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.

Talky Tuesday Special: Erin go, bro!

In which I don’t so much write about language as indulge in my Irish gift of gab in the most meta way possible.

America may or may not be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today, depending upon what stage of pandemic we’re at — after all, New York City already cancelled theirs, and it was one of the biggest in the country, along with Chicago (postponed) and Boston (also cancelled).

But the salient point is that, like Cinco de Mayo to actual Mexicans, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t all that big a deal over in Ireland. It’s more of a religious holiday than a boozefest. They still celebrate it, just not on the same scale as… oh. Never mind. Ireland has cancelled, too.

In honor of the day, I’m bringing up my mother’s people because the Irish in America are a very good example of a group that was once an identifiable and hated minority that went on to assimilate with a vengeance.

If you trust traditional sources, that might not seem the case. According to the Census, 10.5% consider themselves of Irish descent. But, of course, that’s totally unreliable because it’s a self-reported figure. Some people may have no idea where their grandparents or great-grandparents came from. Others may not care about their Irish ancestry, or may identify more strongly with another group or country in their background.

But when you look at objective sources and include any degree of Irish heritage, the number changes dramatically. DNA tests via Ancestry show that two thirds of all people tested have at least some Irish blood in them.

In other words, in that regard, the Irish are the hidden majority in this country. Nice trick, considering that for so much of their history here, mo mhuintir (my people) were a much hated minority.

A group of refuges, fleeing what is basically an attempt at genocide back home, suddenly flood the country. Many of them speak a foreign language or speak English badly; they practice a different religion than most Americans of the time; they are perceived as a big threat to American jobs (although they only took the ones Americans didn’t want); and they are accused of being violent criminals, addicts, or rapists.

Sound familiar? Ripped from recent headlines?

Yes, but all of those attributes were applied to the Irish who came to America in the wake of the potato famine, or the Great Hunger, of the 1850s. A big part of it was religious discrimination. At the time, America was predominantly Protestant, thanks to its initial British invaders… sorry, settlers, but another big group who came over, the Germans, tended to be Lutheran. The Catholic Germans of the north stayed home.

The English never had any problem with the Germans because, surprise, by the time America was founded, the English royal family was actually… German. They ruled via four Georges, one William, and somebody known as Victoria.

After she died, the name of the house changed twice, first with her successor, and then again during World War I (then known as the Great War) because Windsor sounded so much more British than the German Hanover, and the British were fighting the Germans, after all.

That’s right. World War I wasn’t so much a war as a family squabble.

The Germans in America did just fine, though, and I have plenty of them in my background as well. My last name is German, and my great grandfather came from there. He was pretty successful as well, and as far as I know, the only elected official (mayor) who’s my direct ancestor for at least four hundred years.

My Irish ancestors, not so much. They were depicted in the press in completely stereotyped and racist ways — and yes, even though Irish is a nationality, the prejudice they faced was a type of racism because the Irish were not considered to be white by the native-born of the era.

Note that the mention of Germans also being stereotyped in that era refers to the Catholic ones, who finally came over as Germany dissolved into civil war in the mid to late 1800s. Note that this is exactly when my great-grandfather came over with his family.

It was 1883 and he was 18. The village he came from was Michelbach, in Gaggenau, just outside of Stuttgart. It’s close enough to Hamburg to assume that it was very Catholic, but I don’t have to assume.

Thanks to a genealogist who, while studying the village as a whole, found my query online, I know all about all of my ancestors from there back to the late 17th century, thanks to the Catholic Church they were preserved in. So those Bastians were probably Catholic. My dad was definitely not.

I don’t think he practiced any religion except for the Ritual of the Earliest Tee Time via its patron, St. Golf, but I suspect that it was because his mother, who was a combination of French, Welsh, Scottish, maybe Native American, and who knows what-all else, wasn’t at all religious.

But if it was one civil war that brought my German ancestors to America, it was another that really messed with my Irish ancestors. This would be the American Civil War itself, and, ironically (or not) it was a perfect example of the rich pitting one downtrodden class against another.

April 1, 1863 was the date the government in the north set for all men between 20 and 45 to register for the first ever draft, whether they were citizens or immigrants seeking citizenship. On top of this, while you’d think that everyone in the North was against slavery, you’d be wrong. In fact, not only did the business elites in New York support it because they profited off of the cheap labor, too, but so did the lower classes, because they feared the possibility of freed slaves coming to take their jobs.

Hm. That whole mishmash sounds familiar, too.

Oh… there was one other big flaw in the law, and it was this. Anyone could buy their way out of being drafted by either finding a substitute to take their place, or paying $300. Obviously, this meant that buying their way out was impossible for the poor and working class, and these people went apeshit.

This led to the draft riots, the second largest act of civil insurrection in U.S. history, ironically only beaten out by the Civil War itself. Of course, as the riots started, the disgruntled poor, largely Irish, didn’t go after the rich bastards in charge. Nope — they went after the black community instead.

Even then, America used divide and conquer. An object lesson for today. Keep in mind that before the Civil War, the Irish were shoved into the same social circles as blacks who were not slaves, and there was a lot of intermarriage and the like going on. Sadly, the above scare tactics of “they’ll take your jobs” during the Civil War worked, permanently damaging the Irish/Black relationship.

But… it planted a seed, so to speak, and there are plenty of black Americans today who happen to have Irish genes in them.

So how did the Irish manage to climb up the ladder to become respected and considered “white?” Simple… America, never one to back down on xenophobia, simply found new targets. After the whole Irish thing, there were suddenly Italians, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, and Mexicans flooding our shores.

After all that, the Irish didn’t seem all that bad.

By the time that Great War ended, the Irish were totally assimilated. And they saw their first president elected in 1960… wait, right, no. JFK was not the first Irish-American president. That would have been bloody, bloody Andrew Jackson. Too bad he didn’t also claim the title of biggest racist asshole prior to… well, you know who.

But, surprisingly, even as recently as 1960, the big worry was whether an Irish Catholic president would follow the Pope instead of the Constitution. (Hint: It was unfounded.)

So happy St. Patrick’s Day. Although it’s not really celebrated that much in Ireland, it probably is in America because, if all y’all strip down to your genes, you probably do have a little Irish in you. Erin go bragh!

Don’t think, just do

As I’ve mentioned here before, improv was one of those things on my bucket list precisely because doing it scared the crap out of me even though I loved the art form as an audience member. Two years ago, I found out that a friend of mine was involved with a local improv company, ComedySportz, which was founded in Milwaukee in 1984. The L.A. franchise opened in 1987, making it now the longest-running comedy show in the city.

So I saw my first show two years ago, in October 2016, then found out that CSz had improv classes, figured “What the heck,” and dove in from there. After a year of classes, I joined the Monday night Rec League, and just began my fourth season, each season being three months long. So from first class to now, it’s been close to two years.

But… it really wasn’t until last week’s show that I had a major breakthrough and realized how I’d managed to make a leap in my abilities.

It was simply this. I came into improv as more of a writer than an actor, so I tended to play in my head. I would write the jokes ahead of time and then jump into a scene. The end result? It was all kind of forced and awkward, and it also cut my mind off from what my body was doing.

And then, one night, I turned that brain part off and it was a revelation. Instead of trying to plan the jokes out ahead of time, I made an effort to not think of anything beforehand and just jump into it and… damn. That made it feel like a quantum leap ahead.

Right off the bat, it led me to win a team head-to-head game that, normally, I would lose immediately. If you’re into improv, it was “What You Got?” This is basically a dance/rap battle in which we’re given a subject, and then the leader starts a chant in rhythm and movement that fits it, then the team follows. So, for example, if the suggestion is “Dairy Farm,” the first team leader might start with “Milking a cow, milking a cow, milking a cow, what you got?” combined with milking a cow gestures. After the first “milking a cow,” the rest of the team picks up the chant and the leader’s movements. If the team doesn’t get it or the leader can’t come up with anything, then that team loses and they ro-ro-rotate, bringing another player up.

Previously, in this kind of game, I’d try to be planning two steps ahead, with ideas in my head while the other team played. And they’d do their thing and I’d jump out and do mine and find out that I’d either really failed to plan it or had failed to listen to the other team and would just repeat their rhyme. Either way… ro-ro-rotate.

But once I stopped planning ahead, something interesting happened. I could just jump out there and do the thing automatically. It was like my body knew what to do and was just dragging my brain along. And so, in a game I’d normally lost, I was the last player standing and won, and it was not an easy suggestion. The Ref asked for a color and an audience member said “chartreuse,” and… come on. There’s not a lot that goes with that, but after my second suggestion of “Gotta repaint now,” the other team whiffed it really hard.

Funny thing is, this is how I generally write as well. Believe it or not, I usually start with the basic suggestion — i.e. the topic — with only the vaguest of paths in mind, but then I spark it up, let loose and… voila. The rest is stream of consciousness.

And yes, I totally get that writing this way would have made half of my English teachers in school apoplectic and the other half ecstatic. “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” I didn’t appreciate Joyce when I first met him via a fanatic in my junior year of high school. Years later, I read Dubliners and The Dead, then finally Finnegan’s Wake and… damn. He really did for Postmodern English what Shakespeare did for Modern English. He created a language and a way of thinking that really went beyond thinking.

And by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to the original subject. I’ve learned that the best way to think in improv is to stop thinking. After all, kids don’t think, they just act and react. It can be annoying to adults but, on the other hand, kids can be pretty damn creative and also don’t really care what anyone else thinks.

That is the true secret of improv and creativity. Don’t think, just do, and enjoy, and, most of all, don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks about you because… big secret? Everyone else is too worried about what you think of them to give a damn about what they think of you.

Laissez le bon temps rouler

While I’m an atheist, I find religious symbolism to be useful in the right context. As Fat Tuesday brings us into Lent, here are some lessons even the most secular of people can use. Plus… free beads!

Although I’m only nominally Catholic by accident of birth and an atheist by nature, I have learned to appreciate the symbolic value of some religious rituals, and since today is Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), which leads into Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent, which means we’re supposed to give up something from now until Easter… I’d like to honor my mother’s side of the family by giving something up, but it ain’t gonna be something simple, like coffee or candy or meat.

No, it’s going to be something harder. For Lent, I am going to give up judgement of others… which means giving up impatience, lack of understanding, lack of empathy, lack of seeing other people as fellow humans, even if I find their politics to be utterly disgusting to me. Lent, whether you’re religious or not, is all about sacrifice for the greater good — giving up a key part of your person in order to rediscover your connection to humanity.

And, as what is basically a pagan celebration of the imminent return of spring is warped into serving a patriarchal mind-control system, I’m doing my part to take it back. For Lent, I am giving up hate. I am giving up fear. I am giving up the idea that people who are different than me are scary. In fact, people who are different than me just remind me of the fact of how similar all people are to me — white, black, Asian, indigenous, mixed; gay, straight, bisexual, asexual (but especially bisexual, yay, us!); cis and trans; tall, short, cute, ugly, old, young… whatever.

Remember this: By definition, all life on this planet is related because all of us are descended from the same primordial ooze. But, beyond that, every single one of us is made up of atoms that were first created in a star that lived and died and blew up long before our own sun was born. Every single living thing here is literally a bit of star stuff twisted around a simple organic molecule born in a turgid puddle of water that emerged billions of years ago after this lump of rock solidified in a rather boring corner of space.

And our time here is but a mere eye-blink in terms of what the cosmos has experienced. We might as well do whatever the hell we can to make our fellow creatures feel more happy and welcome every second we’re here, and if it means giving up shit that makes us feel comfortable for forty days in order to make at least one other person feel more welcome, then have at it.

So, for Lent this year, atheist me is going to give up all attitudes that make anyone else ever feel less than… and embrace everything I can do to make my fellow humans and other beings feel like they are a valid part of this little wet lump of mud spinning through the void we have found ourselves on.

How hard is that to do, eh?