31 October 2008

Hallow's Eve

Seasons are a funny thing. We celebrate the start of summer on the solstice, the longest day of the year. From that point forward, the days shrink in length--we get less and less daylight in our 24 hours. We lose daylight until the solstice in December. The pagan Celts and their Nordic brethren started their summer around the time of our May Day. They called it "Beltane." This was the point halfway from the March equinox to the summer solstice. That way they were enjoying the continously lengthening days until midsummer, the solstice. Then it was downhill until fall. These solstices and equinoxes divide the year into quarters. If the orbit of the earth around the sun is viewed as a circle with the sun in the middle, these points are ninety degrees apart, forming right angles to each other. The orbit is not a circle of course, but an ellipse. The eccentricity of the ellipse, however, is quite small, 0.0167. The earth has a perihelion (closest approach) of about 147 million km and an aphelion (furthest distance) of 152 million km. So you can see that visualizing a "circle" is a useful device even if incorrect. If we further subdivide the quarters, bisecting them, we get the traditonal "cross-quarter" days of the pagan calendar. The Roman Catholic All Saints Day (Hallowmas, or All Hallows), is celebrated on November 1st, thus explaining the origin of Hallowe'en. The cross-quarter day we are approaching is called Samhain, and celebrates the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. We don't reckon winter until the December solstice, and after that point, the days begin to lengthen! Here in the State of Jefferson, we've already had freezing temperatures and the autumnal "fall" of the leaves is past its peak. Maybe those Celts and Vikings were on to something. The actual cross-quarter event (as reckoned from the earth's position along the ecliptic) will occur this year on November 6. I usually don't consider it winter around here until the Ski Park opens! (Thanks to archaeoastonomy.com for inspiration and information.)

28 October 2008


The first place I ever published a story--if you count "posting on a web site" as publishing--is no more. DZ Allen's Muzzle Flash is kaput. I remember coming across MF and reading the stories and thinking "people like this stuff?" I felt like I had those kind of stories already in my head. MF inspired me to put pen to paper. Well, finger to keyboard at least. I sent Mr. Allen a note yesterday thanking him for that inspiration. From Muzzle Flash to OOTG to . . . ? Lots of fine authors had their stuff on the Flash. Clair Dickson's Bo Fexler, PI series made me realize that the recurring character was not dead. In mainstream mystery fiction, the recurring character is de riguer, but in noir, it seemed a dated notion. Bo and MF disabused me of that idea. Matt Cadd was the result! The creative process is a funny thing. It needs nurturing. I know my own limitations, and they have to be overcome by persistence and effort. But that elusive "spark" that touches the tinder is often an accident, a random event that provides the necessary inspiration to go along with the perspiration. Here's to MF and all its troupers for helping me along.

25 October 2008


That's what they call it on the back cover. I wrote about SF/Noir earlier, and I'm back to it. The 24/7 anthology from Image Comics led me to the earlier work of Messrs. Brandon, Gunter & MacDonald entitled NYC Mech. Unlike 24/7, these are serials, six issues of the comic book bound as a "graphic novel." 24/7 was a collection of shorts by dozens of writers and artists. In NYC Mech, all the writing is by Ivan Brandon and Miles Gunter, and all the art is by Andy MacDonald. The fictional future is the same in both, a Manhattan entirely inhabited by robots, but robots that walk, talk and act like human beings. Let's Electrify and Beta Love are crime stories, melodramas in the noir tradition, ordinary folks living on the edge getting in over their heads. The art is fantastic, and the colors (by Nick Falardi) are spectacular. The whole layout is eye-catching--they've distilled the b & w cityscape of a hundred films noir and rendered it in bold, vibrant hues. The characters have all the expressiveness of flesh-and-blood folks, and suffer life's exigencies as if they were human, but have hydro-mechanical joints and a metallic integument. Are they cyborgs? Descendants of humans? The story never makes that clear. You find yourself in an alien world without explanation surrounded by familiar types chasing the same old dreams. Phillip K. Dick asked Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? These guys are looking for the answer.

23 October 2008

The New Space Race

The largest democracy in the world has an unmanned probe headed for the Moon. Chandrayaan-1 (Sanskrit for "moon-craft") carries eleven payloads and will orbit at only 100 km above the lunar surface for--they hope--two years. Two of the payloads are American in origin, the Mineralogy Mapper and the Miniature Synthetic Aperture Radar. It was just about a month ago when Chinese spacewalkers made international headlines. North Korea wants to get in on the act next year, it seems. That ought to raise hackles across the globe!

What's happening? The Russians and US are still manning the ISS, the Shuttle heads out in a month for its 124th mission, and the pictures coming from Cassini, the European Space Agency's crown jewel, are absolutely stunning. My friends, we are in the golden age of space exploration. Those of us who were weaned on the dramatic Apollo flights of the late 60s and early 70s may be a bit jaded. Ho hum, another rocket. But what we are seeing now is far beyond those missions in scope. The Space Race of that era was charged with the energy of the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union. These flights lack the human drama of Armstrong's steps, but the robustness of the technology has now been proven. The world is heading into space--not just two countries. The ubiquity of the ballistic missile will prove to be a problem for all peace-loving peoples. It will get so that anyone can launch them. Like the proliferation of nuclear technology, it behooves us to sit up and take notice. Space seems to be the province, these days, of a handful of geeks. We can't let that happen. The future is for all of us. Start paying attention--the view is fine.

19 October 2008

The Rye Guy

That's me. I sure do like a rye whiskey! Mmm-mmm!

Buffalo Trace has a website called Great Bourbon that compiles all their products. The Sazerac Rye is nicely packaged in a retro bottle. We picked some up this weekend. Some time ago, we sampled an 18-year old Sazerac rye that was memorably sumptuous. This 6-year old is lighter on the palate, as well as crisper and spicier, but a fine drink nonetheless. I won't attempt to piece together which company owns which company, which product is from which distillery, or what we will see in the future from Sazerac and Buffalo Trace--none of it makes sense. But Franklin County, Kentucky seems to be the place of origin. In that case, here's to there!

17 October 2008

The Twenty-twelve Touch

If you think the world is going to end in 2012, I've got a proposition for you:

Gimme all your stuff. You won't be needing it.

You heard me:

Gimme all your stuff. You won't be needing it.

You won't be needing your bank accounts, stock portfolios, vacation homes, jewerly, furs, sports cars or sailboats. You needn't fret. Here at Ten Pound Press we are prepared to take these things off your hands ABSOLUTELY FREE OF CHARGE! Don't be burdened with luxuries during the apocalypse. Pass them on to others before the "end of days" so you can be FREE TO ENJOY THE CATACLYSM!

Some of you believe that Twenty-twelve is not a "doomsday" but a New Age. Hey--we're cool with that! Imagine how awkward and out-of-place you will feel around all these Enlightened Beings when you are still chained to your wealth and personal property. DON'T LET IT HAPPEN. Get rid of all that crap. Break your materialistic chains!

Fortunately, you've come to the right place. TPP maintains a mature and sophisticated world-view--we accept all philosphies, religions, creeds and belief systems. No old-school prejudices hold us back from separating suckers and their money. We are as American as P.T. Barnum!

(Stay tuned for our upcoming solution to the "Rapture Racket.")

12 October 2008

Encounters with the Arch-essayist

John McPhee won the Pulitzer in 1999 for his compendium Annals of the Former World. In the 1980s, Mr. McPhee travelled across America along the I-80 corridor in the company of geologists. The result was a series of books: Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Rising From the Plains. I was a McPhee fan from my Berkeley days, having devoured his engaging Coming into the Country, a rough-hewn history of Alaska, and his quirky and provocative Encounters with the Archdruid, a character study of David Brower, at the time an icon of the environmental movement. McPhee always appealed to me as an American Rennaissance Man--outdoorsman, naturalist, historian, prose master, and amateur scientist. His essays in Table of Contents ranged from mini-hydroelectric generators to Senator Bill Bradley to a den of wintering bear cubs. Like me, he was interested in everything, and found delight in the stubborn irascibility and boundless optimism of his fellow Americans.

In 1987 I took a few field trips with a bunch of physical science teachers as part of a series of courses offered through UC Davis. We accompanied our geology professor, Eldridge Moores, on a bus ride through the Sierra foothills. He was energetic to the point of hyperactive, and enthusiastic to the point of fanaticism. We loved him. He warped our minds with a journey through time and space on his pet subject, "ophiolite suites." We got subduction zones, orogeny, ore deposits, and island arcs. We stood on sea-floor rocks a thousand feet and a hundred miles from the sea. It was great stuff. Geology is akin to picking up crumbs from a decades-old seven-course meal and re-creating the recipes. There is so little left of what went before that it strains credulity to create a picture of how it got there. Sherlock Holmes was the prince of deduction. Geologists are the kings of inductive logic--building theories with evolution's crustal remants that reach back to the beginning of time.

Dr. Moores went to Princeton, like McPhee. In 1993, McPhee's Assembling California was published. This was to be the final volume of the geologic cross-section that had started over a decade before. Who had McPhee selected as his mentor for the ultimate portion of his cross-country trek? Moores, naturally. I felt an immediate kinship for Assembling California, of course, and I knew that some day I would complete the series. Fortunately, a new but cheap hardcover copy of Annals dropped into my lap recently (thanks to Edward R. Hamilton). I just finished the first few hundred pages, covering the Basin and Terrain. This re-organization of the books includes a new preface, updates, corrections, and a fifth piece, Crossing the Craton. This is tough stuff--geology is a bewildering collection of vocabulary, and its vast scope sends "my head a-reeling." But McPhee's lyrical prose and narrative skill make it an enjoyable undertaking.

09 October 2008


I came across this word in a short story collection called Grifters and Swindlers (ed. Cynthia Manson, Carroll & Graf, 1993). The stories appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock/Ellery Queen magazines over the years. Apparently Ms. Manson has put together several such collections under a variety of themes and subjects. I picked up Grifters and Swindlers for a dollar at the local library book sale. Not only was the hardcover in very good condition, it had stories by William Campbell Gault, W.L. Heath, and Jim Thompson, among others. Who could pass that up? Mr. Thompson's was called "The Frightening Frammis."

What the hell is a "frammis?" Let me tell you I had a hard time finding out. It isn't in the dictionary! But I'm pretty skilled at combing the 'net for info, and I think I can put together a definition. Eric Partridge, one of my literary heroes, used the abbreviation "o.o.o." in the essential ORIGINS to mean "of obscure origin." I'm going to apply it to "frammis."

frammis, n., o.o.o.

1. a con or swindle
2. a catch-all term for an un-named or un-nameable thing; a 'whatchamacalit'
3. a phony gemstone, substituted for a more valuable one
4. a dream or ideal, hoplessly out of reach, but pursued nontheless

Isn't that a great word? Many thanks to Ms. Manson and the late Mr. Thompson for bringing it to my world.

04 October 2008

Starry Plough

Dubhe and Merak are the pointers--the α and ß stars of this famous asterism, known in North America as The Big Dipper. Dubhe is Arabic for "bear," which is appropriate, considering the constellation is Ursa Major, The Great Bear. The bright group of seven within Ursa Major is also known as The Wain (The Wagon). Of course, like all things, there is more to it. One more, in fact. There are EIGHT stars in the group. It goes alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, eta--that's how astronomers rank the stars by brightness. In the case of The Plough, it is Dubhe, Merak, Phecda, Megrez, Alioth, Mizar, Alkaid. The penultimate Mizar, properly known as Zeta Ursa Majoris, is coupled with tiny Alcor, thus the eighth star. Resolving the two individuals in the Mizar/Alcor pair with the naked eye is a challenge. Try it with binoculars if you can't make the split unaided. They form the middle of the "handle" portion, where it "bends." Here in the States, number forty-nine--Alaska--uses a stylized version of the seven (along with Polaris, the object of the pointers) for its flag. Irish revolutionaries and socialists have found iconic power in the grouping (without the North Star) as well, using it for their flags and banners. Today we created a Starry Plough on our kitchen wall, an empty white space below the cathedral ceiling that was crying out for some decoration. I spent quite a bit of time with ruler, protractor, calculator and star chart to work out the dimensions. It came out to a little less than four feet across. The North Star--Polaris--sits on the north wall, at a right angle to The Plough. I tilted the whole thing 42º from the horizontal, our approximate north latitude (the California-Oregon boderline). I'm reminded of the old Star Hustler (now Star Gazer) Jack Horkheimer line: "keep looking up!" And of a fine spot in our old stomping grounds, Berkeley, The Starry Plough Pub and Nightclub!

01 October 2008

Alas, Islay

My September whisky calendar featured Auchentoshan, a sublime "Lowland" malt from Glasgow. We had the good fortune to visit that upbeat but relaxed city. One of the highlights was a trip to the distillery. Northeast of the city centre, in Clydebank, we had to ride a bus to the end of the line, then walk a bit along the Great Western Road. On the other side of that highway--now the A82--are remnants of the Antonine Wall. We were lucky to be led on the tour by a master distiller from Bowmore. (The Morrison Bowmore group owns Auchentoshan as well.) This whisky is unlike the big, peaty malts Islay is famous for. It is a mellower, more subtle spirit, but surprisingly rich and full-bodied. They have several versions of Auchentoshan--my favorite is the Three Wood. October's calendar features Ardbeg, one of the peatiest of the peaty ones. That's quite a leap: from a soft, smooth, triple-distilled drink to a massively smoky beast. It got me thinking that we never made it to Islay on our trip to Scotland. Ah, some day, perhaps. Funny thing, not all the distilleries on the island make a peaty whisky. Bruichladdich and Bunnahabain, for example, don't fit the "Islay whisky" profile, being less peated. All the more reason to go and do some serious studying!