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Zetetics, schmetetics… it’s full of stars!

Every morning I get up and walk two miles. This is because my doctor has gotten cranky in his old age. Part of the path I take is around the city park down on First Avenue, across the gully/railroad tracks from the theatre, going three times around the path.

It’s a lovely, open greensward, and lately part of its appeal is its unimpeded view of the sky. I realized this the morning after the recent Perseids meteor shower when I caught the last of the meteors flashing across the sky. I made a mental note for next time.

This past week I’ve been watching the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter on the eastern horizon, and since I’ve been reading Flat Earth, by Christine Garwood, it has been an amazing experience.

We have a couple of disparate threads here—I’ll try to keep it clear as we go along.


First of all, Flat Earth is solidly researched and infuriating: no one after the Babylonians believed the earth was flat—you have been lied to every Columbus Day—but in the 1840s, after Darwin had published and scientists began establishing themselves both as a profession and as an arbiter of truth, there arose a countermovement which looks, unfortunately, very familiar to us here in the 21st century: the Zetetic Astronomy movement.

Zetetic came from the Greek philosophers, and the short version is that it meant you shouldn’t believe anything but your lying eyes. Earth looks flat? Then it is. Those “scientists” were just pointy-headed atheists who were trying to pry you away from God, who clearly said the earth had corners and pillars and that Joshua made the sun stand still which how could it do if the earth were moving anyway hernggh??

It is very distressing to read how all the pieces familiar to us today from the evolution wars were already in place: shyster pitch-men who may or may not believe what they’re selling to the rubes; the appeal to Scripture as an absolute truth; the scalding vituperation towards science and fact; and the refusal to countenance any evidence that contradicts the Holy Word of whoever it is that’s telling you that the Earth is Flat.

One bit of “evidence” that the zetetics found irresistible was that no sane person could possibly believe that we were on a globe rotating at 25,000 miles per hour, hurtling around the sun at 67,108 miles per hour. Any child could see how that was an insane lie: we’d all be flung from this supposed sphere into the skies.

Hold that thought.


If you get to spend any time with the stars at night, one thing that impresses itself on you is how they’re always the same. Javert was right in staking his moral imperative on them; they never change. (The fact that his moral imperative was wrong need not concern us here.)

For the ancients, the stars loomed much larger, of course. Every night was a complete blackout for them, and the view of the sky every night was spectacular in a way that requires us to take trips to Monument Valley to see.

And every night, the stars were the same. You saw the same patterns, the same groups, the same brightnesses, every night. You could identify them. You would notice how they rotated around that one star, how as the seasons changed they shifted northward or southward, how the sun rose each morning in specific groups that marched along in an annual procession.

You would notice the regularity of it all, how the sun would rise a little earlier every morning, a little further south every day, until one day in June when it would “stop” and go back the other way.

And then in the winter, after its northward trek, rising later and setting earlier every day, the sun would reverse course and return us to spring. I think I would have started having a party every year that day or something. Maybe something with a lot of lights.

Anyway, it was always the same, a crystal sphere set with twinkling gems, eternal and flawless and unchanging.

Except for those seven stars.


Look at this:

from the Astronomy Photo of the Day, NASA—do not click on the photo! Don’t do it!

[Disclaimer: I am in no way responsible for any time suck occurring because you clicked on that link.]

Here we have Venus (on the top) and Jupiter in what is called “conjunction,” and it is easy to see why. The photo is from the great site Astronomy Picture of the Day, taken on the isle of Elba on Monday, August 21.

Here’s what I saw last Friday, August 29:

This is what struck me like a ton of bricks: what a staggering thing to look up and see these stars that don’t behave. They are never where they were the day before, and you can see them change on a daily basis. The Greeks had a name for them: ἀστὴρ πλανήτης, “wandering stars,” astēr planētēs. Planets.

If you observed them carefully for a while, of course, you’d see that they too seemed to have regular paths and you could predict things like the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, or when Mercury would stop in its tracks and retrace its steps across the sky for a while. Doing so required very complicated diagrams if you believed that everything orbited around the earth, which everyone did because NO ONE THOUGHT THE EARTH WAS FLAT, PEOPLE.

You may now insert paragraphs about Copernicus and Brahe and Newton. Blah blah science blah. Have some pictures:

And a couple of movies/interactive sites:

Travel through the solar system at 300 times the speed of light

If the moon were only 1 pixel…

To quote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.


So here we are, on our morning walk, and knowing what we actually know about the universe and not what our lying eyes tell us, look up again:

Now we can see what’s going on here. Venus and Jupiter. We know that Venus is closer to the sun. We know that Jupiter’s diameter is actually 11 times that of Venus despite appearing smaller to our lying eyes. We know that’s because it’s gazillions of miles further away.

We know that each is heading its own way around the sun—Venus is going faster than we are, Jupiter slower.

And if we stand there and look at those two stars, we can begin to see that the reason they are getting farther apart every morning is that we are hurtling on our path between them at 67,000 mph. Jupiter is falling further behind to our right, and Venus is scampering on ahead on our left.


See the line formed by Venus/Jupiter? That’s the ecliptic, the plane on which all the planets orbit the sun. (Pluto notoriously does not, but then… well, we know about poor Pluto, don’t we?)

Notice that it’s at an angle. A 23.5° angle. That’s how much the Earth is tilted from the perpendicular to the ecliptic. It’s what give us seasons; it’s why the sun moseys from north to south and back again, solstice to solstice. We’re tilted in space, and here we can see it.

So there I am, looking at these two beautiful points of light in the morning sky, and when I think through all of these things, I get a very very real sense of the ground beneath my feet moving at 25,000 miles per hour towards the rising sun, while tilted at a 23.5° angle, zooming towards and between those two lights through vast, empty spaces.

It is no wonder that our Flat Earth friends rejected out of hand these marvels—it’s so much safer to believe your lying eyes, isn’t it?

3 Old Men: the staff (day 6)

Here are today’s aesthetic materials: copper tacks.  I found them online.  First I ordered the ones on the left, but when they came they were so tiny that I feared they might not be sturdy enough to hold the lizard onto the staff.  I then ordered the ones on the right, only to find once I had the lizard designed that they were too big.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider MOOP.

MOOP stands for Matter Out Of Place, and it’s a huge no-no in Burner Land.  Out at Black Rock City, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allows the festival to leave behind one square foot of debris per acre; more than that, and the annual permit is not renewed.  As you can imagine, BMOrg is very serious about the Leave No Trace principle.

The 3 Old Men experience was designed from the very beginning to be as MOOPless as possible.  Originally, you may recall, it was just me, Craig, and David traipsing across the Playa in loincloths and staves.  No MOOP at all to speak of.

When the labyrinth was added, MOOP was one of my overriding concerns: it all comes out of a crate, gets set up, and all goes back into the crate.  No fiddly bits, no moving parts, no feathers, no sequins.  No MOOP.

So here I am about to use these tiny little copper tacks to affix my lizard, and all I can think of is that these little buggers are just MOOP waiting to happen, if they don’t hold.  And while out at the Playa it might be perfectly easy to sift the dust to find them, somehow I’m thinking that the farmland of Alchemy might be more of a challenge. Spoiler alert: they seem to be working just fine.

The little tacks are pure copper; the larger ones are copper-plated steel or zinc.  This means the little ones are a lot softer than the big ones, and a little experimentation showed that it would be more efficient to pre-punch holes in the lizard, especially at the folded-under edges:

And here we are, all punched and ready to go.

I had the presence of mind, two or three sessions ago, to mark the correct position of the lizard with little dots of magic marker, and they still showed through the blue stain quite well.  (The cerise surface is a yoga mat, which is sitting on a towel.  This cushioned the staff against scratches as I tapped tacks in.)

The first tack:

And done.

In the process, about an eighth of the tacks bent or otherwise failed and had to be discarded.  Since there are about 1,000 tacks in the box, I was profligate in my rejection.

Here’s what it looks like.

And in its natural habitat, i.e., raised aloft:

I will now let it sit there and annoy me for a month or so.  I really think I need to make the eyes and the stripe more more somehow.  Remember that the ritual will often take place at night, and so more definition of those details might be important.  I don’t know.

Also, I keep thinking that I can/should use some of the remaining tacks to create more decoration on the staff: lines, swirls, waves, etc.  Something along these lines, perhaps.  But all those tacks… the specter of MOOP haunts me…

In other news…

I recently renewed my membership in the American Composers Forum and immediately began looking over the Opportunities available to members.

So far today, I have submitted the following:

  • Fresh Squeezed Opera Company: They were looking for new arias, etc., so I submitted “My mother, bored and pampered,” promising to orchestrate it for their small ensemble if they select it.
  • Denison University Tutti Festival: I submitted two works, the Pieces for Bassoon and String Quartet, and “Blakes Leads a Walk on the Milky Way.”

I’m also considering inquiring about the Sacramento State University’s odd little posting about premiering works and students studying the history of such premieres.  I mean, why not?  Who says I can’t whack out a new piece for chorus and small ensemble by “early November”?

I’ll keep you posted about further submissions as I continue to explore the Opportunities.

3 Old Men: the staff (day 5)

Nearly there!  Yesterday was the most nerve-wracking of the construction steps for my staff, since the lizard is the main design element and I was fearful of “messing it up,” a perfectly meaningless concept of course.  But still.

Here is the design:

It will be made from copper sheeting, which I just happened to have lying around.

I would like to point out that I bought this from Hobby Lobby years ago, before they revealed themselves to be Dominionists of the worst sort.

All laid out and ready to go:

After outlining the design in marker, I went back with a ballpoint pen and traced the center stripe and the eyes, embossing it into the copper.

Halfway cut out.

Notice that I leave a margin around the outline.  This is because there may or may not be intoxicated individuals near the staff, and I’m thinking that SWIM1 would be loath to seek medical attention if my their hand were sliced open by sharp lizard edges—so I designed it to have a turned-under edge.

You may have noticed that the feet seem to be simple, spade-shaped affairs.  Not so: they will be clever little lizard fingers, but I was concerned about how best to make those.  Therefore, a test foot:

After marking them, I embossed the outline of the fingers, thinking that would make it easier to turn the edges under.  As it turned out, that step was not necessary.

The finished fingers looked very nice I thought.

I will say at this point that the proper tools—which we have discussed previously—are always a blessing, and turning under a small band of copper like this necessitated a trip to Michaels, where I bought some jewelry-making tools:

The super-thin needlenose pliers were particularly and spectacularly helpful.  Here’s the beast all turned under except for the fingers:

And here he is all done.

The final phase is to attach him to the staff.  I say “final,” but there are other options to think about: does he need jeweled eyes?  Also, I have in mind that it might be necessary to further decorate the staff as a whole… well, you’ll see.


1 “Someone Who Isn’t Me”

3 Old Men: the staff (day 4)

Our lizard has undergone some weight reduction:

He wraps around the staff much more prettily now.

Here’s our next set of materials:

Copper, brass, and aluminum wire.    Not sure about the brass, but I felt that three metals/colors were required.

These are to create the required markings for the staff.  Remember the grooves?

I drilled a tiny hole in the groove, and then wrapped the wire around the groove.  When it was filled, I drilled another tiny hole and stuck the end of the wire in.  With a lot of luck, it won’t come undone and poke me in the eye.

Here’s the best shot I could get of the whole thing:

It’s pretty cool looking, I think.

Next is creating the lizard and attaching it to the staff, and then I have to do some thinking about further decoration.  You’ll see what I mean after I get the lizard on there.

In other news, one day recently I was out in the labyrinth and right before my eyes a branch holding some bells and a lamp made from a wine bottle  crashed to the ground.  It was not unexpected—I had noticed that the branch was dead and was twisting lower and lower.  The wine bottle thing broke, alas, and quite surprised the wasps who were building a nest in it.

So I had to figure out what to do about the bells.  There really aren’t low-hanging branches in the labyrinth, not ones that will support cast-iron bells anyway.

I couldn’t really figure out an attractive solution, so here’s what I ended up with:

I had bought two poles back when I was starting my Old Man staff ideas, so I took the other one and painted it dark green.  I’ve lashed it to the tree with camouflage rope—yes, that’s a thing—and hung the bells from that.

It’s not pretty at all, but it will have to serve until I get inspired.

3 Old Men: the staff (day 3)

Time to stain the staff, and no, that’s not a euphemism, Jobie.

Here we see my system in all its perfection functionality.  The pole on the left is for another project altogether that I hope to get to tomorrow. On the right, we have my Old Man staff.

After one coat of stain:

After two coats:

And that’s it, folks.  I can’t really make watching paint dry interesting.

In other news, I was able to borrow a serger sewing machine from one of my oldest friends, whom I’ve known since first grade at Elm Street more than 50 years ago.  (That still make me feel funny when I say it.)  I should be able to get the skirts at least started this week, and by started I mean cut out and the edges of those huge pieces of fabric serged.  The actual assembly of the skirts will probably have to wait until I’m back from the beach.

Mystery of Life… solved!

Well, one of the mysteries of life.  And don’t go googling it and show me that everyone else already knew this.  Don’t care.

It is widely acknowledged that a tube of toothpaste will be half empty in a week, but then the remaining half will last a month.  Unpossible, right?

Probably most of us have a nagging sense that this is not really so, it’s just a perception of an average human being who is generally not quite awake most of the time it’s noticing this.

But it is so.  I will now explain.

Here we have a cross-section of a tube of toothpaste:

Or a sideways view.  Whatever LEAVE ME ALONE.

You may have seen some television program on how they make these things, but essentially, it is a tube that is crimped at the bottom.  In other words, an uncrimped tube would look like the blue square below:

From here, we can easily see what happens if we look at the two “halves” of the tube:

When we say that “half” the tube is gone in a week, it’s because we’re looking at the rectangle of the crimped tube (as viewed from the top) and dividing it in half visually.  By volume, clearly, that lower half is not even close to being half the contents and is therefore used up fairly quickly.  What’s left is the majority of the toothpaste, and of course that takes a lot longer to use up.   We could go all Euclidean on the topic and prove it with MATH, but I’m content to leave that work to future generations.

And now you know.  Unless you already knew.  Whatever LEAVE ME ALONE.

3 Old Men: the staff (day 2)

Art is an ugly ugly business, you guys.  It just lies there, laughing at you, taunting you with its eternal and unattainable perfectability.  And you should try doing it on a curved surface sometime.

Here we see the staff wrapped in a rectangle approximately 4.75 inches across, that being the circumference of a 2-inch circle—despite my earlier calculation of 6.25 inches.  Don’t know who did that math.

I had found an image of a lizard that I liked, but it didn’t really work when I wrapped it around the staff, and so here I am free-handing the design onto the staff.  The problem is that there’s not a lot of room in less than five inches; the lizard’s claws kept overlapping.

Anyway, eventually I just traced it in marker and cut it off:

You see what I mean about art being ugly.  And the round surface—the poor thing doesn’t even have a right front limb.  It looks decapitated as well, mostly due to the fact that my original concept had the animal kind of draped over the top of the staff, i.e., the body going up one side and the head coming down the other.  But there was no room.  That’s why the creature’s right left limb looks as if it’s been broken—I was trying to fit the claws in around the head.

So out comes the tracing paper:

You will recall how yesterday I referenced the joy of having the correct tools.  This is certainly the case with me and art supplies; for almost any project you can imagine, I have what we need.  Earlier this year, in fact, I swore an oath that I would make time each day to “waste art supplies.”  If I had actually done it, I would have had enough art supplies to last quite some time.  But I haven’t done it.  Good thing I didn’t blog about it.  (Or maybe not making it a public thing is why I didn’t do it…)

So this guy gets cut out, wrapped around the staff, and tinkered with.  I spent a lot of time making sure that he was “anatomically correct,” in the sense that the legs are in opposition.  I actually sliced off all four limbs and retaped them at different angles in order to get them to fit on the staff.  And it still didn’t match the mythical fuzzy image somewhere in my head.

And a final re-tracing:

You’ll notice that even in this “final” tracing, I’ve redone the right hind limb in red pencil.

I think what’s going to happen next—other than staining the staff—is that I’m going to make the lizard thinner, which would create space between the claws on the far side of the staff.

Don’t look.  It’s ugly.

3 Old Men: the staff (day 1)

In an alternate universe, I would be nervously packing and repacking for to leave for Burning Man next weekend.  In this one, I’m just now getting started on a couple of items for Alchemy, the north Georgia Burn in October.

Each officiant in 3 Old Men is responsible for creating his own staff.  (Quick recap: the bare-chested officiant wears a long ceremonial skirt of monks cloth and carries an 8-foot staff.)

The staff must be eight feet long with specific markings:

The markings are specific because we use them to lay out the labyrinth.  The center of the labyrinth is an octagon eight feet across, so we lay out four staves in a square.  The 22-1/8” markings are the corners of the octagon, and from there we can stake out the center.  We’ll be laying out the center of each axis, and from the center mark on the staff, the 3′ and 5′ markings give the edges of the path.

Within this framework, though, it is up to each man to create whatever staff he wants to hold.

So with that background, here’s the first installment of the making of my staff.

My base is nothing more than a 2-inch round from Home Depot.  I’m going to be staining it, and so my first step was to build some stands to hold it off the tarp when I do that.

It was great fun dragging out my radial arm saw and my drill press.  As my friend Craig says, having the right tools is a joy forever.  Of course, he has this sizable quonset hut on his property with a real shop, so his joy is even greater than mine.

Still, it took no time at all to cut up a 1×6 into pieces, drill a 3-inch hole in some of them, split them, and then nail them to the bases.  I ended up with eight of them, so we could actually gussy them up a bit to serve as actual ceremonial pieces to hold our staves.

In action:

You can see the markings on my staff.  Close up:

I went out to Craig’s nifty workshop, and he rabbeted out those grooves for me.  I shan’t explain them.  I think I’m just going to show you each step of the process and let the staff grow for you as I work on it.
I sanded the staff, and thus endeth Day 1 of the making of the staff.

Yippee (not to mention Heigh-ho!)

Look what came in the mail today, you guys!

I haven’t really blogged about M.T. Anderson’s Pals in Peril series, and so now I shall.

M.T. Anderson is a whiz of a young adult author whose range is fearsome: the dystopian classic Feed (you will never ever again think that Google Glass is a good idea); the alternative Revolutionary War history of Octavian Nothing; and on a completely different level, the awesomely silly Pals in Peril books.

It began with Whales on Stilts, and I was hooked.  Anderson took on the world of children’s book series and scored a direct hit. Lily, our heroine, is nothing special (although her dad obliviously works for a semi-cetaceous evil genius), but her friends Jasper Dash and Katie Mulligan lead such exciting lives that they’ve had whole books written about them.

Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut, seems permanently suspended in 1930s brio.  (Think Tom Swift.)  Katie lives in Horror Hollow and is always having to deal with creepy supernatural goings-on.  (Think R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps.)  All three save the world from whales on stilts (with lasers!) in the first book, and from there it gets really silly.

Anderson is very funny, with the potshots at children’s literature and popular culture embedded so cleverly that most young readers will never see them.  But for adults of a certain age (mentally 9-13, I’m thinking) his wit is devastating.  Here’s a simple descriptive passage of their hometown:

Pelt—where Jasper, Katie, and Lily lived—was not a very exciting place… To pep up business on Main Street, store owners had put mannequins out on the sidewalk, advertising dusty sweaters or pillbox hats, but the mannequins were just assaulted by gulls.

No kid could possibly recognize the reference to Hitchcock’s The Birds, but the discerning adult will already have laughed out loud.

The pinnacle of the series so far is the third, Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware, in which Anderson’s world-creation is so supremely loopy that to this day it is one of the funniest books I have ever read.  It’s as if the absurdist anarchy of Green Acres were translated onto an earnest children’s adventure tale: much to the astonishment of Lily and Katie, every goofy thing that Jasper mentions turns out to be true in spades, up to and including the monks who live in grand seclusion in the mountains of Delaware.

[Our heroes are in Jasper's Gyroscopic Sky Suite (because of course they are) heading to Dover to begin their trek to the monastery of Vbngoom in the mountains of Delaware.]

“Okay,” said Katie, “I really am only going to say this one time… [list of incorrect things Jasper has been saying about their destination] …and there are no—hear me—no no no mountains in—”

“Behold: Dover.  Capital of Delaware,” said Jasper.

Its domes and minarets lay before them, glowing gold in the sunlight amid the hanging gardens, the pleasant palaces, the spired roofs of ancient temples; in the harbor, the purpe-sailed ships of Wilmington plied the waves, and the dragon-headed prows of the barbarian kingdoms to the south dipped their oars in wrinkled waters while plesiosaurs turned capers at their sides.  The Zeppelin-Lords of frosty Elsmere drifted above the city, their balloons gilded with the tropical sun, eating sherbet on their porphyry verandas.  Huge tortoises fifteen feet across lumbered through the widest avenues, carry nomads’ tents upon their backs.  Processions wandering through the streets glittered with gold and ancient costumery.

Grand silliness, and yet at the end of the book I found my eyes quite moist as Anderson describes the monks of Vbngoom flying joyfully from trampoline to trampoline between the crags of the monastery, celebrating their victory over the robot gangsters.

But here’s a weird thing: I thought I had a copy of Jasper Dash, but I must have given it away—so I ordered a paperback copy, and Anderson has changed the ending.  It no longer includes that passage, with its boom camera pullback and pan up to sky and fade to black.  Instead, the writing fades into a montage of adventure themes before fading to black.  There’s a new appendix with the “state song” of Delaware, plus a copy of the letter the actual governor of Delaware wrote to Anderson, deliciously funny itself.  (Early in the book, Anderson excoriates writers who spend a couple of weeks in a country and then write books about the place as if they truly understand it.  He assures us he’s not that guy; he’s never even been to Delaware, so he’s completely untrustworthy.  However, since Simon & Schuster value accuracy in their books, Anderson instructs anyone who finds an “error” in his geography, etc., to put that in a letter and send it to //page turn// the Office of the Governor, followed by the full address of the Delawarian governor.)

I may have to go find a library copy to see if I’m completely inventing this memory of the ending of the book.

Still, you see why I’m excited about the newest Pals in Peril book.   Something fun without deep meaning to crack open—that’s the ticket!