Filling the Void

Jumping the gun a little on Halloween, memories of strange stories shared with old friends inspire this week’s Star Chamber.

Why is it so much fun to exchange stories of the bizarre and unexplained? Why is there an almost cultic appeal of UFO and X-File mysteries in our current age? The answer, we suspect, is not so much in our stars as in our noggins. But that, it turns out, is good enough to terrify.

In the dark, a good imagination can be a bad companion.

Continue reading “Filling the Void”

Grounding Day

Happy Grounding Day! The editors of the Star Chamber would like to remind you to enjoy this special midsummer holiday, first described in this space last year. Mischief is afoot, the summer is at the top of its arc, and aliens are abroad. And if there aren’t any aliens here on Earth, well then, we’ve sent our own to Mars.

By the way, careful readers of these pages will recall that we scooped the movie Contact with a tale of our own on these pages about beaming bad TV across the galactic void. Of course the book Contact came out years ago, but we will gently step over this fact by noting that we never took the time to read it.

In the meantime, for the admirers of that noble verse form, the double dactyl, we herewith include a humble example of our own

Life on Mars

Pathfinder, Sojourner:
Where are your pictures of
Martian inhabitants
For us to see?

Is it because of some
Fear of TV?

So in honor of Grounding Day (and before it’s too late), why not avail yourselves of the pleasantries of summer? Fix yourself a martini concocted with iciest gin, juiciest olive, merest hint of vermouth, sit on the back porch and read A Midsummer Night’s Dream one more time. Or better yet, pull up a chair and consider with us the curious tale of Ellery Fox.

Birth Sky

Comet Hale-Bopp has finally left our evening skies, and while I managed to see it a good many nights, I never did see it perched in a truly dark sky. This is a great pity, as you will know if you were lucky enough to do so.

I did have the good fortune of being in a place with very dark skies just as comet Hyakutake was making its appearance. I was on vacation in Costa Rica, and two nights before, I had gone looking for the comet without success. Finally on the last night of my trip, I saw it almost by accident during a late night walk. Here is what I wrote down the next morning:

Saw comet Hyakutake last night! It was sitting just near Arcturus after the moon had set. It was ghostly with a long streaming trail — at first I thought it was a search light shining from something in the sky — a helicopter? Then when I realized what it was it was just an incredible sensation of awe and mystery. Of course it was silent, but somehow its powerful silence is what I remember most vividly, as though something so dramatic should roar like a waterfall. But it sat quite still and looked at me, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. I wanted it to announce itself, but it just stared back, its ragged coattails streaming in the wind.

This is the same sort of sensation excited by eclipses of the sun, or by the titanic smashing that comet Shoemaker-Levy gave Jupiter last year: something obvious is going wrong in the sky. A good reckoning of the heavens is the first great accomplishment of any civilization, associated with the rise of agriculture, so when something so weird happens in the sky, it can be disturbing at a very deep level. You can begin to see why both comets and eclipses have caused (and continue to cause!) such fear and disruption.

For me, comet Hyakutake underscored the fact that we are not projected onto a backlit screen. We are solid creatures that literally fit into an encompassing three-dimensional cosmos. During an eclipse, the point is driven home that I am here, and the sun is there, and the moon is there. The three of us have come together in a way that suggests the sun knows about me — for an instant an invisible axis, a spindle, passes right through me. It tells me that these celestial bodies are enormous actors that shape and inform the rocks we stand on. This is not a painted backdrop or a great big screensaver. These celestial wanderers write our rules, and any minute a giant rock may tumble from the sky and carve a jagged hole in our planet.

During eclipses, people react strongly. Some are stunned to silence, others are overcome by giddiness. Why? The shining sun was here and then it was blotted from the sky. This is the difference between knowing and knowing. I know that the earth waddles around the sun with moon in tow. But slide the moon between the me and the sun, and by God, I KNOW it.

But moving beyond the physics, we count on the regularity of the sun to fill the great void, and when the sun vanishes, the void beckons. Science cannot fill the great void! The void is an empty spot behind your eyes beyond the reach of reason. The raw reptilian brain that understands this is comforted by the richness of the creatures that live in our sky’s imagination. Show me Perseus and Pegasus!

That night in Costa Rica, I felt the weight of Hyakutake’s eyes on me. It was watching me. The experience took me straight to the place where our forebears and forelizards spent their entire lives, a place where the heavens were animated with living presence. The event reminded me how close the skies are, and how much they matter. How much we owe them and how much they own us.

So now, if I told you that I could reconstruct for you exactly the configuration of the planets and stars on the day you were born, would you be curious to see the result? This is the kind of thing that astrologers claim to do all the time, but astrologers have, by and large, fallen out of the sky, which is to say they have lost the connection the actual relationship between the stars and the planets. Their zodiacal signs are tokens, which, like Tarot cards and tea leaves, are as useful for divination as anything else close at hand. But the astrologers do not speak for where the planets were actually swimming when you were born. The horoscope is out of step with the sky on two counts: the signs have been shifted by precession and their width has been regularized.

The earth is a spinning top, and as it spins through daily rotations, it also nods very slowly first this way, now that way, inclining its head toward successive members of the zodiac. Precession is the name for this lazy nodding. Though too slow to notice in one person’s lifetime, it has added up to a very noticeable difference since our constellations were defined some 3000 years ago. For example, the first day of spring used to occur when the sun was in Aries, but it now occurs when the sun is in Pisces. Some time in the next century or so the first day of spring will occur when the sun is in Aquarius, and the age of Aquarius will at last have begun in earnest.

This is a representation of the sky at the very moment I was born (see if you can work out how old I am!). I find it strangely satisfying to look at. It uses symbols familiar to astrology, yet it is an altogether accurate diagram of where the planets were relative to the stars in the constellations of the zodiac.

If you were to see this model, this birth-sky, for your own birth date, what would you think? An astrologer would use it to read omens, but I think that any of us, even the most hard-hearted, would be inclined to behave like all pilgrims do at the end of the journey: we would look around and say, “Hmmm. So that’s how it was.” Somehow, it matters enough to be worth knowing.

Learn more about the Birth-Sky diagram.

Solstice musings

As the sun winds its way toward the summer solstice, permit us to pause for a moment and recall that the StarChamber has been operating since
April 16th of last year. The first anniversary of that date slipped by with little fanfare.

This illustration shows the configuration of the planets in the sky on that very date. Look closely and you’ll see that Venus was lounging in Taurus, Jupiter was hanging out by itself in Saggitarius, and wow! look at that crowd around the sun in Pisces. It’s enough to make you think some kind of harmonic convergence launched the StarChamber. Sound like astrological voodoo? Maybe. But this is an honest-to-goodness image of where the planets were in the sky on April 16, 1996, no matter what interpretation you attach to it: A sky chart for the StarChamber’s birthday. And every week since then, for more than a year, we’ve been listening to the music of the spheres and putting up the content.

Bobo would be proud.

Temporal occlusions and the flow of time

The flow of time is much on the mind of Paracelsus of late. Charting an optimal course down the river of time is a seductive goal, but how does one really pull it off? The cryptic conversation of the two Chinese sages on the bridge is entertaining, but it just doesn’t go far enough.

Paracelsus is moving from House 1 to House 2. Moving from House 1 to House 2 is a great big hairy pain. He recalls the Minister of Central Dogma waxing eloquent on the topic of moving. He also recalls the theory of temporal occlusions previously discussed in this location. As applied to the current situation, consider the effects of temporal wind. Packing and unpacking should be symmetrical activities on either side of the move itself. This gives a pleasing bookend appearance to the diagram below.


But including the effects of temporal wind yields a harsher picture. The act of moving is a temporal occlusion: it cannot be moved and so blocks the flow of time. The packing and unpacking activities, on the other hand, are softer and so can be swayed downcalendar by the breeze. As a result, all packing takes place in last-minute lungsucking cyclone, while the unpacking is smeared across weeks (perhaps months) in the lazy lee of the occlusion. All symmetry vanishes.


Paracelsus writes to you from the unhappy swirling center of the pre-move cyclone.

So if time is indeed something that flows, then how much does it resemble other fluids? Pausing to savor a martini seems to stop time for a twinkling. What are the limits of this effect? What other beverages might exhibit similar behavior? Inspired by the Coffee Czar’s eponymous example, we consider the assertion “You can stop the flow of coffee or of time, but not both; the sum of these quantities is conserved.”

Baaa Humbug

Scientific progress seems to accelerate the very pace of time itself. The arrival of Dolly, the cloned sheep from Scotland, proves this beyond any doubt: two shakes of a lamb’s tail now requires half the time it used to. Dolly has entered the record books as the first mammal in history to be a perfect gene-for-gene copy of another animal.

Much is being made these days of the ethical dilemmas that await us once we begin to clone humans. Is your clone a child or a sibling? Should you get into Stanford just because your clone did? Is it okay to gorge on chocolate ice cream as long as your clone stays thin? Will the Elvis impersonators get along with the Elvis clones? That sort of thing.


Vexing as these questions are, consider that from a sheep’s point of view, the ethical dilemmas are already here. I confess that when I first heard about this cloning trick, like many others I thought to myself: Clever bastards, choosing sheep like that. Much simpler to pull off than cold fusion; who can tell the difference between two sheep? Talk about pulling the wool over our eyes. It made me wish I had scooped them last week by holding a press conference in which I presented two identical fruit bats to a stunned world. Both named Barney.

The passage of time, however, has revealed that these Scots are not charlatans. They have actually xeroxed a sheep. I began to puzzle on this. First of all, sheep have a pretty hard time of it anyway. Easily frightened and famously dim-witted, they contribute the word “sheepish” to the language. You’ve just got to figure that the clone of a sheep is going to have some serious self-image problems, perpetually living in the shadow of another sheep. I picture her in therapy with some expensive uptown shrink, nervously inspecting the sheepskin diplomas on the wall. Perhaps she might be soothed by news of her lasting fame. After all, we well remember what’s-her-name, the first test tube baby. It will be far tougher for the cloned sheep that follow Dolly. But then again, I guess that’s what sheep do best.

What’s really interesting is how similar, philosophically, the cloning process is to copying software. Dolly is a perfect copy of another sheep’s most intimate details. The next century will bring a head-on collision between computer science and biology. Intellectual property and livestock will come to be much the same thing. Let your neighbor walk your prize-winning dalmatian, and you might just find the neighborhood crawling with a hundred and one exact copies next week. Cattle-rustling becomes cattle-piracy. I envision animals shipping with license-managers and other copy protection measures (Question: “Waiter, what’s this keyboard doing in my soup?” Answer: “The backspace?”). When wool meets code, softwear becomes software (“In order to receive technical support for your new sweater, please return the enclosed registration tag immediately”). Paradoxically, as animals become more like software, software comes to resemble animals. Advances in genetic algorithms on computers may mean that you’ll pay a stud fee some day to let your copy of Excel 56.2b enjoy a blissful rut with the latest Lotus 1-2-3 down at Kip’s Happy Spreadsheet Kennel.


In the meantime, the future beckons. What other animals should we duplicate? If cats already have nine lives, it hardly seems fair to clone them. I’d say they’ve got an unfair advantage right out of the gate. I vote for cloning dogs instead. They’ve got that whole one-year-equals-seven-years thing to deal with. But we might just find the most intriguing possibility of all high in the Andes. What are the religious implications of cloning the Dolly Llama? Maybe the Tibetans prefer a Dolly Yak instead. As Saint John might have remarked in his Gospel text, “Behold the Lamb of God. Both of them!”

Still, I tire of the shrill voices of pundits who claim that science is eroding the foundations of our society, speeding us along too fast for our own good. No, I won’t lament that we are playing God. But it does make me want to graft a slightly more prosaic ending onto William Blake’s poem, “The Lamb.”

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o’er the mead?
Well, it was Dr. Ian Wilmut
And a team of researchers at the
Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, Scotland.
Full stop.

Festina lente

Aldus Manutius, a Venetian publisher from around the time of Christopher Columbus, chose as his motto the phrase “Festina lente,” or “Make haste slowly.” When the hectic pace of technological change starts to spin your head around, it’s comforting to recall these words. The centuries that separate Manutius from us have done nothing to improve the practice of sitting down with friends and sharing stories and drinks.

Aside from the invention of the martini, of course.

The grim season

December is here again, and with it comes an orgy of activity that threatens to obscure or distort everything else in sight. The Japanese knew this when they launched their infamous 1941 attack a mere 18 distracted shopping days before Christmas. And any truly clever alien would know that Independence Day is a terrible time to attack the Earth. In America, at least, everyone is looking skyward on July 4th, whereas in mid-December about the only things we see are cars, crowds, and sadly abused credit cards.

A few facts have the power to cheer in this grim season. One is that the days will soon be getting longer (the Star Chamber sends its condolences to its readers in the southern hemisphere). In fact, owing to the elliptical nature of the Earth’s orbit, the sunsets will start getting later on December 12th. The sunrise doesn’t start getting earlier until sometime in January, but since the Star Chamber editorial offices don’t open until well after dawn, this is no concern of ours.

A second cheering fact is that official Star Chamber Martini Glasses are now on sale. Tired of crass over-commercialization this holiday season? Forget your cares with a cold martini in one of our high-quality, tasteful, logo-emblazoned glasses! See our Catalog for details.

The limits of the web

Paracelsus reminds us this week of the joys of being a regular. Notwithstanding any cheery Cheersy references to a place where everybody knows your name, it IS nice to hang out with close friends in a place you know as well as your own backyard. Accordingly, in this week’s story we meet Fisher Pinckney, a regular at the Scarf and Bolt.

Also in this week’s edition The Star Chamber is pleased to present a cogent and conclusive
Treatise on the Natural Limits of Self Publishing in a Web-based Medium
. We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all websites are most certainly not created equal. That they endow their creators with many sleepless nights. Yadda-yadda-yadda. Check it out.

Hey Diddle-diddle

Mr. Wilson, my eighth grade history teacher, was a compact and intense red-faced man. Charlie Birkner was a clownish classmate with enormous glasses and a mild pleasant grin; he sat just to the right of me. Mr. Wilson could swing quickly from a puzzling joke about the Jefferson administration to a furious rage at the antics of some classroom slacker. Charlie Birkner could make amazingly realistic Star Wars light-saber noises with his mouth and he enjoyed playing his pencil as though it were a saxophone.

One day Mr. Wilson, in an expansive mood, said to us “A Chinese wise man and his student were standing on a bridge over a mountain stream. Look how quickly the water moves, said the student. No, look how still the bridge is, replied the wise man. If you can understand that, you’ll have learned something about life.”

The room went completely silent. Mystified, each of us tried to penetrate the message of the story. Mr. Wilson just grinned wickedly. His head twitched slightly. The silence persisted. Finally, as though he had just caught hold of a knock-knock joke that had eluded him for years, Charlie Birkner called out:

“Oh, I get it!”

I always wondered what that story meant, but Charlie Birkner never told me.

Newt remained curled up in the chair. He held out his painty hands as though a cat’s cradle were strung between them. “No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s…”


Chiyono studied Zen for many years under Bukko of Engaku. Still, she could not attain the fruits of
meditation. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old wooden pail girded with bamboo. The bamboo broke, and the bottom fell out of the pail. At that moment, she was set free. Chiyono said:

“No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

“No more water in the pail, no more moon in the water.”

Gyomay M. Kubose, Zen Koans