Wednesday Wonders: Red-blooded? Not necessarily

You may think that all animals have red blood, but this is far from the case. The possible colors cover the spectrum. Let’s take a tour of that rainbow.

Previously, I wrote about various foods that aren’t actually their original natural colors for various reasons. These include cherries, oranges, margarine, wasabi, and Blue Curaçao. Now, I’m going to go for the flip side of that one.

When I ask, “What color is blood?” I’d guess that your immediate answer would be “red.” And if you’re a member of certain species, then that is true, those species being humans and most vertebrates.

But that’s not true of every species at all. It depends entirely upon chemistry.

Red

So, if you’re red-blooded, what does it really mean? It has nothing to do with courage, valor, patriotism, or any of those silly attributes. What? Goldfish have red blood. So do dogs and cats. But why is that the case?

It’s simple. Well, it’s actually ultimately complicated, but all you need to really know is that the hemoglobin in our blood, which is the molecule that binds to oxygen and circulates it through our body, contains an iron molecule at the center of a ring structure.

This is what allows your red blood cells to circulate oxygen, out from your lungs, around your body, and back again as carbon dioxide.

If you’re wondering, “Okay, why red? I can’t see oxygen in the air,” think about this. Have you ever seen rust? What color is it? And what is rust? Oxidized iron.

In the body, in reality, the blood in the lungs starts out bright red and winds up a duller and more rust-like color by the time it comes back. But it’s red because of that iron.

But blood doesn’t necessarily need to use iron.

Yellow

Swap the iron out for the metal vanadium, and you get yellow blood, which is found, for example, in beetles and sea cucumbers. Surprise, though: vanadium does nothing to circulate oxygen, so its presence is still a mystery.

Green

While you might associate green blood with a certain popular Star Trek character, one human did surprise surgeons by bleeding green during surgery, although that was due to a medication he was taking rather than alien origins.

Otherwise, it’s really not normal for humans. But there are a few species of lizard that are very green on the inside and, ironically, it’s due to the same chemical that our bodies produce as a waste-product of red blood cell death, but which would kill us if it built up to levels that would actually turn our blood green.

That chemical is biliverdin, which is filtered out by human livers as quickly as possible via conversion to bilirubin.

It’s not such a problem for these species of lizards discovered in New Guinea, which have levels of biliverdin more than twenty-times that ever seen in a human.

Blue

Figuratively, “blue blood” refers to a member of the noble class. The English expression is actually a direct translation of the Spanish sangre azul, and it came from the noble classes of Spain wanting to distinguish themselves from the darker skinned Moorish invaders.

The nobles of Spain claimed descent from the Visigoths, who were actually Germanic and when one has paler skin, the veins that show through their skin appear blue, hence the term. Although, keep in mind that while veins may appear blue, the blood in them actually isn’t.

It’s just a trick of light and refraction, much the same way that our Sun is actually white, but our atmosphere makes it look yellow and, in turn, makes the sky appear blue.

If you want to find real blue blood, you’ll have to seek out certain octopodes, crustaceans, snails and spiders, which are all related. Instead of hemoglobin to transport oxygen, they use hemocyanin, and you can see the clue in the name: cyan is a particular shade of blue.

Instead of iron, hemocyanin uses copper as the oxygen-binding element. When copper oxidizes, it doesn’t rust. Rather, it corrodes, so while corroded copper picks up a green patina, when it carries oxygen in blood, it imparts a blue color.

One of the most famous blue animal bloods came from horseshoe crabs, who until recently were harvested in order to collect their blood because it could be used to test for bacteria, contamination, and toxins during the manufacture of any medicine or medical device intended to go inside of a human.

While the blood harvesting isn’t intended to harm the animals, many of them were still dying in the process, so scientists finally switched to an artificial substitute.

Purple

Finally, we come to the blood color that Romans would have considered the most noble, but find it mostly in lowly worms. These animals use the molecule hemerythrin to transport oxygen, which has two molecules of iron. Before it’s oxygenated, it’s transparent. Once it’s oxygenated, it turns light purple, almost violet.

So there’s a rainbow tour of blood, proving that we have plenty of “alien” biology already here on Earth, as well as that the simplest of molecular changes can make a huge difference in a surface appearance.

Image via (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Momentous Monday: Welcome, Peter Bean

In honor of his marriage last Saturday, I’m running this story by Peter Bean again in which he writes about the Space Shuttle and its meaning to him. Hard to beleive that this piece originally ran at the beginning of lockdown in Los Angeles.

It’s a very special and, well, momentous Monday for one very big reason. This past Saturday, my friend Peter Bean tied the knot and married his fiancée, Cathleen, so in honor of the occasion, I’m rerunning this guest blog post he originally wrote in 2020.

First, I’m very excited to announce that today is the launch of what I hope will be many guest bloggers here, and my first guest is Peter Bean, who is a truly amazing human — the kind of person I really admire in that “I want to be him when I grow up” way. You can visit his blog and more at The Flushed.

Originally in honor of the ninth anniversary of the decommissioning of the space shuttle Discovery, in its honor I asked Peter to share his experience up close and personal with another shuttle, OV-105, better known as Endeavour, the one that wound up here in L.A. — my original, and his  adopted, hometown.

We finally both got to see the shuttle together a little over five years after it arrived here at the California Science Center, and it was a profoundly moving experience. Walking into that room and seeing the thing up close was like walking into a cathedral.

But now, I’m very proud to turn it over to Peter Bean, one of the most amazing and inspiring people I’ve ever met, and a walking anti-depressant. But don’t tell him I said any of that!


I hate you Space Shuttle, I love you Space Shuttle

By Peter Bean

Peter Bean as Endeavor continues its final voyage

The retired Endeavour space shuttle lumbers down an average Los Angeles street on October 13th, 2012, set to be on display in a local museum. As it rumbles towards me, feelings of love, hate, and sadness mix inside. The United States shuttle program crippled, gut-punched, and inspired humanity. The wings of the shuttle spread outward. Crowds of people push past me for a better look as I squint to see this plane. This is no rocket that pushed Neil Armstrong upward. I’m left wondering about when exactly we gave up the future. The Moon? Mars?

It was in a wood-paneled sixties-looking room complete with an ashtray, patterned fabric chairs, and white carpet. I can imagine the room was brimming with a specific old man funk due to the many, many reporters packed into the small space.

It’s January 5th 1972 and President Richard Nixon announces the shuttle program. He, his administration, and a Space Task Group he created all decided that the United States would not commit to a Mars mission, but instead to low-Earth orbit.

He’d be well out of office by the time the program began in 1981 due to his underhanded interest in getting dirt on his rivals. Between 1983 and 1992 space shuttles Columbia (1981), Challenger (1983), Discovery (1984), Atlantis (1985), and Endeavour (1992) were built and flown. Their primary function: deliver satellites into Earth’s orbit. No longer would we stretch humanity’s arms. No longer would we touch the soil of alien worlds.

The gut punch. Space isn’t easy. The Endeavour space shuttle is now directly in front of me as I stand on the sidewalk and I can see the nooks, the knobs, and the scrapes. It’s not the hulking beast I came to think of in my head. It’s fragile and vulnerable.

A miracle it too didn’t retire in the tragic way its sister ships did. Challenger disintegrated upon launch and killed all seven astronauts in 1986. Columbia broke up during reentry in 2003, killing all of its seven crew.

Challenger’s error came from an O-ring malfunction due to cost-cutting with new shuttle ship building. Columbia’s was a more systematic error in its underbelly shielding. Its sleek black bottom was meant to take on the heat of re-entry. Each tile is quite fragile and lightweight. It’s a marvel of engineering, but its fragility became its downfall.

After these public disasters we realized, as a country, that space very much was not, and is not easy. If there could be a silver lining to these tragedies, it came in the form of international relations. The Russian space program Roscosmos would help us with continued access to the ISS and beyond from then until the present day.

Endeavour’s many cones that form its butt inch past me at a snail’s pace and I can now see the other side of this wide Los Angeles street. There’s a large crowd of people smiling and waving at this space ship. A little girl sits on her dad’s shoulders watching.

With all of the missed opportunities, bloodshed, and limitations, there’s one thing the shuttle program has that Apollo missions before it didn’t: An Enterprise. The prototype ship named Enterprise was built in 1976 and never flew a mission.

I was a child when the shuttle program was in full force, but the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation got me falling in love with space exploration. Much like the beloved Enterprise ships of Captain Kirk and Picard, these real-world shuttles are objects that represent our need to explore. There are four surviving shuttles that a little kid can look upon seated high on their parents’ shoulders.

I recently had the chance to experience an Apollo VR game. It began with me sitting in a similar wood-paneled room much like the room in which Nixon announced the shuttle program, complete with an ashtray and blue fabric chairs. On the rounded television, President John F. Kennedy’s moon speech is blaring. His words echo around the room “Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships. As well as high reward. So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer.”

The game carts me to the tall Saturn V rocket and I’m tucked in. I’m blasted off and ultimately in the lunar lander with Neil Armstrong. As we stand on the moon with my cats rubbing my leg, attempting to break my immersion, I glance upwards at the blue Earth.

It’s a mesmerizing sight that I’m in awe of. It’s often said that when we went to the moon, we discovered Earth. Neil and I (we’re on a first name basis) look back at our fragile world and Carl Sagan‘s voice pounds in my memory from his show Cosmos, when he talked about future space explorers:

“They will strain to find the blue dot. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was. How perilous our infancy.”

Since the Apollo program, the shuttles launched many Earth-monitoring satellites that helped us understand climate change. The Hubble space telescope was launched to help us see into deep space, stretching our eyes farther than the Apollo missions ever could.

The space shuttle Endeavour is now in the distance on this 2012 October day and, despite the potential crippling effect it had on getting humans beyond Earth’s orbit, the crowd around me is a testament to our affection for this object, this ship.

The shuttle program was a step towards something greater. It helped us see beyond our solar system and helped us understand the danger of space. It didn’t dull our curiosity about space, it enflamed it. As President Kennedy described, “It is one of the great adventures of all time.”

Shuttle Visit 02

Image credits:

Header: ©2018 Jon Bastian: Peter and Endeavour meet face-to-face at the California Science Center to talk about their love-hate relationship.

Top of Peter’s post: ©2012 Peter Bean: on the trail of Endeavour’s final voyage to its new forever home. That’s right, it’s a shelter shuttle!

End of article: ©2018 Peter Bean: Curtis Crumbie, Peter Bean, and Jon Bastian under the shuttle at the California Science Center.

If you’d like to be a guest-blogger, use the form below, or send me an email if the form isn’t showing up for you. I anticipate launching the program on May 16, 2020.

Theatre Thursday: It takes character

As the 2020-21 season has become “The Years without Theatre,” it’s still important to remember that the show must — and will — go on. While neither I nor any of my friends are currently performing live, we’ve found ways to do it virtually, usually via Zoom.

For the last eighteen months, I’ve been doing improv every Monday night remotely with the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League. We just don’t have any audience besides ourselves. But despite not having live venues at the moment, it doesn’t mean we’re not creating.

A question I get a lot as a writer is, “Where do your characters come from, anyway?” The answer varies, depending on what format I’m working in.

For stage plays, I usually, but not always, base them on real events, so I have at least those historical figures to start with, and can find plenty of material on their temperament, etc. Of course, every good historical fiction requires its fictional characters, and these I will generally discover in figuring out how to tell the story of the main character.

For example, I have a play about the famous mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, who was assassinated by a Christian mob in 415 C.E. In that play, I have four historical characters: Hypatia; Isidorus, her husband; Nestorius, a former student (and rumored lover); and Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria.

Since the play deals with themes of rationality vs. religion, history vs. myth, and loyalty vs. belief, the made-up characters I created were a current student of Hypatia’s as an echo of Nestorius, and her two servants, young women who represent another opposing faction in the discussion, one Jewish and the other Christian.

As for how I developed those characters, when I write my plays I prefer to do them in workshops with a regular group of readers, so I start with a direction and voice for the character, write the first draft before I start reading it in short chunks, and then let the interpretation of the actor I’ve cast help guide rounding out and refining that character.

The play of mine that’s about to go up, Screamin’ Muskrat Love!, is not based on historical figures and really isn’t based on real people, but the germ of the play did come from my real life  Basically, as he was getting up in years — and after having been a widower for longer than he’d been married, my father met a young woman in a grocery store who seemed to take an interest in him.

And when I say young, basically she was in her late 20s and he was well past Medicare time. Can you say, “Taking advantage of?” My wicked half-sister and I teamed up to push her out of Dad’s life, but in the process I learned about the very common scam where young women con artists (always working with their families) will look for older men shopping alone in grocery stores, usually during the day, then arrange to bump into them and show lots of attention.

The ultimate goal is to hook up, move in, marry up, and then inherit everything out from under the actual family. I totally get why a man my dad’s age would fall for it, though. At least to a point.

Anyway, only the idea of a young woman seducing an older man with the ultimate goal of cheating his kids out of his house made it into the play. I put a lot of twists and turns into it, also made it my tribute to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and then turned it into a door-slammer of a French farce.

As my director likes to remind me, “Do you know what the most expensive part of a set is? A functional door. I counted. You know how many doors you wrote into this? Eight! You wrote eight damn doors!”

(Okay, he wasn’t really pissed, he was taking it as more of a directing challenge, but it was yet another educational moment for me as a playwright.)

At least every single one of the eight gets good use. And, like my other plays, I developed each of the characters based upon the actor(s) who regularly read them in the weekly developmental sessions.

Screenplays are a little trickier if only because they are a lot harder to develop in “read it out loud” workshops, and that’s because, unlike plays, the action parts take a lot of precedence, and there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone read paragraphs of action split up by sparse dialogue.

Sometimes, I’ll do a developmental reading version of a screenplay, which means that I’ll make a copy of the file, and then cut down all of those actions to their bare essentials, putting the emphasis on the dialogue, but it’s a lot of extra work that can actually completely change the feeling of the entire thing.

On the other hand, editing down action to get all the points across in minimal space is never a bad thing, and can actually make the script tighter overall.

But because I don’t develop screenplays with a real cast regularly reading them, I resort to different techniques, which are also the ones I use for short stories and prose.

These basically involve a combination of modelling and mental improvisation. By modelling, I’m not talking about strutting down a runway. Rather, I’m talking about finding some real-world example or person to base some aspect of the character on, and then going from there.

It really depends on emphasis. Do I need a really strong visual for this character, or is it more personality and behavior? Or is it a little bit of both? I do find though that for works with a lot of characters that it’s most helpful to base parts of them on people I know IRL or images I find online, but these are only the most superficial parts.

I like to create a visual reference, which is simply a document with each of the characters’ names and a picture of what I think they look like. That’s because I’m a very visually oriented person. Your mileage may vary, but the idea would be the same. Find whatever evokes your creativity and cements a personality in your head, and then come up with exemplars for that.

The names you give your characters can also help as well, and I am never above going for the symbolic, although I will try to hide those in really, really obscure ways. The novel I’ve been excerpting in the Saturday Morning Post, by the way, has 38 named and significant characters.

Some of the minor ones were shorthanded to remind me of which friends I’d tossed into the mix. Meanwhile, the major ones are Easter eggs to be found — crack the code, predict the story. But, interestingly enough, while the minor characters might be real people dropped in as cameos, the major ones never are.

Why? Because I’m not writing about people I know. I’m writing stuff inspired by bits and pieces of the human condition. So I might borrow one friend’s face just to give me a visual or emotional anchor, but then graft on another friend’s personality, toss in a few traits of my own, leaven with some funny real-life story I heard somewhere, blend judiciously, and then turn to the improv.

See, long before I started doing improv as a performer, apparently I was doing it as a writer. I just didn’t know it. My technique since forever has always been this: Plan nothing ahead, just start with the idea, toss a couple of characters into the scene, and let them do their thing. You give them the particulars of location and relationship. They do the rest.

But, just like with improv as performed, there has to be a character before there can be anything else, which is why all of these little writerly inspirations and visualizations. I guess for me personally, the mantra is “If I can see it, I can be it.”

Well, at least on the page. The funny thing I’ve discovered in doing improv, as opposed to improvising characters in my head, is that as a performer I am actually very physical and visceral. I can find a character very quickly if I change my voice or take on a posture.

Visualizing won’t do it for me on stage. But if I start to speak in a particular cadence or tone or accent, or stand a certain way, it’s like I’m suddenly possessed and the character takes over.

When it comes to writing, the secret is attitude, as in the character’s point of view. The real focus, though, is on what the character wants. That was the number one thing that my playwriting Jedi master Jerry Fey imposed upon me.

Every character has a need. That need is the most important thing in the world to them, whether it’s making coffee this morning or winning the race for Prime Minister. Giving each character a strong need and never letting them deviate from wanting it creates stakes, and this creates drama (or comedy) and compels your audience.

That much is true in all creative writing in whatever format, and definitely in improv. If a character doesn’t need something, we don’t care.

And, by the way, in comedy, the stakes are actually much higher than in drama. Why? Because in drama, the stakes are realistic: Detective Margaret Davis wants to solve this case even though the DA is against her. Doctor Johnson has to cure her patient of an unknown disease. Gerald wants to save his marriage from his wife’s drinking problem, but her family is no help.

In comedy, the stakes are even higher because they are ridiculously trivial: Sheila would kill to win the baking contest, but so would her opponent; Arnold goes to great lengths to cover things up after he lies about his height and age to a prospective Tinder date, but his best friend gets wind of both and is interested in her as well; in order to not get fired for excessive tardiness, Arnold goes to extreme measures to gaslight his boss and bribe his coworkers, but one of them won’t be bribed…

One of the masters of turning the trivial into high comedy is Rowan Atkinson, especially in his persona of Mr.Bean. He can turn something as simple as moving a tea cup into the most elaborate of farces simply because the character is thwarted in his attempts — and the more he tries and fails, the more vitally important completing that simple action becomes.

So the TL;DR of the piece is this: Writers and improvisers create their characters out of whole cloth, with no real basis in reality, but we will sprinkle a combination of people we know and like, people we know and don’t like, people who are famous, pictures we find online, and humans we see wandering around, toss it into the food processor in our heads, and come out with a people salad that isn’t one bit you, although it might be a bunch of bits of you and other people we both know.

So I guess the real answer to the question, “Where do you get your characters from?” Is: I just pull them out of my ass.

Hey — since that’s literally true of a few of them over the years, I’d call it a fair answer.

Image by Skeeze  from Pixabay.

Wonderous Wednesday: 5 Things that are older than you think

A lot of our current technology seems surprisingly new. The iPhone is only about fourteen years old, for example, although the first Blackberry, a more primitive form of smart phone, came out in 1999. The first actual smart phone, IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator, was introduced in 1992 but not available to consumers until 1994. That was also the year that the internet started to really take off with people outside of universities or the government, although public connections to it had been available as early as 1989 (remember Compuserve, anyone?), and the first experimental internet nodes were connected in 1969.

Of course, to go from room-sized computers communicating via acoustic modems along wires to handheld supercomputers sending their signals wirelessly via satellite took some evolution and development of existing technology. Your microwave oven has a lot more computing power than the system that helped us land on the moon, for example. But the roots of many of our modern inventions go back a lot further than you might think. Here are five examples.

Alarm clock

As a concept, alarm clocks go back to the ancient Greeks, frequently involving water clocks. These were designed to wake people up before dawn, in Plato’s case to make it to class on time, which started at daybreak; later, they woke monks in order to pray before sunrise.

From the late middle ages, church towers became town alarm clocks, with the bells set to strike at one particular hour per day, and personal alarm clocks first appeared in 15th-century Europe. The first American alarm clock was made by Levi Hutchins in 1787, but he only made it for himself since, like Plato, he got up before dawn. Antoine Redier of France was the first to patent a mechanical alarm clock, in 1847. Because of a lack of production during WWII due to the appropriation of metal and machine shops to the war effort (and the breakdown of older clocks during the war) they became one of the first consumer items to be mass-produced just before the war ended. Atlas Obscura has a fascinating history of alarm clocks that’s worth a look.

Fax machine

Although it’s pretty much a dead technology now, it was the height of high tech in offices in the 80s and 90s, but you’d be hard pressed to find a fax machine that isn’t part of the built-in hardware of a multi-purpose networked printer nowadays, and that’s only because it’s such a cheap legacy to include. But it might surprise you to know that the prototypical fax machine, originally an “Electric Printing Telegraph,” dates back to 1843.

Basically, as soon as humans figured out how to send signals down telegraph wires, they started to figure out how to encode images — and you can bet that the second image ever sent in that way was a dirty picture. Or a cat photo.

Still, it took until 1964 for Xerox to finally figure out how to use this technology over phone lines and create the Xerox LDX. The scanner/printer combo was available to rent for $800 a month — the equivalent of around $6,500 today — and it could transmit pages at a blazing 8 per minute. The second generation fax machine only weighed 46 lbs and could send a letter-sized document in only six minutes, or ten page per hour. Whoot — progress!

You can actually see one of the Electric Printing Telegraphs in action in the 1948 movie Call Northside 777, in which it plays a pivotal role in sending a photograph cross-country in order to exonerate an accused man.

In case you’re wondering, the title of the film refers to a telephone number from back in the days before what was originally called “all digit dialing.” Up until then, telephone exchanges (what we now call prefixes) were identified by the first two letters of a word, and then another digit or two or three. (Once upon a time, in some areas of the US, phone numbers only had five digits.) So NOrthside 777 would resolve itself to 667-77, with 667 being the prefix. This system started to end in 1958, and a lot of people didn’t like that.

Of course, with the advent of cell phones, prefixes and even area codes have become pretty meaningless, since people tend to keep the number they had in their home town regardless of where they move to, and a “long distance call” is mostly a dead concept now as well, which is probably a good thing.

CGI

When do you suppose the first computer animation appeared on film? You may have heard that the original 2D computer generated imagery (CGI) used in a movie was in 1973 in the original film Westworld, inspiration for the recent TV series. Using very primitive equipment, the visual effects designers simulated pixilation of actual footage in order to show us the POV of the robotic gunslinger played by Yul Brynner. It turned out to be a revolutionary effort.

The first 3D CGI happened to be in this film’s sequel, Futureworld in 1976, where the effect was used to create the image of a rotating 3D robot head. However, the first ever CGI sequence was actually made in… 1961. Called Rendering of a planned highway, it was created by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology on what was then the fastest computer in the world, the BESK, driven by vacuum tubes. It’s an interesting effort for the time, but the results are rather disappointing.

Microwave oven

If you’re a Millennial, then microwave ovens have pretty much always been a standard accessory in your kitchen, but home versions don’t predate your birth by much. Sales began in the late 1960s. By 1972 Litton had introduced microwave ovens as kitchen appliances. They cost the equivalent of about $2,400 today. As demand went up, prices fell. Nowadays, you can get a small, basic microwave for under $50.

But would it surprise you to learn that the first microwave ovens were created just after World War II? In fact, they were the direct result of it, due to a sudden lack of demand for magnetrons, the devices used by the military to generate radar in the microwave range. Not wanting to lose the market, their manufacturers began to look for new uses for the tubes. The idea of using radio waves to cook food went back to 1933, but those devices were never developed.

Around 1946, engineers accidentally realized that the microwaves coming from these devices could cook food, and voìla! In 1947, the technology was developed, although only for commercial use, since the devices were taller than an average man, weighed 750 lbs and cost the equivalent of $56,000 today. It took 20 years for the first home model, the Radarange, to be introduced for the mere sum of $12,000 of today’s dollars.

Music video

Conventional wisdom says that the first music video to ever air went out on August 1, 1981 on MTV, and it was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. It was the first to air on MTV, but the concept of putting visuals to rock music as a marketing tool goes back a lot farther than that.

Artists and labels were making promotional films for their songs back at almost the beginning of the 1960s, with the Beatles a prominent example. Before these, though, was the Scopitone, a jukebox that could play films in sync with music popular from the late 1950s to mid-1960s, and their predecessor was the Panoram, a similar concept popular in the 1940s which played short programs called Soundies.

However, these programs played on a continuous loop, so you couldn’t chose your song. Soundies were produced until 1946, which brings us to the real predecessor of music videos: Vitaphone Shorts, produced by Warner Bros. as sound began to come to film. Some of these featured musical acts and were essentially miniature musicals themselves. They weren’t shot on video, but they introduced the concept all the same. Here, you can watch a particularly fun example from 1935 in 3-strip Technicolor that also features cameos by various stars of the era in a very loose story.

Do you know of any things that are actually a lot older than people think? Let us know in the comments!

Photo credit: Jake von Slatt

Stupid Excel tricks #1: INDEX and MATCH

Enter the matrix… math

There is an entire class of functions in Excel that take things to a whole new level, and they are called matrices. Maybe you ran across this in math in school and have forgotten, maybe not, but the idea with a matrix is that it takes one grid of numbers of X x Y dimensions and uses operators to manipulate it using another grid of numbers that may or may not have the same dimensions.

The great part is that to use these functions in Excel, you don’t need to know any of that. Like I’ve mentioned before, it’s exactly like using a cookbook. Plug in the ingredients as specified, voila, the dish pops out the other end.

Maybe you’ve used the functions VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP, or maybe not, but they can be useful if you want to match exactly one criteria in a table and if the data you’re looking up is somewhere to the right of that criteria. So it’s perfect if you have something like a unique account number on the far left and want to use that to look up a name or phone number to the right of it:

=VLOOKUP(M2,$A1:$L556,6,FALSE)

This tells Excel to take the value in cell M2, compare it to all of the values in column A of the named range, then look up the value in the sixth column counting from the column defined in the second variable (in this case, F) where the first column is equal to M2. “FALSE” just means to use an exact match, whereas “TRUE” would mean to use an approximate match.

Again, this is great if you’re searching something with unique values in both places — there is only one account number, and only one data point associated with it.

Now what if you have multiple entries for the same person with different account numbers, or multiple sizes and colors of a product with differing prices, or you need to search on more than one data point in different columns, or your table was set up with the criteria you want to use somewhere to the right of the data points you’re searching?

Welcome, matrix functions! These are two nested commands that work miracles together. The first is INDEX, and what it basically does is point to a column with data that you’re going to pull stuff from, then follow that up with the criteria you’re going to use to do that. You can see the difference from the LOOKUP functions right off the bat, because those start with the single data point you’re going to use to search the data. The INDEX function starts with the place you’re going to get the answer from.

The MATCH function is the matrix math, and it allows you to specify multiple criteria matched to different columns in the source data. The nice part about it is that you can have as many different criteria as you need — first name, last name, account number; size, gender, color, style; title, author, binding, edition; and so on. And each of these can point to any particular bit of data you need — monthly cost, price, location, phone number, address, and so on. Any bit of data in the table can be found this way.

If you want to put a physical analogy on it, it’s this. LOOKUP functions are a librarian with a sliding ladder that moves horizontally or can be climbed vertically. But the way it works is that they first move it or climb it in the direction you specify until it hits the target word. Then, it slides or climbs the other direction however many rows or columns you specified, and has now targeted exactly one cell with the answer. Oh — and it can only move to the right or down from that initial search cell.

On the other hand, think of INDEX and MATCH as a whole bunch of librarians who have set out all over the same bookcases, but are simultaneously searching the rows and columns, and calling back and forth to each other to indicate what bits they’ve found that match.

If you work with any kind of inventory or any data sets where people’s info is broken down (as it should be) into separate first and last names and account identifiers, then you need to know these functions, because they will save you a ton of time. And the basic way they work is like this:

INDEX($E1:$E1405,MATCH(1,(W2=$C$1:$C$1405)*(X2=$D$1:$D$1405)*(AA2=$J1:$J1405),0))

(Note: All column and row designations here are arbitrary and made up, so they don’t matter.)

That might look complicated, but it’s not. Let’s break it down. The first part, referring to the E column is the “Where” of the formula. That is, this is the column you’re pulling your data from. For example, if you want to use size, color, and style to find price, then this would be whatever column has the price data in it.

Next, we nest the MATCH function, and this lets INDEX know that what comes next will be the instructions it needs. The “1,” inside the parenthesis is a flag for MATCH, telling it to return one value. After that, each nested thing — and you can have as many as you need — follows the form “Single cell to look at equals column to search.” So, as seen here, for example, in the search data, column W might be the first name, and cell W2 is the cell corresponding to what we’re looking at. Meanwhile, column C in the target data includes first names, so what we’re saying is “Look for the single value of W2 down the entire column of C1 to C1405. The dollar signs are there to lock it as a fixed range.

All of the other parentheticals here follow the same pattern. Maybe X is the column for last name in the source and D is where the last names are in the target; and AA is account number, as is J.

The two other interesting things to note in building matrix equations: The single cell and the column are joined by an equals sign, not a comma, and this is important because, without it, your formula will break. What this tells Excel is that whatever the matrix pulls out of single cell must equal what’s in the column at that point.

The other thing to notice is that between the searches within parentheses, there aren’t commas, but rather asterisks, *, which indicate multiplication, and this is the heart of Matrix math.

What this tells the formula is to take the results of the first thingie, apply those criteria and pass it along to the second. In other words, if the first evaluation turned up nothing, that is mathematically a zero, and so it would quash anything coming from the second and third functions. On the other hand, if it comes up as a one, then whatever the second formula turns up will stay if there’s a one, dump if not, and then pass on to the third, fourth, etc..

Lather, rinse, repeat, for as many steps down the process you’ve created. A false result or zero at any point in the matrix math will kill it and result in nil. Meanwhile, as long as the tests keep turning up positives, what will fall out of the ass end of it is the honest legit “This data is the true data.”

Funny how that works, isn’t it? The only other trick you need to remember is that after you’ve entered this formula, you need to close it out by hitting Ctrl-Shift-Enter to let Excel know it’s a matrix formula. Then, if you want to copy it, you can’t use the usual Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V. Instead, you have to highlight the column with the formula at the top, then hit Ctrl-D. Voila… the whole thing duplicates down the column — which is what the “D” in the command stands for. To do the same thing across a row, the command is Ctrl-R, which you could think of as “repeat” or “replicate.”

And there you have it — a way to search multiple criteria in a row in order to find a specific data point in a table. You’re welcome.

But there’s more! One very important trick I’ve learned is how to avoid getting the dreaded “N/A#” in your results, because that totally breaks any summation you’re doing on the data. So I add an extra layer to the whole thing with a combination of the IF() and ISERROR() formulas.

This can make the thing really long, but worth it. I suggest entering the short INDEX formula first, make sure it’s working, and then use F2 to edit the cell, highlight everything and hit CTRL-C. Next, add “IF(ISERROR(” before the existing formula, move your cursor to the end, close out the ISERROR with a right parenthesis, “)”, then add comma, 0 (zero), and hit Ctrl-V to paste a copy of the original formal at the end. Close that with a final right paren.
The whole thing looks like this:

IF(ISERROR(INDEX($E1:$E1405,MATCH(1,(W2=$C$1:$C$1405)*(X2=$D$1:$D$1405)*(AA2=$J1:$J1405),0))),0,INDEX($E1:$E1405,MATCH(1,(W2=$C$1:$C$1405)*(X2=$D$1:$D$1405)*(AA2=$J1:$J1405),0)))

Sure, it gets a little long, but the advantage will be that if what you’re looking for isn’t in the source data, you’ll get a nice zero instead of an error message. And if you’re searching a text field, like size or name, then use “” instead of 0 after the ISERROR to get a blank cell.

Wednesday Wonders: Baby, it’s cold inside

A hundred and ten years ago, in 1911, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes made an interesting discovery while futzing around with very low temperatures. It’s a discovery that will lead to many modern innovations that affect us just over a century later.

Strange things happen as the temperature drops toward absolute zero, which is basically the temperature equivalent of the speed of light in a vacuum (C) being the velocity limit for anything with mass. Oh, we’ve gotten really close to absolute zero — within nanokelvins — and in theory we could get really close to the speed of light, although that would take ridiculous amounts of energy.

But… where matter can’t be is right at these two figures: Exactly absolute zero, or exactly C. There’s nothing in the equations, though, that say that objects with mass cannot move faster than the speed of light or be colder than absolute zero.

Practically speaking, it would require infinite energy to jump from 99.99999% to 100.00001% of C, so that’s not possible, but scientists in Germany think they may have achieved temperatures below absolute zero.

Of course, these create weird situations like negative temperatures in an absolute sense, and not just as measured. That is, while we can say that it’s 24 below zero outside, that really isn’t a negative temperature by strict definition. It’s just a temperature that’s negative on the scale we’re using.

Remember: 1º on the Kelvin scale is actually –457.87ºF.

These kinds of negative temperatures are actually below that absolute physical limit, and so they represent thermal energy that behaves the opposite as temperatures above absolute zero. And, in all likelihood, an object moving faster than light would also travel backwards in time thanks to the time dilation effect being reversed.

These, though, are theoretical arguments. What we do know is that things get weird as the temperature drops. At a few nanokelvin, the only energy left in the system is quantum, and so these strange effects take over on a massive scale, pun intended.

The key here is that as atoms lose energy and cool down, they stop moving as much, eventually reaching a point where they’re just sitting there. But… there’s a principle in physics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that there is a fundamental limit to the precision with which you can measure two connected properties of any particle.

For example, if you measure position precisely, you can’t measure momentum with much accuracy, and vice versa. The sharper one measurement is, the fuzzier the other one becomes. Not to get too deep into the science of it, but there are two classes of elementary particle, Fermions and bosons.

Fermions are elitists, and when they’re in a bunch, they don’t like to occupy the same quantum energy state. Electrons are totally fermions, which is why that whole concept of an atom as electrons neatly orbiting a nucleus like planets orbit the Sun is only a metaphor and very inaccurate.

Each electron in an atom occupies a different quantum energy state, which is why there’s the concept of electron “shells” filling up, but the location of each electron is not a unique point that changes over time. It’s a statistical probability of a particular electron being in a particular place at any given time, and so the “shape” of those shells can vary from a sphere to two squashed and joined spheres to distended ovoid shapes, and so on.

Bosons, on the other hand, are egalitarians, don’t mind sharing the same quantum energy state. In fact, they love to do it. This leads to a very interesting form of matter known as a Bose-Einstein Condensate.

Basically, at a low enough temperature, a bunch of atoms can suddenly coalesce into a single quantum particle with the same energy state and even become visible to a regular microscope.

Why? Because when we stop their movement, we can measure their momentum at near zero. Therefore, our ability to measure where they are becomes very inaccurate. It’s like the fermions all gather together and then balloon up into one entity in order to hide their individual locations.

This would be the equivalent of a bunch of people preventing GPS tracking of each of them by leaving their phones in one room and then all of them heading out in opposite directions in a big circle. Or sphere, if they can manage that.

The discovery that Onnes made in 1911 is related to this phenomenon. In his case, he dipped a solid mercury wire into liquid helium at 4.2 degrees Kelvin and discovered that all electrical resistance went away. That is, he discovered a property of matter known as superconductivity.

The same principle and the low temperature led to the electromagnetic force interacting in a different way — fermions meet bosons under extreme conditions, and electric and magnetic sort of separate, or at least keep themselves at arm’s length, as it were.

This can lead to all sorts of interesting effects, like levitation.

This is the technology taking maglev trains to the next level. But superconductivity is also used in things like medical imaging devices, motors, generators, transformers, and computer parts.

But the holy grail of the field is finding the so-called “room temperature” superconductor. All right. In some ways, “room temperature” is a bit of a misnomer, and the warmest superconductor yet found has a transition temperature of –23ºC. But a more promising substance could be a superconductor at 53ºC. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it requires ridiculously high atmospheric pressures to do it — in the range of a million or more times the pressure at sea level.

Oh, well.

Of course, the U.S. Navy did file a patent for a “room remperature” superconductor just over two years ago, but it’s not clear from the patent whether they used the “Not 0ºK” definition of room temperature or the popular press definition of about 77ºF.

It makes sense, though, that barring low temperature, some other extreme would be needed to achieve the effect. Nature just seems to work like that, whether it’s extremely low temperatures or very high pressures required to create superconductivity, or the extreme gravity and energy conversion required to create that other holy grail so beloved of alchemy: transmutation of matter, specifically turning lead into gold.

Ah, yes. If those alchemists only knew that every star was constantly transmuting elements every second of every day strictly through the power of enormous gravity and pressure — hydrogen to helium and so on, right down to iron — then who knows. One of them might have managed fusion centuries ago.

Okay, not likely. But just over a century ago, superconductivity was discovered, and it’s been changing the world ever since. Happy 110th anniversary!

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 had to wrestle with recently in a former career was a database showing the various insurance policies people 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 was 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],...[Cell(n)])

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, which has been seeming even more remote by the day. 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.

Theatre Thursday: Sometimes, the movie is better: part 2

Hey — today was Rosa Parks’s birthday! And Ida Lupino’s! And mine! Show some love, whether it’s by commenting, subscribing, or dropping by that tip jar up there.

Last week’s post was all about how the film version of Cabaret was much better than the original stage musical, although that musical was based on a play that was based on a book.

This time around, the derivative work started out as an off-Broadway musical that went to Broadway and then to film, so there aren’t any other layers to unpack. The stage show premiered in 1967 and hit Broadway the next year. It took just over a decade for it to make it to film, directed by a Czech immigrant to America, Miloš Forman. And, honestly, there’s a really good reason that he can relate to political protests in 1968.

Or, in other words, he showed how an immigrant can get a better handle on life in America than most Americans can and in this film, he nailed it.

But back up a bit. The original stage show was a pretty shallow review that only ever got attention because the cast got nude, they sang dirty words, and explicitly mentioned issues of race and vaguely protested the Vietnam War. That was pretty much it, and the thing really didn’t have any kind of plot beyond that, nor much of a real relationship between the characters.

Honestly, the script is a hot mess, more interested in abstract symbolism than in anything else.

But when this whole thing becomes a movie at the end of the ‘70s, Miloš gets what was going on in the ‘60s, and, bonus points, decides to take the approach of staging all of the musical numbers in real life. In other words, he’s going throwback old school — the exact opposite of the Cabaret approach — and, oddly enough, he makes it work.

Oh. Did I mention that part where the original stage show really didn’t have any coherent story? Right, I did.

This was the other big thing that this version brought to the table through two simple tweaks: Take the Lead Couple (a musical tradition), remove them from the hippie tribe, and make them the fish out of water (Claude and Sheila), then eliminate the concept of secondary couple entirely, and replace it with the rest of the core Tribe: Berger, Woof, Hud, and Jeannie — any one of whom could have been in a couple with any of the others.

In case you’re wondering, this is the show I’m writing about.

Hair (1979)

Much like the film adaptation of Pink Floyd — The Wall would three years later, Hair begins in relative silence as our lead character, Claude Hooper Bukowski (John Savage), leaves his house in Oklahoma. It’s a foggy and probably very early morning. Sound and colors are subdued and muted as Claude’s father drives him to a roadside bus stop in the middle of nowhere.

We won’t know for sure until almost the last shot of the film, but this is most likely the summer of 1967, which tells us something else: Claude is no poor boy from the sticks, as his father insists on giving him $50 cash, in case of emergencies.

Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $390 now.

Claude hops onto the bus and sets off for New York City, and this is where the music begins as he gets closer to his destination. By the way, Forman makes the very interesting choice to have the camera track from right to left instead of the other direction. I don’t know whether he was just confused about American geography, but the tradition in film here is that right to left means going west, while left to right means going east.

So, in other words, to an American audience, the instinct is to feel like Claude is heading to California.

On the other hand, having come from Czechoslovakia, this may have been a very conscious choice on Forman’s part, representing a metaphorical journey to the west, from an oppressive, gray place to the land of freedom and color.

As soon as we hit Central Park and the opening number Age of Aquarius fully kicks in, we definitely explode in a riot of color in more ways than one. The entire cast of the movie was about as diverse as possible, and we pretty much have every ethnic group represented in the opening, with several interracial couples included.

Here, the costuming (and, naturally, hair) also manages to be spot-on, avoiding any of the usual media screw-ups when it comes to portraying the look of a fairly recent youth culture a decade after the fact.

There’s a lot to unpack in these opening six minutes, and they’re worth watching.

We’re a witness with Claude as he stumbles into this be-in in the park, and we also meet The Tribe — Berger (Treat Williams), Hud (Dorsey Wright), Woof (Don Dacus), and Jeannie (Annie Golden) — who will become that all-important collective secondary couple.

Here, Claude also has his first vision of Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo), clearly a member of the patrician class, as she rides with two chaperones. She and Claude spot each other, and both are clearly smitten.

There’s also a lot of magic going on, and one particularly delightful moment comes when two mounted policemen approach the group. Most of the flee, but a brave duo of dancers remains, and their movements seemingly control the horses, making the cops powerless. It’s a really nice touch along with everything else.

The choreography here and throughout is stunning, and I have to give a big nod to Twyla Tharp, who does remarkable work, and pops up onscreen several times. This was her first of five film credits, a small part of a very long and illustrious career.

It’s very interesting to contrast her choreography with Bob Fosse’s in anything he did, but particularly Cabaret. Fosse was all about control through the concept of isolation. What this means in choreography is that a dancer should have precise control of any particular part of their body at any time, right down to a fingertip or a toe.

This is why a lot of Fosse’s moves seem to be intentionally robotic or jerky, with emphasis frequently being given to, say, just the hands, or the way a dancer tilts their head. Compare the choreography in the clip above to this bit featuring Fosse himself, with Gwen Verdon, in the film adaptation of Damn Yankees.

On the surface, it may seem like those are loose movements, especially given the tempo and tune, but if you watch closely, they are anything but. And you can also see the emphasis of ballet in Fosse’s work.

Tharp’s work in Hair, in contrast, seems to defy gravity, and clearly combines influences from tai chi and gymnastics. The dancer’s bodies are loose and limber, and rather than clearly controlling themselves, they seem to be drawn along by external forces.

It’s a perfect visual metaphor for the film, in fact.

Now one thing about the original is that it has a bunch of character intro songs at the beginning that don’t really introduce the characters. Sure, they give an actor something fun to sing, but they didn’t really have any greater meaning. Here, they become background to the more important thing happening, which is actual character development.

One of the first and most important of these is right after Claude meets The Tribe. They ask him for change, and he wonders why he should give it to them. At first unmoved by their claim that Jeannie is pregnant and they haven’t eaten for two days, he finally tosses them what’s probably half a buck — about $3.90 now.

Now, one of the things that happens in the opening is that The Tribe comes across Sheila and company on their horses, and Woof sincerely asks if he can ride for just five minutes, because he’s never done it and he’s always wanted to. Naturally, they refuse.

But as soon as Berger realizes they have enough money, what does he do? He makes sure that his friend gets his wish. They rent a horse and go for a ride and, when they catch up again with Sheila and her chaperones, Forman puts Woof’s intro number to perfect use.

It’s a little ditty that I like to use as an audition piece and it’s called Sodomy. It has exactly 23 words in its lyrics. Five of them are references to sex acts, none of them involving missionary sex, and two of them refer to basically the Indian Big Book of Sex.

Naturally it scandalizes the two older women with Sheila, although it’s not clear whether she’s so upset. Still, the trio rides off, passing Claude. Moments later, the horse that Berger and Woof were on runs by rider-less, and the Tribe implores Claude to catch.

Remember: Claude is from Oklahoma, so he does, and takes the opportunity to show off some trick riding skills to Sheila, only to have them go one way at a fork in the trail while he goes the other. Another potentially intentional move by Forman: Sheila and company go right. Claude goes left.

The other intro numbers, which do have some powerful political content, come together during Claude’s first night in New York, after the Tribe has convinced him to hang out with him, then get him higher than fuck. In short order, the titles of these numbers are Colored Spade, Manchester, and I’m Black/Ain’t Got No.

The first one, performed by Hud and the people of color in the cast is basically a litany that throws just about every racist slur about black people right back at the white people, and Hud owns it here — clearly the original intention of the number.

It may seem un-PC now, but in reality it’s a clear and early example of “taking back the words.”

As if to emphasize that, Manchest is Berger introducing (and speaking for) Claude, and significantly all of the people of color vanish. Poof, instant erasure, as Berger describes Claude as being from Manchester, “England, England, across the Atlantic Sea.” It’s the American Empire in a nutshell.

Everyone returns and launches into the number Ain’t Got No, which is a litany worth repeating now, because it describes the true struggle that was going on at the time. It wasn’t about black vs. white. It was, and is, about have vs. have not.

After all, in this song, it’s all of the Tribe and hippies singing together.

Then morning comes, Claude wakes up, and starts to head off on his own. He’s about to leave when Berger notices a newspaper on the ground identifying Sheila, who is having her debutante party that very afternoon.

Side note: This means that she is probably sixteen. Since Claude comes to New York in response to being drafted, he’s probably not that much older. Pay no attention to the casting of actors who were 28 and 30 at the time the film was made.

But, again, Berger ignores logic and reason to help give a friend their dream. When Claude balks at crashing because he wasn’t invited, Berger replies, “Do you want to go to a party with me?”

And that’s the end of just the first act, which has already packed in a lot more character development, relationship, and meaning than the source material did in its entire length.

I could continue the deep-dive through the rest of it but that could easily turn into a 10,000 word post so, instead, I’d just urge you to see it. It’s currently available on Amazon Prime — I’ll leave you to search it yourselves because I’m not trying to monetize.

But the message of this film, which comes through much more clearly than it did in the stage show, is far from dated. The struggle we’re in is one of greed vs. community, fear vs. love, and hatred vs. hope.

Just substitute the concept of forcing people to go fight in the Vietnam War with the concept of forcing them to go back to work during a pandemic because, economically, they have no choice.

The rich could always wiggle their way out of the draft, whether it was via student deferments, daddy knowing Congressmen (they were all men then), or bone spurs.

The poor, not so much, unless they were willing to do things that would ruin their lives in other ways, like pretend to be homosexual, or insane, or flee to Canada — although one of Jimmy Carter’s first acts when he took office was to pardon the so-called “draft dodgers.”

Kind of seems familiar now, though, right? Hole up in your well-stocked mansion with no worries about where the money is coming from, lobby your Congressperson, Senator, or Governor to end the lockdown — for the people who work for you and earn you your money — or fly off to your private island.

Or… go back to work without proper PPE, maybe via public transportation, without health insurance, while you’re taking care of your kids and your elderly parent, and take your chances.

Watch Hair, listen to the message, and then do something. And remember: in the film version, Berger goes full on Jesus mode in order to help his friends.

Why astrology is bunk

A lot of people believe in astrology — but not only is there no basis in fact for it, believing in it can be dangerous.

This piece, which I first posted in 2019, continues to get constant traffic and I haven’t had a week go by that someone hasn’t given it a read. So I felt that it was worth bringing to the top again.

I know way too many otherwise intelligent adults who believe in astrology, and it really grinds my gears, especially whenever I see a lot of “Mercury is going retrograde — SQUEEEE” posts, and they are annoying and wrong.

The effect that Mercury in retrograde will have on us: Zero.

Fact

Mercury doesn’t “go retrograde.” We catch up with and then pass it, so it only looks like it’s moving backwards. It’s an illusion, and entirely a function of how planets orbit the sun, and how things look from here. If Mars had (semi)intelligent life, they would note periods when the Earth was in retrograde, but it’d be for the exact same reason.

Science

What force, exactly, would affect us? Gravity is out, because the gravitational effect of anything else in our solar system or universe is dwarfed by the Earth’s. When it comes to astrology at birth, your OB/GYN has a stronger gravitational effect on you than the Sun.

On top of that, the Sun has 99.9% of the mass of our solar system, which is how gravity works, so the Sun has the greatest gravitational influence on all of the planets. We only get a slight exception because of the size of our Moon and how close it is, but that’s not a part of astrology, is it? (Not really. They do Moon signs, but it’s not in the day-to-day.)

Some other force? We haven’t found one yet.

History

If astrology were correct, then there are one of two possibilities. A) It would have predicted the existence of Uranus and Neptune, and possibly Pluto, long before they were discovered, since astrology goes back to ancient times, but those discoveries happened in the modern era, or B) It would not have allowed for the addition of those three planets (and then the removal of Pluto) once discovered, since all of the rules would have been set down. And it certainly would have accounted for the 13th sign, Ophiuchus, which, again, wasn’t found until very recently, by science.

So… stop believing in astrology, because it’s bunk. Mercury has no effect on us whatsoever, other than when astronomers look out with telescopes and watch it transit the Sun, and use its movements to learn more about real things, like gravity.

Experiment

The late, great James Randi, fraud debunker extraordinaire, did a classroom exercise that demolishes the accuracy of those newspaper horoscopes, and here it is — apologies for the low quality video.

Yep. Those daily horoscopes you read are general enough to be true for anyone, and confirmation bias means that you’ll latch onto the parts that fit you and ignore the parts that don’t although, again, they’re designed to fit anyone — and no one is going to remember the generic advice or predictions sprinkled in or, if they do, will again pull confirmation bias only when they think they came true.

“You are an intuitive person who likes to figure things out on your own, but doesn’t mind asking for help when necessary. This is a good week to start something new, but be careful on Wednesday. You also have a coworker who is plotting to sabotage you, but another who will come to your aid. Someone with an S in their name will become suddenly important, and they may be an air sign. When you’re not working on career, focus on home life, although right now your Jupiter is indicating that you need to do more organizing than cleaning. There’s some conflict with Mars, which says that you may have to deal with an issue you’ve been having with a neighbor. Saturn in your third house indicates stability, so a good time to keep on binge-watching  your favorite show, but Uranus retrograde indicates that you’ll have to take extra effort to protect yourself from spoilers.”

So… how much of that fit you? Or do you think will? Honestly, it is 100% pure, unadulterated bullshit that I just made up, without referencing any kind of astrological chart at all, and it could apply to any sign because it mentions none.

Plus I don’t think it’s even possible for Uranus to go retrograde from the Earth’s point of view.

Conclusion

If you’re an adult, you really shouldn’t buy into this whole astrology thing. The only way any of the planets would have any effect at all on us is if one of them suddenly slammed into the Earth. That probably only happened once, or not, but it’s probably what created the Moon. So ultimately not a bad thing… except for anything living here at the time.

Talky Tuesday: Careful where you stick your ‘but’

Conjunction junction, what’s your function… this is a refrain many of us might know from Schoolhouse Rock, but the important conjunction here is “But.”

And is the conjunction that puts words together: “This and that.” Or is the one that allows both options: “This or that.”

Then there’s but, which pretty much excludes whatever comes after it.

You’re probably already jumping ahead to a common sort of phrase it appears in, but let’s hold back for a moment.

“I like pasta and sushi,” she said. So what’s the function of that sentence? Inclusion, pure and simple.

How about this one? “I’ll take pasta or sushi.” Both options are acceptable although, while it’s not clear whether the speaker is making the choice or only responding to the options given by someone else, there’s no judgement.

Finally, “I like pasta but not sushi.” This is basically a refusal, whoever was given the choices. The speaker reads a menu to make their own choice, picks pasta, done. Or… the speaker’s date asks what they want, and the reply is pasta, but not sushi — which could be a really big dismissal of what the date likes, intentional or not.

However, this conjunction gets a lot more troublesome in other contexts, as we’ll see in a moment. First, let’s look at the others.

“And” and “Or” are inclusive, always.

“Do you want to watch some BBC, and then Netflix?” Boom. Both. Done.

And “Or” isn’t as inclusive, but not dismissive. “Would you rather watch BBC or Netflix?”

“I don’t have a subscription to Netflix, so BBC?” (or vice versa) or even “I don’t like (BBC/Netflix), so the other?”

When we get to but, there’s a bit of a problem. Any invocation of “but” requires a condition to go with it. You cannot just say, “I like A, but not B.” Even though that B comes with a not, that “not” means nothing without a qualifier.

And when the construction that comes before “but” is in the form of “I’m not a (blank)…” then you really need to think long and hard about what the hell you’re saying.

As in things like, “I’m not racist, but…” Guarantee you that the next words out of your mouth are going to be 100% racist.

And stick any other –ist or –ic in there, and you’re done.

“I’m not homophobic, but I wish that gay men weren’t so swishy.”

“I’m not misogynistic, but why are women so pushy?”

“I’m not racist, but why don’t Mexicans speak English?”

And on and on and on.

Well, I hope you get the idea by now.

Any phrase that begins with “I’m not (X) but (Y) immediately tells the rest of us that you are absolutely X, and you absolutely believe that whatever bullshit you spew in Y is true.

Period, end of quote.

So, especially in these trying times, if you ever try to say, “I’m not X, but…” stop right there before you open your mouth, think about what you were going to say, then go ask a smarter friend to bail your ass out before you go full-on stupid.

And… happy almost end of (social) summer, and or happy surviving the really weird times we’re still going through right now.