Sunday, December 16, 2012

Poor Peter Parker

When it comes to comic book super heros, I was always in the Spider-Man camp, and probably for many of the same reasons everyone else was: Peter Parker is ultimately more relatable to as a person than most other comic book characters. He is a human, not an alien; he is a working man trying to make a living and support his aunt; and he has to deal with the pressures of daily life without the help of hired workers, influential connections, or even a sympathetic public, at times. (I'm talking specifically about the Spider-Man of the comic books before any of the reboots.)

But, from time to time, I find myself asking this question: Why does he have to put up with his lot in life?

Why isn't Peter Parker rich?

He is a genius with incredible engineering acumen, in both the mechanical and chemical fields, and he has proven himself to be a problem solver with critical thinking skills. Why, then, is he working as a freelance newspaper photographer who worries about paying his rent instead of as the head of a major development firm? Or as a well-respected scientist who commands the respect of all in his field while getting tasty grants from the government and tempting offers from all kinds of corporations?

For the record, Peter Parker invented these:

Those are web shooters, and Parker invented them when he was just a teenager. This is a remarkable invention, combining a completely engineered synthetic substance with precise mechanical operations  to allow the user to SHOOT WEBS!!!  Strong, sticky webs that can be dissolved at a precisely determined time.


Why is this invention not being used for all kinds of practical applications right now? The executives at 3M would have a field day with this! Or, they would spend all kinds of resources trying to woo the person who created these astounding gadgets to come work for them. Why doesn't Peter Parker go to work for such a company -- or even try to take it over -- and become wealthy so that he doesn't have to worry about where he will get the basic necessities of life? Why doesn't he invent other things and sell the patents so that he and his loved ones can live a comfortable life while he fights crime in his spare time?

Why is he consciously making the decision live a struggling existence?

Perhaps he doesn't like big corporations. Fine. He can be that way. But he could still use his genius mind to invent other things with more humanitarian applications. And if he feels guilty about profiting from these enterprises, he can always donate his money to another philanthropic organization to help with another problem. Why does he eschew such success and damn his elderly aunt to life in a crappy apartment?

Come on, Parker. I expected more from you. And I bet Mary Jane does, too.

Coming back around to it

Well, this holiday season has been a doozie. I haven't had time to do much of anything, much less keep track of my blogs. But some things are wrapping up, and I'm hoping to have some more free time on my hands. So I'll be popping back in to put some posts down from time to time.

My next one has something to do with Spider-Man, or Peter Parker, in particular. I'm thinking about it, and I'll share my thoughts soon.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What I just finished reading

Frank Herbert

Well, I finally finished Dune. It took me a while, not because it was a long book (though it is) but rather because I've just been so durned busy I've found it hard to find any time at all for recreational reading. But when I could carve out a little time here and there I read it with gusto because it is such a great book.

But you know what? I didn't quite remember how it had ended, and when I finally got to the end I was a little disappointed. For all of the superb writing that Frank Herbert puts into this masterpiece the last couple of pages seem rather anti-climactic. There's no real denouement to the story. It just builds to the final duel with Feyd-Rautha, and then it just kinda ends. That's it. Just, the story's over. This epic space drama has been unfolding for 794 pages, and then the final confrontation takes place and ---- roll credits. No real resolution for the grand tale, no tidying up of loose ends, no release of pent up tension. Just a quick "The End", and that's it.

But I can forgive this abruptness. This is a wonderful tale, and definitely the best of Herbert's works. If you are any fan of science fiction and you haven't yet read Dune, well, get busy! You won't be sorry.

Next up: Dragon's Egg. When I can get to the book store. Alan assures me it's a good read.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Pondering an unusual absence on Dune

Well, I'm in the midst of re-reading Dune, one of my favorite books of all time. It has been a while since I last read it, so I'm finding I didn't remember it as well as I thought I did. Some of the scenes I don't remember, and some of them are playing out differently than I recall. Which makes for a very good read. I'm having a ball.

Frank Herbert was at the height of his talents while producing this work, and I appreciate the intricacies of the plot and the focus in his style. I also love the richness of the universe he has created, and the hard purpose of the characters as they struggle for existence on a barely habitable planet.

But for all of Herbert's grand concepts that he sets forth in Dune (terraforming, galactic politics, the metaphorical and literal power of language, etc.), as well as the barely workable ideas he explores (ornithopters, glow globes, still tents, and the like), I find that he left out one very important detail, one that seems as obvious as it is absent.

I'm talking about sunglasses.

They are not to be found anywhere in Dune. It seems almost a given that people on Arrakis would protect their eyes from the ruthless sun, but instead Herbert goes to great pains to show how exposed everyone's eyes are. The eyes -- and their colorations -- even become a dominant theme in the story. A prolonged existence on the planet and the resultant exposure to the all-present and all-important spice causes a physical change that results in a blue color throughout the scleras and irises of the eyes. The native Fremen have deep blue-on-blue eyes, and newcomers to the planet have traditional eye colorings that eventually become bluer with the passage of time on the planet.

Herbert exposes the characters' eyes to show how the amount of blue can be seen as an indication of status. In fact, that's often the only body part showing on the Fremen, who are covered in stillsuits, masks, and robes. The deep blue of the Fremen eyes shows that this is a people who have consumed spice in their diet for all of their lives. In contrast, the lightly tinged blue eyes of the smugglers show these people are supplementing their food with off-world fare. And the stark white scleras of Stilgar's prisoners alert him to the possibility that they may be dangerous, that they might be spies or assassins from off world.

And I would think it would be newly arrived spies and assassins that would want to cover their eyes most of all, to not stand out in a crowd. And what's the easiest way to do that? Sunglasses.

 And I can't see how anyone on Arrakis would begrudge anyone else the habit of wearing shades on such a bright planet.

But Herbert didn't see it that way, apparently. He relishes his descriptions of the eyes, and he treasures the way characters respond to each others gazes. Perhaps he did think about including eye coverings but then thought better of it to show how important it was to see the variations in colorings. Perhaps he thought true desert people don't need shades. Or perhaps the thought never even occurred to him. I'm not sure what it is, but I found it a bit jarring when I suddenly realized that all these people on this desert planet were squinting for no good reason. All they needed was a pair of shades.

Later, when I finish the book, I might give a little review. But, for now, sunglasses.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Possibly the best headline written

At least in a very long time, by an outfit that's not known for publications in supermarket check-out lines.

"Nazi-Acquired Buddha Statue Came From Space"

It sounds like a mash-up of Indiana Jones' plots, but German researchers say a heavy Buddha statue brought to Europe by the Nazis was carved from a meteorite that likely fell 10,000 years ago along the Siberia-Mongolia border.

This space Buddha, also known as "iron man" to the researchers, is of unknown age, though the best estimates date the statue to sometime between the eighth and 10th centuries. The carving depicts a man, probably a Buddhist god, perched with his legs tucked in, holding something in his left hand. On his chest is a Buddhist swastika, a symbol of luck that was later co-opted by the Nazi party of Germany.


The iron man first came to Germany after a 1938-1939 Tibet expedition by zoologist and ethnology [sic] Ernst Schäfer, who was sent to the region by the Nazi party to find the roots of Aryan origin. The statue then passed into the hands of a private owner.
Stuttgart University researcher Elmar Bucher and his colleagues first analyzed the statue in 2007, when the owner allowed them to take five miniscule samples of it. In 2009, the team had the opportunity to take larger samples from the inside of the statue, which is less prone to contamination by weathering or human handling than the outside where the initial samples were taken.

They found that the statue is carved from a rare class of space rocks known as ataxite meteorites.

Very strange and cool. And I like how the headline sounds overblown but isn't at all. This is meteorite material we're talking about, after all. Who wouldn't want a chunk of it?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Self-portrait morning

Escher has nothing on a Japanese astronaut.

(NASA/JAXA image. Hat tip: NBC News Photoblog. Original caption: "Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide's self-portrait, taken during a Sept. 5 spacewalk, shows the International Space Station and Earth mirrored in his helmet visor.")

Saturday, August 25, 2012

R.I.P. Neil Armstrong

One of the bravest men ever to walk this planet has died.
 Neil Armstrong was a quiet self-described nerdy engineer who became a global hero when as a steely-nerved pilot he made "one giant leap for mankind" with a small step on to the moon. The modest man who had people on Earth entranced and awed from almost a quarter million miles away has died. He was 82.
Now, go take on the universe.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Screwing up art

Think you've got what it takes to be an artist? Perhaps you should practice your craft for a while, first.

At least before you start trying to restore old works of art. On your own.

Without permission.

The three photos above tell the tale. The image on the left is the original work, a century-old oil painting of Christ called "Ecce Homo (Behold the Man)" that was painted on a column inside a church near Zaragoza, Spain, by artist Elias Garcia Martinez.

Over the years, the work began to deteriorate, as shown in the second image. According to the Centre de Estudios Borjanos, the unnamed amateur artist (without permission from the church, needless to say) thought she could improve the work and set to work with paints and brushes. The third picture is the result.

The BBC reports that the woman realized her mistake and contacted Juan Maria Ojeda, a city council member in charge of cultural affairs for the area. "I think she had good intentions," Ojeda told the BBC.
(from Entertainment on Today)

E. Gad.

Good intentions. Pavement. And all of that.

(Keep your paintbrushes at home.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

"If George Lucas Directed NBC's Olympic Coverage"

Pure gold.


If only Lucas could be this cool again.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

What I just finished reading

The Ringworld Engineers
Larry Niven

This is the second book in the Ringworld series, The Ringworld Engineers. Last month I re-read the original Ringworld after many years, and I did a post about it after reading it. In that post I noted that I liked the book more on the second reading because I already knew the complicated storyline and could focus more on enjoying the storytelling itself. And the same is true for The Ringworld Engineers: I enjoy it much more this time.

In this book, Louis Wu and Speaker-to-Animals (now named Chmeee) are kidnapped by the deposed leader of the Pierson's Puppeteers. This leader is known as The Hindmost, and he is determined to regain his title and position by recovering a fabulous machine from the Ringworld and bringing it back to his society. The Hindmost knows all about the adventures Louis and Chmeee had on the Ringworld because he is the mate to Nessus, the puppeteer who accompanied them on their previous journey. So he kidnaps Louis and Chmeee and forces them to go with him to the Ringworld and find his treasure.

They ultimately fail, but you can hardly blame them. For one, it seems that the incredible machine the Hindmost seeks is a fiction, after all. For two, the Ringworld itself is in danger of crashing into the sun. For three, they are trapped on the Ringworld.

Need I say that adventures ensue?

Some time back, while reading Asimov's Foundation again, I mentioned that I like to cast the characters in a work of fiction that I read. It gives me something to focus on as I read the dialogue and actions. While reading Ringworld I didn't worry too much about casting the characters because most of them were alien. The Puppeteer, the kzin, the various hominids on the Ringworld -- I didn't have too many human actors I could put in their roles. Even the character of Louis Wu is presented as incredibly old but not looking too old because of boosterspice, and though he is of Asian descent he is described as having lost any hint of Asian features due to many, many generations of interbreeding. So his appearance was difficult to visualize.

But for The Ringworld Engineers, I thought I would at least try. So, since Louis Wu is supposed to look youngish despite his 200-plus years, I decided to cast Grant Imahara in his role. I know Imahara is not really an actor, but it worked for me, and it livened up Louis's dialogue perfectly.

Chmeee is still a kzin, so I could imagine nothing more than a great big angry orange cat. And the Hindmost is a puppeteer. Good luck with visualizing that.

The other humanish characters I had a better time with. Since I had already used one person from MythBusters in my cast, I went ahead and cast Kari Byron as Valavirgillin. And then I went local and pictured Natalie Tejeda as Harkabeeparolyn. The boy Kawaresksenjajok I couldn't put a finger on, and I couldn't help visualizing a kid I knew in middle school and high school. (It would be pointless to share his name with you; you wouldn't be able to picture him anyway.) The other characters flit in and out of the story, and they are not there long enough to bother with casting, so I just pictured them in general, "that guy" kind of visualizations.

Next up, eventually, I plan to re-read The Ringworld Throne. But not just yet. I might re-read something else instead, just to do something different. Maybe Dune.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Beginning a new rover era

Absolute bad-ass.


Not just the image, but also knowing how that thing got down to the surface of Mars. I tried to stay up to watch the landing live (well, really, to watch the NASA and JPL guys live; there was a bit of a fourteen minute delay on the landing), but I just couldn't hang. I fell asleep at around 11:30 p.m., and when I woke up, the Curiosity rover had already made it. Heat shield, brake parachute, rocket platform, sky crane ---- all worked perfectly.

And now, there's a mountain to check out.

Happy exploring, rover. And good job, rocket scientists.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A name I noticed on someone's name tag


There it was, right there on his name tag. That guy I saw working the register at the gas station is named, apparently, Guru.

I know that name tags can be ordered with just about any name (or close approximation). All you need is a boss whose willing to play along with the joke and absorb the cost of one name tag. But wouldn't it be cool if that wasn't a joke, if he really is a "Guru"? If he really is the guru of the gas station?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

One thing I hate

The Wilhelm scream.

It's no longer clever. It's annoying. It sticks out like a massive, swollen thumb. And it makes an otherwise good movie slightly less good, in my book.

I wish I would never hear it in another movie again.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

My toolbox knife

Just over a week ago, Alan at Blognomicon found a Buck Juno knife while going about his daily rounds. I mentioned at the time that that knife would make a pretty good toolbox knife if he could clean it up a bit. Clean it up, he did, and now he says it could be an everyday carry knife.

While doing some chores today, I ended up using my toolbox knife. Remembering Alan's Buck Juno, I got to wondering where I got the knife that I keep in my toolbox. And, after thinking nice and hard for a little while, I just couldn't remember.

Here it is:

It's a Rigid RG49, and it's a brand of knife that I've never heard of. I did a search on the internet and found only one mention of this knife anywhere! And it was some guy trying to sell the one he had.

Holy cow! I think I found this thing, and I use it in my toolbox, but apparently it's so rare that there is only one other guy out there that owns one and is willing to talk about it. (I'm sure there are more mentions of this knife, somewhere. I simply didn't find them.) I don't think the knife is actually worth much, but it doesn't seem to be too common.

It's a pretty good knife, though. I don't care much for the fully-serrated blade, but it's a solid knife with no play in the blade and a smooth open. I've been using it for many years and have been happy with its performance.

I just hope it's not a collector's item. Because I sure haven't been treating it like I was a collector.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What I just finished reading

Larry Niven

I first read this book several years ago, and though I found it very enjoyable at the time it was a little difficult to get my head wrapped around it at first. The story is loaded with fantastical aliens, technological wonders, and gargantuan concepts, and Larry Niven's writing style is full of subtlety. (Just when you've unraveled an elaborate description of an alien form and gotten a mental image of what it's supposed to look like, you've already read over a character's head nod or grunting comprehension of something that happened a few pages back. And many times, just to make sure you know what's going on, you have to back up and re-read a paragraph or ten.)

I did a lot of re-reading the first time around.

This time, though, I already knew the story line, and I was already familiar with the characters and their quirks, so I could relax and enjoy the story itself.

And it's a great read. Niven's subtleties are wonderful once you know what's happening, and I was able to grasp much more without having to go back over what I had already read.

If you've never heard of this book -- or never read it -- here's a brief synopsis:

It's many years in the future, and humanity has made contact and established relationships with several sentient and sapient species. Louis Wu is a man of advanced age (still healthy because of boosterspice) who grows bored with the world and travels space from time to time. He's approached by an alien of odd appearance from a species called the Pierson's Puppeteers. These beings are highly advanced, but they value cowardice above all other traits. Louis is convinced by this Puppeteer (named Nessus) to embark upon an exploration trip with a young human woman and an alien named Speaker to Animals, a member of a savage, warlike species called the Kzin (picture Klingons as giant, humanoid cats).

Louis, the woman (named Teela Brown), Nessus, and Speaker travel to explore the Ringworld, a massive structure discovered by the Puppeteers. It is an artificial world encircling a star at about the distance of a planet's orbit. It rotates around the sun, providing artificial gravity to anything on its surface.

It's huge. Very, very huge.

In the course of their exploration, the team's ship suffers a failure and crash-lands on the surface of the Ringworld, damaged so badly they cannot take off again.

Adventures ensue.

This is the first in a series of four books, and I've read them all. It's a very good story cycle, though a bit bizarre at times with subtle humor and understated terror. I plan on reading the next book, The Ringworld Engineers, very soon now. If and when I do, I will let you know my impression of that one the second time around.

Now that I know what's going on.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


I'm back!

OK, I never really went anywhere, I just got busy. But the busy-ness has seemed to abated somewhat, and I think I can get back to doing a little hanging out here and there on the internet again.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Things are still pretty busy for me. Hopefully I will start catching up around mid-July, and I hope to get back to regular blogging at that time. Until then, I will still catch up on my regular blog reads.

I'm still around. I just don't have much extra time.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Taking on space -- privately

I've been busy lately, but I certainly haven't missed out on following this story, which is probably the most significant advancement in space exploration since the moon landings.
The SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean Thursday at 11:42am ET in a momentous end to the California company's test mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

"Splashdown successful!! Sending fast boat to Dragon lat/long provided by P3 tracking planes," wrote SpaceX founder Elon Musk on Twitter.


Dragon will be shipped to the Port of Los Angeles and will then go to SpaceX's McGregor, Texas, facility, about 100 miles (160km) south of Dallas, where its 1,000 pounds (450kg) of cargo will be processed and handed over to NASA.

“This is a really huge step in restoring the supply line to the space station that we lost,” former astronaut Tom Jones told Fox News.

“More important, it restores a return link,” he added, notably for scientific samples returning from space but also for the day to day gear and waste that is created by the astronauts working aboard the orbiting station.
(from Fox News)

And, more importantly, it was a private venture. We need more of these, and I hope the success of the Dragon capsule speeds things up significantly.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Korean War Memorial
San Antonio, Texas

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Staying busy

Sorry about the long gaps between posts. Demands of life, and all that. Things should settle down soon.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Slapping the musicians

Here's another tale of unintended consequences that could alter the face of the music industry.
Why seize guitars? Because many of those instruments are made from exotic woods that were outlawed by a 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act, an amendment Alexander himself wrote.

In 2008, [Senator Lamar] Alexander and fellow Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Wash., moved to protect the American forest products industry by adding wood to the century-old Lacey Act – which was passed to protect endangered birds, whose feathers were prized for ladies’ hats.

American timber companies were being unfairly undercut by foreign sources of wood, many of which were illegally logged. Environmental groups also supported the amendment for curbing illegal logging in rainforests by imposing criminal penalties for trading in endangered species of wood.

It was that same amendment that led federal agents to raid the factories of Gibson Guitars in 2009 and again in 2011 – raids in which substantial quantities of musical instrument-grade wood were seized. It also ignited a firestorm of fear among musicians that the feds could come gunning for their instruments, unless they had extensive documentation on when the guitar was made and where the wood was from.

After pointed questions from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and other lawmakers, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter assuring musicians that they would not be targeted for “unknowingly” possessing instruments that were manufactured from illegal wood.
[emphasis added]
(from Fox News)

A letter. How nice.

If you are a musician, would you trust them? Senator Alexander says he wants to "fix" the amended Lacey Act to ensure that musicians or instrument makers are not affected, but that seems to be too little, too late, and not nearly reassuring enough after Gibson has already been RAIDED BY THE GOVERNMENT!


That's mind-boggling.

If you are a serious musician, then you probably already know about this issue. If you are any kind of musician at all and haven't heard about the amended Lacey Act, then you should learn what you can. It might actually affect you in the long run.

For what it's worth, the instruments I have are cheap enough that I'm confident they don't contain any of the banned wood.

Confident. But not 100 percent sure.

Monday, May 07, 2012

"CIA thwarts Al Qaeda underwear bomb plot "

This is certainly good news.
The CIA has unraveled a terror plot by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using an underwear bomb around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Usama bin Laden.

The plot involved an upgrade of the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009. This new bomb was also designed to be used in a passenger's underwear, but this time Al Qaeda developed a more refined detonation system, U.S. officials told the Associated Press.
(from Fox News)

I've never been a big fan of the CIA, but they do seem to have been doing some damn good work recently. I'll give kudos where kudos are due, and they are definitely due for the spooks here.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Listening to kingly music

Last week, Alan at Blogonomicon said, "Everyone should have some music for English kings and queens in their collection, shouldn't they?" And I popped into the comments section to say, "I do. Here's the stuff I have."

Music for Kings and Courtiers
The Camerata of London, recorded 1978
Saga Classics, issued under license to Emergo Classics B.V. Netherlands 1994

But I think that comment needs some more explanation, a little bit more reason as to why I have that CD in my music collection. So please allow me some space to give that explanation.

I bought that CD through a catalog many years ago as research for a paper in college. I was writing about the influence of music on the literary works of John Milton, and I had discovered that Milton was close friends with an English musician and composer by the name of Henry Lawes (1595-1662). Well, that seemed to fit well with my theme, and I was compelled to obtain some kind of recording of Lawes's music so that I could get a feel for what Milton actually listened to while he was alive and writing about musical ideals. So, I began a search for such a recording.

Searching was different back then. The internet was still in its infancy, and there was no iTunes or Amazon to offer instant musical gratification, so I had to turn to actual paper catalogs published by music and record companies to track down something containing Lawes's music.

And I actually found something. Music for Kings and Courtiers, an English recording distributed on a Dutch label. The compositions are from English and Italian composers of the early 17th Century, and they would have actually been written and performed for members of the royalty like kings and courtiers. The songs feature female vocals, harpsichords, viols, violins, lutes, guitars, and other period instruments. And, even more satisfying to me at the time, the CD had three compositions by Henry Lawes.

Here's one of them:


"Man's life is but vain"
Henry Lawes

Yes, Lawes is talking about "angling" there. Fishing. For even four centuries ago an English composer realized that a bad day fishing is still better than a good day at work.

I actually used that piece as an example for the class presentation I did in support of my Milton paper. Overall, I remember that the presentation went well, and I'm pretty sure I scored well on the paper, too.

But, what was I to do with that CD after the semester was over and I moved on from Milton? Listen to it, I suppose, and see what music was like for baroque royalty. And you know what? Most of that music is pretty good.

I'm a bit of a harpsichord fan, so naturally I liked this piece right away:

"The King's Hunt"
Henry Bull

And this one, too:

"Tocatta ottava"
Girolamo Frescobaldi

And then, since I used to play guitar, I took a shine to this old Italian piece:

"Almand real"

Here's a cool one featuring a baroque violin:

"A division"

And rounding out my samples, here's a piece from a masque, a musical, literary, and theatrical form that was once popular in England but is now almost completely lost to us.

"The Satyrs Masque"
Robert Johnson

Not many masques exist for us to experience, but it is known that John Milton himself wrote one (with music by none other than Henry Lawes), and the form flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries. The sample above is in fact an anti-masque, a subdivision of the main masque that was notable for being, in the words from the CD's liner notes:
... devised as a contrast to the graceful, courtly and dignified main masque: Ben Johnson described it as 'a spectacle of strangeness', and Sir Francis Bacon elaborated on the theme saying 'let antimasques not be long... but chiefly, let the Musicke be Recreative, and with some strange Changes.'

Strange musical changes indeed. But refreshing, too. And still fun to listen to some 400 years later.

In all, Alan's post gave me a great excuse to dig that old CD up and to enjoy it a little more. I thank him for it, and I hope he finds a few kingly songs on his own to please his ears.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 142, Tiberius

Once, as a funeral procession was passing, a humorist hailed the corpse and asked him to tell Augustus' ghost that his bequests to the commons had not yet been duly paid. Tiberius ordered the man to be arrested and brought before him. 'I will give you your due at once,' he said, and ordered his execution with: 'Why not go to my father yourself and tell him the truth about those legacies?'

Testy man, that Tiberius. It's a good thing his reputation didn't suffer for it.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Spirals on Mars

I'm not one to credit extra-terrestrials for anything unusual here on Earth or out in space.

But this is pretty darned weird.

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

But really, there's nothing that unusual here. Mars is known to have had a hot, volcanic past, and the spirals you see here actually have their parallel here on Earth
"This is the first time lava coils have been identified on an extraterrestrial setting," study lead author Andrew Ryan at Arizona State University told "The most surprising thing about these features when I first saw them was how well-preserved they are."

Ryan spotted all these coils, ranging from 16 to 98 feet wide (5 to 30 meters), by eye.

"You can't see them unless you zoom in really close, and even then they're really subtle — it's pretty dusty there, so the images are just a pale gray color, and they don't really jump out until you boost the contrast, so it's not surprising at all to me that they've been overlooked before," Ryan said.

Still pretty weird-looking, though.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Thinking about the "rules" of English

I like I like it because it's a funny website, and it has flashes of brilliance that make me want to always read more. And (because I love the English language so much) it's especially entertaining and gratifying to find in the article titled "7 Commonly Corrected Grammar Errors (That Aren't Mistakes)" this bit of observation ...
What we've done here is gotten right down into the trenches of a war between prescriptivist grammarians and descriptivist grammarians -- a conflict which, no matter how boring you think it sounds, is actually 10 times more boring than that. Just to give you a tiny glimpse of that boredom, I'll briefly describe both sides, probably unfairly:

Prescriptivists document the rules of grammar, and sometimes, when no one's looking, make them up entirely. They also feel the need to enforce the rules of grammar, and in particular advocate that these rules and definitions shouldn't change. They argue this for a variety of reasons, but those usually boil down to "Otherwise, civilization will evaporate into an orgy of orgy-themed game shows and fad diets that consist entirely of eating each other's flesh."

Descriptivists also document the rules of grammar, but don't particularly care when they're violated, because
fuck rules, man. And if the rules ever do change, descriptivists simply shrug and write down the new ones. They point out that civilization has never collapsed during any of the previous changes to English grammar, and indeed has even managed to excel -- giving us advances like polio vaccines, color television and sexting.

... illustrated by this:

 Chris Bucholz nails the definitions and differences between prescriptivists and descriptivists in that passage, and he rightly points out that it's largely a pointless conflict that only grammarians really care about. And he does so with generic model photos and his interpretation of cartoon background noise.

What's not to love?

Monday, April 23, 2012

North Korean saber-rattling

Let's hope that's all this is. A bit of tough talk.
Earlier this month, North Korea was unsuccessful in a long-range missile launch, prompting worries that North Korea may conduct another nuclear test. South Korean officials say new satellite images show that North Korea has been digging a tunnel in what appears to be preparation for a third atomic test.

According to the Associated Press, the statement from North Korea was unusual in promising something soon and in describing a specific period of time.

The North Korean military threatened to "reduce all the rat-like groups and the bases for provocations to ashes in three or four minutes, (or) in much shorter time, by unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style."
(from The Envoy on Yahoo)

Let's hope it's not what it actually seems to be: The new guy wanting to prove he's not an ineffectual shadow of his predecessor.

The North makes me nervous.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 151, Tiberius

The first news of his death caused such joy at Rome that people ran about yelling: 'To the Tiber with Tiberius!' and others offered prayers to Mother Earth and the Infernal Gods to give him no home below except among the damned. There were also loud threats to drag his body off with a hook and fling it on the Stairs of Mourning; ... .

Nope. Nobody liked Tiberius much at all in his later years. Can you tell?

Yar! To the stairs with yer scurvy hide!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Iapetus's ridge explained


Have you ever seen Iapetus? It's a strange moon owned by Saturn. It's got a pale side and a dark side. It's got a strange orbit. And it's got an incredibly bizarre equatorial ridge, its most distinctive feature.

That's right. That moon has a mountain range that reaches over twelve miles high that runs in a straight line right along the equator! Almost all the way around the moon!

The Cassini spacecraft (such a cool, useful little ship) discovered that ridge in 2004, and it has puzzled astronomers since. How could such a feature -- unique in our solar system -- have formed on such a small moon? What forces came into play to form that ridge?

Well, now they think they're on to an explanation.

It might have been a sub-moon.
The giant ridge around the middle of Saturn moon's Iapetus that makes it resemble an oversize walnut may have essentially formed as a "hug" from a dead moon, researchers say.


Scientists had been at a loss to explain how this mountain range might have formed. Of all the planets and moons in our solar system, apparently only Iapetus has this kind of ridge — any process that researchers previously suggested to explain its formation should also have led to similar features on other bodies.

Now investigators suggest this ridge could be the remains of a dead moon. Their model proposes that a giant impact blasted chunks of debris off Iapetus at the tail end of the planetary growth period more than 4.5 billion years ago. This rubble could have coalesced around Iapetus, making it a "sub-satellite," a moon of a moon.

Under this scenario, the gravitational pull Iapetus exerted on this sub-satellite eventually tore it back into pieces, forming an orbiting ring of debris around the moon. Matter from this debris ring then rained down, building the ridge Iapetus now sports along its equator fairly quickly, "probably on a scale of centuries," [planetary scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago Andrew] Dombard said.

Did I mention that Cassini was absolutely cool?

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 263, Otho

Otho is said to have been haunted that night by Galba's ghost in a terrible nightmare; the servants who ran in when he screamed for help found him lying on the bedroom floor. After this he did everything in his power to placate the ghost; but next day, while he was taking the auspices, a hurricane sprang up and caused him a bad tumble -- which made him mutter repeatedly: 'Playing the long pipes is hardly my trade.' (Proverbial of undertaking an enterprise beyond one's capacity.)

I thought of doing an image search for "playing the long pipes", but I thought better of it. Here's a picture of a different kind of pipes instead:

And here's another kind of Otho:

Monday, April 02, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 146, Tiberius

Much evidence is extant, not only of the hatred that Tiberius earned but of the state of terror in which he himself lived, and the insults heaped upon him. He forbade anyone to consult with soothsayers, except openly and with witnesses present ... .

Because nothing brings out the truthfulness of fortunetelling quite like an attentive audience.

I'm watching you.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Nebula Photo Looks Like a Giant Human Head"

Well, that's a bit of a stretch.


A spectacular photo from a NASA telescope has revealed a wispy blue nebula with an odd twist: It looks like a giant human head in deep space.

The head-in-space nebula photo was snapped by NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer satellite and shows an ultraviolet view of the so-called Cygnus Loop nebula, which is located 1,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. It was released March 22 and featured this week on NASA's website.

What makes the new Cygnus Loop image striking is its odd shape. The nebula looks like a giant human head and neck, which appear in profile facing the left of the image. A bright star serves as an eye while wispy nebula gas traces the outline of jaw, and close-cropped hair.

That's an awesome image, and it's certainly worth reading about. But I just don't see it.


Guess the pareidolia ain't working for me today.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 174, Caligula

[Gaius (Caligula)] never missed a chance of securing loot: setting aside a suite of Palace rooms, he decorated them worthily, opened a brothel, stocked it with married women and free-born boys, and then sent his pages around the squares and public halls, inviting all men, of whatever age, to come and enjoy themselves. Those who appeared were lent money at interest, and clerks openly wrote down their names under the heading 'Contributors to the Imperial Revenue'.

I was going to do an image search for "Roman prostitute", but I thought better of it. Here's an Italian dog instead:

And, of course, he's a puppy.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 28, Julius Caesar

As [Julius Caesar] stood, in two minds, an apparition of superhuman size and beauty was seen sitting on the river bank playing a reed pipe. A party of shepherds gathered around to listen and, when some of Caesar's men, including some of the trumpeters, broke ranks to do the same, the apparition snatched a trumpet from one of them, ran down to the river, blew a thunderous blast, and crossed over. Caesar exclaimed: 'Let us accept this as a sign from the Gods, and follow where they beckon, in vengeance on our double-dealing enemies. The die is cast.'

This, of course, is the famous crossing of the River Rubicon, the historical border of Rome beyond which generals could not take their standing armies on pain of death. By crossing this boundary with his soldiers, Julius Caesar was committing an act of treason that was fully punishable by Roman law, and the only way to escape execution was for Caesar to depose the current government and seize control for himself. It was, quite literally, a point of no return.

Famously, Caesar did cross the Rubicon (apparently at the urging of an impetuous, musical ghost). He won Rome, set up an empire, proclaimed himself perpetual dictator, and became a force that would shape the development of Western civilization. And, in the process, he also coined a succinct and useful phrase that thrives even today.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The future is now

And the Death Star is one step closer to reality.
The National Ignition Facility (NIF) -- a laser test facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. -- turned on its 192 laser beams for a brief instant on March 15, unleashing a record-setting 1.875-megajoule blast into a target chamber.

The lasers were combined, gathered and focused through a series of lens into a 2.03-megajoule shot, said Ed Moses, NIF director -- a record for the facility.

That pulse of energy lasted for just 23 billionths of a second, yet it generated 411 trillion watts of power, NIF said -- 1,000 times more than the entire United States consumes at any given instant.
(from Fox News)

Seriously, though, there is a practical application for this.
In fission, atoms are split and the massive energy released is captured. The NIF aims for fusion, the ongoing energy process in the sun and other stars where hydrogen and helium nuclei are continually fusing and releasing enormous amounts of energy. In the ignition facility, beams of light converge on pellets of hydrogen isotopes to create a similar, though controlled, micro-explosion.


Because the laser is on for the merest fraction of a second, it costs little to operate -- between $5 and $20 per blast, said spokeswoman Lynda Seaver. But the potential is enormous.

NIF’s managers hope by the end of the year to reach a break-even point, where the energy released is equal to if not greater than the energy that went into the blast.
It's a tricky, dicey endeavor, what they're doing with those lasers, and I'm not sure if it violates the basic principles of physics or not. But the payoffs could be huge, especially in the power-generation industry. And isn't that what science ultimately is for?

Monday, March 19, 2012

"Feuding cartels declare truce during Papal visit to central Mexico"

Well, how very nice of them.
Due to arrive Friday amid tight security during his weekend visit, Pope Benedict XVI will spend time in the state of Guanajuato, about 200 miles from Mexico City, before flying to Cuba on Monday.

“It’s like the Bible Belt of Mexico,” said Dr. Katsuo Ishikawa, political science professor at Trinity University. “People are very Catholic and care a lot about religion.”

Yet the area also is known as the territory of the Knights Templar and La Familia Michoacana, feuding drug cartels that also claim to have religious roots.

Both have now declared a truce in banners on display in the region ahead of the papal visit.

“I felt that they were serious and they were going to keep their word,” said Dr. Miguel Bedolla, the interim dean at the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio. “But, I was very surprised.”
(from KSAT-12)

Too bad he can't come to Mexico from now on.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 25, Julius Caesar

Having now won all Pompey's friends, and most of the Senate, to his side with loans at a low rate of interest, or interest-free, [Julius Caesar] endeared himself to persons of less distinction too by handing out valuable presents, whether or not they asked for them.

Shorter version: "Hey, I'm doing you a favor today. Remember that, because someday I might need a favor, too."

Nice place you've got here. Be a shame if something were to happen to it.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 238, Nero

At last a series of insulting edicts signed by Vindex must have made some impression on [Nero] ... . Only two taunts went home: a suggestion that he was a bad lyre-player, and an insulting reference to him as 'Ahenobarbus', rather than Nero Caesar. Yet he told the Senate that he intended to renounce his adoptive name, which was now being mocked, and resume that of his family; as for his lyre-playing, he replied that he could hardly deserve Vindex's taunt (which proved the other accusations just as false) after his long and painstaking cultivation of the art; and asked a number of people from time to time whether they knew of any better performer than himself.

Of course he wasn't a bad lyre-player! He knew the lyre like anyone else. Better even. He practiced!

And, he was Nero.

So, if Vindex was wrong about his lyre-playing (evident from Nero's long hours of practice), then of course he was wrong about everything else about Nero.

Of course he was wrong. Do you know of any better performer? Well, do you?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 202, Claudius

Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous distubances at the instigation of Chrestus (i.e., apparently Christ, who had been crucified in the reign of Tiberius), [Claudius] expelled them from the city.

At least Claudius merely expelled the Christians. Nero had an entirely different way of dealing with them.

Death by jaguar. While being held by Predators.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What I finished reading recently

Something Wicked This Way Comes
Ray Bradbury


It's been ages since I last read this book, possibly even since I was a child. And though I generally like Ray Bradbury (and count The Martian Chronicles as one of the most influential science fiction books I have read) I remember not liking this particular book very much when I read it in the past. So, when I found this copy in an old box while doing some recent cleaning, I decided to give it another try.

And you know what? I wasn't disappointed. In fact, I liked it better this time around. Maybe it's because I'm older and I'm a father myself, so I can relate a little better to the father/son dynamic that is core to the story. Or maybe it's because I've developed my reading skills over the years and can appreciate Bradbury's turns of phrase more. Whatever the reason, I really found Something Wicked This Way Comes far more entertaining as an adult than I did as a child.

Also, I saw the movie based on this book back when it came out in 1983, and I remember not being impressed by it, especially after I was completely enthralled by the TV mini-series version of The Martian Chronicles. I think I was initially put off by the casting of Will and Jim, the main characters of the story. In the novel, the boys are thirteen years old, going on fourteen. But in the movie they are more like nine or ten years old. That's a big difference in boy years, and I don't think the younger versions of Will and Jim fit the story very well. After that initial disappointment, I don't think I was willing to give the rest of the movie a chance.

But, I admit that I could see it in a different light these days, just like with the novel. I think I should give that movie another try. Perhaps.

Maybe I will watch it with my son.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Keeping people from riding on top

Sometimes all you need to solve a particularly pesky problem is a solution as low-tech as balls and chains. And very smelly, messy brooms.
JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Indonesia has another bizarre way to keep commuters off the roofs of trains: swat them with brooms drenched in putrid goop.


Indonesia has tried just about everything to keep passengers from clamoring atop trains that crisscross its main island of Java: spraying them with paint guns, calling in sniffer dogs, and asking for help from Muslim clerics.

The first tactic that worked was deployed last month.

Grapefruit-sized concrete balls were suspended on chains from a frame that looks like a soccer goal. "Rail surfers," realizing they could be knocked in the head or even killed, quickly called it quits.


Buoyed by that success, railway officials decided to try the brooms as well.


Sujadi, who didn't disclose the ingredients of the smelly goop, said he was unaffected by criticism for all the strange and strict security measures.

"Some people say its inhumane, but that's fine," he said. "Because letting them ride on the roofs is even more inhumane."

(from Fox News)

I call it tough love.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 312, Domitian

Domitian had a ruddy complexion; large, rather weak eyes; and a modest expression. He was tall and well-made, except for his feet which had hammer-toes. Later, he lost his hair and developed a paunch; and, as a result of protracted illness, his legs grew spindling. He took as a personal insult any reference, joking or otherwise, to bald men, being extremely sensitive about his own baldness ... .

Red-faced, bald, and with ugly feet. It's a wonder he got a wife as good-looking as he did.

I think my bald husband is jealous.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 43, Julius Caesar

Throughout the entire struggle [the civil war] not a single Caesarian deserted, and many of them, when taken prisoners, preferred death to the alternative of serving with the Pompeians. Such was their fortitude in facing starvation and other hardships, both as besiegers and as besieged, that when Pompey was shown at Dyrrhachium the substitute for bread, made of grass, on which they were feeding, he exclaimed: 'I am fighting wild beasts!' Then he ordered the loaf to be hidden at once, not wanting his men to find out how tough and resolute the enemy were, and so lose heart.

That is pretty hard-core, though I suppose Pompey could have used the same loaf of grass bread to demonstrate to his soldiers how close the Caesarians were to defeat. After all, how much longer can an army of men keep fighting with nothing more than grass to sustain them? They would eventually weaken, and as long as the Pompeians had adequate supplies they would be sure to prevail. Eventually.

But Pompey didn't prevail. He lost in the end, and Rome was won by Julius Caesar, to be transformed from a republic into the new Roman Empire, ushering in a new age of complete, dictatorial, tyrannical domination of the world's greatest power at the time.

Well, what did you expect? They were eating grass, for Pete's sake!

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 298, Titus

Titus died at the age of forty-one, in the same country house where Vespasian had also died. It was 1 September, A.D. 81, and he had reigned two years, two months, and twenty days. When the news spread, the entire population went into mourning as though they had suffered a personal loss. Senators hurried to the House without waiting for an official summons, and before the doors had been opened, and then when they were open, began speaking of him, now that he was dead, with greater thankfulness and praise than they had ever used while he was alive and among them.

Titus, no doubt, was a great emperor as far as the ancient Romans were concerned. But they could have at least let him know that while he was still alive.

Perhaps his soulless glare intimidated them.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Remembering Edward White

He died 45 years ago today.

Who was he? He was this guy.

He was an astronaut. He was the first American to ever walk in space. He was from San Antonio. And he died on this day in 1967.

In the Apollo 1 capsule.

His death -- along with those of fellow astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom and Roger Chaffee -- were very tragic, but their passing woke NASA up to some very important changes that needed to be made in order to make space travel much, much safer for everyone else who came after them.

Thank you, Col. White. Your sacrifice will not be forgotten. Your family can be very proud of you. San Antonio can be proud of you. And we are.

We are.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 24, Julius Caesar

[Julius] Caesar was the first Roman to build a military bridge across the Rhine and cause the Germans on the farther bank heavy losses. He also invaded Britain, a hitherto unknown country, and defeated the natives, from whom he exacted a large sum of money as well as hostages for future good behaviour.

I remember seeing a documentary piece on that bridge Julius built over the Rhine. At the time it was considered a technological wonder (and, for all I know, such a bridge today would still be a wonder) because it was built over the Rhine in order to accommodate the Roman army.

Not just a wagon or two, but an entire army of bad-ass Romans eager to kick some German butt.

Before this bridge was built the Germanic tribes remained largely unmolested by the Romans because of the natural defensive line the Rhine provided, giving them a sense of security on their side of the river. But Julius Caesar said, Screw that. If I'm going to show these Germans who's really the boss, I'm going to need to get serious and build me a REAL bridge, one that will leave them slack-jawed while I march into their county like I owned the place.

And build it, he did. He crossed the bridge and kicked a few things down. And then, to show those barbarians that the Romans were hardcore enough to do pretty much whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, he marched his army back across the bridge and dismantled it behind him.

And then a couple of years later, he did it again. Just as a reminder.

His strategy largely paid off. It made the Germanic tribes rethink how they handled the Romans, perhaps convincing them that if Caesar was batty enough to build such infrastructure only to immediately tear it down (twice!) just to show that he could, then perhaps he was just batty enough to do anything he wanted to them.

And then, he conquered Britain. In a manner of speaking.

All I need is a bridge long enough. --Caesar

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 294, Titus

Titus also assumed command of the Guards [before becoming emperor], a post which had always before been entrusted to a knight, and in which he behaved somewhat high-handedly and tyrannically. If anyone aroused his suspicion, Guard detachments would be sent into theatre or camp to demand the man's punishment as if by the agreement of everyone present; and he would then be executed without delay.

Just in case you thought the previous post about Titus portrayed him in too positive a light, here's one to bring his image back down to earth. Or at least back to where most emperors reside.

You know, in Rome. Where they build massive arches to honor them.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 307, Domitian

Domitian was not merely cruel, but cunning and sudden into the bargain. He summoned a Palace steward to his bedroom, invited him to join him on his couch, and made him feel perfectly secure and happy, condescended to share a dinner with him -- yet had him crucified on the following day! ... And the abuse he iniflicted on his subjects' patience was all the more offensive because he prefaced all his most savage sentences with the same speech about mercy; indeed, this lenient preamble soon became a recognized sign that something dreadful was on the way.

Have you heard the old saying about not trusting Greeks, even when bearing gifts? I suppose the same could be said for the descendants of Troy, too.

Crap. Who the hell can we re-gift this thing to?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tony Iommi

So, I hear Tony Iommi has cancer. Lymphoma.

That's bad. The few people I've known that have come down with lymphoma have died. I hope Iommi survives it, I really do. I would miss him.

The stage in my life where I spent much of my free time and my extra money going to as many concerts as I could -- from small rock clubs to large, pyrotechnic arena shows -- began and ended with Tony Iommi. From the first time I saw Black Sabbath in 1984 to the last time I saw that band in 1999, Iommi laid out the dark chords for me and made me love loud music. And Black Sabbath has been a part of my musical preferences ever since.

Black Sabbath is undoubtedly one of the most influential bands of all time, and Iommi has always been the heart of that ensemble, the only constant in a band that proved to be both innovative and dysfunctional at the very same time. I love his unique, heavy style, and I think all of metal owes him much gratitude.

I recognize that not every metalhead finds Iommi's guitar work easy to listen to. But without him and his crazy, left-handed, two-leathered-fingertipped way of playing there would be no black metal today. There would be no doom metal, no death metal. And, dare I say, no real heavy metal at all. Oh, there was hard rock back in the 1970s, sure, and without Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi that hard rock eventually would have developed and grown into something like heavy metal, but there is no way that metal would have been anything like what we have today. Not without Iommi. His dark chords and low tuning have burned a template into the realm of rock that headbangers still use to this day.

I hate to gush like a fanboy, but I really do think that much of Iommi. And I hope he has all the strength and support he needs to pull through this personal crisis. I certainly hope the best for him.

Friday, January 06, 2012

What I was listening to today


I hadn't heard Johnny Cash's "Cocaine Blues" in a very long time. But, in the process of dragging out some Cash recordings to introduce the departed singer to my young son, I came across this song and several others of a rather rough nature.

And they took me back to a time when I was a young boy, a time when my brothers and I would wait until my mother was gone so we could sneak out my dad's Johnny Cash albums, hidden away in the dark recesses behind the speakers of the wooden console stereo entertainment center. And then we would listen to them on the sly. Because, you see, my mother did not like us young children to listen to Johnny Cash. Or Tex Ritter. They were very rough, and crude.

She did not like us to listen to those albums because she did not like many of those songs. But my dad did, so he had the albums. And we would listen to them. When my mother was gone.

And I remembered all this, and I smiled. And then I told my son that the best way to listen to Johnny Cash is on the sly.

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Twelve Caesars - page 205, Claudius

Claudius had a certain majesty and dignity of presence, which showed to best advantage when he happened to be standing or seated -- and especially when he was in repose. This was because, though tall, well-built, with a handsome face, a fine head of white hair and a firm neck, he stumbled as he walked owing to the weakness of his knees; and because, both in his lighter moments and at serious business, he had several disagreeable traits. These included an uncontrolled laugh, a horrible habit, under the stress of anger, of slobbering at the mouth and running at the nose, a stammer, and a persistent tic of the head, which was apparent at all times but especially when he exerted himself to the slightest extent.

But besides all that, he was handsome. Really.