Monday, May 31, 2010

Analysis Paralysis


You’ve been researching something for a year.

Best guesstimate is that it will provide subsistence income. If that. But it will provide some breathing room, after a few months that is.

Or, you can go back to the drawing board, refocused, and spend three months trying to develop two better ideas for perhaps double or triple that previous income estimate. After a few months after that additional brainstorming period.

What do you do?

I’m taking the plunge. Full speed ahead with Idea One. I must admit that I don’t feel good about it. No, scratch that. Perhaps what I’m feeling is the normal, day-one jitters all entrepreneurs get. No, scratch that, too. Entrepreneurs feed off circumstances such as the one I find myself in. I just want to puke out these butterflies, and maybe read a book down in the basement.

Yeah, I’m taking the plunge. Gonna look at these next two months as “Learning Experience.” Or “Trial By Fire.” Maybe I’m not ready for those two other better ideas yet. Maybe those two ideas are not ready for me. Gotta walk before you run, and you gotta crawl first.

I know you have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m writing this stream-o-consciously trying to psych myself up for that icy water plunge.

Keep me in your prayers and well-wishes.


Sunday, May 30, 2010

That Old Man

My youngest daughter’s favorite activity is to have a “This Old Man” picture book read-slash-sung to her. The last page, page eleven, finishes with

This Old Man
He played songs
He played knick-knack all day long
With a knick-knack, paddy-whack
Give a dog a bone
This Old Man came rolling home.

Which got me thinking ...

Who exactly is this old man? Why does he play songs all day long? Perhaps he’s independently wealthy. Perhaps he was a musician in the 60s and is living off the royalties of that top-ten hit, “Knick Knack.” So now he spends his days like Jimmy Buffet, jamming away on some Caribbean island, drinking and partying and playing that hit single.

Maybe he hates “Knick Knack.” I mean, wouldn’t you? I love it when all these fossil bands from the 60s and 70s have their reunion tour, play excitedly though “the new album” material, only to have some fat bozos in the crowd shout out, “Whipping Post!” or “Iron Man!” And they have to dutifully play through songs they’ve played a gazillion times and act like they’re approaching samadhic joy onstage.

So maybe our Old Man hates “Knick Knack,” but the merciless crowds are demanding he play it. No wonder he comes rolling home every night; he’s probably wasted out of his gourd trying to forget it all.

Could it be possible he can play “Knick Knack” all day long because he’s living in some socialist utopia where you retire at age 52 and need to do something to fill up those remaining three or four decades of life? That whole “rolling home” thing could mean he takes a bicycle to the park where he plays “Knick Knack.” For surely in Socialist Paradise we’ll all be bike-powered, when we’re not taking mass transit.

Then again, my mind took an even darker turn. What if “playing knick knack” was a euphemism for a sexually explicit act? Eh? Fits right into the “dirty old man” paradigm. He’s hopelessly addicted; his life, the few precious years left, the fewer precious days for the chance of redemption, all the remaining days of his life are devoted to who he can “play knick knack” on. And that whole “give a dog a bone” thing … I mean, that’s gotta be a euphemism for something nasty and unwholesome.

However, I also recall those eight or nine months a few years back when I worked in NYC. Particularly the panhandlers, more especially the musically talented panhandlers. I remember a certain intersection around Seventh or Eight Avenue in the low Forties which regularly had a pair of down-on-their-luck dudes diagonally dueling on drums. One gentlemen would bang away on some type of African percussion instrument; his foil would rhythmically beat the hell out of a bunch of overturned plastic buckets. But … it sounded good. I think they fed off each other’s energies.

Anyway, what if our Old Man bangs around for some spare change. Let’s envision the Eevil Republicans running town hall. Cops on the beat are swinging their batons at our Old Man. He’s just trying to make an honest buck, get back on his feet. And he has a dog to support! A scruffy, lovable mutt who tails him until they become inseparable. Instead of taking that twelve or thirteen dollars down to the liquor store for a pocket-sized bottle of rum, he gets himself his daily meal from KFC and gives his canine companion the leftover bones.

Our noble homeless “Knick Knack” man, rolling on home like a rolling stone, home being the local Y.

Such are the thoughts that flow through your mind when you’re on your ninth or tenth run-through of the day of your littlest one’s favorite songbook.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Stronger than Sugar

I have discovered a drug more potent than sugar to the physiologies of little toddlers.

Van Halen.

Yesterday morning I faced the unpleasant task of unloading the dishwasher, filling it with a sink full of dirty Thursday night dishes and cleaning the counters of breakfast debris. The Little One was finishing homework, Patch was coloring in a picture of Spongebob, and the wife was downstairs in her office. Sick of the ever-present drone of Nick Jr, PBS Kids, Disney, and the Cartoon Network, I turned off the teevee, went to the Bose radio, flicked through a stack of CDs, and put Fair Warning on. Then I commenced work on the kitchen.

By the fifth track, “Unchained,” the living room was completely trashed.

Trashed like an early-80s hotel room the morning after Eddie, Alex, Michael and David Lee check out.

Little One had stripped down to her undies. Patch was just in a diaper. Pillows from the couch were strewn everywhere. Both were running around in circles, cackling, whooping, throwing stuffed animals and toys everywhere. It sounded like a herd of hippos break dancing on March ice. I made the mistake of walking in the room, mouth agape, incredulous, and nearly wound up involuntarily body surfed.

Finally, I got to the CD player and shut it down. It took about thirty seconds for the girls to realize the music stopped.

We cleaned up. I finished the kitchen, Little One finished her homework, Patch moved on to this and that. I told ’em it was time to get ready for school, and I’d get them dressed once I checked my email.

Downstairs, logging on to the PC, I told the wife that it was like pure sugar cane was somehow injected directly into their brains. Then we exchanged an ominous glance as the opening notes of “Mean Street” filtered down through the ceiling.


Parents of little ones, you have been warned.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Men In Black

When I was in sixth grade I decided to research the “Men In Black” phenomenon. This was obviously before the Will Smith movie. This was the seventies, when Men in Black were not cartoon characters; they were a dark, menacing, and sinister unknown entity.

Back then I got most of my UFO-related information from the 001.94 section of the library. I spent a lot of time in libraries; me and my buddy often biked to my town’s library, and my mother worked evenings in the library an adjacent municipality.

But I also got information from In Search Of … , that excitingly strange weekly half-hour documentary show hosted by Leonard Nimoy. I remember watching a lot of them as a kid, so my father, guardian of the teevee, was probably into that stuff, too. Though I don’t believe they ever did a show on Men in Black, they did an early show on UFOs which left a humongous impression on me. I recall being terrified that night, frozen in my bed awaiting a glowing spaceship to land in the woods a block behind my house. The next day I probably borrowed a bunch of books on flying saucers from the library.

The local radio station would play a five-minute “report” about UFOs every night around seven p.m. or so. My brother and I had a radio in the shape of a Giants football helmet, and I sat riveted during those five minutes, staring into the helmet, hypnotized by the scary tales of flying saucer encounters told by the narrator in an ominous voice. The closing bumper music consisted of a creepy crescendo of three or four discordant notes held together, one after the other, then a fade out. Raised the hairs on my arms. I recall taking notes a few nights. Another night I recorded the program on one of those giant tape recorders popular at the time.

Then, it happened.

I was laying in my bed in the large refurbished attic bedroom I shared with my brother. He was sleeping. I relaxed in the quiet darkness, not really thinking about anything. Suddenly, the silence was shattered as I heard one of the drawers to my dresser pulled out. I knew it was the top one, because I heard marbles rolling around. What a jarring sound! Immediately adrenaline flooded my system, and I iced over, still and motionless, petrified, scared senseless.

Slowly I pulled the covers up to my neck; slowly, ever so slowly ... Listening all the time. Listening for any tell-tale creaks in the floorboards. Listening for breathing – and hearing it, trying to figure out if it was my brothers or even mine, or not … Willing my eyes to see stronger in the darkness, to adjust, to take in more detail, to see whether that patch of darkness or that one was just the darkness of my room or the darkness of something else entirely.

Somehow, I managed to fall asleep. The next morning: refreshed, not a care in the world, because the sun lit up our house and my parents were awake downstairs. Later on, after a good old fight with my brother, I remembered what happened as I finished my bowl of Honey Combs. I raced up the stairs to my bedroom, to the dresser, to that top drawer –

And they were gone! My UFO notes were gone!

And so I am left only to ask: What was in my room that night?

NOTE: The preceding is a true story. Well, with the exception of the parts concerning UFO notes. Otherwise, I did indeed hear a dresser drawer be pulled out in the blackness of my bedroom.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ring of Gyges

“Come on in,” Pete said, closing the door behind him with a furtive glance up and down the block. “Can I get you a drink?”

Bert always enjoyed the cloak-and-daggers. “What’s a matter, Pete? Chinese after you?”

Pete laughed as he ushered his friend through the living room, then the kitchen, then down to his workshop in the basement. Pete’s laughter sounded strained to Bert. There was also a strong odor of alcohol when he talked. Bert wondered what the game was, but was a patient enough man to let events unfold without showing his hand.

The fat little physicist hit a switch and a dual row of fluorescent lights illuminated a large white table. Tools hung neatly on the pegboard, above dozens of drawers holding everything from screws and washers to capacitors and small electromagnetic motors. Pete threw a short chubby leg over a metal stool and swung one of those circular magnifying lights down from the ceiling.

Bert noted that his pal was sweating profusely. He wrinkled his nose at the sour smell, but steeled himself. Pete’s basement was small, with no windows or doors other than the one at the top of the staircase they came down. It was claustrophobic, but Pete said he felt safe down here examining his prizes. On more than one occasion Pete came up with a fantastic score for the both of them. They were both rich, thanks to Pete’s acquisitions and Bert’s ability to sell them. Of course, neither could flaunt it, or the feds would come down on them in a heartbeat.

“Get a load of this,” Pete whispered. “This is hot. H. O. T. We’re gonna have to move on this fast.” He opened up a small box and retrieved a tiny object. Gingerly, beads of sweat dripping and hands trembling, he handed it over.

“It’s a ring,” Bert noted, disappointed, but grinned nonetheless. “What is this, some sorta marriage proposal?”

He expected the little fat man to laugh. But Pete only whispered, in a quavering voice, “Ever hear of the Ring of Gyges?”

“The ring of who? No.”

“The Ring of Gyges. It’s Plato. Take a closer look. But don’t put it on.”

Bert wondered where this was going. Was he to fence a stolen ring? It didn’t look valuable. Any more than a wedding band might be valuable. Gold. Weird braided engraving running the outer perimeter. Other than that, nothing. “Is this Plato’s ring? Coupla centuries old, is that it?”

Pete laughed. “No. We developed it. My company. You ever read The Republic?”

“You’re talking to an eighth-grade dropout.”

“How about The Lord of the Rings?”

“Saw the movies.” Bert made a show of glancing at his watch. He handed the gold ring back to Pete. “Listen, old chum, unless you tell me different, I could probably get five or six for this. Your cut, twenty-five hundred.”

Pete shook his head and threw back the last of his drink. “Gyges was a shepherd boy in ancient Greece. One day, there’s lightning, there’s an explosion, and the earth at his feet splits open. He goes into this new cavern, finds this ring, which he puts on.”

This ring?”

The little fat man ignored him. “Goes back to the village, discovers no one can see him.” He glanced up at Bert, eyes on fire. “So what does he do?”

Bert moved the toothpick around to the other side of his mouth. “I dunno. Put it on and stole some jewels.”

“Even better, Bert my boy.” Pete kept turning over the small ring in his hands, careful to avoid slipping it on. “He puts it on, has his way with the Queen, seduces her afterwards with plans of ruling the kingdom hand-in-hand. They both kill her husband, the King, and Gyges becomes supreme ruler of Greece. He’s rich, he’s powerful, and his enemies can’t touch him.”

A light dawned upon Bert. “How does it work?”

“Bends light. The ring is actually a gravity-wave generating machine nanometers in size. Don’t even ask where we got the technology from. Just let me say two words: Reverse engineering.” He paused, grinning weirdly as he brought the ring to his eye to look through. “Remember that special effect in that old Predator movie? Kinda like that. But much, much more effective. Completely effective. You know I’m quality control at the labs. I’ve seen the test results.”

“So how much is it worth?”

“I want you to put word out for a hundred million.”

Bert whistled. “Now I understand the cloak and daggers.”

“Oh yeah. This is my final snatch. I’m not going back to the labs anymore.” Pete picked up his glass, forgot he emptied it. “And Bert, your cut will be twenty million. Non-negotiable.”

“Sure, buddy.” Bert laughed. “Twenty million is about a hundred times what I made last year.” He whistled again. “Say, Pete, I’ll take that drink now.”

“Good. I need a refill too.” He put the case with the ring under a clamp and swung the magnifying lamp over it. “See if you can find our security code on the inner band. It’s pure genius, and I had a helluva time fudging it to get it past the gates. Be right back.”

Pete ran up the stairs as fast as he could, and nervously dodged the curtain-drawn windows on the way to the kitchen. They’d be aware of the theft by now. He wouldn’t be a suspect until Monday morning, and by then he and Bert’d be south of the border. Untraceable. Bert was good at that. He paused at the bar, decided on vodka, nearly straight up. In honor of the Russians, he decided, who’d most likely be the proud new owners of the Ring of Gyges.

He carefully negotiated the stairs, full drinks in both hands. “I’d like to present a toast, Bert my boy, to Plato. How about …”

The basement was empty. Bert was gone. Huh? There was only one way down here –

Then he knew the ring was gone, too.

“So long, Pete,” he heard, from a spot directly in front of him. Then everything went dark.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pigs and Gyms

A few weeks ago I burned through two books in two days: The Pig That Wants to be Eaten by Julian Baggini and The Philosophy Gym by Stephen Law.

But before I continue, allow me to sidetrack a bit:

Say you relish philosophical argument and conundrums. Say you enjoy wrapping your brain round weird metaphysical puzzles. Say you salivate at pursuing the phrase “Well, what if …” to its oftimes bizarre and superficially illogical conclusions. But, let’s also say you don’t have the time, energy, inclination or acumen to wade through a dense, murky, thousand-page most-likely-translated philosophical treatise.

Well, I think these two books are fine alternatives to that last and oh-so-important point. I don’t feel like going in to a detailed review of either book, since I read each in one quick session and wouldn’t do either justice. But take that as a compliment – I couldn’t put them down, and they held my attention like the world’s most merciless vice (now there’s a strange image).

I liked The Pig That Wants to be Eaten better. Baggini chops up and offers the tastiest philosophical riddles and paradoxes in a hundred three-page chapters. Bite-size morsals. They’re thought-provoking, entertaining, and – most importantly – put forth in as ideologically neutral a way as possible. My favorite topics were Descartes’ evil genie, whch I blogged about last week, and the Ring of Gyges, upcoming. Plus the brain-in-a-vat scenario and its variations. I may write a story about that last one. And by that, I mean, an actual brain-in-a-vat.

Stephen Law’s The Philosophy Gym was good, too, subtitled 25 Short Adventures in Thinking. A lot of the topics Baggini covers are revisited here, sometimes a little more in depth or from different angles. However, I was a bit turned off early on as I detected a strong bias in the book. If by “detected” one means being hit over the head by a two-by-four with a ten-pound Weider weight duct-taped to it. The author is virulently anti-religion, anti-God only somewhat less so. And chapter 2 hits you with such a blatant pro-gay agenda you’d think you were the biggest, most unsophisticated troglodyte-neanderthal for adhering to 2,000-plus years of moral teaching. But he gives relativism such a cool smack-down I’m forced to recommend it.

LE’s verdicts?

The Pig That Wants to be Eaten – A
The Philosophy Gym – B

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Harrison Bergeron

Hey, wanna really, truly get a good return on the investment of five minutes? Experience something that will stick with you for a long time, shake you up and get you really fired up? Good! I knew you did.

Read the short short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s only 2,000 words – about two Hopper posts in length. Do yourself a favor. Click here.

Do it.

Ah, you’re back. Chilling, right? Though Vonnegut uses a sledgehammer to get his point across, you know what that point is, right? Can you deny that this is where some in America wish to take this country, minus the literary hyperbole?

If we imagine a continuum of 1 through 10, 1 being complete libertarian free will free market live-free-or-die-ness-ism, and 10 being some bizarre Vonnegutian coddling supra-smothering Bloombergian nanny state, I would place “Harrison Bergeron” at a 9.5. Currently, I’d put America around a 2, maybe 2.5. Our current education system, of which I’ve heard more than a few horror stories of varying depths of believability, and which I’m going to soon experience vicariously through my two daughters, I’d put at a 3.75. And I think there are people in powerful places who want to move us down the scale to a 4.5 or a 5.5 and perhaps further on down.

Agree or not?

The question then is, how do we reverse this trend? Assuming you can convince proponents of equality-of-results that this is something in our best interests to reverse.

I, for one, think “Harrison Bergeron” should be required reading. First, all new teachers need to … oh, I don’t know … read, memorize, and do a dissertation on it. (Try getting that past the NEA.) Then, your children must read it. Starting with eighth-graders. Then, as high school seniors. Have a dinner-table discussion about it, at the very least. It’s a great vaccination for the mind warpage we call college. And once your little ones get to college, you need to bring this story up at least once a year as a booster-shot. That’s how powerful the loony disease of equality-of-results is.

I read Cat’s Cradle in high school (but not for high school), and Hocus Pocus about fifteen years ago. Both left strong impressions on me. Read a sprinkling of his short stories over the years. Sirens of Titans is on my Wish List. For the record, I like Kurt Vonnegut, though I haven’t read much much more of his. I have read of his alleged roaming unfettered liberalism. Hocus Pocus had a few obligatory snubs at Reaganism if I recall correctly, but it was still a masterpiece. More than once I put the book down and laughed out loud. Whatever his politics, the man was a genius with a pen.

“Harrison Bergeron” has long been on my radar but I never read it until it showed up at National Review’s The Corner a few days ago. Apparently it’s been made into a movie or at least a faux movie trailer, I’m not sure. But I did check it out on youtube and it was sickening in a philosophically sickening way.

Read it!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Guitar Solos

This came up while the family was chowing on some burgers and corn on the cob out on the deck yesterday. Wife had the Eagles playing in the background, and I commented that I thought “Hotel California” could be in my top-10 list of greatest guitar solos. (Yes, I’m aware that’s actually two guitarists soloing, Joe Walsh and Don Felder.)

How to flesh out that list?

Wow – I’m flashing back to my early twenties, late nights with lots of beer and other mind-altering stuff swimming in my blood. Red bulb screwed into the light socket. Me and a bunch of other guys and girlfriends throwing out names and songs into the air to mix with the aromatic and acrobatic curls of nicotine smoke.

Anway, this is as good a list as any, I think, of LE’s top-10 bestest guitar solos. There’s no way in heck that this is objective; I can’t even come up with an objective standard for my own picks. The list probably is different from what I’d pick a year ago and different from what I’ll settle on next year. Also, I’ve probably listened to ten thousand songs over the years, so I’m sure there are some tunes and guitarists I’m forgetting.

What makes a good guitar solo? It doesn’t have to be technically proficient. It doesn’t have to be a million notes shredded into a ninety-second section of power chord riffs. But it should be more than casual jamming in the pentatonic scale. The best quality of a superior guitar solo is two-fold: it takes the song to another level, and it has to bring some emotion out in the listener. Some of these songs I’ve heard a few hundred times, so the effect has worn down. But when I first heard it, chills ran up and down my spine.

So, in no particular order, how about …

Neil Schon, “Stone in Love”
Jimi Hendrix, “Little Miss Strange”
David Gilmour, “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2”
Jimmy Page, “Heartbreaker”
Angus Young, “Ride On”
Ty Tabor, “It’s Love”
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”
Tony Iommi, “War Pigs”
Alex Lifeson, “Xanadu”
Iron Maiden guitarists, “Flash of the Blade”
Steve Howe, “Starship Trooper”
Blind Lemon Flemstein, “Will and Won’t Care”

Yes, I know that’s twelve.

There should be a Billy Corgan in there, an Eddie Van Halen, a Randy Rhodes, something by Joe Walsh, maybe sumthin’ by the Foo Fighters, or Nirvana. I like the Zakk Wylde solo in Ozzy’s “No More Tears.” I like Vivian Campbell’s solo in Dio’s “Last in Line.” Also, Dave Gilmour’s chordal solo at the end of “Sheep” is very pleasing.

I want some Pete Townshend, but he’s not really a guitar soloer in the traditional sense. Brian May from Queen needs to be represented somehow, too. Not a big Rolling Stones fan, but surely something from the Mick Taylor era should be in there, no? Was a huge fan of Alice In Chains, surely I could think of a worthy addition by those boys. Eric Clapton? Jeff Beck? Al DiMeola (I actually highly recommend “Midnight Tango”).

See, it’s a tough list to make. I’m not even satisfied with the list I have, save for that last entry, perhaps. Oh well. Time to mentally leave 1991 and get back to the present. More important than being a guitar hero, I have to register the Little One for the town’s summer rec program and Sunday School for September …

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Oath

The soldiers appeared in our village in the early morning hours. A long, snaking line of men and beasts. Ugly, snarling men with swords and leather plating and several days worth of stubble on their faces. Every seventh or eight was on horseback, armored in metal, sporting open-faced helmets with great red plumes. Sweating, grunting teams of oxen arrived near the rear, pulling carts of supplies. At the very end came the stinking beasts pulling empty prisoner cages.

My brother, on leave from the militia, said there was a hundred of them. A century. He woke us all up and we watched the procession from our flat roof as they secured the perimeter around the town. “Where are our sentries?” he kept repeating, quietly.

A soldier wearing metal gauntlets on his forearms unhorsed and banged loudly at the forge, directly across from our store. He shouted and cursed in the Vulgar, commanding us to assemble outside in the commons. With sharp gestures he sent off legionnaires to comb the village home by home. Undoubtedly they would round up all stragglers and those in hiding, offering incentive to obey with the prompting of a blade.

Before long my family – my father, mother, brother and sister – were among the other two or three hundred villagers, in one large crowd of countless smaller groups, clustering together for heat in the twilight mountain air.

Our sentries did not come back; at least I did not see my friends in the assembly. My brother must’ve been thinking the same thing, for when I glanced over to him, he pointed to his throat and quickly drew his finger across it. In front of me my father had his arm around my mother, she visibly nervous. We had heard many stories about this before, and she no doubt was thinking of me and my sister.

While this was going on, while murmurs and anxious glances spread unsuppressed, while more than a few fellow villagers were roughly tossed into the group, two men lit extremely large torches at the town square. Each unpacked several items from thick bearskins: a turquoise porcelain bowl, several silver and gold jars, some marble geometric stones which assembled into a small table or altar, a silken purple cloth. Murmurs and glances dwindled as our attention fell fearfully upon the two men finishing their tasks.

“It’s the oath,” one man said, rather loud and rather hysterically. More than half of us immediately shivered, not with chills but with dread.

They herded us into one line by sword and spear. My family was about a third of the way back, but it moved surprisingly, frighteningly quick. We were moving forward with dizzying speed. Perfunctory responses of “Caesar is Lord” grew louder and louder as we approached the front of the line. I tried to hide my fear as I glanced around. My brother, stoic and angry. My father, stoic yet compassionate. My mother was comforting my sister, and both had wet eyes. Soon we were a dozen men away, then half that, then –

I lunged in front of my brother, to the front of the line, ignoring the gasps of my family and evading my brother’s grasp. A group of dangerously bored soldiers faced me, a glint of interest in their eyes observing my abrupt action. Off to the side of the altar sat an older officer with a stylus and scroll. He did not look at me as he asked my name. Before me was the altar, and on it, the turquoise bowl before an engraved plate bearing Caesar’s likeness. The smaller silver and gold cups of incense sat off to the side. I, and all the other villagers, were to proclaim our loyalty and fidelity to the emperor by throwing a pinch of incense into the bowl and affirming, “Caesar is Lord.”

I eyed the soldiers’ swords; I eyed the prison cart. Empty – so far, everyone had swore the loyalty oath. But it was more important than that, we all realized. Rather, a couple dozen of us had realized. We had been taught differently. Not by the Master, but by wondrous men who walked and talked with Him, so many years ago. It was not so much as swearing allegiance as a declaration in the faith and goodness of He Who created all and is Lord of all.

One of the soldiers unsheathed his blade at my hesitancy. I glanced at the sharpened, blackened blade, then back over to the wooden cage. Would I be important enough to be seized and carted back to Smyrna, or Pergamum? Or would I be slain where I stood, as an example for the others?

The commander finally looked up from his scroll with impatience and anger building behind his eyes. I stepped forward, and heard the sobs behind me. I reached out toward the incense bowl, but stopped midway, indecisive. “Caesar is Lord” would be very easy to say, however quietly. I could repent of it later –

But I shut out those thoughts, and brought my hand down to my side. I closed my eyes. Say it! Say it! Say it! Say it! some part of my mind screamed at me. No – it was my heart speaking to me. I heard shouting and commotion as more soldiers came over, pleased that perhaps there was a cause for action. I took a deep breath, and opened my mouth.

“There is only one Lord, and his name is – ”


Now, here is my question to you, Dear Reader:

Should the “h” in the final sentence of this tale, in that word “his”, be capitalized or not?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Quark Soup


I made the mistake yesterday of heating up a can of Progresso Quark Soup and froze the entire universe. For 75 billion years. The reason you or I have no conscious awareness of this is because entities from a universe adjacent to our own were able to break into our frozen bubble of spacetime, diagnose the problem, and set things right. And give me a big scolding in the process.


Mea culpa.

Mea maxima culpa.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Dream a Little Dream

I have two neat little pieces of fiction on deck, but I haven’t finished either one yet. Busy with the girls and all, this time an afternoon at the park and just so much house business to take care of. But let me leave you with a superb quote I came across in Robert Zubrin’s book Entering Space. I haven’t really read the book yet; I was just thumbing through it while on my exercise bike yesterday morning.

German physicist Hermann Oberth (1894-1989) is considered a founding father of the science of rocketry (along with American Robert Goddard and Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky). Along with Werner von Braun he worked on the V2 rocket for Germany in World War II, and, like von Braun, came to America in the 60s to work on the American space program.

Anyway, here’s what he wrote in 1957 concerning the development of space technology:

And what would be the purpose of all this? For those who have never known the relentless urge to explore and discover, there is no answer. For those who have felt this urge, the answer is self-evident. For the latter there is no solution but to investigate every possible means of gaining knowledge of the universe.

This then is the goal: To make available for life every place where life is possible. To make inhabitable all worlds as yet uninhabited, and all life purposeful.

That just very well might be the second-largest, second-greatest dream I have ever heard or read …

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Moon Rock

I normally don’t buy or read newspapers, but I was out yesterday grabbing a sandwich and I spotted this headline:


In 1976, NASA cut up one of their lunar rocks, called the “Goodwill Moon Rock,” into 180 one-gram-sized nuggets to disburse among the fifty states and 130 other countries, to commemorate Apollo 17, the final lunar landing. Each shard was encased in plastic and mounted on a wood plaque with the state or country flag embossed beneath it. It was meant for public display.

Now, apparently, there’s a problem: No one knows where New Jersey’s rock is.

Oh, and it could be worth millions of dollars.

The curator of the state museum doesn’t know where it is. Nor do chemists at Rutgers University. The chief of staff for the governor at the time has no recollection of it.

A UPI dispatch at the time stated that the rock would go on immediate public display. That never happened.

In fairness to my fair garden state, nineteen others states and ninety-four countries can’t account for their commemorative lunar shards either. Ouch! Honduras’ missing rock was apprehended during a sting operation a decade ago in which someone was willing to fork over $5 million for the stolen sliver. And the Netherlands has recently discovered their rock is a counterfeit.

I told all this to my wife, finishing with, “I wonder where our state’s moon rock could possibly be?”

“Sitting on Tony Soprano’s desk,” she said matter-of-factly. “That’s how we do business in New Jersey.”

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I must admit being saddened Sunday night when I found out that Ronnie James Dio just died at age 67 from stomach cancer. Like I’ve read in a few places on the ’net (most notably on Big Hollywood), if you were a male teenager in the early 80s, you knew Dio. Now, he wasn’t big on my personal pantheon of rock gods, but he was on the radar.

I recall quite fondly the summer of ’84 when “The Last in Line” came out; I taped it off the radio on my boombox and must’ve played it about four or five hundred times. When I got to college I pal’d around a bit with a kid who knew the song note-for-note, and he taught me the rhythm parts. I eventually bought that guy’s amp.

In college my roommate had Heaven and Hell, the first Black Sabbath album with Dio helming at vocals, and I taped that, too. Some say it’s the best Sabbath album, better than anything they did with Ozzy. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it is as close to perfect an album you’ll hear in that genre. It definitely was a much-needed adrenaline shot in the arm for Iommi and Butler.

During the early ’90s I bought one, maybe two Rainbow CDs, which teamed Ronnie with Richie Blackmore. To be honest I can’t really recall much music (the CDs were stolen in 2004) other than a slow, sad, ethereal tune that might have had “rainbow” in the title or in the chorus. Those CDs are something I’d be interested in checking out again.

The summer of 2007 I bought Jack Black’s Tenacious D self-titled debut CD, and experienced a mild Dio renaissance via their fantastically superb two-minute song, “Dio.” Ronnie James even made a cameo in the Tenacious D movie.

Again, I wasn’t a big fan, but I thought he had a phenomenally commanding voice and had the capability of writing decent lyrics, if the little bits of elves and dragons may be forgiven. I admired his entrepreneurial spirit, his efforts with charity, and his dedication to the craft. Had no idea he was so old, though; turns out he started out singing doo-wop in the 50s. Very Spinal Tap.

In reading his obituary I note that he was raised a Roman Catholic but fell away from his faith as a teen. It’s my fervent hope – seriously – that he was able to reconcile himself someway to the Master before his six-month battle with cancer took him away.

Rest in peace.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mt. St. Helens

30 years ago today, Mt. St. Helens erupted. I vividly remember this as a kid, and recall spending all day watching the news coverage on teevee and reading about it in TIME magazine that came to our house every week.

Seeing footage of the eruption always gives me chills. I mean, take a look at this –

and tell me that you are not awestruck by the incredible dormant power in nature. Does it not make you feel puny and insignificant?

As I watched this for the first time in a few years, some passages from the Book of Job came to mind:

Where were you when I founded the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size; do you know?
Who stretched out the measuring line for it?

Into what were its pedestals sunk,
And who laid the cornerstone,
While the morning stars sang in chorus
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?

And who shut within doors the sea,
When it burst forth from the womb;
When I made the clouds its garment
And thick darkness its swaddling bands?
When I set limits for it
And fastened the bar of its door,
And said: Thus far shall you come but no farther,
And here shall your proud waves be stilled!

Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning
And shown the dawn its place
For taking hold of the ends of the earth,
Till the wicked are shaken from its surface?
The earth is changed as is clay by the seal,
And dyed as though it were a garment …

(Job 37:4-14)

This is what Mt. St. Helens looked like on Saturday, May 17, 1980, the day before the eruption.

This picture was taken by volcanologist Harry Glicken, who was scheduled to observe the mountain on May 18 but took the day off to interview with a college. His replacement, David Johnston, was killed at the observation post moments after the eruption. His body was never found.

This is a picture taken two years later from the same approximate location.

57 people were killed that morning thirty years ago, including an 83-year-old inn keeper named Harry R. Truman, who refused to heed warnings to evacuate. His body, too, was never found, presumably buried under 150 feet of volcanic ash and debris.

So sad, and frightening.

(Note: Glicken himself was killed observing an eruption of a Japanese volcano in 1991. Who knew of the courage of these uncommon men in their quest for understanding?)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Scale Models

Astronomy magazine has a neat little article in their current issue that even non-Astro buffs could appreciate. It’s one of those scale things. You know: if the Sun is a basketball, then Neptune would be a marble forty feet away. That sort of thing.

So check this out. This is the first time I ever heard this idea, and it’s kinda enlightening. You know what the Milky Way is, right? Our galaxy. A massive pinwheel-shaped spiral conglomeration of billions of stars. It takes our solar system 250 million years to complete one revolution, that’s how big it is.

Now for some scale.

Take the Milky Way and superimpose it upon a map of the United States. That’s what Astronomy did (basing their article off an idea from an American teacher and astronomer). Got it?

Let’s position the center of the Milky Way at the approximate center of the United States, Topeka, Kansas. Where would our solar system be located? Columbus, Ohio, 650 miles away.

All right. That’s not so enlightening. But this is.

On this map, our solar system would be two inches in diameter. Outta the whole continental US, we would take up something about the size of your bath tub’s drain. That’s something to file away in the back of the noggin’, no?

Now, consider this. In our sea-to-shining-sea scale model of the Milky Way, the size of the Sun would be …

See this


That period I just typed? Well, the Sun would be about a tenth of the size of that teeny tiny punctuation mark. Just plop it right in downtown Columbus and you have the approximate location and size of our scale model home star.

Neat, huh? And as a bonus factoid, just about every single star we can see with our naked eyes would lie within a 25-mile radius of Columbus. Out of an America-sized Milky Way some 3,000 miles across, we can only see our city and a couple of outlying suburbs.

File that away for the next time you happen to be having a drink with some friends out beneath the summer nighttime sky.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

October the First is Too Late

(minor spoilers, per usual …)

Whether you’ll enjoy the science fiction novel October the First is Too Late or not depends on one thing: Whaddya think about classical music?

I must admit to being a fan. I also have to say that I don’t recall reading a work of fiction before where music was such a centerpiece. Ostensibly, Fred Hoyle’s 1966 novel is about a massive, major time anomaly. Well, half the book is, anyway.

The protagonist is a professional composer and pianist. Each chapter is titled by a musical term: Prelude, Fugue, Intermezzo, Tempo di Minuetto, and so on. We agonize with him, twice, as he goes off on his own to wrench out onto paper the music that is torturing his soul. Heck, the most dramatic and tense action scene in the novel involves a piano duel.

I actually liked it. But then again, I’m a fan of both SF and classical music. A sixteen-year-old kid with glasses and acne hacking into government databases with his basement computer might not.

Of course, our composer hero is a stand-in for us. He happens to be best buddies with a cutting edge physicist, so he – and we – are thrown into the current crisis threatening the world. He asks lots of questions and asks for clarifications, etc, so we can get the exposition out of the way and move on with the plot.

Sort of.

The set-up is great; I loved it. Dick, our musical protagonist, meets up with John, his old college roommate and now a physicist, for some hiking and catching-up. Both experience some “missing time” … hmmm … and Dick thinks there’s something different about John – physically different.

Meanwhile, a rocket launched to study the Sun has discovered something bizarre. It seems the Sun is tracking us with a beam of energy and there’s some type of information transfer going on. All physicists worldwide are agog. John is called out to LA, and then Hawaii, to help explain the data. He drags Dick along because … well, Dick is us.

Suddenly, in the labs and music parlors of the 50th state, shocking news of global war abounds. What!? Yes, there’s no word at all from the West Coast. Reports come in that Los Angeles is gone. Gone. Of course John and Dick are on the first exploratory flight back to the US to see if it’s a vast nuclear wasteland or not. It’s not, but it’s inexplicably worse.

From aerial observations, it seems that the continental US has the same geographic and technological development of the US of 1750 AD or so. The intrepid physicist and composer fly on with their mates to England. Further flights indicate that continental Europe is locked in the later stages of World War I. Greece is stuck in the Periclean Age. I forget what happened to Africa, but the Middle East was determined to be around the Dawn of Man, c. 5000 BC. Russia is now a perfect “Plain of Glass” and much interesting speculation comes out wondering what exactly happened there.

You would think the remainder of the novel would be “how the heck to we get back to a consistently-applied worldwide date of 1966?” Not so, for it appears we’re powerless to change a thing. So we go off on an adventure of exploration – to ancient Greece. Does Socrates make a cameo? How ’bout Apollo?

I don’t want to give away some of the big surprises towards the end of the book. Yes, there are some big surprises, two actually, that make October the First a worthwhile read. Let’s just say that some people are not who we think they are. And some characters may not be who they think they are. Confused? So was I. But it was a thought-provoking pleasant sort of confusion.

There are a couple of disappointments, to be sure. What the title means I have no idea. John and Dick did mention having to leave for Greece by September 30, though I don’t recall why. There’s also a white-haired guy, called “the white-haired man” in the novel, who plays a significant expository role late in the story but not significant enough to give him a name or personality. Introduce yourself, man! Also, the concept of “shadow worlds”, so reminiscent of parallel world theory, was introduced a tad too shadowy; I’d have liked more delving into that possibility. Maybe there was and I just didn’t pick up on it.

The problem is, the book should have been better. Fred Hoyle – he was actually a “Sir,” knighted for his accomplishments in cosmology in the middle-20th century – is undoubtedly writing about his two great loves here, music and science, without committing to either and perhaps suffering one at the expense of the other. It should have been a better book because Hoyle was the perfect dictionary-definition iconoclast. He rejected evolution and promoted a theory of panspermia. He named the Big Bang the Big Bang as an act of derision, but it caught on. Sir Fred favored the Steady State theory, positing an eternal universe (or one at least 80 billion years old) that constantly regenerates itself. While long disproven by facts, it’s interesting enough to me and definitely appeals to my contrarian curiosity. However, here in this story he’s almost throwing as much stuff out at us as he can, red herring-ish, possibly, while his characters meander to their own stubborn preordained destinations.

I give it a B-minus. Worth a read, yes, but nothing world-shattering. To pursue another analogy, I can see Hoyle hitting this one out for a ground-rule double. Philip K. Dick, however, could put four runs on the board with a single swing of his bat given the first hundred pages of October the First is Too Late.

For my girlishly excitable pre-review of this book, see here.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


I went downstairs to the pantry in our laundry room to grab a bottle of Vitamin water. As soon as I opened the door I did a double-take and nearly fell trying to avoid squashing a dead mouse curled up on the floor at my feet.

Returning a few moments later with a broom and dust pan to dispose of the little fella, I spotted a tiny piece of paper an inch away from his furry gray torso. His tiny white paws seemed to be reaching out for it. I picked up the paper and examined it with a magnifying glass from my nearby desk.

It was his bucket list.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Evil Genies

One of the first philosophical treatises I read (and perhaps the only one cover-to-cover, being so short and direct) was Discourse on the Method by Rene Descartes. I must have read it twenty years ago or so, in a Phil 101 class at night school. Needless to say, I was quite intrigued. Marked it up real good with the yellow highlighter. Especially that part about the evil genie.

Now as you know, I’m a philosophy scholar of the strictest, armchairish, pick-and-choosingist, love-of-the-game variety. Admittedly, I have not read the Discourse or much Cartesian stuff since. But Señor Descartes was quite influential in setting up one of the key components of modern thought: the duality of mind and body with primacy being placed on rational reasoning. He is one of the philosophic forerunners of modern-day science.

His main argument in the Discourse is simple. In trying to determine what thoughts, beliefs, and ideas are beyond doubt, he subjects them all to ever-fanciful tests. Sensations can be doubted for there are situations in which the body may not be trusted. Information he learns may be mistaken. He can never be certain that what another person tells him is true. Even his belief in an outside world can be doubted, because he might be deceived into believing its existence by an evil genie. Finally, the only thing he can be certain of is his own existence, because he is able to think. Cogito ergo sum, as the Latin goes, I think, therefore, I am.

Let’s back up a step. My interest is on the genie. Baggini, in his book The Pig Who Wants to Be Eaten, wrote: what if the genie is in our DNA? That sentence has captivated me.

Boiled down and chiseled away, it says that we deceive ourselves. Which I guess is hard to argue against. Each and every one of us deceives himself in some way throughout the little things of the day. Me, I eat ice cream swearing that I’m not gonna get fat. How’s that working for me? Oh, yeah, I’m twenty pounds heavier than I was a year ago. But I can easily envision – and you can, too – people deceiving themselves about being happy in their jobs or relationships or that the state of the economy will just get better over time (loaded political comment inserted – check!). You get my drift.

That does not interest me, and I don’t think it interests the genie, either.

What does interest the both of us is … wait for it … metaphysics. Yes, metaphysics. A ten dollar word for Reality. After all, that’s what both Descartes and Baggini are focused on here.

How does our DNA deceive us regarding the Great Out There?

Two thoughts come to mind. Unfortunately, they are two thoughts I’m ill-equipped to expound on with a Cartesian sense of certainty. But I’ll offer them up in the off-chance they might form a connection, a linkage, a new neuro-association within the synapses and dendrites of that wondrous and mystical point in your skull where the soul meets matter.

First is the anthropic principle. Basically, it states that the universe is the way it is because we are here to observe it thus. From a physics and cosmological point of view, the fundamental constants and the four forces and the Standard Model explaining matter as quarks and leptons are all fine-tuned to make life possible. That’s the only way it could be for life – for us – to exist to observe the universe. Or something. I never completely understood it. Nor have I understood why it needed to be stated. I kinda viewed it like the “problem of free will” in ethics: who cares, because ultimately I can’t affect it and it doesn’t make any difference to the hyphen that’s my life.

Also, it’s a fairly modern conception, and like most modern thought, it contains the Potential-to-Idiocy. A lot of people interested in the anthropic principle wonder about the possibilities of non-Carbon based life. So, now, we have another derogatory PC term. Sexism (male dominating the female) was surpassed by speciesism (humans dominating the animal kingdom) is now surpassed by Carbon chauvinism (us Carbon-based life forms dominating, uh, …, uh, non-Carbon-based life forms?).

Still, that genie in the DNA acts as a lens on how we view the Out There. It’s just beyond my grasping, but I sense it’s something to do with an endowed adjustment to those physics fundamentals. Like a set of rabbit ears on an old teevee set. We can’t see reality any other way than the way we were built.

Which flows naturally to my second point. Kant.

I read a bit of him over the winter. However, I never delved deep enough to be able to write a term paper for a passing grade, so don’t expect one here. But my gut tells me his metaphysics most closely resembles, of all the kookie nutty philosophies over the past four centuries, his most nearly parallels quantum theory. (And please! If you know this stuff, let me know if I’m right or wrong!)

How so?

Well, Kant details Reality as a shadowy, unknowable world. A “noumenal” world as opposed to a “phenomenal” world. We are only able to interact with it, whether it’s touching a book on a table, looking through a telescope, or talking to a friend, by our minds putting their own meaning and order on this dark and mysterious landscape. Our logic, our concepts of space and time, our convention of cause-and-effect, we send this out somehow to bring order from chaos. The image of a potter comes to my mind, though this may be way off base. Reality is a lump of clay. It doesn’t become an ash tray to us until we reach out and mold it with our hands. That’s the analogy I always get reading Kant.

This Kantian action of imposing our logic, etc, on the world always struck me as the collapsing of the quantum wave function. But that’s the subject of an entirely separate post.

Or maybe that evil genie is just what I thought it was when I first read it twenty years ago. Remember when Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck tunneled into that treasure cave in the desert, and rubbed that magic lamp … ?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Standing Cat

Sorry – still too busy with meaningless ephemera. Condemned to cogs and conveyor belts in the daily grind, mazeratlike. Plus, three hours sleep last night, as an ill-considered chicken burrito decided to convict and punish me for the sin of gluttony. Yay!

I do have some interesting stuff on the horizon. I do! Nuthin’ that’s finished, though. But I promise something tomorrow.

Meantimes, whet your appetite on this. I have such déjà vu watching this; I vaguely recall waking up in my old apartment and seeing not only this fella but a few of his buddies standing around my living room. Think the song was the same, too. Or maybe I’m just future-remembering an event that hasn’t happened yet …

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Cat Came Back

Hi! We have a friend coming in to town to stay the night, so I'm kinda swamped with household chores (cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, etc). As a result, I was unable to honor my daily hour of blog creativity. Instead, I offer this 1936 cartoon called, "The Cat Came Back." I believe it was the first cartoon I ever saw. Probably around age 3 or 4. If you have 8 minutes to spare and feel somewhat nostalgic for the old Warner Brothers cartoons, watch it. Around the 4:45 mark it officially happened: my nightmares began, haunting my subconscious for nearly four decades. This cartoon began the warping that resulted in the LE who now stands before you ... oh, those frantic cries of "help!" "help!" from the scared little kitten ...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Books Gone Wilde

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.”

What do we make of this?

Ironically enough, I am not qualified to pronounce verdict on this. At least from a position with some claim to authority. Despite being a fervid reader of all sorts of literature, despite professing an interest and knowledge of classical music ranging chronologically from Bach and Vivaldi to Copland, Barber, and Bernstein, despite an obsession with TCM, I really have not given the whole “What is Art?” thing consideration.

A shame, I guess, but in all honesty, the question bores me.

I suppose I treat it like the other old question, “What is Pornography?” that the Supreme Court has to take up every couple of years or so. To both questions my answer has always been the same: I don’t know, but I know it when I see it.

But let me apply the old college try to Oscar’s quote, as The Pig Who Wants to be Eaten has whetted my appetite, so to speak.

Just a disclosure: I’ve never read Oscar Wilde and know little about him, other than the fact that he wrote that Dorian Gray novel and was known as something of a sexual libertine, to put it mildly. He would be hailed a hero had he lived in the 21st century, but because he lived in the Victorian era, he was put on trial and jailed on “morality” charges. I must confess I find him yawn-inducing.

Anyway, Wilde’s quote is not aimed at the question, “What is Art?” per se. He’s attacking the presumption of linking the idea of morality with the idea of art. To shock us he’s taking an extreme position which I think few but a minority of attention-seeking performance artists would take.

But it’s not all cut-and-dried, and I think Wilde has something of a point.

The common-sense view is that, yes, a book can be moral or immoral. Two immediate examples: The Bible and Mein Kampf. I am extremely well-acquainted with the first, and never have read the latter. But I think 99 point 999 percent of the public would agree on the ethical judgments of those two works of art.

Let’s get controversial, shall we? Let’s light up the phone lines.

Let’s be current and topical and take the Koran. For 99 point 999 percent of the world, it is a source of inspiration and hope. A moral book, right? Half a billion Muslims can’t be wrong, right? But for that other point oh-oh-one percent, its words are twisted to justify cold-blooded murder of innocents.

See what I mean? A book can be both moral and immoral, depending on what it inspires its readers to do. And if it can be both moral and immoral, it really can’t be both, can it? Perhaps books, and by extension, other forms of art, transcend morality? Or perhaps morality just cannot be applied to them, like morality can’t be applied to, oh, just off the top of my head, the action of a shark eating a human. It just doesn’t apply.

I think that’s what Wilde is trying to say. Maybe.

But is it really fair to judge a work of art by the effect it has on its readers? And shouldn’t we also take in mind the intent of the author? For example, let’s say Bin Laden writes a manifesto exhorting his followers to kill the infidel blah blah blah. Can we make a blanket judgment on both the Koran and this Bin Laden book, labeling them both “immoral” if some Muslims take it upon themselves to actually kill the infidel, when the command no longer applies to modern readers in the first and the author of the second is directly advocating murder?

So while superficially this whole question of “can a book be moral or immoral?” seems a slam-dunk, it’s actually quite thorny and difficult. Unanswerable, maybe. I myself certainly can’t answer it in a 750-word post. Originally I was wondering if I could think of, say, ten books I’d label as “moral” and ten I’d label as “immoral,” and post that for your consideration. But it’s really, really difficult. I mean, could you?

Now I wouldn’t give a thumbs-up to Wilde’s statement; something inside me prevents me from doing so, even though I can’t even begin to formulate an argument against it. Or maybe I’m just too damn tired, and I’m doing this pro bono. In any event, and I hate to admit it, now, but that question

“What is Art?”

has now taken hold of me.

I need to investigate this further. Hmmmm.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Thumbed through two really neat philosophy books over the weekend: The Philosophy Gym by Stephen Law and The Pig That Wants to be Eaten by Julian Baggini. While one stayed fairly neutral and the other betrayed a noticeable ideological tilt, they were both excellent reads. Through short dramatized vignettes, both managed to give a surprisingly comprehensive overview of the hot topics in philosophy over the past twenty-five hundred years. I found myself deep in thought most of Saturday and Sunday. In fact, I think they’ve supplied this week’s posts.

So, here’s a brief itinerary and agenda for the next few days. Subject to last-minute change, of course. As this blog is strictly non-profit and I am iron-bound to the whims of the muse, I can’t be certain of which topic I’ll write on each day. But I’d like to potentially talk about –

- The Ring of Gyges

- Descartes’ evil genie residing in our DNA

- The Leviticus problem

- An Oscar Wilde quote on the morality/immorality of books

- Why belief in God is THE essential key to any philosophy

- A short evaluation of both books (I liked ’em both in differing ways)

- Teleportation, genetic monkey-business, and deliberately accelerated bi-directional temporal displacement

- Fallacies for dummies (I include myself in the latter category)

- And maybe something else I forgot about or haven’t read up yet

There! Should be an action-packed smack-down of a week! Don’t miss it! Tell the neighbors! Call friends and relatives! Alert the media! Anxiously pace by your PC, with the Hopper your Home Page, hitting the Refresh button every three minutes! Wade into the fray, if you dare! You won’t be disappointed! Unless you are!

You have now been warned …

(Also have a review of beknighted maverick physicist and SF author Fred Hoyle’s book on non-deliberately accelerated bi-directional temporal displacement October the First is Too Late half-finished, in which LE tries to make sense of the insensible …)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Regina Coeli

Regina caeli, laetare, alleluia:
Quia quem meruisti portare. alleluia,
Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia,
Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia.

Gaude et laetare, Virgo Maria, alleluia.
Quia surrexit Dominus vere, alleluia.

Oremus. Deus, qui per resurrectionem Filii tui, Domini nostri Iesu Christi, mundum laetificare dignatus es: praesta, quaesumus, ut per eius Genitricem Virginem Mariam, perpetuae capiamus gaudia vitae. Per eumdem Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

Ave Maria,
gratia plena,
Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae.

Happy Mother's Day!

Saturday, May 8, 2010


I had an enlightening dream last night. I was in my wife’s car (which had morphed into an old, beat-up, white Ford), at a stop light, creeping up waiting for the light to turn green. Well, I kept creeping up, anticipating the change, until I was halfway through the intersection. I found myself beyond the point of no return, and as there was no perpendicular traffic, I just drifted through the intersection.

Then I decided to check my rear-view mirror. And sure enough, there was a cop sitting there, in his cruiser. The lights went on and I pulled over. What saved me from getting a ticket was that I had a brochure in my front seat from a local school for gifted children, which the police officer was well-acquainted with. We chatted politely about the school for a few minutes, and he let me go with just a warning to be more careful.

The school was amazing. Dreams fade pretty quickly for me after I awake, but a few things stayed. First, the children were all required to do a daily blog on the school internal network. Kids as young as the Little One. Then they had to do a weekly essay of a few pages on some really heavy stuff – physics, politics, the Middle East situation, things like that. It seemed they were taught a couple grades above the level you would think they should be taught. But the craziest things is, they had the ability to assimilate the information and make judgments and hold opinions on them.

Which just goes to a point of view my wife always expounds: a child will always respond to the level you interact with him. We tend to treat our oldest girl as an adult, in speech, actions, and responsibilities, and much more often than not, she responds at a higher level. No baby talk, no whining, no regressive behavior is tolerated, and very quickly none is displayed.

I think I had the dream because I do my homework with my daughter every morning. It’s very simple, and she usually breezes through it in a few minutes. Things like: “This is the number 15. Write it three times. Then color in the amount of tiles to represent 15.” We’re doing double-digit column math at home. She’s mastered flash card addition and subtraction, and can do most simple equations in her head – no finger counting. We’re starting simple multiplication. And that’s just math. With verbal skills we play the rhyming game and often ask her to spell pretty tough words. She knows about twenty-five words of Spanish and some simple phrases, and she probably knows more astronomy than any other child in her grade school (yeah, that’s my influence).

A child responds at the level you engage him. Or, in other words, the only limitations we have are in our own minds, and are often instilled at us at a very early age, by both teachers and parents.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Hey, check this out. You’re never gonna believe this. Way back in the late 80s, the first summer after I turned 21, me and my buddy Tank knocked down a hogshead of beer during that July and August and then we –


You mean, you never heard of a hogshead?

Oh, yeah. Good point.

Well, it’s a unit of liquid measure.

Here, let me quickly explain.

There’s 8 pints in a gallon, right? And in each pint there’s 8 fluid ounces. So that makes 64 ounces to the gallon. A typical can or bottle of beer has 12 ounces, so you could pour a little more than five of those babies into a gallon container. More precisely, 16 beers for every 3 gallons. Perfect and beautiful.

8 gallons makes what is known as a firkin. A firkin therefore holds 42 and two-thirds cans of beer. Not a bad haul. For example, when I was living with my two chums renting a house down by the NJ Turnpike, we’d put away a firkin of Molson a weekend. A slow weekend, that is.

2 firkins make a kilderkin. For those keeping score, that’d be 85 and a third cans of suds. Back in the day we’d put that away, minimum, on a serious party weekend.

2 kilderkins make a barrel. You all have heard of a barrel of beer, right? That song you used to sing on long car rides as a kid? Doubling our kilderkin statistic, we find you can pump 170 cans of beer (plus a bonus two-thirds of a can) out of a barrel.

Finally, the hogshead. One-and-a-half barrels make a hogshead. (Pause while I consult my scratch pad …) Ergo, hence, thusly, QED, 255 and one-half cans of beer is the equivalent yield of a hogshead of brewskies.

That’s ten cases of beer, with two six packs and a 40-ounce left over.

So, me and Tank each drank a little over five cases of beer in those two months.

Now before you go all nancy-boy on me, that averages to only 16 beers a weekend. Which isn’t much, especially for a strong, healthy 21-year-old man. Just ask any of my twenty-something cousins. And it’s not like it causes any long-term brain damage, right?

Uh … where was I going with this?

Note 1: All the information in this post I gleaned from the writings of the legendary Dr. Isaac Asimov, who wrote a couple hogshead’s worth of books on just about everything under the sun during his long, prolific life.

Note 2: By my calculations (which may not be correct in the sense that they are right), a hogshead of beer will fit neatly into your average sized bathtub.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Moreau's Other Island

In 1996, unnamed criminals against humanity splotched together a screenplay and managed to convince a major Hollywood studio to bankroll a movie entitled The Island of Doctor Moreau. Signed on to play the titular role was Marlon Brando; Val Kilmer was to play his assistant, Montgomery. Allegedly based on the 1896 book by H. G. Wells, whose novel was filmed twice before. First in 1933 as Island of Lost Souls, superb and still creepy to this day. Remade in 1977 with Burt Lancaster as the evil doctor and Michael York (Logan from Logan’s Run) as the shipwrecked castaway. This is the version I grew up with, sneaking it under cover of night without my parents permission thanks to new-fangled cable teevee piping all sorts of horror into our house.

As a disclaimer, I saw all three movies. I never read the source material, Wells’ novel, though I did have it as a littl’un. Think I bought it in a bookmobile, sometime in the late 70s. Nutshellishly, Wells tells of a man who washes up upon a Pacific island, only to discover it’s one big laboratory for a demented scientist. Doctor Moreau is surgically experimenting on animals in an attempt to make them ... humanish.

Anyway, the director of the 1996 flick simply imploded under the oceanic mass of the dueling egos Brando and Kilmer. John Frankenheimer was brought in to salvage the investment, and the big stinking pile of crapola that resulted sunk at the box office and remains the definitive low-point of the pretentious acting styles of the two actors. If you are interested – and, trust me, it makes a great read – the best take-down of this movie ever is written here.

But, please, don’t see this timesuck of a movie. If you have had that misfortune, like I have, may I recommend as a redemptive form of penance reading Moreau’s Other Island, by Brian Aldiss?

... minor spoilers ...

Moreau’s Other Island is a futuristic adaptation of Wells’ story. Two or three decades hence the globe is straitjacketed in brink-of-war tension. The space shuttle (!) ferrying a high-ranking diplomat crashes into the sea; our hero, name of Roberts, is picked up by Maastricht, the Montgomery stand-in here. Very quickly Roberts comes face-to-face with the bizarre hybrid inhabitants of the island, and realizes how dangerous his new situation is. Then, to his shock, a mechanical man walks down to the shoreline, firing weapons and cracking a whip, and the beasties flee into the woods.

The cyborg is Dart, a scientist suffering from crippling birth defects who has taken up the mantle of Moreau’s scholarship. In the book, Moreau is acknowledged as a fictional character; Wells’ story inspires a young Dart to seek to find a cure for his deformities by transforming animals into men … and worse. However, as with his literary predecessor, Dr. Dart is more than a little imbalanced. We find out that he is on the verge of completing genetic drug treatments of fetal cells to produce a “perfect” creature – one that will survive nuclear war to carry on the species. But there’s been an accident – something’s happened to Maastricht – so Roberts unfortunately will be needed on the island to help out. And the world totters at the edge of armed conflict.

This was one great novel! It was a fast read, too, less than four hours for me. More importantly, I couldn’t put it down, and read far into the night, way past my bedtime. While the science and the politics are a little shaky, they can be more than forgiven because Aldiss knows how to write suspensefully. What a rare gift! Every chapter brings a new revelation and a new cliffhanger. Secrets are pealed away like that oft-cited onion, and the action keeps you on the edge of your chair, even if it’s a big mushroom-colored super-comfy sofa. It was the rare book I wish was longer.

Yeah, I could nitpick. I’d have written the ending a little more tragically. There were a few incidents of deus ex machina that weren’t necessary. I wasn’t too happy with who died and who didn’t, but hey, at least it was unpredictable, which is an essential trait in a science fiction thriller. But really I’m quibbling here. These complaints probably comprise just a bare few percentage points of my overall experience.

Aldiss’ short story collection Who Can Replace a Man? floored for me as a kid. One of the books in my father’s secret stash I read on the sly. In the thirty years since I only read one other Aldissian work, a novella of which the only thing I recall was that it was a gripping read. Like Moreau’s Other Island. I think I need to bump something more substantial of his up in the reading rotation.

Moreau’s Other Island was published in 1980. The only real question is, why oh why oh why did that Hollywood studio not decide to bring this story to the big screen instead of that Brando-Kilmer-Frankenheimer monstrosity?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sexist Equations


I found this priceless:

“In the 1980s and 1990s, some French and American postmodernists infected academia with a fantastically pretentious form of scientific counterknowledge. Having decided that science was just another textual game, they started playing it themselves, with ludicrous results. The French feminist critic Luce Irigaray solemnly described E = mc^2 as a ‘sexed equation’ because it ‘privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us’. She suggested that pure mathematics was biased by its ‘sexist’ concern with closed spaces, rather than the ‘partially open’ structures visible to the subtler female mind.”

(source: Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures, 1997, pp. 97-113)

Quoted in the book, Counterknowledge by Damian Thompson.

Beyond parody.

To ease the bruised egos of really-out-in-left-field leftist “academics,” I should also note that Thompson devotes a good chunk of his book exposing and attacking some of the more kookier elements of Creationism. This includes the massive, alarming and expanding Islamic Creationism movement (bet ya didn’t know about that global cause for concern! Way to go, brave American media! Keep your spotlight on Kansas school rooms …).

Anyway, I think I gotta put Sokal’s book on my reading list. Should provide a good many priceless quotes.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Black Hoyle Sun


A satellite is launched to study the Sun. A few weeks into its mission we suddenly lose contact with it. Immediately before failing, though, the satellite radios back its findings and the initial interpretations have physicists scratching their heads. It appears the Earth is moving through some sort of beam, originating and possibly transmitting from the Sun. This beam is somehow tracking the Earth. To top it all off, there appears to be some type of data exchange going on, something to the effect of “a hundred million textbooks a year.” With pen and paper I figure out that this rate amounts to a little more than six and a half million bits of information a second.


What do you think is going on here?



Beats me. I’m only a hundred pages into Fred Hoyle’s book October the First is Too Late. But I have to say it’s a very intriguing set-up. It seems to have something to do with time travel, and a data rate that large fits nicely with the amount of bit info you might find when dealing with biological organisms …

Monday, May 3, 2010

Lord of the World


Nobody can accuse me of not being truthful on this here blog. Well, 85 to 95 percent truthful. But I’m going to be brutally honest right now. I wanted to like Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World more, much much more, than I actually did.

There were parts of it I really, truly, deeply, madly loved. And there were parts of it that disappointed greatly. Not enough to cause me to despise the novel, but just enough to seed some disillusionment. Some critic in the preface asserts that Benson’s novel deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. After reading Lord of the World, I see now why it’s not.

It’s a novel of dystopic warning. Written in 1907, Benson, an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism, was extrapolating out to an England about a hundred years in the future. He gets some things eerily right and other things humorously wrong. The things he gets wrong are irrelevant to the plot, mostly technological things like how we travel about and where we live in the 21st century. What he gets right, though, is right on the head. Benson’s novel is a theological novel built on an epic philosophic struggle, and that struggle is nothing less than the battle for the hearts and minds of men and women everywhere.

What am I trying to say?

I’ve heard it said from a variety of sources that man is a worshiping being. That is, there’s something hardwired into our brains that cause us to desperately seek to worship something. Or Something. You find it in the Bible, you find it in theological writings of all faiths, you find it in Hollywood and on Madison Ave, you even find it in the lyrics to Bob Dylan songs (“ya gotta serve sumbodeh”). Benson details a world that has no longer decided to worship a deity. No longer will mankind worship God. From now on, mankind will worship – Man.

Now he doesn’t come right out and say it on page 4. It takes a hundred and fifty to two hundred pages to gradually and incrementally establish this … change of course, to speak polite about it. Though it’s labeled as “socialism” in the book, it’s remarkably similar to the secular humanism that’s ever more and more prevalent and outspoken in our culture today. Anyway, this new religion of Man coincides with the arrival on the global political scene of a diplomat named Julian Felsenburgh. This man is responsible for the outbreak of global peace for the first time in over a century. Soon governments are clamoring at his feet, begging for him to accept the presidencies of their various nations.

Any idea who he’s supposed to be?

The back cover calls him the antichrist, and I think that preface mentions it, too. But I don’t remember whether he is outright called so in the novel. Regardless, it’s clear he is intended to be that figure. From about page two hundred or so, after this new Religion-of-Man-which-is-not-a-Religion is established, after Felsenburgh has ascended to the newly-created presidency of Europe, things seriously start to change. Despite promises to the contrary, the fewer and fewer adherents of traditional religion, represented in the novel as Catholicism, begin to be persecuted. First with imprisonment, later with worse. After being consistently outpaced and outmaneuvered at every turn, Rome is attacked and annihilated. The Pope and the College of Cardinals are all killed. The few remaining believers in God assemble at Nazareth, and even there they are found out, and plans are made for their elimination.

On the eve of the attack upon Nazareth, the Second Coming commences.

And that’s how the novel ends.

Now as far as I can tell as a practicing Catholic, it was all theologically sound. Where it fails, I believe, is in a few fundamentals of storytelling. We follow three major characters through the novel. One becomes close to Felsenburgh and expresses some interior doubts, I think, toward the end of the novel, but nothing significant ever comes from this. Another character grows somewhat and shows some promise to change, but falls victim to the rampant euthanasia in this society. And the nominal lead character turns so mystical towards the book’s ending that I kinda found it difficult to relate to him as a human being.

Most importantly, I felt cheated that the ending did not involve any confrontation whatsoever with Felsenburgh. Upon reflection, though, this gives me cause for concern. Perhaps I am a product of my time (of course I am) and demand that the “bad guys” get their comeuppance. We all do. Is this a human thing, or a thing that’s been conditioned into us through years and decades of entertainment conditioning? Did not Jesus command us to love our enemies? Does this go as far as The Enemy? Or am I just reading too much into all this? Hmmmm. You know, after further thought, I realize that the reason I felt cheated is this: I wanted to hear what this Felsenburgh had to say, and I wanted him to lose simply through reasoned argument. I wanted his words turned back upon him and exposed for the lies that they, no doubt, would be.

If you read the Book of Revelation, however, you know that this is not how it all ends. To this point Benson remains true. I don’t want to give the impression that these literary failings derail the book. They are minor in comparison to the tidal pulls of ideas in direct conflict. What Benson says, what he predicted and predicts, is very important. All Catholics should read this book. I think most would be tremendously better off having read it than not.

So, in all honesty, I grade Lord of the World a solid B. (I always go with what my gut tells me five minutes within reading the closing words of a book.) Idea-wise, it’s an A, and story-wise, a C. And if you are a Catholic and are trying to deepen your faith, I have to say that you have to read it, at least once.

N. B. This was the most difficult book review for me to write. I don’t know if I’m satisfied with it even now that it’s posted. Something to do with wanting to achieve that fine balance between objective analysis and subjective meanings and the tension between what’s worthy in a written work and what’s poorly executed. I know that’s the essence of every book review, but this one just gave me a hard time. Perhaps it’s because, of all the books I’ve read recently, this one demands a re-read, which I simply don’t have time for.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Men Who Stare at Goats

Watched The Men Who Stare at Goats with the wife last night. I liked it, with reservations. The wife has banned me from selecting DVDs for the next month though. Bottom line, it’s a movie that tries too hard to be funny when it should just unabashedly bask in its weirdness. Yes, there are some genuinely funny moments, maybe two or three, but you’ve seen them in the trailer. The other twenty or twenty-five attempts at humor are somewhat uncomfortable, like watching a slightly drunk friend pathetically try to impress a chick that everyone, except him, knows is out of his league.

But the basic premise of the movie is … exactly something I would read in one of my long-pursued fringe books! Soldiers trained in the art of psychic warfare – by a hippie Viet Nam vet. On paper, it should have worked. Perhaps another rewrite, maybe another director, I don’t know. George Clooney and Jeff Bridges are excellent. Jeff Bridges alone makes the film worth seeing. Yeah, there are a few anti-American jabs thrown in during the Iraq portion of the film, but what can you do – Clooney is also the producer. Ewan MacGregor is more milquetoast than usual, though there are plenty of “Jedi knight” lines thrown about, no doubt at his expense and perhaps inserted into the script once he signed on to play the role. Kevin Spacey is completely one-dimensional, humorless and ineffective as the bad guy. What happened to him?

If you dig weird stuff, I’d say check it out, but don’t let your expectations get too high. And speaking of high, since so many characters are throughout the movie, it might not be a bad idea to see it in an enlightened state of consciousness. Me, I could only watch it while eating a bowl of fruit and yogurt. Yay. So sober LE gives it a C+. However, I don’t want to discourage Hollywood from cranking out weirdity like this. Keep it coming! Eventually you’ll get one right!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Tier, the Red Planet

“What was the name of Mars in The Martian Chronicles?” I desperately wondered as I woke this morning.

Such are the thoughts of LE in the quiet and cool dawn hours in our house.

Instinctively, I knew it was Tier. Or was it Teer? Or Tyr? Something like that. I have a newer edition of Chronicles down in my writing office, signed by the master, Mr. Bradbury, himself. But it would take too long to thumb through for corroboration. And the last time I read the collection was with my wife honeymoon clothes shopping all those years ago (all nine, that is).

So I had a mission this morning. In between balancing the checkbook, paying bills, and getting a to-do list for Saturday morning errands, I was furiously surfing the web for an answer.

Some things I knew already. For instance,

Mars is called the Red Planet, due to the prodigious amounts of iron oxide in its soil. Thus, most ancient cultures equated the blood red world with their gods of war. The Greeks called it Areos Aster, the Star of Ares. This developed into Stella Martis, the Star of Mars in Latin, as the Romans tended to assimilate much things Greek.

A brief search turned up the following names for the fourth planet:

Al-Mirrikh – Arabic
Al-Qahira – Arabic
Angaraka – Sanskrit
Bahram – Persian
Horus, or Heru-khuti – Egyptian
Ma’adim - Hebrew
Mangala – Hindu
Merih – Turkish
Merikh – Urdu
Nirgal or Nergel – Babylonian
Pahlavanu Siphr – Persian
Pyroeis – Greek

Most, but not all, are names for the culture’s god of war. One of the exceptions seems to be Ma’adim, the Hebrew word for Mars, which means “one who blushes.” The Greek Pyroeis means “fiery.”

Other names, whose derivation I don’t know, though some are variations of “fire star”, are:

Auqakuh – Quechua (Incan)
Harmakhis – Ancient Egyptian
Her Desher – Egyptian
Hrad – Armenian
Huo Hsing – Chinese
Kartikeya – Hindu
Kasei – Japanese
Labou – French
Maja – Nepali
Mamers – Oscan
Marte – Spanish
Mawrth – Welsh
Shalbatana – Akkadian
Simud – Sumerian
Tiu, Tiw – Old English (West Germanic)

Which leads me to modern fiction. In the great Edgar Rice Burroughs epics, of which I read a few as a kid, Mars is known as Barsoom. The Martians of C. S. Lewis’ theological science fiction works, which I also read twenty or so years back and should be on my re-read list, refer to their home world as Malacandra.

So, after maybe 45 minutes of research, I find some dude who says the Martians in Ray Bradbury’s work call their planet Tyr. Sounds right, but also sounds a little off. A few minutes later, I have a source who says that in the short story “Night Meeting,” the ghostly Martian tells Tomas Gomez that he calls his planet …


I re-read the short story in my autographed copy and find no mention of the sort. But I do remember reading it in another copy of The Martian Chronicles while slouching about Nordstrom’s nine years back. I know that Bradbury has edited this book a few times over the years. Could he have edited out the reference to “Tier” in this short story?

Ah well. A mystery for another day. I’ve got work to do.

But first I reach behind me and thumb through my CDs. Yes! Here it is. Paranoid, by Black Sabbath. Track 3, “Planet Caravan.” Soon I’m listening to the jazzy stylings of Tony Iommi, with Ozzy singing about

The Crimson Eye … of Great God Mars …