Friday, July 27, 2007

I thought it was 24 hours from bottle to throttle. Lift-off. Whatever.

Space exploration is a risky and stressful business, what with all the launch mishaps and equipment malfunctions and totally insane astro-women. But does that mean that the astronaut corps should cope by drinking? According to a recent NASA survey, the answer is a big "Roger that, Houston."

Astronauts were allowed to fly after flight surgeons and other astronauts warned they were so drunk they posed a flight-safety risk on at least two occasions, an aviation weekly reported Thursday.

It cited a special panel studying astronaut health, which found "heavy use of alcohol" before launch that was within the standard 12-hour "bottle-to-throttle" rule, according to Aviation Week & Space Technology. It reported the finding on its Web site.

A NASA official confirmed the health report contains claims of alcohol use by astronauts before launch, but said the information is based on anonymous interviews and is unsubstantiated. The official didn't want to be named because NASA plans a news conference Friday to discuss the panel's findings.
As a guy who loves rockets and rocket fuel, I’m not sure whether this means my desire to be an astronaut is shaken or reinforced. Or stirred.

Cue the R.E.M.

In May 2008, there is a slight chance that scientists in Switzerland may destroy the universe. Not on purpose, of course—the Swiss are neutral and wouldn’t start a war with anyone, let alone provoke all of creation by... well... blowing it up.

Physicists—OK, construction workers—are finishing up the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator in Geneva that will use magnetic fields to send exotic bits of matter rocketing toward each other for the purpose of seeing what happens. It’s a grand scientific tradition, blowing stuff up real good and sifting through the aftermath to figure out why it done blowed up.

These particular experiments will try to generate a Higgs boson, which has the somewhat intimidating nickname of "The God Particle." Among its deity-like features is, apparently, being a key part of why things have mass. Exciting stuff. But if things go slightly wrong....


While many have voiced concerns that the LHC will destroy the Universe, engineers close to the project claim that the possibility is infinitesimally small. As CERN has pointed out, if the Earth were in danger of any such fate, it would have happened billions of years ago from the bombardment of protons the planet receives that are millions of times more energetic than anything that could be produced by the LHC.[8]

As with the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), people both inside and outside of the physics community have voiced concern that the LHC might trigger one of several theoretical disasters capable of destroying the Earth or even our entire Universe. Each advance in particle accelerator technology exposes the stability of the very fabric of the universe to more stringent tests.[citation needed] RHIC has been running since 2000 and has generated no major problems; however the Large Hadron Collider is set to create an environment significantly more alien to nature than the RHIC has ever created, and therefore the probability of catastrophe is greater.

Theoretical disasters include:

-Creation of a stable black hole[9] inside the earth
-Creation of strange matter that is more stable than ordinary matter
-Creation of magnetic monopoles that could catalyze proton decay
-Triggering a transition into a different quantum mechanical vacuum (see False vacuum)

The Large Hadron Collider is expected to create tiny black holes within the Earth [10]. However, some physicists expect that Hawking Radiation will cause these black holes to dissipate. The primary cause for concern is the fact that Hawking Radiation, the only means by which these black holes could be dissipated, is entirely theoretical.

Good times, indeed. So that’s the bad news, that we all might wink out of existence when some PhD flips a switch next spring. The good news is that it probably won’t hurt much, and "America’s Funniest Home Videos" will be off the air forever.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

I guess it all depends on the motel

So there’s this show, right, called "Man vs. Wild," in which the host—a man—attempts to survive unaided in certain inhospitable environments—the wild. The "vs." element is an allusion to the difficulty in doing so; supposedly it’s hard to not die when you’re stranded in an Arctic blizzard armed only with a corkscrew and half a pack of baseball cards.

Hard, that is, unless you’re Bear Grylls, the former British SAS commando who is the star of the show. At least, that’s the idea.

The unfortunate reality, it seems, is that Grylls was getting a little outside help. Like instead of spending the night in the snow, he would spend the night in a motel.

The series' production company, Diverse Television, is cooperating with British television's Channel 4, which carries the program under a the name "Born Survivor: Bear Grylls."

Channel 4 confirmed that Grylls had spent the night indoors on at least two occasions when the series had led viewers to believe he was spending the night in the wild.

... snip ...

Among the Grylls grievances is an episode supposedly set on a deserted island (actually Hawaii) that shows him building a raft, which was actually constructed and then disassembled by show consultants so that the host could easily put it together.

And though Grylls claims to be a horse wrangler, another charge maintains that the wild horses Grylls happened upon in the Sierra Nevada were not so wild, and were in fact from a trekking station.

What does all this mean? I COULD TOTALLY HAVE MY OWN SURVIVAL TV SHOW. Just make sure that the thread count on my sheets is over 200, OK?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

But would it work on cardboard pork buns?

As loyal Friends of the Blog know, I’m a big fan of barbecue. Love to cook it. Love to eat it. Love to argue with unnecessary pretension about where the best places are to buy it.

So you may be shocked to hear that I may have discovered—courtesy of the kind, if somewhat deranged, folks at—a food item that could top the bestest barbecuedest rib you’ve ever tasted.

I speak, of course, of bacon in a can.

Not bacon bits. Not ground-up pieces of bacon-flavored product designed to make your salad crunchy and your cholesterol coagulated. But a magical topping called Bacon Salt that will turn anything it touches into… well… bacon. Or at least bacon-flavored food.

Consider the uses:

-Bacon-flavored toast
-Bacon-flavored popcorn
-Bacon-flavored steak
-Bacon-flavored barbecue
-And, because I know you were thinking it, bacon-flavored bacon

This could revolutionize our lives, just like the Space Shuttle and sneakers with little roller skates in the heel. Head over to the inventors’ Web site and buy yourself a case. You have no excuses: It has no calories, is vegetarian and even certified kosher.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go work on my recipe for a Bacon Salt bloody mary.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Memo from It Could Be Worse Department, Culinary Division

This week, hordes of otherwise hungry Chicagoans lost their appetites after reading about an unfortunate ingredient included in some food sold at the Taste of Chicago Festival.

Unfortunately for them, the festival was over and the people who won the salmonella lottery were stuck with it.

But on the bright side, they don’t live in China, where at least one Beijing neighborhood’s worth of restaurants is serving pork buns made with cardboard found on the street. Mmmm—tastes good and good for you! Except without tasting good or being healthy.

Here’s an inside look at the gourmet delights:

The hidden camera follows the man, whose face is not shown, into a ramshackle building where steamers are filled with the fluffy white buns, traditionally stuffed with minced pork. The surroundings are filthy, with water puddles and piles of old furniture and cardboard on the ground.

"What's in the recipe?" the reporter asks. "Six to four," the man says.

"You mean 60 percent cardboard? What is the other 40 percent?" asks the reporter. "Fatty meat," the man replies.

This reinforces my suspicion that veggie burgers and hockey pucks are made in the same seedy Canadian factory. But I’ve never been able to prove it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Excerpt No. 2 from "From the Depths"

Author's note: I'm thinking it might be entertaining for me to eschew telling you, dearest reader, anything about the context of these passages. Is that cool with you, or just annoying? Let a Doyle know.

Unnatural death can seem so peaceful. If the victim doesn’t have the strength or time to flop around, the life sort of ebbs from his body. I have seen beatific expressions on the blood-speckled faces of people killed by machete wounds and sniper victims slumped in their chairs as if they were napping after a big meal.

The man on the floor in front of me offered no signs of a violent end. His black hair was flecked with gray and white. Both legs lay unbent behind him, and his arms stretched over his head.

"Subject number two in forward torpedo room. No visible wounds on deceased’s back or head," I said into the recorder.

The fingers of his right hand were curled around the pistol’s grip. I kneeled and took close-up shots from several angles. I recognized the gun; it was a Chinese copy of a Russian Tokarev 9mm. The caliber markings were evident on the slide under the words "Made in China by Norinco." Everything was in English; the pistol was made for cheap, easy export.

I stood and pulled one of the cartridge casings from the compartment in my bag where I had stuffed them. Holding the plastic sheath up to the light, I could see the shell’s headstamp: The number "71" on one side of the primer hole and "93," oriented the opposite direction, on the other. A quick measurement told me the casing was nine millimeters in diameter.

Before I examined the gun, though, I wanted to see the rest of its owner. Again ignoring the years of training and experience tugging at my muscles, I rolled him over.

The man’s face was lined and leathery with a broad, flat nose. His mouth was open, but not gaping, and thin lips covered his teeth.

Brown eyes stared into nothingness from beneath bushy eyebrows. His forehead was knotted with clenched muscles.

I leaned in a bit closer and shined my flashlight into the man’s mouth. His tongue was thrust forward just behind the lower incisors. Moving the light up his face, I examined the scalp. A receding hairline simplified the task.

"Deceased’s lips exhibit cyanosis," I said. "No anterior cranial lacerations or contusions visible."
The floor where the man had lain seemed unmarked, but I took a picture anyway. A pair of black patent-leather oxfords were arranged side by side on the deck between the bottom torpedo tubes. I photographed them and shoved aside the urge to try to lift some fingerprints from their mirror-like surfaces.

His legs could wait, too. I saw no blood anyplace in the compartment. Not on his hands, not on the walls. Not on the spit-shined shoes. If he had a mortal wound below his waist, the suit’s thick material was concealing it.

I crabbed over until I was kneeling next to the gun. It was clutched in the man’s right hand, palm-up. His index finger was curled around the trigger guard. The other four digits enveloped the pistol’s chipped brown plastic grips. The nailbeds matched the color of his lips.

The weapon was boxy and black with just a hint of blue swimming across its worn exterior. Patches of milling marks were evident on the slide, which extended back past the grip and covered the hammer assembly.

Rigor mortis had turned the corpse’s hand into a gargoyle’s claw. I could feel the sinews creaking and tearing as I peeled the thumb back and wrestled the gun from the dead man’s grasp. I laid the weapon on a plastic evidence bag next to me and fitted another bag over the hand.

"Connective tissue damage in right thumb of subject due to removal of physical evidence."
The gun pulled my already tangled instincts in innumerable directions. But most of the important tests would be performed in the lab, and I’d have to remove the ammunition before I turned it over to them.

So the bullets would come first.

I pulled the magazine and laid it on the bag. Inverting the gun next to it, I ejected the chambered cartridge onto the plastic, then used tweezers to pick it up. Stamped on the bottom was "71 93"—it was from the same factory as the two empties and was made the same year. It went in a separate translucent envelope, as did each of the five bullets in the clip.

Six rounds. The mag for a 9mm Tokarev could hold eight. And I doubted a submariner would keep one loaded in the chamber of a pistol notorious for its fickle safety mechanism.
Using a magnifying glass, I measured one of the bullets and took a picture of it adjacent to the ruler. Another photograph captured the headstamp at the base of the cartridge. The casing of the live round was identical in length and diameter to the casings I had collected near the dead sailor.

I slipped a pencil through the trigger guard and rotated the gun in the air in front of me. No visible prints, no blood. My nostrils flared at the odor of cordite and oil. The acrid combination stood out even against the submarine’s weighty, pungent atmosphere.

Dragging my bag, I moved a few steps aft, away from the evidential detritus arrayed on the floor around me, and dug out a handful of fingerprint lift sheets. My first three attempts were throwaways that showed only a smeared confusion of whorls on the gun’s slide. But near the back, on the left side above the grip, was a pristine, oval print the size of a quarter. Right where a shooter’s thumb would rest.

After laying the gun down, I took a close-up of the print next to the ruler and sealed the sheet in an envelope.

I turned the pistol over. The serial number was stamped on the opposite side, a string of eleven letters and digits.

On the label of another evidence bag, I wrote "M21388123CE, Norinco ‘Tokarev’ 9mm. Mag enclosed separately. Ammo enclosed separately. Collected submarine ‘Dragon,’ forward torpedo room, 27 May 2007." I dropped the gun inside, then slipped the bullets and magazine into two other pouches.

Should I take a print of the man’s thumb? Did I have time?

The sudden, dull echo of voices and combat-booted footsteps answered my question. I grabbed an ink pad and print paper, stuffed the envelopes into my bag and pushed it to the side under a slumbering torpedo. The shoes, too. I’d want to get the shoes. I picked them up by the laces and laid them next to the duffel.

The man’s thumb, bent back at an impossible angle, was easy. I pressed the pad against it, then rolled it across the paper. The index finger was accessible, too.

The other three fingertips would be tougher to get to, though. I would have to brutalize each if I wanted a full set of prints.

A shout from the doorway interrupted me.

"Stay where you are!"

Links: McBooks Press
"From the Depths," by Gerry Doyle, available November 2007

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Bob Dylan, you're off the hook

Apparently, it's not enough these days to appear in bad movies, lend your image to horrible products and try to convince legions of impressionable kids that the NBA is good basketball.

No, the cutting edge of selling out has advanced far beyond that. On its bleeding edge: "Rapper" Fergie, who just signed a product placement contract with clothing manufacturer Candie's. Where will Candie's be placed? Why, in her music, of course.

Yeah. Think of all the great words that rhyme with "Candie's." Brandies, for instance. Handy. Randy. Uh... rubberbandy. Well, whatever. She's a talented artist, I'm sure she'll figure it out. And hey, it's not like anyone was looking for SUBSTANCE, of all things, in the lyrics of a song. But it's not advertising. Nosirreebob. Here's what one of her label executives had to say about it:

Candie's will reach teens, but it has no say over exactly what Fergie will sing, or when. Fans might think she is just singing about candy. But it's got to work in the song. Fergie does not sing jingles.

Sigh. If her fans are dumb enough to think she's "singing about candy" (why? WHY!?) then maybe they deserve their subliminal ads.

Sure, Fergie's laughing all the way to the bank. I just hope she runs into KRS-ONE backstage some night.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

From the/Town of Springfield

... it's a face right out of... um... OK, that's a hard one to finish without just ripping off the song lyrics. "The song," in this case, is of course Homer Simpson's rendition of the Flintstones theme song. And the theme song to the Simpsons, meanwhile, was written by Danny Elfman. (a tune that, it should be noted, we totally played in 7th grade stage band--holla!)

One can assume the second one, at least, will be featured prominently in the upcoming Simpsons movie, now being pimped on an Internet and 7-11 near you.

It's a fun world that the Simpsons inhabit. Sure, you only have four fingers and no one knows what state you live in. But you also can suffer gruesome injuries and walk away. Plus no one ages and NASA sends ordinary people on Space Shuttle rides.

And now, thanks to the magic of marketing machinery, you too can join this cel-shaded reality. If you go here and click "Create Avatar," you can import yourself into Springfield, and import the result back onto your hard drive. It's so easy, even a Doyle can do it:

Yeah, yeah--they didn't have the right kind of hair. But I think they nailed the beer shirt.