The Bleeding Edge

A few weeks ago in THIS POST, I talked about my hopes that the new Cosmos television series would spark new interest in science.  I also described my first run-in with an approximation (but not a very good one) of the scientific method.  That event, however, wasn't really what got me interested in science.

For that, I have to leap forward in time to elementary school.  I was in 6th grade, I believe.  My family was living in Memphis, Tennessee, and my father was on the faculty at Memphis State University (Yes, I know it’s the University of Memphis now, but it will always be MSU to me).  The Mississippi River flows borders Memphis to the east, and in the river just a short distance away from the bluffs on which downtown Memphis sits is a spit of land called Mud Island. 

Mud Island is home to a…I wouldn’t really call it a theme park.  It’s more of an attraction dedicated to the Mississippi River.  Along with eateries, a gift shop, and a decent playground, there’s a museum that I used to love as a kid and a scale model of the river that runs the length of the park into a large fountain representing the Gulf of Mexico. 

One weekend Mud Island hosted an event only for the faculty of the university and their families.  I’m sure there were lots of activities going on that particular day, but the only thing I remember is a demonstration by a faculty member from the Physics department.

I’ve seen several science demonstrations in classes and on television over the years, but I can’t think of any that were on the level of scale and showmanship as what I saw that day. 

He pulled me in to help show that a pendulum will never swing back at high as it was at its starting point (Neil deGrasse Tyson demonstrated this very principle in the 4/13/2014 episode of Cosmos).  It’s a fairly basic scientific fact, but it’s a bit more impressive to see it done with a bowling ball attached to a two-story high metal cable.  He placed the bowling ball up to my face and then let it go.  I watched as this heavy orb the size of my head arced away from my and then swung back. 

I’d heard the explanation.  I trusted him and the science.  But still that thing was coming at me so fast.  There was no way it was going to stop in time.  I couldn’t help but lean back a bit. 

This happened twice before he finally decided to turn me around, so I couldn’t see what was happening.  He touched the bowling ball gently to the back of my head and let it go.  Fortunately, I stood still that time, and the audience got a wonderful proof of this aspect of the motion of the pendulum.  It’s certainly something I will always remember.  How many people have had the experience of seeing a bowling ball flying right at their head without instant death or serious trauma immediately following?

The finale of the show beat the bowling ball, though.  The man running the demonstration had a guillotine.  A real, full-sized guillotine, complete with a large and very sharp blade.  To show us just how sharp said blade was, he used it to cut a couple of watermelons neatly in half.  The next thing to go into the guillotine, though, was his own neck.

Before that, though, he attached electromagnets to the guillotine’s frame just above where his neck was soon to be.

Looking back, I’m still impressed that this man was willing to put his life on the line to show his belief in science.  But he did.  He put his head into the guillotine, turned on the power to the electromagnets and sent the blade plummeting toward his exposed neck.

The magnets did their work and stopped it just short.  All the man received was the slightest cut on the back of his neck. 

I really don’t think he was getting paid extra for that.  It was just MSU Day at Mud Island, after all, and he was faculty.  However, he feel strongly enough about his work and showing us the wonders of science that he put on a show that has stuck with me to this day.

I’m just glad there wasn’t a badly-timed power outage.

Once I got to high school, physics was by far my favorite of the sciences.  I can’t say for certain that seeing that demonstration years earlier was why, but it certainly didn’t hurt.  At the very least, it laid the ground work for my interest.  Physics, equations and all, just made sense to me.  My high school physics teacher, who gave me a wonderful grounding in the subject and taught a course that was far more rigorous than the ones I ended up taking in college, encouraged me to look that direction for my career.  I didn’t, but my love for the subject never went away.

Each week as I watch Cosmos with my son, I’m reminded of the wonders of the scientific world.  I hope the show is sinking in with him.  But if I could get my hands on a time machine, I’d take him back to see that guillotine demonstration.  Now THAT he’d think was cool. 

-Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter

An Easter Story

“Essentially the peeps defected, sire.”

“The bunnies or the chicks?”

“Both.  The chicks went first.”

“To where?”  HRR was shrouded in shadow but his voice was clearly annoyed.

“Christmas, mainly.”  The advisor cleared his throat nervously.

“Is nothing sacred?”  HRR stamped the floor, a resounding angry thud that echoed through the chamber.  

“Yes.  I mean, no Your Majesty.  Apparently not.”  The advisor looked vaguely ill.  “Uh...”

“There’s more?”

“One or two notes, ah, more.  Yes.”  

“Get it over with.”

“The hollow bunnies are on strike.”

“Wha--!  Why?”

“They’ve been demanding filling but, well... at any rate, they’re striking until caramel concessions can be made.”

“We have eggs for filling!”

“The bunnies feel unfairly maligned by the eggs.  They protest that they can do as good a job as the eggs if not better.”

“Uhhgggghhh.”  HRR buried his face.  “I hope that’s it.”  His voice was muffled.

“Well...”  The advisor fidgeted.


“There was a bit of an uprising.  A small, er, fracas if you will.”

“Between who?”

“The jellybeans and the mini eggs.”


“A bit of what you might call a battle, I guess, all things considered.”

“Over what?”

“Dominance of the small oblong sugar market.”

“................. who won?”  HRR bit back several other things that came to mind and asked the obvious instead.

“The jellybeans.”

“And the mini eggs are...?”

“Annihilated, mostly.  Some fled and are being sheltered by the turkish delight.”

“How many jellybeans were lost?”

“All the yellow, half the blue, a good portion of pink, scatterings of purple and green.  It’s not good.”

“Where does that leave us?”

“The solid bunnies are still, if you’ll forgive the pun, thick as thieves.  Unbreakable really.  Sturdy.  Concrete.”

“I won’t forgive it.  Give yourself five lashes later.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”  The advisor hung his head.  

“Is there anyone else left?”

“The creme eggs, of course.  They’re very loyal.”

“This is not good.”

“No, Your Majesty.”

“I don’t have enough to complete The Hunt.”

“Likely not, Your Majesty.”

“I really didn’t want it to come to this but I’m afraid I have no choice.”

“Back up?”



“Who else has the manpower to spare?”

“Candy corn?”  

“Lord no.  See if the solid wrapped pumpkins will come.  And check with the black and orange jellybeans.  If they’ll agree to leave the surviving mini eggs alone and work with us, we can use them.”

“I’ll get right on it, Your Majesty.”  The advisor bowed low and backed to the door where he waited with respectfully downcast eyes.  HRR stood and smoothed his chest hair pensively.  He hopped slowly off the dais.

“Do you think it’s salvageable?”

“I do hope so, Your Majesty.”

“If we fail they might... look elsewhere.”  HRR furrowed his brow.  “You know, for another meaning.”

“Surely not, sire.”

“Indeed.”  He straightened, drew a breath, and nodded to the advisor.  The advisor threw open the door of the Throne Hutch and thousands of eyes turned in unison.

“The Singular, the Distributor, His Royal Rabbit, the Easter Bunny!”  The advisor swept into a low bow after the announcement as HRR emerged into Good Friday amid thunderous applause.

The End

- Corinne Simpson


Nathan's Laserium: Comics 101 Issue 3

I completely forgot the whole reason the Vampirenomad herself invited me to write for her site - I was supposed to be the Comics 101 guy, sharing my love of comics to the masses. I did two posts, which were surprisingly hard, and then my contribution to this site morphed into my Laserium and I tossed Comics 101 into the Drawer of Forgotten Things.

Writing about comics is hard for me for a couple of reasons - the first is that, my whole Comics 101 course would go like this: "Comics are awesome. You should read some." The second is that, there are many fine comics websites and podcasts and who am I to set myself up as some sort of grand guru of sequential art? Do you even draw, bro?

My only credential is that comics have been part of my life since before I could read, and I have loved them (if not always completely faithfully) ever since. Indeed, one of the first words I remember reading is from the cover of ROM #2, which said "Lethal Laserium!!" Or maybe there were three !!!s. I wondered what it was, a laserium. And do you say Lay-ZEER-e-um or Lay-zer-EE-um? Well either way you now know the secret origin of Nathan's Laserium.

Back in those days everyone got their comics from the spinner racks at drug stores and gas stations. "Hey kids, comics!" they said. Sadly those racks are pretty much extinct. Nowadays you can get your comics anytime, in a plethora of formats physical or digital, but you can't get them at the 7-11. Hey kids, the future!

If you want to take part in the weekly festival of New Comic Book Day (ie Wednesdays- #NCBD on Twitter) you pretty much need to have what's called a pull list at a Local Comicbook Shop. That is, if your town or city is lucky enough to have one. A pull list is like a subscription service- you tell them what comics you want to buy and they pull one out and put it aside for you every week. I love my LCS, and the community it provides. When I recently took my daughter to the emergency room for dehydration, it was my comic shop guy who texted me to see if everything was ok. You don't forget stuff like that. There are downsides though- some comic shops are not friendly to new customers, or women, or I dunno people who might like to give them money so they can stay in business.

The biggest downside for me is what to do with all the comics that accrue week after week. Most serious collectors ritually "bag and board" them - put them in collective mylar bags with cardboard backers to keep them from flopping over - and then store them in longboxes, special cardboard boxes made specifically to keep comics in. And there they sit, year after year. I still have that copy of ROM #2 that I mentioned- and all the other comics I've bought over the years. They're not worth anything, and I'll never have time to reread them, but I still can't bring myself to get rid of them.

An obvious solution is to go digital. I actually do read comics digitally, and I can say that it's a pretty decent way to go. Although on phones it's not as great- you read one panel at a time which is alright but not ideal. Perfect for tablets, however. If I had the attention span to actually sit and read on my desktop I would, since comics look amazing on a huge hidef screen, but all my open tabs keep beckoning me away so it takes forever to read one comic on my iMac. Anyways, the Comixology app and website is my preferred digital comics service for new comics. New issues are released same day as physical comics (floppies) and they cost the same. Downside is DRM management and you don't really own a file like an mp3 on your hard drive. This for me is actually a plus but it does bother some people. Most publishers have their own apps, but Comixology carries the biggest selection. Dark Horse Comics being one major exception, they are only available on their own app.

Another digital service that I really like is Marvel Unlimited, which is a sort of online archive of over 14,000 Marvel comics covering everything from the dawn of the Marvel Universe in 1961 to books that are roughly 6 months old. Bit of a lag but if you can wait, you don't even really need to buy new comics. There's a small monthly fee, but as long as you use it regularly I think it pretty much pays for itself. Downside - since it is a paid service I find the occasional slow load times and downtime to be a major frustration though this doesn't seem to be happening lately. It would be nice if DC had a similar thing, but as of this writing they do not.

If digital isn't for you and you also don't want to have hundreds of floppies cluttering up your living environment, you could go with collected editions, typically soft cover collections of 5,6 or 8 single issues. There are also fancier hardcovers which typically collect 12 issues, and then all sorts of Collector Omnibuses and Super Expensive Editions and so forth. Comic shops sell them and the major online retailers like Amazon do as well. They look nice on a bookshelf, and even better- many libraries carry them in their collections so you can read them for free and not have to keep them.

Lastly I want to mention Comic Book Movies and cartoons as a perfectly legitimate way to enjoy comics. There's a lot of great cross-fertilization going on there, with new fans hopefully being drawn into reading the source material. It might only be 1/1000 or 1/10000 but anything that brings in new readers is ok by me. Because comics are awesome, and you should read some!

- Nathan Waddell


Happy Birthday: Memories Made By Mom

It was my mother’s birthday this past Sunday.  Happy birthday, mom!  (No, I won’t tell you how old she is and no I won’t tell you how old I am so you can do dodgy math either.  Age is just a function of chronology and has no bearing on the person you are within.  Also I’m super bad with numbers so I frequently forget how old I am, never mind anybody else.)  But it was mom’s birthday and in thinking about her birthday I started remembering my childhood ones and how many awesome parties and cakes I had.  You know what the common denominator in all those amazing birthdays was?  My mom.  Which means it’s story time.

At one time - I was much younger at this point, let’s say seven or eight or some kind of young-ish number like that - I was quite involved with Care Bears.  Kids these days might not even know what Care Bears are which is tragic and wrong.  Care Bears are, essentially, bears that care.  They lived in a cloud city called Care-a-lot (back in the day TV didn’t involve a lot of nuance) and each bear was a different color and featured a different symbol on his tummy that embodied the emotion (or ‘care’) that the bear was responsible for.  Grumpy Bear was blue and had a rain cloud on his tummy.  Good Luck Bear was green and had a four leaf clover on his tummy.  Etc.  I had Tenderheart Bear, who was brown and had a giant single heart on his tummy.  I was pretty solidly into the Care Bears so for my birthday that year mom made a Care Bears cake.  Only it wasn’t a cake in the shape of a bear.  How ordinary.  It was so much better than that.  It was a half-circle cake on end and iced in rainbow colors and on top of the rainbow curve stood little Care Bears - one for each guest at the party.  And mine was Tenderheart because he was mine and he was the leader of the Care Bears therefore he was the best.  Mom understood, of course, as all mothers instinctively and patiently understand their children, that I was bossy and often needed things to be my way and she knew exactly how to cater to that without excluding the other kids at the party.  It’s [redacted] years later and I still remember that rainbow birthday cake.

Frequently, because I was a particular child (or, if we’re calling a spade a spade, “picky”), mom would go to the trouble of making angel food cake and then decorating it in some specific way because that’s how I liked it best.  Angel food cake was my favorite and I liked those shiny sugar balls used in decoration so those were often dotted over the icing.  Mom understood that.  She never forced me to have a cake from a store whose ingredients couldn’t be accounted for.  

At my parties I remember we’d usually play games.  Mom would prep these games in advance so they’d be tailored to my specific tastes.  Did you ever play the game where you’d have the name of a character or person on your head and you’d have to ask questions of the other players to figure out who you were?  We’d play that only every character would be a character I liked and I would end up as Nancy Drew or whoever my all-time favorite character was at the moment.  Mom always knew who my favorites were, too, even though ‘favorite’ was often a mercurial ever-shifting title that could change in the blink of an eye.  She must have been partly psychic.  She was never wrong.

Sometimes mom and dad would take me out to a special lunch for my birthday.  I have always loved downtown - the tall buildings and bright lights of cities have always been my Patronus - and since I grew up in Vancouver mom would make a reservation at a revolving restaurant overlooking the harbor and mom and dad would take me and my best friend Cassandra there for lunch dressed in our finest.  Cassandra’s mom made her and I and our Cabbage Patch Kids matching ‘fur’ coats so some of the photos feature that exquisite sartorial foursome.  

This ability of mom’s to make special days memorable and just right extended past birthdays into other holidays.  Halloween, for example.  For a period of time growing up I was obsessed with both fairies and princesses.  This would manifest itself as a kind of sparkly Hydra come Halloween when I would decide not to decide and be a fairy princess.  Thus mom spent time making me a pointy princess hat capped by a flowy swath of material and a set of matched wings and sequined-encrusted gown.  Another time I wanted to be a butterfly so she made me wings and antennae for that.  (You know, my childhood costuming is starting to sound a lot like Mariah Carey’s discography.)  Mom would let me borrow her makeup and didn’t try to talk me out of being a fairy princess (again) or, if memory serves, a princess bride (not to be confused with THE princess bride).  There were always lots of photos of me in the costume and me with Cassandra in hers, too, for posterity.  Mom carefully documented all the events and friends of our lives.  Dad was a photographer as well but he mainly documented all the natural things we were near and around - you know, like red ant hills and sunsets and flowers and lakes and seagulls and whatever - so I’m fairly certain that dad would agree that had it not been for mom there may only exist a number of photos of us per year that likely would not hit double digits.    

At Christmas I would frequently find my gifts wrapped in theme paper.  Sparkling silver or Mickey Mouse or Care Bears or whatever the fixation of the year was.  At first this was attributed to Santa’s keen sense of the likes and dislikes of Nice Children but later I realized Santa, if he even existed, didn’t have a clue and that the parade of Mickey Mouse wrapped gifts was because mom knew Disney made me happy.  Just like mom knew having the biggest stocking because I was the oldest would be once in awhile be necessary and whether my sister cared or not I’ll never know but the most enduring Christmas photo I have to this date is one of me with my giant stocking and my sister with her half-sized stocking in footie pyjamas by the tree.  Her facial expression is dubious but mine is blissful and I’ve got an arm around her like I’m half-consoling/half-bragging over the stocking differential.  Of course come Christmas morning my stocking would be just full and hers would be overflowing so the differential was, in actuality, negligible because mom always understood equity.  

The memory parade all started with mom’s birthday.  Happy birthday, mom!  I hope it was half as happy as all the times you made mine amazing.  Maybe I didn’t thank you then - probably not, actually, because kids are notoriously self-absorbed - so let me thank you now, years and years after the fact.  Thank you for every birthday and holiday and cake and sleepover and friend’s birthday you remembered and character’s name you knew and quirk you catered to.  

I really did love that Care Bear cake.


- Corinne Simpson


Pick of the Week – April 14-20, 2014

Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album So had a number of hit songs on it.  “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer” saw a lot of play on MTV and had accompanying music videos that were hugely influential (back in the days when MTV actually showed videos.  Yes, I had to bring that up).  And I still hear “In Your Eyes” on the radio now, almost 20 years after the album’s release, thanks in part (or possibly mostly) due to inclusion in the iconic John Cusack-holds-up-a-boom-box scene in Say Anything.

This week’s pick isn’t any of those.  Instead, I’ve chosen track number five on So, which is the song “Mercy Street.” In doing the research for this week, I learned that the song is about the life and work of the poet Anne Sexton.  I’ve loved this song for 25 years and never knew that.  And to be honest, I never paid much attention to the lyrics anyway.  I leave the lyrical analysis to our beloved site mistress. 

I find the song to be haunting, sad, and beautiful.  I was at a summer camp the first time I heard it.  I was in high school and had gone to a week-long (or possibly two weeks) summer program for creative writing being held at a college in my state.  We lived in the dorms and spent many evening the college’s lounge/snack bar/game room.  One night, “Mercy Street” began playing over the lounge speakers.  I’d never heard it before, but something about the song grabbed me immediately.  I bought the album as soon as I returned home.

Thanks to the Internet, you don’t have to track down a copy of So.  Peter Gabriel has the video for the song posted on YouTube.  You can check it out HERE.

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter