Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The ponytail guys

Yesterday I saw a couple of men with ponytails. Not uncommon,* but the guys under the ponytails were very different.

I saw the first ponytail at the library. The man was extremely short. When he was close I estimated him to be 4'8". He was older, too, about my age. Besides his stature, what defined him the most was his long hair, which was styled into a braid. It hung down to the middle of his back. He was with a woman, who was also short but still taller than him. She was probably his wife or girlfriend, and had probably fixed his hair.

Later I spotted a man and woman on the street, talking. The man was tall, at least 6'3", and extremely muscular. I could see that because he had no shirt. All he was wearing were cut-off shorts and flip-flops. Besides his muscles what distinguished him was long hair in a ponytail, which reached to his waist. For it to achieve such length I figured he must've been growing it for years. He also had a bushy beard that reached to his chest. Both his beard and hair were gray, which put him in a certain mature age category. It looked startling on top of his surfer's body. He appeared to be a 50-year-old man whose head had been transplanted onto a 25-year-old. When I saw him my immediate thought was if my body looked like that I'd flaunt it, too.

But the hair? Don't think so. In the '70s I wore a ponytail style. My wife's friend asked me if I'd grow one again, now that I'm retired. I said, "Hell, no." Long hair takes a commitment, and I don't have time or the desire to be fussing with my hair.

Long hair as a style on men has been around now for forty years or more, and because many of us Baby Boomers refuse to grow up and change, the men I just described to you will wear their hair long until our generation is all in their graves. I expect to see--if I live that long, that is--Baby Boomer guys wearing long hair at age 80.

A man I worked with in the 1970s, who was born the year my father was born, 1920, and had children my age, told me, "I tried to understand why you guys all went nuts and grew your hair long. When I looked at history I found out that long hair on men comes around every 100 years or so." Wow, Brigadoon! The city, in the musical play, that reappears every 100 years. Maybe we should call the long hair style Brigadoon. "Hey, nice head of Brigadoon you have there, pal!" Or, "Get to the barber, get that Brigadoon off your head."

Of course, at my age a large percentage of men have already lost their hair, so for them the question of growing their hair long is moot.

I don't mind long hair in a ponytail or braid, but it signifies a man's age, his generation. It's plain to anyone looking at my white beard that I belong to that generation, but to grow my hair long again, uh uh. Just wouldn't be worth it.

I took these pictures of longhaired men off the Internet for illustration purposes, but I wish I'd had my camera with me yesterday.

*Especially since I live in a conservative area, not Berkeley, California.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Torchwood jumps the shark

The grinding sound you hear is my gnashing teeth. I watched the finale of the five-part Torchwood mini-series, Children of Earth, on BBC America, and I think the producers have gone in the wrong direction. Here's why, and WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

I didn't have any trouble with the main plot: aliens, called the 456, spoken as four-five-six, come to Earth for 1/10 of our world's children. The scene in Part 4 where the British government administrators, with help from an American general, figured out how to get those children away from their parents and into the aliens' hands, was a frightening and paranoid segment. They discussed the low yield segment of the population: those likely to grow up to be criminals, convicts, or living on the dole. Then of course they excused their own children from being part of the group given over.

I'm sure there was a comparable real-life scene in the 1950s, high-ranking U.S. government officials, military, scientific and government, discussing testing nuclear devices in the Nevada desert. They waited to detonate the bombs until the prevailing winds blew over Southern Utah. I'm familiar with this sort of high-handed attitude toward populations deemed not as important as the people making the life and death decisions.

What I found less realistic in Children of Earth were the plot contrivances, such as how Lois, a new character, was able to get into all of the important meetings and televise them, via alien technology, to Torchwood. This is after Torchwood has been blown out of their headquarters and gone into hiding. Why do that? Why does the government need to kill Captain Jack? But then, this is science fiction, so if you accept the initial premise then you have to accept the other unlikely things that are happening.

Another Torchwood character has been killed, which leaves Jack and Gwen, and Gwen's husband, Rhys.

Gwen is pregnant, and that mirrors real life for actress Eve Myles.

The final sequences turn into Greek tragedy, with a scene of sacrifice very profound to the future of the show and no, I'm not going to tell you about it because I don't even want to remember it.

In the first two seasons, even while occasionally tackling a more dramatic subject, Torchwood had a sense of humor like its parent show, Doctor Who. Children of Earth sucks all of the humor out of Torchwood. I like the show, but don't want it to go Shakespearean with its characters or plots.

Also...yes, I know I said it's science fiction and you accept the contrivances and plot turns, but I have some questions that go to the heart of Captain Jack's character. If he is from the 51st Century, then how come he didn't know that in 2009 aliens came to Earth looking to take our kids? He's from 3,000 years in the future, and we know quite a few high points of 3,000-year-old civilizations. With the mass communications of the 21st Century an incident like the arrival of the 456 and its demands would have been known in the future, so why didn't Captain Jack anticipate it and be ready? The show's catch phrase is, "The 21st Century is when everything changes," and that's because Jack ostensibly knows the future.

It would have made for a better story if Jack had been anticipating this attack by the 456 all through the early history of the Torchwood series, two seasons so far, not counting this mini-series. Don't you think it would make more sense? (Jack couldn't know because the show's writers didn't know.)

But then, I can't review what wasn't done, only what was, and I have found Children of Earth a disappointment for me. I'd like to see the series try to regain some of the direction it seems to have abandoned in this overwrought five-parter. In America there's a phrase, "jumping the shark," which is the moment at which a show loses its way and its appeal. In my opinion Torchwood has jumped the shark, but I see no reason it can't jump right back. At least, that's what I'm hoping.

As has been shown, Captain Jack can't be killed by bullets, disease, or even by being blown apart, but he could be killed by the show's producers.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Linda's miracles

During my working career I was lucky to work with education professionals, including counselors and social workers. I don't think there are people who show more love of fellow humans than the social workers who work with school children and their families.

Such is the case with social worker, Linda R., a work friend of mine for years. She has a French last name and the first time I met her I pronounced her name correctly. That got us off on the right foot for a friendship, but knowing Linda I'm sure we would have been friends anyway even if I'd botched her name beyond recognition.

Because she is so positive you wouldn't know Linda has had her share of tragedy. Her 18-year-old daughter, Yvette, and Yvette's friend, Zach, were photographing the moon from a nearby reservoir when they were approached by a young man who, without any provocation, shot both of them. The boy died, Yvette survived, even shot in the abdomen and head, by playing dead. She crawled to the road for help. You can read about the 1996 incident in the newspaper digital archives.

The shooter was arrested later and went to prison for murder. Yvette has had a hard road after the incident, but she has had great family support, including her mother. Linda is a person who listens, and then helps. I can't imagine a better person to turn to.

Linda had her own personal tragedy in 1999 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Not only that, Linda's sister had breast cancer at the same time and died. After her chemo treatments Linda often would show up at work so she could help other people, even when too sick to help herself.

I strongly considered calling Linda when I found out this past January I had cancer, but didn't. I wanted to wait until I was well, then I could speak to her without her feeling I was asking for help or support. I remember one time telling Linda a lady at another school had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Linda asked for her name and said, "I'll call her." That's just the kind of person she is.

In an area which is becoming more Spanish-speaking all the time, Linda is a godsend. She speaks Spanish. So she often helps parents and children who don't speak much English, if any. One day I walked into her school and saw the secretary trying to explain to some parents that they needed to talk to Linda. "Linda will be here tomorrow. Linda will help you. Come back then and talk to Linda." I saw the puzzlement on the parents' faces, but they left and I told the secretary, "You might have really confused them. In Spanish 'Linda' means beautiful."

"Well," said the secretary, "Linda is beautiful."

Some time ago Linda became a grandma. She told me Yvette had been told because of her gunshot wounds she'd never have children. That sounds like a miracle to me. I think Yvette surviving the random and deadly attack, then having a baby probably qualifies as a double miracle.

I believe people earn miracles. Whatever cosmic or karmic forces are at work dispensing them, when miracles get handed out the people receiving them are considered, and they deserve them.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Children of Earth

All over the world children suddenly stop in their tracks, their expressions blank, they say nothing, do nothing. In Cardiff, Wales, it's just before school starts in the morning, and parents are trying to get the kids on the bus, to cross a street, eat their breakfasts. Suddenly, as a group, the children open their mouths and chant, "We are coming. We care coming." Within less than a minute the spell is over and the children go back to their activities as if nothing had happened.

That's the opening scene of the five-part mini-series, Children of Earth, from the creative folks who bring us the television series, Torchwood. Torchwood itself is a spin-off of Doctor Who, available in the States on the BBC America cable network. The mini-series just completed its second episode, and is building suspense. The "We are coming" line is from something or someone, presumably alien, using Earth's children as a conduit for its messages. In the world of Torchwood aliens on Earth are a fact, because Cardiff is in the middle of a space/time rift. That sort of thing happens there. It's why the title organization, Torchwood, is headquartered in the town.

For the most part, the British government and police leave Torchwood, and its leader, Captain Jack Harkness, alone to do its business, stopping alien threats or retrieving alien artifacts. But in a turnabout, in "Children of Earth" the government does its best to destroy Torchwood, giving us not only a threat, but true paranoia. It's hard to do your job when the full force of the government is trying to kill you.

The other main characters in this series are Gwen Cooper, a former police officer, and Ianto Jones, who started out the series as a sort of dour administrator, but has advanced enough to have become important, especially since the second season of the series ended with the deaths of two of the lead characters. So instead of five, Torchwood is now down to three.

John Barrowman is Captain Jack, a man from the 51st Century who can't be killed. Eve Myles is Gwen, who in this mini-series is showing a toughness not seen in previous episodes.

I find myself parked in front of the television watching this show because I find its plots fascinating, but also because I like the actors.

Barrowman, who is openly gay, plays Captain Jack as gay. This past Sunday night BBC America had an hour show on why people are gay, featuring Barrowman, who searches for the scientific reasons for homosexuality. The program shows what evidence the medical science community has come up with.

Eve Myles, the Gwen Cooper character, is a strikingly pretty actress in her early thirties.

Myles is a tall brunette, and has something you don't see on American television: a gap between her front teeth.

As a matter of fact, there is another thing about Torchwood you just don't see on American TV, and that's the way they handle the lead character being gay. I wonder if British audiences are as polarized by the subject as American audiences are.

Gareth David-Lloyd is Ianto, and up until episode two, when he pulled some heroics and rescued Captain Jack--his lover, incidentally--I wondered why he was in the show at all.

I've been catching up with the first two seasons of Torchwood on DVD, supplied to me by my public library. "Children of Earth" is a five-part series, but so far I haven't read or heard if there will be additional episodes of the series, which is in season three. I assume there will, but if this is the lead-off to the season it's a impressive start.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Make mine a double

I write because I love to read. I read because when I was a kid I saw a lot of books with covers that made me want to be able to read what was behind the covers.

In the early '50s, about the time I was learning to read, the spinner racks in grocery and drug stores were full of paperback books; it was a golden age. I loved looking at the lurid crime and science fiction stuff. I've already written before about being a space cadet. The oldest existing story I ever wrote is a science fiction story called "Zero Hour."

Ace Books were published by the A.A. Wyn Company. Donald Wollheim was the editor. In the early 1950s someone came up with a really great idea. You put two books together, but only charge 10¢ more than a single book. At the time, almost all paperback books were 25¢. The books were bound in the dos-à-dos format so that no matter which you were reading, the other book was upside down. In order to read it you had to flip the book over. Very clever marketing, and very successful for Ace for a couple of decades.

These are some covers from Ace Doubles of the many I have collected over the years.

Ace also published westerns and mystery novels in the Doubles series. Drop Dead (1954), backed with The Case of the Hated Senator (1953) is a book I picked up today in a thrift store. Ace Double Novels are getting harder and harder to find in such places, so I get whatever I can find when I see them.

The Ace Double Novels were one of the reasons I wanted to learn to read. Nowadays I can't find time to read them, but I love looking at the covers, just as I did before I could read. Full circle, or more likely, flipped over.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Here men from planet Earth..."

My wife, Sally, and I were in front of our TV that day, July 20, 1969. It was also the day we moved into a new apartment. We quit what we were doing so we could watch the images broadcast from the moon.

I still think about that day 40 years ago today. My brother Rob and I talked about it once as one of those moments we were really glad we were alive to see. We wished our father could have lived long enough to see it.

To put it into context, think back of all the years of human history, from the time the first true human stood up and walked. All of that history: building civilizations, inventing, and then in the earliest years of the Twentieth Century the achievement of flight. Sixty-six years after the first liftoff of a heavier than air craft from a beach in North Carolina men walked on the moon. Amazing. Just two-thirds of a century after the Wright Brothers, brains and ingenuity took someone to the moon.

I'd like to live long enough to see us go back to the moon, then on to Mars. I hope I'll live to see the day when someone steps down on the Martian surface like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped down onto the moon.

See below, Number 10, "Why Neil Armstrong Went First"

11 Things You May Not Know About Apollo 11

By Michael Pendlebury, AOL News
Copyright © 2009 AOL

1. The Moon Smells – and Not Like Green Cheese

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were covered with dust after collecting two boxes of rocks during their moon walk. Back inside the Lunar Module, they took off their helmets and noticed a strange odor. Armstrong likened it to "wet ashes in a fireplace." Aldrin described it as "metallic." Several astronauts on later moon missions said moon dust smelled like burnt gunpowder.

How does it taste?

"Not half bad," according to Apollo 16 commander John Young.

2. The Spacecraft Smelled, Too

Navy divers knew from previous missions that the stench could be overpowering when they opened the capsule's hatch after splashdown. It was no different for Apollo 11. Three sweaty men had been cooped up in a very small space for more than a week. Bags filled with excrement had piled up in storage bins as the days passed.

To make matters worse, the astronauts were suffering from severe flatulence by the end of the mission because of hydrogen bubbles in their drinking water. Command Module pilot Michael Collins recalled "a not-so-subtle and pervasive aroma which reminds me of a mixture of wet dog and marsh gas."

The divers who recovered the Apollo 11 crew were wearing special masks – not to avoid the odor but to prevent exposure to any harmful microbes the astronauts might have carried back. It turned out there were no such things as "moon bugs.” But Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins had to spend a couple of weeks in quarantine just to make sure.

Aldrin stepping out, picture by Armstrong

3. Why They Call Him 'Buzz'

It sounds like the perfect nickname for a jet jockey and space explorer. But the moniker "Buzz" has nothing to do with flying.

When Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr. was born in 1930, his sister Fay Ann was just learning to speak and had trouble pronouncing the word "brother." It came out "buzzer." Soon, everyone was calling him Buzz. Edwin legally changed his name to Buzz in 1988.

The 'Toy Story' character Buzz Lightyear was named in his honor. "But there's no evidence in my bank account to substantiate that," Aldrin cracked in a recent New York Times interview.

Aldrin's father, Edwin Sr., went by the name Gene. And the mother of the second man to set foot on the lunar surface was born Marion Moon.

Michael Collins in the simulator, training

4. One Astronaut Inspired a Jethro Tull Song

'For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me' is on the 1970 album 'Benefit.' The flute-rock band's frontman Ian Anderson wrote the song that evoked what he imagined to be the feelings of the odd man out in the moon mission trio. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM for short) and walked on the moon, Collins had to stay behind and take care of business aboard the Command Module Columbia.

I'm with you LEM
Though its a shame that it had to be you.
The mother ship is just a blip
From your trip
made for two.
I'm with you boys, so please employ just a little extra care.
It's on my mind I'm left behind
When I should have been there.
Walking with you.

Collins did experience unprecedented isolation during his 22 hours alone in Columbia. He didn't get to hear Armstrong's famous “one small step” remark because the Command Module was out of radio contact on the far side of the moon. But Collins said he never felt lonely.

"I am alone, now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it," he wrote, in what would have made a good song lyric itself. "I feel this powerfully -- not as fear or loneliness -- but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation. I like."

5. The First Food and Drink on the Moon

The Apollo 11 crew had a variety of foods that were nutritious if not delicious. Much of it was freeze-dried in pouches, so astronauts had to squirt water into the bags and squish the contents around to prepare the food. There was no hot water aboard the Lunar Module, so the moonwalkers were stuck with cold meals and snacks for a day.

But the first things a man ate and drank on the moon were a Communion wafer and a thimbleful of wine.
Buzz Aldrin was a Presbyterian church elder at the time. The pastor of Webster Presbyterian in suburban Houston near the Johnson Space Center gave him a home Communion kit to take to the moon. It contained the wafer, a tiny vial of wine and a thumb-sized silver chalice.

NASA had urged Aldrin not to celebrate the sacrament publicly. Atheist activist Madelyn Murray O'Hare had already filed suit because the Apollo 8 crew read from the Book of Genesis for all the world to hear as they orbited the moon on Christmas Eve the year before.

So instead, Aldrin got on the radio shortly after the moon landing and asked everyone listening to observe "a few moments of silence" to think about what had just happened and to give thanks in their own way.

Aldrin's way was to turn off the microphone and administer Communion to himself. Armstrong watched silently as Aldrin poured the wine, read a few lines of scripture from a card, then ate the wafer and drank from the tiny cup.

It was years before Aldrin told anyone about his Communion on the moon. He doesn't attend church anymore. Wine is no longer on his menu. Aldrin has been outspoken recently about his battle with alcoholism and his 30 years of sobriety.

"My Sunday mornings are spent in a recovery meeting in Pacific Palisades," he told the New York Times.

Aldrin brought the little chalice back from the moon and returned it to Webster Presbyterian Church, which has it locked away.

6. What the Mission Patch Means

The Apollo 11 mission patch is simpler and richer in symbolism than most.

Michael Collins designed it with suggestions from fellow astronaut Jim Lovell, who was Neil Armstrong's backup for the moon shot.

Lovell contributed the idea of the eagle -- the symbol of the United States and the name of the lunar lander. Collins traced an image from a National Geographic book, then added the moonscape below the bird with Earth rising in the background. He liked it, but felt something was missing.

Flight simulator instructor Tom Wilson offered an olive branch. It would symbolize the peaceful nature of man's arrival in a new world. The rocket scientists-turned-graphic designers all agreed it was perfect.
Collins inserted an olive branch in the eagle's beak and sent his drawing up the line.

It came back with suggestions from above.

NASA officials were concerned that the bird's powerful, extended talons looked "too hostile, too warlike," Collins said in his memoir 'Carrying the Fire.' They thought it appeared the eagle was swooping down to conquer the moon.

The olive branch was moved from the beak to the talons – despite the misgivings of pilots like Collins who wondered how the eagle could land with a stick in its claws -- and the design flew through the rest of the approval process.

Unlike most mission patches, Apollo 11's does not include the names of the astronauts.

"We wanted the design to be representative of everyone who had worked toward a lunar landing," Collins explained. The subtext of the missing names was the universality of the achievement.

After all, as Armstrong would later tell the world from the moon, his "small step" was to be "a giant leap for mankind."

7. The Story Behind the Plaque

The stainless steel plaque attached to the ladder on the section of Eagle that stayed on the moon echoes the themes of the mission patch.

This is the message to any being that might run across it one day it in the Sea of Tranquility:

JULY 1969 A.D.

Instead of an American flag, the plaque shows the entire planet. It is signed by President Nixon and the three astronauts. (Aldrin used his given name, Edwin, because he thought Buzz was too informal in this case.)

Pat Buchanan, a White House speechwriter at the time, and William Safire, who had prepared remarks for the president to make in case the mission ended in disaster, helped tweak the plaque's wording. They changed "landed" to "set foot" because of the suspicion that the Russians had already landed an unmanned craft on the moon. "We come in peace" became "We came in peace," so it wouldn't sound like a bad movie line.

Julian Scheer, a key NASA public relations official during the moon missions, said Nixon also pushed to have the words "Under God" inserted after "Peace."

The space agency was wary of any overt religious reference in the wake of the Madelyn Murray O'Hare lawsuit. But it was too late to change the plaque by then anyway, according to Scheer. It had already been engraved and was on the Lunar Module undergoing tests in Houston.

Still, Safire noted, the plaque does say ''1969 A.D.'' -- Anno Domini, which means ''in the year of the Lord.''

It was "a shrewd way of sneaking God in," Safire wrote.

8. What They Took, What They Left

It's a tradition for astronauts to carry mementos into space for themselves or others. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first who would make a stop in another world before returning to Earth. So they took some things to bring back home and some to leave behind.

In the first category was the tiny, silver Communion chalice Aldrin carried. The crew also took bits of wood and fabric from the Wright Brothers' first airplane. Congress insisted that they take two American flags. There were three gold olive-branch pins for the astronauts’ wives. And, as a favor to veteran launch pad boss Guenter Wendt, they took an opal he had picked out to give to his wife when it came back from the moon.

The things left behind include the descent stage of lunar lander with the commemorative plaque on its strut, the U.S. flag the astronauts planted in the lunar soil, their backpacks, outer boots, a nice Hasselblad 500EL camera (they took the film magazine home, of course) and used food trays – as well as lots of footprints.

In his haste to complete all the mission tasks, Aldrin nearly forgot about a few items he had stashed in a pocket of his spacesuit. He was already back inside Eagle when Armstrong reminded him. So instead of conducting the small ceremony they'd planned, Aldrin simply tossed the packet out the door and into the dust of the moon.

It contained a gold medallion with the image of an olive branch and a small silicon disc engraved with microscopic goodwill messages in native languages from more than 70 world leaders.

There were small tokens to honor those who had given everything in pursuit of space exploration. A mission patch from Apollo 1 memorialized Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, who died in a capsule fire on the launch pad in 1967.

For the Russians -- the rivals whose early successes pulled America into the space race -- there were two cosmonaut medals. One was for Vladimir Komarov, who died in 1967 when the parachute of his Soyuz 1 spacecraft failed to open. The other was for the first human to orbit our planet, Yuri Gagarin -- who died when his plane crashed during a training flight the year before man landed on the moon.

9. The American Flag Was a Lot of Trouble

Apollo 11 mission planners took pains to avoid giving the impression that America was claiming the moon as its own when Eagle landed. But there was no disguising the nation's pride when TV images showed the Stars and Stripes flying at Tranquility Base.

The moonwalkers struggled to make the moment happen.

Despite the dust-covered surface, the lunar soil beneath was unexpectedly difficult to penetrate. The flag was affixed to a pole that had a telescoping crossbeam to keep it unfurled. First, Neil Armstrong was unable to extend the arm completely. Then he couldn't get the pole to stick in the ground. It kept tipping over -- an image NASA did not want broadcast to the world.

After considerable effort, the astronauts managed to get the rig to stay put. The result was the historic image, photographed by Armstrong, of Aldrin saluting the flag.

Video clips show the flag flapping -- something seized on by conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landing was faked as a Cold War propaganda stunt. The flag appears to be waving in the breeze. But there is no wind on the moon.

The Discovery Channel's 'Mythbusters' ran an experiment last year to try to explain the flapping flag phenomenon. Working in a vacuum chamber to simulate conditions on the moon, they found that with the lack of air resistance, momentum from the unsteady pole and arm arrangement was enough to make the flag flutter.

Another moon myth busted.

As the Lunar Module's ascent stage lifted the astronauts toward a rendezvous with Columbia, Aldrin glanced out the window and watched the blast from the engine knock over the flag they had worked so hard to plant on the moon.

10. Why Neil Armstrong Went First

Once the decision was made to go to the moon, the question on everyone's mind was which crew would be first. And once NASA decided it would be Apollo 11, much was made of the rivalry between Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to be the first to step onto the lunar surface.

Aldrin lobbied NASA officials hard, but Armstrong got the call. He was the mission commander and senior astronaut on the crew. Beyond office politics, the design of the Lunar Module dictated the decision that Armstrong, standing in the commander’s position, had to exit first. Both men would be wearing bulky spacesuits and backpacks – and the lone hatch opened inward on Aldrin’s side of the cramped spacecraft. It was impractical for him to move until Armstrong got out of the way.

"We felt like two fullbacks trying to change positions inside a Cub Scout pup tent," Aldrin later said.

So Aldrin helped guide Armstrong out the hatch and watched him make history. But the second man on the moon had a critical task to remember as he descended the ladder: Don't shut the door. NASA had not put an outside handle on the Lunar Module's hatch. If it had closed, the first men on the moon might well have been the last -- stuck a quarter of a million miles from Earth and locked out of their only ride home.

Picture by Collins of LEM returning to ship, earthrise in background

11. A Pen Helped Get Them Home

The Lunar Module Eagle was a surprisingly fragile machine.

Its skin was "so thin one of us could have taken a pencil and jammed it through the side of the ship," Buzz Aldrin said.
The tight quarters added to the risk of something getting damaged, as Aldrin discovered after the triumphant moon walk.

He noticed the plastic knob around an essential switch on a control panel had broken off. Aldrin surmised he'd knocked into it with his backpack and snapped off the head of the circuit breaker. The device was needed to arm the engine that was supposed to get them off the moon and back to the Command Module where Michael Collins was waiting.

The man who earned a doctorate in astronautics at MIT devised a less-than-space-age solution to the potentially life-threatening problem.

"It looked as though there was enough left to push [the breaker] in" manually, Aldrin told Popular Mechanics.

At the critical moment in the countdown, Aldrin took a felt-tip pen and stuck it into the switch. It worked.

The engine fired and the astronauts were on their way to accomplishing the second half of President Kennedy's challenge to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade -- the part about "returning him safely to the Earth."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

America's Most Wanted paranoia

A story on America's Most Wanted last night made me sit up and take notice. Police in some cities are using software that allows them to find people trading child porn across the Internet. They aren't releasing a lot of information on the nuts and bolts of it, but in its database the software has the names of files, movies and pictures that are known child pornography. So when that stuff goes from one computer to another they have a record, and they can go bust the person receiving it.

First off, I have no love for child porn or people who exploit children in any way. The software the police are using tracks peer-to-peer distribution of the files. I'm happy they are able to get some of the worst offenders by using technology, but my paranoia rises when I see a story like this.

Technology doesn't confine itself to just one thing. If it can track child porn files between computers it can track any kind of file. Companies fire people who use the Internet inappropriately because they can see what is going through their system. That's the thing: it's THEIR system, and they are paying for it and for their employees to be working, not goofing off online or downloading pornography. I have no problem with that, and I think most employees are getting savvy that there are a lot of no-no's when using the boss's network.

But on a personal basis I would have a problem if, in my state, the most Republican state in the U.S., someone were to have software that identified anyone getting files from Democratic headquarters. Not just that, but anything that someone is looking out for. And it doesn't even have to be the government doing it. If they have the technology then it, or a variation of it, could be available for private firms checking into your Internet usage. Maybe you've applied for a job and someone is peering in at what you look at online or what you send in your e-mails, then reporting to your potential employer. There are any number of reasons I think this sort of technology is Orwellian. You are stupid, too. Youmake it real easy for someone if they're looking at your Facebook or MySpace account and find pictures of you at a drunken party exposing yourself.

In some sense I understand why law enforcement does this, why people want to check up on other people, but it all builds my sense of paranoia, that we are being constantly watched, we are out of control of our lives, and that all the technology we use, computers, cell phones, etc., can and will be used against us. The genie is out of the bottle, folks, and isn't getting back in.

To those who might say, "If you haven't done anything wrong you don't have anything to worry about," I'll bet you whistle past graveyards, too.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

26 going on 16

Lately I've been talking about the cougar phenomenon; local stories of older women who have been charged by police with having sex with underage boys. It seems there's a new story every few weeks. Scroll down to read some of the stories.

The latest story came out the other day in Salt Lake City. Police got a call from a boy, identified as 17-years-old, claiming his girlfriend, who he said was 16, had just been kidnapped by gang members.

The boy told police he had been with his girlfriend. They argued. A car pulled up and four gang members got out, hit the boy with a crowbar, took the girl by force and drove off. By that evening the local television news had more about the story and it sounded quite different.

The girl who was apparently 16 was actually 26. The gang members were members of her own family. She had called them to come get her.

Oh yeah. The 26-year-old is eight months pregnant.

Did the boy really think his girlfriend was 16? Did he not know the gangsters were her relatives? So far the whole story hasn't come out.

Police said they are looking into the matter, but someone will probably go down for assault for hitting the kid with a crowbar, and the woman may get charged with having sex with a minor.

I'd like to know if you have similar stories of older women and underage boys in your area. It isn't just my part of the world, is it? Because if it is I'd like to know what it is in the air or water that makes for this phenomenon.

I was talking with my wife's cousin, Steve. We were both laughing about these situations, how people are worrying about the longterm effects on the boys of being shown the ropes by these predatory broads. Steve said, "If that happened to us we'd be here reminiscing about how great that was! 'Oh yeah, that woman ruined me!' Ha-ha!" As I recall, having a sexy older woman introduce me to the world of sex, sin and debauchery was a favorite fantasy from my adolescent years.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Finger of God

Some years ago a close relative of my wife, Sally, showed her a photograph of a cloud. She said she took it while camping with her husband. They called it "the finger of God." I don't remember Sally's reaction, exactly, but I think it was, "oh, that's nice," and then changed the subject.

The relative and her husband were members of an evangelical Christian church, and prone to blurting out "hallelujah!" and "Praise the Lord!" during conversations. It's natural they would see a formation that reminded them of what they were most interested in.

(Note: Except for the ghost cloud down the page a couple of paragraphs, which Sally took and I worked on, the pictures used in this posting were taken from the Internet for illustration purposes, only. Don't hold me to 'em.)

The other day Sally and I were on the first of our two daily exercise walks and she pointed up: "There's a bird," she said. That I could see. I recognized it immediately.

"There's a dragon," she said, pointing at another cloud.

I said, "To me it looks like a Great Auk," authoritatively, without really knowing exactly what a Great Auk looks like, or if there is such a critter as a Great Auk, anyway. What the hell, it was a cloud and the jet stream changed its shape within a moment to something that didn't look like anything.

When we were little kids we laid on the lawn and looked up at clouds. "There's a dog."

(This is an actual dog. I just want to see if you're paying attention.)

"There's a giant." "There's my third grade teacher, Mrs. Brimlow, giving me the stink eye." "There's a six-legged pig."

We have brains that process information by putting it in an order. Pattern recognition allows us to remember faces, places and things. That sort of memory also causes us to "recognize" familiar shapes in neutral objects: the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, for instance, the shape of Florida in a tree trunk.

Back to clouds, some people see flying saucers in lenticular clouds. They form around mountains and there have been many UFO "sightings" of these clouds.

Sally took this picture a few weeks ago and said, "I see a ghost in these clouds."

I took my graphics software and emphasized the ghost. Boo!

Look up in the sky. It's almost better than TV.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Time traveler

I like to travel into the past, check around, see how things were going in another year, another era.

I do my time traveling with old movies, old records, old books, magazines...anything that will provide me with a gateway to a long ago time.

Tonight I watched a DVD of the classic movie, 42nd Street, from 1932, starring Warner Baxter, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers. A few days ago I watched another movie from 1932, Final Edition, with Pat O'Brien and Mae Clarke. Earlier still I watched the film Public Enemy, the 1931 starmaking vehicle for James Cagney.

When I poke my head into an era like the 1930s I like to look at the cars, clothes, hair styles, and listen to how people were talking. My brother-in-law, who also loves this old stuff, asked me once, "Did people say, 'you mugs' to other guys like they do in old gangster movies?" I don't know. I think the dialogue in movies pretty much reflects how people were talking, unless it takes place in a time long before any of us were born, and then I think it's made up.

Costuming is important, and it's wonderful to see men wearing ties, fedoras or caps everywhere they went; women in dresses and heels, and those hats! After watching Final Edition I thought nowadays we have definitely gone over the line for casual dress in this country. When you look at newsreel footage of a 1930s baseball game you see men in ties and hats! Maybe it's a bit much to wear a tie to a ballgame. What if you got mustard from your hot dog on your tie? And it's true, in those days a man or woman wasn't dressed without a hat.

I don't necessarily like the term, "old soul," but until something better comes along that's how I feel; like I really belong in the world of the American 1930s through the mid '40s. I was born in '47 but don't remember any of the 1940s. I just know I really like everything about that time.

The best part of being a 2009 guy longing for the 1930s and '40s is that I can do it with modern technology: DVD players, the Internet. Now that I've had the technology I wouldn't want to go without it, but in many ways modern technology makes me appreciate the past even more.

Tomorrow I'll wake up in 2009 but who knows where I'll visit? I'll spend as little time in tomorrow as possible, and as much time as I can poking around in the past.