Posted by: Mark | September 16, 2014


Back on September 2, when I hit 1,500 miles for the year, I set a goal of reaching 1,600 by today. At first I was going very well. On the third, I ran ten miles and on the fourth 15. Then, after gaining weight, I gave up after two miles on Friday, skipped both Saturday and Sunday, and only ran two miles on Monday. By running like crazy (or whatever you call exercising on an elliptical machine), I dug myself out of the hole, making 1,600 when I was sure I wouldn’t.

I’ll shoot for 1,700 by September 30.

Posted by: Mark | September 15, 2014

Ten Influential Books

I was challenged to write this. Here’s my long-winded response:

1. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve finished Lord of the Rings exactly once but have read The Hobbit about ten. Harold Bloom once referred to the style of writing in The Lord of the Rings as reminiscent of the Book of Mormon (and not the good Parker/Stone version) but The Hobbit never hits a false note from the opening sentence until the last. I especially liked the use of an intrusive narrator (when third-person narration is occasionally broken by first-person commentary) but Tolkien apparently hated it and regretted that he wrote the book that way. The first time I finished The Hobbit was in the fifth grade and, on some level, it’s what I measure every other piece of fiction ever since.

2. Retief series – Keith Laumer – I haven’t read any of the Retief stories in years but, when I was seventh grade, I checked out one of Laumer’s books from the library. Today, I still have over 50 of his books and have read a dozen or so more. I don’t think any single book had more of an effect than any of the others but collectively they made more of an influence than the work of any writer.

3. Night Mare – Piers Anthony. It’s easy to knock Anthony today but, when I was in grade school on vacation, I got a copy of Night Mare and deeply enjoyed it. More importantly, up until that point, I’d been trying to write stories of my own and was churning out pseudo-fantasy that was more like historic fiction without any knowledge of real history. After reading the Xanth series, I began writing with more imagination. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing but it was a major influence.

4. Meditations – Marcus Aurelius. I’ve read every word of The Bhagavad Gita and the Koran, and all the books in the Protestant, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and most other canons of the Bible, but none of them had an impact on daily life as Meditations. Marcus Aurelius hated Christians and persecuted them more fiercely than any of the early emperors besides Nero and Domitian (although you’d never know this from the movie Gladiator). Despite this, the early Church still had the good judgment to incorporate Aurelius’ philosophy into Christian theology. (Today, we had The Left Behind series–what went wrong?) I don’t think there has ever been a better book to help a reader endure the everyday idiots of everyday life.

5. Pericles – Any time some snob wants to show that he’s sophisticated enough to smear Shakespeare, he’ll inevitably pick on Titus Andronicus or Pericles. I’m not sure how anyone could think those are worst of Shakespeare’s work–Timon of Athens, King John, and Henry VIII are much weaker and I don’t think anyone likes his long poetry. I read Pericles after working on Live Nude Shakespeare. I started feeling guilty about Shakespeare’s plays that I hadn’t read so I set out to read them all.

Pericles’ plot isn’t the best and the characters aren’t in Hamlet’s league but I thought it was the funniest thing Shakespeare ever wrote. Part of the humor comes from rape jokes, and I think about the play whenever anyone analyzes Animal House, Trading Places, Revenge of the Nerds, or any movie that goes for a joke out of what would technically be sexual assault. I don’t feel guilty about laughing at Shakespeare’s rape jokes but maybe I should.

6. Ajax – Sophocles. Like Shakespeare, I was guilted into reading all of Sophocles and the rest of the extant Greek plays. It started when I was teaching Oedipus Rex and tried to make a point of how important Greek drama was. A student raised his hand and asked how many of the plays I had read. At the time it was only about five and I felt so ashamed that I made my way through all the rest of the surviving 45 plays.

Ajax didn’t stand out as Sophocles’ best but it does present the protagonist’s suicide on-stage, despite every literature text book that claims the Greeks never openly depicted death or violence. Whenever I hear someone give a blow-hard theory about literature with no understanding of it, I think of Ajax.

7. Hit or Myth – Robert Asprin. Fan fiction was always embarrassing at best but, before the Internet, at least it wasn’t so obvious. The first story I ever had published was in The Myth Adventures Fanzine based on characters from Asprin’s Myth series. I look back at that with a mixture of shame and pride, but at least it got me started.

8. Astro City: Confessions – Kurt Busiek. I’ve read thousands of comics and most of them were dumb. I can say the same with novels so it’s not an insult. Before 1986, for all their problems, comic books weren’t as joyless as they are today. I’m not completely knocking Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns–they deconstructed superheroes in a way that was probably overdue–but many writers after them thought that good = grim. Going Hegel with this, old comics were the status quo thesis for decades, Moore and Miller’s deconstruction was the antithesis that has lasted far too long, and Busiek’s Astro City is the synthesis, taking the flaws that M&M pointed out and dealing with them instead of endlessly harping on them.

I’m guessing most people would pick Art Spiegleman’s Maus or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman for a graphic novel, but, when I think of comic books, I don’t think of cats wearing Nazi uniforms, I think of superheroes, and Busiek is one of the few writers today that doesn’t seem geared to teenage girls wearing black lipstick and listening to “Meat is Murder,” and/or stereotypical nerds who look at comics because they can’t work up the nerve to buy the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

9. Ulysses/Finnegans Wake – James Joyce. When I was at UC, the English Department gave me a list of 90 books to read for the Masters’ Exam. Three months before the exam, I learned that I was really going to be tested on 60 completely different books with an emphasis on eight specific works. When I did the math, I figured that I needed to read 213 pages a day to finish the list in time. Since one of the eight major works was Ulysses, I knew I was dead. Luckily for me, Dr. Wayne Hall took pity on the poor jerks in my situation and covered Ulysses with us chapter by chapter. More students failed that year than in memory but I passed. One slob only found out about the new list three days before the exam. Ah, UC.

I use Finnegans Wake in class when we talk about plot. I usually have a student read a page at random and they react like I did when I found out about the wrong reading list. I always mean to finish Finnegans Wake but, after 14 attempts, I always give up. Someday maybe. I wouldn’t have tried at all if it hadn’t been for Ulysses.
10. The Straight Dope – Cecil Adams. I first started reading Cecil Adams in Everybody’s News. Eventually I bought all his books and read his new columns every Friday. I didn’t realize it at the time but The Straight Dope marked the point when I shifted from reading almost entirely fiction to almost entirely nonfiction. In some ways that makes The Straight Dope the biggest influence of all.

Posted by: Mark | September 14, 2014

Last Lizard?

I thought I’d seen the last lizard of 2014 but one ran across the sidewalk at noon. I can’t imagine any after today but I’ll keep looking.

On one hand, I enjoy seeing these lizards, but I feel a little worried that a species that had never lived in the area suddenly appeared in a population explosion.

Posted by: Mark | September 13, 2014

The Turnabout Intruder

MeTV aired the final episode of the original Star Trek, “The Turnabout Intruder,” better known as Kirk’s sex change.

It’s episodes like this that make me roll my eyes when Trekkies complain that Into Darkness wasn’t worthy of Star Trek.

You could tell the story of Kirk changing into a woman in many ways and “Turn-About” must be close to the dumbest. This is a case where a porn parody would actually improve things.

It was fun to see Shatner go ham squared but that’s about all I can say positively about the episode.

Posted by: Mark | September 12, 2014


Here’s another Halloween-related post about everyone’s least favorite rodent, the rat. Information from Robert Sullivan’s Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants (2004).

Queen Victoria’s rat catcher was named Jack Black. He didn’t star in Kung Fu Panda but did start a fad among Victorians of keeping pet rats as pets. Beatrice Potter is said to have bought a rat directly from Jack. Sullivan theorizes that the most common strand of laboratory rats are descended from his rats.

26% of electric cable breaks and 18% of phone cable breaks are said to be caused by rats. Estimated that 25% of fires of unknown causes are actually caused by rats. One estimate is that one third of food production is destroyed by rats.

Rats have sex up to 20 times a day. If no females are available, male rats have sex with each other.

Rats are thigmophilic – they love to touch things

By 1926, Norway rats (not really from Norway) were living in every U.S. state, the last holdout was Montana which is hard for them to colonize. Alberta calls itself a rat-free province but this is probably not entirely true (a mayor of an Albertan city said that he would eat any rat found in town. He recanted when presented with a basketful). The Norway rat is believed to have come to New York around the time of the Revolution and moved outward.

The Bubonic Plague came to San Francisco near the turn of the 20th century but was covered up by politicians and business leaders (a la Jaws). Health officials reporting the plague were fired or threatened with arrest. Eventually it was contained but the plague spread throughout the American southwest. Today there are more rodents infested with bubonic plague in America than were infected during the height of the plague years in Europe.

Shiro Ishii, a Japanese general during WWII, led Unit 731. Tried to use the bubonic plague as a weapon. Tried to drop the bacteria from airplanes but they died by the time they hit ground. Infected fleas and put them in clay bombs to drop from planes; 80% survived. After a Japanese flew over the Chinese city of Changde, people began dying of the plague. Ishii was never tried for war crimes. He turned his medical records to the U.S. and died a respected man of medicine.

Soviets copied Ishii’s techniques. The U.S. did as well. In April 1950, two navy ships sprayed Norfolk, Hampton, and Newport News with Bacillus globigii, a bacteria thought to be harmless. Congress was not informed. San Francisco was also exposed, as were New York City subways. Soldiers out of uniform dropped lightbulbs full of Bacillus globigii and later came to test the infection rate in the air. One of the agents later bragged about lying to a man in the subway about the plastic carrying case for the light bulbs, telling him they were available in any hardware store. Results of the study are still classified.

Chickens are not susceptible to the plague. Scientists at the Pasteur Institute injected live plague bacteria into a chicken to study its effects. Naturally, the chicken escaped and was found by a local. He cooked and ate it with his family. They suffered no ill effects but the consequences of eating plague-infected poultry is probably not conclusive until further studies.

Posted by: Mark | September 10, 2014

An Early Halloween Post

Here’s the first dose of Halloween posts with information from Lisa Morton’s Second Edition of The Halloween Encyclopedia.

This is a not so nice little ditty that kids sang on All Saints’ Day in what is now New Mexico:

“Let’s pray; let’s pray
We are little angels,
From heaven we come
If you don’t give to us
Your doors and windows
We will break.”

A Fershee was a male banshee. They apparently existed but only females were directly mentioned in folklore. That means that Banshee of the X-Men has some sort of sexual identity problem.

Taghairm, in Scottish tradition, was the slow roasting a live cat on a spit so that its howling would attract supernatural knowledge from other cats to save the tortured cat’s life. The Irish believed that eating cats would give the power of prognostication. On the other hand, the Irish had a strong taboo against eating dogs.

Despite what Jack Chick’s goofy cartoons would have you believe, the earliest known form of trick or treat was known as guising. It was practiced in Scotland on Halloween and related to the tradition of Hogmanay (Christmas celebrations). This points to a Christian origin of Trick or Treat. “[T]here is virtually no evidence that the Celts or their Druids donned costumes for Halloween” (90).

The last legal execution for witchcraft in Europe took place in Switzerland in 1782.

Posted by: Mark | September 9, 2014

Lizards in September

I can remember when it was rare to see a lizard around where I live. A few years back I saw one and spent almost half an hour following it and trying to catch it.

This summer, they’ve been all over. A few days ago I counted six and I was only outside walking to and from the school bus. Today I saw three, two small and one large. I wouldn’t have thought that even where they were common, that you’d see lizards still active in mid September.

I’m wondering how long it will be before we start finding alligators.

Posted by: Mark | September 7, 2014

More Star Trek

Devilboy put in a DVD of the first season.of Star Trek. I’ve seen both episodes before but a few points stood out:

Galileo Seven — I remembered that the crew turned on Spock but not how quickly and completely. Star Fleet is quasi-military at the very least but the crew were more like the school boys in Lord of the Flies than even the cast of Platoon.

The ending was straight out of Naked Gun with Kirk and the others howling with forced laughter for what seemed like 20 minutes. Unless the ship was suffering from a leak of nitrous oxide, it was far too long.

I was happy that the only black cast member didn’t die. I was expecting him to take a spear in the back but he survived but was never seen again.

The Squire of Gothos–I posted about this episode a while back but I noticed that Trelane had a stuffed salt vampire from “The Man Trap” as a trophy. As noted before, Spock was depicted as as strong as Khan but was a kitten next to the salt vampire. They were a tough species but Trelane has one mounted like a butterfly. Good, cost effective shot.

Posted by: Mark | September 6, 2014

Scout R.I.P.

Back on September 28, 2012, I posted that Scout, Devilgirl’s favorite hamster, died and I tried to replace it with another.

Almost two years later, Scout II passed. I’m not sure if I’ll get a third. It’s no trouble caring for a hamster but they age so quickly.

Posted by: Mark | September 6, 2014

All Our Yesterdays

MeTV has hit the second to last episode of the orginal series of Star Trek. I saw this episode years ago but had forgotten many parts.

For a third season episode and involving a plot about time travel, it holds up pretty well. The concept, a doomed planet escaping into its past, could supply an entire series on the Syfy Channel.

I liked that the acccess to the past was kept in a library, complete with the equilavent of a card catalog. I wonder how many younger viewers would even recognize it.

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