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.

Sunday nibble special: Reality bites

I worked for Cesar Millan for ten years, and I was there when the incident in question with Lidia happened. Here are my thoughts on it.

Truly about a nibble, indeed.

I suppose that I should just address this now, sooner than later, because I know I’m probably going to start drawing some sort of media attention because, reasons. Also, the public story broke on Friday, and friends started sending me links left and right.

The media has been hyping it as “Cesar Millan’s pit bull Junior killed Queen Latifah’s dog,” with a side of, “Oh, and bit a top young gymnast.”

Although the second part did happen a bit over four years ago, it’s just now making the news. The very short version is that a woman named Lidia Matiss has filed suit against Cesar Millan, primarily because, she claims, his recently deceased pit bull Junior mauled her leg, leading to the end of her promising gymnastics career.

In addition to that, she alleges that Junior also mauled one of Queen Latifah’s dogs to death at Cesar’s Dog Psychology Center and, she says, that was covered up by the staff being told to claim that the dog was hit by a car.

As my readers may know — and the name of the website is a big clue — I used to work for Cesar. In fact, I worked for him for just over a decade, originally as operations manager for his online business, but then as his head content creator and editor and in-house ghostwriter.

So there are things I know and things I don’t, but I can really only comment on what Lidia alleges in her lawsuit. Not that I’m under any kind of NDA but, like I said, there are things I know and saw and things I don’t, so I have to tread a very fine line to avoid committing libel.

What I can say is that there is at least one misrepresentation in the story, and that’s that every single version I’ve seen states that Lidia was bitten in a building that Cesar owned. I know that that one is not true because I was at many a meeting before we moved into it and near the end of my tenure there, and it was all about leasing the space.

What Cesar did own was his Dog Psychology Center, but let me pull back the veil here a little bit on how his whole enterprise operated.

The first thing you should know is that Dog Whisperer and Dog Nation and Better Human Better Dog and anything that appears under the National Geographic banner had nothing at all to do with the company I worked for in more than an arms’ distance way.

Well, with one exception that I’ll bitch about later.

But, in other words, Cesar on TV was an entirely different division from our company, which started out as Cesar Millan, Inc. (CMI) and eventually became Cesar’s Way (CW), both of which handled the business of his online presence and etail sales. It may or may not have been his loan-out company as well, but I was never privy to that information, so I cannot comment on it.

While it was CMI, it shared offices with MPH Productions, which was the company that originally brought Cesar to NatGeo and pitched the show. Well, okay… they took the idea that two female producers had pitched to them, because they’d found Cesar, and sold it to NatGeo.

CMI shared offices with MPH for the first few years in a space on Hollywood Way in Burbank that was long since converted into a Target Express across the street from a Model Train Shop. If you ever want to hang out where my desk was, stroll inside and find the aisle that gives you a straight-line view of the optometrist across the street. Near the back of that aisle and about eight feet from the wall is where I would have been sitting.

What I can say about those days is this: Cesar got screwed by MPH — that much was proven in a lawsuit that dragged on for ages but finally resulted in the two women and Cesar winning back the rights to the name “Dog Whisperer.” Second was that MPH was ridiculously generous to everyone on their staff and CMI’s — because they were apparently spending Cesar’s money.

And yet, there was still this weird arms’ distance thing. In those days, if Cesar ever came by the office, he was definitely kept on the south side, where MPH was, and even though the CMI folk were the ones who ostensibly worked for him, we were treated like red-headed step-children, at least by MPH.

Back to the division of labor thing, though. MPH dealt with NatGeo to make the show. Meanwhile, CMI dealt with Cesar’s wife at the time, Ilusion, in order to design and market various products, including DVDs not produced by NatGeo, training accessories, toys, and so on.

We also coordinated and staffed his seminars which, at the time, were nationwide.

During my first two years there, we had two gigantic issues with third parties. Well, sort of third parties, but this brings up yet another division in CesarLand.

In addition to the NatGeo side of things, mostly run out of Washington DC, and our Burbank offices, there was the Dog Psychology Center. When I started, it was located in what was basically a donated parking lot in South Central L.A. It wasn’t given a lot of attention on the show, but functioned mainly as a long-term rehab place for problem dogs Cesar was training.

Eventually, he did make enough money from the show to buy the acreage in Santa Clarita, California, that became the Dog Psychology Center (DPC), and I was very privileged to visit that place many, many times over the years, and meet a lot of the animals, including Lorenzo the Llama, Marty the Donkey, who was a total sweetheart, and Cesar’s entire flock of goats, who would play hard to get until you thrust a handful of lettuce at them.

But, again, the DPC was a totally separate entity. It had its own staff and director, and as far as any of us from CMI were concerned, we only got to go up there by special invitation.

That’s probably getting a step or two ahead, though, because those DPC trips didn’t become regular until another event happened and, again, while I’m not privy enough to the internals to make any positive assertions, the short version is that outside auditors were brought in, they looked at the books, and cried, “Foul!”

That was in 2009, when a Man Called Bob (which should be in all caps with TM next to it) swept in, saw what was going on, announced, “Well, this is bullshit,” and CMI divorced MPH and moved along the way.

We wound up at first in a building we all dubbed The Bouncy Castle, which was found by Cesar’s younger brother Erick Millan. It was… weird, but exactly what we needed. (Side note: Erick is a ridiculously talented designer and all-around nice guy who eventually moved back to Mexico to establish his own design firm.)

After we moved, and since a Man Called Bob convinced Cesar to trust him, Cesar was suddenly a lot more accessible to us, and I think it was the first time he actually realized that he had a team that was bigger than the DPC and the marketing hacks at Nat Geo.

This was also the building I was working in when I took a chance and Cesar suddenly realized, “Shit. This dude writes?”

It all happened because I suggested a bit of entertainment for the holiday party to a Man Called Bob, got him to approve a budget, and then I rewrote the lyrics to two Christmas carols to be Dog Whisperer themed, brought in six actors to sing them, and Cesar flipped his shit in joy.

That was about five years after I’d started working for him, but it was a major career change. I went from operations manager to content creator, editor, and unofficial Voice of Cesar overnight.

We eventually moved out of the Bouncy Castle and wound up in a place closer to Burbank Airport that we dubbed The Shoebox, but it was a move up for a few big reasons. One was that we brought our warehouse operations in-house, so no longer had to rely on a third-party fulfillment center, which saved my successor a ton.

We also had studio space and editing suite within that warehouse in which we could do quick videos — either product demos or more elaborate greenscreen stuff, and we had an in-house video/editing team as well, which started to crank out online content independent of NatGeo.

Finally, the nicest part of it being a two-story building was that all the corporate people — execs, legal, Foundation, and creative (meaning Cesar’s brilliant brother Erick) wound up on the second floor. Meanwhile, the newly created Digital Team in charge of all things online got to share the rather much larger than we needed ground floor.

Side note: From day one to this point and beyond, the office was always dog-friendly, and I brought both of mine nearly every day. In fact, I took advantage of this to finally break my dog Shadow out of her fear-aggression toward other dogs, and I think that Sheeba just became so blasé about the idea of “let’s go to work with daddy” that she wound up being comfortable anywhere.

Don’t take that as a total endorsement of Cesar, though, because that was mostly me, although I did have to know his philosophy and methods backwards and forwards in order to write about them, sometimes as myself, but more often as him — and that was as weird to me as it sounds.

So from late 2012 to 2017, I became “The Voice of Cesar,” writing his weekly column/fan message, co-ghostwriting one of his books, and creating a ton of non-bylined dog advice articles, implying they were his.

There was no attempt at fraud here, though. Just a show biz reality. Very few celebrities, unless they were already known as writers in the first place, write their own material, whether it be their books, blogs, social media posts, etc.

The vast majority of them are created by the web marketing teams for a few really good reasons. One is to protect the celebrities from themselves, making sure that they don’t commit any major faux pas. Another is to keep the voice consistent and, ideally, properly spelled, and grammatical. Finally, there’s the simple fact that the celebrity is probably far too busy in front of the camera or doing live interviews and the like to have any time to sit down and write.

All of this applied in Cesar’s case with one other factor, of course. English was not his first language and he didn’t even start learning it until he came to America when he was an adult. He can speak it perfectly well, but actually writing the words is a challenge for him, particularly when it comes to spelling.

I can vouch for this, though — in Spanish, he’s super-literate.

But… when it came to being part of the necessary deception, what did I care? He paid me good money to do that, even after the company cut bait and fled to its final, smaller HQ, which happens to also be the place in which Lidia alleges that Junior bit her.

We still had a warehouse in the back and a small video production department, although the editing suite was now a not-so-sound-proofed office sharing space with the digital team.

Oddly enough, although it was a one-story building, it was basically split into three zones, so we had the same division. Executives in the front, digital team in the middle, and warehouse and shipping in the back. I was in the middle, with a direct line of sight view through the door to the front office and front doors if the door in the adjoining wall were open, which it usually was. Important in a moment.

Meanwhile, the DPC was still doing whatever it was it did miles away. And I was a true believer in Cesar right up until the end, but for a few years now, I’ve been not so sure.

As for the Queen Latifah thing, I vaguely remember some mention of one of her dogs being killed, but we never heard anything besides the “dog ran in front of a car” story ourselves, so I’m not touching that one. The only people who know the truth were working at the DPC at the time.

The one thing I can state as a fact is this. I was there, in the office, on at least one instance when Junior bit Lidia. I didn’t see the actual bite, but, as noted, my cubicle was in direct line of sight of her mother, Lisa’s, office, so I had a very good view of Lisa and Lidia coming out, Lisa exclaiming that Junior had just bit her daughter, and Lidia limping, although I couldn’t see the actual injury because she had that leg turned away from me.

A Man Called Bob jumped into action and saw to it that Lidia got rushed off to the ER. I honestly don’t remember how Cesar reacted because, by that point, those of us on the Digital Team, i.e. in the back half of the office, were too busy discussing the incident ourselves.

But what I can state absolutely, without committing libel, is that Cesar’s dog Junior did, in fact, bite the back of Lidia’s leg — calf or thigh, I’m not sure. But since she was the daughter of CW’s Of Counsel at the time, it was all kinds of awkward.

Did Junior bite her more than once, either that day or on subsequent days? Not to my knowledge, Was he generally vicious?

Well, again, all I can discuss is what I know, and since I knew Junior for most of his life, having met him as a squishy little pup, he was never vicious toward me, or either of my dogs. Then again, I think that he always liked me, so the worst “mauling” I ever got from him was when he decided to come over, lean onto me hard, and then lick my face.

Ooh… how vicious!

Honestly, though, Cesar’s response to the lawsuit is weak. His lawyers basically said that Lidia should have assumed the risk, knowing that Junior was unleashed around the office. One big problem: The “bring your dog to work” policy came with a caveat. If your dog was ever vicious and bit another dog or human, then they were banned.

I cannot deny that I saw the aftermath of the bite, but that’s all that I can say. I didn’t see the actual extent of the injury. I just know that Lidia was taken to the ER immediately. I also don’t remember exactly when in 2017 this happened, although I know it was near the end of my tenure.

For whatever reason, Cesar’s Way decided to disband the digital team and go with an outside contractor for online marketing. I was laid off the Friday after Labor Day in 2017, although I was retained to keep writing Cesar’s weekly columns for a nice monthly salary through the end of March 2018, and did receive a ridiculous severance package, including reimbursement for my unused sick time, which was all of it.

The only sick time I did use was because of that weekend in August 2016 I’d wound up in the hospital, so that was a different year. But that experience, getting laid off, and the ton of money I walked away with led directly to the creation of this website.

In other words, yes, Cesar treated me and the rest of us well once he realized he had employees but, on the other hand, we were also trained to look the other way a lot — or at least gaslight ourselves whenever some scandal threatened.

I mean, as the team maintaining his online image, we were the ones who had to jump in to protect things, and we only ever got the story that came down to us from the executive suite. In protecting the boss, we were really protecting our jobs.

Tell me that you’d do differently — although most of what we had to deal with didn’t involve people being bitten or dogs being killed. Rather, it was gross misrepresentation by Cesar-haters (who are legion) of his techniques.

Are his abilities as a dog shaman perhaps inflated a bit? Probably. (He tried to do his thing with my dog Sheeba, and she basically gave him stink eye and ignored him.) Does he rampantly abuse dogs just for fun? That’s a hard no.

But… I was an insider for a long, long time with Cesar, and I can say that he’s no saint. No one is. I don’t have any of the dirty laundry and honestly don’t know whether it really exists. All I know is that Lidia is not lying, at least about her injury.

So, to Lidia… godspeed.

Saturday Morning Post #81: Between Zero and One (Part 1)

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, I flash back to my own life around the time I wrote this, in 2000 or 2001. This was pretty much the state of the internet at the time, and I was working from home as a graphic designer, little suspecting that I would be doing something very similar 20 years later but enjoying it a lot more. Like the lead character, I’m also very big on doing my own hardware and software upgrades, and get easily frustrated when tech fails.

Unable to locate host.

“Piece of shit.” Tyler banged his mouse against the desk in his usual litany of frustration, clicked reload. He waited two seconds, the limit of his patience, clicked reload again. Nothing, and then the error box of death popped up again with its annoying reminder noise. Unable to locate host.

“My ass,” Tyler shouted at his monitor. Still, he couldn’t help but always titter at that error message. It sounded like something an addled priest would say during Mass. Oops, I seem to have misplaced Jesus today… Of course, it had been a long, long time since Tyler had set foot in a church. Or anywhere, for that matter.

He let go of the mouse, went to the keyboard and hit control “R,” holding the keys down as the screen flickered. “Reload this,” he muttered, waiting.

Infinite seconds of nothing, annoying sound, error message the same again.

“Fuck.” Tyler spat. Okay, fine, maybe somebody had hacked the site — although he would hope that a major bank, his bank, was fairly hack-proof. No, it was some transitory problem, something stupid and mechanical, a broken switch or system traffic. Everything would be back up soon. Well, what the hell, in the meantime he could check out his favorite group look at some porn.

He went to his favorites, the folder named “Babes,” scrolled down to “Lusty Busty Beauties” and clicked. This was always good for a few minutes of amusement, any time of day.

Why was everything taking so long? He wasn’t connected by modem. That was so 1998. He was jacked in direct on a T-3 line, forty-five million bits a second. The first naked babe should have popped up on his screen instantly, if not faster.

UNABLE TO LOCATE HOST.

Tyler stared at the screen, frustration mounting. What was going on here? The problem must be on his end. He exited his browser, checked to make sure the operating system didn’t still think it was running (he was going to have to email a nasty note to the browser people over that recurring problem) then ran the program again, waiting.

The error came back, hovering over the empty gray screen of an unconnected browser. “Oh, fuck you,” Tyler grunted. He exited the browser, then rebooted the system. Billions of dollars spent on developing and marketing software and operating systems every year, and they still couldn’t get them right.

While his computer died and came back to life, he padded out to the kitchen, stepping around knee-high stacks of magazines and personal papers, grabbed a cup of coffee from the pot, took a sip. He glanced at the clock. It was four-thirty. Good, so it was just past noon in England and only about ten‑thirty tomorrow night in Sydney. He felt like chatting with some of his friends, maybe he’d do that when he was done with the banking.

He wandered back to the second bedroom he used as an office, where his computer was just finishing up the ever so long process of restarting. He sat down, ready to go back online when another error message popped up. “Unable to establish connection.”

He let out a frustrated shriek, then reminded himself of rule number one in the computer business — check for low density, high impedance connections. To the non-geek world, that was better known as a pulled-out plug. Sure, that must be it, simplest thing in the world to fix. He got down on his hands and knees, stuck his head far under the desk and peered around the back of his computer case as best he could.

He banged his head on the desk when he started to emerge for the flashlight. What idiot had ever decided that all the connections should be on the back of the computer, anyway? Even with the radio linked keyboard, mouse, printer and webcam, there was still an octopus of cords back there. Tyler grabbed the flashlight and turned it on. Then, he stared at the thing, which refused to illuminate. He flung it across the room, then turned on the overhead light, got back down under the desk and moved the computer to the side, tilting it and squinting.

Everything was plugged in where it was supposed to be. The thick blue wire was firmly in its socket. He jiggled it just to make sure. Yep. Connected. He traced the wire to the wall, where, likewise, it was firmly connected. He unplugged it, put it back in place until it clicked, just to make sure.

This was disconcerting. He heaved himself back into his chair, stared at the screen, then started checking out the settings for his network card. Nothing had changed, everything was correct. He knew these settings by heart, and they were fine. He tried connecting again. Nothing.

If Tyler designed operating systems, these error messages would be the first thing to go, replaced by a graphic of a hand giving the finger. That’s all they were anyway, the computer’s way of saying, “I know there’s a problem, but I’m not going to tell you what, exactly, it is. Nyah, nyah, human.” Was it too much to ask a three thousand dollar piece of plastic and metal with a three hundred dollar operating system to be a little more forthcoming when it failed? Shit, doctors wouldn’t make very much money if they worked that way. “Sorry, Mr. Smith, you’re dying. We don’t know what of, and we can’t stop it, but you’re done for.”

“Motherfucker…” Tyler shouted, banging the desk. He sat there, nostrils flaring for a moment, then shut down the computer and grabbed the screwdriver. “Prep the patient,” he said to himself. “We’re going in.”

* * *

Several hours, five cups of coffee, many reboots and an assload of frustration later, Tyler threw down his screwdriver and fell into a kitchen chair, wanting to cry. He’d taken the network card in and out five times, trying it in different slots, playing with the switches on it, flipping back and forth through the manual, which was about as informative as those error messages. Nothing worked. Every time he tried, every time that he knew this would be the time, it was the same thing. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero.

The sun had come up and he could hear neighbor’s cars starting, people heading off for their day. The poor, deluded fools, hurrying off to the rat race which would always begin with some hellishly slow commute, racing the clock and always losing, to go sit in someone else’s place and do someone else’s business and give up every bit of freedom. Tyler had gotten out of that game a long time ago, discovering the joys of telecommuting and Internet consulting, and he didn’t miss any of it.

Except, right now, he could be working and he wasn’t, for reasons he couldn’t fathom. He put the computer back in place, turned it back on, knowing it would be no different this time, and sat there, fuming. He grabbed his Rolodex, flipped through it and found the card for his service provider. He’d listed their customer service hours from eight a.m. to five p.m..

Great, so he’d have to wait two and a half hours? He was about to start cursing all over again when he remembered that the company’s offices were in New Jersey. Maybe that meant eastern time. Maybe he was in luck…

He dialed and waited, listening to the Muzak and the “Someone will be with you shortly” message. He put the phone on speaker and popped up his graphics program, idly flipping through the many photos of women he’d collected, scantily clad and less so, a gallery of objects that were all his any time he wanted them.

He was staring at the unblemished, golden round ass of a girl identified as Tracy (although he’d also run across her as Donna, Eileen and Kitten) when a voice intruded on the speaker. Tyler snatched up the phone. “Yeah, something’s wrong with my connection…” he said, voice cracking and gravelly this early in the morning.

“Let me check that for you, sir,” the chipper voice on the other end said. Tyler hated being called sir on the phone. He was only twenty-six, although he always sounded older. After the usual interminable business of giving his information and proving who he was, the Muzak was back and he waited again. He looked at the girl on the screen, wondered if the girl on the phone looked anything like her. Probably not. But he could pretend.

It seemed like hours but was really only two songs later that someone came back on the phone, but it wasn’t the girl. It was a man, who identified himself as a supervisor. Tyler’s heart fell. Now what? He’d paid his bill. At least, his bank did, automatically, every month. Unless they’d fucked that up.

“Mr. Allen, sorry to inconvenience you, but we’ve had a problem in your area,” the supervisor explained, trying to sound jovial.

“What kind of problem?” Tyler demanded.

“A construction crew — the electric company, actually — well, they cut right through our main fiber-optic line with a backhoe. Our entire system is down on the west coast because of it, but we are taking steps to get it back up.”

“They backhoed your backbone?”

The man laughed. “You could put it that way.”

“So, it’s not my computer?”

“No, no. It’s us. I’m real sorry about this. We will be offering a free month’s service to all of our customers, once things are resolved.”

“How long’s it going to be out, then, a couple of hours?”

“Well, Mr. Allen, I’m afraid not. It’s going to take a little bit longer than — “

“How long?”

“At least until Friday,” the supervisor said quietly, his jovial tone gone.

“Friday!” Tyler screamed. “Fucking Friday?”

“At the earliest, yes.”

“What the hell am I supposed to do until then?”

There was a pause on the other end, then the supervisor went on. “We are doing everything we can to restore your service as quickly as possible, Mr. Allen. We did explain all of this as soon as we knew about it, we sent an email to all of our customers.”

“You sent an email?”

“Yes, it explains everything.”

“An email?”

“Yes, did you get it?”

Tyler wanted to bite the phone in half. As it was, his left hand was practically splintering the plastic. He stood, breathing heavily. “Of course I didn’t fucking get it, you goddamned asshole. How the fuck can I get a fucking email if your fucking system is blown all to fuck for fuck’s sake?”

“Mr. Allen, there’s really no need for such language.”

“Fuck… you!” he screamed, then he slammed the phone down. Friday. Friday at the earliest. No, that couldn’t be. It was a bad dream, that’s what it was. He had work to do, clients to satisfy, people to chat with, things to… look up. Friday may have been their answer, but Friday was no good. To hell with Friday, he needed to be connected right now.

He was about to go online to look up other service providers when he realized that was a stupid idea, then went all around the house looking for the phone book. He finally found it under the bed and, even though the “Use Until” date on the cover was over a year ago, he flipped through it, found Internet Service Providers and started calling… and then realized that, while it may have been well into that supervisor’s work day, things still hadn’t really started out here and this was the local phone book.

Jesus, was that an archaic idea. Just local numbers? When would the phone company figure out that business had gone global? If he could look it up online, he’d find a company on the east coast that was ready to deal in five minutes.

But if he could look it up online…

Tyler slammed the phone book, stared at the clock, then stomped out to the kitchen. He’d have to wait two or three hours. Two or three hours, or wait until Friday. At the earliest.

Life sucked.

* * *

“Sure, we can get you T-3 service, you say you have all the hardware set up?”

“Yes,” Tyler said hopefully.

“And I’ve checked your location, we do service that area.”

“Great, great,” Tyler said. “So, how soon can you do it?”

“Let me check…” the woman paused, consulting something. “I can have a technician out there in… three weeks.”

“But I don’t need a technician, everything is set up, just turn it on.”

“That would be our self-service option — “

“Yeah, yeah, self-service, whatever. How long does that take?”

“We can have your service activated by… a week from Thursday. And right now, we have a special promotion — ”

“A week from fucking Thursday?” Tyler said.

“Y-yes. And our promotion — ”

“No sooner?”

“No, sir, I’m sorry.”

“And don’t call me sir.”

“All right. It’s a very good promotion  — ”

“Ram your fucking promotion up your ass, bitch.”

And he slammed down the phone for the seventh or eighth time that morning. He’d lost count. What was the problem with people? In theory, it would take all of five seconds to reroute his hook-up.

He had a DNS, his computer was a server, just send someone out to swap the wiring from the old company to the new one’s cables, change a little designation in a database somewhere, let it propagate, and bang, he’d be back in business.

The whole point of humans creating the internet in the first place was so that the entire system of military and university computers would stay connected, and no information would be lost in the case of all-out nuclear war.

Somebody had explained it once as the difference between good Christmas tree lights and shitting ones. If you bought shitty lights, where everything was wired in series, if one bulb burned out, the whole string went dark. But if you bought the good lights, where everything was wired in parallel, if one bulb burned out, none of the others would even notice.

In theory. The weak link was the human link, as in it would take some poor lazy asshole to get up out of a chair and go do something, and that was what took all the time, all the waste, all the frustration. That was the real reason computers sucked when they failed. They were designed by humans. Machines should have been superior to their creators, but they were not.

Of course, if that was the case, the human condition really did not bode well for the creative abilities of god.

It was noon by the time he finished with the last company, heard the same refrain. The earliest anyone could hook him up was a week and a day. The real world operated at a snail’s pace. He hung up with a quiet, “No, thank you.” He’d long since used up all the good profanity he knew, getting pretty creative around the twentieth call, pretty resigned by the thirtieth.

Of course, there was always the annoying fallback of using a dial-up service, even if it did mean switching temporarily to a regular modem. He went to the linen closet, opened it and surveyed the graveyard of abandoned peripherals. There were CD‑ROMs, floppy drives, old keyboards, two printers, a trackball, half a dozen joysticks, an ancient black and white webcam, a newer but just as outdated color one, and a stack of cards with uses that Tyler had practically forgotten. He pulled down the cards, flipped through the stack looking for that familiar UART chip.

Nope, nope, not that one, no, no… none of them were modems. None of them. That was unbelievable. He’d been through a dozen modems in the last five years, he had to have one sitting around.

Then he remembered. The day he’d gotten his T-3, he’d burned all the modems, actually put them in a metal bucket, doused them with lighter fluid and gleefully torched them. Sure, it had set off the smoke alarm in the living room, but it had been worth it. Ancient history, consigned to the fate it deserved.

In retrospect, it had been a really bad idea. But it was the thought that counted, and Tyler knew what he had to do now. Go out, buy a modem, and deal with it until Friday. At the earliest.

He started for the door, then realized he was wearing his robe and pajamas. Oops. Change first, then go out. He went to the bedroom, dug through the mound of laundry, found some clothes that didn’t smell too bad and changed. Okay, that was done with, now… wallet and keys, that was it. Wallet and keys, where were they? He hunted around the house for a good fifteen minutes before he found them, dusty and forgotten under a stack of magazines.

He also found his watch, which was actually still working. He looked at the date on it. September 10th. That sounded familiar. It took him a minute to remember, then he realized it had been just over a year since he’d last gone out this door. He hadn’t had to. He did all his business online, got paid by his clients through direct deposit, ordered everything from the Internet, even his groceries, had it all delivered.

He never went out to the movies but consumed a steady stream of DVDs by mail rental, ordered his stamps, his books and his CDs, got his news of the world, had all his friends, online. He knew people all over the world, chatted with them incessantly. He had sex with a lot of them, in the safest way possible, sometimes with the webcam, sometimes just with words.

He’d probably gotten off a lot of middle-aged businessmen who pretended to be teenage girls that way, but as long as Tyler didn’t know, he didn’t care. And if that method failed, there was always Kitten or Donna or Eileen, or whoever they really were, just an assortment of glowing dots writhing all over his great, big twenty-one inch monitor, beckoning him in the dark.

It was like somebody had cut both his legs off with that random backhoe. He wondered if the company had been lying to him. Was it really the power company? Blaming the power company in California was like blaming Palestinians in the Knesset. Was his service provider lying to cover up an inevitable act of human negligence and laziness?

That still didn’t change the length of time he’d have to wait, and he couldn’t wait. He put on his watch, pocketed his wallet and keys, went to the front door and grabbed the knob. He took a deep breath, then pulled the door open and stepped outside.

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #77: Pet, ghost, charity, dystopia

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.

If you could have any animal as a pet, what animal would you choose?

My friends already know the answer to this question. It wouldn’t be anything big or exotic or unusual, nor would it be anything mythic or legendary.

Nope. My ideal pet is, was, and always will be a dog. The three in my life so far have all been amazing in their own very different ways, from mama dog who raised me more than I raised her, to the clingy, needy one who always came to me first and only for protection and who taught me a lot, to the super-smart, aloof one who, nevertheless, always tipped her hand when it came to giving away how attached she really was to me.

Dogs are loving, loyal, intelligent, and they have emotional lives just as rich as ours. They are able to understand us as well as communicate with us, and have clear wants and needs. They are playful and compassionate and, unlike their feline counterparts, it’s extremely rare that a dog will ever suddenly turn on its human and attack.

In fact, on those one or two rare occasions when my dog was in pain and I didn’t know it and I touched them the wrong way, while their instinct was to turn around and bite me, I could also see the instant “kill switch” for that instinct activate as their brain basically screamed at them, “Nooooooo!” and their teeth would never get near me.

But they did get their point across, and it also meant that a visit to the vet ASAP was in order.

The only reason I don’t have a dog now, just over sixteen months after Sheeba passed, is that 2020 and 2021 have been very unusual years Well, duh. And both years were basically repeats of each other.

The first two months, everything seemed fine, but then we slammed into lockdown in March. It looked like the coast was clear in July, so we came outside — and then cases skyrocketed again so that two weeks later we were back to masking and isolating.

It looks like it won’t be until almost the end of fall until we might sort of attempt normal after vaccinated people get booster shots and the unvaccinated come to their senses. Then again, with the governors of several states doing their best to contravene all of the best practices to fight this thing and with in-person school starting up in various places, we could see it get worse before it gets better.

After all, this is exactly the trajectory we saw with the Flu Pandemic of 1918 — and they didn’t even have a delta variant to deal with, much less a mu.

If you were a ghost, how would you haunt?

I’m reminded of Chris Rock’s line in Dogma, where he plays the thirteenth apostle Rufus, who’s kind of a spirit, kind of not. “You know what the dead do with most of their time? They watch the living. Especially in the shower.”

I guess that’s not exactly haunting, unless I decided to suddenly become visible and shout, “A-ha — caught you!” when somebody was in the middle of having a little “me time,” and I would not be above a bit of ethereal voyeurism.

However, I think I’d also like to go the A Christmas Carol route after a fashion, and it would involve this. Determining which politicians or other influential people really needed to pull their heads out of their asses on an issue and have a true change of heart.

In that case, you can believe that I’d be haunting them day and night to express my opinion and convince them to do what needed to be done — change a vote, support or oppose a bill, talk some sense into their constituents or, in the most extreme cases, to resign office and leave politics altogether.

Which charity or charitable cause is most deserving of money?

Right now, there are two tied for first place: the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, and the reasons should be obvious if you’re paying attention. Both are fighting to protect women’s reproductive rights and body autonomy in the face of concerted efforts to destroy Roe v. Wade.

Ironically, the Roe v. Wade case, which legalized abortion in the U.S. with the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling, started out as one woman’s legal challenge against the abortion laws in… Texas. So yes, we have come full circle, with the Supreme Court suddenly sitting on their hands and doing nothing to block a ridiculous and draconian anti-abortion law in Gilead.

Oh, sorry. I mean in Texas.

In addition to fighting against laws like this and for the rights of women to control their own reproductive choices, the ACLU also constantly fights for the constitutional rights of all American citizens.

And while a lot of people naively have the impression that the ACLU is some far-left organization, nothing could be further from the truth. They are actually neutral, and have defended groups at both political extremes, with one of the more famous cases being their defense of the First Amendment rights of a neo-Nazi group in the 1970s to hold a march and rally in Skokie, Illinois.

As far as they’re concerned, the Constitution belongs to and protects all Americans, and they’re right.

Runners up: The Southern Poverty Law Center (social justice and civil rights for the BIPOC community), Natural Resources Defense Council (environmental protection), and Human Rights Campaign (LGBTQ+ rights and protections).

Consider donating today to each of them today, if you can, and think about making it monthly. Giving $5 to $15 a month to each of these organizations only costs you $25 to $75 dollars, but it can do so much for the world.

I know it’s what I started doing the same day that 45 was elected.

And for my readers outside of the United States, please think about helping them to help us as well, or find the equivalent organizations in your own country and donate.

(Note: I am not being compensated or asked to make these endorsements in any way by any of these organizations. I just believe in all of them very strongly.)

Which apocalyptic dystopia do you think is most likely?

Probably the one that the super-elite and the politicians they own are doing their best to engineer for us right now.

They’re aiming for a world where a handful of people control the vast majority of the capital and resources of the entire planet while allowing a larger (but still relatively small) group of much “poorer” elites to serve as their cheerleaders — elected officials, celebrities, sports stars, the media, etc.

So it’s a pyramid with multi-billionaires at the top, a hidden layer of almost billionaires handling their money and their legal affairs, a very public layer of multi- and mono-millionaires providing the bread and circuses, and then everyone else, who are slowly being driven into serfdom via income inequality.

And the multi-billionaires at the top have one desperate hope: That all of those serfs never realize that they — all of them — are the only reason that those multi-billionaires have anything. Cut off the tap, and all of their money, influence, and power goes away.

But… having created this servant class that will never escape poverty and slowly ensuring that they are also less educated and more distracted by petty, shiny things, the rulers have no interest at all in doing anything about climate change.

Why would they? They have the resources and assets to buy their way out of any danger. Oh, Manhattan is flooding and Toronto is hot as balls? Finland is lovely this time of year.

Dubai may be melting on the outside, but they’ve just built a new, environmentally controlled domed city where it’s always 72°F inside (22°C if you prefer), every one of the luxury high-rise towers uses its exterior space to raise more than enough food for the rich people inside, and the starting price for one of the smaller luxury condo suites is $75 million. But we are sure that you’d want something more fitting your station, above the 109th floor, taking up three stories and covering 10,000 square feet per floor, starting at only $250 million.

Or, get what you really want — one of the penthouse estates with roof access including a half-acre garden and patio, and five floors of residence beneath, with 24 ensuite bedrooms, six additional bedrooms, ten bathrooms, one restaurant-style and two gourmet kitchens, a digital IMAX/3D/4DX screening room that seats 100, entertainment room/arcade, full IRL conference room with attached offices and 3D virtual conference room, and shared rooftop helipad.

All of this in a neat 130,000 square feet, starting at only $1.2 billion.

Of course, the lowly staff in Dubai are made up of various refugees, many of them from Afghanistan but, by this point, a lot of them also environmental refugees, fleeing lands that have either become too hot to live in or have just flooded out. What a break for the multi-billionaires, though, because these people work for practically nothing.

Meanwhile, back home in the states, if you happen to toil for one of the companies owned by one of these people, you probably haven’t had the option to flee. If you’re lucky and live in a state like California, then your gross pay for a month could be $2,600 — but that’s before taxes, and it’s only $31,200 per year.

After taxes, you’re taking home a whopping $2,077 per month. But, hey, you work for one of those multi-billionaires and you don’t do it remotely, remember? So here’s what’s available to rent in your area: Small studio, shared bathroom, no pets or cooking in room, 150 square feet, $2,500 per month.

You want cheaper, then you have to commute farther, but that costs a lot more in time and money — gas and being stuck in traffic, or train/bus/subway fare.

Side note: I once met a woman who worked in Burbank, California, but lived in Phoenix, Arizona, and she commuted to work every morning and went home every night… by commercial jet. Sounds insane and expensive, right? Well, here’s the thing…

At the time, housing and cost of living in Phoenix were so much ridiculously lower than in L.A., the extra $250/week for the commuter block of tickets on the regular Southwest flights was still less than the difference in mortgage, daycare, gas, etc. Not only that, but the half hour hop by plane was still less than half the time of any commute in the area that could have put her family in a comparable economic situation.

And keep in mind that she was an executive for a pretty big organization. She just thought of the plane ride as taking “a bus with wings.” Of course, this was before 9/11, and also before Southwest discontinued their commuter ticket package deal. Because of course they did.

Okay, great — so if you don’t want to eat or have health insurance or anything else, that crappy studio is still not doable. Maybe you can find a room in a house or apartment to share, but that’s not much better.

Even if you find someone who’s paying $5,000 a month for a four-bedroom place, it will cost you $1,250 for one of those bedrooms, maybe with an attached bath, but then there are still utilities, internet, whatever other random costs, and so on.

So you’re probably not saving any money at all, and really do live paycheck-to-paycheck. Just hope that you don’t get sick or injured because you don’t have any health insurance or any PTO.

And if you really want to save, then you have to wind up in some sort of co-shared housing where you only pay $500 a month-ish, but then you’re basically living in a giant dorm with no private bedroom, and if you’re not in you’re early 20s or if you’re a single parent with a kid, that’s probably not the deal for you.

Or, in other words, your multi-billionaire overlords are willing to make it affordable for you to have a bed in a warehouse surrounded by strangers. And if you want any help, don’t ask the company. That’s what food stamps and welfare are for, after all.

All the while, the oceans are rising, the weather is going insane and getting more extreme, every week is another natural disaster of unprecedented proportions, and more and more of you living in warehouses are also finding yourselves being phased out of your jobs.

Suddenly, they’re either being outsourced, mostly to Chinese political prisoners making 2 cents U.S. a day, or ¥13 (Chinese yuan), or being done by A.I. and robotics, which are ironically much more expensive than the prisoners, first in terms of recovering R&D costs and then in terms of daily power consumption.

Hell, in reality, the A.I. and robotics probably cost more than you do in the short term, but they never complain, never take pee breaks, never sleep, never, ever think of unionizing or going on strike and, if they do break, they can either be replaced instantly or fixed quickly and much more cheaply than it would cost to fix you in a hospital.

The end game of this dystopia is that the super-wealthy manage to rid the world of as many “undesirables” as possible. To call back to a previous question, Ebenezer Scrooge expressed their thoughts exactly when he replied to a man seeking charitable donations for the impoverished thusly: “If they would rather die… they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

It’s the classic selfish mindset of the kind of person who would even try to become a billionaire in the first place: “Less for you means more for me.”

But despite that old aphorism, probably penned by Malcolm Forbes, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” that’s really not true at all.

It should read “He/she/they who dies is still dead no matter how much shit they owned.”

And if these bozos manage to kill the planet, they’ll be sadly disappointed when they try to hop onto their little dick-shaped rockets and escape into space. For one thing, they have no idea how many highly trained and highly paid people it takes back on the ground to keep them alive in those rickety tin cans.

For another, they just have no idea, period. So in an ideal universe, we’re actually living in a YA novel, all of this is prologue, and our Gen Z heroes are about to emerge, kick ass, take names, and make the French Revolution look like a polite request for someone sitting in your theater seat to move.

Hm. Bozos — bezos. Coincidence? I think not.

Theatre Thursday: Brush up your Shakespeare?

I was recently listening to yet another fabulous Matt Baume podcast on his Sewers of Paris channel, an interview with Jeffrey Masters, trained Shakespearean actor who instead shifted to journalism and podcasting when he came from New York to L.A. and realized that Hollywood didn’t give two warm shits about the Bard.

Kind of a shame, really, but a question did come up in the podcast, clearly asked by a non-actor.

“Isn’t Shakespeare harder to do?”

And Jeffrey eventually end-ran his way around to the answer I would have given: No. In fact, Shakespeare is actually much easier to perform because, face it, he was so much better a writer than any of our modern English language playwrights, and I’ll peg “modern” as having started as soon as British theatres reopened after the restoration of King Charles II.

Honestly, given the choice between having to learn all the lines for a major role in Shakespeare or a one scene walk-on by… name any major Broadway playwright of the 20th or 21st century — O’Neill, Hart, Miller, Simon, Shepard, Hansberry, Norman, Churchill, Hellman, Miranda, Vogel, Rebeck, Wasserstein, Kushner, Mamet…

Well, while a lot of them are amazing writers, with the first five only doing “White people theatre” and the last practically being a Jewish neo-Nazi, if we leave all of that out and just focus on the words…

Shakespeare is still far, far easier to memorize, learn, and put some real emotional power behind.

Why?

Well, number one is that Shakespeare did tend to write his stuff in iambic pentameter, so that you had lines on a regular meter: “ba-DUM-ba-DUM-ba-DUM, ba-DUM-ba-DUM-dum.”

Note that there are five emphasized syllables there — the “DUM” bits, and each of those is preceded by an unstressed syllable. We can ignore that dangling “dum” at the end. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not.

But fill this phrase up with words, and here’s an example of what you get:

To be or not to be, that is the question…

Of course, he didn’t always do this, and really messed with things in MacBeth. For example, the witches spoke in trochaic tetrameter — four syllable feet with the first emphasized, as in “BUBB-le, BUBBLE, TOIL and TROUB-le.” But what really made things weird in the play was one particular and yet very common word…

Which appeared three times in that paragraph.

It wasn’t just the rhythms and beauty of Shakespeare’s words that made his stuff easy to learn and perform, though. It was that he gave his characters rich inner lives and strong needs, and that went from his leads all the way down to his spear carriers.

One great example was when I played every single spear-carrier in The Comedy of Errors, and although it was really only two characters combined who physically appeared in multiple scenes but only spoke in a few, Willie Shakes had me covered, because he left enough breadcrumbs in those lines to give me a motivation and a through-line.

Basically, my character was a rent-a-cop only motivated by the money, which became really important in those moments when I suddenly had to deal with the leads in the show.

“He is my prisoner, if I let him go, the debt he owes will be required of me.” Note that “prisoner” is two syllables here; pris-ner. And I still remember that goddamn lovely line almost twenty years later — which my director made me deliver in an over-the-top bad 50s Broadway Irish accent.

Don’t ask.

But somehow my plea worked, the wife of Lead #1 paid me off, and life was good for my character from then on.

Another time I stuck Shakespeare in my head came after that show and when I somehow managed to lock myself out of my own car radio, but my dealer couldn’t fix it. Since it was in the days before Bluetooth and I had a 20-minute commute from home to Dreamworks SKG every day, I did the only logical thing.

I learned every single monologue delivered by Gloucester aka Richard III in all of the history plays he appeared in — which, was basically all three Henry VI plays, plus the Richard III one. And then I recited them over and over on the way to and from work for months.

Now? I don’t remember a lot, but that’s only through lack of repetition.

As for other roles by other playwrights I’ve done? Good luck. They have neither rhyme nor reason and, quite often, no greater motivation or inner life if they are not the lead characters.

A quick example of a play in which I also played a jailer character was Marsha Norman’s “Getting Out,” which in general was an amazing story documenting exactly why A) Jailing sex-workers and drug users was totally ridiculous, and B) Why the way they were treated upon release all but guaranteed they would wind up back in the system.

Anyway, I was one of the two guards dealing with her in prison in the flashback wraparound, and while it kind of felt like there was supposed to be a “good guard”/”bad guard” dynamic going on because I was kind of nice to her in one scene, there really wasn’t enough to hang that on.

Why? Because in all my other scenes, I was just as dickish to her as the other guard. I was a fucking prop, and nothing more. Boring!

Simon, O’Neill, and the other perpetrators of WYPIPO theater? Okay, I guess that your stuff was really important when Irish immigrants and Jews were in the non-represented classes, but guess what?

Just during or after WWII, the Irish (my people!) fucked their way such a big dent into culture that we actually earned our “whiteness” after having been considered sub-human up until the 1920s. No, seriously — Irish immigrants used to be classed about one half-step above people labeled as Negroes. Don’t ask — it was a really, really ugly era in American history.

Meanwhile… Jews were also treated equally badly and, again, it was only after WWII, and when the horrors of the Holocaust were finally revealed that Americans did yet another “Oh, shit… that’s fucked up dance.”

End result? In the late 40s and 1950s, American Jews took over the film and TV industry (in a good way) and changed the face of American humor forever.

Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Lenny Bruce, Shelly Berman, Sid Caesar, and on and on and on? Do any of those names sound familiar?

But… back to the point… if you’re afraid of Shakespeare and speak English, then you do not belong on stage at all, period.

Flash back to the aforementioned list of Jewish creators and, guess what? Every single one of them was probably deeply steeped in Shakespeare.

I know that Brooks, Allen, Bruce, and Caesar were, at least.

Again, though… the problem with trying to learn dialogue from modern playwrights is that there is no damn poetry in it. Not that I can’t memorize those lines. It’s just that it takes a metric fuckton longer to do so.

And… no matter how many words you write, they are never going to be as pretty as those from the Bard of Avon.

BTW, as a produced and published playwright, I include myself on that list. Yeah, I probably have written some interesting shit, but it’s nowhere as easy to learn as what the Bard put down,

Fight me!

Wednesday Wonders: Let’s get dark (Part 1)

Sometime between when humans discovered fire and when Antoine Lavoisier finally figured out how it worked, there was an hypothesis floated in the 1660s that things burned because of an element called phlogiston that existed within things that could burn, and letting it out created the flames.

It’s kind of chicken and egg, really — did things burn because that’s what the phlogiston in them did, or did they only burn when it was somehow let out?

But Lavoisier and his experiments ended all that nonsense just over a century later, when he proved that combustion was actually the result of rapid oxidation of a flammable material in the presence of a fuel source.

Also: some substances lose mass when they burn and others gain it. It all depends upon how oxygen deals with the reaction.

Ether frolic

Then there was also the idea of ether (or aether), the postulated medium necessary for light to be able to propagate through what was otherwise the vacuum of space. This was another product of the 17th century.

Sir Isaac Newton, to his credit, rejected the idea early, mainly based on the idea that any media that would channel and direct light would also fuck with gravity, and so the orbits of the planets wouldn’t work the way that they did. In a very weird way, this was kind of a prediction of how relativity and quantum mechanics would suffer a nasty break-up centuries later.

The more that scientists determined the properties that the ether would have to have in order to guide light the way it had been alleged to do, the more ridiculous the concept became. Newton had been right. The density of the ether required would have totally screwed every star and planet in space by making them motionless.

Einstein eventually drove the nails into the coffin of the concept of ether with — surprise — his special theory of relativity, which really changed a lot of things in science.

One of the big ones is something that’s going to come up here later.

A brief note on terminology

One of the most misused scientific terms is “theory,” because it means two really different things depending upon who’s using it. Unfortunately, far too many non-scientists of the politician/armchair pundit variety have abused the word “theory” in order to attack actual science.

So you’ll quite often hear things like people saying “Evolution is only a theory,” not realizing that the words “only a” do not belong. The problem is that to most non-scientists, the word “theory” means “an idea I have about how the world works but with no research yet,” or, more frequently, “something I pulled out of my ass.”

This makes it very easy for them to look at something like Evolution and say, “Oh, it’s just a theory.”

Funny how you never really hear people say that about gravity, right?

But what lay people like to call theory is, in scientific terms, an hypothesis. And yes, it absolutely is nothing more than an idea, or a concept, or something that a researcher in a particular field really did pull out of their ass.

Why? To do the work necessary to see whether it’s true.

The best part is that it does not matter at all how ridiculous that original hypothesis is. Why? Because this is when we pick up the scientific method, and it works like so:

  1. Determine what your hypothesis is and how you want to test it. Note: Keep it to real science. Once you start to try to measure or theorize on things like people’s behavior or ideas or whatever, you’ve veered off into social “science,” which is not science at all. Fight me, biatches. I minored in psych in college, so I know what I’m talking about.
  1. A real scientific hypothesis might be something like this: “Why can we not predict whether stars under X solar masses will either go nova, collapse into a neutron star, or become a black hole?” “Why do we still find DNA from Denisovans in modern humans when there is no evidence at all that they ever co-existed?” “Why does natural selection seem to like to re-create crabs over and over?” (Note: Humans and Denisovans did cross-breed at one point. The examples are just “what-ifs.”)
  2. And everyone of those questions then ends with, “Because… this,” and that’s where the hypothesis goes. These are still just guesses, though, of how a process might work. “Because we do not know the exact composition of the ultimate solar core, and the density of the elements in it,” or “Because Denisovans never met modern humans directly, but they did interbreed with earlier species of compatible breeders who did mix DNA with modern humans,” or “Because that kind of shelled, flat form with multiple arms and giant weapons up front provided a lot of protection on land and sea, so that’s why it kept coming back.”
  3. .. after the “because this,” it’s data collecting time, and that’s where the science happens. Observe stars with ever-increasing resolution to figure out the exact composition of their cores; keep testing that DNA, both Y and mitochondrial, and you will eventually figure out when and where the first Denisovan got horny enough to hump the first proto-human and, ta-da… another uplink on that Y-DNA chain.

And, finally, if you’ve ever had crotch crickets, you know that crabs are obviously the most evolved to survive lifeform on the planet, whether they’re zip-lining down your pubes, torturing the hell out of your crotch (and anyone it’s ever been near to in the last 36 hours), or reminding you of the real reason that Anakin hates sand. But a really good scientific subject for this would be, “How the hell do I destroy these little itch-mongers without having to shave everything and then carpet-bomb my crotch?”

  1. Ask “why” question, postulate “because” answer, compile a shitload of data and analyze it. Trust what tells you you’re full of shit, take several more looks at what tells you you’re right — then run the whole damn experiment all over again with a different group.
  1. Lather, rinse, repeat, and eventually come up with something that either completely proves that your hypothesis was wrong, or that is a study you can share, which you do, with your fellow scientists.
  2. They go out, look at your study, try to get the same results within their own group, and then report back. Sometimes, they will find the exact same things, which is “Hooray!” Other times, they will find discrepancies, which might mean that there were errors in the original data or design, but these can just lead to more scientific studies.
  3. Lather, rinse repeat, until it looks like the hypothesis does explain the process. Peer-review one last time, then publish.

And that is the scientific method in a nutshell. All of those various experiments and peer-reviewed studies eventually lead to some sort of consensus with replicable results that explain how and why a particular thing occurs.

Then, and only then, do you get to jump out and declare…

THEORY!

So, for example, going back to one of the original hypotheses, the theory might now explain “How stellar dynamics determine whether a star of given mass will go nova, collapse into a neutron star, or become a black hole.”

And this new theory will include hard data, along the lines of “A star needs to have a mass less than X but diameter of Y in order to go nova, mass greater than X and diameter between Y and Z in order to become a neutron star, and mass greater than X and diameter less than Z in order to become a black hole.

A theory can also be disproven, rewritten, or confirmed multiple times. That’s how science works. But then there are those rare occasions where two theories both seem to be true, and yet create completely incompatible explanations for how the universe works.

Big and little

You’ve probably heard of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity,” but there are actually two. The first, published in 1905, was his Special Theory of Relativity, most famous for giving us E=mc2, giving us the idea of mass/energy equivalence. That is, for any given mass, if you convert it entirely to energy, you’re going to get a really, really big boom because the value of c (the speed of light in a vacuum) is so huge, and then you square it and use it as a multiplier.

I think that most people have an intuitive understanding that this formula is what predicted the ultimate destructive power of nuclear weapons, which don’t even completely convert the mass in them into energy.

But the real purpose of this first theory of relativity was to show how space and time are connected, and it proved why no object with any rest mass could move at the speed of light. Its mass would increase with velocity, becoming infinite before hitting the speed of light, therefore making it impossible to make it go any faster, because there just isn’t enough energy.

See, the equation works both ways. But it did not account for acceleration. It only dealt with objects moving at the speed of light. It took ten years, but then Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity.

Here, among other things, accounting for acceleration and momentum made the results even freakier because the expanded formula squares both the E and (mc2) parts, then adds the product of that mass’s momentum, also times c squared.

It also dragged (pun intended) gravity into the equation, as in the Special Theory explained how space and time were linked, and the General Theory explained how gravity could affect them — reading “affect” as bend and distort.

That was the major mind-bending idea behind it that still hasn’t been disproven. Gravity is some kind of force that works across the universe on cosmic scales, and it basically tugs on the fabric of reality — space and time — doing things like making objects with mass attract each other or making objects with mass slow down time.

This theory came with an easy test. Since Gravity actually affected the fabric of space, any collision of two sufficiently massive objects should create ripples in space itself. It took a century, but in 2016, the first gravity waves were measured, confirming Einstein — yet again.

So we have plenty of evidence showing what gravity can do, that it is probably an inherent property of mass, and it can bend space, time, and light — but we still have no idea what it does.

Attempts to come up with a hypothetical “graviton” particle that carries the gravitational force, analogous to things like the photon, gluon, and electron, have so far been unsuccessful — meaning that gravity cannot be explained via quantum physics.

This is probably entirely a matter of scale.

To be continued next week…

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