Wednesday, March 31, 2021


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.


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


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


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


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.