Two Almost Physicists With Almost Something To Say

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Happy Franksgiving!

Eleanor, pass me the cranberru sauce. And don't be such a bitch about it.

Not to be confused with Frankensteingiving.

Tonight, on the eve of our most greatest holiday (an evening where millions of Americans are blindly wandering the aisles of package stores to guess at what type of wine most effectively combines cheapness with not looking cheap, to bring to their family dinners tomorrow), I am taking a moment to flashback to 2007, on the way to flashing back to the 1930s. I somehow became aware of the historical footnote that was FDR’s unsuccessful attempt to change the date of Thanksgiving, and wrote about it on my previous blog. This year, I am thankful that I wrote a bunch of stuff no one really bothered reading, so that I can just repost it:

Some of the best holidays are the kind that you make up yourself. I certainly know this, and commemorate Kneecap Day annually in honor of my connective joints. FDR knew it too, and between 1939 and 1941 tried to get everyone to celebrate Thanksgiving a week earlier to boost retail sales. Had he succeeded, Turkey Day would be this Thursday. Unlike Social Security or fancy cigarette holders though, this is one of his ideas that didn’t quite catch on. Everyone made fun of it, derisively referring to the usurped holiday as ‘Franksgiving’ and sending him tons of hate mail. Evidentially, at the time, the date of Thanksgiving wasn’t fixed on the calendars, and a Presidential proclamation was needed to make it official as a public holiday. Roosevelt was asked by some retailers to move it up a week on the logic that people would shop more if there was more time between then and Christmas, and he agreed with this idea. Chaos ensued. Schools that had already scheduled vacations or football games all independently decided whether to keep or alter their plans. Businesses which had based their Novembers around a November 30th Thanksgiving had to reorganize everything. Calendar makers wet their pants. Furthermore, by the time November came around that year a bunch of states had decided to go against the President and celebrate the last Thursday as Thanksgiving, so someone traveling to another state to see their family might have the wrong week off. This national freak-out went on for 2 more years before New England, which gave our nation the holiday, threatened to take it away and the traditional date was reestablished formally by an act of Congress.


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Terror at 24 inches

Between a wall and hard place (another wall).

Our town of Providence, Rhode Island isn’t known for much. The birthplace of American religious freedom in the colony founded by Roger Williams, the world’s 4th-largest unsupported dome, some crooked politicians, and an ad for a local pest control business in the form of an enormous blue termite overlooking the highway. But now we have something we can truly be proud of: a girl who managed to get herself wedged so firmly in an 8-inch wide gap between two buildings that it took dozens of police and firefighters over an hour to free her.

Last Friday, Courtney Malloy, a 22-year-old woman in a state of considerable refreshment, went out the back door of a restaurant and made the inexplicable decision to try forcing herself through a passage no more than 8 inches across, as an unnecessary shortcut to the street. And, with an indomitable will to prevail over the forces of physics and common sense, she managed to push herself into the narrow space so vigorously that she was totally unable to free herself.

So far, you’re thinking, well, that’s a little stupid and unlikely, but it’s not THAT strange. And you’re right, except that every further detail just raises more questions. How is it even possible for an adult to get herself stuck in something in such a way that she cannot become unstuck? Did she expand? How can someone become stuck in such a way that firefighters couldn’t simply pull her out? (They had to break through one of the walls from the inside-out to get to her). When the firefighters got there, she had no idea how she’d gotten stuck— whether she walked into the alley, or fell from the roof of one the 3-story buildings that form the alley (it was later revealed that she started on ground level). And then, most importantly, there’s the fact that they found her wedged in there horizontally and 24 inches off the ground. Let me repeat that: horizontally and two feet off the ground. Like an extremely low-flying, drunk and bewildered Superman.

Someone pushed themselves into a space far to narrow to accommodate them, thought “this isn’t working” and proceeded to keep trying. In this way, no other news story in the past year more richly deserves  to be written about on Aitch-Bar, a blog that is to bullshit as narrow alleyways are to confused college students.

Indeed, no other story so adequately expresses the essence of the American dream, that looks at life and says “I bet I can jam more stuff into this.” It’s the spirit that built the iPhone, that invented the spork, that made that pizza with cheese inside the crust. Every time a middle-aged woman tries fitting herself into her old pair of leather pants, every time a child tries pushing together two non-interlocking lego pieces, every time a father looks at a thanksgiving turkey and asks himself “how many more birds can I shove in this thing?” this spirit is renewed. Even Rhode Island itself, wedged tightly as it is into the confined space between Massachusetts and Connecticut, is an embodiment of it. And as the personification of this spirit, Courtney Malloy deserves to be honored with a full sized statue, which will then be ceremonially wedged into that now famous alleyway, so that future generations can squint at it through a narrow tunnel and reflect on how THEY can make the world a better place…through shoving.

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A Speculative Account of the Transpiration of Events Culminating in the Publication of the Novel Micro

Michael Crichton reclines in his study, exhausted but satisfied. He has completed the first stage of what promises to be a highly-regarded novel; a lusty mix of speculative science, corporate intrigue, observations of the natural world, and horror. A framework is sketched. Characters are outlined: protagonists, antagonists, brain candy, cannon fodder. Three notes are jotted, one atop the other, in the lower right-hand corner. The first reads “Research plants.” The second: “Check basic physics.” And the third: “Need writing not to suck.” He completes the early ritual with a title page. Micro. He then secures the page and his draft notes to his abdomen with strips of duct tape. He dies two days later.

— —

Under the pale light of a quarter-moon, Richard Preston wipes a briny muck from his face as he digs under the grave marker of Michael Crichton. His pace is frenetic. The rumors still ring in his ears: a final manuscript, completed moments before his untimely demise, never having reached the eyes of any editor, never having been digitally transcribed, never found among his personal possessions. Taken to the grave. Richard Preston will have this story. Richard Preston will realize his dream of co-authoring a work with Michael Crichton. Richard Preston will ascend to greatness.

A thud. He has hit lacquered mahogany. He tosses the shovel aside and digs with bare hands, revealing his prize. He tears his shirt on a corner. He does not notice. The lid is opened. With assured purpose, he searches under the body, under the pillow, under the lining. He finds nothing. Panic rises. His frantic gaze then settles on the body. The burial suit is torn asunder. There: a stack of papers, secured to the abdomen by strips of duct tape. Richard Preston grabs at them, secreting them away in his waistband, hidden under torn shirt. In his mania, he tears the final bits. He does not notice a small piece of the lower right-hand corner left behind, hidden under a strip of tape.

— —

Richard Preston has retreated to his shack in the woods. The small room is lit by a trash can fire; smoke roils on the ceiling, escaping through narrow cracks in the thatch. The floor is naked boards. He is bent over a sun-bleached writing desk, poring over the notes. A rising despondency grips him by the throat. Where paragraphs should exist, there are only phrases. Where developed personality traits ought to be, there are only job descriptions. This is unlike any manuscript Richard Preston has encountered before. In fact, the manuscript reads like… draft notes.

The realization sweeps over him: Richard Preston must write words. He has dreaded this day for nearly eighteen years. He never intended to supply great stretches of narrative. The process of fictional composition is mysterious to him. One to whom it is not mysterious is Jezebeth, the demon of falsehoods. It is she who was the true author of The Hot Zone. For Richard Preston harbors a dark secret. Richard Preston is no writer.

Richard Preston is a wielder of arcane magicks.

He steels himself and reaches under his desk. He finds the old mason jar, and brings it to the flaming trash can. The top is discarded. Inside is a mixture of animal bones, widow’s tears, vulcanized rubber, and salvia. Eyes rolled back in his head, he recites a dark incantation and drops the brew into the fire.

— —

A lost child stumbles into the shack, finding Richard Preston face down upon the floorboards, naked, surrounded by aborted attempts at origami, unable to be roused. He steps gingerly over the prone form, avoiding a half-swan. He finds some food — a cabinet full of Triscuits, unpackaged and standing in stacks of twelve — and notices papers on the desk. The papers seem to be draft notes for a story. The child is intrigued. He won a writing award in seventh grade before running away from home. He spots something in the lower right corner: “Research plants” is scrawled just above a small tear in the paper.

He then notices a cardboard box in a far corner, decrepit with age and thorough with rot. He walks over to it and tugs at the top flap. The soggy material disintegrates, and a hundred unsold hardcovers of The Demon in the Freezer spill to the floorboards. He picks one up. It fills him with a sense of disquiet; he does not think of reading it. He turns it over instead. On the jacket cover is a picture of the author. He looks from the jacket to the man on the floor, and back again. He realizes that this is the Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone, inspiration for him to quit school in the seventh grade after realizing that a world with ebola is a world without meaning. Clearly his hero has come into a bad way. The child will help Richard Preston in his time of need. He returns to the writing desk, grabs the draft notes, and strides purposefully out the door, stepping over a half-tulip, heading for the library.

— —

The child returns to the shack, a stack of paper clutched tightly to his breast. Again he steps over Richard Preston’s sprawled figure. He sets the papers neatly beside the typewriter. He has combined an old biology report on rainforests with a character narrative framed by the draft notes. He has followed all of the notes that were on the page. He has followed none of the notes that were not. He stokes the trash can fire, bends down, sweeps aside a half-sailboat, and gives Richard Preston a kiss on the forehead. He walks into the woods. He is eaten by wolves.

— —

Richard Preston has taken an upright position. His head swims, his hands shake, and his stomach seizes. This is Jezebeth’s toll; he can feel the gap left in his abdomen where she burrowed. He is ravenous for Triscuits.

He crawls through a family of half-frogs to his writing desk to see what the demon may have wrought on his typewriter. He is surprised to find a very neat font, with nonuniform letters, line widths bound precisely to one-inch margins around the page. This is not at all like what happened last time. And it is theoretically impossible for a typewriter. Such is the nature of the dark arts.

He quickly tucks the new manuscript into an envelope; to gaze upon it too carefully before it enters the editing process would be to undo the work entirely. But he does notice a Post-It affixed to the title page, with what appears to be the hesitant calligraphy of a childlike hand. Creepy. He tosses the note directly into the trash can fire, sending its demonic machinations back to Hell. He then seals the envelope and gives his story unto the mail, addressed to HarperCollins. Richard Preston returns to the floor, the weight of destiny pulling him down. He sleeps.

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Back on the Wagon

I was recently inspired to shovel some coal back into the tender engine running the Xbox. I enjoyed an eight-month run as a member of society, but falling temperatures and a primal desire to trade physical exertion for coziness have won over. This is a dangerous time, life chronometer-wise, to take up hobbies of any creed or mode of dress. The barometer has fallen sharply, and a dark and turbulent stretch of thesis writing is on the horizon. The air smells of ozone and poorly-constructed sentences on the nature of dark matter. This is a storm that must be weathered with all vigilance. I have asked Siri for directions from my Current Location to employment at a grocery store; Route 1 is a slippery slope.

Thus it was with a distinct feeling of illogic that I laid monies for a new game. The vessel of vicariousness I chose was one called Dishonored. The choice was not made lightly, but, as with all major life choices, was the culmination of a search through every Internet there is, tallying those anonymous spirits which point apparitional fingers toward that thing you want to do and say “yeah dude worht it.” Not that they could have easily dissuaded me, as the promise of a game where freedoms with consequences are introduced has strong allure. I don’t recall ever finishing Red Faction: Guerrilla; I think I was too busy knocking holes in walls and then walking through them repeatedly, manic grin on my face, recalling the days of Nintendo when your environment was immutable. Being able to approach a task from any particular angle is not only liberating, but rewires some rat’s nest of dendrites near the front of the brain, forever changing the way one perceives the world. I hardly use the door to my apartment anymore.

Dishonored seems to be about rolling in human filth and eating food found in sewers, in a time of plague. I have on occasion been known to miss the point, but this is the aspect outstanding to me. There isn’t a single facet of the game which is not constantly turning around to you and saying “bro, outbreak, not a good day for whatever it is you want to do.” There are literally posters on walls reminding you. NPCs will not shut up about it. Rats abound. It hardly seems appropriate to be eating tins of fish out of dumpsters. The outrageous bit is that the game rewards you for this behavior by increasing your health, rather than immediately laying you out with the flux.

In between episodes of consuming trash, you are expected to perform acrobatic feats and, optionally, get into fights. I avoid the latter, for three reasons: (1) I am my mother’s son; (2) I’ve played Halo too many times to be enticed by the prospect of battle with belligerent Englishmen; (3) the game doesn’t want me to. I am frequently offered incentives for passing by an opportunity to rumble, be they in the form of ethereal Achievement Points, or fewer rats down the line (seriously), or 10% off my next meal at Pizza Pie-er. This means doing battle of a different kind, with the ill-conceived notion of “hiding” in video games. One typically hides by concealing about 50% of your body behind a thing, and that is considered close enough, because legs are really the indicator of a troublemaker. Occasionally some enterprising individual spots you anyway, despite your efforts and intentions, which I guess is supposed to be a life lesson. You start to take exception, before you remember that, in fairness, you were just kind of standing in a bush and expecting that sort of thing to be okay. Rightfully you should have been spotted about five steps into the level, and you have thus far been saved only by a high level of unprofessionalism amongst the computer-controlled gestapo.

Then you turn into a dog or something, and that’s cool.