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


Here at the Star Chamber, we would never stoop to using the word “loins” merely to increase the chance of getting a quick visit from the one-handed search engine set. Nevertheless, spend any time watching the search words go by at a big search site (Magellan lets you do this), and it becomes unmistakably clear that an alarmingly large number of those searching the net have got exactly one thing on their mind. With that in mind, we put together this instructional page to illustrate how innocent pages can be easily misinterpreted by overzealous indexing engines with inflamed desires.

What you see:

They canoed down the Ipswich river as it snaked along its course through the countryside, now meandering through the thorny underbrush, now drifting lazily past the sclerotic octogenarians slowly rocking on the porches of their stuccoed houses. From its quiet sources in Essex county, through Middlesex county to the blustery waters of Plum Island Sound, the mysterious and meditative Ipswich carried them steadily onward.

What the index engine sees:

They canoed down the Ipswich river as it snakedalong its course through the countryside, now meandering through the thorny underbrush, now drifting lazily past the sclerotic octogenarians slowly rocking on the porches of their stuccoed houses.

From its quiet sources in Essex county, through Middlesex county to the blustery waters of Plum Island Sound, the mysterious and meditative Ipswich carried them steadily onward.

The six-month mark

Quick: if a dog breaks a mirror, does that mean forty-nine years of bad luck or just one? As of the 16th of this month, the Star Chamber is six months old, which in the accelerated dog-years of web time, makes us a noble old property indeed. Or old, at least. Just as we promised on April 16, 1996, we continue to add new content to this site every Monday, without fail. If that’s not worth a bookmark, we don’t know what is. We’ve even been reviewed on the Pop channel of HotWired.

The new space that we staked out half a year ago is slowly being mapped. Terra Incognita all over the web is giving way to Rand McNally as fortune-grabbing web barons criss-cross the Great Plains in Shockwave-belching locomotives. Mercifully, there’s still plenty of territory for the small and the quirky among us to map out. In keeping with this cartographic theme, we introduce a new writer this week, Ortelius, who presents an apt tale on the topic.

Finally, you will also find two short pieces by Paracelsus: a meditation on cats and moons called Hey Diddle-diddle, and a short piece called Spider-Baiting whose subject you can no doubt guess.

The origins of alcohol

The weather is fine in the middle of this September, but September always wears the gold-tooth smile of a thief.

Someone pulled the plug on August, and all that accumulated warmth is emptying sloppily into the southern hemisphere, may they thank us well for it! As above, so below. Speaking for himself, Paracelsus will miss the heat, and he ponders what liquid concoction is most likely to stanch, at least for the duration of Happy Hour, the ebbing tide of seasonal warmth.

Perhaps a fine Kentucky bourbon will do the trick, with its connotations of golden harvest and its unmistakable fire in the belly.

Old Dr. Paracelsus, the medieval alchemist and medicine man, thought of alcohol as the quintessence, the fifth element, next to those established worthies earth, air, fire, and water. Indeed, it was none other than Dr. Paracelsus who gave alcohol its name: al-kohl originally referred to black sulphide of antimony, and he arbitrarily transferred that name to wine spirits. Which is just as well, because who likes to drink black sulphide of antimony? Olive or twist, on the rocks or straight up, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that zing.

Thoughts of chemistry and the ancient and estimable art upon which it was based set us puzzling about alchemy. What do you suppose they would have made of Goldschlager in the fourteenth century?

Lammas Tide

This week we pass another significant milestone for the year: August the second is a cross-quarter day, which is to say that it is halfway between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. It used to be known as Lammas, and it marked the first harvests. Notice that it happens to be just across the calendar from Groundhog Day. What happened to the celebrations? A quick perusal of the month of August reveals a strange dearth of official holidays of any kind.

We at the Star Chamber propose a remedy to this situation: call it Grounding Day. Leave work early one day this week. Get the good gin out of the freezer and fix yourself a big martini. Sit outside in the hot air with both feet firmly on the ground and listen to the quickening pulse of summer. It’s damned important to stay grounded.

A comet-viewing party

One cool spring evening recently, the Star Chamber editorial staff assembled at its favorite watering hole for cocktails. Some of these cocktails were fine, spirited martinis, and some of them were gallant if ignoble admixtures of vodka and dry vermouth. No matter. The point is that the gathering was followed by a comet-viewing party, as Comet Hyakutake was forming a particularly admirable display at that time. In elder days, comets were considered great and dangerous omens (they were also called hairy stars in honor of their plumage). The strange perceived relationship between matters celestial and terrestrial set Paracelsus a-puzzling.

Also new this week is a brief story about the web-wide bot revolution, called Sims.


Welcome to the Star Chamber.

Every Monday, original material will appear at this site, courtesy of the members of the Star Chamber. Some of it will be commentary, some of it fiction, some of it artwork. It will tumble out in no particular order or grand scheme. We are staking out a small patch of the swampy real estate between print and broadcast in the belief that its value will appreciate. The Star Chamber is not a zine. It is not a weekly program. It is, if anything, a place. A place we promise to maintain and keep free of cobwebs. An extra attic room shared by many people. Cut a hole in the ceiling and come on up. The weather is fine.

We start things off with a little story.