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Astrophysics—how does it work?

Remember our discussion about how the brains of conservative humans tend to operate from a basis of fear?  John Hagee, Christianist TV grifter extraordinaire, has exemplified the syndrome for us.

You are probably aware that last night was the first of four total lunar eclipses, popularly known as “blood moons” because of the color of the shadow cast by the earth onto our satellite.  Apparently, having four of them in six months intervals like that is unusual.

HOW UNUSUAL, you ask?  Let’s let John Hagee tell us:

“Is this the end of the age?” Hagee asked during a recent sermon, before quoting Acts 2:19-20: And I will show wonders in Heaven above and signs in the Earth beneath, the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord.”

“I believe that the heavens are God’s billboard, that he has been sending signals to planet Earth,” he explained. “God is literally screaming at the world, ‘I’m coming soon.’”

Hagee predicted that the four eclipses were signaling a “world-shaking event that will happen between April 2014 and October 2015.”

“God sends plan[e]t Earth a signal that something big is about to happen! He’s controlling the Sun and the moon right now to send our generation a signal, but the question is, are we getting it?”

[from Crooks and Liars, 4/14/14]

I’m surprised he didn’t quote Joel 2:31, but perhaps he’s saving that for today’s live broadcast.  That and its analog from Revelation because of course he will.

Where to begin?

First of all, John, what exactly could you mean by “[god's] controlling the sun and moon right now”?  Are you suggesting that he is causing them to move in a way that is creating these four eclipses at times that they would otherwise not occur?  Because that would indeed be FREAKING AWESOME SIGN FROM GOD, wouldn’t it?  The whole planet would be a-quiver with wonderment.  Tides would be disrupted; sunrise/sunset apps on our phones would be worthless.  Scientists would be roaming the streets in sackcloth and ashes, flagellating themselves for their disbelief.  Dogs and cats, etc., etc.

Because if that’s not what you mean, then here’s a simple question for you, John: How do you know about the four consecutive lunar eclipses in the first place?  That’s like 18 months of seeing into the future, you know?  ARE YOU A PROPHET, JOHN?  Because that would be a FREAKING AWESOME SIGN FROM GOD, wouldn’t it?

Oh, wait.

This is where I want Anonymous to hack into Hagee’s live broadcast and say:

The very fact that John Hagee knows about these four events 18 months in advance is because they are simply natural occurrences, just like sunrise and sunset.  The earth rotates, the earth orbits. So does the moon.  Like your windshield wipers and the song on the radio, every once in a while they will match up at exactly the right moment.  We know about these patterns, and we know when they’re coming.  That is all.  If you think that they are a sign from God, a portent, then you will need to consider the fact that the last tetrad was in 1967/68, and the one before that in 1949/50.  There have been two previous tetrads within John Hagee’s lifetime—did he ignore God’s message those two times?  Why are you afraid?


Oh, Peter Jackson, you scamp

We streamed The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug last night.  You may recall that I had sworn not to watch it until I could fast forward through all the Peter Jackson bits.  Despite all my friends and relations assuring me that it was a lot better than the first one, I held out.

I was right, of course.  It is a lot better than that first installment, but it is still overlong and still too full of Jackson’s signature whizbang/stupid crap.  Did I call it with the barrel escape from Thranduil’s realm?  I did.

Jackson is not alone in loading down his movies with whizbang/stupid.  It was Roger Ebert, I think, who railed against car chases that did not advance the plot, and that has spoiled almost every action film for me since.  What is the point of having the orc squad make it all the way to Laketown when we  know it won’t make one difference in the plot?  If Jackson were a bold storyteller, he might have killed off those children and/or a dwarf or two.  Not the pretty one, of course, we need him for the hot dwarf-on-elf romance (and for the remake of Poldark, YOU GUYS!) but surely his brother was expendable.

Likewise, the entire romp with Smaug through the halls of Erebor was just a time-waster, almost inexplicable in its complexity, completely without purpose.  After all the business with the molten gold, the end result was that Smaug shook it all off and flew off to Laketown, which he was going to do anyway.  Not very evil or clever to allow himself to be distracted from his purpose in that way, I thought.

Here’s the worst part: the entire third movie will be action/fight/battle sequences.  All of it.  Every single CGI frame of it.  A quick check in my copy of The Hobbit shows there are only five chapters left in the book: Smaug attacks Laketown and is destroyed; Thranduil marches on Erebor and besieges it; Bilbo sneaks out with the Arkenstone; Battle of the Five Armies; the good guys win but Thorin dies; Bilbo goes home.  The End.

Now imagine that three hours long.

My worst fear is that, like Éowyn’s scene with the Nâzgul in Return of the King, Jackson is going to screw up the ruin of Smaug, one of the more thrilling paragraphs in all of Tolkien.  I’m betting Radagast will be involved.

So here’s my unsolicited advice for Peter Jackson: hire someone, pay someone huge sums of money to sit in story conferences with you and your team, and the moment one of you says, “Ooh!  You know what would be cool?”, that person says, “No.”

The Lyles Scale of Compositional Agony

My good friend and mentor Dianne Mize asked in a recent letter—yes, I write letters; I’m kind of addicted to it—how hard it was to write the Cello Sonata No. 1, and I joked that on the Lyles Scale of Compositional Agony it was about a 7.  (That reminds me that I actually have to post that letter…)

Hm, I says to myself, Self, that would be an amusing blog post.

And so here it is, my task avoidance of the day.  (Sorry, John Tibbetts II, I really meant to work on your song today…)

[Note: in my letter, the '7' was on a 10-point ascending scale.  On the Revised Lyles Scale of Compositional Agony, composing the Cello Sonata would have been been a 5.]

Lyles Scale of Compositional Agony

1NirvanaYou regain consciousness to find that the piece is done. Angels are singing and small woodland creatures frolic about you adoringly.
2BlissYour work flows from your mind exactly as you imagined it, and you have to work fast to capture all the ideas that keep coming. You don‘t even need that second cup of coffee.
3GroovingYour ideas come easily and allow themselves to be wrangled into the piece without too much of a struggle. Your lovely wife thinks it‘s pretty. Take a break—you‘ve earned it!
4HumanMeh. You‘ve got a piece to write, and it takes a while, but it finally all fits together and is good. You have that second cup of coffee and think about working on a new piece. Soon. Ish. Probably.
5SludgeThe work won‘t come at first, but after beating yourself with a sledgehammer, you finally get something on the page. Maybe it will look better after you ignore it for a few days. Perhaps a trip to the Amazon would help. Eventually you assemble what crap you‘ve come up with into something vaguely resembling a piece of music.
6HellIdeas will not come. You resort to inserting notes randomly onto the screen, hoping that one or two of them will stick. You consider rending your flesh for inspiration. What should have been a simple transition becomes a life-and-death struggle with Satan. You do your taxes just to avoid working on the piece.
7Harsh RealityNo ideas come, and what appears on your paper FELLATES HUGE MAMMALIAN GENITALIA. You are revealed to the world as a complete fraud, and on YouTube people use your past accomplishments to symbolize pathetic self-delusion. Small woodland creatures mock you. You abandon your life‘s work, and the universe breathes a sigh of relief.

You may make suggestions for additions and revisions in comments.

Merciful Cthulhu, Jim DeMint edition

This is what happens when we let Jim DeMint talk: the rise of the Old Ones and the Madness.

This is the kind of thing that drives me into impotent rages, shaking my tiny fists at the universe.

So Jim DeMint, former senator from South Carolina, goes on a Truth* in Action radio show and says that “no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves.

I’m not even going to get into a debate with this person about the historical record.  My concerns are rather with the framework here.  This man went on a radio show and stated point blank a lie so egregious that any elementary student could win that “debate,” and he did so without any fear of being called out on it.  He can say whatever he wants, and no one is going to say, “Hey, wait a second…”

My biggest fear for our nation is that this kind of lying simply breaks our citizens’ ability to remember history and apply its lessons.  A lie of this size simply pegs out the WTF-o-meter in most peoples’ heads; it goes sproing and they can never again distinguish truth from BS.

Indeed, now the right-wing Wurlitzer can use this lie as a statement in their own assault on an informed citizenry: “As Senator DeMint set the record straight in 2014, the federal government had nothing to do with ending slavery, and so the big government liberals should just back off pushing for legal protections for [insert right-wing boogieman du jour here].”

And to think that the Heritage Foundation used to have a plausible claim to status in the policy world.  Mercy.


*for differing values of Truth

P.S. I hope everyone downloaded their paper cut-out My Little Cthulhu

Horsefly Rag, part 2

OK, we’re going to pretend this piece is finished.  For all that I know, it is: it’s 1:45 long, and it has a great ending.  So what if the middle is crap?

I really do like the ending.  It’s subtly different/improved from the original version I posted Monday, including some happy accidents.  I love happy accidents.  They make it sound as if I’m wildly inventive when really it was a slip of the keyboard.

Yes, it could probably use another 20-30 seconds after the surprise in the middle.  For the time being, I need to follow Frank Gehry’s advice to his design teams: “Let’s let that sit there for awhile and annoy us.”

Horsefly Rag, as of 04/09/2017: score | mp3

Patting myself on my back

I just have to brag a little bit.  As I’ve finished each recent piece from Christmas Carol, I’ve announced it on Facebook with a line from the song.  In every instance, someone chimes in with one of the other lines from the song.

The last time this show was done was in 2002, and people still remember the lyrics to the songs.

I’m pretty pleased by that.

The return of the whinging composer, part 3,082

I’ve been successfully avoiding any actual composition since 2011, when I finished the Cello Sonata, and re-orchestrating Christmas Carol has proven to be an even better task avoidance strategy since it’s work that has to be done but doesn’t involve actually composing.  It’s a good life.

Leave it to a clown to mess it all up.

Mike Funt emailed me last week and demanded a piano piece to which he could make up some kind of clown crap because—are you ready for this?—he was inspired by this drawing at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art:


It’s by Moholy-Nagy.

For reference, he sent me a couple of YouTube videos of George Gershwin playing some of his earlier ragtime pieces.  Make it like that, he said.  But make it yours.  I want to use your music, he said, somehow forgetting that my music is pretty much unGershwinesque.


So I thought to myself, well, it could be OK.  It’s not as if it’s a handshake commission to compose a postmodern opera of the Icarus myth, is it, because that would be terrifying, what with having to submit my fraudulent work to real audiences and critics and all.


Composing is hard, y’all, and I don’t like it.  I’ve worked all weekend on this thing and it’s still only 45 seconds long.  I keep abandoning stupid crap, and it keeps trying to wander off into Five Easier Pieces territory rather than stick to its ragtime roots.  Part of the problem is trying to think—as I hammer out material—how Mike might use the music and therefore writing stuff that is useful.  But who knows what clowns find useful?  Other than seltzer bottles and red noses, I mean.

I’m already going to miss my self-imposed deadline of finishing it today—trust me, it’s not going to be finished today—and I still have “People Like Us” to re-orchestrate.  Plus the NYTimes crossword puzzle.  And I’m sure I should be out in the labyrinth in the downpour fixing something.  And there’s physical therapy at 1:00, and then I have a meeting at the Boys & Girls Club around the corner about becoming a volunteer there, and there’s no way it’s going to be finished today unless I stop blogging and hammer out another minute of music.  Perhaps I need to write the ending next and then just glue pieces together to get there.

Anyway, I’m about to take a deep breath and post what I’ve got.  I used to do this all the time with music, just revealing my foibles to the world as I hack and slash my way through the thick chaos of the universe, so I’m just going to do it now and let everyone marvel at how very unGershwinesque it is.

It stops abruptly.  Of course.

“Horsefly Rag,” as of 04/07/2014:  mp3

update, 12:10 pm

Ha, take that, you clown.  Here’s the finale, and I think—in order to satisfy my twisted desires—I’m going to make it longer.

“Horsefly Rag” finale, as of 04/07/2017 : mp3

New horizons in expectations and patience

Well, here’s a howdy-do: my partner in crime, Craig, cannot attend Burning Man after all.

I suppose I could carry on by finding new partners, but I don’t want to. For many reasons this was a kind of “Huck and Jim” trip for me to do with Craig, and so I think I’m going to postpone our 3 Old Men venture until next year.  Fortunately, the tickets will be not a problem to divest myself of.

Onward.  I have Gershwin ragtime rip-offs hommages to write.

Another secret lust

I was tidying up my study a couple of weeks back—you can actually see the floor!—and uncovered this:

I remember it as if it were yesterday, walking through the bookstore at UGA, and coming across this beautiful, beautiful thing.  IT’S A BOX OF CARDS, YOU GUYS!

It was called Indecks, and what it was was a way to organize your notes on any research topic, and I was engaged in a huge one: an honors thesis on the work of the UGA Period Dance Group.  We performed social dances across five centuries, from Shakespeare’s time to the early 20th century, and none of it was written down or collated.  As chief researcher (and eventual president), that project fell on me.  I also needed, for reasons lost to my memory, an actual thesis/project to fill some requirement in the Honors Program.  (Probably something to do with Lothar Tresp’s time in the German army during WWII.)

The white cards were your note cards:

But what are those little holes, you are asking?  IT WAS MAGIC, YOU GUYS!

You could keep track of notes for up to eight papers, hundreds of sources, nearly a hundred notes per source per paper, and you didn’t have to keep them in any order!

The orange cards were where you wrote down your sources/topics:

Here are mine:

Then, as you completed a card, you would clip the hole(s) for the source on the side and for the topic around the other edges:


The box came with two steel rods, which you would insert into the deck and then loosely shake.  Here, I’m looking for the cards involving La Volta, a Renaissance dance, so I’ve inserted the rod into hole #15…

Et voilá!

Out fall the cards on that topic.

AREN’T YOU ALL TINGLY IN YOUR TINGLY BITS??  This was awesome.  I could pull up any combination of cards/topics.  Give me all your Baroque dances, hole #7.  Give me all your adapted choreography for the Classical dances, holes #3 and #8.  Give me all the stuff I found in Allen Dodworth’s Dancing, source hole #5.


Of course, the more astute among you have realized that this is a kind of primordial database, thus beginning my lifelong lust of such things.  I tumbled to arrays early on in Applesoft BASIC and got good enough at using them that I was able to correct the computer instructor at GHP one summer when he was trying to use some other function to keep track of minors registration and the program kept crashing.  I also programmed an overdue books/fines system that all of Coweta County used until the state automated all the media centers.  When Apple Computer released FileMaker Pro, I ate it up and have used it to run everything from NCTC to Newnan Crossing to Newnan Presbyterian choir library to GHP to U.S. Senate Youth Program to Georgia Scholars.  (Pro tip: if you’re ever taking over a program from me, make sure you have a copy of FMP.  Otherwise, you’re borked, darlings, AND YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.)  I scorn anyone who uses a spreadsheet to keep track of such things; you people are lame-o losers.  DATABASES, BITCHES!

And what did I do with all those excruciatingly typed-out cards?

Ninety pages, typed with hand-drawn images, of sixteen of the dances performed by the Period Dance Group, including manners of each period, the original choreography of each dance, and the adapted choreography:

The Compleat Period Dancer was an immediate success—all the grad students wanted copies—and it remains a major resource for me to this day.

Lower on that title page is the date of the submission: June 4, 1974.  Forty years of SEXY SEXY DATABASE FUNTIMES, YOU GUYS!

Burning Man: mapping the field of ritual, part 4

Finishing our examination of Ronald Grimes’s mapping of rituals, from the second chapter of his Beginnings in ritual studies.

: Ritual sound & language :

What is the role of silence in the rite? … Do the people consider it important to talk about the rite, avoid talk about it, or to talk during it?  Are there parts of the rite for which they find it difficult or impossible to articulate verbalizable meanings? … How important is language to the performance of the rite?  What styles of language appear in it — incantation, poetry, narrative, rhetoric, creeds, invective, dialogue?  In what tones of voice do people speak?  … To what extent is the language formulaic or repetitious? … How much of the language is spontaneous, how much is planned?

I don’t have answers to any of these.  I have deliberately postponed any kind of planning on language/sound until Craig and I (and others, hopefully) get on our feet, as we say in the theatre, and start to play with it.  All I know is that when a participant exits the labyrinth, I must in some way connect with that person and offer one of the agones.  I honestly have no clue about how this will work.

I imagine that the offer of the agon will be formulaic, but then the rest of it is going to have to be improvised.

As for music/sounds, I’m not planning anything, but that could easily change as well.  As I said in our Theme Camp application, we would welcome drum circles and other musicians to contribute to the ritual as they see fit.  If our camp were bigger, say ten or more people, we could plan to have our own drummers in attendance.  As it is, we each have our own bells/bowls/shakers we can bring with us, but how we implement them I will leave to more shamanic minds than mine.  I can easily see a participant singing or playing an instrument or singing bowl or shaker while walking the path. It will be very interesting to report back what happens on the Playa as the community participates in the 3 Old Men ritual.

: Ritual action :

What kinds of actions are performed as part of the rite, for example, sitting, bowing, dancing, lighting fires (!), touching, avoiding, gazing, walking?  In what order to they occur?  … What are the central gestures?  … What actions are not ascribed meaning?  What actions are regarded as especially meaningful and therefore symbolic?  What actions are regarded as efficacious rather than symbolic?  What meanings, causes, or goals do participants attribute to their actions? … Which actions are repeated?  What gestures mark transitions?  What are the recurrent postures?  What qualities of action persist—quickness, slowness, verticality, hesitance, mobility, linearity, exuberance, restraint?  Are parts of the rite framed theatrically? … What parts of the body are emphasized by participants’ kinesthetic style?  … How do the social and environmental contexts influence the actions?  What actions are done with objects? …  What actions are optional, required?

Again, a bucketload of questions, some of which we can answer, splitting our focus between the officiants and the participants.

For the Old Men, for this Old Man anyway, here are some answers:

  • Performance includes standing, walking, dancing/movement (during the walking), and touching.  I would include the agones themselves as actions, and they are to my mind central and especially  meaningful.  I think from my perspective they are in fact efficacious rather than symbolic, although of course I have no control over the actual efficacy; I can only offer a gesture that I hope is effectively meaningful to the participant.
  • The agones are repeated, and they are themselves the transition from the journey of the labyrinth back to the world at large.  They are, however, optional: the participant may decline the offer, or even choose to exit where there is no officiant.
  • Again, not having gotten on my feet I’m not sure of the “qualities” of these actions.  In my head, I sense they should be slow, deliberate, nonthreatening, even the ‘struggle’ agon.  But I will not be surprised if, out on the Playa, the Old Men choose to become exuberant at least part of the time.
  • Body parts.  This is very important to me, since the whole impetus behind the 3 Old Men is of course our aging bodies.  The skirt will emphasize our torsos, specifically our bellies, which among our current participants are not taut.  I think too our arms and hands will play a large role by dint of holding the staff and engaging in the agones.  Also, if we go with the nude walk through the labyrinth as our opening, then all kinds of body issues will present themselves as part of the ritual.  One question that arises: do we paint just our heads and torsos, the visible parts of our bodies once we don our skirts, or do we paint our entire bodies for the trip through?  That will require some discussion.  (Sorry about the mental image…)

One question I have not resolved for myself is whether installing the labyrinth is part of the ritual.  I think it will be for me, although once we arrive on the Playa and set to work, it may become just a bloody chore.  Certainly we have no plans to take the thing down and re-erect it every day.

For our participants, the ritual action is pretty straightforward:

  • Approach the labyrinth.
  • Choose an entrance.
  • Enter the labyrinth.
  • Journey to the center.
  • Choose an exit.
  • Journey outward.
  • Choose whether to engage in the proffered agon, and if so, engage.

What meaning our participants assign to these actions is, as I’ve said before, anyone’s guess.

And that fact leads me to question whether what we’re doing is a ritual at all, since it is not part of an actual culture that produced it other than that of dirty hippie freaks like me and the 68,000 other Burners.  Still, my experiences with my own labyrinth have convinced me that this offering to the Burning Man community will in fact be received as a meaningful experience by those who participate.  In any event, I have an interesting anthropological study ahead of me.