Science hurts

After an unplanned scientific experiment I conducted this morning while cleaning out a pantry cupboard, I recorded the following observations:

-Cheeze-Its™ brand snack crackers decay in a non-exponential fashion, with a half-life of roughly 18 months from time of initial unsealing.

-When smashing one’s head forcefully into an open cabinet door to the extent that stars and birds become visible, said stars and birds revolve around the victim’s head in acounter-clockwise orbit, rather than a clockwise pattern as commonly depicted in both classic and contemporary cartoons1.

  1. see also: Tunes, Looney; anvils.
posted 8/29/09 at 10:08am to Science!, Slightly Too Long For Twitter · 0 replies · permalink

Hypothetically speaking…

The Holloway letter

Let’s say you’re on an airplane, and the old man sitting next to you starts chatting. Normally, you don’t like smalltalk with strangers. Or any talk with strangers, especially when you’re strapped into a tiny coach seat on an aging 737. But he’s elderly, so you listen respectfully as he tells you all about himself.

Let’s go on to say that because you’ve shown polite interest in the man, he begins telling you a story. You do a little mental eye-roll, but the old man is a veteran, and when a veteran tells you a story, you shut your damn mouth and you listen.

Two hours later, and the man has finished telling you one of the strangest stories you’ve ever heard. And you know it’s just a story, because it was too bizarre. It was unreal. It just couldn’t have happened the way it was told. But you’re fascinated, so you ask the old man some questions. And he won’t answer you. He shakes his head and changes the subject, acting like he’s uncomfortable that he told you the story in the first place.

Upon landing, the man apologizes for not asking you enough about yourself, so you hand him a business card and give him the ten second highlights of what you do, and you write his name and address in one of your notebooks.

When you get home, you find that his story is still stuck in your head. What parts, if any, were real? Was he just old and confused? He’d told the story with too much conviction and too much detail for it to be entirely fabricated. So you write him a letter, and ask him to tell you more.

But you get nothing in return. Maybe the poor guy died, you think. You forget about the old man and his crazy story, and go on with your life.

Then several months later, to your complete surprise, a thick envelope shows up in the mail. There’s a letter from the old man, telling you some of what you wanted to know. The envelope is full of papers and materials that corroborate a large amount of what he told you in his story.

So now you are completely freaked out, because if he lied about what happened, then so did the other men who were with him.

And the whole thing is just too fucking eerie to believe. But you don’t have a choice.

posted 8/19/09 at 11:27am to Random, Writing · 13 replies · permalink

A Profound Cultural Illness

Representatives of the government torture innocent citizens into unconsciousness, on camera, in United States courtrooms with tasers. They use them on prisoners and on motorists and on political protesters and bicycle riders, on mentally ill and handicapped people and on children. And it’s happening with nary a peep of protest.

America’s torture problem is much bigger than Gitmo or the CIA or the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The government is torturing people every day and killing some of them. Then videos of the torture wind up on Youtube where sadists laugh and jeer at the victims. It’s the sign of profound cultural illness.

-Digby, guest blogging for Glenn Greenwald at

I read everything Digby posts on Hullabaloo, but her philippics on the rising abuse and misuse of tasers always hit me especially hard. Go read this entire piece at Salon. I can’t guarantee it won’t turn your stomach—in fact, I hope it does—but it’s essential reading for anyone who has even the slightest concern about the creeping authoritarian state.

posted 8/11/09 at 10:13am to Our Doomed Planet, Politics, The stupid, it burns · 0 replies · permalink

The Passive Writer, #3

Agents: Who Needs ‘Em?

The answer, my dear aspiring scribes, is no one. Agents are a vestigial luxury enjoyed by established writers of a higher order, but they are hardly mandatory; don’t let yourself think for a moment that you need one when you are just starting out.

I’m sure you are aghast, and ready to point out to me that every book about writing you’ve consumed so far (and let’s be honest, you’ve read a lot of them) has asserted rather authoritatively that acquiring an agent is an absolute necessity if you intend on selling your novel and/or screenplay.

This, of course, is complete nonsense.

All of those aforementioned books were likely written by authors who themselves had agents, and therefore had to state in the book that agents were essential. Would you throw your agent under a bus by not mentioning her in your book about writing? Of course you wouldn’t. Having said that, it should now be clear to you that they are featured in writing guides merely as a professional courtesy and not as a sine qua non of the publishing world.

Obviously we must now address the question of how to bring your work to the attention of a publisher. The answer is a simple one: direct solicitation. Package the most recent draft of your hush-hush manuscript1  in a large envelope and send it directly to the publishers you would most like to print your novel.

You’re a whip-smart bunch, so I’ve already anticipated your next concern. You’re going to tell me you’ve researched the major publishing houses and noticed they all have a disclaimer on their websites to the effect of “no unsolicited materials accepted”. Of course they need to say this, or else they’re going to be drowning in drafts from every amateur who ever put pen to paper. But they obviously don’t mean anyone reading this column; statements like that are just a wink and a nod to professionals like you who have read a large number of writing guides and have worked feverishly for the better part of three entire months on your manuscript.

It may take some time to receive a response from the publishers – don’t get discouraged! Acquisitions editors have a lot of work to do, and they may not get to your submission for at least a few days after you send it in. If you’re really concerned about time, and you have a little bit of extra money to spend, you might want to consider services like FedEx Overnight, USPS Express Mail, or even UPS Next Day Air. In addition to rapidly getting your manuscript to the publisher’s door, packages that exude a sense of urgency and importance tend to find their way to the top of the editorial pile more quickly than a plain brown envelope.

Hopefully this week’s column has helped clarify why expensive professionals are not necessary to your success as a first-time author. Also, if you have any topics you’d like The Passive Writer to cover in future essays, please send them directly to my agent.

  1. Remembering the advice given in last week’s Passive Writer column, “Your Secret Genius: Why You Should Never Show Your Work to Anyone Before Submitting for Publication”: there is no need to make sure your copy is clean and letter-perfect; once your manuscript gets bought, you will have to go through a long editing process anyway, so why spend the time doing all that work right now?
posted 8/10/09 at 7:48am to Writing · 2 replies · permalink

“An experiment to put pressure on the eye”


I tooke a bodkine gh & put it betwixt my eye & [the] bone as neare to [the] backside of my eye as I could: & pressing my eye [with the] end of it (soe as to make [the] curvature a, bcdef in my eye) there appeared severall white darke & coloured circles r, s, t, &c. Which circles were plainest when I continued to rub my eye [with the] point of [the] bodkine, but if I held my eye & [the] bodkin still, though I continued to presse my eye [with] it yet [the] circles would grow faint & often disappeare untill I removed [them] by moving my eye or [the] bodkin.

If [the] experiment were done in a light roome so [that] though my eyes were shut some light would get through their lidds There appeared a greate broade blewish darke circle outmost (as ts), & [within] that another light spot srs whose colour was much like [that] in [the] rest of [the] eye as at k. Within [which] spot appeared still another blew spot r espetially if I pressed my eye hard & [with] a small pointed bodkin. & outmost at vt appeared a verge of light.

[illustration and text From Isaac Newton’s handwritten notebook essay ‘Of Colours’, c. 1666]

I cannot even apply eyedrops without flinching, and Isaac Newton willingly stuck a bodkin1 into his eye socket and rubbed it around, just to see what would happen.

We all celebrate Newton as a genius, but if you dig a little deeper you’ll find that he was also the height of 17th century whatthefuckery.

  1. The kind of bodkin which was likely, in Newton’s time, a long and blunt needle used as a hairpin. Think of it as the equivalent of jamming a modern butter knife into your eye. Yeah.
posted 8/6/09 at 3:33pm to History, Science!, WTF? · 8 replies · permalink