Robots and Empire

[Amazon Link] Cranking through the SF novels of the good Doctor Asimov. I think this one's my favorite, at least so far. The action/talk ratio is (for Asimov) pretty high; things actually happen, including a thrilling climax. And the characters seem (again, for Asimov) to be a little less one-dimensional.

The book is set a couple centuries after the events of The Robots of Dawn. The effort Elijah Baley set in motion in that book is in progress: after centuries of isolation, Earth is sending out "Settlers" to expand into the Galaxy. This is met with some resistance from the culprits in the previous book. They want to shut down Earth's expansion and leave the Galaxy for the "Spacers", the original colonists.

Worse, Elijah, being a Terran, has passed away. (He shows up in a flashback, though.) But the robots are still around: R. Daneel Olivaw and his de facto new partner, Giskard. Their task is to protect their mistress, Gladia, as she embarks on a mission to find out why all the humans have vanished from her old home world of Solaria. What they discover turns out to (of course) have galactic repercussions. Daneel and Giskard find themselves on dangerous ground, not only from human enemies, but also from the limitations of Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.

Oh yeah: the book was written in 1985, and the closing scene is set up in such a way that it vitally depends on the hysterical reaction to (without spoilers) a notable event of the late 70s. Asimov clearly throught that event would have much more importance in the near future than it actually turned out to have. This doesn't ruin the book, fortunately, but Asimov was a far better storyteller than prognosticator.

Last Modified 2014-11-09 11:20 AM EST

Premium Rush

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

OK, so this is probably a silly, formulaic action flick. Still, I liked it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays "Wilee", one of Manhattan's anarchic horde of bicycle messengers. Once on trajectory to become a respectable lawyer, he prefers the risky, adrenaline-soaked career of dodging vehicles and pedestrians to get packages to their destinations.

That could have been the premise of a small character-study movie. The heck with that, because this is a chase movie, full of gimmicks and gags.

The MacGuffin is a small slip of paper that Wilee is hired to transport from Columbia down to Chinatown. Wilee immediately finds himself targeted by a dirty, violence-prone cop. (He's also targeted by a clean cop for his borderline-insane flouting of traffic law.) Flashbacks (eventually) uncover the motives behind everyone doing what they're doing; there's heavy involvement of the Chinese underworld. But what really matters is the chase and the stunts.

This worked for me because Joseph Gordon-Levitt manages to infuse his character with a likeable pluck. The dirty cop, played by Michael Shannon, is also quite watchable and gets some good lines. (Amusing to a onetime science fiction geek: when providing a fake name, he uses "Forrest J. Ackerman", a sainted figure in science-fiction fandom.)

This is one of the rare movies that I wouldn't have minded seeing one of those making-of documentaries, because (a) that really does appear to be Mr. Gordon-Levitt taking totally insane high-speed risks with only a bike helmet for protection; and (b) it's all played out in Manhattan traffic that also appears unstaged. How did they do that?


[2.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Two questions:

  1. is there any actual "arbitrage" going on in this movie? Even in a metaphorical sense? Maybe I should ask Tyler Cowen. Otherwise, I entertain the possibility that the moviemakers simply rummaged around the financial press for a random financial term. "Margin Call?" "Taken." "Leverage?" "Taken." "Arbitrage?" "Well, OK."
  2. The movie stars charismatic, handsome, Richard Gere in the main role; his antagonist is scruffy, unglamourous, schlub Tim Roth. Does this movie work very differently if the roles are switched?

Anyway: Gere plays Robert Miller, the (as previously said) charismatic, handsome, and (above all) rich manager of a hedge fund. Outwardly, it's all good: corporate jets and limousines at his beck and call, a loving family (with Susan Sarandon—woo hoo— as his wife).

But just slightly underneath the superficial exterior, it's all falling apart. Miller has made a very bad, very illegal, hedged bet on a copper mine in Unstablestan. With Other People's Money. (Also taken.) And he has a mistress on the side, a cokehead French artist. Then things get much worse, and he finds he's got to deal with the (previously mentioned) scruffy, unglamourous Tim Roth. Undeniably guilty of multiple crimes, the question is: can he escape jail and a ridiculous amount of bad publicity?

Not bad, but I didn't care for the ending.

Men in Black 3

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

With Christmas and its preparation over, and with nothin' but reruns on the tube, it's time to plow through the Netflix disks. This is—OK—probably a cold-blooded attempt to squeeze out another few dollars out of a beloved movie, but it's (at least) watchable.

The villain here, intent on (what else) the destruction of Earth, is "Boris the Animal", played by an unrecognizable Jemaine Clement. (Really unrecognizable: I've seen every episode of Flight of the Conchords and I didn't realize it was him until the credits rolled.) Boris escapes from the lunar prison where Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) placed him back in 1969, and comes up with a devious plot to undo that history via time travel. Suddenly Agent K is gone in the "present"; only Agent J (Will Smith) remembers him. And the protection K wangled back in 1969 is absent, leaving Earth in peril from Boris's species. So J must travel back in time to untangle the time stream.

And so he does (spoiler, sorry). But it's an awful lot of fun along the way. J meets up with the younger K (Josh Brolin does an uncanny Tommy Lee Jones impression) and navigates the late sixties with aplomb.

URLs du Jour


  • [Cynthia Chase] Libertarian site Free Keene quotes a Blue Hampshire post in its entirety. It's by Cynthia L. Chase, one of Keene's representatives to the New Hampshire General Court. The title is "Free Staters Unwelcome Here". Where "here" is the state whose motto is "Live Free or Die".

    It's an amazingly perfect storm of snooty arrogance and name-calling; well worth your attention if you're interested in a window into how these people think. The thesis is: keep those foul immigrants inspired by the Free State Project out of New Hampshire. They are, Cynthia says, New Hampshire's " single biggest threat" Eek!

    How to keep them out? Well, mostly by being rude to them. Cynthia relates an example:

    Here in Keene we had a couple show up on Central Square to take part in our weekly Saturday morning peace demonstration. In the course of the conversation they allowed that they were Free Staters considering moving to Keene. The folks on the Square told them in no uncertain terms not to do that because Free Staters are not welcome here. Cheshire County is a welcoming community but not to those whose stated goal is to move in enough ideologues to steal our state, and our way of life.

    As a point of reference: the FSP chose New Hampshire for its participants to move to back in 2003. Cynthia Chase has only lived in New Hampshire since 2006.

    Now: I've only lived in New Hampshire since 1981, and sometimes still feel like a n00b. I don't know if I'll ever live here long enough to exhibit Cynthia's imperiousness in declaring how hostile "our state" should be to people who disagree with me politically.

  • Although, Cynthia? Brattleboro, Vermont is less than 20 miles from Keene, thataway. Just sayin'.

  • Among those Cynthia would probably consider one of those nasty Free Staters is P.J. O'Rourke, who has content in the WSJ today, providing advice (certainly a fruitless task) to President Obama.

    Mr. President, your entire campaign platform was redistribution. Take from the rich and give to the . . . Well, actually, you didn't mention the poor. What you talked and talked about was the middle class, something most well-off Americans consider themselves to be members of. So your plan is to take from the more rich and the more or less rich and give to the less rich, more or less. It is as if Robin Hood stole treasure from the Sheriff of Nottingham and bestowed it on the Deputy Sheriff.

    Read the who… oh, you've already clicked over.

  • Another Pun Salad fave, Kevin D. Williamson, has a good article rebutting a softhead on the gun issue. He speaks the truth about the Second Amendment that will make nearly all Democrats (and not a few Republicans) squirm:

    The Second Amendment is not about Bambi and burglars -- whatever a well-regulated militia is, it is not a hunting party or a sport-clays club. It is remarkable to me that any educated person -- let alone a Harvard Law graduate -- believes that the second item on the Bill of Rights is a constitutional guarantee of enjoying a recreational activity.

    Mr. Williamson has a book coming out in May: The End Is Near and It's Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure. I have pre-ordered, and you should too.

Arthur Chrismas

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Netflix sent us this DVD about a month ago, and we patiently saved it up for Christmas… and then other things ran a bit too late for us to watch it on Christmas. Oops! We probably deprived a poor household with actual children from watching it. Somewhere in Farmington, harried parents probably put in a copy of Reservoir Dogs for the kiddos instead.

But we finally saw it the day after Christmas, and that's close enough.

It starts out describing how Santa does things these days: very high-tech, assisted with a horde of elves, and a superfast stealth craft that's more flying saucer than sleigh. The old sleigh and the reindeer have been relegated to a forgotten corner of Santa's North Pole base.

The organization up there is vaguely monarchical, with the title of Santa being passed down from generation to generation. The current Santa is tiring after 70 Christmases; his heir apparent is the no-nonsense Steve Christmas, who's driven the big technological makeover of the operation and runs it like a martinet. His younger brother, Arthur, is a bumbler, earnest believer in the Christmas spirit, and (like the sleigh and reindeer) has been shuffled off to a obscure office, answering kids' letters to Santa.

But this year, a bike destined for Gwen, a little English Girl, somehow got mislaid. Big-picture guy Steve notes this as unfortunate, but acceptable. Santa, tired, meekly agrees and settles in for a long winter's nap.

Arthur, however, views this as not at all acceptable; aided by 136-year-old (and slightly demented) GrandSanta, and wrapping elf Briony, they set off in the old sleigh with Gwen's bike. Hijinks ensue.

This is made by many of the same folks that did the wonderful The Pirates! Band of Misfits, although it's not quite as wonderful. Rated PG for "some mild rude humor", it's a good choice for family viewing.

URLs du Jour


  • [Sammy and Martin] Today's image stolen from Cracked, and you should check out their article "13 Awesome Photos That Will Make You Happy to Be Alive"

  • What'd I get? Well, let me tell ya: DVDs: Futurama: Volume 7; Iron Man 2; The Dark Knight Rises; The Avengers; Brave. CDs (yes, they still exist): Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughn In Session; Sunken Condos by Donald Fagen; That's Why God Made the Radio by The Beach Boys; Privateering by Mark Knopfler; Born To Sing: No Plan B by Van Morrison. Books: The Bookwoman's Last Fling by John Dunning; Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d'Art by Christopher Moore; The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker; Holidays in Heck by P.J. O'Rourke; Spade & Archer (a prequel to The Maltese Falcon) by Joe Gores.

    And (last but not least), beef jerky from McKinnons Market and a couple biiig bottles of beer from local Throwback Brewery. Specifically: "Hog Happy Hefeweizen" and "Dippity Do American Brown". Now all I need is a football game on TV; I understand there are some coming up.

    I have very generous friends and family.

  • I didn't have anything sensible to say about the Newtown CT horror. If you want cheap strident emotionalism it's easy enough to find elsewhere. The folks who brought you the phrase "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste" are busy at work trying to push through "gun control" legislation in the heat of the moment.

    Which brings to mind a Thomas Szasz quote:

    The FDA calls certain substances "controlled." But there are no "controlled substances," there are only controlled citizens.

    So it is with "gun control"; the aim is not to control guns, but to control citizens.

    That's the primary goal of your average 21st Century American Progressive, and they'll use any pretext—including your understandable reaction to murdered children—to get it.

  • Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, was apparently taken with the "we gotta do something" disease, and went on-air with advocacy of "armed security" of "every single school in America". The response of Cato's Gene Healy deserves your attention. Bottom line: top-down "solutions" conjured up out of panic and fear will inevitably lead to misallocations of scarce resources that will leave us all, including the kiddos, less safe.

    Is that irony? I can never tell.

  • But enough seriousness: there's a nice little story from Walter Mosley in the December Atlantic magazine, and the folks there have put it online: "Reply to a Dead Man".

  • I'm a huge fan of the FX network series Justified, a potent combination of wonderful acting, plotting, mordant humor, shocking violence, and bad language. Among the supporting talents is Nick Searcy, who plays Art Mullen. As we await new episodes coming up in a few weeks, you could do worse than take a few video lessons from Nick Searcy's Acting School.

    Nick also did this unconventional ad for… well, let's leave it as a surprise. Check it out:

Dead of Night

[Amazon Link] It's been a while since my last Randy Wayne White novel, featuring his hero Marion "Doc" Ford, fulltime biology geek, part-time deadly secret agent. This is the twelfth entry in the series that (as I type) has 19 novels. And it's good!

The plot driver here is an attempt at bioterrorism aimed at Doc's beloved state of Florida. A crackpot/hustler environmentalist has latched onto hordes of dangerous species, and knows enough about the Floridian ecosystem to deploy them to his maximum financial benefit; he's aided by a raft of flunkies, including a deadly female Chechen ex-soldier, who's kinda into sadistic killing.

Doc gets roped into all this doing a favor for a friend: would you look into what my brilliant Asperger's-syndrome brother is up to? Doc finds him being tortured by the bad guys. I hate it when that happens. He gives futile chase, and returns only to find the brother has committed suicide, and his corpse is riddled with disgusting parasites. Who could blame him?

I find Mr. White's novels to be extremely easy reads, and they're just getting better as the series continues.

Merry Christmas!

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As always, Pun Salad encourages its readers to avoid behavior that might make baby Jesus cry, and (otherwise) have a great Christmas.

Last Modified 2012-12-25 11:55 AM EST

MLK Day 2013: UNH Tones Down the Politics

Drum Major It's that time of year when Pun Salad looks at the upcoming "celebration" of Martin Luther King Day at the University Near Here. I'm somewhat surprised to discover a change for the better. What happened?

More on that below. First, the obligatory "some things don't change" part:

  • MLK Day is the only holiday for which UNH engineers a multi-day shindig with guest speakers and sponsored events.

  • It wouldn't be kosher to do it on the actual MLK day on January 21; Spring Semester classes don't start until January 22, and what's the point of doing this if the students aren't around? So the events are scheduled to start the following week, from January 27 until February 5.

  • UNH publicizes a "Spiritual Celebration" service to be held at the Durham Community Church. MLK Day is a day on which the Wall of Separation is temporarily lowered, where the University advocates you show up at a church for "songs, drumming, music, poetry, and special readings". It allows the participants to obtain that warm-n-fuzzy moral superiority buzz without getting bogged down in all that tacky, inconvenient God and Bible stuff.

Here's where things are slightly better this year: it used to be that the tone of the MLK celebration at UNH was in-your-face leftism. This year…not quite as much! The keynote speaker is Rob Dixon, UNH class of 1983. Mr. Dixon came to UNH on a basketball scholarship, and is one of the team's top scorers ever. He didn't get to play in the NBA, but played professionally in Europe. He went on to teach and coach, and nowadays is is the founder and Executive Director of Project RISE, devoted to providing remedial education to "academically high risk" students in the Boston Public School system.

In short, Mr. Dixon is actively involved in trying to teach black kids who need help. Search as I might, I can't find even a hint of the strident leftism that's been the norm in past MLK day speakers. And he has an actual strong tie to UNH, not just parachuting in for the day.

So good for UNH; I don't get to say that enough. He's not my dream MLK Day speaker (Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Herman Cain, Tim Scott, …) but a decided positive break from UNH's tedious ideological tradition.

Not to say that things are perfect. The program for MLK day is the usual thoughtless word-stuffed gasbaggery. For example, the description of the previously-mentioned "MLK Spiritual Celebration: Rise Up into Communities of Justice and Compassion" at Durham Community Church:

Join the UNH and Durham communities in an inter-faith and multi-faith spiritual celebration that supports and highlights the spiritual foundation that Martin Luther King Jr. brought to his life and works. Featuring songs, drumming, music, poetry, and special readings, the community remembers The Rev. Dr King. Reception to follow. All are welcomed to this moving and joyous evening!

For prose like this, the rules are: (1) don't use just one word when you can stick in a few more; (2) don't worry at all about it meaning anything specific.

So: not just "justice" but "justice and compassion".

And there are "communities" of each. Or maybe both. Whatever.

And you don't do anything as mundane as joining these "communities". You "rise up into" them. Which is, I'm sure, a different process.

But if you get past that, you get to ponder the nature of the "spiritual celebration": it's "inter-faith" and "multi-faith". Are those different concepts? If so, how will the "celebration" be split between them? Maybe the music and drumming will be inter-faith, while the poetry and readings will be multi-faith? There will be a test afterwards to see if you figured it out.

The "spiritual celebration" has something to do with a "spiritual foundation". What? Well it "supports and highlights" it.

How do you "support" a foundation? Isn't a foundation something that supports things on its own?

Worse, we read that this is a foundation that Martin Luther King, Jr. "brought to" his life and works. Does that metaphor work for you? Me neither. You don't "bring" a foundation anywhere. You build a foundation, and then you build on a foundation.

Geez, I hate it when I spend ten times more mental work reading a short bit of prose that the author spent writing it.

Some notes about the MLK "quote" emblazoned at the top of the program:

Everybody can be great . . . because anybody can serve.

The page claims this to be a quote from King's 1968 sermon "The Drum Major Instinct". It turns out to be a popular misquotation. It should be:

Everybody can be great . . . because everybody can serve.

Yes, I verified it by listening to the audio. It even makes more sense that way. Fun fact: when I pointed this out to the folks responsible for the page, I was—rather snootily—informed that they had "vetted" the quotation. Actually, they had discovered the (common) misquotation. And rather than check again, they decided to leave it in place, blissfully confident in their slipshod "vetting".

Oh well, at least it's not as if they carved it in stone. Ironically, the "Drum Major" sermon was the source for a different misquotation. And this one really was carved in stone. When the MLK memorial in Washington DC was unveiled in 2011, it was engraved with:


… which, whatever its truthiness, are not words that MLK actually uttered, and arguably have a totally different connotation than the actual words King spoke. Leaving out the responses from the congregation:

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don't want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize--that isn't important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards--that's not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.

I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.

And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.

I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say.

It was recently announced that the misquote will be obliterated from the memorial sometime in 2013, at a cost of $700-$900K.

Finally, it should be noted that King's 1968 "Drum Major" sermon is widely recognized as being "adapted" from a 1949 sermon by J. Wallace Hamilton. Um, without attribution. You can get an idea of the extent of the "adaptation" via the Google Books view of Keith D. Miller's Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources. Fans of MLK tend to dismiss/explain away his plagiarism from other works, which is fine, but it's a little ironic that UNH is choosing to draw attention to behavior that would get a current-day student severely disciplined.

U is for Undertow

[Amazon Link] Why yes, I did read (or, in this case, mostly listen to) two Sue Grafton mysteries in a row. Good catch. What are you anyway, the book police? Anyway, I've gone from "trying to catch up with Ms. Grafton" to "almost caught up with Ms. Grafton" in a very short time.

The book is set in Spring 1988, and Ms Grafton's PI heroine, Kinsey Millhone, still has her hot Mustang. A troubled young man appears on her doorstep: Michael Sutton has been to the cops, and they have referred him to Kinsey. He tells a vague yarn about the summer of 1967, when he wandered off into the woods and came across two men burying something, acting mysterious. And now, by coincidence, he's realized this was around the same time a four-year-old girl was kidnapped. Could the men have been burying… the child?

Sutton's story is too farfetched and flimsy for the police to investigate, but he manages to scrape together enough cash to hire Kinsey for one day. Her masterful detective work gets him more than his money's worth. Unfortunately (for Sutton), Kinsey's doggedness causes her to pursue the investigation unpaid; while she eventually discovers the truth, Sutton's fate is not so pleasant.

As she did in the past few books, Ms. Grafton intersperses Kinsey's first-person narrative with third-person sections set both in 1966-67 and the "present" 1988. And (once again) these work pretty well. There's a huge conflict between the bourgeois values of upper-middle-class Santa Teresa and the nascent hippie movement. Grafton is remarkably unsympathetic to the hippies.

A side plot involves Kinsey's relationship with her mostly-estranged family. A secret about Aunt Gin, who brought Kinsey up after her parents were killed, is revealed. And the ending is kind of sweet.

Darling Companion

[2.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

The Christmas prep season is busier than Actual Christmas, it seems, but we took a break to watch a movie. Not a good movie, but still. It was written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. This is the same guy who wrote and directed Body Heat, Silverado, and The Big Chill back in the 1980s. He has screenplay credits for The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark! Dude, what happened here?

Plot: Beth (Diane Keaton) is married to spinal surgeon Joseph (Kevin Kline). Beth and daughter Grace (Elizabeth Moss) notice an abandoned dog off the freeway, and rescue it. Beth decides to adopt, naming the dog "Freeway". (Get it?)

Fast forward a year or so, and Grace is getting married to the vet in a beautiful Rocky Mountain setting. And then Freeway runs away while on a walk with Joseph! Bad dog! A dog hunt commences, not only by Beth and Joseph, but also including various semi-colorful barely-interesting family and friends. (Including Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Mark Duplass, and Sam Shepard).

The plot is just a clearly just a scaffold to explore the characters and their relationships. See if you can get interested in them; I couldn't. The cast is filled with acting talent (I count five Oscars and five additional nominations in the cast) but there's not much acting talent can do to save a weak plot and wooden dialog.

The DVD box features a blurb by Pete Hammond of Deadline Hollywood: "A True Gem". Looking at the source of the quote, I can't see any evidence he watched the movie.

T is for Trespass

[Amazon Link] As noted on the main blog, I've been going through a period of diminished vision. This precluded long periods of reading, but I was able to borrow the Audible version of this Sue Grafton book and get it on my iPad.

This is my first time (at least as an adult) "reading" a book by listening to someone else read it. In this case, the reader is the Tony-award winning actress Judy Kaye, who's performed all of Ms. Grafton's Kinsey Millhone novels for this medium. A few notes:

  • If you doze off, a real book notices you've done so and stops. Not the Audible version. Ms. Kaye, bless her, just reads on.

    So, on numerous occasions, I woke up with a snort, and had to—dammit—stop the playback, and attempt to backtrack to the last-thing-I-remembered-hearing spot.

    Worse: For all its technical sophistication, the default iPad playback software doesn't make this very easy.

    On this point, 21st-century technology is outclassed by centuries-old technology. Irony? Maybe. I can never tell.

  • Which brings up a related point. Way back in my Usenet days, I dubbed Ms. Grafton the "Queen of Pointless Description", because—God bless her—she does like to have Kinsey go on and on about her diet, clothes, environment, … For example, while jogging through downtown Santa Teresa, she has to wait for a freight train to pass. And…

    I counted six boxcars, a tank car, an empty livestock car, refrigerator car, nine container cars, three hard-top gondolas, a flat car, and finally the caboose.

    I've learned to put up with this yammering, because I love Kinsey as much as I do any fictional character. But (as I discovered) this brought up another difference between print and audio: it's much easier to skim through this stuff in print. There's no "fast-forward through unnecessary content" button on the iPad. Which—guess what?—makes it more likely that I'll find myself waking up from a snooze.

  • It's long, about 12.5 hours. Longer in my case, due to the factors mentioned above.

  • Ms. Kaye does slightly different voices for each character. After reading 19 dead-trees Kinsey books, with her first-person narration, I was slightly surprised by Kinsey's "actual" voice here. I'd always seen her with a slightly sweet, slightly goofy, occasionally sarcastic voice. But in reality (according to Ms. Kaye), she's a little hard-edged, tough, and more cynical than sarcastic.

But what of the book itself? Ms. Grafton (as she did in S) breaks up her usual first-person narrative. A number of chapters are third-person narration following "Solana Rojas", the villain of the piece. Except she's not really Solana; she's a sociopathic identity thief, an expert at masquerading as different people as she does her dirty work, then vanishing back into her normal persona.

Kinsey, for her part, is mostly engaged in her normal PI work of serving legal papers, investigating insurance fraud, etc. But her cranky old neighbor, Gus, has a nasty accident, requiring the services of an in-home nurse. Guess who gets hired? Kinsey is initially gulled, but her nagging doubts become suspicions, then grow into a terrible certainty. She uses her detective skills to peel back the deception, but Solana always seems to be a couple steps ahead of her. And (of course) Kinsey eventually finds herself in peril.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

It's a mini-boomlet in humanity-faces-Armageddon movies. But this is much, much more fun to watch than Melancholia, even though it lacks Kirsten Dunst's bazooms.

The culprit in this movie is "Matilda", an asteroid that's on track for an inevitable collision with Earth. We're informed right at the start that the usual Bruce Willis/Robert Duvall mission to save the planet has failed, so what's left is to follow the odyssey of Dodge (Steve Carell) as he tries to deal with his wife (literally) running out on him. (Nice touch: Dodge's wife is played by Steve Carell's actual spouse, Nancy.)

The large-scale reactions to doomsday are as expected. Some engage in violent anarchy; some seek out hedonistic excess in various combinations of sex, booze, and drugs; some plan for survival; some wallow in the mellow fellowship of family and friends. But Dodge becomes obsessed with reuniting with his high-school sweetheart, Olivia. He pairs up with Penny (Keira Knightley), a ditzy weed-loving free spirit. They set out in search of Olivia, but encounter a number of colorful characters on the way.

It's unpretentious and (although not billed as a comedy) very funny in spots. And mawkishly sentimental in other spots. But overall, very watchable. It probably helps that Steve Carell is an expert in portraying sympathetic characters; in less capable hands, Dodge would come across as a whiny, effete loser.

Last Modified 2014-11-09 11:31 AM EST

The Robots of Dawn

[Amazon Link] This 1983 book is another "late Asimov" novel, a followup to his two robot/mystery books written in the 1950s. Asimov's detective is Elijah "Lije" Baley, who's once again partnered with R. Daneel Olivaw. Where the "R" stands for Robot; Daneel is the only robot in the galaxy that can reasonably pass for human.

Or, specifically, he is now the only humanoid robot. Because the positronic brain of the only other humanoid robot, R. Jander Panell, has been sent into an irreversible lockup. The prime suspect is Daneel's and Jander's creator, Dr. Han Fastolfe; even he, with a characteristic lack of modesty, admits that he's the only one with the requisite skills and knowledge to "kill" a robot in this manner. Yet he denies that he's the culprit.

Baley is sent to the scene of the crime: Aurora, the first planet to be colonized by Earth. By a convoluted (and not too convincing) argument, the very future of mankind depends on the outcome of Baley's investigation: unless Fastolfe is cleared, his political enemies will gain the upper hand. And his political enemies believe that Earth must never be allowed to participate in futher settlement of the galaxy's inhabited worlds.

Things are somewhat enlivened by the confession of Gladia (a reappearing character from the previous book in the series), for whom Jander was working. It turns out that she and Jander had been canoodling in secrecy; that sordid revelation would probably not have made it into a 1950s Asimov novel.

But otherwise—as usual with an Asimov novel—it's talk, talk, talk. Page after page of wooden dialog. It takes until page 319 (in my 408-page copy) before something resembling normal mystery action occurs. Asimov makes up for this with his fantastic world-building and plotting skills.

This book also continues Asimov's project of tying together his Foundation series with his robot series, with Fastolfe working on something he calls "psychohistory"—a key element in the Foundation books—and tantalizing hints about the upcoming Galactic Empire (where, as we know, the Terran origins of humanity have been forgotten).

I Can See Clearly Now

Link] Not that it matters, but my extended blogging break has been mostly for medical reasons. A couple weeks back I noticed that something funny was going on with the vision in my right eye. It appeared a black blob was creeping up from the bottom of my vision field. I could still see OK out of the top two-thirds, but as the Apple guys say: "That's not recommended."

I had a previously-scheduled optometrist appointment. The nice lady took one look and told me what I kind of expected: I had a detached retina.

Instead of getting one of those stylish glass eyes, like Peter Falk, I was encouraged to get a vitrectomy, the removal of the eye's vitreous humor. (Schematic at right. Follow the link for even more disturbing pictures of the procedure.) Some fancy laser work pasted the retina back in place, and—this is kind of the cool part—my eye was inflated slightly with a gas bubble to hold the retina in place while things healed up, hopefully for the long term.

(I am wearing a green wristband to inform people that I can't fly, or be given nitrous oxide, lest my eye explode. That voids the warranty.)

The problem is: you can't see anything with a gas bubble in your eye. It does not have the same refractory index, so the lens can't do its usual fine focusing job. Worse, you're supposed to keep the bubble at the back of your eye, out of contact with the lens. It can cause cataracts. So I've also needed to spend waking and sleeping hours in a position with my eye pointing down.

This is even less interesting than it sounds. And sleeping is no picnic when you can't assume your normal range of comfortable positions.

Fortunately, I've been able to borrow the Audible versions of Sue Grafton novels for iPad playback. She's much more sleep-inducing in this format! Unlike reading a real book, the novel just keeps going while I doze off. So I wake up, realize that I've missed an unknown number of minutes/hours, and try to backtrack to the last thing I remember hearing.

But things are getting better, and I hope to be getting back to normal soon.

Last Modified 2012-12-14 5:29 AM EST

Ruby Sparks

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

IMDB bills this as "Comedy/Fantasy/Romance", the same small genre intersection as (say) Midnight in Paris. But I liked this a lot better.

Paul Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a writer whose first novel was a critical and commercial success, allowing him to live in a shiny house with a great view and a pool. But he's struggling and failing to put words to paper, and his life is lonely emptiness, enough to see a sympathetic shrink (Elliot Gould).

Calvin is obsessed with a (literal) dream girl, Ruby. The shrink gives Calvin his assignment: write about her. And—oops—this is sufficient to make Ruby appear in real life. (At first, Calvin takes Ruby for a delusion, and doubts that anyone else can see her. This is hilariously debunked.)

All is bliss for a while. But things go wrong in an unexpected way: Ruby is (again, literally) an unfinished character. Her reality is limited by what Calvin has typed, and her incompleteness begins to chafe.

Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas are very funny playing Calvin's mom and stepdad.

One impressive bit: this seems to be a male fantasy, "obviously" written by a guy. But no: the writer is Zoe Kazan, who also plays Ruby. (It's in her genes: grandpa was Elia Kazan.)

Last Modified 2017-12-02 4:43 AM EST