Category Archives: Travels of an Intellectual Vagabond

Wherein I wax philosophical, intellectual, or pretentious.

[A-Z] O is for Otherworldly Stuff

nessieThere probably isn’t a huge snakelike plesiosaur hanging out under the waters of Loch Ness in Scotland (though when I visited there in 2001, that didn’t stop me from looking carefully for Nessie). And there probably isn’t a giant ape-like critter lurking in the northern woods, leaving giant footprints in its wake. The Dover Demon was probably a monkey or something like that, and I’m reasonably sure the chupacabra corpses that have been found were simply dead coyotes with mange.

But my cynicism goes even further: I’m pretty sure we’re not being visited by alien creatures in UFOs, and I’m pretty darn skeptical about ghosts.

But I’m still interested in these things. I have several thick books about ghosts, a few about cryptozoology, and many about myths and folklore and even a dictionary of superstitions. In the 90s, I was interested in conspiracy theories, though only academically: I was interested in the mindset that would lead people to believe that, say, JFK was assassinated by the Zeta Reticulans because he was about to reveal the truth of Majestic-12, for example.

I was a big believer when I was a kid. My parents bought me books like Chariots of the Gods by Erich Von Daniken, and I pretty much ate them up. I was particularly enamored with the Bermuda Triangle… That is, until I read a book called The Bermuda Triangle Solved or something like that. It laid out in a very logical fashion the history of the Bermuda Triangle, and debunked all of the paranormal theories behind it. Time warp? Debunked. Alien abductions? Debunked. The truth is, there are actually no more disappearances or vanishings in the Bermuda Triangle than there are over any other comparable area of the ocean.

So while I am skeptical about just about everything paranormal and otherworldly, I am still fascinated by the ideas. I’ve written stories about ghosts and Bigfoot and giant squid and other cryptids.

Sometimes I do wish there was a bit more to the world than what can be measured with our existing senses, but then I start thinking about the sort of thing I wrote in my last entry, and realize the world around us is pretty damn spiffy as it is.

(Of course, I’m also an Episcopalian. More about that later.)


This out-of-the-world post brought to you by the A-Z Blogging Challenge.

[A-Z] Z is for Zoology Etc.

Animal_diversityWhen I first started college at UC Davis, my plan was actually not to study Philosophy or English or any of the liberal arts at all. I’d done so well in my science classes in high school (particularly AP Biology) that I originally planned on going into medicine, with a focus on Biomechanical Engineering, whatever that meant at the time.

But, as usually happens with freshmen in college, I ended up changing majors. First, I went in as a Biological Sciences major. Then I decided that Marine Biology was really neat, so I switched to that. Then I was going to double major in English and Zoology, theorizing that I could do science in the days and write science fiction at night (“I could make up realistic sounding aliens, and then write about them!” is what I told people). Then I really wanted to be a veterinarian, so I switched over to animal physiology.

Then came my sophomore year, and I was a bit more realistic about what I could achieve in college. Mathematics had always been my downfall in high school, and I was no better off in college, where Calculus just about killed me. And so did Chemistry. Ugh. I ended up taking Statistics twice, and did worse the second time around than the first. But I did fantastic in the biology courses and physics courses that I took. I got a B+ in Physiology 110, which many students agreed was one of the hardest undergraduate courses at UC Davis. Emboldened, I took another swing at Chemistry, only to fail again. Double ugh.

Then I took a course in the philosophy of the biological sciences, and it was like I’d found my true calling. I was one of the only students in that class who understood the material and what was going on. The professor (actually a professor of population genetics who happened to dabble in philosophy) was impressed by me as well. Just at the end of that quarter I officially changed my major to philosophy.

My memory’s a bit sketchy here, but, as I recall, to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree from UC Davis, you needed a total of 180 quarter units (each class, of course being 4 or 5 units). To get a degree in Philosophy you needed to have a minimum of 52 undergraduate units in philosophy courses. When I graduated, I had 80 units in Philosophy, and 225 units overall, the point at which the University pretty much booted you out. That meant I had over 100 units in a wide variety of other courses like Botany, the aforementioned Statistics courses, Religious Studies, Political Science, Anthropology, Sociology, Folklore and Mythology, History, and so on. Not enough in any one field to get a minor in any of them, let alone a double major. I just enjoyed learning about whatever tickled my fancy whenever I opened that course catalog. My major adviser called me an intellectual vagabond and a dilettante. I wasn’t sure at the time, and I’m still not sure, whether he was complimenting me or expressing his frustration.

And, ironically, I never took a course in zoology.

And when it came time to graduate, I froze in terms of what to do next. I could have gone on to graduate school in Philosophy (I had a particular propensity for the philosophy of science as well as symbolic logic and the philosophy of religion), but the notion of having to focus on one area of study for the rest of my life was grating to me. I ended up doing… nothing. Floating. Drifting. Taking on job as a barista, a clerk at a video store, a newspaper delivery driver, a pizza delivery guy, and so on. Really, it was by chance that I ended up working at the same University where I had studied, and sheer luck landed me into my current job (okay, I spent years teaching myself web programming, but you get the idea).

To this day, I still enjoy reading books on philosophy and science, and I pride myself on being able to talk intelligently on a wide number of topics, as well as being smart enough to ask questions on the topics I know nothing about. I went to library school for a little bit, on the assumption that I would be able to find in there a career that would let me be paid to be an intellectual vagabond and dilettante, but I wasn’t able to fully integrate my love of open source technology with what I was learning, so I dropped out. A silly decision which I still regret, but what the hell.

So now I get my dose of vagabonditry and dilettantism here and there, reading books, watching documentaries, visiting zoos and natural history museums, and so on, though I really don’t do any of those as much as I used to.

In a way, I still feel adrift. I like the job I’ve landed in, and I enjoy writing the stories I do, but I still wish I could have found a way to make my curiosity pay my way through life.

Pondering an editing project…

I’ve been a fan of Tom Waits and his music since 1990 or so, when my friend Mike introduced me to Waits’s 1985 album Rain Dogs. I admire his range and I find his subject matter enthralling. While Jennifer says my Tom Waits CDs can “live in your car” (apparently she’s not a fan), I listen to them pretty frequently.

Here’s one of my favorite Waits songs, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, from 1992’s Bone Machine:

For contrast, here’s “Drunk on the Moon”, another of my favorites, dating back to 1974’s The Heart of Saturday Night:

This song, in fact, inspired a character in my novella, “The Winds of Patwin County”, which is, I think, one of my more successful pieces of fiction.

For some reason, I associate Tom Waits with writing. And for that reason, I’m pondering a project: editing an anthology of original short stories inspired by the music of Tom Waits. I have no idea at the moment how I’d go about doing it (I imagine I’d need to get some sort of rights from Tom Waits’s label to do this). I would probably set up a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project; the money would go to production costs (it’d be self-published) and to paying the contributing authors.

I don’t know for sure, though. Any thoughts, anyone?

Imaginary Time at the Sandwich Shop (A Lesson in Cosmology)

I’ve been re-reading A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, the revised and updated edition from 1998. Oh, I know that a lot of advances have been made in theoretical cosmology, quantum mechanics, and high energy particle physics over the past ten years, but I still think that much of what Hawking wrote applies. People who know better are more than welcome to correct me on this.

One concept that caught my eye is “imaginary time”. Imaginary time, Hawking explains, can be described as a timeline perpindicular to “real time”, which is the normal experience of time that we as human beings have and that we observe as a feature of the universe we observe. I have a hard time conceptualizing this, but it seems to be useful when talking about Feynman’s notion of “sum of histories”, which is a useful concept for describing how a particle travels through the infinite number of possible paths it could take. When applied to the entire universe, we can think of the universe’s progression through real time as a sum of histories over imaginary time.

From here on, things get more confusing.

Hawking explains that in real time, the dimension of time expands and lengthens the more that the universe progresses, either expanding outwards or contracting inwards. In imaginary time, though, it’s just the opposite; in other words, imaginary time contracts in a manner that is inversely proportional to the expansion of real time. The best way I have found to think of this (and I may be completely wrong) is to think of imaginary time as a way of envisioning the number of possible paths that the universe could progress on in its expansion, by which I mean the total sum of the infinite number of possible quantum states that the universe could expand into. It’s kind of like ordering a sandwich at Togo’s. One you place your order at the desk, the number of orders that you could have placed shrinks down to one. This, in essence, means that when you walked into the sandwich shop, the value of Togo’s Imaginary Time was much wider than it is when you contract it down to the one sandwich that you order.

According to Hawking, then, while the observation of the universe in real time indicates that there was a Big Bang and there will eventually be a Big Crunch (or some other way that the universe comes to an end — I, for one, like the notion of the Big Rip, which is a notion I explored in my short story “Padma”, though you’d be hard pressed to see that in there), in imaginary time, the universe has no such grand entrance into being. It just sort of coalesces out of the infinite number of possibilities of existence that existed prior to the universe’s existence. This means that, in imaginary time, at least, the universe has no distinct beginning or end, and thus no actual boundary conditions. Thus, the universe has come into being without actually having started.

Yeah, that confuses me too, and I may have gotten it wrong.

The philosophical implications of this are that there is no need for the universe to have a “beginning” or an “end”. It just IS, without having been created ex nihilo. “What need, then, for a Creator?” he asks.

With all due respect to Hawking (and he deserves a lot), I’m not convinced that there are any philosophical or theological differences between a Big Bang model of the universe’s existence, and Hawking’s model of the universe as a closed surface (so to speak) without boundaries. Really, it goes either way. You could argue that the Big Bang model requires a Creator who created the universe from a singularity or from nothing, or you could argue that the Big Bang model does not require a Creator, that the Big Bang exploded from a singularity pre-existent in a “quantum soup” of whatever sort of particle that existed prior to that event (though, of course, any notion of “prior to the Big Bang” makes no sense from a cosmological perspective). On the other hand, you could argue that the closed surface without boundaries model negates the need for God because then the universe is just one possible state of being among an infinite series of possible states of being. On the other hand, you could just as easily argue that those infinite possible states of being had to come from nowhere, so why not God? The notion that the universe’s boundary condition is that it has no boundaries does not negate the possibility of the existence of God.

I’m not arguing for the existence of God here, of course. That’s beyond the scope of my intention right now, and I doubt I’d be able to convince anyone either way if they’ve already made their mind up. I’m just pondering a possible response to Hawking’s suggestion that the bounded without boundaries nature of the universe makes God redundant: and that is, it doesn’t. Not necessarily, at least, to someone who’s already made their mind up anyway.

Of course, if you believe the Universe came into being about four thousand years ago with all of these properties built into place to make it look like it was created fifteen billion years ago — the Omphalos hypothesis — then all bets are off, and all this speculation is pointless.

With regards to imaginary time itself… Well, people who know me already know that I have joked that I find the notion of imaginary numbers as morally reprehensible. What, the infinite set of real numbers ain’t good enough for you? You have to go so far as to make up imaginary numbers to explain things? Shame on you! So I think I will take the same moral stance on imaginary time. Shame on you, Doctor Hawking! For shame!

Thus endeth our lesson on the moral implications of modern cosmological theory. I hope you enjoyed it.

Fly Me to a Flying Suborbital Space Platform…

Today, Virgin Galactic unveiled their new spacecraft: the WhiteKnightTwo, christened “Eve” in honor of company founder Sir Richard Branson’s mother. Eve is the ferry craft that will deliver SpaceShipTwo and its passengers and payloads into space. Or at least to very high altitudes.

WhiteKnightTwo on the runway in the Mojave Desert.
WhiteKnightTwo on the runway in the Mojave Desert.

Naturally, I think this is damn cool. I doubt that I’ll ever get to fly on SpaceShipTwo myself (I’ll never have nearly enough money to afford it) but forays into space travel always make me excited. When I was a kid I was pretty obsessed with the idea. I had a toy lunar module that you could turn on and that would scoot across the floor with a loud whirring noise. I still recall the way my heart thudded when I watched the space shuttle Enterprise fling itself off of the ferry aircraft, a modified 747. And I watched several of Enterprise‘s test flights (Enterprise was never meant for actual space flight, of course). And I also watched the live coverage of Columbia‘s first flight. During one of these test launches, I remember the announcer practically screaming with excitement: “And there’s the launch of AMERICA’S FIRST SPACE SHUTTLE!” Of course, nowadays, space shuttle launches are barely noted in the news media. I built models of the space shuttle, and even today looking at pictures of the shuttle fills me with childhood nostalgia.

Space Shuttle Enterprise at Kennedy Space Center launch pad. Note the all white external tank..
Space Shuttle Enterprise at Kennedy Space Center launch pad. Note the all white external tank..

From what I can tell — because I haven’t really kept close track of these things since I was a kid — the SpaceShipTwo passenger vehicle itself has not yet actually been built. But Eve is supposed to tug SpaceShipTwo into orbit, sort of like how the modified 747 carried Enterprise into its test flights.

Artist's conception of WhiteKnightTwo ferrying SpaceShipTwo into orbit.
Artist's conception of WhiteKnightTwo ferrying SpaceShipTwo into orbit.

See how SpaceShipTwo is slung between the twin fuselages of WhiteKnightTwo?

I’m not sure how long it will be until SpaceShipTwo is ready to start flying people into space. Virgin Galactic plans on being the first company to offer commercial space passenger flights. I do hope that other companies will follow suit, and that NASA keeps up its scientific and research missions as well. I’m a big believer in the necessity of manned space missions, and I’m pretty excited about NASA’s Project Constellation. I think we’re centuries away from interstellar travel or extraplanetary colonization, but I think that, Charles Stross aside, we, as a species, will figure out how to do it.

Plants with Eyes

Inspired by our recent trip to Safari West (where we got to play “Keeper for a Day”, which is why I got to hand feed a giraffe) and by watching The Mist, I’ve been amusing myself lately speculating about future directions of life on the surface of the Earth. Mostly I’ve been thinking about how marine ecology is full of things that sting, bite, deliver venom, lure unsuspecting critters to be food, and things that are just awfully good at hiding from the other things that want to eat them.

Now, marine life has been around significantly longer than surface life. Life on Earth first evolved in the oceans about four billion years ago, but the first land plants didn’t show up until about 475 million years ago, and it took about 75 million years after that for the for surface animals to show up in the form of simple insects and plants that bear seeds. This means that marine life has a significant head start over land life in evolving stinging, biting, eating, and venomous organs. Life underwater is much more fraught with peril than life on land (I know, try telling an antelope on the savannah that spending its life avoiding lions is a lot better than spending its life as a little fish avoiding a Portuguese man of war’s very poisonous stingers). So, given a couple more billion years, what will surface life on Earth look like (assuming that human beings are no longer around, having become extinct or simply gone on to better things)? The earth probably won’t be around in another four billion years, since the sun will become a red giant by then, so my speculations will necessarily be limited to two to three billion years.

Will surface life be just as full of stinging, biting, and muching things as underwater life? Insects, which have been around for a lot longer than other forms of animals, have got a jump on this sort of thing. Plants do it pretty well too. Some reptiles are pretty good at this sort of thing as well. Some simpler mammals have stingers that deliver poison (the platypus springs to mind, though as far as I know only the male of the species does), but most larger, more complex mammals simply rely on their big teeth and their big brains.

I’m not a theoretical biologist, though, so most of my speculations are limited to science fictional notions that I’ve picked up from other sources. In “The Mist”, King presents an alien ecology which is extremely dangerous to human beings, who barely stand a chance against even a relatively small insect like critter whose venom can kill one of us in just a few minutes. And David Gerrold, in his increasingly sparse and decreasingly impressive “War Against the Chtorr” series, presents a future in which the Earth is being “terraformed” by an alien species into an ecology much more dangerous and invasive than our own, and some of the character speculate that the alien ecology is much older than our own, so in its sheer ferocity it more resembles an underwater ecology rather than a contemporary surface ecology.

Of course, it’s also possible that the surface animals will simply continue to develop bigger brains and bigger teeth, relying more and more on those than on other means of hunting each other and hiding from each other. Maybe the future of life on earth will consist of faster antelopes and bigger lions. One thing that struck me as I was learning about the African savannah at Safari West is that Africa is simply swarming with antelopes and antelope like animals. Prey animals, in other words. And prey animals, with exceptions like giraffes and zebras, are usually antelope like (again, though, I have no expertise here, so any qualified zoologist, or any college student who has taken a introductory zoology class, will probably be able to correct me on this point). So maybe future ecologies on the surface of the earth will simply include variations on contemporary themes.

Then again, maybe things will get weirder, like the plants in this video:

Is that the coolest video ever or what? It’s from an animation studio called “1st Avenue Machine” and I like to think that plants in future ecologies will be just as bizarre as these.

Anyway, whether the future of the earth involves just variations on what we have already or something nightmarish like from the imaginations of King and Gerrold, it’s still a fun thing to speculate about. And maybe some day I’ll write a story about this theme.

Tip of the hat to the Weird Universe blog for the video.

Bees and other stingers

I’ve been following, off and on, the issue with the vanishing bees.  Colony Collapse Disorder is a pretty scary thing; while we don’t rely on bees exclusively for our crop pollination needs, they’re still crucial, and if the bees all go away, then things will be mighty tough.  I don’t believe we’ll face major famine and extinction, but food will be very expensive, and the human toll will still be frighteningly high.  Now, in our own little part of California, a very agricultural area, we don’t seem to have been hit particularly hard by CCD; I still see plenty of bees flying around, doing their bee stuff.  The worry is there, but seeing the bees (with whom I’ve always had pretty good relations) around makes me feel a little better.

There seem to be as many different theories about what’s happening to the bees as there are people looking at the problem.  The environmentalist wacko/doomsday theorist in me likes the idea that genetically modified crops are to blame.  It’s got a good beat, you can dance to it, and you can cast blame at the multi-billion dollar agricultural industry which is so dysfunctional in the United States anyway.  And while I do think that there are probably some aspects of the craze for GM crops that haven’t been studied thoroughly enough (if only because no one thinks to test for these things), the truth is that, according to my very few conversations with apiarists and farmers, the effects of most of these crops were pretty heavily tested on pollinating insects.  Plus, there have been GM crops in the field a lot longer than CCD has been an issue.

Another fringe theory that I’m less inclined to take seriously suggests that cell phones are to blame.  Yes, the signals from cell phones and cell phone towers can confuse bees and other insects and animals that rely on some sophisticated biological machine that we don’t quite get yet to make their way home, but the effect hasn’t been that strong.  What’s more, cell phones and cell phone towers have been around for at least a decade, but we’ve only observed CCD this past year.  The timelines don’t add up.

So it’s all still a mystery.  Major bee die-offs are not that unusual, but die-offs on the scale that we’re seeing now are unprecedented and scary.

Personally, I’m inclined to think that there may be a number of different factors which are contributing to the current problem.  Most bees in the agricultural industry are from one species, and whenever you have a large population with a nearly identical genome, you’re just asking for trouble.  Genetic variation is a nifty thing; when a new threat enters a genetically diverse population, the odds that someone in that population has a mutant gene that can fight it off and that can then be spread throughout the population rise.  But if those genes are missing, then such a threat can’t be fought off.  This kind of epidemic spread happens in any sort of ecosystem where the majority of a population has an identical genetic code, literally or metaphorically.  New computer viruses that spread havoc throughout the world do so partially because Windows computers are pretty much the same the world over, and if an exploit exists in the source code of the operating system on the computer I’m using, then it very likely exists in yours, and so the same virus can infect both.  If I’m running Linux and you’re running Windows, then only one of our computers will be infected.

So, there’s that.  I’ve also heard that GM crops can impact the immunological systems of bees; I haven’t been able to confirm that, but it’s an intriguing idea.  If it’s true, then this, combined with a lack of variation in the bees’ genetics, leaves them wide open to infection from other pathogens.  Researchers at UCSF have identified a fungus that may be the culprit, actually: a single-celled parasite called Nosema ceranae that has been found in many of the bees on which autopsies have been performed.  Since I’m not a population geneticist or a mycologist or an entomologist or an ecologist or an insect immunologist or any other sort of ologist, I can’t speak knowledgeably or authoritatively on the issue, but it’s an interesting idea.

One thing that sort of surprises me, though, is that Colony Collapse Disorder hasn’t been linked, in any of the news reports I’ve seen, with the phenomenon of the wasp mega-nests that were being found all throughout the South last year.  Seriously, we’re talking huge.  Paper wasps were building nests that filled up cars, nests with millions of insects when a nest would normally only contain a couple thousand.  These nests had several active queens at once, instead of just one.  Can you imagine walking into your barn one spring day to find that your old Chevy Packard has been packed with a monstrous paper wasp nest, and that they’ve been building smaller, "satellite" nests elsewhere in the barn as well?  Bees are fine little critters that do good and sting you only if you bug them, but wasps are flat out nuts and some of them will sting you just because they can.  And while bees disembowel themselves whenever they sting someone because their stingers are barbed, wasps have smooth stingers and can sting you again and again, and likely will, just because they’re ornery.  Doesn’t seem fair that while bees are experiencing a massive die-off, these wasps are having a population explosion.

Why the giant nests?  Another mystery, from what I’ve read, but some ecologists suggest that wasps normally experience die offs during the colder winter months which prevent their colonies from getting too massive.  But if the winter is too warm, then there’s no die off, and the colony just keeps growing and growing.  Others suggest that some of the queens are, for some reason, remaining in their original nests instead of heading out like they normally do to establish colonies of their own.  They’re lazy, but instead of killing each other, these queens learn to cooperate and build giant nests.

So, bees are dying off, and wasps are making giant nests.  It’s tempting to look for a common explanation.  If it really is an environmental factor that’s causing the giant nest phenomenon, then might the same factor have some role to play in the bee die-off?  Well, probably not, since the giant nest phenomenon was pretty localized to the American south and Colony Collapse Disorder seems to be turning into a global phenomenon.

Still, it’s fun to speculate.

Update:  Thanks to a friend of mine for pointing out this article to me about how cell phone signals apparently got linked with Colony Collapse Disorder.  Turns out it was some German researchers who were studying the effect of the radio signals generated by landlines on the learning ability of bees.  Nothing to do with cell phones at all, but the media, surprisingly, misinterpreted the research.  Imagine that.

Let's Break Your Brain

Via David Brin’s blog (have you not read anything by David Brin? No? What the hell’s wrong with you?) I found this article regarding another idea about the ultimate fate of our universe; rather than the ultimate heat death as has been occasionally predicted, or the Big Crunch as has alternately predicted, this new model suggests that if there’s enough "dark energy", then the universe will eventually rip apart into little shards that become new universes themselves.  Our own universe may have begun as a shard of a previously exploded universe; this would explain how it was that our universe, at the very beginning, started out in a state of high order instead of disorder, since as the shards rip apart from the exploded universe, they take along with them high states of order.  As the universe transitions from the state of high order to disorder, all kinds of neat things happen: galaxies, stars, planets, life, and so on.  Everything we know, see, etc., it’s all the universe just running down from its original highly ordered state.  Until the universe explodes, creating new daughter universes that will begin their own processes of entropy.  And so on.

The problem with this model, as Brin explains it, is that it requires an actual empty space for universes to explode into.  No big deal, except that standard models of the universe and of the Big Bang over the past fifty years or so have all suggested that the Big Bang did not explode into empty space, because empty space came into being as part of the Big Bang itself.  In a way, the new model of universes exploding into empty space makes a little more sense, because it’s easier to think of empty space rather than… well, than nothing, not even space.  Although I imagine that the empty space into which these daughter universes explode is very different from the empty space that we think of as existing between the galaxies or between President Bush’s ears.  The spacetime into which a universe comes into being is flat, rather than curved as the empty space in our own universe is.

Damn cosmologists.  Just when we get used to one counter-intuitive, paradoxical idea of how the universe works, they come up with another.  I swear, they do this to us on purpose.

Now, if pondering the Big Bang and the nature of the universe, hasn’t broken your brain, perhaps this video — which my younger sister first clued me in to — will do the job. Below the fold and through the cut. Enjoy.
Continue reading Let's Break Your Brain

Urban Legends: Subversion vs. Radical Conservatism

I attended a panel once about urban legends, where the famous story of Dihydrogen Monoxide was brought up. You probably know the story: a kid gets a bunch of people to sign a petition calling for a ban on “dihydrogen monoxide”, listing all kinds of horrific side effects and dangers of the chemical. Later on it is revealed that the dihydrogen monoxide is nothing but water.

I’m not particularly sure that this really counts as an urban legend, since Snopes.com points to a documented case of this happening. On the other hand, I’ve been hearing this story since I was in high school, so maybe this does count. For the purposes of the panel I was at, it did count as an urban legend.

The panelists asked the audience to consider what, if anything, this particular story might have to reveal about our culture. One of the panelists suggested that it contained a very subversive message; and that message was to distrust science. That message may indeed be there in this story, but is it a subversive one?

Brunvard, in The Vanishing Hitchhiker and elsewhere, suggests that most urban legends have a very morally conservative tone to them. The story of “The Hook”, for example, contains a warning to young people to not go “parking” with their boyfriends or girlfriends. The story of the “Hippie Babysitter” contains a strong warning against taking drugs. So for this story of Dihydrogen Monoxide, I would suggest that the message — not to trust science — is, in fact, a very socially conservative message. Our culture, I think, since the 50’s has become more and more anti-science, particularly after we saw the destruction wreaked upon the world by the atomic bomb, arguably the most visible evidence of scientific advancement. We have also seen the near meltdown at Three Mile Island, massive pollution of our water and air, and so on. I think that this has introduced a backlash against science. And this story seems to reinforce that message: You simply cannot trust scientists, because they don’t even speak English. Furthermore, stories like this seem to suggest that scientists aren’t even interested in communicating with the ordinary American, and might even go out of their way to deliberately confuse and make fun of them.

I think that there is also a religious backlash against science as well. Many people believe that scientific findings contradict the teachings of their faith and, so, undermine their faith. I don’t believe that this is necessarily true, but enough people believe this that there are major movements in the United States to alter science curricula in high schools to eliminate the teaching of evolution.

It seems to me, therefore, that rather than embracing a message of subversive distrust in science, this urban legend actually promulgates a reactionary conservative message of distrust in science.

Ruminations on a Zeppo

The cold I picked up in Ireland appears to have mutated into some sort of annoying permanent viral respiratory infection which has knocked me on my ass for the past couple of weeks. I’m extremely fortunate in that I can work from home while sick, which means I can stay close to my nebulizer and all my other medicines, and also be close to my doctor just in case I need to see him at some point. I’d rather be in the office, because sitting at home tends to make me kind of stir crazy.

I have been using the opportunity these past two weeks, though, to catch up on a bunch of DVD’s that my parents gave to me for Christmas. Among these films is a collection of ultra-cheap discs including some Flash Gordon, some Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, and a disc full of giant lizard action (the silent version of The Lost World, The Giant Gila Monster, and a Superman cartoon featuring the Man of Steel fighting a Tyrannosaurus pulled from the Arctic ice). It’s been fun watching these old shows, comparing the narrative style of, say, Flash Gordon, to more modern stories. Make no mistake; these stories are more sophisticated than the modern viewer typically assumes. At least, it’s a way to keep my mind off my lungs.

Also among the DVD’s in my collection is the Silver Screen collection of five Marx Brothers films. This collection includes Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, Monkey Business, Animal Crackers, and The Cocoanuts. A few months ago I watched Duck Soup and resisted the urge to compare the governorship of Rufus T. Firefly with the presidency of George Bush (I find it much easier to take Groucho seriously as a national leader than George Bush); the other day, I watched Horse Feathers. Right now I’m watching Monkey Business to lubricate my brain as I try to install PHP OCI8 extensions on our server.

Zeppo MarxOne thing that has struck me in particular about these films is the role of Zeppo. Traditionally Zeppo is considered a minor player in the Marx Brothers movies (this is so much the conventional wisdom that an episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, featuring Xander and exploring his less than central role in the stories, was called “The Zeppo”). It seems to me, though, that Zeppo has a comic persona just as developed, though more subtle, as those of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. Groucho’s the wisecracking smart-alec, Chico’s the crazed Italian, Harpo’s the — well, he’s the Harpo. But what is Zeppo? Who is he supposed to be?

Zeppo, with his clean cut looks and tidy suit, appears to be a straight man; and he plays his roles mostly as a straight man. And yet there’s a certain insanity in Zeppo that isn’t hard to see; from the opening moments of Monkey Business, when he emerges from the barrel with that crazed yet moronic grin, he comes across as almost a surreal parody of the typical guy on the street. His mundane interactions with the women passengers on the ship are quite funny. There’s that scene where he promises, “Mary, I’ll never leave you”, whereupon he jumps up and runs off stage at top speed as the ship’s officers approach.

So, watching Zeppo, it’s easy to forget that he can be just as crazed as Groucho; it’s just that he’s far more subtle about it.  He’s the crazed straight man, the guy on the street who looks perfectly normal but who has those eyes that dart back and forth, looking for a barrell to duck into — or to put over your head.
I recently learned that Zeppo also acted as an understudy to his brothers; rumor has it that he played Groucho even better than Groucho did.   More evidence of Zeppo’s comic abilities.  It’s a shame that he chose later on to leave show business and become a talent agent.  He was even given a larger role in the film Horse Feathers (which he did brilliantly) in the hopes that he would change his mind.  He didn’t.
Perhaps when Joss Whedon equated Xander to Zeppo in that episode, it was a deeper commentary on Xander’s role than it would seem superficially. I wouldn’t put that past Whedon, after all. He’s pretty clever that way.

I dunno. Maybe I’m just ruminating over a subject which has been beaten to death already in academia. Maybe there’s a pile of feathers where once a horse had been flogged to death. Or maybe the asthma is impacting my ability to think straight or write coherently.  But I think it’s an interesting question.