Today’s Topic: Outer Space
I just saw on CNN’s Breaking News that the SpaceXlaunch vehicle, intended as the first private American space venture to resupply the international space station, had failed to get off the launch pad this morning after an automatic engine shutdown. We heard Elon Musk, CEO and Chief Designer of SpaceX (also CEO and Product Architect of Tesla Motors), speak at length yesterday on NPR’s Science Friday about how SpaceX could do such missions, as well as eventually transport humans to and from the space station, for an eighth of the cost of what NASA used to spend. Back to the drawing board I guess. Musk also spoke about the goal of taking people to the moon and the ultimate destination, Mars, to make humans an interplanetary species (which seems a tad ambitious given we can’t take care of one planet at present).
The idea of space flight and the desire to go to outer space (remember that desire to stick a finger in a light socket to see what happens?) goes back quite a ways. Palgrave has just published a very interesting looking collection of essays called Imagining Outer Space. Here’s the descriptive blurb:

Imagining Outer Space makes a captivating advance into the cultural history of outer space and extraterrestrial life in the European imagination. How was outer space conceived and communicated? What promises of interplanetary expansion and cosmic colonization propelled the project of human spaceflight to the forefront of twentieth-century modernity? In what way has West-European astroculture been affected by the continuous exploration of outer space? Tracing the current thriving interest in spatiality to early attempts at exploring imaginary worlds beyond our own, the book’s authors analyze contact points between science and fiction from a transdisciplinary perspective and examine sites and situations where utopian images and futuristic technologies contributed to the omnipresence of fantasmatic thought. Bringing together state-of-the-art work in this emerging field of historical research, the volume breaks new ground in the historicization of the Space Age.

It sounds a bit on the academic and technical side – astroculture, spatiality, transdisciplinary, fantasmatic, etc. But they had me at “Balloons on the Moon.”

More on this tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Today’s Topic: The Heat Death of Hollywood
I thought of a word – entropy – while suffering through Dark Shadows last night. I always have high hopes for high-profile films and am almost always disappointed, especially when it comes to Tim Burton films (Frankenweenieanyone? Anyone?).
Entropyin physics is the measure of the amount of energy that cannot be used to do work, work in the sense of energy being transferred from one place to another. For example, you get a glass, fill it with ice and water, set it on the kitchen counter, and then walk away. What happens? The water is warmer than the ice so the heat in the water transfers to the ice, melting it, and the water gets colder as it loses that heat. The room temperature, however, is warmer than the water and ice combination, so the heat in the room transfers to the glass until the temperature of the water in the glass (the ice is now melted, remember) reaches the same temperature as the room. At that point, all movement of energy ceases. Entropy has been achieved.
This all comes from the second law of thermodynamics, which states that in any isolated physical system (such as your kitchen with the AC off and the windows and doors closed), differences in temperature, pressure, and chemical potential for molecular interaction will equal out. In other words, everything comes to a screeching halt. There is no energy, no life available for anything interesting to happen: entropy.
I’m taking a rather circuitous route here (big surprise) to my point. There are those who believe the universe (supposedly an isolated physical system) will eventually reach a state of maximum entropy, which is a weird term because, when you think of it, how can there be degrees of entropy? Anyway, at maximum entropy, the universe will no longer have any “free” energy available. It will no longer be able to sustain motion or life, a state described as “the heat death of the universe.” Hollywood, it seems, is already there and waiting for the rest of us to arrive – no, not waiting but sucking the life out of us and dragging us, not even kicking and screaming, toward our own form of entropy: the heat death of the brain.

Today’s Topic: Space Cakes in Amsterdam
We went to a poetry reading last night by Yuyutsu Sharma, the well-known (in poetry circles at least) poet and teacher from Nepal. The reading was excellent. Yuyu, who is also a Hindu Brahmin, is well-versed in the oral tradition of his culture and a wonderful storyteller and reader. Brahmin refers to the highest or priestly caste in Hinduism (and to the Boston Brahmins, of course), brahmanis the word for the one supreme universal spirit in Hinduism (and also the brahman breed of cattle, which makes sense when you think about it), and brahmarefers to the Hindu god of creation (shown below) and the creative aspect of universal consciousness.
Speaking of universal consciousness, one of Yuyu’s most entertaining poems, and the story that went with it, is called “Space Cake, Amsterdam.” In the poem and the story, Yuyu tells of his experience at an open house in his honor. While waiting to read, he ate six of the cakes put out for refreshment, not knowing they were laced with hashish. (Hear Yuyu tell the story and read the poem here.) Apparently these cakes are sold in coffee shops in Amsterdam and even touted on some travel websites. The same website warns about the dangers of eating too many space cakes.
There is an American equivalent to the Amsterdam space cake. They’re called dirt bombs and sold at the CottageStreet Bakery in Orleans on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. They are famous as well, it seems, being touted on Yelpand TripAdvisor. No hashish or pot in these, however; just sugar-sugar-sugar. On the menu, they now list the dirt bombs as French donut puffs. The high is not the same (I’m not speaking from experience here, just conjecture), but the result may be similar: a brief experience of Nirvana. Unless, of course, you eat too many of them, which results not in the near-death experience that Yuyu described in his poem, but in a feeling akin to “I’ve just eaten a bowling ball and I can’t get up.”  

Today’s Topic: EGAD!
I just read in Chris Hedges’ truthdigblog titled “Welcome to the Asylum” that, according to the World Health Organization, one in four US citizens suffers from chronic anxiety. I should just stick to sipping coffee in the morning and staring out the window with the cats.
Another name for chronic anxiety is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), also known as free-floating anxiety, which is weird because floating free sounds very relaxing. People with GAD worry about everything and nothing. As the NIMH puts it,
…people with GAD are extremely worried about these and many other things, even when there is little or no reason to worry about them. They are very anxious about just getting through the day. They think things will always go badly. At times, worrying keeps people with GAD from doing everyday tasks.
The NIMH also lists the symptoms for this condition. People with GAD
  • worry very much about everyday things;
  • have trouble controlling their constant worries;
  • know that they worry much more than they should;
  • not be able to relax;
  • have a hard time concentrating;
  • be easily startled;
  • have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep;
  • feel tired all the time;
  • have headaches, muscle aches, stomach aches, or unexplained pains;
  • have a hard time swallowing;
  • tremble or twitch;
  • be irritable, sweat a lot, and feel light-headed or out of breath; and/or
  • have to go to the bathroom a lot.
The treatment for GAD is psychotherapy and/or drugs. There are, however, some alternative therapies that people may not know about: for those with GAD or even those with nonfree-floating anxiety like “I have a big test tomorrow” or “the rent is due in three days,” please click hereor empty your mind and stare at this image for one minute every day:

Today’s Topic: The Hound
Last night marked the second installment (well, fourth really if you count the first season) of what Masterpiece Mystery is calling Sherlock 2. It’s Sherlock Holmes, of course, set in modern times with Bernard Cumberbatch (an excellent actor in spite of a cumbersome British name) and, except perhaps for last week’s episode, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” it doesn’t work. In this incarnation, Sherlock seems to be on methrather than morphine. So, apparently, are the director, DP, and editor. This season has some clever use of graphics, but aside from that the motto of this production seems to be, “We’re off now. Keep up if you can.” Most times, I couldn’t.
That aside, last night’s episode was “The Hounds of Baskerville,” transformed from the original title The Hound of the Baskervilles. The alteration came about because there is more than one hound now and the Baskerville family has been replaced by a top-secret government research facility called Baskerville that does genetic research that results in rabbits named Bluebelle glowing in the dark. (Speed that last sentence up ten times and you’ll have an idea of how Cumberbatch’s Sherlock speaks—very long sentences, very fast.) The mad Baskerville scientists also, supposedly, created a hellhound like this depiction from Wikipedia.
According to IMDB, there are 19 versions of the Hound, going back to a silent German version (Der Hund von Baskerville) done in 1914. (The novel came out in 1901.) Another film version, oddly enough, was also created for Masterpiece Theater in 2003.
Speaking of German, a “group” called Cindy & Bert did a music video of Black Sabbath‘s “Paranoid” back in 1969 or so called “Der Hund von Baskerville.” apparently changing the lyrics to have something to do with the Conan Doyle story (if you speak German, help us out here) and featuring a pekingese, which when you think about it, is kind of a hellhound.

Today’s Topic: Clearly
After yesterday’s blog, I’ve started noticing other things that people say repeatedly. “Clearly” is a very popular word it seems. The latest instance came up in a PBS NewsHour interview yesterday. The word is meant to be an adverb, as in “I can see clearly now.” It’s also used as padding, in others words (some padding of my own), a word that serves only to take up space (and time). (In the rest of this blog, I will strike out padding words to illustrate.)
Take this statement, for example: “Clearly, we need to do something about the deplorable state of our national parks.” Now try it this way: “We need to do something about the deplorable state ofour national parks.” Sans padding, the statement is the same. The latter statement, however, sounds more forthright and honest. Padding words, which politicians use quiteoften, tend to indicate, in my view, a platitude, something politicians are clearly very familiar with.
Other padding tactics usedinvolve circumlocution (also called periphrasis, circumduction, circumvolution, periphrase, or ambage) such as “Another possible adjustment relates to the age at which Social Security and Medicare benefits will be provided. Under current law, and even with the so-called normal retirement age for Social Security slated to move up to 67 over the next two decades, the ratio of the number of years that the typical worker will spend in retirement to the number of years he or she works will rise in the long term.” (that’s Alan Greenspan, if you didn’t recognize it), tautologiessuch as “he died of a fatal overdose,” and unnecessary determiners, qualifiers, and modifiers such as “kind of,” “sort of,” “basically,” “in general,” and so on.
PBS will screen the great-looking HBO documentary The Weight of the Nation on our national domesticproblem of obesity starting next week. Clearly, they actually need to include in it, the documentary I mean, include something meaningful, basically, about how our, you know,language is expanding and getting bigger in a way that more than matches our waist lines.

Today’s Topic: The Fact of the Matter
Have you ever noticed how often people offering an opinion on something will preface their remark with the phrase “the fact of the matter is…“? I noticed it on CNN yesterday when some political commentator was about to launch into yet another dissection of the POTUS declaring his view of same-sex marriage. Whenever this phrase comes up (or “in fact” or “as a matter of fact”) you can almost bet that no facts of any sort will be within shouting distance.
So what is a fact, exactly? Well, as a matter of fact, that’s not such an easy question to answer. The dictionary describes it as “something that actually exists; reality, truth.” Realty? Truth? I can just hear all the philosophy/physics/astrophysics/biology/chemistry/[fill in the blank] majors pricking up their ears and holding up one finger to opine on the chameleonological nature of those concepts. (You might think I’ve coined a new word here but alas, there’s a hypnotherapist in London who’s already trademarked the term chameleonology.)
Another definition of fact is “a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true.” The trouble there is all we know of actual experience or observation is what we remember of it, and we all know how reliable the human memory…I was going to say something here. What was it? Of course, you could argue that photographs and videos provide evidence of experience or observation, so we don’t have to rely on memory. And that’s certainly true if the photos or films have not been doctored, but how many of us walk around snapping pictures or taking video of everything we do?
So trying to extract facts from the words of anyone who begins with “the fact of the matter is…” is almost as impossible as understanding Edward Dyson’s 1892 poem of that title. At the end of the day (I’ll bet you were just waiting for that one), there’s no such thing, as Joe Friday used to say so confidently on Dragnet, as “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Today’s Topic: Banshees
“An Irishman walks out of a bar…hey, it could happen!” One of the colorful (literally and figuratively) “attractions” of Duval Street in Key West are the t-shirt shops. Their windows overflow with inexpensive clothing (“Everything $5!”), mostly tees with images and words done up with varying degrees of taste and humor (“I’m not a gynecologist but I’d be happy to take a look!”). The opening line here is one of my favorites.
I thought of this, perhaps not so oddly, while listening to chamber music of Faureand Schubertperformed by the South Florida Symphony Orchestra at the Tennessee Williams Theatre at the Florida Keys Community College (phew!). Thinking of the t-shirt line about an Irishman brought the 1959 Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People to mind. (Okay, now that isodd.)
All you need to know about the film is that it has a very young Sean Connery, leprechauns, a horse that’s really a pooka(isn’t that what Harveythe 6′ 3.5″ rabbit was?), and the most chilling creature every portrayed on film: the Banshee. In Irish folklore, the banshee appears when someone is about to die, sort of like the Grim Reaper, only this one rides in a spooky carriage called a coiste-bodhar(the Death Coach!) driven by a dullahan(phew again!).
Unlike the rather pleasant female figure shown in the Wikipedia article on banshees, the Darby banshee was a shimmering ghostly featureless figure (think the Headless Horseman on steroids) who WAILS! (There’s even a Facebook page for people who have been traumatized by Darby O’Gill and the Little People.)
The clip above doesn’t do justice to how wicked frightening the banshee was (I was like nine or ten at the time). I just remember it, even now, as the scariest thing I’ve ever seen, especially when she comes in the coach at the end.
I should go see classical chamber music more often. It does wonders for one’s peace of mind.

Today’s Topic: Lapsing
Is it me or did some kind of time warp just happen here? It’s been almost a month since my last post. Somehow I went to bed on April 14 and woke up on May 9. Weird.
Okay, okay. I admit to “lapsing,” that dreaded condition that every writer or purported writer fears. The word itself is fascinating, however, as most words are when you look closely at them. Dictionary.com has eleven different meanings listed for the root word “lapse.” Here are the ones I find most interesting:
  1. An accidental or temporary decline or deviation from an unexpected or accepted condition or state; a temporary falling or slipping from a previous standard
  2. a slip or error, often of a trivial sort; failure
  3. an interval or passage of time; elapsed period
  4. a moral fall, as from rectitude or virtue
  5. a fall or decline to a lower grade, condition, or degree; descent; regression
  6. the act of falling, slipping, sliding, etc., slowly or by degrees
  7. a falling into disuse
All right, so I found almost all of them interesting. Number 6 is definitely the most intriguing. It immediately brings “slow motion” in film to mind. YouTube®has a slue of super slow motion videos. Judging by the amount of clips online on this subject, watching someone crash and burn off a skateboard in slow motion is extremely popular. The typical feature film fall, going back to #6, is of someone slipping and falling, rather gracefully in slow motion as opposed to ignominiously in real life, while their cry of surprise or distress gets slowed down into one long moan of despair: “nooooooooooo!” (Re this link, someone definitely had too much time on their hands.)
I have to confess, though, that my lapse from this blog (not the first one either, although of shorter duration this time) was not an example of #6. Nothing slow or be degrees about my blogging brain falling into disuse, more like going over a cliff. Luckily, there was one of those big blow-up landing pads at the bottom.

Today’s Topic: Fringe

One of the more “out there” TV shows these days is Fringe. Well, okay, it’s always been out there. If you’re not familiar with the show, the Fringe Division investigates unusual occurrences. Here’s a description of the pilot episode:
“When an international flight lands at Boston’s Logan Airport and there are no signs of life, FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham, a scientist, Walter Bishop, and his son Peter uncover a deadly mystery involving a series of unbelievable events.”
That “deadly mystery involving a series of unbelievable events” says it all. The Fringe Division investigators use something called “fringe science” to help solve cases. In other words, they have to come up with theories and hypotheses that are “out there” from the mainstream or orthodox to get a grip on the strange events and people they encounter. One core “fringe concept” of the show is the existence of an alternative universe, one where people fly in dirigibles, the Statue of Liberty is bronze instead of copper, and the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center still exist.
Apparently, some mainstream scientific ideas get booted from the cozy world of acceptance to the fringe when someone reevaluates the research and finds it wanting in some way. Sort of like poor Plutogetting demoted from planet to dwarf planet status. Another example: physicians used to believe that infections of the teeth or tonsils (a focal infection) led to illnesses that affected the entire body. This prompted the unnecessary yanking of many teeth in the 1920s. Ouch.
Of course, the road goes in both directions. Many concepts that were once fringe theories have been welcomed into the mainstream fold. These include (who knew?) continental drift, the existence of Troy, heliocentrism, and the Norse colonization of America. As if there were ever any doubt about that last one.