Monday, December 31, 2007

Tunguska centennial

Got a big interest in the famed Tunguska event? Got any plans for June 26-28? Hankerin' for a trip to Moscow? If so, then I've got the event for you:
"100 years since Tunguska phenomenon: Past, present and future"

June 26-28, 2008.
Moscow, Russia

The Conference is organized by

* Russian Academy of Sciences - Institute for Dynamics of Geospheres
* Lomonosov Moscow State University - Sternberg Astronomical Institute, Institute of Mechanics
* Meteorite Committee of Russian Academy of Sciences


The Conference is devoted to the 100-year anniversary of the Tunguska
phenomenon. The purpose of the conference is to integrate the efforts of
inter-disciplinary experts in understanding the Tunguska event and
similar impact phenomena.

Problems for discussion

1. Mathematical modeling of trajectory, dynamics and explosion of Tunguska cosmic object
2. Search of material of Tunguska object
2.1. Analysis of particles in soil, tree trunks and resin
2.2. Separation of cosmic dust input and aerosol sources from the background
3. Effects of global scale
3.1. Light nights
3.2. Ionosphere perturbations
3.3. Search of anomalies in Arctic and Antarctic
4. Regional and local effects
4.1. Analysis of eyewitness reports
4.2. Study of tree fall and state of forest after the Tunguska event
4.3. Investigation of magnetic properties and thermoluminescense of soil and rocks at the site
5. Ecological consequences of the Tunguska event. Genetic aspect of the problem
6. Historical, ethnographic and sociological issues connected with the Tunguska catastrophe

Exploration of asteroids and comets

1. Significance of exploration of asteroids and comets for understanding of evolution of the Solar System and exoplanetary systems
2. Problems of origin and evolution of comets and asteroids
3. Studies of minor bodies of the Solar System (asteroids, comets, meteoroids) by means of spacecrafts

Hazards due to comets and asteroids

1. The role of the Tunguska event in the problem of asteroidal and cometary hazards
2. Investigation of impact craters on the Earth and other bodies of the Solar System
3. Means of mitigation of asteroidal and cometary hazards

If you go, be sure and tell them I sent you.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Historical Documents

While recovering from Christmas, I decided to watch the classic Trek episode 'Bread and Circuses', in which the Enterprise visits an Earthlike world where the Roman Empire survived into the 20th Century - complete with television (including executions televised live), internal combustion engines (and the resultant smog), gladiatorial games, sub-machine guns, and slavery.

What astonished me about the episode, this time around, was a throw-away line delivered by runaway slave Flavius Maximus. He explains to Kirk that slave revolts had been quelled by giving slaves more rights, including government-paid old-age benefits and medicine. It would seem that when this was first aired in 1968 (appropriately enough, on the Ides of March), Americans considered medical care a right.

How times have changed. Happy New Year to all our readers.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Tunguska revisited

Uh-oh. A new study suggests that the asteroid/comet that caused the infamous devastation at Tunguska in Siberia a century ago may not have been as large as previously thought. There are a lot more small rocks floating around out there than there are big ones...
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The stunning amount of forest devastation at Tunguska a century ago in Siberia may have been caused by an asteroid only a fraction as large as previously published estimates, Sandia National Laboratories supercomputer simulations suggest.

"The asteroid that caused the extensive damage was much smaller than we had thought," says Sandia principal investigator Mark Boslough of the impact that occurred June 30, 1908. "That such a small object can do this kind of destruction suggests that smaller asteroids are something to consider. Their smaller size indicates such collisions are not as improbable as we had believed."

Because smaller asteroids approach Earth statistically more frequently than larger ones, he says, "We should be making more efforts at detecting the smaller ones than we have till now."

The new simulation - which more closely matches the widely known facts of destruction than earlier models - shows that the center of mass of an asteroid exploding above the ground is transported downward at speeds faster than sound. It takes the form of a high-temperature jet of expanding gas called a fireball.

This causes stronger blast waves and thermal radiation pulses at the surface than would be predicted by an explosion limited to the height at which the blast was initiated.

"Our understanding was oversimplified,' says Boslough, "We no longer have to make the same simplifying assumptions, because present-day supercomputers allow us to do things with high resolution in 3-D. Everything gets clearer as you look at things with more refined tools."

There's a good bit more at the other end of the link. As if global warming wasn't enough to worry about.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Lost Books, Part V: a ripper of a vampire novel

If you ever see a Kim Newman book for sale, buy it - before it softly and suddenly vanishes away.

Newman may well be the living lord of the literary landscape of lost books. Perhaps in some parallel universe, his books stay in print for as long as they deserve, but I had a difficult time choosing which undeservedly out-of-print Newman novel to enthuse about. I considered Back in the USSA (co-written with Eugene Byrne), which only appeared in hardcover (though in the aforementioned parallel universe, it was probably a bestselling paperback in the USSA… sorry about that). And The Quorum, which is not only a writers’ nightmare comparable to Stephen King’s Misery, but probably the scariest novel ever based on a Shakespearean comedy. In the end, I opted for the first in his amazing Anno Dracula series.

Anno Dracula is a parallel world story which combines Victorian-era fictional and historical characters, somewhat a la George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman saga or Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen… but rather more so. The basic premise is that, Lord Godalming fails to destroy the boxes of Transylvanian soil that Dracula retreats to, enabling the count to remain in London, marry the widowed Queen Victoria, and turn her.

Vampirism becomes fashionable in England as Dracula places his distant undead relatives in positions of power. Lord Ruthven becomes Prime Minister, Varney the Vampire governs British India, the nosferatu Graf Orlok is appointed as warden of the Tower of London. Others allow themselves to be bitten so they can claim to belong to the Dracula bloodline, from the aristocratic Godalming down to streetwalkers such as Catherine Eddowes and Lulu Schon. Those who resist are either consigned to concentration camps such as Devil’s Dike, or executed by impaling. Sherlock Holmes and Bram Stoker have disappeared, while Van Helsing’s skull rests on a pike outside the palace. Quincy Morris has been killed by Dracula (his last words a quote from The Wild Bunch); Jack Seward survives, but has been driven mad; when not working in a Spitalfields refuge with Montague Druitt and vampire Genevieve Dieudonne, he prowls Whitechapel disemboweling vampire prostitutes with a silvered scalpel.

Among those investigating the murders are Inspector Lestrade, Inspector Abberline, and an agent of the Diogenes Club, Charles Beauregard. Doctors Jekyll and Moreau theorize about the killer's nature, while London’s crimelords also attempt to catch the man who has brought so much police attention to Whitechapel. Things become even more heated – and complicated – after a news agency receives a letter signed “Jack the Ripper”.

The cast of characters also includes the Elephant Man, Mina Harker, Dr Griffin, Raffles, Oscar Wilde, Danny Dravot, Count Iorga, Algernon Swinburne, and enough Ripper suspects (Druitt, David Cohen, John Netley) and possible or fictitious victims to delight any Ripperologist. Even if you're not a lover of fantastic Victoriana, read it once for the plot and don’t worry if you think you’ve missed any of the references: you’ll enjoy reading it again. (Assuming, of course, that you can find a copy in the first place.)

Anno Dracula would be an excellent thriller even without the mélange of literary, historical and horror movie in-jokes: with its twisted conspiratorial plot, cinematic fight scenes, gore, transformations, gaslit setting, goth (sorry, Murgatroyd) fashions, and other delights, it would make a wonderful movie – unless, of course, it was made by the people responsible for LXG.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

In which Michael Jackson demonstrates the proper method to purchase science fiction paperbacks

The Daily Mail reports on a recent sighting of the pop star on a late night bookstore run in Las Vegas. He apparently purchased a large quantity of SF. Begging the important question: what is Michael Jackson's favorite literary science fiction? I'll bet you dinner at Picasso that right now he's curled up in the overstuffed armchair of his penthouse suite at the Bellagio, giggling at The Atrocity Exhibition.

Who knew such an activity could be subtly transformed into a bit of media jamming performance art? MJ's continued pushing of the boundaries of the new weird, straddling some unexplored territory between late Marlon Brando and The Man Who Fell to Earth, is appreciated. Can you think of a more science fictional figure in the contemporary celebrity landscape?

"My evolution has reached the stage where I must now modify my physical body in order to maintain its harmony with my spiritual self. It took me ten years to achieve racelessness through a combination of skin peels, hair removals, and treatment with pigmentary dyes, but I am confident that I have attained a truly neutral form, simultaneously presenting in all aspects of my anatomy the vestiges of all races and the protean form of a human without race.

"More difficult has been the process of achieving sexlessness. Only six months ago did I recover from Dr. Chandra’s last procedure, which eliminated my masculine and feminine sex characteristics. This has obviated the necessity of clothing, and I have begun to make occasional public performances via audio-visual transmission in my natural form.

"This state of permanent, hairless naturalism requires a certain regimen that is entirely suited to my purposes. A quarter of my day is spent in meditation in the flotation tank conceiving the evolution of my projects. The furniture must all be covered in fine silks or other non-abrasive materials. The doctors, working with my designers, have developed a wonderful cloak of carefully tanned seal skin for my nightly ramblings in the desert. They have also concocted an aromatic balm for my rubdowns by the staff. These aggressive massages are enhanced by the alteration of my nerves, which allows me to feel pleasure but not pain.

"In time, Dr. Chandra believes that, after the dietary transition is complete, I will be able to cease production of bodily waste. This will enable him to begin the next stage of my physical transformation: my ascendance from worldly humanity into a truly universal being. He is already working on the gradual elimination of color and contrast from my eyes, and tapering back my ears and nose. The goal is a complete streamlining of my features — metamorphosing me into an abstract model of molten, Promethean gold, both proto-human and super-human."

-- from "Immaculate Perception," in Argosy # 3, Spring 2005.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Song of the Teakettle

I have a new teakettle. It's the whistling kind. This particular teakettle is an unpredictable singer, often overcome by shyness, laryngitis or an insufficient head of steam. But sometimes it does sing, with a strong sustained tone, not so high as to be shrill; a tone pleasant to the ear. Thanks to teakettle engineering, an inanimate object sings.

You could say that human beings are the way the universe's inanimate matter finds its singing voice, in everything from teakettles to pipe organs. We're also the way the universe marvels at itself. And the way it emotes about itself. That's part of our job description as sentient beings: to inject meaning and song into things, to reflect on the cosmos. To make wonders.

Then there are—especially at this time of year—our holiday lawn ornaments. I suspect that they may be the universe laughing at itself. How else to explain a serried flock of lawn flamingos, each wearing a little red flannel cap trimmed with cotton, in a harness made of colored lights, pulling Santa in a sleigh?

And then, there is a certain small, shiny, orange, gold-capped aerosol can which recently appeared in the Library's basement Ladies' restroom. That restroom is frequented by Library staff. The counter is often graced by surplus hand lotion or other smellgood, unwanted at home but too pricey to toss out. The gold-capped aerosol can is Pumpkin Concentrated Fragrance Spray. It's concentrated, all right. After I made an experimental squirt in the air in front of the sink, the scent clung to my clothing and reeked there. It is the most determinedly cloying fragrance I've ever encountered.

Could this shiny little device be the universe, via human inventiveness, playing a practical joke on itself?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Mr. Speaker, end this discrimination against cyborgs!

I have never been a baseball fan (and not much of a sports fan generally). So maybe that's why, when I read about the findings of the Mitchell report yesterday detailing the pervasive use of performance-enhancing drugs among major league baseball players, I am nonplussed and kind of puzzled.

My reaction is to say, aren't we all pharmaceutically-enhanced, biomechanically assisted, technologically mediated cyborgs anymore? Do the distinctions made by the Powers that Be between certain kinds of medical performance interventions really hold up the the scrutiny of any kind of analytical rigor? If I can have all my joints replaced, and my pain tranquilized, why can't I pump up my hormone levels? Okay, sure, there's a legitimate difference between injury repair that never fully restores function that was once there, and artificial biochemical enhancement using drugs that can kill administered by underground physicians (you've got to admit, there's a kind of compelling narrative zing to the idea of the underground physician that performs medico-scientific sorcery for people outside the law). But at its heart, isn't this all a bunch of nostalgic Field of Dreams fantasy? Don't you suppose that athletes have *always* used whatever was available to help them win? Opportunity is not exculpation, and I'm glad to see a set of rules and ethical principles being enforced at last. But the pervasiveness of the violations shows the extent to which it was implicitly endorsed by the authorities.

And for a professional sport that has so completely whored itself to capital to express shock at the corrupting effect dangling obscene amounts of money in front of athletes has, and to indict the athletes while continuing to tolerate the moral debasement inherent in such a system? The essence of hypocrisy, in my view.

Interestingly, while today's headlines were incubating, I was working on a story for this weekend's Turkey City Writer's Workshop, which postulates in the backstory of one supporting character what I consider a more likely ultimate outcome:

"Crile scratched his silvery buzzcut, flexing a bicep that pulsed with the texture of manufactured tendons and polymerically enhanced blood vessels. He was one of the alpha generation of real celebrity cyborgs, a Texas star college quarterback who was among the first to go straight to the UFL. The Ultimate Football League was the first to abandon professional athletics’ anachronistic insistence on the prohibition of performance enhancements, be they pharmaceutical, bio-mechanical, or genetically engineered. It was a genius stroke by the founders. The audience was far more interested in superhuman performances than fidelity to nature, and the athletes were addicted to the potential of even greater power. Crile hadn’t played in a decade, but was still a public figure, famous for his stamina in withstanding fifteen-plus years of pounding on behalf of the Los Angeles fans, by defensive linemen morphed into raging anthropomorphic hippos and bipedal Mack trucks made of pink flesh and steel bones."

Now *that* might even get a nerd like me to turn on ESPN.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Where there's glass, there's life

Well, not really. But something has to go in the headline space. What we have here is a patch of pure silica on Mars which most likely formed in wet conditions hospitable to life.
SAN FRANCISCO - Researchers using NASA's twin Mars rovers are sorting
out two possible origins for one of Spirit's most important discoveries,
while also getting Spirit to a favorable spot for surviving the next
Martian winter.

The puzzle is what produced a patch of nearly pure silica -- the main
ingredient of window glass -- that Spirit found last May. It could have
come from either a hot-spring environment or an environment called a
fumarole, in which acidic steam rises through cracks. On Earth, both of
these types of settings teem with microbial life.

"Whichever of those conditions produced it, this concentration of silica
is probably the most significant discovery by Spirit for revealing a
habitable niche that existed on Mars in the past," said Steve Squyres of
Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for the rovers'
science payload. "The evidence is pointing most strongly toward
fumarolic conditions, like you might see in Hawaii and in Iceland.
Compared with deposits formed at hot springs, we know less about how
well fumarolic deposits can preserve microbial fossils. That's something
needing more study here on Earth."

Is it just me, or does it seem that every week a new discovery and/or interpretation of Mars rules out the possibility of the planet ever having been warm and wet, only to be followed a week later by additional data that suggests the place was lousy with water? Olivine, hematite... each study contradicts the next, apparently. What do you want to bet that when all is said and done, these disparate pockets of observations and evidence all turn out to be correct in some manner of speaking?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Stockhausen ist Tod

Gute reise.

NYT reports:

Karlheinz Stockhausen, Influential Composer and Avant-Garde Guru, Dies at 79

Published: December 8, 2007

Karlheinz Stockhausen, an original and influential German composer who began his career as an inventor of new musical systems and ended it making operas to express his spiritual vision of the cosmos, died on Wednesday at his home in Kuerten-Kettenberg, Germany. He was 79.

His death was announced on Friday by the Stockhausen Foundation; no cause was disclosed.

Mr. Stockhausen had secured his place in music history by the time he was 30. He had taken a leading part in the development of electronic music, and his early instrumental compositions similarly struck out in new directions, in terms of their formal abstraction, rhythmic complexity and startling sound.

More recently, he made news for his public reaction to the attack on the World Trade Center. Not widely known outside the modern-music world in 2001, he became infamous for calling the attack “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos.” His comments drew widespread outrage, and he apologized, saying that his allegorical remarks had been misunderstood.


Too bad they got him to waffle on that unspeakable truth.

Stockhausen always mainlined the Zeitgeist with more honest fidelity more than most contemporary composers, in my view. Witness the amazing Helikopter Streichquartett (Helicopter String Quartet), the performance of which requires:

- One string quartet
- 4 helicopters with pilots
- 4 sound technicians
- 4 television transmitters
- 4 x 3 sound transmitters
- 1 auditorium with 4 columns of televisions and 4 columns of loudspeakers
- 1 sound projectionist with mixing console
- 1 moderator (ad lib.)

Video (mandatory - ~2 minutes, and you will definitely get the idea): The Austrian Ensemble for New Music performing the Helikopter Streichquartett with military helicopters over Salzburg in 2003.

The composer's explanation, from the liner notes of the Arditti cd:

"Early in 1991 I received a commission from Professor Hans Landesmann of the Salzburger Festspiele to compose a strong quartet. The Arditti Quartet was to play the world premiere in 1994.

"And then I had a dream: I heard and saw four string players in four helicopters flying in the air and playing. At the same time I saw people on the ground seated in an audio-visual hall, others were standing outdoors on a large public plaza. In front of them, four towers of television screens and loudspeakers had been set up: at the left, half-left, half-right, right. At each of the four positions one of the four string players could be heard and seen in close-up.

"Most of the time, the string players played tremoli which blended so well with the timbres and the rhythms of the rotor blades that the helicopters sounded like musical instruments."

That's my kind of dream.

If you want to stage your own performance, here are the composer's instructions, again from the liner notes of the Arditti cd:

"A performance is staged the following way:

"First, the four string players are introduced to the audience by a moderator -- who may also be the sound projectionist. He briefly describes the technical aspects of the forthcoming performance. Then, the players walk to the helicopters -- or are driven there -- while being constantly followed by video cameras which transmit to the television monitors. The moderator (at the mixing console) explains over the loudspeakers what is happening.

"From their embarkation into the helicopters until they disembark, each string player and his helicopter is transmitted via camera, television transmitter, three microphones and sound transmitters to his *own* group of monitors for the audience. Each string player should be constantly audible and always visible close-up -- face, hands, bow, instrument -- without any camera changes and without the fading in of other pictures.

"Behind each player, the earth can be seen through the glass cockpit of the helicopter. The ascent lasts about 5 minutes from the ignition of the turbines to bar 1. Until the world premiere, the measured music of the score (starting at bar 1) lasted 18 1/2 minutes. Due to a later addition, it now lasts circa 21 1/2 minutes. Descent and landing last about 5 minutes each.

"The microphone transmission from each helicopter should be such that the sounds of the rotor blades and that of the instrument blend well, and the instrument is heard *slightly* louder. To achieve this, at least 3 microphones per helicopter are necessary: 1 contact microphone on the bridge of the instrument, 1 microphone in front of the mouth of the player, and 1 microphone outside the helicopter which clearly picks up the sounds and *rhythms of the rotor blades.*

"The 4 x 3 microphone signals can be transmitted by 12 individual transmitters -- possibly via satellite relay -- and received at the concert hall as well as at further localities, then balanced and mixed to 4 mono signals at a mixing console using 4 x 3 faders.

"From the moment the synchronous playing begins (0'00") until it ends (21'37.8"), the four helicopters circle within a radius of circa 6 km above the performance venue, individually varying their flying altitudes. They should fly so high that the direct sound of the rotor blades is much softer than the sound coming from the loudspeakers, or even better, inaudible.

"After the landing, cameras follow the the string players and the four pilots as they disembark from the helicopters and walk (ride) to the concert hall. Once in the auditorium, the pilots are also introduced by the moderator. The players and pilots are asked about their experiences, and finally the audience is invited to participate in the discussion. In the afternoon, at least three flights should take place in succession with an appropriate period of time between flights, and with different audiences.

"The composition is thought-structured to the tenth of a second. The players are sychronized using a click-track which is transmitted up to them in the helicopters, and which they hear over earphones. Since the four strong players usually tremolo in criss-crossing glissandi, I had to draw their pitch lines and curves on top of one another in four colours, so that the melody trajectories could be followed."

We are organizing a special holiday performance here in Austin later this month, with the only variation being that the string players will wear the attire of Santa Claus and three of his elves.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Goodbye Nest Smell

Loss can be like a meteor crater on the landscape of your life: the unwelcome footprint of a destructive force of nature, but with fascinating scientific and aesthetic details.

My mother has Alzheimer's. She's declining—a graceful synonym for her mind falling apart around her. I recently spent a very busy two weeks orchestrating her move into assisted living. For her to continue to live in her house alone was not a good idea. The assisted living facility offers the kind of social life, structured activities, nourishing food, and daily oversight that may give my mother's final years some real quality of life. She won't accidentally burn down the house; won't fall down in the house or yard and lie hurt for hours. Not attempting to manage her own finances, she won't make mistakes of judgment to the effect of hundreds or thousands of dollars. She wanted to stay in Columbus, Georgia, and that is a good idea. She had friends and family and she knows the climate and the birds there. She won't feel uprooted like she would if I insisted that she come to Houston where I live.

The down side—one of them—is that my mother moving to assisted living means I lose my ancestral home. I'd wondered what her house would be like after a year of being inhabited by a person with Alzheimer's. Well, when I went back to Columbus for Thanksgiving, the housekeeping was poor, and the clutter worse than ever, but the "nest smell" still the same. It's a comfortable olfactory fabric woven out of the scents of an old wooden frame house plus the cleaning agents, laundry detergent, and air fresheners my mom has used for years, and her favorite perfume. I think the nest smell of her house is very much like what I knew in my early years, when my grandmother lived with us, in a different but similar rented house in the same neighborhood. In the next few months I'll have to clean out and sell the house. In the end I'll miss that nest smell. And miss the battered but long-familiar furniture in my old bedroom, and the self-respecting blue-collar neighborhood with trees much taller than the homes, pine-tree-tinged breezes, and firefly summer nights.

I feel lucky that my mother stayed put in the neighborhood where I grew up, in the same kind of house, and even kept of lot of the stuff that was there in my grandmother's day. Every time I visited her for decades, I got to greet all of that. American society is terribly transient. When children are relocated, either elsewhere after a divorce, or up the ladder of increasingly respectable housing as the family prospers, or from one state to another in the wake of parental job changes, it may not occur to anyone to help the kids say goodbye to the old place. Then it's gone for good. I have very few friends who can ever experience the same light, the same trees, some of the old furniture, and the nest smell of childhood. In losing our early places, many of us are like refugees from a past we can never go home to. People whose families fled from wars in Bosnia or Viet Nam lost whole countries along with their childhood homes. No wonder it can be a profoundly emotional experience for them to return to visit relatives years later. Americans, though, have a real knack for just casually misplacing the places of childhood.

Speaking of saying goodbye, I said goodbye to my mother several months ago, in a dream, while I was staying with friends in Tulsa. What an odd place and time for a heartfelt goodbye. But Alzheimer's is a long stair-stepping slide downhill, and it can be hard to pinpoint when you lose the person. In my mother's case it's particularly hard to say when I lost her. In a way I lost her when I was three, and she was 38, when she divorced my father and spiraled down into a quarter-century of depression and social withdrawal. After she retired from teaching school, though, she came back to life. She took up walking and dancing. She made friends. She never regained enough emotional competence to be good at mothering, but I am profoundly glad that she was a social human being for a full twenty years of retirement. As her best friend puts it, my mother "came out of her shell" in her old age.

Last December was when her Alzheimer's became obvious and scary. Was that when I lost her (again?) Not exactly. In the twelve months since then, during which my first novel was published, she became more cognizant and more supportive of my writing career than ever in my entire life. Granted it's easier to conceptualize my daughter wrote a book than my daughter has been writing short stories, novelettes, and articles and doing editing and teaching creative writing for years. But the whole emotional tone of her feelings about me, or at any rate the feelings that she was able to express, changed enormously. During the past year she informed as much of the world as she had the opportunity to talk to that I has written a book and she was proud of me. She also told me—on the phone, while I was in Tulsa, before my goodbye dream—that I'm a smart, hard-working and ambitious woman. A lot of my friends over the years might vouch for that, but I'd never heard such words from my mother's lips in my entire existence. For decades, her favorite line in dialog with me was "Are you OK?" (Yes, dammit, and in fact I'm usually better than just OK!)

Did the Alzheimer's knock out some of the dysfunctional circuitry in her brain? Maybe. One of my friends had such an experience. After her entire lifetime of being unfavorably compared to an older sister, their Alzheimer's-afflicted mother somehow turned into the sympathetic, companionable mother my friend had always yearned for. It's a mysterious malady, Alzheimer's. It inexorably destroys the brain and it blasts an emotional crater of loss in the hearts of loved ones. Yet it has intriguing and, very rarely, wonderful details.

Anyone who's responsible for an aging parent or friend should get the book ELDERCARE 911 by Susan Beerman and Judith Rappaport-Musson (Prometheus Books, 2002.) It's authoritative yet compassionate, and tremendously helpful. Another remarkable book is Aging with Grace by David Snowdon (Bantam, 2001.) Snowdon is the scientist who conducted the Nun Study of aging brains. The Nun Study brought fame to Snowdon, but in reading his book one gathers that working with the elderly religious humanized him.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Won't you blog about this song?

This one's for Chris Nakashima-Brown, who I suspect hasn't had his dose of pop-culture overkill today. Behold, the Richter Scales:

I particularly like the Firefox crop circle...

Of bishops and compasses

If you're like me (and really, who isn't?) your jaw dropped to the floor and you went ga-ga over the lush, juicy visuals and copious worldbuilding that literally oozed from every frame. Will the film be any good? Will it be faithful to the books? I have no idea, but I knew from the first shot of that golden zeppelin flying over the city that this movie would be a priority for me.

But wait, you say. Isn't this movie raving anti-Catholic propaganda? That's what William Donohue of the Catholic League says:
"New Line Cinema and Scholastic Entertainment have paired to produce 'The Golden Compass,' a children's fantasy that is based on the first book of a trilogy by militant English atheist Philip Pullman. The trilogy, His Dark Materials, was written to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism. The target audience is children and adolescents. Each book becomes progressively more aggressive in its denigration of Christianity and promotion of atheism: The Subtle Knife is more provocative than The Golden Compass and The Amber Spyglass is the most in-your-face assault on Christian sensibilities of the three volumes.

"Atheism for kids. That is what Philip Pullman sells. It is his hope that 'The Golden Compass,' which stars Nicole Kidman and opens December 7, will entice parents to buy his trilogy as a Christmas gift."

Well, gosh. I guess I'd better not see it then. After all, who's more of a moral authority than William Donohue? Certainly not the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for which the film was recently screened:
Whatever author Pullman's putative motives in writing the story, writer-director Chris Weitz's film, taken purely on its own cinematic terms, can be viewed as an exciting adventure story with, at its core, a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism.

To the extent, moreover, that Lyra and her allies are taking a stand on behalf of free will in opposition to the coercive force of the Magisterium, they are of course acting entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching. The heroism and self-sacrifice that they demonstrate provide appropriate moral lessons for viewers.

There is, admittedly, a spirit of rebellion and stark individualism pervading the story. Lyra is continually drawn to characters who reject authority in favor of doing as they please. Equally, only by defying the powers that be, can a scientist like Lord Asriel achieve progress. Pullman is perhaps drawing parallels to the Catholic Church's restrictive stance towards the early alchemists and, later, Galileo.

Later in the review:
Will seeing this film inspire teens to read the books, which many have found problematic? Rather than banning the movie or books, parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.

The religious themes of the later books may be more prominent in the follow-up films which Weitz has vowed will be less watered down. For now, this film -- altered, as it is, from its source material -- rates as intelligent and well-crafted entertainment.

What a novel idea--parents discussing books and ideas with their children! Who would ever have thought of such a thing? Apparently, such concepts are foreign to Donohue, who seems to view any concept outside of his personal belief system a threat to universal harmony. In a few years, when they're old enough to express interest in reading the Golden Compass books (or disinterest, as the case may be) I won't have a moment's hesitation in letting my children do so. In fact, I'll encourage it--and not because I'm an atheist (Catholic, actually, which I suppose in some circles is viewed as equally suspect).

Last Christmas season, I was reading Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, along with Lost Scriptures which included fragments of Gnostic gospels, orthodox yet non-Biblical early church writings and the like. I eat this stuff up, you see, and Ehrman's an engaging writer even if he does tend to be a little superficial at times. Around this time, one of my wife's friends stopped by for a visit. A nice enough person, but very conservative in her religious views. Fundamentalist, I believe, although we've never actually discussed it. She viewed my reading material with an undisguised mix of bafflement and horror.

"Why are you reading that?" she asks.

I explained that I found the changes in meanings, the changes in actual words through error and intent, the lost context of many passages--all of this was fascinating to me. I was disappointed that Ehrman discussed the origins and source material of the Gospels without once mentioning the elusive "Q" document, but the long and short of it is that these books give me a deeper understanding of my belief tradition.

"I could never do," she answered. "If there were mistakes in the Bible, I couldn't believe anymore."

That statement, unadorned, unelaborated, yet absolute, dumbfounded me. That a mis-copied word or a well-meaning but erroneous correction by a weary monk with a cramping hand 1,500 years ago could utterly destroy everything she believes in? Any person with faith that tenuous and fragile has far more serious issues to worry about than a movie with talking polar bears and zeppelin-flying cowboys attacking the notion of God and religion. God (or at least the concept of a supreme deity) has survived far worse slings and arrows over the course of human existence. Personally, I can't think of a better person to watch The Golden Compass with.

I'll even spring for popcorn and drinks. My treat.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Have yourself a very Banksy Christmas

While your local city elders are busy hanging chintz over Main Street,Banksy just hit Bethlehem and spray painted The Wall for your holiday viewing enjoyment. When is he coming to Washington?

Official site here: Santa's Ghetto.

'Bethlehem banks on Banksy to boost tourism'
posted by Rob Maguire on December 3, 2007

'In a creative bid to boost Bethlehem's sagging economy, Banksy has brought his seasonal "Santa's Ghetto" exhibition to this Palestinian town that has seen few tourists in recent years.

'The infamous stencil artist joined several others in creating over a dozen works on the concrete wall surrounding the town, turning a hated symbol of Israeli occupation into an massive open air art gallery. Another dozen or so works are on display in a former chicken shop in Manger Square.

'In more peaceful years more than 100,000 tourists would pour into Bethlehem during the holidays. Last year the town saw a mere tenth of the traffic. Having visited Bethlehem in December a few years back I can personally attest to the recent drought of visitors. With over 70 percent of the workforce depending on tourism, signs of a wounded economy are everywhere.

'“You wouldn’t worry about Christmas becoming too commercial in Bethlehem – they couldn’t afford it. There’s more festive lights in the window of your local Woolworths than you’ll find in this entire town,” Banksy told The London Times. “It would do good if more people came to see the situation here for themselves. If it is safe enough for a bunch of sissy artists then it’s safe enough for anyone.”'

Happiness is a profitable foreclosure

In the signs of the times department, this perky sign for a seminar on how to find financial happiness in the misfortunes of others was seen in the conference lobby of a business hotel in Austin this afternoon. In the post-Hindu caste system of 21st century American capitalism, where do realtors fit?

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The biggest jump

Another ghost of the rapidly receding recent past is gone, suspended eternally mid-jump over the Snake Canyon of the mind.

Video: Evel Knievel jumps Snake River Canyon!

Though Evel Knievel is dead, his action figure will live forever, something about the ingenious engineering of his bike's plastic gearing.

Video: Some kid's butt-kicking action figure sidewalk jump videos.

The Invisible War

Today's NYT reports the latest on James Stevenson, the Galveston bird-lover tried for shooting a cat, now apparently being pursued by cat-loving assassins.

'Texas: Bird-Watcher Leaves State
Published: December 1, 2007

'A prominent bird-watcher who was tried for shooting a cat to death said he left the state after someone shot at him. The bird-watcher, James M. Stevenson, founder of the Galveston Ornithological Society, said he had received death threats since his trial on animal cruelty charges. A judge declared a mistrial last month when the jury failed to reach a verdict. Mr. Stevenson told the police that he was standing on his porch Wednesday when someone shot at him. In his trial, Mr. Stevenson admitted shooting the cat but defended the action because he believed it was threatening endangered birds.'

As reported earlier, Stevenson, a leading regional amateur ornithologist, shot a cat under a toll bridge in an effort to save piping plovers who liked to hang out in the same shallow spot:

'Mr. Stevenson, 54, does not deny using a .22-caliber rifle fitted with a scope to kill the cat, which lived under the San Luis Pass toll bridge, linking Galveston to the mainland. He also admits killing many other cats on his own property, where he operates a bed and breakfast for some of the estimated 500,000 birders who come to the island every year.

'In her opening statement, Paige L. Santell, a Galveston County assistant district attorney, told the jury of eight women and four men that Mr. Stevenson “shot that animal in cold blood” and that the cat died a slow and painful death “gurgling on its own blood.”

'She said that the cat had a name, Mama Cat, and that though the cat lived under a toll bridge, she was fed and cared for by a toll collector, John Newland. He is expected to testify.

'Whether the cat was feral is the crucial point in this case. Mr. Stevenson was indicted under a state law that prohibited killing a cat “belonging to another.” Prompted by this case, the law was changed on Sept. 1 to include all cats, regardless of ownership.

'Ms. Santell argued that because Mr. Newland had named, fed and given the cat bedding and toys, the cat belonged to him and was not feral.

'Mr. Stevenson’s lawyer, Tad Nelson, admitted in his opening statement that his client went to the San Luis Pass toll bridge with “an intent to kill.” but that he had planned to kill a wild animal that was preying on endangered piping plovers. “This man has dedicated his whole life to birds,” Mr. Nelson said, pointing at Mr. Stevenson.

'The case has prompted emotional commentary on the Internet. Cat enthusiast blogs have called Mr. Stevenson a “murderous fascist” and a “diabolical monster.” Birding blogs have defended his right to dispense with a “terrible menace” and have set up funds to help pay for his defense.

'In an interview in a courthouse elevator during a break in the trial, Mr. Stevenson said heatedly that cat fanciers who have condemned him and sent him hateful correspondence “think birds are nothing but sticks.” “This is about wild species disappearing from your planet,” he said, adding, “I did what I had to do.”'

"I did what I had to do." And now have to flee the state, a fugitive from unknown snipers. Posing interesting questions about just how it is we are supposed to interact with, and intervene in, the dysfunctional ecology we have created.

This war between cats and songbirds continues, in your backyard. And only one side is armed. Have you taken a side?

I am a bird-lover myself. But I also love the groovy cat that shares my house, a Brooklyn stray now fat and happy after her transplant to balmy Austin. In the mornings I always find mysterious downy feathers in the yard.

Should I care? Isn't the interaction between these species the essence of what's natural? I understand, domestic cats are a byproduct of man's interaction with nature over the millennia. But haven't we also had a huge impact on the urban bird population? Isn't it a typical expression of our hubris to think that our degenerative impact on our local ecology can best be corrected by our further intervention? We are His stewards, right? Do you buy it? No easy answers.

As biodiversity continues to decline, one can foresee the emergence of secret bands of armed humans serving as self-appointed vigilante guardians of of the species that would otherwise be left to fight it out with each other. Al Catta. I may take on the chipmunks as my personal project. Or the voles, who tunnel in the thick weedy grass under freeway bridges.

For some reason this imbroglio brings to mind the amazing work of the brilliant comics artist Anders Nilsen. I recently discovered his work through Biq Questions #10, a beautiful bit of graphic slipstream in which a dazed human interacts with the detritus of his civilization and the sarcastic observations of the hardier avians that live off our trash. And are especially keen on donuts.

Check out this PDF excerpt from Big Questions #9, then spend some time watching what's really happening in your yard and your alley, and consider what your role in it is, and what those other creatures might be thinking about.