Sunday, March 31, 2013

2013 1st Quarter Index

March 2013

Sunday, March 31, 2013 -- 2013 1st Quarter Index

Friday, March 29, 2013 -- Me As A Mad Scientist In Sand

Thursday, March 28, 2013 -- Beautiful Technology, Beautiful Stars

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 -- Trajectories And Tangents

Tuesday, March 26, 2013 -- Chess Ideologies: Midgame Strategies

Monday, March 25, 2013 -- Lucy, Lucy, Lucy (Or: Story Choices)

Friday, March 22, 2013 -- Chess Ideologies

Thursday, March 21, 2013 -- Big Grasshoppers, Fake Driving, Other Stuff

Wednesday, March 20, 2013 -- Books, Altered Books, And Temptation

Tuesday, March 19, 2013 -- Not A Comet Tale (And Two Quotes)

Monday, March 18, 2013 -- “I Don’t Know Where She’s At”

Friday, March 15, 2013 -- On The Shoreline Of A Song

Thursday, March 14, 2013 -- A Little More About Comet PanSTARRS

Wednesday, March 13, 2013 -- About Not Seeing Comet PanSTARRS

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 -- Pope For The City That Lights The Whole World

Monday, March 11, 2013 -- On Giving Flowers To The Loch Ness Monster

Friday, March 8, 2013 -- Amateurs, Professionals And Magic

Thursday, March 7, 2013 -- Singing Robots And (Real?) Supervillains

Wednesday, March 6, 2013 -- Miranda’s Words And Caliban’s Music

Tuesday, March 5, 2013 -- A Note About Crichton’s “Rising Sun”

Monday, March 4, 2013 -- On Reaching Into The Scene

Friday, March 1, 2013 -- Things Of No Value To The Hangman

February 2013

Thursday, February 28, 2013 -- Karen Kilimnik And Henry Mancini

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 -- “Suddenly The World Is Full Of Holes”

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 -- Revisiting One Of The Three Pretty Birds

Monday, February 25, 2013 -- Revisiting The Cosmac Elf—The Number “1802”!

Friday, February 22, 2013 -- Los Angeles As An Insane Painting

Thursday, February 21, 2013 -- Painting Los Angeles In Earth Colors

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 -- “The Stars From Here: A Puppet Thriller”

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 -- Agency, Spy Agencies And An Artist’s Head

Monday, February 18, 2013 -- Spies And Songs And Technology Without Books

Friday, February 15, 2013 -- Eliza Talks With Frightful And Unknown Animals

Thursday, February 14, 2013 -- Two Things And A Pretty Blue Flower

Wednesday, February 13, 2013 -- Inspiration As A Trick

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 -- On A Loch Ness Kind Of Wind

Monday, February 11, 2013 -- On Listening To The Robots

Friday, February 8, 2013 -- Guitar Sounds In Denmark (Or Chicago)

Thursday, February 7, 2013 -- A Bugle Adventure

Wednesday, February 6, 2013 -- Thinking About Real And Fake Villains

Tuesday, February 5, 2013 -- On Not Being Afraid Of Bold Creatures

Monday, February 4, 2013 -- Trumpets On Submarines, And Impressionism

Friday, February 1, 2013 -- Synthetic Outer Space And Liminal Entities

January 2013

Thursday, January 31, 2013 -- The Name “Trillian”

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 -- Towels To Be Reckoned With

Tuesday, January 29, 2013 -- Fictional Characters Are Still Trying

Monday, January 28, 2013 -- “Creatures Of Doctor Tina” – A Puppet Show

Friday, January 25, 2013 -- Dailies For “Creatures Of Doctor Tina”

Thursday, January 24, 2013 -- Media Angst

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 -- The So Low Solo

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 -- “A Certain Loss Of Magic”

Monday, January 21, 2013 -- Nothing Behind The Photographer

Friday, January 18, 2013 -- Writing This I Am Scattered Like A Song

Thursday, January 17, 2013 -- Library Reality Slips And Giant Bugs

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 -- Phone Calls From Far Away

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 -- Berthe Morisot, Revolutions, Ice, Candy

Monday, January 14, 2013 -- Distance: Chicago To Melbourne

Friday, January 11, 2013 -- The Consequences Of ‘Dackie Do Doe Yalk!’

Thursday, January 10, 2013 -- On Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory

Wednesday, January 9, 2013 -- “OP-1 Is What It Is”

Tuesday, January 8, 2013 -- I Think Stars Want Us

Monday, January 7, 2013 -- The Wild Is Becoming Unbound

Friday, January 4, 2013 -- Blinded By The Science Of Migration

Thursday, January 3, 2013 -- The Persistence Of Rocks

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 -- Three Daisies

Tuesday, January 1, 2013 -- As Morning Brings A Mist In

Friday, March 29, 2013

Me As A Mad Scientist In Sand

KIM: “Dad, did you ever try to change a friend? To make them better?”

ROCKET SCIENTIST: “Well, not a human. But back in grad school there was this lab rat. Pinky-Joe Curlytail, I called him. Poor little guy was always running mazes for those psych majors. How I hated them.”

KIM: “Dad? What does this have to do with me?”

ROCKET SCIENTIST: “Well, it seemed to me that Pinky-Joe Curlytail was just so helpless. So I constructed a very tiny cybertronic battle suit.”

KIM: “For the rat?”

ROCKET SCIENTIST: “No more mazes for him. Now, in retrospect, giving him a working plasma-blaster probably went too far. Blew up half the science building. Rampaged across campus. Oh, Pinky-Joe.”

“Kim Possible: The New Ron”
season one, episode three

In the sandpainting of southwestern Native Americans (the most famous of which are the Navajo), the Medicine Man (or Hatałii) paints loosely upon the ground of a hogan, where the ceremony takes place, or on a buckskin or cloth tarpaulin, by letting the colored sands flow through his fingers with control and skill. There are 600 to 1000 different traditional designs for sandpaintings which are known to the Navajo. They do not view the paintings as static objects, but as spiritual, living beings to be treated with great respect. More than 30 different sandpaintings may be associated with one ceremony.

The colors for the painting are usually accomplished with naturally colored sand, crushed gypsum (white), yellow ochre, red sandstone, charcoal, and a mixture of charcoal and gypsum (blue). Brown can be made by mixing red and black; red and white make pink. Other coloring agents include corn meal, flower pollen, or powdered roots and bark.

The paintings are for healing purposes only. Many of them contain images of Yeibicheii (the Holy People). While creating the painting, the medicine man will chant, asking the yeibicheii to come into the painting and help heal the patient.

When the medicine man finishes painting, he checks its accuracy. The order and symmetry of the painting symbolize the harmony which a patient wishes to reestablish in his or her life.

Sand Painting
at Wikipedia

If I were going to build a robot
I’d build a robot that did sand painting.

It would optically scan a photograph
or any other image positioned
appropriately under its scanner
and convert the image into a range
of simple values and simple colors.

The purpose wouldn’t be to make exact
copies of an image painting with sand,
but rather to create sand artifacts
with a process transforming an image
into something else—another image
that can get blown away, destroyed by wind.

The software wouldn’t be making choices
requiring any artistic thought,
just analog-to-digital sensing
and then simple coordinate transforms.

Hardware wouldn’t be a trivial build
because the sensor would need good control
and even if the sand painting device
is simple—a wooden popsicle stick—
it would need to drop sand with good control.

And of course it would have to work outside
because out-of-doors is where the wind is.

I’d shelter the robot while it’s working
and when it finished I’d let the wind work.

It almost sounds like a simple project.

It almost sounds like a harmless project.

It almost sounds like a student project
designed to test someone’s all-around skill.

It doesn’t sound like the kind of project
a mad scientist would work on, laughing.

But maybe the mad scientist would laugh
watching people watch the sand images
blowing away, thinning, disappearing.

Maybe the mad scientist would know things
about images and transformations.

The purpose wouldn’t be to make exact
copies of an image painting with sand,
but rather to create sand artifacts
with a process transforming an image
into something else—another image
that can get blown away, destroyed by wind.

If I were going to build a robot
I’d build a robot that did sand painting.

But I’m not much of a mad scientist.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

is a novel written
by Richard Brautigan,
published in 1982.”
at Wikipedia


The Mad Scientist Is Always Laughing

The Dragon With The Girl Tattoo

Thinking About Real And Fake Villains

LuthorCorp Experiments: The Hero’s Commitment


The Question For Frankenstein’s Friend

Beautiful Queen Of All The World’s Gadgets

Painting Los Angeles In Earth Colors

Los Angeles As An Insane Painting

Somewhere Between Chicago And Paris


Friday Night Note:

I don’t like changing a post
after I post it, but I
changed the title of
this post after it was up
“I As A Mad Scientist In Sand”
to “Me As A Mad Scientist In Sand”
and really the only reason
I did it was because I remembered
Karen Kilimnik’s great
sort of self-portrait


—and she used “me” not “I”
so I figured “me” must be
more appropriate in a title
like this. It’s just
trying to fit in with
Karen Kilimnik.

And I added the link to
the Richard Brautigan
book. It’s just
trying to fit in with
Richard Brautigan.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Beautiful Technology, Beautiful Stars

Today I’ve got a couple of little updates on some topics that I’ve talked about many times over the years. One is about drawing, specifically modern animation, and the other is about astronomy.


This is a still of a professional animator—one of the lead character animators at DreamWorks—demonstrating a drawing:

Notice he isn’t working on paper. This is something I’ve thought about for years, and talked about in many posts. Digitizing tablets for artists.

Technology And The Magic Of Images

Don’t Look Now: Modern Pretty

The Quo Vadis? Question

Looking Back: The City Or The Monster

These days digitizing tablets are very good, very powerful and many (most?) professional artists work directly in the digital world rather than working with analog media and then scanning their work. Certainly not all professionals work directly onto tablets (for instance: Ending the year on a good note at Ward Jenkins’ blog), or work that way all the time, but my impression is that tablets have become established as the new normal.

I wonder if there will be esthetic consequences to this that will be hard to immediately assess? I don’t know. But that concern aside, digitizing tablets are wonderful tools and I suspect if I owned one I would do everything—I mean everything—on the tablet.

(There is one cultural issue that I guess should be remembered in this context. Quite separate from the technical issues, there is a long tradition in the West that paintings—physical paintings—can be rationally valued at many millions of dollars. There is no such tradition at all for digital works. Regardless of how beautiful a digital image may be, and regardless of how easily it may have been to construct, currently the big money in the world of art is still, of course, targeted at physical analog paintings. Just a thought.)

Here is an embedded video of that DreamWorks artist at work, drawing directly on the tablet. If you’ve never seen this stuff before, this is amazing (notice that he can turn over the digital stylus and “erase” with the other end as if it were a real pencil):


One of my favorite sights in the world of astronomy is the star Aldebaran, surrounded by the open star cluster the Hyades in the constellation Taurus. I’ve written about Aldebaran a lot, and I even did an oil pastel drawing of it once (the drawing is in the first link below):

Pumpkin Mars In The New Myth Sky

Cosmic Fireflies

I Think Stars Want Us

If you’ve never seen Aldebaran or the Hyades this is a particularly great time to take a look.

In the western sky after sunset and then for the next few hours (so there’s no rush) the brightest star visible isn’t a star at all but rather is the giant planet Jupiter, currently in Taurus. You can’t miss it. Jupiter is very bright.

And Jupiter right now is only about four degrees away from the beautiful scarlet star Aldebaran. So, when you find Jupiter, you’ve found Aldebaran, too, because the star is just “a little to the left, and a little down.” Again, you can’t miss it.

Even under bright urban night skies, if you look at Jupiter and Aldebaran through binoculars, I bet it is a sight you will never forget.

It is very beautiful.

I once characterized viewing the area around Aldebaran through binoculars as feeling like you’ve been transported up into a spaceship and viewing space from out in space itself. It really does look that beautiful. Aldebaran is a beautiful scarlet red color. The Hyades are bright white.

It’s one of the most beautiful sights in the sky and it is as simple, really, as an astronomical image can be—it is just a beautiful colorful red star set against a backdrop of simple white stars.

But when you see I bet you never forget it.

I can’t recommend it enough. Jupiter is very easy to find in the western sky after sunset, and visible for many hours. Aldebaran is just to the left and down a little. You can’t miss it. Many binoculars, in fact, will show Aldebaran, some of the Hyades, and Jupiter all in the same field of view. I saw that early this evening when I was checking up on Comet PanSTARRS much farther “to the right.”

Aldebaran, the Hyades and Jupiter all in the same binocular field. It’s like being in outer space looking out the portal of a spaceship. Great stuff, and very easy to find now. I recommend it.

And there are interesting facts about the Hyades and Aldebaran, too. They are—in an astronomical context—very close to our solar system. And humans have loved looking at them for thousands of years. Here is an info box about them, and a link to where I got it. (Notice that the info box mentions a second possibly related star cluster called the “Praesepe” cluster. This is just the technical name for the Beehive, in Cancer, that I talk about in the first link above. I’ve even done an oil pastel of the Beehive, too, in Mars Almost In The Beehive, and I talk about the cluster in Spring Planting And A Beehive Update. It’s beautiful, but can be hard to find.):

The Hyades — The Hyades are an open star cluster located in the constellation Taurus. The closest star cluster to Earth, it is centered some 151 light years away.

The brightest star in this direction is Aldebaran, but it is not a member of the cluster, being located at just over 40% of the distance. Not counting Aldebaran, approximately 300 stars are known or suspected to be members of the cluster; most are not visible to the naked eye.

The stars of the Hyades are associated with one another in the sense that they are all moving in approximately the same direction and at the same speed through the galaxy.

Plotting their movements backwards eventually brings them all to a more or less a single point about 600-800 million years ago, a fact explained by the theory that they all formed in the same stellar nursery. The stars of the Praesepe star cluster may also be related.

This common motion was only demonstrated in 1908 by astronomer Lewis Boss, but the Hyades have been known since antiquity. The name itself dates back at least as far as 1000 BC, when it is mentioned in various Greek sources.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Trajectories And Tangents

If we’re already in
Some other place

We don’t need to say


When I play that, I usually split my keyboard and play an acoustic guitar voice with my left hand and a flute voice with my right hand. Then I play the first two bars as a simple steel string guitar melody, kind of staccato, and the next two bars as flute, very legato.

I’m thinking of expanding this, and actually recording this as an extended song with real multi-tracking and all—a piano part doing chords under the two instrument voices playing interacting melodies. Really, however, I should have two vocals, as well, a man and a woman. I’m working on that. That’s harder than pressing a few buttons on a music workstation.

It’s one of the things I’ve got in progress.


Even before I ever heard the word “antiphony” (Ephemera And Antiphony) I almost always imagined arrangements of songs as two people interacting. I thought of the process simply as “story songs” or “boy-girl” songs, where two people participate in telling the same story. I’m surprised we don’t hear more of this today. In what can be called, I guess, classic pop there were some very successful boy-girl acts. Sonny & Cher, of course. And Captain & Tennille. It seems they always break up because one or another business axis wants to turn one of the pair into a super star.

Still, even without the super star aspect, the dynamic of a man and woman singing together has been very popular. I’m surprised we don’t hear more of this today. Maybe up-and-comers today don’t want to share the spotlight at all, even as beginning acts. Maybe it’s something else, something more complicated. I don’t know. It’s a very interesting question to me: Why aren’t there more boy-girl acts these days?


Look at this image from an old monster movie:

The woman leaning up against the wall is a character named “Liz” in a movie called “Attack of The Giant Leeches.” That’s her husband’s best friend standing in front of her. You can kind of tell that pretty soon they’re going to be leaning up against each other. But they don’t live happily ever after—in just a couple of scenes they’ll both get eaten by giant leeches.

Believe it or not, that movie is pretty famous among monster movie buffs. It’s a very low budget Roger Corman production, but it had a reasonably good director. And that actress who played “Liz” had a remarkable life, a remarkable career.

And she had a remarkable death.

I don’t have a great deal to say about her today, but I wanted to do this post to save a few links about her because I plan to come back to her and her life at some point.

That actress is Yvette Vickers. She was one of the very first Playboy playmates. And she did some small roles in big pictures, and a few big roles in small pictures.

She dated some famous guys, like actor Jim Hutton. (He played the brilliant computer scientist in one of my favorite movies, “The Honeymoon Machine.”)

According to one Hollywood legend I read somewhere, during the filming of her small role in Paul Newman’s big-budget film “Hud,” her umm work with Newman became so sizzling that Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, ordered Vickers’ part edited way down. That sizzle stuff with Newman may have been a bad career move for Yvette because it seems like after that production her work was all science fiction and monster films.

She lived to be eighty-two years old, doing low budget films now and then, doing a lot of conventions and signing memorabilia for film buffs.

She apparently died peacefully in her own Los Angeles home.

However, after she died peacefully in her home nobody actually missed her and her body remained in her home for something like a year. She became mummified. Eventually she was discovered, and achieved a final bit of fame, because lots of guys from around my generation remembered her so fondly from monster films. The press did lots of stories about the “mummified actress found in her home.”

Los Angeles is a strange city.

One of the reporters who did a story about Yvette Vickers’ death was interviewed in a blog. One of the questions and answers was this:

Listening to people of her generation talk, you really get a vivid sense of how much LA has changed. And how much it has remained the same. What’s something that has stuck with you from one of the interviews?

How much some things actually do remain the same in this town. Her neighborhood—leafy, well-off, coveted—is the kind of place young actors coming to L.A. dream about moving to. Yet it's also a place of death and violence. Besides Vickers's own sad death, there was a rape committed across the street, involving a firearm about 18 years ago. And before that, of course, the Sharon Tate murders occurred not too far away on Cielo Drive. Then, there's Vickers's rise and fall—a career trajectory that's almost as predictable as a solar arc.

from “Finding Yvette Vickers”
link below

Los Angeles is a strange city.

If I were going to write something about boy-girl songs, or a man and woman singing duo, it would inevitably be about two places, too. And one of those places would be Los Angeles.

Someday I’m going to come back to this.

I mean Yvette Vickers.

And Los Angeles.

In the meantime, here are some Yvette Vickers links I want to save:

Yvette Vickers
at Wikipedia

Mummified body of former Playboy playmate
Yvette Vickers found in her Benedict Canyon home

at Los Angeles Times

Finding Yvette Vickers
at Los Angeles Magazine

Left Behind
at Los Angeles Magazine

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Chess Ideologies: Midgame Strategies

Part One: The Elements

This is a screen grab of a computer record from the card catalogue of our local library system. I have a little story about those top two missing copies:

It’s a famous rock and roll book, “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” about the group called The Doors, and about their lead singer and co-founder Jim Morrison. The Doors are sometimes considered sort of the prototypical Los Angeles band from the 60s, as opposed to the more gentle, sort of, bands from San Francisco.

The book is really interesting and fun to read, but many fans feel that the band’s keyboard player and co-founder Ray Manzarek prevailed upon the authors to cut out a lot of what fans call “good parts”—usually that would mean things about Jim Morrison acting crazy. That may have happened, but the book includes enough “good parts” to be interesting. (FYI, some of the “good parts” involve Jim Morrison hanging out and acting obnoxious with the British actor Tom Baker during Baker’s young and wild years and Baker would later marry, briefly, the most beautiful OpheliaThe Prettiest Ophelia Is An Asteroid.)

Anyway, a few days ago I wanted to re-read this book because if I remember right the book contains an anecdote—an anecdote that may or my not be true, of course, this is a rock book—about Morrison and his girlfriend walking home from some club, totally wasted, and she wants to hitch-hike but Morrison insists on walking up the hill to their apartment by themselves rather than getting a ride.

It’s just a little bit of business and it’s so Sisyphus-like that you’ve got to suspect it may have been fabricated, but it is one of my favorite rock (so to speak) stories. Morrison and his girlfriend, completely wasted, but nonetheless Morrison insisting on walking up the hill rather than catching a ride.

From my computer I checked the card catalogue of our local libraries and the card catalogue showed the book on-shelf everywhere. In fact, at one library near here the card catalogue showed that they had two copies and both were listed as on-shelf.

So I figured, cool, even if the computer’s wrong and one copy is missing—books about interesting people in the arts almost always get stolen from libraries—they have two copies so I should be able to find one.

I drove over there, checked the shelf and couldn’t find any copy.

So I asked the very friendly librarian for help and she checked their database and discovered that both copies hadn’t been checked out for something like four years.

“That usually means they’ve been taken,” she said.

I just nodded. I’d heard that before. I have terrible luck getting books from libraries. (And apparently libraries can’t discover books are missing until I try to take them out. Technology is so complicated, I guess.)

The librarian and I returned to the shelf and looked over everything again, together, but both books were gone.

She thanked me, though.

“Thanks for bringing this to our attention!” she said, cheerfully. “I’ll update our computer so nobody else tries to take out the books.”

Good for them, I thought. Glad I could help sort out your inventory issues.

I didn’t feel like actually buying myself a copy from Amazon. And I didn’t want to drive over to another library.

So I just scratched off the idea of writing anything about the story of Jim Morrison and his girlfriend, totally wasted, struggling to walk up a hill rather than hitch-hike.

Part Two: Positional Play

Yesterday I did a post about, in part, Lucy Westenra from “Dracula”—Lucy, Lucy, Lucy (Or: Story Choices).

She’s one of my favorite literary characters of all time.

Late yesterday I was going to do another post—for today—about Lucy.

I reached over to the bookcase next to my keyboard workstation and, without looking, grabbed for my copy of “Dracula.” When I pulled out the book and looked at it I saw that I had missed, and grabbed the wrong book. I had pulled out a copy of Eugene O’Neill’s play “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”

Even with a cool title like that, “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” it’s not a story about vampires. At least, not real vampires. Well, you know, I mean, not about monster vampires.

It’s a Pulitzer Prize winning play. It all takes place over the course of one day—literally a long day’s journey into a night—and for the most part it’s an essentially pointless story about essentially pointless people. They are, in their own ways, reasonably tender and nice people, in their own ways, but they are all for the most part pointless people.

I don’t remember exactly why any more, but in high school my friends and I put on a production of “Long Day’s Journey into Night” for a literature class and we got very good grades and our beautiful teacher—a red-haired woman poet named “Linda”—singled out our casting choice of playing against type: My youngish-looking cheerful friend played the older brother, Jamie (James Jr., named after his father in the play), and I played the sick young brother, Edmund. (At our local library I later met a young woman named “Jamie” and she always made me smile, because she was cheerful and cool, and the guy “Jamie” in the play is, well, not exactly cheerful and not exactly cool. I once did a song about the library “Jamie”—Quasi Una Atomic Octopus Fantasia.)

Anyway, in the big climax of the play, all the characters are sitting around—the long day has turned into night—and all the characters are totally wasted. They’re all either drunk or whacked on morphine and Edmund is pretty sick, too, and they’re all wretched and wasted, also, from a lifetime of worrying about each other and worrying about themselves.

Like I said, not real vampires but the characters, and Eugene O’Neill himself, could stand up well as metaphors.

Anyway, again, in the big climax of the play all these characters are sitting around being morose and their mother who had once considered becoming either a pianist or a nun [!] plays a little Chopin offstage and then comes into the room. The drunk old brother says—the stage directions read ‘sardonic’—

“The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!”

The drunk and sick young brother slaps his older brother across the face.

That’s pretty much the action of the play.

The mother—whacked on morphine—has a flashback to her school days and her thoughts of becoming a nun. She describes how an old nun suggested she think about it for a while, live a little, enjoy the normal life of a young girl for a while, before committing herself to the church. The mother has the last lines, a brief soliloquy—

“That was in the winter of senior year. Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.”

That’s the end of the play, and the curtain comes down.

Part Three: Illustrative Games

It’s easy to laugh
at the idiot hippies
lost in the 60s

but they made music
and they wrote lyrics for songs
and somehow managed

technology too
so although they were wasted
threw themselves away

like pointless people
sucking on each other’s blood
in a drawing room

when hippies were gone
just like everybody else
the good things they did

didn’t disappear
and we have cool music now
I mean here at night.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Chess Ideologies

The Persistence Of Rocks

Monday, March 25, 2013

Lucy, Lucy, Lucy (Or: Story Choices)

When I think of the name “Lucy,”
first I think of the character
from DRACULA, by Bram Stoker.
She died helplessly, cluelessly.

Then Lucy from PEANUTS—grumpy
but pure will, love her or hate her.
Finally, gone to her maker,
Lucy Gordon—model, beauty.

One is just words. One’s a drawing.
Lucy Gordon is memory,
made of whatever thoughts are made,

as real, now, as someone dreaming
or reading words, one more story
someone must choose to see displayed.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Chess Ideologies

Once I walked past her at Michigan and Randolph crossing the street. I said “Hi” (even though I didn’t know her) and she smiled and said “Hi” and we walked past each other. She was–easily–the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in real life. She had some kind of magic about her face.

“My System” (German: Mein System) is a book on chess theory written by Aron Nimzowitsch. Originally over a series of five brochures from 1925 to 1927, the book — one of the early works on hypermodernism — introduced many new concepts to followers of the modern school of thought. It is generally considered to be one of the most important chess books of all time.

The book is divided into three parts: The Elements, Positional Play, and Illustrative Games.

Part 1: The Elements

The city back then
was like memory is now
surrounding us both.

Part 2: Positional Play

Often the city
is outside us but somethimes
it is inside us.

Part 3: Illustrative Games

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Hypermodernism (chess)
at Wikipedia

“Good Little Naked Mole Rat”

What Is A Toy?

“Hold Me Forever: A Doll Philosophy”

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Big Grasshoppers, Fake Driving, Other Stuff

Today’s post is one that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I’ve been trying and trying to think of something interesting to say, or some kind of larger context to put around it. I’ve never been able to think of anything to do with this little bit of fluff, but this trivial little thing is still interesting to me so I’m just going to do this post on its own.


I like monster stories, and I like monster movies and I don’t even mind if they are low-budget monster movies if the filmmakers at least make an attempt to be interesting and exciting. For instance the giant scorpion movie called “The Black Scorpion” is often held up by film buffs as an example of really bad special effects. And the effects are pretty awful. But I still enjoy watching the movie. Beyond the effects, the story itself has a beginning, a middle and an end, and the whole process of getting from the beginning to the end moves along at a nice pace and the actors do okay. It’s not a great film, but I singled it out once in a post as an example of a really bad film that I enjoy watching: Big Clouds, Big Scorpions, Doing Stuff

I’ve also talked about the giant grasshopper film “Beginning of the End” more than once,

Pop Music: Woman As Reporter

Phone Calls From Far Away

These days special effects can be almost perfect because computers can manipulate image elements smaller than the resolution of any projection method. You still occasionally see something odd and there is even a website called “Movie Mistakes” that collects some pretty blunt errors in some pretty big budget films. But many of the mistakes nowadays are called “continuity errors”—for instance, in a chase scene a window might be knocked out of a car from one camera angle but still be in place from another angle. These really aren’t special effects problems, but are more like editing errors, where the producer or director didn’t notice some little bit of business, or wasn’t inclined to spend any budget on re-shooting a scene to fix some little bit of business.

Today I’m going to describe a film mistake that is a little something of both, a special effects error and a continuity error. But the filmmakers almost certainly did this on purpose for budget reasons. So from the point of view of someone watching the film, it is a “mistake,” but it was almost certainly not an oversight or production error, but rather a filmmaker’s choice, a way of saving a little money.

This is the very first film mistake I ever noticed myself.

I noticed this back in the days of only TV, I mean before videotapes. It’s an example of how many times I watched a movie, and how carefully I watched the movie.

This didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the movie. And still today—probably something like forty years after I first noticed this—it still makes me smile when I see it. So, in a way, this may have added to my enjoyment of the movie.

The only larger context I have for this is the observation that now, with special effects that can be almost perfect, probably no young people are ever going to notice something like this ever again. So the excitement—it’s exciting for a film buff to see something like this—the excitement of noticing something like this has disappeared from the movie-watching process. I don’t know if that’s really a great loss, but it seems a little sad to me that kids probably won’t be engaging as closely with film nowadays because they won’t have this kind of silly error to catch.

Anyway, in the giant grasshopper movie “Beginning of the End,” there are a number of scenes where characters drive from place to place. They’re quick, incidental moments. Filmmakers almost never film people in cars actually driving. They put actors in a mock-up of a car on a stage and project scenery moving along behind them on a screen. Rear-projection. Even Hitchcock used the process a lot.

In the movie “Beginning of the End,” right about at the 2:12 mark, there is a scene of two policemen driving along. They’re about to find the first victims of the giant grasshoppers. This is what they look like driving. Notice the dark car in the background:

Just a few scenes later in the film, right about at 20:12, the brave woman reporter is driving along with a soldier. Look at the car in the background:

It’s the same car!

And it is more than just the same car. The road and other cars coming up are the same, too.

In fact, the entire background scene is exactly the same and it’s like twenty seconds of movie time in both scenes!

The filmmakers used the same driving footage for both scenes of rear-projection.

So in the first scene with the policemen in the background the dark car drives past, then some empty road moves past, then a light car drives past.

In the second scene with the reporter and the soldier the exact same footage plays, the dark car drives past, then some empty road, then the light car drives past.

It still makes me laugh.

I love stuff like this.

Nowadays filmmakers can spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make a movie. I’ve seen rumors that the recent Disney prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” eventually ended up costing Disney more than three hundred million dollars.

But what’s it all worth? (Twenty-Four Hundred Man-Years For What?)

After forty years I still enjoy watching “Beginning of the End.” And the film was so low-budget that the filmmakers recycled background footage and how much can it cost to go out and film a car driving along a deserted road?

Since it is possible to make entertaining films that don’t involve spending hundreds of millions of dollars, you have to wonder what business or political or cultural ends are being served by having more and more movies cost so much to create.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I find this kind of stuff very interesting.

And I wish there were more fun and exciting movies where the focus was on the fun and excitement—like “The Black Scorpion” or “Beginning of the End”—rather than on the incidentals of film production.

(As I type this, it occurs to me today’s post might be a little related to the second half of my post, Amateurs, Professionals And Magic. Like modern music production, modern movies are slick and super-professional, but is slick and super-professional necessary? Or even always desirable? Or does slick and super-professional serve mostly to cover up the emptiness underneath, the loss of real human content?)

I wish there were more fun and exciting movies where the focus was on the fun and excitement rather than on the incidentals of film production. Not only would I enjoy watching the fun and exciting movies, but I suspect if filmmakers concentrated more on the story content of films there would be more work for, umm, writers.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Books, Altered Books, And Temptation

The novel, narrated in the first-person by 18-year-old Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, tells the story of the Blackwood family. Merricat, her elder sister Constance, and their ailing uncle Julian live in a large house on large grounds, in isolation from the nearby village. Constance has not left their home in six years, going no farther than her large garden. Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, obsessively writes and re-writes notes for his memoirs, while Constance cares for him. Through Uncle Julian's ramblings the events of the past are revealed, including what has happened to the remainder of the Blackwood family: six years ago both the Blackwood parents, an aunt (Julian's wife), and a younger brother were murdered — poisoned with arsenic, mixed into the family sugar and sprinkled onto blackberries at dinner. Julian, though poisoned, survived; Constance, who did not put sugar on her berries, was arrested for and eventually acquitted of the crime. Merricat was not at dinner, having been sent to bed without dinner as punishment. The people of the village believe that Constance has gotten away with murder and the family is ostracized. The three remaining Blackwoods have grown accustomed to their isolation and lead a quiet, happy existence. Merricat is the family's sole contact with the outside world, walking into the village twice a week and carrying home groceries and library books, where she is faced directly with the hostility of the villagers and often followed by groups of children, who taunt her.

Merricat is protective of her sister and is a practitioner of sympathetic magic. She feels that a dangerous change is approaching; her response is to reassure herself of the various magical safeguards she has placed around their home, including a book nailed to a tree. After discovering that the book has fallen down, Merricat becomes convinced that danger is imminent.

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle”
by Shirley Jackson
at Wikipedia

I hate that. When the book I’ve nailed to a tree
falls down, I mean. It’s so tempting to drill through
the book and use a wood screw and a washer
instead of nailing it up through the binding
but the damage done by pounding in the nail
through the binding and pages with a hammer
is all part of the magic, the whole new world
created by nailing the book to a tree.

If you call this kind of thing an “altered book”
and if you can work in the word “upcycling”—
I mean, if you can do that with a straight face—
you could probably teach this as a workshop,
some kind of new age spirituality.

Those things don’t seem to go together to me,
making a business out of magic, I mean,
if you have to struggle to keep a straight face,
no matter how tempting the money might be.

I mean, when something gets nailed up to a tree.

It seems okay to get paid for writing, though,
even if the words get published as a book—
I guess what would be called an “unaltered” book
nowadays, like the books Shirley Jackson wrote,
like her, “We Have Always Lived In The Castle”—
but that’s something I can do with a straight face
without even struggling. I mean, I love books.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Altered Books
at Wikipedia

at Wikipedia

The Hidden Princess Of Mount Shasta

Candy At The End Of The World

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Not A Comet Tale (And Two Quotes)

I don’t have much for today, but I’ve got a few little things.


A Comet PanSTARRS Note

Last week I did a couple of posts about Comet PanSTARRS, which is currently visible in the western sky after sunset, if you have dark skies.

About Not Seeing Comet PanSTARRS

A Little More About Comet PanSTARRS

We had clear skies tonight, but typical bright urban Chicago skies, however I think I saw Comet PanSTARRS.

I used the basic method I outlined in my second post last week. I couldn’t find Mars this evening, it was already lost in horizon clutter, but I remembered where I was standing and exactly what the background was when I saw Mars. That let me zero in on the azimuth from last week, and today’s was just a few degrees different. Then I looked up about ten degrees and a little to the right and very quickly I saw a reasonably bright object.

What I saw, however, looked very star-like. It looked very much like a dim variation of Venus when Venus is full. The only hint I got of the object being diffuse is that I had some trouble getting comfortable with a focus. Stars and planets are relatively easy to focus on. Nebula of various kinds can be a little odd, and that difficulty with focus can be one sign that you are looking at something not quite normal.

So I saw a reasonably bright object exactly where Comet PanSTARRS is supposed to be, but what I saw didn’t have any comet-characteristics at all. So I’m pretty sure it was PanSTARRS because there are no reasonably bright stars in that area of the sky (indeed, that has been one problem amateurs have had for estimating the comet’s magnitude, there’s nothing nearby to compare it to) and I had a chance to observe the object with binoculars and a 102mm spotting scope.

What I saw was reasonably bright, but I didn’t observe any irregular shape to the bright object, so I can’t say for sure I was seeing the glowing nucleus of a comet. And I didn’t observe any tail, or even the diffuse glow where a tail would start.

When I observed the object with my 102mm (four inch) spotting scope using averted vision—looking off to the side of the field but staying conscious of the center of the field—I thought I may have seen the hint of a tail off in the right direction, away from the Sun. But I couldn’t say I saw it for sure.

So it was a fun evening, but frustrating. I saw enough to lock down the location in my mind and I’ll be able to check again every clear night. But I didn’t see enough to say with complete assurance that I saw Comet PanSTARRS. There’s just a hint of a nagging doubt in my mind it could have been something like the star Gamma Pegasus or the star Alpha Andromeda, but I don’t really think it was a constellation star. It was brighter than those stars, I think, and I didn’t see any surrounding constellation stars during my observing session.

I had planned—once I saw what I thought was the comet—to try and get a time-lapse photo. That should have shown a tail, or at least an indication of a tail. But this evening it was so darn cold and so darn windy that even with the weight of my spotting scope on its tripod the wind was causing the tripod to shake. I couldn’t have gotten the camera to hold steady even for a one or two minute exposure.

It’s my comet tale but with no tail I can’t really say for sure it was a comet tale.


I have two other things.


A Minskirts, Briefcases And Wreckage Note

Today Redbox got in the second film in the “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy of movies. I watched it already. It’s okay, but it’s not great.

This section of the story starts with the physicist Robert Stadler examining the remains of the motor that draws power from the air itself (a proto-zero point device!) and ends with the plane chase where Dagny tries to catch the young physicist Quentin Daniels after Galt gets to him. Part two ends with Dagny regaining consciousness in the wreckage of her plane and a shadowed figure reaching out his hand, taking her hand, and introducing himself, “I am John Galt.”

It was okay. Not as good as the book, of course, but okay. The filmmakers apparently have made a conscious decision to leave out most of the melodrama and just move the story along. They are staying true to most of the book’s contents, although they are, of course, leaving out tons of stuff. (There is one partial speech by d’Anconia, and there is the famous exchange between Dagny and poor Cherryl at Jim’s wedding, where Cherryl says she’s the woman in the family now, and Dagny just laughs and says she’s the man.)

Of all the things that stood out, I probably was most surprised to see a little cameo by Teller, from Penn and Teller. I believe he’s a Rand fan and he does a small, speaking scene. That was okay.

One other note: The political physicist, Galt’s former teacher, is played by a great actor named Robert Picardo. He’s very good, and I’m looking forward, now, to the scene in the conclusion where Galt asks to see him in the hotel room. Picardo should be very good at losing his mind like that.

Back when Hank and Dagny find the magic motor in the wreckage of the Twentieth Century Motor Company building—it was in part one of the movie—I don’t remember if the film included this bit of dialogue from the book. But this was always one of my favorite exchanges:

They started out, but she stopped for a moment on the threshold. “Hank, that motor was the most valuable thing inside this factory,” she said, her voice low. “It was more valuable than the whole factory and everything it ever contained. Yet it was passed up and left in the refuse. It was the one thing nobody found worth the trouble of taking.”

“That’s what frightens me about this,” he answered.

I love that bit.

Monsters frighten us. Nobody generally considers “Atlas Shrugged” as a monster story. But it really is. And the monster in the story is: Really. Fucking. Scary.


A Philosophy Of Wreckage Note (No Miniskirts)

Since “Atlas Shrugged” is about philosophy and cool technology, I want to include this quote, which I would call about philosophizing and dubious technology:

“We would not have known and have only just learned—perhaps mostly from children from two to five—that a new kind of relationship between people in groups is brought into being by SX-70 when the members of a group are photographing and being photographed and sharing the photographs: it turns out that buried within us—God knows beneath how many pregenital and Freudian and Calvinistic strata—there is latent interest in each other; there is tenderness, curiosity, excitement, affection, companionability and humor; it turns out, in this cold world where man grows distant from man, and even lovers can reach each other only briefly, that we have a yen for and a primordial competence for a quiet good-humored delight in each other: we have a prehistoric tribal competence for a non-physical, non-emotional, non-sexual satisfaction in being partners in the lonely exploration of a once-empty planet.”

Edwin Land
—that’s advertising copy
possibly written by Land himself
that was included in a small book
of photographs Polaroid published,
and it is quoted in,

Instant: The Story of Polaroid
by Christopher Bonanos

That’s a cool quote, isn’t it?

I’m not being snarky—not really. I do think it’s a cool quote and I think the bulk of the quote is very true. I think we all do like to hang out with each other.

However, is this really something none of us knew?

Did we really need a piece of almost ludicrously complicated technology like the Polaroid SX-70 camera to make us realize this sweet bit of common-sense trivia?

When Polaroid cameras were popular—and I know Ansel Adams liked them—I had been developing film and printing photographs for a few years. I could already take pictures and get prints comparatively quickly, if not instantly.

I owned a few Polaroid cameras but I never felt any magic there.

Even as a teenager it bugged me that Polaroid invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the devices (the SX-70 had special chemistry in the film, special batteries in the film packs, non-standard SLR optics in the body, and everything was developed and manufactured specially for the camera) and the devices only generated instant pictures (when all the special components worked correctly, there was a high failure rate). Polaroid cameras—all except the most very expensive—did not help a budding photographer learn about photography. In most Polaroid cameras there were no standard aperture settings, no standard shutter settings, no (by then) reasonably standard match-needle system for assessing the scene’s brightness, and the viewfinder only approximately showed what appeared on the film. (The SX-70, for instance, had such a questionable viewfinder that Land invented ultrasonic autofocusing to try to help get somewhat sharp pictures.)

Polaroid pioneered the so-called “lifestyle” advertising that Apple and others would later copy so successfully.

Advertising built around philosophizing. (But not philosophy.)

I think it was interesting but, basically, wretched technology.

I think it was counter-productive technology. De-humanizing technology.

It did its thing, but it didn’t help anybody really learn anything, get better at anything, develop skills that would be transferable to other technologies.

I think those Polaroid cameras were the shape of things to come.

Those Polaroid cameras—as interesting as they may have been—can be viewed, if a person were inclined to do so, as the start of the endless wreckage that would eventually, today, be piled up around us.

(For instance, here and now in today’s world people interested in photography have noticed that camera phones and endless photo-sharing websites have actually decreased the amount of time people spend together looking at images, because so many photographs are badly taken and trivially conceived, and because there are just so many worthless images out there. Endless awful images are generating something like contempt for images in general.)

Almost all technology has become like that Polaroid technology: Endless junk that may be interesting but almost nothing that helps us learn and get better and develop skills that in any deep way add to our life.

That’s why I love that quote so much, even without snark.

It’s true, so nobody can really just dismiss it. You nod and say, Yeah, that’s cool. It is wonderful to be with people.

But you have to actually stop yourself and say, Wait, that’s not some new and deep wisdom uncovered by insightful and wonderful corporations, it’s stuff everybody knows and treasures to begin with.

The quote helps us by teaching us about: Skillful advertising.

What can we do?

I think all we can do is shrug.

Monday, March 18, 2013

“I Don’t Know Where She’s At”

I’ve always suspected the dinosaurs
want to come back to enjoy chasing us
and, more to the point for them, eating us.

Do hippie girls want to come back and draw
flowers on their cheeks and create a movement
to throw away cell phones and computers?

I don’t know where she’s at
I think her phone ate her
Now it’s calling me
But she’s not there

I don’t want to answer
But I’ve got to answer
It might take me there

I don’t know where she’s at
any place she’s at
Is a better place
Than here


That chord progresson basically is just GM7, F#m7b5, Bm7, Am7. It’s flexible, just supports the melody.

I made up this little song on guitar, and on guitar I play it much more freely and with a more complicated harmony that what’s here, but this is the gist of it. This is a version I can play on keyboard, and improvise a little with, double up on some chords, break some chords into arpeggios and such. I can’t even come close to playing as freely on keyboard as guitar, but this is the first song, I think, as simple as it is, where I can begin to feel myself getting more relaxed at the keyboard.


I was thinking about different places, and how strange this place is—I mean the contemporary world in general—for a few different reasons lately. I’m not going to go into depth about them today, but I am going to review them a little.


A few weeks ago at the Walgreens near here, the magazine delivery guy brought a so-called “Rolling Stones Special Collectors Edition” anthology of Bob Dylan interviews from Rolling Stone magazine over the decades. It’s like a thick magazine but it’s kind of a cross between a magazine and a thin book. Anyway, it cost $12 so I wasn’t going to buy it. But every time I went into Walgreens I found myself flipping through the thing, reading a section and putting it back. So, after about a week of that, I gave in a bought a copy. As I was taking a copy off the magazine rack, I noticed that the copies still were packed tightly. I don’t think anyone else had purchased even one copy of the thing.

Then today when the magazine guy came, after just a few weeks, he pulled out all the copies of the Dylan thing and tossed them into his recycles & returns bin.

Poor Bob Dylan. I’m not a big fan of the guy as an individual, but many of his songs are extraordinary. And his album “Blood on the Tracks” I think is one of the greatest albums ever released. And now, apparently, there is so little interest in him that nobody—well, just me, one old schmuck—nobody is willing to shell out twelve bucks to re-read old interviews.

Poor Bob Dylan. And I wonder about our own time. I mean, I wonder if the idea of Bob Dylan has passed: An individual with no corporate or political association writing and singing songs just for the songs, just for the sake of the songs. I think the time for such things—at least here—may be passed.


I was thinking about this, too, because over at a so-called “electronic music” website I saw a post about a complex new computer-based synthesizer that created sound patterns based on random parameters—Insane, Starship Control Panel Controls Sound Morphing-Synth in 3D: COSMOSƒ. It was so wildly convoluted that my first thought was to imagine two young musicians—like, say, John Lennon and Paul McCartney as kids—sitting down with the tool and trying to use it to write a song. I mean, according to the accepted legend of the Beatles early years, John and Paul did sit down with their guitars and struggle to learn the basic chords, teach each other what they learned and plunk out songs together.

And when I was a kid I knew teenagers who did that kind of thing.

But with technology today, are young musicians really going to sit down and struggle through it to master simple chord progressions, to write “songs,” as songs have traditionally been known?

I don’t know. But I got to thinking then about the biography of Henry Mancini I read a couple of weeks ago, “Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music” by John Caps. Mancini grew up listening to big bands around the 30s and 40s. He first learned to compose in that paradigm, big band instruments, saxophones, clarinets, trumpets, trombones and occasionally a piano or a bass or a guitar. His success at that got him a job at a movie studio and he learned to compose orchestral arrangements. And Mancini stayed within those paradigms his whole life—for better and worse—even when rock music was re-defining the entire world of pop music. Mancini was great at what he did, and he did beautiful work. But by staying within only those two paradigms he essentially made himself completely irrelevant to the world around him.

I wonder about chords and chord progressions themselves now.

Electronic music—modern music—is basically about sounds and transitions between sounds, and rhythms. Chords and chord progressions are, at best, a secondary consideration to a lot of modern music.

So I wonder if the whole paradigm of a “folk singer” like Bob Dylan has become totally irrelevant to the modern world, as absurd, even, as Mancini creating orchestral arrangements when, say, the Who were smashing guitars and such, or the Doors were doing beautiful organ/guitar/vocal creations.

I’m beginning to think that this world, here, has moved on—for better and worse—moved on from chords and chord progressions and songs built on such things.

I don’t know.

It makes me wonder.

Friday, March 15, 2013

On The Shoreline Of A Song

... I imagine myself somehow sailing
those lunar seas that are only dirt, dust,
all the way down, all the way to the left,
to Mare Nubium. I imagine
dropping anchor, somehow. I imagine
holding somebody I love, whispering,
“Honey, we’re home, here in the Sea of Clouds.”

The Loch Ness monster lives in and under waves
fluctuating on the surface of Loch Ness.

Can a monster live in and under sound waves?

Notes of a song are pressure waves in the air
fluctuating as a musician performs.

If a monster can live in and under waves
of fluctuating air pressure from a song,
then could that monster rise up out of the waves
whenever and wherever that song is played?

Could a musician dive down into the waves
whenever and wherever that song is played?

If music is deep enough to hide monsters,
I wonder: What else is down there in the depths?

I wonder: Where else is down there in the depths?

I think of places here, like Loch Ness or Mars,
and I think of a bird flying to Neptune
and coming back to talk with me, sing with me,
but what if all these places are dull places
and the shining places are beyond the stars,
not the stars themselves, and the Loch Ness monster
and a bird that could tell me about Neptune
are all in and under the waves of a song?

Songs I’ve written haven’t, yet, revealed these things.

Maybe the next song, the very next song, will.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Little More About Comet PanSTARRS

As I sit down to type this, it is 5 pm Chicago time, Thursday, 3/14/13.

I didn’t see Comet PanSTARRS yesterday—About Not Seeing Comet PanSTARRS—but that kind of thing happens a lot in astronomy. You try to find a difficult object, sometimes you make it, sometimes you don’t.

But often, maybe even usually, if you don’t find something the effort of trying can familiarize you with an area of the sky and that makes things easier the next time you try.

Yesterday may have been a great example of that. I’ll find out the next clear sky. As I type this, the heavy overcast is clearing up a bit. The next clear night might be tonight. So I’m going to do this post about what I learned from yesterday’s attempt to see Comet PanSTARRS and how I’ve applied that to trying a better search tonight (or the next clear night).

Fair warning, this post is going to include a bit of technical stuff, some numbers. But please bear with me, the technical stuff is reasonably clear technical stuff and it all resolves down to some very simple stuff in the end.


First of all, that photo I posted yesterday was taken around 8 pm Chicago time. Almost certainly I was underestimating the general description “about ten degrees below the Moon.” In fact Comet PanSTARRS sets at around 8:15 pm Chicago time, but by 8 pm the comet probably was already lost in ground clutter at the horizon.

However, my attempts yesterday did give me a useful clue.

Earlier yesterday, about half an hour or more before I took that picture—that is, I mean just as the sky was becoming a dark twilight after sunset but before actual nightfall—I checked out the western sky with binoculars. I was concentrating on what I regarded as “about ten degrees below the crescent Moon” (that is, about a clinched fist width in the sky), but I also checked much further down. You just never know.

In the course of checking much further down, I noticed Mars very low in the west. In fact, soon enough the only way I could see Mars was through the winter branches of trees along the horizon.

That was a clue I should have followed up immediately. The position of Mars, I mean. But I didn’t. I’m getting old. I don’t think as quickly as I used to think. (And believe me I’m not happy about that.)

At any rate, almost all the finder charts I’d seen used the Moon as a point of reference for 3/12 and 3/13 because the Moon is such a visible object. The trouble is that the Moon travels many degrees every day. On 3/12 the comet was next to the Moon. On 3/13 the Moon was some distance above the comet. On 3/14 the Moon will be much higher in the sky.

Mars, on the other hand, travels much less quickly than the Moon against the backdrop of the sky. Last night, when I was flipping around the internet, I saw a finder chart that included Mars low in the west. I didn’t save the page, and for a long time I didn’t pay much attention to having seen it. (Again, I’m getting old. And believe me I’m not happy about that.)

But at some point this morning I realized that I now had a very good “landmark” in the sky in the planet Mars. Mars would be roughly in the same place every night, unlike the Moon. And although Mars is difficult to find right now, it is a manageable kind of difficulty. It is not very difficult.

Mars is very low in the sky, but Mars is a point-source. It is bright enough to stand-out against even a light sky. And the ruddy, almost-pumpkin color makes for an even better contrast against a bluish sky.

So, using Mars as a landmark, it may be much easier to sky-hop over to Comet PanSTARRS. I couldn’t find again the chart on the internet that showed the comet and Mars in the same diagram. That’s too bad. I looked, but I couldn’t remember where I saw it or what search words I used to flip over to it.

But with Mars as a landmark, it is comparatively easy to learn the details we need to know to find Comet PanSTARRS.

This post will be me describing how to find out such things. It’s a little technical, but trust me, the technical bits are very straightforward and this is the kind of thing that can help in many, many astronomical situations.

Now here is some technical stuff.

Since we can find Mars (comparatively) easily because Mars is (again, comparatively) easy to see, we will get some technical data on the position of Mars. Then we will get the same kind of technical data on the position of Comet PanSTARRS.

This is important: The specific numbers in the data aren’t all that important. It may appear daunting to see numbers that look like surveyor jargon about “altitude” and “azimuth” but we don’t really have to worry about the specific numbers themselves. All we need to look at are the differences between the numbers describing Mars and the numbers describing Comet PanSTARRS.

And all we really need to focus on are the general differences between the numbers.

For instance, if the “altitude” of one object is a larger number, then, obviously, the object with the higher number will be higher in the sky. If the difference is small, then the objects will be close.

Binoculars typically show a field of about five degrees. So if one object is, say, ten degrees higher than another, that would be two binocular fields apart. You can measure the sky, approximately, by moving binoculars one field-of-view at a time.

The same kind of things are true for the “azimuth.” With “north” as zero, an azimuth direction just moves around a circle with 90 degrees as east, 180 degrees as south and 270 degrees as west.

We don’t need to worry much about the particulars of two azimuth readings, but rather we can simply look at the difference. If Comet PanSTARRS has an azimuth reading larger than Mars, the comet will be to the right. If Comet PanSTARRS has an azimuth reading less than Mars, the comet will be to the left. And, again, we can expect binoculars to show about five degrees of sky in one field at a time.

It’s really that easy. Or, well, you know, it can be that easy.

So we can find Mars easily enough. I saw Mars yesterday. It is almost directly west, very low, but easily visible in binoculars immediately after sundown.

So: Where do we get “altitude” and “azimuth” numbers?

The easiest place nowadays is at Wolfram|Alpha.

Wolfram|Alpha sometimes can be very frustrating, but it can also deliver amazingly deep datasets if you can figure out the right search terms.

For Mars, it can be as simple as: “planet mars position from Chicago at 7 pm

For Comet PanSTARRS it can be as simple as: “comet C/2011 L4 panstarrs position from Chicago at 7 pm

If you type in those searches or click on those links, Wolfram|Alpha will think for a minute and then give you a lot of information. (It defaults to the current date. When I created those searches, it returned information for 3/14. As they get clicked on in the future, Wolfram|Alpha will default to whatever the current date is.)

It will draw charts that are interesting but not very helpful. It will deliver a lot of facts and figures that are interesting but not very helpful.

And near the bottom of the results it will give the information that is very helpful indeed, the “altitude” and the “azimuth” as seen from that particular location at that particular time.

And that’s all we need.

The info boxes look like this. Mars results are first, then Comet PanSTARRS:

So we’ve learned that Mars—which we know about and can see—is at azimuth 254 degrees and at altitude 16 degrees.

At that same time Comet PanSTARRS will be at azimuth 255 degrees and at altitude 26 degrees.

The numbers and what we know about them are as good as a diagram.

Since the comet’s azimuth is about one degree higher than Mars, that means the comet will be just a little further “north” than Mars and, in the sky toward the west, that means the comet will be just a little to the right of Mars.

The comet’s altitude is almost exactly ten degrees higher than Mars, so the comet will be higher in the sky than Mars. The comet will be about two binocular fields above Mars. (Or about one if you use wide-angle binoculars.)

And that’s really all we need to know to go out and start a good search!

Those numbers will change a little every day, but the procedure will work every night.

And the general procedure works for finding any astronomical object any night.

Nowadays, of course, many amateur astronomers will use telescopes that have computerized mounts which find and track objects by computers—Limits Of A Gadget: A Love Story—using what are called equatorial coordinates of right ascension and declination. And that’s wonderful if you have those tools.

But for casual astronomers, getting the altitude and azimuth numbers and then star-hopping from a known location to a new, unknown object can be a lot of fun.

And that’s one way it’s done.

This is what I’ll be doing later tonight, or the next clear night.

(It looks like it is clouding up again, so if I can’t see anything tonight, I will get myself updated numbers tomorrow or the day after, whenever the sky clears up. If I see anything, I’ll post again.)

Good luck, if anyone else gives it a try.

The sky is waiting for us! And so is Comet PanSTARRS!