Fligth to Mars

Shortly before leaving California a week and a half ago to visit my family back east, I got this e-mail from my excited dad:

Subject: Fligth to Mars

…and Pa’s!

Photo credit: Bill Brent

It was a play on words (and a clever one too — you go, Dad!) and also an in-joke: “Fligth to Mars” was the misspelled name of a ride at Adventurer’s Inn, a small amusement park that used to exist in Queens when I was a boy. I didn’t realize just how little a boy I was until I read that Adventurer’s Inn was condemned in 1973, when I was just seven. I have clear memories of several visits there. Of course the condemned site remained for a long time until it was finally bulldozed, and I passed by it many more times as I got older; perhaps that’s what kept the memories fresh. Is there a sadder sight than a long-abandoned amusement park?

I think I was the one to notice the misspelling on the Fligth to Mars ride, and it’s been a catchphrase in my family ever since. The ride was your typical motorized cart traversing a funhouse on tracks. One time while on that ride, just before emerging back into daylight, I felt something smack the top of my head, hard enough to startle but not to hurt. I tried to convince my parents that a piece of wood or something had dislodged and landed on me, and I was even briefly convinced that there was a new area of flatness at the top of my skull as a result. They never believed me, and so I doubted it too — until today, when I read that Adventurer’s Inn was condemned soon thereafter!

Photo credit: Bill Brent

And look! The Batman slide! I remember that too. To a seven (or less) year old it was terribly daunting. But also tempting — it was a Batman slide! How could I not? Finally on one visit I worked up the nerve to give it a try. I got a mat on which to slide down, and I lugged it up and up the stairs in the interior of the structure. At the top, facing the maw opening onto an abyss (or so it seemed), my courage flagged and I froze. A queue of eager, bigger kids began to grow behind me and I believe I started taking some verbal abuse. Finally I turned around, feeling miserable, and began down the staircase as other kids muscled past me on their way up. At the bottom I surrendered the mat and was comforted by one or both parents, applauding me for resisting the pressure to go ahead, and assuring me that I never have to do anything I don’t want to do. I’m still sorry I never braved the Batman slide, but I think the humiliation I felt on that long climb down the stairs has been usefully instructive all my life.

Yellowjacket planet

I am not much inclined toward the short blurby “look-what-someone-else-posted-elsewhere” style of blogging, but holy hell:

What you are looking at is a massive yellowjacket nest that has consumed the inside of a 1955 Chevrolet in Alabama

And it’s not the only one.


Kiss this guy

My kids’ current obsession-to-the-exclusion-of-all-else is The Pirates of Penzance, specifically the Kevin Kline/Linda Ronstadt version of 1983.

As a parent, this is about as unobjectionable as it comes. It’s not Barney, it’s not Teletubbies, it’s not Power Rangers, and heaven knows I’d had enough of dinosaurs and Thomas the Tank Engine. I had regretted indulging their interest in pirates some weeks ago by showing them Pirates of the Caribbean, whose violence is a little much for preschoolers. The Pirates of Penzance has proven to be the perfect tonic for that slight parenting misjudgment. And few things are cuter than a two-year-old and a four-year-old tromping around the house with plastic cutlasses bellowing tunefully, “I am a pirate king!”

I was a pretty big fan of this film myself around the time it came out (to the chagrin of my friend Andrew, an avid Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado [and my mentor in G+S appreciation] who was a D’Oyly Carte purist offended by Joe Papp’s popularizing alterations). So it was with eagerness that I awaited the arrival of my tape of the movie from Amazon.

Upon watching the film, I discovered that my memory of a part of the music turned out to be strangely deficient. One famous song begins,

With cat-like tread
Upon our prey we steal
In silence dread
Our cautious way we feel

But here’s how I remembered it:

With cat-like tread
Upon our prey we steal
In silence dread
No hint at all reveal

A perfectly sensible alternate lyric, but apparently manufactured out of thin air by my brain, as near as I can tell (viz., via Google search). I understand how misheard lyrics can become engraved in one’s memory, but this is a different kind of error altogether. How on earth could I have made it?

Mo’ moblogging

Well, no thunderstorms this trip (though I understood this to be one of New York’s thunderstormiest summers in living memory — perhaps its thunderstorm quota is depleted).

But I did hear the incredible SCREEEE of cicadas, and I ate a Knish Nosh knish, two New York summer attractions to which I had overlooked looking forward. And I don’t have the words to describe the trippy pleasure of watching one’s kids playing in one’s own childhood playground.

Oh, and Carvel too

Moblogging from New York, where my boys and I have already enjoyed some ices and, this evening, some Carvel ice cream — something else not to be found in Northern California.

Watching the melting ice cream collecting around Jonah’s fist as he gripped his cone, and decorating a rather larger irregular shape on Archer beginning above his nose and ending below his navel, I harked back to my own childhood. When I ate an ice cream cone, even as a very young boy, job number one was always to prevent any ice cream from melting onto my hand. Even one drop was too much. Actually eating the ice cream was no more than a side effect of keeping it off my fingers. I was unerring in my ability assiduously to lick around the sides of the cone in the most threatening spots. Only rarely did a drip begin to course down toward my hand, but it was always spotted and licked away. I was the only kid like that. Everyone else got messy and never seemed to mind. The very thought of that happening to me would have been enough to make me throw my cone aside if I wasn’t sure I could keep the ice cream in check. I wonder what that says about me. Weird.

What’s been bothering me

Abigail: I live like a nun in a cloister, solitary, celibate — I hate it. And you, John?
John: I live like a monk in an abbey. Ditto, ditto. I hate it.
Abigail: Write to me with sentimental effusion. Let me revel in romantic illusion.
John: Do you still smell of vanilla and spring air? And is my fav’rite lover’s pillow still firm and fair?
Abigail: What was there, John, still is there, love. Come soon as you can to my cloister, I’ve forgotten the feel of your hand.
John: Soon we will walk again in Cupid’s grove together, and we’ll fondly survey that promis’d land.
Together: ‘Til then, ’til then, I am, as I ever was, and ever shall be: Yours, yours, yours, yours, yours.

Early this morning I happened across a 14-year-old e-mail message from Andrea to me making playful suggestions about how to spend a June day. Later, after everyone else woke up and I was making breakfast, Andrea noticed I was acting grumpy and called me on it, but I couldn’t explain why. Later still, noticing that my mood hadn’t improved, she volunteered to take the kids out for a short while so I could have some alone time. I immediately sat down at the piano, something I’m seldom able to do while the kids are around, and began playing (to the best of my extremely limited abilities) the above song from 1776, the musical. The song dramatizes the written correspondence between John and Abigail Adams, in love but separated for long periods at a time by necessity. The final line never fails to put a lump in my throat. Only then did it finally hit me — my life with Andrea is now more like that song than it is like that playful e-mail from 1992.

Andrea and I measure our time alone together in minutes per month. They’re good minutes, but they’re too few and far between. The long and short of it is simply that I miss my wife.

We started dating in 1988, got married in 1999, and had our first son in 2002. (Hmm, another 14-year interval. Strange coincidence.) Now, our kids are wonderful — the best ever, by far. Being their dad is the greatest thing in the world, and if the price for that is spending almost no time with my wife, well, I’ll gladly pay it, but thank goodness for the 14 years we had before kids.

It’s a smell world

Here’s something juvenile that I just posted to “sickos,” a humor/gross-out mailing list I belong to.

It’s a smell world after all
It’s a smell world after all
It’s a smell world after all
It’s a smell, smell world

It’s a world of fish guts, a world of feet
It’s a world of mildew and rancid meat
There’s so much in the air
That you’re always aware
It’s a smell world after all

It’s a smell world after all
It’s a smell world after all
It’s a smell world after all
It’s a smell, smell world

There’s the bathroom in back of the Greyhound bus
There’s the thing in your armpit that’s draining pus
And that ranch on I-5
Makes you sad you’re alive
It’s a smell world after all

The end of Superman

Everyone rolls their eyes at the end of Superman The Movie (1978), but I don’t think many people see past the ridiculous implausibility of spinning the earth backwards. The problems with Superman go far beyond that artless device.

As you probably know, at the end of Superman, Superman is so overwhelmed with grief at the death of Lois Lane that he is moved to fly around and around the earth at impossible speeds, causing the earth to reverse the direction of its rotation and thereby reversing the flow of time. All of the damage wrought in California by Lex Luthor’s nuclear missile is undone and Lois Lane is resurrected. When Superman is satisfied, he does a 180 and flies around and around the earth in the other direction, reversing its rotation once more so that time can flow forward.

Now, the obvious criticisms go like this: Superman clearly exceeds the speed of light, which is impossible; something the size of a man, even exceeding the speed of light, couldn’t appreciably alter the earth’s motion simply by swooping around and around it for several seconds; and altering the speed or direction of the earth’s rotation, far from affecting the flow of time, would wreak tremendous havoc as oceans slosh out of their basins, etc.

The whole sequence is so laughably ludicrous that it’s understandable if most people look no further for flaws.

But we’re talking about a man who can fly, see through solid objects, and lift the continental shelf over his head. Those things are impossible. It’s hardly sporting to suspend disbelief for those things and not for the others. So let’s grant Superman the ability to reverse time by flying around the earth. There are still big problems with the events in the latter part of the movie.

  • When Lex Luthor explains his plan to Superman, he says one nuclear missile is targeted for New Jersey and one for California. “Even you, with your great speed, could not stop both of them.” And it turns out Luthor’s right — Superman fails to stop one from hitting California because he’s busy chasing the other one. But just a few minutes later he can circumnavigate the entire globe multiple times in less than a second, so why didn’t he pour it on earlier? He knew the stakes. Was he slacking?
  • In choosing to reverse time, Superman expressly contravenes Jor-El’s stern admonition: “It is forbidden for you to interfere in human history.” In storytelling terms, making the choice to disobey this clear edict needs to have dire consequences, both for Superman (because it’s his father he’s disobeying) and for humanity (because its history is being interfered with). But there aren’t any repercussions at all. Quite the opposite. So why does Jor-El intone his warning so gravely? Why mustn’t Superman interfere with human history? Is Jor-El all wet?
  • When time is flowing in reverse, the many calamities caused by Lex Luthor’s missile rewind: the bursting dam unbursts; the San Andreas fault heals itself; etc. All the rescues that Superman performed must also rewind — the school bus dangling over the edge of the Golden Gate bridge, the train about to derail, etc. But in order for those to rewind, Superman has to be present — and he’s not! He’s busy swooping around the world.
  • After reversing time and then restoring time, what prevents the exact same calamitous events from unfolding once more?
  • At the very end, Superman deposits Lex Luthor and Otis within the walls of a penitentiary. On what legal grounds can they be held? By reversing time, Superman undid the crime we witnessed. No one but Superman has any memory of what happened.
  • Having discovered the efficacy of reversing time, Superman is morally obliged to reuse the technique whenever he fails to prevent a disaster, such as when the Kryptonian outlaws devastate Metropolis in Superman II. But he doesn’t.

I could never have put these observations into words when I was 12 and first saw Superman, but I was vaguely aware of these problems all the same. That awareness chafed. I understand how bad scripts get written. The thing I don’t get is how I overlooked these flaws so readily, because at age 12 I was a huge fan of the film.

The nature of reality, part 1: God

This is the first in a planned series of posts about the nature of reality.

Several months ago when creationism vs. evolution was in the news a lot, I got into an e-mail debate with a creationist. For this first post in the series I will reproduce part of a message I wrote in that debate.

Why can’t you accept the fact that there was an Intelligent Designer of the Earth, since it is so so very intricate and works so so very well?

[Because] we can explain most of the observable world without invoking God. Those things that we can’t presently explain seem no different in kind from other mysteries that science manages to solve sooner or later.

When I say we don’t need God to explain the observable world, I’m talking about the kind of God that I think most westerners conceive of: an omnipotent, anthropomorphic superbeing guiding the growth of every flower and the design of every perfect snowflake. Well, I understand water crystallization and plant metabolism well enough that I believe they can run perfectly well on “automatic.”

It is at the extreme lower end of our understanding of reality — the level of quarks, leptons, and bosons — that I begin to admit the possibility of a creator. Here’s why.

Once upon a time, humans knew about many, many substances. Eventually they learned that that multitude of substances arises from a somewhat smaller multitude of molecules. Then it was discovered that the many, many molecules that exist can all be explained by a mere few dozen different atoms. Why a few dozen? Turns out it’s all due to just three particles — protons, neutrons, and electrons — combining in a few dozen ways. Simplicity giving rise to complexity.

Go deeper than that and the picture gets more complicated again. Quarks, mesons, photons, gluons, etc., etc., and their many crazy interactions. It’s a huge mess — complexity giving rise to simplicity giving rise to complexity? — but it’s still all very mechanistic, requiring no divine intervention to operate.

Sure there are parts we still don’t understand, which technically does leave room for the Hand of God to be at work, but eventually I think we’ll explain everything we can observe, and I think we’ll again see great simplicity as the basis of the design of the universe. My money is on the ideas in Loop Quantum Gravity: that all of reality — space, time, matter, energy, and the laws that govern them — arises out of pure geometry. Topological loops and tangles on the sub-Planck scale. That’s nothing more than a guess on my part.

But whether or not LQG is right, or string theory is, or some other theory that comes along, it still seems that there can never be a “bottom” to the explanation of reality. If spacetime is nothing but mathematical foam, or minuscule vibrating strings, or turtles all the way down — in short, if we can answer “what is the universe” — then there will still be the question “why is the universe?” Sooner or later we’ll tame the particle zoo of the standard model of physics, I’m sure, but it seems unlikely we can ever uncover the root cause of reality. When we finally have in our hands the mathematical equations describing it all, we still won’t know: why did those equations manifest into something we can experience?

It’s as if I decided to write an elaborate computer program to simulate a universe, complete with its own laws of nature and its own intelligent life. In time those beings might figure out all the rules of their universe, but what chance would they ever have of guessing what I’m like, or the nature of the computing hardware in which they are abstractions? The copper and silicon and tiny electrical charges of which they’re really composed would appear nowhere at all inside the simulation. The rules by which their universe operates would bear no resemblance to the rules of the programming language in which I expressed them.

Yes, I know I’m starting to sound stoned. Maybe I’m way past “starting.” My point is this: I do not think science can answer the big “why.” Philosophy — or, if you prefer, theology (at this level they’re both the same) — can, perhaps. There is room for God here, and it’s not the “God of the gaps,” the one who’s required to explain mysterious phenomena (lightning, flowers, snowflakes) temporarily until we understand them better, and who’s constantly getting demoted by science. It’s not the human-centric God who sculpts a landscape or cares whether I watch my neighbor undress or obliterates entire villages by fiat because of some unknowable plan. The God I have in mind may have designed the very topology of cosmic spin-foam (or whatever), setting in motion an entire automatic universe, not a mere flower. This God really is unknowable, not to mention impossibly remote, completely abstract, irrelevant to ordinary human affairs — but also vastly more grand in a cosmic sense than the great-and-terrible-Oz version of God.