digs deep into the origins of the multi-billion dollar project, its cutting-edge designs and the new technology necessary to make them work, and so on. She touches a little on the controversy regarding the telescope's name and she does refer to the extensive delays and cost overruns that have dogged the project.

But this is an article about a potentially amazing new scientific tool and the discoveries that could come from it appearing in a science magazine. Wolchover isn't cheerleading for the JSWT, but she leaves the exposés for other outlets.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Right Thing -- Again!

The Womens Tennis Association continues to do the right thing in its ongoing standoff with the Chinese Communist Party in regards to the latter's silencing and censorship of its own star athlete, Peng Shuai.

After WTA president Steve Simons said last month that Chinese officials needed to investigate Peng's claims of coerced sex and sexual harassment by a top Chinese government official, instead of disappearing her and staging videos that showed she was completely OK and had "changed her mind," he backed it up by saying the WTA wouldn't stand for it if China didn't act.

China didn't act, and Simons announced today that the WTA would cancel all tournaments scheduled for the country indefinitely. Regardless, by the way, of the cost.

The WTA continues to demonstrate to sports leagues and companies how they should respond to a regime that tries to control and dictate the terms under which it will work with them. And, by the way, it's a good quick refresher for women's gymnastics groups about how one handles things when one's athletes claim to have been harassed or assaulted by one's own officials.

I'd suggest the International Olympic Committee take note as well, but I have trouble typing when I snicker.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Loud, Plaid and Called

Today is the Feast Day of St. Andrew, who was deemed the Patron Saint of Scotland in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath. Your humble Friar has some Scottish heritage -- of which he is proud, aye! -- and so he enjoys noting this day, which is not observed nearly so widely as good old Patrick from the nearby Emerald Isle.

St. Andrew's day has nothing analagous to Paddy's green beer and, frankly, your humble Friar would advise against consuming any beverage which looks like it might be plaid. But following Andrew's footsteps as an apostle is an outstanding idea worthy of consideration.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Everything's OK Now

The truth is that over its recent history, the International Olympic Committee has proved that there are very, very few totalitarian dictatorial buttocks which it will not kiss a la Crash Davis, but their supernatural ability to do so while also assuming both supine and prone positions in front of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party is a miraculous sight. Not a sight to behold, mind you, at least not in front of the kids, but certainly a miraculous one.

As noted earlier here and elsewhere, former Chinese tennis player -- and Olympian -- Peng Shuai first accused a former Chinese government official of coercing her into sex. Then she disappeared, and an obviously faked email claimed she recanted her accusation and just wanted to be left alone. The IOC, recognizing the danger facing its last tattered shreds of respectability and a lucrative partner relationship, acted swiftly.

IOC President Thomas Bach, either explicitly or implicitly, offered his organization's services in the fakery of convincing everyone that Peng was just fine. Bach claimed that he and other IOC members spoke to Peng in a 30-minute international video call and she's all A-OK, so there's no need to move the February 2022 Winter Games from China. Pictures that are supposed to represent the phone call were released, but the full video has yet to be (perhaps making sure all gun barrels aimed at Peng remain offscreen.)

I think there was a call, as I can't believe the IOC would go so low as to help with a photoshop that made it look like there was. But I'm almost certain that listening to it would make clear what a tissue of lies the CCP is trying to sell and how eagerly the IOC is to help close the deal so as not to endanger its commission. If this pattern continues and the IOC keeps participating, it's going to owe a lot of apologies to the former East German judges for impugning the honesty of their results.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Example

A few days ago Chinese women's tennis player Peng Shuai accused a high Chinese government official of coercive sexual behavior. The Chinese government reacted as totalitarian dictatorships do and she has now disappeared. The Women's Tennis Association received an email that almost no one believes that Peng sent, retracting the allegations and saying she was just fine.

Unlike the spineless National Basketball Association, which bent over backwards to grovel when a general manager tweeted support of Hong Kong democracy protestors, the WTA said no dice and that it would be happy to pull all of its business out of China unless Peng's allegations were investigated and definitive proof of her continued well-being offered. WTA Chariman and CEO Steve Simon's exact words were, “We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it.”

Meanwhile, LeBron James has yet to say the word Uyghur in public. One begins to wonder whether the spheres on the court are the only ones involved in that game. Except for Enes Kanter, of course.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Who?

The website Goodreads, of which your humble Friar is a member, has posted its opening round ballots for it's "2021 Choice Awards." Now, though I read a lot of books, I am accustomed to low familiarity with many of the nominees. I don't read books in several of the categories, and in the case of several others, well, the nominees suck and I don't want to read the books.

I am even accustomed to have never heard of several of the nominated works at all. I leave many categories blank because I am not the person to tell you whether a book on the ballot was any good or not. But this year I found one book -- just one -- in the entire slate of nominees I would like to vote for. I have skimmed singer Brandi Carlile's memoir Broken Houses and plan on picking it up, which was about as close as I could come to picking a favorite in any category.

And this year I had no idea who a good four-fifths of the authors were, let alone the books they wrote. I'm not sure how wise a move this is for Goodreads. Middle-aged grumps like me are probably more likely to be bookish people than the screen devotees of the Millennial and Zoomer generations, so it would seem smarter to find books we read in order to draw attention to the contest. But apparently I'm not as smart as those folks are, which I guess is OK. It means copies of what I want to read stay on the shelves longer and I've got more time to pick them up.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Maybe...

On the 110th anniversary of Buck O'Neil's birth we find welcome news, as outlined here by Kansas City Star columnist Vahe Gregorian. The driving force behind both the creation of baseball's Negro League Museum and elevating the profile of that league and its all-but-forgotten players missed inclusion in the hall in 2006 by one vote. He died months later. Now a select committee that meets every several years has included him on its Early Baseball Era ballot for possible induction in 2022.

Gregorian quotes museum president Bob Kendrick's story of how O'Neil handled the news that day as evidence of his strength of character and graceful spirit. He also makes a point of saying that he doesn't want to look like he is pressuring the committee voting on O'Neil and the others. I, on the other hand, wish to make it clear that without Buck O'Neil, the Baseball Hall of Fame is nothing more than a storage shed for a bunch of bronze semi-likenesses hanging on its walls.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Cool Hat

In today's reprint, Hobbes the tiger runs afoul of the mysterious and indefinable characteristics that comprise "cool." To his disappointment, "cool" does not include sombreros.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Testing, One, Two, Three

According to the organization Ofqual, my headline is not easily understood and might demotivate learners.

My headline has more than one potential meaning, you see. On the one hand, it's the time-honored phrase that speakers will say into a microphone as a sound technician sets audio levels. On the other hand, the word "testing" can mean many other activities. Thus, my headline uses "complex language" that could cause the aforementioned demotivation.

Kristina Murkett, writing at Unherd, goes over some of Ofqual's complaints and suggestions as they relate to national academic tests in English schools. Abstract nouns, homonyms and metaphors are also among the targets Ofqual would like to see done away with in order to make exam questions "accessible, clear and plain."

That by itself is a worthy goal -- if the questions are not clear then the answer could come from what would, to the scorer, look like left field. But if a later discussion showed that the student gathered a different meaning than the questioner intended and responded to that, then the supposed wrong answer could be seen as right.

But, Murkett notes, the goal seems to be less clarity and more dumbing down. We deal with homonyms -- words that mean different things but sound and are often spelled alike -- every day and we understand them based on their context. Although "bank" can be both a financial institution and the side of a river, I am not at all confused over which of them is a good place to put my money. The federal government, on the other hand...

The point is that understanding the question demonstrates as much mastery of the skills being measured as does the answer to it. I might have memorized the facts the class was designed to impart to me but in order to demonstrate knowledge I need to be able to put those facts into a proper context: I need to know which of them answers a particular question.

Anyway, Murkett's brief piece points out that Ofqual's proposed strategies would simply water down the exams until they were as useless as testing opponents say, except for the purpose of convincing students they are as unable to understand these things as their supposed benefactors say they are. When I'm teaching a lesson in a youth Bible study, as much as half of my work is convincing the the students that the things we're talking about are not beyond their reach. That knowledge, it would seem, they have learned well.

The should have, of course. In a society that sees them more as targets for faux rebellion, faux outrage, faux sexuality and dozens more other fauxs and tells them they'll only find their identity and values when they reject the ones given to them, they've had many teachers for that lesson.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Solo

It's entirely possible that Enes Kanter is the only person with a conscience in the National Basketball Association.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Wisdom From Online

Now and again, someone says something smart on the internet.

Such as Kate Mossman, outlining the importance of the 1980s for pop music in this New Statesman article.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Reality Catches Up

Astronomers at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics believe significant dips in X-ray emissions from a spot in the Whirlpool Galaxy are caused by a Saturn-sized planet orbiting its star at several times the distance between Earth and the sun.

While exoplanets -- the technical name for planets outside of our solar system -- have been found throughout the Milky Way, the new body, dubbed M51-ULS-1b, is the first strong evidence of a planet outside our home galaxy. Its distance from its primary and the specialized measurements used to locate it mean that the astronomers aren't likely to ever be able to confirm M51-ULS-1b is an actual planet, although they are pretty certain it is.

The Whirlpool Galaxy is 31 million light years from us, which means that the X-rays and other sources studied which suggest there is a planet actually began their journey to Earth during the Oligocene Period, 31 million years ago. On Earth, that era saw early versions of horses, and the ancestors of modern dogs and cats. Primates of the time retreated from what is today Europe to concentrate in the area that would become Africa.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the evidence which today suggests M51-ULS-1b exists happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

Saturday, October 23, 2021

To End in Fire, David Weber and Eric Flint

To End in Fire presents an interesting question to fans of David Weber's "Honorverse" novels centering on the intrepid Honor Harrington and now expanded to hundreds of characters across dozens of storylines. The question: Is one of Weber's zero-discipline, meeting-minutes-on-steroids doorstops worse when nothing happens? Or when something (but not as much as you'd expect given the page count) happens?

Fire is the fourth in the sidecar sequence called the Torch novels, following the backstage fight against the evil and shadowy Mesan Alignment that's trying to bend the star nations of humanity to its wishes. Weber co-writes this series with Eric Flint and it's mainly focused so far on Republic of Haven spymaster Victor Cachat and the Star Empire of Manticore's top agent, Anton Zilwicki. It picks up the story on the planet Mesa itself after that world was devastated by the Alignment's escape and Manticore's conquest. The Mesan storyline focuses on the way that its former citizens and serfs are forced by circumstance -- and orbiting Manticore dreadnoughts -- to pick up the pieces of their society and rebuild it on a more just and egalitarian footing. On Old Earth, recently brought to heel by the Grand Alliance Fleet commanded by Harrington herself, the Solarian League works its way through a constitutional convention designed to sweep out previous corruption, both Alignment-related as well as ordinary. The convention winds slowly -- overseen by, among other observers, orbiting Grand Alliance dreadnoughts -- and ties in with Cachat and Zilwicki's primary goal: Find out where the scampered Alignment members escaped to.

Unlike a few other recent Honorverse outings, Fire has a real, live discernible Point B as a destination and a real, live journey towards it. It clearly leaves room for more novels in this particular sequence, although Honorverse event threads are bundled closely together enough by now that whether or not the story advances through one set of novels or another is mostly a matter of emphasis.

But Flint and Weber take an exhaustingly long time to get to that point B. We first see Victor and Anton figure something out. Then we meet some Mesans who meet with our main cast and they figure that something out. Then the Manticoran occupying officers figure the same something out. Then we go to Earth and meet some Solarians who figure the something out. Every discovery happens with little or no variation in style or dialogue. Every character speaks in the same dry, wry, witty ellipticisms and few, if any, meandering asides are actually set aside in order to choose brevity over the chance for a quip.

Fire is just more than 700 pages long and should be about a third of that. It's filled with chapters that should be pages, pages that should be paragraphs, paragraphs that should be sentences and sentences that should be left out. The suffocating length dampens all but the last dregs of enthusiasm for attempts at whimsy -- such as the ruler of one planetary system insisting her title will be Her Mousety rather than Her Majesty, or the running gag of characters being brought up short wondering about the origins of common phrases dating back to the ancient days of our era. One of the latter is actually funny -- probably not the one Weber and Flint think, though -- but the humor has been leached away by the other dozen times the joke shows up.

Reading Fire is indeed a chore, but because actual plot development occurs, it's a necessary one. Is that worse than laboring through something like 2016's Uncompromising Honor and its grand total of almost zero plot development? Hard to say.

But neither of them is as much fun as reading some good, fast-paced military science fiction with solid world-building, just enough technical detail to be interesting and real stakes where you wonder if some of the characters you're following will make it all the way through. Like, say, this one

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Pseudoriffic

The assumption is that scientists dislike what is often called "pseudoscience." But, as Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder explains in a post from earlier this month, they may develop more of an appreciation for it than you would think.

Pseudoscience is something that has the patina of science. Those explaining it might use scientific words or claim that experimental data confirms what they say. Some fields of pseudoscience use scientific tools and language in their discipline. Astrology, for example, is bunk. But astrological predictions are based on the motions of planets and stars and those are determined by math and astronomical observation. 

Hossenfelder says that one effect of pseudoscience is that skeptics often develop real scientific information in refuting it. She highlights how the common experimental techniques of single- and double-blind research studies came about from attempts to disprove pseudoscientific claims.

In this sense, pseudoscience is a specific form of incorrect information, and the scientific process is about checking into information to see whether it is accurate or not. Scientists can also use that process to demonstrate that widely-held pseudoscience is inaccurate.

Of course, lots of people keep hold of their disproven beliefs in spite of evidence to the contrary. But science hasn't found a solution for that.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Meh

Although it is the home of spectacular autumn scenes and some other very neat things, October doesn't really rise to being among the top months for me. The main reason is its very last day, All Hallows Eve, contracted to Halloween. Nov. 1 was long called All Saints Day, and in many cases some four or five hundred years ago, "Saints" and "Hallows" were interchangeable words. All Saints Day was meant to provide a feast day for the remembrance of Christian saints who might have been lost to record over time. It became in many places a day for remembering those in a church or community who had passed during the year.

As any number of "ackshually" experts can tell you, other, somewhat darker or more mysterious holidays from pagan religions were also celebrated at around the same time the Christian community fixed for All Saints Day. The best-known was the Gaelic festival of Samhain. Originally connected to the autumn solstice and the end of the harvest season, Samhain (pronounced "saw-wain") marked the time of the year when the sun was actually up for less time of the day than it was down -- literally, a darker time of the year. Invested with mystical significance, many believed that the special day was a time when the barriers between the natural and supernatural worlds were thinner, and thus food offerings were left to appease roaming spirits who would then skip eating the livestock.

Beginning in the 9th century, Christian churches marked All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2. Samhain customs merged with Christian customs to produce something like our modern Halloween. A lot of people will say thus that Samhain predates Christianity, and perhaps it does. But Model Ts predate my Toyota Tundra, too, and I know which one I'd prefer to drive on a regular basis. Sometimes older doesn't mean truer.

Now, I have nothing against trick-or-treaters or candy or costumes or anything like that. But still, the day helps produce some of my least favorite movies and programming from among that least creative genre, horror. Some of the supernatural trappings from the old Samhain days could be a little scary, and they have been helped to metastasize to the sewage explosion of the modern horror genre, most closely linked to the Halloween holiday.

My newsfeeds, streaming channels and what have you are filled with advertisements for simplistic bloody garbage dressed up to "mean something." And it reaches heights (depths) of stupidity like Halloween franchise heroine Jamie Lee Curtis claiming that the most recent entry is some kind of commentary on the January 6 Capitol riots. I welcome All Saints Day as a chance to reflect on the good people in the faith who have gone before, who may have labored in some far-off place where no one wrote down their words or actions, and they were known but to God and the beneficiaries of those actions. But I also welcome it as the end of putting up with horror crap overload for another 11 months.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Boldly Went

As many news outlets noted, Star Trek's William Shatner was given a ride into near-space on Jeff Bezos' Blue Origins spacecraft. At 90, he becomes the oldest person to ever ride into space. And of course, his iconic role as James T. Kirk, captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, means he has finally had the chance to touch a sliver of the arena in which the imaginations of countless fans have been following him for more than half a century. Videos record how profoundly the experience affected him and I look forward to what he may share when he has had some time to reflect and process.

A lot of these billionaire space dudes are also major-league dorks. But they do sometimes take their piles and piles of money and do some cool things with it.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Conditions

Noticed that friends have begun posting about preseason schedules for the National Basketball Association upcoming season. I'll watch another NBA game when someone from the league offers some indication that they know the Uighur people exist and are being systematically wiped out both culturally and literally by the government they won't even breathe crossways of and the only reason is cash.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

A Lesson Never Learned

This is about the only forum for this observation, and it may not interest very many people. I just finished the virtual edition of our Annual Conference, and one of the presentations was from the president of the university affiliated with my denomination. It's also the college where I used to work.

He's new in this job, but every last bit of his presentation was just him reading a speech. I worked for two university presidents and have watched the ones from this particular university deliver reports now for more than 25 years. I will never understand why these people who have at their disposal energetic and talented young people who could put an engaging face on their institution insist on deluding themselves that anybody wants to hear them talk.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Too Long Gone

 
 
Today marks the 15th anniversary of the death of Buck O'Neil, one of the finest people on or off a ballfield whose absence from the National Baseball Hall of Fame is a reflection not on him but the hall. The song was a collaboration between Kansas City area performer Bob Walkenhorst and a class of elementary school students.

"I want to play on Buck's baseball team."

Monday, October 4, 2021

Taking a Stand

I don't pretend my blog is apolitical, and I don't pretend my beliefs aren't primarily conservative with a dash of libertarianism. But in more recent years I've tried to keep political posts more about thinking and policies than personalities and characters -- and not just because 98 percent of those are, um. icky. I'm trying to model behavior I'd like to see, even if the number of people who read what I say is not large and the number of people who consider themselves guided by my opinions is even more not large.

But I really do feel I have to make a political statement: It's wrong to follow people into the bathroom with a camera, cell phone or otherwise. I am saddened to make this statement, not because I find the position a difficult one to take or because it represents some deeply divisive political position. I'm saddened because that statement should be one of basic courtesy, common sense, and a whole host of other things that have nothing to do with politics. But because of people without courtesy, without common sense and without manners, it has become a political one.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Minute by Minute

This post at Mere Inklings is an interesting meditation on the length of a sermon, noting that in a number of churches the pastor expects to go about half an hour or as long as 45 minutes. This happens primarily because those churches follow a Sunday morning worship model that sees the sermon as filling the same role as an academic lecture.

Personally, my sermons usually roll into the finish line at about 20-25 minutes. I can't promise my congregation that I'll never preach a longer sermon, but I do promise them that I will end my sermon when I have said what I think God has called and led me to say. And usually that's about 20 or 25 minutes, although in different settings I will preach for a shorter time.

The sermon is not the most important part of Sunday morning; it is one piece of the experience of worshiping God together. Some Sundays a line from one of the hymns matters much more than my words. Some Sundays the Scripture itself speaks much more than I do. So the idea that if I don't preach for a proper amount of time my people will never develop in their faith journeys doesn't have a very solid foundation as I view church. I'm more interested in making my sermon good -- and sometimes, that means less is much, much more.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Still Runnin'

As much crap as the internet throws up, it's nice to know that Homestar's still on the jorb.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Stone's Throw, Mike Lupica

Mike Lupica's success at reviving Robert B. Parker's Sunny Randall series led the late author's estate and publisher to hand him the Jesse Stone novels once Reed Farrell Coleman's turn was finished. Lupica had shown himself better able to move in Parker's world, in addition to being a better mimic of Parker's style.

Lupica also returned Jesse to a previous flirtation with Sunny and established them in a relationship of a sort, building on the developments he'd made in his Randall novels. Robert B. Parker himself was rather tediously enamored with relationships in which the principals couldn't be together but couldn't be apart either, and he often wasted a lot of pages on that kind of dance during his novels from the mid-90s forward. Despite a number of straight-up duds, Coleman had added the welcome wrinkle of making Jesse sober, and Lupica continued it.

A land deal in Paradise could mean a lot of money with a casino development, but there's also strong opposition. The mayor counts himself as one of the opposed, but he doesn't have many levers to pull to thwart the third-party sale of the land. Nevertheless, he's thrown every block he can and delayed things long enough so that when he's found dead Jesse has no shortage of suspects. Add in the environmentalist group that may be willing to take extreme measures and the ongoing dissolution of the mayor's marriage, and about the only thing Jesse is sure of in Stone's Throw is that he and his department didn't do it.

Fool's Paradise was a promising debut for Lupica, but Throw unfortunately revives several other things from Parker's own time with Stone that were better left in the past. One is to send Jesse and Sunny back through the relationship spin cycle, this time because she has a relationship she's not sure is as over as she thought it was. As mentioned above, Parker wore this path smooth and here it brings nothing to the story.

Another major blunder is the return of the Native American mob enforcer Wilson Cromartie, or Crow. Parker created the character for 1999's Trouble in Paradise as a part of a heist crew in a weak TV-movie-level story and brought him back in 2008's Stranger in Paradise, an even weaker entry. Jesse's dependable assistant chief Molly Crane inexplicably had a one-night stand with Crow in this second book and Lupica dawdles around with both of them in a couple of viewpoint sequences where they reflect on that time -- Crow wondering what made him desire Molly and Molly wondering whether she can resist a second tryst.

Add these meanderings to a sloppily-built and confusing story -- was this attack made by the first pair of cardboard-cutout thugs or the second one, and what's the point anyway -- and Stone's Throw calls back more to Parker's later and lesser Stone outings than his earlier ones. It's definitely a move away from Coleman's wordy and often fumbling grasp of Paradise and its people, but not necessarily in the right direction.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Equivalencies?

The extra helpings of disastrous screwups that are being dealt out by our current presidential administration have brought pundits to employ some truly dark language and evoke very very troubled times for our nation.

I refer, of course, to the Carter administration. Our oldest living former President set benchmarks for futility and error. Some were errors that were thrust upon him by circumstance, such as the Iranian hostage crisis, and the errors came from choosing a lousy option from a range of lousy options. Carter did seem to have a knack for picking those lousy options from the ”more lousy” end of the group, but he didn’t have very many good choices before him. Other errors he committed all on his own. He also gets dinged for not handling lunkhead relatives in the best way, such as his brother Billy.

I think the comparison is unfair. For one, President Carter’s approval of the botched raid to rescue some of those hostages signaled that he was actively interested in getting Americans out of unfriendly territory. He didn’t have a very good plan to do so, but he did think a U.S. president ought to do more than shrug when U.S. citizens — according to the Constitution, the people he works for —were surrounded by unfriendly and violent persons with more than a passing interest in doing them harm.

For another, the current president’s lunkhead relative is his son Hunter. As mentioned, former President Carter’s lunkhead relative was Billy. From Hunter we’re getting half-million dollar paintings made by a guy with zero history in the art world. From Billy we got beer. And although I was way too young to have tasted it, one look at Billy Carter tells you he knew a little something about beer.

On the other hand, even if “Billy Beer” was a direct product from skunk central it’d have to be better than one of Hunter Biden’s paintings.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Test Pattern

Apologies for the un-content. All OK; just been busy. I'm given to understand Ambien can be a good short-term substitute in my absence.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

But You Can Judge the Cover...


About a week ago I remarked upon the review of an interesting book about the development of book indices. I was dismayed that our cousins across the pond could already enjoy this journey while we would have to wait until February. The British edition was already on sale from Amazon's UK site and could be ordered, so I decided to experiment and do so. After all, the internet has taught us that we are entitled to whatever we want immediately, and I am nothing if not a dutiful student.

It's very likely to be a non-repeated event. The cost of the book itself wasn't much more than the planned US edition but those Limey so-and-sos insisted that someone be paid to ship the book to me. My Amazon Prime talisman was no match for their nefarious claims of distance, oceans and whatnot and so the eventual price wound up weighing much more. At least I think it was a matter of weight, since all of the numbers they used referred to pounds. But the conversion tables may be off, because this book weighs nowhere near the 27 pounds Amazon's UK site labeled it as.

In any event, it arrived in less than a week -- O modern world that has such shipping in it -- and I noticed how different the UK edition cover -- on the left -- was than what is shown as the US cover -- on the right. UK publisher Allen Lane created their cover with some oldish-looking type over a detail from a 1480 German woodcut titled, "Learning to Read." US publisher W. W. Norton & Company provides a dust jacket that is simultaneously boring and ugly. It resembles a design software tutorial in how to color type complete with the click buttons for each color in the corner, overlaid on a background left over from the creation of reflective highway signs.

I read a blasphemous internet article once that suggested when one considered one's books solely for decorating purposes (therein the blasphemy), they actually looked better without their dust jackets than with them. W. W. Norton & Company earns no applause for creating this example of when that writer was very likely correct.

Monday, September 13, 2021

If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song

The above title is taken from the 1987 Icicle Works album and it came to mind when I read this entry at Ted Gioia's Substack that talks about the connection between music and the way it may have motivated and fueled human rights movements. Since it's one of his free articles I'll just suggest that you read it if you're interested in learning more of the possible connections.

Substack, like most internet platforms, has its ups and downs. I've sampled more than a few that would weigh against it if it were required to justify its existence. But so far the extensive output from Gioia is tugging the marker in the good direction.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Anglospherical

The Women's Final at the US Open Tennis championships was held yesterday, which was a busy day of local sports, so I didn't get to watch any video until today. The two young ladies playing -- Emma Raducanu of Great Britain and Leylah Fernandez of Canada -- put on a top match. Raducanu was the faveorite, having not lost a set all tournament, but Fernandez did not go away quietly. They've faced each other before in junior matches at a number of tournaments.

They were gracious towards each other -- they're both likeable and probably like each other -- and grateful to the New York tennis fans. Raducanu noted the presence of Virginia Wade, the last Englishwoman to win a tennis major (Wimbledon '77 -- quite possibly before Emma's parents were born). Fernandez was equally gracious and grateful for the fans, taking note of the day she was playing, Sept. 11, and lauding her hosts' resilience.

Raducanu cracked up when the PA system borrowed the Boston tradition recently adopted by English soccer fans of singing along to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline." Fernandez, seen over Raducanu's shoulder during her winner's interview, smiled and nodded in a "You bet we will" manner when the victor mentioned the possibility of more meetings between the two.

Sports that's an entertaining diversion between two fierce competitors each offering honor to her opponent and understanding gratitude towards the audience. What a splendid idea.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

No!

“If these governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, I will use my powers as president to get them out of the way,” Biden said.

You twerp, you were practically alive when they wrote the Constitution and you ought to be able to find at least one of the neurons that was around back then to remember YOU CAN'T DO THAT.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Idea, Strangely Intriguing

At first I thought an entire article on the topic of the history of book indexes a very unusual one, which wouldn't really hold much interest. But writing in Prospect, Michael Delgado not only corrects my mistaken assumption, he points to a book on the subject as he reviews Dennis Duncan's Index, A History of The.

And in reading about Duncan's book I find myself interested enough in the topic of indices that the existence of a whole book on the concept and its history does not seem at all amiss. My only delay in adding it to my reading stack is that it does not seem as though it will be in print in the states until February. You may find my response to that injustice under the heading "Cursing, caused by U.S. publishing dates, later than British."

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Funny Nature

Finalists have been chosen in the 2021 Comedy Wildlife Photo awards, and can be found here.

I have to say, my favorite is the one that looks to me like a kangaroo performing Hamlet. Although the two squirrels that are giving a credible imitation of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey's leaping scene in Dirty Dancing run a close second.

Friday, September 3, 2021

London’s Clogging

Sherman and the boys are traveling from their nice little lagoon to London for sightseeing. But if you’re traveling with them, I suggest switching itineraries upon arrival.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Bear Math

This article at Quanta highlights a possible way that math can save a person in danger of being attacked by a bear.

I found it intriguing but I don't ever intend to give it a try.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Um, Really?

Despite its penchant for privacy invasion and time-wasting, I have found Facebook to be a valuable tool since the pandemic began, allowing a streaming platform for our church's services and a means of keeping in touch with our people. As well as being a kind of substitute newsletter for folks to see what's going on.

However, every now and again Facebook feels a need to remind us that it is stupid. Recently small ads have begun appearing on the right-hand side of the page when one checks one's newsfeed. These ads are, like most of the ads the platform runs, dumb. A rough estimate suggests more than four-fifths of them are bogus, designed to lure a reader primarily through thumbnail photos of attractive and mostly undressed women who have nothing to do with what is supposedly being advertised.

As it does with the ads that clutter its feed, Facebook offers us the chance to hide these ads too. And as it does with the other ads, you are given a list of choices about why you want to hide the ad in question. I always choose "Irrelevant" as my response, since "fake cash grab and pack of lies" is not one of the options. For some reason, the order of the responses changes around, so that rather than be in the same place according to alphabetical or some other order my preferred choice migrates. Perhaps FB designers think that I will not see it and I will choose one of the other answers, which will probably give the algorithm data to use in pushing an entirely different sets of ads on me. This is stupid.

After I have clicked on "irrelevant," a second dialog box opens up that asks me if I would like to learn more about this advertiser. Yes, I certainly would like to see other advertising from a source that I have labeled irrelevant. Whoops! No, I wouldn't. And the question is stupid.

If Mrs. Gump was right, stupid is as stupid does. Which is why Facebook is, despite its utility in certain areas, stupid.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

What Didn't Happen?

At the informative site Back ReAction, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder explains why quantum mechanics is weird. Anyone who's read a little bit about it knows there's plenty of weirdness to go around, but Dr. Hossenfelder is addressing a particular feature of the theory by use of an experiment called "the bomb experiment."

You can read the post or watch her YouTube video for a full explanation of the experiment, but the upshot of it is that, because of quantum mechanics and its quirky nature, the bomb experiment can explain not only the events that did take place, but also the ones that didn't. And that's not the way experiments usually run.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Terminal Velocity

This animation shows how long a ball would take to drop a kilometer on different bodies in the Solar System. As one might expect, the ball falls fastest in the sun's gravity. But that would hardly be your only problem if you're falling towards the sun.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Collection

 -- A story at the University of Georgia's website offers advice on how college freshmen may avoid the dread "freshman 15" or other number signifying the weight gain that often happens in the first few months away from home. Unsurprisingly, the story suggests that decreased activity and increased food intake contributes to the gain, which is usually more in the neighborhood of eight pounds rather than 15. So in other words, if I had stopped eating pepperoni pizza turnovers from the food truck at 11:30 PM, reduced the portion of my calorie count provided by grains -- specifically barley, hops and various combinations thereof -- and done more than sit on my tuckus I would not have gained weight. I hope that a degree was not required to puzzle out this information.

-- When music videos began to be played more and more regularly, Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman quickly established their on-camera personae as the serious guys hard at work while Mick Jagger and guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood pranced and lurched through their rock-star pose repertoire. Watts' professionalism probably contributed to the band not imploding during one of the dozen or so feuds Jagger and Richards conducted during its 58-year history. He was the first Stone to reach 80 (Wyman is 84 but retired in 1993). Even more admirably, Watts remained married to his wife Shirley from October 1964 until his death this week at 80.

-- Jupiter's moon Ganymede is apparently a weird place, boasting a size greater than the planet Mercury and features common to even much larger worlds than that. Here's hoping Elon Musk gets curious about it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Time Travelers

In another edition of one of my favorite types of photography postings Neatorama shows the work of Magdalena Vissagio and her transformation of sculpture, paintings and old photographs to modern images. It's pretty interesting to see what Abe Lincoln looks like with a smile on his face. And Frederick Douglass shows even more don't-mess-with-me dignity than in his usual black-and-white image. Although Nero looks like a party animal instead of the psychotic murderous dictator that he was.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Aflight

The discovery of PlutoTV has allowed me to consume media other than current podcasts and such, which are filled with stuff that is nothing I want to watch right now.

Among the offerings are reruns of the 1990s NBC sitcom Wings, set in a regional airport in Nantucket. I'd enjoyed this show when it aired, but my career diversion to seminary took me away from television for a big chunk of its run. David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee created it and set it in the same world as their other output Cheers and later, Frasier. It never flew quite as high (heh) but lasted seven respectable seasons and brings the laughs pretty well. It was one of the first vehicles for Tony Shaloub, later known as Adrian Monk in the series of that name.

It's very much a product of its era with the setup/punchline format and issues resolved inside one episode. But it does make moves towards the kinds of longer arcs that more modern shows have and character development over time. It's also a showcase for 90s fashions of blocky blazers for women and unstructured shirts and floppy ties for men, especially on co-lead Steven Weber. I'd forgotten that it was an enjoyable little niche show, even if it never broke out like the trio's other work.

And Crystal Bernard was just about as cute as could be, but I am sure that had nothing to do with the show's appeal.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

JB, POTUS

The Democratic presidential candidate with the initials JB was probably not the first choice for the ticket for a lot of party members. But the candidate with the most popular support held views that the majority of the country didn't much care for, and he threatened the party leadership by supporting policies that would likely keep them out of power in the legislature as well as within the party structure. So they took advantage of a split between other candidates that more overtly promoted these unpopular views and were able to frame JB as a kind of sensible consensus candidate.

His absence from the Washington mix during the previous term helped keep him above some of the worst excesses connected to that environment. His long experience in government in both elective and appointive office gave him an air of competence and calm that contrasted with the other parties' candidates. Against promises of radical change, intensified nativism and threats to the established order that would lead who knows where if enacted, JB made it clear that any changes would be carefully thought out and made in a professional, reasoned manner. The kind of upheaval argued for by others was not for him.

Once elected, though, it became clear that JB was not really a "different Democrat" from the other candidates for his party's nomination. He made support for the policies they had sought a big part his own agenda, and expressed sympathy for views he had seemed to disclaim on the campaign trail. He was warned that this kind of action would not help stave off challenges from the other party and might even embolden their more radical elements to work that much harder for the White House. By not standing against these more radical members of his own party and their support for increasingly unpopular views, JB risked potential civil unrest and worse but he was clearly not capable of standing against their energy and persuasion -- whatever else he had been during his long governmental career, he was no leader anymore.

Even his pledge to serve just one term and campaign hard for his Vice-President to succeed him proved inadequate, and so James Buchanan watched Abraham Lincoln win the election of 1860 as the country he had so inexpertly led for four years from disaster to disaster finally fell apart into open conflict.

Of course I was talking about James Buchanan. Who did you think I meant?

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Sometimes...

The great philosophers might not have made a good cooking show, but the end result does offer some proof for a song first released by Dave Edmunds and made more popular by Huey Lewis, "Bad is Bad." So there's that.

Monday, August 16, 2021

No Goldilocks Moment

Writing the kind of post that really sums up what we're watching in Afghanistan would take a staff of researchers, time and a check made out to me. I have none of those, so my quick hit is this: The proper amount of time to stay in Afghanistan was either very short or quite long, with no in-between.

The initial goal was to eject the Taliban from power and take away the safe haven they gave to Al Qaeda and other terrorists. It happened pretty quickly, using a number of Afghan warlords as allies and with groundwork being laid over some time before attacks finally started. The very short time would have been to then get out and let the warlords have their way. Afghanistan would be slightly less of a hellhole and it would be one run by someone other than the Taliban. If the Taliban came back and wanted another go, then they could be smacked around some more. If that remained our goal, we stayed too long.

The other goal came to be creating a healthy nation in Afghanistan that could organically resist Taliban power and advance its people from the 8th century to maybe the 18th or 19th.  In the cities, perhaps all the way to the 1950s. For that goal, we didn't stay nearly long enough. Two of the key elements for a healthy nation are a respect for the rule of law and the peaceful transfer of democratically elected power. Without both of these, people rely on old-fashioned tribal structures rife with corruption that are trusted by no one: This judge will never respect my claim because it's being made against one of his extended clan members -- so I'll take matters into my own hands.

Between the British East India Company and the Raj period, England more or less occupied and directed India for the better part of 200 years. It never had the goal of building a nation for the benefit of its people, but those core values -- the rule of law and peaceful transfer of power -- gradually came to be built into the way the Indian people thought about running their own government. English people were not better than Indian people. English culture was not better than Indian culture. The Raj, especially in its early years, was brutal, imperialist and more than a little racist, although it was a lot safer to be an upperclass Indian widow after 1829.

But those English busybodies brought with them the idea that if everyone, even the king, obeys the law, then everyone, not just the king, can have a shot at getting rich. The English stayed long enough for the Indian people to learn and like that idea enough to try it for themselves. With the 1991 election of Narasimha Rao, they decided to ditch even the socialism imposed by Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv. Although India's commitment to democracy seems to waver sometimes, especially in some remote regions, it's been able to maintain both of those key features.

The U.S. was not in Afghanistan nearly long enough to help those key features become a part of the Afghan culture and fabric. Since the effort was intentional and since the U.S. had no desire to rule the Afghans it might not have taken ten generations, but it was definitely going to take more than one. The short-sightedness of former President Trump and President Biden, who both wanted everyone out of Afghanistan now if not sooner, made disaster inevitable. Biden's statement of not wanting to hand the Afghan war to a fifth president demonstrates the false understanding of what could have continued to work in the country had we desired to continue to build it. More U.S. troops die in training and in accidents than in combat; combat deaths in Afghanistan were down below one every two weeks. Soldiers were more likely to die on U.S. soil than Afghan soil.

Our choices were fairly clear: Pure national interest, which means kicking the Taliban's ass, leaving and then kicking it again if they ask us to. Or nation building and humanitarian concerns, which means committing to thinking beyond one's own four-year term and what polls say. We tried to split the difference -- which, King Solomon would have pointed out, doesn't work when dealing with children and other living things.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Corny...But Awesome

I would have posted something about this yesterday when it happened but I was so surprised Rob Manfred got something right I have spent the last 24 hours in a coma collapsed on my keyboard.

Building an actual "Field of Dreams" in Iowa in the cornfield 30 years after the movie of that name came out? Use the White Sox and Yankees as the combatants, as in the ghostly game in the movie? Have it introduced by the movie's lead, Kevin Costner?

I'm almost as stunned to type it as I was to see it.

And if anyone knows how to clean reversed keyboard letters off human foreheads I'd appreciate a little help...

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Thrill of Victory

One of the things that not having cable lets me do is surf clips from events that I might want to see on my own time, which I have found to be the best way to watch the Olympics. Medal celebrations, superb sportsmanship, displays of character and honor -- these are all great to watch. I think I've mentioned elsewhere that moments like that, in which athletes realize their dream, be it victory or just competing on this stage, are among the reasons the corrupt and hypocritical games leadership groups disgust me.

It allows me to skip the people whose protest gestures seem less about drawing attention to their causes and more about drawing attention to them. Although it's nice when some of the loudest voices skip themselves for you by falling well below expectations or missing a medal altogether.

As a final thought, I am a firm believer that medal counts mean nothing about a nation's actual merits. The United States won more medals than totalitarian China, as well as more golds, but had those standings been reversed this is still a better place to live.

On the other hand, "United States Olympians: Sending Commies home in second place since Lake Placid 1980" has a nice ring to it.

Monday, August 9, 2021

I'm Out

I started to review a book that I'd read a few weeks ago about an FBI Special Agent who specialized in tracking serial killers. He has a kind of sixth sense that allows him to track people's essences, which appear to him as splashes of color left on things that they touched. From these splashes he can identify a person if he encounters them again and he can trail them like a regular tracker might, only using the sense he calls his "shine" ("Ahem" - Stephen King) to do so instead of physical clues. It also lets him sense if a victim is still alive, or when they are killed.

In order to cover what would almost certainly be inadmissible evidence in court, the character has a friend help cover for him and he acts out the finding the same kind of physical clues that an ordinary tracker might. The friend and co-worker is the only one who knows his secret.

As I said, I started to review it, but decided against it. While the author left out the cheap sadism of the victim's-eye-accounts of their torments and deaths he more or less sneaked it back in through the ESP bond of the "shine." Aside from the supernatural (or maybe it was supposed to be a form of synesthesia, although that doesn't work like that and I don't remember anyway) color business, it was just another dead girl novel and I've been getting tired of those.

I'd love to hear someone interview the author of one of these books -- or the director of one of these movies -- and ask if we were supposed to enjoy the victim's assault more, or her murder? They'd probably say those segments were there to increase the tension, or clearly outline the evil, or some other such. They weren't there to be enjoyed. Which would, if I were the interviewer, prompt an immediate follow-up: Then why did you spend so much time with them?

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Surprise!

According to this story in Quanta by Steve Nadis, mathematicians investigating large-scale set classification problems have been able to prove something they have suspected for some time. According to a recent paper by Italian mathematician Gianluca Paolini and Israeli mathematician Saharon Shelah, it seems that torsion-free abelian groups are indeed hard to classify.

Did not see that coming.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

This page has, among other interesting items of information, a map detailing which animal is most likely to be your cause of death should you happen to be one of those unfortunate persons upon whom nature takes its revenge.

As an Okie, if I die because of an animal attack, it is more likely to be from being struck or bitten by a large mammal than anything else. Given the state's large livestock industry and ranching culture, this seems unremarkable. Slightly more mystifying is that if you are killed by an animal in Missouri or Illinois, it is more likely that you were bitten or crushed by a large reptile -- and in fact these are the only two states where that can be said. Florida, where you might think that situation would exist, owes more human life loss to being bitten or stung by non-venomous insects or arthropods. Perhaps the folk of the midwest are so surprised to encounter a large reptile that they fall victim to it, while Floridians are well aware of these creatures' deadly natures.

Of course, all of these figures refer to non-human animals. Include the number of deaths caused by ye olde H. sapiens sapiens and we shoot to the top of the list almost everywhere.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Drawn Out

Artist Shannon Lee takes a look at some animated cartoon animals and gives an idea of what they might look like as cartoon humans. He even adds a couple of real animals in the same format. I found Rajah the tiger (#4) and Peg and Lady (#1) to be the most interesting drawings, although Timon (#8) and Pumba (#2) are pretty good too.

Monday, August 2, 2021

So It Begins...

Even while readers of Berke Breathed's online edition of his Bloom County comic strip followed the quest to return Hobbes the tiger to his proper home, the Calvin and Hobbes reprint showed us the first meeting between Calvin and his nemesis, the babysitter Rosalyn. Round one, unfortunately, went to Rosalyn...but they would meet again.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Home Again

Berke Breathed and Bill Watterson made the comics pages paradise for readers during a brief decade. The creators of Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes had interesting characters, funny stories and good laughs more days than not. Both put and end to their strips well before fans were ready to let them go. With a couple of exceptions, Watterson has stayed retired, but in 2015 Breathed began drawing Bloom County again, with the strip appearing on his Facebook page.

In recent weeks, the County crew has been faced with the task of returning a certain stuffed tiger to his original owner, using all the tools at their disposal to locate the adult Calvin and mail him the lost Hobbes. In a series that surely had Watterson's blessing, Opus the penguin and Oliver Wendell Jones the computer genius teamed up on the project. Breathed has carried off the story with the poignancy and humor that characterized Bloom County in its best moments. For the poignancy, there's the sledgehammer simplicity of the strip that showed how a picture of the adult Calvin had been found:


Then, with an almost unmatched ability to synthesize disparate current events into a funny and unashamedly adolescent punchline, we see the picture the image search found:


And in today's post, the story concludes with the reunion imminent, leaving to the imagination what will happen as the pair "go exploring" as they did in the last C&H panel Watterson drew:


Speculation in the comments is that these panels have been meant to set up Watterson's return to his own strip, or some kind of collaboration between the two. I'd doubt it -- Watterson's well-known disgust with the shrinking comics page in his day would only be magnified when he confronted the shriveled-up remains of the daily newspaper that exist now. And given his immovable stand against merchandising, I can't imagine he'd want to try to produce something in the modern commercial or online environment.

That's OK. These strips have been more fun for a middle-aged guy than a comic strip ought to be and called to mind good days. That'll do nicely.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Big and Gone

Over at Bored Panda, we can find a page where a man uses Photoshop to show ancient extinct animals next to their closest modern-day relatives.

Judging by the sizes of a variety of sharp-toothed beasties, I am left with two observations about the world our ancestors inhabited: 1) I'm glad it wasn't me and 2) How in the heck did our species survive?

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Sacrifice

I feel sorry for gymnast Simone Biles, although she won't ever know it and certainly doesn't need it. One of the comments she's made in recent weeks is that she feels like she has the "weight of the world on her shoulders." It's easy to see why. She is clearly the most powerful and gifted women's gymnast of her generation. She has the strength and speed to succeed at moves so far beyond her competitors that her sport's international governing body will refuse to award the difficulty points they merit just to keep the score close.

Competitors accept as justified the pressure of being No. 1 and having everyone gunning for you, Many thrive on it. But our culture has laid much more on Ms. Biles. So many different interest groups make her their hero because of the many roadblocks she had to overcome in her life -- foster care, abuse by USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nasser, the treacherous cover-up of that abuse by the adults running the federation that was supposed to look out and care for her and so on. She was expected to be a voice for persons of color during tumultuous racial times because she was a public figure who was African-American. And sports media's ridiculous obsession with hanging the albatross of GOAT (Greatest of All Time) on certain athletes, blathered (and cared) about mostly by people who only watch the competitions. All of this and more while she is, at 24, simultaneously very very young to handle this load but also approaching that cutoff point for her peak skills. And while she is in a weird Olympics without spectators and staged a year late because of a pandemic.

I feel sorry for Ms. Biles mostly because she may have thought stepping back from competing because all of these different pressures had finally unbalanced her superhuman focus would somehow relieve her of them. She anticipated, I am sure, those who would label her a "quitter," but just as one expects a toddler to make a mess in his or her diaper, one might expect such people to make that judgment.

What she probably didn't anticipate that she would gain an entirely new expectation she didn't ask for: Champion of mental health awareness. Instead of easing out from under the pressure of being the Slay! Queen! of gymnastics she is now also the new avatar of self-care. Everything that has ever happened in the sport will now be re-evaluated in light of the new most courageous person who has ever lived. Rather than value individuals as such, we will now have her as our new paradigm that will let us look with a little bit of sadness and a whole lot of pity on those who may have made different choices at their own crisis points of competition.

I've already seen the first Facebook post that compares her to Kerri Strug, whose vault while injured during the 1996 Atlanta Games has been considered an example of competitive courage. Rather than value each woman for the choice she made when she made it, the post compares Biles' wise decision with Strug's risky one. It blames the tyrannical Bela Karolyi, Strug's coach, for coercing her to make what turned out to be an unneeded vault so the poster can skirt around making a direct judgment of Biles over Strug, but that's certainly the hint the reader is desired to take. Does Simone Biles, born the year after Strug's vault, think of her decision in that way? Who knows? Who cares? We think of it that way, and we will control this narrative too, thank you very much.

I feel sorry for Ms. Biles because with her decision, she may have thought she escaped what everyone else wanted from her and moved into a place where she could do what she wanted when, how and as she wanted. Nope, sorry. This is the 21st century, and when we put someone on the altar of popular culture to sacrifice them to our expectations, we decide when they can get off. Not them.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Reassessment...

For some reason, a new series of ads has been showing up on Facebook, playing video clips from classic television sitcoms.  Some of them are as funny as ever, like Barney Miller, Designing Women and WKRP in Cincinnati. But one show that hasn't aged well seems to be Happy Days.

Fonzie, Richie, Potsie and the bunch gave us the phrase "jumped the shark" when a Happy Days episode showed Henry Winkler waterski-jumping a buoy-outlined patch of water that the script said contained a shark. We knew it did because before the scene that showed Winkler skiiing towards it we saw a fin in the water. And interpolated between parts of the sequence showing Fonzie approaching the ramp (in leather jacket, of course) we saw footage of a shark that was definitely beneath the surface of some water somewhere. Conventional wisdom says that's when the show began to decline, even though it lasted several more seasons.

But watching other clips from the show makes it clear that the silliness that led to its decline began somewhere about season 3, when the characters became caricatures and the every conversation became setup/punchline, setup/punchline, setup/punchline ayyyyy.

So let the shark off the hook, OK? It may be a vicious predator laying waste to hundreds of smaller, cuter and more colorful fish and occasionally attacking a human, but it didn't signal the ruin of Happy Days. That, apparently, had already happened.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Medalist!

One of the reasons to dump so heavily on the corrupt International Olympic Committee and corner-cutting dictatorships is for the times when people like Hidilyn Diaz win a gold medal. Diaz won a gold in women's power-lifting, meaning that for the first time in the history of the summer games, an audience heard Lupang Hinirang sung during the medal presentation. And I mean heard it sung.

Search for video of Diaz's lifts and you'll find a cell-phone video from someone in the Philippines watching from among the limited number of spectators. And when it shifts to Diaz's medal presentation and the hoisting of the flags, the Philippine Air Force sergeant snaps a precision salute as her anthem is played and the sounds of the phone holder and the surrounding people singing their anthem at full volume dominate the feed.

Every time we read about some sticky-fingered IOC official, or some stupid rule that women can't wear shorts in a sport where men can, or some totalitarian regime that will ruin a hundred lives to get one competitor -- or, lately, someone who thinks that Citius - Altius - Fortius adds up to Smarter and Better than You-ius -- we can forget people like Hidilyn Diaz, who was exiled to another country for two years by COVID when she went there to train. Who had to hone her style and strength in a carport because the virus closed the gyms. Who raised money while doing that so food packages could be bought and delivered to poor families locked down and unable to work back in the homeland she hasn't seen in two years.

I'm not unaware that the Philippines are currently run by a strongman-style regime less enamored of human rights than we might wish. I'd rather live here than there because I'm freer here and better off. But one of those blessings here is free speech, which a lot of us say we believe in. So if some athletes significantly more privileged than Diaz want to push the envelope and protest perceived injustices by drawing attention to themselves they should have our blessing.

But when we compare them to someone whose journey to the medal podium was like Hidilyn Diaz's, let's not pretend they should have our respect.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Serendipity

 Serendipity, n.

1. Tuning into the online broadcast of one’s preferred baseball team one pitch before the batter parks one off the wall over the bullpen to cap a seven-run comeback from being down 6-0.

Friday, July 23, 2021

The Cellist, Daniel Silva

Note: Spoilers follow for The Cellist, as well as some minor spoilage of The New Girl and The Order. Should this review have readers, they are cautioned about such.

Daniel Silva's master Israeli spy and assassin Gabriel Allon had an initial career as an artist and premier art restorer before being recruited into his nation's project of vengeance against the terrorists who kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. As a restorer, his job is to clean and repair great works of art in such a way that they look as they did when first displayed, with no one the wiser that another's hand has touched them. As Silva has written him, Gabriel brought the same mentality to his espionage missions -- when things went catastrophically wrong for Israel's enemies the disasters appeared to have no origin or perpetrator. Perhaps the targets of his efforts -- those who survived, anyway -- knew their malefactor's name and steady green-eyed gaze. But no one else did, at least not in any way that could ever be proven.

Silva's style helped enhance this quality. Though Gabriel's missions may have featured violence, vehicle chases and episodes of high tension, he writes with a spare elegance that suggests a refined after-action report. Readers might have the impression they are reading the precise and carefully written mission debrief that ordinarily would have been seen by almost no one before being quietly tucked away in the vaults that hold the secrets of nations.

His two most recent outings were clearly subpar -- the ugly onstage fridging of a 12-year-old girl in The New Girl and the Dan Brown-wannabe plot of The Order might be acceptable output from lesser writers, but Silva readers had become accustomed to better work. Up through about chapter 60, he gives them reason to hope that The Cellist may be a return to form.

When Allon friend and Russian expatriate Viktor Orlov is found murdered by nerve toxin, suspicion eventually alights on the journalist who was passing him incriminating evidence that a large German bank was not only crooked through and through, it was a main player in Russian government officials' efforts to launder the profits of corruption and safely store them in the West. Eventually Gabriel, working with counterparts in other intelligence agencies, discovers not only the real actors behind the Orlov assassination but also the source of the insider documents. That source, Isabel Brenner, is turned by Gabriel and his team into the point person of a scheme to disrupt the flow of money into the west and block Russian efforts to destabilize Western economies. The title The Cellist is taken from Isabel's superb talent on that instrument, which she uses to open the door to the inner circle of the Russian schemers and oligarchs. Though Isabel will have the chance to aim at the very highest levels of the Russian government -- and Silva all but names Vladimir Putin -- the danger to her will be exponentially greater. Gabriel and his team will have to wield all of their skills to complete their mission and protect Isabel, and the dual tasks may yet be too much for them.

Over the course of the Gabriel Allon series, Silva has developed his most regular collaborators as a kind of Mission:Impossible squad whose operations write large the former Mossad motto, "By way of deception shall you make war" (a loose translation of Proverbs 24:6). In the onion-like layers of the Allon team's schemes, their foes' own faults burrow them in too deeply to escape -- and when they turn to confront the enemy that brought them there they find only air. The Cellist sets up such a scenario, although repeating some very similar earlier missions involving Sarah Bancroft and Natalie Mizrahi. Still, Silva helps keep the interest in what would otherwise be a familiar plot by exploring Isabel's character and developing her so that readers care about what happens to her. And then it all falls apart.

The first 3/5 of The Cellist cover Isabel's actions as Gabriel's inside agent in the Russian financial scheme. Silva drops in snide drive-by shots at "the American president" who is unnamed but clearly Donald Trump. Spy thriller authors usually create fictional leaders for nations, either to give them the characteristics needed for the plot or to avoid outdating their novel, or to prevent the sometimes jarring comparison between their depictions of events and the way those events are known to have unfolded. Silva's use of Putin as the actual Russian president doesn't really weaken his plot, since the main target and antagonist is a fictional associate. And his turned-up nose at the former president appears intermittently and might slow the narrative, speed-bump style, but only briefly before accelerating back to cruising speed.

But once Isabel's mission is resolved, Silva turns to the real-world events of Trump's loss in November, his unseemly and increasingly unrealistic attempts to prove he really won the election, his ghastly and unpresidential behavior on January 6 and the fever-swamp conspiracy of groups like QAnon. He mixes them to create a second storyline about Gabriel's discovery of a plot to assassinate the incoming president -- an unnamed longtime politician who just happens to be a senator from Delaware "called upon to heal a sick and divided nation" in the "twilight of his life" -- spawned by Russian agents and secret schemes. This choice wrecks The Cellist and moves it from the middle of the Allon books in quality to the bottom tier. It's akin to taking an unspectacular but well-done piece of art and setting it before a class of pre-schoolers while still wet and encouraging them to do whatever they wanted with it.

In his acknowledgments, Silva says he "resolved to include the near death of American democracy in my story of Russia's relentless war on the West" after the January 6 Capitol riots. He replaced his existing ending with an extensive rewrite finished over six weeks, and it shows. It's not impossible to create a story with identifiable but disguised stand-ins for actual politicians and leaders that interprets known events and facts but still entertains while it enlightens. Whether that can be done by Daniel Silva in six weeks or less remains unknown, because it didn't happen in The Cellist. Our narrative of Russian oligarchs and political leaders spinning webs of financial corruption and self-enrichment in exclusive hotels and resorts is suddenly invaded by Silva's assertions of QAnon's machinations and snickering put-downs like "a universally loathed and poorly groomed senator from Texas who had attempted to overturn the results of the election." I have no idea how many people dislike Ted Cruz although I suspect it's a sizable figure and I agree his beard has been a bad look -- but so what? He has no relationship to the story I started to read when Sarah Bancroft happened on Viktor Orlov's body, and neither does any of the other clumsy mix of reportage and speculation that Silva trowels on his modestly successful story of Isabel Brenner's clandestine ensnarement of the Russian kleptocracy.

When we get to the place where Silva broadly insinuates that the unnamed-but-obviously-Donald-Trump-President of the US personally called the unnamed-but-obviously-Vladimir-Putin President of Russia to inform him that Gabriel Allon had placed an agent in his circle, we move from Trump's clueless carelessness about intelligence matters making him a useful meathead for America's opponents to him being an active asset for the same. This sheer wish-fulfillment by Silva lets readers know that they have essentially wasted their time following Isabel and her infiltration because it's all a set-up to inform them Donald Trump is bad. Many people knew that already. Even many of the people who voted for him twice -- your reviewer is not among them -- knew that already. We didn't need Daniel Silva to trash a perfectly enjoyable spy novel to tell us.