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


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


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


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


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


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

Friday, May 7, 2021

The Devil's Hand, Jack Carr

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Color Clash

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Big White Ghetto, Kevin D. Williamson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 3, 2021

Star's Trek

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

A lot less gross than some people I know.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Lies! All Lies!

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

Household tasks improve brain health. Hmmph. As if.