The most mystifying sign in the entire building:


Half-consumed rolls of tape? Pens with only a little bit of ink left? Legal pads with 14 pages torn out?


Last night I watched a special on the Big Bang, the first in a 12-part science documentary that explains everything as well as we know it now. Had one very cool scientist with grey hair who got my vote when he speculated that we might be in a multiverse, or that this universe popped out of another, and they all have different laws of physics. Yes! That’s my suspicion. The program carefully avoided the idea of what was there before the Big Bang, although it noted that the infinitely dense and hot jot that turned into EVERYTHING may have come from nothing, and this was, in a sense, rather counterintuitive.Yes. It is. But even if this one popped out of another one - you know, they had strong gravity, everything collapsed back into a point, and it blew a hole in its own fabric and blew it out into our dimension - you have to ask how the other one got started, and the one before that, and all those other questions that make your brain start to reel when you’re a kid. You recoil from it with a discomfiting, almost greasy unease.

The special didn’t help. “Within fractions of a second, subatomic particles formed. Fractions of a second later, as the universe cooled, they grouped into elements.” They did, eh? I’ve no doubt that they did, but how? Why? As wikipedia puts it:

At some point an unknown reaction called baryogenesis violated the conservation of baryon number, leading to a very small excess of quarks and leptons over antiquarks and antileptons—of the order of one part in 30 million. This resulted in the predominance of matter over antimatter in the present Universe.[38]

And that’s a good thing, because it meant everything didn’t engage in mutual annihilation right out of the box. There are other interesting variables - the show interviewed a scientist who ran computer models, and he described how a universe in which gravity was a bit weaker led to vast emptiness without stars; if gravity was a little stronger, well, black holes everywhere. We’re in the Goldilocks zone for gravity, just as Earth is perfectly positioned to support life. You can’t extrapolate design from this, any more than the existence of a fly in my soup means the chef’s recipe ends with “add fly,” and if you accept the idea of many universes - either popping out of the previous one, or simultaneously existing like soap bubbles - it simply means we’re in one of the iterations that made it, and it from this particular set of constants and laws a complex apparatus was not only possible by likely. That’s one way of looking at it, and whether or not you find it satisfying depends on your desire to ascribe agency to the way things are. But it makes me more likely to believe in life elsewhere; just seems unlikely that so many other things line up nicely, but we’re the only rock with any action. I mean, c’mon:



That’s an area in the sky “a fraction the size of the full moon,” as the caption on the pages notes. Those are galaxies.


On Halloween night I watched “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” one of those movies you’re supposed to know if you want to claim any sort of knowledge of cinema. It’s famous because the sets tilt. That’s the rep in a nutshell: “German Expressionism” in movie form, with nightmarish streets tilting at impossible angles - truly, a world of madness where all the norms of civilized life have been irrevocably altered by the horrors of the First World War, but also by avant-garde set designers who can't wait for the 20th century to just rip every norm apart. Except for chairs. Chairs should have three legs and be comfy.


Into this world comes the titular doc, who carries around a sleeping dude in a box, trots him out at town fairs, has him answer questions. People ask “hey, how long do I have to live?” and he says “a day,” and then later he kills them. Would seem bad for business, but the film has its own creepy logic, and you don’t question anything. Because if you started to question anything you would zero right in on the chest-clutching overacting that makes movies from this period seem stagey and silly. But only at first. Like listening to Shakespeare, you acclimate yourself to the language, and fall into its spell.

I bring this up because of the fellow who played the sleepwalking maniac:



Healthy-lookin’ chap, isn’t he. Now. This was 1920. Sound would come along in just seven years, but it seems as if there’s half a century between this movie and anything with dialogue. It’s just wrong from start to finish. But what of the actor? Well, he fled Nazi Germany when Hitler came to power. (Interesting: people always fled. Never left, or ambled, or emigrated; they always flee. It suggests a condition of haste and panic that might not have been there. It’s entirely possible some of these guys took their own damn sweet time.) Wise move: his wife was Jewish.

Before he left, he made a movie called “The Man Who Laughs.” This may seem familiar:


Legend has it that the creators of Batman used that image as the inspiration for . . . well, you know.

He cut a record in 1933, Where the Lighthouse Shines Across the Bay. It was revived in 1980 by an English DJ who used it on his radio show, which gave the song a second life. He died ten years later in California while playing golf. He was fifty.

Now here’s the payoff. The actor in “Caligari"? You may know him from this movie.



Major Strasser. That's right. Bogart's enemy in "Casablanca" was the Joker.

Twenty-one years elapsed between “Caligari” and “Casablanca.” Imagine a movie from 1992, and a movie from today: the difference in technological aptitude and sophistication is nothing like the difference between 1920 and 1941. Music and radio had the same sort of evolutionary leap. It’s really quite remarkable - and the only modern analogue is the Internet in 1997 vs. the Internet today. Movies also benefited from a technological boost, but I’m not sure it was matched on the creative side. Everything looks better. But that may be all.

Today: just a comic. See you around!




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