Grounding Day

Happy Grounding Day, 1998. It’s time for a midsummer stretch — wallow in the overripe heat and ventilate your brain with a cool gin breeze. There is less time than you think.

It’s a good time to sit back and listen to a story. Relax, there is more time than you think.

Baiting spiders

Dedicated readers of the Star Chamber will remember a piece from way back in October of 1996 called Spider-Baiting. Avoiding for the moment the obvious joke that this was centuries ago in web time (though the venerable StarChamber was already six months old), it was a time when search engines were still called spiders. The idea of the piece was that a search engine would read the lascivious text-between-the-lines of our innocent story about canoeing on the Ipswich river, and then horny teenagers from around the world would bombard our site with page requests.

Clever enough, only it didn’t happen that way. Recently, we received (from one Alan H. Martin) the following email here at the Star Chamber executive editorial offices:


However, I just hit the page with the following AltaVista query:

+”ipswich river” +canoe*

(since I just bought topo of Eastern Mass./RI and want to find the location of the canoe rental place my group at work used years ago on an outing…)


In other words, the only person who found the page with a search engine was actually looking for someone to help him innocently canoe down the Ipswich river! And, by the way, he found what he was looking for (through no assistance from us)… so if you’re ever in eastern Massachusetts and you’re looking for a good place to outfit a canoe trip, try the Foote Brothers. And tell ’em Paracelsus sent ya.

This week we are honored and delighted to publish in this space a contribution from a long-time friend of the Star Chamber, Pandora. It’s a great big world, and it’s getting bigger every day.

The Star Chamber Mexican-Spanish Phrasebook

Happy Groundhog Day!

Groundhog Day is a welcome cross-quarter day — halfway between the winter solstice and the first day of spring, it’s a reminder that warmer days are really coming, even if you don’t quite believe it yet. It’s opposite

Grounding Day
(August 2) on the calendar and as part of its official celebration, good citizens everywhere join to rip down and destroy any faded Christmas decorations left up by their lazy or misguided neighbors. We at the StarChamber would like to encourage our readers to participate in the celebrations: discharge your civic duties and pull down those browning wreaths and rotting strings of twinkling lights wherever you find them. It will relieve that midwinter depression, your neighborhood will look so much better, and you’ll get to enjoy the traditional Groundhog Day martini with your fellow revelers. And that’s what it’s all about, after all.

This week’s contribution is a joint effort of Paracelsus and zaP, just in time for your winter trip to sunnier regions.
Continue reading “The Star Chamber Mexican-Spanish Phrasebook”

Life and death reading

Happy 1998. Have you read “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer yet?

As far as my highly scientific survey can tell, soon every man, woman, and child in the country will have either read it, heard it aloud, or been lectured to at length about it by some well-meaning bore. If you have evaded this trend so far, I can tell you that it is a truly gripping story of danger and death on the slopes of Mt. Everest. Go read it and tell all your friends about it. Curiously, another best-selling book this season, “The Perfect Storm” by Sebastian Junger, is a tale of man battling the elements for survival, this time in fishing boats during an enormous New England hurricane-force storm.

Why the sudden popularity of these life-and-death books? Perhaps people in this comfortable age feel more removed than ever from the flesh-biting Real World. Perhaps they long for an adventure to ground their lives in meaning. But then again, people have always bought adventure books. So is there anything new here?

One of the more interesting aspects of Krakauer’s book was the mention of Internet websites reporting from the slopes of Mt. Everest. When things got ugly, people all over the world knew about it instantly. We all listened in as Rob Hall talked to his pregnant wife in New Zealand even as he was freezing to death on a mountain in Nepal. There is a voyeuristic fascination with tracking the deadly and the evil minute-by-minute, whether it’s the Ebola virus, the Oklahoma City bombing, or United Flight 800 making an unexpected descent.

Voyeurism isn’t new, but it’s getting cheaper all the time. Professional Hollywood pornographic films have lost much of their market to amateurs with video cameras. Anybody can make a movie these days, and if it’s sexual in nature, people will pay. Soon enough, anybody will find it easy to launch a website. Tabloid television and network news, slick as they are, may find themselves competing with the gritty realism of eyewitness gladitorial websites filed by people on the scene, such as those who saw Rodney King being beaten senseless. Krakauer’s book is a terrific achievement, but in itself it doesn’t represent anything new in popular writing or society at large. What is new is the ease with which horrifying details can be reported by eyewitnesses from the burning building, the murder site, the erupting volcano. We should brace ourselves for an onslaught of badly-written but inescapably compelling eyewitness websites, because the tools of mass media are in the hands of the masses.

And now, for your further reading pleasure, a touch of voyeurism.

Crafting Christmas

Christmas! That wonderfully wrenching time of year is upon us again, to be endured like a violent case of hiccups until cured by a New Year’s hangover. Not malign, just annoying. After all, it won’t kill you, but it can sure make you sore as hell.

As luck would have it, Paracelsus wrote exactly one year ago this week. The topic then was December Birthdays, and it generated more response email than anything else Paracelsus has bothered to post. Maybe you or someone you love is afflicted by DBS (December Birthday Syndrome). Take another look at last year’s story; the cause is still a dire one. And remember to leave a comment for us about your overshadowed birthday story.

Christmas also brings back memories of making cheap ornaments by hand in the living room. Do you remember any of these: clothespin reindeer, walnut shell mice, styrofoam balls wrapped in ribbon, or the ever-popular garland of red and green loops of construction paper? Cheesy though they sometimes seemed, these homely objects become more of a treasure every year, linking us back to the small hands that made them.

One of the best ways to escape the inevitable bummer of commercialized holidays is to make something with your own hands. And the best way to enliven a dispirited Christmas party is to get people to participate, whether by singing, filling in Mad Libs, or simply flinging off their clothes. This week’s story is brought to you by St. Frank, a new contributor to the Star Chamber. His is a heart-burning… er, heart-warming seasonal tale that includes both handicrafts and joyous performing at a holiday party.

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.”