Why astrology is bunk

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

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

Fact

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

Science

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

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

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

History

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

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

Experiment

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

5 things space exploration brought back down to Earth

Recently, I wrote about how a thing as terrible as World War I still gave us some actual benefits, like improvements in plastic surgery, along with influencing art in the 20th century. Now, I’d like to cover something much more positive: five of the tangible, down-to-earth benefits that NASA’s space programs, including the Apollo program to the Moon, have given us.

I’m doing so because I happened across another one of those ignorant comments on the internet along the lines of, “What did going to the Moon ever really get us except a couple of bags of rocks?” That’s kind of like asking, “What did Columbus sailing to America ever really get us?” The answer to that should be obvious, although NASA did it with a lot fewer deaths and exactly zero genocide.

All of those Apollo-era deaths came with the first manned attempt, Apollo 1, which was destroyed by a cabin fire a month before its actual launch date during a test on the pad on January 27, 1967, killing all three astronauts aboard. As a consequence, missions 2 through 6 were unmanned. Apollo 7 tested docking maneuvers for the Apollo Crew and Service Modules, to see if this crucial step would work, and Apollo 8 was the first to achieve lunar orbit, circling our satellite ten times before returning to Earth. Apollo 9 tested the crucial Lunar Module, responsible for getting the first humans onto and off of the Moon, and Apollo 10 was a “dress rehearsal,” which went through all of the steps except the actual landing.

Apollo 11, of course, was the famous “one small step” mission, and after that we only flew six more times to the Moon, all of them meant to do the same as 11, but only the other one that’s most people remember, Apollo 13, is famous for failing to make it there.

I think the most remarkable part is that we managed to land on the Moon only two-and-a-half years after that disastrous first effort, and then carried out five successful missions in the three-and-a-half-years after that. What’s probably less well-known is that three more missions were cancelled between Apollo 13 and 14, but still with the higher numbers 18 through 20 because their original launch dates were not until about two years later.

Yes, why they just didn’t skip from to 17 so that the numbering worked out to 20 is a mystery.

Anyway, the point is that getting to the Moon involved a lot of really intelligent people solving a lot of tricky problems in a very short time, and as a result of it, a ton of beneficial tech came out of it. Some of this fed into or came from Apollo directly, while other tech was created or refined in successive programs, like Skylab, and  the Space Shuttle.

Here are my five favorites out of the over 6,300 technologies that NASA made great advances in on our journeys off of our home planet.

CAT scanner: Not actually an invention of NASA’s per se — that credit goes to British physicists Godfrey Hounsfield and Allan Cormack. However, the device did use NASA’s digital imaging technology in order to work, and this had been developed by JPL for NASA in order to enhance images taken on the moon. Since neither CAT scanners nor MRIs use visible light to capture images, the data they collect needs to be processed somehow and this is where digital imaging comes in.

A CAT scanner basically uses a revolving X-ray tube to repeatedly circle the patient and create a profile of data taken at various depths and angles, and this is what the computer puts together. The MRI is far safer (as long as you don’t get metal too close to it.)

This is because instead of X-rays an MRI machine works by using a magnetic field to cause the protons in every water molecule in your body to align, then pulsing a radio frequency through, which unbalances the proton alignment. When the radio frequency is then turned off, the protons realign. The detectors sense how long it takes protons in various places to do this, which tells them what kind of tissue they’re in. Once again, that old NASA technology takes all of this data and turns it into images that can be understood by looking at them. Pretty nifty, huh?

Invisible braces: You may remember this iconic moment from Star Trek IV: The One with the Whales, in which Scotty shares the secret of “transparent aluminum” with humans of 1986.

However, NASA actually developed transparent polycrystalline alumina long before that film came out and, although TPA is not a metal, but a ceramic, it contributed to advances in creating nearly invisible braces. (Note that modern invisible braces, like Invisalign, are not made of ceramic.)

But the important point to note is that NASA managed to take a normally opaque substance and allow it to transmit light while still maintaining its properties. And why did NASA need transparent ceramic? Easy. That stuff is really heat-resistant, and if you have sensors that need to see light while you’re dumping a spacecraft back into the atmosphere, well, there you go. Un-melting windows and antennae, and so on. This was also a spin-off of heat-seeking missile technology.

Joystick: You can be forgiven for thinking that computer joysticks were invented in the early 1980s by ATARI or (if you really know your gaming history) by ATARI in the early 1970s. The first home video game, Pong, was actually created in 1958, but the humble joystick itself goes back to as far as aviation does, since that’s been the term for the controller on airplanes since before World War I. Why is it called a “joystick?” We really don’t know, despite attempts at creating folk etymology after the fact.

However, those early joysticks were strictly analogue — they were connected mechanically to the flaps and rudders that they controlled. The first big innovation came thirty-two years before Pong, when joysticks went electric. Patented in 1926, it was dreamt up by C. B. Mirick at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Its purpose was also controlling airplanes.

So this is yet another incidence of something that NASA didn’t invent, but boy howdy did they improv upon it — an absolute necessity when you think about it. For NASA, joysticks were used to land craft on the Moon and dock them with each other in orbit, so precision was absolutely necessary, especially when trying to touch down on a rocky satellite after descending through no atmosphere at orbital speed, which can be in the vicinity of 2,300 mph (about 3,700 km/h) at around a hundred kilometers up. They aren’t much to look at by modern design standards, but one of them sold at auction a few years back for over half a million dollars.

It gets even trickier when you need to dock two craft moving at similar speed, and in the modern day, we’re doing it in Earth orbit. The International Space Station is zipping along at a brisk 17,150 mph, or 27,600 km/h. That’s fast.

The early NASA innovations involved adding rotational control in addition to the usual X and Y axes, and later on they went digital and all kinds of crazy in refining the devices to have lots of buttons and be more like the controllers we know and love today. So next time you’re shredding it your favorite PC or Xbox game with your $160 Razer Wolverine Ultimate Chroma Controller, thank the rocket scientists at NASA. Sure, it doesn’t have a joystick in the traditional sense, but this is the future that space built, so we don’t need one!

Smoke detector: This is another device that NASA didn’t invent, but which they certainly refined and improved. While their predecessors, automatic fire alarms, date back to the 19th century, the first model relied on heat detection only. The problem with this, though, is that you don’t get heat until the fire is already burning, and the main cause of death in house fires isn’t the flames. It’s smoke inhalation. The version patented by George Andrew Darby in England in the 1890s did account for some smoke, but it wasn’t until the 1930s the concept of using ionization to detect smoke happened. Still, these devices were incredibly expensive, so only really available to corporations and governments. But isn’t that how all technological progress goes?

It wasn’t until NASA teamed with Honeywell (a common partner) in the 1970s that they managed to bring down the size and cost of these devices, as well as make them battery-operated. More recent experiments on ISS have helped scientists to figure out how to refine the sensitivity of smoke detectors, so that it doesn’t go off when your teenage boy goes crazy with the AXE body spray or when there’s a little fat-splash back into the metal roaster from the meat you’re cooking in the oven. Both are annoying, but at least the latter does have a positive outcome.

Water filter: Although it turns out that water is common in space, with comets being lousy with the stuff in the form of ice, and water-ice confirmed on the Moon and subsurface liquid water on Mars, as well as countless other places, we don’t have easy access to it, so until we establish water mining operations off-Earth, we need to bring it with us. Here’s the trick, though: water is heavy. A liter weighs a kilogram and a gallon weighs a little over eight pounds. There’s really no valid recommendation on how much water a person should drink in a day, but if we allow for two liters per day per person, with a seven person crew on the ISS, that’s fourteen kilos, or 31 pounds of extra weight per day. At current SpaceX launch rates, that can range from $23,000 to $38,000 per daily supply of water, but given a realistic launch schedule of every six weeks, that works out to around $1 to $1.5 million per launch just for the water. That six-week supply is also eating up 588 kilos of payload.

And remember: This is just for a station that’s in Earth orbit. For longer missions, the cost of getting water to them is going to get ridiculously expensive fast — and remember, too, that SpaceX costs are relatively recent. In 1981, the cost per kilogram was $85,216, although the Space Shuttles cargo capacity was slightly more than the Falcon Light.

So what’s the solution? Originally, it was just making sure all of the water was purified, leading to the Microbial Check Valve, which eventually filtered out (pun intended) to municipal water systems and dental offices. But to really solve the water problem, NASA is moving to recycling everything. And why not? Our bodies tend to excrete a lot of the water we drink when we’re done with it. Although it’s a myth that urine is sterile, it is possible to purify it to reclaim the water in it, and NASA has done just that. However, they really shouldn’t use the method shown in the satirical WW II film Catch-22

So it’s absolutely not true that the space program has given us nothing, and this list of five items barely scratches the surface. Once what we learn up there comes back down to Earth, it can improve all of our lives, from people living in the poorest remote villages on the planet to those living in splendor in the richest cities.

If you don’t believe that, here’s a question. How many articles of clothing that are NASA spin-offs are you wearing now, or do you wear on a regular basis? You’d be surprised.

Something to crow about

The other evening, while I was walking my dog, the neighborhood crows were engaging in their usual near-sunset activities, which mostly involve wheeling around the sky, landing en masse on the power lines, cawing loudly at each other, then wheeling around again, going from tree to tree as if they’re all trying to come to an agreement as to which motel to check into for the night.

This particular evening, a good sized murder had settled around one tree, more or less, but various birds kept swooping in and out or going from branch to branch. The thing is, because of their positions and because I started to pay attention, something struck me.

Their calls were absolutely not at random. I’d hear one crow squawk a particular note a certain number of times, then another crow answer with a different note and number, and so on, and each crow always gave the same signal. Also, the shorter calls seemed to come from more mobile birds, while the longest calls came from the same places.

It suddenly dawned on me that this was a family gathering in which each member was either announcing their presence by saying their name or asking if a particular other crow was present by saying their name. It surprised me how completely distinct each call was. Every bird had their own unique note and register and tone of voice, right down to the point that birds with the same number of notes still sounded like individuals. And I don’t think I’m crazy when I say that the two or three birds with the longest calls really sounded like they were squawking with absolute authority.

This is very different than what you hear when the flock is sending out a warning of a predator in the area, or when they discover a member of the family that has been killed by one. In that case, the birds are generally wheeling around in the air, and their caws are more frantic, overlapping, and agitated. Similarly, if a rival flock tries to come into the area, you’ll hear something akin to the predator warning, although in this case the flock will stand its ground, since it’s protecting territory, and may be a bit less frantic and user shorter calls in a lower pitch.

The thing is, dinosaurs never died out. They just evolved into birds. And the corvids, as in crows and ravens and the like, are among the smartest of all birds. They can remember faces and actions. Pro-tip: Never do anything to threaten or annoy a crow, because they will just tell the other crows, and they will gang up on you ever after. On the other hand, if you leave them food, they may bring you shiny trinkets.

Even more remarkable, they can use tools, and figure out problems, like this crow.

At first, this may not seem that amazing, since the crow was taught each of the stages of this puzzle separately, but the key detail is that he was never taught how they all fit together to get the reward. That was the part he had to figure out, showing that these birds are indeed able to think logically and consider the future implications of present actions — “If I do A, then I’ll be able to do B,” and so on.

They have a lot of other superpowers, which are worth reading up on. One of the most amazing, though, is that in Japan, they learned the meaning of traffic lights and began exploiting cars to crack walnuts for them. Watch.

As David Attenborough explains the above, the crows figured out that they could drop a nut in the street while cars were going along it and the tires would crack the shells. Then, when the light changed and stopped traffic, the crows could simply trot into the crosswalk and grab their treat.

There happen to be a huge number of crows in my neighborhood, and I love it. They are majestic and intelligent, they clean up road kill and other crap, and it’s amusing to watch when two or three of them will casually try to intimidate a lone squirrel into revealing where she’s just buried her goodies. (But don’t get me wrong. I love squirrels, too.)

Near sunset seems to be congregation time for the flocks, and it’s always the same process. They will arrive en masse, starting out by landing on the overhead wires and striking up a conversation, albeit a noisy and overlapping one. Then, as if one of them fired an invisible starter’s gun, they’ll take off, soar around a bit, then come back to settle into one or two trees. This is when they begin their alternating individual calls.

I sometimes wish that it were legal to have pet crows, but, sadly, it’s been banned by Federal Law without a special permit since 1918. In case you’re wondering how Frank Capra got away with it, he didn’t. Although legend has it that he owned Jimmy the Crow, who appeared in all of his movies from It’s a Wonderful Life on, that bird was actually a raven, and he was owned by animal trainer Curley Twiford, who presumably had the right permits.

(EDIT: Hat-tip to Kaeli at Corvid Research, whose article I linked above, for pointing out that corvids were not banned under the migratory birds act until the early 1970s, and people did keep them as pets during the Depression, although as far as I know, Jimmy still wasn’t actually Capra’s pet, just another hired actor.)

Finally, there’s the famous riddle from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which itself was really Lewis Carroll’s clapback at “modern” math of the day. Since he was also a mathematician, albeit a very conservative one, he took great umbrage at new innovations, like imaginary numbers, set theory, alternate geometries, and the like, and used his fictional works to satirize them. Or, in other words, he was kind of close-minded, although also a brilliant writer who managed to give us such endearing and enduring works as the Alice books, including the Jabberwocky poem contained in one of them, and the amazing stand-alone epic The Hunting of the Snark. By the way, Jabberwocky was the inspiration for the very weirdly wonderful early feature film of the same name directed by Terry Gilliam.

But I do digress. Here is Carroll’s riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” He intended it to be complete nonsense and, in fact, when he finally got tired of fans asking him about it, he provided his own answer, which really is rather inadequate: “Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!” Unfortunately, the pun in the intentional misspelling of “nevar” (“raven” backwards) was “fixed” by a proofreader before this went into later editions, eliminating whatever bit of weak and pedantic humor was in Carroll’s original.

The “real” and much better answer, though, should be obvious. It’s because Poe wrote on both of them. Well, duh. And even though Carroll was British and Poe was American, the former should have heard of the latter, since Poe died when Carroll was only seventeen and managed to become somewhat well-known in his brief fortyish years. Carroll in particular should have known of Poe’s most famous work, The Raven, which is an absolute piece of music written in words. The rhyme schemes in it, both external and internal, are sheer art and brilliance, and the rhythm and intentional repetition absolutely create a mood and a forward motion that is inevitable.

But… none of this has anything to do with telling a hawk from a handsaw, by the way, unless Carroll was intentionally homaging Shakespeare with his poorly attempted riddle.

Here’s the point of all the crowing I’m doing, though. If you think that animals are not intelligent creatures with real emotional needs and wants, then you’re probably a little less than human yourself. Moving away from birds, I want to close with this absolutely delightful video that’s worth the time.

After watching those cows physically expressing joy at being let into the field after a long winter in the barn, I dare you to tell me that they are not thinking, feeling creatures.

Image source: Akshay Vijay Nachankar, used unaltered via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Power up

You could say that May 16 can be an electrifying day in history. Or at least a very energetic one. On this day in 1888, Nikola Tesla described what equipment would be needed to transmit alternating current over long distances. Remember, at this time, he was engaged in the “War of the Currents” with that douche, Edison, who was a backer of DC. The only problem with DC (the kind of energy you get out of batteries) is that you need retransmission stations every mile or so. With Tesla’s version, you can send that power a long way down the wires before it needs any bump up in energy.

Of course, it might help to understand in the first place what electric charge is. Here’s Nick Lucid from Science Asylum to explain:

But if you think that electric current flows through a wire like water flows through a pipe, you’re wrong, and there’s a really interesting and big difference between the one and the other, as well as between AC and DC current. DC, meaning “direct current,” only “flows” in one direction, from higher to lower energy states. This is why it drains your batteries, actually — all of the energy potential contained therein sails along its merry way, powers your device, and then dumps off in the lower energy part of the battery, where it isn’t inclined to move again.

A simplification, to be sure, but the point is that any direct current, by definition, loses energy as it moves. Although here’s the funny thing about it, which Nick explains in this next video: neither current moves through that wire like it would in a pipe.

Although the energy in direct current moves from point A to point B at the speed of light, the actual electrons wrapped up in the electromagnetic field do not, and their progress is actually rather slow. If you think about it for a minute, this makes sense. Since your battery is drained when all of the negatively charged electrons move down to their low energy state, if they all moved at the speed of light, your battery would drain in nanoseconds. Rather, it’s the field that moves, while the electrons take their own sweet time moving down the crowded center of the wire — although move they do. It just takes them a lot of time because they’re bouncing around chaotically.

As for alternating current, since its thing is to let the field oscillate back and forth from source to destination, it doesn’t lose energy, but it also keeps its electrons on edge, literally, and they tend to sneak down the inside edges of the wire. However, since they’re just as likely to be on any edge around those 360 degrees, they have an equally slow trip. Even more so, what’s really guiding them isn’t so much their own momentum forward as it is the combination of electricity and magnetism. In AC, it’s a dance between the electric field in the wire and the magnetic field outside of it, which is exactly why the current seems to wind up in a standing wave between points A and B without losing energy.

I think you’re ready for part three:

By the way, as mentioned in that last video, Ben Franklin blew it when he defined positive and negative, but science blew it in not changing the nomenclature, so that the particle that carries electrical charge, the electron, is “negative,” while we think of energy as flowing from the positive terminal of batteries.

It doesn’t. It flows backwards into the “positive” terminals, but that’s never going to get fixed, is it?

But all of that was a long-winded intro to what the Germans did on this same day three years later, in 1891. It was the International Electrotechnical Exhibition, and they proved Edison dead wrong about which form of energy transmission was more efficient and safer. Not only did they use magnetism to create and sustain the energy flow, they used Tesla’s idea of three-phase electric power, and if you’ve got outlets at home with those three prongs, frequently in an unintended smiley face arrangement, then you know all about it.

Eleven years later, Edison would film the electrocution of an elephant in order to “prove” the danger of AC, but he was fighting a losing battle by that point. Plus, he was a colossal douche.

Obviously, the power of AC gave us nationwide electricity, but it also powered our earliest telegraph systems, in effect the great-grandparent of the internet. Later on, things sort of went hybrid, with the external power for landlines coming from AC power, but that getting stepped down and converted to operate the internal electronics via DC.

In fact, that’s the only reason that Edison’s version wound up sticking around: the rise of electronics, transistors, microchips, and so on. Powering cities and neighborhoods and so on requires the oomph of AC, but dealing with microcircuits requires the “directionality” of DC.

It does make sense though, if we go back to the water through a house analogy, wrong as it is. Computer logic runs on transistors, which are essentially one-way logic gates — input, input, compare, output. This is where computers and electricity really link up nicely. Computers work in binary: 1 or 0; on or off. So does electricity. 1 or 0; positive voltage, no voltage. Alternating current is just going to give you a fog of constant overlapping 1s and 0s. Direct current can be either, or. And that’s why computers manage to convert one to the other before the power gets to any of the logic circuits.

There’s one other really interesting power-related connection to today, and it’s this: on May 16, 1960, Theodore Maiman fired up the first optical LASER in Malibu, California, which he is credited with creating. Now… what does this have to do with everything before it? Well… everything.

LASER, which should only properly ever be spelled like that, is an acronym for the expression Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

But that’s it. It was basically applying the fundamentals of electromagnetism (see above) to electrons and photons. The optical version of electrical amplification, really. But here’s the interesting thing about it. Once science got a handle on how LASERs worked, they realized that they could use to send the same information that they could via electricity.

So… all those telegraphs and telephone calls that used to get shot down copper wires over great distances in analog form? Yeah, well… here was a media that could do it through much cheaper things called fiber optics, transmit the same data much more quickly, and do it with little energy loss over the same distances.

And, ironically, it really involved the same dance of particles that Tesla realized in figuring out how AC worked way back in the day, nearly a century before that first LASER.

All of these innovations popped up on the same day, May 16, in 1888, 1891, and 1960. I think we’re a bit overdue for the next big breakthrough to happen on this day. See you in 2020?

What is your favorite science innovation involving energy? Tell us in the comments!

23 and me (and thee)

Warning: after you read this, you’re going to start seeing the numbers 23 and 5 everywhere. Sorry.

When I was 23 years old, I first encountered and read the very trippy book The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. I’ve mentioned the latter several times here, and probably will again. Along with several others, he became one of my major writing influences early on.

Now, the thing about me coming to read the book for the first time when I was 23 is that it seemed to come about completely by happenstance. I mentioned to a coworker, who was a Wiccan, that I’d just turned 23, and she said, “Oh, you need to read this book.” I did a little research into it, thought it looked interesting, and headed down to the Bodhi Tree, the now-defunct Melrose Avenue bookshop that specialized in all things new age and esoteric.

The thing is massive — something like 800 pages, I think, and was published in trade paperback format, which is the bigger size in comparison to mass-market paperback. Trade paperbacks are close to the dimensions of standard hardcover books.

Anyway, I started to read it, and the book hooked me immediately. Why not? I was 23, and it was full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It also affectionately mimicked and imitated the styles and structures of things like Joyce’s Ulysses and the cut-up technique preferred by William S. Burroughs. Threads of the story weave in and out of each other in constant interruptions, the identity of narrator keeps changing by passing among omniscient third person to first-person from the characters — some of whom seem aware that they are characters in a novel, maybe — and the whole thing plays out as a neo noir detective mystery wrapped around a psychedelic conflation of every far right and far left conspiracy theory of the time, with a healthy dose of science fiction, fantasy, and eldritch horror.

Besides Joyce and Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft and his universe receive various nods, and one of the protagonists (?) travels about in a golden submarine that evokes both the Beatles and Captain Nemo at the same time.

One of the running ideas in the book is the mystical importance of the number 23, which pops up constantly in the narrative. This also implies the importance of the number 5, which is the sum of 2 and 3. This is also why, in later years, it was tradition for Wilson to always publish his newest book on May 23rd.

There are some very interesting facts about the number, actually — and it shouldn’t escape notice that Wilson’s last initial, W, is the 23rd letter of the Latin alphabet. Those facts do go on and on, too. Here’s another list that has surprisingly little overlap with the first.

William S. Burroughs was obsessed with the number 23, which is mentioned in the novel, and many works created post-Illuminatus! capitalize on the concept by using it. You’ll find 23s in things like the TV show Lost, various films including Star Wars Episode IV, and two films that specifically deal with it, the American film The Number 23 and the German film 23, although the latter would be more properly called Dreiundzwanzig.

There are, of course, also plenty of examples of the number 5 doing interesting things as well.

So here I was, reading this amazing brain-bender of a book at the young age of 23, and I started to wonder whether there was any truth to this idea. You know what happened? I started seeing the number 23 everywhere. It would be on the side of taxis and buses — bonus points, sometimes I’d see 523, 235, 2355 or similar combinations. It would show up on receipts — “You’re order number 23!” It would be one of the winning numbers or the mega number for the current lottery winner. The total when shopping would end in 23 cents, or else 67 cents, meaning that I’d get 23 cents in change.

Wilson eventually gives up the secret to the secret, although not in this book. He does offer another interesting exercise that worked for me at the time, although probably not so much anymore since people don’t tend to carry change around any longer. He referred to it as The Quarter Experiment, although I think of it as “Find the Quarter,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. When you’re out and about walking around, visualize a quarter (or local coin in your currency of similar size, about 25mm) and then look for one that’s been dropped on the ground.

Back in the day, Wilson claimed success with this and, sure enough, so did I. It’s worth it to click the link above and read the explanation, as well as the several ways to interpret it. (It’s also worthwhile to check out and do the other exercises listed, but especially number four. Too bad the list didn’t make it to five.)

But, again, people just aren’t as likely to drop quarters because they probably only trot them out to do laundry, especially with most parking meters accepting debit and credit cards now. A lot of public washers and driers are also doing the same, so we may be swiftly approaching a day where the only likely place someone might drop some coins is in front of one of those grocery store change converter machines.

Still, you can probably do this experiment fnord with any other object likely to be dropped, like a pen, or a receipt, or keys.

After I finished my first read of Illuminatus!, I went on to read almost all of the rest of Wilson’s oeuvre, both fiction and non. He wrote a number of books outlining his philosophy, like Prometheus Rising and Right Where You Are Sitting Now, as well as his Cosmic Trigger series, which is a cross between autobiography and philosophy, and the amazing novel Masks of the Illuminati, in which James Joyce, Albert Einstein, and Aleister Crowley walk into a bar in Geneva and things get trippy. I’ve always wanted to adapt this one into a play or film and, in fact, it was influential in the creation of my own play Three Lions, which involved Crowley, Ian Fleming, and Hermann Hesse. (Available for production, if you’re interested — here’s the first scene.)

Okay, Wilson has got too many works to cite individually, so just go check out his website for the full list. Meanwhile, this is where we’re going to go meta and full circle.

I’ve re-read Illuminatus! multiple times, and in fact started another read-through about (d’oh!) five weeks ago. Every time through it, it’s a completely different work and I get different things out of it. When I was 23, it was one story. Each of three times after that, it was another. Now, it’s yet again completely different and I just realized that this is, in fact, my fifth pass through the text.

So it was weirdly appropriate when I found out that a friend of mine from our improv company was going to turn 23 on April 30. That date itself is significant because a large part of the present story of the book takes place in April and May, but on top of that I suddenly had the chance to return the favor that my coworker had done for me oh so long ago, so I gifted my young friend a dead-tree copy of the anthology version.

Hey, I survived that journey and I think it made me a better person. Might as well share the love, right? My only hope is that somewhere down the line, after he’s read it a bunch of times, he’s in the position to pass the torch to another 23-year-old.

Pictured: My photo of the covers of my original U.S. paperback versions of the books, which I was lucky enough to find in a used bookstore for cheap a few years back. Interestingly enough, that bookstore is called Iliad Books, and it used to be next door to a video rental place called Odyssey. Both of those also figure into the fnord book. Yes, it’s quite the rabbit hole.

Not pictured: my autographed by RAW himself original edition and my later “checkerboard” cover version from the 90s.

Amazing animal adaptations to the human world

If you think that animals haven’t continued to evolve in the wake of having wound up in the middle of human cities and culture, then you haven’t been paying attention. Our friends — furry and otherwise — are catching up to us. And why not? Some of them try to emulate us as much as possible, while others are just really good at reading our body language. Others still are good at figuring out patterns independent of our behavior, while a final group doesn’t think much, but knows how to follow instinct.

Let’s start out with our emulators.

It’s a typical Monday morning as you make your way from your house on the outskirts of the city to the subway station for your regular morning commute to your office downtown. You get on the train and take your seat, armed with the newspaper or touch pad or smart phone as the usual distraction, when you notice a half dozen or so unaccompanied dogs casually enter the last car with you and, like any other commuter, take their seats. They sit or lie quietly as the train heads off for the city and, as you stand to get off at the central station, so do they.

This would be an unusual sight in most major cities, but to the residents of Moscow, Russia, it has become quite routine. In the twenty years since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the changing face of this metropolis of nearly twelve million has forced its population of stray dogs to learn the ways of their human counterparts. By night, they live in the deserted industrial areas outside of the city, a canine population last estimated five years ago at 26,000. By day, they head downtown, where the people are and, more importantly, where the free food is, and they do it the same way the humans do.

No one taught the dogs how to navigate one of the world’s busiest subway systems. They have managed to figure it out on their own, and have also learned the concept of traffic signals. Stray dogs have been observed waiting for the light before crossing the street, and they aren’t just taking their cues from humans – they exhibit the same behavior when the streets are devoid of people. What they do take from humans are their lunches, and some enterprising dogs will use a well-timed bark to startle a hapless pedestrian into dropping their shawarma onto the pavement, to be snatched away by the successful hunter. When not using this technique, they will scavenge from dumpsters, or just hang out in busy areas waiting for the inevitable handout. They’ve also been known to exploit human psychology by sending in the cutest puppers in order to do the heavy-lifting of begging for the whole pack.

Yes, these dogs are playing us.

Why they have figured out these tricks is fairly obvious: their environment changed when downtown was revitalized and they had to adapt. How they do it, though, is another question, and zoologists are still studying them to figure it out. The dogs can’t read signs, so their subway navigation, which includes getting on and off at the right stops, is still a mystery, as is their ability to obey a traffic light on their own. It would be one thing if they had been trained – but they have not.

This isn’t the only example of animals adapting to the human world. The next group are the pattern seekers, who use repetitive and predictable cues to figure out how to safely navigate the space in order to feed.

In Japan, crows have been observed exploiting roads and traffic in order to crack nuts that they can’t themselves — but the most remarkable part of this is that they use the traffic signals to tell them when it’s safe to go into the road to fetch the good stuff.

Next is the animal to exploit humans by using instinct over intellect, although ultimately a bit of both: Clever Hans, a horse that appeared to know how to do simple sums and count, until it was determined that what the horse was really doing was reacting to subtle human emotions given away as the horse approached the answer. Hans could literally tell when he’d hit the right number via tapping his hoof until the humans reached maximum excitement, by which point he’d learned that “Decrease in excitement means stop.”

At least this is a few orders of magnitude above the animal that reacts strictly by instinct, with no intellect involved — the “avoid that moving shadow and get out of the light” reaction common to cockroaches, who are far less intelligent than horses. They don’t think about what they’re doing or why. They don’t have the brain capacity for that. Instead, they just automatically skittle away from things perceived as danger. This is a very common behavior among animals, and in fact extends all the way down to single-celled organisms, which will also instinctively and automatically swim away from chemical signals that they consider unpleasant or dangerous.

That’s how survival and evolution work, and it’s how life on Earth evolved from being mindless single-celled organisms that only know “swim toward food, swim from trouble” to the complex primates that seem to be top of the food-chain for the moment and, at least for now, have developed our technology far enough to start to fling ourselves out into the solar system.

And that process is also how we inadvertently help all of our domesticated animals to evolve, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that as we develop more technology and empathy, our companions develop more empathy and intelligence. Sure, I don’t know whether it’s us or our pets getting smarter, or if it’s a mutual act, but whichever it is doesn’t matter. The only important part is that we seem to be increasing the emotional bond between ourselves and our animals that are above the purely instinctual level, since most of that latter group seem to be nothing but pests.

Maybe this will lead us to a meatless world, or at least one where all of our meat is grown in labs or fabricated from plant products. If you’ve never seen dancing cows, happy goats, laughable lambs, pet pigs, or even redeemed raccoon and frisky ferrets, you should. The more I learn about animals, the less I want to eat them.

Great Caesar’s ghost! Or not…

As my regular readers know, I do improv comedy for the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League on Monday nights, as well as work box office for the company, which is located in the smaller space in the historic El Portal Theater, which has quite a history.

It was built in 1926 and housed both vaudeville shows and movies. It was badly damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, although fortunately restored to become a live theater, with three performance spaces. The smaller one, where ComedySportz is now resident, was originally occupied by Actors Alley and then later briefly by The Company Rep before they moved.

In an ironic full-circle, I joined that company as a playwright while they were at the El Portal, then continued on to act with them as they moved to the NoHo Arts Center and the former location of the Deaf West Theater, where I received a glowing review for my turn as a depressed, unicycle riding bear.

So that’s the background on the building. The other thing to keep in mind is that both Debbie Reynolds and Marilyn Monroe used to come to the place to watch movies when they were kids, and the main space and our theater are named after them respectively. The other is that it is an ancient tradition to believe that all theaters are haunted by ghosts.

Note: I don’t believe in ghosts at all, but I do believe that there are certain psychological and physical factors that can make people think they’ve seen them.

Now to the real start of the story. Recently, I had to pull double-duty running the box office and working as house manager on a night when we had shows at eight and ten in the evening. This meant that I had to come open up at six and stick around until the last show and the notes afterward were over, so I was there until midnight.

As part of the closing up procedure, I have to go up to our booth to shut down the light and sound boards and computer, and then have to make sure that there’s no one still working on the main stage. This means I get to go into the main theater lobby, which is deserted, and then into the main stage itself.

That night, I walked into the space, which was dark except for the so-called ghost-light, and called out asking if anyone was there, and for some reason, I got a sudden chill. You know the feeling, right? It’s like every hair on your body suddenly stands up and you feel that electricity travel from your feet to your head. It’s an ancient reaction common to mammals, and if you’ve ever seen a cat puff up or a dog raise its hackles, then you’ve seen it. It’s a defense mechanism designed to make us look bigger when we’re feeling unsure, although it doesn’t really work as well for humans, mainly because it doesn’t affect the hair on our heads and the hair on our bodies (for most of us) isn’t think enough to make us really puff much.

I wrote it off as the psychological weirdness of walking into a dark, cavernous space all alone late at night, then jokingly waved at the stage and said, “Hi, Debbie!” before heading back out to close up.

The next evening, I was talking to Pegge, the Managing Director, and Steve, the House Manager, of the theater and told them about this, and Pegge immediately told me with complete sincerity, “Oh, no. The ghost’s name is Robert. Don’t worry, he won’t hurt you.” She went on to explain that he was the theater’s original accountant back in the 1920s, and people always saw him dressed very formally, with a high white collar. According to her, there’s also a female ghost who would escort patrons to their seats and then vanish.

Steve explicitly stated that he doesn’t believe in ghosts either, but that he has had a number of people over the years independently mentioning seeing both of them and giving identical descriptions of each, generally wondering, “Who was that person I thought I saw before they just disappeared?”

It’s all rather intriguing and now I want to experience these phenomena just to try to figure out what could be creating these illusions in people’s minds. It is a very old building, and late at night also tends to be preternaturally quiet because the really high ceilings and carpeted and padded interiors like to eat sound.

Also, the single source ghost light on stage tends to create deep shadows and bright highlights, and high contrast lighting like that can create all kinds of visual tricks. Finally, the place does sit right above the L.A. Metro Red Line subway tunnel and has for 20 years. I can often hear the rumble of trains passing beneath the lobby, and the connection between low frequency infrasound and ghosts has been established. That’s exactly the kind of sound a rushing subway train might create toward the back of a large space.

Back to that ghost light, though. It’s a romantic name, but is also known as the Equity light, after the actors’ union. Its real reason for being there is to keep people passing through the space after hours from walking into things or falling into the orchestra pit. `

As for why there’s such a belief of ghosts in theaters? I’m not sure, but maybe we can blame Shakespeare, because he certainly loved the trope. Hamlet Sr.? Banquo? Richard III’s nightmare before Bosworth field? Both parts of Henry VI and the only part of Henry VIII? A whole family of ghosts who visited Cymbeline? (A rarely performed and underrated play, by the way, that manages to be both gross and funny at the same time.)

And, of course, there’s the titular ghost for this post, who also gave Perry White of Superman fame his famous catchphrase.

So I’ll be keeping an eye out for Robert and the nameless female usher in future days, and will report back on anything unusual I experience. This is definitely going to be interesting.

Have you seen or experienced anything you’d call “ghost-like?” If so, how do you explain it? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Painting, La morte di Giulio Cesare, by Vincenzo Camuccini, c. 1806. Public domain in the United States.