Earthquakes and Alien Probe Technology

At around 9:00 on the morning of January 19, 1916, Baxter, Missouri resident Mrs. Frank Jackson heard a terrible noise and received a frightful shock. The sound would later be described as something like discharged dynamite followed by a series of heavy strikes against a large drum and fading off to the north, disappearing completely after a few minutes. Initial reports in the local paper didn’t identify the source of the noise, but rather requested the opinions of readers as to what may have caused the disturbance.

One of the most useful observations came from some of the Jacksons’ neighbors who were working in a field nearby and claimed to have been peppered by gravel falling from the sky. And of course there was the 611 gram stone that crashed through the Jacksons’ roof, hit a log beam, and lodged itself in their attic.

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If I’m honest, I’m sure I have a lot of junk in my attic, too. Probably not from space, but still. photo credit: kakov Chelyabinsk meteorite via photopin (license)

What had fallen from the sky was a meteorite, made of, well, spacey meteorite stuff, as verified twenty years later by American Meteorite Laboratory founder H. H. Nininger. It measured somewhere around 13 cm across. While the impact of such a stone isn’t going to dramatically alter the earth’s climate or cause mass extinction, it’s certainly large enough to weigh down the corner of a tarp on a breezy day or scare the stuffing out of someone when it crashes through the roof of their house.

There’s not much word on what poor Mrs. Jackson thought as the meteorite came crashing into her house, but perhaps we can make some assumptions based on the reactions of those who witnessed a fiery meteoroid falling through the sky above southeast Michigan on Tuesday of this week.

If Twitter is any indication, the good folks in Michigan, though not quite as terrified as Oregonians facing the trauma of pumping their own gas, were pretty freaked out by the incident. Captured on dashcam video, the meteoroid, which scientists estimate was about two yards across when it entered Earth’s atmosphere, exploded in the sky, causing a small Earthquake and an awfully loud boom.

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I’m a big fan of shooting stars, but I admit if I actually saw a huge one that exploded with a loud boom and an earthquake, I might get a little jumpy. photo credit: tonynetone meteorite hits Thunder Bay, Ontario via photopin (license)

Witnesses expressed confusion and then a great deal of concern as they processed whether Armageddon had come at last. Within minutes, conspiracy theorists took to the Internet to caution against initiating any contact with the many small meteorites scientists believe are now spread across the state. The main concern, obviously, is that surviving meteorites are actually alien technology, likely parts of otherworldly probes, of the variety that have been sent frequently to Earth by malevolent alien forces since at least since the 15th century. Seems legit to me.

NASA, on the other hand, has seemed relatively flippant about the whole event, more or less stating that though massive balls of fire flying into the Earth’s atmosphere are relatively rare, slightly less massive balls of fire do it all the time. So maybe everyone should just calm down.

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I just have to assume that if aliens have really been sending probes to Earth for at least hundreds of years, they aren’t really in that much of a hurry to invade.

Despite both the dire warnings and the nonchalance, the hunt is on for meteorite pieces. NASA has made a few suggestions for where people might have luck looking, but is clear that any chunks found will probably be pretty small and might not really be worth all that much.

But when H. H. Nininger verified the Baxter meteorite as the real thing, he was quick to make an offer. I haven’t been able to find how much he paid for this delightful addition to his extensive meteor collection, but hopefully it was at least enough to cover the repairs to the Jacksons’ roof.

Since Tuesday’s heavenly event, experts have explained to the media that the value of a meteorite will depend largely on its makeup. Whereas the more common iron will net you somewhere between 50 cents and $5 per gram, a stone meteorite might fetch up to $20 per gram. Now if it’s made of alien probe technology, well, I suppose there’s no telling how high the price might go.

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Rosewater, Wine, Sugar…and Tomato Sauce?

In November of 1493, intrepid Italian Christopher Columbus ruined pizza when, on his second voyage to the New World, he discovered piña de Indes, or Indian pine, which the Carib people called ananas, because it’s not a pinecone and they lived nowhere near India.

What he found was a spiky headed fruit that Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, writing in 1513, called “the most beautiful fruit of any of the fruits I have seen” and what today we know (thanks in part to Columbus) as the pineapple.

Sugar hungry Europeans generally thought this discovery was pretty neat, and almost immediately they began attempting to cultivate the pineapple a little closer to home. That proved pretty tough, because a tropical climate is something Europe definitely doesn’t have.

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Charles II looking super excited to be receiving a pineapple. Hendrick Danckerts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It was the Dutch that discovered the trick first, probably because the Dutch West Indies Company had a stranglehold on the pineapple importation business. And it may have been economist and businessman Pieter de la Court who, by the late 17th century, did it best in his innovative hot house that kept the soil and air temperatures in the range most conducive to pineapple cultivation.

Of course De la Court is remembered today not so much for his pineapple cultivating prowess, but rather for his writings in support of a thriving free market and his general disdain for the Caribbean shipping monopoly held by the Dutch West Indies Company. It seems likely then that he may have succeeded with the pineapple out of spite.

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Gross.

Coincidentally, I assume spite is the same reason otherwise seemingly reasonable people sprinkle pizza with a fruit described by 17th century English Botanist John Parkinson as tasting “as if Rosewater, wine, and sugar were mixed together.”

I admit pineapple is not my favorite fruit. It’s fine for garnishing fruity drinks when you’ve run out of cocktail umbrellas, but I just find it too sweet unless it’s cut with something a little less cloying. And no, I don’t mean tomato sauce, cheese, and ham. Yuck.

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I can’t argue with this use of pineapple.

Actually, I think early pineapple enthusiasts in both Europe and America of the 18th and 19th centuries might have been on to something when they tended to see the pineapple as more decorative than consumable. Importing the perishable tropical fruit from the Caribbean was costly, often prohibitively so. If a host could get his hands on one to place in the middle of an elegant table display, it was sure to impress.

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I don’t know if the rumor is true, but I think I’d like to live in a world in which people used to rent pineapples in order to impress their friends.

The pineapple then became a symbol of hospitality, gracing not only table displays, but also frequently as a feature of art and design. And if the Internet’s favorite pineapple rumor can be believed, the fruit was even available to rent for a special occasion, only to be later sold to the extremely wealthy who could actually afford to eat it.

By the early 1900s, James Dole had come along and begun his Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later the Dole Fruit Company), which soon made canned pineapple widely available, for a long time supplying more than 75% of the world’s pineapple needs. And now it’s so easy to get hold of, we even put it on pizza. Just to be clear, by we, I mean people who evidently have no taste buds and who are definitely not me.

So really maybe James Dole should get the blame. I suppose I can let Columbus off the hook for this one.

Trendy Escapes and Impressive Cleverness

At 7:15 on the morning of June 12, 1962, the guards of Alcatraz prison made a surprising discovery. During the night, three inmates had escaped the allegedly escape-proof prison. Frank Lee Morris, John William Anglin, and Clarence Anglin made it out of their cells, onto the roof of the prison and into the San Francisco Bay without detection. The escape required teamwork, resourcefulness, and a great deal of cleverness.

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Alcatraz Island. Photo by Jon Sullivan, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And it turned out these guys were pretty clever. They drilled out the ventilation systems in their cells, work performed mostly by hand with rudimentary tools, though for a while they did attempt to use a makeshift drill run by a vacuum motor one of them managed to come by.

Using soap and toilet paper they fashioned crude paper-mache dummy heads painted with supplies from prison craft kits and topped with hair harvested from the prison barber shop. These they placed in their beds in order to avoid early detection.

With glue they stole from the prison glove factory, they joined pieces of rubber raincoats to make a raft and life vests. They may even have converted a concertina into a bellows to aid in the inflation of the raft.

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Dummy head found in Frank Morris’s cell. Not bad at all for crude paper-mache. FBI, public domain

Really, if these men had applied their ingenuity and resourcefulness to more societally accepted occupations, they probably could have done well for themselves, and spent significantly less time in prison. But it’s a fascinating story, certainly worthy of a book and a Clint Eastwood film.

I’ve had escapes on the brain lately. It’s a hot trend right now in education and entertainment. Patterns for classroom “break-out” boxes have spattered the Internet and full, themed escape rooms have been popping up across the country. They’re all pretty similar, requiring participants to gather clues and decode puzzles to solve problems, open locks, and escape the room within a time limit.

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Since the boys had access to a time machine, we figured fifteen extra minutes wasn’t really a big deal.

When my oldest son turned 13 recently, I decided to design an escape room for him and his friends, based on the quirky and beloved British sci fi show Doctor Who, which they all seem to love. If I were a different sort of blogger I would offer a step-by-step, photo-illustrated how-to guide to constructing your own Doctor Who escape room, but I’m not nearly ambitious enough to be that kind of blogger. Still, if you’re interested and want details, drop me an e-mail.

It was a big success, and so about a week and a half later when I got the opportunity to go to an escape room myself, I thought it might be nice to see someone else’s version. Along with my sister and my husband, I was “locked” into a room designed to look like an attic and tasked with opening a secure treasure box. We had an hour and no idea where to start.

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My crude paper-mache project was a Dalek piñata that the boys exterminated in less than two minutes.

Fortunately, we’re a good team of pretty resourceful people. And we’re also fairly clever. We uncovered our treasure and made it out of the room with twelve minutes to spare. The boys in the Dr. Who room were not quite as quick, but to be fair, their team consisted of six thirteen-year-old, hyperactive boys. Cleverness can only compensate for so much. They did make it out in about an hour and fifteen minutes with some occasional redirection.

Morris and the Anglins made their escape, too, becoming the only people to have ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz. Of course there was never any physical evidence that they managed to survive the cold water of the Bay and make it all the way to the freedom they wanted. Enough circumstantial evidence turned up to suggest to the FBI that the men perished in the attempt, and that became the official finding. Even so, it was an impressively clever escape.

Making a List and Checking it Twice

So we’re down to it, the last few days before Christmas. I’m not going to lie. I’m a little stressed, though in a good way. I want the holiday to produce warm, fuzzy memories for my children and the whole family as we gather together to celebrate. And it will, because the celebration is really in the gathering together.

But there’s definitely a certain image in my mind of how it will all go, observing just the right traditions, in a sparkling clean house that is only going to get covered in cast-off bows and scraps of wrapping paper. It’ll be perfect even if it’s not perfect, which it won’t be. I get all that. But I’m still running through my lists.

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This guy gets it.

Because I am definitely a list maker. I’m one of those people who has several lists at once and then to keep track of them, makes a list of my lists. I’m the kind of person who, once I’ve accomplished a task that’s not included on my to-do list, writes it in, just for the pleasure of crossing it off. I think I may have a problem.

Actually, as a team of archaeologists working on a restoration project at a historic 17th century house in Kent, England discovered about a year ago, I might not be all that unusual. What they found under a floorboard in the attic was a shopping list, handwritten in October of 1633, by an obviously somewhat educated servant named Robert Draper. In it, he expresses the need for two dozen pewter spoons, greenfish (salted cod, allegedly), and a frying pan. The discovery is exciting because it’s a glimpse of the mundane stuff of life from the period, which is not always easily accessible information for historians.

It’s a bold list that includes instructions addressed to a Mr. Bilby asking him to send these items, along with some lights from the chamber of the lady of the house and a fire shovel from the nursery, to one of the family’s separate residences. I do tend to shy away from making lists for other people, unless specifically asked to, which occasionally I am, because I live with very non-list-making kinds of people who acknowledge that they sometimes forget things. And lists are handy.

That’s especially true if you’re Santa Claus and you’re tasked with remembering the gift requests of every child you’ll visit on Christmas Eve, and also whether or not they’ve been well behaved enough to deserve them. It sounds like a logistical nightmare to me.

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No wonder the poor guy binges on cookies.

But Santa’s got it under control because he’s got a list that he checks twice. He’s had one since long before Eddie Cantor sang “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” in 1934, and even before 1633 when Robert Draper reminded Mr. Bilby not to forget the light bulbs.

It’s true that the American Santa Claus as we know him today comes partially from the stories of the 4th century bishop known as Saint Nicholas, but the character also descends from a more pagan influence, particularly from Nordic folktales that arose in the Middle Ages.

The jolly fat man in a red coat, designed in the late 19th century by artist Thomas Nast, bears a striking resemblance to descriptions of Thor. And the behavior of the dear old saint as reported by Clement Moore is reminiscent of Odin flying through the air on an eight legged horse, delivering gifts through chimneys. With him are two ravens, his constant companions that listen at the chimneys and report on whether the occupants of the home have been naughty or nice.

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A harbinger of death, and yet still less creepy than the elf on the shelf.

As Santa evolved the eight legged horse became eight reindeer and the eavesdropping ravens became a master list and, in the last few years, a super creepy elf on the shelf. Frankly, I think Santa should have kept the ravens.

I think it’s safe to assume the jolly old elf is a little stressed out with just a few days remaining before the biggest night of his year. He might even check his list more than twice. And then make lists of his lists, and add to each of them as he goes. Because he wants to make sure the holiday is merry and bright, and he’s probably afraid he’ll forget the lightbulbs. 

What the Cool Kids are up to this Christmas Season

There’s a strange thing happening in my house this holiday season. The delightfully tacky, lighted, multi-colored star that has topped my Christmas tree for more than a decade has been blinking. It never used to do that.

But this year, about a week into Christmas tree season (which for us begins the day after Thanksgiving), the thing began to develop a personality. Every night we plug it in to discover what color it’s going to be. Sometimes two colors switch on, sometimes only one. Other times all the colors come on or the star blinks for a while in a seemingly random pattern.

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Today it’s orange, which is not a very Christmas-y color. I think it wants to tell us a story that would be more fitting for Halloween.

Of course I realize the star must have a short and we need to replace it before our house burns down, but I jokingly said the other day that I thought it must be possessed. And that’s when my nearly thirteen-year-old son said, “Maybe someone from another dimension is trying to tell us something.”

He was making a reference to the Netflix series, Stranger Things, that you either recently binge watched, or you’ve heard your friends talking about how they did. My husband and I fell under the spell of the series shortly after the second season dropped at the end of October this year, when all the cool kids wouldn’t stop talking about it.

In case you’re not familiar with the show, the basic premise is that something has gone wrong at a secretive government lab near a small town in 1980s Indiana, opening up a gate into another dimension. A boy goes mysteriously missing in the first episode. Trapped in the alternate dimension, the boy manages to communicate with his mother through surges in electricity and she eventually figures out that she can paint her walls with the alphabet and string Christmas lights so he can signal words to her. Oh, and the other dimension contains an insatiable, terrifying, virtually indestructible beast that likes to dimension hop and hunt.

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This could be yours. https://www.ebay.com/i/382304200890?chn=ps

I probably don’t have to tell you that it’s scary. Or that it’s not especially Christmas-y. But that hasn’t stopped Christmastime marketing geniuses from taking advantage of its popularity. Among the racks of ugly sweaters this season, you can find one that includes lights strung above crooked letters of the alphabet, with three that really light up to signal: R-U-N.

Yikes! Merry Christmas.

I suppose the concept of scary stories (and marketing genius) at Christmas aren’t particular to 2017. If you turn on the television at any given time in the month of December, I’m pretty sure you can find at least one version of A Christmas Carol to watch, filled with ghosts, and if you’re lucky, Muppets.

Charles Dickens wrote the original novella in 1843. It took him about six weeks to do it, and his publisher managed to release it December 19th. By Christmas Eve, the first run had sold out.

Dickens was already known as a writer of novels generally published in serial fashion, and with A Christmas Carol, he struck just the right cord with his audience. He rode Victorian surges in both the popularity of frightening stories and in newly imagined secular celebrations of Christmas. He captured people with his project, one that would provide him with a great deal of income through the rest of his life, and in some ways would shape the way Christmas is celebrated even in 2017.

I did (briefly) attempt to determine just how many adaptations of this Christmas ghost story have been made into movies, television specials, operas, radio plays, sitcom episodes, etc. As you can probably imagine, that’s a hard number to tally and I’m not that dedicated, so let’s just agree it’s somewhere around a whole bunch.

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Charles Dickens, penning strange holiday traditions. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Dickens wrote his book, it wasn’t exactly a new thing, this telling of ghost stories and scary yarns in wintertime when the nights are long and the cold wind howls through barren trees. Such tales are referenced by playwright Christopher Marlowe in the late 16th century. But it may have been Dickens who so expertly associated the frightening winter tale with the cheery celebration of Christmas.

So I am going to choose to believe that it’s not unusual at all that my son is spending time this Christmas season binge-watching Stranger Things, because all the cool kids have been talking about it, and fortunately he’s much less susceptible to nightmares than I am. But I do think I’m going to take a little time out of my busy Christmas schedule to shop for a new, less blinky and more consistent, star for the top of our tree.

Monks Make Wily Guards and Santa Claus is Dead

As we enter into the busy Christmas season with the official start of Advent this past Sunday, I suppose it’s fitting to pause for a moment to observe the day when Santa Claus died. Yesterday (December 6) was recognized as the 1,674th anniversary of the death of one of history’s most widely honored saints.

Celebrated for his gift-giving and kindness, particularly to the children of the poor, and remembered fondly for slapping a heretic across the face during the Council of Nicaea, St. Nicholas is still the hippest 4th century bishop around.

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By Aloxe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3138918

And no one loves St. Nicholas as much as the people of Bira, Italy, where his remains have been at rest within the Basilica di San Nicola for more than 900 years. But the saint isn’t from Italy originally, and no, he’s also not from the North Pole. He also most likely didn’t make his home with an army of toy-making elves and a herd of magical reindeer. Sometimes, people (like history bloggers) make things up. Sorry.

St. Nicholas actually spent much of his life serving as Bishop of Myra, a Greek town on the Mediterranean Coast, in what is modern-day Antalya, Turkey. Most people assumed that’s where the saint was buried, and he remained there until 1087 when some rowdy Italian elves (or sailors) from Bira spirited away his jolly bones, landing themselves, I would think, permanently on the naughty list.

There are different versions of the story, of course. Italian church historians tend to refer to the theft as the “translation” of the St. Nicholas relics from one place to the other. They favor stories that suggest cooperation of the monks guarding the tomb who stepped aside both in fear for the relics under the threat of Arab occupation, and because they read the signs suggesting Nicholas himself was ready to move. This isn’t quite how the tale is understood by Turkish archaeologists who would like the stolen relics back.

But archaeologists working in Antalya recently claimed they might have evidence that would change the story anyway. Beneath the ancient St. Nicholas Church in Southern Turkey, researchers detected a previously unknown crypt beneath a mosaic floor. Because historic floor removal is a delicate process, it could be a while before the crypt can be fully revealed, and any resting occupants examined.

For now it’s enough evidence for the Turkish archaeologists to publicly claim that the bones stolen away to Bira probably didn’t belong to St Nicholas anyway. They reference records from the time that suggest instead the wily guard monks tricked the thieves and sent the remains of another less well known priest to Italy.

The word from Bira is that they will assume they hold the true remains until world-wide experts reassure them, and this silly Turkish ploy to steal their pilgrimage tourism dollars can be brought to a close (I’m paraphrasing a bit here). I’m not sure what the response has been from the at least three other locations that claim to possess bones of the saint.

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See kids? He’s just fine. And jolly as ever. By Oldschool at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
And therein lies the rub with relics. They’re hard to verify. All we really know for certain is that St. Nicholas is definitely dead. That’s what a lot of traumatized children are learning this holiday season. A friend recently posted on Facebook the contents of an e-mail sent to her by her child’s fourth grade teacher expressing concern that student-written responses to an article about the discovery in Turkey revealed some holiday anxiety. I suspect this was not the only teacher who has encountered this tricky problem this school year.

The good news is that regardless of where he was buried, the spirit of St. Nicholas lives on in an undisclosed magical location at the North Pole surrounded by flying reindeer and wily elves, and no way is anyone going to discover his bones there.

Lots of Running, Impressive Hair, and a Not-Boring Book for Christmas

In 1820, James Fenimore Cooper read aloud to his wife Susan from a boring English novel. At least legend suggests that he thought it was boring and he expressed as much to his wife. She allegedly responded that if he thought he was so clever, he should just write a better book himself.

Cooper accepted the challenge. The result was his first novel, Precaution, a book written in a style similar to the works of Jane Austen, which though widely beloved, probably are found boring by most husbands reading aloud to their wives.

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James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote a book because he was bored before writing some more books because he was kind of good at it. By John Wesley Jarvis, Public Domain

But the book sold okay in England. It was accredited to an anonymous Englishwoman, rather than to the New York man who would go on from that mild success to create the first big fictional American action hero, one that would one day become Daniel Day-Lewis running across the big screen in a distinctly American and probably slightly less boring fashion. To an epic soundtrack I might add.

The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757—published in 1826—became one of the most widely read novels of its day and firmly established James Fenimore Cooper as one of the greats. It’s the second book in the Leatherstockings five-book series that features Natty Bumppo, an American frontiersman raised by Delaware Indians to become a fearless warrior who runs a lot and has super impressive hair.

The series is also often referred to as the first real example of the western genre of literature, the same genre that before too long introduced the world to the heroic card-playing, gun-fighting, whiskey-drinking cowboy who finds himself in the middle of the conflict between Native Americans and settlers, outlaws and hard-working ranchers, or war and a life of farming in peace. Often while wearing an impressively large hat.

It’s a genre that has waxed and waned in popularity through the years and I admit it’s not one I usually gravitate toward. But I did recently read a western novel I liked quite a lot. The book is Guerilla Bride by author J.J. Zerr, who is not an anonymous Englishwoman. And this is a not-boring book.

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A not-boring book I enjoyed.

It follows the story of Emerson Sharp, an unlucky young man trying to find his moral compass and a good horse in the border states at the height of the American Civil War. In the process he becomes a talented gambler, fumbles into the war, accidentally becomes an accessory to murder, and falls in love a time or two. And yes he runs a lot, though usually on a horse and with much less impressive hair than Daniel Day-Lewis’s Natty Bumppo.

I don’t know if you like western fiction, or know someone who does, but I enjoyed this one. And you know, Christmas is coming up and books make great gifts. I often hesitate to recommend reads because I’m afraid that if the person I gave a title to ends up not loving the book, I will be judged harshly. Still, I am definitely willing to venture that this is probably not the most boring book you or the western fiction reader on your Christmas list has ever read. And if it is, well then you should write a better one.

By the way, if you happen to have a special someone on your shopping list who enjoys humorous books about history, family life, sheep and experimental rocketry, I may have another not-boring suggestion for you.