Leave the Poop. Take the Rocks.

This past July marked fifty-two years since Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind on the surface of the moon, leaving behind an American flag, some pretty funky footprints, and a plaque reading: “Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A. D. We came in peace for all mankind.” The message, I’m sure, is of great comfort to those visiting aliens who can read the English language.

But that’s not all the crew of the Apollo 11 left behind. They also abandoned, among other things, two golf balls, twelve cameras, twelve pairs of boots, a telescope, and bags of human waste, including urine, vomit, and yes, feces. In fact, between the six Apollo missions that landed on the moon, there have been ninety-six bags of human waste left behind. The items were left in order to compensate for the additional weight of the moonrocks the astronauts brought back. There just wasn’t enough room for the golf balls and poop.

The first three men ever to leave their poop on the moon. NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It does seem like a very human thing to do to leave behind a trail of stuff. My family certainly did on our most recent trip. With some areas of the country a little more on edge than others and Covid numbers creeping up, we decided to stay a little closer to home for our summer family vacation this year. And so, we rented a cabin on Table Rock Lake in the southern part of our home state of Missouri.

We packed our suitcases, attached the cartop carrier filled with cycling and fishing gear, strapped our four bicycles to the back, and piled into the family truckster along with a cooler of snacks and a laundry basketful of goods for setting up our temporary home away from home. Fully loaded down, we headed out for our four-hour drive to the lake.

Eleven hours later, we arrived in a borrowed Jeep, with slightly dampened spirits, and in possession of only some of our belongings. The truckster (a 2020 Subaru Outback with just over 20,000 miles on it) decided it would rather make only half the journey and died a spectacular death on the interstate.

Right now it kind of feels like we left behind a big pile of poop. At least it’s still under warranty.

Fortunately, we did make it to the side of the road in a relatively wide-open spot where we could escape the shoulder over a grassy divide to a frontage road sporting a run-down motel that a very kind state trooper who soon stopped to help us called “not a nice place.”

After an hour or so of fighting the world’s most complicated phone tree to talk to someone with our insurance company at 5:00 on a Saturday, and calling on the kindness of some amazing family reinforcements who quickly volunteered to come to our rescue, we unstrapped our bikes and headed a couple miles down the frontage road to a safer part of the town whose last exit we’d just passed.

The truckster, minus a functional transmission and plus our luggage, got towed to the nearest Subaru dealership. That is at least located in the direction we were going, though is also an hour further from where we actually live.

Meanwhile, we played cards on the parking lot sidewalk of a gas station convenience store surrounded by our bikes and enjoying a dinner of the finest gas station convenience store food we could find, until my sister arrived with her Jeep complete with trailer hitch so we could transport our bicycles. Our nephew also came, so that he could transport her back to our house so she could take the car our oldest son normally drives back home for the week.

Next, we headed to the Subaru dealership, explained to a suspicious night security guard that we just wanted our suitcases, and rescued what we could. The Jeep held a lot, and with a second trip to the truckster the next day, we got most of our stuff transported to the cabin, where we strategized through the week how to get everything back home again.

Don’t worry. We didn’t have to leave our travel buddy Steve behind.

Of course, we didn’t. The laundry basket of household stuff broke in the process and so we disposed of it and we didn’t need to bring any food back with us, so a lot of little things could fit inside the empty ice chest. We threw away what we had to, left the household supplies that might be useful to future renters, and signed the guestbook: “We came in peace for all mankind.” The hubbs then pieced together the rest in the back of the Jeep, playing his finest game yet of what we like to call “Car Jenga.”  

Despite the ridiculous start and slightly cramped end, our vacation really was a lot of fun, and our left-behind hand soap, paper plates, and Clorox wipes were a pretty good trade-off for the memories made. We are definitely going to want the car back eventually, though. So far, we’re hopeful we might be able to retrieve it by the end of next week.

It’s now been fifty-two years and mankind has not yet retrieved most of its left-behind stuff from the moon. Frankly, no one misses the golf balls. They seem a pretty good trade-off for a pile of moonrocks and memories of an out-of-this-world trip. But with all the bacteria that has been exposed for decades to the environment of the moon, there are some scientists who are eager to get their hands on the poop. Personally, I think I’d just be happy with the rocks.

Looking to the Skies

On the night of February 20, 1954, while he was vacationing in Palm Springs, California, then US President Dwight Eisenhower disappeared. Fortunately, he reappeared the next morning and attended a church service in Los Angeles as scheduled, but there were several hours during which the president’s whereabouts couldn’t be accounted for.

Does this look like a man with a toothache? Dwight D. Eisenhower, official photo portrait, May 29, 1959.jpg, White House. Public Domain.

According to the president, his staff, his wife Mamie, and one bleary-eyed dentist, Eisenhower’s absence could be explained by the need for an emergency dental procedure following a tooth cap mishap at dinner. I think, however, it might be worth considering another possibility.

According to conspiracy theorists, a bunch of people who refer to themselves as UFOlogists, and the son of a US Navy Commander witness, what actually happened that night was that the president traveled to nearby Edwards Air Force base for a clandestine meeting with some blue-eyed aliens.

To be clear, I am not suggesting this other possibility has a great deal of merit or anything. I count myself pretty firmly in the camp that assumes if there is life on other planets, its only use for us is as the villainous visitors in stories about midnight abductions and anal probes. That’s assuming that said aliens possess anuses, which I certainly wouldn’t swear to.

But I do think it’s fun to talk about the possibility of aliens, because there’s an awful lot of scary stuff happening on this planet—stuff that divides all of us humans with our widely varied cultural outlooks, political ideologies, and beliefs about the universe and our place within it. In light of all that, alien life still seems like a relatively safe, apolitical, uniting topic.

Actually, I bet aliens don’t have anuses. That’s probably why they spend so much time probing ours. Image by Daniela Realpe from Pixabay

And maybe that’s the reason that all of the mainstream media outlets in the US suddenly decided last week to spend their time talking about UFOs and alien visitations. UFOs, known to people in the know who do not refer to themselves as UFOlogists as UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena), have evidently been appearing to military pilots. Frequently. For years.

So says Luis Elizondo, alleged former member of a super-secret government Pentagon project called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program and former president and armchair UFOlogist Barack Obama. At least one of those sources seems credible. And actually, both kind of do, because neither has said that we have definite proof of extra-Earth astronauts (which those of us schlubs outside the UFOlogist and secret government communities simply refer to as aliens).

What they’ve said is that sometimes we see stuff and upon further inspection, we’re still left scratching our heads. Personally, I am in favor of a Pentagon project to figure out what all these pilots are looking at and if Congress wants a little more information coming up next month, I’m okay with that, too.

I’m not sure why it all had to be super-secret, or why it suddenly has to claim top billing in the news cycle, but I don’t mind amid all the chaos down here on Earth, taking a little time to look at the skies. It’s significantly less worrisome up there. Because if we can believe the UFOlogists (and why wouldn’t we?), Eisenhower worked out a treaty with our alien visitors back in 1954.

Weight for It

A recent study published on the JAMA Network platform of the American Medical Association on March 22 found that on average American adults gained 0.6 pounds every ten days of pandemic-related lockdowns. I’m delighted to be able to say that I am below average, but like most of us, this bizarre year has not been particularly kind to my waistline.

I’ve kept it in check as well as I have only because I started a running challenge. If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time or if you’ve read my book, Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense, then you may recall that I think running is stupid.

Prove me wrong. A good friend of mine likes to say he’ll believe running isn’t stupid when he sees someone both running and smiling. Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

But it is easy to do. All you need is a good pair of tennis shoes and a healthy dose of self-loathing. Also, it’s convenient because you don’t have to go anywhere. That’s literally true in my case since I run pretty much exclusively on a treadmill, both because my knees don’t care for downhills or uneven surfaces and because I don’t like looking like a wheezing idiot in public.

It’s going more or less okay. Of course, I wonder when I can stop with every single step, but my pants still fit and at least some of my below average weight gain could reasonably be attributed to an increase in muscle mass. The rest of it, not so much. So, I wouldn’t mind shedding a few pandemic pounds.

But I have a plan.

This very morning, Thursday April 1, 2021, at 9:47 AM, the earth will experience what scientists refer to as the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect. That’s when the sadly demoted dwarf planet of Pluto will align directly behind Jupiter and produce a combined gravitational effect that will be noticeable on Earth.

1…2…3…Jump! Image by lena dolch from Pixabay

Some astronomers have suggested that the best way to experience this unusual phenomenon will be to jump into the air at that precise time, allowing yourself to hover just a bit longer than you normally would and experience a slight floating sensation. It’s expected that the hang time of an average human jump will increase from 0.2 seconds to as much as 3 whole seconds which, scientifically speaking, you’d have to be a pretty big fool not to notice.

That sounds fun and all, but I have a better idea. At precisely 9:47 this morning, I will be stepping on my bathroom scale, where I expect to note a loss of at least 0.6 pounds for each one of you who is gullible enough to jump in the air and expect to float.

It’s hard not to trust a man wearing a monocle. Sir Patrick Moore. South Downs Planetarium, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

That’s right. I’m sad to have to let you know that the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect isn’t really real. It was first presented to the world in 1976 by well-known and highly-respected astronomer Patrick Moore who was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a war hero, and the longtime host of the BBC’s The Sky at Night program which aired for fifty-five years.

He also had a sense of humor and was credentialed enough to pull off a good April Fool’s prank for the BBC, which is well known for its April Fool’s pranks. I mean, this was no record-setting spaghetti harvest or flying penguin video, but it was pretty good.

And it got people jumping up and down and having a good time. The extra exercise may have even helped them lose a little weight, like an average of 0.6 pounds every ten days they tried again and again to experience the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect. But as far as I know, no one has done a study on that.

B-boys go down! For Gold

I suspect that when Jamaican deejay Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, started looping together the siq-est beats he could find in New York in the 1960s, he probably wasn’t thinking about the Olympic anthem. And when he cried out “B-boys go down!” the dancers who took to the floor with all kinds of new and highly athletic moves, probably weren’t dreaming of Olympic gold.

But from wildly creative and humble beginnings, break dancing or, as the cool kids are calling it now, “breaking,” rose this week to new heights. Because the cool kids are the International Olympic Committee, and they just invited the b-boys to their party.

I don’t think you can really argue that this isn’t an impressive display of athleticism. photo credit: Hugo Chinaglia via photopin (license)

I mention this because, like me, you might not be paying much attention to the news since it’s all a little overwhelming and generally ignores (and/or misrepresents) the most important things anyway. Obviously, one of those most important things is that break dancing will now officially be a part of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

At this point, you might be asking why. If so, you’re definitely not alone. There are more than a few (like probably at least four) internationally ranked squash players who are pretty miffed about the decision as their sport has once again been passed over.

All I know about break dancing is that it looks terribly difficult and also pretty darn cool, and though it strikes me as exceptionally athletic, it does also seem to me like a pretty odd choice for the Olympic games. So, I looked into the decision a little bit.

Okay, maybe more than four. Huerndy, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To be admitted by the IOC, a sport must be widely practiced by men in a minimum of 75 countries on four continents and by women in a minimum of 40 countries on three continents. The sport must also add “value and appeal” to the Olympics, can’t rely on mechanical propulsion, can’t be purely intellectual in nature, and I guess can’t be squash.

It was news to me that there actually are international break dancing competitions since I’ve yet to see one on ESPN, but there are. And although I had no idea break dancing was so popular all over the world, I assume the sport meets all these most basic criteria. There’s also the claim that break dancing is heavily influenced by gymnastics and martial arts, both of which are already Olympic sports.

The question remains whether breaking will add value and appeal to the games. The IOC thinks it will and touts a commitment to including more “urbanized events” that appeal to a new generation of couch potatoes who become sports experts for two weeks out of every two years.

They might be right. But they are also adding to the long list of Olympic sports with outcomes that, much like American presidential elections, are somewhat subjective and difficult to measure and that often result in protested outcomes that kind of make the world not really want to play anymore.

Wouldn’t this be simpler?

Then again, part of the story of break dancing is the dance battle in which rival gangs sometimes managed to avoid violent confrontations by settling disputes through the exchange of slick dance moves. Allegedly.

I am definitely in favor of more dance battles on the international stage.

Actually, I’d like more dance battles on the domestic stage as well. So, I guess, why not?

My apologies to the squash players.

The Greatest Travel Monkey Ever

It’s finally here—that wonderful time of year when my family’s crazy, busy, fun summer days wind down and my kids head back to school. My sons are in high school and middle school now, so we’ve done this a few times, but this year, of course, has been different.

Really, it just snuck up on me, because it’s been a strange summer. For one thing, the boys have been at home since early March. Also, there haven’t been a lot of traditional summer activities. Camps were cancelled, family get-togethers went digital, and time with friends slowed to a trickle. There wasn’t any baseball for most of the summer, and now that there finally is, it’s weird and a little uncomfortable to watch.

Steve chased a lot of waterfalls in Smoky Mountain National Park.

Even our long-planned family vacation had to get indefinitely postponed. But thankfully we did get the opportunity a few weeks ago to take a smaller trip together. We rented a fairly isolated cabin in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, which isn’t a terrible drive for us, loaded up the family truckster, grabbed our travel mascot Steve the Sock Monkey, and away we went.

We had several good days of hiking and playing in chilly mountain streams. We did our own cooking, played games, and spent good family time together, because, you know, we’ve had so little time to spend stuck together as a family lately. So yes, it was pretty much like our routine at home, except with more mountains and a greater threat of bear encounters. It was a nice getaway.

After a few days of mountain exploration, we dropped down to Huntsville, Alabama to see the US Space & Rocket Center, which none of us had visited before. At the museum you can get up close and personal with the Saturn V rocket, walk through a replica of the International Space Station, and take small steps and giant leaps across a fake moon surface, pretending you are in league with Stanley Kubrick and the mass hallucination of 400,000 of the most rock solid conspirators in the history of the universe. The museum is well worth a visit, and at limited pre-ticketed capacity, felt very safe and spacious.

After exploring a replica of the International Space Station, Steve is ready to volunteer to become the first US sock monkey in space.

We all had our favorite parts, even Steve. If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you may have encountered Steve before. He got his start as a family travel mascot when the boys were small, and my husband and I left them with grandparents to enjoy a trip to Hawaii without them. We posted pictures of Steve’s Hawaiian Adventure for Grandma to share with the boys each day we were gone.

The monkey was a hit, not just with the boys, but with our friends and family tuning in on Facebook. Since then he’s been all over the place, telling the stories of our adventures, both when we travel separately and when we all travel together. He’s been to every corner of the continental United States and has left the country a few times.

But he’s never made it to space, and unbeknownst to us, this had apparently been bothering him a little. So on this trip to Huntsville, Steve was really excited to learn about the greatest travel monkey ever, Miss Baker.  

I’m pretty sure Steve just wants the fame and glory.

Baker was a squirrel monkey who, along with Rhesus partner Able, became the first US animal to successfully launch into space and return unharmed to the earth. Chosen from among twenty-five squirrel monkey candidates for her ability to remain pretty chill while confined to a small space connected to a bunch of electrodes, and because she looked really good in a tiny space helmet, Miss Baker went to space on May 28, 1959.  

When she landed, the slightly bewildered squirrel monkey was given a cracker and a banana before she took a well deserved nap. Then it was on to Washington DC for a press conference and fame. Along with Able, who sadly passed away a few days later during a surgical procedure to remove electrodes, Baker posed for the cover of Life magazine. Always gracious, she later received a Certificate of Merit for distinguished service from the ASPCA.

Steve didn’t know he was supposed to bring a banana. Next time he’ll be prepared.

After her big trip into space, she lived for about ten years at the Naval Aerospace Medical Center in Pensacola, Florida where she met and married her long time companion Big George. The happy couple moved to the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama in 1971, where Baker delighted scores of fieldtripping school children until 1984 when she died a very old squirrel monkey.

Today she rests on the grounds of the museum that was her home. Steve got to pay his respects to his hero, where admirers often leave a banana or two as a thank you for her service.

Steve does realize that as well traveled as he is, he’s unlikely to make it into space. But as he spends a lot of his time stuffed into a backpack, he’s pretty chill about small spaces. He also loves smiling for the camera. And he would definitely rock a tiny space helmet. Who knows? It’s been a strange year.

Meanwhile, UFOs

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been kind of avoiding watching/reading/listening to much news lately. Under normal circumstances, I’m not exactly a news junkie, but I do like to check in more or less regularly on the goings on in the world.

It’s just that right now, the goings on seem to be mostly a lot of speculation, irresponsible  political arguing, and sensationalism of the latest invasive species to hit the Pacific Northwest, which, by the way didn’t actually happen for the first time just this past month. Also, we don’t call them murder lions, even though they rip out the throats of their unfortunate victims, so why are these called murder hornets?

asian giant hornet
I mean, I’m not saying it wouldn’t make me a little nervous to meet this thing in a dark alley, but it’s possible we’re being a tad overdramatic here. Asian Giant (MURDER) Hornet. Thomas Brown / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

And that’s why I haven’t been keeping up too closely with the news lately. But I did catch the tiniest hint of a story the other day, and in case it slipped your attention, I wanted to make sure it didn’t. Because apparently, on April 27th, the US Navy released video evidence of UFOs.

Of course, this in itself is nothing particularly new. Alien spacecrafts have been visiting the Earth since at least somewhere around 1450 BC, during the reign of Egypt’s Thutmose III. That’s when it’s believed the papyrus was written that contains descriptions of flying circles of fire (sometimes translated as fiery disks, which frankly sounds way more alieny to me) that Vatican Museum Egyptology Director Albero Tulli found in a thrift shop in Cairo in 1933.

UFO
As the US Navy is quick to point out, “UFO” doesn’t necessarily mean alien spacecraft. It just means it could be a swarm of murder hornets for all we know. George Stock [4] / Public domain
Unfortunately, Tulli didn’t have a lot of cash on hand or something and so instead of finding a way to purchase a totally legitimate three thousand (and change)-year-old document collecting dust in a thrift shop, he just took some quick notes instead.

And that’s where it all would have ended, except that after Tulli’s death, Italian nobleman Boris de Rachewiltz, who’d gained a little bit of a reputation for competence in the area of Egyptology, discovered this dashed-off copy of Egyptian Hieratic text among Tulli’s papers. Rachewiltz got pretty excited about the whole fiery disks thing, threw together a fancier Hieroglyphic translation and called up some Egyptology contacts and the press.

That was in 1953 and it did create some excitement among UFOlogists (which is an actual thing that people call themselves), but it didn’t hold up in the opinion of the Condon Report produced by the University of Colorado UFO Project in the sixties, where it was pointed out that Tulli’s copy didn’t constitute a primary source and that meh, there probably wasn’t anything to see here.

blue angel
A much more intimidating Hornet. photo credit: wbaiv Blue Angels Fleet Week SF 2015 DSC_0670 (1) via photopin (license)

Sadly, the Navy UFO videos may not reveal much to get too excited about, either. In fact, the public has seen them before. Filmed from US Navy F/A-18 Hornets in November of 2004 and January of 2015, unauthorized copies of the videos have been circulating for several years already. The Navy has just gotten around finally to declassifying them, which is basically like saying meh, there’s nothing to see here. Officially.

And so, while the videos made a couple of headlines, they didn’t really stick around the news cycle for very long. It turned out there just wasn’t much to the story. Now, if the UFO footage had been taken from a US Navy F/A-18 MURDER Hornet, well, that would be a different story.

An Extra Day and a Hot Mess

Sometime around the year 1235, Johannes de Sacrobosco, a monk and astronomer teaching at the University of Paris, published his Du Computo Ecclesiastico, an in-depth study of the hot mess that is the history of the calendar in all its various imaginings and recalculations through the years.

Though I haven’t read it, the history rumor mill suggests the book is pretty scholarly. Sacrobosco definitely had a lot of things to say about the way the passage of time should be measured, including a few suggestions for reckoning the Julian calendar to solar and lunar observations and calculations. By his day, the equinoxes and solstices had already experienced a pretty significant backwards slippage in time.

julius caesar death
Julius Caesar wishing February had been a little bit longer, because March wasn’t looking so good for him. Vincenzo Camuccini / Public domain

The book also includes a story about how the calendar ended up in such a terrible fix in the first place, like that time the month of February became comically short because Augustus Caesar decided to borrow a day for his own namesake month of August so that it would be every bit as long as the previous month named for his dad.

February is comically short, not only because it usually has twenty-eight days instead of the more traditional thirty or thirty-one, but because it follows January, which at least in my corner of the world is the longest darn month of the year. It’s bleak and cold and filled with the junk you put off during the holidays. Oh, and it follows the holiday season, which is as fun as January isn’t.

groundhog-4814471__340
Any month that starts off with a groundhog is pretty okay in my book. Picture by hatlerbratton, via Pixabay

Like it has most years I can remember, February has kind of flown by comparison. This shortest month comes with a furry mascot, a celebration of love, Girl Scout cookies, the start of baseball spring training, and slightly brighter days. Mine probably went especially fast, too, because it included a book launch and the corresponding flurry of activity. My calendar has actually been kind of a hot mess.

But as “not as awful as January” as February is, it does kind of get the shaft, even in leap years like this one. Had I been in Sacrobosco’s place writing a treatise on the convoluted history and problem of calendars (which I assure you no one would call a pretty scholarly work), I also would have included that story about Augustus Caesar lopping off February’s end, because it’s a pretty great one. Of course, it wouldn’t have been true if I’d written it, either.

It turns out there’s plenty of evidence that the calendar’s multitude of problematic and somewhat sporadically assigned month lengths predated both Augustus and Julius. The latter did do his level best to fix it, consulting with the astronomer Sosigenes from Egypt to come up with a 365-day year that corrected with a leap day every fourth year.

Gregory XII
Pope Gregory XII, a man whose calendar was not a hot mess. Justus van Gent / Public domain

Not bad. But it didn’t fix the problem indefinitely and it wasn’t until three hundred fifty years after Sacrobosco’s book that Pope Gregory XII made a really good change to the plan. That’s when it was decided that the calendar everyone would use (except for those who didn’t feel like it) would include 365 days, with a leap year every fourth year, except for a century year, unless it could be evenly divided by four hundred.

Simple, no?

But it has more or less worked since then with a large chunk of the world buying in to its use, or at least more or less understanding it so that business can be conducted with relative ease all 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds of the year.

It’s still not perfect and will need more corrective action over the course of millennia. Evidently the rotation of the earth isn’t even entirely consistent, making our measurement of time a little less precise than we’d probably like to think. But there are astronomers who regularly work on that problem and keep us all on track by occasionally adding an extra one-Mississippi to the clock. I imagine most of us aren’t much bothered.

In fact, other than the approximately 4.2 million “leaplings” world wide who will be celebrating their birthday this Saturday or the hopelessly romantic ladies who will be exploiting a silly tradition and proposing to their fellas, a lot of us probably barely even notice February 29th when it rolls around.

Unless you’re like me and your calendar is a little bit of a hot mess. Personally, I plan to make good use of this February’s extra day.

Considering Poll Dancing*

In 1936, Alf Landon did not become the president of the United States. Instead, Franklin Roosevelt handily won a second term. That surprised a few people. Mostly, it surprised the folks conducting polling for the Literary Digest, which had become accustomed, over the course of the previous five presidential elections, to getting it right.

One person that wasn’t surprised was journalist and ad executive George H. Gallup. He’d conducted a poll of his own, sampling a mere 50,000 likely voters while the Literary Digest received responses from 2.3 million of its subscribers.

George_Gallup
George H. Gallup. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In today’s culture surrounded by incessant talk of bias and misrepresentation of data, it might be fairly obvious the Literary Journal failed to take some things into account. It was certainly obvious to Gallup, who insisted that a large number of respondents didn’t matter nearly as much as making sure the collected sample was representative of a wide range of demographics. His rival pollsters (though they weren’t yet called that), were listening only to the folks who gravitated to their publication.

Gallup called the election of 1936 correctly and went on to develop the Gallup International Association, a world-wide collection of polling organizations, and later his own analytics company based in Washington, D.C. called Gallup, Inc. His name now represents the gold standard of scientific polls, and more often than not, they serve as pretty good predictors.

Of course, polls can still be wrong. The wording of questions can subtly introduce unintended bias, the timing of polls and the news cycle can interfere with results, or basic human nature can influence respondents to be less than forthcoming. But even knowing this can sometimes happen, I think opinion polls can still perform an important service in politics, in advertising, and in publishing.

 

phone
There will always be people (like me) who won’t answer their phones.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a professional pollster, and though I did fairly well in a statistics class in college, I’m probably not the person you want to call on to analyze your data. But I do have a question for you.

Some of you have been reading this blog for a long time, but others have discovered this little corner of the Internet more recently. For the benefit of those who don’t know much about me, let me first give you a little bit of background:

I am a writer of historical fiction who, at the advice of a friend, started writing this silly little history blog almost seven years ago. Much to my surprise and delight, some people kind of liked it and so once my first novel was under contract with a small press, I self-published a collection of some favorite posts from the first five years of the blog, as both a way to celebrate the silliness I seem to get away with in this space and also promote my forthcoming novel.

Then, like so many rotten small presses evidently do, my publisher essentially vanished, temporarily holding hostage the rights to my first novel. It’s a sad story you can read about (here) if you really want to. That’s when I decided to self-publish a companion novel to the first. It’s called Gentleman of Misfortune and I think it’s a pretty good book that you would like.

In less than a year my rights to the first book will return to me and I will finally share with the world another story that I am proud of and that I think you will like.

GofM-FrontCoverOnly
I don’t have cover art for the new book yet, but as the two novels are closely related, it will be something that jives with this.

This novel also had a title I liked very much and that I had a very good reason for wanting. As publishers will sometimes do, mine disagreed with me. After much deliberation, we came to a compromise and found a title we could both live with. So, here’s my question, in the form of a terribly informal, nonscientific poll:

Not knowing anything about the book outside of the fact that it’s a historical thriller closely related to Gentleman of Misfortune (I realize you may or may not have read it), which title do you find more compelling?

1. Smoke Rose to Heaven

2. Burned Over

If you have read Gentleman of Misfortune and the accompanying author’s note, or my other book Launching Sheep & Other Stories, which includes a preview of this finally forthcoming novel, then you probably can figure out which title is my original and which one is the compromise with a rotten publisher.

If that’s the case, please don’t let that influence your choice. I really am fond of each title. I’m just realizing that as this book returns to me, I once again have the freedom to choose and I’d love your (now hopelessly biased) opinion. You can either hop over to my Facebook page (here) and participate in the poll, or drop your choice in the comments below. If you feel really strongly one way or the other, you can even do both.

I know this poll wouldn’t hold up to the standards of George H. Gallup, and I might end up with the wrong title for the book, the one that means I’ll sell a handful of copies instead of the millions that will land me on the New York Times bestseller list. But that’s okay. I’d love your opinion anyway. Thanks!

*If you clicked on this post expecting an insightful consideration of POLE dancing, try this link instead. 😉

 

So Cold: The Secret to My Success

Occasionally someone will ask—either at a reading event or in casual conversation—whether I find it difficult to work at home. They wonder if I get distracted by the dishes or the errands or the dirty socks my children have inevitably left stuffed behind the couch cushions.

Of course, I have to admit that sometimes I do. Sitting behind a computer screen with no one to talk to except the dog (a good listener) and the chorus of characters (not great listeners) competing for attention in my head can get a little tiresome. Then the household stuff calls to me. It’s a convenient distraction—one I can always justify because those things need to get taken care of, too.

I generally reply that I get by because I’m list-maker and dedicated time manager, and I am, but I also have a special, motivational weapon in my arsenal, especially this time of year.

I’m cold.

Like seriously cold. All. The. Time.

thermostat
One study suggests that a third of all couples argue over the temperature setting in their homes, and 40% of women admit to secretly turning up the heat when their significant other isn’t looking. photo credit: EE Image Database Woman giving the thumbs-up sign and pointing to a thermostat on the wall in her home via photopin (license)

People have been finding clever ways to keep our environments warm pretty much since the invention of people, when cave men and cave women argued about how much to build up the campfire.

In ancient Rome, some buildings evidently used systems of pipes to force hot air from pockets of empty space beneath a fire into walls as a clever method of using radiant heat to warm up a room.

After a few dark and chilly centuries when heating returned to a more primitive style, other solutions began to emerge. In 13th century Europe, the Cistercian Order of monks began using diverted and heated river water to warm their monasteries. Better stoves and chimneys were developed through the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Then Benjamin Franklin invented his (appropriately named) Franklin Stove in 1741, which proved to be a somewhat effective way to force warmth and smoke into a room in greater amounts than your average fireplace.

ozziesun
My dog’s favorite solar powered heating system.

Over the next hundred years or so, Scotsman James Watt came up with a steam-driven heating system, Russian Franz San Galli invented the radiator, and American professor Warren Johnson patented the first thermostat, because he was tired of classrooms that were either too hot or too cold. I think we’ve all been there.

Just a few short years later in 1919, Alice H. Parker patented the first central heating system that used natural gas. An African American woman enduring harsh New Jersey winters, Parker said she developed the idea that formed an important basis for the convenient and safer heating systems of today because she was cold and her fireplace just wasn’t cutting it. I hear that.

office attire
Dressed for a day at the office.

According to a 2015 Dutch study, most women probably do. On average, the researchers found, ladies tend to be comfortable with a warmer ambient temperature than their gentleman counterparts do. The findings (which surprised absolutely no one who has ever attempted to share a home with a member of the opposite sex), sparked a discussion of whether office thermostats are sexist. Or something like that.

The idea was that back in the day when offices contained mostly men in three-piece suits, temperature levels were set for the comfort of those men. Today, as offices tend to contain more equal numbers of men and women, the temperatures remain set for ideal manly comfort standards. There’s a fancy formula engineers use to determine the optimal level of temperature comfort as determined by humidity, air temperature, and mean metabolic rates, etc. The problem, according to the study, is that the formula overestimates the amount of heat produced by a resting woman.

The differences have been attributed to estrogen production and muscle mass to fat ratios, which tend to be different between men and women. I don’t know that I would go so far to call the thermostat a source of inherent workplace sexism, but the struggle is real, and lots of women throughout the workforce carry an extra sweater to the office.

space heater
The secret to my success: a closed door and a space heater.

As someone who works primarily at home, I use the problem to my advantage, because I am the lone female living with three males. Through the winter, my house is always at least 2 (or 3 or 4) degrees colder than I’d like it to be. Yes, when my sons head off to school and my husband to work, I could turn up the thermostat and no one would complain.

Instead, I walk down the stairs and through a long hallway to my hidey hole office in the basement where I close the door and turn on my own personal space heater, before sitting down to work. Pretty soon, the dishes and the errands and the dirty socks begin to call to me, when the words don’t want to flow and the character voices have gone silent. When that happens, all I have to do is step outside of my office into my cold, cold house. I don’t stay there for long.

The World’s Favorite Sociopath: A Goal for 2019

In 1877 a young would-be physician walked into the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and met an attending physician who seemed already to know everything there was to know about him just by making a few astute observations. Dr. Joseph Bell had a habit of showing off his highly refined detective skills in order to impress upon his students the importance of taking a careful survey of a patient before launching into treatment.

sociopathThis so impressed medical student and writer Arthur Conan Doyle that when he published A Study in Scarlet, his first detective novel, nearly a decade later, Dr. Joseph Bell’s mad skills of observation showed up in the habits of a brilliant consultant named Sherlock Holmes.

When asked about his inspiration for his beloved consulting detective, Conan Doyle always answered that the character was drawn from Joseph Bell, himself a famous surgeon and forensic scientist known for drawing large conclusions from minute evidence. The two had worked closely together for a few years, as Conan Doyle clerked for Bell, a kind of Dr. Watson to his Sherlock. It probably makes sense that Bell might show up in his student’s work.

I recently became re-introduced to Sherlock Holmes when my oldest son discovered him. My son cut his teeth on the BBC show Sherlock in which the modern-day Holmes is brilliantly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, but then he made this mama proud by plowing his way through Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works as well.

Esherlock
The game is afoot!

So, when he recently turned fourteen, we celebrated with a Sherlock Holmes party, complete with a mystery to solve, a deerstalker to wear, and a little brother dressed up as John Watson. He made a good Sherlock, though I’m happy to report he’s a little more socially aware than the character.

Despite Conan Doyle’s repeated claim, there were likely other influences that contributed to the development of Sherlock Holmes as well. Edgar Allan Poe essentially created the detective fiction genre and Conan Doyle had been known to praise his efforts. The contemporary works of Émile Gaboriau also seem to echo at times through the character of Sherlock Holmes. And then there was Joseph Bell’s own claim in a letter to his former student in which he wrote, “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it.”

I don’t blame him one bit for rejecting the honor. Holmes is something of a single-minded sociopath with little use for other people and a significant cocaine addiction. He’s a fascinating character and if I’m ever falsely accused of murder, I’ll want someone just like him on the case. But I wouldn’t want to hang out with him.

Because many of the people I do hang out with regularly are writers, I’m not surprised to read that Conan Doyle’s most famous character was inspired by someone he knew. That kind of goes with the territory when you are friends with a writer.

teeshirt
Never mess with a writer.

I even once had a professor who boldly confessed that the “friend” character in every novel he’d ever written was almost exactly based on a boy he’d known growing up. I’ve never done anything so blatant. None of my characters has ever been intentionally patterned off someone in my life, but I’m sure if I really thought about it, I could recognize bits of those I know and love within my work.

I suspect that’s true of most fiction writers. Like Conan Doyle’s famous detective, we draw inspiration from a variety of places—ourselves, great books, and yes, occasionally from people we know. I guess that might bother some folks. Maybe it bothers you. It just kind of makes me want to be the type of person who could inspire a great character.

And that sounds like a good goal for 2019.

Happy New Year!