Author Archives: W. Brad Robinson

Goraff the Destroyer

The airport bustled with all manner of biped  from short and hairy to long, thin, and slimy. There were no quadrupeds or many legged creatures, thank Telrok, but a thin miasma of stench nonetheless assailed Goraff’s nasal ducts. Damn earthlings with their toleration of subspecies. Sometimes Goraff wished his government had eradicated them from the outset instead of setting up trade.

Goraff looked up at the gate number. Z-56.  Eighty three more gates to go. What was the use of faster than light travel if one had to walk for eighteen miles to get to it? And all the security! If Earth and the aligned worlds had just obliterated the moon based Quookle colony when they had the chance, they wouldn’t have to worry about the spine covered beasts sneaking in with someone’s luggage now.

Goraff read the time from his left tentacle. It was the hour of Kartam. 2:40 pm Earth time. He was still early, but only by 20 Earth minutes. He stepped on the treadmill boost and gripped the guide rail tightly with his tentacle. He whizzed past the bipeds buying useless trinkets and postcards from the duty free shops and he was all the happier, even with the fetid air that blasted his sensitive face skin. He would be purple by the time he reached his gate, he was sure.

He stepped off at the end of the tread mill onto the decelerator which slowed him to walking pace. He looked up at the gate number. Z-130. Almost there.

An announcement issued from a ceiling intercom in English: “Galactic Flight 34268 to Pamff has been delayed due to foam liberated from the craft on reentry. Please contact the nearest Galactic terminal to reschedule your flight.”

Goraff cursed in his mother tongue. At this rate he’d never make it to his womb-mate’s wedding in time.

Review of The Great American Trailer Park Musical

Last Friday I was able to watch a dress rehearsal of The Gaslight Dinner Theatre’s production of The Great American Trailer Park Musical.  The songs and choreography are great, and this production will make for an entertaining night or afternoon out. In particular, if you like musical comedies, but always wished they could be a little more like reality television, this is the show for you.

The play will start showing July 5 and will continue until July 30, with matinees on Tuesday and Thursday at 12 noon and night showings on Fridays and Saturdays at 6:30 pm at the Gaslight Theatre in the Renaissance Center of Dickson, Tennessee. I would advise against bringing children or people who might be offended by lewd behavior to this as there is some objectionable content. There isn’t anything in the musical that is worse than PG-13 really, but there are references and allusions to things that might be difficult to explain to an innocent or pious soul without blushing.

The story of the Great American Trailer Park Musical takes place, appropriately enough, in a trailer park in North Florida. The main characters are Norbert and Jeannie, a married couple living in one of the trailers and Pippi, a stripper who is on the run from her boyfriend. Throughout the play we also hear from three female characters who act as a sort of Greek chorus, explaining the situation and being a sort-of model audience for what happens. Betty is the landlady; Linoleum, who was born on the kitchen floor, has a husband on death row; and the last is Pickles, a young woman with a penchant for having hysterical pregnancies. Pippi’s boyfriend Duke also plays a fairly large role as a marker sniffing, pistol wielding, truck driving, jealous boyfriend who runs over animals on the street with a devil-may-care attitude. At the beginning of the story, Jeannie is afraid to leave the trailer because the last time she went outside, twenty years ago, her baby got kidnapped and, even worse, she got a really bad haircut. Norbert, frustrated with this situation, has an affair with Pippi. After this, you are left to watch the situation boil over.

The action takes place with a cheerful, even celebratory atmosphere. The original production of the musical has been compared to South Park and to some extent the comparison works. Immoral acts and tragic events are depicted through zany song and dance numbers. However, South Park eventually settles into some form of moral statement, even if it is something a bit askew. GATPM never distinguishes between right and wrong. It’s an unhesitating, hedonistic glorification of human folly, much like the talk shows it lampoons during one of its numbers.

This friendly sign greets you when you first enter the theater, welcoming you to the trailer park that is the setting of the musical.

The Gaslight’s production of GATPM was done very well. During the rehearsal, there were a few problems with the set and costuming, which were probably fixed by opening night, but the music and choreography were phenomenal. During one number, Pippi’s boyfriend is depicted driving a truck while swerving and hitting a number of animals. The three members of the chorus back him up with their singing and move him around while carrying flashlights in such a way that the audience gets a distinct image of a truck driving down the road and swerving almost out of control. During another song “Great American Tv Show” a whole Jerry Springer-like production is set up and acted out  during a dream sequence. The quality of these performances  makes the production seem grander and more over-the-top then you might think such a small, intimate stage would allow.

The Gaslight also uses a live band, led by Nathan Brown. The musicians do an amazing job. Productions with recorded music can work, but they sometimes seem bland and antiseptic. Even if nothing else about the musical appeals, it’s worth it for the band and their music. It makes for a warmer and more energetic experience.

Everyone in the cast did well with their roles. Emma Jordan, who plays Pickles, gives her role a delightful effervescence that livens up the whole production. Jenny Norris-Light, who plays Pippi, also does a remarkable job being comically seductive, a task that requires a fair amount of balance. Jama Bowen and Alan Lee, who play Jeannie and Norbert, hold up the center of the cast admirably well. Chris Egging shows great physicality in his role as Duke. Margie Mills gives her character of Linoleum a good deal of brass that works nicely for her. Last, but not least, Paula Makar does probably the most amount of costume changes of the cast as Betty, and actually plays a number of different characters throughout the production, making each one believable even while allowing them to be larger than life.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical may not be for everyone, but the Gaslight Theater does a remarkable job with it. At the very least, it will definitely be something you’ll want to talk about with whomever you see it with.

Size is Everything

Innerspace is a Steven Spielberg movie that came out in 1987 starring Dennis Quaid, Martin Short, and Meg Ryan. It’s a sort of remake/homage/rip off of a movie that came out in the sixties called Fantastic Voyage, which Isaac Asimov wrote a novelization for. Both movies center on the idea of shrinking people to microscopic sizes and then injecting them into other people to go through the body and fix diseases. This is a really neat idea, and there are some scientists who are finding ways to use microscopic robots to take the place of the humans in the movies and accomplish some of the same things. However, there are two reasons why the scientists are using robots and not Dennis Quaid. First, shrinking people is probably impossible, and second, even if it were possible people wouldn’t be able to do anything once shrunken.

I can show the how true the first point is with common sense for the most part. If humans are made up of cells, how could it be possible to shrink a human to a size smaller than a cell?

Now you could come back with “well, the cells just get smaller!” But cells have to be the size they are. Otherwise they wouldn’t be large enough to hold all the organelles that keep the cell alive and functioning the way it needs to. The organelles themselves are made up of proteins that are in specialized arrangements. A cell has to constantly maintain the numbers of ions it has inside it for example. The cell can use an organelle called an ion channel to do this, but the channel has to be a specific shape. If it is too large it will let all sorts of ions in or out and the cell won’t be able to maintain the right mix of ions. Too small and the channel won’t let anything in, and it might as well not be there. If these channels were shrunk by even five percent, they would no longer function the way they need to. If ion channels don’t work for cells, they die. If all of a person’s cells die, they die too. If a shrink ray shrinks everything equally, a person shrunk even a foot smaller would most likely die within a few moments.

And of course there’s the problem of how it could happen in the first place. In the movie Honey I Shrunk the Kids, the Rick Moranis character says that we are made up of mostly empty space and his shrink ray gets rid of that empty space. First off this idea is based off of the Bohr model of the atom, which has an electron whizzing around a nucleus like a planet orbits around a sun. This isn’t how things are. There isn’t any empty space as such. The more current electron cloud model fits better. The exact location/momentum of an electron cannot be precisely determined and so we can think of it as a sort of cloud around the nucleus. Okay but at any moment we can still say that the atom is mostly empty right? And if we could take out this empty part you could maybe shrink something?  To be fair, there is a real world situation in which this does happen. It’s called the Sun. It’s a lot more bright and ‘splody than what we see in the movie.

To be more precise, and less smart alecky, the reason why the electron is so far away from the nucleus of an atom, is due to its energy. In order to get closer to the nucleus, an electron has to lose energy. When an electron loses energy, it releases a photon. The more energy an electron loses the more energetic the photon is. Photons with a lot of energy, such as X-rays or Gamma rays, are a form of harmful radiation. Never mind that this hypothetical magic device would most likely rip someone apart rather than truly shrink them, the energy released from “removing the space” in all the atoms would be huge, and would likely kill quite a few people.

The second reason why we’ll never have a manned mission to someone’s colon is something called the Rydberg constant. The Rydberg constant is a number you get when you divide inertial forces (momentum, or how long you keep going after you stop trying to move in a direction) by drag forces (friction and viscosity, or how hard you have work to move forward in the first place). The higher the Rydberg constant, the more you are concerned about momentum and the lower, the more drag forces dominate. Generally speaking, the larger you are, higher your Rydberg constant.

We live in a world with a pretty high Rydberg constant.  We can roller skate and ride a bike, coasting almost half the time. When we swim, we pull the water back with our hands and we’re carried forward enough that we can get our hands back into position for another stroke without moving back to our previous position.  These are all situations where the Rydberg constant is high.

We can create low Rydberg constant situations for ourselves if we want though. Imagine a swimming pull full of Jello. If you try to swim in that, you are going to have some problems. For small animals though, they live in this low Rydberg constant situation all the time. An ant that wants to get a drink of water has to be very careful not to get stuck in it.

Even something as large as a cat, experiences a lower Rydberg constant. A cat can fall from many stories up and still suffer only a few broken legs due to the drag forces that act on it as it falls. The cat, being small, has a larger surface area in relation to its mass, and so drag forces come into play more quickly.

For a bacterium, or a hypothetical impossibly shrunken human, the Rydberg constant would be so low, it would be like that swimming pool full of Jello, only worse. You might imagine a vat of gravel that’s shaken up continuously while you’re inside it. Bacteria typically have some sort of flagellum that corkscrews through the stuff they’re in so they can move forward. Why don’t they just use turbines like a submarine would? Well one reason might be that they never developed such a structure in their evolutionary history. The more applicable reason is that in order to combat the drag from the surroundings, a turbine on a bacteria-sized machine would have to be so large, that the drag of the turbine itself would affect the machine’s movement. Imagine trying to use a submarine in a vat of gravel. Or even more ridiculous, an airplane. It’s just not going to work. So you’d have to have a differently shaped vehicle than in the movies. And you can just forget about leaving the vehicle.  You wouldn’t be able to swim around any more than a feather can dictate economic policy.

It often seems like size is just an arbitrary attribute. There are so many stories about shrinking and growing larger because on some level it seems possible. There are a lot of complications hidden under the surface however. An elephant is a very large animal, but it’s bones are thicker in proportion to its size to make up for that. If you shrunk an elephant down to the size of a cat, it wouldn’t be able to move it’s limbs around. If you blew up a cat to the size of an elephant, it would suffocate under its own weight.  Every time you decrease or increase size by a factor of ten, you enter a different world.

Size is everything.

Myxobacteria are Awesome

Swarming myxobacteria
Image pulled from http://bit.ly/m51q1q

I am writing this post because myxobacteria are awesome, and I think more people should know about them.

You could go through your entire life without ever hearing about myxobacteria. Pretty much everything you need to know about microorganisms in general is that there are things moving around that are so small you can’t see them, sometimes they can help with things like digestion and pollution cleanup, and sometimes they can cause diseases such as salmonella, so you should really make sure to wash your hands, cook your food and  pasteurize things.

Everything beyond that is a detail that you can probably overlook without any serious repercussions.

But what’s the fun in that?

As with just about any facet of science, if you look into microbiology you soon find yourself falling through a magnificent and intimidating rabbit hole of information. It helps to have a specific thing to latch on to to make sense of everything.

Myxococcus fulvus fruiting body
image pulled from http://myxobacteria.ahc.umn.edu/whataremyxos2.html

Even focusing on myxobacteria gives you a lot to take in though. The picture above shows how they move around in swarms or wolf packs. The colors indicate the direction each cell is moving in. For instance, all the cells that are colored orange are traveling to the right. Why do they do this? How do they do this? They don’t have any flagella or cilia (not in the classic sense anyway) They release slime,( myxobacteria comes from the greek myxo for slime after all), but how does that help? I’ll say more about myxo movement in a later post, but there’s more.When food is scarce, myxobacteria start lumping together in visible fruiting bodies, about a millimeter tall,  like in the picture on the right. These fruiting bodies will eventually release bacterial cells with thicker cell walls that act as spores, eventually budding and making more myxobacteria, which then repeat the process.

Well, okay, that’s your basic fungus, right? But the weird thing here is that these are all still bacteria. They don’t even have nuclei! How do they show such complicated behavior?   How do they know enough to organize themselves into a heap to release spores? How is it that the spore cells look so different from the other cells?

Scientists know the answers to many of these questions, but others are still still a mystery. As you go through some of the explanations, you start to notice these strange correlations between how bacteria sense things and how social networks and mobs of people form and behave. You start to wonder about how some professions get more specialized and whether businesses and franchises are fruiting bodies. It’s eerie. And if these dumb bacteria act this way, is it possible that we act in similar ways because we’re in a similar environment? What can we take from that? Are we too much like bacteria, or not enough? What does this say about free will?

Deep, huh?

Like I said, Myxobacteria are awesome.

Horticulture and Etiquette

I’ve been interested in identifying plants recently. I’ve read through Nature’s Garden by Samuel Thayer. An entertaining read, though I’m not sure what my next step is in the horticulture department. I think I just need to find specific plants to identify. Once I have a name I can find out things about them maybe. Except that’s proven frustrating so far. I was hoping to find a book that goes over all the common plants and weeds in the area, and I so far haven’t been able to find one. The good news is I think that means I could write one, which gives me a definite goal to pursue.

Now, my Dad would ask, why don’t you take some classes? And maybe I should. Then again I don’t think there’s a class on all the plants in the area. And if there were, I imagine it would be pretty boring. Furthermore, I don’t have money for classes right now, and I need to find a way to make money…and really this whole plant identification thing is probably a distraction from that. On the other hand, it may very well be how I end up making money. Shrugs all around.

A week or so ago, I went to a writer’s meeting near where I live. I read my flash short story Sympathy there and it was met with praise. Got a few good criticisms too. I need to put another character in it and to clarify a few things.

The most memorable event from the writer’s meeting last week was the cancer survivor who was wanting to convince other people to not be treated for cancer. The whole idea seemed evil to me. She was saying that she was diagnosed with cancer in multiple areas of her body and that she prayed to God (and did “research” ) and decided to go for a “natural cure.” Now, supposedly, she’s free of the disease. Of course my immediate thought was that she never had cancer. That either her doctor had misdiagnosed her, which is perfectly possible given the number of diseases that produce tumor like masses in the body, or she still has cancer, and she’s just in remission. She couldn’t even say what kind of cancer she had. So that makes me suspicious. She might have lied about the whole thing. In any case, I really wanted to have a full on argument with her about it, but I had to be nice.

I still have to be nice. At the moment, she does not yet know my internet alter ego, but I don’t do a good job hiding who I am generally so she might find this post. In that case, yes, Marsha, I’m talking about you. I’m glad you don’t have cancer and that you feel more in tune with God etc., but I think what worked for you, might very well kill someone else, and that you should probably shut up about it.

It makes me wonder about how many dinner parties Hitler went to, and whether anybody said anything to him during one.

Whoops! I’m sorry, Marsha! Did I just compare you to Hitler? Godwin’s Law. I hope we can still be friends.

Even though I think you’re a bit evil.

Dark Hole

I have put my hand into a dark hole.

Something furry lurks there. I know this. I have felt the texture of it brush against my skin.

How long will it take, I wonder, for the denizen of the hovel I have invaded to take vengeance? What sort of fang will press into my bare skin? The fangs of some predator? No, that is unlikely, I realize. More likely the creature is a rodent. When it bites and I am sure now that it will, it will bite hard. It will gnaw into the bones of my hand voraciously, and maybe not out of any particular malice, maybe it will rip into my flesh simply to quell some pain it feels from incisors that will not stop growing.

My fingers flounder in the soil, searching. My eyes are closed so I can better concentrate on my other senses. Hoping, yearning for the feel of something cold and metallic. Still, the heat of the sun at my back distracts me. Even with my eyes clenched tightly, the sweat that drips into them burns.

I think now of what disease the creature might have. What bacteria or virus has it contracted in the catacombs? Maybe it has lived with some dark passenger all its life, having developed an immunity from years of cohabitation. Maybe, after it sinks its teeth into my flesh nothing will happen until a month from now, or maybe even a year, when suddenly I develop a fever, a cough, and then blood issues from my mouth. Or perhaps rabies will eat at my brain, dormant until a cold night weakens my immune system. I feel the furry devil again and jerk my hand out. Yelping in fear and surprise.

I examine at my hand. Everything is there, unviolated. I pant for several minutes, the humid air suffocating me.

I stick my hand back in, hesitantly at first. But I must go deeper. Sucking in a breath I lunge forward, and this time, I can feel them.

My keys.

Thank god.

What should I write about?

What should I write about?

There are basically two times I ask this question. When I am just starting to write in a particular venue (like now) or when I am stuck in a rut and want to get out (like now). I want to start a blog about writing. What should I have in it? I was thinking I might put my movie and book reviews here, or I might put sections of the things I’m working on here. Or both. But right now, just starting out, I feel uncomfortable with both those ideas. I need a candelabra to hold the candles of all my future blogs. And I think I have some general things to say about writing that might be interesting to somebody. So I’m going to start with the most obvious subject: writer’s block, because I was briefly afflicted with it before starting this paragraph.

Writer’s block is, essentially, when you want to write about something, but you don’t know exactly what that something is. You may know a lot about the thing you want to write about, but some maddening detail is missing. I’ve written several short stories, published one, gone through two or three creative writing classes, been a member of two or three writer’s groups, listened to several podcasts about writing, read several books about writing, and I’ve read many books about all sorts of things and paid attention to how they were written. But what do I have to say that’s any different?

Basically nothing. If you’ve done as much research as I have in precisely the same areas, then this might look like a blog post you made a couple weeks ago and you’ll have nothing much to gain from this.  (Hello future me!) But maybe there are a few things that I’ve run across that you haven’t heard about, and that you might have some trouble finding.

The musical Sunday in the Park with George, has the most beautiful depiction of writer’s block there is. “White,” painter George Seurat begins, “…a blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole through design. Composition. Balance. Light. And Harmony.” As George says each word, color and content is introduced onto the stage until all the players are ready to begin the production. That’s what a blank page is. It is a challenge, yes, but also a realm of possibilities. You can do whatever you want, but you have to do something. You can’t run screaming away from the possibilities like a little ninny. Appreciate them, embrace them.

Almost every movie about writing has some tortured writer agonizing over the first sentence of his or her novel. Usually they are pretentious and use a typewriter, typing the first sentence and then ripping the paper out of the machine and furling it in anger into a metal mesh waste basket. After a slow dissolve the wastebasket over flows with crumpled bits of paper, and the writer is half dead, smoking the thousandth cigarette and drinking the hundredth glass of scotch.

You should only do this if you think it might be fun.

The best thing to do is actually write whatever you’re thinking about. Finish the sucker, and THEN agonize about it. If you’ve written the first sentence forty times, then maybe it’s time to give the second sentence a go. If you spend all your time reworking your first sentence, then that first sentence is going to be awesome, sure, but the rest of your work is going to suck.

I don’t know much about Chess, but one of the things I do know is that there are only a few opening moves. To a large degree it doesn’t matter what you do in the beginning, it’s all about how you react to your opponent. With writing, your only real opponent is yourself, and more specifically the critical voice inside you. You have to listen to this voice, but you can’t be governed by it. You have to outsmart it. You don’t get better at Chess by trying out all the opening moves. You get better at Chess by playing the game. It’s the same with writing. You’ve got to write, and you’ve got to write a lot. You can’t be worried about how bad you are. You have to realize that this is where you are, and if you want to get better, you’re going to have to write again.

One final thing: you probably aren’t as bad as you think. If you’ve looked at some of the books and other writing that’s popular now-a-days you might find that the bar is actually pretty low. How can this be? How can someone like Iris Johansen, who couldn’t write herself out of a paper bag, much less a paper back, manage to sell so many novels? How does Nicholas Sparks get away with taking four pages of plot and padding it with hundreds of pages of worthless drivel? How can Snookie get a book out, and have it sell, when there is no discernible value in anything she might have to say? How are these “authors” successful and not me? What have they got that I ain’t got?

Courage.

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