Today’s Topic: Pelican Poop

There is a store in Key West called the Pelican Poop Shoppe. Just the name is enough to give one pause, isn’t it? The shop sells Caribbean arts and crafts, candy, and other odds and ends. It’s been in business since 1988, so I have to give the owners credit for an odd but successful business model. What’s interesting about this store is not so much its nature but the building it is in, Casa Antigua. This is where Hemingway stayed when he first came to Key West and also where he finished A Farewell to Arms (noted in the previous post).

For a small fee, you can enter the interior courtyard garden of Casa Antigua through the Pelican Poop Shoppe. According to some reports, after Hemingway moved on to his house on Whitehead Street, the building became a hotel, then a brothel, and then a drag queen club. Now it is home to a city commissioner and his mother. There are also Casa Antiguas in California, Havana, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.

There are real pelicans in Key West (called pelis by some) and, obviously, real pelican poop. The official term for the latter and other seabird doo, along with that of cave-dwelling bats and seals (who knew?), is guano. Guano consists of ammonium oxalate, urate, and phosphates. It also has a high concentration of nitrites, which makes it useful for making fertilizer and gunpowder. (Could these two applications be more opposed to each other?) So useful in fact that “harvesting” guano became a major business in the 1800s. The US passed a law in 1856 called the Guano Islands Act, which gave citizens discovering guano sources the right to claim the land (mostly islands) and exclusive poo development rights. Spain, Peru, and Chile even fought the Chincha Islands War over it.

Guano has no odor by the way. I wonder how pelicans can eat fish and still come away smelling “fresh as the driven snow.” I wonder how we might do the same. I think I see an NIH government research grant in my future.

Today’s Topic: Six-toed Cats

One of the famous tourist attractions in Key West is the Hemingway House at 907 Whitehead Street. The uncle of Pauline, Hemingway’s then wife, bought the home for the couple in 1931. They lived there until their divorce in 1939. One of the factors in the breakup may have been Pauline’s decision to install an in-ground swimming pool on the property, the first on the island. It cost $20,000, which translates to $300,000 in today’s dollars. Hemingway supposedly stuck a coin into the wet cement around the pool (it is still there) and said, “Here, take the last penny I’ve got!” The pool was part of the restoration of the 1851 house, which was a wreck when Uncle Gus forked over to buy it.

While in Key West, Hemingway finished A Farewell to Arms and wrote To Have and Have Not, a novel that featured some down-and-out Conchs. Both were made into films: the first starring Gary Cooper and then remade with Rock Hudson, and the second featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The latter has the well-known “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? ” line from Bacall.

I suddenly forgot where I was. Oh. Six-toed cats. Another story about the Hemingway House is that a sea captain gave Ernie a white six-toed cat named Snowball (which, interestingly or oddly or tongue-in-cheekedly, is also the name of all five of the Simpsons’ cats.) Since that time, six-toed felines have roamed the grounds freely. The house supports 40 to 50 of them right now (imagine that litter box!). There’s even a restaurant called Six-Toed Cat nearby.

Polydactyl (no, this is not the prehistoric dinobird, which incidentally is a pterosaur, not a pterodactyl) refers to a genetic trait where a cat can be born with more than the usual number of toes on its paws. One of the names for these cats is, of course, Hemingway Cats. One of the current Hemingway cats (Snowball XXIV?) has 26 toes, two extra on each paw. Which brings up the question: what would we be like if we had an extra thumb on each hand? For me, that’s just one step closer to actually being “all thumbs,” a condition I have down pat with the current digit of digits.

Today’s Topic: Margaritas

Here in Key West, margaritas could be considered the national drink of the Conch Republic and Margaritaville® the mixed-drink and burger mecca of everyone who gets off the cruise ships that stop here. The drink – tequila, orange-flavored liqueurs in many variations, and lime or lemon juice – was supposedly mixed first in Mexico in 1941 and named after the daughter of a German ambassador. Others say it was first made in 1948 for singer Peggy Lee in at the Balinese Room in Galveston, Texas, a city probably most famous, unfortunately, for getting wasted by hurricanes all too often. And still others say it is a remake of a Prohibition Era concoction called the Daisy.

Jimmy Buffett probably is most responsible for making the drink (“that frozen concoction that helps me hang on”) and the song (“wasting away in Margaritaville”) the national anthem of slackers everywhere, not the mention the “where the heck did that tattoo come from” crowd. The Margaritaville cafes now dish out food and those frozen concoctions from fourteen locations, including oddly enough Glendale, Illinois, about as far away from flip-flops and “those tourists covered with oil” as you can get in the United States. Fittingly enough, the company now puts out its own brand of tequila, among other liquors and “ready-made” mixed drinks.

A friend first introduced me to Jimmy Buffett with a tape while I lived in Missoula, Montana and attended the University of Montana. Buffett apparently likes to go to the mountains and get crazy sometimes as well, as in Livingston Saturday Night, where “hittin’ on the honeys right out of high school” could result in “fifteen may get you twenty but that’s all right because they’re rockin’ and rollin’ on a Livingston Saturday Night.” Hmm. I’ve known people who’ve spent time in Montana State Prison and “fifteen may get you twenty” would definitely not be all right.

Today’s Topic: Bat-tism

We just had a “bat-tism” here in Key West last week. What the heck is that, you might wonder? Or more appropriately, what kind of crackpot would baptize a bat? As it happens, my wife and I were out walking one evening and came across a large flat wooden reproduction of a vampire bat (sharp pointy teeth, red beady eyes, the whole shebang) set out on the curb for a trash pickup. Now, perhaps somewhat inexplicably, it hangs decoratively from the white picket fence outside our cottage. Well, we couldn’t just add a member to the family without naming it. So we invited some friends over to help us “bat-tize” our cellulose Desmodus rotundus. We had a party, a cake, and a bat priest and christened it Cayo Batso (called Woody).

The attraction to all things vampire is nothing new, of course. Bram Stoker’s Dracula came out in 1897 and the famous film Nosferatu in 1922. (Nosferatu never dies apparently. He just makes cameo appearances on cartoon shows like SpongeBob Squarepants.) According to Vampire Empire, however, the first writing about vampires was in a 1919 story by John Polidori. According to the same source, 22 vampire films were made before Nosferatu, the first one, called Vampire of the Coast, in 1909. Fay Wray of King Kong fame starred in The Vampire Bat in 1933, which you can watch in its entirety online.

These days people are more worried about the bats than vampires. Vampires will live on forever (True Blood, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and so on and so on.) So far there is not, as far as I know, a white-nose syndrome that will kill Bill or Erik or Damon or Stefan. Wait! That’s it! ScriptFrenzy is coming up next month. Now I have an idea for the next blockbuster: Vampire Contagion or The Dracula Strain or I Drink Your Blood (No Longer) or 28 Milleniums or…somebody stop me. Please.

Today’s Topic: Noah, What’s on Your Calendar for 2112?

There’s a comedy routine that Bill Cosby did on his Bill Cosby Is A Very Funny Fellow…Right! album (real vinyl; not CD) called “Noah.” Long story short, the Lord instructs Noah to build an ark and Noah replies, “Right. What’s an ark?”

In the sketches, it takes some time for Noah to be convinced he wasn’t on Candid Camera. In the same vein, many people will need the same amount of convincing to believe in global warming and rising sea levels. The PBS NewsHour aired a story this evening on ClimateCentral, which today published a report entitled “Surging Seas.” Needless to say, they don’t have a cheery outlook on where the best beaches will be in 2112.

So I had this brainstorm. It’s never too early to plan ahead. Maybe I should be doing some prep in case the sea level rise of six or seven feet comes a little early. Why not build my own ark? It doesn’t need to be big – just large enough for two humans and two Maine coon cats. (Sorry, no elephants or giraffes allowed.) Someone out there must have posted do-it-yourself plans online. Sure enough. With just a few keystrokes, I came upon Aha, I thought. That’s it. So I clicked the link.

Sadly, the only useful thing there was a video on how to make your own maple syrup. Back to square one. Wait. Here’s They will have instructions. And they did, taken so they say right from Genesis. The first step didn’t raise my confidence level, however: “1. Obtain large quantities of gopherwood.” Right! What’s gopherwood? How much is a large quantity? All right, cross this one off.

Maybe I need a role model. Steve Carrell builds an ark in Evan Almighty. I just have to watch the film and follow his lead. Except he ends up crashing into the Capital. Maybe I’ll just give up on this idea. Maybe the Vogons will arrive to bulldoze our planet before the flood and we won’t have to worry about it. There’s always hope.

Today’s Topic: Firefighting Robots

CNN reported today that the US Navy is developing the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR). (What happened to fun robot names like Robbie and Marvin or C3PO?) SAFFiR actually sounds like a good idea if the however-many-millions of development money pay off with a working model. It can sense gas, see through smoke, activate fire suppressors, toss “propelled extinguishing agent technology” (PEAT) grenades, and yell, “Hole in the fire!” Okay, maybe not that last one.

I hope the Navy is taking strict note of all the danger-fighting robot role models it has available.

  • Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet (who also cooks, cleans, and chaffeurs) 
  • Gort from the Day the Earth Stood Still (oh, that’s right – he wasn’t on our side) 
  • R2D2 from Star Wars 
  • Darth Vader ditto from Star Wars (he turned out to be on our side after all) 

You also have to love the names the military and government come up with for their pet toys and projects, in this case, SAFFiR and PEAT. I wonder how many readers can cite the full name for the USA PATRIOT Act? Give up? It’s “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” I have this idea of members of Congress playing Twister when this inspiration came upon them.

So robots have been around since a 1920 science fiction play called RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Isaac Asimov made them famous in his I Robot short stories, where he also coined the Three Laws of Robotics: 1) a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) a robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law, and 3) a robot must protect its own existence as long as protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

I like the Second Law. I wonder if SAFFiR does cocktails. Sidecar on the rocks, twist of lemon, please, Saffy old chap. That’s a good robot.

Today’s Topic: Sounds the Universe Makes

In an earlier post, I mentioned physicist Janna Levin and her novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. Besides teaching at Barnard College, Levin, slouch that she is, has written a nonfiction book titled How the Universe Got Its Spots, is a scientist-in-residence at The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford University, and does TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks, just to name a few of her activities.

Her 2011 TED talk, “The Sound the Universe Makes,” focused mostly about the increasingly rapid “heartbeat” of two black holes circling closer and closer together and the little anticlimactic, much less than cataclysmic “pop” of their joining. She also let the audience listen to the off-the-air-TV screen white noise left over from the big bang. So, thinking about this, I wondered what sound I might make if I were a universe or parts thereof (turn your sound up for best effect).

And that’s probably way more than enough of that.

In her TED talk, Levin also talks about how space wobbles, pulled this way and that by the gravity of the objects passing through it. That of course sounds something like this. So then I wondered what would happen to us if every passing thing made us wobble. We might be arrested for public intoxication (except in Milwaukee where it’s legal). We might lose weight without buying a SlimVibe. Or we might turn into the Wobblies. Where was I going with this? Oh, would we be better off if we could hear the sounds of the universe? It might make us ignore the many small and petty things that often distract us if the sound of the Big Bang was buzzing in our ears constantly. It might act like a cosmic sound soother and help everyone relax, which is not a bad idea. Or we might just tune it out like we’ve learned to do with so many things. In that case, the only time we’d notice it was when it wasn’t there to be noticed anymore. Kind of like Elvis or pull tabs on cans or war.

Today’s Topic: Daylight Savings Time

In the wee hours of the morning tomorrow (Sunday, March 11, 2012), time springs forward (except for those in Arizona, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Marianas Islands, that is, and, I guess, the most of the world). For anyone who doesn’t believe time travel is possible, this is the wrench that gets thrown into the proverbial works. We get to do it twice a year.

But where, as they say, did it all begin? According to National Geographic, Ben Franklin was the first person to conceptualize “daylight savings.” He apparently woke up in Paris one morning at 6 a.m. and thought, “Il est terrifié à la lumière déjà. Tout le monde devrait être en place et en enregistrant lejour.” (“It’s freaking light out already. Everyone should be up and saving the daylight.”)

It took World War I and Germany to figure out how exactly to “save daylight.” Germany adopted time changes to reduce artificial lighting and save coal for the war effort. The United States took on the practice in 1918 but made it optional for states. Between February 2, 1942, and September 30, 1945, the feds made it mandatory (war efforts play havoc with states’ rights it seems).

Then it went back to optional except during the 1973-74 Arab Oil Embargo, where we supposedly lowered our electrical use by one percent. Thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, it now it goes from the first Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November. (Now, now, Congress always knows best.)

National Geographic also asks a relevant question: “Daylight Savings – Energy Saver or Just Time Suck?” The Department of Energy says we save 1.3 terawatt hours of electricity with DST. Terawhat? Of course, anyone who knows anything about DOE knows that any numbers it produces are, to put it generously, suspect.

And with that I’ll leave you with this thought from David Letterman, “Don’t forget it’s daylight savings time. You spring forward, then you fall back. It’s like Robert Downey Jr. getting out of bed.”

Today’s Topic: Kurt Godel

Why Godel, the Austrian logician, mathematician, and philosopher, you might ask? As it happens, I am reading a novel titled A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines where Godel and the English codebreaker Alan Turing are two of the main characters. The novel’s author, Janna Levin, is a Barnard College professor of physics who also writes science fiction. I happened to hear Levin speak and participate on panels during the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar “Yet Another World – Literature of the Future.” (I also lucked into sharing a dinner table during the seminar closing night party with cyberpunk icon William Gibson, but that’s another story.)
Both characters in Levin’s book were brilliant and insane. Godel, known for his incompleteness theorem, starved himself to death because he thought his food was being poisoned. (Turing, ironically, munched down a poisoned apple and killed himself after he was arrested and convicted of homosexual activities, things being what they were in 1940s England.)
My own incompleteness theorem has to do with IQ and personal wealth. I thought Godel’s must be a little more esoteric, so I went looking and I found this explanation from the Exploratorium:
“In 1931 the mathematician and logician Kurt Godel proved that within a formal system questions exist that are neither provable nor disprovable on the basis of the axioms that define the system. This is known as Godel’s Undecidability Theorem. He also showed that in a sufficiently rich formal system in which decidability of all questions is required, there will be contradictory statements. This is known as his Incompleteness Theorem.
“In establishing these theorems Godel showed that there are problems that cannot be solved by any set of rules or procedures; instead for these problems one must always extend the set of axioms. This disproved a common belief at the time that the different branches of mathematics could be integrated and placed on a single logical foundation.”

Huh? Then I read the “Godel’s Theorem for Dummies” explanation of this formula and still went “Huh?” The best my simple brain can translate this into is a variation of “no one knows anything,” which is “no one can know everything.” Seems Godel went through a lot of work, not to mention mental anguish, to arrive at DOH!

After a long hiatus, it’s time for a fresh start — no novel (although that back burner is still warm), just thoughts (mostly random). I’m thinking right now, for no particular reason I can identify, of those assignments we used to write (or copy from encyclopedias) in junior high school. One teacher or another would say, okay, tomorrow, write 300 words on Ben Franklin or the polar ice cap or the Constitution or the meaning of the green light at the end of the dock in The Great Gatsby. So I’m also thinking, why not restart this blog that way. Pick a topic at random and write (not copy) 300 words on it. So here goes.

Today’s topic is (drum roll, please): Paz de la Huerta

Seriously, I did not know who this woman was before watching the first season of Boardwalk Empire on DVD. The IMDB bio on her notes she’s been acting since age 4 and has done movies and television since 1998. She was in The Cider House Rules. I saw that movie. I do not remember her, although granted she was 15 at the time and not a major character. Heavy D, Kieran Calkin, and Erykah Badu were in that film as well. I don’t remember them either. Nor Paul Rudd as Lt. Wally Worthington. I do remember Michael Caine’s elegant, if overwrought pronouncements (“Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England”) as well as Charlize Theron showing that she was into tans way before the 2004 Agent Orange Oscar appearance. Almost no one remembers she won the Oscar for Monster that year.

143. Almost halfway there.

So, what was I writing about. Ah, Paz. If there’s a Hall of Pout Fame, she should be elected to it. In Boardwalk as Lucy Danzinger, Nucky Thompson’s girlfriend until usurped by the more refined Margaret Schroder, Paz shows that a full-on, full-lip pout can be more persuasive than a used car salesperson on crack. (Okay, she’s naked much of the time and that no doubt is a pout reinforcer.)

So, just for kicks, I googled “art of pouting,” which led to, among other things, a website called The Pouting Room, which advertises the services of a “boudoir photographer” and a poster for the zombie film “Night of the Pouting Dead.” The latter seems not to be a real movie, but an IMDB search revealed other interesting titles such as “Night of the Loving Dead,” “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead,” “Night of the Groping Dead,” and, believe it or not, “Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil Mutant Hellbound Flesh Eating Crawling Alien Zombified Subhumanoid Living Dead, Part 5.”

And that title gets me past 300 words. Thanks, Paz. I couldn’t have done it without you.