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.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Conferencing

At whatever your preferred sports news website, you may read speculation, an actually tiny bit of certain knowledge, opinion and full-throated blatherskite about the idea that the University of Oklahoma and University of Texas might be invited to join the Southeastern Conference. I picked The Athletic, and learned what I could learn here.

What I didn't learn there, and what I wouldn't learn anywhere, was what academic changes this move might entail. Because of course it involves none. Whether either school's athletic programs have competed in the Southwest Conference, Big Eight Conference, Big Twelve Conference or whatever other alphabet combo cobbled together to soak up TV money has made absolutely no difference to the primary reason either school -- if indeed they still desire to be called such -- exists.

The only question about such alignments or re-alignments is which individuals make money off of the efforts of unpaid young people, often members of minority groups. Since the odds that those unpaid young people won't be among those making money, what difference does it make which "athletic conference" an institution belongs to?

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

"Go Not Like a Ninny..."

Ask the Past recounts some advice from a 1663 publication called Youths behaviour, or, Decency in conversation amongst men about how to behave in public.

It seems the basics have remained unchanged from that day until those when I was told to stand up straight, watch where I was going, and put on clean clothes. As the title of the post notes, some of the details have changed -- although suggesting that people out and about, both in person and on social media, "go not like a Ninny" might be a good practice to re-adopt.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Men on the Moon

This being the 52nd anniversary of human beings first landing on the moon, and also the day in which yet another billionaire used his money to finance a private flight beyond the edge of the atmosphere, there were of course complaints. These focused on the way that the government spending on the Apollo program was not spent on alleviating poverty and hunger, and that the billionaires spent their money to get themselves into space rather than fixing earthbound problems like poverty and hunger.

Some of these critiques throw figures around that decry the massive dollar amounts spent on space exploration and space travel, although the comparisons usually overlook the fact that the government has spent immensely more money on programs to eliminate poverty and hunger. Which, by the way, still remain. Articles around the internet will counter the comparisons by quoting figures; others will point out that the billionaires both a) spend quite a bit on programs helping folks in need and b) got their money when they created products and services that lots of people wanted to buy and use. In other words, if you don't want Jeff Bezos spending his money to fly into space, don't use Amazon and give your money to him. 

The thing that struck me this time was the idea that the money spent on the space program was somehow unavailable to alleviate poverty seems to treat these funds like they were stuffed into the Apollo 11 capsule and dumped out onto Mare Tranquillitatis. Money spent on the space program was, um, spent on the space program. Things were bought. Things were built. Things were designed. The people who bought things, built things and designed things were all paid for their work -- and as we have been reminded of in recent years, among those people were women from minority groups who played significant roles in the project. I may have it wrong, but I am willing to bet that the money space program employees were paid kept them from being hungry and kept them out of poverty -- and the money paid to those employees today does the same thing.

In fact, those joy-riding billionaires' rocket planes were also designed, bought and built and I'll go so far out on a limb as to say that the people paid for doing so were probably kept from being homeless as a direct result of the money they received. In fact, I think they're probably kept from being homeless right now.

This probably oversimplifies things but it really seems sometimes that the main gripe of people who level their accusations at governments and people who spend their money on traveling to space is that they didn't give any of it to the people griping. But other than in movie reviewing, griping never has paid much.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Wrookie Wreck

Over at the long post blog, a long post on season 3 of The Rookie.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Prediction

When the day comes in which all of human work and achievement is weighed -- in whatever form that may take at the time -- I think it is safe to say that few people will have contributed less to human flourishing than Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone and Evan Williams.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Differentiation

The Who: Rock and roll band consisting of the late Keith Moon and John Entwhistle and the still-living Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey. Signature characteristic: Won't get fooled again.

The WHO: World Health Organization that purchases millions of doses of China's Sinopharm COVID vaccine (79% effective, only studied in populations without comorbidities that make COVID worse) and Sinovac (roughly 50 percent effective, apparently less against some variants). Signature characteristic: Clearly will get fooled again.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Square Kitty

During the 2020 lockdowns, animal psychology researcher Gabriella Smith worked with a number of volunteers on experiments to determine if cats, which will frequently sit in boxes and had been shown to sit in squares taped on the floor, would sit in a square less clearly delineated.

Two sets of four "Pac-Man" figures were arranged on a floor. One set had the open mouths of the Pac-men pointed outward and the other had them arranged to suggest a square inside them relying on the negative space they outlined. Cats were recorded to see if they would prefer the negative space square over the other arrangement, and they did.

Left unresolved is the reason why cats prefer such spaces, with cats themselves displaying the expected attitude of, "Because I damn well please, primate."

Monday, July 12, 2021

Cause and Effect?

When John Cena made his less-than-courageous apology for referring to Taiwan as a country, a number of people speculated that it was the natural result of a well-known side-effect of performance-enhancing drugs that Cena has been rumored -- but not proven -- to have taken.

In a similar vein, when one learns that Hong Kong movie star Jackie Chan said he would like to join the Communist Party of China and that the Beijing government was right to crack down on democracy protestors, one is tempted to remember he has done his own stunts on more than 150 movies and that there is every chance that cognitive-affecting head trauma may have occurred.

Both men, however, share membership in a club of actors that I cannot imagine paying money to watch on screen ever again.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Holding

Sorry, your humble correspondent is tired from church camp. We will attempt a return to posting on the morrow; welcome news indeed for those who have come to rely on my posts as a non-narcotic sleep aid.

Monday, July 5, 2021

I Kind of Did Believe a Man Could Fly

 

Of course, it was Christopher Reeve's performance that made it happen, but it was director Richard Donner's vision and he was the one who made the call to cast Reeve. He also got Gene Hackman to play Luthor, another great choice. Superman has its seams -- it's a little long, Ned Beatty's character is pretty much completely out of place and the Marlon Brando casting proved to be a money sponge that in the end added very little to the movie.

Donner fell awry of Alexander and Ilya Salkind while the first two Superman movies were being shot simultaneously, which resulted in him being fired once Superman was released. Richard Lester directed re-shoots for Superman II, which used some of Donner's footage but not enough for him to get credit. A director's cut of Superman II was released in 2006, which combined Donner's completed scenes, some screen test footage of an important point and the Marlon Brando footage that had been tied up in litigation at the time of the sequel's initial release.

In the meantime, of course, Donner had brought out The Goonies as well as the Lethal Weapon series and cemented his place as a box-office director of zippy action movies.

Although the 1970s special effects don't even come close to measuring up to today's technology, they were some of the best available at the time and something Donner insisted on -- as far as it was possible at the time, it had to look like Superman could fly. What Superman did was show that you could tell a real story with comic book characters when you treated them like real people inside their universe of suspended disbelief, making a modern mythology real.

Donner passed today at the age of 91

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Fireworks

Seeing as how the 4th of July falls on a Sunday, the local community is wont to hold its Independence Day celebrations on the 3rd. These include an...extensive...fireworks show, as the ranch workers at a local establishment really like to blow stuff up and shoot stuff into the sky, and they especially embrace the combination of the two.

So when you walk back home from viewing said spectacle, and the city streets have enough expended pyrotechnical smoke that it looks like a London fog bank, you know you have well and truly marked that great day when His Majesty the King of England was told where to get off.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Self-Destruction

One of the best things about the growth of the Substack newsletter format and one of the reasons I hope for its longterm success is the way certain writers that have previously leaned heavily on the book format now produce new content in between book releases. The shorter format gives a reader a chance to appreciate something important that they have to say that might not by itself be long enough for a book but is still good to grapple with.

Recently, for example, music and culture writer Ted Gioia put out an article on his The Honest Broker Substack about Columbia Records' purge of its old-school jazz roster in the early 1970's. For someone like me who is much more of a skimmer of jazz music than a deep-sea diver like Gioia, it's a great piece of history of the music to learn. But it probably would make a very thin -- or very padded-out -- book. This way, it need not be either. For the writers, of course, it turns out better because instead of a blog post that pays nothing they can produce content that people might subscribe to and pay them for. And no, I'm not considering a Substack model. I don't need confirmation of what this blog is worth in real monetary terms; my own feelings of inadequacy confirm it just fine, thanks.

I haven't yet subscribed to any of these newsletters, although I'm considering a few. My gut tells me that the company is probably trying to work out a system whereby you could bundle some of your preferred writers at a slight discount and I'm waiting to see. I'm also waiting to see newspaper publishers see that happen and kick themselves for not coming up with that model of online content before they collapsed. But as Gioia's article makes clear, sometimes large media corporations are not nimble thinkers and they have a gift for making the wrong changes.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Definitions

Writing at National Review, Andy McCarthy unpacks what happened at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 from a legal perspective and discusses the various labels that are applied to it. The piece is detailed and should be read in its entirety; I don't know if it's behind the paywall or not but if it is bookmark it and come back later.

In short, McCarthy says that the folks who stormed the Capitol building, made it inside and made themselves at home and a nuisance for several hours are guilty of rioting -- but not of insurrection or treason. And, he says, despite the words used by the Attorney General, the Justice Department agrees -- because it's going to ask for one of the lead ruffians to get about a 3-year or so sentence for pleading guilty. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, points out that if someone really tries to overthrow the government, their term behind bars ought not to be shorter than the President's term in the White House.

I appreciated the analysis because it helped me put some of my own ideas in a proper framework. The thought that the riots qualified as an "insurrection" is ludicrous. They were a big problem, caused partly by inadequate preparation on the part of law enforcement and partly by then-President Trump hemming and hawing about telling the same people he had just stirred up to simmer down and go home. But an insurrection? How? Although one particular bit of government business -- the certification and recording of the electoral votes from the November 2020 election -- was delayed, it was not blocked and no other government function was impeded. Some Capitol Police where assaulted and a female protestor was shot and killed -- these are awful things, but they are not an insurrection against the United States.

It's reported as overheard in more than one news story, but not verified, that one of the protestors who reached the U.S. Senate chamber said something like, "Well, we're here. Might as well form a government." I'd say that's usually the kind of thing loony enough it causes roofs to cave in, but it's not like that room hasn't heard worse before.

There was literally zero chance that the people in the Senate and House chambers and those roaming the rest of the Capitol could "form" any government that would be accepted by existing governmental officials, bureacrats, elected officeholders, law enforcement personnel, military service folks, and so on. If that statement was really uttered aloud, did the speaker really think that Chuck Schumer would have said, "Well, we'd like to go back inside and sit in our comfy chairs and argue with each other, but there's a guy with buffalo horns on his head who took mine and some dude waving a flag with Trump on Mount Rushmore took McConnell's."

In the immediate aftermath my desire was to have this event investigated, proper and appropriate charges filed, remedial steps taken to prevent a repeat and then to have everyone shut up. Not because I'd like it swept under the rug but because between a Justice Department that shouts, "Treason!" but sentences, "Trespassing" and supporters of the former president who say, "They were just taking selfies and got a little excited," there's not anybody saying anything worth listening to anyway.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Clarity

A pop-culture website that I often read had an item in which the writer worried that the trailer to the upcoming Halloween Kills reveals too much about the movie. Which is a sequel to 2018's sequel to the original 1978 movie that doesn't take into account any of the subsequent sequels and also ignores the rebooted version from "musician" "filmmaker" Rob Zombie and its sequel.

Anyway, the writer thinks the trailer shows too many of the kills by lead psychopath Michael Myers, whose brutal string of slayings is what passes for a plot in all of these movies -- except, of course, for Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which involved cursed Halloween masks.

Halloween (2018) retconned all movies subsequent to the original out of existence, including the original sequel and both alternate timelines that came from it. It "ended" with the unstoppable killer Myers burning in Laurie Strode's (Jamie Lee Curtis) basement. But of course someone who's almost as dumb as the people making these movies unwittingly helps Michael escape to continue killing, and as mentioned above the article worries that too many kills are given away, ruining the movie. When the only appeal of your movie is the supposed inventiveness with which the villain snuffs out human life, you can be certain that you have made a movie that, if karma is real, you will one day be required to answer for.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Browsing

Some unexpected open time this afternoon gave me the chance to follow links around the internet and uncover some new sites worth a look. One was the new site operated by the recently retired Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass. Kass took the buyout offered by the paper's new ownership but decided to begin his own with various kinds of contributions. I appreciated it enough to add it to the links list. As I mentioned in a discussion, Kass struck me as one of the last remaining "local big city columnists," which means a good deal of his writing is probably going to keep centering on Chicago. But that has some nostalgia value for me, and it'll be worth checking out now and again to see what he's turned his eye towards.

Another site is the forum and web community Less Wrong, which aims to promote rationalism in thinking, discussion, society and policy decisions. I toyed with adding it or even joining, but I'll press pause for now. Many of the posts looked interesting and I'm sure I'll read a few, but the overall tone of the community -- especially in Ye Olde Comments Section -- seemed about as arch and pleased with itself as anything on Daily Kos or one of the Breitbart sites.

I'll need some more convincing on the site, but the idea is a pretty good one. As far as one can manage, if I wake up tomorrow and act, think or judge less wrongly than I did today, then I have improved my life and, I hope, the lives of those around me. The "about" page gives the idea behind the title as drawn from a short poem by Danish scientist Piet Hein:

The road to wisdom?
-- Well, it's plain
and simple to express:
Err
and err
and err again
but less
and less
and less.

Hein gave this genre of short aphorism the name "Gruk," (pronounced "grook"). That brand could maybe stand some reworking.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Be Vewy Vewy Quiet...

Despite the clear signs of intelligence displayed by many animals that indicate they are not nearly as far away from humans on the cognitive scale than some folks have liked to think, I still believe that there are aspects of intelligent life that we hairless primates possess that other critters do not.


 

As this gray whale demonstrates, comedic timing appears to be one of the ones that's shared. The mother whale popped up behind this group of watchers while their attention was fixed on her baby. Had she decided to go full funny and tapped the guy in the back and asked, "What are you guys looking at?" she could not have done better. Of course, at 40 tons with a flipper 6 to 10 feet long, "tapping" might involve sinking the boat.

The story at Neatorama points out that the behavior, called "spy-hopping," is not that uncommon and happens when the whale spots something it wants to look at more closely.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Always Fitting

The beginning of summer is also, of course, the day with the most sunlight of any during the year. Even though this year it's on Monday, it seems like this song sums it up best.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Scramblings

-- According to this item at CBR, the creators of Amazon's version of Garth Ennis's sorry blood-and-sex superhero deconstruction The Boys are being bothered by all of the people asking them when Season 3 of the show will debut. I'll take a Gen-X neener-neener moment to point out that we always knew when the new seasons of TV shows started: In the fall. But my real note is how the showrunners responded, by telling fans that every time someone asks when Season 3 starts they push the start back one day. I unsure of my next step: To happily pay no attention to the show and continue not asking when it starts, or take the tweet seriously and ask at least once a day from now until I die.

-- In a not "Okay fine" development, actor Frank Bonner passed on Wednesday at the age of 79. Bonner was best known as the hapless ad salesman for the mythical Cincinnati radio station WKRP on the television show of that name and he would frequently respond to situations well and foul with the aforementioned two-word statement. His signature feature was his endless wardrobe of the loudest suits and ties the 1970s could offer, and he assisted Arthur Carlson's "Turkey Drop" from the helicopter, shoving turkeys into the air even though they could not fly.

-- Cultural studies have a hard time drawing the lines between the so-called generations that they study. The basic names and major characteristics are clearly known: The Greatest Generation saved the world from Hitler and Tojo, but then brought their average waaaay down by creating the Baby Boomers. Millennials are much maligned as snowflakes unable to handle reality, when in truth that's a better description of Gen Z. And Gen-X, mentioned above, would be happy to be left out of all this anyway. But when did these generations start and end? While it's easy to set the arrival of the Boomers as beginning about nine months or so after V-E Day in 1945, when did they finish? Some writers use a 20-year frame, ending the Boomers at 1960 and beginning the X'ers at 1961. Some keep the duration but extend it to a more logical finish date and begin X'ers in 1965. Since that last one sorts your humble correspondent with the Boomers he rejects it utterly, buries it upside down and salts the earth over its cursed coffin. Others use a number of shared cultural experiences and also consider the generation of the parents having the children, but that involves work and generational theorists hate work when stereotyping shorthand will do.

Blogger Brian Noggle has come up with a much simpler and, I think, potentially more useful metric: Which actor do people picture when they hear the name "Spider-Man?" Boomers and some older X'ers will remember television's Nicholas Hammond (and some Adam West-quality wall-climbing sequences). The main group of X'ers is likely to recall Tobey McGuire (and Kirsten Dunst looking particularly lovely). Millennials and Gen Z will probably think of Tom Holland (and their Gen-X dads will gaze fondly upon Marisa Tomei as a whole new kind of Aunt May). Noggle suggests, and I concur, that if the name "Spider-Man" brings to your mind Andrew Garfield you may very well be one of Vlad Putin's sleeper agents, awaiting your chance to destroy America from within while cackling maniacally over the ruins of our weak Western civilization. I may have dressed that last sentence up a little bit.

I think he's on to something, though, and recommend he submit it to a university cultural studies department forthwith.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Long View

The interesting thing to me about this Physics World story is not how an experiment might have found some clues to how much a muon wobbles (Friar answer: Depends on the vodka), or about the problems observational bias can cause when evaluating an experiment.

 It's that this hunt has been going for about 60 years and still isn't quite where it wants to wind up. That's some determination.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A Quiet Man, Tom Wood

Author Tom Wood is wrestling with the difficulties of making an amoral anti-hero the protagonist of a book series. On the one hand, he can't allow too much character development unless he's ready to wind up the series and start on something new. When the series has been successful, as has his "Victor the Assassin" novels, the publishing industry is not always happy with that unproven new ground.


But on the flip side, he has to have some movement for his lead, or else every story turns into another couple hundred pages of Victor running surveillance detection routes, demonstrating the kind of paranoia you'd probably need if you were an international assassin and killing a half-dozen or more people either between him and his target or between him and his getaway. The average reader can't really connect with an anti-hero protagonist who remains amoral throughout a series. Donald Westlake wrote 16 Parker novels as Richard Stark up through 1974, with his pseudonym outselling his actual name. But then he hit a spell when he had little to say with the character and the next new Parker novel didn't show up until 1997.

Wood has dipped a toe in Victor's "good side" before, such as in Better off Dead/ where he tries to protect an old colleague's daughter, or A Time to Die, when he employs his skills against an evil man in order to remove him from the world and not just to get paid. In both cases he's violent and lethal, though his ultimate goal is a little less tarnished than usual. But Wood always lurches back, either unable or unwilling to put any consistency into a real arc of character growth. His books aren't any less repetitive than, say, Lee Child's, but Jack Reacher can keep readers coming back because his goal, besides being left alone, is to put the bad guys down. After awhile, it's hard to root for a lead character whose goal is the death of people he doesn't know so he can get paid for it -- and who's willing to kill any random person who might lead to him being caught.

A Quiet Man does dig more into Victor's past than Wood has ever done before and makes a bold early move that helps us focus more on Victor as a person than as a killing automaton. The driving element of the narrative doesn't really relate to his current assignment -- in his cover identity he is stirred by meeting a young special-needs child and makes a promise to the boy and his mother. When they vanish he wants to find them, both to assure himself that they are OK and to fulfill his promise. His ruthless adherence to his profession's best practices cross purpose with his equally fervent drive to keep his word and, for some reason he can't understand, he chooses keeping his word despite the potentially fatal consequences.

Wood drizzles the biographical sprinkles into the story with a light touch, and solidly connects them to actions Victor subsequently takes. Victor's somewhat loftier goal doesn't lessen his own frigid lethality and almost sociopathically violent tactics.

Unfortunately we have to go the long way to get to our resolution with some sidetracks that are clearly filler. A Quiet Man isn't really more than a novella in disguise as a full novel, as Wood even deploys the old standby of starting the action in media res before flashing back a few days to tell us why everyone's where they are and what they're doing, in order to be able to repeat a sequence and lengthen the page count. A set piece with the mobsters who hired him also adds page count more than anything else.

A Quiet Man was a welcome comeback after a three-year hiatus in the series, but we'll have to wait to see if Wood solves his seesaw problem between making Victor merely bad and making him worse than bad, and to see if he has some more fully-developed stories awaiting release from his keyboard.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Off With Its Icing!

When you're the Queen of England, and you're in England and you think you'd like to cut a cake with a sword, then you get to.

The best part of the video is when someone off-camera tells Her Majesty that there's a knife she can use, she informs her, "I know there is." Go back four or five hundred years, she might have used the sword on her after she was finished with the cake.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

It's Back!

Scanning through Physics World for the occasional article that I can understand, I found my favorite exotic state of matter showing up again! Yep, good old quark-gluon plasma gets some play in a piece that talks about how, when it exists, it flows like water.

Quark-gluon plasma!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

For a Season

I have a love-hate relationship with the municipal pool next to the city fitness center where I walk on the treadmill. Now, in the summer, it's brimful of life, color and noise. Whether there are only a half-dozen kids or forty, it feels crammed end-to-end with people, mostly kids, enjoying one of summer's greatest pleasures.

It's only open about eight weeks a year, though, and so the rest of the time it's empty and flat, covered up in winter months with a gray tarp that's all the more dull when compared with the brief season of vitality. 

But it's open now, so may it bloom and bloom and bloom.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Gospel Comes With a House Key, Rosaria Butterfield

It should be no surprise that Rosaria Butterfield sees hospitality as a key component of Christian witness: Without others demonstrating it towards her, then it's possible she might not have explored and come to faith until much later in life, if at all. She outlined that journey in an earlier book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. In 2018's The Gospel Comes with a House Key,, Butterfield enlarges on the ministry and lifestyle of Christian hospitality that grew from her own early experiences.

In House Key's ten chapters, Butterfield mixes slices from her own conversion testimony with those from life as a clergy couple and family the way she and her husband decided to live it. A key element was the decision to be actively open to interacting with the lives of other people they might encounter -- families at church as well as neighbors on their street. As Butterfield describes it, other decisions about family life flowed from that one. If they were going to be ready to host people breaking bread together as believers, then they would need to set a household budget that had room for the food expenses involved. Their readiness to give freely to those in need meant that they had to be ready to alter their own lives and handle the sudden absence of, say, their second car, because they have given it to a family without one.

House Key also offers some of the results of this chosen lifestyle. Butterfield describes how support from their friends and neighbors following a break-in and robbery helped them move past the sense of violation and nagging fear the crime produced. Her family's insistence on reaching out to the strangely-acting man across the street and his live-in girlfriend didn't stop the pair from being arrested for making and dealing meth -- but it did mean that they could continue to correspond while the pair were in prison and offer them encouragement and guidance in trying to transform their lives.

The book overall has a loose, chatting-in-the-living-room quality that helps make it feel real but at the same time leaves a lot of gaps. Butterfield obviously believes there's a connection between the New Testament-outlined protocol for church discipline and the hospitality ministry she helps her family practice, but she doesn't connect it all as well as she might and leaves a lot of information on the table. The level of hospitality for which Butterfield advocates strikes a lot deeper than most Christians would consider and so it could use a little less storytelling and a little more explanation.

Perhaps Butterfield intended readers to discuss the ideas she presents in groups and hammer out a consensus understanding, instead of relaying more concrete definitions. And there is probably enough material to make that kind of discussion possible -- but it's a little too haphazardly presented to make it as likely as she might have wished or envisioned.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Omission

I don’t think that President Joe Biden is a secret socialist or a dementia-riddled puppet mouthing whatever Kamala Harris wants him to say.

But I do think that his press office and chief of staff have served him poorly by omitting any reference to the anniversary of D-Day in official communications. When people accuse you of thinking mor about your country’s faults than its successes, it’s a good idea to not hand them ammunition.

So, for reference, this is what a President says about the day the Allies started to reclaim Europe.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

The Wrecker, Clive Cussler and Jack DuBrul

The Wrecker, the late Clive Cussler's opening tale of adventure featuring early 20th-century detective Isaac Bell, has the distinction of being the last book that Cussler wrote without a co-author. Justin Scott took that role with the second book of the series and held it until 2019's The Titanic Secret, when Jack DuBrul returned to the Cussler bullpen and took over the Isaac Bell duties. DuBrul had previously worked with Cussler on "The Oregon Files" series.

By being set nearly a century earlier than his other books, the Bell series often proved to be more interesting than some of the other Cussler books, which sometimes took on a cookie-cutter quality and rehashed older bits and concepts. Scott mostly kept that interest, although he managed to lay some duds before the audience as well. DuBrul's first outing brought some of his own style to Bell and his cast of characters, as well as including a neat tie-in to Cussler's own Raise the Titanic! in his mainstay Dirk Pitt series. The Saboteurs is another strong entry and sets a high bar for the other co-authors to reach as they may continue their respective series following Cussler's death in February 2020.

Bell's Van Dorn Agency sends him to meet with a United States Senator, and almost immediately after they sit down together assassins target the official. Bell manages to save his life and eliminate the attackers, but the mystery of who sent them remains. A potential tie to terrorists trying to thwart the largely finished Panama Canal crops up and Bell takes himself to the Canal Zone to learn more. Learning more, of course, will put him squarely in the sights of the shadowy forces apparently trying to stop or at least slow down the Canal's completion. Usually able to draw on substantial Van Dorn resources, Bell is mostly alone in the Zone and nearby Panama itself and realizes he doesn't really know who he can trust.

DuBrul's authorial voice has usually tended towards the he-man butt-kicker style but without the excesses that can make the genre a self-parody. His own heroes frequently had to think their way through problems -- which matches well with the detective dimension of Bell's character. All of the answers seem to be right in front of him, but they lack coherence and DuBrul does a good job of showing how this aspect of the matter more than any other frustrates Bell in his efforts.

The early 20th-century setting puts different borders around his story than he may have been used to, but that also seems to challenge him to work harder to tighten and properly match the narrative to its world. And he can still put out a chase scene like few others -- DuBrul's Philip Mercer character once had a car chase through a gigantic automobile carrier ship as it traversed the Panama Canal, and Bell has a similarly taut race after a saboteur, through the excavations and unfinished pipelines of that same Canal as it's being built.

A later-narrative angle with Bell's wife Marion feels a little too contrived and winds up not really carrying the weight it should -- some more cooking might have made it a better fit and moved this Isaac Bell adventure across the line into five-star territory. As it stands, though, it's the best of the Bell series and a reason to cross one's reading fingers that DuBrul continues to follow along with the Van Dorn Agency's top operative.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Freedom Rules, Commies Drool

The Hong Kong Police prevented citizens from gathering at Victoria Park to commemorate the hundreds of lives lost when the ruling Chinese Communist Party cracked down on protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

So people held their vigil outside the park instead.

Can't do it with tanks, can't do it with cops...you'd think they might try just letting people do and say what they want for a change and see if it helps them suck less.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Too Good to Check?

Twitter is a sewer, but every now and again someone uses it for good and not for evil. This account is probably not really a Twitter feed from Israel's intelligence service, the Mossad, but since we're talking about the Mossad you never know.

In any event, whoever does run the feed had perhaps the best response to the recent explosion, fire and sinking of an Iranian Navy warship.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Spotting the Fibber

This article by Jessieca Siegel at Knowable Magazine highlights that most of the reasons people think they can generally spot someone telling a lie are probably not nearly as accurate as they think they are.

Some conventional wisdom holds that a calm person is clearly lying, while other holds that a person showing extra emotion is obviously not telling a true story. In fact, psychologists found only a weak relationship between two supposed "tells" -- fidgeting and a higher pitch to the voice -- and actual lying.

So work began on some more reliable techniques, some of which may have already occurred to people as just common sense. In an interrogation, for example, withheld knowledge and silence on the part of the questioner can lead to a deceptive person to keep talking in order to fill the silence. Eventually, they may say something which the questioner knows is untrue. Although my interactions with people requesting help from our church or multi-church helping group are not technically interrogations, my experience matches this. The more elaborate the story, the more likely it is to be utter horse crap. No, person trying to scam for a gas voucher, you do not have to drive to another town to get a prescription for your sister's sick kid and all you need is $5 more to fill your tank because someone's already given you $10 and your sister's car broke down just yesterday and you know, for $20 she could probably get her husband to buy the fanbelt the car needs. The only truth in what you have said is that you want a gas voucher, and everything else is a lie. Moreover, it is a stupid lie and one that would require me to be stupid to believe.

That example's an exaggeration, but I did once have someone asking for a filled tank in a 1990s-era pickup because they had to "go to North Dakota to get the kids." The person asking couldn't produce a driver's license, meaning I didn't have to ask, "Well, what are you going to do when you run out of gas in Nebraska, because that's as far as that truck is likely to get on a full tank?" and hear yet more crap.

Personally, I have found that reasonably good indicators of statements which are lies or at the very least untrue are these:

1. The statement is made by someone whose name is preceded by letters such as "Rep.," "Sen.," or "Pres."

2. The statement is made by someone whose paychecks bear the name of a branch of a federal, state, county or local government.

3. The statement is found on Twitter.

Unfortunately other supposedly universal signs, such as rapidly lengthening noses or spontaneously combusting trousers, did not even appear to occur during the studied experiments no matter how big a whopper was being laid down.


Monday, May 31, 2021

Group Identity

This article at Tablet magazine about the Americans who are among Yad Vashem's "The Righteous of the Nations" is good all the way through, but the section about Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds of the United States Army while a prisoner of war during World War II seems good to remember today: 

Roddie Edmonds’ group, the NCOs, were then shipped to Stalag IXA in Ziegenhain. There were 1,275 men in this group and Roddie Edmonds was the highest-ranking NCO among them.

It was German policy to single out Jewish POWs and send them to extermination or slave labor camps. Accordingly, in January 1945, the Germans announced that all Jewish prisoners in Stalag IXA would report the following morning. Twenty-five-year-old Master Sgt. Edmonds, who was responsible for all the POWs in Stalag IXA, ordered all prisoners, Jews and non-Jews, to fall out. When the German officer in charge, Maj. Siegmann, saw all the prisoners lined up in front of the barracks that next morning, he said to Edmonds: “They cannot all be Jews.” Edmonds responded: “We are all Jews here.”

Siegmann then pointed a pistol to Edmonds’ head, but Edmonds, refusing to back down, replied: “According to the Geneva Convention, we only have to give our name, rank, and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.” The German major turned and walked away. Edmonds had saved the lives of the roughly 200 Jewish prisoners among the 1,275 American POWs.

In Memoriam

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Clarity

As the saying goes, Armed Forces Day honors those people who currently wear our nation's uniform. Veterans' Day honors those why have worn our nation's uniform. Memorial Day honors those who will forever wear our nation's uniform.

May we remember, and emulate.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Well Whattaya Know?

"Ferromagnetic" materials make our computers operate; to vastly oversimplify, magnetic pulses flip the spins of electrons to represent the changes from one to zero in binary computer language. Electrons can have only two spins, and binary language has only zero or one.

As this article at Physics World notes, though, the magnetic pulses needed to flip the electrons take quite a bit of juice to make happen. Which means lots of wasted energy and -- in computer terms -- relative slothfulness as the electrons need tens of nanoseconds to switch. A nanosecond is a billionth of a second, which sounds quite fast compared with how long it takes us to accomplish such time-consuming tasks as blinking an eye. But for computers, which are performing thousands or even millions of such operations in order to function, the amount of time adds up.

"Antiferromagnetic" materials, on the other hand, could potentially switch much faster because they need less energy to do so. They could also be packed in more tightly because the lower energy amounts would also lower the heat of the combined elecrron switches and magnetic pulses. Researchers at MIT also found a way to add more electrons to the substances being used for the transistor manufacture, packing in more than would be found in ordinary concentrations of those elements.

The technical name for this increase in electrons is called "doping," not unlike the way some athletes will have blood drawn from their bodies, wait until their system replaces it and then on the day of competition have their own blood reintroduced. There are supposed to be performance-enhancing effects, although that's not been fully proven.

The quickening of the switch is proven, however, which leads to the article's counter-intuitive headline: "Doped antiferrromagnets switch faster." I had thought that, with the exception of Dr. Johnny Fever, doped things didn't exactly move faster. Perhaps scientists can name the new procedure in his honor.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Misunderstanding

A number of people have expressed disgust with professional wrestler and actor John Cena for his video apologizing for calling Taiwan a country -- spoken in Mandarin.

The problem is that the Chinese Communist Party doesn't recognize Taiwan as a country. It claims the island is a part of China, rather than the place folks went who didn't want to attend the Marxism party the CCP threw when it took over after World War II. Now, ordinarily American citizens don't have to care what the CCP wants. But Cena is in an upcoming movie (Fast and Furious 9) and the CCP controls whether or not that movie gets shown to China's billion-plus moviegoers. So cue apology.

Since Cena is quite muscular, some people have suggested the genuflection represents a clear case of a well-known side effect of certain performance-enhancing drugs. Cena has never publicly admitted using those drugs, though, so this must remain a matter for speculation. Others suggest that he was "encouraged" to film the apology in order to make certain he still had a movie career.

I personally hold to another idea: For most of the latter part of his pro wrestling career Cena has been what's called a face or babyface, pro wrestling lingo for a good guy character. Earlier on he was much more of a heel, or bad guy. My belief is that Cena has simply made a character turn and is now a no-good slimy heel who always shows disgust for the fans. Admittedly, the fans now include most of the people of the country, but then that's whom his shameful gesture insulted.

Boo. Hiss.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Quick Fix, Jesse Singal

Over the last 20 or 30 years, a number of interesting ideas have reared their heads and suggested that they may offer simple keys to dealing with a number of social ills. Though they may seem counterintuitive on first glance, they back up their bold claims with solid psychological research that proves the claims are true. The originators of the ideas become gurus, building impressive consulting empires that help get the ideas into workplaces, schools, public policy discussions and government or military branches. Their opinions are sought out via public speeches and presentations, sometimes even in areas outside the expertise that raised their profiles in the first place.

And then nothing changes.

Which, according to investigative journalist Jesse Singal, is more or less what we should have expected to happen if the data backing up the claims had been investigated properly. In The Quick Fix, he tells the story of some of these ideas, their initial acceptance without nearly enough questioning or critical evaluation and how others who come along later wind up doing that work in order to explain why what sounded too good to be true was. Among his targets are the rise of self-esteem educational emphasis in the 1990s, the "superpredator" scare from the same era threatening gangs of teens completely without moral codes beginning to roam the streets hunting for prey, "positive" psychology practices, implicit bias testing and some others.

In some cases, rational or common-sense ideas are simply stretched far beyond their legitimate boundaries by wishful thinking or institutional bias. The originators of "positive psychology" thought their discipline could benefit mentally healthy people by exploring ways they could stay healthy, just as physicians offer advice to their patients on maintaining their health and avoiding illness. From there they grew a discipline that promised mental health benefits, but those promises were backed by shaky and misinterpreted research. Since the ideas behind some of the program matched the institutional self-portrait of some organizations, including the United States military, those groups adopted the programs in order to help deal with the issues they faced, such as post-tramautic stress disorder. Their limitations finally became apparent when they didn't get anything like promised results.

In other cases, the human tendency to find what we want to find combined with some of the flaws of our current research culture -- the tendency to over-emphasize "new" results or to discard more nuanced findings in favor of unequivocal but less-supported ones -- and led researchers astray.

Although some of the psychological fads that Singal unmasks are ones that cut in directions he prefers, he simply follows the research data that he finds even when it works against them. Quick Fix gores oxen both left and right because the human tendency to look for simple, easy fixes to complicated problems that ask very little of us as individuals knows no political divide. His own leanings will show up when he suggests the kinds of policy fixes that he says would work, but a right-of-center person uncovering the same methodological flaws would suggest similarly complex solutions from his or her own point of view.

Singal's style in Quick Fix is straightforward but not dry and takes advantage of the occasional opportunity the subjects afford for some humor. In his closing passages on possible solutions to our love affair with fad psychology he notes the help made possible by "Bayesian analysis," which essentially says that if your data suggest a result is common but you know it isn't common in the real world where people live, it's time to re-analyze the data. He does go for the dry in sections such as that, but it's dry of the humor variety instead of style.

Non-fiction books are evaluated as much on their success at raising or answering the questions posed by their different theses as they are on style and Singal succeeds in pointing out just how easily fad psychology pervades society and muddies the waters for people seeking solutions for modern problems. A couple of the chapters seem to cover very similar ground and the book would improve by exchanging one of them for a different case study. Even so, The Quick Fix clearly succeeds in showing why our modern society's problems require solutions that can either be quick or they can fix things, but they almost certainly can't be both.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Imaginary Offspring

A photo blogger at Bored Panda decided to use an artificial intelligence program to take a stab at what the children of fictional couples might look like.

Some of them give us a guess at what actual children born in the program might look like -- Mad About You's Jamie and Paul Buchanan had a daughter, Mabel, during the run of the show. But she was just a baby, so the AI program gives a picture of what Mabel might look like as she became a preteen.

The project also works with characters from older shows, such as the 1980s comedy-drama Moonlighting. It even goes back to the 1950's classic I Love Lucy. The interesting thing there is that Ricky and Lucy do have a baby on the show and the real-life couple had two children during their marriage. Neither of them look much like their supposed brother would have looked, according to the program, but that's because in real life Lucy's red hair was not something that could be passed on via her genetic makeup.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Adaptation

Many animals in the wild have adapted to thrive in environments where humans also live. Behavior, diet and, as this panel of Bizarro shows, some have even modified their appearance to blend in with H. sapiens in their natural setting.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

A History of Enterprise

This reprint of an article from the Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute offers a look back at the U.S. Navy ships given the name Enterprise through that service branch's history. The first one was actually a captured British warship, taken in one of the actions that earned Benedict Arnold his recognition as an officer before he turned his coat.

The article was issued in anticipation of the 1961 launching of the U.S.S. Enterprise, CVN-65, the navy's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. That Enterprise was decommissioned in 2017, but the name is expected to return to the seas in 2028 with the ninth vessel of that name, U.S.S. Enterprise, CVN-80. The initial space shuttle orbital flight test vehicle was also named Enterprise. It contained no engines or heat shield, though, meaning it was not a spaceflight-capable vehicle.

Sci-fi fans around the world, of course, know that condition will not apply to some subsequent vessels of that name...

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

From the Rental Vault: Naam Shabana (2017)

When his 2015 action thriller Baby did well at the box office and with critics, director Neeraj Pandey planned sequels that showed how each member of the "Baby" spy team came to work for Indian intelligence services.

The first was 2017's Shabana, which focused on Taapsee Pannu's character Shabana Kahn. Pandey handed the director's reins to Shvam Nair, and not with the best results.

After a turbulent home life that saw her placed in reform school for killing her abusive father to protect her mother, she crops up on the agency's radar and they keep tabs for her possible recruitment. When a friend of hers is killed but the perpetrators escape justice because of their wealth, spy Ranvir Singh (Manoj Bajpayee makes her an offer: He will help her take vengeance on the killers of her friend if she will join the secret agency he represents.

Shabana's mission of vengeance completed, she begins to train with the spy agency for her first mission, targeting an arms dealer whose last escape from Indian intelligence resulted in the death of the agents that pursued him. She will attempt to get close to him and place him in a setting where he can be arrested or killed, backed up by her future Baby team members Om Prakesh Shukla (Anupam Kher) and Ajay Singh Rajput (Akshay Kumar).

Pannu makes a good action heroine, training heavily in mixed-martial arts fighting and Krav Maga for her fight scenes. She presents Shabana Khan as a young woman mostly emptied by the losses and violence she's suffered in her short life, animated by a desire for revenge and justice. Only as she begins to trust her team does she show any hints she believes something more in life than these two motives are possible. Manoj Bajpayee hits the right marks as the steely mentor who knows his new recruit must be tested to her limits in order for her to learn just how much she is capable of achieving, and Prithviraj Sukumaran is appropriately cold-blooded and nefarious as the arms-dealing villain. 

One of the story's most interesting features mostly hamstrings it -- Ranvir Singh's offer to help Shabana gain vengeance before she joins the agency is certainly a different sequence of events than thrillers often follow but it also brackets a large section of the movie as an "in-between" kind of set piece that keeps us from getting to the eventual training and mission sequence that's the point. That disconnect may have hurt Naam Shabana at the box office and put Pandey's plans for other prequels on hold. Pannu is effective as both a talented actress and a butt-kicking heroine, but Pandey's convoluted storyline and extraneous moving parts keep her on the shelf for too much of the movie, even when she's front and center on the screen.

Naam Shabana is a Bollywood movie and one of the song sequences best illustrates what Pandey and Nair may have been trying to do -- the ubiquitous training montage is set to the contemplative tune "Zinda" as a way of trying to mix together the dual impulses driving Shabana herself. Violence for vengeance and protection is no problem for her, but it still provides her no peace. The dichotomy of fighting and physical effort shown over the reflective vocals of Sunidi Chauhan makes a contrasting blend that works for the length of the song. But Nair can't make it work for the whole movie, leaving the effective acting from Pannu and her well-done punch-and-kick sequences adrift without the context they should have.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Memo

To: Harry Windsor, Duke of Sussex

Re: First Amendment review

Mr. Windsor -- In a recent interview, you offered your review of your new home's First Amendment feature. In reply, we refer you to our previous communication on this matter with your nation's earlier representative, dated 7/4/1776. We trust this will resolve the matter to mutual satisfaction.


(Signed) U.S. citizenry

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.