30 January 2009


The beautiful pairing of Venus and the crescent moon last night got me thinking about earthglow. WordMan™ reminded me that earthshine is the proper term, but I like mine. Our planet reflects sunlight, and that reflected light illuminates the surface of our satellite. That's why we can see the entire face of the moon during the crescent phase. It is one of my favorite sights. "Glow," according to Partridge, is of Norse-Germanic origin, making it an old, old English word. I like the thought that some ancient Viking might have formed the same sounds as he looked heavenward and pointed to the faintly-lit disk above him.

29 January 2009

New Lunar Year

Last night I could see the thin smile of the crescent moon low in the WSW, well below bright Venus. The new moon happened Sunday eve-Monday morn on just about the stroke of midnight (7 h 55 m UT) here in the Pacific Time Zone. The Chinese New Year was celebrated around the world on Monday the 26th. Theirs is a lunisolar calendar, that is, it marks the months by the phase of the moon even though it follows the solar year. The Chinese calendar requires "intercalary" months to be inserted every few years in order to maintain the moon-sun fit. Twelve lunar months does not equal 365 days!

I like the New Moon--more precisely, the young moon--because it make me feel a sense of renewal. The little ball of rock has swung around one complete turn with its big blue dancing partner, and we get to hit the reset button on our lives. That thin, hanging sliver is like a reminder to take a breath, check your footing, pick up the tune again and keep swinging. If life is a dance, what kind of music do you hear?

15 January 2009

Happy Anniversary

Five years ago this month Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars. The JPL/NASA guys were hoping to get three months worth of work from these spacecraft. Sixty months later they are still kicking. Surely this is an extraordinary science and engineering achievement! These plucky rovers don't get a lot of mainstream press--space travel, especially robotic space travel, is pretty boring news. The numbers speak for themselves:

The rovers have made important discoveries about wet and violent environments on ancient Mars. They also have returned a quarter-million images, driven more than 21 kilometers (13 miles), climbed a mountain, descended into craters, struggled with sand traps and aging hardware, survived dust storms, and relayed more than 36 gigabytes of data via NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. To date, the rovers remain operational for new campaigns the team has planned for them. (q.v. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mer/news/mer-20081229.html)

One number NOT in that paragraph is 300,000,000. That's three hundred million. As in miles. That's how much space the rovers had to cross before they descended to the red planet. Here at TPP we like a good space story. So hat's off to Spirit and Opportunity. Happy Anniversary and keep on truckin'.

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11 January 2009

R.I.P. D.E.W.

Donald E. Westlake, one of the masters of the popular novel, died on the 31st of December, 2008. I originally wrote "masters of modern fiction" but that sounds like something from a lit-class essay. Westlake wrote crime novels, both comic and hard-boiled, as well as mysteries, screenplays, and other interesting things. My favorites? The Parker series (by "Richard Stark"), is iconic noir, consistently suspenseful and tough-as-nails with a sympathetic (but "bad guy") lead character. And Kahawa, his 1981 novel about spies, coffee, and killing in Idi Amin's Uganda, cuts deep--its sensitivity and humanity belie its superficial "adventure" label. Images from that book, more than any other in Mr. Westlake's prodigious canon, stick with me years later. The funny stuff is what made him famous though, from romps like Somebody Owes Me Money (recently re-issued by Hard Case) to manic soap operas like Baby, Would I Lie? and dark, twisted morality tales like The Hook. He could do it all, and has the books to prove it. One look at his bibliography will stagger your mind--he was first published in 1959, the year I was born. My own bookshelf devotes over two feet of linear space to Donald E. Westlake. I like the obituary by Mr. Hard Case Himself, Charles Ardai, in The Guardian--he sums it up nicely.

Requiescat in pacem.

08 January 2009

Mr. Noir

The first DVD movie we played on the new TV was Vice (2008). The week before we had an old-TV-VHS-fest and watched Trouble Bound (1993). The link, of course, is Michael Madsen. Nobody channels Robert Mitchum better than Madsen, and thus he gets my nod for this century's "Mr. Noir." It was ten years ago when we were hooked on Madsen's character "Mr. Chapel" in Vengeance Unlimited, an ABC show that lasted only 16 episodes in 1998-99. Madsen's fame rests, perhaps, on the success of Reservoir Dogs, and his terrifying performance as Mr. Blonde. But Mr. Madsen is at his best playing likeable tough guys, menacing fellows who manage to maintain their humanity, and thus the audience's sympathy. He has this weird tommy-gun laugh that makes you wonder what he really thinks is funny, and a gravelly voice that sounds like a smoker's cough. But his brooding, wincing, squinting, and grimacing project a surprising depth and warmth, and he's got a sort of worn-down-but-still-handsome quality that's easy to watch. Here's hoping "Mr. Noir" can keep making noir.

01 January 2009

Happy New Year!

We forget that for most of human history the nights were dark. People used the light of the moon to work or travel. They stayed where they were otherwise, hunkered down against the all-encompassing darkness. The movement of the sun, stars, and planets, the phases of the moon, these were items of common knowledge, necessary for survival. In our fast-paced, well-lit 21st-century, the ancient rhythms are reduced to mere curiosities, and knowledge of the heavens is confined to scientists and fortune-tellers. Half the people on the planet now live in cities, which means they have fewer and fewer chances to appreciate the cosmic cycles that governed their ancestors' lives not so long ago. Light pollution isn't just robbing the night sky of darkness--it is taking away our common heritage. All the peoples that have ever lived on earth have a history of star-gazing, sky-watching, time-keeping, and calendar-making. All of these human activites spring from our primeval practice of looking up!

This year, 2009, was chosen to be the International Year of Astronomy because it is four hundred years since Galileo's epochal telescopic observations changed forever the face of Western thought. The venerable science journal, Nature, has devoted its latest issue to astronomy.

Happy New Year!

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