Wednesday Wonders: Equinox

Welcome to September 22, the date in 2021 when the Earth stands up straight and faces the Sun head on. Well, side on. The point is that on this date the Earth’s poles point at exact right angles to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, so it marks a change of season. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, this is the first day of fall, and days will begin to grow shorter as the north pole starts to tilt away from the Sun. Meanwhile, if you’re in the southern hemisphere, today is the first day of spring, as the south pole starts to tilt toward the Sun. Oh, don’t worry, though. It’s not like the Earth is literally rolling over. The actual angle of its axis is always the same — it’s just its position relative to the Sun that changes, depending upon which quarter of its orbit it’s in. Today, though, magic happens, as the length of day and night everywhere on the planet is the same — but it’s not 12 hours, because a day is not quite 12 hours. Rather, one day is 23 hours and 56 minutes, so on this day each side of the globe receives 11 hours and 58 minutes of daylight. Close to 24, but no cigar. Each day is missing four minutes, and yes, over the year, the time on your clock technically gains because of this, but that is part of why we have leap years and all that shit in the first place. And the fact that the Earth’s axis is tilted and the apparent height of the Sun in the sky plus the length of day changing regularly is probably what led to human civilization in the first place. As soon as people noticed that the spots on the horizon where the Sun rose and set day-to-day changed, and then started to notice how high it did or did not make it into the sky by noon got folk to taking notes. Next up would have been timing the periods between its rise and set over the course of… well, it’s not defined yet. Figuring out the timing might have been tricky when there was no way to actually tell time, so maybe those first experiments just meant tracking the length of an object’s shadow right as the Sun rose and when it set, them recording the length of each one and comparing it to each subsequent day. This wouldn’t give you a length in terms of hours per se, but it could tell you, for example, how long the shadow on a particular day was. Since the Sun doesn’t cast shadows at night, this gives you length of daylight, and you can then compare that length to the length on other days. This will tell you the rate of change per day, as well as give you the relative lengths of longest and shortest days. Repeat the experiment until the pattern starts to repeat — i.e., you hit the same shadow length you started with and see the same lengths appear over the next, say, dozen measurements, and now you suddenly know how many day/night periods there are before the Sun returns to where it started. People may not have understood the concept of orbits yet and probably thought the Earth was at the center of everything, but only because that’s exactly what it does look like from down here, but it did give them a starting point from which to be able to predict the regular course of the Sun. Finally, key these measurements into the seasons, as in when is it cold, when is it time to plant, when does it flood, and when can we harvest? Eventually, over time, ta-da: You’ve created the calendar, and the basic parameters of Earth-Sun dynamics, plus axial tilt dictate the creation of four annual divisions; call them seasons. Of course, some cultures, who tended to not be agricultural, watched the Moon instead, and also divided the year into months (literally named for moons in many different languages) although not seasons. However, since the lunar month wound up much shorter than the solar month after one Earth orbit was divided appropriately, lunar calendars would always lag behind. This is why, for example, the Hebrew calendar has to add in an entire month every so often instead of just a day, and why Jewish and Islamic holidays seem to slip around the Gregorian calendar. Here’s a nice irony, though. The ultimate holiday for once-a-year Catholics, Easter, is itself set based upon a lunar calendar. The date of Easter is set as the first Sunday after the full Moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox. If that equinox is on a Sunday itself, then Easter is the next Sunday. Why this is the case, I have no idea — but events in the Islamic Calendar, as well as things like the Chinese New Year, are also set based on a particular New Moon, although they are all at different times of the year. If you’re part of the early agricultural movement, though — which led to permanent settlements and cities and irrigation, and all kinds of fancy shiz — then your city is probably going to have a nice observatory, but it wouldn’t be bristling with telescopes, which would not be invented for thousands of years. Rather, it would be a prominent building or even a temple-like structure — think Stonehenge — with very specific architectural features designed to align with the movement of the Sun, Moon, and possibly certain stars to become one giant indicator of when those significant dates passed. For example, a slit in one wall might direct sunrise light on the first day of summer onto a specific plinth or marker, or maybe even a mural or statue depicting the god or goddess of the season. Likewise, the same slit would hit a different marker for the first day of winter. Those two are easy because the sun will be at its northernmost point when summer starts and its southernmost when winter starts, which is why you can use the same slit. Spring and fall, being equinoxes, both come in at the same angle, so the light would hit the same place. However, the good news is that if you know which one was the last season, then you know what’s coming, so spring always follows winter and fall comes after summer. Somewhere around these times, these early astronomers may have even figured out the concept of the analemma and begun tracking it. This is the huge figure-8 pattern that the Sun, when recorded at the same time each day (usually noon) makes over the course of a year. Tracking the Moon would probably allow for the ability to predict solar and lunar eclipses — at the time, probably more useful as a political/religious function over anything else. “The Moon is going to die on Tuesday, and it will be your fault unless you pay us tribute and fealty, peons!” Ewww. Out front would be a huge sundial to impress and mystify the populace who, of course, would never be allowed inside such a sacred space. Same as it ever was. Except… We do have access to this knowledge now, and the short version of it is this. The Sun is the center of our Solar System, mostly by virtue of having 99% of its mass, and holding everything else in its thrall via gravity because of that. There are two planets closer to the Sun than Earth — Mercury and Venus — and both of those are barely titled. Mercury is off-axis by barely 3 hundredths of a degree, while Venus is inclined at 2.6 degrees. However, since Mercury is tidally locked with one side boiling and the other frozen, it’s not likely to benefit at all if it suddenly tilted. As for Venus — this is our solar system’s true shit-hole planet, with the hottest temperature and thickest atmosphere, a hellscape where it rains sulfuric acid constantly. If we look at the rest of the solar system, the only planets that come close to having the same axial tilt are Mars (25.19º), Saturn (26.73º) and Neptune (28.32º). Meanwhile, the planet Uranus has the most extreme tilt in the solar system, with its axle rolled over a full 97.77 º, which indicates that, at some point in the past, Uranus must have gotten rammed pretty hard by some asteroid or even a small planet. The end result is that Uranus always keeps its pole pointed at the Sun, alternating between north and south so that its seasons basically travel sideways — although those seasons aren’t much to speak of there, because the surface is pretty much a nearly featureless ball of methane with some lighter clouds in high latitudes (or is that high longitudes?) and, as recent studies have determined, there is also a big, dark spot on Uranus. Of course, we wouldn’t even know about the other planets and stars and so in if we hadn’t started looking up to figure out what was going on with our own Sun and Moon in the first place, and Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto (not a planet) were not even discovered until modern times. Uranus wasn’t even named until the late 18th Century, but the convention of naming planets over Roman gods carried on, and the place got its name at the suggestion of German astronomer Johann Elert Bode. Whether or not he knew about the comedy potential in English of that name choice is anyone’s guess, but officials agreed. And although it’s properly pronounced “OO-ra-noos,” almost no one says it that way, and so stories about the sixth planet are always unintentionally hilarious. And it all started in ancient days, when the first farmers started to pay attention to the change of seasons and tried to learn whether the gods had left them in clues in the heavens above, eventually leading to an understanding of the cosmos that required no gods at all but adhered to its own inexorable set of laws that were an intrinsic property of reality itself. Thanks, farmers! Images: (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Talky Tuesday: Assuming gender

Since English has no grammatical genders, learning a language with them can be daunting, but fear not. Here are some quick tips on the concept.

One concept in other languages that just boggles the mind of native English speakers is the idea of grammatical gender. It has nothing to do with the actual gender or sex of the person being spoken about and, naturally, inanimate objects tender to be neuter, or have no gender.

Well, at least in English.

Most commonly, languages will either have no gender distinctions, two distinctions (masculine and feminine), or three (masculine, feminine, and neuter.)

Some languages go a little nuts with it, though. Polish technically has five genders — three variations on masculine, plus feminine and neuter. The masculine genders indicate whether something is a human being, a living creature but not human, or an inanimate object, although those last two are not really used anymore.

Bantu languages tend to go the most extreme, with Ganda having ten classes and Shona having twenty — singular and plural are considered distinct genders. Meanwhile, Ganda genders follow characteristics of objects, so pertain to things like people, long objects, animals, large objects, small objects, liquids, and so on.

So if you’re trying to learn a romance language with only two grammatical genders, consider yourself lucky.

Oh — also, do not confuse a language without grammatical genders and gender-neutral language. The latter tries to eliminate sexist terminology.

English still has some gendered nouns that are slowly being eliminated, like the pair waiter and waitress, which are being replaced by server. But note that the two nouns are otherwise not distinguished by articles or adjectives, although they may take different pronouns.

So, for example, “the happy waiter” and “the happy waitress” are both grammatically correct. So are the phrases “He is a server” and “she is a server,” with the pronoun being the only gender distinction.

English used to have a lot more gender-specific work roles and job titles, but these are going away as well. For example, any terms that used to end in -man, like Chairman of the Board, Fireman, Alderman, etc., is being replaced with terms like Chair or Chairperson, and Fire Fighter.

For some reason, probably having to do with Chicago politics, “alderman” is proving to be a holdout, despite efforts to change it.

There are also other gender terms like actor and actress that are changing so that “actor” is now used as the gender-neutral term for either, and a number of gendered terms that already fell out of use years ago, like baker and baxter, aviator and aviatrix, and seamster and seamstress — although the last one is a little odd, because seamstress stayed, while the former was replaced by tailor.

You also now know where the surname Baxter came from — the same place that Baker did. And yes, there’s a reason that occupational last names are so common in all languages. That’s because a town might have only one baker or miller or blacksmith, so someone would become known as John Baker or Tom Miller or Joe Smith.

This is really amusing when you realize that Giuseppe Ferrari and Joe Smith are exactly the same name.

But back to the gender thing and why it can be so daunting to native English speakers. In some languages, like Spanish, it’s well marked, so that masculine and feminine nouns will generally end in -o for the former and -a for the latter… but not always, and more on that in a moment.

In others, like German, there are broad rule for what words are masculine and feminine, but a lot of the time it’s a total crapshoot, and you can’t get any clues from the spelling. Neutral complicates it further and, on top of that, things don’t always line up, especially when it comes to animate objects and people.

In German, horses and girls are both neuter, for example.

But getting back to Spanish, genders are generally a lot clearer because of the o/a endings, and nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and articles all match:

La mesera alta.

El mesero alto.

These refer, in order, to the tall waitress and the tall waiter, although use camarera and camarero outside of Latin America.

This all makes sense for student learners until the day that the teacher writes, “El agua está fria” on the board, and people freak out.

They will either focus on the “el” and ask why agua is masculine, or they will insist that agua is feminine and ask why the article is wrong.

Welcome to your first grammatical exception — although this one isn’t quite what it seems. If you were talking about “the waters, “las aguas” would be perfectly fine because the word is feminine. So what’s going on?

This one exists strictly for ease of pronunciation, and it’s the same thing that we do in English when we replace “a” with “an” before certain vowels, like “an elephant,” or “an opera,” but “a universe” or “a unicorn.”

The emphasis in “agua” is on the first a, so it’s very hard to say “la agua” with those two stressed a’s banging into each other. On the other hand, the “l” en el bleeds in very nicely to that stressed a, so that’s why it’s done.

This is true for any word in Spanish that starts with a stressed a, including el águila (but las Águilas), and so on.

This eventually starts to make sense, and then we get the next gender-bomb with something like “el problema.”

Again, the words ends in -a, so it should be feminine, right? Except that this word comes from Greek, where it is masculine, so the gender came over directly into Spanish, and so we have a whole class of words from Greek, generally ending in -ma or -ta and sometimes -pa, that are masculine: el problema, el programma, el planeta, el cometa, el mapa, etc.

Unfortunately, you really just have to memorize them, because a word like etapa (meaning a period of time or a stage in some process) is feminine — la tercera etapa del cohete, the rocket’s third stage.

Once you’ve had fun with those, we get to the words for the hand: la mano. And yes, mano is feminine, for the same reason those Greek words are masculine, except that in this case, “mano” came from Latin, and the form of the word that got adapted into Spanish was feminine.

“Necesitará una mano lista para enfrentar un problema duro.” You will need a ready hand in order to tackle a hard problem. Note how the articles and adjectives appear to not match their nouns at all. Get used to it.

Don’t worry. It gets worse!

Further into occupations, you might learn the word dentista — ella es una dentista. Now, you could assume that the corresponding sentence would be “él es un dentisto,” but you’d be wrong. The correct phrase is also “él es un dentista.”

This is another class of words, generally ending in -ista, that are invariant, and frequently refer to occupations or ideologies. “Socialista” is another one that does not change, regardless of the actual gender of the socialist.

The same applies to nacionalista, capitalista, comunista, marxista, machista, and so on.

Finally, there are words that take on a particular gender because of what is missing. For example, “radio” can be either masculine or feminine, but there’s a good reason for that. When you’re replying to an actual physical device designed to receive and play radio broadcasts, then it’s masculine: el radio. However, when you refer to the broadcast that’s played on el radio, then that is la radio.

The reason for this is that the medium or radio is short for “radio difusión,” or transmission by radio, and since difusión is feminine, so is the shortened form.

You can see this in words like la foto and la moto, which are short for fotographía and motocicleta. This is also why days of the week are all masculine — the word for day, el día, is masculine — and why the hours of the day are feminine — because they pick up the gender of the word for hour, la hora.

Month is masculine, so I’ll let you figure out which gender applies to the names of the months.

So it’s not a system that is as hard as it seems, and while there are some exceptions, those exceptions actually follow their own rules. You can’t always assume the gender of a noun, but once you know what it is, remembering it will gradually become second nature.

Good luck! ¡Buena suerte! — because, in Spanish, luck be a lady.

Momentous Monday: Oh, and this one time, at band camp…

Okay, I never actually went to band camp, but I was in marching band for my junior and senior years of high school, so I am an official band geek.

The reason it wasn’t all three years of high school is that I was a keyboardist, so I didn’t even think that they’d need my skills. I mean, I could have strapped on my accordion and carried my amp around in a little wagon, but that would have been heavy and difficult.

I somehow got talked into joining, though, and I don’t remember whether it was because I was in the school’s jazz combo/class first and because there was only one instrumental music teacher, or whether friends talked me into it. But starting my junior year, I joined the band as a drummer.

And yes, my second year of high school was my junior year because, at the time, we were still on a program that had K-6 as one school, then 3 years of middle school and 3 years of high school.

And yes, I did become a drummer because it was something that pretty much any musician could instantly adapt to, since we could read music and had a sense of rhythm. However, lest that imply that drummers are stupid, it comes with a caveat.

The non-drummer in the band general stuck to the non-complicated percussion — bass drum or tom-toms. All you had to do was make sure the drumheads were tightened, then hit them with mallets.

The trained drummers got the instruments like the snare drums, multi-toms, or glockenspiel. The first one, while not tuned, makes use of, well, a “snare,” which is a series of springy wires strung next to each other and held taut.

A snare drum has two heads, one on the top and one on the bottom, and the snares make contact with the bottom head. When the player strikes the top head it makes both it and the bottom head vibrate. This in turn makes the snare vibrate, but since it’s made of metal in a semi-spiral pattern, when it vibrates it buzzes a bit.

This is a big part of what gives a drum roll, which is mostly snare, its distinctive and drawn-out sound, as well as makes this drum itself stand out.

The last two are tunable percussion, with multi-toms, also known as tenor drums, comprising three or four connected drums of different depths and/or diameters, hence of different pitches. They also lack a bottom drum head and snare.

These drums are capable of playing tunes, or at least bass-lines, and a drummer can play notes in succession or several drums at once. (Really skilled players will have two mallets in each hand on quad-toms or an extra in their dominant hand on tri-toms in order to be able to cover all the notes.)

Finally, there’s the glockenspiel, which is essentially the metal version of a xylophone. In case you’re wondering why they didn’t just call it a xylophone as well, that’s because the name “xylophone” literally means “wood sound” because the instrument is made of wood.

Change the composition, change the name. A glockenspiel is basically a keyboard layout over a few octaves, and the marching band version is basically worn as a flat tray strapped over the shoulders, kind of like a cigarette girl set-up, if I may get very vintage in a reference.

Now, it seems like a no-brainer that I would have been perfect for glock, except that either our school already had a player a year ahead of me who wasn’t giving it up or we didn’t have the instrument at all.

Anyway… I think probably because I was by far the tallest member of the drumline, I wound up playing the bass drum, which is the big one worn sideways, and which generally has the school logo or mascot on it.

This also gave me the honor of starting off our opening march before every football game, which was an awesome sense of power. We’d begin with a very slow entrance from the end zone to the tune of some Toreador themed trumpet melody (“Toreadors” was our team name), and then it would end.

After a dramatic pause, I would pound out four beats and we would snap into our opening number and march out across the entire field to play the rest of the opening tune and the the school fight song — which meant that I was solely responsible for setting the tempo of our opening.

Yes, if either of the drum majors had pissed me off that day, I’d give it to them double-time. It was the one moment of the show they had no control over.

Thinking back on this, it’s just another reminder of something that I’m really not constantly aware of, but it’s pretty much true. For my entire life, I actually have been performing, whether it’s been on a stage or before any kind of official audience, or whether it’s just in so-called “real life.”

Until we reached a time where kids in elementary or middle school were able to comfortably come out to their friends and parents without fearing retribution up to and including death — and that’s still a damn small and privileged percentage — the queer person’s defense was performance.

In daily life, we had to play the role of a “normal” straight person, pretending to be interested in the same things, blending in. in effect, we became extras and atmosphere in the stories about the straight “cool kids” in school.

Although it was a big surprise, or perhaps not, how many of them turned out to be queer after all.

This is probably why so many of us gravitated to theatre, dance, music, or other performing arts in the first place. Everything we were doing was already a role. Might as well make a profession out of it, right?

The best part was that while you were performing, you could get away with anything. Think of closeted but later outed celebrities of the past who could play the most flamboyant (20th century code for “queer”) of characters on TV or in film, but then butch it up on talk shows and say that it was all an act.

Paul Lynde? Charles Nelson Reilly? JM J. Bullock?

Then look at the modern flipside of that, where Jim Parsons, a very openly gay member of Gen-X, starred in a very popular TV sitcom that ran for over a decade in which his very fussy, prissy character was portrayed as straight, but in real life the actor never had to shut up about who he was, and seemed to be even more loved because of it.

This metaphor really holds for people in the performing arts in school because sort of the same phenomenon happens. Your peers — fellow performers — kind of get an idea of who you are, and vice versa, and no one makes a big deal about it. You’re all on the same team, whether it’s the marching band, the cast of a show or drama department members, or a dance company.

This is just like Hollywood in the closeted days. People in the industry knew who was fucking whom and whether they were straight, gay, or bisexual. All they cared about was that the news didn’t leak out.

Peers in the industry knew how to keep secrets.

The real challenge was keeping the news from the media — i.e., students not in the performing arts groups — and studio execs — parents, school administrators, and non-sympathetic teachers or counselors.

I can really only imagine what it would have been like if our marching band had gone to actual sleepover band camp, because when we did have parties, we got wild as hell. To everyone else, we may have had the reputation of being virginal nerds, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

Two of my high school girlfriends were in band, and so was my first-ever same-sex hookup, as well as a potential second if I hadn’t totally pussied out by not flat-out asking him, “Wanna fuck?”

Years later, I know that his answer would have been “Yes.”

As for the first one, it all happened because of a fluke of band seating in the stands. The drummers were in the front, on the bottom tier, and the brass sat behind us, with the trombones in the middle and trumpets on the flank.

Since I played bass drum, I was also in the middle of the middle, directly in front of the first trombonist. Let’s call him Glenn (not his real name), and we hit it off at our first game in the fall of my junior year.

In retrospect, everything about him sets off my adult gaydar. At that time, though, when I was only 16, I had no gaydar. All I know is that we hit it off immediately, I feel comfortable around him, and while I’m hearing that Tune of Denial playing on one channel in my brain, the other is just mooning over how cute he is.

What? He’s as tall as I am, blond, and really handsome.

About three months later, the day after my 17th birthday, he invites me over to his place to study for a history test, since we’re both in the class. Thinking nothing of it, I go. It’s a Monday, two days after a wild Saturday band party he wasn’t at that devolved into a game of Truth or Dare that, among other things, included the girlfriend of one of the tom drummers in the band being dared to French kiss every guy at the party — and he didn’t seem to have any objections.

Okay, honestly, neither did she, but I didn’t have the emotional or mental capacity at the time to even notice shit like that. All I know is that I was the one who felt violated when she came around and gave me my turn.

And Glenn turned this into basically asking me who she’d kissed, and then how she’d kissed, and then asked for a demo.

The kissing was nice, he was hot, we were horny, although it still wound up awkward and I came and went. We were going go hook up the following weekend for a longer session because his parents were still going to be out of town, but I backed out at the last minute and I think he took that badly.

Suddenly, he ignored me, tried to turn mutual friends against me, and if only we’d lived in a world where we could have just told everyone, “Okay, we tried to hook up, it didn’t work out. Next?” we both would have avoided a lot of trauma.

Yeah, even though folks in the band kind of knew what was going on with whom, we also didn’t really talk about it. And, to be honest, this single experience in high school — being seduced and then dumped and shunned — had a major psychological impact on me that lasted long after I’d gone to college.

In fact, it was only going to college, getting away from what was essentially the small(-minded) town in a big city that I’d grown up in, and meeting new people and having new relationships that I grew out of it and got over it.

I was never in a marching band again, but I also never really stopped performing, so that my college years saw me playing in show combos and bands, and acting in plays, and student videos and films, and more.

But, at the same time, it was a lot easier to come out slowly in college to the point that most of my friends knew that I didn’t consider myself totally straight by sophomore year, and by the second semester of my final year, it seemed like everyone suddenly started to come screaming out of the closet, and it was glorious.

Image source: Tim Evanson, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday nibble #81: Me and my Shadow

Seven years ago today, I said good-bye for the last time to Shadow, my middle dog and problem child, although given subsequent events in real life, it seems like it’s been forever.

I’m not sure exactly how old she was. I adopted her on May 11, 2001, which was eleven days after the passing of my dog Dazé. The rescue group thought she was about a year and a half old, which would have put her birth around October, 1999 and she didn’t grow much after I adopted her, so the age was probably accurate.

I set her official “birthday” August 23 mainly because it was close enough, plus that was also Dazé’s official birthday, although in her case it would have been within a week of the truth either way because we adopted her as a puppy and knew how many weeks old she was.

That does mean, though, that Shadow hadn’t quite made it to her 15th birthday — or maybe she was just past it. And we never figured out why she died. Her vets had ruled out a lot of things, including cancer. It was just that she started to lose weight but didn’t seem to have anything wrong with her.

I do remember that after they had shaved her on one side to do an ultrasound, it took forever for that fur to grow back and it never really got to its original length, would did imply some sort of metabolic problem that was interfering with her body’s ability to absorb nutrients.

She was sick for a couple of years, and then one evening her back legs collapsed and she couldn’t stand up. I placed her in her bed and made her comfortable but in the morning she was barely mobile and I could tell that she was no longer happy. I don’t know whether she was in pain, but her eyes told me that she’d given up.

I took her in to the vet at the earliest appointment that day but already knew. They took one look at her and agreed that it was time. While they prepared her by putting a catheter in her foreleg, I ran home and got my other dog Sheeba, because I wanted her to be there — one of the advantages of living five minutes from the Vet’s office.

It was quick and painless and then it was done. The only thing that made it easier was that I was going home with Sheeba and not to an empty home like I had after Dazé died, or like I would after Sheeba died in 2020.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, Shadow was my problem child, so I think that I learned more from her than I did from my other two dogs.

Our adventure together began on that May day in 2001 when two volunteers from German Shepherd Rescue of Orange County (GSROC) brought her over.

Shadow wasn’t actually a German shepherd, though. I couldn’t have adopted her if she had been because of rules at my apartment. They thought she might have been a white German shepherd mix, which isn’t recognized by the AKC, so skates through a technical loophole on the breed thing, but eventually I think I figured out that she was probably a Belgian Malinois mixed with a smaller breed, like American Eskimo.

I’d found her in the first place because Dazé had been an American Eskimo and West Highland terrier mix, and when I searched for Esky mixes, Shadow was the only dog that came up. I wasn’t able to test her DNA before she passed, although I wish that I had because when I tested Sheeba’s DNA, she came up with all kinds of surprises.

Anyway, the volunteers brought her over and into my place, then each of them snuck out when she wasn’t looking, leaving her alone with me. However, long before the first one of them left, she went out onto my patio, curled up against the fence, and just stayed there, looking very apprehensive.

When the volunteers were gone, she wanted to have nothing to do with me, and I had that sinking feeling of, “Oh no. This isn’t going to work, is it?” So I inadvertently did the best thing I could. I ignored her and went about my day.

Eventually, I was in my bedroom, sitting on the bed with my back to the door when I heard the faintest of jingles from her dog tags clinking together and realized that she was standing in the doorway. I didn’t look at her, but instead I slid my right hand pack, patted the bed, and then left my fist sitting there.

I could sense her as she very cautiously approached, gently climbed onto the bed and then walked over slowly, finally sniffing my hand. Curiosity had gotten the better of her, and then she sat next to me.

Right after that, I fed her, and when she realized that I was not going to eat her but feed her instead, all of her fear of me vanished and she was joined at the hip from that moment on.

Considering how afraid of me she was in those first couple of hours together, it’s amazing how much she came to depend on me as her protector. If the slightest thing scared her, she would run right to Daddy, and either try to awkwardly climb onto my lap if I was sitting — even though she could have easily jumped onto it — or to hide behind my legs if I was standing.

At night, she had to sleep on the bed, and as close to me as possible. She preferred to curl up behind my legs, which was fine because I tended to sleep on my side with my legs bent, and she happened to be just the right size, curled up, to fit between my ankles and my ass, and fit into the curve of my legs.

I just had to remember not to move too much at night, because she was definitely a liquid dog, and would flow to fill whatever space was available. If I got too close to my edge of the bed, she’d be right there behind me, as close as possible.

Her nemeses were thunder, fireworks, and loud noises in general. Fortunately, we didn’t have a lot of thunderstorms in L.A., but we certainly get a lot of fireworks at certain times of the year, and the place I first lived in with her was in a neighborhood that seemed to believe that celebrating the 4th of July started around the middle of June and continued on a daily and nightly basis until Bastille Day.

That would get her to climb onto my lap and tremble like a leaf for sure.

We were also in exactly the right place to experience the unique double sonic-boom whenever a Space Shuttle returned to Edwards AFB, which happened nine times during her life.

The thing is, those booms were loud, there would be two of them slightly separated, and they would always rattle the windows. Even when I knew that a shuttle flight was coming in, it was never an exact science to know the moment when it would happen, so there was no way I could prepare her for it.

The only way I ever had luck in helping her in this regard came when we had a very rare but very active thunderstorm in the days before I’d adopted Sheeba.

I’ve told this story before, but the short version is that I heard the storm coming, so went into my office, which was the bedroom on the street side of the apartment, and opened the blinds, then called Shadow onto my lap.

I’d watch for the lightning flash, knowing that thunder was coming, and then would start to tell her, “Her it comes. Here comes the boom. Here it comes. Ready?” or words to that effect, over and over, until… thunder. And then I would hug her and say, “Yaaay!”

I think I even got to the point where I could raise one of her paws up along with the “Yaaay!” part. But I managed to turn it into a game, and  I think this gave her a sense of control, which might have been all that it took.

After an evening of our thunder game, she seemed less frightened by loud noises after that.

When it came to play, though, that was Shadow’s big thing. Dazé would sometimes decide to indulge in a little fetch or tug-of-war, but it always felt more like she was doing it because she thought I wanted to. Meanwhile, Sheeba couldn’t be arsed with any of it. Toss a ball her way, and she’d just watch it pass, then give me a look like, “What? You expect me to get that for you? As if.”

Shadow, though, went nuts for things she could chase, toys she could “kill,” or any other way that she could basically just be a dog and bond with Daddy. By the time she passed, I had one of those plastic storage bins that was absolutely stuffed with her toys, most of them hard rubber or squishy plastic, because she could and would destroy any plush toy in two seconds.

And she knew most of them by name, too.

Did Sheeba care when Shadow was gone and the toybox was hers? Of course not.

Despite my presence and protection, Shadow was always a nervous girl, which sometimes turned into aggression toward other dogs but also manifested itself as her suddenly peeing on the floor. And she wasn’t doing either out of any kind of malice. It was just that something would trigger her fight or flight response, and that’s how she reacted.

So a big thing that Shadow taught me was the necessity of patience in dealing with issues like this. After all, if your first instinct when your dog is aggressive toward another one or panics and pees on the floor is to yell at or, far worse, smack it (never do this), you’re only going to make the problem far, far worse.

Gently lead them away from the dog they’re getting aggro at. Put on their leash and lead them outside for a walk when they squat on the carpet. And so on.

The key is not “discipline,” it’s “deflect.” Redirect a timid, scared, insecure dog to what you want them to do, then praise them when they do it.

That was actually what I was doing in the thunder game without realizing it. I never had to tell Shadow, “No! No shake. No scared. Bad!” Instead, when thunder came, I was just there for her and redirected her to having fun.

Success.

This lesson from Shadow really stuck with me, and it applies to people, too. That is, you can’t make dogs or people stop fearing things by yelling at them or berating them. Rather, you can only do it by calming them down, embracing them, and then slowly turning them in the right direction.

Farewell again, little girl. You were special while you were here, and always will be in my heart.

Saturday Morning Post #82: Between Zero and One (Part 2)

In Part 2 of another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, our hero is dealing with a major internet outage circa 2001. In the first part, he learns that his high speed T-3 connection was accidentally backhoed up by the power company and won’t be fixed until the end of the week. Unable to wait that long, he decides to venture out in the world to find that most low-tech of replacements: A dial-up modem. Well, low-tech for him at the time, but the only tech for most people otherwise.

“Piece of shit.”

Tyler banged the dashboard with both hands, then tried the keys again. The starter whirred and chuddered, but nothing happened. It was sounding a little upset itself now, warbling instead of surging. Tyler pulled the keys out of the ignition and sat there, thinking. The battery wasn’t dead, he knew there was gas in the tank, the car had started last time he’d driven it, which was… thirteen, fourteen months ago. He vaguely remembered his father telling him something once about having to start up idle cars every so often, but that had never made any sense. It was a machine, it wasn’t doing anything while it was sitting there, inert. No stress, no wear. You could let a computer sit for years and it would start up fine next time you plugged it in.

Tyler got out of the car, slammed the door and gave it a kick. Well, who needed a car, anyway? There was a bus stop a block away, and that bus went in the general direction he needed to go. All he had to do was go check the schedule…

“Fuck!” he stomped one foot on the porch as he remembered. Check schedule, online, not possible. Again, the phone book was useless. It had some elaborate map of the transit system, with colored lines and arrows and little number tags, but it was like trying to read a circuit diagram for a nuclear bomb. No, not that. Even a nuke must have the same basic set-up as any other bomb. Explosive shit, power source, two wires, a switch and a bang. This was more like trying to trace the intricate pathways through the heart of the world’s biggest supercomputer, and Tyler was the lone little electron who had to go from point A to point B down the shortest possible path.

Well, screw it. The colored line for the bus that ran by his house seemed to get close to where he wanted to go. How long could he possibly have to wait, anyway? He kicked the phone book aside, started for the door, stopped. He was forgetting something, but what?

Ah. Change. Riding a bus always did involve clunky pocketfuls of change, anxiously counted out and recounted and clutched in the hand when the rolling leviathan finally pulled into view and hissed to a stop. He thought about it a moment, then remembered the mayonnaise jar on top of the fridge. It was way in the back corner, dusty and grimy. He hadn’t needed to take anything out of it nor had anything to put into it for a long time. He grabbed the lid, tried to twist it and it wouldn’t budge. Great. Just fantastic. He could understand, maybe, a car being slow to start after a while, but this was a goddamn jar lid, the simplest machine of them all, the one invented by some ancient Greek guy. It was a screw, how the hell could it malfunction? Tyler tried a dish towel, tried to get a wrench around the thing. This was ridiculous. Nothing. What, did some evil change imp come by and krazy glue the thing shut in the night?

Tyler heaved the jar into the kitchen sink, where it shattered, spewing coins all over the porcelain, half of them chittering down into a sinkhole in the drain. At least the stopper was sitting there, but he’d deal with all that later. He picked through the metal bits, pulling out all the quarters he could easily see, avoiding the shards of glass, grabbing up some dimes and nickels for good measure. He counted it out in his hand. Five bucks, twenty-three cents. Good enough for a round trip. He dumped it all in his pocket, where it felt cold and heavy through the lining against his thigh, then headed out the door again into the blinding bright sunlight of this late summer afternoon.

* * *

Forty-five minutes later, he was still standing at the bus stop, anxiously stepping out into the street whenever traffic cleared to peer into the distance, looking for any sign of his impending ride. Every time he thought he saw it, he’d jump back, start counting out his change, not sure exactly how much he needed, only to see that he’d been fooled by a school bus or a big truck. Forty-five goddamn minutes, that couldn’t be right. What good was that kind of transit system? They should have had a bus going by here every ten minutes.

He glanced at the tiny Hispanic woman in the pale blue dress who was standing nearby, full shopping bags hanging from each hand, two young children flittering about her. She just stared at the ground, stoic and patient. Tyler popped out into the street again, looked. Nothing on the horizon.

Another ten minutes went by, another half-dozen traffic checks, and Tyler was fuming all over again. The Hispanic woman had finally glanced his way, noticed him looking, nodded her head and said, “Late, huh?”

“Damn right,” Tyler replied, peering up the street again. This all seemed to be designed to waste his time. Why did this world outside move so slowly? Almost an hour of doing nothing. Tyler debated going back home, trying the car again. Maybe he could get one of his friends to come over and… okay, no, bad idea, since his friends were all over the country, all over the world. Did he know anyone locally? Well, maybe, yeah, but… Tyler rolled his eyes, huffed, realizing he only had a long list of email addresses, no phone numbers. Wasn’t that just peachy‑keen?

Then he noticed the woman picking up her bags, gathering her children close. The bus was coming, halle-fucking-lujah. He dug a fistful of change out of his pocket, turned to the woman. “How much?” he asked.

“Yes,” she smiled and nodded back at him.

“No, I mean, how much is the bus?” he repeated, demonstrating with the change. Before she could answer, the bus steamed right past them. Tyler turned his head, saw that it was empty, a “Not in Service” sign winking at them on its flank.

“Motherfucker!” he screamed, turning like a sunflower to follow the departing traitor, change tumbling from his hand into the gutter. The woman pulled her children close, looking away as Tyler got down and started picking the stuff up. Naturally, it was now all wet and gunky. Oh joy.

Twenty minutes later, another bus finally arrived and pulled up to the stop. As Tyler waited for the woman and her kids to climb on, he looked up the street. There were two more buses on the way, right behind it, pulling toward the curb.

“People suck,” he said to himself as he climbed the stairs, asked the driver how much and counted the right amount out, dumping it into the fare box, then moving about two feet before realizing that this bus was SRO. But it was too late to change his mind. The doors shut and the bus lurched away.

Okay, so he’d have to stand here with all this sardinated humanity. At least he was on his way. Finally.

* * *

“End of the line, everybody off,” the driver announced. People started spewing out both doors, pushing past Tyler, who stood there, perplexed. They were at the subway station, a mile from where he’d gotten on, but that’s not what the map in the phonebook had said. He could have walked to where he wanted to go already, and halfway back home.

He turned to ask the driver how to get where he was going, but she was already gone, as were most of the passengers. He got off and found himself standing in some sort of home for wayward transit. There were eight buses parked in various spots around a semi-circle, people milling back and forth between them and the over-sized, overly festive entrance to the subway station. Now what? He knew the subway didn’t go where he wanted. What were they thinking when they built that damn thing? It was great if you wanted to go downtown, but who the hell ever wanted to go there? And a subway, in LA, which had taken decades to get off the ground and which was only a pale, lame replacement for the transit system the city had had decades ago. A subway in the land of sunshine and earthquakes. Brilliant.

He walked the semi-circle, looking at bus numbers, finally finding the familiar one. The driver was standing on the front bumper, washing the windows.

“Which way does this bus go?” he asked.

Without looking at him, the driver drawled, “East.”

“Thanks,” Tyler replied, heading for the steps.

“Not leaving for thirty minutes, though,” the driver continued, concentrating on some invisible flyspeck.

“What?” Tyler gawked, stepping back. “Is there an earlier bus?”

“That one,” the driver nodded as another bus pulled past them, lumbered for the driveway.

“Fuck!” Tyler shouted, running for the bus, pounding on the side. Amazingly, it stopped and he got on, had to count out the change all over again. At least this one was half-empty. He went to a seat in the back, flopped himself into it and it was a good half mile before he realized they were going the wrong way, back to where he’d started. He grabbed the bell cord, pulled it frantically, heaved himself to the center doors.

When the bus finally stopped, he was right back where he’d started, full circle. Just to add a proper twist to the finger the gods were giving him, another bus going the other way, destination sign announcing exactly where Tyler wanted to go, fumed past and vanished into the distance.

“Everything sucks,” Tyler said to himself as he stared at the bus, just wanting to cry.

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #78: Curse, bar, insect, correlation

Here’s 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 or ask your own questions in the comments.

How often do you curse?

All the fucking time.

What would your perfect bar look like?

It would be a little bit Magic Castle piano room, where Irma the ghost hangs out, and a bunch of connected theme rooms, probably representing different decades from the 1940s through now. The drinks here would be served for the mind via the visuals and atmosphere of the place.

The piano room might be the prologue to everything else, covering everything from the 1890s to the 1930s, and the layout would be somewhat of a labyrinth, creating a kind of internal pub crawl.

Oh… and there’d be no alcohol, but you could get any kind of smoothie, shake, juice, or other beverage you could think of — iced, frozen, warm, or hot.

Toss some celebrity comic impersonators in the appropriate decade rooms, or some acoustic tribute bands in others. and there would definitely be a rooftop patio with a 360 degree view of the city, and no loud music so that people could actually talk, although maybe there would be rooms with themed entertainment.

A lot of you are probably still boggling at the idea of a bar with no alcohol but it did say to describe my perfect bar, after all.

What animal or insect do you wish humans could eradicate?

Without question, the one that has killed the most humans: The mosquito. They carry a number of diseases, many of them fatal, they’re particularly hard to spot even as they’re biting you, and they like to go after certain people more than others in particular.

Note, though, that this doesn’t apply to all mosquitoes. Most of them leave humans alone. It’s just the females from 6% of species that drink our blood to nourish their eggs, and only half of those that carry the diseases that kill us.

The only purposes mosquitoes serve is as food for other animals, primarily fish, as well as pollinators, so we can’t get rid of all mosquitoes. But, as noted above, we don’t have to, and science has already figured out how to genetically modify one dangerous species, Aedes aegypti, so that female offspring do not survive to adulthood, so do not reproduce.

The altered genes in question are initially produced in laboratory-raised eggs, which are then released into the wild. After they hatch, the females die out, but the males go on to mate with available females, who bear female offspring with the self-limiting gene that also kills them before they can mature and reproduce.

It’s a brilliant strategy that does not kill off innocuous species, leaves plenty of fish-food and pollinators around, and cuts down on the ability of certain mosquitoes to infect and kill humans. Win-win.

What’s your best example of correlation not equaling causation?

This one is a no-brainer: All of the “vaccines cause autism” nonsense. The idea was created, pure and simple, by the now proven to be fraudulent “findings” of Andrew Wakefield, who faked his data, lied to people, and created a generation of scientifically illiterate parents who fell for exactly the fallacy mentioned above.

The “correlation equals causation” fallacy boils down to this. A person did Thing A. Not long after, Thing B happened. Therefore, Thing A caused Thing B.

It can be really tempting to think things like, “My daughter got her MMR vaccinations on Tuesday, and a week later, her doctor said she was on the spectrum,” or “They gave my grandmother a flu shot, and two days later she had a stroke and died.”

The problem here is that, to the uninformed, it can absolutely look like the former caused the latter. But let’s look at a couple more examples.

“Tuesday night, my husband forgot to take out the trash. On his way home from work on Thursday, a garbage truck hit his car, killing him.”

“My father decided that the fire insurance rider on his homeowner’s policy wasn’t worth it for the extra cost versus benefits, so he cancelled on Monday. The house burned down on Thursday.”

While there are plausible connections between the events in all cases — medical procedure, then medical problem; garbage fail, garbage truck; fire insurance, housefire — it should be obvious from the last two that what’s really at work here is coincidence and selective attention.

In the case of “vaccines cause autism,” though, there’s a lot more going on, and a big part of it is due to how we have changed the concept and diagnosis of autism and being on the spectrum over the years.

Statistics weren’t even tracked until 2000, and the definitions of autism have also changed since that time. Prior to the 21st century, only children at the most severe end of the spectrum were classified as autistic, although kids were getting vaccinated just as much, especially from the 1960s onward.

So what changed? Nothing about the vaccinations, really. It was everything about how autistic children were classified and, indeed, the creation of the idea of “on the spectrum,” which greatly expanded the number of kids who could be considered to fall into the criteria.

But, all of a sudden, it looked like every other kid was being diagnosed, and the diagnoses always happened right after the time they finished their first round of childhood vaccines. But the former was simply an artifact of statistical processes.

If you don’t diagnose condition A until after Thing B has happened, then it’s very easy to create this fake correlation equals causation idea in people’s minds, and that’s exactly what happened here.

“My kid just had their last round of vaccines, and now they tell me she’s on the spectrum. Of course they’re connected!”

Or not.

But this kind of scientific ignorance and total stupidity has led the dangerous anti-vax mindset we have now, and it’s going to do way more harm than good.

Theatre Thursday: Fun times

People have asked me, “What’s the most fun you’ve ever had acting in a play,” and I’d really have to answer… all of them. That even includes the “excruciating when I look back” elementary school efforts, and the few times I was a musician for a musical — but that’s its own kind of acting.

I think I only did three of those, off the top of my head, and only three as a performer, well technically.

See, this also brings up the less traditional “play” plays that I’ve done, meaning most of the year 2012, during which Playwrights’ Arena celebrated their anniversary by doing 20 Flash Theatre Plays in various locations in L.A.

Each was only performed once and not in a theatre, but in a public location, ranging from the parking lot of a pet food store in Culver City to a cemetery in the Adams District, to Union Station downtown, and several street locations in Silver Lake.

I participated in 13 of them, and it was intense. A lot of them were, in fact, mini-musicals, with singing and choreography, and we’d basically just erupt into the location, do our thing, and then vanish.

A lot of fun, but if you’re wondering about full-length plays, then these weren’t them.

But sticking to stage plays, including musicals… I think I wind up with a tie in my head between two very, very different shows.

One was Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, which I’d read long before I did it, and was always fascinated by because it was just so… fucked up. To me, it basically represented an artist who was at height of his fame and power, but also at the height of his addiction, so that he could shit anything out on stage and Broadway and the audiences would eat it up.

Except that, with this one, they didn’t, and it only lasted 60 performances, mainly because it was just too weird and idiosyncratic.

The other was The Pension Grillparzer, adapted from John Irving’s The World According to Garp, itself being a story-theatre style telling of the story within the book that is Garp’s first sold short story.

The nice part about this one was that we all worked with the creator/director who adapted it from the book, so it was an original work but its second production.

And… it’s still hard to judge which one was more fun.

What I can tell you is that Camino Real was never fun for our audiences, and since we all got to be so in their faces, I learned that firsthand. Don’t blame us, though. It was entirely Tennessee wanking all over the page, and even we didn’t know what the hell the script meant.

But we got to play a lot of weird-ass characters, and to this day I’m still good friends with quite  a lot of that cast, a few of whom are sadly now deceased.

It did give me the opportunity to work with the legendary Malachi Throne, although I was way too young to have any idea who he was. However, I did know that he was a funny and gracious man behind the scenes, and since I was technically playing Jesus to his Satan in the show, he always gave me stuff to play off of.

Oh yeah. My character in the play was The Dreamer, and my only dialogue was in Spanish, which was fine with me. I was this mystical and powerful badass in a leather jacket, black jeans, and black and silver eyeliner, who eventually drove off the angels of death, and generally led around my blind mother, who was so much the Virgin de Guadeloupe that it was ridiculously obvious.

One of my fond memories from  that show, near the end of Act II — Mom gave a long monologue while holding the “dead” hero, Kilroy, across her lap, Pieta style and draped in an American flag. Except that she couldn’t hold him up for that long, and I had to support his shoulders, waiter-tray style, while pretending that I wasn’t under cover of the flag.

At the same time, all of us on stage had been directed to drill eye contact with the audience — normally a big no-no — and then ever-so-slowly turn our heads and keep shifting that contact from one audience member to another, stage right to stage left, during Mom’s monologue.

For me, this was one of the most weirdly gratifying moments, since I was sitting about four feet from the front row, and I could absolutely sense how damn uncomfortable it made everyone.

Our ridiculously hot stage manager (Hi, John!) timed this for us in performance, bless his heart, and the scene generally took seven minutes. But the audience discomfort was kind of the point of the whole scene. Tennessee was deep into his “Fuck all y’all” mood by that point, after all.

But… lest you think that torturing audiences brings me my biggest joy in theater, the show that’s tied with Camino Real is kind of its polar-opposite. Sure. It’s dark and twisted, and almost everyone dies because it is John Irving, after all. But… it was an absolute blast to do.

The main reason was because Mollie Boice, the adaptor and director, gave us the text and let us loose. Since it was basically story theatre, it was in the form of the actors reading the non-dialogue lines (i.e. the “he said/she said/they did this”) and then performing the dialogue when it happened.

It made for a really interesting structure. On top of that, my main character was a depressed, unicycle-riding bear (in Irving? Quelle surprise!)

Anyway, a lot of the time when I wasn’t the bear, I was a random human staying at the Pension, hanging in the background and providing all of that narration. When I was the bear, I got to go all animal on stage, and it was wonderful.

Basically, as long as I didn’t maul any fellow actors, I had free rein, and according to reviews, I king of stole the show just by being there, and the only concessions to bearness were a big, brown furry hat, and an oversized brown sweater.

The unicycle itself, I had to mime, because there was no safe way to ride one on our limited stage, plus which I never could master riding one in the first place.

But playing the bear was fun, because I basically got to turn my brain off, not worry about dialogue, and react to everything in the moment. Plus, I trained myself to be able to drool on command at key points during the evening, and hearing the audience cringe and “Ewww!” to that made it all worthwhile.

So, there you have it. My most fun moments on stage have been playing Mexican Jesús and a depressed Bear. For those of you who are actors, what are yours?

Image source: Camino Real Cast, The Company Rep.

Wednesday Wonders: Let’s get dark (Part 2)

Last week in Part 1, I looked at failed scientific hypotheses, the scientific method, and how Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity hold up and yet are completely incompatible with each other, mainly because one explains gravity very well but nothing on the quantum level, and the other is the opposite. Here’s the rest of the why of that. Cheers!

May the force(s) be with you

In physics, there are four fundamental forces. They are gravity, electromagnetism, the weak force, and the strong force. We’ve already met gravity, which works with enormous masses across great distances but doesn’t seem to really have much effect in the sub-atomic realm.

The electromagnetic force, mediated by electrons and photons, seems to work on both a macro and micro level. It gives us electricity, lightning, and a sense of touch — all rather large phenomena quite visible in the quotidian world. On a subatomic level, it gives us friction and holds solid objects together, among other things.

An ice cube, for example, is just the electromagnetic force acting on water below a certain temperature. The electromagnetic force is also why you don’t just fall through the floor.

The weak nuclear force facilitates one kind of subatomic particle changing into another via the exchange of Bosons. This force is essential for powering the fusion that keeps stars alive, as well as transforming one kind of particle into another.

Finally, there’s the strong nuclear force, which is responsible for keeping the fundamental particles that keep atoms together. It bonds the quarks to create protons and neutrons, then bonds those to create atomic nuclei, to which the electromagnetic force attracts elections, creating elements.

Now, here’s the funny thing. In theory, the strong nuclear force is much, much stronger than the force of gravity — if its force is set at 1, then gravity is 6×10-39. However, there’s a catch. Gravity’s effective range is infinite, while that of the strong nuclear force is only 10-15 meters.

This is the basic stalemate between Einstein’s Theories of Relativity and quantum physics. The former explains the gravitational force very well, but doesn’t do that with the others. The latter explains the other three, but really has dick-all that can explain the former.

It’s kind of like the ultimate Nerd-Fight Cage Match, really.

Is it elementary?

I find it kind of interesting that modern physics settled on four forces, though (and four dimensions, but I’m not bringing that into it) when the ancient world settled on four “elements.”

This was long before any kind of theory of atoms, but by the age of Alchemists, who sought the holy grail of turning lead into gold long before anyone even realized that the only way to do that was via nuclear fusion, the prevailing wisdom was this.

There were only four “elements.” They were earth, fire, air, and water. This four-split in human culture, at least of the Western European kind, became so prominent that it was ridiculous.

How many suits in a deck of cards? How many Gospels? How many cardinal directions on the compass?

And don’t forget those famous Elizabethan “humors” that you probably learned about in high school: Melancholic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Phlegmatic.

Finally, how many limbs do we have, not counting our heads?

Somehow, this tetrapartite symbolism crept into Western culture and while the initial concepts about which elements actually existed are laughably wrong, let’s take a look at those naïve assumptions one more time, and map them onto modern physics.

Alchemists’ elements: Earth, fire, air, water

Elizabethan humours: Melancholic, Choleric, Sanguine, and Phlegmatic

Physics forces: Gravity, electromagnetic force, weak force, strong force

In at least the first and the last cases, it’s a game of “one of these things is not like the others.” Earth — which you can think of as soil or dirt or the planet itself — is solid matter. The other three are plasma, gas, and liquid.

Likewise, gravity seems to be a force created by the existence of matter, but unlike the others has no apparent particle that transmits it.

Little trouble in big bang

The idea that the universe began with a so-called “big bang” started with Edwin Hubble, the person, when he proved that the universe was expanding in all directions.

It followed that if the universe was expanding now, it had to have started expanding at some point in the past, and rewinding the clock indicated that the entire universe had been a single point 13 or 14 billion years previously.

So much for the idea of the universe being created in six days in 4004 BCE.

But this led to all sorts of logical questions. What caused the Big Bang? What came before it? And how did everything we know in the universe come into being in that instant and after, since all the energy and matter we’d ever have to work with had to have been generated at that point?

The other big question: How will the universe end? Will the expansion continue forever, eventually slowing down and stopping as entropy reaches a maximum, leaving the place cold, dark, and empty? Or did that first bang only give a sufficient kick to reach a certain point before the whole thing started to contract again, eventually returning to that initial point, slamming everything together into a Big Crunch that would recreate the original singularity?

In 1998, Hubble the Telescope did its namesake proud by throwing a wrench into things.

A little push

It turned out that the expansion of the universe was not slowing down or reversing at all. No — it was accelerating, meaning that not only might it never reverse or stop, it might just keep on going forever.

But this brought up the biggest and still unanswered question: What was causing the acceleration?

If we continue with the explosion analogy for the creation of the universe — which isn’t really that accurate, since the Big Bang happened everywhere at once — there’s no way to account for the acceleration without adding some outside factor.

But imagine this scenario. You launch a firework into the air and it blows up like it’s supposed to, sending its colorful pyrotechnics and sparks outward in a short series of multi-colored showers that make the crowd ooh and aah.

Now, when you designed the firework, it was meant to be a five second air-burst at a safe height of 200 meters, expanding to a maximum diameter of maybe 110 meters if you launched a 20-centimeter shell.

After all, all of the mass and energy that would ever exist in that explosion was packed into that shell before launch; before the Big Bang.

But then, your shell gets up there, and not only does it hit its intended 110 meter burst size before five seconds, but it keeps on going and growing, gradually expanding faster than the initial 22 meter-per-second growth rate — and it never stops expanding.

This is kind of what the universe appears to be doing.

The universe has lost your luggage

Other discoveries indicated that galaxies were acting like they had a lot more mass than they should have, or that we were able to observe because of their rotation. This led to the postulation of the concept of dark matter.

Meanwhile, the accelerating expansion of the universe led to various hypotheses, including the idea of dark energy.

By the way, please keep in mind that the terms “dark matter” and “dark energy” really should not be taken literally. They’re placeholders to indicate two things. The “dark” part just says that we cannot detect them. The “matter” and “energy” parts just tell us that, at the moment, we’re looking for force carrier — i.e. particle/wave thingie — and a specific force.

It’s like the term “dark saber” in The Mandalorian. George Lucas just needed to pull something out of his ass to justify a light saber that was black — hence, technically, not involving light at all.

</nerd>

The takeaway here, though, is that dark matter seems to be pulling on galaxies to affect their spin, while dark energy seems to be pushing on the universe to speed up its expansion.

The real scary part of this though, is that the fallout of these two ideas is that less than 5% of our universe is made up of the familiar matter and energy that we know.

None of the dark energy hypotheses has been tested yet, although I lean towards modified gravity, or MOND concepts myself, since these truly seek to reconcile the two theories of relativity and unite the fundamental forces at last.

Ether frolic II

My problem with the idea of dark energy and dark matter is that they could just be this generation’s ether and phlogiston. Maybe the acceleration of expansion is an error in the original measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background.

Or maybe something about the inflationary period created an artefact that only makes it look like acceleration is expanding when it’s not.

There was a very long period after the Big Bang, called the Cosmic Dark Ages, before stars or galaxies even formed. This may have been when Dark Matter arose — or it may just be an era we can’t really peer through because fusion had not lit up the cosmos.

Finally, we cannot really discount universal inflation, which is when everything expanded much faster than the speed of light. This was possible because nothing was moving that fast. It was space itself that ballooned, so that anything that moved with it was moving at the same speed as space relatively — i.e., it was stationary, so no violations at all.

But, since space-time seems to be the macro-fabric that gravity acts on instantaneously but in an attractive and not repulsive manner, could inflation and not the dark ages actually have been the period when whatever dark energy might exist was created?

Could this also be how gravity got separated forever from the other forces? Who knows? However, since gravity also apparently has no particle that transmits its force, it also has no anti-particle, at least that we know of.

Finding a particle for it would probably lead directly to solving the dark energy problem, since gravity’s anti-particle would be the particle transmitting dark… well, at that point, it would probably just become anti-gravity.

One other mind-fuck in the basket. As noted previously, we have confirmed the existence of gravity waves, which ripple through space-time on a super-macro scale. But if gravity waves do exist, is there a way to observe them that will show their particle nature as well?

Because if we manage to pull off that trick, well then… Special and General Relativity are going to need to get a room.

Image Source, European Space Agency, licensed under (CC 4.0) International

Talky Tuesday: Roses come with thorns

View from the inside: The Rose Parade is ultimately, a shitshow born from racist elitism and not worth watching.

Eons ago, when I was a marching band nerd in high school, it was a thing that we did every year to schlep out to Pasadena during the week between Christmas and New Year in order to help decorate one of the many Rose Parade floats.

We were volunteers, of course, and since it was always basically one group per one float, I never really knew where the other groups came from, although I think it was a combination of local marching bands and various school, community, church, and charitable organizations.

We would get up and gather in the school parking lot at dawn, then carpool the 25 miles or so to one of the many float sheds where these monsters were being built.

One thing I can say is that the building sure smelled nice, because their ground floors would be full of buckets and buckets of fresh blooms that had come earlier that morning from the Flower District in Downtown L.A.

And yes, there’s a district for everything in DTLA — fashion, toys, jewelry, arts, you name it, there’s a district for it, and it’s amazing.

But we would arrive in this freezing warehouse every morning to be greeted by a fragrant onslaught from carnations, marigolds, gerberas, daisies, seagrass, tulips, chrysanthemums, and, of course, so many, many roses in so many colors.

We’re start out with some hot cocoas, and then break into teams as the float designers would tell us what needed to be stuck where, and with which kind of glue.

The type of glue was very important, and there were a lot of them. It all depended on what kind of area we were covering, whether we were sticking on whole blossoms, doing more delicate work with just leaves or petals, or sprinkling on seeds. Drying time also mattered. Did we need something that was pretty much insta-stick, or something more forgiving that would allow us to move things around?

Also — these floats tended do be huge. I only worked on them for two the two years I was in high school marching band, but both of ours were about three stories tall, which meant that to work on the upper parts required us to go up onto scaffolding.

Fortunately, I was young and stupid enough that I tended to volunteer myself to go up and work the heights. This level also happened to be flush with the walkway that visitors used to come through the building to watch the construction, and I liked the attention, so I was always willing to get chatty and explain what the float was about and what I was doing.

But, again, these warehouses were bone-ass cold but, obviously, we couldn’t wear any kind of gloves, nor keep our sleeves rolled down unless we were wearing a shirt we wanted to ruin — and so never mind any kind of jackets or hoodies or sweatshirts on the job, either.

See, the damn glue went everywhere, and for those of us with hairy forearms (like me), that never led to a pleasant aftermath. I think I actually wound up shaving my arms awkwardly in the aftermath one year, and then wearing long sleeves whenever possible for weeks after.

Fortunately, being in marching band meant no P.E. necessary, so I at least never had to reveal my arms in the locker room.

We worked long days from December 26th up until the 29th, because the 30th was the first of two judging days.

And yes, I had to look this up because I’d totally forgotten. I still find it mind-boggling that we managed to do it all in just three days, but watching the process of transformation was amazing. We would basically go from this welded steel, wood, and foam structure built on top of a car or truck and then disguise it with flowers, leaves, seeds, stalks, and so on.

On the 30th, the judges would come and see the float “at rest,” which means without any animation, effects, or riders/walk-alongs, although the designer was allowed to explain the concept. On the 31st, the judges would come to see the float as it would appear in the parade, with all animations, effects, and so on incorporated.

Each float each time would be examined for exactly five minutes by the judges. After judging, the floats would be rolled out and onto the parade route, parking in their assigned spot, frequently on a side street, ready to move out in proper order on parade day.

On the afternoon of the 31st, aka New Year’s Eve, we would meet to carpool to Pasadena one last time because having worked on the floats earned us the privilege to actually get to the staging areas to see them one last time before they went public.

And, exactly one year, this meant that I joined the overnight celebration and stayed to see the parade start.

I hung out with my marching band friends through the evening and into the New Year’s celebrations, and then we eventually all camped out together on the sidewalk — willingly, mind you — in the midst of the huge and constantly moving crowd that never really shut up.

The one thing that this night did was give me complete and total empathy for the homeless. There is nothing more uncomfortable than trying to sleep on a cold sidewalk with just a sleeping bag and maybe a pillow while people are stepping around you.

Note the word “trying.” I don’t think that I ever actually really went to sleep. I just remember waking up, realizing that it was after dawn, and feeling hungover as hell even though I hadn’t had a thing to drink.

I tried to watch the parade, but the whole thing quickly struck me as a completely ridiculous spectacle and a total waste of time and money. Every single float was sponsored by and meant to promote a major corporation on a program that was being televised live around the world, and which would be on repeat all day long, and like most parades, it was slow, it was dull, and what the home audiences miss are those moments when the whole thing stalls out because a float breaks down or they need to bring an ambulance to a viewer on the sidewalk or a horse suddenly gets skittish.

For the home audience, they get to see highlights from earlier or canned interviews with the float designers from the past week or celebrity interviews from the night before as endless filler. To the people watching in person, we get to watch (and listen to) the same damn float for fifteen minutes, or watch some poor marching band step in place to either their school’s cadence, a rim and tap marching rhythm used where the band has to be quiet, or, sometimes, one of the two songs they’re supposed to play during the parade.

So… really, a hot mess. I waited around until our float had gone by — mercifully early — checked with the two bandmates who’d ridden with me to see if they wanted to leave or if they had rides, then I booked it out of there.

I do mean booked. Since every cop in town was currently in Pasadena, I learned that it was quite possible to break 100 mph on the freeway.

Yeah, I was young and stupid.

The next year, I came down for New Year’s Eve as well, but had no plans of staying ‘til morning and, besides, it rained like crazy that night, and there was no way I was camping out, so an hour or two after midnight, I headed home. This time, I’d come alone because I expected that I’d be leaving alone, and I was right.

This experience taught me the danger of ever getting an inside view of anything. It will open your eyes and make you hate that thing, and that’s certainly true of the Rose Parade, which is one of the most over-hyped events on the annual calendar.

Reminder: It was basically started by rich white people in rich white Pasadena as a way to whore out… sorry… introduce their daughters as debutantes and hook them up with rich husbands. It was a bullshit fest on day one, and it still is now.

Okay, the official story is that it was started in 1890 by the Valley Hunt Club, which comprised mostly people from the Midwest and East Coast who wanted to rub California’s moderate climate in everyone else’s faces by basically bragging, “Look! It’s January 1st and we have fresh flowers, bitches!”

Still elitist as hell, and the Rose Court and Beauty Queens and all that took advantage of the popularity of the event to… see above. Besides, what, exactly were these douchebags hunting in the Valley, anyway?

If you want a parade in Pasadena done for the right reasons, then check out the annual DooDah Parade, which was created specifically to mock. No word yet on whether they’re holding the event in 2021. Last year’s was virtual. But they don’t feel the need to stick flowers on everything and then have their floats judged by elitist snots who couldn’t be arsed to take more than five minutes to look at the work created by unpaid volunteers over the course of three ten to twelve hour days.

Remember: You’re not exploiting a minor in high school or violating child labor laws if they do it willingly and you don’t pay them. Whee!

image source: erinbrace, (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Momentous Monday: Stand up and sing

Two hundred and six years ago today, September 13, 1814, events in Baltimore, Maryland, wound up having a significant impact on America culture, particularly sporting events, but I’ll get back to that.

The thing is, though, that countries have this habit of having national anthems, which are the big patriotic sing-alongs that precede important events, like sporting matches </sarcasm>. I suppose they also show up at important governmental ceremonies and on holidays related to independence or important military events.

But this whole national anthem thing is so important that only one country on the planet does not have one: Cyprus. The short explanation of why: When the UK gave Cyprus its freedom, the new country did create a flag and all that other folderol, but the majority population still considered themselves to be Greek, and so the public voted for just staying with the Greek anthem.

Of course, the Greek National Anthem in its full form is also the longest anthem in the world, which is why it’s usually shortened for sporting events and the like. When played in the shorter version, Uruguay steps into first place when it comes to length — well over six minutes.

On the other end of the spectrum is Uganda’s national anthem, weighing in at a whopping nine measures — although listening to it, I’m not sure how they’re counting. In any case, it weighs in at just under a minute and twenty seconds.

Not all anthems have lyrics, though, and currently four countries do not: San Marino, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Spain.

Others have lyrics, but share a melody. One example: Estonia and Finland, although Finland’s version is at a more leisurely tempo.

The other example will be much more recognizable to English speakers: Liechtenstein and the United Kingdom — although this one is also a triple threat, because most Americans will recognize the melody as the decidedly non-anthem tune My Country ‘Tis of Thee.

This is not the first time that the former colonies will steal a British tune for a patriotic song, by the way.

At least most people outside of the U.S. don’t assume that this tune is the anthem. Not so much with Australia, which quite often has the decidedly non-waltz tune Waltzing Matilda mistaken by foreigners as its national anthem. The real one is the much less fun Advance Australia Fair, while the British national anthem, God Save the Queen, is the royal anthem of Oz, but not the national anthem.

To be honest though, if you click the link and listen, the real Australian national anthem is pretty damn inspiring.

My favorite anthem story, though, is how Mexico’s came about — whether the tale is apocryphal or not. In 1853, the Mexican government had put out a call for contest entries to create a national anthem. Of course, this happened under a president who, Santa Anna, who was unpopular in the U.S. because he’s the one who kicked ass at the Alamo but also unpopular in Mexico because he lost half of the country’s territory to the U.S. despite the Alamo.

Although he had entered and lost before, poet Francisco González Bocanegra was finally coerced into trying again when his girlfriend basically took him to her parents home and locked him in a bedroom with a quill, ink, parchment, and lots of inspirational photos and whatnot from Mexican history.

He had insisted that he wrote love poems, not patriotic odes, but maybe he wound up writing a love poem to Mexico, and that resulted in his lyrics, set to music by a composer he would never work with again, becoming the Mexican Himno Nacional.

At least his was somewhat based in the revolution that began on September 16, 1810 with the Grito de Dolores and a Catholic priest ringing his church bell and calling out to his parishioners words to the effect of, “Won’t you free yourselves from 300 years of oppression?”

And so, they did.

That’s why el 16 de setiembre is Mexican Independence Day and why el 5 de Mayo is no big deal — kind of the same reason that July 4 is American Independence Day, but September 13 is no big deal, either.

So by most commodious vicus of recirculation we return to Howth Castle and environs… name that reference, and did I say Howth Castle? I meant we return to the opening paragraph of this article.

Two hundred and six years ago today, September 13, 1814, events in Baltimore, Maryland, wound up having a significant impact on America culture, particularly sporting events, and now I’m back to that.

It was during the U.S.’s first war as an independent nation, and it was a battle against Canada, acting as a proxy to get back at us for having been not nice to Daddy, aka the UK. Canada was only our younger step-sibling, though, still basically living at home, and although we had been friendly with his mother, France, she’d definitely gotten way too friendly with the locals in the meantime.

Hell, we didn’t even speak the same language anymore. But Canada had to get cocky and wound up burning our capital city down in 1812, and that was not fun. It looked bad until what was basically a very obscure but ultimately decisive battle in the harbor outside of Baltimore.

Baltimore was protected by Fort McHenry, and despite the best efforts of a spoiled teen who had not yet learned his manners, we somehow managed to defend the place.

Watching the entire time from jail across the bay, some poet named Francis Scott Key took notes, wrote lyrics, and came up with this whole thing about rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air and so on.

What most Americans don’t know is that we only ever adapted the first eight lines of the song to become our national anthem over a century later, and that there are 28 more which are… not as pleasant or encouraging.

On top of that, the melody came from The Anacreontic Song, which was basically a frat boy drinking tune technically written in North America, but while the colonies were still a part of the UK.

Also, unlike a lot of national anthems, it is notoriously difficult to sing, despite every Joe and Jane Schmoe in the ballpark being expected to sing along anyway. This does not always end well.

So… a song based on a minor battle from a largely forgotten war with what is now our closest ally, with lyrics dashed off from prison and set to a frat boy drinking tune, and with the verses that no one knows being just really, really wrong… and that becomes our national anthem?

Nah. We can do better, and we can pick something not at all related to war. Just as Waltzing Matilda is often thought of by outsiders as Australia’s anthem, I have a much better idea for the U.S., because it’s a song that touts our virtues without being bellicose, and it’s just a beautiful melody that anyone can sing.

And that song, of course, is America the Beautiful, which I’m sure that a lot of foreigners already thought was our national anthem as well. Or maybe not. They tend to not be as ignorant as Americans when it comes to stuff like that.

Or just go with Arlo Guthrie’s take on his father’s song. Which, actually, is the most inclusive version and doesn’t involve war at all.

Speaking of national anthems, I have to include this little bit here from an amazing young YouTuber who goes under the name of KestrelTapes, and who is just such a ridiculously talented musician that it boggles my mind.

No, really — being a keyboardist myself, his skills just astound me. Beyond that, though, is this whole layer of comedy he drops on top of it, because I have not seen somebody this able to be so deadpan while making serious art since Keely Smith or Buster Keaton.

This is the face of someone who really knows what the hell they’re doing, and if he wants to, his career is going to take off like a rocket one day. He just so happens to have his own take on national anthems, so I’m going to close with hit here.