Sunday, December 26, 2010

Full Mental Jack

The internet has no shortage of armchair theoreticians examining the subtextual undercurrents of Stanley Kubrick films. I'm but one of many, but I'm the least dogmatic one I know; most of the leading Kubrick online "experts" have a tendency to indulge in wild speculation out of left field, then insist that their interpretation is absolutely right. Do a little digging and you'll find whole clusters of internet assholes arguing bitterly about what Kubrick really must have meant in his films, like medieval monks fighting over how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.

But Kubrick wasn't supporting any of these guys' interpretations when he was alive, and he sure isn't supporting them now.

I merely present these disassociated fragments for what they are: puzzling evidence from Full Metal Jacket. What do you make of this, Professor?

* Satan. According to several online sources, the Vietnamese phrase "TIếP TụC PHụNG Sự QUỷ NGÀI" seen on a building during a battle scene, means "To continuously serve Satan, your excellency." Given that there's already been some conspiratorial rumblings about Kubrick's fascination with Satanism, this would seem to be a wakeup call to assess Full Metal Jacket with the same scrutiny as The Shining, even though on the face of it the film appears to be a completely normal war flick, even by Kubrick standards.

In an early draft of Kubrick's script, Hartman says, "Have you seen the light? The white light? The great light? The guiding light? Do you have the vision?" And as you should already know, Lucifer is known as "the light bringer".

Further occult symbolism appears throughout the film, but one of my favorites is the scene where the men are all standing like religious statues out of ancient Egypt, ostensibly for the purpose of having their fingernails examined.

* Changing directions. One of the oddest things about the film is its unconventional plot structure. For the first third of it, the stars of the movie are Private Pyle and Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, and the plot is solely concerned with Pyle's torment by Hartman through basic training. Then something very strange happens: both these main characters die, and the movie takes a hard left turn into following Joker and a newly-added character, Rafterman, into battle.

This theme of "changing direction" pervades the film. Cowboy even says it aloud: "okay, listen up, we're changing direction." In that same scene, there's a shot where Doc Jay is seemingly dragging Eightball's body in the wrong direction, and if you take the time to obsessively map out the line-of-fire trajectory of the female sniper's shots, you'll find that none of it makes internal sense. And if we can claim to know one thing about Kubrick, it's that he was obsessive about such details - so even if something looks like a grievous continuity error, it isn't.

A sign reading "TÂM PHƯƠNG" reportedly translates as "center direction".

* John F. Kennedy. Collative Learning suggests the way the sniper scene was filmed with impossible shots is meant to indicate a subliminal commentary on the Kennedy assassination, and its "magic bullet" that impossibly changes direction. That Hartman mentions JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald earlier in the film, and that Cowboy is from Texas, also supposedly is connected to this. There's a lot of smoke there, but there's some fire.

To this end, I would also note that the magician rabbit stuffed animal that turns out to be a booby-trap could be a reference both to the "trickster rabbit" archetype, which, as we have already examined here, has parallels with Lee Harvey "Ozzie Rabbit" Oswald.

* The Shining. Parallels with The Shining are found aplenty here. Compare the bathroom scenes in both films. Note that subtle placement of images of Snoopy and Mickey Mouse appear in both. And speaking of the "trickster rabbit" archetype again, remember the Bugs Bunny thread running through The Shining. Also note the "indigenous people" subtext of both films (and in FMJ, there's even a scene where a giant graphic of a Native American appears behind Joker's shoulder)

And most important of all, note how Pyle's face begins to morph impossibly into Jack Torrance's, shortly before he puts his rifle in his mouth and commits suicide. (Remember in The Shining when Ullman mentions that the 1970 Grady did exactly the same thing?)

Is Pyle, in fact, demonically possessed? He certainly looks like it. And when he says "I am in a world of shit", it could be another subtle Kubrick joke (he is, after all, in the restroom and his name is Pyle) but it could also mean that he is in literally in Hell. Note that Hartman uses the same phrase earlier, when he instructs the men that Marines are not allowed to die, and when they do they end up in "a world of shit." At the film's end, the phrase appears for a third time. Joker walks through a hell-like landscape of fire as he acknowledges that he too is now "in a world of shit."

* Unreality. And just like in The Shining, things keep moving around, shifting, changing. Bullet holes disappear and reappear. Buildings change position. A burning Monolith-like structure comes and goes on the battlefield. And Pyle himself impossibly changes his place in line in the film's opening sweep past each of the men. We clearly see him in one place, then he's suddenly in the opposite corner of the room just seconds later.

Consider the notion that these men are actually in a literal netherworld, a purgatory, a Hell: there are a few indicators that maybe none of this real and is only a dream (which is a theory some have applied to The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut as well). When Hartman discovers that Pyle has gone insane, he shouts, "what are you animals doing in my head?"... "Head" being military jargon for toilet, of course. And just prior to this scene, Joker shines his flashlight on Hartman's name and then the word "Head" on the other door, very slowly to make sure we get it.

Perhaps the film should be best summed up by Cowboy's comment to Pyle after they beat him in the middle of an eerie blue-light-tinged night: "Remember, it's just a bad dream."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Temporarily Light

After my previous musings on just what the hell is going on in Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining, I offer some further random thoughts and observations:

If Danny began to channel "Tony" in Nursery School, right about the time he was injured by Jack, that would place his age at around 3 or 4. But Wendy says that right after the incident, Jack gave up drinking and hasn't had a drink in 5 months.

How can the incident have been only 5 months ago? That makes no sense. Danny is clearly about 7 years old. There's no way this child can be only 5 months out of Nursery School. And if it's been only 5 months since his arm was pulled out of its socket, I think he would still be recovering from that.

One way to look at it is to assume that Wendy is simply lying to cover Jack's ass, but she's obviously not doing a very good job and she can't get her story straight. And when she lights her cigarette, note how her hand is trembling with theatrical nervousness. But why would she even admit to the incident and bring it up in the first place?

Consider when Jack is seated at the bar and confesses of the arm-dislocation incident to Lloyd, he speaks of it as being three years ago. And yet, he also reiterates Wendy's confused timeline about having given up alcohol 5 months ago. From this, we may infer that Jack has actually harmed Danny more than once.

Clearly, the timespace dilation that is causing discrepancies throughout the events of the film is also at play here. I think by the point Jack is drinking at the bar, he has his feet in two different points in time, perhaps even two different universes. It may be that one of these incidents he speaks of was actually committed in a previous life.

The case of Grady and his two daughters is similarly puzzling. We're told at first by Ullman that a man named Charles Grady killed his wife and two daughters with an axe in 1970. But most people who watch The Shining never even notice that when we think we're meeting him as a butler who spills Advocaat on Jack, we're actually meeting Delbert Grady, who cannot be the same man as Charles. Delbert is part of the 1921 crowd who manifest to Jack repeatedly, and is theoretically the father of the two twin girls in Alice in Wonderland-like dresses look like they're from that time period. So we have two different men named Grady who axed their families - one in 1921 and one in 1970.

Actually, we may have three different incidents, because the newspaper article that Jack reads in the Overlook Hotel scrapbook he finds (you can see it in the foreground beside his typewriter in the scene when he's telling Wendy not to interrupt his writing) says that Delbert Grady hacked them up "into little pieces" with the ax. But as Danny sees in the apparition of the twin girls in blue, they are fully intact, though dead from abdominal wounds. And consider that Ullman already told us that Charles Grady didn't leave his victims laying out in a hallway, he "stacked them neatly in one of the rooms". So what the heck?

Is this related, then, to the reason why two, possibly three, different naked women appear in the bathroom of Room 237? (One young, one old, and then there's seemingly a variant old one with shorter hair.)

With any other director - even Hitchcock - I would chalk these matters up to carelessness, sloppiness, and mere continuity errors. But we all know that Stanley Kubrick, the greatest obsessive-compulsive control freak in the history of motion pictures, left absolutely no detail thoroughly unresearched and exercised fanatical control over the placement of every word spoken and every picture hung. The man spent over a year picking out drapes and carpeting for this film; it's no wonder he only made a handful of films after "Spartacus".

Another sign of timespace dilation: watch when Jack walks down the hallway towards the Gold Room after Wendy accuses him of strangling Danny. Right after he says "me??" to himself, we can see his reflection appear on a mirror on the left hand side. Moments later, as he walks on, his reflection appears again in a second mirror, but not the third. If you watch this scene over and over - pause it at the reflection moments to study it closely - you can see that it is not possible for Jack's reflection to appear in those mirrors at the points that they do. I don't even know how Kubrick did the shot, unless there are some well placed mirrors hovering from the dolly as it rolls backward to film the shot. And when Wendy rolls the dining tray down the same hallway earlier in the film, there are no such impossible reflections.

Jack's hair and his typewriter both change color in the course of the film.

Does all of this mean anything, or is Kubrick just messing with us? Both, maybe.

The Satanic undercurrent in the film - which goes over the heads of most casual viewers - is practically shouted from the rootops. Jack's Baphomet pose in the photograph at film's end; his reference to his "employers" and the "contract" he signed with them, which would jeopardize his future if broken; Lloyd's hints that they are in either in hell, purgatory, or some sort of timespace-limbo where "your money is no good here"... and don't forget Lloyd's ominous reference to "the house".

Jack seems to be entering this world more and more as the movie progresses. Whereas only Lloyd manifests to him in his first bar sighting, the entire ballroom and all its patrons appear to him the second time. And these people are real, not spectral ghosts - real enough that Grady can spill Advocaat all over Jack, help him wipe it off, and then unlock the door of the storeroom to let him out. Tony and Hallorann's false assurance that these people aren't real indicates that they don't know everything that's happening here.

The Advocaat that Grady spills, by the way, is surely one of Kubrick's little jokes that he inserts into his films. Since this is apparently Satan's hotel, and the drinks come "from the house", then what Grady is bearing is "the Devil's Advocaat". Get it?

Advocaat, by the way, is a liqueur made from eggs, and eggs are well known as a symbol for the soul (as referenced by another cinema Satan in the film "Angel Heart".) Eggs also appear when Jack is eating them sunny-side-up while staring at his own reflection in bed.

Finally, I think it's interesting to note that Jack's Volkswagen in the original book was red, and Kubrick changed it to an egg-yolk yellow (the same color as Kubrick's typewriter from which all of this was conjured). And if you look closely at the car wreck that Hallorann slows down to observe as he makes his way in the Snowcat, a red Volkswagen has been totalled by an overturned semi-truck. Is this, as some have joked, Kubrick's little "fuck you" to Stephen King (who was unhappy with all the changes he made to his story)? Or is it meant to suggest that we're seeing a momentary convergence of parallel universes, and that this is literally the book version of Jack, Wendy and Danny?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Don César de Bazan

Who the heck was Don César de Bazan?

As a character, he first appeared in the Victor Hugo play Ruy Blas in 1838. For some reason, this side character became the star of a play titled Don César de Bazan by Adolphe d'Ennery and in a different production also called Don César de Bazan by Jules Massenet. And finally, from that opera came another, grander one called Maritana which then became the standard-bearer for the Don Cesar story.

A man named Thomas Rowe (the same guy as the Australian architect? I'm not sure) was so obsessed with Maritana that he built Florida's Don CeSar palace in its honor.

But why all this fixation about this Don Cesar guy? Was he a real person? How did this side-character from a failed Victor Hugo play end up having such a lasting reverberation through the 19th and early 20th centuries? It's like if a whole theatrical cult of Mercutio had splintered off into a life of its own - which maybe, some say, Shakespeare in fact did by pinching him from The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.

(Photo above: cigar box illustration promoting Maritana.)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Arsenic Factor

Some citizens are astonishingly blasé about it, but the announcement made today by NASA is nothing short of explosive. A new form of bacteria discovered in California's Mono Lake - called GFAJ-1 - has a different DNA structure than any life form ever known to exist on Earth, and ever thought possible.

This new form of bacteria replaces phosphorus at the DNA level with arsenic, and as C-Net notes:

That would distinguish it from every other form of life known to man, all of which, no matter how diverse, is comprised of the same six elements, phosphorus, sulfur, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. But the bacteria found in Mono Lake--which is known for its unusual chemistry, including very high levels of salinity, alkalinity, and arsenic--is made partly of arsenic, and has no phosphorus in its DNA.

This puts a new slant on everything.

Now that we can throw out the long-held tenet that all life in the Universe is made of the same six components, we have to start all over again in our examination of planets, exoplanets, moons, asteroids, comets and what-have-you, and reassess the possibility of life on them. Jupiter, for example, has an abundance of arsenic in its composition. Until today, the official scientific party line would have been that life as we know it could never exist there. And now, it could be possible that something like GFAJ-1 could thrive in pockets of Jovian arsenic.

And it doesn't stop at arsenic. The floodgates are open now to argue that other combinations of elements could conceivably make up new kinds of DNA that most scientists hadn't even imagined until now. (Of course, Star Trek had it right back in 1966 when they posited life based on other elements instead of carbon.)

My question is, how did this bizarre new bacteria manage to survive in Mono Lake without being noticed up till now? Is the possibility not a large one that it got here extraterrestrially via a meteorite or something?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Accept the Mystery

"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." - Rashi.

I recently rewatched the Coen Brothers film A Serious Man for the first time since its Blu-Ray/DVD release back in February, and enjoyed it much more this time out. The Coens have always been merchants of misanthropy, but it was just so intense and over-the-top in this film that I could barely stand to watch it.

Re-appraising it over the weekend, however, I managed to tune out the bulk of the film - consisting mostly of scene after scene after scene of harassment and humiliation heaped on lead character Larry Gopnik - and focus on the subtle goodies sprinkled lightly throughout. The periphery is always where the most interesting stuff happens in Coen films anyway, but you really have to mine for it a little harder in A Serious Man.

The film opens with a seemingly non-sequitur bit about a Jewish couple (Velvel and Dora) about a hundred years ago. They are visited in the middle of a dark and snowy night by a man claiming to be Reb Groshkover. Dora, aghast, insists the man must be a Dybbuk because she knows the real Groshkover is dead.

(In Jewish tradition, a Dybbuk is a possessing spirit that floats around seeking bodies to attach itself to and inhabit, like a virus and its host. The word itself literally means "attachment".)

Dora stabs him in the sternum with an icepick, and it appears at first that her superstitious theory is true: Groshkover has virtually no reaction to the stabbing, and in fact laughs heartily at her. Just before he gets up to leave (saying "one knows when one is not wanted"), however, we see a pool of blood forming around the icepick that is still protruding from his chest. Groshkover disappears into the night, and the couple still disagree on whether this was a Dybbuk or not. Since the scene ends there, we will never know - was he or wasn't he?

This places Dora and Velvel's mysterious visitor in the same unknowable Eigenstate as Schrödinger's Cat, the example commonly used to illustrate the Copenhagen Interpretation and the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics.

Gopnik, later in the film, actually gives his students a lesson on Schrödinger's Cat, and points out to them the futility of trying to truly know anything - even as he expects them to study the subject and subsequently take a test on it. Gopnik clearly seems incapable of applying the lesson of Schrödinger's Cat to his own life - two different people in the course of the film urge him to just "accept the mystery", and he just doesn't get it.

Gopnik's brother Arthur, meanwhile, is an idiot savant who lives with him and spends all his time working on a mysterious document he calls The Mentaculus. Arthur believes that the Mentaculus, when completed, will be the end-all, be-all, unified field theory of everything in the Universe. Gopnik largely ignores him, and wishes he'd just get his own apartment and go away. But we see hints that Arthur is actually on to something: Arthur applies his theories to gambling, and in so doing becomes quite successful at it. Seemingly he really can predict the future with his Mentaculus and its "probability map", but he's too socially inept and withdrawn to harness this knowledge properly.

At one point, Gopnik interestingly uses the phrase "bolt from the blue" to describe the upheavals in his life, and says "everything I thought was one way turn out to be another." And at another point, a Rabbi uses the phrase "right where you are sitting now" in the course of telling a convoluted story with no apparent point, about a dentist who thinks he sees the words "help me" (עִזרוּ לִ) in Hebrew on the teeth of a patient.

At film's end (sorry about the spoiler, but the movie has been out for well over a year now) we're left with another unresolved Schrödinger's Cat. Gopnik gets a call from his doctor that he needs to come in immediately for a serious discussion about his X-ray results. The doctor then repeats and underscores the seriousness of it by stressing that Gopnik must come in to see him right now.

Meanwhile, across town, we see Gopnik's son staring at a tornado headed directly for him as his teacher is unable to get the storm shelter door open.

Fade to black. Credits.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


I always knew I was the center of the Universe, and now Robert Lanza agrees.

Lanza's book Biocentrism, which contends that human consciousness is what is really determining the shaping of reality - is making waves in the media lately. Even Huffington Post is all over the concept now, giving Lanza ample space to drop some science:

Cosmologists propose that the universe was until recently a lifeless collection of particles bouncing against each other. It's presented as a watch that somehow wound itself up, and that will unwind in a semi-predictable way. But they've shunted a critical component of the cosmos out of the way because they don't know what to do with it. This component, consciousness, isn't a small item. It's an utter mystery, which we think has somehow arisen from molecules and goo.

Lanza goes on to enumerate in great detail how extremely unlikely it is that the Universe could have formed in such a way that made conditions just right for this spiral arm of the Milky Way to have formed this planet whose conditions are just right for hosting human life and that we happen to have "evolved" here at just the right time to take advantage of it, despite a long chain of factors and variables that make all of the above statistically near-impossible to have occurred in sequence.

Does it mean that the "Creationists" are right after all? Or does it mean mankind is just the luckiest critter in the Universe?

Lanza says no to both - Lanza says that we dodged all those dangers of the physical world because we were here first and we are shaping reality as we go along - "we" being life itself, the life force, the whatever-you-want-to-call-it that is really piloting these golems of flesh and bone we're lumbering around in, that St. Francis of Assisi referred to as "Brother Ass". Though human consciousness may or may not carry greater weight in that reality-creation, life means life, and that includes not only you and me, but all life, even yeast, fungi, and microscopic dust mites.

Lanza isn't the first to propose these ideas, of course - not by any means - and some previous blazers of these trails have expressed them more elegantly, in fact. But by building on the works of those pioneering thinkers who came before him, Lanza is having some success at entering these radical ideas into the mainstream at a time when even our grandparents are finally just starting to have an inkling of the ramifications of quantum physics.

His view of Biocentric Cosmology can be broken down into seven basic principles:

1. What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness. An "external" reality, if it existed, would by definition have to exist in space. But this is meaningless, because space and time are not absolute realities but rather tools of the human and animal mind.

2. Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined. They are different sides of the same coin and cannot be divorced from one another.

3. The behavior of subatomic particles, indeed all particles and objects, is inextricably linked to the presence of an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they at best exist in an undetermined state of probability waves.

4. Without consciousness, "matter" dwells in an undetermined state of probability. Any universe that could have preceded consciousness only existed in a probability state.

5. The structure of the universe is explainable only through biocentrism. The universe is fine-tuned for life, which makes perfect sense as life creates the universe, not the other way around. The "universe" is simply the complete spatio-temporal logic of the self.

6. Time does not have a real existence outside of animal-sense perception. It is the process by which we perceive changes in the universe.

7. Space, like time, is not an object or a thing. Space is another form of our animal understanding and does not have an independent reality. We carry space and time around with us like turtles with shells. Thus, there is no absolute self-existing matrix in which physical events occur independent of life.

My old pal David Thompson at NASA's Astroparticle Physics Lab in Maryland has effusively embraced Lanza's work, describing it as "a wake-up call" for us all.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dresden Angels

The folks at Dresden Star offer some amazing Victorian-style one-of-a-kind Christmas ornaments handmade almost entirely from reclaimed bric-a-brac of the period.

The hot-air-balloon bunny above is made from "old glass ornament(s) with beautiful patina; detailed embossed scrap(s) (most of them predate the 1900s and are meticulously backed with early papers and/or old tinsel); a variety of old fabric - chenille, lace, ribbon and metallic trims; old decorative tinsel (most of which is from old tree garlands); and old papers of all kinds, including lovely old-stock Dresden paper trims, old foil, gift wrap, and other embellishments."

The angel below is made of "antique scrap bust of demure young Victorian maiden, early vintage Dresden paper harp, vintage rhinestone (jewel on necklace), circa 1920s Dennison crepe paper (covered over cardboard that has a built-in cone for hanging as a topper), the finest hand-tatted antique Victorian lace, buff-colored antique lace edged with chenille, early vintage silk flower petals, Dresden paper wings, 3 early vintage and antique Dresden paper medallions, circa 1920s old-stock multi-colored spun-glass halo, antique Dresden paper bows, 3 different antique Dresden paper trims, antique tinsel roping, delicate antique gold cording (hanger)."

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The End of Time

Meatloaf may not have to pray for the end of time for as long as he thought.

Scientists are now saying that time itself may cease to exist in just a mere five billion years. They say this will occur "coincidentally, right around the time our sun is slated to die," but consider that this isn't a coincidence at all, but rather an indicator of our own live demonstration of quantum uncertainty and humans creating their own reality, unwittingly, via our own perceptions - as far as we're concerned, in a very real sense, we really are the center of the Universe.

The time-will-end theory depends on acceptance of the idea of the Multiverse (and that's an idea we fully endorse here, in case you haven't caught on), and in discussing this, the above-linked National Geographic article actually elucidates one of the most radical, dangerous, and paradigm-shattering truths there is:

"The problem with a multiverse is that anything that can happen will happen an infinite number of times, and that makes calculating probabilities seemingly impossible."

If the above sentence doesn't simultaneously terrify you, inspire you, make you burst into tears, make you start laughing like a maniac, make you want to quit your job, make you want to go lay down and try not to think about it, then you haven't truly wrapped your head around the implications of what it really means.

A related phenomenon that we're just starting to understand is the unknown structures tugging at our own universe that would have been total sci-fi fodder not long ago, but it's quickly become accepted as business as usual. There's a so-called "dark flow" towards the edge of the Universe that's causing hundreds of galaxy clusters to zoom, en masse, in the same direction at over 2.2 million miles an hour, and according to leading physicists, it is the best indicator we have of objects outside our universe and outside what we call "reality" influencing objects in our own.

When you start really grasping these concepts with the same part of your brain that you think about your day-to-day life stuff - and not just quickly filing it away in the "gosh, how bout that, aint that somethin" part of your brain - you might start caring a lot less about the little things on this rock that so many people waste their entire brief existences obsessing about (sports, politics, scrapbooking).

(Image above: the currently most distant known object in the Universe, a little something we like to call "UDFy-38135539".)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Victorian Ladies Spy Camera Concealed in Watch

"Secret gadgets up under her clothes,
Stuff you hear about but nobody knows,
It ain't no use - all women are bad."

- Lux Interior, 1989.

Spotted on Watchismo:

“The Lancaster Watch Camera was patented in October 1886 and made until 1890. Such tiny cameras were the forerunners for the ‘spy’ camera – a mechanism disguised as a different object. However, it would have been very inconvenient to use as four very small catches had to be released in order to remove the glass screen and to fit a separate metal sensitised material holder for each exposure. As a result, the model sadly sold badly and is much rarer than the improved version which came on the market in 1890. The ladies’ pattern is therefore particularly special, and only four original models are known to exist."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Indiana Jones Does Thimble Theatre

Chuck Forsman is a minor deity and here's why. Someone hire this man and put him to work rendering all modern films into E.C. Segar's style, immediately. I want to see him do Inglourious Basterds.

Buy a print of the full sheet of strips here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Sitchin Situation

The news hit me yesterday like an atom bomb: Zecharia Sitchin is Dead. Everyone, including myself, was shocked, but the guy was ninety years old. Sitchin seemed timeless, ageless, exempt from death, more of a force or a fixture than a mere mortal. As it turns out, he passed away earlier this month but few knew about it until it was finally announced on the official Sitchin site:

The family asks that you respect its privacy during this difficult time and refrain from contacting family members directly. Instead, to offer tributes to Mr. Sitchin or to contact those handling his affairs, please email or send a letter to P.O. Box 577, New York, NY 10185.

Far from simply succumbing to senescence, "old age", or so-called "natural causes", Sitchin was still extremely active at 90 and published a new book just a few months ago. It was apparently lingering complications from an "acute abdominal problem" in July that did his physical shell in.

It's rather difficult for me to enunciate a general summary of Sitchin's work, since its tentacles extend to virtually all aspects of life, and since I disagree vehemently with portions of it even as I champion other portions. And those conflicting portions are so intermixed, that even discussing and debating it can be, as Russell Long once said of the JFK assassination mess, "like pickin' gnat shit out of pepper."

Unlike many armchair researchers (like, say, Erich Von Daniken), Sitchin actually travelled extensively and was out there in the field, mixing the map and the message. On one of his "Earth Chronicles Expeditions", he actually visited Phaestos, the city where the Phaestos Disc was unearthed, and made some fascinating discoveries of his own. No, far from being the charlatan that internet negativists sometimes accused him of being, Sitchin was the real deal, and did more hands-on archaeology than some archaeologists I know.

On the other hand, Sitchin did promote a convoluted mythology involving the Anunnaki, a race of extra-terrestrials from a planet beyond Neptune called Nibiru. According to Sitchin, the planet Nibiru (or "Planet X") has a severely elliptical orbit in our own Solar System, and makes return visits to us with a long periodicity. Sitchin insisted that the ancient Sumerian culture - which in turn could be said to be the cradle of all subsequent civilization - was created by the Anunnaki, who were also supposedly the same entities as the Biblical Nephilim and the Islamic Jinn.

Wikipedia says: "Sitchin's speculations have been ridiculed by professional scientists, historians, and archaeologists, who note many problems with his translations of ancient texts and categorize his work as pseudohistory and pseudoscience." And that's true enough, but you know and I know that some of the greatest achievements of our lifetime have been labeled "pseudoscience" by the ignoble intelligentsia. The halls of the non-existent museum of pseudoscience are littered with inventions and ideas that really worked, independently of the skeptics who seek to supress puzzle pieces that don't fit their idea of what the big jigsaw puzzle is supposed to be depicting.

Me, I applaud Sitchin's research on its own merits and for its own sake; the puzzling evidence is patently obvious, but Sitchin and I simply differed on how to interpret that evidence. This in no way invalidates the subject itself - I simply prefer to leave most of the blanks unfilled-in and unknown for now, while Sitchin tended to abhor a vacuum every bit as much as the rationalist-skeptics who attacked him, and would fill in the blanks of any unknowns he encountered with a theory to explain them away. Sitchin was rarely heard to say "I just don't know" or "I have no idea what this might mean."

Of course, the Sumerians aren't here to contradict us. They didn't even call themselves Sumerians - they called themselves ùĝ saĝ gíg-ga ("ung sang giga"), which roughly translates as "men with black heads". The terms "Sumer" and "Sumerian" didn't come about, to be retroactively applied, until thousands of years later!

For better or for worse, Sitchin's work has influenced or inspired a whole raft of other para-cosmologies, from The Raelians to The Nuwaubians to David Icke to Nancy Lieder and the Zetas. To his credit, Sitchin took great pains to distance himself from the most rabid of the internet's doom-hungry legions who constantly claim that Nibiru will destroy Earth either in 2012 or any day now. As is so often the case, the problem is not with the originator of an idea or a philosophy, but with demented individuals who appropriate that material and misuse it. The best thing you can do is not to read about Sitchin (this blog post included), but go read what Sitchin himself wrote.

Sitchin's most important work ever was in progress at the time of his passing. In his new book, he proposes that the ancient Sumerian Puabi was an alien goddess whose 4500-year-old skeletal remains may still contain DNA from her alien race. And he was in the process of mounting the "Goddess of Ur Genome Project", an effort to test that DNA and prove that aliens seeded humanity. Perhaps his death will spur his devotees to spearhead this testing through - and posthumously prove him right.

"And of His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the living creatures that He has spread out in them. He has the power to bring them together when He so wills." (Ash-Shura 42:29)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

1928 Time Traveller?

There's been a lot of hubbub about this alleged "time traveller" film clip going around the interwebs for a few days now, and it seems to be gathering steam. I hadn't planned on covering it here, but I suppose I should, given the circumstances.

Basically, there's this film footage shot at the 1928 premiere event for Charlie Chaplin's movie The Circus, which seems to show a woman walking around talking on a cellphone. Of course, within conventional thought, that's not possible.

Some have suggested that perhaps it's merely a walkie-talkie, but the earliest walkie-talkies were in the 1940s, and so huge that they were contained in a backpack. It wasn't until the 1950s that handheld walkie-talkies were developed, and even then they were as big as a loaf of bread. These devices were strictly for military use anyway, and public use of walkie-talkies didn't occur until even later.

Maybe she's just listening to a Dodgers game on a small radio and holding it against her ear to hear it clearly? No. Handheld radios didn't happen until the transistor radio boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

For a few moments I thought I'd solved the mystery when I started looking at hearing aids of the time, but then realized that all "ear trumpets" are meant to be held longways with the end against your ear, not the side. If our mystery lady is indeed employing one of those, she's doin' it wrong. And she's apparently talking to it.

So what are we seeing here? Though by no means do I wish to invalidate the idea that this could be a time-traveller or one of the Men in Black, it should be noted that a mobile communication device that transmits through space and time is quite a stretch, and would require some sort of quantum psycho-cybernetic nano-implant, which would then render the need for such a large clunky physical device unnecessary.

Consider that there were crazy people wandering the streets back then, just as there are today. Consider that it is not impossible that some nut is walking around talking to herself while holding a loofah up to her ear or something.

And there have also been suggestions from some quarters that this may actually be a man. I'm indecisive on that point, but if it is a crossdresser, he's not a very good one. Though the shoes and skirt are definitely female, the cloak and hat are mannish, and almost suggest Jack the Ripper.

But let's leave that door shut just now.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jupiter Over Jefferson County

The planet Jupiter has recently been closer to the Earth than at any time since 1951 or 1963, depending on conflicting media sources.

How close is it?

It's so close that last night, standing in E.P. Sawyer Park in Anchorage, KY, I actually managed to see (I think) one of its 63 known moons through high-powered binoculars.

It's so close that I even managed to take photos with my ordinary and mundane digital camera (an Olympus SP-350, 8.0 megapixel) that, while, not likely to appear in Sky & Telescope anytime soon, are good enough to show Jupiter's characteristic pinkness.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sea of Shibboleths

A Shibboleth is an ancient concept extending back to Biblical times, from the Hebrew word שִׁבֹּלֶת meaning "grain-bearing plant" (such as wheat or corn). Members of the tribe of Gilead found that enemy members of the tribe of Ephraim invariably mispronounced this word, and so used it as a code word to detect spies.

Today, shibboleths occur in everyday talk and in political speeches via Cant Language, using words and phrases that help to subtly and silently distinguish members of any given group from non-members. Politicians such as George W. Bush II have peppered their language with keywords and phrases that act as a signal to certain extreme right-wing Christian organizations, who say "hey, this guy's one of us!" when they hear them. The phrases are usually innocuous enough that they pass unnoticed, even through the major media scrutiny that a politician's speech receives.

One of my favorite films, Inglourious Basterds, is all about the nuances of language and codes and customs and shibboleths - even its very name is a shibboleth. Tarantino, a devout film buff, liberally loaded his movie with film history references, some obvious, some abstract. And throughout the film, we see the characters scrutinize each other in terms of language, of accent, and of certain social cues:

* The Jewish family's inability to speak English seals their doom as they hide under the floorboards of the French farmer's house, unaware that Landa is openly discussing their demise. And by pulling out a Sherlock Holmes pipe and puffing on it as he prepares to reveal that he has known all along that the farmer is hiding the family, Landa is practically telegraphing this to the farmer - but it only makes sense after it's too late.

* British agent Lt. Hicox gives himself away as a spy first by his German accent (which, good as it may be, cannot fool an authentic German) and then by being unaware of the cultural custom of holding two fingers and a thumb up to signal the number three (rather than the more common method of simply using the main three fingers).

* At the Nazi film event, Landa can instantly detect the Basterds are spies by their poor Italian accents.

* And at the restaurant alone with Shosanna, Landa drops some shibboleth-hints to suggest he secretly knows who she really is, by making overt references to milk and cream as he grills her about her made-up identity.

I tend to speak in shibboleths anyway, through no conscious effort or conspiratorial agenda of my own. I often weave pop-culture references into things I say (but in a dry and ironic way, and not necessarily endorsing the sources of those references.) Example: speaking to a group of children at an art education event a few years back, I pronounced the word "authority" as "autho-ri-tahhh", a la South Park's Cartman. The kids immediately burst into laughter en masse, while the reference was lost on all the adults in the room, who looked around confusedly, wondering what had just happened.

I love those kind of moments, and that's why I sprinkle shibboleths around for my own amusement, and to enjoy bisecting a conversation into multiple invisible levels, each of which may have a different effect on a different listener. Sometimes my associate J.T. Dockery and I will have conversations that consist solely of quotes from old songs and movies that we both adore, which can be quite puzzling to an outsider.

Friday, October 8, 2010

1877 E. Howard Tower Clock

Last week I spotted this clockwork wonder in the lobby of the Henry County courthouse in Kentucky. It was the original courthouse tower clock, which had been abandoned when it ceased to work many years ago, but then some enterprising soul rescued it from whatever guano-encrusted shed in which it had been stored, and coaxed it like Frankenstein's Monster back into renewed life.

The clock was manufactured in 1877 by a Boston, Massachusetts company specifically for the Henry County courthouse's original incarnation. I was thrilled to discover such a Steampunky find out in the glory lands of rural Kentucky, but the locals seem jaded about it, and found it a source of considerable mirth that I was taking pictures of it like a foreign tourist.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Alek James Hidell

My good friend and Interzone bowling partner Lee Harvey Oswald was the subject of a song I demo'd for the Lexington, KY punk band Nine Pound Hammer way back in the day (1887, wasn't it?) but the song was never recorded. I ended up recording it myself with The Kentuckians for their debut CD on Creeps Records in 1999, where it was available in stores only briefly before lapsing into utter obscurity. Now it's back from the dead for the YouTube generation - click here to inwestigate, Comrade.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Steampunk Kaleidoscopes

Just happened across this video showing off some of the super-snazz kaleidoscopes from Kevin C. Cooper's workshop.

Cooper's kaleidoscopes are made from brass and mahogany and use antique parts whenever possible, such as Victorian-age brass candlesticks and old clock gears and cogs.

Also scope him out on Etsy.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Alien Ambassador

Mazlan Othman, a Malaysian astrophysicist, may soon become Earth's first official ambassador to extra-terrestrial civilizations.

Most people aren't even aware that the United Nations has an Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), which Othman is Director of. Discussions are currently underway for Othman and UNOOSA to become official representatives of Earth if and when formal diplomatic communications channels need to be established between ourselves and some other alien life forms. UNOOSA's global headquarters (pictured above) is an extraterritorial area, meaning that although it is physically located in Vienna, it is not subject to any local law. It is, like military bases and embassies, floating in a limbo of no fixed jurisdiction.

UNOOSA suggests that Kepler's recent discovery of hundreds of extrasolar planets makes the discovery of extraterrestrial life increasingly likely. Apparently they're serious enough about this to suggest that we need to be ready for aliens to arrive and say "take me to your leader" - Othman recently said in a speech that when extraterrestrial contact is made, "we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination."

This all comes not long after Stephen Hawking's recent controversial pronouncements about alien life. Hawking, widely regarded as one of the most brilliant minds of our planet, indicated that alien contact would almost certainly be a bad thing, because odds are good that their technology would be superior to ours and we would therefore assume a subservient role. Said he, "The outcome for us would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans."

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Vacuum Coffee Maker

It's a rather Rube Goldberg way of going about it, to be sure, but hey, who among us doesn't love Rube Goldberg? I came across this video recently posted to YouTube showing a working "vacuum siphon percolator" using ordinary school chemistry laboratory equipment. Other variations on the "coffee still" trick are here and here and also here.

I wish the World Market Coffee Club would issue one of these. I'd buy it. Guess I gotta build it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Islamic Cellphone

Is there such a thing as Islamic chic? Most definitely. Take a gander at this Ilkone phone found here. For a Steampunk enthusiast, the cognitive dissonance between the modernity of a cellphone with the old-old-world style is an aesthetic beauty to behold.

According to Fahad, the Ilkone I800 phone generates five automated reminders a day at prayer time and contains the entire Quran, both in Arabic and in English. It also has a built in Qibla Locator that determines the precise direction towards Mecca.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Data Instability

You know what happens the more you look, right? Well guess what, the upstate ballot results are in and it's now official: we know absolutely nothing.

Two major astronomical observatories recently wrapped up an exhaustive study of the fine-structure constant (also known as alpha or the "magic number" which defines the strength of electromagnetism). This constant has for years been a keystone on which our understanding of physics depends.

Well, guess what they learned? The constant is not constant. According to Kotaku:

"After measuring alpha in around 300 distant galaxies, a consistency emerged: this magic number, which tells us the strength of electromagnetism, is not the same everywhere as it is here on Earth, and seems to vary continuously along a preferred axis through the universe," Professor John Webb from the University of New South Wales said.

Oops. Back to the old drawing board.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Paper Steampunk Arm Weapon

Spotted on Design Taxi: Artist Philip Valdez built this mechanical prop weapon for a Steampunk wedding. See more images on Valdez' blog and his Flickr.

Design Taxi's comment "paper isn’t a material you’d normally associate steampunk with—metal seems a likelier choice" sticks in my craw though: the Victorian period was actually the golden age of paper artistry, and before the advent of plastics, papier-mache was omnipresent.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Old Growth

In my recent musings on Hitchcock's Vertigo, I repeated the often-held datum that the Giant Redwoods are the oldest living things on Earth. Allow me to check myself and correct the rec, because I've just been reading about some other startling life forms whose age is said to surpass even the Redwoods.

Crystal Falls, MI hosts the "Humungous Fungus", which spans over 38 acres underground near the Wisconsin border. Believed to be between 1,500 to 10,000 years old and estimated to weigh about 100 tons, this massive specimen of Armillaria Bulbosa (also known as Armillaria ostoyae) is one of this planet's most amazing success stories. The mushrooms it produces, known as the "honey mushroom", are edible.

But even larger than that: another specimen in Washington State covers about 6 square kilometres (1,500 acres), and one in Oregon has been determined to span 2200 acres underground, and it's at least 2,400 years old, possibly older. From The Independent:

The largest living organism ever found has been discovered in an ancient American forest. The Armillaria ostoyae, popularly known as the honey mushroom, started from a single spore too small to see without a microscope. It has been spreading its black shoestring filaments, called rhizomorphs, through the forest for an estimated 2,400 years, killing trees as it grows. It now covers 2,200 acres (880 hectares) of the Malheur National Forest, in eastern Oregon.

"There hasn't been anything measured with any scientific technique that has shown any plant or animal to be larger than this."

But then there's Pando, described by Wikipedia as "a clonal colony of a single male Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) located in the U.S. state of Utah, all determined to be part of a single living organism by identical genetic markers and one massive underground root system." Pando has been estimated by some to be approximately 80,000 years old.

By comparison, the oldest known living Redwood tree is about 2200 years old, although it is believed that at one time, 5000-year-old ones existed on America's west coast.

I have a fondness for plants that work in this manner, appearing to be separate entities above-ground while all actually connected as one network-entity beneath the soil, out of sight. Bamboo is another such plant, and Japanese Knotweed is another.

(Top photo: scraping away at a Douglas Fir's bark to reveal Armillaria ostoyae taking it over from the inside. Second photo: Pando.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Come Take a Trip in my Airship

George Evans' "Come Take a Trip in my Air-ship", rendered on a giant metal disc in 1905 for a Mira 18-inch "Grand Concert" music box.

Hear it and view it here.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Victorian Artificial Hand

Artificial left arm, Europe, 1850-1910. "Made from steel and brass, this unusual prosthetic arm articulates in a number of ways. The elbow joint can be moved by releasing a spring, whereas the top joint of the wrist allows a degree of rotation and an up-and-down motion. The fingers can also curl up and straighten out."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mr. Lee, Mr. Lee

It's about 4:30pm EST as of this writing, and I'm watching the news coverage unfold of a man named James Jay Lee who has hijacked the Discovery Channel building in Silver Spring, MD.

Lee apparently has a history of protesting outside the Discovery Channel's headquarters, and was arrested in 2008 for throwing money at people coming and going out of the offices. His website, now taken down, featured a rambling, incoherent, childishly written manifesto full of caps-lock and exclamation points. The upshot of his "argument" is that there are too many human beings in the world, and mass depopulation is in order to save the planet. His self-proclaimed mission is, quote, "stopping the human race from breeding any more disgusting human babies" and he demands that the Discovery Channel start airing programming that supports his position.

Somehow, I don't think that's going to happen. For Mr. Lee to believe he could make a cable network start generating programming espousing his beliefs by holding hostages in their own offices, well, that's the apex of stupidity. Did he see movies like Airheads and King of Comedy and mistakenly come to think that one could really do something like that in the real world? Evidently he did.

This monumental ignorance seems at direct odds with his manifesto's reference to lofty concepts like Malthusian Theory and the "New Tribalist Movement" embodied in the works of Daniel Quinn. The conspiracy theorist in me finds something about this whole incident just not jibing. There's a cognitive dissonance even within Lee's manifesto itself, which seems to me to be the work of two different people - the differing writing styles and education levels can clearly be seen contrasting one another when one looks at the text analytically.

I'll be very interested to see what happens next with this James Lee guy, and what we learn about him. Something about all this stinks to high heaven.

(His myspace page lists Star Trek's Captain James. T. Kirk as being his hero. Somehow, I don't think this cowardly bit of TV terrorism would be Kirk's style. Maybe Lee, in his muddled thinking, believed he was employing some sort of heroic subterfuge or sabotage (or as Shatner would say, "sab-a-taaaaage") in the vein of The Corbomite Manuever or The Enterprise Mission.)

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Fraudulent Arabian Hit Parade

There's a little palindromey phrase of music that has come to be synonymous with "exotic" and "Middle Eastern" in the last century, and you'd have to be living under a rock in Nebraska to not know what I'm talking about. Most of us learn it in kindergarten as one of a million variants on "There's a place in France where the naked ladies dance", "There's a place in France where they don't wear underpants", etc.

Jimmy Kennedy's "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" was a top ten hit for the Four Lads in 1953, and has since been covered by Bing Crosby, Caterina Valente, Santo & Johnny, and perhaps most notably, They Might Be Giants in 1990. The song employs the mystery melody at the part you hear them say, "Even old New York was once New Amsterdam".

The melody also turns up in the country song "Bonaparte's Retreat", written by Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart and recorded by many including Kay Starr, Hank Williams, Billy Grammer. The eerie faux-Arabian sound is especially accentuated on this home movie of Archie Campbell. Another country song to prominently use the melody is Roy Hogsed's "Snake Dance Boogie" in 1951.

Even earlier, the phrase appears prominently in Raymond Scott's "Twilight in Turkey" for the film "Ali Baba Goes to Town" in 1937 (which is where the images in this post come from.)

The Persian scale has a dark and peculiar sound that lends itself well to such arpeggios that conjure up images of snake charmers. In fact, many people know the melody as simply the "Snake Charmer Song".

Still others know it as the intro to Steve Martin's "King Tut".

So what is this passage of music, and where did it come from? Tricorder readings are indeterminate, Captain. Some say it's from a song called Streets of Cairo, written in 1893 for the famous bellydancer/stripper Farida "Little Egypt" Spyropoulos, who was herself immortalized in song by the Coasters and Elvis.

But others say - and they're probably right - that it goes back much further, to a French song from 1719 called "Colin Prend Sa Hotte". And according to some sources, this French song is in turn referencing an Arabic song titled "Kradoutja".

We suspect it goes back even further than that, perhaps to antediluvian times. Perhaps, like the worm of Ouroboros, the song has no beginning and no end.