Thursday, May 13, 2021

Again, Obviously...

Patrick Allen and A.A. Newton have prepared a brief article featuring a video at Lifehacker, explaining why cats knock things on the floor. The answer, as explained by a nice lady named Nancy at Grace Veterinary Hospital, is that they are exploring their surroundings and seeing what things do when they push them.

No doubt this is true, but it leaves out the standard cat answer to questions about their behavior: "Because we damn well please, primate."

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Once Round the Sun, Ronald Fraser

As a young Friar I was fascinated with a series of kids science and history books called the "All About" books. Several of the scientific ones drew on new research (new for the time they were written, anyway, which was about 15-20 years before I was reading them) done during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. That project itself was highly interesting to the same young Friar.

Just before it began, Dr. Ronald Fraser of the International Council of Scientific Unions wrote a short book outlining what research the IGY was intended to conduct, what kinds of questions it was intended to answer and how some of the projects would work. The first section of the book covers a variety of scientific questions that at the time needed more exploration and research, and the second covers several of the projects designed to explore and research them, as well as some of the other plans that went into the IGY project.

Fraser also outlines how some cooling of political tensions following the Korean War ceasefire allowed for joint projects between rival superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union. Nikita Khrushchev was just as adamant a Communist as his predecessor Josef Stalin but began with a slightly less pugnacious stance, meaning scientific cooperation was a possibility.

While the highest profile projects of the IGY might have been the respective Sputnik and Explorer launches, some of its most lasting impact might have been international agreements limiting any nation's presence in Antarctica to primarily scientific endeavors. Since he's previewing the IGY, Fraser can only hint at some of these plans.

Once Around the Sun is, in many ways a little bit of an artifact itself, showing where some of the different scientific fields were in the late 1950s and what kinds of questions they were trying to answer. Project creators also hoped the cooperation could further lesson international tension and perhaps lead to wider cooperation between rival powers. That aim proved less successful, although it did offer some wry fuel for Donald Fagen's lightly sarcastic 1982 "I.G.Y." tune. In that vein, it's interesting and worth scanning since full histories of the IGY itself seem to be scarce. And wherever he resides within my head these days, the young Friar was highly interested to see what lay behind one of those childhood fascinations.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Maybe, But...

President Joe Biden is apparently planning to nominate former Chicago mayor and former President Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel as the U.S. ambassador to Japan.

This would surprise many people with whom Mr. Emanuel has dealt in the past, who would not have suspected him to be guilty of diplomacy. A pollster who received a dead fish in the mail when Mr. Emanuel was displeased with his results, for example. Or potential donors who were told their offers were so low they were embarrassing before being hung up upon.

Of particularly troubling memory is Mr. Emanuel's demonstration of the desired post-election treatment of enemies of former President Bill Clinton following Mr. Clinton's 1992 victory: As their names were shouted, Mr. Emanuel would reply by shouting, "Dead!" and stabbing the table with his steak knife. This could be a particular problem in a culture that requires the respecting of elaborate traditions during ceremonial meals, places a high value upon personal honor and has a proven tradition of the skillful use of sharp-edged weapons. Should he slip up and revert to his 1992 form, Mr. Emanuel might offend his host nation on all three counts and need to hastily resign his post and get the hell out of the country while he still can.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Yeah, But...

Turns out Adobe is developing an artificial intelligence program that would suggest ways to make a website's content catchier, and perhaps explain why the current content was less than catchy.

That'd be pretty important to me if I was writing this blog for some reason other than my continuing desire to pretend I'm Mike Royko.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Loneliness...

Alas, as Hawthorne the hermit crab learns in Sunday's Sherman's Lagoon strip, having a shark for a friend means running the risk of not having many other friends at all...

Friday, May 7, 2021

The Devil's Hand, Jack Carr

Jack Carr's first James Reece novel, Terminal List, offered a lot of good elements wrapped together with atmospheric missteps that made its ostensible hero tough to root for. The second, True Believer, offered a dynamic turn-around, especially in its first third as Reece reflects on how far he was willing to go pursuing his Terminal List goals and whether or not he should have been. Carr took the time to let his hero think through these things and gave him legitimate narrative hooks to do so rather than just unreeling an exposition-heavy internal monologue that invites reader skippage. Book #3, Savage Son, sends Reece out after some people who have brought about the tragedies of his past, in addition to endangering his life now. Its high point -- Carr's homage to Louis L'Amour's Last of the Breed with Reece infiltrating Russia on foot in pursuit of his enemies -- makes it another strong and focused series entry.

Which makes the misstep of The Devil's Hand so confusing. In twin timelines, a new U.S. president tasks Reece with a supremely secret and supremely illegal mission because of his history of doing whatever it takes for his country. At the same time, a developing biological weapons plot from evil mullahs in Iran has a diabolical twist in its middle to turn our nation's own defenses against it.

Unfortunately, neither of these two lines brings new material to their respective familiar tables. The hyper-covert off-the-books Tough Guy Doing What Needs to Be Done No Matter What the Rules Say is standard issue in this kind of book, and Hand lacks the personal connection to the mission that Reece had in the earlier books. The Secret Sleeper Agent Who Fools Everyone Until Unleashing the Weapon We Trained Him to Use is not that much rarer. The overlap between them feels half-hearted at best, as if they were conceived as two distinct stories.

The initial section, "Origins," sets up the back story for the other essential characters to the overall plot, since we already have Reece's own backstory. It slips in small scenes of Reece and his developing relationship with Katie Buranek, as well as his move from military door-kicker to CIA door-kicker and spy. Carr continues to improve on this part of the storytelling, which he already does well. But it also bogs down in near-biographical detail about a confusing mess of people who don't play direct roles in the action or who remain confusing when they do.

It also offers us what Jack Carr believes is wrong with the world and U.S. foreign policy in several regions, going back about four Presidential administrations. Jack Carr is undoubtedly someone who through research, personal experience and study knows a lot more about what really goes on in those sections of the world than I do. His opinions about what's wrong with the world might even be right. But since I don't personally know him and I didn't pick up Hand to learn what was wrong with the world, I don't really care what those opinions are and having nearly a third of the book weighed down with them almost kills it.

By tying the pontificating to plot backstory instead of ongoing narrative, Hand loses more momentum that it can fully regain once it gets going. The second and third James Reece books are too strong to think that this misstep is going to cripple the series, but Hand drains the goodwill bank of more than its fair share and leaves a lot of lifting for book #5 to do whenever it arrives.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Color Clash

The extensive use of Zoom meetings during pandemic lockdowns made several people scramble to find good backgrounds for their video calls. One of the go-to setups was in front of bookshelves, so naturally advice began to be dispensed about how one's bookshelf should be arranged. "Non-professional" titles were banished to off-camera shelving. Some folks may even have ordered a few titles from Amazon that they didn't actually read but they figured would create a better impression if the cover caught someone's eye.

Writing at something called Lifehacker, Aisha Jordan offers what the headline calls "How to Display Your Books Like a More Sophisticated Adult." But the only advice she really offers is remove the dust jackets and sort them by color -- and as the comment section shows, that's not the way that people who actually read books put them on a shelf. A couple of other ideas, such as wall-box shelves or a suspension shelf, just seem weird or at best a little impractical.

I think I'll just leave mine where they are the way they are; if someone is nonplussed by my having all of the volumes of the Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson "Wheel of Time" series and a bunch of David Weber's Honor Harrington series, so be it. I can't believe anyone who's known me longer than 15 minutes doesn't know I'm a sci-fi nerdy type anyway.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Big White Ghetto, Kevin D. Williamson

National Review writer Kevin Williamson is not the first or only conservative commentator to take aim at what some people seem to like to call the "underbelly" of the conservative movement. Williamson will write about the people who have not just campaign bumper stickers on their cars but redesigned American flags flying from a truck bed that mesh the Stars and Stripes with a particular issue or candidate. Deepnding on your point of view these folks are either the salt or the scum of the earth -- but Williamson is clear that they, like most everyone else, are a little bit of both and in any event deserve better than being slogan fodder for whatever program solution is being discussed about them.

He's said a large part of this willingness to take a clear-eyed look at this group of people comes because it's his own history and upbringing as well. He had the same kind of chaotic home life and exposure to poverty of both income and choice that he writes about in Big White Ghetto, making him more than some sort of coastal anthropologist on an expedition amongst the natives to observe their quaint ways. Which means that he frequently sounds harsh in discussing this group, although from his perspective it's more realism than antipathy.

Ghetto collects several years worth of stories about different issues that orbit this group of largely unnoticed poor. Thanks to media portrayals and our own misunderstanding, many people aren't aware that the average poor person in America isn't necessarily a minority or a resident of an inner city. Entrenched and and sclerotic governmental assistance programs that no longer assist people much at all have deepened poverty rural and small-town America just as much as in the big cities. Areas of Appalachia form some of the major concentrations of this kind of poverty outside urban areas, and they give the title essay its name: They are the "Big White Ghetto."

Subsequent essays explore some of the cultural problems dealt with -- and created by -- this particular group of people. As often happens, the way a problem manifests in one economic group differs from the way it manifests in a different group. Lower-income folks get all of the problems that a bad cultural idea can generate, magnified and added to by the problems of poverty itself.

Most of these essays have been printed before, many in National Review, and they span several years. While all of them would have benefited from being more extensively revised to fit together as a whole, the earlier pieces especially seem disconnected from the later ones. Post-2016, these voices were definitely magnified through the lens of Donald Trump's populist appeals and any examination of them takes that into account -- but Ghetto doesn't review them in light of the new paradigm. Which also attenuates the thematic thread that's supposed to connect them all and leaves a big chunk of the book as just a collection of Williamson reprints.

Because most of what Williamson writes is entertaining and informative, that by itself isn't a bad thing. But it does mean that we didn't get the book-length examination of these cultural issues from him that could easily have been a five-star work...situations he knows as well as J.D. Vance does and reports as thoroughly as Saleena Zito does mixed with own refusal to sacralize any of the usual cows involved.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Star's Trek

An animation at Astronomy Picture of the Day shows what cosmologists and astronomers think it looks like when a star gets trapped and then consumed by a black hole.

A lot less gross than some people I know.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Lies! All Lies!

From Neuroscience News, proof that parents will never stop baiting you into doing chores, even when you may be doing them for your own house instead of theirs.

Household tasks improve brain health. Hmmph. As if.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Skyview

People looking at the sky from urban areas often note how power lines, telephone polls and the like obscure their view, cutting it into sections with their dark, crisscrossing lines. Photographer Alex Hyner decided to take that literally, using a telephone poll with several lines that sliced the view into sections. He filled each section with a sky photo taken in a different place, combining their colors and features into an almost stained-glass looking image.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Pilot

Although Michael Collins never got the chance to actually step on the moon, his experiences in some ways were just as profound and offered a fascinating point of view for reflection. Collins piloted the command module of Apollo 11, making sure that moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had a way back home once they completed their time on the lunar surface.

So for the 21 hours they were on the moon, Collins was alone in the command module, orbiting the moon and spending 48 minutes of radio silence when his orbits took him to the far side. During his 18 trips into the most solitary condition any human being had ever experienced up until that time, he recorded some observations and later added them to his biography. One of the best-known was how he divided humanity into two groups during the blackouts: "three billion plus two over on the other side of the Moon, and one plus God-knows-what on this side.”

Collins had also prepared himself for the awful possibility that Armstrong and Aldrin's lunar module wouldn't fire or he wouldn't be able to rendezvous with them properly. Richard Nixon may have had a copy of the speech he would have had to have made, but Collins would have had to have flown back to Earth -- a three-day trip alone flying with only the memory of the other two astronauts beside him.

His death at 90 leaves just the eternal Buzz Aldrin alive from the first crew of human beings to leave this world and examine another sphere, as he now sets forth on a much longer journey.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Semantics?

United States Climate Envoy John Kerry has been doing some traveling, meeting with representatives of several countries as he tries to help put together multinational agreements about reducing the use of fossil fuels and thus reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The stated goal is an attempt to turn the course of what Kerry and the administration of President Joe Biden see as a global crisis, climate change.

Of course one of the main parties at the table is China -- a nation whose "carbon footprint" exceeds all others. So Envoy Kerry has been discussing emissions levels and ways to reduce them with the ruling Chinese Communist Party. And also of course China is a country with a secretive, repressive and bullying regime that doesn't give a rattus tuckus for the safety, health, freedom, flourishing, security, happiness, etc., of its people. And thirdly of course John Kerry, a man who has been as wrong on foreign policy as often as Joe Biden has, thinks we can negotiate with the CCP in good faith, as he states in this interview in Foreign Policy magazine.

Why does Kerry think this is possible? Because, shucks, those differences between our two nations are just not as major as we think they are. To wit, a quote from the interview: "We have other differences on human rights..."

A number of conservative commentators have taken Kerry to task for this kind of equivalency, for describing the two nations' approaches to human rights as just "different." But I think he is dead-bang accurate. The U.S., for example, thinks that abuses against China's minority Uygher population such as concentration camps, re-education, cultural erasure and genocide need to end. The Chinese government, in contrast, thinks that the minority Uygher population needs to end.

It's practically two sides of the same coin.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Trouble With Gravity, Richard Panek

Early in his 2019 book The Trouble With Gravity, Richard Panek recounts a conversation with a physicist about the titular subject. "The trouble with gravity," he is told, "is that no one understands it, and no one understands that no one understands it." And despite the promise made by the subtitle, that contention will be more or less borne out by the end of the book.

Panek begins by sorting out what people have believed about the whatever-it-is that keeps us standing upright on the ground and not floating away. He explores a number of different creation stories offered by civilizations from around the world and shows that one of the things they seem to have as a common thread is the idea that "up there" is somehow different from "down here." Up there, things stay suspended above the Earth's surface, either because they're embedded in a dome or they fly or they're living beings who fly. From there, observation during the time of the ancient Greeks at least brought to Western thinking the realization that some of the things up there moved around in a regular pattern. What, these thinkers wondered, regulated it? What kept them up there while human beings and just about everything they could see stayed down here?

The answer of divine agency was enough for many, although as Galileo and Copernicus led the way in proving some of the things up there related to each other instead of to the Earth itself, and the Earth was revealed to be moving in relation to the sun, instead of the other way around. As developing sciences began to gain more and more tools to explore and reveal the way the world works, the idea of divine agency didn't disappear so much as open the door to a new question: How did God keep what was up there up there and what was down here down here?

The next chapters outline how first Isaac Newton and then others began to conceive of a universal force that linked everything together, which came to be called gravity. But as with nearly every answer since the initial creation stories, more questions lurked underneath. As Albert Einstein began to explore what the universe did as it got small, fast and weird, the answers to his questions seemed to leave gravity in a still more mysterious place. Defined as one of the four major forces governing the universe, it differs from the other three in significant ways and resists unification with them. Which is where, despite the discovery of gravitational waves and other solid advances, we are today: Not understanding gravity all that well and not understanding that we don't really understand it all that well.

Panek doesn't seem to aim at a recap of the latest gravitational research and theory -- magazine articles might be best for that anyway, given the pace of change in the field. Trouble seems more a survey of the field that links some of our modern experimentation with ancient mythologizing as they both grope frustratingly towards an answer to something that exists all around us but which defies full explanation. The ancients were stumped by what kept things up there from falling down here; modern scientists are stumped by gravity's resistance to being quantized like the other three forces.

Sometimes Panek's breezy style gets in his way, as he winds up a sentence with a punchline when it really needs stronger exposition. He makes enough mistakes in relating Old Testament creation pericopes that a reader has full license to wonder how well he does with the others, and that section of the book is too long by half. It doesn't really weaken his point that human beings have recognized the up-there/down-here distinction for most of history but ordinarily accuracy is to be desired in a book discussing scientific work.

Trouble is still a fairly fun trip through the development of the ideas underlying our understanding -- and, I suppose, misunderstanding -- of gravity. It helps set the stage for better comprehension of such new discoveries as may be made in coming years and makes a useful addition to the layperson's science shelf.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Aw, Man!

If it wasn't enough that quantum physics is governed by a principle that says something about the most delicate measurements is always uncertain, it turns out that sometimes the actual discoveries themselves only exist for a little while.

Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder explains here.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Expectations

Alas, as we learn in today's Sherman's Lagoon strip, sometimes even polar bears don't live up to parental expectations.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Maybe Not...

Over at Bored Panda, an artist used an artificial intelligence algorithm to provide possible portraits of what celebrities who have passed away unexpectedly might look like if they were alive today.

Some of them are not bad -- the Freddie Mercury portrait probably has more dark hair than the average 75-year-old sports but other features seem realistic. John Lennon's face seems reasonable for an 81-year-old man, but the amount of hair doesn't really work at all. The Elvis Presley picture is a reasonable example of what an older Elvis might look like (apparently, Lee Majors) but the picture shown doesn't really suggest someone who's 86.

On that front, the James Dean and Marilyn Monroe portraits are complete misses. The way both are shown could very well have been a part of them had they aged past their respective early deaths, but neither picture shows the nonagerians they both would be. And a couple don't make much sense: David Bowie was 69 when he died just five years ago so there's not really much change in his looks. And a few of the others suggest an algorithm that needs some tweaking.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Big Flight

Flew a helicopter on Mars today. Not bad, humanity.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Win, Harlen Coben

Through 11 books, whenever sports agent and occasional righter of wrongs Myron Bolitar has found himself in over his head -- either legally or perhaps in a situation where more forceful measures apply -- he's called out to his college friend, Windsor Horne Lockwood III. Win has enough money to take care of most situations, enough skill with his fists and feet to handle the rest and just about zero scruples of how, when and how much of either of them he applies to a situation. Coben opened 2018's Home with a segment from Win's point of view and has decided to offer at least one complete novel that way, 2021's Win.

A painting, stolen from Win's family many years ago on a night when his uncle was killed and his cousin kidnapped, has resurfaced in the home of a New York City recluse -- but only because said recluse himself has been found murdered. Some other evidence at the scene connects the Lockwood family to this urban hermit and makes FBI agents interested in Win and his cousin as suspects in the murder, although it's just suspicion at this point. When the hermit is discovered to be one of a radical group whose early 1970's attempt to bomb a building caused several deaths, Win's own former FBI mentor joins the probe. That case, we learn, has haunted the man for years and if he has to hang either Win or his cousin out to dry because of it, he will. Win needs to figure out how the hermit got the painting, how it may connect to his uncle's murder and where the rest of the radicals may be, almost 50 years later.

The Bolitar books have benefited greatly from Coben's deft hand at smart-alecky and funny dialogue and banter, both from Bolitar himself and between the two friends. Win's near-narcissism, cynical nature and his supreme confidence (OK, arrogance) make him a good verbal sparring partner with the more earnest and hopeful Bolitar. The love of violence Win displays might almost suggest a high-functioning sociopath and you'd think that an entire book from this view wouldn't work. But with just a few tweaks Coben is able to make it work quite well. We learn Win is more damaged than deranged and his seeming lack of empathy comes more from a single-minded pursuit of his goal and willingness to do what it takes to see his sense of justice satisfied than from true sociopathy. Having never delved deeply into Win's family in any Bolitar book Coben can use that background to humanize his character and give him dimension beyond his "Myron's sidekick" role.

And of course, Win is funny as all get-out.

Coben seems to relish the chance to write with a new voice and from inside someone else's head. Rather than Myron Bolitar or the kind of suburban everyman or everywoman that he's spoken through before, Win brings a unique take on the world that seems to challenge Coben to bring a much better game than he has for several of his more recent standalone books, and to create a much more fun adventure with twists that you actually might not see coming. Win is easily his best book in many years.

Much of the blurb about Win suggests it's the first of a series and if so, it will be interesting to see if Coben can maintain that quality as he moves into more stories about the billionaire socialite who moonlights as a seeker of justice at all costs -- who doesn't dress up in a costume when he does so.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Tamper-Resistant

No matter what gaseous politicians and the gutless Rob Manfred do, they can't take away how much I like watching this:

 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Waste

Many people in the United States made sacrifices during the pandemic according to what health advice was given by experts at the time. One reason was to give the government bodies supposedly listening to those same experts the chance to do necessary things while people sort of stayed out of their way.

Naturally, as Leah Libresco Sargent notes here in a piece last month for The Week, the government botched their chance to do something and wasted the opportunity given them.

You have to wonder if some of this track record is behind people getting tired of mandates left and right and being told what to do by people who don't seem to know so well what they're doing.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Q: Is This an Easy Problem or a Hard Problem? A: Yes

I'm not 100% sure of the solution to a famous mathematical conjecture proposed by Paul Erdős some 50 years ago -- by which I mean I'm not sure I understand it. Even this relatively simple explanation at Quanta magazine quickly gets esoteric for one whose math skills drop off once we travel beyond arithmetic.

The thing I thought most interesting about the story was that Erdős and a couple of friends -- Vance Faber and Lászlo Lovász -- dreamed up this problem as intentionally one of the simplest they could think of during a tea party. They dallied with it a little at the party and set it aside to finish the next day. "The next day" turned out to be January 2021, as five mathematicians from the University of Birmingham -- Abishek Methuku, Dong-yeap Kang, Tom Kelly, Daniela Kühn and Deryk Osthus -- finally figured out a way to prove their answer to the Erdős -Faber-Lovász Conjecture.

Although Erdős died in 1996, both Faber and Lovász are still living and congratulated the Birmingham team, which is technically known as the Combinatorics, Algorithms and Probability Team at the university.

The thing that struck me was how the problem was intentionally created to be simple and initially thought to be so by the conjecturing trio, only to turn into a mathematical hairball that took 50 years to figure out. Math, much like life, often winds up with intended simplicity giving way to unintended complexity.

Now as to whether or not I'll ever be able to figure out what any of the 8 mathematicians listed were talking about? I think that problem has a simple answer: Highly unlikely.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Why Us? Why Should We Have to Go Where No One Has Gone Before?

Thanks to this Saturday Night Live sketch, we find out what happens if one has a member of today's Gen Z hyper-sensitive types on the crew of one's starship.

We also find out how much of life could be improved with the addition of airlocks.

No, not really. That would be mean.

Friday, April 9, 2021

The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

One of the frequently cited rationales for colleges and other groups restricting speech and mandating both certain forms of speech and behavior has been to maintain or increase vulnerable people's sense of safety.

The problem, as many people have noted, is that the world isn't particularly safe and the effort to make it so approaches more and more the kind of totalitarian ideology associated with dictatorships and closed societies. Freedom and safety are not necessarily incompatible but they have a limited ability to coexist; at some point they're in a zero-sum relationship where one is gained at the expense of the other. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote about some of the causes of the struggle many institutions are having trying to manage commitments to both in a cover story for The Atlantic magazine in 2015. They expanded that article and added more current data in a 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind.

Many people's first instinct might be to dismiss a book with this title as the cranky rantings of a couple of righties upset because colleges don't make students memorize the Ten Commandments and recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. But neither Lukianoff nor Haidt qualify; the former is a liberal free-speech advocate and the latter an atheist professor of psychology who began his work in the field in order to help Democratic candidates win elections.

While they do investigate some real-world phenomena that aggravate the problems they try to describe, such as unhealthy use of social media and its capacity to magnify bullying, Lukianoff and Haidt suggest that the core of the issue is more philosophical. Too many people in society, especially in education, have embraced "three great untruths," the say, which has created the conditions for our problems. The untruths are the idea that what does not kill us -- i.e. hardship -- damages and weakens us, rather than helping his grow as we survive it. The second is that we should always trust our feelings, especially in cases where they tell us something different than our reason might and the third is that all of life is a battle between good people and evil people.

The interaction and interplay of these three ideas leads us to most of the modern ills that cause friction in our society, whether along existing fault lines like political differences or previously unremarkable ones. Microaggressions, identity politics, intersectionality and the like grow from the untruths as does the utopian vision of "safetyism." They say that people or institutions for which safety as the paramount concern can justify almost any action necessary to maintain it, no matter what rights of others it may infringe.

Lukianoff and Haidt lay out their case pretty convincingly and it's not as though every day's news stories don't provide even more examples of the problems they're trying to warn about and perhaps solve. They do offer some solutions but it's hard to see how those can take root before society simply swings so far in one direction it has to swing back or collapse. The sort of lethargic inertia that watched these matters develop doesn't seem likely to get out of the way in order for positive steps to be taken. And in the end, some of the people who might be prompted to think about where we are and how we got her might be the first ones to turn their nose up at a book that suggests their choices and actions are leading us towards even more polarization. No mind, whether coddled or otherwise, is very interested in admitting it's been part of the problem.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Kick 'Em When They're Down

Which I guess you could say this entry does for the hapless Rob Manfred, Commissioner of Major League Baseball. The other day I made fun of his decision to move the 2021 All-Star game from Atlanta to Denver because of uproar claiming Georgia's new voting law is designed to suppress minority turnout. I suggested that it was another in a line of lunk-headed moves by the men given the authority to act "in the best interests of baseball" but who aren't alway smart enough to do so.

I didn't list Bowie Kuhn, but it turns out that Manfred will in his way follow one of Kuhn's clearest blunders. Hank Aaron started the 1974 season with 713 home runs, one shy of Babe Ruth's career record. But his Atlanta Braves started the season on the road, meaning Aaron might very well set the new mark outside his team's home field. Braves staff wanted to sit Aaron for that first series, but Kuhn ordered him to play at least two of the three games. Aaron tied the record on the road but did break it at home -- only to be given his commemorative watch by a representative from the commissioner's office, Monte Irvin. Kuhn himself wasn't at the game, citing a previous engagement.

Earlier this year, Hammerin' Hank departed this life. almost certainly bound for the celestial Hall of Fame his longtime Catholic faith promised him. Which means that this year's All-Star game could have been an occasion to celebrate one of baseball's most elegant, dignified and honorable men, who never responded with hate to the flood of racist mail drawn by his pursuit of Ruth's record. It could have been, but as commissioners of major league baseball seem to have a habit of doing, Rob Manfred thought something else was more important than honoring and respecting Hank Aaron.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

On the Shoulders of Giants

Following the 1919 gambling scandal involving the Chicago White Sox, the organization of major league baseball clubs gave its office of the commissioner extreme power to act in "the best interests of baseball." At times the men occupying that office have used this near-dictatorial authority wisely, and at other times less wisely.

We have the first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, allowing clubs to collude to prevent African-American players from appearing on major league rosters. Ford Frick, without ever using an actual asterisk, did everything else to slight Roger Maris's 61 home runs in a 162-game season compared with Babe Ruth's 60 homers in a 154-game season. Bud Selig allowed a tie in the All-Star game.

And now Rob Manfred has moved the All-Star game and the site of the Major League Baseball draft from Atlanta as a protest against a new Georgia election law. Detractors, including President Joe Biden, have said the law is designed to suppress voting, especially among minorities. The Washington Post's fact-checker gave the President its highest possible rating for saying something inaccurate, four Pinocchios. Even opponents of the law, like political activist and 2018 Georgia gubernatorial loser Stacey Abrams, didn't want companies and organizations to boycott Georgia over it because they believed job losses would cause more harm to the people on whose behalf they said they were advocating.

According to ESPN stories quoted by Hot Air columnist Ed Morrissey, Manfred will set the game in Colorado at Coors Field; home of the Colorado Rockies. Morrissey lists the many folks who took a look at Colorado's election laws and found them either similar to or more restrictive than the law Georgia just passed. To be fair, Colorado's law affects far fewer African-American persons than does Georgia's. As Morrissey notes census data shows Georgia to be 31% African-American while Colorado is 4% African-American in population.

The old saying is that we should never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence. So I would without question reject the charge that Manfred has some vendetta against Atlanta or Georgia. But since he is in a position where he can make some significantly unilateral decisions he's all the more likely to expose whichever attribute he has. And considering that his last big idea was to start extra innings in tie games with a runner already on second we can perhaps sense which one he displayed here.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Sometimes the Internet is Worth Something, Part Much Smaller Number Than You'd Hope For

Ordinarily to view works at France's famed Louvre Museum one would have to travel there, and even then it's like most museums and circulates its collections. Not everything in it is on display all the time.

Plus if you get in a real exploratory mood you'll wind up being made to leave before closing time because there's so much to see.

But in one of those rare shining examples of the Internet doing something good and worthwhile, you can now look at any item the museum owns on your very own screen at home. As this article at Bored Panda outlines, a visit to collections.louvre.fr will get you started on the more than 480,000 paintings, sculptures and whatnot the museum owns. Upside: No closing hours, no chance of running into black-clad sneak thieves making off with rare jewelry or artwork. Downside: Dream of being a black-clad sneak thief making off with rare jewelry or artwork are dashed.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Ahem

When scientists measure the orbits of the planets of the solar system, they use known laws of the universe to predict the paths those planets will take. A variance between the motion predicted and the motion observed suggests that something's unaccounted for is going on, sending scientists into fits of glee as they uncover whole new arenas of knowledge. As this Live Science story points out, variations in planetary orbits helped Albert Einstein confirm his theory of relativity (Mercury wasn't behaving) and led to the discovery of Neptune (Uranus wasn't behaving -- and no, I'm not sorry).

Well, a bunch of "trans-Neptunian objects" or TNOs are orbiting oddly enough that what we know about the solar system right now doesn't explain it. Astronomers have postulated a faraway Planet Nine whose gravitational pull is affecting them, although this proposed body has not been sighted.

One new theory is that what we're seeing is being orchestrated not by a planet but by one of the extra-small black holes left over from the early days of the universe. Black holes today require at least 10 times the mass of the sun to form, and such an object would have already been detected if it was there. Conditions in the early universe allow for the possibility of a black hole with a smaller mass, although they have never been observed and are still hypothetical. If Planet Nine turned out to be one, it would be an amazing chance to study an object dating back billions of years. Hence the excitement at the possibility, expressed in the article's headline: "What if Planet Nine Is a Baby Black Hole?" There's just one problem, of course, that the article writer erroneously overlooks.

PLANET NINE IS PLUTO, DAGNABBIT!

I await both the correction and credit for discovering the error.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Can They Both Lose?

The headline might suggest that this is a post left over from before last November's presidential election -- or maybe a preview of what might be written about in the fall of 2024 -- but it isn't.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said during a recent Senate Finance Committee meeting that Amazon doesn't pay its "fair share" of taxes. Neither she nor anybody else knows what that means, but the senator is still under the delusion that we think she has actual knowledge of what she's talking about. Well, Amazon fired back that they pay the taxes that the law requires them to pay and that if someone should like them to pay more they might get those laws changed -- something which a United States Senator has a greater chance of accomplishing than, say, you or me.

Seeing as the snarky comment was made by tweet, Sen. Warren proved that former President Donald Trump is not the only person who can tweet limitless stupidity by disclaiming responsibility for the current laws. She didn't write them, Amazon's "armies of lawyers and lobbyists did." (Fun fact: Elizabeth Warren is herself a lawyer).

She went on to say that she wanted to "fight to break up Big Tech so you’re not powerful enough to heckle senators with snotty tweets." Now, Amazon's recent spate of self-righteousness about what books it will and won't sell has left them without much of my goodwill, not that it bothers the company all that much. But Senator Warren neglects a vital fact: One need not be a part of a big tech company to say snotty things about her. One need not even tweet them but might simply speak them aloud or write them in a blogpost. Because if there's one thing this black hole of political ineptitude can count on its that she will forever be giving people both snotty things to say about her as well as a long list of reasons to say them.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Imaginariation

After a 15-month delay brought on by personal illnesses, a pandemic and probably plagues of frogs and locusts, the husband-and-wife duo The Imaginaries release their debut album today across a variety of streaming music platforms and physical CD sales.

Both members of the band are probably familiar to Oklahoma music fans. Both guitarist/vocalist/husband Shane Henry and pianist/vocalist/wife Maggie McClure have solo albums to their credit; Henry in singing and playing guitar-based blues and McClure piano and vocal pop. And although their collaboration is probably a little closer to Henry's basic style than McClure's, it clearly brings out both of their strengths.

Over the last few months, the duo have released some music videos for a few tracks, giving a preview of the whole album being released today. The first, "Revival," was entered as a short film in some regional film festivals; its surrounding story of a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like duo who decided to change their ways gave a good background for the track. It's also a good guide for the way the combination mixes their strengths and draws them out past their respective comfort zones a little. Although Henry lays down acoustic blues licks to open the song it moves into a full-band gospel mode. McClure's always been a lovely singer but here she adds touches of brassy belting that match the story of two sinners seeking redemption from their dead-end path.

That same willingness to experiment with what her voice can do beyond just flawlessly nailing a note help propel other songs as well. The swampy declaration of faith "Geronimo" and funky rocker "Enough of You" meld Henry's rawer tones and electric work with her style as each pulls the other a little more their way. And that openness to experimentation lets them put a range of songs on the album as well. "Blue Sky" dances and trickles around as the husband and wife reminisce about their move to California from their native Oklahoma as well as their return.

"The Imaginaries" is not overtly an album of religious music but both band members are people of faith who draw on it for song themes as well as language and imagery. "Geronimo" references an untameable lion and the falling walls of Jericho, and the album closer "You Remind Me" gently swings through a list of reassuring qualities of a partner -- who could just as easily be a savior as a spouse -- and "One Life" declares a conviction that today's hard times are in tomorrow's rearview mirror and the power to survive them can be given to us.

Publicity for the album categorizes it as "Americana," the catchall gumbo category that leaves room for bluegrass, country, southern rock, blues and at least a half-dozen other genres. Since it crosses through most of those boundaries it's as apt a description as any. What's certain is that even as enjoyable as the pair have been as solo artists -- and in their livestreamed shows they've played several of each other's tunes as well as some good covers -- this collaboration adds up to more than the sum of the two considerable parts.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Cut the Cards?

Over at Twisted Sifter, you can find an entry for an artist who takes that figure of speech literally, cutting along the different designs on the back of an ordinary deck of playing cards until he creates a 3-D sculpture of them. An example may be seen below:



Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Captain Putnam for the Republic of Texas, James L. Haley

At first glance it would seem an author looking to set tales of the "wooden walls and iron men" era of naval fiction in the United States Navy wouldn't have many opportunities. After the War of 1812 ended the era of the steamship began and the next time warships bearing the stars and stripes engaged in action against the enemy was during the Civil War. But while many of the conflicts the new nation took on between 1815 and 1860 were on land, they did have some seagoing elements -- some of them clearly the word of the USN and other perhaps clandestinely so.

James L. Haley gives Capt. Bliven Putnam one such clandestine opportunity when the hero of three previous works finds himself under secret orders to aid the rebellious Republic of Texas as it tries to secede from Mexico in Captain Putnam for the Republic of Texas. An independent U.S.-leaning Texas serves the national interests as President Andrew Jackson sees it, but commercial U.S. interests in Mexico are willing to side against their former fellow countrymen in order to continue doing business with the military dictatorship of General Santa Anna. Santa Anna will be able to acquire all of the weaponry he needs to make his army of conscripts more than the equal of the Texas volunteers unless some of the shipments can be stopped from reaching their buyers. Jackson's scheme assigns Putnam to operate a surplus U.S. warship as a blockader. Texas military commander Sam Houston commissions Putnam and his old friend Sam Bandy as officers in the Republic of Texas Navy as a cover for their actions, in order that the U.S. not be seen to officially take sides in the conflict.

Haley has both a biography of Sam Houston and a history of Texas as a Spanish province, independent republic and part of the U.S. on his résumé so he is on familiar ground as he sets the stage for Putnam's exploits on behalf of the "Texians" seeking to throw off the dictatorial yoke of Santa Anna. He also throws some light on the nooks and crannies of the U.S.'s growing pains as a nation in the generations after the centers of power left the East Coast and migrated westward. New Englander Putnam is too young to have participated in the Revolutionary War but he would have fit in with that generation of men quite well.

The ascendancy of "westerners" like Andrew Jackson provides a new element to federal politics he doesn't much care for, but even among his own New England peers a kind of populist mob rule makes inroads as Protestant preachers rage against Catholics and their "papistry." From our perspective centuries later the different names and labels that people took during the time seem to all run together and we overlook that the U.S. of the early and middle 1800's had a number of pressures acting on it other than the dispute over slavery. Haley does a good job of showing how Putnam feels divided loyalties towards his friend, the southern slave-owning Bandy and also towards his duty to his nation and antipathy about the motives and actions of the crude and demagoguing Jackson.

But he does less well in getting Captain Putnam to hang together as a narrative; there seems to have just been not enough naval activity during the Texas war for independence to make a full story so we have a few digressions with Bandy as our viewpoint character interacting with Sam Houston at the climactic Battle of San Jacinto. At the beginning of the novel Putnam contracts malaria, which mostly serves as a way for him to pass out at junctures where it's good to fast-forward and let another character recap events for him. Haley's good at exposing the logistical and policy failures that were a part of government decisions then as well as now, and at making Putnam observe them from the outside without turning into a know-it-all visitor from the 21st century.

There aren't a lot more chances for Captain Putnam to take sail from Haley's pages; by the time of the Mexican-American war he'll be in his late 50s and into his 70s by the time of the Civil War. Haley may have in mind Putnam as a mirror of the real-life Admiral David Farragut, whose service stretched from fighting against the Barbary Pirates to damning torpedoes at the Battle of Mobile Bay. His website suggests that this fourth volume is the halfway point of the series; maybe some more clearly defined theaters of war and action might offer the remaining volumes a clearer focus and more well-defined narrative.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Unruined

In another of those occasional useful things that we see on the internet, the Budget Direct travel company used graphic designers, historians and architects to virtually "rebuild" six now ruined castles as they would have been seen in their glory. The finished product uses photo editing software, too, so that the images are not just drawings of the castles imposed on pictures but simulated photographs of the reconstruction work.

As it always seems when something is found on the internet that's cool and doesn't suck, it's one of those little quirk things.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

From the Rental Vault: Buccaneer's Girl, 1950

Most swashbuckler's feature the fellas moving the action. Even when a woman holds her own (and more) as Maureen O'Hara does opposite Errol Flynn and Anthony Quinn in Against All Flags, men drive the narrative and plotlines most of the time. Every now and again, though, the lady gets her chance to take the wheel as Yvonne DeCarlo does in Buccaneer's Girl, and DeCarlo runs with it to make an entertaining comedic adventure laced with the proper amount of romance. The poster even gives it away, with DeCarlo's name both larger and above that of Philip Friend, who plays the dual-identity Baptiste the pirate and Robert Kingston the respected businessman.

DeCarlo is Deborah McCoy, a New Orleans singer and entertainer stowing away on a ship later captured by Baptiste (Friend). Though he holds her captive, she escapes and lands at Mme. Brizar (Elsa Lanchester)'s "school for young ladies," or as it is known outside the world of Hollywood's 1950s censors, a brothel. Mme Brizar's students make their money -- and, fingers crossed, catch the eye of an eligible bachelor -- by singing at different parties and entertainments given by New Orleans' upper crust of society. Debbie is astonished to learn that the pirate Baptiste is also a member of that same society, despoiling his fellow aristocrats to fund a relief fund for injured and aged sailors they discard. Although she is drawn to him as Robert Kingston, she finds Kingston engaged to Arlene Villon (Andrea King), another member of New Orleans elite. There is more business than affection in the match, though, especially when the snooty and faithless Arlene is compared to Debbie. If these shoals aren't enough to imperil Kingston/Baptiste, his rival businessman Narbonne (Robert Douglas) is close to trapping Baptiste, aided by the scheming Patout (Norman Lloyd).

The plot seems a little too intricate for its own good and several times it almost is, but director Frederick DeCordova keeps it moving forward when it might falter and draws our attention back to action, fun and romance. The movie is clearly DeCarlo's, giving her the central arc of falling in love with Kingston, spurning him when learning he is engaged and then being romanced by him once he decides to pursue her. Rather than shrink back while the menfolk fence around the set, she's the think-on-her-feet planner of the schemes of derring-do that help our heroes combat the nefarious villains.

Both the script and her performance make DeCarlo's leadership role organic rather than artificial and help make an enjoyable romp, even if not nearly as much of the action takes place on the bounding main as the title might lead one to hope.

DeCarlo would later wind up as Moses' wife in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments and as Lily Munster in TV's The Munsters. DeCordova would be the longtime director of The Tonight Show during the reign of late-night king Johnny Carson, and Norman Lloyd would be the patriarchal Dr. Daniel Auchslander on the small screen's St. Elsewhere. At 106, he's still active and performed as recently as 2015.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Luna, See?

So a group of Aussies put together a proposal in line with things that are called declarations of "Nature's rights" that argues for the moon to be given rights.

The "Declaration on the Rights of the Moon" says that the moon is a "sovereign natural entity" in its own right and that it has a right to, among other things, "remain a forever peaceful celestial entity, unmarred by human conflict or warfare." Now, many people will mock these members of the Australian Earth Laws Alliance for suggesting that an inanimate object has anything resembling rights. They may suggest that this is what you get from people who walk around upside down all of the time. But for my money, the problem is not that they have set their minds to describing how rocks, dust and whatnot can assert the same kinds of rights that people can. No, the problem is that they have not gone far enough.

For one, the Moon is not a body separately orbiting the sun but is a satellite of Earth, meaning that it is a part of a total Earth-Moon system. And the Declaration says absolutely nothing about the way that the Earth possesses all of breathable atmosphere available to that system, as well as more than 99 percent of the total atmosphere and more than 90 percent of the water. Furthermore, the Earth uses its mass privilege to force the Moon to orbit it and has even enslaved it to the point that the Moon cannot rotate according to its own desires but must always turn one face to the oppressor planet.

Clearly, no Declaration on the Rights of the Moon that overlooks these astounding inequities can consider itself to be on the side of the oppressed or to have the full flourishing of the moon as its goal. The so-called Declaration makes a mockery of the Moon's rights by failing to address these inequities and the overwhelming privilege the Earth enjoys. I am appalled.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Niagara Squadron, Chris Durbin

Ships coming close to land must be careful, as underwater rocks and shoals may lurk invisibly in what seems like a clear path to harbor. Authors who write naval fiction sometimes find themselves in similar situations, as their sure hand at nautical terminology and narrative deserts them when their cast goes ashore and they founder faster than a broached longboat.

Chris Durbin manages to keep his story afloat in Niagara Squadron even while he sends one of his two heroes, Commander George Holbrooke, overland with the British Army's 1759 Niagara Expedition to dislodge the French from Ontario and capture access to Canada. It's unfamiliar territory to Holbrooke, who has been distinguishing himself at sea in this campaign during what's sometimes called the Seven Years War but is now an a very different element. The goal of the campaign is to attack French holdings on Lake Ontario by coming via river and overland to both assault Fort Niagara and provide naval support for the attack.

Although Durbin has offered up a goodly amount of history as he's navigated his heroes on their journeys, Niagara Squadron offers more than just about any volume in the series so far. He follows the actual journey to the lake and the eventual battle fairly closely, exploiting a few gaps in the historical record as places where Holbrooke and his crew can shine and carry the day. He does a good job of outlining some of the early inter-service rivalry between army and navy and shows how the tactics of land movement with sea support were still very much in development.

He also highlights how the cultural gap between the European combatants, both French and English, and their native allies meant that the Europeans never really understood how the different native tribal nations related to each other or chose the side to fight on that they did. Holbrooke is given a development arc of gradually accepting friendship of the Mohawk warrior Kanatase and recognizing him as a man of honor and good character instead of just a "savage." The chapters relating the detached expedition of Holbrooke's first lieutenant, Charles Lynton, offer a neat kind of mirror of seeing how Holbrooke now handles being on the other side of the superior/subordinate relationship, having begun the series as subordinate to its other hero, Edward Carlisle. And the whole story provides a domestic reason for Holbrooke to mature, as he must convince Martin Featherstone that he is a worthy suitor for his daughter Ann.

All of the Carlisle and Holbrooke stories have been excellent reads for the naval fiction fan, all the better for passing over the well-trodden path of the Napoleonic wars for the earlier mid-18th century conflict. But Niagara Squadron's many virtues give it the edge so far if one's looking to crown the top entry of the series.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Double-Barrelled

North Texas Celtic band The Selkie Girls offers a St. Patrick's Day story that combines two of Ireland's major interests: "God and Guinness." Found on the Running with the Morrigan album, for those interested.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Correctly Spelled

We're going to bring this up before the day even gets started so people have no excuse. If you want to shorten the name of tomorrow's holiday, remember it's spelled Paddy, not Patty when connected with St. Patrick of Ireland

Sunday, March 14, 2021

He Chose...Poorly

In the Sunday Sherman's Lagoon a snooty waiter at an upscale restaurant learns that the upside of having shark clientele is that they never complain to the manager, no matter how rude he may become.

The downside...

Friday, March 12, 2021

Girl Logic, Iliza Shlesinger

As much as stand-up has changed over the years, one of its staples is still the observational comedian. The sharpest of these performers do more than watch people and make it wacky; they think about what they see. Sometimes at one end of that process is enough coherent thought that a clever and talented person can present it as a book. In 2017, comedienne Iliza Shlesinger distilled some of her work from her first decade working into just such a volume, Girl Logic.

One of the key themes of Shlesinger's comedy has been the way that men and women think differently and process situations differently. This isn't necessarily new ground, but as she explored she tried to highlight and examine some of the reasons women do and think that way. In Girl Logic, she digs deeper than comedy specials and standup routines allow and with some more directed purpose. As Shlesinger sees it, some of the "girl logic" comes from the biological differences between men and women. Even though modern civilization has smoothed some of the circumstances that make those differences stand out, human beings have been the way they are for most of their history and the old habits resurface easily.

But some of the "girl logic" also comes from pressures society places on women to conform themselves to preselected or predefined roles. So sometimes women will make decisions that men will not understand, and that even women themselves may decide make little sense when they reflect on them from a distance. But according to the girl logic those decisions make perfect sense.

Girl Logic itself is pretty heavily autobiographical as Shlesinger connects the dots between what her experience has taught her and what she has reflected. It's a book by a comedienne, so a reader's not going to find a rigorously argued philosophical treatise even though it's clearly the product of an intelligent person who likes to think about things. The fact that it also drew from her business does make the book funny, even if people who are familiar with her comedy routines will have heard a lot of the material before.

Some of the extrapolated additional material is as funny as her regular material but some of it isn't, and not all of the biographical recollection works at the same level.

Anyone who follows Shlesinger knows she's clearly one of the harder-working people in show business, branching out into acting, show production, podcasting and probably several other fields that I've missed. Girl Logic shows that she can manage a book, although it could have benefited from a more rigorous construction and a more ruthless trimming eye.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

IOC Strikes Again

Around the world, there is no small amount of grumbling about the way that the ruling Chinese Communist Party treats its citizens, especially residents of Hong Kong who keep making unreasonable demands like being allowed to say what they want. Also annoying is the way that the Uygher people would like to not be wiped out and they keep saying so when they get the chance.

In a better world, these kinds of actions would make the International Olympic Committee deny any bids by the CCP to host the Olympic Games. In our world it means that the Winter Games will be held in Beijing in February 2022. In a slightly improved world the IOC would rescind the hosting offer as more and more human rights abuses come to light. In our world the IOC will let itself be bought off by China's offer to to provide its COVID-19 vaccine to all athletes competing in the rescheduled Summer Games in Tokyo this summer.

Left unresolved is how many of the visiting athletes will want to be jabbed by something made by the same nation whose role in the early spread of the virus remains shrouded in silence and denial. Even if everything about the initial release and contagion of SARS CoV-2 was merely accidental, might athletes wonder whether the vaccine offered by the Chinese government might also put them off their best game just a wee bit? Or contain products that might not pass muster on a drug test for banned substances and performance enhancers?

The IOC isn't asking those questions, of course. Wouldn't want to break a perfect record of obliviousness to its more horrible national participants and hosts.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Lost Boys, Faye Kellerman

One of the problems an author has when he or she is writing a longstanding series character is that a person can write actively a lot longer than they can do other professional work. Especially when that series centers on a police detective, originally made about the age of the author and aging along with him or her. Faye Kellerman has been coming closer and closer to the edge of that problem with former Los Angeles homicide detective Lt. Peter Decker for several years now. She moved Decker and his wife Rina Lazarus, introduced in 1986's The Ritual Bath, to upstate New York for a less hectic life and nearness to kids and grandchildren. Decker took a job as a detective in a mid-size university town that still provided the necessary annual puzzling murder required for series sleuths. But now as both Kellerman and Decker near 70, another milestone looms and the 2021 Decker/Lazarus novel, The Lost Boys, may be setting the stage for Peter's finale.

Three parallel storylines run through Lost Boys, with only one of them resolved and the scene set for a later novel to offer answers in the other two. A mentally challenged man has gone missing from a day trip and Peter and his partner, Tyler McAdams, are part of the search of the heavily wooded area near the diner where he was last seen. When the two detectives make a trip to the center where the man lived, they uncover reasons to suspect that he may not have wandered off but been a part of a scheme to leave the center's care. If so there's not really a case, since the center was merely a place to live and not his legal guardian. But in searching for clues that could cinch that scenario, evidence of another crime is uncovered and the matter can't be closed as quickly as that.

During the search, a set of remains are uncovered that are linked to the 10-year-old disappearance of three students from a local college. Some indications of foul play mean that Peter and Tyler will re-investigate the case, which happened before either of them joined the department. The interviews with parents reopen many of the old wounds and while they may help clear up what the three young men were like they don't explain what happened to them.

A strength of the Decker/Lazarus series has always been Peter's groundedness in his home and family life. Kellerman gives him a slightly off-kilter but functional blended family full of children, stepchildren and now growing grandchildren. As the children also aged in real time, Kellerman introduced a foster son, Gabe Whitman, whom the Deckers helped raise because his birth parents were not adequate to the task. Now Gabe's irresponsible mother has come to him for help when her current husband's gambling debts imperil her and her two younger children. Gabe tries to help her on his own with assistance from Peter and Rina, but he may be forced to call his father -- a former hitman who now owns a legal brothel in Nevada -- when things grow rougher.

The three plots run concurrently and because only one of them resolves it seems clear that Kellerman intends some kind of continuation in a subsequent book. None of them are developed well enough to carry a whole narrative on their own and the usual puzzling and scenario discussion that Peter and other police officers use to try to figure out what happened according to the evidence at hand is not particularly inspired. The actual solution isn't all that well-hidden among the other ideas the detectives kick around and its eventual unveiling feels rushed and clunky.

If Kellerman is preparing for Peter and Rina's twilight years, either by continuing to chronicle them in whatever retirement setting they create or by ending the series as they begin that phase of life, The Lost Boys seems like a good table-setting story to do that. The only problem is that it's a relatively weak entry in the series on its own merits.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Royal O

My sister visited this week and wanted to watch Oprah Winfrey's interview with the sort-of royals Prince Harry and his wife, the American actress Meghan Markle. Once upon a time they were the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and I have no idea if they still are, but I know that Oprah thinks she can make some money if she interviews them and that was good enough for CBS.

Lots of people have written about the substance or lack thereof in Meghan's claim that racist attitudes were expressed towards her and her at-the-time unborn son, Archie. Meghan's mother is African-American. Sundry sordid family details were also offered by both husband and wife, and they also detailed the stress their situation put on them, Meghan confessing that she contemplated self-harm or suicide.

I have no way of knowing if any of this is true, but I will say that I find some of it more plausible than do many folks who've commented. Listening to "Harry and Meghan," I get the impression that I am listening to two medium-bright people whose upbringing did not give them many tools to develop much resilience in the face of pressure and stress. Remember, resilience doesn't mean just shrugging those things off. It can also mean recognizing being overwhelmed and asking for help.

Meghan's estrangement from her paternal family highlights her father's inadequacy in many aspects of that role. Harry's loss of his mother at a young age and the strong evidence that his father is a twit suggest he didn't have a much better time. So it is entirely plausible to me that Meghan did not realize just how evil the British tabloid press are and that the primary Buckingham Palace strategy towards its excesses is to ignore them as though they do not exist. Her claim that she was not protected from them indicates she expected the worst stuff to be countered and quashed and she did not understand that the Palace prefers to pretend that there are no roaches in this particular room. In either event, the evil coverage did get to her and I find it plausible she felt there were no options.

I also find it plausible that Harry, who from his youth has been told how harmful this same tabloid press was towards his mother and how their pursuit of her was essentially responsible for her death, was extremely worried when he saw what looked like history repeating with his wife. I am not certain why they both claim they were told no help was possible -- Harry himself, with his brother and sister-in-law, recorded a public service announcement a couple of years ago detailing the importance of counseling that suggested both brothers had received this help following their mother's death.

I say this not to defend either of them, but to explain why I felt a little sympathy towards two people who, although they should be happy by now, can't let enough of the the hard parts of their past go to be that way. Either way, the interview is past, I have vented and I'll be able to go on with my life.

My one lingering question will be if either of the former royals realized just how much they were used by Winfrey. She certainly cooperated with their desire to project a certain image -- her "pressing" Harry on his claims that he was "trapped" in his royal role was less a matter of skepticism than a calculated invitation to elaborate on what he wanted people to believe about his life. But she probably gained more for herself than anything else, and she did manage the absolutely ghastly question of asking Harry if he had watched the Netflix fictionalization of his family, The Crown, the most recent season of which depicts the breakdown of his parents' marriage, their respective affairs and his grandparents' supposed insensitivity to them. If nothing else, Oprah's gotta Oprah.

Monday, March 8, 2021

On Beyond Sense

When news came out recently that Theodor Seuss Geisel's publishing company would stop printing new editions of six books that it said had potentially harmful illustrations in them, a furor arose.

A number of folks on my Facebook newsfeed linked to or quoted extensively from opinion pieces that said this was in no way nohow anything like "cancel culture." One said, "This was his own publishing house deciding to no longer print some of the titles," conveniently leaving aside that the author has been dead for more than 30 years and it is highly unlikely that anyone currently at "his own publishing house" had much of a connection with him or could be said to acting according to what his wishes would be were he alive and properly indoctrinated into woke culture today.

These same voices offered no opinion on whether or not the online retailer Ebay's announced decision to remove all copies of those same books from its listings was evidence of the "mythical 'cancel culture'" which I have read exists only in the fevered conspiracy theorist minds of conservative thinkers. My suggestion for those wishing to make some money with their copies of the offending books is to title them Mein Kampf or Protocols of the Elders of Zion or some other book that Ebay still finds acceptable but somehow secretly encode in the product description that one is actually selling McElligot's Pool.

No, not really. That would be fraud, and wrong. No one should do that.

In any event, leave it to linguist and cultural commenter John McWhorter to get at the meat of the problem with one of the illegal books, On Beyond Zebra. Seuss's exploration of the sounds that could be described with the letters of the alphabet that might come after the letter "Z" is right up McWhorter's alley and actually happens to be my favorite Seuss book as well. McWhorter highlights how specious the supposed offense is and how worthwhile the book is for children exploring the world of the alphabet and how many more sounds can be made from its letters than just a plain old 26.

Which, coincidentally, happens to be the IQ rating of the people who came up with this idea.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Bloody Sunday, Ben Coes

After some stunning revelations about past tragedies, Dewey Andreas is in full-on hang-it-up-and-get-out-of-the-game-mode when it comes to work for the Central Intelligence Agency. He's persuaded to take a mission meant to gain information from a North Korean general about a plot by that nation's crazed dictator to launch multiple nuclear missiles at his enemies. The lever: a 24-hour-poison to which only a CIA asset has the antidote, which Dewey will inject him with as a means to make him talk. The problem: Dewey accidentally exposed himself to the poison and now needs the antidote from the CIA asset. The real problem: That asset is inside North Korea and was supposed to meet up with the general to trade information for the antidote. Dewey must infiltrate the world's most secretive, paranoid nation, track down the operative, take the info drop and get the antidote all in one day...the Bloody Sunday code name of the dictator's mad plan may now be Dewey's last day alive.

After the strong debut of Power Down, the Dewey Andreas series has had its ups and downs. Sunday is a strong outing, with the artificial one-day-to-live deadline focusing the action much more tightly than some of the weaker series entries. Dewey basically has one job: Keep himself alive in one of the most hostile environments that a United States intelligence operative might encounter. If he can swing the other tasks his bosses want done that'll be fine, but they take second place to survival.

Even in his sub-par books Coes does well in chronicling the kind of mayhem Dewey can wreak in a fight or an action sequence and he does so here too, but Dewey's inability to blend with the North Korean environment means he also has to exercise the kind of stealth and skulkery that have not always been his forté. Nor has writing them always been Coes' forté, but he handles them ably.

Coes also uses part of Sunday's story to set up some of the situations of his new series featuring operative Rob Tacoma and his team, but it doesn't detract too much from the straightforward main narrative. Dewey's dealt with a couple of ticking clock scenarios before, but the personal stakes and the unfamiliar environment mean that very little of Bloody Sunday feels repetitive or paint-by-numbers.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Paging Mr. Moses. Mr. Moses, Please Call Your Office...

OK, so the burning bush of Exodus 3 probably didn't look like this, and it's a photo of a tree in Iceland taken from a position that makes the northern lights appear as though they are a part of the tree.

 But still, pretty cool-looking.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Betraying the Nobel, Unni Turrettini

Alfred Nobel invented dynamite and became very wealthy, but he had no immediate family to leave his money on his death. After some minor bequests, he used the bulk of his estate to establish the various prizes that today bear his name: Peace, medicine, physics, chemistry and literature. The Swedish Central Bank created an economics prize in Nobel's honor in 1968, but it's not part of Nobel's direct legacy. From the beginning, the Nobel Peace Prize was set apart from the others though the method that Nobel designated for evaluating it and the prize committee designated to approve the award.

As Norwegian journalist Unni Turrettini outlines in her 2020 book Betraying the Nobel, the science prizes are chosen by the Swedish Academy of Science. The medicine prize is chosen by a committee that's advised by a Swedish medical university. The peace prize is chosen by a committee that's selected by the Norwegian Parliament. It has specific criteria spelled out in the will: The awardee will have done the most or best work in developing ties between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.

And according to those criteria, Turrettini says, it's unlikely that more than a handful of the awardees over the Nobel Peace Prize's history would have received it had Alfred Nobel reviewed their qualifications. She reviews several, well-known and recent as well as lesser-known from earlier in the prize's history, who did none of those things. Why did they win the prize? Because for one reason or another the prize committee members felt those people made the right political statements or best served Norway's national interest. She points out that most of the committee members have been former members of the Norwegian parliament and still have Norway's interests uppermost in their minds.

It's not as though the people who received the award deserved no recognition for great efforts in advancing civil rights or some other humanitarian cause, Turrettini says. It's just that they didn't do anything to reduce standing armies or promote peace congresses, and their impact on international relations is anything from ambivalent to problematic. And some of them, following their recognition, wound up escalating conflicts around the world rather than reducing them.

In sketching Nobel's biography and some of the relevant Norwegian-Swedish history of the time, Turrettini offers a reasonable explanation of his choices, both to create such a prize and the potentially corruptible method of evaluating who should get it. She shows why Alfred Nobel did what he did, and how quickly and completely his intentions were put in the background.

Turrettini writes in a straightforward, unadorned style that doesn't ever veer into actual dryness. She makes her case quite clearly that the Peace Prize Committee has only rarely selected someone who meets the spelled-out criteria for the award. She may or may not intend to, but she also makes the case that Nobel's listed criteria would have been hopelessly limiting. The number of nations that have actually abolished standing armies is small, and reductions may happen through defeat rather than by choice. Peace congresses were heavily emphasized in the 19th century as ways for nations to develop peaceful ways to resolve disputes, but they are no longer common. The science and medicine prizes can always advance as their fields do, but history, national ambition and political gamesmanship have made sure that the best-known legacy of Alfred Nobel will usually least match his stated intentions.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Not Enough Time?

The website Comic Book Resource, now known as CBR, generates a lot of content as it explores science fiction and superhero media in book, television and movie form -- it's basically a one-stop newsfeed for geek culture items. Sometimes the items are straight news releases, about a casting change, series renewal or movie development. Sometimes they're analyses of this or that character or series in light of a particular idea or cultural phenomenon. The wide range of geek culture and the hyper-speed need for new content mean that there's often a lot of scrolling to be done to avoid the 13th take on yet another anime series that I've never heard of before.

Among the standard entries are historical digs into the media to answer questions that younger readers may have about the long, long story of comic books. Superman, for one, has got more than 80 years of history that a lot of today's readers may not know. 

An entry a couple of days ago, for example, took a look at the versions Big Blue Boy Scout as he appears in other universes in the long string of DC Comics continuity to see when the first black Superman appeared. Some other universes offer more diverse groups of the heroes first developed when the concerns of minority audiences were not often considered. Kal-El is still the same baby rocketed from Krypton just before it exploded, but his appearance in these worlds matches what we would call African-American instead of Caucasian. Writer Brian Cronin describes two currently operating black Supermen from other universes and then digs back about 20 years to a one-shot title Legends of the DC Universe: Crisis on Infinite Earths. It gives us the story of one of the many universes imperiled by the Anti-Monitor during that story, originally published in the 1980s, called Earth-D. In this story, both Superman and his cousin, Supergirl, are black although their histories are the same and they are members of the Justice Alliance with counterparts to the mainstream heroes who reflect a wide range of ethnicities. This, Cronin says, is the first time we see "Black Superman."

Cronin's been writing about pop culture for a long time, so we'll just have to ascribe this lapse to a neuron misfire rather than the usual millennial cluelessness; the first Black Superman was, as Johnny Wakelin told us in 1975, Muhammed Ali.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Dark Canyon, Louis L'Amour

Dark Canyon, first published in 1963, comes well into Louis L'Amour's career and has all of his usual moving parts, but not so far along to have some of the perfunctive qualities that hamper his books going into the 1970s.

Gaylord Riley fell in with outlaw Jim Colburn when he helped Colburn out of a scrape in a saloon, but he never really became the outlaw type during his two years with the gang. Colburn and his gang may not have had their hearts totally in the game either, because they recognize Riley's unsuitability for the lifestyle and talk him into taking money and starting a ranch. Riley had spent his life wandering the west, searching for the men who had wounded him and killed his father, but at the gang's urging he takes their stake and begins to build with it in the Dark Canyon Wilderness of southern Utah.

He's a later entry to the area, centered on the small town of Rimrock and the ranch of Dan Shattuck. Saloon keeper and brothel owner Martin Hardcastle is the main man of Rimrock and has eyes for Dan's niece Marie, but Dan makes it clear a brothel owner is not fit for his niece's company and stirs a deep hatred in Hardcastle. Riley's arrival offers him a chance to create a scheme for revenge and Riley's slightly shady reputation provides an excellent way to be rid of him once his task is done. But Gaylord Riley is nobody's fool, and Marie Shattuck is no shrinking flower...and she loves Riley, not Hardcastle.

On the one hand it's easy to say that Canyon needs to be a little bit longer, so we can see some of Hardastle's machinations at work. His plans are a little too opaque for top narrative smoothness and his endgame moves seem to make all of the earlier plans unnecessary. The gaps also leave L'Amour in a position of having to tell us some of the things that are happening rather than show them, and that choice rarely does a story much good.

But on the other hand, being kept partly in the dark puts us in the same boat as Riley -- we know like he does that something is going on and that it's not good, but we can't quite sense what it is. The knowledge gap means Riley's toughness, speed and honor can't be brought to bear on his enemies...because he doesn't know who they are or what they're planning.

Dark Canyon is full of the touches that show why Louis L'Amour reigned as the king of the Western novel for so long (and why, in the minds of certain middle-aged grump types he still does). The opening sentence sets a hook that keeps an iffy reader going long enough that even when he or she runs into some of the less clear or less well-drawn passages the result is a shrug and commitment to finish out and see how the book ends. With a quick paragraph he lets us know that Dan Shattuck and Martin Hardcastle will have business with each other before we're done. Characters that a lot of writers would use as nameless cannon-fodder get real story arcs before leaving the stage. with an economy of words that seems to come so easily to the old pulp-era writers. And of course there's the descriptions of the magnificent wilderness where L'Amour chooses to work.

This may not have been one of L'Amour's front-rank works like Hondo or The Daybreakers, but the reader who doesn't particularly care for it will only be troubled for 120 pages or so before finishing it and reaching for one of the hundred-plus other novels he produced and finding one that better suits.