Look, up in the sky!

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Total eclipse of the heart… er… Sun

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

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

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

2. Captain Comet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Meteoric rise is an oxymoron

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Conjunction junction, what’s your function?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The original star wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Babylonian math and modern addition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More stupid Excel tricks: a secret power of IF

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

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

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

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

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

Garbage in, garbage out

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

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

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

The secret power of “IF”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The art of improv in Excel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shoot the Moon

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

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

We never landed on the Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Memoriam: Silent Movie, Los Angeles, silenced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silent Movie is back, and with a vengeance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Believing is seeing: Conspiracy theories debunked

Heard any good conspiracy theories lately? I’m sure you have, because they seem to have been popping up like zits in a middle-school lately. But they’re nothing new, and they’re usually false, with a few rare exceptions.

Let’s look at why that is..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The government controls the weather!

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

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

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

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

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

Chemtrails

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sit” by any other name

In what now seems like another lifetime, I used to write for Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan’s website. Here is an article originally published in two parts under the heading Dogs and Language, Part 1: ¿Se Habla Spaniel? And Part 2: Sprechen Sie Dachshund?

If you’re bilingual, have you trained your dog in more than one language? If you only speak one language, have you ever tried nonsense words on your dog? Either way, the purpose of this exercise is to separate the language you speak from what you’re communicating to your dog.

Whether you’re bilingual or monolingual, for this exercise you will need to come up with a list of words in a language you’ve never used with your dog before. Basically, you will substitute the words your dog knows with words your dog has never heard.

Go on. Dig up that high school Spanish. Go to an online translator, pick a random language, and make a list. Make up meaningless words. The important point is this: pick one word in the new language and match it to a something your dog knows.

For the next week, only use the replacement words whenever you would use the familiar ones — but think the familiar word while saying the new one. It also helps if the new words don’t sound like the old commands — choosing the German “sitz!” to replace the English “sit” wouldn’t really work, but using another word for sit that sounds nothing like it would be ideal.

If you’ve done this exercise right, very soon after you change the words, you should find your dog responding to them without hesitation, as if you’re still speaking the language they know.

What’s going on here?

If you’ve kept your intent the same and used the new words in the same context as the old, then your dog isn’t listening to what you say at all; she’s paying attention to your energy and body language — and your expectations.

Dogs are all about expectations. Groups of dogs work as a unit, instinctively, and follow the leader by sensing and mimicking body language. If you still don’t believe this, then try the following exercise.

Silence is golden

The instructions for this week are simpler, but also more difficult. For one week, use all your usual commands on your dog, but… you cannot say a word. You can use gestures, posture, and facial expressions. You just cannot say words or make sounds. If it helps, you can pretend to say the words in your head, but that’s it.

In each case, make sure that you have your dog’s attention — they should be looking at you calmly, and making full eye contact. But, once that’s achieved, communicate away in silence. You will probably feel the need to move your hands and arms. Go ahead and do so. You will probably feel stupid and nothing will happen for the first few tries. Don’t give up.

If you remain calm and focused, it won’t be long before your dog understands and responds. It shouldn’t take more than a day or two before your dog follows is picking up on what you’re telling him without a word, and before this doesn’t feel so strange and awkward for you. But, by the end of the week, you should be able to speak to your dog from across the room with merely eye contact and facial expression.

What’s going on here?

Again, in nature, dogs do not communicate with words. When they communicate with growls or barks, they really aren’t speaking to each other. The tone of a bark or growl is produced by a dog’s energy and body language, so such sounds are really more a communication of “How I feel right now” as an indicator of pain, danger, excitement, etc.

When one dog wants another to sit, it doesn’t make any sound. It will merely walk toward that dog while presenting as large a posture as possible, and bump into it if the message is not received. If the message is still not received, then a couple of well-placed paws will probably put the errant dog in line.

In any case, the path to forming that deeper connection with your dog or dogs begins with learning how to communicate like a dog, rather than in working against that and forcing your dog to communicate like a human.

Leave the human words behind, and you will develop an even stronger bond with your beloved canine. In return, your dog will love you even more for understanding it, and using its own language.

Stupid human tricks for becoming better leaders

Anything that will put you in closer touch with your own body or improve your human communication skills will help you to become more in tune with your dog. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Yoga: You don’t have to be as flexible as a gymnast to do yoga, and there are varying levels and classes. Instructors are usually willing to accommodate your abilities, and doing all these weird stretches will help you get in touch with your body, and your body language.
  2. Dance/Aerobics: Again, you don’t have to be Fred Astaire to dance. Look around, and find something fitting your experience. Tap and Ballet are probably only for people who’ve had some dance training, but things like ballroom, waltz, or country line are probably accessible to anyone. If you don’t want to do dance in quite so formal a way, then look for an aerobics class.
  3. Improv: Although an aspect of theatre which frequently involves words, improv classes are excellent for teaching you the skill of listening, as well as teaching you to be constantly in the moment. Since dogs are also constantly living in the moment, improv is a good way to learn to be more dog-like.
  4. Volunteer: As in volunteer at your local animal shelter, where you’ll get to interact with lots of dogs that are not your own. Practice using the silent command method on each of them. Practice calm, assertive energy while walking them. Also inquire with your local veterinarians to find out if they need volunteers; ask your own vet if they will trade volunteer time for medical care.
  5. Read to Kids: No, really. Contact your local libraries and elementary schools to find out whether they have reading programs. And, although the above dog advice leans toward the non-verbal, reading to a room full of five-year-olds and keeping their attention is good practice, since many studies indicate that adult dogs operate at the same intellectual level as a human five-year-old. It’s not just the words keeping them pinned to their seats… what non-verbal cues are doing the job?

If all of the above fail, then there’s this: Take your dog on a long walk, in silence — but don’t forget to bring plenty of water for both of you. Your dog will let you know when you’ve walked long enough and it’s time to go home. Before that, your dog will let you know what it’s like to be a dog. Listen to the silence and learn.

Postscript: I actually wrote this piece, and included #3 up there, long before I started doing improv. Weird. I was giving myself future advice, I see.

Photo: Author’s dog Sheeba, taken by Stephen M. Grossman.

Going, gone, went…

When it comes to verb conjugations, English can be a little weird. Some verbs seem to barely change. For example, a regular verb like “to look” uses the present form look for I, you, we, and they. The only one that changes is third person singular — he/she/it looks. The past participle is looked for all persons, and so forth.

But then we get the irregular verbs, which can be even more irregular than they are in other languages: I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, they are. But one of the stranger ones, which I hear misused a lot by both English learners and native speakers, is the compound past tense of “to go.” (Note: for some reason, to be and to go seem to be totally irregular in every language, which is strange considering how common they are.)

The present of “to go” is regular — go or goes, the same as to look, above. But there are two forms we can use in the past: gone and went. You’d never say “I goed away.” It’s “I went,” and the form is went for all persons as well. This is great right up until you combine it with an auxiliary verb. Logic might seem to be that “I had went” would be correct, but it isn’t. This is where the other version comes in. The correct phrasing is “I had gone.” And, by the way, it’s also “had” for any person: You had gone, she had gone, etc.

The difference is that went is the past tense, while gone is the past participle. Again, this is one of those areas where sometimes English words change a little and sometimes they change a lot. For “to look,” for example, the past tense and participle are both the same: looked. The difference is that the participle always needs another verb before it while the past does not. So if the word before is not a verb, the word you want is went. Otherwise, it’s gone.

To add to the confusion: Gone can also be an adjective but went cannot, so we can have a sentence like “They will be gone for the month of November,” but not “They will be went for the month of November.” Even though gone in the first sentence follows a verb, it’s functioning as an adjective there, describing the state they will be in for November.

On a related note, I also hear the present continuous conjugation of “to stand” formed incorrectly a lot. Present continuous is the tense that combines the verb “to be” with the present participle of another verb, which is the –ing tense in English. For example, “We are looking for a few good men.” That one is pretty straightforward, so it would seem obvious that the correct form is “He is standing in the street.”

It might seem obvious, and yet I hear abominations like “He is stood in the street” all the time. Okay, that form of to stand doesn’t have the obvious –ed ending of a lot of English past participles, but at least it does have a D. On top of that, I never hear anyone say something like “You are looked for Waldo.” That just makes no sense.

So yeah, a sentence like “We had went outside and now are stood on the corner” would make my skin crawl. Oddly enough, the same thing can happen with the verb to sit, as in the incorrect “She is sat at the table” versus the proper “She is sitting at the table.” The former is non-standard English and should be avoided.

The article I linked in the previous paragraph has some useful examples of irregular verbs that do make the error obvious if you test them: I was ran down the road, and he is flown to New York. Even though they don’t follow the usual –ed construction of the participle, the incorrectness should be pretty obvious to native speakers. Ironically, though “he was flown” can be a proper construction if the verb becomes transitive. That is, “he” becomes the direct object of the sentence: He was flown to New York by the contest sponsors.

Isn’t language just so much fun?

The one thing I will say about the mongrel beast that is my native language English: It can put up with a lot of mangling and still make perfect sense, or at least be understandable. A lot of other languages cannot handle that. Misplace a pronoun or adjective or derp up a verb, and the entire sentence becomes gibberish.

One of the most classic examples of this, which long ago achieved meme status, is the entire opening dialogue from a 1989 video game called Zero Wing. I encourage you to click that opening dialogue link and read the “Official Translation” column, because it a glowing example of machine translation gone wrong. Nothing is right in how the words went from Japanese to English, and yet it still makes sense. This is the source of several famous internet memes, including “Somebody set up us the bomb” and “All your base are belong to us.”

And for an example that intentionally aims for gibberish and yet still makes sense, you can’t beat Lewis Carrol’s classic poem “Jabberwocky.” The man was weird, but he was a genius all the same. (Just check out “The Hunting of the Snark,” for example.)

Then again, English is also absolutely capable of sentences that make complete sense semantically, and yet still mean nothing. Try to wrap your head around “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” for example. It’s a noun adjective combo that can verb in an adverbial way, and yet…

Don’t think about it too hard, or else you may find that you have went mad and aren’t sure where you’re now stood.

That hurt to write.

When it’s “its”

Even Microsoft Word’s spell-check gets this one wrong sometimes, but you shouldn’t. Here’s the scoop on possessives that don’t take apostrophes.

I could write tons and tons on the use of apostrophes, but there are already plenty of guides online. So, instead, I’m going to focus on one area that causes a lot of confusion: Possessive pronouns that do not have apostrophes.

There are eight of them, five of which end in an S and one of which ends in an S sound, although the mistake is most common with only two of them — and it’s a very common error. I’ve even seen it happen on presumably professional sites like CNN and the Huffintonpost.

Here are those eight possessive pronouns:

My
Your
His
Hers
Its
Whose
Ours
Theirs

The most obvious thing about them on sight, of course, should be that there are no apostrophes to be seen. They aren’t necessary because these words are always possessive. For some of them, that doesn’t seem to cause any problems. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone use hi’s or her’s or our’s or their’s. That doesn’t mean this hasn’t happened; just that I can’t remember seeing it.

But I see “it’s” and “who’s” get misused all of the time — probably because both of them are perfectly legitimate words. It’s just that these two are contractions and not possessives. They just happen to look a lot like possessives, hence the confusion.

At least in the case of its, it’s a very easy typo to make, and I’ve caught myself doing it accidentally from time to time — hence the importance of proofreading. Of course, before you can proofread, you have to know the rules.

For “it’s” and “who’s,” the easiest way to remember is to always read them in uncontracted form. It’s helpful that the apostrophe even sort of looks like a little letter “i.” (Well, only sort of, but go with me on this one.) So, when you see “it’s” or “who’s,” read them in your head as “it is” and “who is.”

This makes it easy to spot their misuse:

The cat licks it’s paws.
The cat licks it is paws.

Oops. Wrong word! “The cat licks its paws.” Conversely:

It’s time to go.
It is time to go.

Right word!

Yes, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that we have these words that are possessive but don’t use apostrophes, but I never said that English does make sense. However, it is a fairly standard feature of a lot of languages that possessive pronouns work a little differently than regular possessives.

English used to have — and many languages still do — an entire grammatical case to show possession, so at least take heart in that fact: You only have to learn a few apostrophe exceptions instead of a completely new set of inflections for nouns!

Momentous Monday: Backwards and in high heels

The famous astronomer Herschel was responsible for a lot of accomplishments, including expanding and organizing the catalog of nebulae and star clusters, discovering eight comets, polishing and mounting mirrors and telescopes to optimize their light-gathering powers, and keeping meticulous notes on everything.

By being awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and being named an honorary member thereof, holding a government position and receiving a salary as a scientist, Herschel became the first woman to do so.

What? Did you I think I was talking about the other one? You know — the only one most of you had heard of previously because he discovered Uranus. Oh, and he had that whole penis thing going on.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel, who was William’s younger sister by eleven years and was born in 1850, did not have a penis, and so was ignored by history. Despite the honors she received, one of her great works, the aforementioned expansion of the New General Catalogue (NGC), was published with her brother’s name on it.

If you’re into astronomy at all, you know that the NGC is a big deal and has been constantly updated ever since.

While she lacked William’s junk, she shared his intellectual curiosity, especially when it came to space and studying the skies. It must have been genetic — William’s son John Herschel was also an astronomer of some repute — and it was his Aunt Caroline, not Dad, who gave him a huge boost.

She arranged all of the objects then in the NGC so they were grouped by similar polar coordinates — that is, at around the same number of degrees away from the celestial poles. This enabled her nephew to systematically resurvey them, add more data about them, and discover new objects.

Caroline was not the first woman in science to be swept under history’s rug by the men. The neverending story of the erasure of women told in Hidden Figures was ancient by the time the movie came out, never mind the time that it actually happened. Caroline was in good company.

Maria Winckelmann Kirch, for example, was also an astronomer, born 80 years before Caroline and most likely the first woman to actually discover a comet. But of course history gave that honor to her husband, Gottfried Kirch, who was thirty years her senior. However, Herr Kirch himself confirms in his own notes that she was the one who found it:

“Early in the morning (about 2:00 AM) the sky was clear and starry. Some nights before, I had observed a variable star and my wife (as I slept) wanted to find and see it for herself. In so doing, she found a comet in the sky. At which time she woke me, and I found that it was indeed a comet… I was surprised that I had not seen it the night before”. [Source]

Maria’s interest and abilities in science came from a person we might think of as unlikely nowadays: a Lutheran minister, who happened to be her father. Why did he teach her? Because he believed that his daughter deserved the same education any boy at the time did, so he home-schooled her. This ended when Maria lost both of her parents when she was 13, but a neighbor and self-taught astronomer, Christoph Arnold, took her on as an apprentice and took her in as part of the family.

Getting back to Hidden Figures, though, one of the earliest “computers,” as these women of astronomy were known, was Henrietta Leavitt. Given what was considered the boring and onerous task of studying a class of stars known as Cepheid variables, she actually discovered something very important.

The length of time it takes a Cepheid to go through its brightest to darkest sequence is directly proportional to its luminosity. This means that if know the timing of that sequence, you know how bright the star is. Once you know that, you can look at how bright it appears to be from Earth and, ta-da! Using very basic laws of optics, you can then determine how far away the star is.

It’s for this reason that Cepheids are known as a “standard candle.” They are the yardsticks of the universe that allow us to measure the unmeasurable. And her boss at the time took all the credit, so I’m not even going to mention his name.

And this is why we have The Leavitt Constant and the Leavitt Telescope today.

No, just kidding. Her (male) boss, who shall still remain nameless here because, “Shame, shame,” took all of the credit for work he didn’t do, and then some dude named Edwin Hubble took that work and used to to figure out how far away various stars actually were, and so determined that the universe was A) oh so very big,  and B) expanding. He got a constant and telescope named after him. Ms. Leavitt… not so much.

There are way too many examples of women as scientific discovers being erased, with the credit being given to men, and in every scientific field. You probably wouldn’t be on the internet reading this now if no one had ever come up with the founding concepts of computer programming, aka “how to teach machines to calculate stuff for us.”

For that, you’d have to look to a woman who was basically the daughter of the David Bowie of her era, although he wasn’t a very dutiful dad. He would be Lord Byron. She would be Ada Lovelace, who was pretty much the first coder ever — and this was back in the days when computers were strictly analog, in the form of Charles Babbage’s difference and analytical engines.

The former was pretty much just an adding machine, and literally one that could only do that. So, for example, if you gave it the problem “What is two times 27,” it would find the solution by just starting with two, and then adding two to it 26 times.

The latter analytical engine was much more like a computer, with complex programming. Based on the French Jacquard loom concept, which used punched cards to control weaving, it truly mimicked all of the common parts of a modern computer as well as programming logic.

Basically, a computer does what it does by working with data in various places. There’s the slot through which you enter the data; the spot that holds the working data; the one that will pull bits out of that info, do operations on it, and put it back in other slots with the working data; and the place where it winds up, which is the user-readable output.

The analytical engine could also do all four math operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

An analog version of this would be a clerk in a hotel lobby with a bunch of pigeonhole mail boxes behind, some with mail, some not. Guests come to the desk and ask (input), “Any mail for me?” The clerk goes to the boxes, finds the right one based on input (guest room number, most likely), then looks at the box (quaintly called PEEK in programming terms).

If the box is empty (IF(MAIL)=FALSE), the Clerk returns the answer “No.” But if it’s not empty (IF(MAIL)=TRUE), the clerk retrieves that data and gives it to the guest. Of course, the guest is picky, so tells the Clerk, “No junk mail and no bills.”

So, before handing it over, the Clerk goes through every piece, rejecting that above (IF(OR(“Junk”,”Bill”),FALSE,TRUE), while everything else is kept by the same formula. The rejected data is tossed in the recycle bin, while the rest is given to the guest — output..

Repeat the process for every guest who comes to ask.

Now, Babbage was great at creating the hardware and figuring out all of that stuff. But when it came to the software, he couldn’t quite get it, and this is where Ada Lovelace came in. She created the algorithms that made the magic happen — and then was forgotten.

By the way, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson have a wonderfully steampunk alternate history novel that revolves around the idea that Babbage and Lovelace basically launched the home computer revolution a couple of centuries early, and with the British computer industry basically becoming the PC to France’s Mac. It’s worth a read.

Three final quick examples: Nettie Maria Stevens discovered the concept of biological sex being passed through chromosomes long before anyone else; it was Lise Meitner, not Otto Hahn, who discovered nuclear fission; and, in the ultimate erasure, it was Rosalind Franklin, and neither Watson nor Crick, who determined the double helix structure of DNA.

This erasure is so pronounced and obvious throughout history that it even has a name: The Matilda Effect, named by the historian Margaret Rossiter for the suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Finally, a note on the title of this piece. It comes from a 1982 comic strip called Frank and Ernest, and it pretty much sums up the plight of women trying to compete in any male-dominated field. They have to work harder at it and are constantly getting pushed away from advancement anyway.

So to all of the women in this article, and all women who are shattering glass ceilings, I salute you. I can’t help but think that the planet would be a better place with a matriarchy.

For all of the above histories and more, it’s plain to see why finally having a female Vice President of the United States (and a person of color at that) is a truly momentous and significant moment in the history of the country and the world.