30 November 2008

Mike Nomad

My old pal Marcus hooked me up with a noir treasure: daily and Sunday strips of the Steve Roper and Mike Nomad comic. The first set is from 1957, just after the introduction of the Mike Nomad character. The bulk of the material is from 1971-1973, when I was a youngster and happily addicted to the series. The storytelling (by Allen Saunders and later his son John) was full of dangerous he-man adventures, but the characters were sympathetic and well-developed. Mike and Steve were pretty dated by the 1970s, belonging more to pre-Sixties America, but they still seemed like real men. Mike was the tough, blue-collar counterpart to the urbane, well-educated Steve, but both were capable of getting into scrapes with mobsters, spies, femme fatales, and garden-variety crooks. The comics were often on the last page of the SF Chronicle Sporting Green when I was a kid, back when they actually printed it on green paper! William Overgard's exceptional artwork is vivid and powerful, Nomad being particularly iconic with his square jaw, blond crew-cut, chiseled features and ubiquitous cigarette hanging from his lips. Matt Cadd owes his existence to Mike Nomad. Just as an example, Matt has a Chinese landlady--Mrs. Chan--inspired by Mike Nomad's Ma Jong! Alas, the strip is no longer in existence, and I've never seen collections of the Nomad-era stuff. Blackthorne Publishing put out reprints of the "Chief Wahoo & Steve Roper" 1940s strips about twenty years ago. (Roper first appeared in the Elmer Woggon--Allen Saunders creation Big Chief Wahoo.) I don't believe anything else of the Roper-Nomad era is in print. Mike Nomad, action hero of my youth, is consigned to history's dustbin. That makes my collection of newspaper cut-outs a treasure indeed! Thanks, pal.

22 November 2008

Before their time

Thanksgiving Break. I'm on holiday. Tonight? American Rhythm with Craig Faulkner on Jefferson Public Radio, 89.3 MHz on the FM dial. And a couple of fingers of Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (batch 284, bottle number 08847). Mmm-mmmm!

Tonight's theme is "Died Too Young." Sam Cooke. Patsy Cline. Buddy Holly. Bobby Darin. Charlie Christian. Too many others--it's a long list. Mr. Faulkner calls his program "The Gourmet Oldies Show" and refers to his source material as "American vernacular music."

Vernacular got WordMan™ fired up. Partridge says it is "of obscure origin," possibly Etruscan, coming to us through the Latin vernaculus, "born in one master's house." In other words, a slave. Bartleby says the word means native tongue, local speech, or common dialect.

The tunes are great. The whiskey's fine. I'm on vacation.

Talk to you in a week.

21 November 2008

Prop. 2 brew

Free Range Red Ale was one of my birthday presents! It is a product of the Laurelwood Public House & Brewery in Portland, Oregon, the city most identified with the craft brew renaissance. These folks are doing the organic thing, which is cool by me. Over at French Street Brewery we are moving in the same direction. The beer had a dark amber color and a big tasty crystal malt flavor. Good stuff.

The growing interest in organic ingredients is good for all of us. I'm not a fool--the use of industrial chemicals to improve yields is one of the major technological achievements of the 20th century. The fact that less than 2% of our population can feed hundreds of millions of people is one of the cornerstones of our civilization. Agricultural science will continue to bring innovations to farming that will benefit all of humankind. The movement to "organics" is not a rejection of modernity--far from it. It is a recognition that dependence on any one technological scheme is a mistake. It is an attempt to unify progress with ecological stewardship. It is a bridge from the past to a future based on sustainability. In a decade, we won't be throwing that outdated and inaccurate word--organic--around because we will view all production through this new lens, that of a sustainable future.

At least I hope so. In the meantime, drink up!

20 November 2008

One billion and counting

By the time the first element launch anniversary rolls around on Nov. 20, the space station will have completed 57,309 orbits of the Earth, a distance of 1,432,725,000 miles. If the station had been traveling in a straight line instead of in orbit, it would have passed the orbit of Pluto and be in the outer reaches of our solar system. (NASA: ISS 20 Nov 08)

That's a BILLION plus miles! That's a hard number to get a hold of. I once did a lesson on my birthday--I had just turned 32--about the number of seconds I had been alive. 32 years times 365 days times 24 hours times 60 minutes times 60 seconds is 1,009,152,000 seconds. (I did not account for leap years and etc.) It seemed like a nice way to get a handle on the notion of a billion. It worked for me, at least. The students were about half my age at the time, so they got about 500 million seconds, and I hope, some sense of the number. These days I'm at least three times as old as the students, and also older than most of the parents!

Today is the 10th birthday of the International Space Station. It began in 1998 with the Russian launch of Zarya. The Zarya module (the name means "dawn" or "sunrise") was the first piece of the ISS. Endeavour, as part of STS-88, brought the Unity module up a few weeks later and presto-change-o we got ourselves a space station. It is hard to be excited about international cooperation and the future of the human race when people are starving, or slaughtering each other, or both, in various corners of the globe. But this little piece of space is working, and has stayed working for a decade. That's something, eh?

19 November 2008


The Baseball Writers Association of America, henceforth known as BBWAA, votes an MVP award annually in each league. Now these fellows a) are writers and b) write about baseball. That's it. I'm a writer. I write about baseball. I'm not a pro. I have neither a journalist's education nor a journalist's professional experience. These BBWAA guys are pros. They make their living writing about baseball.

If you write crime fiction, does that make you a criminal? Better question: does that make you an expert on crime?

If you write vampire stories, are you an expert on vampires? How would anyone know?

My answer? Bollocks.

Here's John le Carré (one of the best) on fiction:

A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself. And on that subject, if he is wise, he holds his tongue. Some of you may wonder why I am reluctant to submit to interviews on television and radio and in the press. The answer is that nothing that I write is authentic. It is the stuff of dreams, not reality. Yet I am treated by the media as though I wrote espionage handbooks.

And to a point I am flattered that my fabulations are taken so seriously. Yet I also despise myself in the fake role of guru, since it bears no relation to who I am or what I do. Artists, in my experience, have very little centre. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception.


Which brings me back to the BBWAA and their MVP. This year, a young lad from one of the richest and most media-saturated markets and franchises--the Boston Red Sox--was awarded the MVP for the American League. Dustin Pedroia is a very fine ballplayer. Outstanding, in fact. But by any intelligent metric, he is nowhere near the "most valuable." He wasn't even the best player on his team, for example. (I think you have to give that to Kevin Youkilis.) Pedroia, like (NL-BBWAA-MVP-2007) Jimmy Rollins, is likeable and a crowd-pleaser. He does lots of things well, and exudes a bubbly high-school "grit-and-hustle" persona. This is all fine, of course, but has little to do with a cold, rational assessment of value by skilled observers. After all, BBWAA guys see more baseball than anyone who doesn't work for a team. They are supposed to be experts. Here's the problem--they're not. They're writers. They're as hopelessly biased as fans, and as hopelessly in love with their own prose as any amateur hack. So they vote an award that winds up saying more about who THEY are than who the "most valuable" player is.

And that's not how it is supposed to be.

18 November 2008

Getting in the spirit

There was always a bottle present, so that it would seem to him that those fine fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled into that brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank, drinking not of the blood they spilled but some condensation of the wild immortal spirit, drinking it moderately, humbly even, not with the pagan's base and baseless hope of acquiring thereby the virtues of cunning and strength and speed but in salute to them.

--William Faulkner (from "The Bear" in Go Down, Moses)

Now that's a sentence. It is preceded by one about three times longer. Patrick O'Brian can uncork sentences that go halfway down the page, but he'll drop in a colon and a couple of semicolons along the way. Faulkner's sentence that precedes this one has a construction I've never seen, a semicolon followed by a dash (;--). The dash sets off a clause which ends with another dash, immediately followed by a clause set off by a dash. That's three dashes, one dash starting and ending one of the clauses. Stuff makes my head spin. (There's even a phrase in parentheses just past the third dash!)

This sentence, of course, is about whiskey. Or "whisky" as Faulkner spells it. Ms. Taylor, my high school English teacher (junior year), tried to get us excited about "The Bear." She was a good teacher, smart and earnest, but Faulkner was just too weird. I'm trying again, Ms. Taylor, I really am. Faulkner is some seriously impenetrable stuff. Thirty-plus years later I'm still struggling with it. I guess if I was a mixed-race Southerner who lived on the land my great-great-grandaddy farmed and I hunted a lot I might get it.

But I get the whisky drinking.

17 November 2008



Endeavour docks with ISS. (video link)

This Endeavour is OV-105 of NASA's Shuttle fleet. It was launched in 1992 and has 22 missions under its belt. Endeavour was the fifth and final shuttle--it replaced Challenger, which was destroyed shortly after takeoff in 1986. I remember that day well--I was teaching class when a highly agitated youngster came dashing into the room in the middle of my lesson. He was too polite to actually disrupt the class, but he got my attention and told me that his class down the hall had been watching the launch when the explosion occurred. He knew that it would be big news for me, as several months earlier I had chaperoned a student field trip to Edwards AFB in the Mojave desert to watch Challenger land. That mission was STS-61A. We didn't know, of course, that it would be Challenger's last successful flight. We were lucky enough to take another field trip to Edwards when flights resumed in 1988, and watched the successful landing of Discovery (STS-26). They don't land at Edwards any more, which is a shame, as the viewing was spectacular there. Watching that over-sized glider come down and kiss the earth is quite a sight. Those fellows are great pilots!

Speaking of great pilots, James Cook was in command of His Majesty's Bark Endeavour when it circumnavigated the globe from 1769-1771. He went on to fame and glory, remembered as one of the greatest navigators of his age. His tiny ship's memory lives on in space!

16 November 2008

Etna Brauerei

Over the mountain and down through the valley and you come to Etna. The Etna Brewery makes delicious beer, and serves a dandy lunch as well. We sat in the sun outside with our pals and had an afternoon festival for no reason at all. I had the Dunkel, a full-flavored, malty dark lager that impressed me with a clean, dry finish. It wasn't too sweet and that's to my liking. The Marzen--my second pint--was very mild and smooth, with a hint of hops. Lovely beers, both of them. Etna has always made great ales, their Mossback IPA and Old Grind Porter are particularly good. More and more craft brewers are adding Continental beers, and Etna offers a Pilsener to go with the other two lagers. I think that's a great trend. I'm not much for Belgian, but I really enjoy Bavarian and Bohemian! Word is the Etna Brauerei is no longer bottling--which means you'll only be able to get it at the bar. That will make the locals happy, they won't want any flatlanders drinking up our local treasure. As if I needed another reason to love life here in the State of Jefferson.

14 November 2008


The Indian Space Research Organisation announced today that the Moon Impact Probe from Chandrayaan-1 was successfully deployed and landed on the lunar surface. The date is significant: 14 Nov (1889) is the birthdate of Jawaharlal Nehru. The mission was timed to honor India's first prime minister and seminal figure in the country's modernization and emergence on the global stage. As I've said before, it is a new space race.

13 November 2008

Silent sentinel

Phoenix has sent its last signal.  Martian winter is coming to the red planet's Arctic plains and the remarkable stream of images we've enjoyed for the last few months will cease.  NASA says they are happy with the results, that Phoenix exceeded expectations.  I suppose when you blast a 350-kg projectile into cold, dark space and it travels a few hundred million miles for 8 months and you (1) hit the target and (2) land safely and (3) broadcast home you've accomplished one hell of a lot!  According to the LPL FAQ for the Phoenix mission, they thought they'd get only 90 sols (Martian days, about 92 earth days) worth of work done.  Instead they managed 149.

Today is sol 167 on Mars.  The weather report from sol 151 says there was a high of -46 C and a low of -89 C.  (Fahrenheit and Celsius sales actually converge at -40 degrees, that is, -40 F is the same as -40 C.)  That's cold.

Every journey we make to these far-flung, frozen landscapes ought to remind us of the uniqueness of Planet Earth.  Nowhere within billions and billions of miles is there anyplace so habitable, so hospitable to life as we know it.  No matter what we learn from Phoenix, and they'll be sorting through the stuff for months to come, we have to learn that our current home is all we've got.  Let's do right by it.

12 November 2008

Very clever

"Very clever you are, Mark!"

That's an actual quote from an actual person about my very clever FIFTY.  (See below.  Or read this.)

Then that pesky Charles Ardai sends his book to me, FIFTY-to-ONE.

It has fifty chapters.

Each bearing the name of the first 50 books in the Hard Case Crime series.

It is set fifty years in the past.

It has an insert--wait for it--all 50 lovely covers (with checklist)!

Very clever, Mr. Ardai.

09 November 2008

Wonderful Weekend

The weekend is the best time for music here in the State of Jefferson. Perhaps I should say "hear" in the State of Jefferson. I'm not an mp3 or iTunes kind of guy. I like to pop in the CDs, or heaven help me, spin the LPs or play the cassettes. Seriously. Both my vehicles have tape players. And I like the radio. Not Top 40, or heaven forbid, "classic rock." I've had enough of DJs and their hype, and I've had enough of programmed commercial schlock. I don't know who said it first, but I firmly believe that 90% of everything is crap. We spend our lives sifting for diamonds in the mountains of rough. Here (hear) are my diamonds:

First up at 1000 hours on Saturday mornings is Opera with host Don Matthews. I'm a Giovanni-come-lately to this wonderful music. My local public radio--Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Oregon--has a "Classics and News Service" on 91.1 MHz (FM). Mr. Matthews is a relaxed and informative host, and gives us an entire opera each week.

At 1800 my favorite program, American Rhythm, is hosted by the entertaining and erudite Craig Lloyd Faulkner. This one comes via JPR's "Rhythm and News Service" on 89.3. For two hours Mr. Faulkner teaches us the history of what he calls "American vernacular music." The only thing that trumps this show in this household is Giants baseball. From Sam Cooke to Sammy Cahn, the Andrews Sisters to the Mills Brothers, and Lonnie Johnson to Louis Jordan, this program serves up gem after gem. I just can't get enough of it.

Sunday morning at 0900, 89.3 carries NPR's incomparable Marian McPartland. The "Piano Jazz" hour is a fixture around here. The local guys play jazz all day long after that--real DJs with real playlists, live. Imagine that.

Then Derral Cambell takes over from 1400-1500 with "Rollin' the Blues." He covers the spectrum from classic to contemporary, old school wailers to uptempo guitar wizards. Can't ask for much more than that. Again, that's a local JPR show.

I'm amazed at the Mother Lode of musical riches that emanate from just over the hill. I live in a sleepy small town, a cultural wasteland in most respects, yet I can spin the radio dial and get all this stuff piped into my home. And yes, I actually do own receivers with analog knobs, so I really do "spin the dial." Hey, it's almost time for the blues!

08 November 2008


I first became acquainted with this word in my student days at Cal. I read Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature, and Dr. Bateson spent a bit of time on "stochastic processes," dancing around in evolution, psychology, anthropology, and whatnot, trying to put together some sort of ecological treatise. I used to read stuff like that. Now I read Out of the Gutter.

Bateson threw around a number of big words, but he had the decency to include a glossary. Here's his take on stochastic:

Stochastic. (Greek, stochazein, to shoot with a bow at a target; that is, to scatter events in a partially random manner, some of which achieve a preferred outcome) If a sequence of events combines a random component with a selective process so that only certain outcomes of the random are allowed to endure, that sequence is said to be stochastic.
(p. 252 Bantam New Age 1980 paperback edition)

Wolfram MathWorld says the word is synonymous with "random," and Bartleby agrees with the etymology.

Years later I came across the notion of a "random walk." This was in
Burton Malkiel's A Random Walk Down Wall Street. I've read, at most, a handful of things about finance. This engaging book was the most memorable and enjoyable. I have the everyman's ignorance about these things, and like I said, spend my time reading noir. But I love words, and when I consulted my trusty Cartoon Guide to Statistics on the subject of "random walks," they had this to say:

Random walks begin with a coin flip. Suppose you move ahead one step for a head and back one step for a tail. Repeated flips produce a stochastic process called a random walk.

(Larry Gonick, empahsis mine)

There's that pesky Greek again! WordMan™ would love "stochastic." He'd whip it out in all sorts of verbal crises in his globe-trekking exploits. What could be more stochastic than world travel? And think of the other opportunities--dazzling
my baseball readers with erudite posts on the stochastic nature of our beloved pastime! Screw sabermetrics. Stochasto-ball is here.

This post does have a point. It isn't often that you get "stochastic" in an interview, much less twice. But my brother-in-law,
Bart Rothwell, is an awfully bright fellow, and knows all sorts of things about science, statistics, and finance. If anyone has the the intellectual street cred to toss it around, it's him. So I was reading about Bart's latest endeavor (way to go, Bart!), and there was "stochastic." Words are like a bottle of good whiskey--you get to uncork that bottle again and pour out another dram. Each time you get to experience another aspect of their complexity and richness. Damn! I'm thirsty!

05 November 2008

Penny-ante pundit

Watching John McCain's moving, heartfelt and eloquent concession speech got me thinking "where was THIS John McCain during the campaign?" I was impressed by his gracious acceptance of defeat and his sincere words of praise for his opponent. He showed great character, I thought, pledging to work with the President-elect, and reminding his supporters that he expected that of them as well. If the dignified, articulate and passionate patriot I saw last night had been visible all summer, it would have been a much closer race. Unfortunately for McCain, he never quite found his legs as a candidate. He never seemed comfortable as the "Republican nominee." That role did not play to his strengths as a maverick, and curtailed his appeal to a wider base. He may not have won even if he had been himself and carved out his own path, but he would have looked like the part suited him. He had a tough task. Barack Obama ran a near-perfect campaign. His organization was superbly coordinated. His fundraising was the stuff of legend. And the President-elect's other-wordly sangfroid was never challenged. I can't remember ever seeing a man spend so much time in the spotlight and not screw up! Obama found his stride early, sprinted past the favorite in the primary, and worked steadily all summer and into the fall to add voters to his fold. It was an operation of clinical precision that was fueled by a passion and youthful vigor rarely seen in the American political landscape. Obama's victory speech again showed off his spectacular oratorical skills--we've come to expect that of him each time he steps to the podium. I kept thinking he's got to keep something in the tank for later--the Inaugural, State(s) of the Union, etc.--then I remember he's younger than I am! Obama was born on August 4th, 1961, making him about 20 months my junior. The TV coverage last night showed crowds filled with young people in their 20s and 30s, and I think that was the crucial piece for Obama. He energized a disaffected bloc, and seems to have led a generational shift. Let's hope it translates into a new era of consensus politics, where coalition-building is more important than partisanship. After all, we got a heap o'problems in this country, and no one knows the solutions. We'll muddle along, like always, but maybe this time we can all muddle together.

04 November 2008


McCain concedes the election. A dignified exit. The electoral tsunami happened. Barack Obama is the President-elect, and will be our 44th President in January.

Doncha think they oughta . . .

. . . make Election Day a national holiday? Close all the parks, beaches, recreation areas, stores, shops, offices, malls, government buildings, etc. Leave the bars, restaurants and motels/hotels open. But give everyone the day off so they can vote. The waiting-in-line thing just doesn't cut it.

"Hi, I'd like to exercise my fundamental American, democratic right to vote!"

"Take a number, wait over there."

No. Doesn't cut it. Or, how about a cheaper proposal: absentee/mail-in votes only in Presidential Elections. The idea that people could encounter difficulty, inconvenience or hardship on the way to the polls is absurd. Voting should be quick and easy and simple. Registration? Nonsense. You are a citizen, you get a ballot, you get to vote. Period. Let's get all 200+ million eligible voters actually voting.

Whaddya say?

03 November 2008

It's in the stars

According to Madam Lichtenstein, that is.

She uses astrology to call the 2008 election for Obama. Again, I don't understand any of it. Her horoscope for BHO says stuff like (italics mine):

Moon sextile Mercury trine Jupiter – a charming and eloquent speaker. A good communicator who can effect great change through words.

OK. I can dig it. Here's more:

Pluto and Vertex square Moon – Massive uncontrollable change can occur based on emotions. It might upset plans.

OK. Let's get this thing over with, shall we? If you haven't already, get yer ass out there and vote.

02 November 2008

Screw statistics

These fellows have a different take on the election. They don't give a damn about statistics, polls, regression analysis, margin of error, trend lines, or methodology.

Here's a quote (italics mine):

You LastDayWatchers already know that God has cursed the United States (the House of Manasseh) by reason of George W Bush.

A little further down we get:

Your political house will suffer defeat as a testimony against thine unclean hands, they will suffer defeat in the House, they will suffer defeat in the Senate.

And because John McCain has embraced thine unclean hands he will be utterly defeated a testimony against you.


Before you democrats get to giddy let the May 15th Prophecy also remind you that the Lord Of Host curse is still in affect which says from Gods own mouth"you shall be only oppressed and plundered continually, and no one shall save you."

Hey, they can't be all bad, they are calling the election for Obama. The Last Day Watchers seem to be another of these apocalyptic outfits, similar to the Rapture folks, I imagine, though I'm not well-versed in Christian theology and (particularly) eschatology. Their take on the election is in the section called The Iran Symbol, The Falsifiers and The Republican Prophecy. I didn't understand the argument. You might fare better.

I always say that politics is irrational--people often vote against their own best interests. Candidates weave stories--myths--about themselves, tapping into cultural archetypes that people connect with on a visceral level. Issues alone aren't interesting or important enough to decide the Presidency of the USA! Couple that with the fact that most issues have been reduced to sound bites and slogans, and that many Americans are one-issue voters (guns, gays, abortion, taxes, etc.), and you can see why it has become increasingly pointless to discuss them. Add to the mix another fact: only about HALF of eligible American voters actually cast ballots. Democracy stinks, no question about it. The alternatives, of course, are far worse.

01 November 2008

Goin' out on a limb

I'm normally a rational, unsentimental sort. I'm not prone to religiosity, exuberance or idealism. I'm a materialist. Not in the economic sense, but the philosphical one. I accept mystery as mystery, and I don't seek supernatural or metaphysical solutions to the conundrums of existence. I like cold, hard facts. Many have called me a cynic. (Partridge says the Latin form of this word means "the snarlers.") I prefer skeptic. (Origins says this Greek word means "to look carefully at.")

Tuesday is Election Day. No mattter what happens, we will get a new president, one who will take office on January 20, 2009. A former Senator will be inaugurated for the first time since John F. Kennedy in 1961. I'm going to write about the election because I know that I cannot curse the outcome. I can't "spoil it." I'm a blip in the cosmic scheme. Even though I cannot predict the future, I am going out on a limb.

Barack Hussein Obama will be the winner on Tuesday. A year ago, I would have laughed at this notion. In the spring, I'd have scoffed. This summer, I was doubtful. In the last few weeks, I'm convinced of it.

I'm superstitious at a baseball game. I have a fan's irrational, emotional relationship to the game and my team. I'm careful what I say and what I wish for because I'm convinced the baseball gods have cursed me in the past for blasphemy and will curse me again for sins both real and imagined. But that's baseball, not real life.

Then Nate Silver came along. Among the ranks of stat-geeks, sabermetricians and money-ballers who've brought new-fangled analysis to the previously inscrutable world of baseball, Mr. Silver became known to bloggers and fans via his work at Baseball Prospectus. While this stat stuff goes back a ways (to Bill James and Pete Palmer, for example, even back to Branch Rickey), it has only become mainstream in the last few years. In the last few months, Mr. Silver has tried his hand at politics. More precisely, political forecasting.

His blog, 538, says that BHO has a 97% chance of winning the election. (More properly, he wins the projection scenarios 97% of the time.) Senator Obama is projected to get 52% of the popular vote and over 340 electoral votes. The methodology at 538 is deeper than this post. Check it out for yourself. It convinced me. And I'm a skeptic. Particularly when it comes to Democrats winning national elections.

So there it is. I made the call. History will prove me a fool or not. At this point, with 538's help, I think it's a safe bet. Regardless, I'm staying up late on Tuesday, all night if necessary. No more disastrous early-morning "oh-gee-we-got-Florida-wrong" nonsense for this boy.