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)

Talky Tuesday: Sibling, can you loan a word?

English has borrowed its share of words from other languages, but do you know which words these five languages have borrowed form English?

It’s no secret that English has borrowed a lot of words from other languages, as any list online will tell you. But, just as often, other languages take on words from English as well.

These are technically known as loanwords and are quite often altered in spelling to be pronounceable to speakers of the borrowing language.

It only makes sense that English would take on so many loanwords from other languages as well as leave so many loanwords behind in its wake as it spreads across the globe via popular culture. But what, exactly, are these loan words?

Well, here’s a brief survey of some of the most common ones, by language.

Spanish

Keep in mind that it’s far more common for these words to be borrowed into Spanish in Spain via Britain rather than into Latin American Spanish via America, but that’s most likely because there are so many different Spanish speaking countries in the Americas that they all kind of do their own thing, whereas Spain and its resorts are infected by British tourists on holiday every spring like crabs in a courtesan’s panties.

Here are just a few:

Bistec: This is just a phonetic rendering of the words “beef steak.”

Panfleto: Pamphlet, which cleans up the weird spelling that would not even be pronounceable in Spanish.

Mitin: Meeting, although in the sense of a public hearing or a political conference, and reunión is still far more common in the Americas.

Drenaje: This is a great example of a double borrow. Spanish adapted the word “drainage” from English, but English took it from French without changing a letter.

Esmoquin: If you had to guess what this word meant, you probably never would in a million years, but it’s kind of borrowed from English and means “tuxedo.” How this happened is that Spanish actually picked up the word for “smoking jacket,” which was a heavily quilted garment meant to be worn over the good clothes while the men stepped into the smoking room to fire up their pipes, cigars, and cigarettes. The heavy material was meant to protect the good clothes from ash, cinders, and pinhole burns. How Spanish made the leap of logic from one to the other is a little unclear, but smoking jackets would have definitely been de rigueur at any formal, black tie event that ended with brandy and cigars.

Esnob: This simply means “snob” in Spanish, and comes from the difficulty that Spanish speakers have in saying words that start with an “s” followed by a pronounced consonant. You can see it even in their native words, for example “español.” Note that another loan word, from the English for sandwich, does not do this, so it’s just “sándwich.” That’s because it starts with “s” followed by a vowel, and that’s totally normal in the Spanish words for saint or holy, San and Santa.

Fútbol: Which means football in most of the world, but is soccer in America. Again, only the spelling was changed.

Cóctel: Probably very popular at every tapas bar happy hour, this word is clearly “cocktail,” although it’s pronounced with a long O in the first syllable and a short e in the second. Close enough, I guess, if you’re on your third.

Japanese

Japanese is infamous for taking English words, spelling them phonetically in katakana, and then sending those new terms right back to English. One of the more famous ones is cosplay, which was created in Japanese from a shortening of the English words “costume” and “role play,” but then shot right back into our vernacular, except once more in English.

Japanese for “cosplay” is pronounced “kosupure.”

Afu-reko: Derived from the words “after” and “recording,” this refers to the process of dubbing new sound or dialogue tracks in post-production. Obviously, this would be very important when making English language dubs of Japanese anime.

Aidoru: Referring to teen idol or pop star, and it’s pronounced pretty close to the word it came from, idol.

Aisu kurīmu: Again, remembering that the “ai” is pronounced as a long I, it should be pretty clear that these words mean “ice cream.”

Amefuto: American football, pure and simple, and meant to distinguish it from real fútbol.

Amerikan doggu: Pretty clearly “American dog,” but not the animal. Nope. This is a corn dog.

Bebī kā: Literally from “baby car,” a stroller or pram.

Datchi-waifu: From “Dutch wife.” This is a blow-up doll. Why the Japanese blame this on the Dutch but borrow the term from English is a mystery.

Furaido poteto: Quite clearly “fried potato,” as in French fry.

Hotto kēki: Another probably obvious food item: hot cake.

Janpā: Jumper, as in sweater or jacket. Not to be confused with Juanpa.

Manshon: Mansion.

Nōto-pasokon: A super mash-up of note, personal, and computer that means laptop. Without nōto in front, it just means personal computer.

Sekkusu: Sex. Boning. Doing it. Bumping uglies. Fucking. You get the picture.

Tenkī: Ten-key, as in that numerical keypad that may or may not be at the far right on your computer or laptop keyboard.

Dutch

Since they’re both Germanic languages, you wouldn’t think that Dutch would borrow that many words from English, but it happens, largely due to people who speak “Dunglish.” This is what happens when native English speakers are learning Dutch, but apply English word order and grammar. The two are not the same, so it can get weird.

But there are English loanwords in Dutch that have nothing to do with Dunglish.

Whatsappen: The verb form of “to Whatsapp,” as in to send a message via that platform.

Downloaden: Again, pretty obvious. The infinitive verb form of “to download.”

Airconditioner: Three guesses.

Laptop: Just what it says on the tin.

Helpdesk: Although they probably actually won’t.

Junkfood: It’s food. It’s junk. It’s one word.

Okay, a longer list shortened, but it’s pretty obvious that the Dutch aren’t all that creative when they borrow words from English. If it’s two words, just stick them together, and don’t even change the spelling. And yet, they make fun of Dunglish.

French

Now you might think that it would be difficult for French to borrow anything from English, since we’ve already borrowed so damn much from them. Also, thanks to the French Revolution, they were the first country to come up with a Royal Language Academy whose sole purpose was to define each and every word specifically, and with only one definition.

Top that off with the disdain in France (multiplied by ten in Québec) for borrowing words from English, and it’s a miracle that any of these exist — but they do. All of the following nouns take the article “le” in the singular:

Pull: Pullover, sweater, or jersey.

Shampooing: Shampoo.

Scoop: Breaking a big news story; same meaning as in English.

Sandwich: So Spanish wasn’t the only language to borrow this one!

Hashtag: Sorry, France!

Lifting: A facelift or plastic surgery.

Parking: A car park in general, and not the verb referring to what you do to your car.

Zapping: Channel surfing on a TV, although who does that anymore?

Baskets: Plural, so “les baskets,” any kind of sporting shoes, probably derived from basketball.

Smoking: See the Spanish word “esmoquin,” above; also a tuxedo or formal dinner attire, for all the same reasons.

Relooking: A makeover.

Tagalog

This is one of the languages of the Philippines, and since America has stomped all over that place since winning the Spanish-American war, it should be no surprise that English linguistic footprints are all over it. Here are a few.

Aborsyon: Abortion, which replaced the original word “pagpapalaglag.”

Adik: As in drug addict, with the traditional word having been more or less a Spanish loan word, durugista.

Badyet: Budget, originally Laang-gugulin.

Basketbol and Besbol: Basketball and baseball, because American sports manage to infect everything they touch.

Bistek: Beefsteak, just like in Spanish although, ironically, I don’t think anybody in America refers to any cut of meat as a beefsteak anymore. I mean, it’s a steak. Of course it’s made of beef — unless one of those beyond or impossible companies tells you that it’s not.

Drayber: Driver, although the earlier word was “tsuper,” itself borrowed from the Spanish chofer, from the word chauffeur, although via English instead of the French from which English stole it. Damn. Complicated enough yet? Yeah, that’s what happens when you colonize people.

Iskul: School. Another example of a language adding a vowel sound before an “s” and hard consonant. The native word was “paaralan.”

Madyik: Magic. Originally Salamangka,

Sandwits: Sandwich, yet another variation on that most British of creations, thanks to an Earl with a gambling habit who liked to eat at the table.

Tin-edyer: Teenager, originally lalabintaunin.

Traysikel: Tricycle, because who doesn’t enjoy a three-wheeled vehicle?

So there you go. Wherever English has gone, it’s left its words behind, whether they’ve been sucked in unchanged Dutch-style, altered slightly for other markets, or rendered phonetically as closely as possible, as in Japan.

Here’s my question for my readers who come from all over the planet: What is your native language, and what words has your language borrowed from English? Hey, don’t be afraid. Click and comment below!

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.

Sunday Nibble #83: Nothing to it (Part 1)

What do people like Richard III, Groucho Marx, and Gandhi have in common? Read on to find out the surprising answer.

For this Sunday, I present you with a little quiz. Each of the ten people listed below have exactly one thing in common among all of them. I’ll even help you out by giving a mini-bio on each, but make your guess before the reveal, okay?

Okay. Here we go. In chronological order…

    1. Richard III (1452—1485)

King of England, last of the Plantagenet rulers, from the House of York, which famously lost to the house of Lancaster in the War of the Roses — and yes, there’s a reason those names might remind you of the family names “Stark” and “Lannister,” because this is where George R.R. Martin cribbed one of the storylines for Game of Thrones.

Richard III is probably most famous to us now, especially non-Brits, as one of Shakespeare’s most memorable villains, and the character actually appears in an entire cycle of plays about the War, known as Gloucester in the latter plays of the expanded Henriad, since he doesn’t become king (briefly) until the last play.

Shakespeare’s view of Richard’s villainy most likely came from Thomas More’s account of his reign, written at the court of Henry VIII, and More is the one who claimed that Richard had his two nephews, rivals to the throne, murdered in the Tower of London. Did he do it, or was it his successor Henry VII, who needed to eliminate them after defeating Richard at Bosworth Field?

We can’t really be sure, but what we do know, after the presumed remains of Richard were found under a parking lot in Leicester in 2012, and confirmed to be his on February 4, 2013, is that he was not, as Shakespeare depicted him, a sufferer of kyphosis, the medically correct term for hunchback, although Richard had suffered from scoliosis. Additionally, while Shakespeare wrote that Richard III had a limp and withered arm — and used it in the play to accuse his brother’s widow, Anne Neville, of witchcraft — his remains show that he did not.

Facial reconstruction also revealed that he wasn’t all that bad looking, for being a villainous king. Of course, Shakespeare probably had the same motive in trashing Richard as Thomas More did — making their monarchs happy. In More’s case, it was Henry VIII, son of the man who defeated Richard III, and in Shakespeare’s case it was Elizabeth (not yet the first), who was the daughter of Henry VIII.

Gotta kiss up to your patrons, after all.

    1. Nat Turner (1800—1831)

Nat Turner was born enslaved in 1800, and Turner wasn’t even his name. He never knew his father, who had escaped at some point before Nat was aware of him. Turner was the name of the slaver who claimed to own him.

He was extremely intelligent and learned to read, but also became very religious, focusing on the Bible and, eventually, started to have visions, one of which told him that Jesus had put down the yoke he had taken up for mankind, implying that Nat should take it up instead.

Add one solar eclipse on February 12, 1831, which Turner took to be the sign from god that it was time to act, and he bought up muskets in order to launch a slave rebellion, originally planned for July 4, 1831 (because, symbolism) but delayed.

Then, solar events again intervened on August 13 (six months and a day after the eclipse, natch), when the Sun appeared bluish-green, probably due in large part to debris thrown into the atmosphere by the distant eruption of Mount St. Helens.

But Nat took this as another sign, and on August 21, he and his fellow rebels went house to house, freeing slaves and killing many of the white people they had encountered, although they’d given up on the muskets as they would draw too much attention, so settled for knives, hatches, axes, and blunt instruments.

They passed over homes with poor white residents who were not slaveholders. Nat’s goal was to spread “terror and alarm” among white people to reveal the true brutality and inhumanity of slave-holding.

Whether involved in the rebellion or not, 56 black people were executed and 100 to 120 more were killed by militias. Unfounded and untrue rumors about roving bands of rebelling slaves spread, so that white people began attacking blacks at random and without reason.

After a brief trial, Nat Turner was executed on November 11, 1831. His body was flayed, and his skin used to make souvenir purses. His remains were dumped in an unmarked grave.

    1. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869—1948)

That’s right, his first name was not Mahatma. That was an honorific title not given to him until he was in his 40s. He started out as a lawyer, moving to South Africa in 1893 after not being able to start a law practice in India, and remained there for over 20 years, finally returning to India in 1915.

Here, he became an activist, assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress (INC), one of the country’s political parties, organizing peasants, farmers, and urban laborers to protest against discrimination and excessive land taxes. After he assumed control of the INC in 1921, he also adopted the garb he is most known for — the white loincloth, or dhoti, with a long, shawl made from hand-spun yarn in winter. He did this in order to show his identification with India’s rural poor.

As independence for India approached, Gandhi supported religious pluralism, sharing territory and rule between Hindus and Muslims, but Muslim nationalists demanded a separate homeland. In August 1947, Britain granted independence but, in their infinite stupidity, attempted the whole two-state solution thing, creating Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, which required the relocation of lots of people from one country to the other — including Sikhs, who didn’t belong to either religion.

Hm. I wonder where else Britain cocked it up like that?

Gandhi attempted to stop ensuing religious violence, undergoing several hunger strikes, also trying to pressure India to pay out assets that they owed to Pakistan. This, or course, didn’t sit well with Hindu nationalists, and on January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse shot Gandhi in the chest three times, killing him.

    1. Julius “Groucho” Marx (1890—1977)

Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer. ‘Did someone call me schnorrer?’ Hooray, hooray, hooray!

Groucho Marx and his two most famous brothers, Leonard “Chico” Marx and Arthur “Groucho” Marx, will always be American comedy icons, and I’m betting that even if you’re Gen Z, you would recognize them in a photo (in character) instantly.

While Groucho was sort of the straight man in the bunch — relatively speaking — he was also a master of incredible word play, shooting off rapid-fire monologues that would turn on a dime, especially in turning definitions on their heads. In a lot of ways, his humor descends from people like Oscar Wilde.

Typical Groucho quotes:

“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

“Behind every successful man is a woman, behind her is his wife.”

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

He never headed any political movements or rebellions and the only country he ever led was a fictional one, Fredonia, in the Marx Brothers’ 1933 film Duck Soup. The Marx Brothers ended their film career with 1949’s Love Happy, although they had a brief reunion, sort of, in 1957’s The Story of Mankind, although it was not a Marx Brothers’ vehicle, and only featured Grouch, Chico, and Harpo in separate cameos.

Groucho did go on, though, to appear in five more feature films, culminating in 1968’s Skidoo, an utterly bonkers must-see film very much inspired by LSD culture of the time, and in which Groucho plays god.

He was also the host of the very popular quiz show You Bet Your Life, which premiered on radio in 1947, added TV broadcasts in 1950, and ran in both formats until 1960. During the entire run, Groucho demonstrated his incredible improvisation skills, and the uncanny ability to make the very nervous contestants look good.

    1. Rex Reed (1938—)

Mostly known as a very acerbic film critic who somehow also became a celebrity, possibly because his film critics and columns appeared everywhere. He was also the author of eight celebrity profile books, four of which became bestsellers. They had provocative titles like Do you sleep in the nude? and Conversations in the Raw.

If you remember the famous rumor that Marisa Tomei hadn’t actually won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1992, but that Jack Palance had read the wrong name, welp, that rumor was started by Reed. Reed claimed that the Academy covered up the mistake in order to avoid embarrassment, but we all saw rather publicly how wrong that theory was in 2017, when La La Land was incorrectly announced as Best Picture winner, only to be corrected by Price-Waterhouse Reps live, during the broadcast.

Reed has always come across as a fussy, uptight queen, although he does hold a place in camp history as one of the two leads in the film version of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge, playing the pre-gender confirmation surgery version of Raquel Welch’s character.

The last time he really made the news was in 2000, when he was arrested for shoplifting in Manhattan after taking a five-finger discount on CDs by Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, and Carmen McRae.

And… this got way longer than I thought that it would, so I’m going to pick it up next week, with names 6 through 10, and your chance to answer the question: What do they all have in common.

Also… if this list seems a bit misogynistic, keep in mind that prior to the 20th century, famous women tended to be erased from history. In the next installment, though, 4 out of 5 entries are women. Enjoy!

Saturday Morning Post #84: The Freedom of Disguise (Part 1)

In this short story, we visit the world of small theatre in L.A. and one producer/director secretly using the artform to help his actors improve themselves.

Here is the next short story from my collection called 24 Exposures, which I wrote over 20 years ago, the first of three installments. This one is set in the world of small theatre in Los Angeles, something with which I’m very familiar as audience member, writer, techie, and performer.

Opening night and the play was working like a charm. Near the end of the first act, Bill knew he had a success on his hands. He’d cast the leads perfectly, and their big emotional scene was dynamite onstage. They had achieved something beyond chemistry, and the entire audience was riveted in dead silence. That was always the measure of the success of a piece — the cough ‘n shuffle factor, Bill called it. Make an audience stop doing both of those things, and you knew you had them in the palm of your hand.

When the moment finally came, the big moment, when Mark and Loretta suddenly expressed their forbidden love and kissed for the first time, the audience gasped. In the world of Bill’s play, the priest and the nun had just crossed a line, broken taboos, connected… And Bill could see from his vantage point in the booth that these two weren’t just stage kissing. As the fade out on the first act came, Bill smiled to himself. Everything he’d just seen onstage was incredibly real.

As the play ended and the audience applauded the curtain-call, Bill left the booth and went down the dark, warm, narrow hallway, down the hollow-thudding stairs and opened the lobby doors. It was a small place but all his, one of hundreds of small theatres scattered all over Los Angeles. He’d been smart enough to pick a place near the great off-white way in Hollywood, along with all the other small theatres, near a subway station. It was named the Gloria O’Ferral Theatre, in honor of his mother. He wasn’t in this business for fame and riches.

The usher opened the theatre door behind him and the flood of houselights poured forth. The small audience snaked out, cigarettes deploying among the few who smoked as soon as they hit the sidewalk. Bill went back into the theatre where some of the cast were already wandering among the seats, ready to party. “Good show, everyone,” he called out. “Excellent work.”

“Author, author!” someone yelled back. It was Andy, the stage manager.

“What’s next, Little Billy?” That was PJ, one of the actors. Everyone called Bill “Little Billy” because he was six-foot-five.

“Oh, you’ll see,” he said with his best enigmatic grin. He did have a very specific part in mind for PJ, and thought he was ready to tackle it. Bill just hadn’t fine-tuned it all yet, so he didn’t want to tip his hand.

The party was as much of a success as the show, with everyone in a great mood. Somebody took over the sound system and kept an endless techno-beat going, and the company were dancing on the stage or schmoozing in the aisles. Bill looked around the room proudly. There were fifty people in the company, and he felt like they were all his children, even though he was only forty and, while most of them were in their twenties and thirties, there were a number of members older than Bill. Of course, the company felt like a family and quite a lot of them literally became family. They’d had eight marriages, all of them still together; half a dozen gay and two lesbian couples that had met here; and one very Bohemian ménage between two straight actors and a goth actress named Brigid. Yes, the place was incestuous, but in a good way.

Then Bill noticed Mark and Loretta, off in a corner together, his arm around her. It looked like the ninth marriage might be on the way. If not now, then definitely by the end of the run. It always amazed Bill how the veneer created by acting could make two people incredibly intimate insanely quickly. That was the truth highlighted by falsehood, the freedom of disguise. It was the secret of all great acting and all great art — revealing everything while appearing to conceal it.

He spotted PJ, sitting by himself on the edge of the stage, watching the dancers. He was an interesting kid, with a lot of raw talent, recently arrived from one of those flat, green midwestern states. But there was something holding him back so far, a certain timidity whenever parts got too intense, especially if they involved any degree of sexual tension. Bill had no idea what the wall was. Maybe it was just the insecurity of youth. But he was determined to crack it and make PJ a great actor.

Insecurity. That was the word for Donna. She was a walking neurosis machine, and she was off in her own corner, too. Bill didn’t even have to follow her eyeline to know that she was staring at Vince, resident young male romantic lead in the traditional mode. Donna was always staring at Vince when she wasn’t asking anybody she could buttonhole, “Do you think… does Vince like me?” It was as annoying as hell, but Bill knew better than to tell her the obvious because she’d crack like an egg. He’d seen the result once when Loretta had finally snapped at Donna.

“Why don’t you just fucking ask him instead of all of us?”

Donna fled the theatre in tears that time. She was a champion at fleeing in tears. Bill would have to write that into a play soon.

He really wanted to do something to help her, but he knew that telling Vince about her obsession would be risky. Then again, how could he not know about it? Everyone knew everything here. Or most everything. But Donna had reached the point in her delusion that she was saying things like, “He’s a Libra and I’m a Cancer. That’s a good match.”

But how would she ever know…?

Maybe that was the problem. People never wanted to know the answers to their most burning questions. Certainty would leave an unfillable vacuum behind, and fire can’t burn in a vacuum. Bill knew that every question answered always led to more, and those often led to interesting adventures, but that was a lesson he preferred not to force on people. Such things were always better discovered than revealed.

But Donna had spotted him and swooped, and now she was standing there, eyes darting to the floor when they weren’t staring at him with bothersome intensity. There was chit chat, mixed with random compliments, then the inevitable Vince question. “Do you think he’d go out with me?”

“Donna,” Bill gave her his most encouraging smile, “Why wouldn’t he? Have you asked him out?”

“Oh, he doesn’t know I exist.” She said more, she always did, but Bill wasn’t listening. He was already working on the next play in his head.

Bill’s eyes wandered and he saw PJ, who had been cornered by Natalie. She was talking and he was mostly listening, often gazing past her at the dance floor, at nothing in particular. But no, Bill knew, it was someone in particular. He could just never figure out whom. PJ was very sly about that — it was impossible to tell which company member had caught his eye, and he was as reluctant to approach as Donna.

Well, at least he didn’t talk about it. But Bill was going to figure it out. And he’d figure out a way to solve that acting problem, too.

But he had half of his next play cast already.

* * *

Gloria O’Ferral was Irish as far back as anyone knew. Her great-grandfather and his brother had arrived in the nineteenth century, via Ellis island. The name had originally been Farrelly, but underwent an immediate metamorphosis upon arrival.

Contrary to popular myth, though, the names were not changed by disinterested employees on Ellis island. Rather, the immigrants self-reported and, depending on circumstances, that could lead to big changes right there. Some were illiterate and couldn’t even spell their names, so you might wind up with Connelly, Conelly, Connelloy, Conley, Coneley, and so on in the same family.

Others wanted to sound less foreign, so a name like Schmidt might become Smith. Still others were proud of their heritage, and that was the case with Gloria’s ancestor, who proudly added the O’ prefix that his family did not have, then simplified the rest. Farrelly became O’Ferral.

Meanwhile, his brother couldn’t spell the name in Gaelic, where it had about four hundred letters, half of them “H,” so he just simplified it and scrawled it out the way he thought it was spelled in English, so he became a Fearl. Of course, they were both dead now…

As was Gloria O’Ferral. That had been thanks to a little sloppiness at the dialysis center she’d been going to, and their failure to completely purge the cleaning fluid out of a machine before jacking it into her. Ironically, she died half an hour before her pager went off announcing a kidney had been found. Bill, only child, widowed, orphaned, had finally been encouraged by his friends to pursue a lawsuit, and the payoff (after attorneys and taxes) had still been like winning the lottery.

He bought his dream, the theatre, and his other dream, a house, and still had enough left in the bank to live like a corporate executive on investment interest alone for the rest of his life. It had driven the dialysis center into bankruptcy, which was only the cherry on top of a sundae whose sweetness could never make up for the bitter dish in which it was served. But Bill could make up for it and would make up for it. His theatre was more than a hobby or a vanity project. It was a mission.

When his attorney had handed him the check and Bill counted the zeroes, an amazing thing happened. All of Bill’s fear and doubt vaporized. He didn’t have to do it anymore, didn’t have to justify himself to the world. He didn’t have to need or want, he didn’t have to kiss someone else’s ass. There was only one thing to do with that kind of windfall. Share it.

He invited his five closest friends to dinner a week after he got the payoff, and under their dessert plates, each of them found a check for two hundred thousand dollars. Two months later, he was showing off his new house and three months after that, was giving a tour of the theatre just before it opened. They were not a huge commercial success at first, but word of mouth started to spread, and eventually they were selling out. The location didn’t hurt, either. It became easy to get actors to join the company. Then again, it was always easy. Bill didn’t charge any dues, and the word “free” was thespian catnip.

And in two years, they had a thriving, happy company and the theatre critics only had to say “at the O’Ferral,” and everybody knew where that was.

Another show over, and Bill was spending his days writing the next one. That was how he liked to work. Concentrate on one project from beginning to end, then let it go after opening night and dive into the next one. He’d have a good first draft finished by the time this six-week run was over, or extend the run if he wasn’t ready yet. Then, he’d work it with the actors for two or three weeks, polish it up and start rehearsal. There would always be another play running during this process, but Bill left those to Andy to choose and direct, reserving only the right of casting approval for himself.

That was the key to it all for him — casting. He’d actually postponed plays if a particular actor wasn’t available. He was always very specific in his writing.

The next play was a romantic comedy. That was also in keeping with his pattern, since the previous play had been a tragedy. It was going to be something of a bedroom farce, involving three couples, lots of entrances and exits and missed cues and misunderstandings, with everything resolving itself at the end. Vince was a natural for the lead, and so was Donna. Anyway, Bill was always encouraging her to do comedy, and this was the perfect chance.

PJ had the doe-eyed innocence that made ribald situations even more amusing. Maybe Mark and Loretta would want to play the other couple. That just left one part open, the role that would be paired ultimately with PJ’s character. At the moment, Bill didn’t have a clue who to pick. He didn’t know enough about how this play would end, and that often dictated a character more than anything else.

He was still wondering about it a week later when they had a reading in the theatre of one of the plays Andy wanted to do. PJ was in the audience and Bill mentioned the role for him at intermission. PJ was excited about it, wondering who he’d be playing with. Bill told him he wasn’t sure yet, asked if PJ had anybody he wanted to work with.

“What about Brigid?” he asked.

“Hm…” Bill pretended to think about it, but Brigid was all wrong. A goth was already comic enough and he was doing farce, not satire. Besides, he was waiting until he could cast her as Lord Byron’s doomed sister, Augusta.

It was after the show, during the milling around time, that Bill noticed PJ off talking to Max. That’s when it hit him, and the play solved itself before his very eyes. Of course. If he matched up two actors as the third couple, then the comic implications multiplied. Suddenly, anybody could be suspect with anybody else. It was perfect. As he wove the knots in his mind, they all collided to form the tapestry with the answer. Yes. Start out with the male couple not knowing they’re gay, and using that complication to drive the other two couples together, apart and back together again.

He rushed out of the party and upstairs to his office, where he locked the door, turned on the coffee pot and started his frantic typing.

* * *

Friday Free-for-All #80: Corporate screw-ups

How McDonald’s made a bet on the Olympics and lost big and how a former boss of mine shot himself in the foot.

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments. Yet again this week, I had three questions ready, but the first one took up the whole article.

What is the funniest corporate/business screw up you have heard of?

One is corporate and the other is personal.

The corporate one happened during the 1984 Olympics, which took place in Los Angeles. This was kind of a big deal, because it was only the third time that the U.S. had hosted the summer Olympics, the two previous times being in 1904 and 1932.

It was even more of a big deal because the first Olympics in the U.S. had been hosted in St. Louis, Missouri, while the second, 28 years later, took place in Los Angeles, California — and by the time the Olympics came back to the U.S., they also came back to Los Angeles, 52 years later.

McDonald’s saw a marketing opportunity, and so they launched this promo: For every medal that the U.S. won in competition, customers would get a free item — a soft drink for Bronze, fries for Silver, and the big-ticket item for every Gold medal, a Big Mac.

Just one problem: In retaliation for various things Olympics related, including the U.S. led boycott in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (in addition to the USSR just being pissy in general), the USSR boycotted the 1984 Olympics, along with 17 other countries, although several of those (Albania, Iran, and Libya) boycotted for entirely different reasons.

Without competition for those countries, the U.S. had a very good year, taking home a total of 174 medals: 30 bronze, 61 silver, and 83 gold.

Remember: This was a national promo by McDonald’s, so they had committed themselves to giving out those prizes in all 50 states, for the duration of the Games. And while the U.S., USSR/Russia, and China are consistently the top-three medal winners, 1984 was a particularly good year for Team America.

While McDonald’s has always been tight-lipped over how much, exactly, they lost through this promo, since the Big Mac was one of their biggest money-makers and they had underestimated the number of gold medals badly, combined with many franchises just plain running out, their losses have been estimated in the millions.

Ironically, the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles were one of the few successful Olympic Games in history. Not only did it not bankrupt the city (like it did many others), but it made over $200 million in profits, largely by enlisting big corporate sponsors, like Coca-Cola, M&M/Mars, and… McDonald’s.

As for the biggest business mistake, personal edition, I could have sworn I’d written about this one before, but I guess not. In this case, it was an attorney I worked for very briefly — just under a year and a half.

I had been through a very interesting transition leading up to the gig. I was abruptly fired from my first office job after six and a half years in one of those typical, “Department splits, new manager comes in, figures out which supervisors he can control and which ones can think, gets rid of the latter.”

I was the latter. Plus I probably could have made a very solid case that homophobia was definitely an element in my firing but… I was over that corporate gig. Besides that, earlier that same year, I had taken second place in a major playwriting competition at a big regional theater, and while I’m not exactly certain, I think that I must have found out that said theater was going to produce my play some time before I got fired.

So I spent the next few months living on a nice severance plus unused sick time from former employer, unemployment, and then weekly royalties, although I had to start looking for work pretty quickly after the play ended and then… the L.A. Riots (the Rodney King ones) happened, and put a crimp in the works for a bit.

As they were ending, I signed up with a temp agency, and they sent me out on an assignment that, they said, was with an attorney in Brentwood, working as his bookkeeper. I agreed, and it wasn’t until I got the address on Monday, my first day, that I realized it was in Inglewood.

If you know L.A., you know that Brentwood and Inglewood are polar opposites of each other. Also, we had just been through a major race riot, and ground zero for that was actually about half a mile from this attorney’s office — he’d escaped being attacked while driving back from the courthouse in Downtown L.A., in fact.

Now, while I was a giant white guy driving a Honda, I also knew Inglewood, since I’d worked there during and just after college and my college was in the next neighborhood over, and Inglewood was basically the black version of suburbia in L.A.

So it was kind of offensive to me that the temp agency felt like they had to lie to get me there in the first place — or maybe it was the client who had lied to them, which was probably the more likely scenario.

In any case, I started working as bookkeeper for an attorney who was one of the least ethical people I’ve ever met. For one thing, he only handled bankruptcies and evictions — but for the banks and landlords, not for the debtors and tenants.

He also represented a couple of governmental entities that served as mortgage lenders and guarantors. In other words, a right, total bastard.

My job as basic bookkeeping — keep track of the bills that came in and what was due, keep track of his hours and what he was owed, bill clients for same, and then every two weeks give him a report basically saying, “Here’s what you’ve earned, here’s what’s been paid, here’s who you need to write checks to.”

Now, you’d think that someone who regularly represents creditors would get it, right? Pay the people you owe money to, period. Except maybe it was because he represented these bastards that he felt like he knew how to skate around it, so inevitably I would hand him a stack of bills, many of them 90 or more days past due, explain to him what needed to be paid, and he’d look at the stack and brush it aside.

“Write me a draw for $200,000,” he’d say, while refusing to sign any of the checks I’d placed before him. In laymen’s terms: “Make out a check to me for $200,000.”

He certainly had enough to cover it in his corporate account, but he also had enough to cover all those other expenses, and then some — largely because he overbilled the hell out of clients, his government contractors in particular.

At least he was always able to cover payroll, the one small touch of decency about him.

Anyway, long story short, he was a total asshole. In October of 1993, I flew to Dallas for what was supposed to be just the weekend because I was in a crazy stupid long-distance relationship at the time. Between the Friday I arrived and the Sunday I was supposed to leave, the budget airline I’d flown on went out of business, stranding all of its return passengers.

Luckily, I had a free place to stay, but I had to call the boss up to tell him that I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to make it back, and he took this as a sign that I had embezzled all of his money and was about to run off to Brazil.

He demanded that I get the next available flight back to L.A., but since that would have cost at least $900 — more than my rent at the time — I politely told him, I would if you paid me more, but you don’t, so I can’t.

Then, near the end of that week, my immediate ex had a stroke of conscience and left a message on my home phone, which I heard when I finally got back the Sunday following. I had been accepted into a year-long screenwriting fellowship program, meaning that I no longer needed to work for asshole attorney.

I wrote and printed out my two-weeks’ notice that night, and handed it to him in the morning, after I’d found out that he had hired some forensic specialist to go over my computer to see how I’d ripped him off. (Spoiler: I hadn’t.) He accepted the notice immediately even though I knew something that he didn’t, and this is where the funniest business screw-up, personal edition, kicks in.

See, being a total nerd, I had cobbled together his entire accounting system using a consumer version of Quicken, and a bunch of macros in order to get Excel and Word to speak to it. I’d enter hours in Excel, have it generate invoices in Word and export data to Quicken, enter billing data to Quicken and have it export data to both Word and Excel to generate payment statements and track those costs per creditor, and so on.

The key to it was knowing which macros to run in which programs through which keystrokes, and at which point in the data-entry process. And I’d given two weeks because I knew that I’d need to teach that to someone.

But… Captain Asshole had refused, so when I walked out, I was done. I received three more phone messages from the office, moving up the food chain from receptionist to paralegal to boss, each one basically saying the same thing. “Please call. We can’t figure out the system you set up.”

I replied to none of them and just laughed. Should have thought about that before he accepted my two weeks’ notice immediately because he was being paranoid — although projection is frequently a trait of the greedy.

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

Talky Tuesday: American vs. British getting stressed

American and British English are two very different animals despite a common source. Today, I take a look at how and why certain words are pronounced differently.

I’ve written several times about differences in American and British spelling and vocabulary, and why I think that the American version of English — accent and all — is actually the more correct one.

Naturally, I’m biased because it’s what I grew up reading, speaking, and writing, but purely objectively, a lot of British ways of phrasings just make no sense.

Take for example how they use the word “different” as a comparative. In British English, they would say something like, “She’s different to her friends.”

Different to…? This just grates on my ear because it doesn’t compute. You’re making a negative comparison — she is not like the ones you’re comparing her with. But “to” is a preposition that implies movement toward, whether figuratively or literally: “We are coming close to a decision.” “We walked to the store.”

It makes perfect sense to say, “She’s similar to her friends,” because that’s a positive comparison moving her into the group. “Different from” would make more sense, although that’s not usually what we say in the U.S.

Here, we’d say, “She’s different than her friends.” Using from would not be wrong, although it only feels correct when making a comparison to a less well-defined group: “She’s different from the others.”

Also, to me, saying “She’s different to her friends” implies that her differentness is something that only her friends notice, not that she has traits that differ greatly from those of her friends.

Oddly enough, Spanish also has the same distinction between Latin America and Spain which exactly mirrors this. In Spain, they would say, “Ella es diferente a sus amigas.” The “a” is equivalent in this use to “to.” In a lot of parts of Latin America, it would be, “Ella es diferente de sus amigas,” with “de” being the equivalent here of “from.”

Using “to” with different like this to me is just as jarring as when someone uses the phrase “based off” — and anyone who ever says that out loud should be slapped upside the head and corrected immediately.

A base is what something is built on top of, so you literally cannot base something off of something else. The only proper preposition her is “on,” as in “Based on a true story.”

But there’s another area where Americans and Brits differ greatly, and that in how they emphasize words when speaking.

Putting the emPHASis on the wrong syllAble

The very short version is that American English tends to put the emphasis on the first syllable of longer words, while British English puts it on the second. A classic example is the word “laboratory.”

In America, it comes out as LAB-or-a-tory, while in Britain (and the Commonwealth) it’s pronounced la-BOR-a-t’ry. That’s actually bonus points for this word, because American English gives a slight additional emphasis to the “tor,” not as strong as on “lab,” while British English just erases it.

As usual, this happens because a lot of these words come from French, and in their ever-imperialistic way, British English pronounces them according to the rules of English.

Meanwhile, in their very differently imperialistic way, American English pronounces these words to sound more like the French. Hey — at least we kind of acknowledge the cultures we steal from.

Ironically, the differences in British and American English happened for the opposite reason — British spelling kept the French versions — colour, valour, honour, etc. — while American English simplied — color, valor, honor etc.

Of course, the British versions aren’t pronounced at all how they’re spelt, rhyming with neither velour or hour, but sounding exactly like the American versions.

There are a rather substantial number of content creators on YouTube who are from Commonwealth countries, and so speak this flavor of English. It also gets more complicated on sites based in the UK with multiple presenters from different locations, because their pronunciations even vary from person to person and accent to accent.

One word that really stands out for me, because a number of these sites cover arts and entertainment, is the word “biopic,” which is a portmanteau for “biographical picture,” meaning a movie about a person’s life.

In the U.S., it’s pronounced “BI-o-pic,” and I think that’s how they say it in Canada, too. But in the UK, it gets mangled into “bi-OP-ic,” which, again, makes no logical sense. Also again, the American version has that slight additional stress on the last syllable.

And since we’re talking about language, the “Americans first syllable, Brits second syllable” rules doesn’t always hold either because of course it doesn’t. Here are some words that work the opposite, with British first and American second:

Adult:  AD-ult, a-DULT

Buffet: BUF-fet, buf-FET (silent T)

Cliché: CLI-ché, cli-CHÉ (hey, Britain — the French left an accent in it!)

Debris: DE-bris, de-BRIS (silent S)

Premature: PREM-a-ture, pre-ma-TURE (America held out until the third syllable)

Oddly enough, the one case where Brits get it right is the brand name Adidas, which is not pronounced “a-DI-das” but rather “a-di-DAS,” because it was named for the founder, Adolf Dassler. His nickname was “Adi,” and the last name was shortened, and once you know that, you’ll probably always pronounce it “a-di-DAS” as well.

If you’d like to see a Brit and American compare how they pronounce 100 words, you can get a look on YouTube. Here’s Part 1 and here is Part 2.

Momentous Monday: Weird random facts

Six random facts from science for you to enjoy, argue about, and share.

Here are a few interesting facts to ponder — things that might not seem possible, but which are true.

Which planet, on average, is closest to the Earth?

You’re probably inclined to say either Venus or Mars, going by the simple logic that in the order of orbits, Venus is #2, Earth is #3, and Mars is #4. You might also have remembered that the distance between each successive orbit follows a formula, meaning that, by definition, Venus has got to be closer to Earth than Mars.

This makes sense because each successive orbit is larger than the previous by an increasing ratio that is similar to the Fibonacci sequence,  although it’s hardly exact. It does mean, though, that Earth is closer to Venus than it is to Mars and it naturally follows that it’s closer to Venus than it is to Mercury.

But the question included “on average,” and if we take that into account, then the planet closest to the Earth is… Mercury. in fact, Mercury is the closest to every planet in the solar system, on average, period.

The simple reason for this is that Mercury’s orbital period is so short — a “year” on Mercury is only a smidgen under 88 days, meaning that it orbits the sun 4.15 times (on average) for every orbit that the Earth makes. Meanwhile, Venus only goes around 1.63 times for every Earth year.

This adds up, because Mercury is on the same side of the Sun as we are for a lot longer than Venus, and when Venus, or any planet, is on the far side, its distance from us is basically double the orbit plus the diameter of the Sun.

This is obvious if we really simplify the numbers. Let’s just randomly designate the distances by orbit: Mercury = 1, Venus = 2, Earth = 3, and Mars = 5.

When Mercury and Earth are in alignment on the same side of the Sun, the net distance is 2 (from 3-1). For Venus, it’s 1, and for Mars it’s 2. But put the planets on the other side, and the formula changes to 2O+Sol, or twice the orbital distance plus the diameter of the Sun, so the new figures are:

Mars: 2(5-3)+Sol = 4+Sol

Venus: 2(3-2)+Sol = 2+Sol

Mercury: 2(3-1)+Sol = 4+Sol

We can eliminate the +Sol from each equation since they all cancel out, and this might make it look like Venus is still the closest, but those orbital periods make a big difference, because Mercury spends a lot more time on the near side of the Sun to us than Venus does.

If we look at the averages, because Mercury gets more time in our neighborhood, in the long run it averages out to be the closest planet to Earth — but the formula holds true for every other planet in the Solar System.

Are there more stars in the universe or atoms in a human being?

Using 70 kilos as an average human weight, the answer to this one is rather simple, and the winner outnumbers the loser by a ration of 7 million to 1.

A human body has approximately 7 octillion atoms in it, and most of those are hydrogen, since we are mostly water, and there are two hydrogen atoms per oxygen atom in each molecule of water. The universe has approximately 1 sextillion stars in it and, not surprisingly, most of the universe is also made of hydrogen.

That’s kind of remarkable when you think about it, because hydrogen is the lightest of all of the elements and the simplest of atoms, made of one negatively charged electron and one positively charged proton. Yes, there are variations, or isotopes, with some neutrons slipped in there.

These neutrons are what make so-called “heavy water” so important in nuclear reactions, but chemically they make no difference, since those reactions only rely on the electron and proton.

Now, as to the answer on whether humans have more atoms or the universe has more stars, you may have already guessed it if you remember your STI and/or Greek counting prefixes. “Octillion” comes from the number 8, and refers to a number in the thousands with 8 groups of three zeroes after it. “sextillion” comes from six, and refers to a number in the thousands with 6 groups of zeroes after it.

Since the human body has about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms in it while the universe only has 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, humans win, with 7 million atoms per person for every star.

What would happen to the Earth if the Sun suddenly became a black hole?

Gravitationally, nothing, unless the Sun lost a little mass in the process, in which case we’d drift a bit farther out in our orbit.

Otherwise, though, Earth would get very cold and dark and, depending on the orientation of things, we might or might not get blasted by intense gamma radiation that would scrub the planet clean of all life and its atmosphere.

We wouldn’t be able to see the Moon or planets anymore, just the stars, and we’d freeze to death pretty quickly but don’t worry — the Sun is too small to ever become a black hole.

People have this impression that black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners that suck up everything that gets near them, but that’s not the case. They’re really just a matter of shoving ten pounds of gravity in a one-pound sack. Okay, maybe more like a hundred tons in a knee sock.

But the point is, the gravitational pull of that black hole is going to be no greater than the pull of the original object, and you have to get a lot closer, physically, before you hit the point where you can no longer escape.

Does my phone have more power than the Apollo 11 computer, and could it land me on the Moon?

Yes… and no. All of our phones have more computational power than a computer the size of a warehouse in 1969, and they can do amazing things. However, they would need very specialized apps in order to be able to do the kinds of calculations needed to adjust velocities and trajectories precisely on the way to the Moon, second to second.

Google Maps won’t do that because we don’t have GPS that works off-Earth. Your phone would have to be able to spot the Moon and either Earth or Sun, plus another star or two, all visually, calculate the angles between them, then keep track of them and use that to calculate velocity and direction.

At the same time, your phone would also have to interface simultaneously with 150 onboard devices and run five to seven programs at once. In case you hadn’t noticed, phones and computers don’t really multitask anymore. They stopped doing that when systems became fast enough to just pick up where it left off when you switched windows, so that it just looks like that other program was running in the background the whole time.

The onboard computer on Apollo 11 was still a lot bigger than computers today, at 70 lbs (32 kgs), but it did the job and, because of the elegant way in which the code was written, it only required a grand total of… 2 kilobytes of memory, which is about 2,000 characters.

Yes, the actual code written for it was a lot bigger, but that 2Kb was working memory, and that was what was so elegant about it. The software itself was stored in static memory, which was literally woven by hand.

No, really. It was even called “rope memory.” This essentially created an incredibly complicated addressing system where the intersection of a particular pair of wires indicates the location of a single bit of data.

Touchtone phones worked on this same principal for years, and your phone and computer keyboards still work this way to this day. In fact, this two-point address scheme is still what makes your touch screens work as well.

It’s still mind-boggling to realize that not only did this computer somehow manage to do all of its runtime stuff in only 2Kb of memory, but that they had conceived of the idea of virtual runtime environments even then, so that they were able to run those five to seven programs at once, in such a small space.

What makes water so special?

The very short version is this: if water didn’t expand when it froze, life on Earth would not be possible and we’d probably be an ice-ball planet.

Water molecules have an interesting property. Made up of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, the hydrogen atoms naturally attach to the oxygen at 120° angles. Well, basically, since the whole thing is ultimately defined by the electron field around it in which we can only determine the likelihood of an electron’s location.

But it does give water these properties: When it’s a gas, the molecules bump into and spin off of each other. When it’s a liquid, they flow around each other. However, as the temperature lowers, a funny thing happens. Those hydrogen atoms in the molecules start to line up — remember, a sphere has 360° around it — and so as the water molecules slow down (i.e. as the temperature drops) the molecules line up and lock together and begin to create a crystal lattice.

You can see it large scale in a snow-flake, with its six-sided symmetry, but down on the molecular level what’s really happening is that the molecules are actually forming rigid structures and pushing themselves apart as they align.

And so… as liquid water turns into ice, it expands, and this is good for us (but bad for the Titanic) for one very big reason. It reduces the density of ice, so that it floats in water. If it didn’t, we’d be screwed, because ice would sink, wind up on the bottom, and then tend to never thaw when winter ended.

Eventually, entire lakes, rivers, and seas would completely freeze over, removing liquid water at first from our aquifers and, eventually, from our atmosphere. The Earth would become one vast desert, and the reflection of sunlight because of all that ice would just add to the runaway freezing.

Is time travel possible?

The short answer is “probably not,” at least not to the past, although time travel to the future is technically possible through things like suspended animation — as in if you travel more slowly than everyone else, you’ll objectively get to the future faster.

But your real question is, “Can I jump into a time machine and visit another era?” And the answer is this: “Sure, if you figure out how to actually travel in time, go for it, but you’ll need to figure out how to travel in space as well. Or, at the very least, do complicated equations that would have blown the circuits out of those first NASA computers.

Example: Marty McFly abandons all common sense, and jumps into the crazy old man’s time machine even as he’s being gunned down by terrorists. Marty guns it, the car hits 88 miles an hour, and suddenly Hill Valley and the Twin Pines mall vanish…

And the car is drifting somewhere in interstellar space. Since it’s not pressurized, Marty very quickly dies, alone and billions of miles away from Earth. End of movie, and the trilogy never exists.

What?

That’s because everything in the universe constantly moves. You may think that all of those atoms in your body don’t move at all, but that’s not true at all. The ones that are part of organs or tissues or the like may seem to be stuck in place, but they are constantly vibrating as they react with neighboring atoms. This is why you’re not a frozen block of ice.

The universe has two speed limits — the fastest you can go and the slowest you can go. If you have any mass at all, no matter how small, you can never reach the speed of light, or C. If you have no mass, you can only ever travel at C — which isn’t all that weird when you think about it.

Meanwhile, the bottom speed limit of the universe is motionless, which is defined as Absolute 0, or 0ºKelvin (-273.15ºC or -459.67ºF). Nothing can reach this temperature, because it would mean that it would have absolutely no motion at all.

The problem is that if something is not moving at all, we know its precise location. And, if we know its location, we cannot know its exact momentum. This is the core of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and, obviously, if an object is completely motionless, then we know both its location and its momentum.

As it turns out, molecules have a very clever way of hiding themselves when they get close to 0ºK. they turn into a fifth state of matter called a Bose-Einstein Condensate. In this case, suspecting that we’re about to figure out where they are, all of the atoms being reduced in temperature suddenly give up their angular momentum gladly. At the same time, they all kind of smear into a indeterminate blob, so that we have no idea where any single atom in the group is.

And… problem solved. Okay, the atoms aren’t thinking at all while this is happening. It’s just a result of the change in velocity that dictates which property is going to be hidden. But just as you can’t accelerate mass past the universal speed limit, you can’t slam the brakes on mass and bring it to a complete stop.

Note that I have no idea whether the Bose-Einstein thing affects photons, since photons do have momentum and spin, but by virtue of having no mass probably also have no real location, especially because (just a guess) they still move at the same speed at 0ºK.

Photons are tricksey fuckerses.

But despite all of that, okay. Let’s assume that time travel is possible. Marty hops in that DeLorean, travels back 30 years and, assuming that time travel is legit, he’s still not going to be in the same place on Earth because gravity isn’t going to work that way either.

Gravity is a very long range force, and it’s very strong on cosmic scales, but it’s absolutely not on quantum scales, and this may actually be the reason that it’s been so hard to reconcile classical physics with the quantum.

Look at it this way. Why do “flat-earthers” exist? Because, from their very limited perspective living on the face of the planet, the place really does look flat.

Even if you march their sorry asses to the beach and make them watch as giant cargo ships rise above and vanish below the horizon, they still won’t buy it.

You need to take them up and beyond so that they can actually see the curve and experience the gravity and all of that. I mean, after all, even if you circumnavigate the globe by boat, plane, train, automobile, or whatever, it’s still going to seem flat to you without that heightened experience.

So… how does gravity affect space time? It bends it. Or, in other words, gravity takes “flat” space time and curves it. And on a human scale, this is really easy to experience. Toss a ball into the air and watch it fall. It’s not going to land in quite the same place.

But on the quantum scale? Nope. Everything there would appear “flat” as well, because any bend of space that gravity might create would be totally imperceptible to particles so small.

So the force that would normally hold Marty and the DeLorean onto the ground on Earth and keep him in Hill Valley become totally irrelevant when you start to fuck with the quantum shiz that would be necessary for time travel.

The DeLorean pops out from here but is no longer bound to Earth or anything else by gravity, since it’s skidding gleefully through time but not limited by velocity — as in it will never travel faster than light, but does so by following an alternate path through space that, nevertheless, will still land it at the target date and place on the particular world it departed from.

In the Universe at large, that time and date 30 years ago in Hill Valley is exactly where it was in the 30 years ago of the place Marty left, which means he’s at least 22 billion miles away from the solar system, with the Earth itself some smaller increment nearer or farther.

It definitely doe not include the about 19 billion kilometers that the entire Milky Way Galaxy has moved toward the Great Attractor between the constellations of Leo and Virgo. Without that DeLorean being able to do some very complicated math and some space travel as well, it’s going to be a very short trip to the past, and no coming back to the future

image source: Mrmw, (CC0), via Wikimedia Commons