Thursday, April 29, 2021


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

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Pilot

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 27, 2021


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

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

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

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

It's practically two sides of the same coin.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Trouble With Gravity, Richard Panek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Aw, Man!

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

Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder explains here.

Friday, April 23, 2021


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

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Maybe Not...

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

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

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

Monday, April 19, 2021

Big Flight

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

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Win, Harlen Coben

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 17, 2021


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


Thursday, April 15, 2021


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

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

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

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 12, 2021

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

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

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

No, not really. That would be mean.

Friday, April 9, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Kick 'Em When They're Down

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

On the Shoulders of Giants

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 5, 2021

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

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

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

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