Such a Nice Boy

I Had Developed a Reputation

I Had Developed a Reputation

It’s odd the way the past keeps getting dredged up. I had forgotten about Minichiello’s Pizzeria which stood opposite the Nugget Theater (above) on Main Street in Hanover, New Hampshire. I had managed to get a doctor’s letter absolving me from eating at Dartmouth College’s student dining hall, on the grounds that the food there nauseated me. So I usually ate at the restaurants in Hanover, of which there were about ten at the time—at least including those in my price range.

One of the places I ate was Minichiello’s: They had good pizza and were friendly. The only problem was they thought I was such a nice boy. You must remember that when I was a college senior, I looked as if I were still twelve; and I was subject to bullying by the local high schoolers until they saw I was carrying a college ID. So there I was, munching away at my pizza, when they introduce their daughter to me. She was very cute in a bad girl sort of way, and here her parents were holding me up as an example she should follow—instead of those bad boys who worked at the local garage.

God knows, if it weren’t for the fact that I was seriously ill with a pituitary tumor and, as a result, had not yet physically reached the age of puberty, I would much rather be doing with her those things her parents feared she was doing with the bad boys.

I was a good boy because I had no choice. I would much rather have had fun exploring her anatomy in a dark place rather than holding myself up as some sort of role model, which I was not. (Of course, nothing would have happened in any case because the girl thought I was a dweeb, and she was just being nice to her parents.)

In the end, the Minichiello girl went on to have her life, and I, mine. It was just one of those moments in which I was being nudged by fate into acting a part I did not feel was really mine.

As you all know, I am really bad to the bone.


Eager Beavers

In South America, the Friendly Beaver Is an Enemy

In South America, the Friendly Beaver Is an Enemy

About seventy-five years ago, someone thought it would be a great idea to introduce beavers to Tierra del Fuego, at the southernmost tip of South America, so that it could be hunted for its fur. The 20 beavers brought over from Manitoba in 1940 have now multiplied to 150,000—even outnumbering the 134,000 human residents of the area.

As is usually the case, the well-intentioned people who introduced the beavers did not consider the vastly different ecosystem. The dams built by the invaders do not help the ecosystem as wetlands do not form due to the type of flora, and the forests of native Nothofagus trees are being destroyed by the beavers, which have no native predators. Residents of Patagonia are afraid of the species’ spread northward, as they have no difficulties crossing salt water on their trek to the mainland.

Seeing the devastation wrought by the busy little rodents in Tierra del Fuego, New Zealand has prohibited the introduction of the beaver under its Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act of 1996.


Did the Earth Move for You, Too?

A Force That Could Push Mount Everest Around

A Force That Could Push Mount Everest Around

CNN has just announced that the recent magnitude 7.8 quake in Nepal moved Mount Everest to the southwest by 3 centimeters (1.2 inches). The story added, as an aside, that the height of the mountain is unchanged, just its location.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson once said, “If your ego starts out, ‘I am important, I am big, I am special,’ you’re in for some disappointments when you look around at what we’ve discovered about the universe. No, you’re not big. No, you’re not. You’re small in time and in space. And you have this frail vessel called the human body that’s limited on Earth.”

I am always shocked at man’s puniness, not only in the face of the universe, but just on his native planet.

Did you know, for existence, that perhaps the most powerful volcano on earth is Yellowstone National Park? (It is sometimes referred to as the Yellowstone Supervolcano.) Its caldera measures 35 by 45 miles. Three times it has erupted: 2.1 million, 1.3 million, and 640,000 years ago. Each time it substantially re-formed what is now the North American continent. Lest you feel smug, two huge magma chambers have been recently discovered in April. That doesn’t mean that Yellowstone will blow its top this year, or even in our lifetime and the lifetimes of our descendents, but when it does happen, it’ll be something to write home about, if home still exists.

There is a Buzzfeed site called 26 Pictures Will Make You Re-Evaluate Your Entire Existence. Before you decide to cut off your fellow motorist on the highway in your shiny new Porsche, perhaps you should meditate a while on it.


Smurov Is Alive—and Dead!

First, You Have to Understand About Schrödinger’s Cat

First, You Have to Understand About Schrödinger’s Cat

Vladimir Nabokov in his 1930 novelette The Eye seems to have anticipated Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment of 1935. According to Wikipedia, it goes as follows:

Schrödinger’s cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.

Naturally, most people do not entertain the notion of being alive and dead at the same time.  Yet in The Eye, the narrator Smurov commits suicide at the very beginning after having been ignominiously caned by the husband of his mistress Matilda. The rest of the story consists of Smurov investigating his own life among the Russian emigré population of Berlin, finding that he is roundly disliked by most everyone.

So, the question arises: Is Smurov alive or dead? Or is Smurov both alive and dead? (Or could the narrator be unreliable, having missed his heart with the revolver bullet?)

In an article in the May 2, 2015, issue of The New Scientist, Douglas Heaven speculates:

For [Physicist John Archibald] Wheeler, this meant the universe couldn’t really exist in any physical sense—even in the past—until we measure it. And what we do in the present affects what happened in the past—in principle, all the way back to the origins of the universe. If he is right, then to all intents and purposes the universe didn’t exist until we and other conscious entities started observing it.

Sound crazy? Then try this one on for size. Another interpretation of quantum mechanics is Hugh Everett’s many worlds hypothesis, which posits that everything that could happen has and does, in an infinite number of universes. Every time you make a decision, the universe splits in two, with you in one branch and an alternative you in the other, living the other possibility. The universe you occupy is, in some sense, an individual universe of your own making.

This idea is enough to give anyone a reality check. “My natural inclination is to be a realist,” says Chris Timpson, a philosopher of physics at the University of Oxford. “But if you’re going to be a realist about the quantum world then you’re left with a world that is very peculiar.” So peculiar, in fact, that the idea that it only exists because of us seems almost sensible.

There now, I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether Smurov is alive or dead or both. It all depends on your understanding of quantum mechanics in any universe you appear to be inhabiting at the moment, whatever THAT means!


The Talking Llamas

Not Only Talking, But Shopping As Well

It’s Not Exactly Bloomingdales, Is It?

I was restless last night, probably because my left arm was hurting more than usual. At one point in my dreams, I found myself at UCLA just outside the Ackerman Union, where there is a statue of the Bruin mascot. To my surprise, two llamas accompanied by two girls walked by. Oddly, the llamas were talking like Valley Girls about their shopping experiences at Bloomingdales as if it were an everyday occurrence. Cut to me doing a double take.

Considering that so many of my waking thoughts are occupied with planning my upcoming trip to South America, it is not surprising that llamas, in many ways emblematic of the entire continent, walk through my dreams. They are most welcome, even if they shop at Bloomingdales.

Serendipity: Calvino’s Ersilia

Giorgio di Chirico’s “Italian Plaza with a Red Tower”

Giorgio di Chirico’s “Italian Plaza with a Red Tower”

I have been reading Italo Calvino’s masterful Invisible Cities, inspired in equal part by Marco Polo’s Travels and the paintings of Giorgio di Chirico. In turn, it inspired Geoff Dyer’s The Search.

Picture to yourself Marco Polo describing to Kublai Khan the cities he has passed through to reach the Celestial Kingdom. Each city is more fanciful than the next. Here, for instance, is Ersilia:

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade,  authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.

From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.

They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.

Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.

What’s Happening in Ukraine?

April 2015 Status Map

April 2015 Status Map from New York Review of Books

Americans are confused about the struggle between Russia and the Ukraine. Generally, we think of plucky little Ukraine holding Big Bad Putin at bay. Anyhow, that’s how Europe and the U.S. prefer to see it.

In reality, both Ukraine and Russia are the bad guys, or, as Jorge Luis Borges said about the Falklands conflict between Britain and Argentina, “it’s like two bald men fighting over a comb.” We know Vladimir Putin is a not nice guy who wants to undo Mikhail Gorbachev’s dissolution of the USSR back in1989-1990, which was not a popular move to the man in the street in Moscow or Petersburg. But then, the new government of Ukraine was essentially composed of industrial magnates and common thugs. (But then, so is Russia.)

Ukraine has already lost Crimea, which was a Russian-speaking area. (Not that Russian and Ukrainian are that far removed from one another, but, hey, we’re talking pretexts here!) Let’s compare the above map with a linguistic map of Ukraine ca. 2001:

Is It About Language?

So Is It About Language?

It’s pretty clear that, aside from Crimea, the main Russian-speaking areas are in the Lugansk and Donetsk Oblasts (provinces) of Ukraine, only part of which the freedom-loving thugs of the Russian stripe have conquered after all this time. That’s not a very impressive performance, considering that Russian Spetsnas (спецназ) special forces are mingled with the rebel freedom fighters, and they have access to the latest Russian military technology.

Both sides have been fighting to what looks like a draw. If Putin wins, he’ll get the the two Russian-speaking oblasts to add to the Crimea. Although the eastern rebels have “On to Kiev!” slogans written on their tanks, neither Europe nor the U.S. want to see Ukraine snuffed out. And Germany’s Angela Merkel has hinted that she doesn’t want to see Mariupol in the Donetsk Oblast occupied. (Putin has shelled Mariupol, but has not tried to take it over.)

If Ukraine’s Poroshenko (or whichever magnate replaces him) wins, Russia will just take their winnings and go away. Of course, since Russia supplies Ukraine with natural gas for heating, they also hope not to be frozen out during a bad winter.

I don’t even know how I would want the conflict to end. Perhaps Putin and Poroshenko could fight it out in their underwear, with the loser getting a painful “Dutch rub.”

Sir Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

Paying Tribute to “The Prince of Darkness”

Paying Tribute to “The Prince of Darkness”

The 6’4” Englishman was one of the greatest villains in all of the cinema. He reached his apogee in the Hammer horror films made from the late 1950s into the 1970s, with my favorite of his productions being the title character in Dracula Prince of Darkness, released in 1966. More recently, he has played Saruman in the Lord of the Rings and Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus (?!) in the later Star Wars films. I also remember him fondly as Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973). If you scan his filmography, you will be surprised how many great roles he played over some six decades plus.

What with the film industry being what it is today, there are not a lot of great villains. Now they’re selected more on the basis of having a villainous face rather than any acting talent. One of the reasons for his success is the variety he brought to his parts. As he once said, “One thing to me is very important, if you’re playing somebody that the audience regards as, let’s say evil, try to do something they don’t expect, something that surprises the audience.”

Well, he surprised and delighted me for many years. I will miss him grievously.


In the Swamp

I Thought This Was a Desert Here!

I Thought This Was a Desert Here!

For most of the year, Southern California is a desert. In June and July, however, it turns into a swamp. Mexican hurricanes send moisture across the border and make the air sticky and wet.This condition leaves local weather forecasters nonplussed, if only because they do not acknowledge weather that sneaks over the border. Thanks to my friend, Bill Korn, there is a website that shows the Canadian and Mexican effects on our climate.

IThis morning, I felt as if I had slept in a swamp. I just could not get up until around one in the afternoon. Although I am at work now, I still do not feel very good and will probably leave early. Humid weather just never agrees with me.


Party Pooper

Thanks, But No Thanks!

Thanks, But No Thanks!

It seems to me that political parties exists solely for the purpose of concentrating and funneling contributions for candidates and propositions. If there were no political parties, Sherman Adelson and the Koch Brothers would have a much more difficult task attempting to make television and print advertising buys.

I no longer make contributions to political parties, partly because I detest all political advertising and because I feel that every candidate I have ever supported as let me down in a big way. Consequently, instead of calling myself a Democrat, I see myself as a left-leaning Independent. I will probably continue to vote mostly Democratic (while holding my nose), but do not have any interest in their marketing problems. All political telephone calls are quickly dispensed with: “I’m sorry, I view myself as an anarcho-syndicalist and your candidate is just not toeing the line!”

Why support a gang whose primarily role is to get my vote at any cost, and then proceed to turn every political promise into a prevarication? As if the whole spectrum of American politics can be compressed into the platforms of two political parties! Let there be dozens of parties: It would force them to talk to one another.

If you think this is impractical, turn your attention to Iceland, where the fastest growing party is the Pirate Party.