Monday, February 22, 2010

The Random Crap Which Infects My Brain

Amongst my myriad* of quirks are these: in my head (and thank Crom, only in my head**), no conversation is ever finished, no experience is too trivial for periodic re-examination, everything is subject to repeated investigation. To wit...

The other day I was moving stuff around in my apartment (I don't clean; I rearrange) and came across my copy of Organic Chemistry by Morrison & Boyd, all 1258 pages of it, which brought back sweet (sic) memories of my sophomore year of college ('74-'75): lugging around a book that weighed more than your average Sumo wrestler, memorizing page after page (after page) of reaction mechanisms, slogging through dense, dry text, struggling with the convoluted IUPAC rules, solving (sometimes) the long problem sets at the end of each chapter, wondering if immersing myself in Grignard reagent would make this all go away.

And this--Chapter Nine, p. 309:

Figure 9.13. Evidence of early (1944) research on methylene, CH2, by D. Duck. (As unearthed by Professors P. P. Gaspar and G. S. Hammond of the California Institute of Technology)

At the time, nothing--nothing--prepared me for the sudden appearance of Donald Duck in a chapter on alicyclic hydrocarbons and I had to wonder how such a thing came to be.

Thirty-five years later, in one of those purely serendipitous moments that seem to characterize my life, I'm cruisin' Comic Books Urban Legends Revealed***and run across this:

COMIC URBAN LEGEND: Donald Duck discovered methylene.
STATUS: True, in a manner of speaking

And here's the story,

"In 1963, the Disney Studio learned just how wide and faithful a readership (Carl) Barks had. A letter arrived from Joseph B. Lambert of the California Institute of Technology, pointing out a curious reference in 'The Spin States of Carbenes,' a technical article soon to be published by P.P. Gaspar and G.S. Hammond (in Carbene Chemistry, edited by Wolfgang Kirmse, New York: Academic Press, 1964). 'Despite the recent extensive interest in methylene chemistry,' read the article's last paragraph, 'much additional study is required.... Among experiments which have not, to our knowledge, been carried out as yet is one of a most intriguing nature suggested in the literature of no less than 19 years ago (91).' Footnote 91, in turn, directed readers to issue 44 of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories. It seems Donald's reference to CH2 in panel 2.1 was years ahead of its time: the existence of this elusive chemical intermediate had not been proven in 1944."

"'The inclusion of this footnote in a quite scholarly article,' Lambert explained, 'stemmed from the discovery that Dr. Gaspar ... and I shared a mutual, and independently long-standing esteem for the adventures of Donald Duck. We both had retained copies of some of the classic adventures. It was Dr. Gaspar who rediscovered this early mention of carbene.'"

Other members of the scientific community sought out the reference. A year later, the Studio received a letter from Richard Greenwald, a scientist at Harvard. 'Recent developments in chemistry have focused much attention to species of this sort,' Greenwald commented. 'Without getting technical let me say that carbenes can be made but not isolated; i.e. they cannot be put into a jar and kept on a shell. They can, however, be made to react with other substances. Donald was using carbene in just such a manner, many years before 'real chemists' thought to do so.'"

"The telltale panel has since been used to illustrate an article by Robert A. Moss ('Carbene Chemistry,' Chemical and Engineering News, 16 June 1969) and a textbook by Robert Morrison and Robert Boyd (Organic Chemistry, 3rd Edition, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1973)."

And another take with story synopsis, and the relevant page:

Why, yes, thank you, I AM a geek.

*Grammar Nazis take heed--this usage is not necessarily incorrect.

**Okay, mostly in my head.

***Shut up. Leave me alone.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Buy The Ticket; Take The Ride (Repost)

Hunter S. Thompson
July 18, 1937--February 20, 2005

"Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .

"History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of 'history' it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

"My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .

"There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

"And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

"So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
--Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971)

Ages ago, as time is reckoned on Da Intarwebs (translation: like, man, you know, last week or sumthin'), one of the many discussion boards I read posed this question:

"Who changed the shape of your head?
So who's the last person to alter your worldview, put new ideas into your head that shape(d) your operating system for the rest of your life? Who was the first person to do it?"

For me, the quick 'n' dirty answer to that last part is "Hunter S. Thompson."

I guess I was around 13 when I read Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs as a follow-up to Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test*; both books cover the same time period and intersect in a number of places. The interesting thing to me was, whereas Wolfe reported events as some sort of peripherally-involved off-screen narrator (see New Journalism), Thompson was an integral part of the action. Huh? Whaa...? Subjective non-fiction? Oh, mama; give me more of that!

Three years later he did, with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then later, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. At that point I wanted to be Hunter S. Thompson: smoke dope, snort ether, drink Wild Turkey, whiz around the country in an oversized, dangerously high-powered automobile and collect... experiences... which I would then dutifully document in a sweat-drenched, fever-pitched frenzy of Smith-Corona pounding while Lou Reed blasted from the stereo and manic friends on a three-week lithium vacation hooted and hollered in the background.

Didn't work out that way--big "Duh!" there--but the fantasy entertained and sustained me for years, fueled at regular intervals by new collections of writings such as Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1: The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (and others).

Unfortunately, Hunter got older and the ravages of his singular lifestyle finally caught up with him. His writing and his body began to deteriorate and at 5:42 p.m. on February 20, 2005, he killed himself with a gunshot to the head.

Typical Thompson-- not with a whimper, but a bang.

I miss him.

There's a nice reading list here, a MetaFilter tribute from the time of his death here, and my favorite (i. e., readable) biography here.

*Not a good age to read such a book, especially if you're growing up in a small, sleepy, Southern factory town in the 'Sixties where nothing ever seemed to happen. The same holds true for On the Road; both rendered me restless, irritable and discontented at a time (and place) when (and where) there was really nothing I could do about it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Return of the Son of the Bride of the (Not) Right (Ir)Reverend Lee

So it was 1989 and my friends Barb & Beth decided to stage the Second Fool Olympics (the first being in 1972, which is a story for another time) and I decided to enter the "Beat the Bakkers" competition in my (Not) Right (Ir)Reverend Lee persona (Discordian/SubGenius).

I won the gold.

And became a minor (very minor) legend amongst the attendees who didn't already know me. "It's so nice to see a clergyman let his hair down!" one woman was heard to say, having no idea the closest to clergy I've ever been was when I was ordained by Universal Life Church in 1966 for a "love offering" of $2.00 (I was 11). Based on this event there are people who refer to me as "the Rev. Lee" unto this day, even by those who were not present and only heard about it secondhand.

What I didn't know at the time was my friend JSam had his wife videotape my... uh... sermon. Twenty years later and courtesy of JSam, video-to-digital transfer, and YouTube, this lost performance has resurfaced.

Brace yourselves.

My shirt, by the way, sports a picture of an Ursus maritimus sporting a Thompson submachine gun. The caption reads "Support your right to keep and arm bears." The man I heal with my Magical Miracle Mojo Prayer Cloth is the very same JSam responsible for my being able to inflict this upon you. And my sermon? Well, with the exception of a line I stole from Carny, it's entirely impromptu.

Go forth and sin.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sometimes I Don't Know WHAT to Think (Prequel)

Or, The Random Stuff That Fills My Brain Making It Impossible To Remember Names, Dates, Birthdays, and Anniversaries Without Online Assistance.

For those of you I didn't lose with Ass Goblins of Auschwitz (and the brief follow-up), well, here's another golden opportunity to remove me from your reading list...

The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad.

In this... peculiar... alternate history/faux critical edition, there's this guy, Adolph Hitler, who emigrated to the US from Germany soon after WWI and became a science fiction writer, editor, and illustrator, his career culminating with an epic fantasy/SF novel, Lord of the Swastika (Ursula K. LeGuin weighs in here).

I haven't read it. I don't even own it, though I almost did.

Back when I lived in Charlottesville, VA and spent waaaaay too much time and money at Heartwood Books* I stumbled across a copy. I thought the cover was insanely cool (interpret that as you will), but didn't buy it, settling instead for Bug Jack Barron (which, by the way, was an incredibly...prophetic...novel).

Enter the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. For the next twenty (!) years I kept banging into references to The Iron Dream** and, well, me being the dedicated little bibliomaniac that I am, decided to buy a copy a couple of weeks ago.

No dice. Out-of-print and used copies are commanding moon money.

You know what this means, right? Yep, the OCD will be kicking in, I'll be haunting every single grungy, moldy, mildewy hole-in-the-wall used bookstore I can find, and all of my conversations will revolve around The Quest.

Good thing I live alone.

*Heartwood Books, the Green Valley Book Fair, and are the main reasons my apartment will soon be featured on Hoarders. I'm not quite at the level of the Collyer Brothers (though the parallels are scary), but I'm getting there.

**At one point I encountered a link taking me to, of all things, some neo-Nazi website. They missed the point entirely while I wondered whether I needed to wipe clean my entire hard drive.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


Yeah, yeah, I know, I know--you people who live in areas of the country that get real snow are laughing at (or bitching about*) all us wussies in Virginia whining and complaining about the white stuff.

What you have to remember is we haven't experienced consistent winter weather since the '60s; we've forgotten how to cope with deep snow, multiple snowstorms, and stuff like that there. We used to; my gawd, where I grew up (at the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains) snow started in November and we could have serious accumulations as late as March and April. We rarely missed school (the joke was if the Superintendent of Schools could make it to his office we had class--and he lived across the street) despite two to three-foot accumulations and I don't recall anyone experiencing more than a modest problem or two.

(of course, way back then we had wide-ass snow tires and adamantine-studded snow tires and Big! Manly! Clanking! tire chains, till the powers that be decided to outlaw 'em. Now we're stuck with all-weather tires, what my father, who sold 'em, called "no-weather tires.")

These days, at least in Richmond, VA, the slightest hint of snow sends the general populus into an absolute tizzy, into veritable paroxysms of panic: "OMG! Snow! SNOW! Head for the stores! Grab bread and milk! And kitty litter! Pounds of kitty litter! And canned goods! And batteries! It's the Apocalypse! It's Armageddon! Let there be wailing and gnashing of teeth; WE MIGHT BE INCONVENIENCED FOR A DAY OR TWO!"

To which I say, "Fine, y'all just chill. And stay off the roads. You're more of a hazard than the snow and ice."

Anyway, we're in the midst of our third snowstorm this year and the novelty's worn off... for everyone. People must be well-stocked on bread and milk, as far as I can tell; the grocery store parking lots (I live near three of them) were nearly empty last night as I passed by on my way home from work. What I found interesting was the traffic jam--they were backed out into the street--at the liquor store. I guess there's a serious local need for Snow Denial Juice.

And I guess I'll be spending another Sunday afternoon shoveling out my car.

* Here's a rant from reddit:

This is my second winter in Virginia since moving from Colorado and it still amazes me how incompetent everyone (the people, the businesses, the government) is when it comes to snow.

I'm not talking about the monster 30 inches we got last month, I'm talking about the lousy 3" we got today! In Colorado, that would have been nothing, no cause to freak out. But today, I went out to get groceries and it was hell! No one salted last night, despite everyone knowing that snow was coming, and no one was out plowing, so the streets were full of slush.

This, combined with the fact that no one here can drive in the snow- they either go to damn slow (15mph on a clear highway is not acceptable, actually you do worse at that slow speed, especially uphill) or so fast they lose control whenever they try and change lanes.

As a result, I came closer to dying today than I ever had. After heroically braving the storm, getting groceries, and coming home, a truck pulling an empty trailer changes lanes next to me. I see him out of the corner of my eye, and realize that the trailer has caused him to fishtail, and he's bearing straight at me! I gun the gas, and escape being sideswiped by the narrowest of margins.

So in short, Virginians, I'm revoking your snow-driving privileges. Only ambulances, fire trucks, snow plows, and I are allowed to drive if there's more than half of an inch on the ground.