Shoot the Moon

Previously, I covered a couple of big conspiracy theories, and why they are generally such an impossible idea. As noted there, it’s really hard for people to keep secrets, and the bigger a conspiracy, the faster it falls, which is why we happen to know about the real ones.

But people will see and believe what they want to, and so conspiracy theories exist. Here’s another famous one that just isn’t true.

We never landed on the Moon

While this one might seem like a modern conspiracy theory, it’s actually almost as old as the lunar landings, and was first promulgated by a man named Bill Kaysing, in his self-published 1976 book called We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle.

Of course, the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever featured its own “Moon landing was fake” gag in 1971, and the whole thing probably caught on because it was an era when trust in government was at its lowest, what with Vietnam, Kent State and, by mid-decade, Watergate all crashing down at once. Ironically, the last one was a true conspiracy that fell apart quickly.

More fuel was added to the fire by the 1976 film Capricorn One, which postulated a manned mission to Mars that was faked by the government to avoid losing face with the USSR because the mission just wasn’t ready. Of course, the same film also hung a lantern on the biggest problem with huge government conspiracies. In order to cover it up, the plan was to kill the “astronauts” before they left the soundstage, then announce that they had died in a tragic accident upon re-entry.

Despite it being a 70s film — an era when the hero did not always win — this one did pull victory over villainy as the plot is discovered and the astronauts eventually saved, popping up at the announcement of their own deaths Tom Sawyer style to reveal the whole plot. Hell, there were even three “dead” people entering their own funeral in both.

The film definitely used the main motive that Moon Hoaxers give for the landing being faked: We weren’t ready for it, but we had to make the Soviets think that we were, and it all began when President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to a joint session of Congress on the 146th day of the new decade of the 1960s, May 25, 1961. His goal was simple: To put a (hu)man on the Moon before the last day of the decade. His motives were obvious. The Russians were already ahead of us in the “space race,” having launched the first satellite, Sputnik, and putting the first man into space. They also put the first woman in space, beating us by exactly twenty years and two days.

If you’d like to see an incredible film that documents the prequel to this speech in the days from the first attempts to break the sound barrier to finally getting our own astronauts into orbit, check out the book and/or film versions of The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, which documents both the amazing and absurd involved in this process.

It also illuminates the true dilemma for the American space program. For a time, it looked like the USSR was getting ahead, and especially as Kennedy was assassinated and things got worse in Vietnam (which was a proxy hot war between the two sides in the Cold War) the idea of getting to the Moon first became a sort of goal for a moral victory.

Did you ever wonder why NASA’s command center for all lunar operations wound up in Houston? Look no further than Vice-President, then President, Lyndon Baines Johnson who, like JFK before him, preferred to be known by the initials LBJ… among other things. Johnson?

Did I mention that LBJ was from Texas, so that it was almost a slam-dunk that the Space Center would wind up there? As for why the launch center wound up in Cape Canaveral, Florida, there are two good reasons for it. One is that it allows for launches over a lot of open water, meaning that crashes or aborted take-offs won’t happen over land or populated areas. Second, it was (at the time) the part of the U.S. closest to the equator, and the equator is much friendlier to getting us into space.

And for everyone rightly pointing out that Hawaii is surrounded by a lot more water and is closer to the equator because it’s our southernmost state, you are absolutely correct, except that Hawaii hadn’t quite become a state yet at the time that Cape Canaveral begun operations. Note that Puerto Rico is also farther south than Florida and slightly farther south than Hawaii, but we didn’t put our launch site there either.

I’m guessing that “really freaking heavy equipment” and “transportation by ship over substantial distances” aren’t a great combo when doing a budget for a governmental program. That, and helping elected officials in territories — you know, the ones who don’t get to vote in Congress — really doesn’t bring back any benefit to Wasghington D.C.

Which really brings up another way to question the Moon Hoax conspiracy. If it was a fake, why go to all of the trouble of making sure the sites are in locations with political and scientific advantages? If it were just for show, they could have put the control center anywhere and put the launch site near D.C. or New York City or somewhere else flashy that would draw huge crowds to watch the rockets go up.

As for why people believe this theory, it’s simple. They don’t understand science or physics. There are a lot of misconceptions in everything the Hoaxers claim; way too many for this piece, so I’ll refer you to the brilliant 2001 takedown of a Fox documentary claiming that it was all true by the amazing “bad” Astronomer Phil Plait. (In fact, this particular article is the one that launched him into internet fame and success in the first place.)

But perhaps the most bizarre take on the whole Moon Landing Hoax is this: the shots on the Moon were created by none other than… Stanley Kubrick. This was another idea to fall out of the sadly challenged brain of Kaysing, but others ran with it. Someone even went so far in 2015 to fake a video they claimed was Kubrick confessing to it. Hey, easy to do after the person you ‘re besmirching has died, right?

Still, it gets even weirder, as some true believers claim that Kubrick stuffed The Shining with clues basically saying, “Hey… I confess. I faked the Moon Landing.” And yes, some people do believe it.

This theory at least achieved one good thing. It let a septuagenarian who’d actually been to the Moon (Buzz Aldrin) punch a Moon Landing denying asshole in the face and get away with it. To quote the linked article, “The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has declined to file charges.”

That’s the best possible outcome, really. If only Buzz had said, right before the punch, “Bang! Zoom! Straight to the Moon.”

It’s okay to stop and ask for direction(s)

Recently, I wrote about the improv concept of getting yourself in trouble and then making it worse. I should have mentioned that this is fine for improv, but in the real world, not so much. And yet, people manage to do this all the time.

Sometimes, it’s due to psychological conditions. Hoarding is a classic example, and there are even TV shows about it — yeah, way to exploit a serious disorder, y’all. The thing is, hoarding progresses gradually. There are actually five levels to it, and reading that list will make a lot of us feel better about our own housekeeping skills — as in “Phew. I’m sloppy, but not a hoarder.”

The thing is, though, that hoarding, like any mental illness, is treatable, but the hoarder has to seek treatment first.

Here’s the other thing. There are conditions that are not mental illnesses that can still get people in trouble but could be avoided if only they ask for some help.

Basically, anything in your life that feels like it’s gotten out of your control or gone beyond your area of expertise is a good candidate for getting help on, and the condition is called “swamped,” which isn’t an official psychological definition, but definitely a fact of modern life. This is especially true if you’re feeling swamped and don’t know where to begin to take action and fix the problem.

Most of us don’t know how to do that. It’s human nature, although it’s a bigger problem for Americans in general and men in particular, because asking for help can be seen as weak and definitely makes someone feel vulnerable. There’s always the chance of hearing “No,” in which case the floor falls out from beneath us. In other words, a big bar to seeking help when we need it is fear.

Another one is over-confidence and simple blindness to there being an issue until it’s too late.

Imagine that you’re setting out on a road trip to visit good friends who recently moved to another state, and they told you their address, but you forgot to look it up before you started driving. No problem, you can look it up at some point before you get to their state, and anyway the scenery is beautiful, so you’ll just keep driving.

You set out from California, aimed for Minnesota, and you’re doing well up to the point you’re thinking about popping open the GPS somewhere halfway across Colorado, but when you do you find out you have no signal up in the mountains and, later on in Kansas, you find out that you have no data out here at all. “Well, that’s cool,” you think as you pass into Oklahoma. All you have to do is make a big left turn at Iowa, and boom, straight into Minnesota.

But then you notice that you’re driving into Arkansas, then Tennessee, wind up in Georgia, and you’re suddenly seeing road signs indicating “Miami, 250 miles.” You do manage to get data when you hit Miami, only to find out that you’re about 1,760 miles and six states southeast of your original destination with no idea how to get there.

Now, obviously, you’re not going to make that 28 hour California to Minnesota drive in one solid shot. It’s basically a three-day trip if you’re not being touristy (or are being cheap) and a two-day trip if you’re a maniac. Okay, a day and a half-shift if you’re a trucker on speed. Still… you have to eat and pee at some point. And at any one of those points, you could have simply asked someone, “How do I get from here to Minnesota?” (I feel that I’ve mentioned the gopher state enough times now to actually pop in a link and see if their Visitors Bureau will toss me a sponsorship. It can’t hurt to ask. See what I did there?)

By not asking, our hypothetical traveler had a destination in mind but then things literally went south. Oh. Did I mention that this traveler was going to attend their friends’ wedding and would have arrived on time without the wrong turn? Instead, they’ve missed the big event completely.

This is exactly what we do in our real lives when we sense that something is going out of control but then keep on driving, enjoying the scenery, and hoping that it will magically work itself out. But here’s the problem. Just as self-driving cars are not quite a ubiquitous thing, self-driving lives never will be. Get out of the car every now and then and ask for directions.

You need to exit your fear-bubble and ask for help when you need it. That is literally what friends and family are for, especially friends. Hey, they’re that special F-word for you for a reason. It means they want to hang out with you and spend time together and help you when you need it and feel safe being vulnerable enough to ask you when they need help.

Family are the people you have to like because you’re related to them. Friends are the people who like you despite not being related. And, to bring it full circle, when you ask the best of your friends for help, their first response is exactly the same as the best improv teammate.

“Yes! And…?”

Image source Wonder woman0731, used unchanged, under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0

Believing is seeing: Conspiracy theories debunked, part 1

Human brains are great at pattern recognition and, in fact, it’s one of the things that has helped us survive. At its most basic, pattern recognition is simply the brain’s ability to recognize bits and pieces of the whole as the thing, whether it’s a flash of color, a sound, scent, or something else.

This is how infants learn to recognize first their mothers, and then other people. It’s how early humans learned to spot predators and prey. And it’s how modern humans get into trouble or just wind up looking stupid when their pattern recognition turns into pareidolia, which is the phenomenon that makes people see ducks or camels in the clouds, or Jesus on toast.

This ability, however, can extend outside of just things that we see — and we’ve all seen “faces” in inanimate objects, although we’re usually aware that’s what they are, and that any pattern of two circles over some sort of vertical object, with or without another circle or arc or line below, all make us think “face.”

Some people go on to find patterns in things like information, actions, and data, and make connections that aren’t really there. Just like your bath-tub taps and faucet aren’t really two eyes and a nose, the connections these people pull out of their “research” really don’t exist. But don’t tell them that.

There’s one simple problem with all conspiracy theories, and Benjamin Franklin said it best. “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” This is especially true if it’s a really juicy secret, like a big conspiracy. Even if someone involved doesn’t run right to the authorities to confess, they’re still going to mention it to… somebody. We all have that one friend or family member that we would tell anything. Of course, it’s because we trust them to keep our secret.

But here’s a yardstick on how long true conspiracies last. Between the Watergate break-in and Nixon’s resignation was a span of two years, a month, and a couple of weeks. Any conspiracy is a leaky sieve, and we’re currently seeing examples of that in real time.

Yes, conspiracies do exist, but we also know the truth about quite a lot of them now since, by their very nature, they can never remain secret, and a lot of people know this. So there’s a nice hint — the older an unproven conspiracy theory is, the more likely it is to be completely false. So you can give up on the Illuminati, the Rothschilds, the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, etc. If they were real, we’d know it by now. If they were successful, they would have worked by now.

Or, as more than one friend of mine puts it, “If the Jews secretly control the world, why am I not rich?”

Oh, right. That’s the other part of why true conspiracies are so far and few. Not only can a large group of people not keep a secret, they can’t work very well together to pull something big like this off. If you work or go to school, look at the people around you, especially the ones who are supposed to be in charge. Now, ask yourself, “Would they be competent enough to run Conspiracy X?”

Guess what. People in government or high executive positions with major corporations are ten times less competent than the people you mentally looked at.

So here are a pair of wild conspiracies that just… aren’t.

The government controls the weather!

The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) was a real thing that ran from 1990 to 2014.  And really, U.S. government, you didn’t have the guts to call it HFAARP to make it sound funny? (Although, really, high-frequency should be hyphenated, so they’re more right than wrong.)

But this project was designed to study Earth’s ionosphere, which is a very important thing to know about if you’re, oh, I don’t know… about to commercialize GPS satellites for everyone, and the ionosphere could definitely have an effect on the information coming from them. That’s the difference between your grandma successfully getting to her bingo game on Sunday and up driving off of a cliff. This was also about the time that satellites became the primary means of transmitting television programs around the world.

And yet… the stupidest conspiracy theories sprang up around what was basically a giant transmitter and receiver way up in Alaska — because they were aiming at the aurora borealis, which happens up there as solar radiation hits the atmosphere. HAARP was basically doing this in reverse. Keep in mind, though, that while the Sun is a gigantic ball of fusion about 864,340 miles in diameter constantly shooting ionizing radiation down at us 24/7, HAARP was a simple array of 180 radio antennas over 33 acres. In comparison, the surface of the Sun is 1.5 quadrillion acres and even though we’re only facing half of that at one time, HAARP is still greatly outmatched in screwing up the atmosphere.

Or, really, doing anything except what it was designed to do. The utter stupidity of the conspiracy theories is staggering, including things like HAARP being designed to change the weather (warning: actual conspiracy theory link) or burn a hole in the atmosphere or even control minds just being laughable through the math in the paragraph above. If HAARP could do any of these things, then the Sun would have done all of them long ago. And even the radiation HAARP was sending up was nowhere near the full spectrum we get from the Sun.

So, no. The government was not controlling the weather or minds or creating earthquakes or any of the other bunch of stupid ideas to come out of misunderstanding what was basically a government and university funded space weather station.

Chemtrails

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No it’s… a super-secret government conspiracy to spray y’all with stuff and achieve (insert evil villain goal here.) And what are “chemtrails?” Simple. They’re contrails as seen by people who don’t do physics. Basically, they’re ice crystals from water vapor in engine exhaust that instantly freezes at high altitudes. If you live anywhere near an airport or under a flight path, you’ve seen them.

They start as two thin white parallel lines, one behind each outer edge of an airplane’s wings, and depending upon the weather below, they either stay fairly persistent or quickly fuzz out into a less defined pattern. If you happen to be near an airport, like I am, with frequent flights to particular destinations, then you’ll see repeated contrails going the same direction throughout the day if it’s cold enough up there. If you’re in flyover country between major airports in various cities, then you may see a sort of crisscross pattern of these lines going north-south and east-west — which conspiracy theorists absolutely see as a sign that they’re right, but they’re wrong.

What you’re not seeing is the government spraying chemicals on you and, again, it comes down to a total misunderstanding of science. Anything released that high up in the atmosphere — around seven miles — is not going to make it back down here. There are cold temperatures and strong air currents to contend with, both of which would wreak absolute havoc on any kind of chemical or biological weapon.

Not to mention the other little detail: Who would be putting these devices onto commercial planes and getting the crews to shut up about them? Because these are the only jets leaving trails in the sky. Still, people believe otherwise.

There was one recent issue of a commercial jet leaving chemtrails that had an immediate effect on people and it was very well-documented. However, it was a flight out of LAX that turned around to make an emergency landing and, per FAA protocol, dumped their excess fuel on the way in. Unfortunately, not according to protocol, they dumped over a long swath of the south side of the city, managing to hit half a dozen schools — and their students and staff — at the same time.

And… wow. I think I made it to the end, or at least way too much for y’all to read with only two stupid conspiracy theories, but I’ve got at least twice as many more. If you have any you want debunked, and/or if you want more of this, let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!

In Memoriam: Silent Movie, Los Angeles, silenced

It’s appropriate, really, to repost this article I originally wrote for Filmmonthly.com about Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax which, in retrospect, seemed to have trouble with years ending in seven.

It was in 1997 that it’s owner was murdered by his lover in a faked robbery and 2017 when it shut down for good. Meanwhile, in 1999, Charlie Lustman bought the place on a whim and kept it going until it was taken over by Cinefamily in 2007. Rape allegations from 2014 revealed in 2017 shuttered the business.

I had been to Silent Movie many a time before Larry Austin was killed and, in fact, once talked to Robert Downey, Jr. there at intermission when he was doing research for his role in the film Chaplin. (And damn, is that mofo short. Or maybe it’s just that I’m tall.)

Anyway, 23 years after the fact, here’s my take at the time on a bit of violence in a theater I knew and loved so much.

LOS ANGELES — January 17, 1997. As a sell-out crowd laughs at the flickering images of comedian Larry Semon onstage, one young man in the back row isn’t watching the movie. He gets up and sneaks to the lobby where theatre owner Larry Austin is counting the receipts with another staff member. The young man pulls a gun and shoots Austin fatally, grabs the money and runs back out through the theatre, firing at least one shot into the wall on the way. Austin dies in this apparent armed robbery, but things don’t add up for the LA detectives on the case. In less than two weeks, they have discovered that this incident was a murder for hire, instigated by Austin’s lover and business partner, James Van Sickle, in an attempt to get his hands on Austin’s money, the theatre and its collection of rare silent films. The murder turned up sordid details like earthworms in a Sam Spade full of dirt. Austin probably bilked the former theatre owner out of her property and her films, and everyone involved seemed to be a little bit of a con artist. The real victim through it all was the business itself. In January, 1997, Silent Movie closed its doors. At the time, it seemed like that closure would be forever.

I had the great pleasure of attending Silent Movie many times in the Larry Austin days. Definitely the only regularly operating silent film venue in Los Angeles, and probably the world, the place drew huge crowds, many of them regulars, along with a good number of celebrities. I once met Robert Downey, Jr. there, preparing for his role in Chaplin. Like other famous attendees, he was just part of the crowd, hanging out and enjoying the common bond of experiencing cinema history. Larry Austin did a lot to foster that bond. He would greet the audience at the door personally, introduce the shows with trivia about the evening’s films and frequently host special guests. Silent Movie was always an experience one hundred and eighty degrees away from multiplex madness. Going there felt like an evening out with a few hundred friends to watch a film in someone’s living room. Sure, some of the seats were on the verge of collapse, the carpet was ratty, the ceiling was water-stained and the long-promised rear patio and cappuccino bar never materialized, but that didn’t matter. We were there for the movies that we couldn’t see on a big screen anywhere else and, for the several hours we sat in the dark watching, the audience members were not strangers. They were almost family.

Then, a misguided plot and someone’s greed ended it all. It looked like the property was going to be sold off by Los Angeles County, probably torn down and turned into a mini-mall, the film collection auctioned off into private collections to never be seen again.

Cue music, enter hero on white horse. Charlie Lustman, a local musician and songwriter, while out to grab a falafel at his favorite place on Fairfax, saw the “For Sale” sign on the building. Less than a month later, Silent Movie was his and, in November 1999, the place re-opened, to the gratitude of its many, many fans.

Silent Movie is back, and with a vengeance.

For starters, the place has been refurbished. No longer a slightly tacky, musty room, the carpets, walls and seats have all been re-done. The long promised but never delivered outside patio and upstairs cappuccino bar are open, and the new marquee outside is large and brightly lit, beckoning to the crowds to come in. All these little details hint that Charlie cares about the place. Attending a performance proves it.

In the old days, Larry Austin’s presence and intros gave a homey feel to the experience. Charlie has carried on the tradition, but he’s much hipper than Larry ever was, and he’s also quite a showman. At a recent performance I attended, he took the stage, introduced himself, then held up a sign to triumphantly declare that the performance was sold out. (This is not uncommon at Silent Movie, and I do recommend arriving early.) He also did intermission schtick as a typical hunchbacked assistant, in keeping with the Silent Horror theme of the week. Before the first film, we were treated to a short routine by a magician decked out and made-up just like Conrad Veidt in the evening’s feature, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (reviewed elsewhere here).

Everyone at Silent Movie gets into the routine. The theatre staff help to ensure that everyone finds a seat and that couples attending get to stay that way. When they ask if people sitting between empty seats can move over to accommodate, everyone gladly does; it’s just that kind of friendly atmosphere. On the night I attended, the staff searched for a seat for a late-arriving woman. Finding none, an usher announced in dramatic tones, “Then we shall give her a pillow, and she shall sit where she pleases…” By the way, the show doesn’t start until everyone is inside and in their seats. If it takes fifteen minutes to manage this, so be it. The result is a very relaxed, unrushed experience.

Then, it’s time for the show to begin — but not the main event. The program at Silent Movie usually starts with a few surprises, rare silent shorts that you’re not going to see anywhere else. Like the main feature, they are accompanied by live music from piano or organ, a necessity for silent films and definitely an essential atmosphere builder.

The night I attended, the first item on the bill was Winsor McCay’s 1921 cartoon, The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (also known as The Pet). McCay, newspaper cartoonist turned film animator, is best known for his character Little Nemo. While the story in Rarebit Fiend is slight, the animation is gorgeous, using intricately detailed backgrounds that look engraved, and meticulous character animation. I thought at first that the human characters in the film were rotoscoped — that is, live action footage was hand-traced to create the animation. In fact, they were not. McCay just took that much time and care in his work to give his little humans such reality. The result is a charming and funny story, recounting the dream that our titular fiend has after consuming the also titular rarebit. In case you’ve never heard of rarebit, it’s a cholesterol-laden concoction made of eggs, cheese, butter, beer, ham and toast. No wonder it causes nightmares. In this particular episode, the nightmare involves a cute and perky little… um… puppy-like thing that wanders into the house one day. The wife is enthralled, the husband, our dreamer, isn’t. The puppy, or whatever it is, proceeds to eat. And grow. And eat. And grow. Eventually, it’s terrorizing the city Godzilla style, munching on streetcars and buildings until a fleet of biplanes literally drops the bomb — long before the famous King Kong finale. What makes the film is the strange new pet, which frolics around the place with such gleeful abandon that it’s infectious. If you’re interested in seeing all surviving Winsor McCay films, they’re available on video and DVD.

The other pre-show feature came from Germany. Called, I think, “Die Überthaler,” it’s a very moody, atmospheric, weird piece about a coin that seems to be cursed and the man who finds it in the street. Eventually, he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Pursued by a street thug intent on robbing him, our hero takes refuge in a prostitute’s parlor, only to soon learn that she and her pimp are also intent on assault and theft. The editing, pacing and choice of camera angles in this grim little tale struck me as very modern, with ample use of close-ups, quick cutting, point of view and the like.

But, I do digress…the two short flicks were the pre-intermission entertainment. During intermission, I checked out the patio and cappuccino bar, and both are great places for hanging out. The patio is large and open, but be aware that it’s the haven for the nicotine hounds in attendance, a rarity, since smoking is now banned almost everywhere in Los Angeles. The cappuccino bar is a cozy upstairs room and, the night I was there hosted to a mini-exhibit of figures from famous horror movies courtesy of the Creature Features bookstore in Burbank. Creature Features also provided the post-intermission raffle give-away goodies. Yes, goodies.

Like I said, an evening at Silent Movie is always full of surprises. Whether you live in LA or you plan to visit, a trip to the place is essential. When you’ve gone once, you just have to go again… and again… and again. Don’t be surprised if you start preferring trips to this place over the latest release down at the cineplex.

And don’t be surprised if Charlie Lustman keeps this landmark going for decades. With his enthusiasm and showmanship, the real nickelodeon survives, a living reminder of exactly what it was about movies that made them the medium of the twentieth century.

Image source, Charlesconstantine, unaltered, shared via Creative Commons (cc) Sharealike 3.0 licence.

Whole lot of shaking goin’ on?

(Warning: Betteridge’s Law alert in effect.)

Damn. Puerto Rico has been getting pounded by quakes over the last month to the point that they have visibly changed the landscape. Why so many earthquakes? Well, as they say in real estate, it’s all about location, location, and location. The island happens to be situated on top of or next to various tectonic plates and mini-plates, and it’s the collision of these pieces of the Earth’s crust that cause quakes in the first place. Well, the ones that aren’t man-made, anyway.

Puerto Rico isn’t alone in this, either. A look at significant earthquakes over the last 30 days shows the image of a very unsettled Earth. Now, it would be easy to buy into an interesting astronomical fact being the cause. That is, the Earth reaches its closest point to the Sun, perihelion, in January. This year, it was January 4th, with the centers of the Earth and Sun being only about 91.4 million miles apart. On July 4th, they will be at their most distant, at about 94.5 million miles.

Now, true, that’s only a little over a 3% difference, but that distance is about 390 times the diameter of the Earth, and enormous masses are involved on both ends. Perihelion is also the point in the Earth’s orbit when it reaches its maximum velocity, which is what flings it to aphelion, where it slows, reaches its minimum velocity, and comes flying back into a smaller orbit, which the Sun slingshots back out. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Of course, the difference between maximum and minimum velocity is only about sixth tenths of a mile per second, but, again, we’re dealing with some pretty big objects here. And, anecdotally, I can tell you that the biggest earthquake I’ve ever experienced was in January, and so was Japan’s, a year to the day later, and now Puerto Rico is shaking apart, and it must be connected, right?

Right… except that it’s not. Earthquakes are not driven by orbital mechanics or the weather or any other factors like that, and any belief in “earthquake weather” or “earthquake season” are pure confirmation bias and nothing more nor less.

However… there’s one thing to keep in mind about this time of year. We are closer to the Sun, and so get more heat from it, right at the time when it’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, but summer in the Southern Hemisphere. And why is that the case? Because of the way the Earth is tilted. Winter is the season when its axis is titled away from the Sun. Summer is when it’s tilted toward. Spring and Fall are the seasons where the axis is mostly straight up and down.

So… in the Northern Hemisphere, we get winter when we are closest to the Sun and summer when we’re farthest away. In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s exactly the opposite, and this is where we can see events in our solar system having an effect down here. Mainly Australia is burning.

Why? Climate change, hotter temperatures, drier forests, extreme weather (thinking thunderstorms with lightning that can start a fire), and human elements, although far from the “200 arsonists” dreamt up by the anti-climate change crowd. More like 24 actual arsonists, and then a bunch of idiots who may or may not have started fires, but at least did something that might have. And, anyway, claiming that arson and accident don’t add to the concept of anthropogenic climate change is a bit of a stretch. Humans did it? All that smoke is going to screw up the environment. And the burning would have stopped a lot sooner if the hotter climate hadn’t pre-baked the forests.

But… it’s hard to avoid confirmation bias when the earthquake alert app on my phone has been ridiculously busy since at least January 4th. The good news is that it’s easy to survive a quake with warning, and if you’re not living in buildings basically made out of mud, stone, and hope.

Just remember this: A) Do NOT get into a doorway. That’s outdated Boomer advice. Instead, squat down next to a heavy piece of incompressible furniture, like a sturdy armoire or a sofa, or barring that, right next to your bed, on your knees, rolled over, hands covering the back of your neck and head.

Once the shaking has stopped, if you can, grab your loved ones and go-bag (you have one, right?) get outside, shut off your gas if necessary, and escape to shelter, which could be your car if it wasn’t smashed flat in the collapse of a Dingbat style apartment. People, really, don’t live in them. Also try avoiding buildings that are four to eight stories tall, because they tend to sway at resonant frequencies in sync with seismic waves, and so sway harder and collapse more often.

The good news is that in a lot of places prone to earthquakes, things have been upgraded to a ridiculous and safe degree. The bad news? In a lot of places they haven’t.  Fun fact: Most of the U.S. and Canada reside on a single tectonic plate, so are not naturally susceptible to earthquakes. Not fun fact: Fracking completely fracks with that, and creates seismic events (aka earthquakes) in places that they should not be. Less fun fact: the tectonic plate with a lot of Southern California and half of the Bay Area is not the same one as the rest of North America.

Consequently, while people in other parts of the country grow up dreading tornadoes or floods, earthquakes have been my lifetime bugaboo. Good news, though. I’ve survived 100% of the ones I’ve been in… and I’ve accepted the fact that, for now, they are 100% unpredictable.

Our best weapon against AI is humor

My day job revolves around health insurance and, because of HIPPA regulations, the office has landlines. We can’t do VOIP because it’s not as secure. The theater I work at some evenings uses nothing but VOIP. I’m sure that the main consequence of this is that the theater never gets robo or sales calls, while the office gets them constantly.

Fortunately, I have absolutely no obligation to be nice to robo-callers or even to listen to their pitches. I’ve hung up on them in mid-sentence. To make it more confusing for them, I’ve hung up in the middle of my sentence. Sometimes, if they’re trying to pitch a service that the boss already has and I know that he did meticulous research before he obtained it or has a personal relationship with the provider, I’ll respond with a terse, “Thanks, but we’re happy with what we have,” and then hang up.

The fun ones are when we get calls trying to sell Medicare insurance. They start out just talking about Medicare Supplement plans, and those are perfectly legal to advertise. Why? Because no matter the provider, each particular plan has the same premium, determined by age, and has the same basic benefits.

These are the plans that cover deductibles, copays, and coinsurance not covered by other plans or Medicare itself. Where they differ is in the extras they toss on. Some of them provide gym benefits, others provide personal emergency systems — i.e. the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” necklace, others provide free over-the-counter stuff, like vitamins and cold remedies, by mail. It’s a mix-and-match, and what it’s really doing is providing people to decide what they prefer among plans that are otherwise identical.

So far, so good. If it’s a slow day and I get one of these calls, I will always push the button for more info, which connects me to a live operator. This is where it gets fun, because it is illegal to cold-call someone to try to sell them Medicare Advantage or Medicare Prescription Drug Plans.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what all those terms mean. I didn’t either six months ago. The gist of it is that selling these in the same way is illegal because their costs and coverages vary wildly, and it all depends upon the person being insured, and which medications they’re taking.

For somebody taking no drugs or with one or two common and cheap generics, Coverage X may only cost $13 a month. For someone with a lot of prescriptions, especially if one or more only come in a brand instead of a generic, Coverage X may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a year. And for each of them, the price of Coverage X, Coverage Y, and Coverage Z may also vary widely, also depending on whether they have a preferred pharmacy or not, and whether that pharmacy is in or out of network for the provider.

In other words… this is something people need to discuss with a professional who can look at their specific needs, analyze the options, and give the best and cheapest advice. That cold caller is probably only calling for a small number of (or even only one) providers, so they don’t care what your situation is going to cost. They only want to get you to buy what you’re selling.

And that is a big part of why these kinds of calls are so illegal.

Now, when I get a person doing one of these calls on the line, they will usually launch into a fast-talking spiel about how they can save me and my family money on all of our health insurance needs, including Medicare Advantage or Drug Plans, and what would I like to sign up for today?

My reply is always, “Hey, you sell Medicare insurance, too? So do we. My boss is an insurance broker.”

Analogy time: This would be the equivalent of somebody robo-dialing in order to hire a hitman to take out a rival, giving the fully incriminating pitch to whomever answers, and then finding out they’d called the FBI.

When I say this, I can hear the sudden confusion in the silence and the unstated “Oh, shit.” It takes a second or two, but then I hear them hang up on me, and that is the Holy Grail of dealing with these unethical idiots: making them end the call.

Some of them must be paying attention, though, because the other day I got one of these calls during a slow late afternoon, hit 1 to talk to a rep and then instead of immediately being put through, got some hold music, and then after about ten seconds, the call disconnected.

So, other Holy Grail. I think I actually got our office number blocked by a spamming, illegal robo-caller. That’s really satisfying.

However, there’s another trend in these robo-calls that’s somewhat more disturbing on a couple of fronts. First is that it could actually put people out of jobs. And yes, while we all hate these kinds of calls, I still get that for some people, these jobs are their tenuous lifelines. I blame the companies behind them, not the people who have no options other than to work for them.

Second is that this trend is using AI, and it’s getting a lot better. When you get a call that has a voice announcement or is reading off a recorded message, it’s pretty obvious what it is. Beyond the robotic cadence or the message outright stating that it’s a recording, there’s also just a huge difference in sound quality between a recording or digital audio and a live speaker.

Why is this? Simple. Digital or analog audio goes direct through an input line to the headset speaker in your phone. Spoken voice has to take the extra step or traversing a few millimeters of open air between the speaker’s mouth and their microphone, and this creates a completely different quality. You don’t even have to be an audiophile to pick up on it. It’s something we just automatically sense. “Recording” and “Real Person” appear as different from each other as “Mannequin” and “Human Being.”

But then they tweaked the technology, and now I’ve met a couple of AI robo-callers that were obviously filtered to sound like real people with that atmospheric connection. I don’t doubt that this is now a trivial process to add via computer, although to be honest, it could be done really low-tech and in cheap analog by setting up a speaker playing the voice next to a handset picking it up. Either way… these couple of calls got me at first.

Call number one, it was easy to spot after the initial two exchanges, because the voice launched into the uninterruptable spiel so, despite the sound quality, I got it and hung up.

The second and, so far, last time, it was a bit harder. The very human sounding voice started out with, “Hello, how are you today?” I replied, “Fine, and you?” It replied. “Great, thanks for asking. Can I ask you some questions about your family’s shopping habits?” “Sure,” I said, waiting for an opportunity to mess with them, but then also noticed that there seemed to be slightly too long of a pause between their question and my response. Also, every response started with a filler word. And the next response nailed it for me.

“That’s great. Are you responsible for the grocery shopping in your household.”

Trivial thing, but just like we can detect by hearing whether a voice is recorded or on the phone, our brains are also wired to detect whether we’re talking to a human, and this was the point that the bot failed the Turing Test. The responses were a bit mechanical and not keying into my tone at all. So I decided to give it a real test and replied, “I only pay for it, but everyone else decides what they want.”

The pause was slightly longer, and then came the reply, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?” Of course, the human response would have been a laugh at a thing that AI hasn’t mastered yet: A joke.

Bingo, busted bot. So lots of points for the realism of the voice, delivery, and sound quality, but there’s still a long way to go on making it believable, and this is a very, very good thing, indeed. If you think it’s a bot, engage it with non-sequiturs and humor, and see how fast it falls apart.


Image: Alan Turing Memotial by Bernt Rostad, (cc BY 2.0).

Lifting the bus

One of our improv mottos is “Get yourself in trouble.” In other words, if a problem comes up in a scene game, don’t try to find a solution. Try to find ways to make it worse. If someone tries to solve it, make the solution become a bigger problem.

An example. Say that a loving couple, Pat and Kelly, are out hiking in the woods, when one of them, Pat, cuts a finger on a bush. Kelly puts a bandage on it, but Pat is terribly allergic to latex. Meanwhile, another friend of theirs, Sam, a botanist, comes along, and points out that the plant was something awful, like poison sumac. Kelly happens to have some spray that instantly neutralizes sumac and spritzes it on Pat, but then Pat grabs the bottle and looks at it, seeing that it expired two years ago. “Oh no!” declares Sam. “When anti-sumacization spray expires, using it actually makes the problem worse.” Kelly meekly says “Sorry,” Pat screams in pain, the ref blows the whistle, end scene.

Notice what was happening in the story above. We know who the people are to each other, and where they are, and then the complication of the cut finger happens. The performer playing Kelly keeps coming up with solutions to the problem. Meanwhile, the performer playing Pat comes up with reasons that the solutions are worse. The performer playing Sam gets this and comes on to help with the mayhem. Ultimately, we get the tragic but funny story of one partner trying to do everything to help the other out of a jam, but only causing more pain and agony.

What’s the alternative? Pat: “Ow, cut my finger.” Kelly: “Let me put this bandage on.” Pat: “Oh. All better. Thanks!”

Where does that leave them? They now need to come up with a new complication, or else the scene is over. And yes, they could create a scene in which another problem comes up after they solve the first, they solve that, and then another comes up, and so on. This… could work kinda sorta maybe, but it wouldn’t be as engaging because it would suddenly be about the location instead of the people. The only way it could work would be if one of the characters had endowed the other with the ability to solve every problem at the top — “Oh, Kelly. You know how to fix everything!” — but then everyone started to throw more and more ridiculous problems at Kelly to solve.

Now this latter choice can work as well, and it’s a type of improv that we call (off-stage ‘cause our shows are suitable for everyone) “Screw your buddy.” That is, one player will suddenly toss something ridiculous at the other player. A recent example our team coach gave was from an actual match, where one player said something like, “Don’t say it. Sing it!” and so the other player did.

The key to making this work comes from another one of our mottos, and something we say to each other right before we go on in every show: “Got your back.” That is, it only looks like “screw your buddy” from the audience’s point of view, but that’s not what’s really happening.

If you’re playing with someone you know can’t do accents to save their life, for example, then a comment like, “Oh. It says that whoever drinks this will suddenly start speaking in random accents” would not be a good choice. They’d either wind up ignoring it and disappointing the audience or, more likely, try to do it, get into a place totally into their head, and roll the scene right off of the rails.

But… if you know that your scene partner can do any accent perfectly, then you definitely toss something like this at them because then it will engage the audience. They’ll immediately feel sorry for the other player. “OMG. How are they going to do that?” But then they will be thrilled to death as the other player suddenly pulls out half a dozen or more flawless accents for the rest of the scene and end up wondering, “What magic is this?”

It can be daunting as a performer until you’re aware of what’s going on. In fact, the first time it happened to me, I wasn’t, and I was getting a little annoyed at the player doing it to me. We were playing a singing and rhyming elimination game called Da Doo Ron Ron that I’ve mentioned here before. Funny story: Before I started doing improv, I loved to watch this one as an audience member. Once I started doing improv, playing this game scared the hell out of me and I would usually be out no later than third elimination.

That’s when I learned a very counter-intuitive trick for it, which is this: In a game where you have to come up with lots of rhymes, stop thinking and start listening. And it’s true. When I’d go into the game and start reeling off all the possible rhymes in my head for the suggestion (Bob… cob, dob, fob, gob, hob, job, knob, lob, mob, rob, sob, blob, etc.) I’d stop listening, so that I’d totally miss that someone before me said “Ty Cobb,” I’d use “corn on the cob,” and (clap clap) “outta there.”

But when I started listening instead, it all changed because I was mentally ticking off the letters used, so it made it much easier to latch onto the ones that hadn’t been, as well as looking for diphthongs, diglyphs, and other oddities but, again without thinking ahead. End result? The less I planned ahead, the better I got, and this went from one of my most feared games to one of my favorites.

This probably makes no sense without an explanation of the game, so here it is. It’s based on an old song with a repeated refrain of “da doo ron ron,” and the audience suggests a name. The pattern repeats in threes. The very first player always says the name, and then the second player rhymes the name. The third player has to come up with three rhymes. It repeats from there with single rhyme, single rhyme, triple, until somebody repeats a rhyme, can’t come up with one, falls off rhythm, uses a slant rhyme (e.g., flan and Spam), or the ref just gets tired of them.

So the first trio would be:

Player 1: “I met him/her on a Tuesday and his/her name was [suggestion]”

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron

Player 2: Match up the rhythm and make a [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron. Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s a little [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s another [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo yeah?

Player 3: Here’s the final [rhyme]

Everyone: Da doo ron ron, da doo ron ron.

Repeat.

Ideally, if we start with eight people, the person who gets number three will keep shifting as we get through the line, although it’s rare to make it through the starting line more than two full times. After that, the third player rotates equally for 7, 5, and 4 players remaining, although a ref can still determine who gets the first three via whom they pick to start and, if they’re really good, they can target the second three, although it does involve a lot of memorization.

This leaves three and six, and these are the special positions, because however the ref starts it, the same two or one players will always get the third rhyme. All the ref has to do is start two players to the left of their target, and boom. Buddy screwed. Or thrown under the bus. Or whatever you want to call it.

Long set-up, but here’s how it paid off. We were doing Da Doo Ron Ron for a fairly big audience, starting with eight players, and the first couple of rounds it seemed random. But as soon as we hit six, that’s when it became obvious that the ref was starting every round so that I would get the three spot and, since I was on the red team, which starts from stage left, it also made it easier for him to put me in the second three spot in each round.

At six and three, same damn thing. But a funny thing happened when we got down to three players and me being the only three rhymer. We made it three times around and I survived, and every time the audience went crazier and crazier when I’d pulled off my third. It was only on my fourth time around that I made two and then whiffed it on the last.

But I was pretty annoyed with our ref when I went back to the bench until our coach explained it to us post-show, and this brings us back to the title of this piece, because that’s the metaphor he used.

A good improviser, he explained, “Will throw their teammate under the bus under one condition. They know full well that their teammate is capable of lifting the bus, so the audience will be amazed when they do it. He got more specific and said that the only reason our Ref kept putting me in the three spot was because he knew I could do it, so it would give the audience their money’s worth and make me look good.

And… damn. Looking at it after the fact, that’s exactly what it did. He kept putting me in trouble but with the unspoken endowment of “You can solve anything,” and so it made me look like a goddamn wizard or words. Of course, it also gave me permission to play the hell out of feeling picked on and nervous, which, again, made me look good by making it look like I was overcoming insurmountable odds.

I wasn’t. I was playing a game that I enjoyed and was really good at. And in retrospect I realized that our ref knew that too. And he only threw me under the bus because he knew damn well that I could lift it.

Image credit: Author’s photo © 2019, Metro G Line at the NoHo Station, March 24, 2019.