Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Meaning of Mexico

What exactly does the word "Mexico" mean? Even the Mexicans don't know.

Originally, the area we now call Mexico was broken up into many smaller pre-Columbian Mesoamerican territories. They were all combined as one when Spain took over and dubbed the whole shebang "Virreinato de Nueva España" (Viceroyalty of New Spain). The capital was Mexico City, which had formerly been called México-Tenochtitlan in the good old ancient Aztec days.

Historians disagree over the etymology of the name "Mexico" and the word "Mexica" for its original Aztec inhabitants; we know the word is Nahuatl but we don't know what it actually means or its derivation.

The leading contenders are:

* Metztli - a Moon Goddess associated with Lake Texcoco, which was believed to be symbolic of the rabbit. Aztecs also saw a rabbit, rather than a face, on the Moon.

* Mextli - God of war and thunderstorms, to whom ritual sacrifice was necessary.

* Mectli - another name for Mayahuel, the Goddess of Maguey, aka Agave, that magickal and most holy succulent plant that gives us pulque, tequila, and my latest alcohological obsession, mezcal.

Now, you might think Mextli is the obvious choice, being the most similar, but those learned men of academia tend to lean toward Metztli as being more likely. Me, I would prefer to root for Mectli, since I genuflect often at the altar of the Goddess of Maguey.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The X-37B

In yesterday's post, I wondered aloud about the Pentagon's mysterious lack of interest in the Space Shuttle after 1992. Clearly, they must have developed some sort of newer and better black-budget secret program of their own. But what?

One name that keeps coming up as a likely tip of the covert iceberg: the X-37B.

The Boeing X-37 was originally developed by NASA but then acquired (some would say "seized") by DARPA in 2004. It certainly does seem to make the Space Shuttle irrelevant - its first orbital mission, USA-212, was launched on April 22, 2010 with the help of an Atlas V rocket and it remained in space until just three months ago, returning to Earth in December 3, 2010. It is said that the X-37B is strictly for unmanned missions, but actually there is nothing preventing astronauts being on board.

The X-37B is powered by a massive array of solar cells, but it also has its own fuel tank that allows it to fly around in near-Earth space and change its orbit. On its maiden voyage, in fact, it did just that: amateur astronomers spotted it from their backyards and quickly computed its orbit in order to predict where it would be next, and when. But then the craft's orbit abruptly changed to an entirely different trajectory, momentarily confounding the terrestrial observers.

Now an entire fleet of DARPA's next-generation version, the X-37B, is on the way. One is fully operational and a second one is nearly completed. The next 270-day flight of the X-37B will launch on March 4 from Cape Canaveral.

According to Wikipedia:

As the mission of USA-212 and the X-37B program are classified, public commentary on the program is speculation. James Oberg speculated that the concurrent launch of Air Force's Hypersonic Technology Vehicle HTV-2 was related to the mission...

William Scott, coauthor of the techno-novel Counterspace: The Next Hours of World War III and former Rocky Mountain Bureau Chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine believes that with X-37B, the Air Force might test weapon delivery from a space plane in low Earth orbit. This hypothesis aligns with speculation that the launch of USA-212 marks the beginning of military operations in space.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Secret Shuttle

While watching the live broadcast of STS-133's launch today, I can't help but feel an odd mix of excitement and apprehension about what happens next. STS-135 will be the last and final shuttle mission, and it may even end up being scrapped in favor of closing the program down after STS-134.

And then what?

One would be forgiven for having the same sinking feeling that we're about enter another long "dead zone" for manned space exploration, just as when Richard Nixon inexplicably and without warning put an abrupt halt to one of his administration's greatest successes - the Apollo manned moon missions. What did Nixon know that we dont?

If you, like me, were a space nerd growing up, you probably felt cheated by the Space Shuttle when they finally got around to rolling it out. The 1970s began with us making repeated trips to the moon in a flimsy little lunar module, yet the decade ended with us staying in Earth's orbit in a huge, bulky, clunky-looking "space plane" that couldn't even get off the ground without the help of a rocket and was in constant danger of exploding if any of its super-thick tiles were comprised. What the heck is wrong this picture?, we asked ourselves. What do they know that we dont?

(We geeky kids all campaigned and fought so hard to get NASA to name the first shuttle named Enterprise after our beloved Star Trek ship, only to subsequently be told that this would only be a prototype and never actually go to space. D'oh!)

Early on in the Space Shuttle's career, it became evident that something had happened somewhere in between the age of Grissom and the age of Crippen; the space program was, now more than ever, firmly in the hands of the military.

STS-4 was the first to carry a classified Pentagon payload. supposedly it was admitted later that the secret cargo was a pair of missile-launch detection systems, and supposedly the attempt to place them into orbit failed.

The 15th shuttle mission, STS-51-C, was the first to be completely dedicated to a secret mission for the Department of Defense. The details are still largely classified, but one alleged story leaked to Aviation Week is that one of the purposes of the mission was to launch an ELINT spy satellite in geosynchronous orbit.

More top-secret missions followed in quick succession: STS-51-J, STS-27, STS-28, STS-33, STS-36, and STS-38. And then something strange happened. After STS-53, the CIA/DoD stopped commandeering shuttle flights for classified national security purposes. Whatever it was they had been doing, had they had enough and didn't need any further surreptitious skulking in space? That hardly seems like them. But from 1992 on, the Pentagon seemingly had no further need for the Space Shuttle's services. And I asked myself once again, what do they know that we don't?

On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush announced that the US would return to the moon by 2018. Many scoffed, but by that year's end, congress approved the start-up funds for Bush's moon plan.

On December 4, 2006, NASA announced that they were planning a permanent human colony on the moon, to be fully operational before the year 2020.

On September 28, 2007, NASA administrator Michael D. Griffin looked even further ahead, stating that the moon base would then provide a leap-frog platform to send a manned expedition to Mars by 2037.

But on February 1, 2010, President Barack Obama ordered NASA to take a hard about-face, and scrapped all these plans. This drew much anger from NASA officials who have spent years and millions of dollars working on the moon base, and the level of animosity between the President and NASA is extremely high at this moment.

After decades of conversative opposition to further moon landings, we finally had both Republicans and Democrats in agreement about the way to proceed, and now this. Why would President Obama do this? He stated that it is his belief that NASA should direct its focus on more long-range deep-space matters, with telescopes and unmanned probes.

And just one more time, I will ask the room out loud: what does he know that we don't?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Green Fairy of Absinthe

The Absinthe Drinker, Viktor Oliva (1861–1928)

Green Muse, Albert Maignan (1845-1908)

Advertising poster for Paul Beucler Absinthe, Jean-Désiré Ringel d'Illzach (1849-1916)

La Fin De La Fee Verte, 1910 poster protesting the Swiss ban of Absinthe, Albert-Henri Gantner (1866-?)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Leah Hirsig

Raise your glasses to Leah Hirsig, born in Switzerland in 1883, moved to NYC at the age of two, became a high school teacher in the Bronx.

But Leah was no ordinary high school teacher. She and her sister Alma had a growing interest in the occult, one which grew so intense that they finally dared in 1918 to knock on the door of Aleister Crowley and pay him a visit. Crowley and Leah immediately felt a powerful attraction to one another, as evidenced by the description in Lawrence Sutin's book Do What Thou Wilt:

The "little sister" reminded me of Solomon's friend, for she had no breasts... She radiated an indefinable sweetness. Without wasting time on words, I began to kiss her. It was sheer instinct. She shared it and equaled my ardor. We continued with occasional interruptions, such as politeness required, to answer her sister in the rare intervals when she got out of breath."

Upon the sisters' second visit to Crowley's home, he again found himself unable to maintain conversation with Alma because of his lust for Leah: "While we talked, I took off her [Leah's] clothes and asked her to come and pose for me when she felt inclined." Although Crowley had never drawn or painted nudes before, Leah quickly became his greatest artistic muse of all. He went on to paint her portrait many times (albeit in his rather naive folk-art expressionist manner) including a special request she had for him to paint her as "a dead soul".

In 1920, she left with Crowley to institute Abbey of Thelema in a remote and abandoned part of the ancient mysterious city of Cefalù. During this time, she took on the name "Alostrael", performed some rituals with goats that are probably best not described here, and was promoted by Crowley to "Scarlet Woman" status.

"Scarlet Woman" was the name Crowley used for his female sex magick practitioners. The term derives from the book of Revelation, in which the 666 beast's consort is to be a scarlet woman. According to Wikipedia, "Aleister Crowley believed that many of his lovers and magical companions were playing a cosmic role, even to the point of fulfilling prophecy." Among these important women in his life were Rose Edith Crowley, Mary d'Este Sturges, Roddie Minor, Marie Rohling, Leila Waddell, Dorothy Olsen, Bertha Almira Prykryl, Jeanne Robert Foster, and of course, Leah.

Crowley's health began to seriously wane in 1924, and sensing Leah's increasing unhappiness with the drudgery of being his caretaker, he broke up their relationship. She remained fiercely loyal to him nevertheless, and continued to help out in his magickal pursuits in any way she could, even though Dorothy Olsen now replaced her as "Scarlet Woman".

Of Leah and the Cefalù period, Crowley penned in his diary: “She loves me for my work… She knows and loves the God in me, not the man; and therefore she has conquered the great enemy that hides behind his clouds of poisonous gas: Illusion." Also during this time, he wrote the infamous obscene poem "Leah Sublime" about her.

Leah moved to Paris, France and lived as a prostitute on and off for some years. Ultimately she returned to America, settled back down to a more normal life with a new husband with whom she bore a son, and returned to teaching.

She died on February 22, 1975, but she lived to see the huge resurgence in interest in Crowley, Thelema, and the OTO. Leah Hirsig achieved a lasting fame and immortality for herself by her connection to Crowley, and to this day fan sites exist for this woman who explored the unknown with he who some called "the wickedest man in the world" - even though many of today's devotees weren't even born yet when she died.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Farrakhan's UFO Symposium

Disclosure regarding extraterrestrials seems to be on more and more minds lately. Just last month we reported on the Global Competitiveness Forum, a Saudi Arabian business conference that shocked its patrons with a surprise visit from Bill Clinton and an assumption that aliens are on the way: "They were told flying saucers are real, and they had better start thinking about the business implications of extraterrestrial life and technologies."

Now the Rev. Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam are hosting a UFO symposium called "The Truth About the Existence of Unidentified Flying Objects". The symposium, which is part of their annual Savior's Day event, features a panel of UFO experts. It'll be held this weekend at the Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, IL.

Among the speakers: Dr. Roger Leir, author of Aliens and the Scalpel, who claimed to have removed alien implants from his patients; and Steve Colbern, a nanotechnology specialist who has examined these implants and pronounced them genuine.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Voynich Manuscript Carbon Dated

Of all the unexplainable "what does it mean? how did it get here?" baffling books out there - from the Oera Linda to anything by Thomas DeQuincey - none has fascinated me more than the Voynich Manuscript. Written in a seemingly alien language that no man has ever been able to decipher, it is filled with copious illustrations that make about as much sense as the text; that is to say, none whatsoever. It is named after Polish revolutionary and bibliophile Wilfried Voynich, who acquired it in Italy in 1912 and gave it its first public presentation in 1915.

The Voynich Manuscript has finally been definitively carbon-dated by University of Arizona researchers and the verdict is: it dates back to the early 15th century, which means the book is a century older than scholars had previously thought.

What does this tell us about about the book that we didn't already know? Well, for one, it rules out some people's conspiracy theories that Voynich cooked up the book himself. It also strikes Roger "Doctor Mirabilis" Bacon off the list of contenders for the book's authorship, and he had been a leading theory among some in academia.

According to Wikipedia: "The earliest confirmed owner of the Voynich manuscript was Georg Baresch, an obscure alchemist who lived in Prague in the early 17th century. Baresch apparently was just as puzzled as we are today about this "Sphynx" that had been "taking up space uselessly in his library" for many years."

And Live Science says, rather self-contradictingly: "While knowing the date of the book helps put one of the pieces of that puzzle in place, it's possible its complete meaning will never be deciphered. The key to the book's code could have been destroyed long ago, making it impossible to crack. The latest computer programs and cryptographers can't decipher its meaning, but there is hope that future technologies could crack this mystery book's code, the researchers said."

One of the aspects of the text that intrigues me most is that the flow of its quill-penned lettering suggests the author wrote at a very even pace, just as any skilled calligrapher would writing in a normal language. This implies that the words came naturally to the writer, rather than pausing to contrive (or if encoding, to calculate) these characters.

Wikipedia again:

The text consists of over 170,000 discrete glyphs, usually separated from each other by narrow gaps. Most of the glyphs are written with one or two simple pen strokes. While there is some dispute as to whether certain glyphs are distinct or not, an alphabet with 20–30 glyphs would account for virtually all of the text; the exceptions are a few dozen rarer characters that occur only once or twice each.

Statistical analysis of the text reveals patterns similar to those of natural languages. For instance, the word entropy (about 10 bits per word) is similar to that of English or Latin texts. Some words occur only in certain sections, or in only a few pages; others occur throughout the manuscript.

On the other hand, the Voynich manuscript's "language" is quite unlike European languages in several aspects. Firstly, there are practically no words comprising more than ten glyphs, yet there are also few one- or two-letter words. The distribution of letters within words is also rather peculiar: some characters only occur at the beginning of a word, some only at the end, and some always in the middle section.

Friday, February 11, 2011

C. Auguste Dupin

Edgar Allan Poe may not have realized when he wrote Murders in the Rue Morgue that he was giving birth to the genre of detective fiction, setting the stage for everything that was to come, from Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Fell to Sam Spade to Lovejoy. Even the superhero genre could be said, without making too far of a stretch, to have its roots in Poe's mentally-gifted crime-solver C. Auguste Dupin.

Dupin used what he called the process of ratiocination to make his deductions; this entails combining his superhuman intellect with his lucid imagination. By imagination, he seems to go beyond figuratively trying to put himself in the mind of the criminal, but rather almost literally doing so. Sometimes he appears able to supernaturally read the mind of his unnammed companion, who narrates all three of the Dupin stories. (The other two are The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Purloined Letter.)

The similarity between the ultra-logical Dupin and his anonymous friend to Sherlock Holmes and Watson are uncanny. The two live together in a flat in Paris, having met by some extreme synchroniciy in which they both arrived at an obscure library in search of an obscure book at the exact same time.

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's very first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet (1887), Doctor Watson actually compares Holmes to Dupin, to which Holmes replies: "No doubt you think you are complimenting me... In my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow... He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appears to imagine".

The 1951 film The Man With A Cloak, set in 1848, features Dupin as a character but it is ultimately revealed that Dupin is Edgar Allan Poe himself. He also made an appearance in Alan Moore's 1999 comic book League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume I.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Green Hornet

As our manifesto here states, we regard the two hundred year period from 1766 to 1966 as Earth's last (and probably final) "Golden Age". And that glorious year of 1966 brought us The Green Hornet television show, based on the old film serial which was in turn based on the old old radio drama.

The Green Hornet is Britt Reid, a newspaper publisher by day who goes out in his masked secret identity at night to fight crime. He is accompanied by his sidekick Kato (Bruce Lee), who drives their Batmobile-like supercar, the "Black Beauty." Kato's ethnicity seems to keep wavering over the years, from Japanese to Filipino to Korean.

Although little mention of this has been made in recent decades, the Green Hornet is actually related to the Lone Ranger in the context of both shows (they were both created for WXYZ by Fran Striker). In the original Lone Ranger radio show, his nephew Dan Reid is the same character as The Green Hornet's father. Britt Reid is the Lone Ranger's great-nephew.

It's a tragedy that only 26 episodes of the Green Hornet's TV series were filmed (27 if you include their guest appearance on an episode of Batman.) The show seemed immensely popular at the time, and its pop culture clout still resonates far beyond that which is usually commensurate for a show that was cancelled after only one season. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any show with similar longevity-to-content ratio other than The Prisoner - and that doesn't really count because it wasn't cancelled, it was deliberately intended to conclude in one season.

The short-lived show also spawned a short-lived comic book, on the Gold Key imprint. I used to have one of the three issues published, and would dearly love to get it again, along with the other two issues. (Other Green Hornet comics have also been published before the TV show, tying in with the serial and radio incarnations of the Hornet.) Two novels tying in with the TV series were also published: The Case of the Disappearing Doctor and The Infernal Light.

Keeping with the spy-gadgetry obsession of the 1960s, the Green Hornet was considerably techno-augmented for the TV show: the Hornet carried a gizmo called his "Hornet's Sting", which would telescope out and project ultrasonic waves that
could somehow open locked doors, set things on fire, and cause guns to explode. He also had a special gun loaded with extremely fast-acting tranquilizer gas. Kato's outfit was fitted with green darts that fired from his sleeves, even though he still tended to prefer hand-to-hand Kung Fu fighting.

Their Black Beauty car could fire explosive torpedos from retractable panels under the headlights, a sleep-gas sprayer in the center of the front grille, and something they called "The Scanner", which was a small flying video/audio surveillance device which launched from the vehicle, went on recon, then returned. This was years before the concept of the unmanned miniature drone become commonplace as it is today.

Surprisingly, the TV series is currently not available in America on DVD or Blu-Ray. However, there is a pricey Japanese box set.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Much of what people know today about the pirates of old comes down from one singular codified source - the book A General History of the Pyrates, published in 1724 and written by an anonymous figure calling himself Capt. Charles Johnson. I say "anonymous" because there is no record of this man ever having existed, aside from this book and its sequel, so it is generally held that it is a pseudonym. Many have attempted to credit Daniel DeFoe or Nathaniel Mist with authorship, but that theory is extremely specious one and has fallen out of favor with academia. We may never know the true identity of the good Captain.

According to Wikipedia:

While Johnson's identity is unknown, he demonstrates a knowledge of the sailor's speech and life, suggesting he could have been an actual sea captain. He could also have been a professional writer, well versed in the sea, using a pseudonym. If this is true, the name was perhaps chosen to reflect the playwright Charles Johnson, who had an unsuccessful play with The Successful Pyrate in 1712, which glamorized the career of Henry Avery and had been something of a scandal for seeming to praise a criminal. Following it, however, many authors would rush forward with biographies and catalogs of criminals, including catalogs of highwaymen and prostitutes. By this theory, the pseudonymous "Charles Johnson" of the pirate catalog was merely taking part in a burgeoning industry in criminal biography.

On the other hand, whoever the editors of the Wikipedia page about the book are, they mistakenly refer to such pirate traditions as peg-legs, the Jolly Roger, and the concept of buried treasure to be myths that Capt. Johnson fancifully made up for his book. That is so not so.

The Jolly Roger, far from being a myth, was a slang term for skulls in general, and was applied to pirate flags that sometimes employed a skull or skeleton motif. Richard Hawkins, when captured by pirates in 1724, reported that these pirates carried a black flag bearing the image of a skeleton stabbing a heart with a spear, which they called "Jolly Roger". Since pirates were probably poor seamstresses, many simply employed a black flag to symbolize their piracy, but nevertheless many called these black flags "Jolly Roger" as well. Although Wikipedia sorts this out relatively truthily on their Jolly Roger page and provides numerous examples of the specific Jolly Roger flags flown by individual pirates such as "Black Sam" Bellamy, they perpetuate yet another falsity there when they state "It is assumed by most that the name Jolly Roger comes from the French words jolie rouge, meaning "pretty red".

As for the "myth" of buried treasure, Wikipedia's own page about it admits that Capt. William Kidd did indeed bury treasure, and that stories of pirates burying their treasure existed a century before the era of Capt. Johnson's book.

And if you think the idea of pirate peg-legs are a myth, you might want to ask Francois LeClerc about that. If you can reach him on the Ouija board.

Wikipedia, as usual, contradicts itself and is not to be fully trusted, being written by humans with agendas, most of whom really need to get a life anyway.

We here regard the entirety of Cap'n Johnson's glorious book as being essentially accurate, and it can be found here in the Eastern North Carolina Digital Library.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Apophis Now

Tomorrow, an asteroid about the size of an automobile will hurtle past the Earth, missing impact with us by only about 64,300 miles. That asteroid is called 2011 CA7 and was discovered by astronomers only a month ago - a fact that should give pause to those who believe unquestioningly that NASA's Near-Earth Object Program has everything under control when it comes to watching for unexpected oncoming objects.

Scarier still, a four-foot-wide boulder we call asteroid 2011 CQ came within just 3400 miles of Earth on February 4th, but you didn't hear much about it in the media. It was only discovered only 14 hours before it made its close-enough-to-smell-us pass. Think on that awhile.

The asteroid 99942 Apophis was once believed to be in danger of colliding with Earth on April 13, 2012. That risk has since been ruled out by NASA, but now Russian scientists have announced that Apophis will come disturbingly close to Earth on its April 13, 2029 flyby. "On that date," says Wikipedia, "it will become as bright as magnitude 3.3 (visible to the naked eye from rural as well as darker suburban areas, visible with binoculars from most locations). This close approach will be visible from Europe, Africa, and western Asia." The chart above, also from Wikipedia, indicates the potential impact zone for Earth along Apophis' path.

NASA maintains the Russian scientists' calculations are in error, however, and that Apophis will be at least 18,300 miles from Earth at its closest approach. Still, considering that the potato-looking asteroid is almost 900 feet wide, and given that it will pass well into areas inhabited by our orbital satellites, it still has great potential to wreak havoc.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Novalyne Price

Robert E. Howard, the stunningly prolific master of pulp literature who brought us Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror, and, uh, Dark Agnes de Chastillon, did it all for the one true love of his life. And her name was Novalyne Price.

According to Wikipedia:

Price initially sought out Howard for advice as to how she could get her writing published. Common interests and personal chemistry, however, created a strong bond of friendship between the two. Despite personality differences, misunderstandings, and unsuccessful attempts to bring their relationship beyond casual dating, Price and Howard remained close until Howard's suicide in 1936. After Howard's death, Price shifted her focus away from a writing career and strove to become the best teacher she could be, ultimately remaining a teacher until her retirement.

Throughout her life, Price did sell a number of articles and short stories, but it is her 1986 memoir (One Who Walked Alone) about her relationship with Howard for which she is best known. The movie, The Whole Wide World, starring Vincent D'Onofrio and Renée Zellweger is a direct adaptation of One Who Walked Alone.

Her influence on Howard's writing may be best seen in "Red Nails", published in Weird Tales after a trip to New Mexico with Truett Vinson, during which he discovered that Vinson had also been dating Price at the same time. He and Price never spoke again.

Howard committed suicide in 1936. He had made oblique foreshadowing of this when he told Price she was "in his sear and yellow leaf." Although the phrase sounded familiar to Price at the time, it was not until later that she discovered the source was Shakespeare's Macbeth:

I have liv'd long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.