Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Bob" Is The Answer ... And The Question


J. R. "Bob" Dobbs is the figurehead of the Church of the SubGenius. His image is derived from a piece of 1950s pop-art. According to SubGenius dogma, "Bob" was a drilling equipment salesman who, in 1953, saw a vision of God (JHVH-1 according to Church scriptures) on a television set he had built himself. The vision inspired him to write the "PreScriptures" (as described in the Book of the SubGenius) and found the Church. The "theology" holds that "Bob" is the greatest salesman who ever lived, and has cheated death a number of times. He is also revered for his great follies and believed to be a savior of "slack". He was assassinated in San Francisco in 1984, though the Church states that he has come back from the dead several times since then.

The quotation marks in "Bob"'s name are always included when spelling his name, according to the Church.

According to Revelation X; The "Bob" Apocryphon, "Bob" was born in Dallas, Texas to Xinucha-Chi-Xan M. Dobbs (a pharmacist) and Jane McBride Dobbs. At an early age he possesed a talent for making large amounts of money by playing the stock market over the telephone. He married his wife Connie in Las Vegas in 1955 and worked as a photographer's model while inventing and patenting novelty gag items. In 1957 he worked weekends doing Evangelical Christian preaching "strictly for the money".

"Bob"'s wife, Connie Dobbs, has become as legendary in SubGenius circles as "Bob" himself. Although "Bob" has been married to other women, spirits, deities, and inanimate objects (he was married to Eris, the Discordian mother Goddess for a while, though she grew tired of him and kicked him out), Connie is described in the SubGenius documentary Arise! as "his first, and still his primary wife." Connie is the patron of SubGenius women, and she is seen as a vision of true liberation for women. She refuses to submit to anyone (especially "Bob"), and she is just as free-wheeling and promiscuous as her husband... although she has a more level head on her shoulders when it comes to domestic issues.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

One of Our Favorite BASTARDS: Blackadder ... all of them


Blackadder is the generic name that encompasses four series of an acclaimed BBC One historical sitcom, along with several one-off instalments. The first series was written by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, while subsequent episodes were written by Curtis and Ben Elton. The shows were produced by John Lloyd, and starred Rowan Atkinson as the eponymous anti-hero, Edmund Blackadder, and Tony Robinson as his sidekick/dogsbody, Baldrick.

In 2000, Blackadder Goes Forth ranked at 16 in the "100 Greatest British Television Programmes", a list created by the British Film Institute. Also in the 2004 TV poll to find "Britain's Best Sitcom", Blackadder was voted the second best British sitcom of all time, topped by Only Fools and Horses. It was also ranked as the 20th Best TV Show of All Time by Empire Magazine.

Although each series is set in a different time era, all follow the fortunes (or rather, misfortunes) of Edmund Blackadder (played by Atkinson), who in each is a member of an English family dynasty present at many significant periods and places in British history. Although the character starts as being quite unintelligent in the first series and gradually becomes smarter and more perceptive through each passing generation (while decreasing in social status), each Blackadder is a cynical, cowardly opportunist concerned with maintaining and increasing his own status and fortunes, regardless of his surroundings. In each series, Blackadder is usually a cynical (almost modern) voice puncturing the pretensions and stupidity of those around him, and what might — through modern eyes — be seen as the more ludicrous and insane follies of history (from the medieval religious witch-hunts and the petty whims and insanities of various British monarchs to the bloodshed and horror of World War I).

The lives of each of the Blackadders are also entwined with their servants, all from the Baldrick family line (played by Tony Robinson). Each generation acts as the dogsbody to their respective Blackadder. They decrease in intelligence (and in personal hygiene standards) just as their masters' intellect increases. Each Blackadder and Baldrick are also saddled with the company of a dim-witted aristocrat whose presence Blackadder must somehow tolerate. This role was taken in the first two series by Lord Percy Percy (Tim McInnerny), in the third series by Prince George, Prince Regent, and in the fourth by Lieutenant George, the latter two played by Hugh Laurie (see George (Blackadder character)).

Each series was set in a different period of English history, beginning in 1485 and ending in 1917 (with one 1999 special set in the then-present day) comprising six half-hour episodes. The first series, made in 1983, was called The Black Adder (set in the fictional reign of 'Richard IV'). This was followed by Blackadder II in 1985 (set during the reign of Elizabeth I), Blackadder the Third in 1987 (set in the reign of George III), and finally Blackadder Goes Forth in 1989 (set in the trenches of the Great War).

In addition to these, three specials were also made: Blackadder: The Cavalier Years (set in the reign of Charles I) appeared as a 15-minute insert during the 1988 Comic Relief telethon; Blackadder's Christmas Carol (mostly set during the reign of Queen Victoria with some scenes taking place in the locations of the second and third series, as well as another many centuries hence) was a 45-minute Christmas installment, broadcast the same year; and Blackadder: Back & Forth was a 30-minute film originally shown in a special cinema at the Millennium Dome throughout 2000, and later transmitted by Sky and the BBC. A pilot episode was recorded in 1982, but has never been shown on television in its entirety, although a brief clip was shown in the 2008 documentary Blackadder Rides Again. It is notable for Baldrick being played by Philip Fox. Its plot was re-used for the episode "Born to be King" in Series 1. Although DVD releases have never included the pilot, copies are known to circulate online.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here we go again: another article for the always-great Dark Roasted Blend. This time it's on supercomputers. Enjoy!

In Isaac Asimov's classic story, "The Last Question," a supercomputer is, again and again, asked how to deal with the eventual heat death of universe. After upgrade upon upgrade, it finally has an answer -- but, alas, no one is left to hear it, because the universe has ended. So it simply states its answer out loud: "Let there be light."

Put another way, imagine that sometime in the future someone asks the smart-machine-to-end-all-smart-machines: "Is there a God," and said machine answers, "There is now."

What exactly qualifies as the earliest example of a "computer" is a matter of debate: some say the abacus while others point to the Antikythera mechanism, and still others push the calendar up to the 1800s with Charles Babbage's difference engine. Whatever their origins, though, with the advent of the digital revolution, computers have truly become super.

One of the first early super computers has to be Konrad Zuse's series of machines. Created in 1930s and 40s, they were one of the very first computers to be programmable as well as multi-function. Soon after, the Brits, needing some serious number-crunching during the war, built the aptly named Colossus -- which was smashed to bits in the name of secrecy when its job was done.

Not that America also wasn't up to the task: the U.S. had its own long line of increasingly sophisticated, and powerful, devices. First there was the Model K, then the ABC, followed by the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, and then came ENIAC.

ENIAC was considered state of the art, a true electronic brain capable of astounding feats of calculation. Now, alas, we can do the same things that ENIAC could with a cheap throwaway calculator. But in 1943, ENIAC was the tops.

After ENIAC came EDVAC, a change of much more than a few letters. Created by the brilliant John von Neumann, this series of computers was a monumental leap forward in computational ability, flexibility, and speed.

On a side note, as early 1945 or so, computers gave us the term "bug" for a problem with a machine. Coined by Grace Hopper, because -- quite literally -- a moth got caught in the circuitry.

The 60s, and the age of the transistor, gave us bigger and smarter machines. Lead by master builders like IBM, these machines became behemoths of blinking lights and whirling tape reels, able to handle the chaos of weather prediction as well as tax records with the greatest -- for the most part -- of ease.

But supercomputers seriously came into their own when they challenged ... well, okay, their "handlers" allowed them to challenge … man at his own game: namely chess.

The first human vs. machine challenge is also up for debate as more than likely a few early programmers tried their hands at defeating their own creations and even pitting computers against computers. Transistors, though, quickly became superior to squishy human brains. In 1981 Cray Blitz took the crown from Joe Sentef , and then in 1988 Deep Thought managed to share the glory with Tony Miles -- though some suspect the machine felt a tiny bit sorry for Tony and so allowed him to join it in the winner's circle. This suspicion is probably incorrect, however, as Garry Kasparov, who felt no such sympathy, actually beat the machine in two games. But In 1997, Deep Blue avenged its mechanical sibling and stomped Kasparov in six games. Ouch!

What really hurts is that humans now regularly lose to their computational betters. The question today is whether they'll even let us fleshy beings sit at the same table with them, let alone deem us worthy to play with them.

What's really interesting about the new generation of super machines is not that they're smart -- which they most definitely are -- but how, well, sexy they've gotten.

Just take a look at MareNostrum, which is a perfect combination of beauty as well as brains. Sure, the monster machine that lives in a deconsecrated chapel in Barceolona, might be only (ahem) the 8th most powerful of its super-smart digital kin, but it's certainly a star in the looks department: a series of imposing monoliths set inside a climate-controlled glass room, a perfect juxtaposition between its 21st century mind and the ancient architecture of the chapel. It's been used for everything from climate modeling to helping decipher the human genome -- all the while looking fantastic as it works.

Even the most optimistic of futurists know that it's just a matter of decades, or even just a few years, before we see our creations surpass us. All we can hope is that they look down on us poor, flesh-and-blood humans with affection -- or simply with benign indifference.

Either way, making something that eventually could say "Let there be light" is pretty damned amazing.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

If A Tree Falls In The Desert ....



L'Arbre du Ténéré, known in English as the Tree of Ténéré, was a solitary acacia, of either Acacia raddiana or Acacia tortilis, that was once considered the most isolated tree on Earth — the only one within more than 200 kilometres (120 mi). It was a landmark on caravan routes through the Ténéré region of the Sahara in northeast Niger — so well known that, along with the Arbre Perdu or 'Lost Tree' to the north, it is the only tree to be shown on a map at a scale of 1:4,000,000. It was located near a 40-metre-deep well at approximately 17°45′00″N 10°04′00″E / 17.75, 10.066667.

It was the last surviving tree of a group of trees that grew when the desert was less parched than it is today. The tree had stood alone for decades. During the winter of 1938–1939 a well was dug near the tree and it was found that the roots of the tree reached the water table 33–36 meters below the surface.

Commander of the A.M.M., Michel Lesourd, of the Service central des affaires sahariennes [Central service of Saharan affairs], saw the tree on May 21, 1939:

One must see the Tree to believe its existence. What is its secret? How can it still be living in spite of the multitudes of camels which trample at its sides. How at each azalai does not a lost camel eat its leaves and thorns? Why don't the numerous Touareg leading the salt caravans cut its branches to make fires to brew their tea? The only answer is that the tree is taboo and considered as such by the caravaniers. There is a kind of superstition, a tribal order which is always respected. Each year the azalai gather round the Tree before facing the crossing of the Ténéré. The Acacia has become a living lighthouse; it is the first or the last landmark for the azalai leaving Agadez for Bilma, or returning.

The tree was allegedly knocked down by a drunk truck driver in 1973. On November 8, 1973 the dead tree was relocated to the Niger National Museum in the capital Niamey. It has been replaced by a simple metal sculpture representing a tree.

This was not the tree's first encounter with a truck. In his book L'épopée du Ténéré, French ethnologist and explorer Henri Lhote described his two journeys to the Tree of Ténéré. His first visit was in 1934 on the occasion of the first automobile crossing between Djanet and Agadez. He describes the tree as "an Acacia with a degenerative trunk, sick or ill in aspect. Nevertheless, the tree has nice green leaves, and some yellow flowers". He visited it again twenty-five years later, on November 26, 1959 with the Berliet-Ténéré mission, but found that it had been badly damaged after a vehicle had collided with it:

Before, this tree was green and with flowers; now it is a colourless thorn tree and naked. I cannot recognise it — it had two very distinct trunks. Now there is only one, with a stump on the side, slashed, rather than cut a metre from the soil. What has happened to this unhappy tree? Simply, a lorry going to Bilma has struck it... but it has enough space to avoid it... the taboo, sacred tree, the one which no nomad here would have dared to have hurt with his hand... this tree has been the victim of a mechanic...


Friday, January 23, 2009

"Halfway down the trail to Hell, In a shady meadow green ...."

Fiddler's Green is the afterlife imagined by sailors, and later adopted by U.S. Cavalry, where there is perpetual mirth, a fiddle that never stops playing, and dancers who never tire. There is some evidence to support the claim that the major propagators of this belief were pirates who, knowing they would never meet the criteria for entry into Christian heaven, simply created a religion of their own.

Fiddler's Green features in an old Irish legend that a sailor can find the paradisaical village by walking inland with an oar over his shoulder until he finds a place where people ask him what he's carrying. This legend may have some of its origin in Tiresias' prophecy in Homer's Odyssey, in which he tells Odysseus that the only way to appease the sea god Poseidon and find happiness is to take an oar and walk until he finds a land where he is asked what he is carrying, and there make his sacrifice.

The story of Fiddler's Green was published anonymously in a 1923 U.S. Cavalry Manual, and is still used by modern cavalry units to memorialize the deceased. The name has had other military uses. Fiddler’s Green was an artillery Fire Support Base in Military Region III in Vietnam in 1972 occupied principally by elements of 2nd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry, and also was the name of the U.S. Navy's enlisted mens club in Sasebo, Japan in the early 1960s. Fiddlers Green is the name of the stable and pasture used by Parsons Mounted Cavalry, a cadet group at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and that of the bar at the Leaders Club in Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Halfway down the trail to Hell,
In a shady meadow green
Are the Souls of all dead troopers camped,
Near a good old-time canteen.
And this eternal resting place
Is known as Fiddlers' Green.

Marching past, straight through to Hell
The Infantry are seen.
Accompanied by the Engineers,
Artillery and Marines,
For none but the shades of Cavalrymen
Dismount at Fiddlers' Green.

Though some go curving down the trail
To seek a warmer scene.
No trooper ever gets to Hell
Ere he's emptied his canteen.
And so rides back to drink again
With friends at Fiddlers' Green.

And so when man and horse go down Beneath a saber keen, Or in a roaring charge of fierce melee You stop a bullet clean, And the hostiles come to get your scalp, Just empty your canteen, And put your pistol to your head And go to Fiddlers' Green.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

So THAT'S Where The Water Went ....


Built on the northern slopes of Mt. Idis about 14 km northeast of Avanos in Turkey, Özkonak Underground City has many strata made up of volcanic granite. The larger areas of the city are connected to each other by tunnels. Özkonak had a built in communication system of pipes to each of its levels, unlike Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu which have no such communication systems. Each carved out room had ventilation provided by holes when the city was closed against enemies.

Özkonak Underground City was discovered in 1972 by a local farmer named Latif Acar, who was curious about where his excess crop water was disappearing to. Latif discovered an underground room which, when later excavated, revealed a whole city which could house an incredible 60,000 people for up to three months. Although only four floors are now open, the complex contains a total of ten floors, to a depth of 40m.

Unlike the other underground cities in this area, there were holes above the tunnels used for dumping hot oil on the enemy. Just like Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu, Özkonak has a water well, ventilation system, winery and moving stone doors.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Who's Who?

Leopoldo Fregoli ... or is it?


The Fregoli delusion or Fregoli syndrome is a rare disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise. The syndrome may be related to a brain lesion and is often of a paranoid nature with the delusional person believing that he or she is being persecuted by the person he or she believes to be in disguise.

The condition is named after the Italian actor Leopoldo Fregoli who was renowned for his ability to make quick changes of appearance during his stage act.

It was first reported in a paper by P. Courbon and G. Fail in 1927 (Syndrome d’illusion de Frégoli et schizophrénie). They discussed the case study of a 27-year-old woman who believed she was being persecuted by two actors whom she often went to see at the theatre. She believed that these people "pursued her closely, taking the form of people she knows or meets".

The Fregoli delusion is classed both as a monothematic delusion, since it only encompasses one delusional topic, and as a delusional misidentification syndrome, a class of delusional beliefs that involves the misidentification of people, places or objects. Like Capgras delusion, it is thought to be related to a breakdown in normal face perception.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I Know What I'm Doing Tonight -

Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (百物語怪談会? lit., A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales) was a popular parlour game during Edo period Japan.

The game was a simple one. In a room, as night fell, one hundred candles were lit. Guests and players gathered around the candles, taking turns telling kaidan. After each kaidan, a single candle was extinguished, and the room slowly grew darker and darker. The process was an evocation, with the final candle believed to summon a supernatural entity.

The origin of the game is unknown. It is thought that it was first played amongst the samurai class as a test of courage, and later became fashionable amongst the townsmen.

A true popular phenomenon, the popularity of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai combined with new printing technology created a boom in the publication of kaidan-themed books collecting appropriate tales from every corner of Japan and China. Books in this genre often used the term Hyakumonogatari in the title, and in fact the published tale’s popularity continued long after the fad for the game had faded.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, We Proudly Present ...waitaminute!


Piotr Zak is a fictional Polish composer who was the subject of a spoof BBC documentary, The Strange Case of Piotr Zak. The BBC broadcast a performance of his piece Mobile for Tape and Percussion on June 5, 1961. It won approving reviews from two leading music critics (although others condemned it as worthless and unmusical). Later it was revealed that the piece consisted of twelve minutes of BBC staff making noises at random, edited together by BBC technicians as a parody of avant-garde music.

The spoof was perpetrated by Hans Keller and Susan Bradshaw at the BBC.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Books You Haven't Read But Should: John le Carré's The Naive and Sentimental Lover
Aldo Cassidy is the naive and sentimental lover. A successful, judicious man, he is wrenched away from the ordered certainties of his life by a sudden encounter with Shamus, a wild, carousing artist and Helen, his nakedly alluring wife. Cassidy, plunged into a whirlpool of recklessness and spontaneity, becomes a man bewildered and agonised as he is torn between two poles of a nature more complex than he had ever imagined.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Best Served On Toast - (pt 2)

Star jelly or pwdre sêr is an alleged compound purportedly deposited on the earth during meteor showers. It is described as a foul-smelling, gelatinous substance, which tends to evaporate shortly after having fallen.

There have been reports of pwdre sêr (Welsh for rot of the stars) for centuries. A long article in the paranormal magazine Fate declared Star Jelly to be of extraterrestrial origin, calling it "cellular organic matter" which exists as "prestellar molecular clouds" which float through space.

In 1950, four Philadelphia, Pennsylvania policemen reported the discovery of "a domed disk of quivering jelly, 6 feet in diameter, one foot thick at the center and an inch or two near the edge." When they tried to pick it up, it dissolved into an "odorless, sticky scum." The site was located (near 26th Street and Vare Avenue) within a half mile (800 m) of the Philadelphia Gas Works, leading to the possibility that it was some type of industrial discharge.

On August 11, 1979, Mrs. Sybil Christian of Frisco, Texas reported the discovery of several purple blobs of goo on her front yard following a Perseid meteor shower. A follow up investigation by reporters and an assistant director of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History discovered a battery reprocessing plant outside of town where caustic soda was used to clean impurities from the lead in the batteries, resulting in a purplish compound as a byproduct. The report was greeted with some skepticism, however, as the compounds at the reprocessing plant were solid, whereas the blobs on Mrs. Christian's lawn were gelatinous. Others, however, have pointed out that Mrs. Christian had tried to clear them off her lawn with a garden hose.

In December, 1983, grayish-white, oily gelatin fell on North Reading, Massachusetts. Mr. Thomas Grinley reported finding it on his lawn, on the streets and sidewalks, and dripping from gas station pumps.

On several dates in 1994, "gelatinous rain" fell on Oakville, Washington. The story was featured in a 1995 episode of Unsolved Mysteries. In 1997, a similar substance fell in the Everett, Washington area.

On the evening of November 3, 1996, a meteor was reported flashing across the sky of Kempton, Australia, just outside of Hobart. The next morning, white translucent slime was reportedly discovered on the lawns and sidewalks of the town.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Being an adaptation - for the most part in blank verse - of the novel by Herman Melville."


Moby Dick Rehearsed is the title of a play written and directed by Orson Welles. It was performed in London in 1955. A lost film of the play, directed by Welles, starred the original stage cast, most of whom went on to become big names of the stage and screen.

Welles's minimal stage design was possibly influenced by his long-term friend, Michael Macliammoir, and what he termed "anti-naturalist theater". The stage was bare, the actors appeared in contemporary street clothes, and the props were minimal. For example, brooms were used for oars, and a stick was used for a telescope. The actors provided the action, and the audience's imagination provided the ocean, costumes, and the whale.

In The Fabulous Orson Welles, by Peter Noble, cameraman Hilton Craig reveals, "it was by no means merely a photographed stage-play. On the contrary, it was shot largely in close-ups and looked very impressive on near-completion."

Because the film is lost, many people have speculated it was never created. However, evidence supporting the film was made can be found in the book, The Films Of Christopher Lee, by Pohle Jr. and Hart — Patrick McGoohan allegedly said in a 1986 interview that the excerpt of the film he saw while Welles was reviewing the rushes one day was fantastic.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

I look at the wall … and the wall looks back: Mokumokuren

In Japanese Mythology, Mokumokuren are spirits that live in torn shōji (Japanese paper sliding walls). If the shōji has many holes, eyes can sometimes be seen on it, which, if looked at long enough, can make people blind. The only way to remove the spirit from the wall is to patch up the holes in it. Mokumokuren is said to be an invention of Toriyama Sekien.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Always Brush After Every Meal


Jenny Greenteeth is a figure in English folklore. A river hag, similar to Peg Powler, she would pull children or the elderly into the water and drown them. She was often described as green-skinned, with long hair, and sharp teeth. She is called Jinny Greenteeth in Lancashire, but in Cheshire and Shropshire she is called Ginny Greenteeth, Wicked Jenny, or Peg o' Nell.

She is likely to have been an invention to frighten children from dangerous waters similar to the Slavic Rusalka, the Kappa in Japanese mythology, or Australia's Bunyip, but other folklorists have seen her as a memory of sacrificial practices.

The name is also used to describe pondweed or duckweed, which can form a continuous mat over the surface of a small body of water, making it misleading and potentially treacherous, especially to unwary children. With this meaning, the name is common around Liverpool and south west Lancashire

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here we go again: another article for the always-great Dark Roasted Blend. This time it's about weird, weird worlds. Enjoy!

It’s a tad brisk here in San Francisco and -- yes, I know – that’s nothing compared to other places where it’s chilly enough to cause white, icy stuff to fall down from the sky but it’s still cold enough to make hands shake and teeth chatter. So it’s not exactly a surprise that thoughts of warmer climes have been sultry and steaming in my head.

Take for instance a vacation spot a mere 870 light years away. Whatever your definition, WASP-12b is an unusual place. Discovered in April of this year, it’s a large planet – 50% bigger than our own biggest world, Jupiter – and a damned fast one. How fast? Well, you know that Earth takes 365 days to go around our comfortable yellow sun. But WASP-12b takes a fraction of that time … in fact a 364th fraction of that time. WASP-12b orbits its sun in a little longer than one day.

WASP-12b is also a rather balmy planet. Considered a “Hot Jupiter” world, a gas giant without a rocky surface, its temperature has forced a lot of astronomers to rethink exactly how hot a planet can get. Time to play that game again: how hot? Well, our previously mentioned comfortable yellow sun has a surface temperature around 5,000 degrees centigrade. WASP-12b is also a fraction of that …. in fact only half of that. WASP-12b has been measured at about 2500 degrees – one of, if not the – hottest extrasolar worlds so far discovered.

Another distant, possibly temperate, vacation destination is much closer, a mere 63 years away at the speed of light. Charmingly named HD 189733b, this world in the Vulpecula constellation is another big, hot, and fast wonder. Spinning only 3 million miles away from its star – which sounds like a lot but it really isn’t -- HD 189733b is just a little but bigger than our own Jupiter, orbits every 2 or so days and has a registered temperature of around 700 degrees Celsius.

HD 189733b might not be as big, as hot, or as fast as WASP-12b but it’s a world that has a lot of people very excited. To understand why they’re so thrilled by a world that would turn you into a puff of ash if you so much as even cracked your starship’s door, you need to know a bit about Giovanna Tinetti and what she discovered about HD 189733b in 2007.

Many things can get astronomers all atwitter: new stars, new worlds, new phenomena, and especially certain colors showing up on a spectroscopic scan. Without getting too technical, and not testing your patience any further, Giovanna Tinetti (and later NASA) discovered those spectroscopic colors in HD 189733b: water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane – evidence of what could be some form of life. Though what kind of life could live on a world like HD 189733b is anyone’s guess.

Cold or hot, comfortable or not, the universe can be a very dramatic place – and a very dangerous place if you should get caught in one of its ‘dramatic’ events. Everyone knows about black holes and supernovas, and some of you might have heard about neutron stars, quasars, and hypernovas, but in a few billion years everyone – if anyone is still around of course – will know all about our neighbor galaxy, Andromeda.

Galaxies, like our own Milky Way, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including elliptical, peculiar, or – in the case of our home galaxy – a barred spiral. Like everything in the universe they’ve been moving since the Big Bang, heading to an eventual Big Crunch (if there’s enough mass in the universe to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the expansion back into a supermassive black hole and then, possibly, out again in another Big Bang), Heat Death (where everything in the universe simply dissolves into a dull, gray, warm ‘blah’), or one of the many other theories about the eventual fate of the Universe.

But one thing is known: sometime in the next two and a half billion years, our skies will become very interesting as our Milky Way galaxy collides with, and merges with, our neighbor Andromeda. No one knows what will happen then, but if we’re around – maybe holding ‘hands’ with our friends from HD 189733b – the sight will truly be something behold.

That is, if we’re around to enjoy it …

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Some of Our Favorite Heroes: The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers


The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers are a trio of underground comic strip characters created by the U.S. artist Gilbert Shelton. Beginning in 1968, their adventures were collected in a series published by Rip Off Press. With the demise of the underground newspaper, new adventures continued to appear in magazines such as Playboy, High Times, and Rip Off Comix; these too were collected in comic book form. Shelton continued to write the series until 1992, in collaboration with Dave Sheridan (1974-1982) and Paul Mavrides (since 1978). The work enjoys a sizable cult following, and the magazines are widely available in comic stores.

While most underground comix are humorous, the Freak Brothers live a slapstick existence reminiscent of the best silent comedies. Their entire lives rotate around the procurement and enjoyment of recreational drugs, particularly marijuana. None of them have the slightest concern about gainful employment, and the only use for money is to procure some food and lots of drugs without getting "burned" by unscrupulous dealers or busted by the police. Other storylines include "Fat Freddie's Cat" and a military empire of cockroaches in the kitchen. The stories often satirize the establishment and right-wing politics. For a counterculture production, the standard of artwork is exceptionally high; Shelton's striving for accuracy and attention to detail have earned him comparisons with Hergé.

The majority of the titles in the series consist of one or more multi-page stories together with a number of one-page strips. Many of the latter have a one-row skit featuring Fat Freddy's Cat at the bottom of the page. Some of the titles also contain a small number of strips featuring completely unrelated characters.

The Freak Brothers are a threesome of hippies (hippies were commonly known as "freaks" in 1970s U.S. slang) from San Francisco: Phineas Freakears, Freewheelin' Franklin, and Fat Freddy. The trio are anti-heroes, taking large quantities of drugs and consistently defying authority. They are lazy (several storylines revolve around the "horror" of one of the brothers having to find work) and unreliable — particularly in the case of Fat Freddy.

The three Freak Brothers have very different personalities:

  • Freewheelin' Franklin, although laid-back, is the most street-smart of the trio. Apparently he has always been on the streets. In one story he reveals that he grew up in an orphanage and never knew his parents. Tall and skinny, he has a big bulbous nose, a waterfall moustache, and a ponytail, and wears cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. He might be a biker if he didn't spend all his money on drugs. His hair is red, blonde, or light brown.
  • Phineas T. Freakears is the intellectual and idealist of the group; he can and has created new drugs, takes an avid interest in politics, and is the most committed of the three to social change and environmental issues. He hails from Texas, and while his mother is relaxed and open-minded, his father is a card-carrying member of the John Birch Society. He is the hairiest, tall and skinny with a thick bush of black hair, a beard, a nose that bears more than a passing resemblance to a marijuana joint, and glasses. He is the stereotypical left-wing radical, bearing a superficial resemblance to Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin.
  • Fat Freddy Freekowtski is the least intelligent, and can be seen as an embodiment of pure appetite. He is fat, or at least plump, with curly yellow hair. He regularly gets "burned" on drug transactions, and when he does "score," he usually manages to lose the drugs in various ways, such as by dumping them out of a shopping bag in front of a fan which then blows them out the window onto a police car. Fat Freddy comes from a large, quite ordinary family in Cleveland.

Other regularly occurring characters include:

  • Fat Freddy's Cat, who appears mainly in his own, separate strip at the bottom of the one-page Freak Brothers strips (getting his start just as Krazy Kat did) also has several multi-page stories devoted to him. Many of his strips parallel a storyline in the corresponding Freak Brothers story, and often have themes of a scatological nature. The Cat is sometimes known as "Fat Freddy Scat" and has used the alias "F. Frederic Skitty". His "nephews" refer to him as "Uncle F." He often finds himself confronting an army of cockroaches and a huge tribe of mice who share the apartment with the Freak Brothers. A sort of hippie "Garfield", he is far smarter than his owner (whom he frequently refers to as "the obese one") and regards the Freak Brothers with amused contempt.
  • Norbert the Nark, an inept DEA agent who is continually trying, and failing, to arrest the Freak Brothers.
  • Hiram "Country" Cowfreak, a hippy who grows vast quantities of marijuana at his isolated farmstead. He is referred to as the Freak Brothers' "cousin".
  • Dealer McDope, one of the trio's dealers. He is often name-checked in the magazines but rarely appears "in person".
  • Tricky Prickears, a blind and deaf detective, sometimes billed as "The Freak Brothers' favorite law enforcement officer" (a parody of Dick Tracy).
  • Governor Rodney Richpigge, A stereotypical rich, corrupt politician whom the Freak Brothers hold in general contempt. The Governor's son is a cocaine dealer.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

I Have An Alpheidae And I’m Not Afraid To Use It!


Alpheidae is a family of caridean snapping shrimp characterized by having asymmetrical claws, the larger of which is typically capable of producing a loud snapping sound. Other common names of these species include pistol shrimp or alpheid shrimp.

The family is diverse, and is worldwide in distribution, consisting of about 600 species within 38 or more genera. The two most prominent genera are Alpheus and Synalpheus, with species numbering well over 250 and 100, respectively. Most snapping shrimp dig burrows and are common inhabitants of coral reefs, submerged grass flats, and oyster reefs. While most genera and species are found in tropical and temperate coastal and marine waters, Betaeus inhabits cold seas and Potamalpheops is found only in freshwater caves.

The snapping shrimp competes with much larger animals, like the sperm whale and beluga whale, for the title of 'loudest animal in the sea'. The shrimp snaps a specialized claw shut to create a cavitation wave that generates acoustic pressures of up to 80 kPa at a distance of 4 cm from the claw. The pressure wave is strong enough to kill small fish. It corresponds to a zero to peak pressure level of 218 decibels relative to one micropascal (dB re 1 μPa), equivalent to a zero to peak source level of 190 dB re 1 μPa at the standard reference distance of 1 m. Au and Banks measured peak to peak source levels between 185 and 190 dB re 1 μPa at 1 m, depending on the size of the claw. Similar values are reported by Ferguson and Cleary. The duration of the click is less than 1 millisecond.

The snap can also produce sonoluminescence from a collapsing cavitation bubble. As it collapses, the cavitation bubble reaches temperatures of over 5000 K.The light is of lower intensity than the light produced by typical sonoluminescence and is not visible to the naked eye. It is most likely a by-product of the shock wave with no biological significance. However, it was the first known instance of an animal producing light by this effect. It has subsequently been discovered that another group of crustaceans, the mantis shrimp, contains species whose club-like forelimbs can strike so quickly and with such force as to induce sonoluminescent cavitation bubbles upon impact.

Friday, January 2, 2009



Exploding head syndrome is a condition that causes the sufferer to occasionally experience a tremendously loud noise as originating from within his or her own head, usually described as the sound of an explosion, roar, waves crashing against rocks, loud voices, or a ringing noise.

This noise usually occurs within an hour or two of falling asleep, but is not the result of a dream and can happen while awake as well. Perceived as extremely loud, the sound is usually not accompanied by pain. Attacks appear to change in frequency over time, with several attacks occurring in a space of days or weeks followed by months of remission. Sufferers often feel a sense of fear and anxiety after an attack, accompanied by elevated heart rate. Attacks are also often accompanied by perceived flashes of light (when perceived on their own, known as a "visual sleep start") or difficulty in breathing. The condition is also known as "auditory sleep starts." It is not thought to be dangerous, although it is sometimes distressing to experience.

The cause of the exploding head syndrome is not known, though some physicians have reported a correlation with stress or extreme fatigue. The condition may develop at any time during life and women are slightly more likely to suffer from it than men. Attacks can be one-time events, or can recur.

The mechanism is also not known, though possibilities have been suggested; one is that it may be the result of a sudden movement of a middle ear component or of the eustachian tube, another is that it may be the result of a form of minor seizure in the temporal lobe where the nerve cells for hearing are located. Electroencephalograms recorded during actual attacks show unusual activity only in some sufferers, and have ruled out epileptic seizures as a cause.