Monday, February 28, 2011

February 29 birthdays

A friend of mine who drives a Chapel Hill bus told me this morning that a friend of hers was born on February 29, 1936.
    Naturally, we got to discussing the quandary of people born on February 29: If and when may they celebrate their birthdays in non-leap years? Will they celebrate today? Will they celebrate tomorrow? Will they not celebrate at all this year?
    If people born on February 29 may celebrate only the very day (each leap year), then my friend's friend may have celebrated eighteen birthdays (not counting the day of her birth).
    Is that all she's legitimately entitled to?
    By no means. Consider this:
    She was born the day after February 28. There have been 74 such days since February 29, 1936. My friend's friend may have celebrated 74 birthdays, and tomorrow she may celebrate her 75th.
    But wait a second. She was also born the day before March 1. Including today, there have been 75 such days since February 29, 1936.
    May she, then, celebrate her 75th birthday today—or, perhaps, her 75 + 74 - 18th (or 131st) birthday? (Subtract 18 so as not to double-count the February 29ths.) By this reckoning, people born on February 29 may celebrate two birthdays in non-leap years.
    My friend's friend may celebrate for her 132nd birthday tomorrow.
  1. March 2: When's your birthday time?
  2. March 3: Theological fallout from "birthtime"
  3. March 15: motomynd: "Quantity of life, or quality?"

Saturday, February 26, 2011

If it's true

If it's true, as Sheila V. Kumar reported yesterday through Associated Press, that George W. Bush will not visit Denver this weekend because Julian Assange was invited to attend one of the same events, and, as Bush spokesman David Sherzer is reported to have said, "Bush doesn't want to be part of a forum that invited someone who has 'willfully and repeatedly done great harm to the interests of the United States,'" then one has to ask:
How could George W. Bush be part of any forum to which he himself was invited? If he attended, he'd be there with himself, someone who willfully did great harm to the United States.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Don't forget that you are...

I've been listening a lot lately to a set of songs by Bob Dylan "that inspired Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out," as the label on the CD puts it. "Hurricane," on the first track, may not have been the single most inspirational song to the author, Jim Rix, but it has been a favorite of mine for half of my life.
    One particular line has been running through my mind, the "Don't forget that you are white" line from the following passage in the sixth stanza:
And the cops are puttin’ the screws to him, lookin’ for somebody to blame
“Remember that murder that happened in a bar?”
“Remember you said you saw the getaway car?”
“You think you’d like to play ball with the law?”
“Think it might-a been that fighter that you saw runnin’ that night?”
“Don’t forget that you are white”
  The "fighter" is the "Hurricane" of the title: " time he could-a been / The champion of the world"—as in middleweight boxing. Maybe you saw the 1999 movie, The Hurricane, with Denzel Washington as Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. Like Jim Rix's cousin Ray Krone, Carter (and another defendant) were tried and convicted twice, in their case for the murders depicted in Dylan's song. (You start to see how the music of Bob Dylan might have kept Rix going as he battled to get his cousin out of prison.)

"Don't forget that you are white."
    In Ray's second trial, it was "Don't forget that you are Mormon," as the mostly Mormon jurors tried to sort out whether the jagged-tooth defendant (who sometimes didn't even put on underwear1! and he sure looked guilty!) didn't really bite the murder victim, as the Mormon bite-mark expert, playing ball with the law, said he did ("with scientific certainty").

But I've been thinking about the "don't forget" reminder more generally, as applied everyday in the workings of prejudice.
    Don't forget that you have it made (so don't concern yourself with the poor).
    Don't forget that you're a Christian (so don't go supporting gays and other people the Bible supposedly doesn't like).
    Don't forget that you're a Muslim (so if someone insults the Prophet Muhammad, cut his head off).
    Don't forget that you are white (so nothing Obama does can be any good).

But I've also been thinking, even more generally, that it could be a constructive, rather than a destructive, reminder.
    Don't forget that you are no more deserving than other people (and they are no less deserving than you are). [Or, as some others might say: "Don't forget that you, too, are a sinner."]
    Don't forget that you have no more right to inhabit the planet than other animals do.
    Don't forget that you're a Christian (so love one another).
    Don't forget that you're a Muslim (so help the needy).
  1. Some Mormons (including at least one member of the jury, if Rix's observations were correct) wear "magic underwear" for protection from the evils of the world.

And today's champion

Today's champion is the reason someone just gave his boss and colleagues for not going to work today:
I've looked all over but so far have been unable to find my car keys. I know, rates right up there with my reason for not going to work at IBM one day's being that I had pizza in my ear (from throwing up dinner the night before in ER after suffering a head injury from a fall on ice). But that's why I missed my commute van this morning....
    Ooh, my wife and dog just returned from their walk, and she had put my keys in her pocket by mistake. Anyway, the price of gasoline being what it is, etc. (plus, mainly, there being nothing I need to do today that requires my being in my office at work for), I'll work from home today. Send me anything you need done electronically. Thanks much.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A what champion?

Front-page news in Chapel Hill yesterday was that two local coffee houses (Open Eye Café in adjacent Carrboro and Caffe Driade in Chapel Hill) boast a barista champion, "southeast titlist Michael Harwood," who "is headed for the nationals in Houston."
    I don't know about you, but I'd never heard of a barista and, accordingly, never suspected that there were barista competitions. But, hey!, this is America, the land of "reality TV."
    But I quickly caught on that a barista is the person who prepares your individual cup of coffee at fine restaurants and coffee houses. And Michael Harwood sounds like a coffee artist:
...Harwood began practicing for the competition and preparing his signature coffee....
    To develop his signature drink, Harwood bought a whole bunch of ingredients from Weaver Street Market and began experimenting. Eventually he came up with a drink that included the juice from Moro blood oranges, Sourwood honey with a caramel note from Lee's Bees in Mebane [Mebane!], a bit of rosemary and milk from Maple View Farm. [p. 6, Chapel Hill Herald]
    The article quotes Mr. Harwood:
I almost got perfect scores on that drink, and it definitely put me over the top to win.
    But besides prepare four cups of a near-perfect signature drink, listen to what else contestants must do:
...make four cups of espresso and four cups of cappuccino within 15 minutes, while explaining to the judges about the farmer who grew the beans, why he selected the coffee, and some of the techniques he was using.
I hope to be able to tell you soon how I think it tastes. Sounds wonderful. I'll have to visit either of both of the cafés, which are owned by Scott Conary and Elizabeth Meunier, who also own the Carrboro Coffee Company. The article reports that Mr. Conary
is considered a world-class expert on specialty coffees and he serves as a judge at the regional, national, and world levels. He'll be certifying the judges at the barista world championship in Bogota, Columbia, this year.
The next day. I just got off the phone with Michael Harwood, who says that he and his barista colleagues are enjoying his celebrity. He's going to let me know when I can come by the Open Eye for a cup of his signature drink. It's not always available, as their supply is small right now of the Honduran coffee the drink calls for.
    I was amused to hear the person who answered the phone at the Open Eye say to Michael, "Celebrity, you have another call." Scott Conary tells me by email, "He is indeed, and deservedly so, a celebrity! Who doesn't like watching and interacting with a master craftsman who is also an ambassador for his industry?"

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Limerick on dirty limericks [family version]

[Note: Yesterday I posted the original version of this account, then overnight had the unsettling thought that some wanderers here might have preferred an expurgated version. Fortunately, I could think of two men whom to imitate. The earlier was Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), who among other gifts to mankind produced a family version of Shakespeare; the later was the exchange group's own classmate, former U.S. Senator and Attorney General John Ashcroft, who covered up some objectionable appendages around the capitol.]

On Tuesday, when that old friend wrote me and the half-dozen other classmates about reciting Sonnet 18 to his wife, he addressed me as the poet laureate of the group, which flattered me, I told him, because about all I'd written lately had been limericks.
    A flurry of exchanges about Shakespeare's sonnets ensued among about half the members of the group. That afternoon, I asked a friend on the afternoon bus I take to go from my office to where I board my commute van home whether he knew what a limerick was. I asked him because I knew that he was taking high school level classes and one of them involved reading and discussing poetry. He didn't seem to know what a limerick was, however; at least he wasn't familiar with the term. So I recited one for him, one of the earliest I ever heard and also one of my favorites, connected as it is with the exchange group:
There once was a barmaid at Yale
On whose palm was tattooed the price of pale ale;
      And on her hand's back,
      For those who sight lacked,
Was the same information in braille.
A few hours later, one of the exchange group members who hadn't said anything yet offered
One final thought, and this is purely from memory:
There once was a sailor named Bates,
Who could do a fandango on skates.
      But he fell on his sword,
      Which severed his chord,
And rendered him songless at fêtes.
    And I replied by quoting the barmaid limerick. At which point another member not yet heard from offered
This one is relevant for Mo and [another member of the group who works in a town with at least one covered shopping center]:
There was a young lady named Edith Hall,
Who used dynamite to stop and end it all.
      They found her lower half 
      Hanging from a gaff,
And the upper half of her in the mall.
Well, as if it hadn't gotten bad enough already, the sailor-on-skates member returned to add that
I wasn’t going to send this one, as it usually makes any female cringe, but Mo, I take this as a challenge.
There once was a man from Nantucket,
Whose nose was so long he could suck it.
      He said with a grin,
      As he wiped off his chin,
If my eyebrow were that long I'd pluck it.
It makes females cringe?
Some limericks are so awfully bad
They make both men and women sad;
      Why are limericks so dirty,
      Are their authors that flirty?
Couldn't they just bowdlerize and be glad?
    And that is my title limerick on [the raunchier variety of traditional] dirty limericks. Recite a mildly dirty limerick, and it'll more than likely go downhill from there.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Limerick on dirty limericks

On Tuesday, when that old friend wrote me and the half-dozen other classmates about reciting Sonnet 18 to his wife, he addressed me as the poet laureate of the group, which flattered me, I told him, because about all I'd written lately had been limericks.
    A flurry of exchanges about Shakespeare's sonnets ensued among about half the members of the group. That afternoon, I asked a friend on the afternoon bus I take to go from my office to where I board my commute van home whether he knew what a limerick was. I asked him because I knew that he was taking high school level classes and one of them involved reading and discussing poetry. He didn't seem to know what a limerick was, however; at least he wasn't familiar with the term. So I recited one for him, one of the earliest I ever heard and also one of my favorites, connected as it is with the exchange group:
There once was a barmaid at Yale
On whose breasts was tattooed the price of pale ale;
      And on her behind,
      For the sake of the blind,
Was the same information in braille.
A few hours later, one of the exchange group members who hadn't said anything yet offered
One final thought, and this is purely from memory:
There once was a sailor named Bates,
Who could do a fandango on skates.
      But he fell on his cutlass,
      Which rendered him nutless,
And totally useless on dates.
    And I replied by quoting the barmaid limerick. At which point another member not yet heard from offered
This one is relevant for Mo and [another member of the group who works in Chapel Hill]:
There was a young lady named Alice,
Who used dynamite for a phallus.
      They found her vagina
      In North Carolina,
And half of her hymen in Dallas.
Well, as if it hadn't gotten bad enough already, the cutlass member returned to add that
I wasn’t going to send this one, as it usually makes any female cringe, but Mo, I take this as a challenge.
There once was a man from Nantucket,
Whose dick was so long he could suck it.
      He said with a grin,
      As he wiped off his chin,
If my ear were a cunt I would fuck it.
It makes females cringe?
Some limericks are so awfully bad
They make both men and women sad;
      Why are limericks so porny,
      Are their authors that horny?
They could just go out and get had.
    And that is my title limerick on [the raunchier variety of traditional] dirty limericks. Recite a mildly dirty limerick, and it'll more than likely go downhill from there.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Their hands were hurt

The pain in my hands (from arthritis) has been so sharp at times lately, it has reminded me of the terrible torture portrayed in the excellent Red Riding Trilogy of 2009 movies, based on David Peace's quartet of novels, "set against a backdrop of serial murders, including the Yorkshire Ripper case." The corrupt police like to get their suspects (or the persons they want to frame) to confess by bullying them into putting their hands palm-down on the table ("Flat!"), then jabbing a hand with a handcuff wrapped around a fist and then (if necessary) holding a lighted cigarette to the injured hand.
    Those scenes are horrific, but if you can stand them (both at the time and later, by not dreaming about them or being unable to suppress them), the films are about as good as it gets for gritty, hard-boiled police thriller. I rated the first two films, Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (directed by Julian Jarrold) and Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 (directed by James Marsh), only VG (very good), but I rated the third one, Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1983 (directed, Anand Tucker), E (excellent), for tying everything together and revealing the unsuspected serial killer in surprising, artful, satisfying fashion.
    I had to confer the same rating on the whole. Watch them if you can stand them, just as you still use your hurting hands in the morning to open that jar of jam for breakfast.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reflections on Sonnet 73

An old college friend emailed me and a few other classmates two days ago that he'd memorized Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 and recited it to his wife on Valentine's Day. That's the one you'll all remember when I tell you it begins, "Shall I compare thee to a summer day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate."
    Less well-known is Sonnet 73. Its subject matter (aging) doesn't lend itself to assigned reading by high school students! It came up in the discussion after we had analyzed Sonnet 18 for a bit. Another classmate mentioned that his next book, whose subtitle will begin, "Growing Old...," will quote the sonnet:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
      This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
      To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
To me the most touching thing about Sonnet 73 isn't the aging, but the effect on us of the aging of our loved ones. The poem's statement of this is all the more forceful for being located in its final two lines:
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
The statement certainly reflects what I myself feel as my wife and others whom I "love well" grow old. I love her and them more because they (or I) "must leave ere long."
    In fact, I've experienced the same thing with loved ones already dead; my love for them, too, has grown "more strong"—my love for my father, who died thirty-one years ago, and for my mother, who died six years ago. Whatever love I may have felt for my parents when they still lived, it could not have been so strong as the love I feel for them today.
    The sense of love's growing stronger over the years is so remarkable, I can't but believe that for Shakespeare, too, the sonnet was mostly about those final two lines.
Note: the Wikipedia article on Sonnet 73 (linked to above) says of the ending couplet: "Shakespeare informs his audience that we must 'love more strongly,' because in the end, we are going to leave it all beyond and respond to death." This interpretation makes nonsense of the fact of love's growing "more strong," which it does naturally and not because we obey some commandment to love more strongly.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The squeeze machine

One of the most fascinating things portrayed in the movie Temple Grandin was Temple's noticing the calming effect on cattle of their being constricted in a chute in order to be vaccinated, and her being led by that observation to construct a "squeeze machine" for herself, to see whether it would have the same effect on her, who as an autistic person often felt anything but calm.
    She writes about it in Animals in Translation, which I introduced here the other day:
When I saw the cattle in their squeeze chute and got inspired to build a squeeze machine for myself, at first I was thinking only about the calming effects of deep pressure. So I built it with just two hard plywood boards, without any padding or cushions. All autistic children and adults like deep pressure. Some of them will put on really tight belts and hats to feel the pressure, and lots of autistic children like to lie underneath sofa cushions and even have a person sit on top of the cushions. I used to like to go under the sofa cushions when I was little. The pressure relaxed me.
    Then gradually I started to improve my squeeze machine by adding soft padding...The pads gave me feelings of kindness and gentleness toward other people—social feelings....
    I think the squeeze machine probably also helped me have more empathy, or at least more empathy for animals. When I first started using the soft version of the machine, in my late teens, I didn't know how to pet our cats so they really liked it. I always wanted to squeeze them too tight....
    Autistic children never know how to pet animals the right way, so you have to teach them....
    Even a lot of normal people don't realize that you have to stroke animals, not pet them. They don't like to be petted. You have to stroke them the way the mother's tongue licks them.
    There have been two experiments on squeeze machines for animals....
    This research is important for people with autism. A lot of autistic children can't stand to be touched. I was like that when I was a little kid. I wanted to feel the nice social feeling of being held, but it was just too overwhelming....
    Being touched by another person was so intense it was intolerable. I would start to panic and I had to pull away.[pp. 114-117]
The squeeze machine is fascinating, especially when you've just learned of it. But what affected me the most about the chapter from which those excerpts are taken was its many examples of our being at one with other animals. Like this paragraph:
A dog's attachment to his owner is like a baby animal's attachment to his mother, or a human child's attachment to his mom or dad. Pet dogs act the exact same way children do in the strange situation test. In the strange situation test the researcher watches how a very young child reacts to a strange new environment when his mother is there with him, and when she's not. Most children will confidently explore a strange environment as long as their mother is with them, but when she leaves the room they'll stop exploring and wait anxiously for her to come back. Dogs do exactly the same thing. This has been tested formally in fifty-one dogs and owners. Most dogs stop exploring and act anxious when their owner leaves the room. Then they relax and start exploring again when their owner returns. When humans say dogs are like children, they're right. [p. 111]
    Other examples deal with clinical research into brain anatomy and chemistry. They'd be difficult to excerpt briefly. Read the book!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Limerick neglecting limericks

The writing of limericks can be fun,
But hardly can they when they’re overdone;
      Then I much would rather
      Not go to any bother,
Than choose to go to something better won.
Said the caption to the photo on the web: "The Bridge into Limerick from the Tower"

Monday, February 14, 2011

Temple Grandin's dilemma

Temple Grandin (born 1947) came to my attention only recently. I discovered the movie first, with Claire Danes in the title role. At the time, I thought that the name sounded familiar, and I finally remembered that a lecturer I'd heard at UNC (Dr. John Ratey, on exercise and the brain) had dedicated one of his books to her (A User's Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain, 2002).
    And now I'm reading one of her books, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, 2005. Much more even than the books of Karen Pryor (e.g., Reaching the Animal Mind, 2009), Grandin's book thrills me on a subject that reaches to the very bottom of me.

It is a terrible irony for me, then, that Temple Grandin is a consultant to the livestock industry and well-known in those circles for her innovations in the design of slaughter systems. While I can approve taking steps to avoid alarming animals as they're herded to be killed, the whole enterprise is repugnant to me.
    I googled on "temple grandin moral dilemma" and found (on the Vegan Soapbox website) that
Temple Grandin’s reply to those who have identified the inherent contradiction in the statement “I design slaughter houses and I love animals,” is: “some people think death is the most terrible thing that can happen to an animal.” It follows according to Ms. Grandin that “the most important thing for an animal is the quality of its life.”
    Whoever's on the soapbox for the website immediately retorts:
Ms. Grandin’s argument is derived from an underlying ontological worldview that assumes a dualism between “human” and “animal.” This is a factual inaccuracy. Biological “animality” exists on a continuum: a human animal is a member of a species of bipedal primates in the family Hominidae—“higher primates.” It is from this invalid assumption that Ms. Grandin’s argument tries to follow. Her claim, then, is baseless and open to the challenge of blatant selective reasoning.
I'm not going to take a final position on Grandin's ethics, for I assume I don't know the whole story (yet). But I don't see how her reply quoted in the article could rectify her presumed cognitive dissonance. Just look at how she talks of "animals and humans" to see how closely related she acknowledges that they are:
It turns out that all animals and humans have what researchers call a built-in confirmation bias. Animals and humans are wired to believe that when two things happen closely together in time it's not an accident; instead the first event caused the second thing to happen.
    For example, if you put a pigeon in a case with a key that lights up right before a piece of food appears, pretty soon the pigeon will start pecking the lighted key to get food....
    The pigeon is acting like a person who thinks his team will win the baseball game if he's got his lucky rabbit's foot with him....
    Confirmation bias is built in to animal and human brains, and it helps us learn. We learn because our default assumption is that if Event 1 is followed by Event 2, then Event 1 caused Event 2. Our default assumption isn't that Events 1 and 2 happened at the same time by coincidence. Coincidence is actually a fairly advanced concept both for animals and for people. That's why in statistics courses you have to formally teach students that a correlation isn't automatically a cause. [David Hume argued for coincidence over causality in the eighteenth century.] Our brains are wired to see correlations as causes, period. Since in real life a lot of times Event 1 does cause Event 2, confirmation bias helps us make the connection.
    The downside of having a built-in confirmation bias is that you also make a lot of unfounded causal connections. That's what superstition is....
    ...The same part of the brain that lets us learn what we need to know and find the things we need to stay alive is also the part of the brain that produces delusional thinking and conspiracy theories. [pp. 98-100]
As a matter of fact, humans are animals. We have a common ancestor with every other animal [and life form1] on the planet.
  1. Thanks to Carolyn for reminding me that I myself had realized this later, but without doing anything about it at the time.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Objets trouvés

Having neglected my copies of The New York Times Book Review for a few weeks, I had forgotten how much I appreciate the "found art" typically to be found on its pages. This morning, I found these:
The Internet calls people out of their loneliness to create electronic selves perhaps more naked or strident than the fuzzy, compromised "I" that moves ghostlike through its everyday routines and disagreements. –Stephen Burn, in his contribution, "Beyond the Critic as Cultural Arbiter," to "Why Criticism Matters," in the January 2 edition
I agree that bloggers "create electronic selves," no less than any writer creates a persona, or provides clues in the form of tone, style, vocabulary, and content from which readers construct a concept of the writer. I'm not sure that my blogger persona is more naked than the "real me" whom my wife and neighbors and friends and colleagues encounter in person, but it's surely sometimes more strident; I'm free to express my opinions without having to deal with the upset they might occasion in a person in the same room with me.
"When people get close together, they get more and more savage, impatient with each other," McLuhan said. "The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations." Placing that in a more contemporary milieu, what happens now that everyone is a broadcaster? Ubiquitious, cheap technology (digital cameras) and a friction-free route to an audience (YouTube) means that people might broadcast images of their closeted gay roommate having sex, and that the unwitting star of their little network might subsequently, tragically jump off a bridge. –David Carr, in his review, "Media Savant," of Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, by Douglas Coupland, in the January 9 edition
The savage impatience of people close together came home to me just a week ago, right here in the residential neighborhood where we live. Someone three doors down reported on the community's social network an intrusion of a cat into his house, and he asked if anyone knew whose cat it was. He mentioned that he saw the animal retreating in the direction of my house, so I had a good idea where the cat lived. I made the mistake of saying so on the network.
    For what ensued was first a discussion of the cat then a generalization to the problems of domestic cats in general who are allowed to roam free (and express their nature as stealthy predators—of birds, for example). By the time the cat's owner learned of these discussions, enough had been said to provoke a defensive counterattack of abusive sarcasm, which prompted members of the defensive team to run onto the field and pile on before the whistle blew.
    Even this local village's abrasive potential was magnified by the existence of the electronic network, as if the original abrasiveness of people having to live close together weren't enough already to make them wary and suspicious of one another.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

It smiles—sort of

Bowing to pressure from relatives and friends, I practiced some social expressions before my camera this morning. The occasion was that I was about to go get a haircut, and I wanted to capture my Derek Jacobi hair style as King Claudius in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996).

Friday, February 11, 2011

Steve Glossin titles now available on both Kindle and Nook

I know that at least one of Moristotle's occasional readers owns Barnes & Noble's Nook rather than Amazon's Kindle. For that reason, I'm delighted to be able to announce that both of Steve Glossin's thrillers that were published for the Kindle are also now available for the Nook. (And both Amazon and Barnes & Noble provide free PC apps for viewing their eBooks on your computer.)

Prophecy of the Medallion. As I wrote of Steve's first thriller in my review on the Barnes & Noble website, under the title "Foreign setting, United-Nations premise, real characters":
Steve Glossin's Prophecy of the Medallion is a well-crafted story of mystery, intrigue, and revenge. William Holden, the Chief weapons inspector for the United Nations in Baghdad, is at a loss when members of his team disappear without a trace.
    His quest to find his missing inspectors takes him on a path that pits him against a fanatical Muslim cleric who believes he is fulfilling a prophecy from the days of the Prophet Muhammad.
    I enjoyed the cast of characters he created, especially Big Bob and Gloria, one of whom (if not both) deserve an Oscar for their supporting roles.
    If you're looking for shoot-'em-up, nonstop action, it's probably not for you, but its characters and believable plot grabbed me from the very first page and wouldn't let me go. The story's momentum and unexpected twists build the tension slowly but steadily to a satisfying conclusion.
    This thriller is worth more than the price.
Death Mask. I had this to say about Steve's third thriller1, under the title "Thrills, mystery, mayhem, great villains!":
Death Mask is a delectable sequel to Prophecy of the Medallion. Glossin raises the entertainment factor a notch or two and provides new thrills, mystery, mayhem, and a couple of great villains. Death Mask completely satisfied the demanding reader that I am.
    Three years after leaving the desert of Iraq, Big Bob Tilden's dream of becoming an archaeologist is starting to come true. He is the only person who can identify the murderer and grave robber at the excavation site he's working on in South America. The robbery kicks off a wild adventure to recover the artifacts. Big Bob travels to Brazil with the lead archaeologist and, with the help of a bag of walnuts, they learn where the artifacts have been sold.
    Big Bob enlists the help of his former boss, Bill Holden, who sends him to Rome to gather information then joins him in the hunt. They head to Saudi Arabia and get involved in a deadly trek on camel back to the Red Sea. The story hits full stride in Egypt.
    The menagerie of characters had me smiling one minute and cringing the next. Glossin is a superb storyteller; he weaves an incredibly believable tale. Death Mask will take you on a journey you won't want to end.
Steve reminded me that I might have mentioned that both Kindle and Nook offer sample chapters, free of charge. If you don't own a Kindle or a Nook, you just need the reading apps for your computer (which, as I indicated above, are provided free; Steve gives links for acquiring the reading apps on his blog).
    Interestingly, Steve says, Nook's samples include more chapters than Kindle's do.
  1. Steve wrote another thriller in between (while I was editing the first one) that he's currently preparing for publication. More about it later, and aren't you lucky—three good reads at ridiculously low prices!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Briefly, it sucked

My wife and I had been looking forward last night to watching Inspector Bellamy, the 2009 film of director Claude Chabrol, with Gérard Depardieu in the title role.  We shouldn't have bothered, and neither should you: It sucked. It was redolent of French films' typical stupid plotting1 and excessive, largely inane talkiness.
    Since I'm approaching 79 myself (the age of Chabrol when the film was released) I don't want to hear any talk that maybe the movie suffered from the director's senilility. But it's possible that Depardieu agreed to act in the film mainly because he owed Chabrol a favor, or maybe he just wanted to be in one of the illustrious director's films finally, before it was too late (it soon was: Chabrol died in September 2010). (Or maybe, as a follower reminded me, Depardieu just needed to eat.)
    Or, hey!, maybe Depardieu liked the film. After all, he's French!
  1. Said reviewer Kyle Smith in The New York Post:
    Despite being told with a straight face, the plot borders on the absurd. An insurance company executive (Jacques Gamblin) who wants to fake his own death so he can run off with his mistress while his wife profits happens to meet a hobo who is his identical twin. The homeless man agrees to go on a fateful car trip with the scam artist—because he is enticed by a promise to visit the grave of the folk singer Georges Brassens. You'd think an insurer would know that even well-charred dead bodies are readily identified by their dental work.

Who gives a tweet?

The University of North Carolina Tar Heels men's basketball team (I wonder why their coach refers to his players as "kids"?) played Duke University's team last night, at Duke. (Their coach refers to them as "kids" also.) For a whole month, apparently, Duke students had been living in tents outside the box office (in "Krzyzewskiville," after their team's coach) to purchase tickets to the event. I know, hard to believe that anyone, let alone college students (even graduate school students), would do that in order to get a ticket to an athletic event. But apparently it's true.
    North Carolina's chancellor, Holden Thorp, seems to have (or for a brief hour or two have had) the same attitude. The Raleigh News & Observer reported that he
spiced the build-up to Wednesday night's North Carolina-Duke basketball game with a trash-talking tweet..."Our students are talking about the future and asking smart questions instead of wasting time sitting in a tent."
    Then he was made to think "better" of it:
[A]t The News & Observer's behest, [Duke president Richard Brodhead, formerly provost at Yale, who isn't on Twitter] offered up this good-spirited response: "Hey Holden, someone hacked your Twitter account to talk trash. May the best team win. From the land of TRUE Blue, Dick.
The reference to "TRUE Blue," if you're not into college colors, seems to have been a suggestion that Duke's dark blue is superior to "Carolina blue" (in these parts that's a familiar name for a sort of baby blue).
By midafternoon, UNC was apparently doing damage control. Thorp's initial tweet disappeared from his feed, and a new, apologetic tweet appeared.
    "Sorry about the tent/Kville tweet," Thorp wrote. "Both U's have great students. I shouldn't have gotten carried away by our rivalry in basketball."
    Yeah, why not get carried away? Almost everyone else around here does.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

An old neighbor's comforting...or comfort

I went to church yesterday. Actually, I didn't "go to church"; I entered a church in order to attend a memorial service for a neighbor of years ago and pay my respects to his children.
    Rudy and his wife, who had already died, six months earlier, had lived next door to us, from about a year after we arrived in Chapel Hill until they moved to a townhouse in Durham a dozen or fifteen years later. During the blizzard of January 1996, Rudy and I had in common that we both slipped on the ice and had head injuries, his a subdural hematoma, mine a ruptured pineal tumor. My accident led to brain surgery, which probably saved me from dying from a fall later, after the tumor had grown to lethal dimensions.
    I arrived about ten minutes after the service began because of a late bus. Inside the vestibule, I could hear the amplified voice of the eulogist coming through a public address speaker. I didn't think he was exaggerating anything about Rudy, whose enthusiasm and cheerfulness in life had been abundant.
    After I had stowed my umbrella and taken off my backpack, coat, cap, and gloves, I went into the nave and sat down near the back. There were about a hundred people before me. The eulogist, I took it, was the reverend pastor of the church. He had a fine voice, and I liked the fact that he quoted from a couple of poets and a popular local writer of humorous novels, even though the particular quotations weren't striking or memorable. A well-read man, though.
    I gathered that members of Rudy's family had already made comments, probably not more than one or two short ones, for I hadn't arrived that late. But I was sorry to have missed them.
    Then the pastor recounted something one of Rudy's daughters had told him. He said that she had been with her father near the end and had reported their final conversation:
She told me that at one point Rudy said he saw something. And she asked him what it was he saw. "I see Jesus," he said. And she asked him if he saw Mother too. He said he did. And she asked him whether he saw a light. And he said he did. She told him then, "'Dad, it's okay if you want to go now.' He closed his eyes then," she said, "and Rudy went."
Then the pastor invited us to pray, then to sing a hymn, but the organist played so loudly it wasn't clear whether anyone else was singing either.
    And after the family was allowed to leave, we all followed to join them in the community room. All of Rudy's four children seemed to recognize me and be glad that I'd come, and I too was glad that I'd come. They are fine-looking young people, somewhat older than my own two children. (Rudy was fourteen or fifteen years older than I.)

Later, I thought about Rudy, about his children, about my children. I wondered whether he really thought he'd seen Jesus and his wife. Both the eulogist and the obituary in the local paper had emphasized that one of Rudy's major principles in life had been that the family comes first. It was easy to imagine that he could have invented that about Jesus to comfort his daughter.
    Maybe he had even figured she would tell the pastor, and the pastor might pass it on for anyone else in the church who might be able to be comforted by it. (Rudy had, after all, "faithfully served [these people] as a deacon and elder" for many years.)
    It might be thought more likely that Rudy's daughter made up the conversation for the sake of her children, but Rudy's grandchildren whom I saw yesterday seemed too old for Santa Claus.
    So maybe the conversation actually took place and Rudy really did think he saw Jesus. Maybe it was he most of all, in the hour of his death, who needed comforting.
    One hopes one won't need that.

Friday, February 4, 2011


According to the 2008 Gallup poll of American national opinion, 44% of Americans (136 million people) believe that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." (That's as quoted by Richard Dawkins on p. 429 of his 2010 book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.)
    Forty-four percent of the 150,000 people who live in Alamance County (it's probably more than 44% in this part of North Carolina) are represented by three letters that appeared together this week in the Times-News, published in Burlington, a town of somewhat more than 50,000. Going by the letters' titles (and the fact that no dissenting letters were selected1), I'd guess that the editor also represents the 44%+.
    The first letter, "Christian evolutionists pose the wrong questions," comes from a town of 15,000. It ends with the rhetorical question:
If man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever [which the writer seems to believe is so], what purpose could God have for creating man in His image through the process of evolution to bring glory to Himself after billions of years of trial and error?
The writer's implicit answer seems to be that God could not have such a purpose, therefore He didn't create man through the process of evolution.
    The second letter, "Evolution is not the truth and is incompatible with Christianity," is from Burlington. Indeed this writer doesn't resort to rhetorical implication but comes right out with it:
First, God does not supervise, he performs the creation.
    Second, those positions (Creation and evolution) cannot be compatible because the two sides are as different as day and night or black and white, impossible to be compatible. [I agree with this.]
    [The columnist who] writes: "The Creator never told us how he creates"...must never have read the Book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 3: God said let there be light and there was light...God only has to say let there be, and there is.
    The third letter, from someone who lives in a town of about 7,000, seems to hope to stump science with a difficult question:
Maybe one of [those brilliant scientists who say we derived from monkeys] can answer me a question about that. If that be so, and we all came from monkeys, then how come we still have monkeys?
The editor, in titling this letter "A question for the backers of evolution theory," seems to flatly contradict Richard Dawkins, whose book opens with the statement:
The evidence for evolution grows by the day, and has never been stronger. At the same time, paradoxically, ill-informed opposition is also stronger than I can remember. This book is my personal summary of the evidence that the "theory" of evolution is actually a fact—as incontrovertible a fact as any in science.
By the way, the answer to the third writer's (and possibly the editor's) question is that man didn't evolve from monkeys, but both man and monkey evolved from a common ancestor.
  1. Not that there were any dissenting letters to select. Around here, why bother?