The Saturday Morning Post #52: The Rêves Part 30

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

A grave undertaking

The next day, Joshua made the arrangements with the cemetery. Well, he activated them at least, because they’d set up the plot, marker, and other extras previously. Neither of them had ever planned to have a big to-do, and they certainly never planned to have it so soon, although they had taken the precaution when they decided to go into the ghost-hunting business, just in case.

“Metro Stations can be dangerous,” Simon had advised Jason, who agreed.

Funeral insurance covered the cost, and Simon’s life insurance payout would give Jason a nice donation to make, via the Ada Lovelace Foundation, to Simon’s favorite charities.

“So at least I won’t be completely useless in death,” Simon had half-joked when he had explained those wishes.

Preston and Danny stuck with Joshua the entire time, and he really appreciated having them there. He jokingly referred to them as “My emotional support Rêves,” wondering whether this meant that he could take them into stores everywhere.

“Only if he learns how to materialize clothes,” Danny joked about Preston.

“I think I should just call you Dr. Manhattan,” Joshua said.

“Dude!” they exclaimed simultaneously, and then said in similar words at the same time that Watchmen was their absolute favorite book, and they even liked the movie if it was… different.

Joshua agreed with them, although they had both also read Doomsday Clock, the graphic novel sequel while he had not.

“You know they made a sequel miniseries based on it?” Joshua told them. “It came out four years ago or so.”

“No shit!” Danny gushed.

“Is it any good?” Simon replied.

“Oh, yeah,” Joshua told them. “Hey — we’ve got nowhere else to go until the funeral, and it’s only about nine hours. Want to binge it?”

“Yes!” they both announced excitedly, so Joshua dropped the black-out shades, fired up the big screen, and they all settled back for a marathon.

It had been as good as Joshua remembered from his first three viewings, and it was nice to watch it with someone who’d never experienced it. Danny and Simon were squeeing left and right like total fanboys, shuddering in giddy excitement at every sudden revelation and big plot turn.

The appearance of the teleported squid in Episode 5 really sent them into ecstasy, because this was one of the biggest — and most criticized — changes in the movie version.

Joshua couldn’t help but notice, too, that time apart, so to speak, had let Danny and Preston differentiate a bit. Not that they had started out as the same people, mentally, but their reactions were not absolutely identical, even if physically they were.

The only difference between them were their haircuts, which made sense because Preston had had access to and the means to afford high-end stylists while Danny hadn’t, but the changes were subtle enough that he really had to look for them.

They had started the marathon around eight in the morning and finished it, with an hour break for lunch and slightly longer for dinner (well, for Joshua) just after 7 p.m., at which point he opened the shutters and went onto the balcony with his phone, leaving Danny and Preston to eagerly discuss what they had just seen.

Nerd pornstar. Who knew?

He called Brett and Drew first to let them know the details of the funeral, then had to talk them out of inviting anyone else along.

“We’ve both always wanted this to be very private,” he said. “So I hope that you’d respect Simon’s wishes.”

They insisted on hosting a huge funeral procession, but Joshua explained that the funeral home was on the cemetery grounds, so it would be one hearse bringing the coffin out to the gravesite before the mourners arrived, and there wasn’t going to be any kind of religious service at all.

“A reception. You need a reception!” Brett insisted.

“Yeah, well… maybe an intimate dinner at someplace with great steaks after,” Joshua said. “But that’s it.”

“Done, and on us!” Brett replied.

“Thanks,” Joshua said. “See you there, then.”

His next call was to Brenda, for the same reason, and after she took down the details and agreed to the invite, he said, “Hey, so tell me about your family.”

She explained that there would be five of them — in addition to Brenda, one husband, two children, and one mother, hers. They had one other daughter, but she was off to school, and hadn’t come home for summer break because she was picking up extra units in summer school.

“Oh… I should explain,” Brenda added. “Our youngest is transgender.”

“Oh, cool,” Joshua replied. “What are their pronouns?”

“She, her, and hers, and thank you for asking,” Brenda said.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Joshua replied.

“A lot of people are not understanding and, sorry to say it, that includes gay people as well.”

“Oh, you don’t have to tell me,” he replied. “I’ve met plenty of transphobic gay men, generally the older ones, who can also be total racists. Just because we’re part of a traditionally oppressed group doesn’t mean we can’t be bigoted assholes, too.”

“Amen to that, brother. So, we’ll see you at the funeral, then. Is there a service before, or is that family only…?”

“No service,” Joshua said. “And our friends were and are our family. We’re probably doing dinner or something after though, and you all are absolutely welcome.”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Brenda said.

“Thanks. See you there.”

Joshua hung up and realized that he’d probably just added another really close friend to his group, and it had all started with a government official harassing him and his husband while they were doing their job. Who knew?

And that had been only… what? A week and a half ago at most?

At the mortuary, the mortician started his work on Simon the afternoon after he arrived. It was always sad to see someone so young die. Fortunately, his cause of death had left him looking relatively intact.

Contrary to popular belief, human beings do not explode like watermelons when dropped from a great height. Most of the damage is internal, and Simon had been no exception. A lot of his bones were broken, and presumably he had suffered major internal organ damage — at least that’s what the attending physician’s report had said.

After the embalming part was done, the mortician, Olam Sharon, took a look to see what he had to work with.

It was going to take a lot of packing of the chest cavity to give it some sort of shape, since the hospital had removed the internal organs in the autopsy and the ribs were too fractured to support anything.

Oh, the organs were all there. They were just sealed in a biohazard bag left in the abdomen, and it wasn’t a mortician’s place to put them back together like an anatomical model. He just left them in there as he filled in the rest of the cavity.

Olam placed an assortment of newspaper, sawdust and florist’s foam in the space, with more florist’s foam on top so he could easily mold the chest into something looking normal. This was made easier by the fact that they hadn’t sewn up the Y-incision that ran from each of the decedent’s armpits to a midline just below his sternum, then all the way down to just above his pubic bone.

Olam preferred to never think of his clients by name for two reasons. One was that it made it much easier for him to think of them as precious objects to be restored for their loved ones. The other was that thinking the name could alert evil spirits to their presence, and should their soul still be hanging around, the evil ones might snatch it instead of letting it be extinguished to leave only their good deeds and life behind.

Okay, he didn’t really believe that last part, but his bubbe Mavet had told him many tales, including why you should never name a child after a living ancestor.

Once he’d filled in the decedent’s chest and abdominal cavities, he folded the skin back in place and then began to sew it shut, from top right all the way down, then from top left likewise, to give double stitching down the abdomen.

He’d learned to sew from his uncle Moishe, who had been a tailor, and at one point his family expected him to go into that business. Olam had wound up taking a different path, though, after his best friend died in a terrible accident just after they both became bar mitzvah.

They’d been playing around the train tracks near where they lived in the West Valley — this was back in the mid-1970s — and given that safety standards were a lot looser back then, the freight trains thundered down the rights-of-way mere feet from the back walls of tract homes, with nary a gate or wall to keep curious kids from wandering onto the dirt sidings next to them.

The only precautions were the flashing lights and guardrails that dropped across some (but not all) at-grade intersections.

Decades later, this line would be converted into the Metro G line, a busway, with huge warning signs saying “Keep Out!” on the sidings at every crossing along with fences blocking pedestrian access.

But Olam and Jakov were free-range children and had been playing near the tracks that summer afternoon, doing their usual shenanigans of putting pennies on the rails. When the penny came flying out flattened, Jakov ran to retrieve it, but misjudged it somehow and got too close to the train. The bottom of a ladder on a boxcar caught a sleeve on his jacket, whipped him around to slam his face into the metal, and then dragged him over a hundred feet before he fell off.

Olam screamed and ran to him, but it was obviously too late, and Jakov’s face was a bloody, unrecognizable mess. Olam ran the two blocks home, his mom called the authorities, and Jakov was buried two days later.

The thing that must struck Olam was that they actually had an open-casket viewing for Jakov (his father was Catholic), and that he looked so… perfect. No sign of the trauma at all. Sure, he had a sort of artificial, overly made-up look, but who knew that such a thing was possible?

So Olam switched from the idea of being a tailor to being a mortician. His parents weren’t happy at first, but once he’d learned that sewing was part of the process, and that it was kind of medicine adjacent, they supported him fully.

He’d been in the business for years, but every time he had a client who had died young and in a terrible accident, he took special care, and this decedent was no different.

Normally, he’d leave the torso a little lumpy, because the inevitable fancy clothes that would be put on them would cover imperfections, but here Olam made sure that everything looked as normal as possible.

He had even used his best, finest but strongest thread that most matched the decedent’s skin-tone so that should anyone happen to look (they wouldn’t) his chest would appear intact. Finally, he put matching foundation over any obvious bruises on the front of the body and blended it.

Next was the face, which he carefully tightened up by pulling back the muscles that had been cut in order to remove the top of the skull and excise the brain. Normally, a mortician would just stuff the mouth and cheeks with couch-packing cotton to keep things from sagging too much, but Olam had an additional trick that he used on decedents he really felt sympathy for, and this was one.

Part of his training involved anatomy, so he brought each facial muscle back to its original bone process to reattach, although he pulled them a little tighter than they normally would have been because they had lost some elasticity in death.

He had several reference photos to work from and only four muscles to put back in place — one on each side, and two in the front, stretching up roughly above either eye.

Obviously, he couldn’t sew muscles to bone and expect them to hold, but that was okay. He had glue. What they used was a generic, but it was similar to and stronger than what civilians knew as Krazy Glue or Super Glue or generically as a cyanoacrylate. It had been used during the Vietnam war to seal up wounds on the battlefield, hence its notorious ability to stick fingers together.

That was exactly what Olam needed, so he misted the skull and muscle with water and while wearing gloves that the glue would not affect, held the muscle with his right hand while slathering the skull with a generous coating of the glue.

When he was done, he pulled the muscle and put it in place, adjusting it and watching the decedent’s face tighten until he was happy with the results, then pressed his palm down and held it while he counted to one hundred.

He repeated the procedure for the other frontal muscle, then gently turned the decedent onto his left side, placed a block behind his shoulder to keep him in place, and did likewise for one side muscle. Lather, rinse, repeat for the other before he was flat on his back again.

While he’d been doing this, he noticed that someone at the County Morgue also knew their trick for putting the skull cap back on after it had been sawn off — denture adhesive — and they had aligned it perfectly.

He was also amazed to see that the decedent had managed to not fracture his skull at all, but that made sense then, because he’d read in the coroner’s report that he’d been brought to the hospital alive after a fifteen-story fall.

“Okay,” Olam thought. “That all looks good,” so he then went to work on making up the face.

Normally, this would just involve slapping on enough base to hide the pallor of death — maybe a little eyeshadow and lipstick if it was a woman, pale lipstick and rouge if it was a man.

Oh, he referred to the “make-up” as that, but you’d never find this kind in a fancy department store or a woman’s boudoir. It was made special for the industry because it had to stick to dead skin. It was more like very waxy paint, and designed to conceal.

Despite his injuries, this decedent didn’t look as bad as a lot of them. Quite often, there were bruises to cover up, or discolorations due to lack of oxygen or gangrene or dozens of other things.

They even had a trick for people who died due to liver conditions and came in incredibly jaundiced — just run a tank of condensed milk through the veins before the embalming fluid, which was Olam’s preferred method. He also knew of morticians who plopped four Alka-Seltzer into the pre-injection chemicals, added a gallon of water, pumped it in without letting it drain and let it sit for fifteen to thirty minutes before flushing it out.

This one didn’t need any of that, but got the full-on beauty treatment. Base first, and then a Hollywood studio-worthy process of blended layers that made him look about as life-like as possible and match him to the pictures his husband had provided.

When Olam was happy with that, he slathered the still exposed skull with a ton of the glue, then pulled the scalp flap up and over, being sure to yank it taut before bringing it back down in place. Fortunately, the decedent’s shaggy hair style would cover the incision, although he of course camouflaged it himself.

When he was done, he stepped back and looked at his work, before giving himself the chef’s “finger-kiss” salute. The finishing touches involved washing and manicuring the hands, which probably made total sense to people.

But the last bit before he dressed the corpse was one that was necessary and, probably, unknown to most civilians. He placed a rigid plastic plug up the decedent’s anus, making sure it was in tight. No need to have sudden anal leakage ruin the festivities, after all.

The last step was to put on the clothes that the husband, Joshua, had brought, and Olam couldn’t help but wonder what kind of interesting people these two were. Well, one was, one is. The outfit is a long brown duster, with a brass gauntlet on the left hand, a ridiculously dark black ruffled silk shirt, tan suede trouser and elaborate oxblood boots, engraved in paisley, with contrasting tan areas.

Olam is thankful that the accident made it easier to get the boots on, because if not, he would have had to shatter the decedent’s ankles. Otherwise, everything has been slit down the back and put in place in rather the same way that one would put a fitted sheet on a mattress.

The final touches were attaching his cellphone to his left hand, and placing a low top hat, in the same tan suede as his trousers but with an oxblood band, in the crook of his right elbow. No crossed arms for this one, and he didn’t have to strap down the hands because the arms weren’t “floating” as they often wanted to do.

When Olam is done, he steps back and gasps. This one has got to be his masterpiece and, although it is ridiculously against the rules, he cannot help himself but take several photos of the results.

At least he’s smart enough to never share them on social media, or with anyone. But he does make a mental note: “Drop by this funeral. It’s got to be spectacular.”

There was a witness to his transgression. However, she could not have cared less. As soon as Simon’s corpse had been delivered, she had felt something, but couldn’t name it.

Ironically, what had finally drawn her in was Olam’s deep concern over this one, even though he’d neither known nor met Simon in life.

But that kind of emotional attachment to a dead person was like firing off a signal flare to the
Rêves, so she had hurried over to the mortuary to keep tabs.

To Olam’s credit, she had no idea who he was working on until he had completed his amazing job on Simon’s face, and the clothes had just cinched it.

“Holy shit,” Anabel muttered under her breath. “He’s going to be on our side now?”

She wasn’t sure what to think or do, but if this one was here and the other one wasn’t, then she just might have acquired the dual generals who would win this war.

Against her better judgement, she summoned Pearl. The Hadas had to know about this one. It was news too big to keep quiet.

* * *

Friday Free for all #50: Weird, rude, escalation, old-fashioned

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here, are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What’s the weirdest thing about modern life that people just accept as normal?

Hands down, it has to be the tone and level of discourse on social media. Can you imagine if, say, real-life parties or bars worked like this? Well… I mean, when they open again. Sure, every bar has its occasional fight break out, but if they were anything like social media, the things would turn into constant riots.

I’d imagine that conversations would go something like this. One friend says to another, “I really didn’t like that last moving starring X,” and her friend agrees. A passing stranger walks up and says, “You’re full of shit and don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Suddenly, a bunch of friends (and strangers) are coming up to mostly defend her, some to attack her, and some to support the stranger. When someone else outside the group starts to make random comments attacking people that are rude, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or any combination of any or all of the above, that’s when the fists start flying.

Of course, some of this crap has spilled out into real life, seen most recently with the failed insurrection of January 6. That, everybody, was an example of a typical internet chat thread bursting out into real life — except, of course, that the conversation was mostly one-sided and completely stupid.

Speaking of which, this will post the day after all of those folks’ fantasies about March 4 absolutely fail to come true. I wonder what they’ll all do then. Ideally, just slink back home to their caves and shut up for good.

Except that I don’t half doubt that they’re going to pick another date to conspire about in anticipation instead.

If animals could talk, which would be the rudest?

Absolutely no question, I think it would be cats. They’d probably be very opinionated, sarcastic, and demanding. They probably also have very foul mouths.

What escalated very quickly?

January 6, 2021. I don’t think I need to explain why.

What’s something you like to do the old-fashioned way?

Nothing. It’s called the “old’fashioned way” for a reason, and that’s because it’s old-fashioned. I prefer to take advantage of whatever technology can offer me, shady sides of social media included.

I can’t even imagine trying to write things on a typewriter, or all the crap that goes with that — correction fluid or tape, carbon paper, only having a single physical copy of the first draft until you go out and photocopy it at great cost.

Or phones. A phone that’s physically wired into a wall? No thanks. That’s so last century. So is a wireless phone — that connects to a cradle that’s physically wired into a wall. Not to mention phone calls. Who does those anymore?

Except maybe for business, and only if you’re dealing with a company that’s too behind the times to have a useful web presence, but damn is that annoying.

I can’t think of the last time I’ve mailed anything with a stamp on it, or handwritten a letter, and that’s fine with me. And speaking of handwritten, are we done with cursive yet? That shit should have gone out with the first word processors.

I’ve given up on broadcast TV — not that there are that many channels left, even via HD — and only get my programming through streaming. I will sometimes listen to the radio in the car, but only if none of the podcasts I follow has a new update.

Speaking of music, I am so glad I don’t have to deal with vinyl or record players. Not only is vinyl cumbersome, heavy, and not all that environmentally friendly, but the sound quality is not that great, unless you like pops and hisses, or the needle suddenly skipping or getting stuck. Give me digital any day.

That’s probably the big difference between modern and old-fashioned, really. To modernize is to learn to let go of the need to own tangible versions of things. Music, movies, books, photos, and more — you name it and you can digitize it, then carry it with you on your phone, stick it on your computer, or keep it in the cloud to access from anywhere.

One big advantage? You can’t lose it all in a fire if it’s not all living in one place.

Yet… I do know people who insist on doing things the old-fashioned way. My last job was totally like that, although only two of us working there were under 60, which could explain a lot. So, while we could have gone a lot more digital and modern with things, everybody else wanted to do it on paper, which I think really slowed us down.

Not to mention that the clients, who were 99.9% 65 and up, tended to mostly be barely technologically literate, and that made things difficult as well. I can’t tell you how many times someone would tell me, “I sent it to your email, but it came back undeliverable.”

“What email did you send it to?”

“www.yourcompanyname.com.”

“Um… that’s not an email.”

But it’s not just Boomers that have the issue, either. I know people my age and younger who don’t do computers, some of whom even use typewriters or do everything on paper, and I just don’t get it.

Why, in this day and age, when you can carry more computer power in your pocket than NASA had when they landed a human on the Moon, would you not avail yourself of it?

So, yeah. About the only thing I’ll do old-fashioned is a donut, and that’s only because that’s what they call the style. Otherwise, no thank you.

Theatre Thursday: Fact and fiction

About six hundred and eight years ago, Henry V was crowned king of England. You probably know him as that king from the movie with Kenneth Branagh, or the BBC series aired under the title The Hollow Crown.

Either way, you know him because of Shakespeare. He was the king who grew up in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy. Yes, that’s a set of four plays and since it was his second, Shakespeare sort of did the Star Wars thing first: he wrote eight plays on the subject of the English Civil war.

And, much like Lucas, he wrote the original tetralogy first, then went back and did the prequels. Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V were written after but happened before Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III.

Incidentally, Henry VI, Part 1, is famous for having Joan of Arc (aka Joan la Pucelle in the play) as one of the antagonists. Funny thing is, that name wasn’t slander on Shakespeare’s part. That’s what she preferred to call herself.

Meanwhile, Richard III, of course, is the Emperor Palpatine of the series, although we never did get a Richard IV, mainly because he never existed in history. Well, not officially. Richard III’s successor was Henry VII, and Shakespeare never wrote about him, either, although he did gush all over Henry VIII, mainly because he was the father of the Bard’s patron, Elizabeth I. CYA.

If you’ve ever seen the film My Own Private Idaho, directed by Gus Van Sant and staring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, then you’ve seen a modern retelling of the two parts of Henry IV.

Now when it comes to adapting true stories to any dramatic medium, you’re going to run into the issue of dramatic license. A documentary shouldn’t have this problem and shouldn’t play with the truth, although it happens. Sometimes, it can even prove fatal.

But when it comes to a dramatic retelling, it is often necessary to fudge things, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. It’s not at all uncommon for several characters to be combined into a composite just to make for a cleaner plot. After all, is it that big of a difference if, say, King Flagbarp IX in real life was warned about a plot against him in November by his chamberlain Norgelglap, but the person who told him the assassin’s name in February was his chambermaid Hegrezelda?

Maybe, maybe not, but depending on what part either of those characters plays in the rest of the story, as well as the writer’s angle, they may both be combined as Norgelglap or as Hegrezelda, or become a third, completely fictionalized character, Vlanostorf.

Time frames can also change, and a lot of this lands right back in Aristotle’s lap. He created the rules of drama long before hacks like the late Syd Field tried (and failed), and Ari put it succinctly. Every dramatic work has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and should have unity of place, unity of time, and unity of action.

A summary of the last three is this, although remember that Aristotle was writing about the stage. For film and video, your mileage will vary slightly.

The story takes place in one particular location, although that location can be a bit broad. It can be the king’s castle, or it can be the protagonist’s country.

It should take place over a fairly short period of time. Aristotle liked to keep it to a day, but there’s leeway, and we’ve certainly seen works that have taken place over an entire lifetime — although that is certainly a form of both unity of time and unity of place, if you consider the protagonist to be the location as well.

Unity of action is a little abstract, but in a nutshell it’s this: Your plot is about one thing. There’s a single line that goes from A to Z: What your protagonist wants, and how they get it.

Now, my own twist on the beginning, middle, and end thing is that this is a three act structure that gives us twenty-seven units. (Aristotle was big on 5 acts, which Shakespeare used, but that’s long since fallen out of fashion.)

Anyway, to me, we have Act I, II, and III. Beginning, middle, and end. But each of those has its own beginning, middle and end. So now we’re up to nine: I: BME; II: BME; III: BME.

Guess what? Each of those subunits also has a beginning, middle, and end. I’m not going to break that one down further than this. The beginning of the beginning, Act I: B, has its own BME, repeat eight more times.

The end result is 3 x 3 x 3, or twenty-seven.

And that’s my entire secret to structure. You’re welcome.

But because of these little constraints, and because history is messy, it’s necessary to switch things up to turn a true story into a “based on true events” work. Real life doesn’t necessarily have neat beginnings, middles, and endings. It also doesn’t necessarily take place in one spot, or in a short period of time.

So it becomes the artist’s job to tell that story in a way that is as true to reality as possible without being married to the facts.

Although it is also possible to go right off the rails with it, and this is one of the reasons I totally soured on Quentin Tarantino films. It’s one thing to fudge facts a little bit, but when he totally rewrites history in Inglorious Basterds, ignores historical reality in Django Unchained, and then curb stomps reality and pisses on its corpse in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I’m done.

Inglorious Misspelling is a particularly egregious example because the industry does a great disservice in selling false history to young people who unfortunately, aren’t getting the best educations right now.

Anecdotal moment: A few years back, an Oscar-winning friend of mine had a play produced that told the story of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. They were a company composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans during WW II, and joining the company was the alternative given to going to an internment camp.

Of course, being racists, the U.S. government couldn’t send them to the Pacific Theatre to fight, so they sent them to Europe, and a lot of the play takes place in Italy, where the regiment was stationed. And, at intermission, my playwright friend heard two 20-something audience members talking to each other. One of them asked, “What was the U.S. even doing in Italy in World War II?” and the other just shrugged and said, “Dunno.”

So, yeah. If you’re going to go so far as to claim that Hitler was killed in a burning movie theater before the end of the war, just stop right there before you shoot a frame. Likewise with claiming that the Manson murders never happened because a couple of yahoos ran into the killers first.

Yeah, Quentin, you were old, you were there, you remember. Don’t stuff younger heads with shit.

But I do digress.

In Shakespeare’s case, he was pretty accurate in Henry V, although in both parts of Henry IV, he created a character who was both one of his most memorable and one of his more fictional: Sir John Falstaff. In fact, the character was so popular that, at the Queen’s command, Shakespeare gave him his own spinoff, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Hm. Shades of Solo in the Star Wars universe?

Falstaff never existed in real life, but was used as a way to tell the story of the young and immature Henry (not yet V) of Monmouth, aka Prince Hal.

Where Shakespeare may have played more fast and loose was in Richard III. In fact, the Bard vilified him when it wasn’t really deserved. Why? Simple. He was kissing up to Elizabeth I. She was a Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII who, as mentioned previously, was the son of Henry VII, the king who took over when Richard III lost the war of the roses.

The other time that Shakespeare didn’t treat a king so well in a play? King John — which I personally take umbrage to, because I’m directly descended from him. No, really. But the idea when Willie Shakes did that was to draw a direct contrast to how Good Queen Bess did so much better in dealing with Papal interference. (TL;DR: He said, “Okay,” she said, “Eff off.”)

Since most of my stage plays have been based on true stories, I’ve experienced this directly many times, although one of the more interesting came with the production of my play Bill & Joan, because I actually accidentally got something right.

When I first wrote the play, the names of the cops in Mexico who interrogated him were not included in the official biography, so I made up two fictional characters, Enrique and Tito. And so they stayed like that right into pre-production in 2013.

Lo and behold, a new version of the biography of Burroughs I had originally used for research came out, and I discovered two amazing things.

First… I’d always known that Burroughs’ birthday was the day before mine, but I suddenly found out that his doomed wife actually shared my birthday. And the show happened to run during both dates.

Second… the names of the cops who interrogated him were finally included, and one of them was named… Tito.

Of course, I also compressed time, moved shit around, made up more than a few characters, and so forth. But the ultimate goal was to tell the truth of the story, which was: Troubled couple who probably shouldn’t have ever gotten together deals with their issues in the most violent and tragic way possible, and one of them goes on to become famous. The other one dies.

So yes, if you’re writing fiction it can be necessary to make stuff up, but the fine line is to not make too much stuff up. A little nip or tuck here and there is fine. But, outright lies? Nah. Let’s not do that.

Wednesday Wonders: Adding depth

Sixty-eight years ago next month, the first-ever experimental broadcast of a TV show in 3D happened, via KECA-TV in Los Angeles. If those call letters don’t sound familiar to any of my Southern California audience, that’s because they only lasted for about the first four-and-a-half years of the station’s existence, at which point they became the now very familiar KABC-TV, the local ABC affiliate also known as digital and broadcast channel 7.

The program itself was a show called Space Patrol, which was originally a 15-minute program that was aimed at a juvenile audience and aired daily. But once it became a hit with adults, ABC added half-hour episodes on Saturday.

Remember, at this point in television, they were at about the same place as internet programming was in 2000.

By the way, don’t confuse this show with the far more bizarre British production of 1962 with the same name. It was done with marionettes, and judging from this promotional trailer for a DVD release of restored episodes, it was incredibly weird.

Anyway, because of its subject matter and popularity, it was a natural for this broadcast experiment. This was also during the so-called “golden age” of 3D motion pictures, and since the two media were in fierce competition back in the day, it was an obvious move.

Remember — at that time, Disney didn’t own ABC, or anything else. In fact, the studios were not allowed to own theaters, or TV stations.

The original 3D broadcast was designed to use glasses, of course, although not a lot of people had them, so it would have been a blurry mess. Also note that color TV was also a rarity, so they would have been polarizing lenses rather than the red/blue possible in movies.

Since it took place during the 31st gathering of what was then called the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters (now just the NAB) it was exactly the same as any fancy new tech rolled out at, say, CES. Not so much meant for immediate consumption but rather to wow the organizations and companies that could afford to develop and exploit it.

Like pretty much every other modern innovation in visual arts and mass media, 3D followed the same progression through formats: still photography, motion pictures, analog video and broadcast, physical digital media, streaming digital media.

It all began with the stereoscope way back in 1838. That’s when Sir Charles Wheatstone realized that 3D happened because of binocular vision, and each eye seeing a slightly different image, which the brain would combine to create information about depth.

Early efforts at putting 3D images into motion were akin to later animated GIFs (hard G, please), with just a few images repeating in a loop.

giphy-downsized

While there was a too-cumbersome to be practical system that projected separate images side-by-side patented in 1890, the first commercial test run with an audience came in 1915, with  series of short test films using a red/green anaglyph system. That is, audience members wore glasses with one red and one green filter, and the two images, taken by two cameras spaced slightly apart and dyed in the appropriate hues, were projected on top of each other.

The filters sent each of the images to a different eye and the brain did the rest, creating the illusion of 3D, and this is how the system has worked ever since.

The first actual theatrical release in 3D premiered in Los Angeles on September 27, 1922. It was a film called The Power of Love, and it screened at the Ambassador Hotel Theater, the first of only two public showings.

You might think that 3D TV took a lot longer to develop, since TV had only been invented around this time in 1926, but, surprisingly, that’s not true. John Logie Baird first demonstrated a working 3D TV set in 1928. Granted, it was an entirely mechanical system and not very high-res, but it still worked.

Note the timing, too. TV was invented in the 1920s, but didn’t really take off with consumers until the 1950s. The world wide web was created in the 1960s, but didn’t really take off with consumers until the 1990s. You want to get rich? Invest in whatever the big but unwieldly and expensive tech of the 1990s was. (Hint, related to this topic: 3D printing.)

That 30 year repeat happens in film, too. As previously noted, the first 3D film premiered in the 1920s, but the golden age came in the 1950s. Guess when 3D came back again? If you said the 1980s, you win a prize. And, obviously, we’ve been in another return to 3D since the ‘10s. You do the math.

Oh, by the way… that 30 year thing applies to 3D printing one more generation back as well. Computer aided design (CAD), conceived in the very late 1950s, became a thing in the 1960s. It was the direct precursor to the concept of 3D printing because, well, once you’ve digitized the plans for something, you can then put that info back out in vector form and, as long as you’ve got a print-head that can move in X-Y-Z coordinates and a way to not have layers fall apart before the structure is built… ta-da!

Or, in other words, this is why developing these things takes thirty years.

Still, the tech is one step short of Star Trek replicators and true nerdvana. And I am so glad that I’m not the one who coined that term just now. But, dammit… now I want to go to Tennessee on a pilgrimage, except that I don’t think it’s going to be safe to go there for another, oh, ten years or so. Well, there’s always Jersey. Or not. Is Jersey ever safe?

I kid. I’ve been there. Parts of it are quite beautiful. Parts of it are… on a shitty reality show. Pass.

But… I’d like to add that 3D entertainment is actually far, far older than any of you can possibly imagine. It doesn’t just go back a couple of centuries. It goes back thousands of years. It also didn’t require any fancy technology to work. All it needed was an audience with a majority of members with two eyes.

That, plus performers acting out scenes or telling stories for that audience. And that’s it. There’s you’re 3D show right there.

Or, as I like to remind people about the oldest and greatest art form: Theatre Is the original 3D.

Well, nowadays, the original virtual reality as well, but guess what? VR came 30 years after the 80s wave of 3D film as well, and 60 years after the 50s. Funny how that works, isn’t it? It’s almost like we’re totally unaware that our grandparents invented the stuff that our parents perfected but which we’re too cool to think that any of them are any good at.

So… maybe let’s look at 3D in another way or two. Don’t think of it as three dimensions. Think of it as two times three decades — how long it took the thing to go from idea to something you take for granted. Or, on a generational level, think of it roughly as three deep: me, my parents, and my grandparents.

Talk about adding depth to a viewpoint.

Image licensed by (CC BY-ND 2.0), used unaltered, Teenager wears Real 3D Glasses by Evan via flickr.

Talky Tuesday: Language is (still) a virus

The following is a repost from the end of March 2020, just eleven days after the lockdown started in Los Angeles. This was the view from the other side of the pandemic, before we knew anything.

I used this Burroughs quote as a post title a couple of years ago in an entirely different context, but the idea has taken on new relevance, as I’m sure the world can now agree.

This post’s title comes from a William S. Burroughs quote which reads in full as, “Language is a virus from outer space.”

What he meant by the first part is that words enter a host, infect it, and cause a change in it. Just as a virus hijacks a host’s cells in order to become little factories to make more virus to spread a disease, words hijack a host’s neurons in order to become little factories to make more words to spread ideas and belief systems.

As for the “outer space” part, I think that Burroughs was being metaphorical, with the idea being that any particular language can appear totally alien to any other. While, say, Mongolian and Diné may both come from humans on Earth, if a speaker of either encountered someone who only spoke the other, they might as well be from different planets because, for all intents and purposes, they are from different worlds, unable to communicate with words.

And the language we use can quite literally create and shape our perceptions of the world, as I discussed in my original Language is a virus post. One of the most striking examples I cited in that link was Guugu Yimithirr, an aboriginal language that has no words for relative direction. Instead, they refer to everything based upon where it is relative to actual cardinal directions.

In other words, if you ask someone who speaks this language where you should sit, they won’t say, “In the chair on your left.” Rather, they’ll say something like, “In the chair to the north.” Or south, or east, or west. And a speaker of the language will know what that means, whether they can see outside or not.

Quick — right now, if someone said “Point east,” could you do it without thinking?

And that is how languages can change thoughts and perceptions.

But, sometimes — honestly, far too often — language can change perceptions to create tribalism and hostility, and during this plague year, that has suddenly become a huge topic of debate over a simple change of one C word in a phrase.

I’m writing, of course, about “coronavirus” vs. “Chinese virus.” And the debate is this: Is the latter phrase racist, or just a statement of fact?

One reporter from a rather biased organization did try to start the “it’s not” narrative with the stupidest question ever asked: “Mr. President, do you consider the term ‘Chinese food’ to be racist because it is food that originated from China?”

There are just two problems with this one. The first is that what Americans call “Chinese food” did not, in fact, originate in China. It was the product of Chinese immigrants in America who, being mostly men, didn’t know how to cook, and didn’t have access to a lot of the ingredients from back home. So… they improvised and approximated, and “Chinese food” was created by Chinese immigrants starting in San Francisco in the 19th century.

Initially, it was cuisine meant only for Chinese immigrants because racist Americans wouldn’t touch it, but when Chinatowns had sprung up in other cities, it was New York’s version that finally lured in the hipster foodies of the day to try it, and they were hooked.

In short, “Chinese food” was a positive and voluntary contribution to American culture, and the designation here is merely descriptive, so not racist. “Chinese virus” is a blatant misclassification at best and a definite attempt at a slur at worst, with odds on the latter.

But we’ve seen this with diseases before.

When it comes to simple misidentification of place of origin, let’s look back to almost exactly a century ago, when the Spanish flu went pandemic. From 1918 to 1919, it hit every part of the world, infected 500 million people and killed 50 million.

A little perspective: At the time, the world’s population was only 1.8 billion, so this represents an infection rate of 28% and a mortality rate among the infected of 2.8%. If COVID-19 has similar statistics — and it seems to — then that means this pandemic will infect 2.1 billion people and kill 211 million.

By the way, while the 1918 pandemic was very fatal to children under 5 and adults over 65, it also hit one other demographic particularly hard: 20 to 40 year-olds.

So if you’re in that age range and think that COVID-19 won’t kill you, think again — particularly if you smoke or vape or have asthma, and don’t take the quarantine seriously. And remember: the rich and world leaders are not immune either — not now and not then.

The president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, was infected in the 1918 H1N1 pandemic in 1919, and while he survived, this assault on his health probably led to the stroke he had late in that year, an incident that was covered up by his wife, with the help of the president’s doctor. The First Lady became de facto president for the remainder of his second term.

In modern times, the first world leader to test positive for coronavirus was Prince Albert II of Monaco, followed not long after by Prince Charles and Boris Johnson. Of course, I’m writing these words a bit ahead of when you’ll read them, so who knows what will have happened by then.

In medical circles, the name “Spanish Flu” has been abandoned, and that particular pandemic is now known as H1N1, which I’m sure looks really familiar to you, because this has been the standard nomenclature for flu viruses for a while: H#N#, sans location, animal, or occupation, more on which in a minute.

But first, let’s get to the reasons behind naming a disease after a place. The H1N1 Pandemic was a simple case of mistaken identity and also contingent upon that whole “Great War” stuff going on in Europe.

See, other countries had been hit by it first, but in the interests of the old dick-waving “Gotta appear strong before our enemies” toxic masculinity, all of them suppressed the news. It wasn’t until Spain started seeing it in their citizens and, because they were neutral, they announced outbreaks, that the world suddenly pointed fingers and said, “Ooh… this came from Spain. Hence, it’s the Spanish flu.”

Except, not. Ironically, it seems now that the Spanish flu originated in… China. Although that’s according to historians. Virologists, on the other hand, have linked it to an H1 strain later identified in pigs in Iowa in the U.S.

Either way, all of the countries involved in WW I, aka “The Great War,” kept mum about it.

So the name “Spanish flu” was a simple mistake. On the other hand, the names of other diseases actually are outright xenophobic or racist, and we only have to look as far  as syphilis to see why.

Basically, syphilis is an STI that was the most feared of its kind until… AIDS, because syphilis was not treatable or curable until penicillin was discovered in 1928 — although it was not produced on a mass scale until 1945, thanks to needs created by WW II, and facilitated by the War Production Board.

Hm. Sound familiar?

But the reason it became known as the French disease outside of France was that it began to spread after Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494-95 to reclaim a kingdom he thought should be his. It was eventually so devastating that Charles had to take his troops home, and so it began to spread in France and across Europe.

Since it first showed up in French soldiers, it was quickly dubbed the French disease in Italy and England, although the French preferred to call it the Italian disease. In reality, it most likely originated in the New World, and was brought back to Europe by… Columbus and his Spanish soldiers, who then somehow managed to spread it to the French as they worked for them as mercenaries.

Hm. STI. A bunch of male soldiers. I wonder how that worked, exactly.

And I am totally destroying my future google search suggestions by researching all of this for you, my loyal readers, just so you know! Not to mention that I can’t wait to see what sort of ads I start getting on social media. “Confidential STI testing!” “Get penicillin without a prescription.” “These three weird tricks will cure the STI. Doctors hate them!”

But the naming of diseases all came to a head almost five years ago when the World Health Organization (WHO)  finally decided, “You know what? We shouldn’t name diseases after people, places, animals, occupations, or things anymore, because that just leads to all kinds of discrimination and offense, and who needs it?”

This directly resulted from the backlash against the naming of the last disease ever named for a place, despite the attempt to obfuscate that in its official terminology. Remember MERS, anyone?  No? That one came about in 2012, was first identified in Saudi Arabia, and was named Middle East respiratory syndrome.

Of course, it didn’t help when things were named swine flu or avian flu, either. A lot of pigs and birds died over those designations. So away went such terminology, especially because of the xenophobic and racist connotations of naming a disease after an entire country or people.

Of course, some antiquated folk don’t understand why it’s at the least racist and at the most dangerous to name diseases the old way, as evinced by the editorial tone of this article from a right-wing publication like The Federalist. But they actually kind of manage to prove the point that yes, such terminology is out of fashion, because the only 21st century example they can list is the aforementioned MERS.

The most recent one before that? Lyme disease, named for Lyme, Connecticut, and designated in… the mid-70s. Not exactly the least racist of times, although this disease was named for a pretty white-bread area.

The only other examples of diseases named for countries on their list: the aforementioned Spanish flu, Japanese encephalitis, named in 1871 (seriously, have you ever heard of that one?); and the German measles, identified in the 18th century, although more commonly known as rubella.

So, again — it’s a list that proves the exact opposite of what it set out to do, and calling coronavirus or COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Chinese disease” is, in fact, racist as hell. And it won’t save a single life.

But calling it that will certainly endanger lives by causing hate crimes — because language is a virus, and when people are infected by malignant viruses, like hate speech, the results can be deadly.

Inoculate yourselves against them with education if possible. Quarantine yourselves against them through critical thinking otherwise. Most of all, through these trying times, stay safe — and stay home!

Image source: Coronavirus Disease 2019 Rotator Graphic for af.mil. (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Rosario “Charo” Gutierrez)

Momentous Monday: Questions that plague us

From March 2020, three days into first COVID-19 lockdown, before we knew the extent the plague would reach or how long the lockdowns and social distancing would last.

It can easily be argued that Europe conquered the Americas not through armed assault, but via unintended biological warfare. While Christopher Columbus and those who came after arrived in the New World with plants, animals, and diseases, it’s the latter category that had the most profound effect.

This transfer of things between the Old World and New has been dubbed The Columbian Exchange, Thanks to the European habit starting the next century of stealing Africans to enslave, diseases from that continent were also imported to the Americas.

Of course, in Europe and Africa, everyone had had time to be exposed to all of these things: measles, smallpox, mumps, typhus, whooping cough, malaria, and yellow fever. As a result, they either killed off a large number of children before six, or left survivors with natural immunity.

Influenza, aka flu, was the one exception that no one became immune to because that virus kept mutating and evolving as well.

Depending upon the area, the death rates of Native Americans were anywhere from 50 to 99 percent of the population. And they didn’t really send as many diseases back as they were “gifted with” by us, although Columbus’ men did bring syphilis home to Europe thanks to their habit of fucking sheep,

Of course, conquest through infection and violence is nothing new, as the 1997 book Germs, Guns, and Steel by Jared Diamond posits.

Nothing will freak out a human population faster than a deadly disease, especially one that just won’t go away, and the plague, aka The Black Death, regularly decimated Europe for three hundred years. It had a profound effect on art during its reign, which stretched all the way through the Renaissance and on into the Age of Reason.

But one of the positive side effects of that last visit of the plague to London in 1665 is that it lead to the Annus Mirabilis, or “year of wonders” for one Isaac Newton, a 23-year-old (when it started) mathematician, physicist, and astronomer.

Just like many students are experiencing right now, his university shut down in the summer of 1865 to protect everyone from the plague, and so Newton self-isolated in his home in Woolsthorpe for a year and a half, where he came up with his theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation.

He basically kick-started modern physics. His ideas on optics would lead directly to quantum physics, and his ideas on gravitation would inspire Einstein to come up with his general and special theories of relativity.

Meanwhile, calculus gave everyone the tool they would need to deal with all of the very complicated equations that would lead to and be born from the above mentioned subjects.

And if Isaac Newton hadn’t been forced to shelter in place and stay at home for eighteen months, this might have never happened, or only happened much later, and in that case, you might not even have the internet on which to read this article.

In case you didn’t realize it, communicating with satellites — which relay a lot of internet traffic — and using GPS to find you both rely on quantum physics because these systems are based on such precise timing that relativistic effects do come into play. Clocks on satellites in orbit run at a different rate than clocks down here, and we need to do the math to account for it.

Plus we never would have been able to stick those satellites into the right orbits at the right velocities in the first place without knowing how gravity works, and without the formulae to do all the necessary calculations.

There’s a modern example of a terrible pandemic ultimately leading to a greater good, though, and it’s this. America and a lot of the western world would not have same-sex marriages or such great advances in LGBTQ+ rights without the AIDS crisis that emerged in 1981.

AIDS and the thing that causes it, HIV, are actually a perfect match for the terms you’ve been hearing lately. “Novel coronavirus” is the thing that causes it, or HIV. But neither one becomes a serious problem until a person develops the condition because of it, either COVID-19 or AIDS.

But getting back to how the AIDS crisis advanced gay rights, it began because the federal government ignored the problem for too long and people died. Hm. Sound familiar? And, as I mentioned above, nothing will make people flip their shit like a life-threatening disease, especially one that seems to be an incurable pandemic.

And so the gay community got down to business and organized, and groups like ACT-UP and Queer Nation took to the streets and got loud and proud. In 1987 in San Francisco (one of the places hardest hit by AIDS), the NAMES Project began creation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, commemorating all of the people who died of the disease.

And a funny thing happened going into the 90s. All of a sudden, gay characters started to be represented in a positive light in mainstream media. And then gay performers started to come out — Scott Thompson of The Kids in the Hall fame being one of the early notable examples, long before Ellen did.

Around the time Thompson came out, of course, a famous straight person, Magic Johnson, announced in 1991 that he was HIV positive, and that’s when people who were not part of the LGBTQ+ community freaked the fuck out.

Note, though, that Magic is still alive today. Why? Because when he made his announcement, straight people got all up on that shit and figured out ways to reduce viral loads and extend lifespans and turn AIDS into a not death sentence, like it used to be almost 30 years ago.

And almost 40 years after the crisis started, we seem to have finally created a generation of young people (whatever we’re calling the ones born from about 1995 to now) who are not homo- or transphobic, really aren’t into labels, and don’t try to define their sexualities or genders in binary terms in the first place.

On the one hand, it’s terrible that it took the deaths of millions of people to finally get to this point. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, this current pandemic will inspire a similar kind of activism that might just lead to all kinds of positives we cannot even predict right now, but by 2040 or 2050 will be blatantly obvious.

Stay safe, stay at home, wash your hands a lot, and figure out your own “Woolsthorpe Thing.” Who knows. In 2320, your name could be enshrined in all of human culture for so many things.

Sunday Nibble #51: A very special episode

This post will be short and sweet, but a necessary update to all of you, my loyal fans. As of yesterday, I’ve left my job in the exciting world of Medicare Insurance, exactly one-and-a-half years to the day that I started it.

But that’s not bad news because tomorrow I start a new job as the Lead Writer for a digital creative team working for an internet marketing and content company. It’s basically a step up from what I was doing up to a week before I started this site in the first place, so I’ll be back in the saddle again.

The best parts are that it’s 100% remote work, I’ll be making a lot more than in the Medicare job and substantially more than I was in my previous internet content, plus (say it with me) health insurance included!

But there is a downside to it, and it’s this. Since I’m going to be writing content, advertising and promotional materials, brainstorming article ideas for multiple clients, etc., etc., my bandwidth for this site may shrink considerably.

What this means is that I’d love to keep posting daily like I have been for a while, but that may not be possible in the near future. I’ll try to keep installments of The Rêves going until the end, and the Friday Free-For-All questions will keep coming because I enjoy doing those, but as for the rest of it, I’m just not sure.

I may recycle some of my more popular pieces from the past, or resort to short forms or mostly curated content. I don’t know yet, and I won’t know until the next adventure begins tomorrow.

But hang in there with me. This is just another new phase in my life. And the best part is that since I’ll now be home all the time and I’ll have the money again to do it, I think that I just may be bringing a dog back into my life. It’s been nine months tomorrow since Sheeba left me, the longest I’ve been without a dog since I was about nine years old.

When and if that happens, though, it’ll probably become a big focus of my posts.

So hang in there, thank you all for following me, and let’s see what the future brings — although 2021 is already far brighter than 2020, for many reasons.

The Saturday Morning Post #51: The Rêves Part 29

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Yestern Union

Joshua drove the Tesla up to JPL, parked right outside, and was surprised to find when he walked up that there was nobody in the guard station. The outside door was locked, but one of the gadgets they’d always kept on hand was a belt buckle with all the necessary keys hidden in it.

Joshua unlocked the door and entered, noticing that not even the JPL Campus Cops were around.

No one was in the guard station, and he met no resistance when he walked to the elevators and pushed a button. One of them soon dinged its arrival, so he stepped in and descended to the lab.

Again, no challenge, so he went to Ausmann’s office, then unlocked and opened the gray door behind his desk — the one they’d never seen opened, but knew about.

Behind here, there was a long cat-walked corridor that seemingly stretched off into infinity. Next to it was a huge tunnel that was basically bordered by thick yellow pipes set at 60 degree angles, but no other separations. And, down the center of that border defined by the pipes, a hot, pink plasma snaked its way to who knew where.

Well, Joshua had a pretty good idea where, and then he spotted the gray door on the side of a square room that was located just below the point where the yellow pipes all came to a single focus.

He unlocked it and entered to find a small room with a single terminal and screen, and it wasn’t even password protected.

He sat and looked. There was an input box under a message. “Text here, ETA T-minus 6 Days, 16 hours.”

He put the USB stick in the port on the computer and a pop-up appeared. He dragged and saved the file to the desktop, then opened it, then copied the text. He finally switched back to the input box, was relieved when he was able to paste, then clicked send and sat back, happy.

It read: “To whom it may concern: I am sending this message via the machine created at JPL in Operation Slingback, and it concerns a murder that is going to take place in your near future. As best as I can tell, it will be approximately five days after you receive this, in North Hollywood, California, and the perpetrator will be the director of the project himself, a man named Ausmann. Exact date and details will follow, but if this machine works, please do whatever you can to prevent this crime, as it involves the murder of someone very dear to me, and a fellow contractor on a side-job connected to Operation Slingback that, in retrospect, may not have been all that authorized. Date, time, and precise location information follows. Sincerely, Joshua Hunter-Aisling. Employee ID 04J-23M-K42-06. The perpetrator is a man named Gustav Schliemann Ausmann, who heads Operation Slingback here at JPL, but he seems to have gone rogue. Consider him armed and dangerous.”

“Location of the crime: 5400 Tujunga Ave, North Hollywood, CA, Unit #1501, 15th floor, on the balcony on the northeast corner. 34°10’10.4″N 118°22’44.8″W, altitude approximately 743 feet above sea level, Wednesday, August 23, 2023. About 5:00 p.m. Perpetrator throws the victim off of the balcony onto Tujunga, below.”

And then… not a damn thing happened.

“Of course,” he thought. No reason I would have brought Simon here, so let’s go back home. He went back up, hopped in the Tesla, set it on auto, and did what he said, arriving back home, only to find that nothing has changed, and Simon isn’t there.

“What the fuck?” he wonders out-loud as Preston and Danny pop up out of the furniture.

“What?” they ask in unison.

“I did the thing. I fixed it in the past, but… where is he?”

“Oh, dear,” Danny said, rushing over to hug Joshua.

“You don’t know how it works, do you?” Preston added, joining the hug.

“What are you twats on about?” Joshua demanded.

“Things changed, but not…”

Before Danny could finish, Joshua’s phone rang and he answered. “Hello?”

It was Brenda, with a simple announcement. “So… where do you want to have Simon sent? All you have to do is show up at the hospital with your marriage certificate.”

Joshua’s stomach fell. Nothing had happened. Simon was still dead.

“And that’s it?” he asked.

“That’s it,” Brenda replied.

“Thank you,” he said, blankly.

There was a long silence, and then Brenda said, “I could not have done it for a nicer couple, but I don’t think that any of us are out of the woods yet.”

“What do you mean?” Joshua asked.

“Does the name Ausmann mean anything to you?”

“Oh… fuck,” Joshua muttered before adding, “Sorry!”

“Don’t be,” Brenda said.

“Yeah, so…. do you know where he is?”

“No,” she replied, “But one question I want you to answer honestly, with one sincere promise from me. No matter what you say, I will never deviate from the story that Simon fell and died in an accident.”

“Um…. why would you think he didn’t, Brenda?” Joshua asked.

She sighed. “Crazy man who knew where you lived, and whom you worked for, threatened my entire family to learn your location, which I didn’t give, and then the love of your life suddenly falls backassward off your balcony? Yeah, there’s one part of that story that just sets off my bullshit meter — ”

“Okay, I’m trying to catch Ausmann before the cops do, because it’s probably the best way to protect the Rêves. If that makes me seem like an asshole —

“No, no, not at all,” she said. “I know all about the things we do for love.” There was another silence, and then she added, “Look, I know you probably don’t know how this shit works, but it took some really major string-pulling to get Simon away from the Coroner, mainly because his death was sudden, violent, and unexpected — ”

“But not officially a homicide,” Joshua noted.

“Doesn’t matter when you score three for three,” Brenda explained. “When was the last time he saw his doctor?”

“Um… I don’t know. Maybe around his last birthday, in February?”

“So not within 20 days. Yeah, I’m guessing that’s what his HMO told them. Anyway, you need to go to the County Coroner’s office, I’ll text you the address, bring proof you’re family, and the name of the mortuary you want to send him to.”

“But then… we can do the funeral as soon as possible?” he asked.

“Well, probably not before Saturday,” Brenda said, “But I guess that really all depends on what the cemetery can do.”

“Even though I’m an atheist, I’d buy them a new chapel or some shit to make this happen fast.”

“I know you would, honey,” Brenda said.

“How do you know that?”

“Bitch, please! I saw the way you always looked at him during the brief time we were all hanging out.”

“Busted…” Joshua replied, actually laughing a little.

“There. More of that, okay? You’ll get through this. And call me if you need anything. At all. Okay?”

“Will do. And thanks again.”

“No problem. Bye.”

They hung up and Joshua felt the tears and sobs coming again. Danny and Preston hurried over to comfort him in their way. “I tried,” he said. “I really tried, but I guess the machine is just a gigantic lie, too.”

He wanted to scream, but then Danny and Preston put one hand on either side of his head and the other on his chest and back and he felt a sudden wave of peace and calm sweep over him.

“Thanks, guys,” he said.

“Don’t mention it,” they replied.

He went to the condo vault and dragged out their marriage certificate and, for good measure, both of their birth certificates and passports, then hopped in the car and headed to the County Coroner’s office, which was located on the north edge of the County USC Medical Center, which was located nowhere near the campus of USC itself, but of course.

USC was about five miles southwest of USC Medical Center, but only as the crow flew. As the car drove, it was probably at least a good thirty minutes, or pushing an hour on public transit.

He drove down, gave the clerk all of the paperwork, and she vanished for a long time into a back room to retrieve the file. She had been cordially icy for the first part of the transaction, but when she came back, flipping through the rather thin file, she was deferential as hell.

Joshua signed a few forms, she explained that the mortuary would have to submit two forms of their own but that Simon’s last attending physician had already certified, and she estimated that they’d be able to release the body and transport it out to Forest Lawn Glendale by the next morning.

“Not sooner?” Joshua asked.

She looked around to see whether anyone was listening. “Are you kidding?” she asked. “I don’t know who you know, but a case like this would normally take at least two weeks.”

“Really?” Joshua replied, truly amazed.

“Really,” the clerk told him. “But, hey, it’s not for me to judge, just to do the paperwork. Would you like a text message when we ship the body out?”

“Sure,” Joshua said.

“Great. Initial here, and sign there.”

He did, she snapped out a yellow NCR copy of the form and handed it to him — how quaint — and then said, “Thank you for visiting the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office, where Law and Science serve the community.”

“Oh god,” Joshua said. “They make you say that?”

She said nothing, but just nodded.

“Sorry. And thanks!”

He walked out from the natural oppressiveness common in any government building and into the bright sunlight of a late August day. Nothing to do now but wait, he supposed. He couldn’t get this show on the road — or in the ground — until the funeral director said so.

At the same time, Ritchie had finally managed to deliver Coraline to Anabel, who was circling that woman with a critical eye.

“Do you love your husband?” Anabel asked her.

“Oh, yes,” Coraline replied. “He’s given me a very good life.”

“Children?”

“Two. A daughter and a son. Three grandsons and a granddaughter, all from our daughter.”

“Is your son not married?” Anabel asked.

“Oh, he is, but they could only have kids if they adopted, which they aren’t inclined to do.” Coraline explained.

“Oh. I’m sorry,” Anabel faked sympathy. “Is she barren?”

“No, they’re gay. Anyway, my husband won’t talk to them at all. Only I do.”

“Gay?” Anabel questioned. “Happy?”

“Um… homosexual?”

“Oh. But here’s the really important question. What do you know about your husband’s work?” Anabel asked.

“Not a whole lot,” Coraline replied. “I mean, it’s up at JPL, so I assume it’s got to do with space and stuff, maybe the upcoming Mars mission, or establishing that Moonbase, finally. He can’t tell me a lot, anyway.”

“Um… wait, mission to Mars? The Moon? And what is JPL?”

“Jet Propulsion Laboratory, of course,” Coraline tells her. “And yeah, we’ve put people on the Moon and all kinds of probes on Mars. You haven’t heard of all that?”

Anabel just stared, not sure what to think. She didn’t even know what a jet was, and cursed the fact that Preston and Danny had abandoned her to go hang out with the crazy Hadas, because they probably could have interpreted.

And she was getting distracted, so tried again. “So what was your husband doing for this… JPL, exactly?”

“That’s just the thing,” Coraline explained. “I couldn’t tell you. He’d go off in the morning, come back at night, sometimes twelve-hour days, and not a word. I started to think that it was something besides space travel, because those missions always got hyped and were very public, while his… nothing.”

“Exactly,” Anabel smiled and took Coraline’s hands in hers. “That’s what we think, too, that he was involved in something completely different.”

“Which, to his credit, he never breathed a word about.”

“Doesn’t he love you, Coraline?”

Coraline took a moment, then laughed. “You must have never been married. No, he hasn’t loved me since just before I birthed our second child, and I still think he blames me for Ronnie being gay. As if. But… I’ve tolerated him, mainly because, well, I live in this ridiculous patriarchal society, so might as well hang on for what I can keep, right? Anyway, he probably won’t outlive me, right? Statistics!”

Anabel sighed, then looked into Coraline’s eyes. “I thought you’d already picked up on it, dear.”

“On what?”

“On the fact that you are quite dead while your husband is still quite alive. What do you know about that?”

“My Gustie is still alive?” Coraline suddenly lit up. “Where is he?”

“I hate to disappoint you,” Anabel explained, “But we happen to think that he may have actually been the person who killed you.”

“No, of course not,” Coraline denied it. “If I died, it was because of that storm. And why would he want to kill me? He’d be all alone otherwise, and I happen to know he’s not seeing anyone else.”

“What do you remember?” Anabel asked. “Concentrate, and relive your last moments.”

“We’d been through that storm,” she explained. “We went down to our shelter in the basement. It’s really elaborate, we could survive down there for months he always said. And we locked ourselves in and watched the news on TV — ”

“On what?” Anabel asked.

“It’s not really important for you to know,” Ritchie whispered to her. “Think of it like a tiny movie screen in a box, but it runs on electricity.”

“Yes, like that.”

“And you watched it all the time?” Anabel asked.

“Well, not when we slept.”

“But if the electricity went out — ”

“We had plenty of back-ups,” Coraline explained. “Generators and batteries and all that. And we got our signal through a cable that was buried about thirty feet below the basement. But we did lose all of the monitors upstairs, so had no idea what was going on.”

Off of Anabel’s look, Ritchie told her, “They’re like little TVs, except they show the view of various rooms in the house.”

“We were in there all that night, and the next day, and then into the next… why am I telling you this, again?” she asked.

“So you can remember whether Ausmann killed you.”

“Oh, right. Of course he didn’t. I mean, when I wanted to leave that room, he insisted on making sure it was safe to do beforehand, then he opened the door for me. I went out into the hall, and the house above us was completely gone, nothing but sky. And I headed for the stairs. Well, I hoped they were still there, and then I…”

She froze, staring as her eyes went wide.

“What is it?” Anabel asked.

“Mrs. Ausmann, are you all right?” Ritchie added.

“That son of a bitch,” Coraline muttered under her breath.

“Tell us,” Anabel prompted her.

“Some insulation stuff had fallen into the hallway and was lying at the end, and it was very reflective. I could see myself in it, then I could see Gustav raising a piece of wood with both hands, and then he swung it. And then… nothing.”

“You’re absolutely sure?” Anabel asked.

“Yes,” Coraline insisted. “Oh, yes.”

“You know, you just might become the first murder victim to personally testify at their murderer’s trial,” Anabel told her, with a gleam in her eye.

“Oh they do that all the time,” Coraline replied. Anabel just looked nonplussed, so Coraline added, “Well, I see it on all the shows — the CSIs, and the SVUs, and the like. The victims are dead, but their corpses leave plenty of testimony.”

“O… kay?” Anabel said. “But I’m sure you wouldn’t mind getting a little revenge on him.”

“But what can I really do? I’m dead.”

“We all are,” Anabel went on. “But here’s the thing you don’t know. We’re here because of that little project of your husband’s, which had an unintended side-effect, and now he wants to use it to destroy all of us. Or, in other words, he wants to kill us — and you — again. He wants to take away your second chance.”

“It all makes sense now,” she said. “I mean, he’s never been the nicest person. I’ve never known him to give to charity, and he never let the kids have a dog.”

“And he’s a murderer,” Ritchie added.

“And that,” Coraline agreed. “All right. So what do you need me to do?”

“I knew you’d see things our way. What we need you to do is to tell us absolutely everything you know about him — habits, likes, dislikes, places he likes to go. All of it.”

“I don’t think he’s going to be going back home any time soon,” Coraline told them.

“True,” Anabel replied, “But when I was alive, I learned that if you want to persuade someone to do something, you needed to learn their patterns, along with their desires and fears, then use the former to figure out how to exploit the latter two until you maneuvered them into doing what you wanted while thinking it was their idea all along.”

“What did you do? I mean, when you were alive?” Coraline asked.

“Helped my family build their empire,” Anabel explained, proudly. “All this land you’re standing on? Yeah. We owned this.”

“Very impressive,” Coraline said.

“Thank you.”

Anabel turned to Ritchie. “Go see if you can find Bugliosi. I think he’d be perfect for taking down this information. Oh, and Oda,” Anabel added. “She was an old family friend and one hell of a lawyer. Oda Faulconer.”

Ritchie nodded and sailed off into the cemetery.

“Lawyers?” Coraline asked, nervously.

“Of course,” Anabel said. “Who better to take a deposition, right?”

“Is that what this is?”

Anabel just nodded. “But relax. You’re not the criminal here.”

Coraline nodded and sat, waiting. Anabel couldn’t have been more chuffed over this coup. Not only were they going to get all of Ausmann’s darkest secrets, the kind that only a spouse would know, but she had neglected to tell Coraline one thing in her whole speech about persuading someone.

The information she’d asked for was also the best way to find a fugitive when you knew they were in the city, but not exactly where. Just like a poker game, everyone had their tells, and Anabel was about to get all of Ausmann’s on a silver platter.

* * *

Friday Free for all #49: Tech, annoyed, coming, wish

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website, although it’s been on hiatus since the Christmas Countdown began. Here, I resume with this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about?

Without a doubt, it would be CRISPR, which uses gene-editing in order to mitigate or cure serious diseases, many of them genetic. One way to think of it is that CRISPR functions as a pair of scissors that allows scientists to literally edit genes, and genomes.

It gets all kinds of sciency, but the short version is that this technology could one day achieve things like undoing genetic birth defects, curing inherited diseases, or even reverse aging by lengthening the telomeres on the end of our chromosomes.

What is something that is popular now that annoys you?

Influencers. Okay, not so much them per se, because I do find a lot of their videos entertaining. Rather, it’s their followers, who make the same mistake about this particular media that all the rest of us, when we were that young, did about whatever was the prominent media of our time.

I.E. that these people are our friends and care one bit about us.

Nope. They only exist to turn you into product for whatever corporate overlords they’re shilling for. It was the same when your parents were hanging on everything that (corporate) MTV VJs said and they geeked out over how “edgy” all the (corporate) videos were, or when your grandparents totally ate up rock and roll as it was sold to them via… ta-da… corporations like radio stations (the streaming service of the day) as well as corporate shills like Ed Sullivan, who was the old man influencer who brought the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to the U.S.

Even your great-grandparents wound up listening to all the big bands and singers who were radio approved during WW II, and probably also performed overseas, but only in government sanctioned USO shows.

See a pattern there? If you’re under 25 and it’s getting shoved in your face through tech, it’s probably an illusion created by your corporate overlords. I mean, after all, how is it otherwise possible for some just-turned-18 dude with no apparent day job to buy a warehouse, or for a 27-year-old-douche to be able to own properties in L.A. and Florida and to capriciously buy and destroy multiple vehicles, a Tesla among them?

I won’t mention any names, but if you know, you know.

What are you looking forward to in the coming months?

This question has been in the queue for a while. BTS clip: I’ve compiled a list of 42 questions from the website in question and use a pair of random number generators to reorder them, then give a suggestion, although I don’t always take the first suggestion. It’s a combination of random and mood.

This question kept getting suggested all through 2020, and I kept ignoring it because my answer was, “Hell if I know.” Now it’s 2021, and I finally have an answer. Well, two.

On the grander scale, I’m hoping that in the coming months the U.S. can fix the terrible mistakes of the last four years, as well as get us to a point where we’ve dealt enough with this plague to be able to return to some sort of normalcy.

Now, I have no illusions that live theatre, or indoor restaurants, or large public gatherings will be a thing before late 2021 or early 2022. But what I do hope is that every single negative change made by the previous administration is quickly undone by the current one.

Bring back protections for the environment and various marginalized classes of people. Resume agreements meant to protect the climate and wildlife. Ban drilling on protected lands. Then go further. Move away from fossil fuels and toward renewables, work on raising the minimum wage, providing a universal basic income, adjusting the tax structure so that the wealthy pay more than their fair share and the working poor pay next to nothing, and provide universal health care, student loan forgiveness and a reform of that whole corrupt system, then reform policing by reallocating fund so that police departments have mental health professionals and social workers to send out on cases more appropriate to them, leading to fewer young POC because the only police response they got was a knee on the ncek.

Oh… and statehood for DC, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, abolishing the Electoral College, increasing the number of Senators per state and making those numbers proportional, increasing the ability of people to vote early and by mail, pushing for a national system of redistricting via algorithm instead of partisan committee to kill Gerrymandering, and kick it all off with ending the Senate filibuster.

Somewhere along the way, either pack the fuck out of the Supreme Court, increasing its size to thirteen members to match the number of Federal Circuit Courts plus one presiding judge, or create a separate Constitutional Court and limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

Pauses to breathe. Okay. Did I forget anything?

My personal goals for the coming months are much simpler. I’ve suddenly come into circumstances where I will soon be able to have a dog in my life again, so that’s on my radar for somewhere around May. And that will make everything better again, whether or not everything in the first part of this entry happens.

Although almost everything in the first part of this entry damn well better happen before late 2022.

What do you really wish you knew when you were younger?

The same thing that everybody should know: Everyone else is just as insecure and scared, so you might as well be the bold one who does not give a single fuck. Be outspoken. Be ballsy. People will follow.

Just look at the history of pop stars over the ages. Which ones became enduring icons? The ones who said “fuck it” and marched to the beat of their own drummer.

David Bowie, anyone? He was a gender-bender from Mars from the beginning. Parents hated him and called him a freak. By the time he died, he was one of the most respected artists in the world. Q.V. Liberace and Elton John — flamboyant queens from two very different eras, but both went on to be ridiculously rich and famous.

This even includes the ones who maybe later went down in scandals, i.e. Boy George and George Michael.

If you don’t stand out from the crowd, you’ll never stand out, and there’s the lesson. Actually the lesson is this one: Never fear standing out from the crowd, because the more different you make yourself while being confidant in your difference, the more you’ll make everyone else want to follow.

Key word: Be confident in your difference. Announce loudly and proudly, “This is who I am,” and then just fucking be you.

Look, up in the sky!

Throughout history, humans have been fascinated with the sky, and a lot of our myths were attempts to explain what goes on up there. In many cultures, the five planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) were named after deities or attributes of the planets with surprising consistency.

Mercury was often named for its swiftness in orbiting the Sun; Venus was always associated with beauty because of its brightness; Mars’s red color led to it being named either for a violent deity or that color; Jupiter was always associated with the chief deity even though nobody in those times had any idea it was the largest planet; and Saturn, at least in the west, was named after Jupiter’s father.

This led to Uranus, which wasn’t discovered until the 18th century, being named after Saturn’s father, i.e. Jupiter’s grandfather. Neptune, discovered in the 19th century, and Pluto, discovered in the 20th century before being rightfully demoted from planetary status, were only named for Jupiter’s less cool brothers.

Since the planets were given attributes associated with deities, their relationship to each other must have meant something, and so the bogus art of astrology was invented, although it was obviously not complete prior to Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto being added, but then was clearly incorrect during the entire period of time that Pluto was a planet. (Hint: That was a joke. It was incorrect the entire time.)

Since humans are also hard-wired to see patterns, the stars above led to the definition of constellations, the night-time version of the “What is that cloud shaped like?” game.

It wasn’t really until the renaissance and the rise of science, including things like optics (one of Newton’s discoveries), which gave us telescopes, that we really started to take a look at the skies study them. But it is still astounding how so many laypeople know so little about what’s up there that we have had completely natural phenomena freaking us out since forever. Here are five examples of things in the sky that made people lose their stuff.

1. Total eclipse of the heart… er… Sun

Until science openly explained them, eclipses of any kind were scary. For one thing, nobody knew when they were coming until Royal Astronomer became a thing, but only the elite were privy to the information, so the Sun would go out or the Moon would turn blood red, or either one of them would appear to lose a piece at random and without warning. Generally, the belief was that the Moon or Sun (particularly the latter) was being consumed by some malevolent yet invisible beast that needed to be scared away.

But long after modern science explained that an eclipse was nothing more than the Moon passing in front of the Sun or the Earth passing in front of the Moon, shit went down in 1878, at least in low-information areas.

The thing about this eclipse was that it had been predicted close to a century before, had been well-publicized, and was going to put the path of totality across the entire U.S. for the first time since its founding. There’s even a book about it, American Eclipse. But there’s also a tragic part of the story. While the news had spread across most of the growing nation, it didn’t make it to Texas, and farm workers there, confronted with the sudden loss of the Sun, took it to mean all kinds of things. A lot of them thought that it was a portent of the return of Jesus, and in at least one case, a father killed his children and then himself in order to avoid the apocalypse.

2. Captain Comet!

Ah, comets. They are an incredibly rare sight in the sky and well worth traveling to see if that’s what you need to do. I remember a long trek into the darkness when I was pretty young to go see Comet Hyakutake, and yes it was worth it. It was a glorious blue-green fuzzball planted in space with a huge tail. Of course, I knew what it was. In the past, not so much.

In the ancient world, yet again, they were seen as bad omens because something in the heavens had gone wrong. The heavens, you see, were supposed to be perfect, but there was suddenly this weird… blot on them. Was it a star that grew fuzzy? Was it coming to eat the Earth? What could be done?

That may all sound silly, but as recently as 1910, people still flipped their shit over the return of one of the more predictable and periodic of “fuzzy stars.” That would be Comet Halley. And, by the way, it’s not pronounced “Hay-lee.” It’s “Hall-lee.”

And why did it happen? Simple. A French astronomer who should have known better, wrote that the tail of the comet was full of gases, including hydrogen and cyanide, and if the Earth passed through the tail, we would either be gassed to death or blown up. Unfortunately, another French astronomer at the time actually played “Got your back” with him, and that was all it took.

It was pseudoscience bullshit at its finest, propagated by the unquestioning and uninformed (when it comes to science) media, and it created a panic even though it was completely wrong.

The worst part about Halley’s 1910 appearance? It bore out Mark Twain’s statement, paraphrased probably: “I came into the world with it, I will go out with it.” And he did. Goddamit.

3. Meteoric rise is an oxymoron

And it definitely is, because a meteor only becomes one because it’s falling. And while we’re here, let’s look at three often confused words: Meteor, meteoroid, and meteorite.

The order is this: Before it gets here and is still out in space, it’s a meteoroid. Once it hits our atmosphere and starts to glow and burn up, it has become a meteor. Only the bits that actually survive to slam into the planet get to be called meteorites. Oid, or, ite. I suppose you could think of it as being in the vOID, coming fOR you, and then crash, goodnITE.

So the things that mostly cause panic are meteors, and quite recently, a meteor blowing up over Russia convinced people that they were under attack. It was a fireball that crashed into the atmosphere on February 15, 2013, and it actually did cause damage and injuries on the ground.

The numbers on the Chelyabinsk meteor are truly staggering, especially to think that they involved no high explosives, just friction and pure physics (Hello again, Sir Isaac!) The thing was about 66 feet in diameter, which is the length of a cricket pitch, or about four feet longer than a bowling lane. It compares to a lot of things, and you can find some fun examples here.

But there was nothing fun about this asteroid. It came screaming through our atmosphere at about 41,000 miles an hour at a steep angle. The heat from the friction of our atmosphere quickly turned it into a fireball of the superbolide variety, which is one that is brighter than the sun. It exploded about 18 miles up. That explosion created a fireball of hot gas and dust a little over four miles in diameter. The kinetic energy of the event was about 30 times the force of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Over 7,200 buildings were damaged and 1,500 people were injured enough to need medical attention, mostly due to flying glass and other effects of the shockwave. Unlike other items on this list, these events actually can be dangerous, although this was the first time in recorded history that people were known to have been injured by a meteor. The Tunguska event, in 1908, was a little bit bigger and also in Russia, but happened in a remote and sparsely populated area, with no reported human injuries. Local reindeer were not so lucky.

4. Conjunction junction, what’s your function?

A conjunction is defined as any two or more objects in space which appear to be close together or overlapping when viewed from the Earth. Every solar eclipse is a conjunction of the Sun and Moon as seen from the Earth. Oddly enough, a lunar eclipse is not a conjunction from our point of view, because it’s our planet that’s casting the shadow on the Moon.

Conjunctions shouldn’t be all that surprising for a few reasons.

First is that most of the planets pretty much orbit in the same plane, defined by the plane in which the Earth orbits because that makes the most sense from an observational standpoint.

The inclination of Earth’s orbit is zero degrees by definition and the plane we orbit in is called the ecliptic. You can probably figure out where that name came from. Out of the planets, the one with the greatest inclination is Mercury, at 7º. Counting objects in the solar system in general, the dwarf planet Pluto has an inclination of 17.2º — which is just another argument against it being a true planet. None of the planets not yet mentioned have an inclination of more than 4º, which really isn’t a whole lot.

The second reason conjunctions should not be all that surprising is because each planet has to move at a particular velocity relative to its distance from the Sun to maintain its orbit. The farther out you are, the faster you have to go. Although this is a function of gravity, the airplane analogy will show you why this makes sense.

As an airplane gains speed, the velocity of air over the wings increases, generating more lift, bringing the airplane higher. In space, there’s no air to deal with, but remember that any object in orbit is essentially falling around the body it orbits, but doing it fast enough to keep missing.

If it slows down too much, it will start to fall, but if it speeds up its orbit will get bigger. This is directly analogous to ballistics, which describes the arc of a flying projectile. The faster it launches the farther it goes and the bigger the arc it makes. An arc in orbit becomes an ellipse.

Since every planet is moving at the speed required to keep it at the distance it is, things are likely to sync up occasionally. Sometimes, it will only be one or two planets, but on certain instances, it will be most or all of them. This video is a perfect example. Each one of the balls is on a string of a different length, so its natural period is different. Sometimes, the pattern becomes quite chaotic, but every so often it syncs up perfectly. Note that all of them did start in sync, so it is mathematically inevitable that they will sync up again at the point that all of the different period multiply to the same number. Our solar system is no different since the planets all started as rings of gas and dust swirling around the Sun. There was a sync point somewhen.

So conjunctions are a completely normal phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean that people haven’t gone completely stupid with them. The first way is via astrology, which isn’t even worth debunking because it’s such a load. The Sun is 99.8% of the mass of the solar system, so it constantly has more influence in every possible way over everything else hands down. What influence did the planets have upon your personality at birth? Less than zero. The only relevant factor, really, is that people’s personalities are formed by their relative age when they started school, so that is influenced by the season they were born in, but that’s about it.

As for the modern version of people going completely stupid over conjunctions, it happened in the early 1980s, after the 1974 publication of the book The Jupiter Effect by John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann. In short, they predicted that a conjunction of the planets on March 10, 1982 would cause a series of earthquakes that would wipe out Los Angeles.

Since you’re reading this in at least the year 2020 and I’m quite safely in Los Angeles, you know how their prediction turned out. This didn’t stop them from backtracking a month later and releasing a follow-up book called The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered (aka We Want More Money from the Gullible) in which they claimed, “Oh… we miscalculated. The date was actually in 1980, and the conjunction (that hadn’t happened yet) caused Mount St. Helens to erupt.”

Still, just like with the whole end of the world 2012 predictions, at least some people bought into it.

5. The original star wars

The last item on our list is possibly a one-off, occurring on April 14, 1561 in Nuremberg, Germany. Whether it actually even happened is debatable since only a single account of it survives in the form of a broadsheet — basically the blog post of its day. If it had been as widespread as the story makes it seem, after all, there should have been reports from all across Europe unless, of course, the point of view from Nuremberg created the exceptional event in the first place.

It was described as an aerial battle that began between 4 and 5 a.m. when “a dreadful apparition occurred on the sun.” I’ll quote the rest of the paragraph in translation in full from the article linked above: “At first there appeared in the middle of the sun two blood-red semicircular arcs, just like the moon in its last quarter. And in the sun, above and below and on both sides, the color was blood, there stood a round ball of partly dull, partly black ferrous color. Likewise there stood on both sides and as a torus about the sun such blood-red ones and other balls in large numbers, about three in a line and four in a square, also some alone.”

The unknown author goes on to describe the objects — spheres, rods, and crosses — as battling with each other for about an hour, swirling back and forth. Eventually, the objects seemed to become fatigued and fell to the Earth, where they “wasted away… with immense smoke.

Now, what could have caused this phenomenon? The obvious answers are that it was a slow news day or that it was religious propaganda or some other wind-up. But if it were an actual phenomenon and really only remarked on in one village, then it’s quite possible that it was a meteor shower with an apparent radiant, or source, that happened to line up with the Sun.

It was a Monday, with a new Moon. The Sun rose in the east at 5:05 a.m., so the invisible Moon was somewhere around that part of the sky, too. But this also immediately calls the story into question, since the phenomenon seen coming from the Sun happened before sunrise according to the account. But if we consider that to just be human error, what we have is the Pearl Harbor effect. The attackers come in with the rising Sun behind them, making them hard to see or understand.

On top of that, if they’re coming in from that direction, they’re coming in at a very shallow angle. See the notes on the Russian meteor above. This can lead to some super-heated objects, which would glow red as reported, and anything not red hot against the Sun would appear black. If it happened to be a swarm of objects, like a bunch of small rocks and dust or a bigger piece that broke up, all flying in at once, the chaotic motion could certainly make it seem like a battle.

There is a meteor shower that happens around that time of year called the Lyrids, which is very short-lived, although I haven’t yet been able to find out whether its radiant was near the Sun in 1561. But a particularly heavy shower coming in at just the right angle could have an unusual effect in a limited area.

Or… the author just pulled it out of his ass for his own reasons. We can never know.


Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Christopher Ruano, F.E. Warren Air Force Base.