Wednesday Wonders: A busy day in space

Happy New Year! And happy first day of spring!

Wait, what… you say those things aren’t today, March 25th? That the latter was six days ago and the former was almost four months ago?

Well… you’d be right in 2020, but jump back in history to when the Julian calendar was still around, and things were dated differently. This led to the adoption of the new Gregorian calendar, but since it was sponsored by the Pope, not everyone switched over right away. Long story short, Catholic countries like Spain, Portugal, and Italy adopted it immediately in 1582. Protestant countries held out, so that places like England (and the colonies) didn’t switch until 1752.

That was also when England moved New Year’s day back to January 1, which is itself ironic, since it was the Catholic Church that moved the day from then to March 25 at the Council of Tours in 567, considering the prior date pagan, which was probably accurate, since the Romans had moved New Year’s from March to January 1st when they deified Julius Caesar after his assassination.

The practical reason for switching calendars was that the Julian calendar lost 11 hours a year, which added up fast, meaning that entire extra months had to be added between years to set things right again. The Gregorian calendar is much more accurate, although about 2,800 years from now it will have lost a day.

By the way, the religious reasoning for picking March 25th is that it was the Feast of the Annunciation, meaning the day that the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary to let her know that she was going to get knocked up by god — although it doesn’t get mentioned canonically until a century after the ol’ calendar switch-a-roo.

Anyway, the math isn’t hard to do. March 25th is exactly nine months before Christmas. And in strictly astronomical terms, the former is the first day of spring and the latter is the first day of winter. Just psychologically, the Vernal Equinox, which is now closer to the 19th or 20th, is the better New Year’s Day option because it’s when days start to get longer than nights, vegetation starts to grow anew, and nature awakes from its slumber.

Note: Your mileage in 2020 may vary.

It’s kind of ironic, then, that today marks the birth of a German astronomer and mathematician, Christopher Clavius, who was instrumental in doing the calculations necessary to figure out how much in error the Julian calendar had become, and then to come up with a calendar to fix it and a method to transition.

This is where the Catholic Church came into it, because Easter, being a moveable feast based on the Julian lunar calendar, had been slipping later and later into the year, threatening to move from the spring to summer. Clavius’s job was to bring it back toward the vernal equinox.

He succeeded to the degree of accuracy noted above — only a day off in 3,236 years. Not bad. This was also when New Year’s Day went back to January 1st, per the old Roman style, and while this is attributed to Pope Gregory XIII, I can’t help but think that Clavius had a hand in implementing the change.

I mean, come on. You’re handed a chance by the most powerful person in the western world at the time to move a major holiday off of your birthday so that your day is finally special on its own? Who wouldn’t do that given the power?

Good ol’ Chris did make other discoveries and get some nice presents, like a crater on the moon named after him, as well as the moon base in the movie 2001.

Still, even if the equinox did move away from March 25, the date still keeps bringing special things for astronomers. It was on this day in 1655 that the Dutch physicist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens discovered Saturn’s largest moon, Titan,

Huygens also has another time connection, though. Where Clavius gave us a calendar accurate to over 3,000 years, Huygens gave us a clock that was the most accurate for the next 300 years. His innovation? Put a pendulum on that thing and let it swing. He literally put the “tick tock” in clock.

Why was this possible? Because the swing of a pendulum followed the rules of physics and was absolutely periodic. Even as friction and drag slowed it down, it would cover a shorter distance but at a slower pace, so that the time between tick and tock would remain the same.

The pendulum itself would advance a gear via a ratchet that would turn the hands of the clock, and adding kinetic energy back into that pendulum was achieved through a spring, which is where that whole “winding the clock” thing came in. Tighten the spring and, as it unwinds, it drives that gear every time the pendulum briefly releases it, but thanks to physics, that pendulum will always take the exact same time to swing from A to B, whether it’s going really fast or really slow.

Back to Huygens’s discovery, though… Titan is quite a marvel itself. It is the second largest natural satellite in our solar system, taking a back seat (ironic if you know your mythology) only to Jupiter’s Ganymede. It is half again as big as our own Moon and 80% more massive. It’s even bigger than the planet Mercury, but only 40% as massive, mainly because Mercury is made of rock while Titan may have a rocky core but is mostly composed of layers of different forms of water-ice combined with ammonia, and a possible sub-surface ocean,

Titan also has a thick, nitrogen-rich atmosphere, the only other atmosphere in the solar system besides Earth’s to have so much nitrogen in it. In case you’re wondering, Earth’s atmosphere is almost 80% nitrogen — OMG, you’re breathing it right now! But this also makes the aliens’ Achilles heel in the movie Mars Attacks! kind of ridiculous, since the whole deal was that they could only survive in a nitrogen atmosphere. We have that, Mars doesn’t. Mars is mostly carbon dioxide, but not even much of that. But don’t get me started.

Despite all that, it’s still a fun film.

And Titan, next to Jupiter’s moon Europa, is one of the more likely places we might find life in our solar system.

One final bit of March 25th news in space for this day: In 1979, OV-102, aka Space Shuttle Columbia, was delivered to NASA. It was the first shuttle completed, and its delivery date, after a flight that had begun on March 24th, came four years to the day after fabrication of the fuselage began. Sadly, it was also the last shuttle to not survive its mission, so there was a strange sort of symmetry in that.

While I warned you about the Ides of March, the 25th should be full of nothing but anticipation, even in a plague year. It’s a date for exploration and discovery, whether out into the cosmos, or within the confines of whatever space you’re in right now. Make good with what you have, create all you can, and take advantage of our wonderful technology to share and connect.

After all, that’s what worked for Clavius and Huygens. They worked with the tech they had, then networked once they had an idea, and look how well that worked out.

Hint: It worked out very well, for them and for us.

Image Source: Titan, by NASA.

Wednesday Wonders: Jon on Scarne

One hundred and seventeen years ago today, a guy named Orlando Carmelo Scarnecchia was born in Steubenville, Ohio. You won’t recognize that name. Seeing as how he died in 1985, you might not recognize the name he became famous under. But if you’ve ever enjoyed a magician doing card tricks, played pretty much any card or dice game, or counted cards in blackjack (at least, if you did it his way) then you know the name John Scarne.

Now why is a magician, card manipulator, and author of books on gambling showing up on a Wednesday Wonder post? Because there’s a corollary to Clarke’s Third  Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The corollary is “Any sufficiently advanced magic is the product of technology.”

Magic tricks have always been based on scientific principles. They are a combination of mathematics, physics, and psychology, and sometimes throw in chemistry, geometry, and topography, for good measure. Of course, the best magicians wrap all of that science in the arts, so that the perfect illusion (“Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money.”) is a full-on performance wrapped up in a story, supported by stagecraft, acting, music, and the whole nine yards.

Of course, note that the word “stagecraft” is kind of meta, because what we in theatre call stagecraft is often what illusionists call magic, so it’s an infinite loop there. A magic trick is stagecraft. Stagecraft is a magic trick. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But what Scarne did goes even beyond all of that, and one look at this card manipulation film of his from the 50s should convince you of that. Yes, I’ve studied magic enough to know that he’s using all kinds of tricks, like false deals and double lifts and so on to do what he’s doing but… at the same time, while the trick seems focused on the Aces, he’s not manipulating four cards at once here. He’s controlling eight — and all of them in a specific order, full speed ahead.

One of his more famous appearances was as Paul Newman’s hands in the movie The Sting. Newman’s character shows some pretty impressive card manipulating skills, all done by Scarne, but if you watch that video clip take special note. At the beginning, we cut to the hands with the cards. Then, at 0:36, the filmmakers pull their magic. The hands move out of frame at the top just long enough for Newman to put his own hands back, then pull off a not so fluid full-flip of the fanned deck, as the camera casually tilts up to make us think that those were his hands all the time. Ironically, I think that the insert shot of the flubbed attempt to bow shuffle was actually Scarne and not Newman.

But knowing that part of the trick brings up an even bigger issue. The only way they could have shot this was with Scarne behind Newman and reaching around, meaning that he had to do all of that manipulation of the cards totally blind.

Let that register, then go watch that clip again as he keeps the Ace of Spades right where he wants it. And nice symbolism on the part of the filmmakers, since that card is traditionally symbolic of death, and death both real and imagined play a big part in the film.

So how does magic trick us?

A lot of the time, it uses psychology and subverts our expectations. An obvious move to do something innocuous, like pull a wand out of our coat pocket, might in fact hide one or more surreptitious moves, like grabbing an object to be produced or ditching an object to be vanished, or both, or something else. One of the best demonstrations of how this works was given by Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, on their show Fool Us.

Anyway… that video will teach you almost everything you need to know about sleight-of-hand.

Another way that magic fools us is to play with our perceptions of space, and as mentioned in the link above, the Zig Zag Illusion is one of the best examples of making the audience think that something is impossible while hiding the secret right in front of them. I happen to own several pocket versions of this trick, one involving a rope and the other a pencil, and the principle is always the same. The Zig Zag Trick involves deceptive optics, psychology, and misdirection.

Of course, one other big trick in magic, especially in card tricks, is math, and I’m going to give away one that I love to do to make friends go “WTF?” Here’s the effect: I deal out 21 cards, then ask then to mentally pick a card, not tell me, but only tell me which one of three piles of seven cards it’s in. I gather up the cards and then deal them out again, and ask which column their card is in.

This is where I pull the stagecraft, playing up the idea that I have psychic abilities while dealing out the cards, Here’s the trick. When you hit the eleventh card, set it aside, face down, then deal out the rest. This sets you up for the ultimate brain scorch as you casually turn up that eleventh card and ask, “Is this the one you chose?”

And of course it is, and your victim squees in amazement. And how does it work? Simple. It’s all math. Each step of the way, you take the pile of seven cards with your spectator’s chosen card and put it in the middle. Since your piles are 3 by 7, the end result is that the first pass will force the chosen card to turn up somewhere between 8 and 14 in the pile. Next time around, it gets jammed to being either 10th, 11th, or 12th, and the last deal nails it. Although, pro tip, after the second deal, the chosen card will be the fourth one in the chosen column, and the 11th one you deal out. So… much opportunity for building up the reveal while reminding your mark and audience that they chose the card freely, and never told you which one it was and, bam! Is this your card?

And, if you followed the instructions, it absolutely will be. Bonus points: Once you understand the math behind it, you can vary it on the fly, so that it’s not always the 11th card — 4th or 18th will work as well. You can even change the total number of cards, provided that you’ve memorized where the target card will finally be forced to.

Scarne totally got all of this, but it really feels like his insights have been forgotten 35 years after his death. ‘Tis pity… Now pick a card.

On the shoulders of giants

A while back, I wrote about two writers who had a big influence on me, one directly in real life, and the other stylistically. But I’ve also been influenced by four film directors, one of whom directly inspired me to stupidly pursue a career in this business. Unlike one of the writers above, I never met any of them, and they all also happen to be dead now.

In a nutshell, and in order of influence, those directors are Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Ken Russell, and Nicolas Roeg. Sure, four old, white British men (Kubrick being an American ex-pat), but I didn’t know better as a kid, okay? All I knew was that my dad took me to see Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey during one of those many times when the Cinerama Dome opened a would-be blockbuster that bombed, so they had to fill time with something else — and this movie blew Star Wars right out of the water. It was Science Fiction that felt real. There was no sound in space, the movie took its time, the soundtrack was mostly classical music in a future context, and I walked out of that first viewing thinking, “Yeah. I want to do this.”

Present me would love to time travel back to then, grab that kid by the shoulders and shout in his face, “No, dumbass. You want to figure out how to make enough money to pay other people to do this for you so you’ll be richer than Croesus.”

Young me wouldn’t have listened.

Anyway, a few years later, I discovered the several “Art House” cinemas in Los Angeles like the Nuart Theater, mainly because I noticed that they showed other Kubrick films. They also didn’t seem to really pay a lot of attention to ratings, so I could get my young ass into R-rated films. Note: There are absolutely no penalties, legal or otherwise, for a theater not following the MPAA ratings when they sell tickets. None. Nada, and one theater openly defied an NC-17 rating. It’s all smoke and mirrors, folks. So anybody can go to an R-rated movie. It’s just the idea that ratings are some legal bar that makes them effective. But I do digress…

So I worked my way through the Kubrick oeuvre, then stumbled into Hitchcock, and while he created in a G-rated world, his films were just as amazing for different reasons. Kubrick’s works are all about Big Ideas passed through the filter of human experience. 2001 deals with the evolution of the human species, past and future; Clockwork Orange handles crime and punishment; Dr. Strangelove takes on war and peace; Barry Lyndon is all about the class system, and so on.

Hitchcock, though, was all about plot, especially when layered with suspense. Kubrick would make you think. Hitchcock would make you sit on the edge of your seat and clench your butt. Hitch was also far more prolific than Kubrick, which is why I think that there isn’t a single Kubrick film I don’t love, but I’m not a fan of every Hitchcock film.

The ones that really bowl me over, though, are North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Rope. Oops… Psycho isn’t on that list? Well, for me it’s not, because it really doesn’t stack up against the others. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great film, but in the context of the rest of his works, it’s actually on the lower end of the scale.

The other thing that struck me about both of these directors, though, is that they were technical innovators. Both of them constantly came up with new ways to do things on film. Hitchcock actually has a particular shooting technique named after him, and Kubrick managed to out-Star Wars Star Wars a decade before Star Wars without a single computer in sight.

After Hitchcock, though, those art house movies led me to another director who worked on a completely different plane, but to whom I clung immediately: Ken Russell. And if Kubrick specialized in ideas while Hitchcock mastered in plot, I’d have to say that Russell’s playing field dealt with emotions in general, or fantasies specifically. His biopics were amazing exercises in giving us emotional truths through metaphors.

Three in particular, each of which dealt with famous composers, run the scale (pun intended) from lightest to heaviest in fantasy: The Music Lovers, about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with some fantasy sequences, but not a lot; Mahler, about the composer Gustav Mahler, about half and half; and Lizstomania, almost entirely fantasy and, while it seems to be the most off-the-rails of them all in covering the life of Franz Lizst, it is actually the most accurate in its metaphorical way, because Lizst really was the first rock star, even if it happened 120 years before the Beatles.

Russell used fantasies and dreams to explore the emotional life of his characters, and it is beautiful. He’s another director with an oeuvre limited enough that I think I’ve seen almost all of his films, and while I have ups and downs, I don’t think there are many I don’t like. For calibration purposes, I’d rank Lair of the White Worm as worst, and the aforementioned Mahler as best.

After Russell, the art houses introduced me to another influence, a director named Nicolas Roeg. And the thing he specialized in was playing with time. Not a single one of his films took place in chronological order, and this was what taught me the power of editing. He’s probably best well-known for a film that most people haven’t seen but only know about because David Bowie starred in it: The Man Who Fell to Earth. And here’s the thing. This is one damn difficult movie to sit through, and it wasn’t my first Roeg film, so I came to it knowing his style.

Here’s the order I learned Roeg, as far as I can remember. Don’t Look Now, which is an amazing and stylish suspense horror film that isn’t gory, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie; Walkabout, which deals with issues of privilege at a time when that wasn’t even a concept, as White Girl and White Boy (literally their names in the credits) are dumped in the Australian outback by their suicidal father, only to be saved by an aboriginal Black Boy who is on his Walkabout, which is a right of passage for his belief system. Needless to say, guess who it doesn’t end well for.

And before I got to The Man Who Fell to Earth, I also saw Roeg’s first big “Hey, look at me” movie, Performance, which actually gave us an incredible, well, um, performance from a young, often nude, and sexy Mick Jagger.

But the most important takeaway for me from Roeg’s films was this. Do not tell your story in chronological order. Tell it in emotional order. If the thing that happens in normal Act 3 seems meaningless then, but can serve as set-up for later, then move it up. And if the thing from Act 1 that seems meaningless up front takes on power later, move it down.

Put them all together, and this is where my playwriting goes: Stories about big ideas that are still very plotted, but which also use fantasy and surrealism to explore emotional truths, and tend to not take place in chronological order. In fact, only one of my produced full-length plays takes place in literal time, and that happens to be the first one produced.

And so there you go. I constantly play with ideas, plots, emotions, and chronology. The big idea comes first, and I build the story from that via plots that are driven by emotions. Once that’s in place, I chop the story up and order it based not on when, but on how the emotions drive the timeline and the plot. And this is how four very different directors created my artistic vision.

(Not noted above, Terry Gilliam, who I didn’t realize really was an influence at first, but taught me the idea of not taking anything too seriously, least of all yourself, and also confirmed that I was playing the game of cut and paste creativity properly.)

So who are your major influences? What have you taken from them, and how do you use that? Tell us in the comments!