res ipsa loquitur

faux Statue of Liberty stamp

Posted on: Fri, 04/15/2011 - 10:42 By: Tom Swiss

Sometimes real-life ironies make a better comment on a subject than any artist could hope to make. Such is the case with the new postage stamp that was planned to feature the Statue of Liberty.

Now, despite the fact that in all my trips to NYC I've never visited her, I'm a fan of the iconic Lady. As a Pagan I appreciate her as a modern rendering of a Roman goddess, as a descendant of immigrants I like her role as national greeter (even if my ancestors didn't come in through Ellis Island), as a fan of international cooperation I like that she was a gift from France, a nation with which we share deep historical ties, and as a fan of crowdsourcing I like that funds for her construction were raised in small amounts from ordinary people. Lady Liberty is the real deal.

Thus, it is all too appropriate in today's fake America, that it's not really her appearing on the new stamp. Instead it's an ersatz Liberty built for a Vegas casino. The Postal Service selected the image from a stock photo provider, and ended up picking a photo of the Statue of Liberty replica at the New York-New York casino.

making outer space safe for beer

Posted on: Fri, 03/04/2011 - 16:02 By: Tom Swiss

Saurian Brandy and Romulan Ale may still be lightyears away, but thanks to Australia's 4 Pines Brewing Company, astronauts and cosmonauts may soon be able to enjoy a beer in orbit. (If you don't think that's important, consider that beer might be the beverage that created civilization.)

Their reduced carbonation stout, named "Vostok" in honor of the first manned spacecraft (flown by Yuri Gagarin in 1961), is designed to avoid the gross phenomenon of the free-fall "wet burp", and also to account for changes in the sense of taste brought on by the space environment. But it's also designed to be tasty here dirtside. Sixpacks are available for in selected stores in Australia for around AUD 20. (If any readers down under care to send me a sixer, I'll pay you back...)

Javascript "Asteroids"-like game

Posted on: Tue, 03/01/2011 - 22:01 By: Tom Swiss

This made my day: a Javascript version of the old "Asteroids" game that lets you blow up HTML elements on web pages.

To try it out on this page, you can click this link. Rotate with left and right arrow keys, up arrow for thrust, shoot with the spacebar, press B to highlight shootable regions, and Esc to quit. (You'll probably want to reload the page afterwards.) For more fun, drag that link to your bookmarklet toolbar, then invoke it from some other webpage -- maybe one laden with ads, or maybe one with photos of whoever's pissing you off this week...

A tip of the hat to young Mr. Erik Rothoff Andersson, author of this applet.

Utah (or Pennsylvania) may designate a "state gun"

Posted on: Thu, 01/27/2011 - 10:46 By: Tom Swiss

Most states have official designated state flowers, state birds, and so on. Sometimes the "official state whatever" designations can get odd; Massachusetts has the corn muffin as its official state muffin, the slinky is the official state toy of Pennsylvania, and North Carolina has designated clogging as that state's official folk dance.

Now Utah is may become the first state with an official state gun, the Browning M1911; the Utah House passed this designation yesterday. (The state's Senate still has to vote on the measure.)

There's no question that the M1911 is a classic design. Also known as the Colt 1911 or Colt .45 ACP (Colt being the leading manufacturer of Browning's design), it was the standard-issue side arm for the U.S. armed forces from 1911 to 1985, is still carried by some units, and remains a very popular civilian gun. And it heavily influenced later semi-automatic handgun designs. It probably is appropriate for the state to honor the Utah-born inventor, John Browning, behind the design; and indeed it seems they already have a "John M. Browning Day".

But, not surprisingly, coming only weeks after the Tucson shooting, the designation has kicked up controversy. State Representative Carol Moss noted during floor debate that the primary audience for official state designations is school kids. The designation of a state gun "seems insensitive at this time when people are mourning the death of six people in Tucson and the serious wounding of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords – a friend of mine," Moss said.

Opponents of the bill suggested that a statue of Browning might be a better way to honor him, but State Representative Carl Wimmer, the bill's sponsor, said that a state designation made more sense because it wouldn't cost any money.

If Utah doesn't pass an official state gun bill, Pennsylvania may become the first state to do so, with a bill to make the eighteenth-century Pennsylvania long rifle an official state symbol. Since the Pennsylvania long rifle was a muzzle-loading flintlock, unlikely to be encountered today, I suspect this would generate much less controversy.

I am a gun owner and a supporter of the right to keep and bear arms. But on the other hand, I fully agree with Lao Tzu: "Weapons are instruments of ill omen; they are not the instruments of the princely man, who uses them only when he needs must." In this imperfect world in which we dwell, weapons are tools that are sometimes necessary, but we ought to be very careful about celebrating or glorifying them.

Ryōkan in the Bronx

Posted on: Mon, 01/24/2011 - 15:14 By: Tom Swiss

One of my favorite Zen stories is about Ryōkan, a Japanese hermit-monk-poet of the late 18th/early 19th century. Like every good story, there are many slightly different versions, and it grows in the telling -- you may have heard me tell this one around the fire at FSG, or allude to it in one of my poems. The tale goes something like this:

Ryōkan was a hermit monk who lived a simple life in a hut up in the hills. One day he went down to the village, probably to beg a little food and play with the kids. When he got back to his tiny little hut, he found a burglar going through his meager possessions.

Now, you or I would probably be pretty pissed at this point. I can see myself grabbing up a stick and giving the burglar what-for. But Ryōkan, he was a enlightened Zen guy. He knew that anyone who was trying to rob him -- a hermit in a hut, for crying out loud! -- had to be pretty desperate.

So Ryōkan said, "You've come all this way to see me, and I'm sorry that I don't have anything to offer you! I can't let you go away empty-handed. Please," he said, taking off his robe, "take this with you."

And as the befuddled thief walked away with the robe, Ryōkan stood naked in the night and looked up at the sky. "Poor fellow!" he said. "I wish I could give him that beautiful moon."

Now that's a pretty good story, but, we might ask, is being compassionate to thieves really practical, in this day and age?

Julio Diaz thought so. I don't know if Mr. Diaz had ever heard of Ryōkan; but one night in the Brox, when a teenage mugger with a knife demanded his wallet, Mr. Diaz not only handed it over, but gave him the coat off his back as well. And then invited him to dinner.

They went to a diner. They talked. The kid gave Mr. Diaz his wallet back, and also gave up the knife. Mr. Diaz gave the kid $20. From there -- well, who knows? Like Ryōkan's thief, the kid headed off into the night, probably scratching his head in wonder and confusion.

You can hear Mr. Diaz tell the story at

(Thank you, Nidaime Akira Nakamura, for posting Mr. Diaz's story -- I'd seen it a while back but lost the link.)

dead birds and fish mean OMG the end of the world! Or, not.

Posted on: Fri, 01/07/2011 - 12:11 By: Tom Swiss

People panic as in a matter of weeks, large numbers of dead birds are found in Texas, Austrailia, and Russia, and hundreds of thousands of dead fish are found in California.

Whoops! Sorry, had the Guardian of Forever showing me the wrong year. That was 2007. This year, it's dead birds in Italy, Sweden, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and dead fish in Maryland and dead crabs in England

Mass bird and fish kills are not unprecedented. This is the third year in a row for the English crabs, while the Maryland Department of Environment counts 2,900 mass fish kills between 1984 and 2009. Forteans have have collecting stories of birds falling from the sky for decades.

It's certainly possible -- though I have no evidence either way -- that the frequency is increasing, due to pollution, climate change, and the generally shitty way we're treating our planet's life support systems. And that's a very legitimate concern.

But the current spike in observed mass deaths is partly a result of increased information and reporting. A century ago, the news of such an incident would be a local story. Even just four years ago, many fewer us us were rocketing stories around Facebook and the like. But now, thanks to the web, a dozen dead birds in a small town somewhere can fuel panic around the globe. And then once we're primed to look for them, every incident that would have passed with little mention just months ago becomes Part Of The Pattern. (It's a Law Of Fives sort of thing.)

So let's turn down the end-of-days talk and the deep-conspiracy-theory nonsense, okay? Then maybe we can look with a clear and level head at our impact on the planet. Thanks.

ISS + moon + sun

Posted on: Wed, 01/05/2011 - 00:24 By: Tom Swiss

We all need an occasional reminder that, hey, we're living in the future, with computers in our pockets and cyborgs walking the streets -- and a space station orbiting the Earth. This amazing photo by Thierry Legault, showing the ISS transiting the Sun during the recent partial solar eclipse, is a great reminder. That thing that looks like a TIE fighter in front of the Sun? That's the International Space Station. There's people up there, zipping around Sol III at 17,000 mph. That's worth stopping to think about.

You can also see the ISS transiting the Moon in another wonderful photo by Legault.

RIP "Rosie the Riveter" model Geraldine Doyle

Posted on: Thu, 12/30/2010 - 15:43 By: Tom Swiss

Geraldine Doyle was the model for the "We Can Do It!" WWII poster that became a feminist icon. She died Sunday, aged 86.

A photo of Doyle taken by a UPI photographer was used as a model (just for the face, not the muscular arm) by Westinghouse graphic artist J. Howard Miller when he created the poster, which was originally aimed at deterring strikes and absenteeism. Doyle herself didn't know about the poster until the 1980s, when it became a icon of the women's movement.

The character in the image is often called "Rosie the Riveter", a name that comes from stems from a 1942 song. The song was inspired by Rosalind P. Walter, and Rose Will Monroe became the best-known "Rosie" after she was featured in a wartime promotional film. But the image modeled on Doyle -- though never originally associaited with the Rosie name -- perhaps proved to have more staying power, after it was re-discovered in the 1970s or 80s.

According to Doyle's daughter, Doyle was quick to correct people who thought she was the original Rosie the Riveter: "She would say that she was the 'We Can Do It!" girl...She never wanted to take anything away from the other Rosies."

"...and don't call me Shirley"

Posted on: Sun, 11/28/2010 - 23:03 By: Tom Swiss

Really, it is not my intention to turn this blog into the obituary pages. But I can't let the passing of Leslie Nielsen go unremarked.

There are a couple of movies that are classics in my family, that we might quote at each other at any opportunity, and Airplane!, which featured Nielsen's deadpan comedy debut, is one of them. My mom has also always been a fan of Nielsen's work in Police Squad!, though I didn't get turned on to that until later, after The Naked Gun came out.

Long before his turn to comedy, Nielsen starred in the classic SF film Forbidden Planet. So he played big roles -- very different roles -- in key films in two of my favorite genres.

Thanks, Mr. Nielsen.

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