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.

Babylonian math and modern addition

Babylonians, who were very early astronomers, inherited a rather interesting counting system from the Sumerians, one that worked in Base 60, if you can believe it. It was basically derived from counting each of the segments of the fingers on one hand, not including the thumb (3 x 4) and then using all five fingers on the other hand to count each set of 12. Five times 12, of course, equals 60.

60 is a very useful number because it has so many factors: 1 through 6, then 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60. It also has common factors with 8 (2 and 4) and 9 (3), and can easily create integer fractions with multiples of 5 and 10. For example, 45/60 reduces very easily. First, divide both by 5 to get 9/12, then divide both by 3 to get 3/4. It works just as easily in reverse — 60/45, 12/9, 4/3 which equals 1 1/3.

If you’re ahead of me, then you’ve already realized a very important place where we use 60 a lot.

Now, I would argue that the system is actually Base 12 counted in groups of 5, but the outcome is rather interesting, because to this day it forms the basis for some pretty basic things: Euclidean geometry and telling time.

A minute has 60 seconds and an hour has 60 minutes, of course. A circle has 360 degrees, which is 60 times 6. It’s a fortunate coincidence that an Earth year worked out to be so close to that in number of days — 365.25. And in case you’ve ever wondered why we add one day every four years, that’s the reason why. Our 365 day calendar loses a full day in that time, and we put it back by tacking it onto the end of February.

I still think that it was more Base 12 times 5, because there are some significant dozens that pop up, again thanks to the Babylonians. There are a dozen constellations in the zodiac, each one taking up 30 degrees of sky, giving us 12 months.

Of course, you can’t write “12” in Base 12 — those digits actually denote what would be 14 in Base 10. So how do you get around there only being 10 digits if you want to write in bigger bases?

If you’ve done any kind of coding or even HTML, you’re probably familiar with the hexadecimal system, which is Base 16. There, the convention was established that once a digit hit nine, the rest would be filled out with letters until you incremented the next digit up. So, once we get to 9 in Base 16, the following digits are A (10), B (11), C (12), D (13), E (14), and F (15). F is followed by 10 (16), and the whole process repeats following the rules I’ve described previously.

Now you might wonder, how did they do single digits in Base 60, and the answer is that the Babylonians didn’t. In fact, they sort of cheated, and if you look at their numbering system, it’s actually done in Base 10. They just stop at 59 before rolling over. They also didn’t have a zero or a concept of it, which made the power of any particular digit a bit ambiguous.

And yet… Babylonians developed a lot of the complex mathematics we know to this day, including algebra, a pretty accurate calculation of the square root of 2, how to figure out compound interest, an apparent early version of the Pythagorean theorem, an approximation of π accurate to about four digits, measuring angular distances, and Fourier analysis.

Yeah, not too bad for an ancient civilization that didn’t have internet or smart phones and who wrote all their stuff in clay using sticks, huh? But that is the beauty of the ingenuity of the human mind. We figured out this stuff thousands of years ago and have built upon it ever since. The tricks the Babylonians learned from the Sumerians led in a straight line right to the device you’re reading this on, the method it’s being piped to your eye-holes, the system of satellites or tunnels of fiber optics that more likely than not takes the data from source to destination, and even the way all that data is encoded.

Yay, humans! We do manage to advance, sometimes. The real challenge is continuing to move forward instead of backward, but here’s a clue. Every great advance we have made has been backed up by science. Within our own living memory — that of ourselves, or the still living generations who remember what their parents and grandparents remembered — we went from not being able to fly at all to landing humans on the Moon to launching probes out of our solar system, all of it in under one century.

We have eradicated or mitigated diseases that used to kill ridiculous numbers of people, are reducing fatality rates for other diseases, and are increasing life expectancy, at least when the voice of reason holds sway. For a while, we even made great advances in cleaning up the environment and quite possibly turning the tide back in favor of reversing the damage.

But… the real risk is that we do start moving backward, and that always happens when the powers that be ignore science and replace it with ignorance and superstition, or ignore the advances of one group because they’re part of “them,” not “us.”

To quote Hamilton, “Oceans rise, empires fall.” And when an empire falls, it isn’t always possible for it to spread its knowledge. What Babylon discovered was lost and found many times, to the point that aspects of it weren’t found again until the time of the ancient Greeks or the Muslims, or the Renaissance.

In order, and only in terms of math, those cultures gave us geometry; algebra and the concept of zero; and optics and physics — an incomplete list in every case. European culture didn’t give us much in the way of science between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, while the Muslim world was flourishing in all of the parts of Northern Africa and Southern Europe that it had conquered, along with preserving and advancing all of that science and math from fallen old-world civilizations.

Yeah, for some funny reason back then, their religion supported science. Meanwhile, in other places a certain religion didn’t, and the era was called the Dark Ages. That eventually flipped and the tide turned in Europe beginning in the 16th century. In case you’ve ever wondered, that’s exactly why every college course in “modern” history begins at 1500 C.E.

Sadly, the prologue to this is the Italian war criminal Cristobal Colón convincing the Spanish religious fanatics Fernando y Isabel to finance his genocidal expedition originally intended to sail west to India but unfortunately finding some islands next to a continent in the way, on which he raped, pillaged, and slaughtered people for his own amusement. Or, in other words, the Dark Ages didn’t end until Colón and those Spanish rulers were dead and buried, meaning January 23, 1516, when they fed the last of them, Fernando, to the worms.

Oh, except that humans continued to be shitty as they sailed west even as science back home advanced. Dammit. And that’s been the back and forth since forever. What we really need are more people committed to the “Forth!” while determined to stop the “Back!”

Or, at the very least, push the science forward, push the bullshit back.

More stupid Excel tricks: a secret power of IF

The hardest part about working with data, especially in large sets, is the people who input it in the first place. The reason they make it so difficult is because they’re inconsistent, not only in their day-to-day habits, but between one or more different people all entering info into the same database.

When you’re creating something solely for yourself, then by all means be as inconsistent or idiosyncratic as you want. But if it’s a group project creating information that someone like me is going to have to derive useful information from at some point in the future, inconsistency can make my job infinitely more difficult.

This is the reason why things like style guides were created — and they don’t just exist for the written word. Accounting and data management have their own style guides. So does computer programming, although that field has the advantage, because the program itself won’t let you get it wrong. Excel is the same way, although it won’t always tell you how to make it right.

Little things can cause problems and cost a business money. Sally may prefer to spell out words in addresses, like Avenue or Boulevard, while Steve likes to abbreviate with Ave or Blvd. Sam is also big on abbreviations, but always with periods. Seems innocuous, doesn’t it?

It does until the only way to make sure that a massive mailing doesn’t go to the same household at the same address twice is to compare the addresses to each other. That’s because, to a computer, 1234 Main Street, 1234 Main St, and 1234 Main St. are all completely different addresses. There’s no easy way to fix that because computers don’t have a “kinda sorta look the same” function.

Garbage in, garbage out

It’s also important that a database be designed properly. For example, names should always be entered as separate units — title/prefix, first name, middle name, last name, suffix. They can be combined later when necessary. A lot of good databases do this, but it’s completely worthless if somebody enters the first and middle names in the first name field or adds the suffix to the last name. You may have heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out,” and this is a prime example of that. All of the right fields were there, but if used improperly, it doesn’t matter.

Of course, the proper fields aren’t always included. One example I’ve had to wrestle with recently is a database showing the various insurance policies people have had with the agency. Now, that is useful and necessary information, as well as something that legally needs to be maintained. And it’s all right that a person gets one row of data for each policy that they’ve had. Some people will have one or two rows, others might have a dozen or more.

So what’s the problem? This: There are no data flags to indicate “this is the policy currently in effect.” This is doubly complicated since it’s Medicare related health insurance, so someone can have up to two active policies at a time, one covering prescription medications and the other a Medicare supplement. Or a policy may have expired after they decide to drop an MAPD and go back to “original” Medicare but the only way to know that is to look for an ending or termination date — if it was ever entered.

The secret power of “IF”

This is where one of my “stupid Excel tricks” came into it. You may or may not be familiar with some of the numeric functions dealing with columns or rows of numbers, but they basically operate on a whole range. They include functions like SUM, MAX, MIN, and AVG. The usual usage is to apply them to a defined range or series of cells and they have no operators, so you get things like:

=SUM([Range])
=MAX([Range])
=MIN([Cell1],[Cell2],[Cell3],...[Cellx])

Here’s the fun trick, though. If you add one or more “IF” statements within any of these functions, you can perform the operation on a sub-range of data defined by certain criteria. In the example I’m giving, it would look at all of the insurance effective dates for one person and determine the most recent one, which is usually a good indicator of which policy is in effect.

Generally, each item you’re evaluating is in the form of [DataRange]=[CellValue], or in actual Excel terminology, it might look like “$A$1:$A$470=A12” for the version entered in row 12. After the criteria ranges, you enter the range that you want to perform the operation on, close out the parenthesis, then enter.

So let’s say that we have last name in column B, first name in column D, and the dates we want to look at to find the latest are in column N. Our formula would look like this, assuming that the first row has the field headers and the data starts in row two:

=MAX(IF($B$1:$B$525=B2,IF($D$1:$D$525=D2,$N$1:$N$525))

If you’ve entered it right, the formula should be displaying the right number. In effect, you’ll have created a column down the far right side in which the value opposite any particular person’s name equals the maximum date value, meaning the latest. Then you can do an advanced filter (oh, google it!) to pull out just the unique name data and date, then use that to do an INDEX and MATCH to create a dataset of just the most recent plan and effective date. (I covered those two functions in a previous post.)

Or… the original database administrator could have just put those current plan flags in the data in first place, set them to automatically update whenever a newer plan of the same type was added, and voilà! Every step since I wrote “This is where one of my stupid Excel tricks came into it” 396 words ago would have been unnecessary. Time and money saved and problem solved because there was never a problem in the first place.

The art of improv in Excel

On the other hand… solving these ridiculous problems of making large but inconsistent datasets consistent with as little need as possible to look at every individual record just lets me show off my ninja skills with Excel.

It’s really no different than improv. Badly entered data keeps throwing surprises at me, and I have to keep coming up with new and improved ways to ferret out and fix that bad data. In improv, this is a good thing, and one of our mottos is, “Get yourself in trouble,” because that creates comedy gold as things in the scene either get irredeemably worse or are suddenly resolved.

Damn, I miss doing Improv, and long for the days when we can finally return to the stage. But I do digress…

Back to the point: In real life, not so much for easy resolution. It’s a pain in the ass to have to fix the curveballs tossed at us by other people’s laziness and lack of diligence — unless we approach it like a game and an interesting challenge. Then, real life becomes improv again in the best sense.

And I’ll find it forever amusing that the same rules can apply to both a spontaneous, unplanned, free-wheeling art form, and an un-wielding, rigid and unforgiving computer program. They both have their rules. Only the latter won’t allow them to be bent. Okay, some improv games have rules that are not supposed to be bent. But half the fun is in bending those rules, intentionally or not.

With Excel and data-bashing, all of the fun is in following Excel’s rules, but getting them to do things they were never intended to.

Image source: Author, sample output from a completely randomized database generator in Excel used to create completely artificial test data for practicing functions and formulae without compromising anyone’s privacy. Maybe I’ll write about this one some day, if there’s interest.

Shoot the Moon

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

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

We never landed on the Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Nibble #50: American vs. British brands

Long-time readers know that I’m fascinated by the differences between American and British English, two languages that are so close and yet so far away.

In some cases, each language has a very different meaning for the same word — joint, rubber, trolley. In others, the two words for the same thing are very different — stove and cooker; pacifier and dummy; trunk and boot.

One dead giveaway to origin is the word that comes after “different” in making a comparison. In American English, we’d say that “X is different than Y.” In British English, it’s “X is different to Y,” and that sounds so wrong to me that I can’t even explain it.

Perhaps it’s because the preposition “than” indicates removing from something, which is what we’re doing in making a distinction, while the preposition “to” indicates motion toward, which is the exact opposite of what we’re saying.

Interestingly, exactly the same difference exists in Spanish in Latin American and Spain. Here, the pattern is the same as American English — “X es diferente que Y,” although the preposition is closer to that than “than.”

Meanwhile, in Spain, the phrase is “X es deferente a Y,” which is a word-for-word translation of the British version.

It gets really fascinating in the case of brand names, or even stores. For example, the British Equivalent of America’s Dollar Tree is called Poundland, which makes total sense given the currency in the UK. Still, I’m sure many an American tourist has seen the name and giggled at the thought that it’s actually some kind of brothel or budget motel.

More mysterious is the name change of the brand TJ Maxx. In the UK, it’s the same company, but known as TK Maxx for very vague reasons.

At least that one would probably also be obvious. But when it comes to other brands, you might be lost in the woods when trying to figure out the American equivalent without a primer.

Say you’re cleaning up that vacation rental in London and need some Lysol to do the job. You’re not going to find that anywhere. What you want instead is Dettol, which is really just the same thing under a different name.

You might even sometimes hear it used as a comedy punchline when a character runs across something or someone really disgusting. “Ewwww. Ma, fetch the Dettol!”

Say you want to write a note to someone and you’re in the stationers in Hull. You’re looking for a Bic, because it’s your favorite brand, but if you ask a Brit to loan you a Bic, you’re probably going to get a blank stare. Instead, if you want a ballpoint pen, you’d need to ask for a Biro.

Named for its Hungarian inventor Lazlo Biro, it debuted in 1938 and, ironically, was produced by BIC Manufacturing anyway. So, to be honest, Biro is the real name and Bic was how they chose to market it in the U.S.

But oh no! While you’re writing that letter, you make a mistake, and you can’t erase ink. What do you do? Why, you grab the Wite-Out, of course! And, surprise — it’s also a Bic product! But of course, what a perfect pair.

This is probably a pretty well-known story by now, but Liquid Paper, the major competitor to Wite-Out, was invented by one Bette Nesmith Graham, whose son went on to be a musician with the made-for-TV band The Monkees.

But you’re not going to find this in the UK, either. Instead, you need to look for the Tipp-Ex, which was originally a German invention but took Europe by storm in the late 1950s.

Well, that was a lot of work, so how about some snacks? You’d grab a bag of Lay’s potato chips, but they don’t seem to be anywhere. What you’re looking for as you stroll High Street in Chesterton, Cambridge would be a bag of Walkers. Same brand, different name and flavors.

If you’re not into salty, there’s always sweet, but there’s a bit of a trap here. If you want an American Three Musketeers bar, you’re not going to find it. Instead, what you want is a British Milky Way, which is different than (to?) an American Milky Way. If you want an American Milky Way, then ask for a Mars Bar.

Confused yet? Well, keeping to the space theme, if you’d like some cold goodness from a Dove bar of any sort, over there, you’d ask for Galaxy. Again, same brand, different name.

If Dove ice cream isn’t your thing, then go for a Good Humor bar, although anywhere in the UK, you’d have to ask for a Wall’s. (Note: if you’re in the U.S., that link may just redirect right back to Good Humor, proving that it is, indeed, the same brand.)

Finally, if ice cream is too cold, pop open a pack of Starburst. In the UK, you’ll have to ask for Opal Fruits, which was the original name before the product was rebranded in the U.S. Of course, it was rebranded for a while in the UK, too, before being relaunched under its original name.

Now, you may have learned some different brand names in this article, as did I — but the thing I really learned was that, damn, the Mars company seems to control just about every sweet snack on the planet, and that’s just a bit disconcerting.

The Saturday Morning Post #50: The Rêves Part 28

Reunions

Brenda actually had no doubts at all that Ausmann had found them and killed Simon, but Joshua was covering that up for some reason. Maybe he was still under threat. She realized then how badly she and her family might have screwed things up if they actually had called the cops to report the intruder.

But what was the point? Ausmann was an old white man, probably well-off and with Federal connections. And Jonah had had his regular share of run-ins with cops, despite being a well-dressed professional in a clearly expensive yet family-oriented car, and in only the “good” neighborhoods.

But, of course, that was because a certain class of cop didn’t see the “well-dressed professional” part. They only saw a Black man. Well, in their minds, they didn’t use the “B” word, she was sure.

Then there was her father, gone for almost thirty years now, same reason, only one time turned violent, maybe because he’d finally had enough and tried to say “No.”

So they didn’t call the cops because they couldn’t trust them, even though they were upper-middle class, owned their own home, sent their kids to private school, and had the stability of three generations under one roof.

Because a certain class of cop wouldn’t see any of that. Hell, a certain class of people — but at least those people didn’t make it a habit to hang out in Brenda’s neighborhood. And their neighborhood was at least Black enough — and historically so — that the one indignity Jonah had avoided was being harassed on his own street, or in his own front yard.

She and Jonah had given Samuel The Speech multiple times, and still gave it to Malia, just in case. The Speech had nothing to do with sex; that was the white people version: “Here’s how to not knock her up/get knocked up.” No, their speech was all about not if some cop pulled them over for no apparent reason, but what to do when it inevitably happened, aka “Here’s how to not get shot.”

So she’d be keeping what was no doubt Joshua’s secret, because the timing of Simon’s death was way too coincidental, but she’d be doing it to protect her family, and was sure that Joshua was doing it to protect his.

Meanwhile, she flipped through her contacts until she found one, a family court and probate judge based out of the Superior Courthouse in Van Nuys, and she realized that this was the one who had handled Rita’s divorce case, and she knew she had her woman.

Rita’s divorce had been contentious, and Brenda had got to listen to her complaining about “That unfair bitch in the black robes” after nearly every single hearing. Of course, Rita didn’t know that Brenda had gone to college with Judge Bonita Valdez-Levi, nor that Brenda was regularly hearing things frrm Bonita of the, “I’m really not supposed to tell you this, but this crazy bitch in this divorce case is out of her mind.”

Bonita had no idea that Rita was Brenda’s boss, either.

Ultimately, Bonita found heavily in Rita’s ex’s favor, fined her for contempt twice, and even sanctioned her lawyer when he gave what he knew was a legally specious motion for mistrial.

“You don’t get to do that after I’ve rendered my verdict, sonny,” she reminded him. “What? Did you go to an online law school or something?”

“Yale,” he muttered.

“Ah. Harvard. Sorry.”

Although that was really just icing on the cake, and she’d only bring up the little detail about Joshua and Simon telling Rita to go fuck herself if Bonita were reluctant to help. But why would she be? They were old friends, she heard cases in family court, this was a family matter, and, most importantly, her wife happened to be a deputy coroner assigned to the North Valley, i.e. exactly where Simon’s corpse was currently pretending to be a 6’4” naked popsicle in a drawer.

If anyone is wondering — no, Brenda did not go to Harvard. Bonita only went there for her law degree. Undergrad, they both spent at Cal State University Northridge, aka CSUN, or was they loved to call it “Berkeley for Valley Kids.” They’d even been roommates for junior and senior years, and Bonita had bitched more loudly about it when Brenda was not cast as Mama Morton in Chicago.

So Brenda dialed the number and when Bonita answered, launched into it. “Hey, girl!” she gushed. “Long time no hear. What’s up?”

“Girl, we are all over each other’s shit on the social medias all the damn time, so what’s so important that it’s voice?”

“Perceptive as ever Okay. I need a really big favor.”

“Figured,” Bonita replied. “As long as it’s legal, I can probably do it. So… shoot.”

Brenda launched into her explanation and, about ten minutes later, after Bonita did some hmming and thinking out loud, she finally replied, “You know, I think that Miriam can manage that ASAP. I mean, as long as it wasn’t a homicide, but you already said — ”

“Tragic accident,” Brenda reminded her.

“Hm. I wonder if housing needs to take a look at the safety of the balconies in that — ”

“No, my friend told me that his husband had this stupid habit of sitting on the railing that he’d warned him about a hundred times,” she improvised on the spot, “Even though he was very tall and sometimes clumsy.”

“Got it. Operator error. Okay. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you so much, Bonita.”

“Don’t mention it. But you owe me one now.”

“Well, duh, of course,” Brenda replied. “Hey — are you going to the class reunion?”

“Me?” Bonita said. “Oh, hell no. You?”

“Of course not!” Brenda told her, then they both laughed, said “Bye” and disconnected.

“Um… oh, hey…” Pearl was startled to see a regular Rêve up here, but he was looking at them like he knew them. They assumed, since he was a Rêve up here, that he was the one that Preston and Danny had told her about.

“Hello,” they said. “Do I know you?”

“No,” he replied. “But oh my god, I was at your last concert. Harvard Stadium. 1970. Six months after my 16th birthday, so I was able to drive up from Baltimore with some friends. Hell, the ticket was two bucks — what I made in my gas station job in about an hour and twenty minutes, but it was worth every second… what are you doing out here?”

“Living the life, baby,” They said. “And I guess that you’re kind of new to this whole being a Rêve thing?”

“Is that what I am?” he asked. “I thought I was just a ghost — ”

“We don’t like the ‘G’ word,” they warned him. “That’s a different thing, mostly because it doesn’t exist.”

“Wait. They don’t, and we do?”

“Bingo.”

“Oh… did I mention, I’m Jerry,” he announced, extending his hand, “And I am a huge fan, Ms. Joplin. ‘Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porsches — ’”

“Stop!” Pearl shouted at him. “God, I hate the song.”

“But it was — ”

“I know,” they admonished him. “But that was so very long ago and very far away.”

“But I’ve remembered that concert since forever. Ms. Joplin. Janis?”

“Yeah, we did it and then died,” they snapped back. “I’ve kind of expanded things since then. Personas, genders, whatever. It turns out that we’re very flexible once we’re dead. But… you saw what you call my last show?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jerry said. “I mean, is it rude to mention that you died just under two months after that amazing concert?”

“What did I just tell you? And what was the last concert you saw?”

“Um… god, I have no idea,” Jerry replied, then took a couple more moments and said, “Ah… it was a Bee Gees tribute band thing out in NoHo, and we liked it.”

Pearl just laughed. “I think I heard of them. I don’t really remember, but they were crap.”

“Were they?” Jerry asked.

“Are you in any position to argue?”

“You know, I really don’t know…”

Of course, what Jerry really didn’t know was that Pearl — no, actually the Janis part of Peart who had actually met young Jerry — was not engaging his adult self. Rather, she’d and/or they had been talking to the 16-year-old Jerry who had attended that last concert at Harvard Stadium.

And had not taken his young ass at all seriously.

So a vital clue about Ausmann was not passed on to the Hadas.

Meanwhile, another vital clue was passed on almost by accident, when an oral surgeon and his realtor wife went for their early morning power walk through their Simi Valley neighborhood, only to run into an old neighbor, except that she looked… different.

“Um… Coraline?” the wife, Becca, asked.

“Oh, hi!” Coraline replied. “Do you know where my husband is?”

“Do you know where you are?” Ralph, Becca’s husband, replied.

“Well, at what’s left of our home, duh,” she said. “But is he alive?”

Becca and Ralph just stared at her. They’d been watching the news, and Coraline looked just like what they’d seen, except that she wasn’t an old Hollywood actor.

“Dear,” Becca asked gently, “Are you possibly aware of the fact that you might be… well… dead?”

“What?” Coraline snapped.

“Oh, you haven’t been watching the news, have you?” Ralph inquired.

“No, I’ve been rather busy dealing with the ruins of my house and wondering where my husband is, thank you. And have you seen him?”

Becca and Ralph shook their heads. “No, dear,” Becca replied, “But we’ve seen the news, and even if you’re not famous, well… hang on.”

Becca tapped around on her phone, then showed Coraline news footage from earlier, with all the celebrity hosts popping up all over Hollywood.

“What makes you think I’m one of them?” Coraline demands.

“Well, two things, actually,” Ralph offers, demurely, looking to Becca.

What?” Coraline hisses.

“Um…. sorry to tell you this, dear, but we watched the county coroner take your body out of the basement of your house after the storm.”

“Apparently quite dead,” Ralph added. “Right into the body bag. Boom, zip.”

“You are liars!” Coraline insisted.

“Well, there’s that one other bit,” Becca explained.

“What?”

“Um… you know that footage about the ghosts in Hollywood?” Ralph offered.

“Yeah, and I’m not one of them there,” Coraline insisted.

“No, but you might as well be,” Becca said, turning her phone to Coraline again. Apparently, she’d been recording her during the conversation, and when Coraline saw the footage, her blood ran cold. Well, actually, it was the moment that she realized that she had no blood to run cold.

“I have to find Ausmann,” she said. “I do remember he studied these ghosts. I wonder if he’s in Hollywood. I have to go there!”

As soon as she said it, she found herself flying, heading southeast out of Simi Valley and into the San Fernando Valley. She didn’t get out this way often, but she was always amazed at how much bigger it was than her own valley, and how straight all of the streets were that ran between the two freeways — the 118 in the north and the 101 in the south.

That all changed at about the 5, a state highway that ran into the city diagonally from the mountains below Santa Clarita, aimed south by southwest splitting into the short 170 on its right fork and maintaining its identity as the 5 on the right fork, the 170 soon merging and vanishing into the 101 as it turned south for Hollywood.

When all of those east-west Valley streets passed the 5, more or less, they suddenly veered, mostly to the left, to run diagonally southwest to northeast, and it was particularly noticeable in Burbank, which itself had been laid out on a diagonal instead of a grid aligned to the cardinal directions.

The rest was paving anarchy, but that was because the city developed in different sections aligned to local landmarks or landscapes, the roads having to hook up eventually. The longest straight streets were the ones that had originally been lone country highways in the middle of nothing that connected distant developments, like Downtown and West Hollywood.

The Valley, meanwhile, had started out as immense, flat farmland, covered by huge rancheros originally owned by a handful of Mexican families, back when the southern third of California was still part of Mexico. Coraline would never have believed that of course, and it was a very unpopular subject to bring up in Simi Valley, but it was true.

While what Valley people called “the other side of the hill” developed in fits and starts beginning well before the 19th century and exploded from around WW I and after, only parts of the East Valley, like North Hollywood and Burbank, started to develop, as early as the late 1800s. Up until WW II, the eastern boundary was pretty much Van Nuys, with few and far between from there west.

Well, no houses, but quite a few companies engaged in the war effort. This was where they built the bombs and planes.

Once the war ended, there was a land boom, and the land was flat and wide, so turning it into a grid was the easiest thing in the world to do — a roughly 8 by 10 mile grid with very few breaks in its regularity.

But then she found herself over the Cahuenga pass, following the freeway that ran through a gap between two sets of mountains, and finally to Hollywood, landing at Hollywood and Highland, where she found the ghosts of the famous to be quite active.

She asked some of them if they’d ever heard of Ausmann. None of them had.

“Then I guess it’s time to go free-range,” she announced, and wandered off down the street. She could tell that people were looking at her and asking, “What’s she famous for?” but she ignored them.

She was a bit star-struck by all the celebrities she did see, even if they were all dead — Bette Davis, always the center of attention; the Three Stooges (Curly, Moe, and Larry era) hamming it up for the crowd; Peter Lorre, looking very sketchy; Alfred Hitchcock, leering inappropriately at every young blonde woman he saw — he was a Class III because there were still a lot of people alive who had known him, but he still liked to use his celebrity; Valentino, posing for selfies and proving very popular with gay men; and Gloria Grahame, appearing in glorious color as Ado Annie from the movie Oklahoma!.

But there was one Rêve who had been watching her, because Pearl had sensed something and sent a Hada to give him the word. Ausmann’s wife was apparently now one of them, and she was out here — the Hadas had sensed it and reported it to Pearl.

The message was to try to bring her to Anabel so that they would have a bargaining chip to use against Ausmann, and the message was sent to Ritchie.

As Coraline got close to the Hollywood and Vine station, he approached her. “Excuse me,” he said.

She stopped and looked. He seemed vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t place the name. “Oh. I’m Ritchie Valens,” he said. She was clearly still drawing a blank, so he sang a quick phrase: “Para bailar la bamba…”

“Oh,” it dawned on her. “I love that song. But… do you know me?”

“Was your husband named Ausmann?” he asked.

“Yes. Have you seen him?”

“No,” he told her, “But I may know where he is,” adding a lie to his truthful statement.

“I really do need to find him,” she said.

“Great. If you come with me, we can go look.” He nodded and lead her down into the Metro station, then to the platforms and the eastbound tunnel.

“Let me show you how our kind prefers to travel,” he announced, and then took her with him.

* * *

Friday Free for all #48: Friends, nicknames, traits

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.

What’s the strangest way you’ve become friends with someone?

I’ve certainly had some unusual circumstances under which I’ve met people who have become lifelong friends — like a post-audition conversation in a tiny theater lobby that turned into a two-hour chat, or a random mime tennis match at four in the morning after a college party with someone I didn’t even know.

But the strangest, actually, is the most straight-forward because it happened exactly like this.

Back when my play Bill & Joan was in rehearsal before its early 2014 premiere, and we were at an early table reading. Only a couple of the actors at that point went on to be in the final production, although one of them was the person who brought the work to the company, so he was always slotted for the lead.

Anyway, I think it might have been the second table read with this group, and we were sitting around beforehand chatting and whatnot. And then the assistant director, who’s sitting a few seats to my left, looks at me and says, “I think we should be friends.”

Honest, to be sure, but I know very few Americans who are that honest. Plus it was no secret at all to the cast or crew that I was gay, while I had no idea about this dude at the time (he’s straight), except to think that I’m not attracted to him in that way.

Not that he’s unattractive at all. He actually is. He’s just not my type. But, anyway, through the gay male filter, everything said, “He’s hitting on you.” So I sort of replied, “Uh… okay…?”

It took us both a bit to figure out that neither of us wanted to do the nasty, and when I realized that he had made the offer because reading my script had convinced him that we had like minds, that was it.

And we’ve been close friends ever since. Even though he moved across country just before the plague, we’re still in touch — but none of this would have happened had he not just balled up and said, “I think we should be friends.”

I’m going to have to try that tactic in future.

What nicknames have you had throughout your life?

I never had any nicknames growing up, which annoyed me, really. My grandfather John always went by Jack, and I wished that I could follow suit, only maybe as Jak or Jaq to reflect the difference in spelling.

Meanwhile, on my dad’s side, my step-grandfather’s real first name was Leonard, but he always went by Sam for some reason, which I never learned.

It wasn’t until college that I started acquiring nicknames, although our freshman dorm was a hotbed of coining nicknames.

For example, we had one student who came from Hawaii and had gone to the Punahou School there. My roommate found that hilarious, so stared calling him Punahou, and it stuck. (Ironically, his last name was the same as a rather famous Jesuit University other than the one we attended.)

Another student wound up with the nickname JOW, pronounced like it’s spelled, for a simple reason. He had long blond hair and a beard and was also kind of a free-spirited hippie to boot. The dorm we lived in was Whelan, so he wound becoming “Jesus of Whelan,” or JOW.

I can’t remember whether he was from Arizona or New Mexico, but one of his distinguishing traits was that he’d get up in the morning to go shower just about the time the rest of us were heading out to breakfast, and he didn’t bother to wear a towel or anything else. He’d just walk down the hall holding his washcloth and soap sort of in front of the goodies, but not really.

Many a cleaning lady were known to look away when he came down that hall.

As for my nickname, it also came from my roommate, whose own nickname was just an exaggeration of his own surname: “Boooo-lock!” Yes, with that many O’s and the exclamation mark. He was just that kind of a guy, and I mean that in a good way.

Anyway, one day for reasons unknown, he looked at me and said, “You look like a Fred.” So he started calling me that, and I really didn’t mind, although I didn’t see the connection. Sometimes, he expanded it to Fred Hald, but never explained what that other part meant.

So a lot of my fellow dormies from Freshman year, especially on my wing and floor, called me Fred for the next four years. But then I got into theatre, and nicknames became practical.

This became obvious when I was cast in the musical Brigadoon, when the director said, “Jo(h)n, can you move three steps to your left?” and five of us did.

Oops. Of course, not all that odd at a Catholic university. But still.. the director told each of us to pick a unique nickname, and then had us announce, in reverse age order.

So… the senior John stayed John. After that we had Johnny, Jack, and Jay. I couldn’t think of anything, really, except to pull the old back-half nickname, so Jonathan became Nathan. Needless to say, this led to a lot of “Nathan, Nathan, Nathan Detroit” references, although people also honestly compared my singing voice at the time to Sinatra.

Truth to tell, I really liked Nathan, and encouraged it outside of theatre. It was also my first online handle right after college. Although, none of them really lasted, so I can’t say that I’ve had any nicknames throughout my life — only through the wonderful four years I was in college, and a couple of years after that.

What personality traits are people proud of but shouldn’t be?

Oh, damn. The biggest one is learned helplessness, and I run across this all the time when I try to teach coworkers how to do something on the computer. Keep in mind that I’m usually the youngest one in the room, and this time around is no exception, and it just drives me nuts when I try to explain to one of my older co-workers how to do something on the PC, and their eyes glaze over and they come back with, “Oh, I can never understand that, just do it for me.”

Bullshit.

Office PCs were ubiquitous by 1984, when the oldest Boomers were 39, and this was only 37 years ago. The internet became a thing in 1994, when you were 49 — 27 years ago. The first iPhones came out in 2007, when y’all were 62, and that was only 14 years ago.

But in all that time, think of the technology you used to use and had to abandon, and all the new stuff you had to learn and, maybe, also abandon.

For example, you had to know how to work rotary phones, but didn’t have much of an issue learning touch-tone. In fact, this divide was probably a point at which you thought of your own parents as fogeys because they didn’t like this new “beepy weird thing.”

See how that works?

You also probably adapted pagers and fax machines fairly quickly in the 80s, especially if your pushing-40 asses were in executive positions at the time. Answering machines? Snail mail? Screw ‘em! This is technology!

You were probably also big on PDAs. No, not public displays of affection. Personal digital assistants, which were basically clunky, chunky, and expensive blocks of tech that combined calendars, contact lists, and memos, but didn’t connect to anything else.

But, I do digress, because the original question was, “What personality traits are people proud of but shouldn’t be?” and my short answer is this: Anyone who brags about being stupid or unable to keep up with tech or says something like, “Oh, I could never learn that,” needs to turn in their meal card and waltz off the planet now.

Especially considering the rapid advancement of human technology over the last seventy years, it really is an “adapt or die” situation. Keep up with what’s going on, or curl up and die. Period.

And so, to me, the “I can’t do it, it’s hard!” personality trait is one that should earn that person a one-way trip into the dead-end bucket of evolution. Oops, sorry…